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Genesis 32; Mark 3; Esther 8; Romans 3

Jan 31, 2015 | Don Carson

WHAT A TRANSFORMATION IN JACOB (Gen. 32)! Superficially, of course, not much has changed. He left Beersheba for Paddan Aram because he was afraid for his life; his brother Esau had reason enough, according to his own light, to kill him. Now he is returning home, and Jacob is still frightened half to death of his brother. No less superficially, one might argue that much has changed; Jacob fled the tents of his parents a single man, taking almost nothing with him, while here he returns home a rich, married man with many children.

But the deepest differences between the two journeys are reflected in Jacob’s changed attitude toward God. On the outbound trip, Jacob takes no initiative in matters divine. He simply goes to sleep (Gen 28). It is God who intervenes with a remarkable vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven. When Jacob awakens, he acknowledges that what he experienced was some sort of visitation from God (28:16-17), but his response is to barter with God: if God will grant him security, safety, prosperity, and ultimately a happy return home, Jacob for his part will acknowledge God and offer him a tithe.

Now it is rather different. True, God again takes the initiative: Jacob meets angelic messengers (32:1-2). Jacob decides to act prudently. He sends some of his people ahead to announce to Esau that his brother is returning. This spawns devastating news: Esau is coming to meet him, but with four hundred men.

On the one hand, Jacob sets in motion a carefully orchestrated plan: successive waves of gifts for his brother are sent on ahead, with each of the messengers carefully instructed to speak to Esau with the utmost courtesy and respect. On the other hand, Jacob admits that matters are out of his control. Bartering is gone; in “great fear and distress” (32:7) Jacob takes action, and then prays, begging for help. He reminds God of his covenantal promises, he pleads his own unworthiness, he acknowledges how many undeserved blessings he has received, he confesses his own terror (32:9-12). And then, in the darkest hours, he wrestles with this strange manifestation of God himself (32:22-30).

Twenty years or so have passed since Jacob’s outward-bound journey. Some people learn nothing in twenty years. Jacob has learned humility, tenacity, godly fear, reliance upon God’s covenantal promises, and how to pray. None of this means he is so paralyzed by fear that he does nothing but retreat into prayer. Rather, it means he does what he can, while believing utterly that salvation is of the Lord.

By the time the sun rises, he may walk with a limp, but he is a stronger and better man.

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Genesis 31; Mark 2; Esther 7; Romans 2

Jan 30, 2015 | Don Carson

THE THREE MOST COMMON ACTS of piety amongst many Jews were prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (i.e., giving money to the poor). So when Jesus’ disciples seemed a little indifferent to the second, it was bound to provoke interest. The Pharisees fasted, the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. But fasting was not characteristic of Jesus’ disciples. Why not? (Mark 2:18-22).

Jesus’ response is stunning: “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast” (2:19-20). Here is Jesus, profoundly self-aware, deeply conscious that he himself is the messianic bridegroom, and that in his immediate presence the proper response is joy. The kingdom was dawning; the king was already present; the day of promised blessings was breaking out. This was not a time for mourning, signaled by fasting.

Yet when Jesus went on to speak of the bridegroom being taken away from his disciples, and that this event would provoke mourning, it is very doubtful if anyone, at that time, grasped the significance of the utterance. After all, when the Messiah came, there would be righteousness and the triumph of God. Who could speak of the Messiah being taken away? The entire analogy of the bridegroom was becoming opaque.

But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after his exaltation to glory, and after the promise of his return at the end of the age, the pieces would fit together. The disciples would experience terrible sorrow during the three days of the tomb, before Jesus’ glorious resurrection forever shattered their despair. And in an attenuated sense, Jesus’ disciples would experience cycles of suffering that would call forth days of fasting as they faced the assaults of the Evil One while waiting for their Master’s blessed return. But not now. Right now, sorrow and fasting were frankly incongruous. The promised Messiah, the heavenly Bridegroom, was among them.

The truth, Jesus says, is that with the dawning of the kingdom, the traditional structures of life and forms of piety would change. It would be inappropriate to graft the new onto the old, as if the old were the supporting structure – in precisely the same way that it is inappropriate to repair a large rent in an old garment by using new, unshrunk cloth, or use old and brittle wineskins to contain new wine still fermenting, whose gases will doubtless explode the old skin. The old does not support the new; it points to it, prepares for it, and then gives way to it. Thus Jesus prepares his disciples for the massive changes that were dawning.

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Genesis 30; Mark 1; Esther 6; Romans 1

Jan 29, 2015 | Don Carson

WHEN I WAS A CHILD IN SUNDAY SCHOOL, I learned the names of the twelve tribes of Israel by singing a simple chorus: “These are the names of Jacob’s sons: Gad and Asher and Simeon, Reuben, Issachar, Levi, Judah, Dan, and Naphtali – Twelve in all, but never a twin – Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.”

But many more years passed before I grasped how important are the twelve tribes in the Bible’s storyline. Many of the dynamics of the rest of Genesis turn on their relationships. The organization of the nation of Israel depends on setting aside one tribe, the Levites, as priests. From another son, Judah, springs the Davidic dynasty that leads to the Messiah. Over the centuries, the tribe of Joseph would be divided into Ephraim and Manasseh; in substantial measure, Benjamin would merge with Judah. By the last book in the Bible, Revelation, the twelve tribes of the old covenant constitute the counterpoint to the twelve apostles of the new covenant: this twelve by twelve matrix (i.e., 144, in the symbolism of this apocalyptic literature) embracing in principle the whole people of God.

But what tawdry beginnings they have in Genesis 30. The deceit of Laban in Genesis 29, which resulted in Jacob’s marrying both Leah and Rachel, now issues in one of the most unhealthy instances of sibling rivalry in holy Scripture. Each of these women from this family is so eager to outshine the other that she gives her handmaid to her husband rather than allow the other to get ahead in the race to bear children. So self-centered and impetuous are the relationships that another time Rachel is prepared to sell her husband’s sex time to her sister Leah for a few mandrakes. Polygamy has taken hold, and with it a mess of distorted relationships.

From these painful and frankly dysfunctional family relationships spring eleven sons and one daughter (the birth of the last son, Benjamin, is reported in chap. 35). Here are the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel, the foundation of the Israelite nation. Their origins are not worse than those of others; they are merely typical. But already it is becoming clear that God does not deal with this family because they are consistently a cut above other families. No, he uses them to keep his covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He graciously perseveres with them to bring about his grand, redemptive purposes. The tawdry family dynamics, the sort of thing that might generate a B-grade movie, cannot possibly prevent the universe’s Sovereign from keeping his covenantal vows.

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Genesis 29; Matthew 28; Esther 5; Acts 28

Jan 28, 2015 | Don Carson

THE CLOSING SENTENCE OF Matthew 28 is striking: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). Of course, this is a grand promise from the resurrected Christ to his people, on the verge of his ascension. But the context discloses that it is not some generalized assurance and nothing more. It is contextually linked to the Great Commission. What is the nature of this link? Or, to tease the question out, why is Jesus’ promise to be with his disciples to the very end of the age tacked on to his assertion of his own authority, and of his command to make disciples of all people everywhere?

We should recognize that these words are not cast as a raw condition, bordering on a threat. Jesus does not say, in effect, “If you disciple all nations, I shall be with you always, to the very end of the age”; still less, “If you do not disciple all nations, I shall not be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Yet some kind of link is presupposed. What is it?

The link is so general that I suspect we are meant to think that the presence of Jesus with us is the matrix in which we obey the Great Commission – that is, simultaneously the experience of those who obey the commission, and the framework out of which we obey it. We know and experience the presence of Jesus, in accordance with his promise, and we bear witness to this, even as we proclaim who he is and what he has done and what he commands. As objective as is the truth of the Gospel that we proclaim, we proclaim it not only because it is truth, but because we ourselves have experienced its saving and transforming power. We therefore not only herald its truth, we also bear personal witness to it, to Jesus himself. We are not merely dispassionate heralds to certain objective events, we are disciples committed to making other disciples.

It is not surprising that as we discharge this commission, the promised presence of Jesus is cherished all the more. Because we know him and his transforming presence in our own lives, we evangelize, baptize, instruct, disciple – and know him all the better, and experience all the more his transforming presence in our own lives. His promise to be with us to the end of the age is thus the matrix out of which we obey the Great Commission, simultaneously the ground and the goal, the basis and the reward. How could it be otherwise? We serve him because we love him and long to hear his blessed “Well done!” at the end of our course.

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Genesis 28; Matthew 27; Esther 4; Acts 27

Jan 27, 2015 | Don Carson

THE NAME BETHEL MEANS “house of God.” I wonder how many churches, houses, Bible colleges and seminaries, Christian shelters, and other institutions have chosen this name to grace their signs and their letterheads.

Yet the event that gave rise to the name (Gen. 28) was a mixed bag. There is Isaac, scurrying across the miles to the home of his uncle Laban. Ostensibly he is looking for a godly wife, but this reason nests more comfortably in Isaac’s mind than in Jacob’s. In reality he is running for his life, as the previous chapter makes clear: he wishes to escape being assassinated by his own brother in the wake of his own tawdry act of betrayal and deceit. Judging by the requests he makes to God, he is in danger of having too little food and inadequate clothing, and he is already missing his own family (28: 20-21). Yet here God meets him in a dream so vivid that Jacob declares, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).

For his part, God reiterates the substance of the Abrahamic Covenant to the grandson of Abraham. The vision of the ladder opens up the prospect of access to God, of God’s immediate contact with a man who up to this point seems more driven by expedience than principle. God promises that his descendants will multiply and be given this land. The ultimate expansion is also repeated: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (28:14). Even at the personal level, Jacob will not be abandoned, for God declares, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15).

Awakened from his dream, Jacob erects an altar and calls the place Bethel. But in large measure he is still the same wheeler-dealer. He utters a vow: If God will do this and that and the other, if I get all that I want and hope for out of this deal, “then the LORD will be my God” (28:20-21).

And God does not strike him down! The story moves on: God does all that he promised, and more. All of Jacob’s conditions are met. One of the great themes of Scripture is how God meets us where we are: in our insecurities, in our conditional obedience, in our mixture of faith and doubt, in our fusion of awe and self-interest, in our understanding and foolishness. God does not disclose himself only to the greatest and most stalwart, but to us, at our Bethel, the house of God.

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Genesis 27; Matthew 26; Esther 3; Acts 26

Jan 26, 2015 | Don Carson

ALL FOUR OF THE PASSAGES contribute to the theme of the providence of God.

Genesis 27 is in many ways a pathetic, grubby account. Earlier Esau had despised his birthright (25:34); now Jacob swindles him out of it. In this Jacob is guided by his mother Rebekah, who thus shows favoritism among her children and disloyalty to her husband. Esau throws a tantrum and takes no responsibility for his actions at all. Indeed, he nurses his bitterness and plots the assassination of his brother. The family that constitutes the promised line is not doing very well.

Yet those who read the passage in the flow of the entire book remember that God himself had told Rebekah, before the twin brothers were born, that the older would serve the younger (25:23). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why she acted as she did: apparently she felt that God needed a little help in keeping his prediction, even immoral help. Yet behind these grubby and evil actions God is mysteriously working out his purposes to bring the promised line to the end he has determined. Certainly God could have arranged to have Jacob born first, if that was the man he wanted to carry on the line. Instead, Esau is born first, but Jacob is chosen, as if to say that the line is important, but God’s sovereign, intervening choosing is more important than mere human seniority, than mere primogeniture.

In Matthew 26, the authorities hatch a nasty plot to corrupt justice and sort out a political problem; Judas, one of Jesus’ intimates, sells his master; Jesus is in agony in Gethsemane; he is arrested and betrayed by a kiss; the Sanhedrin condemns and brutalizes its prisoner; Peter disowns Jesus. Yet who can doubt, in the flow of the book, that God remains in sovereign control to bring about the desired end? Jesus will give his life “as a ransom for many” (20:28), and all the failures, pain, and sin in this chapter issue in redemption.

The book of Esther does not even use the word God, but here too, even Haman’s gross government-sanctioned genocide is heading toward God’s salvation. And Paul (Acts 26) apparently would have been acquitted if he had not appealed to Caesar — yet that very appeal brings him in the end to declare the Gospel at the heart of the Empire.

Providence is mysterious. It must never be used to justify wrong actions or to mitigate sin: Isaac and his family are more than a little sleazy, Judas is a deceitful wretch, Haman is vile, and the Roman court trying Paul is more than a little corrupt. Yet God sovereignly rules, behind the scenes, bringing glory out of gore and honor out of shame.

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Genesis 26; Matthew 25; Esther 2; Acts 25

Jan 25, 2015 | Don Carson

THE PARABLE OF THE sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) focuses attention on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. It speaks volumes to us in a culture where the poor, the wretched, and the unfortunate can easily be ignored or swept aside to the periphery of our vision. Here Jesus, the Son of Man and the King, declares, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40; cf. v. 45). Doesn’t this mean that somehow when we serve the wretched we serve Christ? Doesn’t this then become a distinguishing mark — perhaps even the distinguishing mark — of true followers of Jesus Christ?

That, at least, is how this parable is usually interpreted. At one level I am loath to challenge it, because it is always important for those who know and follow the living God to show their life in God in the realms of compassion, service, and self-abnegation. Certainly elsewhere the Bible has a great deal to say about caring for the poor.

But it is rather unlikely that that is the focus of this parable. Another ancient stream of interpretation has much more plausibility. Two elements in the text clarify matters.

First, Jesus insists that what was done by the “sheep,” or not done by the “goats,” was done “for one of the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40; cf. v. 45). There is overwhelming evidence that this expression does not refer to everyone who is suffering, but to Jesus’ followers who are suffering. The emphasis is not on generic compassion (as important as that is elsewhere), but on who has shown compassion to the followers of Jesus who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison.

Second, both the sheep and the goats (25:37, 41, 44) are surprised when Jesus pronounces his verdict in terms of the way they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine.” If what Jesus is referring to was compassion of a generic sort, it is hard to see how anyone would be all that surprised. The point is that it is Jesus’ identification with these people who have (or have not) been helped that is critical — and that is a constant feature of biblical religion. For example, when Saul (Paul) persecutes Christians, he is persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4). Real followers of Jesus will go out of their way to help other followers of Jesus, not least the weakest and most despised of them; others will have no special inclination along these lines. That is what separates sheep and goats (25:32-33).

So how do you treat other Christians, even the least of Jesus’ brothers?

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Genesis 25; Matthew 24; Esther 1; Acts 24

Jan 24, 2015 | Don Carson

IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES, Christians have often been tempted to set dates as to when the Lord would return — almost always saying that he would return within a generation of the one making the prediction. In Matthew 24:36-44, however, Jesus insists that the time is hidden. We cannot know it, and we should not try to know it.

More precisely, the passage emphasizes two things.

First, not only is the hour of the end a secret preserved by the Father for himself alone, but when the judgment falls it will be unexpected, sudden, and irreversible. That is the point Jesus is making when he draws a comparison with the sudden onset of the deluge: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (24:37). The point is not that the people at the end of the ages will be as wicked as people were in the days of Noah. That may or may not be true, but it is not what Jesus says. Jesus draws attention to the sheer normality of life in Noah’s day before the Flood: “People were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark” (24:38). The Flood took them by surprise, and utterly destroyed them. “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (24:39). Two men or two women will be laboring together in some joint task, and the judgment will snatch one away and leave the other (24:40-41). The end of the age will be sudden and unexpected.

Second, it follows (“Therefore,” 24:42) that faithful servants will always be ready. Obviously a homeowner in a dicey neighborhood doesn’t know when a thief will turn up. Rather, he takes such precautions that he is always prepared. The point is not that Jesus’ return at the end of the age is sneaky — like the approach of the thief — brutal, or exploitative. The point, rather, is that although the timing of his return cannot be predicted, he will come, and his people should be as prepared for it as the homeowner in the insecure neighborhood is prepared for the arrival of the thief (whose timing is equally unpredictable). “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (24:44).

What would you like to be doing, saying, thinking, or planning when Jesus comes again? What would you not like to be doing, saying, thinking, or planning when Jesus comes again? Jesus tells you always to “keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (24:42).

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Genesis 23; Matthew 22; Nehemiah 12; Acts 22

Jan 22, 2015 | Don Carson

THE CLOSING VERSES OF Matthew 22 (Matt. 22:41-46) contain one of the most intriguing exchanges in the Gospels. After successfully fending off a series of tricky questions designed rather more to trap him or demean him than to elicit the wise answers he actually gives, Jesus poses a question of his own: “What do you think about the Christ [i.e., the Messiah]? Whose son is he?” (22:42). Some Jews thought there would be two Messiahs — one from David’s line (the tribe of Judah) and one from the tribe of Levi. But not surprisingly, the Pharisees here give the right answer: “The son of David” (22:42). Now Jesus drops his bombshell: “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet'”(22:43-44).

Jesus is citing Psalm 110, identified by the superscription as a psalm of David. If a mere courtier had written the psalm, then when he wrote “The LORD says to my Lord,” he would have been understood to mean “The Lord [God] said to my Lord [the King].” In fact, that is the way many liberal scholars interpret the psalm — which means, of course, that they must ignore what the superscription says. But if David wrote the psalm, then the “my Lord” whom he addresses must be someone other than himself. The explanation offered by many students of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, over the centuries, is correct: David, “speaking by the Spirit” (22:43), writing what is called an oracular psalm (i.e., an oracle, a prophecy immediately prompted by the Spirit), is referring to the Messiah who was to come: “The LORD [God] said to my Lord [the Messiah].” And what he said, in the rest of the psalm, establishes him as both universal king and perfect priest.

In days when family hierarchies meant that the son was always viewed as in some ways inferior to the father, Jesus drives home the point he is making: “If then David calls him [i.e., the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (22:45).

The implications are staggering. The Messiah from the line of David would, on the one hand, doubtless be David’s son, removed by a millennium from David but nevertheless in the throne succession. But on the other hand, he would be so great that even David must address him as “my Lord.” Any other conception of the Messiah is too small, too reductionistic. The Old Testament texts pointed in the right direction generations earlier. But there will always be people who prefer the simplifications of reductionism to the profundities of the revelation in the whole Bible.

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Genesis 22; Matthew 21; Nehemiah 11; Acts 21

Jan 21, 2015 | Don Carson

THE DRAMATIC POWER of the testing of Abraham by the offering of Isaac (Gen. 22) is well known. The very terseness of the account calls forth our wonder. When he tells his servant that we (22:5 — i.e., both Abraham and Isaac) will come back after worshiping on Mount Moriah, was Abraham speculating that God would raise his son back from the grave? Did he hope that God would intervene in some unforeseen way? What conceivable explanation could Abraham give his son when he bound him and laid him on the prepared altar?

A trifle earlier, Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question about the lamb is a masterstroke: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). There is no suggestion that Abraham foresaw the cross. Judging by the way he was prepared to go through with the sacrifice (22:10-11), it is not even clear that he expected that God would provide a literal animal. One might even guess that this was a pious answer for the boy until the dreadful truth could no longer be concealed. Yet in the framework of the story, Abraham spoke better than he knew: God did provide the lamb, a substitute for Isaac (22:13-14). In fact, like other biblical figures (e.g., Caiaphas in John 11:49-53), Abraham spoke much better than he knew: God would provide not only the animal that served as a substitute in this case, but the ultimate substitute, the Lamb of God, who alone could bear our sin and bring to pass all of God’s wonderful purposes for redemption and judgment (Rev. 4 – 5; 21:22).

“The LORD will provide” (22:14): that much Abraham clearly understood. One can only imagine how much the same lesson was embedded in young Isaac’s mind as well, and to his heirs beyond him. God himself connects this episode with the covenantal promise: Abraham’s faith here issues in such stellar obedience that he does not elevate even his own cherished son to the place where he might dethrone God. God reiterates the covenant: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (22:17-18). On this point, God swears by himself (22:16), not because otherwise he might lie, but because there is no one greater by whom to swear, and the oath itself would be a great stabilizing anchor to Abraham’s faith and to the faith of all who follow in his train (cf. Heb. 6:13-20).

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