Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

No crying he makes? Get real, puhhh-leeeease!

The traditional words of the much-sung carol, Away in a Manger, offer a heavily romanticised, sickly-sweet, unrealistic take on the infant Jesus.

Yes, to be sure, newborn babies do look sweet and innocent. But not quite as clean, not quite as picture-perfect, as the many cards and carols present the newborn Jesus. And no crying? Not ever? That does not ring true, surely!

Indeed, one could argue that the way that Jesus is depicted in this carol flies in the face of the very claim that the carol, and the story to which it refers, seeks to make: that, in Jesus, God entered human life, became one of us, was incarnate, enfleshed, fully and completely human. After all, an infant who never cries must surely not be human, we would think?

And yet, still the carol features in Christian worship services as well as shopping mall Muzak and perpetual Christmas movie reruns on tv.

In response to these beloved words, a number of contemporary lyricists have offered rewrites of this classic carol (it is only around 130 years old, if the truth be known).

Each of these versions reworks the carol so that the realism of the day is evident — especially highlighting the plight of the family as refugees, seeking safety in another country. That part of the story resonates so strongly with our contemporary world: the number of refugees across the globe is the largest it has ever been, and it continues to grow as warfare afflicts country after country.

How ancient and lovely. Words by British writer Rebecca Dudley (Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)

How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,

a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.

Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay

and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here

to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?

What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there

for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;

for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,

for life in its fullness that you promise today,

and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

Away and in danger. Words by Shirley Erena Murray from Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away and in danger, no hope of a bed,

the refugee children, no tears left to shed

look up at the night sky for someone to know

that refugee children have no place to go.

The babies are crying, their hunger awakes,

the boat is too loaded, it shudders and breaks;

humanity’s wreckage is thrown out to die,

the refugee children will never know why.

Come close, little children, we hold out our hand

in rescue and welcome to shores of our land –

in *aroha, touching your fear and your pain,

with dreams for your future when peace comes again.

*aroha is Maori for ‘warm embracing love’

alternative line “in touching, in healing’

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=5787

If I saw my toddler. Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette of the USA

If I saw my toddler with hands in the air

In fearful surrender to someone, somewhere,

I’d search for a people in some other place

Who practiced their preaching and showed love and grace.

If I had to flee from the madness of war—

From terror and violence and things I abhor,

I’d search for a nation with arms open wide,

With safety and beauty and friendships inside.

Be with me, Lord Jesus, as I seek to be

A friend to the stranger and poor refugee,

And as I remember you once had no bed,

May I give up fear and give welcome instead.

This hymn was inspired by a photo of a small Syrian child,

hands in the air, fearing that a camera lens was a gun:

www.snopes.com/syria-refugee-child-surrender/

Biblical References: Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35; Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 4:18

Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887 (“Away in a Manger”)  

Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

http://www.carolynshymns.com/if_i_saw_my_toddler.html

Millennium Carol. Words by Jan Chamberlin of Aeotearoa New Zealand

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

A long ago baby was born in a shed.

What possible meaning could this have for me,

A child of computers and technology.

The stars in the bright sky look down on me now,

But Christmas in these days lacks something, somehow,

There’s tinsel and turkey and gifts by the score,

Yet I am left feeling that there should be more.

Wise men with research grants can do awesome deeds,

But we are neglectful of our neighbors needs

For love and for caring, a Christ-child reborn:

God’s hand touching our hand on each Christmas morning.

The old manger story, with shepherds and kings:

Amazing how simple the message it brings.

Regardless of science or surfing the net:

God still sends us Jesus, and he loves us yet.

Words by Jan Chamberlin, from With Heart and Voice

http://www.methodist.org.nz/files/docs/alec/with%20heart%20and%20voice/1%20millennium%20carol.pdf

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way (Matthew 1)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection looks to the predicted conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The prophet (Isaiah) was speaking some seven centuries before the time of Jesus, when Judah was ruled by a king. But it was a time when the kingdom was under pressure from stronger forces—the kingdom of Israel to the north, in league with the much stronger empire of Syria.

The angel (unnamed) was speaking to Josephus at a time when the Hebrew people were under Roman rule, after many centuries of foreign domination and oppression. The Assyrians had conquered Israel, in the north, and then the Babylonians had conquered Judah, in the south. In time, the Persians, then the Seleucids, and then the Romans, took control throughout the region.

The centuries of foreign rule took their toll on the national psyche. Hope for a leader from within the people, identified by the prophet, continued on in various forms throughout the period. Some who claimed such leadership met unhappy ends, and led the people into disastrous situations. Hatred of the foreigners grew and remained strong, alongside of persistent hope for the people of Israel.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born. The message of the angel announces a child to be born. The context of this latter message, under Roman occupation, resonates strongly with the context of threat when the prophet was speaking. By this means, the overlapping of the child predicted by the prophet and the child announced by the angel is secured.

Thus the author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement. In subsequent verses, he clearly shapes the story of Jesus so that it fulfils scripture at each point along the way. “This took place to fulfil the scriptures” is a common refrain in the chapters that follow (see 1:22, 2:5, 2:17, 3:3, and so on).

Both angel and prophet affirm that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the name given to the child signals the prophetic understanding of the role of the child. Thus, Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”, is the name decreed for the child (Isa 7:14).

This prophetic pronouncement is quoted, with intent, in the book of origins (Matt 1:23). The child should be known as Emmanuel. And yet—the name actually given to the child whose birth was announced by the angel is “he saves”. Not, “God is with us”; but, “he saves”. And we know this child by this given name—in Hebrew, Yehoshua, or modified into English, Jesus. Saviour. The one who “will save his people from their sins” (1:21).

As Saviour, then, the child will serve as a signal of God’s enduring presence with the people. Salvation is effected by God and mediated through the child, it would seem.

The announcement reported in Matt 1 is made to Joseph. Not to Mary, as is the case in the orderly account that we know as the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew’s version, the angel speaks directly to Joseph, addressed as “son of David” (1:20). The story comes immediately after recounting a genealogy for the child, made through Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16).

And the irony of this is that, if we take the literal explanation provided regarding the parentage of Jesus, then Mary is the mother (1:18), but she has had no marital relations with Joseph (1:25). Joseph is not presented as the “natural father”. And the citation of the prophetic oracle is intended to align Mary, the mother, with the virgin who shall conceive (1:23).

Of course, many commentators have noted that there is a translation issue at stake here. (See my post on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/)

In Christian tradition, the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18,23). When did that tradition develop? Perhaps it was already known outside of the community of which the author of this book of origins was a part? Certainly, it was later articulated in the orderly account attributed to Luke. Awareness of this claim most likely influenced Matthew to include the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement—he turns to scripture to provide a foundation for his story at many points.

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose—leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma.

But back to the book of origins. Here, we have a child named incorrectly and a lineage traced back to key figures through the apparent non-father. A strange way to start a story!!

And yet, the book of origins is insistent on the Davidic lineage of Jesus—through the line of Joseph. And that is clearly because the covenant with David was an important motif to many groups in Jewish history. God promised that there would always be a descendant of David upon the throne of Israel; by the time that a member of Matthew’s community started to write the book of origins, this had developed into a messianic expectation in certain groups.

Members of the Jewish community in which the book of origins itself originated firmly believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Accordingly, the stress upon the “correct” ‘Davidic’ genealogy of Jesus would have been of particular importance to this predominantly Jewish group, especially one challenging the authority of the Pharisaic Jews of the time. It is probable that this is why Matthew uses the term “son of David” for Jesus much more than the other Gospel writers (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42).

Matthew’s use of “formula quotations” also provide indications that the life, work and death of Jesus, in its totality, is the fulfilment of prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore the expected Messiah.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet” (or a close variant of this formula) can be found five times within the infancy narrative (1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23), and then a further nine times throughout the remainder of the gospel (3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

There are other scripture quotations which are introduced by simpler formulae; for example:

“it is written” (4:4, 6, 7, 10; 21:13; 26:31)

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said…” (15:7)

“have you not read that…?” (19:4; 21:16)

“have you never read in the scriptures…?” (21:42)

“David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying” (22:43).

Some passages are clearly quoted, but without any introductory formula (for instance, 24:29 and 26:64). Indeed, Hebrew Scripture influences many other parts of the gospel, through allusion and inference as well as through use of selected terminology.

More than half of these fulfilment quotations come from the book of Isaiah, indicating the importance of its themes and theology for Matthew. Matthew uses the fulfilment quotations to emphasise that what Jesus said and did was to fulfil the plan of God, as set out by the prophets and writers of old.

By adding so many of these quotations, Matthew emphasises something about Jesus and what it means to believe in him. Matthew wishes to stress beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the chosen one of God and that the community’s belief in him as Messiah is completely justified; this justification can be found in the fulfilment of Hebrew scripture.

Therefore, in keeping with this notion, Matthew’s report of the baptism of Jesus highlights that Jesus is the fulfilment of righteousness. Only Matthew (3:14–15) reports the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus states that for John to baptise him “is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”.

Thus, Jesus begins his public ministry by demonstrating a central theme of this Gospel—that of obedience to the will of God. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by a sign commonly found in scriptural theophanies, that of God’s voice. Jesus is announced as a “beloved son”, pleasing to God (3:17). He is, in this Gospel, not only the son of David, but the son of God.

As the book itself begins: the book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

The origins of Jesus in the book of origins: Matthew 1

The book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham. So begins the first book in the New Testament (in my own translation from the Greek). We know this book as The Gospel according to Matthew.

This book has long been regarded as a keystone of Christian doctrine and has enjoyed a pre-eminent place within the church. Because early believers considered it to be the earliest gospel, it was placed at the very beginning of the New Testament canon and came to be known as “the first gospel”. It thereby sets out some key aspects of the origins and significance of Jesus.

This book starts with an account of the ancestry of Jesus. (In the days before DNA testing, this information was retained and passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next.) It mimics the Old Testament passages that are sometimes called “the begats” … so-and-so begat such-and-such, such-and-such begat another one … and so on.

You can find extensive lists of “begats” in Genesis, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles, and more briefly in Ruth and Nehemiah. These multiple “begat” passages indicate that a person’s heritage was an important part of Jewish tradition.

The author of Matthew, being himself a faithful Jew, is anxious to establish the credentials of Jesus’ ancestry, so he begins his work with a genealogy (1:1–17) in which he lays out some important signs as to the true nature of Jesus, following the age-old pattern of the Hebrew people.

First, he indicates that Jesus fulfils the promises of scripture by establishing that Jesus was descended from the Davidic kings (1 Chron 28; Ps 18:50), whose house was to rule over Israel forever, as God’s chosen.

Matthew structures the genealogy in three groups of 14 generations; this is quite different from the structure of the genealogy in Luke. In Hebrew numerology, each letter stands for a number; thus, DVD, the three consonants of David, add up to 14. So, the structure of the genealogy in Matthew underlines the claim that Jesus is a descendant of David (1:1).

Matthew also notes that Jesus is descended from Abraham, the first man to receive the covenant (1:2). Abraham was the one whose descendants would fulfil the blessings that God had promised for all the earth (1:2): David, the founder of the royal line and ancestor of the promised Messiah (1:6); and Zerubbabel, leader of the post-exilic community (1:12).

Even more interestingly, Matthew includes five women in the list: Tamar, who posed as a temple prostitute (1:3; Gen 38); Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho (1:5; Josh 2, 6); Ruth, a Moabite who married Boaz after a dubious meeting with him at night on the threshing floor (1:5; Ruth 1–4); the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), who married David after an adulterous encounter (1:6; 2 Sam 11–12); and Mary, who became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph (1:16).

While the inclusion of the male ancestors is not surprising, the addition of these women is most unexpected. Different reasons have been put forward as to why they are there. Some scholars see them as foreshadowing the redemption of Gentiles, others as a more general symbol of the redemption of sinners. Others have felt they vindicate the pre-marital pregnancy of Mary.

One thing does stand out about all five, and that is they were independent of the traditional patriarchal system of Israel. Each one flouted convention in some startling way to ensure the fulfilment of God’s divine plan. All had humble beginnings. All were obedient to their faith and willing to submit to what they felt was the will of God. They are striking figures, each one of them!

Thus, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, but a theological statement about Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel through Abraham and David from its inception and throughout its history of prosperity and exile. Through Jesus, this plan for the salvation of Israel will indeed be fulfilled, and fulfilled in a most unexpected way. We should be reading the opening of this Gospel, not as a historical treatise or a family tree per se, but as a theological exposition signalling key motifs of the work that follows.

Matthew also includes many special events around the birth of Jesus (1:18– 2:23), events which we would expect to find attending the birth of a great prophet or the Messiah. The announcement of the name of Jesus follows a standard pattern as found in the Hebrew Scriptures for prominent figures: “bear a child … name him … what it means” (see 1 Sam 1:19; Gen 16:11; 17:19; Judg 13:3, 5).

The title given to Jesus in 1:23, “Emmanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14–16), is intended to show that in the coming of Jesus, God’s spirit became present among people through the messiahship of Jesus. In its original context, the text foretold the imminent birth of a child from the Davidic line, who would demonstrate that God continued to care for his people and was thus still “with us”. For Matthew, the verse emphasises further the Davidic origin of Jesus, and declares that the purpose of God was to save Israel at the coming of this child, Jesus.

In these ways, then, Matthew sets out the key elements of the origins and significance of Jesus: descendant of David, descendant of Abraham, chosen one of God. We will be following the story that Matthew offers us, throughout the coming year. It is a book of origins rich with resources for us as we seek to follow the way of Jesus today.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

****

The image is of an early version of the genealogy of Jesus provided in Matthew 1:1-9,12 found on the recto side (the front side) of Papyrus 1, dated to about 250 CE

For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The sincerest form of flattery? Or a later, imperfect imitation? (2 Thessalonians)

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. Acts indicates that they went to the synagogue, where Paul declared that the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:2–3). This stirred up antagonism amongst the Jews of the city (Acts 17:5).

Those who accepted Paul’s message, realising that he was just recovering from the experience of prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–24), sent him and Silas on to their next stop in Beroea after only three weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). Paul then travelled to Athens (Acts 17:15) and Corinth (Acts 18:1).

Little of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, apart from a direct comment about his difficulties in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2) and some generalised references to the persecution he was suffering (1 Thess 3:4, 7). Although it is likely that Paul wrote letters before he had visited Thessalonica, none of them are known to us.

1 Thessalonians, dating from the same year (50 CE) as his visit to Thessalonica, is the earliest example of Paul’s letter writing that we have. The letter itself contains no explicit indication of the time or place of its writing; tradition has it that Paul wrote from Athens, although it is more likely that he penned it in Corinth just months after his departure from Thessalonica. His visit was still fresh in Paul’s mind, and he writes with love and concern for the community of believers that he left behind in Thessalonica.

It is obvious that Paul had developed a strong bond with this community, and he is anxious to keep in touch with them (3:5). The letter was in reply to what he had learned from Timothy about their recent progress (3:6).

The letter known as 2 Thessalonians appears in the lectionary this Sunday and in the two following weeks. It seems to run in parallel to 1 Thessalonians in a number of ways. Some of the themes from the first letter are replicated, and varied, in the second letter to the Thessalonians:

• the matter of idleness in the community (1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6–12)

• the general eschatological orientation (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 2 Thess 1:5–2:16)

• an exhortation to imitate Paul (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7).

Also, both letters contain reminders about Paul’s teachings (1 Thess 2:5–7, 12; 4:1–2; 5:1–2; 2 Thess 2:15).

However, the commonality of both general themes and specific words and phrases leads to a question about the relationship between these two letters: is this stylistic variation on common themes written by the same author, or a deliberate attempt to copy the first letter by another scribe at a later date?

Scholars answer the question differently; there are different views on the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. The opening and closing sections of 2 Thessalonians are revealing.

The letter concludes with an insistence that it was written by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (3:17). At first glance, this looks similar to the reference to Paul’s “large letters” in his “own hand” at Gal 6:11; but this is a brief passing comment, whereas the claim is laboured in 2 Thessalonians by the addition of extra phrases, so that we start to have a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much”.

The first twenty words of the opening address of 1 Thess 1:1 are repeated exactly in 2 Thess 1:1–2a; this is unusual amongst the seven authentic letters of Paul, for in every other case there are variations of both minor and major significance in this opening section. (See Rom 1:2–6; 1 Cor 1:2b; 2 Cor 1:b; Gal 1:1 and 1:4; Phil 1:1b; Phlmn 2.)

In the thanksgiving (2 Thess 1:3–4), a string of key words evokes themes from 1 Thessalonians. There is virtually nothing in the thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians which is not present, in some way, in 1 Thessalonians. This is unparalleled amongst the authentic letters of Paul; his usual practice was to contextualise this section of the letter by indicating key issues which will be dealt with in the body of the letter.

There are differences in content in the bodies of the two letters. The friendly relationship evident throughout the first letter differs from the highly critical attitude towards the community in 2 Thessalonians. The eschatological orientation of 1 Thessalonians is present in general terms in 2 Thessalonians, but the difference is that the second letter is marked by a much stronger apocalyptic character. And twice in 2 Thessalonians (2:15 and 3:6), claims are made that Paul taught the Thessalonians material which is not found in 1 Thessalonians.

In my assessment, then, these differences mark 2 Thessalonians as coming from a different hand, in a situation where different issues were at stake. It appears to be a later imitation of 1 Thessalonians.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/