A Return to Form | SL 5.1 (September 2023)
In this newsletter
- A Return to Form
- Work & Ministry Update
- For Your Consideration
- How to be Perfect: Matt 5:48 and the Christian Life
- Pray With Us
North East Dales, Yorkshire, vintage LNER travel poster by E. Byatt (1930)
September has been a month of transitions. The girls are back in school, the weather is starting to change, the days are getting shorter, university students are returning to Durham, and I have been slowly but surely settling into my new role teaching biblical studies with Crosslands Seminary.
The first two weeks of the month found me in the Peak District outside of Sheffield teaching on the Sermon on the Mount as part of our New Testament Introduction class. The setting was gorgeous (see photo collage below!) and we had over a hundred students from across the UK and into continental Europe present. The experience exceeded my expectations in every way. The teaching was fun. Students were engaged, the time flew by, and—most exciting—I could see the students wrestling with Jesus's words in Matthew 5–7.
At the Crosslands residential in the Peak District
At Crosslands our students are pushing into all manner of incredible ministry opportunities. If you want to read more about our mission, our partner, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a lovely profile on pp. 42–45 of their newest magazine (available online). Here are some examples: a young assistant pastor who hopes to plant a church on the South coast near Poole, a software engineer from Gothenburg, Sweden who is doing the course so he will be better equipped to be an elder in the church plant he serves, an evangelist working in the housing estates (read "projects") in Hull, a café owner from Cardiff who wants to be better equipped to serve her church in small group ministry, a pastor in Belfast working to revitalize a neighborhood church, a woman working in student ministry in South London, three young trainee ministers from Edinburgh who hope to serve as pastors in Scotland and France in the future.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus forcefully challenges our assumptions about the nature of salvation and the Christian life. He refuses to let us settle for externally-oriented self-righteousness, on the one hand, or for a cool rationalism that gets all the facts straight, on the other. Jesus is rather inviting us to follow him into a new way of being in the world—a relationship with our heavenly father—which he calls "the kingdom of heaven." It is all around us, but it is elusive, and yet following Christ and living in the kingdom of heaven is surely the foundation for any fruitful ministry. During some long and lively question and answer sessions, I was encouraged by the students' open wrestling with these ideas. The most satisfying moments come when I can see these students' paradigms being deepened and reformed by Scripture.
I love doing this work. Thank you for empowering it through your prayers and support.
Durham Cathedral with Castle, Country Durham, vintage LNER travel poster by Sydney Lee (1935)
- From now till Christmas my main goal will be learning the rhythms of my new role with Crosslands and getting comfortable with the flow of residentials, seminar days, marking papers, and preparing lectures.
- In October, I'll be heading down to London to lead my Crosslands tutor groups in our first seminar days. These days are a distinctive feature of the Crosslands program as we meet together for an all-day seminar to discuss the papers the students have written for their midterm.
- The students are back in Durham! This year Meghan and I are each mentoring four senior students/ministry trainees as they lead weekly small groups.
- I'm working on two papers for the the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in November. The first is on the role of law or torah in the book of Proverbs, and the second is called "What makes Yahweh laugh? Laughter and Emotion in the Hebrew Bible."
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, vintage LNER travel poster by William Russel Flint (1925)
I've been on a massive American roots music kick since the start of the Summer. The most engrossing book I've read in a while was The Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia. Gioia is a towering authority on the history of music and an engaging popular writer (he's got a killer Substack newsletter).
Here's an excerpt in which Carlos Santana describes a 1967 B.B. King concert:
I thought I knew a decent amount about the Blues, but I made many new discoveries and reveled in anecdote after anecdote. The artist that I have been the most captivated by is Skip James hands down. A distinctive bluesman, he tuned his guitar to open D minor and sang in a falsetto. His original recordings were made in the 1930s, but he quite the blues for over twenty years and moved to Texas where he was a preacher and helped his father start a seminary. Here's a video of James in 1966—after he was "rediscovered"—playing a song he wrote and recorded over 30 years earlier.
I love this. Here's a great collection to listen further.
Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear in Northumberland, vintage LNER travel poster by Frank Newbould (1939)
As famous as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is not easy to interpret. To take one (massive!) example, what could Jesus mean in Matthew 5:48 when he says "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect?" He can't actually mean he wants us to be like God, can he? He can't mean that we must be perfect to be saved, can he? Now, the way that many of us have been taught to understand this is that we are meant to realize that living out this verse is impossible. This realization is meant to make us "poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3) and this should drive us to Jesus Christ, ready to receive the gospel by faith. There is something to that, but it doesn't sit very well with the rest of the Sermon, where Jesus is clearly calling us to a virtuous life. So how can we possibly take Jesus seriously here?
Well, the Greek word translated "perfect" is actually difficult to render into English. Although it is often translated "perfect" (Rom 12:2; Jas 1:4, 25; 1 John 4:18), it is also commonly rendered as "mature" (1 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28). That should give you a sense for its scope. The Hebrew word that lies behind the idea has to do with being whole or complete. So the Passover lamb must be "perfect," or as it is often rendered, "without blemish" (Exod 12:5). Now, this does not mean that the lamb had to be the best-in-show, platonic ideal of the perfect lamb—every family in Israel had to find one of these! But what it means is that the lamb had to be whole, complete, without deformity, i.e., blind, lame, or sick. True, this word is often used to describe a moral quality. For example, Noah was "blameless in his generation" (Gen 6:9). But again, does blameless mean perfect, in the sense that he was sinless? Hardly. As the rabbis quipped, how great of a commendation is it really, to be the greatest man in the worst generation that ever lived? 1 Kings 11:4 gives us helpful perspective:
For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.
That phrase, "wholly true," here translates the idea that is rendered "blameless" in Gen 6:9 and "perfect" in Matt 5:45. Note that this is something that Solomon is held accountable to (1 Kings 8:61) and that David is said to have achieved. It isn't impossible, strictly speaking, even if it is a high calling. But more importantly we can start to see that it is much less about moral performance and much more about having a heart that is properly oriented toward God, looking and longing for him and his purposes. Conceptually, then, we are getting close to the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut 6:4–5), which Jesus, of course, identified as the greatest commandment (Matt 22:36–38).
When you back up and read through Matthew 5 leading up to verse 48, you can discern that this heart-deep orientation to God is Jesus's central theme. In each of Jesus's examples he takes a law from the Pentateuch and he draws out its implications for the heart. Murder and adultery take root in the heart first and have to be addressed there (Matt 5:21–30). Your attitude toward divorce, oaths, and issues of vengeance may conform to the letter of the law and still reveal a corrupted heart (Matt 5:31–42). Ultimately, love is the summation of the law because this reflects the Father's heart (Matt 5:43–47; see Rom 13:10).
Jesus brings all this to a point in v. 48. And the way he does this is notable. Structurally, v. 48 is nearly a direct quote from Lev 19:2:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
But Jesus has made a significant change, he has swapped out "holy" in Lev 19:2 for the word "perfect" or "blameless" (think "whole-hearted") here. Scholars believe that Deut 18:13 is the most likely source for this variation.
You shall be blameless before the LORD your God.
So why would Jesus swap these words? What is he driving at? Throughout the Sermon, Jesus is critiquing the Pharisees and a particular take on righteousness and law-keeping that majors on external particulars and misses the heart (see Matthew 23!). I suspect Jesus knows that if he quotes Lev 19:2, then the Pharisees will pat themselves on the back while most of us will feel demoralized. By switching the word "holy" for "perfect," Jesus drives at this idea of heart-deep love for God.
Jesus is not setting us an impossible command, he is calling us to a life that is wholly devoted to God. This is not external moralism with cold hearts, nor is this a set of facts to believe so that we'll be saved. This is life in the kingdom of heaven—it's a way of life now that follows Jesus and presses into the character of God. Life with God now, means life with God forever (Matt 7:23).
The interpretation I opened with above, where Jesus commands are impossible and intended mainly to show us our failings, is often called the Lutheran reading. To give Luther his due and show that theological giants are often far more nuanced thinkers than their followers, I'll give Luther's phenomenal comment on Matt 5:48 the last word:
How does it come about that they are perfect? The answer [...] is this: We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture “to be perfect” means, in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. Here, for example, the doctrine is that we should love not only those who do us good, but our enemies too. Now, whoever teaches this and lives according to this teaching, teaches and lives perfectly.
But the teaching and the life of the Jews were both imperfect and wrong, because they taught that they should love only their friends, and they lived accordingly. Such a love is chopped up and divided, it is only half a love. What He wants is an entire, whole, and undivided love, where one loves and helps his enemy as well as his friend. So I am called a truly perfect man, one who has and holds the doctrine in its entirety. Now, if my life does not measure up to this in every detail—as indeed it cannot, since flesh and blood incessantly hold it back—that does not detract from the perfection. Only we must keep striving for it, and moving and progressing toward it every day. This happens when the spirit is master over the flesh, holding it in check, subduing and restraining it, in order not to give it room to act contrary to this teaching. It happens when I let love move along on the true middle course, treating everyone alike and excluding no one. Then I have true Christian perfection, which is not restricted to special offices or stations, but is common to all Christians, and should be. It forms and fashions itself according to the example of the heavenly Father. He does not split or chop up His love and kindness, but by means of the sun and the rain He lets all men on earth enjoy them alike, none excluded, be he pious or wicked
(Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Vol 21: The Sermon on the Mount [Sermons] and the Magnificat, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan [St. Louis: Concordia, 1956], 67.)
To give credit where credit is due, my teaching on the Sermon on the Mount leaned heavily on Jonathan Pennington's excellent book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017). If you want to dig into a fresh and life-giving reading of the sermon at length, I highly recommend Pennington's book. For a shorter take, a few friends of mine did a nice podcast interview with Pennington on The Two Testaments.
Norwich Flower Market, Norfolk. LNER Vintage Travel Poster by William Lee-Hankey. 1935
- Thank you for your prayers over the Summer—we praise God for the many and varied ways that he continues to care for our little family.
- Please pray for me as I get settled into my new role with Crosslands. I am eager to establish some rhythms that allow me to be truly focused and productive in my work.
- Meghan and I would appreciate prayer as we think through settling down long term, lots of decisions here from buying a house to picking schools to church involvement, and we have some flexibility as to where we live in the UK—it's a lot to weigh out. We need wisdom and perspective.
- Pray for student ministry in Durham this year. As we endeavor to invest in these students may we show them the beauty of the LORD and the gospel in ways that bring fruit far beyond what we can foresee.
Thank you. Your prayers and support empower everything we do.