Guelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1


Robert Guelich The Sermon on the MountGuelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1

Robert A. Guelich. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding.  Dallas:  Word Publishing. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sermon on the Mount is a surprisingly oblique, but self-contained, section in Matthew’s Gospel spanning from chapter 5 through verse 8:1. In the sermon, Jesus presents a kind of ordination service for the Apostles with crowds in the background looking on. What does he tell them?  What are his priorities? How are we to interpret what is said?


In his commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, Robert  Guelich starts by recognizing the enormity of the task, but lays out his reason for writing with these words:

Yet the absence of an extensive, critical, exegetical commentary in nearly four decades of biblical studies despite the vast literature on the Sermon provides both an opportunity and a need in New Testament (NT) studies (11).

Because NT scholarship is written both in German and English, Guelich’s studies in the U.S., Scotland, and Germany—his doctorate is from the University of Hamburg—suggests he has good preparation to write such a commentary[1].  At the time he wrote, Guelich was a professor of NT at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Literature Review

Guelich’s literature review (14-22) is relatively brief but includes some interesting points.  Citing Kissenger, Guelich notes that in early church (Ante-Nicene) writings chapters 5-7 of Matthew are cited more frequently than any other 3 chapters in the Bible (14).  Augustine was likely the first to use the term, Sermon on the Mount (15).  In his book, Summa, Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between “counsels” and “commandments” (advice versus obligation) placing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon under “counsels” (15).  Luther preached a series of sermons on the Sermon focused on “polemics against the papists” (16) while Calvin’s primary interest was on Jesus’ interpretation of law (17).  Guelich describes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as one of the better known treatments of the Sermon which, of course, focused on what disciples should do rather than on theological interpretation [2].


Guelich’s commentary is written in 10 chapters, including:

  1. Introduction (pages 13-40);
  2. The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:23-5:2; 41-60);
  3. The Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt 5:3-12; 62-112);
  4. The Role of Discipleships (Matt 5:13-16; 119-131);
  5. Jesus and the Law (Matt 5:17-20; 134-170);
  6. The Greater Righteousness (Matt 5:21-48; 175-265);
  7. On Doing Righteousness (Matt 6:1-18; 272-316);
  8. The Life of Prayer (Matt 6:19-7:12; 321-379);
  9. The Narrow Gate (Matt 7:13-27; 382-411); and
  10. Epilogue (Matt 7:28-29; 414-419).

These chapters are preceded by a brief preface and followed by a bibliography and indices of authors and scriptural passages.  The Beatitudes, which appear in Matthew 5:3-11, are treated primarily in chapter 3.

Let me turn briefly to the questions mentioned above.

What does Jesus tell them?

Guelich (36-39) breaks the sermon into 3 parts:  the Beatitudes, admonitions, and warnings. He sees the Beatitudes serving as a theological introduction expanded on in the admonitions and warnings of Matthew 5:17-7:27. Guelich sees the admonitions ending with the Golden rule in Matthew 7:12.  The warnings then follow in 7:13-27.  Ironically, the Lord’s Prayer appears among the admonitions in Matthew 6 and he sees the prayer providing structure to the remainder of the chapter and the first 12 verses of Matthew 7.

What are Jesus’ priorities?

Jesus is addressing the Apostles to inaugurate his vision for discipleship in the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven, summarized especially in Isaiah 61 (37):

“…the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion…” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

These priorities are captured in the Beatitudes.  They are credible, in part, because they appear almost verbatim in Luke 4:17-20 where Jesus gives his “call” sermon.

How are we to interpret what Jesus said?

Guelich describes his interpretation method as “critical, historical” commentary. He writes:

“…this commentary offers a critical exegesis in that it makes use of the literary and historical critical tools include text, source, form, tradition, redaction, and structural criticism”. (23)

Guelich’s skill as an interpreter is reflected in the wide range of critical methods that he employs.  For example, he carefully distinguishes 3 sources in Matthew’s Gospel: Q materials appearing in Matthew and Luke; Matthew’s redaction (things attributable only to Matthew); and other NT sources, such as Mark.  This careful inventory of sources provides Guelich the ability to infer author intent and other things when discussing particular Gospel writers.  He sees the end of the Sermon (Matt 7:28) being borrowed from Mark 1:22 and the prelude to the Sermon (Matt 4:23-5:2) appearing at Mark 1:39 (414-415).  This insight places the Sermon early in Jesus’ ministry.


Robert Guelich’s commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, is one of the most carefully written and interesting commentaries that I have ever read.  In part 2, I will focus in more depth on particular issues that he raises.


[1] Guelich’s BS is from Wheaton College, his MS from the University of Illinois, and S.T.B. is from Fuller Theological Seminary.  He has done post-graduate studies at University of Aberdeen (UK) and the University of Tübingen.

[2] See my review of the Cost of Discipleship at:   Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge:  Following After Christ (

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Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_web“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension that we feel within ourselves as Christians arises when we live out Jesus’ teaching. Honoring the “poor in spirit” in a world that honors the powerful, the rich and the famous puts us at odds with our natural selves. Why should I be humble in a world that rewards the proud? Who wants to be “a doormat” for those around us who are already looking for places to wipe their feet?

Jesus brought new meaning to the idea of the kingdom of God. He and John the Baptist both taught: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17 ESV) But John focused on judgment while Jesus emphasized forgiveness. Being forgiven by God, he permitted us then to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). By emulating Jesus and accepting the Holy Spirit into our lives, we take on kingdom values. In our own sanctification, the kingdom of God breaks into our world. It is not, however, fully realized in us. It is only fully realized until Christ’s return [1]. The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully realized (Ladd 1991, 57-69).

Jesus’ disciples did not get it. When they asked the risen Christ—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)—they are looking for Jesus to overthrow Roman rule and to re-establish the Jewish kingdom of David. This was the mandate of a kingly messiah, as one might interpret Psalm 2.

It is interesting that the kingdom focus is on sharing the Gospel and establishing a Godly community, not the modern preoccupation with love and freedom [2]. The double love command—love neighbor, love God (Matt 22: 36-40)—does not even appear in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ preeminent act of love was a sacrificial life-style that took him to the cross.  A humble person exhibits love and permits freedom (for the other ) through sacrificial living and dying [3].  Absent humility, love and freedom elevate self, not community.  Although the Apostle John speaks the most about love [4], it is the Apostle Paul who defines it.  He writes:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7 ESV)

Interestingly, Paul uses the word love, but describes what it means to be humble in loving one’s neighbor.  The heart of agape love is humility.

Behind Matthew 5:3, the focus  on Isaiah 61:1 on bringing good news to the desperately poor is a critical departure for those focused on other things. What is the good news? God through Jesus Christ has redeemed us from bondage to sin. In our spiritual poverty, we are saved from the despair of life without meaning, from the obsession with ourselves, and from the addiction to useless things—especially a self-centered, sinful life.  Instead, life is given new meaning. Sin and death do not have the final word. We are free in to live within the boundaries of God’s love for us.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question is interesting—”It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Jesus refers to two types of time distinguished in Greek, translated here as times (chronos) and seasons (kairos). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch or calendar while kairos time thought of as a crisis or decision moment [4].  When God breaks into our lives, it is a kairos moment.

A fitting example of a kairos moment comes in the next versus: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV) In other words, the kingdom of God will come upon you through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and in the act of evangelism. Whenever God enters our lives, we experience a crisis. The moment that you become a Christian, the kingdom of God is manifested and it is manifested in the act of evangelism.

The simplest act of evangelism imaginable is to be humble when everyone else is proud.


[1] Guelich (1982, 262) writes: “This tension between the Kingdom present and the Kingdom future, between the fulfillment and consummation of God’s promise of salvation for human history, applies not only to history but to the experience of the individual.”

[2] Guelich (1982, 413) writes:  “The conducted demanded represents neither a radicalizing of the Mosaic Law nor the streamlining of the complex Mosaic Law by use of the love commandments but a call for conduct that corresponds to the new relationship that God now offers to his own as seen in the coming of the Kingdom…Discipleship involved more than a legalistic obedience to the Law of Moses or even the “law” of Jesus; it also involved a totally different attitude and focus of one’s life in terms of Jesus Messiah and what he came to accomplish.”

[3] Jesus appears much less interested in political freedom than freedom from sin—hence, the need for the atonement of the cross. In fact, the path to freedom comes through discipleship (John 8:31-36).

[4] For example, Matthew uses the word, love, 11 times, Mark 5 times, Luke 13 times, and John 49 times.

[5] Chronos (BDAG 7991(1), χρόνος) is translated as: “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time.” Kairos (BDAD 3857(3), καιρός) is translated as: “a period characterized by some aspect of special crisis, time.”


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Ladd, George Eldon. 1991. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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Brackey: Look for Moments of Joy

JMoments_of_joy_03172015olene Brackey.  2007.  Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia:  A Journal for Caregivers.  West Lafayette:  Purdue University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What brings you joy?

One morning I met a woman who had been in a horrible car accident.  The accident broke pretty much every bone in her body and the trauma triggered a psychiatric disorder.  She approached me in the ward rapping a song featuring me—what she knew of me personally—in real time.  As we talked, the stories told were exceedingly dark with tales of abuse, neglect, and sorrow—none of which intersected much with reality. After about 30 minutes of dark tales, I asked her a question—what brings you joy?  She brightened up and became sugar and spice and everything nice.  It was as if she needed permission to enter that room in her mind.

In her book, Creating Moments of Joy, Jolene Brackey writes:

I have a vision…that we will soon look beyond the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and focus more of our energy on creating moments of joy.  When a person has short-term memory loss, his life is made up of moments.  We are not able to create a perfectly wonderful day with those who have dementia, but it is absolutely attainable to create perfectly wonderful moments (13).

Brackey (9-12) writes her journal in 5 parts:

  1. Understanding the Person with Alzheimer’s, (pages 16-28)
  2. Powerful Tools That Create Positive Outcomes, (36-76)
  3. Let’s Talk Communication, (82-126)
  4. Memory Enhanced Environments, (130-204) and
  5. Enhanced Moments, (212-318).

The book begins with acknowledgments, advice on using the book, and an introduction.  It ends with a conclusion, bibliography, and author introduction.

Alzheimer’s disease is distinguished from other forms of dementia by the fact that the patient’s cognitive ability gradually deteriorates. This deterioration occurs in stages. This deterioration can be slowed, but not stopped by medication. This deterioration can be accelerated by trauma, surgery, and mistakes in medication.  Other forms of dementia arise from physical damage to the brain through head trauma, cardiovascular problems, and things like prolonged oxygen deprivation.

We all come to Alzheimer’s disease wanting explanations and wanting to find a cure. Part of this quest is ignorance; part is guilt. Alzheimer’s disease is mostly not understood and research dollars are generally allocated to other diseases. Brackey is accordingly short on explanations and long on making the most of the journey.

Brackey notes, for example, that as the disease progresses, the patient’s apparent age regresses (18-19).  They do not recognize their grown children, in part, because they remember their kids as young as when they  themselves were younger. Alzheimer’s patients are time travelers.  They have good and bad days as their cognitive function comes and goes with energy levels.  Physical exhaustion generally leads to a bad day.  Patients whose energy levels deteriorate late in the day are sometimes referred to as having “sunset dementia.”

Brackey (22) mentions that Alzheimer’s patients lose their inhibitions. In the ward where I worked, on Fridays  they had happy hour when musicians were invited to come and play for the group.  The Alzheimer’s residents would sing and dance to the music while other elderly residents were too embarrassed to do either.  Lost of inhibitions can be a source of embarrassment, but it can also be a source of joy.  Alzheimer’s patients are like children masquerading as adults.

Brackey (162-164) has a chapter on music which deserves more attention.  Because Alzheimer’s patients are time travelers,  familiar songs–particularly religious music–helps them center on the here and now.  Religious music is special because, having been repeated over many years, it is buried very deeply in our memories.  It is often the music of our youth and a source of joy.  Patients, who  could not speak in complete sentences, will sing and clap and suddenly be able to engage in conversation after music sessions.  If you are skeptical, try singing the doxology to an Alzheimer’s patient or, if they are African American, sing a Gospel song like “Amen” and observe the response.

In a 1993 film called Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a weatherman forced to relive groundhog day over and over.  He is in love with a co-worker at the station, played by Andie MacDowell, but has trouble attracting her attention.  After a point, he realizes that the groundhog day phenomena allows him to try different ways to woo her heart and he remembers her response from the previous days.  After many failed attempts, he finally wins her heart and groundhog day comes to an end.

With Alzheimer’s patients, every day is groundhog day.

Groundhog day is both a curse and a blessing. The curse arises when patients are reminded of past pains and relive them—griefs lived over and over with no resolution. The blessing comes in that as caregivers our mistakes are quickly forgotten and we can try something different.

Brackey reminds us that we can bring sunshine to our patients.  We can remember their accomplishments; share in their greatness; and share in their reality (41).  We can be the loving family that hopefully they have or maybe they had or maybe never had (36-37).  Facility staff must sometimes step in where family members are unable or unwilling to journey.

Brackey’s Creating Moments of Joy is truly best used as a journal.  She offers tons of useful advice whose usefulness will not be immediately obvious on reading it the first time.  It is best to make a mental note of what was read and come back to it when daily experiences prod your memory.  This is a helpful book for anyone caring for an Alzheimer’s patient or trying to relate to one.

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Schnabel: Treat Missions as a Hermeneutic

Schnabel_vol_1_03162015Eckhard J. Schnabel. 2004. Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve: Volume One.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Review By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Evangelism is one of the fault-lines in the postmodern church. Some critics see evangelism as cultural imperialism; most just neglect it. What was the role of evangelism and missions in the early church?

In his book, Early Christian Mission, Eckhard Schnabel makes an audacious claim: the bible is a missionary document written by missionaries. He writes:

“The fact that it is not possible to find a defined concept of ‘missions’ in the New Testament (NT) does not alter the fact that early Christianity was controlled by the missionary task in their entire existence and in all their activities…The body of literature on the early Christian mission is not large. This is true even for Paul’s missionary activity—a fact that may be traced back to the conviction that ‘Paul is important for us today as a theologian’ while being ‘primarily a missionary for the early church.’” (5-6)

The NT focus on missions runs much deeper than a few obvious scriptural references, like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20[1] or Acts 1:6-8[2].  Schnabel writes:

“The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter, and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years” (3).

If the Bible, particularly the NT, has a missional intent, then the interpretation rendered should simplify the text, much like the Copernican Revolution simplified the mathematics of planetary motion [3].

Schnabel defines missions as:

“…the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and to the way of life of whose true and necessity the members of that community of convinced.” (11)[4]

The core missionary intent is evident, for example, in Jesus calling his followers to be “fishers of people” and are referred to as “Apostles” which means: “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news.” (10-12) Jesus describes his own mission when approached by Syrophoenician woman:[5]  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 15:24 ESV)[6]  Jesus saw himself as a missionary primarily to Israel, but mandate for disciples was to:  “be my [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Act 1:8 ESV)  Still, because he was asked, Jesus healed the woman’s daughter (207).

If evangelism is a core concept for Christ and his disciples, then clearly a Christological view of the Old Testament (OT) must also have a missional intent. The need arises out of sin—some turn to God and some do not—those that turn to God need to make others aware of their shortcoming when faced with judgment.  Schnabel sees God’s blessing of Abraham as a key to understanding missions in the OT:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV)

Abraham is blessed to be blessing to others (61-62) [7]. Did the Nation of Israel lean into this idea of being a blessing to the nations around them? For the most part, no. The Prophet Jonah is instructive. God sends Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and he refuses; nevertheless, after being swallowed by whale, Jonah relents.  He  goes to Nineveh, prophesies their destruction, and the Ninevites turn to God (86-87). Jonah is neither surprised nor happy about this outcome (Jonah 4:1).

Dr Schnabel was one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  He taught previously at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, Phillippines, and Freien Theologischesn Akademice in Giessen, Germany.   He writes in 2 volumes designed as comprehensive references.  The subtitle for the first volume is—Jesus and the Twelve (pages 1 to 913)—while the subtitle for the second volume is—Paul and the Early Church (pages 920 to 1928).  Volume 1 divides into 4 parts:

  1. Promise—Israel’s Eschatological Expectations and Jewish Expansion in the Second Temple period.
  2. Fulfillment—The Mission of Jesus.
  3. Beginnings—The Mission of the Apostles in Jerusalem.
  4. Exodus—The Mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the Ends of the Earth.

These chapters are preceded by an introduction along with an outline, preface, abbreviations, and lists of maps and figures.  Subject, author, and ancient text indices are found at the end of volume 2 along with an exhaustive bibliography.

The distinctiveness of Schnabel’s writing arises in the way that he systematically describes events, towns and regions, chronological issues, and persons (15).  In this way he teases out details that would not appear in a less comprehensive treatment.  He takes advantage of his intimate knowledge of extra-biblical writing, map making, archaeology, and business practices from the first century to provide a fresh look at NT evangelism.  As such, this book is more than a good literary or exegetical study. This could be described as a work in biblical theology, meaning that the entire counsel of scripture is consulted and expanded upon through extra-biblical research.

It is hard to summarize a reference with the scope of Schnabel work.  Still, the merit of his work is beyond question—Scot McKnight aptly describes it as a masterpiece.  Schnabel’s  Early Christian Mission convinced me that missions is central to the work of the church and to interpreting scripture [7].  This work belongs in every seminary library and missions professionals will want to be aware of its contents.


[1]“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV)  A parallel statement in John is much more comprehensive—“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV)—even though it is often ignored.

[2]“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)

[3]In like manner, if the Christian worldview is true, it should simplify a complex life; it is not a simpleton’s lifestyle.

[4]This is an interesting definition. If X and Y, then Z. Conversely, if Z, then X and Y must be true. In plain English, missions is a test of: having a different theology and lifestyle, and really believing it. Ouch, if you don’t and/or if you won’t!

[5] Also: Mark 7:26.

[6] “but he said to them, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose. And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:43-44 ESV)

[7] When I sign copies of A Christian Guide to Spirituality (, I normally paraphrase the blessing of Abraham—an echo and reminder of my study of Early Christian Mission.

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Prayer Day 21: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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Almighty God, beloved Son, Holy Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to enter into your presence to pray and for being present in our daily lives. Illuminate our minds; consecrate our hearts. Help us to be fully present with each other and with you in prayer. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Dios Todopoderoso, Hijo amado, Espíritu Santo. Gracias por permitirnos entrar en tu presencia para orar y por estar presente en nuestras vidas cotidianas. Ilumina nuestras mentes y consagra nuestros corazones. Ayudanos a estar completamente presentes con los demás y contigo en oración. En el nombre de Jesús oramos, Amén.

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Jesus: Be Humble, Be Salt and Light

Life_in_Tension_web“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The importance of Jesus’ teaching on the poor in spirit comes in his expanding on it and living it out.  What comes immediately after the Beatitudes? What were some of Jesus’ last acts during his time on earth?

The Beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew interprets the Beatitudes in the context of discipleship with special reference to Isaiah 61:1 which reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isa 61:1 ESV)

The Hebrew for “to bring good news to the poor” is rendered in two words [1]. The word for poor (ana) can mean “poor, afflicted, humble, meek” (BDB 7238) [2]. The other word means bring good news. Matthew with his focus on discipleship turns after the Beatitudes to the task of bringing good news. The task of disciples is evangelism which itself expands on the first Beatitude [3].

Matthews uses Jesus teaching about salt, found also in Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34, to point to the centrality of evangelism. Salt is a gregarios; its usefulness comes only in combination with food. No one puts salt on their table to ingest alone. Salt is used to enhance the flavor of foods and to preserve them. Matthew’s point is that: “The disciple is to the earth what salt is to food.” The disciple who refuses to be salt, is useless and stands under judgment—”good only to be thrown out and trampled” (Guelich 1982, 126-127). Matthew goes on to reinforce his discipleship theme with a second metaphor about light (Matt 5:14-16). Clearly for Matthew the tension between the disciple and the world is real, ongoing, and at the core of the mission. Luke’s discussion of enemy-love, which immediately follows the Beatitudes (Luke 6:27-25), also embodies this tension [4].

Jesus himself exhibits “poor in spirit” through at least two significant acts of humility on the night of his arrest: the foot-washing ceremony at the Last Supper (John 13:4-5) and the prayer in the garden at Gethsemane (Matt 26:39).

The Gospel of John records the Last Supper in great detail. Details begin John observing that Jesus’ was aware that he would be betrayed and would die (John 13:1-3). Under such circumstances, we might expect him to be withdrawn, paralyzed with fear, or bitter. Instead, Jesus begins an object lesson about humility:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:3,4,14 ESV)

Foot-washing was the ultimate act of humility in the first century. Animals commonly shared the same roads as people and most people either wore sandals or walked barefoot. Dirty, stinky feet were the norm and slaves did the foot-washing. This is why Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet (John 13:8). He was also probably not anxious to get a lesson in humility because he was Jesus’ right hand man and leader among the disciples.

Luke overlooks the foot-washing, but records the lesson in humility. He writes:

“And He said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Both passages focus on the importance of humility in Christian leadership.

While Jesus’ object-lesson in foot-washing demonstrated humility among Christian leaders, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane demonstrated humility before God. Jesus prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew records Jesus repeating this prayer three times (Matt 26:39,42,44 ESV) [5].  While this prayer can be taken as piety or courage [6], it demonstrates the ultimate humility to be willing to die for others, including God, for purposes that are not fully understood [7].

The early church clearly got the message about being poor in spirit.  For example, humility is a character trait instrumental in the Apostle Paul’s ministry. He writes:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13 ESV)

What Paul is saying here is that humility is a core principle in his ministry practice.  His evangelism depended on his humility.  This point was made over and over in his work with the church in Corinth where he refused to accept a salary, in part, so that the Gospel could be freely and rightly preached [8].

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5:3 ESV)


[1] לְבַשֵּׂר עֲנָוִים (Isa 61:1 WTT)

[2] This word is familiar because it appears also in Numbers 12:3 cited in a previous post (Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope;

[3] “The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years.” (Schnabel 2004, 3)

[4] Luke’s focus on enemy love right after the Beatitudes may lead some to jump immediately to the double love command in Matthew 22:36-40.  But enemy love is qualitatively different—evangelism hangs on loving one’s enemies—people you have no attachment to.  The real question for the modern church is:  why is the double love command not the centerpiece of the Beatitudes?  The fact that it is not suggests that the priorities of the modern church have been misplaced.

[5] Also see Mark 14:36 and Luke 22:42 which place the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

[6] Neyrey (1998, 110,152) sees both courage and piety.

[7] The Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, both echo Jesus’ humility citing Proverbs 3:34: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” (1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6).

[8] Act 18:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 11:6-9.


Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2004. Early Christian Mission. Vol 1: Jesus and the Twelve. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

Gilbert_review_03042015Roberta M. Gilbert. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group.  Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter.  How much they matter to our health and well-being is sometimes shocking.  Frequently in patient visits in an emergency room, physical and psychiatric problems could be linked to problems elsewhere in the family, such as a death or trauma.  This might be obvious when a young mother comes in complaining of chronic headaches, but it might also be a significant factor explaining backache, heart attacks, stroke, ineffective medication, and drug addictions.  Of course, as a chaplain one needs to ask.


Family systems theory helps to make sense of these connections by focusing on “the family as an emotional unit”, rather than on particular individuals (3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice.  The systems approach often yields counter-intuitive results[1].  Family systems theory is often applied to other “emotional units”, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.


In her book, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, Roberta Gilbert outlines 8 principles of family systems theory which outlines her chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Nuclear Family Emotional System;
  2. The Differentiation of Self Scale;
  3. Triangles;Cutoff;
  4. Family Projection Process;
  5. Multi-generational Transmission Process;
  6. Sibling Position; and
  7. Societal Emotional Process (4).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.  Murray Bowen developed family systems theory in the 1950s working as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC; he elaborated this theory as a faculty member at Georgetown University[2].  Robert Gilbert was one of his students.

In her explanation of emotional units, Gilbert write:

“My grandfather’s herd of cattle…Say the cattle are peacefully grazing…but…one cow gets too close to the electric fence, sustaining a shock, she may jump, vocalize and even jump or run, showing that she is in a very anxious state.  How long does it take for the other cows in the pasture to ‘catch’ the anxiety?  Of course, it happens almost immediately. Their behavior soon becomes agitated, showing they have taken on the anxiety of the initial individual.  The cattle are showing, by the movement of anxiety through the herd, that they are an emotional system.” (6)

Anxiety is Contagious

Anxiety transmission is a flag for the limits of an emotional system.  Gilbert classifies anxiety as acute—in response to stress—and chronic—the background anxiety in a group (7-8). Relational responses to anxiety come in 4 patterns:

  1. Triangling;
  2. Conflict;
  3. Distancing; and
  4. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning (11-12).

Anxiety is infectious (7).  Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak (21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (33). Gilbert’s grandfather attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle (22).

Family Systems Concepts

Family systems theory focuses on how a particular group resolves anxiety.


An important therapeutic result from family systems theory arises in how anxiety is resolved.  If a parent is anxious, then the other parent picks it up. If a child is nearby, they too will become anxious—the child becomes the third corner in a “triangle”.  If this situation is repeated, then the child may develop a symptom (48).  This symptom could be simple things, like sleep problems or bed wetting, or it could develop in social problems, like acting out, fighting, etc.  If the child’s symptom developed in response to parental conflict (think about divorce or separation), then sending the child out for counseling will not resolving the problem.  However, the child’s problem could be resolved by dealing with the parental conflict.


Gilbert defines conflict as: “when…neither [party] gives in to the other on major issues.” (15) Obviously, conflict has the potential to generate a lot of chronic anxiety.

Distancing and Cutoff

When people resolve conflict or anxiety through leaving—either temporarily or permanently—nothing is resolved—only deferred.  Gilbert writes:

“Distanced persons think about each other, the relationship and the conflict that led to it, a great deal.  By distancing, they are far from free of the problem.  They are still emotionally bound and defined by it” (16).

To see this effect, think about a reunion that you have attended—what did people talk about?

Gilbert speculates that because grief is, in part, the result of emotional cutoff (distancing), remaining in contact with the deceased persons extended family can help mitigate at least some of the grieving process (62).  This is part and parcel of a traditional funeral.


Gilbert writes:  “the overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity describes partners trying to make one self out of two.” (17)

The overfunctioner:

·       Knows the answer,

·       Does well in life,

·       Tells the other what to do, how to think, how to feel,

·       Tries to help too much…

The underfunctioner:

·       Relies on the other to know what to do,

·       Asks for advice unnecessarily,

·       Takes all offered help, needed or not, becoming passive,

·       Asks the other to do what he or she can do for self… (18)

Gilbert notes that in the workplace, leaders can be overfunctioners (19).

An important outcome of family systems theory is that differentiation-of-self functions as a shock absorber on the emotional system.  High functioning leaders lead through principles (not emotion), stay grounded in facts and thinking, and remain in good contract with appropriate individuals in the system (43).


Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory is a helpful book.  In my case, I was already aware of the principles of Bowen theory, but had not fully absorbed their significance.  Gilbert’s presentation simplified my learning process.


[1] My last two published papers working as a financial engineer applied the systems approach in risk management (Responding to Systemic Risk (; Putting the System Back in Systemic Risk (

[2] Murray Bowen (1913-1990;

Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

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Prayer Day 20: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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Holy and Compassionate Father. We praise you for creating us in your image. We praise you for the gift of eternal life and for the gift of your son, Jesus Christ. In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us strength for each day. Forgive our sin; heal our hearts; reconcile us with you and with each other. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.


Padre santo y compasivo. Te alabamos por creanos en tu imagen. Te alabamos por el regalo de la vida eterna y el regalo de tu hijo, Jesucristo. En el poder de tu Espíritu Santo, danos la fuerza para cada día. Perdona nuestros pecados; sana nuestros corazones; reconcilianos contigo y con los demás. En el precioso nombre de Jesús oramos, Amén.

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Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope

Life_in_Tension_web“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17 ESV)

Recorded in Matthew 5:17, Jesus’ mission statement links the law, the prophets, and the fulfillment of both. In Jewish thinking, the term, law, brings to mind the first five books in the Old Testament—the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. The term, prophets, loosely refers to the remainder of the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus takes as his task to fulfill all of the Old Testament scripture.

Law.  The word, law, is often short for Law of Moses.  Because “poor in spirit” can mean humble,  Numbers 12:3 comes to mind.  It reads: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3 ESV). The verses that follow set Moses spiritually apart from both Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, because he had a unique relationship with God—one that exceeds the relationship of a normal prophet [1]. The Hebrew word here (ana), translated as meek, can also be translated as poor, afflicted, humble, or meek [2].

Two important points follow from this word association. First, poor in spirit meaning humble draws us uniquely closer to God—Moses close. God spoke to Moses directly, face to face, not in riddles or dreams (Num 12:6-8). This is like a return to the Garden of Eden in terms of intimacy with God—God our father in heaven close. Second, in case you missed it in the first Beatitude, Jesus uses the word, meek, a second time in the third Beatitude. If he were speaking Hebrew, then he could have used the same word twice—an emphatic statement. The blessing of poor in spirit was: the kingdom of heaven. The blessing for meek was: inheriting the earth. What does the Bible start? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV). In other words, being poor in spirit or meek in God’s eye gets you heaven and earth.

Of course, the opposite of humble is proud. While there are a lot of proud rulers in the Old Testament, Pharaoh is the archetype of a proud ruler, especially when you are thinking of Moses. What does God say through Moses to Pharaoh? Moses said:  “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.” (Exod 10:3 ESV) Pharaoh refused and things ended badly for him [3].

Prophet. While Matthew 5:17 is a quite general statement of Jesus’ intent to fulfill all of scripture, Luke 4:18-19, which records Jesus’ call sermon, quotes almost verbatim from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion…” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

When Isaiah writes about bringing “good news the poor”, he uses the same Hebrew word for poor (ana) as used in Numbers 12:3 [4]. This passage is significant for at least two reasons. First, the use of the word, anointed, flags this passage as a messianic prophesy. Second, one might also ask whether the term, “broken-hearted”, is actually the better analogy to “poor in spirit” than “poor”. This suggests that a Isaiah 61 is indeed an important source not only for his call sermon but also for the Beatitudes.

Fulfillment. The word for fulfillment in the Greek text here (πληρόω) is generally translated as meaning: to bring to a designed end, fulfill a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a purpose, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny (BDAG 5981, 4b). It was common for rabbis in Jesus’ day to preach from the law using the prophets to interpret what was meant. One might then perhaps say that the law had been “fulfilled” in following it correctly. However, the Gospel of Matthew uses fulfill more frequently than the other Gospels [5] and most often in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy (12/17), not mere compliance with law. In other words, for Matthew the focus in fulfillment is an action—to live out the prophecy in the sense of taking the next steps [6].

The law and the prophets are fulfilled in the faithful life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus honors the poor in spirit who follow his lead in life, death, and  eternal life.


[1] “And he said, Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num 12:6-8 ESV)

[2] (עָנָי; BDB, 7237).

[3]  “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” (Exod 14:28 ESV)

[4] The Greek Septuagint also uses the same word for poor as in Matthew 5:3 (πτωχοῖς (Isa 61:1 BGT)).

[5] Matthew [17 times] 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 9:16; 12:17; 13:35, 48; 21:4; 23:32; 26:54, 56; and 27:9. Mark [5 times]1:15; 2:21; 6:43; 8:20; and 14:49. Luke [7 times] 1:20; 3:5; 4:21; 7:1; 21:24; 22:16; and 24:44. John [15 times] 1:16; 3:29; 7:8; 12:3, 38; 13:18; 15:11, 25; 16:6, 24; 17:12-13; 18:9, 32; and 19:24, 36.

[6] Guelich (1982, 163) sees Jesus, for example, fulfilling Jeremiah 31:31-34 where God promises to write the law on our hearts.


BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

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Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2

Bradley_Longfield_02252015Bradley J. Longfield.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up during the period 1950s-1970s when the influence of the church in society was at a recent high point and watching a lifelong decline in that influence, Longfield’s observations about the church before the Civil War appear remarkable. Longfield (71) writes:

“The combined budgets of the voluntary associations in the early nineteenth century rivaled the federal government’s expenditures on internal improvements over the same years. This was an age, Nathan Hatch has claimed, when people expected almost everything from religion (and churches) and almost nothing from politics (and the state).”

Many of these voluntary societies were in the northern church which perhaps anticipated changes brought about later by the Civil War.

Many of the arguments within the Presbyterian church in the nineteenth century were over slavery. The North and South differed in the 1820s in the rate of urbanization and growth of foreign immigrants (97). Because northern slave-holding was largely a thing of the past, the abolition movement grew in northern churches where slavery was not an economic issue as in the South.  Southern efforts to reform slavery (100-102) from within were eclipsed when the North abolished Southern slavery following the Civil War. While many people will laugh off these reform efforts, owning one’s issues is an important Christian distinctive.  In fact, economic historians with no pony in this race have long questioned whether the conflict between North and South over slavery was even necessary because of changes already underway in the cotton industry where most slaves were employed [1].

How did success in abolishing slavery affect the Presbyterian attitude about political action?  Two effects on Presbyterians may have had lasting influence:

  • Political success in abolishing slavery bolstered the idea that political reform is more important within the church than personal transformation through faith.
  • Placing the focus on reforming other people’s social problems (north reforming south) took pressure off reforming their own social problems (north reforming north) [2].

This preference for political change rather than personal transformation within the church, taken to its logical conclusion, may explain why Presbyterians (unlike members of other reformed denominations, such as the Reformed Church in America) identify more with polity (governance of the church by elders) and less with confessional faith in the 20th century [3].

An important step in the direction of “policy ascendance” (202) was taken already in 1925 when a special commission of the General Assembly declared the 5 fundamentals of the faith nonbinding (158).  The 5 fundamentals adopted in 1910 were:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (142).

During the period from 1910 until 1925 candidates for ministry were require to adhere to these 5 fundamentals as an  ordination requirement.  The “Auburn Affirmation”, also drafted in 1925, questioned each of these fundamentals saying that they were not the only “theories” consistent with scripture and confessions (153).  The scopes trial in July 1925 turned polite disagreement into public ridicule (156).  From that point forward, pastors need not affirm the Apostle’s Creed in order to be ordained.  Adhering to the 5 fundamentals today marks one as a “fundamentalist” which has in recent years become a pejorative term.

In Presbyterians and American Culture Longfield openly discusses many issues that remain provocative even today.  Longfield’s contribution consists of offering fair and open conversation about the history of the church and how we arrived where we are.  This makes next steps easier.


[1] Economic pressure was already on the cotton industry to mechanize production which happened not very many years later.  Philips reports, for example, a table showing the price of field hands rising rapidly and the price of cotton falling in the ante-bellum period.  Ulrich B. Phillips.  1972. “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt”  page 227-239 of Gerald D. Nash [Editor] Issues in American Economic History. Lexington, MA:  D.C. Heath and Company.  The negative consequences of the war included unprecedented casualties, the acceleration of development of weapons of mass destruction, centralization of power in Washington, regional hegemony of the North over the South, and economic concentration in monopolizing firms.  These consequences shaped many of the problems that followed in the Twentieth Century.

[2] Economists often comment that the American abolition movement, which unlike that in Great Britain did not compensate slaveholders or provide former slaves with transition assistance, actually led to many of the social problems that were experienced after the Civil War.  Among those problems were discrimination, poverty, and a century of southern economic depression relative to other regions.

[3] The Reformed Church in America has used essentially the same polity documents over the past 100 years while the PCUSA amends their polity statement (the Book of Order) all the time.

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