Matthew: tax collector, disciple, apostle, evangelist—and “scribe trained for the kingdom”? (Matt 9; Pentecost 2A)

At last! This coming Sunday, we return to Gospel passages in sequence, drawn from the book of origins—the Gospel attributed by tradition to Matthew. None of the four Gospels in the New Testament originally gave any indication as to who wrote those works; it was up to the evolving tradition within the early church to infer, claim, deduce, and assign specific authorship—either to apostles (Matthew and John) or to close followers of apostles (Mark, following Peter, and Luke, following Paul).

This year—Year A—we began with the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew (from 2:1 through to 5:37); but when the season of Lent began, the Gospel readings were taken largely from John, with John and Luke featuring during the Sundays after Easter. Only now, after Trinity Sunday, does the sequential pattern resume.

This coming Sunday, we will hear the story of the call of Matthew the tax collector (Matt 9:9–13) as well as the interlinked account of the healing of a haemorrhaging woman along with the raising of a young girl from death (9:18–26). The story of the call of Matthew is told with a somewhat astringent sparseness. “He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” (9:9). That’s it. No fuss, no fanfare. Just plain and simple, straight to the point: follow me—and he followed him.

This first Gospel, in the order that the four Gospels appear in the New Testament, bears the name of Matthew. It wasn’t the first written Gospel—that was Mark’s, which clearly was a source used by the author of Matthew’s Gospel. By tradition, the attributed author of this Gospel, Matthew, was a tax collector whom Jesus called to follow him. (Why a tax collector who followed Jesus would take the work of a junior and erratic follower as the basis for his work, remains unexplained.)

At any rate: after this tax collector became a disciple of Jesus, he was appointed as an apostle, and later he allegedly wrote an eye-witness account of the time he spent with Jesus. That account runs up until the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and is wrapped around with some opening chapters about the beginnings of the life of Jesus, and a closing chapter relating to the body of Jesus, his resurrection and departure from his followers.

The tradition that this first Gospel was an eye-witness account by one of the twelve apostles has come under careful scrutiny from biblical scholars, exploring the language, structure, imagery, and ideas found in that narrative.

The consensus from this scholarly work is that the first Gospel in the New Testament was not an eye-witness account, but a carefully crafted account of Jesus, originating in a community of people who had maintained their Jewish culture and practices whilst affirming that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah—a community that was, therefore, in conflict with the views and teachings of the synagogue leaders in their town, who did not see Jesus in that way.

Within ecclesial tradition, the picture of Matthew, tax collector—disciple—apostle, who subsequently wrote an eye-witness account of the time he spent with Jesus, holds sway. Within biblical scholarship, Matthew is simply a character who appears briefly in the story told by the first Gospel in the New Testament.

Matthew is identified in one short verse narrating his call by Jesus (Matt 9:9). He is also included in the list of twelve who were called to be apostles, with the added descriptor, “the tax collector” (Matt 10:3). He is also named in three other books, with nothing further said about him (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; and Acts 1:13). But little else about him is conveyed in the four books that name him.


Those five fleeting references are the only times we see directly this person in the biblical narratives. He is surely there in other scenes, but he simply blends into the collection of “the disciples” (Mark 2:23; 3:7; 5:31: 6:1, 35, 41, 45; 7:17; 8:1–10, 14, 27, 34: 9:14, 28, 31; 10:10, 13, 23–24; 11:19; 12:43; 13:1; 14:12–16; and Synoptic parallels), “the twelve” (Mark 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 14:20; and Synoptic parallels; and John 6:66–71; 20:24), or, even more anonymously, into “the crowd” (Mark 2:4, 13; 4:1; Matt 7:28; 13:2; Luke 5:1; 6:17; 7:11–12; 8:4; John 6:2; 12:9, 12; Acts 1:15; 2:6; etc.).

And yet, in the evolving church traditions, Matthew emerges from the shadows to take centre stage as disciple, apostle, saint, and author of the Gospel which is placed first in the New Testament. Some churches even maintain the patristic claim that Matthew wrote in Aramaic, and was later translated into the Greek version that forms the basis of the New Testament text.

The claim about Aramaic comes from a fourth century report by Eusebius of Caesarea that a second century bishop, Papias of Heirapolis, claimed that Matthew “put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ), but each person interpreted them as best he could” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16). We should note that this is a somewhat indirect witness at quite some remove, and also that the Greek word Ἑβραΐδι can be translated either as Hebrew or as Aramaic.

But this claim falls down from the clear evidence of the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, which mirrors very closely both the Gospel of Mark, at many points, and the Gospel of Luke, at other points, in passages found only in Matthew and Luke.

The two key conclusions drawn by many scholars are twofold: first, that Matthew (like Luke) used the Gospel of Mark as a basis for writing a narrative about Jesus—but modified and adapted both the order and wording of passages; and second, that Luke and Matthew had access to another source (whether oral or written) for many of the sayings of Jesus (the source is known as Q). This makes it completely unlikely that Matthew wrote, in Aramaic, or in Hebrew, the earliest account of Jesus.

And ascribing the authorship of this Gospel to the tax collector identified at Matt 9:9 is also a patristic move. The title of this (and the other) Gospels, identifying the alleged author, is found only in later manuscripts and patristic writings; the narrative itself fails to identify anyone as the author, let alone the tax collector named Matthew. This claim is a later apologetic move, most likely made to provide an “apostolic authorisation” to the Gospel.


So what do we say, then, of “Matthew”, the purported author of this Gospel, a work which the author declares at the start to be “the book of origins of Jesus, Messiah” (Matt 1:1)? For me, a key to the way that the author of this “book of origins” operated is provided at Matt 13:52, where Jesus concludes a sequence of parables with the statement that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.

That description encapsulates very clearly, for me, who the author of this Gospel was—a scribe, “trained for the kingdom”, drawing on old resources, but reshaping them so that they are seen to be new. We can see this in many ways in the narrative that he constructs. We can especially see this in the way he presents Jesus as an authoritative teacher of Torah—the one whose words are to be heard, remembered, studied, and passed on. Thus, the reason for his writing of this Gospel.

In this Gospel, we are offered a distinctive, at times unique, portrayal of Jesus. Only in this Gospel does Jesus affirm that all of “the law and the prophets” stand, are not to be annulled, and indeed have been “fulfilled”, or given new life and meaning, by what Jesus teaches (Matt 5:17–20).

So the encounters between Jesus and his disciples, and the scribes and Pharisees, at various moments in the narrative (9:2–8, 10–13; 12:38–42; 15:1–20; 16:1–4; 19:3–9; 21:15–16; 22:34–46) inevitably revolve around differing interpretations of Torah prescriptions and include regular references to (Hebrew) scriptural passages.

Jesus debates the way that the scribes and Pharisees interpret Torah; he meets them on their terms, and engages in these debates in accordance with “the rules” of scripture interpretation. Far from abandoning the Torah, he rather keeps the commandments, valued as “what is old”, and provides distinctive insights and understandings, “what is new”, as he intensifies and radicalises them. (“You have heard it said …”, hard enough; “but I say to you …”, an impossible counsel of perfection?)

In this Gospel alone, Jesus affirms “the scribes and the Pharisees” as those who “sit on Moses’ seat” and teach well—but fail to live by that teaching in their lives (23:1–3). Accordingly, Jesus not only teaches how to live by the law, with a ferocious intensity (5:21–48; 23:13–36), but he puts his teachings into practice; he maintains the old but fills it with new meaning. All of this lies ahead in the passages that will be proposed by the lectionary over the coming months.

Our Father in heaven: a pattern for prayer (Luke 11, Matt 6) part III

In the series of Gospel readings offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, there is a break from the sequential readings from the Gospel of Matthew begun in early January each year. This year—Year A—we began with the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew (from 2:1 through to 5:37); but when the season of Lent began, that pattern was interrupted.

We return to Matthew with Matt 9 on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, jumping from where we had left the Gospel back in February, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. That means that we have omitted the passage where Jesus says “pray then in this way”, giving his disciples a set of words (6:9–13) that has come to be known as The Our Father (after its opening phrase) or The Lord’s Prayer (after the one who gave it to his disciples). So this week I am posting about this well-known and much-loved prayer. Previous posts were at

What of “the kingdom, the power, and the glory”? These terms are thoroughly scriptural, being found through the pages of Hebrew Scripture. Although not in the earliest manuscripts of either Matthew’s or Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer, the closing doxology is found in the text of the Didache (which I think was a second century document) and makes its way into later manuscripts of the canonical documents. That most likely signals that there was an oral tradition that this phrase was in use in later times, so later scribes felt the need to write it back into the words attributed to Jesus.

In scripture, it is not only the kingdom, the power, the glory which is prayed for—there is also the greatness, the majesty, and the victory which is sought, as well as riches and honour. The key text which draws all of these terms together, and places them into a prayer addressing God, is when David assembles “all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions that served the king, the commanders of the thousands, the commanders of the hundreds, the stewards of all the property and cattle of the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty warriors, and all the warriors” (1 Chron 28:1) and addresses them as they prepare to commence work on building the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

After delivering detailed plans for the building to his son Solomon (1 Chron 28:11–19)—plans which had been revealed to him by the Lord—David commissions Solomon for the task, presents him to the people, and then prays a prayer of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.” (1 Chron 29:10–13).

Kingdom, power, and glory are also collected together in Psalm 145: “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom” (Ps 145:10–12). It is God who holds the attributes of power and glory in overseeing God’s kingdom.

These terms were also terms used to honour (and, indeed, flatter!) human kings; the prophet Daniel addresses King Nebuchadnezzar in similarly extravagant terms: “You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold” (Dan 2:37–38).

However, the more common use of such flowery ascriptions of might and power are addressed to God, the king (as we have seen above). It is God who exercises power (Exod 15:6; 32:11; Num 11:23; Deut 4:34; 26:8; Ps 21:13; 130:7; 147:5; Isa 10:33; Jer 16:21; Dan 5:23; Nah 1:3).

It is also God in whom glory rests, as many stories on the narrative books attest (Exod 16:7, 10; 24:16–17; 40:34–35; Lev 9:6, 23; Num 14:10, 21; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Deut 5:24; 1 Ki 8:11; 1 Chron 16:28–29; 2 Chron 5:14; 7:1–3). The psalmists also acknowledge the glory of God (Ps 8:1; 24:8–10; 26:8; 29:1–3; 96:7–8; 102:15–16; 104:31; 113:4; 138:5; 148:13). The glory of the Lord is manifest to prophets (Isa 2:19–21; 6:3; 10:16–18; 24:23; 40:5; 42:8; 58:8; 59:19; 60:1–2; 61:3; Ezek 1:28; 3:12, 23; 9:3; 10:4, 18–19; 11:23; 43:4–5: 44:4; Hab 2:14; Zech 2:8).

In telling the story of Jesus, who preaches “the kingdom of God” and indicates that it has come near in him (Mark 1:14; Luke 17:20), the Gospels make note of the power of Jesus (Mark 5:30; 6:2; Matt 11:20; 13:54; Luke 4:14, 36; 5:17; 6:19; 8:46; 19:37; John 10:18) as well as his glory (Luke 2:32; 9:32; John 1:14; 2:11; 8:54; 12:41; 17:5, 22–24).

So the concluding doxology in the longer version of the prayer, ascribing the kingdom, the power, and the glory to God, is both a fitting scriptural conclusion as well as consistent with Jesus’s own perceptions of his role in God’s overarching plan of salvation.

Our Father in heaven: a pattern for prayer (Luke 11, Matt 6) part II

In the series of Gospel readings offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, there is a break from the sequential readings from the Gospel of Matthew begun in early January each year. This year—Year A—we began with the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew (from 2:1 through to 5:37); but when the season of Lent began, that pattern was interrupted.

We return to Matthew with Matt 9 on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, jumping from where we had left the Gospel back in February, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. That means that we have omitted the passage where Jesus says “pray then in this way”, giving his disciples a set of words (6:9–13) that has come to be known as The Our Father (after its opening phrase) or The Lord’s Prayer (after the one who gave it to his disciples). So this week I am posting about this well-known and much-loved prayer. The first post is at

“Give us bread for the day” has often been seen to be evoking the story embedded within the foundational myth (establishing the central identity) of the people of Israel, when the Lord provided manna to the people whilst they journey in the wilderness (Exod 16; Num 11); further reference is made to this manna in additional books of Hebrew scripture (Deut 8:3, 16; Neh 9:20; Ps 78:24).

That gift of manna, striking in the wilderness experience, was also provided to the Israelites when they camped at Gilgal, on the verge of entering into the land of Canaan (Josh 5:10–12). The story has a potency that makes it an essential element in the identity of Israel: it is a nation which trusts in the gracious provisions of God.

Jesus continues that attitude; God is the one who will provide when something is asked for (Mark 11:24; Matt 7:7, 11; 9:38; Luke 10:2; 11:9, 13; John 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23). Consistent with that, asking for “bread for the day” is an appropriate prayer to offer.

The next petition raises other questions. Differences in the Greek terms used in the early versions of this prayer point to the matter; is it “forgive us our sins” or “cancel the debts we owe”? On the different words used, see

Of course, forgiveness is part of the “gospel” of Hebrew Scriptures; the claim that God forgives is found in numerous places. Abraham wrangles with God to forgive Sodom (Gen 18:16–33); Moses pleads, successfully, with the Lord to forgive Israel after their rebellion in the wilderness (Num 14:1–25), and less successfully after the incident involving the golden statue of a calf (Exod 32:30–35). Jeremiah foresees that within the new covenant given by God, forgiveness will be offered (Jer 31:34).

A refrain in a number of places is that “the Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (sin” (Exod 34:6–8; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; see also 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9). King Solomon prays for God to forgive the people (1 Ki 8:33–40; 2 Chron 6:18–40), the psalmist prays for forgiveness (Ps 25:18; 79:9), and so do some prophets (Ezek 16:63; Dan 9:19; Amos 7:2). Jesus’ prayer petition for God to forgive, in the central prayer he taught, continues this motif.

The associated clause of the prayer, instructing us to follow the example of God and forgive the sins of others, also reflects enduring Israelite understandings. Joseph forgives his brothers (Gen 50:15–21), David forgives Abigail (1 Sam 25:26–28, 32–35). Jesus exhorts his followers to forgive seven times (Luke 17:1–4) or seventy times seven (Matt 18:21–22), and is remembered as the one who came to forgive sins (Mark 2:10; Matt 9:6; Luke 5:24; 23:34), and so this clause of the pray is consistent with that.

If the prayer is about asking God to cancel debts,rather than forgive sins, then another theme in Hebrew Scripture is drawn in by Jesus. The release of slaves and the cancelling of debts was meant to be practised in society every fifty years during the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13). Luke explicitly signals this theme in the opening speech of Jesus that he alone reports: “the Spirt of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (4:18–19). The reference to “the year of the Lord’s favour” is commonly taken to be an indication of the Jubilee.

The practice of the Jubilee is, however, dubious. The levitical prescriptions appear to be the ideal that the priests hoped for; actual evidence that this was ever implemented in Israelite society is lacking. Indeed, it is suggested that while the people were in Exile, the land of Israel would “lie desolate”, and “enjoy its sabbath years” (Lev 26:34), providing recompense for all those years when “it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living in it” (Lev 26:35).

Nevertheless, Jesus may well be instructing his followers to pray that this will be a reality in society; that the people “shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants”, and that those who had been taken to work elsewhere would return “to your property and every one of you to your family” (Lev 25:10). His prayer indicates that he wanted his followers to implement this practice in their lives.

The phrases “save us” and “deliver us” introduce the next two petitions. “Save me” or “save us” is the cry of psalmists (Ps 6:4: 7:1; 22:21; 31:2, 16; 44:6; 54:1; 55:16; 57:3; 59:2; 69:1; 71:2–3; 80:2; 86:16; 106:47; 109:26; 119:94, 146; 142:6; 143:9), and most famously in the Hallel psalm, Psalm 118, in the context of various phrases repeated in Christian worship on a regular basis: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Ps 118:24–26).

Prophets also cry out for God to save them (Isa 25:9; 33:22; 36:18; 37:20; Jer 17:14), as do the elders of Israel (1 Sam 4:3), the people of Israel (1 Sam 7:8), and the kings David (1 Chron 16:35) and Hezekiah (2 Ki 19:19).

“Deliver me” or “deliver us”, likewise, is a prayer addressed to God by Jacob (Gen 32:10), the people of Israel (Judg 10:15), the friends of Daniel (Dan 3:17), and time and time again by the psalmists (Ps 3:7; 6:4; 7:1; 25:20; 31:1, 15; 39:8; 40:13; 43:1; 51:14; 59:1–2; 70:1–2; 79:9; 106:4; 109:21; 119:170; 120:2; 140:1; 144:11). As Ben Sirach prays in the latter stages of his closing poem, “may he he entrust to us his mercy, and may he deliver us in our days!” (Sir 50:24).

“The time of trial” is a phrase found only in this prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4) and in the prayer which Jesus is said to have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:38; Matt 26:41; Luke 22:40, 46). However, the notion of being tested or put on trial is common in scripture. Moses reminds the Israelites of “what the Lord God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw” as they wandered in the wilderness (Deut 7:18–19; 29:2–3).

Speaking about the righteous, the psalmist asserts that “the Lord will not abandon them to their power, or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial” (Ps 37:33), whilst the poet who wrote Lamentations reflects that in the invasion of Jerusalem the wrathful God “has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation” (Lam 3:5), and Jib poetically reflects, “what are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?” (Job 7:17–18).

Several commentators point to the similarity between the request in the prayer taught by Jesus for God to “save us in the time of trial” and that found in later rabbinic teaching in the Babylonian Talmud. In the tractate Berakot, one is encouraged to ask the Lord, “Lead me not into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation nor into disgrace” (b. Ber. 60b).

Various prophets describe what took place in Israel, as they were invaded and conquered, and what they foresee in the future, when the Day of the Lord comes, in graphic terms that depict intense trials and tribulations. That is picked up in apocalyptic passages in New Testament texts. Being saved from such trials is in view when Jesus indicates that God will ensure that the apocalyptic trials that he foresees will come to an end (Mark 13:20; Matt 24:22). The seer of Patmos assures the church in Philadelphia that “because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev 3:10).

Likewise, the phrase “the evil one” is absent from Hebrew Scripture, but the notion of evil is present throughout—from the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve flaunt the ban on their eating fruit from “ the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:15–17; 3:1–7), through the forty years when Israel,was condemned to “wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord had disappeared” (Num 32:13), and the generations under the Judges when “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judg 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 9:23; 10:6; 13:1).

In their debate with Samuel regarding the need for a king in Israel, the people confess “the evil of demanding a king for ourselves” (1 Sam 12:19); this comes to fruition again and again in the following centuries. Under Jeroboam, son of Solomon, his wife prophesies against him, declaring that “you have done evil above all those who were before you” (1 Ki 14:9); under his brother Rehoboam, the people of Judah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their ancestors had done” (1 Ki 14:22).

The same formulaic denunciation then condemns almost all of the northern kingdom kings who follow: Nadal at 1 Ki 15:25–26; Baasha at 1 Ki 15:33–34; Zimri at 1 Ki 16:15–20; Omri at 1 Ki 16:25–28; Ahab at 1 Ki 16:29–30, 22:37–40; Ahaz at 1 Ki 22:51–53; Jehoram at 2 Ki 3:1–2; Ahaziah at 2 Ki 8:26–27; Jehoash at 2 Ki 13:10–13; Jeroboam II at 2 Ki 14:23–29; Zechariah at 2 Ki 15:8–12; Menahem at 2 Ki 15:17–22; Pekahaiah at 2 Ki 15:23–26; Pekah at 2 Ki 15:27–31; and Hoshea at 2 Ki 17:1–4. In other words, almost all of the kings of Israel! (Of course, the work comes from those telling the story in the southern kingdom.)

The notion of a personified “evil one” does not emerge until much closer to the time of Jesus. Satan was originally “an adversary” to Balaam (Num 22:22–23), David (1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:22; 1 Chron 21:1), Solomon (1 Ki 11:14, 23–25) and the high priest Joshua in the time of return from Exile under Darius of Persia (Zech 3:1–10). In Jewish literature in the ensuing centuries—1 Enoch, Jubilees, 2 Enoch—the adversary develops into an evil personage.

Most famously, the accuser from the heavenly court, delegated by God to prosecute the case against Job (Job 1:6–12; 2:2–8), would eventually become Satan, tester of Jesus (Mark 1:13), a fallen heavenly being (Luke 10:18) who is “deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9; 20:2–3), and “the evil one” from whom Jesus instructed that we should pray to be delivered. He thus draws deep from the wells of his Jewish heritage in these petitions—“deliver us … save us”.

Our Father in heaven: a pattern for prayer (Luke 11, Matt 6) part I

In the series of Gospel readings offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, there is a break from the sequential readings begun in early January each year. This year—Year A—we began with the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew (from 2:1 through to 5:37); but when the season of Lent began, the Gospel readings were taken largely from John, with John and Luke featuring during the Sundays after Easter. Only now, after Trinity Sunday, does the sequential pattern resume.

However, that pattern begins with Matt 9 on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, jumping from where we had left the Gospel back in February, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The missing chapters (5:38 to 9:8) are omitted by the lectionary. Now, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are confronting and difficult—but that is no reason to avoid them!

What is omitted is the latter part of the sequence of Antitheses, including the command to love our enemies; teachings on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; and a series of sayings about assorted matters, each of which presses us to be more intentional and focussed in our discipleship.

And in the middle of all of that, “pray then in this way”, says Jesus, giving his disciples a set of words (6:9–13) that has come to be known as The Our Father (after its opening phrase) or The Lord’s Prayer (after the one who gave it to his disciples). So before we get too far into the series of readings in the season of Pentecost, I thought I would offer some thoughts about this well-known and much-loved prayer.

Christians are used to praying this prayer on a regular basis, in obedience to the instructions of Jesus recorded in two Gospels: “when you pray, say …” (Luke 11:2; Matt 6:9). This prayer can be considered a succinct primer for prayer, since it contains the key elements of praying.

After an opening adoration of God (“our Father in heaven, holy is your name”), there follows prayers for the world (“your kingdom come, your will be done”), petitions for ourselves (“give us bread for the day, forgive us our sins, do not bring us to the time of trial”), and intercessions for others (“as we forgive those who sin against us”). In the later version of the prayer, a closing benediction is included (“yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory”), ending, of course, with “Amen”. The pattern is clear and concise.

Each element in this prayer is and expression of traditional Jewish piety; every line draws from Hebrew Scripture. Although this prayer is so frequently associated with Jesus, it is not a prayer that is original to him in its content or orientation. The originality of the prayer lies not in its content, but in the way that Jesus has drawn together each element into a cohesive unity.

The structure of the prayer is pleasingly aesthetic. There is an opening address to God (“our father in heaven”) and a closing benedictory phrase (“yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory”). These phrases frame the who,e prayer; whilst the largest component of the prayer, the inner section, is focussed on us where we are in this present time, the outer frames set our lives into this larger context.

Following the opening phrase, there are three clauses addressed to God (“holy is your name … your kingdom come … your will be done”). These clauses extend the opening address to God, identifying key elements in how we understand God. (See below for further discussion of this.) The third clause is extended with the phrase “on earth as in heaven”, drawing our attention to the close correlation that is expected between the divine and we human beings.

Before the closing phrase, there are three requests made of God, for ourselves (“give us bread for the day … forgive us our sins … do not bring us to the time of trial”) with the second and third phrases extended with an additional phrase (“as we forgive those who sin against us” and “rescue us from the evil one”).

The second extension draws the attention of people who are praying the prayer away from us as people praying (give us, forgive us) to others who are beyond the scope of the group praying—to other people in society with whom we engage day by day.

And the third extension draws the attention of people away from us as people within this material world, to a dimension that is somehow beyond, transcending this world. Reference to “the evil one” raises the spectre (oops!) of the realm of “principalities and powers” (as referred to in the epistles). Life as we know it is not entirely within our own control; there are other forces—both evil, and also good—that impinge upon us. It’s an interesting extension in a prayer which is, at least in the larger middle section, focussed on our here-and-now in this world.

So in my mind, just as the opening and closing phrases balance each other, so these three petitions balance with the three addresses to God in the earlier half of the prayer. The symmetry is not exact, in terms of precise syllables or words used; but the syntactical structure is clearly patterned and pleasingly symmetrical, in my mind.

And then, to make sure that we know that the prayer is ending, we have the tag-line, as it were: “for ever and ever, Amen”. So in my mind, quite often when I pray this prayer, I hear the structure as an invitation to pause, focus on God, remember our needs and remember also others, recall the immediate dimension as well as the transcendent, and then conclude with gratitude to God. The Amen at the end is the typical conclusion to prayer, signalling the agreement of the prayers and all present to what has been prayed.



The content of the prayer, as previously noted, draws at every point from Hebrew Scripture. The opening address identifies God as father, and as “hallowed”—a somewhat archaic adjective, rarely used now in common speech, meaning holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered. The related noun, hallow, denoted a saint in older English. The concept of being holy, however, was well- known in ancient Israel, and appears frequently in Hebrew Scripture.

Addressing God as “father in heaven” is found in just a few texts in Hebrew Scriptures: in the cry of “the faithful one”, “you are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!” (Ps 89:26), in the praises of the psalmist, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps 68:5), and in the questioning of the prophet Malachi: “have we not all one father? has not one God created us? why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Mal 2:10).

By contrast, that God’s name is holy is an affirmation found many times in Hebrew Scriptures. God is addressed as holy (Ps 22:3) and God’s name is holy (Ps 30:4; 33:21; 97:12; 103:1; 105:3; 106:47; 111:9; 145:21). “Holy One” is a term applied to God in the Writings (Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Job 6:10; Sir 4:14; 23:9; 53:10; 47:8; 48:20) and by the Prophets (Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; and a further 24 times; Jer 50:29; Ezek 8:13; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3). When Hannah sings with joy of the son whom she is expecting, she describes God as the Holy One (1 Sam 2:2).

Just as God was holy (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8; 1 Sam 2:2; Ps 99:5, 9), so God had called Israel to be a holy people (Exod 19:5–6; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:19; 28:9) and to live lives of holiness (Lev 11:45; Ps 77:13). God provided the people with a “holy land” for them to live (Josh 5:15) and there was a “most holy place” in the heart of the Temple where God dwelt (1 Kings 7:50; 1 Chron 6:49). And so, the followers of Jesus are instructed to consider themselves as God’s holy people (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19; Eph 5:25–27; Col 1:22; 3:12; Heb 3:1; 1 Pet 1:13–16; 2:5, 9) and to live accordingly.

“Your kingdom come” also expresses a hope that is central to the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel, of course, eventually adopted the pattern of nations that surrounded it, and appointed a king (1 Sam 8–10)—although not without some wrangling with the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). The various kings of the ensuing centuries each had to reckon with the prophets that were anointed by God and gifted by the Spirit, often to their great frustration!

A number of psalms acknowledge that God is in fact sovereign over Israel, declaring “the Lord is king” (Ps 10:16; 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; and see also 1 Chron 16:31). “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”, says one song (Ps 29:10), amd extending the scope of divine sovereignty, “the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth”, is a striking claim in Ps 47:2.

One psalm claims that the kingdom of the Lord “is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps 145:13; also Dan 4:3; 7:27). Whilst the prophets who speak about a future kingdom invariably foresee a restoration of the greatness of a Israel in the land (Isa 9:7; 11:1–5; Amos 9:11–15; Obad 1:21), the developing notions relating to the demand for justice-righteousness, the judgement of God, the prediction of a Day when the Lord will act, and the coming of The End are all premised on the sovereignty of the Lord God and a certainty that God will indeed act to bring in a time and a place where God’s ways will guide all. See

For “on earth as in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer, see

So Jesus stands firmly in that prophetic line of assurance in God’s sovereign power and certainty that God’s kingdom will come for people of all the nations (Mark 9:1; Matt 8:11; 16:28; 24:14; Luke 9:27; 13:29) and, indeed, that this kingdom has come near to Israel through his own message and activities, as he regularly declares (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17; 10:7; 12:28; Luke 10:9, 11; 11:20). So this line in the prayer expresses both faithful Jewish expectations and typical perspective of Jesus.

See more at

Forcing scripture to support doctrine: texts for Trinity Sunday (2 Cor 13, Matt 28; Trinity A)

This coming Sunday is one of those extremely rare moments in the course of the church year. It’s a Sunday that raises some difficulties for me. First, it’s one of the very few times in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and the like). And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.

Indeed, we might well argue that the texts which are selected for this coming Sunday are actually being asked to undertake work that they weren’t intended to do, and that they can’t actually do without significant violence being done to them. I have already explored the two Hebrew Scripture passages (Genesis 1 and Psalm 8); see

In this post I turn to the two New Testament passages (2 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 28). What then, first, of Paul’s closing words of his second letter to the Corinthians? This provides one of the rare instances in the New Testament where Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit appear in close proximity within the same sentence. Could this be an early statement of a three-in-one deity? Some interpreters would have us think so.

However, the blessing that is offered at the end of this letter is not Paul making a doctrinal declaration about the inner nature of God. It is, rather, a poetically-inspired literary variation and expansion of the typical closing words that we find at the end of his letters.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” is how he has ended his earlier letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:23), a closure similar to “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thess 5:28), “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 4:23 and also Phlmn 25), and “may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen” (Gal 6:18). Each ending has a very minor stylistic variation.

Writing to the believers in Rome, where dissension had gripped the house gatherings in that city, Paul most likely ended his long letter with a different blessing, “the God of peace be with all of you. Amen” (Rom 15:33). At some point, the extended greetings of Rom 16:1–16 was added, leading to a later word of blessing, “the God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet; the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom 16:20), after which yet more greetings are offered (Rom 16:21–23) and then a quite uncharacteristically flowery closure is appended–most likely by a later scribe, wanting to give a grand finale to Paul’s longest letter (Rom 16:25–27). In place of that excessive ending, another scribe substituted the more typical Pauline blessing, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you. Amen” (marked as Rom 16:24 in our numbering).

All of which indicates that the closing blessing in Paul’s authentic letters was both predictable, in that it offered grace, and also variable, in that it was occasionally nuanced and modified from the basic form. Such is the case in 2 Cor, where the standard blessing is extended.

The first phrase picks up Paul’s concerns in this letter for God’s grace, manifest to the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:12; 4:15; 6:1; 8:1; 9:14; 12:9). The second phrase adds God’s love, evident not only in Paul’s earlier words in 1 Cor 13, but also in this letter (2 Cor 5:14; 13:11). And the third phrase evokes the compassionate outpouring of the opening chapter of this letter, as Paul expresses his fellowship with the Corinthians by offering them consolation in their sufferings (2 Cor 1:3–11) and his fervent desire to visit them (2 Cor 1:15—2:4), culminating in his passionate expression, “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor 2:4).

Indeed, it in in this letter that Paul most clearly articulated his understanding of, and commitment to, “the ministry of reconciliation ” (2 Cor 5:11–21). This understanding has surely come to fullest expression in the context of his relationship with the Corinthians, with whom he has certainly struggled, yet for whom he has a profound depth of compassion and love. He yearns to be held within “the communion of the Holy Spirit” with them.

The closing blessing at 2 Cor 13:13 is thus a personal, compassionate expression of his love and concern for the Corinthians-a fitting ending to a most passionate letter. It is far away from being a statement of the doctrine of God.

Which leaves, last of all, the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:16–20), in which Jesus is said to have given a final command to his disciples, and assured them of his enduring ongoing presence with them “to the end of the age”? Here, embedded in the primary command to “go to all nations”, there is the subsidiary instruction to “make disciples”, as well as a further subsidiary instruction to “baptise in the name”. It is this last clause, of course, which motivates the offering of this passage for Trinity Sunday.

The focus of the passage which is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission” in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19–20) need to be read carefully. There are four key verbs (doing words) in these two verses: go, teach, baptise, teach. In strict syntactical analysis, the main verb is the one in the imperative (expressing a command): “make disciples”. Subsidiary to that are the other three verbs, each of which is in a participial form (indicating an action that is related to, or consequent from, that main verb). So making disciples is the key factor in this commission.

The act of making disciples is directed towards “the nations”—that is, to anyone with whom the followers of Jesus come into contact. It is to be expressed through two activities: baptising, and teaching. The act of making disciples is also to take place “as you are going”, that is, as followers of Jesus are making their way through the world in the days ahead.

Teaching orients the focus of the disciples back to the time that they spent with Jesus; they are to teach the people of the nations “to obey everything that I have commanded you”. As Matthew has taken great care to compile and collate the teachings of Jesus into five clear sections of his Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25), the guidelines provided by Jesus are evident. What he has taught in his time with the disciples is to be passed on (in good rabbinic style) to those whom they then instruct. Teaching is an activity for life in this world, very clearly.

Baptising orients the focus of the disciples to the life of the church in the future. Belonging to Jesus involves submitting to the ritual of immersion into water, signalling the new life that is taken on through faith. So, when we look at each of these factors—the syntax, the content, the focus of the passage, we must conclude that thispassage is clearly directed towards the activity that the disciples of Jesus are to undertake from this time onwards. It is not offering a doctrinal definition.

The formula used in Matt 28:19 is, in fact, something that emerges only later in the life of the church (probably not until the time of Constantine, as far as we can tell from other Christian literature). Once again, life in community on this earth is the focus. There is no sense of being baptised (“christened” in the old language) into a mysteriously complex entity of a triune being in order to “get into heaven” in accordance with institutional theological dogma. The emphasis is on community building and discipleship development within the evolving faith communities of the Jesus movement.

The focus here is on what the disciples need to do in the earthly life that stretches ahead of them: bear witness, make disciples, teach and baptise, continue out amongst “the nations” the mission that the earthly Jesus has been undertaking amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. That is far removed from any abstract speculative hypothesising about the nature of a transcendent divine being.

Save us, we beseech you: singing a Hallel psalm (Psalm 118; Lent 6A, Palm Sunday)

“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” This is the cry we hear in the psalm which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, the Sunday in Lent. Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.


It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday—because the Gospel story for this day, of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd (Matt 21:1–11), is certainly one of celebration and joy. It is also, equally unsurprisingly, offered as the psalm for a week later, on Easter Sunday, which celebrates something much greater and more enduring: the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10).

But clearly the psalm has a good fit with the Palm Sunday story that we will hear on Sunday; indeed, the Gospel writers report that the crowd cheering Jesus was singing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—which is, of course, a verse from the final Hallel Psalm (Ps 118:26).

Blessing God is a favourite Jewish activity—indeed, so many prayers still used by Jews today begin with a phrase of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God …”. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth is prayed before a meal. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine is prayed before drinking wine. And a favourite blessing which I learnt from Jews is Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. It’s a prayer to mark momentous occasions in life.

All of these prayers of blessing begin with the Hebrew words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam, the same formula of approaching, acknowledging, and blessing God.

We can see that formula used in blessings spoken by David (1 Chron 29:19 and the psalmist (Ps 119:12), as well as in later Jewish texts such as Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15–17; Judith 13:17; 14:7; the Prayer of Azariah (six times), and 1 Maccabees 4:20. It appears also in New Testament texts such as Luke 1:68; Rom 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; and 1 Pet 1:3.

More familiar, perhaps, is when Jesus uses a prayer of blessing, but speaks it to human beings; “blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”, to his disciples (Luke 10:23), or “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and most famously of all, in a set of blessings spoken to a crowd on a level place (Luke 6:20–22) or to his disciples on a mountain top (Matt 5:3–12).

So the cry of the crowd as Jesus enters Jerusalem, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26) is a typical Jewish exclamation at a moment of joyful celebration.


A further reason for linking this psalm with the Gospel narrative might well be that the cry of the crowd, “Hosanna!” (Mark 11:9–10; Matt 21:9; John 12:13). The word transliterated as “Hosanna” might actually be better translated as “save us”—another quote from the previous verse in that same psalm (Ps 118:25). The Hebrew comprises two words: hosha, which is from the verb “to save”, and then the word na, meaning “us”. Hosanna is not, in the first instance, a cry of celebration; rather, it is a cry of help, reaching out to God, pleading for assistance—and yet with the underlying confidence that God will, indeed, save, for “his steadfast love endures forever” (vv.1, 29).


Whilst the psalm, overall, sounds thanks for a victory that has been achieved, the petition, “save us” (v. 25) lies behind the first substantial section of this psalm (vv.5–14), which is largely omitted by the lectionary offering for this coming Sunday (which is Ps 118:1–2, 14–24). That section begins “out of my distress I called on the Lord” (v.5), claims that “the Lord is on my side to help me” (v.7), and concludes with rejoicing, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me; the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (vv.13–14).

Save us” is a prayer offered in other psalms (Ps 54:1; 80:2; 106:47); the petition appears more often in the singular, “save me” (Ps 7:1; 22:21; 31:16; 54:1; 55:16; 59:2; 69:1; 71:2; 109:26; 119:94, 146; 142:6; 143:9). “Save us” when faced with danger is the prayer of the elders of Israel as they faced the Philistine army (1 Sam 4:3) and the all the people a little later (1 Sam 7:8), David when the ark was put in place in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:35), Hezekiah when Judah was being threatened by the Assyrians (2 Ki 19:19), as well as the prophet Isaiah at the same time (Isa 25:9; 33:22; 37:20).

This prayer in the context of festive celebrations—the context for which Psalm 118 appears to have been written—expresses the firm confidence of the people, trusting in the power of their God. That viewpoint is perfectly applicable to the Palm Sunday story (and even more so to the Easter Sunday narrative!).

But this psalm is not only a prayer of celebration; it is also a strong statement about the resilience and trust of the people, expressing their belief that God will give them redemption, even in the face of their Roman overlords, who had held political and military power for many decades. If this is what the crowd intended with their cry as Jesus enters the city—and I have no reason to see otherwise—then this is a striking, courageous political cry embedded in the story! It is a cry that affirms that salvation is at hand.


Salvation is what is in the mind of the people as they cry, “save us” (v.25) and the earlier affirmation, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (v.21). As we have noted, “save us” was a recurring cry amongst the Israelites. In the song sung after the Exodus, the people acclaim God, singing “the Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exod 15:2). In his song of thanksgiving after battles with the Philistines, David praises God as “my rock, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Sam 22:3; also vv.36, 47, 51; and 1 Chron 16:23, 35).

The same language, of salvation, appears in the psalms (Ps 13:5; 18:2, 35, 46; 24:5; 25:5; and another 40 times) and the prophets (Isa 12:2–3; 25:9; 33:2, 6; 45:8, 17; 46:13; 51:5–6; 52:7, 10; 56:1; 59:11; 61:10; 62:11; Mer 3:23; Mic 7:7; Hab 3:18). From the psalms, we remember “the Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps 27:1); from Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).

There are a dozen occasions in Hebrew Scripture when God is identified as Saviour (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 17:7; 106:21; Isa 43:3, 11; 45:15, 21; 49:26; 60:16; 63:8; Jer 14:8); as the Lord God declares through Hosea, “I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no Saviour” (Hos 14:4).

Salvation is linked with righteousness; “the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord … he rescues them from the wicked and saves them” (Ps 37:39–40). Being righteous is a quality of the Lord God (Ps 11:7; 35:28; 50:6; 71:16; 85:10; 89:16; 97:2, 6; 103:17; 111:3; 116:5; 119:137, 152; 129:4; Isa 45:21; Jer 23:6; 33:16; Dan 9:16; Zeph 3:5) which is thus desired of those in covenant with God (Gen 18:19; 1 Sam 26:23; 2 Sam 22:21, 25; 1 Ki 10:9; 2 Chron 9:8; Job 29:14; Ps 5:8; 9:8; 11:7; 33:5; Prov 1:3; Isa 1:27; 5:7; 28:17; 42:6; 61:11; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:5–9; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 3:3).

It is no surprise, then, that this psalm celebrates that “[God] has become my salvation” (Ps 118:21) by holding a “festal procession with branches” (v.27), entering through “the gates of righteousness” (v.19) and proceeding all the way “up to the horns of the altar” (v.27), singing “save us, Lord” (v.25) and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This is a high celebratory moment!

So the closing verses take us back to the opening refrain, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (v.29; see also vv.1–4). The celebration is lifted to the highest level, with praise and thanksgiving abounding. And that makes this a perfect psalm for Palm Sunday!


On the indications of the political nature of the Palm Sunday scene, see

Your king is coming, sitting on a donkey (Zech 9; Matt 21; Lent 6A, Palm Sunday)

“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” So reports the Gospel of Matthew, in the Gospel offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Matt 21:1–11). The same story is told at Mark 11 and Luke 19.

John’s account is much more succinct; that Gospel simply notes, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14), before explaining that this fulfils what was written in a scripture passage, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zech 9:9).

The narrator in Matthew’s Gospel explains that “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matt 21:15). The prophet who is referred to in both John and Matthew is Zechariah, a post-exilic figure whose work is found as the eleventh of the twelve Minor Prophets in Hebrew Scripture.

Zechariah was active in the period when the exiles in Babylon were returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by a decree of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Second Isaiah described as God’s “Messiah”; see Isa 45:1). We are told that in his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).

Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship had been reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple was rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law was read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).

Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and then work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).

Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).

The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire collaborated together to ensure that the temple would be restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).


Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai and perhaps around the same time that the anonymous prophet whose words are known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56—66). Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).

What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).

At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).

Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).

An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, which we will hear this Sunday (Matt 21:5).

A quirky feature is that some interpreters have taken the words of Zechariah so literally, that they imagine Jesus actually had two animals with him as he entered the city. Of course, the original oracle was formed in typical Hebraic parallelism, a pattern whereby an idea is expressed one way, then immediately repeated using other words. Thus, “riding on a donkey” was the first expression of the idea, followed immediately by “on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. One animal, two ways of expressing that.

The remaining chapters of Zechariah continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).

The quotation from Zechariah in the story is a reminder that there is always hope; in the difficult situation of rebuilding the beloved ruins, reconstituting the fractured society, reconstituting the religious practices and customs that had lapsed, hope remains strong. Little did those travelling with Jesus into the city know what lay ahead of him, and them, in the coming days. Their hopes were high, very high, on this day. Joy came easily to them.

It was a day for celebration. This could well be the time when “the Lord will become king over all the earth”—even over the mighty Romans, they may well have felt. Joy was the dominant emotion, as the singing, waving of branches, and celebration demonstrated.


On why Jesus was riding a donkey, and not a horse (definitely NOT a horse!), see

Scripture debate and disputation in the wilderness (Matt 4; Lent 1A)

My earlier contention was that the story we are offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent (Matt 4:1–1), should be read as a story of testing, not tempting. See


Which leads to the question, what is it, that Jesus is being tested about? How does this story contribute to our understanding of what God was wanting, and planning, to do through the public activities of Jesus, in Galilee and then in Jerusalem?

The devil, as “the tester”, utilised scripture as the basis for the trial that Jesus is undertaking. And this, it must be said, is thoroughly predictable—given that we are dealing with a text from the first century of the common era, emerging out of the context of faithful Judaism, telling the story of a faithful Jewish man, Jesus, and his earliest circle of followers, all Jewish men and women. They all express the piety and faith of the Judaism of the time, for that was their religion and their culture.

Scripture sits at the heart of Jewish life and faith. Young Jewish boys, like Jesus, were taught to read the Hebrew text of scripture, and to memorise it. They were grounded in Torah, the books of the Law, which set out the way of life, the way of faithful living, that they were to follow. They needed to know this, to have it deep within their hearts. That would have been the upbringing experienced by Jesus.

As they grew older, these Jewish boys were taught the next stage, the midrashim, the teachings which provided explanation and application of the laws and stories embedded in Torah. There were two types of midrashim. The first was haggadah, which was telling stories; the Jewish teachers, the Pharisees, who became acknowledged over time as the rabbis, were excellent at telling stories, and Jesus learnt well from their examples.

The second was halakah, which was discussion and debate about how best to interpret and apply the laws found in Torah. It is this latter form of teaching that we encounter, in the story of the forty days in the wilderness. The back and forth between the person on trial—Jesus—and the person charged with testing and probing his case—the accuser—is couched entirely in terms of sacred scripture. Each time an accusation is put before Jesus, the accuser quotes a passage of scripture. And each time the person on trial—Jesus—responds, another text from sacred scripture is quoted.

Think about that for a minute: both the accuser and the accused are citing scripture, arguing on the basis of what is found in the tradition and heritage and sacred story of the people of Israel. They are both engaged in this task, to get to the heart of the matter; to penetrate to the essence of the issue, through exploration of scripture and its relevance to Jesus and his mission.

This is typical Jewish midrashic argumentation. This is the way that, throughout the centuries, Jews have sought to encounter the truths of scripture—through discussion and debate, by one person posing a proposition and then another person arguing back in counter-proposition, through the adding of additional scripture passages into the argument, in a process of refining, sharpening, and clarifying the intent of the initial scripture text.

This was par for the course for ancient Jews. This is still the way that faithful Jews engage with scripture. My years as a member of the Uniting Church Dialogue with the Jewish Community immersed me into precisely this culture on a regular basis. It was quite an experience! To us polite, constrained Westerners, it seems like an unruly mess. To Jews, schooled in this process since their early years, it is natural, and results in deep and profound understandings of scripture.


The specific scripture texts that are cited in the course of this testing are significant. They are the same in each extended version that we have (Matt 4, and Luke 4), albeit cited in a different order. And each of the three testing moments, with the associated scripture texts that are cited, relate to key moments in the story of Israel in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering. (I am indebted to my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, for this insight.)

Understanding the significance of each testing comes when we look more closely at the passages to which Jesus refers, and explore the resonances and connections that those texts have with other biblical passages. Just as Israel (the child of God) is tested during their forty years in the wilderness, so Jesus (the son of God) revisits those testings in his forty days in the wilderness.

The first moment of testing relates to bread: “command these stones to become loaves of bread”. The story evoked is that concerning the gift of manna which was given to the people of Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness. It is told in Numbers and referred to quite directly in Deut 8:3, the verse which is part-quoted by Jesus in the testing narrative, people do not live by bread alone. Could the mission of Jesus be diverted into concerns about sustenance and immediate survival, rather than longer-term strategies?

The second moment of testing, on the top of a mountain, relates to worship, and the recognition of the special and supreme place of the Lord God. The offer, “all these [kingdoms] I will give you”, is met by another quotation, by Jesus, from the same book: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve (Deut 6:13).

The story of the Golden Calf, told in detail in Exodus 32, sits behind this particular test. It is alluded to, perhaps not quite so directly this time, in Deut 6:14-15, the verses which come immediately after the verse quoted by Jesus. The incident involving the Golden Calf was when Israel “went off the rails”, developing an idol for the focus of their worship, rather than being focussed on God alone. The testing faced by Jesus was for him to gain power and authority in his own right, at the expense of serving the greater call that God had placed on his life.

The words of the tester in this second testing evoke the belief that God is able to allocate power and authority. The words of the tester explicitly resound with the claim made twice about the supreme authority of the Lord God, as reported in Jeremiah: “It was I who made the earth, human being and beast on the face of the earth, by my great power, with my outstretched arm; and I can give them to whomever I think fit” (Jer 27:5); and “Ah, my Lord God! You made the heavens and the earth with your great power and your outstretched arm; nothing is too difficult for you” (Jer 32:17).

The tempter has taken on the persona of God in this test. Jesus forcefully denies this test: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve.

The third and final test, placed on the pinnacle of the Temple, pits the possibility of testing God against the alternative of trusting absolutely in God. The tester’s challenge to Jesus, to “throw yourself down”, and the implication that God would save him (quoting Psalm 91) evokes the response from Jesus, quoting Deut 6:16, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

Test God … or Trust God? That was the age-old dilemma for Israel, noted at a number of points in the wilderness stories (for instance, Exod 17:2; Deut 6:16; Ps 106:14). It is one that Jesus himself encounters as the climax, in the Lukan version, of his wilderness testing.

The third Deuteronomy passage cited by Jesus, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16), comes immediately after the recital of The Ten Words which were given to Israel, through Moses, on Mount Sinai (Deut 5:1–21). As the scripture reports, Moses instructed the people to trust God by living in accordance with these words, for this was the way to life for them (Deut 5:27, 32–33).

So, to assist them in this enterprise, The Ten Words are then boiled down to One Great Commandment, love the Lord your God (Deut 6:5). This was a commandment which Jesus himself quoted and highlighted in debates with Jewish teachers (Mark 12:28–30; Matt 22:34–37; Luke 10:27). Indeed, in Matthew’s version of such a debate, Jesus identified this Word as “the greatest and first commandment” (Matt 22:38) on which “all the law and the prophets hang” (Matt 22:40).

This prime commitment, to God first and foremost, is what is alluded to by the citation that Jesus makes in his third testing. It is a test to see if he will divert from this singular focus.

This story of testing in the wilderness presents a communal challenge, and requires a communal commitment. The personal identity of Jesus, in the mission to which he is called, is found in the context of the communal identity of the people of Israel, who faced precisely these tests—and failed, in the accounts we have in Hebrew Scripture. The testings of Jesus are a reworking of those ancient testings; he is faced with the same tests—and passes them, in the accounts we have in Christian scriptures. That is the model we are offered through this story.

Testing (not temptation) in the wilderness (Matt 4; Lent 1A)

We start into the season of Lent, this Sunday, with the story of Jesus being “tempted in the wilderness” (Matt 4:1–11). This story is told early on in three canonical Gospels. The shortest and most focussed version is in the earliest of these Gospels—the account of “the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God”, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark (Mark 1:12-13)

That account simply notes the bare minimum. The location is “the wilderness”. The duration is “forty days”. Present with Jesus throughout these days were both “wild beasts” and “angels”. What was the purpose of this challenging, difficult experience? Mark says that Jesus was there to be “tempted by Satan”. Under whose auspices did this all take place? The first line of the Markan account is, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness”.

So this short, succinct, concentrated version already gives us key pointers to the significance of this story. The forty days in the wilderness stand at the start of the public activity of Jesus, as a declaration of what he is on about. And these days are part of the intention that God has, for Jesus, to prepare for his role.

The story also appears in the “book of the origins of Jesus, the anointed one, the son of David, the son of Abraham”, which we attribute to Matthew, and is placed as the first Gospel in canonical order in our scriptures. But this wasn’t the first Gospel written; the author (by tradition, Matthew) quite clearly knew, and made use of, the earlier account of “the good news of Jesus” which we link with Mark.

So in this later work, the details of the story are expanded and the plot line is filled out (Matt 4:1-11). The forty days in the wilderness becomes a time when Jesus fasted (Matt 4:2; something not mentioned in the earlier Markan account). Here, Jesus engages in a disputation with “the tempter” (Matt 4:3, which uses the language already found in the Markan version). The back-and-forth of this disputation is recorded by Matthew.

Of course, the role that is enacted by this figure—the tempter, the devil, the tester, the Satan—is the role of divine advocate, the one we know from the book of Job as the prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the one who puts the case that Job needs to answer. The whole of that book demonstrates how such a courtroom setting plays out, as the argument is investigated, the evidence is explored, the case for a verdict is painstakingly built.


Matthew’s account is the version that we are offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent (Matt 4:1–11). Matthew also sets the encounter in the wilderness (4:1). In the biblical tradition, the wilderness plays a pivotal role in the story of the Israelites, freed from captivity in Egypt, yearning for the promise of land and safety still ahead of them. The wilderness is the place where Israel spends forty years—not forty periods of 365 days, measured precisely and carefully, but, in the way of the ancients, forty was the way of saying, a heaps long time, a lot of weeks and years, a period extending out into the unseeable future.

The wilderness experience, for Israel, was long, seemingly unending, and challenging. Yet, it was also the place where the character of Israel was forged. It was in the wilderness, throughout that long period of wandering, that they had encounters with the divine, that their identity was shaped, that their foundations as a nation were laid.

Indeed, so central is this period, that we find many references to it in Hebrew scripture, and lengthy narratives recounting incidents during that period. The story of Moses and the Israelites is narrated in Exodus 13:17–19:2 and 40:34–38, through the book of Numbers (where it is mentioned 44 times), and in Deuteronomy 1–2. There, we read of thirst and hunger in the wilderness, encounters with snakes and other trials—as well as the giving of the law, on Sinai, a mountain in the middle of the wilderness.

The journey through the wilderness figured in the songs of Israel. It is regularly recalled in the Psalms (68:7, 78:15–20, 40, 52; 95:8; 106:14–33; 136:16) as well as in various prophetic oracles and other narrative references. The exodus from Egypt and the subsequent wilderness wandering, provided the foundational story for Israel, from long ago, and still through into the present.

The wilderness was where Israel met God; where Israel’s commitment was tested; where Israel’s faith was shaped. So it is, also, for Jesus. In Hebrew Scriptures, the wilderness was not a god-forsaken place, full of temptations, but it was the place where God encounters the people, tests them, nurtures them, and equips them for their future. And so it, also, for Jesus.


The forty days in the wilderness was undoubtedly an intense experience for Jesus. The role of “the tempter” in this story is not actually to tempt Jesus to stray into immoral or unethical or unrighteous actions. On the contrary, the role of “the tempter” is actually to test Jesus, to probe and analyse his understandings, in to hypothesise and offer alternative strategies, to help Jesus to clarify and focus on what is central for him. It is a test of his character, his core qualities, and of his commitment to the mission to which he has been called.

Indeed, the devil here fills the role more of “the tester” than “the tempter”—and the Greek word used here (peirasmos) is quite capable of this alternative translation. It is most often used in Greek literature to describe the process of testing as to whether something is viable or possible, and that is the way it is intended elsewhere in the Gospels when it occurs. It only gains the secondary sense of “tempting” or soliciting something that is sinful, in relatively few instances, mostly within the letters of Paul and James.

So this is what was happening in the story that our Gospels recount: a time of testing, a testing which was designed to cut through to the centre of the issue, to engage deeply with the heart of the matter. It wasn’t an attempt by the devil to get Jesus to go off the rails, to misbehave badly, to succumb to unrighteous behaviour, to sin. Rather, this was the way that ancient Jews sought to crystallise the issue and define key matters of faith and life. That’s what was going on for Jesus during those forty days in the wilderness.

Most versions of the Bible, today, put a heading at the beginning of this story: “The Temptation of Jesus”. I wouldn’t label it as such. I would prefer to call it, “The Testing of Jesus”. What is his mission all about? Is he clear about how he will carry out that mission? What strategy does he have, as he enters into the public proclamation of his good news about God’s kingdom? These are the issues that are at stake in this particular story.


The Gospel writers believed that the forty days in the wilderness was a time for Jesus to face testing, and that this testing was mandated by God. This way of understanding the story is underlined when we look at the top-and-tail of each account. The shortest and earliest account states that “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). There is a violence, an aggression, in the term used here. But it is an action of the Spirit, forcing Jesus to enter this trial. It is something that he had to do, under the impulse of God’s direction.

One later account modifies this, and softens the verb to say that “Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness” (Matt 4:1). We find this in Matthew; and that version ends with “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matt 4:11). That picks up on what Mark had said, that “the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). So the story ends with an implicit approval, by the divine, through the vehicle of the angels, regarding what has transpired in the wilderness.

Another later account makes this quite clear and explicit. The version we attribute to Luke begins “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). That intensifies the sense of divine guidance and approval in what is about to take place. And the account ends with a similar note: “The devil departed from him … then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (Luke 4:13-14). Could it be any clearer?

Indeed, a still later account, which is not in the canon of New Testament books, but was revered by some in the early church, includes a section that reports on something from this story, placed onto the mouth of Jesus: “even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me to the great Mount Tabor”—a reflection of the section of the story that talks about Jesus being taken up to a high mountain (Matt 4:8). [That comes from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and is quoted by Origen in his Commentary on John 2:12.] So in this version, the testing of Jesus is actually carried out, not by the devil, but by the Spirit!

My proposal is that, as we read this story, we need to banish thoughts of “temptation” and the notion that Jesus might choose a false and unrighteous pathway. What is actually taking place, is a strenuous and engaged encounter, in which Jesus is challenged to clarify his divine calling and better equipped to live out the mission that he has been given, by God, during his adult life.

In that sense, this story is not a remote, back-then, archaic account … it is a living, here-and-now, immediate insight into how we, ourselves are to live out our faith in the hustle and bustle of our own lives. That is precisely the pathway that we are encouraged to enter, as we stand at the start of the season of Lent, and as we experience our own time of re-evaluation and reassessment of our own walk of faith today. What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? How can we best live that out in our lives?


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