Tag Archives: R.T. France

The Arts and the Absence of Jesus

I am a house church guy who likes cathedrals. My spiritual forebears in the Reformation include some who smashed statues and images and others who banned organs. My spiritual contemporaries include some who participate in the Anabaptist Orchestra Camp and others who are performing complex choral works tomorrow afternoon by the great Lutheran composer Bach. (If you live near Lancaster, PA, perhaps you can catch this Singet dem Herrn concert, which appears to include a 40-page piece for “double choir and strings with continuo, vocal ensemble and soloists,” complete with “intricate passages of fugue, which is sort of like a round in different keys that expands as it goes.” Good stuff, and definitely not the sort of thing that Conrad Grebel would have approved.)

I am an Anabaptist and, like most Anabaptists, I am somewhat ambivalent about the place of the arts in the Christian life.

When I was a young teen, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. My father didn’t think this was very practical. He was probably right, though he and I may not fully agree on why. While I have never lost my capacity to delight in the arts, especially the musical ones, I am afraid I would have made a bad concert pianist. I am not sure I believe in the cause strongly enough—even though there are times when I have felt that my soul would surely have shriveled up and died were it not for the beauty of musical (near-)perfection. I have worshiped while listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos and while listening to Phil Keaggy guitar solos. But if I had attempted the life course of a career concert musician, I am afraid I would have been only an all-round poor imitation of the great Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a promising musical career to be a medical missionary.

All that for background. This week at work I was blessed to listen to the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday. One story that caught my ear was the familiar account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Here is the story as it is told by Matthew:

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:6-13)

You can also find this story in Mark 14:3-9 and in John 12:1-8 (where she is named Mary).

Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes heard people draw implications from this story for our understanding of the arts. I’m quite certain I’ve heard, though I can’t say where, this line of thought suggested: This woman, in a creative and symbolic act, expressed her deep devotion to Jesus. Jesus praised her for this extravagant and apparently wasteful gift. Similarly, Jesus is pleased when we give extravagant and apparently wasteful displays of devotion to him through the creative arts.

Some quick browsing now online confirms to me that something like this kind of thought is sometimes expressed by Christians writing about the arts. For example, read this from Steve Scott (otherwise unknown to me):

Jesus placed a value on signs and sign making that had little to do with the price of the materials involved, and he seemed to show little regard for the social controversy and the lack of immediate graspability that came with the sign. Mary, in some ways, faced the problems that many sign makers and artists face today. They are told their work is an expensive luxury. They are told their work seems controversial, often for the sake of controversy, and they are told their work is obscure, for the sake of obscurity. When Jesus told the other celebrators to leave her alone, he upheld her dignity as a person and gave his support to the dignity of her gesture. He stated that this gesture of hers would be recalled wherever the gospel is told. Jesus reminds his audience—then and now—that images and symbols have value. And those who work with signs, metaphors and images are doing valuable work.1 (emphasis added)

Or consider this footnote find:

Calvin Seerveld makes a compelling case that beautiful works, such as that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany…, should be allowed a place in the Christian life alongside activities such as evangelism and feeding the poor. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Toronto: Piquant, 2000), 1-5.2 (emphasis added)

And there is much of the rub for me: I often find myself identifying more with the disciples (worse, Judas, according to John’s version) than with Mary. I walk into an ornate church or indulge in live musical soundscapes, and I sense that something is profoundly right, and I even find myself drawn to worship the Creator—and then I wonder how we can spend such measureless loose change on such extravagance while God’s children elsewhere are crying for bread.

I do not have a theological resolution for this problem that I can share with you in this post. Rather, I want to share an exegetical observation that occurred to me while listening to the Gospels this week.

One phrase stood out to me. Hear Jesus’ words: “You will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11). Mark includes the same statement (Mk. 14:7). John highlights this thought by placing it at the very end of the story: “You do not always have me” (John 12:8).

What this phrase means, at minimum, is that Mary was doing something for Jesus that she and the disciples would not be able to do later. There would be opportunity later to care for the poor. But there would be no “later” for doing whatever it was that Mary did to Jesus.

What was it that Mary did to Jesus? In Matthew, Jesus explains it like this: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Mark’s Jesus says, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” John’s Jesus speaks parallel words.

Can you see where my thoughts are headed? Consider R.T. France’s comments on this story:

The woman’s extravagant loyalty offsets the shameful horror of crucifixion. That is why it must always be remembered, not simply as a model for uncalculating devotion (though it certainly is that) but as an affirmation of the value of his death from the point of view of faith.

It is a matter of priorities (cf. the rather different lesson on the priority of the spiritual over the mundane, also set in Bethany, in Luke 10:38-42). A definitive moment is upon them, and even the duty of helping the poor must take second place. Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves. It is because this unnamed woman has seized on that sense of special occasion that her act is to be remembered. Probably without realizing it, she has provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.3

So let me sum up what I’m observing: It seems to me that Jesus very clearly indicates that what Mary did for him was an act specially suited to a unique, non-repeatable opportunity. No Christian artist today has Jesus in the flesh before him or her, on his way to the cross. No one today can anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial, either literally or figuratively.

More than that, listen again to France’s suggestion: “Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves.” In other words, let’s say that Mary owned a second flask of ointment. What would be the right way to use it after Jesus’ death and resurrection had passed? According to Jesus’ words, the right thing for Mary to do with another such flask of ointment, would not be to use it to anoint Jesus. Rather, it would be fitting to use it to care for the poor.

So… my ambivalence about the arts continues. I conclude that we should exercise more care not to take this biblical account out of context as support for our artistic endeavors, especially our expensive ones. I suggest that we will need to look elsewhere if we want to find strong biblical basis for extravagant expense in art or worship.

(Help me out. Do you see a biblical basis somewhere? To be clear, I am not claiming or aiming in this post to deny any such biblical basis for investment in the arts. Rather, my main concern is that we keep our theology tethered to Scripture through careful exegesis.)

And if I were to try to draw any tentative positive lessons for our art from this passage, I might suggest the following:

  1. Our art should be consistent with “a theology of the cross” (to borrow France’s words). This suggests to me that (a) what artistic expressions we do create must be consistent with all that the cross represents, and (b) sometimes the call to bear the cross will be a call to surrender our present artistic desires.
  2. Our art should point us to the day when Jesus will return in the flesh. Yes, Christ is present by his Spirit now. But this is yet the day of the Bridegroom’s absence, when fasting and mourning are still appropriate (Matt. 9:15). Only when he returns will the full consummation of true art be realized. Any artistic perfection now must strengthen our hunger for the perfection of Beauty (Christ and his likeness) then.

This post raises unfinished thoughts. What do you have to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

  1. Steve Scott, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 102-103.
  2. Jason S. Hiles, Images in the Service of God’s Word: A Theology for the Christian Use of Visual Images, a dissertation presented to the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008), 262, fn 75.
  3. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 974.

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Reading the Psalms as Christians

A friend (and relative of a relative) raised some good questions after my last post about Psalm 122. In summary, if I understood him correctly, he wondered whether my interpretation might be another example of a flat Bible approach. Let me quote some of his questions:

Are OT scriptures sometimes just that, OT scriptures? And even though we can possibly identify with the sentiment, a passage may not have been intended to refer to us, and/or the church. Maybe some passages are more relevant to a Jew than to a Christian? Do we read things into scripture that it was never intended to mean?

As I started answering these questions in a comment, my thoughts kept growing, so I thought I’d post my reply here instead. So here it is.


Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne. I’m not surprised this post raises some questions, and I’m still thinking through some of them myself.

A few thoughts. First, I don’t think the approach I presented is a flat Bible approach, although I did think about that concept as I wrote; the topic was certainly relevant to my post. But a flat Bible approach would be to read Psalm 122 today in the same way that the ancient Israelites did. In my post I carefully distinguished between how the Israelites would have read it and how I’m suggesting we can. So that’s not a flat Bible approach.

Let me sketch some alternate approaches to mine:

(A) I think it is actually “flatter” to read vs. 6 as we often hear it–as still referring to the current earthly city of Jerusalem. This approach does not recognize the coming of Christ as making any hermeneutical difference; all the words in the psalm only and still have their original ethnic Israel referents. If we insist that vs. 6 still carries this meaning for today, then we should be consistent and conclude that no one is currently able to sing vs. 1, for there is no earthly temple at present. We could only sing a lament: “I used to be so glad back when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ But now the temple is destroyed, and we cannot go!”

(B) An approach somewhat similar to A, but avoiding the problem of a flat Bible problem, is the approach I hear you tentatively suggesting: To conclude that the psalm had an original meaning for the ancient Israelites and that, since the coming of Christ, no one can any longer read it as they did. This would mean that we should also stop thinking that vs. 1 is ours to quote, too. This is the approach of higher critical bible scholars, who take the history of religions approach and see the book of Psalms as being Israel’s hymn book, interesting for learning more about the religion of ancient Israel, but of little direct significance for us today.

(C) Or, and this is probably even closer to what you may be thinking, we could tweak B to say that, though no one can any longer sing Psalm 122, it is still useful for us today as revelation from and about God, useful for learning his character and observing his history of redemption. I like what this approach affirms (educational value of the psalm) but not what it denies (that we can no longer sing the psalm). This approach might work for 1 and 2 Chronicles, but hardly for Psalms.

In short, I think that perhaps the key reason why the approach to Psalm 122 that I sketched in my last post sounds strange to some (in part even to me) is that the modern Church has, by and large, ceased to sing the Psalms. This is an historical abnormality! The early Church sang the Psalms, the Reformers did, as did many other saints across time. How might we read the Psalms as we sing them? Are we to sing them merely as historical pieces, stepping into ancient roles as actors, rehearsing the thoughts and feelings of ancient Israel but knowing they are not our own? Or is there a way in which we can sing the Psalms from our hearts, as our own expressions of lament and praise to God? I think it is clear that the Church has done the latter.

I have a reprint of a hymnal that was originally produced in 1843. It includes 241 pages of hymns based directly on the Psalms! Included are four hymns based on Psalm 122, two of them by Isaac Watts. The interpretive approach in these hymns matches my post exactly. (I did not think to check this until now!)

Here are those two hymns, as copied from this website:

  Going to church.
   1  How pleased and blessed was I
      To hear the people cry,
         "Come, let us seek our God to-day!"
      Yes, with a cheerful zeal
      We haste to Zion's hill,
         And there our vows and honors pay.
   2  Zion, thrice happy place,
      Adorned with wondrous grace,
         And walls of strength embrace thee round;
      In thee our tribes appear
      To pray, and praise, and hear
         The sacred gospel's joyful sound.
   3  There David's greater Son
      Has fixed his royal throne,
         He sits for grace and judgment there:
      He bids the saint be glad,
      He makes the sinner sad,
         And humble souls rejoice with fear.
   4  May peace attend thy gate,
      And joy within thee wait
         To bless the soul of ev'ry guest!
      The man that seeks thy peace,
      And wishes thine increase,
         A thousand blessings on him rest!
   5  My tongue repeats her vows,
      "Peace to this sacred house!"
         For there my friends and kindred dwell;
      And since my glorious God
      Makes thee his blessed abode,
         My soul shall ever love thee well.
  Going to church.
   1  How did my heart rejoice to hear
         My friends devoutly say,
      "In Zion let us all appear,
         And keep the solemn day!"
   2  I love her gates, I love the road;
         The church, adorned with grace,
      Stands like a palace built for God,
         To show his milder face.
   3  Up to her courts with joys unknown
         The holy tribes repair;
      The Son of David holds his throne,
         And sits in judgment there.
   4  He hears our praises and complaints;
         And while his awful voice
      Divides the sinners from the saints,
         We tremble and rejoice.
   5  Peace be within this sacred place,
         And joy a constant guest,
      With holy gifts and heav'nly grace
         Be her attendants blessed!
   6  My soul shall pray for Zion still,
         While life or breath remains;
      There my best friends, my kindred dwell,
         There God my Savior reigns.

I think that if we reject the interpretation I suggested in my post, then we will need to reject these hymns, along with many hymns in our current hymnals, including favorites like “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” based in part on Psalm 87.

Clearly it is possible to jump too quickly from OT to NT. For example, the promises made to Israel were first made to Israel; when they apply also to us, it is often only in a varied form, as fulfilled in Christ (“The meek shall inherit the earth,” for example). I think we should be very careful to never hastily draw 100% equivalence between ancient Israel and the Church. Israel is a type of the Church, and types contain differences as well as similarities; they do not match in every detail, and sometimes, in fact, they are mirror opposites in some respects. We need to first read the OT, including the Psalms, in their original historical and covenantal contexts.

At the end of the day, however, when I ask myself what a psalm like Psalm 122 means, I need to ask: Why, in the first place, did God instruct Israel to build the tabernacle? Why did he choose Jerusalem? What did these mean at the deepest level from the very beginning? Where they not intended from the start to prepare the way for Christ, to provide images and patterns that would never be fully realized until Christ appeared? So, reading the Bible “backward,” starting with Christ, we can see what things truly meant all along at the deepest level. Thus we sometimes see things in the OT that the original earthly authors either never grasped at all or only partially, as prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 1Cor. 13:9-10). What we see is not at odds with what they saw, for sure, and our new insight does not mean that their understandings were wrong. Rather, it is like they were painting by candlelight and we can now view the same Scriptures in the full light of the Sun.

The foundation for this approach to reading the OT, I believe, is Jesus himself. He read the OT in ways that none of his own contemporaries imagined. (Seeing himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 is just one example of a new interpretive move.) The apostles, trained by Christ and guided by the Spirit, continued this new hermeneutical approach. Many psalms were among the texts that they reread in convincing ways that astounded their Jewish hearers.

It would be fun to dig into multiple examples from the NT of reading the OT (including psalms) in just the kind of way I’ve suggested. But I’ll end by mentioning two books that have helped me start to see these realities: According to the Scriptures, by C.H. Dodd (currently out of print), and Jesus and the Old Testament, by R.T. France. Both are technical, but both are extremely helpful and oft-cited books that are guaranteed to help you read Scripture with sharper vision.

Finally, let me repeat that I am still learning. I feel like I’m wading on the edge of the ocean! May God help us learn together, to the glory of Christ, the one to whom the Scriptures point.

Feel free to share your insights in the comments below. And God give you joy as you gather with his people this Lord’s Day!


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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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