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Genesis 43; Mark 13; Job 9; Romans 13

Feb 10, 2015 | Don Carson

Genesis 43; Mark 13; Job 9; Romans 13

CHRISTIANS HAVE OFTEN DISAGREED over the precise interpretation of Mark 13. But whatever disagreements prevail, we cannot fail to note the stunning contrast between the perspectives of the disciples when they look around the temple complex and the perspectives of Jesus himself.

The disciples are impressed by the “massive stones” and by the “magnificent buildings” (13:1). What draws their attention is the architecture, the product of human creativity and ingenuity. But Jesus thinks on another plane. He evaluates the patterns of evil in this world, the false religious pretensions, the persecution of his disciples, the judgment that will fall. As for the stones and the buildings, he foresees judgment: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (13:2). A mere forty years elapse before this prediction is literally fulfilled.

This passage is reminiscent of another. In Acts 17:16ff., Paul finds himself in Athens. What is striking is his reaction to the city. Luke does not say that Paul was impressed by the spectacular architecture, by the history of sheer learning, by the literature that its citizens had produced, or by the glory of her heritage. Far from it. Paul looked around this venerable old city and was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16).

In neither case, then – neither in Jesus’ estimate of Jerusalem, nor in Paul’s estimate of Athens – was the analysis superficial. In both cases, the evaluation looked at things from God’s perspective. Those who are impressed by mighty buildings and spectacular human accomplishments could profitably think through the account of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11). Doubtless there were some then who were impressed by the edifice. But God, looking at the human heart and the reasons for the building, saw it as one more evidence of insufferable hubris.

In much the same way, we too are called to understand and evaluate our culture from God’s perspective. Because human beings are made in the image of God, there is much that we can do that is worthy and admirable. Theologically speaking, this is the product of “common grace.” But it is possible to be far too impressed by wealth, power, architecture, fame, learning, physical prowess, and technology, with the result that we do not think through the moral and spiritual dimensions of the world around us. We may see the glory, and overlook the shame; we may detect human accomplishments, and neglect the undergirding idolatry; in short, we may be impressed by all that impresses God’s fallen image-bearers, but fail to assess these realities in the light of the cross and in the light of eternity. We would do far better to follow the examples of Jesus and Paul.

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Genesis 42; Mark 12; Job 8; Romans 12

Feb 09, 2015 | Don Carson

THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN Jesus and some of his opponents in Mark 12:13-17 is full of interest. Mark says that Jesus’ interlocutors set out “to catch him in his words” (12:13). Doubtless that is why they begin with some pretty condescending flattery about how principled a teacher he is, utterly unwilling to be swayed by popular opinion. It is all a setup. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” they ask. “Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (12:14-15).

They thought they had him. If he answered “No,” then he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities, who certainly were not going to allow a popular religious preacher in a volatile country like this one go around advocating nonpayment of taxes. Jesus might even be executed for treason. But if he answered “Yes,” then he would lose the confidence of the people and therefore diminish his popularity. Many ordinary Jews not only felt the ordinary human resentment of taxes, but raised theological objections. How could conscientious Jews pay in coins that had the image of the emperor on them, especially coins that ascribed titles of deity to him? Besides, if Jews were really righteous, would not God come down and deliver his people again, this time from the Roman superpower? Does not principled fidelity to God demand nonpayment of taxes?

Whatever answer Jesus gave, he would be a loser. But he refuses to yield. Instead, he asks for a coin, asks whose image is on it, and argues that it is right to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Jesus thereby neatly escapes their snare, and his interlocutors are amazed.

But there are layers of implications here. Under a strict theocracy, Jesus’ words would be incoherent: the rule of God is mediated by the king, so that their domains are not so easily separable. Moreover, the old covenant structure was, on paper, tightly bound to theocratic rule. Yet here is Jesus announcing that a distinction must be made between Caesar’s claims and the claims of the living God.

Of course, this does not mean that Caesar’s domain is entirely independent of God’s domain, nor that God does not remain in providential control. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is announcing a fundamental change in the administration of the covenant community. The locus of the community is no longer a theocratic kingdom; it is now an assembly of churches from around the world, living under many “kings” and “Caesars,” and offering worship to none of them. And that is why many Christians around the world trace the history of the non-establishment of a particular religion to this utterance of the Lord Jesus himself.

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Genesis 41; Mark 11; Job 7; Romans 11

Feb 08, 2015 | Don Carson

THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN Jesus and some of his opponents, reported in Mark 11:27-33, is one of the strangest in the four Gospels. Jesus ducks their crucial question by asking one of his own, one that they cannot answer for political reasons. Why doesn’t Jesus respond in a straightforward manner? Doesn’t this sound a little like brinkmanship, or, worse, a petty jockeying for power and one-upmanship?

At one level, the question of the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders was entirely legitimate. By what authority does Jesus clear the temple courts, accept the accolades of countless thousands as he is ushered into Jerusalem on a donkey, and preach with robust confidence? His is not the authority of the rabbinic schools, nor of those who hold high ecclesiastical and political office. So what kind of authority is it?

How might Jesus have responded? If he said he was simply doing these things on his own, he would sound presumptuous and arrogant. He could not name an adequate earthly authority. If he insisted that everything he said and did were the words and deeds of God, they could have had him up on a blasphemy charge. It is not obvious what true answer he might have given them that would have simultaneously satisfied them and preserved his own safety.

So Jesus tells them, in effect, that he will answer their question if they will answer one of his: “John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!” (11:30). His interlocutors weigh their possible answers on the basis of political expediency. If they say, “From heaven,” they reflect, he will condemn them for not becoming disciples of John. Worse, they cannot fail to see that this is also a setup for the answer to their question. For after all, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus. If they acknowledge that John’s ministry is anchored in heaven, and John pointed to Jesus, then Jesus has answered their question; his ministry, too, must have heaven’s sanction behind it. But if they say, “From men,” they will lose face with the people who cherished John. So they say nothing, and forfeit their right to hear an answer from Jesus (11:31).

A pair of pastoral implications flow from this exchange. The first is that some people cannot penetrate to Jesus’ true identity and ministry, even when they ask questions that seem to be penetrating, because in reality their minds are made up, and all they are really looking for is ammunition to destroy him. The second is that sometimes a wise answer is an indirect one that avoids traps while exposing the two-faced perversity of the interlocutor. While Christians should normally be forthright, we should never be naive.

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Genesis 40; Mark 10; Job 6; Romans 10

Feb 07, 2015 | Don Carson

TRUSTING GOD’S PROVIDENCE is not to be confused with succumbing to fatalism. It is not a resigned sigh of Que sera, sera – “What will be, will be.” This Joseph understood (Gen. 40).

The account of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker does not tell us which of the two, if either, was actually guilty of something; it only tells us which of the two Pharaoh decided was guilty. Even then, we are not told the nature of the crime. The focus, rather, is on their respective dreams, and the fact that only Joseph, of those in prison, is able to interpret their dreams. The interpretations are so dramatic, and so precisely fulfilled, that their accuracy cannot be questioned.

Joseph himself is under no illusion as to the source of his powers. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” he asks (40:8). Even before Pharaoh, where he might have been expected to slant his explanations just a little so as to enhance his own reputation, Joseph will later insist even more emphatically that he cannot himself interpret dreams; God alone can do it (41:16, 25).

Yet despite this unswerving loyalty to God, despite this candid confession for his own limitations, despite the sheer tenacity and integrity of his conduct under unjust suffering, Joseph does not confuse God’s providence with fatalism. The point is demonstrated in this chapter in two ways.

First, Joseph is quite prepared to tell his predicament to the cupbearer (the servant who will be released in three days and restored to the court) in the hope that he might be released (40:14-15). Joseph’s faith in God does not mean that he becomes entirely passive. He takes open action to effect improvement in his circumstances, provided that action is stamped with integrity.

Second, when he briefly describes the circumstances that brought him into prison, Joseph does not hide the sheer evil that was done. He insists he “was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15). The point was important, for most slaves became such because of economic circumstances. For example, when people fell into bankruptcy, they sold themselves into slavery. But that was not what had happened to Joseph, and he wanted Pharaoh to know it. He was a victim. Further, even during his life as a slave in Egypt he did “nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” – which of course means he was incarcerated unjustly. Thus Joseph does not confuse God’s providential rule with God’s moral approbation.

Fatalism and pantheism have no easy way of distinguishing what is from what ought to be. Robust biblical theism encourages us to trust the goodness of the sovereign, providential God, while confronting and opposing the evil that takes place in this fallen world.

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Genesis 39; Mark 9; Job 5; Romans 9

Feb 06, 2015 | Don Carson

IT IS ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE to read Genesis 39 as a lesson in moral courage, a case study of a God-fearing man who rightly perceives that an attractive temptation is in reality an invitation to sin against God (39:9), and who therefore cares more for his purity than his prospects.

Nevertheless, Genesis 39 must also be read in several broader dimensions, each with important lessons.

First, this chapter begins and ends very much the same way. This literary “inclusion” signals that the themes in the opening and the closing control the entire chapter. At the beginning, Joseph is sold into the service of Potiphar. God is so very much with him that in due course he becomes the head slave of this substantial household. We must not think this took place overnight; the chronology suggests eight or ten years elapsed. During this time Joseph would have had to learn the language and work his way up from the bottom. But all of this was tied to the blessing of God on Joseph’s life, and Joseph’s consequent integrity. At the end of the chapter, Joseph has been thrown into prison on a false charge, but even here God is with him and grants him favor in the eyes of the warden, and in due course becomes a prisoner-trustee. Thus the chapter as a whole demonstrates that sometimes God chooses to bless us and make us people of integrity in the midst of abominable circumstances, rather than change our circumstances.

Second, Genesis 39 serves as a foil to Genesis 38. Judah is a free and prosperous man, but when he is bereaved of his wife he ends up sleeping with his daughter-in-law. He deploys a double standard and shames himself and his family. (The fact that initially he wants Tamar executed for a sin he himself has also committed shows that he is less interested in punishing the guilty as a matter of principle than in punishing those who are caught.) Joseph is a slave, yet under the blessing of God retains his sexual purity and his integrity. Which one is happier in the eyes of the world? Which one is happier in the light of eternity?

Third, Genesis 39 is part of the march toward Joseph’s elevation to leadership in Egypt. By the wretched means described in Genesis 37, 39 – 40, Joseph eventually becomes “prime minister” of Egypt and saves many from starvation – including his own extended family, and therefore the messianic line. But Joseph could not know how all of that would work out as he was going through his misery. The most he knew were the stories passed down from Abraham, and his own youthful dreams (Gen. 37). But Joseph walks by faith and not by sight.

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Genesis 38; Mark 8; Job 4; Romans 8

Feb 05, 2015 | Don Carson

UNDER QUESTIONING, the disciples confess who Jesus is (Mark 8:27-30). Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which has a Hebrew background. This confession triggers a flood of fresh revelation from the Lord Jesus (8:31-38). Now he teaches that the Son of Man “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). As Mark points out, Jesus “spoke plainly about this” (8:32). Apparently earlier comment on the subject was far more veiled.

Living as we do on this side of the cross, it is easy for us to be a bit condescending about Peter’s reaction and rebuke of the Master (8:32). From Peter’s perspective, Jesus simply had to be wrong on this subject. After all, Messiahs don’t get killed: they win. And how could a God-anointed, miracle-working Messiah like Jesus lose? Peter was wrong, of course, profoundly wrong. For even the disciples had not yet grasped that Jesus the Messiah was simultaneously conquering King and Suffering Servant.

But there was more to come. Not only did Jesus insist that he himself was going to suffer and die and rise again, but he also insisted that each of his followers “must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). To a first-century ear, such language was shocking. “To take up your cross” did not mean putting up with a toothache, job loss, or personal disability. Crucifixion was universally viewed as the most barbaric of Roman forms of execution, scarcely to be mentioned in polite company. The condemned criminal “picked up his cross,” i.e., picked up the cross-member and carried it to the place of execution. If it was your lot to pick up your cross, there was no hope for you. There was only an ignominious and excruciating death.

Yet that is the language Jesus uses. For what all of his disciples must learn is that to be a follower of Jesus entails a painful renunciation of self-interest and a wholehearted turn to Jesus’ interests. Yet Jesus’ blunt language is not an invitation to spiritual masochism, but to life and bounty. For it is an infallible rule of the kingdom that self-focus issues in death, while “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:35). Only for a few will this commitment entail loss of physical life; for all of us it means death to self, discipleship to Jesus. And that includes a glad confession of Jesus, and principled refusal to be ashamed of Jesus and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation (8:38).

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Genesis 37; Mark 7; Job 3; Romans 7

Feb 04, 2015 | Don Carson

MANY PROTESTANTS ARE suspicious of “traditions.” In popular polemic, Protestants have often portrayed Roman Catholics as embracing the Bible plus traditions, while we ourselves simply hold to the Bible. There are several matters that need clarification before we can hear aright what Mark 7 says about traditions.

The first is a historical observation. There is very good evidence that until the Reformation of Roman Catholic Church had not yet formulated the clear-cut distinction that prevailed after the Reformation. Even when the Catholic Church was propounding fairly innovative doctrine, it tried hard to tie that doctrine to Scripture in some way, perhaps through a series of inferences. But confronted by the Reformation’s sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), the Catholic Church argued for a view of revelation that insisted that truth was given as a deposit to the church itself, and part of this was the deposit found in holy Scripture and part lay in other traditions that the church guarded and passed on. In this kind of formulation, then, tradition is set over against Scripture as something additional to it.

That brings us to the second observation, one that touches on the text of the New Testament. Here, one can find the word tradition or traditions used in either a positive or a negative way. The word tradition simply refers to what is handed on. If what is handed on is apostolic teaching, then traditions are a very good thing (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2); if what is handed on conflicts with what God says, then traditions are unhelpful and dangerous (as here in Mark 7).

This distinction between different kinds of tradition is not the same as one that we commonly draw today. We distinguish traditions that are intrinsically neutral but nevertheless helpful in building families or communities – family traditions, or interesting cultural or ecclesiastical traditions – and those that are repressive, restrictive, or stifling. In short, we make distinctions on the basis of the social effect of traditions, not on the basis of whether or not they are true. But in the New Testament, traditions are praised or criticized not on the basis of their social function but in the light of their conformity to or departure from the Word of God. Here in Mark 7:1-13, the traditions that Jesus condemns are those that allow people to sidestep what the Scripture clearly says.

In the third place, we must recognize that confessing evangelicals who nominally eschew tradition sometimes embrace traditions that effectively domesticate the Word of God. These may be traditional interpretations of Scripture, or traditional ecclesiastical practices, or traditional forms of conduct that are “allowed” in our circles but that are a long way from holy Scripture. In every case, fidelity to Christ mandates reformation by the Word of God.

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Genesis 35-36; Mark 6; Job 2; Romans 6

Feb 03, 2015 | Don Carson

IN MARK’S ACCOUNT of the feeding of the five thousand and of Jesus’ subsequent walk on the water (Mark 6), one finds a small aside that stirs up profitable reflection. As soon as Jesus climbed into the boat in the midst of the raging storm, the wind died down. The disciples, Mark comments, “were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52).

The first observation is the most obvious: the astonishment of the disciples betrays the dismal fact that they have reflected very little on the spectacular miracle Jesus performed just a few hours earlier. On the face of it, the person who can so control nature as to be able to take a few scraps of food and feed thousands of people can doubtless handle nature well enough to subdue a storm. Yet lest we become too smug in our condemnation of the disciples, we ought to reflect on how easily we forget the Lord’s gracious dealings in our own lives, and are frankly (and shamefully) surprised when he intervenes once again.

The second observation lies a little deeper. If Jesus truly is the promised Messiah, if he enjoys the powers he has already displayed, can any responsible disciple think that he is losing control? Can any responsible member of the Twelve imagine that this sort of Messiah could call disciples to himself, and then lose them all in a boating accident? This is not to suggest that accidents cannot happen to followers of Jesus today. Of course they can – this is a fallen world, and Jesus’ followers are not exempt from all of the tragic and vicious entanglements of its fallenness. But even we must learn in difficult and frightening circumstances to trust God’s wise providence. Here the disciples must surely learn something more – their own peculiar service as the inner core of disciples is so bound up with the ministry of Jesus that it is unthinkable that they could be “accidentally” killed.

And third, one cannot help but reflect on Mark’s conclusion, “their hearts were hardened.” This does not mean they were stupid. Nor does it mean that while their minds were all right, their affections were twisted, as if heart refers to the center of affections alone. In the symbolism of biblical anthropology, heart refers to the seat of human personality, not too far removed from what we mean by mind (although that is perhaps too restrictively cerebral). Their entire orientation was still too restricted, too focused on the immediacy of their fears, too limited by their inability to penetrate to the full mystery of who Jesus is and why he came.

This side of the cross and resurrection, we have still less excuse than they.

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Genesis 34; Mark 5; Job 1; Romans 5

Feb 02, 2015 | Don Carson

REVENGE MOVIES AND REVENGE BOOKS are so endemic to popular culture that we rarely think about the ambiguous, corrosive nature of sin. There are only good guys and bad guys. But in the real world, it is far from uncommon for sin to corrupt not only those who do evil but also those who respond to it with self-righteous indignation. The only persons not blamed in this horrible account of rape and pillage (Gen. 34) are the victims – Dinah herself, of course, and the Shechemites who, though unconnected with the guilt of Hamor’s son or the corruption of Hamor, are either slaughtered or enslaved.

Certainly Shechem son of Hamor is guilty. In the light of his rape of Dinah, his efforts to pay the bridal price and to secure the agreement of the other males to be circumcised appear less like noble atonement than determined, willful selfishness, a kind of ongoing rape by other means. The reasoning of Hamor and his son, both in approaching Jacob’s family and in approaching their own people, is motivated by self-interest and characterized by half-truths. They neither acknowledge wrongdoing nor speak candidly, and they try to sway their own people by stirring up greed.

The “grief and fury” of Dinah’s brothers (34:7) may be understandable, but their subsequent actions are indefensible. With extraordinary duplicity, they use the central religious rite of their faith as a means to incapacitate the men of the village (the word city refers to a community of any size), then slaughter them and take their wives, children, and wealth as plunder. Does any of this honor Dinah? Does any of it please God?

Even Jacob’s role is at best ambiguous. His initial silence (34:5) may have been nothing more than political expedience, but it sounds neither noble nor principled. His final conclusion (34:30) is doubtless an accurate assessment of the political dangers, but offers neither justice nor an alternative.

What does this chapter contribute to the book of Genesis, or, for that matter, to the canon?

Many things. For a start, the chapter reminds us of a recurrent pattern. Just because God has once again graciously intervened and helped his people in a crisis (as he does in Gen. 32-33) does not mean there is no longer any moral danger of drift toward corruption. Further, once again it is clear that the promised line is not chosen because of its intrinsic superiority; implicitly, this chapter argues for the primacy of grace. Apparently the crisis at Shechem is what brings the family back to Bethel (Gen 35:1, 5), which brings closure to Jacob’s movements and, more importantly, reminds the reader that “the house of God” is more important than all merely human habitation.

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Genesis 33; Mark 4; Esther 9-10; Romans 4

Feb 01, 2015 | Don Carson

THE SO-CALLED PARABLE OF THE SOWER (Mark 4:1-20) might better be called the parable of the soils, for the variable that gives the parable life and depth is the variation in the land onto which the seed is thrown.

Because Jesus provides the interpretation of his own story, its primary emphases should not be in doubt. The seed is the “word,” i.e., the word of God, which here is equivalent to the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom. Like a farmer scattering seed by hand in the ancient world, this word is scattered widely. Inevitably, some of the seed falls on ground that for one reason or another is inhospitable: perhaps it is the hard-packed dirt of the path, or perhaps birds come and eat the seed before it settles into the plowed ground and germinates, or perhaps it grows in the shadow of thornbushes that squeeze the life out of it, or perhaps it germinates in shallow soil with limestone bedrock just beneath the surface, such that the roots cannot go down very far to absorb the necessary moisture. The parallels with the way people hear the word are obvious. Some are hard and repel any entry of the word; others are soon distracted by the playthings Satan quickly casts up; others find that worries and wealth – the terrible Ws – squeeze out all concern for spiritual matters; still others hear the word with joy and seem to be the most promising of the crop, but never sink the deep roots necessary to sustain life. But thank God for the soil that produces fruit, sometimes even abundant fruit.

So much is clear enough. But two other features of this parable deserve reflection.

The first is that this parable, like many others, adjusts the commonly held perspective that when the Messiah came there would be a climactic and decisive break: the guilty and the dirty would all be condemned, and the righteous and the clean would enjoy a transforming rule. That is what the final kingdom would be like. But Jesus pictures the dawning of the kingdom a little differently. In the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32), for example, the kingdom is like a tree that starts from small beginnings and grows into something substantial; here is growth, not apocalyptic climax. So also the parable of the sower: for the time being, the word is going to be scattered widely, and people will respond to it in different ways, with widely divergent yields.

The second is that not all of those who show initial signs of kingdom life actually take root and bear fruit. That truth deserves meditation and calls for self-examination.

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