Friday, February 23

Romans 8.12-25: Hitherto Paul has considered how the Christian’s heart is sustained by his memory of the past, his recollection of what God has already done for him in Christ. Now, however, he will speak of the Christian’s encouragement by bearing in mind what God will yet do for him in the future. As we have had several occasions to observe, the vocabulary of salvation (such as “saved”) in the Epistle to the Romans tends generally to be in the future tense. Man’s definitive salvation consists in the resurrection of his body, the final victory over the reign of death.

It was in man’s body, after all, that sin “reigned in death.” Mortality was the essence of Adam’s legacy to us, the very embodiment of his sin. Salvation is not complete, therefore, until the resurrection of our bodies. Several years earlier Paul had argued that thesis in 1 Corinthians 15. He returns to it several times, as we have seen, in Romans, and he deals with it again in the present passage. The final object of the Christian hope, for Paul, is not even the soul’s departure to be with God in heaven. It is, rather, “the redemption of our body” (verse 23), this very body laid low by death, but from which the Holy Spirit refuses to depart (verse 11).

It is by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, or sonship (huiothesia—Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), that we are made the children of God (verses 14-17). It is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” is supremely the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we can only pray it in the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Abba, Father,” just as it is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Only in the Holy Spirit do we know the identity of the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit both makes us the children of God and alters our consciousness so that we know ourselves to be the children of God (verse 16). The Holy Spirit, then, is the new, internal principle by which we are untied to the Father and the Son in knowledge and in love.

But there are obstacles to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and these must be resisted and overcome. The Christian must mortify, “put to death,” whatever in himself that is inimical and recalcitrant to the Holy Spirit (verse 13). This effort will involve a measure of suffering, which we unite, by intention, with the sufferings of Christ (verses 17-19,25).

This suffering pertains to the very birth pangs of Creation, which awaits the revelation of God’s glory in the resurrection of our bodies (verses 18-23). Just as the sin of Adam left the mark of death on all of Creation (Genesis 3:17), Christ’s final victory over death is the object of Creation’s hope and longing. Creation itself will be delivered from its “bondage of corruption” (verse 21). This physical corruption, this decay, was not part of God’s original plan. It is the mark of the reign of death, and it will be removed forever when Christ, at the end of time, returns to claim the bodies of the redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).

This final salvation of all Creation, which Paul speaks of here in Romans 8, will become a major theme, the recapitulation of all things in Christ, in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, written during the two years that he will soon spend in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:27).

Although manuscripts vary on the point, it appears that the words “the adoption” do not properly belong in verse 23 and should be left out. The expression is not found in the earliest papyrus copy of the text, and its insertion here, difficult to explain, seems at odds with the context.

Verse 24 is one of the few places in Romans where “saved” is in the past tense. Significantly it is qualified by “in hope.”

Saturday, February 24

Romans 8.26-39: Paul brings to a close, and to something of a climax, the second part of the Epistle to the Romans (chapters 5-8), on the theme of the Christian existence of those who have been justified in Christ.

In verse 28 there is a textual problem respecting the word “God,” because the extant manuscripts are variant on the matter. Depending on which manuscripts are followed (and sheer antiquity is not an adequate guide here, because the manuscripts come from various ancient Christian churches, and some textural mistakes seem to have been introduced rather early), the meaning of the passage is either “in everything God works for good with those who love Him,” or “God makes everything work together for the good of those who love Him,” or “everything works together for the good of those who love God.” All of these readings testify to God’s providential control of events in the lives of those who love Him.

That is to say, this verse introduces the theme of divine providence, by which God brings mysterious influences to bear on the direction of history. Paul now inaugurates this theme. He will continue it through the rest of this chapter and then in chapters 9-11 apply it directly to the historical situation that the early Christians were facing, namely, the rejection of the larger masses of the Jewish people with respect to the Gospel. Why did that happen? Paul’s response will be: Because God had in mind some greater good that would ensue. God is the Lord of history. He knows everything ahead of time. Knowing everything ahead of time, He quietly and mysteriously arranges and prearranges circumstances in order to bring about the greater good.

Thus, Paul will continue the ancient theme of God’s providential ability to bring good out of evil. This thesis, which will form the substance of his argument in chapters 9-11, is a common one in the Old Testament. It is obvious, for instance, in the stories of Joseph. Paul will appeal to its presence in the stories of Esau and Pharaoh.

God’s knowledge of the future is the basis on which He is able to arrange for those circumstances that will influence the course of events. The English biblical word for this is called “predestination,” which means “adjusting things ahead of time.”

Those who love God (or however else verse 28 is to be interpreted, as we saw above) are the “predestined” (verse 29), “those who are called according to His purpose” (verse 28). These “predestined and called” are not a separate category of Christians. The terms refer to the body of those who constitute the Church, the Christians who have responded to God’s initiatory love and call (1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12).

This statement of Paul has nothing to do with anyone’s alleged predestination to heaven or hell. It is not a statement of theodicy. Although God certainly knows all things ahead of time, including each person’s eternal destiny, He does not predetermine those actions that lie within human freedom. Men make their own choices, for which they alone are held responsible.

We do not understand how God influences the activities of history, but we do know that He never acts in such a way as to remove man’s freedom of choice. In the words of John of Damascus, “We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that their wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue” (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30).

Sunday, February 25

Romans 9.1-13: Paul now commences the third part of this epistle, chapters 9-11, in which he applies the principle of the divine predestination to an actual theological problem addressed by the early Church: How can it be that the greater part of the Jewish people, whom over many centuries God had prepared with such persistent care for the coming of His Messiah, failed to recognize the Messiah when He came?

Several sources in the New Testament address this thorny question in some form. In most of these sources the New Testament writers recognized that Israel’s failure, its “falling away,” had itself been prophesied in the Old Testament, chiefly Isaiah. This approach to the problem is clearest in John (12:37-41), but we find it in other authors as well (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8: 10; Acts 28:23-28).

Paul goes further. Israel’s failure, he says, was not only prophesied but also providential. God, foreknowing Israel’s defection, made use of that defection; He prepared ahead of time to make it serve as the occasion and the impulse for the justification and salvation of the Gentiles. He did this by His mysterious, unfathomable, providential guidance of history. Such is the argument of Romans 9-11.

Although the verb “predestine” does not appear in these chapters (nor is the noun “predestination” to be found anywhere at all in the New Testament), the development of Paul’s thought here surely extends his teaching on predestination in chapter eight. As we proceed through these next three chapters, therefore, it will be important to bear in mind our earlier reflections on divine predestination in chapter eight.

Otherwise we run the risk of regarding Paul’s historical illustrations, such as Esau and Pharaoh, as examples of eternal loss. This would be not only an unwarranted inference but a mammoth distortion of Paul’s thought. It may be the case, of course, that both Esau and Pharaoh have been condemned to hell, but there is nothing about this question in Romans 9-11. Esau and Pharaoh serve as examples, rather, of God’s mysterious ability, based on His foreknowledge, to bring good out of evil in the course of history.

Thus, the moral obtuseness of Esau and the hardened heart of Pharaoh are predestined, are arranged ahead of time, to be the occasions of grace for Jacob and Israel, before any of these had been born or had performed any good or evil act (verse 11). Jacob and the Israelites are made vessels of elections, recipients and containers of God’s blessing, while Esau and Pharaoh become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (verse 22). All of this, says Paul, was predestined, was arranged ahead of time, by God in His wisdom and mercy.

Paul begins his argument by establishing the principle that mere physical descent does not make someone an Israelite. (He will use the words “Israel” and “Israelite” in this section, because his major Old Testament prefiguration is Jacob, whose other name is Israel.) Consequently, the Jews can make no special claims on God merely by the fact that they are Abraham’s descendents (verses 6-10).

Even God’s election of Israel was not prompted by any merits on the part of Israel. This is proved by God’s promise and mysterious intervention to bring about the conception and birth of Isaac (verses 8-10). As we have seen, that predestined intervention was a clear illustration of God’s ability to give life to the dead and call to being those things that did not exist (4:17).

Even regarding the descendants of the promised Isaac (“our father”), God distinguished between Jacob and Esau, before either was formed or had made any moral choice (verse 11). God’s own choice, prior to either man’s choice, fell on Jacob. He loved Jacob, that is to say, before Jacob ever loved Him (verse 13; 1 John 4:19). God’s historical choice of Jacob/Israel prefigured His predestined election of the Gentile Christians, who had done nothing to merit God’s favor (verse 12). This biblical example, Paul contends, foreshadowed the present situation of the Gentile believers. God had used Esau’s defection, which He foreknew, as the occasion to make Jacob His chosen vessel in the history of salvation. He does the same now for the Gentile believers.

As for Esau himself, he got exactly what he deserved. His own place in biblical history was to be shoved off to the side, a vessel of dishonor (verse 21). Instead of inheriting the Promised Land, which should have been his birthright, he was obliged to become merely a desert chieftain (Malachi 1:2-3). Contemning his own inheritance, he made the choice himself (Hebrews 12:16).

In other words, Esau’s conduct and its results served as an historical foreshadowing of what occurred to the greater part of the Jewish people in Paul’s time. They had shunned their true inheritance, which thus passed to the Gentiles. They became the castaways of salvation history, the Christians’ elder brothers, shoved off to the side. They could not blame God for this. They themselves, like Esau, had made the choice. As Paul will argue in the next section, the responsibility was theirs.

Monday, February 26

Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to one of the major questions of this gospel, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church. The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson”(Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve.

The reader observes that the question of Jesus—“Who do you say that I am?”—is differently phrased among the three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew the question is also a matter of auto-identification; there is the presumption that Jesus is the Son of Man.

Such is the determining inquiry—the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth—the proper determination of the Who that poses the question itself. The history of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church illustrates that all other doctrinal questions are reducible to this one question: Just who is Jesus?

Although all the disciples are addressed, it is Simon who answers (verse 16), as the spokesman for all the apostles. Throughout the Gospels he is the only one who ever serves in this way.

Peter’s confession itself is far more ample, precise, and developed here than in Mark and Luke, and it corresponds more closely to the full Christological confession of the Christian Church. It confesses a great deal more than Jewish Messianism (Compare 21:37-38; Hebrews 1:1-2).

When Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus identifies Peter (verse 18). This identification is very important, because it has to do with the foundation of the Church. We have already learned in Matthew (10:2) that Simon’s nickname was Kephas, meaning “rock.” This nickname comes into play as the foundation stone of the Church. Indeed, this is the first of only three times—all of them in Matthew—that the word “Church” is found in the Gospels. What Jesus says is, “You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.” What does this mean?

First, the pronouncement is related to Peter’s Christological confession. The rock on which the Church is built is, first of all, the confession of Jesus’ true identity as Son of the Living God. The Lord’s pronouncement to Peter, therefore, must not be separated from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That confession is the foundation stone on which the Church is built. This was, it would seem, a common metaphor. Indeed, this is how St. Peter himself interpreted the Lord’s words here; cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 (also 1 Corinthians 3:11).

The first meaning of the Rock, then, on which the Church is to be built, is Christological. It is the confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.

In addition to this meaning, does the identification of Simon as the rock of the Church have some reference to his specific ministry in the Church? Perhaps it does. While the first meaning of the rock has to do with Christology, the New Testament knows a secondary and dependent meaning—the apostolic and prophetic ministries (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22). We also observe an “apostolic” meaning for the image of the rock in Revelation 21:14. This is later reflected in the Creed’s description of the Church as “apostolic.”

This secondary meaning, if it is (as I believe) intended here, is inseparable from the Christological meaning. That is to say, the Apostles are the rock of the Church in the sense that they are the authoritative witnesses to, and proclaimers of, the true identity of Jesus.

This is the reason why some of the Church Fathers understood Peter, in this text, to represent the bishops of the Church, because the bishops were (and still are) regarded as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. It is well known that this was the interpretation of St. Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, for instance.

Even if we do not follow Cyprian’s lead in this interpretation, it is important to stress (because Matthew does) the ecclesiastical—the institutional—aspect of this verse. Peter’s confession is not an individual taking of Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Peter here is the spokesman for the Church and makes the Church’s profession of faith.

Tuesday, February 27

Matthew 17.1-13: The Lord’s transfiguration repeats the revelation made at His baptism, where the Father’s voice identified His Son. This revelation of Jesus’ unique relationship to God is the primary substance of the Christian faith, as we have just seen in Peter’s confession. Matthew has already treated this matter in 11:25-27, and he continues the theme here. This relationship of Jesus to God is the source of the “authority” (exsousia) with which Jesus teaches and heals and forgives sins and sends forth the Church in mission at the end of this gospel. While Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration is substantially identical to that of Mark (and both are quite different from Luke’s in emphasis), he does omit Mark’s (9:9f) reference to the disciples’ lack of “understanding” with respect to the return of Elijah. This omission fits a preoccupation that we have already seen in Matthew.

Other features of Matthew’s account are likewise special to this gospel. The comparison of Jesus’ transfigured face to the sun, for example, is proper to Matthew (verse 2). Although it is possible that this detail has no particular theological significance, it is worth remarking that Matthew elsewhere mentions the sun in the context of glory.

We next observe that Matthew names Moses before Elijah (verse 3), thus toning down Mark’s emphasis on Elijah.

In verse 4 Peter calls Jesus “Lord”–Kyrios (contrast with Mark’s “Rabbi”), the technical post-Resurrection title of Jesus. That is to say, in Peter’s address here we are dealing with the fully articulated faith of the Church.

In Mark and John the disciples sometimes address Jesus as “Rabbi,” but in Matthew and Luke never. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus as “Rabbi” is Judas Iscariot, who does so twice (26:25,49).

Peter prefaces his suggestion about building three tabernacles with the caveat “If you will.” This emphasis on the Lord’s will is important in Matthew’s approach to prayer (cf. 6:10, contrasted with Luke 11:2-4, where the clause is missing).

We observe also Matthew’s omission of Mark 9:6 (“he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid”). As we have had occasion to remark elsewhere in these comments, Matthew is reluctant to portray the disciples as dull or ignorant. Here again he strikes out the idea.

All of verses 6 and 7 are proper to Matthew, and the detail about prostration is especially dear to this evangelist (cf. 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 29:9—all of these instances found only in Matthew). It is obvious that Matthew is writing for Christians whose normal attitude toward Jesus Christ is summed up in the act of adoration. This says much of his Christology.

In this place, moreover, the intimacy of verse 7 presents a strong contrast to the transcendence of verse, both of them paradoxical components of the disciples’ relation to Christ.

Once again Matthew (verses 9-13) omits a verse from Mark (9:10: “So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant”), a line indicating ignorance on the part of the disciples. As we have observed, Matthew tends to leave out such indications, because he regards correct understanding as part of discipleship itself.

Since, as it appears, Matthew is reliant on Mark for much of his material, and since Mark often portrays the disciples speaking in ignorance, Matthew is often obliged to adjust the narratives in order to make the point he wants. We may note this development by contrasting Mark 4 with Matthew 13. Thus, Mark 4:10 (“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable”) becomes Matthew 13:10 (“Why do You speak to them in parables?”). That is to say, the disciples in Matthew do not ask Jesus to explain the parable. Then, Mark’s line “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13) is completely omitted in Matthew.

These differences carry over to the explanation of the parable. In Mark 10:15 we read “When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts,” whereas in Matthew’s version (13:19) we read, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

Similarly, Mark 10:20 says simply, “these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit,” while the parallel text in Matthew (13:23) says, “he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces.”

Finally, only Matthew, not Mark, finishes the chapter on the parables of the Kingdom with the following question and answer: “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you understood all these things?’ They said to Him, “Yes, Lord” (13:51).

Wednesday, February 28

Romans 10.14-21: Israel, says Paul, is without excuse. It was to Israel that the Gospel was first addressed, but they did not believe.

This assessment refers, not only to the preaching of Jesus and the first apostles, but also to Paul’s own experience. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, Paul’s custom, on first arriving at any new city, was to take the Gospel first to the local synagogue (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1-2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8). In majority of the recorded instances, however, the message was rejected by most of the Jews who heard it. By and large, Paul discovered, his more receptive audiences tended to be made up of Gentile seekers who had attached themselves, in varying degrees, to the synagogue. These, together with small remnants of Jews in each city, became the first members of the Christian Churches of Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and so on.

The proclamation of the Gospel is the ministry of preaching, and this involves the authority of the preacher who is “sent” (verses 14-15; Acts 13:1-4). This “sending” has to do with “apostolicity,” a word derived from the Greek verb, apostello, “to send.” The sending forth to preach is the commission of the Church, a commission that the Apostles received from Christ (Matthew 10:5-15; 28:16-20; John 20:21). The transmission of this authority is known to Christian history as the “apostolic succession,” which means “the succession of those who have been sent.” It is the succession itself that transmits that authority, the singular identity of the apostolic ministry from one age to the next. The authoritative proclamation of the Gospel is derived from that historical succession, which is an essential component of the Church. All legitimate mission, therefore, is rooted in a proper succession. The Gospel authority is transmitted through the Spirit-guided handing-on of the being of the Church.

Paul indicates the social and ecclesiastical nature of faith by insisting that “faith comes by hearing” (verse 17). Even Paul himself, to whom Jesus had spoken directly, was obliged to go to the Church in order to submit himself to her authority and be instructed by Her Tradition: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

What the Church preaches is “the word of Christ” This expression seems to have a twofold meaning. First, it signifies the word received from Jesus through the Tradition preached in the Church (and in due course transmitted into Holy Scripture in the form of Gospels and Epistles). Second, it means that word of which Christ is the very content. These two meanings appear to be but aspects of one reality.

Small wonder if the Jews rejected Christ, says Paul; they had already rejected Isaiah (verse 16). Indeed, they had already rejected Moses (verse 19; John 5:46).

In verse 18 Paul saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos. He sees in God’s revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of God’s witness in the works of Creation is to be matched in the universal character of the Gospel’s proclamation.

The citation from Deuteronomy in verse 19 introduces the motif that will dominate the end of the next chapter, Israel’s providential “jealousy.”

Thursday, February 29

Jeremiah 27: This chapter continues the theme of the growing antagonism between Jeremiah and the false prophets; this is the theme that joins it to chapter 26.

The vocabulary and style of this chapter, however, link it even more closely to chapters 28-29. Indeed, it is possible that these three chapters at one time represented a literary unit, eventually incorporated into the full prophetic corpus edited by Baruch.

The “situation” in chapters 27-29 was an assembly of international diplomats, gathered at Jerusalem, sometime in 594-593. These representatives came from neighboring nations for the purpose of persuading King Zedekiah to join a general revolt against Babylon. This is the meaning of the symbol of the yoke. Jeremiah warns Zedekiah and the others against false hope, in contrast to the false prophets (such as Hananiah in chapter 28), who were encouraging rebellion against Babylon.

Psalms 90 (Greek and Latin 89): One recalls Isaac Watts’s paraphrase in his famous hymn based on Psalm 90: “O God, our help in ages past, / Our hope for years to come, / Our shelter from the stormy blast, / And our eternal home. / . . . Before the hills in order stood, / Or earth received her frame;/ From everlasting Thou art God, / To endless years the same.”

God is eternal, but man is frail. Even as we go forth to our daily labor, we know that work is now onerous because we are fallen creatures. Even as we endeavor to labor in such a way as to manifest the glory of God, the difficulty of the work itself, along with the weariness that attends it, bears witness to the Fall of our first parents and the curse laid upon our race—that we labor until we die: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; / In toil you shall eat of it / All the days of your life. / . . . / In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread / Till you return to the ground, / For out of it you were taken” (Gen. 3:17–19).

Psalm 90 likewise gives voice to the sentiments of a folk thus cursed: “You turn man to destruction, and say: ‘Return, O children of men’. . . . You carry them away like a flood, like a dream. In the morning they are like grass that grows up; in the morning it thrives and flourishes, but in the evening it is cut down and withers.”

The flow of the years, the passage of days into nights, conducts us all to death. Even as we go forth to our labor at the beginning of the day, it is without guarantee of returning home at its end: “For we have been consumed by Your anger, and by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days are passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a sigh.” Once again, Isaac Watts paraphrased our psalm: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day.”

The eternal God, however, is outside of time, abiding beyond the vicissitudes of this earth. To Him the passage of time seems no more than an instant: “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.” Watts translated this line in the stanza that reads: “A thousand ages in Thy sight / Are like an evening gone, / Short as the watch that ends the night, / Before the rising sun.”

Second Peter 3:8 quotes this same line of our psalm to remind Christians that God is not subject to our own sense of time: “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

God’s treasure here below is borne in vessels of clay, for of the mire He made us to be the very bearers of His glory. Because we are also creatures of the Fall, our own tilling of the soil—that is to say, our labor to support our lives in this world—is infected with the forces of death. At the same time, by reason of our incorporation into Christ, our daily labor may also share in the first-fruits of redemption, our glorification as God’s children. Our daily work, done for the sake of His glory, may become the medium by which that glory is rendered manifest.

Friday, March 1

Matthew 18.1-9: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.

Going through in more detail, we begin with the question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.

The “child” held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made the bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a “kid,” someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for “greatest” cf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).

Then Jesus asserts in a positive way (verse 4) what He has just affirmed negatively (verse 3). This disregard for power and social status elaborates what Jesus said about the poor in spirit in 5:3.

At first, verse 5, about receiving the “little one,” seems to have nothing to do with the context. In place of the childlike quality of humility, our attention is drawn to the children themselves and how they are to be treated.

In Mark’s version, in fact, this action and the words of Jesus do not appear, at first sight, even to address the question about which the Apostles have been arguing.

This impression is misleading. In telling the Church how to receive children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.

And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an “unwanted child,” somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian’s fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control.

Then Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).

Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: violent image—drowning, cutting off a hand, gouging out an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.

To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to cause spiritual harm (even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal). Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.