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Judges 19; Acts 23; Jeremiah 33; Psalms 3-4

Aug 05, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 19; Acts 23; Jeremiah 33; Psalms 3-4

BY THE TIME WE REACH Judges 19, the law of the jungle has triumphed in the fledging nation of Israel.

The Levite introduced to us at this point takes on a concubine. (Levites were supposed to marry only virgins; see Lev. 21:7, 13-15.) She sleeps around and moves out, returning to her father’s home. In due course the Levite wants her back, so he travels to Bethlehem and finds her. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Preferring not to stop in one of the Canaanite towns, they press on to Gibeah, a Benjamite settlement. A local homeowner warns the Levite and his concubine not to stay in the town square overnight — it is far too dangerous. And he takes them in.

During the night, a mob of lusty hooligans want the homeowner to send out the Levite so they can sodomize him. That is stunning. In the first place, by the social standards of the ancient Near East, it was unthinkable not to show hospitality — and they want to gang rape a visitor. And as the account progresses, it is very clear that they will happily rape males or females — they don’t really care.

But perhaps the ugliest moment in the narrative occurs when the homeowner, remembering the rules of hospitality and doubtless frightened for himself as well, offers them his daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The account is crisp and brief, but it does not take much imagination to conjure up their terror — two women not defended by their men but abandoned and betrayed by them and offered to a howling mob insists that even that isn’t enough, so the Levite shoves his concubine out the door, alone. So began her last night on earth in a small town belonging to the people of God.

The morning dawns to find the Levite ordering this woman to get up; it’s time to go. Only then does he discover she is dead. He hauls her corpse back home, cuts her up into twelve pieces, and sends one piece to each part of Israel, saying, in effect: When does the violence stop? At what point do we put our collective foot down and reverse these horrible trends?

“In those days Israel had no king” (Judg. 19:1).

Yet what about his own profound complicity and cowardice? The sheer horror of the dismembered body parts was bound to stir up a reaction, but by this time it could not be the righteous reaction of biblically thoughtful and restrained people. Only the naive could imagine that the outcome would be anything other than a descent into a maelstrom of evil and violence.

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Judges 18; Acts 22; Jeremiah 32; Psalms 1-2

Aug 04, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 18; Acts 22; Jeremiah 32; Psalms 1-2

PERHAPS AN INNOCENT READER might have hoped that yesterday’s reading (Judg. 17) reflected a minor aberration among the people of God. Today’s (Judg. 18) makes that hope less sanguine: one entire tribe of Israel is off the rails, and doubtless others as well.

The historical setting is still early enough that not all the tribes have captured all the land that is to be theirs. That is certainly true of Dan (Judg. 18:1). So the Danites send out five soldiers to spy out the terrain, and eventually stumble across the house of Micah. There they find the young Levite, and either recognize him from some previous encounter, or else recognize him for what he is, perhaps by over-hearing his praying or study (which was often done out loud). They inquire of him whether their trip will be successful. Perhaps the “ephod” Micah has made (Judg. 17:5) includes something like the Urim and Thummim for discerning, ostensibly, the will of the Lord. In any case, he reassures them and they go on their way.

The soldiers spy out the town of Laish, which was not part of the land that had been assigned to them. But it looks like a soft and attractive target, and they report accordingly. When six hundred armed Danites return, they interrupt their military raid to walk off with all of Micah’s household gods, not to mention the young Levite priest and the ephod, for clearly they think of this as a way of bringing “luck”or at least direction to their enterprise, The Levite himself is delighted: to him, this feels like a promotion (Judg. 18:20). But can “bought” clergy ever exercise a prophetic witness?

When he and his men catch up with this warrior band, Micah frankly sounds pathetic: “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” (Judg.18:24). He detects no irony in his own utterance, the sheer futility of attaching so much to gods you have made.

The Danites threaten to annihilate Micah and his household, and that settles the matter. Might, not justice or integrity, rules the land. The Danites capture Laish, attacking “a peaceful and unsuspecting people” (Judg. 18:27), and rename the place Dan. There they set up their idols, and the young Levite, now identified as a direct descendant of Moses (Judg.18:30), functions as their tribal priest, and passes on this legacy to his sons, even while the tabernacle still remains in its rightful place in Shiloh (Judg. 18:30-31).

The levels of covenantal faithlessness in the religious realm are multiplied by increased violence, tribal selfishness, personal aspirations of power, ingratitude, crude threats, and massive superstition. It is not uncommon for these sins to grow together.

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Judges 17; Acts 21; Jeremiah 30 – 31; Mark 16

Aug 03, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 17; Acts 21; Jeremiah 30 – 31; Mark 16

THE SIGNS OF MORAL, SPIRITUAL, and intellectual declension in Israel during the time of the judges now multiply, some of them obvious, some of them subtle. Although Judges 17 is a brief chapter, it is charged with an abundance of them.

(1) A grown man named Micah has apparently stolen eleven hundred shekels of silver from his mother. That doesn’t say much for family relationships — though it is of course only one incident. He confesses the crime to his mother (Judg.17:2). Judging by his remarks, he is prompted less by love for his mother or consciousness of sin than by superstitious fear because his mother has pronounced a curse on the thief who was, to her, unknown until that point.

(2) Micah’s mother rewards him with a pious word: “The LORD (i.e. Yahweh) bless you, my son!” (Judg.17:2) — which shows that there is still a strong awareness of the covenantal God who brought them out of Egypt, or at least a retention of his name. But very quickly the reader perceives that only the shell of covenantal loyalty persists. Cyncretism has taken over. Grateful for the return of her money, she gives it back to her son, solemnly consecrating it “to the LORD (Yahweh)”for the purpose of making “a carved image and a cast idol” (Judg. 17:3), which of course was repeatedly forbidden by the covenant at Sinai.

(3) He promptly hands back the silver to his mother for this purpose. She gives two hundred shekels (which leaves her with nine hundred, despite what she had “consecrated”) to a silversmith to make an idol with it. Greed triumphs even over idolatry. The little idol is then placed in Micah’s house, both a talisman and a reminder of restored family relationships after a theft, perhaps even something to ward off the curse the mother had pronounced (Judg. 17:4)

(4) Micah’s religious syncretism runs deeper. He has his own shrine, and installs one of his sons as his private priest for offering prayers and sacrifices, and prepares priestly apparel for him (the ephod, Judg. 17:5). The breaches are multiplying. Under the covenant, there was supposed to be only one “shrine”– at this point the tabernacle — and only Levites could be priests.

(5) Enough of these stipulations are recalled that when Micah finds a young Levite traveling through, he hires him as his private priest (!), Micah is convinced that this will ensure that the Lord will be good to him (Judg. 17:13). Covenantal religion has lost much of its structure and all of its discipline and obedience. It is a sad mess of pagan superstition.For the first time, we read the words, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 17:6).

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Judges 16; Acts 20; Jeremiah 29; Mark 15

Aug 02, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 16; Acts 20; Jeremiah 29; Mark 15

PAUL’S ADDRESS TO THE EPHESIAN ELDERS (Acts 20:18-35) can be broken down into three parts. In the first (Acts 20:18-24), Paul talks about his own ministry in Ephesus and his own future. In the second (Acts 20:25-31), he uses his example of ministry as an encouragement to the elders in Ephesus to “keep watch” over themselves and over “all the flock” of God (Acts 20:28) of which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, with special emphasis on the challenges ahead when people within the church will prove eager to gain disciples and be prepared to distort the truth. In the third (Acts 20:32-35), Paul not only commits these elders “to God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32), but quietly testifies again to the exacting standards of personal probity in his own life when he served among them.

More commonly than not, when this passage is preached we lay the emphasis on the central section. But here I would like to draw attention to some of the features that characterized Paul’s ministry.

(1) The most obvious is the fact that Paul perceived how he lived and served to be a role model. Elsewhere he openly tells the Corinthians to imitate him, as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11). In Paul there is no trace of a double standard. Do what I teach but not what I do.

(2) Paul “served the Lord with great humility and with tears,” even though he was “severely tested” by the machinations of “the Jews” (Acts 20:19). In other words, opposition neither defeated him nor whipped him into a frenzy of retaliation. By contrast, how easy it is to get discouraged and quit, or get angry and destroy what is being built.

(3) Paul’s ministry was edifying, and conveyed in a mixture of public meeting and faithful visitation (Acts 20:20). One gets the impression that above all it was the ministry of the Word, communicated through a man set on fire by that Word.

(4) Paul did not flinch from dealing with the immutables of the Gospel, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular they might be. As a result he boldly declared, to Jews and Gentiles alike, “that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).

(5) On occasion, Paul felt himself “compelled by the Spirit” to adopt a certain course without knowing exactly where that course would lead (Acts 20:22-24). Having enough illumination to decide on an action does not guarantee enough information to know how things will turn out. In this case he knows only that he is promised “prison and hardships”– and all he wants for himself is to complete the task the Lord Jesus has given him, “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

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Judges 15; Acts 19; Jeremiah 28; Mark 14

Aug 01, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 15; Acts 19; Jeremiah 28; Mark 14

ONE OF THE STRANGEST ACCOUNTS in the book of Acts concerns the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20). Paul’s ministry in Ephesus lasted some considerable time, perhaps two and a half years, and during that time “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul”(19:11). The result is that various “competitors” tried to keep up with him. By itself, this was not surprising. It has always been so. When God especially empowered Moses to perform miracles before Pharaoh, the magicians of Egypt could reproduce most (though not all) of what he did.

So in Paul’s day some Jews steeped in syncretism traveled around, engaging in some kind of deliverance ministry. They had little idea what they were engaged in. When they saw what Paul was doing in the name of Jesus, they started to refer to that name too, as if it were nothing more than some magic talisman: “They would say, ‘In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.’” (Acts 19:13).

The seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish priest, were particularly engaged in this operation. One day the evil spirit they were trying to exercise talked back to them: “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15). Then the man possessed by this spirit leaped on them and beat up all seven of them.

Note:

First, the result of this encounter was entirely beneficial. When the story circulated, many were seized with a healthy fear and an enlarged respect for the name of the Lord Jesus. This was a name so powerful that it could not be treated as a magic formula. This name could not be domesticated. The result was that infatuation with occult practices was curbed. Many confessed their evil deeds, and others brought their occult books and burned them, totaling an enormous value (Acts 19:17-19). “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20).

Second, the really striking element is the utterance of the evil spirit: “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” One can understand why Jesus would be known among demonic powers. There is no surprise there. But Paul is known too! His ministry had been assaulting the powers of darkness. He was known to be protected and defended by the living Christ — there is no way the demon could have used the possessed man to beat him up. These other characters were another matter; as far as the demon was concerned, they were a bit of a joke, easily ignored, easily subdued and shamed. But Paul was known!

Christians engaging the Enemy will be known not only in the courts of heaven but in the courts of hell.

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Judges 14; Acts 18; Jeremiah 27; Mark 13

Jul 31, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 14; Acts 18; Jeremiah 27; Mark 13

SOME OF US HAVE WONDERED why God has occasionally used in powerful ministry people blatantly flawed. This is not to say that God should only use perfect people, for that would mean he would be using no people. Nor am I referring to the fact that we all have weaknesses and faults of various kinds. George Whitefield, for instance, despite his enormous stature as a preacher and evangelist, did not fare very well on the marriage front, or in his (misguided) conviction that his son would be healed of his mortal illness. Virtually any Christian leader, whether from biblical times or more recent history, could not stand up under the onslaught of that sort of criticism. No, what I have in mind is the flaw that is so public and awful that one ponders two questions: (a) If this person is so powerful and godly, why the ugly fault? (b) If this person is so filled with the Spirit, why doesn’t that same Spirit enable him to clean up his act?

There are no easy answers. Sometimes it is simply a matter of time. Judas Iscariot, after all, engaged in public ministry with the other eleven apostles — even miraculous ministry — yet with time proved apostate. The passage of time would show him up. But sometimes the flaws are there from the beginning to the end.

That is true, it appears, in the life of Samson. The Spirit of God came upon him mightily; the Lord used him to curb the Philistines. But what is he doing marrying a Philistine woman, when the Law strictly forbade marriage to anyone outside the covenant community (Judg. 14:2)? When his parents warn him of the consequences, he simply overrides them, and they acquiesce (Judg. 14:3). True, they did not know that “this was from the LORD” (Judge. 14:4), in the same way that the selling of Joseph into slavery in Egypt was of the Lord; but that did not make the human actions right.

Samson’s risky bet (Judg. 14:12-13) is more cocksure and greedy than it is wise and honorable. Of course, the Philistines are really cruel in the matter (Judg. 14:15-18, 20), but Samson’s murder of thirty men to fulfill the terms of the wager is motivated less by a desire to cleanse the land and restore the covenant people to strength than it is by personal vengeance. Similar things must be said about his tactics in the next chapter, and about his steamy living in the chapter after that.

It appears, then, that Spirit-given power in one dimension of life does not by itself guarantee Spirit-impelled discipline and maturity in every dimension of life. It follows that the presence of spiritual gifts is never an excuse for personal sin.

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Judges 13; Acts 17; Jeremiah 26; Mark 12

Jul 30, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 13; Acts 17; Jeremiah 26; Mark 12

MOST OF PAUL’S EVANGELIZING of Gentiles began with the synagogue. His regular procedure when he arrived in a new town was to visit the synagogue and (since it was not uncommon to ask visitors to speak) avail himself of the opportunity to preach the Gospel. This meant that his hearers were a mix of Jews, proselytes (i.e., Gentile converts to Judaism), and God-fearers (i.e., Gentiles who were sympathetic to Jews and Jewish monotheism, but who had not formally converted).

The book of Acts shows that in several instances (e.g., 13:13-48; 17:1-9), the synagogue authorities soon tired of Paul and banned him. At this point many of the proselytes and God-fearers went with him, so that although he was now preaching to a largely Gentile crowd, the core of that crowd had received some exposure to the Old Testament Scriptures. In other words, in such cases Paul was able to preach to people who largely shared with him the vocabulary, facts, and movements of the Old Testament storyline.

But what would Paul do if he were preaching to biblical illiterates — that is, to people who had never heard of Moses, never read the Old Testament, never learned a single item of the Old Testament plotline? Such people would not only have to be informed, but would have to unlearn a lot of notions they had absorbed from some other cultural and religious heritage. We have a glimpse of such an encounter in 14:8-20, when the citizens of Lystra excitedly conclude that Paul and Barnabas are incarnations of Greek gods. The brief report of Paul’s address (Acts 14:15-17) provides a glimpse of the apostolic response.

But it is the account of Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-31) that is most revealing. Here, too, Paul began in the synagogue (Acts 17:17), but he also set about evangelizing in the marketplace with whoever happened to be there (Acts 17:17), and this precipitates the invitation to speak at the meeting of the Areopagus. And there, one clearly perceives how the apostle Paul has thought this matter through. In a world of finite gods (often supported by one pantheistic deity), cyclical views of history, sub-biblical understandings of sin, multiplied idolatry, dualism that declares all that is material to be bad and all that is spiritual to be good, tribal deities, and not a little superstition, Paul paints a worldview of the true God, a linear view of history, the nature of sin and idolatry, impending judgment, the unity of the human race and the oneness of God — all as the necessary framework without which his proclamation of Jesus makes no sense. What does that mean for evangelism today?

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Judges 12; Acts 16; Jeremiah 25; Mark 11

Jul 29, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 12; Acts 16; Jeremiah 25; Mark 11

THREE OBSERVATIONS ON THESE STEPS in the ministry of Paul and Silas (Acts 16):

(1) To understand Paul’s “Macedonian call” (Acts 16:6-10), one must follow his movements on a map. After traveling through the central part of what is now Turkey, the Spirit forbids Paul and Silas from going into Asia (Acts 16:6), i.e., Asia Minor, the Western part of modern Turkey. So they travel north. Now they try to enter Bithynia (Acts 16:7). Had they been enabled to do so, they would have been on the major east/west road that joined the Roman Empire with India — and heading east. But the “Spirit of Jesus” forbids them from taking that step (Acts 16:7), and so they go in the only direction still open to them along the roads of the day: they head toward the port city of Troas. From there, there is only one obvious place to go: across the water to Europe.

During the night Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia, the nearest landfall of Europe, begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). This confirms Paul and Silas in their movements; it does not redirect them. The result is ministry on the continent of Europe, and ultimately a path to Rome.

(2) Paul’s first convert in Europe was a woman, an intercontinental business traveler from Thyatira. Note the description of her conversion, and then the description of the Philippian jailer’s: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14); “The jailer….had come to believe in God — he and his whole family” (Acts 16:34). Let’s use both locutions today.

(3) Worth pondering are the occasions when Paul stands on his Roman citizenship, and when he does not. Sometimes he is beaten without a word of protest. In Philippi, Paul and Silas are “severely flogged” (Acts 16:23-24), apparently without protesting. Roman citizens were exempt from flogging until they had been found guilty of the crime for which they were charged. Yet when the jailer is told to release the prisoners, Paul protests that he and Silas, both citizens, have been flogged without a trial, and insists that the city’s leaders come and escort them out of jail as a kind of public apology (Acts 16:37-39). Why not simply suffer in silence, not least since that is what they sometimes do?

It is difficult to prove, but many have argued, believably, that Paul stands on his rights when by doing so he thinks he can establish legal precedents that may help other Christians. Every case on the books where Christians have been shown not to be guilty of public disorder or a threat to the Roman Empire can only be a useful legal precedent. If this is right, it is a mark of strategic thinking — for the sake of others.

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Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

Jul 28, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 11; Acts 15; Jeremiah 24; Mark 10

HERE I SHALL SQUEEZE TWO SEPARATE meditations into this space, one on each of the primary passages.

In Acts 15, it is critically important to understand what the dispute was about that called into existence what has since been labeled “the Jerusalem Council.” Some (Jewish) men traveled from Judea to Antioch and began teaching the believers there that even though they believed in Jesus they could not be saved unless they were circumcised in compliance with the law of Moses (Acts 15:1). Later history has attached the name Judaizers to these people.

From the perspective of the Judaizers, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and one could not really follow this Jewish Messiah without becoming a Jew. Doubtless some Jews felt threatened by this influx of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church: the Jewish self-identity was in terrible danger of being diluted and even lost. If these Gentiles all became Jews, however, as signaled by circumcision, that danger would dissolve.

Yet the issue is deeper than the question of Jewish self-identity. It finally develops into the question of how your whole Bible is put together. The Judaizers elevated the law of Moses above Jesus. Jesus could be accepted as the Messiah, only if the result was a group of people even more devoutly committed to obeying the Mosaic Covenant — food laws, circumcision, temple culture and all. By contrast, the leaders point in another direction.

The law was never well obeyed by the Jews (Acts 15:10); why impose it on the Gentiles? More importantly, the revelation reflected in the old covenant points to Jesus. He is its goal, not its servant. Peter reminds the assembled crowd that in the Cornelius episode God poured out his Spirit on the Gentiles without their being circumcised (15:7-8). At issue, finally, is the freedom of God’s grace (Acts 15:11).

The reports of Paul and Barnabas prove helpful. James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus — by this time apparently the chief elder of the Jerusalem church — offers both a telling exposition of an Old Testament text and his own pastoral judgment (Acts 15:13-21). The combination wins the day — though the argument flares up repeatedly during the next few decades. Understand these issues aright, and your Bible comes together.

Judges 11:30-31, 34-40 is a stellar example of a promise that should not have been made, and a promise that should not have been kept. Despite strong biblical insistence that one should keep one’s vows, a vow to do something evil should not be kept but repented of, lest one commit two sins instead of one. Moreover, here is further evidence of the descending spiral of theological and moral stupidity in Israel at the time of judges.

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Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

Jul 27, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 10; Acts 14; Jeremiah 23; Mark 9

PAUL HAD BEEN EVANGELIZING for fifteen years or more, probably largely around the Tarsus area, before this “first” trip is recorded. Doubtless he built up extraordinary experience evangelizing Jews and Gentiles alike, so that by the time he emerges on the scene as a church-planting apostle he is not a young man finding his way, but a mature, seasoned worker.

(1) It has often been said that everywhere Paul went he started either a revival or a riot, and sometimes both. That’s not quite true, of course. Moreover, a riot is not necessarily a mark of authenticity: as much depends on the context and the hearers as on the preacher and his message and style. But there is at least some truth to the observation, and it is tied to the apostle’s sheer boldness.

(2) In the early years of the church, the persecution Christians suffered was almost entirely sponsored by Jews. Later, of course, far worse persecution was generated by the Roman Empire, until at the beginning of the fourth century the Emperor Constantine switched sides. But in the beginning it was not so. It is hard to bring this up in our historical context, living as we do this side of the Holocaust. But facts are persistent things.

One can understand why it was this way. At the beginning, all of the Christians were Jews; for quite awhile, the majority were Jews. In both cases, synagogue discipline was possible within reasonably closed communities. Moreover, in at least some cities influential Jews were well-placed to influence pagan authorities to exert pressure on people that many Jews saw as debasing the Jewish heritage and culture.

(3) In Lystra (Acts 14:8-20) there is a spectacular example of the fickleness of a mob. At first the pagans try to honor Paul and Barnabas as, respectively, Hermes (the god of communication) and Zeus (head of the Greek pantheon), owing to the healing they had performed in Jesus’ name. Only with great effort could Paul and Barnabas restrain the crowd — which then shortly turns on them when they are stirred up by Jewish opponents who are beginning to dog their steps. The apostolic response was stunning both ways: they do everything they can to turn aside the acclaim (Acts 14:14, 18), and they accept the persecution as something only to be expected by those who enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22).

(4) On the swing leg home, not more than a few months later, Paul and Barnabas return through the cities where they have already planted churches and appoint elders in each of them (Acts 14:23). Clearly, what is meant by a “mature” elder is entirely relative to the age and maturity of the congregation.

Reflect on the relevance of these points in your own context.

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