Monday, June 22, 2020Psalm 86:11-17; Genesis 16:1-15; Romans 6:1-14

Psalm 86:11-17 continues the Psalm from last week (86.1-10). The form of this psalm is a prayer-song of an individual. Vss 12-13 are a vow of thanksgiving and in vs 13b it is clear that his current state has been one of God-forsakenness and the threat of death.

Vss 14 is the essence of the lament of the singer’s situation: enemies who do not serve God are threatening him. Vs 15 affirms and praises God in a form seen in other psalms. Vss 16-17 express the substance of the petition.

Genesis 16.1-15 recounts the story of Hagar, Sarai and Abram and the birth of Ishmael. We note that in this early part of the Genesis account the names of Sarai and Abram had not yet changed into Sarah and Abraham (see the next chapter 17.5 and 17.15ff for the background to the changed names – developments not unconnected to the current story!

The early part of the story (vss 1-6) focus on the family and gender dynamics of Abram’s household. Vs 2 takes us directly into the basic plot of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ with the Egyptian slave Hagar offered as a surrogate to her husband: it may be that I shall obtain children by her. Then a fascinating series of gendered interactions takes place with Hagar developing contempt for Sarai (vs 4), Sarai blaming Abram: May the wrong done to me be on you! (vs 5) before Abram throws the whole situation back on Sarai: she belongs to you – do to her as you please (vs 6). The end result is that Hagar runs away.

The next section has the ‘angel of the Lord’ finding here by a spring of water in the wilderness. I have already referred in past weeks to the spring – Beer-Lahai-roi (The Well of the Living One who sees me – vs 14). What is of significance here is the angel’s prophecy that “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” a promise similar to that given to Abram in the following chapter.

The angel predicts the birth of her son, to be named Ishmael (‘God hears’ – vs11) and the kind of wild and adversarial man he will be.

You will notice several similarities between this story of Hagar running away during her pregnancy (chapter 16) and the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21.8-21. In Chap 21 the promise to Abraham is that both Isaac and Ishmael will become great nations. As the Jews trace their ancestry from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, so many Muslims trace their ancestry through Ishmael.  

These ancient stories are the ‘deep background’ that we need to understand if we are to engage with Romans. Although Islam did not exist as a religion in the time of the New Testament and St Paul, the Genesis account makes it clear that there are different descendants of the Father of Faith (see Romans 4), different tribes, who really are (from a Genesis perspective) all sisters and brothers.

Having developed in Romans 5 how his concept of ‘justification through faith’ operates, Paul turns in chapter 6 to deal with two objections to his thesis that his opponents raise. Romans 6.1-14 deals with the first objection and Romans 6.15-23 deals with the second. In both passages the objection is stated in the form of a question (vss 1, 15) .

In vs 1 the first objection is clearly put.  Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? In other words, doesn’t your doctrine of ‘justification’ being freely handed out by God to those who ‘have faith’, just lead to people sinning more – ‘the more sin, the more grace’?  Paul’s answers with an emphatic negative in vs 2 with the key point that we have died to sin.

Our death to sin is explored through the metaphor of baptism (vs 3). Baptism involves a symbolic ‘incorporation’ into Christ’s death, and, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too are raised to walk in newness of life (vs 4). This is affirmed in vs 5 with the extension of the meaning of resurrection from an ethical sense to include a stronger sense of conformity to Christ’s resurrection. 

Vs 6 unpacks the ‘dying’ side of the equation, stressing that what dies in baptism is our old self. The phrase the body of sin (cf. v 12) is often misunderstood as ‘our physical bodies as the location of sin’. If in baptism, our physical, ‘sinful’ bodies were destroyed, the pews would be, by definition, empty. In other parts of his writings Paul uses a ‘shorthand’ to distinguish the old life (‘the flesh’) and the new life in Christ (‘the Spirit’). This is not a contrast between physical life (often associated with sexual overtones) and some kind of disembodied spiritual existence. It is the movement from the old life under the power of sin into the new life under the power of righteousness, or the Spirit. 

Vss 8-9 develop the resurrection side of the metaphor, before vss 10-11 present a balanced summary of how we are dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Vs 12 makes clear that our mortal bodies also are part of the new life. Here Paul takes a more ethical, hortatory tone urging his listeners to abandon sin and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (vs 13).

Vs 13 is the final conclusion that neatly sums up the opening objection (that grace will lead to greater sinning) with the direct opposite result: sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020Psalm 86:11-17; Genesis 25:12-18; Romans 6:15-23

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 25:12-18 lists the descendants of Ishmael. Most people find their own genealogies interesting, but are quite uninterested in those of others. Unfortunately this is also true of those of us who read the Scripture and readers do not engage with passages like this as much as they might. 

The whole chapter deals with the descendants of Abraham. Vss 1-5 tell us that Abraham took another wife, Keturah (vs 1) who had 6 sons (vs 2). Reading through their names and the names of their descendants you will see names of tribes and nations in the surrounding regions (Sheba, Midian, Asshurim…). Abraham gave ‘gifts’ to the sons of his concubines (presumably women other than Sarah, Hagar and Keturah) but the whole of his inheritance he left to Isaac (vs 5).

Ishmael had twelve sons by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes (vs 16). They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria (vs 18a). This region would appear to include most of the Arabian Peninsula. The range of names (understood as references to scattered tribes) is not so extensive as the list of Keturah’s sons. The mention of twelve princes listed by their villages and their encampments (vs 16) may reflect a closely-bound tribal unit of distinct clans settling the Arabian Peninsula – ‘the twelve tribes of Ishmael’ mirroring ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ in Canaan to the northwest.

Note in vs 18b the footnotes to the passage: the uncertainty in Hebrew may hark back to the meaning of Ishmael’s name about quarrelling with his brothers.

Romans 6.15-23 deals with the second objection that Paul’s opponents have raised regarding his view of justification by faith, through grace. This objection is put in the form of a question in vs 15: should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  The first objection was: if sinning leads to grace isn’t there an incentive to sin? Here the argument is: you take away the law haven’t you removed the barrier to sin? 

Just as in answering the first objection Paul develops his argument around the analogy and meaning of baptism as a symbolic and spiritual ‘dying with Christ’, he answers the second using the analogy of slavery – something with which his readers were intimately aware. Byrne writes ‘perhaps two-thirds of any community of believers consisted of slaves or ‘freedmen’ (former slaves who had obtained their liberty)’.  Specifically, Paul explores what happens when a slave is transferred from one owner to another. That this might have been an uncomfortable and confronting analogy for his listeners is perhaps reflected in his comment at vs 19a.

Paul contrasts two different forms of existence (vss. 16-23). One is ‘slavery to sin’ involving freedom from righteousness, impurity and greater and greater iniquity (vs 19), and ultimately shame and death (vs 21). The other existence is ‘slavery to righteousness (vs 18) or ‘slavery to God’ (vs 22) which results in obedien[ce] from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted (vs17), freedom from sin (vs 18), sanctification (vss 19, 22) and eternal life.

The second objection is still with us from all those who trust in moral rules and fear the power and impact of grace. Perhaps the best-known modern version is the ‘slippery slope’ argument: if you allow this change to the rules then you open the door to all sorts of terrible things. I well remember as a teenager handing out pamphlets with other members of my church against the extension of hotel opening hours from 6pm closing to 10pm. If we allowed this change what other catastrophes will follow? Thankfully, we and the other wowsers arrayed against the change lost the argument. The ‘six o’clock swill’ (workers pouring out of the factories at 4.15 pm and drinking hard at packed hotels to get their alcohol into them by the 6pm, close then staggering home to abuse their wives) ended. Drinking became more civilised (many patrons could pop home and shower before going to the bar!) and public drunkenness reduced as did domestic abuse. 

We saw similar ‘slippery slope’ arguments during the recent marriage equality debate: ‘allow this and soon people will be marrying their pet hamster’ etc. As Paul points out this is not the case: Slavery to sin (linked with – but not caused by – living under law: Romans 5.20) means freedom from righteousness which leads to shameful things.  But being freed from sin and enslaved to God through grace leads to sanctification and eternal life (vs 22)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020Psalm 86:11-17; Jeremiah 42:18-22; Matthew 10:5-23

For the Psalm, see Monday.

This passage from Jeremiah is a short oracle set in the tumultuous period after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The fall of the city is described in Jeremiah 39. The wealthy and powerful members of the population are deported to Babylon. The poor are left in the land and some are imprisoned. In chapter 40 Jeremiah is released from prison and finds favour with Gedaliah, an Israelite left in charge by the Babylonian captain of the guard Nebuzaradan. In Jeremiah 41 Gedaliah is murdered along with the remaining Babylonian garrison in an insurrection led by Ishmael son of Nethaniah.  Other Israelite forces then defeat Ishmael. In the opening verses of Jeremiah 42, the victors ask Jeremiah to ‘seek the Lord’ on whether they should flee to Egypt before the Babylonians re-establish control. 

They reject his advice as to the word of the Lord and Jeremiah pronounces this oracle against them. He is then forcibly removed from Jerusalem and taken with them into Egypt.

So much of the narrative in these chapters would be quite at home in the situation in the current Middle East, where nations have been destabilised or destroyed by foreign invasion, attempts by the invaders to impose puppet government have led to revolutions or civil wars, followed by waves of refugees flowing out of the region seeking refuge. Jeremiah counsels stability and rebuilding but is swept up in the panic and flight of the people.

The sending out of the twelve disciples in Matthew 10.5-23 is a key turning point in the mission of Jesus. They are directed solely to the house of Israel (vs 6) and ordered to avoid the Gentiles and Samaritans (vs 5). Their mission has five components proclaim the good news … cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons (vss 7-8)

The rules or principles Jesus specifies (vss 9-10) reflect the early traditions of the wandering preachers of the Jesus movement. There were specific injunctions against ‘house-hopping’ – stay where you first find a bed (vs 11).  Bless the house where you stay if it is worthy (vs 13) but if the people of the house or the town won’t listen to you, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town as a sign of judgement and condemnation.

Then follows a warning of the dangers to come (vss 16-23). This appears to be drawn from Mark 13:9-13 where it is part of an apocalyptic teaching preached by Jesus a few days before his death. The risks and dangers of this passage are far more characteristic of the mission of the early church after the experience of Cross and Resurrection than the early mission of the disciples when Jesus was still alive.

The reference to the prompt coming of the Son of Man reflects a very early element of the Christian tradition (cf Mark 9.1).

Thursday, June 25, 2020Psalm 13; Micah 7:18-20; Galatians 5:2-6

Psalm 13 could be very old. It is one of the ‘Psalms of David’ and it has a simple but powerful structure. Vss 1-2 ask the deep questions of someone who is experiencing abandonment by God. “How long…?” is repeatedly asked four times – in vs 1 the phrase occurs  just on its own: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? This has a psychological power for anyone who has ever experienced abandonment. Then three subsidiary ‘how long?’ questions name the hiding of God’s face, the sorrows of the soul and the actions of one’s enemies as the three dimensions of this abandonment.

Vs 3 calls on God to see the suffering of the singer, but also to enlighten his own eyes so that he may ‘see the light of life’.

Vs 4 seeks God’s action to prevent the enemy from triumphing thought the singer’s loss of confidence or surrender to fear.

Vss 5-6 are an affirmation of trust and praise: despite all the dangers and the sense of abandonment, the singer has not given up hope or their trust in God!

The prophet Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, all part of the flourishing of the prophetic movement of the 8th century BCE.  Micah was a rural person who prophesied against the rich elites of Jerusalem. The themes of this passage reflect the Psalm above – the dependability of God and that God will not maintain anger for ever.

Micah prophesied the eventual fall of Jerusalem (chapter 1), condemned wicked rulers and false prophets (chapter 3), denounced social evils (chapter 2, 6:9-16, 7.1-7) but also included oracles of encouragement and restoration, including the prophesying the role of ‘the remnant’ of Israel  (2.12-13; 5:7-9)

Note that today’s passage is the closing passage of the book of Micah, his ‘final word,’ and what a wonderful message it is! It has inspired one of my favourite hymns: Great God of wonders all thy ways… which has the refrain: Who is a pardoning God like thee? Or who has grace so rich and free?

Galatians is all about freedom! Paul was writing to a community that (in Paul’s eyes) had abandoned the gospel for a legalistic understanding of Christian life (see Gal 1:6-9). They were seeking to live a fully Jewish life with adherence to the law under the sign of circumcision. As we have seen in the early chapters of Romans (especially 2.17-29) Paul was opposed to this.

Vs 3 makes clear that Paul sees circumcision as imposing the full burden of the law – but more than that, you … have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (vs 4). For Paul the ways of law and grace are mutually exclusive!

Vs 5 is a key insight into Paul’s understanding: righteousness is not a present reality, but a future hope. Such righteousness comes through the Spirit, by faith (vs 5). What is this faith of which Paul writes? The formulation of vs 6 presents an answer: For in Christ Jesus …. the only thing that counts is faith working through love.  The formulation here is not ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ as evangelical Christians so often want to read it but ‘in Christ Jesus, …faith working through love’.

Friday, June 26, 2020Psalm 13; 2 Chronicles 20:5-12; Galatians 5:7-12

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

2 Chronicles 20.5-12 is the prayer offered by Jehoshaphat when an army combined of Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites (20.1) rose against him. In the history-style of 1066 and All That, the Bible presents Jehoshaphat as a ‘good king’. His story starts in 2 Chronicles 17. Chapter 19 describes some of his legal and religious reforms.

In chapter 20, faced with military threat, he offers this prayer. In many ways it mirrors the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple just 14 chapters earlier. Jehoshaphat (vs 6) echoes Solomon’s recognition of God’s grandeur and power being so great he could not possibly live in ‘the house’ that the temple provided for him (2 Chron 6.18). Jehoshaphat repeats (vs 9) Solomon’s theology that in times of distress God would hear if the people stand before the house and cry to him (cf 2 Chron 6.20-21, 24-25).

Galatians 5.7-12 follows on from yesterday’s passage. Having talked about the theology of the issues involved in 5.2-6, Paul now exhorts his listeners to return to the truth. He has confidence that they will listen (vs 10a) but warns whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty (vs 10b). Paul then argues that he certainly does not teach this legalising approach. The evidence is that he is still being persecuted: if he had taught as their ‘confusers’ did the offense of the cross has been removed (vs 11). For Paul, the ways of circumcision and the cross are mutually exclusive – completely opposed pathways.

Paul then makes a bitter joke that expresses his anger. Different translations express it differently: the gist of his comment is that he wishes that those who would cut off the foreskin of the penis would go the whole way!  I am encouraged that someone like Paul could speak so strongly. Sometimes we think we think we need to be ‘nice’ in the church, but there can be things taught, or said, or done, among us that deserve the strongest and clearest condemnation. The recent Royal Commission into Child Abuse gave us evidence enough of that!

Saturday, June 27, 2020Psalm 13; Genesis 26:23-25; Luke 17:1-4

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

The ‘he’ of Genesis 26.23-25 refers to Isaac. After conflicts over water earlier in the chapter (vss 17-22) Isaac arrives at Beersheba where the Lord repeats the promise of numerous descendants made to Abraham. Isaac built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well (vs 25). Note the four signs of presence and ‘possession’: building an altar, invoking the Lord’s name, pitching one’s tent, digging a well. The Hebrew word for well is beer– and the word for house is bet-. This is why some OT place names start with Beer- (Beersheba, Beer-lahairoi etc.)  or Bet- (eg Bethlehem, Bethel, Bethesda etc.).

Luke 17.1-4 is simply headed ‘Some Sayings of Jesus’, and may appear a rather offhand, perhaps even dismissive, description. The heart of the sayings here about putting a stumbling before ‘one of these little ones’ (vs 2) is also found in Mark 9.42 and Matthew 18.6. However, Mt and Mk develop the theme in a different way, saying if your hand, foot or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off!  Luke goes down a different path and links the prohibition of putting stumbling blocks before people to having a constant readiness to both call to account and to forgive (vss 3-4).   Only Luke and Matthew have the statement Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom they come (Mt 18.7 cf Lk 17.1) which reflects a source independent of Mark and suggests there may have been a body of teaching in the early Jesus community about stumbling blocks.

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