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1 Chronicles 18; James 5; Jonah 2; Luke 7

Nov 22, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 18; James 5; Jonah 2; Luke 7

TWO STAGGERING THOUGHTS COME together in Luke 7:36-50:

(1) The first I have mentioned before in these two volumes, but it is worth mentioning again. Who has the right to forgive sins? If someone robbed you of your life’s savings or murdered your spouse, I would not have the right to forgive the perpetrator. On the human plane, the only one who can forgive is the injured party. From God’s perspective, of course, regardless of how many human beings are injured, the primary offense is against God himself (cf. Ps. 51:4). Thus God can forgive any sin, because he is always the injured party. On the human plane, the sinful woman in this narrative had not injured Jesus in any way. At that level, he did not have the right to forgive her. But the narrative turns on Jesus’ forgiveness of this woman (Luke 7:48)—and the other guests, a bit confused by this development, raise the question, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49). Who, indeed?

(2) The axiom Jesus develops in his interchange with Simon is puzzling. At one level the axiom is clear enough: the person who has been forgiven many things is likely to be more thankful to the benefactor than the person who has been forgiven little. As Jesus says, “[H]e who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The axiom makes sense of the conduct of both the woman and the Pharisee: she is overcome with tears of sheer gratitude, while he is stuffy and supercilious.

But if this axiom is pressed too hard, would it not mean that those who have lived a relatively “good” life inevitably love God less than those who have been converted out of a life of abysmal degradation? One might then argue that there are some benefits to being degraded before conversion: one appreciates grace in proportion to the degree of depravity grace must overcome.

That misses the point. At the social level, of course, the woman’s sins are much worse than the Pharisee’s. But the gradations of sin that one makes at the social level are nothing compared with the awfulness of the rebellion in which each of us has indulged. Simon the Pharisee has not even got to the place where he perceives that he needs to be forgiven. Suppose instead that two people have both been converted, one from a socially despicable background and one from a disciplined and “righteous” background: what then? Both ought to pray that they may see the ugliness of their own sins, whether sins socially disapproved or those ugly sins (often condemned by Jesus) of arrogance and self-righteousness. For unless we are given grace to see the horror of our sin, it is quite certain that we shall never grasp the glory of grace, and we will love Jesus too little.

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1 Chronicles 17; James 4; Jonah 1; Luke 6

Nov 21, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 17; James 4; Jonah 1; Luke 6

REGARDLESS OF WHEN THE BOOK OF Jonah was written, Jonah himself can be located with fair accuracy. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah son of Amittai was a prophet from Gath Hepher who predicted the military successes of King Jeroboam II (about 793 to 753 B.C.). If one were to play a game and ask what verbal link comes to mind when the word Jonah is uttered, probably most people would reply, “big fish” or “whale” or the like. Yet we should not forget that the big fish occupies textual interest for precisely three verses—three out of forty-eight. The comment of G. Campbell Morgan is still appropriate: “Men have looked so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.”

The greatness of God is highlighted by Jonah’s twin confessions (Jonah 1:9; 4:2). Here we reflect on the first: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (Jonah 1:9).

(1) From our perspective, as from Jonah’s, this confesses that God made everything, that he is the Sovereign Lord over the entire universe. Probably the pagan sailors did not understand quite so much. For them, the gods have various domains. If this Hebrew claims that the God from whom he is fleeing is the Creator of the sea (whatever else he made), for them the claim would gain credibility precisely because of the storm.

(2) But for Jonah (and for us), the claim has two other overtones. First: not only has God made the sea, but everything; and he is in charge of everything. So there is no escaping this God. Even if Jonah were to find a way to get to shore safely, this God can track him down anywhere. Jonah painfully recognizes that there is no fleeing from this God—if “the hound of heaven” is on your trail and resolves that you will not get away. That is why he invites death. Second: the sheer greatness of God is what makes sense of God’s determination to give the wicked city of Nineveh an opportunity to turn from its sin. If monotheism is true, if there is but one God, then in some sense this God must be God of all, not just the God of the covenant people. This Jonah could not stand. He could see that just over the horizon Assyria would become a formidable foe of his own people, the people of God—and here is God giving them ample opportunity to repent.

(3) From a canonical perspective, here once again is the missionary God—far more committed to reaching toward “outsiders” than his people are. Here too he prepares the ground, step by step, for the Great Commission that mandates believers to herald the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the whole world.

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1 Chronicles 16; James 3; Obadiah; Luke 5

Nov 20, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 16; James 3; Obadiah; Luke 5

WE EARLIER REFLECTED ON THE judgments God pronounced on Edom, the nation made up of the descendants of Esau (and thus the distant cousins of the Israelites). Ezekiel is very explicit (Ezek. 35; see meditation for October 2); Hosea is less prosaic but says similar things (Hosea 13; see meditation for November 7). Here in Obadiah, an entire book (albeit a short one) is devoted to this theme. The time is after the sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., and possibly as late as the early postexilic period when the Jews started returning to the land. The fulfillment of these prophecies took place over an extended period. Certainly by 312 the capital of Edom was firmly in the hands of the Nabatean Arabs. A coalition of Arabs had been displacing the Edomites for more than a century. In the early period they were led by King Geshem, who in about 440 was one of Nehemiah’s opponents.

One must ask why the Old Testament prophets devote so much time and space to Edom.

(1) Swelling through this little book is the theme of God’s justice. If Edom could get away with her triumphalism and gloating, when her own conduct was no better than that of the nation of the Jews she mocked, then there is no justice.

(2) The point can be universalized. “The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head” (Obadiah 15, italics added). Although in some ways Edom is unique (of the surrounding nations only she had blood ties to Israel), yet at another level she stands as an important model for all nations. When we see opponents fall, we had better recognize that God is the One who exacts temporal judgments—and one day all of us will face eternal judgment. Temporal judgments are thus God’s prophetic announcement of what will happen to all. Jesus argues along similar lines (Luke 13:1-5) with respect to relatively small groups of individuals. Here Obadiah insists the same thing is true at the level of the nation. The Nazis fell: should we gloat and pat our backs in triumphalistic glee? Shall we not remember that Germany was a country of extraordinary education and technical competence, and it turned toward power, expansionism, and cascading evil—and fell? Should we not fear, and beg God for mercy that we might walk in integrity, honor, and love of virtue?

(3) In some ways, Obadiah is a commentary on Amos 9:12. Like Judah, Edom is cut down. Nevertheless the hope of the world lies in Judah’s future, not Edom’s—and that kingdom is the Lord’s (Obadiah 17, 21). That was reason enough not to despise God’s covenant people, both then and now.

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1 Chronicles 15; James 2; Amos 9; Luke 4

Nov 19, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 15; James 2; Amos 9; Luke 4

ALTHOUGH AMOS 9 CONTAINS some pretty dreadful threats of judgment, it ends on a positive chord in three-part harmony.

(1) The judgment will not be total, but partial. “I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” the Lord declares (Amos 9:8). The sifting will be very thorough (Amos 9:9-10), but God will spare a remnant. From about the time of Elijah on, the remnant theme gets stronger with each passing century. Thoughtful people receive it and are greatly encouraged: God always preserves some faithful people.

(2) “In that day”—a prophetic formula that is exceedingly flexible in its referent—God “will restore David’s fallen tent” (Amos 9:11). God will restore the Davidic dynasty to its former splendor—indeed, to something even greater, as the next verse suggests. Amos was warning the northern kingdom; at this point the Davidic dynasty, however reduced, was still intact in the south. This prophecy does not envisage the restoration of the dynasty after it has ceased for a time to exist (which is the way the later prophets speak, a century and a half after Amos). Rather, it foresees the restoration of the dynasty to its former glory, and more.

(3) The final verses of the chapter (Amos 9:13-15) portray such a time of fertility in the land that the reaper is overtaken by the plowman—a wonderful picture of almost magical fertility. The ruined cities will be rebuilt, and never again will Israel be uprooted from the land.

When are these prophecies fulfilled? The first is surely fulfilled in the events surrounding the exile, but similar events have happened many times since. God preserved a remnant then, and he has done so since. Some think that once the extravagant language of the closing verses is taken with a grain of salt, these promises were fulfilled when the people returned to the land after the exile. But the text says they would “never again” be uprooted, and of course they were. So one must conclude either that Amos goofed or that this promise was not fulfilled in the postexilic period. Certainly that period did not witness the restoration of the Davidic empire. So some foresee a literal fulfillment in the future. But Christians will remember how Amos 9:11-12 is applied by James at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:16-17). He insists that Jesus is the Davidic king, that his reign fulfills this promise, that the blessings to the Gentiles hinted at here are being fulfilled in the extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles. This suggests a typological fulfillment of some Old Testament prophecies—an approach that has a bearing on how we read some other Old Testament prophecies as well.

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1 Chronicles 13-14; James 1; Amos 8; Luke 3

Nov 18, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 13-14; James 1; Amos 8; Luke 3

THERE ARE MANY THINGS IN AMOS 8 that one might usefully reflect on: the whining moans that religious services last too long and cut into time better used for business (Amos 8:5); the shady practices that boost profits (Amos 8:5b); the rising slavery grounded in economic penury (Amos 8:6); the bitter irony of Amos 8:7 (if one remembers that “the Pride of Jacob” is God himself); the apocalyptic language of Amos 8:9 (compare Joel 2:30-31 and Acts 2:19-20); the colorful imagery of the “ripe fruit” (Amos 8:1-2). But here I shall focus on verses 11-12: “ ’The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.’ ”

This expresses a “use it or lose it” philosophy. The covenant people in Amos’s day are content not to regulate their lives by God’s revelation, and so they will lose it. Whether “the words of the LORD” refers to messages spoken to them through prophets such as Amos, or to the written Word of God (substantial parts of which were already available) makes little difference. The point is that the people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic. The only adequate analogy is a desperate famine.

It is easy to see how this judgment works out in history. For complex historical reasons, France turned on the Huguenots and persecuted them almost out of existence, so the Bible and the Reformation never took hold in France as it did in England. Sometimes the antipathy toward the Bible has arisen from drift, rather than from persecution. In many Western countries, the public sense of morality was until a few decades ago largely tied to the Ten Commandments. Nowadays very few even know what the Ten Commandments are. The result is not freedom and integrity, but a lilting scorn that flaunts its superiority over something no longer even understood, much less respected—and what shall the end of these things be? So many Bibles, so many Bibles—and so little thoughtful reading of them. The next stage is the Bible as source of prooftexts; the stage after that is the Bible as quaint relic; the next, the Bible as antiquarian magic; the next, implacable ignorance—and all the while, a growing hunger for something wise, something stable, something intelligent, something prophetic, something true. And the hunger is not satisfied.

The only answer is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:17.

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1 Chronicles 11-12; Hebrews 13; Amos 7; Luke 2

Nov 17, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 11-12; Hebrews 13; Amos 7; Luke 2

IN AMOS 7:1-9 THE PROPHET intercedes with God to avert two catastrophic judgments. In both cases, the Lord relents (Amos 7:3, 6). But then God deploys a plumb line to show just how crooked Israel is, and promises that he will spare the people no longer (Amos 7:6-9). Two reflections:

(1) If God were endlessly forbearing, there would be no judgment. A lot of people think of God in these terms. God is good, so he is bound to forgive us: that’s his job. So argued Catherine the Great. The Bible insists that such a picture of God is hopelessly flawed. On the other hand, if God executed instantaneous justice, there would be no place for either compassion or forbearing delay. This sort of tension is bound up with many virtues. Genuine courage presupposes fear that is overcome. If there is no fear at all, there can be no courage. Similarly, if there is no wrath, forbearance is no longer a virtue; it dissolves into some strange alchemy of niceness and moral indifference. Thus a large part of what these scenes are saying to the ancient Israelites is that God’s patience is running out. The reason God has not destroyed them already is that he is forbearing. But genuine forbearance presupposes that justice must sooner or later prevail: it is a call for repentance before it is too late.

(2) God here answers the intercessory prayer of Amos and relents—as in a number of other moving passages where God responds to fervent intercession (Gen. 18:23-33; 20:7; Ex. 32:9-14; Job 42:8-9). How does this square with a passage like 1 Samuel 15:29? “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” Indeed, if I were certain I could change God’s mind in some absolute sense, I would be terrified of trying, for I know far, far less than he. Yet the “prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” we are told (James 5:16-18). The point, surely, is that this God is not some cold, deterministic, mechanical, force. He is a personal God who has ordained means as much as ends—means that include our intercession. If we are to pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:14), then Luther was right: “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. Prayer is laying hold of God’s willingness.” It is not so much a means of talking God into a position repugnant to him, as a God-ordained means of obtaining the blessings that God in the perfection of his virtues is willing to bestow. But that perfection of virtues also means that there may come a point when the collision of holiness and sin issues in implacable wrath that will not be diverted.

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1 Chronicles 9-10; Hebrews 12; Amos 6; Luke 1:39-80

Nov 16, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 9-10; Hebrews 12; Amos 6; Luke 1:39-80

TO UNDERSTAND ARIGHT THE POWER OF Amos 6, it is helpful to reflect a little on two themes: complacency and the power elite.

(1) I shall begin by reminding you of a story I told in the meditation for January 15. One of my high school history teachers related how, toward the end of World War II, he had been furloughed home because of an injury. He had seen many of his buddies killed; others were still in action. He was riding a bus in a Canadian city, and he heard an obviously wealthy and ostentatious woman in the seat in front of him talking to her companion. Her husband was making a lot of money in arms production. She confided to her seatmate: “I hope this war doesn’t end soon. We’ve never had it so good.”

That is the ugly face of complacency. The picture of those “who are complacent in Zion” (Amos 6:1) is no less repugnant. There they are, strumming away on their guitars, fancying themselves to be gifted musicians like David (Amos 6:5), slurping their Chardonnay, the atmosphere charged with their perfumes and aftershaves (Amos 6:6)—but they do not grieve over all that is wrong and corrupt.

(2) Virtually every society develops an elite. An absolute monarchy or a dictatorship demonstrates this in obvious ways. Communism, theoretically classless, develops its own elite, its own rulers; the privilege of birth gives way to the privilege of party membership and political power. In a democracy, there may be relative equality of opportunity, but that is not the same as classlessness. Rather, at its best equal opportunity ensures some mobility within a more or less stratified society: outsiders can become insiders, and the elite can be penetrated by hoi polloi. Aristocracy and dictatorship are then replaced by meritocracy; the rule of the rich and the noble is replaced by the rule of the successful and the clever and the vicious. Of course, this is almost inevitable, as many sociologists have explained: for practical reasons, direct rule by the people is impossible. There have to be representatives, appointees, someone to make decisions and effect things—and a new power bloc is born. Perhaps the greatest benefit of democracy is that it provides a peaceful way of turning blighters out every few years, and selecting others.

But from God’s perspective, leadership goes hand in hand with responsibility. Amos 6 is directed against the capitals of Judah and Israel (Zion and Samaria) and against the “notable men” (Amos 6:1). The ugly complacency of this chapter is the complacency of rulers and leaders presiding over decadence, compromise, injustice, theological perversity, and their own creature comforts. And where, in the church and in the broader culture, do leadership and complacency join hands today? At how many levels? And what does God think of it?

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1 Chronicles 7-8; Hebrews 11; Amos 5; Luke 1:1-38

Nov 15, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 7-8; Hebrews 11; Amos 5; Luke 1:1-38

ON FIRST READING, AMOS 5 is a bit of a muddle. It is made up of such diffuse bits—not only different themes, but different forms and literary genres. The NIV recognizes the point by putting verses 8-9 in parentheses (there are no parentheses in Hebrew). The first three verses are a lament, a funeral dirge, mournfully bemoaning the fall of Israel. Verses 4-6 and 14-15 constitute an evangelistic appeal. This is how Israel must respond if they are to be accepted by the Lord and survive. Verses 7 and 10-13 deal with the oppression and corruption in the land. The last two verses (16-17) return to lament.

It is easy enough to reflect on these distinct themes separately. For example, one might well meditate on how seeking the Lord himself (Amos 5:4-6, 14-15) is more important than the aesthetically pleasing form of worship (Amos 5:4-5), on how genuine repentance embraces a massive hatred of sin not only at some distant, theoretical level, but at the level of practical integrity and social responsibility, including justice in the courts (Amos 5:15). Does any society need to hear this more than ours, where there is less and less interest in justice and righteousness, and more and more interest in merely manipulating the duly enacted laws? And so we could work through all of the themes and forms in Amos 5:1-17.

For some purposes, of course, such thematic analysis is helpful. It finds its extreme in the liberal critic who thinks the chapter is a mismatched pastiche of sources that can be set to rights with scissors and paste. But that misses the genius and power of the chapter. This is a collage, akin to a rapid succession of images on film that dance from war to sermon to funeral to judgment to sin to repentance. Amos’s original hearers were hostile. To retain their interest he had to knock them off base, and the resulting rapid transitions give power to the whole precisely because they are jarring and unexpected. We are forced to think not only about the themes themselves, but about their interconnectedness with other themes.

The direction of the whole is exposed in the final verses of the chapter (Amos 5:18-27). For all their self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, these people retain a religious fervor that hungers for “the day of the LORD”—as many of us hunger for “revival.” But God says he despises their religious feasts and hates their assemblies. What he demands is implacable: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). Otherwise “the day of the Lord,” when he truly does meet with them, will be a day of dark judgment, infinitely removed from the paradisiacal light for which they hope.

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1 Chronicles 5-6; Hebrews 10; Amos 4; Psalms 148-150

Nov 14, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 5-6; Hebrews 10; Amos 4; Psalms 148-150

IN SOME WAYS AMOS 4 follows on very naturally from Amos 3. God has said that the warnings of the prophets are linked with real dangers (Amos 3:7-8). Now he highlights some of the sins that have evoked his warnings (Amos 4:1-5) and explains some of the warnings themselves and what they mean for the future if they are not taken to heart (Amos 4:6-13).

(1) The first warning is to the wealthy women of Israel (Amos 4:1-3), derogatorily described as “cows of Bashan”—proverbial for being well-fed, fat, and lazy, rather than lean and tough. These women have used their wealth and position to “oppress the poor and crush the needy” (Amos 4:1). The one-line vignette is devastating: they say to their husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1). This conjures up a picture of spoiled matrons, peremptory, decadent, interested only in being served and never in serving, lording it over their husbands, swilling down their boredoms in booze. So the Sovereign Lord swears “by his holiness” (Amos 4:2), which is akin to saying that he swears by himself, and thus by that which is immutable and than which there is nothing and no one greater. He swears that he will drag them away with hooks and chains into captivity, humiliated and degraded, in pain amid the rubble of their city (Amos 4:2-3).

(2) In the last half of the preceding chapter (Amos 3:9-15), God hammered away at three disgusting features of national life: social oppression, self-indulgence, and corrupt religion. The first two are enlarged upon in the first three verses of chapter 4, as we have just seen. The third, corrupt religion, is now treated with fine prophetic scorn (Amos 4:4-5). “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more”—the equivalent of saying, “Go to Canterbury and sin; go to Baptist headquarters and sin yet more.” (Fill in your own denominational mecca!) The place where, historically, Israel faithfully offered stipulated sacrifices (before the temple took precedence) are still places of sacrifice, but are now characterized by fine aesthetics, religious enthusiasm, and lots of bragging. Where are contrition and the broken spirit (cf. Ps. 51:17)?

(3) In the following verses (Amos 4:6-13) God reviews some of the temporal judgments he has imposed on the people at various times as warnings of much greater judgment to come. These warnings proved ineffective: witness the dreadful refrain, “ ’[Y]et you have not returned to me,’ declares the LORD” (Amos 4:8, 9, 10, 11). Therefore the God of Israel will meet them (Amos 4:12)—he will meet them, all right, not in the glory of theophany but in the terror of judgment.

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1 Chronicles 3-4; Hebrews 9; Amos 3; Psalms 146-147

Nov 13, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 3-4; Hebrews 9; Amos 3; Psalms 146-147

HERE I REFLECT ON TWO themes from Amos 3:

(1) “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2). The basic premise is simple: privilege brings responsibility. But the matter runs deeper, along at least two lines. (a) The peculiar privilege here is being chosen to know God, being known by him—and all knowledge of this God entails proximity to holiness. Small wonder, then, that this privilege brings punishment for sins. (b) But this is in any case itself a privilege. Nurtured sin eventually brings condemnation and destruction; sin punished may bring repentance and contrition, which the Lord seeks. Certainly this text excludes the view that being chosen by God means one is exempt from obedience and faithfulness to him, or that God is a big sugar daddy in the sky. As J. A. Motyer has put it: “Special privileges, special obligations; special grace, special holiness; special revelation, special scrutiny; special love, special responsiveness … the church of God cannot ever escape the perils of its uniqueness.”

(2) The sequence of rhetorical questions in verses 3-5 may initially seem irrelevant to Western eyes. But doubtless they were Amos’s way of getting his message across to hearers who were hostile both to him and to his message. In a culture that loved riddles and proverbs, his questions drew them into his thought before they realized what was up. The point becomes clearer with each new question: events have causes. If people meet and walk together, it is because they have agreed to do so. If a lion roars, it is because it has killed its prey. If a trap is sprung, it is because some bird or animal has triggered it. If a warning trumpet sounds, it is because a dangerous enemy has been sighted. Events have causes. So Amos drives home two points. (a) If disaster strikes a city, God must be behind it (Amos 3:6). Of course, there may be many secondary causes, but ultimately God himself is behind it. Amos does not believe in coincidence, bad luck, or a finite God who slips up now and then. He believes in providence—and believing in providence means believing that in disasters God is speaking the language of warning or judgment. (b) The warnings God gives correspond with real dangers. The trumpet blows to warn of a real enemy. God may provide gracious warning through his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7)—and such warnings are not hot air, mere religious mouthings, but flags that correspond with imminent danger. So repent: “The lion has roared—who will not fear?” And don’t shoot the messenger: “The Sovereign LORD has spoken—who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).

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