Metcalf’s Definition of Original Sin in Response to Sam Harris

R.C Metcalf has written a counterpoint to Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  In this article, I will only address Metcalf’s presentation of original sin within his counterpoint, not his entire rebuttal to Harris’ open letter.  Metcalf introduces the Christian doctrine of original sin into his rebuttal as a way of pointing out that mankind is by nature prone to sin as a way of illustrating that we have a greater problem than just needing to be concerned about the promotion of morality as a way to increase human happiness and lessen suffering.  Metcalf understands that we need a full restoration of humanity, a solution that only God can provide.  Moving forward in this paper I will focus on evaluating Metcalf’s description of original sin and his method of persuading Harris to accept original sin. I will make this evaluation on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions, which I believe to be an accurate exposition of the teachings of Scripture*.

First, I want to address Metcalf’s description of original sin.  Metcalf writes, “We are not all born with the burden of Adam’s specific sin pressing down upon us.”  On the contrary, we are all born, even conceived, in a state of guilt having inherited a sinful nature that comes from Adam’s specific sin.  Article I of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord states, “As a result of Satan’s seduction through the fall, human beings, in accord with God’s judgment and sentence, have as their punishment lost the original righteousness with which they were created” (Kolb, p. 536.27).  This punishment is defined in the same article as such: “The punishment and penalty for original sin, which God laid upon Adam’s children and upon original sin, is death, eternal damnation, and also “other corporal” and spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries, “the tyranny and domination of the devil”’ (Kolb, p. 534.13).  As such, “this inherited defect is guilt, which causes us all to stand in God’s disfavor and to be “children of wrath by nature” because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as the Apostle testifies in Romans 5[:12]” (Kolb, p. 533.9).

Second, Metcalf expresses that original sin is “an inherent tendency toward sinful behavior; a sense of selfishness that yields a desire to promote our own personal happiness.” Metcalf’s use of the word tendency lessens the severity of our sinful disease that invades all of our humanity. He even closes this section by stating that we have the capacity to do good, it’s just that “we do not have the capacity to only do good; we must also sin.” This is another point in which Metcalf is in error, since the inherited defect of guilt in original sin is not just a “tendency toward sinful behavior.”  This defect places us all in a state of total depravity, so that we by nature cannot approach God or do anything to please him in any way apart from God’s work in us to produce any goodness.  Original sin is not just the tendency for us to sin; it is the cause of our sin.  The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in Article II explains that we have only two options concerning our relationship to God due to Original Sin: “For our weak nature, because it cannot fear, love, or believe in God, seeks and loves carnal things; it either despises the judgment of God in its complacency or hates it in its terror” (Kolb 115.24).  In other words, we are bound to sin and are incapable of doing good by God’s standard.  To be accurate, we can speak of our doing good by the standards placed upon us by our society or culture, but not by the standards of God.  This is another flaw in Metcalf’s description of original sin – there is no clear definition of morality, most importantly there is no clear standard for absolute, universal morality.

Third, I want to address Metcalf’s approach to convincing Harris of the reality of original sin.  From Harris’ open letter, he assumes that Harris won’t accept the words of the Apostle Paul on this issue, so he adopts the approach of speaking of evolutionary theory and his perception of evidences of selfishness in all of us from birth.  This is the wrong approach to convincing someone of original sin.  Metcalf is trying to reason with Harris using observations of our human experience to bring him into a recognition of original sin, however, reason alone cannot lead to a knowledge of original sin.  In Article I of the Third Part of the Articles of the Smalcald Articles of the Lutheran Confessions, it is confessed, “This inherited sin has caused such a deep, evil corruption of nature that reason does not comprehend it; rather, it must be believed on the basis of the revelation in the Scriptures (Ps. 51[:5] and Romans 5[:12]; Exod. 33[:20]; Gen. 3[:6ff.])” (Kolb p. 311.3).  Understanding original sin is not optional, because our view of the cross is directly related to our view of sin.  Article II of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains this point stating that “we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (Kolb, p. 117.33).  Despite Metcalf’s assumption that Harris won’t accept Paul’s words, those words are exactly what Metcalf must share and what Harris must hear in order to be convicted of sin so as to receive the only true solution to our predicament of suffering – the sweetness of the Gospel message received in saving faith.

Finally, knowing that it is through the revelation of God in Scripture that one can alone come to the knowledge of both sin and God’s saving grace, one must opt to defend the truthfulness of this doctrine through the use of Scripture.  This is not done by convincing people that everyone is selfish from birth through anecdotes of crying infants… the truthfulness of this doctrine is defended by defending the truthfulness of Scripture by pointing people to the reality of the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ is not raised, then the Christian faith is a lie.”  We do not have to trust that Scripture is the Word of God by its description of itself apart from other evidence as Harris suggests Christians and all religious adherents do of their sacred texts.  Christians can approach the New Testament Gospels as historical documents.  We can see that their text has been reliably transmitted to us today.  We can see that they are internally consistent and that their authors intend to convey factual information that they claim to have seen firsthand or that they are relaying the testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses.  We can see that there are no competing testimonies from the first century, and that the Jews and Romans who both had the motive and the means to disprove the testimonies of the Gospel writers and the apostles could not produce the bones of Jesus.  The best that they could do was persecute the apostles and the other believers in an attempt to shut them up!  Such persecutions were unable to stop them from speaking their witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.  They had no earthly reason to fabricate this message – to lie – especially under such physical and emotionally distress of physical death. We can trust their testimonies and thus the words of Christ they record for us in which he affirmed the Old Testament Scriptures to be the Word of God and gave his seal of approval on the teachings of the apostles that were to come (the New Testament Scriptures).  We can then trust that the Scriptures are the Word of God and thus believe the revelation of Original Sin that can be known from Scripture alone.

* For Bible verses on Original Sin please watch my video: “Scripture Verses for Original Sin”

Book of Concord quotes from the following translation:

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000)

Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation

Metcalf’s Counterpoint

In the person of Christ, God died!

The following is a scenario that is anticipated to arise in a Bible class discussion of Jesus of Nazareth’s death.

Andy: (Referring to the following verses on a class handout: John 3:16-17, 1 Tim 2:5-6, Romans 5:18, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, John 12:32, 2 Peter 2:1) Scripture teaches that on the cross, the Son of God died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.  This is in opposition to the Calvinist teaching that Jesus only died for those that will be with Christ for all eternity.

Jesus' DeathBill: Andy, I agree that Scripture teaches universal or general atonement, but I have a question about your statement that the Son of God died.  Technically, the Son of God only died according to his human nature.  Isn’t that right?

Andy: That’s a good question. I’ve heard this question before from someone who sent me an email after reading my book.  He questioned a line that I wrote in which I said, “In Christ, the divine nature was put to death with his human nature.”  Let me get a gauge here with where everyone is at on this concept, how would you respond to that statement?  “In Christ, the divine was put to death with his human nature.”  True or false?

Nancy:  I would think like Bill… that Jesus only died as a human, not as God.

Jack: Yea, it was only as a human that Jesus suffered and died, not as God.

Andy:  Why would you say that, Jack?

Jack: Because God can’t be tempted, God can’t get tired, God can’t get hungry, God can’t bleed, God can’t die.  And so that’s why Jesus had to become human, so that he could do these things to be our savior.

Andy: Is that what you are thinking too Nancy and Bill?

Nancy and Bill: Yeah.

Andy: Does anyone want to answer true?

Megan: I think the answer is true, because Jesus is one person with two natures.  He’s fully God and fully man.  That’s why I’ve heard him called the God-Man.  It seems that what happens to Jesus happens to both natures.

Andy:  What Megan has stated does express how the historic church has understood the union of the two natures of Jesus.  Jack was right when he said that it is impossible for God to be tired, hungry, thirsty, tempted, and killed.  So Bill and Nancy, you too are correct on these points, except in Jesus, the divine has assumed a human nature, and according to that human nature, God can experience what would be impossible according to his divine attributes.

Bill:  So because of the union of the divine nature and human nature, is it safe to say that God was entirely dead?

Andy:  Yes.  But only in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (the 2nd person of the Trinity) did God die.  The divine nature did not die in the Father or the Holy Spirit, when Jesus died.  From the moment of the Incarnation, when the 2nd person of the Trinity assumed a human nature, the divine and human natures became united so as to not be separated from his personhood – ever.  If the humanity of Christ is put to physical death, then so too is his divinity.  Since Jesus is fully God, we can say God was tired, hungry, thirsty, tempted, and killed in the person of Christ (the 2nd person of the Trinity). These feelings and experiences were experienced by Jesus in accordance to his human nature, yet due to the union of the natures the divine nature experienced them too.

Bill: So since Jesus’s divine nature could die when he took on a human nature, does that mean his divine nature was in some way reduced?

Andy: We might think that could be the case, but that’s not what Scripture teaches.  The attributes of humanity that Christ experienced of which the Father and the Holy Spirit cannot partake occurred because Jesus allowed them to occur, because he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but instead he humbled himself and chose not to make use of his divine attributes or retain the glory due to him because of his divinity.  In other words, the divine nature did not receive human attributes with the union of the two natures in the person of Christ.  That would be a reduction of Jesus’ divinity, which we know did not occur.  If his divinity is reduced, he could not be our savior.  Does this answer your questions?

Bill:  Well, I guess I have one more question.  Another reason why I thought that Jesus’s divine nature did not die is because Scripture to teach that Jesus holds all things together.  That’s what Colossians 1:17 says, and Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus upholds all things by the power of his word.  If Jesus died as you are saying, and it makes sense that he died with the way you have explained that death occurring to the person, would his death interrupt his ability to hold all things together by His powerful word?

Andy:  That is a very good question, and it is one that I have considered.  There were certainly signs that the universe was falling apart as the Lord of Glory was dying on the cross, such as the darkening of the sky and the earthquake at his death, so there appears to be some indication that his death did impact his role of holding all things together.  However, we know that the Father and the Holy Spirit did not die.  They could have held everything together.  I also know that before his resurrection, Jesus descended into the prison to proclaim victory.  He wasn’t there suffering.  He could have been holding things together then.

I also know that when we speak of salvation, we speak of Jesus being our savior, because Scripture speaks like this, but we also know that the Father and the Holy Spirit work in our salvation.  The Father sent the Son.  The Father accepts his sacrifice.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, gives us faith, and preserves us in that faith, and sanctifies us.  We typically speak of the Father as the Creator, yet we know that Jesus worked in creation, as did the Holy Spirit.  My point here is that just as we typically credit one person of the Trinity with a particular work, as Scripture does at times, we also can see that the other persons are also at work in that way in some capacity.  Therefore, the Father and Holy Spirit could be at work in holding creation together, not just Jesus.  Examples I can think of are that Scripture speaks of God (the Father) giving rain and sunshine to both the righteous and the wicked and giving every good gift in life to us (is that not part of holding creation together)?  Also, Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit as giving us life (physical and spiritual).  That physical life is an aspect of holding creation together.

That’s the best I can do to address the question about who was holding creation together as Christ was dying in respect to both his divinity and humanity being put to death for our salvation.  And that’s the best I can do to answer that question based on what the Lord has revealed to us in Scripture.

Bill:  That all makes sense.  Thanks for answering my question.

Andy: I’m glad you asked it.  It seems that others had similar thoughts and it is good to work through these questions, because the union of the divine and human natures in Christ are vital to him being our savior.

Megan:  And why is that?

Andy: As the God-Man, Jesus alone was able to redeem mankind from its sinfulness. Being fully divine, he was able to fulfill God’s standard of righteousness. Being fully man, he was able to be tempted and die in our place, suffering hell eternally on the cross. Now that may not make sense, but since Jesus is fully God, he could suffer hell eternally in a short time span; God after all can do all things. And since Jesus is fully God, he was able to die as a replacement for all of mankind. In Christ, the divine nature was put to death with his human nature. The death of God is valuable enough to serve as a vicarious atonement for all of mankind, past, present, and future. No other religion can claim such divine redemption, because no other religion was founded by God incarnate.

Megan:  That makes sense.  Thanks.

Andy: Any more questions on the person and natures of Christ?  If not, we’ll go back to our study of Christ’s atoning death for all of mankind.


In the above discussion I drew upon three kinds of communication between the two natures and the person of Christ and his saving work.  They are the genus idiomaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the attributes of the natures to the person), genus maiestaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the majesty of Jesus’ divine nature to his human nature), and genus apotelesmaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the natures to the work of the person).

In the genus idiomaticum, the attributes of the divine nature and the attributes of the human nature are both communicated to the person of Christ.  This communication is what I was drawing upon when I spoke of the person of Jesus having attributes that come from both attributes.

In the genus maiestaticum, the attributes of the divine nature communicate to the human nature so that the human nature may receive divine attributes.  This communication is one way; the divine nature does not receive attributes from the human nature, otherwise, Jesus would not be divine.  This communication is what I was drawing upon when answering Bill’s question of if Jesus being able to die meant there was a reduction of his divinity.

In the genus apotelesmaticum, both natures are always at work in whatever the person of Christ does – or in the question at hand, in whatever is done to the person of Christ, both natures are involved – even when dying.

Jesus’ Triumphant Entry – Palm Sunday Exegetical Study Part 2

This is a 5 step exegetical study of Matthew 21:1-11. This passage of Scripture is usually labeled to be a narrative of “Jesus’ Triumphant Entry” and it is often times remembered the Sunday before Easter, often times called Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Part 1 contains Steps 1 and 2 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Text and Translation Notes” and “Literary Analysis.”  Part 2 contains Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Historical-Cultural Context,” “The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession,” and “Personal and Pastoral Application.”

Palm Sunday 2

Part III – Historical-Cultural Context

What is the significance of riding a donkey?

Smith expresses that by choosing to enter the city on a donkey, Jesus was in no way acting unroyal, but instead acting as a king in time of peace, not needing to enter with the show of chariots, horses, and weapons of war.  (Smith, 244)

Is there any indication as to what the crowds expected of Jesus through their actions in this text?

The recounting of this entry into Jerusalem occurs on a church calendar day, often times called, Palm Sunday.  As noted in Part I, Matthew’s text does not say that the branches that were cut were palm branches.  Only John mentions palm branches, which were an “ancient symbol of victory and glory” (Smith, 244).”  Since palms symbolized victory, Leon Morris suggests that “it would seem that […] these people were trying to make a political messiah out of him” (Morris, 518).  By Jesus sending for the donkey, as we see from the Synoptists, we can then understand “by his symbolic action that he was not the potential overthrower of the Romans that the crowds would dearly have loved to see” (Morris, 519).  The impression then is that the crowds expected Jesus to rise to kingship through a revolt that they were willing to back him in through their shown enthusiasm.  This is not however why Jesus was entering into the city.  He came as the King of Peace, bringing peace between God and man through the shedding of his blood.

Unknowingly they were selecting their Passover lamb. 

According to Exodus 12, on the tenth day of Nisan the Jews were to select a year-old lamb that was without defect.  They were to keep this lamb in their household until the fourteenth day of Nisan when they were to kill it without breaking its bones and cover their doorframes with its blood in preparation for the Passover.  The day that Jesus entered Jerusalem was the tenth of Nisan.  The crowds that thought they were selecting their king (potentially some or maybe most even thought he was their Maccabean-style Roman Overthrowing Messiah) were unknowingly selecting their Passover lamb who was in their midst in Jerusalem and in the temple every day until his death, in which his bones were not broken and whose blood they asked to be on the them and their children, not the doors of their homes.  (Matthew 27:25)

Part IV – The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession

Though it is not in the Book of Concord, Luther’s Small Catechism has often times had an accompanying explanation section that wasn’t written by Luther.  In Concordia Publishing Houses 2017, “An Explanation of the Small Catechism,” the question, “What does it mean that our Lord Jesus is called the Christ,” has the following answered supplied:

In the Old Testament, God set certain people apart as prophets, priests, and kings by anointing them with oil.  The title Christ or Messiah means “Anointed One.”  In the New Testament, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, Priest, and King.  (“Explanation of Small Catechism”, p. 192)

To answer the question, “What does it mean for us to speak of Jesus as our Priest,” the answer supplied is: “As our Priest, Jesus offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sin, and He intercedes with the Father on our behalf” (“Explanation of Small Catechism”, p. 193)

In light of this broader Biblical and historical confession, we realize that the crowds that claimed Jesus as their king with Messianic titles and proclaimed him as a prophet failed to recognize or understand the necessary work of his third office of priest. It isn’t until after Jesus is raised from the dead that the Old Testament Scriptures are opened up to the disciples to understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die as their high priest.

Part V – Personal and Pastoral Application

Like the crowds in this passage, Christians, in our sinfulness, far too often approach Jesus (or the Triune God) with expectations and understandings of who he is and what his work is to be that are contrary to how he is revealed to us in Scripture.

For instance, we might approach God as a Black Hawk Helicopter God. We expect him to swoop in and save us from all of our trials and tribulations. But is such deliverance from all earthly afflictions promised in Scripture? No, it’s not. God is not a Black Hawk Helicopter God.

Another example of a false approach is to treat God as a magic genie! We simply approach him again and again for things that we need and want, and that’s it. That’s the bulk of our interaction with him. What happens when such prayers are not answered in the affirmative? Will our faith be shaken? Will others who are not Christians, laugh and mock our God for not responding to our prayers as we expect him to?

Sometimes we treat God as a vending machine. We expect to get blessings from him, but they come at an expense! We have to pay in some fashion to receive God’s gifts. We treat all of our dealings with God in transactional terms: I prayed; I went to Church; I went on that mission trip; so I expect x, y, or z, from you in return, God!  For me now, the temptation is to approach God in this fashion, expecting him to come through with a call to a church that meets my desires (or more like my wife’s desires) and to leave here debt free with enough money stockpiled for a down payment on a home – and why wouldn’t God do these things?  I left home and a great job that I loved to be here…

Works cited:

“An Explanation of the Small Catechism” copyright © 2017 Concordia Publishing House.

Morris, Leon.  The Gospel According to Matthew.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Smith, Robert H.  Matthew.  Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989.

Jesus’ Triumphant Entry – Palm Sunday Exegetical Study Part 1

This is a 5 step exegetical study of Matthew 21:1-11.  This passage of Scripture is usually labeled to be a narrative of “Jesus’ Triumphant Entry” and it is often times remembered the Sunday before Easter, often times called Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday.  Part 1 contains Steps 1 and 2 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Text and Translation Notes” and “Literary Analysis.” Part 2 contains Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Historical-Cultural Context,” “The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession,” and “Personal and Pastoral Application.”

Palm Sunday

Step I – Text and Translation Notes

Matthew 21:1-11 ESV – 1Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

21:2 The ESV translates λύσαντες as an imperative verb, yet the form is an aorist participle.  Λύσαντες is followed by the aorist imperative verb, ἀγάγετέ.  The ESV simply translates both verbs as commands, since the disciples obviously would have to untie the animals before they could be lead to Jesus.

21:3 The Greek reads that “their Lord [ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν – αὐτῶν is a 3rd person plural, masculine, genitive pronoun] –  has need.” Whose Lord is this?  The animals’ Lord is what the text reads, and this is theologically correct, since all of creation is the Lord’s and thus Jesus is the Lord of these two animals.  In this context however that reading isn’t a natural understanding of this genitive pronoun.  This is why Gibbs suggests αὐτῶν to be translated as an objective genitive to modify “need.” (Gibbs, p. 1032)

21:4 The ESV translates γέγονεν as an aorist verb, when it is a perfect tense verb.  A direct translation should thus be, “this has happened,” but since Matthew is referring to the three verse narrative that has just taken place, the ESV translation “this took place” reads well to our ears that are accustomed to the English language.  The nuance of the perfect verb relates that what “has happened still has an ongoing effect” – namely that the event of the disciples retrieving the animals has a testifying impact to the fulfillment of the words that were spoken by the prophet.

21:5 The ESV translation can easily give the impression that the donkey that Jesus is riding is the colt, as if “on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” is modifying donkey.  However, in the Greek text, there is the word “καὶ” between the two ἐπὶ prepositional phrases, which indicates that the words that were spoken by the prophet indicate a mounting/riding on both the mother and the colt.

21:7 This text says that Jesus sat on them [αὐτῶν].  This pronoun can refer to the disciples’ garments or to both animals.  Turner suggests that it is most likely that the second αὐτῶν refers to the garments that Jesus sat on while he rode on the colt.  (Turner, p. 496) This interpretation harmonizes Matthew’s narrative with the other Gospel narratives that only mention Jesus riding on a colt with no reference to the mother’s presence at all.  Much more could be said of Matthew’s mention of two animals as opposed to the other three Gospels that only mention one which could fit nicely into Parts II and III, but due to this assignment’s restriction on word count, this interpretation of αὐτῶν will have to be suffice enough to demonstrate the importance that there is a valid interpretation to avoid a contradiction in the Gospel narratives between Jesus riding on either one or two animals.

21:8 The ESV seems to take a great license here by saying, “most of the crowd,” because the Greek doesn’t say “most of the crowd, it simply says, “a very large crowd.”  In the Greek, it seems as if everyone in this multitude either laid their cloaks before Jesus or laid branches that they had cut on the path before Jesus.  The text doesn’t signify that the branches were palm branches.  The text simply reads: κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων [branches from the trees].

21:9 The ESV translates the attributive position present, active participles προάγοντες and ἀκολουθοῦντες as aorist verbs, which misses the ongoing action of the preceding and following throng of people. The ESV also merges ἔκραζον λέγοντες into “were shouting.”  Since ἔκραζον is an imperfect active verb the translation that Gibbs offers, “kept on crying out, saying…” better encapsulates the commotion of the scene.  The crowds are in a state of continual motion preceding and following him and their cries are carrying on and on.

21:10 The wild, on-going actions of the “very great crowd” of vs. 8-9 cause the totality [πᾶσα] of the city to be moved into a state of commotion being stirred up or shaken.

21:11 In vs. 9, the crowds “kept on crying,” and now they “kept on saying” that Jesus is the prophet from Nazareth.   The ESV again translates an imperfect verb form (here it is ἔλεγον) as an aorist, which diminishes the narrative’s image of their on-going exuberance and certainty in their proclamation of Jesus, not just being the promised king, the Son of David, but also a prophet – from Nazareth of all places!

Part II – Literary Analysis

Gibbs opens up his commentary on this unit of text by describing it as “a fairly obvious whole” (Gibbs, 1035).  I can’t deny this, which is why I struggle to break this unit into sections.  I see no obvious breaks that demand to be labeled a new section with a new thought or idea being introduced.  I see no central point or turning point in the text.  Gibbs chooses to break this unit into two sections: vs. 1-7 and vs. 8-11. (Gibbs, p. 1036) I agree with his justification for this split, namely that in vs. 1-7, Jesus is in control of the action; he’s orchestrating his entrance into Jerusalem, and then in vs. 8-11 the reactions of the crowds and the people of the city take over the action of the narrative; Jesus is depicted as just being along for the ride (no pun intended).  In this section unit, the disciples are not even mentioned.

I however prefer to break the unit into three sections, following Turner’s division: preparations for Jesus’ entrance (vs. 1-5), Jesus’ entrance (vs. 6-9), and the results (vs. 10-11).  (Turner, p. 493).  I would change the labels however to Jesus’ orchestrated preparation (vs. 1-5), the approach to Jerusalem (vs. 6-9), and the dichotomy of responses from mutually in-error parties (vs. 10-11).  The following will explain my decision to break this unit into three sections.

Vs. 1-5 narrate Jesus’ very deliberate preparations and instructions to two disciples for how he is to enter Jerusalem.  The intentions of these instructions, Matthew explains, were to fulfill the words of the prophet in Zechariah 9:9.  This is a good breaking point, because in a study it would necessitate a look at the prophesy in Zechariah 9:9 and its context.  The most important discovery to this unit’s immediate context is that Matthew doesn’t cite the verse as directed by Zechariah to be an invitation for Jerusalem to rejoice and shout; instead he opts to Isiah 62:11 as the introduction to the prophesy fulfillment at hand, which is “Say to the daughter, Zion” (21:5).  This foreshadows the cluelessness of the personified city of Jerusalem in the third section who doesn’t understand that now is the time for the shouting and rejoicing encouraged by Zechariah.

A question arises in this section concerning how the disciples were expected to be able to just mosey into Bethpage and take the first animals they saw with no potential consequences for donkey-thieving.  Also, how did Jesus know the animals would be there for the taking.  One answer comes from John’s Gospel which records that Jesus had made several travels to Jerusalem before and “had an important ministry there, and it would seem that it was on such occasions that he made the acquaintance of people like the owners of the animals he was now borrowing” (Morris, 520).  Another answer lies within this section itself.  Jesus’ use of κύριος in the statement, “The Lord has need of them,” carries with it the force of a “magisterial sentence” that provides all the disciples will need to offer to resolve any objections that might arise from their taking of the animals.  (Smith, 243) Couple the crowd’s response with this last answer and it seems suffice to say that the owners might have recognized Jesus to be their king as the crowds did and would gladly offer their animals to meet their king’s need.

The next section, Vs. 6-9, does not indicate if the disciples or the crowd knew if Zechariah’s prophesy was being fulfilled at the time, but what we see is that the disciples follow Jesus’ instruction without question and the crowd responded to Jesus’ entrance on the colt just as Zechariah had prophesied.  Their response is shocking to the reader, because the goal in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem has already been stated by Jesus himself – “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21) – and this exuberant response that attributed Messianic titles to Jesus (“Son of David” and “one who comes” (Turner, p. 496)) doesn’t indicate an impending death at the hands of the Jewish leaders.

Vs. 10-11 close the unit and indicate that as he entered the city, the people in Jerusalem did not even know who he was.  The crowds who have already declared him their king with messianic titles respond by continually saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”  Gibbs indicates that their answer that he is a prophet already indicates that they didn’t know he was the Messiah, because instead of answering that he is the prophet Jesus, they would have answered he is the Messiah Jesus.  (Gibbs, p. 1041) I tend to think that the crowds were declaring him to be their Messiah through their use of Messianic titles for him.  In Part III, the historical and cultural background point to their expectations of what he should do in the city as the Messiah, and in Part IV, their recognition of him being both king and prophet illustrates their misunderstanding of what he came to do and the three-fold office of the Messiah.

Go to Part 2 that contains Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this exegetical study.

Works Cited:

Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 21:1-28:20. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.

Morris, Leon.  The Gospel According to Matthew.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Turner, David L.  Matthew.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

Luther’s Small Catechism – What is it good for?

When asked what is the best resource for teaching the Christian faith and way of living to youth today, a doctrinal book written in 1529 that was designed for fathers to use to instruct their children in proper Biblical beliefs and living probably doesn’t pop into most people’s minds as their go to source.  I’m of course referring to Martin Luther’s, Small Catechism.  He wrote it after a shocking visit to the congregations of Saxony in which he found that not only the laity, but also the pastors, didn’t know the basic tenants of the Christian faith – most not even able to say the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer.  In terms of their Christian living, you wouldn’t even recognize that they were Christians with the license to sin at will approach they took that abused their Christian liberties afforded in the Gospel.  To rectify this situation – ASAP – Luther wrote his Small Catechism and Large Catechism.  The Small Catechism was designed for parents to instruct their children in the home. The Large Catechism was designed as a resource book, explaining the doctrines of the Small Catechism in further detail.  His instruction worked wonders in Saxony and it can still do the same today.

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The Small Catechism is so effective for teaching the Christian faith because it names and explains the meaning of all the doctrines necessary for one’s salvation in succinct, easy to remember and recite statements.  In the first section of the Catechism, Luther wisely used three critical texts as the means to accomplish this goal: The Ten Commandments, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Presented in this chronological order, Luther set-up a sequential flow from Law to Gospel to Christian living.  Luther presents the Ten Commandments as the accusation of the Law.  This accusation charges us as having broken God’s will for our lives and places us in a state deserving of God’s eternal wrath.  The Apostles’ Creed is presented as our confession of what God does for us – namely saves us through the work of God the Father in Creation and sending his Son Jesus who redeemed us and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us through gifting us with faith and preserving that faith through the Word and Sacraments of the Church.  The Lord’s Prayer is taught as our prayer for God to do these things through us – namely do the work of salvation.  Next, in this section, Luther gives instruction on baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, means by which God presents himself to us today in the Church, giving sinners his grace.

Sections two and three of the Small Catechism pick up on the points of section one to address how we should live in our day to day lives as members of society.  Section two contains daily prayers that focus and guide our everyday activities to be sanctified by God’s Word and prayer.   Section three contains the Table of Duties that lists and explains our various callings in life to serve our neighbor as God’s priestly people.

Again, all of these sections present these doctrines in succinct and to the point language, while directing readers to clear Biblical passages from which these teachings arise.  And again, all of these teachings cover the definitive doctrines of the Christian faith for believers to be found in a right relationship with God and their neighbors, and Luther’s presentation is such that anyone can take these truths and share the faith with others.