Tag Archives: Craig Keener

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 2

Continuing from part 1,

Idealist. This popular approach argues that the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths (so Hendriksen, Hoekema, P. Hughes). As such it relates primarily to the church between the advents, that is, between Christ’s first and second comings. Thus it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history. The seals, trumpets, and bowls depict God’s judgments on sinners at all times, and the beast refers to all the anti-Christian empires and rulers in history. Thus the book describes the victory of Christ and his people down through history. The millennium in this approach is not a future event but the final cycle of the book (so Hendriksen) describing the church age. There are certain strengths in this view: the centrality of theology for the book, the relevance for the church at all times, the symbolic nature of the book. But it has certain weaknesses as well: the absence of historical connections, the failure to see the future nature of many of the prophecies or to connect them in any way with history (as it seems the text does in several instances).

Futurist. This was the method employed by some of the earliest fathers (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus), but with the triumph of the allegorical method (taking a spiritual approach to the book) after Origen and of the amillennial view after Augustine and Ticonius, the futurist method (and chiliasm) was not seen again for over a thousand years. The first to develop once more a literal view of the book was Franciscus Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit who wrote in the late sixteenth century to counter the Reformation antipapal interpretation. While he was not truly a futurist, he turned the attention back to the early fathers, and after him that view returned to prominence and stands alongside the others as equally viable.

Futurism believes that chapters 4–22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history and usher in the eschaton. There are two forms of this approach, dispensationalism and what has been called ‘classical premillennialism.’ Dispensationalists believe that God has brought about his plan of salvation in a series of dispensations or stages centering on his election of Israel to be his covenant people. Therefore, the church age is a parenthesis in this plan, as God turned to the Gentiles until the Jewish people find national revival (Rom. 11:25–32). At the end of that period, the church will be raptured, inaugurating a seven-year tribulation period in the middle of which the Antichrist will make himself known (Rev. 13) and instigate the ‘great tribulation’ or great persecution of the 144,000 and others among Israel who have become Christians. At the end of that period will come the parousia as Christ returns in judgment, followed by a literal millennium (20:1–10), great white throne judgment (20:11–15), and the beginning of eternity in heavenly bliss (21:1–22:5). Classical premillennialism is similar but does not hold to dispensations. Thus there is only one return of Christ, after the tribulation period (Matt. 24:29–31; cf. Rev. 19:11–21), and it is the whole church, not just the nation of Israel, that passes through the tribulation period. Also, dispensationalists view themselves as literalists on the symbols, while the second school would take many of them to be symbolic (see above). There are some weaknesses of this school as well: it can develop a perspective that would remove its applicability to first-century Christians (see above on the ‘prophecy’ movement), and it can often deteriorate to mere speculation cut off from first-century backgrounds. If all we have are events without symbolic/theological significance, much of the power of the book can be lost.

How does Osborne synthesize these views in his commentary on Revelation?

The solution is to allow the preterist, idealist, and futurist methods to interact in such a way that the strengths are maximized and the weaknesses minimized. Beale, for instance, calls his method ‘a redemptive-historical form of modified idealism’ (1999: 48). He takes the symbols in an inaugurated sense as describing the church age from the present to the future. For instance, the beast of 13:1–8 refers both to the ‘many antichrists’ throughout church history and to the final Antichrist at the end of history (1999: 680–81). The approach of this commentary is similar, but the futurist rather than the idealist position is primary. My study of ancient apocalyptic and of the Book of Revelation has led me to believe that John’s visions (esp. chaps. 4–22) were primarily intended to describe the events that will end world history.

The saints in these chapters are believers alive in that final period, and the beast is the Antichrist who will lead the ‘earth-dwellers’/unbelievers in a final pogrom against all the people of God. The seals, trumpets, and bowls symbolize a final series of judgments by which God will turn the evil deeds of the nations back upon their heads (the Roman legal principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution) to prove his sovereignty once and for all and to give them a final chance to repent (9:20–21; 11:13; 14:6–7; 16:9, 11).

But the preterist school is also correct, because the visions use the events of the future to address John and his readers in the present. Most of the imagery used to describe the beast and Babylon the Great comes from actual first-century parallels. The beast is a final Nerolike figure, and Babylon is the final unholy Roman Empire. One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’ John’s readers were being asked to identify with the people at the end of history and gain perspective for their present suffering through the future trials of God’s people. This leads us to the idealist position, also intended in the text, for these final events are also timeless symbols meant to challenge the church in every era. The three-and-a-half-year great tribulation provides models for the similar tribulations of the saints down through history. Therefore, this commentary is quite similar to Beale’s except for the centrality of the futurist approach (also similar to Ladd, Beasley-Murray, Michaels, and Mounce).

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 1

Because of the literary genre and dense symbolism in the Book of Revelation, there has been much disagreement in the church about how to interpret it. The events described in chapters 4-19 especially invite a diversity of opinions. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, describes the situation:

There are several major categories of interpretation of this book: (1) Revelation predicts in detail the course of human history till the Second Coming, (2) Revelation reflects the general principles of history, (3) Revelation addresses only what was happening in John’s day, (4) Revelation addresses only the end time, and (5) combinations of the above approaches (e.g., John addresses the principles of history in view of the ever-impending end time until it arrives, and originally articulated these principles to speak to the situation of his late-first-century readers).

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, gives a detailed accounting of the historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation which correspond to Keener’s categories above.

Historicist. This approach began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He claimed that a vision had told him the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events of Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. The Franciscans followed Joachim and like him interpreted the book as relating to pagan Rome and the papacy (due to corruption in the church). Later the Reformers (e.g., Luther and Calvin) also favored this method, with the pope as the Antichrist (see Beckwith 1919: 327–29; Johnson 1981: 409). Classical dispensational thinking took this approach with regard to the letters to the seven churches, believing that the letters prophesied the seven periods of the church age. Also, the so-called prophecy movement, those preachers who see every detail in OT as well as NT apocalyptic symbolism as fulfilled in current events (the ‘newspaper approach’ to prophecy), would be aligned with this school. Proponents of this method have tended to take Rev. 2–19, including the seals, trumpets, and bowls as well as the interludes, as prophetic of salvation history, that is, the development of church history within world history. Thus the beast/Antichrist has been variously identified with the pope, Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler. Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999: 46), few scholars today take this approach.

Preterist. This approach argues that the details of the book relate to the present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. Thus the symbols refer to events in the first-century world as experienced by the original readers, and John is telling them how God would deliver them from their oppressors. There are three basic approaches to the book from within this school of thought. The two most popular relate the book to the situation of the church in the Roman Empire. The first (taken by critical scholars like R. H. Charles, Sweet, and Roloff) views the book as written about Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman Empire. Due to the development of the imperial cult, pressure to conform and the resultant persecution have become serious threats to the church. The beast thus would be the Roman Empire or the Roman emperor, and the seals, trumpets, and bowls are contemporary judgments God is pouring (or soon will pour) upon Rome itself. Thus the book describes the conflict between church and state, between faithfulness to God and compromise with the pagan world.

The second is taken by many modern critics (Yarbro Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr) who argue that there was little persecution and a perceived crisis rather than a real one. The church is still called out from the ‘world’ to follow God, but it is an internal spiritual crisis rather than external persecution. Osiek (1996: 343–44) says the eschatology of the book is not a timetable for the future but a reinterpretation of the present. It provides a spatial interaction between the earthly and the heavenly so as to give new meaning to the present situation. In this case the symbols provide alternative worlds that the readers have to choose between, the transcendent realm of God and the church or the alternative secular world of Rome. The problem of the book then is compromise, as seen in the Nicolaitan cult, and the solution is true worship of Christ (see esp. Krodel).

A third option is to take the book as written before a.d. 70 and prophesying the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment upon apostate Israel for rejecting the Messiah and persecuting the church (so Gentry, Chilton). The beast is Rome, the kings from the east are the Roman generals who brought the Roman army from the eastern boundary of the empire to destroy Jerusalem, and Armageddon is the siege of Jerusalem itself. For Kraybill (1999: 32–35) the white horse of 6:1–2 is Rome and the red horse of 6:3–4 is the Jewish War of a.d. 66–70.

This third approach is least viable, not only because it necessitates an early date of writing but because it limits the universal language of the book (all ‘peoples, languages, tribes, and nations’) to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the first two are also problematic because they would involve an error of prophecy (which many critical scholars state openly) since final judgment and the end of the world did not come with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

To be continued in part 2.

Commentary on Revelation 1 (John’s First Vision)

The traditional view of the book of Revelation is that it was written by John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and writer of the fourth Gospel and three letters in the New Testament. The book is most commonly dated around AD 95, although a significant minority of scholars date the book to AD 69.

The immediate context for the author and initial hearers of the book, according to A. Boyd Luter Jr. in The Apologetics Study Bible, was “a group of churches (1: 11; chaps. 2– 3) experiencing selective persecution (2: 9-10,13) in the midst of doctrinal and practical problems (2: 6,13-15,20-23), set against the backdrop of unseen but powerful spiritual warfare (2: 10; 9: 1,11; 12: 3-4,9-10; 20: 2).”

Regarding literary genre, Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Revelation mixes elements of Old Testament prophecy with a heavy dose of the apocalyptic genre, a style of writing that grew out of elements of Old Testament prophecy. Although nearly all its images have parallels in the biblical prophets, the images most relevant to late-first-century readers, which were prominent in popular Jewish revelations about the end time, are stressed most heavily. Chapters 2–3 are ‘oracular letters,’ a kind of letter occurring especially in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer 29:1–23, 29–32) but also attested on some Greek pottery fragments.

Steve Gregg, in Revelation: Four Views, adds:

Unlike most other books of the New Testament, Revelation does not contain even one direct quotation from the Old Testament. However, there are hundreds of allusions to familiar images and phrases from the Old Testament, and from the New Testament as well (especially the other writings of John). It has been calculated that concepts and imagery are drawn from Isaiah (79 times), Daniel (53 times), Ezekiel (48 times), Psalms (43 times), Exodus (27 times), Jeremiah (22 times), Zechariah (15 times), Amos (9 times), and Joel (8 times). The principal historical matrices from which the images frequently are taken are: a) the Exodus, b) the Babylonian exile, and c) the life of Jesus.

The last few chapters of Revelation describe the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ to reign over a new heaven and new earth. Thus, John starts with the hardships and sins predominating the first-century churches and extends these topics all the way out to the ultimate end of the age alluded to so often in the rest of the Bible. Keener writes:

Revelation provides an eternal perspective, by emphasizing such themes as the antagonism of the world in rebellion against God toward a church obedient to God’s will; the unity of the church’s worship with heaven’s worship; that victory depends on Christ’s finished work, not on human circumstances; that Christians must be ready to face death for Christ’s honor; that representatives of every people will ultimately stand before his throne; that the imminent hope of his return is worth more than all this world’s goods; and so forth. From the beginning, the Old Testament covenant and promise had implied a hope for the future of God’s people. When Israel was confronted with the question of individuals’ future, the Old Testament doctrines of justice and hope led them to views like the resurrection (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2). The future hope is further developed and embroidered with the imagery of Revelation.

The first three verses in Revelation form a prologue which some scholars believe was written by John’s followers after he died since it is in the third person. However, it also possible John wrote the prologue himself.

In verses 1-2, the author tells us that the words captured in the book were given by God the Father to Jesus, who gave the words to an angel, who gave the words to John, who finally gave the words to the people of God. The words of this book come in an unbroken chain from the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Also, the things recorded herein “must soon take place” (verse 1) and the “time is near” (verse 3). Those who argue that Revelation should be dated in AD 69 claim that many, if not all, of the prophecies in the book were fulfilled when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Titus in AD 70. Thus, the events predicted in Revelation did indeed happen very soon after the book was written and delivered to the churches.

Those who date the book around AD 95 interpret “must soon take place” and the “time is near” differently. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, is representative of this view:

We pointed out in the introduction that the Old Testament prophets blended the near and the distant perspectives so as to form a single canvas. Biblical prophecy is not primarily three-dimensional but two; it has height and breadth but is little concerned about depth, i.e., the chronology of future events. There is in biblical prophecy a tension between the immediate and the distant future; the distant is viewed through the transparency of the immediate. It is true that the early church lived in expectancy of the return of the Lord, and it is the nature of biblical prophecy to make it possible for every generation to live in expectancy of the end. To relax and say ‘where is the promise of his coming?’ is to become a scoffer of divine truth. The ‘biblical’ attitude is ‘take heed, watch, for you do not know when the time will come’ (Mark 13:33).

Finally, in verse 3 the author blesses the person who will stand in front of the seven churches and read aloud the book. Less than 50% of people could read in the first century, so it was customary practice to read aloud to a congregation the entire contents of a letter or book. The author also blesses the person who listens to the words in Revelation and obeys them.

In verses 4-8 we have the greeting from John. He is addressing seven specific churches in Asia (although the contents were meant to be shared by all churches) and he extends grace and peace from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. The Father is “him who is and who was and who is to come,” the Holy Spirit is referenced as “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” and the Son is “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

Ladd expands on the reference to the Holy Spirit:

From the seven spirits means from the Holy Spirit in his sevenfold fullness (cf. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Some have seen here a reference to angelic beings; but since the preceding phrase refers to God the Father and the following phrase to God the Son, it is certain that John included a reference to God the Holy Spirit, thus including all persons of the Godhead. In other places the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in his plurality of functions (cf. Heb. 2:4; 1 Cor. 12:11; 14:32; Rev. 22:6). The source of the idea appears to be Zech. 4, where the prophet described a candlestick with seven lamps which are the eyes of the Lord ranging over the whole earth. The meaning of the vision was, ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4:8).

Verses 5-7 then give a prolonged word of praise and worship to Jesus Christ specifically. John lists the following attributes of Jesus: 1) He loves us, 2) He freed us from sin by dying on the cross, 3) He is one day coming in judgment over the entire world.

Verse 8 reiterates the divine source and authority of John’s words. Ladd explains:

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and therefore include all that is contained between them. God is the absolute beginning and the end, and therefore Lord of all that happens in human history. He is at the same time the eternal one, the transcendent one, who is unaffected by the conflicts of history, the one who is and who was and who is to come. As the one who is to come, he will yet visit men to bring history to its divinely decreed consummation. The Almighty can be better translated ‘the All-Ruler.’

Verses 9-20 contain the first vision John receives. John tells his readers that he was on the island of Patmos because of his teaching about Jesus. John was most likely banished to Patmos for about a year. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

Most likely John was temporarily banished there for proclaiming the gospel (see below). Ancient writers (e.g., Tacitus, Pliny) tell us that Patmos, a volcanic and rocky island, was one of three among the Sporades chain in the Aegean Sea. It was about ten miles long and six wide and was located thirty-seven miles southwest of Miletus, a harbor city near Ephesus. Therefore it is likely that Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.18–20) was correct when he said John was banished there (according to him, in the fourteenth year [a.d. 95] of Domitian’s reign). Life there was not too harsh, as indicated by its decent-size population and two gymnasia as well as a temple of Artemis. Thus John would have lived a fairly normal life as an exile on that island. He was likely there only a short time and was allowed to go to Ephesus in a general amnesty for exiles by the emperor Nerva in a.d. 96 after Domitian died (see Aune 1997: 77; Carroll, ABD 5:178–79).

One Sunday, as John is worshiping, he hears a loud voice behind him: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

There were more than seven churches in Asia, so why these seven? Osborne explains:

The order of the cities is significant, for they form the circular route of a letter carrier beginning at Ephesus and moving first north to Smyrna and to Pergamum, then turning southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. Also, we must ask why these particular cities are chosen. Troas and Colosse were critical NT centers, and Magnesia and Tralles were more important cities than Philadelphia or Thyatira. The best solution is still probably that of William Ramsay, as argued further by Hemer (1986: 14–15). These seven cities formed a natural center of communication for the rest of the province, since they were in order of sequence on an inner circular route through the territory. There is good reason to suppose that since Pauline times they had become ‘organizational and distributive centers’ from which messages would disseminate to the other churches of the province. DeSilva (1990: 193) also points out that these particular cities were chosen partly for their relationship to the imperial cult. All but Thyatira had temples dedicated to the emperors, and all but Philadelphia and Laodicea had imperial priests and altars. I would add one other point. They also represented the problems of the other churches in the area (note how each letter includes ‘Hear what the Spirit says to the churches’). As we will see, each town had its own particular set of problems but also served as examples for the other churches.

John turns around to see who is speaking and he sees seven lampstands which he later learns represent the seven churches. Note the connection between the seven lampstands and the seven candles of the lampstand (the menorah) in the tabernacle constructed in Exodus 25. These seven lampstands depict the churches as shining lights for God in the midst of the world.

Verses 13-16 then describe a “son of man” who is standing amid the lampstands (churches). This son of man, of course, refers to Jesus. John now uses several images to communicate important characteristics of Jesus, as he sees him in the vision. These images closely resemble the divine messenger sent to Daniel in Daniel 10:5-6, but they also reflect other biblical passage (noted below):

  1. The long robe and golden sash around his chest likely point to his high rank (only nobility would wear a sash around their chests instead of waist) and possibly priesthood. (Ex 28:4; Dan 10:5)
  2. His white hair is emblematic of age, honor, and wisdom. (Dan 7:9; Mark 9:3)
  3. His eyes of fire convey his piercing and all-knowing vision. (Dan 10:6)
  4. His burnished bronze feet emphasize his glory and strength, and his ability to render divine judgment. (Ezek 1:7; Dan 10:6)
  5. His voice of roaring waters signifies power and strength. (Ezek 1:24)
  6. The seven stars in his right hand indicate his complete control over the seven angels of the seven churches. (Ps 110:1; Matt 26:64)
  7. The sword coming out of his mouth symbolizes his words and then acts of judgment. (Is 11:4; Luke 2:35)
  8. His radiant face sums up the other images and reminds us of Jesus’ divine glory. (Matt 17:2; Ps 84:11; Is 60:19)

John’s reaction to seeing the glorified Jesus is natural: He falls at “his feet as though dead.” In verses 17-18, Jesus lays his hand on John and tells him not to fear. Jesus is the “first and the last,” just as the Father is the “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus reminds John that he died, but was resurrected, and will continue living forever. Jesus now holds the keys to the land of the dead. He can open the gate and allow the dead to return to life, and this is exactly what he will one day do.

Jesus then instructs John to write down everything he has seen and will see in the visions he is receiving. Everything must be recorded. Finally, in verse 20 Jesus explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches.

There is much disagreement over what the seven angels represent. George Ladd weighs the different views:

The expression, the angels of the seven churches, represented by the seven stars in the hand of Christ, is difficult, especially since each of the seven letters was addressed to the angel of each respective church. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that the angel stood for the bishop of the church. This would be a good solution for the problem except for the fact that it violates the New Testament usage. Aggelos was not used of Christian leaders, and in the seven letters, neither angels nor bishops were rebuked. Another meaning of aggelos is ‘messenger,’ and the ‘angels’ are taken to be the seven messengers who carried the letters to the seven churches of Asia. If this is so, it is difficult to see why the letters were addressed to the messengers rather than to the churches themselves. The proper meaning of the word is angel, and the natural idea is that churches on earth have angels in heaven who represent them. However, the feature of angels symbolizing or representing men is lacking in all apocalyptic literature. Some have felt that the angels are guardian angels of the churches. It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.

Commentary on Acts 17 (Paul in Athens)

After the Jerusalem Council in AD 49 (Acts 15), Paul sets off on his second major missionary journey. The map below plots his course. In this lesson, we are picking up the story at location 10 on the map. Location 10 is the famous city of Athens, and Paul’s time there is described in Acts 17:16-34.

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes,

Athens’ fame rested mainly on the glories of its past; even as a philosophical center, its primacy was challenged by other centers in the East like Alexandria and Tarsus. But Athens remained the symbol of the great philosophers in popular opinion, so much so that later rabbis liked to tell stories of earlier rabbis besting Athenian philosophers in debate.

When Paul arrives in Athens, he becomes greatly distressed at the incredible number of statues, idols, and altars dedicated to Greek gods. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) describes a subset of the gods worshiped in Athens:

Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, was probably the most popular with temples and edifices dedicated to her. Certainly every deity of the Greek pantheon was worshiped here. These included Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Athena Nike, Athena Polias, Castor and Pollux, Demeter, Dionysus, the Erinyes, Eros, Ge, the Graces, Hades (Pluto), Hephaestus (Vulcan), Hekate, Heracles, Hermes, Hestia, Pan, Persephone, and Poseidon. A vast number of images of Hermes could be found all over the city and particularly in the agora. Numerous images of lesser deities and heroes are also found throughout the city.

Paul responds to the rampant idolatry by preaching the gospel first in the local Jewish synagogue. There, Paul encounters both religious Jews and devout Gentile God-fearers. Both groups would be biblically literate. Paul also preaches in the busy Athens marketplace (called the agora) to the biblically illiterate Gentiles of Athens.

While Paul is speaking in the agora, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers overhear and engage him in conversation. Evidently, they do not understand much of what Paul is saying because they insult him by calling him a “babbler.” They seem to think that he is talking about two new foreign gods: Jesus and Resurrection. The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, and they misunderstood Paul to be talking about a goddess named Anastasis.

Epicureanism and Stoicism are two of the more popular philosophical schools of the first-century Roman world. The Stoics were more popular with the common people. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, describes the beliefs of these two schools:

Epicureans were thoroughgoing materialists, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter. There was no life beyond this; all that was human returned to matter at death. Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of gods, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity. They did not believe in providence of any sort; and if one truly learned from the gods, that person would try to live the same sort of detached and tranquil life as they, as free from pain and passion and superstitious fears as they.

The Stoics had a more lively view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence. They were pantheists, believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings. This spark of divinity, which they referred to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason. By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature, they could discover ultimate truth for themselves. The Stoics generally had a rather high ethic and put great stock on self-sufficiency. Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood.

Largely confused by what Paul is saying, the philosophers invite Paul to explain his beliefs to a council of wealthy, educated Athenians, known as the Areopagus. It is important to mention that there is also a hill in Athens named the Areopagus, but the council of that name did not always meet there. Paul may meet with them in a place called the Stoa Basilicos in the agora. The function of the council in the mid-first-century is unknown. Were they acting like a speech and debate club who were always curious to hear the latest news, or were they serving in some official capacity for the city? We don’t know.

In verses 22-31, Paul delivers a lengthy address to the assembled intellectuals of the Areopagus. These Greek philosophers are biblically illiterate, so Paul cannot possibly quote from the Hebrew Scriptures to make his case. He must use a different approach.

What Paul decides to do is find common ground with the Stoics and Epicureans, and build his case from that common ground. Paul first compliments the religiosity of the people of Athens by noting the numerous objects of worship scattered throughout the city. One altar stood out for Paul. The altar read, “To the unknown god.”

Why would the Athenians build an altar to an unknown god? Craig Keener reports, “During a plague long before Paul’s time, no altars had successfully propitiated the gods; Athens had finally offered sacrifices to an unknown god, immediately staying the plague. These altars were still standing, and Paul uses them as the basis for his speech.”

Assuming that the Athenians would want to know the identity of this unknown god which stayed the plague all those years ago, Paul introduces the Judeo-Christian God. This God is the creator of the world and everything in it. He is not confined to temples made by humans, meaning He transcends the physical world. Human beings cannot give this God anything, for He is completely self-sufficient and self-existent. This Creator-God gives to people their very lives. These concepts are at least somewhat familiar to the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus. Thus, Paul has started on a common foundation that he can now build upon.

Paul next explains that all of mankind is descended from one man whom God created. He is, of course, talking about Adam, but he doesn’t mention his name here. From this one man, God determined the nations’ time periods and geographical boundaries. In other words, God has been completely sovereign over human history. What was God’s purpose in directing the timing and boundaries of the nations? To enable humanity to seek Him and find Him.

Theologian William Lane Craig believes that Acts 17:26-27 provides evidence for the idea that God has planned all human history to maximize the number of people that would come to know Him. On the Reasonable Faith website, in the article “Where was God?”, Craig writes:

I think that as Christians we want to say that God is providentially directing a world of free creatures in such a way as to maximize the number of persons to come to know him freely and to bring them into his Kingdom. And from the very creation of man, God was known by man at first. Adam and Eve and their children knew God. The Scripture says that God’s existence and nature is evident in the creation around us and that his moral law is written on our hearts. So from time immemorial people have known of the existence of God and of his moral demands on us. . . .

According to Paul [in Acts 17], the whole development of the human race is under the providence of God with a goal toward achieving the maximal knowledge of God. I think we see the marvelous plan of God unfolded in human history.

Paul then argues that God is not far from any person, and he quotes Greek poets (Epimenides and Aratus), with which the Areopagus would be familiar, to bolster his contention. The poet Aratus wrote that “we are all truly [Zeus’] offspring,” but Paul co-opts this quote to teach a lesson about the Judeo-Christian God. If we are the offspring of the Creator God, then we ought not to think that our Creator could be in the form of an idol made of gold, silver, or stone. Whoever created us must be greater than us, not lesser. The cause must be greater than the effect.

In verse 30-31, Paul reaches the climax of his speech. Up until now, God has overlooked the ignorance of mankind, the failure of men and women to find Him. This would hit the Athenians between the eyes because they considered themselves to be highly educated and knowledgeable, yet here was Paul telling them that they were ignorant of the true God.

God is now commanding everyone to repent of their ignorance. Why? Because God has appointed a day of judgment in the future for all humankind. God has appointed a man to do the judging on that day, and God confirmed this appointment by raising this man from the dead.

At this point in his speech, Paul seems to be interrupted by the reaction of the Areopagus. The mention of a bodily resurrection splits the crowd three ways. The first group mocks him. The second group asks to hear more from Paul. The third group eventually becomes believers, and two of these believers are named: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Damaris would likely not have been part of the Areopagus, but she must have overheard Paul or she must have been associated with someone on the Areopagus.

Notice that Paul sticks to the fundamentals when he evangelizes the Athenian audience. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, summarizes Paul’s presentation about God:

He is creator, sustainer of life, and thus sovereign over the nations and the Father of us all. For all the disputation over creation and how it took place, the most fundamental truth is that God is the creator of life and we are God’s creatures, responsible to him. This means that God is, and has the right to be, our judge, something our world seeks to avoid acknowledging.

Commentary on Acts 3-4 (Peter and John Arrested)

Sometime after Pentecost, Peter and John, who have been living in Jerusalem, walk to the temple around 3 pm for one of the daily prayer times. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, observes that it

was also the time of the evening Tamid, one of the two sacrifices held daily in the temple. These had become prescribed times of prayer, and people would come to the temple at the sacrifice times to observe the ceremony and pray. The largest crowds would thus have been found at the times of sacrifice, as Peter and John must have been well aware; for they went to the temple for prayer and for witness.

As they approach one of the massive gates that connect an outer court to an inner court of the temple complex, a crippled man is begging for money. The text informs us that the man has been disabled since birth and we later learn that he is forty years old.

The gate at which the man begs is called the Beautiful Gate in the text. Polhill provides background on the gate:

Josephus spoke of ten gates in the sanctuary. Nine, he said, were overlaid with silver and gold; but the tenth ‘was of Corinthian bronze and far exceeded in value those plated with silver and set in gold.’ So massive was this gate that when it was closed each evening, it ‘could scarcely be moved by twenty men.’ This seems to be the same gate identified in the rabbinic literature as the Nicanor gate.

There is some discrepancy between the sources about the exact location of this gate. Josephus placed it at the far eastern access to the sanctuary, leading from the court of the Gentiles (the outer courtyard) into the court of the women. The rabbinic sources place it at the eastern access to the court of the men of Israel, thus between the court of the women and that of the men. Many scholars see Josephus as giving the correct location, since he was writing from living memory, whereas the rabbinic writings date from a period long after the destruction of the temple. This seems to be the most likely spot for Peter’s encounter with the lame man. He lay at the beautiful gate with its magnificent doors of Corinthian bronze, begging at the entrance to, but still definitely outside, the sanctuary.

When the crippled man asks Peter and John for money, they stop and ask him to look at them. Peter tells the man that they do not have money to give him, but they have something else. Peter heals the man and performs the healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter pulls the man up from the ground on his newly strengthened feet, and the man follows Peter and John into the inner court of the temple. Since disabled people are not allowed into the inner court of the temple, the man had never been here before (see Lev 21:17–20; 2 Sam 5:8). Luke reports that he walked, leaped, and praised God. All the people in the temple courts were amazed at the miracle that had just occurred.

We skip now to chapter 4.  Peter and John have been preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus in the inner courts of the temple, and they have attracted a large crowd because of the miraculous healing of the lame beggar.  While they are preaching, some Levite priests, the Levite captain in charge of security in the temple, and some members of the Sadducees confront and arrest them. They leave them in prison overnight because the Sanhedrin is not allowed to convene until daylight. Luke notes that at this point in their ministry five thousand Jewish men have come to believe in Jesus.

Why would the Sadducees arrest Peter and John? Polhill explains that the

Sadducees were clearly the powers behind the arrest of the two. Josephus listed them as one of the three ‘schools of thought’ among the Jews of the first century, along with the Pharisees and Essenes (Ant. 13.171). The origin of their name is disputed but may go back to Zadok, the high priest in Solomon’s day. The Sadducees of the first century represented the ‘conservative’ viewpoint. They rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees and considered only the written Torah of the Pentateuch as valid. They considered the concepts of demons and angels, immortality and resurrection as innovations, believing in no life beyond this life.

More important than their theology, however, was their political orientation. Coming largely from the landed aristocracy, they were accommodationists with regard to the Roman occupation of Israel. Possessing considerable economic interests, their concern was to make peace with the Romans, preserve the status quo, and thus protect their own holdings. In return the Romans accorded the Sadducees considerable power, invariably appointing the high priest from their ranks, who was the most powerful political figure among the Jews in that day. The prime concern of the Sadducean aristocracy, of whom the high priest was the chief spokesman, was the preservation of order, the avoidance at all costs of any confrontation with the Roman authorities.

But the question remains: how does the preaching of Peter and John threaten peace with the Romans? Polhill continues:

Note the wording in v. 2: not ‘they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus’ but ‘they were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ The idea of a general resurrection was an apocalyptic concept with all sorts of messianic overtones. Messianic ideas among the Jews of that day meant revolt, overthrow of the foreign overlords, and restoration of the Davidic kingdom. There had been such movements before (cf. 5:36–37), and the Romans had put them down. There would be many more in the future. In fact, the worst fears of the Sadducees were indeed realized when war broke out with the Romans in a.d. 66, with terrible consequences for the Jews. Here, with the large crowds surrounding Peter and John, their fears were aroused. The notes of Peter’s sermon alarmed them: resurrection, Author of life, a new Moses. These were revolutionary ideas. The movement must not spread. It must be nipped in the bud.

The next morning the Sanhedrin gathers together to question Peter and John. They ask them by what power or name they healed the lame beggar. Peter’s response is bold and confident because the Holy Spirit is guiding him, just as Jesus promised (see Matt. 10:19–20; Luke 12:11–12; 21:15).

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Peter proclaims that the name by which the lame beggar was healed is the name of Jesus, the very man they had sent to Pilate for crucifixion. Peter then refers to Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus is the chief cornerstone and the Jewish leadership are the builders. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, notes that “Peter learned this use of Psalm 118:22, cited here in verse 11, from Jesus; see Luke 20:17.”

Finally, Peter’s speech climaxes with an exclusive claim. Not only was Jesus’ name responsible for the healing of the beggar, but Jesus’ name is the only name by which any person can be saved from the day of judgment.

The Jewish council members are astonished that men with no formal religious education are speaking so openly and boldly about the things of God. Given the fact that the forty-year-old man was clearly healed by Peter and John, the council members are unable to say anything in response.

Their only recourse is to threaten Peter and John if they continue to preach about Jesus. Peter and John, however, respond that given a choice between obeying the Sanhedrin and following God, they must choose to obey God. Given the public nature of the healing miracle, the Sanhedrin cannot hold Peter and John any longer, for they are simply too popular. The council dismisses them.

Commentary on Acts 1-2 (Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost)

In verses 1-11 of Acts 1, Luke reviews where he left off in his Gospel. Luke reminds Theophilus, his likely Roman sponsor (or patron), that Jesus appeared to the disciples, after his resurrection, for a period of forty days. During these forty days, the disciples saw proof (physical evidence) that Jesus indeed rose bodily from the dead. Jesus also continued to speak to them about the kingdom of God, which was the focus of his three-year public ministry.

Near the end of the forty-day period, Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is given to them, as the Father had promised. John the Baptist had baptized with water, but they would soon be baptized by the Spirit of God.

The disciples, upon hearing of the imminent gift of the Holy Spirit, assume that the messianic kingdom will be inaugurated shortly thereafter. They ask Jesus when this will occur. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes, “This question was the most natural one for the disciples to ask Jesus. He had been talking about the kingdom (1:3), and the references to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament were all in the context of Israel’s restoration (Is 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–28; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28–3:1).”

Jesus tells them that only God the Father knows when the messianic kingdom will begin, and that they are not to focus on the date. Instead, they are to use the power of the Holy Spirit to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The disciples are to take the message of Jesus first to the people of Jerusalem, and then the surrounding lands of Judea and Samaria, and then ultimately to Rome and the rest of the world. The Book of Acts, itself, will begin in Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), and then move to Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-11), and then move through Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately to Rome (chapters 12-28).

Luke likely has in mind Isaiah 49:6. Speaking of the future Suffering Servant (the Messiah), God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Even though Acts ends in Rome, it seems clear from Old Testament prophecies that God’s goal is the evangelization of all nations and all ethnicities. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, writes that

this commission describes the church’s key assignment of what to do until the Lord returns. The priority for the church until Jesus returns, a mission of which the community must never lose sight, is to witness to Jesus to the end of the earth. The church exists, in major part, to extend the apostolic witness to Jesus everywhere. In fact, the church does not have a mission; it is to be missional and is a mission.

To what exactly are the disciples of Jesus supposed to witness? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains, “In Acts the apostles’ main role is depicted as witnessing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, above all to his resurrection (cf. 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41). As eyewitnesses only they were in the position to be guarantors of the resurrection.” The resurrection, therefore, is a fundamental component of the church’s witness to the world.

While standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to the west, a bright cloud then surrounds Jesus and carries him up into the sky. Jesus ascends back to his Father in heaven and his earthly ministry officially comes to an end. While the disciples are still looking into the sky, two angels appear and inform them that Jesus will one day return to earth to the very same place, on the Mount of Olives, carried by clouds.

John Polhill recalls how the ascension reflects earlier biblical events:

The ascension narrative evokes rich biblical reminiscences—the translations of Enoch and Elijah, the cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai. Indeed, clouds are often associated with theophanies. One particularly thinks of the transfiguration narrative of Luke 9:28–36. The picture in Acts 1:9 is that of a cloud enveloping Jesus as he disappeared from sight, just as in Luke 9:34–36 the appearance of the cloud led to the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. The vivid pictorial depiction of Jesus’ ascension into heaven serves to give tangible form to the apostles’ testimony to the exaltation of Christ. Indeed, Luke stressed this by referring to their seeing and looking intently no fewer than five times in vv. 9–11, and he returned to the importance of their eyewitness in v. 22.

Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, remarks that

the Ascension meant that the continuing work of Christ on earth was now placed in the hands of His disciples (Acts 1:1–2, 8). It was imperative that the Ascension occur so that the promised Comforter could come (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33–36). The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples as they ministered the gospel and waited for the kingdom.

In the remainder of chapter one, the disciples remain in Jerusalem, praying and waiting for the appearance of the Holy Spirit. During this time, they pick a disciple named Matthias to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot.

As chapter two begins, the disciples are in a house together on the day of Pentecost. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary),

The term ‘Pentecost’ is a transliteration of the Greek word pentēkostē, which means ‘fiftieth.’ It referred to the fiftieth day after the Passover festival when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks—the annual harvest festival (see Lev. 23:15-21 and Deut. 16:9-12). This was the second of three festivals (the others being Passover and Tabernacles) that all Jewish males were required to attend in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). It occurred in early summer after the conclusion of the grain harvest. This was a joyous occasion when the Israelites expressed their thanks to God for his provisions through the year and renewed their commitment to him.

The Holy Spirit’s arrival is described in terms of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire that settle on all of the disciples in the house. The immediate effect of the Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples is that they are each able to speak the local languages of the Jews who are spread out all over the world of that time.

Wind and fire are both commonly used in the Old Testament to describe the presence of God. With regard to wind, John Polhill writes:

Wind phenomena often accompany an appearance by God in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 19:11; Isa 66:15). In Greek pneuma has the double connotation of both wind and Spirit, and that connection is to be seen here. As in Ezekiel the wind, the breath of Yahweh, is God’s Spirit, which brings life in the vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:9–14).

With regard to fire, Darrell Bock writes, “God’s presence comes with fire in the burning bush of Exod. 3:2 (Acts 7:30), the pillar of the fire in Exod. 13:21 (Deut. 4:33; 5:24–26; 18:16), before Elijah (1 Kings 18:38), and in association with Ezekiel’s call (Ezek. 1:13–14, 27). God is described as a consuming fire in Deut. 4:24 and 9:3 as an image of judgment.”

The disciples most likely pour out of the house and rush over to the crowded temple precincts. When they arrive, they loudly and ecstatically praise God in at least a dozen languages. The disciples attract a large crowd. Jews who are visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost, and possibly Jews who have moved to Jerusalem, but who were born in other parts of the world, are able to understand the words of these Galilean men in their own native languages. Galileans would not naturally know these languages, and so the crowd is amazed at what is happening.

There are two reactions to the disciples: 1) amazement and curiosity and 2) ridicule and accusations of drunkenness. In our next lesson, the apostle Peter will stand before the crowd and deliver his first-ever sermon about the resurrected Jesus.

Commentary on Mark 15b (Jesus’ Crucifixion)

Crucifixion victims are often required to carry the horizontal crossbar of the cross, but Jesus is so weakened after his flogging that, sometime during the procession, the soldiers randomly choose a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar for Jesus the rest of the way to Golgotha. Simon, and later his sons, Alexander and Rufus, would evidently become Christians, since Mark assumes his readers are familiar with them.

Mark’s account of the actual crucifixion is succinct. During the first three hours after Jesus is crucified, Mark reports the following: 1) Jesus is offered wine to deaden his pain, but he refuses to drink it, 2) Jesus’ garments are divided up among the four soldiers, 3) Jesus is crucified at roughly 9 am with two other men on either side of him, 4) a sign reading “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, indicating Jesus’ crime, 5) Jesus is mocked by spectators, Jewish religious leaders, and the two criminals crucified beside him.

After three hours on the cross, darkness comes over the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), offers five possible meanings for the darkness:

  • “It was a sign of mourning (Jer. 4:27–28).”

  • “Darkness was associated in the ancient world with the death of great men.”

  • “In the Scriptures, darkness is an apocalyptic sign of judgment and could be construed as signaling the advent of divine judgment.”

  • “The darkness also announces the great Day of the Lord in prophets such as Amos, and the darkness that settles on the land signifies that the day has dawned with a new beginning.”

  • “The darkness may veil the shame of the crucifixion: ‘God hides the Son from the blasphemer’s leering.’”

At roughly 3 pm, Jesus cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What could Jesus mean by this statement? Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The important thing to recognize here is that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, a Davidic psalm expressing David’s feelings of estrangement. Jesus was revealing that he was the fulfillment of the typology of the psalm, that he was experiencing forsakenness because of our sins. What exactly that forsakenness entailed is uncertain, but it likely stemmed from Jesus’ taking on our sins so that sin would be judged. As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, God the Father ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

Mark Strauss adds:

One could not expect a crucifixion victim to recite an entire psalm, but it is possible that citing the first verse of the psalm refers to the entire psalm. Without chapters and verses to identify specific passages, initial words or key phrases were cited (see Mark 12:26). If this is the case here, Jesus prays the opening words of this lament psalm that, when read through to the end, expresses not only bitter despair but also supreme confidence. This interpretation does not deny the real anguish that Jesus experiences but understands his cry as an expression of trust that God will intervene and ultimately vindicate him.

Some bystanders misunderstand Jesus to be calling for the prophet Elijah to rescue him. According to Craig Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, “Members of some circles of Jewish tradition believed that Elijah was sent like an angel to rescue famous teachers, in addition to his role in the time of the end.”

Finally, Mark reports, Jesus utters a loud cry and dies after six hours hanging on the cross. The way Jesus dies is unusual because crucifixion victims tended to last more than a day before succumbing to asphyxiation. Keener explains, “Crucifixion generally killed by asphyxiation: one became too weary to keep pulling one’s frame up on the crossbeam, the diaphragm was increasingly strained, and eventually one became unable to breathe. But death usually took a few days—much longer than the few hours Jesus suffered.”

James Brooks adds:

Most people who were crucified grew weaker and weaker and gradually and quietly expired. Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ death was sudden and violent, that he was still quite strong at the moment of his death, that he voluntarily and deliberately died with the shout of a victor (cf. John 19:30). Therefore ‘breathed his last,’ although literal, is not an adequate translation in context. Mark’s concept of the death of Jesus is not unlike that of John 10:17–18.

When Jesus dies, one of the two giant curtains in the temple tears from top to bottom (we’re not told which). The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the outer porch and the inner curtain separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Regarding the inner curtain, the Mishnah reports it being a handbreadth thick, sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. This second apocalyptic sign (darkness being the first) that Mark reports has both positive and negative significance. Strauss writes:

Being torn from top to bottom points to its irremediable destruction and to God as the agent. It may signify the end of the Jewish cult and the destruction of the temple. . . . The rending of the veil may also be interpreted as a decisive opening. All barriers between God and the people have now been removed (Heb. 10:19–20).

The centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after taking in everything he’s seen, pronounces, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark also carefully notes that several women disciples of Jesus witness his death from a distance.

The profession of the centurion would have been important to Mark’s original audience. After all, earlier in the Gospel, a divine voice and demons have called Jesus the Son of God. Here, at the end of Gospel, we have the first human to do so, but he is a Gentile Roman soldier, not a Jew. James Brooks aptly comments, “At last [Jesus] is confessed as such by a human being who is a type of thousands and even millions of Gentiles who later will stand by faith before the cross and confess that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the unique Son of God.”

Did the centurion have a full understanding of who Jesus was? Doubtful, but he clearly knew that Jesus had a unique relationship to God. Mark Strauss writes:

After Julius Caesar was deified, his adopted son, Augustus, became widely known as ‘son of god’ (divi filius). It was not a title applied to emperors in general. This soldier transfers the title from the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who has just been executed. The opening words of the Gospel (1:1) and this confession directly challenge the claims of the imperial cult. Jesus, not Augustus nor any other emperor, is Savior and Lord.

Jewish law (see Deut 21:22-23) demanded that a body be buried the day of death. In addition, since the Sabbath would begin at sunset on Friday (no work could be done on the Sabbath), there was little time for Jesus to be buried. Instead of his disciples stepping forward to bury him, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret admirer of Jesus, goes to Pilate and requests that Jesus’ body be given to him. None of Jesus’ friends or family had approached Pilate, likely out of fear, so Pilate acquiesces to Joseph’s request. But first, Pilate asks his centurion to confirm that Jesus is indeed dead because he is surprised at how quickly Jesus died.

Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps a linen shroud around him, and then places him in a tomb cut out of rock. He then rolls a stone over the entrance to seal the tomb. The women disciples are watching the burial from a distance so that they know exactly where Jesus is buried. Thus Jesus is buried in a tomb before sunset Friday evening.

To Which Generation Does Jesus Refer in the Olivet Discourse? Part 1

In Mark 13:30, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32 record the exact same words. To which generation does Jesus refer? Biblical scholars have offered several theories, but I will survey several a handful of well-respected conservative scholars to give the reader some ideas for further research.

James A. Brooks, in vol. 23, Mark, The New American Commentary, writes that “this generation” refers to Jesus’ disciples and their contemporaries. “Jesus meant that some of the people of his generation, and more particularly some of his disciples, would not die until the things of [Mark 13:5–23] had happened, including the very significant destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.”

Brooks argues that the cosmic signs and Jesus’ second coming (verses 24-27 in Mark 13) “constitute the end, not things that must precede the end. Furthermore, the various items in vv. 24–27 together constitute one climactic event that takes place at one point of time rather than a series of events spread over a long period of time.”

Craig S. Keener, in The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, agrees with Brooks’ interpretation. He writes,

Whereas the signs Luke mentions mean that the kingdom is near (Lk 21:31; cf. 1 Clem. 23), ‘these things’ in Matthew 24 (cf. 24:2) apply to the desolation of the temple to occur within that generation (24:34). Though some (mentioned in Cullmann 1956a: 151; Mattill 1979a: 97; cf. Bonsirven 1964: 58) wish to take ‘generation’ (genea) as ‘race’ (cf. the distinct genos in 2 Macc 8:9; Jdt 9:14; 11:10), 23:35–36 leave no doubt that Jesus uses the term as normally (e.g., Jer 7:29) and as elsewhere in Matthew refers to the climactic ‘generation.’

Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, also agrees that “generation” refers to Jesus’ contemporaries. He writes about Matthew 24:34:

Verse 34 does not imply that Christ will return within the lifetime of his hearers or within some later period of thirty to forty years during which all the signs occur. Nor is it necessary to follow the NIV margin and translate genea as ‘race,’ referring to Israel, a much less likely rendering of the Greek than ‘generation.’ Rather, ‘all these things’ in v. 34 must refer to ‘all these things’ of v. 33, which show that Christ’s return is near and which therefore cannot include Christ’s return itself. ‘All these things’ will then refer to everything described in 24:1–26 but will not include the Parousia itself (described in vv. 27–31).

We’ll look at more scholars’ views in part 2.

 

Commentary on John 8 (Jesus Declares Himself Equal to God)

Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). While he is there, he is teaching in the temple complex. A large group of Pharisees are questioning him about his identity. Some appear to even accept what he has to say about himself.

Starting in verse 31, however, he speaks directly to the Pharisees who have believed what Jesus has said about himself so far. A true disciple of Jesus will obey his every word and follow him for the long-term. In fact, it is only through following Jesus that a person can be set free from spiritual slavery.

The Pharisees answer that they don’t need to be freed from slavery because they are descendants of Abraham, and thus already children of God. Gerald Borchert explains, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary,

In contrast to the Zealots, the Pharisees did not regard political liberty as the test of freedom. Being sons of God, a holy people, God’s possession, according to Deut 14:1–2, was for them the test of being free. So being circumcised, according to the rabbinic view, was the guarantee of escaping the bonds of Gehenna just as the people of Israel earlier escaped the bondage of Egypt (Exod. Rab. 19:81; 15:11). Or as the famed Rabbi Akiba reportedly stated concerning the Israelites, even the poor could be proud that they were ‘sons of kings’ because they were sons of the patriarchs (b. Šabb. 128).

Jesus corrects their understanding by pointing out that they are not children of God, but instead slaves to sin. In order for anyone to become a true child of God, they must be first freed from their slavery to sin. Only God’s Son, Jesus, has the power and authority to free them. Gerald Borchert adds:

He judged that they were slaves because they were sinners. Their confidence in their sense of internal liberty had been misplaced because being Jews and not Gentiles was no guarantee that they could avoid condemnation by God for their sinfulness. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which had just passed, should have reminded them that they too were sinners. In the presence of God both Jews and Gentiles stood condemned for sin (cf. Rom 3:23). Being sinful slaves before God, therefore, they were in need of a redeemer—one who could set them free. The Son who was personally sent by the Father was indeed capable of supplying them with such genuine freedom (John 8:36) because he was the Lamb who removed the sin of the world (1:29).

Knowing that some of the Pharisees are seeking to kill him, Jesus observes that his words to them are obviously not sinking in. In fact, the Pharisees are simply following the lead of their true spiritual father.

In verse 39 the Pharisees continue to argue with Jesus. They repeat that their true father is Abraham. Jesus responds that Abraham listened to God’s word and obeyed Him. The Pharisees are, instead, trying to kill a man whom God has sent, which again proves that their true father is not Abraham at all.

The Pharisees become incensed at Jesus’ accusation that they are not children of Abraham, and thus not children of God. Jesus explains that he knows this because God sent Jesus to the Jews, and they should therefore love Jesus because God sent him. Since the Pharisees don’t love Jesus, they cannot be children of God. Instead their true spiritual father is the devil!

Referring back to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reminds his audience that Satan is a liar and a murderer. There is no truth in Satan. The reason the Pharisees are not accepting Jesus’ claims is because Jesus is speaking God’s truth. Those who have Satan as their spiritual father are incapable of hearing God’s truth and accepting it.

Jesus challenges their stubborn rejection of his words by asking a rhetorical question: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains Jesus’ purpose in asking this question:

If the best theological minds, however much they may dislike Jesus’ claims and dispute his teachings, find it impossible to marshall convincing reasons that would convict him of sin in (the heavenly) court, should they not begin to question themselves? Perhaps he is telling the truth, truth that is identified both with what Jesus says (v. 43) and with what God says (v. 47; cf. de la Potterie, 1. 61–64).

At this point in the dialogue, the Pharisees begin personal attacks. They accuse Jesus of belonging to the hated Samaritans and of being demon-possessed! Jesus denies being demon-possessed and reminds them that they dishonor God by dishonoring him.

In verse 51, Jesus proclaims, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Pharisees, thinking Jesus is referring to physical death, mock him by reminding him that Abraham died, not to mention all the other great prophets. Just who does he think he is? Does he think he’s greater than Abraham?

Jesus answers, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The Pharisees again ridicule Jesus by pointing out the obvious fact that Jesus could not have seen Abraham, who had lived roughly two thousand years before, given that Jesus was not even fifty years old.

Jesus responds with a shocking statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Upon hearing him, the crowd picks up stones to kill him, but Jesus slips away before they could stone him to death.

Why did the Jews want to kill him? Quite simply, Jesus was claiming to be equal to God. Gerald Borchert writes that Jesus’ pronouncement

was a reminder of the claims for God in the Old Testament over against creation (cf. Ps 90:2; Isa 42:3–9) and of the self-designation for the comforting God of Isaiah (41:4; 43:3, 13). The claim of Jesus, therefore, was clearly recognized from the Jews’ perspective to be a blasphemous statement they could not tolerate. Accordingly, they again made their judgment call, and their verdict implied death by stoning (John 8:59; cf. Lev 24:11–16; 1 Kgs 21:10–13).

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, also notes:

’I am’ was a title for God (Ex 3:14), which suggests that Jesus is claiming more than that he merely existed before Abraham. This title of God may have been fresh on the minds of Jesus’ hearers at the feast: during the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests were said to utter God’s words in Isaiah: ‘I am the Lord, I am he’ (Is 43:10, 13).

Commentary on Matthew 13 (Parable of the Soils)

Jesus is teaching near the Sea of Galilee, but the crowds are so large that he climbs into a boat and moves out into the water. The crowds then gather on the beach to hear him. This takes place well into his ministry, possibly two years.

Unlike his previous teaching, he only communicates parables to the crowd. R. V. G. Tasker and I. H. Marshall explain the meaning in the New Bible Dictionary:

‘Parable’ is ultimately derived from Gk. parabolē, literally ‘putting things side by side.’ Etymologically it is thus close to ‘allegory,’ which by derivation means ‘saying things in a different way.’ Both parables and allegories have usually been regarded as forms of teaching which present the listener with interesting illustrations from which can be drawn moral and religious truths; ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question, while ‘allegory’ denotes the more elaborate tale in which all or most of the details have their counterparts in the application. Since ‘truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors,’ the value of this method of instruction is obvious.

The first parable he teaches is known as the Parable of the Sower. The sower is scattering seeds on the ground to grow a crop. However, when the sower scatters the seeds, they fall on four different kinds of soil: soil along the path, soil on rocky ground, soil with thorns growing in it, and finally good soil. As most of Jesus’ listeners were familiar with scattering seeds, they would have understood the imagery Jesus is using to tell the parable. However, since we are two thousand years removed, here is some background from Michael J. Wilkins in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):

Seed was sown ‘broadcast’ style by scattering it in all directions by hand while walking up and down the field. The average rate of sowing wheat varies from twenty pounds per acre (22.5 kilograms per hectare) upward, which allowed for wasted seed. Fields were apparently plowed both before the seed was sown and after, plowing across the original furrows to cover the seeds with soil. . . . It was common for seed to be scattered on the hard paths that surrounded the fields. Birds would swoop down as the farmer walked on and eat the seed.

Conditions for farming in many areas of Israel were not favorable. The hardships that many people experienced included insufficient amounts of water and soil. The terrain in most cases was uneven and rocky, with only thin layers of soil covering the rock. Seed that landed on this shallow soil could begin to germinate, but it couldn’t put down deep roots to collect what little moisture was in that parched thin layer of earth. Sprouting seed would soon wither and die in the hot sun (13:6).

Sometimes thorns were also hidden in the soil, so the farmer could not see them to pull them out by the roots. Therefore, when seed was planted beside the thorns, the thorns would grow rapidly and crowd out the seeds.

With regard to the good soil, Craig Keener notes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:

Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold are tremendously good harvests from Galilean soil. The Jordan Valley normally yielded between ten- and a hundredfold, so a hundredfold need not be a miraculous harvest (Gen 26:12; cf. Amos 9:13). But for much of Palestine, the average yield was tenfold (meaning that 10 seeds were harvested for every seed sown), and all the figures Jesus reports here are very good yields.

Once Jesus has finished, his disciples pull him aside and ask why he has started teaching in parables. Jesus explains that only those who are truly following him (his disciples) will have the parables explained to them. The parables are revealing the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven. Those who aren’t following Jesus will not hear the parables explained, and thus will remain ignorant about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.

What does Jesus mean by the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven”? Up until Matthew 13, Jesus has been presenting himself to the Jews of Galilee and Judea as the Messiah, the long-predicted King of Israel. He has performed miracles, he has fulfilled prophecies, he has taught with authority, yet most Jews were rejecting his claims to be the Messiah. In fact, in Matthew 12, the Jewish leadership attributes his miracles to the power of Satan!

Given the rejection of Jesus as their King, Jesus will now start revealing to his disciples that the kingdom of God (heaven) that the OT predicted will be delayed until Jesus returns to the earth some time in the future. Until he comes back, however, the kingdom of God will exist, but in a different form than what the Jews would have expected. Jesus, then, is going to reveal to his disciples the characteristics of this new form of the kingdom which will exist between his first and second coming. This new form has never been revealed before, so that is why it is referred to as a “secret” or “mystery.”

Why would Jesus only want his closest followers to be told about the new form of the kingdom of God? Because the crowds that are coming to hear him speak are mostly composed of people who don’t accept his claim of being the Messiah and who don’t want to dedicate their lives to him.

Reflecting on verses 13-15, Craig Blomberg writes, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary:

The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus. ‘Seeing’ and ‘hearing’ are each used in two different senses here, once for simple sensory perception and then for the kind of insight that leads to acceptance of the gospel and discipleship. ‘Understanding’ is a key word for Matthew in this chapter, especially in vv. 19 and 23, where he adds the term to his sources. The language of v. 13 is taken almost verbatim from Isa 6:9–10, LXX. Jesus declares that the words of Isaiah are now being fulfilled.

The word for ‘fulfill’ here (anaplēroō) is different from before, the only time in the New Testament this verb is used with reference to Scripture. Verse 14a probably means the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them—i.e., the pattern of behavior in Isaiah’s time is repeating itself and being completed in Jesus’ day among those who reject him. . . . Meanwhile v. 15 explains the current plight of those who reject Jesus. God confirms such people in their hard-heartedness in response to their freely chosen disobedience (as in the larger context of God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy to rebellious Israel; cf. also the sequence of events in Rom 1:18–32). Jesus sees his preaching in parables, in part at least, as a kind of judgment from God upon unbelieving Israel.

As for Jesus’ disciples, they are blessed. They will be taught the meaning of the parables, and thus the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. They are learning things about the kingdom that not even the great prophets and saints in the OT were privileged to know.

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples. The seed represents Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven. The four soils represent four different kinds of responses to Jesus’ teaching.

The first kind of person (soil on the path) never understands Jesus’ words and Satan snatches away the words before any understanding does occur. This does not a represent a person who simply needs more instruction to understand. This person willfully rejects the message they are hearing and they are therefore culpable.

The second kind of person (soil on rocky ground) receives Jesus’ words, but as soon as he is troubled or persecuted for his beliefs, he abandons Jesus.

The third kind of person (soil with thorns) also receives Jesus’ words, but money and earthly distractions make him an unfruitful disciple.

The fourth kind of person (good soil) receives and understands Jesus’ words, and becomes extremely fruitful in the kingdom of heaven. This is the only kind of person whom Jesus commends. To be fruitful means to be obedient to God in everything you do. Michael Wilkins adds his thoughts about the crop produced in the life of the good soil:

Many think that this ‘crop’ refers to converts won to Christ through the believer. This no doubt is partially correct, but in this context it refers to something more fundamental—the transformation of a person who has encountered the kingdom of heaven. In the fourth soil the crop represents the outworking of the life of the divine seed (cf. 1 John 3:9), with special reference to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22–23), and the outworking of the Spirit in the gifts of the Spirit in the believer’s life (1 Cor. 12). This results in personal characteristics produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), the external creation of Spirit-produced righteousness and good works (e.g., Col. 1:10), and indeed, new converts won through the believer’s testimony (e.g., Rom. 1:13). The ‘crop’ produced is the outward evidence of the reality of inward life of the kingdom of heaven.

Even though it is depressing to learn that only one of the four soils actually succeeds as a member of the kingdom of heaven, it should also be noted that the fourth kind of person produces a new crop that is thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold. Thus the fourth soil more than makes up for the other three soils and their failure to produce.

A final word about the parable. Although the parable primarily speaks of fruit-bearing, there is a sense in which Jesus is referring to entrance to the ultimate kingdom of heaven. In other words, he is speaking about what we commonly refer to as salvation, or being saved.

Most commentators agree that the first soil is not saved and the fourth one is. However, there is no consensus about the second and third soils. Some argue they are not saved and some argue they are. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will say that everyone agrees that the only soil Jesus commends in the parable is the fourth. So, any Christian who does not aspire to be like the fourth soil is completely missing the point of the parable. The first three soils don’t cut it in Jesus’ kingdom.