John Wesley boasted that he was a “man of one book,” but he was also a thoughtful student throughout his life and an author of many books.Asbreathgives life, John Wesley inhaled and exhaled the words of Scripture, shaping his thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behavior. And like our eighteenth-century ancestor, the Bible is central to usfor continued faith formation.
In this invitation to Scripture, the general editor of the Wesley Study Bible and biblical scholar, Dr. Joel Green, summarizes Wesley’s understanding of key themes and topics of key books of the New Testament. Using brief excerpts from Wesley’s writings (in updated language), Dr. Green explains the importance of Wesley’s thinking as it directly applies to everyday life and faithful practice. Each chapter ends with questions suitable for private devotion or group settings, to help you apply your study to daily living.
This book will be your trusted companion to the Wesley Study Bible as you love God with a warmed heart and serve God with active hands.
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About the Author
Joel B. Green is Provost, Dean of the School of Theology, and Professor of New Testament Interpretation of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Author of many books, he is also a General Editor of the Wesley Study Bible and the Common English Bible.
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Reading Scripture as Wesleyans
By Joel B. Green
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew, sometimes called the First Gospel on account of its position as the first of the Four Gospels, serves as a bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. As we turn the page from the end of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New, we find a startling continuity. Malachi 4:4-6 reads,
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
First, like Moses, Jesus is threatened by a ruler and narrowly escapes, then returns from exile on divine instructions (Matt 2:13-21). As Moses received and delivered the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, so Jesus delivers his great Sermon on a mountain (Matt 5–7). And just as Moses' name is associated with the first five books of the OT, collectively labeled "the book of Moses" (see Mark 12:26), so Matthew provides five major blocks of Jesus' instruction (Matt 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 24–25). Second, prior to the public ministry of Jesus we read in Matthew's Gospel the story of John the Baptist (Matt 3), about whom Jesus later remarks, "He is Elijah who is to come" (11:14; see also 17:10-12). Clearly, the story of Jesus and his church is deeply rooted in the OT story of Israel, God's people.
John Wesley regarded the Gospel of Matthew as the "first" Gospel in another sense. Following a long tradition, he considered it the first Gospel to have been written, and thought that the other Gospel writers, or Evangelists, knew the First Gospel and supplied what it had omitted. Study of the Gospels since Wesley's day has tended in a different direction, identifying the Gospel of Mark both as the first to have been written and as a key source for Matthew's Gospel. Gospels study has also come to emphasize more that each Gospel has its own emphasis as it presents the significance of the one person, Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, in Greek, the title of the Gospel of Matthew is simply "according to Matthew." This is because "gospel" or "good news" refers first to the advent of Jesus and only then to a kind of book that narrates the career of Jesus, focusing especially on his public ministry, his suffering and death, and the empty tomb.
Three Themes in Wesley's Reading of Matthew
We get a flavor of how Wesley interpreted the Gospel of Matthew by focusing on three aspects of his reading. First, Jesus is the Christ, about which Wesley writes:
The word "Christ" in Greek and "Messiah" in Hebrew both signify "Anointed"—and imply the prophetic, priestly, and royal qualities that were to meet in the Messiah. Among the Jews, anointing was the ceremony whereby prophets, priests, and kings were initiated into those offices. And if we look into ourselves, we shall find our need of Christ in all three respects. We are by nature at a distance from God, alienated from God, and incapable of a free access to God. Hence, we need a Mediator, an Intercessor; in a word, we need Christ in his priestly office. This regards our state with respect to God. And with respect to ourselves, we find a total darkness, blindness, ignorance of God, and the things of God. Now here we want Christ in his prophetic office, to enlighten our minds, and teach us the whole will of God. We find also within us a strange misrule of appetites and passions. For these we want Christ in his royal character, to reign in our hearts, and subdue all things to himself.
Wesley writes these words as a comment on the second appearance of the term "Messiah" in Matthew's Gospel, at the end of Matthew's account of Jesus' lineage: "and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah" (1:16, emphasis added). Matthew himself draws out the significance of Jesus' messiahship with reference to Jesus' royal status as the Son of God whose rejection by leaders in Jerusalem is central to his mission to bring salvation (e.g., 2:4-6; 16:16; 26–27). Wesley goes further, reflecting a working assumption that the Gospel of Matthew was written not only for a first-century audience but for the church of his day and ours.
This does not mean that he was simply interested in the question, What does this biblical text mean to me? Instead, he is trying to sort out what it means to call Jesus "Messiah" or "Christ" for the faith of the whole church. Note, then, that his reading is grounded in Israel's story in the OT and in the long-standing doctrinal interest in the "three offices" of Christ: Prophet, Priest, and King. We see in Wesley's reading his belief in the "simultaneity of Scripture"—that is, the ability of the one scriptural text to speak effectively at the same time to its original audience and to the church that identifies the Gospel of Matthew as its Scripture.
We can think about what Wesley is doing this way. According to a classical definition, the church is "one, holy, catholic (or universal), and apostolic." To say that the church is "one" is to admit that the people of God to whom Matthew first addressed his Gospel, the people of God in Wesley's day, the people of God in our day, and those who will be gathered as the end-time people of God are actually one people. There is only one church. So words addressed to God's people in the first century are actually addressed to the whole people of God, everywhere and at all times. And for this people, even the title given Jesus, "Christ," has immediate and far-reaching significance for identifying and addressing the human condition and faithful discipleship.
The second theme is the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel of Matthew tends to use this phrase where the Gospels of Mark and Luke have "kingdom of God." Wesley observes that "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God" are simply two ways of referring to the same thing. One way to translate this might be "heavenly empire," though Wesley was clear that this was not simply "a future happy state in heaven." Nor is it our possession. Rather, the kingdom of heaven refers to the gathering of God's people, "subjects" of the kingdom, under the leadership of God's Son. Accordingly, Jesus' proclamation of the "heavenly empire" refers to the social order (Wesley calls it a "society") that would be formed by God's people first on earth and then with God in glory. The condition of entry into the kingdom is repentance, and for Wesley this demonstrated that the kingdom of heaven "was a spiritual kingdom, and that no wicked person, no matter how politic, brave, or learned, could possibly be a subject in it." Wesley thus highlights what subsequent interpreters, including many contemporary readers, failed to grasp.
The centrality of God's dominion for Jesus' mission is hard to miss, given that Matthew mentions the kingdom more than fifty times in his Gospel. On this everyone agrees. More elusive has been a consensus around the nature of the kingdom. Wesley saw clearly, though, that the presence of a "kingdom" implied "subjects," and that this had immediate implications for social relations. Elsewhere, he works these out especially in terms of love of God and love of neighbor.
What Wesley did not take fully into account, though, is the relationship of the heavenly kingdom to all other "kingdoms." If our allegiance to God is primary and nonnegotiable, what bearing does this have for our relationships with all sorts of institutions that seek our reverence and obedience? This would have been crucial in the first-century Roman world, but it is an important question for us, too.
Third, it is interesting to find Wesley thinking about the relationship of Christian Scripture and modern science. In his reading of the First Gospel, questions about science and theology surfaced because of Jesus' miracles. In 4:23-25, Matthew summarizes the nature of Jesus' ministry throughout Galilee as proclamation and healing, and this combination is continued throughout the Gospel. Immediately following the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 (proclamation), Matthew reports a series of miracles concerned with healing (Matt 8–9) as Matthew depicts Jesus as one who makes available the presence and power of God's kingdom to those dwelling on the margins of society in Galilee—a leper, the slave of a Gentile army officer, an old woman, the demon-possessed, a paralytic, a collector of tolls, a young girl, and the blind.
Wesley lived in an age of exciting, unprecedented scientific discovery, when all sorts of mysteries had begun to be explained in terms of natural causes. So he was aware that some educated people had begun to question Jesus' miracles. For example, in his note on Jesus' commission to the disciples that they should "cast out devils" (10:8 AV), Wesley observed that someone had said that diseases ascribed to the devil in the Gospels "have the very same symptoms with the natural diseases of lunacy, epilepsy, or convulsions," leading to the conclusion "that the devil had no hand in them." Wesley continues:
But it were well to stop and consider a little. Suppose God should allow an evil spirit to usurp the same power over a man's body as the man himself has naturally, and suppose him actually to exercise that power; could we conclude the devil had no hand therein, because his body was bent in the very same manner wherein the man himself bent it naturally? And suppose God gives an evil spirit a greater power to affect immediately the origin of the nerves in the brain, by irritating them to produce violent motions, or so relaxing them that they can produce little or no motion, still the symptoms will be those of over-tense nerves, as in madness, epilepsies, convulsions, or of relaxed nerves, as in paralytic cases. But could we conclude thence, that the devil had no hand in them?
Reading Wesley's comments, we might forget that serious study of the central nervous system and its relationship to human behavior was barely a century old. Nevertheless, elsewhere Wesley writes that, "for six or seven and twenty years, I had made anatomy and physic the diversion of my leisure hours." In this way, he documented for us his interest in the new worlds that science had begun to open and his desire to take seriously the importance of science for biblical interpretation and for Christian mission. Methodists have always emphasized health care, especially for the poor—and this emphasis goes right back to the health clinics Wesley set up in the eighteenth century. In terms of biblical interpretation, here his solution is openness to the truth of both faith and science; rather than deny the truth of stories of demonized persons in the Gospels or of scientific explanations, he allows that both could be true.
The Gospel of Matthew and Wesley's Concern with Discipleship
The importance of Matthew's Gospel for Wesley is suggested by the number of sermons he drew from it:
Sermons 21–33: Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount (13 discourses on Matt 5–7) Sermon 49: The Cure of Evil-speaking (Matt 18:15-18) Sermon 66: The Signs of the Times (Matt 16:3) Sermon 84: The Important Question (Matt 16:26) Sermon 98: On Visiting the Sick (Matt 25:36) Sermon 99: The Reward of Righteousness (Matt 25:34) Sermon 108: On Riches (Matt 19:24) Sermon 125: On a Single Eye (Matt 6:22-23) Sermon 127: On the Wedding Garment (Matt 22:12) Sermon 134: Seek First the Kingdom (Matt 6:33) Sermon 145: (a sermon outline) In Earth as in Heaven (Matt 6:10)
Notice how many of these—sixteen!—are drawn from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). To these may be added several others that, together with his study notes on Matthew's Gospel, make plain Wesley's special interest in Matthew's portrait of holy living.
One of the areas where Wesley's notes invite Christian reflection is prayer. His comments have little relationship to workbooks and seminars on prayer on offer today, with their focus on various "technologies" of prayer (different kinds of prayer, things for which to pray, times to pray, prayer-records to keep, postures for praying, etc.). Instead, Wesley's emphasis falls on the One to whom we pray. Speaking of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in 6:9-13, what we call the "Lord's Prayer," he writes:
He who best knew what we ought to pray for, and how we ought to pray, what matter of desire, what manner of address, would most please himself, would best become us, has here dictated to us a most perfect and universal form of prayer, comprehending all our real wants, expressing all our lawful desires—a complete directory and full exercise of all our devotions.
The Lord's Prayer itself he divides into three parts—the preface, the petition, and the conclusion—and he insists that every part is directed to the triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—and that each section emphasizes the nature of the God to whom we pray. Recognizing God's majesty and mercy, not only do we have all the motivation we need to pray, but we are able to pray from our hearts.
A second area where Matthew's message is especially challenging has to do with faith and wealth, a point on which Wesley's rhetoric was unrelenting. In his sermon "On Riches," Wesley reflects on the story of the rich young man in 19:16-30. Wesley:
Refuses any suggestion that Jesus softens his tough saying about the wealthy: "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (19:23-24). Jesus really did mean to say that those who have wealth cannot but place their trust in things. Keeps a low bar on what it means to be rich. Anyone is rich who "possesses more than the necessaries and conveniences of life." But what is necessary and "convenient"? He goes on to rule that "whoever has food and raiment sufficient for themselves and their family, and something over, is rich" (§4). By this definition, many of us who regard ourselves as "just getting by" or even as "poor" need to look again at Jesus' challenge to the rich.
Why is wealth detrimental to Christian life? Riches are an obstruction to faith; to loving God and neighbor; and to the cultivation of humility, meekness, graciousness, and patience. Wesley refers to these latter qualities as "tempers," a word that we no longer use in this way. We might better think of patterns of believing, thinking, feeling, and behaving that so fully guide our lives that they seem to be inborn qualities. Riches, Wesley urges, distract us from cultivating these patterns. What is more, riches encourage the development of alternative patterns, unholy ones, such as forgetting God (Wesley calls this "atheism"); worshiping things as though they were gods and seeking happiness in things ("idolatry"); taking pride in what we have, as though one's wealth was an index of one's goodness; and a slew of other qualities: self-will, resentment, vengefulness, anxiety, and more.
"Let us come to the point!" we can almost hear Wesley say.
How many rich people are there among the Methodists (observe, there was not one when they were first joined together!) who actually do "deny themselves, and take up their cross daily"? Who resolutely abstain from every pleasure, either of sense or imagination, unless they know by experience that it prepares them for taking pleasure in God? Who declines no cross, no labor or pain, which lies in the way of one's duty? Who of you that are now rich deny yourselves just as you did when you were poor? Who as willingly endure labor or pain now as you did when you were not worth five pounds? Come to particulars. Do you fast now as often as you did then? Do you rise as early in the morning? Do you endure cold or heat, wind or rain, as cheerfully as ever? See one reason among many why so few increase in goods without decreasing in grace—because they no longer deny themselves and take up their daily cross! They no longer, alas! endure hardship, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ! (§10)
Excerpted from Reading Scripture as Wesleyans by Joel B. Green Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Gospel of Matthew,
2. Gospel of Mark,
3. Gospel of Luke,
4. Gospel of John,
5. Acts of the Apostles,
7. 1–2 Corinthians,
9. James and 1 Peter,
10. 1 John,