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The Servant Son Versus the Serpent Spirit

After being anointed as the new king by the Spirit descending from heaven, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, the most powerful evil spirit (Mt. 4:1-11).

Like the deceitful serpent in Gen. 3:1, the devil raises questions about what God has said. God has declared from the heavens that Jesus is the beloved son (in Mt. 3:17). So Satan subtly suggests that if Jesus is now the (royal) son of God (as God claims), he should not be suffering hunger in the desert. Real rulers are feasting; the lords of the earth live in luxury; he should command the stones to become bread.

Jesus responds with God’s earlier words (in Deut. 8:3) to Israel in the wilderness: people do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. So Jesus chooses to believe the word of God (in Deut. 8:3, and the words from heaven in Mt. 3:17)–and thus will remain God’s faithful servant king. He will not just be another greedy ruler of the earth, who values his own mouth more than God’s mouth (words).

So the serpent takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple complex in Jerusalem. This is where Satan thinks a new king in Israel should announce his presence. The present rulers there will not recognize his authority unless they see a special sign from heaven. Since Jesus is focused on God’s word, Satan again begins with “if you are the son of God,” but then adds words of God from Ps. 91:11-12. Such a sign as angels from heaven rescuing the jumping Jesus would prove to Jesus, and show all Jerusalem, that he really is the royal son of God who should become their king.

Jesus replies with other words from God (from Deut. 6:16): Do not test the Lord your God. The Lord has already spoken from heaven (Mt. 3:17); Jesus is already the royal son of God–anointed to rule by the Spirit from heaven. He does not need to prove this to himself, or to Jerusalem and its ruling fathers. The servant son will continue to please his heavenly Father.

If Jerusalem and Israel are not a big enough temptation, the serpent decides to offer all the nations. Now Jesus can be the greatest and richest king of the world (empire), if he falls down and worships Satan. This time Jesus quotes God’s words from Deut. 6:13; you shall worship the Lord your God, and shall serve only him. Rather than become the imperial king of a world empire (like Rome), Jesus will remain true to the voice from heaven and be a servant king who pleases God.

Jesus does not question that Satan is the spirit ruler of (the kingdoms of) this world, and has the power to give all the kingdoms of the earth to Jesus. Indeed, later on Jesus will refer to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 14:30; 16:11). Kings of the earth gain and maintain power and glory by cooperating with the ruler of this world. Like the ruling serpent, they deceive, seduce, and dominate in order to magnify themselves and their kingdoms.

Heaven’s new king commands Satan to leave; this king is even more powerful than “the ruler of this world.” Then (good) angels come to Jesus and serve him.

Heaven anoints the new king

When Jesus is baptized and ascends from the water, the heavens open and he sees the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove (Mt. 3:16). The same heavenly Spirit that conceived Jesus in his mother’s womb now anoints the Christ for his kingly rule in the new kingdom of heaven. This anointing from the heavens means the kingdom of (and from) the heavens has begun. In the Spirit, the new king will rule–giving new commands, promising new rewards, and gathering new followers.

After the Spirit rests on Jesus, a voice from the heavens announces, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am pleased” (Mt. 3:17). This confirms that Jesus is God’s anointed son; it fulfills on a new level the words of Psalm 2:7. In Ps. 2:2 the kings of the earth are against the Lord and his anointed one. In Ps. 2:4-7 the Lord enthroned in the heavens responds by laughing and decreeing to his new anointed king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

The voice from the heavens in Mt. 3:17 also remembers Isa. 42:1–about God’s servant, with whom God is pleased. God will put the Spirit on this servant and he will faithfully bring justice (righteousness) to the nations (Gentiles). (Isa. 42:1-4 is quoted later by Matthew in 12:17-21, where Jesus says he fulfills Isaiah’s words.) Jesus is the Spirit anointed king, the beloved son who will reign by faithfully serving and righteously pleasing his heavenly Father. His kingdom from heaven will gather righteous disciples from all over the earth.

The New King Among the Old Kings

The fathers of Israel listed in Mt. 1 lead to a focus on “David the king” (Mt. 1: 1,6,17), and the kings that descended from David (1: 6-11). The other focus then becomes “the exile to Babylon” (1: 11-12,17), God’s punishment for all the disobedient kings and their kingdom.

The climax of that genealogy, however, is the new king, “the Christ” (1: 1,16-17). After all the generations of fathers and sons (in 1:1-16), the final son is not conceived via an earthly father; the Christ is conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit (1:16,18). This anointed one will not be just another earthly king.

In Mt. 2, the new king quickly runs into trouble with king Herod, who rules in the city of David, Jerusalem (2:1). The news from the “wise men”–about a new king being born–leads Herod to gather all the chief priests (who rule over the temple) and scribes (who rule over the synagogues) in order to discover where the Christ was to be born (2:1-6). So all Jerusalem is troubled about this news, especially their wary rulers: Herod, the chief priests, and scribes.

Although the Romans were the highest authorities over Israel at that time, they allowed lesser rulers like Herod (and later his sons), the chief priests, and the scribes of the Pharisees to rule over most daily matters in Israel. The Jewish chief priests and scribes might not like Rome, but they compromised since Rome allowed them to wield significant power in Israel. Thus the new conflict, with the arrival of a Christ, pits heaven’s promised king–conceived by the Spirit from heaven, and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies–over against Israel’s compromised kings.

The new king from heaven must escape to Egypt due to the suspicions of the old kings of Israel. But this early trouble and conflict are only the beginning of what Jesus will face throughout his later ministry. The Son of God will face the sons of Herod and the other Jewish rulers as he begins to gather his new kingdom. He has come to save his people from their sins (1:21); but “his people” turn out to be “his disciples” (as in 5:1); his new kingdom will be an international kingdom of disciples who obey him through the grace of his empowering Spirit.

The Church’s Thanksgiving Meal

Today, on Thanksgiving, or during this Thanksgiving season, various churches will celebrate a thanksgiving feast, sometimes even inviting non-members who are poor or needy to join them. Such a mixture of diverse people sharing a bountiful meal together is meant to reflect the (supposed) original Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims and Indians in New England joined together to celebrate their harvest blessings. Even if there was such a feast, it was an exception to the rule: Pilgrims were more inclined to take over the land of the Indians than to share the harvests of the land with them.

As an annual holiday, the Thanksgiving feast of sharing a meal with extended family or even with the poor in a church is likewise more of an exception to the rule: our nuclear families and local churches are more inclined to feast among ourselves, with little thought of sharing with others. Some churches do have church pantries where they give limited amounts of certain kinds of food to the poor once a week or once a month. Yet, rather than a shared meal together, the dynamics are more about church volunteers being the givers to people they don’t really know, who are expected to be thankful to their givers (and perhaps come to their church, to fill up empty pews–pews where people don’t really interact together).

In 1 Cor. 11:17-34 Paul gives an extended description of how the church was–or should be–eating the Lord’s supper. Some churches now refer to this supper as the eucharist. The Greek verb eucharisteo is about giving thanks. The original model Paul depicts is Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and telling his disciples, “This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me” (11:23-24). That original setting was Jesus and his disciples eating bread and drinking from the cup as part of a supper or meal. Likewise, in 11:20-22, the church was eating a meal; but those who brought most of the food went ahead and ate before those who had little food arrived. As a result, the “early birds” became drunk with the wine of the cup, while the late comers remained hungry. Paul concludes that this is not eating the Lord’s supper; this is just the usual neglect of, and even contempt for, those who have less by those who have more.

The sharing of food as part of the Lord’s supper eventually led to the giving of a small morsel of bread (or a “wafer”) to each church member by a member of their clergy. This ritual could give thanks for the gift of Jesus and his body given in death for their sins; but it still was not really the Lord’s supper. For it was done along with the usual neglect of, and even contempt for, those who have less by those who have more. Supposedly their sins of arrogance and malice would be forgiven through this ritual. But Paul said those who ate the bread and drank the cup without discerning the body (the body that includes those who have less food) would eat and drink judgment upon themselves (11:29).

Justification

Martin Luther transformed Paul’s teaching about justification into a Protestant dogma about salvation. For Luther, salvation meant being saved from his guilt through the forgiveness found only in Christ’s death. This salvation was then equated with justification, understood as Christ’s righteousness (especially his sacrificial death) being imputed to the sinner–who then continued to be a sinner, albeit a justified sinner, a saved sinner.

The result is a long history of Protestant churches who preached “cheap grace.” The grace of justification could be received by simple confession of sin and belief in Jesus’ death as the means of becoming righteous. Accept Jesus as your personal Savior and your sins will be forgiven and you will be saved for eternity.

Luther was the first to separate justification (and salvation) from regeneration. One could become a Christian with no expectation of being transformed by God into a new creation, into a child of God who has the Spirit and is led by the Spirit of Christ. Luther’s reductionism isolated a partial view of justification (“reckoned as righteous”) to the point that Paul’s full teaching on righteousness/justification was downplayed. Thus Rom. 3 and 4–about justification through Christ’s death and Abraham’s justification of being reckoned as righteous–were elevated far above Rom. 2 and 6.

For in Rom. 2:13 Paul writes that it is the doers of the law (of Moses) that will be justified. This relates to final judgment, a final reckoning, but note that it takes seriously what one does. God’s righteous judgment will give to every one according to his works, to what one has done (2:5-6). In Rom. 6:4 Paul says baptism (the very beginning of being a Christian) includes dying and rising with Christ, with the result that one then walks according to a new way of life. Such a one is no longer enslaved by sin; instead, having died with Christ, one is “freed” from sin (6:6-7). The Greek word translated “freed” in many translations (in 6:7) is the same word translated as justified earlier in Romans. Even in Rom. 3 justification is linked with “redemption,” a word used especially for being freed from slavery (3:24). In Rom. 6:12-23 this new life is a life of righteousness and sanctification/holiness; having been set free from slavery to sin, one can now–through the power of God’s grace–become obedient to the teaching of Paul and Christ (who affirm only a small part of the law of Moses).

Rom. 8 is a beautiful commentary on Rom. 5:6 (God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us). Because of this powerful grace of the Spirit, the “righteous requirement” of the law (of Moses), namely, “love” (as summarized by Jesus–love your neighbor–and by Paul, in Rom. 13:8-10) can be fulfilled in us, who walk according to the Spirit. This is so important to simply being a Christian that Paul can say in Rom. 8:9 that “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” So, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (8:14).

All of this is what Paul means by righteousness and salvation–and justification.

Jesus’ Dad

As he nears death, Jesus prays in the garden to “Abba” (in Mk. 14:36). This Aramaic word was originally used by infants to address their daddy; but by Jesus’ time it was also used by adults as an endearing word to address their dad. When Jesus addresses his dear Dad, he does so as an obedient son–“not what I want, but what you want.”

The Old Testament never uses Abba; instead the more formal “Abi” (my Father) is found. When used for God, Abi is found in only 15 passages and refers to God as the Father of Israel (where often Israel is depicted as a disobedient son, for example in Deut. 32:6) or as the Father of the king of Israel (as promised to David and his son in 2 Sam. 7:14, which adds that when this son sins, the Father will punish him).

Besides Mk. 14:36, Abba is also used in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6; in all three the Aramaic Abba is followed by the Greek “pater.” Those addressing God as Abba-pater confirm they are children of God; and all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (Rom. 8:14-16). Unlike most of Israel, and unlike most of Israel’s kings, these children are obedient, as the Spirit leads them. Thus all true disciples of Jesus are Spirit-led obedient children of their heavenly Dad.

Whenever the Greek word pater is used in the New Testament for the heavenly Father of Jesus or his disciples, one should also think of Abba, Dad. Indeed, the New Testament overflows with passages that refer to God as the Dad of Jesus–and as the Dad of Jesus’ disciples. In Mt. 11:27, Jesus tells his disciples that “no one knows the Dad except the son and any one to whom the son chooses to reveal him.” Such language is most similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, which refers to Jesus’ Dad around 100 times. In Jn. 14, which uses “Dad” for God 23 times, Jesus tells his disciples “no one comes to the Dad except through me” (14:6). Jesus’ new revelation of Abba will lead to many other children coming to this same Dad.

While earlier faithful forefathers and pious prophets in Israel will be in the heavenly kingdom of Israel’s Father, only Jesus and his disciples now know this Father as Dad. Jesus’ disciples will be born from above, born of the Spirit, so that they become obedient children of their heavenly Dad. To all who received him (the “Word made flesh”), Jesus gave power/authority to become children of God (Jn. 1:12-14). Now the powerful Spirit not only comes and remains on Jesus, the Son of God (Jn. 1:32-34); the Spirit of truth will also be given to disciples, and remain with them and in them (Jn. 14:16-17). Through the Spirit, God’s beloved children all over the world will remain close to their Dad, and remain faithful children as they follow the “agape” (loving) way of their king, the Son of God.

One of the Least of These Commandments

While the fulfillment of Mt. 5:17-18 emphasizes all the events the law and prophets prophesied would come to pass before heaven and earth pass away, the fulfillment of the law and prophets will also include commands. In Mt. 5:19 Jesus refers to the least of these commands. Most interpreters think of 5:18 and the smallest letters or marks of the law of Moses. But 5:18 is about what events, not what laws, will come to pass, will happen, in the future.

So what commands is Jesus talking about? Has he given any commands yet? Yes indeed, in the verse immediately before 5:17, Jesus commands his disciples to let their light shine before men (5:16). This command will fulfill their being the light of the world (5:14). And this expanded vision of the world beyond Israel, his new international kingdom, is what leads to his words in 5:17-19 about how he comes to fulfill, not destroy, the law and the prophets of the kingdom of Israel.

In 4:14-16 Jesus says he is fulfilling the prophet Isaiah by being the great light that Galilee of the Gentiles now sees. This is reinforced later in Mt. 12:17-21, where Jesus again says he is fulfilling the prophet Isaiah by proclaiming justice (righteousness) to the Gentiles, who will find hope in him. So Jesus’ fulfillment means a new world mission, and a new worldwide kingdom. This is the basis for his new command in 5:16.

This command could also be (dis)regarded as the least of his commands by Jewish disciples who have grown up hating Gentiles. When a scribe (teacher) of the Pharisees later asks Jesus what is the great command in the law, Jesus quotes Deut. 6:5 (love God with all your heart, soul, and mind) and Lev. 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself). When Jesus refers to this (second) great command in Mt. 5:43, he adds another (former command): “and hate your enemies.”

The main enemies the law (of Moses) says to avoid, or to destroy, are the Gentiles, especially those living in the promised land (for example, Lev. 20:23-24; 26:6-8). Lev. 19:18 defines the neighbor (in “love your neighbor”) as “the sons of your own people.” So early on, in Jesus’ new kingdom, Jewish disciples have trouble reconciling his new commands about reaching out to Gentiles, to the world, and their traditions and laws about hating Gentiles.

Some Jewish disciples might (and will) decide that this command about being light to the world is the least of their concerns. Jesus warns such disciples: they will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). Only disciples who do and teach such difficult commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Shortly, in 5:21-48, Jesus will give more new commands; these will also fulfill–“fill out” and sometimes replace–several of the most basic commands of Moses. Jesus’ disciples must take all these new commands seriously if they are to receive their reward in the end. Disciples who do and teach even the least of these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). Jesus is talking about his commands and rewards in the kingdom of heaven, not the commands and rewards of Moses in the kingdom of Israel.

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