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1 Chronicles 29; 2 Peter 3; Micah 6; Luke 15

Nov 30, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 29; 2 Peter 3; Micah 6; Luke 15

THERE IS IMPORTANT COMMON GROUND IN Micah 6 and Luke 15. Yet I shall approach it obliquely.

One of the slogans of the Reformation was simul justus et peccator, a Latin phrase meaning something like “simultaneously just[ified] and a sinner.” It was a way of getting at the legal nature of justification as expounded by Paul. On the ground of Christ’s death, God declares guilty sinners just—not because, from the act of justification itself, they are in their actions and thoughts truly just or righteous, but because they have been acquitted before the bar of God’s justice. Because Christ has paid their penalty, they are just in God’s eyes, even though, at the level of their very being, they are sinners still. Nevertheless, the Reformers never argued that justification stands by itself. Justification is part of salvation, but it is not all of it. The Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin and regeneration; the ultimate step is the final transformation of God’s people in body and spirit at the last day. These elements and more belong together, and all who are truly saved ultimately experience all of them. So while justification in and of itself leaves a person a sinner still, justification never operates all by itself. Genuine salvation not only forgives us but transforms us.

Micah understands this. He does not so much deal with the ground of Israel’s acceptance before God (which is finally tied to God’s grace, Deut. 9) as insist that, if the covenantal relationship with God is genuine, it will not be soaked in idolatry, syncretism, and injustice. So how shall I come before the Lord? Shall I sacrifice the prescribed yearling? (Micah 6:6). How about thousands of rams? Or how about sacrificing my own son: will that pay “for the sin of my soul” (Micah 6:7)? What the Lord requires is this: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Micah is not alone on this point, of course. Jesus preached something similar, quoting Hosea (Matt. 9:13). Paul insists that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). He does not mean that only the perennial goody-goody will make it, for he goes on to say that some of his readers once practiced astonishing evil. But if they have been truly saved, transformation must manifest itself. That is equally true in the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-27). He is received by the father’s grace. Yet in the complexity of the return, the son abandons his sin even as he casts himself on his father’s mercy. As critically important as simul justus et peccator is, it must never, never be used to justify the practice of sin.

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1 Chronicles 28; 2 Peter 2; Micah 5; Luke 14

Nov 29, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 28; 2 Peter 2; Micah 5; Luke 14

IF THE FORWARD-LOOKING VISION OF Micah 4 does not include any description of a coming Messiah, the opening verses of Micah 5 redress the balance. The chapter begins with a sad depiction of Jerusalem and her king (Micah 5:1). Probably the historical allusion is to the invasion of the Assyrians under Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Although in God’s providence Jerusalem held up, the other walled towns of Judah were breached, and King Hezekiah was humiliated and almost overthrown. Ideally, the king from David’s line was to quell rebellion and disorder “with a rod of iron” (Ps. 2); he was to promote justice by striking with the rod of his mouth (Isa. 11:4). Yet here “Israel’s ruler” is struck “on the cheek with a rod” (Micah 5:1).

But the dynasty survives. Without filling in the intermediate steps, Micah the prophet envisages another king from the Davidic line (Micah 5:2-4). He springs from Bethlehem Ephrathah, ancestral home of David, the birthplace of his dynasty. From this village, God says, “will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). This wording is not affirming the eternal preexistence of this messianic figure (though of course it is not denying it). Rather, the glorious prospect is grounded in the past, in the ancient Davidic dynasty. When this king takes up the scepter, he will “shepherd his flock,” not in the uncertain strength of Hezekiah or any other king who precedes him in the line, but “in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God” (Micah 5:4). And in due course “his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth,” and the secure peace pictured in the previous chapter will be ushered in (Micah 5:4-5).

So in the fullness of time, God arranged international affairs to ensure that Jesus was born not in Nazareth, the residence of Mary and Joseph, but in Bethlehem, their ancestral home (Luke 2). It was almost as if Almighty God was going a second mile: not only would it be said that Jesus “as to his human nature was a descendant of David” (Rom. 1:3) and thus an offshoot from Bethlehem, but that he was actually born there. Indeed, when the Magi arrived in Herod’s court to inquire as to where the promised King had been born, the chief priests and teachers of the Law quoted this passage in Micah 5 to settle the matter: he would be born in Bethlehem in Judea (Matt. 2:5-6). Though the village of Bethlehem was entirely unprepossessing (“small among the clans of Judah,” Micah 5:2), with such a son it could “by no means” be considered “least among the rulers of Judah” (Matt. 2:6).

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1 Chronicles 26-27; 2 Peter 1; Micah 4; Luke 13

Nov 28, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 26-27; 2 Peter 1; Micah 4; Luke 13

SEVERAL TIMES MICAH MOVES from a long section of denunciation and warning to a relatively short, positive vision of the future. Micah 4 includes one such vision (Micah 4:1-5), immediately followed by a description of how the daughter of Zion gets from here to there (Micah 4:6-13): she passes through severe testing and chastening, and emerges on the other side into the light of God’s blessing.

The opening verses depict a time when “the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it” (Micah 4:1). Many mountains in the ancient Near East were sites for the worship of some god or other. To say that “the mountain of the LORD’s temple”—i.e., Zion—is established as “chief” among them and “raised above the others” is to say that the God of Israel has now eclipsed all other gods. The result is that not only does Israel stream back to the site, but “peoples” do so as well. “Many nations” exhort one another, saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2).

Then the movement of the oracle swings around from the centripetal to the centrifugal. “The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2b). The result is that justice prevails among many peoples, and war sinks away, swamped by peace as people, transformed by the word of God, “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3). The vision concludes with the only thing that can ensure its fulfillment: “the LORD Almighty has spoken” (Micah 4:4). So now, in his own day, Micah insists that genuine believers not be seduced by other gods, who could not possibly effect this transformation. This is the time to be faithful to the one, true God of the covenant. “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever” (Micah 4:5).

The symbol-laden vision is cast in the categories of Micah’s day: the weapons of war, for example, become plowshares and pruning hooks, not tractors and combines. Though cast in terms of the supremacy of Mount Zion, there is no mention of an Israelite hegemony over the nations, nor of the Messiah or the sacrifice he would offer. Even the geography of the oracle looks a little different from the perspective of John 4:21-24. But in the light of the Gospel, the triumph of the new Jerusalem, which brings to an end death and war and all sin (Rev. 21:1-4), is that for which all Christians pray, the fulfillment of Micah’s vision.

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1 Chronicles 24-25; 1 Peter 5; Micah 3; Luke 12

Nov 27, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 24-25; 1 Peter 5; Micah 3; Luke 12

JESUS TELLS HIS “FRIENDS” not to be afraid “of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5). The Gospel demands that we examine not only our loves, but our fears. We are to love God above all others; so also are we to fear him above all others. The reason is the same in both cases: he is God. He deserves our passionate adoration; he is not to be trifled with. His untrammeled holiness evokes our awe; it also evokes our fear. We should love him now, and we will love him without reserve in the new heaven and the new earth; we should fear him, for he has both the power and the right to exclude us from the new heaven and the new earth.

People sometimes say, unthinkingly, that it is a great blessing that so-and-so has died, for he or she was in such great pain during the last days or weeks of life on this earth. But supposing the person was an unrepentant reprobate: is he or she better off now? Not according to this passage. Again, how many of our decisions in life are shaped in part by what people think or, more precisely, by what we fear they will think? In short, we are often afraid of people—if not afraid of brutal attack, then afraid of condescension, afraid of rejection, afraid of being marginalized, afraid of being laughed at. There is very little possibility of overcoming such fear by merely trying to stop fearing. We need to fear something else more, something that will make the fear of people not only wrong but silly. If we absorb the words of these two verses, and fear God above all, the problem will largely be resolved. That is one of the reasons why it is so important to know this God and to think much about him: you will never fear God if he rarely crosses the horizon of your thought.

Lest anyone should think for a moment that the Christian’s connection with Almighty God is characterized by nothing but fear, we must observe that even in this chapter Jesus tells his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock”—of people, or circumstances, or the future—“for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Although God is to be feared, the reason is not because he is the meanest dude of all. Far from it: his love and grace and holiness—all of his perfections—combine to provide the most glorious future possible for his own.

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1 Chronicles 23; 1 Peter 4; Micah 2; Luke 11

Nov 26, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 23; 1 Peter 4; Micah 2; Luke 11

WHEN THINGS GO RADICALLY WRONG in a culture, the problems often become intertwined. Two of the strands are twisted together in Micah 2:6-11. The passage begins and ends with a warning against false prophets, but in the middle of the oracle is Amos’s ongoing denunciation of the powerful people who are stripping bare the powerless (Micah 2:8-9).

Begin with the latter. They are so corrupt, Micah announces, that they act not like the people of the covenant, but like their enemies (Micah 2:8a). Women and children are despoiled by these brutes (Micah 2:9). Children cruelly lose their inheritance while these powerful people become richer—even though it is written, “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (Ex. 22:22-23).

With this background in God’s revelation, one might have thought that the prophets of the land would be calling the powerful to account. Instead, the powerful and the corrupt turn out to be the prophets’ patrons. These prophets still preach, but what they preach is that Micah must not preach (Micah 2:6). Micah’s response is blistering: “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the prophet for this people” (Micah 2:11).

We must see how this happens. It is terribly easy for the preacher to shape his message to fit in with the spirit of the age. What begins as a concern to be relevant and contemporary—both admirable goals—ends up with seduction and domestication. This is especially likely when the rich and the powerful are paying our bills. At every level it is easy to fool oneself into thinking that cowardice is prudence, that silence on the moral issues of the day is a small price to pay in order to have influence in the corridors of power. Get invited to the White House (or even denominational headquarters!), and you will never inveigh against its sins. Give a lecture at a prestigious academic organ, and be sure to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Become a bishop, and instead of being the next J. C. Ryle, you sell your silence. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. God will always have his Micah and his Amos. But it happens frequently enough that we ought to return often to God’s revelation, to make sure that our message is shaped by what he has said and is neither the fruit of smart-mouthed petulance nor the oily “appropriateness” of those who cleverly say only what people want to hear.

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1 Chronicles 22; 1 Peter 3; Micah 1; Luke 10

Nov 25, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 22; 1 Peter 3; Micah 1; Luke 10

THE OPENING LINES OF MICAH 1 show that this prophet served in the second half of the eighth century B.C. Initially, mighty Assyria was dormant, and the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah flourished. Israel expanded its territory under Jeroboam II. This book records the vision that Micah saw “concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (the two capital cities, Micah 1:1). The first oracle was clearly delivered before either capital had fallen. Later in the book Samaria has fallen (722 B.C.) and Jerusalem itself, in the time of King Hezekiah, is under threat. Although Judah was overrun by the Assyrians in 701, Jerusalem itself was miraculously spared. Micah, from Moresheth Gath (a farming village southwest of Jerusalem), is called to prophesy in Judah, much as Amos was called to prophesy in Israel.

Throughout much of Micah’s ministry, Judah was prosperous. The money was invested in land, with the result that a few rich and powerful operators bought up huge tracts, destroying the system of agricultural small holdings mandated by the covenant (Micah 2:2; Isa. 5:8 inveighs against the same corruption). But issues of justice and social responsibility were not high on anyone’s agenda. Coming as he did from the fertile lowlands, Micah doubtless saw firsthand how ordinary people were being crushed; he was providentially prepared to utter the prophetic word of God’s own indignation. He attacks the rising selfishness and the widespread abandonment of the standards of God’s law, as he depicts Judah on the brink of catastrophic judgment. Writing a century or so later, Jeremiah records a fascinating report of Micah’s ministry (Jer. 26:18-19); it is probably not too fanciful to conclude that Hezekiah’s initial and powerful reformation owed a great deal to Micah’s preaching.

Above all Micah is shocked at the perversion of true religion (Micah 2:6-9). Israel’s election has come to be equated with triumphalist theology (Micah 3:11); God himself has been reduced to a grandfatherly protector of a pampered people. Micah therefore warns the people of the implications of covenantal disloyalty (Micah 6:14-15). Already in chapter 1 he makes it clear that God must punish his people if they continue in their sin: “All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the house of Israel” (Micah 1:5). Where is the locus of such sin? In the capital cities themselves (Micah 1:5b). The odious corruption and faithlessness have worked down from the top.

These driving themes have two critical bearings on us. First, they demand that we become passionate about righteousness and covenantal faithfulness in our own day. Second, they set the stage for Micah’s vision of a promised redeemer (e.g., Micah 5:2).

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1 Chronicles 21; 1 Peter 2; Jonah 4; Luke 9

Nov 24, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 21; 1 Peter 2; Jonah 4; Luke 9

JONAH IS TERRIBLY UPSET (Jonah 4) because the judgments he has pronounced against Nineveh have not taken place. The people have repented, from king to pauper, and God has relented and shown mercy to the great city. “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” (Jonah 4:2). This is stronger than an idiomatic and caustic “I told you so.” The expression “what I said” is literally “my word”: Jonah pits his own word against “the word of the LORD” (Jonah 1:1) that he had been called to deliver. He is telling God, “See? I told you so. My word was right, and your word was at best ill thought out.” He explodes, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). This basic creedal confession is found in Exodus 34:6-7; Jonah cites it in the same form in which it is found in Joel 2:13 (which may be significant: Joel 2:14 is cited in Jonah 3:9). When the prophets want grace and mercy for themselves, they appeal to God’s character; when Jonah does not want grace and mercy for others, he portrays the same attributes of God as fatal weaknesses. He has forgotten Jonah 2:1-9, where he recognizes that only God’s mercy could have released him from the big fish. The ironies call to mind one of Jesus’ parables in which grace is gladly received but denied to another (Matt. 18:23-35). In Jonah 4:3, Jonah pretentiously strikes a pose: his words “take away my life” are culled from Elijah (1 Kings 19:4)—but instead of continuing “for I am no better than my ancestors” (a confession of personal weakness and failure), Jonah says “for it is better for me to die than to live”—which is nothing but whining self-pity.

There follows the incident of the “vine,” probably a ricinus plant, whose broad leaves provide some shelter. When it dies, Jonah repeats his whining desire to die (Jonah 4:8), and God repeats the question he raised earlier: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 9). In rough language Jonah insists he has every right to be angry. What’s the point of living in a world that pops up a ricinus and then cuts it down again, dead almost before it is alive? So God debunks Jonah’s thinking. Jonah shows more concern for the death of a plant than for the death of a city. Yet even here, his concern for the ricinus is not deep, but provoked by self-interest. He views the Ninevites the same way—with no thought for what is good for them, but out of self-interest. It is God, the gracious and merciful God, whose compassion extends to “that great city” (Jonah 4:11). Reflect on Matthew 23:37-39; 28:18-19.

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1 Chronicles 19-20; 1 Peter 1; Jonah 3; Luke 8

Nov 23, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 19-20; 1 Peter 1; Jonah 3; Luke 8

THE CALMING OF THE STORM (Luke 8:22-25) as reported in Luke’s gospel carries special weight:

(1) The substance of the account is straightforward, though almost obliquely it sheds light on the sheer exhaustion Jesus sometimes experienced in the course of his extensive ministry “from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1). Not only could he fall asleep in the boat, he could remain asleep even when the boat tossed and corkscrewed in a storm serious enough to frighten fishermen.

(2) The closing lines of this paragraph draw attention to its chief focus: who Jesus is. “Who is this?” the disciples ask. “He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him” (8:25). Indeed, the paragraph kicks off a series of miracles. In the following verses Jesus heals a demon-possessed man (8:26-39), raises a dead girl and heals a sick woman (8:40-56), provides the Twelve with similar authority (9:1-9), and then feeds the five thousand (9:10-17)—which is then an entirely appropriate place to pause and reflect again on who Jesus is (9:18ff.). The one who controls the natural elements and the powers of the spirit-world and who can even overturn death itself is not only the promised “Christ of God” (9:20) but is transfigured before three apostles (9:28-36), who see something of the glory that his incarnate form normally shielded.

(3) But one must also ponder the strange question Jesus asks: “Where is your faith?” (8:25). This must not be misunderstood. Jesus is not berating his followers for some ostensible failure to see the goodness of the world or the inevitability of a happy ending. Storms do kill people; cancer can take out a fifteen-year-old; accidents happen; good people die. To think otherwise is to display not faith but Pollyannish optimism. The faith the disciples should have had is faith in Jesus—not simply faith that he could or would help them out, but rich faith in him precisely because if he is the promised Messiah sent by Almighty God, it is ridiculous to think that an “accidental” storm could kill him and those with him. Their fears betray less than a firm, faithful grasp of who Jesus is. (On this point see also vol. 1, meditation for February 3.)

(4) Now the contribution of 8:22-25 to the larger context is clearer: The parable of the sower looks for hearers of the word who persevere and produce a crop (8:10-11, 15). The next lines tell the reader, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen” (8:18, italics added). Jesus’ real mother and brothers “are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (8:21, italics added). So now our text: genuine disciples display their faith when they so broadly recognize who Jesus is that they trust him in all circumstances.

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1 Chronicles 18; James 5; Jonah 2; Luke 7

Nov 22, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 18; James 5; Jonah 2; Luke 7

TWO STAGGERING THOUGHTS COME together in Luke 7:36-50:

(1) The first I have mentioned before in these two volumes, but it is worth mentioning again. Who has the right to forgive sins? If someone robbed you of your life’s savings or murdered your spouse, I would not have the right to forgive the perpetrator. On the human plane, the only one who can forgive is the injured party. From God’s perspective, of course, regardless of how many human beings are injured, the primary offense is against God himself (cf. Ps. 51:4). Thus God can forgive any sin, because he is always the injured party. On the human plane, the sinful woman in this narrative had not injured Jesus in any way. At that level, he did not have the right to forgive her. But the narrative turns on Jesus’ forgiveness of this woman (Luke 7:48)—and the other guests, a bit confused by this development, raise the question, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49). Who, indeed?

(2) The axiom Jesus develops in his interchange with Simon is puzzling. At one level the axiom is clear enough: the person who has been forgiven many things is likely to be more thankful to the benefactor than the person who has been forgiven little. As Jesus says, “[H]e who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). The axiom makes sense of the conduct of both the woman and the Pharisee: she is overcome with tears of sheer gratitude, while he is stuffy and supercilious.

But if this axiom is pressed too hard, would it not mean that those who have lived a relatively “good” life inevitably love God less than those who have been converted out of a life of abysmal degradation? One might then argue that there are some benefits to being degraded before conversion: one appreciates grace in proportion to the degree of depravity grace must overcome.

That misses the point. At the social level, of course, the woman’s sins are much worse than the Pharisee’s. But the gradations of sin that one makes at the social level are nothing compared with the awfulness of the rebellion in which each of us has indulged. Simon the Pharisee has not even got to the place where he perceives that he needs to be forgiven. Suppose instead that two people have both been converted, one from a socially despicable background and one from a disciplined and “righteous” background: what then? Both ought to pray that they may see the ugliness of their own sins, whether sins socially disapproved or those ugly sins (often condemned by Jesus) of arrogance and self-righteousness. For unless we are given grace to see the horror of our sin, it is quite certain that we shall never grasp the glory of grace, and we will love Jesus too little.

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1 Chronicles 17; James 4; Jonah 1; Luke 6

Nov 21, 2014 | Don Carson

1 Chronicles 17; James 4; Jonah 1; Luke 6

REGARDLESS OF WHEN THE BOOK OF Jonah was written, Jonah himself can be located with fair accuracy. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah son of Amittai was a prophet from Gath Hepher who predicted the military successes of King Jeroboam II (about 793 to 753 B.C.). If one were to play a game and ask what verbal link comes to mind when the word Jonah is uttered, probably most people would reply, “big fish” or “whale” or the like. Yet we should not forget that the big fish occupies textual interest for precisely three verses—three out of forty-eight. The comment of G. Campbell Morgan is still appropriate: “Men have looked so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.”

The greatness of God is highlighted by Jonah’s twin confessions (Jonah 1:9; 4:2). Here we reflect on the first: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (Jonah 1:9).

(1) From our perspective, as from Jonah’s, this confesses that God made everything, that he is the Sovereign Lord over the entire universe. Probably the pagan sailors did not understand quite so much. For them, the gods have various domains. If this Hebrew claims that the God from whom he is fleeing is the Creator of the sea (whatever else he made), for them the claim would gain credibility precisely because of the storm.

(2) But for Jonah (and for us), the claim has two other overtones. First: not only has God made the sea, but everything; and he is in charge of everything. So there is no escaping this God. Even if Jonah were to find a way to get to shore safely, this God can track him down anywhere. Jonah painfully recognizes that there is no fleeing from this God—if “the hound of heaven” is on your trail and resolves that you will not get away. That is why he invites death. Second: the sheer greatness of God is what makes sense of God’s determination to give the wicked city of Nineveh an opportunity to turn from its sin. If monotheism is true, if there is but one God, then in some sense this God must be God of all, not just the God of the covenant people. This Jonah could not stand. He could see that just over the horizon Assyria would become a formidable foe of his own people, the people of God—and here is God giving them ample opportunity to repent.

(3) From a canonical perspective, here once again is the missionary God—far more committed to reaching toward “outsiders” than his people are. Here too he prepares the ground, step by step, for the Great Commission that mandates believers to herald the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the whole world.

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