Monday, January 27, 2014

"Rachel weeping for her children": The Use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18

Matthew indicates that Herod’s murderous actions unwittingly fulfilled Jeremiah’s words. “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15). Matthew’s use of this passage is very similar to what we saw in regard to Hos. 11:1 (see previous post). Jesus is typologically reliving the history of Israel.

Within its original context in the book of Jeremiah Jer. 31:15 is reflecting on the sorrow of the Babylonian exile. Ramah was a town about 5 miles north of Jerusalem that lay along the route that the exiles were forced to travel between Jerusalem and Babylon (Jer. 40:1). Rachel was buried near Bethlehem (Gen 35:19–20) and is poetically described in Jer. 31:15 as weeping over the loss and suffering of her descendants. Remarkably, Jeremiah 31 as a whole is not focused on sorrow but upon the joy and happiness that will fill God’s people during his future restoration and salvation. The sorrow of exile is remembered by way of contrast to the joy of the coming restoration and healing.

Matthew’s point seems to be that just as Israel went into exile in Babylon in a painful process that involved suffering and loss but would eventually result in the restoration of the entire nation, Jesus went into exile in Egypt in a painful process that again brought suffering and loss to Rachel’s descendants but would lead to the complete fulfillment of the restoration, healing, and salvation prophesied by Jeremiah in Jer. 31.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built . . . for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. . . . say 'He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.' For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord . . . I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord. . . . There is hope for your future, declares the Lord. . . . For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish" (Jer. 31:3b-4a, 9c, 10b-12a, 13b-14, 17a, 25).

Even more significantly, Jer. 31 concludes with God's promise of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-40).

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Out of Egypt I called my Son": Israel Rebooted in Her Messiah

Matthew concludes his brief discussion of Jesus’s flight to Egypt by pointing to the fulfillment of Scripture: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15 quoting Hos. 11:1). This is a very important fulfillment quotation. In addition to helping us understand one of the ways the earliest Christians interpreted the Old Testament it helps us understand the mission and purpose of Jesus.

The first obvious point to make is that this fulfillment is not what is normally understood as prediction-fulfillment. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them" (Hos. 11:1–3).

Hosea 11:1 is not a forward looking prophecy; it instead looks backward to Israel’s history to make the painful point that even though God had called and treated Israel as a son they rejected him and worshipped idols. How can Matthew argue that Jesus’s early life in Egypt fulfilled a prophecy that was not even a prophecy? The key to answering this question lies in the ancient interpretive approach understood as typology. Typology basically boils down to correspondence in history. The earliest Christians looked to how God worked in the past in the Old Testament in order to understand how he was working in the present and how he would work in the future.

Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 draws a strong connection between Jesus and Israel; Jesus and Israel are typologically related. What is the significance of this typological relationship? Israel’s purpose in the Old Testament was to mediate God’s blessing, presence, and glory to the nations (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 67:1–7; 96:1–10; 145:10–12; Isa. 2:1–4; 56:7; 66:19; Zech. 8:23). God’s plan to bless the nations would be mediated through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). Israel failed in this purpose by rejecting God in favor of idolatry (Hos. 11:2–7) but God’s purpose and plan would not be thwarted.

In Matthew’s view God restarted or rebooted Israel in her Messiah Jesus. Jesus relived the history of Israel but instead of failing in the purpose to mediate God’s blessings to the nations Jesus succeeded in his sinless life and atoning death. You may not be familiar with thinking about Jesus as a second Israel but that is surely how Matthew understood him. Consider the following points. Why did Jesus choose twelve disciples (Matt. 10:1)? Why not eleven or thirteen? He was intentionally reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel around himself with allegiance to himself as the foundational criteria. Why did Jesus fast and undergo forty days of temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11)? Couldn’t the same thing have been accomplished in ten days or twenty? And why was it necessary to be tempted during this time? Jesus was reliving the history of Israel. Israel was tempted for forty years in the wilderness with food as a central point of temptation (Deut. 8:2–3; cf. Exod. 16:2–3; Ps. 78:17–32). Israel failed to trust God and complained and grumbled while Jesus passed the test and determined to depend upon God’s promises and word instead of taking the easy way out. Why did Jesus need to be baptized since he was without sin (Matt. 3:13–17)? He needed to fully and completely identify with his people as their representative. God confirmed Jesus’s role as a new Israel when the voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The Old Testament clearly indicates that Israel was God’s chosen son (Exod. 4:22, 23; Jer. 31:9, 20; Hos. 11:1) but at the baptism God declares that Jesus would take upon himself Israel’s identity and mission.

Jesus’s identity as the new Israel brings us back to Matthew’s statement that Hosea 11:1 was fulfilled in Jesus’s early (albeit short) time in Egypt. Hosea 11:1 is not prophetic or Messianic in any normal or obvious sense but becomes such by reflecting on the history of Israel that Jesus was reliving. Hosea 11:1 is a particularly useful summary of this stage of Israel’s history because it speaks of Israel as a child and calls Israel “son.” Jesus, as God’s son representing the new Israel, relived Israel’s history in miniature and reconstituted the new people of God through the witness of the twelve disciples based upon allegiance to Jesus as the son of God and Israel’s true king. Matthew can thus rightly write “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matt. 2:15b).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Herod and the Wise Men: Two Possible Responses to Jesus

I know it is past Christmas but in the spirit of keeping Christmas in mind throughout the year I will still reflect on the Christmas narratives from time to time. Moving beyond the facts and flow of the narrative of Herod and the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12) it is possible to ask what the narrative was intended to do or accomplish. Few, if any, passages in Scripture are included simply to give information for the intellectually or historically curious. Most biblical narratives demand some kind of response and the story of Herod and the wise men is no different. Matthew seems to intentionally contrast two responses to Jesus’s birth. On the one hand Herod, with the (perhaps unwitting) aid of the Jewish religious leaders rejected God’s appointed king while, on the other hand, Gentiles with little knowledge of the true God recognized God’s king and responded with submission, allegiance, and worship. The narrative pushes us, its readers, to consider our response to Jesus. Whom are you acting like? Whom are you identifying with; Herod or the wise men?

Benczúr Adoration of the three Kings 1911

Take care not to answer too quickly. Herod would have self-identified as a religiously observant Jew. He consistently presented himself this way and viewed his project to rebuild the temple as a powerful example of his commitment to Israel’s God. His guilt, however, is intensified in the narrative by his use of Scripture to locate the child. This act confirmed his knowledge that he was setting himself against God and God’s purposes in order to maintain his own rule and dynasty. His knowledge of God and Scripture did not lead him to submission and worship; instead he prized self-preservation and self-rule beyond anything else. He would not bow to the authority of a different Judean king whether this king had God’s approval or not. Instead of worship and submission, Herod opposed Jesus and God’s plan.

Herod powerfully illustrates the fact that it is not enough to outwardly identify with God’s people. It is not enough to sacrificially give of your funds and energy to build God’s house/temple and to help others worship. It is not enough to learn about God and his plan through his Scriptures. Every one of us is confronted daily with a choice of our will: Whom will we serve? Whom will we live for? This is not the kind of decision that can be made once ( i.e.: “I gave my life to God when I was a child”) or that can be determined by past performance (i.e.: “I have gone to church every Sunday for twenty years and regularly give money to the church.”); it is the kind of decision that must be re-made each day and is more (but not less) than outward actions. Whom are you living for today?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Finding Your Missing Joy

I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas celebration and are off to a great new year. At the beginning of this year I have been reflecting on joy, or as the case may be, lack of joy.

Lack of joy is a serious problem for many Christians, families, and churches. We have every reason in the world to be overflowing with joy on the basis of what Christ has done for us and the hope that we have for the future but for some reason genuine and lasting joy seems quite elusive.

Dallas Willard, in his classic book Renovation of the Heart, makes some excellent points about joy. First, joy is “our first line of defense against weakness, failure, and disease of mind and body” (pg. 133). Have you ever thought about joy as “defense”? When we lack joy we are wide open to a wide variety of problems and are particularly prone to addictive activities, whether the obviously harmful addictions such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, and pornography, or the more run-of-the-mill (and often ignored to our peril) addictions to media: t.v., video-games, social media, etc. When we lack joy we quickly turn to other things to fill or distract us from the lack.

Second, Willard notes that genuine and lasting joy can only be produced by the Holy Spirit. True joy is divinely produced and sustained. “The kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). The fact, however, that joy is dependent upon the Holy Spirit does not lead us to passivity. Passivity is the death of spiritual formation. I am not saying here that we are solely responsible: we can no more do enough right things to “deserve” joy than we can do enough things to “deserve” salvation.

Willard states it well: “But here again we must not be passive. We may allow joy to dissipate through looking backward at our sins and failures, or forward at what might happen to us, or inward at our struggles with work, responsibilities, temptations, or deficiencies. But this means we have placed our hopes in the wrong thing, namely ourselves, and we do not have to do this. It is our option to look to the greatness and goodness of God and what he will do in our lives. Therefore Paul, in jail, speaks to the Philippians of his own contentment ‘in whatever circumstances’ (4:11) and urges them to ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!’ (4:4). We will be empowered by the Spirit of God to do this if we choose it and fix our minds on the good that God is and will certainly bring to pass” (pg. 133).

We make the choice to set our minds either on the failures and hurts of the past, the difficulties and unfairness of the present, or the uncertainty and fear of the future, or to set our minds on what God has done and will do. We choose what to think about. God’s Spirit enables and empowers us to set our minds on the right things and fills us with joy as we set our minds on the right things.

We need God’s supernatural joy. Our families desperately need God’s joy. Our churches must have the joy produced by the Holy Spirit. This is not optional! May God lead us into renewed joy this new year as we fix our hearts and minds upon Him.