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Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Structure of Mark 1:1-8:26

mark and lionI am convinced that the wisest and most beneficial readings of the Gospels will pay attention to the skillful way the Evangelists have crafted their Gospel Biographies as pieces of literature. This crafting is especially apparent and important in the two overlapping but distinct aspects of literary structure (how blocks of material are placed together to communicate various themes and points) and narrative plot (what is the thread of the story and how does it unfold as a plot).

One of the projects I’m currently working on involves writing a summary of each of the Gospels, commenting on it very briefly in units. I have 5,000 words only to introduce and comment upon the Gospel of Mark. This strict word-count limitation actually provides a freedom to force me to not get stuck in the weeds but to keep the big picture and flow of the story as the most important thing.

As a result, I have been thinking a lot about the structure of the first half of Mark and I am offering here my preliminary thoughts on what is going on in Mark’s literary structure.

I have consulted several very good resources on Mark, including Mark Strauss’s Gospels survey book (Four Portraits, One Jesus), James Edwards’ excellent Pillar Commentary (The Gospel According to Mark), and Hans Bayer’s insightful A Theology of Mark, which, uncommonly, is a book on the Gospels mosaic mark and lionthat shows sensitivity to both literary and structure and plot (and recognizes their differences).

Each of these scholars (and most others) see Mark as split into two parts (1:1-8:26; 8:27-16:8), with the Caesarea Philippi Confession as the turning point of the book (8:27-30). I concur. But scholars differ on how much of the first part is the Introduction, what theme holds together the two parts, and what subunits they contain.

Here is my suggestion:

Introduction – The Messiah is Coming with His Kingdom (1:1-15)

Part One – The Powerful Son of God at Work in Galilee (1:16-8:26)

Part Two – The Powerful Son of God Must Suffer in Jerusalem (8:27-16:8)

Nothing overly new or spectacular here. But let me offer a few more detailed observations, particularly about 1:1-8:26 (as far as I’ve gotten in my project so far!).

  • The Introduction – 1:1-15

This section is framed by and includes three references to “the gospel” (1:1, 14, 15), making it hang together as a unit. This serves as a frame of reference for readers (and probably resulted in all four accounts eventually being called “the Gospel according to…”). Throughout this Introduction Mark explains “the gospel” in a variety of ways, thus filling out the readers’ understanding. He describes “the gospel” in 1:1 as the good news “about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” in 1:14 as simply “the good news about God,” and in 1:15 as the time being “fulfilled” and the “kingdom of God having drawn near.” The banner that hangs over the rest of Mark’s account flows directly from this announcement of the gospel – “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15).

  • There are two Main Themes that drive the structure and plot of Mark’s Gospel story – Jesus’ Identity and the Call to Discipleship.
    • Each of the subunits in 1:16-8:26 contain and are built upon this dual theme.
    • In fact, the subunits of 1:16-8:26 can be identified by recognizing how each of them begins with a summary paragraph about the disciples:
      • 1:16-2:12 (1:16-20 about the calling of the first fisherman disciples)
      • 2:13-3:12 (2:13-17 about the calling of Levi and other tax collectors)
      • 3:13-6:6 (3:13-19 about the appointing of The Twelve)
      • 6:7-8:26 (6:7-13 about the sending out of The Twelve)
    • Within each of these units Jesus’ identity is increasingly revealed, even as the disciples stumble to understand.
  • There are some important geographical movement markers that hint at more than geography, but theological points. Specifically, Mark seems to be communicating that Jesus’ work is done apart from the synagogue/Sabbath and home, but rather is outside. This conforms with a larger, well-recognized plot and structure theme in Mark, that Jesus’ ministry is “outside” in the sense that it focuses on Galilee, not Jerusalem. As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, conflict escalates.

Here is the data on the inside/outside distinction in 1:1-8:26:

  • Disciple-calling and revelation stories tend to happen outside – almost always on or near water, in the wilderness, and once on a mountain.
    • 1:9-11 – Jesus’ baptism and declaration of him as the Son
    • 1:16-20 – the calling of the first disciples at the Sea of Galilee
    • 2:13-14 – calling of Levi “beside the lake”
    • 3:7-12 – gathering of crowds of disciples and confession of Jesus as the Son of God (by impure spirits) after withdrawing to the lake
    • 3:13-19 – appointing of The Twelve on a mountain
    • 4:1-34 – revelatory teaching in parables alongside a lake
    • 4:35-41 – revelation of Jesus’ authority over nature on the lake
    • 5:1-17 – healing of the demoniac and confession of Jesus as the Son in the wilderness of Gerasenes
    • 5:21-43 – healing of Jairus’ daughter and hemorrhaging woman “by the lake” (and then in Jairus’ house)
    • 6:30-44 and 8:1-13 – miraculous feedings in the wilderness
    • 6:45-52 – revelation of Jesus walking on water
  • Conflict stories tend to happen inside the synagogues and/or on the Sabbath, and in houses:
    • 1:21-28 – conflict with the unclean spirits in the synagogue
    • 2:1-12 – conflict with the teachers of the law over the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the paralyzed man in the synagogue
    • 2:15-17 – conflict with teacher of the law and Pharisees about eating in a tax collector’s house
    • 2:23-28 – conflict with the Pharisees about eating grain on the Sabbath
    • 3:1-6 – conflict with the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue
    • 3:20-35 – conflict with Jerusalemites and his own family in a house
    • 6:1-6 – rejection by his hometown people and synagogue
  • There are some exceptions (1:29-34, healing of Peter’s mother in law in his house; 6:37-43, healing of Jairus’ daughter in her house), but this is a notable distinction, it seems to me.

So there are a few preliminary thoughts. I’m sure there is always more to be seen and I welcome any feedback or additional comments!


mark lion

Helpful Description of Patristic Reading via Francis Watson

In Francis WatWatson Gospel Writingson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, he provides a wide-ranging, deeply thoughtful and very detailed argument for the origins of the Gospels and the relationship of canonical and apocryphal Gospels in the reception history of the Jesus Traditions. There are many insights and much to be appreciated about Watson’s work, though at times I was confused on how certain chapters contributed to the whole and what exactly he was saying. I also have some disagreements, particularly about the inherent difference between canonical and non-canonical texts.

But this is not a review of Watson. Rather, I wanted to reproduce here what I think is a very helpful way to describe Patristic appropriations of Scripture, something that most modern readers, even trained biblical scholars, have little exposure to and understanding of.

Watson’s comments here come in the context of his discussing how the Fathers regularly connected the four images of the Evangelists/Gospel Writers with the four beasts of Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. His point, which I think is well stated, is that Patristic readings certainly understand and do value wha4 Symbols modernisht I would call the “excavational” work on the sensus literalis of a text (something similar to but not identical with modernist grammatical-historical readings) but they also recognize the constructive and figural usefulness of Holy Scripture in making connections with the divine economy and canon.

That’s my way of saying it; enough from me. Here is how Watson describes it:

“It is certainly true that neither the seer John nor the prophet Ezekiel could have associated the four living creatures they beheld in their visions with four gospels. Yet the patristic authors all assume a hermeneutical distinction between literal-historical and allegorical modes of interpretation. In the allegorical mode, points are no longer read out of the scriptural text (‘exegesis’), but nor does one merely read into it (‘eisegesis’). Allegorical interpretation may often be understood pragmatically, as a way of using the biblical text to address a theological problem — here, the problem of the coexistence of four gospels in their similarity and difference. The patristic hermeneutic rightly recognizes that the function of a scriptural text is not just to generate a literal sense that reproduces its latent meaning but also [emphasis mine] to provide tools that further the community’s work of self-construction. Patristic theologians use the visionary texts [Rev 4 and Ezekiel 1] to think through the fourfoldness of the canonical gospel, and they do so because these texts provide them with striking images or parables of fourfold difference within a common orientation towards Christ.”     (Francis Watson, Gospel Writing, pp. 554-555)

I would prefer the term “figural” to allegorical now because of the baggage that comes with the latter. I would also want to emphasize what Watson is saying — this is not an either/or within Patristic interpretation, but a both/and, valuing close textual-intent reading AND figural inter-connectedness.
What I like about Patristic reading is that it keeps together two things that Christians have always valued: (1) the voice of the text and (2) the texts’ connection with the whole canon toward the end of theological construct, application, and spiritual formation; something that unfortunately is often put asunder in modern hermeneutical strategies.

Running Bibliography on the Structure of Matthew

For many years I matthew & angel (cantarini)have been fascinated with the structure of the Gospel of Matthew. I continue to study and ponder the question of how the First Gospel is put together in literary terms, and I continue to grow in my understanding. Rarely a semester goes by that I don’t end up making some slight adjustment to how I understand the structure of Matthew — and sometimes I have made big adjustments!

I am not alone in having a passionate interest in this pet hobby of figuring out Matthew as a piece of literature. Dale Allison, the leading Matthean scholar in the Anglophone world, certainly shares this interest as well.

The reason is because those of us who have given ourselves to the study of the Gospel of Matthew realize that (1) this is a masterpiece and worthy of this kind of study; and (2) the subtle and powerful ideas being communicated in Matthew are frequently embedded into larger structural clues, not something that can be discerned by looking at individual stories/pericopes nor by doing only a surface reading of the text. I often describe it as “divine crop circles” — you have to get to a higher altitude over the text to discern intricate patterns that are woven into the whole structure.

In a couple of recent projects I’ve been working on I have addressed again what I (currently) think is going on in the structure of Matthew, both as a whole and in the Five Major Discourses as well. Chapter 5 in my The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing commentary is dedicated to the structure of Matthew and the Sermon in particular. My 2015 Matthew Section SBL paper, which is being revised and going into a book in dialogue with Francis Watson’s work, also touches on the structure of Matthew.early_codex

I just re-read Wim Weren’s thoughtful and intriguing argument for his understanding of Matthew, “The Macrostructure of Matthew’s Gospel: A New Proposal,” in his, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel: Literary Design, Intertextuality, and Social Setting (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 13-41. While I don’t see things exactly the same way, I learned a lot from what he said. Moreover, I am very appreciative of the many references he made to other people’s attempts to understand the structure of Matthew.

This stimulated me to write this post. What I am providing here is a running bibliography of articles and books on the structure of Matthew’s Gospel. This is of course, incomplete, but I will be happy to update it as I find things or as you do. Please send them along so that we can have a live repository of resources on this fascinating topic. Also, if you find any errors in what I’ve put together, please let me know.

A few important caveats: This bibliography does not list the innumerable commentaries on Matthew, most of which have their own discussion of Matthew’s structure, some more than others. This bibliography also does not contain articles or books that focus on particular parts of the structure of Matthew (such as the Sermon on the Mount), but rather, highlights works that for the most part try to address the structure of Matthew overall.

Enough preliminary comments. Here it is:

[Latest Revision: March 4, 2017]

  • Allison, Dale C., Jr., “Structure, Biographical Impulse, and the Imitatio Christi,” in Allison, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005): 135-156.
  • Anderson, Janice Capel, Matthew’s Narrative Web: Over, and Over, and Over Again (JSNTSup 91; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994).
  • Bacon, Benjamin W., “The Five Books of Matthew Against the Jews,” The Expositor VIII, 85 (1918)” 56-66. Also in Studies in Matthew (New York: Henry Holt, 1930).
  • Barr, David L., “The Drama of Matthew’s Gospel: A Reconsideration of Its Structure and Purpose,” TD 24 (1976): 349-359.
  • Bauer, David R., The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (JSNTSup 31; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988).
  • Boring, M. Eugene, “The Convergence of Source Analysis, Social History and Literary Structure in the Gospel of Matthew,” Society of Biblical Literature: Seminar Papers 33 (1994): 587-611.
  • Carter, Warren, “Kernels and Narrative Blocks: The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel,” CBQ 54 (1992): 463-481.
  • Combrink, H. J. Bernard, “The Macrostructure of the Gospel of Matthew,” Neot 16 (1982): 6-10.
  • Combrink, H. J. Bernard, “The Structure of the Gospel of Matthew as Narrative,” TynB 34 (1983): 233-253.
  • Filson, Floyd V., “Broken Patterns in the Gospel of Matthew,” JBL 75 (1956): 227-231.
  • Gaechter, Paul, Die literarische Kunst im Matthäus-Evangelium (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwer, 1965)
  • Gooding, David W., “Structure littéraire de Matthieu, XIII, 53 à XVIII, 35,” RB 85 (1978): 227-252.
  • Green, H. Benedict, “The Structure of St. Matthew’s Gospel,” StEv 4 (1968): 47-59.
  • Keegan, Terence J., “Introductory Formulae for Matthean Discourses,” CBQ 44 (1982): 415-430.
  • Kingsbury, Jack D., “The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel and His Concept of Salvation-History,” CBQ 35 (1973): 451-474.
  • Kingsbury, Jack D., Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress Press / London: SPCK, 1975).
  • Kingsbury, Jack D., Matthew as Story, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).
  • Krentz, Edgar, “The Extent of Matthew’s Prologue: Toward the Structure of the First Gospel,” JBL 83 (1964): 409-414.
  • Lohr, Charles H., “Oral Techniques in the Gospel of Matthew,” CBQ 23 (1961): 403-435.
  • Matera, Frank J., “The Plot of Matthew’s Gospel,” CBQ 49 (1987): 233-253.
  • Neirynck, Frans, “La redaction matthéenne et la structure du premier évangile,” ETL 43 (1967): 41-73.
  • Neirynck, Frans, “APO TOTE HRXATO and the Structure of Matthew,” ETL 64 (1988): 21-59.
  • Mullooparambil, Sebastian, Macrostructure of Matthew’s Gospel (Bangalore: Dharmaram Publicaions, 2011).
  • Pennington, Jonathan T., Chapter 5, in The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017)
  • Powell, Mark Allan, “The Plot and Subplots of Matthew’s Gospel,” NTS 38 (1992): 187-203.
  • Powell, Mark Allan, “Literary Approaches and the Gospel of Matthew,” in Powell, ed., Methods for Matthew (Cambridge: CUP, 2009): 44-82.
  • Ramaroson, Léonard, “La structure du premier Évangile,” ScEs 26 (1974): 69-112.
  • Riesner, Rainer, “Der Aufbau der Reden im Matthäus-Evangelium,” ThBei 9 (1978): 172-182.
  • Rolland, Phillipe, “From Genesis to the End of the World: The Plan of Matthew’s Gospel,” BTB 2 (1972): 155-176.
  • Schmauch, Werner, “Die Komposition des Matthäus-Evangeliums in ihrer Bedeutung für seine Interpretation,” in Schmauch, … zu achten aufs Wort: Ausgewählte Arbeiten (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967): 64-87.
  • Slater, Tommy B., “Notes on Matthew’s Structure,” JBL 99 (1980): 667-670.
  • Smith, Christopher R., “Literary Evidence of a Fivefold Structure in the Gospel of Matthew,” NTS 43 (1997): 540-551.
  • Via, Dan O., “Structure, Christology and Ethics in Matthew,” in Richard A. Spencer, Orientation by Disorientation: Studies in Literary Criticism and Biblical Literary Criticism (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1980): 199-217.
  • Weren, Wim J. C., “The Macrostructure of Matthew’s Gospel: A New Proposal,” in Weren, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel: Literary Design, Intertextuality, and Social Setting (Leiden: Brill, 2014): 13-41

Graphic Representation of the Flow of Matthew

gospel-matthew-topographical-jtp-cbMy super-talented former student and close friend, Chris Borah, has made this graphical representation of my analysis of Matthew’s structure and flow. It highlights how the five major discourses have their own varying functions and roles within the overall, highly-structure narrative that is the First Gospel. I discuss this in chapter 5 of my forthcoming The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary, but not with this graphical awesomeness!

I am struck not only by the beauty and insight of what he has created but also am reminded of the reality of how different modes of communication cannot be collapsed into each other: a graphic representation communicates things that can not be said any other way. Wonder-ful! (The classic Metaphors We Live By is a good place to start thinking about language in this way. Even more philosophical, Taylor’s The Language Animal).

Enough on that. Here it is:


Download the PDF

My Remarks for our PhD Induction Ceremony

As the director of the PhD program at Southern I care about creating a culture and liturgies as part of our life together as Christian scholars.

A couple of years ago, inspired by an Honors Program initiation I attended for my daughter’s college, I created an Induction Ceremony for our incoming PhD students. Each January and August, as part of the students’ week of introductory classes, we conduct a short evening service in the chapel, attended by current PhD students and faculty. At this ceremony the students are read a charge by a current PhD student and they respond with a printed reply. They then sign a book and cross the platform to be pinned with a beautiful lapel pin we had made. At the beginning of the service the inductees are seated together on one side of the chapel. After crossing over they join the seating with the current students and faculty and then recess together at the end of the service. All of this is followed by a brief dessert reception. It has become a meaningful ritual for our PhD community.

At this service I offer a brief charge and explanation for why we are doing what we are doing.

Below are my remarks for the Jan 24, 2017 service.

PhD Induction Ceremony

Jan 24, 2017

The Calling to the Doctorate of Philosophy

Imagine with me a large, tastefully-decorated church sanctuary, adorned with beautifully woven tapestries down the side aisles that invite worshippers to consider many names and truths about God. In an elegant font one banner reads, “Savior,” and another, “Messiah.” One banner has in gold thread the word, “King,” and another “Provider.” We see “Friend of Sinners,” “Immanuel,” “Son of David,” and others.

And one, of course, reads, “Philosopher.”

Well, not of course, in any of our modern sanctuaries. But I would suggest to you that “Philosopher” is precisely what may church banners would have read in the earliest centuries of the Church if they had such banners. We do have plenty of records in theological treatises, homilies, engravings, and sacred art (mosaics, frescoes) that Jesus was clearly understood as a Philosopher, THE great and true Philosopher.

This raises two questions:


And Why does this seem so odd to us?

In answer to the first, Why?

The reason Christian leaders and theologians understood Jesus as a Philosopher and described him as such in word and art is because Holy Scripture can easily be read in such a way that shows Jesus (and Moses before him) as very much functioning as a philosopher – as a sage, a purveyor of God-centered wisdom for how to be in the world that accords with God’s Heavenly City/Politeia/Society, as the one who teaches truly how alone one can enter into the fullness of life that all people long for.

And this leads into the answer to my second question, Why does this seem odd to us?

The reason is because in the Modern period we have completely lost the ancient understanding – both Christian and pagan – of what a philosopher is and what they do.

In the ancient world – both within Christianity and outside of it – people understood that a philosopher played a key role in society, to help people understand human nature, the divine nature, nature’s nature, and how to order one’s life in line with virtues and habits that will result in true life.

Now what does this have to do with you and tonight’s induction ceremony?

Tonight we are standing at this milestone inviting you, new PhD students, into this final stage of your formal education, this terminal degree, the highest recognized degree one can earn in any field, the Doctor of Philosophy degree.

Have you considered it is called a doctorate of philosophy when most of us are not studying “philosophy” in the modern sense of that? And after all, doesn’t the Bible warn us against being captive to philosophy?

The reason this very old and venerable degree (one we’ve been offering at Southern for nearly 125 years) is called a doctorate in philosophy is because “philosophy” is the older term that means originally, “love of wisdom” and then more generally, a devotion to the life of learning.

A true philosopher, unlike a mere scientist or technician or medical doctor, or other forms of skilled and valuable labor, a philosopher is one who labors to understand things at the meta-level, how the world works, what humanity is and how it functions, and how it all fits together. Philosophers – especially those who earn the lofty title of Doctor of Philosophy – are those who are called to use their intellectual gifts and labors to lead society.

Last year the New York Times ran an insightful little piece about philosophy and its role in the university. It noted that this older understanding of philosophy (and theology) was sadly lost when philosophers sold out this high calling for something much less – trying to be like every other field of study in the university, very narrow and specific. The result was the loss of its influence and relevance.

But we are gladly using the term Doctor of Philosophy in its older sense of one who loves and seeks the wisdom to understand how the world fits together and works.

And friends, when this is combined with and studied within the context of Holy Scripture and a confessional Trinitarian orthodox understanding of the world we have the highest intellectual calling that God has given to humanity.

So today you are entering and we are welcoming you into a vision, a calling, a privilege, a joy, a mutual labor, a community of co-learners, a fellowship of philosophers, a throng of theologians, a cohort of Christian thinkers – not because we are inherently better people than non-PhD folks, or more loved by God, or necessarily paid more – but because we are people who have received a special calling from God.

And with a calling comes a responsibility.

And so as we begin a new school year and welcome you into our PhD community here at Southern, Induction Class of Spring 2017, we want to stir you up with this vision of our shared calling AND we want to challenge you to take this beautiful mantle upon yourselves with joy and sobriety.


“The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom” – My SAHS 2016 Remarks

For many years I have been involved in the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (with the horrible acronym SAHS), led by the indefatigable and über-gravitas man Craig Bartholomew.

This year at SAHS (which is now part of IBR) in San Antonio I was asked to give a 15-minute presentation on how the Sermon on the Mount informs our understanding of the kingdom.

Following are my remarks. (I’ve also uploaded this as a pdf to my page.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IBR-Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar

Nov 19, 2016

San Antonio

Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington


“The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of God”



I have been tasked with the fruitful question – How does the Sermon on the Mount inform our understanding of the kingdom of God? This puts me in the delightful position of getting to share some thoughts about the intersection of two of largest and most important aspects of Holy Scripture – one being the Sermon (as recorded in Matthew 5-7) (the most studied, preached upon, and I would venture, the single-most influential portion of the Christian Scriptures), the other being the kingdom (the most central and unifying theme of Jesus’ teachings). This is a joyful assignment.

Yet I am simultaneously in the unenviable position of having been tasked with a mere 15 minutes to do so! So I will avoid giving you a “yuge” paper – that would be a “yuge” problem – and will instead believe that less is more. After a brief bit of data on the frequency of “kingdom” language in Matthew and in the Sermon I will offer you two overlapping lines of thought about how the Sermon informs our understanding of the kingdom. We might think of these as spheres of inquiry, each of which overlaps with the other in a Venn diagram kind of way.

“Kingdom” in Matthew and the Sermon[1]

There are few things in the scholarly discussion of Jesus that attain the lofty status of true consensus. One thing that does reach that height is that the historical Jesus preached and taught about the kingdom of God. What he thought about himself, whether his followers truly followed him, or why he died are all debated. But no one doubts that Jesus taught and preached regularly about God’s reign or kingdom. All three of the Synoptic Gospels make this abundantly clear.

First among these is the First Gospel, which depicts Jesus’s ministry as very much about God’s kingdom both in action and in content of teaching, with 64 references to the kingdom.[2] As Donald Hagner has noted, the controlling theme for Matthew is the kingdom, and R. T. France observes that the kingdom of heaven functions “virtually as a slogan for the whole scope of the ministry of Jesus” in Matthew.[3] Matthew’s unique contribution to the idea of the kingdom particularly comes through in his exclusive use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” (used 32 times), which is synonymous with “the kingdom of God,” though different in connotative nuance.[4]

The Sermon on the Mount plays no small part in this kingdom emphasis, and in fact many scholars see the kingdom as the Sermon’s “principal theological concept.”[5] We see reference to the kingdom immediately in the opening section of the Beatitudes. Indeed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” serves as an inclusio in the first and eighth Beatitudes (5:3, 10), providing a framing and frame of reference for Jesus’ series of macarisms.[6] To structure the Beatitudes and to open the Sermon with references to God’s heavenly reign is to use a megaphone to communicate that Jesus’s ministry is looking forward to the eschaton when God will re-establish his reign upon the earth.

The term “kingdom” also appears six more times in the Sermon, all at crucial junctures in the discourse. Its three appearances in 5:19–20 are very important because these verses serve as the proposition for the whole Sermon.

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18Truly I say to you that until heaven and earth pass away not an iota or one pen stroke of the Law will pass away, until all is accomplished. 19Whoever, therefore, lessens one of the least of the commandments and teaches others in this way, that person will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does these commandments and teaches others will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees then you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The references to the kingdom of heaven here in the thesis statement of the Sermon make clear that the issue at hand is whether one enters into and is a part of God’s people. The same emphasis on entering the kingdom is highlighted at the end of the Sermon in 7:21 – Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

No less important is the high-altitude, exhortation in 6:33 that concludes the middle part of the Sermon, stating that disciples must “seek first the kingdom and his righteousness.”

And even more prominent is the reference to the kingdom in the literary and theological epicenter of the Sermon, the Lord’s Prayer. In the initial threefold petition of the Pater Noster (6:9–10) we are instructed to pray in this particular way:

Our Father who is in heaven,

Let your name be sanctified,

10Let your kingdom come,

Let your will be done,

As these are in heaven, let them be also on the earth.

Here the kingdom is in a Venn diagram–like overlapping relationship with God’s name and will, with the request that all of this reality now in heaven become our earthly experience.

So it is not difficult with this frequency and placement that the kingdom is central to the teaching of the Sermon.

All of these references to the kingdom in the Sermon invite the hearer to recognize that what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon is actually tied directly to his opening words and the general message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (4:17 ESV).

Moreover, the entire literary frame for the Sermon and the narrative block that follows (Matt. 8–9) are demarcated by references to Jesus preaching and teaching “the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23; 9:35).[7]

This prominence of the kingdom all around and within the Sermon orients the reader to understand that the macarisms and other wisdom being offered by the Sage Jesus are more than simply generalized, universal, human wisdom. Rather, these references to the kingdom of heaven set the first block of Jesus’s teaching in the New Testament into the context of the Jewish story of God’s reign and particularly the Jewish expectation of its eschatological consummation,[8] its coming from heaven to earth.


Two Overlapping Lines of Thought Regarding the Kingdom in the Sermon

In my remaining time I will offer just two lines of thought about the intersection of the Sermon and the Kingdom. These are of course not comprehensive and definitive statements but invitations to further inquiry.

(1) The Sermon is a primary locus for Jesus’ program of resocialization into the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teachings – central of which are the Sermon – have as their primary purpose the forming of people into a new way of being in the world that accords with God’s reign/kingdom. Therefore, we may describe Jesus’ modeling and teaching as a kind of resocialization – an intentional re-forming of our habits, desires, affections (a proper ordering of loves), a re-making of disciples to be like their Father God (“be holy as I am holy”), to be god-like/god-ly.[9]

While this may seem like an obvious thing to say, it is remarkable how unappreciated (and unpracticed) this foundational aspect of Jesus’ ministry is. Rather, we so often read the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings for historical facts, doctrinal nuggets, and maybe even occasionally for “ethics” – all fine things to do. But I would recommend that the primary reading of Jesus’ life and teachings and the one that goes most naturally with the grain of the text is the formative/transformative reading – the reception of the text with an openness to have our affections, loves, habits, judgments – our lives – changed and shaped into conformity with God’s coming kingdom, which is in conformity with who God himself is.

The Sermon, the first teaching block of the NT canon, is a compendium or primary locus point of these transformative kingdom teachings. The Sermon is not the entirety of the gospel nor is it the only place where we learn from Jesus in content or as exemplar, but it is a primary and central one, serving as an epitome (in the technical Greek philosophical sense) of Jesus’ teachings that learners/disciples can continually return to be retrained as they await God’s returning kingdom.

This resocialization into the kingdom and its values is nothing less than what was the conscious and ubiquitous goal of ancient Jewish and Greek education, paideia – the forming of the whole person for the sake of creating a just and flourishing society.

It is within this framework that the Church understood both the Sermon on the Mount and the message of the kingdom – that Jesus was forming a new society or, to use the ubiquitous Greek term in the Fathers (borrowed from Plato and others), a new politeia.

I do not have time or space here to do more than invite you to do your own exploration of this rich idea of politeia that is central to early Christianity. I can simply summarize that a constant thread throughout the Patristic tradition is how Christianity alone provides the true way of being in the world and way of structuring society. One can think of Tatian, of Basil of Caesarea, of Athanasius, of Chrysostom, of Maximus the Confessor, and on and on, all of whom speak of Christianity as the true politeia of the world.

The point is again that the message of the kingdom is a disciple-making message at both the individual and corporate level, and that the Sermon serves as an epitome of this disciple-making, kingdom-oriented instruction.

One of the implications of this realization concerns our understanding of what the gospel is and particularly the voice that Christianity can and should have in society, what we might call public theology. I am not able here to assert what that role should be precisely, and indeed this must be an ongoing discussion requiring contextualization that will vary by time and culture. But I can say that much of the Protestant tradition, and especially certain Evangelical sub-streams of which I have been a part, have little to no conception of how fundamental to Jesus’ teaching is the idea that Christianity is offering a program of both individual and corporate resocialization of affections, values, habits, and practices. The reason Jesus is preaching and teaching about the kingdom is because he is forming a new group of righteous people, and foundational to what this group looks like is the Sermon.


And this leads easily into the second line of thought.

(2) The Sermon presents Jesus as a great Philosopher King.

Anyone familiar with either the Jewish wisdom tradition or the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition – or ideally both – can easily see that in the Sermon Jesus is depicted precisely this way: as a Jewish Philosopher/Sage. It is not merely coincidental that the Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions are in confluence here because of the pervasive and centuries-deep process of Hellenization that has already occurred within all of Second Temple Judaism by the time of Jesus. This Hellenized Judaism, which is the origins of Christianity (and rabbinic Judaism), produces sages – wisdom teachers who embody and teach and produce literature that invites hearers into a way of being in the world that promises true human flourishing. Jesus is clearly depicted in the Gospels (as well as throughout early Christianity) as just such a Sage/Philosopher, as a life-coach, or better, the Eternal Life-Coach (!).

This basic understanding makes the Sermon on the Mount, which is woven throughout with virtue and wisdom language (makarios, teleios, glory, etc.) and which ends with the Two Ways option of either being a moros person (fool) or phronimos person (wise), is easy to understand as a piece of wisdom literature being provided by the Wise Teacher Jesus.

But what may not be easy for us as 21st-century readers to understand is that this Sermon on the Mount-y presentation of Jesus as a Sage/Philosopher is simultaneously a depiction of Jesus as the true King, and thus making sense of why the Sermon is about the Kingdom. In other words, Jesus as Sage/Philosopher and Jesus as King are not merely coincidental aspects of the Sermon, but are in fact two sides of the one coin, a coin that depicts not Caesar as emperor but Jesus.

In both the Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions (and more broadly in the ancient world), a king was understood to be the “living law,” the leading Sage/Philosopher who rules and rules righteously precisely because he (or she in the case of great Queen) is the epitome of wisdom and virtue. Whatever cultural encyclopedic evocations “king” may have for you or me – and this will vary somewhat even in this room, depending on your nation – I think none of us would immediately associate “king” with “philosopher/sage” or even “most virtuous exemplar.” Yet this is precisely what the cultural encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world would have associated together. The true king was the true philosopher.

Within the Jewish tradition one can immediately think of the narratived examples of this, with David and the original “son of David,” Solomon, who are depicted as great kings (though ultimately flawed) precisely because they ruled and reigned with such wisdom.

The Greek (and broader ancient) tradition is even more explicit along the lines of this necessity for a good king. “One role of the ideal king in antiquity is to embody the law internally and to produce good legislation that transforms the people and leads them in obedience to the law.”[10] The ideal king is the virtuous one who himself imitates the gods, becoming an animate or living law, which then produces harmony for his subjects.[11]

Much more could be said along these lines, but I will just mention that one of the places where these two related streams of the Jewish and Greek traditions deeply merge is in Philo, who labors to show that Moses was indeed the ideal and perfect philosopher-king who himself was a “living law” so that others may imitate him, implanting his image into their souls, and thereby being led to the truly good life (eudaimonia).[12]

I would suggest to you that this is precisely what is going on in the Gospels as well, including in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as the great and true Philosopher-King who embodies and fulfills the law, who is the example of virtue, and who teaches his citizens to do the same.

To conclude and bring these two points together, we can see that the Sermon and the Kingdom are mutually informing realities: the kingdom is the space where the Great Philosopher King teaches and models a way of being in the world that accords with God’s rulership over the world, a way of being that entails a transformation of the values, habits, and affections of the citizens/disciples of the King Jesus.



[1] The following section comes from my Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A 

Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: forthcoming 2017).

[2] A fuller account of the theme of kingdom in Matthew can be found in Pennington, Heaven and Earth, chap. 12.

[3] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, lx; France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 262.

[4] As I argue in Heaven and Earth, Matthew’s unique verbiage of “kingdom of heaven” has particularly strong evocations that are a part of Matthew’s elaborate theme that contrasts God’s heavenly ways with humanity’s earthly ways.

[5] This is the expression of Hans Dieter Betz in his “Cosmogony and Ethics in the Sermon on the Mount,” in Cosmogony and Ethical Order, ed. Robin Lovin and Frank Reynolds (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985), 120.

[6] As will be argued in the discussion of the structure of the Sermon in chap. 5, there are nine Beatitudes, spanning 5:3–11, not eight as some commentators have suggested, nor seven as was commonly argued in the premodern period. The ninth is set apart and highlighted by its repeating the content of the eighth and by its serving as a kind of add-on, bonus feature to the inclusio-ed structure of the first through eighth Beatitudes.

[7] Luz observes that “the kingdom of heaven promised for the future stands over the entire Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 1–7, 172).

[8] Betz describes the clause “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10) as “an anticipatory eschatological verdict” belonging to an account of the last judgment (cf. 25:31–46, esp. v. 34) (Essays on the Sermon on the Mount [1985; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009], 26).

[9] Jason Hood in is exploration of the theme of imitation in Scripture notes that our common word “godly” is merely a shortened form of the expression “god-like.” Jason Hood, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

[10] Josh Jipp, Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 45.

[11] Jipp, Christ is King, 50-51.

[12] Jipp, Christ is King, 52.

Some Reflections from a Professor in the Pulpit (Part 2)

[This is the second of two posts on my reflections on preaching. Part 1 can be found here.]

(4) I am convinced more than ever that preaching helps us ask the best questions of the text of Holy Scripture.

Interpretation is driven by and rooted in asking questions. The skill of interpretation of texts is learning how to ask questions of the text and to discern the answers well. There are many different kinds of questions we can and should ask about a text, including the texts of Holy Scripture. We can ask historical questions, grammatical ones, cultural queries; we can do literary analysis, ask about character development; we can ask about the history of the interpretation of a passage or its reception history; we can inquire about how one text connects to other canonical texts or ideas; we can ask what texts teach us about God, the Trinity, and scores of theological and ethical topics. (One unique hermeneutics book that explores a variety of such approaches is Dean Deppe’s All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight Methods of Inquiry into the Bible.)

All such questions can be helpquestions2fully asked about the texts of Scripture. Very importantly, the kind of questions we ask are the kind of answers we will get, whether they be historical, grammatical, theological, or personal. The key is to recognize that while all questions are good to ask, some questions are more important and beneficial than others. Every question we ask can help us grow in understanding and appreciation, but some questions are simply more fruitful, powerful, and more in accord with the overall purpose of Scripture.

A problem is that in the modern period, including for most of evangelical hermeneutics, we have put an overemphasis on historical and grammatical questions, either dismissing theological and personal/ethical questions or relegating them to some other stage or type of reading, calling it “application” and not “interpretation.”

But in the long tradition of the Church the texts of Holy Scripture have been approached with a variety of questions (including grammatical and historical) but with a clear recognition that the most important and most beneficial questions are the ones that ask what the texts reveal about the Triune God, how he operates in the world, what we learn about ourselves, and what humanity is called to individually and corporately. This explains why pre-modern preaching feels and sounds so different when read in comparison with the modern work of scholarly interpretation, even when done by evangelicals. The latter approach has narrowed its focus on a certain set of questions that do not easily enable one to make theological, canonical, ethical, and applicational moves.

Good preachers in the modern period are often better than their own limited modern hermeneutic, however, because if they are sensitive at all to the real life spiritual needs of their congregants then they are already accustomed to asking these best questions about how the text reveals God and how it speaks to our real lives. Thus, even though our modern hermeneutics has made us focus on the lower level questions, preaching will always draw us into the higher ones.

Although I am engaged in research, writing, and teaching on many topics and at many levels – literary, grammatical, theological, historical, history of interpretation, etc. – every time I go to preach I am reminded of and forced to ask the best kinds of questions of the texts, the questions that will preach and minister grace to my hearers. And whenever I ask these kinds of questions, Holy Scripture opens in even newer and more profound ways than by my otherwise helpful scholarly methods.

(5) The Word is living and active and there is much freedom in the homiletical work.

As I continue to study texts both as a scholar and as a preacher I am aware that there are many good readings of any text of Holy Scripture. There are plenty of bad and unhelpful readings as well, but the good readings of any text are manifold, dependent partly on which questions are being asked of the text. It is best to think of the meaning/readings of a text as a (bounded) circle not a point.

By extension, the good sermons that can be written from a text are manifold as well. There is not simply one right sermon to be crafted from a text, but many, based on the homiletical freedom that preachers have to emphasize different aspects of a text’s message and to apply it in different ways according to the needs of the season and time and place.megaphone

One helpful analogy is that of a megaphone. The bounded pluriform circle of good readings is at the entry end of the megaphone and as we move from textual analysis to homiletical performance the circle widens, representing the number of things that can be said in the sermon.

All of this is bounded by the “double love” of love for God and love for neighbor. In Augustine’s famous book, On Christian Teaching — the 1000-year best seller on hermeneutics and homiletics – he provides discussion of how to read and teach Holy Scripture well, all of which is governed by this double love. Augustine’s argument is that because Jesus clearly teaches that this is the ultimate calling and goal and good of humanity – loving God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40) – therefore, the best readings of Scripture will inculcate and lead to the same.

(6) Every sermon should be a story, whether it is a narrative text or not.

Exegetical work on a text is NOT the same thing as the exposition and preaching of a text. A sermon is a homiletical event, not the downloading of stuff learned. Humans are story creatures and stories are built on plot, which entails tension and release. Therefore, every sermon as a homiletical and rhetorical event should contain a plotline of tension and release to be effective.basic plotline

This intentionality of tension and release is one of the differences between teaching and preaching, between a lecture and a sermon. Both teaching and preaching can and should have thoughtful content. And a good lecture and good teaching may have a plotline of tension. In fact, great lectures do. But this is not necessary for teaching and lecturing. A good lecture can focus on communicating content and making connections.

Not so for a good sermon – it MUST take the hearers from one place to another, not just intellectually, but engaging the whole person, mind and heart. For a sermon to be more than a lecture it should be crafted in such a way that it creates a tension that is then released by the message of the text.

In my experience, for teaching texts that are non-narratives it is best to figure out what the text is getting at, what you want to say from this (the homiletical move), and then how to craft the message into a plotline that takes hearers from problem (that you may have to reveal to them first) to solution, engaging their whole person. I have long found that a good way to create this tension and release is to look for a Fallen Condition (some sin or brokenness or simply creatureliness that is part of the human experience), for which the gospel message of the text (something true about who God is for us) provides the Redemptive Solution. This is inspired by Bryan Chapell’s approach. Also see Zack Eswine’s thoughtful, Preaching to a Post-Everything World.

For preaching narrative texts (my favorite) I have found a very helpful approach is (1) set up the tension/question; (2) retell the narrative creatively and freshly; (3) emphasize varieties of applications.

Thus, for both narrative and non-narrative texts, a well-crafted sermon will itself be experienced as a story.

(7) Preaching is above all else a proclamation of God’s kindness in Christ = Gospel.

As I have grown and matured and deepened in my embracing of the gospel over the years, and as I have come to see my own brokenness more clearly and deeply, I have also seen that preaching must be driven by what drives the gospel itself – the proclamation of God’s kindness. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4).

Life-giving sermons yoke lightwill contain teaching, and this can be challenging at points and include calls to virtue and repentance. But we must never forget – and this is remarkably easy for preachers to forget – that the gospel is good news and that Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light” (see Matt 11:25-30). Whatever else may be said in a sermon, the main takeaway for the hearers must be a seeing of God’s smiling face in Christ and a lifting of burdens. If not, we run the risk of doing the opposite of the work of Christ, no matter how spiritual and biblical we may appear.

A good test of whether we are preaching Christ-centered and Christ-aligned sermons is whether our hearers would say that they have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). Whatever changes they might be inspired to make from our applicational work must be rooted in the sense that God is for them in Christ, rooted in experiencing the beauty of who God is. If not, we will end up playing the role of the Pharisees who, while speaking of God, tie heavy burdens upon people all in the name of godliness (Matt 23:4). The woes Jesus pronounces upon such religious preachers and teachers should stand as continual guides as we prepare our sermons (Matt 23:13-39). The broad and easy way of preaching is that of moralism, condemnation, guilt-trips, and burden-laying. One can even build a large ministry and church on such preaching, but it is not the gospel.

(8) Preaching manuscript is still best for me.

Lastly, on a slightly more persosermon msnal note, ever since I first began preaching I have written out a full manuscript and taken this into the pulpit. I realize I am probably in the minority here, but I am still convinced this is the best – at least for me.

Writing out a sermon manuscript is crucial for gaining clarity of what I want to say because, as I teach my doctoral students all the time, writing is not the end product of clear thinking, it is the way to get to clear thinking. Writing out my sermons fully is the only way I can tell if what I’m saying actually makes sense, flows well, and is personal and specific, not just general platitudes.

Many would agree with this but not recommend taking the manuscript into the pulpit. I stiMeet_linus_bigll do so because I want to remain clear, focused, and directed in where I’m going all throughout the preaching moment. I do often leave my manuscript, adding or subtracting things in the preaching moment (especially in the second or third service once I’ve run through it!), but I still like to have the whole message laid out before me and with me in the pulpit. I admit this is somewhat of a Linus Van Pelt security blanket for me!

I think the key to actually preaching from a manuscript well is to have worked through it enough times and have it deeply ingrained enough in your psyche to be able to preach without reading it. I also go through it many times and mark and highlight sentences with a pen that I want to make sure I get right and not miss. I doubt anyone can tell that I have the whole manuscript in front of me because I certainly don’t have my face buried in it. But I use it as a reference point for my open speaking and also have times where I use it to say exactly what I’ve written. I suppose I should ask my hearers what their experience is, but it seems to work well for me to alternate between extemporaneous speaking (that is actually what I’ve already written mostly) and brief times of speaking right out of my manuscript. I recognize that there is personal preference here as well.

I hope these reflections have been helpful for my readers.

Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series:


Some Reflections from a Professor in the Pulpit (Part 1)

[Part 1 of 2]pennington preaching

I have been pastoring and preaching in churches regularly for 20 years or so now. I love to preach and even though my primarily calling now is as a professor, I care very much about the art and craft of preaching.


But despite regular preaching, rarely have I been in the position to do what I’ve been doing this past month – preaching four weeks in a row. I have just finished preaching each week for our church’s four-week series on Meals with Jesus in Luke. This experience of preparing and preaching each week has given me the opportunity for some reflections from a semi-outsider of what it is like to preach regularly.


I have 8 reflections on “The Professor in the Pulpit,” which I will post in a series across the next couple of days. These are in no particular order and are offered merely as an opportunity for me to articulate some thoughts I’ve had about preaching over the years.

(1) Good, well-written commentaries are a great gift to the Church.

The commentary gcommentariesenre is as old (really, older) than Christianity itself, and commentaries in various forms have always served God’s people well. Good preachers regularly take advantage of commentaries, which can be thought of simply as the written record of other teachers, both living and dead, both near and far.


So it may not seem much of a reflection to say that commentaries are important.

But as I prepare to preach each week, with the press of time and the pressure of wanting to have something thoughtful and beneficial to share, I am aware of what a gift we have (especially in English) of having so many well-researched and well-written commentaries, the fruit of the labors of many men and women who have given their years to training and expertise.

I am also reminded of how good and important it is to have different kind of commentaries, technical, historical, exegetical, expositional, theological, and applicational. For this series in Luke I have simultaneously benefited from more traditional modern scholarly commentaries like Joel Green’s excellent NICNT volume on Luke as well as the more homiletical variety of Philip Ryken and R. Kent Hughes. Each of these has different and mutually informing things to offer.

I myself have recently completed a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and am under contract to write others. This recent personal experience of how beneficial commentaries are for weekly preaching has motivated me again to give myself to the great labor of commentary writing. I would also like to see the western Church spend more resources helping Christians throughout the world have more access to good commentaries both in translation and written by nationals.


(2) There is a difference between a good sermon and good preaching – the Holy Spirit.

Good sermon writing takes a lot of work. Not everyone is willing to do this work. And regardless, some people are simply more able and more talented than others, both in crafting and mosaic holy spiritdelivering sermons. Giftedness and labor work together in a mysterious way.

But anyone who has preached regularly knows that there is also something uncontrollable in the actual preaching moment – that good preparation doesn’t guarantee great preaching, and even more inexplicably, sometimes spontaneous preaching (or moments within an otherwise well-prepared sermon) can be the most powerful and effective.

We understand from Holy Scripture that this difference is the work of the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wishes and whose sound we hear but we don’t know where it is going (John 3:8). It is the Holy Spirit alone who reveals God to us in Christ and opens the eyes and hearts and minds to understand (1 Cor 2:6-16; Eph 1:17-23).

Thus, while the preacher has the responsibility and obligation to labor diligently and carefully in preparation – the means by which God normally ordains to utilize – ultimately the effectiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit, first in the preacher’s own preparation and also in the hearing and taking to heart of the message.

In Tim Keller’s recent book on preaching he makes this same helpful distinction between great sermons and great preaching. Great sermons are a function of the skills, giftedness, and preparation of the sermon writer; great preaching is the work of the Spirit.

These reflections have encouraged me simultaneously to work very hard at understanding the texts and at crafting well-written sermons and preaching well-spoken messages, and to recognize that the “success” of my messages is not ultimately up to me. God wants to speak to his people and I want to simply line myself up with his voice as much as possible and trust him to do what he wants in the actual preaching moment.


(3) The most important labor should go into personal and practical application.

Speaking of the importance of labor and diligence in sermon preparation, I have long been convinced that the most essential yet the most neglected part of sermon writing is thoughtful, personal, and practical application. (Rare among hermeneutics books is much on application, but Dan Doriani’s excellent Putting the Truth to Work is an exception).

Many preachers, maybe especdd-eucharist-main-image-100512ially within the evangelical movement, spend much of their preparation time and speaking time seeking to understand what the text is communicating. This is good and right. But I would suggest that this is only half of the work and is actually not the most important aspect of preaching, which is helping hearers to receive the scriptural message and bring it to bear on their real lives. Of course, this is a both-and, not an either-or. But the application deserves as much focus as the explanation.

If preachers preach texts in a way that is exclusively or even primarily saying what the text says – which is essential and powerful – but don’t spend as much labor in thinking through how a particular text speaks into the real and daily lives and struggles of non-preachers, then I would consider the sermon incomplete and maybe even a failure.

It is difficult for someone inclined toward biblical and theological studies and trained in this to understand that most people are not inclined this way nor trained to do so. Nor must they be! This is precisely the job of the preaching-pastor – to be a primary instrument of the Holy Spirit to grant personal and applicational understanding of the texts of Holy Scripture. This is the division of labor God has established in the Church and the difference between those called to lead and those who aren’t (most people). The vast majority of Christians do not want or need to understand half of what the preacher wants and needs to understand any more than I need to understand the construction of a silicon chip to use my MacBook nor the function of a fuel injector to drive my car. I can and should have some understanding, but the preacher’s role is to serve those who have other callings by helping them apply.

This service of helping people apply Scripture to their lives should not, therefore, be an afterthought or something the preacher tacks on out of obligation to what they consider to be the “real” work, exegesis. Quite the opposite, to preach a text well is to apply it well.

This takes work, work that is hard because it means looking inside to our own hearts and asking the penetrating and honest questions of how this text can go from being merely ideas to transformed thinking, feeling, and doing.

imaginationIt is also hard because it is a work involving the organ of our imaginations. Preachers need to not only think about how a text might apply to their own situation, but also how it will be heard and how it can be received by people very different than themselves. Even as it can be difficult for a preacher to understand that not every Christian views the world and life the same way they do (and that’s OK!) so too the preacher needs to be consciously intentional in considering how a text can be applied to different people.

Always remember that the hearers of a sermon are going to be as diverse as humanity itself. If we think along the lines of the differences in personality types, using for example, the Myers-Briggs analysis, there are 16 distinct ways in which people view the world and themselves, different ways in which love is received and given, diverse modes by which people are motivated. A big part of personal maturity and ministry effectiveness comes from preachers recognizing that they are individually but one of these 16 types (most commonly ENFJ’s) and therefore what communicates hope, grace, love, encouragement, is very likely different for them than for most of the congregants.

And this is only speaking of personality differences. A congregation is full of people with vastly different experiences in terms of families of origin, biopsychosocial experiences, sufferings and pathologies, and circumstances.

A good preacher will write and deliver a sermon that is sensitive to the great diversity that is humanity in both make-up and experiences. One way to do this well, I have found, is to think specifically about how the message will be heard and how it can apply to specific groups/types of people and address them. For example, I will sometimes speak specifically to how the teenagers might apply the message, or those who are in a season of trial, or those in a difficult marriage, or those who feel lost or hard-hearted. This takes creative thinking but is the obligation of the preacher who wants to do more than share ideas, but truly minister grace to people.

My reflections are continued in Part 2.

Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series:

Jesus as Teacher in Matthew

As of today I wrapped up 11 years of teaching at the seminary level, including teaching my Greek Exegesis of Matthew class every year here at Southern. Additionally, I have taught Matthew (in English) countless times in my NT survey course, and have given assorted lectures on Matthew in the States and several other countries and scores of churches. All this was based on the three years of intensive study of Matthew during my time in St. Andrews. This means I have been studying, thinking about, preaching, teaching, and writing on Matthew for nearly 15 years now.

Nonetheless, as Matthew subtly predicted, scribes of the kingdom continue to bring forth treasures old and new from the message of Jesus (13:52). Whether I am a worthy “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” is debatable, but I can at least testify that as I continue to study Matthew I learn more and more every time.

4329.jpg   This happened again today. I recently ran across a book I had never seen before (I’m not sure why!) and I have found it to be a careful study and one that pulled together several loose ends in my mind. It is a dissertation done at Yale under Wayne Meeks and then published in the BZNW series: John Yueh-Han Yieh’s One Teacher: Jesus’ Teaching Role in Matthew’s Gospel Report (de Gruyter, 2004).

This well-written piece of scholarship has as its goal to explore and explain how and why Jesus is depicted as the Teacher of God’s will par excellence. Besides John Meier’s The Vision of Matthew (1979), Samuel Byrskog’s Jesus the Only Teacher (1994), Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy (2013) Jesus Against the Scribal Elite (2014), there are few studies on Jesus as Teacher per se. What makes this particular work stand out is a more literary reading of Matthew (including redaction and narrative approaches) plus a historical and conceptual comparison of Jesus as a Teacher with the Teacher of Righteousness from Qumran and the Greek moral philosopher Epictetus. (Those who have been following my occasional tweets about my own work in the Sermon will notice that I am very intrigued by this comparison of Jesus to his dual context of Judaism and the Greco-Roman philosophical world. See my forthcoming book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary [Baker Academic, 2017].)

Near the end of the book Yueh-Han Yieh offers four functions of Jesus as Teacher (the One Teacher [23:8,10; cf. 28:19-20]):

  • Polemic Function — Combating Jewish Hostility
    • fighting the synagogues
    • disputing the rabbis
  • Apologetic Function — Defining Group Identity
    • God as Heavenly Father, Church as God’s Household
    • Jews as Lost Sheep, Church as New People
    • World as Weedy Field, Church as Kingdom Missionary
    • The End is Delayed, Church as Eschatological Community
  • Didactic Function — Forming New Community
    • Making a Community of Disciples
    • Prescribing New Patterns of Behavior
    • Authorizing New Institutions for the Church
  • Pastoral Function — Maintaining the Church
    • Promising His Presence
    • Fostering Servant Leadership
    • Demanding Mutual Forgiveness

I find these insightful and that they correspond well with many other themes I have observed in Matthew over the years

I’m thankful that I (rather accidentally) started studying this amazing First Gospel fifteen years ago and that I continue to learn so much from this master document and its beautiful Master.


The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing"Jonathan Pennington provides a historical, theological, and literary commentary on the Sermon and explains how this text offers insight into God's plan for human flourishing. As Pennington explores the literary dimensions and theological themes of this famous passage, he situates the Sermon in dialogue with the Jewish and Greek virtue traditions and the philosophical-theological question of human flourishing."

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