Category Archives: Books of the Bible

Did Luke Write the Book of Acts?

The testimony of the early Christian church is virtually unanimous in ascribing the authorship of Acts to Luke, the companion of Paul and writer of the third Gospel. Some skeptics, however, claim that Luke is probably not the author of Acts because the theology of Paul, as presented in Acts, does not agree with the theology of Paul, as presented in Paul’s own letters. If Luke was Paul’s companion, how could he have so badly misrepresented Paul’s theology?

Darrell Bock, in , presents the skeptical case and then argues why the skeptical case is, in fact, not convincing.

The mismatch is said to involve issues of natural law, Jewish law, Christology, and eschatology (Vielhauer 1966). First, some pit Acts 17 and its openness to seeing God in creation against Romans 1, which seems to imply the revelation of God in creation is only enough to form a basis of our guilt before God. Second, they contrast Luke’s lack of discussion about the role of the cross in salvation with Paul’s emphasis on it. Third, critics say Luke has an adoptionistic Christology, where Jesus becomes Son of God during his earthly life. Fourth, some note how little Luke speaks about the end times, in contrast to Paul who emphasizes it.

Responses to this line of argument are plentiful (Ellis 1974, 45– 47; Bruce 1976; Fitzmyer 1998, 145– 47). First, Romans 1 no less than Acts 17 says creation testifies to God, but the issue is that Romans 1 points out that people (in this case, polytheists) resist this testimony and refuse to glorify God or show him gratitude (Rom 1: 21). The different settings of these two passages are important; Acts 17 represents Paul’s reaching out in an evangelistic setting, asking people to consider God, while in Romans 1 he is concerned with explaining the rejection of God and humanity’s guilt.

Second, Luke does note the cross briefly in two texts (Acts 20: 28; Luke 22: 18– 20). The second text is disputed in terms of textual criticism, but the disputed portion is likely original.

Third, Luke’s Christology is not adoptionistic (Moule 1966, 159– 86; Gathercole 2006). Jesus appears as Son from the very start of Luke (Luke 1: 30– 35).

Fourth, Luke has an end-time theology, as the Acts 3 speech shows.

Finally, the issue of how the law is viewed between Luke-Acts and Paul’s writings is more complex, but the key is to see what Paul himself says, namely that he is a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks (1 Cor 9: 19– 23). So his approach varied depending on the circumstance, and this may account for different approaches seen between these bodies of writing.

Bock notes that there are also non-theological differences between Acts and Paul’s letters that are used to argue against Lucan authorship.

“One such challenge to Lucan authorship notes that Paul presents himself as an apostle (e.g., Rom 1: 1), while Luke does not name him in this light (Haenchen 1987, 112– 6). Another says Luke presents Paul as a miracle worker and great orator, whereas Paul does not present himself as either of these things. However, Paul is a miracle worker according to his own material (Rom 15: 18– 19; 1 Cor 5: 4– 5; 2 Cor 4: 7; 12: 9, 12; 1 Thess 1: 5). While he lays no claims to being an orator, his letters are evidence of his rhetorical skills. In addition, Heanchen’s description of Luke’s portrayal of Paul as an orator is exaggerated; Luke has Paul failing to persuade the Athenians (Acts 17), failing to keep Eutychus awake (20: 7– 12), and giving Festus the impression that he has lost his mind (26: 24). Paul’s hesitancy about his own gifts in spots reflects his humility (Eph 3: 1– 9).

Finally, critics claim that the cause of Paul’s persecution differs between Acts and the Pauline epistles. They say that in the book of Acts, Paul is persecuted over the issue of resurrection, while in the Gospel of Luke it is because he rejects the Law. However, this ignores the cause of Paul’s arrest in Acts 20 and also reflects a reductionism that highlights only one key reason from each work. Also, the different emphases may indicate a difference between the point Paul most wanted to stress and the point an interested observer (Luke) most wanted to stress. These differences of emphasis give depth to the portrait of Paul and his ministry and do not indicate a contradiction. In his letters Paul focuses on how Jesus saves through justification by faith, while Luke focuses on who does the saving in Acts. Nonetheless, Luke clearly has Paul speak of salvation through faith in Christ during his Pisidean speech (see Acts 13: 13– 41, esp. vv. 38– 39).

One final issue is the lack of citation of Paul’s letters in Acts. Bruce (1990, 52– 59) argues that Acts was written too close to the time of Paul’s letters for them to have been used, and that the issues about missions that are prevalent in Acts are distinct from the issues treated in Paul’s letters. Two issues that do overlap are circumcision and Paul’s relationship to the community in Jerusalem. These accounts also can be reconciled, especially if one sees Acts 15 taking place after Galatians 2 (Witherington 1998, 88– 97).

So, given these arguments, is there substantial doubt as to Luke’s authorship of Acts? Not in Bocks’ opinion.

In conclusion, the strongest point in the case for Luke being the author of Luke-Acts is the evidence of early church testimony. The issues that arise from a comparison of Luke-Acts to the Pauline letters do not reach the level of overturning this testimony. In fact, explaining how the early church came to mention Luke consistently as the author when other, better-known candidates existed suggests it must have had a strong reason for identifying him as author.

Commentary on Luke 21 (Jesus Predicts the Destruction of the Temple and His Second Coming)

Early in the Passion Week, as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple precincts, his disciples comment on how majestic and beautiful the temple is. Robert Stein, in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary , remarks, “Under Herod the Great the temple experienced massive reconstruction, which began in 20 b.c. (cf. John 2:20) and continued until a.d. 63. This new temple exceeded even Solomon’s temple in beauty and size and justifiably could have been included among the seven wonders of the world.” The Jewish historian Josephus reported that massive white stones, some as long as 65 feet, were used in construction. These white stones gave the building a brilliant white appearance so that the temple looked like a snow-covered mountain.

Jesus responds by telling the disciples that one day in the future, the temple will be destroyed. The disciples then ask Jesus when the temple will be destroyed and what signs will forewarn them. Matthew and Mark report that the disciples asked this question as they sat on the Mount of Olives, after leaving Jerusalem for the day (recall that Jesus was teaching in the temple precincts during the Passion Week). The Mount of Olives overlooks Jerusalem and the temple from the east. The following verses have thus become known as the Olivet Discourse.

In verses 8-19, Jesus then describes a series of events that will occur before the destruction of the temple, but none of them are to be taken as signs that the destruction of the temple is imminent. These events include: 1) false messiahs, 2) wars, 3) earthquakes, 4) famines, 5) persecution of the disciples by Jewish and Roman authorities, 6) betrayal by family members, 7) and even martyrdom for some of the disciples.

Why would Jesus warn his followers about these events? Jesus knows that all these things will occur and he wants his disciples to know that God is in control of all of it. They are part of the divine plan. The disciples must not be led astray by the chaos going on around them. In verses 13-15, Jesus reassures his disciples that when they are brought before the authorities, it is their opportunity to bear witness to everything they have seen with respect to Jesus. Jesus himself will give them the words to speak so that nobody can refute them. In verses 18-19, Luke writes that those who stay faithful to Jesus to the end, despite persecution, are guaranteed eternal life.

One of the most challenging aspects of interpreting the Olivet Discourse is that Jesus is actually answering two questions: When will the temple be destroyed and when will the second coming of Jesus, and consequently, the end of the age (world) occur? These two questions are explicitly asked in Matthew’s version of the discourse. It is likely that the disciples believed that the destruction of the temple, the end of the age (world), and the return of Jesus would all happen in quick succession. Jesus, however, is telling them that the end of the world and his second coming will not occur immediately after the destruction of the temple. There will be a period of time between these two major milestones.

The events that Jesus predicts in verses 8-19 will not only occur before the temple is destroyed, but they will occur throughout the Christian era (i.e., from AD 70 to Jesus’ second coming). Thus, nobody can cite these kinds of events as an indicator that the end of the world is imminent.

Some might question whether the seven events listed above did indeed occur before the temple was destroyed in AD 70. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary , argues they did:

Various messianic pretenders arose, most notably Theudas (Acts 5:36; Josephus, Ant. 20.97–99, 160–72, 188, who describes other false claimants as well). The war of Israel against Rome began in a.d. 66–67 and was preceded by the growing hostility incited by the Zealots. Famine ravaged Judea, as predicted in Acts 11:27–30, datable to ca. a.d. 45–47 by Josephus, Ant. 20.51–53. Earthquakes shook Laodicea in a.d. 60–61 and Pompeii in a.d. 62 (cf. also Acts 16:26). Persecution dogged believers’ footsteps throughout Acts; internal dissension so tore apart the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1–4) that God even caused some to die (1 Cor 11:30). Numerous New Testament epistles were written primarily to warn against false teachers and perversions of Christianity, most notably Galatians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Jude.

In verses 20-24, Jesus finally describes the destruction of the temple. When Jerusalem is surrounded by armies, the time is near. The Roman army would indeed surround Jerusalem in AD 66. Jesus advises everyone in and around Jerusalem to flee the city into the surrounding mountains. The city walls will not protect them. Pregnant women and infants will suffer the most, as they are most vulnerable to the suffering caused by war. Jesus predicts that the armies surrounding Jerusalem will finally prevail and that a great number of Jews will die or be captured by the Gentiles. Once this occurs, the age of the Gentiles (the Christian era) will begin. The Gentile Roman army did indeed finally enter Jerusalem and burn the temple in AD 70.

In verse 22, Luke sees the destruction of Jerusalem as fulfilling OT prophecies. Robert Stein comments:

Luke may have been thinking of such OT prophecies that speak of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem due to its sins such as Jer 6:1–8; 26:1–6; Mic 3:12; cf. also 1 Kgs 9:6–9. Whereas the OT prophecies would speak of Jerusalem’s judgment as due to its sins, what those sins entailed is found in Luke-Acts. They involve oppressing the poor (Luke 18:7; 20:47); rejecting its Messiah (13:33–34; 20:13–18); not recognizing the time when God visited and the kingdom was offered to it (19:44); rejecting the gospel message (Acts 13:46–48; 18:5–6; 28:25–28); but above all official Israel’s involvement in the death of God’s Son.

Jesus then describes a future time when there will be cosmic signs: “signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Stein writes,

This metaphorical imagery is frequently found in the OT. Such impressionistic language reveals that God is about to enter world history either for blessing or woe or for both. Again the signs associated with the Son of Man’s coming are cosmic, whereas those associated with Jerusalem’s fall are terrestrial, so that Luke kept these two events distinct. For Luke these ‘signs’ and the ones that follow do not provide a clock or timetable by which one is able to know the ‘times or dates’ (Acts 1:7) of the Son of Man’s coming.

How will Jesus’ followers finally know that the world is coming to an end and that the messianic kingdom is inaugurating? Luke writes, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, where Daniel writes,

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In verses 29-33, Jesus tells a brief parable about a fig tree and its leaves. When you see leaves sprouting on a fig tree, you know summer is near. Likewise, Jesus says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

So here is the challenge for us: what are the “things taking place” to which Jesus is referring? It cannot be his second coming, because that means the kingdom of God has begun. So, “things taking place” must be referring to everything else mentioned between verses 8-26. In verse 32, when Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place,” the word “all” cannot be referring to his second coming. “All” must be referring to the other events which must occur before Jesus returns.

As we discussed earlier, all the events recorded in verses 8-24 did occur by the end of AD 70. The generation of Jesus’ disciples would have clearly extended to AD 70, so that generation indeed did not pass away until all had taken place.

The only question left to resolve is whether the events in verses 25-26 occurred before AD 70, after AD 70, or have yet to occur. It is here that biblical scholars differ greatly, for the answer weighs heavily in deciding which generation Jesus is referring to. This topic will be fleshed out in a subsequent blog post.

Regardless of the interpretation of verse 32, Jesus has clearly not returned in power and glory and so we, his followers, are still waiting for that day to arrive. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all exhort Jesus’ followers to be ready at any time for his return. Jesus tells his followers that only God the Father knows the day, so that everyone will be taken by surprise. There will be no warning, so we must all be prepared for his arrival.

#4 Post of 2016 – 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.

#9 Post of 2016 – Commentary on 2 Kings 18-19 (Hezekiah and Sennacherib)

Chapter 18 introduces King Hezekiah of Judah, one of the godliest rulers of Judah since Solomon. As is the case with many kings of the time, he reigned with both his father and son in addition to reigning by himself. He reigned as coregent with his father Ahaz for 14 years (729–715 BC). He reigned alone for 18 years (715–697) and then as coregent with his son Manasseh for 11 years (697–686).

What is remarkable about Hezekiah is that, in direct contrast to King Hoshea of Israel, “he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done.” Only three other kings of Judah are given the same commendation: Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah. We know that Hezekiah destroyed pagan worship centers, removed idols, and even broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had fashioned back during the exodus, for it had become an object of worship.

From the book of 2 Chronicles, we also learn that Hezekiah cleansed and re-consecrated the temple, and then reintroduced the sacred feasts and festivals that Judah had failed to observe. Hezekiah was so confident in the Lord that he rebelled against the Assyrians and successfully mounted attacks against the Philistines. As the idolatrous nation of Israel was being ransacked by the Assyrians, Judah was experiencing a revival under Hezekiah’s leadership.

Peace with Assyria would only last 14 years for Hezekiah, however. In 701 BC, the Assyrian King Sennacherib sweeps into Judah and overruns all of the fortified cities of Judah except for Jerusalem itself. (Note that the following section of 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 is also recorded in the Book of Isaiah [chaps. 36–37] with only minor changes.) What caused Sennacherib to launch this invasion?

Thomas L. Constable writes, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament), that

Sennacherib was a less capable ruler than his father. During Sennacherib’s first four years on the throne he was occupied with controlling Babylon. During this time an alliance had formed in which cities of Phoenicia and Philistia as well as Egypt (under Shaboka) and Judah (under Hezekiah) joined together to resist Assyria. Certain that Sennacherib would try to put down this uprising, as Sargon had done, Hezekiah prepared for an Assyrian invasion by fortifying Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chron. 32:1–8).

Sure enough, once Sennacherib had dealt with the Babylonians, he turned his attention to the rebellion in the south. After rolling through most of Judah’s territory, he sets up a temporary headquarters in the Judean city of Lachish.

Hezekiah panics and pays off Sennacherib by emptying his royal treasury and even removing the gold plating on the doors of the temple. However, this ransom does not succeed. Sennacherib sends an army along with three of his highest ranking officers to send a message to Hezekiah. The message to Hezekiah is received by three of his ministers and is summarized as:

  1. Hezekiah was foolish to align with Egypt against Assyria, since Egypt is weak.
  2. The God of Judah was obviously upset with Hezekiah because Hezekiah had removed the high places in Judah against God’s wishes. God had thus commanded Assyria to conquer Judah. Paul R. House, in 8, 1, 2 Kings, The New American Commentary, adds, “This sort of propaganda about other countries’ deities abandoning their adherents was a standard Assyrian ploy when they invaded and conquered another nation. Cogan notes that the Assyrians routinely told their enemies that their gods were angry with them, that the gods had abandoned them, and that these gods counseled them to surrender to the Assyrians. It is not unusual, then, for the spokesman to try such tactics on Judahites. What the speaker has not grasped, however, is that he addresses monotheists committed to separatist Yahwism, not the typical polytheists he is used to manipulating.”
  3. The people of Jerusalem will suffer greatly from the siege and Hezekiah cannot protect them.
  4. If they will surrender, they will be moved peacefully to a distant land where they will be able to live their lives and prosper. (This is an interesting way to sell deportation.)
  5. None of the other gods of the nations Assyria has conquered have been able to withstand the king of Assyria (who serves the Assyrian god Assur). Why would they think Judah will be the first?

In chapter 19, verses 1-7, Hezekiah sends his ministers to the prophet Isaiah to get his counsel. Isaiah assures the ministers that God will send Sennacherib away and that he will eventually be killed by the sword in his own land.

In verses 8-13, Sennacherib sends a letter to Hezekiah warning him not to be deceived by his god into believing that Jerusalem will be protected from the Assyrian army. He then lists 9 other nations that have fallen to the Assyrians and repeats that none of those gods protected those nations.

Hezekiah receives the letter, goes to the temple, and prays to God. Hezekiah appeals to God’s honor and the fact that Sennacherib has mocked Him. Hezekiah understands that Yahweh is the only real God in existence, but Hezekiah asks God to prove this fact to the rest of world by saving Jerusalem.

The prophet Isaiah announces to Hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and that He will indeed save Jerusalem. In verses 21-28, God speaks to Sennacherib and the nation of Assyria directly. God reprimands Sennacherib for thinking that he can conquer Jerusalem and for dishonoring the Holy One of Israel. Even though Sennacherib believes that all of his military successes are due to his own power and prowess, God corrects him and states that He is the One who has orchestrated everything that has occurred from the beginning. Because of Sennacherib’s arrogance, God will ensure that Assyria is treated just like she has treated her enemies.

God then speaks to the people of Jerusalem and tells them that they will survive the devastation brought by Assyria. Thomas Constable explains the meaning of verses 29-31:

For two years the people of Jerusalem would be able to eat the produce of their land. It would not be stolen by the Assyrians who would have lived off the land if they had returned to besiege the capital. The Judeans had not been able to plant crops outside the city walls because of the Assyrians’ presence. But God promised that He would feed them for two years by causing the seed that had been sown naturally to grow up into an adequate crop. The third year people could return to their normal cycle of sowing and reaping.

This provision of multiplied food was further designed to illustrate God’s plan to multiply miraculously the people of Judah who had been reduced to small numbers. Sennacherib claimed to have taken 200,150 prisoners from Judah. However, though Judah seemingly might cease to be a nation through attrition, God promised to revive it. Like the crops, a remnant of people would take root … and bear fruit, that is, be established and prosperous. God’s zeal on behalf of His people would perform this (cf. Isa. 9:7).

Finally, in verses 32-34, God reveals the immediate fate of Jerusalem:

Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.

That night, the angel of the Lord strikes down the entire Assyrian army camped outside Jerusalem. Sennacherib returns to his capital, Nineveh, without defeating Hezekiah and Jerusalem. Some 20 years later, Sennacherib is murdered by his two oldest sons in the temple of the Assyrian god, Nisroch. They were attempting a coup because Sennacherib had chosen their younger brother to succeed him as king of Assyria. Everything God said would occur did occur.

Was Mark the First Gospel Written?

Although we may never know for sure, the majority of biblical scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that the other Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, used Mark as a source. Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), why this view is the dominant one.

Markan priority appears to be the most prudent position for several reasons: (1) Mark’s literary style sometimes lacks the sophistication and polish often seen in Matthew and Luke. This phenomenon is more easily explained in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvement upon Mark, rather than Markan degradation of Matthean and Lukan style.

(2) In the Markan Gospel Jesus and the disciples are sometimes portrayed in a manner that appears undignified. More often than not these potentially embarrassing passages are touched up or omitted altogether by Matthew and Luke. Again, it is easier to explain the phenomena in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvements upon Mark, rather than the reverse.

(3) The phenomena of agreements and disagreements among the Synoptic Gospels are more easily explained in reference to Markan priority. Among other things, we observe that where there is no Mark to follow (e.g., no infancy narrative, no ‘Q’ material) this is where Matthew and Luke diverge from one another. This observation is more easily explained in terms of Markan priority and Matthew’s and Luke’s independence from one another than in terms of Mark writing last and making use of Matthew and Luke. Markan priority also avoids the problem of trying to explain Luke’s inconsistent use of Matthew.

(4) The small amount of material that is unique to the Gospel of Mark also supports Markan priority. This material consists of 1: 1; 2: 27; 3: 20– 21; 4: 26– 29; 7: 2– 4, 32– 37; 8: 22– 26; 9: 29, 48– 49; 13: 33– 37; 14: 51– 52. In reviewing this material we should ask which explanation seems most probable, that Mark added it or that Matthew and Luke found it in Mark and chose to omit it. The nature of the material supports the latter alternative, for it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke chose to omit the flight of the naked youth (14: 51– 52); the odd saying about being ‘salted with fire’ (9: 48– 49); the strange miracle where Jesus effects healing in two stages (8: 22– 26); the even stranger miracle where Jesus puts his fingers in a man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue (7: 32– 37); and the episode where Jesus is regarded as mad and his family attempts to restrain him (3: 20– 22). If we accept the Griesbach-Farmer Hypothesis [that Matthew was written first], we would then have to explain why Mark would choose to add these odd, potentially embarrassing materials, only to omit the Sermon on the Mount/ Plain, the Lord’s Prayer, and numerous other teachings and parables found in the larger Gospels.

(5) The final consideration that adds weight to the probability of Markan priority has to do with the results of the respective hypotheses. The true test of any hypothesis is its effectiveness. In biblical studies a theory should aid the exegetical task. The theory of Markan priority has provided just this kind of aid. Not only has Synoptic interpretation been materially advanced because of the conclusion, and now widespread assumption, of Markan priority, but the development of critical methods oriented to Gospel research, such as Form and Redaction Criticism, which have enjoyed success, has also presupposed Markan priority.

In countless studies, whether dealing with this or that pericope, or treating one of the Synoptic Gospels in its entirety, it has been recognized over and over again that Matthew and Luke make the greatest sense as interpretations of Mark; but Mark makes little sense as a conflation and interpretation of Matthew and Luke. The evidence is compelling that Mark represents the oldest surviving account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. What sources the evangelist Mark made use of, if any, will in all probability remain a mystery. That he made use of some written material seems likely. That he made use of some eyewitness testimony is also probable; it cannot be ruled out.

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.

floorplan

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!