Matthew: A Gospel for the Jewish Community

This gospel is the first in the new testament but is actually written a generation after Mark. Remember, these stories were not written down in journals while the disciples were with Jesus. The stories were shared verbally for a couple of generations before they were actually written. Take a listen to this podcast to find out some more interesting truths about this book of the Bible.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-20, Matthew 11:7-19, Matthew 13

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Matthew was written in a formal, polished Greek that would have been used in synagogues at the time Matthew was writing. This helps us understand his identity and his audience.
  • Matthew probably dates from 80-90CE. A few scholars suggest as early as 70CE and a few as late as 110CE.
  • As with Mark, the author of Matthew is unknown and the name was likely assigned for symbolic reasons. The author of Matthew may have been someone named Matthew (we don’t know), but it was almost certainly not the apostle of the same name. (It would have been the wrong time frame, just for starters.)
  • In our last podcast, we shared that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. This is affirmed by the fact that about 91% of Mark’s content shows up in Matthew (600 of 661 verses). [Note: There is probably a tendency amongst literal readers of scripture to use this similarity as an argument for both gospel authors having been present and rendered Jesus’ words verbatim. We may want to decide if we want to address that or not.]
  • It might be helpful to suggest the idea that gospel writers were more compilers and editors (storytellers, in a sense) than they were creators of original material. This makes sense when we consider the time frame and that stories had been being passed down for some time. Matthew draws on at least three sources: Mark, material that is common to Luke (“Q”), and material unique to his community and tradition.
  • The Christian community to which Matthew belonged was still part of the larger Jewish community, but to some degree, they were beginning to be cut off from their Jewish roots. Recall that the Jesus movement began as a movement WITHIN Judaism and only later became a distinct religion. There was undoubtedly conflict between Matthew’s community and other Jewish communities as they began to diverge in their understanding of Jesus.
  • The gospel of Matthew has its own unique attributes: for example, it identifies Jesus as the “new Moses” (liberator) by telling the story of his family’s flight to Egypt (unique to this gospel). It doesn’t bother to explain Jewish traditions, since its audience was Jewish themselves. It includes a birth narrative that expresses a particular view of Jesus’ kingship.

Discussion Questions:

  • Plagiarism is a HUGE issue in schools these days. What is the difference between just copying someone else’s story and using it as a source to tell your own story? What are some examples in our world? Song remix, updated movie, etc.
  • How do we understand the fact that Matthew was using the Gospel of Mark as source material? Is that surprising? Unsettling?
  • One source calls Matthew a “creative reinterpretation” of Mark’s gospel. What do you think about that?
  • Matthew stresses the divinity of Jesus, often by making small changes to the narrative. Why do we suppose this was important to
  • Matthew at the time he was writing? Can we identify how this is a little different than Mark? Is it ok that one gospel writer might stress Jesus’ divinity a little more while another might focus more on his humanity? How might this be helpful for us as readers of scripture?
  • Matthew often uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (29 times!) because of a Jewish tradition of not speaking (or writing) the name of God. How might this change our understanding of passages that appear to be referring to heaven but actually refer to the “kingdom of God”? [See, for example, the passages in Matthew 11 and 13.]

Podcast:

The Gospel of Mark…the first written and the one with a interesting ending.

It is interesting to know that the four gospels were not written in the order they appear in the Bible. Mark is also an interesting book to look at, especially the last 10 verses that were added in the past century. Nonetheless, it is important that we approach this book like we have been reading the rest of the Bible in this series of blogs, as the truth. Searching for God to find His messages and how we fit into it even today.

Scripture Reading: Reading the entire gospel of Mark is great project! Or just Mark 3:1-12

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Mark was written in Greek for a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience.
  • Mark probably dates from around 66-70CE. This is right around when the second temple was destroyed, which may well explain why Jewish followers of Jesus (remember, they aren’t “Christian” yet) started actually writing down their stories and memories about Jesus. The temple was destroyed for ongoing Jewish revolt, and the people began to be more widely oppressed, so they wanted to make sure their stories were preserved.
  • We will discover as we go along that the authorship of the gospels is largely unknown and their names were assigned largely for traditional purposes. The author of Mark may have been someone named Mark (we don’t know), but it was certainly not one of the disciples or anyone famous to history. There has been some speculation (based on textual clues) that the young person who flees the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest (see Mark 14:51-52) might have been the author himself, but this will never be known for sure.
  • There is almost universal agreement amongst scholars that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospel accounts somewhat later. Thus, we might see Mark as our most “raw” and early account of Jesus’ life. This makes reading the gospel of Mark a very interesting endeavor.
  • You might recall that we do not have a single manuscript of any of the gospels. Our earliest versions of Mark have the gospel ending at verse 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Some manuscripts add a “short ending” (largely unknown), but the majority of later versions are the “long ending” (verses 9-20), which includes resurrection appearances.
  • The gospel of Mark has many unique attributes: for example, Jesus frequently asks those he has healed not to tell anyone who he is (see our reading for today). Also, the disciples are portrayed as rather idiotic in Mark’s gospel and almost always fail to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. Mark also uses the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man” to describe Jesus, both of which would have been laden with meaning for early readers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Last week, we noted that Mark does not contain a birth narrative. It also does not contain a genealogy. It is likely that Mark had no problem with the idea that Jesus came from normal, human parentage and felt no need to connect him to the Davidic line to “prove” his significance. How do we feel about these things?
  • Mark portrays Jesus very much as a healer and miracle worker with supernatural powers. How do we make sense of this in our own time, when so many people are skeptical of miraculous events?
  • What do we make of the very short “original” ending to Mark?
  • Why do you suppose Mark has Jesus so often telling people to remain silent about him? There remains scholarly disagreement on this point, though there are several theories. What do you think?

Listen to Podcast:

Generation Z: Isolated, Scared But Not Alone

We sit down with “Anna” an 18 year old from Generation Z (born 1999-2015, according to Barna research and here) who is open and honest about safety, isolation, anxiety, depression, faith, church and religion for her and her peers.

It is fascinating to hear how teens struggle with feeling safe and the anxiety that comes about because of the lack of feeling secure. We talk about how this has developed over the years. Generation X (born 1965-1983 according to Barna) may have helped contribute to this through our exposure to things such as, the missing persons on our milk cartons as school. “America’s Most Wanted” was a TV show that came out in the late 1980’s hosted by John Walsh whose son was abducted while at a department store, so we became very aware of the safety concerns and the “bad guys” who were out there taking children. Neighborhood Watch groups started popping up, and I remember there were signs that we put in our windows so that children knew where the safe homes were in case we needed a place while walking home from school. We were not afraid of mass shootings, but we still were aware of safety issues at a young age. Could we have manifested this fear into our own children? Think about how we felt after 9/11/01. If you had children then, or even after that tragic event, we are raising our children differently. Couple all of this with Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland, and there is no denying why Gen Z is anxious.

This podcast also addresses the fact that Gen Z has been labeled the most isolated. They spend plenty of time alone and in their rooms. We could argue this is no different than any teen in any generation before them. The difference now is they are never alone. There is a phone, computer or video game that allows teens to be connected to anyone in any place in the world. “Anna” suggests that she doesn’t believe she is isolated. However, she does acknowledge the difficulties of having her phone and social media at her fingertips 24/7.

Finally, we ask “Anna” about faith, church and religion. It is very interesting to hear her take on these subjects. While her opinion may not represent all of her peers, she does make some valid points that probably resonates with many.

Hopefully, this podcast will inspire you to reach out to teens or young adults in Gen Z. Ask them the questions and see how they feel about these or even other topics. Remember how important it was for you when you were a teen to have an adult listen to you? Give that chance to another young person. Allow them the opportunity to speak, share and maybe give solutions. Let us know what you learn!

Podcast:

Teenager of the Year

Last week, Time Magazine, selected Greta Thunberg the Swedish teen climate activist as their Person of the Year. Since that announcement, people have been divided (no shocker for our country!) and criticizing the magazine’s decision. I find the banter and debate interesting. I wonder if it has to do with the political divisive topic or is it the fact that she is a teenager?

Let’s take politics out of this for a minute. Whether you agree with the choice, or think she is deserving or not, Greta is the third single female named with this honor. (Other women would be included in “groups” or in a group with men.) So, as far back as 1927, every year but three, men have been named. And now we have a female, and not just any female, but a teenager. This is significant because they have never given a teen the title.

If you live or work with young people, take a few minutes to talk about the impact of Greta’s work. Again, you may not agree with her stance or even that she is deserving, but think about the fact that she is a teenager. We all know, and remember when we were that age, that most teens believe the world resolves around them. So, there is a fine line to walk when engaging in this conversation, but young people need to feel empowered to change their world. Whatever the topic, whatever their passion, they need to know the love and support of the adults in their lives to believe they can do it.

In my vocation, I typically work with “churched” teens and young adults. So, I tend to encourage them to change the way the world sees us as Christians. Break the mold, stand up for what you believe in and let other see what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Or stand up for someone who doesn’t have a voice.

Young people today have an audience. The world does listen. Time Magazine even listens to them! Unlike the teens and young adults who were protesting the Vietnam War, today they have more resources, more money and more technology. They can change their world. Set them free to do just that.

Isaiah & Advent: How Do YOU Fit Into the Story?

This is the third week of Advent, and we continue on in our readings in Isaiah. We have to ask ourselves as we read about Isaiah’s prophecies what is the message God was sending and how is it relevant to us today? Be sure to read the scripture, listen to the podcast and ask yourself, or your small group these important questions as we wait and anticipate the celebration of the Birth of Christ.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10 (Advent lectionary) and Isaiah 53

Teaching Points:

  • The book of Isaiah has been (and is) tremendously influential in terms of our thinking about prophecy, about Jesus, about the Exilic period, and just in terms of scripture with which we are very familiar. We can start with some basic scholarly information. For example, most scholars understand Isaiah in two (or even three) parts: chapters 1-39 and 40-66 (or 40-55 and 56-66). While there are some unified ideas across the book, there are also distinct “voices” and themes.
  • Isaiah is one of the books most often used to illustrate sort of “magical predictions” about the coming of Jesus. We need to acknowledge that passages in Isaiah referred to more contemporary events and figures, and it has been in retrospect that we have chosen to interpret certain passages as predicting attributes of Jesus. (This does not deny that many of the attributes described are wonderful and certainly turned out to be aspects of Jesus’ character.) Isaiah 53 is a familiar passage, read often and rendered in many other forms (ie. Handel’s Messiah). This is a great passage with which to talk about who was originally being discussed in the passage, in what ways we can see parallels to Jesus, and in what ways the passage might be problematic when applied directly to Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

  • Where have we seen/heard the use of Isaiah in classical music, art, poetry and pop culture? What are the positives and negatives of using Biblical imagery in these different contexts (think about other pop culture ways we use Biblical references…music, plays, TV shows)? Does it ever send unintended messages? Or, might it suggest new ways of approaching contemporary issues or problems?
  • One of the common themes we hear during the Advent season is the notion that God sent Jesus specifically to die for our sins. How do passages like Isaiah 53 seem to support this thinking? Is there anything of concern about this way of thinking (like the notion that God needs sacrifice or violence in order to forgive people)? Are there other, equally valid ways to talk about Jesus coming into the world?
  • We have looked at the Isaiah’s prophecy and images the last two weeks. What is added to those here in these passages? Is there a new or different type of message he is sending here?
  • The Third Sunday of Advent is a day on which we typically talk about joy. The lectionary passage imagines a very idealistic future in which certain forms of suffering and opposition are eliminated. How do we hold onto this kind of joyful outlook in the midst of a world that clearly still contains both suffering and oppression?
  • “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” ~Saint Augustine. In your own words, what do you think this quote means?
  • As we talk about joy this week in advent, how can you play a part in God’s intent to spread joy to the world today? How can your family?How can we as a small group? How can our church? Do you think it is our “job” to be a part of God’s story?

Podcast

Exile, the Prophetic Witness & Message of Peace

This is the second week of our Advent discussion. We are taking a look at the Exile, and how we can relate to the feeling of being exiled in different circumstances today. We will continue the Advent lectionary in Isaiah and look at his message of peace and the hopeful future he envisioned. Be sure to listen to the podcast to hear some thoughts and ways we draw the connection between scripture and our world today.

Teaching Points:

We probably cannot overstate the significance of the Exile as the matrix in which almost all of the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures are situated. It would have been the dominant experience on the minds and hearts of both writers and hearers of the vast majority of the Old Testament.

Scripture Reference:

2 Kings 17:5-23, 2 Kings 25 and Isaiah 11:1-10 (Advent Lectionary)

  • The passages from 2 Kings describe the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 25). It is helpful for readers to understand that Jerusalem was in the Southern Kingdom and was understood (by the Judeans, at least) to be the best or “most authentic” place in which one could worship the God of Israel. Thus, there was always some tension between the two kingdoms and a sense in which Judeans look down on Israel as being “less than” in their worship. This influences the tone in which the various kings are presented and the justification for Israel’s having been conquered some 125 years earlier.

Discussion Questions:

  • Certainly one of the themes that emerges as we read about the Exile is the truth that, like so many of our histories today, stories are often written by the “victor” or dominant party and never given unbiased renderings of past events. Where do we see that in our own time? Who gets to write our contemporary histories? Who decides the authors of how history is recorded today? How can this impact perception for future generations?
  • Another important recognition when we talk about Exile is that we know the end of the story, but they did NOT. We have to be careful when we only read or focus on those passages that speak very hopefully about a future to come; we must also remember that there was tremendous despair and hopelessness that came in the midst of the experience of Exile. Where do we experience this in our own lives? Are there times that we feel we are in the “wilderness,” and we really don’t know if things are going to turn out “ok” or not? (The podcast has some good discussion around examples in teens/young adults’ lives, please take a listen.)
  • [Side note: we are not taking much time to address the considerable passages of lament and disappointment found in the Psalms and in others of the prophetic books. They may warrant some mention and an acknowledgement that there is tremendous emotional depth and breadth as the people struggle through their reality and cry out to God for understanding and relief. This begs a potential question about whether we are good, in our own time and place, at acknowledging sadness, feelings of hopelessness and our human need to lament at some times. Do we just try to gloss over the really difficult realities that some folks are facing?]
  • What image does Isaiah use in verse 1 to symbolize rebirth? Why do you think he uses this particular item? (Make sure you discuss the how a tree changes with each season, and how to keep a tree healthy, etc.)
  • Who is the “He” referenced in verses 2-4? (An heir of David) How does Isaiah describe this person?
  • What is the new natural order that will take effect in verses 6-8?
  • The lectionary reading for the Second Sunday of Advent once again presents a beautiful vision for a hopeful future in which parties that we might expect be antagonist toward each other are able to peacefully live together. Where might we need such a vision in our own lives? What is the difference between embracing God’s vision for a hopeful future and just pretending that everything is fine?
  • This week for Advent our focus is on love. How do these verses in Isaiah bring a message of love to us today? Where do you see love in your life? In the world today? How can you bring more love to those around you?

Podcast

Are Prophets for Real?

It is important to begin this lesson by asking students, “What/who are prophets?” Young people and adults alike tend to restrict their thinking about prophets to people who were long dead and who are specially Christian. They also tend to see the role of prophet much like that of a fortune teller…predicting future events. We need to help them adopt a broader perspective around the concept of prophetic witness. There are powerful prophets who are living and who belong to diverse faith traditions. Even more important, the role of prophets is not to predict the future, but to speak truth to power and invite people to reconsider their own role in bringing about God’s vision.

We have tended to fall into the trap of “predictive thinking” during the season of Advent. We take a lot of biblical stories (Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament), and we weave them together to create a story that is easy and uplifting to tell at this time of year. We can preserve what is precious and touching our Advent stories while also taking care to share accurate information about prophetic witness, when it was written, what is actually pertained to, and to whom it is really making reference.

It may make sense for your group to talk about “modern day prophets” (real and fake), famous or those who we know. What message(s) have they sent/shared? What have you learned from them?

Prophets are not fortune tellers, and their primary purpose is not to predict the future. Their primary purpose is to speak and bring messages of truth to those who have gone astray, lost their vision, or grown weary in doing good.

Judgement (The Former Prophets)

Scripture Readings: Judges 6-8 (the story of Gideon) & Isaiah 2:1-5 (Advent lectionary)

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand what a prophet is and what a prophet does.
  • Students will make the connection between prophets of the Old Testament and those prophet voices today.
  • Students will explore what God’s vision is for us today.

Teaching Points:

We tend to be aware of the “major” and “minor” prophets, but most people don’t realize that the prophetic corpus is actually larger even than those volumes. In this podcast, we will introduce people to the concept of the “former prophets” and revisit the reality that a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures date from the period of exile or after (even stories that seem to be about much earlier times/events).

The former prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Please note that the delineations (i.e. I&II Samuel) are not original to the writings.

Looking at the book of Judges can help us redefine the concept of prophecy and the role of prophets. In it, we see Israel go through times of being unfaithful, season of repentance, and times of liberation/peace in a cycle that plays out several times. The “judges” who participate in their liberation/return to peace play a prophetic role: hearing God’s voice, calling out the sin of the people and inviting them to turn around (“repent”) and return to embracing God’s intention for them (which tends to play out in military terms).

The Book of Samuel tells stories of Saul and David, ultimately describing the period we call the United Monarchy, a time when Israel was said to be unified under a single king. There is some question around whether Israel was ever truly united under a single king, but that is probably beyond the purview of today’s discussion.

The Book of Kings tells stories of Solomon’s accession to the throne, his reign, his death, and the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel when his son, Rehoboam, becomes king. It goes on to describe the kings of both Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom) during the period we call the Divided Kingdom.

Discussion Questions:

  • When you hear the word “prophet” what comes to mind?
  • Who is a modern day prophet? Can an everyday individual be a prophet?
  • What do you know about Isaiah, a prophet in the Bible?
  • What were messages the prophets were sending during this time?
  • The lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a familiar passage from Isaiah in which the prophetic voice speaks of a future in which the weapons of are very deliberately fashioned into tools for cultivation and growth. Is it accurate to see this prophetic vision as a prediction of the future? What other understanding might we have of such a passage? How do we embrace this vision of a peaceful and growth-oriented world amidst so many stories of violence, death and conquest?
  • What do you think Isaiah would have to say to our world today?
  • What vision do you have for the future? (of the church, youth group, community, world, etc.) How does having a hopeful vision change the way you live daily? Or does it?
  • What is it that we are waiting for/hoping for during the season of Advent? How might that change/grow if we place it against the backdrop of the prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures?

Resources: (Podcast)