Introduction

What we believe to be true about God is essential to our faith.  We want to know God as He is, not as He isn't!  But Christianity is ultimately not a set of abstract ideas about God or about the world.  Christianity is about being in a relationship with our Creator, having our lives filled and animated and directed by His love for us.  Like any relationship, a relationship with God can only deepen by spending time with Him.  By reading Scripture and taking time to prayerfully reflect on how it applies to our lives, we not only learn more about God, but God meets with us and we find our love for Him, and experience of Him, growing over time.  

BELOW is a growing body of devotionals from Scripture.  As of Summer 2018, devotionals from the Old Testament books of Genesis through Joshua and New Testament books of Acts through 2 Corinthians are provided.  Each day includes a brief overview of a passage and some questions for reflection, but the devotional is not intended to provide thorough background information or commentary.  Daily readings may be anywhere from a portion of a chapter to a few chapters, depending on the length of chapters and type of literature.  

This webpage is huge, so you may want to cut and paste the devotionals from the book you are reading into your own document for easy access!

Genesis

Most Jewish and Christian scholars believe that Moses was the primary human author of Genesis, with help from editors as well as ancient histories and records.  This foundational book contains many of the essential truths of Scripture, at least in seed form.  The first eleven chapters reveal the order and beauty of creation, the nature and purpose of humanity, the reason for the brokenness and shame and frustration of our world, and the Christian hope of God's redemption that rises up in the midst of our pain and brokenness.  And we learn a lot about nature and character of God while we're at it.

Genesis 1:1-27 - God Creates

Do you see the poetic symmetry of Genesis 1 displayed below?  Genesis 1:2 states that the earth was "formless and empty" when God first created it, but in days 1-3 God gives form to formlessness and God fills the emptiness in days 4-6.  The chapter is perfectly balanced . . .

Day 1 - Light                               Day 4 - "Lights" - Sun, moon, stars fills the "heavens"

Day 2 - Sea & Sky                       Day 5 - Fish & Birds fill the Sea and Sky

Day 3a - Land                              Day 6a - Land Animals fill the Land

Day 3b - Vegetation                     Day 6b - Humans fill the Land and are given vegetation (1:26-29)

              Day 7 - God Rests from the work of creating (2:1-3)

If you have read the Chronicles of Narnia, you may remember when C.S. Lewis writes about Aslan joyfully singing Narnia into being, reflecting the sense of joy and beauty in Genesis 1.  This poem or song makes a very clear statement about who created all things, but the poetic nature also shows that Genesis 1 is not trying to be a science textbook.  This understanding leaves room for differing views about the length of creation, the age of the earth, and the relation of Genesis 1 to some scientific theories.  While these questions are interesting and in some ways important, there are more essential questions raised by Genesis 1.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• God made all things and therefore all things ultimately belong to God.  Every good thing is a gift to steward and enjoy, and a "window" to the goodness, power, beauty, etc. of God.  Is there a gift(s) from God that you are currently seeing as an end in itself  (human beauty/strength, food, etc.) rather than as a "window" to see and enjoy God?  Take some time to confess these things to God, receive God's forgiveness in Christ, and ask him to help you enjoy his gifts rightly.  

• As you think about all that God has made, what are you particularly thankful for right now?  Take some time to worship and reflect on the awesome mind, power, creativity, and love of God that we see in creation.

• Four times in 1:26-27 we're told that we are made in the image/likeness of God.  God made us to display or reflect his character and qualities.  Take some time to reflect on the amazing privilege, responsibility, dignity and worth that comes from being the image of God.  How do you see yourself reflecting God's character and qualities in your life?  Where are you struggling to reflect His image?

 

Read Genesis 1:27-31 - In His Image

While all of creation reflects the glory of God, the first two chapters of Genesis reveal a number of ways that humans uniquely reflect God's image.  Humans are relational (Adam & Eve relate to each other and to God), we have the gift of reason (God communicates with Adam and Eve), and we are creative, just as God is creative.  Genesis 1:28-30 shows that we also reflect God in the way that we "rule over" the earth.  He shares his rule with us by making us stewards of creation, and we rule well when we rule in a way that reflects God's love, justice, creativity, beauty, wisdom, and order.  In addition, we have the blessing and responsibility to "fill the earth" with humans who reflect the image of God, so that the whole earth reflects the glory of God (1:28) -- the first command in Scripture.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What are the different ways that you are personally called to rule over what God has made, using your mind (student/career), your creative gifts and your body (athletics / fitness / music / art / design / etc.), your relationships, your opportunities, privilege, and network, etc.?  Do you think about these areas of your life in light of the high calling of reflecting God's image and rule in the world?  What would it look like to rule well in these areas?

• The calling and command to "fill the earth" with the image of God is similar to Jesus' command to "go and make disciples" in every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).  To "make disciples" of Jesus is to be part of God re-making people in his image.  Search your heart and ask yourself if this command, the very first command in the Bible, is at or anywhere near the top of your priorities.  Who are the people in your life with whom you have regular contact?  How might God use your words and actions to point them to God and to help re-make them in the image of God?  What group of people outside of regular contact might God call you to reach out to?  Take time to pray regularly for all these people and to pray for your role in their lives, as God works through you.  Thank God for the gift of stewarding his creation and multiplying his image!

 

Genesis 2:1-3 - Rest

God never stops working (John 5:17), but He does rest from his initial work of creation.  He builds a rhythm of work and rest into creation.  He sets apart a day of the week for celebration, reflection, and rest.  It is a day of worship, as we discover more fully later in Scripture.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Why do we need time for worship, rest, reflection, and rejuvenation?  What happens to you when you do not have it?

• Is the creational rhythm of work and rest built into your day, your week, and your year?  When you do not have rhythms of work and rest, what keeps you from it?  Do you need to trust God with your work in order to take time to rest?  Do you need to work more diligently or with less distraction when you are working, so that you have time to truly rest in God?  Search your heart and life for these answers.

• What changes do you need to pray about and make in order to have rest in your day, your week, and your year?  Take time to praise and thank God for his desire and ability to give us rest.  

 

Genesis 2:4-17 - A Tree to Remember

Genesis 2 is a retelling of creation with a specific emphasis on the creation of man and woman.  We learn of our humble beginnings ("dust"), the garden of Eden with some geographical reference points (2:10-14), more specifics regarding the work of ruling over creation (2:15), and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17).  Why would God put this tree here?  Is he tempting Adam and Eve?  No, the tree is a good, continual reminder to Adam and Eve that God is God and that they are NOT!  As long as they remember that God is God and that they are not, all will be well.  Wouldn't it be great if we all had a big tree in our front yard specifically to remind us each day of our proper place in creation?

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• We are dust, clay, of the earth, but God has breathed his life into us, forming us in his image.  Humble dust, but valuable images whose value is derived solely from God.  When we're thinking rightly about ourselves, we do not think of ourselves too highly because we know that we are dust, but we do not think too lowly of ourselves because we know that God imprinted his image on us.  When we're not thinking rightly, we often swing between a false view of greatness and a false view of worthlessness.  How do you see yourself right now?

• How is God calling you to cultivate and care for the gifts and possessions and opportunities that He has given you this week?  (2:15)

• All of us struggle to remember that God is God and that we are not God.  In what areas of your life right now do you need to let God be God?  Your future? A relationship?  Something else?   Take time to praise God for being God in your life and thank him that you do not bear that burden!

 

Genesis 2:18-25 - Male and Female

Adam is ruling over creation (2:19-20), but it was not good for him to do it alone.  He is made in the image of a relational God and was therefore made for relationships.  He also needs the help of others who have different gifts and abilities, not to mention genetic makeup.  Eve is given to him as a helper in his calling, and this is not a derogatory term as the term is also used of God (e.g. Psalm 46:1).  

In this passage, in which God presides over the first wedding, complete with singing (2:23), we see a human relationship without sin.  Adam and Eve are united, one flesh, naked yet unashamed.  The awkwardness that exists now in even the best human relationships was absent, because they had no shame.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• How much of a priority are friendships in your life right now?  Are you seeking depth in your friendships that goes beyond surface small-talk?  Ask God to work in your friendships.

• What are you seeking in relationships?  Are you trusting that the Creator of relationships has a good plan for your life and waiting for Him to provide the unity and oneness that comes with marriage, or are you trying short-cuts?   Ask for God's work in your heart and in your current or future relationship.  Praise Him for being the author of friendships, relationships, marriage, and sex.

• Whether you are male or female, do you honor the opposite sex and see your need for the opposite sex in fulfilling our calling as God's stewards?  

 

Genesis 3:1-13 - Falling from Goodness

The chapter begins with a question about God's command.  The implication is that the command is not good for Eve.  Did God really say that?  Is God withholding something good from them?   The heart of the temptation is to be "like God" (3:5).  Adam and Eve are already in God's likeness, but this temptation is for something more.  

After they take the fruit in an attempt to take the place of God, their world begins to unravel.  They were unashamed, but now they hide from each other behind fig leaves and they hide from God behind the trees.  They cast blame (3:12).  They are no longer comfortable in their own skin.  They were not made to bear the weight of autonomy.  They were made for God.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways are you questioning the goodness of God and his commands?  Where are you tempted to believe that He is actually trying to withhold something good from you?  Given that God created all things, prayerfully reason with yourself and see where your line of questioning breaks down.

• Over the past few days, in what ways have you taken the place of God in your life?  Take time to confess, receive God's perfect forgiveness through Christ, and prayerfully repent.

• Where are you experiencing distance or separation in relationships with other people?  Where are you perhaps casting blame on others to avoid personal responsibility?  

• Is there anything you are trying to hide from God so that you can keep control over it?  There is nothing fun about this passage, but we can only experience the fullness of God's grace and renewal when we bring everything before him.

 

Genesis 3:14-24 - Pain, Grace, and the Promise of Victory

Do not skim over this passage!  In the first half of chapter 3, Adam and Eve begin to experience death -- their relationships with each other and with God begin to break down, as we read yesterday.  In today's passage, we see more of the early stages of death.  Pain and power struggles within the family enter into the picture.  (Note that 3:16, addressed to Eve, is descriptive of a broken world, not prescriptive for how things should be).  Pain and frustration will now attend the good work of cultivating, caring for, and ruling over the earth (3:17, addressed to Adam).  

BUT notice that God does not utterly abandon or destroy Adam and Eve.  Even though they just tried to take the place of God, He pursues them in their hideout and speaks with them.  This alone is amazing act of grace, or undeserved favor.  But his grace does not stop there.  In 3:15, addressed to the possessed serpent, God promises that He will "crush the head" of the author of evil, even though the serpent will "strike the heel" of Eve's offspring.  The gospel of Luke, chapter 3, traces Jesus' genealogy back to Adam and Eve.  Jesus, Eve's offspring, had his heel struck (i.e. a temporary wound) on the cross, but through his victory over evil and death in the resurrection, Satan's head was crushed (i.e. a final death blow).  Not only does God make this promise about what He will do in the future, He immediately covers Adam and Eve's shame with an animal skin (3:21).  An animal is sacrificed for their sin to provide a temporary covering of their shame, pointing ahead to the cross where Jesus sacrificed himself to provide a permanent covering over their shame and ours.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• How have you seen pain and power struggles play out in your family?  How do you see pain and frustration play out in your work as a student, athlete, etc., and in humanity's calling to care for and rule over the world?

• Today, are you living in the reality that God moves toward his children in our sin?  Our sin has grave consequences, as we see in Genesis 3, but we also see that God ultimately desires to cover our shame, to restore us to himself, and to restore the goodness of our relationships and work.    

• Today, what is your ultimate hope?  Is it in something you hope to accomplish or in a human relationship, OR is it in God's promise to crush the evil that exists in us and in the world through Eve's offspring, Jesus?  

 

Genesis 4

How do Adam and Eve respond to God's promise to crush Satan and evil through Eve's offspring (3:15)?  Faith. Eve says, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man" (4:1).  Even after the horrific tragedy of one of their sons killing the other, she continues the difficult walk of faith, saying, "God has granted me another child in place of Abel" (4:25).  They understand these children to be the first installments of God's faithfulness to his promise, and just like us, their relationship with God is based on faith in God's promises, which are fulfilled in Jesus.

In 4:3-4, Cain brings a half-hearted offering to God, while Abel brings the first and best of the return on his labor.  Instead of turning from his sin to God, Cain allows his sin to spiral downward into envy and murder. His offspring produce some good things in the fields of music, metallurgy, etc., but at least in the seventh generation (4:23-24), it seems that the downward spiral never stopped, as Lamech boasts of murdering another man.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Are you basing your relationship with God today on anything besides faith in Jesus, who has covered our sin and shame, and conquered it in resurrection?

• We can all relate to Cain's half-hearted worship.  Is there anything keeping you from worshipping and serving God with the first and best of your time, possessions, and gifting?  

• Is there someone with whom you are comparing yourself right now, causing you to struggle with jealousy?  Take some time praise him for the reality that his love for you is not based on your own righteousness or your standing in comparison to others, but on the work of Jesus.  Ask him to fill you and enable you to worship him and live for him with your whole heart.  

 

Genesis 5 & Psalm 1

Even though we've been seeing the brokenness of humanity, we are reminded in 5:1-2 of the innate dignity of humanity as God's image and likeness, which is passed on to each generation (5:3).  Of course, Adam's "fallen" or sinful nature now also infects his prodigy.  However, unlike Cain's lineage, which we read about yesterday, Seth's descendants have a relationship with God.  In the seventh generation, we read that Enoch "walks with God," in distinct contrast to the seventh generation of Cain's lineage in which Lamech boasts of murder.  As Psalm 1 teaches us, we will go one way or the other.  There is no middle road.

You will notice, in this genealogy, that people were living for a really long time.  After the catastrophic flood (Genesis 6-9), the lifespans decrease dramatically over a number of generations (11:10-26).  When sin entered the world and separated humanity from the fullness of God's protection and blessing, death in all its forms (spiritual, relational, physical, etc.) came upon humanity.  A 900-year lifespan is really short compared to eternity!  But as the corruption and decay brought by sin set in, lifespans decreased even more.  Why do the lifespans decrease dramatically right around the time of the flood?  We do not know exactly, but it's very possible that such a flood caused ecological changes that were severely detrimental to human life.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In this chapter, we see the power of families, as faith in God (or the absence of faith) seems to be passed on from generation to generation.  Take time to praise God for his grace in your life, whether that grace came through your family, from a source outside of your family, or both.  Take time to pray for the legacy of faith that you will leave in your future or current family, and that God would pour out his grace on people around you who do not come from a family of faith.

• Ponder the goodness of God in creating us to live with him forever.  Mourn with and pray for those who are experiencing the pains of broken bodies.  It's okay, even good, to mourn over your own brokenness and others'.  But look in hope to the resurrection from the dead that we have through our union with Christ, and pray for those around you to anchor their lives in this sure hope.

 

Genesis 6

Accounts from dozens and dozens of ancient civilizations describe a catastrophic flood on the earth, but none compare to the biblical account.    While we have already seen the judgment of God in removing humanity from the fullness of his presence and blessing, introducing death into the world, we have not seen it quite like this.  Why would God wipe humanity from the face of the earth?  Thankfully, Genesis 6 gives us an intimate glimpse into the heart of God.  In 6:6, we see that God grieves over the evil that was permeating the human heart (6:5) to the point that his heart was "filled with pain."  If God loves what is good, He must hate all that destroys the good.  He will not put up with evil forever and is free to end it whenever He chooses.  

Specifically, God grieves over the marriage relationships of the "sons of God" (6:1-4).  There a several interpretations of "the sons of God."  One plausible interpretation reads the "sons of God" as men who came from believing families who married for the wrong reasons and united themselves to women who would lead their hearts away from God.  Another reads the "sons of God" as powerful warlords (i.e. "heroes of old, men of renown" in 6:4) who form harems, marrying "any of them they chose" (6:2).  Regardless of the exact interpretation, the importance of marrying well and pursuing God through marriage is striking.  

But God shows grace to the man who walks with him by faith.  Noah takes God at his word and builds a huge boat on dry land.  Noah and others are saved from judgment by faith.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• It is not our role to judge the world, but we are called to judge between good and evil, and to "hate what is evil and to love what is good."  What is your attitude toward the sin that exists in your own life, in your community, and in the world?  Have you developed a comfortable relationship with sin recently, or do you hate it?  Are you sitting on judgment on anyone?  Pray that you would see sin as God sees it, and take time to praise and thank him that Jesus took our sin and his hatred of sin upon himself so that we would be freed from it.

• Do you trust the God who created all goodness and love with his judgment on evil?  Where are you tempted to sit in judgment on God's judgement, or on his perceived lack of judgment?  Take these things to God in prayer.  God can handle your honesty, but we must come humbly.  

• Are you seeking God's will in relationships and marriage, or are you looking for relational satisfaction outside of God's ways?

• In what part of your life do you need to take God at his word and step out in faith, that others might be saved from death?

 

Genesis 7 & 8

The flood devastates the earth, but Noah and his family are saved from judgment.  Take special note of the end of verse 7:16.  "Then the LORD shut him in."  God is the One who secures Noah and family in the ark so that they would be protected from the flood.  The flood comes upon them, too, but they covered.  They are safe inside the ark.  The ark effectively took the judgment and carried them to life on the other side of judgment.  

We're given an amazing picture here of how a believer is ultimately saved from God's judgment of sinners through Jesus.  When we entrust our lives to Jesus, we are united to him, covered by him, and included in his death to sin and resurrection to life, just as Noah and family were included in the ark and covered by it.  On the cross, Jesus took God's judgment of our sin, and in his resurrection, Jesus carries us to life on the other side of judgment.  

Noah responds to God's saving act in worship (8:20).  He offers ceremonially clean animals as a sacrifice to God, again pointing ahead to our "clean," pure Savior who knew no sin.  "The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished ["clean"] to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!"  (Hebrews 9:13-14, NIV).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Noah and his family literally lived inside the ark of salvation for the good part of a year.  They did everything inside the ark and nothing outside of it.  What a picture of how we are called to live our lives in Christ!  Christianity is not a one-time decision or an idea, but a living union with Christ, in which we do everything in his love for us, in his strength, in his wisdom, with his sorrow over brokenness, and with his joy and hope of resurrection.  Is this how you are seeing your relationship with God, as a living relationship with Christ that impacts everything?  Where do you need to experience his love, strength, wisdom, sorrow, joy, hope, etc. in and through you?

• Noah's response of worship/sacrifice shows that he was well-aware of God's mercy and grace toward him and his family.  Have the grace and mercy of God in Christ led you to worship recently?  If so, can you put your finger on what is keeping you from this response?  Take time to respond in worship today.

 

Genesis 9

The word "covenant" is first mentioned in Scripture in connection with the flood account, including 6:18 and several times in today's chapter.  The importance of covenants in Scripture can hardly be overstated.  We find that God willingly binds himself to his people by making covenants with us and covenant-promises to us, just as a husband and wife bind themselves together by making covenant-promises to each other.  God makes several covenant promises to his people throughout history and we sometimes call these covenant promises by different names (Noahic covenant - covenant with Noah, Abrahamic covenant - covenant with Abraham, etc.).  

Yet when we look at the big picture, we see that in many ways they all form one "covenant of grace," ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in what's known as the "new covenant" (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34).  By fulfilling all of God's covenant promises, Jesus makes the external signs, symbols, and sacrifices of the old testament covenants obsolete (Hebrews 8:7-13).  But each installment of the covenant grace teaches us different things about the heart and plans of God, and the heart of each one is the same -- in spite of the separation from God that sin brings, God will save a people from every tongue and tribe and nation to be his people, and He will be their God.  

We saw the first promise of the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15, even though the word "covenant" is not explicitly used.  God's covenant with Noah is sometimes known as the "covenant of stability," as God promises a stable world in which He will fulfill his other promises.  Never again will the world experience a flood like this one!  The rainbow is aimed at heaven, not at earth, perhaps looking forward to the Son of God taking the arrow of God on our behalf.  In this covenant, God also reaffirms the continuing dignity and calling of humanity (9:1-7), in spite of the sin in which Noah and sons themselves actively participate (9:20-22).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Have you recently, or ever, pondered the love and mercy of a God who would marry himself to sinful people like us through covenant promises?

• Perhaps God's covenant with Noah could also be called the "covenant of patience," since God promises to withhold such widespread judgment as long as the earth endures.  Take time to consider the patience of God in withholding the wrath of his good and righteous hatred of violence and evil.

 

Genesis 10 & Psalm 2

A new genealogy after the great re-start of humanity.  We will see many of these names and cities and people groups later in Scripture, all coming from Noah's three sons -- Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Ham's son Canaan is the father of several nations that wander far away from God into all kinds of destructive ways.  Psalm 2 tells of nations such as these that oppose the Lord and looks ahead to a future King of Israel, Jesus, who will inherit the nations and dash to pieces every geopolitical system that opposes the ways of God.  

We will learn more about Shem in Genesis 11, but there is an intriguing phrase, "the earth was divided," related to his descendant Peleg (10:25).  This likely refers to the division of languages and peoples that we see in chapter 11.  We are reminded of Peleg in the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:35).  Jesus will unite the people of God from the many divided nations.  

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Are you worried about what the nations, the geopolitical structures of the world, will do?  On the other hand, is your hope for goodness on earth in government policy?  Christians have important concerns and involvement in government, but take time to consider God's perspective on the nations from Psalm 2.  Is your hope today in his sovereign power and goodness?  Is your hope today in his Son, the King who has come and will come again?

• What does it look like for you to "serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling" and to "kiss the Son" (Psalm 2:11-12)?  To "kiss the Son" is to embrace him, to pay homage to him, to take refuge in him.

 

Genesis 11:1-9

The division hinted at in Genesis 10 becomes clear in chapter 11.  God commanded humans to fill the earth with the image of God, that the name of God might be worshipped throughout the earth, but instead we refused to "scatter" and sought to hoard our resources to "make a name for ourselves" (11:4).  God's judgment on the people at Babel forced them to scatter, but now instead of experiencing unity in diversity (e pluribus unum!), they experienced division in diversity.  

Humanity has been experiencing this division in diversity ever since, but Jesus is reversing the curse as He gathers a diverse people into one body.  This work started at Pentecost (Acts 2), when Jesus pours out his Holy Spirit on the church so that people of "divided" languages are able to hear about Jesus.  And his work continues through the church today until there are people from every tongue and tribe and nation!

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways do you try to keep God's gift to yourself in order to remain comfortable, rather than extending his gifts to others in order to fill the earth with the image of God?  

• In what ways are you trying to make a name for yourself this week rather than seeking to make the glory of God known?  

• Where do you experience division, or lack the true unity that God desires, with people who are different from you?  Ask God to help you see prejudices in your heart against people who do not share your first language, your skin color, your socioeconomic background, etc.  

• Is your life arranged to avoid contact with people who are different?  Ask Jesus to move you toward true unity with people who are different and praise him for his on the cross, where He took the judgment for our prejudices and division, and for his resurrection that restores us to life together.

 

Genesis 11:10-12:9

This is a monumental passage, crucial for understanding the story that God is telling in the world.  From Shem (11:10), one of Noah's three sons, comes Abram (11:27ff.), the father of the Jewish nation, Israel.  God makes enormous covenant-promises to Abram.  Not only will he give Abram a good land and make him into a great nation, but through this nation God intends to bless "all peoples on earth" (12:2-3, 7).  From the very beginning, God chose Abram and Israel NOT so that they could keep God's blessing to themselves, but so that He might bless all peoples through them!  We see the power and faithfulness of God in the Old Testament as God does indeed provide a good land for Israel and make them into a great nation.  However, the story of the Old Testament is largely one of Israel's failure to bless the nations.  Israel failed to be a light to the nations, so God sent his son Jesus as a faithful son of Abram, to do what Israel could not do on her own.  Now the blessing of God is going out to every nation through Jesus' church.  

It's important to know that God did not choose Abram because of anything particularly good about Abram.  See Joshua 24:2-3 where we learn that Abram was worshipping other gods when God called him into a relationship.  Abram responds in faith to God's call (see also Hebrews 11:8-10) and in worship (12:8).  

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Just as Abram looked forward to God's provision of the good land of Canaan and the blessing of all nations through Israel, Christians long for a new earth, full of the abundance of God's gifts, and the perfect union of the international people of God.  Are you longing for God's renewal of the world and the final reconciliation of his people?  Where do you really need the hope of God's final renewal and reconcilation right now?  How does this longing and hope impact your goals and work today?

• How does God's unchanging compassion for all peoples impact your heart?  

•  Abram took a huge step of faith, leaving behind the familiarity of his home and the comforts of his man-made gods.  Where might God be calling you out of your comforts to be on mission with him?

Genesis 12:10-20 & Psalm 3

Abram's journey to Egypt foreshadows two future journeys.  Abram's great-grandchildren make this same journey due to another famine, and they would remain in Egypt for 400 years (Genesis 42 - Exodus 14).   Jesus, too, undergoes exile in Egypt when his life is under threat from King Herod (Luke 2).  Abram, Abram's great-grandchildren, and Jesus are all recipients of the covenant-promises of God, and all of them had to wait on God to fulfill his promises.  Both literally and figuratively, they had to endure exile in Egypt while they waited on God's promised land and blessing.  

In this passage, we see that even though Abram is a man of great faith, his faith is shaky at times.  Instead of trusting in God's protection, he believes that he needs to take matters into his own hands, using deception in order to spare his life.  The result is disastrous, at least temporarily, for Pharoah's household, yet we see God's faithfulness to his promises as He still protects and blesses Abram and Sarai in spite of their wavering faith.  

Like Abram, all of us fail to trust as we wait on the promises of God, but Christians are comforted by the knowledge that Jesus, who willingly endured our exile from the promised land of God, trusted perfectly on our behalf.  

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways is God calling you to wait on him in faith?  Where are you tempted to take matters into your own hands through deceptive or unethical practices in order to fulfill your desire for security or satisfaction?  Is God your "shield" today (Psalm 3), or are you looking for a different shield?

• Our desires for the fullness of God's presence and blessing are good desires, and Jesus shared these desires (e.g. John 17:24). In what ways did Jesus suffer exile and wait, perfectly, on the promises of God?

 

Genesis 13

Location!  Location!  Location!  We do not know exactly how much Abram's nephew, Lot, knew about his choice of land, but it ended up being an extremely poor choice of real estate given the evils of Sodom.  Even though Lot was a child of God (Genesis 19; II Peter 2:7-8), it seems that he had little, if any, redemptive impact on his neighbors.  He also ends up making some highly questionable moral decisions in Sodom.

Abram, on the other hand, begins to inherit the promised land of God.  God reaffirms his covenant-promises to Abram and gets more graphic about the land and the great number of people who will come from him (13:14-17).   Twice in this chapter Abram responds in worship (13:4, 18).

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Christians are called to enter into dark places in order to bring the light of God, but we also need to exercise wisdom to protect ourselves from unnecessary temptation and compromise.  Perhaps Lot put himself in a context that was too much for him.  Are you putting yourself in situations or contexts that may be too much for you?  On the other hand, are you entering into people's lives who do not know God?  

• Our reliance on promises, whether they are from a spouse, a friend, an employer or business partner, a coach, or from God, shape how we live our lives.  God knew that Abram needed continual reminders of his goodness and promises.  How are the promises of God shaping what you are living for today?

 

Genesis 14 & Psalm 110

This is a confusing chapter.  Lots of kings from strange lands are mentioned.  To simplify, five kings in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah rebelled against a king named Kederlaomer, who had been forcing them to pay a tax to him for twelve years.  Kederlaomer recruited three other kings and attacked the five kings in area of Sodom, carrying off Lot's family and their possessions in the process.  Abram hears about Lot's situation and rescues him.  

Then a mysterious figure named Melchizedek ("king of righteousness"), a priest of God who is also the king of Salem (aka Jerusalem), comes out to meet Abram and the king of Sodom as they are discussing what to do with the rescued people and possessions.  This priest and king spreads out a table of bread and wine for Abram and blesses Abram in the name of God.  Abram gives him a tithe, a tenth of all of the possessions from the battle, but he refuses to keep any of the possessions for himself because he does not want to be tied down by any kind of obligation to a pagan king.  

The only other mentions of Melchizedek in Scripture are in Psalm 110 and Hebrews 5 & 7.  He appears on the scene without explanation and vanishes.  He seemingly has no beginning or end (Hebrews 7:3).  Many hundreds of years later, Psalm 110 speaks of a messianic figure "in the order of Melchizedek" who will judge the nations, and Hebrews 7 picks up on this prophetic Psalm, confirming that Jesus is this priest "in the order of Melchizedek."  Like Melchizedek, Jesus is a priest (a mediator) and a king of righteousness who graciously feeds his people bread and wine.  Like Melchizedek, Jesus has no beginning or end.  The author of Hebrews demonstrates that Melchizedek and Jesus are greater than all of the Old Testament priests, whose priesthood was based on physical lineage, and greater than Abram, given that Abram gave his tithe to Melchizedek and was blessed by him.  

When reading the book of Hebrews, it almost feels as if the author of Hebrews went back and added chapter 14 to the book of Genesis in order to help make the case for the supremacy of Jesus.  Except he didn't.  Throughout the Old Testament, God is pleased to give us living pictures (often called "types") of what the coming Messiah would be like.  Melchizedek is one of those types of Christ, by far the most mysterious of them all, yet even his mysterious appearance points to the mystery of God becoming man.  

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Melchizedek, specifically his likeness to Christ, helps us to see the unchanging nature of God's plans to save his people.  Even in the days of Abram, God knew exactly what kind of priest and king He would send to save his people.  How does the unity of the story that God is telling in Scripture impact your understanding of God and your faith?  Take some time to reflect on how Melchizedek points to the nature and character of Jesus.

• Abram's faith is very evident in this chapter.  He pursues a powerful king.  He gives the first tenth of his possessions to God through Melchizedek.  He refuses to be yoked to a pagan king by accepting his payment.  What do you have that does not belong to God?  Are you trusting God with your possessions?  Are you indebted or tied to any person or institution that could compromise your ability to serve and honor God?

 

Genesis 15

Abram wants to know how God will make him into a great nation and bless all nations through his offspring if he has no child (15:2-3)?  Once again, God reassures Abram of his promises.  

First, God asks Abram to look up at a starry sky and compares the number of Abram's offspring to the stars.  "Abram believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). Righteousness was credited to Abram because of his faith in God's promises.  The New Testament quotes this crucial verse to show that God has always forgiven sin and counted his children as righteous on the basis of faith, not on the basis of their good works (see Romans 4).  Abram was saved from sin and death by faith in promises that had not yet been fulfilled.  Christians today are saved by faith in these same promises, but the promises have already been fulfilled through the work of Christ.  

Second, God gives Abram a vision that is foreign to us.  In the ancient near east, two parties would "cut a covenant" by cutting animals in two and walking together between the divided animals.  If one party failed to keep the covenant, he invoked the cursed fate of the animal on himself.  In this instance, God, represented by the smoking firepot, passes through the animals without Abram.  While God's covenants with his people are two-sided, in that they include demands of his people, this vision shows that God himself would fulfill the demands of the covenant.  God does this through his Son, Jesus.  Jesus not only took the curse for the failure of God's people to obey the covenant on the cross, He also obeyed the demands of the covenant perfectly on our behalf.  Through our union with Jesus, we are included in his death for our covenant-breaking ways and we are included in his righteous life.  As we live in him and He is in us, He enables us to walk in obedience to the good, life-giving ways of God's covenant.  

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Abram believed in the promise of God, but he could not figure out how God was going to make it happen.  Are there areas of your life where you struggle to trust in God because you are not sure how God could work to bring good?

• Today, do you understand your God's love for you to be based on your performance or your good works, or are you believing that his love for you is based on your union with Jesus (by faith), who perfectly fulfilled the demands of God's covenant on your behalf?

 

Genesis 16

What a mess!  Again, we see Abram and Sarai's faith tottering.  Even the giants of the faith are still mixed bags.  They are waiting and waiting on God to provide the promised child, but they do not see God moving, so they take matters into their own hands.  The Bible does not always explicitly condemn sexuality that deviates from the complete union described in Genesis 2, but it's always a disaster.  Such is the case here.  Abram and Sarai got the son they thought they wanted by using Hagar and committing polygamy (16:3), but it only leads them into more sin as Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar and they mistreat her.  When she flees, we see the tenderness of God toward the downcast Hagar as He reveals himself to her at a spring in the desert.  She says, "You are the God who sees me."  

In the New Testament book of Galatians, the apostle Paul takes this situation figuratively (as well as literally).  The child born through Hagar is symbolic of attempts to earn God's blessing through human efforts, credentials, or traditions.  Of course, that is exactly what Abram and Sarai were doing when they stopped trusting in God to provide a son and came up with their own plan.

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• We may not have a very specific promise like Abram did, but every believer has the related promise of abundant, eternal life.  We have good, God-given longings for relational fullness, for physical health and fulfillment, for purpose and satisfaction in our work and other activities, and for closer fellowship with God.  All of these are promised to us when God remakes the world, and sometimes we experience them (imperfectly) now.  What have you been waiting on for a long time?  Where are you tempted to take a "short-cut," as Abram and Sarai did, because you do not see God providing?  

• It is comforting to know that God was still with Hagar when everything was against her.  How does the name "the God who sees me" speak to you?

 

Genesis 17

Abram is still waiting.  It's been thirteen years since the events of Genesis 16.  Thirteen years!  Twenty-four years since leaving home (12:4)!  God is still reassuring Abram of his faithfulness.  Abram is still doubting, wondering how God will make good on his promise (17:17-18).  

God gives Abram two outward signs or tangible reminders/experiences of his covenant-promise.  First, He changes Abram's name to Abraham ("exalted father" to "father of many"), and changes Sarai's name to Sarah.  Second, and more important for understanding Scripture, God gives Abraham the sign of circumcision (17:11).

Circumcision seems like an odd sign of God's covenant-promise to our modern ears, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  First, the promise is about Abraham's offspring, and circumcision is obviously involves the part of the body relating to offspring.  Second, circumcision is a bloody operation.  As we saw in Genesis 15 when God "cut a covenant" with Abraham and passed through the divided animals, the fulfillment of God's covenant-promises to Abraham would ultimately entail the death of Jesus, the shedding of blood.  Third, circumcision signals separation.  The foreskin is separated and thrown away.  Abraham and those in his household were called to separate themselves from the sinful ways of the world and to be "blameless" (17:1) in response to God's love toward them.

Throughout the Bible, God gives his people signs of his covenant in order to strengthen our faith.  In Genesis 3, God covered Adam and Eve with animal skins, which also required the shedding of blood, as an outward sign of covering their shame.  In Genesis 6, God hangs a rainbow in the sky as an outward sign of his promise to keep the world from universal catastrophe.  The Old Testament is full of outward signs of God's covenant.  In the New Testament era, in which the mystery of Christ has been revealed, the Old Testament signs that pointed forward to Christ are no longer observed.  Now that God's work in Christ has been made plain, we have two signs by which we remember his finished work, grow in his grace, and look forward to our resurrection:  baptism and communion (aka the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist).   

 Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Throughout the history of God's people, many have attached too much importance to an outward sign of God's covenant-promises, to the extent that they have found their righteousness in the sign itself rather than in the Christ to which the sign points.  Others dismiss the signs as unimportant, but God himself gives us the signs for our good.  

Where do you fall on this spectrum?  Take some time to reflect the cleansing and forgiveness and inclusion signified in baptism.  Take some time to reflect on the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for us, and the coming feast and fellowship with God, signified in communion.  

 

Genesis 18:1-15

‘Three men” visit Abraham and Sarah, but they are no ordinary men.  Two of them are clearly identified as angels in Genesis 19:1.  The precise identity of the third is a much-debated subject.  We’re told that the “LORD appeared to Abraham” through these men, and the LORD seems to be the primary speaker among the three men (18:10, 13, 17, 20ff.).  Whenever we read “LORD” in all capital letters, this is a translation of the name “Yahweh,” the name by which God personally revealed himself to Moses and his people.  This third man is in some way an appearance of the LORD himself.

We do not know exactly whom Abraham believed these men to be, but he knew that they were special.  He is quick to show them hospitality, running all over the place in order to provide them a generous meal.  In Hebrews 13:2, this act of faith, expressed through hospitality, is provided as an example for all believers.

Why does the LORD visit Abraham and Sarah?  For the same reason we have come to expect -- to remind and reassure them of his covenant promises!  Sarah’s skeptical response shows that they definitely needed it.  Like us, she doesn’t want to be seen as unfaithful, so she lies to cover up her lack of faith and is (somewhat humorously) exposed like a child (18:15).   She knows that it is physically impossible for her to bear a child who would inherit God’s covenant promises, but God is calling her to believe that He can bring life out of death (see Romans 4:18-25).  “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  (Compare to Luke 1:34-38.)

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

 • Unlike Abraham, we have the advantage of knowing how God ultimately brought about life out of death for his people.  In what parts of your life do you need to remember the words, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  Is it believing God’s ability to bring a friend or family member from death to life?  Believing that He will bring you from death to life?  Believing God’s ability to heal a broken relationship, a broken church body, a broken city, a broken body?   Something else?

• Sarah puts up a front of spirituality in this passage, claiming that she did not laugh at God’s promise.  In what ways do God’s promises sound too good to be true?  In what ways do you put up a front of spirituality before others, and maybe even before God?  Take time to be honest with God, to receive perfect forgiveness in Christ for faltering faith, and to dwell on the power and goodness of God. 

• In this passage, we see Abraham’s faith expressed through the kindness and generosity of hospitality.  We never know the depths how God uses our hospitality to make his love and kindness real to others.  How is God calling you to show hospitality through your personality and the use of your home, possessions, and time? 

 

Genesis 18:16-33

The "three men" came not only to confirm the LORD's grace toward Abraham and Sarah, but also to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah.  The sin of these cities had reached its full measure (cf. Genesis 15:16) and God would no longer stand the "outcry" from the destructiveness of sin.  This word, "outcry," provides us an incisive reminder of the pain that sin inflicts on the world and on God (18:20-21).  Of course, God already knew the measure of Sodom's wickedness, but his words in verses 20-21 confirm to Abraham that He always investigates matters thoroughly before passing judgment (see 3:11-13; 4:9-12; 11:5; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis, Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2001, 269).  He is transcendent and omniscient, but also imminent and involved.  

Abraham takes this opportunity to boldly converse with the LORD, and the LORD is remarkably patient with Abraham's reasoning and string of questions.    Did God not have the right to judge Sodom?  Adam and Eve had been judged -- cast out of the garden and subjected to death -- but ultimately saved by faith in God's promise of a Savior.  Could God not judge Sodom even if there were some faithful believers who would experience physical death in the destruction but ultimately be saved by faith?  Yet God listens to Abraham and is willing to hear his questions.  In the end, God mercifully spares Abraham's believing nephew, Lot, and brings him and his family out of Sodom alive. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Have you recently considered the outcry in God's ears produced by sin in your life, your family, your school or workplace, your city, your country and the world?  Do you consider faithfulness vs. sin to be a matter of rule-keeping vs. rule-breaking, OR a personal matter of love vs. rebellion, life vs. death, peace vs. pain?  

• Abraham is honest with God.  Surely his questions spring in large part from his concern for his nephew, Lot.  Are you bringing your doubts and questions to God?  Are you bringing your family, friends, workplace, city, country, world to God in prayer today?  Are you willing to trust the character of a God who grieves over sin and enters into a sinful world even if you don't get the answer you want?  God always hears us and we can converse with him throughout the day.  Consider praying for everyone who comes to mind or who enters your daily activities!

 

Genesis 19

In this passage, we see Lot displaying hospitality to the angels much as Abraham did, but he also suggests the unthinkable (19:8).  We cannot know what was going through his mind or exactly what the cultural expectations were like in his day, but we can affirm that his plan of compromise was absolutely wrong.  Thankfully, the angels of God were not willing to go along with Lot's horrific plan (19:10-11).  

As if this were not enough, Lot later has too much to drink, two days in a row, and he and his daughters commit incest out of the daughters' sense of desperation.  The two nations that proceed from these actions end up being thorns in Israel's side for centuries to come (19:37-38).  It's difficult to imagine more heinous sins occurring in such a short span of time.  And yet these are the people to whom God shows mercy.  Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.

But not all who were given the covenant promises of God remained in them.  Lot's sons-in-law scoffed at the judgment of God on Sodom's perverted desires and actions (19:14).  It's easy for us to think that modern, "enlightened" people are the first to make light of a God who actually judges sin, but clearly that is not the case.  On the other hand, Lot, his wife, and his two daughters heed the warning of God, with some nudging when they hesitated, "for the LORD was merciful to them" (19:16).  Sadly, Lot's wife looks back and is consumed by the burning sulfur.  We do not know if she was looking back longingly at her life in Sodom or if she was simply disobeying the clear warning to flee and not look back.   

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Take time to reflect on the depth of God's mercy and his grace that covers your deepest, darkest sins.  How has the LORD taken your hand and consistently nudged you back to faith, and faithfulness, when you have hesitated?  

• Lot's drunkenness and his daughters' faithless desperation lead them into further sin.  In what parts of your life do you need the forgiveness and power of Christ to keep you from sins that could lead you into further compromise?  In what ways do you need to flee and not look back at your old self?  Where do you need the love and hope of God - Father, Son and Spirit - to meet you in your desperation?   

Genesis 20

Does this story sound familiar?  Abraham told the exact same deceptive half-truth (20:12) to an Egyptian Pharaoh back in Genesis 12.  Now he is in "the Negev," between the southern portion of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, in the land God had promised to him.  Today's passage makes it especially clear that Abraham was in the wrong when he told this half-truth (20:9), as he is shamed by Abimelech's innocence (20:4-6). God protects Abimelech and, at the same time, graciously blesses Abraham in spite of his shaky faith that leads him into deception.  Abraham commits the exact same sin two times, and two times God covers over his offense and gives him what he does not deserve.  

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Do you ever have trouble believing that God will forgive you for committing the same sin multiple times?  Where would we be if God did not forgive us for committing the same sin multiple times?  God does not forgive so that we can continue in sin.  He forgives us to give us the freedom to live in his ways.  But for all who are broken by the offense of sin, who trust in Christ's work on the cross, and who desire to repent through his resurrection power, God forgives "seventy-seven" (i.e. countless) times (Matthew 18:21-22).  Take time to receive and thank God for his abundant forgiveness, and in repentance ask him to free you from the sins that bind you.

 

Genesis 21

We've been waiting for this chapter for a long time, about ten days.  Abraham and Sarah were waiting for this chapter of their lives for 25 years.  At last, the son of promise has come!  Sarah's laugh of cynicism (18:12) is transformed into the laugh of joy.  We marvel, rejoice and laugh with Abraham and Sarah in the miraculous birth of Isaac, the son through whom their Savior and ours would eventually come.  

But salvation is a long way from being fully realized.  The household tension that was initially produced by Abraham and Sarah's self-reliant strategy (Genesis 16) rears its head, as Hagar's son mocks Isaac.  God is, once again, compassionate and gracious to Hagar (21:15-20), but makes it clear that the son of promise, not the son of human effort, is the one through whom salvation would be realized.  Abraham's offspring will be "reckoned" as righteous, or credited with righteousness, through Isaac's line (21:12; cf. 15:6), and Abraham's true offspring are those who share his faith in the promises of God (Romans 4:16-25).

In the last section of the chapter, God gives Abraham peace with his neighbors and "the LORD, the eternal God" provides him with a well and a home within the greater land that his descendants would receive from God.

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Reread the first few verses, put yourself in Abraham and Sarah's sandals, and allow your heart to experience the joy of God bringing life out of death, a son out of a dead womb, and of long-awaited hopes being fulfilled.  What does it look like for you to live consistently in this joy? Ask God to help you. 

• We are reminded that God is faithful even though He does not work on our timeline.  Sometimes not even close to our timeline. In what part of your life is God not on your timeline?  Where do you need to surrender to and rest in his timeline?

• Today, are you wholly resting in the work of Jesus, the son of Abraham and Isaac, in whom you are reckoned as a child of God?

 

Genesis 22

How could God ask this of Abraham? How could Abraham obey?  We, the readers, are relieved only by our knowledge that it was a "test" to prove Abraham's trust, by Abraham's faith that God will somehow restore Isaac to him (22:5; cf. Hebrews 11:17-19) and by God's provision of a "sacrificial lamb," a ram in this case,  in the end. 

The seeming absurdity of God's command is matched only by the "foolishness" of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Why would God miraculously provide Isaac to continue the covenant promises to bless the nations, only to take away his life?  Why would God send his beloved Son to give life to the world only to allow him to die a humiliating death?  No other passage in Scripture gives us such a penetrating view into the emotional pain that God endured for us in offering up His son for our sins. No other passage gives us such a glimpse into the Son's loving, faith-filled obedience, as we envision Isaac carrying the wood as Jesus carried his cross (22:6). The difference is that Isaac was spared in the end, but Jesus was not. He is Isaac's sacrificial lamb and ours. The Father watched him suffer and die. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• When Jesus' work on the cross becomes familiar to us, it can be easy to forget the depths of God's love and the pain and grief that the Father, Son, and Spirit endured in order to give us life.  His love for us is the same today. How does this love change your outlook on today? 

 

Genesis 23 & 24

 Genesis 23-24 form one continuous substory. Chapter 23 begins with the death of Sarah and chapter 24 ends with Isaac being comforted after his mother's death through his marriage to Rebekah. In both chapters, Abraham refuses to compromise with surrounding Hittites, who did not share his morals or his covenant relationship with God. First, he refuses to accept a burial site as a gift from the Hittites. He purchases land from them in the promised land, a sign of his faith in God's future provision, and thereby prevents the Hittites from later questioning his right to the land. Second, he will not allow Isaac to compromise his faith by marrying a Hittite. 

The beautiful story of Isaac's wedding to Rebekah reveals not only Abraham's faithfulness, but also many other instances of human and divine faithfulness. God's sovereignty and goodness are on display as He orchestrates the entire episode. The prayerful, obedient, and determined servant is a model of service in God's kingdom. Rebekah's hospitality, service, and resolute faith (24:58) are a model of Christian living. Finally, Isaac's prayerful patience shows us how to wait on God's provision. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Consider one or more of the characters in this story. How would God have you "put on" these qualities in your life?  

• God's sovereignty is generally not as evident to human eyes as it is in this story, but this story reminds us that He is always sovereign and good. How do you need to rest in his sovereign goodness today?

 

Genesis 25:1-18

How can we encapsulate Abraham's life?  We remember the times that his faith faltered. He used deception instead of relying on God. He participated in the sins of his culture in regard to marriage and sought to make God's promise come true by his own ways. But we also remember the many times that he trusted the LORD with everything - his future, his possessions, his son, his son's marriage, etc. 

Thankfully, Scripture encapsulates Abraham's life for us (Romans 4; Hebrews 11:8-19; John 8:56-58).  In the end, Abraham is counted as a righteous one, a man full of faith in the only One who can give him life. His many sins are covered and his righteous acts are perfected in Christ, the promised offspring. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• What part of Abraham's life challenges you most?

• How are you tempted to participate in, approve of, or ignore the cultural sins of today?   Think about popular culture, definitions of success, busyness, athletics, sexuality, political discourse, greed, oppression/injustice, etc. 

• Do you realize, today, that your sins are covered in Christ and that He is living in you to perfect you in his image?  

 

Genesis 25:19-34

Isaac's life can feel a bridge between Abraham and Jacob. We know relatively little about him. Yet we do see his faith in this chapter as he prays for barren Rebekah to conceive a child (25:21), an heir to the covenant promises of God. He waits 20 years for God to provide (25:20, 26), without resorting to faithless schemes as Abraham did. 

God answers his prayer with twins, who duke it out in the womb. Custom dictated that the oldest son would receive the inheritance and, in this case, be the conduit of God's covenant with Abraham. God, however, does not work according to human custom or expectation.  

Does this mean that Jacob was justified in stealing Esau's birthright as the firstborn son?  Not at all. Jacob, the heel-grabbing trickster, will not learn to trust in the Lord for a long time.  Esau, on the other hand, will always be remembered for valuing his immediate hunger over his inheritance.  Yet God frequently works to accomplish his good plans in the midst of, through, and in spite of human sins and schemes. He does not condone the actions, but is able to work evil for good. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• We cannot stand outside of our lives to see how God is going to work across our lifespan, but Scripture allows us a bird's eye view the lives of people like Isaac, that we might see his faithfulness to his covenant promises.  How does God's faithfulness to Isaac and Isaac's prayerful patience speak to you?

• God's election of the unexpected and unimportant (by human standards) is a common theme in Scripture.  This is seen preeminently in Jesus' birth to poor parents from an obscure village.  Are there any ways in which you are approaching your relationship with God according to human measures rather than God's grace?  Are you viewing other people according to human standards or with God's eyes? 

• We may wonder how God could let Jacob get away with this, but God is in control and Jacob's scheming will eventually come back to him.  Are there evils you see in the world, or right around you, which you have no control over and with which you need to trust God?

 

Genesis 26

This is the first time we've heard God's covenant with Abraham explicitly passed on to Isaac. Isaac's descendants will become a great people, inherit a land of abundance, and bless all nations. As a foretaste of these blessings, God blesses Isaac immensely in the land and gives him peace with the surrounding peoples, in spite of some extremely difficult neighbors and a famine. 

Notice that the basis for the covenant blessings has changed from God's unconditional promise to Abraham's obedience (26:5). How does that work?  Is God's covenant one-sided or two-sided, unconditional or conditional?  Yes!  God's covenant promises do carry conditions of obedience, so the covenant is two-sided. However, in the New Testament, we discover that Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant on our behalf and, as the Holy Spirit gives us life, He enables us to begin walking in God's covenant ways. In this sense, the covenant is one-sided or unconditional. 

Abraham thus typifies Jesus in his faithfulness to God's covenant, while at the same time being a fellow sinner in need of inclusion in Christ's righteousness.  Jesus is a better Abraham, a better head of the people of God (John 8:58).  Isaac is called to walk this same path of covenant obedience, but we see in this chapter that he struggles to fully trust God, just as Abraham struggled. We, the church, are the international people of blessing promised to Abraham and Isaac, and we are called to the same faithfulness to God's covenant as we also look forward to a promised land, the new earth (Revelation 21-22). Like Abraham and Isaac, we at times receive foretastes of the coming glory, but we walk by faith in a faithful God, not by sight (Hebrews 11:13). 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Can you think of ways in your life that God has given you foretastes of coming glory?  Perhaps through a deep friendship or fellowship with a group of people, family, fruitfulness in work, material blessing, joy experienced in the arts or athletics, etc. 

• We should enjoy and give thanks for any foretastes of glory that God gives, but we also need to ask ourselves if we are living by faith or by sight. Is your hope and joy based on what you see God providing or not providing, or is it based on the character of a God so faithful and loving that He became one of us in order to fulfill our end of the covenant?

 

Genesis 27:1-40

Redemption is messy, because God is saving messy people. He has also chosen to use messy people, messy churches, and messy ministries to be the instruments of his grace. He uses people who plot and scheme for what God freely gives.  Our sin still causes pain and often damages the fruit of ministry, but God uses us in spite of ourselves in our to reveal the riches of his grace and power. 

In today's passage, we see the damage done by sin. Isaac and Rebekah are believers, but all is not right in their marriage and family. Isaac is driven by his desire for "tasty food," Rebekah is the mastermind behind deceiving Isaac, and they both play favorites. Jacob, who is not yet a believer, is more than complicit in the deception. (We later learn, from Genesis 48:17-20, that giving the first blessing to Jacob could have been much easier!). Yet God uses Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob as instruments of his grace in spite of themselves in order to reveal the riches of his power and grace. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Where do you see sins coming from poor communication, deceit, favoritism, or the desire for immediate satisfaction damaging your family or close relationships?  Take time to pray through these things. 

• How have you seen Christians, churches or ministries fail to love well?  We should not "sweep sins under the rug" as if they did not happen, but do you remember that God uses us and his church in spite of our failures? Take time to pray for God to use you in your weakness and for God to your friends/church/ministry in their weakness. 

 

Genesis 27:41-28:22

Rebekah and her son Jacob are deceptive, but Esau is driven by impulse and revenge. First, he plans to kill Jacob. Second, we learned at the very end of chapter 26 that he married two women who were Hittites, one of the people groups in the land of Canaan. When Esau finds out that they were a "source of grief" to his parents, he goes out and marries a daughter of Ishmael to intensify their grief.  In contrast, Jacob's avoidance of women who would become his spiritual downfall is the only good move he has made to this point.  Nevertheless, God has chosen Jacob to be his instrument of grace, and God goes to work on him. 

As He did for Isaac, God reaffirms the Abrahamic covenant blessings to Jacob. Jacob has been seeking to garner these blessings for himself, but through the vision God shows that He comes down to Jacob (cf. John 1:51), Jacob does not ascend to God (cf. Genesis 11:4). Notice Jacob's reaction. It's not every day that God spoke to people through visions, but Jacob seems particularly surprised and fearful that God would speak to him (28:16-17). He certainly sees it as a monumental event in his life, but he is still not all-in.   He still wants God to prove himself. He has an "if ... then" faith (28:20-22).  

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• "If ... then" vows are not necessarily looked down upon in Scripture, but Jacob seems to be basing his entire commitment and faithfulness on a sort of bargain with God. Are there any areas of your life in which you have an unhealthy "if ... then" faithfulness?  

• Ask God to show you ways that you may be seeking to garner blessing for yourself, as Jacob did, rather than trusting God to provide. 

• The importance of marrying well could hardly be emphasized more than it has been in Genesis.  As much as Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob stumbled, this is one thing they got right. If you desire to be married, are you wholeheartedly committed to pursuing only people who will draw you closer to Jesus?  While marriage is a great gift, so is singleness, and only God can satisfy our souls.  Pray for yourself and your friends. If you are married, are you helping each other grow in union with Jesus?  What is the first/next step?  Pray for your marriage and for your friends. 

 

Genesis 29:1-30:24

Jacob is in God's School of Hard Knocks.  Back home, Jacob deceived his father who could not see, breaking the custom of blessing in regard to the firstborn child. Now it is Jacob who cannot see in the dark, and Laban deceives him, preventing Jacob from breaking the custom of marriage in regard to the firstborn child. Genesis 29:25 has to be one of the funniest lines in Scripture. "When morning came, there was Leah!"  Yep, there she was!  And Jacob will have to serve seven additional years in return for his marriage to his beloved Rachel. 

This far-from-ideal polygamous relationship turns out to be, as expected, a disaster. Jealousy for love and for children, the hiring out of Jacob (30:15), the use of maidservants for childbearing, and superstitions about aphrodisiacal mandrakes (30:13-15) - you name it, dysfunction abounds.  

Yet out of this dysfunction, God brings forth the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and, later, Benjamin.  They are the beginning of God's promise to make Abraham's offspring into a great nation.  Interestingly, the most significant of these tribes in God's work of redemption -- Levi, Judah, and Joseph -- come from Leah and Rachel, not their maidservants. 

Whenever Leah and Rachel are blessed with children, they generally give credit to God, not to superstition. Rachel, like Sarah and Rebekah before her, experienced barrenness for many years, but God eventually opens her womb. Perhaps even Jacob is beginning to learn that he, too, is dependent upon God (30:2). 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Do you have any subtle or not-so-subtle superstitions that keep you from fully trusting in God?

• Today's passage is an especially poignant reminder of God's control. Humans are making real decisions, doing what they want to do, but God is somehow working even through sin and dysfunction, sometimes with comic relief, to accomplish his good purposes. How does God's power and goodness, and his ability to use you even in your weakness, speak to you today?  

 

Genesis 30:25-31:55

Talk about awkward goodbyes!  Even the final truce between Jacob and Laban feels forced. Laban surely would have made another play for Jacob's wealth and his daughters had not God decisively intervened (31:24, 29, 42). 

Laban is reliant on divination to see that he has been blessed because of Jacob's presence (30:27 - did he really need divination to figure this out?), and Jacob and Rachel are not immune from such idolatry.  Even though Jacob begins to realize his need for God (30:30), he is still clinging to superstition and trickery in his last work arrangement with Laban (30:31-42). Finally, when God tells him to leave, he seems to truly grasp that it is God who has brought blessing, not magic or manipulation (31:3-13), though he is still too afraid to tell Laban that he is leaving (31:20, 31).  At the same time, Rachel is still holding on to deception and to Laban's gods (31:19, 35). 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• We are tempted to wonder how Jacob can be so slow to learn as we read about his deceptive dealings year after year.  The process leading up to conversion, as well as the process of Christian growth, are often slow. How has the Lord been patient with you?  How is He being patient with you now?  How is He calling you to be patient with others?  Take time to thank God for his patience and ask him to speed his work, by his Spirit, in your own life and in those around. 

 

Genesis 32

Jacob was stuck between a rock and hard place. Stay with Laban, where he would continue to deal with Laban's antics and the influence of Laban's gods, or confront Esau, which could put his own life and everything he had been given in jeopardy.  One was the way of safety and comfort, the other was the way of calling and faith in God. 

Jacob is ready to choose the way of faith.  Jacob's appeasement tactics before Esau are surely understandable, but it's hard to know whether these tactics display a lack of faith, wisdom, or an appropriate recompense for stolen blessing. One thing we do know:  there is a stark contrast in Jacob's posture before God between the beginning of his 20-year journey and the present (32:10). God has clearly been warming Jacob's heart, preparing his heart for a full on invasion ... the greatest wrestling match the world will ever know. 

God visited Abraham in the form of a man and now He visits Jacob in the form of a man. Just as Jesus came in human weakness, so does this man. Yet with one divine touch of Jacob's hip socket, the battle is effectively over (32:25). Jacob's human strength  and devices are rendered useless before the strength of God.

 In a very real sense, Jacob had been wrestling God his entire life, but preseason was over. He had seen his need for God prior to this contest, but now he is desperate for God, clinging to him for blessing (31:26).  Invasion completed, restoration may commence. He walks away with a new name -- Israel, or "struggles with God" -- fitting his own experience and that of his progeny; a profound humility before the glory and mercy of God (32:30); and a limp -- a painful but gracious reminder, for generations to come (32:32), of Who has the power to give life. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• How is God calling you to step out in faith?  Are you taking the way of safety and comfort, or the way of calling and faith?

• Has God ever touched your hip socket, so to speak, to show you that you are not able to run your life?  Are you remembering your limp, or trying to act like you don't have one?

• Do you need a little help from God, or are you desperate for God, clinging to Him for mercy, joy, peace, wisdom, power to change, power to touch others' lives with your words and actions, etc.?

 

Genesis 33 & Psalm 4

The psalmist writes about relief from distress, the light of God's face, peace to lie down and sleep, and the Lord as the sole provider of safety. We see Jacob/Israel experience all of these realities as he returns to the promised land under God's protection. He sets up an altar of worship at the end of Genesis 33, naming it after "the mighty God of Israel" and offering "the sacrifices of the righteous" (Psalm 4:5). 

The psalmist says that many are asking the question, "Who will bring us prosperity?" Jacob learned the answer to this question the hard way.  Now that he has left behind his delusions and false gods (4:2), Jacob is among those who call on the Lord, receive mercy from the Lord (4:1), and are set apart for service to the Lord (4:3). 

(Some may wonder how Esau is fairing so well after he forfeited his blessing in Genesis 27.  God has provided for Esau.  He does not hate Esau personally, but Esau is outside of God's covenant blessing to Abraham.  There is no evidence that Esau repented of his covenant-breaking ways, though his anger against Jacob was assuaged over 20 years.  Esau's descendants do experience what Isaac foretold in Genesis 27, including their overthrow of Israel's power over them - 2 Kings 8:20-22.

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Jacob will always look back on his safe return to Canaan as a marker of God's faithfulness to him. What are some markers of God's faithfulness to you?  Take time to respond in worship to God's past and present faithfulness. 

• Take time to reflect on Psalm 4.  Consider 4:7, "Fill me with joy when their grain and new wine abound."  The psalmist is asking for joy in God even when he sees others experiencing greater earthly blessings. 

 

Genesis 34

This is among the most difficult chapters to read in the Bible. The wickedness of the Canaanites, specifically the Hivite people, is on full display in this chapter. The wording could not be more clear that Shechem son of Hamor raped Dinah ("saw ... took ... violated"). Dinah, a very young woman, was probably unwise to venture into the Canaanite area. However, Bruce Waltke argues in his Genesis commentary that Jacob lacked leadership here and set a poor example by intermingling with the Canaanites when he moved to Shechem instead of returning to Bethel, where the Lord had appeared to him and where he had made a vow to build an altar to the Lord (Genesis 28). The Lord has to push him back to Bethel in the next chapter. 

It's hard to blame Simeon and Levi for their outrage and revenge, in light of the atrocity of rape, and we must admit that it was a clever and fitting plan.  Nevertheless, they abused the sign of God's covenant and took judgment into their own hands. There would come a time when the sin of the Canaanites reached its full measure and God would call Israel to be his agents of judgment, just as He much later calls Assyria and Babylon to be his agents of judgment against Israel, but now is not that time. Dinah's brothers should have gone before the Lord in their outrage and sought an orderly judgment against the sole offender. Again, Jacob's leadership over his children appears to be lacking. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Take time to pray for victims of rape and sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Where are you not fully trusting in and submitting your sexuality to the Lord?  Are you putting yourself in places where you will be tempted to compromise?  Take time to confess, receive forgiveness and healing in Christ, repent and ask for the Spirit's wisdom and power to flee from temptation. 

• You may have never taken revenge in such drastic form as Simeon and Levi did, but how have you taken judgment into your hands in your relationships with others?  Take time to remember that God will judge all things perfectly and that Jesus has taken your judgment on the cross. 

 

Genesis 35-36

The account of Esau/Edom speeds forward several generations, while the account of Jacob/Israel's family is really just beginning. The only narrative in the account of Esau describes his move out of the land of Canaan, out of the land of God's covenant blessing (36:6-8). Israel, on the other hand, receives a fresh start in the promised land after the horror of his family's experience in Shechem (34). 

Two words about Israel's fresh start. First, fresh starts begin with remembering. Building the altar at Bethel, Jacob remembers how God had graciously worked in his life (35:6-9). Then God reminds Jacob of the promises of grace to his fathers and assures him that he stands in those promises (35:10-13). It is a worshipful remembrance (35:14). Second, fresh starts entail throwing off the sin that entangles us and putting on a new identity. We see this  in 35:2-5 as Jacob commands his family to throw away their gods and put on new clothing. This new clothing is symbolic of the new identity that believers, including Jacob, have in Christ. We are clothed in his righteousness and are no longer defined by sin and death but by the righteousness and love of Christ. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Remember how God has worked in your life. Have you ever written out a detailed account of the significant markers in your journey, before and after you came to faith?  This is an extremely helpful exercise for your own relationship with God and for your ability to speak to others about your relationship with God.  

• What do you need to "throw away" in your life?  Ask God to help you.  

• Do you know and remember today that Christ is your life, purely by God's grace and not as a result of anything you have earned?  Do you know that, through your union with Christ by faith, you are not defined by past sins from earlier today or ten years ago, but by Jesus' perfect life and love?

 

Genesis 37

Favoritism. Jealousy. Hatred. Pride. Increasing Hatred. Murder. Slave-trading. Deceit ... Mourning. Hope you are having a pleasant day. 

Jacob should have learned his lesson about favoritism from his childhood. His own father, Isaac, played favorites against him, even though God had chosen Jacob to bear the covenant promises.   And Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, should have humbly kept his dreams of grandeur to himself, even though the dreams were from God. Nevertheless, God again works in the midst of all kinds of evil to bring about his glorious purposes. 

Joseph is not perfect, as we have already seen, and of course the Scripture only gives us a few brief glimpses into his life, but Scripture clearly shows that Joseph's life foreshadows the greater righteousness, suffering, mercy, blessing, wisdom, and victory of Christ in uncanny ways. Even in this chapter, Joseph's future exaltation over his people is foreseen. Yet before he is exalted, his own people despise him, mock him, strip him, argue over what to do with him, sell him for some silver, and essentially leave him for dead. These are the very same people he would later save. 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Put yourself in Joseph's place and walk through what that day of betrayal would have been like.  When he woke up that day, Joseph had no idea what would happen.  Jesus knew that day was coming for him, yet He willingly and determinedly walked toward it in order to save us. Is there anything that could separate you from such love? (See Romans 8:31-39 if you do not know the answer.)

• Who are the people in your life who do not yet know this love?

 

Genesis 38

Genesis is almost too much, isn't it?  As we read Genesis 38, we're hoping that perhaps Judah, the fourth son, is different than Reuben the firstborn, who slept with his father's concubine (35:22), and Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons, who vengefully killed dozens of Canaanites (34:25). Maybe he talked his brothers into selling Joseph, instead of killing him, because he thought that it was the only way to save him (37:26). Maybe he moved away from his brothers (38:1) because he couldn't stand their jealousy any longer.  Do we finally have a good guy?  We do not need to rehearse the details of this chapter to know that the answer is a resounding "No."  

If you were making up a story about the founding fathers of an invented religion, this is not how you would do it!  Jesus descends from Judah, and all of Israel descends from Judah and his brothers. Yet these perpetrators are the ones whom Jesus saves.  It feels like too much.  Too much grace. 

Until we realize the depth of our own offense against God, the grace of God IS offensive. We're like the religious leaders in Jesus' day who were offended that Jesus would forgive notorious sinners. But when we realize the depths and consistency of our own offense, the grace of God in Christ is wonderful. It is the only cure for our disease. 

*** Bruce Waltke points out in his Genesis commentary that “Tamar, a wrong wife (i.e., Canaanite), saves the family by her loyalty to it. The four women in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba) all come from outside Israel and have a highly irregular and potentially scandalous marriage union.  But because of their faith, God deems them worthy to carry royal seed” (516).  Tamar’s redemptive actions may be more questionable than the other women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, but the fact that she valued the continuation of the family line more than Judah did cannot be argued.  Judah himself acknowledges, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” (38:26).

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• We've seen again and again that the pervasiveness of sexual sin is clearly not new to the 21st century. In this chapter, Judah sat in judgment on Tamar for her sexual sin, before being convicted of his own.  We of course need to discern what is right and wrong, but are there ways that you are sitting in judgment on others before examining your own heart and life for sexual sin?  Are you keeping God's vision for sexuality and ultimately for union with him before you?

• How has the grace of God offended you in the past? Are there people you have written off, without hope of receiving the grace of God?  How is the grace of God wonderful to you today?

 

Genesis 39

Everything Joseph touches turns to gold. He gives life and blessing to everyone and everything around him. The words "prosper," "success,"  "favor," and "blessing" appear throughout the chapter, all "because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did" (39:23). When we read the gospels, we see Jesus restoring life to people left and right, so Joseph continues to foreshadow the life of Jesus in this way. 

Joseph also foreshadows Jesus' response to temptation, denying immediate satisfaction for the goodness of God's ways and for the glory of God. First, Joseph realizes that sleeping with Potiphar's wife is more than a sin against her and Potiphar, but ultimately a sin against God (39:9). Second, he consistently keeps a far distance between himself and temptation (39:10). Third, when temptation catches him by surprise, he runs as fast as he can in the other direction, even at the cost of his cloak. Like Jesus, he is then wrongfully accused and punished for another's sin, but the LORD is still with him.

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• Not too many people would envy Joseph's life up to this point, yet he continues to dwell with the LORD and seeks to glorify in extremely difficult situations. Where are you looking today for life and blessing?  Is your hope in having everything go your way and according to plan, or in Jesus, the one who gives lasting life and blessing?

• In what areas of your life might you need to apply Joseph's response to temptation (39:9-12)?  It is an extremely important exercise to consider how our specific sins offend God (39:9) and how they steal from the life God offers, so that our motivation moves beyond rule-keeping.

• Take time to praise Jesus for his perfect denial of temptation on our behalf. 

 

Genesis 40-41

"The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he FORGOT him" (40:23). 

Just as Jesus took our loneliness upon himself, suffering alone and being often dismissed and forgotten, Joseph is forgotten in his suffering. He had been in prison for quite some time before he interprets the chief baker and cupbearer's dreams. (Perhaps something did not right with Pharaoh's stomach, given that his baker and cupbearer's jobs were on the line).  Now Joseph waits another two years in prison before the cupbearer finally remembers him. 

The chapters begin with Joseph suffering, but end with Joseph at the right hand of the king, dressed in fine robes and gold, ruling over the whole land with the authority of the king's ring (41:42). We are given a powerful image of Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Joseph's great wisdom is on display throughout, but he is quick to acknowledge and deflect all of the glory to God (41:16).  Even Pharaoh recognizes that it is some sort of divine wisdom (41:38-39).  Here again we are reminded of Jesus' wisdom and humble desire to glorify the Father (e.g. John 7:16-18). 

Questions for Reflection & Prayer

• How does Jesus' willingness to take on our loneliness, our forgotten-ness, speak to you?   Are you embracing the reality that He is with you even when you feel forgotten by the world?

• We may or may not experience "matinée performances" of resurrection such as Joseph did on this side of Jesus' return. We certainly will not experience anything quite like Joseph did. But we will be raised with Christ and enter the glory of his kingdom when he returns. Are you living with this hope and in light of this destiny?

• Today, are you seeking to point others to the infinite glory of God or to your own finite glory?  Praise God for fulfilling our calling as humble servants and for revealing the life-giving glory of God to us! 

 

Genesis 42

We do not know how heavily the guilt of Joseph’s brothers weighed on their hearts all of these years.  We can only imagine that it weighed quite heavily, as they immediately see their offense against Joseph as the reason for their current predicament (42:21-22).  They argue with each other and confess their sin openly to one another, little knowing that Joseph hears their confession, too.  This confession is painful, but it is the beginning of restoration.

Proverbs 29:6 tell us, “An evil man is snared by his own sin, but a righteous one can sing and be glad.”  Were Joseph’s brothers able to sing with glad hearts during those years of separation from Joseph, weighed down as they were by guilt?  Surely they were snared by their sin.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

* We have a God who is never too far away or unwilling to hear our confession.  He is near, and He is full of mercy and compassion.  Are there any sins from your distant or recent past that keep you from being able to sing to God with a glad heart?  Confess and receive God’s complete forgiveness in Christ.  

 

Genesis 43

How ironic is the gospel of God’s grace!  Israel is supposed to be God’s light to the world, and they will be through Jesus, but in this chapter a foreigner, an Egyptian servant, preaches the good news of peace and forgiveness to Joseph’s brothers (43:19-23).  Instead of judgment, the servant tells them that their God has given them treasure.  Of course, Joseph had apparently been faithful to proclaim the goodness of the God of Israel to his servant.

We also see Judah begin to rise as a leader among his brothers in this chapter.  He takes the lead in speaking with Jacob (43:3), and unlike Reuben who offered his sons in Benjamin’s place (42:37), Judah puts his own life on the line as a substitute for the youngest brother, Benjamin (43:9). Here we see a glimmer of Jesus, the King who would come from Judah.  Judah's transformation, which began in confession (38:26), is now evident.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• The good news comes to Joseph’s brothers from an unexpected source, a servant who is not an Israelite.  Are you willing to learn from unexpected sources, from people of a different socioeconomic stratum or ethnic background?  The brothers likely received his words as good news because they were aware of their desperate need for grace.  

• Judah was willing to put his life on the line for Benjamin.  Take some time to reflect on Jesus, who became our substitute in judgment.  
 

Genesis 44

Is Joseph just toying with his brothers?  By human standards, he definitely has the right to toy with them a little, but that is not what is happening.  Joseph is testing his ten half-brothers to see how they will treat the only other son of Rachel, Benjamin, who replaced Joseph as the favored child.  He is providing them an opportunity to show that they have had a change of heart, and they do not disappoint.  Judah again takes the lead and follows through on his promise to be Benjamin's substitute!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In the preceding chapters, we've seen remorse, a sort of confession, forgiveness, and grace in the experience of Jacob's sons.  God's forgiveness and grace toward us is never in vain.  A true experience of forgiveness and grace always leads to life-change, as we see in this chapter.  Give thanks for the ways that you have seen and are seeing God change your life.  In what areas do you need to continue to see him produce heart and character change?  Ask him to show you.

 

Genesis 45

Up to this point, the guilty brothers have had their silver returned (42:35 - they cannot buy grace!), feasted with Joseph (43:34), and had their sacks stuffed with food (44:1).  Already we have seen the lavish grace of God toward them, but in this chapter they receive grace upon grace, as God reveals his sovereign ability to bring great good out of the worst of evils.  Most importantly, the brothers' relationship with Joseph is restored as Joseph can no longer resist revealing himself to them.  Do not skim past the beautiful picture of the restored intimacy with their brother and savior in 45:15!  They have no life apart from Joseph (45:11), but with him they receive the richest part of the land, new clothing (remember the connection from 35:2 between clothing and identity!), an abundance of food and gifts, and a preserved community of faith (45:7).  This is not the fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham in regard to a rich land, a great people, and blessing, but it is definitely a taste of what is to come!  

Joseph's command to his brothers as they go back home to retrieve their father and families is a humorous and interesting footnote (45:24).  "Don't quarrel on the way."  What a great word for the people of God, for today's church!  As those who have received the sovereign grace of God, it is unfitting to be marked by envy, the pointing of fingers for past sins, and quarreling.  

The only other command that Joseph gives his brothers is found in 45:5 and it, too, is of immense importance for godly living.  He says to them, "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves . . ."  Joseph is not making light of what his brothers had done.  He's saying that because he has forgiven them and because God has forgiven them, they should no longer dwell on their past sins.  When we continue to dwell on and beat ourselves up for our past sins, Christians are not receiving and living in the reality of God's perfect forgiveness through Jesus.  We are not living in the freedom for which Christ has set us free!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• The intimacy and desire of Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers is a compelling picture of God's love for us.   How are you cultivating intimacy with God in your life?  Even as you do this devotional, are you allowing time and space to connect with God at a heart level?

• Are there any ways in which you are quarreling on the way to the kingdom?  Where do you see envy, pointing fingers, or quarreling in your life?  Are there people with whom you need to reconcile this week?  How can you pass on to others the grace you have received from God?

• Are you beating yourself up for past sins today, even though you have confessed and received God's perfect forgiveness?  Ask God to help you heed Joseph's words:  "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves . . ."  Perhaps you need to tell a trusted brother or sister in Christ who will remind you of and show you God's forgiveness.  

 

Genesis 46-47

Resolution.  In the previous chapter, Jacob is told about the “resurrection” of Joseph and hesitantlybelieves.  Now, Jacob sees him with his own eyes and receives the blessings of the resurrected son.  As Jacob confesses, his years have been “difficult” (47:9), but God is faithful to the end.  The lyrics to hymn, “Poor Sinner Dejected with Fear,” are especially fitting for Jacob’s life:   

The soul that on Jesus relies, He’ll never, no never deceive;                                                              He freely and faithfully gives more blessings than we can conceive;                                                  Yea, down to old age He will keep, nor will He forsake us at last;                                                    He knows and is known by His sheep; They’re His, and He will hold them fast.  
- William Gadsby

Jacob, the deceiver, is never deceived by God’s promises, which God once again reaffirms to him.  The transformed Jacob believes to the end.  He asks Joseph to bury him in the land of Canaan (47:30), a sign of his faith that God will brings his descendants back to the promised land, and a sign of solidarity in faith with Isaac and Abraham.  And he worships (47:31; cf. 46:1).  

*** Scholar Bruce Waltke notes in his Genesis commentary that, though Egypt was saved by and owed their lives to Joseph, the 20% "double-tithe" or tax to Pharaoh was not God's ideal for Israel.  However, the 20% tax was less than the average ancient near eastern tax of 33%.  Israel was spared from this kind of heavy tax in Goshen.  Later, in the promised land, God allotted the land for private ownership.  Families owned land and were to bring a tithe, the first fruits of the land, in thanksgiving and as a sign that all creation ultimately belong to God.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

•  Each one of us endures different trials.  Some are much more difficult than others.  A broken world is by no means a level playing field.  As we think back through Jacob’s life - years away from home, uncertainty, the heartache of discord, abuse, and death within his family (including his wife), a permanent limp from his dislocated hip, famine, multiple relocations, etc. - he by no means had an easy life.  How is God’s faithfulness to Jacob, in spite of the trials he endured, comforting to you?  

• Israel’s life is marked by worship toward the end of his life.  We were made to worship and enjoy the love and glory of God.  How is private and communal worship become more a part of your life?

 

Genesis 48

By counting Joseph’s two sons as his own (48:5), Jacob is giving Joseph, the preeminent Christ-figure in the latter half of Genesis, a double-portion of his inheritance.  Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, will each receive a large allotment of land when Israel is later given the promised land of Canaan.  This double-portion was traditionally reserved for the firstborn son.  Joseph, however, received the double-portion not by virtue of his birth order, but by virtue of his life.  Here we see yet another way that Joseph’s life points to Jesus.  Jesus, too, receives the inheritance of the “firstborn” (Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:6. 12:23, Revelation 1:5), not by virtue of his birth but by virtue of his life, death, and resurrection.  With this understanding, we see that Jesus’ title of “firstborn” in no way connotes that He is a created being, but rather that He receives the greater inheritance of a firstborn son!

Jacob has truly learned to trust in the ways of God by this point, after trying to control his own life for so long.  Like Isaac, he too could barely see in his old age (48:10).  Unlike Isaac, he did not resist the untraditional ways of God.  Not only does he give Joseph the double-portion among his sons, he also crosses his hands to bless Ephraim, Joseph's the second son, ahead of Manasseh, Joseph's firstborn.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Consider the inheritance of Jesus, our great Shepherd.  His land is a new earth, refined and perfected.  His flock is a people from every tongue, tribe and nation, refined and perfected.  His blessing is the abundant production and beauty of the new earth, and the immediate presence of his Father.  He shares all of this with his brothers and sisters, those who are united to him by faith.  Today, are you living in the reality that you share in this inheritance, by virtue of his life, death, and resurrection?  

Since this is our future, we can be assured that anything we do in his name, for his glory, is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Colossians 3:23).  Jesus even calls us to pray that this future would invade our present reality (Matthew 6:10).  What might it look like for you to work, play, and love toward this eternal future, as opposed to a shaky, short-lived and self-conceived future?

 

Genesis 49

Yesterday, we read about Joseph’s double-portion inheritance, which Jacob pronounced upon him.  Joseph would have two sons who would receive a generous inheritance and have a name in the promised land!

Today, we see in Jacob’s prophecy that he had his own kind of double-portion through his two sons, Judah and Joseph!  Of course, Jacob actually has twelve sons who would have a name (or two in Joseph’s case) and receive a generous inheritance in the promised land.  Every descendant of these twelve sons would be included in Israel and receive the covenant of God, but as we read Jacob’s prophecy, we are not surprised that Judah and Joseph stand out among their brothers.  They are the primary Christ-figures among Jacob’s sons in the book of Genesis.  Judah will become a kingly tribe, the leader of the nation (49:10).  David, the first good king of Israel, comes from Judah, as does Jesus, the “lion of Judah” and eternal Davidic King (Revelation 5:5).  Joseph is called a “prince” and, as we know, is given an abundant, “fruitful” double-blessing.  

Jacob’s prophecy, especially in regard to Judah’s line, is another reminder of God’s sovereignty over all of history as He works to save a people from sin and death for himself.  We knew as early as Genesis 3, immediately after Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, that the wheels of God’s plan of redemption were already turning.  Here we are reminded that the wheels of God's plan of redemption are always turning, as Jacob prophesies about Judah’s kingship almost a thousand years before David took the throne and almost two thousand years before Jesus took on our humanity.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• When we begin to understand the full story of Scripture and how God has orchestrated his plan of redemption throughout all of history, our faith deepens and our awe of the power and wisdom and love of God grows.  Take time to reflect on the amazing power and wisdom of God, and his ability to work in and through millions of human decisions, good and (often) bad, to accomplish salvation.

• Not all of the brothers are a Judah or a Joseph, a king or a prince, but they are all included in God's covenant promises.  God uses every one of his people in vastly different ways.  Some have a role in the spotlight and others do not.  Are you seeking to serve God with whatever gifts and roles He has given you at this time?  Do you value some Christians more highly because they have a prominent role in the body of Christ, while not valuing others?  Are you thankful for who God has made you?  At the same time, are there perhaps untapped gifts or opportunities for service that you need to develop or pursue?

 

Genesis 50

Genesis ends on a powerful note of forgiveness.  The reluctance of Joseph's brothers to believe the good news of Joseph's forgiveness mirrors our own reluctance to believe the good news of complete forgiveness in Christ. We struggle to believe because the gospel is almost too good to be true. Surely Joseph must still hold a grudge against his brothers. Surely God must still hold a grudge against us for all of the things we have done and left undone. Yet Joseph "reassured them and spoke kindly to them," steadfast in his forgiveness.  Joseph is able to look back, see how God used his brothers' evil for good, and forgive.  Jesus cried out "Father, forgive them ..." even as his executors tortured him. 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Can you relate to Joseph's brothers, who reverted back to fear and dread, doubting that Joseph's forgiveness could be real?  Confess your sins, with the full knowledge that God has forgiven all of them through the work of Jesus. 

 

 

Exodus

Exodus Overview

God establishes the people of Israel as a nation in the book of Exodus.  These are the people through whom He will save the world.  First, He must deliver them from bondage and oppression in Egypt in order to provide political independence.  This exodus or deliverance from Egypt becomes one of the primary images in the New Testament of the deliverance from sin and death that God provides through Jesus, and our struggle with his deliverance (chapters 1-18).  Second, God gives Israel a law, to show them how to live as his redeemed people, to enjoy the abundant life for which He had saved them (19-24).  Finally, God gives Israel the design for the tabernacle or “Tent of Meeting” through which Israel would experience God’s glory, forgiveness and empowering presence (25-31, 35-40), though they were quick to rebel against God’s law when He seemed absent (32-34).  As Israel struggles against God’s deliverance, law, and presence, we see God discipline the people He loves, but He never gives up on his people.  His grace is greater than all our sin.  

Exodus 1-2

We see the compassionate heart of God in the last three verses of our passage (2:23-25).  He hears the cries of his people as they endure the oppression of a fallen regime and world, He is concerned, and He is faithful to remember his covenant promises, which were made in love.  In order to act on his compassion, God begins to prepare a man through whom He will deliver his people.

Moses is God’s man, and nothing the king of Egypt does can thwart God’s deliverance.  This cruel king of Egypt doesn’t want to appear as cruel as he actually is, so he tries to enlist the Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work (1:16).  The faithful midwives revere God and surely risk capital punishment by refusing to obey his order, but God protects and blesses them (1:17-21) while the king’s evil is exposed (1:22).  Moses, like Jesus, was born under the rule of a tyrannical king.  Just as Pharaoh ordered the death of every nearby baby boy, so did Herod the Great after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:16).  Moses was placed in a basket on a river.  Jesus was placed in a feeding trough.  Both boys find shelter in Egypt (2:5ff.; Matthew 2:13ff.).  Both men were rejected by their own people whom they desired to save, perhaps understandably in Moses’ case (2:14).  But God protects Moses and provides a refuge for him in the household of a polytheistic priest in Midian, who later becomes a believer in the one true God.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do you ever doubt that God hears your cries and feels your pain?  We should consider that God never forgot his people during their long stay in Israel, even though He seemed to be absent.  God was moving to prepare Moses long before Israel had any idea that He was acting.  Moreover, God was preparing the way for Jesus through Moses and Israel, 1,400 years before his coming.  This is not a full-proof exercise for removing doubt, but take time to reflect on the character and timing of God and how this passage may speak into to your own life and our current time.
     
  • Consider, too, the faith and courage of the Hebrew midwives.  Consider the state of your own commitment to the Lord.  Consider the inability of worldly forces to stop God’s deliverance through Moses and ultimately through Jesus.  From what has Jesus delivered you?  Take time to give thanks.  How is God calling you to be courageous for the sake of his kingdom?  

 

Exodus 3:1-10

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush is essential to the work that God would do through him.  Just as the apostle Paul must know the blinding glory and gentle grace of Jesus before serving as a messenger of God’s word (Acts 9), so it is with Moses.  The courage they would need to risk their lives for God’s purposes required a deep, personal knowledge of God that is more compelling than what the world has to offer apart from God.

What does Moses learn about God through this encounter?  He learns that God knows us by name, that God graciously condescends to call us by name even when we are not looking for him (3:1-4).  The burning fire, together with the command to remove his sandals, reveals the holiness or “otherness" of God (3:5).  Apart from God’s grace, Moses cannot stand in the presence of his glory or even look at God.  This is the faithful God he learned about as a little boy (2:9-10), who performed wonders through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:6).  The one true God draws near to hear the cries of his people, “comes down to rescue them,” and will lead them into a land of abundance (3:7-10).  In sum, Moses sees clearly, maybe for the first time, God’s personal knowledge of him, his absolute holiness, and his grace and love to redeem his people into fullness of life.  

Moses and Paul’s encounters with God are obviously not common experiences, even among biblical characters.  God usually works in more subtle ways to overwhelm us with his glory and love.  In fact, Moses and Paul’s encounters are written down for us, that we might encounter God through their experience (Romans 15:4).  There may be times when God “pulls back the veil,” so to speak, and we are overcome by his glory and grace, but we should not demand dramatic encounters with God.  We can, however, create space in our lives for God to more fully reveal his nature and character to us through prayerful study of Scripture and worship with God’s people.  Even Moses and Paul needed to continually create this space in their lives to be sustained in their service to God.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • As you study God’s word, are you regularly making room for God to reveal himself to you?  Are God's love and glory the fuel for your service?  Take time today to prayerfully reflect on the nature and character of God as revealed to Moses.

 

Exodus 3:11-4:17

Who am I?  “I will be with you.”  What if they ask me your name?  “I AM who I AM.” I AM the God who has always been, from whom all things find their source, who is present with you.   What if they do not believe me?  I will enable you to perform miracles.  What if I’m not gifted enough?  I am the One who gave you your mouth.  Can’t you just send someone else?  I will send your brother Aaron with you and “will help both of you to speak.”  

Five times, Moses questions God’s choice of a messenger.  We can all relate to his fears and insecurities.  He is so very human in this moment.  God never denies Moses’ weakness or downplays his doubts.  Each time, God’s answer is not about what Moses can do, but what He will do through Moses.  His presence and power will be more than sufficient in Moses’ weakness.  

And, by the way, what kind of God is willing to field these questions from Moses?  He is holy, majestic, and altogether greater than any created being (3:5-6,14), but He is the kind of God who is willing to bend his ear to his creatures and engage in extended dialogue.  He is patient and supportive in Moses’ questioning and self-doubt, at least until Moses rejects God’s first four answers and requests an exemption from God’s call.  At this point, God is still gracious toward Moses, but He is angry with his son (4:14).  Perfect patience does not equal unlimited patience.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We have so much to learn from Moses’ dialogue with God.  Do you believe that our God is willing to entertain your questions?  Are you being honest with him about your struggles and doubts, giving him room to speak into your life?
     
  • Where are you shrinking back from God’s call on your life due to self-doubt?  How do God’s responses to Moses’ questions speak into your own self-doubt and insecurities?  Take time to reflect on God’s responses to Moses, to praise Him for who He is, and to ask for his power and love to be displayed in the midst of your weakness.  


Exodus 4:18-31

Many people consider this passage to be one of the most perplexing in all of Scripture.  Moses’ wife, Zipporah, performs an emergency circumcision on her son in order to save Moses’ life (or possibly his son’s life)?  God was going to take his life?  Yes, this is what the passage says.  

Most scholars believe that Zipporah’s people, the Midianites, practiced circumcision.  This makes sense considering that they descended from Abraham after he had received the sign of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant promises (Genesis 25:1-2).  Circumcision signified: 1) in its bloodiness, the judgment of death that comes through sin; 2) in its anatomical location, the promised “seed” who would bear our sins and bring God’s blessing to the nations; and 3) in its lasting mark, separation unto God.  Given that the Midianites were polytheistic, the true meaning of circumcision was likely lost on most of them, but it should not have been lost on Moses.

Just as we see an abundance of miracles marking significant turning points in God’s plan of redemption (e.g. 4:29-31), we also see an acuteness in the judgment of God at these turning points (cf. Joshua 7; Acts 5).   Moses’ call is one of those turning points, but he is about to go into battle without a shield.  Circumcision pointed ahead to the blood of Jesus, which covers our sin.  By neglecting the sign of circumcision in his household, Moses was recklessly charging into battle without cover.  The Egyptians would soon lose their sons precisely because they were not covered by the blood of the Passover lamb, also a sign and symbol of Christ.  How could Moses go and call Israel to find cover under the blood of the sacrificial lamb when he himself was neglecting the sign of faith in the coming Lamb of God?

Zipporah, a Midianite, is an unlikely hero in this story as she leads Moses, the Israelite, to find cover in the blood of the coming Messiah.  We do not know exactly what to make of her words.  Is she angry at Moses for getting her into this religious mess?  Does she have a righteous anger over Moses’ neglect?  We hope for the latter, but either way, she stands in the gap with the blood of circumcision, the blood of Christ.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Moses learns an important lesson in this passage.  Do not charge into battle for God’s kingdom carelessly or pridefully, no matter how certain is God’s call.  We go must go humbly and we must not neglect our own need for Christ, knowing that it is only by the shed blood of Christ that we ourselves are saved.  As you seek to do things for God, are you caring for your own soul?  Are you finding cover in the blood of Christ?
     
  • Moses also learns to not neglect the faith of his family.  As you seek to do things for God, which may be very good things, are you neglecting the faith of your family, whom you are called to care for first?

 

Exodus 5 & 6

Pharaoh dismisses the LORD’s command through Moses out of hand (5:2).  He may feel threatened.  He may really believe that it is an excuse for laziness (5:17-18).  Either way, persecution increases when Moses and Aaron bring up the subject of God, relaying God’s command and their desire to go and worship.  God is encroaching on Pharaoh’s control and productivity, whether or not He is just being used as an excuse.

We do not like persecution or hardship and neither did the Israelites.  Of course, most of us have no idea how hard it was for the Israelites to live as slaves in Egypt.  Nevertheless, the same Israelites who had just “bowed down and worshiped” God for his concern for them (4:29-31) are surprised and angry and discouraged as soon as Pharaoh turns the screw tighter (5:21).  Moses doubts God’s goodness the moment God’s plan is met with resistance (5:22).  What is God’s immediate response?  He calls Moses back to trust in his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He reminds Moses about their conversation, of how He had revealed his personal name to Moses (6:3-4).  He reiterates his concern for them (6:5), his plan to rescue them (6:6), and his desire to be their God (6:7).  The Israelites did not want to hear it (6:9) and Moses’ doubt creeps back in (6:12,30).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Our passage reminds us that we should never expect God and his purposes in the world to be met without strong resistance.  The passage also reminds us of how quick we are to avoid resistance and to backtrack when we do encounter resistance.  Are there places in your life where the desire to avoid resistance and persecution are keeping you from speaking about your faith or serving God in some way?  
     
  • God’s response to Moses and Israel reminds us that God is calling us into a relationship of trust.  He reiterates his promises because He calls us to live by faith and not by sight.  How do God’s promises in this passage, which are only fully realized in Jesus and the new heavens and earth, speak into your fears and desires to avoid resistance?  

 

Exodus 7

The plagues were not the only judgments on Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  Before any plague occurred, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (7:3).  This is troubling to many.  Is God removing Pharaoh’s agency so that He can accomplish some greater purpose?  If not, then what is happening when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart?

We need to remember that all of our hearts are hardened toward God apart from the work of his Spirit, due to the disease of sin and selfishness that is in all of us.  Before Moses appeared on the scene, Pharaoh’s heart was already stubborn and calloused toward God.  The fact that Pharaoh was enslaving and abusing an entire race of people is ample evidence of this pre-existing condition.  God never takes a pure heart and hardens it.  Rather, He judges hard hearts by giving them over to their own darkness.  We see this truth in the New Testament when Paul repeats the phrase, “God gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts . . . ", three times (Romans 1:24,26,28).  Pharaoh continues to make the decisions that he wants to make and, as the plagues roll in, we will see him wrestling and wavering in his decisions.  By giving Pharaoh over to his own hardness of his heart, God exposes the depths of human sin and stubbornness, making it quite clear that his judgments are just.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How have you seen stubbornness, callousness, or hardness toward God in your own heart?  
     
  • God would be perfectly just in allowing our hearts to go their own way, giving us over to sin and death.  How has He been gracious to you in softening your heart so that you can see him for who He is, see your own sin, and turn to him?  

 

 

Exodus 8-10

Pharaoh thinks that he is in a cosmic game of “uncle” (aka “mercy”).  If he can wait it out, and cheat a few times along the way by feigning surrender, perhaps he can outlast Moses’ God.  We are tempted to think that Pharaoh’s extreme stubbornness and foolishness is unrealistic, but we need to remember just how much is at stake for him.  During their four hundred years in Egypt, the people of Israel had multiplied into a vast workforce for Pharaoh (12:37), so their departure would entail a crushing blow to production and a complete restructuring of the economy.

What is happening, through the plagues, is an undoing of the created order.  Pharaoh, who failed to rule well by bringing God’s goodness, truth, and beauty to his land, is no longer subduing and ruling over creation (Genesis 1:30).  Now the created waters and animals are ruling over him!   Light, no longer breaking in on the darkness, is covered up in darkness!  Pharaoh must learn that there is no one like God in all the earth (9:14).  His magicians, who were able to replicate only the first two plagues on a small scale, are much more ready to acknowledge that the plagues are from “the finger of God” (8:19), but God allows Pharaoh to spiral down in obstinacy in order to display his power and glory (9:15-17).  

Whenever we read of God’s judgments, especially those on such a large scale, we need to remember that God is not capricious in judgment.  He judges justly, on his timetable.  In this case, Egypt is judged for centuries of worshipping false gods (12:12), which culminated in the enslavement of entire of race of people who were to be God’s instrument in blessing the nations.  Seven hundred years later, God will use Assyria to judge Israel, at least as harshly, for their false worship and oppressive practices.  Today, God is redeeming a people from Israel and Egypt and Assyria, just as He promised (Isaiah 19:19-25).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • You may not have an enormous labor force at your command to lose, but there is always a cost to repentance.  As you search your heart, where are there areas of stubbornness or hardness of heart due to the cost of giving up short-term treasures, pleasures, or comfort?  (See Hebrews 11:24-28).  How are God’s ways better than our ways?  Take time to confess, to thank God for his grace in Christ, and to pray in specific ways for obedience and joy in God’s ways.   
     
  • How do you respond to God’s judgment?  It is tempting to try to take God’s place and to sit in judgment on his judgment!  What does this passage teach you about God’s holiness, power, and justice?
     
  • How are you called to steward God’s goodness, truth and beauty in your areas of influence/calling this week?  

 

Exodus 11-12

Redemption from sin and death always includes both forgiveness of sin and repentance from sin toward worship of God.  When the angel of death brings God’s judgment on the people, the people of Israel are not spared because of their goodness.  They are spared because their own sin is covered by the blood of a lamb without defect, which is only effective because it points ahead to Jesus, the true Passover Lamb.  They receive this forgiveness through faith, by painting the blood of the lamb on their door frames (12:7; Hebrews 11:28).  They “commune” with the lamb and with God in a meal (12:8).  Repentance is then symbolized through the unleavened bread.  Israel was to get rid of their yeast as they were to get rid of their sin (1 Corinthians 5:6-7).  This, too, was done by faith in the goodness of God’s ways.  The result is worshipful obedience (12:27-28).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, are you trusting in the perfect forgiveness we have in Jesus, the Lamb of God?  This passage provides a vivid depiction of the power of his blood, shed for us.
     
  • Are you trusting in the power of Jesus to get rid of sin?  
     
  • Are you regularly communing with God, taking time to worship and enjoy him?  This is why He has saved us!
     

Exodus 13-14

This is Israel’s Braveheart momentwhen William Wallace delivers his freedom speech from horseback, calling a ragtag Scottish army to come out from the under the tyranny of England and to risk their lives for the sake of true freedom.  The Israelites are content to exist in a state of living death in Egypt (14:10-12), but God is calling them to a life of freedom in him!  The difference between Israel and the Scottish soldiers is that the LORD (Yahweh) will fight Israel’s battle (14:13-14), to much greater effect (14:28-31).  Israel is simply called to faith in God’s guiding presence and power, revealed to them in the elements of fire, cloud, wind, and water.  It is an extraordinarily risky faith from a human perspective, but it is a sure thing with God.  

This crossing of the Red Sea is Israel’s baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).  They pass through the waters of death to find true life in God, having been cleansed of the false gods and oppressive practices of Egypt.  The crossing is the starting point of their new life together, a sign that will mark their identity for the ages and that finds its fulfillment in our eternal deliverance in Jesus (e.g. Romans 6:20-23).  

In response, Israel is called to remember God’s deliverance through the Feast of Unleavened bread (13:3-8) and through the offering of their firstborn animals to the Lord and the redemption of their firstborn sons through a monetary offering (13:2,14-15).  The sign and symbol of unleavened bread  signified wholehearted devotion, leaving the yeast of sin behind (13:9 - “the law of the Lord is to be on your lips”), while the sign and symbol of the firstborn offering signified a life wholly offered to God in response to his salvation (13:16).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are there any areas of your life in which you have grown content with slavery to sin?  In what ways would you have to trust in God’s provision in order to be delivered from these sinful patterns?  Are you trusting in God’s presence and power, perhaps expressed through Christian community, to free you, or are you trusting in your own efforts?
     
  • The miracle of deliverance at the Red Sea is only a taste of the miracle of Jesus’ final deliverance from death in his resurrection.  If you have been united to Jesus by faith, have you received the outward sign of baptism, marking your inclusion among the people of God in Jesus’ deliverance from death?  Take time to reflect on what God has done for you through Jesus’ resurrection.  
     
  • As you reflect on the signs of wholehearted devotion and of a life wholly offered to God that are given in today’s passage, how do you need to pray for the Spirit’s work in your life?

 

 

Exodus 15:1-21

Imagine turning around and looking back on the Red Sea and a lifetime of slavery.  Moments earlier, the clamor and roar of approaching soldiers, horses, and chariots could be heard in the distance, amidst the squeals of unknowing children and familiar voices of loved ones.  The waters recede over your tormentors (14:28).  All is quiet.  It’s over.  

In the peaceful relief, the new reality begins to sink in.  Joyful singing and dancing erupts.  “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?  Who is like you — majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”  These lyrics (15:11), reveling in the nature of God, stand tall in the middle of a song that looks back on God’s victory of Egypt and slavery (15:1-10) and looks ahead to their new life in God (15:13-18).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We were created for joy in God.  We were created to revel in the awesomeness of who He is.  Who is like God — majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
     
  • Israel looks back and looks ahead as they worship.  Remembering God’s deliverance and looking ahead to our future with God are continual themes in Scripture.  They shape our present outlook and activity.  It’s when we forget the story in which we find ourselves that we wander from God.  How has God delivered you?  How is He delivering you this week?  What are you looking forward to, today?  How is your hope for the future shaping what you are living for today?
     

 

Exodus 15:22-17:7

The Israelites are living in the “already, not yet” stage of salvation, a term coined by George Eldon Ladd.  They have “already" been delivered out of Egypt, and their deliverance is certain after God’s decisive victory at the Red Sea, but they are "not yet" in the promised land of Canaan.  Their salvation has not been completed, or consummated.  Christians, today, can relate in many ways.  Our deliverance is certain due to Jesus’ decisive victory over sin and death, but we are not yet in the promised land of the new heavens and earth.  We are still in the wilderness, even though we are blessed to live on this side of the resurrection, with the knowledge of Christ’s greater victory and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  (Of course, faithful Israelites now wait with us, in heaven, for the new heavens and earth.)  

Like us, the Israelites struggle with living in the “already, not yet” in the forms of doubt, disappoint, frustration, and grumbling.  God is amazingly gracious with Israel.  He does not respond in anger to their grumbling, but simply provides for them.  He makes the water sweet.  He prepares a table for them in the desert of manna and quail.  He draws water from a dry rock.  There are times when God gives them a foretaste of abundance (15:27), but generally gives them exactly what they need in the wilderness — daily bread — to satisfy their hunger and thirst.  If they take more and try to save for two days, it turns to maggots . . . except on the day before the Sabbath rest, they are able to pick up food for two days without spoilage.  Even in the wilderness, God gave them rest!  They may not have the pots of the meat that they ate in Egypt (16:3), but crumbs from the Lord’s table are better than a steaks under the feet of their oppressors.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does the “already, not yet” understanding help you to understand your own experience?  
     
  • How are you struggling “in the wilderness”?  Are you taking your doubt, disappoint, and frustration to God?  
     
  • Just as God meets with Israel in the wilderness and reveals his presence and goodness to them in midst of their doubt and difficult situation, He meets with us when we are in the wilderness.  Do you believe that God can meet you in the wilderness?  How do you need him to reveal his presence and goodness to you?

 

 

Exodus 17:8-16

Exodus, as much as any book in the Bible, reveals the body-soul, physical-spiritual union of creation.  God makes himself known in fire, wind, cloud, water, manna, quail, and physical judgments on Egypt after they had physically oppressed of Israel.  Salvation is physical and spiritual in Exodus and in the New Testament.  Through Jesus' resurrection, we are raised spiritually and we will be raised in body.

We should not be surprised, then, by Moses’ action in today’s passage.  He expresses dependence on God for victory over Israel's attackers in both body and soul (cf. Psalm 63:4; 1 Timothy 2:8).  His posture is not necessarily prescriptive for all prayers, but it certainly reveals the importance of the body* and signifies our utter need to rely on God.  Joshua, appearing for the first time in this passage, does fight, but victory is with the Lord.  Let us never forget!

*In C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, the experienced demon writes to his nephew:  “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (Letter 4).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Might a change in posture for some of your prayers help you to pray and rely on God?
     
  •  What are you trusting in for expansion of God’s kingdom in your own heart and in the places and people around you?  Take time to lift your hands in prayer.  You may want to briefly come back to this passage daily or regularly for a time until you see dependence on God become more established in your life.  

 

Exodus 18

Jethro, perhaps the first convert to faith in Yahweh (18:10-12), honors Moses’ unique leadership role (18:22- “bring every difficult case to you”), but pushes Israel toward decentralized leadership.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this transition for the future of God’s people (see Acts 14:23, 15:6; 1 Corinthians 12:7; II Timothy 2:2).  God uses Jethro to open Moses’ eyes to the giftedness of the body of believers!  He wisely advises Moses to choose men marked by three qualities:  fear of God, trustworthiness, and hatred of dishonest gain.  Moses is to multiply his leadership by teaching them God’s law, modeling the way to live, and showing them how to carry out their duties in upholding justice.  Not only will Israel be built up by this transition, Moses will be spared from pastoral burnout (18:18)!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • If you are in a role of spiritual leadership, are your eyes open to the giftedness and faithfulness of others, are you looking for ways to multiply your leadership, and are you equipping gifted people to lead through teaching, modeling, and coaching?  There may be aspects of your leadership role for which God calls you to maintain responsibility, but are there aspects that you are unnecessarily holding onto?  If so, is there a heart issue behind it?
     
  • Reflect on the three qualities of leaders that Jethro describes to Moses.  How do you need God’s mercy, grace, and power?  
     
  • If you are not in a role of spiritual leadership, are your eyes open to how you can serve?  Ask God to show you the unique ways in which He has gifted you, recognizing that we often discover our gifts and weaknesses by stepping out and serving.   

 

 

Exodus 19

What does it mean to be a “kingdom of priests” (19:6)?  There is no universally agreed upon definition of a priest, but Scripture helps us to see several functions of priests.  1) Priests receive the blessing of God and offer it back to God in worship.   We see this when priests bring the firstfruits of the harvest back to God as an offering.  Of course, this offering acknowledges the reality that all things belong to God and that all of life ought to be lived in worship.  2) Priests intercede between God and humanity.  We see this when priests offer sacrifices for sin in the tabernacle and temple.  3) Priests have direct access to God (19:9-11).  

Israel has a unique priestly role among the nations.  1) “Although the whole earth is [God’s]” (19:5), Israel would be a nation that actually acknowledged God’s universal kingship by offering their lives and blessing back to God.  2) They were an intercessory nation.  Not only would Israel offer sacrifices for their own sins, they were also called to mediate God’s blessing and truth to the nations (e.g. Genesis 12:3).  3) Finally, God revealed his presence and glory directly to Israel at many times and in various ways.

Through Jesus, Israel fulfills her calling as a kingdom of priests and the church, which Paul called “the Israel of God,” becomes a kingdom of priests.  1) Jesus is the only One who has fully and perfectly offered his life up to God.  2) All of the Old Testament sacrifices are only effective in that they point to and are fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice for sin.  3) Jesus is the full revelation of God’s love and glory.  Through him, we offer up our lives as living sacrifices, we intercede for others by praying for the work of Jesus in them and by communicating the good news about him, and we always have direct access to God, for the barrier of sin has been abolished.  We are a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • If you are a Christian, Jesus is your great high priest.  What does this mean for you today?
  • As those “in Christ,” who share in his life, we take on the role of priests.  What does it look like for you, this week, to live out your priestly calling?  What does it look like to offer God’s blessings back to him?  To offer your regular work to him?  For whom is He calling you to intercede through prayer, service, and communication?  

 

Exodus 20:1-11

It ought to give us pause when we consider that the first four commands are all about the worship of God.  Yes, the Sabbath is a day of rest for us, but it “is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (20:10).  In fact, the first three commands are also good for us, if we want to put it that way, because our hearts can only be filled by worshipping God in spirit and in truth.  But the first four commandments insist that we take our eyes off of ourselves and lift them to God.  Life may only be found when we submit ourselves to the supremacy of God in all things.

The first two commands (20:3 and 20:4-6) are closely related.  The first command forbids us from giving the affections of our hearts to false gods or anything else before God, while the second command forbids us from worshipping the true God falsely through the use of idols.  Idols are not capable of conveying God’s transcendent glory, nor are they capable of conveying his personal nature.  They cannot speak or feel.  They reduce God into manageable forms that serve human imaginations rather than God’s purposes.  In our modern society, which is largely immune from the creation of physical idols, we must guard our hearts against views of God that reduce him in service of political, moral, or social agendas.  God, of course, speaks truth into political, moral and social issues, but it is all too easy to either limit our view of God to a narrow agenda, even if the agenda is a godly one, or to distort our understanding of God to conform to moral standards or social ideas of our own invention.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The first sin was an attempt to take the place of God.  All of us are prone to putting ourselves, and “gods” that serve our purposes, before God.  So there are not two classes of Christians:  God-centered Christians and the rest of us.  That said, take some time to examine the God-centeredness of your life recently.  Use it as a time of confession, a time to rest in Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness, and a time to repent in his resurrection power and Spirit.  Are you finding your life in the worship of God?  Where in your life is God’s glory and authority not considered or not first in your mind and heart?  
  • How are you tempted to reduce or narrow your understanding of the character and nature of God?

 

Exodus 20:12-26

Jesus summarizes the law of God in Luke 10:27 with the words:  “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' [quoting Deuteronomy 6:5]; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ [quoting Leviticus 19:18].”  Paul sums up the law with the latter command alone:  “'Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).  How can Paul do this?  He can sum up the law in this one command because true love for God is displayed in our love for the race of beings made in his image and likeness.  Only when we are worshipping God and filled up with his love are we able to obey the heart of the last six commands as Jesus taught them (Matthew 5:21ff.).  Paul, accordingly, is quick to point out our absolute need for Jesus and his Spirit in the verses following his summary of the law (Galatians 5:16,22-25).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you recognizing God’s presence and delight in loving your neighbor?  Are you seeing love of neighbor as worship?  
     
  • Take time to reflect on the last six commands and, time permitting, Jesus’ brief teaching on them in Matthew 5:21ff.  How do you need the Spirit of Christ to fill and empower you to love others? 

 

 

Exodus 21

Do not tamper with and do not dehumanize the image of God.  This is the resounding message of Exodus 21.  We may be distracted from this message by important questions about slavery, but let us not lose sight of it.  God shows great care for servants (21:26-27), men, women (21:8-11), unborn children (21:22-25), and parents (21:15), and He calls us to go to great lengths to protect humanity from harm and dehumanization.  

This is not the place for extensive comments about the existence of slavery among God’s people, but a few may be made.  First, kidnapping and forced servitude, the primary brand of slavery known to Americans, was punishable by death (21:16).  Foreigners were not to be mistreated (next chapter, 22:21).  Second, slavery was no more ideal in God’s economy than poverty, yet it did exist.  The poor were able to sell their services to pay a debt (22:25 - not usury!) or to provide for themselves, similar to the way that Jacob sold himself to Laban for seven years to pay the price for his bride.  Third, slavery was not to be permanent.  After six years, the servant was to be sent away with generous gifts (Deuteronomy 15:12-14).  In the case of the release of female servants, their marital status and rights were also to be taken into consideration in order to protect their future prospects (21:8-11).  Finally, while it’s difficult to understand 21:21 in a society in which corporeal punishment has become foreign (not the case in ancient agrarian societies), masters were not to be harsh with their servants and lasting injury (a missing tooth, for instance) resulted in release with no further debt payment required.  Ideally, masters would treat their servants in such a way that their servants actually loved them (21:5-6)!  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Where do you see injustice and dehumanization around you?  How has Jesus entered into our injustice and dehumanization?  How would God have you follow Jesus into injustice and dehumanization in order to bring justice and to re-humanize?

 

Exodus 22:1-15

Terence E. Fretheim, in his Exodus commentary, helps us to understand the purpose of all of the case laws following the Ten Commandments:  “The issue for Israel is not how it can become a holy people but how it can be in daily life the holy people it has already become by God’s action on their behalf” (247).  The case laws in today’s passage demonstrate God’s concern the ordinary matters of life (i.e. “daily life”) and his regard for material possessions.   He demands integrity and love of neighbor in all things, for nothing is outside of his watch and care.  Still, property takes a backseat to the life of man, even to the life of a thief (22:3).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, are you seeking to become holy, or are you seeking to be in daily life the holy one you have already become through union with Jesus?
     
  • Are there matters of “daily life,” ordinary life, which you have relegated to the realm of insignificance, but which are in fact significant in God’s sight?

 

 

Exodus 22:16-31

God’s law deals with the real issues of a sinful world.  We are struck by the careful attention to detail in some of his commands, but disoriented by the continual change in subject matter.  What is the unifying theme of these commands?  It seems to be this:  Do not take advantage of others or distort the order of God's creation.  Do not distort the spiritual order by seeking God’s power (22:18), worshipping false gods (22:20), cursing God (22:28), or pretending that He is not the owner of all things (22:29-30).  Do not distort the relational order by cursing authority figures (22:28), having sex with an animal (22:19), or having sex outside of marriage (22:16-17).  Accordingly, do not take advantage of the vulnerable, whether it be a young woman (22:16-17), a widow, an orphan (22:22:24) or the poor (22:25-27).  God himself will hear their cries and take vengeance on those who do so.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The commands in this chapter show that God is jealous for his own glory.  Why is God jealous for his own glory?  What happens to our own souls when we are enthralled with other things besides God’s glory?
     
  • Where do you see the tenderness of God’s heart in these commands?  Does this have any impact on your understanding of how God sees you?  Take time to ask God to “infect” your heart with his tenderness, especially toward the vulnerable.

 

Exodus 23:1-8

Honesty and Integrity.  Today’s passage is an exposition of the ninth commandment:  You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (20:16).  The exposition presents several high pressure situations in which it would be tempting to distort the truth, whether it’s siding with the majority, bending truth out of sympathy for the poor, accepting a bribe, or favoring the advantaged over the poor.  The exposition calls for the same concern for honesty and justice when no one is looking, even when it means helping one's enemy (23:4-5).  What does love require?  For starters, honesty.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We see Jesus’ fulfillment of these commands in his willingness to speak truth, regardless of his audience’s societal status and regardless of what it would cost him.   How has Jesus’ honesty covered your falsehood?
     
  • What are your high pressure situations?  When are you most tempted to bend the truth?  With whom are you most tempted to side?  Are there any current situations in which you are tempted shade truth?  What will love for all require in these situations?

 

Exodus 23:9-19

Just as the first eight verses of Exodus 23 are an exposition of the ninth commandment, today’s passage is an exposition of the fourth command regarding Sabbath rest (20:9-11).  We begin with the command in 23:9 regarding care for “aliens," which is based on Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and this is not a mistake!  When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He was bringing them to a place of rest from slavery.  In fact, when the law is restated in Deuteronomy, the exodus is provided as a new basis for the Sabbath command (Deuteronomy 5:15).  Israel is to extend that same rest to the aliens in their midst (23:9).  It is still the same Sabbath rest as before (Exodus 20:11; Genesis 2:2-3), but now the Sabbath takes on additional, redemptive meaning.  

Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath, in the wilderness, looked back upon their deliverance from Egypt and forward to the promised land of Canaan.  Canaan was never able to fully deliver, so Israel continued to look forward to a greater, enduring rest even after they entered the promised land (Hebrews 4:7-10).  When the New Testament church celebrates the Sabbath, we rest in the assurance of our deliverance through Christ and look forward to the fullness of rest in the new heavens and earth. Just as with Israel, there are both creational and redemptive aspects of our rest.  As humans, we need the rhythm of work and rest built into creation.  As Christians, we rejoice in our rest from bondage to sin, and we signify our hope in the fullness of rest that lies ahead.  

God, in his love for Israel, also provided them with annual festivals of rest and worship (23:14-19), as well as sabbatical years, which provided “rest” for both rich and poor (23:10-11).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you recognizing and celebrating both the creational and redemptive aspects of Sabbath rest?  If it is difficult for you to celebrate the Sabbath, why is that?  The Sabbath has a way of exposing where our true hope lies.  Ask God to search your heart, and take time to praise God for his care for us in providing rest, and for the rest from bondage that we have in Christ.
     
  • Unfortunately, we do not yet live under a theocracy, so full-fledged sabbaticals are only a possibility for some.  That said, are there any activities in your life from which you need to and may able to take some form of a sabbatical?  

 

Exodus 23:20-24:18

After the giving the law, God turns Israel’s attention to the coming conquest of Canaan, the land in which Israel is to live in God’s ways and be his holy people.  This is the first mention in the Bible of the utter destruction of the inhabitants and false gods of Canaan (23:23-24,31-33).  The horrific sin of this land is nearing its full measure (Genesis 15:16,18-21).  The destruction of the Canaanites would be a microcosm of God’s final judgment, when He rids the earth of evil and establishes his people in the new heavens and earth.  Of course, Israel’s future rebellion (23:21) and destruction at the hand of Assyria and Babylon, and salvation of a remnant, would also be a microcosm of final judgment.  

In the midst of God’s promises and commands in regard to life in the promised land, there is a beautiful moment of communion with God.  Moses, Aaron and sons, the seventy elders of Israel, and the people must come to the LORD under the blood of God's covenant of grace (24:5,6-8).  Moses, Aaron and sons, and the seventy elders see the glory of God, but their lives are spared through the sacrificial blood that finds its fulfillment in the shed blood of Christ.  They eat and drink in God’s presence (24:9-11).

Question for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s judgment on the peoples of Canaan and his warning to Israel speak to you of God’s holiness?   
     
  • Are you approaching the Lord this week in your own merit or under the mercy of Jesus’ blood, shed for you?
     
  • How does God’s meal with Moses, Aaron and sons, and the seventy elders speak into  your life about the fellowship for which God made us?

 

Exodus 25-27

“I will dwell among them” (25:8).  This is the purpose of the tabernacle.  God made us to be with him.  Just as He dwelled in the garden with Adam and Eve, the tabernacle is a new garden.  God’s light shines through the lampstand, complete with budding flowers.  God’s immeasurable worth is displayed in the abundant quantities of gold, which we also find in the garden (Genesis 2:11).  God’s order and perfection are displayed in the precise, symmetrical dimensions.  The cherubim bow before the holiness of God (25:20).  The only way past the cherubim, who also guarded the garden (Genesis 3:24), and back into the presence of God is through the atonement cover or mercy seat, where the sacrificial blood would be sprinkled on behalf of the people.  This tabernacle was a call to wholehearted worship, a call to back into the relationship for which we were made.  The Lord initiates the relationship, and we are called to respond from the heart (25:2).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do you know, today, that God desires to make his home with you?  
     
  • We are are not able to do a comprehensive study of the various elements of the tabernacle, but consider what the different elements of the tabernacle tell us about God.  Consider that Jesus is a perfect tabernacle, a perfect sacrifice, and a perfect representation of the nature of God.  

 

Exodus 28-30

So much is required to give Israel’s priests "dignity and honor” (28:2).  Every garment from head (28:36-38) to toe (28:34) is intricately described.  So much is required to purify the priests, the tabernacle, and the furnishings, before the priests can even begin to think about making sacrifices for the people, whose names are written on breastplates over the priest's heart.  A covering of blood is required from head to toe (29:20), and the blood is sprinkled throughout the tabernacle and on the priestly garments.  The sacrifices are exacting, and frequent.  Every specification points to the beauty, holiness, and majesty of God.  

In the new covenant, God gives us one Word:  Jesus.  Every exacting requirement is fulfilled in him.  He is clothed with dignity and honor.  He needs no purification rituals.  By one sacrifice, He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14).  Our names are written on his hands, that we would dwell with him (29:45-46).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does this passage help you see the beauty, holiness, majesty, and love of Jesus?

 

 

Exodus 31

Most of us tend to think about God filling his people with his Spirit in order to provide boldness to proclaim the gospel, patience to endure suffering, wisdom to make decisions, power to turn away from temptation, or other godly qualities that bear the image of God.  These are certainly fruits of the Spirit.  In this chapter, however, God fills Bezalel and Oholiab with his Spirit to enable them to design and make objects for the temple of God.  It is the first gift of the Spirit recorded in Scripture.  This tells us that God is pleased not only with godly character, but also with the work of our hands, when that work is accompanied by a willing, worshipful spirit.  We should not be surprised by this, considering that we are made in the image of a God who also delights in the glorious work of his own hands.  

One might argue that we should not equate the work of our hands to Bezalel and Oholiab's unique work of building the tabernacle of God.  We can agree that they were called to a special task and that there remains a place for devoted, sacred space in our world.  However, we should also remember that the tabernacle was a microcosm of what the whole earth is to become — a place of worship, filled with the glory of God.  After Jesus came and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14), and broke through the temple curtain (Matthew 27:51), the tabernacle/temple in Jerusalem ceased to be the locus of true worship (John 4:21-24).  Therefore, just as Adam and Eve were called to extend the order and beauty of the garden throughout the untamed earth, so we continue in the same calling, through the mercy and power of Christ, to extend the (gardenesque) tabernacle/temple worship throughout the earth.  We do this when our artistic, musical, academic, athletic, commercial, and other works are offered up to the glory of God.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How has God gifted you?  Do you see the "works of your hands" as one of the primary forms of worship in your life?  How are you extending, or can you extend, the goodness, kindness, beauty and order of God into the world through the works of your hands?  In what ways are you tempted to worship the works of your hands?  Is prayer a regular part of the work of your hands?  Jesus came to redeem us from slavery to our idols and to redirect all of our work to the glory of God.  Go to him.

 

Exodus 32:1-24

Now is a good time to note some of the broader structures of our recent readings in Exodus.  We have already seen some of the creational, or re-creational, imagery in the tabernacle design, but there are other hints at re-creation that are not as readily apparent.  Terence Fretheim points out that there are seven divine speeches that make up the tabernacle design (Exodus 25-31), corresponding to the seven days of creation.  The seventh divine speech, regarding Sabbath observance (31:12-17), clearly corresponds to God’s Sabbath on the seventh day of creation.  In the sixth divine speech (31:1-11), corresponding to God’s creation of humanity on the sixth day, God sets apart Bezalel and Oholiab to "rule over" the tabernacle construction.  Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters, bringing form and fullness to formlessness and emptiness (Genesis 1:2), so the Spirit of God fills Bezalel and Oholiab to “re-create a world in the midst of of chaos wherein God may dwell once again in a world suitable for the divine presence” (Exodus, 269-270).   

In Exodus 32, the people of Israel show that they are no better than Adam and Eve.  Fretheim points out that it is “Genesis 3 all over again” (279).  He lists seven contrasts between the tabernacle and the golden calf:  God’s initiative vs. the people’s initiative, a willing offering requested (25:2) vs. Aaron’s command for gold, painstaking preparations vs. no planning, lengthy building process vs. quick construction, safeguarding of divine holiness vs. immediate accessibility, invisible God vs. visible god, personal and active God vs. impersonal object (267).  We may add an eighth contrast:  the good fruit of worship/Sabbath rest vs. the spoiled fruit of revelry (32:6).  This list sheds so much light on the various aspects and motivations of our own idolatry.  We also see reflections of Aaron’s blameshifting (32:22-24) in our own lives, just as his blameshifting was a reflection of Adam’s.  

We will look more closely at Moses’ response tomorrow (32:11-21, 25-35).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Take time to review Fretheim’s contrasts between true worship of God at the tabernacle and idol worship.  Ask God to search your heart and show you the idols, self-governing motivations, and fruits of idolatry in your life.  For example, “How am I trying to take shortcuts (“no planning” and “immediate accessibility”) to satisfaction rather than finding true satisfaction In God, which requires spiritual discipline and time?”  Or, “Where do I see myself making demands of people when I should be seeking their hearts?  What idol is causing me to do this?"
     
  • Where do you see blameshifting in your relationships, work, internal “conversations," etc.?  Is this a clue to idols in your life?  Go to Jesus for forgiveness and the transforming, re-creating power of his Spirit.  

 

Exodus 32 (or complete the chapter -- yesterday was 32:1-24)

If anyone does not believe that prayer actually makes a difference, let him read Exodus 32:11-14.  Moses speaks to God and God relents from "the disaster he had threatened.”  Fretheim helps us understand what is happening:  “It is not a matter of Moses’ winning the argument but of a relationship that God takes seriously” (Exodus, 286).  

The people, however, continue “running wild” (32:25) and Moses calls all of the repentant ones to gather around him (32:26).  “The great majority of the people . . . remain unmoved; their silent indifference to the call is deafening.  In other words, this is an intensification of the apostasy evident in the golden calf episode . . .” (289).   The LORD instructs the faithful Levites, who do respond to Moses’ call, to slaughter a representative number of the population.  Fretheim is again helpful:  “It is noteworthy that the subsequent slaughter could have been avoided at this point if everyone had answered positively ... Modern sensitivities may get in the way of our interpretation of this method, but it is continuous with other texts (see Deut. 13!; cf. I Kings 18:40; II Kings 10:17).  For this juncture in Israel’s life, when its entire future is at stake, radical sin is believed to call for radical measures ...” (289).  

When the dust settles, Moses seeks to intercede for the people once again, in exemplary fashion, but this time unsuccessfully (32:30-35).  We go to Fretheim one more time today:  “The divine response is not easy to fathom.  The key is to understand this section as less than a final divine decision (as 32:10 was earlier).  God refuses to accept Moses’ offer (see 23:21) — though no judgment is made regarding the principle of one atoning for the many . . .” (290).  Passages like this awaken us to the conditional aspects of God’s covenant with his people.  There are two parties to the covenant, and God rightfully demands wholehearted obedience.  It is only through believers’ union with Christ, who perfectly fulfills our side of the covenant, that the covenant takes on a one-sided or unconditional sense.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do you believe that God takes your prayers seriously?  We probably take our prayers as seriously as we believe that God takes them.  Remember that within this one chapter, Moses saw different responses to his requests, though the Lord definitely heard and responded to them all.  Where do you need to intercede for others and seek the Lord’s mercy and grace?  
     
  • How do the two very different responses to Moses’ call to repentance speak to you?
     
  • How do God’s righteous anger and righteous demands make his acceptance of Christ’s atoning work all the more sweet to you?  

 

Exodus 33

Moses’ “face to face” conversation with God continues.  The fate of the people, particularly the nature of their relationship to God, hangs in the balance (33:3).  They seem to finally realize the precariousness of their current situation (33:4).  The ornamental jewelry given to them by the Egyptians, a sign of their redeemed status (which they had partially forfeited in the golden calf incident), is removed (33:4-6).  This is not a good sign.  Yet Moses persists.

God assures Moses that his Presence will be with him (33:14), but Moses wants to be sure that his Presence will be with all of the people (33:15-16).  God reassures him on the basis of his intimate relationship with Moses (33:17).  Moses is never more a shadow of Christ than in these words of God spoken over him (cf. Matthew 3:17).  Perhaps for further assurance of God’s Presence with Israel, Moses asks to see God’s glory (33:18).  But God gives him more than a glimpse of his glory.  God proclaims his “goodness” to Moses (33:19, 34:6-7), revealing not only his glory but also his character (Exodus, Terence Freheim).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, do you sense your desperate need for God’s Presence in all of your endeavors?  

 

Exodus 34

God not only reveals his character more fully in this chapter (34:6-7), He shows the depths of his compassion, grace, faithfulness, and forgiveness by reaffirming his covenant promises to a rebellious people in several ways.  He has Moses chisel out two new stone tablets, a tangible sign of covenant reaffirmation (34:1, 27-28); He reaffirms his promises and instructions in regard to the new land (34:10-16); and He summarizes the laws for how they shall live in the land (34:17-26).  Finally, He revealed the light of his guidance and glory in the face of Moses.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Exodus 34:6-7 is one of the most important passages in all of Scripture for understanding the character of God (cf. Joel 2:13; Psalm 86:15,103:80-13,145:8; Nehemiah 9:17; Numbers 14:17-19; Jonah 4:2; etc.).  It would be a great passage to commit to memory.  Take time to consider who God is, to praise and thank him. 
     

Exodus 35-39

Déjà vu?  Haven’t we already read all of these detailed descriptions of the tabernacle and priestly garments?  The first time (Exodus 25-30) was a description of what was to be built whereas today’s passage is the description of the building process, but is all of the repetition really necessary?  The summary verses in our reading today (39:42-43) reveal that the building process is written down in detail in order to show the importance of obedience to God’s command.  Israel had already compromised their worship once, and they would be tempted to syncretize their worship in the new land, but today's passage displays Israel’s renewed commitment to obedience as well as God’s faithfulness to his people in spite of their recent rebellion.  What emerges from these pages is a beautiful picture of wholehearted obedience, as the people generously give their time, talents (e.g. 35:25), and treasures (esp. 36:5) to make a dwelling place for God.  It is a word to future generations of the church that God is the only Director of worship, that there are many parts but one body, that wholehearted obedience brings life, and that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness . . .” (34:6).    

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Israel seemed to be especially awake to mercy and faithfulness of God, as their hearts overflowed with a desire to worship and obey.  In the same way, wholehearted, joyful obedience only comes when we are remembering and living in the grace and mercy of Christ.  Does obedience out of overflow in Exodus 36:5 describe your life right now?  

 

Exodus 40

Jesus is the firstfruits of the new creation (I Corinthians 15:23), just as the tabernacle was a new creation at the beginning of a new year (40:2,17).  Jesus is the fulfillment of the “Testimony” or law of God (40:3).  Jesus is the bread of the Presence (40:4,23).  Jesus is the light of the world (40:4,24-25).  Jesus is the sacrificial offering for our sin, who makes us holy (40:6,29).  Through his sacrificial death, Jesus breaks through the curtain separating God and man (40:5, Matthew 27:51).  He is the anointed One -- the chosen One set apart by God to redeem God’s people, our great high priest, and the sender of the Holy Spirit who anoints God’s people for blessing, protection, and service in the kingdom (40:9ff.; II Corinthians 1:21-22).  He is the tabernacle of God, who goes before us, dwells in us, and reveals the glory of God to us.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In Christ, we have all things.  What stands out to you, today, as you consider all that we have in Christ?
     

 

Leviticus

Appointed Offerings (1-7)

    Priestly Holiness - Consecration/Ordination (8-10)

        Congregational Holiness - Mostly External (11-15)

                                Day of Atonement (16)

        Congregational Holiness - Mostly Internal (17-20)

    Priestly Holiness - Continuing Holiness (21-22)

Appointed Times (23-25)

Conclusion:  Rewards and Punishments (26), Vows (27)

September 22 - Introduction to Leviticus

The book of Leviticus gets its name from Levi and the Levite tribe descended from him.  Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob and his mother was Leah.  Jacob had been tricked into marrying Leah before being able to marry his true love, Rachel.  Leah bore Jacob’s first two sons, but she still did not feel loved by Jacob.  She was confident that she would finally be “joined” to her husband after bearing him a third son, so she named him “Levi,” which means “joined” in Hebrew. 

Levi’s name proved to be appropriate because God gave the Levites a unique role of priesthood in the nation of Israel.  Not only did the priests “join” or unite the people to God, they also “joined” or united the people to each other.  Unlike all of the other tribes of Israel, they were not given their own land or territory, but instead they were given cities and land among each of the tribes.  Living in the midst of the tribes, and being the worship leaders of the tribes, they joined the twelve tribes of Israel together around their common worship of God.  They were, in a sense, the glue that held or joined Israel together.

Accordingly, Leviticus continues to teach the church today about how we are to live as those joined to God and to one another.  Leviticus teaches us how to deal with our sin against God and against one another, as the prescriptions for the priests’ sacrificial offerings point us to the forgiveness we have and extend to one another in Christ.  The book also calls us to the purity, holiness, and worship that flows out of our union with Christ.    

 

Leviticus 1

The "burnt offering" is one of five offerings described in Leviticus 1-7, and one of four animal offerings.  Morning and evening, and even more frequently on holy days, the entire animal excepting the hide was offered to the Lord.  This offering does not seem to have been an offering for specific sins, but rather an offering for the sinful nature of humanity, which is deserving of God’s holy wrath.

We see the pursuing, plentiful, and perfect nature of God’s forgiveness in the burnt offering, and in the book of Leviticus as a whole.  We see God’s pursuit of Israel in the very first verse as God calls out to Moses and begins to set the terms of forgiveness and reconciliation.  The plentiful nature of God’s forgiveness may be seen in the repeated expressions of forgiveness throughout the book (e.g. 1:4, 4:20, 4:26, 4:31, 4:35, 5:10, 5:13, 5:16, 5:18, 6:7, 19:22).  This refrain makes it difficult to argue that the "God of the Old Testament” differs from the “God of the New Testament.”   As theologian Mark Futato says, “God provided an abundance of sacrifices to cover an abundance of sins committed by an abundance of people to provide an abundance of forgiveness!”  Finally, God’s perfect forgiveness may be seen in the quality of animal to be brought before him, one “without defect” (1:3) and washed of all impurities (1:9).  

At each burnt offering, guilt and wrath are transferred from the sinner to the pure animal, which becomes an atoning ransom when the sinner lays his hand on the animal (1:4).  Scholar Gordon Wenham argues that “lay” is a weak translation, and that “press” or “lean” would be more accurate (The Book of Leviticus, 61).  To be a believer in Christ is to lean, with all of our weight, on Christ.  He offered up his whole self on the cross and is the fulfillment of God’s pursuing, plentiful and perfect forgiveness (e.g. Mark 10:45, Hebrews 7:27). 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In the past, have you understood the book of Leviticus to be a testament to God’s compassion and mercy? 
     
  • Today, are you wholly leaning on Jesus’ pursuing, plentiful, and perfect forgiveness?  Are you trusting in other things to make you right with God or to make yourself pleasing and acceptable to him?  Do you doubt that God is willing to forgive you?  How does Leviticus 1 speak into these things and point you to Christ?

 

Leviticus 2

The grain offering, the only offering not involving an animal sacrifice, helps us to see that we are made for more than a transactional relationship with God, in which we simply exchange some form of cheap belief or ritual for forgiveness and then walk away.  After having one’s sin atoned for through the burnt offering, Israel experiences fellowship with God and worship through the grain offering.  They offer up their finest grain as tribute, an acknowledgement that all good gifts come from God and are under his authority.  The salt in the offering, which God emphatically demanded (2:13), symbolized God’s eternal covenant relationship with Israel (Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5).  As Gordon Wenham notes, “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants . . . Salt was something that could not be destroyed by fire or time or any other means in antiquity” (The Book of Leviticus, 71).  The essence of this eternal covenant is repeated in Scripture:  “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  Finally, oil and incense in the offering (2:2) likely symbolize joy and praise in the Spirit (see I Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 61:3).    Wenham points out that these elements were omitted from special grain offerings for solemn occasions, such as in Leviticus 5:11 and Numbers 5:11-15 (70).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How have you treated your relationship with God as a transactional relationship in the past?  What does a "grain offering" look like in your life?  In Christ, we have complete forgiveness and immediate access to the presence of God.
     
  • Are you experiencing fellowship with God by offering back to him the best of what He has given you materially, vocationally, spiritually, recreationally, etc.?  Are you experiencing joy and praise in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?  If not, ask God to show you what may be standing in the way.

 

Leviticus 3

Unlike the burnt offering, the “fellowship” or “peace” offering is an optional offering, usually associated with an expression of thanksgiving or a vow to the Lord (see 7:11-18).  The fellowship offering is similar in form to the burnt offering (though it differs in some specifications), but the focus seems to be on fellowship with God rather than atonement.  Yes, there is still a sacrifice and the transfer of guilt to the sacrificial animal (3:2), for all fellowship with God requires the cleansing of human sin, but the worshipper enjoys a portion of the fellowship offering (7:15,18), whereas the burnt offering is completely consumed by fire.  

Gordon Wenham helps us to see the offerings' fulfillment in Christ:  “The last supper was more like the peace offering than a burnt offering in that the peace offering and the last supper were both meals, while the burnt offering never was.  Christ’s death on the cross is a closer parallel to the burnt offering.  His sharing of his body and blood with his disciples forms the closer the parallel to the peace offering . . . As in OT times the worshipper praised God, made vows, and brought his petitions to God at the peace offering, so the Christian should make the communion service an occasion at which he rededicates himself to God’s service and brings his prayers and praises to his Lord” (The Book of Leviticus, 82-83).  Wenham also points out that calls to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) and to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15) probably find their origin in the fellowship offering.  This makes much sense, considering that the focus of the fellowship offering was not atonement.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Even though the fellowship offering was optional, it was not invented by man.  God set up the fellowship offering as a way for his people to respond to his goodness and mercy and to commune with him.  What does this tell you about God, and the nature of our relationship with him or his desires for our relationship with him?  
     
  • Is there a “fellowship offering,” rooted in your union with Christ and forgiveness in him, taking place in your life (Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15-16)? 

 

Leviticus 4

While the burnt offering was sacrificed at least twice per day to make atonement or ransom for the sinful nature, the “sin offering” seemed to be more focused on purification from the pollution caused by specific sins.  Much could be and has been said about the nuances of these two offerings, but we will note two important and more obvious aspects of the “sin offering.”  First, the repeated phrase “when they are made aware of their sin” (or “when he is made aware of his sin” — 4:14,23,28) teaches us about the frequency of confession.  As soon as the believer became aware of sin, he or she was to immediately make an offering.  In the same way, we should not allow any known sin to “accumulate” and hinder our fellowship with God, but rather confess, receive and thank God for his perfect forgiveness through the cross of Christ, and ask God to once again fill us with His Spirit.  Second, God speaks of the possibility, or inevitability, of “the whole Israelite community” sinning against him (4:13).  In our individualistic society, most of us do not often think about sins committed by a large body of believers or people.  Yet this passage calls us to be aware of such sins and to take personal responsibility for such sins.  We are not to isolate ourselves, to assume the role of the critic, or to pretend that we that we free of any guilt or responsibility for corporate sins.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Is there any known sin in your life that you are not confessing due to guilt, stubbornness, or the deceit of sin’s promises?  If you are united to Christ by faith, your sin has been washed away and you are a child of God.  Therefore, there is no doubt that fellowship with God will be restored when you bring your sin into the light.
     
  • Are you connected to a community of believers?  Do you neglect commitment to a local expression of the body of Christ because of imperfections and faults?  If you are connected, how do you relate to this body?  Are you a critic, a detached member, or a devoted member?  How can you best pray for and confess on behalf of this body?  Do you think that God calls us to confess the systemic and/or societal sins in our culture?  


Leviticus 5:1-13

The family of God is a family that crosses all socioeconomic lines.  We see the beauty of God’s diverse family in the various sacrifices that may be offered, as the instructions for “sin offerings” continue from the previous chapter.  If an offender cannot afford a lamb or goat, he is to bring two doves or pigeons.  If an offender cannot even afford two birds, he is to bring “a tenth of an ephah” (about two quarts) of fine flour (5:5-7,11).  Each one comes to the same altar and receives the same forgiveness.  Note that it seems Jesus’ family could only afford two birds for their purification offering after his birth (Luke 2:22-24; cf. Leviticus 12:8).  He truly became poor that we might become rich through his poverty.  

Accordingly, we are called to look out for our brother and sister and neighbor, regardless of social status.  We are not to turn a blind eye to injustice, no matter the inconvenience or social pressure to keep quiet.  Leviticus 5:1 one teaches us that failure to speak up and to speak truth about things we have seen or heard, a sin of omission, brings the same guilt as other sins.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Jesus crossed the greatest socioeconomic lines imaginable when we came from heaven to earth.  How have you seen the gospel cross socioeconomic lines in your own experience and Christian community? Are you currently experiencing Christian friendship and community across socioeconomic lines?  What might be the next step in your life in building bridges across these lines?
     
  • Do you sense that your eyes are open to injustices?  Ask the Lord to give you a humble, discerning heart that is willing to enter into the messiness and hostility of injustice, and to humbly seek and speak truth and justice.  

 

Leviticus 5:14-6:7

Some believers emphasize the effects of sin on our relationship with God.  Others emphasize the effects of sin on our relationship with others.  God cares deeply about both.  When we sin against others and bring harm to them, it is not enough to confess our sins to God and move on.  God calls us confess to our neighbor and make reparation* for the harm done (6:4-5; cf. Matthew 5:23-24).  On the other hand, while many (or most) of ours sins against God are also sins against neighbor, all of our sins against our neighbor are sins against God.  It is not enough to confess these sins to our neighbor, we must also confess and receive God’s forgiveness in Christ (6:6-7), for every time we harm our neighbor, we are harming God’s image and likeness as well as defacing the image of God in ourselves.  

The uniqueness of this fifth and final offering, often referred to as a “guilt offering,” seems to lie in the idea of making reparation for the offense committed.  Jesus has not only borne the punishment for our sin, He has also made reparations that we could never make through his lavish love toward our neighbors and his perfect obedience to God's law.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you more likely to consider sin an offense to your neighbor or an offense to God?  Perhaps it is different depending on the type of offense.  As you ask the Lord to search your heart, are there any reparations that need to made with others?  Are there sins against others that you need to bring to Jesus?  

 

Leviticus 6:8-7:38

The first five chapters provided valuable information on the offerings for both priests and laymen, while today's passage focuses almost exclusively on the role of the priest in the five different offerings.  We find an exception in the description of the fellowship offering, the only offering in which laymen share in the meal (7:11-21).   This meal reminds us of God’s desire to commune with all of his people, but it also reminds us of God’s absolute purity and unwillingness to commune with sin.  Anyone who was ceremonially unclean was forbidden from sharing the fellowship offering meal, and those who ate the meal while unclean were to be “cut off” from God’s people  (7:20-21).  The ceremonial cleanliness laws in the Old Testament (e.g. Leviticus 11-15) are no longer in effect since Jesus has provided permanent cleansing, but they continue to teach us about God’s holiness.  Only those who had been cleansed through a sacrificial offering were able to eat the fellowship meal.  For those united to Christ by faith, it is only through the permanent cleansing from sin in Christ that we are able to commune with God.  Therefore, we should never casually stumble into fellowship with God carrying known sin that we have not confessed at the foot of the cross.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Take time to reflect on God’s absolute perfection — his perfect love and faithfulness and truthfulness, freedom from all corruption.  Take time to consider the depths and cost of his mercy in Christ, which makes a way for sinful, corrupted people like us to dwell with him.  
     
  • Do you feel that you have been taking sin and its affects on our communion with God seriously, or have you been casual about sin?  Pray for a deeper hatred of sin and continual awareness of God’s rich mercy to us.

 

Leviticus 8-9

Leadership lessons lodged in Leviticus lead us to “lead with a limp.”  Before Aaron and sons are able to lead the people to God, they must first acknowledge their own sinfulness and need for a Savior.  They must publicly reveal their own “limp” through sacrificial offerings and purification for their own sin (8:14,18,22-24,30,33-36;9:7).  By doing so, attention is directed away from Aaron and his sons to the sacrifice for sin, just as their clothing (8:7-9) drew attention away from their own personalities to the priestly office itself.  For Christians who heed the noble calling to lead in various ways in God’s church, we too are called to this countercultural leadership style.  By leading from a place of weakness, publicly admitting our own sinfulness and need for a Savior, we enable people to see through us to Christ, sacrificed for us.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • As you seek to point people to Christ, are you currently allowing them to see your own desperate need for Christ, or might you be blocking others’ view of Christ by pointing them to yourself?  When people see the good things that Jesus has done in your life, would they be able to see this as the merciful, transforming work of Christ, or would they be more likely to lift you up on a pedestal?  

 

Leviticus 10

"Fire came out from the presence of the LORD.”  We see this phrase at the end of chapter 9 (verses 23-24).  It is a holy moment, full of reverence and awe at the glory of God, but it is a joyful occasion.  The consuming fire shows that God accepts the people’s sacrifice, presented by Moses and Aaron, and the glory of God blesses the people.

Nadab and Abihu, however, come to God on their own terms.  Again, “fire came out from the presence of LORD” (10:2), but this time the glory of God consumes the people.  In their sinful state, Nadab and Abihu cannot stand in the presence of the Holy One without the cover of an acceptable sacrifice.

The contrast between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10 provides one of the clearest pictures in all of Scripture of our inability to stand before a holy God on our own terms.  Only in the name of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of "the burnt offering" (9:24), may we dwell and fall on our faces in joyful worship in the presence of God.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you approaching God on any other terms than the finished work of Jesus on your behalf?  
     
  • Do you realize, today, that you may approach "the throne of grace with confidence” because you have a perfect high priest who offered up his own blood for you (Hebrews 4:14-16)?

 

Leviticus 11

“Be holy, because I am holy.”  In case we did not catch it in 11:44, it is repeated in 11:45.  To be holy is to be “set apart.”  God is holy in ways that we will never be holy.  Though He is intimately involved in creation, He is distinct and set part from all that He has made and all of his creatures.  He is infinitely greater than all that He has made.  Yet, as his image and likeness, humans are called to reflect his infinite holiness in finite ways.  Like God, we are to be set apart from all that is ungodly, from everything that leads to death.  As those loved by God, our high calling is to be imitators of God, set apart for him (Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Peter 1:15-16).

The cleanliness laws served as a temporary tutor until the coming of Christ, teaching the Israelites to avoid evil through tangible signs and symbols (see Mark 7).  Various explanations have been given for the distinctions between “clean" and “unclean" foods.  They may have been arbitrary, hygienic, cultic (i.e. avoidance of animals used in pagan religions), or “symbolic."  Under the symbolic view, Gordon Wenham explains that “clean” animals exemplified the normal means of locomotion for land and water animals.  This is why the type of hooves, and fins and scales, are specified.  Birds of prey, eaters of decaying flesh, are then distinguished from other “clean” birds.  He shows several exceptions and holes in the hygienic and cultic views, and believes that the symbolic view summarized above, and espoused by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, is the most comprehensive and faithful to “the distinctions emphasized in Leviticus itself” (169ff.).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How do the precise details of the food laws tutor you in regard to God’s seriousness about holiness?  How does God’s desire for your holiness reveal his love for you?
     
  • In what areas of your life do you need set yourself apart from impurity?  As those in Christ, we have been made holy once and for all through our union with him, we are being made holy by Christ (“becoming who we are”), and we will finally be made holy on the last day!

 

Leviticus 12

There is no need to add to Wenham's masterful summary of the significance of the transition from the food/animal laws in Leviticus 11 to the discharge/skin/fungus laws of 12-15.  “Whereas the previous chapter dealt with causes of pollution that are external to man, these chapters deal with internal sources of pollution; they arise from the constitution of man, not from his environment.  Insofar as man can pollute himself through his own bodily functions as well as through his contact with animals, these uncleanness laws reflect the fact that Israel’s status as a holy nation faces challenges inside and outside.  Sin is not merely a matter of environment but of individual failure” (186).  

As with the food laws, the precise symbolism of the discharge laws is a matter of much debate.  Again, Wenham defers to Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger.  “For Douglas, a bleeding or discharging body lacks wholeness and is therefore unclean.  Loss of blood can lead to death, the antithesis of normal healthy life.  Anyone losing blood is at least in danger of becoming less than perfect and therefore unclean . . . Holiness in Leviticus is symbolized by wholeness” (188, 203).

Of course, Jesus entered (and continues to enter) into our sinful environment and our sinful hearts in order to bring both holiness and wholeness, of which the Old Testament laws were only a shadow.  Just as He healed the outcast woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and lepers whose skin disease excluded them from fellowship in the covenant community, He enters into our uncleanness to make us clean.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what ways have you or do you seek to diminish personal failure and responsibility by assigning blame to the environment or culture around you?  In what ways are you particularly tempted by the sins of the culture (misordered priorities, speech/rhetoric, sexuality, ethics, etc.)?  How has Jesus overcome and how is Jesus overcoming these things?
     
  • In what ways has Jesus called you, or might Jesus be calling you, to enter into dark places in order to bring his forgiveness, power, and hope?

 

Leviticus 13-15

Has your family ever had to tear out a wall in your home?  It’s not fun.  We recently had to go through the costly and messy process of tearing out a portion of a wall in order to check for termite damage.  Thankfully, we caught them before the “eastern subterranean termites” did any significant damage.  

Leviticus 14:40 instructs us to tear out the walls of our home when necessary, and it teaches us how to deal with sin in our lives.  Really, all of Leviticus 14:33-45 provides a tutorial on dealing with sin.  First, we are called to closely examine our lives, often with the help of others (14:33-39).  We are to examine below the surface to find out why we do the things that we do.  Second, we are called to take drastic measures to eliminate the sin in our lives, as drastic and costly and painful as tearing out the walls of our home (14:40-41).  Third, we are called to replace our deceitful desires and actions with godly, life-giving desires and actions (14:42).  We cannot overcome evil with neutrality, but only with good (Romans 12:21)!   Finally, we recognize our new identity in Christ, who was “torn down” for our sin, that we might be rebuilt in him (14:45).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Examination:  are you looking beneath the surface to where your words and actions and concerns are coming from?  Do you have a trusted friend who is helping you?
     
  • Elimination:  where do you need to take drastic measures in order to repent of sin?  Perhaps it’s a major priority/schedule shift, getting rid of something, intentional pursuit of a broken relationship.  Are there any sins you continue to flirt with because elimination seems costly, inconvenient, or drastic?  
     
  • Replacement:  what does it look like to replace evil with good in your life?  How can the love of God fulfill the longings that we seek to fulfill in other places?
     
  • Recognition of our New Identity:  are you finding your significance and identity in your performance, or in the perfection and love of Jesus?

 

Leviticus 16

The Day of Atonement reminds us that we were made to be with God.  It also reminds that our sin creates an enormous barrier between us and God.  In God’s words, the Day of Atonement was provided to atone for “the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites” (16:16,19,21), so that He may continue to dwell with his people in “the Most Holy Place behind the curtain . . . over the atonement cover” on the ark (16:2).  If Aaron were to enter the Most Holy Place “whenever he chooses,” he would die for his sin.  But on this day, once per year,  if Aaron obeys God’s commands and offers up the right sacrifices, he may enter behind the curtain and sprinkle the sacrificial blood (16:14ff.).  These sacrifices provided an annual cleansing so that “you will be clean from all your sins" (16:30).  The Day is somewhat akin to the daily burnt offering in the sense that it is not an offering for specific sins (in fact, the burnt offering is part of the ceremony), but it is a much more thorough cleansing of the entire tabernacle, including the Most Holy Place.  

We cannot go into all of the elaborate details, but note a couple of things.  Wenham points out the priest’s dress on this day was not his normal priestly attire, but rather was closer to that of a servant (16:4).  “Among his fellow men, his dignity as the great mediator between God and man is unsurpassed, and his splendid clothes draw attention to the glory of his office.  But in the presence of God . . . he becomes simply the servant of the King of kings, whose true status is portrayed in the simplicity of his dress” (230).  Jesus is the only high priest fit to wear such splendid clothes in the immediate presence of the Lord, yet He was willing to put on servant’s clothes and take our sins outside of the city gates to be crucified (Hebrews 13:11-12), just as the goat carried "on itself all [Israel’s] sins to a solitary place (16:21-22).  The Day of Atonement only finds its efficacy in that it points to the true sacrifice and priest, who enables us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.  He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.  Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1)

 

Leviticus 17

There were no blood drives in ancient Israel, but they knew the power of blood.  To lose blood is to lose life, for life is in the blood.  For this reason, blood plays an (uncomfortably) central role in Israel’s sacrifices, the giving of one life as a ransom for another life in order to provide forgiveness (17:11) Therefore, Israel was to honor the blood of animals by not eating it (17:10-14), and by not shedding it in the wilderness or outside of the tabernacle (17:1-9).  

The New Testament affirms the necessity of shed blood for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22).  Jesus, however, did not offer his lifeblood for us in a “man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:23-24).  Consider the power of those words.  Jesus appeared in God’s immediate presence for us, having shed his blood for the death brought about by our sin, that we might enter God’s presence.  “Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that his own . . . But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:25-26).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Now that Jesus has come as the fulfillment of all of the animal sacrifices, the ceremonial laws regarding animal blood are no longer in effect.  But what does it look like for you to honor the blood of Christ, shed for us?  Are you seeking to add any good works or religious performance to Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, or do you believe, today, that his sacrifice is sufficient to do away with the guilt of your sin?  What does it look like for you to die to yourself in order to love God and to love others, today, as He died in love for us?    

 

Leviticus 18

Leviticus 18-19 feel much different than anything we have read so far in Leviticus.  Whereas almost everything in the first 17 chapters pertains directly to Israel's sacrificial system and purity laws, most of the commands in 18-19 reveal the morals by which the Israelites were to live.  One way to think about this is to make the distinction, which Jesus made, between the external and the internal (Mark 7:17-23).  Things outside of the body, such as food, priestly attire, skin infections, household mold, and even animal sacrifices, are unable to make a person spiritually “clean” or “unclean.”  Such things were temporary, God-given signs and symbols pointing to our need for the perfect forgiveness and holiness found in the Messiah, who cleanses our hearts.*   But things like sexual morality, theft, envy, and slander — these come from within.  

It is interesting that the moral code of Leviticus 18-19 begins with the family and God’s intentions for sexual relations.  As the Creator of sex, God lays out the boundary lines for the godly enjoyment of his invention.  In sum, He forbids Israel from sexual relations within the first or second degree of family relations, within the same sex (God adds the word “detestable” or “abominable"), and with animals (God adds the word “perversion” or “confusion”).  Other passages in Scripture reflect more deeply on the significance of sexuality between husband and wife as a reflection of the faithful union between God and his people (e.g. Genesis 2, Ephesians 5:25-33).  

* Insomuch as the symbols pointed to Christ, they provided forgiveness in Christ.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you trusting, today, that God loves you and has a good plan for relationships and sex?  Do you question God’s design as the Creator of sex, or are you allowing God to shape your understanding and approach to relationships and sex?  All of us are broken in every way, including sexually.  Where do you need to confess, receive the perfect forgiveness found in Christ, and ask him to make you holy?  

 

Leviticus 19

It feels like a whirlwind account of God’s laws.  The “external” laws pertaining to sacrifice and purity (e.g. 19:5-8,19,22,26-28) blend with the “internal” laws of worship and love and justice.  This is to be expected, as Israel was called to obey all of God’s laws, “external” and “internal,” from the same heart of faith and humble reverence.  They got in trouble when “external” obedience was separated from the heart of “internal” obedience (see Isaiah 1:11-19; Amos 5:21-24).  

But is there any order or structure, rhyme or reason to this chapter?  Gordon Wenham notes that the “diversity of material in this chapter reflects the differentiation of life,” but the Ten Commandments provide some sense of structure, as all ten are either directly quoted or alluded to in the chapter (264).  Of particular note (and length) are God's expositions (19:1) on the commands regarding love of neighbor, which reveal how to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18) from the heart.  We see that the command “do not steal” includes generosity toward the poor (19:9-10) and considerate treatment of employees (19:13).  The command “do not murder” includes prohibitions against anything that might endanger another’s life (19:16b), “hatred in your heart” (19:17), and the mistreatment of foreigners (19:33-34).   The command “do not bear false witness,” or “do not lie,” includes avoidance of partiality to the poor or rich in justice (19:15), refraining from any secret slander (19:16a), and complete integrity in business dealings (19:35-26).  Jesus certainly reveals the heart behind the Ten Commandments in greater depth (e.g. Matthew 5:21ff.), but Leviticus 19 shows us that the motives of the heart have always been God’s central concern.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does this chapter help you to see the vast scope and goodness of the Ten Commandments?  Think through the commands.  In what ways are you tempted to reduce the scope of the Ten Commandments to fit a human standard of morality as opposed to the moral of love?  If we do not feel a deep need for the forgiveness and help of Jesus each day, we are likely reducing the scope of the commandments significantly!

 

Leviticus 20

No new laws are given in this chapter, but punishments for breaking God’s laws are made known.  All sin — private and public -- is taken seriously and judged because God is King and Judge of this people (20:1).  As God repeatedly reminds Israel in this passage, He called them to be holy and made them holy, set apart for him and for his glory (20:7-8,24,26).  Therefore, they were to “purge the evil” from their midst (Deuteronomy 17:7).*

While only the most serious sins, in God’s eyes, were punishable by death through Israel’s system of justice, the passage is a stark reminder that sin against God and neighbor is deserving of death.  Sins of the heart, which did not turn into action, were obviously not judged through human courts, but God still sees (Hebrews 4:13).  We are all forever indebted to Christ, who stood in our place to take the death penalty for our sin (Romans 3:19-26; 14:8).  

The punishments were only to be carried out after careful investigation and upon the testimony of multiple witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15ff.).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Israel was uniquely called by God as a nation under his Kingship.  We are not called to replicate a theocratic system of justice, but we still have a lot to learn from this chapter.  What does this passage teach you about the seriousness of sin and God’s perspective on it?  Remember that God’s disdain for sin always flows from his love of what is good and what leads to fullness of life for his creatures.  
     
  • How does this passage help us to see the necessity of Christ’s death for us, if we are to live with God?

 

Leviticus 21-22

God loves the family.  In the midst of two chapters describing the requisite purity of priest (21:1-22:16) and sacrifice (22:17-33), both of which are perfectly fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 7:26-27), we see the tender heart of God toward families.*  As seriously as God took ritual purity for priests, He allowed priests to become “unclean” by caring and mourning for a close relative who has just died (21:1-3; cf. Numbers 19:11ff.)  Wenham points out that even though the wife is not mentioned among the examples of close relatives, "the law simply takes it for granted that he would defile himself for her . . . since she is ‘one flesh’ with him” (290).  This exception regarding contact with a deceased relative also reinforces the distinction between external or symbolic holiness and internal purity; God allowed an exception on external cleanness, but God would never grant an exception for actual sin.  

Yet there was one exception to the exception!  The high priest, the one who entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, was never allowed to defile himself by contact with the dead (21:10-12).  Again, this rule points us to the need for an absolutely pure high priest and Savior.  Only one without sin, who did not deserve death, could take the place of sinners.

We cannot say that this is the central theme of these two chapters, but the major themes of purity and sacrifice have been discussed extensively in the previous Leviticus devotionals.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How should God’s heart for families impact our heart for our families and our respect for the institution of the family?  How have you failed to care for and love your family?  Take to confess, to thank Jesus for taking our sin and to receive his forgiveness, and to ask him to help you love your family.

 

Leviticus 23

Now that we are more familiar with the content of Leviticus, it is helpful to see the big picture.  The following outline shows how the book centers on the Day of Atonement, the one day each year when the entire tabernacle was cleansed and the high priest entered the inner room, the Most Holy Place, where God made his presence known.  

Appointed Offerings (1-7)

     Priestly Holiness - Consecration/Ordination (8-10)

           Congregational Holiness - Mostly External (11-15)

                                                                   Day of Atonement (16)

           Congregational Holiness - Mostly Internal (17-20)

    Priestly Holiness - Continuing Holiness (21-22)

Appointed Times (23-25)

Conclusion:  Rewards and Punishments (26), Vows (27)

Today’s reading begins the section on “appointed times.”  Three festivals occurred in the spring (Passover, Unleavened Bread/Firstfruits, Pentecost or Feast of Weeks) and three in the fall, near the end of the harvest (Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles or Booths).  In total, these festivals contained seven special days of rest.  Gordon Wenham argues that these annual festivals, along with the sabbatical years introduced in chapter 25, underscore the importance of sabbath [23:3].  "Through sheer familiarity the sabbath could be taken for granted.  But these festivals and sabbatical years constituted major interruptions to daily living and introduced an element of variety into the rhythm of life” (301).  In the New Testament, the Passover is transformed into the Lord’s Supper/Good Friday, Firstfruits is transformed into Easter - the firstfruits of Resurrection, and Pentecost is transformed into the outpouring of the Spirit (see Acts 2:1-13 devotional).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In case we haven’t noticed yet, God is really serious about his people imitating his pattern of work and rest (also see the repetition in recent reading, Leviticus 19:3,30).  The tangible act of rest not only restores us physically and spiritually, it demonstrates our trust that God really is in control of our lives and that we can do nothing apart from him.  Are you working when you need to work, and are you resting from your work?  Are you resting in Christ, who laid down his life, conquered death, and poured out His Spirit to bring us back into life with God?
     

Leviticus 24:1-9

Are you tending your lamp continually?  Olive oil kept the golden lampstand of the tabernacle burning continually (24:2).  We have already seen that the lampstand is a sign of God’s light — the physical and spiritual light that God brings into the world, and oil is a sign of God’s Spirit.  (For this reason, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil upon entering their offices — see Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).  As temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16), Christians are called to tend our lamps continually by yielding to the Spirit of God in regular confession, repentance, and reliance.  We can only burn brightly when fueled by the oil of the Spirit.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Practically speaking, what does it look like for you to "tend your lamp continually” throughout morning, afternoon, and evening?

 

Leviticus 24:10-23

How are we to understand the retribution principle of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”?  Gordon Wenham notes that this “fundamental principle of biblical and Near Eastern law, namely, that punishment must be proportionate to the offense,” was not literally applied in most cases, with the exception of “life for life” in the case of premeditated murder.  Nor was Jesus likely rejecting this “lex talionis” principle of law when he commented on it in Matthew 5:38-42.  “It is unlikely that our Lord’s remarks were intended to encourage judges to let offenders off scot-free.  The NT recognizes that human judges must mete out punishments appropriate to the offense (Acts 25:11; Romans 13:4; 1 Peter 2:14,20) . . . What seems more probable is that Jesus is attacking those who turn this legal principle into a maxim for personal conduct.  Christ’s followers are not to live on a tit-for-tat basis” (312-313).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are you keeping score in any relationships right now or otherwise operating on a tit-for-tat basis?  How has God shattered this system, in regard to your relationship with Him, through the cross and resurrection?  

 

Leviticus 25

Even the land needs a sabbath!  The Sabbath Year (25:1-7) is a serious exercise of faith in God’s provision, but it is more than that.  This year of rest provides relief for “the hired worker and temporary resident,” who are given equal access to what the land produces.  

Relief and restoration for the poor are also the primary objectives of the Year of Jubilee, a super-sabbatical every 49 (7x7) years, in which land is returned to families who have been forced to sell and servants are released to go back to their original land.  “While the sabbatical year alleviated the plight of the poor, every seventh sabbatical year an attempt was made to give them a new start” (Wenham, 319).  The key principle seems to be, “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear the LORD your God” (e.g. 25:14,17).  We see that love of God and neighbor could not be more closely intertwined.  It is a given that this principle applies to foreigners as well as to Israelites (25:35-38; 25:47ff.).

In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus reveals that He is the servant who proclaims “release to the captives and … the year of the Lord’s favor,” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 61:1ff.).  The word used for “release” in Isaiah 61 is the same as that used in Leviticus 25:10, and it is likely that “the year of the Lord’s favor” is at least partially inspired by the Year of Jubilee (Wenham, 324).  We cannot be sure that the nation of Israel ever actually celebrated the Year of Jubilee, but Jesus certainly brings the year of the Lord’s favor, release for the captives.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • What does it mean for you to participate in the “Year of Jubilee” that Jesus has brought?  How should the massive emphasis on the restoration of the poor impact our lives?

 

Leviticus 26

Life with God (26:1-3) entails fullness of life in every way — material blessing (26:5,10), relational blessing (26:6), vocational blessing (26:7-9), and spiritual blessing (26:11-12).  Life apart from God entails loss of life in every way.  Sometimes the loss is realized slowly and sometimes swiftly, but when we separate ourselves from the Giver of every good gift, there is no other life to be had.  In the case of Israel, a consolidated nation and spiritual kingdom in covenant with God, the realization of blessing or loss for obedience or disobedience is fairly clearcut.  So long as Israel is generally faithful, they are blessed (e.g. I Kings 3-4).  When they begin to go astray, their life as a nation begins to go downhill (e.g. 1 Kings 11).  Nevertheless, God promises to forgive them when they humble themselves and repent (26:40-45).

After the coming of Jesus and the influx of other nations into the church, the link between God’s spiritual kingdom and the physical nation of Israel is broken (e.g. John 4:21,18:36; Acts 15:12-18; Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 3:26-28; Ephesians 2:11-22).  Of course, blessing for obedience remains (e.g. Matthew 6:33) and punishment for disobedience remains (e.g. I Corinthians 11:30), but blessing and punishment on a large scale will not be clear, given that God’s people are scattered throughout the nations.  On a smaller scale, there has never been a precise correlation between faithfulness and blessing, this side of final glory (e.g. II Timothy 3:12; Psalm 49; Job).  Yes, faithfulness often results in blessing even in a fallen world, but it can also bring danger, persecution, and death.  Only when Christ returns will God’s promises of blessing and punishment be fully realized, and only in Christ may we be counted as faithful, made faithful, and receive blessing (Romans 3:19-24).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This day, where will you find your life?  Will you find life in the goodness of God’s ways and in the love and power of Christ, or somewhere else?  

 

Leviticus 27

Promises of blessing for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Leviticus 26) would seem like a fitting way to end the book of Leviticus.  Why this seemingly random, additional chapter on vows to the Lord?  Gordon Wenham offers two complementary reasons for the placement of this chapter at the end of the book.  In chapter 26, God makes vows to Israel concerning his response to their obedience or lack thereof, and now He provides parameters for their vows to him.  In addition, vows are frequently made when people are in dire situations (e.g. Jacob - Genesis 28:20ff.; Jonah 2:10), and the punishments of chapter 26 describe a number of dire situations.  Since humans are apt to renege on their vows once a situation has improved, especially those that may have been made rashly, chapter 27 provides a safeguard against the breaking of vows.  If an Israelite had dedicated something to God for the use of the sanctuary and priests, whether it be an “unclean” animal (27:11-13) or a house (27:14-15) or land (27:19-20), the possession could be bought back at a 20% penalty.  However, ceremonially “clean” animals that had been dedicated to the Lord for a future offering could not be substituted.  If a person tried to make such a substitute using a lesser animal, both animals must be set apart for the Lord (27:9-10).  

The first part of the chapter covers the dedication of persons.  If an Israelite made a vow to dedicate oneself to God’s service, the person could only be freed from the vow through a significant offering, equivalent to the price that the person would fetch in the market for manual labor.  For this reason, the offering for women was 50-67% of the offering for men.  “That children are included in this table suggests that a man might vow his family as well as his own person to God” (337-342).   

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • While vows went above and beyond required offerings, they remind that all that we have and are belong to God.  When we make commitments to the Lord regarding our possessions or service, we are to let our “‘Yes' be ‘Yes’” (Matthew 5:33-37).  Are there commitments you have made to the Lord that need to be revisited?  When was the last time you surveyed your life to consider the ways in which God may be calling you to dedicate your gifts to his service?
     
  • Jesus willingly vowed to enter our world as a servant, offering his whole life to take the death our sins deserve.  He was faithful to fulfill his vow and the Father was faithful to give him his reward — a redeemed and resurrected people (John 17:4-5; Isaiah 53:12; Philippians 2:5-11).  What difference does it make when we see our own vows in light of Jesus’ vow?

 

Numbers

December 11 - Numbers Introduction

The book of Numbers covers the 40-year period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.  Up until the spying out of the promised land in Numbers 13 and the subsequent rebellion against God through unbelief in his power and promises (13:31-33), the plan was for Israel to make the two-week journey from Mt. Sinai to Canaan and take the promised land.  Verses 1:1-10:10 describe the organization of Israel for the journey and preparation for life in the promised land.  However, when the people rebel through unbelief, God disciplines the unbelieving generation and promises that they will all die in the wilderness (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) prior to Israel’s reception of the promised land (14:31-35).  After 40 years of wilderness, Israel began to move toward “the plains of Moab,” directly across the Dead Sea from the promised land of Canaan (21:3-22:1).  Here the new generation prepares, once again, to enter the promised land.  Note that Moab is also the setting of the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:5), which literally means, “second law,” referring to the second giving of the law for the new generation.  

Outline of Numbers - a story of three mountains

1:1-10:10 -- Mt. Sinai:  Preparation for the Journey — Several Weeks

10:11-14:45 – Sinai to Kadesh (Mt. Hor):  The Test — Exploring the Land

15-21 – Kadesh to Moab: Wilderness Wanderings — Old Generation dies after 38 years

22-36 – Plains of Moab (Mt. Nebo):  End of the Journey — New Generation prepares

As with the book of Leviticus, we will be relying at times on the expertise of Gordon Wenham, whose Numbers commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) is also one of the most respected commentaries around, though it is from a different series than his Leviticus commentary.  In his introduction, he offers some helpful warnings as we approach the book:  “In ancient times numbers were seen as mysterious and symbolic, a key to reality and the mind of God himself.  Today they are associated with computers and the depersonalization that threatens our society.  Furthermore, the pervasive influence of the romantic movement with its stress on spontaneity and individual freedom has made it yet more difficult for us to appreciate Numbers’ insistence on organization, ritual and hierarchy" (9).  Certainly much of Numbers is not about numbers, even though there are multiple censuses taken!  The title of the book in the Hebrew Bible is “in the wilderness.”  Nevertheless, Wenham’s warning offers us a helpful perspective as we set out on a journey.

 

Numbers 1 & 2

It has been thirteen months since coming out of Egypt and it is time to begin moving in earnest towards the promised land.  Of course, Israel is on God’s timetable (1:1 -“The Lord spoke . . .”).  God has already given them his law, the tabernacle (i.e. his dwelling place among them), the sacrificial offerings (i.e. his forgiveness), and the priesthood (i.e. his peacemakers).  Now God organizes Israel into his army, which will carry out the judgment of God* on the wicked nations of Canaan and enable Israel to renew the corrupted land of Canaan into a holy land of worship.  Exodus 30:12 mentions a census for the purpose of funding the tabernacle, but this census** is clearly for purposes of battle (1:3,20,22, etc.).  For this reason, the Levites were not included (1:47-54).  Instead, they are called to care for and carry the tabernacle, around which all of the tribes and living quarters of Israel were to be organized (chapter 2).  The Levites form a sort of holy shield immediately around the tabernacle (1:53), and they will have their own census (chapters 3-4).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

•Today’s passage reminds us that God’s people are usually a people on the move, seeking to be agents of God’s good purposes in the world.  Am I on the move with God?  Am I an athlete “in action”?  If so, am I going out in the strength of my own power and personality, or is my life organized around God and centered on God (chapter 2)?  Is He the strength and the direction (1:1) behind what I am seeking to do?  

* See on the judgment of God in Exodus 8-10 devotional.

** Even among orthodox biblical scholars, there is uncertainty about the census numbers (e.g. 603,550 fighting men in 1:46, which would entail a nation in the desert of about two million).  There are a number of very good reasons for the uncertainty.  These scholars are not doubting the inspiration of the original manuscripts, but there is a good possibility of symbolism in the numbers, or scribal errors in copying or translating the numbers.  For instance, the word translated “thousand” may also be translated “family," so that the tribe of Reuben may have consisted of 46 families containing 500 men rather than 46,500 men (Wenham 68-76).   

 

Numbers 3 & 4

Why two different censuses, one in chapter 3 and one in chapter 4, for the Levites?  Unsurprisingly, both are directly related to Israel’s worship of God, but in different ways.  The first census served the purpose of fulfilling Israel’s “firstfruits” offering.  Just as God called Israel to offer the firstfruits of her harvest in worshipful thanksgiving and recognition of the fact that everything comes from and belongs to God, so was Israel to offer the firstfruits of her womb -- her firstborn sons -- to God.  God not only created these sons, He also redeemed them from death when He passed over them in Egypt, as they were covered by the blood of a sacrificial lamb (3:13).  In chapter 3, God calls the sons of the Levites to substitute as offerings in place of the firstborn sons scattered throughout the other eleven tribes.  All Levite sons older than one month were counted (3:14-15), and their lives would be devoted to tabernacle service.  Since there were 273 more firstborn sons throughout Israel than Levite sons, a financial offering was taken in their place (3:40-51).  

The second census, in chapter 4, only counts those who had maturity and who were in the prime of physical strength to carry out the work in the tabernacle (i.e. those aged 30 to 50 -- 4:3).  Tabernacle labor is divided between the Levitical clans descended from the three sons of Levi — Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.  The Merarites were to set up and tear down the “hardware” or framework of the Tent of Meeting or tabernacle (4:31-32).  The Gershonites were to care for the “software,” namely the coverings and curtains (4:24-26).  The Kohathites were to care for the “most holy things” (4:4ff.)  This makes sense, as the Aaron and Moses are Kohathites.  The sons of Aaron, who had been set apart, ordained, and purified as priests (Leviticus 8), had their own work to do and had closest contact with the “most holy things" (e.g. 4:15-20).  Aaron and sons camped in the prominent position nearest to the entrance of the tabernacle (3:38), east of the Tent (as did the tribe of Judah, though at a farther distance - 2:3), while the other Levite clans camped to the south, west, and north of the Tent.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The first Levitical census reminds us that all that we have and are belongs to God.  The firstfruits offering of firstborn sons to the worship of God reminds us that our very lives are to be offered to the service of God.  Where I am trying to find life outside of worship and service of the only Lifegiver?  
     
  • The second census reminds us that not all have the same gifts or calling in serving, but every believer is essential in the work and worship of the church.  Do I value certain callings over others?  Where do I see pride or feel insignificant?  Am I fully participating in the worship and work of the church to the best of my ability?  

 

Numbers 5

As the Israelites prepare to move the LORD reminds them of a few things that could block their fellowship with God:  uncleanness through skin diseases or contact with the dead (5:1-4)*, neglect of restitution for wrongdoing (5:5-10), and adultery (5:11-31).  All of these are covered in Leviticus, although Numbers adds some instruction regarding restitution in the case where the offended party is no longer living (5:8) and a detailed ritual for dealing with suspected adultery.

Wenham points out that all three dangers show up in the New Testament.  Revelation portrays the new heavens and earth as a place where “nothing unclean shall enter” (Revelation 21:3ff., 27).  “In anticipation of the heavenly consummation, the early church exercised a discipline over its members who blatantly erred in practice or belief (1 Cor. 5:2; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:13; 2 Thess. 3:14; Titus 3:10f.; 1 John 10f.) . . . But if the New Testament upholds the moral side of these uncleanness regulations, it abolished the symbolic physical distinction.  Our Lord healed lepers and the woman with the flow of blood and raised the dead with his touch (Luke 17:12ff.; 8:40ff.)” (Numbers 88).  The New Testament also reasserts the importance of lateral restitution if we are to have fellowship with God.  Jesus said, “'If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift . . . first be reconciled to your brother (Matt. 5:23f.; cf. Luke 19:8f.; 1 Cor. 6:7f.; Gal 5:15, etc.).’” (90).  

Finally, we are continually reminded of the importance of sexual purity throughout the New Testament, but why this elaborate ritual?  “Would not God have answered the priest’s prayer without resorting to the mumbo-jumbo of magic?  Does not this ceremony imply an unbiblical notion of a God subject to human manipulation, or at least an unscientific belief in the efficacy of holy water?  Similar objections could of course be raised against the practice animal sacrifice . . . The rituals accompanying graduation, baptism or marriage indicate the importance society attaches to these institutions.  Similarly, here the offering of sacrifice and the drinking of the bitter waters underlines and dramatizes the curses imposed on the woman.  Whether the potion was effective in making a guilty woman sterile no more depends on magic than does intercessory prayer.  Prayer and symbolic rituals both depend ultimately on the will of God for their efficacy” (92-93). 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The uncleanness laws remind us of God’s absolute purity and wholeness*, while the restitution and adultery laws remind us that faithfulness and purity in our interaction with other humans is part and parcel of holiness before God.  Take a few minutes to consider your relationships.  Are there any in which some form of restitution needs to be made?  Am I living in faithfulness to God and to my spouse/potential future spouse (known or unknown) in the sexual realm?  Ask for The Holy Spirit's courage and help in making restitution and pursuing sexual purity. 

Wenham quotes Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger.  “For Douglas, a bleeding or discharging body lacks wholeness and is therefore unclean.  Loss of blood can lead to death, the antithesis of normal healthy life.  Anyone losing blood is at least in danger of becoming less than perfect and therefore unclean . . . Holiness in Leviticus is symbolized by wholeness” (The Book of Leviticus 188, 203).

 

Numbers 6:1-21

Vows were common in Israel, but we’re told that the Nazirite vow was a “special” vow (6:2), usually taken for a limited time.  Gordon Wenham observes that the “restrictions placed on Nazirites suggest that their sanctity exceeded that of ordinary priests and resembled that of the high priests.  Priests were prohibited from drinking alcohol only before going on duty in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:9); Nazirites were forbidden to consume any products of the vine at any time (6:3-4).  Whereas ordinary priests could mourn their closest relatives, high priests and Nazirites could not (6:7; cf. Lev. 21:2f.,11)” (98).  Other restrictions, such as a more intensive purification process after accidental contact with the dead, also resemble the restrictions placed on the high priest.  Yet Wenham points out important ways that Nazirites and the priests, including high priests, differ.  For example, they do not receive their income through the offerings, they do not offer sacrifices, and they do not wear the special articles of the priesthood.  In addition, the Nazirite vow was open to all of the people, men and women (99).  

The fact that the Nazirite vow was open to all reminded the Israelities that every one of them, not just those designated as priests, were called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” set apart for God (Exodus 19:5-6).  This reality is emphasized perhaps even more explicitly in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:4-5,9-12).  While there may still be a place for temporary vows toward special service in the church (Acts 18:18, 21:23), total dedication is always the fitting response to the goodness and mercy of God!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does total dedication to God sound right now?  Does it sound like a burden or a joy?  It depends on our current state of mind, but when we’re thinking rightly about the God we serve, when we’re seeing Him for who He actually is, joy will prevail.
     
  • What may be holding me back from being totally dedicated to glorifying, honoring, and serving God?  What am I not offering to him?  The Nazirites' abstention from products of the vine, which was self-denial of a good thing,  perhaps was used to remind them that God is the true source of joy and satisfaction.  Their long hair was perhaps a daily reminder that their lives were set apart for God.  How might a parallel type of temporary denial and/or self-reminder help me?  

 

Numbers 6:22-8:26

This section begins with the blessing of God (6:22-27) and some may be tempted to say, “May the Lord bless you if you read every word of the extremely repititious seventh chapter!”  Yes, you may want to read this chapter quickly, but do not miss its importance or the connections between the various passages in these opening chapters of Numbers!  

Just as the Nazirite vow (6:1-21) reminds us that everyone in Israel is called to wholehearted devotion (i.e. not just the priests and Levites), so the tabernacle offerings from every tribe portray (in painstaking detail) the solidarity of all Israel in the worship of God (7:10-88).  Numbers 7:89 reveals God’s pleasure with this unified offering.  The tabernacle offerings then flow into Aaron’s tabernacle work and the dedication of the Levites to their tabernacle work.  Why was it so important that Aaron make the tabernacle lamps, part of “a seven-branched flowering tree, [symbolizing] the life-giving power of God,” face forward on the lampstand (8:3)?  Wenham points out that turning the lamps forward would cause them to shine across the room “on the table of shewbread, where twelve loaves of bread, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, were heaped up (Lev. 24:5-9)."  This provided a visual sign of God’s blessing on all the tribes in 6:25:  “. . . the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (107).  

In chapter 3, we read of Levitical census in which all of the Levites older than one month were counted as substitute offerings for the firstborn sons throughout the tribes of Israel.  In 8:5-22, we find the dedication ceremony in which this substitution actually takes place (8:16-19).  The purification of these Levites is not as extensive as the purification of the priests (Leviticus 8). They are dedicated to full-time service in the tabernacle and we once again see a vivid display of the unity of Israel in this ceremony, as representatives from every tribe lay hands on the sacrificial animals that provide (temporary) purification for the Levites (8:9-10).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Unity, unity, unity!  Do we get the point?  “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes” (Psalm 133:1-2).  How does my life together with other believers reflect and/or neglect the unified worship that we see in the first part of Numbers?
     
  • Take time to reflect on God’s words to Moses and Israel in 6:22-27.  This is God’s heart for us even in the midst of the pain of a very broken world, and it will be fully realized in our future.

 

Numbers 9:1-10:10

Every Israelite was twice God’s possession.  Not only did He create them, He redeemed them from slavery and death when his judgment “passed over” their firstborn sons in Egypt and He brought them out of Egypt through the Red Sea.  We’ve seen that this is the basis for the offering of the firstborn sons to the Lord (Exodus 22:28-29; 34:19-20) and, in turn, the eventual substitution of Levites for the firstborn sons from the other eleven tribes (3:44-48).  This substitution takes place in Numbers 8, so it is fitting that the account of the first Passover anniversary occurs in Numbers 9:1-14.  Two Passover warnings are given:  Israel is not to neglect the Passover (9:13) nor eat it when they are “unclean" (9:6-12).  Of course, New Testament believers are also “twice God’s possession,” having been redeemed from slavery to sin and death through Christ our Passover Lamb, and we are given the parallel warnings in regard to the New Testament Passover meal -- the Lord’s Supper (see John 6:53; 1 Corinthians 11:27,30; Wenham, 111-112).  

The remainder of today’s passage (9:15-10:10), which brings Israel’s time in the Desert of Sinai and the first section of Numbers to a close, concerns the imminent movement of Israel.  First, Israel is only to stop and go at the LORD’s command (9:15-23).  Second, the LORD instructs them to make “two silver trumpets to coordinate the movements of the tribes on their march through the wilderness.  Though they were to be guided by the cloud, more precise means of control were necessary if the people were to march in the tight-knit formations envisaged in chapters 2-3” (Wenham, 114).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This passage reminds us of the weightiness of our Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper.  In this meal we celebrate our redemption through the tangible signs of Jesus’ death and fellowship with us, given to us by Jesus himself.  Does this meal enjoy its rightful prominence in my life?  Am I bringing any known-but-unconfessed sin or unresolved conflict to the table?
     
  • We do not enjoy the benefit of divine guidance by cloud, but we are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Am I “going out” and “resting” at my own command, or am I seeking the direction and power of the Holy Spirit today?  

 

Numbers 10:11-11:35

Israel is finally on the move again, thirteen months after arriving at Sinai.  This passage (along with tomorrow’s) describes the journey from the Desert of Sinai to Kadesh in the Desert of Paran (10:12, 12:16, 13:26).  “This is the largest and most barren of the wildernesses traversed by the Israelites ...” (Wenham, 117).  However, the people set out triumphantly and full of faith, following the precise order God had given the tribes and Levitical clans (e.g. Numbers 2:17, 4:15, 10:14-21).  We hear Moses twice recall the promise of God to provide “good things to Israel” to his brother-in-law Hobab (10:29,32).  Just as Moses’ non-Israelite father-in-law, Jethro, provided direction to Moses and Israel (Exodus 18), so will Jethro’s son serve as a guide in what was familiar territory to him (10:31).  Moses also daily reminds the people of God’s power to scatter his enemies and refresh his people (10:35-36)!

But what begins in triumphant faith quickly turns to discontented doubt (11:1ff.) after a few days in more challenging terrain.  First, the people once again complain about the food and reminisce about Egypt (11:4-6).  “In the wilderness of Sin it was lack of food that prompted complaint (Exod. 16:3):  [now] it was the lack of variety” (Wenham, 121).  Second, Moses complains about the burden of carrying the people and asks to die (11:10-15,21-22).  Finally, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ unique authority (in tomorrow’s passage, 12:1-2).  

The LORD responds with help for Moses (11:16-17,24-25), whose complaint was apparently of a different nature than the people’s, and judgment on the people (11:1,20,31-34).  God puts his Spirit on seventy of Israel’s elders to help Moses and sends a “wind” to bring the quail.*  (The Hebrew word for spirit/wind is the same.)  Perhaps these are the same elders who were earlier designated to help Moses (Exodus 18:17ff., 24:9), but now they are empowered to provide greater spiritual support.  Like the disciples after him (Mark 9:38f.), Joshua believes that these elders should be stopped (11:28), but humble Moses is happy to share the work with as many fellow servants as the Lord will provide!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How am I responding to situations in which it looks like God is absent and has forgotten his promises?  Remember that Jesus succeeded for us in the wilderness where we and Israel have failed (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).   
     
  • How do I feel about sharing leadership?  How does my heart respond when I see God using other people in powerful ways?  Take time to thank God for the spiritual gifts of others and ask for his Spirit to empower others.  

* Wenham interestingly notes, “Both Exodus and Numbers date the arrival of the quails in the second month of the Hebrew year (Exod. 16:1; Num. 10:11), which would coincide with the northward migration of the quails across the Sinai peninsula . . . Quails are small birds of the partridge family.  They migrate northwards from Arabia and Africa in the spring (from the middle of March) and return again in the autumn (August to October).  Their route takes them over Egypt, Sinai and Palestine.  Earlier [last] century Arabs living around El-Arish in northern Sinai used to catch between one and two million quails during the autumn migration in nets spread out to catch the low-flying birds” (121,123).  This helps us to see that the provision of quail was not completely random, yet their arrival in mass, just outside Israel’s camp, is nothing less than miraculous.  

 

Numbers 12

Even Moses’ right-hand man, and woman, are contending with him!  It’s one thing when the congregation is disappointed, but quite another when there is jealousy among the senior staff.  Their complaint against Moses’ foreign wife (12:1) is only a guise for this jealousy (12:2).  We can imagine Moses’ sense of fatigue, frustration, and perhaps self-doubt.  We are reminded of James and John’s ambitious request of Jesus and their fellow disciples’ indignant and correspondingly prideful response (Mark 10:35-45).  In both cases, we take comfort in the fact that hearts were changed and the work of the gospel continued!  

When the people complain against God, Moses brings their complaints before the LORD.  When the complaint is aimed directly at him, Moses does not open his mouth in self-defense.  He truly is a humble leader, as we have already seen in his willingness to share power (11:29).  The LORD intervenes for him, affirming Moses’ unique relationship with God,* bringing judgment on Aaron and Miriam, and accepting Moses’ intercession on behalf of Miriam.  (Note that Miriam’s leadership is reaffirmed as everyone waits to move until she is clean - 12:15.)  

Wenham succinctly summarizes the “… many comparisons between Moses the mediator of the old covenant and Jesus the mediator of the new.  Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Acts 7:37).  Like Moses, Jesus is meek and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29), and kept silent before his accusers (1 Pet. 2:23ff.)  But whereas Moses was but a servant in God’s house, our Lord was the son of the house (Heb. 3:1-6).  Moses saw God’s form and heard his word, but Jesus was the Word and in the form of God (John 1:14-18; Phil. 2:6).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • There are few things quite as distressing and revealing (of our own hearts) as contention and jealousy among those closest to us.  How do I respond when I hear or see or feel this contention?  How are the motives of my own heart revealed?  Should I seek to humbly address the situation to move toward unity or is it an instance in which it is better to keep quiet and wait on God to intervene?  Take time to confess, to praise Jesus for living the life of humility that we were made to live, and to ask for God’s help and unity.  Pray for those who may be contending with you, just as Moses’ intervened for Mary.

* Wenham explains, “he sees the very form of God (11:8).  That is not to say he saw God directly and unveiled.  This, apparently was the privilege that Moses requested when he asked to see God’s ‘face.’  On that occasion he had to be content with seeing God’s ‘back’ (Exod. 33:18-23).  The word ‘form’ is used of visual representations, pictures or images, of earthly and heavenly beings (Exod. 20:4).  Job saw someone’s ‘form,' but could not identify the person from it (Job 4:16).  Thus, although Moses enjoyed a much closer relationship with God than any ordinary prophet, he saw only God’s form, not the very being of God” (127).  

 

Numbers 13-14

“How long will these people treat me with contempt?” (14:11).  Contempt?  To not trust God, even in the face significant opposition and danger, is to treat him with contempt?  The resounding, and convicting, answer of this passage is “Yes.”  Israel’s “contempt” of the LORD arose in the context of mission.  They were a people on the move, advancing the kingdom of God in the power of God, but their lack of trust hindered the mission and invited God’s judgment.  We also see that this lack of faith may manifest itself in fearful paralysis or brazen, prayerless presumption (14:39-45).    

The fact that Hebron is highlighted as a significant part of the spy mission is not coincidental (13:21-26).  (Note that the “valley of Eschol, which means ‘cluster’” is likely "near Hebron, which is still a centre for growing grapes.")  “It was near Hebron that God first promised Abraham that he would inherit the land (Gen. 13:14-18).  It was from that area that he set out to defeat the coalition of kings (Gen. 14:13ff.).  It was in Hebron that he acquired his only piece of real estate for the burial of his wife, and where he and the other patriarchs were buried (Gen.23; 25:9; 35:27-29; 50:13).  The narrator knew these traditions, and he assumes the spies did and that the reader does” (Wenham, 133).  The spies and other Israelites should have remembered the LORD’s past faithfulness to Abraham, as Joshua and Caleb did!

Questions for Reflections and Prayer   

  • In my life, is a lack of faith more likely to manifest in fearful paralysis or brazen, prayerless presumption?  Where do I need to trust the Lord to advance, and in what ways may I need to retreat and ask for God’s direction and empowerment?  
  • What are the “Hebron’s” in my life that I need to remember?  By God’s grace, every believer is called to remember a perfect Savior, who trusted God in his mission, even in the face of death.  Apart from his trust in the LORD, there would be no humans in the kingdom of God, but through union with him we are welcomed into the kingdom and are called into the mission of God.  

 

Numbers 15

Just when it seemed like Numbers was starting to pick up steam, we find another chapter about levitical laws and sacrifices!  Why here?  After Israel’s failure to trust the LORD after spying out the land, these sacrifices “reassert very emphatically” that God will indeed continue to be their God, atone for their sins, and bring them into the land, while at the same time the laws remind them that they are called to absolute holiness.  Wenham comments, “If God insists that [large amounts of flour, oil and wine] be offered [15:4-11,17-21], it is a pledge that Israel will eventually reach the land where they are freely available . . . The insistence on a libation of wine is specially appropriate after the spies had brought back a huge cluster of grapes (13:23)."  Grain offering accompaniments have been mentioned before (Leviticus 8-9,14) as have wine offerings in conjunction with the Nazirite law (Numbers 6:15ff.), but "this is the first time that it has been made clear that they must accompany every burnt offering and peace offering."  Perhaps this addition stressed the fellowship that God intended to have with his people, or these offerings, which were the "main agricultural products of Canaan," symbolically stressed the offering of one’s “whole life and work to God” (142-144).  

The distinction between intentional and unintentional sins can be confusing (15:22-31).  Aren’t most sins at least somewhat “intentional”?  When the Scriptures mention “intentional” sins, they seem to be implying “high-handed," deliberately rebellious sins against the LORD, in which the sinner is unrepentant (see also Hebrews 10:26-29).  For “Leviticus 6:1-7 does allow sacrificial atonement in some cases of deliberate sin, if the sinner publicly confesses his fault, makes full restitution to the injured party and offers a guilt offering” (147).  The story of the Sabbath-Breaker in 15:32-26 appears to be a case study in “intentional” sin, and a stark reminder of God’s holiness.

Finally, we must consider the tassels (15:37-41)!  As Wenham says, “Prevention is better than cure” (151).  The tassels were always to include blue or violet thread, the color of royalty.  As such, they were a constant reminder to every Israelite, not just the priests, that they were a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).  Only by continually remembering their true identity, as those loved by the King and set apart for the King, would they be able to turn away from “the lusts of [their] own hearts and eyes” (15:39).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • After a major failure to trust the Lord, even as Israel failed to believe in God’s power to take the promised land, many struggle to believe that God will continue to be their God and forgive, as we see in today’s passage.  Do I believe that God’s grace covers all of my sin?  Am I finding forgiveness at the foot of the cross?  Am I holding back part of my heart/life from God, or am I finding fellowship as I bring everything I have before him?  
     
  • What continual reminders or signs (or "tassels") may be helpful in remembering my identity in Christ, the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, and the call to live out God’s ways in the power of the Spirit of Christ?  
     

Numbers 16-19

The “tassels” at the end of Numbers 15 were a continual reminder that all of God’s people are holy, but Korah seeks to press this reality at the expense of Moses and Aaron’s unique callings as prophet and high priest (16:3).  Even though Korah already enjoys a special levitical role in caring for the tabernacle furnishings as a son of Kohath (16:1,9-11), he and two fellow south-of-the-tabernacle-dwelling cohorts from the tribe of Reuben, Dathan and Abiram, want more.  The desire is analogous to that of Adam and Eve who, already in the image and likeness of God, wanted more (Genesis 3:5).  

God confirms the unique roles of Moses and Aaron three times over.  First, Korah, Dathan and Abiram are judged for their pride (16:28-33), while many others are spared through Moses’ intercession (16:22-24).  Second, 250 community leaders (16:2,16-19,35) and 14,700 others (16:42-45,49) are judged for their pride and grumbling, while many others are spared through Aaron’s intercession (16:46-48).  Finally, God displays Aaron’s priestly authority through the budding of his staff, “as a sign to the rebellious” (17:1-11), while the community is spared from the judgment they now fear (17:12-13) through the ongoing intercession of the priests and Levites (18-19).*  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Moses and Aaron are the primary pictures or “types” of Christ in the book of Numbers, yet many of the Israelites see no need for them.  How have I seen self-reliance or prideful self-promotion in my life?  In the midst of serving in Christ’s church, how have I attempted to take the place of Christ and point others to my own wisdom, goodness, etc. instead of to Christ?  Take time to worship Jesus for his irreplaceable offering and ongoing intercession for us!

*  Note that these three stories may have taken place "at any time within the thirty-eight years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness near Kadesh” (Wenham, 150).*  Wenham’s comments from pages 149-165 of his commentary were helpful is preparing today’s devotional.  

 

Numbers 20

Thirty-eight years of wandering have passed with virtual silence (Numbers 16-19).  The “first month” mentioned in 20:1 is most likely the beginning of Israel’s 40th year in the wilderness, given that Aaron dies at the end of this chapter (see 33:38).  Miriam, the “Mary/Maria” of the Old Testament, also dies, leaving Moses to lead the people to the border of the promised land.  Sadly, he will not enter the land due to his reaction to yet another confrontation with the community.  

Moses had an extremely similar confrontation with the community on the journey from Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 17), so similar that both places are nicknamed “Meribah” or “quarreling,” but this time he allows himself to get dragged into sin against the Lord.  Also unlike the first “Meribah," Aaron is involved and complicit in Moses’ sin (20:6-12,24), and they are commanded to speak to the rock to produce water rather than strike the rock (20:8,11).  God must be obeyed at his word and it seems that Moses and Aaron allowed their pride, anger, and impatience with the people to come before obedience to God.  Moses and the first high-priest, Aaron, may be preeminent Christ-figures in the Old Testament, but they are not finally able to save God’s people.  God is our only deliverer.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • If it weren’t for other sinners, we would sin so much less often!  How often we allow the sin of others to drag us into sin, but really this just reveals what is beneath the surface of our own hearts.  How has my own sin been exposed through confrontation with family members, roommates, teammates, co-workers, others?  
     
  • I am looking for human deliverers?  I am elevating or despising or subtly judging human leaders for their success or failures?  Take time to worship Jesus as our only true deliverer from our own sin and a world engulfed in sin.  

 

Numbers 21

Today’s passage is a Janus between Israel's wilderness wanderings and the conquering of the promised land.  Looking back at life in the wilderness, we see one last complaint about food (20:5), God’s judgment on Israel’s grumbling (20:6), Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people (20:7), and God’s deliverance through an unusual purifying ritual (20:8-9).   As with other purifying rituals, the impurity and resulting death is transferred from the unclean person to a sacrificial agent, whether it be an animal, the ashes of a dead heifer, or a snake.  The transfer takes place by laying hands on the agent, the sprinkling of blood on the unclean person, or, in this case, looking at the snake on a pole.  Jesus tells us that just as the snake was lifted up so that all those who looked upon the snake were healed, He was "lifted up” so that all of those who look to him receive eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Our passage looks forward to the conquering of the promised land through various battles east of the promised land.  For forty years, Israel has wandered in wilderness areas directly south of the promised land.  As the time of discipline nears an end, they begin to move east and north, east of the Dead Sea and Jordan River, where they encounter Edomites, Moabites, and Amorites.  Israel did not want to enter into conflict with them.  When Edom will not let them pass through peacefully as they begin to move east, they take another route (20:14-21).  As they move north, however, the Amorite king Sihon (21:23) and Og king of Bashan (21:33) march out to fight Israel, as did Canaanite king Arad earlier (21:1-3).  God’s judgment comes on these kingdoms as it will later come on the other Canaanite kingdoms (21:2).  Wenham summarizes, “Extracts from the travel log interspersed with fragments of old poems convey the sense of elation as the goal of their wanderings comes into sight” (178).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We see the active reception of forgiveness by faith throughout the Old Testament, whether it is by laying hands on a sacrifice or by looking up at the snake.  We receive a once-for-all forgiveness when we first look to Christ, lifted up on the cross for us, but in order to existentially experience this forgiveness and fellowship with him, we must continue to look to him each day.  Am I looking to Christ, lifted up, today?

 

Numbers 22-24

Balaam is the instrument of God’s ironic means of blessing Israel.  Israel had passed by Moab on their journey north (21:13), but Israel's victories over the Amorites (21:25-26) and Bashan (21:33-36), along with their proximity on Moab’s northern border, made Balak king of Moab nervous (22:1-4).  So Balak, together with Midianite tribesmen who lived “in both Sinai and in the deserts east of the Jordan,” recruited a famous diviner named Balaam (22:6), who lived in a town on the Euphrates River in northern Syria (Wenham, 190-191).

The greatest irony is that Balaam is a pagan sorcerer (23:23; 24:1), yet God uses this man, who is able to talk a good game (e.g. 22:18), to pronounce his blessing on his people.  The donkey episode reveals Balaam’s true “spiritual blindness and powerlessness . . . Such a thing would have seemed just as unlikely to the ancient Israelite as it does to us,” but if the Spirit of God speaks through a sorcerer, can He not speak through an animal? (189,192).  Balaam is famous for his powerful blessings and curses, but we see over and over that all blessings and curses are subject to God alone (22:12; 23:8,11-12,20,25-26; 24:9).  Balak and Balaam’s three generous sacrifices in three different locations cannot coerce God’s blessing (23:1-3,13-15,27-29).  Moreover, the blessings that Balaam pronounces are confirmations of God’s three-fold blessing of abundant land, numerous people and special covenant relationship on Abraham (23:9-10; 24:5-7).  God's promise to make Abraham into a great people includes the promise of future kings (Genesis 17:6,16; 49:9-10), and Balaam’s oracles begin to narrow the focus of this promise on one glorious King to come (24:7-9,17-19).*

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This passage highlights God’s absolute determination to bless his people, even when enemies gather around and conspire against them.  When God determines to bless, which is what He has determined for all of his people through King Jesus, nothing can thwart his plans!  There are occasions in Scripture when God changes his mind about how He will accomplish his purposes, particularly in response to prayer, but his character never changes and He does not revoke his covenant promises to bless (23:19).  Am I living in this confidence today?  Am I looking to God for blessing in Christ, or am I seeking to manipulate blessing by human means?

* It is worth taking a minute to compare Numbers 24:9,17-19 to God’s blessing through Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in Genesis 49:9-10.

 

Numbers 25

Any way you look at it, this is a shocking story.  The son of the new high priest drives a spear through an adulterous couple, presumably in the act.  His action brings an end to God’s plague against his people and results in a “lasting priesthood” among Phinehas’ descendants.

There are several lessons to be learned.  First, we see that the Israelites’ sexual immorality leads them away from God and into the worship of the false god Baal.  One can see how the worship of Baal, who was supposedly induced to water the earth with his semen through human sexuality, would be attractive to Israel.  Sexuality immorality was cloaked in religious garb (25:1-2).  False gods like Baal in the ancient world were often covers for the same idols of the heart that we are tempted to worship today.  

Second, God takes sexual unfaithfulness and the worship of false gods extremely seriously.  Israel has a special covenant relationship with God by his grace, and as his redeemed people they are called to exclusive allegiance to him.  Through both sexual immorality and Baal-worship they break this special covenant and incur God’s righteous anger and judgment.  

Third, this unfaithfulness immediately after God’s repeated promises of blessing through Balaam (Numbers 22-24) highlights “the full wonder of God’s grace in the face of man’s incorrigible propensity to sin.”  “The Bible startles its readers by the way it juxtaposes the brightest of revelations and the darkest of sins.  The lawgiving at Sinai was followed by the making of the golden calf, the ordination of Aaron by the disobedience of his sons (Lev. 8-10), the covenant with David by the Bathsheba affair (2 Sam. 7-12), Palm Sunday by Good Friday” (Wenham, 206).  

Finally, just as the Levites violently intervened to turn away God’s wrath after the golden calf episode (Exodus 32:27-29), Phinehas the Levite violently intervenes to turn away God’s wrath when Zimri openly flaunts his rebellion (25:6,14).   “Priests, such as Phinehas, were God’s representatives among Israel and were to symbolize God’s character in their life and behavior . . . [Phinehas expressed] so clearly and visibly God’s own anger through his deed, that anger was turned away” (Wenham, 207,211).  There are several occasions in which we see Jesus express God’s righteous anger over sin, but ultimately He took the violent piercing that our rebellion deserves on himself.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what ways have I not taken sexual sin as seriously as God does?  Are there any ways in which I have recently tried to make sin appear more acceptable in my own eyes, God’s eyes, or in the eyes of others?  
     
  • How has God chosen to bless me in spite of my sin?  Am I live in the mercy of Christ, who was pierced for my rebellion, today?

 

Numbers 26-27

Israel has been at their final stopping point in their journey to Canaan since the Balaam/Balak episode (22:1; 26:3).  Now that an entire generation has died off in the wilderness, in accordance with God’s judgment (14:22-23), they prepare once again to enter the promised land.  Another census is taken, both for military purposes and for the purposes of measured land allocation in the promised land (26:54).  Though some tribes have grown and some have decreased, the overall number is almost the same as the first census (1:46; 26:51), highlighting the reality that “God’s promises to the patriarchs may be delayed by human sin, but they are not ultimately frustrated by it (cf. Rom. 11)” (Wenham, 212-213).  

The case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-11), which ends up changing an Israelite law that was common practice in the Ancient Near East, displays the faith of the new generation.  Israel had not yet received any inheritance in the promised land, but John Calvin points out that the daughters have no doubt that Israel will receive their inheritance from the Lord (Denham, 216).  Joshua will shepherd the people and lead them into their inheritance (27:15-23), just as Jesus (the New Testament “Yeshua”) will lead all of God’s people into our inheritance with God.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s faithfulness to his promises, even when “delayed by human sin,” speak into my life right now?  
     
  • Just as Zelophehad’s daughters’ were preparing for and acting in light of the promised land to come, am I living in light of Christ’s return?  Am I living today for those things that will last in the new heavens and earth?

 

Numbers 28-30

Really?  More detailed descriptions of offerings, feasts, and vows, most of which we have already read about?  Remember, it has been 38 years and an entire generation has passed since the last time the Lord gave instruction on these things.  Also, note the repeated pattern of blessing, fall into sin, and grace.  God blesses Adam and Eve immensely in the garden and they rebel, but God promises a deliver and covers their shame with the skins of (presumably sacrificed) animals.  God blesses Israel by giving them his law and they worship a golden calf, but God rewrites the law on two new stone tablets (Exodus 34:1ff.), more fully reveals his compassionate character (Exodus 34:6-7), and reaffirms the construction of and his presence in the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40).  In Numbers, God prepares the people to enter the promised land and they refuse to trust him (Numbers 1-14), but God reaffirms the sacrificial system of grace (15).  Once again, God blesses the people through Balaam (22-24) and the people rebel (25), but God reaffirms his faithfulness through the census (26), by providing a successor of Moses (27:12-23), and reaffirming the sacrifices of grace (28-30).  This repeated pattern tells the story of the gospel over and over!

Yet much of our passage is not simple repetition.  While the general subject matter is much the same as previous material, Wenham points out that the “central concerns of these chapters is . . . the type and number of sacrifices that must be offered on every day of the year by the priests for the nation as a whole.  Whereas in Leviticus lay obligations are paramount, in Numbers 28-29 the priestly sacrificial duties are the prime concern” (219).  Wenham counts 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1,086 lambs per year, as well as "a ton of flour and a thousand bottles of oil and wine.”  These numbers point both to Israel’s prosperous future as well as their great need for forgiveness before a holy God (220).  Finally, the chapter on vows adds guidance in the case that husbands do not support vows that wives have taken, placing responsibility on men to lead their families spiritually.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does the continued repetition of blessing, sin and grace speak into my life?  

 

Numbers 31

“There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:9).  This verse from Paul’s letter to Rome tells us that all sin results in judgment, but that God’s judgment begins with his own people.  We see this truth displayed in the book of Numbers (Wenham, 235).

After Israel falls into the sins of idolatry and sexual immorality with the Moabites and Midianites (25:1-2,14), a plague breaks out among the Israelites (25:8-9), stopped only by the priest Phinehas carrying out God’s righteous vengeance on his fellow Israelites (25:11).  Only after this plague does God call Moses and Phinehas to carry out his vengeance against the Midianites,* who led Israel into sin with the help of Balaam’s advice (25:16; 31:6,16), just as Israel will soon have the unique role of carrying out God’s holy judgment against the pagan nations in the promised land of Canaan.  Much later, God will use Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel, after Israel turns to idols.

God’s judgment is always an uncomfortable subject.  Of course it is.  While God’s holiness and the impossibility of life apart from him are displayed in judgment, no one enjoys judgment, including God (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11).**  However, we need to know that before any human being had died, God had already decided that his own Son would take the “trouble and distress” and death of all who repent and trust in him (Genesis 3:15).  In this sense, judgment began “first for the Jew” known as Christ our Savior.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This is one of the many chapters in the Bible that ought to startle us out of any comfortable relationship that we have with sin.  In what ways have I become comfortable with certain sins?  Are there any ways that, like the Midianites, I may be leading others into sin?  How does this passage increase my appreciation and love for Jesus?

* "The Midianites were a large confederation of tribes , associated with various smaller groups such as the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28; Judg. 8:22,24), the Moabites (Num. 22:4,7), the Amalekites (Judg. 6:3,33), and Ephah (Gen. 25:4; Isa. 60:6).  They roamed through the arid lands of Sinai, the Negeb, and Transjordan.  Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance . . .” (Wenham, 233).  

** “Though the Midianite war was a holy war carried out in obedience to the divine command and sanctified by the presence of the priest, those involved became unclean through killing or contact with the dead [31:19-24] . . . Over every war, however glorious its outcome from the victor’s point of view, hangs the shadow of death” (Wenham, 236). 

 

Numbers 32-33

These two chapters are made up of three very different sections, but they are of course united around the continuing theme of the new land that Israel is to possess.  The first section, chapter 32, concerns the unity of Israel.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with the half-tribe of Manasseh,* want to remain east of the Jordan because they have seen that the land is suitable for their abundance of livestock (32:4).  Given Moses’ lengthy rebuke (32:8-15), it seems unlikely that these tribes were intending to enter into battle with the other 9 1/2 tribes in the promised land.  However, at the very least, they are extremely responsive and submissive to Moses’ warning, keeping the unity of the Old Testament church rather than splintering off.  If they fail to remain in courageous unity with Israel, Moses warns them that their “sin will find [them] out” (32:23).  

The second section, 33:1-49, recounts Israel’s long journey to the edge of the promised land, the plains of Moab (22:1), and the final stopping point after wandering for 38 years.  It is a clear reminder of God’s faithfulness in the midst of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  "The journey from Goshen to the plains of Moab falls into four main sections:  Goshen [in Eypgt] to the Red Sea [Exodus 12-14], the Red Sea to Mount Sinai [Exodus 15-19], Sinai to Kadesh [Numbers 10-12], Kadesh to Moab [Numbers 15-21]” (Wehham, 249).  

The final section, 33:50-56, gives explicit instruction for war in the promised land.  Israel is to completely destroy the nations and their idols.  A clear reason is provided:  if they do not drive them out of the land, they will be pulled down by these nations and God will then bring his judgment on Israel.  This is exactly what ends up happening hundreds of years later (e.g. II Kings 17:7ff.)  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Numbers 32 provides a vivid picture of God’s desire for unity in mission and worship among his people.  How am I experiencing unity in mission and worship in my life with God’s people?  In what ways am I tempted to splinter off for my own temporary comfort, security, etc.?
  • Just as Israel was called to get rid of anything that may later tempt them to worship idols, we too are called to get rid of things in our lives that may become “barbs in our sides and thorns in our eyes” (33:55; Matthew 5:29-30).  What do I need to get rid of or flee from?  

* Manasseh is called a “half-tribe” because Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, is effectively given a double-portion in Israel's inheritance (Genesis 48:5ff.).  His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, are treated as full tribes and each are given a full-portion in the land.  

 

Numbers 34-35

“Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites” (35:34).  This final verse of these two chapters not only provides the reason for God’s meticulous attention to murder and manslaughters laws, but also reminds us why Israel is called to cast out the idolatrous nations from the land and to be holy in all they do.  The presence of 48 Levitical towns sprinkled throughout the land (35:1-8) is a continual reminder of God’s presence. Wenham explains, “Canaan is more than a promised land:  it is the holy land sanctified by the presence of God living among his people . . . Blood guilt is singled out for special attention because the pollution it causes is the most serious.  In other words this section is placed here not merely because some of the levitical cities were cities of refuge (6), but because homicide could have such a disastrous effect on Israel’s tenure of the promised land” (262-263).  God provides several safeguards against false accusations and rash judgment against the accused (35:12,22-25,30), but both murder and manslaughter bring punishment, with the presence of premeditated intent to kill being the most important distinction between the two crimes (35:20-24).  While there is no ransom for the murderer (35:31), the one guilty of manslaughter is ransomed through the eventual death of the high priest (35:25,32).  “Both have caused the death of another man, and only the death of a man can atone for the killing” (Wenham, 265).

Wenham also helpfully points out that “Canaan as defined [in chapter 34] is a much larger area than ever Israel settled.  David controlled most of Canaan and much of Transjordan as well, but the land defined here does not correspond to Israel’s actual boundaries at any time in her history.  The land described here is therefore an ideal, the territory promised by God to the people of Israel, but never fully occupied by them” (258).  Only through Jesus — a better high priest, a better Joshua (i.e. Yeshua/Jesus), and the one true and faithful Israelite — will God’s people receive their full inheritance.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s acute concern for the dignity of human life impact my heart, my prayers, my mission?
     
  • Is my hope today in the inheritance that Jesus provides or in an earthly inheritance?

 

Numbers 36

The reappearance of Zelophehad’s daughters may seem like a random way for the book of Numbers to conclude, but it’s not.  Originally (27:1-11), their issue concerned the inheritance of land if an Israelite man were to have no sons to receive the inheritance.  Against common ancient near eastern law, God changed Israel’s law to allow daughters to receive the inheritance.  Simply by raising the issue, Zelophehad’s daughters display steadfast faith in God’s provision of the land.  

Now the daughters’ concern is the potential transfer of land to another tribe if they were to marry outside of their tribe.  God commands that they marry within their tribe to prevent this from happening (36:6-9) and the daughters once again respond in faithful obedience (36:10-12).  “Formally this is of course a statement of a legal principle forbidding the transfer of land from tribe to tribe, but theologically, like many laws in Numbers, it is a promise that the tribes of Israel will always dwell in their God-given land” (Wenham, 267).  Once again, even though God’s promise is (partially) fulfilled in glorious ways through Joshua and David and Solomon, his promise is only fully realized in Jesus, who will restore all things in the new heavens and earth!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In Numbers 27, we see Zelophehad’s daughters faith.  In Numbers 36, we see this faith manifest in obedience to God’s command.  This is always the way of sincere faith — it takes God at his word.  How is God calling you to show your faith in obedience?  Like Zelophehad’s daughters, is my hope today in the inheritance that only God provides?

Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy Introduction & Chapter 1

Deuteronomy means “second law.”  On the plains of Moab, 40 years after receiving God’s law on Mt. Sinai, Moses speaks the law again to a new generation of Israelites in preparation for life in the promised land.  However, this is not dry repetition of God’s law.  Moses preaches and expounds the law to Israel in their current situation (1:5).  

Moses’ preaching in Deuteronomy seems to be in the form of “suzerain-vassal” treaties (i.e. sovereign-subject treaties) that were common in the Ancient Near East:

    1) Preamble (1:1-5)

    2) Historical Prologue (1:6-4:49) -- recounting the history of the Suzerain’s relationship with the vassal nation, in this case God’s faithfulness toward Israel over the past 40 years.

    3) General Stipulations (5-11) — for Israel, the general stipulation is to love.  Love is the basis of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, and He calls Israel to respond in love.

    4) Specific Stipulations (12-26) -- the specific ways that Israel is called to love God and neighbor.  

    5) Blessings and Curses (27-28) — “The curse of God is not something inflicted with vindictive pleasure; rather, it appears to be the inevitable outcome of a life that is lived regardless of God, by rejecting a relationship with God whose essence is love” (Peter Craigie, 44)*.  On the other hand, blessing is the inevitable outcome of remaining united to God.  

    6) Witnesses (see 30:19; 31:19; 32:1-43)

The formal structure of this book seems appropriate given that is comes in the context of a covenant renewal ceremony (29).  Covenant renewal, at this moment, was extremely important not only because Israel is about to have their faith stretched (once again) and begin a new era in their history, but also because Moses is about to die (34).  They must continue to trust the LORD with a new leader (31:1-8).  Finally, the “suzerain-vassal” treaty stresses the reality that Egypt is no longer Israel’s “suzerain.”  They now have a compassionate and gracious Suzerain, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Our God binds himself to us in love through a covenant, full of covenant promises of blessing.  Covenant relationships, marriage being the most obvious human example, also come with great responsibility.  Like all good relationships, there is a commitment to love into the future.  We see this perhaps more clearly in Deuteronomy than any other place in Scripture.  Yes, we fail over and over to love God as we should.  However, Jesus came not only to fulfill our covenant responsibilities and to take the curse for this failure, but also to resurrect and empower us to begin to love God and others as we were created to love — to make us like him!  Am I aware today that I am in a covenant relationship with God, that my baptism was the outward sign marking my entrance into the covenant community, and that the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life is the seal of this covenant?  How does this impact the way I understand my life?

* Peter Craigie’s The Book of Deuteronomy commentary in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament series is probably the most respected commentary on the book in the English language.  It was helpful for this introduction and we will continue to glean from his understanding throughout the book.
 

Deuteronomy 2-3

Remember, the first four chapters of Deuteronomy recount God’s history with Israel since their departure from Mt. Sinai (see Introduction to Deuteronomy). These chapters form the first major section of God’s "suzerain-vassal" treaty with Israel, a treaty through which God and Israel renewed their covenant after the older generation died in the wilderness due to lack of trust (2:14-15; 1:26-36).  Today’s two chapters specifically recount the events of Numbers 20-21 and God's faithfulness in bringing Israel north, out of the wilderness and to the east of the Dead Sea and Jordan River.  Here, they skirted around the Edomites, the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau (2:1-8), and avoided war with the Moabites and Ammonites, descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (2:9-23), though not without incident (Numbers 21-25).  God had provided lands for these nations and Israel was not to tamper with God’s provision (2:4-6,9,19).  On the other hand, the time of judgment had come for the Amorite kings Sihon and Og (2:24-3:11).

These two chapters do not simply recount Numbers 20-21 but actually provide more insight into what was happening.  The passage highlights God’s sovereignty in bringing Israel to the edge of the promised land, but finds no tension between God’s sovereignty (2:7,19,21-22,24-25,30-33,36; 3:2-3) and human responsibility (2:8,13,26-29,34; 3:4-6,8-9).  As Peter Craigie says regarding the defeat of the Amorite king Sihon, “In the account in Numbers 21:23, Sihon’s actions are attributed to unfriendliness.  But beyond the event, it was possible to look back and see the event in the context of the plan of God.  Thus the statements about Sihon (the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn …) do not reflect a view of determinism, but reflect rather a part of Hebrew theology of history.  Man is free and responsible in action, but the actions of all men are set within the sphere of history, and God was the Lord of history" (116).  This is the lesson for Joshua, isn’t it?  Joshua is called to act in faith (3:22) because God is sovereign (3:21)!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s faithfulness to our forefathers in the faith assure you and call you into action?  Israel’s battles were God’s battles, establishing and expanding his kingdom on earth.  Under the new covenant, or New Testament, the church's battles are not with flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  How is God calling you to trust him, stepping into places of darkness in order to bring the light of his kingdom?  

 

Deuteronomy 4

A weighty chapter, our passage is replete with Moses’ awe over God’s mercy and revelation of himself to Israel.  “Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?  Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?" (4:32-33).  Throughout the passage, Moses calls Israel to this reverence for God as the one and only God:  “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below.  There is no other” (4:10,39).  Life may be found only in God (4:40).  These themes of reverence and trust in the life that God gives resound throughout the passage and are the basis of Israel’s obedience to the law, which Moses will begin to expound in the next chapter.  But Moses’ desire is not only for Israel.  He desires that the surrounding nations will see the wisdom of God in the life of Israel (4:6).  From the very beginning, God chose Israel to be a blessing to all peoples (Genesis 12:1-3).  

Our passage does not continue the chronological history of God’s relationship with Israel from previous chapters.  Rather, as the final chapter in the historical prologue (see outline in Introduction), it provides a summary of their relationship as Moses weaves in and out of recent and past events.  He refers back to creation (4:32), slavery in and rescue from Egypt (4:20), the giving of the law and God’s awesome presence at Mt. Sinai (4:11-19), Israel’s lack of faith and God's judgment (4:21-22), and recent rebellion with the Baal of Peor in Moab (4:3-4). Through this summary, Moses implicitly warns Israel against future rebellion, but his warning is also explicit as he prophesies about exile, should Israel forsake God’s laws (4:25-28).  As the only One worthy of our worship and devotion, and the only One able to fill our hearts and lives, God is jealous for his people (4:24).  It will not go well for Israel if they commit adultery against the Lord of life, but Moses also speaks of a day when God will forgive his people if they repent (4:29-31).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Look back over the passage and allow the expressions of reverence and awe to work their way into your heart.  What would it look like for me to live my life in reverence and awe?  
     
  • In what ways am I looking for life, this week, outside of the Lord of life?
     
  • Am I believing, today, in God’s mercy toward those who repent and turn back to him?

 

Deuteronomy 5-6

“Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever” (5:29).  Here, we see clearly God’s heart for his people.  It is a heart of love — a desire to see his people flourish, and it is the basis of the law.  Accordingly, God’s people are called to respond from the heart in obedience (6:5-6).  The spiritual disciplines (6:7-9) must always serve the purpose of love.  

At the beginning of chapter 5, Moses says, “It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us …” (5:3).  Quite literally, it was with the people’s fathers that God made the covenant, but Moses is stressing the present nature of the covenant for the next generation, which had survived the 40 years in the wilderness.  The covenant was for them, too, and they are the ones called to embrace the covenant in the moment.  They, too, spoke with God “face-to-face,” and this, too, is not literal (4:12).  “Face-to-face” is a Hebrew idiom for person-to-person or direct communication (Craigie, 148).  They spoke with God and, in his mercy, they lived (5:24-26).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • There is no more convicting verse in Scripture than the greatest command, to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:5).  We get so caught up in measuring ourselves against others or against relative standards of obedience.  Our spiritual disciplines can become means of simply wanting to be more knowledgeable or feeling more worthy.  Yet the greatest command also liberates us from these self-imposed laws, reminding us why we were created and why Christ died for us.  How does the great commandment reframe your approach to today?
     
  • Just as God’s covenant was for the children of Moses’ generation (5:3), so God’s covenant of love is for us, God’s people, today.  Just as God called his people on the edge of Jordan to embrace the covenant, He calls us to embrace the covenant today.  If you are “in Christ” by faith, are you embracing, today, the reality that the Spirit of God has sealed you in God’s eternal covenant through the blood of Christ?


Deuteronomy 7-9:6

Why did God choose to make Israel his chosen people, his treasured possession?  Why did He love them?  This passage answers this question:  God loved them because He loved them.  He loved them because He chose to love them (7:6-8).  There was absolutely nothing special or better about Israel that caused God to pour out his love on them (7:7).  In 9:4-6, God reminds Israel three times in three verses that He is not bringing them into the good land (8:7-10; 7:13-14) because of their own righteousness.  This is the offense of the gospel.  We want to think that there is something that sets us apart from others, that makes us particularly lovable.  But the cross tells us that this is not the case.  The cross calls us to die to our desire to be accepted and loved because of our own goodness, a desire that ultimately enslaves, and to simply receive the forgiveness and love of God.

Only after we have been brought into the love of God are we able to truly respond in love, and God does call Israel to respond.  Israel is uniquely called to be the agents of God’s righteous judgment against Canaanite nations who would also turn Israel’s hearts away from God if these nations survived (7:1-5,16,25).  In the midst of this unique calling, Israel is called to trust in their “great and awesome God" (7:17-24; 9:3).  Of course, Israel also receives the common calling of all God’s people, which is obedience to God’s ways of love (8:1-8).  They are again called to humble trust even when the Lord blesses them immensely (8:10-20, esp. 17-18).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Where do I see myself seeking acceptance and love based on my own goodness (in whatever form “goodness” may take)?  Take time to reflect on the perfect, unchanging, never-ending love of God, most fully displayed in the cross of Christ.
     
  • In what ways am I taking credit for blessing in my life instead of giving praise to God (8:17-18)?

 

Deuteronomy 9:7-10:22

The story of the stone tablets (9:7-10:5) is a picture of the gospel.  The ten commandments, inscribed on the tablets, reflect the holy character of God.  Likewise, we are to reflect the holy character of God as his image and likeness in the world, not only for God’s glory but also “for [our] own good” (10:13).  Just as sin breaks humanity and destroys our lives, so the tablets are shattered because of the sin of Israel, along with their idol (9:17,21).  Yet through the intercession of Moses (9:18-21,25-29), God has mercy on Israel (10:1-5,10-11).  The tablets are, in a sense, broken in Israel’s stead, and God rewrites the tablets.  Likewise, Jesus, who is the perfect embodiment of the law, is broken in our stead.  Through his resurrection, God rewrites our lives and rewrites his law, not on stone tablets, but on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

God has always desired the hearts of humanity (10:16), never rote obedience.  He calls Israel to fear, walk, love, serve, observe, and hold onto him from the heart (10:12-13,20).  For He is majestic (10:14,17) yet tender and compassionate toward the vulnerable (10:15,18-19), worthy of being the sole object of our praise (10:21).  However, only through union with Jesus will our hearts be fully won over to God.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How has God started to rewrite my life?  Where do I need to continue to trust in God’s love and power to rewrite the story of my life through Christ in me?  
     
  • Do I love God’s law today?  Is He "my praise”?  In what places in my life do I need God to renew my heart with a love for his law and a longing for his praises to be sung?

 

Deuteronomy 11

The promised land is to be a new “Garden of Eden” where the fullness of God’s blessing is experienced (11:10-12,14-15), where He is trusted and obeyed (11:8-9,13,16ff.), and where God’s people are sent out to be a light to the world (Genesis 1:28; 12:3).  In his mercy, God is re-creating a people for himself through Israel and giving them a land that is (somewhat) free from the effects of the fall (esp. 11:11-12).  If Israel obeys, they will continue in God’s immense blessing (11:13,18-27).  If they forsake the Lord, they will incur the curse of God (11:16-17,28).  There is no other way, for lasting blessing and fullness are found in God alone.  Every good and perfect gift comes from him (James 1:16-17).

We know how this plays out in the life of Israel.  Just as Adam and Eve failed to trust in the Lord, so does Israel.  Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden.  Israel is cast out of the promised land (many hundreds of years after they enter the land).  But the mystery of the gospel is that God does not ultimately turn his back on his people.  He sends his Son, who lives in God’s ways in order to bring God’s people back into his blessing, and who takes the curse for disobedience on himself.  All who are united to his Son by faith are included in his death, so that the curse for our disobedience is fulfilled; and we are included in his perfect obedience, so that we are brought back into the life of God and into a garden-city that is better than Eden (Revelation 21:1-22:5)!  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How am I looking for life, blessing, and fulfillment outside of God and his ways?  
     
  • Today, am I believing that Jesus actually took the curse for my disobedience?  He has!  
     
  • In what ways do I see Jesus bringing me into his life?  

 

Deuteronomy 12 & 13

These are the first two chapters of the specific covenant stipulations (see outline in Introduction) and they have one resounding theme.  Israel is not to be enticed into worshipping false gods or even distorted versions of the true God!  First, they are to “destroy completely” all the shrines and altars of the false gods of the nations (12:1-7), for if they “worship the LORD your God in their way” then they are susceptible to adopting false ideas about God and evil practices (e.g. 12:31).  Second, they are to offer God’s prescribed offerings and sacrifices in “the place the LORD your God will choose" (12:4,11,18,21) under the ministry of the Levites.  Not only would this central location continually strengthen the unity of God’s people, it would also keep “everyone [from worshipping] as he sees fit” (12:8).  Again, the concern is that people would adopt false ideas and evil practices if left to their own inventions.  Finally, Israel is to show no mercy toward anyone, no matter how esteemed his position (13:1) or close his relation (13:6) or powerful his influence (13:12-13), who leads the people to worship false gods.   

Under the Old Covenant, worship was centered around God’s special presence with them in the tabernacle/temple.  Under the New Covenant, worship is to be centered around God’s presence with us in the person of the Son, who is the fulfillment of the temple and all of the sacrifices.  Israel could only come to God through the tabernacle/temple.  The new Israel only comes to God through Christ.  

While most of the commands in this passage are negative, seeking to prevent false worship, the purpose of the commands could not be more positive.  The refrain, “There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you put your hand to ...” is repeated three times (12:7,12,18).  “Everything” that Israel did, including all the labor of their hands, was to be worship.  Likewise, in Christ, all of our work and play may be worship as we are purified and empowered by him.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Jesus gives a similar command to the “destroy completely” command of 12:1-7 when He says that we are to cut off anything that causes us to sin (Matthew 5:30).  What temptations in my life am I willfully allowing to have a continuing influence or sins am I willfully holding onto?  
     
  • What unbiblical practices/inventions or voices in my life that are shaping me?
     
  • Am I finding my worth and confidence before God in Christ alone?
     
  • In what areas of my life am I rejoicing before the LORD in all that I put my hand to and in what areas of my life do I need to rejoice before the LORD?  

 

Deuteronomy 14 & 15

Moses reminds this generation of several specific stipulations that were first mentioned in Leviticus and Numbers (e.g. 14:1-2 & Leviticus 19:28), but new insights and aspects of the law are provided.  In 14:28, the “third-year tithe” or “poor tithe” is introduced as part of the seven-year cycle (15:1-3).  In the third and sixth years of the cycle, the tithe should not be brought to the tabernacle but rather stored in the towns for the “Levites . . . and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns” (14:28-29).  The communal nature of the tithe “in the presence of the LORD” (14:23) stands in contrast to many modern experiences of tithing that are disconnected from worship and community, and the concern for the poor emphasizes that the community ought to include every believer, not just those with material resources.  There was, in fact, no need for anyone to be poor in the promised land (15:4-6), yet due to sin some would remain poor (15:10-11).

The “third-year tithe” not only served a practical need of providing for the poor, it also serves as a periodic reminder that Israel is to be constantly vigilant in showing generosity toward the poor (15:7-10).  Patience in waiting on the repayment of debts is one of ways that this generosity ought be expressed.  Peter Craigie argues that “The Year of Release” from debts (15:1-3,9) probably does not mean the cancellation of debts, but rather the suspension of repayment:  “in the seventh year, when the land was fallow, many people would not have been in a position to repay a debt because of the temporary interruption of their normal source of income … [so] the creditor would have a longer time to wait before he could recoup his expenditure …" (236-238).  Only a posture of generosity would prevent hesitancy in lending money as the Sabbath-year drew near.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How should the communal experience of the tithe in Israel shape the way we understand our giving to the LORD?  How should the “third-year tithe” for the poor shape the way we understand our giving to the LORD?
     
  • God commanded Israel to lend money generously even when repayment might be inconveniently delayed.  How does this speak into my own terms of generosity?

 

Deuteronomy 16 & 17

Most of this passage summarizes commands elaborated upon in Leviticus and Numbers, but the anticipation of a day when Israel would ask for a human king is new material (17:14-20).  Six stipulations for kingship are given, all of which are aimed at keeping Israel’s trust in God.  The first two stipulations relate to the selection of a king (17:15); the other four relate to the decisions of the king himself (17:16-20).  The command regarding the accumulation of horses concerns Israel’s trust in battle (17:16).  Horses meant military strength (Exodus 15:1-4; Judges 4:3,7,13,15-16), but God is Israel’s strength (Craigie, 255).  The prohibition against the taking of many wives is of course wise in any circumstance (17:17a), but it also refers to political treaties confirmed by marriage (e.g. 1 Kings 3:1; Craigie, 256).  Again, such treaties demonstrate reliance on worldly strength.  Finally, the prohibition against reliance on the comforts of wealth (17:17b) and the command to write and continually read God’s law in humility (17:18-20) are clear.

When Israel’s future kings fail to follow God’s commands, the kingdom begins to unravel. These failures may be most poignantly seen in King Solomon (1 Kings 10:26-11:8; see also 1 Kings 3:1; 6:38-7:1) and the results are not good (1 Kings 11:9ff.).  The many failures of Israel’s human kings lead us to look ahead for a godly King, a God-man King, who will restore Israel’s trust in God.*

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How am I trusting in worldly strength instead of God’s strength?  How am I seeking worldly comforts above the kingdom of God and his righteousness?
     
  • Am I looking to human leaders or my identification with human leaders for hope, or is my hope today in the King of Kings?

 

Deuteronomy 18-19

Deuteronomy points ahead to future kings who are to lead the people in faith and righteousness (see yesterday’s devotional) and to future prophets (18:14-21) who will speak the words of God to his people.  While Israel saw several godly kings and a number of godly prophets, both the kings and the prophets find their fulfillment in Jesus.  This is why Matthew and Luke stress Jesus’ descendancy from King David and the kingly tribe of Judah (Luke 2:4; 3:31-33; Matthew 1:4,6; 2:1-6; see also Genesis 49:10).  This is also why Peter quotes Deuteronomy 18 in connection with Jesus’ arrival as the prophet of God (Acts 3:17-26; esp. 3:22-23).  Just as Moses mediated the “old covenant" as a prophet to Israel, Jesus mediates the “new covenant” (the fulfillment of the old covenant) as a prophet to the new Israel, the people of God from every tongue and tribe and nation (Hebrews 1:1-2; 3:1-6).  

Peter Craigie offers helpful wisdom in understanding Moses’ injunction against false prophets (18:20-22):  “It would probably be wrong to take these criteria as rules to be applied rigidly every time a prophet opened his mouth.  When a prophet announced God’s coming judgment and called for repentance, it would clearly be pointless to wait first to see if the judgment actually came to pass, and then to repent (too late!).  Rather the criteria represent the means by which a prophet gained his reputation as a true prophet and spokesman of the Lord.  Over the course of a prophet’s ministry … the character of a prophet … would begin to emerge clearly” (263).  Clearly, over the course of Jesus’ ministry, his divine character emerges.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Before Peter quoted Deuteronomy 18 in his post-resurrection sermon (Acts 3:22-23), he had already acknowledged Jesus’ office as the prophet of God.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  To whom am I listening?  To whom or to what am I going for words of life?

 

Deuteronomy 20-21

The future of Israel is at stake.  God is calling Israel to be the instrument of his judgment against the nations that currently inhabit and pollute the promised land through their “detestable” practices  (20:16-18), that they might worship him as God.  It may be surprising, then, that God provides several exemptions from battle, including a recent marriage, a new home, and a new vineyard (20:5-7).  Why would God allow such exemptions?  They are an affirmation of the goodness of creation and of God’s good intentions for his people.  As Peter Craigie puts it, “… the importance of the land … was that Israel was to live and work and prosper in it.  The building of homes and orchards, the marrying of a wife, and other such things were of the essence of life in the promised land, and if these things ceased, then the wars would become pointless.”  He goes on to say that “this somewhat idealistic approach (in modern terms) was possible only because of the profound conviction that military strength and victory lay, in the last resort, not in the army, but in God” (274; see also 20:1). 

At the same time, this passage (20:5-7) may help us understand the apostle Paul’s somewhat perplexing warnings, in the New Testament, against being quick to marry or being engrossed in the things of the world (1 Corinthians 7:25-31).  As C.S. Lewis says in his “Learning During War-Time” sermon, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”  Christians recognize the goodness of creation, even the permanence of creation (e.g. Acts 3:21; Romans 8:21), yet we also know there is ongoing battle that will end in a refining fire and a new form to creation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:11-14; 7:31b).  There are many times (day-to-day, and in the big picture) when believers are called to postpone the enjoyments of creation that they might be more fully deployed in fighting back the darkness of the world (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).  In his warning, Paul acknowledges the goodness of marriage and the freedom of believers to enjoy marriage, but also points out the many advantages of singleness in serving the Lord.  Today's passage brings this tension into sharp contrast.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s affirmation of creation and his kindness toward these potential soldiers speak to into my life?  Am I believing in and enjoying God’s goodness to me today?  
     
  • In what ways am I clinging too tightly to the world in its present form?  In what ways might God be calling me to postpone the enjoyments of creation in order to be more fully engaged in his service?

 

Deuteronomy 22-23

Where do we begin with a passage that touches on so many different areas of life, some of which are foreign to us?  Deuteronomy provides laws for a number of specific situations that were not-so-uncommon in Israel.  They address honesty and conscientiousness in handling the personal property of others (22:1-4; 23:24-25); gender identity (22:5); “conservation of food supplies” (21:6-7; Craigie 288); protection of human life (22:8); sexual purity and the sanctity of marriage (22:13-30; 23:17); relations with surrounding nations and purity in worship* (23:1-14, 17-18); protection for runaway slaves/refugees (23:15); generosity in lending to fellow believers (23:19-20); faithfulness in fulfilling vows (23:21-23); and a few for which we are unsure of the context (22:9-11 — likely related to ritual purity and foreign/Egyptian practices; Craigie, 290).  The marriage practices are particularly foreign to our current experience, but note God’s utter hatred of adultery as well as concern for the protection of both the husband and wife’s honor.  Also note one beaming exception to the prohibition against Moabites and Ammonites in the assembly of the Lord (23:3).  Ruth, by faith (Ruth 1:16), is scandalously welcomed into the people of God, even though she is a Moabitess.  Even the enemies of God’s people could be welcomed into the people of God through faith.  They, too, would begin to wear the tassels that were to be a continual reminder of God’s laws, that they, too, might love and serve him wholeheartedly (22:12; Numbers 15:37-41; Craigie, 291).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Take a few minutes to think through the various topics that are touched on in this chapter.  Try to put them in a modern context or scenario (remembering that the ritual purity laws are no longer in effect, having been fulfilled in Christ).  Pray through ways in which God may be calling you to greater love for him, for neighbor, and for the world.  What are the “tassels" in my life serving as a continual reminder of God’s presence and holiness?
     
  • Christ alone is our holiness before.  The ritual purity laws only served as a temporary sign of holiness until the Holy One had come.  Consider the scandal of God welcoming sinners and self-made enemies like us into his family.

* Concerning 23:2, “It may refer to children who were born as a result of incestuous relationships.  It is possible, however, that something more specific is intended:  the term mamzer might refer to children born  to cult-prostitutes (see vv. 18-19, below).”  In addition, 23:3 may be tied to God’s prohibition against incestuous relationships as “the Moabites and Ammonites were believed to be descendants of the incestuous relationships between Lot and his two daughters (Gen. 19:30-28; Craigie, 297).

 

Deuteronomy 24-25

Today’s passage continues the miscellaneous commands of chapters 22-23.  We find more commands regarding marriage and divorce (24:1-5; 25:5-10), concern for the vulnerable (24:6-7,10-15,17-22), relations with surrounding nations and purity in worship (24:8-9; 25:17-19), as well as commands regarding the exercise of justice (24:16; 25:1-3,11-12); the treatment of animals (25:4), and honest business practices (25:13-16).  Again, some of these commands are quite foreign to us and raise questions in our minds.  For instance, does God tacitly approve of divorce in this passage (24:1-4)?  Peter Craigie says that “… the intent of the legislation seems to be to apply certain restrictions on the already existing practice of divorce.  If divorce became too easy, then it could be abused and it would become a ‘legal’ form of committing adultery” (305; see also Mark 10:1-9).  Or what about the command stating that each person is die for his own sin (24:16), when the second commandment states that children will be punished to the third and fourth generation (5:9)?  These commands seem to distinguish between the liability for an offense, which is clearly not to be placed on the child, and the inevitable repercussions of sin against the LORD that ripple out far beyond the offender’s own life.  

Other commands show remarkable sensitivity to the dignity and welfare of the poor.  Millstones were not to be taken as pledge on a loan because they were “a basic and essential part of culinary equipment” (24:6; Craigie, 307).  Lenders were also not to “go into [a borrower’s] house to get what he is offering as a pledge” (24:10-11).  “This requirement protects the privacy of the receipient’s home and leaves to him the choice of the article to be given as collateral … It means that a man can borrow with honor, without having his personal possessions made open to a creditor …” (308).  In addition, Israelites and resident aliens alike were to be paid each day, if they were poor (24:14-15).  If they were not paid fairly and promptly, their cries would be heard by the Lord.  Many are such cries around the world today!  Finally, landowners were to provide for the poor in such a way that they “could maintain their honor and self-respect” and “not have to beg” for food “(24:17-22; Craigie, 311).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Take a few minutes to think through the various topics that are touched on in this chapter.  Try to put them in a modern context or scenario (remembering that the ritual purity laws are no longer in effect, having been fulfilled in Christ).  Pray through ways in which God may be calling you to greater love for him, for neighbor, and for the world.  

 

Deuteronomy 26

This chapter marks the end of the “specific stipulations” section of God’s covenant renewal with this generation of Israel (chapters 12-26), but this chapter is unique.  We have heard of the Feast of Firstfruits (e.g. Leviticus 23:4-16) and the third-year tithe for the poor (14:28), neither of which would be celebrated until entering the land, but the accompanying recital of God’s saving acts has not been mentioned until now.  The firstfruits recitation stresses the good land that God has given them (26:9-11) in stark contrast to the “wandering” of their father Jacob and to their experience under Egypt, where they were forced to suffer (26:5-7).  Year after year, Israel would recount God’s mercy and goodness to them through the act of bringing their full baskets and by speaking their story.  

The “specific stipulations” section of the covenant renewal concludes with a summary statement (26:16-19).  The LORD has declared that Israel is his “treasured possession,” set apart as “a people holy to the LORD.”  He has re-created them, giving birth to their nation and forming them into his people.  Israel has declared, in response, that they will live as his people.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Try to put yourself in the sandals of an Israelite: memorizing this story (26:5-11), presenting your basket, and speaking the story year after year.  How might that have impacted you?  What does it look like for you to bring a basketful of firstfruits and to regularly recite God’s saving acts?  Is there a sense in which you are experiencing this every Sunday morning?  
     
  • What does it look like to live in the reality that I am God’s treasured possession (along with all of his people), bought back from death at the cost of Christ’s body and blood, and set apart as holy to him?  What great the love the Father has for us!  Is there anything that I am trying to hold back from the One who has bought back my life?  

 

Deuteronomy 27-28

You’ve probably heard the quote about leaning your ladder against the wrong wall in the climb to success.  When you get to the top, you may realize that you climbed the wrong wall.  Just so Israel is clear about which way leads to life and which way leads to death, the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience will be differentiated, not by two walls or ladders, but by two mountains staring at each other across a valley.  

We delight in hearing the fullness of life that comes with God’s blessing.  The curses, on the other hand, are terrible, and they serve a unique purpose.  The curses represent and even cry out for the reality that God’s judgment will come on the disobedient, even when those sins go undetected by humans and human courts.  The curses also show the complete disintegration of life — physical health, mental health, community, family, international relations, vocational fruitfulness, etc. — apart from the blessing of God.  It’s possible to grow overly comfortable with the idea of death, but reading of the chaotic dismantling of life in the curses reveals the unnaturalness and horror of death.  In our own “wisdom,” all of us have climbed the hill of God’s curse.    But for those who repent and trust in the Son, God’s curse has come upon him who climbed the hill of curse, Golgatha, on our behalf.  In his victory over death, He sets our feet upon the mountain of God and leads us up in his strength without fanfare or human praise.  Thankfully, God’s blessing, too, comes upon those who obey in secret . . . especially on those who obey in secret.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what ways am I concerned that my “righteousness” be seen by human courts?  Am I content with God’s approval, trusting fully in him for life and blessing?  
     
  • In what ways have the ways of blessing and the ways of cursing become unnecessarily confused or fuzzy in my life?   Take time to consider the heart, or timeless truth, behind each of the curses/commands in 27:15-26).  
     
  • Take time to confess and thank Jesus for climbing the mount of God’s curse on our behalf and for setting our feet firmly on the mountain of God’s blessing.  Ask him, in specific ways, to lead you on in obedience to God’s good commands.

 

Deuteronomy 29-30

The reader may be wondering how long it takes to wrap up a covenant renewal ceremony (29:12-15)!  But be careful not to skim past today’s passage too quickly.  Crucial aspects of the covenant are described and important questions are raised.  Is God’s covenant made with individuals or communities?  What is the “unforgivable sin”?  Does God doom his people to rebellion and judgment?  

First, we receive insight into the relationship between the community and the individual within God’s covenant (29:18-21).  Some would be tempted to think that they will be blessed simply because of their blood relationship with Israel (29:19).  Craigie comments, “It was the community as a whole which was bound to God in the covenant … Yet the health and vitality of the the whole community depended on the health and vitality of the religious commitment of each individual within it” (359).  So the covenant is communal in nature — God calls us into a family of believers, but not at all to the exclusion of individual responsibility.  

Second, there is mention of sin that the LORD will not forgive (29:20).  Jesus also speaks of sin that will not be forgiven (Mark 3:22-30; Matthew 12:30-37), as does Hebrews 10:25-29.  These passages raise eyebrows, but today’s passage sheds some light on this sin.  It is not a single act of disobedience that one might inadvertently commit, but rather the persistent, willful rejection of God’s ways and his grace.  Notice the word “persist" in 29:19.  In the gospels, Jesus is speaking to well-informed Pharisees who persistently reject him and persistently attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan.  In Hebrews, the author speaks of those who "deliberately keep on” sinning after knowing the truth.  If someone is deeply concerned that they have sinned against God in this way, that is almost a sure sign that he or she has not sinned in this way, since the deliberate, "high-handed” sinner is not remorseful or repentant.  

Third, many wonder why God would paint such a bleak outlook for the future (29:21-28).  Is Israel doomed to this future?  Always remember God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah:  "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (18:7-8).  Only the LORD knows the “secret things” of the future, but all that Israel needs to know for obedience and life has been revealed (29:29; 30:11-14, also see Romans 10 devotional). 

Finally, it is clear that the LORD plans to restore his people, should they rebel and later repent (30:1-5).  This is not new, but today’s passage hints toward something more.  In 10:16, God called Israel to “circumcise" their hearts, but today’s passage says that God will circumcise their hearts (30:6), enabling them to love and obey him.  This points toward the greater restoration of the new covenant, many hundreds of years before the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of the same heart-transformation (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-28).  (Remember that circumcision is a sign pointing toward Abraham’s promised offspring or “seed," cleansing through blood/sacrifice, and separation unto God - see Genesis 17 devotional.)  In the new covenant, God circumcises rebellious hearts, enabling us to see that Jesus is Abraham’s promised offspring, cleansing our hearts through his blood, and enabling us to live and love as his set-apart ones.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The person in 29:19-20 is only concerned about himself, his comfort, and his autonomy.  How am I serving the covenant community of God?  Am I recognizing my responsibility to live faithfully, to serve, and to help others grow in their faith?  How have I seen God transform my heart toward him and his people?  In what ways do I need him to continue to transform my heart this week?  

 

Deuteronomy 31-32

There is no way around it.  Human beings are sinful … "prone to wander” as the song goes.  Today’s passage repeatedly makes this clear through private conversation with Moses and Joshua (31:14-16)*, a larger audience with the Levites (31:24-27), a song (32:5-6,15-17,21,28-29), and direct reminder (32:50-51).  We were not made for sin.  We were made for life in God’s ways (32:46-47).  God’s holiness will not tolerate our sin, and our relationships, our bodies/souls/minds, and our world cannot bear the devastating effects of sin (31:17-18; 32:19-27).  If we know how true this is and how prone we are to wander in our own age, in which we have the fullness of the Spirit through union with Christ, how much more true was it before Jesus came and broke the bonds of death!

Yet, when our “strength is gone” and our gods have proven empty and worthless (32:36-38), God has compassion and saves his people (32:36).  He alone created Israel as a nation (32:10-12**).  He alone will “make atonement” for them and re-create them (32:39-43).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Sometimes we grow comfortable with both our sin and our “righteousness.”  Maybe some more blatant sins in our life have been put to death (or not), and we think we are getting along pretty well.  The cross is not very big in our eyes.  But unfaithfulness, idolatry, self-promotion and self-centeredness, betrayal, and rebellion are never far away, this side of heaven.  We are constantly in need of the forgiveness and power of Christ.  In what ways have I become comfortable with my sin or my “righteousness”?  Do I tend to measure my maturity or “righteousness” by how I am doing in a few specific areas?  Have I substituted a different standard in place of God’s holiness/Christ’s perfection?
     
  • How have my “gods” proven empty and worthless (32:36-38)?  How have I seen God’s compassion and re-creating strength through Christ in my life?

* Note that this very specific foretelling of Israel’s seemingly certain future rebellion comes in the context of a private meeting with Joshua and Moses.  The other warnings in these chapters, given to larger audiences, are more general in nature.  

** Note the Genesis 1:2 creation language in 32:10-12.  The “howling waste” of 32:10 is the same word as “formless” or “chaotic” in Genesis 1:2.  The Spirit “hovers" over the chaotic waters in Genesis 1:2 as God “hovers” over his newborn people in Deuteronomy 32:11.  Clearly, God's creation of the nation of Israel was a new beginning.  

 

Deuteronomy 33-34

Just as Jacob blessed his sons, who became the heads of the tribes of Israel, before his death (Genesis 49), so Moses assumes the role of a father in blessing the tribes of Israel, for “he had acted as a father to them" (Craigie, 393).  Some of the blessings are difficult to interpret and understand, but we will highlight a few:  

  • Judah:  In Numbers 2:9, we’re told that the tribe of Judah "was to march at the head of the army as the vanguard.”  Through his blessing, Moses called upon God to be Judah’s strength, that they might be victorious and return safely from their position at the head of the tribes (33:7; Craigie, 394-395).  
     
  • Levi:  The blessing of Levi recognizes the Levites’ willingness to bring God’s judgment to bear on their own brothers after Israel worshipped the Golden Calf (33:9; Exodus 32:26-29).  Moses invokes God’s blessing (33:10-11) on the Levites' primary responsibilities of teaching (33:10a), leading worship (33:10b), and providing guidance (33:8; see note below on Thummim and Urim*; Craigie 395-396).  
     
  • Joseph:  This blessing speaks to Joseph’s abundant land as well as his strength in battle.  In the promised land, the one who temporarily lost his portion after being sold as a slave is given a double-portion.  Both of his son, Ephraim and Manasseh, receive an inheritance.  However, just as Jacob receives the blessing of the firstborn instead of his older brother Esau, so the second-born Ephraim receives the greater blessing (“ten thousands”) ahead of Manasseh (“thousands") in 33:17 (see also Genesis 48:12-20).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • It is extremely clear from Moses’ blessings that the source of all blessing is the sovereign power and goodness of the Lord (33:2-5,7,10-13,26-29).  There is no one like him, “who rides on the heavens to help you” (33:26).  To whom are you looking for blessing in your work and service, in spiritual battle, in all of life?

* According to OT scholar Dr. Bruce Waltke in Finding the Will of God,  “The priest could use the urim and thummin to determine God’s will in a particular situation. We are not exactly sure what the urim and thummin were, but the priest carried in his breastplate perhaps two sticks or stones, one white and the other black, that would give a yes or no answer to a specific question. Should Israel be preparing for battle, they would somehow shake or toss the sticks. If they turned up black the Israelites would not go to battle, and if they turned up white they would proceed into battle with the knowledge that they were in the will of God. That is one form of divination that God allowed in the Old Testament" (62-64).  

Joshua

Joshua Overview

Forty years in the desert are finally over.  The generation that did not trust in God’s power to lead Israel into the promised land died in the desert (Numbers 13-14).  Moses, their leader, also died prior to entering the land (Numbers 20:1-13; Deuteronomy 34).  But a new generation has come of age and God’s chosen leader for them is Joshua, one of a few from the older generation who believed in the power of God, along with Moses, Aaron, and Caleb (Numbers 14:5-10; Joshua 14:6-15).

The promised land is hugely significant for understanding the Old Testament and the story that God is telling throughout the Bible.  The promise of land goes all the way back to Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 15:16-21).  God called Abraham out of a life of worshipping idols (Joshua 24:2) in order to make him into a nation devoted to worshipping Him.  The promised land was to be the place where God would be obeyed and exalted without the hindrance of other nations who worshipped false gods.  It was to be the place where God’s people would experience the abundance of God’s blessing, and in turn, extend God’s blessing to all nations.  As such, the promised land is the staging ground and a microcosm of the coming new creation, where God’s people from every tongue, tribe and nation will obey and exalt him, enjoying the abundance of his blessing.  

The problem with the promised land is that several other nations were already planted there.  When God promised the land to Abraham, he told him that the sin of the inhabitants had “not yet reached it’s full measure” (Genesis 15:16).  In other words, if the inhabitants continued in sin without repenting, judgment was coming, but God would continue to be patient for a time.  Hundreds of years later, God uses Israel, under Joshua’s lead, to bring judgment on these nations, just as He would later use Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel for their sin.  God commanded that the judgment on these nations be complete, for He did not want Israel to become entangled in their idolatry.  However, the book of Joshua is a book of only partial success.  God gives Israel great success in establishing dominance in the land, but there is an implied lack of trust in Israel’s failure to completely drive out the nations.  

Outline

1-5 Preparing to Take Land
      1- Call to Take the Land
      2- Rahab and the Spies
      3- Crossing the Jordan
      4 -Remembering God’s Faithfulness
      5 -Circumcision
      (CRCRC)

6-12 Conquest of the Land
      6-8 Central Campaign
      9-10 Southern Campaign
      11-12 Northern Campaign

13-21 Distribution of the Land

22-24 Living in the Land
      22 Eastern Tribes Altar & Treaty
      23 Joshua’s Farewell
      24 Covenant Renewed at Shechem

 

Joshua 1

“Be strong and very courageous.”  But also, “Be careful to obey all the law” (1:6-7).  Courage and obedience.  From the world’s perspective, courage and obedience do not go hand-in-hand.  Personalities given to boldness and bravery frequently have a rules-are-made-to-be-broken mentality.  Personalities given to obedience, or submission to authority, often do not carry a take-the land mentality.  But the courage that comes from God is not merely natural courage.  Yes, even our good personality traits are gifts from God, but the tandem courage and obedience required to build the kingdom of God in a fallen world go beyond natural traits.  Joshua and the people of Israel will need to be continually empowered by God in order to remain faithful to the mission and to God’s law in “every place where you set your foot” (1:3).  This power from God is always available to them, for God has promised never to leave or forsake them (1:5; cf. Deuteronomy 34:9).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Have you known of Christian leaders who were go-getters or strong visionaries, but who were brought down by a lack of humble obedience to God’s law?  Have you known Christians whom you admired for their humble obedience but who lacked a persistent willingness to step out in faith to see how God might use them to build his kingdom?  The point of these questions is not to cast judgment on particular individuals, but to demonstrate the reality that all of us need more than our natural personalities.  We need to be continually empowered by God in order to be fully given to obedience to him and to be fully given to his mission in the world, especially when it feels risky.  
     
  • What are some of your natural personality strengths?  How might God use those gifts for his glory, or how is he already using those gifts, as you offer up those gifts to him? 
     
  • In what aspects of your personality do you need God to show his power in your natural weaknesses?  Are you more naturally given to courage or humble obedience?  Allow God to search your heart as you consider these questions.  Consider Paul’s encouragement to Timothy towards courage and self-discipline in 2 Timothy 1:6-7.
     
  • How does Jesus fulfill this? Humble and courageous. Expand on this question. 

Note on Joshua 1:12-18:  We did not reflect on this portion of the passage today, but will come back to it when we get to chapter 22.  

 

Joshua 2

The mercy of God in Christ is offensive to our self-justifying hearts and never more so than in today’s passage.  Rahab is clearly identified as a prostitute, perhaps the madam of an inn that she owned.  Her inn was convenient for travelers and the Israelites visit to such an establishment would have been less likely to raise suspicion than visits to other parts of the city.  Still, the Israelities were spotted, giving Rahab the opportunity to put her newfound faith in the true God into action (2:9-13).  

God’s mercy on Rahab is so offensive that some Jewish scholars have said that she was simply an innkeeper, with one scholar arguing that the term prostitute was applied out of jealousy over her business success.  Yes, this is a stretch, but scholars are particularly concerned because of Rahab’s prominent role in Jewish history.  In his gospel, Matthew is not afraid to identify her as the ancestress of King David and, more importantly, King Jesus (Matthew 1:5).  The New Testament book of Hebrews includes “the prostitute Rahab” in the “Hall of Faith,” along with such figures as Abraham and Moses (Hebrews 11:31).*  In other words, Scripture does not shy away from proclaiming God’s offensive mercy to Rahab.  

What sign was used to save Rahab from God’s judgment on the people of Jericho?  She was saved by means of a scarlet cord tied in the window of her home (2:17-18).  This scarlet cord clearly symbolized blood (2:19) and it is a remarkably similar sign to the Passover sign that God gave Israel when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt, when God’s destroying angel passed over the homes of Israelites who painted a sacrificial lamb’s blood on their door-frames.  Just as the angel passed over homes covered by the Lamb’s blood, so Israel would “pass over” Rahab’s home.  And just as the lamb’s blood at Passover was a sign pointing to and fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice, so was Rahab’s sign.  The kingdom has always been open to Jew and Gentile, to all who share the faith of Joshua and Rahab, to all who are covered by the blood of Christ.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In order to believe the gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ, we have to get over our own self-justification or self-righteousness.  Do you remember when you first gave up trying to justify yourself and trusted in the mercy of God?  Today, are you living by self-justification or Christ’s justifying work on our behalf?
     
  • God’s mercy toward Rahab is particularly scandalous or offensive because of the nature of her business.  God’s forgiveness of sexual sin is often the most difficult for us to believe, since it is uniquely destructive (1 Corinthians 6:18).  Are you believing in God’s forgiveness of sexual sin and in his power to transform you?
     
  • Rahab put her faith into action by risking her life for the sake of Israel’s mission.  How is God calling you to put your faith into action?  In what ways might it be risky, even if not life-threatening?

* See Dr. Claude Mariottini’s online article “Rahab: A Prostitute or an Innkeeper?”

Joshua 3?

 

Joshua 4

The big boulders in our lives are intimidating when they are still.  The boulder may be writing a research paper or studying for an exam, getting a job or changing career paths, starting a new initiative or drafting a proposal, establishing new patterns in your family, getting a difficult conversation started, preparing ahead for a sports season or season of life, entering into the brokenness and pain of your community, reaching out to the people around you with the love and message of Christ, etc.  Big boulders must to be moved by God in order to go in the right direction, but it seems that God frequently asks us to meet him next to the still boulder, inviting us to bring what little moving tools we have in faith.  He asks the priests to go stand at the edge of the water (3:13; 4:10-11), he asks the impoverished widow to bring empty jars (2 Kings 4:3), and he asks the disciples to gather loaves of bread (Mark 6:38).  Whatever the boulder is, once we see God moving the boulder along, it no longer seems quite so intimidating.  

God must go before us and with us, as we saw yesterday, but He almost always works through his people to accomplish his purposes.  We’ve already seen that He is always calling us to take steps of faith with the little that we have.  God also calls human leaders to lead his people.  The crossing of the Jordan is the signature event demonstrating the passing of the leadership from Moses to Joshua (3:7; 4:14,23).  Still, note that the most important thing for the people to know about Joshua is that God was with him (3:7).  

One of Joshua’s primary tasks as the human leader of Israel was to help the people remember that God was with them.  In fact, most of today’s passage concerns the memorial stones that God commanded Joshua to gather (4:1-9, 19-24).  The sheer attention that this “stone ceremony” gets alerts us to the importance of remembering God’s grace and power in our lives.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What are the boulders in your life that God may be calling you to move, in his strength?  What little steps of faith is God calling you to take, in faith, toward these boulder(s) in your life?  

• What leadership characteristics do you value most highly?  Is having “God with you” at the top of the list?  

• If you have a position of leadership, especially spiritual leadership, do you see one of your primary callings to be reminding people of God’s grace and power, or are other agenda items getting in the way?  Take time to reflect on the “stones” of God’s grace and power in your own life. 

 

Joshua 5

What a terrible battle strategy!  Give all of your men surgery, requiring days of healing, just before they are about to fight.  But this is ultimately not their battle . . . 

In Joshua’s conversation with the “commander of the army of the LORD”* (5:13-14), we are reminded that God calls his people to do his will, not that He would do our will!  Yes, there is a very real sense in which He is “for us,” but only in that his will and his purposes and his kingdom are best for us.  The taking of Jericho and the promised land was first and foremost the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and secondarily a blessing to Israel.  The eventual banishment and exile of Israel from the promised land provides further evidence that God is “for” his kingdom before he is “for” Israel.  

As God’s instruments in God’s battle, Israel could not fight for a holy God (5:15) based on their own merit.  They were not worthy to fight alongside the LORD, so they needed to receive the sign of circumcision, which was the sign of forgiveness through the blood of Christ, before they could fight for God.  (See devotional on Genesis 17 for more on the  spiritual significance of circumcision).  Likewise, whenever we do the LORD’s work, we must remember that we do not do it in the strength of our own goodness, but as those forgiven and covered by the blood of Christ!  When we are weak in ourselves, we are strong in Christ.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Have you ever or recently been hindered or hesitant to serve God or to share your faith because you were ashamed of your own sin?  How does Israel’s circumcision (i.e. covering in the blood of Christ) speak into your self-doubt?  

• As you have served Christ recently, has it been out of a sense of your own merit or in humble reliance on the mercy of Christ?  This passage calls us to examine our hearts for sin as well as for self-righteousness before we daily seek to serve Christ.  

* Who was the “commander of the army of the LORD”?  Either an angel or God himself, perhaps a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.  

 

Joshua 6

Three aspects of the fall of Jericho stand out.  The unique walks around the walled city, the rescue of Rahab’s household, and the total destruction of every other living thing.

Walking around a city did not become Israel’s regular battle strategy.  The Lord generally called them to more customary battle strategies, but it is no accident that the first city in the promised land fell by supernatural means.  It is a vivid reminder to Israel and to us that God is the one who will build his kingdom, whether by supernatural means or more ordinary means.  

Special note is made, not once or twice but three times, that Rahab was spared from God’s judgment on Jericho (6:17, 22-23, 25).  Rahab’s faith in the God of Israel was proven through her act of hiding the spies, which is also mentioned twice here and again in the New Testament (James 2:25-26, and see Joshua 2).  She feared the true God of Israel more than the rulers of Jericho or the empty threats of their false gods, risking her life only to find life in the protection of the true God.  

Finally, the total destruction of the city and “devotion” of the city to the LORD is another strong theme in this chapter (6:17-19, 21,24).  It’s not easy for us to read that “they destroyed with the sword every living thing in it” (6:21).  The time of God’s judgment on the nations in the promised land had come (see Introduction to Joshua).  We know that it was God’s judgment and not Israel’s judgment on Jericho, God’s battle and not ultimately Israel’s battle (Joshua 5), for all of the riches of the city were to be devoted to the temple of the LORD (6:17-19,24).  If it were Israel’s battle, they would have kept what they wanted and been much wealthier for it.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Even though God usually calls us to more ordinary ways of building his kingdom, who are you relying on?  God calls us to the ordinariness of conversations with friends or teammates or classmates or co-workers, of discussions and teaching about Scripture, of personal investment in the lives of the poor and the people God has put around us, of faithfulness in vocational decisions and in our actual work and in service at church, etc.  These are the ways God’s builds his kingdom today.  While God may gift you in certain areas, are you relying on your own power and persuasiveness, or on his power?
     
  • As you consider Rahab’s faith in action, do you see yourself seeking life in the people and gods of this world, or in the true God?  Like Rahab, who found salvation under the scarlet cord, are you finding forgiveness today under the blood of Christ?

Joshua 7

What a torturous selection process this must have been!  Did Achan really think that the lot might fall on someone else?  Was he holding out hope that his sin would remain hidden?  Was he deceiving himself?  As the process narrowed from tribe to clan to family and the impending sense of being found out became inevitable, what did he think the consequences would be?  

It is so easy to deceive ourselves when sin is hidden.  It clouds our judgment, darkens our understanding.  We pretend that God doesn’t see.  We pretend that it will not destroy our relationships, our joy, our fellowship with God, our fruitfulness in God’s kingdom, but it always will!  Sometimes this destruction is swift and clear, often the breakdown happens in slow and subtle ways.  Achan’s sin, which his entire family may have participated in, is blocking the fruitfulness in mission of Israel (7:11-12) and judgment comes swiftly.  

At significant turning points in the redemption of God’s people, God displays his restoring power and holiness through supernatural miracles and distinctive judgments, as in the case of Achan’s death.  However, before the judgment on Achan and his family, there is a more subtle breakdown in their mission.  The cause of the breakdown is unknown.  Joshua immediately falls on his face and pleads with God, which is not necessarily a bad response, but perhaps he should have examined himself and his community before examining God’s intentions (7:7-12).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Achan’s sin was keeping treasure for himself that was expressly to be devoted to God.  There is likely no precise parallel in our lives to this express command, but we know that we are to use all that we have for the glory of God and are not to trust in earthly treasures.  What are the “hidden treasures” in your life that are not devoted to God’s purposes or that you find yourself trusting in — they may or may not be material possessions?  “Breakdowns” in our lives do not necessarily come from our own sins, but take time to consider this possibility. 
     
  • Any time Christians see God’s harsh judgment in Scripture, we ought to be reminded of two things:  one, God is holy and our sin results in utter separation from God; two, Jesus endured God’s awful judgment of our sin, that we would be reconciled to God.  Take time to praise God for his holiness/perfection and for his mercy in taking our sin on himself.  

 

Joshua 8

The means of taking the city of Ai were more ordinary than in the battle of Jericho (6), but the description makes it abundantly clear that the battle is still the LORD’s.  He provided the battle plan (8:2) and brought about the victory (8:1,18).  

This time, the plunder and livestock are given to Israel, but they ultimately belong to the LORD.  At Jericho, this reality was expressed through the total destruction of the livestock and dedication of all valuables to the temple.  Jericho became a sort of tithe to the LORD of the firstfruits of the promised land — the entire city being devoted to the LORD.  At Ai, this reality is expressed through offerings and sacrifices (8:30-31), presumably from the plunder and livestock Israel had just received.  The first city has already been devoted, but they immediately give up the first portion of Ai’s plunder to the LORD.

We see clearly, at the end of our passage, the purpose of the battles and of the promised land.  God is creating a people and a place where He will be acknowledged and worshipped as the true King — not only through sacrifices and offerings (8:30-31), but also through everyday conformity to his law and character (8:32-35).  Finally, stress is given in the passage to the international and intergenerational nature of this kingdom — men, women, children, Israelites, and aliens are called to follow the LORD (8:33,35). 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What does it look like for all of our possessions to be devoted to the LORD?  The LORD provides food, clothing, and shelter, and often “richly provides . . . for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).  Am I seeking the LORD’s guidance in all of my earning and spending and saving, that I might be rich in good deeds, generous and willing to share in order to extend the kingdom of God (1 Timothy 6:18)?

• Is the kingdom of God — the place where God is joyfully worshipped and glorified through everyday conformity to his character — my longing, my hope, my joy, my purpose?

 

Joshua 9

The entire story turns on one phrase.  Israel “sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD” (9:14).  Maybe it seemed like a no-brainer?  Maybe it didn’t seem like a particularly spiritual decision?  Maybe the idea of having servants was too good to pass up?  Whatever the reason, we have all been there.  A significant decision comes along and we do not seek God’s guidance, or hardly seek his guidance, because we want a certain result or because the answer seems clear enough.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Are there any significant decisions in your life right now in which you are hesitant to ask the LORD to search and guide your heart?

• Are there categories of significant decisions that you do not bring before the LORD because they do not seem particularly spiritual — perhaps decisions related to school, work, or future work?

 

Joshua 10

Today’s passage is the first time we hear of Gibeon’s significance — an “important city,” full of “good fighters” (10:2).  The fact that they have made a treaty with Israel has the surrounding kings alarmed, so they join forces and go to war against Gibeon and Israel.

The “elephant in the room” in this passage is the extension of the day in response to Joshua’s prayer.  Some see the language of 11:12-14 as figurative and others provide various natural explanations, such as unique eclipses.  While the language is not technical, but rather written from the perspective of one standing on the earth (“the sun stopped”), it is quite clear.  Only a miraculously long day would be able to account for the significant extension of daylight hoursthat Israel needed to finish the battle (“about a full day”).  Of course, the extension of a day entails innumerable secondary “miracles,” but the God who spoke the world into being is able to handle all of the collateral effects of such an event.  

The author of Joshua wants us to see that God continues to be the strength of Israel and that He hears their prayers!  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• The miraculous victory over the five Amorite kings is surely unique.  Never “before or since” (as of the writing of Joshua) has the LORD answered such a prayer as Joshua’s (11:14).  We cannot command such miracles through our prayers, but at the same time, the passage is preserved for us that we would be encouraged to trust in the power of God.  Where do you draw the boundaries of God’s power in your own life right now? 

• The extension of a day, while cosmic in scope, is nothing, in terms of effect, compared to the reversal of death in Christ’s resurrection.  Just as the LORD used the extended day to ensure Joshua’s victory over the wicked Amorite kings, so the resurrection accomplished the better Joshua’s (Yeshua/Jesus) victory over all evil.  Where do you need to trust in the power of Christ’s resurrection today in your life, relationships, outreach, etc. (Romans 8:9-11)?  

 

Joshua 11

“As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:15; see also 11:23).  This is a stellar review of Joshua’s career, evidenced by Joshua’s rout of the many nations in the promised land.*  Today, we might see similarly sterling reviews of a famous athlete who had the “perfect career.”  Does we mean that such an athlete never missed a play or had a bad game?  Of course not.  Similarly, we know that Joshua was not an absolutely perfect leader and that his victory was not as thorough as it should have been.  Even a few verses after the stellar review of Joshua’s leadership, an exception is mentioned (11:19; 9:14).  The career reviews are not inaccurate, they are just summaries.  Joshua was an exceptional faith-filled, faithful leader.

But there is a Joshua (Yeshua/Jesus) who, without exception or qualification, “left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded.”  Joshua’s victory over the LORD’s enemies and the evil in the promised land is an imperfect sign pointing to Jesus’ perfect and complete victory over evil on the cross and in his resurrection.  Joshua’s victory established an imperfect and localized kingdom where the true God would be worshipped, but Jesus’ victory over sin and death set in motion the perfection and expansion of this kingdom throughout the whole earth.  The universal kingdom of God continues to grow and expand today, and when Jesus returns to complete it, then his people will be fully at “rest from war” (11:23).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Can you imagine the growing hope and excitement of the Israelites as they saw God’s faithfulness in giving them the promised land?  Can you imagine some mixed motives as they thought about “their” new land and worshipping in the new land?  What are you looking forward to today?  As Jesus builds his universal kingdom even now, what are you investing in as we await it’s completion? 

• Jesus “left nothing undone” in accomplishing our salvation.  There is no aspect of our depravity and no sin of his people for which He did not take the consequences.  There is no aspect of our death that was not defeated and reversed in his resurrection.  Do you know today that you have been crucified and resurrected in the one who has left nothing undone?

• Who or what are the “Anakites” in your life?  Where do you need to trust God to do what you fear doing in your own strength?  

 

Joshua 12-13

Whoa!  The pace of Joshua comes to (almost) a screeching halt.  A little warning — the book doesn’t really pick up pace again until the very end, so we will move more briskly through these chapters to account for the change of pace.  Yet God has preserved these chapters for a reason and there is much to be gained from them.

The detailed descriptions of the land not only rehearse God’s faithfulness, they remind us that we are not reading mythological accounts and, even more, they stress the importance of land and “place” in God’s economy.  God’s kingdom is not “of this world” in that it is not “of the ways of this world,” but the earth belongs to the LORD and his kingdom is coming and will come to this earth (Matthew 6:10).  The ways of God’s kingdom are worked out in such places as the space between “Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon to Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir” (12:7).  At the same time, we see in the priestly tribe of Levi that God’s kingdom is not limited by land, but also transcends place (13:14,33).  

Our passage also gives us several reminders that Israel’s kingdom-building work was far from complete (13:1).  Large swaths of land, such as the Philistine territory along the Mediterranean Sea (13:2-5), and such peoples as those of Geshur and Maacah (13:13) were yet to be conquered.  We can very much relate to this state of affairs as we live in a time between the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom at his first coming, when he crossed the sea of death for us and came out alive, and the consummation of his kingdom in his second coming.  We live in Christ’s victory, but there is still much work to be done.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• When you think about what it means to be a citizen in the kingdom of God, where do you see your citizenship being worked out?  Is it in some distant place or non-place, or is it in this world that awaits the coronation of its true King?  How does the reality that Jesus’ has come as King and will come again as King, to this earth, impact the outworking of your citizenship?  

 

* Special mention is given to the Anakites (11:21), the very ones whom the Israelites feared more than they feared God, when they first explored the land (Numbers 13:27-28,31-33).  Joshua and Caleb, who trusted in God’s power, were the only ones from this generation who did not die in the 40 years of wilderness wandering.  

We also read that the LORD himself hardened the hearts of the nations (11:20).  Any time the LORD hardens hearts in Scripture, it is always in judgment of already hard hearts, the giving over of people to their own sinful desires. 

 

Joshua 14

Caleb’s relationship with God is a picture of faithfulness.  God does not forget his promises.  It has been forty-five years since Caleb trusted God to give Israel the promised land and God promised to give Caleb the ground he walked on (14:9-10, and see Numbers 14:24).  Now, at the age of 85, Caleb is remarkably healthy and passionate, continuing to believe in the promises of God (14:11-12).  He still had to trust God to drive out the remaining Anakites in the land (14:12).  And he receives the promised inheritance (14:13-15)!  This really is a striking picture of God’s blessing and faithfulness when we consider that most people were in the grave by this age (see Psalm 90:10, written by Moses).  

While the passage is primarily about God’s faithfulness to Caleb, we also see Caleb as a picture of wholehearted devotion.  You may have noticed that the word “wholeheartedly” is repeated three times.  We cannot force God’s hand through our wholehearted devotion, but at the same time, one of the reasons that Caleb is able to experience God’s faithfulness so vividly in his life is that he continued to believe and trust in God with his whole heart.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Forty-five years is a long time to wait on a promise.  Have you ever seen God’s faithfulness after a long, long wait?  What does it look like in your present life to wait on God?  For what might you have to wait a long time in order to see the promises of God fulfilled, or to see the goodness of God’s ways worked out?  Are you ready to wait?

• Just as Caleb waited on a promised land ushered in through the leadership of Joshua, we wait on a better promised land and a better kingdom ushered in by Jesus.  How does this greater wait temper our waiting for fulfillments of God’s promises in this lifetime, and how might it impact the kind of people we are becoming?

 

Joshua 15

Do you know who Kenaz is?  Neither do I, really, but we do know about his legacy.  Caleb and Othniel were both sons of Kenaz (also known as Jephunneh the Kenizzite).  We know Caleb for his faith in God’s power, vigor, and whole-hearted devotion to God (e.g. 14:7-9).  His younger brother was no slouch either.  Othniel has the same courageous and believing spirit (15:16-17), and he later becomes the first of the judges of Israel (Judges 3:7-11).  

A fruitful legacy is always the fruit of God’s grace in our lives.  We cannot control our legacy by doing all the right things.  But we can be faithful.  And if we had to guess, it would seem that Kenaz, even though we know nothing else about him, was faithful to raise his children to know and follow the LORD.  

Our legacy is much more than raising children.  Our legacy includes all of the people we have the opportunity to impact through love, courage, faithfulness, wisdom, compassion, and generosity with all that we have.  Our legacy is not about us and wanting to feel important.  At the same time, it is a noble desire to want our lives to make a lasting impact for the good of others, for the glory of God, and for the increase of his kingdom.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Where are (or aren’t) you seeking to leave a legacy in your life?  

• In a fallen world, we are born naturally self-centered, self-seeking and self-glorifying.  Have you examined your motives for leaving a legacy recently?  You will surely find some mixed motives — take some time to take those to the cross of Christ and find forgiveness.  

• Remember that a fruitful legacy is always a work of mercy and grace, so seek the Lord of grace, in prayer, on behalf of those within the reach of your influence.  

 

Joshua 16-18

An unfortunate refrain is seen at the end of each tribe’s allotment of land.  We saw it at the end of the previous chapter in connection with the tribe of Judah, where we read that Judah “could not dislodge the Jebusites” (15:63).  We see it again at the end of Ephraim’s allotment (16:10) and Manasseh’s allotment (17:12), where we read that they could not dislodge certain groups of Canaanites.  Then, in 18:3, Joshua seems to express frustration with the other tribes because of their slowness in taking the remaining lots in God’s promised land.  

This unfortunate refrain and Joseph’s frustration both point to a common problem in the believer’s life -- the problem of partial obedience.  For one reason or another, the Israelites have been unable or unwilling to obey God’s command to fully occupy the promised land, even though they have recently seen God’s power in battle.  Sometimes the most difficult time to trust the LORD comes after we have trusted God and seen him move.  We get tired of trusting God.  We struggle to persevere in faith.  Do we really have to keep trusting God to show up over and over again?  Yes, we’ve seen him provide, but it would be nice to live by sight and not by faith for a while.  At other times, it may not be a matter of spiritual fatigue.  We simply do not want to fully obey.  We’re willing to go to a certain limit of managing the flames of sin, but we’re unwilling to fully extinguish the embers.  Thankfully, God’s goals for us are much higher than our own and He does not grow weary in accomplishing His work in us.  He does not promise us a partial inheritance, a partial family, partial love, or partial salvation, but will make us whole, together, in Him!

Note:  Back in the book of Numbers (chapters 27 and 36), we saw God’s care and provision for women without husbands.  In today’s passage, we see the fulfillment of God’s care for Zelophehad’s daughters (17:3-4).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Are there places or callings in your life in which you have grown tired of trusting God?  Where have you taken back the reins and looked to settle into a more comfortable position than the dependent and seemingly vulnerable position of faith?  Take time to offer those places and callings back to God, trusting in his mighty power to do what you could never do in your own power.

• Jesus died and rose not to manage our sin, but to put our sin to death and to perfect us in Him, to make us whole and complete.  Where is God calling you to stamp out the embers of sin, in his strength?  Full repentance begins with knowing that Jesus died not only for our blatant sins but also for our partial obedience, in order to grant us complete forgiveness and make us fully new creations in Him!

 

Joshua 19-21

Reuben, Gad, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Judah have already received their inheritance.  In today’s passage, the remaining tribes receive their inheritance.  Except for Levi.  The Levites, the priestly tribe, do not receive a territory, but they still need a place to live!  They receive towns and surrounding pasturelands throughout various tribes’ lands (21).  It’s important to notice how thoughtfully these towns are distributed throughout the tribes.  There is a sense in which each tribe was tithing a portion of the land to the LORD by giving up these towns (21:3), but the distribution throughout the land also reveals how worship is integral to the life of Israel.  The Levites would be a continual reminder throughout Israel that all they had was from the LORD (land, wealth, family, community, work, etc.) and all of it was to be offered back to the LORD in worship!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

1 Peter 2:9 says of the Christian community,But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  Just as Israel was priestly nation, receiving the gifts of God and offering them back up to him in worship, so too is the body of Christ.  Is this priestly calling “distributed” throughout your life (material gifts and wealth, family, community, work, sport, hobbies, etc.)?  

• Just as Israel failed to be the priestly nation that God called them to be, so we often fail to receive God’s gifts and offer them back to him.  To take to confess and repent, praising God that we have a perfect priest who offered up everything He had to God in order to bring us back into worship.  

 

Joshua 22

God loves to see his people living, serving, and worshipping together in unity.  Division grieves the heart of God.  We see this theme in Joshua come full circle in today’s passage.  Remember, two and a half tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh) received land east of the Jordan River, before Israel crossed the Jordan and began to take the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  Nevertheless, God called these tribes to be unified with the other tribes in both mission and worship.  We see the unity in mission in chapter 1.  All of Israel is called to participate together in the conquering of the promised land, regardless of whether or not individual tribes had already received their inheritance. (Take a couple of minutes to re-read 1:12-19.)  We see the unity in worship in today’s passage.  The two and a half tribes east of the Jordan built an altar as a witness to the unity of all God’s people in worship (22:27-28).  We don’t have to read between the lines to see the significance of this act in eyes of Israel’s leaders.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In our splintered world, it’s easy to take issues of unity and division lightly.  We can find a comfortable community for ourselves and forget about the reality that we will spend eternity with believers who are very different from us.  Of course there are theological and ethical distinctions that rightfully divide God’s people from the world, yet we will spend eternity with believers who are not only different from us culturally and socioeconomically (for now) but who also have very different worship styles and theological nuances.  What does it look like for you to be a force for unity within your church?  What does it look like for you to be a force for unity in the broader Christian community?  

 

Joshua 23

Here we find out why the LORD has been so insistent that Israel finish the work of conquering the land.  He knows our susceptibility to the practices and idols of the people around us (23:12-13).

Israel is called to be a light to the nations, but before they could be a light to the nations, they needed be a worshipping community firmly grounded in and empowered by the Lord (23:10). God was doing a new work through Israel and the staging ground needed to be established before the nations could be won.  The greatest Old Testament fulfillment of this calling to be a light to the nations is realized through Solomon (1 Kings 4:34, 10:1-9), but even there it is only a partial fulfillment.  Israel eventually gives into the practices and idols of the nations of among them (23:16).  Only in Christ, the true and faithful Israelite, will Israel be purified that she might fulfill her calling as a light to the nations.  

The New Testament church has a similar calling to be a worshipping community, distinct from the world around her.  Unlike Old Testament Israel, we are not called to mark off geographic boundaries, but we are to be no less distinctive in the aim and direction of our hearts — wholehearted worship of God and wholehearted rejection of the things that God does not love.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What is the most powerful community in your life in terms of its influence over the aim and direction of your heart?  Are there things that need to change in order for the people of God to become the most influential community in your life?

• Where are the stories, values, and practices of the world to which you are particularly susceptible?

• Until Jesus returns, we need to remember that even the strongest worshipping communities will be far, far from perfect, because each one of us is a long way from being perfected in Christ.  Yet his work for our forgiveness could not be more complete.  Are you living in Christ’s forgiveness?  Are you extending this same forgiveness to those around you?  Are you expectantly waiting for the King to return, or expecting the world to be perfect as if He has already returned?

 

Joshua 24

This final chapter reads like a summary of Genesis (24:2-4), Exodus (24:5-7a), Numbers (24:7b-10), and Joshua (24:11-13) — God’s summary of his calling and establishment of Israel (24:2).  

Within this summary, God’s absolute grace in choosing Abraham to be the father of his people stands out (24:2,14; see also Romans 4:16-17).  We learn more about Abraham’s life prior to God’s call than any other place in Scripture.  We learn that he and his family were idol worshippers.  As is the case with all of us, God did not choose to save Abraham because he had any holiness or worthiness that attracted God to him.  God simply chose, in love, to call Abraham out of a life of empty idol worship into a life of fullness in Him.  Abraham received the bloody sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:10-11) just as we are under Christ’s blood, Abraham was credited with righteousness through faith in God’s promises just as we are (Genesis 15:6), and he was subject to the same struggles with faith (e.g. Genesis 17:17-18).  

In fact, it is God’s amazing grace that makes a verse like 24:19 so perplexing.  Why do most translations say that God “will not forgive them” when Israel fails to serve the Lord?  The answer may lie in the nuances of the Hebrew language.  There are three main Hebrew words translated as “forgive” in Scripture.  One refers to the removal of guilt and is used only with God as subject.   Another refers to covering or atoning for sin, which is related to the removal of guilt and can also be related to the consequences of wrongdoing.  The third refers to bearing or carrying or lifting the weight of sin, and this is the word used in 24:19.  When God says that He will not “bear with” Israel’s sin, He is likely saying that He will not put up with or tolerate Israel’s sin.  Israel WILL experience the consequences of her sin.  Of course, there is another sense in which God will bear Israel’s sin through his Son on a cross.  This forgiveness in Christ may only be found when God’s people seek forgiveness in his mercy, and this points to another sense in which God will not forgive.  If Israel rebels and worship foreign gods (24:20), they will find no forgiveness there.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• When we see success in our lives, in any area, we are prone to the semiconscious thought that there must be something special about us that causes God to show us favor.  This passage demolishes this idea.  Even Abraham, the father of Israel and of the church (Romans 4:16-17), was called by God purely by grace.  Are there any successes or aspects of who you are that tempt you to think that they contribute toward God’s favor toward you?  Take time to praise God for his absolute grace toward you in Christ!

• In what areas of your life might you be asking God to “put up with” your sin rather than repenting and finding forgiveness in Christ?  

Acts

Acts Overview

The book of Acts is one-of-a-kind in Scripture!  It is the only narrative, or story, in the New Testament that takes place after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.  Other than the four gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), which cover Jesus’ ministry on earth, the rest of the New Testament consists of inspired letters from Jesus’ apostles and church leaders to first-century churches throughout the Roman Empire.  A good understanding of the book of Acts helps us to understand how these churches came into existence and enables us to place the letters in their historical context.  Originating in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), the church begins to ripple out into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9) and "to the ends of the earth” (Acts 10-28), just as Jesus told his disciples (Acts 1:8).  

Acts is the “Genesis" of the New Testament church!  Just as the Spirit of God “was hovering over the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2), this same Holy Spirit (Acts 1:2) is hovering over Jesus’ disciples (2:3-4) and empowering the work of God’s church throughout the book of Acts.  Luke, who wrote the book of Acts as a sequel to his gospel (compare the first paragraph of each book), is known for his emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and in the life of the church.  Jesus, who is one with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, continues his ministry in and through his followers by pouring out his Spirit in greater measure than the world had ever known.  

 

Acts 1:1-11

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  The disciples are asking the wrong question (Acts 1:7).  The “kingdom” was never to be in Israel’s sole possession.  Israel was the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God for a time, for the purpose of expanding the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.  Jesus came not to make Israel lords, but humble, joyful servants.  He redirects the disciples' attention toward this end in his response (1:8).  Even despised Samaritans would inhabit the kingdom of God along with Israel.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• As you think about your life goals or even this week’s goals, are you seeking to build your own kingdom, or are you seeking to inhabit and expand the kingdom of God?  What does it look like for you to inhabit and expand the kingdom of God this week? Consider your family, friendships, church, work, play, and other spheres of influence. 

 

Acts 1:12-26

A new epoch in the kingdom of God is marked by a new leadership structure.  Just as there were twelve tribes of Israel, there are twelve disciples who serve as lead witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (1:21-22).  Judas has been lost and a faithful witness must replace him.  

Peter references Psalms 69 and 109 as they begin the search for Judas’ replacement (1:20).  At first glance, it may seem as if Peter is misusing or playing loosely with his Psalm quotations.  However, it’s important to realize that, like the rest of the Old Testament, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Psalms.  This does not mean that every word is a prophecy about Jesus or points directly to Jesus, but Peter’s quotations help us to see that the Psalms do indeed find their culmination in the life of Jesus.  For instance, many of the Psalms are written by or about King David.  As the ultimate Davidic King, Jesus embodies the fullness of the psalmists' righteous anger, lament, joy, and praise.  Both Psalms quoted by Peter express righteous anger against deceitful enemies of the king, so they are perfectly fitting for Judas.  Jesus himself takes words from these same Psalms on his lips (e.g. John 15:25), and New Testament writers describe Jesus with the words of these Psalms (John 2:17).  Peter sees that Psalms 69 and 109 find their fulfillment in Jesus' experience of betrayal as Peter considers the structure of the early church.

Many people today are skeptical of structure and organization in the church, sometimes for good reason. Yet we see Jesus choose twelve disciples as the structural foundation of his church, with himself as the chief cornerstone. We see in Acts 1 that the disciples maintain this structure, and we will see, in later chapters, the expansion of church structure for the good of the expanding church. It's important to realize that though there are millions of good and bad teachers, coaches, CEO's, church leaders, etc., church structure itself is good when it is aligns with Scripture and when leaders are empowered by God's Spirit.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What is your attitude toward church structure and leadership?  Do you believe the best in others?  When you perceive that something is not right, do you make quick judgements and express them to others, or do you express your concern directly to the leaders?  Are there presently any concerns you need to prayerfully bring to leaders of your church?  If you have been strengthened or encouraged by church leaders, take time to thank God for them and pray for them. 

 

Acts 2:1-13

The Holy Spirit has always been at work in God’s people (e.g. Psalm 51:11; Exodus 31:2-3).  Even as the God-man Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit (e.g. Luke 4:1), so no human has ever been able to please God apart from the animating power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5-8).  But clearly something new is happening in Acts! 

Jesus' death for our sin and resurrection to life change everything. Now that He has definitively broken the chains of sin, conquered death, and ascended victoriously to his Father, the Spirit of God is poured out in greater measure on God's children.  The change is impossible to quantify or fully qualify.  We just know that many more people, especially outside of Israel, now experience intimacy with God and power for godly living and service, so the breadth of the Spirit’s work is greater.  The depth of the Spirit’s transforming work is also greater in most cases, even as the disciples have greater boldness and power after Pentecost.  In this chapter, we see the disciples empowered to speak in other languages so that "God-fearing Jews" from around the world could hear the good news of Jesus in their own language. 

All of these Jews were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, which occurred at the end of Israel's grain harvest, 50 days after the Passover Sabbath and 49 days after the "feast of firstfruits," when Israel would offer the firstfruits of the grain harvest as an offering to God. We see here that Jesus, the sacrificial Passover lamb, is also the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest! He rose from the dead on the feast of firstfruits and now begins to bring in the full harvest on Pentecost, by generously pouring out the Spirit of resurrection on his people.*

It’s crucial to understand this tectonic shift in the experience of the Holy Spirit, which was produced by Jesus’ victory.  The disciples, and other believers around this time, were “baptized with the Holy Spirit” well after their initial conversion precisely because they lived during this tectonic shift, a shift that was accompanied by miraculous signs such as “speaking in tongues."  Once the baptism of the Holy Spirit is extended to Judea, Samaria (8:14-17) and Gentile regions (10:44-45; 19:1-6), the fullness of God's Spirit becomes the common experience of every believer in Christ, the moment the believer is united to Christ by faith.  After the “tectonic shift,” all believers in Christ may be assured that we have been baptized by the Spirit of God and have the fullness of God’s Spirit (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 5:24-25; Ephesians 1:13-14; Colossians 2:-9-10).   We do not need to seek a dramatic baptism of the Spirit since we have already been baptized in the Spirit, but we are called to daily yield our hearts to the work of the indwelling Spirit who may fill us at any moment (Ephesians 5:18).

*For you mathematicians ... Pentecost is 49 days after Jesus' resurrection and He ascended about 40 days after his resurrection, so this Pentecost was about 9 days after Jesus' ascension. Below are the parallels between the Old Testament holy days and New Testament fulfillment . . .

Friday, Passover                                  ~~~ Jesus, the Passover Lamb of God, is crucified
Saturday, the Old Testament Sabbath ~~~ Jesus is in the tomb
Sunday, the Feast of Firstfruits           ~~~ Jesus’ Resurrection, firstfruits of the resurrection
40 Days after Firstfruits                     ~~~ Jesus’ Ascension
49 Days after Firstfruits, Pentecost     ~~~ Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on the church

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• It is difficult to understand the nearness and transforming power of God in our lives apart from an understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one with the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit applies the work of Jesus, his death to sin and resurrection to life, to our lives.  We are united to the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit.  How does this reality impact your hope for change in your life and in the lives of other believers?  Today, are you consciously living in the joyful reality that God actually lives in you through the Holy Spirit, as one united to him by faith?  Where do you need to yield to God, that the Holy Spirit might empower you for godly living and service to God?

 

Acts 2:14-41

Peter calls upon the the poet-prophet King David and the prophet Joel as witnesses to the veracity of the Jesus’ resurrection and the Spirit’s presence among them.  These are two witnesses whom the Jews cannot ignore.  In Peter’s references to David, we see another example of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Psalms.  He is David’s “Lord” (2:34) and the ultimate "Holy One” who will not see decay (2:27).  Joel spoke long ago to an unfaithful Israel, calling them to repentance and telling of a day when God would have compassion on them and send his Spirit to restore them to faithfulness.  Like Joel, Peter calls Israel (and "all who are far off") to repent of their sins that they might receive the Holy Spirit (2:38-39).  

Joel’s words help us to understand how prophecy functions in Scripture.  Peter sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.  But if Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled this day, where are the heavenly signs (2:19-20)?  John Stott points out in The Message of Acts that the signs may be literal, having already begun when the earth quakes and the sun darkens at Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:44-45), or metaphorical “as convulsions of history” (74).  Still, Joel prophesies of the “coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20), the day of Jesus’ return, which will not happen for at least 2,000 years after Peter claimed that Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled.  What’s going on?  

Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring the Holy Spirit inaugurated a new age, which Scripture calls “the last days” (2:17).  When Joel and other prophets saw ahead to "the last days," it was as if they were looking at the Rocky Mountains from a great distance.  From a distance, the Rockies appear to be a thin line of mountains.  But once one starts driving into the Rockies, the driver realizes that they are actually hundreds of miles wide.  In the same way, the prophets often speak of "the last days" as a single event.  But once we get to the New Testament, we see that the promises of "the last days" are inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming, continued through the ongoing work of Jesus’ church, and consummated upon his return.*  Peter saw, in the outpouring of the Spirit, that the promises of "the last days" were beginning to be fulfilled.

* This understanding of inauguration, continuation, and consummation is how the New Testament authors, like Peter, understood Old Testament prophecy and, thankfully, it is fairly widespread in today’s church.  The specific language of inauguration, continuation, and consummation is borrowed from lectures given by professor, theologian, and missionary Richard Pratt.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Even as Peter preached, the Holy Spirit was working on his hearers so that “they were cut to the heart” (2:37).  Can you remember when you were first "cut to the heart" by the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion for our sin and resurrection for our life?  Take time to thank God for this work of regenerating your heart! 

• Does the message of the gospel continue to “cut to the heart”?  Ask God to soften your heart through his Spirit, so that the gospel continues to bring true repentance and joy in your life.

• Joel speaks of a day when all of God’s people will prophesy.  All of God’s people are called to be (lowercase) prophets who speak truth to one another, priests who intercede for one another and offer God’s gifts back to him, and kings/stewards who bring God’s goodness, beauty, and truth to bear in the world.  How is God calling you to do these things this week, through the power of his Spirit?

 

Acts 2:42-47

Belonging to Jesus means belonging to his family.  When new believers were baptized into the church (2:41), they were not baptized into a statistic or church roster or heavenly roll call, but into a community and a new way of life!  In recent years, some have entertained the idea of an independent believer, but there is simply no category in Scripture for a believer in Christ who lives on without sharing in the blessings and struggles of God’s people.  

So what does life in the church look like?  We see a commitment to growing in the knowledge of God.  The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.  It was not “ivory tower” learning, as we also see a commitment to doing life together.  In the midst of earning a living, the believers clearly spent much time together, whether it was at the temple, out in the community, or in each other’s homes, especially over meals.  Their life together was marked by sacrificial love and generosity.  It was not a forced commune in which all private property was forfeited, as Acts 5:3-4 makes clear.*  Instead, the believers willingly chose to share their possessions, open their homes to one another and, when special needs arose, sell possessions to cover the need.  This generosity spilled over into the community.  The Lord added thousands were added to their number through their witness.  All of these things — growth in knowledge, life together, generosity, and evangelism — find their source and their end in worship.  They regularly celebrated baptisms and the Lord’s supper together (“the breaking of bread”), prayed together, praised God together and, as already noted, heard the teaching of God’s Word.  

In Acts 5:3-4, Ananias is not rebuked for owning property or even for keeping some of the money from the sale of his property, but rather for lying about the money.  The rest of Scripture supports the concept of generosity with private property.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• As you consider the life of the early church, in what ways do you need to commit to a deeper experience of life in the family of God?  Ask him to help you take the risk of seeking deeper relationships through which you will grow together in knowledge, friendship, sacrificial love and generosity, and outreach.  Who would God have you invite into his family and into a deeper experience of his family?

 

Acts 3

Don’t be surprised when a man paralyzed from birth gets up and walks!  This is Peter’s message to the astonished Jews (3:11-12).  Why shouldn’t they be surprised?  Two reasons.  One, this is what the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and all of the prophets has been promising them for thousands of years (3:13,18,22-25).  Two, Jesus has just been raised in their midst in fulfillment of God’s promises, breaking the power the death for all who will trust in him.  In Jesus, God will “restore everything,” once He has gathered all of his people (3:21).

Until God restores everything, He is able to heal at any time He desires.  The miracle in our passage and all miracles are previews or foretastes of the restoration of all things.  In this case, the crippled man did not even ask to be healed, but God healed him as a testimony to the firstfruits of resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection (3:16).  This miracle is part of a larger pattern of miracles in Scripture.  Whenever there is a significant event in God’s work of redemption, such as God’s call of Abraham, the exodus and formation of Israel into a nation through Moses, the conquering of the promised land through Joshua, a new prophetic era introduced by Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’ first coming, or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we see miracles attesting to the redemptive event.  Today, we continue to pray for miracles of healing as we long for the restoration of all things, knowing that God is able to heal and at times chooses to give us a preview of restoration, but we should not demand miracles of God as if final restoration is already upon us.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Did you notice Peter’s humility, deflecting all of the attention to Jesus (3:12,16)?  Only the work of the Holy Spirit produces this kind of humility.  Ask God to search your heart and show you ways that you are seeking to bring attention to yourself instead of Jesus.  

• Which people do you know who are mourning over the brokenness of their own bodies?  Perhaps you are mourning over the brokenness of your own body?  Take time to pray for God’s comfort and healing.  Pray for yourself and others to place hope not in on our earthly bodies, which are so uncertain, but in the God who will heal the bodies of his people, perhaps now and definitively when He restores all things.  

• Take time to rejoice in the reality that your sins have been “wiped out” through Christ and allow your soul to be refreshed in him (3:19).  In this verse, Peter is speaking of initial repentance and forgiveness, a forgiveness that is permanent and complete.  But in order to continue to feel the refreshment of God’s forgiveness and to enjoy his presence, we live a life of continual repentance.  Are there any sins of which you are not repenting, keeping you from refreshment in God?  

 

Acts 4:1-31

Peter and John show great courage and boldness in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.  Since Jesus is the only One who can wipe out our sins and conquer death on our behalf, they proclaim that there is no else through whom we may be saved from death (4:12).  They do not back down in the face of warnings and threats, but calmly and shrewdly reply that they must obey God rather than human authority.  There is only one Sovereign in their eyes (4:24,28).  

So what do they do after showing great boldness and after a very full couple of days?  They pray for “great boldness" (4:29)!  This is striking.  So often, after stepping out in faith beyond our comfort zone and seeing God work, we either become proud of ourselves and/or we just want to withdraw to our favorite creature comforts.  Many Christian leaders report that they are most subject to temptation after stepping out in faith and seeing God move.  There is a spiritual letdown.  But Peter and John prayed for more boldness, and God answered their prayers.  Surely it helped that they did not isolate themselves after the day’s events, but instead were surrounded by the community of believers.  

(How did Luke, the author of Acts, have insider information about conversations within the Jewish court known as the “Sanhedrin” in 4:13-17?  This information could easily have come from Saul/Paul, Gamaliel (5:34ff.), or another religious leader who became a follower of Jesus.)  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What cultural, vocational, peer, or other pressures cause you to fear speaking about resurrection and life in Jesus?  Pray for boldness.  Pray that talking about the life we have in Christ would become a regular part of your life with others.  Pray for boldness, for yourself and for/with others, in specific situations in which you feel pressure to remain silent.  

• Can you relate to the susceptibility and weakness many feel after stepping out in faith?  Think and pray about the patterns in your life and what you need to do in order to stay strong, and even grow in reliance on God, in these situations.

• Today, are you resting upon Christ alone for your life?

 

Acts 4:32-5:42

We find some of the same themes in this passage that we have seen in previous passages.  We find amazing boldness in the Holy Spirit in the face of significant opposition (an answer to the prayer of 4:29!), joyful and sacrificial generosity toward those in need, and miracles galore.  But we also find the shocking deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.*  

Who has not lied?  Isn’t God being harsh?  How are we to understand the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira?  Two days ago (Acts 3), we saw that God attests to significant turning points in his work of redemption through an unusual quantity and (sometimes) quality of miracles.  For instance, the ten plagues of Israel's exodus are unique in history.  Just as we see a proliferation of miracles marking significant turning points in God’s plan of redemption, we also see an acuteness in the judgment of God at these turning points.  When Israel enters the promised land, the Lord approves of Achan’s stoning after he keeps some of the plunder for himself (Joshua 7, esp. 7:26).  When King David is bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem, God strikes down Uzzah when he assumes that he can handle the ark in order to steady it (2 Samuel 6).  When God pours out his Spirit on the church, He strikes down Ananias and Sapphira when they lie to the Holy Spirit.  In every case, the offense is directly related to the new work of God.  Like the miracles, these instances of judgment show that these redemptive turning points are truly from God and are not to be taken lightly.  This makes sense in that both miracles and instances of severe judgment are previews of “the day of the Lord,” when He will put an end to evil and restore all things.  Gamaliel (5:33-40) is wise to heed the work of God, for no one can stop it (5:39). 

* Ananias and Sapphira are not rebuked for owning property or even for keeping some of the money from the sale of his property, but rather for lying to the church. While they received God’s temporal judgment, we hope that they were eternally saved in Christ.  Even Moses’ life was cut short due to sin, albeit not in such dramatic fashion.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira served as a warning to members of the early church, and they serve as a warning to us.  They seemed to be more concerned about the appearance of generosity and whole-hearted commitment than honesty.  They considered it a light matter to lie before God and his people.  As you examine your own life, are there clearcut sins that you tend to see as light matter?  In what ways and with what people are you concerned with appearances instead of faithfulness?  Take time to confess, repent, and receive God’s forgiveness in Christ.

• Are there worries or frustrations about the state of the world, the church, your community, the people around you, etc. that discourage and immobilize you? Take courage from the words of Gamaliel:  “. . . if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”  God started with just 120 believers in Jerusalem (1:15) and now there are faithful churches around the globe.  Peter and John faced severe opposition and persecution in this chapter from authorities, but they rejoiced because they had been “counted worthy of suffering disgrace” for Jesus.  Ask God to reframe your perspective in light of his power and goodness.

 

Acts 6:1-7

An expanding church required an expanded leadership structure.  The widows of the "Hebraic Jews" were being served, but the widows of the Grecian Jews were being overlooked.  (Grecian Jews had assimilated in many ways to the Greek culture of the Roman Empire, a culture that Alexander the Great helped spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond 350 years earlier, while the Hebraic Jews held tightly to Jewish culture.)  We do not know if this was merely an organizational issue resulting from a rapidly expanding church or if intentional favoritism was being shown.  Either way, this is the first instance of the church dealing with significant cultural differences within its body.  

The apostles take immediate action.  They show us that the church is not to be sidetracked from proclamation and prayer by caring for physical needs, but neither is the church to neglect physical needs!  Word and deed, body and soul are the concerns of Jesus’ gospel, for body and soul will be raised with Him.  The apostles’ decisive action also shows us that favoritism, or even organizational neglect, in regard to different cultures is unacceptable.  

We ought to take note of the leaders who were appointed to care for the physical needs within the church.  They were “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”  At least some of them were quite capable of proclaiming the gospel even as they cared for physical needs, as we see in the following chapters.  The church needs Spirit-filled leaders not only to shepherd the people spiritually, but also to make wise, compassionate decisions to care for those in need. 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways might you or your church be overlooking different cultures represented within in your body or community?  Take time to pray for yourself and your church, and to praise God for the way the gospel brings people from different cultures into one body.

• In what ways might you or your church be neglecting spiritual or physical needs in favor of the other?  Take time to prayer for yourself and your church, and to praise God for his care for all of who we are.

 

Acts 6:8-8:3

What enabled Stephen, along Peter and John (5:40-42), to endure such suffering with such grace and joy?  We are struck by two distinguishing characteristics in each of these men.  

First, there is overwhelming evidence that they are firmly grounded in the story of Scripture.  They quote Scripture left and right, Stephen summarizes the movement of God throughout the Old Testament on the spot, and they understand all of Scripture in the light of Jesus’ coming.  God’s story, the true story, had become their story.  Their faith had deep, deep roots in God’s Word.  Jesus’ words on the cross were so deeply ingrained in Stephen’s heart that he takes Jesus’ words of communion with God (7:59; cf. Luke 23:46) and forgiveness of his persecutors (7:60; cf. Luke 23:34) on his own lips even as rocks pound his body to death.  

Second, and not unrelated to the first, their lives are yielded to the Spirit of God.  They have knowledge, which leads them not to self-reliance, but to total dependence on God.  When God is working and speaking through us, no one can stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom we speak (6:10).  

(Like Jesus, the apostles to tend to speak to fellow Jews, especially to religious leaders, in a much more confrontational manner than they do to others.  We may see these as “in-house” conversations, in which the apostles expect more of their hearers and feel the freedom/necessity to confront them head on.)

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Studying the Bible for prideful, self-righteous reasons is an ever-present danger for all of us, especially if we have more of an intellectual bent toward life.  How are you doing with this?  Take time to pray for yourself and others studying with you that the Spirit of God will lead us toward true knowledge, which leads toward dependence on God, rather than “puffed up” knowledge that leads toward self-reliance.  

• In what situations and with what people do you have fear of making your faith in Christ known?  Where do you need the wisdom and Spirit of God to fill you?

 

Acts 8:4-40

The attempt to defeat Jesus’ church through persecution backfires.  The church begins to spread like fire throughout the areas outside of Jerusalem — Judea and Samaria, and even Ethiopia.  The Samaritans were despised by most Jews because the Samaritans had created their own version of Judaism a thousand years earlier and had became half-blooded Jews when Samaria was conquered by Assyria 750 years earlier.  Jesus showed through his ministry in Samaria (John 4) and the parable of “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) that He overcomes the hostility between Jerusalem and Samaria, and now Philip (6:3-5) follows in his wake.  When Peter and John join Philip, the post-Ascension experience of the Holy Spirit is extended from Jerusalem to Samaria.  The Holy Spirit then leads Philip across more distinct ethnic lines, when He has a divine appointment with a powerful Ethiopian official, a black man who had converted to Judaism.  The official is baptized in the name of Christ and travels home as a missionary to Africa!

Peter’s confrontation with Simon of Samaria highlights a struggle for many of us.  Simon enjoyed fame in his hometown because of his demonic magic and, even after believing in Jesus, desires to maintain the admiration of his city by controlling the Holy Spirit (8:18-19).  It is a “Christianized” version of the same pride.  When we begin to follow Jesus, the sin deep within our heart is completely forgiven and its ultimate defeat is sure, but we are still called to join in the Spirit-empowered process of putting it death.  This is especially difficult when our sins are veiled in religiosity.  Peter exposes Simon’s “Christianized” pride and, thankfully, Simon appears to be humbled by his rebuke (8:24).*

* Note that Simon’s name is the origin of the word “simony,” which refers to the buying and selling of religious positions, and some traditions believe that he founded a corrupted version of Christianity.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do not become weary of the message of reconciliation through the forgiveness of Christ, a forgiveness that not only breaks down the wall of sin between God and humanity, but also the walls of sin between people-groups.  This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture and needs to be a consistent theme in our prayers and actions.  How is God calling you to cross cultures with the love of Christ this week?  Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you into deeper relationships across cultures and into “divine appointments” with those who do not know Christ.  
     
  • What sins in your own life have taken on a Christianized form?  We saw Simon’s pride Christianized. We may also turn the idol of relationships into an obsession with Christian relationships.  We may turn a need for drama and gossip in our lives into a need for drama and gossip in our Christian relationships.  We may turn athletic or vocational idols in our lives into the desire to be seen as an amazing Christian athlete or business person.  Ask God to peel back the onion of your heart and change it, and walk in his forgiveness and grace.

 

Acts 9:1-31

The most dramatic conversion in the Bible, perhaps in history, all-too-easily becomes mundane to us.  Consider, for a moment, the humbling process that Saul endured as God prepared him to be a servant to the nations.  Saul, more commonly known by his Latin name Paul, who believed that he could see through the claims of the Apostles, cannot see for three days.  The learned, self-sufficient Paul, who did not have the navigational skills of a blind person, must be led by the hand.  Most of us do not want to bother a friend for a bowl of soup when we are sick.  Imagine needing to be led everywhere by hand for three days.  And how is Paul’s sight restored?  A Christian, one of his former enemies, must place his hands on him.  Imagine kneeling before your arch-rival to receive healing.  Finally, when he comes to Jerusalem, the disciples are of course scared to death.  If it were not for Barnabas, who seemed to have a special grasp on the depths of God’s grace, who knows how long Paul would have been rejected by the community he now longed to join.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • God used Paul’s great learning as a Jewish Pharisee for tremendous benefit to the church (e.g. 9:22), but extra measures of gifting require extra measures of humility.  Every ounce of our gifting comes from God, and every ounce of glory belongs to Him.  How has God humbled you to prepare you to serve Him?  Humbling is never pleasant, but it frees us from ourselves to enjoy God, so take time to give thanks for the ways God has humbled you.  Ask God to reveal and humble the places of pride that remain.  
     
  • Paul’s conversion reminds us that God does not save us because of anything good in us, but solely by his grace to us in Christ (see 1 Timothy 1:15, written by Paul).  How has God shown you the depths of this grace?

     

Acts 9:32-11:18

Acts 9 is the school of humility for Paul.  Acts 10-11 is the school of humility for Peter.  Among the apostles, Peter wins the award for most frequently countering the statements of the Lord. (10:14; Matthew 16:21-22, 26:31-33).  He has been humbled by Jesus several times in the past, but Jesus' school of humility has a continuing education program.  In this chapter, Peter is still clinging to Old Testament food laws, which pointed ahead to the holiness and purity that could only be truly found in Jesus.  Jesus made it abundantly clear that the necessity of abiding by the Jewish food laws was gone (Mark 7), but misunderstanding and pride in their religious and cultural heritage remained (10:14,28,45).  God breaks down Peter’s pride through these dreams and, when He does, the gospel breaks through the walls between Jew and Gentile.  Cornelius and all who heard the message receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized into the church.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We continue to see the gospel breaking down cultural barriers, divisions between people.  Take time to give thanks for the ways that God has broken down these divisions and barriers in your life and church.  In what ways do you and your church need continuing education in Jesus' school of humility?  
     

Acts 11:19-30

The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is beginning to circulate around the Mediterranean world.  Jewish Christians from Cyprus (an island in the northeast Mediterranean) and Cyrene (a Libyan city near the southern coast of the Mediterranean) begin to lead Greeks in the Syrian city of Antioch to faith in Jesus.  It seems that these Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene needed less persuasion than Peter to see that the gospel was not only for Israel!  In response, the church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas (first mentioned in 4:36) to investigate this new phenomenon.  

In sending Barnabas, the church in Jerusalem sends the right man!  He is a believer who is able to see the work of God’s grace in others (11:23-24).  This is a crucial gift in the church, when so many of us are preoccupied with our own lives and are often skeptical, even cynical, about others.  Not only does Barnabas recognize the grace of God in the new Gentile believers, he also sees an opportunity for Paul to use his gift of teaching to great effect.  Remember that Barnabas was the one who first welcomed Paul into the church at Jerusalem, when others could not believe that God had transformed the church’s greatest persecutor (9:26-28).  Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement,” was given this name by the disciples.  He was an effective teacher and missionary in his own right, but he was used to even greater effect by encouraging Paul and others in their faith and giftedness.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Some have a true gift of encouragement, but all Christians are called to encourage.  What does sincere encouragement require of us?  Can you think of specific ways in which pride and selfishness keep you from seeing the grace of God in others?  Confess, receive God’s perfect forgiveness in Christ, and ask him to give you the grace of seeing his grace in others.
  • Consider the people with whom you interact on a daily or weekly basis, particularly those people in whose lives you might have a voice.  Who is God calling you to encourage?  Ask God to help you to see!  Ask him to help you see the specific ways that the people around you need to be encouraged.

 

Acts 12

We do not know what is going to happen to our lives. We do not know why God gives long lives to some while others are cut short. Why do Paul, Peter and John have relatively long lives of ministry, while John’s brother, James,* has his life cut short (12:2)?  Why is Peter miraculously rescued from prison in this instance while Paul remained under guard for years?  We do not know.  Jesus prophesied that John and James would follow him in his suffering (Matthew 20:22-23), but James is killed at a young age while John suffers in exile on the island of Patmos at an old age.  Church tradition tells us that Peter and Paul were martyred about 20 years after James’ death, near the end of Nero’s reign (54-68AD), and about 30 years before John’s death at the end of the century.  All four men were faithful, but we do not know why their paths looked very different.   We only know that we are called to be faithful with the time that we have, that God will be faithful to build his family (12:24), and that our eternal future is secure. 

Nor do we know why God allows some evil leaders to live a long life, while he brings swifter judgment to others.  King Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of "Herod the Great" who reigned over Judea and beneath Roman overlordship at the time of Jesus’ birth, is allowed to put James to death, but meets the swift judgment of God when he willingly accepted the praise due to God alone.  We know the reason for King Herod’s death, but we do not know the mysteries of God’s timing or the details of his grand plan to accomplish his good and glorious purposes.  We only know that we are called to be faithful with the time that we have, that God will be faithful to build his family, and that our eternal future is secure. 

This disciple named James, the brother of John, is not to be confused with James, the brother of Jesus (12:17), who was not a disciple but became a leader in the church in Jerusalem.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Following Jesus means surrendering control over our lives, trusting in God’s perfect faithfulness and in his timing for our lives.  This is a freeing way to live since we do not have control even when we think we do.  In what areas do you need to let go of worries/control and let God be God?  
     
  • Peter, Paul, James, and John knew that their lives and their eternal destinies belonged to God.  They lived in light of eternity instead of living in the fading light of human praise (12:22-23).  What might it look like for you to live in light of eternity today?  This week?  Ask God to help you see what this looks like for you and ask him to use your life for his eternal kingdom.  

 

Acts 13-14

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark are sent out as the church of Antioch’s first missionaries in the context of worship, prayer, and fasting.  They sail to the island of Cyprus, not far from Antioch, and then go on to several cities just north of the Mediterranean in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).*   The Holy Spirit works through them powerfully to frustrate enemies of the gospel (13:10-11), to heal (14:3,8-10), to persevere in the midst of tremendous persecution in almost every city (13:49-52; 14:5-7,19-20), and to boldly and effectively speak about Jesus (13:12,43,46-48; 14:1,21).  

Along the way, we learn at least three extremely important principles of ministry.  First, they preach the same gospel in every place, but the starting point and language is different depending on the audience.  When Paul preaches to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch (13:16ff.), he assumes a knowledge of the Old Testament and begins with the exodus of Israel from Egypt.  However, when he speaks to Gentiles in Lystra, Paul does not assume anything, so he begins the message with creation (14:15-17).  Second, Paul and Barnabas do not simply "drop a gospel-bomb" and leave the churches to figure out the rest for themselves.  They truly care for the new believers and return to each city at great personal risk in order to strengthen and encourage the new disciples (14:21-22).  Third, they leave each city’s church with leadership structure, appointing multiple elders to continue to shepherd the churches in the context of prayer and fasting (14:23).

Note that one of the cities is Pisidian Antioch, not to be confused with Syrian Antioch, the city from which Paul and Barnabas were sent.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We cannot forget that Paul, Barnabas and John Mark’s incredibly effective journey began with worship, prayer, and fasting in their home church?  Is your life among the people of God characterized by worship, prayer and fasting?  If not, what opportunities might you have to grow in worship and dependence on God with fellow believers?
     
  • As you think through some of the people in your life, where would you begin if God opened a door to speak about your faith?  What knowledge could you assume with each one?  What questions could you ask them to find out about their current beliefs and understanding of Christianity?  
     
  • Do you have at least one mature Christian personally strengthening and encouraging you in your faith on a regular basis ?  Who can you strengthen and encourage on a regular basis? 

 

Acts 15:1-35

Why such a big deal about circumcision?  Circumcision is given to Abraham and his descendants as a sign in Genesis 17, confirming God’s promise that all nations would be blessed and reconciled to God through Abraham’s seed.  Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the males in every believing family had received this confirmation of God’s promise on behalf of the family for 2,000 years!  When Jesus comes and fulfills the promise, a sign that points ahead to him is no longer required.  Peter recognizes what is at stake.  If his fellow Jews do not understand that the sign is completely fulfilled in Christ, but rather demand that Gentiles be circumcised as the first among many religious works to be added to Jesus’ work, then they do not understand the grace of God in Christ (15:10-11)!  James, the brother of Jesus, agrees with Peter and shows how the recent influx of Gentile believers fulfills God’s promise that the Gentiles would be included in the rebuilding of Israel, “David’s fallen tent” (15:13-17).  The Gentiles are not an afterthought or add-on to Israel, but full members of the new Israel, the international people of God.  

How did the church go about handling this potentially divisive issue?  When the apostles and elders realized the seriousness of the matter, they did not divide.  They came together (15:2).  Paul, Barnabas and others from Antioch are welcomed in Jerusalem (15:4).  Different viewpoints are shared and discussed extensively (15:4-7).  In the end, the grace of the gospel is not compromised, but some concessions are made so as to not offend the sensitivities of some Jewish believers.  A letter is written, coming from the entire council of apostles and elders (15:23), clearly explaining the decisions of the council.  The whole church then chooses representatives to go and communicate the decision in person (15:22).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, are you resting fully in the grace of God, knowing that, by faith in Jesus, you are included in his righteous life, his death to sin, and his resurrection?  Are there any ways in which you feel the need to add to what Jesus’ has done for you?  
     
  • The actions of the apostles and elders are a model to churches and individual believers for how to handle disputes.  When you find yourself in sharp disagreement with other believers, do you divide or come together for reasonable discussion?  Are there ways in which you need to make cultural concessions to believers who are different from you in ways that do not compromise the core of the gospel?  

     

Acts 15:36-41

A funny thing happened on the way to fulfilling the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20) . . . Actually, it’s not funny, but it is ironic that Paul and Barnabas, two peas in a pod up to this point, divide soon after the gleaming unity of the Jerusalem Council.  Their division is over an HR issue and not a core gospel issue, but it is still unfortunate.  Family ties are also at play as John Mark is Barnabas’ cousin.  Paul feels burned by John Mark’s desertion of them on their first missionary journey (13:13) and believes that he is not trustworthy.  Barnabas, as usual, believes the best in Mark and sets off for Cyprus with him.  The silver lining of their division is that we are comforted by the Scripture’s honesty about struggles in the church and that God uses the division to send out two teams instead of one, but we should not overlook the human weakness and sin that attends the church’s mission.  Thankfully, Paul was later reconciled to Barnabas and Mark (2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:10; 1 Corinthians 9:6).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How are you involved in God’s mission to take the good news of Jesus to others?  Are you experiencing division with anyone as you go about the work of God?  How can you work toward reconciliation and a unified mission?
     
  • We do need to remember that Paul and Barnabas’ division does not ultimately thwart God’s mission.  If you see divisions in the church, is it leading you toward despair and cynicism, or are you trusting that God will work even in the midst of human weakness and sin?
     
  • The new believers from the first missionary journey were still in Paul’s heart (15:36).  Paul is committed to their growth and joy in Christ for the long haul.  What might commitment to believers’ growth and joy for the long haul look like in your life?

 

Acts 16

So much happens at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey!  The churches from the first journey are strengthened.  Timothy, who would become Paul’s protégé, joins in the mission.  Paul had just insisted that circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, but now that the theological matter has been settled (Acts 15), he has Timothy circumcised in order to prevent the mission from being unnecessarily hindered.  As they travel west through what is now Turkey, some doors are closed (16:6-7).  We do not know whether these doors were closed through external obstacles or through strong internal impressions.  But when some doors are closed, others are opened.  Further west, across the Aegean Sea in ancient Macedonia and what is now Greece, Paul and his companions find fertile soil for the gospel in the city of Philippi.  

What is the common denominator in all that happens?  The Holy Spirit!  The Spirit of God is providing wisdom (16:3), guiding (16:6-10), opening hearts to the message (16:5,14,30), casting out evil spirits (16:18), filling the missionaries with joy in the midst of intense trials and suffering (16:25), and working miracles (16:26).  The stories of the first conversions in Philippi are markedly different.  Lydia and her household simply hear the truth of the gospel and the Lord opens their hearts to believe.  The exploited slave girl, who may or may not have believed, must first have a demon cast out of her.  The jailer and his household are converted only after witnessing the power of God and the grace of Paul (16:28).  In every case, it is the Spirit of Jesus who empowers and blesses the work of Paul and his companions.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Paul is unwilling to compromise on the issue of circumcision when it pertains to the truth of the gospel, but he is quite willing to concede on the matter when the gospel is not at stake and when it is for the peace and effectiveness of the church.  Timothy is not in danger of believing that his circumcision is a work toward salvation.  This can be a fine line in certain situations and we need to be careful not to compromise on the truth of the gospel, but are there cultural concessions that you or your church need to make in order to keep the gospel from being hindered across cultural lines?
     
  • We often grow discouraged when we want to serve God but we see doors closed.  Paul and his companions may have been very frustrated after at least two large regions were closed to them, but God had much more work for them to do.  What doors has God seemingly closed in your kingdom service?  How do you tend to react to closed doors?  Are there any recent circumstances in which you need to trust God to continue to open doors even after some have been closed, at least for a time?
     
  • Even as you seek to be better equipped to serve God, which is itself a work of the Spirit, are you ultimately depending on your own abilities or on the Holy Spirit?

 

Acts 17

The gospel disturbs, divides, and unites.  We see in every city where the gospel is preached, the status quo is greatly disturbed.  When we consider that a new ultimate authority is being proclaimed (17:7,24-31), we should not be surprised.  People who were once united along racial, socioeconomic, or educational lines are divided by the gospel, but they also now experience a much deeper unity in a God who brings people together across the external divides of society (17:4,12,34).

There is another way in which the gospel disturbs.  As Paul walks around the city of Athens, we read that he is “greatly distressed to see that the city was full idols” (17:16).  The gospel of Jesus had not only captured Paul’s mind, it had also captured his heart.  The glory of God (17:24) and the love of a God who made us to know him (17:27) had so captured his heart that it disturbs him to see people worshipping idols that are neither worthy of worship nor able to satisfy those who worship them.  Nevertheless, this disturbance does not cause Paul to speak in a judgmental or condescending manner.  He does not water down the truth — he does proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and the judgment of God (17:31), but he commends the Athenian philosophers and finds common ground with them (17:22-23), he begins his message with creation instead of assuming biblical knowledge (compare 17:2-3 to 17:24), and he gives cultural allusions that they understand (17:28).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • There are Christians who are afraid to disrupt the status quo and Christians who enjoy making waves.  It seems that we should be somewhere in-between.  We should not go out of our way to cause disturbance with purposefully incendiary speech and actions, but at the same time we recognize that the proclamation of a new (and infinitely better!) ultimate authority is bound to disturb and divide before it creates a deeper unity.  Are there places in your life where fear of disturbing the status quo keeps you from speaking about Jesus?
     
  • Is there room in your life to regularly consider the state of those who do not the glory and love of the God who made them to know him?  Is there a healthy disturbance in your soul when you see the idols in your own life and in the lives of those around you?  Take time to pray for the people in your life who do not know Jesus.  
     
  • All of creation points to God (17:24-27).  Are you a student of creation, continually learning how to understand nature, work, play, relationships, literature, arts, etc. point to the beauty of God and humanity’s need for God?  Ask God to help you.

 

Acts 18:1-22

Paul’s confidence to persevere through trials in Corinth for a year and a half (18:11) came from God.  God reassures him in 18:10, saying “. . . I have many people in this city.”  Paul’s confidence comes from the fact that his mission is actually God’s mission.  Paul is on the move each day, interacting with the people of Corinth, only because he knows that God is on the move, opening hearts. God has equipped him to reason, teach, and debate, but these abilities only produce spiritual fruit because the Holy Spirit is working through them.  

The Greek word translated “people” in 18:10 is “laos.”  This word does not refer to isolated individuals, but to a "common people” or assembly of people.  It is the same Greek word used to describe Old Testament Israel.  Its usage in the context of Paul’s multi-ethnic ministry in Corinth demonstrates, once again, that Jews and Gentiles are being gathered into one “common people,” a new Israel, a spiritual Israel!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We may not have a specific promise that God will work in a specific place (18:10), even though we sense God leading us toward a certain place, group of people, or ministry.  Even Paul did not receive a specific promise in every city.  However, we still find confidence in God’s words to Paul, knowing that He will draw a people to himself, that He is always on the move, and that our mission is ultimately his mission.  What is your confidence in serving God, in sharing your faith with others?  Take time to bring any discouragement and frustration before him, to pray for his mercy and power in the lives of the people in your life, and to rest in the surety that He will gather his people.

 

Acts 18:23-19:41

If you blink, you miss the transition between Paul’s second and third missionary journeys, when he spends some time with his home church in Antioch (18:23).  We also see in this transitional verse that Paul goes back yet a third time to strengthen the disciples in Galatia and Phrygia (aka Asia Minor, aka modern Turkey).  He circled back to them at the end of his first journey (14:21-25), visited them at the beginning of his second journey (16:1-6), and now sees them again at the beginning of the third journey.  They remain in his heart.

After briefly visiting Ephesus at the end of his second journey (18:19-20), Paul makes good on his promise that he will come back if it is God’s will.  The timing was not right for extended ministry in Ephesus on the second journey (16:6), but now the door is wide open and Ephesus becomes the hub of Paul’s ministry.  When he first enters Ephesus, Paul encounters some men who had responded to John the Baptist’s teaching about Jesus, but they did not yet know what Jesus had accomplished in his death and resurrection.  Apparently, they had not met Priscilla and Aquila (18:24-26).  Paul shares the gospel with them, and they believe and receive the Holy Spirit.  Then Paul spends three months “arguing persuasively” in the Jewish synagogue before being forced to move his discussions to the lecture hall of Tyrannus.  From this one hall, the gospel goes out to the entire province of Asia (the western portion of modern Turkey), either through direct contact with Paul or through those who heard his message and proclaimed it in their cities and villages!

Paul’s time in Ephesus is of course not without disturbance and drama.  He is publicly maligned by fellow Jews (19:9).  The Lord chose at this time to do, not just miracles, but extraordinary or unusual miracles through Paul, which led to wholehearted confession and repentance (19:11,18-19).  Finally, conflict in Ephesus comes to a head, as the many who profit from the temple of the goddess Artemis realize that the gospel of Jesus is a threat to their income.  

Questions for Reflection and Payer

  • Paul kept going back to Galatia and Phrygia to strengthen the disciples.  Are there people in your life to whom you need to circle back?  And/or pray for them?
     
  • The door in Ephesus was closed for a time (16:6), but not permanently.  Are there people or groups you have given up on, who perhaps need to be revisited?  Have you experienced resistance and rejection in seeking to serve God (19:9)?  Take time to seek God’s leading and strength.  
     
  • What does wholehearted confession and repentance look like in your life (19:18-19)?  Receive God’s forgiveness and invite him to continue his work of remaking you in his image.

 

Acts 20

Paul's parting words as he passes the baton to the leaders of the church in Ephesus . . . Teach the whole Bible (20:27).  Protect and care for the members of God’s church, who were bought back from death at the cost of the blood of Jesus.  Regard them with this value (20:28).  Protect the truth of the gospel from those who would distort it (20:29-31).  Live in the grace of God (20:32).  Do not live for money and possessions (20:33).  Work hard for the sake of those who are in need (20:34-35).  Paul charges the elders in Ephesus, with whom he spent three years and clearly formed deep bonds of friendship (20:37-38), with these words.

Paul is simply encouraging the Ephesian elders to walk in the way that he and others have modeled to them.  What is Paul’s secret to living a life of self-giving service?  It is found in verse 20:24.  He is not concerned with self-preservation or success by the world’s standards.  The value of his life is measured solely by faithfulness to God’s call on his life.  He trusts that God will take care of the rest, knowing that he will be raised with Christ to eternal life.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Have you considered the beauty of God’s calling on the lives of his church’s shepherds (20:27-35)?  Take time to pray for the spiritual leaders in your life, that God would help them to live in his grace and to fulfill this call.  
     
  • Most believers will not hold an office in the church (e.g. pastor/elder, deacon), but all believers are called to care for each other and to build each other up.  There is a sense in which most of Paul’s words apply to every believer.  Do you regard other believers according to their true value, as those who were bought back from death at the cost of Jesus’ blood?  Take time to pray for yourself, that you would live in his grace, that you would see fellow believers as God sees them, and that God would help you to care for them and build them up.
     
  • In what ways are you clinging to self-preservation and self-promotion for life?  How are those things keeping you from faithfulness to God and his mission?  Take time to offer those things up to God and to find your life in Christ’s death to self-serving and resurrection to life in God.

 

Acts 21:1-36

Is the Holy Spirit sending mixed signals?  Paul insists on going to Jerusalem in spite of the pleas of the believers in Tyre (21:4) and Caesarea (21:12), and the prophecy of Agabus (21:10-11).  The pleas came from a sincere, Spirit-induced love for their brother Paul.  The pleas and prophecy are perfectly in line with what Paul, through the Spirit, already knew was coming his way, yet the Spirit compelled him to press on toward Jerusalem (20:22-23).  In this way, Paul is following in the footsteps of his Savior, who also set out for Jerusalem knowing that suffering awaited (21:13).  Jesus goes to Jerusalem to bear the sins of the world, while Paul goes to display the grace of Jesus in the form of a gift to the poor believers in Jerusalem from the churches throughout the Roman Empire (24:17; Romans 15:25-28).  Little did Paul know that his trials and suffering in Jerusalem would eventually propel him to the heart of the empire, the very place he longed to preach the gospel (19:21; Romans 15:23-24).  

Is Paul compromising the grace of the gospel?  Once Paul is in Jerusalem, he again shows his willingness to make cultural concessions in practice (21:24,26), similar to the time he had Timothy circumcised before setting out on mission (16:3).  Paul and James agree that salvation is by faith alone.  James is still committed to the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (21:25) and he, along with the elders in Jerusalem, praise God for what He was doing among the Gentiles (21:19-20).  Nevertheless, there seem to be differences between the ways that Paul and the Jerusalem believers practice Christianity.  Paul seems to have a greater understanding of the freedom from the ceremonial elements of the Mosaic law that Jesus provides (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 14:1-15:13), but he is willing to make concessions in practice in order to promote the peace of the church and to win a hearing for the gospel.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We are not called to seek out persecution, but we are called to willingly endure suffering for the sake of extending the gospel.  Have you recently counted the cost of following Jesus?  Are there any ways that you are avoiding opportunities to extend the gospel in order to avoid some form of suffering?
     
  • Are there any ways in which you are trusting in conformity to a religious practice for confidence of God’s love for you, or are you resting fully in the finished work of Christ on your behalf?  Take time to praise God for his grace that covers all our sin and restores us to life in Him.
     
  • Are there any matters of indifference (Galatians 5:6; 6:15) in the practice of Christianity, in which you need to make a concession for the peace of the church or for the promotion of the gospel?

 

Acts 21:37-23:35

Paul’s time in Jerusalem alone could be made into a movie.  The movie begins with Paul going “undercover" as a law-abiding Jew, as we read yesterday.  It doesn’t work.  False accusations result in a riot against Paul, who is barely saved by Roman soldiers (21:31-32).  A passionate, biographical speech follows.  The riotous crowd is hushed when Paul speaks in their common language and closely identifies himself with Jewish scruples (22:2ff.).  All is well until he mentions God’s call to go to the Gentiles (22:21).  The crowd’s cultural and religious pride is too great to accept a gospel that does not entail conformity to Jewish custom, and the riots resumes.  Just as Paul is about to be tortured, he plays his last card, his Roman citizenship (22:25).  A more orderly but no less confrontational scene ensues between Paul and Jewish leaders (22:30ff.).  Paul shrewdly plays the beliefs of the Pharisees against those of the Sadducees and manages to come out unscathed (23:6-8).  Finally, just before a secret plot to ambush Paul is discovered and he is safely delivered to Caesarea, a coming sequel is confirmed.  The Lord Jesus comes to Paul at night and assures him that he will testify to the gospel in Rome (23:11).  

John Stott notes the clear parallels between the experiences of Paul and Jesus in Jerusalem.  “Both (1) were rejected by their own people, arrested without cause, and imprisoned; (2) were unjustly accused and willfully misrepresented by false witnesses; (3) were slapped in the face in court (23:2);* (4) were the hapless victims of secret Jewish plots (23:12ff.); (5) heard the terrifying noise of a frenzied mob screaming ‘Away with him’ (21:36; cf. 22:22); and (6) were subjected to a series of five trials - Jesus by Annas, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Antipas and twice by Pilate; Paul by the crowd, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Agrippa II [25:23ff.] and by the two procurators, Felix [24:1ff.] and Festus [25:1ff.]” (The Message of Acts, 336-337).  Though Jesus and Paul go to Jerusalem for different reasons, we see in these direct parallels that Jesus’ followers are truly called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps for the sake of the gospel.  

Paul, whose eyesight was poor and likely did not recognize the high priest in a frenzied crowd of Jewish leaders, responded much differently to being slapped than did Jesus (John 18:22ff.).  

Questions for Reflections and Prayer

  • How is Paul’s suffering, as a sinner, different from Jesus’ suffering, as the innocent and eternal Son? Take time to reflect on and to thank God for Jesus’ sacrificial suffering in Jerusalem, even before enduring the cross.  
     
  • Paul was surely asking himself some heart-searching questions as he considered God’s leading to go back to Jerusalem and as he endured tumultuous encounters in Jerusalem.  What might be the cost of faithfully following Jesus where He is calling you to go?

 

Acts 24:1-25:12

Two things stand out from Paul’s trials and appearances before the rulers of Judea:  the continuity of Paul’s gospel with the Old Testament and the continued barrage of false accusations against him.  First, Paul is steadfast in his belief and his message that the resurrection of the dead in Jesus is in continuity with all of the hopes of the Old Testament (24:12-16).  He is able to speak calmly, confidently, and boldly (24:25), as one firmly grounded in the ancient faith of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, etc.  Second, Paul’s steady confidence is even more impressive when we consider that he is continually and falsely accused of being diametrically opposed to the Old Testament (24:5-9; 25:7).  He is not rattled, but continues to trust in and faithfully proclaim the gospel during an imprisonment of more than two years in Caesarea (24:27).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The resurrection of the dead in Jesus is the heart of Paul’s message (24:21), his hope in prison, and the hope of the world.  His resurrection destroys the power of sin and death.  How does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection speak to you today?  How does his resurrection speak into your discouragement, frustration, worry, fear, and longing?  Take time to see your life today in light of the resurrection.
     
  • Jesus’ claim on our lives always comes into direct conflict with our self-rule, the self-rule that every one of us desires apart from the grace of God.  For this reason, speaking about Jesus brings direct conflict with the world, and we see the response of worldly powers grasping for control in these chapters.  Are there ways that you have been falsely accused or misunderstood because of your faith in Christ?  How do you respond?  Ask God to help you respond out the assurance, peace and confidence that only comes through him.  

 

Acts 25:13-26:32

“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”  These are the uncertain words of a man who is truly wrestling with what Paul has spoken.  King Herod Agrippa II* does not shoot down Paul’s message, but instead “buys time” by responding to a question with a question.  Paul has spoken more “freely” to him than to other rulers, knowing that Agrippa is familiar with the Scriptures (26:24-27).  

“Short time or long — I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”  Paul challenged Agrippa to declare his belief in the prophets (26:27) and senses Agrippa’s unsettled response (26:28), but he cannot force Agrippa’s hand or heart.  Instead, he gives Agrippa space while straightforwardly declaring his hope for Agrippa and all people, that they would know and experience the transforming grace of God.  

Who are these overlapping rulers in Judea?  According to John Stott in The Message of Acts, “Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I of Acts 12 and the great grandson of Herod the Great.  Bernice was his sister, and rumors were rife that their relationship was incestuous.  Because he had been only seventeen years old when his father died, he was considered too young to assume the kingdom of Judea, which therefore reverted to rule by [Roman] procurator [e.g. Felix and Festus].  Instead, he was given a tiny and insignificant northern kingdom within what is now Lebanon, and this was later augmented by territory in Galilee.  He was nevertheless influential in Jewry because the Emperor Claudius had committed to him both the care of the temple and the appointment of the high priest” (368).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer 

  • In Paul’s interaction with Agrippa, we see a willingness to directly challenge a person’s thinking (26:27) as well as patience and transparency (26:28).  This is a unique setting.  Every conversation is different, but we may still glean some principles of how to speak about Jesus from Paul.  At the right time, are you wiling to challenge people’s thinking?  Most of us do not do this perfectly.  We either try to push people too fast, trusting in our own persuasive power or seeking our own success in ministry, or we are not bold enough, overly concerned with what people will think and perhaps trusting in our clever subtlety rather than the power of God.  Ask God to help you speak with boldness and patience, for his glory and others’ good, rather than for your own glory.
     
  • Can you say, this day, that you share Paul’s concern, and God’s heart, for all people to know the transforming grace of God?   Ask God to give you a joy and satisfaction in his perfect love that overflows into a desire for others to know his love.

 

Acts 27

Sailors, scholars, and skeptics have long marveled over Luke’s detailed description of the dangerous journey from Caesarea to Rome.  Luke does not write with the technical vocabulary of a sailor.  Nevertheless, his accuracy makes it clear that he actually accompanied Paul on the boat.  

The turning point in the journey comes after “all hope of being saved” was gone and an angel of God visits Paul, assuring him that not one will be lost (27:21-25).  Paul may have slept more soundly after this visit, but notice that he does not sleep-in the next day and then tell the crew to “take it easy,” since everything is going to be fine.  No, he tells them that the ship “must run aground on some island” (27:26).    So they take soundings and drop anchors and eventually cut loose the anchors as they near an island (27:28,29,40).  Paul takes a leadership role, making sure the lifeboats are not used and encouraging the men to eat.  He is at peace, trusting in divine providence (27:34-35), but he knows that divine providence does not nullify human responsibility.  Rather, Paul acts because he trusts.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • What promises of God apply to all believers?  (He promises that He will complete the work of re-making us in his image and that He will use his church to draw people to himself throughout the world, to name a couple.)  Are you truly and joyfully resting in God's promises?  Take time to find rest for your soul in them.  
     
  • Just as an athlete who truly trusts in a coach is moved to action whereas lack of trust may lead to passivity, trust in God’s promises leads to confident action.  Are there areas in your life in which you are living out of a faulty view of the relationship between divine providence and human responsibility, in which God’s promises are actually resulting in passivity?  How might, or should, God’s promises move you to confident action?  Take time to praise God for his promises, to search your heart and life, to confess, to receive forgiveness, and to ask God to use you, perhaps in specific ways where you sense his leading.  

 

Acts 28

Paul may be bound by chain (28:20), but the gospel is not chained.  It is extreme irony that Luke can say, at the very end of his book, that Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God “without hindrance” (28:31).  Neither religious antagonists nor stubborn hearts (28:25-27) nor pagan empires are able to stop the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel.  In fact, God actually uses the Roman rulers and soldiers throughout Paul’s travels to protect him and uphold his innocence.  As a result, the gospel of Jesus ripples out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria to Mediterranean islands to modern Turkey to modern Greece to Rome, the heart of the empire (1:8).  Along the way, the gospel is proclaimed to and preached by Africans from Ethiopia (8:26ff.), Cyrene in Libya (2:10; 11:20), and Egypt (including Apollos, 18:24ff.).  

We do not know for sure if Paul was released from house arrest for further missionary activity. Evidence from the writings of early church fathers supports the belief that Paul was released, that he was able to carry the gospel to Spain, among other places, as he had hoped (Romans 15:24), and that he was martyred by Nero a few years later (around 67 BC).  Regardless, his ministry in captivity in Rome was extremely effective, by God’s grace.  Not only was he able to preach to Caesar’s household (Philippians 1:12-14), he also wrote the four “prison epistles” (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), which continue to bless the church today.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Between Caesarea and Rome, and the journey in-between, Paul spent about five years in captivity.  For someone as active as Paul, he must have faced the temptation to throw in the towel, but he continued to trust in God’s providential hand.  What circumstances in your life have caused or are causing you to doubt God’s ability to work through you?  How does Paul’s seemingly dismal, yet ultimately fruitful experience encourage you to trust in God?  

Romans

Romans Overview

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is his longest letter and the clearest explanation of the good news of Jesus Christ in all of Scripture.  He wrote the letter toward the end of his third missionary journey, prior to ever having visited Rome (1:11-14; 15:23-26).  For this reason, some have assumed that Paul had little knowledge of specific issues in the church and simply took advantage of the opportunity to lay out a treatise of the gospel prior to visiting Rome (15:23-24).  However, the letter reveals that Paul knew a great deal about the church in Rome (1:8).  He was well-acquainted with a number of believers in the church (16:3-16) and regularly circles back to one crucial issue in the church: unity between Jewish and Gentile christians (e.g. 1:14-16; 2:12-3:31; 4:1-17; 9:1-9; 10:1-4; 11:13-15; 14:13-15; 15:7-9; 16:17).  Take some time to skim this sampling of passages so that you can see this recurring theme for yourself.  As you do, it may be helpful to know this rough outline of the letter.

1:1-17 Introduction

1:18-3:20 Sin - a its universal scope
3:21-5:21 Salvation through union with Christ by faith
6:1-8:39 Sanctification or transformation of the believer through union with Christ
9:1-11:36 Sovereignty of God in saving both Jews and Gentiles
12:1-15:22 Service and love in response to God’s mercy

15:23-16 Mission Plans, Greetings, and Closing Words

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • For Paul, the gospel always transforms our relationship with others as well as our relationship with God.  How do you need to pray for yourself and the believers in your life, church, and city need to experience this reality?  

 

Romans 1:1-17

The "righteousness of God," made known and accomplished in Jesus, is the theme of Paul’s letter (1:17).  Through Jesus, God is bringing people into a right relationship with himself, for through faith in Jesus we are included in his righteousness and are therefore made fit for fellowship with God.  This has been God's plan, from the beginning, for Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus is the long-awaited (righteous) king of Israel, a descendant of King David “as to his human nature" (1:2-3; Psalm 89:3-4), but as the resurrected Son of God, Jesus includes all peoples in the scope of his saving work (1:4-6).  Gentiles, too, are called to a life-giving “obedience" that flows from faith in Christ and that is always dependent upon faith in Christ (1:5; cf. 6:22). 

This gospel, which unites Paul to God, also unites him to fellow believers in Christ and even to, in a different sense, those who do not yet know Christ.  His words and prayers make it clear that his own experience of God’s love in Christ has moved him to a deep affection for the believers in Rome (1:8-12).  He longs to see a “harvest” among them (1:13), a harvest which would include their own growth in Christ as well as new Christians added to their community through his preaching.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How is your experience of the gospel affecting your heart toward others, both believers and unbelievers?
     
  • Paul’s brief description of salvation as the “obedience of faith” or “the obedience that comes through faith in Christ” is a different choice of words than most of us would use today.  Is the idea of obedience to God sweet to you?  Are you asking Jesus to help you obey, knowing that it is only in his righteousness that we are made right with God?  

 

Romans 1:18-32

The "righteousness of God” is not all that is being “revealed” (1:17).  Since humanity’s fall into sin, God’s “wrath”— his righteous hatred of all that is corrupt and destructive -- is also being “revealed” (1:18).  How does God reveal his wrath?  The repeated phrase “gave them over” (1:24,26,28) tells us that God’s wrath is primarily revealed by giving us over to ourselves for self-destruction.

The root of our downfall is a disastrous “exchange” (1:23,25,26).  Instead of glorifying and enjoying the God whose glory may be “clearly seen . . . from what has been made,” we exchange “the glory of the immortal God” for created things of lesser glory, which are not worthy of our worship.  We willingly choose to worship and abuse the gifts, most notably gifts of sexuality (1:24-27), instead of the Giver.  God lets us run with our exchange.   The consequence is an emptiness of soul and confusion of mind that results in all kinds destructive attempts get ahead of others and to find significance apart from God (1:28-32).  Whenever we try to get more out of God's gifts than they were intended to give, we must distort and twist them in order to try to squeeze as much life out of them as we can.  

Our terrible “exchange” moved Jesus to make another terrible yet wonderful “exchange.”  He gave up his life for us, taking the guilt of our sin and God’s wrath toward our sin on the cross, that we would find our life and righteousness in him.  When we understand today's passage and the depth of God’s hatred of evil, the wonder of this exchange and of God’s mercy toward evildoers is all the more amazing.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what areas you tempted in your life to make the terrible “exchange”?  How are the gifts that you are tempted to abuse deceptive?  In what ways are they an empty substitute for the love, security, purpose, acceptance, significance, hope etc. of God?  Take time to confess, to wonder over the “exchange” Jesus made for us, and to ask God to help you cling to him and find your life in him.

 

Romans 2:1-16

What about those who were born and bred Jews, those to whom God revealed himself and gave his law through prophets and priests?  They go to synagogue regularly and try to obey God’s laws as best they can.  They are appalled by the blatant sins of the surrounding culture and look upon them with disdain.  Would God’s wrath against sin be revealed against them as well (1:18)?  Well, not if they truly kept the law, always doing good and always seeking God’s glory and honor (2:7,10).  But Paul’s point is that such a person does not exist (2:3,5).  (This point becomes extremely clear in the following chapter.)  Rather, the one who looks down on others without recognizing one’s own sin shows “contempt for God’s kindness, tolerance and patience” (2:4), which are intended to lead us "toward repentance” rather than a naïve self-righteousness.  

In this chapter, Paul levels the playing field between Jew and Gentile, both of whom were part of the church in Rome.  For it is not Jews who simply hear the law who are declared righteous in God’s sight, but those who fully obey and keep the law who are declared righteous (2:13).  In fact, even the Gentiles have some understanding of God’s laws by virtue of being created in God’s image (2:14-15).  They “hear” the law ringing in their hearts, to some extent.  But, like the Jews, their hearts go astray and they break God’s law.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • As you search your heart, how are you responding to God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience toward you?  Is it driving you toward the cross and repentance, or are you quicker to see the sin in others than in yourself?  Are there certain people in your life whom you are more likely to judge from a position of self-righteousness?  

 

Romans 2:17-3:20

In no uncertain terms, Paul brings his argument concerning the universal rebellion of humanity to a close.  “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20).  Every self-justifying mouth is silenced before a holy God (3:19), for the seed of sin in rebellious humanity (3:10-18) is in every one of us.  

Nevertheless, just as churchgoing Christians today are tempted to rely on religious heritage and/or moral performance as the basis for their relationship with God, so were Jews.  They were prone to “rely on [God’s] law and brag about [their special covenant] relationship to God” (2:17).  This covenant relationship was an immense privilege, for God had revealed his holiness and grace to them in the covenant laws, promises and signs (3:1-2).  But many missed the grace of God in the promises and signs, such as circumcision,* and were therefore unable to see their need for a dying Savior.  Instead of seeing circumcision as a sign of God’s grace toward them and of their need for circumcised or cleansed hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), many pridefully clung to it as a religious identity marker, sufficient on its own to give them a right standing in God’s family.  Paul is essentially saying, “If you want to rely on your possession of God’s law and circumcision as your righteousness, then you better obey the entire law” (2:25-27).**  This is the opposite of the gospel.  In the gospel, circumcision was the outward sign of a heart pierced and renewed by the Spirit of God, who applies the cleansing blood of Christ to the humbled heart (2:29).  

See devotionals explaining circumcision on Genesis 17 and Exodus 4:18-31.

** Some theologians believe that 2:26-27 refer to true believers who obey the law, not perfectly, but faithfully through a heart purified by Christ.  While this is possible, it is unlikely given that the context is concerned with the basis of our righteousness before God, and Paul is arguing that our obedience to the law can never be the basis of that righteousness (3:20).   Rather, 2:26-27 continue in the logic of 2:25, showing that true obedience to the law, by Jew or Gentile, is more important than the outward sign of circumcision.  Of course, only Christ is able to obey and fulfill God’s covenant laws on our behalf.  Yes, those united to Christ do desire and begin to live according to God’s laws, but not as the basis of righteousness before God.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Have you seen yourself rely on your religious background, a religious sign (e.g. baptism), your connection to a certain church or ministry or culture as the basis for your standing before God?  Are there any ways that these things may be causing you to miss the fullness of the grace of God in Christ?

 

Romans 3:21-31

After several depressing doses of reality as Paul explored the depths of sin, the words of God's grace in Christ wash over us with eternal refreshment.  Though we are helpless to make ourselves right with God through obedience to God's law (3:20), we have a righteousness from God through our union with Christ, “apart from [our obedience to] the law” (3:21-22).  It’s not that God’s “Plan A” failed, for the law was never able to save, due to human sin.  Rather, “the Law and the Prophets” (i.e. the entire Old Testament) point to our need for a Savior (3:21).

God’s grace toward us in Christ has always been God’s “Plan A,” and nowhere is this more evident than in Romans 3:25-26.  For thousands of years, true believers in God held out hope in God’s promises of forgiveness and restoration, but their sin was never finally punished and put to death in their lifetime.  In God’s patience, “he left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (3:25). Yes, there were animal sacrifices that pointed to a transfer of guilt and punishment, but an animal is not an adequate substitute for a human created in God’s image and likeness (10:4).  Therefore, Jesus became "like [us] in every way” (Hebrews 2:17), "yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), so that He could bear God’s just punishment of our sin.  Today's passage, especially verses 25-26, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus took God’s righteous (or “just”) punishment not only for our sins, but also for the sins of Old Testament believers who looked forward to the coming Messiah.  On the cross, God demonstrated his justice by punishing the sin of believers across the ages, and in this same act, He washed away our sin to justify us in his sight (3:26).  On the cross, justice and justifying grace kiss each other (cf. Psalm 85:10).  

Does this mean that Christians have a low view of God’s law (3:31)?  Not at all.  If we were to think that imperfect, selective, or external obedience to the law could save, that would entail a low view of the law, diminishing the perfect standard and reflection of God’s perfect character that it is.  But to believe that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God's laws on our behalf is to “uphold" the perfection and goodness of the law.  For this reason, believers DO seek to live according to the goodness of God’s laws through the power of Christ in us, not in a futile attempt to justify ourselves before God, but simply because the law is good and glorifying to God.   

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Have you entrusted your life to Christ and so been united to him by faith?  If so, you are united to him in his death for your sin.  He has taken the justice of God for your sin so that there is no more punishment for sin left.  You are also united to him in his righteousness, so that you stand justified before God.  You can add nothing to his perfect righteousness or to your standing before God.  What you can do is to respond in a life of gratitude and love.  

 

Romans 4

One family, saved by grace in Christ.  Abraham, the father of believing Jews (aka "the circumcised”), is also our father in the faith (4:11-12,16-17).  King David is our brother in the faith (4:6-8).  Perhaps more clearly than any other chapter in Scripture, Paul helps us to understand the unified story of Scripture (and of the world), as he proves that Abraham and David were justified through faith in the promise of Christ.  Specifically, he proves that Abraham was not saved by the sign of circumcision, for his faith in God’s promise of salvation (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6) was already “credited to him as righteousness” prior to receiving the sign (4:9-11; Genesis 17).  The sign was given to confirm or “seal” God's promise of blessing for the nations through Abraham’s offspring.  Just as Abraham believed, “against all hope," that God could provide offspring from his wife’s “dead” womb, so we believe that God raised Jesus from the grave and that He raises people like us who were dead in sin.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Abraham struggled mightily to believe that God could actually provide offspring from his dying body and Sarah’s “dead” womb, but he continued to believe.  Where are you struggling to believe that God can or will bring life out of death?  Physical or mental struggles?  Broken relationships?  Addictive patterns?  Injustices?  Hard hearts as you seek to share the love of Christ?  Our ultimate hope is that every part of our lives will be made new at the resurrection, but we believe in a God who is already about the work of making all things new.  

 

Romans 5

A slight change in focus occurs in this passage.  Previous passages (3:21-4:25) focused on how God’s people are initially made right with him.  As 5:1 says, “we have been justified through faith.”  Now Paul begins to focus on what it looks like to live as those who have been made right with God through Christ.  We have peace with God, we live in grace, we rejoice in the hope of glory (5:1-2), and we even rejoice in suffering because it produces a deeper, more confident hope in the end (5:3-5).  Surely God will complete our salvation and bring us into glory, considering that He has already done the more difficult work of reconciling us to himself when we were enemies (5:8-11)!    

While there is a shift in focus, Paul continues to provide rich scriptural explanations for the basis of this blessed position that we have in Christ (5:6-8,12-21).  The previous chapter explained our relationship to Abraham and David.  In this chapter, Paul goes all the way back to Adam!  While we share in the faith of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1,25) just as we share in the faith of Abraham and David, this passage emphasizes the negative, disastrous effects produced by Adam’s rebellion.  There are several views on the details of 5:12-21.  At a minimum, we can say that Adam brought sin and death into the world, and that we are all united with him in sin and death.  But there is a “second Adam” or “better Adam” or “last Adam” (cf. I Corinthians 15:45-49) who overturns death and brings life for “all who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17).  Just as we were united with Adam in his death by virtue of our natural connection, we may be united with Christ in his life through faith.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Take time to reflect on the present realities of our life in Christ (5:1-11).  How are you experiencing these realities?  Where are you missing them?  Where do you need to take hold of what is true of you in Christ?  

 

 

Romans 6

Why did Christ die?  Why has God chosen to pour out his abundant grace?  So that He can hand out tickets for the heaven bus?  Is it because He just likes to forgive?  By no means, says Paul!  He gives us complete forgiveness and grace that we “may live a new life” (6:4), be “freed from sin” (6:7), be made holy, and enjoy eternal life with God (6:22-23).

Paul insists that this eternal life begins now, not later, and this life is union with Jesus.  How many different ways can Paul say this?  Many!  If we are in Christ through faith, the reigning power of sin in our lives has been put to death on the cross (6:2-8,10).  If we are in Christ, we live in his resurrection — his victory over sin and death (6:4-5,8-10).  Yes, our mortal bodies still struggle with weakness and the pervading sin of the world (6:12), but "the old self," which was powerless against sin, has been crucified with Christ (6:6).  Therefore, we are called to embrace Christ and live in the reality of our union with him right now (6:11-14,16-21).  Just as we once pursued idols and selfish gain with slavish obedience, we are now to offer ourselves to God in absolute obedience (6:19).  For we are no longer slaves to fear and sin, which leads to death, but slaves to the God who gives true freedom and life!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does this passage connect the certainty of the past (Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection) and the certainty of the future (our resurrected bodies and eternal life - 6:5,23) to our present?  In your life, are the past, present, and future connected?
     
  • Just as embracing a spouse and living in the reality of the union of marriage would involve daily care, practice, and initiative, embracing Christ and living in the reality of our union with Jesus involves the same.  How does understanding our new life as 'union with Jesus' affect our approach to overcoming sin and honoring God?

 

Romans 7

Paul takes us a on little detour in Romans 7.  He has made some statements, even at the beginning of this chapter, that may be misconstrued as disdain for God's law (e.g. 6:14; 7:1-6).  He uses his detour (7:7-25), however, to assure us that the law is “spiritual,” “holy, righteous and good” (7:12,14).  Any negative impact of the law on humanity may not be blamed on the law; rather, it is the indwelling power of sin (aka “the flesh” or “sinful nature”), which rejects and disobeys the law, that renders the law helpless in giving life and instead brings condemnation and harm.*  Sinful humanity does not need God’s written law to rebel and march toward death (2:12-15; 5:14), but the “flesh” rebels all the more when it encounters God’s law (7:8-11).  Yet even this reality has a silver lining -- God’s written law exposes sin in all of its ugliness (7:13) that we might turn to Christ for life (Galatians 3:24).  

The great unknown of Romans 7 is this:  Who exactly is Paul talking about in 7:7-25?  Is it autobiographical, so that the first-person subject “I” is literal?  If so, is Paul describing his life prior to Christ, his experience as a believer, or his conversion experience?  Is it Adam, the first to receive a command (5:12-21), which would mean that the “I” is rhetorical?**  Is it Israel (also using a rhetorical “I”), the first recipients of God's law?  Or is Paul perhaps expressing his pre-Christian experience in solidarity with Adam's and/or Israel’s historical experience?

Given the reality of believers' ongoing struggle with sin, often an intense fight, many have understood 7:14-25 as describing Paul’s ongoing struggle as a Christian.  This may be possible, but how could a phrase like “slave to sin” (7:14,23,25) apply to Christians in light of what Paul has already said about our freedom in Christ (6:6-7,11,14,18,20,22)?  On the other hand, how could Paul say things like, “I delight in God’s law” (7:22), if he is speaking of unbelievers?  It is very possible that Paul is referring to devout Jews, who were zealous for God’s law, but unable to find freedom from sin through the law (Romans 10:1-4).  This, of course, was Paul’s personal experience as well (Philippians 3:5-7).  If Paul is in fact describing his own pre-Christian experience in solidarity with Israel, he distinguishes between a part of him that could see the goodness of God’s laws and the indwelling power of sin that rendered him incapable of finding life in God’s law (7:15-23).*  He cries out on behalf of Israel (and his pre-Christian self), “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and briefly interjects doxology into his argument, "Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (7:25).  

Regardless of who we understand to be the subject of Paul’s detour, we learn some huge lessons from this passage.  First, God’s laws are good!  If obeyed, they bring life!  Second, we share some common ground with unbelievers, who are made like us in God’s image, as they are still able to see the goodness of God’s laws to some degree.  Third, the law is utterly unable to give life to sinful humanity.  Only Jesus overcomes our struggle with sin and gives us life. Finally, even if Paul is not exactly describing his Christian experience here, we still do battle against the indwelling power of sin.  Precisely because our sin has ultimately been defeated by Christ and no longer masters us, we continue to look to Jesus for power over it (6:11-14)!

We cannot blame sin on the “sinful nature” or the “flesh” as a kind of outside force for which we are not responsible.  This is not what Paul is saying in 7:17.  The indwelling power of sin is part and parcel of fallen humanity.  As Paul says, “it is sin living in me.”  Note that if Paul is speaking of his pre-Christian experience in 7:17, the “no longer” contrast is “logical, not temporal; it states what must ’now,’ in light of the argument of 15-16, ’no longer’ be considered true (Douglas J. Moo, NICNT The Epistle to the Romans, 457). 

** Those who see a reflection on Adam’s experience in this passage point especially to 7:8-9, where Paul says, “Once I was alive apart from the law.”  If “alive” is entirely literal, then it must point to Adam’s pre-fall experience.  However, given Paul’s understanding of the intensified rebellion produced by the law, it may be that “alive” is used as a relative contrast to this intensified rebellion.  In this case, “That sin was ‘dead’ does not mean that it did not exist but that it was not as ‘active’ or ‘powerful’ before the law as after” (Moo, 437).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Can you cry out with Paul today, “Who [has] rescued me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
     
  • What is your view of God’s law?  Do you his commands as “good”?  Are there ways that you are trying to find your life in God’s law apart from the grace of Christ?
     
  • How could you find common ground with unbelievers around you, related to God’s laws?  How could you express humility and your own need for Christ regarding your inability to keep the law?  
     
  • In what ways do you need to ask Jesus, today, to continue to stamp out the remnants of indwelling sin in your life?


Romans 8:1-17

It doesn’t get any better than this!  Romans 8 is the climax of Paul’s gospel, bringing together many themes from previous chapters.  It is also one of the most comprehensive summaries of the gospel in all of Scripture. 

Here, Paul describes two realms or spheres.  One realm is dominated by the “law of sin and death,” a deliberate play on the word “law” to describe the ruling power of sin (8:2).  This realm is characterized by condemnation, hostility, rebellion, fear and death (8:1,6-8,15.)  The other realm is controlled by the “law of the Spirit of life” (8:2), which of course is also a play on “law” to describe the ruling presence of the Holy Spirit.  This realm is characterized by freedom from the dominating power of sin and the ongoing extinguishing of sin (8:2,9-11,13), “life and peace” (8:6), the assurance and comfort that comes with being children of God (8:14-16), the hope of a glorious inheritance, and, for a time, suffering (8:17).  

Only through Christ Jesus, who took the condemnation that our sin deserves (8:3) and "fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law” on our behalf (8:4), may we be delivered from the realm of sin and death to the realm of “the Spirit of life.”  The passage makes it clear that the sole basis of our deliverance is this work of Christ on our behalf and that it is through no work of our own.  At the same time, the passage also makes it clear that there is no such thing as a believer who has been delivered from the condemnation of sin without also being delivered from the dominating power of sin (8:4b,8:9-11,13).  This is fantastic news!  The same Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, to conquer death for us, also lives in every believer to put sin to death in us and give life.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, do I realize that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead also lives in me?  Do I realize what power dwells in me through the Spirit?  In what areas of my life do I struggle to believe that God could conquer sin?  What areas of sin might be hidden from my view that need to be put to death?
     
  • What difference is the reality that I am a child of God making in my life?

 

Romans 8:18-39

Our present experience as those indwelt by the Spirit of God does not compare to “the glory that will be revealed” (8:18).  For hundreds of millions of Christians, who not only experience the “frustration" of mortal bodies, fragile and broken relationships, loneliness, worry, vocational discouragement and frustration and uncertainty, etc., but who also face daily fears produced by persecution, ostracism, poverty, and disease, “the glory that will be revealed” cannot come soon enough.  The “frustration” of the world is the judgment of God for human sin (8:20), but Paul reminds us that even the “frustration” came with the hope of victory over evil (see devotional on Genesis 3:14-24).  Ever since the fall and frustration of the world (Genesis 3:16-17), the hope of glory has been with God’s children (Genesis 3:15).

How do we to live in this time in which we taste the goodness of God through the Spirit of God at work in us, but continue to see and experience so much brokenness?  First, we are honest about our longings for renewal and the completion of our adoption as children.  God has signed and sealed the adoption papers with Christ’s blood and we are already growing in relationship with our heavenly Father, but we are not yet home (8:14-17,23).  We groan with all of creation, waiting with great yet patient hope for the end of “frustration” and renewal “of creation itself" (8:21,23-25).  Second, we rely on the Spirit’s help, who helps us in our groaning, who helps us know how to pray in our confusion, and who even mysteriously prays for us when we do not know how (8:25-27).  Third, we rest in the assurance of God’s forgiveness (8:33-34) and love for us in Christ (8:31-39).  If God did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us (8:32), why would He not complete the work of conforming us to the Son’s likeness (8:29), bring home every last one of Christ’s adopted brothers (8:29), and graciously share with us every spiritual and material blessing of the new creation (8:32)?  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Is it possible to truly have hope without groaning?  Am I longing for the hope of glory and groaning alongside all creation?  In what ways am I hiding from or “medicating” the longing for complete renewal?
     
  • Paul wants us to be conscious of and comforted by the Spirit’s work even in the intimacy of our prayers.  It’s clear that the Spirit intercedes for us in ways that do not ask for and that we will never see, and yet increased awareness and reliance on the Spirit deepens our relationship with God.  Am I humbly and daily relying on the Spirit for help as I pray and wait in hope?
     
  • Reflect and pray on question at the end of the second paragraph above!


Romans 9

After giving us a view of the heights of renewed creation from the valley of suffering, Paul wrestles intensely with the reality that not all will embrace God’s salvation, including many from his own people.  This is not at all an intellectual exercise in which Paul sits in judgment on the morality or goodness of God.  It is Paul’s expression of the deep pain and loss he experiences (9:1-3), knowing that many of the “natural children” of Israel have rejected Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promises (9:4-9,30-33).  At the same time, he understands that the true children of Israel, the true people of God, have always been those who have embraced God’s promises of salvation through Abraham’s offspring, namely Christ (see also 2:28-29 and chapter 4).  When Gentiles embrace these promises by faith, they show that they are true children of Abraham and Israel as well (9:24-33)!

A few clarifying points may be helpful.  First, Paul quotes the prophet Malachi:  “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (9:13; Malachi 1:2-3).  This statement refers to God’s judgment on the nation of Edom, made up of Esau’s descendants, as well as on Esau, who despised the promises of God.  There is a very real sense in which Esau experiences God’s hatred and wrath toward sin, but we also know that God was good to Esau (see parenthetical note in Genesis 33 devotional), in spite of the fact that Esau rejected the Abrahamic promises of God.  God shows love even to his enemies (cf. Matthew 5:44-45).  

Second, the passage refers to God's hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (9:17-18).  We must remember that God never hardens a heart that is not already hard toward him.  We read about this same thing in Romans 1 -- God’s primary judgment for our sin is to “give us over” to the hardness of our own hearts (1:24,26,28).  Pharaoh still did what Pharaoh wanted to do, and God did not choose to show mercy on him and soften his heart, nor was God obligated in any way to do so.  

Related to the second point, God does not move people to do things against their will.  He must, in mercy, renew our wills and soften our hearts through his Spirit if we are to move toward God (8:5-8), but God does not do violence to our wills and override them.  How all of this works together is a mystery, and we would do well to humbly acknowledge the mystery as Paul did.  See how he ends this section of the letter in 11:33-36!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Can you relate to Paul’s anguish over those who do not know the love of Christ?  
     
  • Does Paul’s struggle with the questions raised in this chapter “freeze” him or lead him to faith-filled action?  

 

Romans 10

It seems ironic that Paul uses passages from Deuteronomy 30, concerning God's law (10:6-8; Deut. 30:12-14), to establish “the righteousness that is by faith” (10:6).  The word that is “near you” in Deut. 30 is the law of God (Deut. 30:10).  However, Paul is drawing a parallel between the nearness of God’s word in the Old Testament, which focused on the law, and the nearness of God’s word in the New Testament, which focused on Christ.  God’s nearness in both cases reveals his grace toward his people (Moo, 653).  Also note that the opening words in the Deuteronomy reference, “Do not say in your heart” (10:6), come from Deuteronomy 9:4.  In Deut. 9:4-6, Moses warns the people of Israel that they did not receive God’s favor because of their “own righteousness,” which of course fits Paul’s argument seamlessly (Moo 650-651).  Jesus is “the end,” the fulfillment, the consummation of God’s law (10:4).  He is the “righteousness” that the Israelites could not establish on their own.   

In the rest of the chapter, Paul establishes from the three major sections of the Old Testament (Law-Moses, Writings-Psalms, Prophets-Isaiah) that Israel has no excuse for missing Jesus.  He quotes Psalm 19:4 (10:18), concerning the general revelation of God’s creative power throughout the world, as a vivid picture of the way the gospel has gone out to Jew and Gentile (at least) throughout the Roman empire (Moo, 667).  He then quotes Deuteronomy (10:19) and Isaiah (10:21) to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles is no reason for disbelief.  Like the Gentiles, Israel has heard the good news of Jesus, but many have not believed (10:16).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Many in Israel were bothered by the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom, but clearly they should not have been bothered by this.  Am I bothered by anyone’s inclusion in the kingdom?  
     
  • Am I building or relying on a “righteousness of my own” in any way or am I fully rejoicing that Christ is the fulfillment of the law today?

 

Romans 11

Up to this point in the letter, Paul has been tougher on Jewish Christians in Rome, who may have been tempted to trust in their religious heritage or to question why their fellow Israelites are now outside of the church.  In today’s passage, Paul turns to Gentile Christians in Rome who were tempted to have their own form of religious pride over and against the Jewish Christians (11:13-14).  Apparently, some of them saw themselves as a replacement of the Jews as opposed to a part of spiritual Israel.  

How does Paul speak into this form of pride?  First, he draws on examples throughout the Old Testament to show that God has not changed his mind or plan in regard to the Jews.  During the times of Elijah (11:2-4; I Kings 19:18), Moses, Isaiah (11:8; Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10), and David (11:9;Psalm 69:22-23), there were many Jews whose hearts were hard toward God, but by God’s grace there has always been a faithful “remnant” of Jews.  Paul argues that the same is true in this age (11:5-6).  Second, Paul argues in multiple ways that the family of God will only be complete when all of the true Jews, as well as believing Gentiles, are included (11:11-32).  In five different ways, he shows the pattern of Israel’s rejection of the gospel leading to the the Gentiles’ acceptance, which in turn will lead to Israel’s acceptance (1. 11:11-12; 2. 11:15; 3. 11:17-23; 4. 11:25-26; 5. 11:30-31; Moo 684).  God used Israel’s widespread rejection of the gospel to push Paul and others to go to the Gentiles, but Paul believes that the Gentiles’ widespread acceptance of the gospel will at some point lead to widespread acceptance among the Jews.  If “wild olive shoots” (i.e. Gentiles) were grafted into the cultivated olive tree (i.e. God’s family or spiritual Israel) by faith, how much more easily will the natural branches (i.e. Jews), which were “broken off" because of unbelief, be grafted back in by faith (11:24).  

It’s important to understand that chapter 11 speaks of Israelites and Gentiles in broad terms.  For instance, it is clear that Paul does not believe that every Gentile has received salvation, even though Paul refers to “the Gentiles" as one body (11:11-12; cf. 11:25).   In the same kind of broad terminology, “all men” in 11:32 means Israelites and Gentiles, not every single Israelite and Gentile.  So how do we interpret 11:26, where Paul specifically says that “all Israel will be saved”?  Given the build up in 11:25, which refers to the inclusion of both Israelites and Gentiles in the family of God, “all Israel” most likely refers to the full number of believing Israelites and Gentiles, with an emphasis on Paul’s certainty that this number will, in the end, include a large number of ethnic Israelites.  This view also fits the argument of the entire chapter — the family of God will only be complete when all of the true Jews, as well as believing Gentiles, are included!  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How is my heart toward ethnic Jews?  Do I share Paul’s hope that many will come to faith in Christ?  More broadly, in what ways does my heart take pride in my cultural or (even) theological expression of Christianity over and against other believers?

 

Romans 12

Romans 12 portrays the reversal of the downward spiral into sin described in chapter 1:18-32.  The only fitting response to the mercy of God in Christ, who offered up his life to redeem us from sin and death, is to offer our lives up to God in worship (12:1).  We have no true life apart from our life in Christ, so we continually die to any selfish, prideful agenda of our own and to anything that is not of him (6:12-13; 8:12-13).  Romans 12 provides us a beautiful picture of what this life as “living sacrifice” looks like and calls us to actively enter into this life.    

First, Romans 12:2-3 calls us into the ongoing reversal of the mind “darkened” by selfish pride (1:21-23,28).  Then, Romans 12:4-9 calls us to reverse the worldly pattern of using one another for fulfillment (1:24-27) by using our gifts for the good of one another in sincere love.  Finally, Romans 12:10-21 calls us to the reversal of the many destructive sins that flow from our selfish agendas.  In a broken and divided world, this reversal will require entering into the pain of others and even absorbing their destructive sins, a reality that shines through in every single one of the last ten verses of the chapter.  While this principle is true universally, it is likely that Paul also has the local tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in mind.  

We must remember that this life of worship can only flow from God’s mercy in Christ (12:1).  Our imperfect worship can never be the reason or basis of God’s love for us (11:6).  And just as God’s mercy is the basis of our life, his indwelling presence in our lives is the power of our ongoing transformation (8:9-14).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How is my life a response to the mercy of God in Christ?  In what ways am I trying to hold onto a life of my own making, not dying to self?  Where do I see my mind figuring out how to use people for my good rather than figuring out how to serve and build up others?  Where can I enter into the pain of others, even where I may risk rejection, ridicule and persecution?   

 

Romans 13

The emphasis on love in the second half of Romans 13 flows out of the previous chapter, but Paul’s words on submission to governing authorities seem to come out of nowhere.  Some believe that Paul must have something specific in mind, such anti-Roman Jewish zealotry, refusal to pay taxes, or lingering hostility toward Rome for Claudius’s expulsion of Jews and Jewish Christians in 49 A.D., all of which have some degree of historical basis.  However, it is very possible that 13:1-7 simply extends from 12:19, where Paul exhorts the Roman Christians not to take revenge, “but to leave room for God’s wrath.”  In 13:1-7, Paul explains that God’s punishment of evil, in part, comes through governing authorities (Moo, 792-793).  Just as Jesus taught, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” we are called to submit to these governing authorities unless specific commands entail disobedience to God (e.g. Acts 5:28-29).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Every one of God’s commands is an expression of love (13:8-10).  They actively promote  the good of others or protect from harm.  All deeds of the “dark” are the opposite of love.  They are self-serving and harmful (13:12-13).  For this reason, and because we are always moving closer to Christ’s return (13:11), we are called root out any excuse for sin, bargain with sin, and thought or plan of sin.  Instead, we are to put on the likeness of Christ through the Spirit (13:14).  Where am I holding out hope for finding life through sin instead of through love?
     
  • Roman emperors left much to be desired in terms of godly leadership, and that is an understatement.  Yet Jesus and Paul called for obedience to the authorities when it did not require disobedience to God.  Are there any ways in which I am refusing to submit to the governing authorities or to pay what is due to them?

 

Romans 14:1-15:13

Paul now addresses the tension troubling the church in Rome head-on.  The “weak” were most likely Jewish Christians who abstained from meat for fear of eating food that was “unclean” according to Old Testament food laws (14:14) and/or from wine “out of concern that it had been tainted by the pagan practice of offering the wine as a libation to the gods" (14:21; Moo, 831).  Some also considered it necessary to observe Old Testament feast days (14:5).  The “strong” were most likely Gentile Christians and Jews, like Paul, who had a greater grasp on Christ’s fulfillment of external Old Testament signs and symbols (14:14,20;15:1).  The terms “strong” and “weak” may have already been in use by believers in Rome to distinguish between these different perspectives.  

Regardless of the precise issues at hand, we know that Paul is calling the church members to humility, patience and love toward one another (14:19,15:1-9).  Whichever side they are on, they are not to adopt a judgmental attitude toward one another (14:3-4,7-13).  In addition, the “strong” are not to wave their freedom in the face of the “weak” (14:13,15-16,20-21) and the “weak” are not to eat unclean foods until their their consciences have been freed (14:23).   

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • It is all-too-common for “enlightened” groups within the church to look down on those they deem to have a lesser understanding of “true” Christianity.  Are there any ways in which I participate in this sort of thing?  Are there ways in which I feel like I am being judged by an “enlightened” group and reciprocate with judgment rather than respond with grace?
     
  • The “strong" may have a greater intellectual understanding of the gospel than the “weak,” but their understanding is worthless if they are not led and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14:17-18; 15:13).  Am I relying on my intellect over the Holy Spirit?  Ask God to enable to live out Paul’s exhortations in this chapter through his Spirit.

 

Romans 15:14-33

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known ...” (15:20).  With these words, Paul reveals the missionary heart of God and of his church.  Let the words burn in your heart.  They reflect God’s words through the prophet Isaiah (15:21).  Paul’s desire for those who have not yet heard the gospel is not that they would “make a decision for the Lord” or “pray a prayer of salvation,” but that their lives would become “an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:16).  His desire is for transformed lives, lived to the glory of God.  His desire takes us back to the beginning of this section of the letter, which Paul began by exhorting the Roman Christians to “offer [their] bodies as living sacrifices” in worship (12:1).

After having “boldly” (15:15) admonished the believers in Rome to show deference and understanding toward one another, Paul explains that his words did not come from a lack of trust in the their spiritual maturity (15:14), but rather from his call as a minister, especially as a minister to the Gentiles (15:15-16).  This call has been attested by “signs and miracles,” it is now sending him in service to the poor in Jerusalem (15:25-26), and Paul believes that it will send him to Rome and further on to the western end of the Roman empire, Spain (15:24,28).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • When Paul refers to places “where Christ was not known,” he seems to be referring to places where there is no access to the gospel.  The frontiers of world missions, places where there is little-to-no Christian influence, ought to be part of our prayer lives, and perhaps part of our giving and service.  In America, there are an increasing number of people who, while they may be within geographic proximity to the gospel, have little-to-no Christian influence in their lives.  Am I praying for the people all around who fit this description?  Do I have friends and neighbors who have little-to-no Christian influence in their lives?  How might God be calling me to love and serve them, and speak the gospel to them?

 

Romans 16

Paul knows a number of members of the church(es) in Rome and there is depth to their friendships.  He uses the following phrases to describe his friends:  “she has been a great help to many people, including me;” “They risked their lives for me;” “worked very hard for you;” “have been in prison with me;” “our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend;” “tested and approved in Christ;” “those women who work hard in the Lord;” “another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord;” and “who has been a mother to me, too” (16:1-16).  When we consider all of these descriptions together, we are struck by the believers’ sacrificial commitment and service to the Lord as well as their sacrificial commitment and service to each other.  Clearly, the body of Christ was actually functioning as one body.  They are finding their lives in God and in his family.  

This is why Paul warns against those who would divide the body (16:17-19).  They have much to lose!  Yet Paul is confident that God will continue to protect and build his people.  Jesus will finish the job of crushing Satan and evil, a victory guaranteed through the cross and resurrection (16:20; and see Genesis 3:14-24 devotional).  This work of Jesus is the “mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known …” (16:25-26).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does the depth of the relationships among the Roman believers speak into my life?
     
  • How does the sure hope that Jesus will finish the job of crushing Satan affect my heart, my prayers, and my work today?

1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians - Introduction

It’s convenient to be able to read about the beginning of the church in Corinth in Acts 18:1-18.  (Today is a good day to read it!)  Paul led the local synagogue leader and many others to faith in Jesus and, in obedience to a vision from God (Acts 18:9-11), continued to speak about Christ in the city for a year and a half (50-52 A.D.).  A few years later, however, after the winds of various teachings had blown through Corinth, Paul’s letter indicates that the young church struggled in some significant ways.

The city of Corinth lies just a few miles southwest of the Isthmus of Corinth, a 4-mile wide land bridge connecting the Peloponnesian peninsula to the northern mainland of Greece.  (Check it out on googlemaps.)  This economically strategic location made Corinth an inevitable place for development within the Roman Empire, and the exchange of goods was accompanied by the exchange of cultural and religious ideas.  In particular, the Corinthian church seems to have been heavily influenced by Greek dualism, which understands the spiritual/intellectual and physical/material to be entirely distinct realms.  Within this view, spiritual knowledge and expression are what matter, so that physical desire either becomes something to be denied because the physical is inherently evil (7:5) or something to be indulged because the physical is unimportant (e.g. 5:1-2).  

Most of the issues that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians may be traced back to this false dualism:

  • In chapters 1-4 & 12-14, Paul addresses spiritual pride, a sense among some of the Corinthians that they have “arrived” spiritually.  Some are attaching themselves to certain personalities and to supposedly higher forms of wisdom and knowledge (1:12,20; 2:6; 3:21), while others are taking pride in charismatic spiritual gifts (13:1-2). 
  • In chapters 5-7, Paul addresses sexuality.  Some are indulging in sexual immorality under the excuse that the body does not matter (5:1-2; 6:13-15), while others are denying good desires within marriage because they (falsely) see the physical realm as unspiritual (7:3-5).  
  • In chapters 8-10, Paul deals with the common practice of sacrificing food to Roman gods.  Such sacrifices sought the blessing of the gods and the accompanying feasts were integral to familial, social, commercial, and political life.  Paul makes it clear that it is unnecessary to avoid market food that has previously been sacrificed to idols (10:25-26), but he confronts those who are actually participating in pagan feasts out of a sense that they are spiritually immune to evil (10:19-22).
  • In chapter 11, Paul transitions to matters of public worship.  We saw above that 12-14 covers the subject of spiritual gifts in worship.  The lack of concern for the physical seems to have led some to dismiss the uniqueness of gender (11:2-16) and to ignore physical need among those in the congregation (11:20-21).

Finally, in chapter 15, Paul masterfully presents the foundation of the Christian belief in the unity of body and soul, physical and spiritual:  Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.  He has alluded to this foundation elsewhere (e.g. 6:14), but in chapter 15 he provides the most comprehensive treatment of the resurrection and its implications in all of Scripture.

Gordon Fee's commentary, The First Epistle to the Corinthians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament series, is the main reference material for this devotional.  You will see this work quoted some days.  I do not agree with Fee on every point, but his commentary is one of the best on this letter.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Greek dualism may be ancient, but it is alive and well in various forms throughout the world as well as in our church and culture.  As you consider your own life and view of Christian mission, where do you see a tendency toward dualism?  Is there a tendency to downplay or dismiss physical goodness, needs, desires, sins, etc. because you see the physical realm as unimportant or unspiritual?

 

1 Corinthians 1:1-17

It's difficult to imagine Paul packing more life-changing truth into the very beginning of his letter. In verse 2, he reminds the Corinthians that they have been "sanctified," or made holy, through the work of Christ and that they are "called to be holy."  To be holy is to be set apart for God, to reflect God's character. But even if we understand the definition of holy, Paul's words could be confusing.  Are believers already holy (i.e. "have been sanctified") or do we still need to become holy (i.e. "called to be holy")?  Yes!  Through union with Christ, we are already included in his holiness. This is now our true identity. Therefore, we are called to live in accord with our true identity, or, in other words, to become who we are in Christ.  

This truth is especially relevant to the Corinthians, many of whom seem to have forgotten that holiness, displayed through love and purity, is central to the Christian call.  Instead, the Corinthians are caught up in gifts of speaking and the acquisition of knowledge.  Paul affirms the goodness of spiritual gifts and knowledge (1:4-7), but he is already subtly calling the Corinthians back to humble trust in Christ. Notice that Paul refers to Jesus in each of the first ten verses!  Everything they have comes through fellowship with Christ. They are not special because of their connection with certain personalities (1:12) or on a higher plane than other believers, but rather they are "together with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:2).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Do you know, today, that you have already been made holy through your union with Christ, that this is now who you are?  Take time to reflect on the immensity of this reality that God would make sinful people his holy ones at the cost of his Son’s life.  

• How are you currently understanding growth in your faith?  Is it primarily about becoming more like God, reflecting his character more and more in all that you do?  Or where has “growth" become more about acquiring knowledge and displaying spiritual gifts, perhaps for others to see?  Is your knowledge and gifting serving the purpose making you and others more like God, or have your knowledge and gifting taken on their own lives apart from God?  

• Is your understanding of growth in Christ rooted in his grace?  In other words, do you know that any growth in Christ occurs because you have already been included in his life?   

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

If Christianity were a human philosophy, then growth as a Christian would primarily mean knowing more stuff about the philosophy and graduating to higher levels of knowledge.  But Paul reminds us that “the world through its wisdom did not know [God] (1:21).  Human wisdom fails in the most important thing!  It fails to connect us to God because true religion is not about knowing a philosophy, but knowing a person — a crucified person.  

In today’s passage, Paul points out the irony of God’s wisdom and strength, displayed through a Savior who clothed himself in human weakness even to the point of a humiliating death (1:25).  The great irony is that Christ’s crucifixion, which human wisdom mocks, does what human wisdom could not do — his crucifixion enables us to know God.  It leads to “our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1:30).  In fact, his crucifixion overcomes the same deceitful pride of human wisdom that leads us away from God in the first place.  

Paul points to the Corinthians themselves as evidence for God’s wisdom displayed through weakness (1:26-28).  Even as Creator, Jesus embraced the humble position of a creature, and Paul is calling the Corinthians to embrace their humble position as creatures.  When we embrace the power and wisdom of Jesus' crucifixion for us, we stop boasting in human wisdom and start boasting in the Lord (1:31).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Consider the power of death in our world.  The death rate is 100%.  All of it brought about because of sin.  Consider the power of the cross, reversing the power of death and giving us "righteousness, holiness and redemption.”  What does it look like to live a life rejoicing and boasting in the power of the cross?  Where do you find yourself boasting in other things, especially various philosophies?  Take time to rejoice in the unspeakable power of the cross in your life and in the lives of those around you.  
     

1 Corinthians 2

The root of humanity’s rebellion against God is the desire for "superior wisdom."  Think back to the garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve’s fall came from the desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  They stopped trusting the goodness of God and instead contended with God by seeking greater knowledge.  They were already “like God” as his image in the world, but they were seeking to be “like God” in ways that our humanity cannot not bear.  

So how can fallen humans like the Corinthians and us, who have inherited Adam and Eve’s pride in "superior wisdom," understand the true wisdom of Christ’s lowliness and crucifixion (2:2,7-8)?  How could we ever understand that life comes through the free gift of God in Christ (2:12) rather than self-attained knowledge?  Only through the Spirit of God working in us, who enables us to share in the mind of Christ (2:4-5,9-16).  Merely human wisdom consists of words without power, but the wisdom of God has the power to give life (2:1-5).  

So, it is not wrong to seek wisdom (2:6), but we must seek it in humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit.  And how can we know if the wisdom we are receiving is the wisdom from God?  Only if it leads us to a greater understanding of Jesus’ humility and crucifixion, making us more humble about ourselves and boastful about Christ in the process (1:31; 2:2).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Am I pursuing the knowledge and wisdom of Christ?  In my heart, is Jesus becoming greater as I become less?  Ask the Spirit to search your heart.

• The first five verses of this chapter are the heart and soul of Paul’s “philosophy of ministry.”  It is not a complicated philosophy.  Is the message and reality of "Christ crucified,” and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, at the center of my mission?  In what am I trusting as I seek to make Christ known to others?  Do I avoid talking about my own weakness and the power of the cross, or are they at the center of my message?

 

1 Corinthians 3

The Corinthians think that Christianity maturity means being connected to the right people (3:4,21a).  It’s the cult of personality.  How often do we feel more spiritually mature because we have read or listened to or follow a certain author or preacher, or because we are familiar with a certain theological idea?  Paul’s definition of maturity could not be more different.  For Paul, maturity is displayed through love and unity (3:21b-23), while immaturity is displayed through “jealousy and quarreling” (3:1-3).  Unity does not pit one leader against another, but rather embraces the reality that all Christians belong to one another in Christ (3:22-23). Gordon Fee helpfully adds, “It is hardly possible in a day like ours that one will not have denominational, theological, or ideological preferences.  The difficulty lies in allowing that it might really be true that “all things are ours,” including those whom we think God would do better to be without” (156).  

In the midst of rebuking the church for their jealousy and quarreling, Paul also seems to turn his eye toward the leaders in the church.  First, he reminds them that they are merely servants in God’s field.  God uses their labor, but only God empowers the growth of the church and its members (3:5-9).  

The metaphor then turns from field to building (3:9).  Paul’s “point is that the quality of the superstructure must be appropriate to the foundation,” which is Jesus Christ (3:10-15; Fee, 140).  In other words, only teaching grounded in the person and work of Jesus will produce true godliness (i.e. “gold, silver, and costly stones”), while other teaching will produce character (“i.e. wood, hay or straw”) that cannot stand the refining fire of God’s holiness.  It is no accident that "gold, silver and costly stones” were important materials in the Old Testament temple, considering that Paul reminds the church that together they are now the temple — the dwelling place of God through the Spirit (3:16).  Accordingly, he warns the leaders that their ministry is not a game (3:17).  Finally, Paul circles back around to the wisdom/foolishness theme of chapters 1-2 and applies it specifically to church leadership (3:18-20).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How do you know if you are growing in spiritual maturity?  Is it because you are becoming more fluent in a certain theological framework or with certain authors or pastors?  Of course it is good to grow in our understanding of theology and certain authors or pastors may be particularly helpful, but are they causing you to be more humble and helping you grow in true unity with believers who may not read the same books or listen to the same speakers?
     
  • Is there any sense in which Christianity or ministry has become a game for you?  Has it lost its weightiness or import?  Do you know that, together with other believers, you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you (3:17)?


1 Corinthians 4

We were not made for sickness, hardship, violence, abuse, or any form of suffering.  We were made to live in the abundant blessing of God.  The richness of the Garden of Eden was just a starting point for what the whole world was to become (Genesis 1:28-30) and, through Christ, will become (Revelation 21-22).  But we are not yet there.  In a world marked by suffering, the only way to make Christ’s love and resurrection power known is to humbly enter into the suffering of others, following the way of the cross.  Many of the Corinthian teachers and believers seem to be denying this need to suffer and instead are preaching a version of the “health and wealth gospel," which promises worldly strength, honor, esteem, and riches, this side of heaven. 

Paul uses intense sarcasm to make his point (4:8-13).  The false teachers in Corinth and their followers are like “kings," they are seen as being “wise" and “strong," they are “honored."   They ought to know that something is very wrong with their lives and ministry, for this is not at all the earthly experience of their Savior!  Therefore, Paul appeals to them as their spiritual “father” -- the one who introduced them to Jesus, pleading with them to repent of their self-satisfaction and self-protection, so that he will not have to be harsh in his words when he visits (4:14-21).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what ways is my life an attempt to avoid suffering and the suffering of others?  How might Jesus all into me into the suffering of others, in all of its forms, in order to display and speak of the grace and resurrection power of Christ?  

 

1 Corinthians 5

Here we see the height of the Corinthians' pride and the destructiveness of the lies being taught in their midst. Some are actually proud of the "freedom" exhibited when one of them has an affair with his step-mother (5:2a,6a).  They believe that they have "arrived" spiritually and that sexual immorality actually demonstrates their supposedly mature knowledge of the unimportance of what is done in the body. They are, in their minds, beyond the body. 

Paul's response may be difficult to understand. He is not saying that believers should separate themselves from unbelievers (5:9-10) and he is not saying that believers who are struggling with sin should be barred from fellowship with the church. Rather, professing Christians who are not even struggling with their sin and repenting, and are thereby trampling upon the grace of Christ, should not be treated as believers or allowed to take part in our Passover Lamb's body and blood at the Lord's table (5:11).  Since there is no evidence of the transforming work of Christ in their lives, continuing to treat them as believers would give them a false assurance of salvation.  Remember, there are only two kingdoms - the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness (e.g. Colossians 1:12-14).  To “hand this man over to Satan” is to consider him outside of the kingdom of light, with the loving hope that such a wake-up call will bring him to repentance so that he may be saved (5:5). 

In the midst of this severe warning, Paul gives believers a wonderful picture of our true identity in Christ.  In the Old Testament, yeast or (more accurately) “leaven,” was a "portion of last week’s dough” that was allowed to ferment and was then added to new dough in order to give it lightness (Fee, 216).  God used it as a tangible sign of impurity and, for this reason, Israel was forbidden from using leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the week following Passover.  Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that, through Christ’s sacrifice, they have already been made a new, pure “batch of dough” (5:7 - “as you really are”).  Similar to his call in 1:2, Paul calls the Corinthians to live according to their true identity by getting rid of the “leaven” in their midst (5:7a,8)!  If they do not deal with blatant sin in their midst, it will end up hurting the entire community (5:6).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Are there any areas of your life that you consider to be outside of the authority or lordship of Christ? 
     
  • Do you have any friends who profess Christ but exhibit no desire to repent of blatant sin?  What does love require?  How can you humbly and lovingly speak into their lives?  The first step is always to approach a friend individually in order to woo them back to the grace of Christ (Matthew 18:15-18). 
     
  •  Do you know, today, that you have been made new through the shed blood of Jesus (5:7)?  In light of reality that you have been made “new” by Christ, what “leaven” do you need to “get rid of”?  


1 Corinthians 6:1-11

Paul refers in this passage to the Scriptural teaching that God’s people will somehow participate in his judgment of the world (see also Revelation 20:4).  His reference is a future judgment in participation with God, not a present judgmental attitude toward unbelievers (5:12a).  We have no idea what this future participation in judgment will look like, but Paul points out the irony of two believers taking a petty dispute to a secular court when the church will eventually help judge the world.*  At the same time, he highlights the irony of the Corinthians’ claim to higher wisdom yet their inability to find someone “wise enough” to judge this dispute.  Gordon Fee notes, “Paul is trying to help the Corinthians see their true condition over against their perceived one” (237).

The list in 6:9-10 ties together themes of sexual immorality and greed from 5:1 through 6:8.  Just as he was concerned for the salvation of the offender in 5:1-5, he is concerned for the salvation of any Corinthians whose lives are characterized by sin rather than transformation.  It is quite clear that Paul is not saying that true believers are without sin or that one earns God’s favor by doing good works.  If he were saying either of these things, he would not continue to affirm their salvation in Christ, who “washed" away their sin, “sanctified" or set them apart as God’s holy ones, and “justified" or made them right with God (6:11).  Rather, Paul is once again calling them to become who they are in Christ (1:2; 5:7)!  Union with Christ is always accompanied by repentance and transformation.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • You may not be taking other believers to court, but are there petty disputes or arguments with other believers that need to be resolved?  Are you willing to bring in a wise, neutral party to help bring about reconciliation, if necessary?
     
  • "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11).  The Spirit of God applies the work of Jesus to each believer.  How does this reality speak to your heart today?  in what ways are my thoughts, actions, and words not fitting of one who has been washed clean by Jesus?

* Note that this case is not one that involves issues of personal safety or abuse, which would necessitate the involvement of secular authorities, but rather seems to be one of dishonest business practices (6:7-8).  Paul is not opposed to secular authorities (Romans 13:1-5), but is disappointed that the church cannot handle a trivial dispute between two of its own members.
 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Today’s passage may be the most powerful explanation in all of Scripture for the need to keep sex within the context of marriage.  Paul begins by twice quoting a Corinthian saying, “Everything is permissible for me,” which seems to speak to the believer’s "freedom in Christ."  It’s true that believers are free from legalistic obedience to Old Testament ceremonial laws and from man-made laws that Christians may heap on top of God’s law, but some Corinthians apparently think that they are literally free to do whatever they want in the body.  Paul gently modifies their sayings and then quotes another saying, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, but God will destroy them both" (6:13a).  The corresponding saying in relation to sexuality would logically read, “Sex for the body and the body for sex, but God will destroy them both.”  But Paul shows the flaw in the Corinthians’ “wisdom."  The body will not ultimately be destroyed, it will be resurrected (6:14)!  Therefore, the body is for the Lord, not for sexual immorality (6:13b).  

The bodily resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of his people are central to Christian morality, which encompasses every aspect of our beings.  But this only tells us why things done in the body matter to God.  Why is it crucial that sex stay within the context of marriage?

Paul takes the example of sexuality within the absolute lowest form of relational commitment — sex with a prostitute (i.e. zero commitment)* — in response to the actions of a member in the Corinthian church.  He shows that even this lowest expression of sex creates a bond or seal of oneness, even though the relationship is utterly lacking in true oneness (6:15-16).  True oneness with another human is permanent, just as our union with Christ is permanent.  Only when a man and woman join their lives and their futures together, in the presence of God and his people, may it be said that there is true oneness.  Otherwise, there is always a relatively easy out.  And when the bond or seal of sex is broken, whether it is the bond of a one-night stand or a long-term sexual relationship, the tear will leave scars that are strangely unlike any other (6:18).  

Sex always impacts our relationship with the Lord as well, for it is always either pleasing or displeasing to God, either a pure reflection of his permanent union with his people or a false imitation.  Only sexual oneness within a life-long commitment, made before God and upheld by the power of God, can glorify God by reflecting his eternal love for his people.  For any time a believer willingly has sex with another person, whether it is pure or impure, he or she brings God into that relationship (i.e. “shall I take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” 6:15,19-20).  
Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do I have the high, biblical view of sexuality that Paul presents here?  Is the beauty of this view informing my life?  Am I operating within this view?
     
  • Where have I grown complacent in regard to sexual sin?  Do I view any aspect of sexuality as somehow existing outside of my relationship with God?

* In modern times, we can probably say that digital or virtual sexuality is even less of a relational commitment.

 

1 Corinthians 7 (two days)

Paul covers a dizzying number of issues related to marriage within the scope of this one passage:  sexuality within marriage (7:2-6), singleness and the question of whether or not to marry (7:7-9,25-28,32-40), marriage and divorce between Christians (7:10-11), and marriage and divorce between believer and unbeliever (7:12-24).  Given that the church of Corinth is a young church filled with relatively new believers, the issues raised in this passage are not so surprising.  For instance, it is not surprising that recent converts to Christianity would have already been married to unbelievers, questioning the way forward.  The passage flows naturally out of Paul’s instruction in the previous passage on sexual morality (6:12-20) and several of the issues flow out of the same theological misunderstanding.  Remember, when the physical realm is seen as unimportant or unspiritual, there are two ways one can go:  indulgence, as we saw in previous passages (5:1-5; 6:12-20), or denial. While some of the Corinthians are going the way of indulgence, others are denying the goodness of sexuality by either abstaining from sex within marriage (7:3-5), seeking a way out of marriage/engagement (7:10-24), or feeling guilty for desiring marriage (7:28a,36-38).

On one hand, Paul affirms the goodness of Christian marriage and sexuality (7:3-6,10,12-13,28a,36).  He lays to rest the idea that marriage and sex within marriage are somehow sinful or unspiritual.*  Therefore, divorce is never an option for a person who loves the Lord (7:10-13**), except when an unbelieving spouse initiates the divorce (7:15).***  Rather, Paul calls believers to trust in God’s sovereign plan for their lives by being faithful in their current situation (7:17-24****), and assures them of God’s grace toward their children (7:14*****).  For singles desiring marriage, the prospective spouse “must belong to the Lord” (7:39), for they are bringing Christ into the union (6:15-17).  

On the other hand, Paul demonstrates the many advantages of singleness****** (7:28b,32-35), particularly for those who have the gift of contentment as singles (7:7,36-37).  The advantages are clear.  Marriage and family can add a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure to one’s life and have the potential to turn one’s concerns inward, whereas the single person typically has more freedom to serve the broader church and world.  Even though Paul exalts the beauty of marriage in other places and gives plenty of freedom for marriage even among ministers of the gospel (9:5; Ephesians 5:22-33), singleness is clearly Paul’s preference for those who have the gift.  He is careful not to elevate this preference to anything like a command (e.g. 7:35,38).  

Married or single, Paul’s central concern is for believers to live in “undivided devotion to the Lord.”  This is the heart behind Paul’s potentially confusing language in 7:29-31.  “Taken literally, the five ‘as if not’ clauses become absurdities, not to mention contradictory to what Paul clearly said earlier about marriage (7:2-6) and what he will elsewhere say about sorrowing and rejoicing (Romans 12:15).  But they are not to be taken literally; they are rhetoric, pure and simple.”  Fee continues, "Just as in Christ the slave is a freedman and the free man is a slave (7:22-23) because one’s existence is determined by God, so now one does not so much live ‘detached’ from the world . . . as totally free from its control.  Therefore, one lives in the world just as the rest — married, sorrowing, rejoicing, buying, making use of it — but none of these determines one’s life” (Fee, 340).  Believers are not beyond the realities of the world as some of the Corinthians claimed, but in this age marked by Jesus’ victory over sin and death, his coming kingdom is never seen as being far away (7:29).  Therefore, the characteristics of the coming kingdom ought to inform every aspect of how we live our lives in “both body and spirit” (7:34).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Paul reinforces the high view of sexuality within marriage presented in 6:12-20, but he also provides another perspective in this chapter — the advantages of singleness.  Whether or not you may have the gift of singleness, do you share Paul’s high view of singleness?  If you are currently single, what does it look like to live in "undivided devotion to the Lord”?  While singleness may simplify life, distractions from service to the Lord still abound!
     
  • If you are in a relationship/marriage, in what ways might the practical concerns of this world be impinging on your devotion to Christ?  What does it look like for you to live in "undivided devotion to the Lord”?  What changes of the heart need to happen?  What practical changes to the rhythm of your day, week, and year need to be made?


* Note Paul’s equal concern for man and woman's marital fulfillment throughout the chapter.

** When Paul says, “not I, but the Lord”, he is closely paraphrasing the words of Jesus.  When he says “I, not the Lord,” he is not paraphrasing the Lord, yet the church has always recognized that Paul’s letters are inspired Scripture.  His teaching is still in line with the truths that Jesus gave us.  

*** There are cases when one spouse claims to be a Christian but refuses to repent and live like a Christian.  Such cases are often murky waters for the church to help navigate, but we can say that this passage does not require a believing spouse to remain with an abusive or unfaithful spouse whose actions demonstrate a denial of the marriage relationship.  

**** Faithfulness in one’s current situation is a major them of the chapter, emphasized by these eight verses in the middle of the chapter.  Within these verses, Paul touches on the issue of slavery.  He speaks more directly against slavery elsewhere (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:10), but here he subtly undermines the institution.  In 7:18-19, he provides circumcision/uncircumcision as an example of remaining in one’s current situation.  If Paul were to treat slavery consistently with circumcision, he would simply call slaves to remain in their current state, but Paul is intentionally inconsistent here.  He tells them to gain their freedom if they are able to do so (7:21).  Given that Paul’s theme is remaining in one’s current state, this exception in the opposite direction is more powerful than it may at first seem.  

***** The primary concern in 7:14 is the purity of the marriage relationship between believer and unbeliever, and the status of their children.  Paul calls these children “holy,” or set apart for God.  Throughout the Bible, the children of believers are included in God’s “covenant family.”  In the Old Testament, this inclusion was signified through the circumcision of all males (representing the entire household), which set them apart from the world.  Inclusion in the covenant family does not guarantee a child’s salvation, for children may grow up to defy their spiritual heritage and break covenant with God, yet this understanding of children within the covenant family recognizes God’s grace toward Christian families — particularly children’s participation in the teaching, signs and worship of God’s people.  Recent converts who were married to unbelievers might question the validity of their marriage and therefore the inclusion of their children in the covenant family of God.  Paul reassures them that they are included.  He is not saying that the unbelieving spouses are saved, but that in terms of the marriage’s purity and the children’s covenant status, the unbelieving spouse has been “sanctified” through the Christian spouse.  In other words, even if only one parent is a believer, the church is to treat the children as part of the covenant family.  

****** Throughout 7:25-40, Paul may be speaking of betrothed couples, who were “bound” to each other by a covenant agreement but had not yet consummated the marriage (i.e. 7:27 literally reads "Are you bound to a woman?”), as he clearly is in 7:36 (Fee, 331).  Regardless of his specific audience, his points about singleness and marriage remain the same.  


1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 1 - Overview)

What the Corinthians may possess in knowledge, they lack in love.  We have seen the Corinthians’ false version of "wisdom and knowledge" rooted in Greek dualism, which denies either the importance or goodness of things done in the body.  This false “superior wisdom" has led them into pride and disunity, greed and hope in earthly comforts, sexual immorality, and the denial of the goodness of sexuality within marriage.  Yet even true knowledge can lead to pride and the denial of love.  In this long section of the letter dealing with a significant aspect of Corinthian culture, Paul finds some common ground with the Corinthians (8:4-6), but he shows how they have disconnected even their true knowledge from love.  

As in chapter 7, Paul is again responding to an issue raised in a letter that he received from the church (see 7:1 and 8:1).  Some of the Corinthians have framed the issue simply as "food sacrificed to idols," but Paul knows that the issue is bigger than the simple question of whether or not a Christian may eat food that has previously been sacrificed to the Roman gods.  Such food was available at the market and commonly consumed in private settings (10:25,27), and Paul approves of eating this food since idols are “nothing,” but it was also consumed at cultic feasts (8:10 - “eating in an idol’s temple” and 10:19-20).  These meals celebrated and sought the blessing of the Roman gods and were integral to social, commercial, and political life.  To miss out on the meals also meant missing out on social opportunities and, at times, meant risking unemployment or government persecution.  

Paul responds to the issue of “food sacrificed to idols” in two primary ways.  First, he approaches the issue from the perspective of the “weak brother” who may have recently come out of a life of idolatry and who does not yet realize that the idols are “nothing at all” (8:4-13).  At this point, Paul is playing along with the Corinthians’ framing of the issue and is not touching on the evil inherent in the cultic feasts.  Yet even if he were to grant that the cultic feasts were neutral ground, love for the weaker brother or sister would keep a Christian from eating food sacrificed to idols in the presence of a fragile conscience.  This would be true even at a private meal (10:27-28), not to mention encouraging a “weak brother" to go back to a pagan feast (8:10).  Second, Paul directly attacks the Corinthians’ participation in cultic feasts.  Even though the idols themselves are “nothing,” the worship of such idols is demonic (10:19-20).  

We will look more closely at Paul’s two responses over the next two days.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • More specific questions will be raised in the next two devotions on this passage.  For now, consider the way that the Corinthians seem to have framed the question of “food sacrificed to idols” in an innocent manner.  It seems that they were avoiding the issue of the cultic feasts by framing the issue simply as a “knowledge” issue (8:1).  What are ways that we might reframe moral issues in order to avoid dealing with sin?  Perhaps we reframe moral or justice issues as merely political issues? (Try to put this question on yourself instead of thinking of ways that others might do this).  Perhaps we reframe moral issues as “tolerance” or “acceptance” issues?  (Same suggestion.)  Or maybe, like the Corinthians, we misuse true knowledge and make it an excuse to trample on the consciences of others?   

 

1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 2 - emphasis on 8:1-9:27)

Is Christianity ultimately about rights or love?  The answer is obvious, but the tension between what believers have the “right" to do and what love requires is probably present more often than we realize.  For the Corinthians, their knowledge of the only true God (and of the non-existence of the Romans gods) has led them to demand their right to eat food sacrificed to non-existent gods.  Today, we look a little more closely at Paul’s first response to the Corinthians’ demand.  

Paul spends almost all of chapter 9 on an excursus of the subject of rights versus love, so that the chapter becomes one big analogy to the issue of how to handle food sacrificed to idols.  It’s important to know that the Corinthians, in their fascination with gifted traveling speakers and personalities (see chapter 3), actually looked down on Paul and questioned his credibility because he did not demand patronage or fees for his teaching (9:3).  Paul has no doubt that he has the right to earn a living from preaching the gospel, especially from believers who came to know Christ through his ministry (9:1-2,11-12a).  He provides analogies to soldiers, to farmers, to shepherds (9:7), to the hard-working ox (with Scriptural backing — 9:8-10), and to Levites and priests (9:13) as support for this right.  He also refers directly to the words of Jesus as support for this right (9:14; see Luke 10:7).  But it’s not about rights (9:15-18)!  For Paul, it’s about what will lead the most people into a relationship, or deeper relationship, with God.  “In one sense his ‘pay’ is in fact to receive ‘no pay’ … In offering the ‘free’ gospel ‘free of charge’ his own ministry becomes a living paradigm of the gospel itself,” that “as many as possible” might be won to Christ (Fee, 420-421).  He will give up his right to compensation, to marriage (9:5), to freedom from certain Old Testament laws (9:20), to continuation of certain Jewish customs (9:21), and even to food sacrificed to idols for the sake of the “weak,” depending on his environment (9:22 -- in referencing the “weak,” Paul is circling back around to the point in 8:9-13).  

In the final paragraph of chapter 9, Paul begins to transition to his second response to the Corinthians’ demand for their right to eat food sacrificed to idols.  Whereas his focus has been on giving up rights for the sake of others, his focus is now on his own growth in Christ (9:23b-27), hinting at the Corinthians' need to pursue their own growth.  True believers are far from perfect, but they persevere in faithfulness and are called to exercise discipline and self-control, like an athlete, for the sake of glorifying God.  But the Corinthians’ mishandling of knowledge has not only led them to offend the consciences of more fragile believers, it has also led them into spiritual laziness and self-indulgence through participation in pagan practices, as we will see more clearly tomorrow.  Hear again Paul’s humbling response in 8:2-3:  "Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.  But whoever loves God is known by God.”

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Direct parallels to the worship of Roman gods are not common in our culture, but there are plenty of times when our “rights" as believers come in tension with love for other believers and with the progress of the gospel.  The tension may come in form of the freedom or right to spend money in certain ways, to drink alcohol, or to attend certain events, and the answers are not always clear.  Consider two questions.  First, do I even have friends who might be considered “weaker” believers, who have recently come out of very un-Christian lifestyles?  If so, am I using my “rights” in ways that might offend their tender consciences or am I careful to protect their growth in Christ?
     
  • What is the goal of growing in knowledge for me — to simply know more or to love God more fully?  Over the last few weeks, is growth in knowledge puffing me up or humbling me?

 

1 Corinthians 8-10 (Part 3 - emphasis on 10:1-33)

The self-proclaimed stronger believers in Corinth are not only in danger of harming the “weak” believer, they are also endangering their own relationships with God.  They may have a stronger grasp on the emptiness of Roman gods, but apparently they do not have much of a grasp on the demonic nature (10:20) of worshipping them.  Eating food that has previously been sacrificed to an empty idol is fine (so long as you’re not offending someone’s conscience!), but actually participating in the worship of a false god is a different matter.  

At the end of chapter 9 (9:23b-27), we saw Paul change the focus from concern for the “weak” believer to caring for one’s own soul.  Paul provides several warnings from Israel’s experience (10:1-11) and, in doing so, shows the unity between Israel and the New Testament church.  He makes it clear that Israel, too, was saved through Christ (10:4)!  All that was done to save the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt — the Exodus through the Red Sea (10:1; Exodus 14;16), God’s presence and guidance through the pillar of fire and cloud (10:1; Exodus 13:21), God’s provision of water and food in the wilderness (10:3-4; Exodus 16-17) — was rooted in God’s grace through the (then) future work of Christ and, in some mysterious way, was accomplished through the presence of Christ.  At the same time, Israel’s experiences prefigured Christ’s saving work and the accompanying signs of his saving work:  baptism and the Lord’s Supper (10:3-4,16-17).  This is why Paul’s warning comes with such a sharp edge for the Corinthians.  All of Israel was “baptized” in the Red Sea (their initiation rite, so to speak) and continued to receive “spiritual” food and drink from Christ (i.e. manna and water).  Nevertheless, some of them rebelled against God through idolatrous parties and accompanying sexual sin (10:7-8; Exodus 32:1-6; Numbers 25:1-3,9).  Their baptism and spiritual food were of no spiritual benefit to them because they neglected communion with God and opted instead for communion with empty idols and sexual partners.*  Paul is concerned that this is exactly what some of the Corinthians are in danger of doing.  They have received the sign of baptism and continue to receive the spiritual food of the Lord’s Supper, so they may think that they are okay or even spiritually mature, but their participation in pagan parties and sexual immorality seems to show that they are actually communing with demons instead of with God (10:18-22).  The way that they respond to Paul’s warning will demonstrate either the reality or fiction of their relationships with God, and Paul is hopeful that they will repent and prove God’s power in their own lives (10:11-13). 

In the midst of Paul’s sharp rebuke, he gives us one of the most powerful passages in Scripture on the heart of the Christian faith, which is union/communion/relationship/fellowship (however you want to say it!) with God through Christ!  Our life comes only through “participation” in the broken body and shed blood of Christ (10:16), and participation in his resurrection (with which Paul will conclude in chapter 15).  There is real spiritual communion that takes place whenever we receive the Lord’s Supper in faith (“spiritual food … and spiritual drink”), setting the pattern for everyday life.  And this communion with Christ is not a solo run!  We participate in him together (10:17)!  With this reminder of our common participation in the life of Christ, Paul begins to come back around to his first response to the issue at hand, which is love for others (10:24,28-29,32-33).  Whether we are looking out for our brother or sister’s good, or fighting personal temptation, all of it is to the glory of God (10:31)!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Again, direct parallels to the cultic worship of Roman gods are not common in our culture, yet we have many idols.  Our idols are generally gifts from God (e.g. sport, sex, relationships, work, food and drink), but we turn them into gods.  How do Paul’s warnings apply to our idols?  He does not call the Corinthians to withdraw from the world or to stop eating food sacrificed to idols entirely, but he does call them to flee from situations in which they will actually be participating in idol worship.  The lines are not usually as clear for us.  What situations push me to put sport, work, etc. before God?  What activities do I participate that might be good, but in the wrong setting (e.g. a party gone bad) they actually become participation in evil?  
     
  • Paul’s words about participation in Christ (10:16) help us to see why it is so important that we are daily making room in our hearts for him and experiencing him together (10:17)!  It’s all about the relationship!  We are either participating in Christ and glorifying Christ or we participating in evil — we are always giving our hearts to something!  Take time to worship Jesus and to pray for your and others relationship with him!

* Note how we see that previous passages about sexual morality (e.g. 6:12-20) may be very closely tied to the cultic feasts/parties that Paul is addressing in chapters 8-10.  

 

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

Of course, “… because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (11:10).  Why didn’t you say this sooner, Paul?  Now everything is clear, right?  Not quite.  This is an extremely difficult passage to interpret for a number of reasons.  

For the next four chapters, Paul turns his attention to matters of public worship.  It flows smoothly out of the previous three chapters, which addressed the worship of idols and ended by contrasting cultic feasts with the Lord’s Supper (10:21).  But Paul starts this important section of his letter on (what is for us) a confusing passage, largely because we are not familiar with the customs of the day.  For instance, what kind of head covering was Paul referring to and what exactly did it signify in their culture, perhaps in contrast to practices within pagan worship?  Does the word “head” (11:3) mean “source" or “authority"?  We don’t know all the answers, yet in spite of our lack of clarity and without delving too far into the issue at hand, there are some important things we can gather from this passage.  

First, the passage assumes that women actively participate in public worship through prayer and prophecy (11:5).  Second, Paul appeals to creational or ontological differences between men and women (11:3,7-9) as the basis for the distinction between the ways that men and women participate in public worship.*  Christians may disagree on exactly how these differences play out, but we cannot say that the differences are merely cultural.  It seems that some of the Corinthians were denying gender differences just as we’ve seen that they were denying the importance of the body in many other respects.  This may hint at the meaning of the puzzling “because of the angels” phrase in 11:10.  The Corinthians should not be acting as if they have reached some kind of angelic, genderless state of being.  Third, the creational differences between men and women may be expressed in different ways in different cultures.  While we do not know the role that head coverings played in Corinth, we know that they would not carry precisely the same significance in our culture.  Finally, whatever differences God has made between men and women or between the ways they ought to participate in the life of the church, Paul provides creational arguments for the interdependence of man and woman.  In 11:11-12, he is likely seeking to prevent men from gaining any kind of superiority complex through a misunderstanding of his prior statements.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Where do you go for your understanding of maleness and femaleness?  Where do you go for your understanding of church and worship?  To Scripture or to culture?  

* Note that Paul is not trying to say everything there is to say about the nature of men and women in this passage.  For instance, it’s clear from Scripture that Christ is also the “head” of women (11:3) and that women are also the image and glory of God (11:7).  But to make his point, Paul stresses here the unique way in which women are the “glory of man.”  Whatever conclusions we come to about the meaning of these verses, we cannot say that Paul is belittling women by calling men their “head” unless we also want to say that Paul is belittling Christ by calling God the Father his “head.”  

 

1 Corinthians 11:17-33

Imagine going to a “bring your own meal” gathering at church, some enjoying tenderloin and sautéed scallops while others make due with rice and beans.  Paul has already brought together the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of the Lord’s Supper when he described the bread as a sign of Jesus’ physical body (10:16) and of Jesus’ corporate body, which is his people (10:17).  Now, due to an abuse believers from the lower socioeconomic strata, he gets much more specific about what it should look like for the church to come together as the body of Christ.  He doesn’t give any commands here about caring for poor believers outside the walls of the church.  He does that in other places (e.g. 2 Corithians 8:13-15), but here he is strictly concerned with the gathering of the church for worship.  The rich and poor worship at one table (don’t miss this!) and it seems that the Lord’s Supper was part of a larger common meal, but in Corinth some wealthy believers are actually flaunting their wealth in front of believers who are struggling to provide for basic needs.  Paul’s warning could hardly be more severe.  To receive the bread signifying Christ’s crucified body without recognizing his corporate body, his people, is to “eat and drink judgment” on oneself (11:29).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Does my experience of Christ through “his body” cross socioeconomic lines?  What relationships within the body of Christ do I need to pursue in order to know Christ more fully? Take time to reflect and ask God about potential blindspots in which you may be offending poorer believers and/or acting in a condescending manner.  Take time to praise Jesus for revealing our own poverty, that through his crucifixion and resurrection we are made spiritually rich, one body with all believers.  
     

1 Corinthians 12-14 (three days)

Love for the “weak" believer is a deciding factor in dealing with "food sacrificed to idols” (chapters 8-10), love for poorer believers informs the celebration of communion (11:17-33), and love for all believers must motivate the use of spiritual gifts!  Similar to Paul's excursus on rights vs. love (9) in the middle of his response to the issue of food sacrificed to idols (8-10), he provides another excursus on love (13) as the heart of his response to the issue of spiritual gifts (12-14).  Chapter 13 is one of the most familiar passages in Scripture for many Christians, frequently heard at weddings, but we often forget or do not realize that it comes in the context of spiritual gifts in common worship.  

Not surprisingly, given what we know of the Corinthians' inflated view of their spirituality, some are taking pride in the more sensational or charismatic gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of speaking "in the tongues of men and of angels” (13:1).  Instead of understanding the gifts as a means of serving the body of Christ, some are using the gift of “tongues" to affirm their supposedly angelic status and as a measure of others’ spirituality.  The nature of the gift of tongues and the proper use of the gift of tongues has been a much-debated subject over the past 50 years and the theological debate itself, while important in some ways, can become an idol (or at least a distraction).  Still, we may discern the heart of what Paul is saying.

In order to understand, it’s helpful to make a few distinctions about the gift of tongues as well as the gift of prophecy.  Paul distinguishes between tongues/languages spoken in private, which God may grant for personal worship and need not be interpreted (14:2,4a,14,18-19*), and tongues spoken in common worship, which must be interpreted in order to build up the church (14:5,13,27-28).  Whether these are human languages unknown to the speaker (as in Acts 2:8) or angelic languages, either would need to be interpreted in common worship.  In regard to the “gift of prophecy,”  I would agree with Gordon Fee that “the evidence in chap. 14 indicates that it consisted of spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages … intended for the edification or encouragement of the people” and were often/usually not predictive in nature (14:29-30; Fee 595).  Interpreted tongues seem to function in the same way as prophecy.  

So what are the take-aways from Paul’s instruction on spiritual gifts?  There are six strong words of correction:

1) 12:1-3 — Authentic spiritual gifts exalt Christ as Lord.  If a “gift” exalts someone else or in any way brings shame to Christ, it is not a true gift.

2) 12:4-31 — God gives a diversity of gifts for the good of the body of Christ and no gifts are to be expected for all or demanded by anyone.  More dramatic gifts are not to be honored above behind-the-scenes gifts.

3) 13:1-7 — Love must be the driving force behind the use of gifts, or they become worthless (13:1-3).  Notice how the famous, detailed description of love relates specifically to the diversity and usage of gifts and to what we know of the Corinthian situation (13:4-7; e.g. “does not envy, does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking”).  

4) 13:8-13 — God’s gifts must be received with humility, for while love will remain, many of the gifts actually reveal our temporarily limited knowledge and experience of God in this age.  

5) 14:1-25** — Intelligibility is the key to a gift’s benefit in common worship.  It’s better to speak five words that people can understand than ten thousand unintelligible words (14:19).  Notice how Paul’s exhortation to "desire the greater gifts” of 12:31 is illuminated by his corresponding exhortation to “excel in gifts that build up the church” in 14:12.  

6) 14:26-40 — Spiritual gifts must be exercised in a way that promotes order, not chaos, in worship.  Here, we may see a connection between this section and the section on women in worship in 11:1-16.  If some women in the church were some of the ones who understood themselves to have angelic status (see devotional thoughts on 11:10) and, accordingly, were being particularly assertive and disruptive in their usage of tongues in public worship, then we can understand why Paul may insert a special word of instruction to them (11:34-35, but see footnote***).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Many of us come from church traditions in which the gift of tongues is hardly even mentioned, much less idolized as the greatest gift.  But almost all churches tend to exalt certain gifts above others, whether it be the gift of teaching, knowledge, serving, leading, etc.  What gifts do you or your community of believers tend to esteem more highly than others?  How might this be of detriment to your own faith, to the faith community and its mission, or to certain members in the community?  Are some overlooked because they do not have the popular gifts?
     
  • Have you seen, in yourself or your community, an emphasis on a spiritual gift, whether it be tongues or other gifts, that has actually taken the focus off of Christ instead of exalting Christ?  How can you help move Christ back to the center without having a critical spirit?  
     
  • We need to understand Paul’s definition of love within the context of spiritual gifts and apply it to our use of spiritual gifts, but it is not bad to apply it more broadly.  Use this passage to reflect on God’s love for you in Christ and to examine your own life (13:1-7).
     
  • Our present is determined by our future (13:8-13).  How is the future that Jesus has secured for us shaping your present reality?  Are the things you are working toward and thinking about today shaped by this future or by the desire for worldly success and comfort?  
     

* Where Paul says that he speaks in tongues “more than all of you,” Gordon Fee points out that “this is probably somewhat hyperbolic … After all, one may legitimately ask how he knew, to which the answer would be that he probably didn’t” (674).  

** 14:21-22 can be especially confusing.  Paul goes on to say that tongues do not help unbelievers and that prophecy leads unbelievers to Christ (14:23-25), so how are tongues a "sign for unbelievers” and how is prophecy “for believers”?  The key is Paul’s usage of Isaiah 28 in 14:21, which is a word of judgment against unbelieving Israel, and the meaning of the word “sign,” which can function positively as a sign of salvation or negatively as a sign of judgment.  In the case of the “ sign” of tongues, Paul is saying that the “sign” functions negatively.  The Corinthians, in their childishness (14:20), think that tongues is THE positive sign of their spirituality, but, through his use of Isaiah, Paul says that “it is a 'sign’ that functions to the disadvantage of unbelievers, not to their advantage.”  It is in this sense that tongues are a sign for unbelievers.  Prophecy, on the other hand, is used by God to turn people into believers and, in this sense, is a sign “for believers” (Fee, 679-683).  

*** This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret, especially when compared to Paul’s implicit approval of women praying and prophesying in 11:5.  Is Paul calling for total silence as it seems at face value (but which would seem to contradict 11:5), or is he referring to a specific kind of speech/disruption within the worship service?  In several ancient manuscripts, 14:35-36 actually come after 14:40, which among other reasons has led commentators like Gordon Fee to believe that these two verses were actually not in the original manuscript at all, but were added as an early “gloss” by a copyist.  This is not the place to say more, but you can see that there is much reading to be done for those who wish.  

 

1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians 16

 

2 Corinthians

2 Corinthians Overview

Even though 2 Corinthians is very much related to 1 Corinthians, it feels very different.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church in Corinth to take on a significant theological problem related to all kinds of destructive behaviors in the church.  (Read the Overview of 1 Corinthians for background on the Corinthian church).   Paul defends his ministry to some extent in the first letter, but the focus is on the various issues plaguing the church.  

This second letter feels more personal as Paul spends most of the letter explaining and defending his ministry.  Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians understand the heart behind his ministry and behind the strong words he has previously written.  At some points, he seems encouraged by the response of the Corinthian church to his prior instruction (7:4-15), and he in turn encourages the church to give generously to Christians in need in Jerusalem (8-9).  In other places, however, Paul has strong words for false teachers in Corinth and for any willing recipients of their teaching. Particularly in the last four chapters (10-13), Paul assumes a more abrasive and even sarcastic tone, so much so that some believe it is a separate letter altogether. However, it’s quite possible that the seeming change in tone is due to further updates from Corinth, or perhaps Paul turns his thoughts to an antagonistic portion of the congregation. We should also keep in mind that earlier parts of the letter relay similar concerns of the Corinthians acceptance of false teachers who boast in their status or faithfulness to Moses and the Old Testament (e.g. 2:17-3:16; 6:11-18). A common thread of concern for the Corinthians’ well-being and foundation in Christ runs throughout the letter, so there is no need to divvy it up. 

The intensely personal nature of 2 Corinthians gives us a unique glimpse into Paul’s perspective on ministry, suffering, comfort, hope, forgiveness, and repentance in Christ. 

 

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

The comfort of a hot drink after being out in the cold for hours, a plunge in the pool on a summer day, or our favorite comfort food after a long day.  We all have our go-to’s for comfort.  It may be reclining in front of our new favorite show, reading a novel, watching a game, surfing the net, taking the dog for a walk, or heading for the refrigerator.  Grilled cheese and chicken soup are wonderful gifts from God, but no matter how delicious or pleasant-memory-inducing our favorite comfort food may be, our homemade therapies fall short when the dial of suffering is turned up all the way.  When Paul “despairs even of life,” feels the “sentence of death” close upon him, and likely has no homemade therapies available to him, he still finds great comfort in God himself — the Father of compassion and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:3), who was raised from the dead.  The resurrection is the final word for Paul, his constant comfort, so that even the threat of imminent death cannot take away his hope (1:10). 

Paul seems to expect several “min-resurrections” or foretastes of resurrection even in this life, in answer to the prayers of God’s people and for the sake of the gospel going forward (1:10-11).  He has already seen God deliver him from the grip of death and believes that God will continue to do so.  If he dies, his hope is not crushed but realized (see chapter 5).  But for now, there are many benefits of suffering, especially suffering connected to gospel ministry.  First, we see implicitly that the way of suffering is often the only way for the gospel to penetrate hostile territory.  Second, when we receive comfort from God in the midst of intense suffering, our comfort from God comforts others in their suffering (1:4,6-7).  Finally, suffering deepens our own relationship with God when it causes us to rely on God and to realize that He is the only true source of life (1:9).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What are your comfort foods or activities?  We’ll call these “secondary” comforts and we should receive them as gifts from God, provided they are not sinful.  Our trouble usually comes when these secondary comforts become primary comforts and we go to them instead of God.  What is your primary comfort right now?  

• It is usually convicting to read about the way that Paul and others laid their lives on the line for the sake of reaching people with the gospel.  We may not be called to lay our lives on the line, but there is almost always some kind of risk taken to advance the gospel.  Where is God calling you to take a risk? 

 

2 Corinthians 1:12-2:11

We can clearly see that Paul feels the need to explain his ministry and decisions when we come to today’s passage.  Paul can say with a clear conscience that he has conducted himself in a holy and sincere way, not with pretense or pride (1:12).  Based on what we know of 1 Corinthians and from hints here, Paul’s (and the gospel’s) “competition” in Corinth comes in the form of fine-sounding, lofty arguments and philosophies.  But the gospel of grace, while multilayered and multifaceted, is not beyond the understanding of the simple (1:12-13).  Paul expresses the confidence that his gospel will cause the Corinthians to boast in him rather than look down on him (1:14).  

In the next section, Paul explains the decisions behind his travels.  On a practical level (1:15-17; 1:23-2:4), Paul did not return to Corinth on this journey because he was afraid that a visit might actually hinder the work of God in their lives.  It seems that he wanted to give the Corinthians more time to absorb and apply his prior instruction, so it was out of deep love and concern that he “spared” them a visit.  On an analogical level, Paul uses the occasion of his change in plans to poetically describe the certainty of God’s promises in Christ (1:17-20).  Arguing from the lesser to the greater, Paul compares the intentionality of his plans to the certainty of Christ’s fulfillment of God’s promises (1:20), which are put into effect and kept for us through the Spirit’s presence in our lives (1:21-22).  Even if our best plans come to naught, God’s promises stand firm! 

Finally, Paul encourages the church to forgive a brother previously disciplined by the church (2:5-11).  Discipline only occurs when a professing Christian will not even acknowledge sins and repent.  It is not for believers who are confessing sin and seeking to repent, or for unbelievers.  When an unrepentant Christian continues to receive communion and participate in the life of the church, he makes a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.  Therefore, church discipline consists of barring the unrepentant believer from communion and, in some cases, fellowship.  The goal must always be to provide a “wake-up” call, with the hope of restoring a person to fellowship with God and the church.  We see that goal fulfilled in this passage!  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Paul’s claim to “holiness and sincerity” is not claim of perfection, but it is still a striking claim.  Could you make such a claim among those you seek to reach with the gospel and build up in the gospel?  What does a “sincere” heart look like, and not look like?  Are there any ways in which sophisticated, fine-sounding philosophies might hinder your sincerity?  Could you echo Paul’s distress, love, and concern in 2:2-4?  Take time consider, confess, and to ask God to fill you with a sincere heart of love and concern.

• Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the Spirit’s presence in our lives, give us assurance of our salvation (1:21-22).  Where else are you looking for assurance in life?  Are you aware of the Spirit’s presence today?  Are you living in the certainty of God’s promises or in the uncertainty of other hopes?

 

2 Corinthians 2:12-3:3

The smell of death, the fragrance of life.  How can the same scent be the smell of death and the fragrance of life?  Just as an organ transplant may be life to one and death to another, so Jesus has given us a whole-self “transplant,” giving himself up on the cross and transplanting to us his life, both spiritually and (eventually) physically.  His “transplant” is life to those who recognize their need for him and receive him, but a pronouncement of death for those who seek to maintain their own life apart from him and reject him.  

Who is equal to the task of proclaiming such a message (2:16)?  It cannot be those who “peddle the word of God for profit” (2:17a), who rely on “letters of recommendation” declaring their competency by human standards,  and who seek “letters of recommendation” from their hearers (3:1), for “the smell of death” is not good for profits.  Instead, they speak a “gospel” that tickles people’s ears, one that tells of human potential apart from the way of the cross.  But those who speak “in Christ,” who understand that all of their speaking is “before God” (2:17b), and who rely on the “Spirit of the living the God” (3:3) are enabled to proclaim the fullness of Christ’s “transplant.”  Their life is found not in human praise but rather as captives in Christ’s “triumphal procession” (2:14).  Therefore, they do not need letters of recommendation from important people.  Instead, those who hear their message and are transformed by Jesus are a living letter, attesting to their work (3:2-3).  This “letter” is not only seen in the lives of the hearers, but also on the heart of the one who spoke the message, because the one who speaks sincerely loves the hearers (3:2).

Today’s passage is the beginning of what we might call “the great tangent” in 2 Corinthians (2:12-7:4).  In chapter 7, Paul will come back around to Titus (2:13) and to his concern about grieving the Corinthians (2:1-11).  Now, however, he elaborates on what it means for him to “preach the gospel of Christ” (2:12).  In this “great tangent,” Paul gives us a number of helpful perspectives and metaphors for gospel ministry.   

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Am I looking to profit off of the gospel in any way, or is Jesus my profit?  Am I willing to suffer loss for the sake of the gospel, knowing that my profit in Christ far outweighs any earthly loss?   Commenting on 2:14, Professor Knox Chamblain states, “The role of those led in triumph was to reveal the glory of the one who had conquered them.   Paul uses the metaphor the triumphal procession to demonstrate that he himself is being led by God to death in Christ in order that he might display or reveal the majesty, power, and glory of his conqueror.”

• Is there a living letter written on my heart revealing a sincere love for those around me?

 

2 Corinthians 3:4-18

Yesterday’s passage ended with the words:  “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”  The transformed hearts of the Corinthians are Paul’s living “letter of recommendation.”  He needs no other letter of recommendation from seemingly informed folk, even though the confused Corinthians are impressed by such letters.

Given Paul’s emphasis on the contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant in today’s passage, it seems likely that such letters of recommendation came from Jewish leaders in the church, who were still trusting in their adherence to Old Testament practices.  Paul does not disparage the old covenant, which God made with Israel through Moses and others.  The old covenant came with glory, after all!  When Moses received the (second set of) stone tablets containing the law of God, his face shone with the glory of God.  The Israelites were afraid and Moses ended up putting a veil over his face in their presence (Exodus 34:29-35).  Paul speaks of this glory at least four times in verses 7-11.  

Yet Paul sees that the old covenant, glorious though it was, pales in comparison to the glory of the new covenant!  God’s law, engraved on tablets of stone, reveals the glory of God’s holiness, but we are condemned to death by this perfect law (3:7-9).  In Christ, the mediator of the new covenant, we see God’s holy law embodied in one like us rather than written on stone.  Through his righteous life and death for our unrighteousness, we are made righteous through union with him (3:9).  

Through Christ, the Holy Spirit enables us to see not only the glory of the new covenant but also the lesser glory of the old covenant.  In Christ, the glory of the old covenant leads us to humility and to our need for a Savior.  Apart from Christ and his Spirit, a “veil” remains so that the old covenant becomes a futile means to self-righteousness rather than a sign pointing to the greater glory of Christ.   But when we give up our self-righteousness and turn to Christ, only then may we begin to embody the glory of God’s holiness (3:12-17).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Is the glory of God’s perfect law regularly leading you to humility, confession, forgiveness and freedom in Christ?  

• While the new covenant calls us to abandon our attempts at self-righteous obedience, the irony of the new covenant is that Jesus enables us to begin to live out God’s laws through the power of the Spirit, that we might reflect God’s glory more and more (3:17-18).  As a means of self-salvation, God’s law brings death, but in reliance on the Spirit, God’s law brings fullness of life.  Where you seeing Jesus give you fullness of life and where do you need him to help you repent?  

 

2 Corinthians 4

Paul continues in the same themes but the metaphor changes.  We still see the emphasis on preaching a straightforward gospel (cf. 4:1-2,5 & 2:17-3:1).  We also receive deeper insight into the image of the veil, preventing those without Christ from seeing the glory of God in Christ, who is the image of God (cf. 3:14-16 & 4:3-6).  But now the humbling and encouraging image of a clay jar is introduced.

Jars of clay held all kinds of things in the ancient near east, including coins, scrolls, and lamps.  Paul may have specifically envisioned valuable coins, which would fit the “treasure” in 4:7; a lamp, which would fit the “light” in 4:6; or a scroll, which could hold the Word of God.  We do not know, but we do know that jars of clay were ordinary, common vessels, quite breakable and yet surprisingly durable.  In the same way, we are to see ourselves as ordinary, common vessels of God’s truth and light, always subject to death and yet strong in the Lord.  According to 4:10-12, it’s when we enter into the suffering and death of Jesus, dying to our attempts at invincibility for the sake of others, that the life and strength of Christ is made known through us!  

Paul quotes a greek translation (known as the Septuagint) of Psalm 116:10 in verse 4:13.  It is a fitting quotation, as the Psalmist is under tremendous stress and yet speaks in faith of God’s deliverance.  The Psalmist also speaks of being the Lord’s servant.  With Paul, we have the privilege of knowing and bearing witness to the fullness of God’s deliverance in Christ, who defeated death itself (4:14).  Even if this clay jar should crumble, and it will, we will be put back together in glory (4:16-18).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways are you tempted to see yourself as more (or less?) than an ordinary, common “clay jar” carrying the treasure of Christ?  How are you trying to protect your life and maintain a sense of invincibility, rather than entering into the death of Jesus for the sake of others?  

• How does our hope largely determine what we speak of (4:13)?  Take time to reflect on the reality that we will together be raised with Christ in unimaginable glory, and how this reality informs our lives today.

 

2 Corinithians 5:1-10

No matter how many “mini-resurrections” the Lord may grant this side of heaven (1:9-10) or how strong this “jar of clay” may be in God’s grace (4:8-10), the reality that “outwardly we are wasting away” cannot be denied (4:16).  But for Paul, the destruction of our “earthly tent” is the realization, not the end, of our hope in Christ!  

Much has been said about Paul’s words in this passage.  How much, if anything, is Paul saying about an “intermediate state” between death and Jesus’ return?  And how much is he saying about the “future state” of our bodies after Jesus’ return?  In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of those who have died being “clothed” with an imperishable, glorious body at Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15:51-53; see also 1 Thess. 4:16-17, Philippians 3:20-21).  In today’s passage, he uses very similar language to stir up the believers’ hope in this heavenly, immortal body (5:1-4).  The confusing part is that Paul also speaks of the hope of being “away from the body,” that He might experience the Lord more fully (5:6,8; see also Philippians 1:19-24).  This seems to be Paul’s more immediate hope, given that his ultimate hope of a glorified body is firmly established in this passage and others, and given that he clearly implies an immediate and more intimate experience of Christ upon his death.  

Our hope for the future always impacts our present.  In light of the reality that we have been saved in Christ and are therefore preparing to be “at home with the Lord,” we “make it our goal to please him.”  How can we please God in these “earthly tents” subject to death?  Through the Spirit of God, who lives in us and begins to bring us to life even as our bodies die (5:5)!

But what about verse 10?  In the midst of speaking about faith and hope in Christ, why this talk of judgment?  Is Paul seeking to induce a little fear to balance out the hope?  We need to remember that we are still in “the great tangent” of 2 Corinthians (2:12-7:1), where Paul is vigorously defending his ministry.  While Paul fears, or reveres, the Lord, he is not afraid of the coming judgment or trying to make sincere believers quake in their boots.  (How could he so look forward to being with the Lord if this were so?)  Rather, he is humbly confident that the coming judgment will prove the sincerity of his ministry and the false motives of the enemies of the gospel.  As he says in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait til the Lord comes.  He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.  At that time each will receive his praise from God.”  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Do you share Paul’s desire to be with the Lord?  What might be the correlation between our desire to be with the Lord, our desire to please him now, and our desire to make him known to others?  What gets in the way of a burning desire to be with the Lord?

 

2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2

Is Paul out of his mind (5:13)?  Apparently, some of the Corinthians think so.  It’s not the only time that Paul is accused of losing his mind.  A Roman governor named Festus accuses Paul of insanity for his belief in the cross and resurrection as the central events in the human story (Acts 26:23-26).  And it seems that Paul’s insistence on the absolute centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection leads the Corinthians to doubt him as well, for this message dominates today’s passage. See 5:14-15 for a perfectly succinct summary!

The love of Christ compels Paul to unreservedly persuade others to find life in Christ.  Four times in a row, Paul will rehearse the love of Christ and show that this leads to a life of sharing the love of Christ with others.  Gospel ministry must flow from our own experience of Jesus’ love:

Gospel - Union with Christ in his death & resurrection (5:14-15)
Gospel Ministry - So we regard no one from a worldly point of view (5:16)

Gospel - New creation, reconciliation w/ God through union with Christ (5:17-5:18a)
Gospel Ministry - So God gives us the ministry of reconciliation (5:18b)

Gospel - Reconciliation through forgiveness of sins (5:19)
Gospel Ministry - So God has committed to us the message of reconciliation (5:19b-20)

Gospel - Through union w/ Christ, our guilt is removed and we are righteous in him (5:21)
Gospel Ministry - So we embody/proclaim the righteousness of God to the world (5:21b-6:2)

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Would anyone accuse you of being out of your mind for your insistence on the cross and resurrection as the central events in the story of the world?  

• Take time to meditate on 5:14-15.  In what sense have you “died” in Christ (5:14)?  What does it look like in your life right now to no longer live for yourself but for Christ?  

• Are you compelled by the love of Christ to persuade and implore others to be reconciled to God ?  How might you grow in compulsion?  

• What does it look like to no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view?

 

2 Corinthians 6:3-7:4

Paul’s pen flows freely as he pours out his heart to the Corinthians, a heart full of life experience through which Paul has come to know the grace and power of God in the depths of his soul.  It is “in the Holy Spirit” and “in the power of God” (6:6,7) that Paul and company are able to remain faithful amidst trials and persecution (6:4b-5), in godly character (6:6-7), and in spite of false accusations (6:8a).  Perhaps more beautifully than any other place in Scripture, Paul poetically describes the paradox of life in Christ between his resurrection and our own resurrection (6:8b-10).  We are not called to insulate ourselves from the brokenness of the world.  Instead, we are called to enter into the suffering and brokenness and poverty of the world, as Jesus did, with the full assurance and joy that Jesus is alive in us now and that we will be raised with him.  

The following verses (6:11-12; 7:2-4) show that Paul is not providing a resume, but he is seeking to convince the Corinthians of his sincerity and faithfulness to his calling.  He wants to win their hearts over to the true gospel.  For this reason, Paul calls the Corinthians not to be spiritually “yoked together” with those who do not preach the pure gospel of Christ (6:14-7:1).  While this passage has been used to forbid marriage and business partnership with unbelievers, which may be legitimate secondary applications of the passage (especially in the case of marriage, since it includes spiritual union), the context dictates a primary application to relationships within the church.  Paul has been defending his Christ-centered gospel against false teaching for several chapters.  Paul’s Christ-centered gospel, the gospel of “light” (compare 6:14c to 4:6), has no fellowship with a false gospel that brings death (3:7,9).  This does not entail that believers should cut off friendships with unbelievers or consider themselves above unbelievers, but we are not to put up with teaching in the church that distorts the message of God’s grace in Christ.  Ironically, Paul uses “old covenant” passages to call the Corinthians to cleanse the church of false teachers, including at least some who are preaching reliance on the old covenant (6:16-18).  Of course, the light of Christ enables Paul to understand that the old covenant, too, points to Christ and is fulfilled by Christ.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Paul’s words are convicting.  It’s quite clear that he is finding life in Christ in the midst of severe trials.  How are you experiencing suffering, persecution, poverty, or other forms of the world’s brokenness, especially for the sake of the gospel?  How have you seen God give you hope, perseverance, purity, understanding, patience, kindness, joy and contentment  — in short, His life — in the midst of this brokenness?  Where is brokenness leading you to despair, apathy, bitterness or escape, instead of Christ?  Take time to invite Jesus to reveal his life in those places of brokenness. 

• Are you “yoked together” spiritually with anyone who is not preaching the pure gospel of Christ, but is instead leading you to trust in yourself, your religious works, or anything but Christ?  

 

2 Corinthians 7:5-16

Today, Paul picks up the specific train of thought that he left way back in 2:13.  The “great tangent,” through which Paul defends the ministry of the gospel of Christ (2:14-7:4), has come back full circle.  (Okay, technically, for you math geeks, maybe it’s better to think of the letter as the “line” of thought and 2:14-7:4 as a circle off of the “tangent”!)  Titus, a fellow missionary, has finally come to Macedonia and provided encouragement to Paul through his report about the Corinthians (compare 2:13 to 7:5).  Paul’s words continue in the same spirit of defending and explaining his ministry, but now his thoughts are specifically tied to this recent report from Titus and to their reception of Paul’s previous rebuke (compare 2:1-11 to 7:8-13).  

Paul’s rebuke did sting the Corinthians, “but only for a little while” (7:8).  In the end, Paul’s willingness to speak strong words of truth to the Corinthians resulted in “godly sorrow.”  This distinction between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow” has proven helpful to countless Christians (7:9-12).  Most theologians have understood worldly sorrow to be a sorrow that focuses on one’s broken circumstances rather than one’s broken spiritual condition.  If I complain that I am having trouble getting out of the bed in the morning, bending down, and running due to pain in my back, but insist that my back is healthy, my underlying condition will continue.  It’s easier to pop a few pain killers than it is to go to physical therapy for weeks or months.  How often are we eager to fix our circumstances rather than exposing our hearts to the work of God, which leads to repentance?  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Paul provides some helpful clues by which we may detect “godly sorrow” — earnestness or sincere conviction as opposed to indifference; eagerness to “clear yourselves” or to make things right with others; indignation, or righteous anger, and alarm over sin; longing to see change and reparation; and readiness to see justice done.  These are not the only clues, nor do they necessarily apply to every sort of sin, given that Paul is speaking into a specific situation, but they are helpful nonetheless.  Where do you see worldly and/or godly sorrow in your life?  Do the hard work, with the Spirit’s help, of taking your worldly sorrow to the Lord and turning it to godly sorrow and repentance.

 

2 Corinthians 8-9

Paul now turns his attention to a gift for poor members of the church in Jerusalem/Judea (see also 1 Corinthians 16:3; Romans 15:25-28; Galatians 2:10), a gift that he collected over several years and one that he painstakingly protected from fraudulent activity (e.g. 8:18-21).  He commends the church in Corinth for their prior generosity (8:10) and now urges them to continue in generosity by following through on their pledge (9:5).

Through this specific appeal, we are blessed to receive a number of timeless examples, words of wisdom, and encouragement toward generosity:

8:2-4 - In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

8:12 - For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

9:6-8 - Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

 • Can I imagine “urgently pleading” for the opportunity to give sacrificially (8:2-4)?  What would need to happen in my heart to get to this point?

• How do we embody the generosity of Jesus when we give sacrificially (8:9)?

• Am I trusting in God’s abundance in my giving (9:6-8)?  

 

2 Corinthians 10-11

Today, we see a turn in the letter (see 2 Corinthians Overview).  Paul assumes a more abrasive, combative tone as he takes the false teachers in Corinth, along with their willing recipients, head on.  The same themes have been present throughout the letter, but the approach feels less theological and more personal.  

Paul alludes to at least four overlapping reasons for which some of the Corinthians look down on his ministry.  First, they claim that he is not an authoritative personality (10:1-11).  Paul lays this claim to rest, though he agrees that he does not verge on abuse or exploitation, as the false teachers do (11:20-21).  Second, Paul does not have the worldly pedigree or rhetorical training  of the false teachers (10:12;11:5-6).  Nevertheless, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they received the gospel of Christ from him (10:13-14), just as he reminded them in 3:1-3.  Third, Paul refused to accept patronage from the Corinthians, as the false teachers did.  Instead, Paul received support from other churches so that he could preach free of charge in Corinth (11:7-9).  He does not want to be associated with the false teachers, who surely felt important by receiving patronage (11:12).  Fourth, Paul was apparently accused of a lack of faithfulness to his Jewish heritage(11:22), as we already saw in 3:7-18.  

When we read Paul’s strong words about the false teachers in 11:13-15, we understand more fully why Paul calls the Corinthians to disassociate from them in 6:14-7:1.  Don’t miss the fact that the same contrasts of light and darkness, Christ and Satan (aka Belial), are used in both passages.  Notice how often we see the same themes emerge throughout the letter, even though the tone has changed.  

Finally, and most importantly, take note of the heart behind Paul’s strong words.  “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand” (10:15b).  “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy.  I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.  But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (11:2-3).  “Besides everything else, I face daily my concern for all the churches.  Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (11:28-29).  Can we sincerely echo Paul’s words as we think about people in our own community and mission field?

In the end, Paul’s argument goes like this:  “Why would I continually risk my life if I were not a sincere servant of Christ?” (11:23-33; compare to 4:8-12 & 6:4-10).  He “boasts” in detail about his trials in order to provide incontrovertible evidence that he is a “servant of Christ.”  Truly he “carried around in his body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be revealed in his body” (4:10).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• There are times when standing for the truth of the gospel requires us to be strong.  Have there been times in your walk with Christ when you had to firmly resist distortions of the gospel, or times that you’ve been passive when firm resistance was needed?  On the other hand, do you have a personality that tends to be too quick to assume a combative tone?  

• Take time to allow Paul’s words in 10:15, 11:2-3, and 11:28-29 to sink in.  What stands in the way of this kind of concern and compassion for others?  Ask Jesus to give you more of his heart.
 

 

2 Corinthians 12-13

As the letter comes to an end, Paul continues in the same train of thought as chapters 10-11, expanding on the issues of patronage versus preaching for free (12:14-18), authority and status (12:11-13; 13:1-4).  At the same time, Paul continues to reveal the heart behind his strong words (12:19-21; 13:5-10).  As he summarizes in 13:19, his many words in defense of his ministry were not ultimately for his own defense, but for the sake of Christ’s work among them (see also 13:7,9).  

We also find a new element present in the concluding chapters.  Paul speaks of a “thorn in my flesh,” which the Lord allowed to remain for the sake of keeping Paul humble (12:7-10).  Clearly, whatever this physical, relational, emotional or spiritual “thorn” may have been, Paul did not like it.  Three times he pleaded for the Lord to take it away.   

Who enjoys having a thorn in the flesh?  No one!  Thorns in our lives often feel like a hindrance, distraction, or discouragement from serving the Lord.  Whether it’s an illness or injury, a difficult relationship, or painful loss, “thorns” seem to slow us down, cause us to lose sleep, and suck the life out of us.  Yet in spite of his intense dislike of his thorn, Paul sees how it keeps his reliance and joy in Christ, even to the point of joy and thanksgiving.   Paul’s experience reminds us that in our broken state, we are prone to trust in our own strength when all is well.  Our strength becomes our idol.  But when we know we are weak, Christ’s strength is made known in us!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Is there a “thorn” (or thorns) in your life that continually reminds you of your weakness and brokenness?  How are you responding to the thorn now?  Responding in joy and thanksgiving in Christ does not mean ignoring the thorn or acting like it’s not painful or sorrowful.  Rather, depth of joy and thanksgiving in Christ only comes on the other side of realizing that the fullness of his power is seen in our weakness.  

• If you cannot point to a “thorn” in your life and perhaps feel strong right now, are you nevertheless remembering your weakness and brokenness apart from the grace and power of Christ?