No One Compares to Yahweh: The Testimony of the Old Testament

Here’s a handy list of places where YHWH discusses and describes YHWH’s incomparable awesomeness through his Old Testament authors:

“And he said, ‘Tomorrow.’ Moses said, ‘Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God.'” (Exod. 8:10 ESV)

“For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” (Exo 9:14 ESV)

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exod. 15:11 ESV)

“O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?” (Deut. 3:24 ESV)

“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut. 4:7 ESV)

“To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him.” (Deut. 4:35 ESV)

“Know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” (Deut. 4:39 ESV)

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deut. 32:39 ESV)

“There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty.” (Deut. 33:26 ESV)

“There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” (1 Sam. 2:2 ESV)

“Therefore you are great, O LORD God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.” (2 Sam. 7:22 ESV)

” . . . and said, ‘O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart.'” (1 Kgs. 8:23 ESV)

“All my bones shall say, ‘O LORD, who is like you, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, the poor and needy from him who robs him?'” (Psa. 35:10 ESV)

“You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.” (Psa. 40:5 ESV)

“Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?” (Psa. 71:19 ESV)

“You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” (Psa. 77:14 ESV)

“There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.” (Psa. 86:8 ESV)

” . . . a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” (Psa. 89:7-9 ESV)

“Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high . . .” (Psa. 113:5 ESV)

“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18 ESV)

“To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” (Isa. 40:25 ESV)

“Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” (Isa. 44:6-7 ESV)

“I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Isa. 45:5-6 ESV)

“Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa. 45:21-22 ESV)

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?” (Isa. 46:5 ESV)

“Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” (Isa. 46:9 ESV)

“There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you.” (Jer. 10:6-7 ESV)

“Behold, like a lion coming up from the jungle of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly make him run away from her. And I will appoint over her whomever I choose. For who is like me? Who will summon me? What shepherd can stand before me?” (Jer. 49:19 ESV; cf. 50:44)

“You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” (Joel 2:27 ESV)

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” (Mic 7:18 ESV)

Grace and Peace,



Robert Alter and the Betrothal Convention

[I am aware of the fact that it has been almost a full year (!) since I posted anything on this blog site. Our family’s move from Calgary to Montreal, combined with all that has ensued over recent months—including the completion of my D.Min.—has drawn my attention away from the blog somewhat. At any rate, here’s something new!]

In a fascinating chapter entitled “Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention,” Robert Alter discusses narrative conventions and their appearance and use in the biblical corpus [see pages 55-78 in Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011)]. Near the start of his chapter, Alter draws attention to a “convention” that can be found within the genre of Hollywood westerns. Almost without variation, in every western film, the protagonist sheriff ends up drawing his gun faster than the antagonist black-hat. The basic story repeats from western film to western film, even if surrounding details change. When a person in contemporary culture watches such a film, that person can count on the sheriff winning the day, even if the odds against the sheriff in film B appear much greater than they were in film A. Alter goes on to argue that certain conventions were likewise understood by the ancient community in the time when the Bible was written, and for the rest of his chapter, Alter analyzes the “betrothal” convention: time after time in the Bible, the same betrothal story is more or less repeated, even if the details change slightly from episode to episode.

Alter notes several examples in the biblical narrative where the following basic betrothal formula appears:

  1. A future bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land.
  2. The bridegroom (or his surrogate) encounters a girl or girls at a well.
  3. Water is drawn from the well.
  4. The girl or girls rush home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival.
  5. A betrothal between the bridegroom and the girl occurs, which is normally accompanied by an invitation to a meal.

The five elements of the formula each appear in the account of the betrothal of Rebekah to Isaac (Genesis 24:10-61). Similarly, each aspect of the formula can be found in Jacob’s encounter with Rachel (Genesis 29:1-20). Alter also discusses the five elements in the stories of Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-21) and Ruth and Boaz (see the book of Ruth). Alter notes further that in the story of Saul in 1 Samuel 9:11-12, we have what amounts to an aborted betrothal type-scene. Alter also discusses the marriages of David, and the significance of an omitted betrothal scene in the story of Samson. Again, Alter’s chapter is well worth the read, and is a fine contribution to the field of biblical theology.

However, as the chapter ended, I found myself begging for more. Specifically, the most important betrothal scene—indeed, the betrothal scene that all the others seem to point toward—was missing from Alter’s exploration. So for whatever it’s worth, I include a brief discussion of John 4 here, as a sort of humbly offered ‘conclusion’ to Alter’s otherwise brilliant chapter.

How do Alter’s five aspects of the betrothal type-scene flesh themselves out in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman?

1. A future bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land.

In John 4:4, Jesus, who the New Testament identifies as the bridegroom of the church, “had to go through Samaria” after he left Judea.

2. The bridegroom (or his surrogate) encounters a girl or girls at a well.

In John 4:6-7, Jesus comes to a well and sits down, and the Samaritan woman happens by.

3. Water is drawn from the well.

There is a palpable delay concerning this third element. Jesus gets into a lengthy discussion with the Samaritan woman concerning water and the drawing of water. Jesus alludes to the fact that he himself gives “living water” (John 4:10), and in John 4:15, the woman asks for this living water.

4. The girl or girls rush home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival.

In John 4:28, there seems to be some haste in the woman’s departure. After talking with Jesus, she leaves her waterpot, goes to the city, and begins speaking to her countrymen about Jesus, all in the span of a single sentence.

5. A betrothal between the bridegroom and the girl occurs, which is normally accompanied by an invitation to a meal.

Let’s start with the meal. It’s interesting that in John 4:31, seemingly out of the blue, the disciples urge Jesus to eat. However, instead of engaging in the typical meal that was part of the betrothal convention, Jesus redefines food altogether: “I have food to eat that you do not know about . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:32, 34). As for the betrothal itself, it too is morphed and altered in John 4. Jesus recognizes supernaturally that earlier in the woman’s life, she was married five times (John 4:16-18).  Does that mean that she had already undergone five betrothals? Of course, Jesus does not marry the Samaritan woman, but later in the narrative, the woman ends up being remembered honorably as the spiritual matriarch of a new community of Samaritan believers (John 4:39). The Bridegroom’s presence with the woman at the well ended up producing a harvest of new believers.

Reading John 4 through the lens of the Bible’s earlier betrothal scenes is an interesting and fruitful exercise!

Grace and Peace,


Some Stuff I’ve Preached on Recently: John 6:1-21 and Exodus

[The hectic pace of life has prevented me from posting much as of late. Today I thought I would simply provide some theological content from a recent sermon I preached at Renfrew Baptist . . .]

Toward the end of John 5, Jesus names “Moses” twice (John 5:45-46), and then John 6 ensues, a chapter brimming with allusions to Moses and the story of the exodus. What follows is some biblical-theological reflection on only the first two stories in John 6 (vv. 1-15 and vv. 16-21).

John 6 opens with the report that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, after which he “went up on the mountain” (6:3). With the phrase “went up on the mountain,” could there already be an echo in John 6 of Exodus 19:3; 24:18; and 34:4; where Moses “went up” Mount Sinai? John 6:4 continues with mention of “Passover,” an obvious allusion back to Exodus 12. It would seem, at the start of John 6, that John wanted his readers to think “Exodus.”

Following Israel’s dramatic exit from the clutches of Egypt (Exodus 14), the people found themselves in the wilderness of Sin, grumbling because of their hunger (Exodus 16). Yahweh promised a shower of bread from heaven, with attendant “testing” (Exodus 16:4).

Following Jesus’s trek up the “mountain,” and following John’s mention of “Passover,” John 6 turns to description of Jesus feeding the crowd by multiplying bread and fish (John 6:5-13). As Yahweh had once fed the hungry hordes in the wilderness of Sin, now Jesus fed 5,000 men with five barley loaves and two fish. And similar to Yahweh “testing” the people in Exodus 16:4, Jesus “tests” Philip just prior to the distribution of the new manna (John 6:6).

Those who ate by the hand of Jesus consumed “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11); they “ate their fill” (John 6:12). In Exodus 16:18, each person in the wilderness of Sin had “gathered as much as he could eat.”

The people perceived a connection between Jesus and Moses, and so they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is come into the world!” (John 6:14). “The Prophet,” of course, was an expected figure who would fulfill the word that Moses had spoken in Deuteronomy 18:15: When the Prophet came, he would be like Moses had been. Certainly, Jesus was acting like Moses in many respects, but Jesus was going much further. For instance, Moses never claimed to be the manna from heaven like Jesus did (John 6:35, 48).

The second story in John 6 puts everything on a yet higher plane. There is a double mention of the “sea” in John 6:16-17, and if one is convinced that in John 6:1-15 John has been nodding to the story of the exodus, then one cannot help but wonder if now, some sort of new “Red Sea” moment might occur. The disciples get into nautical trouble, and they witness what would be a terrifying sight: a human being walking on water (John 6:19). As readers, we know that human beings cannot walk on water, and on that score, the disciples would have agreed with us wholeheartedly. Yet they witnessed the man Jesus walking on the water. Who can walk on water? Only God can “trample the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). Only God has a “way” through the sea and a “path” through the waters (Psalm 77:19).

“This is indeed the Prophet,” the people had said in John 6:14. It would seem that their identification of Jesus as the “Prophet like Moses” was a vast underestimation. Did Moses ever walk on water? Someone far greater than Moses was now in their world, and in John 6:20, Jesus makes that fact crystal clear. “It is I; do not be afraid,” says Jesus, who is strolling toward his disciples on top of liquid H2O. “It is I; do not be afraid.” The Greek that translates “It is I” in John 6:20 is the precise Greek that translates as the initial “I AM” in Exodus 3:14 (LXX). In Isaiah 43:10, 25, there are three uses of the same Greek phrase, and in that same chapter there are two appearances of “Fear not”: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” says Yahweh (Isa 43:1); “Fear not, for I am with you,” says Yahweh (Isa 43:5).  When Jesus utters, “I AM, do not be afraid” in John 6:20 (as he stands upon water!), he is expressing his identity as the Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43 Yahweh-to-the-rescue. Jesus is not simply “the Prophet.” Jesus is God come in the flesh.

Yahweh had gone solo in bringing the people to safety through the Red Sea (Exod 14). The end of the second story in John 6 reads, “Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Is there a connection between Jesus’s presence in the boat, and the “immediacy” of their safe arrival on land? One thinks of Psalm 107:28-30: “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired safe haven.”

Who is Jesus? He is more than a mere prophet like Moses. He is more than merely a new Moses. He is God come in the flesh.

Grace and Peace,



Who’s Insane?

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991) includes the infamous statement, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.” Evidently Pirsig was asserting a connection (and equation) of the terms “insanity” and “religion.” Of course, many of the so-called new atheists love to quote Pirsig.

As a Christian I find it fascinating that the Bible suggests a situation exactly opposite to the assertion of Pirsig. According to the biblical authors, “insanity” can result when one refuses to acknowledge, obey, and honor God. The truly sane person is one who trusts, honors and obeys God.

When God laid out his law for Israel, he devoted significant scriptural real estate to a pronouncement of blessings for obeying and curses for disobeying. In the “curse” section of Deuteronomy 28 God said, “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (v. 15). God then patiently catalogued a variety of curses that would befall Israel if she lived in disobedience to the covenant. Included in that catalogue is verse 28: “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” If the people broke covenant with God, they may find themselves in sudden mental disarray.

Daniel 4 provides a great portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris. In earlier days of his life Nebuchadnezzar had been given several opportunities to turn toward Israel’s God and turn away from his wickedness (see Daniel 2 and 3), yet he remained aloof to God. Daniel 4 reports a troubling dream that God gave graciously to Nebuchadnezzar, and as Daniel interpreted the dream for Nebuchadnezzar it became crystal clear that the dream was meant to drive Nebuchadnezzar to repentance (see Dan 4:27). Yet Nebuchadnezzar remained narcissistic and self-focused, refusing fealty to God. A year later he spoke words that reflected the depths of his pride (see Daniel 4:30), and even as he spoke the words God arrived to implement judgment. Nebuchadnezzar quite literally went insane. “He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). Daniel 4:34 is key: “At the end of days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.” The reader will note that the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity is connected directly with “lifting his eyes to heaven.” His insanity had been connected with his hubris and Godlessness, his sanity is connected with his looking to God. After his sanity was restored, the next thing Nebuchadnezzar did (as a sane person) was to hold a little praise and worship service: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.

In Romans 1:28, the reason God “gives” people up to a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done” is explicit: the people “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” One wonders if current symptoms of cultural insanity are the result of this terrifying “giving” of God.

To return to where we began, at the risk of many people writing me off as irretrievably insane, for the purposes of this blog entry I’d like to change just one word in Pirsig’s statement so that it reads: “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Godlessness.”

Grace and Peace,


“Sir, We Wish to See Jesus”

John 12:23 had always intrigued me, so I decided to preach on it this past (Palm) Sunday. The question I had always wondered about was why, precisely, did the coming of the Greeks to “see Jesus” cause Jesus to declare suddenly that his “hour had come”? After so many notices in John’s Gospel that the hour of Jesus “had not yet come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), what was it about the coming of the Greeks that for Jesus, signaled the arrival of his “hour”?

An article written by John Davies (“Desire of the Nations: John 12:20-22,” Reformed Theological Review 69, no. 3, Dec. 2010, pp. 151-163) pointed to a possible connection between John 12:20-23  and Isaiah 66:18-19. In the Isaiah verses, God says that “the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.” In the context, of course the “time” of which God spoke was future to the prophet Isaiah.

In John 11, twice Jesus linked the glory of God with the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection. John 11:4 reports Jesus saying that Lazarus’s illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then in John 11:40, Jesus tells Martha that she is about to “see the glory of God” as her brother Lazarus is raised. (The reader will note that the words “see the glory of God” in John 11:40 are striking in their similarity to “see my glory” in Isaiah 66:18).

The Greeks of John 12:20-21 came seeking Jesus at least partly because they had heard reports of the “glory” of Lazarus’s resurrection. The Greeks “wish to see Jesus” (see Zech 8:20-23!) because they had heard about his glorious miracle in raising a dead man to life. The nations, then, were coming to see the glory of God, in fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18.

My argument is that in John 12:20-24, Jesus was working with the Isaiah 66 ‘script.’ The Greeks (nations) were now coming to see God’s glory, which Jesus perceived as a fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18, and Jesus knew that the next verse in the Isaiah passage talked about God setting a “sign” among the nations. Following Motyer, I believe that the “sign” spoken of in Isaiah 66:19 is the cross. When the nations came seeking God’s glory (Isaiah 66:18), the time of the “sign” (the cross) had arrived. Jesus knew this, hence his pronouncement in John 12:23 that the “hour” of his glorification (i.e. his death, resurrection and exaltation) had come.

Today is Monday of Holy Week 2016. As a Gentile piece of the “much fruit” borne by the cross of Christ (John 12:24), I am ever thankful that Jesus suffered his “hour” in my place.

Grace and Peace,



To Preach the Gospel is to Besiege

How shall the purpose of Christian preaching be understood? Some may contend that the purpose of preaching is simply to encourage hearers toward some course of action. Others might argue that the goal of preaching is to evoke possibilities for listeners’ lives. How do you understand the purpose of preaching?

Near the beginning of the tenth chapter of Second Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes some provocative remarks concerning the purpose of his preaching. Paul employs a variety of military terms and images as he outlines the nature and effect of his gospel proclamation:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor 10:4-5 ESV)

Weapons, warfare, power, destruction, strongholds, captivity: Each of these words is borrowed from the world of military conflict. Paul understood the preaching of the gospel as warfare, and the careful reader will notice the close connection he makes between ‘destroying strongholds’ and ‘destroying arguments and opinions that are raised against the knowledge of God.’ Spirit enabled gospel proclamation is destructive. It destroys what Dennis Johnson has described as “cleverly defended, deep-seated error that arrogantly opposes God’s truth in Christ.” [Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 90].

Paul might have toned down his language. He might have chosen instead to say, “We question arguments and every lofty opinion,” or even, “We repudiate arguments and every lofty opinion.” But Paul’s language is a great deal stronger: “We destroy.” Arrogant human defenses against the gospel need to be destroyed and laid waste, according to Paul; the people holding them are too important not to have them destroyed. And after all, how can a person be taken captive to obey the true King unless you first destroy the stronghold that has served as his or her protection?

To preach the gospel is to besiege. To preach the gospel is to wield divine weaponry against Genesis 3 defenses. Are you a preacher of the Word?  Pray for a successful campaign this Sunday; pray down the armor of God and go forth in the power of the Spirit.  Heed the advice of Charles Wesley, written in his hymn, Soldiers of Christ, Arise:

Brandish in faith till then [i.e. until the Marriage Supper of the Lamb]
The Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men
In pieces with the Word;
’Tis written; This applied
Baffles their strength and art;
Spirit and soul with this divide,
And joints and marrow part.

Grace and Peace,


Jesus and His Shocking Personal Pronouns

As part of a past seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree, I was asked to read Oskar Skarsaune’s book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002]. In a section of his book, Skarsaune includes some very stimulating discussion on the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom/Torah, and he highlights the rather startling way in which Jesus employed personal pronouns. What follows here are just two of my gleanings from that brief section of Skarsaune’s excellent book, as well as some expansions of my own.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person subjective pronoun “I” was often wildly and disturbingly radical for his hearers.

Skarsaune quotes a Swedish Jewish rabbi named Marcus Ehrenpreis (1869-1951), who wrote some instructive and rather breathtaking reflection on Jesus’s use of the pronoun “I”:

A difference [between Jesus and the Jewish rabbis] appears immediately that from the very beginning constituted an unbridgeable wall of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus spoke in his own name. Judaism, on the other hand, knew only one I, the divine Anochi [Hebrew for “I”] who gave us the eternal commandments at Sinai. No other superhuman I has existed in Judaism other than God’s. Jesus’ sermons begin, “I say to you.” The prophets of Israel introduced their preaching, “Thus says the Lord.” Here is a difference that goes to the inner core of religion. . . . Jesus’ voice had an alien sound that Jewish ears had never heard before. For Judaism, only the revealed teaching of God was important, not the teacher’s personal I. Moses and the prophets were human beings encumbered with shortcomings. Hillel and his successors sat on the seat of Moses. Every leading scholar is a link in an unbroken chain of tradition that stretched from Moses to our own time. Jesus seemingly breaks this chain and begins a new one. A man arose in Israel who cried, ‘I say to you.’ This was the new and strange element that arose between Jesus and the Pharisees.

[Translated by Oskar Skarsaune and cited on p. 330 of In The Shadow of the Temple. The original is from Marcus Ehrenpreis, Talmud, Fariseism, Urkristendom (Stockholm: Hugo Gebers Förlag, 1933), 108-10].

So where Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah and the other prophets saw themselves (entirely correctly) as representatives of God, saying “thus says the Lord,” Jesus saw himself as having the right to dispense with third person references (“he says”) in favor of the 1st person (“I say”). To help us understand something of the shocking effect that Jesus’s first person references had on his hearers, Skarsaune points us to Mark 1:22:

[Jesus] taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Still on the subject of Jesus’s use of “I,” compare a section of M Avot 3:2 (a Second Temple-era Jewish text) with what Jesus says in Matthew 18:20.  Here is the section from M Avot 3:2, highlighted for our purposes:

Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon says: Two who are sitting together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, this is a session of scorners, as it is said (in Psalm 1:1): ‘[Happy is the man who has] not . . . sat in the session of the scorners.’ But two who are sitting and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Divine presence rests with them.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said,

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

If Jesus was aware of the oral tradition recorded in M Avot 3:2 (which he probably was) then his statement in Matthew 18:20 becomes all the more radical, for Jesus was claiming for himself the “divine presence” that the rabbis had only dared speak of in third person terminology.

  1. Jesus’s use of the first person objective pronoun “me” was sometimes equally as shocking to his hearers.

Skarsaune points out that “the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for help and rest” [Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple,  331]. But Jesus invited people to himself: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

Further, instead of sticking with rabbinic precedent and encouraging people to take on the yoke of Torah, the rabbi Jesus invited people to take on his own personal yoke: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

And further, says Skarsaune, whereas the prophets could only speak of being “persecuted for God’s sake, or for his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted and even losing one’s life for his sake.” [See Matthew 5:11-12, 10:18; Mark 13:9; where Jesus speaks of being persecuted for “my sake” and on “my account.”]

All of this points strongly to what the believer already knows: Jesus is God in the flesh, speaking with divine authority in the first person. No wonder he shocked and startled and rankled so many people, as he still does today.