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Leviticus 10; Psalms 11-12; Proverbs 25; 1 Thess. 4

Apr 07, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 10; Psalms 11-12; Proverbs 25; 1 Thessalonians 4

IN LEVITICUS 8 AARON AND HIS SONS, under a ritual prescribed by God, are ordained as priests. In Leviticus 9, they begin their ministry. Here in Leviticus 10, still within the seven days of their ordination rites, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, put coals in their censers and add incense, apparently thinking that they will add something to the ceremonies and rituals God laid down. But “fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (10:2). Before Aaron can protest, Moses pronounces an oracle from God: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’ Aaron remained silent” (10:3).

That is not all. Moses insists that Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, must not break the sacred cycle of ordination to participate in the public mourning for Nadab and Abihu. They are not to leave the tabernacle while “the LORD’s anointing oil” is on them (10:7). First cousins once removed will look after the bodies and discharge family obligations (10:4-5).

What are we to think? A cynic might say that this is elevating ritual above people. Isn’t God a bit insensitive when he cuts down two fine sons who are simply trying to jazz up the worship service a little?

I cannot claim to know all the answers. But consider:

(1) God has repeatedly said that everything connected with the service of the tabernacle must be done exactly according to the pattern provided on the mountain. He has already shown himself to be a God who brooks no rivals, and who expects to be obeyed. At issue is whether God is God.

(2) Throughout the Bible, the closer the people are to times and situations of revelation or revival, the more immediate the divine sanction against those who defy him. Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the ark and is killed; Ananias and Sapphira are killed because of their lies. In colder, more rebellious times, God seems to let the people go to extraordinary lengths of evil before reining them in. Yet the former periods bring greater blessing: more of the immediate presence of God, more disciplined zeal among the people.

(3) In context, Nadab and Abihu almost certainly had defiant, willful motives. For when Aaron makes a different adjustment in the ritual, with the best of motives, surprising flexibility is sanctioned (10:16-20).

(4) This firm lesson prepared the priests for the other major component in their ministry: “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses” (10:10-11, italics added).

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Leviticus 9; Psalm 10; Proverbs 24; 1 Thess. 3

Apr 06, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 9; Psalm 10; Proverbs 24; 1 Thessalonians 3

PSALM 10 CONTINUES THE THEME of the justice and judgment of God, now slanted away from the more immediate and personal issue of justice for David when he feels betrayed by his enemies and toward a more general treatment. Where is God when evil people triumph? “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1).

In Psalm 10:2-11, the wicked man is described in a composite picture. He arrogantly preys on weaker people (10:2). Far from showing any self-restraint, he boasts of his appetites “and reviles the Lord” (10:3). The sad fact of the matter is that “in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (10:4). Yet it is not difficult to find wicked people who are extraordinarily prosperous, even while they defy all the laws of God (10:5). The wicked man’s explosive arrogance seems to put him above lesser mortals, and he is touted in the papers as the one who gleefully pronounces to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble” (10:6). Nevertheless he curses his opponents, and spreads lies and malice with his tongue (10:8). In the worst cases he stoops to murder, whether directly as in gang warfare, mob violence, and terrorist attack, or indirectly through ruthless schemes that crush the helpless (10:9-10). And what does he think of God? “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees” (10:11).

The psalmist now addresses God directly (10:12-15): “Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless” (10:11). He reminds himself that God does see all the trouble and grief that befall this broken race; he does consider it; in his own time, he does take it in hand (10:14). That is why the victim and the orphan wisely commit themselves “to you” (10:14). So much evil is done in secret and will not be exposed by the ordinary judicial process. The psalmist therefore calls to God for justice: “Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out” (10:15, italics added).

The closing verses (10:16-18) find the psalmist reminding himself that God’s scale of timing is less urgent than ours: “The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land” (10:16). The scale that anticipates the dissolution of nations is not meant to dispel confidence that God also concerns himself with the minuscule scale of individual calamity. Rather, it is another way of saying that “the wheels of God’s justice grind exceeding slow, but they grind exceeding fine.”

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Leviticus 8; Psalm 9; Proverbs 23; 1 Thessalonians 2

Apr 05, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 8; Psalm 9; Proverbs 23; 1 Thessalonians 2

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT in democracy, the Founding Fathers adopted several stances, accepted by few today, that were deeply indebted to the Judeo-Christian heritage. This is not to say that the Founding Fathers were all Christians. Many weren’t; they were vague deists. But among these biblical assumptions was the belief that human beings are not naturally good and have potential for enormous evil.

For that reason, when the Fathers constructed their political system, they never appealed to “the wisdom of the American people” or similar slogans common today. Frankly, they were a little nervous about giving too much power to the masses. That is why there was no direct election of the president: there was an intervening “college.” Only (white) men with a stake in the country could vote. Even then, the branches of government were to be limited by a system of checks and balances, because for the Fathers, populist demagoguery was as frightening as absolute monarchy (as we saw in another connection on January 20).

Certainly one of the great advantages of almost any system of genuine democracy (genuine in this context presupposes a viable opposition, freedom of the press, and largely uncorrupted voting) is that it provides the masses with the power to turf out leaders who disillusion us. In that sense, democracy still works: government must be by the consent of the governed. Yet the primitive heritage has so dissipated today that politicians from all sides appeal to the wisdom of the people. Manipulated by the media, voting their pocketbooks, supporting sectional interests or monofocal issues, voters in America and other Western democracies do not show very great signs of transcendent wisdom. Worse, we labor under the delusion (indeed, we foster the delusion) that somehow things will be all right provided lots of people vote. Our system of government is our new Tower of Babel: it is supposed to make us impregnable. The Soviet empire totters; other nations crumble into the dust, Balkanized, destroyed by civil war, tribal genocide, grinding poverty, endemic corruption, Marxist or some other ideology. Not us. We belong to a democracy, “rule by the people.”

Not for a moment should we depreciate the relative good of living in a country with a relatively high level of income, a stable government, and some accountability. But such blessings do not guarantee righteousness. “The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice” (Ps. 9:7-8).

Hear the voice of Scripture: “Arise, O LORD, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O LORD; let the nations know they are but men” (Ps. 9:19-20).

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Leviticus 7; Psalms 7-8; Proverbs 22; 1 Thess. 1

Apr 04, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 7; Psalms 7-8; Proverbs 22; 1 Thessalonians 1

PSALM 7 IS THE SECOND OF FOURTEEN PSALMS that are linked in the title to some historical event (the first is Ps. 3). We cannot know the details, but clearly David felt terribly betrayed when he was falsely charged by someone close to him who should have known better. We shall focus on the last four verses (7:15-17):

He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment.
He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made.
The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.
I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness,
and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.

The colorful language makes the point tellingly. Here is someone carefully digging a pit to serve as a trap for someone else — but the digger falls in himself. The first line pictures someone “pregnant with evil” and “conceiv[ing] trouble,” but giving birth not to the trouble they intended to produce, but to (their own) disillusionment. The psalmist then expresses his conviction more straightforwardly in verse 16: “The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.”

David’s conviction is grounded neither in some impersonal force (“right wins out in the end”) nor in some Pollyanna-like optimism (“I’m sure it will turn out all right”), but in the righteousness of God: “I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High” (7:17). David is not blind to the injustices of the world, but he lives in a theistic universe where right will finally prevail because God is just.

If we cast our minds more broadly through the pages of Scripture (not to mention our own experience), it is easy to think of instances where the tricks and traps set by evil people recoiled on themselves before they could do any real damage. Haman hangs on the gallows he has prepared for Mordecai. But in many cases judgment falls on the perpetrator in this life, only after he or she has succeeded in doing enormous damage. David could not help but know this: he had been caught himself. He succeeded in sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah before he was caught, and had to face judgment himself. Judas Iscariot’s life ended horribly, but not before he had betrayed his Master. Ahab faced prophetic wrath, but only after his wicked queen Jezebel had managed to malign Naboth and had him killed in order to steal his vineyard.

But the ultimate sanction is at the last judgment, without which there is no final justice in this universe.

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Leviticus 6; Psalms 5-6; Proverbs 21; Colossians 4

Apr 03, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 6; Psalms 5-6; Proverbs 21; Colossians 4

AT THE BEGINNING OF LEVITICUS 6, the Lord lays down through Moses what must take place when someone in the covenant community has lied to a neighbor about something entrusted to him, has cheated him, has lied about recovered property so that he can keep it, or has committed perjury or a range of other sins. Two observations will clarify what these verses (6:1-7) contribute to the unfolding legal and moral structure.

(1) Readers of Leviticus, not least of the NIV, have by now become familiar with the distinction between unintentional sins (e.g., much of Lev. 4) and intentional sins. Some interpreters have argued that there are no sacrificial offerings to pay for intentional sins. Those who sin intentionally are to be excluded from the community.

Part of the problem is with our rendering of intentional and unintentional. Intentional commonly reflects a Hebrew expression meaning “with a high hand”; unintentional renders “not with a high hand.” That background is important as we think through Leviticus 6:1-7. The sins described here are all intentional in the modern sense: one cannot lie, cheat, or commit perjury without intending to do so. There are God-given steps to be followed: restitution where possible (following the principles laid out in Ex. 22), and prescribed confession and sacrifices.

Of course, some unintentional guilt is gained when one is unaware of committing an offense (as in 5:3); there is still guilt, for the action is prohibited, even though the offender may not have been personally aware of committing an offense. Other unintentional guilt does not refer to guilt accumulated unknowingly, but to guilt consciously accumulated even though the offense was not committed “with a high hand.” Many is the sin committed because one is attracted on the instant to it, or because one has been nurturing resentments, or because it seems less risky to lie than to tell the truth. This is still not the yet more appalling sin “with a high hand,” where the sinner looks at the sin directly, self-consciously reflects that this defies God, and openly and brazenly opts for the sin in order to defy God. As far as I can see, the old covenant does not prescribe atonement for such defiance, but judgment.

(2) Even the sins mentioned in this passage — all sins against some other human party — are treated first of all in relation to God: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor” (6:2, italics added). The guilt offering is brought to the priest; the offender must not only provide restitution to the offended human, but must seek the Lord’s forgiveness. Defiance of God is what makes wrongdoing sin, what makes sin odious.

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Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

Apr 02, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

IMAGINE A COMPLEX, WELL-ORDERED SOCIETY such that in every area of life there are actions that make a person dirty and further prescribed actions that make that person clean. When you get up in the morning, you wear clothes of certain kinds of fabric, but not others. There are clean foods and unclean foods. If a spot of mold appears on the wall of your house, there are procedures for treating it. Men must adopt a certain course after a wet dream, women in connection with their periods. Some unclean things must not even be touched. In addition there is a complex religious and sacrificial system each person is supposed to observe, and failure to observe it at any point brings its own uncleanness. And all of this fits into a still broader set of constraints that include what we normally call moral categories: how we speak, truth-telling, how we treat others, questions of property, sexual integrity, neighborly actions, judicial impartiality, and so forth. Understand, too, that in this society the rules have been laid down by God himself. They are not the results of some elected Congress or Parliament, easily overturned by a fickle or frustrated public eager for something else. To ignore or defy these rules is to defy the living God. What kinds of lessons would be learned in such a society?

Welcome to the world of Leviticus. This, too, is part of the heritage from Mount Sinai, part of the Mosaic Covenant. Here the people of God are to learn that God prescribes what is right and wrong, and that he has a right to do so; that holiness embraces all of life; that there is a distinction between the conduct of the people of God and the conduct of the surrounding pagans, not merely a difference in abstract beliefs. Here the Lord himself prescribes what sacrifices are necessary, along with confession of sin (Lev. 5:5), when a person falls into uncleanness; and even that the system itself is no final answer, since one is constantly falling under another taboo and returning to offer sacrifices one has offered before. One begins to wonder if there will ever be one final sacrifice for sins.

But that is down the road. Here in Leviticus 5, Christian readers delight to observe that while God trains up his covenant people in elementary religious thought, he provides means such that even the poorest in society may regain cleanness. The person who cannot afford a sacrificial lamb may bring a pair of doves or a pair of pigeons; the person who cannot afford these may bring a small amount of flour. The lessons continue; always there is hope and a way of escape from the punishment that rebellion attracts.

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Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

Apr 01, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

THE FIRST PSALM IS sometimes designated a wisdom psalm. In large part this designation springs from the fact that it offers two ways, and only two ways — the way of the righteous (Ps.1:1-3) and the way of the wicked (1:4-5), with a final summarizing contrast (1:6).

The first three verses, describing the righteous person, fall naturally into three steps. In verse 1, the righteous person is described negatively, in verse 2 positively, and in verse 3 metaphorically. The negative description in verse 1 establishes what the “blessed” man is not like. He does not “walk in the counsel of the wicked”; he does not “stand in the way of sinners”; he does not “sit in the seat of mockers.”

The wicked man, then, is grinding to a halt (walk/stand/sit). He begins by walking in the counsel of the wicked: he picks up the advice, perspectives, values, and worldview of the ungodly. If he does this long enough, he sinks to the next level: he “stands in the way of sinners.” This translation gives the wrong impression. To “stand in someone’s way” in English is to hinder them. One thinks of Robin Hood and Little John on the bridge: each stands in the other’s way, and one of them ends in the stream. But “to stand in someone’s way” in Hebrew means something like “to stand in his moccasins”: to do what he does, to adopt his lifestyle, his habits, his patterns of conduct. If he pursues this course long enough, he is likely to descend to the abyss and “sit in the seat of mockers.” He not only participates in much that is godless, but sneers at those who don’t. At this point, someone has said, a person receives his master’s in worthlessness and his doctorate in damnation. The psalmist insists, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers” (italics added). The righteous person is described negatively.

One might have expected the second verse to respond with contrasting parallelism: “Blessed, rather, is the man who walks in the counsel of the righteous, who stands in the way of the obedient, who sits in the seat of the grateful”– or something of that order. Instead, there is one positive criterion, and it is enough: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (1:2).

Where one delights in the Word of God, constantly meditating on it, there one learns good counsel, there one’s conduct is shaped by revelation, there one nurtures the grace of gratitude and praise. That is a sufficient criterion.

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Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

Mar 31, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

AFTER THE REMARKABLE EXCHANGE that reinstates Peter, Jesus quietly tells him that this discipleship will someday cost him his life: “When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). If the prediction itself has some ambiguity, by the time John records it here all ambiguities had disappeared: “Jesus said that to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (21:19). Tradition has it, probably rightly, that Peter was martyred in Rome, about the same time that Paul was executed, both under the Emperor Nero, in the first half of the 60’s.

Peter observes “the disciple whom Jesus loved” — none other than John the evangelist — following them as he and Jesus stroll along the beach (20:20). The designation “the disciple whom Jesus loved” should not be taken to mean that Jesus played a nasty game of arbitrary favorites. Small indications suggest that many people who followed Jesus felt specially loved by him. Thus when Lazarus lay seriously ill, his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent a message to Jesus saying, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (11:3). Even after the resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ followers have delighted in his love, his personal love for them. Thus Paul needs only to mention Jesus and the cross, and he may burst into spontaneous praise with an additional subordinate clause: “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

In this case, however, there is still something of the old Peter left. Doubtless he was glad to be reinstated, to be charged with feeding Jesus’ lambs and sheep (John 21:15-17). On the other hand, the prospect of an ignominious death was less appealing. So when Peter sees John, he asks, “Lord, what about him?” (21:21).

We are in no position to criticize Peter. Most of us are constantly comparing service records. Green is a not uncommon color among ministers of the Gospel. Someone else has it a little easier, so we can explain away his or her superior fruitfulness. Their kids turn out better, their church is a little more prosperous, their evangelism more effective. Alternatively, we achieve a certain amount of “success” and find ourselves looking over our shoulders at those coming behind, making snide remarks about those who will soon displace us. But after all, they’ve had more advantages than we, haven’t they?

It is all so pathetic, so self-focused, so sinful. Jesus tells Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (21:22). The diversity of gifts and graces is enormous; the only Master we must please is Jesus.

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Leviticus 1; John 20; Proverbs 17; Philippians 4

Mar 30, 2015 | Don Carson

Leviticus 1; John 20; Proverbs 17; Philippians 4

THOMAS GETS A LOT OF BAD PRESS — “Doubting Thomas,” we call him. Yet the reason he doubts that Jesus has risen from the dead may have more to do with the fact that he was not present when Jesus first appeared to the apostolic band (John 20:19-25). It is entirely obvious that any of the others would have fared any better if they had been absent on the critical day?

Certainly Thomas does not lack courage. When Jesus purposes to return from Galilee to Judah to raise Lazarus from the dead, and the disciples, understanding the political climate, recognize how dangerous such a course of action will be, it is Thomas who quietly encourages his colleagues: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). On occasion Thomas articulates the question the entire band is wanting to ask. Thus, when Jesus insists he is going away, and that by now they really do know the way, Thomas is not just speaking for himself when he quietly protests, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (14:5).

But here in John 20, if he is the one caught out by his absence, at the second appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the apostolic band Thomas also triggers some dialogue of stellar importance. When Jesus shows up, through locked doors, he specifically turns to Thomas and displays the scars of his wounds: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (20:27). Thomas asks no further evidence. He erupts with one of the great christological confessions of the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).

Jesus responds with an utterance that illuminates the nature of Christian witness today: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29). Jesus here casts his shadow forward down the meadows of history, envisaging the countless millions who will trust him without ever having seen him in the flesh, without ever having traced out the scars on his hands, feet, and side. Their faith is not inferior. Indeed, in the peculiar providence of God, the report of Thomas’s experience is one of the things the Spirit of God will use to bring them to faith. Jesus graciously provides the visual and tangible evidence to the one, so that the written report of Thomas’s faith and confession will spur to conversion those who have access only to text. Both Thomas and his successors believe in Jesus and have life in his name (20:30-31).

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Exodus 40; John 19; Proverbs 16; Philippians 3

Mar 29, 2015 | Don Carson

Exodus 40; John 19; Proverbs 16; Philippians 3

THE CLOSING LINES OF Exodus 40 tie together several important themes already introduced, and anticipate several others. Here the construction of the tabernacle is complete, along with the vestments and accoutrements for priestly service. “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle”(40:34).

This must be the pillar of cloud (during the day) and the pillar of fire (during the night) that had accompanied them from the beginning. It signaled the very presence of God, and gave them direction as to when and where to move. Now that cloud rests over the newly constructed tabernacle or Tent of Meeting, settling in it, filling it. Indeed, in this inaugural filling, the presence of the Lord is so intense that not even Moses, let alone any other, can enter (40:35). Moreover, from now on the cloud of glory rests upon the tabernacle when the people are to stay put, and rises and leads the people when they are to move on (40:36-38). Six observations:

(1) For the pillar of cloud and fire to rest on the tabernacle is to link this structure with the visible symbol of the ongoing, guiding, powerful presence of God.

(2) At one point, after the wretched rebellion that resulted in the construction of a golden calf, God had refused to go up in the midst of his covenant community. Moses interceded (Ex. 32-34). Here is the fruit of his prayers. The tabernacle is now built, the presence of God hovers over it in the symbolic form with which the people have become familiar, and all of this right in the midst of the twelve tribes.

(3) This focus on the tabernacle at the end of Exodus prepares the way for the opening chapters of Leviticus, viz. the specification of the sacrifices and offerings to be performed in connection with tabernacle service.

(4) That tabernacle anticipates the temple. In fact, it is a kind of mobile temple. In the days of Solomon, when the permanent structure is complete, the glory of God likewise descends there, establishing the link with the tabernacle and with the pillar of cloud and fire of the wilderness years.

(5) To anticipate the future: nothing more powerfully symbolizes the impending destruction of Jerusalem than the vision of the departure of the glory of God (Ezek. 10-11).

(6) Nothing more powerfully attests the unique revelatory and mediating role of Jesus Christ than the insistence that he is the true temple (John 2:19-22); and nothing more powerfully portrays the sheer glory of heaven than the assertion that there is no temple there, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (Rev. 21:22).

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