Category Archives: Books of the Bible

Commentary on Matthew 3 (John Baptizes Jesus)

From the birth of Jesus to the beginning of Matthew 3, we skip about thirty years. John the Baptist’s ministry started between the years AD 26 and 28, so we would expect the events recorded in chapter three of Matthew to take place after John’s ministry had been established for a year or two.

John’s message is simple: turn away from your sins (repent) so that you are prepared for the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 to show that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness.

Verse 4 connects John to the ministry of Elijah, for John dresses as Elijah did. They are both wilderness prophets who are poor and humble. Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, writes:

Locusts and wild honey were not an unusual diet for people living in the desert. The locust is the migratory phase of the grasshopper and was allowable food for the people of Israel to eat, as opposed to other kinds of crawling and flying insects (Lev. 11:20–23). They are an important food source in many areas of the world, especially as a source of protein, because even in the most desolate areas they are abundant. They are often collected, dried, and ground into flour. Protein and fat were derived from locusts, while sugar came from the honey of wild bees.

Verses 5-6 indicate that John is attracting large crowds to the Jordan River where he is preaching. The crowds would come to confess their sins and be baptized by John. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains about baptism that

Jews seem regularly to have practiced water baptism by immersion for adult proselytes from pagan backgrounds as an initiation into Judaism. Qumran commanded ritual bathing daily to symbolize repeated cleansing from sin. But John’s call for a one-time-only baptism for those who had been born as Jews was unprecedented. John thus insisted that one’s ancestry was not adequate to ensure one’s relationship with God. As has often been put somewhat colloquially, ‘God has no grandchildren.’ Our parents’ religious affiliations afford no substitute for our own personal commitment (cf. v. 9).

The crowds coming to see John included members of two religio-political organizations, the Sadducees and Pharisees. Together, these two groups composed most of the membership of the Jewish Supreme Court, known as the Sanhedrin. Michael Wilkins provides some historical background on the identities of these two groups.

The name Pharisee is probably derived from the Hebrew/Aramaic perušim, the separated ones, alluding to both their origin and their characteristic practices. They tended to be politically conservative and religiously liberal and held the minority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held to the supreme place of Torah, with a rigorous scribal interpretation of it. Their most pronounced characteristic was their adherence to the oral tradition, which they obeyed rigorously as an attempt to make the written law relevant to daily life. They had a well-developed belief in angelic beings. They had concrete messianic hopes, as they looked for the coming Davidic messianic kingdom. The Messiah would overthrow the Gentiles and restore the fortunes of Israel with Jerusalem as capital. They believed in the resurrection of the righteous when the messianic kingdom arrived, with the accompanying punishment of the wicked. They viewed Rome as an illegitimate force that was preventing Israel from experiencing its divinely ordained role in the outworking of the covenants. They held strongly to divine providence, yet viewed humans as having freedom of choice, which ensures their responsibility. As a lay fellowship or brotherhood connected with local synagogues, the Pharisees were popular with the common people.

The Sadducees were a small group with aristocratic and priestly influence, who derived their authority from the activities of the temple. They tended to be politically liberal and religiously conservative and held the majority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held a conservative attitude toward the Scriptures, accepting nothing as authoritative except the written word, literally interpreted. They accepted only Torah (the five books of Moses) as authoritative, rejecting any beliefs not found there. For that reason they denied the resurrection from the dead, the reality of angels, and spirit life. They produced no literature of which we are aware. They had no expressed messianic expectation, which tended to make them satisfied with their wealth and political power. They were open to aspects of Hellenism and often collaborated with the Romans. They tended to be removed from the common people by economic and political status.

When John sees the Pharisees and Sadducees, he accuses them of being the offspring (brood) of poisonous snakes. They are shrewd and dangerous. Why does John accuse them of this? He perceives that they are only pretending to be interested in John’s message. In reality, they do not think they need to repent of anything.

In their way of thinking, they are descendants of Abraham, and therefore God automatically accepts them as His own. John corrects their faulty theology and forcefully asserts that God can make even stones His children if He so desires. The true children of God will repent of their sins and then lead lives of good works and righteousness. The people of Israel (the root of the trees), and especially the Jewish leadership, will be judged by God based on this criteria, not whether they are physical descendants of Abraham.

Starting in verse 11, John then speaks of the One who would do the judging. The One who is coming, the Messiah, is so mighty that John doesn’t even qualify to be His slave (slaves would carry the sandals of their masters). The Messiah, unlike John, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Louis A. Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes:

Those hearing John’s words would have been reminded of two Old Testament prophecies: Joel 2:28–29 and Malachi 3:2–5. Joel had given the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Israel. An actual outpouring of the Spirit did occur in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, but experientially Israel did not enter into the benefits of that event. She will yet experience the benefits of this accomplished work when she turns in repentance at the Lord’s Second Advent. The baptism ‘with fire’ referred to the judging and cleansing of those who would enter the kingdom, as prophesied in Malachi 3.

In verse 12, Blomberg explains, “John uses the image of a farmer separating valuable wheat from worthless chaff by throwing the grain into the air and allowing the two constituent elements to separate in the wind. The wheat, like believers, is preserved and safeguarded; the chaff, like unbelievers, is destroyed.”

In verses 13-17, Matthew records the official inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, the baptism of Jesus. Jesus travels south from Galilee to Judea to be baptized by John. John is confused by Jesus’s request because Jesus (the promised Messiah) should have no need of repentance and confession of sins, of which John’s baptism is symbolic.

Jesus insists that He be baptized by John because His baptism, firstly, authenticates John’s ministry as Jesus’s forerunner, and, secondly, officially marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. After Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus (John uses the metaphor of a dove) and God the Father speaks the following words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Blomberg adds:

The heavenly voice cites excerpts of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1. Both texts were taken as messianic by important segments of pre-Christian Judaism (see 4QFlor 10–14 and Tg. Isa 42:1, respectively). Together they point out Jesus’ role as both divine Son and Suffering Servant, a crucial combination for interpreting Jesus’ self-understanding and mission.

Commentary on Luke 1-2 (Birth of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Luke is that it was written by Luke, a physician, friend, and missionary companion of the apostle Paul between AD 50-60. The Gospel of Luke is part one of a two-part work, with the second part being the book of Acts. Luke-Acts appear to be the only works in the New Testament written by a Gentile.

Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that

Luke writes as a second-generation Christian, claiming not to have been an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ ministry, but to have thoroughly investigated the events before composing his Gospel (Luke 1:1–4). He writes as both historian and theologian, seeking to provide an accurate and trustworthy account of the events, while confirming the profound spiritual significance of these events.

Wilkins highlights the following purposes for Luke’s Gospel:

Luke’s prologue identifies his general purpose as the confirmation of the gospel, seeking to confirm for Theophilus ‘the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (1:1–4). More specifically, Luke appears to be writing for a Christian community—probably predominantly Gentile, but with Jewish representation—struggling to legitimize its claim as the authentic people of God, the heirs of the promises made to Israel. In defending the identity of Christ, Luke seeks to show that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and that his death and resurrection were part of God’s purpose and plan. In defense of the increasingly Gentile church, he confirms that all along it was God’s plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and that Israel’s rejection of the gospel was predicted in Scripture and was part of her history as a stubborn and resistant people. The theme that holds these threads together is promise and fulfillment. The church made up of Jews and Gentiles is the true people of God because it is for her and through her God’s promises are being fulfilled.

The first twenty-five verses of chapter one of the Gospel of Luke describe an angelic visit to a priest named Zechariah. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his barren, elderly wife, Elizabeth, will conceive a child. The child will be a great prophet of God who will prepare Israel for the coming of the Lord. They are to name the child John.

Starting in verse 26, the narrative describes another visit by Gabriel, but this time to a young virgin named Mary. Mary is a relative of Elizabeth, although we are unsure how they are related. Mary is engaged to be married to Joseph, who is a descendant of King David. They both live in a small town of less than two thousand people named Nazareth. Nazareth is located in the region of Galilee, which is part of the kingdom of Herod the Great (see map below). Herod is ruling greater Palestine under the authority of the Roman emperor Augustus.

maps of palestine

Jewish tradition prescribes two stages of marriage: engagement followed by the marriage itself. Robert H. Stein explains in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary:

Engagement involved a formal agreement initiated by a father seeking a wife for his son. The next most important person involved was the father of the bride. A son’s opinion would be sought more often in the process than a daughter’s. Upon payment of a purchase price to the bride’s father (for he lost a daughter and helper whereas the son’s family gained one) and a written agreement and/or oath by the son, the couple was engaged. Although during this stage the couple in some instances cohabited, this was the exception. An engagement was legally binding, and any sexual contact by the daughter with another person was considered adultery. The engagement could not be broken save through divorce (Matt 1:19), and the parties during this period were considered husband and wife (Matt 1:19–20, 24). At this time Mary likely was no more than fifteen years old, probably closer to thirteen, which was the normal age for betrothal.

Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that God has chosen her for a very special role. She will conceive a son and she will call him Jesus. This son will be like no other child that was ever or will ever be born. Gabriel explains to Mary that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Jesus will be the Son of God Himself, the promised Messiah, the promised descendant of David who will reign forever. Jesus will fulfill the prophecies found in 2 Sam 7:12–13, 16; Pss 89:4, 29; 132:12; Isa 9:7; and Dan 7:13–14.

Notice the contrasts between the birth announcement of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Stein writes:

John was ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (1:15), but Jesus is ‘great’ (1:32), and his greatness is unqualified. Whereas John is later described as ‘a prophet of the Most High’ (1:76), Jesus is the ‘Son of the Most High’ (1:32). Whereas John’s birth was miraculous and had OT parallels, Jesus’ birth was even more miraculous. John’s conception, like that of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, was miraculous; but Jesus’ conception was absolutely unique. It was not just quantitatively greater; it was qualitatively different. Whereas John’s task was to prepare for the Coming One (1:17, 76–79), Jesus is the Coming One who will reign forever (1:33); and whereas John was filled with the Spirit while still in the womb (1:15), Jesus’ very conception would be due to the Spirit’s miraculous activity in a virgin (1:35–37).

Mary asks Gabriel how she can become pregnant if she is still a virgin. Gabriel answers that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and cause her to conceive. Gabriel does not explain how the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive a child, but the clear implication is that the child will not have a human biological father. Jesus would be set apart for the service of God, thus he would be the “holy Son of God.”

Gabriel then tells Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth is already miraculously six months pregnant. For God, nothing is impossible! Recall that this language is similar to what God told Abraham when Sarah laughed about conceiving a child in her old age (Gen 18:14). Mary, unlike Sarah, simply accepted the message from God and said “let it be to me according to your word.”

The remainder of chapter one records the birth of John the Baptist, the great prophet who would one day prepare the way for Jesus.

Chapter two, verses 1-21, present the famous Lukan birth narrative with which every Christian is familiar.

The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar frequently commissioned tax censuses to be taken in the various provinces of the Roman Empire. Evidently there is a census taking place around 4-6 BC. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem, a distance of about ninety miles. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and we have already learned that Joseph is a descendant of David. It seems quite plausible that the reason Joseph travels to Bethlehem for the tax census is because he owns property there. Mary and Joseph may have been born in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth later in life. With a tax census underway, they would need to return to their property so that it could be counted in the census.

After they had arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus. She wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in an animal feeding trough (manger) because there is no room in the inn. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth have been distorted over the millennia, so let’s take a closer look at what happened.

It is highly unlikely, given the importance of hospitality in first century Jewish culture, that Mary and Joseph would be unable to find a place to stay while they were in Bethlehem. It is much more probable that they were staying with family or friends. A typical house at this time consisted of a single story with two rooms, one being a guest room. Take a look at the floorplan below, taken from David A. Croteau’s Urban Legends of the New Testament.


According to Croteau, the Greek word translated as “inn” in verse 7 is better translated as “guest room.” So verse 7 should read “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room.”

The guest room in the house they were staying must have been occupied by other guests. Therefore Mary and Joseph were sleeping in the family room along with the household owners. Now why in the world are there animal troughs in the house?

It was very common at this time for domesticated animals to be kept in the house with the owners. Croteau explains the typical arrangement:

A first-century house in Israel would have a large family room where the family would eat, cook, sleep, and do general living. At the end of the room there would be some steps down to a lower level, going down only a couple of feet. That lower level would be the ‘animal room’ of the house. There was no wall separating the rooms, just one room with two parts: the family room and the animal room. They would construct it so it slanted slightly toward the animal area for easy cleaning because the exterior door would be in the animal area. On the raised surface in the family room would be a feeding trough for the larger animals carved out of the floor. The larger animals in the animal area, like a cow or a donkey, could walk over and eat out of this trough. The smaller animals, like sheep, would have a smaller manger that would be carved out of the floor in the animal room, or the family might have a wooden trough that could be brought inside.

Given these conditions, Croteau argues that the manger Jesus was laid in was most likely the large feeding trough in the family room.

Verses 8-20 record the famous story of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. The shepherds are tending sheep at night, in an area not too far from Bethlehem. Some scholars speculate that these shepherds are caring for the lambs that will be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem, but we can’t be sure. Since shepherds only tended sheep at night during warmer months, it is likely that this took place between the months of March and November.

The angel announces that he has good news for the nation of Israel (that is what Luke means when he says “all the people” in verse 10). The good news is that the promised Messiah is born in Bethlehem (city of David), just as the prophecies predicted. Recall that the events of the book of Ruth (she is an ancestor of David) took place in Bethlehem, and that David grew up in Bethlehem.  Michael J. Wilkins writes,

The announcement of good news (euangelizomai) is a common verb for Luke and has its roots in Isaiah’s announcement of end-time salvation (Isa. 52:7; 61:1). There is also an interesting parallel in an inscription found at Priene celebrating the birth of Augustus. The inscription calls him a ‘savior’ and says that ‘the birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of good news for the world.’ Both of these backgrounds could have had significance for Luke, who has just referred to Caesar Augustus (2:1) and for whom Isaiah’s portrait of salvation plays a leading role (2:32; 3:4–6; 4:18–19). Though Augustus is acclaimed by many as the world’s god and savior, Jesus is the true deliverer.

The shepherds are to go to nearby Bethlehem and search the houses until they find a newborn baby laying in a feeding trough. Given that Bethlehem is relatively small, the shepherds wouldn’t need long to find the baby. When they find this baby, they will know that the angelic visitor has spoken the truth.

The angel is then joined by a multitude of other angels who praise God for the birth of the child. Once the angelic chorus ends, the shepherds immediately hurry to Bethlehem to find the baby. They do indeed find Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, and they proceed to spread the word about this miraculous child, the promised Messiah.

Why did God choose shepherds to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth? Many important biblical characters were shepherds, including Abraham, Moses, and David. In addition, God is often compared to a shepherd (e.g., Ps 23:1, Gen 49:24, Ps 80:1). It seems only fitting that shepherds would be the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus. Shepherds were also in a lower economic class, so God was demonstrating that the good news was for the poor and humble, not only for the rich.

Commentary on Matthew 1 (Genealogy of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Matthew is that it was written by Matthew-Levi, the tax collector and disciple of Jesus, between AD 50-60. Although some scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel written, a majority believe that it was written after the Gospel of Mark and borrowed heavily from that Gospel.

Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of Matthew in writing his Gospel:

It is a book that establishes Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the heir to the promises of Israel’s throne through King David and to the promises of blessing to all the nations through the patriarch Abraham. Against the backdrop of a world increasingly hostile to Christianity, Matthew solidifies his church’s identity as God’s true people, who transcend ethnic, economic, and religious barriers to find oneness in their adherence to Jesus Messiah. His gospel becomes a manual on discipleship, as Jew and Gentile become disciples of Jesus who learn to obey all he commanded his original disciples.

The Gospel of Matthew chooses a different approach to introducing Jesus. Matthew’s strategy is to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the rightful heir to Abraham and David. He accomplishes this by providing a genealogy that traces the legal lineage from Abraham to Joseph, Jesus’s legal (but not biological) father. Matthew divides the genealogy into three sections of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, David to Jechoniah, and finally Jechoniah to Jesus.

Scholars have noted that Matthew leaves out several names in the genealogy, effectively creating gaps. Why would Matthew do this? Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains that the key to the groups of 14 have to do with King David, who is the central figure in the genealogy.

When one adds up the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants in his name (DVD), one arrives at the number fourteen (4+6+4). This gematria, as ancient Hebrew numerical equivalents to words are termed, probably accounts for the centrality of the number fourteen in Matthew’s genealogy. Each of the three sections contains fourteen generations (v. 17), and David’s name itself is the fourteenth entry. The actual number of generations in the three parts to the genealogy are thirteen, fourteen, and thirteen, respectively; but ancient counting often alternated between inclusive and exclusive reckoning. Such variation was thus well within standard literary convention of the day.

How did Matthew construct his genealogy? Blomberg tells us the origins of Matthew’s data:

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah figure prominently in Gen 12–50. The other male names in vv. 2–6a correspond to 1 Chr 2:3–15. Solomon through Josiah (vv. 6b–11) all appear in 1 Chr 3:10–14 (recalling that Azariah is the same individual as Uzziah—cf., e.g., 2 Kgs 15:1–2 with 2 Chr 26:3—and that there are omissions in Matthew’s list). In vv. 12–16 Jeconiah is a variant form of Jehoiachin, who with Shealtiel and Zerubbabel appear in 1 Chr 3:17–19. But there Zerubbabel is a nephew of Shealtiel, which may suggest that the latter died childless and that the line of succession passed to his brother’s family. In Ezra 3:2, Zerubbabel is legally considered a son of Shealtiel. The rest of the names from Abiud to Jacob are unparalleled, but ancient Jews tried scrupulously to preserve their genealogies; so it is not implausible that Matthew had access to sources that have since been lost.

Another interesting aspect of the genealogy is that Matthew mentions five women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary), which is unusual in a Jewish genealogy. Why does he do this? With regard to the first four women, Blomberg writes:

Suggestions have included viewing them as examples of sinners Jesus came to save, representative Gentiles to whom the Christian mission would be extended, or women who had illicit marriages and/or illegitimate children. The only factor that clearly applies to all four is that suspicions of illegitimacy surrounded their sexual activity and childbearing. This suspicion of illegitimacy fits perfectly with that which surrounded Mary, which Matthew immediately takes pains to refute (vv. 18–25).

Matthew later explains that Jesus was born of Mary, but that Joseph was not involved in the conception of Jesus. He is his legal father, but not biological father. Blomberg explains that “in fact, the grammar of v. 16 makes clear that Joseph was not the human father of Jesus because the pronoun ‘whom’ is feminine and therefore can refer only to Mary as a human parent of the Christ child.”

Blomberg further explains why Matthew would have been so concerned with including these women in the genealogy when he wrote his Gospel 20-30 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Within the Gospels, Jewish polemic hinted (John 8:48) and in the early centuries of the Christian era explicitly charged that Jesus was an illegitimate child. Matthew here strenuously denies the charge, but he also points out that key members of the messianic genealogy were haunted by similar suspicions (justified in at least the two cases of Tamar and Bathsheba and probably unjustified in the case of Ruth). Such suspicions, nevertheless, did not impugn the spiritual character of the individuals involved. In fact, Jesus comes to save precisely such people. Already here in the genealogy, Jesus is presented as the one who will ignore human labels of legitimacy and illegitimacy to offer his gospel of salvation to all, including the most despised and outcast of society. A question for the church to ask itself in any age is how well it is visibly representing this commitment to reach out to the oppressed and marginalized of society with the good news of salvation in Christ. At the same time, Matthew inherently honors the five women of his genealogy simply by his inclusion of them. So it is not enough merely to minister to the oppressed; we must find ways of exalting them and affirming their immense value in God’s eyes.

Commentary on John 1 (Pre-existence of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of John is that it was written by John the son of Zebedee and brother of James, the disciple “Jesus loved,” between AD 80-90. Some scholars have suggested that a different disciple named John wrote the Gospel, but thus far that theory has not gained majority acceptance.

John likely wrote the Gospel while he was living in Ephesus, toward the end of his life. The Gospel appears to be the first of five books he wrote, the next ones being the three NT letters that bear his name and the book of Revelation.

Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of John in writing his Gospel:

To demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, by presenting and commenting on seven selected messianic signs. To show that the Christian faith is universal, applying to Jews and non-Jews alike, and the only way to God. To equip believers for mission. To evangelize unbelievers by equipping believers to share the good news.

In chapter one of the Gospel of John, verse 1, the disciple John officially introduces the person of Jesus Christ to the world. John explains that Jesus is the “Word of God” who has always existed with God. As the Word of God, He is co-equal with God Himself.

Why does John use the phrase “Word of God” to describe Jesus? Because that phrase is firmly rooted in the Old Testament. Gerald L. Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, writes:

The phrase ‘the word [dabar] of the Lord’ expresses one of the fundamental ideas of the Hebrew Old Testament. Among the many contexts in which it appears, it was used (1) as the basis for the covenant with Abraham (e.g., Gen 15:1); (2) as the foundation for the establishment of Israel’s laws (e.g., Exod 24:3–4) and the giving of the Ten Commandments (e.g., Deut 5:5); (3) as a clue to the closeness of the relationship of Israel with God (e.g., 1 Sam 3:1); (4) as the stated source for the proclamations of the prophets (e.g., 1 Kgs 13:20; 18:1; Isa 1:10; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1); (5) as the wise means for guidance (e.g., Ps 17:4); and (6) as the key or way to enlightenment (e.g., Ps 119:105). Yet the creation statement of Ps 33:6 reminds us that in Israel’s thinking the word of the Lord carries in it the concept of an active power. The speaking of God in Genesis 1 is not merely the verbalizing of rationality that is basic to the Greek meaning of logos or the English word ‘logic.’ When God spoke according to the Old Testament, his very speaking initiated the power to create or to order reality.

John packs a tremendous amount of theology into verse 1, which we must not miss. Borchert enumerates John’s teaching in this critical verse:

Verse 1 of the Prologue then is a foundational confession (1) that the Logos has an origin that supersedes the created order of time and space, (2) that this Logos has an identity distinct from the previously understood designations for God, and (3) that the Logos must also be understood as part of the unity of God. Community and unity are in Christian theology two compatible sides of the eternal God. Here then are the beginnings of Christian reflection on the mind-stretching concept that became known as the doctrine of the Trinity.

Verse 2 reiterates John’s statement that the Word (Jesus) has been with God Himself since the beginning. Jesus, therefore, can never be considered a creation of God. Verse 2 rules that out.

Continuing in verse 3, everything that was created in the cosmos was created by Jesus. There is literally nothing that has been created without His action. This verse ties Jesus directly to the creation account in the book of Genesis.

Verses 4-5 communicate that Jesus is the source of all human life, both physical and spiritual. He is also the embodiment or personification of light, and the forces of darkness are unable to overcome Him. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), elaborates:

Both ‘life’ and ‘light’ are universal religious terms, but John’s teaching is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. At creation, calling forth ‘light’ was God’s first creative act (Gen. 1:3-5). Later, God placed lights in the sky to separate between light and darkness (1:14-18). Light, in turn, makes it possible for ‘life’ to exist. Thus on the fifth and sixth days of creation, God makes animate life to populate both the waters and dry land, culminating in his creation of humankind (1:20-31; 2:7; 3:20).

Now, according to John, life was ‘in him,’ Jesus. Jesus is the source of life, including both physical and spiritual (‘eternal’) life. He also is the source of light, since only those who possess spiritual, eternal life have within themselves the capacity to ‘walk in the light,’ that is, to make moral decisions that are in accordance with the revealed will of God.

Kostenberger adds (commenting on verse 5):

Beneath this contrast between light and darkness lies a significant cluster of Old Testament passages. Most interesting in this regard are several instances in Isaiah that depict the coming Messiah as a light entering the darkness. In Isaiah 9:2, we read that ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ In Isaiah 60:1-5, a time is envisioned when the nations will walk in God’s light and the glory of the Lord will shine brightly.

In verses 6-8, John takes a detour for a moment and introduces us to John the Baptist. There were followers of John the Baptist living in the 80’s and 90’s AD and the author of the Gospel wants to clarify, for them, who John the Baptist was. The Baptist’s purpose was to point people to Jesus, who is the true light. John the Baptist is not to be mistaken for the light himself.

Verses 9-13 tell us that Jesus was coming into the world, but sadly, even though Jesus made the world and was in the world, the world did not recognize Him. Jesus first went to the Jewish people, but they largely rejected Him. Recall that Isaiah had seven hundred years earlier prophesied this Jewish national unbelief: “Who has believed our message?” (Isa. 53:1).

However, those who do believe in the name of Jesus gain the right to become children of God. You don’t become a child of God based on your family ancestry, you become a child of God because of God’s supernatural intervention.

What does John mean when he says you must believe in Jesus’s name? Names carried much greater importance in Jewish tradition than they do now. A person’s name was to reflect his nature. So to believe in Jesus’s name is to believe in His nature. John has already explained that Jesus is God, that He has always existed, that He created everything (he will reveal more about His nature in verse 14). But what does the name “Jesus Christ” actually mean? Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) explains:

’Jesus’ (Iesous) was the name normally used in the Gospels, derived from the Hebrew Yeshua, ‘Yahweh saves’ (Neh. 7:7), which is a shortened form of Joshua, ‘Yahweh is salvation’ (Ex. 24:13). ‘Christ’ is a title, the transliteration of the Greek Christos, which harks back to David as the anointed king of Israel. The term came to be associated with the promise of a Messiah or ‘anointed one’ who would be the hope for the people of Israel.

Verse 14 is something of a climax in the prologue. Let’s break the verse down. First, it says “And the Word became flesh.” Here John is introducing the doctrine of the incarnation. He is saying that the divine Word of God, who has always existed, added a human nature to His divine nature. Jesus is the God-man, fully God and fully man.

Next, John states that Jesus “dwelt among us.” The word translated “dwelt” actually means “tabernacled” or “tented.” Borchert notes that this “reminds us of Israel’s wilderness experience of God’s presence in the tabernacle or tent of meeting (cf. Exod 25:8–9; 35:7–16; 40:1–38).” God, in Jesus Christ, has come to take up residence among His people once again.

John continues, “[A]nd we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary writes:

We have seen most naturally implies that the author was an eyewitness. His glory refers to the unique splendor and honor seen in Jesus’ life, miracles, death, and resurrection. The one and only Son (monogenous; cf. John 1:18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) means that Jesus is the Son of God in a sense totally different from a human who believes and becomes a child of God. Jesus’ sonship is unique for He is eternal and is of the same essence as the Father.

Finally, “full of grace and truth” carry the concepts of loving-kindness and faithfulness. Jesus manifests, in its fullness, the love, care, faithfulness, and fidelity of God.

Verse 15 reiterates John the Baptist’s role as the witness to Jesus’s mission to the world. Andreas Kostenberger explains,

In the context of John’s openings words (where Jesus is portrayed as having existed with God from eternity), the Baptist’s personal confession also points to Jesus’ eternal origin (John 1:14; cf. 8:58; 12:41) and thus his preeminence.

Verse 16 explains that the full blessings of God are bestowed on His children again and again, like waves crashing into the shore.

In verses 17-18 John explains that the Law was given as a gift to mankind through Moses, but the full embodiment of God’s loving-kindness and faithfulness to mankind was given in the person of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus came in the flesh, as a human being, mankind was finally able to see God Himself. Kostenberger adds:

The reason for humanity’s inability to see God is twofold: (1) God is spirit (John 4:24); (2) mankind fell into sin and was expelled from God’s presence (Gen. 3; Isa. 59:2). Jesus surmounted both obstacles: (1) He who is himself God became a human being so that others could see God in him (John 14:9-10); (2) he who was without sin died for us sinners, so that our sinfulness no longer keeps us from entering into fellowship with God (Rom. 5:1-2, 6-11).

Commentary on Nehemiah 1-6 (Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem)

The traditional view of the Book of Nehemiah is that it was written by Ezra the scribe as a sequel to the Book of Ezra. Nehemiah contains two main sections: the Nehemiah Memoir (chapters 1-7, 12-13) and the Ezra Memoir (chapters 8-10). These memoirs appear to be first-hand accounts of the activities of Ezra and Nehemiah during the years of 445 – 433 BC.

According to Barrett Duke in The Apologetics Study Bible, the Book of Nehemiah

relates the continuing efforts of the Jewish people who returned from 70 years of captivity in the Babylonian Empire to reestablish themselves in their homeland. The principal person in this part of the history is Nehemiah, a Jew who had attained the influential position of cupbearer in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was the last in a succession of Jewish leaders in the biblical record to help the people achieve a stable and vibrant life in the Persian province known as Yehud, or Judah. Nehemiah followed Sheshbazzar (who led the first return), Zerubbabel (who led the temple rebuilding project), and Ezra the priest and scribe (who led the spiritual renewal of the people). Nehemiah’s principal contribution to the emerging community was the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, which had been destroyed in 586 b.c. by the Babylonians.

Prior to the beginning of events recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, the Persian king Artaxerxes had ordered work on the walls of Jerusalem to be halted, citing the rebellious history of Jerusalem. However, he did allow Ezra, a prominent Jewish scholar, to lead another group of Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylon in 458 BC. The Chronological Study Bible (NKJV) explains the significance of Ezra:

Ezra’s focus and authority was Scripture, which at that time meant the Books of Moses. In the years before the Exile, Scripture had not been treated as particularly significant. Indeed, when a part of the Law of Moses was found and read during King Josiah’s reign, the king and people had evidently never heard such a message before (2 Kin. 22: 8– 13). Israelite worship had been concentrated on the temple, not the law. During the Exile, though, that changed. Without a temple, the Jews had to find a new center for their faith. They became the people of the Book. In this context, a new kind of religious leader arose. The Hebrew word for these leaders, usually translated ‘scribes,’ means in a sense ‘bookmen,’ learned men who were able to read and write. Ezra represents this new sort of leader. Although he is from the high priestly line of Aaron (Ezra 7: 1– 5), his true authority comes from his standing as ‘a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses’ (7: 6).

Ezra was more concerned with the spiritual condition of the returned exile community than repairs to Jerusalem itself. In fact, even though a new temple had been completed in 515 BC, the walls and gates protecting Jerusalem were still in disrepair due to Artaxerxes’ earlier decree. This brings us to the year 445 BC and the Book of Nehemiah.

In chapter one, verses 1-3, Nehemiah hears from his brother Hanani that the walls and gates of Jerusalem are still destroyed. Nehemiah is living in Susa, the winter capital of the Persian Empire. We soon learn that Nehemiah is one of the most trusted aides to Artaxerxes, king of Persia.

Upon hearing this news, Nehemiah mourns and prays to God. Nehemiah’s prayer consists of: 1) acknowledgment of and praise for who God is, 2) confession of his sins and the sins of Israel, 3) reminder of God’s promises to Israel if they will repent, and 4) a request to help Nehemiah when he approaches King Artaxerxes.

Mervin Breneman, in vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, The New American Commentary, writes:

Nehemiah’s prayer was based on God’s Word. As Kidner notes, even though Nehemiah, like all of us, had to come before God empty-handed, with nothing deserving the Lord’s favor or even attention (indeed, just the opposite), he nevertheless did not come uninvited. Most of this prayer is based on Deuteronomy, many phrases of which are practically the same. Nehemiah realized that God justly punished Israel, but he reminded God that this very situation had been anticipated in Deut 4:25–31 and of his promise of mercy, faithfulness, and forgiveness.

Nehemiah realized that God had fulfilled much of Deut 30:1–10; but he was convinced that God’s promise included more than the situation in which the Jerusalem community found itself at that moment. Thus, Nehemiah’s prayer shows a profound understanding and faith in what God had promised in his Word. Nehemiah challenges us to prayer based on an understanding of God’s purpose and will as found in his Word. He also reminds us that we can always begin again in our relationship with God if we return to him in humility.

Approximately four months later, after much prayer and planning, Nehemiah is ready to speak to Artaxerxes. As Nehemiah is tasting wine and then giving it to Artaxerxes (his job was to taste everything before the king did so that the king could not be poisoned), the king notices a profound sadness in Nehemiah and asks him what is the matter. With great tact and humility, Nehemiah asks the king to allow him to return to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He also asks for letters to be given to the rulers of the provinces Nehemiah must travel through, as well as orders to provide timber from the forests under Artaxerxes’ control. The timber would be used to construct the walls of Jerusalem. Due to God’s intercession, Artaxerxes grants Nehemiah everything he requests! Artaxerxes’ permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem fulfills the decree Daniel had prophesied 95 years earlier in 539 BC (see Dan 9:25).

About a month after Nehemiah is given permission to return to Jerusalem, he departs. The journey lasts 2-3 months, which puts Nehemiah in Jerusalem in the June-July timeframe. Immediately upon arrival he inspects the walls around Jerusalem, devises a plan to rebuild, and rallies the people of Judah to do the work.

In chapter four, verse 6, we learn that the wall has been rebuilt to almost half of its original height in just a few weeks! The progress on the wall has greatly upset the leaders of the provinces surrounding Judah. Sanballat is governor of Samaria, the province just north of Judah. Tobiah is likely the governor of Ammon, a province just east of Judah on the other side of the Jordan River.  The Arabians border Judah to the south and the province of Ashdod borders them on the west. The leaders of these provinces plot to attack Jerusalem, but first spread rumors about their plan in the hope that the Judahites will abandon their plans to complete the wall out of fear.

Nehemiah prays to God and then continues to rebuild the wall. In order to protect the people of Jerusalem, he institutes safety measures. To prevent their enemies from breaching and/or destroying the walls at night, he stations family units at low points in the wall to guard it. His reasoning is that family members will fight to protect each other more so than if family members are spread out around different portions of the wall. During the day, while construction is going on, he assigns half of the people to stand guard with weapons and the other half to build. Those who could work with only one hand would hold a weapon in their other hand.

Nehemiah reminds the people in verse 14, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” Gene A. Getz, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,

After praying, Nehemiah and the Jews continued with the work. Some Christians pray and then wait for things to happen, but not Nehemiah! As in all his efforts, he blended the divine perspective with the human. He faced Sanballat’s opposition with both prayer and hard work. Once he committed the problem to the Lord, he trusted God to help them achieve their goal.

Finally, in chapter six, verses 15-16, we read that the wall is completed in just fifty-two days! Against all the odds, Nehemiah and the people of Judah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in a very short period of time. The text concludes that the surrounding provinces had to admit that God was with the Judahites, because there was no other way they could have accomplished such a feat.

Mervin Breneman writes,

Judah’s enemies tried to make Nehemiah and the Jews afraid; but in the end they were the ones who feared (cf. Deut 2:25; 1 Chr 14:17; Ps 126:2; Mal 1:11, 14) because they realized God had done something astonishing in this community. The phrase ‘and lost their self-confidence’ is literally ‘and they fell very much in their eyes,’ an unfamiliar idiom but one suggesting their pride had suddenly vanished (cf. Prov 16:18–19; 29:23). Though the enemies increased because of Sanballat, the result was that more people were impressed with God’s power (4:1, 7).

The historical narrative contained in the Old Testament ends in the Book of Nehemiah around 433 BC. Zondervan’s NIV, The Story, provides a quick summary of the events which occurred after 400 BC, leading up to the birth of the Messiah:

For 400 years after Malachi’s prophecies, no prophets or leaders rose to the level of inclusion in the record of Holy Scripture. For this reason, the period is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent years.’ In actuality, these years of social and political upheaval were anything but silent for the Jewish people.

The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids during the second century BC was one of the most heroic eras of Jewish history. During these 400 years numerous significant writings were produced as well. The Qumran community copied the books of Isaiah, the Psalms, Deuteronomy and other sacred writings. These ancient manuscripts were discovered by a shepherd boy in AD 1947 near the Dead Sea and are known today as the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls.’

The Deuterocanonical books, or books of the Apocrypha, accepted as Holy Scripture by the Roman and Eastern churches, were written in the years between the Old and New Testament. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the old Testament, was also an important product of the period. It became the Bible for Greek-speaking Jews outside Palestine and later for the early church.

But God’s story wasn’t finished. ‘When the set time had fully come,’ as the apostle Paul put it, God spoke again— this time in the person of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, whose birth, life, death and resurrection changed everything.”

The story continues!

Commentary on Ezra 1-6 (Return from Babylon)

The traditional view of the book of Ezra is that it was written by Ezra the scribe and completed around 400 BC. The Book of Ezra appears to be a continuation of 1 and 2 Chronicles, which leads some to posit that a single author composed both. In addition, many scholars agree that the author of Ezra is also the author of Nehemiah, so it is possible that a single author was responsible for all three books. There is more certainty, however, that Ezra and Nehemiah were composed by a single author.

The Book of Ezra is a history of the early days of the return of the Jewish people from their 70 years of captivity in Babylon. The book spans 538 BC to around 456 BC. Ezra 1-6 describes the return from Babylon under the leadership of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. Ezra 7-10 is Ezra’s own account of his activities as priest and scribe to order the life of the returned Jewish community according to biblical standards.

The Medo-Persian King Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BC. The very next year Cyrus starts to overturn the policies of the Babylonians with regard to the exile communities living in their midst. In verses 1-4 of chapter one, Cyrus decrees that the Jews in Babylonian exile may return to their homeland in Judah and rebuild the temple. In addition, Cyrus would provide monetary assistance for the construction of the temple.

Why would Cyrus do this? The Chronological Study Bible explains:

Certainly Cyrus believed that his empire was built with the help of the god who ruled over the entire earth. In writing to various peoples, he called that deity by the name of the highest god of the people to whom he wrote. This might be a classic case of political propaganda, or Cyrus may have assumed that there was one god, who was called different names by different peoples. In either case, Cyrus both appealed to the gods to support his kingship and to the peoples of his new empire to accept him as rightful ruler.

John A. Martin, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, adds that

Cyrus’ concern was to establish strong buffer states around his empire which would be loyal to him. Also by having his subject peoples resettled in their own countries he hoped to have the gods in various parts of his empire praying for him to his gods Bel and Nebo. The famous Cyrus Cylinder (538 B.C.), which records his capture of Babylon and his program of repatriating his subject peoples in their homelands, includes this statement: ‘May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities daily ask Bel and Nebo for a long life for me.’

Although Cyrus is the king who allows the Jews to return from exile, the author is careful to note that God is responsible for Cyrus’s decision. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah had prophesied that the Jews would be freed from Babylonian rule by Cyrus, with Jeremiah even predicting the date this would occur. God made sure these prophecies would come to pass. He is sovereign over all the affairs of the world.

Tens of thousands of Jews decide to take up Cyrus’s offer to return to Judah. Their Babylonian neighbors assist them with silver, gold, animals, and other goods that would help them get resettled in Judah (reminiscent of the Israelites leaving Egypt). Cyrus orders all of the treasures that were taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the temple to be returned to the Jews. The Jews begin their trek to their homeland under the command of Sheshbazzar.

As we move to verses 8-13 in chapter three, two new leaders have taken charge of the post-exilic community in Jerusalem: Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Zerubbabel has evidently succeeded Sheshbazzar as political leader of the community and Jeshua is acting as the religious leader, or high priest.

In the second year after their arrival, they begin to construct the foundations of the new temple. When the foundation is completed, there is a great celebration which is patterned after King David’s celebration of the Ark being brought to Jerusalem. After 70 years in exile, the people of Judah sing about God, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

In the midst of shouting and praise, the older members of the community, who had seen Solomon’s temple before it was destroyed, are weeping because they realize that the new temple they are constructing is inferior to the grandeur of the original temple. The prophet Haggai, some years later, would reassure the people of Judah that the new temple would outshine the old.

“’The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’”

Why? Because the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus Christ Himself would enter the new temple and bring it unparalleled glory because of His presence.

Even though construction of the new temple is started in 536 BC, the people of Judah would not finish until 515 BC, 21 years later. Why did it take so long? Ezra 4:1-5 provides one reason: the hostility of the people living around Jerusalem.

Who are these enemies and adversaries of post-exilic community? John Martin writes,

The enemies of Judah and Benjamin refer to the people living in Palestine since the time of the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. . . .

The ‘enemies’ (called ‘the peoples around them,’ Ezra 4:4) were the descendants of these mixed peoples and the forefathers of the New Testament Samaritans. These people in Ezra’s day claimed that they worshiped the same God, that is, Yahweh, the God of Israel. But they had a syncretistic form of worship; they worshiped both Yahweh and others (2 Kings 17:29, 32–34, 41). Therefore their statement (Ezra 4:2) was not fully accurate and was apparently made to mislead the leadership of the returned band.

The enemies of Judah request to participate in the construction project. They argue that since they worship the same god as Judah, then they should help build the temple. However, Zerubbabel and Jeshua refuse to let them build the temple. Why? Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, in Hard Sayings of the Bible, write,

Zerubbabel’s refusal to accept help, then, must not be viewed as being sinfully separatistic or just plain mistaken. No doubt the leaders of the province of Samaria viewed the emergence of a new, aggressive presence in Judah, one that enjoyed the favor of the imperial government of Persia, as a threat. Hence their offer to help in sharing the costs and labor in building the temple would have entailed a certain amount of control in the temple itself. It would appear that the offer had more of the overtones of political power than of pure neighborliness. It was for this reason that Zerubbabel refused help from these who usually were their enemies.

When Zerubbabel and Jeshua refuse to allow them to participate, the enemies’ next move is to begin a campaign of harassment against the workers. This campaign likely consisted of threats of bodily harm and property damage. Mervin Breneman, in vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, The New American Commentary, speculates that the counselors in verse 5 “may have been Persian officials bribed to obstruct the builders in every possible way.” The author notes that the harassment continued for decades.

Work on the temple stops from 535 BC to 520 BC. Two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, encourage the people of Judah to start building again, and they succeed. John Martin reflects on the role of these two prophets:

They were vitally concerned with the building of the temple because they realized that their nation could never fulfill the obligations of the Mosaic Covenant till the temple worship was reinstated. Both of these prophets placed the blame for the hard times the nation experienced during this period on the people’s lack of obedience in not rebuilding the temple. However, Ezra did not deal with that question in his book. He stressed the outside opposition which was also a factor in slowing the work.

As soon as work resumes, however, a Persian governor, Tattenai, intervenes and writes a letter to King Darius about the temple construction. King Darius investigates and finds the original decree signed by Cyrus which gave the Jews permission to build the temple.

In chapter 6, verses 6-12, Darius writes back Tattenai and gives him instructions to not impede the Jews, and to instead help them finish the project with financial assistance. Anyone who disobeys the decree is to be impaled and have their house destroyed.

Tattenai dutifully obeys Darius and helps the Jews finish the temple. The construction is finally completed in 515 BC. Mervin Breneman summarizes this historic occasion:

This victory of God’s people clearly displays the providence of God at work through these pagan potentates. God in his providence works everything together to fulfill his plan. He used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to inspire the people to work; he used the kings’ decrees to open doors and provide the means. The author displayed the holy enthusiasm all Christians should share when they realize they are part of God’s plan to fulfill his kingdom.

When Was the Book of Daniel Written?

Traditional scholarship holds that Daniel was written in the sixth century BC and is historically reliable, but many modern biblical scholars hold that Daniel was written in the second century BC and is pious fiction. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence offered for the second century date and responses to that evidence by critical scholarship.

Walt Kaiser and Duane Garrett, in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible, summarize several lines of evidence:

Jesus ben Sirach (Sir 44– 50), 1 writing in approximately 180 B.C., cited numerous Old Testament heroes— but not Daniel.

Belshazzar is called ‘king’ of Babylon in Daniel 5; the actual king was Nabonidus.

Darius the Mede (5:31 and ch. 6) is otherwise unknown.

The stories of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity and of the fiery furnace read like pious legends— far-fetched miracle stories common in intertestamental Jewish texts.

Half of Daniel was written in Aramaic, a language Jews spoke during the intertestamental period. Daniel 3 also includes three Greek words— suggesting that the book was written after Greek culture had invaded the Near East.

How do traditionalists respond?

Ben Sirach also omits mention of other famous Israelites, including Ezra. Also, Sirach may himself have been influenced by Daniel. In Sirach 36:10 he prayed, ‘Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time’— verbiage resembling Daniel 11: 27, 35. It may be that ben Sirach offhandedly cited Daniel, which of course implies that the book already existed in his lifetime.

The book demonstrates familiarity with the history and culture of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Daniel rightly portrays the position of Belshazzar, coregent with Nabonidus. He could have appropriately been called ‘king’ (5: 1), but in 5: 16 Belshazzar offered to make the one who could interpret the writing on the wall ‘the third highest ruler in the kingdom.’ As Belshazzar was himself the second ruler, this was the highest honor he could confer.

Darius the Mede is not mentioned by that name outside the Bible. This is the kind of historical puzzle scholars frequently encounter in ancient texts. In contrast, intertestamental Jewish works of religious fiction lack historical credibility in a way that has no parallel in historical works. The Apocryphal book of Judith, for example, written during the reign of Antiochus IV, contains absurd historical blunders and is altogether unlike Daniel.

The miracles of Daniel are outside the ability of history or archaeology to prove. Still, the following observations are pertinent: Miracles do not prove that a work is fictional. Nebuchadnezzar’s madness was a rare but authentic clinical condition called boanthropy. ‘Made-up’ miracle stories contain outrageous elements with no clinical analogy (e.g., in Tb 2: 9– 10, another Apocryphal book, Tobit goes blind because of sparrow droppings in his eyes).

The fact that half of Daniel is written in Aramaic is a mystery with regard to any proposed reconstruction of its history. But the Aramaic of Daniel is ‘official,’ or ‘imperial’— the standardized Aramaic used in official correspondence when Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Near East (see 2Ki 18: 26; Ezr 4: 7; Da 2: 4), not the colloquial, regional Aramaic of second-century B.C. Palestine, at which time the common language of the region was Greek. All three of the Greek words of 3: 5 are musical terms. Greek poets and musicians were renowned, so their musical vocabulary came into use early. What would be surprising is how little Greek appears in Daniel, if the book had been written in the second century B.C., when the world was thoroughly Hellenized. The Persian words in Daniel are of an older, pre-Hellenistic Persian.

Stephen Miller, writing in the Apologetics Study Bible, offers additional evidence for the traditional dating of Daniel in the sixth century BC:

1. The NT writers and Jesus Himself accepted the traditional understanding of the prophecy (cp. Mt 24: 15 and Mk 13: 14; Mt 26: 64 and Mk 14: 62 and Lk 22: 69; Heb 11: 33-34).

2. The book professes to have been written by Daniel (see 7: 1; 12: 4), to be an account of a historical individual who experienced the exile and lived in Babylon, and to predict future events (e.g., 2: 29-45; 7: 2,15-27; 8: 15-26; 9: 24-27; 10: 14; 11: 2– 12: 4).

3. One of the eight manuscripts of Daniel discovered at Qumran (4QDanc) has been dated to about 125 b.c. and may have been written earlier. Some scholars have argued that there would have been insufficient time for the book of Daniel to have gained such widespread acceptance if it were written only 40 years previously.

4. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the OT produced in Alexandria, Egypt, that came to be used widely by the Jews of the Diaspora. Scholars generally agree that at least the Pentateuch (first five books) was translated in the middle of the third century b.c., but it is likely that all the Bible books were translated into Greek about the same time. If so, a second century date for Daniel is impossible. According to the critical view, only 30 years after it was written, the book of Daniel was received into the canon and carried to Alexandria, approximately 300 miles away, and there translated into Greek. Such a proposal seems unlikely.

5. Ezekiel, the sixth-century prophet, mentioned Daniel three times in his book (Ezk 14: 14, 20; 28: 3)— seemingly clear verification of the traditional view. Critical scholars, however, insist Ezekiel was speaking of a mythological hero named Danel who appears in the ancient Ugaritic epic “The Tale of Aqhat.” A decisive argument against such a theory is that the epic Danel was an idolater, hardly a model of faithfulness to Israel’s God. Ezekiel must have been referring to the author of the book of Daniel. If so, the historicity of Daniel and his book would seem to be established.

Commentary on Daniel 1 (Daniel Resolves to Obey God in Babylon)

The traditional view of the book of Daniel is that it was written by Daniel or an associate of Daniel and completed around 530 BC. Some biblical scholars are skeptical that Daniel wrote the book and they attribute it to a second century BC Jew writing during the Maccabean revolt. More will be said about this in a subsequent blog post.

Assuming Daniel actually wrote the book, his purpose was to encourage the Jewish exile community. He reminded them that God is in control of everything and that in the future God would restore His people.

Daniel is also unique because it is the first example of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Stephen R. Miller, in vol. 18, Daniel, The New American Commentary, explains what the apocalyptic genre is.

Canonical apocalyptic should be viewed positively as a method (or genre) employed by God to ‘unveil’ wonderful truths to his people. What is unveiled by apocalyptic? Two truths stand out. First, apocalyptic grants the world a glimpse of God himself. In Daniel and other apocalyptic works, God is portrayed as sovereign, just, and powerful. He is in control of the universe and the lives of individuals. Second, canonical apocalyptic works unveil the future, not in order to satisfy idle curiosity but as a source of comfort and encouragement to the saints during their time of need.

Daniel is taken to Babylon during the second deportation of Jerusalem in the year 605 BC. Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaria, are evidently part of the royal family, or members of important noble families in Jerusalem. Because they were young (likely under sixteen years of age), intelligent, and physically healthy, they were selected by King Nebuchadnezzar to be trained as royal advisors. Training would typically take about three years and included being thoroughly educated and indoctrinated in Babylonian language, culture, and literature. Stephen Miller provides more details about their education:

They learned to speak and write the language of Babylon, which was a form of Akkadian known as Neo-Babylonian. Akkadian was written in cuneiform, which was made up of wedge-shaped characters, commonly engraved on clay tablets. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of these texts. Daniel and his friends would have known several other languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and, later, Persian.

The chief court official, Ashpenaz, who is administering their education, gives them Babylonian names which they were expected to use going forward. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah became Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Why change their names? Iain Duguid, in Daniel, Reformed Expository Commentary, explains:

In place of their good Hebrew and Yahwistic names, Daniel (‘God is my judge’), Hananiah (‘the Lord is gracious’), Mishael (‘Who is what God is?’), and Azariah (‘The Lord is a helper’), they were assigned pagan, Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (1:7). These Babylonian names invoked the help of the Babylonian gods, Marduk, Bel, and Nebo, rather than Israel’s Lord.

As part of their training, the four Hebrew youths are fed the same food as the king. This was to presumably keep them healthy because the king would eat only the finest food. Daniel and his four friends, however, did not want to eat the king’s food because it was forbidden by the Mosaic Law. In what sense was the royal food forbidden? Stephen Miller offers the following:

At least two factors would have caused these religious Jews to be reluctant to eat the king’s food. First, many of the foods eaten at the Babylonian court (e.g., pork and horseflesh) would have been unclean according to the law of Moses (cf. Lev 11 and Deut 14), either inherently or because they were not prepared properly; for example, the blood might not have been drained from the meat (cf. Lev 17:13–14). To eat such foods would have been a sin for an Israelite and would have rendered the individual ceremonially unclean before God.

Second, the meat and wine would have been undesirable because a portion of it was (at least on occasions if not always) first offered sacrificially to the Babylonian gods before being sent to the king and was therefore associated with idolatrous worship. Although wine was not forbidden by the Jewish law, Daniel’s aversion to drinking it probably is to be explained by its use as a libation in these pagan rituals.

Daniel asks permission of Ashpenaz to eat only fruits, vegetables, grains, and bread, and only drink water, but Ashpenaz is reluctant to agree to his request because he fears the king will have him killed if he is malnourishing the king’s Hebrew trainees.

So Daniel then moves down the chain of command and proposes to the steward who is overseeing them a ten-day test. If Daniel and his friends look healthy after ten days, the steward would allow them to continue with their preferred diet. The steward agrees and indeed, after ten days, they are healthier looking than the other trainees who are eating the king’s food. Thus they are allowed to continue their diet.

As chapter 1 ends, we learn that God gifts the four Hebrew youths with extraordinary knowledge and wisdom. God also gives Daniel the ability to interpret visions and dreams. When the three years is over, the king tests them and he finds them to be superior to all of the other trainees. They are all given the privilege of serving the king as his advisors. As time moved on, they proved themselves to be Nebuchadnezzar’s most valued advisors. Daniel would remain in the king’s court for decades, serving several different rulers. Daniel was blessed with a long life, probably living for 85-90 years.

Although Daniel and his friends refused to defile themselves with the king’s food, they still accepted jobs in the pagan king’s service. What can we learn from Daniel’s decisions in this chapter? Iain Duguid writes,

They did not refuse to work for the Babylonians, perhaps because they recognized the hand of God in their situation. They understood the word that the Lord gave through Jeremiah, that those whom he had sent to Babylon should labor there for the blessing of the place in which they found themselves (Jer. 29:4–7). As far as possible these young men sought to work within the system in which they had been placed, being good citizens of Babylon as well as of heaven. They didn’t kick against the challenging providence of God, but rather accepted it as their present calling, with all of its trials, pains, and limitations. This reminds us that our calling is not to form Christian ghettoes that are isolated from the world around us. On the contrary, we should be active in pursuing the common good of the community in which God has placed us, whatever challenges may face us.

Commentary on Jeremiah 27-29 (God’s Instructions to the Exiles)

The Book of Jeremiah was written by the prophet of that name over the course of his ministry, which lasted from approximately 626 – 580 BC. Jeremiah tells us that he dictated his words to his secretary, Baruch. Jeremiah began his ministry during the thirteenth year of King Josiah, and he continued preaching through the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. He lingered in Jerusalem even after Nebuchadnezzar finally destroyed the city in 586 BC.

With regard to Jeremiah’s message, Walt Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett write in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible:

Reclusive, analytical and self-critical by nature— he has aptly been called the ‘weeping prophet’— Jeremiah also preached an unpopular message. The people of Judah were in apostasy, God would not protect them and they were obliged to submit to Babylonian demands. Above all, and despite the promise that someday God would give Israel a new covenant (Jer 31), the prophet’s overall message was one of doom and gloom: Jerusalem was soon to fall. Because of his negative stance, Jeremiah was widely despised and continuously in danger (11: 18– 23; 26: 8; 38: 6). On at least one occasion the text of his message was destroyed by the king (36: 20– 24). Even Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, was dismayed about his own future (ch. 45). Jeremiah, an old man, lived to see his words fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed.

As chapter 27 opens, the year is 594 BC and Zedekiah is king in Judah. Zedekiah has invited ambassadors from neighboring nations to Jerusalem to decide whether to rebel against Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar.

God instructs Jeremiah to make an ox yoke and place it around his neck. An ox yoke was made of wooden bars fastened around the neck by leather straps. It was placed on cattle to steer them for plowing or threshing.

Jeremiah goes to the ambassadors and gives them the very unpopular message that they are to submit to Babylonian rule (symbolized by the ox yoke around Jeremiah’s neck) until God ends the Babylonian empire in the distant future. F. B. Huey, in vol. 16, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New American Commentary, explains that “the expression ‘his son and his grandson’ (lit. “son’s son”) must not be taken literally. It is an idiom for a long period of time.” If they rebel against Babylon, God Himself will punish them with sword, famine, and pestilence. The Babylonian Empire would eventually be defeated by Persia under Cyrus in 539 BC.

Jeremiah makes clear to King Zedekiah and the foreign envoys that God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over their nations. If they rebel against Babylon, they are rebelling against God. Jeremiah warns them to ignore false prophets who are promising victory over Babylon if they will rebel. The nations who submit to Babylon will not have their capitals destroyed and their people deported. Unfortunately, we know that Judah did not heed Jeremiah’s words and did attempt to escape Babylonian rule, only to be crushed in 586 BC.

As we skip ahead to chapter 28, Jeremiah is confronted by a prophet of Judah named Hananiah. Hananiah tells the people of Jerusalem that God will break the Babylonians and return all the exiles and all the treasures of the temple in two years. He then takes the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck, breaks it, and repeats that Babylon will fall within two years.

Is Hananiah knowingly lying about his prophecy or does he sincerely believe that God has told him Babylon will fall within two years? No one can say for sure, but Hananiah may have been persuaded to make his bold prediction because of the events unfolding in Babylon at that time. F. B. Huey writes,

The Babylonian Chronicles indicate that Nebuchadnezzar was putting down a revolt in Babylon at that time. His preoccupation with troubles elsewhere may have encouraged Hananiah’s optimistic belief of imminent return of the exiles. It is probable, therefore, that Hananiah thought of himself as a real prophet of God. People must, however, be cautious when they confuse their own desires and ideas (i.e., Hananiah) with those of God.

Jeremiah responds that he hopes Hananiah is right, but that Hananiah is contradicting the many prophets who preceded him. They predicted war, famine, and pestilence because of the sins of Judah. If Hananiah is predicting peace instead, then his word must be tested. If Babylon falls and peace comes within two years, then Hananiah is the true prophet. Jeremiah is invoking the test of Deut 18:20–22.

Some time after this occurs, God speaks to Jeremiah and settles the dispute. God reiterates that He has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over Judah and that Judah and the surrounding nations must submit to Babylonian rule. To fight against Babylon is to fight against God Himself. God tells Jeremiah that Hananiah is a false prophet who is lying to the people. To prove this is true, God decrees that Hananiah will die within the year (death was the penalty for false prophets prescribed in Deut 13:5; 18:20). He dies less than two months later, thus proving that he was a false prophet.

There are not only false prophets in Jerusalem who are predicting the soon return of the exiles, there are false prophets among the exile community in Babylon who are saying the same things. In chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exile community to counter the false prophets among them.

Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles are to settle down and make Babylon their home. They are to build houses and families. They are to pray for the Babylonians and seek their good. They are not to listen to the prophets who are telling them that Babylon will fall and they will return home soon. Huey notes that

this is the only place in the OT where prayer for one’s enemies and for unbelievers is commended (cf. Matt 5:43–48; Rom 12:21; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Pet 2:18). It was practical advice though difficult to put into practice. It has never been easy to pray for one’s enemies. However, it was in their best interest to do so. If Babylon prospered, the exiles would prosper also. Praying for the government has become a Jewish custom.

After 70 years in exile, God will bring the Jews back to the Promised Land. God reassures the exiles that He has not abandoned them, that His plans are to bring them back and give them peace and prosperity. When the exiles seek after God, God will be found by them.

Commentary on Ezekiel 8-11 (God Leaves the Temple)

The Book of Ezekiel was written by the prophet of that name who was born around the year 623 BC and lived until at least 571 BC. The date of his death is uncertain.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family and lived in Jerusalem until the year 597 BC. This was the year that King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah a second time and carried much of the nobility, including Ezekiel, to Babylon.

Peter C. Craigie, in Ezekiel, The Daily Study Bible Series, writes that

Ezekiel belonged to a community established at a place called Tel Abib, by the ‘River’ Chebar, which was actually an irrigation canal, drawing waters from the River Euphrates near the city of Babylon itself. The exiles built for themselves houses with mud bricks and settled there in a strange environment, not too far from the extraordinary capital city of the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar. It was in his fifth year as an exile in Tel Abib that Ezekiel had a profound religious experience. He was thirty years old at the time; if he had still been living in Jerusalem, it was the age at which he would have assumed the full responsibilities of priesthood. But instead he was called to the task of a prophet, of being a spokesman for God. For more than twenty years, he served as a prophet among the exiles. The last of his prophecies that can be dated with any certainty was given in 571 B.C., when he was in late middle-age.

Ezekiel received the first of a series of 14 visions in 593 BC, seven years before Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. His ministry was aimed at the Jewish exile community both before and after the fall of Jerusalem. All forty-eight chapters of his book are arranged chronologically and his visions are dated.

Craigie summarizes the overall message of the Book of Ezekiel:

The Jews of his time were faced with an enormous question; to put it in modern words, had their religion come to an end? Phrased so bluntly, it may sound foolish, especially with our knowledge of later history. Yet it was a real and awesome question at the time. The religion of the Hebrews had been linked intimately, before Ezekiel’s time, to the existence of the state of Israel and the possession of the promised land. And yet those two foundations upon which the faith had been established were crumbling before their very eyes. Had their failure, and that of their ancestors, been so terrible that God had finally given up on his people? In such an age, and to such questions, the message of Ezekiel was particularly powerful. He spoke of doom and judgment, but ultimately his faith and message outstripped the reality of contemporary experience. Ultimately, there was hope. Even the disasters of those decades somehow had a purpose in God’s plan. The events would somehow conspire to declare to the people that God was indeed the Lord. And so the final impression that is left after reading this extraordinary book is one of hope. It is not an unqualified and naive hope, but it is real nevertheless.

Chapters 8-11 contain the second of Ezekiel’s visions while he is living in exile in Babylon. The date is September 17, 592 BC. Recall that 592 BC is after the second deportation of Jerusalem, but before the final deportation and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The exile community is still hoping that God will save Judah and Jerusalem from Babylon, and they are seeking Ezekiel’s word on the matter.

Ezekiel is transported, in a vision, to the temple in Jerusalem by God Himself. God intends to show Ezekiel, and thus the leaders in the exile community, why He will not save Jerusalem. God will show Ezekiel four examples of the idolatrous worship taking place on the grounds of the temple itself.


As seen in the figure above, there were two courts of the temple, the inner and outer. What cannot be seen is that there are gates leading from the outer court to the inner court on the north (top), south (bottom), and east (right) sides of the complex. There was no gate on the west (left) side.

Ezekiel is first transported to the north gate and he sees what is called the “image of jealousy.” It is clear this is an idol of some kind, and many scholars believe it is an Asherah pole. Asherah is the Canaanite goddess of love and was considered to the mistress or consort of El, the highest god in the Canaanite pantheon. This idol is set up right near the northern gate in the temple complex, side by side with the glory of God (the temple symbolizes God’s earthly dwelling).

In verses 7-13, God leads Ezekiel to a secret room that was built on the temple grounds where seventy elders of Israel are worshiping Egyptian gods that are painted on the wall. These are supposed to be the leaders of Israel and they are hiding away in a room to conduct their own form of blasphemous idol worship. They believe that God has forsaken the land and thus cannot see them.

Peter C. Craigie aptly writes:

The elders suffered from the delusion of secrecy. They thought they could act without being seen, and though primarily their secrecy was directed towards their people, at a deeper level it was an attempt to remain secret from God. Yet Ezekiel is standing there, and God is with him, observing the action.

There are no secrets from God. To act as if there were is the height of folly. For human life is conducted on a stage like the interrogation room of a modern police department; the insiders cannot see out, but the observers can see and hear all that goes on inside the room. All speech and behavior should be conducted with an awareness that ultimately there are no secrets from God.

God then moves Ezekiel back to the north gate and there Ezekiel witnesses a group of women worshiping the god Tammuz. Charles H. Dyer explains in The Bible Knowledge Commentary that

‘Tammuz’ is the Hebrew form of the name of the Sumerian god Dumuzi, the deity of spring vegetation. The apparent death of all vegetation in the Middle East during the hot, dry summer months was explained in mythology as caused by Tammuz’s death and descent into the underworld. During that time his followers would weep, mourning his death. In the spring Tammuz would emerge victoriously from the underworld and bring with him the life-giving rains. The worship of Tammuz also involved fertility rites.

The fourth and final example given to Ezekiel involves twenty-five Levitical priests in the inner courtyard facing toward the east and worshiping the sun. Note that facing toward the east means that their backs were toward the temple. They had figuratively and literally turned their backs on God.

Craigie explains the totality of the idol worship witnessed by Ezekiel.

The four scenes with which this great vision begins, taken together, form a comprehensive condemnation of Israel’s worship. All were involved, with no exceptions. The idol of Asherah at the north gate indicated the popular worship of the people. The secret room of sacrilegious murals demonstrated the distinctive failure of the nation’s leaders, the elders. The weeping women illustrated the loss of faith in the Living God. And, in the midst of it all, even the priests were turning backwards in their misdirected attempts at worship. And not only were all the people engaged in this folly; they were without discrimination in their choice of idols. The idol of Asherah represented the religion of Canaan; the secret murals were drawn from the religion of Egypt. The weeping women turned to a god of Babylon, while the priests worshipped the sun, whose cult was practised in almost every nation of the ancient Near East.

After showing Ezekiel the abominations in the temple complex, God says,

Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.

In chapter nine, Ezekiel witnesses the destruction of the people of Jerusalem by God. All who have turned against Him are executed. This vision is a foreshadowing of the Babylonian attack in 586 BC.

Chapters ten and eleven report the most devastating consequence of Judah’s betrayal: God’s glory leaves the temple of Jerusalem. Ezekiel sees God mount what looks like a chariot. The chariot is composed of a throne sitting on a large platform. Underneath the platform are four cherubim and four double-wheels. The cherubim and the wheels move the chariot wherever God wills. See the figure below.


God summons a man dressed in white linen to come to the cherubim under the chariot and receive burning coals from them. The burning coals are to be scattered around the city of Jerusalem. Lamar Eugene Cooper, in vol. 17, Ezekiel, The New American Commentary, writes,

Some see this as a rite of purification; others see it as an act of judgment. Both ideas are appropriate. Judgment from God is redemptive in its purpose, not purely punitive. His ultimate goal was the restoration of the nation through a purified remnant.

God moves, on the chariot, from the interior of the temple to the eastern gate of the inner courtyard. The eastern gate faces out over the Valley of Kidron. On the other side of the valley is the Mount of Olives. God lingers at the eastern gate, as if He is giving Jerusalem one last chance to repent.

Finally, in chapter 11, verses 22-25, God rises up from the eastern gate and exits the city. His chariot transports Him to the Mount of Olives, where He makes his final departure from the temple and Jerusalem. Cooper writes:

The departure of the glory of God from the Mount of Olives was the final step in the judgment process. The removal of his blessing signaled the end of his longsuffering with a disobedient and rebellious people. God had exhausted every means of soliciting repentance from the people. Therefore he removed the glory that was the sign of his presence so that judgment might run its full course. The absence of the glory signaled the last stage in the process of reprobation of the self-willed people of the nation.

Ezekiel reported everything he saw to the elders in exile. What were they to do with this information? What hope was left? Craigie explains that hope now rested with the exile community. The residents of Jerusalem had been completely rejected by God.

And so it was upon the exiles that the future now depended. Thinking themselves to be useless, they had looked to others in far off Jerusalem to provide a source of hope. But the tables were being turned. If there was hope to be found, it lay within them, not in the empty hands of others far away. The citizens of Jerusalem had already written off the exiles as irrelevant to the future of their city. Indeed, the exiles themselves thought that there was nothing they could do. But now they were learning that the weak of this world were the ones through whom God would work. And such new hope was not without its attendant anxiety, for it involved awesome responsibility.

Yet the message of the prophet to his fellow exiles carried with it a potent promise, to be developed still further later in his ministry. The future now lay with those in exile, yet it was plain for all to see that they did not have in themselves the strength to undertake the task. The enabling power would be provided by God in the gift of a new spirit and a new heart (see further 36:26). The doomed citizens of the city had built by themselves, and their buildings would soon come toppling down. The exiles, in their mission, would have to learn to build in a new way, employing the strength coming from their new and God-given heart and spirit.