What is “the Gates of Hell” in Matthew’s Gospel?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

Background: The Confession of Peter

The Confession of Peter is a famous passage in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of the living God. The Synoptic Gospels all record the event, but Matthew provides more details. In this piece, we shall mainly use Matthew’s account to explore the meaning of the event and Matthew’s literary use of the story in his Gospel.

Matthew’s Gospel is often described as the most Jewish of the canonical gospels. The claim is not without warrant. Matthew’s first step in his Gospel is to provide a genealogy that connects Jesus to both Abraham and David. That move is not trivial. The link to Abraham establishes Jesus as a legitimate, potential, promised “seed” candidate (Genesis 3:15, 22:18). Simultaneously, the connection to David evokes ideas of a messianic king – themes known to people familiar with the Jewish worldview. Matthew also portrays Jesus in ways reminiscent of Moses, the chief Apostle and Prophet of Judaism. Both Moses and Jesus escaped being killed as infants by the rulers of their times; Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contrasts with Moses’ giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Also, both men serve as deliverers of their people and perform miracles in the liberation process. Even in our day, the Jewishness of Matthew continues to be appreciated. I have watched several stories of Messianic Israeli Jews who embraced Jesus after reading Matthew.

In popular understanding, the Confession of Peter is important because it conveys divine revelation of Jesus’ true identity as the promised Messiah. That much is undoubtedly true, but Matthew does more in his telling, given the extra details he provides. Besides, we should notice that Matthew has already dropped numerous hints about Jesus’ true identity before Peter’s confession in Chapter 16. Let us consider a few of these hints. 

Matthew’s Many Portrayal of Jesus as Yahweh

First, Matthew introduces John the Baptist as one preparing the way for Jesus in this way (3:3): “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” ’ In the original Isaiah passage, “the Lord” was Yahweh. So, Matthew’s use of the passage ascribes the divine name to Jesus. In Matthew’s story, John the Baptist did not know at this point that Jesus was Yahweh. Still, a careful reader of Matthew’s work would have noticed this literary move. 

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Revelation 4 and 5: Divine Council and Christ’s Reign

Background

As mentioned earlier, John arranged his writing into two major parts based on the motif of judgment. The first part deals with the judgment (or warning/encouragement) of the Church. Some of the seven churches of Revelation received rather stern warnings and threats of judgment. For instance, certain members of the Pergamum church have embraced false teaching, leading them to sin similarly as ancient Israelites did when Balaam enticed them towards “food sacrificed to idols” and they “committed sexual immorality” (2:14). In response, Jesus says, in John’s vision, that these members of the Pergamum church should repent, or he will visit them soon and “fight against them with the sword of his mouth” (2:16). That sword kills (Rev 19:21). Similarly, Jesus warns the Philadelphian church about the possibility of losing their crowns (3:11), if they do not continue to hold fast to sound doctrine.

Chapters 6 to 20 contain the second division of the book, which details the judgment of the world, following that of the churches. But this arrangement leaves Chapters 4 and 5 hanging. Why might John do that? Among other things, he does so to make a subtle theological point of presenting Jesus as Yahweh. 

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Reading Revelation Right (Series Part 1)

The Book of Revelation has been on my mind for a few months now. I have read and re-read the book and consulted with some of the best specialists in modern scholarship. Some things I knew, but there have been so much more I was ignorant of. I am just gonna say a few things here. (I may also walk through the whole book, picking out specific nuggets I found interesting.)

1. If John wrote Revelation as a graduate schoolwork today, he no doubt would get an “F.” No, it would not be so much because his work would be difficult to understand – Immanuel Kant probably surpassed John on that point and is still praised for it. John would score an F because of plagiarism, failing to properly cite his sources. (Of course, John did not do any wrong per the literary standards of his day.)

2. Let us get the simple hermeneutics point out of the way. John wrote to encourage young churches near the first century. So whatever John wrote about was something that, in principle, his audience could/would have understood. Hence, there are no cryptic references to helicopters, missiles, China, Russia, Putin, Trump or any of the other recent lazy readings.

3. Indeed, there is cryptic messaging in the book -it was John’s way of critiquing the empire without its knowledge. The cryptic messaging is of a very different sort from what people now tend to imagine. For example, John primarily referred to Rome as Babylon, and that move is itself pregnant with a whole worldview and dense theology.

4. Virtually every sentence in Revelation is an allusion (as a solid Study Bible would reveal. See the ESV for a taste) – mostly to the Old Testament but sometimes to Second Temple Era Jewish literature or Greco-Roman literature. Yet, John often does not prepare his readers for the allusion. Even worse, John often combines materials from two or more sources with no warning whatsoever. It is a rarity to come across a direct quotation in Revelation as one would see in Paul’s writing or Matthew’s.

5. John assumes SO MUCH of his readers in writing Revelation. (To be fair to him, he expects the book to be read aloud perhaps by leaders of the churches. See Rev 1:1-3). The modern-day reader is expected to know her Old Testament back and forth, inside-out. There is about zero chance of understanding Revelation without a solid understanding of the Old Testament in its Jewish context. (Perhaps this, in John’s mind, is fair because the Old Testament was THE Bible of Jesus, Paul, James, John, AND everyone else. The New Testament is, in many ways, merely inspired commentary on the Old Testament.)

6. In fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other book of the New Testament. Some of the Old Testament books referenced are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, Deuteronomy, Judges, books of Samuel, the Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Job, the major and minor prophets. John, however, did not use these books equally. G. K. Beale, one of the specialists on the book of Revelation writes in one of his works on Revelation, “Roughly more than half the references are from the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, and in proportion to its length Daniel yields the most” (60). Put another way, without a solid understanding of the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah (and many more) in their wider contexts, one has close to zero chance of understanding Revelation.

One Selected Example

In Revelation 1:13-15, John describes the person he sees in the vision talking to him in this way:

“and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”

This is one of those instances that would earn John an” “F” in today’s scholarship. In this seemingly boring description, John combines at least two references with a subtle twist. The first reference (which John said nothing about but that surely informed the writing) is from Daniel 10. Not surprisingly, it is also a passage about a vision.

This passage is itself somewhat confusing regarding the number of actors. But Daniel says he saw a vision dated to the third year of Cyrus’s reign and that a man spoke with him in that vision. Here is how Daniel described who he saw in 10:5-6:

“I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.”

The similarities should be apparent. It may be interesting to note that, among the dissimilarities, John describes the voice as that of the sound of rushing waters where Daniel says sound of a multitude. However, these descriptions may be saying the same thing since the Bible often describes a multitude of people in water metaphors.

But what has John done in his appropriation of the Danielic vision? A comparison of the two descriptions will reveal certain differences. For instance, “the hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow” in John’s description is missing from the Daniel 10 vision. Where did that come from? It came from an earlier Danielic vision in chapter 7:9,

“As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow;

the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,

and its wheels were all ablaze.”

So, John has transferred a description originally used of the Ancient of Days in Daniel to the Son of Man talking to him in the vision. This is one of the more subtle, besides the explicit, ways that John describes Jesus as Yahweh in Revelation. (I have already dealt with Daniel 7 as a central data point for the idea of the divinity of Jesus elsewhere.)

By blending boring descriptions together (with no citations), John makes theological and polemic moves. This is the sort of things he does in the entire book – and that is why a close reading and sound knowledge of the Old Testament (as well as the wider contexts) is necessary for a decent understanding of Revelation.

Reference

Beale, G. K. John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation. T&T Clark, 2015.

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Spiritually Gifted Men Were the Problem (Series Part 2)

Paul Quotes the Corinthians

As emphasized earlier, we have much-needed data missing from the Corinthian correspondence. Scholars have presented several possible explanations, but not one satisfactorily answers the text’s questions. Each explanatory schema answers a few questions while neglecting the rest. In truth, we may only be able to fully understand the text if archaeology comes to the rescue once more.

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Man is the “Head” of the Woman? (Series Part 1)

Background

First Corinthians 11 is one of those Bible passages that no reader can forget about in a hurry. It is the kind of passage you read and wonder about afterward. The chapter is significant not just for the challenging issues it raises for scholars but also for the impact it continues to have in churches. After all, the passage is full of apostolic pronouncements for the global church. First Corinthians 11 is the famous chapter about hair covering and the claim that “neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” —a passage that the church has subsequently used to treat churchgoing women as “others.” Of course, the othering of women, based on this passage and other similar ones, would not be problematic if, indeed, that is the kind of thing Paul had in mind. 

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The Father is Greater and Other FAQs (Series Part 4, Finale)

I have argued for the divinity of Jesus with no reference to Apostle Paul’s writings at all. This is by design. Some critics, especially Muslims, sometimes claim that Paul bastardized the “true religion” of Jesus and that Jesus never claimed to be (equal with) God. Surely, such a complaint cannot be made now. We can establish the case for the divinity of Jesus without Paul’s writings. If we add Pauline epistles, we have more data to corroborate the case made so far. But before that, I want to address some passages critics, especially Muslims, typically use to argue against the divinity of Jesus. 

The Father is greater than I

In John 14:28, Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I am.” The issue here is the apparent logical inconsistency of one God being greater than the other—a contradiction in terms. Indeed, this passage is one that proved most difficult for many church fathers and theologians. In church history, this is one of the central passages informing the Arian Heresy. Admittedly, if one is convinced on other grounds that Jesus is not Yahweh, then it is easy to see how this passage may be used as an argument-defeater. However, since the data strongly support the idea that Jesus is Yahweh as already argued, I am inclined to inquire: in what way is the Father greater than Jesus?

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Jesus as God: Plurality in the Godhead of the New Testament (Series Part 3)

Let us quickly review where we are. We began our journey from the end, investigating what post-apostolic church fathers, who lived some 200 years before Emperor Constantine reigned, believed concerning the deity of Jesus. We learned that these influential bishops affirmed the divinity of Jesus, and many of them founded their beliefs on the teaching of the Old Testament besides the New Testament. I cannot stress enough the importance of realizing that the notion of a plurality in the Jewish God was widespread before Yeshua ever permanently put on a body, and it remained for about 200 years after Jesus exited the earth as the Jewish scholar, Alan Segal, details in his The Two Powers in HeavenEarly Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism

Some ignorant critics, including many Muslims, often assert that the Bible never claims that Jesus is God. Some others would say Jesus never claims to be God. Both groups of critics are wrong. The bible documents facts to the contrary. The claim that Jesus is God or, more correctly, is a member of the Godhead is an inescapable conclusion when one considers the data en masse

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Plurality in the Godhead of the Old Testament (Series Part 2)

What is Elohim?

In an older article linked here, I wrote about how “God” has taken on a definite meaning in Christianized spaces. I think a sufficient trace of older worldviews still survives in the modern rule that requires us to capitalize “G” in “God” when referring to the Christian God. Such a rule assumes the existence of other gods. Indeed, ancient Hebrews affirm the existence of other gods, the Hebrew God being the most high of them all. The Hebrew God is ontologically superior to the other gods.

The Old Testament uses the term elohim for “gods,” and the range of its application helps explain what exactly “god” meant to the people in the ancient Near East. “Elohim” is plural in form but, according to Hebrew grammar rules, the context can establish the exact referent of the term: if the verb is singular, “Elohim” often refers to the Most High; if plural, it typically refers to other gods. Carmen Imes writes: 

“God”(elohim in Hebrew) and “Lord” (adonai in Hebrew) are not names. Elohim is a category of beings who inhabit the spiritual realm; angels are elohim and so are the gods of other nations. Adonai is a title that means “master,” whether human or divine. Both words can describe Israel’s deity. However, the God of Israel also revealed his name, inviting the Israelites to address him personally as “Yahweh.” (6)

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Emperor Constantine Did NOT Make Jesus God (Series Part 1)

Background – An Everlasting Myth?

The matter of the deity of Jesus is one of the most debated issues in Church history. Indeed, we have addressed one piece of the debate here before. The disagreements continue partly because Judaism teaches monotheism, and some people find the idea of multiple persons in the Godhead contradictory. Moreover, the notion of there being three persons in the Godhead is, admittedly, not intuitive, and many a Christian who claims to believe in a trinitarian God cannot adequately defend the doctrine. In our day, it also does not help that there is much historical misinformation on the subject. It is common, for instance, among many who deny thehttps://decolonizedchristianity.org/the-fundamental-error-of-crowthers-critics-series-part-3-fina le/ deity of Jesus to charge that nobody before the 325 AD Council of Nicaea believed Jesus was God. It is an old myth that will probably never go away. Dan Brown, in his famous The Da Vinci Code, puts the following in the mouth of the character, Sir Leigh Teabing:

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The Bible Says

In many Church environments, some people truly believe that invoking “the Bible says” carries additional alethic weight. The apparent logic seems to derive from a common view of the bible as being purely divine and infallible. In this piece, I shall not be concerned much about the meaning of infallibility or the numerous nuanced articulations of the doctrine. Instead, I will only focus on some related practical matters influencing interpersonal relations.

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