St. John Lutheran Church-Drake
Sabbath Day's Journey
Sabbath Day's Journey
what is a sabbath day's journey?
What is a Sabbath day's journey? First of all, it is a Jewish expression. We measure distances in meters or yards. The Jews had a certain distance that they could walk on Saturday before it would be considered work. So their synagogues that they went to on Saturday could not be very far away. The word appears only in Acts 1:12 and indicates a distance of about three-quarters of a mile.
With that in mind, I think it is important to remember the origins of Christianity. Just because we have an Old Testament, it does not mean that we call it the 'Outdated Testament'. Much of the Old Testament has a literary structure that we are not aware of because of our modern emphasis on chapter and verse divisions. Within many of these blogs, I try to get the reader to see a bigger picture, a larger perspective that often includes the Old Testament and the environment that was present when the New Testament was seeing the Light of the day.
Second, a Sabbath day's journey is intentionally short. These 'journeys' with a text, almost always one of the three readings for that Sunday, are deliberately brief discussions. This blog was never designed to be a comprehensive look at any text. Sometimes a specific word is studied in detail. But, as a whole, a blog entry, by itself, is meant to be quite brief.
Finally, since the term 'Sabbath day's journey' appears in Acts, it is meant to appeal to a wide variety of people. This blog is meant for those who cannot come on Sunday mornings. And it is also for those who do come on Sunday mornings but would also like a further study of the text. It is also for those who live somewhere else in the world (besides Drake and Freedom, Missouri, USA) and would simply like a further study of the text. It was meant to get these different groups of people to start thinking about the biblical texts. Part of the reason for this blog is that I am not able to have a bible class on Sunday mornings with either congregation, and so, to have a blog like this seemed like a good idea. I hope it is helpful for you, in whatever situation you may be.
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September 27, 2020
The Old Testament text for this Sunday [Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32] starts with a proverb, and a proverb is a good place to start—in more ways than one. The book of Proverbs may be a place where one starts to read the scriptures. Proverbs may be a good thing to start memorizing, since many of them still have a say in our 21st-century life today. And it may be a place where we start to see some of the intricate structures of these wonderful scriptures.
The proverb in the text is this: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (verse 2).’ In other words, problems are passed down from generation to generation. While this is most certainly true, this proverb can also be used as an excuse that something is ‘not my fault, but my father’s fault.’ Things that are true can become things that are false, if they are pushed too far.
Good words can be twisted. Proverbs can be twisted. Things that belong to the LORD can be twisted to become our own.
Perhaps that is why the LORD is so prominent in the book of Proverbs. I should say here that it is not at all obvious that the LORD is so central and foundational in Proverbs. When it comes to proverbs, we can easily make ourselves the center. So, perhaps these points may be helpful.
The book starts out by saying that these are the ‘proverbs of Solomon’. The words which follow give a somewhat ‘biblical’ variety of what is given in wisdom; the first two words after that introduction give us a good starting point, ‘to know wisdom’. And at the end of that long statement is the declaration that the ‘fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge’ (1:7). This is echoed at the end of this large, first main section of the book, with the words, ‘the starting point of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh (9:10).’ Note the differences in those two statements, but the similarities should also be noted. The LORD plays a prominent part. And fear is a good first step—this is especially important in light of the proper distinction between law and gospel.
I must admit I was a bit surprised the first time I read one of the Concordia Self-Study Bible notes which summarizes this next section (10:1-22:16) in this way: ‘The numerical values of the consonants in the Hebrew word for ‘Solomon’ total 375—the exact number of verses in 10:1-22:16; 375 of Solomon’s proverbs were selected from a much larger number (Concordia Self-Study Bible, Copyright 1986 by Concordia Publishing House, page 959).’
The English language does not have a close connection to numbers like the Hebrew language does. The letters of the name Solomon in Hebrew are basically the consonants—somewhat similar to the English language, and you may get an idea of their placement in the alphabet. The consonants have these values: s = 300, l = 30, m = 40, h = 5. So, it tells us that the name of Solomon also gives us the number 375.
I must also admit that I was a bit surprised when at the middle of these 375 proverbs there was an unequaled emphasis on the LORD--seven mentions in a row. At the middle of 375 things is the 188th thing. And the 188th proverb is 16:4. And before that proverb and after it are both sets of three proverbs with the name of the LORD (Yahweh) in each one. Here they are, in a somewhat literal translation:To a man, plans of the heart, and, from Yahweh, the answer of the tongue.
All of the ways of a man are innocent in his eyes, but the one weighing motives is Yahweh.
Commit to Yahweh your deeds, and your plans will succeed.
Yahweh works out everything for his end, and also the wicked for the day of disaster.
Yahweh detests all of the proud of heart; hand upon hand, he will not go unpunished.
In love and faithfulness, sin is atoned, and in the fear of Yahweh one avoids evil.
In pleasing Yahweh, the ways of a man, even his enemies make peace with him.
Right at the beginning of these seven proverbs is another mention of Yahweh and fear, but this time in this way: The fear of Yahweh is the teaching of wisdom (15:33). When you compare this statement to the earlier ones, you can see a definite progression. And this is a progression that focuses ultimately on the LORD, not on Solomon. So, this is a foundation that is built on something much better than ourselves.
September 20, 2020
Thinking is an important part of being human. People did a lot of thinking in the Old Testament; sometimes that is not so obvious.
Sometimes a biblical text can have a form of the verb ‘to think’, but it is hidden within the translation. In the Old Testament text for last Sunday, Joseph literally said to his brothers, ‘And you, you thought evil against me …’ There the word ‘thought’ is often translated as ‘meant’ or ‘intended’ (Genesis 50:20; see ESV and NIV).’
There is also a time in Genesis when the verb ‘to think’ is used to describe the thinking of God. When the LORD promises that he will have as many descendants as the stars in the sky, the text says that Abraham ‘believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; ESV).’ The word ‘counted’ is also the verb ‘to think’.
Thinking is an important part of many Old Testament activities, and thoughts are often closely connected to actions. Sometimes it has been said that ‘actions speak louder than words’. I would not say that this is always true. But what is true is that actions speak louder than thoughts. The evil brothers thought to do evil to Joseph, and they tried to kill him. And a gracious LORD thinks to do good to Abraham, and the LORD abundantly blessed him in many ways.
The great contrast between the thoughts of man and the thoughts of the LORD is made quite clear in the Old Testament text for this Sunday, from Isaiah 55[:6-9]. In that text, thoughts are mentioned several times. Here is the text in a somewhat literal translation (verses 8 & 9):
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, saying of Yahweh. For the heavens are higher from the earth, so my ways are higher from your ways and my thoughts from your thoughts.’
This text, by itself, may make us feel isolated and alone, as if God were far off. While that is the message that is conveyed within this text, that is certainly not the message of the context, and of most of the Old Testament; and God is certainly not far off in the New Testament.
In Exodus, for example, there is a progression from the glory being on Mt. Sinai, and Moses having to go up into that, and the glory eventually rests on the tabernacle, and it goes along with the people. That is God getting CLOSER.
Before we get to the New Testament, it might be important to note that this word, in the language of the Old Testament, is a very special word. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is a very unique language. It is a very concrete language. There are no Hebrew words for ‘principles’ and ‘concepts’. The Hebrew language often takes things that are somewhat invisible and defines them in a very visible way. And that sort of thing happens with the verb, ‘to think’.
In the Hebrew language, the verb ‘to think’ is also the verb ‘to weave’. Weaving is to many a lost art. But the idea of having threads go in different directions, with the end result of making something beautiful and/or useful, that sounds a lot like how thoughts go sometimes.
Although the way God would ‘weave’ something and the way we would weave something would be quite different and would obviously result in different levels of perfection, the LORD did not stay far away. Jesus ‘weaved’ in and out among the people of his day. He also said things that had people going in different directions. Most importantly, it all culminated for Jesus on the cross.
The people who were nearby had a different picture in their minds. ‘Come down from the cross,’ they said, ‘and we will believe in you.’ Some said, ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself (Matthew 27:42).’ Those thoughts are attached to the idea of power. Lots of OUR thoughts are connected to power! But something different comes from the LORD’s thoughts, with the LORD’s gentle thoughts.
God IS love. What a thought!
September 13, 2020
It should not be too surprising that a gospel text from the Gospel according to Matthew takes us again, with its close connection to the Old Testament, to the very first book of the Bible for the Old Testament reading. What IS surprising is that this time, the text is part of the very last chapter [Genesis 50:15-21]. This text actually can come up twice within the three-year series (the next time near the very beginning of the Pentecost season in year C), but this is the very last reading from the book of Genesis. There are only a few more verses, and then there is the end to this important and foundational book.
How a movie ends is important, and how a book ends is important as well, and this is true even in ancient times. At the ends of a few books in the Old Testament, there is still something that has not been resolved. Even the Old Testament itself does that with the book of Malachi and the promise of a coming messenger who will prepare the way for the LORD (Malachi 3:1).
The story of Joseph has been the focus for many chapters near the end of the book of Genesis. And those details are a good reminder of how the LORD is able to turn things around. Joseph went from being in prison to being the second-most powerful person in the very powerful country of Egypt.
The entire structure of Genesis may be based on how God turns things around. Previously in the book, when God remembered someone, something significantly good happened after that. But now Joseph is on the scene, and the text says that when Joseph ‘remembered the dreams that he dreamt, and he said to his brothers, “You are spies (42:9)!”’ That remembering falls significantly short, especially when compared to God’s remembering.
So where does the end of the book of Genesis lead us? Do we focus on God? On Joseph? There are some things in the biblical text that lead us to a better answer than either of those choices.
I think I have mentioned this before—and I owe it to the Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler of The Lutheran Hour for pointing this out—that there are four mentions of the LORD being WITH Joseph within the details of that story. Here are some literal translations of those mentions:
Genesis 39:2 And Yahweh was with Joseph, and he was a prospering man….
Genesis 39:3 And his master saw that Yahweh was with him, and all that he was doing, Yahweh was prospering him in his hand.
Genesis 39:21 But Yahweh was with Joseph, and he showed to him kindness….
Genesis 39:23b … Yahweh was with him, and whatever he was doing, Yahweh was prospering him.
It is one thing to have God remember. It is another thing to have Yahweh, the LORD, be present; this is a significant step down AND in our direction.
Some have made the point that God’s presence seems to decrease as the book of Genesis nears the end. But there is also the point to made that the LORD’s presence is articulated in greater detail as the book of Genesis nears its end.
Within the text for this Sunday, Joseph poses a question which gets at the heart of the issue of God’s presence. He says (in verse 19), ‘Am I in the place of God?’
If that question sounds familiar, it was asked earlier in the book. Rachel is not having any children, and she is jealous of her sister, and she says to her husband, Jacob, ‘Give me children or I will die!’ And the above question is Jacob’s response (30:1-2). That question (‘Am I in the place of God?’) is an important one at that place and time. It gets the reader or the listener to consider the main characters involved—God and man. And one should also take into account the main character of sin, which separates those two.
By focusing on man too much, he becomes an example to follow—or not to follow. To focus on God too much, and he seems far away—and he can certainly seem that way at times. The problem of sin was clearly articulated near the beginning of Genesis, and we will get to a proper conclusion when we finally get to the New Testament, when God became man.
In much the same way there is not just one gospel account that says what Jesus did—that would make it a history lesson. There are four gospel accounts that give four slightly different perspectives regarding what he did for our salvation. That makes it a significant salvation story.
September 6, 2020
The Old Testament text for this Sunday steps briefly into the book of Ezekiel [33:7-9]. And those words begin with a statement to Ezekiel, that the LORD has made him ‘a watchman’. Like many other biblical occupations these days, such a job may not be very well understood. But it certainly is an important one in Israel’s history.
Think of, first of all, that this part of the world could be overrun by bigger powers on almost all sides. Trade routes came through Israel, so why not armies?
Second, it is important to remember that, in such situations, a city with a wall is a wonderful thing. In last week’s text, the LORD promised Jeremiah that he would be a fortified wall of bronze (15:20). It is difficult to imagine such a wall. And imagine the difficulty in getting through such a wall! And you might also want to imagine your perspective on top of such a wall.
Third, that also means that the city gates are important places. If you do not want to go through (or over) a wall, you could try going through the gates. (And cities would usually have more than one gate. I am not speaking about a ‘front and back door’ here; sometimes there was an inner and an outer gate. And perhaps you can imagine the difficulty in getting through THAT as well.) And gates are mentioned many times throughout scripture, from literally Genesis to Revelation.
What may be a helpful text to picture all these elements is from 2 Samuel 18 (verse 19 and following). This is an account that describes how the information from a battle was delivered to King David. In this case, the king’s son, Absalom, was dead. Although Absalom had tried to get rid of his own father, David mourns his death when he hears the news from the messenger who came from Joab, the leader of the king’s army.
The way in which this news is given is interesting. There seems to be two people who were previously designated by the king to give some special news. One was designated to give good news (he was the ‘son of Zadok’, and it should be said that the Zadok referred to was probably the high priest and, therefore, by association with the temple, a good person), and the other, a 'Cushite', to give some other kind of news (being a Cushite was not too important; perhaps the messenger who gave bad news was killed).
This text never ends up being a reading in the three-year series, so I thought it would be a good thing to include it below. And probably the most important thing to note is that the word ‘news’ here is the word that becomes the word ‘gospel’ in the New Testament. That may help our perspective as to the New Testament importance of Jesus and the gospel. Here is a somewhat literal translation:
And Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, said, ‘Let me run, now, and let me take the news to the king, that Yahweh delivered him from the hand of his enemies.’
And Joab said to him, ‘You are not a man of news on this day, and you may take the news on another day, but on this day, you do not take the news, for the son of the king is dead.’
And Joab said to the Cushite, ‘Go, tell the king what you saw.’ And the Cushite bowed to Joab, and he ran.
And Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, added again, and he said to Joab, ‘And it may be whatever, let me run now also I, after the Cushite.
And Joab said, ‘Why are you running, my son? For you are not one bringing the news.’
And he said, ‘It may be whatever, I will run.’
And he said to him, ‘Run.’ And Ahimaaz ran the way of the plain, and he passed by the Cushite.
And David was sitting between two of the gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate on the wall, and he raised his eyes, and he looked, and behold, a man running by himself.
And the watchman called, and he told the king. And the king said, ‘If he is by himself, the news is in his mouth.’ And he came and came closer.
And the watchman saw another man running, and the watchman called to the gate(keeper), and he said, ‘Behold, a man running by himself.’
And the king said, ‘Also he, one bringing news.’
And the watchman said, ‘I am seeing the running of the first one being the running of Ahimaaz, son of Zadok.’
And the king said, ‘This is a good man, and he comes with good news.
And Ahimaaz called, and he said to the king, ‘Peace,’ and he bowed to the king, with his face to the ground, and he said, ‘Yahweh, your God, be praised, who delivered up the men who lifted their hand against my lord, the king.’
And the king said, ‘Peace to the young man, to Absalom?’
And Ahimaaz said, ‘I saw the great confusion when Joab was sending the servant of the king, and I did not know what.’
And the king said, ‘Stand aside and wait here.’ And he stood aside and stood.
And, behold, the Cushite, coming, and the Cushite said, ‘And may my lord, the king, hear the news, for Yahweh delivered you this day from the hand of all the ones rising against you.’
And the king said to the Cushite, ‘Is there peace to the young man, to Absalom?’
And the Cushite said, ‘May the enemies of my lord, the king, be like the young man, and all who rise against you to do evil.’
As was mentioned above, the bad news hits David quite hard. It seems that David was hoping for two runners that were both giving good news, one good news concerning the battle victory, and the other, that his son was still alive.
Certainly, the watchman in the above text had an important role. But the one delivering that all-important news had an even more important role. And there is simply nothing more important than the good news of the gospel.
August 30, 2020
The Old Testament text for this Sunday is back in the book of Jeremiah [15:15-21]; we were there a couple times earlier this summer. I have mentioned in the past that the book is quite long but quite overlooked when it comes to its number of appearances within the three-year series. And what may contribute to that overlooking is the fact that the Greek translation of that book is significantly different from the Hebrew text.
Some may consider this unimportant, but if you know Greek (and many knew that language right before the time of Jesus because of Alexander the Greek and the extremely large Greek Empire), and if the entire Bible is written in a language that you know, this suddenly becomes a very important thing. For you the entire Bible has now opened up, and it becomes a grand recounting of the most significant things that ever happened in the history of the world; you can read it from beginning to end, and then you can read it again!
Having a significantly different Greek text though, that can be a bit distracting. The Lutheran Study Bible summarizes some of the matter in its introduction to the book (the Greek translation is designated by ‘LXX’ to stand for the number 70, traditionally the number of translators that were used; this number is also seen in the commonly used title for the work, the ‘Septuagint’):
State of the LXX Text. The Greek translation of Jeremiah is significantly shorter and does not represent c 2,700 words that appear in the traditional Hebrew text. This fact has puzzled interpreters since the second century. Also, the LXX text does not have the same order as the traditional Hebrew text. In particular, Jeremiah’s oracles about the nations (chs 46-51) appear after 25:13 (“Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations”) and have this order:
LXX Order Traditional Hebrew Order (ESV)
Elam Egypt; 46:2-28
Egypt Philistia; ch 47
Babylon Moab; ch 48
Philistia Ammon; 49:1-6
Edom Edom; 49:7-22
Ammon Damascus; 49:23-27
Kedar Kedar and Hazor; 49:28-33
Damascus Elam; 49:34-39
Moab Babylon; chs 50-51
Fragments of a Hebrew manuscript discovered at Qumran (4QJerb) show that the LXX version of the text may be based on a shorter Hebrew edition (fragments of the traditional Hebrew text [4QJera] were also discovered in the same cave). Jerome provided the earliest and perhaps the best explanation for these differences when he proposed that the Book was shortened because of its repetitious nature. Modern commentators have noted that the LXX version drops commonly repeated phrases (e.g., “Thus says the LORD,” dropped 64 times); “LORD of hosts, the God of Israel” is usually shortened to “LORD”; fathers’ and grandfathers’ names are dropped from descriptions of persons; and proper nouns are often replaced with pronouns. All these changes badly affect the Hebrew poetry, suggesting that the shorter version is the later edition. For these reasons, interpreters continue to prefer the traditional Hebrew text [The Lutheran Study Bible, published in 2009 by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, page 1204.]
You can see that there is a lot in the quote above. And that, in itself, is a good reminder that these books of the Bible can be read again and again, and new things can be seen each time.
This is also a good reminder that a shorter text does not always mean an earlier text. With the four gospel accounts, because the Gospel according to Mark is the shortest, many people imagine that this account was written first, and then the others had more to add to it later, and that is the source of the other accounts. But it could have happened in another way. Shorter versions could also be later ones.
To be fair, because there is no clear record of timing, it could be said that a shorter (Hebrew) version could be written at a similar time to the longer version. An important point to be made is that the chronology of the texts is not important. This is not a race; the one that is first is not the most important. ALL four gospel accounts are important. And both versions of Jeremiah have some value.
The shorter text may have had more appeal to those who were not good at reading the Hebrew. The above quote spoke of how the shortening in the Greek translation of the text ‘badly affect[ed] the Hebrew poetry’. Also, another difference was that the ‘fathers’ and grandfathers’ names are dropped from descriptions of persons.’ These are things for which the Greek reader would have little concern.
It is also interesting to note that near the middle of the book (chs 30-33), there is the famous ‘book of comfort’, a beautiful gospel in the middle of such terrible law. This is also in the Greek version, but it is a bit later. Near the middle in the Greek version are the oracles against the nations, and this is something that would be of great interest to those who could were of another nationality. (It should also be noted that people outside of Greece could read Greek, because this language was the important language of commerce. The New Testament was written in ‘Koine’ Greek, and that word means ‘common’.)
In the end, this ultimately means that the LORD cares for all nations. And ALL his words to his people, whoever they are, are precious. And receiving the gifts that those words give makes for a truly happy ending.
August 23, 2020
Has there EVER been a simple answer? As I study the meaning of the word ‘answer’, I am inclined to answer that question negatively. To give what would seem to be a simple answer is still a very complicated thing, especially when you look at the meaning of that word in the scriptures and I believe its careful placement there.
This Sunday, the Old Testament text continues to be in Isaiah [51:1-6], and the text starts by addressing those who ‘pursue righteousness’ and ‘seek the LORD’. Then the text goes on to give a couple of commands to ‘look’ in certain places for, as it were, an answer. On the surface, it seems like a simple thing. Verse 2 may literally be translated in this way:
Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, she gave you birth; when he was one, I called him, and I blessed him, and I multiplied him.
I thought it would be a good thing, therefore, to look at Abraham and some of the special things that happened to him. He is only one person, two if you include Sarah; how difficult could that be?
There are certainly some significant stories in the Old Testament before the coming of Abraham. There is the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and there is also the tower of Babel that multiplied the languages. And those are certainly significant events. But, when it comes to the one person of Abraham, there are also some significant and not so simple things going on within those texts.
Right after the Fall into sin, when the LORD was asking Adam, ‘Where are you?’ the text does not say that Adam ‘answered’. The word used there simply means to speak or to say. So, technically, the first time the Hebrew word ‘answer’ is used in scripture is in Genesis 18:27, when the LORD is meeting with Abraham. And I should at least mention that the LORD’s presence in this text is significant and unusual. Now the LORD had just promised to Abraham regarding the city of Sodom that, if he found fifty righteous ones within it, he would spare the entire place for their sake.
The text then says this: ‘And Abraham answered, and he said….’ It seems that, at that place, the word should probably be translated as ‘he responded’ or something like that. And this sort of thing happens frequently, that the word ‘answer’ comes up, but a question was not asked. I recently learned that, about the year 150 A.D., someone thought that when these two verbs came together in the Old Testament, because of its unusual repetition, that was a signal that what was said was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. [See the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 3, published by Eerdmans in 1965, page 945.]
It is also interesting that this same repetition of the same two verbs appears a few times also in the gospel accounts of the New Testament. And sometimes you have the text in this way: ‘And he answered, saying…,’ and sometimes you have the text in a slightly different way: ‘And answering, he said…’.
The Isaiah text reminds us to look to Abraham. And what does Abraham say when he ‘answers and says’ for the very first time? Here, again, is a literal translation: ‘Behold, now I was bold to speak to the Lord, and I am dust and ash.’ And the word for answer, interestingly enough, is basically the same word as ‘humble’; and I wonder about the extent of a connection between these two words. [See William Holladay’s work, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, also published by Eerdmans, 1971, pages 277-8.]
There is another feature within the translation of the Old Testament into the language of the New Testament that is close to this idea that an answer or a response is something significant. And this characteristic often appears in the New Testament, although it usually does not appear in translations or even in some discussions regarding the text. Sometimes a writer describes a past action as happening in the present tense. This is usually called the historical present.
Sometimes the text says, instead of that Jesus SAID this, it says, literally, that Jesus SAYS this. This is usually understood to be a way to express the vividness of the event. [See Daniel B. Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, published by Zondervan in 1996, page 528.] And that is usually the end of the discussion regarding its purpose.
But the appearance of the historical present often happens somewhere in the middle of some story, as a response to something. This Sunday, the Gospel text is from Matthew 16[:13-20], and after the disciples give back to Jesus their response of what others say about him, the text actually says that JESUS SAYS to them, ‘Who do you yourselves say that I am?’
The very first instance of an historical present in the Old Testament translation into the language of the New Testament also happens with Abraham, and it also happens when he receives the word of the LORD, and they start to discuss this issue of being childless. Abraham—using his original name, Abram—is the one who says the very first historical present. Here is a literal translation of that text (again, from the Greek and not the Hebrew):
And after these things, the word of the Lord came toward Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Stop fearing, Abram; I am shielding you; your reward will be very great.’ And Abram SAYS, ‘Master, Lord, what will you give to me? And I am leaving childless, and the son of Masek, my homeborn female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus (emphasis added, Genesis 15:1-2).’
In all of these Bible passages, one might have expected more of an emphasis on what the LORD says. Why not always have HIS words in the present tense? Why not have the LORD speaking AND saying? Why not have him start a conversation and make sure people are listening to him? That is certainly not the direction that these texts are going.
With the idea of a response being connected to both the historical present and the phrase, ‘he answered and said’, it is interesting to consider at least the slight possibility of those two things being connected.
It would take too long to study the extent of this connection in detail. But at the heart of the matter may be the type of kingdom that the LORD has set up in the scriptures. His kingdom of power is certainly not the primary focus; he certainly does not push his way into our lives as was described above; he certainly did not do that to Abraham. And his kingdom of glory has not yet come; he is saving that for the end of time.
His kingdom of grace is the kingdom that seems to predominate within these special writings. A kingdom of grace makes a difference, but in a not-too-obvious way; it does not draw attention to itself. But, eventually, something important and something quite wonderful gets wonderfully done.
That is, of course, what happened with Abraham. As was mentioned above, the Old Testament text for this Sunday says, ‘When he was one, I called him.’ And the LORD blessed him and multiplied him, but in a slow and not-so-obvious way. That is usually how the kingdom of grace works.
I have heard that, when comparing the four gospel accounts, the different numbers of historical presents within the accounts was connected to the amount of education of the writers; more historical presents meant more ‘colloquial, vivid speech.’ [See the above book by Wallace, page 528.] I think that a more important issue than the amount of education for the writer is the type of graceful kingship that each writer wanted to emphasize within each particular account. And I also think that the different verbs that they turn into the present tense point to one of the four different living creatures of the LORD’s throne. The throne tells the story behind the king’s authority.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the living creature is a man, and by far the most common historical presents in that account have to do with speaking. In the Gospel according to Mark, most of those historical presents have to do with actions, and that living creature is a lion, and a lion certainly has some significant actions. In the Gospel according to Luke, the living creature is the ox, and this is normally understood to be a domesticated animal, one that can get along with people and other animals. And the historical presents within that account are connected to a wide variety of people as Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem and Palm Sunday.
The Gospel according to John is significantly different from the other accounts, and this is also seen in the uses of the two things mentioned above. And the living creature connected to that gospel account is the eagle, the only one that flies, and flying gives it a different perspective. First of all, the number of historical presents is significantly more in this gospel account than the other accounts. As the eagle sees farther than the other living creatures, that perspective of a graceful kingship frequently shows itself in the present tense, and even into our twenty-first-century lives.
The second thing to mention about this gospel account is that there is a greater emphasis on the answering aspect in the use of ‘he answered, and he said….’ (If you are interested in the details—and it may not seem like much—instead of the usual phrase that appears in the three similar gospel accounts, ‘and, answering, he said,’ there is the more frequent phrase in this gospel account, ‘and he answered, saying…’.)
It is natural to think that, with this living creature, the perspective of this account is more far-reaching, even to the present day. The actions that are done within this account give an opportunity for a ‘response’, an ‘answer’, and this is made quite clear when, near the end of the account, the writer writes that these things have been written so that YOU may believe (John 20:31). The LORD’s grace-filled kingdom certainly has a significant size.
August 16, 2020
This Sunday we are back in Isaiah, the Old Testament book that gets a lot of attention in the New Testament. Short sayings from this book come up often in the four gospel accounts. And this Sunday’s text [Isaiah 56:1,6-8] contains another example of that.
Jesus, during the last week of his life, when he cleanses the temple, quotes from this section of Isaiah and says, at least in one of the accounts, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations (a portion of verse 7).’ I think it is fascinating to look at what happens after that in the three most similar gospel accounts; here are some literal translations of those texts:
And he says to them, ‘It has been written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you yourselves are making it a den of robbers. And blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But the chief priests and the scribes, seeing the marvels which he did and the children crying in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the son of David,’ they were angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus says to them, ‘Yes, have you never read that out of the mouth of infants and nursing ones you prepared praise (Matthew 21:13-16)?’
And he was teaching and saying to them, ‘It has been written, has it not, that my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you yourselves have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard, and they were seeking how they might destroy him, for they feared him, for all the crowd was amazed (extremely literally, ‘filled out’) at his teaching (Mark 11:17-18).
And entering into the temple, he began to throw out the ones selling, saying to them, ‘It has been written, “And my house shall be a house of prayer”, but you yourselves made it a den of robbers.’ And he was teaching day by day in the temple, but the chief priests and the scribes were seeking to destroy him, along with the first men of the people, and they did not find what they might do, for all the people hung upon hearing him (Luke 19:45-48).
These three similar accounts are similar in a lot of things, but when it comes to a response about what the temple is, there will be a variety because the authority that is connected to the temple is closely connected to the authority of Jesus, and each of the four accounts give a different emphasis regarding the authority of Jesus.
One of the differences in the texts above is in terms of verb tense. (I hope that this does not bring up bad memories of English class!) Immediately after Jesus quotes the text from Isaiah, there are differences in the action of the temple being made a den of robbers. In the first reading, Jesus says that you ARE MAKING it a den of robbers—a present action.’ In the second, Jesus says that you HAVE MADE it a den of robbers—this may be understood as a past action with some sort of enduring results. In the third, Jesus says that you MADE it a den of robbers—a simple past action.
If you are about to ask which of these Jesus really said, I cannot answer that question. I was not there with a recording device when it happened. Perhaps he said all three. The point of him having said these words in three different ways gives three different perspectives to the issue at hand. Jesus has three different types of authority in these three gospel accounts, and each type of authority ultimately emphasizes a different aspect of his wonderful act of salvation.
By Jesus saying that they ARE now making the temple a den of robbers, I would consider that the most serious accusation. The implication is that they should stop immediately what they are doing. But the text immediately stops our focus on this topic, and it turns toward something else that is quite serious as well. Jesus begins to heal people, people who are usually looked down upon. And the anger of the religious leaders is attributed to the effect of Jesus upon other people—the people who were healed, but also the little children—and these are people who are literally looked down upon!
By Jesus saying that they HAVE MADE the temple a den of robbers, that is also a very serious accusation. One way to describe the action of the verb is to say that the action was in the past, but that action continues to have ramifications and some influence. And there is nothing else that Jesus does that gets in the way. The religious leaders want him dead, simply on the basis of those words that he said. It also says that the leaders feared Jesus—although they will fear the crowd in the next chapter (see 12:12). In this text the focus is definitely on Jesus and what he said. He is standing alone, and all authority is ultimately his.
Finally, by Jesus saying that they simply MADE the temple a den of robbers, this is only an action in the past. And that one statement does not seem to cause a big problem. The story, in a way, ends here. The next verse summarizes his teaching in the temple, and the religious leaders, like above, want him dead, and the text gives a reason for this not happening, because ‘the people hung upon hearing him’. Jesus’ authority reaches out to people, and people reach out to him and, somewhat figuratively, ‘hang’ on him.
The way these religious leaders are described in the third example is unusual. They ‘were seeking’ and they ‘did not find’. Perhaps that is a way to describe what others are going through, especially when you look at the book of Acts.
Whatever account you look at, the religious leaders are getting angry. But they end up being angry for different reasons. In Matthew, it was because of people. In Mark, it was because of Jesus’ words of the text. In Luke, it was because of his teaching elsewhere, him being a support. Jesus is certainly a multi-faceted bundle of good news.
August 9, 2020
The Old Testament text for this week is from the book of Job [38:4-18]. How often does THAT happen? To answer that question: not very often at all. If you do not include that a text from the book of Job is given during the Easter Vigil, and at the Easter Sunrise Service in year C, and also when there is a service because of a national or local tragedy, a text from Job only appears two times in the three-year series. (And both of those texts are from this same chapter.)
If you do not know the theme of Job already, you can get a hint of that theme from those times mentioned above—Easter and a tragedy. After the disciples were finished with the first Good Friday, they must have been extremely hesitant to call it a GOOD Friday! And, in the same way, the day after there is a national or local tragedy, many people will be hesitant to call that day a good one.
Sometimes the theme of Job is stated in terms of a question such as this: Why do bad things like tragedies happen to good people? The trouble with stating the theme of a biblical book with a question is that it can focus the person too much on the answer. I am certainly not against answering peoples’ questions. [Please contact me if you have a question you would like to ask!] But when it comes to the theme of scripture, there is much more to consider than just asking a few questions. There is a much bigger issue at stake.
Roger Marcel Wanke approaches this topic with his book, Praesentia Dei--in other words, ‘the Presence of God’. He does not see much of a salvation theme within the book of Job, but he notes the importance of God’s presence throughout the book. [We can all be grateful that the book was not written in Latin. The book is actually in German though. Its longer title is Die Vorstellungen von der Gegenwart Gottes im Hiobbuch. It was published by De Gruyter in 2013.]
We can see that emphasis on God’s presence in the text for this week. The first verse of the text, verse 4, starts with this basic question: ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’ The presence of God is certainly the starting point there. And there are a lot more questions throughout the book that bring up the issue of God’s presence. I will not be able to mention too many of them here.
We can see this emphasis on presence at the very beginning and the very end of the book. The book starts by introducing Job for five verses, and then is this somewhat literal description: ‘And it was that day and the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and Satan also came with them.’ This is the way that the problem is laid out before the reader/listener. After some discussion, the LORD allows Satan to attack Job, and thus the reason for the rest of the book.
Near the end of the book, when the LORD has his ‘last say’ in the matter, he brings up to Job—and this is a ‘big’ issue as well—the big creatures of behemoth and leviathan. Here are some more literal translations of some of the emphases on presence. Regarding the first, the LORD says (again, somewhat literally): ‘See, now, I made behemoth with you (40:15a).’ Regarding the second, he says: ‘No one is fierce enough to arouse him, and who is he that can stand before my face (41:10)?’ Questions like these can help to put people in their proper place, and they also put the LORD in his.
Even closer to the end of the book, when the text says that the LORD ‘accepted the prayers’ of Job (see 42:8-9), the literal translation of the phrase is to ‘lift up the face’ of Job. Here, again, is an emphasis on presence. For the LORD to lift up someone’s face, he must get pretty close.
A person can certainly benefit from realizing the presence of God. The riots, burnings, and murders that are currently going on can often result from someone who does not believe in a God who is present. People can also ask a lot of questions that they do not feel are answered. The book of Job certainly contains a lot of questions, and there is not a simple answer after every one of them. There is something much more important than an answer to a single question.
A more important starting point is the presence of God, and that starting point gives us a way that brings us back to the gospel, and that is the true center of the Bible. As I have stated elsewhere, the gospel is that Old Testament word that points to a messenger who was designated to give some important news. (In 1 Samuel 4:17, the messenger is bringing the news of the lost battle to Eli, a very important person.) Now, obviously, the good news about Jesus as Savior completely overshadows that old news.It is not just the matter if a book emphasizes God’s presence OR God’s salvation. Both are interconnected. We cannot be in God’s full presence because of sin, and Jesus was the messenger designated to take care of that problem. And the way he did that is a way that is usually quite surprising to the person who has not heard about that yet.
August 2, 2020
Could there be a Christmas celebration in August? It almost seems like it is that way In the Old Testament text for this Sunday [Isaiah 55:1-5]; at least the text starts out a LITTLE bit like that. In the original language of the text, the first word is ‘Ho’, and that sounds a LITTLE bit like Santa Claus. There is even one time in the Old Testament when the text says, ‘Ho, ho (Zechariah 2:6; although that particular text never appears in an Old Testament text for the Sunday readings, and it is usually translated into other words: ‘Up, up,’ or ‘Come, come’).’ In this Old Testament I still hoping to find a ‘Ho, ho, ho.’
The texts that usually contain this word are not usually in an Old Testament text that is read on Sunday morning. That is because the word is usually translated as ‘woe’. We usually hear that word with the sentence, ‘Woe is me.’ The way in which this word is normally used in the Old Testament is somewhat the opposite, when GOD says, ‘Woe to those who….’ And then some characteristics are given. And it makes sense that those texts are passed over when looking for a text to read on a Sunday morning.
The Hebrew dictionary gives three basic areas which this word can cover: lament, threat, or ‘encouraging, inciting’ [Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, published by Eerdmans in 1971, page 78]. But in Isaiah it is frequently translated with the word ‘woe’. But the text for this Sunday is the very last time that word is used in the entire book, and that use in Isaiah 55 is extremely positive. But the first two times it is used in Isaiah (1:4 and 1:24), the structure is somewhat similar, that the first time it is used negatively, and then it is used positively.
What I have appreciated about the book of Isaiah is its use of its first chapter as a sort of an outline for the rest of the book. You do not need a study bible for an outline to study this particular book of the bible; just look at the first words of the book. And here is a translation of the two times that this word appears within that first chapter [from the English Standard Version; copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved]:
Isaiah 1:4 ‘Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.’
Isaiah 1:24 ‘Therefore the Lord declares, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes.”’
Hopefully you can see that the word ‘Ho’ is translated as ‘Ah’. The first verse is obviously condemning Israel, but the second one goes in a significantly different direction. In the verses which follow, the prophet basically talks about going through fire to become a pure metal. That text eventually says that Jerusalem ‘shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city (verse 26).’
The title for the LORD given in the first verse above, the ‘Holy One of Israel’, is a common title, but only in Isaiah. In the second verse, the title ‘Mighty One of Israel’ only appears here within this entire book. The closest that we have is in Isaiah 49:26 and 60:16, and both of those times the description is the ‘Mighty One of Jacob’.
That special combination of words, ‘Mighty One of Israel’, is a strong statement of good news. The word ‘mighty’ in the Old Testament is usually attached to powerful things such as bulls, horses, and very powerful people. But Israel is a special name that was given because Jacob was allowed to wrestle with God and he did not instantly lose (see Genesis 32:22-33). How can someone be mighty who loses in a wrestling match?
This God is Mighty in the different way in which he has chosen to act. The second-born sons, the smaller nations, those who have been humbled by the Law, those things mean something significant to THE Mighty One. In the end, by going through the bad, something better turns out in the end. It is good to have combinations of good words come up frequently in our minds, especially the ones that point out the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel, and especially the words which point out the greatness of God’s grace.
July 26, 2020
The Old Testament text for this Sunday is from the book of Deuteronomy [7:6-9]. The title of that book refers to a second giving of the law. A more accurate title may be found in the first words of the book: ‘These are the words….’ There are A LOT of words in that book, words that talk a lot about what had happened in the past (and not so many words that are describing the current events of that time).
Just a few weeks ago, the text was from Exodus 19, and in both that text and in this one there is an extremely rare word, sometimes translated with these two words: ‘treasured possession’. Here are both verses in a somewhat literal translation:
And now, if you certainly listen to my voice and you keep my covenant, then you will be, to me, a treasured possession to me from all the peoples that are in all the earth (Exodus 19:5).
For you are a holy people to Yahweh, your God; Yahweh, your God, chose you to be for him as a treasured possession from all the peoples which are on the faces of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).
These verses should be a ‘treasured possession’, since that word does not show up too frequently in the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles 29:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:8, the word refers to the personal property of kings. But in the two verses above, as well as in only four other places, that word is used in connection with Israel, that Israel is seen as the LORD’s ‘treasured possession’.
Here are those four verses, again with a somewhat literal translation:
For you are a holy people to Yahweh, your God, and Yahweh chose you to be for him as a people, a treasured possession from all the peoples that are on the faces of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:2; please note how similar this verse is to 7:6; here, again, is an emphasis on words).
And Yahweh has declared this day to be to him for a people of a treasured possession, just as he promised to you and to keep all of his commandments (Deuteronomy 26:18).
For Yahweh chose Jacob for him, Israel for his treasured possession (Psalm 135:4).
‘And they will be for me’, says Yahweh of Hosts, ‘in the day which I making a treasured possession, and I will spare them just as a man spares his son, the one serving him (Malachi 3:17).’
Besides those three appearances in Deuteronomy, there are not many words that appear once in the second book of the bible, once in the Psalms, and once in the last book of the bible! Much could be said about ANY of these verses, but the appearance in the Psalter is probably the most noteworthy.
Although I have often written that chapter divisions are an artificial structure imposed upon the text, I should also mention that the book of Psalms is an exception. Each Psalm is a chapter, and each Psalm was probably composed separately, and so those chapter divisions are important ones and should be taken into account. But I should also say that the book of Psalms AS A WHOLE also has a structure, and it is sometimes difficult to see such a structure. Sometimes the structure takes into account certain numbers that are important to the Hebrew language and history. And with the Hebrew language, numbers are VERY closely related to words since the Hebrew letters sometimes serve as numbers as well. The entire book of the Psalms is actually broken up into five books, and this mirrors, in some ways, the first five books of the bible. (There are also five Psalms at the very end of this entire book which form somewhat of a conclusion and which may be connected to these first five books of the bible.)
The appearance of Israel as a treasured possession in Psalm 135 is in an interesting place. The fifth book of the Psalter is from Psalm 107 to Psalm 150. If you go ten Psalms into that book, you are at Psalm 116. In the Psalms before this, you hear of people praising the LORD in an assembly. You also hear, in Psalm 108:8, that God speaks from his sanctuary. In Psalm 110:2, we hear that Yahweh will send his scepter of power from Zion. There is also the reminder that our God is in the heavens (Psalm 115:3). But in Psalm 116, at the end (verses 17 and following), there are these words (literally translated):
To you I will sacrifice an offering of thanksgiving and on the name Yahweh I will call. My vows to Yahweh I will fulfill before, now, all his people, in the courts of the house of Yahweh, in your midst, Jerusalem. Praise Yahweh!
So there seems to be a closer progression toward the temple in these first ten Psalms. Then there are three Psalms after this, the shortest one (Psalm 117), one with one of the most comforting prophecies of the Old Testament (and Martin Luther’s most favorite Psalm, Psalm 118), and the longest Psalm (Psalm 119).
After this ‘interlude’, there are fifteen ‘Songs of Ascent’ (Psalm 120 to 134; and the only Psalm ‘of Solomon’, the builder of the temple, just happens to be the middle one!). On the way to the final ‘Song of Ascent’, at Psalm 122, there was talk of being ‘at the gates of Jerusalem (verse 2).’ At the last ‘Song of Ascent’, there is the command to ‘Lift up your hands in the sanctuary.’ Then there is this statement: ‘Yahweh will bless you from Zion, the One making the heavens and the earth (Psalm 134:2-3).’ Before this there was also talk of Yahweh blessing from Zion, but that is connected to the goodness of Jerusalem—not something as important as making heaven and earth (See 124:8 and 128:5)!
So, there seems to be a progression at the beginning of this fifth book of the Psalter, and there seems to be another progression within these Songs of Ascent. And the first Psalm after these Songs of Ascent is Psalm 135, and this Psalm contains those very special and very rare words of Israel being a ‘treasured possession’.
After Psalm 135, the next Psalm has a repeated phrase throughout the chapter, much like a liturgy, and then there is somewhat of an opposite contrast in the next Psalm, with a reference to being exiled in Babylon. The fact of a ‘treasured possession’ seems to be meant to carry the hearer through a whole spectrum of possibilities. In much the same way, all the words of scripture have been carefully designed to carry the Lord’s people through a wide spectrum of situations in this life.
July 19, 2020
I have mentioned before that Isaiah is the most often used book for the Old Testament texts in the three-year series, so it is not too surprising that this Sunday, once again, the text is from that book [44:6-8]. But such frequent usage should not be too surprising. In the Gospel according to John, the writer basically says that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (12:41). Who else in the Old Testament has a similar description?
I have also mentioned before that a prophet has a close relationship to the king, sort of a palace spokesman. Almost at the very beginning of the bible (Genesis 20:7), Abraham is described as ‘a prophet’ and is very close to God and, because of that, Abraham’s prayers will save another king. It is interesting that the name of the king who is saved is ‘Abimelech’, and this name means ‘father of the king’, and THAT name carries with it a LOT of authority. Near the very end of the bible, the topic of prophecy is also mentioned, and John writes, ‘I witness to everyone hearing the words of this prophecy of this bible: If anyone adds upon them, God will add upon him the plagues having been written in this bible; and if anyone takes away from the words of the bible of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and out of the holy city of the things having been written in this bible (Revelation 22:18-19; this translation is quite literal, and the word ‘bible’ could also be translated as ‘book’ or ‘scroll’).
The vast majority of the times that ‘king’ is mentioned in Isaiah, it is talking about one or more earthly kings. The text for this Sunday happens to be one of the last times the word ‘king’ is used in the singular form in Isaiah. The only time after this is at Isaiah 57:9 where it is written, ‘You traveled to the king with the olive oil (again, the translation is quite literal).’ A king has already been anointed, but here you have someone traveling to the king and giving him something that is not needed.
This action is very similar to some of the sad stories about some Israelite children being sacrificed to the false god Molech, whose name means, quite literally, king. It is easy to go off the right path. What helps to avoid doing that is to see where that wrong path ends.
Immediately after this Sunday’s text from Isaiah is a detailed look at what happens when a person worships another god that is not the true God (44:9-20). At the height of the comparison, the man uses half of the wood to heat his food and the other half to make a false god, before which he bows down.
In stark contrast to this path is the path that Isaiah gives us at the very beginning of the text. The LORD is described (again, literally) in three, very important ways: ‘The King of Israel, the One redeeming him (that is, Israel), and the LORD of hosts.’
One of the more popular and somewhat unique ways of describing the LORD in Isaiah is ‘the Holy One of Israel’. This description is significantly different than ‘King of Israel’. As was mentioned above, the vast majority of the uses of ‘king’ in this book is when describing a ‘regular’ king, but this time, the extent of kingship is very limited. This king is ‘down-to-earth’.
The next way he is described is as redeeming. We usually think of the New Testament right away when we hear that word, but if we stay in the Old Testament, we think of Job. But the book of Ruth is the best example of a redeemer in the Old Testament, and this is essentially a protector of the family.
The last way is the most powerful. Not only does the name LORD mean ‘He is’—meaning that he is basically the only thing that truly IS—but the word ‘hosts’ refers to military service, ranks and divisions of troops (see The Lutheran Study Bible, page 1291; published by Concordia Publishing House; St. Louis, Missouri, 2009).
The progression within this description leads us on, not only to other similar—and even more significant—references, but to a New Testament that certainly shows the glory of THE Redeemer. Jesus talks about being glorified when he is lifted up. That is where he finally accepts the title above his thorn-crowned head, the KING of the Jews.
July 12, 2020
Last week the focus was on Zechariah and the only section of that book that is used within the three-year series—although that book is the longest of the twelve so-called ‘minor prophets’. The text for this week is from Isaiah [55:10-13], and that should not be surprising. The book of Isaiah is the most often used book for the Old Testament text within the three-year series.
Since that is so, and since the message from the Isaiah text is that the LORD’s word accomplishes the task it is given, it might be a good thing to stay in Zechariah and see what words from that special Old Testament book were accomplished in Jesus.
Besides the prediction of the humble King Jesus coming into Jerusalem that was the focus last week, here is the brief list of Zechariah’s prophetic predictions that are given in the Concordia Self-Study Bible [page 1411; Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1986]:
The prophet foretells the coming of Jesus in lowliness as a ‘servant, the Branch’ (3:8; cf. 6:12), who is rejected and sold for 30 pieces of silver (11:12-13), crucified (struck by the sword, 13:7) and the coming Judge and righteous King (14).
Also last week the point was made that some people see connections between the four gospel accounts and the four living creatures of the LORD’s throne that are mentioned in both Testaments. As each living creature is good at a different thing, each gospel account emphasizes some different aspect of Jesus’ authority and glory (and both of these things are good).
Some of the visions in the book of Zechariah include the number four. The second vision at the beginning of the book (1:18ff) has four horns and four craftsmen. The four horns are described as ‘the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem (verse 19)’, and the Concordia Self-Study Bible puts forward the following interpretation: ‘If the number is to be taken literally, the reference is probably to Assyria, Egypt, Babylonia, and Medo-Persia (p. 1415).’ The craftsmen end up being the ‘good guys’ and basically attack the horns. This footnote should be helpful: ‘If the number is to be understood literally, probably the reference is to Egypt, Babylonia, Persia and Greece. What is clear is that all Judah’s enemies will ultimately be defeated (p. 1415).’
What is most helpful in that footnote is the admission that the meanings of those visions are unclear. But what is clear is that the Lord is ultimately doing something very good. The number four is sometimes associated with four different directions, and there are significant things happening in all different directions in that part of the world. It is a difficult thing to understand a vision such as this one.
The eighth and last vision within that first half of the book of Zechariah is especially difficult (6:1-8). That vision has four chariots, and those chariots have four different colors of horses. Now it seems like only three of them end up going somewhere. And some translations have them going in three different directions.
Here is an attempt at a literal translation of some of the text in question (and it should be said that, when dealing with a difficult passage such as this one, there are difficulties in even making a literal translation; a small amount of interpretation will still occur in the words that follow):
And I returned, and I lifted up my eyes, and I looked, and behold, four chariots, ones coming out from between two of the mountains, and the mountains, mountains of bronze. With the chariot, the first, horses, red ones; and with the chariot, the second, horses, black ones. And with the chariot, the third, horses, white ones, and with the chariot, the fourth, horses, dappled ones; powerful ones.
And I responded and I said to the angel, the one speaking with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ And he responded, the angel, and he said to me, ‘These are four of the spirits of the heavens, the ones going out from presenting themselves to the Lord of all the earth.
Which, with her horses, the black ones, the ones going to the country, the north; and the white ones, they go out to after them, and the dappled ones, they go out to the country, the south.
And the powerful ones, they went out, and they sought to go, to go around on the earth. And he said, ‘Go, go around on the earth,’ and they went around on the earth (Zechariah 6:1-7).
So much could be said about these few verses! So much has already been said by others. Even the various colors have been investigated as to their meaning. Those colors are important, but they will not be the focus this time.
This basic vision seems to be significantly different from anything to do with the four living creatures. The text ends up only focusing on three chariots, and the way they were ‘translated’ above, it seems like the second one goes to the north, then the third, also to the north, then the fourth to the south, and then they all seem to go all over the earth.
There is a debate about the directions they are going and then, obviously, there is a debate about what this all means. If you would like to see some of this debate, you do not have to read the commentaries, but you would only have to read some of the different translations.
Since there is such a variety already in understanding such a text, I do not think it too terrible to add another possibility to the list.
In the book of Acts, at the start of chapter 8, as a result of the scattering after the persecution and murder of Stephen (and it is important to point out that there are different words for ‘scattering’; the one used in the text hints that this is a good thing, something which the Lord will bless), the following things happen:
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city….
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit….
Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him….
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea [Acts 8:4-8, 14-17, 25-31, 35-40; to save on space, some of the minor details have been left out; some manuscripts also leave out verse 37, and this was left out as well above; this text is from the English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers; used by permission; all rights reserved.].
If you look at the text, the direction of travel is remarkably similar to Zechariah. The starting point is Jerusalem. Samaria is to the north (the reference to going ‘down’ means down in elevation, not going south; Jerusalem is basically on Mount Zion and next to the Mount of Olives). Philip goes there first. Then Peter and John also go north. Then Philip goes south. To be noted as well is the emphasis on ‘the Spirit’, which is the same word that comes up in the Zechariah text for an explanation of what the chariots are.
Immediately after the above Acts text, at the start of chapter 9, the focus turns to Saul/Paul. And the Lord eventually says about him that ‘he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (9:15; ESV).’ That certainly makes me think of the going that is ‘around on the earth’ in Zechariah. And in the book of Acts the reference to the ‘ends of the earth’ is only a little farther, at 13:47. This is the Lord’s command to Paul and Barnabas: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth (ESV).’
Either way, the bible is full of references to Jesus. But it is more important to say that the Lord is ultimately doing something that is very good.
July 12, 2020
July 5, 2020
Last week the focus was on a text from Jeremiah; his book is second in the ‘prophets’ section of the scriptures. This week the focus is on a text from Zechariah, and his book is the second-LAST prophet in the ‘prophets’ section of the scriptures. Jeremiah is the longest book of the bible (we are not considering all 150 Psalms as one book), and Zechariah is the longest book of the so-called ‘minor prophets’. But, the sad fact is, we do not often go to either of these two books. The only text from Zechariah in the entire three-year series is the text for this Sunday [9:9-12], and we do not go often to Jeremiah either, especially when compared to a book such as Isaiah. Perhaps there is something ‘secondary’ about being second.
Whereas Jeremiah was around the year 600 B.C., Zechariah was around the year 500 B.C. He is closer to the New Testament, and perhaps he is also closer in seeing what was ahead of him.
This year, when we are focused on the Gospel according to Matthew, the connection to the Old Testament is emphasized. While the Gospel according to Luke could be considered as looking ‘forward’ with the book of Acts, the Gospel according to Matthew could be considered as looking ‘behind’. Some people do not think that what is behind you is important. But where you come from sometimes makes a big difference as to where you are headed.
The four gospel accounts are SO different, one would think that they were not in communication with one another. One might THINK that, but there is a significantly different conclusion that says the writers WERE in communication with each other. The conclusion of this writer is one that was also within the early church, that there is a deliberate variety within the four accounts that reflects the four different living creatures that make up the LORD’s throne. These are the four different ways that the LORD shows his authority and glory.
The Gospel according to Matthew has traditionally been connected to the living creature of the man, and a man is a teacher, and that is what we often see Jesus doing in this gospel account. He shows his authority and glory by teaching. The variety of Old Testament passages that this writer quotes and connects to Jesus may not be dependent on a different source, but they simply have a different emphasis. These are bible passages that are literally central in the Old Testament.
It is important to remember that the Old Testament in Jesus’ day did not have the structure of chapter and verse with which we are familiar. For the reader or the listener to be helped in the progression of a text, the writer would sometimes put something important in the middle of the text, as a clue to arriving at a halfway point within a certain section of a text. (It is easy to forget what was in the middle; the beginning and the ending are usually the most memorable; this is especially the case with movies.) And it is certainly a nice addition to the text that sometimes an aspect of Jesus was at the center of those texts. One of the earliest middle points is the turn of the story at Genesis 8:1, when ‘God remembered Noah’. Then things start to get significantly better. For God to remember something puts the important action on him--rather than on Noah.
Chapter nine of Zechariah starts by identifying what is coming as a ‘burden’ or ‘oracle’. What comes after are some promises as to what will happen and, more importantly, what the Lord will do. As the chapter progresses, the Lord starts to get more involved, and the first use of the ‘first person’, that ‘I will do something’, starts in verse six. In verse seven, there is the mention of ‘our God’, but the first time that the speaker is talking DIRECTLY to someone starts in verse nine, with the start of our text. There are not only two imperatives (‘rejoice’ and ‘shout’) with this text—and imperatives are the use of the 'second person'—but there is also the use of ‘your king’, that ‘he comes to you’. Such a focus on YOU is quite rare throughout the rest of the book. Where 'you' is first mentioned, verse nine, this verse is quoted when Jesus is coming into Jerusalem (see Matthew 21:5).Verse nine also happens to be in the middle of this chapter (you can see that quite easily since there are a total of eight verses both before and after verse nine). When counting the words in the original language, the middle is between the description of the donkey and colt.
Even more important than the differences between those two animals is the difference between when the LORD talks and when he talks TO YOU. The important action is still on him, but, this time, it makes an important difference to YOU. This change to ‘you’ happens near the middle, and it also happens near the middle elsewhere in the scriptures. Psalm 23 is a good example of this, where the middle word of the entire Psalm is the first mention of ‘you’ in the phrase in verse four, ‘For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.’
The middle can be important, just as those things that are second can sometimes be important as well.
June 28, 2020
Last week, the text was from Jeremiah 20. This week it is just a little farther down the road, at Jeremiah 28[:5-9]. The prophet Jeremiah is AGAIN running into difficulties, and he wants to make it clear what a true prophet does. The last verse of the text is given by the ESV in this way: ‘As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet (English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois).’
Usually we think of an apostle was someone who was sent. Can a prophet be sent as well?
To answer that question, it is important to see who a prophet is and what a prophet does. And one of the most helpful ways of doing that is by looking at the beginnings of that word.
Last week it was mentioned that Abraham was the first person to be called a prophet. This happens in Genesis 20:7, and here is a somewhat-literal translation of that verse:
And now, return the wife of the man, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live, and if you not returning, know that you will certainly die, you and all that is with you.
Usually we think of a prophet as someone who speaks to people. In this case it is one who speaks to the One ‘in charge’. As it says in the book of James, ‘The prayer of a righteous man has great power... (James 5:16b).’
The book of Genesis is set up in several large concentric structures, with the turning point in the middle of the fact that God remembers certain people at certain times and situations. On the other side of the turning point of Genesis 19:29, where God remembered Abraham and saved Lot, there is Genesis 18 and the somewhat similar account of Abraham coming to the LORD and asking for Sodom to be saved, first if fifty righteous people are there. But then Abraham decides that the number of righteous should be forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then—and finally—ten. It should be noted that Abraham is very nice with his words and does not want to make the LORD angry by asking for so much. It is even more important to note that there is no apparent anger in the LORD.
So, what is a prophet? A prophet has a very close relationship to the king. The prophet talks to the king; the king talks to the prophet—both of these things happen.
Sometimes a king does not wish to talk, and this special person can talk on his behalf. The prophet can also be sent somewhere else, or he can be simply near the king and do the talking for him, when it is appropriate.
Some ancient languages connect the word ‘prophet’ to the words ‘call’, ‘proclaim’, ‘impart’, and ‘the called’. The first two point to something that the prophet does; the last two, to something that is done to the prophet. Instead of thinking that it is either one or the other, it could be both. As was said above, the prophet has a very close relationship to the king (See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, published by Eerdmans, volume 6, pages 796-797).
Often prophets are thought of as people who predict the future or who have written a book of the bible. That CAN be what a prophet might look like. But, ultimately, you should not be focusing on the prophet himself. His all-important job is to point you to Someone else who is much more important.
June 21, 2020
Two weeks ago, the focus was on the progression in the book of Genesis. One week ago, the focus was on the progression in Exodus. It would seem only natural to look at the progression within Leviticus. So, if you are interested in such a thing, it is not too different from the progression that was seen before. There is some amount of trouble, and God comes into the picture in some way.
At the beginning of Leviticus, the LORD speaks just to Moses. Then there is the death of two of Aaron’s sons in chapter 10, and then we have the LORD speaking to Moses AND Aaron. And then, after a man blasphemes ‘the Name’ in chapter 24, he ends up being stoned to death, and then we have that special description of the LORD speaking to Moses ON MOUNT SINAI. It seems that these sinful events are making the LORD’s speech even more special. He could be much more distant; he could even be speaking less; but he does the opposite.
The Old Testament text for this Sunday is actually from the book of Jeremiah [20:7-13]. He was basically a 6th century B.C. prophet (although he also lived in the 7th century, and he started that job when he was very young). Compared to last week, this text is quite a jump in time, but it is not so much when dealing with the situation of sin or God’s solution of getting more involved. Abraham in Genesis has a close relationship with the LORD and is even called a prophet in Genesis 20:7 when he saves the life of a king. And as Moses and Aaron were very close, in Exodus 7:1, Moses is described as like God and Aaron is his prophet. (Moses did not want to do the job alone; see Exodus 4:1-16.)
The emphasis that people are most familiar with regarding Jeremiah is one of negativity. He also wrote Lamentations; he is known as ‘The Weeping Prophet’; what more could be said? Much more could be said because there is also a lot of negativity that is currently going on within the United States. The coronavirus is still an issue, and there is also a significant amount of so-called ‘civil unrest’.
The book of Jeremiah includes six ‘confessions’ (11:18-23; 12:1-4; 15:10-21; 17:12-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). In the words of the Concordia Self-Study Bible, with these confessions…
‘[Jeremiah] laid bare the deep struggles of his inmost being, sometimes making startlingly honest statements about his feelings toward God (12:1; 15:18). On occasion, he engaged in calling for redress against his personal enemies (12:1-3; 15:15; 17:18; 18:19-23)—a practice that explains the origin of the English word “jeremiad”, referring to a denunciatory tirade or complaint (Published by Concordia Publishing House in 1986; St. Louis, Missouri, page 1118).
You might have noticed that the text for this Sunday from Jeremiah 20 is a significant part of his last confession. Also from the Concordia Self-Study Bible is the comment that this last confession is, in some respects, ‘the most daring and bitter of them all (page 1158).’
It is interesting to note that there is a significant switch that occurs after this ‘high point’. The first twenty chapters have, for the most part, been in a chronological order. The rest of the book seems to be arranged on the basis of subject matter rather than chronology (see the Concordia Self-Study Bible, page 1159).
Just so we do not focus on simply the negative, one more point could be made with the first section of that ‘subject matter’ section. The phrase ‘the word came’ appears many times throughout Jeremiah, but within Jeremiah 21-24, it only appears once, at 21:1. The content of those four chapters is mostly negative, for the vast majority of those 94 verses. And there is admittedly a significant difference in the length of various verses. But there is some good news near the middle of that section, at Jeremiah 23:1-8.
Here is a layout of the various lengths of the chapters, along with a somewhat-literal translation of that special middle section; here is a section of particularly good news:
Jeremiah 21 14 verses
22 30 verses
23:1-4 SOMEWHAT GOOD NEWS
Verses 5-6 (REALLY GOOD NEWS): Behold, the days, the coming ones, declaration of LORD, and I will raise up to David a branch, a righteous one, and he will reign a king, and he will be wise and he will do justice and right in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved, and Israel will live in safety, and this is his name, that he will call him, ‘The LORD, our righteousness.’
23:7-8 GOOD NEWS
23:9-40 32 verses
24 10 verses
When something significantly good is in the middle of a section, there is the chance of it being passed over. In the same way, with so many negative things going on, there is the chance of passing over that ‘central’ coming of Christ. And please do not forget that he promised that he WILL be coming again.
June 14, 2020
This Sunday follows the previous Sunday in more than one way. Last Sunday, the Old Testament text was from the first book of the bible. This Sunday, it is from the second book of the bible, usually called ‘Exodus’. (Its Hebrew title is ‘The Book of Names’ and is based on the first words of the book.) Last week I looked at the extent of God’s involvement in the world in that first book; the same question came up twice within Genesis, ‘Am I in the place of God?’ This Sunday begins to answer that question in a more wonderful way than we could imagine. Within this book, God certainly is making a place among his people.
To determine this position accurately and according to what the text actually says, it may be helpful to look at the terms for ‘his people’ throughout this book. Often this book is summarized by the actions that actually happen (thus, the name ‘Exodus’), and that is certainly an appropriate emphasis. But looking at what happens to his people AND how those people are described may be a more accurate description of the book’s message. The following is just a brief summary of some of the most significant descriptions of ‘his people’.
In Exodus 1:1, the names of the twelve ‘sons of Israel’ are given. But then the same phrase is attached to all Israel in the verses that follow, and they start to become powerful in Egypt. And instead of being called pharaoh, the ruler in Egypt is simply called a king, and the text literally gives a ‘face’ to the sons of Israel and says that the Egyptians ‘dreaded his presence’ (1:12). Now something really bad comes out of this—slavery for Israel.
During the time of the first Passover, when the Lord says that HE will go and kill the firstborn (11:4), the group is now called the ‘congregation of Israel’ (12:3). The word ‘congregation’ can also mean ‘those gathered around a prominent person’; the word for ‘ornament’ is also the same Hebrew word (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by William L. Holladay, published by Eerdmans in 1971, page 265). This description seems to indicate that Someone’s presence is making a significant difference at this point in time.
A more orderly, permanent, and significant phrase, ‘house of Israel’, occurs for the very first time in this book at 16:31—although that phrase is rarely seen in the translations of that verse. The word ‘house’ has occurred before this, and it even appears in Exodus 1:1, but it has never been this closely associated with Israel’s descendants. This ‘household’ is calling the bread that the LORD is giving to them ‘manna’, a seemingly insignificant thing. But name-calling is important in the bible, literally from day one. (The use of the name ‘Israel’ instead of ‘Jacob’ is also significant—see Genesis 32 for more details about this.) And Moses told Aaron to put a jar of manna ‘before the face of the LORD’ to keep for generations to come (16:33). It is also interesting that the first day that they are taking the first flakes of manna off of the ground, the wilderness is also described as having a ‘face’, much like in the creation account; unfortunately, this word also does not usually appear in the translations.
Would it be appropriate at this time to say that God is heavily involved with his people? Would it be too much of a stretch to say that he is getting ‘down and dirty’ with them? The face of the wilderness is involved!
The text for this Sunday [Exodus 19:2-8] has this phrase within it (and here is a somewhat-literal translation): The LORD called to him from the mountain saying, ‘This you say to the house of Jacob and you relate to the sons of Israel…(verse 3b).’ The first command, to ‘say’, is simply to speak the words. The second command (translated as ‘relate’ here) is a significantly different word. Literally, it means to ‘put something up conspicuously in front of someone’ (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Holladay, page 226). The recipients of these words are, first of all, connected to Jacob, and that is not a big thing (if you looked at Genesis 32 already, please also see Genesis 25, but especially verse 26). The second description of the recipients is not a HOUSE of Israel yet; they are still described as sons. But the way in which Moses is to speak to them, one could take as a hint that God is getting closer; his words are getting closer and are more loving. And the phrase ‘house of the LORD’ will appear within this book in Exodus 23:19, even though the place is still a tent. But it IS a special place to which these special people can travel.
As was mentioned above, the phrase ‘house of Israel’ appeared for the first time in chapter 16, as they were heading out into the ‘face’ of the wilderness with that specially created blessing of manna. The chapters which follow have some negative low points within them. There is a LOT of complaining going on; there is also the significant idolatry of the golden calf in chapter 32. But these people are still called something very special.
The only other time the phrase ‘house of Israel’ appears in this book is at the very end, with the last words of chapter 40. The great significance of God’s significant presence with his people may be seen when you compare two paragraphs within the book of Exodus, one when they are finally at Mt. Sinai, in chapter 24, and the other when they are ready to head to other places, at the very end of the book. I hope the differences are easy to spot (Both these are the English Standard Version translations, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois.):
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel…(verses 15-17).
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys (verses 34-38).
The name of a group of people can be significant. The name Israel means he who wrestles with God. Imagine wrestling with God and not losing after one millisecond! God is the gentle and loving King here. And when something is done ‘in the sight of all the house of Israel’ at the end of the last text, that is NOT the word for face. God is certainly still the king, and HIS face is the important one. But he is gracious enough that we look upon him and are not destroyed. That also may be said when Jesus was on the cross for us.
June 7, 2020
This Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost, traditionally Trinity Sunday. And this year starts the season of Pentecost with a significant text, the text that quite literally started it all, the creation account [Genesis 1:1-2:4a].
Where to begin when the topic is the beginning? First of all, it should be said—but it also should be obvious—that beginnings are important. They are important for many reasons, but I would like to focus on the structure that they give.
The first words out of the mouth of man have a structure. In his first statement concerning his wife [2:23], the first word that he says also happens to be the middle word and the last word. I do not consider that a coincidence, especially when you look at the text somewhat literally:
“This, the now bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh, to this, she shall be called ‘woman’, for from man she was taken, this.”
In the very beginning there was no human being to write down what was happening. And so, we must rely upon God for that information. And God can literally give that information in any way that he wants. Here are the first two verses of the text, the very beginning of the bible, both in Hebrew and in a later Greek translation (usually called the Septuagint), again in a literal translation.
In beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and the earth was formless and empty, and darkness over the face of the deep, and spirit of God hovering upon the face of the waters.
In beginning God made the heaven and the earth; and the earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was over the abyss; and spirit of God moved over the water.
It should be said that, first of all, Hebrew is very different from Greek, and there are also a lot of ways in which words could be translated, and often it is better if they are translated in more than one word, but I hope that what is lacking in the Greek translation is somewhat obvious, the mention of ‘face’. To learn a structure of a text, it is important to know what common words or phrases COULD be used, but rarer words or phrases are used instead.
The word ‘face’ also appears at a significant point in the second creation account, the one that starts where the Sunday text leaves off. Here, again, is a somewhat literal translation, with some significant words given in bold:
And any shrub of the field not yet appeared on the earth, and any plant of the field not yet sprung up for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and man was not to work the ground; and a stream came up from the earth and watered all of the face of the ground; and the LORD God formed man from dust of the ground…(verses 5-7). And the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and care for it (verse 15)….
In the first creation account, the beginning is important. And in the second one, the turning point is important, it is from negative to positive, and this will be the structure for the rest of the book. And both of these important sections contain the word ‘face’.
The word ‘face’ is important because God is important. He is the ultimate king, and it is an important thing to come into the king’s presence, to see his face.
God does other things in this first account that are similar to what a king would do. He calls things a certain name. He sees things with his eyes. He blesses things with his words (the Greek word for ‘bless’ is basically ‘eulogy’, literally ‘good words’).
So, a ‘face’ is mentioned in the creation accounts. And the face of God is important. Does that make a difference? How God is involved with his creation certainly makes a difference. And the beginnings of that involvement are laid out in the rest of Genesis.
Almost from the beginning there is a confusion between who God is and who man is. The woman is tempted with the words, ‘You will be like God (3:5).’ There is also a significant phrase that is repeated twice within the book of Genesis, ‘Am I in the place of God?’
The first time this happens, the favorite wife of Jacob, Rachel, has had no children yet. She says to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I will die.’ Jacob responds with that question (30:1-2). The second time, the eleven brothers of Joseph have to deal with him after their father dies, and they think that they are going to be punished by him since he has so much power in Egypt now. But Joseph says to them, ‘Do not be afraid.’ And then he tells them those same words (50:19). (It is interesting that the Greek translation here does not make it a question; it has Joseph saying, ‘I am God’s.’ It looks as though there was some debate over the meaning of a Hebrew preposition.)
‘Am I in the place of God?’ is a significant question and can be answered in more than one way. Since we have the luxury of looking back at the past, we can now see how important that question was, especially in the light of Jesus’ death on the cross for us.
Sometimes the luxuries that we have can distract us from a serious study of the text. It is good to be reminded that the first few words or so of a book often gave a hint as to the book’s structure. It may be distracting, with our study bibles, to check out the outline that someone thought up. But the text itself often has the outline within it in some way.
I think this may be the case with the first creation account. Although that account is what most certainly happened, how it is described also provides a summary as to what will happen throughout the book of Genesis. In the same way that the first three days set the stage and the last days fill that stage, the first eleven chapters (which is yet another artificial structure) set the stage, and the rest of the book of Genesis fills that stage with a salvation story, a story which has God extremely involved.
So, it may be just a coincidence that there are two more uses of the word ‘face’ within the creation account, one during the fifth day (verse 20) and the other one during the sixth day (verse 29). It is impossible to say for certain that these words have structural significance, but they may get the reader or the listener prepared to hear something even more significant about God’s involvement in his universe at the middle and the end of the second part of Genesis—that identical question, ‘Am I in the place of God?’
Genesis does not leave us with the answer, in the same way that Deuteronomy does not; and even Malachi falls short as well. The mention of God or face is not to be taken lightly, especially when he has one of them.
May 31, 2020
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, and this starts the second half of the church year. But you might be able to guess that the focus is still on Jesus.
When Jesus was ready to teach, he would first sit down. Early within the second reading, the reading from the book of Acts [2:1-21], the verb ‘to sit’ comes up twice. Here is a somewhat- literal translation of the first three verses:
And in the completion of the day of Pentecost, they [the apostles] were all as one, as the same. And it happened suddenly, out of heaven, a sound as of a forceful wind being carried, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them, being distributed, tongues as of fire, and it sat on each one of them….
Before you think it was just a coincidence that the same word comes up twice in two sentences, I would encourage you to think about the last time someone was doing some sitting, not only in the Acts of the Apostles, but also what happened before that, what is given in the Gospel according to Luke.
First of all, please notice the contrast of that account with the other accounts. In the Gospel according to Matthew, on Easter Sunday, an angel of the Lord rolls the stone away and sits on it (28:2). In the Gospel according to Mark, also on Easter Sunday, an angel is inside the tomb, sitting on the right (16:5). In the Gospel according to John, on Good Friday, Pilate is described as sitting on a judgment seat (19:13). But in the Gospel according to Luke, the last time someone is described as sitting is all the way back in 22:69. Jesus is speaking before the Sanhedrin and is talking about himself. Here, again, is a somewhat-literal translation of that text:
‘But from now the Son of Man will be sitting at the right of the power of God.’
There are other body positions of other people within these last chapters of the Gospel according to Luke and the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The closest anyone comes to sitting is the ‘reclining’ at table that is done at Emmaus on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:30). A suggestion for a bible study would be to read from the beginning of Luke 22 to the end of Acts 2, to find all the uses of sitting (and other body positions) that are mentioned. Such a study would also help to see the transition between that gospel account and the book of Acts.
Why were the apostles sitting in Acts 2? The easiest answer is that they were told to do that. In Luke 24:49, Jesus tells them, literally, to sit in the city of Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from a high place. (The English translations usually use another word.)
An answer to that last question that is a little more complicated is that sitting is an important position in ancient times. Here are some things that are mentioned in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [published by Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1965] regarding the verb ‘to sit’.
By far, the biggest section when dealing with the idea of sitting has to do with ‘a mark of particular distinction’. And of the four types of people with authority who are mentioned (gods, rulers, judges, and teachers), the most unfamiliar to present-day society are those of gods and rulers; so here are just a couple quotes from those sections:
‘Archaeological material from Egypt, the Near East and the Greek Hellenistic world shows that sitting is a distinctive sign of deity. The god often sits while men stand to pray before him. In the early period of Israel’s history the ark represented God’s throne…[volume 3, page 441].’
Throughout antiquity there is a close connection between the god and the ruler, whether in personal or institutional terms. This helps us to see why in archaeology and in literature rulers are enthroned like the gods. Even in the OT the throne is the particular prerogative of the ruler…[volume 3, page 442].
In other words, sitting is a very important position, and the apostles were very important people.
A more interesting question may be: Why are the tongues as of fire described as sitting? Obviously, those tongues have some authority as well. They are connected to the wind, which is the same word as ‘spirit’. This is the Holy Spirit coming down, and this was predicted by Jesus.
Another related question might be this: Where were the tongues of fire on the bodies of the apostles? Most pictures have them on the tops of their heads. For many years, one of my favorite woodcuts from the time of the Reformation was included in the Australian Lutheran edition of Luther’s Large Catechism. Included in this blog is a picture of that woodcut, by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1527. [Anniversary Translation and Introductory Essay by Friedemann Hebart, published by Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1983; this work celebrated the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth; the woodcut appears on page 118.]
This picture, as you hopefully can see, has the tongues of fire coming out of the mouths of the apostles. That certainly is different. And this difference is a good reminder of the authority that comes with words, especially the Lord’s words. The Lord breathed on his disciples at the end of the Gospel according to John (20:22), and that breath and the wind and the Holy Spirit all go together. Related to that is the fact that someone who had authority over someone else might have his foot upon the other’s neck (see Joshua 10:24). The message of a picture like that is quite clear.
Other pictures have the tongues of fire on the tops of their heads. That can work as well. The heads of all the apostles—as well as of pastors—are sinful heads. But the words that are given out by those people at various times are very special, and those words ultimately belong to someone else.
May 24, 2020
The First Reading for this week, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, is Acts 1:12-26, and this is the only time and place you will hear the expression, ‘a Sabbath day’s journey’. This text is always the first reading, no matter what year it is of the three-year series, and verse 12 of the text, the verse that contains that phrase, goes this way (in a very literal translation):
Then they [the apostles, the ‘men of Galilee’] returned into Jerusalem from the mount of the one being called the olive grove, which is near Jerusalem, having a way of a sabbath.
Since this blog has that name, I thought it would be good to look into that phrase a little more closely. There are some things in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [published in 1988 by Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, Michigan] that were new to me:
The distance the rabbis allowed a Jew to travel on the Sabbath without breaking the law. The phrase occurs only in Acts 1:12, where it describes the distance the disciples traveled when they returned from the Mt. of Olives to Jerusalem after the Ascension. Defining travel as work proscribed on the sabbath (cf. Ex. 16:27-30), the rabbis limited such travel to 2000 cubits (3000 ft. [914 m.] by Hellenistic measure, 3600 ft. [1097 m.] by Roman measure) from one’s domicile. The figure seems to have been based on Josh. 3:4, which says that the distance between the ark and the people during the wilderness sojourn was 2000 cubits. Here it was assumed that this was the distance necessary to attend worship in the tabernacle, and that such necessity legitimated the distance involved. We do not know when this interpretation was finalized, but it seems to have been accepted by the time of Christ. Later Jerome (Ep. To Algarsiam x) stated that a sabbath day’s journey was 2000 ft. (610 m.); according to the Egyptian measure it was 1000 double-steps.
In any case the scribes invented ways to increase a sabbath day’s journey up to a distance of 4000 cubits. One could deposit food at the 2000-cubit limit before the sabbath began and declare that spot a temporary home, or one could select a tree or a wall 2000 cubits from one’s true residence and declare this one’s home; thus one could travel an added 2000 cubits on the sabbath. Again, one could declare the whole town in which one dwelt one’s domicile, and so journey 2000 cubits beyond the town limits from any point in the town. Boundary stones, supposedly marking such village limits, have been found near Gaza. Rabbinical interpretation sometimes understood Nu. 35:5, which measured the suburbs of Levitical cities as 2000 cubits, as also bearing on a sabbath day’s journey [volume 4, page 252].
The attempts to get ‘around’ that limit are interesting. But that is nothing new. There are new ‘laws’ that are attached to this new virus that are being questioned by some and wholeheartedly rejected by others. People enjoy freedom, but true freedom only comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ (for more detail on this, see the 1520 writing of Dr. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian; this year is that writing’s 500th anniversary, and the document merits some serious attention; also, there are a substantial number of bible verses mentioned within the document, and the reading of it could be considered a bible study).
To get back to the subject, this phrase, ‘a Sabbath day’s journey’, did not have to show up at all in the New Testament. The distance could have been measured in stadia, as it is done other times. And it was not even the Sabbath when Jesus ascended!
This phrase prepares the reader and/or listener for a Jewish perspective on the Jesus story. That is what we have pretty much throughout the work. Even though in Acts 13:46 Paul states that ‘we are turning toward the Gentiles’, they continue to go to synagogues. Even in Rome, at the end of the book, Paul speaks to ‘the first [i.e., the leaders] of the Jews’. And, at the VERY end, he is described as ‘proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness unhindered (Acts 28:31).’ There is no more talk of limits with THAT text.
May 17, 2020
Last week we were at Acts 6 & 7, and this week, we are at Acts 17[:16-31]. Obviously, that is a significant jump. And the next Sunday after that, after the festival of the Ascension of Our Lord, we will jump back to Acts 1, waiting for Pentecost on that next Sunday. There is certainly a lot of jumping around in the book of Acts. And there is certainly a danger in not seeing the forward progression within it.
I mentioned last week that the first time the word gospel is used as a verb is right before the text for that Sunday in Acts 5:42. And the last time the word gospel is used as a verb is in the text for today. Lots of things have happened between those two readings, and it may be helpful to take a closer look at the progression going on there.
Here are all the verses in the book of Acts that have the word ‘evangelize’ in it somewhere. Please try to note the words that are connected to it in some way. Those words are very important, since that word ‘evangelize’ is strongly connected to that EXTREMELY important word, gospel. The following translations are somewhat literal; I have added references to help in understanding:
Acts 5:42 And every day in the temple and according to house, they [the apostles] did not cease teaching and evangelizing the Christ Jesus.
Acts 8:4 Therefore, the ones being scattered passed through, evangelizing the word.
Acts 8:12 But when they [the people in Samaria] believed Philip, evangelizing the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Acts 8:25 They [Peter and John], therefore, having solemnly witnessed and having spoken the word of the Lord, returned into Jerusalem, and they evangelized many villages of the Samaritans.
Acts 8:35 And Philip, opening his mouth and beginning from this scripture, evangelized to him [the Ethiopian] Jesus.
Acts 8:40 But Philip was found in Azotus, and passing through, he evangelized all the cities, until the coming of him into Caesarea.
Acts 10:36 [Peter said: This is] the word which he [God] sent to the sons of Israel, evangelizing peace through Jesus Christ—this one is Lord of all.
Acts 11:20 But, on the other hand, there were some of them, men, Cypriotes and Cyrenians, who, coming into Antioch, spoke also to the Hellenists, evangelizing the Lord Jesus.
Acts 13:32 [Paul said:] And we ourselves evangelize to you the promise having come to the fathers.
Acts 14:7 And there they [the apostles, Paul and Barnabas] were evangelizing.
Acts 14:15 And [they, the apostles, Paul and Barnabas] were saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We ourselves are also of like nature to you humans, evangelizing to you to turn from these vanities to the God, the living One, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all things in them.’
Acts 14:21 And [Paul and Barnabas] evangelizing that city [Derbe] and having made many disciples, they returned into Lystra and into Iconium and into Antioch.
Acts 15:35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and evangelizing, with also many others, the word of the Lord.
Acts 16:10 And as he [Paul] saw the vision, immediately we sought to go out into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them.
Acts 17:18 But some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers fell in with him, and some were saying, ‘What does this “seed-picker” wish to say?' but others, ‘He seems to be an announcer of strange deities,’ because he evangelized Jesus and the resurrection.
I realize that is a significant amount of reading, especially for only ‘A Sabbath Day’s Journey’ with a text. Good job if you made it all the way through! If you simply passed most of that by, that is also fine. A bible study idea for this week might be to look carefully at each of these verses. And it might be helpful to think of these verses as a type of dictionary to the word ‘evangelize’ in Acts.
Perhaps you noticed that there are only two times that another verb is placed next to the verb ‘evangelize’, and it is the same verb both times. In Acts 5:42, the text says that the apostles did not cease teaching and evangelizing the Christ Jesus. And in Acts 15:35, the text says that Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and evangelizing the word of the Lord with many others. Teaching was an important job of Jesus, and he gives that important job to his followers (see Matthew 28:19-20). The gospel is also an important thing being given.
So, there is a significant similarity in these two verses, and there is also a significant progression; the direct object of ‘evangelizing’ is different; there is a change from ‘Jesus Christ’, to ‘the word of the Lord’. The title ‘Christ’ tends to look back at the Old Testament, that someone was anointed (christened) to do a special job. With the title Lord, we are pointed forward, that Jesus is the Lord over death; that was his title especially after his resurrection. Words are also important, and they continue to be important today.
I think it is significant that this change happens after the gospel is clarified, and that happens in Acts 15. Obviously, the change has something to do with Jesus. But he is not primarily the example; he is not the cheerleader; he is not even the Helper (this title appears in the Gospel according to John, but that account is designed to accompany the other accounts as well where his main task has already been given). Jesus rescues; he saves; he does what his name says (see Matthew 1:21).
In Acts 15, the gospel is clarified with words. I may have mentioned another time that the only two times that the word ‘gospel’ appears as a noun is in Acts 15:7 and Acts 20:24. It is worth repeating that again. In Acts 15:7, Peter uses that word gospel at the beginning of his speech, and, at the end of his speech, he says that we believe we are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 15:11). Could it be any clearer? And the Acts 20:24 verse reminds us of how important that gospel was in the life of Paul.
It is nice to hear that gospel again and again. There is a lot of bad news within the world (even without talking about viruses) and even within ourselves. The good news of Jesus’ death on the cross for sin is at the heart of the gospel, and those words should have the final say.
May 10, 2020
Our Easter journey continues in the book of Acts. Although at the end of the Easter season, the focus will be on Acts 2 and Pentecost, this Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue in the book of Acts with a reading from the sixth and seventh chapters [6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60]. This is one of the very few times that the reading is from three different places. With such a text, it is easy to lose the context. A simple bible study suggestion for this Sunday might be to read Acts, chapters 5 through 8.
What can we say about these seven ‘deacons’ who are installed at the beginning of chapter 6? The first thing to say is that they are never called deacons! Philip is eventually called an evangelist though (see Acts 21:8). And it may not be a coincidence that the first mention of ‘evangelizing’ in the book of Acts is found in the verse right before Acts 6:1. This is the important word ‘gospel’, but as a verb. (Without the division of chapters, it is easier to see the context.)
Here is that text of Acts 5:42 in a somewhat-literal translation:
And every day in the temple and from house to house, the apostles did not cease teaching and evangelizing the Christ Jesus.
Incidentally, the very last time this important word ‘gospel’ appears as a verb in Acts is at 17:18, and that will be part of the Acts text for this next Sunday.
It would be good at this place and time to remember that the word ‘gospel’, in the Old Testament, meant the delivery of important news from one significant place to another, such as from the battlefield to the king. The messenger would deliver the news of victory or defeat. In other words, this is very important stuff being said.
This context may put the problem of these Hellenistic widows being ‘overlooked’ in a different light. (By the way, the word ‘overlooked’ is a literal translation, and the Greek word is found only here in the New Testament; its use may hint at a unique situation; and it is a good thing also to know that the word ‘Hellenistic’ is a description of a Greek-speaking Israelite.) Many people have understood this overlooking to mean that these women are simply without food. This is certainly possible. But what could ALSO be happening is that, because they are widows, they are without a man of the house to be the religious leader for them. And because they speak Greek, they may be wanting to hear some Greek words about Jesus.
The twelve disciples were probably giving Jewish-Christian widows a LOT more words than they were giving the Hellenistic widows. Could this be the meaning of being ‘overlooked’?
The job of these seven is not given in any detail, but they all have Greek names. The twelve called together the multitude of disciples and said it in this way, that they do not want to ‘leave behind’ (an even more literal translation would be to ‘leave down’; the ESV has ‘give up’) the word of God and serve tables.
The use of ‘word of God’ is interesting here. It is used primarily in the early chapters of Acts, and this is when there is more of a Jewish context. Eventually the phrase, the ‘word of the Lord’ will be used in Acts, and it is usually used within a more non-Jewish context.
If you are interested in learning more about this, in Acts 13 there are multiple uses of both phrases ‘word of God’ and the ‘word of the Lord’. Below are the verses, the phrase used (either ‘word of God’ or ‘word of Lord’), and its context. Another bible study idea would be to read through this entire chapter.
13:5 word of God … what was announced in the synagogues to the Jews
13:7 word of God … what an ‘intelligent’ man wanted to hear
13:44 word of Lord (but ‘word of God’ in some manuscripts) … what ‘all the city’ assembled together to hear
13:46 word of God … what Paul and Barnabas had first said to the Jews
13:48 word of Lord (but ‘word of God’ in only a few manuscripts) … what was glorified by the nations [This is certainly unusual, to glorify the WORD of the Lord rather than simply the Lord; this may be the reason there are some more differences between the various manuscripts.]
13:49 word of Lord … what was carried through all the country
Some of the manuscripts have the other option (of ‘word of God’) two times above, and this alternative may be for a more Jewish reader. If this Jewish emphasis of a manuscript is of interest to you, please check out volume 1 of the 4-volume work, The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae, by Josep Rius-Camps and Jenny Read-Heimerdinger, published by T & T Clark in 2004, pages 37-40.]
Hopefully a careful look at chapter 13 was helpful in seeing that the use of ‘word of God’ is closer to what the twelve disciples did with Jesus, while the ‘word of the Lord’ is what those who are sent out are doing with the non-Jews.
The twelve do not want to ‘leave behind’ the words that they were speaking with Jewish-Christian widows. If they would go to the Hellenistic widows’ homes, they were probably not saying as much as when they were in Jewish widows’ homes. In a sense, they may have felt as though they were just 'serving tables'.
What are these seven men called to do? If it is simply to hand out food, why did Stephen get into so much trouble? It seems that these seven are given a very serious task, and sometimes, some serious tasks have to do with some serious words.
The following quote clarified that perspective for me, that the women may have wanted to hear more words about Jesus, and, more specifically, words in the Greek language. I was reading The Development of the New Testament Canon by William Farmer and came upon this statement which I had not heard before [and which may be termed ‘the Farmer Principle’—I have yet to find it articulated elsewhere]:
The first evident need for writing down the words of the Lord may have been in connection with the need for the oral tradition to be translated in a reliable way into languages other than that spoken by Jesus, or other than that spoken by Christian prophets speaking in the spirit and name of Jesus (published by Paulist Press, 1983; page 50).
Many have proposed that there was writing going on before this event in Acts 6, and that is certainly a possibility. But chapter 6 of the book of Acts may not only point out the growth of people within the Church, but also the growth of the written text. A reliable Greek text could be used to convey the events of a reliable Savior to the ‘overlooked’ (and ‘Greek’) widows. The Lord does not overlook anyone—even if they describe themselves with quotation marks! And we know what great growth would ultimately come from that undertaking of a written text. Thank God—the LORD—for the New Testament!
May 3, 2020
This Sunday is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, and one of the themes for this Sunday is Jesus as the Good Shepherd—it is a role he continues to have as our resurrected Lord. The coronavirus may be considered as sort of a ‘theme’ as well. And the more important theme of Acts 2 also continues this Sunday [the text is verses 42-47], and last week we looked at all the longer speeches in Acts that had 10 or more verses.
As I wrote last week, these speeches take a lot of room in the text. The focus is ultimately not meant to be getting across a lot of INFORMATION, but those longer speeches are given in an effort to be clear about what is most important, SALVATION. And within those speeches, there are some differences when it comes to salvation that are sometimes quickly passed over, but I think those differences are important and that it would be good to go over some of them.
One interesting thing is the way, in those first speeches, that Jesus’ actions are described on the cross. As was mentioned last week, there are five speeches of significant length before the Apostolic Council in Acts 15. The middle (or third) speech in Acts 7 was not to a friendly audience, and Jesus on the cross was barely mentioned in that text. But the other four all had very positive responses, and those descriptions of Jesus on the cross have some significant differences that are worth mentioning.
Here are the phrases that talk about Jesus on the cross (with some very literal translations):
…this one, by the fixed counsel and foreknowledge of God, he gave him up, through the hands of lawless ones, fastening, you took away his life (verse 23).
But you yourselves denied the holy and just one, and you asked for a man, a murderer, to be granted to you, and the author of life you killed…(verses 14-15a).
They indeed took away his life, hanging on a tree… (verse 39b).
And when they finished all the things concerning him that were written, taking him down from the tree, they placed him into a tomb (verse 29).
First of all, it should be noted that one can easily tell which sermons had an audience of Jews and which had Gentiles—the first two sermons say basically that YOU killed Jesus, and the last two, that THEY killed Jesus. But it is more important to look at some of the diversity here in terms of the crucifixion description.
For such a central event as Jesus’ death on the cross, is such diversity a problem? I would think not. But it IS a problem for some. And the diversity that is seen in the four gospel accounts is also a significant problem for some. Why are the accounts so different if they are talking about the same Jesus?
This may sound a bit strange, but I see some connections between these four speeches and the four gospel accounts. What has helped me to make these connections is a book that has been published recently. It is a book is by Christian Schramm, Die Königmacher: Wie die synoptischen Evangelien Herrschaftslegitimierung betreiben. (Obviously it is in German, and THAT can be a problem for some, but it is not incredibly expensive for its language or length—452 pages. A theological library near you may have this; the publisher is Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, University of Bonn, 2019.)
In Schramm’s book, the three most similar gospel accounts, that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are studied in respect to their differences, and the differences are attributed to a different aspect of kingship within the culture of that time (and especially within the Old Testament). In other words, each account is giving a slightly different emphasis on what it means for Jesus to be a king. (N.T. Wright does basically the same thing in his somewhat recent book, obviously in English, How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels.)
Here are the basic specifics, and I am giving you the German description that Schramm gives [on the back cover of the book], since the words he chooses are quite similar to their English translations: The Gospel according to Matthew has a kingship that is ‘genealogisch-dynastisch’. The Gospel according to Mark has a kingship that is ‘aretologisch-charismatisch’. And the Gospel according to Luke has a kingship that is ‘religiös-theokratisch’. To be extremely brief, Matthew focuses on men, Mark focuses on Jesus, and Luke focuses on God. There are, of course, examples of these emphases, but there is not the space here to give them. And we can see those three emphases connect to the various speeches.
Here are the unique things of each speech being discussed:
What is unique in this is, first of all, the contrast between the counsel and foreknowledge of God and what man does; and the focus ends up on man. When the topic of men are brought up, hands are specifically mentioned, and there is also the manual action of ‘fastening’. Jesus is very much a man in the Gospel according to Matthew, specifically a teacher, one who tells us the ‘counsel of God’, who also gives us some ‘laws’ (see Matthew 28:20), but the amazing thing is that he willingly puts himself into the ‘hands’ of lawless men.
Near the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus almost gets killed by Herod, and after Herod dies, he is in danger from the person who takes his place—certainly a terrible dynasty there! But he gets away from those difficult situations, that is, until he arrives at the most difficult situation of all, the cross.
The description of Jesus as the ‘Author of life’ is very radical, and it is heightened by comparing Jesus to Barabbas, a murderer. (This, by the way, is the only way the Gospel according to Mark describes Barabbas; in the Gospel according to Matthew, he is simply ‘notorious’; in the Gospel according to Luke, he is connected to murder AND insurrection; and in the Gospel according to John, he is a robber.)
Jesus certainly stands out in the way he is depicted in the Gospel according to Mark. In that account, Jesus is pretty much alone; his disciples are not depicted as being too good at their jobs; they often did not get what was happening (see, for example, Mark 8:21). In this gospel account, there is also a comparison between King Herod and ‘King Jesus’. Herod falls short of being someone worth following when he kills John the Baptist, because of a promise made to a good dancer (see Mark 6:14-32).
What is unique is that Jesus is described as ‘hanging’ on the cross. And only in the Gospel according to Luke is one of the two criminals described in this way (Luke 23:39). By simply describing Jesus being on the cross as ‘hanging’ there, the emphasis gets to be put upon God the Father’s part in all of this. And when the Son of God is put on the level of a criminal, that is something you would not expect. And Jesus, within the Gospel according to Luke, is on the level of the obedient servant to his Father in heaven (for an example of this, see Luke 2:49).
The phrase ‘And when they finished all the things concerning him that were written…’ at first seems a little vague and significantly different from the other three descriptions. (And this gospel account is known to be significantly different from the others.) What is going on here? But when it says that ‘taking him down from the tree, they placed him into a tomb’, then it is clear that the speaker is referring to Jesus on the cross.
Within the Gospel according to John, there are a lot of Old Testament references that show that this time was predicted long ago and in many ways. (The account, in general, has a much bigger perspective than the others.) The Old Testament references are hinted at in the other accounts of the crucifixion (and in other times of Jesus’ life), but they are specifically mentioned in this account, and here they are:
19:24 The soldiers cast lots to fulfill scripture.
19:28 Jesus said ‘I thirst’ to fulfill scripture.
19:36 Jesus’ bones were not broken to fulfill scripture.
19:37 Jesus was pierced to fulfill scripture.
Why would there be a connection between the four accounts and the four sermons in the first part of Acts? These are not just four accounts and four sermons that were quickly and haphazardly put together. Again, the issue is an important one, SALVATION. Instead of simply thinking that a certain amount of information was available to the writer, we can think that each writer or speaker was given a certain aspect of kingship to emphasize. When the three synoptic accounts are so close together and basically emphasize different aspects—man, Jesus, and God—those are ALL the main components in that great story of salvation!
Both the speeches and the accounts work together well, and both groups bring to the early church an emphasis on the gospel—in the SINGULAR—of Jesus Christ. This word is very important in the book of Acts. Some people call the four gospel accounts a ‘fourfold gospel’; this keeps the word ‘gospel’ in the singular.
The four accounts and the four sermons have significant differences, and the codex (book) form makes them easier to compare, as we can do today. The somewhat diverse texts were meant to be compared in a positive way. Jesus as King is a significant, multi-faceted statement, and it has some various and significant ramifications.
Perhaps a bible study suggestion for this week would be to compare the following chapters which focus on Jesus’ crucifixion to see some of the different ways in which Jesus is a king over sin—Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19. If you desire, you may certainly go on to read the diversity within the resurrection accounts as well—this IS the Easter season after all. These may be seen as the ways in which Jesus is king over death.
April 26, 2020
For the entire season of Easter, with the three-year series, the first reading is from the book of Acts, instead of the Old Testament. That is not a bad idea, since it makes for a good transition to the season of Pentecost, when the main text for that festival is from Acts 2.
As was mentioned last week, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus certainly changed things. The early Christians started meeting on Sunday instead of Saturday. And there were starting to be some even more significant differences between the Jews of Jesus’ day and the followers of Jesus.
Jesus is certainly the focus in Acts 2, but it will take a little before you hear a phrase like ‘we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus’. When they finally get to Acts 15, you hear that ‘we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved (verse 11).’ That will certainly be a time to rejoice. But there are some significant joyful moments in the first fourteen chapters as well.
This Sunday is the Third Sunday of Easter, but with both the third and the fourth Sundays, the first reading is from Acts 2. (This Sunday, the text is verses 14a and 36-41.) It is obviously an important chapter.
It is not a bad thing to see the bigger picture of the text, especially since we will be in this book for a few weeks. Can you imagine the decisions that Luke had to make when writing this account, what to include and what to leave out? Lots of things happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was about twenty years between the death of Jesus and the Apostolic Council of Acts 15. What would you include?
Speeches especially took a lot of space, but they also had an important purpose. The story is not about information, but SALVATION. Why are some speeches included and some left out? They slow things down so that we can enjoy the moment, and they help to put us look at some of the important details. Below are all the speeches in Acts that are ten verses long or more (and are without interruption; I also have included the speeches after the Apostolic Council, so that you could have a kind of comparison of what happened before and after that ‘central’ event; the number of verses after each description is the length of that speech):
Acts 2 Peter Addresses the Crowd on Pentecost 23 vs
Acts 3 Peter Speaks to the Temple Onlookers 15 vs
Acts 7 Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin 52 vs
Acts 10 Peter Speaks to Gentiles in Caesarea 10 vs
Acts 13 Paul Speaks a Message of Encouragement 25 vs
[The Apostolic Council … a half-way point]
Acts 17 Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus 10 vs
Acts 20 Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders 18 vs
Acts 22 Paul Speaks to the Crowd in Jerusalem 19 vs
Acts 24 The Trial Before Governor Felix 12 vs
Acts 26 The Trial Before King Agrippa 22 vs
The first five speeches have an interesting progression, and hopefully you can see a pattern emerging. Below is a partial description of the audience (A:) for each of the first five, as well as some of the response (R:).
A: ‘God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven (verse 5).’
R: They were ‘stung to the heart’ (verse 37)… three thousand were baptized.
A: ‘All the people’ (verse 11) ran together at the temple porch called Solomon
R: The priests, the commandant of the temple, and the Sadducees interrupted them and ‘laid their hands on them’ (chapter 4, verse 3) and put them away … many of the ones hearing the word believed, and the number of men was now about five thousand.
A: People were ‘stirred up’ (chapter 6, verse 12), and they seized Stephen and led him to the Sanhedrin.
R: They were ‘cut to the heart’ and stoned Stephen, but he ‘fell asleep’ (verses 54-60).
A: Cornelius was expecting Peter and called together his friends and relatives.
R: The Holy Spirit interrupted and came upon all who heard the message.
A: Paul and his companions are at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.
R: They are invited to speak again. When the crowds became big, the Jews became jealous, and Paul says that the Gentiles may also hear the good news. ‘As many who were appointed for eternal life believed (verse 48)’.
This is just a quick summary of just some of the details, but hopefully you can see what is going on. There is a positive outcome in all the speeches except the middle one (although the text does not specifically say that the stoning killed Stephen). The first two speeches were primarily toward the Jews. Then there is the turning point with the middle speech, and the last two speeches ultimately focus more on the Gentiles. The first and the fourth speeches are normally connected to a Jewish and a Gentile ‘Pentecost’ respectively. It is also interesting that the second speech to the Jews has an interruption, and the first speech to the Gentiles has an interruption—and both interruptions are significantly different.
For a bible study idea, you might want to look more closely at these five chapters. I left out some of the descriptions of both audience and response that you might find helpful. I also left out some of the verse references, to help simplify things. Hopefully you will enjoy this larger view.
April 19, 2020
This Sunday is NOT called the First Sunday after Easter. It is called the Second Sunday OF Easter. And this will be something like the fifth Sunday after the coronavirus changed our worship life. Things have been different and will continue to be so.
Things have also been different since the resurrection of our Lord. Christians started meeting on Sundays rather than the Sabbath day (Saturday). Imagine meeting on a different day of the week after meeting for thousands of years on another day! The early Christians also wanted to hear more of Jesus’ words. They wanted to break bread with him, as the obscure Emmaus disciples did (see Luke 24:30; this will be part of next week’s gospel text).
These differences caused some difficulties between the early Christians and the Jews of that time, and some of those difficulties continue to the present. The Christian Church has been going in a different direction since it started that first Easter Sunday, and looking at some of their early difficulties may be helpful during these unusual times.
The First Reading for this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, is Acts 5:29-42. (A good ‘bible study’ at home may include a closer look at the first part of that chapter, to understand the context.) That text starts with a famous and oft-repeated phrase, ‘We must obey God rather than men (ESV).’ In a time when tensions are high, and also when there are a lot of non-denominational congregations that, by definition, go in their own direction, there can be a lot of ‘push-back’ when it comes to orders from the government to ‘stay-at-home’, so that the hospitals are not overwhelmed with large numbers of the sick.
Some churches still meet and come together rather closely. And, because of that, some more people are exposed to the virus. By coming together, some Christians are saying that they are obeying God rather than men. A closer look at that text may be helpful.
What follows is a very literal translation of the text, and, with this translation, I was free to translate one word in Greek into more than one word in English. This is what was done in The Amplified Bible, but that is only done in a limited number of places—and not at all with this text.
‘to obey a superior, it is necessary, God rather than men.’
Since the words in Greek do not need to be in a specific order in which to be understood, the order in which they appear in the text can be helpful to show which words are most important. The first word, which is usually translated as ‘obey’, has an interesting history. The word is relatively rare; there are several other ways to say ‘obey’. This word is made up of two words, the first one having to do with persuasion, and the second, having to do with a superior, literally someone who is first. In other words, a person who is first has some influence and should be obeyed. Of the two parts of the word, the second, being superior, is more important, and it is somewhat unique among the ways in which to say ‘obey’. One of the uses of this word is that of the ‘obedience’ of the moon and the stars to their Creator. The relationship in that circumstance is a bit more than persuasive. (For more detail, see the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, published by Eerdmans in 1968, volume 6, pages 9-10.)
With just this verse, it would be easy to say that we should only obey God and not men. But, in Titus 3:1, the text says to ‘Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.’ The word ‘obedient’ here is the same rare word as before! When people are given authority by God, the One who is first in all things that matter, then those people are to be obeyed as well. We obey the One, in whatever way he has chosen to rule over us.
When men are saying the complete opposite of God, yes, it is necessary to be obedient to God rather than men. But those who are in authority may have something godly and important to say as well, and, with a little effort, there can be some situations when Christians are obedient to BOTH God and men.
EASTER SUNDAY, APRIL 12, 2020
Like every other Sunday to some extent, on this Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. It other words, it is Easter.
With the coronavirus still a very hot topic, there is a lot of other news that is being spread around the world. But this is nothing new, as we shall see from the perspective of the Gospel according to Matthew.
The text for Easter Sunday for this year is from Matthew 28:1-10. And this year’s text for Holy Trinity Sunday is Matthew 28:16-20. Other than those two Sundays, there is no other time when a part of Matthew 28 is spoken as a gospel reading. The bible study idea for this week is therefore to look at the entire text of Matthew 28 as a whole and to read the notes about it in a Lutheran study bible (if you have one). You may also want to look at the various cross-references that are given to these twenty verses—they can be helpful in a ‘dictionary’ sort of way, since they may show how a similar word or phrase is used elsewhere. And it may be especially helpful to look at Matthew 28:11-15, since that section is never in a gospel reading (and what follows is a somewhat literal translation of those five verses):
[Jesus had just appeared to the women who were at the tomb, he had told them not to fear, he had just called the disciples his brothers(!) and he said that they would see him in Galilee.] And as the women were going, behold, some of the guard, coming into the city, announced to the chief priests all the things that had happened. And being assembled with the elders, and taking counsel, they gave enough silver to the soldiers, saying, ‘Say that his disciples, coming by night, stole him while we slept. And if this is heard before the governor, we ourselves will persuade, and we will make you free from anxiety.’ And they, taking the silver, did as they were taught. And this word was spread about by the Jews until today.
I cannot help but see the writer making a comparison between the word which was given to the disciples and the word which was given to the soldiers. The word to the soldiers was to make them free from anxiety. The word to the disciples was designed to do SO much more.
Sometimes we forget how wonderful that word is. Sometimes we forget how many blessings we have already received. In many ways, we can sometimes be like spoiled children. The coronavirus can be a reminder that we have sinful bodies which may be susceptible to deadly attacks. But we have from our resurrected Lord a life-giving word in which to trust. We have a word with not only a happy ending, but with a happy beginning and a happy middle.
And speaking of middle, in the middle of this last narrative section of the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 26 through 28, there is the depressing account of Judas’ suicide. And this piece of information is also included in that story regarding the place where Judas chose to kill himself:
‘Therefore, that field was called ‘The Field of Blood’ until today (Matthew 27:8).’
Did you notice the connection between this text and the end of the previous text? Some very negative things are being passed on … until today. Bad news can be passed on like a virus. And it can also grow and become more dreaded like a virus. That is what happens with sin; it also causes death. But there is so much more life in the gospel of Jesus Christ—his life, his death, and his resurrection, all for you and for your benefit.
It is interesting to compare this gospel account with the Gospel according to John, the one with the living creature of the eagle. The Gospel according to Matthew’s living creature is a man, and a man tells stories and teaches others some significant things. But an eagle, since it flies so high, has a much broader perspective. The word in Greek which means ‘today’ is nowhere in the Gospel according to John, but the writer gives an even better and larger perspective in these words (in another somewhat literal translation):
‘But these things have been written so that YOU may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, by believing, you may have life in his name (John 20:31).’
In other words, these things were written so that wonderful things would happen on THIS day, today, right now, and TO YOU.
Particularly on Easter Sunday, but every other Sunday is a reminder of Jesus’ response to sin, death, and the devil. His cross and his empty tomb speak VOLUMES. The coronavirus is just speaking one page.
April 5, 2020
This Sunday is called the Sunday of the Passion, and it is also another Sunday with the coronavirus still rearing its ugly head. You can almost expect every headline of every type of news to focus on that topic.
There is an event within the Gospel according to Matthew that, according to our modern perspective, should have been mentioned in every gospel account—if the accounts were just telling the facts. You would certainly call this event ‘newsworthy’.
At this point, if you would like to guess the event I am referring to, please read through the shorter Passion account in the Gospel according to Matthew [27:11-66]. This would be a good thing to do as the start of a ‘bible study’—since you would be studying the bible. What do you consider as the most unusual thing to happen in this part of the text, the one most worthy of a newspaper headline?
The following verses are a literal translation of what I would consider to be the most ‘newsworthy’ part of the text. This is the part that I think would get the headline. Jesus had just cried out with a loud voice and released his spirit. And then the following things happen:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was split into two, from above to below, and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were split. And the tombs were opened, and the bodies of many holy ones who, having fallen asleep, were raised. And, coming forth out of the tombs after his rising, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many (27:51-53).
Hopefully you would agree that all those events are significant. And they all seem to be rolled up into one massive event that happened at the same time—although the text is clear that the holy people became visible to others only AFTER Jesus rose from the dead. The next question to ask is regarding their specific significance. In other words, ‘What does this mean?’
There have been other ‘shakings’ before this. In fact, in Matthew 8:24, instead of a great storm on the Sea of Galilee, there is a great ‘shaking’. And when Jesus entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21:10, the whole city was 'shaking', and the people were saying, ‘Who is this?’ And there WILL be another shaking—this time a great (‘mega’) one—on Easter morning (see Matthew 28:2).
But that is not all; earthquakes have happened before, and they will happen again. The Gospel according to Matthew is the only account that records the bodies of some special people coming back to life. Can you imagine the headline, ‘Zombies in Jerusalem’? But the text does not say that they appeared to all. Just like Jesus did after his resurrection, after these people come back to life, they appeared to many, but not to all. There was a special purpose in this, but it was not to be the important thing.
The earthquake, the rocks being split, special people coming back to life—these are all signs of the end. And for these things to happen at the point of Jesus’ death makes him a very important person when it comes to the end. It is like he should be the center of attention when it comes to talking about the end.
Now when it comes to talking about the end, it is hard for me not to think about the book of Revelation. Did you know that the four gospel accounts are mentioned in Revelation? At least their four living creatures are mentioned there. In that book, they are mentioned in the following order: First, by secretaries, and then, by authors. (This may be a sort of ‘authorization order’, an order that gives the assurance that they were ‘okayed’ by the apostles—at least by those who were left.) So, the order of the accounts is Mark, Luke, Matthew, John. And the order of the living creatures is lion, ox, man, and eagle (see Revelation 4:7; actually, there is a ‘calf’ instead of an ox, but it is still the same type of animal). And in Revelation, chapter 6, each of the living creatures calls out a particular horseman. Each one says, ‘Come’, because the type of authority that is emphasized in each gospel account can ‘handle’ the evil attacks that come from a particular horseman who attacks the earth in a particular way.
The third living creature is a man, and a man has authority as a judge. And Jesus has the authority of the most important judge within the Gospel according to Matthew. The third living creature calls out a horseman, and this horseman has a pair of scales. The statement was made that a quart of wheat was selling for a day’s wage, and three quarts of barley was selling for a day’s wage. This was just a little food for an awful lot of money. But the oil and the wine, some of the expensive things, were not to be damaged.
This action suggests that there will be a misuse of authority by those who have authority, basically from the time of Jesus’ ascension to the last day. Throughout that time, people who have some power will be greedy for more. And many powerful people will use their power to do evil things. But I am not telling you anything new.
Here is a quote from the Concordia Commentary Series on Revelation (by Louis A. Brighton, from Concordia Publishing House, page 168; the italics are original):
Whatever the details may be, the overall picture presented in [Revelation] 6:5-6 is a condition of both scarcity and plenty, that is, an economic imbalance in the supply of food and the daily necessities of life. And despite human attempts to adjust this imbalance economically, the end result, from place to place, will be hunger and even at times starvation. In such situations famine begins to stalk large portions of the human population.
This is also true during the time of the coronavirus. Some cheap things are being hoarded. This should not surprise anyone who is familiar with the bible and what we say about the sinful nature that we are all born with (except for Jesus of course).
We have, though, a wonderful authority in this God-man, Jesus Christ. By shaking the world, his special authority shows its importance. But bringing people back from the dead, a life-giving authority shows the extent of its effects. And it is not an authority of power; this authority was shown at the DEATH of Jesus. How much weaker can you get? Yet that point in time makes it clear that this is an action of LOVE. It is good to remember that we have an authority based on God’s love, and this authority started at the beginning, and it will last until the very end. These are NOT 'just the facts’ but ‘the justification of the sinner’—you and me.
Another ‘bible-study type’ suggestion would be to read again the Passion account, but this time, have a larger perspective and read from the end of the last sermon of Jesus, all the way to his death and burial (Matthew 26:1-27:66). That will put you in a position to rejoice in the Easter celebration of Matthew 28:1-10. Our Lenten journey is almost over. We have a wonderful resurrection ahead of us.
March 29, 2020
This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday before Palm (and Passion) Sunday, and I think it would be good to review the perspective that we have, because of the gospel texts which, for the last few weeks, have been from the Gospel according to John. This Sunday is also another Sunday in which the church services have been canceled because of the coronavirus, so I would like for this writing to be sort of a start for a Bible study as well.
No matter what year it is of the three-year series, the gospel text for Good Friday is from the passion account of the Gospel according to John. It is a good passion account to look at, but one can also benefit from the other passion accounts. Each one has a different and important perspective. And these are read, once a year, in the three-year series, on Passion Sunday, which is coming up next Sunday.
For the Sunday readings, a gospel text is picked from one of the four gospel accounts. And since Jesus is SO important, whether the text is small or big, the text is ultimately also important.
So, my suggestion is to read through the first fourteen chapters of the Gospel according to John this week, just two chapters each day. Since there are twenty-one chapters within the entire account, you could also read through the entire account in a week by reading an additional chapter a day. This is a warning, though, that some chapters within this account are quite long. Both of these are suggestions anyway, so it is ultimately up to you and your current schedule.
The suggestion to read two chapters a day is detailed below. Such a schedule would help you to look at the extremely wide range of people whom Jesus confronts within the first half of this account. And I think that reading those chapters might help you prepare for the Passion accounts both on Passion Sunday (Matthew’s) and Good Friday (John’s).
Since Jesus had his ministry for about three years, there was literally a multitude of people that the gospel writer could pick from to detail some of Jesus’ words and actions. And since this account was literally written for YOUR benefit (see 20:31), it may have been the intention of the author for the reader or listener to compare himself or herself to those in the account, and then to realize that, yes, God did so love the world—basically ALL who are in it—that he gave his only Son (see, of course, John 3:16).
In keeping with the living creature of this account being the eagle, this living creature has the greatest perspective of all. This account starts at the very beginning with God and the Word, and he ends with speaking to those who are currently engaged with the text. Sometimes the bible says things that apply directly to this very day—and this is most certainly true.
Here are the chapters and some corresponding notes (please feel free to contact me if you have more suggestions of comparisons or contrasts in the following chapters):
1-2 In chapter 1, Jesus says ‘Come, and you will see.’ Then one of his followers says almost the same thing, but he uses two commands instead of just one (see also 11:34). In chapter 2, there is the ‘first sign’, a miracle with authority. And the person involved who has the authority over Jesus (to some extent) is his mother.
3-4 In chapter 3, Jesus ends up talking with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. In chapter 4, Jesus is in Samaria, and he ends up talking to (and changing the life forever of) a Samaritan—basically an extremely distant (and hated) relative of the Jews—a woman who had been married five times and was living with someone who was not her husband. Also in chapter 4, there is the ‘second sign’, another miracle with authority. And the person involved who has authority this time is a ‘king-like’ figure, a royal (the word is sometimes translated as ‘official’).
5-6 In chapter 5, Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, and he gets into trouble. It seems as though sin was connected in some way to the man being paralyzed (see 5:14). He was certainly not born with the problem.
9-10 In chapter 9, Jesus again heals someone on the Sabbath, and he again gets into trouble. In contrast to the person in chapter 5, a sin done by this person or his parents did not cause this problem (see 9:3). At the end of chapter 8, and near the end of chapter 10, at both those times, the enemies of Jesus are about to stone him.
11-12 After the second attempt at stoning Jesus, the following significant comparison is about to take place: Lazarus, the man who was dead for four days, is alive again. So how does this compare to Jesus? After all of this, some Greeks want to see Jesus, and some Jews still refuse to believe in him.
March 22, 2020-Is it okay to talk about the good news, even before you hear the full extent of the bad news? At least the LORD thinks so. You see that happening in the second half of the Old Testament book of the prophet, Isaiah.In the first half of the book, in chapter 39, while the focus was on the problem of Assyria, the prediction was made that there would be a problem for Israel from the country of Babylon. And you have, starting in chapter 40, the perspective of good news from the LORD despite the Babylonian problem. (I can understand why some people think that one of Isaiah’s followers wrote this part of the book much later than the first half.)
Obviously, the LORD is the true author. And he gives the good news when he wants to give it. And with all this talk about the coronavirus going around at the present time, some good news is certainly not too soon.
This week, the Old Testament text is from Isaiah 42[:14-21], but I would like to look at the ‘bigger picture’, the entire text of Isaiah 40-66. If you would like to turn this into a bible study—since the congregations will not be meeting for worship for a couple of weeks—I would suggest that you read a few chapters a day, starting at Isaiah 40, to see the progression and the wonderful (and not-too-early) comfort within this part of scripture. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or difficulties with a particular text.
I would like to focus on the start of that section of Isaiah 40-66 and to note how special the structure is, with its repetition, along with the special words that are used. Here are the first two sentences from that first chapter: ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.’
First of all, the word translated ‘comfort’ can also mean to be sorry or to regret. The form of the verb here is intensive, so a message we can take from this is that intense sorrow or regret may lead a person to do something nice for someone else. That is a good definition of the word comfort, a sorrow that is intense, an emotion that gets down to the level of another. This intense sorrow or regret ultimately becomes an action and delivers a gift.
Second, notice that the command is repeated. That something is said twice is not just a thing in the Hebrew language. All people everywhere repeat themselves when something is important enough.
Now to have a COMMAND repeated is something new. In Isaiah, there are other parts of speech that are usually repeated before this.
Usually a thing is repeated only once. Please note how unusual it is to have three of the same words together. And this is what is done in Isaiah 6, when one angel says to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ an apt description of the LORD of hosts, basically the Triune God. In Isaiah 21:9, Babylon has fallen—good news for us—and that action is repeated twice. And there are other pairs in the first half of the book.
In the second half of Isaiah, these non-commands come up twice in a row sometimes. But they are not very frequent. In Isaiah 41:27, the text may be translated something like, ‘Behold, here they are!’ But the same word is repeated. And in 43:11, 43:25, and 48:15, the word for ‘I’ is repeated right away. It should be said here that the LORD is the one who is talking in these places. And he is repeating himself for emphasis on himself and what he is doing. (It could also be noted that, in the last occurrence, the use of the word ‘I’ is not as emphatic as it was before. In other words, the LORD seems to be lessening his role in the picture, and the plan is for his WORDS to take a more prominent place.)
So, we have a double command, the first of its kind, at the beginning of the second half of the book. So where is the next ‘double-command’ to be found?
It is at the half-way point of this half of the book, amazingly enough. And while there is some variety, there is a noticeable progression in this second half of the second half. The first three commands are basically to ‘Wake up’ (51:9, 51:17, 52:1). Then the command is to ‘Depart’ (52:11), then ‘Build up’ (57:14) This same command occurs a second time, but only five words after a different command, to ‘Go through’ (62:10). And it is gates that a person goes through.
The first command to ‘build up’ is a road or a way, probably within the city gates. The second time the command to ‘build up’ is given, that is connected to a different thing to build, usually translated ‘highway’. That is something outside the city gates.
There is a definite progression here—from waking up, to leaving, to building up a way inside the city, and then to building up a way outside the city. This seems to be a good progression if the city you wake up in is surrounded by the enemy. This progression is your way out; this progression is your salvation.
After this midpoint in the second half of the book, there are also duplications of other words, but not with the frequency of commands. At 51:12, near that half-way point, the word ‘I’ is again repeated, and it is the emphatic use of the word this time. And it is also talking about the LORD, but the verb connected to it is interesting: the LORD is the one who ‘comforts’. This is the same word which was doubled in chapter 40.
Is the LORD the one who comforts, or is it we who are to do that? Ultimately, when we comfort, it is the LORD doing it through us. He is the only one who can give true comfort. And he chooses to do that through HIS words that we use.
Near the end of the book, in 57:19, the word ‘peace’ is repeated, and this is also something that the LORD is giving out. But, right after that, God says that there is no peace for the wicked. And in 58:2, the word ‘day’ is repeated, but it is not a significant thing and is usually translated with simply the word ‘daily’. These cannot match the progression within the double commands of the book.
I think the duplication of the commands is important. It certainly did not have to be there. And we Lutherans can instantly think of the law when we hear of commands. But these are commands to do some very wonderful things when it is ultimately the LORD who is doing them. That is ultimately the job of the pastor, to get out of the way. One seminary teacher used to say, ‘To be ordained is to be rendered irrelevant.’
In those first two verses of chapter 40 that were quoted above, notice that, at the end of that quote, there is talk about receiving ‘from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.’ This word ‘double’ is only a couple other places in the Old Testament, and only found elsewhere in the book of Job—now THAT is a book with some very different vocabulary. (It is also interesting is that the Hebrew word is very similar in sound to the English word ‘couple’.)
The LORD wants to make sure there is comfort. And he wants to give more comfort than there is sin. And he is very intense about it. And he wants to get down to our level. And that is what Jesus was all about doing. He is our way out. He is our salvation.
The Second Sunday in Lent will be the first Sunday in Lent that the gospel text looks at the Gospel according to John [3:1-17], and we will stay with that account until Palm Sunday. Since there will be a few more opportunities to look at that gospel account, I thought it would be good to look at the Old Testament text for this Sunday, since that text is from the special book of Genesis.
The use of Genesis within this first year of the three-year series is interesting. Last week we looked at critical ‘watershed’ chapter, Genesis 3. This week, the text is from Genesis 12[:1-9], another watershed chapter—since the start of the redemption story begins here with Abram. And on Trinity Sunday we will be looking at the very beginning in Genesis 1. And there is one more Sunday, during the season of Pentecost, when we will be looking at the very end, the very last chapter, Genesis 50.
Some people think that the farther away in time that something happened, the more disconnected they are from it. But just the opposite can be true. If a certain book of the bible is important, we will hear from its beginning AND its end.
In this Old Testament text from Genesis 12, Abram has been told to move to the Promised Land. As was mentioned above, this starts the story of redemption. God certainly created things, but how he redeems them is much more important. This is not just a story of ‘What happened?’; this is ‘What happened that is incredibly important?’
Some people look at these first chapters in the life of Abram/Abraham, and they think that the circumcision story or the story of him FINALLY having a son is the most important thing, and some people make either of these things the turning point for the entire section. (Turning points are typical in Hebrew literature.) But there could be another, more important, more central, turning point.
The turning point suggested below is the same one that appeared in the story of Noah (see 8:1), and it is the same turning point that will appear in the story of Jacob and Rachel (see 30:22). The turning point for those three stories is the same, the remembrance of God. The name ‘God’ is usually connected with a command. For ‘God’ to do something gracious is different and catches our attention. And his remembrance is certainly a good and different thing.
God does not have to remember us. We are sinners and do not deserve to be remembered. But he can choose to remember for a particular reason. And please remember that this is not a simple remembrance that makes a person’s name come to mind. This is a remembrance that does something good. This remembrance is an active and lively thing.
This remembrance changes things. The events before the remembrance and the events after the remembrance have a connection and are in a particular order, and it changes from something negative to positive, and the order is reversed.
It should be noted that some of the extremely negative things that involve Abram/Abraham may not described in a negative way in this ‘outline’ for a very simple purpose; God does not want these things to be remembered. Abraham could be remembered as someone who keeps lying about Sarah being his wife, but that is not a good thing to remember. The focus is meant to be on God’s good news.
For God to remember a person is significant. The criminal on the cross just asked to be remembered, and Jesus gave him so much more (see Luke 23:43). Here is an ‘outline’ of basically chapters 11-25 that go from negative to positive and turn at 19:29.
1. Genealogy: Sarah is barren (11:27-32)
2. Blessings are promised to Abram (12:1-9)
3. Abram’s possessions increase, although there are some significant difficulties (12:10-13:17)
4. Abram and Sarai live near Mamre at Hebron (13:18)
5. Details are given regarding the kings in the area (14:1-12)
6. Abram is tempted to get rich from the gifts of another (14:13-24)
7. Abram makes a covenant with Yahweh (15:1-21)
8. Hagar is pregnant with Ishmael and runs away (16:1-16)
9. The covenant of circumcision is given (17:1-27)
10. Isaac is promised (18:1-15)
11. Abraham intercedes on Lot’s behalf (18:16-33)
12. Most of Lot’s family is preserved (19:1-28)
AND GOD REMEMBERED ABRAHAM… (19:29)
12. Lot’s family line is preserved (19:30-38)
11. Abraham intercedes on Abimelech’s behalf (20:1-18)
10. Isaac is born (21:1-3)
9. Isaac is circumcised (21:4-7)
8. Hagar and Ishmael are sent away (21:8-21)
7. Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech (21:22-34)
6. Abraham is tested regarding his love for his son (22:1-19)
5. Details are given regarding Nahor, Abraham’s brother (22:20-24)
4. Abraham purchases property near Mamre at Hebron to bury Sarah (23:1-20)
3. Abraham’s ‘possessions’ help him to find a wife for his son, although there are some small difficulties (24:1-58)
2. Blessings are given to Rebekah as she leaves her family (24:59-67)
1. Genealogy: Keturah has several children with Abraham (25:1-11)
Why go to such detail to tell the story? Because the story is so incredibly important. And this is just the start.