James Patrick’s Blog

September 12, 2009

Promised Land in the Gospels, part one [I&NC #6]

Filed under: Prophecy — alabastertheology @ 8:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament frequently assumes that the land covenant is still in effect.  Here we start with the Gospels (in 3 posts), moving on after that to Acts (2 posts) and the epistles (3 posts).

To begin with, we would expect that a divine promise of territory given to the ethnic descendants of Israel be spoken of most often in passages addressed to the Jewish people.  The letters of Paul to the Gentile churches are therefore the least likely place to find mention of this land covenant, as are the writings of John who was based in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey.  Peter’s first letter was written to believers living in the northern parts of Turkey, though his second letter to unspecified recipients does refer to the “holy mountain” where Jesus was transfigured.

On the other hand, Jesus was teaching Jews within the land of Israel, much of Acts takes place in that land, and Hebrews is also written to Jewish believers there. It is not surprising, then, that the majority of passages referring to the land covenant are found in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and Hebrews.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is highly unusual in that although it is written to Gentiles, Paul sees it necessary in his extended discussion of the gospel message to specifically address the problem of the unbelieving Jewish nation in Romans 9–11.  We therefore find clear references to the promised land in Romans also.

Even so, we would not expect to have many references to the promise of land for the Jewish nation in the New Testament, for the simple reason that Jesus had unmistakeably prophesied destruction and exile for the nation within a single generation [see below].  Even though most of the Old Testament prophets do mention future restoration in passing within long oracles of judgement, warnings of imminent destruction in Jesus’ day would be even less likely to convince a rebellious generation if they were qualified by frequent reaffirmation of the promise of eternal security in the land.

With that in mind, let us turn to the passages about the land covenant in the New Testament:

(A)  Promised Land in the Gospels

In the Gospels Jesus never explicitly reissues the covenant promise of land; He would not do so to His own rebellious generation, nor could He grant the land to His followers before the age of restoration of all things.  Yet He often assumes a Jewish presence in the land of Israel at the end of the present age just before His return, and then a secure Jewish authority over that land following His return.  Here we deal with the first two of six representative passages taken from the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 10:5-6, 23 – Jesus explicitly instructed His twelve disciples to identify themselves with His own mission to the Jewish nation specifically, which was in line with their calling to rule over their own nation in the age to come [see third Gospel post below on Mat 19].  Evidently they understood this mission to be a permanent one even after Jesus ascended, as implied by both Galatians 2:7‑9 and the role of both Peter and Paul in the establishment of church communities in Corinth and in Rome (1 Cor 1:12; Rom 15:20-22; 1 Pet 5:13).  The disciples were told, “Truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes”.  When seen in the context of 10:17-22 this prophecy cannot be understood to refer merely to making preparations in advance for Jesus’ earthly ministry in those cities, as was the task of the seventy sent out in Luke 10:1 (cf. Luke 9:1-6).  For Matthew, the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ was an unmistakeable reference to the second coming (cf. Mat 24:3, 23–25:46).

This indicates, therefore, that Jesus recognised the ongoing need for mission to Jewish cities and communities from the time of His own ministry right up until His final return, and one might even argue that the ‘cities of Israel’ refers to Jewish communities within the territorial land of Israel throughout that time (cf. Mat 10:5-6).  The case could be made that this passage influenced Paul’s own practice in his missionary journeys through Gentile lands of ‘going [first] to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, ‘shaking off the dust’, and ‘fleeing to the next city’ (cf. Acts 13:42-51).  Even so, ‘cities of Israel’ when compared with ‘city of the Samaritans’ in 10:5 would suggest towns under Jewish authority, or at least Jewish-majority towns, and the prohibition against travelling into Gentile areas in 10:5 may indicate that the territory of Israel as defined in the first century is in view in 10:23.

Thus we have in Matthew 10 evidence of, at very least, an ongoing mission to the unbelieving nation of Israel that will not be concluded before Jesus Himself returns to the land.  It is possible that the ‘cities of Israel’ in which mission must be undertaken actually refers to Jewish communities remaining within the traditional territory of Israel throughout the time between Jesus’ ascension and His return, providing possible evidence of an unbroken land covenant underlying this preservation.

Matthew 24:32-35 – Luke 21:29-32 seems to be a generalisation of Matthew’s version of this teaching, by drawing the parable from all trees and not just the ‘fig tree’.  However I would argue Luke himself was aware that Jesus had not just chosen the fig tree at random for this illustration, because other sayings preserved only by Luke reinforce the significance of the fig tree.  In the Old Testament, the fig tree was used to represent the nation of Israel (Hos 9:10, 13, 16–10:2; Hab 3:16-18).  More importantly, though, the shelter it provided was a metaphor for the permanent and secure dwelling of the nation within its land, ultimately connected with return from exile (1 Kgs 4:25; Jer 8:8-15; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:8-10; cf. Song of Songs 2:10-13; John 1:47-51 with Gen 28:12-15).  Jesus made ample use of this metaphor in his teaching, for example in Luke 13:6-9, where He warned the nation that He had been looking for fruit on the ‘fig tree’ for three years, and it would be given only one more year before being ‘cut down’ (cf. Luke 3:7‑9).

In Mark 11:12-14, 20-23, Mark clarifies and adds detail to the conflated story in Matthew 21:18-22 where Jesus curses a fig tree overlooking Jerusalem for having no fruit on it.  The fact that it was not the season for figs made no difference to Jesus’ acted parable, and when the disciples commented on the immediate withering of the fig tree, Jesus turned the application over to His disciples – forty years later they would similarly command ‘this mountain’ (i.e. the Temple Mount they were walking towards) to be taken up and cast into the ‘sea’ (i.e. the nations – cf. Mat 13:47; Rev 17:15).  The withering of the fig tree symbolised the hardening and coming exile of the nation.  This makes best sense also of Jesus’ prophecy to the women weeping over Him as He approached Calvary (Luke 23:27-31), that presently the nation was still ‘green’ with leaves, but within a generation it would be ‘dry’ and experience judgement.

In the light of Jesus’ metaphor of Israel as a fruitless fig tree, withered at Jesus’ command, the ‘parable of the fig tree’ in Matthew 24:32-35 takes on a much greater significance.  When the dry fig tree becomes tender again and begins to put forth its leaves, that is, when the nation of Israel softens towards God and begins once more to show signs of secure dwelling within the land, believers will know that Jesus’ return is imminent.

[Matthew’s addition of Jesus’ saying about “this generation” that will not pass away before these things take place (24:34-35) appears to apply to the parable of the fig tree, but in fact Jesus spoke the saying to conclude his discourse to the four disciples specifically about the AD70 destruction of the Temple; the parable and the saying were juxtaposed because Matthew did not differentiate between prophecies about the two judgements.  Luke understood the saying (see next post), and because he also recognised that Matthew’s attached fig tree parable must point to the ‘end of the age’, he had to deliberately generalise the parable (“and all the trees”; “the kingdom of God is near”) in order to include the whole saying properly within that specific discourse about the sooner judgement (21:29-33) .  Similar adjustments are introduced by Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 to clarify a potentially confusing juxtaposition of sayings in Matthew 16:27‑28.]

Jesus therefore used the ‘fig tree’ as one of his favourite images of the nation of Israel (represented by its leadership), to describe its fruitlessness (Luke 13:6‑9), its withering (Mark 11:12‑27), its destruction when dry (Luke 23:27‑31), and finally its softening and fresh leaves indicating His imminent return (Mat 24:32‑33).  ‘Sitting under one’s own fig tree’ was a common metaphor for being permanently at ‘rest’ in the land, particularly after exile (Mic 4:1‑4; Zec 3:8‑10; John 1:47‑51), so the images of softening and leaves coming out imply the beginnings of repentance and dwelling in the land respectively.

Although some may argue that the parable of the fig tree is open to any interpretation simply because it is a parable, this interpretation corresponds precisely to the entirely literal prophecies Jesus gave about the Jewish nation at the end of this age [see next two posts].  Thus we may treat the parable of the fig tree as evidence of a promised reversal of the judgement of exile spoken by Jesus over the Jewish nation in His own generation; the only reasonable explanation for such a return from exile to the land of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s land covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

March 5, 2009

What is the point of theology? Thoughts on Matthew 13

Filed under: Exegesis — alabastertheology @ 2:03 am
Tags: , ,

Why this blog?

With a blog containing “theology” in the address, I must acknowledge at the very start that all true ‘study of God’ begins in His own revelation of Himself.  Without this, we are just blind men making declarations to each other about the nature of colour.  As Moses put it, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons for ever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)  Or as Paul expressed, even more beautifully, “… a true knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ – in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3)

My aim in this blog is to publish in an easily accessible way some of the thoughts I am having about theology, particularly relating to biblical studies.  The Bible has been my favourite book from before I could read, my parents have given most of their lives to helping it be translated into new languages, and I have had the opportunity to study it with some of the best scholars in the world.  That said, I make no claim to be any more an ‘expert’ in the Bible than any other believer; without a mature love for Jesus and for others, knowing “all mysteries and all knowledge” adds up to precisely “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).  Even worse, it can lead to arrogance, and with that, deception and ultimately terrible judgement.

Ephesians 4:11-16 makes it clear that the different gifts of leadership in the church have been given by Jesus to equip believers “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”, no longer deceived by every passing wind of doctrine and deception.  It is only in unity, growing and learning together in a context of practical application, that we will truly know the truth about Jesus.  For this reason I want to submit my various thoughts about Him and His word to the community of believers – not only to broaden people’s understanding, but to fit these ideas together with those of others and see the Church “grow up in all aspects into Him”.

Matthew 13:3-52 – A paradigm for Christian theologians

While pondering on what a Christian paradigm for theologians might be, I considered Colossians 2:1-12 (a passage that inspired me during my initial university years), but was drawn to Matthew 13 instead as an explanation from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The concluding statement of His lecture on the subject talks about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ – a perfect description of those of us God has blessed with a particularly intellectual approach to faith.  The section of Matthew’s gospel in which this lecture is found is actually 12:46 – 13:58, but that will be the subject of another blog post coming shortly.

Structure:  Jesus’ lecture about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ is made up of two parables, each with their explanation.  However, each parable is separated from its interpretation by a digression, and similarly the explanation of the second seems to have been interrupted with a digression.  So the pattern we have, then, is the following:
A Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:3-9)
C Digression [increase, Isaiah quotation, value] (13:10-17)
A’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:18-23)
B Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:24-30)
C Digression [2 parables of increase, Psalm quotation] (13:31-36)
B’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:37-43)
¬  Digression [2 parables of value] (13:44-46)
¬  Explanation of parallel Parable of Good & Bad Fish (13:47-50)

Themes:  In the first parable, the ‘seed’ is the “word of the Kingdom” and the ‘good soil’ on whom the seed was sown is “the man who hears the word and understands it”, producing fruit.  On the other hand, in the second parable, the ‘good seed’ are the “sons of the kingdom” themselves, and the ‘field’ is the “world”.  This means that the first parable focuses on how the revelation (‘seed’) is received by the soils, i.e. value, whereas the second parable focuses on how the believers (‘good seed’) continue to grow until the final judgement, i.e. increase.

The first digression dealt with both themes, on either side of the quotation from Isaiah.  In the first part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom will surely increase for the sons of the kingdom, and in the second part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom is of great value such as many prophets and righteous men of old longed to see it.  Similarly, the two parables of the second digression both teach that the ‘tree’ of believers will increase until all the world is filled, while the two parables of the third digression both teach that the value of this hidden treasure of revelation is such that it is worth selling everything else to buy.

There is an alternation, though, between the personal and the corporate in these parables.  The first parable is all about personal valuing of the ‘word of the kingdom’, while the second is about the corporate increase of the ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the world.  In a similar way, the personal increase of revelation and the corporate value of it as described in the first digression is inverted in the corporate increase of ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the second digression, and by the personal value of revelation in the third digression.

Exegesis:  We find, therefore, a very carefully structured lecture on both personal and corporate aspects of revelation as they involve the ‘sons of the kingdom’.  The crowds who have ears are urged to hear (13:9), although Jesus makes it clear that this revelation has only been granted to certain individuals (13:11).  What is more, those who have received revelation of the ‘seed’ of the word must not stop there, but rather understand it and bear fruit like good soil (13:23); the disciples themselves are urged to hear, since they have ears (13:43).  But on the other hand, while they can be confident that the increase of the knowledge of the kingdom will continue in the world despite the presence of sons of evil (13:31-33, 43), its treasure is valuable enough to require one who understands its worth to sell everything else in order to acquire it (13:44-46).

Jesus’ summary statement to the disciples in verse 52 clarifies and confirms these analyses.  The disciples (and we who ‘understand’ like them) are said to be ‘scribes… of the kingdom’, and equated with heads of households who are able to reveal from their collection of treasure “things new and old”.  This clearly combines both value and increase, since the collection of treasures is continually growing.  If we connect this with the parables in 13:44-46, it would suggest that the scribe of the kingdom whose mind has been opened to God’s revelation must keep themselves ready to sacrifice everything for the joy of new treasures discovered.  If we connect it instead with the parables in 13:31-33,  it would suggest that the treasures of knowledge of the kingdom, like the sons of the kingdom themselves, will continue to grow until every part of the world is affected.

Application:  In response to Jesus’ teachings here, there are several appropriate responses: (1) Let us thank God that He has sovereignly chosen to reveal to us the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in an ever-increasing way;  (2) Let us properly appreciate the awesome privilege we have to explore truths that “many prophets and righteous men” in previous generations longed to understand;  (3) Let us be sure to hear the word and understand it, allowing it to take root in us unchoked by greed or anxiety, and bear much fruit;  (4) Let us be confident in the unstoppable advance of the knowledge of the kingdom that is spreading throughout the earth even now, and contribute to its advance;  (5) Let us as ‘sons of the kingdom’ take care to avoid being ‘stumbling blocks’ or practising lawlessness, but rather endure to the end in righteousness;  (6) Let us never lose our readiness to ‘sell everything’ purely for the joy of ‘owning’ particularly valuable mysteries of the faith; and finally, (7) Let us be faithful as teachers in the Church to keep bringing out from our treasures both new and old insights to be appreciated by others.

Blog at WordPress.com.