I caught up with Raymond Johnson at the recent annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention where we talked about our individual Ph.D. work. In talking about our favorite subject (the Gospels!), Raymond shared some fascinating insights from his research in Matthew. I asked him to share here on the blog.


One of the keys to reading the Gospels well is to read them with the literary features of a narrative in mind. This is especially true when reading the carefully crafted literary masterpiece known as the Gospel of Matthew.

Two of the crucial questions readers can ask while trying to understand individual scenes throughout the Gospel are:

  1. “Where will I see this again?”
  2. “Where have I seen this before?”

This is particularly pertinent when interpreting the beginning of the Gospel narrative in light of the end, as well as the end of the Gospel narrative in light of the beginning. For, at both the beginning and end of his Gospel, one of Matthew’s chief concerns is clarifying the identity of “Jesus”—Who is this man?

Parallels in Jesus’ Birth and Death

A familiar example for readers can be seen in the uniqueness of the events surrounding the birth and death of Jesus. On the one hand, at the beginning of the Gospel he is

  • conceived of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20)
  • in the womb of a virgin (Matt 1:18)
  • in fulfillment of the Scriptures (Matt 1:23)
  • after being announced in a dream by an angel (Matt 1:20).

On the other hand, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, after crying out with an earth-rending voice and yielding his spirit (Matt 27:50), several cataclysmic events occur:

  • the curtain of the temple is torn (Matt 27:51a),
  • the earth shakes (Matt 27:51b),
  • the rocks split (Matt 27:51c),
  • the tombs open (Matt 27:52a),
  • and lifeless people whom Matthew calls “saints” are raised to life (Matt 27:52b).

Again, when Jesus was born, children were slaughtered (Matt 2:16); when Jesus died, the dead were raised to life (Matt 27:52).

Reading with the literary features of a narrative in mind accentuates Matthew’s point—Jesus is one uniquely born; Jesus is one who uniquely dies. The uniqueness surrounding his life teaches us something about his identity and mission.

Parallels in Jesus’ Baptism and Death

A less familiar example can be seen in the scene preceding Jesus’ death and how it alludes to the imagery of his baptism; how it further clarifies the identity of the man called, “Jesus.” At his baptism:

  • Jesus speaks (Matt 3:15),
  • the Spirit descends upon him (Matt 3:16),
  • and the Father audibly testifies from heaven to his identity (Matt 3:17).

In the very next Gospel-scene after God the Father identifies Jesus as the Son with whom he is pleased (Matt 3:17), Satan challenges Jesus identify (Matt 4:3, 6).

Similarly, immediately prior to his death, the pharisaic naysayers challenge the identity of Jesus (Matt 27:40, 43).

Then, after crying out with a loud voice twice (Matt 27:46, 50) an unnerving silence pervades the scene before Jesus yields the Spirit and dies (Matt 27:50). It is only after Jesus’ death that Matthew notes how the Father testifies to Jesus’ identity as the “the Son of God” by means of the cosmological and apocalyptic imagery (Matt 27:45, 51-53); it is only after his death that the gentile centurion positively identifies him as the Son of God in response to the events that testify to his identity (Matt 27:54).

Why the Parallels Matter

The question, then, is “Why did Matthew intentionally employ this imagery in his Gospel-narrative?” The narrative structure is intended to accentuate Jesus’ identity—at his birth, wise men are confounded as a star guides them to the Lord of heaven and earth (Matt 2:1-12); at his death, the heavens, which he created, mourn in darkness (Matt 27:45) and the earth, which he created, breaks (Matt 27:51), giving back the dead as a testimony to his dominion as the Son of God (Matt 28:18).

As the Son of God, he saves people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Further, Matthew’s intentionality in his narrative structure is intended to accentuate the mission Jesus’ death necessitates—his death is life-giving and ultimately salvific for persons from every nation who profess faith in his name (Matt 28:16-20; cf. 27:54). Since Jesus is the Son of God and his life is unlike any other life, his death is a life-giving death (Matt 27:52); since Jesus is the Son of God and his life is unlike any other life, his death has meaning for the nations (Matt 27:54; 28:16-20).

Matthew concludes his Gospel with a reference to the beginning of his Gospel emphasizing the missional implications of Jesus’ life, for Jesus “bears fruit” through the disciples he promises to be with until the end of the age as they are on mission for the renown of the Triune God (Matt 28:20; cf. 1:23).


Raymond and his wife, Meghan, live in Louisville with their three daughters, Abigail, Charlotte, and Emily. He is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is on the ministerial staff at Ninth & O Baptist Church, teaches preaching as an adjunct instructor at Boyce College, and is the Assistant Director of Student & Alumni Services at Southern Seminary. Follow him on Twitter at @raymondj17.

Are you conservative?

Or are you progressive?

Both terms bother me.

To be a “conservative” implies that your primary impulse is to conserve something valuable from history or tradition. But not everything from history or tradition is worth “conserving.” Much of the past has been relegated to the dust heap, and deservedly so.

To be a “progressive” implies that your primary impulse is to progress beyond the present and lead the way toward better days. Sounds great. But not everything we foresee in the future is worth pursuing. Much of what society considers progress today could one day be tossed aside as ridiculous.

So, conservatives appeal to the past, and progressives appeal to the future. And since the problems of the past are on full display and the problems of the future are often unknown, the conservative task is difficult in every generation, for the conservative must make a careful case for retrieving and cherishing good aspects of the past without wanting to “go back.” The progressive has an easier job, since the term itself implies growth toward the common good.

But when we take a deeper look at how the progressive label is applied, we often see people appealing to an imaginary calendar instead of providing sound argumentation.

The Imaginary Calendar

There’s no reason to assume that the position we hold to is right because it’s Tuesday and not Monday. And yet, that’s the kind of ”appeal to the calendar” we often witness in popular progressive circles.

To paraphrase our secretary of state’s warnings to Russia: “We’re living in the 21st century now! You just can’t do that anymore.” To which the Russians giggle and proceed to defy the calendar we have imagined into existence.

“I realized it was time,” politicians say about why they are now in favor of redefining marriage. “It’s time” may be rhetorically powerful to some, but it shouldn’t be confused with actually making a case.

  • N. T. Wright calls vague appeals to “the future” a smokescreen.
  • C. S. Lewis believed it was chronological snobbery to appeal to progress as if the future is assured and the past is irrelevant.
  • G. K. Chesterton believed that democracy means listening to the dead, not just the living. Dissenting is a sign of life, for ”a dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

Progressives want to be bold and courageous, to take their place at the vanguard of the future, but there’s nothing particularly world-changing about seeing where the train of history appears to be chugging, throwing yourself on top of the engine, and then imagining you’re the one making the train go.

Besides, if the past is any indication, the history train makes plenty of unpredictable turns.

Progressives and Eugenics

100 years ago, progressives were falling all over themselves to affirm eugenics. Sterilizing people from unwanted groups would purify the gene pool and lead to a better society. Who could be against that? 

Most people today, thankfully.

Those who dissented from the cultural orthodoxy surrounding eugenics a century ago were seen as hopelessly backward, but it was their position that stood the test of time. The “progressive” eugenicists eliminated themselves from the pool of popular opinion, although remnants of eugenic thought still persist in institutions of higher learning.

Progressives and Abortion

One of the most contentious issues facing our nation today is that of abortion. Views on abortion that get called ”progressive” always seem to be in favor of relaxing restrictions. Why is that so? If we see the abortion debate from the standpoint of protecting humans from a violent demise, then shouldn’t the protective measures enacted in the last decade be seen as “progressive?”

Flash back 200 years ago. “Progressive” doctors like Horatio Storer were rallying to expose abortionists, shut down abortion mills, and protect women and children. All their work was later undone by a “progressive” Supreme Court decision that sanctioned the slaughter of fifty million little human beings. See the problem? The label of “progress” lets us down.

Progressives and Divorce

When it comes to marriage, somehow it’s “progressive” to relax divorce laws and make it easier for a couple to abandon their covenant commitments and walk away from their children.

But has no-fault divorce led to “progress” for the family? It’s only progress if you see marriage as a commitment based on romantic feelings, and the needs of children as second to our emotional unions. Today, the world is full of children who know firsthand the pain of broken families, who, when grown, often repeat the cycle in their own lives.

Progressives and Sex

It’s “progressive” to say that all consensual sex between adults is acceptable. But has this led to progress for women? Is cohabitation without marital commitment “progress” for the family? Whatever one thinks about sexual morality, is it accurate to call the sexual brokenness and female degradation we see today “progress?”

It’s “progressive” to argue for sex-change operations, as if we are purely spiritual beings whose physical bodies are irrelevant to who we really are inside. But what if, a century from now, people look back at today’s “progressives” with horror: How could they celebrate the mutilation of their bodies? They thought this was progress?

Progressives and Marriage

It’s “progressive” to be for same-sex marriage, overturning the male/female definition of marriage that has been supported by every civilization for thousands of years. But just how is it progress to envision a family unit where a child is denied the blessing of a mother and father?

In the past, we’ve mourned the tragedy of a child losing a mother or father to death or divorce. Today, we’re seeking to enshrine such a vision into law, to celebrate a family where gender is irrelevant. Is this progress? Or is the bandwagon trampling common sense?

The Myth of Progress

The list could be multiplied. A century ago, the progressives were the ones smashing saloon windows and pushing Prohibition. Today’s progressives look back at such antics as antiquated and backward.

All this to say, progress and progressivism are powerful myths, but they remain just that – myths. Just as the conservative needs to carefully consider what in the past should be “conserved,” the progressive needs to think deeply about how we define “progress.”

After all, totalitarian regimes from Nero’s Rome to Hitler’s Germany have always claimed their policies will usher the world forward in a utopian state, and they use both “conservative” and “progressive” arguments to make the case. The Russians thought they were pushing progress during the Cold War, with Kruschev saying “History is on our side and we will bury you.”

Today, the United States imagines a calendar of progress solidified by our military and economy, with our way of life responsible for spreading freedom to the world and overcoming evil. But not everything we view as “progress” is worth spreading.

Progress must always be measured by a standard.

We make progress as we work hard and move toward an ideal. The temptation, however, is to change the ideal. And that’s why we’d rather trade the ideals of heaven for the shifting sands of popular opinion. To exchange God’s design for human flourishing with our paltry human inventions.

So take note. What passes for “progress” today is often just a slow and steady burrowing into the ground. And the minions below don’t care what we call ”progress,” as long as we are in descent.

The Pastor's Kid Barnabas PiperBarnabas Piper has lived his life as the son of one of the most well-known pastors in the world. In his new book, The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity he shares about his own experiences growing up with John Piper as his father.

The book has been getting some attention, and for good reason. Barnabas talked with dozens of PKs (pastor’s kids), and his book relays some of their stories in order to give the reader a better understanding of life in that bubble.

The Pastor’s Kid is an honest look at life as a PK, but not an overly critical look. He is open about the difficulties that come with having a father in the ministry, but he also recognizes the benefits that can develop and grow from this experience. Here’s a book that gives a voice to PKs, helps pastors avoid some of the common pitfalls, and encourages churches to better understand the pressures on their pastor and his family.

Barnabas talked some with me recently about his book, what makes PKs unique, as well as the challenges and blessings of seeing church life up close and personal.

Trevin: One of the questions I had as I started reading your book was about the common “fishbowl” illustration. Pastors’ kids grow up in an environment in which people are always watching them. I wonder, though, how much of this could be applied to any family where the parent is well known in the community and/or a family’s faith is on display.

  • Are singers’ kids expected to have good singers’ voices?
  • Are politicians’ kids expected to be savvy and personable?
  • Are doctors’ kids expected to have a knack for medicine?

So my question is this: What is it about pastors’ kids that has led to the PK label and brought additional, spiritual challenges that are unique?

Barnabas: That’s a really good question. If there is no difference between PKs and any other child under scrutiny, my book is a big waste of time!

The biggest difference between PKs and any other children of well-known parents is the spiritual aspect of things, especially the “calling” aspect of pastoral ministry. A singer might be known widely, but they are known for a talent. A politician is known for a position. A pastor is known for being close to God, at least tacitly if not explicitly. With that closeness to God, the call to ministry, comes a public life and all the requisite scrutiny.

All those other public positions are about what someone does – even the president of the United States. So for their kids to do something different or to be a different kind of person is generally more acceptable. If their kids are total screw-ups it has little bearing on what they do.

A pastor, though is about being something, really being a whole lot of somethings, for a group of people. If a PK goes down a divergent path (even a moral one), it calls into question the identity of the pastor in the eyes of the congregation.

Trevin: In your conversations with other PKs, you mention the common sentiment that a child will feel toward the church: a sense of rivalry. Lots of kids probably feel a sense of rivalry toward the place where their fathers or mothers work. How does the feeling of rivalry with the church impact a PK spiritually, more so than another kid’s feeling of rivalry with the office?

Barnabas: Because the rivalry is inherently spiritual. It’s not just about time at the office, or dad always being on his cell phone. It’s about those things tied directly to God. When dad has tensions with co-workers, it’s in the name of God. When parishioners treat dad like dirt, it’s in the house of God.

It can be difficult for a PK to connect directly with God on a personal level because God is not necessarily a personal being. He is tied to his dad’s career and the rhythms of working life. All the good and bad things that happen in Dad’s work can directly affect a PKs view of God and ability/desire to follow Him.

Trevin: You list five assumptions that church members make about PKs:

  • The PK has a great relationship with God.
  • The PK has a great relationship with the family.
  • The PK loves the church.
  • The PK is confident in His beliefs.
  • The PK is a leader.

Which of these five do you find most prevalent? Which of these five did you struggle with the most?

Barnabas: I think the first one is most prevalent because it sort of underpins the others. The assumption that PKs are close to God is directly tied to how much they love the church and family and how well prepared they are to lead.

Up through college, I especially struggled with my relationship with God. I didn’t even realize I was struggling, but the reality was that all that I knew of God didn’t equate to a relationship with God. I rode my confidence in what I believed, but didn’t connect with God in a personal way until later. That’s a larger story, and I tell much of it in the book.

Currently, the expectation to have a great relationship with family is a challenging one. I am 31 years old with a family of my own, but my dad is as well-know now as he ever has been. The general assumption is that our family - my parents, my 4 siblings, the spouses, and me – must just have a blast being related to John Piper. The reality is that we have family dysfunction and difficulties, much like many (most?) families in the church do.

Trevin: So, how did you manage the expectations that came along with those assumptions?

Barnabas: As a kid and up through my teen years I generally tried to meet the expectations, largely out of a sense of pride. I wanted to be seen as the guy who had his spiritual life pulled together. I did love Jesus and I did want to follow the Lord, but my motives were pretty hollow.

In terms of expectations I face now, I work hard to align myself with who I’ve come to realize God made me to be. I have my own family, my own gifts, my own area of ministry. If I try to live up to people’s expectations, I will miss that and fall short of what I have been given to be and do.

The flip side is that, as frustrating as those expectations can be and as annoyed as I can get at them, I need to show people grace. I’m not a terribly gracious person, but no good comes out of lashing out or getting impatient.

Trevin: I hear people talking today about the need for a pastor to “pastor his family” first. You say this is bad advice. Why?

Barnabas: It’s bad advice because of what the term “pastor” has come to mean. I know people mean well by using it, but “pastor” is a job title loaded with a thousand expectations.

Pastors are, in many cases, expected to be supermen – morally superior, intellectually sound, theologians, counselors, preachers, teachers, businessmen, accountants, strategists, leaders, etc. If they bring those same sorts of expectations home nobody will benefit. Either they will think too much of themselves or feel like a failure.

Pastors’ kids don’t want superman. They want a present, loving father.

Trevin: We’ve talked about the particular challenges PKs face. You also write about the great benefits of being brought up as a pastor’s kid. What are some benefits to being a PK you think may surprise those who haven’t walked that road?

Barnabas: The thing that surprised me most as I interacted with PKs was how many came through some really difficult struggles and are now serving in the church. It’s what really made me think about the unique benefits PKs have.

We heard more Bible than just about any of our peers growing up, and no matter if we agree theologically with our parents or not, just the absorption of so much Scripture is a blessing. It is the raw material God can use later to grow us and shape us.

We grew up in and around the church and got to learn how it works from the inside out – the leadership, the relationships, the good, the bad. This prepares us well to serve in the church later with no disillusions. A PKs love for the church is not an infatuation that the shine will come off. It is an informed, “I know this place is a mess and love it any way” type of love.

I think the last unique thing that stands out is that many PKs have had the chance to see God work in ways others haven’t. When your parents are praying over people in your home. When you attend conferences and retreats every couple months, when someone new is always at the table for Sunday dinner you see and hear a lot of what God is doing.

Yes, the missionary slide shows were boring as a kid, but they made me so much more aware of God’s presence and of people in every part of the world. It is those kinds of subtle, little things that add up into a great big benefit for PKs.

The long-awaited verdict from the Supreme Court regarding Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the Health and Human Services mandate to provide emergency contraceptives is in. The Court sidedwith the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, who claimed that because four of the required contraceptives are abortion-inducing drugs, paying for them would cause them to compromise their religious convictions.

Religious people who want to engage in business according to their most cherished values and principles breathed a sigh of relief at the ruling. But let’s remember that, while Christian business owners saw a favorable ruling from the Court, public opinion on this case hasn’t followed suit. As of last weekend:

A majority of Americans oppose letting employers, based on their religious views, exclude certain contraceptives from workers’ insurance coverage… The poll asked whether employers should be able to choose what forms of contraceptives their health plans provide based on their religious beliefs. Of those responding, 53 percent disagreed and 35 percent agreed. Of those surveyed, 12 percent said they did not know.

Some of the opposition toward Hobby Lobby could be a result of misinformation that has spread throughout the media. The phrase “Obamacare’s Contraceptive Mandate” is misleading. Many reporters have covered this issue as if religious employers are banning contraceptive usage among their employees, or as if working for Hobby Lobby means you relinquish your right to birth control.

The “ban” terminology isn’t accurate. Hobby Lobby’s issue was never with contraception in general, but four kinds of “contraception” that can induce early abortions. Furthermore, the owners weren’t seeking to ban abortifacient drugs among their employees, but to opt out from subsidizing them. Facing exorbitant fines from the government for their objection to paying for these drugs, the owners argued they were being penalized for leading their business according to conscience, the same conscience that leads Hobby Lobby to close on Sundays, to pay their workers a wage much higher than would be expected for their work, and to provide health coverage in the first place.

Even so, when informed people look at this case, many still come to the conclusion that business owners must provide emergency contraceptives, even when the purchase goes against their religious convictions. You may be thrilled at the Hobby Lobby verdict, but there’s a good chance your neighbor isn’t. In fact, a growing number of Americans don’t see “religious liberty” as important.

Last year, a record number of Americans (1 in 3) said the first amendment goes too far in the freedom it promises. Just as a reminder, that amendment ensures not only religious liberty but also free speech. And here’s a foreboding statistic:

Most likely to believe the First Amendment goes too far are Americans under 30 years old, African-Americans, and Latinos.

So, how do we navigate this shifting landscape of views on morality, freedom, and religiosity?

We should start by recognizing that the narrow majority of the Supreme Court doesn’t reflect the majority of our population. The Sexual Revolution has introduced assumptions and “givens” into our thought processes today, making religious liberty objections seem increasingly odd or fanciful.

Consider this. A generation ago, a person’s religious observance was a public matter, a defining characteristic of one’s identity, while a person’s sexual activity was something private. Today, this situation is reversed. A person’s sexual behavior is now considered a defining characteristic of identity, a public matter to be affirmed (even subsidized) by others, while religious observance is private and personal, relegated to places of worship and not able to infringe upon or impact the public square.

The culture clash today is less about the role of religion in business or politics, and more about which vision of humanity best leads to flourishing and should therefore be enshrined in or favored by law.

As evangelicals, we can’t rely on the courts; we have to be in conversations. Not the kind of conversation where we debate the merits of a particular case or where we seek to back opponents into a corner, but the kind of gentle persuasion that rises from a joyful exuberance in one’s faith and a hopeful confidence for the future.

Most of all, our words should be backed up by lives of happy holiness and genuine wholeness, where love is not something we talk about, but something we display. Our friends and neighbors may still disagree with us, but let’s at least give them examples of what authentic life in God’s kingdom looks like. Then, whenever we refuse to bow the knee, perhaps they’ll see our defiance toward Caesar is really devotion to King Jesus.

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