John MacArthur. Matthew 1-7. Moody, 1985. See here to purchase the book.
This is the first volume of John MacArthur’s extensive “MacArthur New Testament Commentary” series. It covers Matthew 1-7.
Here are some thoughts and observations:
A. I felt crushed with the weight of God’s law in reading this book. The book largely focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, so that is not surprising. The stark parts include: You should be mourning for your sins and the sins of others and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, even for those precepts that may seem unappealing. You should be broken to do God’s complete will, like a mule. If you do not reconcile with others, people’s worship at church may be better if you do not show up there at all. You cannot merely think good thoughts about people or wish them well but actually need to do concrete good for them. God only accepts worship and good deeds if they proceed from right intentions and motives. You cannot be focused on your own comfort. You cannot just admire these principles but need to do them. Only those on this narrow way will be saved and avoid hell. And none of this should be a burden, for the Holy Spirit will enable you to do it with a smile. But what if someone does not feel as one should, or sense the Holy Spirit providing that assistance and transformation that MacArthur talks about?
B. At times, MacArthur offers a moderate interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. He humbly acknowledges that he, as well as others, has hated people and thus is guilty before God’s law. He says that, if absolute purity of heart were required for worship, no Christian would qualify. Yet, he interprets purity of heart, not in terms of perfection, but rather as commitment to God, which David had, even though he was morally flawed. He disputes that “turning the other cheek” means letting evil have free reign but interprets that to refer to suffering an insult and public shame rather than retaliating. He does not interpret Matthew 6:19-21 as a prohibition on accumulating and saving money, for he refers to New Testament passages that favor wealth and saving it for one’s children; he even states that material wealth can be a blessing from God. But it is a criticism of selfishness, self-indulgence, and loving corruptible wealth more than spiritual riches. At times, MacArthur backed away from saying that people who disobey the Sermon on the Mount are unsaved: he says they may simply be disobedient Christians, in which case God will discipline them.
C. On some of the issues that MacArthur raises, I wonder how one can obey the commands. Matthew 5:42 exhorts people to give to those who ask of them, and MacArthur interprets that as meeting people’s genuine needs. But there are so many genuine needs out there: does God require people to give to every Go-Fund-Me charity? Matthew 5:40 says that, if someone sues to take your coat, give him your cloak as well. MacArthur interprets that to mean that Christians, if they are sued, should try to make right whatever hurt they did and mollify their adversary to clear up hard feelings. But did the employee at MacArthur’s church who was sued for counseling malpractice do that (even though the suit failed to come to trial)?
D. Some of MacArthur’s stories were ably told but rubbed me the wrong way. He told about a Christian woman who confronted another woman who was getting a divorce. The Christian woman exhorted her that God’s grace can heal any marriage and shared with her Bible verses after the woman getting a divorce said she saw the Bible as the words of men, not God. The Christian woman felt persecuted when the divorcing woman angry lashed out. I tend to sympathize with the divorcing woman. Maybe she did not feel God’s strength helping her to persevere in her marriage. Perhaps she needed a friend to listen to her rather than throwing God’s law at her, as if she had never heard it before.
E. MacArthur was ambivalent on whether Jesus was preaching an imminent eschatology, the idea that the end is near. On the one hand, he said that Jesus was offering Israel the kingdom and the millennial reign would have come soon had Israel repented. John the Baptist indeed would have been the end-time Elijah had Israel accepted him as such (see Matthew 11:14), repenting and being reconciled to God and one another, as opposed to killing John. On the other hand, MacArthur distances himself from seeing the kingdom as imminent. When Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17), MacArthur interprets that as a spiritual kingdom: God’s personal reign over believers who obey him. Jesus’s miracles are not signs of the breaking in of an impending millennial reign, but rather are foretastes and types of the millennial reign of the future. And MacArthur says that John the Baptist may have expected Jesus to bring eschatological wrath soon (Matthew 3:10-12), but he was wrong about that: it would occur in the far off future; John was correct, however, that Jesus would be the one who would eventually bring it.
F. In some cases, MacArthur was helpful in explaining what a passage might mean in light of the rabbinic teachings of the time. I have long wondered why the Pharisee asked Jesus what the greatest commandment of the law is (Matthew 22:36). Jews are supposed to obey all of the law, so does that not nullify “least” and “greatest,” as if they can break some laws and still be on God’s good side? MacArthur interprets the question in light of the rabbinic teaching that, if the Jews observe only one commandment perfectly, the Messiah will come. According to MacArthur, the Pharisees realized that no one could keep the law perfectly, so they lowered the bar, saying that only outward sins counted as sins, or that Jews could focus on some commandments and not others and still please God. Another helpful discussion was MacArthur’s description of Galilee as a prosperous, cosmopolitan area, with many Gentiles. MacArthur’s discussion of “turn the other cheek” could have been better. He talked as if the Jews tolerated personal vengeance at that time, but I doubt that Jews were allowed to kill someone without legal due process. (I am open to correction on this.)
G. MacArthur’s discussion of divorce was a little muddled, yet wrestled with important considerations. On the one hand, MacArthur appears to deny that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 allows the Israelites to get a divorce. Rather, he says that it disapproves of divorce and explains that divorcees become defiled and thus cannot marry each other again. Indeed, MacArthur does well to observe that there is a stigma on divorce in the Torah (see Leviticus 21:7, 14). On the other hand, MacArthur is aware that Jesus acknowledges that Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce due to their hardness of hearts (Matthew 19:8). A related issue that MacArthur engages is the nature of the uncleanness in Deuteronomy 24:1 that motivates the Israelite man to divorce his wife. MacArthur does not think that uncleanness is adultery, for in that case the woman would be put to death and divorce would be unnecessary. Instead, MacArthur proposes that the uncleanness is the woman fooling around with another man, yet not going so far as to have sex with him.
Overall, MacArthur deserves credit for interpreting the text according to what he believes it means rather than in a manner that makes people feel better. Some Christians treat the Sermon on the Mount as inapplicable to Christians—-as Jesus simply showing how impossible God’s standards are so we see the need for a Savior. But that attitude seems to treat the Sermon dismissively. At the same time, grace and humility should be part of the equation, since people, Christians included, fail to live up to these standards. This book is thorough and heavy. It is mostly homiletical, as MacArthur tells stories and quotes homiletical works (i.e., Bonhoeffer, Puritans, etc.). Yet, MacArthur extensively engages the Greek and provides historical context; he is not very specific in his citations in those cases, however. I plan to read other volumes of this series, but I am not sure when I will do so.