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1 Samuel 15; Romans 13; Jeremiah 52; Psalm 31

Aug 23, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 15; Romans 13; Jeremiah 52; Psalm 31

SAUL ALREADY HAS A CHECKERED RECORD. On the one hand, he courageously rescued the city of Jabesh from the Ammonites and displayed an admirable restraint in the early use of his royal power (1 Sam. 11). Nevertheless it was not long before he starts treating the Lord God as a talisman, and his word as the equivalent of a magical or astrological hint of what he should do, rather than something that is first of all to be reverenced and obeyed (1 Sam. 13). By chapter 14, only the intervention of his own men keeps him from killing his son Jonathan over a promise that should never have been made and should certainly not have been kept (compare the meditation for July 28). Here in 1 Samuel 15, several traits of character ensure that Saul will not head a dynasty. He will be replaced by another king.

(1) Despite explicit instructions from the Lord regarding the Amalekites, Saul and his army spare the best sheep and cattle, and even the Amalekite King Agag, perhaps as a kind of trophy. Worse, Saul then lies about this to Samuel—as if God could be deceived. The lie betrays the fact that by this time Saul is thinking without reference to an all-knowing God; he is thinking like a mere politician, like a pagan or a secularist.

(2) Samuel understands the heart of the problem to lie in Saul’s changed perceptions of himself (1 Sam. 15:17): at one time he was small in his own eyes, and could scarcely imagine being king. Now he is ready to lie to God’s prophet and never, never, truly repent.

(3) Saul changes his tactics, and insists that the reason he kept the best sheep and cattle was to offer a great sacrifice to the Lord. There is nothing like a little religious patter to pull the wool over some people’s eyes. But not Samuel’s. “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” he asks. “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:22–23). Such reminders need to be enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism.

(4) So Saul offers formal repentance—but makes the excuse that he was afraid of the people. He simply will not face his own responsibility—and Samuel sees this clearly (1 Sam. 15:24–26).

(5) Saul tries formal repentance once more; but once again he betrays his own heart when he shows that he finds it more important to be honored before the elders of Israel than by the God of Israel (1 Sam. 15:30–31). We are lost when human opinion means more to us than God’s.

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1 Samuel 14; Romans 12; Jeremiah 51; Psalm 30

Aug 22, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 14; Romans 12; Jeremiah 51; Psalm 30

AMONG THE MAJOR POINTS that Paul has been making in his letter to the Romans is the sheer gratuity of grace, the amazing measure of mercy that has won Jews and Gentiles alike. Alike we are guilty; alike we are justified, forgiven, renewed, owing to the measureless mercy of God.

In view of such mercy, Paul urges his readers “to offer [their] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). We are so familiar with this verse that its strangeness no longer strikes us. In the ancient world, a sacrifice must be living to begin with, of course, but what makes it a sacrifice is that it is put to death. But Paul wants us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, that is, as ongoing “sacrifices” that respond to God’s mercy by devoting ourselves, not least our bodies, to him. Such sacrifices are “holy and pleasing to him.” The idea is that in the light of the matchless mercy we have received, the least we will want to do is to be pleasing to him.

Such sacrifices constitute our “spiritual worship.” The adjective rendered “spiritual” embraces both “spiritual” and “reasonable” or perhaps “rational.” These are not sacrifices offered in a temple, begun with a bloodletting, continued with a burning of the body, and completed in selective eating of the meat. New covenant worship is no longer bound up with the temple and the ritual demands of the Sinai covenant. The way we live, in response to the mercy of God, lies at the heart of Christian worship.

If we want to know what this looks like, the second verse spells out the practicalities in principle, and the ensuing verses give them concrete form. To offer up our bodies in living sacrifice to God means conforming no longer to the pattern of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (12:2). In other words, what is at issue is not merely external behavior, while inwardly we remain in the grip of carefully masked hate, lust, deceit, envy, greed, fear, bitterness, and arrogance. What is at issue is the transformation of the way we think, bringing our minds in line with the ways and Word of God. That will produce all the change in behavior that is necessary and wise—and that change will be radical. By this fundamental transformation, we shall be enabled to test and approve in our own experience what God’s will is—and find it “good, pleasing and perfect” (12:2). In the light of Romans 8:9, doubtless the motivating power for this transformation is the Spirit of God. But that magnificent truth does not absolve us of resolve; it empowers it.

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1 Samuel 13; Romans 11; Jeremiah 50; Psalms 28–29

Aug 21, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 13; Romans 11; Jeremiah 50; Psalms 28–29

ROMANS 11 HAS BEEN UNDERSTOOD in mutually contradictory ways. There is not space here to list them, let alone evaluate them. I shall simply lay out the flow of Paul’s argument as I see it.

(1) Does Paul’s argument in Romans 9–10 mean that God has utterly abandoned “his people,” that is, the Israelites? Paul pens a hearty “No way!”—“By no means!” (Rom. 11:1). The first bit of counter-evidence (Rom. 11:1–6) is that Paul himself is a Jew, a Benjamite at that (one of the two tribes that did not break away from the Davidic dynasty after the death of Solomon). In other words, one cannot say that God has cast away the Israelites if Israelites are still being saved. Moreover, it never was the case that all Israelites demonstrated transforming grace. For instance, when Elijah, in a desperate depression, thought he was the only one left, the Lord informed him that he had reserved seven thousand loyal Israelites who had never succumbed to Baal worship (1 Kings 19:4, 10, 18; see also the October 16 meditation). So likewise in Paul’s time and in ours: God has preserved a “remnant” of Jews who have proved faithful to God’s ongoing self-disclosure. From God’s perspective, it is a remnant “chosen by grace,” and therefore not grounded in something as feeble as works (Rom. 11:5–6).

(2) But if the nation as a whole, in line with scriptural prophecies, stumbled so badly (Rom. 11:7–10), does this mean there is no hope for them, that they are “beyond recovery? Not at all!” (Rom. 11:11). For in the sweep of God’s redeeming purposes, the substantial hardening of the Jews has been the trigger that has spread the Gospel to the Gentiles—and “if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles,” and “if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,” then “how much greater riches will their fullness bring,” and “what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Rom. 11:12, 15). This sounds very much as if Paul envisages a major swing still future to his own day. In the providence of God, the “rejection” of much of Israel has meant much grace for the Gentiles; the “acceptance” of much of Israel will mean even more grace for the world. Paul envisages a major turning to Jesus on the part of his fellow Jews, a turning that will issue in still greater gospel outreach worldwide.

(3) Paul draws some practical lessons for his Gentile Christian readers, using an analogy of a tree with branches broken off and grafted on (Rom. 11:17–25). But the culminating high point of his argument is his acclamation of the unfathomable wisdom and knowledge of God in bringing about this spectacular result (Rom. 11:33–36).

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1 Samuel 12; Romans 10; Jeremiah 49; Psalms 26–27

Aug 20, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 12; Romans 10; Jeremiah 49; Psalms 26–27

HERE I WISH TO REFLECT on one small part of Romans 10.

As part of his insistence that Jews and Gentiles alike must be saved by faith or not at all, the apostle Paul reviews the fundamental Christian “word of faith”: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). This is then slightly expanded: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:10). The additional verse does not lay out salvation in two discrete steps: step one, believe in your heart and be justified; step two, confess with your mouth and be saved. This would almost imply that justification can take place apart from salvation, and that faith is an inadequate means that must be supplemented by confession. It would be closer to the apostle’s thought to say that the two lines are parallel—not because each says exactly the same thing as the other (they don’t), but because each throws light on the other, clarifying the other, expounding a little what the other means. Faith in the heart without confession with the mouth thus becomes unbelievable; conversely, confession with the mouth that is merely formal and not generated by faith in the heart is not what the apostle has in mind either. He propounds the faith that generates confession; this confession is borne along by faith. Out of this faith/confession comes justification/salvation—again, overlapping categories, such that in Paul you can’t have one without the other.

So Paul drives the point home: in this respect there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for the same Lord is Lord of all, and blesses all who call on him, as Scripture says: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13; Joel 2:32). That means that Christians need to send people with the good news, for otherwise how shall people call on him of whom they have not heard (Rom. 10:14–15)?

The point to observe is that the same Paul who insists so strongly in Romans 8 and 9 that God is unconditionally sovereign insists no less strongly in Romans 10 that people must believe in their hearts and confess gospel truth with their mouths if they are to be saved, and lays on the conscience of believers the imperative to bring this good news to those who have not heard. Any theology that attempts to diminish God’s sovereignty by appealing to human freedom is as profoundly un-Pauline as any theology that somehow diminishes human responsibility and accountability by appealing to some crude, divine fatalism.

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1 Samuel 11; Romans 9; Jeremiah 48; Psalm 25

Aug 19, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 11; Romans 9; Jeremiah 48; Psalm 25

ONE OF THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS that the first Christians had to answer, as they bore witness to Jesus the Messiah, went something like this: “If Jesus really is the promised Messiah, how come so many Jews reject the claim?” Inevitably, there were variations: e.g., “If you Christians are right, doesn’t this mean that God didn’t keep his promises to the Jews?” or: “Why do apostles like Paul spend so much time evangelizing Gentiles, as if they’ve walked away from their own group?”

Many complementary answers are provided in the pages of the New Testament to respond to these and similar questions. Here we note components of Paul’s answer (Rom. 9).

First, whatever the focus on Gentiles within Paul’s ministry, he has never written off those of his own race. Far from it: he could wish himself damned if by so doing he could save them (Rom. 9:3). It would be easy to dismiss such language as hyperbole grounded in a merely hypothetical possibility. But the fact that Paul can write in such terms discloses, not an apostle who is merely a cool and analytic expert in apologetics, but a man with passion and extraordinary love for his own people. The church today urgently needs evangelists with the same kind of heart.

Second, Paul insists that even if many Jews do not believe, it is not because God’s word has failed (Rom. 9:6). Far from it: it has never been the case that all of Abraham’s children would be included in the covenant. God insisted that the line would be through Isaac, not Ishmael or the children of Keturah (Rom. 9:7). To put the matter differently, only the “children of the promise” are regarded as Abraham’s offspring, not all the natural children (Rom. 9:8). Moreover, Paul had already reminded his readers of the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Rom. 4:16–17), not Jews only.

Third, the defense of these propositions takes a dramatic turn. God arranged a selection among the children of Abraham—and not only in Abraham’s generation but also with respect to the children of Isaac (Rom. 9:8–13)—“in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (Rom. 9:11–12). Nothing makes clearer the ultimacy of grace than the doctrine of election. God did not have to save any. If he saved one, it would be a great act of grace. Here he saves a vast number of guilty people, out of his grace alone, having compassion on whom he will (Rom. 9:15), as is his right (Rom. 9:16–24).

Fourth, Old Testament Scripture had foreseen that one day the people of God would not be restricted to the Jewish race (Rom. 9:25–26).

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1 Samuel 10; Romans 8; Jeremiah 47; Psalms 23–24

Aug 18, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 10; Romans 8; Jeremiah 47; Psalms 23–24

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR Christians to be “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37)? A considerable body of thought pictures a special group of illustrious Christians who “live above it all,” powerful in confronting temptation, victorious in their prayer lives, fruitful in their witness, mature and faithful in their relationships. And none of that is what the text says.

First, the “us” to whom the apostle refers includes all Christians. All Christians are the ones whom God has foreknown, “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,” called, justified, glorified (Rom. 8:29–30). The people referred to are not the elite of the elect; they are ordinary Christians, all genuine Christians.

Second, the actual evidence that they are “more than conquerors” is that they persevere regardless of all opposition. That opposition may take the form of horrible persecution, of the kind that Scripture describes (Rom. 8:35–38). It may be some other hardship, all the way to famine. The glories of life will not finally seduce them; the terrors of death will not finally sway them; neither the pressures of the present nor the frustrations of the future will destroy them (Rom. 8:38). Neither human powers nor anything else in all creation, not even all the powers of hell unleashed, can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

Third, as the last sentence already makes clear, that from which Christians cannot be finally separated is the “love of Christ” (Rom. 8:35) or the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:39). At one level, of course, that is simply saying that no power can stop Christians from being Christians. That is why we are “more than conquerors.” But that point could have been made a lot of different ways. To make it this way, with an emphasis on the love of Christ as that from which we cannot be separated, reminds us of the sheer glory and pleasure that is ours, both now and in eternity, to be in such a relationship. We are not simply acquitted; we are loved. We are loved not simply by a peer, but by God himself. Nor is this a reference to the general love that God has for his entire creation. What is at stake here is that special love that attaches to “all who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Fourth, the guarantee that we shall prevail and persevere, and prove to be “more than conquerors” in this sense, is nothing other than the sovereign purposes of God (Rom. 8:29–30), manifest in the death of his Son on our behalf (Rom. 8:31–35). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:32). No greater security is imaginable.

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1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

Aug 17, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 9; Romans 7; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 22

OCCASIONALLY SOMEONE COMES ALONG who shows exceptional promise from his or her youth, and then lives up to that promise. But that does not seem to be the common way of things. Who would have thought that a minor painter from Vienna could become the monstrous colossus the world knows as Adolf Hitler? Who would have thought that a failed haberdasher from Missouri, a chap with a high-school education, would succeed Roosevelt, drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sack General Douglas MacArthur, and order the racial integration of the armed forces?

Consider Saul (1 Sam. 9). He was a Benjamite, and thus from the little tribe reduced in numbers and prestige by the horrible events recorded in Judges 19–21 (see meditations for August 5–7). He was not even from a major clan within that tribe (1 Sam. 9:21). Physically he was a strapping young man, getting on with the farming chores his father assigned him, with no pretensions—so far as we know—of glory or power. Indeed, in the next chapter he has to be cajoled from his hiding place in the luggage to come out and accept the acclaim the people wanted to give him.

It is not yet the time to trace all the things that went wrong—some of them will be mentioned in later meditations. But people with even a cursory knowledge of Scripture know what a mixed character Saul turned out to be, and how tragic his end. What should we learn?

(1) If we ourselves are on an upward curve of great promise, we must resolve to persevere in the small marks of fidelity and humility. A good beginning does not guarantee a good end.

(2) If we are responsible for hiring people, whether pastors and other Christian leaders or executives for a corporation, although some of us prove more insightful and farsighted than others, all of us make mistakes—for the simple reason that, quite apart from the bad choices we make, a good choice can turn into a bad choice (and vice-versa) because people change.

(3) It follows that every organization, not least the local church, needs some sort of mechanism for godly removal of leaders who turn out to be evil or woefully inadequate. That wasn’t possible in ancient Israel, so far as the king went. It is not only possible but mandated so far as New Testament leadership is concerned.

(4) Only God knows the end from the beginning. After we have exercised our best judgment, nothing is more important than that we should cast ourselves on God, seeking to please him, trying to conform our judgments to what he has disclosed of himself in his Word, trusting absolutely in the only One who knows the end from the beginning.

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1 Samuel 7–8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20–21

Aug 16, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 7–8; Romans 6; Jeremiah 44; Psalms 20–21

WHY PEOPLE ASK FOR SOMETHING is at least as important as what they ask for.

This is true in many domains of life. I know an executive in a midsize corporation who successfully talked his bosses into setting up a new committee. The reason he gave was that it was needed to oversee some new development. What he did not tell his bosses was his real reason: he could in time use this committee to sidestep another established committee that was questioning some of his projects and holding them up. He saw the new committee as a managerial trick to avoid being controlled, and thus to shin up the ladder a little faster. What might have been construed as a shrewd device for peacefully circumventing an unnecessary roadblock in the company’s structure (had he explained what he was doing to the bosses) was in fact presented in quite different terms, because he could not honestly tell them what he was doing—he knew they thought the established committee was doing a good job. Hence the deceit.

We need not look so far. How many of our own requests—in the home, in church, at work, in our prayers—mask motives that are decidedly self-serving?

That was the problem with Israel’s request for a king (1 Sam. 8). The problem was not the request itself. After all, God would eventually give them the Davidic dynasty. Moses had anticipated the time when there would be a king (Deut. 17). The problem was the motive. They looked at their recent ups and downs with the local Canaanites and perceived few of their own faults, their own infidelities. They did not want to rely on the word of God mediated through prophets and judges and truly learn to obey that word. They figured that there would be political stability if only they could have a king. They wanted to be like the other nations (!), with a king to lead them in their military skirmishes (1 Sam. 8:19–20).

God not only understands their requests, but he perceives and evaluates their motives. In this instance he knows that the people are not simply loosening their ties to a prophet like Samuel, they are turning away from God himself (1 Sam. 8:7–8). The result is horrific: they get what they want, along with a desperate range of new evils they had not foreseen.

That is the fatal flaw in Machiavellian schemes, of course. They may win short-term advantages. But God is on his throne. Not only will the truth eventually come out, whether in this life or the next, but we may pay a horrible price, within our families and in our culture, in unforeseen correlatives, administered by a God who loves integrity of motive.

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1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

Aug 15, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 5-6; Romans 5; Jeremiah 43; Psalm 19

GOD IS NEVER AMUSED at being treated with contempt, nor by having his explicit instructions ignored or defied. For then he would not be God.

God is well able to defend himself. In 1 Samuel 5-6, the unfolding account can be as restrained as it is precisely because it is as obvious to the reader as it was to the Philistines that God himself is behind the tragic illnesses and deaths they were suffering. The surprises began with the capsizing of their fish god, Dagon. It soon spread to a plague of rats, an epidemic of tumors, multiplying deaths — and not only in the city of Ashdod, to which the ark of the covenant was first taken, but in other cities to which it was transported — Gath and Ekron. Panic ensued.

But at the end of the day, all the phenomena the Philistines were experiencing could have been natural. That’s not what they thought, of course; but still, it was difficult to be sure. So the Philistine priests concoct a test so much against nature that should the test succeed, the people will be convinced that what they are suffering comes from the hand of “Israel’s god” (1 Sam. 6:5, 7-9). The cows are separated from their calves and draw along the cart to Beth Shemesh, on the Israelite side: God himself plays along with their superstitions and their fears.

While the Israelites rejoice at the return of the ark of the covenant, “God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD” (1 Sam. 6:19). There is no reason to think this happened instantaneously. If one had peeked into it and been struck down immediately, others would have been pretty quickly discouraged from doing so. There is no hint that a blinding and consuming light swept out of the opened box and melted the flesh off people, like some sort of ancient Harrison Ford film. Rather, seventy men from Beth Shemesh looked into the ark (which of course was strictly forbidden under pain of death), and doubtless saw what was there: the tablets of stone (apparently the pot of old manna and Aaron’s rod that budded had disappeared, perhaps removed by the Philistines). Then the deaths started, all premature, by whatever means — and the only commonality was that they were occurring among men who had looked into the ark. “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God?” the people ask (1 Sam. 6:220) — not intending to learn the ways of holiness, but to get rid of the ark — precisely the same pattern as in the pagan cities.

God will not be treated with contempt, nor forever permit his covenant people to ignore his words.

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1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

Aug 14, 2015 | Don Carson

1 Samuel 4; Romans 4; Jeremiah 42; Psalm 18

WHEN PEOPLE KNOW LITTLE about the God who has actually disclosed himself, it is terribly easy for them to sink into some perverted view of this God, until the image held of him has very little to do with the reality.

One can understand the Philistines’ ignorance (1 Sam. 4). In their polytheistic world, full of idols providing concrete representations of their gods, the arrival of the ark of the covenant in the Israelite camp is understood to be the arrival of the Israelite god (1 Sam. 4:6-7). But this god, even if he proved so powerful that he could at one point take on the Egyptians, is merely one more god, finite, limited, local. So the Philistines, having to choose between buckling under and courageous defiance, opt for the latter, and win. Implicit in their win are an assumption and a result: the assumption is that God is no longer laying on the hearts of the Canaanites the mortal dread of the Israelites that had accompanied the early Israelite victories (and this spells judgment for the Israelites); the result is that the Philistines will now have an even more diminished view of God. Knowing the God of the Bible, we can be certain that this is a situation that will not last long; God will take action to defend his own glory.

The Israelites’ ignorance of God is wholly without excuse, but is of a piece with the horrible declension toward the end of the period of the judges. They are getting trounced by the Philistines. Their theological reasoning is so bad that they think they can reverse the fortunes of war by bringing the ark of the covenant into the military camp like an oversized good-luck charm. The writer hints at the sheer preposterousness of the notion; they bring “the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim” (1 Sam. 4:4). Sadly, Eli’s sons, the priests Hophni and Phinehas, are complicit in these arrangements. Is God’s favor so easily manipulated? Does he care as much about the location of a box as he does about the conduct and (in)fidelity of his image-bearers and covenant community? What kind of pared-down and domesticated image of God did the leaders of Israel hold at this juncture that they should utter such nonsense?

Yesterday I received in the mail a letter from one of America’s premier television preachers, inviting me to send money and offering me in return a Christmas tree ornament of an “angel” with a trumpet, to remind me that God had commanded the angel looking after me to blow a trumpet to celebrate me. What kind of pared-down and domesticated image of God do such leaders hold that they should utter such nonsense?

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