Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Matthew 6:13)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou
Matthew 6:10a

In the early Christian and Gospel Tradition, the theme of the coming of the Kingdom of God is fundamentally eschatological in orientation. This has already been examined in a number of the prior studies. However, the eschatological aspect of the theme is particularly prominent in the Gospel of Matthew. This applies, in some degree, to the Kingdom-references in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. the earlier study), beginning with the Beatitudes (5:3, 10). In this regard, there is a significant eschatological thrust to the Lord’s Prayer (and the Kingdom-petition) that is often overlooked by modern readers and students. We have already explored the Kingdom-petition in last week’s study (and that of the prior week); but the eschatological orientation of the Prayer, particularly in the Matthean version, is perhaps best illustrated by an examination of the final petition(s) in verse 13. In preparation for our study of the remaining Kingdom-references in Matthew, I think it will be worth a brief analysis of the eschatological worldview expressed here in verse 13.

Matthew 6:13a

In the final petition(s) of the Lord’s Prayer (v. 13), the focus shifts from sin and evil at the social (and religious) level (v. 12), to encompass a wider, cosmic dimension. The petition found in all three versions of the Prayer, and which occurs in the same Greek form in each, is:

kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n
kai m¢ eisenengk¢s h¢mas eis peirasmon
“and (we ask that) you should not bring us into testing”

The verb used is ei)sfe/rw (or, more properly, ei)sene/gkw as an irregular verb form), meaning “carry into, bring into”. It is relatively rare in the New Testament (just 7 other occurrences), sometimes being used in the sense of bringing someone forcefully into a room, or into custody, etc (Lk 5:18-19; 12:11). The noun peirasmo/$, often translated “temptation”, properly means “test(ing)” (cf. the related verb peira/zw). The idea of believers being “tested” sometimes has the positive connotation of coming through the test as a proof of their character, their faith and trust, etc (James 1:12; 1 Pet 4:12-13; Rev 2:10); however, more commonly, the negative sense of temptation to sin and the danger of falling away from the faith is in view. Almost certainly, the latter aspect is intended primarily here in the Prayer. And, if the negative sense is intended, then it raises the problematic theological question of how (or why) God would bring someone into “temptation”. I have discussed the matter briefly in an earlier note on the Prayer.

One should keep in mind the conjunction kai/ which begins this petition, connecting it with the two prior. The Lukan sequence of three petitions (instead of the Matthean four) gives us a more concise set, which relate to different aspects of the life and existence of human beings (believers, in particular):

    • “may you give to us our bread…”
    • “may you release for us our sins…”
    • “may you not bring us into testing”

I would suggest that, in the Prayer itself, the word peirasmo/$ refers, not so much to temptation (to sin), as it does to suffering and distress. Consider the following thematic outline of the petitions in this regard:

    • Daily Life—Our daily needs for physical life and health, etc
    • Religion—Our moral and religious obligations, emphasizing the forgiveness of sin and guilt we hold before God
    • Suffering—The physical and spiritual distress we experience as disciples of Jesus (believers) in the world

This emphasis on peirasmo/$ as suffering and distress helps to explain, I think, the similarity between this petition in the Prayer, and the words of Jesus in the garden at the time of his Passion. Two traditions, in particular, should be noted:

    • First, the prayer Jesus makes to the Father:
      “Father…may you carry along [pare/negke] this drinking-cup from me…” (Mk 14:36 par, cf. verses 33-35 for an expression of his distress)

The verb parafe/rw (“carry along”) has a similar sense as ei)sfe/rw (“carry/bring into”), expressing the same idea of suffering, from two perspectives: (i) a time of suffering coming to Jesus (or the disciple), and (ii) the disciple coming into a time of suffering; in both instances God is the one who brings this about. And, just as Jesus prays that this time of suffering might not come to him (however necessary it might be), so it is right and proper that his disciples (believers) follow his example and pray that they might not come into the time of suffering.

    • Second, the instruction Jesus gives to his disciples:
      “You must keep awake and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], (so) that you might not come into testing” (Mk 14:38 par, cf. verses 34, 37)

The phrase “…might not come into testing” (mh\ e&lqete ei)$ peirasmo/n) is very close in form to that in the Prayer. The context suggests that peirasmo/$ here refers not to the temptation to sin per se, but, rather, that the disciples might find protection from the time of darkness and distress coming upon the world (v. 41; Lk 22:53). There is a strong eschatological aspect to this idea (cf. Mark 13:4-23 par) which is often lost for Christians reading the Gospels today. The (end-time) distress which is about to come upon Jesus’ followers includes the very real danger that people will be deceived and led astray, abandoning their faith as suffering and persecution intensifies (cp. Jesus’ prediction in Mk 14:27 par with 13:9-13, 22 par). Only the disciple who endures and remains true to the end will be saved (v. 13 par).

The line of interpretation given above more or less avoids the problematic notion, often discussed, that God might bring believers into temptation (i.e. to sin), quite contrary to other teaching we find in the New Testament (see the famous statement in James 1:13-14ff). However, if one decides that the petition does, in fact, refer to temptation (to sin) in the customary sense, it remains necessary to explain what this might mean in the context of the Prayer.
Temptation involves a legitimate testing by God of His people (for the Old Testament background of this, cf. Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:4; 33:8; Judg 2:22, etc); as a result, some will fail and fall away, but the true disciples, the faithful remnant, will pass the test. This petition, like others in the Prayer, refers not so much to the temptation of the individual believer as it does to the Community as a whole. There is a natural wish that the Community not have to experience the reality of temptation and sin with the effects it has on the communal identity of Christians. In other words, even if an individual is not immediately affected, sin brings suffering and distress to the Community.

For other possible ways of addressing the question, see my extended discussion (in an earlier, expanded version of this note).  

Matthew 6:13b

The final petition in the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer (followed by the Didache) reads:

a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou/
alla rhusai h¢mas apo tou pon¢rou
“but may you rescue us from the evil”

This line is absent from the Lukan version of the Prayer, according to a diverse range of witness, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 a*2 B L f1 700 pc vg, and segments of the Syriac and Coptic tradition). As with the other parts of the Prayer where a shorter Lukan version is attested, the longer form is almost certainly secondary, representing a scribal harmonization (to Matthew), of the sort we see frequently in the manuscript tradition. Here the text-critical axiom lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferable”) holds good.

From the standpoint of the Matthean structure of the Prayer, it is better to consider this line as part of the previous petition (see above). This is indicated by the contrastive/adversative particle a)lla/ (“but, rather”), establishing a contrast with the previous request, which had been negative (i.e., what God should not do); here is the corresponding positive request:

    • “May you not bring us into testing
      • but (rather) may you (instead) rescue us from the evil”

The main interpretive difficulty involves the precise meaning of the word ponhro/$ (“evil”). There are three questions which must be addressed:

    1. Whether the article here is masculine or neuter
    2. The force of the definite article, and
    3. The nature of the “evil” referred to in the context of the Prayer

First, it is worth noting that the adjective ponhro/$ is much more frequent in Matthew than in the other Gospels. Mark has it (twice) in just one tradition (7:22-23), while it occurs just three times in John (3:19; 7:7; 17:5). It is a bit more common in Luke (12 times), with another 8 occurrences in Acts. By comparison it appears 25 times in Matthew, including 8 in the Sermon on the Mount; 5 of the 12 Lukan occurrences are in the parallel “Sermon on the Plain”. Overall, the adjective appears to be distinctive of the sayings of Jesus in the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

1. The word with definite article is a substantive adjective (i.e. functioning as a noun), but the particular genitive form tou= ponhrou= is ambiguous in terms of gender: it can either be masculine or neuter. It is helpful to consider first the other 7 occurrences of the adjective in the Sermon on the Mount. It modifies masculine nouns in 5:45; 6:23; 7:11, 17-18— “man” (a&nqrwpo$ [implied]), “eye” (o)fqalmo/$), and “fruit” (karpo/$). In all these instances the adjective is used to describe the character of human beings, their attitude and actions. The same is probably the case in 5:39, where the substantive use (with the definite article) most likely refers to the person doing evil, rather than the evil itself. In 5:37 the substantive genitive tou= ponhrou= has the same ambiguity we see in here in the Prayer. The only certain occurrence of the neuter is in 5:11, where it refers to evil that is spoken against Jesus’ disciples. This neuter usage is similar to the plural substantive in Mark 7:23 (“these evil [thing]s”). Thus, it would appear that it is more common in the Sermon to use the adjective as characteristic of a person, rather than a reference to evil itself.

2. An interesting question is whether the definite article simply reflects a substantive use of the adjective (as a noun) generally, or whether it refers to evil in a specific sense. This us discussed further under point #3 below. However, it is worth keeping in mind the parallel with the noun peirasmo/$ (“testing”); the rhythm and structure of the petition is aided by the inclusion of the definite article—peirasmo/$ / o( ponhro/$—creating two nouns at the center of the contrast: “into testing” vs. “(away) from the evil”. But perhaps true definiteness is intended here as well, and meant to be emphasized, i.e. “the evil”. If so, then there are several possible meanings:

    • The evil which we experience or which comes upon us, specifically as sin, in the course of our life on earth
    • The (power of) evil which dominates the current Age, or, in an eschatological sense, is coming upon the world
    • The Evil One—the personification of evil, or the person most characterized by evil and responsible for it, i.e. the figure known as the Satan (/f*c*[h^]), dia/bolo$ (‘Devil’), or Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:15 and the Qumran texts).

If we look at other occurrences in Matthew where the adjective is used with a definite article, we see that it is used two ways: (1) for specific person(s) who are evil, and (2) for the specific evil things a person says and does. There are actually two sections where these references occur: the teaching in 12:33-37 (cp. 7:15-20 and Mk 7:21-23), and the Kingdom parables in chapter 13. An examination of these is instructive.

    • Matt 12:35 presents a contrast between the person who is good and the one who is evil:
      “The good man casts out good (thing)s out of the good treasure (of his heart), and the evil man [o( ponhro/$ a&nqrwpo$] casts out evil (thing)s [ponhra/] out of the evil treasure [e)k tou= ponhrou= qhsaurou=] (of his heart).”

This wording echoes that of 5:37 in the Sermon and may provide the context for the more ambiguous expression there:

“And (so) your account must be ‘Yes, yes’ (and) ‘no, no’, and the thing over (beyond) these (words) is [i.e. comes] out of the evil [e)k tou= ponhrou=].”

It is often assumed that “the evil” that brings about the oath here is “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Devil; however, the parallel in 12:35 suggests that it may actually refer to the evil (treasure) that is in a person’s heart.

    • By contrast, twice in chapter 13, in Jesus’ explanation of both the parable of the Sower and of the Weeds (vv. 19, 38), the expression o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) almost certainly does refer to “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan. The evil human beings (“the evil [one]s”) who are separated from the good at the Last Judgment (v. 49) reflect the character of the Evil One himself, even as Jesus’ faithful disciples reflect the character of God Himself (cf. 5:48, etc).

3. Now let us consider further the use of o( ponhro/$ (or to\ ponhro/n) in the context of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. As documented above, the adjective serves the dualistic contrast present in Jesus’ teaching—that is, as a way of characterizing persons who do not follow his teaching, and who act and think in a way that does not reflect God the Father in Heaven. This continues the dualism we noted in the opening petitions which emphasize God the Father as the One in the heavens. Jesus’ true disciples are those who, by following his teaching and example, actually do the will of God here on earth, even as it is done in heaven.

The opposite of God’s will on earth is the presence and manifestation of wickedness and evil, which characterizes much (if not the majority) of humankind (cf. 7:11). Most people act and think in an earthly manner, seeking after earthly (and not heavenly) things. This is a fundamental principle that runs through the Sermon and establishes the contrast for how Jesus disciples are supposed to conduct themselves in their daily life (on earth). At the same time, there is an eschatological dimension, to both the Sermon and the Prayer, which emphasizes the coming Judgment and also the suffering and persecution Jesus’ followers will face on earth from the wicked and the forces of evil.

The lines of interpretation for v. 13 encompass three basic semantic domains for the word ponhro/$ in the context of the Prayer (and the Sermon):

    • The evil we (i.e. Jesus’ disciples) experience generally, in various ways, during our daily life; this includes sin, misfortune, mistreatment, and persecution (on account of our faith).
    • Specifically the sin and wickedness to which we are tempted by “the Evil One”.
    • The evil which dominates the current Age, manifest especially in the coming suffering and distress (for Jesus’ disciples) at the end-time.

Arguments can be made for all three spheres of meaning:

    • The use of ponhro/$ in the Sermon favors the first option, as it tends to characterize the evil of humankind generally, and the wicked/evil things they do.
    • The common sense of peirasmo/$ as “temptation” (i.e. to sin) would favor the second option, along with the translation of o( ponhro/$ here as “the Evil (One)”, supported by 13:19, 38, and (possibly) 5:37 in the Sermon.
    • As noted above, I would argue that peirasmo/$ here is best understood in terms of the (eschatological) suffering and distress which Jesus’ disciples will (or may) have to endure. The Synoptic parallels with Jesus’ words in the garden during his Passion strongly point in this direction, as do the other eschatological aspects of the Prayer (discussed previously).

Indeed, the eschatological aspect makes better sense of the idea of God bringing believers “into testing”, especially in light of the parallels with Jesus’ words in Mk 14:36, 38 par (see above). It also provides a better context for the idea of God rescuing believers and very much corresponds with the New Testament (esp. Pauline) use of the verb r(u/omai (cf. below). Its climactic position in the Prayer requires something which matches the Kingdom of God the Father, etc, in the opening petitions.

This line of interpretation is, I believe, clinched by an examination of the verb r(u/omai used in the phrase. While often translated “deliver”, it more properly means “protect”, sometimes in the more active (and dramatic) sense of rescuing one from harm or danger. Unfortunately, it hardly occurs at all in the Gospels; indeed, it is only found here in the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The only other Gospel occurrences are in Luke 1:74 (the Hymn of Zechariah) and in Matthew 27:43. That latter reference, being from the Gospel of Matthew (and the only other occurrence in Matthew), is significant and must be given serious consideration. It is part of the taunts directed at Jesus (by the priests and elders, etc) while he is on the cross:

“He trusted upon God, (so) let Him rescue [r(usa/sqw] him now if He wishes—for he said that ‘I am (the) Son of God’!”

The context clearly is the same as that of Jesus’ Passion prayer in the garden (Mk 14:36ff par, see above), and the idea is that God might rescue Jesus from his moment of suffering (and death). The reference in Luke 1:74 touches upon the more concrete idea of being rescued from the control of one’s enemies. While this differs from the immediate situation in Matthew, it fits the language and imagery used by Paul in his letters, where the majority of occurrences of the verb are to be found—12 instances, including several in letters sometimes considered pseudonymous by critical commentators (Colossians, 2 Timothy). The verb is used two primary ways in the Pauline letters:

    1. References to Paul (and his fellow missionaries) being rescued (by God) from his enemies and opponents, persecution, dangers and perils on the way, etc—Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10 [3 times]; 2 Thess 3:2; also 2 Tim 3:11; 4:17f.
    2. In a soteriological sense—i.e. of God rescuing believers from the power of evil that is at work in the world; this is expressed several ways, with different points of emphasis:
      (a) Rom 7:24: From the power of sin that currently dominates humankind, residing in the flesh—”who will rescue [r(u/setai] me out of this body of death?”
      (b) Rom 11:26: From the wickedness and ungodliness in the world, which currently envelops Israelites along with the rest of humanity (citation of Isa 59:20f): “the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] will arrive out of Zion…”
      (c) 1 Thess 1:10: From the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the world (in its wickedness): “…Yeshua, the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] us out of [i.e. from] the coming anger (of God)”.

The last two references have a strong eschatological and Messianic emphasis, shared by both early Christians and many Jews of the period: that the Anointed One (Messiah, according to several figure-types) will appear at the time of Judgment to rescue the faithful of God’s people from both the wickedness in the world and God’s Judgment upon it (see also 2 Pet 2:7, 9). Paul had a very unique way of expressing this idea, which he develops in Galatians and (more fully) in Romans (cf. especially chapters 5-8). Through the person and work of Jesus, God has rescued humankind (believers) from the power of sin (and evil) which currently dominates the world. Two additional passages, reflecting this outlook, are especially relevant to the wording in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. In Col 1:13, Paul refers to God the Father as the One

“who rescued [e)rru/sato] us out of the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness and set us over into the Kingdom of his (be)loved Son”

The identification of evil with “darkness”, as a kind of kingdom in opposition to the Kingdom of God, matches the language and thought of both the Lord’s Prayer and the garden scene of Jesus’ Passion (see above). In the Lukan parallel of the garden scene, Jesus’ declares the situation surrounding his Passion (and impending death) in exactly these terms: “…this is your hour and the authority of darkness” (Lk 22:53). According to the earliest Christian thought, the death and ultimate departure of Jesus ushers in an (eschatological) period of suffering and distress, which precedes the coming Judgment. It will be a time of significant suffering and persecution for Jesus’ followers (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc).

2. In 2 Tim 4:17-18, the idea of Paul (and other missionaries) being rescued from wicked people and opponents (v. 17, and cf. above) is broadened to include the end-time deliverance in general, expressed in v. 18 as follows:

“The Lord will rescue [r(u/setai] me from every evil work and will save [i.e. preserve] me into His Kingdom upon [i.e. above] (the) heaven(s).”

The italicized words are very close to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

    • “(may you) rescue us from the evil [a)po\ tou= ponhrou=]”
    • “(he will) rescue me from every evil work [a)po\ panto\$ e&rgou ponhrou=]”

There is one other passage in the New Testament which may shed some light on Matt 6:13—namely, John 17:15, where we find another prayer by Jesus to God the Father. This time it is a petition to the Father on behalf of Jesus’ disciples; it is also set prior to Jesus’ Passion (on this context, see above). He prays for his disciples as follows:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you should guard them out of [i.e. from] the evil [tou= ponhrou=].”

The genitive substantive (tou= ponhrou=) is the same as we have in the Lord’s Prayer; here, too, it is often translated “the Evil (One)”, but this may be debated. More appropriate in context would be “the evil (that is in the world)”, since the contrast is with “the world” or “world-order” (ko/smo$). Believers are not to be taken out of the world itself, but protected from the evil that is in it. On the parallel in 1 Jn 5:18-19, see my recent notes on the passage.

Similarly, “the evil” emphasized in the final petition of the Prayer refers primarily to the evil that dominates the current Age, the experience of which is to intensify as the end-time Judgment comes near. This idea of evil certainly includes the figure of the Satan/Devil/Belial (i.e., “the Evil one”), as the world-ruler who exercises dominion over the current wicked Age. This worldview, and its eschatological/Messianic dimension, is expressed in dozens of texts from Qumran (where the Prince/Spirit of Darkness is called “Belial”), and was more or less shared by Christians in the first century A.D. The prayer for protection/rescue from the power of evil in the world unquestionably means protection from the Evil One who is the effective world-ruler of the current Age of darkness. Much of this worldview, admittedly, is lost for Christians today; this does not change the fact that it governed much Jewish and early Christian thought at the time, and needs to be recognized in any serious study of the New Testament today. How it relates to current/modern views of eschatology is a separate issue, but one which also is vital as a point of discussion. I have examined the entire subject in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Matthew 6:10b)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou
Matthew 6:10a

In the previous study, we examined the distinctiveness of the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13), in comparison with the Lukan. In particular, along with the first two petitions of the prayer (vv. 9b-10a), Matthew includes a third petition (“May your will come to be [done]”, v. 10b) not found in Luke (though it was added by copyists). This produces a triad of three petitions in the first section of the Matthean Prayer, with the Kingdom-petition at the center. Moreover, the two flanking petitions would seem to be parallel, both in form and meaning:

“May your name be made holy”
a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou
“May your will come to be”
genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou

In each instance, the petition begins with a passive (aorist) imperative, with the subject being a particular attribute/aspect of the God ‘who is in the heavens’. This could be taken as an example of the so-called divine passive (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. Since the petition addresses God, this would be a natural way to understand the wording. However, there can be little doubt that an emphasis is on the actions of human beings—both in treating God (and His name) with sanctity and honor, and in acting according to His will. Since the Kingdom-petition is at the center of these two flanking petitions, it is fair to assume (or at least consider) that these two petitions inform the meaning and significance of the Kingdom-petition.

The first petition (v. 9b) was examined in the previous study. Here, we must consider the third petition (v. 10b):

genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou
w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$
gen¢th¢tœ to thel¢ma sou
hœs en ouranœ kai epi g¢s
“May your will come to be—
as in heaven (so) also upon (the) earth”

NOTE: The majority of witness here in Luke include this petition, including important uncials such as A C D W D Q. However, it is missing from a diverse range of witnesses, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 B L f1 1342 etc), a fact that is nearly impossible to explain if the longer text in Luke were original. Almost certainly the longer text is secondary, representing the kind of harmonization between Gospels that we find frequently in the manuscript tradition.

In the previous study, I mentioned how the expression “(our) Father the (One) in the heavens” in the Matthean invocation is distinctive of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a dualistic contrast that runs through the Sermon—between (a) the religious behavior of the majority of people on earth, and (b) the behavior of Jesus’ followers which should reflect the character of God the Father in heaven. It is just this contrast which underlies the expression in verse 10b.

As in the first petition, we have here a 3rd person (aorist) passive imperative (“it must [be]…”) rendered as an exhortative request (“may/let it [be]…”). The Greek verb used is gi/nomai (“come to be, become”)— “May it come to be…”. Five of the seven occurrences of this imperative are in the Gospel of Matthew (also 8:13; 9:29; 15:28; 26:42), the other two are in citations from Scripture (LXX); thus, it reflects a distinctive Matthean vocabulary.

The traditional rendering “may your will be done” is somewhat misleading, since there is no actual mention of doing God’s will; rather, the request is that God would see to it that His will comes to pass (“comes to be”) on earth. This touches upon the complex philosophical/theological question of the will of God. If God is sovereign and all-powerful, then by its very nature His will always comes to pass in all things. At the same time, there is clear and abundant evidence that things on earth do not always (or often) conform to the declared will (or wish) of God; in particular, human beings typically do not act according to His will. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not address this philosophical dimension directly, but the very point of his teaching throughout is centered on the idea that human beings must (choose to) live and act in a way that conforms with God’s own nature and character (including His will). Thus, there is implicit in this request the concept of doing (or fulfilling) the will of God the Father. Cf. further on 7:21, discussed below.

As mentioned above, this continues the contrast of heaven and earth which runs through the Sermon. God’s will is done in heaven, but it is often not done by people on earth. Again, the will (qe/lhma) here refers to something which God has declared for people—i.e., His word or instruction (Torah) which reveals His intention for humankind, to act and think in a way that corresponds with His own character and example. This is unquestionably how qe/lhma is used in most of the occurrences in the Gospel, in the sayings/teachings of Jesus. Most notable in this regard is the Synoptic saying in Mark 3:35 (par Matt 12:50, the Lukan form is rather different):

“Whoever would do the will of God, this (one) is my brother and sister and mother.”
i.e. Jesus’ true family consists of his followers who do the will of God; Matt 12:50 reflects the distinctive Matthean wording:
“For whoever would do the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Three other occurrences of qe/lhma in Matthew express the same basic idea (7:21; 18:14; 21:31); the first of these is also from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone saying to me ‘Lord, Lord…’ will come into the kingdom of the heavens, but (only) the (one) doing the will of my Father the (One) in the heavens.” (Matt 7:21)

Also noteworthy is the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32 par), which draws upon a similar dualistic contrast: those who do the will of God the Father (i.e. followers of Jesus) and those who do not (i.e. conventional/false religious behavior). In many ways, the closest parallel to the petition in Matt 6:10b is found in Jesus’ prayer in the garden at the beginning of his Passion. In Mark, this (Synoptic) saying reads:

“Abba, Father, all (thing)s are possible for you: (please) carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! But (yet), not what I wish [qe/lw], but what you (wish).” (Mk 14:36)

In Matthew’s version of this scene, this saying is preserved, generally following the Markan phrasing (Matt 26:39); however, words from the second session of prayer are also included which match more closely the petition in the Lord’s Prayer (the words in italics are identical):

“My Father, if it is not possible (for) this (cup) to go along (from me) if I do not drink (it), may your will come to be [genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou] .” (v. 42)

It would appear that the Gospel writer, noting the similarity to the petition in 6:10b, shaped this particular tradition to match it. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Luke records essentially the same saying by Jesus, but with different wording:

“Father, if you wish, carry along this drinking-cup (away) from me! (But all the) more—may not my will, but yours, come to be.” (Lk 22:42)

The best explanation for this apparent blending of details is that Matt 26:42 represents a “Q” tradition which Matthew and Luke have each combined with the Synoptic saying (Mk 14:36) in different ways. The Gospel of John, though drawing upon an entirely separate line of tradition, also records numerous statements by Jesus describing how he, as Son, does the will (qe/lhma) of the Father—Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40. The one who follows Jesus likewise does the Father’s will even as he himself does (Jn 7:17; 9:31).

Thus there is a well-established basis in the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Matthew, for the idea that Jesus’ disciples (believers) are to obey the will of God the Father, as expressed especially in the teaching and example of Jesus (the Son). This is the central principle in the Sermon on the Mount. By this faithful obedience of the disciple, God’s will is done on earth, even as it is done in heaven—i.e reflecting the nature and character of the Father who is in the heavens. Somewhat surprisingly, the petition in 6:10b uses the singular (ou)rano/$) instead of the plural (ou)ranoi/). Most likely, this simply reflects the fact there is little difference in meaning between singular and plural forms of this noun in Greek. The singular in 6:26 refers to the (physical) skies, as probably also in 5:18, while v. 34 may have the primitive (cosmological) meaning of the vault of heaven; however, in 6:20 it refers to the realm or domain of God, much as the use of the plural does elsewhere in the Sermon. The traditional pairing of heaven and earth may explain the specific use of the singular here (cf. in 5:18, etc).

As noted above, the third petition contains and envelops the first two. Particularly, it expounds the meaning of the Kingdom-petition in v. 10a. As the disciples of Jesus follow him faithfully, the will of God is fulfilled on earth—a foreshadowing or beginning of the eschatological moment when the declared will of God comes to pass and is realized for all on earth, when his Kingdom is established truly over all humankind, and people everywhere treat Him with sanctity and honor.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Kingdom of God is specifically associated with the “rightness” (or righteousness), dikaiosu/nh, of God. As previously discussed, a reference to the Kingdom of God frames the Beatitudes (5:3, 10). The one who belongs to the Kingdom, and who is able to enter (and inherit) the Kingdom, will be “poor” in their own spirit, devoting themselves, not to self-centered or worldly aims and desires, but to the will of God. For this same reason, those who are part of God’s Kingdom will often be persecuted (lit. pursued, with hostile intent) “on account of what is right” (e%neken dikaiosu/nh$)—that is, because of their desire for God’s righteousness.

At the beginning of the Sermon proper (5:17-20), Jesus associates “what is right” (right[eous]ness, dikaiosu/nh) with the precepts and regulations, etc, of the Torah. The followers of Jesus must exhibit a religious and ethical-moral “rightness” (upright character and conduct) which at least equals that of others who are devoted (religiously) to observing the Torah (vv. 19-20). The Pharisees and “writers” (i.e., scribes, literate persons with [expert] knowledge of the Scriptures) are specifically singled out as examples; even such people, who are not Jesus’ followers, will often exhibit strong religious devotion and upright moral conduct.

Jesus’ followers, however, are called to a right(eous)ness that surpasses the Pharisees’ fidelity to religious and ethical “rightness”. The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon expresses this. For example, in the Antitheses (5:21-48), six areas are addressed relating to the conventional righteousness established from the Torah and religious tradition. In each instance, Jesus requires of his followers that they go a step further. For a discussion on what this entails, see my earlier study on the Antitheses in the series “Jesus and the Law”. Similarly, in 6:1-18, Jesus focuses on three areas of customary religious behavior—acts of mercy (alms), prayer, and fasting—instructing his disciples that their conduct in such matters must focus on the heavenly (viz., the righteousness and will of God in heaven), rather than the earthly (i.e., how things are viewed by other people on earth). This same principle underlies the remainder of the practical instruction in chapter 6, culminating with the command in verse 33:

“You must first seek the kingdom [of God] and its right(eous)ness, and all these (other thing)s will be set toward you (as well).”

Finally, toward the close of the Sermon, Jesus effectively summarizes the teaching regarding the Kingdom, in 7:21 (cf. above):

“Not every(one) saying ‘Lord, Lord’ will come into the kingdom of the heavens, but (only) the (one) doing the will of my Father th(at is) in the heavens.”

The Kingdom of God is here virtually identified with the will of God, and this confirms the similar close connection between the two in the Lord’s Prayer. The will of God is expressed in the Torah precepts, etc, but also (and more completely) in the teaching of Jesus—such as that preserved in the Sermon. The faithful follower of Jesus fulfills the will of God, and thus demonstrates that he/she belongs to the Kingdom.

This means that there is a strong evangelistic emphasis to the petitions in vv. 9-10. The Kingdom “comes” and God’s will “comes to be” when people throughout the world are following Jesus and his teachings. At the same time, in this regard, there is a vital eschatological component (noted above) that is often overlooked by Christians and students of the Gospels today. The coming of the Kingdom is fundamentally an eschatological event, as is clear from the very beginning of the theme in Matthew (and the Synoptic Tradition). The Kingdom-references in the Sermon, and continuing throughout the Gospel, develop the earlier references in 3:2 and 4:17, 23 par (see the discussion on these).

In the next study, we shall focus on this eschatological aspect of the Kingdom-theme in Matthew. We will start with the Lord’s Prayer (esp. its closing petition[s], v. 13), proceeding then to examine a number of the teachings and references in the following divisions of the Gospel.

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Matt 6:10, cont.)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou
Matthew 6:10a

In the previous study, we explored the literary context of the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13, with its Kingdom-petition [v. 10a])—and, specifically, its position within the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7). In particular, the earlier Kingdom-references (including those in the Sermon) were examined. Now we turn to the Lord’s Prayer itself, considering the distinctiveness of the Matthean version of the Prayer (as it occurs in the Sermon), and how it relates to the Kingdom-theme.

Even the casual student of the New Testament will likely be aware of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions of the Prayer—with Luke containing a significantly shorter version. Later copyists tended to harmonize the two versions, reducing (or eliminating) the apparent differences; however, virtually all critical commentators recognize the originality of the shorter version for Luke. Whether the Lukan Prayer more accurately represents an original “Q” version is more difficult to determine. Even if it does reflect the original “Q” material, the Matthean ‘additions’ are best explained as being representative of the version of the Prayer familiar to the Gospel writer’s Community. Doubtless, even in the first century, the Prayer circulated widely, perhaps in several different iterations. The familiar lines “for thine is the kingdom and the power…”, etc, offers evidence (from the early centuries) for a continuing adaptation (and expansion) of the Prayer, for liturgical use.

The only ‘addition’ that is likely to come directly from the hand of the Matthean author is the qualifying phrase “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$) in the initial invocation to God: “Our Father, the (One) in the heavens” (Pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$). This wording is utterly distinctive of the Matthean Gospel, making it quite likely that it is an adaptation (expanding the simple Pa/ter h(mw=n, cp. Lk 11:2) by the Gospel writer. The possibility must also be considered that the wording could reflect usage by the author’s Community, rather than an independent modification by the author.

The distinctiveness of the expression (as a qualifying phrase for God the Father) was discussed in the previous study. The specific expression “my/your Father the (One) in the heavens” occurs six times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), along with another 7 times in the Gospel (10:32-33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19)—13 total (cf. also 23:9). By comparison, it occurs just once in all the other Gospel combined (Mk 11:25). Similarly, the parallel expression “(my/your) heavenly Father” occurs six times in Matthew, including 4 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32; 15:13; 18:35), and nowhere else in the Gospels (but cf. Lk 11:13) or the rest of the New Testament. We must consider also the fact that use of the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/) and the expression “in the heavens” (e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$) itself is especially prevalent in the Gospel of Matthew:

    • e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$ occurs 15 times in Matthew, including 7 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:12, 16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), but only 6 in the other Gospels (Mk 11:25; 12:25; 13:25; Lk 10:20; 12:33; 18:22).
    • Matthew has “kingdom of the heavens” (basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n) instead of “kingdom of God” (basilei/a tou= qeou=) for a number of Synoptic (and “Q”) sayings of Jesus. The former expression is only found in Matthew (32 times), nowhere else in the New Testament (see also the discussion in the previous study); by contrast, “kingdom of God” is used only 5 times in Matthew, compared with 14 in Mark, 32 in Luke, and 16 times in John and the rest of the New Testament.

It is possible that Matthew preserves a Semitic mode of expression which may have been altered or omitted when presenting Jesus’ sayings in Greek (to a Greek audience), which could explain why it disappeared from the Synoptic tradition as a whole. The Synoptic saying in Mark 11:25 might be seen as confirming this (note the similar in content and style with the instruction by Jesus on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount and the “Q” material):

“And when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release [i.e. forgive] (it) if you hold any(thing) against any(one), (so) that your Father the (One who is) in the heavens [o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$] might also release [i.e. forgive] for you your (moment)s of falling alongside [i.e. sins/trespasses]”

At the very least, this demonstrates that the expression on the lips of Jesus was not the invention of the Gospel writer. In a similar way, direct evidence for the use of the Aramaic aB*a^ (°abb¹°) by Jesus has disappeared from the Gospel tradition, except for one place in Mark (14:36) where it happens to be preserved.

The extensive use of the plural (ou)ranoi/) in Matthew may also reflect the corresponding word in Hebrew and Aramaic, which is always in the plural—<y]m^v* š¹mayim; Aram. /y]m^v= (always emphatic aY`m^v= š§mayy¹°, “the heavens”). A reconstruction of the Matthean phrase in Aramaic might be: aY`m^v=B! yD! an`Wba& (°A_»ûn¹° dî bišmayy¹°); cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901. Aramaic aY`m^v= has essentially the same range of meaning as oi( ou)ranoi/ in Greek. For Aramaic references in the Old Testament, where it refers to the abode of God, cf. Dan 2:18-19, 28, 37, 44; 4:31, 34; Ezra 5:11-12; 6:9-10, etc. The close association of God with “heaven” is indicated by the fixed (emphatic) expression “the God of Heaven” (aY`m^v= Hl*a$). It is possible that “…Father the (One) in the heavens” in Matthew reflects such a traditional expression in Aramaic.

Whether one attributes the phrase “our Father the (One) in the heavens” primarily to the Gospel writer or to Jesus himself (in Aramaic), there can be no doubt of the importance it has to the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs six times (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21); the expression “in the heavens” itself occurs again in 5:12, and “the kingdom of the heavens” (par. to “kingdom of God”) also six times (5:3, 10, 19 [twice], 20; 7:21). In addition, we find the parallel expression “(your) heavenly Father” (o( path\r [u(mw=n] o( ou)ra/nio$) four times in the Sermon (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32), as noted above. Thus there is a definite (and concentrated) emphasis on associating God the Father with “the heavens” in the Matthean Sermon on the Mount, beyond anything we find elsewhere in the Gospel tradition. How is this to be understood?

The main point of emphasis appears to be the idea that the behavior of Jesus’ disciples on earth should follow the example of God the Father in heaven. This is clearly expressed in 5:16 and 45, and the principle is summarized powerfully in the declaration of verse 48, whereby, if Jesus’ teaching is followed:

“You shall then be complete, (even) as your heavenly Father is complete.”

When we turn to the instruction in 6:1-18 (of which the Lord’s Prayer is a part), we find a slightly different emphasis: that of a dualistic contrast between common religious behavior by people (on earth) and the behavior of Jesus followers (focused on God in heaven). The principle is well expressed in the opening verse: “you must not do (things) in front of men to be seen by them, otherwise you hold no wage [i.e. reward] from your Father the (One) in the heavens”. The earthly desire and inclination of human beings is to demonstrate one’s religious devotion publicly, and to receive recognition for it from other people. Such recognition, Jesus says, is the only reward such people will receive—i.e. earthly, not heavenly (vv. 2b, 5b, 16b). Jesus’ followers are instructed to behave in just the opposite way—to act privately (“in the hidden [place]”), being concerned only about being seen by God (who is in heaven), vv 3-4, 6, 17-18

In all of this there is an implicit spiritual dimension at work, even though the Spirit (Pneu=ma) is not specifically mentioned, neither in the Lord’s Prayer (the variant reading in Lk 11:2b has already been discussed), nor in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. This is in contrast to the Lukan context of the Prayer, where the Spirit it is of the utmost importance (cf. the earlier study). I would, however, maintain that for the Matthean form of the Prayer, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea of the Spirit is embedded in the expression “in the heavens” —i.e. the heavenly dimension defined by God’s own Power and Presence. This will be discussed further.

In the first portion of the Prayer, in the Lukan version (11:2), there are two paired petitions: “May your name be made holy / May your Kingdom come”. These are also present in Matthew’s version (v. 9b-10a), with identical wording (a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou: e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou). However, Matthew includes a third petition (“May your will be done”, v. 10b) not found in Luke (though it was added by copyists). This produces a triad of three petitions in the first section of the Matthean Prayer, with the Kingdom-petition at the center. Moreover, the two flanking petitions would seem to be parallel, both in form and meaning:

“May your name be made holy”
a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou
“May your will be done”
genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou

In each instance, the petition begins with a passive (aorist) imperative, with the subject being a particular attribute/aspect of the God ‘who is in the heavens’. This could be taken as an example of the so-called divine passive (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. Since the petition addresses God, this would be a natural way to understand the wording. However, there can be little doubt that an emphasis is on the actions of human beings—both in treating God (and His name) with sanctity and honor, and in acting according to His will. Since the Kingdom-petition is at the center of these two flanking petitions, it is fair to assume (or at least consider) that these two petitions inform the meaning and significance of the Kingdom-petition.

Let us consider briefly the first petition. The verb used is a(gia/zw (“make pure/holy”). It can be used specifically in a ritual/ceremonial context, but also in a broader ethical-religious (or spiritual) sense, as with the adjective a(gno/$ (“pure, holy”, cp. a%gio$), from which the verb is derived. It is extremely rare in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring just once (Matt 23:17, 19) outside of the Lord’s Prayer. It is somewhat more common in the Gospel of John; cf. my recent note on 1 John 3:3.

When it comes to the specific idea of holiness, there are two aspects which should be delineated: (1) purity, and (2) setting something apart for special (religious) use. The Greek a%gio-/a(gno– word group emphasizes the former, while Hebrew/Aramaic vdq (qdš) the latter. Moreover, a fundamental religious principle is that: what we treat as holy in terms of religious behavior ultimately is an expression of how we view the nature and character of God. For Israel as the chosen people of God (YHWH), this is defined by the formula in Leviticus 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH your God, am Holy”

Jesus effectively restates this for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount—if they follow his teaching, then:

“…you shall be complete, as your Father the (One) in the heavens is complete” (Matt 5:48)

Thus, true religion requires that people act and think in a way that honors God and reflects His own Person and Character, including all the things He has done on behalf of humankind and His people (as Creator, Life-giver, Savior/Protector, Judge, etc).

According to the ancient religious mind-set, shared by Jews and Christians in the first century A.D., the “name” of God represented the Person and Nature of God manifest to human beings on earth. For more on this concept of names and naming, cf. the Christmas season series “And you shall call His Name…” The “name” of God the Father is more than simply the name expressed by the tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh)—it reflects the very Person of God Himself as He relates to His People. And, it is God’s “name” that is to be honored and treated as holy by His People—cf. Exod 20:7, etc. By the time of the Prophets, the emphasis had shifted away from a ritual honoring of God’s name, toward honoring it in terms of one’s overall behavior and conduct (see esp. Isa 29:23). Jesus, in his teaching (as in the Sermon on the Mount), moves even further in this direction, and this is certainly intended in the Lord’s Prayer. But why/how is it that we pray to God for this, when it is our (i.e. human beings’) responsibility to treat His Name as holy? The key to this lies in the eschatological orientation of the Prayer, which will be discussed as part of the next study.

For examples in Jewish tradition of invocations or petitions similar to those in the (Matthean) Lord’s Prayer, I point out several here:

    • “…their Father in heaven, the Holy One” (Mekilta on Exod 20:25; Fitzmyer, p. 900)
    • “Thou art holy and Thy name is holy, and the holy ones praise Thee every day. Selah. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, the holy God.” (Shemoneh Esreh [3rd benediction])
    • “Let his great name be magnified and hallowed in the world which he has created according to his will” (The Qaddiš [Kaddish] prayer; Betz, p. 390)

In the next study, we will look at the second of the two flanking petitions—the third petition in the Matthean version of the Prayer. By examining both of these petitions, we will gain a better idea of what the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker in the Matthean Gospel) understood with regard to the Kingdom-petition and the coming of God’s Kingdom (“May your Kingdom come”).

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28A (1985).

 

 

 

 

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Matthew 6:10)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou
Matthew 6:10a

Having explored the Kingdom-theme in the Gospel of Luke, including the specific idea of the coming of the Kingdom of God, we now turn to the Gospel of Matthew. Both Gospels contain the Lord’s Prayer (with its Kingdom-petition), but their positioning of the Prayer, and the overall literary and thematic context that surrounds it, differs notably. Moreover, the entire treatment and development of the Kingdom-theme is distinctive within each Gospel. While the Lukan and Matthean authors held many concepts and traditions in common, they each brought out specific aspects and points of emphasis that are unique or distinctive. In other words, the Matthean understanding of the Kingdom is not identical to the Lukan.

To begin with, in terms of the handling of the Kingdom-theme, the first distinctly Matthean feature is the regular use of the expression “the kingdom of the heavens” (h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n), rather than “the kingdom of God” (h( basilei/a tou= qeou=). The expression “the kingdom of the heavens” is exclusive to the Gospel of Matthew, occurring nowhere else in the New Testament. For some reason that has yet to be entirely explained, the Matthean author substituted the expression “kingdom of the heavens” for “kingdom of God” throughout. In only five instances (6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43), does the author retain the expression “kingdom of God”; the other 32 instances use “kingdom of the heavens”.

The locative or qualitative aspect of “the heavens” (i.e., heavenly) seems particularly important to the Gospel writer, since he also frequently uses the qualifying expression “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$) in reference to God (the Father). The Matthean author uses this circumlocution some fourteen times, compared with just once in the other Synoptics (Mark 11:25). Similarly, the expression “the heavenly Father” (o( path\r o( ou)ra/nio$) occurs six times in Matthew, and nowhere else in the New Testament (but cp. Luke 11:13). Thus there is a certain emphasis on the heavenly aspect of God and His Kingdom in Matthew that is not present in the other Gospels.

Also interesting is that Matthew is unique in attributing the Kingdom-theme to the preaching of John the Baptist, in a way that precisely anticipates the proclamation by Jesus (Mk 1:15 par) at the beginning of his ministry. Indeed, John’s words in 3:2 are identical to Jesus’ in 4:17:

“Change your mind! For the kingdom of the heavens has come near!”
metanoei=te h&ggiken ga\r h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n

These are the only references to the Kingdom prior to the Sermon on the Mount, with the exception of the summary notice in 4:23 describing the initial ministry activity of Jesus (vv. 23-25). In this, the author is very much following the Synoptic Tradition (Mk 1:32-34; Lk 4:40-41ff), by pairing Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom’s coming with the healing miracles he performed. In the Matthean narrative, this summary immediately precedes the Sermon on the Mount.

The Kingdom-Petition (Matthew 6:10) in its Literary Context

The Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer is set within the collection of teaching known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chapters 5-7). The arrangement of this material is primarily literary rather than historical-chronological. This can be seen by the fact that certain sayings/teaching that also occur in the Gospel of Luke (i.e., the so-called “Q” material) are set in a very different location within the Lukan narrative. In point of fact, the Matthean author has assembled much of Jesus’ teaching into a number of large sections or ‘Discourses’. These groupings are, for the most part, expansions of earlier traditional collections, such as (for example) the collection of parables in Mark 4 or the ‘Eschatological Discourse’ (Mark 13).

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is by far the largest and most prominent of the Matthean Discourses, covering three full chapters. In this ‘Sermon’, Jesus lays out essential instruction for anyone who would wish to be his disciple. He presents a range of ethical and religious teaching that may be outlined as follows:

    • Introduction/Exordium (5:1-16)
      • The Beatitudes, outlining the ideals of discipleship, with promise of eschatological reward (vv. 1-12)
      • Two illustrations regarding discipleship (vv. 13-16)
    • Interpretation of the Torah and Religious Tradition, with practical application for Jesus’ Disciples (5:17-48)
      • Teaching regarding the Torah (vv. 17-20)
      • Exposition: The Antitheses (vv. 21-48)
    • Instruction regarding Religious Practice (6:1-18), with three examples:
      • Charitable Giving—Alms, Deeds of Mercy (vv. 1-4)
      • Prayer (vv. 5-15), with the Lord’s Prayer in vv. 9-13
      • Fasting (vv. 14-18)
    • Instruction relating to matters of Daily Life and Social interaction (6:19-7:12)
    • Final Exhortation and Warnings (7:13-27), with a concluding Parable (vv. 24-27)

The main body of the Sermon is comprised of the three divisions of practical instruction (5:17-48; 6:1-18; 6:19-7:12). The Lord’s Prayer (with its Kingdom-petition) occurs in the central division, in the section dealing with prayer (6:5-13, vv. 9-13).

There are eight specific references to the Kingdom (basilei/a) in the Sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes. Indeed, the Kingdom features prominently, as the eschatological goal/reward of the disciple, in the first and eighth Beatitude (vv. 3, 10), suggesting that it is a theme that guides and governs the entire section. That is to say, the ultimate blessing (and reward) for the faithful disciple is to enter (and to inherit) the Kingdom. The precise wording is “theirs is the kingdom of the heavens” (au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n)—that is, the Kingdom belongs to them (and they to it). The characteristic that enables the disciple to inherit/enter the Kingdom is two-fold: “poor in the spirit” (v. 3) and “having been pursued [i.e. persecuted] on account of righteousness” (v. 10). The faithful disciple will be humble and lowly in spirit, and, at the same time, will likely endure hostility and persecution because of their commitment to what is right. This “right-ness” (or righteousness, dikaiosu/nh) is embodied in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon. Faithfulness to his teaching will allow the disciple to inherit the Kingdom of the Heavens. This is precisely the point made by Jesus in vv. 19-20 (with three Kingdom-references, for emphasis).

Two further references, in later portions of the Sermon, only reinforce the basic premise—viz., that a commitment to righteousness, by faithfully following the teaching/instruction of Jesus in the Sermon, means that the disciple belongs to the Kingdom, and will enter/inherit it in the end. The climactic declaration in 6:33 (for the teaching in vv. 25-33) virtually identifies what is right (righteousness, as expounded by Jesus) with the Kingdom. The person who gives priority to this righteousness in his/her daily life, will find happiness and blessing (cf. the Beatitudes), both in this life, and in the life to come. The warning in 7:21ff recognizes that there will be some who claim (or pretend) to be Jesus’ true disciples, but who are not committed to what is right. It is only the person who regularly does what is right—defined as “doing the will of my Father (who is) in the heavens” —who will enter the Kingdom of the heavens.

In our next study, we will look closely at the Kingdom-petition (6:10) in the immediate context of the Matthean Lord’s Prayer.

 

Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Introduction)

Thy Kingdom Come

For this Spring, during the months of March and April (and into May), I will be running a series within the Monday Notes on Prayer feature dealing specifically with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

“May your kingdom come”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou

This petition has been prayed, as part of the Lord’s Prayer, by many millions of Christians over the centuries. Yet how many really understand what it is that they are praying for? What does it mean to ask for God’s kingdom (basilei/a) to “come”? There surely are, and have been, a considerable number of believers who understand this petition—if they give thought to it at all—in ways that are quite foreign to both the original teaching of Jesus and to the New Testament conception of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, there is perhaps no component of the Lord’s Prayer that is so prone to misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Because the petition itself is so simple—comprised essentially of just two words—the interpretation of it hinges on a proper understanding of the two terms: the noun basilei/a (“kingdom”) and the verbal imperative e)lqe/tw (“may it come!”, or “let it come!”). In the case of the former, since it is modified by the genitive pronoun sou (“of you, your”), referring to God (“Our Father”), it is clear that it is the kingdom of God that is in view. This means that the noun is related to an expression—h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“the kingdom of God”)—which occurs a number of times in the New Testament, and which is itself derived from Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

Much of this study will therefore involve a study of “the kingdom of God” —both the expression and the concept—as it came to be understood and employed by early Christians. The scope of this study will extend from the earliest strands of Gospel tradition to the developed theology of Christians at the end of the first century. In addition, consideration will be given to different ways that believers today might understand and apply the petition regarding the Kingdom, in light of the entire witness of Scripture and early Christian theology.

Each study in this series will focus on a particular Scripture reference or passage, dealing with this Kingdom theme. An attempt will be made to focus upon the two components of the Lord’s Prayer petition, and the two interpretive questions that they entail:

    1. What does it mean to speak of the “Kingdom of God”? and
    2. What does it mean for God’s Kingdom to “come”?

In dealing with the Kingdom-petition of the Lord’s Prayer, there are two basic ways that one may approach the matter, particularly with regard to examining the concept of the kingdom of God. One may focus upon the literary context of the petition, as it occurs in both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. In each Gospel, the petition is part of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The Matthean and Lukan versions of this Prayer differ somewhat, but they clearly derive from the same historical tradition—an authentic tradition, which even many critical commentators, on objective grounds, regard as coming from Jesus himself. More significant is the fact that, in each Gospel, the Prayer occurs in a very different setting. In Matthew, it is part of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (chaps. 5-7), included in a set of teaching by Jesus regarding the proper religious conduct for his disciples (6:1-18, see the introductory admonition in verse 1). The issue of prayer is treated in verses 5-15, with the Lord’s Prayer at the heart (vv. 9-13) of Jesus’ instruction. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is also part of a group of teachings on prayer (11:1-13), but in a location quite separate from the “Sermon on the Plain” (6:20-49, the Lukan equivalent of the “Sermon on the Mount”).

Another approach would be to consider how the concept of the Kingdom, and the use of this terminology, would have been understood by Jesus’ contemporaries, and within the earliest Gospel traditions. It is this approach that I will be adopting here. The Kingdom-references which most likely belong to the earliest strands of the Gospel Tradition will be examined first, along with consideration of their background in Old Testament and Jewish thought.

Before proceeding, let us deal with a few preliminary items regarding the Kingdom-petition in the Lord’s Prayer. First, the Greek text of the petition is identical in both the Matthean and Lukan versions: e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou. The same is true of the version found in the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), an early Christian manual of instruction, from the early-mid second century, but which may preserve traditional material from the (late) first century. The Lord’s Prayer, which occurs in Didache 8:2, closely resembles the Matthean version.

The text of the petition is thus quite well established, though there is a minor (but important) variant in the Lukan version (11:2), which will be discussed as part of this series.

On the theory that the Lord’s Prayer was originally spoken by Jesus, and initially transmitted, in Aramaic, the petition might be reconstructed as follows (in transliteration, Fitzmyer, p. 901):

t¢°têh malkût¹k
(rhythmically parallel to the first petition,
yitqaddaš š§m¹k)

If we consider the structure of the Prayer, in the Matthean/Didache version, there are two sets of three petitions. In the first set (6:9c-10), following the introduction (9a) and invocation to God the Father (9b), the person praying calls on God to act on His own behalf—(i) that His name would be honored (9c), (ii) that His kingdom would come (10a), and (iii) that His will would come to be done on earth (10bc). In the second set of petitions (vv. 11-13), God is called to act on behalf of humankind (i.e., His people). The Kingdom-petition is the second (10a) of the first three petitions.

The Lukan version of the Prayer is shorter. For the first group of petitions (11:2b), there are only two petitions, the Kingdom-petition being the second. In light of this, one could conceivably explain the third Matthean petition as an expository addition expounding the second (Kingdom) petition—that is, God’s Kingdom comes when His will is fully realized (and performed by human beings) on earth. The relation of these two petitions will be discussed in an upcoming note.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Our study begins (next week) with an examination of the early Gospel tradition in Mark 1:15 par. As this verse, with its parallels, is examined, we will also begin exploring the Old Testament and Jewish background of the Kingdom theme that Jesus employs.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28A (1985).

Notes on Prayer: Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:28, 35

After a short hiatus this Spring, the Monday Notes on Prayer feature returns. This week I offer a short discussion on prayer for one’s enemies, in light of the past Sunday Psalm Study on Psalm 72. In that particular Psalm, the poet presents a prayer to God on behalf of the king. In the opening verse, YHWH is asked to give sound judgment and right decision-making to the Israelite king, so that the king’s reign will be peaceful and prosperous, characterized by justice and righteousness, especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society.

I have to wonder how many Christians today actually pray for the nation’s leaders and governing officials, in a similar way, asking that God might grant to them wisdom and sound judgment. In the vicious partisan climate of modern politics—which characterizes the darkness of the world, and not the light of God—it is much easier to speak ill of people in positions of government, mocking and berating them. The tendency (and temptation) to respond in such a way is all the greater when the governing officials hold views and positions that are opposite to those which we, as Christians, might hold. In that regard, the nation’s leaders could be considered opponents, or enemies, and one might well be inclined to speak ill or evil of them. But this is not the way of Christ, who taught his disciples to pray, even for their enemies—on behalf of all those who might be hostile to them.

Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:27-28, 35

Jesus’ clearest sayings in this regard are found in the Matthean ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and the parallel Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’ —that is, part of the so-called “Q” material. In the Sermon on the Mount, the sayings occur within the “Antitheses” of 5:21-47, so-called because of the way that Jesus contrasts a customary/traditional saying with his own teaching—e)gw\ de\ le/gw u(mi=n (“but I say to you…”). Jesus’ argument differs in each Antithesis; the customary saying may reflect a distortion of the original meaning and intent of the Law, or he may argue that simply following the letter of the Law is insufficient. The six Antitheses may be divided as follows:

    1. On murder/anger (vv. 21-26)
    2. On adultery/lust (vv. 27-30)
    3. On divorce (vv. 31-32)
    4. On swearing (an oath) (vv. 33-37)
    5. On revenge/retaliation (vv. 38-42)
    6. On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

The sayings in question are part of the six and final Antithesis, on showing love toward one’s enemies.

On love for one’s enemies (vv. 43-47)

    • Customary saying:
      “you shall love your neighbor [lit. the one near] and (you shall) hate your enemy [lit. the one hostile]” (v. 43)

    • Jesus’ saying:
      “love your enemies and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the ones pursuing [i.e. persecuting] you” (v. 44)

Relation to the Law:

The saying is extracted from Leviticus 19:18 [LXX], a verse frequently cited in the New Testament (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:9, cf. below); however here the phrase “as yourself” (w($ seauto/n) is not included as part of the citation, presumably to better fit the second part of the saying. The second half of the saying does not come from the Old Testament Scripture at all, but should be regarded as a customary and natural (logical) extension—if one should love one’s friends and neighbors, the opposite would seem to follow: that we should hate our enemies. For the principle expressed in ethical-philosophical terms, see e.g., the Delphic aphorism (“to friends be of good mind [i.e. be kind], with enemies keep [them] away [i.e. defend against, ward off]”) and the famous maxim in Xenophon Mem. 2.6.35 etc. (“a man is virtuous [on the one hand] in prevailing [over] friends in doing good, and [on the other] [over] enemies in [doing] ill”).

Jesus’ Exposition:

Jesus flatly contradicts the conventional wisdom, commanding his disciples instead to love one’s enemies and to pray to God on their behalf. This relates both to personal enemies and to those who persecute [lit. pursue] Jesus’ followers (cf. in the Beatitudes, vv. 10-12). Of all Jesus’ statements in the Antitheses, this represents the most distinctive Christian teaching, and the one which is perhaps most difficult to follow. As in most of the other Antitheses (see above), Jesus extends the Torah command and gives it a deeper meaning—in addition to loving one’s friends and relatives, one must also love one’s enemies.

Example/Application:

As the basis for this command, Jesus cites as an example (verse 45) God the Father himself who:

    • makes the sun to rise upon the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people alike
    • sends the rain upon the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ people alike

In some ways this is a curious example, drawing from simple observance of natural phenomena, apart from any ethical or religious considerations—for certainly, we see many instances in Scripture where God brings evil and judgment against wicked/unjust people. However, the emphasis here is on the more fundamental nature of God as Creator—giver and preserver of life.

Verses 46-47 provide a clearer application of Jesus’ teaching, and is parallel to the statement in verse 20. The so-called “love command”, with its extension even to one’s enemies, proved to have immense influence in subsequent Christian teaching, even if the force of it was sometimes softened—cf. Rom 12:19-21 (citing Prov 25:21-22). In Galatians 5:14 Paul refers to the love-command (as represented by Lev 19:18) as “all the Law fulfilled in one word”. There are various forms of Jesus’ saying in verse 44 preserved elsewhere in early Christian writings, which may reflect independent transmission: Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14; Didache 1:3; 2 Clement 13:4; Justin Martyr First Apology 15.9; Athenagoras’ Plea for Christians 11.1; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 3:14; cf. also 1 Corinthians 4:12; Justin Dialogue 35:8; 85:7; 96:3; Clementine Homilies 12:32.

Ultimately the purpose (and result) of following Jesus’ teaching is stated in verse 45a:

“how that [i.e. so that] you may come to be sons [i.e. children] of your Father in the heavens”

This demonstrates a clear connection with the language and imagery of the Beatitudes (esp. v. 9); by following God’s own example (in Christ), we come to be like him—the same idea which concludes the Antitheses in verse 48.

The Lukan Version

In the Lukan version of this material, the contiguous sayings of Matt 5:44-45 are shown to be two separate and distinct sayings. That corresponding to v. 44 is found at Lk 6:27-28:

“But I say to the (one)s hearing (me): ‘Love your enemies, do good [kalw=$ poiei=te] to the (one)s hating you, give good account of [i.e. speak well of, bless] the (one)s bringing down a curse on you, (and) speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] over the (one)s (hurl)ing insults upon you‘.”

The portions in bold match the shorter Matthean saying, the only difference being that, instead of praying for those who persecute (lit. pursue [after]) them, Jesus’ disciples are to pray for those who “hurl insults upon (them)” (vb e)phrea/zw). However, since e)phrea/zw can also connote putting forth threats against a person, the two versions of the saying may not really differ all that much.

However, the Lukan saying is more extensive, citing four kinds of hostile acts (instead of two in Matthew), thus placing even greater emphasis on the disciples responding with love, and the challenge that is involved in doing so. No matter how such people mistreat us or act as our enemies, we, as believers in Christ, must not respond in a like manner, but instead do good to them and pray for them.

The saying corresponding to Matt 5:45 occurs at Lk 6:35, which includes a separate (second) command to love one’s enemies:

“(But) all the more you must love your enemies, and do good [a)gaqopoiei=te], and lend (to them) without expecting (anything) back from (them)—and (then) your wage [i.e. reward] will be much, and you will be sons of (the) Highest…”

Sola Scriptura: 1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25, etc

Sola Scriptura

A fundamental conclusion from our studies thus far is that the Scriptures (of the Old Testament), while continuing to be authoritative for early Christians, possessed a secondary, or supplemental, authority. The primary source of religious authority was located in what may be labeled broadly as the Apostolic Tradition. In the mind of first-century Christians, the Scriptures support and confirm the Apostolic Tradition. In turn, the Apostolic Tradition formed the basis of the New Testament Scriptures. There are three main components to this Tradition:

    • The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel, and the seminal Gospel narrative that developed from it.
    • The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—transmitted from the apostolic witness of what Jesus said and did.
    • The inspired teaching and instruction by the apostles (as representatives of Jesus).

The first of these was discussed in the previous study; here we will be examining the second—the words of Jesus.

2. The Words of Jesus

The apostolic witness (of what Jesus said and did) was at first (c. 35-50 A.D.) transmitted orally; gradually, the sayings and teachings of Jesus were preserved in written form—a process that likely took place during the years c. 45-60. There are three main lines of tradition in this regard:

    • The Synoptic Tradition, as represented principally by the Gospel of Mark
    • The so-called “Q” (for German Quelle [“source”]) material, and
    • The Johannine Tradition (represented by the Gospel of John)

These are altogether separate lines of tradition, with very little overlap, except insofar as each draws on some of the same historical traditions. For the most part, the Synoptic Tradition and the “Q” Tradition, drew upon separate sets of sayings and parables of Jesus; only occasionally do we find Synoptic and “Q” versions of the same historical tradition. Many scholars assume that “Q” existed as a single written document—that is, as an early written Gospel containing sayings and parables (with little in terms of narrative episodes), arranged and joined together based on common themes and shared words/phrases (“catchword-bonding”). I am not so convinced of the existence of a single, distinct Q-document; however, a parallel to such a theorized document can be found in the Coptic/Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”.

The Gospels themselves clearly demonstrate the primacy of Jesus’ words and teachings as a source of authority for early Christians. This is further confirmed by the witness of the other New Testament Writings, though actual quotations or citations of sayings by Jesus are much rarer than one might expect. This can explained according to a number of factors.

In the book of Acts, for example, the focus is almost entirely on the early Gospel preaching (cf. the previous study), and on the confirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. The seminal proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel was centered, almost exclusively, on the death, resurrection and exaltation (to heaven) of Jesus; and, the concern of demonstrating Jesus’ Messianic identity prompted the early preachers and missionaries to focus on the Old Testament Scriptures to support this message. The communication of Jesus’ sayings and parables, etc, would have been reserved for the early instruction (by the apostolic missionaries) in the newly-founded congregations. The preaching in Acts is generally located prior to such instruction, and the teaching in the Letters is subsequent to it.

1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25ff

Paul’s teaching on marriage (and sexual relations) in 1 Corinthians 7 is instructive in terms of the early Christian understanding on the sources of religious authority. Three distinct sources of authority are involved: (1) a command based on Jesus’ words (vv. 10-11), (2) an inspired apostolic directive (vv. 12-14), and (3) an authoritative opinion by an apostle (giving his advice/recommendation, vv. 25ff). Let us consider the first of these:

“And to the (one)s having been married, I give along (this) message—not I, but the Lord—(that) a woman is not to make space (away) [i.e. separate] from her husband” (v. 10)

The verb paragge/llw simply means “give along a message,” but it is often used in the context of transmitting a directive or command, and that is certainly the sense here: the directive is that a woman is not to separate from her husband (and vice versa). Paul claims here that this directive comes from Jesus (“the Lord”) himself, indicating that Paul was aware of the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce (Mark 10:11-12 par; Matt 19:9). Jesus’ teaching is thus the basis for the instruction that Paul gives here, but it is limited to the specific issue in vv. 10-11; for, in the very next verse (12), we read:

“And to the rest (of you) I say—not the Lord—if any brother has a wife…”

In other words, the instruction Paul gives in vv. 12-14 is not based on a transmitted teaching of Jesus, but comes, we may infer, from Paul’s authoritative (and inspired) teaching as an apostle. The implication is that, if a teaching by Jesus is known which directly addresses the issue, then that teaching/saying is given priority. Since no relevant saying was known for the issue in vv. 12-14, Paul had to rely on his own authority as an apostle. This is comparable to a judge or lawyer who cites earlier precedents, when they are on point, as a source of legal authority in making decisions.

Paul speaks even more cautiously regarding the issue in vv. 25ff:

“Now (on the issue) about the virgins, I do not have an order by (the) Lord on (it), but I give (you) a gnw/mh, as (one) having received mercy under (the) Lord, to be (taken as) trustworthy.”

Here he has neither a command from the Lord, nor does he give an apostolic directive, but offers what he calls a trustworthy (pisto/$) gnwmh/. The noun gnwmh/ essentially means “something made known,” usually in the sense of an opinion or advice, etc. Paul’s advice, in this instance, is that believers who are not currently married (or engaged to be married) ought to remain single; yet he is careful not to present this as a directive that needs to be obeyed.

Paul’s tendency to give priority, whenever possible, to sayings/teachings by Jesus, we can assume was commonplace among apostolic missionaries and church leaders. The relative lack of quotations or direct allusions in the New Testament Letters may simply reflect the fact that, for the majority of issues and concerns addressed by the writer, there was no saying or teaching of Jesus, known to the writer, that was on-point.

A notable occurrence of a Jesus tradition cited by Paul is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (cf. also 5:1-7), clearly drawing upon eschatological teaching by Jesus, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus). Other clear allusions to teachings by Jesus are in Rom 12:14-21; 13:8-10 (cf. Gal 5:14); 14:14; 1 Cor 9:14. Many other loose allusions and general parallels (to Jesus’ teaching) can be cited, which demonstrates that, by the 50s A.D. (when Paul was writing), many Christians had assimilated the authoritative teaching of Jesus to the point that it pervaded their own thought and mode of instruction. As a vivid demonstration this, cf. on the letter of James, below.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

A distinctive citation of a Jesus tradition by Paul is found at the heart of his instruction regarding the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this instruction, Paul addresses problems he sees (and which were reported to him) in how certain believers at Corinth were conducting themselves in relation to the Supper. In particular, their behavior was disrupting the unity of the congregation that should be made manifest through participation in the Supper (vv. 18-22, 33-34). Paul warns that treating the Supper in an unworthy manner was dangerous, and could lead to divine punishment (vv. 27-32).

At the center of this instruction, as a way to exhort his audience to work toward the ideal of unity in their handling of the Supper, Paul cites a Jesus tradition that conforms closely to what we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22-24 par). Paul introduces it this way:

“For I received along from the Lord, that which I also gave along to you…” (v. 23)

The chain of tradition is indicated by the use of the parallel verbs paralamba/nw (“take/receive along”) and paradi/dwmi (“give along”). Paul says that he received this tradition “from the Lord”; this should be understood as something that ultimately comes from Jesus (his words), as preserved through the apostolic witness, rather than being the result of a direct revelation to Paul from the risen Christ (cp. 2 Cor 12:9).

For a comparison of 1 Cor 11:24-26 with the Synoptic version, cf. my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Letter of James

The Letter of James provides a good example of how first-century Christians assimilated the sayings and teachings of Jesus, and how these teachings came to take the place of the Old Testament Scriptures as a primary source of authority for religious and ethical instruction. There are many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel.

This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source; cf. above). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the written Torah. There is no indication that the author knew any of the Synoptic Gospels; and, indeed, he may have been writing prior to the publication of the Gospels. Whether or not he was drawing upon some kind of written source, or was simply relying upon oral tradition, is difficult to say.

The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus.

Sola Scriptura: Matthew 5:17-20

Sola Scriptura

The studies this Fall in the “Reformation Fridays” series examine the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). Following our introduction and a short study of the key Scripture-declaration in 2 Tim 3:15-17 (cf. the previous study), we now turn to consider Jesus’ view and treatment of the Scriptures.

The term “(sacred) Writing(s)” (grafh/, plur. grafai/) occurs 14 times in the Gospel sayings of Jesus, almost always in a context that points to the fulfillment of Scripture (prophecy) in the person of Jesus. This is also the specific emphasis where the word is used elsewhere by the Gospel writer (Luke 4:27, 32, 45; John 19:24, 28, 36-37; 20:9). Jesus’ use of the term “Writing” (i.e. Scripture), as for nearly all Jews of the period, was more or less synonymous with the expression “the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13 [par Lk 16:16]; 22:40; Luke 24:44)—meaning the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) and the Prophetic books (Isaiah–Malachi), including the Psalms. It is not entirely certain, based purely on the Gospel evidence, to what extent the other Old Testament books were similarly included under the label of Scripture.

Indeed, our study on Jesus’ view of the (Old Testament) Scriptures can be divided between the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (including the Psalms).

The Law of Moses (Torah/Pentateuch)

A summary of Jesus’ recorded sayings and teachings clearly shows that he considered the Torah regulations (recorded in the Pentateuch) as authoritative for Israelites and Jews—and for his disciples as well. And yet, Jesus’ view of the Law, according to the Gospel evidence, is rather more complicated and nuanced. A proper study of it goes far beyond the scope of this article, but I have earlier provided and extensive treatment of the subject in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (articles on “Jesus and the Law”). In Part 2 of that series, I present a detailed survey of the Gospel passages, divided into three main categories:

    1. Traditions where Jesus advocates Torah observance, but where following him may involve going beyond it
    2. Traditions where Jesus appears to relativize Torah observance:
      1. By spiritualizing the commandment, or, more commonly:
      2. By emphasizing or indicating that his own person (and following him) supersedes the Torah regulations
    3. Traditions which suggest that, in some way, the Torah regulations are limited temporally or in religious scope. In many ways this aspect cannot be separated from #2; certainly, in early Christian thought, the person and work of Jesus inaugurated an (eschatological) “new age”, in which the old religious forms and patterns either passed away or were given new meaning.

Jesus addresses the authority of the Law in a number of key traditions (sayings and episodes) in the Gospels, but perhaps the most important collection of teaching is to be found in the so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, par Luke 6:20-49). A careful study of this Sermon-collection demonstrates that it is Jesus’ interpretation (and application) of the Torah regulations that is most important for his disciples (and for us as believers). For an exegesis of key sections of the Sermon, cf. Part 3 of the aforementioned series “Jesus and the Law”.

While the teaching and example of Jesus may take priority over (and surpass) the written text of the Torah, the written Torah (that is, the Scripture) certainly was considered authoritative by Jesus himself. We can see this, for example, by the way that the written text (of Deuteronomy, 6:13, 16; 8:3) is quoted in the famous Temptation episode (Matt 4:4, 7, 10 par).

Matthew 5:17-20    

Nowhere does Jesus offer such a clear example of his view of the Old Testament Law (Torah) as in Matthew 5:17-20, which also serves as the introduction to two key blocks of teaching: (1) the six so-called “Antitheses” [Matt. 5:21-48], and (2) instruction on specific religious behavior (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) for his followers [Matt. 6:1-18]. They are also among the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings, especially for (Protestant) Christians accustomed to the idea of a “Law-free” Gospel.

To begin with, it is important to consider these four verses in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (for a critical introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’, see the introductory notes of my series on the Beatitudes). Matt. 5:17-20 follows the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and several additional sayings illustrating the character of Jesus’ faithful followers (Matt 5:13-16). The sayings in vv. 17-20 need not have been uttered by Jesus at the same time—the “Sermon” is better understood as a literary and didactic arrangement or collection of Jesus’ teaching, rather than as a single discourse delivered on a particular occasion. Instead these four sayings are thematically related, representing, as it were, principles governing Jesus’ own interpretation of the Torah for his followers. They will each be examined in turn.

1. Matthew 5:17

Mh\ nomi/shte o%ti h@lqon katalu=sai to\n no/mon h* tou\$ profh/ta$: ou)k h@lqon katalu=sai a)lla\ plhrw=sai
“Do not regard (as proper), (that) ‘I have come to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]’; I did not come to loose down but to fill (up).”

The verb nomi/zw (nomízœ) is related to the noun no/mo$ (nómos), here translated conventionally as “Law”; however, no/mo$ would more accurately be rendered as “that which is proper/binding”, “binding custom”, or something similar, and the verb nomi/zw, “regard as proper, consider proper/customary”, etc. Both of these terms carry a technical meaning here: no/mo$ refers specifically to the hr*oT (tôrâ), while nomi/zw indicates proper religious belief. Similarly the opposing verbs katalu/w (katalúœ, “loose down”, cf. lu/w, “loose[n]”) and plhro/w (pl¢róœ, “fill up, fulfill”) have a very specific meaning in this context: as a legal term, katalu/w can mean “abolish, annul, render invalid,” etc., while plhro/w has the sense of “establish, complete, supply the full (force of)”, etc. Several points can be made:

    1. The juxtaposition of “Law and Prophets” here indicates hrwt/no/mo$ primarily as Scripture, rather than as the law-code or commandments per se. That is, no/mo$ here refers to the Pentateuch (books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy), and the “Foretellers” the Prophetic books (see above). The conjunction h* means that Jesus is effectively saying: “I have not come to dissolve (the authority of) either the Law or the Prophets”. The Pentateuch is the principal expression of the Torah of God, but the Prophetic books also expound and support the instruction—the two forming the corpus of Sacred Writings for Jews (and Christians) of the time.
    2. The ‘incorrect’ statement (or something very like it), governed by mh\ nomi/shte, is actually attested in early Christian writings. For example, in the “Gospel of the Ebionites” (according to Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.16.5), h@lqon katalu=sai ta\$ qusi/a$ (“I have come to dissolve the sacrifices”), and a similar Gnostic formulation in the “Gospel of the Egyptians” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.63). According to the Dialogue of Adamantius (ch. 15), certain Marcionites claimed that Jesus actually said the opposite of Matt 5:17: “I have not come to fulfill the Law, but to dissolve (it)”. Cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 174-176. It may seem strange that Jesus himself would already (in his own lifetime) be safeguarding his teaching against ‘misrepresentations’ of this sort—or does this rather reflect early disputes regarding his teaching? In Romans 3:31 Paul delivers an apologetic statement very similar to that of Jesus’ here: “Do we then bring down the Law (for it to be) inactive through faith? May it not be! But (rather) we make the Law stand!”
    3. The verb katalu/w can be used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” a building, etc., and so it appears in the charge that Jesus said he would “dissolve” the Temple (Mark 14:58; 15:29 par.; Acts 6:14; also cf. Mark 13:2 par.). This is a significant association in terms of Judaism and the Law within early Christianity—cf. the highly Christological version of the Temple-saying in John 2:19ff. Similarly, the contrasting verb plhro/w, can be given a theological and Christological nuance here: that Jesus himself completes or fills up the Law. Paul’s famous statement in Rom 10:4 comes to mind: “For Christ is the completion [te/lo$] of the Law…”

For a more detailed study on v. 17, see my earlier note.

2. Matthew 5:18

a)mh\n ga\r le/gw u(mi=n: e%w$ a*n pare/lqh| o( ou)rano\$ kai\ h( gh=, i)w=ta e^n h* mi/a kerai/a ou) mh\ pare/lqh| a)po\ tou= no/mou, e%w$ a*n pa/nta ge/nhtai
“For, amen, I say to you: ‘until the heaven and the earth should go along [i.e. pass away], one yod or a single horn will not go along from the Law, until all things should come to be’.”

There is an interesting chiastic form and parallelism to this saying:

    • “Until heaven and earth should pass along”
      • “One yod or a single horn will not pass along from the Law”
    • “Until all (things) should come to be”

The first and last phrases are both temporal expressions: the first in concrete terms, according to the ancient worldview (“heaven and earth” represents the universe as understood at the time); the second more abstractly, as the coming-to-be of all things. In between these two expressions is a statement regarding the (relative) permanence of the Law. The “yod” is traditionally the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (and of the Greek as well); it is not as clear precisely what kerai/a (lit. “horn”, or possibly “hook”) signifies here, but presumably it indicates a small ornamental mark in the script. The force of the expression is rhetorical rather than literal, i.e. “not even the smallest letter or mark will pass away from the Law”.

Noteworthy is the fact that the reference is specifically to a written text. It is not certain to what extent there was a distinction between written and oral Torah in Jesus’ time; but overall Jesus appears to have had a negative view of traditions added to the primary sense of the written text. Indeed, it can be argued that a fundamental purpose of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere) was to restore the true meaning and significance of the original (written) Torah. In any event, it is clear enough that here Torah means primarily sacred Writing (Scripture, as in v. 17); but it probably also refers to the Torah as (written) Law-code—i.e., the collection of commandments, statutes, etc., contained in the Pentateuch.

The saying as a whole seems to limit the force and validity of the Law to the current world-order, as opposed to subsequent Jewish ideas which often emphasized the eternality of the Torah. There is an eschatological aspect at work here, as in much of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ followers were to be aware of the (imminent) end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God (with its accompanying Judgment). The Law would only serve as a governing (religious) authority for believers during the present Age. Paul expresses a rather different view of the temporal limitation of the Law (see, for example, in Galatians 3:26-4:7).

3. Matthew 5:19

o^$ e)a\n ou@n lu/sh| mi/an tw=n e)ntolw=n tou/twn e)laxi/stwn kai\ dida/ch| ou%tw$ tou\$ a)nqrw/pou$, e)la/xisto$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n: o^$ d’ a*n poih/sh| kai\ dida/ch|, ou!to$ me/ga$ klhqh/setai e)n th=| basilei/a| tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Therefore if (there is one) who [i.e. whoever] should loose (a single) one of these littlest things upon (you to) complete and should teach men thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the kingdom of the heavens; but (one) who should do and teach (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the kingdom of the heavens.”
[in more conventional translation:]
“Therefore, whoever looses (a single) one of these littlest commandments and teaches men (to do) thus, he will be called ‘littlest’ in the Kingdom of Heaven; but (the one) who does and teaches (correctly), this one will be called ‘great’ in the Kingdom of Heaven”

The noun e)ntolh/ (entol¢¡) is literally “something (placed) upon (one) to complete”—i.e., “charge, injunction”, or, more commonly, “command[ment]”. There are a number of important questions within this verse, which I will discuss briefly in sequence.

    • How does the verb lu/w here relate to katalu/w in verse 17? The first generally means “loose[n]”, while the second is more intensive and forceful, “loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy]”. In verse 17, the sense is “to destroy or abolish the authority of the Law” (and Prophets). Here the sense is rather “to remove or lessen the requirement of a commandment”.
    • What exactly is meant by “these commandments”? Are these the commandments of the written Torah, or are they the commandments of Jesus? Arguments can be made for both views. The context of verses 17 and 18 would indicate that the written Torah is meant—if so, then the saying would imply that the written Law is fully binding for Jesus’ followers. However, many commentators would hold that Jesus’ commands are what is meant here; such commands would include Jesus’ (authoritative) interpretation of the Law, but would not be synonymous with the commandments of the written Torah itself.
    • What is meant by the “least/littlest” of these commandments? There are several possibilities:
      (a) Jesus is distinguishing between his own commandments—if so, this has been largely lost to us.
      (b) He is distinguishing between greater and lesser commands in the Torah (perhaps similar to later Rabbinic teaching)
      (c) He makes a distinction between the external/ceremonial detail and the broader concepts of righteousness/justice, mercy, love, etc. (see Matt 23:23-24).
      (d) The force of the expression is rhetorical and not meant to be taken literally (and also facilitates the wordplay later in v. 19).
      In my view, the last option most likely correct: “the least of these commandments” would be another way of saying “any of these commandments”. However, option (c) should not be entirely disregarded; the expression “least of these commandments” could be taken to mean “even the smallest detail of the commandments”.
    • How should the juxtaposition of “least/littlest” and “great(est)” in the kingdom of Heaven be understood? It is possible that degrees of reward or position in Heaven for believers is meant; at the very least, Jesus seems to be drawing upon this idea. However, it seems quite strange that those who disregard (and teach others to disregard) the commandments (especially if Jesus’ own commandments are involved) would receive any place in the Kingdom. I prefer to consider the use of the terms “littlest” and “great” here as rhetorical—a colorful and dramatic way of contrasting the fates of the obedient and disobedient. The question of whether the disobedient followers are ultimately “saved” is interesting, but probably out of place here.

The most significant question remains whether “these commandments” are those of Jesus, of the written Torah, or both? I don’t know that it is possible to give a decisive answer here. Subsequent Christian tradition tended to identify “the commandments” with “the commandments of Christ”, but is this the same as what Jesus means in the saying of verse 19? It is probably best to understand the phrase here in the qualified sense of “the commandments of the written Torah… as interpreted by Jesus”. Admittedly, we almost certainly do not have all of Jesus’ teachings related to the Law. The Gospels themselves contain, I am sure, only a portion of them; even here in the Sermon on the Mount, the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48 and the instruction in 6:1-18 are only representative of the teaching Jesus gave to his followers. For this reason, in particular, the phrase “commandment[s] of Christ” requires a more thorough and systematic treatment.

4. Matthew 5:20

Le/gw ga\r u(mi=n o%ti e)a\n mh\ perissu/sh| u(mw=n h( dikaiosu/nh plei=on tw=n grammate/wn kai\ Farisai/wn, ou) mh\ ei)se/lqhte ei)$ th\n basilei/an tw=n ou)ranw=n
“For I say/relate to you that if your justice/righteousness should not be over (and above much) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, no, you will not go into the Kingdom of the heavens.”

This is probably the simplest, and yet, in some ways, the most difficult of the four sayings. It does not deal directly with the Law; rather it offers a challenging point of comparison for Jesus’ followers. The “Scribes and Pharisees” is a stock phrase and schematic expression in the Gospels, often related to those who question or dispute with Jesus, involving some point of legal or religious observance. They are typically mentioned only in the setting of the narrative, or in reaction to something Jesus says or does. The Pharisees have been given a superficially bad reputation by Christians, often as the result of careless reading of the Gospels. Of the major Jewish groups known from the time, the Pharisees probably had the most in common with Jesus himself. He doubtless had many interactions with them, of which only traces have been preserved in the Gospels; on the whole, they appear to have been thoroughly devout and scrupulous in religious matters, though not as strict as the Community of the Qumran texts (usually identified as Essenes). The Scribes [lit. Writers] were legal experts, largely synonymous with the “Teachers of the Law”, and certainly many Scribes were also Pharisees. Jesus’ disputes with the “Scribes and Pharisees” (and other religious leaders) will be discussed in some detail in an upcoming article in this series.

It is important to understand the sense of dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosún¢, “justice/righteousness”) here. As throughout the Sermon of the Mount, and much of early Gospel tradition, the term signifies obedience and conformity to the will of God as expressed in the Torah and the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. In this respect, it is comparable (and compatible) with the traditional Jewish sense of righteousness, and should not be confused with subsequent Christian (esp. Pauline) theological and soteriological use of the word. Presumably, for the first followers of Jesus, and early Jewish Christians, the point of the comparison with the righteousness of the “Scribes and Pharisees” would have been more readily apparent. Today, we can only speculate as to what precisely was meant. There are several possibilities:

    1. The Scribes and Pharisees did not go far enough in observing the Torah—that is, they did not penetrate to its deeper meaning and significance, as indicated by Jesus in his teaching. This would seem to be implied by the Antitheses of Matt 5:21-48.
    2. Their approach to Torah observance and religious behavior was fundamentally flawed, and not the product of a pure heart. This seems to be the thrust of Matt 6:1-18, as well as the Beatitudes. Cf. also the association of Pharisees with “hypocrisy” at numerous points in the Gospels (esp. in Matt 23).
    3. The religious leaders who failed to follow Jesus were (all) missing the teaching and revelation which fulfills and completes the Law (and Righteousness). As such the righteousness of Jesus’ followers would (and should) by its very nature far surpass theirs.
    4. The comparison is primarily rhetorical and exhortative: a call to follow and obey Jesus’ authoritative instruction and interpretation of the Law.

I think there is merit in each of these four views, which can be supported by further detailed study of the Sermon on Mount itself.

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 1)

The Law in the Letter of James

Introduction

By tradition, the “James” of the letter—who describes himself in the text simply as “a slave/servant of God and of (the) Lord Jesus Christ” —is James the brother of Jesus, the leading figure (after Peter) of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 12:17; 15; 21:18ff; Gal 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:7). This identification is almost certainly correct; the only real issue is whether the letter is authentically by James or is pseudonymous. On this question, scholarly opinion is divided; as also is the dating of the letter, which ranges widely—from very early (40s A.D.) to very late (90-100 A.D.). On the basis of a careful and unbiased study of the letter, I find little that points to a date beyond 60-70 A.D.; the similarity of subject matter and terminology with Paul’s letters (Galatians/Romans), as well as 1 Peter, suggests a comparable milieu—somewhere between 50-60 A.D. The lack of any developed Christology is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of an early date.

If we take James 1:1 literally, then the letter was addressed to Jews of the Diaspora/Dispersion, “to the twelve tribes th(at are) in the scattering-throughout [diaspora/]”. We find similar Jewish imagery applied (symbolically) to Christians generally in 1 Peter, but here in James it seems certain that Jews (or Jewish Christians) are intended. The work is undoubtedly Christian, despite the relatively scant references to Christ or specific Christian doctrine (James 1:1, 18ff; 2:1; 5:7, 14, etc). The strongest evidence for this are the many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel. This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the Torah. The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

    • James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
    • James 1:4—Matt 5:48
    • James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
    • James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
    • James 1:20—Matt 5:22
    • James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
    • James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
    • James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
    • James 2:13—Matt 5:7
    • James 2:15—Matt 6:25
    • James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
    • James 3:18—Matt 5:9
    • James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
    • James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
    • James 4:8—Matt 6:22
    • James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
    • James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
    • James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
    • James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
    • James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
    • James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
    • James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
    • James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

    • James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
    • James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
    • James 1:12—Matt 10:22
    • James 1:21—Lk 8:8
    • James 2:6—Lk 18:3
    • James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
    • James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
    • James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
    • James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
    • James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
    • James 4:17—Lk 12:47
    • James 5:5—Lk 16:19
    • James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
    • James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
    • James 5:17—Lk 4:25
    • James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. It is important to keep this in mind when examining James’ view of the Law.

It is now time to look at the most relevant passages in James with regard to the Law.

James 1:21-25

The theme of this passage is the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (adj. e&mfuto$) believers. In using lo/go$ here, the author probably means it in a comprehensive sense, including:

    • The Gospel message, centered on the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a proclamation of deliverance/salvation and new life in Christ
    • The teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. above) preserved and transmitted by apostles, missionaries and teachers such as “James”
    • Authoritative early Christian instruction and teaching, delivered principally by the apostles and fellow-missionaries

Paul uses lo/go$ with a similar range of meaning. Jesus also refers to his word (identified with the word of God) in the context of being planted (cf. Mark 4:4-8, 26-27, 31 par; Matt 7:17-19; 12:33; 13:24ff; 15:13; John 8:37; 15:1-7). In the Gospel of John, the lo/go$ is identified more directly with the person of Christ, and he (in/through the Spirit) himself is the living, eternal seed in the believer (cf. John 5:38; 6:53; 12:23-24; 14:17, 20; 15:4; 17:21; 1 John 2:14; 3:9). James does not go quite that far—his description of this lo/go$ as “the (thing) having power to save your souls” is reminiscent of Paul’s famous declaration regarding the Gospel in Rom 1:16. That this “word/account” serves much the same role for believers as the Old Testament Law previously did for Israel—this is indicated in several ways in the passage:

    • James exhorts people to become ones who do (poihtai/, “doers” of) the word (v. 22); this parallels closely the idea of “doing” the Law (i.e. observance of the Torah commands), cf. Gal 3:10-12; Rom 2:13, etc. The context makes clear that “doing” the lo/go$ involves (normative) ethical behavior and performance of good deeds.
    • There is also a normative, governing quality of the lo/go$ indicated by the metaphor of the mirror in vv. 23-24 (cf. Sirach 12:11; Wisdom 7:26). In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, the Torah also allows a person to see clearly, though more often the image is of light or a lamp (Psalm 119:105; Isa 51:4, etc).
    • A connection with the Law (o( no/mo$) is made specific in verse 25—one looks into the Word (lo/go$), one looks into the Law (no/mo$). Note the following details here that seem to echo both Paul and Jesus’ teaching:
      —This Law is called “complete” (te/leio$, cf. also vv. 4, 15; 3:2); note the important usage of this adjective in Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13, as well as the related verb tele/w (“[make] complete”, sometimes in the context of fulfilling the Law, e.g. Luke 2:39; Matt 17:24; Rom 2:27; James 2:8), and the noun te/lo$ (“completion, end”, note esp. Rom 10:4).
      —It is also called the Law of freedom (e)leuqeri/a$); in this context, it is impossible to ignore Paul’s references to the freedom of believers with regard to the Law (cf. Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 7:1-6; 8:2ff, etc).
      —Doing this Law is referred to as “work” (e&rgon); again, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s regular expression “works [of the Law]” (e&rga [no/mou]), cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; also Eph 2:9.
      —Doing this Law leads to beatitude (maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”); the famous beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5:3-12, etc) are closely tied to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. For the Pauline teaching on the relationship between the Law and the justice/righteousness of God, see Rom 1:17; 2:13; 3:21ff; 4:3-13; 7:12ff; 8:3-4; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, et al.

The expression “the complete Law of freedom” is discussed in a separate daily note.

James 1:27

In this verse the author declares what is “qrhskei/a clean and without stain/soil alongside [i.e. before] God”. The original meaning and derivation of the word qrhskei/a is uncertain, but it generally refers to religious worship and practice, and is often translated simply as “religion”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18. In other words, James is defining what true and proper religion is before God: “to look upon (those) bereft (of parents) [i.e. orphans] and widows in their distress, (and) to keep oneself without spot from the world”. This definition is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there is no mention of observing the Law, either generally or in its ceremonial sense. Instead we find a two-fold injunction which fairly summarizes much of the ethical teaching shared by Jews and Christians both, which ultimately derives from the Old Testament Scriptures (including the Torah): (1) to care for the poor and needy (esp. widows and orphans), and (2) to avoid the sinful/defiling influences of the world.

James 2:1-13

This passage can be divided into two sections: (a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). Overall the emphasis is on care for the poor (cf. above on 1:27) and acts of mercy. It is in this context that the author of the letter makes his most prominent direct reference to the Law (o( no/mo$). Two principal points are made:

    1. Anyone who fails to fulfill the Law in one detail is guilty of violating all of it (v. 10; Paul makes much the same point in Gal 5:3). The verb ptai/w, rare in the New Testament (Rom 11:11; James 3:2; 2 Pet 1:10), refers to tripping and falling, used often in a metaphorical sense of failure.
    2. Showing partiality to the rich and mighty, which in turns shows lack of proper care for the poor and lowly, is a sin and a violation of the Law (v. 9)—indeed, it violates the “royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) (v. 8).

Because of the importance of this passage, it will be discussed in more detail—along with the expressions “royal Law” (v. 8) and “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$, v. 12)—in a separate note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letter of James

James

In examining the eschatology in the letter of James, the extent to which it should be considered representative of the early Christian eschatology, depends on how the letter is dated. There is a considerable range of opinion among scholars on this question, with some dating it extremely early (40s A.D.) and others extremely late (first quarter of the 2nd century A.D.). I would tend toward the earlier side, regarding it as having likely been written sometime before 70 A.D. The apparent lack of a developed Christology in the letter is often taken as a sign of a relatively early date. While the identification of the “James” in 1:1 continues to be debated, there is no real reason to doubt the authenticity of the address—that the letter represents instruction addressed to Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians) throughout the Greco-Roman world (the “scattering throughout”, diaspora/).

In my view, the eschatology of the letter corresponds generally to that of the period c. 50-70 A.D. The expectation of the end (and the return of Jesus) is imminent, with a real sense that the time is quite short. Moreover, this eschatology is couched within a general ethical context that, apparently, has not yet been given a distinctly Christian form, in comparison with similar Jewish instruction. As with the letter as a whole, its eschatological references breathe the style and tone of Jesus’ teaching, especially that preserved in the Sermon on the Mount. At the same time, there are several peculiar details and points of emphasis that are atypical of Paul and other (later) New Testament writings.

Chapters 1-3

James 1:12

The main eschatological section of the letter spans 4:11-5:11 (discussed in detail below); however, there are several earlier references which anticipate this more extended treatment. The first is found in 1:9-16, which begins with a warning on the fate of the rich (and those who devote themselves to worldly riches), with echoes of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19-20, 25-33. The image of the flower that fades away and perishes (vv. 9-11), symbolizing the brevity of human life with its uncertainty and sudden end, is a general wisdom motif, but it has special significance in an eschatological context. This is alluded to by the beatitude that follows in verse 12:

“Happy (is the) man who remains under [i.e. endures] (in the) testing, (in) that, (hav)ing come to be considered (worthy), he will receive the wreath of life which (God) gave the message upon [i.e. promised to give] to the (one)s loving Him.”

The image of receiving a wreath (ste/fano$) to wear—a traditional sign of honor/dignity, given especially to those who are victorious in battle or a contest—is frequently used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, reflecting the idea of the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous (believers) at the end-time, following the Judgment. Cf. 1 Thess 2:19; 1 Cor 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11; the specific expression “wreath of life” occurs in Rev 2:10.

The theme of enduring testing (peirasmo/$) continues in vv. 13-16. This is often understood (and translated) narrowly in terms of “temptation”, however “testing” is more accurate, and better preserves the eschatological connotations of the word in many instances where it occurs in the New Testament–including Matt 6:13; Mark 14:38 par, as well as the more obvious eschatological references in 1 Pet 4:12; 2 Pet 2:19; Rev 3:10.

James 2:5

There is a similar eschatological context to the rich-vs-poor teaching in 2:1-13 as well. Indeed, the eschatological promise in v. 5 is couched in similar wording to that in 1:12 (cp. above):

“You must hear (this), my (be)loved brothers: has not God gathered out the (one)s (who are) poor in the world (to be one)s rich in trust and (one)s receiving the lot of the Kingdom, about which He (has) given a message (promising it) to the (one)s loving Him?”

The contrast is certainly clear: poor in the world vs. rich in trust of God, i.e. worldly vs. heavenly/divine riches. This again echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3ff, and note the stronger contrast in the Lukan version of this material, 6:20ff, 24ff). Paul makes a similar sort of comparison in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. The noun klhrono/mo$ literally refers to one who receives (or is to receive) a share or lot (klh=ro$), often in the sense of an inheritance—i.e. the poor whom God has chosen (to be rich) will inherit His Kingdom. This is precisely the message of Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 10ff).

The theme of trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) continues in vv. 14-26, perhaps the best-known portion of the letter, due to the perennial debate over its relationship to the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. In some ways this misses the point, since through the chapter the emphasis is clearly on “works” as demonstrating love and concern for others (especially the poor)—vv. 1-4, 6, 14-17. Insofar as the “works of the law” (to use the Pauline expression) are concerned, the author of the letter (“James”), despite writing to Jews (Jewish Christians), seems to have much the same view of the relationship between believers and the Torah as Paul does (cp. 2:8ff with Gal 5:14; 6:2, etc), though he expresses it rather differently.

The theme of judgment (kri/si$) is also introduced in vv. 12-13, which will be developed in the subsequent chapters (cf. below); this adds to the eschatological context of the teaching, though this aspect may not be immediately apparent. Both the lex talionis principle, and the reversal-of-fortune theme, are in view here, as we find also in Jesus’ teaching (esp. in the Sermon on the Mount). The one who judges others (on earth), will be judged in turn by God (in heaven), with the emphasis being on the harsh judgment that awaits for those who mistreat or disregard the poor and needy.

James 3:5-6

There would seem to be another eschatological allusion in 3:6. The author (“James”) has shifted the focus from his discussion on the rich and poor, to give a similar kind of ethical instruction on guarding the tongue (i.e. how we speak). The colorful imagery he uses is quite typical of Jewish Wisdom literature (on instruction regarding the “tongue” in Proverbs, cf. 10:20, 31; 12:18-19; 15:2ff; 17:20; 18:21; 21:6; 26:28). In vv. 5-6 the destructive power of the tongue is compared to that of fire (cf. Prov 16:27; 26:21). The imagery is applied in verse 5, and then is built on in v. 6, including, it would seem, a kind of eschatological warning:

“And the tongue (is indeed) a fire—(as) the world th(at is) without justice, (so) the tongue is placed down among our members, the (thing) staining the whole body and setting aflame the (entire) course of th(is) coming to be, even as it is being set aflame under the (fire) of Ge-Hinnom.”

At the very least, v. 6b contains a warning of the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked. It is a Judgment by fire, using the motif of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom) drawn from Israelite history and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Jesus uses the idiom with some frequency in his teaching, of the fire that will burn up the wicked and faithless (Mark 9:43ff par; Matt 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ teaching. For the use of fire elsewhere, in an eschatological Judgment setting, cf. Matt 3:10-12 par; 7:19; 13:40; 25:41; Lk 17:29; John 15:6; 1 Cor 3:13ff; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 1:7; 2 Pet 3:7ff; Jude 7; Rev 8:5ff; 14:10, 18; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-10, 14-15.

The expression o( troxo\$ th=$ gene/sew$ creates some difficulty. The noun troxo/$ essentially refers to something running or rolling (from the verb tre/xw); it could indicate specifically a “wheel”, or to the “track” or “course” in which something runs/rolls. This is the only occurrence of the noun in the New Testament; in the LXX, it typically refers to a wheel. The other noun in the expression, ge/nesi$, literally means “coming to be”, sometimes specifically in the sense of coming to be born, i.e. “birth”. Thus, in English the expression might be translated “wheel of birth”, “circle of life”, or something similar. Here it is intended as a comprehensive expression, describing all life that comes into existence on earth. Thus the imagery spans the macro and micro—the entire evil and unjust world alongside the little tongue. In many ways the two are the same; here the image is of the tongue, with its evil-speaking, setting fire to the entire body (compare Jesus’ similar use of the eye in Matt 6:22-23), the whole being of the person. At the same time, the person’s existence—indeed, that of the entire world—is set on fire by Ge-Hinnom. This may contain an allusion to the idea of the world being consumed by fire at the end of the Age (2 Pet 3:12). At any rate, as noted above, it is a reference to the eschatological Judgment.

James 4:11-5:11

The main eschatological portion of the letter of James begins at 4:11 and extends through 5:11, spanning two parallel sections which may be outlined as follows:

    • 4:11-12—A warning against speaking evil
      • 4:13-17—Warning against the shortness and uncertainty of life
    • 5:1-6—A warning against trust in worldly riches
      • 5:7-11—Warning of the nearness of the end (and the Judgment)

The two areas addressed—speaking evil and worldly riches—have been themes throughout the letter (cf. above). The warning against them has the end-time Judgment in mind. This is clear enough in 4:12, where God is identified as the one who will act as Judge over all humankind. The one who judges others, speaking evil of them (or against them), will be judged in turn by God at the end-time. The condemnation of those who devote themselves to worldly wealth and riches, in 5:1-6, is even harsher. Given the uncertainty and shortness of life (4:13-17), piling up earthly treasure is, in general, foolish and inappropriate. How much more foolish is it when one realizes that the end of the Age is near— “You have gathered treasure (here) in the last days!” (v. 3b) And, since much, if not most, earthly wealth is obtained, at least in part, through the exploitation and oppression of others (including the poor), those who are rich will face God’s Judgment, which is coming soon enough:

“…the cries of the (one)s (hav)ing harvested [i.e. workers/laborers] have come into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth! You destroyed yourself (with pleasure) upon the earth and (liv)ed in luxury, you nourished your heart on a day of slaughter!…” (vv. 4b-5a)

In verse 7, the author turns to address those who are poor and oppressed; at the same time, he speaks to believers, who, in large part, would fit this category. So too, in Jesus’ teaching, he assumes that his disciples will be among the poor and meek, those who mourn and are persecuted, etc (see esp. the Beatitudes, Matt 5:3-12 par). The exhortation here assumes that the end-time Judgment, when the wrongs (on earth) will be righted by God, and the righteous will receive their true wage (reward), is coming very soon. Harvest imagery is employed, regularly used as part of eschatological instruction in the New Testament:

“So (then), brothers, you must be long of impulse, until the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]. See! the worker of the earth [i.e. land] looks to receive out of (it) the valuable fruit of the earth, having a long impulse upon it, until he should receive (that which comes) before and (that which comes) later. (So) also you must be long of impulse, setting your hearts firm, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside (us) [parousi/a] has come near!” (vv. 7-8)

The verb makroqume/w is difficult to translate; it means to be makroqumw/$ (“long of impulse”), that is, possessing a long and enduring impulse (qumo/$), or desire, such as for a specific goal or purpose. It can connote specifically the idea of endurance or being patient; however, here it is better understood in tandem with the verb sthri/zw (“set firm”), indicating a strength and firmness of purpose, willing to endure any suffering or hardship. Translating the verb makroqume/w as “be patient” could give the misleading impression that the Lord’s appearance and the end-time Judgment may not occur for quite some time. This is flatly contradicted by the clear statements expressing imminence—i.e., that the end will come very soon, possibly at any moment:

“the Lord’s being alongside us has come near” (v. 8b)
h( parousi/a tou= kuri/ou h&ggiken
“see! the Judge has taken (his) stand before the door” (v. 9)
i)dou\ o( krith\$ pro\ tw=n qurw=n e%sthken

So, too, in the example of Job, etc, in vv. 10-11, it is not the “patience” of Job that is being emphasized, so much as his firm resolve (we might also say his faith) while enduring suffering and hardship.

Twice in vv. 7-8, the noun parousi/a is used. It is a rather ordinary word, referring to a person “(com)ing to be alongside”; however, very early on, it came to serve as a technical term among Christians for the end-time appearance (return) of Jesus (the “parousia”)–cf. Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; 1 Cor 15:23; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28. In a Jewish setting, the expression “the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside” (h( parousi/a tou= kur/iou) would have referred to the appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people; however, for early Christians the title ku/rio$ could be used interchangeably for God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus. Moreover, even in Jewish eschatological tradition, God’s end-time appearance would take place through His appointed representative, a heavenly/divine being or Messianic figure. Paul uses the same expression (of Jesus) in 1 Thess 4:15 and 2 Thess 2:1, filling it out “the parousi/a of our Lord” (cf. also 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 5:23, “…of our Lord Yeshua”).

On the use of the verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), and other terminology to express the imminent expectation of the end among early Christians, see my separate article on the subject.