Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The Legacy of Simon the Cyrenian

In Mark’s record of the Lord’s crucifixion, the following is reported: “And they compelled one passing by, Simon a Cyrenian, coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, that he might carry the cross of [Jesus]” (Mark 15:21).1 John’s Gospel mentions Jesus bearing his own cross (John 19:17), presumably at the beginning of the brutal trek to Golgotha. No doubt weakened by extreme blood loss and fatigue, all three Synoptic accounts report Simon’s conscription to provide assistance along the way (see also Matt. 27:32; Luke 23:26). 

Simon’s name is Jewish, the Grecized version of the Hebrew name Simeon (cf. Gen. 29:33). He is called a Cyrenian, being from the North African city of Cyrene in Libya. In order to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, if sea travel could be afforded, the journey from Cyrene would have taken over a week. Otherwise, land travel would have taken about a month. Whether Simon had made the lengthy pilgrimage or had actually moved to Jerusalem, his commitment to the Jewish faith is evident.

Mark is the only Gospel writer to mention Simon’s sons Alexander (a Greek name) and Rufus (a Latin name), indicative of a culturally diverse family. Cyrene, at one time a Greek city and then a Roman city, was itself culturally diverse. There is no practical reason for Mark to have inserted these names in the crucifixion narrative unless these men were known to his original readership. It is historically understood that the Gospel of Mark was written for a Roman audience.2 Years before its publication, the apostle Paul had penned his letter to the saints at Rome that includes a greeting to “Rufus, the chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13).

Paul had not yet been to Rome when this letter was drafted (Rom. 1:10-15; 15:22-24), so how did he know Rufus and Rufus’ mother? The apostle apparently had enjoyed their hospitality and knew them well enough to regard Rufus’ mother as his own. But when and where would this relationship have formed?

Attempting to Fill in the Gaps

Seeing that Simon of Cyrene and probably his family were in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, might they still have been around a few weeks later at Pentecost? Luke, who knew of Simon (Luke 23:26), reports the following: “now abiding in Jerusalem were Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” including those from “the parts of Libya down through Cyrene …” (Acts 2:5, 10). Multiplied thousands of these Jewish pilgrims and residents had obeyed the gospel by the time persecution forced them to disperse with their new-found faith proclaiming God’s word (Acts 8:1-4).

“So then those having been scattered by the persecution arising over Stephen, went through to Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except the Jews only. But some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who having entered Antioch, were also speaking to the Hellenists,3 proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them; then a great number, having believed, turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21).

Cyrenian Jewish Christians were involved in planting the church in Syrian Antioch, in whose work the apostle Paul became thoroughly engaged (Acts 11:25-30; 12:25; 13:1-3; 14:26-28; 15:1-3, 40; 18:22-23). Among the leaders of this congregation were “Simeon, called Niger, and Lucius the Cyrenian …” (Acts 13:1). The name Simeon is the Hebraic form of Simon (cp. Acts 15:14), and Niger is the Latin term for “black,” perhaps suggesting African descent. If Simeon (Simon) and Lucius, among others, were from the African city of Cyrene, the former may have needed a more distinctive distinguishing moniker.

While the biblical information is not detailed enough to draw definitive conclusions, Paul’s intimate connection with the Antioch church would have afforded him ample opportunity to develop relationships with Cyrenian families. If some had moved to Rome by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, surely he would want to send them greetings. When Mark then produces his Gospel in the same environment, why else mention the sons of Simon unless they were known among his readers?

Observations and Inferences

If the above scenario is reasonably accurate, what can we learn from Simon the Cyrenian and his family?
·      Simon, albeit an unwilling participant, took part in the Lord’s ruthless execution. The difference is, you and I have been willing participants (Rom. 5:6-8; Heb. 6:6; Jas. 1:14-15).
·      Simon was apparently impacted by Christ’s suffering and death, earning him recognition in all three Synoptic Gospels, with additional information about his family. To the receptive heart, the cross of Jesus “is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
·      Simon appears to have taken seriously his role as spiritual leader of his household, his faith impacting his wife and sons. May we follow this example of influence among our loved ones in the “training and counsel of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
·      Simon and his family were not dormant appendages of the Lord’s body but very active in the work of the church. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be firm, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, knowing that your labor is not ineffective in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).


Simon of Cyrene has typically been seen as a fringe character in the Gospel story, one simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. But closer examination allows us to learn more about him and from him, offering much encouragement as fellow cross bearers.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 See K. L. Moore, Mark's Audience.
     3 There is uncertainty here whether the reference is applicable to Hellenistic Jews (ESV, ISV, NKJV, NRSV) or to Gentile Greeks (ASV, CSB, NASB, NET, NIV, RSV), or maybe more generically to Grecians (KJV).

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Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 5 of 5)

Biblical Typology

Employing tangible symbols of the past to represent analogous yet loftier divine truths is the function of biblical typology. An OT type (Greek túpos, a “figure” or “image”), which is material and temporary, foreshadows a NT antitype (antítupos, “corresponding to”) of much greater spiritual import.1

The Lord Jesus Christ is typified in Adam (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45), in Moses (Acts 3:22; 7:37), and in Melchizedek (Heb. 5:5-10). The Passover and the raising of the serpent in the wilderness each prefigures Jesus’ sacrificial death (John 3:14; 12:32-33; 1 Cor. 5:7). The old-covenant-tabernacle ritual corresponds to Christ’s superior new-covenant arrangement (Heb. 9:1-28). The flood of Noah’s day and the Red Sea crossing are analogous to Christian baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-2; 1 Pet. 3:20-21). The Jewish temple is a meager representation of the Lord’s church (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16), as is the ancient city where the temple stood (Heb. 12:22-23; Rev. 3:12).2 Abraham’s physical descendants foreshadow the omniracial Christian community, the true Israel of God (Rom. 9:6-8; Gal. 3:29; 6:16). The literal “heavens and earth,” the typical word-pair describing humanity’s physical habitat, serves as a figure of a completely “new” subsistence (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-54; 2 Cor. 5:1-8).3

In Matthew’s record of Christ’s teaching, the prophet Jonah’s ordeal typifies the burial and resurrection of Jesus (12:39-40; 16:4); the receptivity of those to whom Jonah and Solomon preached illustrates how much more Jesus ought to be heard (12:41-42); John the baptizer is the antitype of Elijah (17:10-13). When Jesus quotes the saying, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (5:5) – its only occurrence in the NT – this sounds like a physical type of the spiritual antitype that follows, “for your reward is great in heaven …” (v. 12b). However, considering the backdrop of Psalm 37, this blessing is not limited to the future but includes God’s provision, comfort, and peace in the present. The literal land inheritance of Abraham’s biological descendants (Acts 7:2-5, 17, 45; Heb. 11:8) serves as a physical type of the spiritual inheritance of Abraham’s spiritual heirs in Christ, realized in the present (Gal. 3:6-29; Eph. 1:13-14, 18; 5:5), future (Col. 3:24; 1 Pet. 1:4), and forevermore (Heb. 9:15).

The Fulfillment

The promised blessings of Matthew 5:3-10, rather than being withheld for millennia into the future, are most certainly accessible to God’s people in the here and now. For the poor in spirit and the unjustly persecuted, heavenly citizenship is now available.4 Comfort is provided to those who are mourning.5 To be filled with righteousness is assured to all who are eagerly seeking it.6 The merciful obtain mercy.7 Through his revelation God is seen (understood) with purity of heart.8 Peaceable followers of Christ are currently acknowledged as God’s children.9 So what about the meek? 

To interpret the promise of Matt. 5:5b as something unavailable until the distant future in a yet-to-be-established earthly kingdom is to ignore the surrounding context and other contextual layers, thereby missing the point. The spiritual blessings of God’s kingdom are not limited to persons living within the ancient borders of Israel. If a literal “land” (or “earth”) inheritance is meant, surely we would expect it to be reaffirmed elsewhere in the NT. Instead, notwithstanding the Apocalypse’s highly symbolic imagery, we find promises like, “he will inherit life everlasting” (Matt. 19:29); “flesh and blood is not able to inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit incorruptibility” (1 Cor. 15:50); “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14); “to an inheritance imperishable, untainted, and enduring, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).10 The fulfillment of these promises did in fact begin in “the land” – in Jerusalem, all Judea, and Samaria – extending to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Col. 1:3-6, 13, 23). 


Our study through multiple layers of context has concentrated on the words of a Hebrew poet, quoted by the messianic Lord, and reiterated by an inspired historian. The first contextual layer is Psalm 37, earthly-focused and directed to Israelites living in the land of promise under the old-covenant system of Moses: a mere shadow of things to come (cf. Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1). The second contextual layer is Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, wherein attention is redirected to the heavenly and spiritual blessings of God’s approaching kingdom: a time of transitioning from the old and preparing for the new (cf. Matt. 9:16-17; Heb. 8:6-13). The third contextual layer is the Gospel of Matthew, written fairly early in Christ’s new-covenant age to Jewish believers presently living the antitypical substance of these truths in God’s heavenly kingdom come to earth (cf. Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:12-13). The fourth contextual layer is the application of these teachings to our current time and circumstances. 

Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (Matt. 5:5). For ancient Israelites this meant the assurance of God’s favor, provision, security, and hope. For early-1st-century Jews and latter-1st-century Jewish Christians, it had the same connotation. The Lord still expects humility of spirit, emotional sensitivity, meekness, pursuit of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and steadfast endurance. The accompanying blessings are still assured to his faithful followers, both now in this time and in the age to come (Matt. 19:29; Mark 10:30; 1 Cor. 3:21-23).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 G. K. Beale defines typology as “the study of analogical correspondences between persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature” (“Finding Christ in the Old Testament,” JETS 93.1 [2020]: 29). See also Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012): 13-15. In the genre of Hebrew poetry, the language of the psalms is a copy, mirror, or representation of what it imitates. “How well the image represents the reality becomes the mode of valuation, whether the representation is of a transcendent reality or a mundane beauty” (David Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992]: 10). Accordingly, the historical-religious background of the psalms provides yet another layer of context.
     2 See K. L. Moore, The New Jerusalem: Heaven or the Church?.
     3 See K. L. Moore, New Heavens and a New Earth.
     4 Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:5, 12-13; 3:1-2. There is a rest spoken of that is yet in the future—something promised that remains to be fully realized (Heb. 3:7–4:11). When Jesus journeyed ahead to prepare a place for his disciples (John 14:2-3), he went beyond the “veil” and penetrated the holiest place to dwell in the presence of God (Heb. 6:19-20; 9:12). This is none other than “heaven itself” (Heb. 9:24). The righteous now have the confident expectation of entering the very same place (Heb. 6:18-19; 10:19-20, 34), wherein their names are registered (Heb. 12:23).
     5 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 2:7; 7:6-7, 13; 13:11; Col. 2:2; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; 2 Thess. 2:16-17.
     6 Rom. 1:16-17; 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; 9:10; Eph. 4:20-24; 5:8-10; Phil. 1:11; 3:9; Heb. 12:11.
     7 Rom. 9:16, 18; 11:30-32; 2 Cor. 4:1; Phil. 2:27; 1 Tim. 1:13, 16; 1 Pet. 2:10.
     8 John 1:18; 14:7-9; Eph. 1:17-18; Col. 1:9-10; 2:2-3; 1 John 5:20.
     9 Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:26; 4:6; cf. John 1:12; Rom. 9:8; 12:18; Phil. 2:15; Jas. 3:18; 1 John 3:1, 10.
     10 See also Matt. 25:34; Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:1-2; Gal. 3:26-29; 5:21; Eph. 1:13-14, 18; 5:5; Col. 3:24; Heb. 6:12; 9:15; 1 Pet. 3:9; Rev. 21:6-7. That Abraham was to be “heir of [the] kósmos [world]” (Rom. 4:13) would contextually be in reference to succeeding generations of faith. See Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976): 10:50-51.

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Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 4 of 5)

The biblical affirmation, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (Matt. 5:5),has been communicated through at least three layers of context: the 37th Psalm, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s historical record. To accurately discern the meaning of this enigmatic statement, all three layers, via Hebrew poetry, Aramaic speech, and literary homily in Greek translation, ought to be considered.

The original saying in its original setting is directed to Israelites faced with the age-old question of why the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous suffer. The reassuring response is that godless prosperity is only temporary, whereas righteousness leads to divine beneficence. Evildoers will ultimately be cut off. Those whose trust is in Yahweh are the ones truly blessed, with recurring emphasis on the covenantal land inheritance (Psa. 37:3, 9b, 11, 18, 22a, 29, 34a). Contextually the statement in question, “but the meek shall inherit the land” (v. 11a), offers comfort and peace as a proverbial expression of Yahweh’s favor and providential care.

This single line from the poem’s sixth stanza is then incorporated into Jesus’ message preached to a gathering of early-1st-century men and women of Abrahamic descent, subjugated and oppressed in their own homeland. The sermon begins with eight beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), where the six blessings of vv. 4-9 are bracketed between the repeated blessing of vv. 3 and 10: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (4:23) with projected fulfillment in the near future (3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 16:18-19, 28). In this environment, where God’s kingdom takes precedence over temporal distractions (6:33), what would it have meant to these particular listeners to hear, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’”? Familiar with the poetic imagery of the psalms, those influenced by Christ’s teachings would have had greater awareness of an everlasting inheritance and its spiritual significance (19:29; 25:34; cf. Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25; 18:18).2

Matthew is the only Gospel writer to employ the expression “the kingdom of heaven,” synonymous with “the kingdom of God” (19:23-24), underscoring the transcendental nature of the long-anticipated kingdom “not of this world.”3 At the time of writing, the resurrected and exalted Christ was presently reigning as king (Acts 2:30-36; 1 Cor. 15:23-25; 1 Tim. 6:14-15). Matthew, his reading audience, and all other mid-to-late-1st century Christians were citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom as members of Christ’s church (Matt. 16:18-19; Eph. 1:22; 2:19; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13, 18), anticipating a future inheritance in the eternal heavenly realm (Matt. 5:12; 25:34; 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Tim. 4:1, 18; 2 Pet. 2:11).

Contextual Layer #4: Our Contemporary World

Present-day readers should be attuned to what any speaker or writer in the biblical record was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they were meant to understand the message in the context in which it was first communicated.4  Before any biblical text says anything to you or me or anyone else far removed from the ancient Mediterranean world, it has already spoken to those to whom it was first addressed. Keeping this in mind places modern interpreters in a much better position to grasp the intended meaning and make application to our 21st-century environment.

Missing the Point With Faulty Hermeneutics

Following chiliastic interpretations of the 2nd century and beyond, the 18th-century reformer John Wesley believed “the Third Beatitude, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth,’ refers to the Millennial Age.”5 In more recent times advocates of premillennial eschatology, viewing “the land” of Psalm 37:11 and Matthew 5:5 as the entire world, conclude: “Considering the physical and material character of the promise, the fulfillment must similarly be physical and material. When Abraham’s descendants, that is, all believers alive at the parousia, rule over the earth in the millennium with their Messiah, God’s promise of blessings will be materialized physically on this earth.”6 Robert Alter, on the other hand, offers an apt reminder: “In great works of literature, almost always more is going on than one initially realizes, and this is especially true of the Bible, to which readers are likely to come with a baggage of preconceptions and habits of automated or inappropriate response.”It is reasonable to ask that if the fulfillment must be “physical and material, how is it that Abrahams descendants are spiritualized as all believers” rather than consistently understood in the physical and material sense

A More Contextual Approach

As we analyze this seemingly perplexing beatitude through all its layers of context, the poetic nature of the original statement in Psalm 37 should caution against literalization. One of the most common features of Hebrew poetry is symbolism. An underlying truth or insight is conveyed with greater effect by employing expressive metaphors that strike the emotions of a particular reading audience.8 Jesus borrows familiar imagery from the ancient Israelite hymnbook that would resonate with his Jewish audience, which Matthew records in Greek translation for a Jewish Christian community.

It is helpful to observe Matthew’s copious usage of a form of the word ouranós (“heaven”): eighty-two occurrences, more than any other NT writer. With the distinction understood between the atmospheric heavens and the Godhead’s eternal abode (e.g. Matt. 5:16, 18),9 that which is earthly and physical is contrasted throughout the Gospel with the heavenly and spiritual. “Be glad and rejoice exceedingly, for your reward is great in heaven …” (5:12). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures upon the land, where moth and corrosion destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but you store up yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion destroys, and where thieves do not break in nor steal, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). “For what will a man profit if he gains the whole world but loses his soul, or what will a man give as an exchange for his soul? (16:26). “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for the sake of my name, will receive a hundred times, and will inherit life everlasting” (19:29). “Come, those having been blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom having been prepared for you from the world’s foundation” (25:34b).

Concluding Thoughts

Awareness and appreciation of these spiritual truths has often been clouded by a poetic verse wrenched from its context and interpreted through the distorted lens of elaborate eschatological theories. The message is much clearer and more meaningful when the words of the psalmist, quoted by Jesus, then recorded by Matthew, are viewed from the vantage points of their respective audiences, leading to a more fitting application in different times and settings.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 This emphasis carried on beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus: Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; 2 Cor. 5:1-2; Gal. 3:14, 18, 29; 5:21; Eph. 1:13-14, 18; 5:5; Col. 3:24; Heb. 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4; 3:9; Rev. 21:6-7.
     3 See K. L. Moore, The Kingdom of God (Part 1).
     4 See K. L. Moore, Biblical Exegesis (Part 1).
     5 Nathaniel West, John Wesley and Premillennialism (Wilmore, KY: First Fruits, 2018): 25. The concept of a literal messianic kingdom on earth can be traced as far back as Jewish apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period and the first couple of centuries of the common era (e.g. I EnochApocalypse of Baruch2nd & 4th EsdrasTestaments of the 12 Patriarchs), as well as prevalent misconceptions during the Lord’s earthly ministry (Matt. 11:12; Luke 24:21; John 6:15; Acts 1:6). Within the Christian movement, the gnostic Cerinthus (ca. 100) was among the earliest proponents of this view, along with the late 2nd-century Ebionite and Montanist sects. The 2nd-century writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr and the 3rd-century writings of Tertullian also referenced a 1000-years’ earthly kingdom at Christ’s return. The view was revived in the mid-19th century as biblical interpretation became less concerned about historical context, and the expression “premillennialism” replaced older descriptive terms like “chiliasm” and “millenarianism.” 
     6 Sung Wook Chung, “Toward the Reformed and Covenantal Theology of Premillennialism: A Proposal,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to ‘Left Behind’ Theology, eds. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009): 133-46. Other contemporary theologians espousing some form of premillennial eschatology include Craig L. Blomberg, D. A. Carson, Wayne A. Grudem, Robert H. Gundry, Craig S. Keener, Douglas J. Moo, Robert H. Mounce, Grant R. Osborne, and Ben Witherington III. Premillennialism relies on the literal interpretation of figurative language and a materialistic concept of the Lord’s spiritual kingdom. The book of Revelation, a major focus of these proponents, is highly symbolic (apocalyptic) and should not be taken literally.
     7 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Rev. and Updated (NY: Basic Books, 2011): xi.
     8 See Douglas Stuart, “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours,” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by G. D. Fee and D. Stuart (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014): 212-16; and David G. Firth, “The Teaching of the Psalms,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. D. Firth and P. S. Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005): 163.
     9 Both the singular and plural forms of ouranós are used in scripture, sometimes in the same context, to describe the spiritual realm of deity, as well as the future home of the righteous. The former is worded in the plural (Matt. 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21; 10:32, 33; 12:50; 16:17, 19; 18:10, 14, 19; 24:36) and the singular (Matt. 5:34; 6:10; 11:25; 18:18; 21:25; 22:30; 23:22; 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:47; Col. 4:1; 1 Pet. 1:12; 3:22). The latter is also conveyed in the plural (Matt. 5:12; 19:21; 2 Cor. 5:1) and the singular (Matt. 6:20; Luke 6:23 [plural parallel, Matt. 5:12]; Rom. 1:18; 2 Cor. 5:2). In Phil. 3:20 ouranoîs is plural (lit. “heavens”), while the corresponding relative pronoun hoũ, in the prepositional phrase “from which,” is singular.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Deciphering Meaning Through Layers of Context (Part 3 of 5)

The First Gospel, so called because of its positioning in the New Testament, is historically attributed to Matthew Levi, an apostle of Jesus Christ and former tax collector. There is no manuscript evidence indicating that the document ever circulated without “According to Matthew” as its title, and no other name was ever appended to it.1 

Seeing that Matthew’s Gospel betrays a strong Jewish orientation, the ethnic heritage of both the author and reading audience appears to have been Jewish. The terminology is decidedly Jewish.2 A number of Aramaic expressions occur throughout the text, often without translation.3 Familiarity with Jewish history, politics, ideas, and customs is assumed.4 The Hebrew Bible has a prominent place, with about 40 quotations and over 100 allusions, demonstrating a mutual knowledge of and respect for these sacred writings. More fulfilled OT prophecies are cited than in any of the other Gospels.5 Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus and traces the line of decent back to Abraham (1:1-17).6

Palestine, particularly Judea, is a plausible location for the document’s origin and/or destination (cf. Jerome, De vir. ill. 3), although a more popular suggestion is Syria, specifically Antioch. The earliest clear usage of Matthew’s Gospel comes from Antioch in the early 2nd-century writings of Ignatius (ca. 35-107), who made much use of the text (see Smyrn. 1.1; Eph. 19.1-3; Polc. 2.2). The Gospel fits well into the setting of Syrian Antioch, which had a large Jewish population, a well-established Christian community, and a church committed to the discipleship of all nations (cp. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 11:29; 13:1-3; 14:27-28; 15:40; 18:22-23). 

Contextual Layer #3: Matthew and His Reading Audience

Matthew was more than a biographer and historian. He was also an evangelist and theologian. While providing a reliable record of historical facts, he conveys doctrinal truth for developing faith in Christ and Christ’s teachings. The introduction of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1–4:16) is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, confirming Jesus of Nazareth as the long-anticipated fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. The extensive narrative that follows is interspersed with five major sections of discourse material, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7. 

Chronologically, geographically, socially, ethnically, and culturally, Matthew’s initial reading audience would not have been too far removed from Jesus’ original listening audience. The teachings and influence of Christ’s earthly ministry had reached as far north as Syria, as far south as Idumea, as far east as the Decapolis and Perea, and all in between (Matt. 4:24-25; Mark 3:7-8). It is highly improbable that the contents of the Sermon on the Mount were limited to a solitary speech on a single occasion. We would surely expect the Lord to have regularly and repeatedly shared this information on multiple occasions. Matthew has captured the essence of what Jesus characteristically taught.

Matthew’s inclusion of this lengthy discourse, absent from the other Gospels, is indicative of authorial selectivity. Each Gospel writer, according to his immediate purpose, at times focuses on certain details ignored by others or omits particular elements highlighted by others.7 Consideration of both the similarities and differences is especially informative when comparing Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount with Luke’s record of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). In Luke’s rendering of the beatitudes, blessings are pronounced on those who are literally poor and hungry (Luke 6:20-23), whereas Matthew’s record is more spiritually oriented (Matt. 5:3-12).

Rather than editorial modification, as some have suspected, authorial selectivity is more likely. Matthew and Luke emphasize different aspects of the Lord’s teachings for their respective readerships. Matthew’s inclusion of the Psalm 37:11 quotation, “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’” (Matt. 5:5), is particularly meaningful from a Jewish perspective. Luke’s account, directed to a non-Jewish audience, has no reference to it. Yet both include the Lord’s anticipatory assurance of the great reward in heaven (Matt. 5:12; Luke 6:23).

The Broader Christian Community

The striking parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the epistle of James demonstrate the ongoing influence of Christ’s teachings in the early church.8 Nevertheless, when Jesus preached this impactful sermon, it was not the time to impart exclusively Christian doctrine, nor was it the time to set aside the Mosaic Law (Matt. 5:17-29; 7:12), but it was necessary to address the fallacies of hypocritical leaders (5:20; 6:2, 5, 16; 7:15-20, 29) and prepare for the approaching kingdom (cf. 6:10, 33; 7:21).

During the Lord’s bodily presence on earth, God’s spiritual kingdom was soon to be realized, specifically within the lifetime of some of his personal disciples (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 16:28). Matthew and his readers, contemporaries of other NT writers and their readers, were in fact citizens of this promised kingdom as members of Christ’s church (Matt. 16:18-19). From the historical record of Acts 2 onwards, the church Jesus promised to build was existing and growing and recognized as “the kingdom of God.”9 

At the time Matthew’s Gospel was produced,10 the residents of the Roman provinces of Judea and Syria (later combined as Syria Palestina) were subjected to the governing control of Rome. Those resisting compromise with foreign occupiers and pagan influences were generally suppressed and marginalized. Much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount would have resonated with Matthew’s readers and other Christians at this time.

Concluding Thoughts

Why allude to Psalm 37:11? What significance would this have had to the respective audiences of the psalmist, of Jesus, and of Matthew? While the wicked appear to prosper, those deprived of dignity and resources seem to be missing out on the “good things” of this world. But the common theme of Psalm 37, the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s Gospel is that the righteous, even when disenfranchised by the world, are the ones to whom God’s kingdom belongs (Matt. 5:3, 10). It is in this radically transcendent kingdom, where the social boundaries of honor and shame are reversed, that divine favor, comfort, and provision are afforded.11

Matthew certainly does not overlook the Lord’s concern for people’s observable physical needs, but the primary focus is consistently heavenward in addressing their greater spiritual needs (cf. 9:6-8, 35-38; 12:28; 15:31). Matthew’s Jewish Christian community is repeatedly reminded of the enormous chasm between the earthly and the heavenly,12 the temporary and the eternal,13 the physical and the spiritual.14 It is in this context the statement is made: “Blessed are the meek, for ‘they shall inherit the land’.” A temporal land inheritance, as some modern interpreters suggest, would be a major disappointment!

--Kevin L. Moore

See K. L. Moore, Authorship of NT Gospels; also A Critical Introduction to the NT (Henderson, TN: Hester, 2009): 60-63.
     2 Matt. 2:20-21; 4:5; 5:35, 47; 6:7, 32; 10:6; 17:24-27; 18:17; 27:53.
     3 Matt. 5:22; 6:24; 16:17; 27:33, 46.
     4 Matt. 1:18-19; 2:1, 4, 22; 14:1; 17:24; 23:2; 26:3, 57, 59; 27:2, 11, 13.
     5 Matt. 1:1, 22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; 4:14-16; 5:17; 8:16-17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15, 35; 21:4-5; 26:63-64; 27:9-10.
     6 See K. L. Moore, Matthew's Audience, and Lineage of Jesus. The Lord’s recorded reference in the third person to “their synagogues” (10:17) is applicable to antagonistic nonbelieving Jews rather than implying anything about the ethnicity of Matthew’s readership. Compare the third person wording in 4:23; 9:35, and descriptions in 6:2, 5; 23:6, 34 of adversarial behavior in the synagogues.
     7 See K. L. Moore, Synoptic Confusion.
     8 See James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976): 21-22; Virgil V. Porter, Jr., “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1,” BibSac 162:647 (July 2005): 344-60; and “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 2,” BibSac 162:648 (Oct. 2005): 470-82.
     9 Acts 1:2-8; 2:1-47; 8:12; 14:21-22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; Eph. 2:19; Col. 1:13, 18; 4:11; Rev. 1:6, 9; 5:10. See K. L. Moore, The Kingdom of God (Part 3).
     10 See K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 64. While a number of scholars propose AD 80-90 for the writing of this Gospel, the present author favors a more conservative date in the mid-60s. This is based, in part, on the testimony of Irenaeus, who reports that Matthew penned his Gospel while both Paul and Peter were in Rome (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). The Magdalen Papyrus (P64), containing portions of Matthew 26, has been dated as early as ca. 66 (see Carsten P. Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus [NY: Doubleday, 1996]), although this controversial dating is disputed.
     11 See Seung Ai Yang, “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., eds. J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, and N. Perrin (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013): 847-48. Also K. L. Moore, Honor and Shame.
     12 Matt. 5:3, 10, 12-16, 34-35; 6:9-10, 19-21; 11:25; 16:19; 18:10, 18-19; 23:9; 25:31-46; 28:18.
     13 Matt. 5:18; 6:25-34; 7:13-14, 24-27; 10:22, 32-33; 11:20-24; 12:6-8; 23:21-22; 24:35
     14 Matt. 6:11-15, 22-23; 8:20; 9:2-8, 12-13, 15-17; 10:28; 11:28-30; 12:25-30, 39-45, 48-50; 16:6-12, 24-28; 17:20; 18:1-14; 19:14, 21-30; 21:21-22; 22:29-33; 23:13, 23; 26:26-29, 41.

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