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Today’s Reading

Devotional: Genesis 15

God’s time scale is so different from ours. Abram wants a son, and feels his time is running out; God envisages a race with countless millions of descendants. Abram feels his life is approaching its termination with nothing very much settled as to God’s purpose in calling him out of Ur of the Chaldeans; God sees the entire course of redemptive history.

What God does in Genesis 15 is promise Abraham that his offspring will constitute a vast number. At one level, God’s promise is enough: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abram’s faith is simple and profound: he believed God’s promises, taking God at his word. And that faith, in God’s eyes, was credited as righteousness. This does not mean that Abram earned brownie points for deploying such a righteous faith.  Rather, the idea is that what God demands of his image-bearers, what he has always demanded, is righteousness—but in this sinful race what he accepts, crediting it as righteousness, is faith, faith that acknowledges our dependence upon God and takes God at his word. This faith of Abram is what makes him the “father” of those who believe (Rom. 4; Gal.3).

Yet however genuine this faith, some of the details of God’s promise Abram has trouble imagining. God tells him of a time when his descendants will possess all the land around him, and Abram wavers and asks for a sign (Gen. 15:8). Graciously, God provides one: in a vision, Abram is enabled to see God entering into a covenant with him. Probably the pieces of the animals between which “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch” (Gen. 15:17) passes represent a way of saying, “May those who enter into this covenant similarly be torn apart if they break the terms of this covenant.” What a visionary act of kindness to anchor Abram’s faith is also an instance of God’s long-range plans, his vast frame of reference: he is establishing his covenant with Abram and his offspring, a covenant relation into which Christians enter today (Gal. 3:6–9).

There is one more strand in this chapter that depicts God’s long-term view of things. One reason why Abram cannot begin to take over the Promised Land immediately is that “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen 15:16). God’s sovereign timing so matches his moral sensibilities that by the time the children of Abraham are ready to take over the Promised Land, the inhabitants of that land will have so sunk in degradation that judgment must be meted out. That time, God says, is coming, but in this chapter it has not yet arrived.

Devotional: Nehemiah 4

The drama of Nehemiah 4 abounds with lessons and illustrations of various truths. But we must not forget that what to us is a dramatic narrative was to those experiencing it days of brutally hard work, high tension, genuine fear, insecurity, rising faith, dirt and grime. Nevertheless, some lessons transcend the ages:

(1) Among the hardest things to endure is derisory contempt. That is what Nehemiah and the Jews faced from Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest (Neh. 4:1–3). The Judeo-Christian heritage of Western nations was until recent decades so strong that many Christians were shielded from such scorn. No more. We had better get used to what our brothers and sisters in Christ in other lands and centuries handle better than we.

(2) Although God sometimes works through spectacular and supernatural means, he commonly works through ordinary people who take responsibility for themselves and seek to act faithfully even in difficult circumstances. So the Jews “prayed to [their] God and posted a guard day and night” (Neh. 4:9). They armed themselves and divided their number between fighters and builders, but were also exhorted to, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for . . . your homes” (Neh. 4:14). Jews living near the enemy heard of the plots to demolish the building project and reported it to Nehemiah, who took appropriate action—but God gets the credit for frustrating the plot (Neh. 4:15).

(3) Practical implications flow from this outlook. (a) It presupposes a God-centered outlook that avoids naturalism. If God is God, if he has graciously made himself known in the great moments of redemptive history and in visions and words faithfully transmitted by prophets he has raised up, why should we not also think of this God as operating in the so-called “natural” course of events? Otherwise we have retreated to some myopic vision in which God works only in the spectacular and the miraculous, but otherwise is absent or asleep or uncaring. The God described in the Bible is never so small or distant. (b) That is why God can be trusted. Nehemiah is not resorting to mere psychological puffery, nor to shameless religious rhetoric. His faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the ending of the exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem—just as today our faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the calling and transformation of the elect and the building and purifying of his church.

Genesis 15

God's Covenant with Abram

15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue1 childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son2 shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give3 this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

Footnotes

[1] 15:2 Or I shall die
[2] 15:4 Hebrew what will come out of your own loins
[3] 15:18 Or have given

(ESV)

Matthew 14

The Death of John the Baptist

14:1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife,1 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Jesus Walks on the Water

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way2 from the land,3 beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night4 he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind,5 he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus Heals the Sick in Gennesaret

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Footnotes

[1] 14:3 Some manuscripts his brother's wife
[2] 14:24 Greek many stadia, a stadion was about 607 feet or 185 meters
[3] 14:24 Some manuscripts was out on the sea
[4] 14:25 That is, between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.
[5] 14:30 Some manuscripts strong wind

(ESV)

Nehemiah 4

Opposition to the Work

4:1 1 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves?2 Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.

So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.

3 But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.

10 In Judah it was said,4 “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” 11 And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” 12 At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”5 13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”

The Work Resumes

15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. 16 From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, 17 who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. 18 And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. 19 And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. 20 In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

21 So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out. 22 I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day.” 23 So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.6

Footnotes

[1] 4:1 Ch 3:33 in Hebrew
[2] 4:2 Or Will they commit themselves to God?
[3] 4:7 Ch 4:1 in Hebrew
[4] 4:10 Hebrew Judah said
[5] 4:12 The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain
[6] 4:23 Or his weapon when drinking

(ESV)

Acts 14

Paul and Barnabas at Iconium

14:1 Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.1 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel.

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well,2 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

Paul Stoned at Lystra

19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Paul and Barnabas Return to Antioch in Syria

24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples.

Footnotes

[1] 14:2 Or brothers and sisters
[2] 14:9 Or be saved

(ESV)