Tag Archives: Craig Blomberg

A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (3 of 4)

This is the third part of the sermon I shared on Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


ISAIAH 6 AND HARDNESS OF HEART

This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10:

14 “Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.’
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”'”

Jesus quotes something God foretold to the prophet Isaiah about Israel in about 700 BC and says it has been fulfilled in the Jewish nation of his own day. We should probably not think of this passage as being prophecy in the same way as the Micah passage about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Rather, it is typology—the hardness of Israel toward Isaiah and his message is a picture that was repeated in even fuller measure by the hardness of Israel toward Jesus and his message. If God’s words were true about Israel in Isaiah’s day, how much more true were they about the evil generation who rejected Jesus!

God spoke these words to Isaiah when he first called him to be a prophet. God told Isaiah to tell his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” This was a warning to Isaiah’s hearers about how his message would affect them. God told Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” “This [was] not God’s planning in advance to make Israel sin; instead, it [was] his confirming them in their repeated, freely chosen decisions to reject him.”[1]

As Israel heard Isaiah’s message and rejected it, their hearts would only become more “dull” or hard, until they had no spiritual hearing or sight left and were fit only for destruction and exile. Only a “stump” or “holy seed” would remain. As commentator Oswalt summarizes, “Isaiah is to speak a message that will harden the people’s hearts and prevent them from being healed.”[2] But that is not the full picture. Oswalt continues:

Isaiah is called upon to preach a message that, given the already-hardened hearts of his generation and several of the following, will only push them farther away from God. But some will turn, among them faithful followers of Isaiah, who will preserve his words until the day when the cauterizing fires of the Exile fall and there will finally be a generation willing to listen. Then real healing will result, and the stage will be set for the promised Messiah to come… The only hope of healing for these people is in near total destruction… Their religion is already half-pagan, and if they are allowed to continue, they will ultimately be completely pagan and all of the revelation will have been for nothing. But God is not going to allow that to happen, either to his revelation or to his people. So the cleansing must be frighteningly thorough. But afterward, when the forest has been felled and even the remaining stumps have been burned, one of those stumps will still have life in it.[3]

Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus quotes Isaiah here in Matthew, he is not merely making a dry observation that the crowds around him have poor hearing or are intellectually dull. Rather, he is warning that the Jewish nation as a whole is beyond recovery, that God has turned his back and is withdrawing the opportunity of national repentance. The nation is headed for inevitable judgment!

We are talking about having a heart that understands and bears fruit. Our words understand and heart appear twice in this Isaiah quote. First, Jesus warns that the crowds will “never understand” (v. 14). Why? Because their “heart” is dull—it has been hardened by repeatedly hearing and rejecting the word of the kingdom. This hardening is part of God’s judgment, which he has given “lest they should… understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (v. 15b).

Notice the sequence in the last two lines of the prophecy: understanding with the heart leads to turning (repentance). Then comes healing, so that we can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). In sum the following sequence depicts what God longs for his people: understanding –> repentance –> healing –> fruit (doing God’s will).

But here God is preventing that sequence from even starting! He is making repentance, healing, and fruit-bearing impossible, by making understanding impossible. Osborne again:

“In essence [God is saying], “I want them to remain this way lest….” Their guilt has produced a sovereign judgment, and Jesus’ use of parables is part of that judgment. The parables as riddles will stymie any possibility of “turning” back to God. They have committed in effect an “unpardonable sin”…, and God has turned his back on them! The parables will shut their eyes and close their ears.”[4]

This Isaiah passage is quoted other times in the NT, and not only in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:

  • Jesus quotes the same passage in John 12:40, in a passage summarizing the unbelief of the Jews who rejected him. This passage, significantly, uses the word “believe” as a synonym for “understand.” In other words, the sort of understanding that Jesus requires for us to be fruitful goes far beyond mere mental assent. To really “understand” is to have something grip your heart so powerfully that you are utterly convinced it is true and worth revolutionizing your entire life for.
  • Paul quotes this Isaiah passage at the very end of Acts (Acts 28:25-27), as evidence that God is sending his salvation to the Gentiles, since most Jews would not “believe” the gospel.
  • Paul quotes similar language from Isaiah and Deuteronomy in Romans 11 (cf.  Is. 29:10 and Deut. 29:4 with Rom. 11:8), as part of an extended discussion (Rom. 9–11; esp. Rom. 10:16-11:10) explaining God’s election and Israel’s stubborn ignorance. (See also the Is. 53:1 quote at Rom. 10:16, an Isaiah passage also quoted in the John 12 passage referenced above.)

This hardening of Israel against Jesus is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Why would God prevent his people from understanding the gospel of the kingdom? Commentators do their best to explain:

“God’s judicial hardening is… a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen.”[5] (D.A. Carson)

“‘Hardening’… represents divine surrender of human beings to their rebellion.”[6] (Mark A. Seifrid)

After such heavy thoughts, Jesus pivots to a blessing:

16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’”

Did the disciples really see? Did they really hear with understanding? In the next chapters there are multiple times where we read that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said (Matt. 15:15-20; 16:5-12; 17:9-13). But we also read that they sought and received explanations from Jesus until they did understand, and that God the Father revealed to Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:17).

This refines our image of our two kinds of hearers: (1) There are those who refuse to believe and are denied understanding; and (2) there are those who are willing to believe and are gradually granted increasing understanding.

But here Jesus is saying the disciples are not just more blessed than the unbelieving crowds. They are even more blessed than the faithful saints of old!

This gives us another glimpse into how God grants or withholds understanding: God sovereignly withholds understanding at times not only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts, but also because of his divine timetables of salvation history. Even good hearts are sometimes not given as full an understanding as they desire. But the disciples are incredibly blessed, possessing the double gift of soft hearts and of being alive at the time of the revelation of the Messiah!

(And we, too, are similarly blessed!)


Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 46-47, comment on OT context of Matthew 13:14-15.

[2] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2612-2622). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9523-9526). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 448-49, comment on John 12:39-41.

[6] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 670, comment on Romans 11:8.


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Study Resources for Matthew

If you use the Christian Light Publications materials for Sunday School, you will be studying Matthew for March and April. This is a bit last-minute and I’ll need to be brief, but I thought I’d share a few suggested resources. If you have other resources, feel free to share them in the comments below.

Commentaries

My favorite Matthew commentary is the big one by R.T. France in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, widely considered a “must-buy.” It was written when he was an older man, so it has a maturity and wisdom that some commentaries lack. It is based on the best scholarship, but it is not hard to read. France’s method as he wrote this commentary was to simply read Matthew and write commentary. Only after this did he check to see what other commentators have written and what he previously wrote in his earlier, shorter Matthew commentary. So this is a commentary on Matthew, not a commentary on commentaries! Some readers don’t like France’s take on Matthew 24 (he emphasizes how part of the chapter was fulfilled in A.D. 70), but (a) I think he get’s it right and (b) we’re not studying that chapter this go around, anyway. I haven’t read this commentary through, but the parts I’ve read have been consistently insightful.

If you don’t want to invest in France’s 1169-page volume, here are a few others that would be helpful for most Sunday School teachers:

Other Suggestions

  • Lesson 1 is about the Sabbath (Matthew 12). I am pleased to see the commentary recognizes that Christians are not required to observe the Jewish Sabbath, and that we are not judged on whether we keep holy days (Col. 2:16-17). I affirm that we were designed to experience regular times of rest (some of us need the reminder), but a proper understanding of the Sabbath’s fulfillment in Christ, both now and in the future (see also Heb. 4), should prevent us from setting rules for others about holy days. For more help on how such things changed with the coming of the new covenant, see “The Law of Moses and the Christian” by Dorsey on this page (also Moo’s essays), and the “New Covenant Theology” talks by Steve Atkerson of New Testament Reformation Fellowship on this page.
  • Lesson 3 is on the relationship between tradition and the word of God (Matthew 15). I once preached a sermon on Mark 7, a parallel passage. You can find my Scripture outline for Mark 7 here, and you can find my (slightly modified) sermon notes here. My sermon notes include a lot of rather pointed (some of you might think too pointed!) application questions to help us sense the force of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.
  • Lesson 6 is on Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 27-28). While his book does not deal directly with this Scripture text very much, I cannot help but mention Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. If you are like me, you will disagree on some secondary points but walk away truly surprised anew by the hope provided by Jesus’ resurrection!
  • Lesson 7 is on the permanence of marriage (Matthew 5 and 19). I don’t feel well qualified to give recommendations on resources for this topic, so I’ll just mention some of the resources that are on my want-to-read list. Some conservative Anabaptists have found Jesus and Divorce (Wenham and Heth) helpful. Here is a booklet by Clair Martin that the Biblical Mennonite Alliance published on the topic. Here is an online book by H. Van Dyck Parunak that takes a conservative position on most questions. Here is a booklet by Finny Kuruvilla about the question of remarriage after divorce. The most influential scholar on this subject in the evangelical world is Instone-Brewer, who mentions a book by Andrew Cornes as being “the best presentation” of the opposing conservative viewpoint. Divorce and remarriage involves complex exegetical and pastoral questions, and we will not serve people well with poorly thought-out answers or approaches that avoid the Scripture passages that raise the hardest questions. (I do not say this from a desire to be critical, for I still do not have solid answers for all my own questions.)
  • Lesson 8 is a parable (Matthew 20). You might want to add a book on parables to your library, such as Interpreting the Parables by Craig L. Blomberg (463 pages) or The Parables of Jesus by David Wenham (256 pages). For detailed scholarship look for Klyne R. Snodgrass, and for fascinating cultural insights see Kenneth E. Bailey–best compared with a more traditional commentary. (Note: I own Snodgrass and Bailey, have enjoyed other works by Blomberg, and see Wenham is recommended by a trusted source.)

Since I’m a bookish sort of fellow, a lot of the above recommendations are books. Don’t buy them all at once. 🙂  But do consider buying one or two that are likely to serve you well for years to come. A good book is a wise investment, especially when that good book is a book that helps you understand the Best Book.

What other resources would you suggest for studying and teaching Matthew? Share them with other readers in the comments below. Thanks!


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10 Surprises about 2014’s Most Popular Bible Verses (Part 2)

Finally, brothers and sisters… let me share more surprises about 10 of 2014’s most popular Bible verses. (See here for the first 3 surprises and background data for this post.)

I’ll summarize the first three surprises and continue:

  1. Bible reading is growing fastest in unlikely places, including Israel, South Sudan, the Republic of Suriname, Iraq, and Macedonia.
  2. “World” in Romans 12:2 might better be translated “age.”
  3. “Finally” in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t necessarily indicate Paul plans to quit soon.
  4. Despite Philippians 4:6 (“Do not be anxious about anything”), not all “anxiety” is wrong. A fairly literal translation of this command would read, “For nothing be anxious.” Yet another form of this same verb “be anxious” (μεριμνάω) is used earlier in the same letter in a positive way: “I have no one like [Timothy], who will be genuinely concerned [μεριμνήσει] for your welfare” (Phil. 2:20). This is high praise of Timothy: he was genuinely “anxious” about the Philippian believers!
    Paul uses the same verb to tell the Corinthians of God’s purpose for the Church body: “that the members may have the same care [μεριμνῶσιν] for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). Earlier in that letter he uses related words to say both positive and negative things about “anxiety” (1 Cor. 7:32-35). First he seems to be opposed to all anxiety: “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Then he seems to affirm a certain kind of anxiety: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Next he clearly dislikes another kind: “But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife.” Then he clarifies his real point: “his [the married man’s] interests are divided… I say this… to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
    Jesus, using the same verb, strongly forbids anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet even he seems to leave room for some legitimate “anxiety”: “Tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). In other words, concern for today’s needs is understandable (cf. “give us this day our daily bread”), but anxiety about tomorrow demonstrates lack of faith. We find a similar tension in Jesus’ words when he tells his disciples “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1, different Greek verb), for his own heart was troubled multiple times (John 11:33; 12:27; 13:21).
    Finally, back to Paul: He confesses his own “anxiety” to the Philippians (Phil. 2:28; unrelated Greek word) and tells the Corinthians of “the daily pressure… of [his] anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28; closely related word). So don’t be anxious if you are sometimes anxious! Just cast it on the Lord (1 Pet. 5:7).
  5. Some who are claiming Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”) are actually destined to experience Jeremiah 18:11. Jeremiah 29:11 is an increasingly popular verse. Last year it didn’t make the top 10 ranking for YouVersion. But this year it was the only verse to make top five ranking for both YouVersion and Bible Gateway, and it was the number 1 most popular verse this year for YouVersion in Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia. It’s not hard to understand why this verse is popular. Who doesn’t want to be assured that God has good plans for them?
    But what if he doesn’t? Does God have good plans for everyone? Apparently not, according to Jeremiah 18:11: “Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’”
    Those who hope to legitimately claim Jeremiah 29:11 for themselves must remember several things: (1) It was initial spoken to a specific audience just as much as Jeremiah 18:11 was; the original audience was also assured in the immediately preceding verse that “when seventy years are completed for Babylon,” God would bring them back to Jerusalem. (2) The original hearers were warned not to expect God’s good plans for them to happen anytime soon; contrary to the words of the false prophets, they would have to wait seventy years before being released from exile–by which time many of the original hearers would have been dead! (3) The original promise was given to a group of people and not to an individual; only faithful members of the group who sought God with all their heart could hope to benefit from the promise. Those who were not part of Israel’s faithful remnant would not experience God’s good plans.
    In summary, while Jeremiah 29:11 certainly does reveal God’s heart for his own people, it is dangerously wrong to use this verse as a universal promise to hand out indiscriminately to high school graduates and New Year celebrants. God has plans for you, no doubt! But unless you are repentant, his plans will only bring you disaster.
  6. The “you” in Matthew 6:33 is plural. As with the preceding example, this verse is often taken as a personal, individual promise: If I “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” then I can expect God to give me “all these things”–sufficient daily food and clothing, according to the context. And perhaps it is legitimate to understand this statement this way. Maybe Jesus simply meant “every individual (singular) one of you (plural).” But it is intriguing to ponder a possible deeper significance of the plural “you.”
    Might Jesus be saying that if his followers, together, faithfully seek God’s kingdom first, then he will ensure that his followers as a group will be given sufficient food and clothing to go around? Might he design to give this provision in such a way so that we share among ourselves until whoever gathers much has nothing left over, and whoever gathers little has no lack (2 Cor. 8:15)? Could it be that some poor believers are waiting for us to enable this promise of God to be fulfilled on their behalf? Can anyone who prays “give us this day our daily bread” act otherwise?
    Craig Blomberg writes the following about this verse: “Either one must entirely spiritualize this promise or relegate its fulfilment to the eschaton, neither of which fits the immediate context of one who is worrying about current material needs; or else we must understand the plurals of verse 33 as addressed to the community of Jesus’ followers corporately (as indeed the entire sermon is…). As the community of the redeemed seeks first God’s righteous standards, by definition they will help the needy in their midst… Serious application of this principle to contemporary churches would require such radical transformation of most Christian fellowships that few seem willing even to begin.” (Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, 132)
  7. The Gospel writer John uses bad grammar in John 3:16. The phrase “that whoever believes in him should not perish” literally reads, “that whoever believes into him.” (For you Greek readers, the word is εἰς, not ἐν.) In the previous verse Jesus said, “that whoever believes in [ἐν] him.” But when John adds his commentary, beginning with verse 16 (another surprise–literary clues strongly suggest Jesus never spoke 3:16), he strengthens Jesus’ words by using bad grammar: “believes into.” Bill Mounce says that this is “a horrible ‘blunder’ that is so bad we have no record of anyone else in all Greek literature making the same blunder.”
    Why does John do this? Mounce again: “Of course, he is doing it intentionally to make a point… Saving faith is a trusting in the person and work of Jesus (who he is and what he has done) such that we move our self-reliant trust out of ourselves, flinging ourselves into the merciful arms of God.” (For more, see here.)
    And another surprise: The word “so” in the opening phrase (“For God so loved”) might not mean what you think it does. See the NET footnotes for more.

Finally… in good Pauline fashion I think I should give you yet another indication that I hope to end soon. So I’ll make a transition and save the final 3 surprises for yet another post. 🙂

What about the surprises in this post? Which one surprises you the most? Which old familiar verse feels richer to you (or maybe less comfortable) after reading these thoughts? Share your surprising insights below!


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