Friday, August 18, 2017

Uniquely Matthew

Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
  • Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · 
  • Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · 
  • Criminals crucified with Jesus… · 
  • Darkness in the daytime… · 
  • Jesus' loud final cry… 
  • The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · 
  • The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · 
  • The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the third day...
  • The empty tomb...
If you want harmonised 'facts' - these are those.

A different story isn’t the Christian faith. The plot is common to all four gospels – Jesus dies on the first day (Thursday evening to Friday evening), is dead through the second day (Friday evening to Saturday evening), and is physically raised from the dead and witnessed on the third day (Saturday evening to Sunday evening).

You can try to exclude the Bible from being valid evidence but what are you hiding from? The documentary evidence is strong – at least as good, if not better, than anything else in antiquity. Not to mention, the very existence of the church has to have come from somewhere. And if it didn’t come from where it claims to – from the events of this Passover weekend you need to find a more compelling, more backed up alternative.

What do you do with what happened? It's not about what we want, or how we feel about life... here is something that happened of a magnitude that, if true, it changes everything.

Flip things around and look for differences. It's immediately obvious that Mark is the most brief while Matthew and Luke are longer in different places. There is a little material that is uniquely Mark, a fair amount that is unique to Luke which you can explore here.

To look for the differences I simply copy and paste from biblegateway into a three column table, I find it helpful to put matching sections next to each other in new rows as it helps to highlight where the differences are... a colour highlight (or printing it out and doing that by hand) does the rest. You'll see a picture of what that looks like on paper in the link to the cross in Luke's gospel. You can also pick up the Bible Harmony tool in  which has these already collated.

A bit of work shows what is unique to Matthew's account from Matthew 27:32-28:20, simply because I've been asked to speak on these chapters in a couple of months time. Three themes, in five sections that only Matthew records.
1. Matthew tells us about the earth being shaken - 27v51-52 and 28v2-4. When Jesus dies and when the tomb is opened on Easter Sunday, Matthew tell us that the earth shakes. The earth shaking is something that happens in the Bible. In Judges 5v4 – earth shaking is about the Lord coming. In 2 Sam 22v8, Psalm 18v7 – earth shaking is the Lord’s anger. In Isaiah 14v16 the earth shaking is kingdoms trembling. When the earth shakes here is surely evokes all of these things, and marks the raising from the dead of many who are seen in the city, and from Easter Sunday, Jesus himself being raised and witnessed. 
2. Matthew tells us about the conspiracy of the authorities - 27v62-66 and 28v11-15. They seek to prevent the grave being robbed so Jesus' disciples can't say he's alive. And then when those soldiers are terrified by the visiting angel they pay off the guards to say the body was stolen by the disciples. It's a pitiful attempt to prevent the spread of this good news. There's no harm in raising questions about the Christian faith but the story stands. The God who has stepped in and shaken the earth is open to scrutiny, but if you put this God in the dock you might find yourself on trial... or as the story has it, "in this gallery it is not the paintings that are being judged, but the visitors..." 
3. Matthew tells us about hope for the world - 28v16-20. Luke has similar material about Jesus with his disciples in Jerusalem, but Matthew tells us about a mountain side meeting, not for the first time. The disciples of Jesus are commissioned as disciple-makers. To go to all nations (as Luke also reports), to make disciples, to teach and baptise. And they do it knowing that his authority sends them and his presence goes with them. At the climax of Matthew's gospel here is the risen Son of David and Son of Abraham - the new forever king through whom blessing will pour out to all people groups.
If we only had Luke, Mark and John we'd miss these emphases around the cross and resurrection, though doubtless the themes arise elsewhere in the Bible. By giving us four narratives, the Holy Spirit, gives us the opportunity to see more of what is happening at the cross, to slow down, to inhabit the moment, and to distinguish the different, complementing melodies of the gospel.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What Wondrous Love Is This?

What Wondrous Love Is This is a southern spiritual first published in 1811. It has appeared regularly in hymnbooks since the 1960s.

1 What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?
2 When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down;
when I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.
3 To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb, I will sing;
to God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM -
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
while millions join the theme, I will sing.
4 And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.
One of the things I love about it is the way this song can be arranged so differently due to its simplicity and quality... (Youtube playlist version)

A fairly mainstream version:

Or choral:

Or more acoustic folky:

Or a bit more funk rock style:

It's public domain so you can get the score at

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Preaching The Song of Songs

I've been preaching Christ from The Song of Songs this term. It's a daunting task and I feel my own weakness and limits faced with the task. Still 10 of 11 weeks done, one to go.

My interest in The Song stems from reading the affectionate puritan Richard Sibbes' sermons which are devotionally rich and deliciously Christ-focussed. Thanks Mike Reeves for steering me to Sibbes.

I edited and self-published some of Sibbes 20 sermons a few years ago. They’re for sale at cost price via Lulu or you can ask me for a PDF copy.

Resources on The Song vary considerably depending on the approach to the text. Some read it as simply about human relationships, some as exclusively about Christ and the church.

My approach has been a both Christ & the church and human relationships approach and that shapes who I've found most helpful. The text isn't easy to work with, and most people have never heard it preached before. Some struggled to see that it was about Christ, others have loved spending time with a long cherished friend. I've sought to be a bit artsy, evocative and poetic in handling a poetic text, to paint verbal pictures, to weave the intertwining themes of relationships, what it means to be human, and the gospel together. Some sermons have leant more one way than the other.

No claim to have mastered the book, but I hope the Lord has mastered me a bit more through it.

We bought and showed Andrew Wilson's This is About That video a couple of times in the series to emphasise the connection between marriage and the gospel.

Most older commentaries tend towards just being about Christ, and occasionally get very speculative. Charles Spurgeon's sermons which are free online are a really positive example from 150 years ago.

If I was limited to three books the following are my friends. They all work through consecutive passages of the Biblical text. Amazon Wishlist Version

1. Charlie Cleverly. Hodder & Stoughton. 2016.
This is a warm, devotional, pop-level read more than a technical commentary. There’s good engagement with the text and some great insights, and a keenness to let the Song shape our prayer life. This was the last book I picked up in preparation for my series and it’s been a good help and an enjoyable read.

2. Robert Jenson. Interpretation. 2005.
I’ve read and re-read this commentary over the past few years. Each section is clearly structured to engage with the text, then apply to Christ before applying to relationships. Jenson’s style is refreshing and often draws out deep biblical themes that others might miss and has sparked joy for me at several points. Also, under the floral dust-jacket is the brightest green hardback you’ll ever own. While occasionally obscure, Jenson captures the playful evocative feel that a commentary on poetry should have.

3. James Hamilton. Christian Focus. 2015.
This is well structured and careful to observe biblical and theological threads that run through the book. His notes on the theological themes of the lovers songs about each other are eye-opening and brilliant. Points for clarity over the other two, but a less gripping read. The book is basically his 2012 sermon series with some additional material and application questions. The sermons can be downloaded here

Additionally I’ve found Ellen Davis' 2004 commentary particularly insightful in places. This book is more technical, and comes in a volume covering Solomon's other wisdom books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Her impressive scholarship makes some assumptions I disagree with but is detailed and thoughtful and illuminating.

The excellent Ros Clarke bears significant responsibility for my interest in The Song of Songs due to her thesis on it., so also Barry Webb's Five Festal Garments (NSBT) which got me reading The Song, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Ruth which if you're allowed favourite bible books...

Worth playing Bernard of Clairvaux's 12th Century hymn based on The Song of Songs as you read the text.

My sermon series for Beeston Free Church.

1. Love Desires (Song 1:1-8)

2. Love Delights (Song 1:9-17)

3. Love Tastes (Song 2:1-7)

4. Love Together (Song 2:8-17)

5. Love Treasures (Song 3:1-10)

6. Love Feasts (Song 4:1-5:1)

7. Love Lost (Song 5:2-8)

8. Love Wins (Song 5:1-6:1)

9. Love Renewed (Song 6:1-13)

10. Love Allures (Song 7:1-8:4)

11. Love Divine (Song 8:5-14)
Forthcoming (Scheduled to preach on 23rd July)