Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew by Jonathan T. Pennington

Pennington, Jonathan T. Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009. 400 pp. $42.99. Purchase at Amazon for $32.67.

Introduction

Dr. Pennington is assistant professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He has numerous resources available that are an excellent aid for the student learning both biblical Greek and/or Hebrew.  His audio cd’s greatly enhanced my ability to memorize my vocab words.

Summary

Dr. Pennington begins this book challenging the premise that the phrase “kingdom of heaven” found in the gospel of Matthew is a mere circumlocution used by Matthew to avoid using the name “God” (or YHWH from the OT).  He shows when and how this thinking came to be the accepted understanding of the use of this phrase.  He next convincingly argues that this is a relatively new understanding and does not have enough support to be the explanation.

After challenging this assumption, Pennington looks to the use of “kingdom of heaven” in the Old Testament as well as Second Temple Literature.  He next turns to the use of the word “heaven” in the gospel of Matthew summing up the first half with a look to the importance of the terms “heaven” and “earth” in Matthean studies throughout the age of the church.

The second part digs deeper into the Matthew’s four uses of heaven:

  • singular and plural uses in the Greek
  • the word pair heaven and earth and what it has meant from the OT on through to the NT
  • references to the Father in heaven and heavenly Father
  • “kingdom of heaven”

Ultimately, what Pennington discovers is that reading these four uses of heaven is more than an attempt at avoiding the name of God.  Rather, Matthew is painstakingly showing the real tension that currently exists between the two kingdoms–heaven and earth.  We see the universality of God’s supremacy.  Christ becomes more exalted in the gospel of Matthew and helps us to better understand the radical nature of Christ’s ethics as found in Matthew (especially in the Sermon on the Mount).

Review

This book will not be for every Christian reading this review.  This book represents Pennington’s research for his PhD (St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005).  While its depth and breadth is certainly to be commended, his ability to write such deep theology and language interactions at a level that just about anyone can understand is even more commendable.  I recommend this book to any serious student of the Scriptures.  Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew will change the way you understand and read the gospel of Matthew.  Be careful, though, since reading this book will cause you to want to get rid of any commentaries you may own on Matthew!

I have talked with the author and have learned that he is working on a new commentary on Matthew for the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series.  Though it is not due out for some time, it is certainly a commentary that will challenge much of the current scholarship on Matthew as Heaven and Earth has done already.

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