Search

Latest


1 Samuel 28; 1 Corinthians 9; Ezekiel 7; Psalm 45

Sep 04, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 28; 1 Corinthians 9; Ezekiel 7; Psalm 45

THERE ARE SEVERAL QUESTIONS about the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28) that we cannot answer. Was the prophet Samuel actually called up by her mediumistic activity, or was this some sort of demonic deception? If Samuel was called up, was this an exception of what God normally allows or sanctions? And if it really is Samuel, why does he bother answering Saul at all, thereby satisfying Saul’s lust for knowledge of the future, by whatever means, even means that were specifically condemned in Israel?

While it is difficult to provide confident answers to some of these questions, certain points stand out.

(1) What is evil in spiritism is not that it never works (some of it may be manipulative hocus-pocus; some of it may actually provide answers), but that it plays into the hands of the demonic. Above all, it turns people away from God, who alone controls both the present and the future. To find guidance for one’s life by such means will not only lead one astray sooner or later, it is already a badge of rebellion—a terrible thumbing of the nose at God.

(2) Saul is playing the part of the hypocrite. On the one hand, he has banished mediums and spiritists from the land (1 Sam. 28:3); on the other, he desperately wants one himself. Had Saul lived longer, there is no way this two-facedness would have long remained hidden from the people. The very foundations of order and justice in a society are unraveling when the powers that be indulge not only in the personal hypocrisies that afflict a fallen race, but in public breaches of the law they are sworn to uphold.

(3) When God does not answer by any of the means he has himself designated (1 Sam. 28:6, 15), this does not constitute warrant for defiance of God, but for repentance, perseverance, and patience. There is something dismally pathetic about seeking God’s counsel while happily taking action that God himself has prohibited.

(4) The heart of Saul’s sin is what it has been for a long time. He wants a domesticated god, a god like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, one pledged to do wonderful things for him as long as he holds the lamp. He somehow feels that David now holds the lamp and wishes he could get the power back, but does not perceive that the real God is to be worshiped, reverenced, obeyed, feared, and loved—unconditionally. Here is a man who thinks of himself as at the center of the universe; whatever gods exist must serve him. If the covenant God of Israel does not help him as he wishes, then Saul is prepared to find other gods. This is the black heart of all idolatry.

View Comments

1 Samuel 27; 1 Corinthians 8; Ezekiel 6; Psalm 44

Sep 03, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 27; 1 Corinthians 8; Ezekiel 6; Psalm 44

APPARENTLY SOME CHRISTIANS in Corinth, secure in their knowledge that idols are nothing at all, and that all meat has been created by the one true God so that it is good to eat even if it had been offered to an idol, feel wonderful liberty to eat whatever they like. Others, converted perhaps from a life bound up with pagan superstition, detect the demonic in the idol, and think it unsafe to eat food that has been offered to them (1 Cor. 8). The thrust of Paul’s argument is plain enough. Those with a robust conscience on these matters should be willing to forgo their rights so that they do not damage other brothers and sisters in Christ.

It may nevertheless crystallize the application if we underline several elements:

(1) The issue concerns something that is not intrinsically wrong. One could not imagine the apostle suggesting that some Christians think adultery is all right, while others have qualms about it, and the former should perhaps forgo their freedom so as not to offend the latter. In such a case, there is never any excuse for the action; the action is prohibited. So Paul’s principles here apply only to actions that are in themselves morally indifferent.

(2) Paul assumes that it is wrong to go against conscience, for then conscience may be damaged (1 Cor. 8:12). A conscience hardened in one area, over an indifferent matter, may become hard in another area—something more crucial. Ideally, of course, the conscience should become more perfectly aligned with what God says in Scripture, so that in indifferent matters it would leave the individual free. Conscience may be instructed and shaped by truth. But until conscience has been reformed by Scripture, it is best not to contravene it.

(3) The “weak” brother in this chapter (1 Cor. 8:7–13) is one with a “weak” conscience; that is, one who thinks some action is wrong even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong in it. Thus the “weak” brother is more bound by rules than the “strong” brother. Both will adopt the rules that touch things truly wrong, while the weak brother adds rules for things that are not truly wrong but that are at that point wrong for him, since he thinks them wrong.

(4) Paul places primary onus of responsibility on the “strong” to restrict their own freedoms for the sake of others. In other words, it is never a sufficient question for the Christian to ask, “What am I allowed to do? What are my rights?” Christians serve a Lord who certainly did not stand on his rights when he went to the cross. Following the self-denial of Jesus, they will also ask, “What rights should I give up for the sake of others?”

View Comments

1 Samuel 26; 1 Corinthians 7; Ezekiel 5; Psalms 42–43

Sep 02, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 26; 1 Corinthians 7; Ezekiel 5; Psalms 42–43

IN THE COURSE OF HIS treatment of “virgins” (1 Cor. 7:25–38—the word refers to the sexually inexperienced, whether male of female), Paul writes, “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are” (1 Cor. 7:26). Thus it is good for the celibate to remain celibate, for the married not to seek a divorce, and so forth. This does not mean, Paul adds, that if a virgin marries, she is sinning. But he does insist that “the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:29). What does this mean?

(1) Some have argued that in common with everyone else in the early church, Paul believed that Jesus was going to return very soon, certainly within their lifetime. With so limited a horizon, Paul says that on the whole it is better for those who are celibate to remain unmarried. This reading of the passage means, of course, that Paul and the rest of the early church were just plain wrong: Jesus did not come back that quickly. But there are so many passages in the New Testament that envisage the possibility of long delay that we cannot go along with the notion that early Christians suffered under this particular delusion.

(2) Some have argued that “the present crisis” (1 Cor. 7:26) refers to some specially troubling period of persecution. If the authorities are out to get Christians, especially their leaders, it might be an advantage to be celibate: you are more mobile, can hide more easily, and the authorities cannot exert pressure on you by leaning on your family. But this interpretation has two insuperable problems. (a) It may fit the celibates, but it doesn’t fit all the other people to whom Paul makes application: e.g., those who mourn should live as if they did not mourn, those who are happy as if they were not, those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep (1 Cor. 7:29–30). (b) Above all, there is no good evidence that the Corinthians were being threatened with persecution. The entire tone of this letter suggests they were finding life a bit of a lark.

(3) The word rendered “crisis” simply means “necessity” or “compulsion.” What Paul is referring to is neither the return of Christ nor persecution, but the present “necessity,” the present “compulsion,” of living with the End in view. Unlike pagans and secularists, we cannot make our chief joy turn on marriage, prosperity, or any other temporal thing. They all fall under the formula “as if not”: live “as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31, emphasis added). There are responsible ways for Christians to enjoy these things, or mourn, or be happy—but never as if these things are ultimate.

View Comments

1 Samuel 25; 1 Corinthians 6; Ezekiel 4; Psalms 40–41

Sep 01, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 25; 1 Corinthians 6; Ezekiel 4; Psalms 40–41

DESPITE ITS GREAT INTEREST and deft characterizations, one must ask why the story found in 1 Samuel 25 is included. How does it advance the storyline of 1 and 2 Samuel?

Once some of the social conventions of the day are understood, the account itself is clear. Apparently at this point David is not actively being pursued by Saul (see 1 Sam. 24), but relations are still so tender that David and his men keep right out of Saul’s way. Much of this culture was bound up with two values that many in the West rarely experience: (1) Every good deed must necessarily be repaid with another. The forms of courtesy extend to reciprocal gift-giving. Failure in this respect calls down shame on the person who defaults, and treats the other person with contempt. (2) The demands of hospitality mean it is unconscionable to turn another away. That would signal rudeness and greed. Mere courtesy demands that one offer one’s best to guests. This is especially true when one is wealthy.

So when David’s men arrive at Nabal’s door, they are not asking for protection money. When Nabal sends them on their way, he is not an upright man who refuses to be bullied by a brigand, but an ungrateful wretch who will take and take from everyone, never give anything in return, thumb his nose at the courtesies and conventions of the culture, bring down shame on himself without caring what people think, and treat the man who has contributed to the wealth and well-being of his operation with insufferable contempt.

Abigail cuts the best figure in the narrative. With grace and tact, she assuages David’s wrath and preserves the lives of her husband and the men he employs. David is a mixed figure. By the light of day, doubtless he had some warrant for the vengeance he was planning, but it could only presage more bloodshed and a style of leadership that would sully the throne he would one day occupy. All this Abigail sees—and winningly convinces him she is right.

So why is the account included? Superficially, of course, there are little hints that David is coming closer to the throne. Samuel, the prophet who anointed him, is dead (1 Sam. 25:1). David now heads an armed band of six hundred. Abigail represents the rising number of Israelites who recognize that sooner or later David will be their king (1 Sam. 25:28, 30). But above all, David is now heading in a different moral direction from Saul. As Saul’s power has increased, so also has his passion for vengeance. David is heading in the same wretched direction, until Abigail checks him, as he himself recognizes (1 Sam. 25:32–34). There are important lessons here for many powerful Christian leaders.

View Comments

1 Samuel 24; 1 Corinthians 5; Ezekiel 3; Psalm 39

Aug 31, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 24; 1 Corinthians 5; Ezekiel 3; Psalm 39

IN CASE ANYONE WERE TO READ 1 Corinthians 4 and conclude that no standards whatsoever are to be maintained in the church—after all, maintenance of standards requires judging, doesn’t it?—the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 5, provides a case where Paul berates the church in Corinth for not exercising judgment and discipline. We must reflect a little on this case itself, and then on the way it is linked to the previous chapter.

Paul insists that, with respect to the man he describes in 1 Corinthians 5:1, two evils are in view. The first is sexual. A member of the church “has his father’s wife.” The peculiar language suggests he is sleeping with his stepmother. In any case the sin is so gross that it would be shocking even among the pagans. The second is the limp response of the church. Despite this wickedness among them, their penchant for arrogant strutting, which surfaces in many chapters of 1 and 2 Corinthians, never falters. They should have been consumed with grief; they should have excommunicated the man who did this (1 Cor. 5:2).

We cannot reflect on all the elements of this judgment, but observe the following:

(1) The judgment Paul wants meted out is to be communal. The entire church, “assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4), in the consciousness of his powerful presence, is to take action. Thus the failure to do so is a church-wide failure.

(2) One of the reasons for taking this action is because “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor. 5:6); evil in the church that no one deals with soon affects the entire church.

(3) This has nothing to do with disciplining the outside world. Paul assumes that the world outside the church will allow sin to fester. What he has in mind is discipline within the church of God (1 Cor. 5:9–10).

(4) Paul’s understanding of what conduct should be subject to church discipline is not restricted to the sexual arena, or this particular form of sexual sin. He means to include major moral defection and gives an exemplary list: greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, swindling. Elsewhere, he adds to major moral defection two other arenas: major doctrinal deviation, and persistent drive for schism.

Now all of this he openly calls “judging” (1 Cor. 5:12–13). Christians are to judge “those inside,” while God judges “those outside.” At the very least, chapters 4 and 5 must be kept in creative tension. More importantly, the Corinthians in chapter 4 were imposing judgments “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), i.e., deploying standards and criteria with no basis in God’s revelation, and out of mere party interest. They were not imposing judgments in chapter 5 despite what Scripture, properly understood, says. Both are breaches of God’s revelation.

View Comments

If You’re Looking for Trevin Wax

Aug 30, 2015 | Collin Hansen

Editors’ note: For reasons we cannot discern, the RSS feed for Trevin Wax was corrupted and confused this week with this one from D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God. So if you’re receiving Carson in error, we encourage you to switch to the correct feed to ensure you will continue to receive Wax’s excellent daily content. We apologize for the inconvenience.

 

View Comments

1 Samuel 23; 1 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 2; Psalm 38

Aug 30, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 23; 1 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 2; Psalm 38

PAUL IN 1 CORINTHIANS 3 HAS BEEN telling the Corinthians how not to view servants of Christ. They are not to view any particular servant of Christ as a group guru, for that means other servants of Christ are implicitly inferior. When each different group within the church has its own Christian guru, there are therefore two evils: unnecessary division within the church, and a censorious condescension that pronounces judgment on who is worthy to be a guru and who is not. Paul insists that all that God has for the church in a Paul or an Apollos or a Cephas rightly belongs to the whole church (1 Cor. 3:21–22).

At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 4, Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians how they are to view servants of Christ: “as those entrusted with the secret things of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The word rendered “secret things” does not mean “mysterious things” or “things that only the elite of the elect may learn.” The word is often rendered “mysteries” in our older versions. In the New Testament, it most commonly refers to something that God has in some measure kept veiled, hidden, or secret in the past, but which he is now making abundantly clear in Christ Jesus. In short, these “servants of Christ” are entrusted with the Gospel—all that God has made clear in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Those given a trust must prove faithful to the one to whom they are accountable (1 Cor. 4:2). For that reason, Paul knows that how the Corinthians view him is of little importance; indeed, how he assesses himself has no great significance either (1 Cor. 4:3). Paul knows that it is important to keep a clear conscience before the Lord. But it is possible to have a clear conscience and still be guilty of many things, because conscience is not a perfect instrument. Conscience may be misinformed or hardened. The only person whose judgment is absolutely right, and of ultimate importance, is the Lord himself (1 Cor. 4:4). It follows that the Corinthians should not appoint themselves judges over all the “servants of Christ” whom Christ sends. When the Lord returns, the final accounting will become clear. At that point, Paul says, “each will receive his praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5)—a wonderful thought, for it appears that the final Judge will prove more encouraging and positive than many human judges.

Some place remains in the church for discernment and judgment: see tomorrow’s meditation! But there are always batteries of critics who go way “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) with legalistic tests of their own disgruntled devising, attaching themselves to their gurus and abominating the rest. They often think they are prophetic, whereas in fact their pretensions come close to usurping God’s place.

View Comments

1 Samuel 21–22; 1 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 1; Psalm 37

Aug 29, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 21–22; 1 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 1; Psalm 37

THE TWO EXTENDED METAPHORS that Paul deploys in 1 Corinthians 3:5–15 make roughly the same point, although each carries a special shading not found in the other.

In the agricultural metaphor (1 Cor. 3:5–9), the Lord is the farmer, Paul prepares the ground and plants the seed, Apollos waters the fledgling plants, and the Corinthians are “God’s field” (1 Cor. 5:9). In the context, which is designed to combat the Corinthians’ penchant for division based on attaching themselves to particular “heroes” (1 Cor. 3:3–4), Paul is concerned to show that he and Apollos are not competitors, but “fellow workers” (1 Cor. 5:9)—indeed, “God’s fellow workers” (i.e., they are fellow workers who belong to God, not fellow workers along with God, as if God makes up a threesome). Not only so, but neither Paul nor Apollos can guarantee fruit: God alone makes the seed grow (1 Cor. 3:6–7). So why adopt a reverential stance toward either Paul or Apollos?

The architectural metaphor initially makes the same point: the various builders all contribute to one building, and therefore none should be idolized. Now the Corinthians are not the field, but the building itself (1 Cor. 3:9–10). Paul laid the foundation of this building; otherwise put, he planted the church in Corinth. The foundation that Paul laid is Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor. 3:11). Since his departure from this building project, others have come and built on this foundation. Thus, so far the architectural metaphor implicitly makes the same point that the agricultural metaphor made explicitly.

But now the architectural metaphor turns in a slightly different direction. Paul insists that later builders are responsible to choose with care the material they put into this building (1 Cor. 3:12–15). A “Day” is coming (1 Cor. 3:13), the day of judgment, when all that is not precious in God’s sight will be consumed. It is possible that a builder could use such shoddy materials that in the end, all that he has built is devoured, even if he himself escapes the flames.

Two observations: (1) The person Paul describes as being “saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:15), is not some purely nominal Christian whose conduct is indifferentiable from that of any pagan. Such do not enter the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9–10). This is a “builder,” not the mass of Christians who constitute the “building” (1 Cor. 3:10). The question is whether these evangelists and pastors are using proper materials. (2) In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, the building, the church of God, becomes a temple. Later on, God’s temple is the individual Christian’s body (1 Cor. 6:19–20), but here it is the local church. God loves this building so much that he openly threatens to destroy those who destroy God’s temple. Damage the church, and you desecrate God’s temple—and God will destroy you.

View Comments

1 Samuel 20; 1 Corinthians 2; Lamentations 5; Psalm 36

Aug 28, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 20; 1 Corinthians 2; Lamentations 5; Psalm 36

THERE ARE NOT MANY CHAPTERS in the Bible that devote much space to the theme of friendship, but 1 Samuel 20 is one of them.

Strictly speaking, of course, 1 Samuel 20 is not about friendship per se, in the way that friendship is a theme to be explored by a gifted novelist. The account fits into the larger narrative of the decline of Saul and the rise of David, a major turning point in redemptive history. Yet the way that account unfolds turns in important ways on the relationship between Jonathan and David.

Jonathan turns out to be a wholly admirable young man. Earlier he had shown considerable physical courage when he and his armor-bearer routed a contingent of Philistines (1 Sam. 14). When David became part of the royal court, one might have expected Jonathan to display many malevolent emotions: jealousy at David’s rising popularity, competitiveness in the military arena, even fear that David would one day usurp his right to the throne. But “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself” (1 Sam. 18:1). He entered into a “covenant” with David that made David, in effect, his own brother (1 Sam. 18:3–4)—an astonishing step for a royal to take with a commoner. By the time we arrive at chapter 20, Jonathan is aware that David will one day be king. How he acquired this knowledge we cannot be sure. Given their friendship, David may have confided in Jonathan the account of his anointing at the hands of Samuel.

Not only does Jonathan not share his father’s malevolence, but, having once before effected a reconciliation between his father Saul and David (1 Sam. 19:4–7), he finds it hard to believe that his father is as implacably determined to kill David as David believes (1 Sam. 20:1–3). So the elaborate plan of this chapter is put into effect. Jonathan discovers that his own father is resolved on Jonathan’s best friend’s death. Indeed, his father is so enraged that Jonathan himself is in mortal danger (1 Sam. 20:33).

David and Jonathan meet. They renew their covenant, as they will do once more (1 Sam. 23:17–18). David, for his part, vows to look after Jonathan’s family if and when Jonathan is no longer around—a harbinger of things to come, and rather different from the normal bloodletting that customarily took place when a new king sought to wipe out the potential heirs of a previous dynasty.

But perhaps the most striking thing is that Jonathan stays in town with his father. For the fact of the matter is that we choose our friends, but we do not choose our family; yet our responsibilities to our families take a prior claim. Otherwise friendship itself becomes an excuse for a new form of selfishness.

View Comments

1 Samuel 19; 1 Corinthians 1; Lamentations 4; Psalm 35

Aug 27, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 19; 1 Corinthians 1; Lamentations 4; Psalm 35

EVANGELICALS REGULARLY DRAW a line between justification and sanctification. Justification is God’s declaration that an individual sinner is just—a declaration grounded not in the fact that he or she is just, but in God’s accepting Christ’s death instead of the sinner’s, in God’s reckoning Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. It marks the beginning of the believer’s pilgrimage. From the believer’s vantage point, to be justified is a once-for-all experience bound up with God’s good purposes in Christ’s once-for-all death.

By contrast, sanctification in the Protestant tradition has normally been understood to refer to the process by which believers progressively become more holy. (Holy and sanctified/sanctification have the same root in Greek.) This is not a once-for-all experience; it reflects a lifelong pilgrimage, a process that will not be finally complete until the onset of the new heaven and the new earth. It is not what God reckons to us; it is what he empowers us to become.

Failure to distinguish between justification and sanctification frequently ends up with a blurring of justification. If justification takes on a shading of personal growth in righteousness, pretty soon the forensic, declarative nature of justification is lost to view, and we start reimporting some kind of works-righteousness through the back door.

Historically, of course, the warning is well merited. One must always be vigilant to preserve Paul’s emphasis on justification. But the SANCTIFICATION word-group has not always been well-served by this analysis. Those who study Paul have long noted that sometimes people are said to be “sanctified” in a POSITIONAL or DEFINITIONAL sense—that is, they are set apart for God (POSITIONAL), and therefore they already are sanctified (DEFINITIONAL). In such passages the process of progressively becoming more holy is not in view.

Most of the places where Paul talks about being “holy” or “sanctified” fall into this POSITIONAL or DEFINITIONAL camp. That is certainly the case in 1 Corinthians 1:2: Paul writes to “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” The Corinthians already are sanctified; they have been set apart for God. Therefore, they have been called to be holy—that is, to live life in line with their calling (which, by and large, they have been failing to do, quite spectacularly, judging by the rest of the book).

Of course, there are many passages that speak of growth and improvement that do not use SANCTIFICATION; for a start, meditate on Philippians 3:12–16. If we choose to use SANCTIFICATION as a term drawn from systematic theology to describe such growth, we do no wrong. But then we should not read this meaning back into Paul’s use where his focus is elsewhere.

View Comments
1 2 3 171