Complex Pharisees: Literature and History

TissotOne of the first sermons I can remember hearing as a young Christian, possibly even as an unbeliever, was an exposition of Luke 18:9-14, where Luke recounts a stinging parable aimed at the Pharisees. In that sermon, our preacher took a sledgehammer to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves before God through works-based righteousness. He then pleaded with us to confidently take hold of Christ’s imputed righteousness by faith. Now, do not mishear me: Jesus clearly strikes at justification through works, and concludes the parable by telling us that the tax collector went away justified, apart from works. But we must avoid the lure of reductionism. For this parable is also told to the righteous who had become condescending (18:9), who may or may not have held a warped view of their works’ value in the economy of salvation. Furthermore, even legalism is more complex than we often tend to allow for. Basically, we must be wary if works-righteousness and a reductionistic legalism are the only applications tied to Gospel episodes involving the Pharisees.

In my previous post in this series, In Defence of the Pharisees, I argued against an oversimplified view of the Pharisees that Jesus met in the Gospels. I suggested one of the reasons for this view is that we have inherited an interpretation of the Gospels from the Reformers, who drew too strong a line between the gross legalism of the medieval Catholic Church and the Jewish sect of the Pharisees. The two points I made in response were: (1) Israel’s religious observance was not irreconcilable with God’s grace and (2) the Pharisees’ fastidious piety became a source of pride when it should have daily reminded them of their need for God’s grace. I then concluded with an appeal, to all those who handle the Gospels, for careful exegetical and historical attention. Under the next two headings I will address both of those areas by considering the literary nature of the Gospels and their historical milieu.


Book of KellsIn his essay on the Jewish leaders, in Jesus Among His Friends and Enemies, Anthony Le Donne discusses a few key considerations for reading the Gospels and draws our attention to narrativization. That is, we must bear in mind that the Gospels come to us in the form of stories, revised history; “When telling stories, narrators produce accounts that fall into typical patterns. These patterns obscure certain details, focus on others, embellish/invent themes and motifs, and dramatically restructure time lines.” In my opinion – though others would disagree – this does not mean that the Gospels are less than reliable historical accounts. But narrativization, “the process of creating a story,” means that the Evangelists’ material was shaped. Therefore, as Le Donne states, “The process of storytelling reduces and dulls our picture of the Jewish leaders.” Despite the many pitfalls of literary criticism, Le Donne’s point encourages a more careful reading of the Jesus event as story and understanding the characters within the plot (I attempted to do this with John’s Gospel, here). In my previous post I appealed for a more careful exegesis of the Gospel texts; part of doing that is to read them as narratives and the Pharisees as antagonists, whose simplicity and opposition helps us interpret Jesus’ life, teaching, and mission. When we turn the Pharisees into singularly flat characters we lose out on the richness of the Gospels.

Historical complexity

Secondly, N. T. Wright, in his outstanding The New Testament and the People of God, highlights the Herculean task of presenting and understanding the Pharisees with historical precision. Wright notes that the Pharisees spanned over 300 years: they originally arose as a political pressure group during the Maccabean revolt; later they became an entrenched de facto political group under the Hasmoneans; and through the Herodian dynasty they retained an intense and zealous ardour for Israel’s freedom from pagan practices and rule. Some have therefore argued that over those three centuries the Pharisees’ interests shifted from the political to the pious. Wright shows that up until the utter ruin of Jerusalem in 135CE many Pharisees were undoubtedly engaged in civil unrest and revolt. The Pharisees are historically complex, zealous for Israel’s liberation from foreign rule and the maintenance of stringent religious purity. As we interpret the Gospels we must remember this duality. The political ambitions of the Pharisees do much for our understanding of certain episodes in the Gospels, episodes that make little sense if the Pharisees were purely troubled by Jesus’ liberal love and message of free forgiveness.

It is my hope to write another post (or few) in this series that will offer my own observations in reading the Gospels. But if you are interested, which you must be if the made it through this spectacularly dull post, then why not commence your own study on the Pharisees in the Gospels, always considering their literary and historical context.

Who is the Son of God?

Son of GodNot a bad question if you live in the first century. Most Christians today will tell you without hesitating that the answer to that question is Jesus. What’s interesting is the diversity of meaning once held by a title that today has so singular a meaning. Even though in the Old Testament no individual ever addresses God as “Father”, the reality is that the term existed before the incarnation (and was sometimes used of ‘incarnate’ pagan gods). The question is, if we were to ask a Jew in the first century BC who the son of God was, what would s/he tell you?


The easiest answer to comprehend or accept for us 21st century Christians is probably the idea that Adam was understood to be the son of God. Consider Luke 3:38, the end of Jesus’ genealogy. Having listed off the various sons of sons through David, Abraham and Noah we come to the last father: Adam. Except Adam is not the last Father. Because we read that Adam is in fact, “the son of God”. The surprise here is not that Adam is the Son of God, but that Jesus is and that Jesus is a son like no other (see Luke 3:22)!


In Job 1:6 we read that “the day came when the sons of God presented themselves before YHWH and the Adversary was with them” and as we continue reading we realise that we are watching a scene unfold in the throneroom of heaven and these sons of God must be angels with Satan/the Adversary, the angelic being, among them. The NET Notes on this verse are illuminating,

They are not actually “sons” of Elohim; the idiom is a poetic way of describing their nature and relationship to God. The phrase indicates their supernatural nature, and their submission to God as the sovereign Lord. It may be classified as a genitive that expresses how individuals belong to a certain class or type, i.e., the supernatural (GKC 418 §128.v). In the pagan literature, especially of Ugarit, “the sons of God” refers to the lesser gods or deities of the pantheon.

In his Study Bible, John Macarthur claims that sons of God are “identified elsewhere almost exclusively as angels” and cites the three occurrences from Job. This is, however, an overstatement. Job is the only clear biblical presentation of this usage. Nevertheless, to an ancient Israelite “sons of God” could be an angelic reference.


Perhaps one of the surprising answers to the question posed is that the nation of Israel is understood to be the son of God. In Exodus 4:22 YHWH is telling Moses how the plagues will play out and it culminates in the instruction to tell Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” and on that basis, Israel should be freed to worship. The final plague, the death of the firstborn is, therefore, justified on the basis of aspect of Israel’s identity “since you have refused to let him [my son] go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!” (Exodus 4:23).

Likewise Jeremiah 31 expresses the same understanding of Israel’s identity. The images are mixed among the picture of Israel as a virgin but in 31:9 we read,

I will bring them back praying prayers of repentance.
I will lead them besides streams of water,
along smooth paths where they will never stumble.
I will do this because I am Israel’s father;
Ephraim is my firstborn son.

So in addition to Adam and angelic beings, Israel is also on occasion referred to as God’s son.


As we read the Old Testament we discover one further somewhat unexpected referent of “son of God”. While the Psalms are littered with this sort of reference the most evocative reference is surely 2 Samuel 7 in which YHWH promises David in verse 12,

When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom.

But most significantly verse 14,

I will become his father and he will become my son.

So the King of Israel, God’s king for God’s people could also be referred to as the son of God.


Finally, one important factor that we would be remiss to overlook is the fact that first century Israel was under Roman occupation. This meant that the idea of who the son of God was did not stem only from Jewish tradition but also from the Graeco-Roman context. NT Wright puts it beautifully in his Simply Jesus saying that Octavian, having won the power struggle,

He declared that his adoptive father, Julius, had indeed become divine; this meant that he, Augustus Octavian Caesar, was now officially ‘son of god’, ‘son of the divine Julius’.

Wright continues, describing a coin on his desk engraved with a depiction of Tiberius,

On the front, encircling Tiberius’s portrait, is the abbreviated title: AUGUSTUS TI CAESAE DIVI AUG F, short for, AUGUSTUS TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. On the reverse is a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title Pontifex Maximus. It was a coin like this one that they showed to Jesus of Nazareth, a day or two after he had ridden into Jerusalem, when they asked him whether or not they should pay tribute to Caesar.

In other words in the first century, one important answer to the question, “who is the son of god?” was certainly, “Caesar”.

Nephilim & the sons of God (Genesis 6)

NephilimNow when we reach Genesis 6 and we read in verse 2 that, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose,” we need to figure out who the sons of God are. Especially since the passage continues with one of the most enigmatic biblical references, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days … when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children.” So the question “who were the Nephilim” is entwined with the question of who the sons of God were.

MacArthur explains Nephilim by the etymological root of the term as “fallen ones” and therefore also explains sons of God as fallen angels (he cites Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4,5 – neither of which are clearly about this passage let alone use parallel terms). It is doesn’t make much sense to think of angelic beings and humans reproducing.

Another popular explanation is that the sons of God are the ‘godly’ line of Seth – as opposed to the godless line of Cain. Of course, this use of the term is entirely unattested. Diving into such a view also suffers the theological belly flop of producing sinless people after the fall.

To interpret the sons of God as kings, however, parallels its later usage and makes pretty good sense of the text. We find that the mighty men, men of renown, are their descendants. What we often forget is that the primary measure of leadership today has nothing to do with physical strength because today brain normally beats brawn. In the ancient world, however, this would not have been the case. So if the sons of God were kings they would have probably been tough guys, probably bearing the genetic material to produce “men of renown”. The one thing left unsolved by this explanation is the reason for the term “Nephilim” but since the meaning “fallen ones” is basically a guess, I don’t think it’s a major loss to say we’ve lost the significance of the term.

So there you have it, the simplest and neatest (and most Ockham’s Razorly) explanation of the sons of God in Genesis 6 is that sons of God refers to kings and the Nephilim are their big children. There is, however, something far more exciting that we find by tracing the uses of sons of God.

The Son of God in Biblical Theology

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedWhile there is diversity to the term “son of God”, within the diversity there is something quite spectacular going on with this elusive character. You see ultimately Christians have forgotten all these other usages in favour of one much later usage: Jesus.

The cool thing about Jesus being the son of God is that he is the second Adam. That’s important because in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive. So Jesus needs to be the son of God like that.

Another cool thing is that Jesus being the son of God lines up pretty neatly with his representative headship over the people of God. Calling Israel the son of God is kind of like calling Jesus the son of God because the significance of the designation is in the special calling and relationship with God.

Similarly, calling a king the “son of God” had to do with the king’s position of headship over God’s people. In the case of Jesus, Jesus as the true king of Israel is again in this sense the “son of God”.

Jesus completes each of these meanings by bringing them to fulfilment in himself. He is the true Adam who never sins, the true Israel who never rebels and the true king of God’s kingdom who leads rightly. Jesus walks righteously with God and earns his headship and our righteousness, qualifying him as the son of God. But he is more than any of these shadows because Jesus is, in all his fullness, ultimately God the Son.

Thoughts on Sodom, the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, & Kingdom Theology

Gay marriageFrom time to time my church runs a type of ‘think tank,’ lead by a member of staff. We discuss culture, ethics and the Christian worldview, along with our approach to the secular world. A few weeks back we considered the same-sex marriage debate. I do realise that this is much more than a topical debate for many and because of its sensitive (as well as volatile) nature I encourage generous reading. I have written previously on the topic of homosexuality, here, but I am always hesitant to because of the milieu of warring factions and wounded people. So by way of preface, let me say that this post is an attempt to answer whether Christians should impose a Christian sexual ethic on our governments or culture, those outside the auspices of the church and Christ’s lordship.

As many discussions on homosexuality often tend to go, someone reached back into the Old Testament and brought up – ‘brought out’? – Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). ‘These events clearly show that homosexual relations signify the near death and utter derailment of society; Sodom and Gomorrah had to be wiped out. And the unruly time of Judges ends up at this same dire situation: homosexuals run rampant, indicating that society is all but lost (Judges 19).’ But is that really what these passages are about? Do these two instances pinpoint homosexuality as the terminus of a godless society? A terminus which we should attempt to spare our society from? To put it crudely, quoting Kim Fabricius, both incidents are “about gang-bangs”. If one turns up Ezekiel 16:49-50 these debauched events are brought into clearer light. As Andrew Marin says, “[they] are described as overfed, unconcerned, nonjustice-minded people who tried to potentially and literally rape their guests”. These passages are not directly addressing the issue of homosexuality. Though, I do believe they model people who did not know Yahweh or had wandered far into idolatry.

Sodom & GomorrahTheir idolatry had carried them into unrighteousness, godless orgies, and passionate inhospitality, a fair description of culture through history. Idolatry, the worshiping of other gods – along with or apart from Yahweh – was the root cause not only of their immorality but also their judgment. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 11 thunder loudly against those who would use these stories to argue that we should save our society from sin by imposing regulative Scriptural ethics. To quote our Lord, “It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (11:24), ‘you’ being those who did not repent at the preaching of the kingdom of God (11:20), the heralding of Jesus the Messiah (11:2). Where does this leave us? To exaggerate the implication of our desire to impose Christian ethics on our secular society: we should lobby against religious freedom. Surely our biggest concern should align with Jesus’. In which case let us not go halfway in merely enforcing biblical sexual ethics; let us demand allegiance to Christ our Lord and remove the space for idolatrous beliefs and religions.

David VanDrunen's bookBut there is another question, which in my opinion bears significantly on this discussion: the two-kingdoms debate. Having recently read a few titles from N.T. Wright and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms I realised that the conversation about Christianity and culture shares massive points of contact with the same-sex marriage debate. I appreciate that those belonging to both positions possess a more nuanced theology than those summarised from Wright and VanDrunen and outlined (below). But for the sake of the larger question at hand I will favour reductionism.

Wright – a major proponent of the redemptive transformation of culture, or the one-kingdom approach – argues that Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom and that the kingdom project is continued by Christians bearing witness to Jesus’ lordship and holding authorities accountable to it (p223, Simply Jesus). While we do not oppose everything that the government does we must critique, denounce, and speak up where need be (p224). That is how Jesus exercises his sovereignty today and makes his kingdom a reality.

On the other hand we have the two-kingdoms approach, which distinguishes between the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, the common and redemptive kingdoms. Within this view it is held that we do not impose Scripture’s authority onto the common kingdom for the church must tend to its God-given business in announcing God’s salvation (p31, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms). Despite VanDrunen’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, in his discussion on politics (p194-203), politics belong undeniably within the realm of the common kingdom (p194). This must mean that in matters of ethics and the authority of Scripture we cannot justify imposing Christian morality and norms. Misty Irons helpfully reminds us that Christ’s lordship is the very reason we can submit to the government, Christian or not. She strongly challenges the devotion of our energies into legislating the Bible. She is, I think, much more consistent in praxis with her two-kingdoms theology than VanDrunen is with his.

Andrew Marin's bookSo what is our place in the debate? Before anything else we need to figure out whether we hold to the redemptive view of culture or belong to the redemptive kingdom. And to potentially disregard the question entirely, having recently read Andrew Marin’s book, Love is an Orientation, I am convinced our primary role in the world is not legislation. Nor is it retreat. It is gospel proclamation. Andrew Marin says, “The way forward with the GLBT community is not a debate on the Bible’s statements about same-sex sexual behavior but a discussion of how to have an intimate…relationship with the Father and Judge.” If we wish to speak out then we should take the line Justin Welby recently did, and many others have: ask what is best for society at large. Will a redefinition of marriage undermine families as the base communities and cornerstone of society, a normative place for child rearing, and the idea of marriage as a covenant? That is a question for another blog post.

How can God become King? The Son of God and Jesus Christ

Revelation graphic novel: Jesus

Recently I reread N.T. Wright’s small but helpful book on worship, For All God’s Worth. This practically rich and theologically thought-provoking book was written when Wright was the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, and many of the chapters are adapted from sermons he preached there. The question I’m hoping to answer in this post arose from one of Wright’s statement: ‘the events of Jesus’ life – specifically his death and resurrection – announced God was at last becoming King’ (this is no doubt expounded at length in his newer book, How God Became King, which I unfortunately am yet to get my hands on). We know from Wright’s theology at large that in the gospels we encounter the climax of Israel’s story, as God enters history to fulfil his promises and accomplish his plan to restore creation. But does that mean that God becomes King? Or rather, did God only become King when the second person of the Trinity became incarnate?

The answer that I am going to suggest is drawn from David Seccombe’s book, The King Of God’s Kingdom,as well as lecture notes from his course, Jesus And The Gospels. The answer is also brief, perhaps because it is unfinished, and will hopefully serve as an appetiser to get you thinking about and discussing the question. Please share your thoughts with me if you have any, and perhaps a more complete answer can be offered with time. I will point out just two things in attempting my answer.

Seccombe: The puzzle of JesusFirstly, ‘Messiah’ is not a synonym for ‘God.’ Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah is different to, though not divorced from, his divinity. The gospel writers devote much of their narratives to proving that Jesus was the Messiah, or Christ. But we shouldn’t confuse that with his divinity (which is a crucial point to remember when preaching the gospels.) Jesus was the eternal God incarnate, an embattled but almost assumed point throughout the gospels. On the other hand, the narratives herald the massive upheaval which was occurring at that point in history: the Messiah had come. The momentous change that saw God take on flesh should prepare us for the unfolding of the New Testament where – at least in some way – God was becoming King.

Secondly, looking at the previous point from another angle, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God breaking into our world. Before his ministry the kingdom was not fully present on earth for, despite his sovereignty, God’s kingship is rejected by humanity. God was re-establishing his lordship over creation, finally and fully, in the ministry of Jesus Christ. As the kingdom of God promises a new state of affairs, a new age, it will be established by the long awaited King who will rule in peace and justice. And so while God’s universal kingship is constant, unchallenged and everlasting, human disobedience, the source of evil and suffering in our broken world, is being brought to an end with God becoming King on earth and establishing righteousness.

I apologise if that doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, I never promised it would. But it is apparent from Seccombe that Wright is close to the mark. A responsible reading of the gospel narratives leaves us with the undeniable notion that a cosmic power shift is taking place, and Jesus is at its centre.

What is the Gospel: Back to and Beyond Eden

What is the Gospel? by Greg GilbertWhat is the Gospel? When I think over my time at college I can see a definite movement in the way that I would respond to this question. There is of course the small booklet by Greg Gilbert “What is the Gospel” which outlines the answer with which I arrived at college. He boils it down to God, Man, Christ, Response. Or, to skip the explanations, he boils the Gospel down to “salvation”.

In the last few years it has been in vogue to talk about the Gospel as being something broader than salvation. Scot McKnight incited plenty of debate in the evangelical blogosphere with his “King Jesus Gospel”  and of course NT Wright has been saying the same sort of thing for some time now. In an interview with Trevin Wax Wright describes the Gospel as:

God is becoming King and he is doing it through Jesus! And therefore, phew! God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s world is going to be renewed.

In other words, the Gospel is not just about salvation (which, in these terms would be submission to Christ’s lordship), it is about the renewal of the world.

Not to follow the crowd, I think there is something to be said for this broader view. Imagine evangelism in which the offer of the Gospel is not only the promise of an invisible inward change but the promise that the world around you will escape the corruption of sin. The world around you will be filled with the colours of promise and hope. Of course, there is inward change. Of course, there is submission to Christ’s lordship. Of course, the Gospel includes and, perhaps, centers around salvation. Without these the Gospel may as well be the next NGO, they are essential. But the Gospel is God’s plan for the universe.

Tree of LifeEver since expulsion from Eden, the world has been groaning. This view of the Gospel is that God plans to restore the world around us to an Edenic state, where everywhere you look, what you see is good. It’s not just back to Eden though, the Gospel takes us beyond Eden. This is Eden 2.0 in which God has redeemed a people for himself from a world of corruption and rebellion and restored them to the point of indelible perfection.

The Gospel is the bellowing voice of God in reply to a world molested by evil. It is his saying, “Thus far you will come and no further.” It is an answer that he responded with in Genesis 3 that promises the overthrow of evil, the wiping away of every tear and life as he designed it. It is an answer that we will see come to fruition when Christmas comes again – when Jesus comes to earth a second time, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The Gospel is God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.