Category Archive: Bible – NT
Everything I wrote about the characterization of Peter goes double for the characterization of James and John, who seem to be taken as a couple of hotheads on the basis of one — count it: one — incident in which they asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire on an inhospitable Samaritan village (Luke 9:54).
Oh, yes. There’s also the name Jesus gives them: “Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Some people immediately link that name up with the later event in Luke 9:54 and say, “See? That’s why Jesus gave them that name. They were rash and impetuous and hotheaded.” And since Luke 9 happened after Mark 3, they have to add either the claim that Jesus foresaw that they would say what they did in Luke 9 and named them on the basis of that foresight or the claim that the behavior exhibited in Luke 9 was characteristic so that they were already displaying that sort of hotheadedness at the time Jesus named them.
But there’s no reason at all to see Luke 9 as the basis of the name “Sons of Thunder.” In fact, there is no reason to take “Sons of Thunder” negatively at all, let alone to understand it as a reference to rashness or hotheadedness. Going further, there is no reason to take that name as referring to anything in James and John’s character at the time that Jesus named them.
Jesus gives new names to only three of his disciples and he does so at the same time. Simon he names Peter, not because Simon was already such a solid rock but because Jesus intended to make him into a rock who would be a foundation stone for the church. Just as by changing Abram’s name to Abraham and changing Sarai’s name to Sarah, Yahweh was making them into new people, the parents of the child of the promise, so by naming Simon “Rock” Jesus was making him into a rock, revealing in the name the plan he had for Simon.
But if that’s true of Simon’s new name, then the parallel suggests that it’s also true with James and John’s new name. “Sons of Thunder” is not a description of who they already were, nor is it a description of some foolishness or wickedness in their character that Jesus would have to change. Rather, it’s a description of who Jesus was going to make them to be.
What the name exactly means is disputed by commentators, but many associate it with God’s thunderous voice and with his judgment (Ex 9:23, 28, 29, 33, 34; 19:16; 20:18; 1 Sam 2:10; 7:10; 12:17, 18; 22:14; Job 26:14; 36:29, 33; 37:2, 4, 5; 40:9; Ps 18:13; 29:3; 77:18; 81:7; 104:7; Isa 29:6; Ezek 3:12, 13; John 12:29; Rev 4:5; 10: 3, 4 [this Angel is Jesus]; 11:19; 14:2). So it seems possible that Jesus is identifying James and John as two witnesses whose speech will be thunderous like God’s speech and will administer God’s judgment, for salvation for his people but destruction for his enemies.
That said, what James and John suggest in Luke 9 — fire from heaven, like lightning associated with thunder — could be seen as a perversion of their name. Just as Simon is supposed to be a rock, but is anything but when he rebukes Jesus, so James and John are supposed to be sons of thunder but are in danger of abusing their calling. Luke 9 is not the time and place for that sort of judgment to come from the sons of thunder, and James and John need to learn from Jesus the right way of responding — and the right time and to call down God’s fire from heaven.
Today, as I was driving to work, I happened to overhear some men on the radio speaking about Peter and referring to him as “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.” Good ol’ Peter. We all love him, they were saying, because he’s the guy who’s always blurting things out, always doing the wrong thing.
So they said. But I began to wonder. Of course, they listed their evidence: Peter’s demand to walk on the water to Jesus, followed by his subsequent sinking; Peter’s rebuking Jesus and receiving a rebuke in return; Peter’s insistence that he would never deny Jesus, followed by his doing just that; Peter’s “Of course I love you” after the resurrection, followed by repeated questions about that love and instructions to feed the sheep; Peter’s question about whether John would live till Jesus’ coming. I suppose they could have added Peter’s comment about building tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration. They even included Peter’s proposal to elect another apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1), indication (in their words) that Peter was almost ADHD: Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem, but Peter’s squirmy and can’t just wait but has to do something (by implication: something foolish) instead.
And then they reached their conclusion: All of that changed at Pentecost, when Peter gave his great sermon and went on to write his epistles and became a truly wise man. The application? Peter’s a lot like us — a guy who blunders around and puts his foot in his mouth — and if God could use him, he can use us too.
Well, I don’t deny that God can use people who have had foot-shaped mouths. But I wonder if that description really fits Peter. For one thing, I note that it’s after Pentecost that Peter has his “blunder” with regard to Jew-Gentile relations and receives a rebuke from Paul, which damages their narrative: it turns out that Pentecost didn’t leave Peter as a man who never blundered again. For another thing, some of the things the guys on the radio pointed to as evidence don’t seem like evidence to me: I see no foolishness in Peter’s proposal in Acts 1, grounded as it was in Scripture (“Let another take his office”).
But it’s not just that I dispute some of the evidence presented. I wonder, too, about this characterization of Peter before Pentecost. Is it really true that Peter was, as he is so often presented, a rough-and-ready guy, always putting his foot in it, always getting everything wrong, like a big puppy, tongue flapping, knocking everything down as he skips and hops around his master?
It’s true that Peter sometimes did make mistakes. He was wrong to rebuke Jesus for talking about his death. But just before that happened, Peter was emphatically right when he said that Jesus was the Christ. Far from being routinely foolish, Peter was a leader among the disciples in terms of his God-given insight. And was Peter blundering when he wanted to walk on the water or was that, in fact, a good thing, a faith-grounded recognition that if Jesus commanded him to do so, then Peter really could do what Jesus commanded?
Perhaps the question is more general: Do we really have enough information about Peter to form a full picture of his character? I doubt it. It’s entirely possible that Peter, far from being the guy who blurted out whatever popped into his head, was actually one of the deepest thinkers among the disciples. It’s possible that he spoke first because he was the recognized spokesman of the group, maybe even because of his general wisdom and insight, not because he opened his mouth before anyone even had time to think. It’s possible that his mistakes and sins are recorded, not to characterize him as an apostle with a foot-shaped mouth (!), but because they were significant with regard to the story of Jesus the Gospels are telling.
What the guys on the radio said is true: A lot of people love Peter because they see him as the loveable oaf who gets everything wrong and always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But it doesn’t seem to me that that characterization has any foundation in Scripture.
A couple of entries ago, I mentioned D. Holwerda’s understanding of the phrase “the foundation of the world” in the New Testament, but it appears that I didn’t present his view correctly. I have Holwerda’s articles, but I admit that I haven’t read them.
I said that Holwerda takes “the foundation of the world” to refer to the beginning of the new covenant at Jesus’ death and resurrection. That still seems like a valid exegetical option, though it’s not one I buy. But that isn’t actually Holwerda’s view.
Rather, Holwerda understands that phrase as referring to the exodus and, more specifically, to Israel’s creation at Mount Horeb. Again, that has interesting implications for Ephesians 1. Someday I’ll have to read his essays to learn what he does with this and other passages.
Thanks, Jan, for pointing out my mistake.
While I’m speaking about the New Testament’s use of Aramaic, what about “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6)? A few Sundays ago, Judah Soles, the son of Jamie Soles, asked me after a sermon why Scripture talks about us calling God “Abba.” Why that word in particular? Why not just “Father”?
I hadn’t thought about it before but when he asked it struck me that the use of this Aramaic term might be particularly significant given that Paul is arguing that Gentiles are fully included along with Jews in the church and the family of God.
The Jews knew that Israel was God’s firstborn son. Whether people normally addressed God as “Father” in the time of the Old Covenant or not, it was one of the terms available, given Old Covenant revelation.
But what about the Gentiles now? Paul does not simply say that Gentiles can call God “Father.” He doesn’t simply use the Greek term. He deliberately uses the Aramaic term, the term that a Jew would use.
In other words, it’s not as if Jews use their Aramaic term for “father” when addressing God, a term that might have connotations of special intimacy to them, but that Gentiles stick to the Greek word for “father,” which, to a Jewish ear, might lack those special connotations (the way Dutch people tell me that barmhartigheid is so meaningful compared to the rather bland English mercy). Rather, the Gentiles get to use the very same intimate term for God that the Jews do (and vice versa). Both get to call God “Abba” and both call Him “Father.” They may do this because they are both in Jesus Christ, who called God by both terms (Mark 14:36).
At least, that’s what I said to Judah when he asked, and it still sounds basically correct to me. Any thoughts?
Last week, I finished reading Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy‘s The Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels. ERH is a challenging writer and thinker, and it’s not always easy to figure out what he’s saying (largely because he assumes you’re thinking on his wavelength). Nevertheless, he’s also often fascinating, even when you don’t know what to make of what he’s saying.
The Fruit of Lips is largely a study of the four gospels, which ERH sees as four movements of a symphony, each one picking up where the other left off and developing the themes further. Toward the end, he writes:
If you hold that Dante’s Divine Comedy was written verse after verse, and no verse in it related to the end from the beginning, then you must also judge the Gospels as separate entities. However, you then must forgive me if I am not interested in your views because you prove yourself a complete barbarian in matters of creation. A great symphony first exists as a whole and later it unfolds in its single movements. Quacks may patch four movements together; that, however, entitles us to call them quacks (p. 133).
A challenging read, yes, but probably one that I’ll keep thinking about. I really ought to read more of ERH’s stuff….