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2 Chronicles 11-12; Revelation 2; Zephaniah 3; John 1

Dec 10, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 11-12; Revelation 2; Zephaniah 3; John 1

JOHN’S PROLOGUE (JOHN 1:1-18) is one of the richest quarries in the Bible for the mining of wonderful truths about Christ. Here there is space for only the most introductory reflections.

(1) In the first verse, the one who is eventually said to become flesh, the Lord Jesus himself, is called the “Word.” The label is not only intrinsically peculiar, but at first glance is especially odd because it is not taken up in the rest of the Gospel of John. But perhaps that is the first clue. If in this first verse John had used one of the titles ascribed to Christ throughout the book (son of God, Son of Man, King of Israel, Messiah, and so forth), that title would have been elevated to the place of first importance. Instead, John uses an expression that encompasses all of them. He recalls that in the Old Testament God’s “word” is regularly the means by which he discloses himself in creation, redemption, and revelation. “The word of the Lord” comes to prophets; by the word of the Lord the heavens were made; God sends forth his word and heals the people. John finds it wonderfully appropriate: in the eternal “Word” that becomes flesh, God discloses himself in creation, revelation, and redemption. Even the word Word is evocative. We might paraphrase, “In the beginning God disclosed himself, and that self-disclosure was with God, and that self-disclosure was God.”

(2) If God’s “Word” was with God even in the remotest beginning, that Word was God’s own fellow, and distinguishable from him. If God’s “Word” was God even in the remotest beginning, that Word was God’s own self, and identified with him. Here are rudimentary pieces of what comes to be called the doctrine of the Trinity. From the beginning, God has always been a complex unity.

(3) Verse 2 picks up the middle clause of verse 1, in preparation for verse 3. In other words, the fact that the Word was with God in the beginning makes it possible for him to be God’s agent in the creation of everything. Moreover, the insistence that God created absolutely everything by means of the Word’s agency drives the conclusion that neither God nor the Word is part of the creation; pantheism is ruled out, as well as any suggestion that the Word is a created being, an inferior god.

(4) In verse 14, John declares that the Word became flesh (i.e., a human being) and (literally) “tabernacled” among us. Readers of the Old Testament instantly see that this means that in some sense Jesus, for John, is a new tabernacle, a new temple (cf. John 2:13-25). Indeed, there are half a dozen allusions to Exodus 32-34 in John 1:14-18. Find them. What do they mean?

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2 Chronicles 10; Revelation 1; Zephaniah 2; Luke 24

Dec 09, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 10; Revelation 1; Zephaniah 2; Luke 24

THE RESURRECTED JESUS APPEARED to his disciples on several occasions. Here we reflect on Luke 24:36-49.

Notwithstanding what the Bible says about the transformed nature of the resurrection body (especially 1 Cor. 15), in this section Jesus goes out of his way to demonstrate that he is not a dematerialized body or a disembodied spirit. He can be touched; the scars of the nails can be seen (that is the significance of his words, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!” [Luke 24:39]); he speaks of himself as having “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39); he eats some food in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24:42-43). This is entirely consistent with other voices in New Testament witness. It is unimaginably glorious: death has been beaten, and the long-promised king, once crucified, is now alive.

But Jesus insists that at one level his disciples should not have been surprised. He had been predicting for some time that he would die and rise again, but they had no categories for accepting his words at face value. Now he goes further: what has happened to him has fulfilled what was written about him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44—i.e., in all three divisions of the Hebrew canon, which were often referred to in just this way). That Jesus has to explain this to them presupposes, of course, that as far as he is concerned they really have not properly understood the Scriptures up to this point. So now he opens their minds in order to overcome this deficiency (Luke 24:45). He does this by synopsizing what the Scriptures say—just as on the road to Emmaus he explained to the two disciples precisely the same thing. On that occasion he began with Moses and all the Prophets and explained “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

Clearly Jesus read the Old Testament in an integrated way, with himself at the center of it. From the New Testament records written by Jesus’ immediate disciples and heirs, we can gain a pretty comprehensive glimpse of his self-understanding in this regard. He saw himself not only as the rightful messianic king in the line of David, but also as the suffering servant who would be wounded for our transgressions. He knew he was not only the atoning sacrifice but also the priest who offered the sacrifice. He was not only the obedient Son who discharged the mission his Father assigned him, but also the eternal Word made flesh who disclosed the Father perfectly to a generation of rebellious image-bearers. And so much more. And all of these things we should see, too, and bow in solemn, joyful worship.

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2 Chronicles 9; Jude; Zephaniah 1; Luke 23

Dec 08, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 9; Jude; Zephaniah 1; Luke 23

I WANT TO COME AT ZEPHANIAH 1:12-13 rather obliquely.

There is more than one way to relegate God to the sidelines of history. Some do so by arguing that God acts intermittently. When good things happen, that’s God; when bad things happen, that’s the devil—and there is no sense in which God remains sovereign over the devil. Others argue that God’s providence arches over everything, but invariably in line with what takes place in the natural order. For instance, in the past most theistic evolutionists argued that God intervened at dramatic moments in the process of evolution. Nowadays, there is a rising number of theistic evolutionists who say that, at the level of the actual physical processes, their position is undifferentiable from that of the atheist who understands what took place exclusively in term of natural processes. The theistic evolutionists, of course, insist that God’s providence was operating throughout the process. But they say that if God had actually intervened we would be returning to some discredited “God-of-the-gaps” scenario. They can be quite vehemently opposed to those who cite the rising evidence for design in the created order, for that simple notion would radically transform naturalistic assumptions and change the mechanisms that naturalistic scientists are forced to espouse. But are they sure they want to go down this route? Would they apply the same reasoning to the resurrection of Jesus? Would they want to propose that all the forces that brought Jesus back from the dead with a resurrection body can be explained on purely “natural” terms? Or would they say that in this case God dramatically intervened, setting aside the structures of normal physical forces to introduce a stunning miracle? And if God did so in this case, why should it be so difficult to imagine that he did so in connection with the creation—especially when the evidence for design, evidence from the physical order, is multiplying? Transparently, there are many ways of relegating God to the periphery.

But perhaps the worst is simpler and far more damaging than either of the two ways I have mentioned so far. The two that I have mentioned involve a well-thought-out scheme, a worldview. But the worst is rarely systematic or intentional. It simply ignores God. It may formally espouse providence, but in practice it thinks through none of the implications of serving and obeying a God who is irrevocably in charge. It may happily confess the resurrection of Jesus, but expects no other interventions by God. It reads history, but learns nothing that is in line with holy Scripture.

Now meditate on Zephaniah 1:12-13.

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2 Chronicles 8; 3 John; Habakkuk 3; Luke 22

Dec 07, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 8; 3 John; Habakkuk 3; Luke 22

HABAKKUK’S FINAL PRAYER (HAB. 3) is in large measure a response to the Lord’s perspective in chapter 2. It is a wonderful model of how to respond to God’s revelation when it says things we may not like. Dominant themes include the following:

(1) Habakkuk continues to pray for revival. Who knows whether or not this is one of the instances when God will respond to fervent intercession? In the preceding chapter God does not absolutely rule out the possibility of such a visitation. So Habakkuk prays: “LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2).

(2) In highly poetic language, Habakkuk then recalls a number of instances in the past when God did in fact save his covenant people by thrashing their opponents. “In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations,” Habakkuk recalls (Hab. 3:12), clearly intimating, “So why not do it again?” After all, he adds, on those occasions, “You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one” (Hab. 3:13—note how “anointed one” here apparently refers to the entire people of God, not just the Davidic king).

(3) Yet Habakkuk has heard what God has said on this occasion. As much as it makes his heart pound and his legs shake (Hab. 3:16), he resolves to pursue the only wise course: “I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us” (Hab. 3:16). In other words, he will wait for what God has promised—the righteous judgment of God upon the oppressors, even if the people of God have to suffer judgment first.

(4) Yet the loveliest and most insightful part of Habakkuk’s prayer is reserved for the end. His ultimate confidence does not rest on the prospect of judgment on Babylon. At one level his ultimate confidence is utterly detached from political circumstances and from the material well-being of his own people. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,” he writes, “though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Hab. 3:17-18).

That kind of faith can live without knowing; it can triumph when there is no revival; it can rejoice in God even when the culture is in decline. “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (Hab. 3:19).

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2 Chronicles 7; 2 John; Habakkuk 2; Luke 21

Dec 06, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 7; 2 John; Habakkuk 2; Luke 21

GOD’S RESPONSE (HAB. 2) TO Habakkuk’s second complaint (see yesterday’s meditation) answers it in part and evades it in part. More precisely, it implicitly dismisses one part of Habakkuk’s question by putting all the weight on another part. Clearly God judges his answer to be so important that he wants it circulated (Hab. 2:2), so what starts off as private communication takes the first step toward becoming incorporated into the canon.

God describes the “typical” Babylonian (Hab. 2:4-5): puffed up, with corrupt desires, often intoxicated, arrogant, restless, greedy, violent, and oppressive. He is precisely the opposite of what God wants a human being, a divine image-bearer, to be: “the righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). There is a long-running dispute over whether the word for “faith” should properly be rendered “faithfulness,” not least because this line is quoted in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:37-38). Although there are strong voices on both sides, a good case can be made for preserving the ambiguity. Over against the person whose wretched conduct God lists in the surrounding lines, God certainly wants people to be “faithful.” On the other hand, the preceding two lines depict the wicked as “puffed up” and with desires “not upright”—just the opposite of a person with genuine “faith,” which in the Bible depends on God and therefore cannot be either puffed up (which presupposes independence from God) or corrupt.

Whatever the responsible way to take that line, the Babylonians themselves are so wicked, God says, that all of their erstwhile victims will one day rise up and taunt the oppressors with a long list of “woes” (Hab. 2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19)—dramatic curses pronounced on them because of their grievous sins. These woes should be pondered by any nation that hungers to act justly. The last one is bound up with idolatry: “Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” By contrast: “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 2:19-20). It is as if the wickedness of the Babylonians is traced back to their idolatry. The words are a powerful reminder that God reigns over all the nations, and he abhors the idolatry that drives people to pant after created things rather than the Creator who made them and to whom they owe everything (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.).

So God has not explained how he can use a more wicked nation to chasten a less wicked one. Rather, he has said that he knows more about Babylonian wickedness than Habakkuk does, that he keeps accounts, that justice will one day be meted out.

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2 Chronicles 6:12-42; 1 John 5; Habakkuk 1; Luke 20

Dec 05, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 6:12-42; 1 John 5; Habakkuk 1; Luke 20

THE PROPHECY OF HABAKKUK—or, more precisely, the “oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received”—is cast not as something he is to deliver to others, but as a response to his own complaint before the Lord. The fact that it was written down and preserved in the canon means that in God’s providence either Habakkuk or someone else thought it was so important others should read it. It should not remain a private communication (like the private revelations that Paul sometimes received, 2 Cor. 12:1-10).

The nature of Habakkuk’s protest is set out in Habakkuk 1. The setting is apparently about the time of the final Babylonian assault (Hab. 1:6). Initially Habakkuk’s complaint concerns the decline of his own people and culture (Hab. 1:2-5). He has cried to the Lord for help, and expects heaven-sent revival. “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Hab. 1:2). The rest of his complaint lists the symptoms of a culture in disintegration: violence, injustice, wrong, strife, conflict, and the Law of God paralyzed.

But God answers with words Habakkuk does not want to hear. Habakkuk wants revival; God promises judgment (Hab. 1:6-11). If Habakkuk is so concerned about the injustice, he should know that God is going to do something about it: he is going to punish it. God will do something astonishing: he will raise up the Babylonians, “that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own” (Hab. 1:6). They will come “bent on violence” and “gather prisoners like sand” (Hab. 1:9). God does not pretend that the Babylonians are fine folk. After describing the massive strength of their armed forces, he scathingly calls them “guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (Hab. 1:11). These guilty men, intoxicated by the ferocity of their own violence, are the people God is going to deploy to chasten his own covenant people—in response to Habakkuk’s prayer that God would do something about the injustice in the land.

God’s response does not satisfy Habakkuk. The second complaint (Hab. 1:12-2:1) goes to the heart of the issue. Granted that God is eternal and faithful to his covenant people; granted too that he is “too pure to look on evil” (Hab. 1:13) and therefore must punish his own covenant community, the burning question remains: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab. 1:13, italics added). For however wicked the Judahites are, the Babylonians are worse. How can God use the more wicked to punish the less wicked?

What other examples of this are there in history, sacred and profane?

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2 Chronicles 5:1-6:11; 1 John 4; Nahum 3; Luke 19

Dec 04, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 5:1-6:11; 1 John 4; Nahum 3; Luke 19

BY ITSELF, THE PARABLE OF THE TEN MINAS (Luke 19:11-27) is easy enough to understand. What makes it more challenging is the way it is bracketed—that is, how it is introduced and how it ends.

(1) The story itself depicts a nobleman who travels to a distant country to be appointed king. The picture would not be foreign: the Herods on occasion traveled to Rome to obtain or to secure their standing with Caesar. Before leaving, the nobleman entrusts ten minas, a considerable sum of money, to his servants, apparently one mina to each. On his return (and now king), he discovers that his servants have handled his money with various degrees of success. The parable does not recount each servant’s rate of return, but reports representative cases. One has earned ten minas, an increase of 1,000 percent; another, five minas, an increase of 500 percent. Each is rewarded extravagantly, but in proportion to the increase. One servant merely returns to his master the mina he has been given. His excuse is that he is afraid of the master, knowing him to be a hard man. The rest of the story plays out. Probably we contemporary readers need to be reminded that the servants were not employees who could quit if they wanted to or withhold their services under union rules. They were slaves who owed their master their best effort. Hence the punishment for the irresponsible slave.

(2) But the story ends with a lengthy saying: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me” (Luke 19:26-27). The last servant has nothing by way of increase; all he “has” is the gift entrusted to him for the benefit of another. The king’s servants are responsible to labor for their master’s profit, and if they do not, they show themselves to be rebellious servants, no true servants at all. They are scarcely better than the enemies who defy the master’s kingship altogether.

(3) All of this must be nestled into the framework of expectation created by the opening verse (Luke 19:11). Jesus tells this parable to respond to those who thought “that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” Not so, the parable insists: the master goes away to receive a kingdom; some of the people hate the notion; even his servants vary in their faithfulness and fruitfulness, and some prove to be false servants. Those who are truly devoted slaves of King Jesus will busy themselves trying to improve their Master’s assets, eagerly awaiting his return.

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2 Chronicles 3-4; 1 John 3; Nahum 2; Luke 18

Dec 03, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 3-4; 1 John 3; Nahum 2; Luke 18

TODAY I SHALL REFLECT ON Luke 18:31-43. These verses are divided into two sections.

The first section (Luke 18:31-34) constitutes a prediction of Christ’s passion. It reports one of several times when Jesus tried to warn his disciples what would happen when he went up to Jerusalem for the last time. Despite the explicitness of Jesus’ language, the “disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about” (Luke 18:34). From our perspective, this side of the cross, we might wonder how they could be so thick. What they suffered from was a narrow focus of vision equivalent to having blinders on. Their conception of Messiah was that he was triumphant. Certainly Jesus had the power. The kind of person who could heal the sick, raise the dead, still storms, and walk on water could certainly take on a few Roman legions; he could certainly turf out corrupt officials and impose justice on the land. Besides, couldn’t all of Jesus’ expressions be understood in some way other than the way Christians take them today? In the Old Testament (the disciples might have recalled) the title “Son of Man” is only rarely messianic: of whom, then, is Jesus speaking? Perhaps the handing over of this “Son of Man” to Gentiles is a temporary thing prior to his dramatic rescue in the final fight—that is, he will “rise again” (Luke 18:33).

In broader theological terms, the disciples had not come to terms with the fact that the promised king from the line of David would also be the suffering servant. Their expectations were bent; they could see only what they expected to see. On the broadest horizon, that is one of the effects of the corrosive, blinding power of sin: it so dulls our vision and disorients our perspective that it shuts off crucial parts of evidence so we cannot see the truth and the greatness and the glory of God’s revelation.

The second section deals with the healing of the blind man sitting by the side of the Jericho road (Luke 18:35-43). Unlike the disciples in the previous verse, who doubtless thought they understood something of what was said, even though they didn’t, this man knows he is blind. Others try to quiet him; he will not be silent, but calls all the more strenuously: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:39). Jesus heals him; the man sees. And that is always what is needed: for men and women to admit their blindness and cry to him who alone can give sight. Otherwise, no matter how many words are spoken, their meaning will be hidden.

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2 Chronicles 2; 1 John 2; Nahum 1; Luke 17

Dec 02, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 2; 1 John 2; Nahum 1; Luke 17

FROM THE TWO DESIGNATED PASSAGES, I shall reflect on two faces of judgment.

From Nahum 1, we learn that sometimes God’s promise of judgment on the triumphant perpetrators of evil can be an encouragement. That is a summary of the theme of this book. Nahum is called to pronounce judgment on Assyria and its capital Nineveh, but unlike Jonah he is not called to proclaim this message to the Assyrians, but to the covenant people of God. That is seen, for instance, in the way Nahum initially talks about Nineveh in the third person (Nahum 1:8). When Nineveh is directly addressed (e.g., Nahum 1:11), that is merely part of the rhetoric of the oracle.

At a guess, Nahum delivered these words from the Lord sometime after 722 B.C., when Assyria destroyed Samaria, the capital city of Israel, and transported many of its leading citizens. The ten northern tribes effectively ceased to exist as a nation. But the faithful believers among those left behind and among those carried off into exile, not to mention the watching Israelites in the southern kingdom of Judah, needed to know that God does not stop reigning, or holding people to account, just because he uses them to chasten his people (cf. Isa. 10:5ff.). “The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies” (Nahum 1:2). “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into darkness” (Nahum 1:7-8). Many, many times when believers have been crushed under wicked regimes, or when innocent nations have been pulverized by brutal and powerful nations, words like these have sustained the faithful: God is just, and will hold the violent oppressors accountable, regardless of their political stance, religious affiliation, race, economics, or public image.

From Luke 17 comes the memorable line, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32; cf. Gen. 19:26). The picture is of “the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30). Judgment will be so sudden that the person on the rooftop—where people could catch some fresh, cooling breeze in the evening—should not think of going downstairs to take something with them. They should run from rooftop to rooftop and get out before the judgment falls. The imagery, of course, depends on first-century Jerusalem architecture. But the words “Remember Lot’s wife,” and the verse that follows, combine to show that the real issue is hesitation as to where one’s heart belongs. Those who longingly look back to the City of Destruction and try to cling to its toys are destroyed with them. Press on, then; invest in heaven’s stock (Matt. 6:19-21); set your sights on the New Jerusalem.

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2 Chronicles 1; 1 John 1; Micah 7; Luke 16

Dec 01, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Chronicles 1; 1 John 1; Micah 7; Luke 16

THE ACCOUNT OF THE RICH MAN and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) stirs the imagination by its powerful reversal. The rich and powerful man ends up in hell; the poor man at his gate ends up by the side of Abraham. Some observations:

(1) The narrative does not make explicit the reason why Lazarus the beggar was received up into the presence of Abraham, or why the rich man was excluded from that blessedness and consigned to hell. But there are hints. Although the Bible is far from imagining that every poor person is automatically justified (read Proverbs) and every rich person automatically condemned (consider Solomon, Zacchaeus, and Philemon), nevertheless there is some kind of alignment. Elsewhere Jesus insists it is impossible to serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24). The narrative before us says that Lazarus lay ill and hungry outside the rich man’s gate, and was literally dying to receive scraps of food. The rich man provided nothing. He was therefore without compassion; he was contravening even the most elementary societal expectations of courtesy and hospitality; he would not even give alms. As for Lazarus, he belongs to a long tradition in Israel going back to the Wisdom Literature that often associates the poor and the despised with the contrite and the righteous. That is simply assumed here. The reversal follows. It would be shocking to those of Jesus’ hearers who were pursuing the almighty shekel.

(2) At least part of the description of the state after death must be symbolic (Is there a real chasm between Lazarus and the rich man? Can residents of the two domains converse back and forth at will?). Nevertheless some elements of this description have to be accepted at face value, or the entire account unravels. The rich man is in conscious torment (entirely in line with other passages of Scripture). Lazarus is in (literally) “Abraham’s bosom”—i.e., he is with Abraham, and wherever Abraham is, there must be peace and blessing. The fixed chasm ensures that no one may pass from one abode to the other—which rather discourages the view that some people may be converted after death.

(3) Abraham’s response to the rich man’s concern for his surviving brothers establishes two important points. First, they were without excuse because they had the Scriptures (“Moses and the Prophets,” Luke 16:29). We should not think that those who will not listen to what Scripture says will listen to anything else—so why resort to gimmickry? The assumption is that Scripture is the first recourse. Second, even the spectacularly miraculous is not more convincing than Scripture (Luke 16:31). Those who will not be convinced by Scripture “will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). And someone has.

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