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Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

Jul 21, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

THE CONVERSION OF THE Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) marks an important extension of the Gospel across several barriers.

We need to understand who he was. He was “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). Candace was a family name that had become a title, quite like Caesar in Rome. In certain matriarchal governments, it was not uncommon for the highest officials, who would have had ready access to Candace, to be eunuchs (whether they were born that way or castrated), for the obvious protection of the queen.

This man was equivalent to U. S. Secretary of the Treasury or the like. But although he was an honored and powerful political figure at home, he would have faced limitations in Jerusalem. Since he had gone up to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27), we must assume that he had come across Judaism, had been attracted to it, and had gone up to Jerusalem for one of the feasts. But he could not have become a proper proselyte, since from the Jewish perspective he was mutilated. The Word of God had seized this man, and he had traveled for several weeks to see Jerusalem and its temple.

In the sheer providence of God, the passage the eunuch was reading, apparently out loud (Acts 8:30 –a not uncommon practice in those days) was Isaiah 53. He asks the obvious question (Acts 8:34): Who is the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah speaks? “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

Thus the Gospel reaches outward in the book of Acts. All the first converts were Jews, whether reared in the Promised Land or gathered from the dispersion. But the beginning of Acts 8 witnesses the conversion of Samaritans — a certain people of mixed race, only partly Jewish, joined to the mother church in Jerusalem by the hands of the apostles Peter and John. The next conversion is that of the eunuch — an African, not at all Jewish — sufficiently devoted to Judaism to take the pilgrimage to Jerusalem even though he could never be a full-fledged proselyte; a man steeped in the Jewish Scriptures even when he could not understand them.

Small wonder that the next major event in this book is the conversion of the man who would become the apostle to the Gentiles.

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Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

Jul 20, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

THE OLD TESTAMENT historical psalms offer plenty of examples in which writers review the shared history of the Israelites for some special theological or ethical purpose. Something similar occurs when 1 and 2 Chronicles retell 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, so as to focus on the southern kingdom and on certain theological perspectives. This form of address continues in certain New Testament sermons. Paul in Pisidian Antioch begins the historical recital with the Exodus, and aligns his storytelling priorities to show that Jesus really is the promised Messiah (Acts 13:16ff). Here in Acts 7, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, begins with Abraham.

What are the advantages of this approach? And what does Stephen, in particular, set out to prove?

One of the advantages is that historical recital gains the attention of the audience — and in this case the audience was overtly hostile and needed calming. Their personal identity was bound up with their national history; initially, at least, this recital was bound to be soothing, to establish common ground, to show that Stephen was within the pale.

A second advantage lay in the fact that the shift that Stephen was trying to establish in the minds of his Jewish audience was big enough that it could only be adopted within the framework of a changed world-view. In other words, not only Jesus’ identity, but even more, his death and resurrection, could not finally be accepted by thoughtful Jews unless they perceived that this is what Scripture teaches — and this point could not easily be established unless it was anchored in the very fabric of the Old Testament storyline. So the story had to be told and retold so as to highlight the most important points.

One of the points that Stephen makes as he retells the story emerges slowly at first, then faster and faster, and then explosively. That point is the repeated sin of the people. When Stephen begins the story, at first there is no mention of Israel’s evil. Then the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers is briefly mentioned (Acts 7:9). Corporate wickedness re-surfaces in Moses’ day (Acts 7:25-27, 35). Now the pace quickens. The people refused to obey Moses “and in their hearts turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). The golden calf episode is brought up, and likened to idolatry in the time of Amos (Acts 7:42-43). We skip ahead to David and Solomon, and the insistence that God cannot be domesticated by a building. Finally there is the explosive condemnation not only of past generations of Israelites who rejected God and his revelation, but also of all their contemporary Spirit-resisting descendants (Acts 7:51-53).

What bearing does this point have on the lessons we should draw from the biblical history?

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Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

Jul 19, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

FROM A READING OF JUDGES 1-2, it appears that after the initial Israelite victories, the pace of conquest varied considerably. In many cases tribes were responsible for bringing their own territories under control. With the passage of time, however, it seems to have become unstated policy, as the Israelites grew stronger, not to chase the Canaanites from the land, nor to exterminate them, but to subjugate them or even enslave them, to make them “drawers of water and hewers of wood,” to subject them to forced labor (Judg. 1:28).

The inevitable result is that a great deal of paganism remained in the land. Human nature being what it is, these false gods inevitably became a “snare” to the covenant community (Judg. 2:3). Angry with their refusal to break down the pagan altars, the angel of the Lord declares that if the people will not do what they are told, he will no longer provide them with the decisive help that would have enabled them to complete the task (had they been willing!). The people weep over the lost opportunity, but it is too late (Judg. 2:1-4). It is certainly not that they had never been warned.

This is the background to the rest of the book of Judges. Some of its main themes are then outlined for us in the rest of chapter 2. Much of the rest of the book is exemplification of the thinking laid out here.

The main thrust, shot through with tragedy, is the cyclical failure of the covenant community, and how God intervenes to rescue them again and again. Initially, the people remained faithful throughout Joshua’s lifetime and the lifetime of the elders who outlived him (Judg. 2:6). But by the time that an entirely new generation had grown up — one that had seen nothing of the wonders God had performed, whether at the Exodus, during the wilderness years, or at the time of the entrance into the Promised Land — fidelity to the Lord dwindled away. Syncretism and paganism abounded; the people forsook the God of their fathers and served the Baals, i.e., the various “lords” of the Canaanites (Judg. 2:10-12). The Lord responded in wrath; the people were subjected to raids, reversals, and military defeats at the hands of surrounding marauders. When the people cried to the Lord for help, he raised up a judge — a regional and often national leader — who freed the people from tyranny and led them in covenantal faithfulness. And then the cycle began again. And again. And again.

Here is a sober lesson. Even after times of spectacular revival, reformation, or covenantal renewal, the people of God are never more than a generation or two from infidelity, unbelief, massive idolatry, disobedience, and wrath. God help us.

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Judges 1; Acts 5; Jeremiah 14; Matthew 28

Jul 18, 2015 | Don Carson

Judges 1; Acts 5; Jeremiah 14; Matthew 28

THE ACCOUNT OF ANANIAS AND SAPPHIRA, whose names are recorded in the earliest Christian records because of their deceit (Acts 5:1-11), is disturbing on several grounds. Certainly the early church thought so (Acts 5:5, 11). Four observations focus the issues:

First, revival does not guarantee the absence of sin in a community. When many people are converted and genuinely transformed, when many are renewed and truly learn to hate sin, others find it more attractive to be thought holy than to be holy. Revival offers many temptations to hypocrisy that would be less potent when the temper of the age is secularistic or pagan.

Second, the issue is not so much the disposition of the money that Ananias and Sapphira obtained when they sold a piece of property as the lie they told. Apparently there were some members who were selling properties and donating all of the proceeds to the church to help in its varied ministries, not least the relief of the needs of brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, the man called Barnabas was exemplary in this respect (Acts 4:36-37), and serves as a foil to Ananias and Sapphira. But these two sold their property, kept some of the proceeds for themselves, and pretended that they were giving everything.

It was this claim to sanctity and self-denial, this pretense of generosity and piety, that was so offensive. Left unchecked, it might well multiply. It would certainly place into positions of honor people whose conduct did not deserve it. But worse, it was a blatant lie against the Holy Spirit — as if the Spirit of God could not know the truth, or would not care. In this sense it was a supremely presumptuous act, betraying a stance so removed from the God-centeredness of genuine faith that it was idolatrous.

Third, another element of the issue was conspiracy. It was not enough that Ananias pulled this wicked stunt himself. He acted “with his wife’s full knowledge” (Acts 5:2); indeed, her lying was not only passive but active (Acts 5:8), betraying a shared commitment to deceive believers and defy God.

Fourth, in times of genuine revival, judgment may be more immediate than in times of decay. When God walks away from the church and lets the multiplying sin take its course, that is the worst judgment of all; it will inevitably end in irretrievable disaster. But when God responds to sin with prompt severity, lessons are learned, and the church is spared a worse drift. In this case, great fear fell not only on the church but also on all who heard of these events (Acts 5:5, 11).

It is written: “He whose walk is upright fears the LORD; but he in whose ways are devious despises him” (Prov. 14:2).

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Joshua 24; Acts 4; Jeremiah 13; Matthew 27

Jul 17, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 24; Acts 4; Jeremiah 13; Matthew 27

WHEN PETER AND JOHN were released from their first whiff of persecution, they “went back to their own people” (Acts 4:23). The church gathered for prayer, using the words of Psalm 2 (Acts 4: 25-26). They understood that Old Testament text to be God’s speech (“You spoke”) by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of David (Acts 4:25).

At one level, Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm. Once again, however, the David-typology is strong. The kings of the earth and the rulers gathered against the Lord and against his Anointed One (the Messiah) — and climactically so when “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (Acts 4:27). These earliest of our brothers and sisters in Christ ask for three things (Acts 4:29-30); (a) that the Lord would consider the threats of their opponents; (b) that they themselves might be enabled to speak God’s word with boldness; and (c) that God would perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of Jesus (which may mean, in their expectation, “through the apostles”; cf. Acts 2:4; Acts 3:6ff.; Acts 5:12).

But before making their requests, these prayer warriors, after mentioning the wicked conspiracy of Herod, Pilate, and the rest, calmly address God in a confession of staggering importance: “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28).

Observe:

First, God’s sovereignty over the death of Christ does not mitigate the guilt of the human conspirators. On the other hand, the malice of their conspiracy has not caught God flat-footed, as if he had not foreseen the cross, much less planned it. The text plainly insists that God’s sovereignty is not mitigated by human actions, and human guilt is not exculpated by appeal to divine sovereignty. This duality is sometimes called compatibilism: God’s utter sovereignty and human moral responsibility are compatible. Complex issues are involved, but there can be no serious doubt that this stance is either taught or presupposed by the biblical writers (see meditation for February 17).

Second, in this case it is doubly necessary to see how the two points hang together. If Jesus died solely as a result of human conspiracy, and not by the design and purpose of God, it is difficult to see how his death can be the long-planned divine response to our desperate need. If God’s sovereignty over Jesus’ death means that the human perpetrators are thereby exonerated, should this not also be true wherever God is sovereign? And then where is the sin that needs to be paid for by Jesus’ death? The integrity of the Gospel hangs on that element of Christian theism called compatibilism.

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Joshua 23; Acts 3; Jeremiah 12; Matthew 26

Jul 16, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 23; Acts 3; Jeremiah 12; Matthew 26

ACTS 3 INCLUDES A BRIEF REPORT of a sermon preached impromptu. (Though like many impromptu sermons, doubtless it was made up of pieces Peter had used before!) There are many points of immense interest.

(1) Peter repeatedly ties the coming of Jesus the Messiah with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Acts 3:13), with Moses and the promise that God would eventually raise up a prophet like him (Acts 3:22; cf. Deut. 18:15-18; see also meditation for June 13), with the prophetic witness of the Old Testament (Acts 3:24), and even with God’s promise to Abraham that through his offspring all the peoples of the earth would be blessed (Acts 3:25; see meditations for January 14-15). At this point Peter did not have as broad an understanding of these points as he would later have, if we may judge by chapters 10-11. But that his understanding had got so far reflects his trainee period with the Lord Jesus.

(2) Peter does not for a moment let the crowd of onlookers off the hook (Acts 3:13-15). Many of his hearers were complicit in the demand to crucify Jesus; but, like an Old Testament prophet, Peter saw the people as a whole bound up in the decision of their leaders. The people may have “acted in ignorance” (Acts 3:17) — i.e., they did not say, in effect, “Here is the Messiah. Let us kill him.” — but kill him they did, and Peter reminds them of their guilt, not only as an unalterable fact of history, but also because it is guilt that Jesus came to deal with (Acts 3:19-20). Moreover, although the people are guilty, Peter understands that it was precisely through the evil execution of Jesus that “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer” (Acts 3:18). That is the supreme irony of all history.

(3) There is a string of characteristics that unite this sermon with the sermon in Acts 2 and some others in the book of Acts. These features include: the God of our fathers has sent his servant Jesus; you killed him — disowning the Holy and Righteous One, the author of life — but God raised him from the dead; we are witnesses of these things; by the death and resurrection of Jesus God fulfilled the promises he made through the prophets; repent therefore, and turn to God. There are variations on these themes, of course, but these return again and again.

(4) Although “many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43), the apostles themselves are in no doubt that they had neither the power nor the godliness to make a crippled beggar walk (Acts 3:12). Their self-effacement is a perpetual lesson. “It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing” (Acts 3:16).

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Joshua 22; Acts 2; Jeremiah 11; Matthew 25

Jul 15, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 22; Acts 2; Jeremiah 11; Matthew 25

ACTS 2 IS SOMETIMES CALLED the birthday of the church. This can be misleading. There is a sense in which the old covenant community can rightly be designated church (Acts 7:38 — “assembly” in NIV). Nevertheless there is a new departure that begins on this day, a departure bound up with the universal gift of the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of Scripture (Acts 2:17-18) and in consequence of Jesus’ exaltation “to the right hand of God”(2:33). The critical event that has brought this incalculable blessing about is the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ; this even was itself foreseen by earlier Scripture.

One of the things that is striking about Peter’s address, quite apart from its comprehensiveness, courage, directness, and passionate fire, is the way the apostle, even at this early stage of his post-resurrection public ministry, handles what we call the Old Testament Scriptures. His use of Scripture in this Pentecost sermon is too rich and variegated to unpack in detail. But observe:

(1) Once again there is a David-typology (Acts 2:25-28, citing Ps. 16:8-11). But here there is also a small sample of apostolic reasoning in this regard. Although it is possible to read Acts 2:27 (“you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) as David’s conviction that God will not, at that point, let him die, the language is so extravagant, and David’s typological role so common, that Peter insists the words point to something more: a greater than David will quite literally not be abandoned in the grave, and will not be permitted to experience decay. David, after all, was a prophet. Whether in this case, like Caiaphas (John 11:50-52), David spoke better than he knew, at least he knew that God had promised “on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne” (Acts 2:30).

(2) The prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:17-21; see Joel 2:28-32) is more straightforward, in that it is a case of verbal prediction and does not resort to typology. The obvious meaning is that Peter detects in the events of Pentecost the fulfillment of these words: the “last days” (Acts 2:17) have arrived. “Whether the sun turning to darkness and the moon turning to blood were both events bound up with the dark hours when Jesus was on the cross, or an instance of Hebrew nature symbolism, need not detain us here.) This Old Testament passage is one of a handful of texts that predict the coming of the Spirit, or the writing of God’s law on our hearts, but in any case covenant-wide personal transformation in the last days (e.g., Jer. 31:31 ff.; Ezek. 36:25-27).

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Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

Jul 14, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

BETWEEN JESUS’ ASCENSION AND Pentecost, the nascent church, about one hundred and twenty strong, met together and prayed. At one such meeting, Peter stood up and initiated the action that appointed Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).

(1) Peter’s use of Scripture (Acts 1:16, 20) is apparently what guides him to his conclusion that “it is necessary” (Acts 1:21) to choose one of the other men who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry as a replacement for the traitor Judas. At the surface level of Acts, the reasoning is straightforward. Psalm 69:25 says, “May [his] place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in [it]”; Peter applies this to Judas. Psalm 109:8 insists, “May another take his place of leadership”; this Peter takes as a divine warrant for securing a replacement.

In the context of Psalms 69 and 109, David is seeking vindication against enemies — once close friends — who had betrayed him. Peter’s use of these verses belongs to one of two primary patterns. Either: (a) Peter is indulging in indefensible proof-texting. The verses never did apply to Judas, and can be made to do so only by exegetical sleight-of-hand. Or: (b) Peter is already presupposing a fairly sophisticated David-typology. If this sense of betrayal and plea for vindicating justice play such an important role in the experience of great King David, how much more in great David’s greater Son?

Why should we flinch at such reasoning? During the previous forty days Jesus had often spoken with his disciples (Acts 1:3), explaining in some detail “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Certainly the David-typology crops up in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus. Why should we not accept that he taught it to his disciples?

(2) On the criteria raised here — the replacement apostle had to be not only a witness of the resurrected Jesus, but someone who had been with the disciples “the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21-22) — Paul could not have met the conditions. Paul’s apostleship was irregular, as he himself acknowledges (1 Cor. 15:8-9). We should not entertain nonsense about Peter and the church making a mistake here because they did not wait for the appointment of Paul.

(3) The choosing of one of two by lot (Acts 1:23-26) is not a prescription for local church governance procedures. There is no hint of a similar procedure from then on in the church’s life, as reported in the New Testament. This sounds more like the climax of an Old Testament procedure, with God himself selecting and authorizing the twelve men of the apostolic band.

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Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jer. 9; Matt. 23

Jul 13, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 18-19; Psalms 149-150; Jeremiah 9; Matthew 23

THIS (JOSH. 18-19) IS A GOOD TIME TO reflect on the many chapters of Joshua that have been devoted to the dividing up of the land.

(1) Focusing on the division of the land, these chapters implicitly focus on the land itself. After all, the land was an irreducible component of the promise to Abraham, of the Sinai covenant, of the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It is now distributed by God’s providential supervision of the “lot.”

(2) The inevitable conclusion is that God is faithful to his promises. That point is explicitly drawn for us a bare two chapters on: “So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Josh. 21:43-45).

(3) These chapters also explain how entrance into the Promised Land did not proceed in a wave of unbroken triumph. Earlier God had warned that he would not give the Israelites the whole thing at once. Now we are repeatedly told that this tribe or that could not dislodge certain Canaanites, and they continue there “to this day.” For instance, “Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah” (Josh. 15:63; cf. Judg. 1:21). In fact, Jerusalem was taken (Judg. 1:8), but not all the Jebusites were dislodged. Details of this sort help to explain how the tussle between fidelity and syncretism could occupy so much of Israel’s history.

(4) Some of the elements in these chapters bring earlier strands of the narrative to closure. For instance, Caleb surfaces again. He was Joshua’s colleague among the initial group of twelve spies; they were the only two who at Kadesh Barnea, at the first approach to the Promised Land, urged the people to enter it boldly and trust God. In consequence they are the only two of their generation who are still alive to witness the Promised Land for themselves. And now in Joshua 15, Caleb is still looking for new worlds to conquer and receives his inheritance. Similarly, chapters 20-21 detail the designation of the cities of refuge and of the towns set aside for the Levites — steps mandated by the Mosaic Code.

(5) There is trouble ahead. The ambiguities of the situation, and the memories of the final warnings of Moses, signal to the reader that these relative victories, good though they are, cannot possibly be God’s final or ultimate provision.

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Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

Jul 12, 2015 | Don Carson

Joshua 16-17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22

ALL OF THE FIVE CLOSING PSALMS begin with the single Hebrew word Hallelujah — “Praise the Lord.” This psalm (Ps. 148) is remarkable for its emphasis on the sheer range and comprehensiveness of beings and things in the universe that unite the whole creation in praise. The first six verses begin with angels, sweeping down through unconscious participants in the heavens; the next six verses — mirror-images of the first six — begin with the unconscious participants on the earth, and rise to human beings (Ps. 148:77-12). The last two verses (Ps. 148:13-14) draw the people in covenant with him. Some notes:

(1) There have always been people who attach their affections and worship to angels (e.g., Col. 2:18), even though angels are our fellow servants (Rev. 22:8-9). Others foolishly think that their destinies are controlled by the stars, even though stars are nothing more than God’s creation. Both angels and stars — the one sentiently, the other not — bear witness to God’s greatness; in that sense they join together in worship (Ps. 148:2-3).

(2) The phrase “highest heavens” is literally “heaven of heavens,” a way of expressing the superlative (like “holy of holies”). The expression “waters above the skies” is a Hebrew poetic way of referring to rain (148:4). Whether one thinks of “the heavens” as the sphere in which the rain condenses out of the atmosphere, or as the abode of God Almighty, there is nothing that has not been created: “he commanded and they were created” (Ps. 148:5). So there is nothing that does not bear witness to the Creator-God.

(3) The denizens of the earth’s oceans, the varied precipitation that waters the ground, the fury of unleashed storms, the majesty and beauty of mountains and hills, the spectacular diversity and color and beauty of earth’s flora and fauna, the scarcely imaginable array of the earth’s births — all attest, mutely but powerfully, to the goodness and greatness of God. As part of that creation, human beings, in all their diversity of their ranks and stations in life, join this universal chorus of praise (Ps. 148:11-12), not simply because he is bigger than we are, but because no matter how highly we envisage his glorious splendor, it is higher yet, higher than anything and everything in all creation (Ps. 148:13).

(4) This unimaginably great God has not only called out his own people, but has raised up for them a “horn” (a symbol for a king), the praise of all his saints (Ps. 148:14). Living this side of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection, we know who the ultimate King in the Davidic line really is. And so our praise joins that of the rest of the universe with peculiar intensity and gratitude.

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