Old Testament Readings: 1 Kings 19-22; 2 Chronicles 17-20; 2 Kings 1-6
This week’s readings continue the conflict between Ahab and Elijah—proxies for the essential battle in the history of God’s people, between false gods and true God. Chapter 18 depicted the public vindication of the true God, Yahweh, the Lord, and the visible humiliation of the false god Baal and his worshippers. The following chapters trace the fallout from this event, as Ahab and Jezebel double down on their opposition to Elijah, who prophesies the Lord’s vengeance against these evil rulers.
There are notable scenes in this section of the story. In chapter 19 the depressed and harried Elijah flees the wrath of Jezebel; in his hour of dire need he receives both the physical sustenance and the spiritual encouragement he needs from the Lord, who appears to him at Mount Horeb. Chapter 21 describes the royal couple’s murderous scheme to acquire Naboth’s vineyard (reminiscent of David murder of Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel 11). The heinous act draws forth Elijah’s pronouncement of God’s judgment against Jezebel and Ahab, whose death’s the narrative depicts (Ahab in 1 Kings 22:29-40; Jezebel in 2 Kings 9:30-37). All of this domestic disruption occurs in the context of external threat; Israel’s battles against the Arameans (chh. 20, 22).
The early chapters of 2 Kings emphasize the miraculous ministry of the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven portrays the divine favor and strength of this servant of the Lord, as well as the transfer of his spiritual calling and power to Elisha, who prays for a double portion of Elijah’s (holy) spirit and picks up his mantle as a sign of his succession (2 Kings 2:9,13). The wonders Elisha performs in these chapters express the presence and power of God continuing with God’s people, despite the faithlessness of the kings whose true calling is to embody God’s rule. It is notable that the prophets arise in the biblical narrative at the point in which Israel’s kings depart from God’s ways.
New Testament Readings: Matthew 1-5
The Gospel according to Matthew is our third gospel on this year’s reading schedule, but it is located first among the four Biblical gospels. Most scholars believe that Mark’s gospel precedes Matthew’s chronologically, but as the Church collected the various writing that would become the New Testament, it consistently listed Matthew’s first. Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy locating Jesus in Israel’s history (Matthew 1:1-14), which may have seemed the best possible introduction to the four accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Much of Matthew’s gospel hearkens back to Israel’s history and faith. Frequently the gospel will explain an event as the fulfillment of an OT prophecy, citing the scriptural proof (e.g., 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; 4:14-16). Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching material into five major discourses (chh. 5-7; 10; 13; 18-20; 24-25), suggestive of the five books of the Torah. And the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus emphasizes his lineal descent from King David, linking his identity as messiah with the promised restoration of Israel’s monarchy. Scholars see these emphases on Jewish history and culture as a clue to Matthew’s likely audience: a congregation with a concentration of Jewish converts to Christianity (perhaps Antioch in Syria).
After the introductory genealogy, the gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth. In contrast to Luke’s celebrated version, Matthew focuses on the human paternal line: Joseph, not Mary, receives the visitation from the angel, who addresses him as “Joseph, son of David” (1:20), reminding us of the royal line into which this baby will be born. The name “Jesus” encodes the messianic purpose of the child: “he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). And the birth of this child, the legitimate heir to David’s throne, occurs during the threatening reign of Herod, whose rule depends on the Roman authorities, not God’s will. Jesus’ escape to Egypt from the threat of extermination recalls the birth story of Moses in Egypt. Matthew is guiding us to see Jesus as the new Moses, who will lead God’s people out of bondage to sin into freedom of new life.
Chapters 3-4 largely follow the same order of events as in Mark and Luke. The ministry of John culminates with his baptizing Jesus, an event that signifies Jesus’ acceptance of his identity and mission as messiah. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness portrays the spiritual trial inherent in his calling. The narrative recounts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his calling of the first disciples, and the instant notoriety he earns for his miraculous works.
Chapter 5 introduces the first major teaching section in Matthew, and the best known: Jesus’ Sermon on Mount. As you read through the Beatitudes (5:1-12), try to reflect on the revolutionary message they proclaim. These statements of blessing hold true in the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew’s preferred label for the reign of God). When the Lord is ruling us totally, the meek, not the powerful, will inherit the earth; those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied, and the persecuted receive God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ teachings call his followers to a high standard that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees—one that fulfills the spirit as well as the letter of the law (5:17-20). Jesus illustrates this demand by reinterpreting six statements from the law. “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.” These six antitheses cover God’soving expectations regarding anger (5:21-26), lust (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), oaths (5:33-37), retaliation (5:38-42), and loving one’s enemies (5:43-48). The message is clear: God expects righteousness from us, not an outward conformity that masks our inward sinfulness. In Matthew’s gospel, our behavior matters to Jesus.
Psalms: 129, 48
Psalm 129, a psalm of ascent, affirms the hope of the faithful one who seeks vindication. Evil ones have afflicted the speaker; the imagery in v.3 suggests physical injury. Yet the psalmist turns experience of affliction into confidence in the Lord’s retribution. The wicked may appear to win, but they will not prevail, and the Lord will withhold from them the blessing that the righteous can expect to hear.
Psalm 48 is one of the Zion psalms, celebrating the mountain of Zion and the city of Jerusalem as expressions of the strong rule of God. The city is strong with the power of God: “within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress” (v.3). The worship of the temple strengthens the psalmist’s sense of God’s glory, the praise of which “reaches to the ends of the earth” (v.10). The last three verses envision the news of God’s rule extending not just through the earth, but from generation to generation. This psalm reminds us that the act of praising God’s glory helps us experience more fully the blessing of God.