I wrote an introduction to this week’s readings. It gives the day by day readings and a way to deal with the extra length of this week’s commentary. It also has a prayer request!
In today’s case, you will find that the extra length is because there are basically two thousand word sections. The first is a (very) short introduction to the apostles writings, and the second is my commentary on today’s readings.
The Writings of the New Covenant
I admit I have always found the new covenant writings more fun than the Tanakh. Sometimes, though, when I’m seeing the application of some prophet to modern times, I’m awed and captivated by the Tanakh. At such times, I can get sucked in for hours.
You need a foundation and some teaching before that starts happening. Hopefully, this year will lay a very good foundation.
The Apostles’ Writings: A Short Introduction to the New Testament
Today’s commentary is exceptionally long. You may want to use this introductory parts here as a lesson later if you are short on time. There’s a section below titled "Today’s Reading" that starts the commentary on Matthew 1 through 7.
The writings of the New Testament are the apostles’ writings. It may not seem like that because two of the Gospels are not written by apostles, and no one knows who wrote Hebrews. Nonetheless, except possibly the Book of Revelation, all 27 new covenant writings are in your Bible because some church believed an apostle wrote it or approved it.
The earliest Christians believed that Mark wrote his Gospel based on what he heard from Peter while he was a companion of Peter in Rome (e.g., "Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, commences his Gospel message in this way … " — Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:10:5, c. A.D. 185). Luke, of course, is said in Acts to have been Paul’s companion. He begins his Gospel by telling us that he did much research to write it, and thus Irenaeus, in the same link I just gave you, is called "the follower and disciple of the apostles."
Justin Martyr, the first to say there are four Gospels (around A.D. 155), tended to refer to them as "the memoirs of the apostles."
So as way of introduction, it is good to understand that the churches started by the apostles had been taught to follow the apostles, not just their writings. They had a foundation of interpretation from the apostles that they called The Rule of Faith, the Rule of Truth, or just the Rule. The Nicene Creed, which is still recited in many churches every week, is the product of the rule of faith of the church in Caesarea that the council adapted a bit to combat the Arian heresy.
The book of Hebrews, by the way, has an unknown author, but it "made it" into our Bible because African churches thought it was written by Barnabas, Paul’s companion. Other churches thought it was written by the apostle Paul.
Putting the Bible Together
Eusebius’ Pamphilius (of Caesarea) wrote a history of the church in A.D. 323. In the third book of that history, chapters 23 through 25, he discussed what books were accepted by the churches. It is clear in what he writes that while most of the books that we call the New Testament were agreed upon, several were not. Eighty years later, about 350 years after the time of the apostles, the famous St. Augustine also mentioned that not all books of the New Testament were agreed upon by all the churches (On Christian Doctrine II:8:12).
There have been lists of new testament writings put together since A.D. 161, just 100 years after the apostles. Those lists are in agreement on most books, and they agree on all of the Gospels and Paul’s writings except 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. 1 John and 1 Peter would also be writings accepted by all early churches.
So who decided which books should be in the New Testament?
It’s funny, but no one did.
For the Roman Catholics, the first council that had any authority which established a definite list of books (or "canon") of the New Testament, was the Council of Trent, which convened in 1546. Many earlier councils decreed a list, but they had no authority to enforce their list.
What happened is that St. Jerome, in the early fifth century, made a translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate. That Bible became the standard in western Christianity for the next 1,000 years, and it’s never been called into question.
Interesting, isn’t it?
The Gospel of Matthew and Today’s Reading
Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy. The genealogy skips some generations (compared to what we read in the Tanakh), and I’m not sure why. I suppose it’s possible that he was making sure the totals were 14 generations each, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.
Sorry, I don’t have the answer on that one.
The story of Jesus speaks for itself. We won’t need to comment on that much, but I do want to point out the prophecy that Matthew uses concerning the virgin birth. That Jesus was born of a virgin we believe because of the eyewitness testimony of Joseph, Mary, and the apostles. The prophecy simply tells us that God planned it in advance.
If you go read the prophecy that Matthew quotes (1:23), which comes from Isaiah 7:14, you will see that it had a much different meaning in Isaiah’s time. Such dual prophecy is not unusual. In fact, it’s common. When you are God, it’s very easy for you to speak of something happening in the present while also leaving a prophecy for future generations in the very same words.
A Benefit of Preparation in the Law, Prophets, and Writings
In 2:18 we read that it is Rachel who is weeping when the children are slaughtered by Herod in Bethlehem. Having read Genesis, we know why! That is where Rachel was buried (Gen. 35:19; 45:7).
The New Covenant and the Holy Spirit
I mentioned already, when we talked about Joseph, that receiving the Holy Spirit is central to the New Covenant (cf. Acts 2:16-18; Rom. 8:5-8; Gal. 3:2-3; 5:16-18). We find this again in Matthew 3:11. The Messiah Jesus, the provider of the New Covenant, comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
The Temptation of the Devil and the Bible
We see at the start of chapter 4 that the devil tempts Jesus. He even quotes Scripture to him!
It is not enough to memorize Scriptures. You must know the Gospel, and you must know the general will of the Father. Jesus knew that his Father did not want him to put his Father to the test. He knew that he should worship no one except the Father, and he never considered doing anything but the Father’s will.
We will find that temptation will flee from us, too, if we learn to delight in the Father’s will. That strength comes from fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit and prayer and the reading of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:9-11).
Calling Jesus’ Disciples
In northern Galilee in the first century, Scripture was held in great honor, and so were the rabbis who read and taught the Scriptures to the people. Only a few would be found worthy to follow a rabbi, be trained by him, and become a rabbi after him.
It might seem surprising that Jesus could simply walk by a boat and call a fisherman to quit his fishing and follow him. However, there is more than Jesus’ divine presence and power working here. It was a great honor to be called to follow a rabbi, and most Jewish young men, at least those on the north shores of the Sea of Galilee, would do anything to be chosen as a disciple. (This information came from the excellent and interesting, if slightly expensive, DVD that I show to the right.)
Notice, though, that Jesus did not call students from schools. He called the ones that had not made it through the rabbinical schools. He called ordinary people.
Which brings us to …
The Sermon on the Mount
Jesus didn’t choose disciples like other rabbis. He didn’t pull them from the best students of Bible school. He pulled them off their fishing boats, and he had them watch and learn.
Jesus didn’t teach like other rabbis, either. I read some of the Talmud online recently, and I was astounded at the difference between Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of the rabbis of his time. While the other rabbis nitpicked over things like how thoroughly a house had to be searched for unleavened bread before the Feast of Unleavened Bread and whether handing an item into a house constituted work that should be avoided on the Sabbath, Jesus was teaching the sorts of things we read in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus had been teaching in various cities and synagogues (end of chapter 4), but when crowds accumulated, Jesus didn’t stay with them. He took his disciples to a mountain, and he began to give them instructions.
These teachings were not picky. They didn’t address whether you could take 52 steps or 152 steps on the Sabbath day. They addressed what was important to God, the heart of the Law of God, that we love God and love one another, avoiding selfishness and overcoming our desire to please ourselves.
You can read through the entire Sermon on the Mount and be confused by almost nothing even though you are reading it 2,000 years later and 5,000 miles away in a completely different culture and language. Jesus’ message, as Justin Martyr put it, was like this:
Brief and concise utterances fell from him, for he was no philosopher, but his Word was the power of God. (First Apology 14)
The Power of the Sermon on the Mount
Please do not miss the promise at the end of today’s reading. Jesus says that if we will do—not just memorize, but do—the things taught in the Sermon on the Mount, we will never fall! That’s what Jesus’ himself said! Do these things, and you will be like a wise man who built his house on a solid foundation so that it would stand through wind and rain and wave.
Don’t do them, however, and you are like a foolish person.
2 Peter 1:5-11 and James 1:21-27 say similar things about the importance of being doers of God’s message. One of the things in the Sermon on the Mount stands out as well:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. (7:21)
Judging by Fruit
Let me indulge your time for one more comment.
Jesus said we are to judge a prophet—and thus any teacher or church—by their fruit. Jesus knew that humans are never going to resolve what’s true by arguing (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5-7; 6:3-6). If we want to know how to follow God, then it is good for us to look and be taught by those whose lives we want to imitate (cf. Rom. 14:17-19).
Modern Christians have far too much trust in their ability to interpret the Bible. However, if your interpretations of the Bible result in a "psychotic obsessions with disputes" (1 Tim. 6:4) and division from people who "name the name of Christ and depart from iniquity" (2 Tim. 2:19), then your interpretations of the Bible are bearing bad fruit. If that’s so, make the tree bad, too. Admit there’s something wrong and stop interpreting the Bible the way you do!
It is fine to wind up divided, as far as the church goes, from people who do not avoid the sorts of things mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul says so, and gives some examples, in 1 Cor. 5. He says it is important to separate from those called Christians who live in open sin.
However, if we are dividing from obedient Christians over our interpretation of the Bible, we are missing it, and we are destroying the testimony of God (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:20-23).
Let us learn to judge by fruit and not by our confident interpretations of Scripture. Scripture is given to equip us for every good work, not to equip us for arguing with one another! (2 Tim. 3:16-17).