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2 Chronicles 24; Revelation 11; Zechariah 7; John 10

Dec 19, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 24; Revelation 11; Zechariah 7; John 10

THE LAST TWO CHAPTERS OF the first part of Zechariah are triggered by a question. The question is posed by a delegation from the exiles about liturgical observance. The Jews in Babylon wanted to remain in liturgical sync with the Jerusalemites. Their delegation is pretty early in the life of the returned community—late 518 B.C., just over twenty years since the initial restoration and only a year since the commitment to rebuild the temple, under the preaching of Haggai, had taken hold. The formal answer to their question is not given until 8:18-19. Yet the focus on fasting as a ritual to be observed calls forth sermonic material and various oracular sayings from the Lord that press beyond merely formal observance and call the people, yet again, to fundamental issues. Zechariah 7 is the first of these two chapters, and verses 5-14 provide the first barrage of the prophetic response. We may usefully organize this material by asking three questions:

(1) Is our religion for us or for God? The prophet Zechariah faithfully conveys God’s question to the delegates of the exiles: when across seventy years (i.e., from 587) they faithfully fasted on certain days, thinking those were the “proper” days, did they do so primarily as an act of devotion to God, or out of some self-centered motivation of wanting to feel good about themselves (Zech. 7:5-7)? Fasting may be no more than self-pity, or faithfulness to a cultural mandate, or passive acceptance of tradition. How much of the religious practice was offered to God?

(2) Does our religion elevate ritual above morality? That is the burden of Zechariah’s stinging review of earlier Jewish history (Zech. 7:8-12). Implicitly, Zechariah is asking if their concern for liturgical uniformity is matched by a passionate commitment to “show mercy and compassion to one another,” and to abominate the oppression of the weak and helpless in society (Zech. 7:9-10). Indeed, a genuinely moral mind extends to inner reflection: “In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zech. 7:10). Implicitly, Zechariah asks us precisely the same questions.

(3) Does our religion prompt us passionately to follow God’s words, or to pursue our own religious agendas? “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen” (Zech. 7:13), the Lord Almighty announces. Passionate intensity about the details of religion, including liturgical reformation, is worse than useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. In true religion, nothing, nothing at all, is more important than whole-hearted and unqualified obedience to the words of God.

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2 Chronicles 22-23; Revelation 10; Zechariah 6; John 9

Dec 18, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 22-23; Revelation 10; Zechariah 6; John 9

THE LAST OF THE EIGHT VISIONS and a related oracle now unfold (Zech. 6). This last vision (Zech. 6:1-8) is in some ways parallel to the first. In the first, there were horses but no chariots; here there are both. In the first, the setting was a valley; here, two mountains. There the horses were coming in to report; here they are sent out—indeed, they are eager to be off. In both, they are part of the Lord’s worldwide patrols.

Although various explanations have been offered for the two mountains made of bronze, the most likely recalls the gigantic bronze pillars that stood on either side of the entrance to the original temple (1 Kings 7:15-22). Bronze and iron were used in defense against attack (e.g., Jer. 1:18). No one can force entrance to God’s dwelling. I cannot deal here with the intricacies of the colors and destinations. Zechariah is told by the interpreting angel that the four horses/chariots are “the four spirits [= winds] of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world” (Zech. 6:5). Like the winds, they are God’s messengers (Ps. 104:4), ranging over the whole world, for the whole world belongs to God. Chariots were the panzer divisions of ancient warfare. If they already control “the north country” (Zech. 6:6, 8), where the mightiest pagan empires flourished, then they control everything. At the end of the vision, the angel is more than an interpreter for the prophet. The verb “He called [literally, ‘cried’] to me” introduces a proclamation. This angel of the Lord discloses his identity, for he speaks either for or as the Lord of the whole earth. The promised rest and salvation have been achieved.

Yet the final oracle (Zech. 6:9-15) leaves the chapter with a slightly different feel. The climax of God’s redemptive purposes lies not in a temple or a ritual, but in a person. Asking for a share of the silver and gold recently arrived in a new caravan from the exiles in Babylon, Zechariah is to make a magnificent crown (its magnificence is hinted at in the Hebrew plural). This crown is for the head of the high priest Joshua the son of Jehozadak (Zech. 6:11). That is so stunning that some contemporary commentators want to emend the text. Surely the ruler with the crown is the Davidic king, they argue, not the high priest. Others think this reflects a very much later time when the priests picked up more political power. But the truth is simpler: here God brings together into one figure both the kingly symbolism and the priestly functions. His name is the Branch (Zech. 6:12; compare the use of this title in Isa. 4:2; Jer. 23:5; 33:15). New Testament readers cannot doubt where the fulfillment is found.

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2 Chronicles 21; Revelation 9; Zechariah 5; John 8

Dec 17, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 21; Revelation 9; Zechariah 5; John 8

BEFORE REFLECTING BRIEFLY on the two visions of Zechariah 5, I must go back and add a note on Zechariah 3-4.

Chapters 3 and 4 clearly carry messianic overtones. For Zechariah 3, see the meditation for December 16: though the primary reference is to the reconstruction of 519 B.C., the stone (Zech. 3:9), the Branch (Zech. 3:8), and the temple all point beyond themselves. That significance is tied in Zechariah 4 to the two “sons of oil” (i.e., “the two who are anointed,” Zech. 4:14) who “serve the Lord of all the earth” (Zech. 4:14). In the historical context, the two are Zerubbabel the governor, who is also the Davidic prince, and Joshua the priest. The one rebuilds the temple; the other offers the sacrifices prescribed by the covenantal sacrificial system. These two “messiahs,” these two anointed ones, exercise complementary roles. Together the two point forward to the ultimate Davidic king and the ultimate priest. The people of Qumran (a monastic community by the Dead Sea, still operating in Jesus’ day) actually expected two different messiahs, one Davidic and one priestly. They did not know how both the kingly and the priestly functions would come together in one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth.

The two visions of chapter 5 leave aside the messianic overtones of the previous two chapters and focus on the continuing lawlessness and violence in the land. Yet the change of theme is not arbitrary. One of the functions of the Davidic king was to enforce justice (Zech. 3:7; see 2 Sam. 15:2-3). Priests, too, were charged with administering justice (e.g., Deut. 17:9). The prophets foretold a time of perfect justice (Isa. 11:3-5; Jer. 23:5).

The first of the two visions (the flying scroll, Zech. 5:1-4) promises judgment on the lawless. The scroll represents the whole law, not least its sanctions on those who defy God. These are God’s words, and God’s words have the power to accomplish all of God’s purposes. The second vision, of the woman in a basket (Zech. 5:5-11), deals with the persistence of evil in the community. Because the Hebrew word for “wickedness” is feminine, it is personified in this vision as a woman—the Old Testament equivalent of the woman Babylon, the mother of prostitutes, in Revelation 17. Just as evil is often hidden, so is she—until she is exposed. The only answer is God’s: she is taken away to “Babylonia” (Zech. 5:11) where she belongs. Thus God removes sin from his people as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:11-12). He washes away the uncleanness of his people (Ezek. 36:25), and the filthy garments are replaced by clean ones (Zech. 3), or else we have no hope at all.

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2 Chronicles 19-20; Revelation 8; Zechariah 4; John 7

Dec 16, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 19-20; Revelation 8; Zechariah 4; John 7

RATHER NAIVELY, SOME OF US THINK that if Jesus were alive today, our tolerant culture would not give him a really rough time, much less crucify him. We would simply marginalize him, treat him as if he were a harmless eccentric. Is that true?

Not according to John. The issues are bound up with the nature of fallenness and its response to holiness.

Nowhere is this clearer than in John 7:7. Jesus’ brothers have been egging him on to return to Jerusalem. If he wishes to become a celebrity, they argue, he must show himself in the capital city on the high feast days. They are thinking like politicians: what will bring you public notice? But Jesus says that the “right time” for him has not yet come. They can follow their own timetable; he does and says only what the Father gives him to do and say (7:6; cf. 5:19ff.). Eventually he will go up to the Feast, but not yet (7:8). And when he does go, he goes quietly, without fanfare (7:10), refusing to draw attention to himself, with all the political fuss that would make. One important reason for this self-restraint is provided in 7:7: “The world cannot hate you,” Jesus tells his brothers, “but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Four brief reflections. (a) The “because” clause is both disturbing and revealing. The assumption, of course, is that the world is not only evil, but desperately hates to have its evil exposed, shown up for what it is. Both by his flawless character and by his candid speech, Jesus makes “the world” horribly uncomfortable. How long would Jesus have lasted in Stalin’s Russia? In Hitler’s Germany? Or in Northern Ireland? Or the Balkans? Or in the United States? The least we would do, I imagine, is have him committed for psychiatric evaluation. (b) But I doubt that it would end there. Consider just one small arena: Some of my friends have had their lives repeatedly threatened because they publicly oppose homosexual marriages. These are not homophobes or gay bashers. Some of them have proven wonderfully fruitful and loving in their ministries to gays and straights alike. Were Jesus ministering among us today, I have no doubt that such death threats would have become assassination. (c) The implication of 7:7 is that Jesus’ brothers belong to the world. That is why they fit in so well. Are we being faithful if no one hates us? (d) This candid exposure of the world is not smug one-upmanship, disgusting self-righteousness. Jesus is righteous; he is holy. Where sin and holiness collide, there will always be an explosion. And we sinners must come to recognize our deep sinfulness, or we will never turn to the Savior for help.

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2 Chronicles 18; Revelation 7; Zechariah 3; John 6

Dec 15, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 18; Revelation 7; Zechariah 3; John 6

ZECHARIAH’S FOURTH VISION (ZECH. 3) envisages the reinstatement of the high priest in the person of Joshua. At the same time, it envisages someone who transcends him, making Joshua a pointer along the stream of redemptive history, just as at the end of the prophecy of Haggai, Zerubbabel is a pointer along the stream of redemptive history (Hag. 2:23; see meditation for December 13).

The first three visions look at Jerusalem from the outside. This one and the next find the prophet within the temple courts. Here he finds Joshua the priest teetering, as it were, between the angel of the Lord and “Satan”: the word means “accuser.” Joshua is dressed “in filthy clothes” (Zech. 3:3). The filth is a sign of guilt, as the second part of verse 4 makes clear. The accuser tries to destroy Joshua by the charges brought against him, and in truth Joshua is a guilty sinner (as indicated by the filthy clothes)—so how can he possibly be an effective priest? The answer is that the angel of the Lord, standing in for the Lord himself, gives him clean clothes, rich garments. The situation is akin to Isaiah’s experience in Isaiah 6. When Isaiah sees the Lord, he becomes terribly aware of his sin. But God provides the means of removing the sin—in that case, a live coal from the altar. The implication here is that Joshua must walk in God’s ways and keep his requirements (Zech. 3:7).

So Joshua is recommissioned. But the vision says much more. Joshua and his associates (presumably other priests) are (literally) “men of good omen”—or, as the NIV puts it more prosaically, they are “men symbolic of things to come” (Zech. 3:8). They point to “my servant, the Branch” (Zech. 3:8). Nothing more is revealed about his identity here, but he crops up again in Zechariah 6:12-13, where we shall reflect on him further (see meditation for December 19). The metaphor then changes to a stone with seven “eyes” or “facets” (or even “springs”); the precise meaning of the metaphor is disputed, but the result is that the Almighty declares, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zech. 3:9). As God removed the filth from his high priest, he does the same for his people, removing “the sin of this land in a single day.” The result is utter contentment (which is the substance of the visionary ideal in Zech. 3:10).

Living this side of the cross, we have no doubt who the ultimate high priest is, and how he fully bore our sin in his own body on the tree. By God’s action, the sins of his covenant people were dealt with at one decisive moment. The “men symbolic of things to come” served better than they knew: “Joshua” is the Hebrew name for the Greek form we know as Jesus.

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2 Chronicles 17; Revelation 6; Zechariah 2; John 5

Dec 14, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 17; Revelation 6; Zechariah 2; John 5

THE LAST FEW VERSES OF ZECHARIAH 1 (which we did not think through in yesterday’s meditation) are fairly straightforward. “Horn” represents strength or kingdom or kingly power. The four horns that scatter Judah and Israel may not be four empires, but a way of referring to all the powers that had any hand in it (as in “from the four corners of the world” or “the four winds”). But the “craftsmen” ultimately overcome them—again, four, to correspond to the four who decimate the people of God. Historically, of course, the Persians overcame and incorporated the territory of the preceding empires into their own. The general point is clear enough and is repeated in many ways in the prophets: all nations meet divine retribution, especially those that attack God’s covenant people.

That sets the stage for Zechariah 2 and the third vision. Here Jerusalem has a divine protector: it no longer needs walls. Indeed, the great number of people and livestock belonging to the city makes walls impractical. But Jerusalem is not thereby threatened. Far from it: “ ’I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within’ ” (Zech. 2:5). Parts of this vision anticipate the vision of the new Jerusalem (see especially Rev. 22:1ff.).

Elements of this vision resonate with other biblical themes. (a) The Lord will plunder the nations that have been faithless and cruel. That theme crops up in every major Old Testament corpus, and it surfaces in the preceding chapter. (b) The Lord’s covenant people are “the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8). True, to be the elect of God may mean being first in line for chastening (Amos 3:2), but it also means being loved by God from before the foundation of the earth, cherished by him, preserved by him, and finally brought into eschatological glory. (c) The missionary theme surfaces again: “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people” (Zech. 2:11). This should come as no surprise. The first announcement of the covenant with Abraham promises that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3). (d) “Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:13). In other words, in light of the glorious revelations God has given through Zechariah, the appropriate response is quiet reverence, hushed awe. How much more should that be our response as we contemplate the fulfillment of these promises and glimpse something of the horizon of the achievement in the Gospel and its entailments!

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2 Chronicles 16; Revelation 5; Zechariah 1; John 4

Dec 13, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 16; Revelation 5; Zechariah 1; John 4

LIKE HIS CONTEMPORARY HAGGAI, Zechariah is a postexilic prophet. If Haggai is largely responsible, under God, for encouraging the people to get going and build the second temple, Zechariah’s contribution, though in some ways more significant, is harder to pin down. Here one finds searing apocalyptic, enigmatic visions, decidedly difficult passages, soaring perspective. However difficult they may be, chapters 9-14 constitute the Old Testament section most quoted in the passion narratives of the canonical Gospels, and the second most important source (after Ezekiel) for the countless Old Testament allusions in the book of Revelation. Few Old Testament prophetic books have called forth a wider diversity of “partition theories”—theories that assign chapters 9-14, or certain parts of them, to some writer other than the historical Zechariah.

This of course is not the place to address all these debates. We shall be concerned to grapple with parts of the text as they stand. For the moment, we focus on Zechariah 1:1-17.

The opening six verses constitute an introduction to chapters 1-8. The word of the Lord comes to Zechariah in October or November 520 B.C. The burden of this introduction is to review the catastrophic judgment of 587, when Jerusalem and the temple fell, and what led up to it and what flowed from it. “Return to me … and I will return to you” (Zech. 1:3) is the lesson to be learned. Initially the people would not listen. But eventually they were carried off into exile and began to reflect more seriously on all the messages that had been given them. In exile they came to their senses: “The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do” (Zech. 1:6). The implication is obvious: the covenantal blessings and judgments still stand, and the people of God must come to him in reverence and godly fear, lest they repeat the stubbornness of their ancestors and call down judgment on themselves.

There follow eight visions (Zech. 1:7-6:15), sometimes collectively referred to as “the book of visions.” These eight visions have a more-or-less standard form. After an introductory expression we are told what the prophet sees. He asks the angel what these things are or mean, and the angel provides an explanation. With four of the visions there is an accompanying oracle (Zech. 1:14-17; 2:6-13; 4:6-10a; 6:9-15), usually but not invariably at the end. The eight visions are thematically chiastic: the first and eighth are similar, the second and seventh, and so forth. All of them disclose something of the future of Jerusalem and Judah. What contribution is made by the first?

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2 Chronicles 14-15; Revelation 4; Haggai 2; John 3

Dec 12, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 14-15; Revelation 4; Haggai 2; John 3

AS WE SAW IN YESTERDAY’S MEDITATION, Haggai 1 is set in August 520 B.C. Haggai 2 is set in the same year, but is broken up into two parts. The first oracle comes to Haggai in October (Hag. 2:1-9); the second, in December (Hag. 2:10-23). The first is measured encouragement to the remnant that is beginning the task of rebuilding the temple; the second promises blessing (Hag. 2:10-19) and an ultimate “Zerubbabel” (Hag. 2:20-23).

The first section promises that the new temple, “this house,” will be filled with more glory than the first. If this “glory” is measured in terms of wealth or political influence, that simply did not happen before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. But if instead the glory of “this house” is bound up with the coming of the Messiah who graced its structures and who was himself the ultimate “temple” toward which it pointed, the claim is not extravagant. The expression “the desired of all nations” (Hag. 2:7), taken as a singular, has often been understood to refer to the Messiah. The Hebrew, however, is plural (“the desired things,” i.e., “the treasures”), suggesting a time when all nations will pay homage to the God of Israel. After all, as verse 8 reminds us, all the silver and gold are God’s anyway.

The words “give careful thought” now recur (Hag. 2:15, 18), reminding the reader how Haggai has used this expression in chapter 1 to call Israel to reflect on the two decades that have elapsed since their return. God’s blessing on them has been restrained, almost miserly. “From this day on” (Hag. 2:19), however, God will bless the people.

But the greatest blessing is still to come. God predicts that in the vague future, the prophetic “on that day” (Hag. 2:23), he will overturn kings and kingdoms and make Zerubbabel “like my signet ring” (Hag. 2:23). Why? Because “I have chosen you,” the Lord Almighty declares. This cannot be a simple reference to the historical Zerubbabel. Too many indicators point beyond him. God is referring to “that day.” Zerubbabel is not only the governor (Hag. 2:21), but “my servant” (Hag. 2:23)—a title used of David (Ezek. 34:23; 37:24), as well as of the “suffering servant” of Isaiah. “Servant” and “chosen” are juxtaposed in Isaiah 41:8; 42:1; 44:1. David, Judah, and Mount Zion are similarly “chosen” (Ps. 78:68-70). Recall, too (yesterday’s passage), that Zerubbabel’s grandfather was King Jehoiachin, so that Zerubbabel is in the Davidic line, the messianic line. So Zerubbabel (whose name still appears with honor in contemporary Jewish liturgies for Hanukkah) sets a pattern, part of a larger Davidic pattern, that points to the ultimate Zerubbabel, the ultimate David—King Jesus.

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2 Chronicles 13; Revelation 3; Haggai 1; John 2

Dec 11, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 13; Revelation 3; Haggai 1; John 2

THE PROPHET HAGGAI IS ONE of several “postexilic prophets,” i.e., prophets who addressed the covenant people of God who returned to the Promised Land after the exile. Haggai 1 can be dated to about August 520 B.C., almost twenty years after the first groups of Jews returned home. Although initially addressed to Zerubbabel and Joshua (Hag. 1:1), almost immediately it is clear that the message is intended for everyone (Hag. 1:3-4), for “the whole remnant of the people” (Hag. 1:14).

Zerubbabel was a grandson of King Jehoiachin, who had been taken to exile in 597. He was thus the heir apparent to the throne of David. Zerubbabel was the son of Pedaiah, Jehoiachin’s third son (1 Chron. 3:19); apparently the first son, Shealtiel, was childless. Perhaps Shealtiel adopted his eldest nephew, who would thereafter be called by his name (as in Hag. 1:1). In any case, Zerubbabel was “governor of Judah.” This would have allowed him very little freedom, as the relationship of his authority to that of the governor of Samaria, the provincial center, and the borders of their respective territories, were ill-defined. Joshua was son of Jehozadak the priest, who was taken captive in 587 (1 Chron. 6:15). He was responsible for the religious affairs of the community.

The burden of this first chapter, set out in the challenge of the prophet’s message (Hag. 1:1-11) and the response of Zerubbabel and the people (Hag. 1:12-15), is that they have delayed far too long in building the new temple. They have had enough time and energy to build their own nicely paneled homes (Hag. 1:4), but not enough to get on with the temple. That is the reason, God says, why the previous twenty years have been as hard as they have been. He refuses to pour out great blessings on them when they have been so short-sighted with respect to that which should have been at the very heart of their enterprise: the joyful and committed worship of Almighty God. “Give careful thought,” the prophet repeats (Hag. 1:5, 7), and they will find this assessment of their recent past entirely realistic. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why? … Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house” (Hag. 1:9).

The fundamental issue is not one of buildings, but of priorities. Our generation faces this challenge no less than any other. Why bother to ask God to bless us unless our priorities are conscientiously aligned with his? That will affect our conduct and speech, our pocketbooks and our imaginations, our vocation and our retirement, where we live and what we do and how we do it.

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2 Chronicles 11-12; Revelation 2; Zephaniah 3; John 1

Dec 10, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 11-12; Revelation 2; Zephaniah 3; John 1

JOHN’S PROLOGUE (JOHN 1:1-18) is one of the richest quarries in the Bible for the mining of wonderful truths about Christ. Here there is space for only the most introductory reflections.

(1) In the first verse, the one who is eventually said to become flesh, the Lord Jesus himself, is called the “Word.” The label is not only intrinsically peculiar, but at first glance is especially odd because it is not taken up in the rest of the Gospel of John. But perhaps that is the first clue. If in this first verse John had used one of the titles ascribed to Christ throughout the book (son of God, Son of Man, King of Israel, Messiah, and so forth), that title would have been elevated to the place of first importance. Instead, John uses an expression that encompasses all of them. He recalls that in the Old Testament God’s “word” is regularly the means by which he discloses himself in creation, redemption, and revelation. “The word of the Lord” comes to prophets; by the word of the Lord the heavens were made; God sends forth his word and heals the people. John finds it wonderfully appropriate: in the eternal “Word” that becomes flesh, God discloses himself in creation, revelation, and redemption. Even the word Word is evocative. We might paraphrase, “In the beginning God disclosed himself, and that self-disclosure was with God, and that self-disclosure was God.”

(2) If God’s “Word” was with God even in the remotest beginning, that Word was God’s own fellow, and distinguishable from him. If God’s “Word” was God even in the remotest beginning, that Word was God’s own self, and identified with him. Here are rudimentary pieces of what comes to be called the doctrine of the Trinity. From the beginning, God has always been a complex unity.

(3) Verse 2 picks up the middle clause of verse 1, in preparation for verse 3. In other words, the fact that the Word was with God in the beginning makes it possible for him to be God’s agent in the creation of everything. Moreover, the insistence that God created absolutely everything by means of the Word’s agency drives the conclusion that neither God nor the Word is part of the creation; pantheism is ruled out, as well as any suggestion that the Word is a created being, an inferior god.

(4) In verse 14, John declares that the Word became flesh (i.e., a human being) and (literally) “tabernacled” among us. Readers of the Old Testament instantly see that this means that in some sense Jesus, for John, is a new tabernacle, a new temple (cf. John 2:13-25). Indeed, there are half a dozen allusions to Exodus 32-34 in John 1:14-18. Find them. What do they mean?

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