Medieval Dance of Death

A recent article by N. T. Wright has brought me back to this moribund blog to share a few thoughts. The article’s provocative title is “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” That title sums up his point and leads him to urge us to learn to pray the Psalms of lament, to sorrow as God sorrows. This is sage advice and I join him in this exhortation. But I cannot wholly agree with his conclusion: “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” I feel this goes beyond what Scripture warrants. Everything God does has its purpose. We are not wrong if we seek, with humility and caution, to understand the “why” of this pandemic.

In the article, Wright dismisses as “the usual silly suspects” any idea that God has sent this pandemic in judgment or punishment or even as the discipline of a well-loved son who has strayed. In other words, the Church’s unvarying interpretation of plague in every previous age—that it represents God’s judgment and calls us to repentance—is “silly” and “knee-jerk would-be Christian.” But how usual are these silly suspects today? Who talks like that now? Almost no one. And those who do are easily caricatured and dismissed, just as Wright does here. Attacking the faults we don’t actually have keeps us distracted so we don’t have to attack the faults we do.

Every age does this, attacking as excess the very attitudes they could actually stand a little more of. Certainly in Medieval times, it would have been right to warn believers not to go overboard in assuming they knew what specific sin was being judged by the plague. It would have been wise to caution them against drawing rash conclusions based on which areas were hardest hit and which were spared. And some such warnings did take place. But they were often overshadowed by statements identifying specific targets as the real reason for the plague. Back then they warned everyone not to think that the plague was a merely natural phenomenon without purpose or meaning. The medievals could have done with a little more understanding that events under the sun are “random” and those who are wise will exercise great restraint and humility when exegeting Providence. We, by contrast, could do with a lot more understanding that all things are directed by God for his holy purposes and that the wise will seek to understand those purposes in order to submit to them and benefit from them.

This modern plague has a “why”. It’s possible to seek to understand that “why” without giving in to irresponsible speculation or self-righteous finger pointing. I might even say it’s our duty to seek that understanding, provided we are always willing to accept the answer God gave to Job. His judgments are indeed unsearchable and his ways past finding out.

I think part of the article’s problem is that Wright has restricted the meaning of the word “why”. He means “What purpose can God have in this event given that his commitment is to make this world a better place in which we can be happy, a world that will one day be glorified in a creational analogy to the resurrection of the body?” There is indeed no answer to the question when posed in those terms. But perhaps one answer to the “why” is that the Lord wishes to challenge and expose the falseness of those terms.

In Surprised by Hope, Wright ridicules the song and the sentiment “This World Is Not My Home”. It’s beyond me how someone with any familiarity with the New Testament–let alone Wright’s level of familiarity–can do this. What are we if not pilgrims and sojourners on the earth, confessing that here we have no lasting city as we look for the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God? To someone for whom this world is home, these are indeed perplexing times. What is God up to? And when will he get back to blessing our plans for his kingdom?

Part of the “why” may be to remind God’s people, and to teach some of them for the first time, the very thing that Wright denies. This world is not our home. Only when we understand this will we eagerly seek the world that is to come. Only when we become heavenly-minded will we be any earthly good.

To those who make it their ambition to lead a quiet life as they wait patiently for the appearing of the Lord–another Biblical stance that Wright seems to caricature and dismiss in Surprised by Hope–these times make perfect sense. Have we become too comfortable in this world and even learned to love it? Let us take this opportunity to fix our eyes on Jesus and the heavenly reward. Encouraging us to do that is surely part of the “why”. Is there pain and suffering and death? Let us hope in the day of resurrection when all things will be made right and God will wipe away our tears. And in the certainty of that day, let us serve with boldness those who might infect us. If we die, our death will be precious in the sight of God. And he will raise us up to everlasting life.

And yes, let us also learn to lament. This too is part of the “why” of our crisis and not a demonstration of its meaninglessness.


From the early days of the Church, perhaps from the Church’s inception, Christian teachers have looked forward to a softening of Israel before the Lord’s return. They have taught that God will one day turn again to his people according to the flesh. He will open the eyes of many (perhaps all?) to recognize Jesus as the promised Seed of Abraham, the hoped-for Messiah, the salvation of his people. This hope has endured over centuries and has always been well-represented in both the Roman Catholic and the many Protestant streams of thought in the Western church. (I know far less about the Eastern churches, but I suspect the same could be said of those streams.) In the English language, this eschatological event came to be known as “The Conversion of the Jews.”

Generally, those who hold to this view have appealed to Paul’s prophecy or promise in Romans 11:26a, “And so all Israel shall be saved.”

I don’t propose here to give a historical analysis (or even an overview) of the many ways this hope has been expressed and often horrifically abused. The expectation of future conversion has all too frequently led to the present persecution of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gentile Christians, whom Paul describes as being grafted into Israel “contrary to nature” (Rom. 11:24), have even taken Israel’s unbelief as a sign of their racial inferiority. This is truly the work of the Enemy. All who belong to Christ must hate and lament such attitudes and actions.

But sweeping away the many perversions of this teaching, do we not find at its core something beautiful? What Christian can fail to be moved by the thought that God might turn and seek his ancient people? To this day the Jewish people read and deeply value the Hebrew scriptures, the very words of God. How can we not pray and yearn that those words would come alive to them, that the Spirit of Messiah might breathe life into them?

So I say with some regret that I’m not persuaded that Scripture promises a future conversion of Israel. I also take this position very cautiously because, who am I? Even if the future conversion of Israel has not been the unanimous teaching of the Church, it’s still a teaching that has been well-represented among the wise in all ages. But, humbly, I think Lee Irons has persuasively argued that “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 refers to the entire Church, both Jewish and Gentile converts. (See his paper at this link for more details.) So Romans 11:26 does not, I think, have a future conversion of ethnic Israel specifically in view.

Yet we can also say this. Scripture never says it won’t happen! The conversion of God’s ancient people to Christ is still a very proper and holy desire. We long for that increase of fellowship, for the bringing of these treasures into the house of the Lord.

If there is no explicit promise, are there perhaps hints? I think I may have come upon such a hint this morning as I listened to the Old Testament reading. (Our morning prayer service uses a lectionary with prescribed readings from the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the Gospels. Lately, the Old Testament readings have been from the book of Genesis. We are now in the middle of the story of Joseph.) The story of Joseph is, at the very least, consistent with a hope that ethnic Israelites will at last find salvation.

The story of Joseph quite clearly prefigures the story of Christ. This interpretation again goes back to the very early church—e.g. to Tertullian (ca. 155 – 240 AD) and Cyprian (ca. 200 – 258 AD). And on this point, I’m relieved to say, I can embrace the understanding wholeheartedly and align myself with the wise!

Consider the contours of Joseph’s story. He is one of the children of Israel (the patriarch formerly known as Jacob). He is the special son, the beloved, with whom Jacob is well-pleased. His father gives him a rich garment, a gift to show his esteem of this son among all Israel’s sons. The beloved son announces prophetically that he will rise above them all, over the whole of Israel, and rule over them.

The sons of Israel respond with jealousy and anger. They conspire to put him to death. And figuratively they do put him to death. First, they put him in a “pit.” (This is the earliest use of that word in the Hebrew scriptures. Anyone familiar with the Psalms will recall how “the pit” is later used as a synonym for Sheol or the grave.) From this predicament he is, temporarily, resurrected. They bring him up out of the pit, but only to send him “down” to Egypt, another figurative death. They return to Jacob with faked evidence of his death. So again Joseph “dies.” And this time the prominent aspect of his death is his separation from his father.

From these deaths as well—the going “down” into Egypt, and the death with respect to his father—Joseph will rise again. First, in Egypt, Joseph rises from his enslaved condition to oversee the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. But again he suffers a figurative death. He is sent down into Pharaoh’s prison. He receives this “death” despite—indeed because of—his righteous behavior. He is condemned because of one who falsely accuses.

From this death also, he begins to rise. First he rises to prominence in the prison and preaches to the spirits who are there. (Ok, maybe I’m pushing the analogy, but… I don’t know. It’s at least interesting, isn’t it?) Then he rises from prison in a glorious “resurrection” to be seated at the right hand of Pharaoh and to rule in Pharaoh’s name over the whole land. All authority is given to him. Everyone bows down.

Ruling over all, he does not exploit his position but generously provides. Everyone who comes to him receives bread, receives life, receives salvation! All this happens to the greater glory of Pharaoh and the expansion of his kingdom.

If you don’t see how that story relates to the story of Christ, I must’ve told it wrong!

You know how the story ends. Having provided life to the entire world, Joseph provides life last of all to his brothers, the sons of Israel. In desperate need of that which only Joseph has, his brothers according to the flesh return to him. At first they do not recognize him. He does not reveal himself. He puts them through various trials. (During this period, he takes time privately to weep, being overcome by emotion because of what is happening. Joseph is no prankster, callously toying with his brothers to amuse himself. However we understand his actions, we must acknowledge that behind them is a genuine, deep, and heartfelt love.) Finally, he makes them know who he is. They are frightened. Will not the one whom they put to “death” desire vengeance? He does not. He embraces them. He pleads with them not to be distressed or angry with themselves because they sold him into this figurative death. God was in their actions for the purpose of life!

Famously, in the last chapter of Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers, “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:20,21). And of course we are familiar with the similarities between this statement and Peter’s assertion that Jesus was delivered up “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God… to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 2:23,4:28). The crucifixion they meant for evil has resulted in life for all who repent of that evil and embrace the one they put to death.

Now, typology is not allegory. I know that. We should not look for a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of any Old Testament story and the story of Christ. We look instead for resemblances and parallels and hints and pointers. (We look for them with the confidence that they are there!)

So I will stop short of insisting on some exact correspondence between the end of Joseph’s story and the coming finale to the story of Jesus. But I will say this. The story of Joseph is long and involved. Along the way it has so many parallels with and pointers to the story of Jesus. The story of Joseph is the last, great set piece in the book of Genesis. It is the grand finale of this symphony with all the instruments playing and all the previous themes weaving gloriously together into a single masterwork. Joseph’s story takes up roughly a quarter of the book of Genesis. And fully half of that story deals with Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers according to the flesh, the sons of Israel who figuratively put him to death. Might this not suggest that God is waiting until the end of the story to deal one last time, and for glorious good, with the descendants of those sons? Might it point to a day when Jesus comforts and speaks kindly to Israel’s children, a day when he swears to provide for them and their little ones? I have begun to think it might. I will always hope it does.

Here then is my prayer (which may or may not fit the ancient form known as a “collect”):

Almighty and most merciful God, in ancient times you saved the sons of Israel through the wisdom and righteousness of their brother Joseph. So now take pity on the descendants of Jacob and by Holy Scripture enlighten their minds in the knowledge and love of Christ. Grant this that we your Church should be made complete in communion with them as you finish your work of restoring the lost. Amen.

(A Sonnet for Advent)

The Israelite has no inheritance
Or portion in this Roman conquered land.
We wait in hope, we hope in penitence
Come, Yahweh, hear, come save with your right hand!

We have no ark, no glory cloud, no throne.
No son of David reigns from Zion’s height.
The covenant is broke. The people groan,
“Who can unbreak it, who restore our right?”

Yet God once promised Abraham this place
Without condition. By himself he swore!
Now Abram’s seed must wait upon God’s grace
Until the Seed shall come to heal, restore.

Come, Promised Seed! Come, David’s Greater Son!
Come, Better Moses, lead God’s children home.

luther-hammers-the-95-theses-to-the-church-door-of-wittenberg_crop0Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But is “celebrate” the appropriate word? Is that really the tone our commemoration should take? It seems rather like a woman celebrating the 10th anniversary of her divorce. One understands the reason for the celebration, but it still seems somehow distasteful–rejoicing in the dissolution of what God had joined together. It’s distasteful even if the woman had solid Biblical grounds for her divorce, just as we had solid Biblical grounds for separating from the Roman church. It’s distasteful even if the woman’s husband was despotic, abusive, and corrupt. The Roman church was all those things. You’ll never hear me claim otherwise. But I can’t rejoice in the memory of the awful day when those troubles began coming to a head.

In particular, can we rejoice with the divorced woman when she’s had an endless string of lovers since the split but she never remarried? Isn’t that what we’re like in the Protestant “church”? The Church had already split, East from West, in 1054. (And God forbid that we should rejoice on the anniversary of that day any more than we should rejoice on this one.) But the Reformation was not a split. The Reformation did not produce an undivided communion, united in their exile, seeking God as one body of Christ in the unity of the one Spirit. The Reformation did not simply split the Church into three as the 1054 Schism had split it into two. The Reformation shattered the Church. We splintered into hundreds of tiny pieces, unable to come together under a single creed and government. We became the Humpty Dumpty of the Christian world. 500 years have gone by, and no one has been able to put us together again. Instead, we have created thousands more and even tinier pieces. We did not merely separate from the Roman church. We separated, endlessly, from one another. How can anyone, considering these results, claim that the Reformation was a success? No, I will not rejoice on this day.

I am grateful for the many things I have learned from the Protestant Reformers and from that theological stream. I am deeply grateful for and committed to Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. I revel in Luther’s recovery of Augustine’s proclamation of Paul’s doctrine of “the righteousness of God.” I laud Calvin for his majestic display of God’s grace and sovereignty. Reformation theology clearly proclaims (with the New Testament, with Christ) that salvation is not a joint effort between me and God. This lifts burdens that I could not bear and that no one can bear. Without this understanding, no one can truly pursue sanctification because they are still trying to justify themselves. I will continue to rejoice in these truths, surely. But I will also mourn the disunity of those who proclaimed them. I will mourn the movement that taught me the Gospel and disintegrated the Church.

Jesus prayed that we all would be one that the world might know that he had been sent by the Father. For 500 years (or 963 or more) we have been living in the shadow of that prayer’s contrapositive. We are not one; therefore the world does not know that Jesus has been sent by the Father. How can we rejoice over the day that began the worst schism the Church has ever known?

Today, let Protestants mourn as we consider how completely we have fractured the body of Christ. Let us commit ourselves to that prayer for unity made on earth by our high priest who is now in heaven. Let us learn to be as promiscuous as the Holy Spirit who demonstrably pours himself out on people and groups that we wouldn’t allow in our pulpits or even sometimes our pews.

Today, let Roman Catholics mourn and consider how justified was the Protestant departure. Humble yourselves, you who love the Lord, and confess where you are helping to keep the Church divided. Let the Pope humble himself and become once again the bishop of Rome. Repeal the Council of Trent by which you tell me I am damned for believing the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. This, above all, must happen before you and I can be part of a unified body of Christ.

Today, let the Eastern Orthodox mourn. If you’re an Orthodox believer you may have read the previous two paragraphs with a great deal of smugness. How thankful you are not to be part of the West with its endless divisions and wranglings! May I suggest that this response might be the tip of an iceberg of sinful pride? Have you become like the Pharisee in the parable, thanking God that you are not like that tax collector? Luke tells us that this is the attitude of those who think they are righteous in themselves. Turn and pray with your hearts the prayer that your lips already know, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then you will be in a frame of mind to seek reunion with us, for we too have the Spirit.

Let us soberly and sombrely reflect on all these things this Reformation Day. And let us desire together that the Church, which has been un-formed, should soon and truly be RE-formed as the one body of the risen Christ. On THAT Reformation Day I will rejoice. Amen.

Again for those of you following Lectionary A, here’s an outline of a sermon I preached on The Beatitudes. HTML is useless for an outline format, so I’m attaching a Word Doc and a PDF.



Lectionary A for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany calls for a Gospel reading from Matthew 5:1-12, aka The Beatitudes. Here’s an orientation sermon I preached on the subject years ago.



Everything about the life of Jesus has prepared you for this moment. Born to humble parents in Bethlehem, which Micah called the least of the cities of Judah. Yet Matthew changes Micah’s prophecy so that it now says, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are NOT the least among the rulers of Judah, For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd my people Israel.” There it is. The nature of this ruler, of this king. Weak and of no account in the eyes of men, yet full of power and great in the eyes of God.

As the king is, so is his kingdom.

He was rejected by his own at birth. By the chief priests and the scribes who did not even come to investigate when wise men from the east spoke of his birth. By Herod who hunted him in order to put him to death. From the beginning he is persecuted because of who he is, the righteous one.

As the king is, so is his kingdom.

He did not dwell in Jerusalem but in an insignificant city called Nazareth. He was called a Nazarene; that is, he was called a nobody. Nazareth, the insignificant city, was in southern Galilee. Matthew reminds us that Isaiah called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Why would anyone important, let alone God’s Messiah live in such a place? Jesus would grow up and remain a nobody, except to those with spiritual eyes to discern his true greatness.

As the king is, so is his kingdom.

He is poor in spirit. He mourns as one who suffers. He is meek and lowly of heart. He hungers and thirsts to establish righteousness in the earth. He is merciful, pure in heart, and seeks to make peace between God and his people; yet for that reason he is persecuted as the prophets before him and must look to heaven for his reward.

As the king is, so is his kingdom.

This is the purpose of this Sermon on the Mount. To present the ethics and the power of this new kingdom being brought in by this radically different king. Strength in weakness. Exaltation in humility. Blessedness in spite of, even because of, suffering. The people around him have never heard anything like it.

He goes up on the mountain to teach them, to proclaim to them the path to blessedness before God. Who can help thinking of another ruler of Israel who went up on a mountain to proclaim the word of God? Who can help thinking of Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, who went up on the mountain to receive the word of God and to proclaim it to the people?

Yet the two events are as different as they are similar. When Moses went up on the mountain, the people dared not follow him. They heard the voice of God giving the ten commandments from the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness. And they were afraid. “This great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have and lived? You go near and hear all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it.” So Moses went up the mountain alone, to hear the word of God and to bring it back to a terrified people.

How different is the present situation! Jesus, a better mediator than Moses, goes up on the mountain … and he brings his people with him! Here he is, Emmanuel, “God with us,” about to proclaim the very word of God from the mountain. And the people are not afraid to draw close to him and hang on his every word.

Likewise, the words of blessing Jesus pronounces are vastly different from, and vastly superior to the words of blessing brought in under Moses. For what blessings did Moses pronounce but blessings upon perfect obedience? “Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers. And he will love you and bless you….” And surely we must concur with that judgment. The perfectly obedient OUGHT to be blessed. God would be monstrously unjust if he did otherwise. But this knowledge is of cold comfort to a sinful people. They cannot possibly offer the required obedience and so partake of the promised blessings.

This response to the Law is far from improper. Indeed, the Law was given precisely to induce this response. The Law was given, Paul says, to INCREASE transgressions. In that way the people of God would be forced to come to grips with their own unworthiness before God and to cry out for a Savior. The Law was their schoolmaster to drive them to Christ.

So those who lack perfect obedience cry out to God in anguish. They confess that they have no claim upon or right to citizenship in God’s kingdom but must depend on his grace. They mourn over their miserable condition and have no hope but that God may lift them up. They are meek; they lay no claim to dwell in God’s presence but throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord. They hunger and thirst for a righteousness they do not have and without which they cannot stand before the Lord.

And what does Jesus come to tell them? You are blessed. BLESSED!! Can you imagine it? The blessing that God through Moses offered to those who had perfect obedience … now through Jesus he offers it to those who have nothing. On one condition only: that they confess that they have nothing. They lay no claim to the kingdom, yet theirs it is! They mourn because they are cursed and their world is cursed and God comforts them! They do not think of themselves as those who may dwell in the presence of God, and God says they shall inherit the land. That means they will dwell in his presence forever! They hunger and thirst for what they do not have, for righteousness … and they are satisfied!

Suddenly, as Geerhardus Vos says, “The consciousness of having nothing, absolutely nothing, is the certain pledge of untold enrichment.”

To those who hear these words, this is good news. Good beyond hope. It is also surprising news. After all, when God pronounced his blessing on the perfectly obedient, that was perfectly understandable. As we said, God would be unjust to do otherwise. But THIS blessing. What is its basis? Where does it come from?

This blessing is a thing of pure grace. Unmerited favor. No! More than that. Favor to those who have deserved the OPPOSITE. Jesus is introducing a kingdom whose foundation is the free and total grace of the living God. The ethics of this kingdom, the “law” of this kingdom if you will, must then conform utterly to the grace of God. It is this kingdom for which the kingdom of God under Moses was preparing and in which the kingdom of God under Moses is fulfilled. The people under the Law hungered and thirsted for this kingdom of righteousness. Now Jesus is satisfying their hunger. This, he says, is what a kingdom founded on, filled with, and empowered by grace will look like.

The people of this kingdom will begin with the knowledge and the confession that they are nothing and that they have nothing. Thus shall they show themselves fit recipients of the grace of God. For who can boast in such circumstances as though he has earned anything? Will they boast, “I am better than others because I came to understand how wretched and miserable I am. That is why God blessed me”? What a ridiculous boast! Will they not rather say, “The Law of God revealed to me how wretched and miserable I am, and the grace of God saved me in spite of that” and all the glory shall go to God. To be saved by grace says nothing good about you and everything good about God. The kingdom founded on grace must have as citizens those who have been taught their own poverty and thus the magnitude of God’s favor in saying to them “Blessed are you.”

And the citizens of a kingdom founded on grace will also go on to express that grace to one another and to the whole world. They will be merciful, for they have obtained mercy. Their hearts will be purified that they may see God. They will seek to make peace, for God, their great enemy, has made peace with them.

One other difference is remarkable between the old, shadowy, provisional kingdom under Moses and the new, consummate, eternal kingdom of God in Christ.

What blessing does God pronounce on the obedient in the Law? “he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. The Lord will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, he will not inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity.”

There are the blessings! Riches that the eye can see and the hand can handle and the tongue can taste! But now Jesus pronounces a blessing on the poor, the downtrodden, the meek, the lowly, those who are of no account, who do not appear to triumph over their enemies but are persecuted and reviled by them. In what sense are they “blessed”? Clearly not in an earthly material sense. But there reward IN HEAVEN, Jesus says, is great indeed. And that shall be revealed at the last day.

Yet Jesus does not for that reason say, “Blessed WILL be” all these people, but “Blessed ARE” they. The blessedness that is given is theirs to partake of immediately, even as they wait with eager longing for the day when their blessedness is revealed. To quote Vos again “It is blessedness that is promised here, and the word does not so much signify a state of mind, as that great realm of consummation and satisfaction, which renders man’s existence, once he has entered into it, serene and secure for evermore.” In other words, “blessed” here doesn’t mean “happy”. Don’t believe that translation! “Happy” doesn’t go nearly far enough. “Blessed” means “eternally secure”, “having everything you need.” Those who realize they have nothing have just become those who have everything and can never lose it.

The blessings of the Mosaic kingdom were visible, material, external, and lasted only until death. The blessings of the new kingdom are invisible (though clearly seen by faith), heavenly, spiritual, and eternal.

So these are the things we will be looking for and finding as we explore this Sermon on the Mount.

We will look for a kingdom founded on grace, whose people are blessed not because of their merit but because of the kindness and grace of God. Thus we will see citizens of this kingdom in chapter 7 who do not have but they ask and it is given to them; they do not possess but they seek and so they find; they do not have the power to open the gates of heaven, but they knock and the doors are opened.

We will look for a kingdom whose citizens reflect the grace of God and so are further blessed. They will not judge for they themselves have not been judged. But rather they will forgive men their trespasses for their heavenly Father has forgiven them.

And we will look for a spiritual, heavenly, eternal kingdom. Thus, the citizens of this kingdom will not lay up treasure on earth but in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal. And being already supremely blessed they will not worry but will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything they need will be given to them.

For you Anglican types, Lectionary A schedules a reading from Matthew 3:13-17 this Sunday. Here are my thoughts, especially if you’re preparing to preach on this text:

1. Karl Barth described this event as “the Great Sinner repenting”. That’s an awesome phrase. It’s shocking in just the right way. John the Baptist is shocked by Jesus’ request, but we aren’t. It’s too familiar. We need to be shocked. Why is the Sinless One seeking John’s baptism, the “baptism of repentance”?

2. This is the opening bookend to Jesus’ ministry. The closing bookend is his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus later refers to his crucifixion as a baptism he must undergo. So he goes to the cross bearing the sin of his people. The judgment of God closes over his head. He goes down into the grave (not into heaven above or the earth beneath, but into the water under the earth, if we’re using the threefold division of Ex 20.4.). He rises up again. The Spirit rests upon him and becomes his gift. He is declared to be the Son of God with power, vindicated as the sinless one with whom the Father is well-pleased. He is exalted to God’s right hand.

This observation seems central and essential to understanding the passage. I am shocked that none of my commentaries so much as mentions it.

3. Lots of echos of creation/re-creation in this passage

  • Gen 1 – Spirit hovering like a dove over the waters waiting for creation to be made habitable, a place for Adam, made in God’s image, to build God’s temple.
  • The Flood – First the uncreation–waters brought together horizontally (over land) and vertically (waters above meet waters below). The judgment waters destroy the world that then was while simultaneously saving Noah and his family. Then the recreation, the division of the waters. Then the dove announcing the new creation.
  • Crossing the Red Sea – Paul tells us this was a baptism event. It’s also the creation/confirmation of Israel as the son of God (see Ex 4:22 and Hos 11:1). On the far side of the sea, the Spirit rests on his people as a cloud and a pillar of fire. The judgment waters destroy Israel’s enemies while simultaneously saving Israel.
  • Baptism of Jesus – Jesus goes down into the judgment waters bearing sin. He comes up cleansed, purified. The Spirit rests upon him and he is declared to be the Son of God. When you connect it to Noah and to the crucifixion/resurrection as above, you see that Jesus is symbolically coming into a new creation where sin is defeated and righteousness dwells.

4. Matthew 1 – 7 presents Jesus as simultaneously the new Moses and the new Israel.

  • Chapter 1 – “The book of the genealogy” echoes the repeated line from Genesis translated as “These are the generations.” That phrase functions as a chapter heading in Genesis, marking off the major events in the lines of the Serpent’s seed and the Woman’s. The last time it occurs is when introducing the story of Jacob. THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT comes under the heading “These are the generations of Jacob.” You thought the next chapter began with Exodus. It didn’t. Now, at last, Matthew announces the next chapter heading. These are the generations of Jesus.
  • Chapter 2 – Jesus escapes a king who is intent on slaughtering all the Hebrew babies in his area. (Sound familiar?) He fulfils the prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son,” a prophecy that originally referred to Israel.
  • Chapter 3 – See above on Crossing the Red Sea. The events are clearly parallel.
  • Chapter 4 – Jesus wanders in the desert and is tempted. Unlike Israel, he passes the test. He is a new and better Israel.
  • Chapters 5-7 – Jesus climbs a mountain and delivers his law. He is a new and better Moses.