Restraining the Strong Man, Matthew 12:29-32

I have often mentioned metaphors, and I have done so because the Bible has an abundance of them. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life (John 6:35), he is speaking metaphorically, not literally. Two noted experts explain that metaphors help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another.[1] The importance of metaphors lies in the fact that they help us try to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally, such as spiritual realities.

The way metaphors are normally used is to explain something unfamiliar by using language about something familiar. All of us have experienced bread, and that experience allows us to understand something about Jesus and to share that understanding with each other.

When I encounter a Bible passage, one of the first things I do is find the metaphors in it. They provide new windows into the passage — a metaphor, of course!

Matthew 12:29-32

29 Or again, how can anyone enter a strong mans house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What metaphors do you see in verse 29?

Commentary

Of course, verse 29 relates strongly to its context, particularly verse 28, where Jesus has mentioned casting out demons by the Spirit of God as proof that the rule of God has overtaken the Pharisees and their allies. Typical of his writing, Matthew 12:30 looks back to Isaiah 49:24-25, where God promises to rescue his people from their oppressors.[2] In Isaiah’s prophecy, the enemy is described as a warrior or conqueror –powerful, but certainly no match for Yahweh!

The strong man of verse 30 is a metaphor referring back to the warrior/conqueror in Isaiah, the one defeated by God. But, in the context of Matthew 12, particularly verses 22 and 26, the strong man represents Satan. The exorcisms performed by Jesus are a direct attack on Satan’s kingdom, represented metaphorically by his house. The possessions (verse 30) that Jesus carries off are another metaphor for the human lives that Satan had enslaved through demon-possession or other means.[3]

Unfortunately, there is a lot of room in verse 29 for misinterpretation. Every time Jesus meets and defeats Satan — such as the temptation in Matthew 4 or the cross in Matthew 27 — someone wants to make it into a total and final defeat. For example, one group of conservative theologians argues that Satan was bound by the first coming of Christ so that he can no longer deceive the nations.[4] I consider that view to be wishful thinking since the New Testament contains a significant number of warnings about resisting Satan and his forces (Ephesians 6:11-17, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8-9). The truth is that, in this age, Jesus defeats Satan at will, yet Satan retains a significant ability to injure Christians and the church in general.

A Troubling Paragraph

Few paragraphs in the New Testament have caused as much anxiety as verses 30-32. Jesus begins with a metaphor in verse 30, and that metaphor could be either shepherding sheep or harvesting grain. Both activities involve gathering and scattering, but shepherding is the best option here. No room was left for neutrality about Jesus; his many miracles had proven his authority beyond all reasonable doubt. Those not gathering with Jesus were hunted by wolves.

But the nature of that reasonable doubt about Jesus miracles has been debated. Turner rightly points out that some theologians tend to generalize the unpardonable sin (verse 31) by equating it with ordinary unbelief.[5] Others want to make the unpardonable sin about murder, adultery and divorce, which in twenty-first century America cuts a wide arc through the population. One Roman Catholic source reduced the unpardonable sin almost to the vanishing point, preferring instead to emphasize the complete authority of the Church to forgive sins.[6]

Reading the text (verses 31-32) appears to narrow the sin to two elements:

  • Stubborn rejection of the most direct possible evidence: miracles worked by Jesus in the person’s presence.
  • Attribution of Jesus miracles to Satan’s power rather than to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Any sin that cannot meet those requirements may be serious, but it cannot be the one Jesus is talking about.

Solid advice about the unpardonable sin comes from Craig Blomberg, who notes that: (1) only Jesus enemies are in any danger, and (2) professing believers who fear they have committed the unforgivable sin demonstrate a concern for their spiritual welfare which be definition proves they have not committed it.[7]

Of course, the Holy Spirit did not stop working miracles through followers of Jesus. Whether it is possible to commit the unpardonable sin by claiming those are works of Satan is open to question. Personally, I have never favored living near a cliff, and balancing on one leg there seems inadvisable. :)

What should trouble us more is that those who persist in refusing to give their allegiance to Jesus will ultimately wind up in the same grim situation as those who committed the unforgivable sin. Even at this moment, God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus still offers amnesty to all who will accept it. Gather with Jesus while time remains!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5, 193.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 481.

[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 364.

[4] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 322.

[5] Turner, Matthew, 323.

[6] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.) 423.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 204.

Taking the Role of Servant, Matthew 12:15-21

If you look around, it is not hard to find people who are quietly trying to make their way through life. They don’t get on TV or find themselves as the subject of a best-selling book. Perhaps you are one of those quiet, diligent people.

On the other hand, we also have those seeking to be the center of attention, making frequent selfies, posting their smallest movements on Facebook and otherwise wanting to be noticed and highly valued by others.

Though the world of the first century was very different from ours, these two types of people were still around. The quiet people trying to get through their lives were among those coming in throngs to find Jesus and get help. The more self-concerned and self-assertive group was led by the Pharisees and scribes in their constant effort to be seen as godly men helping — or making! — others be godly too, at least according to their rules for godliness.

Which groups did Jesus identify with? What kind of man was he?

Matthew 12:15-21

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.

What did Jesus tell the people he healed?

Commentary

As we have seen, Jesus declared that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath and did just that by healing a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:13). What Jesus considered lawful, the Pharisees considered awful — I couldn’t resist — so they began plotting to kill him (Matthew 12:14). These were the facts occupying Jesus’ mind as we begin verse 15.

Osborne provides a sound overview of verses 15-21 by saying, As the Pharisees plot violence against the Son of God, Jesus takes the lowly path, serving God and humankind.[1] This contrast is a key point of the section.

In saying that Jesus “withdrew from that place,” Matthew uses a Greek verb (anachoreo) that indicates a retreat to safety, something Jesus has already done several times to avoid direct conflict with his opponents. The day will come (in Jerusalem) when he will confront the Pharisees and put them to shame, but now such action would misdirect his mission. It would lead to premature trial and crucifixion, if not his outright murder.

Sometimes withdrawal from conflict can better serve God's purposes. For example, maintaining unity within a group of believers might require avoidance of conflict. What similar examples occur to you?

Instead of dealing with the Pharisees and their endless plotting, Jesus spent his hours healing illnesses among the large crowd that followed him (verse 15b). He commanded them to be silent about their healing (verse 16) so that no further trouble might erupt; the Pharisees were right on the point of behaving with violence. Matthew shows us that Jesus, in taking this peaceful, caring approach, was fulfilling the role of God’s special servant, as revealed by the prophet Isaiah many centuries earlier (verse 17).

By quoting this famous passage from Isaiah, Matthew implies a question: who is behaving like the servant of Yahweh? In theory, there might be two alternatives: either the Pharisees or Jesus. The Pharisees certainly see themselves as God’s servant and want honor from others as well. Matthew has shown us that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah had long been considered a prime candidate to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. So, Matthew is obviously presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of this role. To demonstrate that Matthew is right, we need to examine the prophecy itself.

Matthew 12:18 (“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:1. This part is easy because in Matthew 3:17, at Jesus baptism by John, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, and the Father declared him to be his Son in whom he was well pleased. While we have not yet had many developments about the nations, the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant was accomplished along with a declaration from Jesus that many would come from the east and the west to take the place of the Jews who were disloyal to God (Matthew 8:513). Obviously, Jesus has satisfied this prophecy, while the self-declared defenders of the faith, the Pharisees, have not.

How does replacing disloyal Jews with loyal Gentiles demonstrate proclaiming justice to the nations?

Matthew 12:19 (“He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:2. It is easy to show that the Pharisees have been regularly initiating disputes with Jesus and his disciples. Matthew 9:1-15 has the dispute over Jesus healing and forgiving sins as well as the controversy over his eating with tax collectors and sinners. We also recall Jesus teaching on the mountain to beware those who pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5), a clear reference to the Pharisees.

Matthew 12:20 (“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory”) matches Isaiah 42:3. France gives us great clarity here.[2] A cracked or bent reed could no longer serve its intended purpose; the same was true of a barely smoldering lamp wick. Many would throw these broken or spent things away without a thought. But the reed and the wick are metaphors for broken and hurting people, the very ones Jesus was busy healing and restoring to a meaningful life.

This image of brokenness represents so many of us. How did Jesus rescue you from a desperate life, going nowhere? If that is not your story, how has the great healer improved your life?

The final clause of verse 20 (“till he has brought justice through to victory”) needs explanation. Jesus will continue to lift up those broken people seeking him until the day when final justice is achieved through his victory over sin, death and Satan. It is easy to understand why the nations will put their hope in Jesus (verse 21) because no one else can bring about justice!

In short, we have the Pharisees busy plotting murder while Jesus is busy healing and caring for deeply hurting people. The contrast could hardly be greater, and it is obvious who is fulfilling Isaiah 42:3 (Matthew 12:20).

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)462.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)472-73.

Taking the Easy Yoke, Matthew 11:28-30

In this case we come to a famous Bible verse that many older Christians have memorized. Experience tells me that lots of Christians love this verse because it offers something they want (rest), but they lack understanding of the all-important details. The situation is something like getting one of those offers for a free dinner at a local steak house only to realize when you get there that it is a sales event, not the outright gift you were wishing for. We all like gifts and dislike obligations.

For many of us, life is a struggle, though in North Texas the struggle often occurs in comfortable surroundings, and frustrated dreams are too familiar. On top of everything is our relationship to God. Has that relationship become just one more burden among many?

Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Who gives rest? What does he require of you in doing so?

Commentary

If “those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him [the Father]” of verse 27 sounded selective, verse 28 opens the invitation to “all you who are weary and heavy laden.” Yet, it is important that you be clear on the fact that those who do not “come to me” (verse 28a) do not get the “rest” that Jesus is offering.

In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “come to me” has to start with repenting because the rule of God has come, and that has been Jesus message from the start (Matthew 4:17). But repenting is not like a drunk shifting from whisky to rum — a meaningless change. In our case, repenting involves turning away from those who say they need nothing from God, if he exists, and going to Jesus, the man from heaven, who assuredly lives! So, “come to me” is a call to discipleship under Jesus.[1]

As to being “weary and burdened” (verse 28), the first condition (weary) is expressed by a Greek form that suggests weariness is an ongoing condition. The second condition, being burdened, arises from a Greek form suggesting that the burden was put on them long ago and never taken off. Since Matthew 23:4 and Luke 11:46 use the same verb to express the Jewish religious requirements used to regulate people’s behavior, these burdens seem to have a religious origin. So, the people in first-century Israel are worn out from carrying out the burden of the law as it has been interpreted in detail by the scribes and the Pharisees.

Christianity has also had groups similar to the scribes and Pharisees, and these groups have at times made Christian faith more of a burden than a gift from God. It should become apparent from what Jesus is saying that those groups were not carrying out his intentions. They had an agenda of their own.

Has your personal history included painful, discouraging experiences from some Christian group or church? Did these experiences drive you away from Christ, or did you seek him again with a different group?

It is entirely possible that the weariness and burdens also involve parts of our lives that we do not normally associate with God, though he is truly Lord of all. Living, working and getting an education in a world gripped by sin and spiritual darkness can produce a weariness and burden all its own. Only Jesus can teach you how to deal with all that, because he had to do it too.

It has proven remarkably difficult to narrow the concept of “rest” (verses 28-29). First, Jesus’ words seem to look back to Exodus 33:14, where Yahweh says, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Yahweh was speaking to Moses and possibly to the entire nation in the aftermath of a serious incident involving rebellion by the Israelites on their way to Canaan. In that context, rest was connected with settling in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, where God would vanquish their enemies, give them abundant land, and dwell with them in security from future enemies.

New Testament theologian N. T. Wright shows us a way forward when he says, “Jesus was replacing adherence or allegiance to Temple and Torah [law] with allegiance to himself.”[2] Jesus sees the spiritual burden put on the people by the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, and he invites the people to come to him, the Son of Man from heaven, to put themselves into submission to him and his interpretation of the law. This submission is what is meant by the yoke — “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (verse 29) — a device that comes from the imagery of plowing a field. Discipleship does not exempt anyone from work but makes it manageable.[3]

In the near term, those who come to Jesus find their spiritual burden lightened due to the presence of Jesus and the wisdom provided by his teaching. That is more restful than the crushing burden they have had before, and it allows them to look forward to the ultimate rest that will follow when they are with Christ in heaven. Rest now and better rest later is the blessing Jesus offers them.

All of this is possible because of who Jesus is. He is not only the Son of Man, offering them rest, but he will be with them on the way as a master who is “gentle and humble in heart” (verse 29). This rest does not consist of complete freedom from all restraint and obligation, something sought by twenty-first century hedonists. Taking the yoke of Jesus means that he is our Lord, and this teaching prepares us for Paul’s message in Romans 6 that those united to Christ are slaves to God.

Our secular world offers a life without significance, a struggle to keep the ever-changing moral requirements that emerge from an elusive human consensus, and no hope that the struggle will matter beyond our own insignificant, and utterly final, death. Jesus offers rest for your soul, both now and forever.

Will you either take Jesus offer for the first time, or will you continue to learn how to put down the burdens of this world and further embrace the easy yoke of Jesus? How will you do that?

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)441.

[2] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997) 274.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)194.

Missed Opportunities to Find Rest, Matthew 11:20-24

Many who use this blogconsider themselves sports fans. Another large group of our readers prefer movies. If mixed together, these two groups can resemble oil and water in relation to their preferences, but they have one thing in common. Every sports event and every movie comes to an end at a certain time.

Actually, we are all accustomed to this idea on a broader basis. Every day, week, month, year, decade, century, or millennium comes to an end. So does every life. No one takes the streets to protest the end of Tuesday, November 19, 2016.

Why is it that we can get so much pushback from declaring that a day is coming on which this age and this world will end — a day of judgment? Perhaps the difference is that the day of judgment will be personal; there will be winners and losers. Ecstatic winners. Inconsolable losers.

Is there a way to influence the judge in our favor? Who is the judge? Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, will judge our individual cases, and he has commanded all to repent and submit to the reign of God while each has opportunity.

Some failed to listen or comply, and today we will learn of their end. Or, will it be the end of the beginning, with far worse to follow?

Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Commentary

Here our secular society must consider a troubling possibility from their viewpoint: if Jesus actually had the authority and the power to overrule the natural order by working miracles, as all ancient sources say, then might he also have the authority to bring the existing natural order to an end? Those committed to a world run exclusively by humans and not by God will bring every tool of denial and distraction into play to keep that question quiet!

Verse 20 has a hidden quality that I want to bring to your attention. While the NIV’s translation “then Jesus began to denounce the towns” is accurate, the underlying Greek verb emphasizes the subject, Jesus.[1] Criticism is so common in our society that we scarcely give it a thought. But, when Jesus denounces you, it’s time to go to red alert! The initial Greek verb typically means to rule or govern, but that verb takes on the meaning “begin” in many contexts, possibly because a person with authority can begin something that lasts. Jesus began things that no one could stop!

Chorazin and Bethsaida lay to the north and east of Capernaum, neither very far away. Archaeology has shown them to be similar in size to Capernaum.[2] In verse 21, Jesus presents us with an if-clause which is contrary to fact since no such miracles were done in Tyre and Sidon. [Stop and consider the implications of Jesus telling us what would have actually happened in a different place and millennium!] Blomberg explains that Tyre and Sidon, in ancient Phoenicia, were paradigms of Israel’s ancient enemies.[3] So, Jesus is shaming these Jewish cities as less responsive to God than those pagan cities already condemned to terrible retribution.

According to one notable authority, “woe” is an interjection that means “how greatly one will suffer” or “what terrible pain will come to one.”[4] The phrase “woe to you” occurs twenty-two times in Isaiah and always marks those who have set themselves against God and his purposes.

These particular towns received the unique honor of having miracles worked within their bounds to benefit people they all knew. After seeing an astonishing shower of God’s kindness from Jesus, the mass of people and their leaders still failed to heed his call for repentance. As R. T. France suggests, these towns seem content to go on as if nothing has changed; they have no clue what the reign of God means.[5]

Verse 22 should have sent chills down the spines of all in Chorazin and Bethsaida who were not committed to Jesus. For Jews to hear that the historically-hated Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon would find judgment day more bearable than a Jewish town would have resulted in profound shock and anger.

But Jesus saves his most searing rebuke for Capernaum (verse 23). Those Jews familiar with Isaiah’s taunts against the proud king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:13, 15) would have found such mocking words used in relation to the pride of Capernaum in verse 23. Just as Babylon had considered itself above all others and untouchable, so Capernaum swelled with unjustified pride. Was it not only prosperous and favorably positioned but also the home of the great healer and exorcist of Galilee — Jesus?

But, Jesus says that Capernaum, like the proud king of Babylon, will not ascend to the heavens; it will descend to Hades, the place of the dead (verse 23). Why? Because Capernaum failed to repent after seeing the miracles performed by Jesus, miracles that would have brought Sodom to its knees and spared it from total destruction. In Israelite minds, Sodom was the epitome of the wickedness.

There is, apparently, more than one way to receive God’s severe punishment. One is to indulge in the deepest depravity like Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29). Another is to have the greatest possible revelation from Jesus himself and then refuse his command to repent and submit to the reign of God. Jesus firmly declares that those failing to heed his words and his miraculous deeds, performed before their eyes, will receive God’s severest treatment on the day of judgment.

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] The Greek verb archo is in the middle voice.

[2] R. T. France,The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 438.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 191.

[4] L&N, ouai, “how greatly one will suffer ,” q.v.

[5] France, Matthew, 438.

Exposition of Daniel 1:17-21 Yahweh causes Daniel’s rise

Daniel 1:17-21

17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Commentary

While it was true that Nebuchadnezzar had sent Daniel and his friends into training, it was Yahweh who granted them mastery by giving them knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning (verse 17). Not least, they knew the true God and could disregard the false gods of Babylon. They also knew to steer clear of divination and sorcery, which were forbidden in the law (Deut. 18:10-12). For an example of how the Babylonians commonly used such practices to make decisions during military campaigns, see Ezekiel 21:18-24 with special attention to Ezek. 21:21.

Not only did God enable the four young men to read cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian, but he also granted to Daniel the special skill of understanding “all visions and dreams” (ESV) not “all kinds of visions and dreams” (NIV). Yahweh did not make Daniel the master of dream categories; he made Daniel the precise interpreter or any individual dream by giving him the exact interpretation when required. This will become plain in chapter 2. In effect, Daniel became the channel for God’s interpretation of any dream whose meaning was to be made known to others.

Wood supports the above interpretation of verse 17 when he says:

This gift was entirely from God. Daniel could not learn the technique of true vision and dream interpretation. There is point to noting this here, for the Babylonians believed one could do so. In fact, much of the literature in which the young men would have had to become proficient concerned such techniques. … The four Judeans would have had to reject all such thinking, as they recognized that true revelation could come only from God, and as he pleased.[1]

In time, the day of reckoning came for Nebuchadnezzar to personally interview every candidate trained for service in his government (verses 18-20). This kind of attention to detail is plainly what made him one of the most formidable rulers of ancient times. By showing the king’s meticulous care, Daniel sets the stage for the unfolding of the king’s shrewd actions in chapter 2.

Because several English versions (NIV, ESV, NET and NLT) use the word “magicians” to describe some of the king’s counselors in Dan. 1:20b, we should clarify this term. The English word “magician” leads us to think of various illusions and tricks we have seen on television. But that is not anywhere close to the function Daniel mentions. The standard Hebrew lexicon offers “soothsayer-priests”[2] and HCSB skillfully translates using “diviner-priest.” Miller further describes the role of the diviner-priests:

Supposedly in touch with the world of the spirits and the gods, these individuals were advisers to the king on virtually every matter. They employed rites and spells intended to heal, exorcise demons, or counter an evil spell placed upon the sufferer. Omens were studied in order to understand the future, and astrology played an important part in this activity.[3]

Before you sneer at the idea of a powerful ruler being guided by such arcane advice, consider that one of our most popular American presidents is known to have used the advice of an astrologer in making and executing many decisions. In Nebuchadnezzar’s time there was no reason to hide such advisers; they served in an official capacity.

Chapter 1 records the steady rise of Daniel and his companions. They began as royal captives swept up in punitive conquest (verses 2-3). By maintaining their special diet as a symbol of loyalty to Yahweh, the four are seen by their overseer to be superior in appearance to all other trainees (verse 15). When Nebuchadnezzar examines their skill, they demonstrate superiority to all the diviner-priests and enchanters in Babylon (verse 20). At the beginning of the chapter no one is paying much attention to Daniel and his friends, but by the close of their training, the king values them above all his other advisers. The king has unwittingly recognized the skills Yahweh has given to these young men, and the chapter closes with the note that Daniel’s career extended throughout the Neo-Babylonian empire and into the reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia (verse 21).

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. These materials were originally prepared for use at Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973)43.

[2] HALOT, chartum, soothsayer-priest, q.v.

[3] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1994)72.

Introduction to a commentary on Daniel 1–6

 Introduction to a commentary on Daniel 1–6

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate

Abbreviations for Bible translations

NIV New International Version (2011)
ESV English Standard Version
NET New English Translation
CEB Common English Bible
NLT New Living Translation
HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible

Introduction to the Book of Daniel

To understand any book that is partly historical, it is necessary to understand who wrote it and the context in which it was written. This introduction briefly surveys these issues as well as the theological themes advanced by the author and the literary structure of the book.

Daniel, the statesman-prophet

Daniel was born into the nobility of Judah in (roughly) 620 B.C. Old Testament scholar Stephen Miller describes one probable experience from Daniel’s early years that deserves note: “Jeremiah was preaching in Jerusalem, and it seems almost certain that both Daniel and Ezekiel would have heard Jeremiah preach.”[1] That would mean that Daniel was forewarned about the coming fall of the nation. Since Daniel held high office even after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C., he is believed to have lived to be about 85 years of age.

Daniel’s name means “God is my judge,” and he is mentioned by name five times in the Bible outside of the Book of Daniel (Ezek. 14:14,20; 28:3; Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). Miller explains: “Ezekiel’s ministry did not begin until about 593 B.C. (cf., Ezek. 1:2), over twelve years after Daniel’s deportation. … No satisfactory explanation exists for the use of the name Daniel by the prophet Ezekiel other than that he and Daniel were contemporaries and that Daniel had already gained notoriety throughout the Babylonian Empire by the time of Ezekiel’s ministry.”[2]

Though some have questioned whether Daniel was an actual historical figure, the matter is conclusively settled by Jesus, who plainly spoke of Daniel and his prophecies as historical and authoritative (Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14).

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon

Nebuchadnezzar II
Nebuchadnezzar II

Miller makes a surprising statement: “With the possible exception of the pharaoh of the exodus, more is said of Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament than of any other foreign ruler.”[3]

Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 634–562 B.C.) reigned over the neo-Babylonian empire from August of 605 B.C. to 562 B.C., a period of 43 years. After Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians and Assyrians at Carchemish in May-June of 605 B.C., his father King Nabopolassar, the conqueror of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, died in August of 605 B.C. Crown prince Nebuchadnezzar rushed home from the conquest of Jerusalem — bringing Daniel and many others with him — to ascend the throne of Babylon on September 6/7 of 605 B.C.

The Book of Daniel shows Nebuchadnezzar to be a man of great ability, towering pride and, when thwarted, burning rage. At the time of his choosing, Yahweh decisively humbled the king, probably with the result that Nebuchadnezzar gave his allegiance to Yahweh. Such unlikely faith seems indicated by Yahweh calling him “my servant” (Jer. 25:9, 27:6, 43:10), a title used only for men such as the Messiah, Abraham, Moses, David, Job, and Isaiah. No other foreign person is ever called “my servant” by Yahweh, and the only person who comes close is Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who is called “my shepherd” by Yahweh in Isaiah 44:28 (Isa. 45:1, 45:13). Cyrus also plays an important role in Daniel’s life.

Nebuchadnezzar’s reconstruction of Babylon, including the famed Ishtar Gate and the hanging gardens, was one of the great wonders of the ancient world.

Historical context of Daniel

The nation that God had established by covenant under Moses later divided into two nations — Judah and Israel (see 1 Kings 12) — at the end of Solomon’s reign (931 B.C.). This period (931 – 586 B.C.) is often called “The Divided Kingdom.” The Divided Kingdom may be considered along two lines, devotion to God and commitment to international alliances. Had these two nations remained strong in their faithfulness to Yahweh, they would never have needed any commitments to other nations. But Judah often followed the lead of its unfaithful rulers into idolatry, and Israel was much worse. Both Judah and Israel made frequent alliances with regional powers, resulting in a steady increase of idolatry.

In the late eighth century B.C., the two great world powers were Egypt and Assyria. After many warnings from his prophets, Yahweh brought Assyria to take the northern kingdom of Israel away into bondage, and this happened in 722 B.C. at the fall of Israel’s capital, Samaria.

The Battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.) was fought at the place marked by the star
The Battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.) was fought at the place marked by the star

Tossed like a leaf in the wind, Judah wavered between relying on Yahweh or, more frequently, on either fading Assyria or historically-dominant Egypt, the ancient regional power. When Pharaoh Neco came up from Egypt to aid the Assyrians at the Euphrates River, King Josiah of Judah blocked him at Megiddo and was killed (2 Kings 23:29). Pharaoh chose his own king for Judah, renamed him Jehoiakim, imposed tribute on Judah (2 Kings 23:34) and then continued northward.

However, on the Euphrates River, at a place named Carchemish, Pharaoh Neco and his Assyrian allies were crushed by crown prince Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (May–June of 605 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar quickly rushed south toward Jerusalem to deal with the puppet king Jehoiakim of Judah in Jerusalem, the home of a young man named Daniel.

There is no doubt whatever that Nebuchadnezzar believed himself to be in complete control of these events, but he would realize in time that Yahweh was calling the shots. What is more, he said so to the whole empire (Daniel 4)!

Daniel rose quickly to high office under Nebuchadnezzar and survived his death to hold a powerful position under the rule of Cyrus the Great of Persia (c. 600–530 B.C.).

The Book of Daniel as literature

While those who want to deny the possibility of predictive prophecy consider the contents of Daniel to consist mainly of “court legends,” we accept the position expressed by Miller: “Scholars who adhere to the traditional position understand the book to consist primarily of history, prophecy and apocalyptic. … Prophetic-apocalyptic may be the best designation, for Daniel takes on the character of both prophecy and apocalyptic.”[4]

Apocalyptic is an intensification of prophecy. To highlight the difference between apocalyptic and prophecy, consider Samuel’s prophetic words to King Saul: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you!” (1 Sam. 15:28). God could have used Samuel to reveal this same truth by means of a dramatic vision in which the crown is roughly stripped from Saul’s head and placed on the head of David. That would have been an apocalyptic vision — though somewhat mild— in that it is an intensification of the plain, prophetic prediction that Samuel actually made.

New Testament scholar Grant R. Osborne says, “A basic element in defining apocalyptic is its pessimism toward the present and the promise of restoration in a sovereignly controlled future.”[5] That is a simple sentence, but it bears careful thought since it provides a useful interpretive tool. Osborne also has a helpful insight when he explains, “One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’”[6] He also gives insight about the use of symbols in apocalyptic literature — such as the gigantic tree in chapter 3 — and the way they change the way people think about the world: “The symbols have a special communicative function in addressing the social world of the original readers, thus opening up a new symbolic world for them.”[7] He adds:

The visions guide readers into a [surpassing] reality that takes precedence over the current situation and encourages readers to persevere in the midst of their trials. The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation.[8]

The vision of a future offered by Daniel would have greatly strengthened Jews in captivity in Babylon in the midst of a serious trial of their faith in Yahweh.

The literary structure of Daniel is simply presented by Miller:[9]

Part One: The ministry of Daniel in Babylon (1:1–6:28)

Part Two: The visions of Daniel in Babylon (7:1–12:13)

An unusual feature of the Book of Daniel is that over half of it is written in Aramaic, while the balance is written in Hebrew. The dialect of Aramaic, known as “Imperial Aramaic,” was an official or literary dialect that was the dominant language of the Near East during the fifth and sixth centuries before Christ. Aramaic was for a time as dominant as English is today.

Conflict about the meaning and value of Daniel

Traditional interpretation of Daniel — both Jewish and Christian — has always held that the Book of Daniel was written during the sixth century B.C. by Daniel, a Jew exiled to Babylon, to whom God revealed reliable knowledge of future events. That is the view advocated by this study guide, and we have no doubt of its accuracy.

However, beginning in the nineteenth century, a number of scholars attacked many things about the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine. In short, they rejected supernatural acts by God (including the resurrection of Jesus Christ), they scorned the reliability of the Bible as a reliable revelation from God, and they denied the deity of Jesus. Man became the measure of all things. How these ideas are applied to Daniel may be shown by the comments of commentator John J. Collins:

Daniel is not a reliable source of factual information about either the past of the future. … This is apparent from the historical inaccuracies of the tales … as well as from the unhistorical claim that the book recounts the visions of a Jew in the Exile. … Its witness, however, is largely in the language of legend and myth, which appeals to the imagination rather than to the intellect.[10]

It is difficult to understand why anyone holding such views would spend years writing a commentary on Daniel.

For those of us who regard the Bible as an infallible revelation from God to his people, the fact that both Jesus and Ezekiel regarded Daniel and his prophecies as historical, reliable and relevant to future events is sufficient to settle the matter.

The theological themes of Daniel

Miller offers four themes for the Book of Daniel with the first being the most important:

“Every page reflects the author’s conviction that his God was the Lord of individuals, nations, and all of history.”[11]

God’s love and care for his followers;

The person and work of the Messiah;

Prophecies concerning the end times and the subsequent new world.

Commentaries and Bible studies on Daniel

Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994)

This commentary was written for pastors and Bible students but hides the technical details in the footnotes. It gives solid answers to critical and anti-supernatural attacks on the book for those who need them. Dispensational viewpoint.

Leon J. Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998)

This commentary was first published in 1973 but remains one of the best on history, language, exposition and theology. Dispensational viewpoint. Recommended.

John F. Walvoord, Daniel, The John Walvoord Prophecy Commentaries (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012)

This commentary was first published in 1966 and remains a classic presentation of Daniel’s prophecies from a dispensational viewpoint. More attention to theology than to the details of the text.

Beth Moore, Daniel (Nashville: LifeWay, 1996)

This personal Bible study contains considerable explanatory material and numerous diagrams. Designed in lesson form for personal study. Not technical. Recommended.

Other books and resources

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)

This book does an exceptionally good job of summarizing the teachings of the Old Testament prophets on a book-by-book basis while also dealing with crucial issues. Aimed at college level.

J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965)

This 633-page work does a terrific job of explaining the vast reach of Bible prophecy and how the prophetic events are related to one another and sequenced. It is not technical, but the reader must know that organizing all these details is not for the faint of heart. No subsequent study has attempted the biblical scope of this one.

 

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

(1 Timothy 1:17, ESV)

Major empires of the ancient Near East

ASSYRIAN EMPIRE

BABYLONIAN_EMPIRE

NOTE: All years noted on the chart below are B.C.

Daniel and the Judeans in BabylonCopyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 

[1] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, vol. 18 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1994) 44.

[2] Miller, Daniel, 42–3.

[3] Miller, Daniel, 44.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 45.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 1.

[6] Osborne, Revelation, 22.

[7] Osborne, Revelation, 15.

[8] Osborne, Revelation, 14.

[9] Miller, Daniel, 19.

[10] John J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 123.

[11] Miller, Daniel, 50.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 16:19–24 “My love to all of you in Christ Jesus”

1 Corinthians 16:19–24

19 The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. 20 All the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

21 I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.

22 If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!

23 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.

24 My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.

When Paul mentions “the churches in the province of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19), he is again sending actual greeting but also making the Corinthians see that they are part of the larger body of Christ. Let them look above not only their factional divisions but also outward to see the bond of love between Christians everywhere. The Roman province of Asia was located in what is now western Turkey.

The role of Aquila and Prisca (a shortened form of Pricilla) is notable. Acts 18:1–3 informs us that Aquila was a Jew who, along with his wife Pricilla, was expelled from Rome (probably as a Christian) in A.D. 49, when Emperor Claudius “closed down a Roman synagogue because of continuous disturbances centering on the figure of Christ.”[1] They emigrated to Roman Corinth where they met Paul, another tentmaker, and both hosted him and worked with him in the trade. They also joined Paul in Ephesus, where a church met in their home.

Anthony Thiselton approvingly describes the research of another scholar concerning Paul’s stay in Corinth: “Murphy-O’Connor convincingly paints a picture of Aquila and Prisca having their home in the loft of one of the shops around the market square (approximately 13 ft. x 13 ft. x 8 ft. without running water) ‘while Paul slept below amid the tool-strewn workbenches and the rolls of leather and canvas.’”[2] Are you feeling the hardship?

Though Paul dictated his letter to a professional scribe or secretary, he could not resist writing a greeting in his own hand (1 Cor. 16:21). This was all typical. One of Paul’s scribes actually identifies himself in Rom. 16:23.

Verses 22–24 serve as a sharp conclusion to the entire letter. The purpose of such a rhetorical conclusion was to reinforce the argument of the letter with emotional force. Here the vocabulary emphasizes Jesus Christ, love, and either the grace or the judgment that all will receive when Christ returns.

It seems most probable that in verse 22 the verb “love” refers to covenant loyalty. Covenant loyalty essentially amounts to obedience, just as Jesus emphasized with his disciples: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). In the Old Testament, the result of maintaining covenant loyalty to God was blessing, while breaking the covenant resulted in curses. The curse is expressed by the famous Greek noun anathema, which has been adopted into English most frequently in reference to a person who has been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Thiselton summarizes: “Paul has reproached the [message] of the cross and the content of the gospel through the array of pastoral, ethical, and theological issues that bubble away at Corinth: Come on, he concludes; are you ‘in’ or are you ‘out’?”[3] The return of Christ will resolve this question once and for all.

“Come, Lord!” represents the Aramaic term “Maranatha.” Generations of Christians have echoed this appeal.

Paul closes by mentioning the grace represented uniquely by Jesus Christ and Paul’s own special love for all who are joined to Christ (verses 23–24). Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 

[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1343.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1343.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1351.