Divine Perfection in 800 Words or Less

[Note: I am moving my blog to a self-hosted Zola setup at https://calebdixonsmith.top. This post was first published there, and in the near future all of my posts will only be there.]

“God is perfect.” We talk about God being perfect all the time, but how often do we stop to think about what this means? In fact, for as much as we say that God is perfect, I would dare to guess that we hardly ever even come close to thinking all the way through God’s perfection. It is more than we could ever begin to dream.

What does it mean to call something perfect in general? Sometimes we use the word to mean that something is very, very good. Other times we use it with a basically negative type of definition: something that is perfect is something that doesn’t have flaws. Still in other cases we use the word only to refer to moral goodness in its purest form, and in this case we often do tend to mix in the negative emphasis of having no flaws. Those who pay a little closer attention in Bible studies might start to pick up “perfect” as meaning something closer to “mature” or “complete, and that is also helpful, but we should be even more clear when we say what it means to call God “perfect.”

All of the definitions we just mentioned are true enough when applied to God. God is very, very good. God doesn’t have any flaws. God is morally pure, and He is complete in Himself. To truly understand divine perfection, though, we have to see what all of this really comes down to. To say that God is perfect is to say He is completely and entirely active in every kind, type, and way of goodness. The most appropriate definition of perfection for this case is when it means that something lacks nothing, but posseses in reality (not just potentially!) every characteristic which it should have. God, of course, cannot lack anything, and He is in full and active possession of everything He is and can be.

Another way of putting this is to say that God has no wasted potential. We have all seen people who we knew could be or do more than they were. For that matter, we’ve all failed to be and do everything that we could be, or even just everything that we’re supposed to be. God is not like this. On the contrary, He is everything He can be, and He wastes no potential at all. God is fully active, fully engaged, never leaving any “part” of Himself (and we saw He has no parts anyway!) behind or lazy or dormant.

There is more to add, though. Remember that everything God creates represents something or the other about who He is. Like any artist, all God’s works have His fingerprints or His signature. Moreover, these are not small traces but are everywhere. Since God is good, and not only good but the source, meaning, and reality of every kind of goodness in all the world, everything good about anything represents something about Him. And this doesn’t just mean moral goodness. It means every kind of goodness. If kingfishers are good at catching fish, if spiders are good at spinning webs, if the sunrise makes a good sight for sleepy eyes and if grandma’s cookies taste so good you want them every day, all of these good characteristics are what we would call “perfections.” And God is behind them all. He invented them. Not only is He their Maker, but He is their truth and reality, The warm, gooey pleasure of a chocolate chip cookie traces back to something in God that the delicious snack reveals in its own tiny way. Obviously God Himself is not literally warm and gooey (which, I should think, would be a very imperfect quality in a deity), but the true goodness and joy to be found in that baked treat is intended to be a tiny picture of God in some way that, when you want the cookie or enjoy the cookie, you’re experiencing a desire that ultimate finds satisfaction in God. Everything that is good about cookies is true about God, however differently they apply to Him, and so goes for the rest of the whole created universe.

So when we say that God is perfect, we mean that God is everything He can and ought to be to the fullest and most active extent. We also mean that He has every kind of perfection in Himself, including all of the perfections of everything in creation. From the sunrise to the Great Pyramids to brilliant writing and witty comebacks, the excellence within each of them is a taste, a very tiny but very real sharing, in the perfection of God Himself.


Time to Rest and Worship

The Sabbath Command in the Natural Law Tradition


What is the nature of the Sabbath commandment? All of the Ten Commandments have been the subject of considerable controversy almost since the moment they were given to Moses, but the Sabbath has often presented particularly thorny problems. In Second Temple Judaism, debates about what precisely the commandment forbade were sufficiently common to be a subject of regular debate between Jesus of Nazareth and the Pharisees. Since then the matter has developed into considerably great complexity. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, debates emerged about whether Gentile Christians had to obey the Sabbath. Controversies about special days appeared during the ministry of the Apostle Paul more than once, and as church history progressed, many similar debates emerged. Is it right to celebrate the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week or the first? Do New Testament observers need to rest from labor as their forebearers did? Is the Lord’s Day the same as the Sabbath, and does the Sabbath commandment even apply at all under the New Covenant? These questions, and many more, have been a ceaseless site of controversy for millennia, and this is unlikely to change soon.

Despite these difficulties, the Church’s natural law tradition has developed several helpful categories for matters of this sort. Distinctions between positive law and natural law, divine law and human law, ceremonial and moral precepts, and other similar concepts offer promising tools with which to carve out the basic true shape of the Sabbath commandment from its complex history. This paper will apply these categories to the Sabbath command in its several parts: the hallowing of the day, the prohibition against labor, the one-in-seven day cycle, and the specific assignment of the seventh day in the cycle as the Sabbath, with special attention to these last two elements (these being the source of most continued controversy).

Of course, with these distinctions, as with any tools, skilled teachers are necessary, or at least quite helpful, in using them appropriately. To that end, we will also analyze the ways three Christian thinkers in the natural law tradition—Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, and John Calvin—used (or did not use) these categories to explicate the meaning of the commandment enjoining the people of God to what the Heidelberg Catechism called the “festive day of rest.”

The Biblical Texts

While the Sabbath command, like many other topics in Scripture, almost innumerable texts which bear at least some relevance to their understanding, there are a few specific texts particularly important. These first include the giving of the Sabbath command itself, which occurs twice, first in Exodus 20:8-11 and again in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Little else will be necessary to quote in full, but for these two texts it is important.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or your sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.[1]

Keep the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, just as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock, nor the foreigner that is within your gates, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.[2]

Both instances of the command have most of their features in common. In both the Sabbath is an observance that the hearer must keep holy, both prohibit labour for all classes of Israelite society, and they use a nearly identical formula for the six/seventh day pattern. These are in fact the key elements that make up the “what” of the command, what is enjoins and forbids. However, the uniformity of these features makes the difference in rationale stand out starkly. This deserves a moment of attention.

The first instance of the Sabbath command explains the reason for it in terms of creation. Israel shall work for six days and rest on the seventh because this is the pattern God established in the construction of the world, and in doing this He blessed and consecrated the seventh day. In Deuteronomy, when Moses republishes the same law, the rationale is different. The emphasis is on the Exodus event so that God’s deliverance of Israel from hard labour in Egypt serves as a meaningful ground for the rest expected on the Sabbath. That Moses would articulate the same commandment under both of these rationales is itself telling about the nature of the command, in a manner which shall be explored in more detail later. For now, to note that one focuses more on creation and the other focuses more on redemption is sufficient.

A few other texts are especially relevant to the meaning of the Sabbath. Jesus famously claims in Mark 2:27 that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In Exodus 31:13-17, God instructs Moses to speak to Israel of the Sabbath as a sign between Him and His people, the breaking of which would constitute a breach of covenant. Finally, in Romans 14:5-6, Paul speaks of some people who view all days as alike and others who hallow certain days, and he relativizes the difference by referring each of them to their conviction of conscience before the Lord as they act in whichever way to glorify Him. This last example is an especially contested one since some take it as a reference to the many feast days and other Sabbaths but not properly the weekly Sabbath. Rather than engaging in detailed exegesis at this point, however, there shall be more benefit in analyzing the whole topic at the level of principle, at which point the possible readings of this particular example should be able to find a comfortable place if the whole analysis goes well. On that note, the next step is to survey the principles and categories by which a natural law theologian can parse the subject as a whole.

Principles and Distinctions

As the list above specified, the Sabbath command naturally lends itself to a division into four aspects: the hallowing of the day, the prohibition against labor, the one-in-seven day cycle, and the specific assignment of the seventh day in the cycle as the Sabbath. Each of these might relate to broader moral questions in one of several ways, corresponding to the different possible types of law.[3]

Broadly speaking, the most helpful category in the whole natural law tradition is that distinguishing positive law from natural law.[4] Positive laws require, authorize, regulate, or prohibit actions which in themselves are not necessarily morally obligatory but can serve morally significant ends. A classic example for the modern world is the speed limit. There is no intrinsic moral difference between driving 70 miles per hour or just 40, but a positive law, of no value by itself but serving in some context for the sake of an objective moral good (the preservation of human life), may require or prohibit one of these speeds.

Positive law can have several forms and purposes, and when looking at the Torah, many Christian readers (especially among the Reformed) have identified three primary meanings or underlying purposes for its laws. They can be ceremonial, symbolizing something pertinent to worship, piety, and spiritual training, judicial, representing a contextual application of punishments and rewards or various practical affairs, and moral, in which case they directly specify an application of natural law. These are not mutually exclusive, as a commandment may have multiple aspects or parts each of which relates differently to these categories.

Natural law, by contrast, pertains to that created inner rule by which creatures are to operate as designed by God. For humans specifically, who discern law by their rational faculties, the order distinctive to them is also called the “law of reason.” Law of this sort is rooted in what humans are, in their essential constitution as God gave it and as it stands in relation to both God and the rest of creation. That which most properly belongs to this law transcends time and place and applies everywhere men are men. Everything natural law in this sense teaches arises organically out of men’s physical, animate, and rational constitutions and the ends to which this nature orients the race.

That positive law is in principle changeable while natural law is not (at least as long as this world endures) is the most important difference between the two for understanding many of the commands of Torah. A positive law need not change necessarily, but it may if the lawgiver so decrees, the reasons for its institution pass away, or circumstances change so as to render the law ineffective at fulfilling its ends. Natural law, on the other hand, is entrenched in the given created order and cannot change unless that order itself transforms (as it will in some way in the eschaton).

With these distinctions established, the several parts of the Sabbath command lie ready for dissection. The command could be entirely positive, entirely natural, or mixed, and if it is mixed, each part might belong to either kind of law and to any of the available subspecies. All of the parts may share the same end or ends, or each might have its own. It remains, then, to analyze these parts with the help of the skilled legal surgeons Aquinas, Calvin, and Hooker.

A Dissection of the Sabbath

A Hallowed Day

In both instances of the Sabbath command, the first part of the command is to hallow the day. God commands the Israelites to “remember” or “keep” the Sabbath and to hallow (לקדשו) it. This is explicitly ritual or ceremonial language, also used in a variety of cultic contexts. Such language ordinarily suggests that a command has a typical (typological) function as a ceremony, and thus, under many common applications of natural law though, it would pass away with the New Covenant.

However, the picture is more complex than that. For example, Aquinas says of the hallowing of the Sabbath that it, “understood literally, is partly moral and partly ceremonial.”[5] He goes on to say that man has “a natural inclination to set aside a certain time for each necessary thing,”[6] which of course must include the spiritually necessary as much as the bodily. So “to have a certain time set aside for occupying oneself with Divine things is a matter of moral precept.”[7]

Aquinas argues, then, that the command to hallow the Sabbath does itself have a moral component inasmuch as nature teaches the need to allot time to all of the needs of human life and that rendering due service to the Divine is a basic need of human life. Nonetheless, this is itself only a general point. He continues to note that, inasmuch as the commandment provides a specification of this time, it is ceremonial.

Hooker takes a somewhat similar approach. In Book V of his Laws, he says that there is “natural and necessary” cause “for which there should be a difference in days”[8] using reasoning similar to that of Aquinas. He notes that nature even heathens to set aside regular times for public religion, and that nature itself clearly requires the sanctification of regular times to divine service.

Calvin does not explicitly invoke nature in his treatment of the Sabbath, but his remarks do belong in the context of his broader work in which the basic outline of natural and positive law described is indeed active. Like Aquinas, he mentions that the Sabbath command is a special mixed case, partially ceremonial but not entirely.[9] He identifies three primary ends of the command, but for the moment only two are relevant. These two are the establishment of regular time to devote to religious functions and the procurement of needful rest to servants and others who need “some intermission from labour.” The first of these is familiar by now: Hooker and Aquinas both invoked it as something nature teaches. Of these two ends, Calvin says they “ought not to be classed with ancient shadows, but are adapted to every age.”[10] Since Calvin is otherwise known to have been in agreement with the basic categories of natural law thought, it is most probable that for him to say these ends suit every age is for him to assign them a place in the law of nature.

The results with respect to the hallowing of the day, then, are fairly consistent. All three of the writers in consideration agree that the command to consecrate a day to God is partially a positive, ceremonial law and partially a specification of natural law. Though the precise activities of Sabbath day piety may have been ritual and typological, the need to set aside a devoted day, or at least some kind of regular time, for divine service is knowable from nature itself.

Do No Work

After the hallowing itself, the next, and perhaps more prominent, part of the Sabbath command is its prohibition against labour. The command requires that after six days of labour, the seventh day must be devoted to rest. No person in Israel—slave or free, native or foreign, male or female—would be allowed to work on the Sabbath. What is the significance of this prohibition, and how does it relate to the categories and ends of law available?

Aquinas does not say a great deal about rest in his coverage of the Sabbath commandment, but he does make a few useful points. He mentions as ceremonial aspects of the rest requirement in the law the way in which in represents Christ’s rest in the tomb, cessation from sin, the rest of the mind in God, and heavenly beatitude.[11] Besides this, Aquinas mentions two possible correspondences with natural law. Since reason teaches the need to set aside time for divine matters, it follows that it is reasonable to rest from other labours in order to devote such time properly. In a minor way, he mentions almost in passing that man has a natural inclination to set aside time for everything necessary, including bodily refreshment and sleep. So nature teaches man to rest regularly and to devote time to divine service regularly, and Aquinas treats these two needs as fitting together organically.

Hooker treats of rest in a more philosophical mode, explaining that it involves the cessation of motion when labours reach their proper ends. This paints a somewhat eschatological (and thus perhaps ceremonial) picture of the purpose of the command to rest. He also, however, notes that rest from one labour can be to serve another, higher task. In the case of festival days, it is fitting that regular earthly labours throughout the week support and then yield to the higher matter of divine service, which is “most natural and fit to accompany the solemn festival duties of honour which are done to God.”[12] Thus Hooker, like Aquinas, clearly affirms a natural link between rest and worship, though the natural purpose of rest itself is less pronounced.

Calvin perhaps has the most to say about rest. He highlighted first and foremost the theme of spiritual rest, in an especially Protestant key, far more than Aquinas or Hooker. Indeed, for Calvin, teaching rest from human efforts in favor of God’s work, spiritual rest, holds “primary place in the Sabbath.”[13] This, of course, is a purely symbolic and pedagogical function which terminates in the work of Christ.[14] Most strikingly, though, is Calvin’s emphasis on the dimension of human rest from servile labour. As the citation above said, Calvin considered the giving of rest from servile labour one of the universal ends of the Sabbath commandment. This seems to come from the basic human need to rest regularly, rather than persist in perpetual labour. Presumably, then, this is to be understood as a law of nature.

The picture for the rest aspect of the Sabbath command, then, is slightly more complex than the previous part. All of the authors seemed to see a natural correspondence of rest and worship, as temporal labours seem fittingly to go on hold for time allotted to divine service. Both Aquinas and Calvin highlighted the ceremonial figuration of spiritual rest in the commandment which has already been brought to its conclusion in Christ. Calvin more than the others also gave special note to the simple gift of physical rest to servants and all those under authority in way which implied it to be a natural law. Fortunately, none of these insights contradict. A synthesis might say that the Sabbath command was given with a typical purpose to train in spiritual rest, which has been terminated in Christ, and an ongoing moral significance arising from the natural need for rest, the natural need to devote time to divine matters, and the natural association between the fulfillment of these two needs. These theses all tie neatly into the way the rest of the Scriptures use the Sabbath motif, as other references often associate it with divine redemption, freedom for slaves, deliverance from debt, and the coming of justice. All of these link into the concept of rest, both in the spiritual sense that they point to Christ’s salvation and in the temporal sense that they offer mercy and indulgence to weary men labouring under the sun. In this way it is true to say that the Sabbath was made for man, for it is primarily for human need that God enjoins rest on His people in Sabbath.

One Day in Seven

In the midst of the command to abstain from work on the Sabbath, God gave a timeline defining Sabbath observance. Six days were for labour, and the seventh day was the Sabbath. Is this perpetually binding? Does the one-in-seven day pattern belong to natural law or positive law, and if positive, is it one of the many ceremonial aspects that passed away after Christ? This, it turns out, is not entirely straightforward.

First, Aquinas does not make an explicit statement on whether the weekly cycle is an actual part of the natural law in operation in the Sabbath command. He does, however, make two statements which might be relevant to the question. First, when speaking of the universal nature of the precepts of the Decalogue in general and how this applies to the Sabbath, he explains that the Sabbath command corresponds to the requirement from nature that men worship God inwardly by enjoining to it an external aspect as well. This external application uses “a universal boon that concerns all. This universal boon was the work of the Creation of the world, from which work God is stated to have rested on the seventh day.”[15] The grounds the weekly Sabbath cycle in the history of creation as recorded in Genesis, and since the whole world was created in this way, it bears relevance to the whole world. However, he also states that the precept is ceremonial insofar as it specializes the time as a sign of creation, implying that the seven day pattern probably is indeed a temporary and changeable part of the command.

Hooker is a bit more ambiguous. He poses the question as to whether observed days in the Church are a matter of divine law or human institution, to which he provides a multifaceted answer.[16] He notes, as mentioned earlier, that nature teaches the need for regular observance of religious days, and the he breaks them down into three kinds: those which God instituted strictly and permanently, those which God instituted just as strictly but temporarily, and those which the Church voluntarily specifies. This last category he applies to the many feast and festival days of the Church, the second he applies to the many feast and festival days of Israel under Torah, and the first he applies exclusively to the Sabbath. The Sabbath day is thus for Hooker a perpetual institution, but he does qualify this: “The moral law itself requires a seventh part of time throughout the age of the whole world to be spent in service of God.”[17] Unfortunately, it is not strictly clear in what sense Hooker refers to the moral law here. Usually this would refer to natural law, but the context and wording would also support an interpretation in terms of a perpetual positive law.

Calvin is perhaps the most clear on this point. He discusses the seven day cycle almost exclusively in terms of its typical signification.[18] Later, he lumps Sabbath observance with the broader category relativized in Paul of the “observance of days,” which implies that he understands any day in any sequence of seven to be those “all alike.” Most tellingly, he uses strong language about the Church’s role in the transition from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. He says that in many of Paul’s church plants the Sabbath was “retained,” as though voluntarily. Most striking is this sentence:

It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose.[19]

Shortly afterwards he mentions not clinging to the number seven “as to bring the Church under bondage to it.”[20] Instead, he insists that whatever the churches do should simply be for the observance of discipline and order with guard against superstition. To Calvin, then, the seven day cycle seems to have been purely ceremonial, so that any specification of a specific day for religious functions is entirely up to the discretion of the Church.

On this point, then, is greater diversity than on the previous two. Aquinas assigns the creation pattern in the temporal specification to ceremonial law, but he does not go into much detail besides this on the status of the seven day requirement. Hooker explicitly assigns the seventh portion of the week permanent moral value but does not clearly explain whether this is by a perpetual divine positive law or is in some sense natural. Calvin, by contrast, seems to strongly and explicitly reject any permanent role for the seven day pattern except as it proves useful to the churches in their various situations.

Given the lack of clarity afforded by these teachers on this point, it may be worth briefly investigating whether it may be possible to synthesize them, or at least some of their insights, in some way. The most probable way to do with would be to demonstrate a ground for the seven day cycle in nature. If it were the case that human nature has an intrinsic disposition to a seven day pattern, this would allow for at least the permanent utility or fittingness of a one-in-seven Sabbath while still perhaps leaving open the possibility of this being less that strictly required so that the Church has discretion on the point, something of a middle ground between the views of Hooker and Calvin. Is this feasible?

This is a rare situation in which the discoveries of modern science may perhaps shed light on an aspect of human nature which would not have been quite obvious in the past. Several studies in human biology have demonstrated that the human body does operate on some level in seven day patterns. Sometimes called “circaseptan rhythms” or “circaseptan bioperiodicty,” these have not always been given sufficient recognition but have seen published results.[21] Some of them even specifically find reason to suspect a circaseptan cycle in the body’s need for rest and repair.[22] Research in this area is admittedly not extensive, and much more work would need to be done to demonstrate anything conclusively, but for now the suggestion that perhaps a seven day pattern is woven into human nature offers a possible way to better understand this particular aspect of the Sabbath command.

The Seventh Day

Last among the parts of the Sabbath law to consider is the specific assignment of the Sabbath to the seventh day of the week. Some of this will overlap with the preceding section, but the questions are in fact distinct. Perhaps this distinction would not have become a subject at all except for the peculiar fact that Sabbath observance in church history was seemingly transferred straightforwardly from the last day of the week to the first in the form of the Lord’s Day. The legitimacy of this move is the primary issue at hand.

In Aquinas’s discussion of the Sabbath commandment, he states that in the New Law the Lord’s Day replaced the Sabbath.[23] However, he is quick to clarify that this is not a matter of precept but rather comes by Church institution and Christian custom. This is different from the Sabbath especially in not being figurative and thus also being less strict. Given that Aquinas also seemed to make the seven day pattern itself a changeable matter of ceremony, it seems clear he considered this a matter of positive law which the Church is free to modify, at least in principle.

Hooker, though insistent on preserving the one-in-seven pattern, is clear that the day for observing the Sabbath has in some sense been changed to honor the new creation of Christ.[24] He says little in any way detailing or justifying the change, however, so the only route to his meaning is by inference from his other claims. It would seem that he regarded the specification of the exact day to be a matter of divine positive law, which God Himself changed from the seventh under the Old Covenant to the first in the New. This seems slightly out of step with much of the way Hooker elsewhere deploys natural law and positive law, though, so the whole matter remains slightly ambiguous.

Calvin, here as with the last point, is very clear and takes a strong stance. To have any specific day of the week mandated was a ceremonial aspect of the Old Testament. When it was “expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished.”[25] The Church established the Lord’s Day in its place for the sake of order and discipline, since it is still necessary (naturally, as was seen earlier) that some regular times be devoted to religious services and rest from labour. This seems further to be in principle changeable indefinitely, so that churches around the world are free according to their circumstances to employ whatever days seem useful for discipline and order so long as they avoid superstition.

On this final point, then, there is minor disagreement. All three teachers agree that the Sabbath has been in some sense replaced by the Lord’s Day, and thus the day of Sabbath observance was certainly a matter of changeable positive law. Hooker, however, stands out from Aquinas and Calvin in that they both saw this reassignment as permitted by the temporary ceremonial character of the seventh day specification, so that the Church was free to respecify its own day, but Hooker seems to have taken the day in both cases as a matter of exclusively divine positive law which God reassigned on His own judgment. In all of these cases the current Lord’s Day is hypothetically changeable just as the seventh day Sabbath was, but for Hooker it seems this would require divine command, whereas Aquinas and Calvin leave this in the discretion of the Church.


From this survey of the Sabbath commandment, a strong working hypothesis begins to emerge. (There are also, of course, innumerable further angles and lines of inquiry from which the Sabbath command might be better understood, especially from a biblical-theological perspective, but the scope here is much more narrow.) What follows is a short account of the command’s parts and their relations to different types of law. It will not agree precisely with any of the three guides through this material, it takes a great deal of inspiration from each of them.

The Sabbath command, to repeat, has four primary parts: the hallowing of a day, the prohibition on labour, the seven day cycle, and the precise specification of the seventh day as the one to which the consecration and rest apply. By now it is clear that the consecration of a day itself is a mixed command. That humans need to set aside time to rest and time to worship and that these two fit together perfectly is a matter of natural law, woven into human being as such and knowable from nature. The specific forms of divine service and details of rest were themselves ceremonial and typological, so that they do not bind as such now that Christ has come. Rest is still needful, both because it frees up time for worship and because it blessed and benefits people weary from their week of labour, but there are no precise rules remaining on what may or may not be done.

The seven day cycle in the Sabbath has not the clearest nature, but, tentatively, it should be understood as a positive ceremonial precept corresponding quite fittingly to a pattern present in human nature. Preserving this may not be strictly necessary but seems proper and prudent. Finally, the precise specification of the seventh day as the Sabbath was certainly a matter of changeable positive law. Whether the replacement in the Lord’s Day is more correctly a human or divine institution is less than perfectly clear, but it seems more likely that it is indeed a human arrangement of the Church for order. This does not mean that the Lord’s Day necessarily should ever be changed, but churches in unique situations need not be wary or superstitious if circumstances encourage them to appoint a different day more suitable to their needs.

Perhaps the best way to conclude this survey would be to explain the Sabbath commandment in the form of a catechismal pair. What does God require in the fourth commandment? God requires that His people together set aside time to rest from their labours and gather as one to publicly serve and enjoy Him, their true end and desire, until the rest they have in Christ is manifested to the world at His return.

  1. Exodus 20:8-11 MEV. ↩︎
  2. Deuteronomy 5:12-15. ↩︎
  3. This outline of the kinds of law is in substance common to the views of countless natural law theorists, but the closest influence is definitely Hooker. ↩︎
  4. This distinction is not, of course, entirely unique to the natural law tradition, but it certainly finds the most welcome (and arguably the most comprehensive and systematic development) here. ↩︎
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans Fathers of the English Dominican Province. (New Advent, 2008), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3122.htm, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. Richard Hooker, “Richard Hooker on Festival Days,” trans W. Bradford Littlejohn from Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book V, chapter 29, (The Davenant Institute: 2020), https://davenantinstitute.org/hooker-on-festival-days/↩︎
  9. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/institutes.iv.ix.html, Book 2. Chapter 8. ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
  12. TBD ↩︎
  13. Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §29. ↩︎
  14. Ibid, §34. ↩︎
  15. Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
  16. TBD ↩︎
  17. Ibid. ↩︎
  18. Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §28-29. ↩︎
  19. Ibid, §33. ↩︎
  20. Ibid, §34. ↩︎
  21. See, for example, F. Levi F. and F. Halberg, “Circaseptan (about-7-day) bioperiodicity–spontaneous and reactive–and the search for pacemakers,” La Ricerca in clinica e in laboratorio vol. 12, 2 (1982), 323-70, doi:10.1007/BF02909422. ↩︎
  22. Alain E. Reinberg, Laurence Dejardin, Michael H. Smolensky & Yvan Touitou, “Seven-day human biological rhythms: An expedition in search of their origin, synchronization, functional advantage, adaptive value and clinical relevance,” Chronobiology International, 34:2 (2017), 162-191, doi:10.1080/07420528.2016.1236807. ↩︎
  23. Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
  24. TBD. ↩︎
  25. Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §33. ↩︎

Natural Law (etc.) in Romans 1-2

A slightly late post from near the end of one of my classes

At long last, we arrive at the locus classicus for natural law in Scripture, Romans 1-2. The first inklings of a connection to natural law starts with Paul’s use of natural revelation in 1:18-23. Verse 20 in particular affirms that various truths about God are understood by means of creation itself. At minimum, something of the divine power and essential superiority can be discerned from the world God has made. Verse 21 then employs a kind of natural law logic: they knew God, but they did not give Him due honor as God. In this way they became fools and worshipped created images. This implies that they ought have been able to infer from what creation reveals about God that He alone ought to be worshipped and ought not to be worshipped alongside, beneath, or by means of created forms. This permits the inference from the order of creation itself that the nations are under divine wrath for their many crimes of idolatry.

Verses 28-32 are interesting inasmuch as they show the distorting effect of idolatry on what man thinks about other aspects of what nature teaches. The best of the philosophers and other pagan sources could always have told you that promiscuity, greed, malice, hubris, rebellion, callousness, and homesexual relations were immoral according to nature or at least chafed against it (though most of them would have gotten at least one or more of these wrong to a greater or lesser degree). Yet even these men were often willing to concede the legitimacy in some sense of the cults and myths of the gods used at large, and these cults and myths always helped to blind the masses of ordinary people from the truth of nature. Worshipping anything less than the true God skews our vision of the natural order, so that whatever perfections are present in the created objects of worship may be overemphasized, while whatever perfections those objects of worship lack may be neglected or abandoned altogether. Moreover, since these idols and imposters are not the living God who speaks His law and holds the world accountable, but rather fictions (at best) or rebellious spirits (at worst), they do not tend to correct vices at all but rather ignore or even encourage them. At the same time, as can be seen in the philosophers, the truth of these matters remains available to those who are willing to seek it out, which renders the mass of humanity without excuse.

It is worth noting the context of these statements, however. Paul is setting the context for the Gospel he preaches. The seriousness of the human plight when left in a post-Fall world to natural revelation alone can be hard to see from within the fallen order. Like with drug addiction, the severity of the condition is only quite as vivid as Paul renders it after it has been left behind. The pagans were never quite so ignorant as to miss than humanity had something deeply wrong and that even their own conception of how the world is may be quite flawed. Yet apart from the retrospective clarity disclosed by the quite radical solution in the Gospel of Christ, both the depths of human depravity and the heights of God’s intended human righteousness are drastically obscured.

Moving into chapter two, we can see more clearly that though Paul speaks of a condition applying to the pagan nations, the account he provides is at least specific to the vantage point of Israel. Many pagans had ideas of divine judgment and eternal recompense, but the ultimate eschatological character of the coming crisis Paul describes is distinctively Jewish (especially as we see in "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek"). Here ambiguities arise. Paul speaks of people sinning and perishing "without the law," and he mentions Gentiles who are a law unto themselves because they do by nature what the law says, and they show it is written on their hearts. Who are these figures? Many have taken then as general pagan Gentiles, displaying the natural law written into their consciences. Others have taken them as Gentile Christians, who have the law written in their hearts in the sense prophesied by Jeremiah and by it by the power of the Spirit, which will come into account when God judges through Jesus Christ.

The debate on this issue is no small one and hard to settle. I have often gone back and forth, but at present I am somewhat inclined to the more traditional view of Gentiles obeying natural law for a couple of reasons. For one, I find at least somewhat persuasive the argument in Fulford and Haines that the language here is actually connected to Aristotle rather than Jeremiah. We certainly know that Paul used and knew of Greek philosphers and poets, and it is quite intriuging that "a law to himself," "do the work of the law," and "accusing and excusing" all appear in Aristotle. This, however, is not the strongest point. What seems much stronger is how Paul concludes his description of the function of this inner law: "their conscience also bearing witness, while their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them." This language does not seem to match how Paul normally speaks of believers, putting accusation and excusal side-by-side. When Paul (and, incidentally, the author of Hebrews) speaks of the believer’s conscience, it is almost always as good, pure, and testifying in a positive way (except its function in the discussion of stronger/weaker brethren, which seems of little relevance to the subject matter of this passage). This is epecially noteworthy since Paul has to qualify with "or even excuse," giving accusation a more stable place in the description. Leading with accusation as the main function of a conscience makes sense if referring to Gentiles who in some general sense act as people whose conscience partially guides them to the natural law, while still leaving them sinners on the whole, but seems much less fitting as a way to talk about believing Gentiles living by the Spirit.

As a final note, the passage as it ends highlights the function of special revelation, specifically in the form of divine law, as hypothetically serving to enlighten and illuminate, but before and apart from Christ actually only being able to intensify condemnation, since all in fact are deeply sinful. This is probably worth noting for use of natural law and divine law in political matters, though the proper implications of this I am not quite prepared to unpack here.

The Doom of the Green Tree

An Analysis of Luke 23:27-31
Caleb Smith
Reading the Gospels with Wisdom
November 28, 2020


Around the world over all of time, there may be no historical account that has received quite so much study and attention as that of Jesus of Nazareth’s trial and crucifixion. This extraordinary event has come down the ages recorded in four forms, each with its own peculiar themes, style, impact, and riddles. Scholars and ministers have given nearly all of these features the most painstaking attention across the ages, but even so not all of these features have been given quite the same level of attention. In particular, Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey from His trial to the cross includes a short scene that has not gone unremarked but nonetheless has received less attention than almost anything else in the wider narrative.

In Luke 23:27-31, as He walked to His death, Jesus left in His wake a crowd of onlookers. Many of them were women, mourning for His tragic fate. However, amid their display, Jesus turned to them and spoke with authority. He warned them that they have a much worse fate to concern them than His own. The “daughters of Jerusalem” and their children were due their own tragedy, a tragedy so great that even the barren would seem fortunate. People would cry out for the hills and mountains to shield them to no avail. Finally, Jesus concluded with a cryptic saying: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31).

What is the significance of this saying? Who are “they,” what did Jesus mean by His ominous remark, and what was Luke’s purpose in including it in his narrative? Perhaps most importantly, what does this episode reveal to those who read Scripture as a sacred word from God about His purposes and character? This paper will explore these questions throughout its remainder. In particular, it shall argue that Jesus’ cryptic saying in Luke 23:31 serves to link Jesus’ death with the fate He prophesied for Jerusalem and wider Israel, providing insight into God purposes in both events, Jesus’ identity and vocation, and the relation of this whole story with its Old Testament antecedents. Of first service to these claims is a verbal analysis of the text itself.

The Words of Jesus

The first step to understanding the strange saying of Jesus in Luke 23:31 is to understand what it actually says. Here it is worth including the whole quotation from Jesus:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’1

Much of the text is relatively straightforward. “Do not weep for me but for yourselves” has something of a prophetic/heroic character. Though Jesus was in great distress (indeed, no Gospel writer shows this more clearly than Luke does2), He stopped to speak a final warning over the following crowd, with special reference to the women. “Daughters of Jerusalem” may refer more specifically to the women of Jerusalem or, more generally, to all the women of Israel, but in this case, it probably makes little difference. The coming days of which Jesus spoke are almost certainly those of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21, which covers a time of trouble for Jerusalem especially but expressed in terms of cosmic significance. This link is reinforced by the reference here to the good fortune of barren women, which corresponds to the woe for pregnant and nursing women in 21:23. Any catastrophe capable of desolating Jerusalem would almost inevitably wreak havoc on the rest of Israel. Even if it did not do so directly, the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple to Israel’s life would mean that a disaster for one would be a disaster for the other.

The next line about the hills and the mountains seems to be a reference to Hosea 10:8, a detail which will receive more attention later. For now, it suffices to say that the prophesied disaster will be so terrible that the people (at least poetically) will seek refuge, either by quick death or shelter, under the hills and mountains. At this point, the questionable saying begins. It starts with ὅτι, “for,” which might indicate a connection in reason between this sentence and the preceding ones. However, the saying is sufficiently unique from the surrounding material that it may have its own language apart from the context (a possibility to be explored below). The rest of the saying is more interesting. It compares green (ὑγρῷ, “moist” or, by implication, “sappy”) wood to dry wood, arguing from the case of the former to raise a question about the fate of the latter. The verb ποιέω used for the fate of the green word is in the third person plural, so that “they” do this, but the referent of “they” is ambiguous. By contrast, the fate of the dry wood has no agent attached. The question is simply “what will happen when it is dry?” (literally “in the dry”). This may allow for a difference in agency in each case, but it may also allow that the agency in the second is the same as the first.

Taking these factors all together, François Bovon in the Hermeneia commentary cites from Darrell Bock five possible readings of Jesus’ cryptic saying: it may compare (a) what the Romans are doing to the innocent Jesus with what they will do to the guilty Jews, (b) the Jewish treatment of Jesus with their own impending fate, (c) the sin of the human race against Jesus now against its potential future excess, (d) God’s treatment of Jesus with how He will treat rebellious Israel, or (e) nothing in particular, as it may just be a way of referring to the coming judgment without a more specific meaning.3 Bovon seems to have favored something of a mix of some f these, ascribing the agency of “they” to simply “the human agents of history” and the future event to ambiguous agency between divine intention and the humans who bring about Jerusalem’s fall.4 Not all commentators agree. Stein,5 Fitzmyer,6 and Calvin7 all favor some form of (d), whereas Nolland suspects (e).8 To discern the most likely reading, it will be necessary to analyze the historical, narratival, and canonical contexts surrounding the text.

Historical Context

Is there anything in the historical context behind Jesus’ declaration on the way to the cross that might shed light on its meaning? There are in fact a few crumbs. In particular, two Jewish sources from the centuries surrounding Jesus (much further on one side than the other) contain sayings that seem to bear some relevance to His own words in Luke 23:31. First, apparently from around 150 BC, a midrash records Jose ben Joezer on his way to be unjustly crucified saying, “If this happens to those who do his will, what of those who offend him?”9 Comparing this with the text in Luke, the strong similarity in circumstance and the loose resemblance in form suggests that the meaning of two could very well be the same. In this case, Jesus’ saying would be taken with the meaning, “If God will lead the innocent and righteous Jesus to suffering and death, how much more will He scourge unrighteous Jerusalem?”

A second source is much later but possibly still relevant. Bovon notes that the Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, written sometime before the tenth century AD, includes a proverb that says, “If the fire consumes the green wood, what will the dry wood do?”10 Though this writing is almost certainly from centuries after Jesus, it is interesting that it identifies the saying as a proverb. As a proverb, it must have been in circulation for an extended time before being written down as commonplace. The proverb’s context pertains to divine judgment on Israel, linking it to what is so far the most promising option for understanding Jesus’ saying. Since the language is so similar, the context imparts a clear meaning, and the proverb must have been in circulation for some time, this phrase deserves no little weight in judging the meaning of Jesus’ statement. Indeed, Bovon suggests on this basis that something like what Jesus said may have already been a Semitic proverb when He used it, and perhaps He had even used it on other occasions before His arrest.11

The historical data, then, is scarce but does seem to point in a specific direction. Though few parallels exist to Jesus’ declaration about green and dry wood, those that do suggest the focus is on divine providence: its disastrous outworking in the life of a righteous man as a sign of its much deadlier coming result for the wicked. Whether the narrative and canonical contexts support this as well, and what this all communicates in the end, remains to be seen.

The Narrative Context in Luke

Regardless of any historical questions, Luke surely included the pericope in question in his Gospel for some particular reason suitable to the story he was telling. Of first consideration, then, is the immediate context. This account comes between Jesus’ trial and the crucifixion itself, on Jesus’ way to the cross. In the trial, Jesus was sentenced to death despite being recognized as innocent. Then the women following began to mourn Him, though the crowd of which they may have been to some extent associated called for His crucifixion. After the trip is Jesus’ interaction with the two criminals beside Him. Going a bit further behind, the Olivet Discourse and its dire predictions about Jerusalem stand out, and going further ahead, the fate which the women lament for Jesus gives way to resurrection.

There is also a verbal link to earlier in Luke. The only other occurrence of the word ξύλω for “wood” is in the previous chapter, v. 22:52. When Jesus was arrested, He spoke of the chief priests and the rest of the party as coming to take him “with swords and clubs as if [He] were a bandit.” The word for “clubs” here is ξύλω, which is made more interesting by the mention of a “bandit.” Immediately after Jesus’ reference to wood in 23:31, He is crucified between two criminals. Though 22:52 uses ληστήν and 23:32 uses κακούργοι, that Mark and Matthew both use λησταί for the criminals is curious for whatever the harmonization is worth. Even apart from that additional information, both texts put criminality and wood close together, though neither of those appears much elsewhere in the Gospel. So there seems to be evidence that Jesus’ arrest can help interpret His more cryptic saying on His way to the cross.

One more factor of the narrative context of Luke goes back to the beginning of his Gospel. Early on in Luke 2:36-38, the reader is introduced to the character of Anna. Anna the Prophetess, who was a widow and (presumably) childless, rejoiced over the infant Jesus and spoke about Him “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Jesus’ proverbial warning comes at a moment of tragic irony developed from this point. As an infant, Jesus was celebrated by a woman of Jerusalem as a harbinger of the city’s redemption, and at His death, the women of Jerusalem mourn His fate, which He interprets to them as a sign of the city’s destruction.

Taking all these aspects of narrative context together, they seem to partially corroborate the initial conclusions from the historical context. Luke 23:31 comes only after Jesus has prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, Pilate has judged Him innocent, and He has been handed over to death. Whether one takes ὑγρός as “wet” or “green” (that is, living) in this case, Jesus seems to fit Himself. He is wet wood since, being innocent of all charges made against Him for which He might rightly be punished, He is not the material one would expect to be consumed by judgment. He is living, green wood since, being innocent, righteous, and young, He is not at all the type of limb one would ordinarily cut off and throw into the fire. This contrasts with Jerusalem, especially the religious leaders who have put Him to death unjustly. They will suffer a much more terrible fate, for they are dry wood, as hinted in v. 22:52. For they came to arrest Him with ξύλω as though He were an insurrectionist. The irony is that they are the insurrectionists; they demanded the release of one of their own from Pilate in vv. 18-25, and their revolutionary inclinations will ultimately be what dry them up for a final conflagration when Jesus’ prophesies are fulfilled.

The narrative context of Luke 23:27-31, then, indicates that Jesus’ cryptic remark about the green and the dry wood does specifically compare the fates of Himself and Jerusalem. If Jesus’ life is to end in such a disaster despite being innocent, zealous for God, and still young, what more will happen to Jerusalem in its guilt, antipathy, and decrepit state?12 Nonetheless, while this brings some clarity, the agency is still unclear. To whom does the third person plural form of ποιέω refer? It is possible given the evidence so far to read the referent as the Romans, the human agents common to both disasters, or as God, in His providence governing calamity and punishments.13 Some aspects of the historical context above seem to point in the divine direction, as perhaps does the Olivet Discourse’s handling of Jerusalem’s fate, but to finish fully developing the matter will require an analysis of the canonical intertextuality in play.

Canonical Background

Luke the Evangelist, the historical Jesus, and Jesus as He is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel all had in common a high regard for the Jewish Scriptures. Quite probably, then, the saying of Jesus in Luke 23:31 does not come ex nihilo but intentionally recalls or alludes to texts of similar language or subject matter in the Old Testament. In these Scriptures, fire imagery corresponds very frequently to divine judgment. On many occasions, particularly in the prophets, God or the prophet describes future judgments in terms of setting a tree, or wood, on fire.14 Sometimes the speaker will heighten the effect specifically by referring to green wood. For example, in Jeremiah 11:16, Jeremiah declares, “The Lord once called you, ‘A green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit’; but with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed.”

Many of these cases flow from a much broader association of the people of God with the image of a tree. Israel, and sometimes specifically its ruler, as a tree, vine, or branch is a common motif throughout the biblical prophets.15 This common pattern seems quite applicable to the passage in question. A symbol which can apply either to a ruler or the whole people works well with the suggestion that Jesus, crucified as King of the Jews, compares His own fate with Israel’s.

Each of these points contributes to the meaning of Luke 23:31. The association of fiery judgment consuming wood is almost exclusively used of divine wrath. This indicates that its implied use in the text does indeed attribute the agency to God, as the historical parallel also suggested. It is certainly not impossible, of course, that there is more to say, and that the ambiguous agency is quite intentional,16 but the divine agency seems to be the most pertinent. However, attributing the agency to God does raise questions about Jesus’ role. In this case, the observation about the link of a tree or vine with Israel or her ruler will be relevant.

Both Jesus and Jerusalem in this reading are subjects of divine judgment or, at least, divine misfortune. Yet Jesus is innocent, so this seems odd at first glance. Nolland comments about this:

Jesus does not consider himself to be a natural object of the disaster that he senses is soon to engulf his people as a judgment upon their sins, but he goes to the cross at his Father’s bidding and as his destined mode of participation in that wider impending disaster.17

To understand this a little better, the convertibility between the people and their king under the same symbols is important. Luke wants the reader to see that Jesus is here serving as the King of Israel. He is the Ruler, the Head, and His fate is bound up with hers. Though He is not guilty as she is, He takes responsibility for her crimes and goes into the fire while still green so that she might not be fully destroyed “in the dry.”

On this last point, a good reading must take into account that most of the prophetic works against Israel do not end in despair but hope. God usually promises restoration or forgiveness. There is undoubtedly a difference when Jesus’ warning comes against Jerusalem. He speaks with more finality, as the last prophet.18 Even so, there is a sliver of hope. If Luke intended the reader to connect the fates of Jesus and Jerusalem, he could hardly have stopped this at death when the Gospel ends in resurrection. Just as Jesus was raised after His crucifixion, so also would the people of God be raised after Him. As the continuation of the story into Acts makes clear, however, the new life of the people of God will not be the experience of the whole of Israel, but rather of those who, like the criminal crucified beside Jesus to whom He promised paradise, only those who recognize Him for who He is.

This note of hope is nonetheless not pronounced in context. The accent here is certainly on the bleak and dire circumstances coming for the people as a whole. If a few survive as God’s people through Jesus and His resurrection, this is good, but the woe and warning are the focus. Jesus lamented the fate of His people and their great city.19 Unlike the parallels in the biblical prophets, Jesus’ prophecy spells the absolute end for Israel as the nation she has been for centuries. When the barren are the fortunate and nursing brings woe, the future is cut off.


At this point, a fairly complete and convincing picture of the significance of Luke 23:27-31 in its context has emerged. Jesus predicted dire judgment on Jerusalem on His way to the cross, and He uttered a cryptic proverb emphasizing their shared doom. From its basic grammar, the historical context, the wider narrative in Luke, and the canonical background, this proverb takes shape as a way of linking the fates of Jesus and Israel under God’s providence. If God was willing to see Jesus, who appears here as an innocent man and Israel’s King, beaten and murdered as an insurrectionist, how much worse a fate will behalf Jerusalem who has grown old and dry in guilt? The logic establishes a relationship between Jesus and His people as those whom He represents and for whom He goes ahead into the fire, subtly points at hope for at least His own followers beyond disaster, and firmly plants the whole sequence of events in the scheme of divine providence. The reader should see in Jesus a true King, the one Israel needed but did not deserve, first unto death and first unto life, and in Jerusalem a city justly deserving of divine fury yet still pitiable for the sake of its loving Leader who let even His last journey to unjust cruelty be an occasion for warning her.


Bovon, François. Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53. Hermeneia Commentary Series. Translated by James Crouch. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012. Logos Bible Software.

Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Calvin’s Commentaries. Translated by William Pringle. Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corp, 2010. Logos Bible Software.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation and Notes. AYBC 28A. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985. Logos Bible Software.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke. NIGCT. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1978. Logos Bible Software.

Nolland, John. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35C: Luke 18:35–24:53. WBC 35C. Edited by Bruce Metzger et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018. Logos Bible Software.

Stein, Robert H. Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. NAC 24. Broadman & Holman Publishers: 1992. Logos Bible Software.

1 Luke 23:29b-31

2 Luke 22:39-46, particularly if vv. 43-44 is accepted.

3 François Bovon, Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53, HCS, trans James Crouch (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

4 Ibid.

5 Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, NAC 24 (Broadman & Holman Publishers: 1992), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

6 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation and Notes, AYBC 28A, (New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

7 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, CC, trans William Pringle, (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corp, 2010), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

8 John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35C: Luke 18:35–24:53, WBC 35C, ed. Bruce Metzger et al, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

9 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGCT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1978). Logos Bible Software, commentary on Luke 23:31.

10 Bovon, Luke 3, commentary on Luke 23:31.

11 Ibid.

12 Cf. Bovon, Luke 3, commentary on Luke 23:31, “Jesus, still young and alive, compares himself with the green wood; Jerusalem, ancient, dry, and hardened, with dry wood.”

13 With respect to God, it is noteworthy that in Luke sometimes the third person plural does seem to be used as divine circumlocution, see Stein, Luke, commentary on Luke 23:31.

14 E.g. Isa 10:16-19, Ezek 15:6-7, 20:47, 24:9-10.

15 Isa 5:1-5, 17:4-6, 53:2, 65:22, Ezek 15.

16 It is not hard to imagine that the Romans could be in view, for Jesus to say that if they kill Him though He is innocent of insurrection, they will do much worse to the nation if the nation rebels, but given the weight of evidence for divine agency in general, this seems either not the actual meaning or, perhaps, an intentional secondary understanding. Though in this paper the author wishes to uphold a more specific position as the best way to read the saying, there is something to be said for Nolland’s view: “It is likely that each of these suggestions is overly precise in its attempt to decode the terms used in the proverb,” Nolland, WBC Luke, commentary on 23:31.

17 Ibid.

18 See, for example, the parable of the tenants.

19 Cf. Luke 13:34.

Notes on Mark 8:27-10:52

Jesus has performed numerous miracles. Most recently He has fed another group of thousands, but afterwards His disciples still did not understand Him. Next He healed a blind man, and we enter this scene wondering: if Jesus can cure the beggar’s blindness, can He not cure His own disciples’?

For a moment, it seems that He does just this. Still in Gentile territory, Jesus asks His disciples about His identity, and Peter confesses that He is the Messiah. Jesus warns them not to share this, and proceeds to explain His future path of opposition, death, and resurrection. As it turns out, the blindness is not all removed, for they cannot understand this new information or bring it into conformity with what they thought they had just discerned clearly. Jesus warns and invites them to share in His coming suffering with the promise that the reward on the other side is greater than what they could lose, even including their lives.

With this higher calling comes higher privilege. Jesus cryptically says that some of them will see Him come in power, and immediately after this, Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured with the voices of Elijah, Moses, and heaven itself. They don’t know what to say, but this revelation proves the stakes. Things are moving forward into a new and more urgent stage, but for now even this must remain secret. The foreboding is made darker by the ominous note on how the people received the Elijah who came before the Messiah.

When Jesus and the Three get back to the other disciples, there’s a group and scribes arguing. They are all amazed to see Jesus (why?) and He wants to know their conflict. A man explains that the disciples could not drive out a demon from his son, a demon which makes him mute and something like epileptic, and tries to kill him. Jesus laments the unbelief at work (of the father? the people in general? the disciples?), elicits a confession of some real but insufficient belief from the father, and heals the boy Himself when He notices a crowd gathering. This is curious: was the unbelief the father’s? Did Jesus mean to make him recognize his own limited faith and reckon in a crisis with what he was willing to attribute to Jesus? And why does Jesus seem to respond to the gathering crowd? Does He have a point to make? Is He transitioning to a more open and confrontational ministry?

Jesus mentions His impending death and resurrection again, and immediately afterwards the disciples are bickering over who is the greatest. Here they are still blind: they do not see that the path to glory is a low and humble one, that God in Christ’s ministry is going to turn the world upside down, as it will later be said. Jesus quickly moves to highlight the stakes of the division at the heart of Israel now that the Messiah is here: those who are with Him may go maimed but make it through into life, while those who are against Him will be destroyed.

Jesus goes to Judea with a confrontational edge. He starts teaching and is challenged with a question about divorce. He takes a hard creational line against divorce, with the Mosaic ordinance treated as a concession. When children are brought to Him, He insists they be allowed since only those like them will receive the kingdom. The rich young ruler comes, quite unlike a child in his wealth and status and confidence in his righteousness, and goes away sorrowful when Jesus demands He give up His riches to become perfect. Jesus claims the rich, who often seem to be best situated with the Temple and offerings and purity and the like, will have a hard time being saved, and the disciples are astonished by what this seems to imply for everyone else. Yet Jesus deems that with God all is possible.

Peter, however, notes that the disciples have already left all they had to follow Jesus. Jesus promises that this nothing will be reversed to everything when all of the fortunes are reversed in the kingdom. Thus Jesus continues describing His impending death and resurrection, but they don’t understand Him. James and John seem to get quite the opposite idea of what Jesus has been saying. They directly ask for His highest positions of honor to grant, but asks if they are willing to share His cup and baptism. They affirm they are, but He says they will experience this, but the Father alone can grant the positions they seek. Jesus takes the opportunity of the other discples’ frustration with this request to reiterate the point He has been making for some time now: the path to victory, glory, greatness, and authority is not the overt and dominating. The arrival of the kingdom will reverse the order of the world, so it is the meek and the servant who will inherit these things, just as Jesus Himself will accomplish all He intends precisely by giving away His very life as a ransom for others.

Finally in this section, blind Bartimaeus calls out for healing. People try to hush him up, but he implores Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David,” Jesus calls him, he sprints across the way to Jesus (still blind!), and Jesus restores his sight after commenting on his faith. This whole section in question is bookended by the healing of two blind men, which seems to say something about the persistent blindness of the disciples in between.

Divine Authority and the Natural Order in Jeremiah 1

Divine authority and nature interplay in subtle ways in Jeremiah 1. One of the first audible notes is a peculiar dynamic God introduces into the economy of redemption: the inversion of the order of nature to magnify God’s unique power and master over that order. Jeremiah is a very young man, untrained in speech, and he is the one God has chosen to speak on His behalf before the powerful and the royal. Nature encourages those of education, rank, and ability to speak authoritatively over those unlearned, of humble status, and less competence. To invert this does not necessarily contradict nature, inasmuch as nature does teach that a message of truth, especially carried on behalf of the highest Authority, ought be heeded by anyone of any rank, but it does operate outside the channels which nature generally carves out. This suspension of a basic norm serves to accentuate the categorically superior authority of God’s direct voice over all that we might infer in the ordinary course of our reason.

This inversion is followed by a second inversion. Nature unites obedience to God and blessing from God; as we work with the grain of the order God has designed and decreed, we experience the divine goodness in that order organically. This, however, is deeply complicated by the introduction of sin. Agents contrary to the divine purpose can inflict suffering in response to obedience to God or give reward for the opposite. As sin intensifies, so does this disruption to the organic association of right and blessedness. So God warns to Jeremiah that, if he obeys the divine commission, the recipients of his message will fight against him. Curse will be repaid for blessing, the precise opposite of nature. This, God clearly shows, is the result of their sins, which have turned them into agents opposed to His design.

Precisely in this bleak form of irony, however, God inverts the inversion and reasserts His natural design by extraordinary and still inverted means. Though the kings and princes will rise up against Jeremiah on account of sin, God promises to intervene by His own power so that they will not prevail. The strong will be prevented from harming the weak, in a manner contrary to the general course of nature, but this will serve to reestablish the proper natural order in which reward follows righteousness. God will restore His original design for nature by working in and through an inversion of natural means to exploit the existing inversion of the natural order brought about by sin. This gambit is a recurring characteristic of God’s dealings with His people and ultimately prefigures the Resurrection, in which God gives His great “Yes” to the created order precisely in a supernatural introduction of strength in weakness, life from death, and justification through condemnation.

On another note altogether, God here holds the kings, princes, and priests especially responsible for the condition of the people of God. The whole people has sinned, and it will be punished, by the message especially goes to the leaders, who are the blind leading the blind. This points to the organic natural unity of human authority and human communities: those who lead the people represent the people, direct the people, and in an important sense are the people.

Beyond this, their chief sin, and the sin of the whole people, is idolatry. Idolatry is the worst sin at the root of all the others because it severs the whole structure of divine authority in nature and special revelation. Worshipping idols cuts off the ability to obey God’s verbally revealed law, quite directly violating it and often replacing some or all of its injunctions, and it distorts the relationship of the idolater to the natural law in general. This is especially true because idolatry twists mankind’s natural relationship to two classes of other beings: those of heaven and those of earth. With respect to heavenly beings, “other gods,” idolatry turns man, the proper heir of God’s creation, into the slave of the tutors. With respect to earthly creatures, idolatry subjects man to the service of dead materials formed to into “the work of [his] hands,” overthrowing his regency on God’s behalf. The combined effect is so detestable that God must judge, sometimes quite harshly and running quite roughshod over the natural way of things at points, even through the mouth of one who seems to be just a dumb kid.

Notes on Mark 4:34-6:6a

Jesus leaves home abruptly to go the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus stills the sea, which may foreshadow the stillness He is about to bring to a Gentile demoniac, given the Old Testament association of the Gentile nations and the sea. The event also evokes Old Testament imagery of God’s power over nature, and particularly to quiet the raging and chaotic sea, leaves the disciples wondering without answer about what this says of Jesus’ identity.

Next Jesus enters the Gerasenes. This is very clearly Gentile territory, and the entire episode is characterized by Gentile vocabulary and imagery: swine, uncleanliness, a “legion,” and even the classic Old Testament Gentile name for God, “Most High” (υψίστου, which in the LXX translates עֶליוֹן). Just as Jesus as just stilled the chaos of the sea, so Jesus stills the chaos of the demoniac. This time it is not the disciples who experience awe but the locals of the area. They were afraid and begged him to leave, a negative response but still in a sense more respectful than what Jesus has experienced in His own country. It is not entirely fruitless: the former demoniac remains as a permanent testimony and a “down payment” on future fruit among the Gentiles.

Jesus returns across the sea once more, having conquered a legion, and a crowd again gathers by the sea. A ruler of the synagogue, named Jairus, asks for Jesus to heal his daughter, who is on the verge on death. On the way, they are interrupted when a woman with a bleeding problem touches Jesus to be healed. After that the daughter is dead, but Jesus goes anyway and “secretly” raises her. It is interesting to ask why Jairus is named when so few characters in Mark’s healing narratives are. Richard Bauckam’s thesis that such instances are a narrative method to indicate eyewitness sourcing certainly seems plausible.

Besides this, it is undoubtedly important that the bleeding woman interrupts the matter with Jairus’ daughter. The two accounts bear a number of resemblances, such as the figure of 12 years, and both of the healings are of females. In both cases something thinks Jesus is being unreasonable (the disciples because He wants to know who in a crowd touched Him, the mourners at His claim the girl is but asleep). Both also involve secrecy giving way to public witness, as the bleeding woman tried to remain unseen but confesses publicly, and Jesus charged Jairus’ family to tell no one, but they did anyway. The healing in both cases is explicitly noted to be by touch (as opposed to speech or being left unspecified).

There are also contrasts. Jairus has rank and requests help from Jesus in a respectable manner; the bleeding woman is unclean and unknown, and her request for help is surreptitious. The bleeding woman is physically alive but dead to Israel and the Temple, while Jairus’ daughter is physically dead but had full access and status. Perhaps most strikingly, the bleeding woman gets the special response that her faith have saved/healed her, while Jairus’ daughter herself was dead and no comment was made on Jairus’ faith.

We have, then, both sides of Israel, the highest and the lowest, both touched by Jesus’ power and compassion. That representatives of each side of this spectrum need Jesus shows this need applies to Israel as a whole. Dying and unclean, her only hope is to have faith in Him and be raised by Him from death.

Finally for this passage, Jesus returns home to a cold welcome. They scoff at Him because they have always known Him, and the prophet goes home to less honor than even He was given by the Gentiles of the Gerasenes who sent Him away. Even Jesus Himself is astonished. Does this mean Israel will indeed fail to have faith in Him and be raised by Him?

Divine and Human Authority in 1 Samuel 8

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel infamously demands that Samuel appoint for them a king. This event involves some weighty issues for the idea of law and authority. On the surface, at least in many popular readings, what happened may seem simple: God was Israel’s only king, but they grew jealous of nations having tangible kings, so they wanted to replace God’s authority with that of a king. This, however, misses a couple of important features of the situation. For one, it is too simple to suggest, as often happens, that God was meant to be Israel’s only king. On the contrary, in Deuteronomy 17, God had already made provisions and permission for Israel to have a king. Moreover, the offense is not only against God. He says to Samuel that they are rejecting him like they had been rejecting God already all since they came out of Egypt.

These two qualifications highlight two useful points. First, divine and human authority is not a zero-sum game. God’s decrees and wise human rule do not conflict at the level of principle. Already in God’s law, the lesser agency of human wisdom and authority finds authorization. There was a way that Israel could have been ruled by a king without compromising their fidelity to divine authority, but whatever that route would have been, they did not take it.

Second and related, it is the reject, not the acceptance, of human authority that seems to follow rejection of divine authority. They rejected God first, then they rejected Samuel. They wanted a new authority of their own preference. This they willed despite all of the warnings of how he would mistreat them. In rejecting the authority God had already put in place for them, they willingly enslaved themselves to a crueler authority.

This last note catches a bit of the resonance of the Fall here. Adam and Eve were given a divine command prohibiting them, probably temporarily, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This language is connected elsewhere in Scripture to royal wisdom, implying that they sought royal judgment before royal maturity to wield it. So they exchanged the divine law they had to serve another master, in this case willingly subjecting themselves to the Serpent in their “liberation” from God. Israel likewise, before she was truly at rest (as the provision in Deuteronomy seemed to require), urged for royalty too quickly, and she finds herself willingly subjected to the serpentine Saul.

There is an irony to this new slavery to the serpent-king in God’s initial reference to delivering them from Egypt. Pharaoh was already a serpent figure enslaving the people, and this is from whom God redeemed them. Yet they have rejected the God who freed them and now willingly enter slavery again. This new king is described in a way reminiscent of Pharaoh, even! But this time around, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

The tyranny God predicts from the new king highlights another matter pertinent to the matters of law and authority. Tyranny is bad, and the laws in Deuteronomy explicitly prohibit the kinds of behavior that Samuel prophesies here and in which Saul (and later kings) actually engages. So there is a fundamental wrongness to tyranny. The king is not quite the state alone, nor is he above the law, but he is accountable to God even when they are no other checks in place. This is relevant to questions of how far a ruler’s authority truly goes when they become a tyrant, a limiting concern that is hard to hold up without the idea of divine judgment.

One final note: the king is representative of the people. They asked for him, they drink his health, they pay his taxes. They invite him to govern them and go out before them and fight their battles. These people know the Torah, presumably including the portions about the behavior of a king, but they are willing when warned to accept a king who breaks it. To request a Torah-breaking king is to assert themselves as a Torah-breaking people.

Mark 4 Notes

[Continued notes for my Davenant Hall class, “Reading the Gospels with Wisdom.”]

Jesus’ return home may have been full of strife up to this point, with dark accusations from the scribes and someone tense relations with His family, but the rest of the visit moves from events to teaching in one of the few extended sections of teaching in Mark, in this case all parables.

The first parable Jesus tells is that of the sower. At this point in the narrative, one can already see its meaning reflecting His experiences in the Gospel. Jesus has been teaching for some time, and many of the responses to His ministry included in the parable have already been seen in the events of the text. Curiously, though, the fruit-bearing response does not obviously seem to have happened to Jesus yet, for though He has drawn crowds and disciples, they have so far done little but misunderstand Him. Indeed, the disciples immediately ask Him what this parable itself means, and He responds with surprise that they cannot see what it means. His explanation foreshadows hope for the befuddled disciples (in the narrative world, if not in the events Mark actually narrates). The disciples on the whole do not seem to fit into the categories of paved, rocky, or thorny ground. So if they are good soil, this indicates that they will move past their confusion and incompetence to become effective in Jesus’ mission for them in the future.

Jesus’ explanation also notes that the “secret of the kingdom” has been given to but few and that the parables are meant to be obscure to everyone else. Precisely what it means that Jesus has given them the secret of the kingdom is unclear; I am not persuaded as one of our previous readings that it necessarily refers to a specific “off-stage” event, but I suspect it is probably more generally descriptive of what Jesus’ disciples gain by listening to Him.

Jesus’ parables here also include the covered lamp. Unlike in the other Gospels, this one is not obviously explained in terms of witness but seems to pertain to an impending eschatological disclosure of reality. It is possible Jesus used very similar imagery for quite different purposes on various occasions (an often neglected possibility in Gospel studies), but it may also be that there is some kind of a link between these two sides of meaning. Tentatively, we might suggest that the secret of God’s saving purposes has been hidden within Israel but should be so no longer, that Jesus’ eschatological mission means it is time to reveal this light to the Gentiles. This would connect with the parable of the mustard seed following in this passage, which seems to pick up Old Testament imagery indicating that the Kingdom of God will grow bless all the nations, and with Jesus’ impending journey to the country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus will be ministering in clearly Gentile territory.

Finally in this passage, Jesus leaves home abruptly to go the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus stills the sea, which may foreshadow the stillness He is about to bring to a Gentile demoniac, given the Old Testament association of the Gentile nations and the sea. The event also evokes Old Testament imagery of God’s power over nature, and particularly to quiet the raging and chaotic sea, leaves the disciples wondering without answer about what this says of Jesus’ identity.

Mark 2:1-3:6 Notes

[Continued notes for my Davenant Hall class, “Reading the Gospels with Wisdom.”]

Mark 2 opens with Jesus’ return to Capernaum. It refers to this as Jesus “at home,” which does not introduce a great deal of meaning but nonetheless strikes one accustomed to thinking so much of Jesus’ deity as unusually familiar. Ignoring that tangent, Jesus is immediate crowded beyond reason. A paralytic comes through the roof in all of the chaos. One might expect that “Jesus saw their faith” would lead immediately to a healing and conclude a simple healing story, but instead of a post-climax cooldown the tension is raised. Jesus forgives sins rather than healing, and the scribes accuse Him of blasphemy. They seem on solid ground when they say that God alone can forgive sins, but rather than rebuke them theologically, Jesus asserts that the Son of Man has authority to forgive by then healing the man. The sign confirms His claim to authority and implicitly identifies Himself as this “Son of Man.” What this means theologically is left for the reader to think through. How does the Son of Man have a divine prerogative? Ought He be identified with God? Is the Son of Man given a special delegated authority? No answers yet appear.

Jesus then abruptly moves to the sea to teach some more, and on the way from there He (almost casually) calls Levi to follow Him. The tax collector does. Given his profession, with an ungodly reputation, and the place implied in being the student of a Rabbi, this may follow up on Jesus’ authority to forgive as He can call a rank sinner into the ranks of His followers.

This prepared another conflict as He dines with tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees are offended, but Jesus points out that He ministers to the (spiritually) sick because they are those who truly need help. This will mark a consistent theme and point of conflict with Himself against the Pharisees and scribes. They wish to maintain a pure Israel on legal and cermonial grounds; He will come healing the sick, forgiving sinners, cleansing the unclean. These are radically different approaches to purifying the people of God, a necessary task before God comes to judge and bring in His kingdom.

This leads to three more small conflicts. Jesus’ disciples do not fast, and the Pharisees want to know why. Jesus says they are with the Bridegroom, an eschatological occasion for joy. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees object. Jesus defends them by pointing out the needs of rest and wholeness to which the Sabbath points and for which God granted it; it would be undermined if people were hurt by observing all possible legalistic implications of the rule to rest. How could they know this is a legitimate principle? The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath: it is His institution to pass judgments over. This again seems to conflate Him with God.

In a final conflict for this passage, Jesus heals a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. As the reader can easily predict by this point, the Pharisees complain and accuse, but Jesus responds by appealing to the same principle before about the need for goodness and rest and other such things on the Sabbath rather than their contraries. So the Pharisees are flustered, angry, and begin plotting. So begins a new looming threat to Jesus.