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 Just because we have an Old Testament, it does not mean that we call it the 'Outdated Testament'.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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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.
March 15, 2020
Last week the Old Testament text was Genesis 12:1-9, and I tried to be helpful by focusing on the intricate structure of Genesis 11-25. This week I was thinking that it might even more helpful to look at the larger structures that are surrounding that text, especially since the Old Testament text for this week is from Exodus [17:1-7]. And just how do those two books connect to each other?
I had mentioned that the book of Genesis has been divided into two parts of dissimilar sizes. The first, short part helps to set the stage for the larger, second one. The first part of essentially chapters 1-11 contains five mentions of ‘generations’, something that makes something more. Here are their occurrences (with very literal translations):
‘These are the generations of the heavens and the earth, when he created them in that day, Yahweh [the Lord] God made the earth and the heavens (2:4).’
‘This is the account of the generations of Adam, when in the day God created man in the likeness of God, he made him (5:1).’
‘These are the generations of Noah…(6:9a).’
‘And these are the generations of the sons of Noah…(10:1a).’
‘These are the generations of Shem…(11:10a).’
It seems that there does not have to be five occurrences of this phrase. The generations of Shem could have been included under the generations of the sons of Noah, since Shem was a son of Noah. But five is an important number. (There are often five books in different sections of the Old Testament.)
The point has also been made quite often that the heavens and the earth do not have generations like a person does. But this first occurrence, the way it is explained, does help the reader or listener to look for the literary structure of repeating something in a reverse order. That happens many times in the Old Testament, but this especially happens in Genesis. The order of the phrase, ‘the earth and the heavens’, is extremely rare in the Old Testament. Usually it is in the order of ‘the heavens and the earth’, as it is the first time it is mentioned. It happens in both orders to help a person see those intricate structures.
It could also be said that the rest of Genesis, essentially chapters 12-50, contains five similar mentions of ‘generations’.
‘And these are the generations of Terah…(11:27a).’
‘And these are the generations of Ishmael, son of Abraham, whom Hagar, the Egyptian, maidservant of Sarah, bore for Abraham (25:12).’
‘And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham...(25:19a).’
‘And these are the generations of Esau, that is, Edom (36:1).’
‘These are the generations of Jacob (37:2a).’
I started that list by saying that ‘It could be said’, to give a hint that there is something more that could be said regarding the entire thing. In short, there is another occurrence of ‘these generations’. In the chapter devoted to Esau, the following is also said: ‘And these are the generations of Esau, the father of Edom (36:6).’
Why devote two occurrences of this word to a person and a race of people not too highly thought of in the Old Testament? It may be to make the only other appearance of this phrase into a total of twelve occurrences, instead of having only a total of eleven.
There happens to be one more occurrence of ‘these generations’ within the entire Pentateuch, something in Numbers 3:1. Here is the text: ‘And these are the generations of Aaron and Moses on the day when Yahweh spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.’
Now that seems a little unusual to speak of Moses talking with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, when that happened most famously in the book of Exodus. But this is very close to a midpoint between the start of Exodus and the end of Deuteronomy.
Midpoints are important because they give an order and a structure to the work. (Remember that the Old Testament people did not have the structure of chapter and verse as we do.) All the generations that happened in Genesis are very important. And the story continues to be very important. God did not have to start all over again, although he was pretty close to doing that at various times. So many more wonderful details will be coming in the future.
God knows what he is doing. And he is doing a good job. His generations ultimately generate some very good things. And he likes to use a big number like twelve to show how often his blessings overflow.
* * *
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.