Daily Devotions for the Sixth Week after Pentecost

Monday, July 6, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 27:30-46; Romans 1:16-31

The Song of Songs (sometimes known as the Song of Solomon) is an ancient Hebrew love poem. At times it can be confronting in its sexual imagery. Many commentators have interpreted it through allegory, seeing in the erotic poetry a metaphor of the love between God and the soul. Perhaps the best known of these commentators was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who preached and published 86 sermons on the Song of Songs – not bad for a book that is 8 chapters long! [Now I don’t feel so uncomfortable about the length of my series on Romans!] 

Without impugning any of the allegorical readings of the text, it is also helpful to read this text as a work of art, one of the world’s great love-poems. I have used passages from the Song of Songs in weddings. One prospective bride read a passage I suggested from the Songs of Song for her wedding. She put the Bible down and said in a hushed but appalled tone, “I couldn’t possibly ask my Auntie to read that!”

Fear not, today’s is one of the tamer passages. The structure of the book is essentially a dialogue between the alternating voices of ‘the Bride’ and her ‘Beloved’ with occasional ‘colloquies’ between the Bride and her friends (the so-called ‘daughters of Jerusalem’). In this passage the Bride speaks in vss 8-9 and then quotes her Beloved in vss 10-15. The Beloved invites her to leave the safety of the house for the winter is past, the rain is over and gone (vs 11) – perhaps a reference to a season of waiting and loneliness. He uses the metaphor of spring to anticipate their love.

In vss 16-17 the Bride herself summarises and celebrates their love. The image of ‘pasturing his flock among the lilies (until the morning breezes blow’ or until the day breathes and the shadows flee) is repeated in 6.3. Reading this second occurrence in the context of 6.2 reveals the erotic nature of the imagery involved.

Reading a passage like this in the depth of a southern winter reinforces the counter-cyclical tyranny of a lectionary built around the structure of the northern hemisphere seasons!

Genesis 27.30-46 follows on from last week’s OT reading. The deception perpetrated by Jacob and Rebekah is revealed and bitter is the response of both Isaac (vs 33) and Esau (vs 34).  The meaning of Jacob’s name (The Supplanter) has been lived out in the theft of both birthright and blessing – vs 34.

Isaac’s answer to Jacob’s request for a blessing is vss 39-40. You can see the ambiguity of its terms in the footnotes to the text: is it ‘away from’ the ‘fatness of the earth’ and ‘the dew’ that Esau’s future will be found or ‘of’ both the fatness of the earth and the dew that he will live? There is great psychological truth in vs 40. How often has a disinherited son found fame and fortune through force of arms or a military career? How often has an overshadowed sibling had to break free of the one who overshadows or supplants them in order to find their own fulfilment and future?

The passage finishes with mention of Laban (cf 25.20). Although Rebekah is concerned to protect Jacob from Easu’s wrath, (vss 41-45) she suggests to Isaac that she wants to stop Jacob from marrying Hittite women as Esau had done (see Gen 26.34-35). So the stage is set for the story of the next generation of the patriarchal family!

(Romans 1.18-25 is the lectionary passage set for this day. We dealt with this passage some weeks ago, but I have left it in here and reproduced those earlier notes. One reason for this is that the Sunday lectionary readings deal with Romans 8 in a very gradual and considered way, breaking the chapter over three successive weeks. We will look to Romans 8.1-11 tomorrow.)

Romans 1.16-31 is a long and densely constructed passage that opens with a summary statement (vs 16-17) that really stands as a ‘heading’ over the whole book of Romans, followed by an analysis of the sinfulness of humankind that sets the scene for the argument of the following chapters.

Vss 16-17 is the summary statement to which we can come back time and again as we grapple with the meaning of Romans. This is the theme, and the concepts named here will be unpacked in the chapters to come.

Paul opens with the statement For I am not ashamed of the gospel. How should we interpret this?  Is Paul using litotes (an ironic form of stressing his pride in the gospel) here? Or is the proper emphasis in reading the text ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel’, with the implication that some people are ashamed of the gospel – or perhaps think we should be ashamed. This is a key interpretive issue. My view (which I will present in next Sunday’s sermon) is that, taken together with the questions expressly asked in Rom 2.4, and implied in Rom 3.26, a perfectly sound reading of Romans is that serious questions are being asked whether the gospel is really ‘good news’, or a shameful, scandalous message that no moral or fair person could accept.

Paul then states the essence of his view of what the gospel is: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (vs 16b-17). As a formula, this is tightly woven and introduces a number of key concepts that will be expounded and explored in chapters to come. These key concepts include 

  • ‘everyone who has faith’, 
  • ‘the righteousness of God’, 
  • ‘the Jew/ the Greek’, 
  • ‘faith’ (as a concept) and 
  • ‘the righteous living by faith’. 

Every one of these concepts is laden in our good Christian minds with assumptions and understandings that a lifetime of listening to evangelical preaching has stored up in us. Part of the task of understanding Romans is to critique these inherited understandings and see whether an alternative reading of the text is possible. Again, we will have to hammer out our understanding of these concepts as we explore future chapters, coming back time and again to ‘test’ our reading of these 2 key verses.

If this reading is correct, Paul’s purpose in Romans is to explain and defend the gospel against a background of serious and sustained critique.

Paul then outlines a theology of human sinfulness, and how all human beings are sinners. This passage is celebrated by some as the clearest condemnation of same-sex relationships (vss. 26-27) in the New Testament. I believe this is a fundamental misreading of the text. Paul opens with The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness… (vs 18) and then proceeds to analyse human sinfulness in four sections. This is one of those times when the gaps or spaces in the text (between vss 23/24, 25/26, 27/28 – NRSV) are a helpful and accurate guide to the logic and grammar of Paul’s argument.

The first section (vss 19-23) is a general statement of human waywardness, grounded in a form of natural law theory that God’s greatness and goodness are evident in nature, so no human being has excuse for not acknowledging God. The basis of our waywardness is found in idolatry, futility and senselessness. This is the most general level of his argument.

He then applies and develops this general principle is three succeeding sections, each of which begins with the formula therefore/for this reason/and so …. God gave them up to… The parallelism of this structure is quite clear and there is a new beginning in each of vss 24, 26, 28.

The first of these three sections names the sin of human beings as the lusts of their hearts and the degrading of their bodies (vs 24). Vs 25 grounds this failing in the practice of idolatry. Note that this section says nothing at all about same sex relationships!! This is a general critique of human lust and bodily degradation, shared (or potentially shared) by all human persons.  The little paragraph space in the NRSV text between vss 25 and 26 is so important to observe here – especially for those who are quick to blame those terrible gay people for their sinfulness. Sorry guys, vss 24-25 seem to apply to all of us in a general way, or, if it is only some of us in view, it is certainly not just gay people that these verses are describing.

That comes in the second of the three sections (vss 26-27). This appears pretty clear – except that vs 26b might refer to lesbianism, but also might not. What does exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural mean? Is this done with men? Or with women? Vs 27 seems clearer (men with men).  Again, we cannot know what received in their own persons the due penalty for their error might mean. At the height of the AIDS crisis many critics bandied this phrase about, but that cannot have been Paul’s meaning. Did he refer to some form of humiliation or shame? Whatever our questions, Paul here clearly presents (some) same-sex relationships as sinful behaviour.

The third section presents a wide range of sins and sinners (vss 29-31), similarly ‘given up’ by God to a debased mind and to things that should not be done (vs 28). The list is fascinating, including gossip and foolishness, disobedience to parents, being haughty or boastful, or envious. God’s decree? That all such persons deserve to die! Is it just me, or does Paul here sound just a little ‘over the top’? 

Whatever your feeling on that point, Paul has undoubtedly argues that ALL human beings are sinful and stand under the judgement of God. Far from highlighting the particular sinfulness of gay people, Paul enlists them as a popular example of sinner (all good religious people agree about that!!) before throwing the net as wide as he can with his last catalogue of sins. All of this is laying the foundations for the dramatic argument that opens chapter 2.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 29:1-14; Romans 8:1-11

For the Song of Solomon, see Monday.

Genesis 29.1-14 tells of the meeting of Jacob and Rachel in the land of Paddan-Aram. It is an unusual story with Jacob objecting to the mingling of the three flocks of sheep, but the locals replying that they could not water any of the flocks until they all were watered together. Is this practice the background to another unusual story of chapter 30.25-43 involving the separating of the flocks of Laban and Jacob and the mutual trickery of these two kinsmen against each other? That story also involves the mysterious watering practices of Jacob with his sheep that led to his herds being stronger and greater than Laban’s. Are these stories somehow connected?

Although they greet one another warmly (vss 13-14) what follows reveals a relationship of mutual deceit and trickery. The trickster who defrauded his brother of birthright and blessing will meet in his own flesh and blood one equally capable of fraud and deception!

For me, Romans 8 is one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament! It is the climax of the first half of the book of Romans and perhaps Paul’s clearest statement of what the new life in Jesus Christ looks like. The lectionary has split the chapter into three passages for each of the coming three Sundays so, together with Christians around the world who are following the lectionary, we will reflect on Romans 8 in a slow and considered way.

Romans 8.1-11 brings a change of tone in the argument of Romans. It is best read in close contrast with chapters 6 and 7 which have explored ‘the necessity and possibility of “living out” the gift of righteousness begun at 6.1’ (Brendan Byrne).  From the preceding chapter we have seen the impossibility of living out this righteousness through the law, and here Paul announces the end of condemnation and the liberty and freedom that comes through Jesus. Just as the law of sin and of death held us captive, now the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free (vs 2). Note that, after very critical comments about the concept of law in previous chapters Paul here presents the law of  the Spirit of life (vs 2) in a positive sense. This is not the law of the previous chapters, but the ‘law’ of the new righteousness that comes through life in the Spirit.

Vss 3-4 tell how this was done through Jesus Christ who was sent to deal with sin (vs 3). Note here an alternate translation in the footnote as a sin offering. Paul has left the language here (deliberately?) ambiguous: the simple Gk preposition ‘peri’ (concerning, about, related to) can simply mean ‘to deal with’ or it can be read as evoking the technical language of the OT sin offering. 

Vss 5-11 contrast the trajectory of ‘living according to the flesh’ with ‘living according to the Spirit’. Note again how right through this passage (at vss 4, 5 (twice), 6, 9, and 10) the word Spirit can also be translated spirit. We tend to read the passage through a later lens of Trinitarian thought – and this passage is clearly Trinitarian naming ‘God’ and his own Son (vs 3) with multiple mentions of the Spirit (or spirit). However, for Paul and his hearers, the word may not have had the capitalised sense that we associate with it.

In contrasting the realms of ‘the flesh’ and ‘the spirit’ Paul is not disparaging embodied life. We moderns have tended to read ‘the flesh’ and especially ‘the sins of the flesh’ as a reference to physical, and sometimes particularly sexual, matters.  Paul uses two Gk words here – sarx (flesh) and soma (body). Soma (the body – symbolising our physical existence) has a positive connotation and is actually given life through (or on account of) his spirit that dwells in you (vs 11). Sarx (the flesh) is a summary term that refers to the ‘old way’ of sin-law-death from which we have been liberated by the new freedom of the Spirit (or spirit).

Wednesday, July 8, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 29:31-35; John 13:1-17

For the Song of Solomon, see Monday.

Genesis 29.31-35 has taken us quickly from Jacob meeting Rachel and Laban (yesterday!) to some point at least a decade later. We know this because of the story of 29.15-30 omitted from the lectionary. This story tells of Jacob’s love for Rachel, and how he served Laban for seven years to win her hand in marriage, only to have Laban switch brides on the wedding day to marry off the older sister first (vs 26). Jacob and Laban then agreed for Jacob to marry Rachel as well – in return for a further 7 years of labour!  The names of Leah’s sons (the ancestors of the first four tribes of Israel) reflect the dynamics of her marriage.

John 13. 1-17 is the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet. It is a significant part of John’s telling of the Jesus story. A theme of all four gospels is that Christian leadership involves service (cf. Mark 10.41-45 and parallels). It is only John’s gospel that recounts this action of Jesus. John also omits the story of the ‘last supper’ in the form given in Matthew, Mark and Luke: there is the story of ‘dipping the bread in the dish’ (vss 21-30) that follows this passage which is the closest correlate to the last supper that we find in John.

Thursday, July 9, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Exodus 3:1-6; Romans 2:12-16

Psalm 119 is the longest of all the Psalms. At 176 verses it is the longest single chapter of Scripture. It is an extended poem modelled on the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters in acrostic format of 22 eight-line stanzas each starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (22 x 8 = 176 verses). The theme of the extended poem is the Torah, the Law, the ‘commandment’ of God. What an irony that the lectionary serves up passages from Romans – Paul’s great treatise on the limitations of law, alongside the greatest celebration and affirmation of the law that we find in Scripture! The poem is firmly rooted in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel with a strong element of Torah piety – devotion grounded in the love of the Law. Psalm 119 brings together many sayings and themes from the Torah piety tradition.

This is one of the eight-line stanzas. Vs 105 is praise of the instruction of Yahweh, a phrase that is still part of many Christian liturgies. The oath of vs 106 might originally have been part of a special ceremonial. Elements of personal lament are found in vss 107, 109 and 110, but these are placed within a context of trust and confidence emerging in vss 106, 111, 112.

The presence of the Psalm amid the Romans readings does raise an issue as to how we are to reach a settled and balanced view of ‘grace’ and ‘law’. The reading of Romans that I have been following presents Paul’s teaching about law as very critical. But this is not the whole voice of Scripture. ‘Grace’ is the essence of the gospel, but should we go as far as some modern preachers in declaring the Ten Commandments completely outmoded and life-denying? Is there any room for moral principle or moral training within a thoroughly Reformed Christian preaching??  

I think moral and ethical discourse is very important – not least for the raising of our children who need form boundaries and clear guidelines. We also need to be able to reflect ethically and morally on complex issues of social order and personal responsibility. I am not an ‘antinomian’ person (someone completely opposed to any form of law or rule).  Paul himself is always trying to balance things out, teaching the importance of grace and freedom to legalistic communities like the Galatian churches, and teaching restraint and moral order to antinomian, (almost!) libertine communities like that of 1 Corinthians. How that balance and dynamic engagement is to be found in our context is one of the great challenges of the age.

Exodus 3.1-6 is one of the turning points of the story of Israel. If Genesis 12 was the start of the patriarchal narrative, of the deep beginnings of the people of Israel, Exodus 3 amounts to ‘hitting the reset button’ on the story.  Genesis ended in chapter 50 with Joseph and his brothers living in Egypt. Exodus opens many, many years later in a time when a new king arose Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex 1.8). Exodus 1 and 2 give the back story of the birth and youth and flight into Midian of Moses, but it is not until chapter 3 that we hear the voice of the Lord, and that the Lord has heard the cry of the Israelites.

The Lord identifies thus: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (vs 5) thus sealing the link with the earlier patriarchal narratives. While the narrative is related as a consistent history, there are signs that, some scholars have concluded, indicate various traditions and tribal narratives have been woven together to form a shared heritage behind a tribal ‘amphictyony’ (a ‘league of neighbours’ – an ancient form of religious alliance among tribes). The fourfold naming of the Lord as the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may reflect the deep roots of such a league. Another sign of the blending of various traditions are the differing names for God used through the Genesis account – a clear sign of different traditions that have been brought together.

The burning bush has been a potent symbol throughout Jewish and Christian history. The Kirk of Scotland has celebrated it in their coats of arms where it is seen as a symbol of the fire of the Holy Spirit and of the powerful divine voice calling humankind.

Romans 2: 12-16 was included in our readings for the first week after Pentecost. I include here the notes that were presented back then:

Romans 2.11-16 opens with a statement that reinforces what has just been said in vss 9-10: For God shows no partiality.  This is a key statement and a major theme of chapters 3 and 4. Buried deep in chapter 3 is a related statement: it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous … (3.26). God had something to prove? God had to prove that he is righteous (as in fair, just, impartial…)?  You can see this undercurrent running through the book. Having despatched the human tendency to judge others in 2.1-10, Paul now turns to ‘defending’ (or explaining?) how God’s judgement works. His argument is very logical. Those who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law and those who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law (vs 12) – perfectly symmetrical and even-handed. 

Then comes a vital point in the argument: it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (vs 13)

This means that the obverse of vs 12 has a marked asymmetry! Where a Gentile does what the law requires they are a law to themselves (vs 14). Please note that Paul’s use of this phrase is the opposite of what we mean when we say someone is ‘a law to themselves’: we mean they are renegade, lawless!  

In vss 15-16, this is expanded in the concepts of a law written on their hearts, and the witness of their own conscience which will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (vs 16)

This is pretty strong stuff. No claiming of the name of Jesus. No being part of the people of God. Just the Gentile whose conscience may perhaps excuse them on the day of God’s judgement, exercised through Jesus Christ (vs 16).

Friday, July 10, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Deuteronomy 32:1-10; Romans 15:14-21

For the Psalm, see Thursday

Deuteronomy 32.1-10 is the opening verses of the Song of Moses, a poem placed on the lips of Moses celebrating the action of God in delivering – but also in disciplining – God’s people. It raises some challenges in interpretation, especially for those who affirm the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible. Chapters 32-34 tell of the end of Moses’ life, including the hidden circumstances of his death (34.1-8). Even for a man as skilled and wise as Moses, it is hard to write the description of one’s own death and its aftermath.

Another way of reading Deuteronomy is to see it as a later work (the name means Second Book of the Law) perhaps associated with the ‘discovery’ of a law book in the 22nd Chapter of 2 Kings that led to a reform and revival of the Jewish faith (2 Kings 23). Given that the narrative of Deuteronomy and of the Song of Moses itself, includes reference to the past sins and failures of the people, the natural setting of such a book would be a time of reform and renewal when past failures are recognised and repented.

Vs 4 introduces mention of The Rock as a metaphor for God (no, not Dwayne Johnson, the wrestler and actor), a reference repeated in vss 30-31, 37. There is a clear reference to this metaphor from Paul in 1 Cor 10.4. This Pauline reference also reflects the critical tone of the Song of Moses as a listing of the people’s failures.

Vss 5-6 carry this tone of critique. Vss 7-8 call on people to remember the past and the faithfulness of God. Vss 8-9 seem to suggest the apportioning of the land to the tribes of Israel, associated with a later time, so that reading the Song of Moses against a later period makes more sense.

Vs 10 summarises the experience of Exodus, but also of the return from Exile, centuries later.

Those who come from oral cultures know the role of epic ballads that tell the great stories of the past. The Celtic bards of Scotland, Wales and Ireland composed ballads that retold the stories of the great heroes of their tradition. We find similar poems throughout Scripture – the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), another Song of Moses (or The Song of Miriam – Exodus 15), the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2) and the Song of Mary (the Magnificat – Luke 1.46-55). They are the remnants of pre-literate cultures where mighty deeds were remembered and recounted in poetic form – recited or sung from generation to generation – before people had the tools to write them down and transmit them on parchment, tablet or papyrus to future generations.

Romans 15.14-21 is Paul’s general description of his own ministry. This interesting self-presentation precedes Paul’s announcement that he is planning to come to Rome on his way to Spain (vss 22-33).

Paul opens with an affirmation of confidence in the faith of the Roman Christians and their capacity to teach and instruct each other – redolent of his opening prayer of thanksgiving in 1.8-15.  Here vs 15 brings in a new note, expressing that on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, (vs 15) and anchoring this boldness in the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles (vs 15b, 16). Paul is balancing his affirmation and respect for his hearers with a clear statement of his own experience and even authority (in vss 17-19).

The word ‘boast’ has a particular provenance in Romans: boast or boasting occurs 8 times chapters 1,2,3,4 and 5. The first four occurrences bear a negative sense (1.30, 2.17, 2.23, 3.27). The second four occurrences carry a more positive sense (4.2, 5.2, 5.3, 5.11). Ten chapters later Paul includes himself in the positive list of people who have a right to boast – but only In Christ Jesus (vs 17).

Vs 20-12 make clear what Paul’s agenda is: just as he has ‘boasted’ of the effectiveness of his ministry from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum (vs 19), he is hoping to proclaim the good news to people further west who have never heard the gospel and is hoping for their support.

Saturday, July 11, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Isaiah 2:1-4; John 12:44-50

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Isaiah 2.1-4 is an oracle of restoration and hope focussed on ‘the mountain of the Lord’ – the temple mount of Zion in Jerusalem. The metaphor of ‘this mountain’ or ‘the mountain of the Lord’ recurs through Isaiah (cf. 11.9, 10.12, 25.6-10 etc). Here it is mentioned in vss 2 and 3. The prophesied prominence of the mountain (vs 2) will make it a centre for teaching and instruction (vs 3) and a centre for peace-making (vs 4).

John 12.44-50 is headed Summary of Jesus’ Teaching in the NRSV. Chapter 13 begins with the Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on the night before the crucifixion. John has structured all of chapters 13-17 as a long discourse by Jesus to his disciples set entirely on this night. So the closing verses of chapter 12 are the transition from the narrative of Jesus’ signs and teaching in chapters 1-12. Some of the great themes of John are emphasised: Jesus’ oneness with the Father (vss 44-45, 49-50); Jesus as light (vs 46); his role not as judge but as Saviour of the world (vs 47) and his authority as the bearer of the divine word (vss 49-50).

Daily Devotions for the Fifth week after Pentecost

Monday, June 29, 2020Psalm 47; Genesis 22:15-18; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Psalm 47 is one of the ‘royal psalms’ which glorifies Yahweh’s rule as King (see Psalms 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, and 99). It is a unified and consistent Psalm calling people to praise and proclaiming the universal rule of God.

The structure of the Psalm is built around two imperatives, the calls to worship and praise of vss 1 and 6. Each of these calls is then followed by a description of the reasons we should worship Yahweh. Vss 2-4 recount the historical actions of the Lord: a summary statement of the Kingship of Yahweh (vs 2), Yahweh’s actions in defeating the enemies of Israel (vs 3) and allocating them the lands in which they live (vs 4). 

The reference in vs 3b has a rather sombre contemporary reference. The global #Black Lives Matter movement has arisen in response to the death of George Floyd after a policeman knelt on his neck. Vs 3b refers to an ancient practice of putting one’s feet on the neck of a subdued enemy as a sign of dominance (cf. Numbers 29.1). This is what is meant by ‘making your enemies your footstool’ (Psalm 110.1).  The symbolic meaning of this act is humiliation. This background element of ritual humiliation and dominance has coalesced with outrage at George Floyd’s homicide (I use the word homicide as that is how the policeman has been charged) that has resulted in a deep social response. 

For those who have followed recent developments in US race relations, there is a profound irony in the fact that the symbolic protest of ‘taking a knee’ (kneeling on one knee during the playing of the US national anthem, started by footballer Colin Kaepernick) was slowly spreading – and strongly criticised in some quarters – but the action of the policeman (Derek Chauvin) in ‘taking a knee’ on George Floyd has boiled over in protest and anger. Protestors and police now sometimes together ‘take a knee’ in solidarity, in the triumph of Kaepernick’s symbolic action over Chauvin’s violent act.

To what does vs 5 refer?  Trumpets are still a part of coronations around the world – a deeply symbolic act.  So is the solemn ‘shout’, such as God save the Queen!   The Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious symbol of the presence of the Lord, who was ‘enthroned above the cherubim’ (the figures that were atop the ark), was brought into Jerusalem with the sound of trumpets (2 Samuel 6.15). Was there a festival in Israel in which the trumpets were blown (cf Numbers 29.1) as this ‘ascension’ (going up) of the Lord to the temple was re-enacted? Psalm 132 may well be a liturgy for such an enthronement festival (see especially Ps 132.8-9). Or was such an event associated with the Festival of Trumpets of Numbers 29?

The enthronement theme is clear in in vss 5, 8. Here the Psalm works at two levels: whatever was happening in the cultic act (clapping, shouting, trumpets, processing, praising) there was a parallel affirmation of God’s actions in both history (vss 2-3) and in the cosmic and political ordering of the world (vss 7-8). If this was a solemn gathering at which the Ark was again taken up into the Temple in a symbolic enthronement of Yahweh, it is likely that those who were the ‘ambassadors’ or representatives of other nations would have come to such an assembly. This would be reflected in vs 9a the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. The final affirmation affirms that the shields of the earth (the powers of war and military might) belong to God; he is highly exalted.

Genesis 22:15-18 repeats the promise of the Lord to Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore (vs 17). The promise follows the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, one of the challenging ethical and spiritual passages of the Old Testament that has engaged theologians and philosophers over the centuries. Personally, I have learnt much from the reflections of both Søren Kierkegaard and Jacques Derrida on this passage. It also forms a deep background to some interpretations of the doctrine of Atonement and the death of Jesus – but (as they say in the classics) that’s another story!

The promise of offspring to Abraham and it’s shaping in the form of a covenant emerges through Genesis Chapters 12.1-3, 7; 13.14-18; 15; 17; 18.9-15; and finally here at 22:15-18.  The various expressions of promise and covenant are sometimes associated with different places where Abraham lived (Shechem, the oaks of Mamre, Beersheba etc). 

It can be a personally illuminating spiritual exercise to reflect upon where one has lived over one’s life, what was happening in the world generally and to you personally during those years, and how that impacted your sense of God and what God was promising/calling you to do!

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 comes from what many scholars believe to be the first book of the NT to be  written. This conclusion arises from such passages as 4.13 ff. which deal with the pastoral challenge of how do we understand the tragedy of people who have died. This reflects a very early view that some Christians clearly had that the return of Jesus would be very soon: when someone died, did this mean they had ‘missed out’ (cf. Mark 9.1)? 

Our passage today is general moral teaching about loving one another (vss 9-10), living quietly and minding one’s own business (vs 11a – cf. Psalm 131!), working with your own hands (vs 11b) and behaving properly toward outsiders and being dependent on no-one.

The theme of independence and the exhortation to work with your own hands possibly reflects a community in which the return of Christ was thought to be imminent – ‘any day now’! In such a situation the rich might be more willing to share their goods (I can’t take them with me!) and the poor very happy to cease work and wait, living on the generosity of the sisters and brothers. Such general attitudes persist in our social discourse today – all that talk about ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. 

There is a very valid conversation to be had in our society about how ‘social responsibility’ and ‘mutual obligation’ work alongside our obligation to care for the poor and the vulnerable. These considerations are not only political (for in two-party states there is often a fault line between the parties on this issue) but also deeply spiritual. And, as in many issues, both perspectives have elements of truth and wisdom in them. Within the Christian community we should engage in respectful dialogue about these issues.

For those of us who receive the Australian Aged pension, the dignity of ‘working with your own hands’ is reflected in the Work Bonus policy: you can receive so much in a year from investment or other passive income sources without impacting your Aged pension – but you can also earn twice as much again by ‘working with your own hands’ (called ‘personal exertion’). Who would have thought that Centrelink read 1 Thessalonians so assiduously?

Paul, of course, also worked with his own hands (see Acts 20.34), and for those of us in ‘professional ministry’ (i.e. those of us ‘paid to preach’) these verses pose challenges also. As a visiting preacher from a very poor country asked me quite pointedly in the 1980’s: “How can you preach the gospel with any integrity to people who pay you?” I still ponder that question, trying to balance Paul’s model for ministry with the words of Jesus in Luke 10.7 and Mt 10.10 (the labourer is worthy of his hire, cf 1 Tim 5.18). 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020Psalm 47; 1 Kings 18:36-39; 1 John 4:1-6

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Kings 18.36-39:  Elijah was one of the great prophets of Israel and this passage is the ending of perhaps his greatest triumph – his victory over the prophets of Baal by alone successfully calling fire to fall from heaven and consume his soaking sacrifice after Baal had failed to respond to his prophets (all 450 of them along with 400 prophets of Asherah vs 19). He also then ends the drought by his word bringing rain (vss 41-46).

It’s a wonderful story. I suspect every preacher and spiritual leader would like to have such ‘signs and wonders’ attend their ministry. Not quite so edifying is the consequent massacre of those 450 priests (vs 40), although perhaps there are preachers who secretly might long for that too. 

What puts all this in perspective after Elijah’s courage and blazing (literally!) success of chapter 18 is his depression and flight in chapter 19, and his re-commissioning by God on the holy mountain to further ministry and to the anointing of Elisha to carry on his work. Yes, I have sometimes been tempted by chapter 18 – but I have always been inspired and encouraged by chapter 19!

1 John 4.1-6 is all about discernment. Discernment is a critical spiritual discipline that is not celebrated and taught as much as we should in the modern church. In a society where the shout of ‘Fake news!’ is thrown at things that are uncomfortable or embarrassing for us, spiritual discernment is a critical skill that I believe is part of the gift of Jesus Christ and his church to the world.

Vs 1 names the category of false prophets. Not every ministry is of equal value and not every minister preaches truth. This important fact needs to be held and valued by Baptists who hold strongly to the freedom of individual conscience. We need to discern what is true, not just accept what is said to us, or ‘preached at us’. That goes for our understandings of the faith and for the ways we see the world, and the two go together. 

The test here of the true and the false prophet is whether they confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (vs 2) or whether they do not so confess (vs 3). There is a variant reading in the footnote where those who do not confess Jesus becomes those who dissolve Jesus. Now the balance of evidence of the manuscripts strongly supports the first reading, but the second reading is a useful commentary on what it suggests was at issue in this community: it had to do with whether Jesus lived physically, was incarnated among us, or whether he was some kind of spiritual presence or ‘emanation’. This contrasts, for instance, with Romans 10.9 where the test of a sound confession is that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead

It is helpful to be reminded that the marks of orthodoxy and ‘right belief’ might be different in differing social contexts and different ‘frameworks of knowledge’. What are the temptations to false belief in our own day, and what does faithfulness to Jesus mean?

Vs 3 is a warning, and vss 5-6 an encouragement. Vs 6 is a key insight into a ‘theology of truth’ on which I preached some months ago.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020Psalm 47; Isaiah 51:1-3; Matthew 11:20-24

For the Psalm, see Monday.

The three verses of Isaiah 51.1-3 introduce the charming metaphor of us having been hewn from rock or dug from a quarry – that like a statue, the meanings we carry are ingrained even in the raw material from which we have been made.  We see again the way that Abraham and Sarah have shaped so much of the OT as the fountainhead of identity and the ‘grain’ of our meanings. The inclusion of Sarah makes it clear that this oracle is intended for Israel, not the other surrounding nations that Abraham might have ‘fathered’.  In vs 2b there is another reference to the call of, and covenant with, Abraham (cf. Monday’s reading on Genesis 22).

Vs 3 is the oracle of redemption, consistent with the other prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40ff. where the return from Exile through the desert highway back to Israel is prophesied and celebrated. The note of comfort is reiterated (cf Is 40.1) and the restoration of waste places and the blooming of the desert.

But this is likened to a new act of creation, a new Eden (vs 3) and a society of joy, gladness and songs of thanksgiving is prophesied. 

Matthew 11.20-24 contains the woes addressed to unrepentant cities. A parallel version occurs in Luke 10.13-16 with almost exactly the same wording. However, this denunciation of the three cities has been placed in different contexts.

In Matthew it follows Jesus’ teaching about the John the Baptist (11.2-19) and is followed by Jesus exultant prayer to the Father (11.25-27) and the invitation to all who labour and are heavy burdened (11.28-30).   

Luke places this passage between the sending out of the 70 disciples on mission (linking it to the command to shake the dust off your feet as you leave an unrepentant city – vs 10.12) and their joyful return – after which ‘Jesus rejoices’ in his prayer to the Father.

The passage raises the question as to what extent the ministry of the people of Jesus is a mission of announcing the judgement of God, to what extent we warn people and call them to repentance and change. This too is matter for Christian discernment (see yesterday’s notes).

Thursday, July 2, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 25:19-27; Romans 7:1-6

Interestingly, in Psalm 45.10-17 the Lectionary again has given us only half the text! It is another Royal Psalm, but this time not a Psalm of enthronement, but of a royal marriage! Vss 1-8 describe the royal groom, and vs 9 is a transition verse announcing a king’s daughter is coming to meet you.

Our text addresses the royal bride with exhortations deemed entirely appropriate to a wedding: forget your people and your father’s house (vs 10b), and the king will desire your beauty (vs 11a – a fascinating theory of marital desire!) Since he is your lord, bow down to him (vs 11b – referring to the new husband, of course. I hope all wives are listening …)   You get the picture.

Was this a psalm for an actual royal wedding? Some have suggested it may have been for the wedding of Ahab and Jezebel – because of the references to Tyre in vs 12 (Jezebel was a princess of Tyre). Others wonder whether it was part of an annual ancient ceremony in which the marriage of the king and queen were re-enacted as part of the structure of public life – perhaps to undergird fertility and the reliability of rains and crops. Lest we discount such theories too lightly, let us remember that in enlightened modern Australia we still celebrate the Queen’s Birthday!!

Whatever its origin the big question is, why was it brought into the Psalter, into the sacred book of Israel? What purpose does it have now?  We have various love songs in Scripture, most notably the Song of Songs. Interpreting these passages has often involved various forms of allegorisation. Perhaps we have become too coy and should just enjoy such love poems (however politically incorrect to modern sensibilities).

Two matters worthy of note are, firstly, the mention earlier in the Psalm of ‘ivory palaces’ (vs 8b). It is in another love poem (Song of Songs 7.4) that the beloved is described thus: your neck is like an ivory tower.  Just how the phrase ‘ivory tower’ came into English and its association with academia may, or may not, be connected with these texts. Another suggested origin of the phrase comes from Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame that the tower of Graduate College Princeton was called the ivory tower because the university had been endowed by William Cooper Procter, the manufacturer of Ivory Soap and the founder of the Procter and Gamble Company!  Personally, I prefer the ivory palaces and towers of the ancient Hebrew love poets!

The second is the poet’s humble observation on what has been achieved through his writing: 

I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
    therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.  (vs 17)

Maybe that is why it is included in the Psalter?

The Old Testament readings have been exploring the history of the patriarchs and Genesis 25.19-27 brings us to Esau and Jacob. The narrative is straightforward. Rebekah is pregnant with twins and finds it so difficult she wonders whether its worth living (vs 22). We are told that Rebekah was the sister of Laban, a handy telegraphing of the future plot because Jacob will return to Paddan-aram in chapter 29 and marry Laban’s daughters – his cousins.

The struggle of the babies in the womb is interpreted by the word of the Lord as to their enduring struggle (vs 23). Even in the act of birth, they were wrestling (vs 26).  Their characters are sketched early, Esau red and hairy (vs 25) and a hunter, an outdoorsy type, while Jacob was a homebody (vs 27).

Romans 7.1-6 continues Paul’s reflections on the power of sin, and the role of law in ‘arousing’ sin (vs 5). Paul here is linking together the two arguments of chapter 6 where in vss 2-14 he used the metaphor of ‘baptism as death’ to argue that we have died to sin, and ‘the end of law’ explored through the metaphor of slavery and changing slave-owners in vss 16-23.

Here the metaphor changes: law is limited by death. When your partner dies, you are released from the law (of marriage). As we have now died to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another (vs 4), so we are now discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (vs 6).

What is clear in this passage is Paul’s quite negative view of the law: it ‘arouses’ our sinful passions in a way that leads to death (vs 5), it held us captive (vs 6). In the rest of the chapter he will explore the complex relationship between law and sin.

Friday, July 3, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 27:1-17; Romans 7:7-25

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 27.1-17 is the well-known story of Jacob stealing his brothers blessing – a blessing already ‘sold’ in cavalier fashion by Esau in Genesis 25.29-34 for a bowl of stew. As a teenager I sailed in the 1970’s on a ship where the first mate had the same surname as the owner of the shipping line for which we worked. I asked a colleague whether they were related. It turned out that they were brothers, and the first mate had staked his share of the family company (worth millions of dollars) on a hand of cards in a ‘friendly’ poker game – and lost!  But his brother gave him job afterward….

The story reveals the key role of Rebekah in favouring one son and planning the deception.

The importance of blessing from parents to children has, I suspect, been very much overshadowed in modern societies. Focussed so much on material things which are dealt with through wills and the legal process, we have not encouraged or found social forms for the vital process of blessing our children and grandchildren. How often have I pastorally cared for a dying person and encouraged them to share their words of love and encouragement with their children and partner only to have them say, “No, not yet!  There will be time…” Sometimes they find that time has gone and the powers of speech and communication have slipped away before they can speak. Isaac was wise enough to know that he could not control or predict his death (vs 2) and he took steps to do what he wanted to do – which makes the deception practised by Rebekah and Jacob so cruel.

I have shared in some wonderful experiences of blessing of others by a dying person. As we get older and our strength departs, one of the last powers left to us is the power to bless. It should not be wasted! Early in my ministry a wise older woman encouraged me to change things in our church. She said, “You’ve just got to change things. (pause) Now you’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming every inch of the way, but you’ve just got to do it!”  She was giving me her blessing – but also communicating just how costly that blessing would be. 

In every church and every community, changes come and have to be made. Sometimes they are deeply painful. We are living now through a time of deep and painful change in so many ways. We wonder what the future of the church might be and we feel so powerless and unqualified before all of the challenges of the age. For those who are older and sense that they do not have the enrgy or time for what tomorrow may require, they still have the power to bless! To say to a rising generation: here is my blessing, go and do what you need to do!

Romans 7.7-25 is a fascinating argument. For those of us who live after Freud and the great pioneers of psychology, who live in a world where we have carefully delineated separate moral and legal frameworks, it is easy to misunderestimate (to quote the wonderful George W Bush) just what Paul achieves in these  verses.

It is clear that Paul has a very tentative view about law as a principle (see yesterday’s notes).  Again, he expresses the objections people feel to his argument as a question: What then should we say? That the law is sin? (vs 7) What follows is both clever and wise. No, law teaches us what sin is (vs 7), but also inflames our desire to sin (vs 8). Apart from the law, sin lies dead (vs 8b).

Vss 9-12 explore the complex triangular relationship of sin, law and death. Sin seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me (vs 11). Yes, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good (vs 12) – but through it, sin will kill me (vs 11).

It’s a very subtle argument, and in vs 14-25 he tries to reconcile these almost contradictory statements.  He contrasts the spiritual nature of the law and the bodily nature of our experience. He contrasts our intention and will (shaped and informed by the law) with our capacity for action (which is in slavery to sin). Vs 21 expresses this psychological reality of temptation very eloquently: So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Vss 22-23 express this principle, contrasting the law of my mind (a good thing) at war with the law of sin that dwells in my members. 

Vs 25 expresses a very powerful psychological insight – this double sense of the law which is at once an abstract positive thing that reveals sin to me, and a power to temptation and evil that dominates and controls me: So then, with my mind I am slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Saturday, July 4, 2020Psalm 45:10-17; Genesis 27:18-29; Luke 10:21-24

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 27.18-29.  The trap is sprung! Jacob presents himself to his father dressed as his mother has organised, carrying the food his mother has prepared. Against the repeated doubts and questioning of the old man (vss 18, 20, 21, 22, 24) the deception is carried through with lies and disguise.

How poignant is the eventual blessing! Surrounded by lies and deceit and betrayal, Isaac cries out “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.” Some people mired deep in trickery and corruption just have the smell of the new-mown hay about them! The blessing is given, and cannot be taken back, and the history of these two brothers enters a new phase!

Luke 10.21-24: As noted in reflecting on Matthew 11 on Wednesday, Luke also reports the Woes against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, but uses them as an introduction to this passage. It is unusual in the synoptic gospels for it embodies a clear trinitarian theology, linking Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It almost sounds like the gospel of John.  

The earliest strands of the Christian tradition were still resolving and agreeing what the relationships within the Trinity were all about. It actually took hundreds of years for the church to resolve some of the questions about the nature of the Trinity, and also about how the human and divine natures ‘worked within’ the life of Jesus (to use a clumsy phrase that reflects the complexities involved).

Passages in the Scripture such as this are important for what light they can throw upon early Christians understandings of the Trinity. Here the emphasis is on the revelation of truth, not to the wise and intelligent, but to infants (cf Matthew 21,16) as an expression of the will of the Father. ‘All things’ have been handed by the Father to the Son, no-one knows the Son except the Father, or knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. It is essentially a set of revelatory relationships stressing the internal knowledge of and closeness between the Father and the Son (and the Spirit??)  Note that the relationship of the Holy Spirit to Father and Son is less clearly established. Indeed, there is some confusion in the manuscripts as to whether the earliest manuscripts had the Holy Spirit or just the spirit. This would be consistent with an emerging or developing understanding of just how the persons of the trinity are to be understood.

Daily readings for the Fourth Week of Pentecost

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.

Daily Readings for the Third Week of Pentecost (15th-20th June 2020)

Monday, June 15, 2020Psalm 126; Genesis 23:1-19; Romans 5.1-11

Psalm 126 presents various difficulties of interpretation that are not immediately obvious in English translation. It falls into three sections. Vss 1-3 look back to dramatic events of deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Vs 4 is a lament and call for the Lord to act again in the present. Vss 5-6 are set in the future tense and assure the hearers that God will indeed act to save.

The heart of the interpretive problem is that the tense of vss 1-3 could also be read as a future tense. Some scholars refer to this kind of grammatical construction as the ‘prophetic perfect’. Similar issues (and a very similar structure) are found in Psalm 85. The issue with these ambiguities of tense is just how we situate the psalm in the history of Israel so as to make sense of what it refers to.

You can see in the footnotes on biblegateway.com how the translation of the text is dependent on which context the translators think it is referring to.

If vss 1-3 are read in the (future) perfect tense, then this could be a prayer dating from the Exile where vss 1-3 predict what God will surely do, vss 5-6 confirm this and vs 4 is the substance of the people’s lament and petition from their experience of Exile.

If vss 1-3 are read as a past tense, referring back to the Exile, then the Psalm has a post-Exilic setting – but what was left for the Lord to do? Why did the joyous Exiles who had experienced great things need further deliverance?

One solution of this issue is to read the setting as indeed post-Exilic, but during that early time – the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the project of re-founding and rebuilding Jerusalem and Israel as a nation were indeed fragile. The mighty event of return from Exile has occurred, but more was needed. ‘We are finding that we are like a stream in the desert, running dry and failing’ (vs 4). Then comes the re-assurance of the promise of vss 5-6.

The ‘sowing with tears/reaping with joy’ metaphor could reflect some ancient Near-Eastern cultures in which ritual weeping was associated with the sowing season because the seed was seen as the body of the deity, interred in the earth in a form of burial. Without rain it would indeed be a burial and no crop would come forth (thus, for example, the cult of Osiris). It could also be a metaphor for the hard work of ploughing and sowing. Finally, if the setting of the psalm was the time of re-establishing the ruined Jerusalem with the danger and privations attested in Nehemiah and Ezra, ‘sowing with tears’ would be an apt way of describing those difficult years, from which future generations would reap a joyful harvest.

Genesis 23 contains the wonderful narrative of the death of Sarah.  Note in verse 2 that She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan (vs 2). As explored in the notes for last week, Hebron is the second most holy place in Israel for both Jews and Muslims and is one of the focal points of conflict between Israel and Palestine. The grave is still there with a mosque and a synagogue sharing a common wall now erected over the Cave of Machpelah.

Abraham describes himself as a foreigner and a stranger among you (vs 4). There is no claim here of ‘the promised land” (in marked contrast to the current political situation’).

The dialogue in vss 4-16 – which reads to Western eyes as two very gentlemanly friends making offers to each other in friendship and kindness – is actually a negotiation couched in Eastern politeness.  The repeated requests for permission to buy by Abraham (vss 4, 8-9, 12-13, 16) and the repeated offers of a tomb as a gift by the Hittites and then by Ephron (vss 5-6, 10-11, 14-15) are the elaborate stages of a negotiation establishing in carefully graduated steps the principle of the purchase of a tomb (accepted by the Hittites), identifying the preferred land and current owner by Abraham, offer of this land as a gift by Ephron, further request to purchase by Abraham, Ephron ‘carelessly’ mentioning the price (four hundred shekels of silver) before offering it again as a gift (what is 400 shekels of silver between you and me?) and Abraham accepting the price, weighing out the silver and handing it over.

In the final verse it identifies the location as the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. This sounds almost like the legal citation we have on our own deeds of title to property. The mention of Mamre is important, for although Abraham was a nomad, we see him at Mamre in Genesis 13.18 (after the promise of the land had been given to him), Genesis 14.13 where Abraham is described as living at the oaks of Mamre the Amorite and again in 14.24 (with further negotiations with the locals described), and again in Genesis 18.1 (where the mysterious ‘three men’ – the Lord?, angels? – came to him). Isaac died there and was buried (Genesis 35.27-29) as was Jacob (Genesis 49.29-33).  Mamre was a centre for the wandering patriarchs, the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives.

Romans 5.1-11 marks a key transition in Paul’s argument. Having developed his idea of God dealing with all people fairly and justly from Romans 1.16 – 4.25, Paul now begins a long exploration of just how God has dealt with human sinfulness and how his ‘justification’ operates. This section of the book will unfold through chapters 5,6,7 and reaches its climax in chapter 8. Chapter 5 falls into two parts: 5.1-11 and 5.12-21. Today we explore 5.1-11.

A sign of how established our thinking about Romans has become, is the heading supplied to 5.1-11 in my edition of the NRSV: Results of Justification. This assumes that chapters 1-4 have been about ‘justification’ understood in a Reformation sense. Brendan Byrne’s commentary provides an alternative heading: The Hope that Springs from God’s Love. 

Chapter 5 opens with the summary of where the argument of 1-4 has arrived:  Therefore, since we are justified by faith (vs 1a – NRSV). I prefer the literal translation: Justified, then, by faith … (thus Brendan Byrne). There is no ‘faith in Jesus’ here – in fact, chapter 4 has all been about Abraham’s faith and how God ‘reckoned’ righteousness to him because of his faith. Faith as a way of living and responding to God leads to what we might translate rather clumsily as ‘righteous-ification’ or, to use the usual English word ‘justification’. Justice and righteousness are alternate English renderings of the same Greek word (dikaiosuné), but justification has become surrounded by a constellation of theological ideas associated with faith in Jesus that, as we saw in reflecting on Romans Chapter 3, might not have been what Paul was addressing.  The text here does not say Therefore, since we are justified by faith in Jesus, but simply Therefore, since we are justified by faith…

Now there is a potential linkage of ‘faith’ and ‘Jesus’ in vs 2a but there two forms of the text that have come down to us.  I will provide the variant reading in brackets – ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand…’  At the very earliest stages of the transmission of the sacred text there are questions around exactly how our language should express the relationship between three key concepts in the theology of justification: Jesus – faith – grace.

Then comes another question of interpretation. If you have good footnotes in your Bible you will see that there are footnotes providing alternative translations to vss 1b, 2b and 3a. The NRSV translation in each of those verses is:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith … (vs 1a)

… we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (vs 1b) 

… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God…  (vs 2b)

… we also boast in our sufferings …. (vs 3a)

This translates the words in the indicative mood – a simple statement that these things are now ‘done and dusted’. However, there is an alternative textual tradition (one followed by some of the early Church Fathers, including Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen) which translates the words in the hortatory or subjunctive mood – that these are things we should aim for. On this translation the passage reads:-

Therefore, since we are justified by faith … (vs 1a)

… let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (vs 1b) 

… let us boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God…  (vs 2b)

… let us also boast in our sufferings …. (vs 3a)

Perhaps this simply reflects different attitudes to spiritual life? Some people understand that the work has been done and these realities (having peace, sharing the glory of God, boasting in our sufferings) are ‘a done deal’. Others, while acknowledging the work has been done, believe we still have to strive to see these things made real in our own experience. The difference in the Greek text is simply one letter – a short ‘O’ as against a long ‘O’ – similar in sound but in the Gk printed as ‘o’ (short) and ‘w’ (long). While the difference would have been clear on the written page, in spoken encouragement, or the excitement of a sermon, or the dictation of a manuscript, or just the inclination of a believing ear to hear the emphasis in different ways, we have the origins of the wonderful diversity of faith and doctrine that characterises the Christian church!

The main difference in these readings I think is this: is Paul here rehearsing the known facts of what comes from ‘justification’? Or is he encouraging his readers to understand that ‘faith’ leads to us being ‘reckoned righteous’, which means we can begin to find peace, and can hope to share in the glory of God, and even –  amazingly! – boast in our sufferings…? 

Vs 5 introduces a series that builds a causal chain of virtues, from suffering 🡪 endurance 🡪 character 🡪 hope, and hope does not disappoint us, for God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (vs 5). This is the first reference to the Holy Spirit in Romans. The metaphor of ‘pouring’ reflects that water is a symbol of purification. As we read Chapters 5-8 we will see how Paul develops his doctrine of the Holy Spirit in forming and empowering our relationship with God.

Vss 6-7 introduce the theme of the hope that springs from God’s love through Christ’s death for the ungodly. The emphatic contrast is made between how one might rarely die for a righteous person but that God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (vs 8).  

Who is ‘us’?  I think there is a great temptation – implied in the heading in my Bible Results of Justification – to see ‘us’ as those who have been justified by faith in Christ and are part of ‘the Jesus mob’.  But Paul has just spent 4 chapters arguing that ALL are ungodly, all are sinners. When Christ died for the ungodly, he died for all.  ‘Us’ then, is the whole of humankind. 

A really vital concept to get hold of is the first two words of vs 9: Much more… Paul is at pains in this chapter to present the profound asymmetry of grace. If you read on through chapter 5 you will see ‘much more…’ mentioned repeatedly (vss 9, 10, 15, 17) and other expressions of the great imbalance between sin and death on the one hand, and the abundant (super-abounding!) impact of grace and life on the other.

Note the subtle shift in metaphor in vs. 10. From a justification framework in  vs 9 (grounded in notions of guilt and judgement) Paul changes to a reconciliation framework in vs 10 (grounded in notions of enemies and friendship-making). 

Vs 9 translates ‘the wrath of God’ where the Greek has only ‘the wrath’. ‘Wrath’ occurs 11 times in Romans (1.18, 2.5, 2.8, 3.5, 4.15, 5.9, 9.19, 9.22, 12.19, 13.4, 13.5). It’s a significant part of Paul’s argument and the sense of the word is not consistent. Sometimes it is ‘the wrath of God’ and at others simply ‘the wrath’, and sometimes even just ‘wrath’.

Vs 11 makes clear that our reconciliation has been achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ. Just how ‘faith’ and ‘grace’ and what the Lord has achieved all fit together is not quite so clear-cut as the traditional Reformation doctrines of ‘justification’ would suggest.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020Psalm 126; Genesis 25:7-11; Romans 5.12-21

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 25.7-11 tells with stately dignity of the death of Abraham.  The biblical phrasing of an old man, full of years; and he was gathered to his people (vss 8-9) I find poetic and beautiful.  Whether it would change our view of the aged if we saw them as ‘full of years’ I do not know, but what strikes me in this description is that modern funerals and burials are experienced more as a separation and a letting-go of family (understood of course as the ‘family of the living’) rather than being gathered to one’s people. There is much power and blessing in the latter view I think.

The text tells us that Isaac was then living at Beer Lahai Roi, where he first saw Rebekah (Genesis 24.62-67). The literal translation of the place-name I have always loved: The Well of the Living One who Sees Me.  How many of us when we first laid eyes on the ones we have loved and married have experienced a similar sense of well-watered blessing?

Romans 5.12-21 develops the ‘types’ of Adam and Christ as a way of exploring how the constellation of sin (and law) and death, introduced through Adam as the context of human experience (vs 12), has been displaced and overcome by the gift of grace and righteousness and life, introduced through Jesus (vs 17).

Vs 12 has been used by many after Paul as an element of doctrines of ‘original sin’ that go far beyond what Paul is teaching. Adam is used as the symbol and originator of the  common experience of humankind. Today we see death as a normal part of human life, not as the result of sin.  When considering ‘sin’ and ‘death’ – and especially ideas of a transmissible, intergenerational ‘original sin’ – there is much in the Christian tradition that we should probably ‘unlearn’.  I cannot do better to assist in this ‘unlearning’ than to quote Brendan Byrne’s treatment of these verses – using a concept particularly relevant to our current social context:

[Paul] personifies sin and death as tyrant powers which come, through Adam, to exercise Lordship over human beings. He sets up in this way a quasi-drama in which believers are rescued from the tyranny of ‘Sin’ and ‘Death’, so as to come,  through Christ, under the sway of ‘Grace’ and ‘Righteousness’, similarly personified. The personification lends a somewhat mythological tone to the entire discussion. But, in personifying sin, Paul in no way wishes to suggest that human beings become helpless tools of a power somehow separate from themselves. Sin for Paul represents a kind of deadly virus in human life, a fundamental revolt against the Creator that places self and the perceived needs of self in the positions that should only be occupied by the sovereignty of God. Without denying individual responsibility, Paul’s view of sin is collective in that it holds the sins of individuals to be manifestations of this force of radical selfishness that holds all human lives within its tyrannical grip…

…The picture would seem to be that Adam’s act unleashed in the human milieu a force of selfishness that was waiting to burst out and take control. All subsequent human lives enter the ‘solidarity’ of sinfulness thereby created – a solidarity which both precedes each one’s moral history and works destructively upon it…. Paul conceives, therefore, of a solidarity in sin, over against which he will shortly set a (much more powerful) solidarity in grace.

(Romans, 1996, p175-176)

In exploring that ‘solidarity in grace’ Paul develops the ‘much more’ formula (vss. 15, 17) to stress how asymmetric and imbalanced is the answer of grace to sin. In vs. 20 Paul uses a word describing grace that doesn’t just ‘abound’, it ‘hyper-abounds’.

In exploring how this hyper-abounding grace undoes the work of sin and death, note that just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all (vs 18 – emphasis added). Again, we need to ask how accurately we read this chapter. Who is ‘us’ – in our minds – as we read the promises of vss1-3?  Who is ‘all’ as we read the promise of vs 18?  Vs 19 refers not to ‘all’ but to ‘many’. What significance do you see in these verses?

What is clear in this passage is that ‘law’ plays a subsidiary role to sin – law is there to help identify sin (vss 13, 20) and render it liable to punishment. Before there was law, there was still sin (vs 13) and it is sin and death that have been overcome by grace and life in Jesus Christ (vss 19-20).

Wednesday, June 17, 2020Psalm 126; Nehemiah 9:1-8; Luke 6:12-19

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Here in Nehemiah 9.1-8, we have a context in which the Psalm for the day, as interpreted above, makes sense. Chapters 4,5 and 6 of Nehemiah reveal the political, social and security challenges of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile. While they had returned with joy and thanksgiving to their beloved land, there were enemies, problems and threats to their work and their future with which they had to deal. In chapter 8 Ezra had called them to a renewal of their faith, their ethnic identity and their worship of the Lord.

The praise of vss 5b-8 makes two points. Vss 5b-6 praise the Lord of the heavens the creator, who gives life to all things and is worshipped by the multitudes of heaven. Vss 7-8 anchor this God’s relationship with them in the story of Abraham and his emigration from Ur and the gift of the land (together with a list of the displaced tribes).

Given our reading of Romans and the questions about the righteousness of God and whether Romans calls us to have faith in Jesus, or to have the faith of Jesus, it is fascinating to see here the description of Abraham as You found his heart faithful to you (cf. Romans Chapter 4) and You have kept your promise because you are righteous (cf. Romans 3, 25, 26).

Luke 6.12-19 tells of the calling of the disciples and introduction to the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s somewhat shortened version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew Chapters 5,6,7). 

What is fascinating is Luke’s description of the disciples. If we can identify the disciple named ‘Matthew’ (Lk 6.15) as the disciple converted at the tax booth in Luke 5.27-32  (where the tax collector is identified simply as ‘Levi’ cf. Mt 9.9 where the tax collector is named as ‘Matthew’) then the list of the disciples shows how inclusive the group is.

Matthew, a former tax collector, was a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, a person hated by Jews and seen as money-grubbing and unclean, a part of the oppression visited on the people in the name of Rome. But his fellow disciple was ‘Simon, who was called the Zealot’ (Lk 6.15). The Zealots were revolutionaries and insurrectionists who wanted to foment war against the Romans. If a Zealot met a tax collector in a dark alley at night, only one of them would walk out alive.  Yet here were Simon and Matthew both part of the community of Jesus, united in love and mutual service!

Thursday, June 18, 2020Psalm 86:1-10; Exodus 12:43-49; Hebrews 2:5-9

Psalm 86.1-10 has been edited down by those constructing the lectionary. Although headed A Prayer of David it shows signs of being quite late with many borrowings and references to other Psalms. The full Psalm includes references to God delivering the singer from death (vs 13) and also from arrogant foes who are attacking me (vs 14). In just selecting the first ten verses the lectionary editors have given us a unified and focussed psalm that deals with the appeal of the psalmist that God might hear.

The form of this psalm is a prayer-song of an individual. The structure of vss 1-4 is a series of petitions to God (first half each verse) with a reason supporting the petition that describes the situation of the psalmist (for I… – the second half of each verse).

Verse 5 affirms that God is forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call.. before vss 6-7 return to the structure of ‘petition to God to hear’ linked to ‘the dependence of the petitioner on God’.

Vss 8-10 end on a note of praise and affirmation of the Lord.

The Passover restrictions of Exodus 12.43-49 echo the reading yesterday of Nehemiah 9. Here were the Israelites about to eat the first Passover as the final plague overwhelms Egypt and the Lord gives regulations for the Passover that MUST relate to a much later time: foreigners (vs 43), temporary residents, hired workers (vs 45) could not eat it. But how could such persons be part of the Israelite slave community in Egypt? It can be seen even more clearly in vs 44 where any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him.

In Egypt the Israelites were the slaves, not the slave owners. These regulations must come from a later age where the Israelites had land, owned slaves, had hired workers and temporary residents. They have then been ‘written back’ into the accounts of the earliest origins of the festival. Like Nehemiah 9, there is an urge to separate from foreigners and preserve the ethnic purity of the nation with male circumcision as the symbolic boundary to be enforced around the community.

Friday, June 19, 2020Psalm 86:1-10; Genesis 35:1-4; Acts 5:17-26

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 35.1-4 continues the theme of purification within the history of Israel that we saw in yesterday’s Exodus reading. Sometimes that urge to purification was directed at outsiders, sometimes at the foreign gods of those outsiders. 

If you read the context of this ‘call of the Lord’ in Genesis 35.1, it immediately follows the story of the rape of Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) by prince Shechem, son of the ruler of the city after which prince Shechem was named. The story is told in Gen 34, how the sons of Jacob dealt treacherously with the men of Shechem and committed genocide against them (Genesis 34. 25 ff). All in all, this one of the racier chapters in the Bible – sex and violence, romance and true love, cunning, deception and trickery, ending with the murder of all the men of Shechem and the enslavement of all the women and children, and the looting of the wealth of the city by Jacob’s sons. 

Perhaps wisely (in the circumstances), the Lord suggests to Jacob it is time to move on before the surrounding tribes get restless! (see Genesis 34.30-31 for Abraham’s rebuke and his sons’ riposte.)

Jacob took the foreign gods surrendered by the members of his own household (presumably the women captured and taken as concubines or slaves by his sons) and buried them, ‘under the oak at Shechem’ (Gen 35.4).  This would have been part of the plunder from ‘the rape of Shechem’ by Jacob’s sons and is perhaps a form of sacrifice or even restitution for what his sons had done. The oak (or ‘terebinth’) would have been some kind of cultic site in Canaanite religion.

On Monday we saw that Mamre (Hebron) was a significant place in the Abraham narrative. So was Bethel, the place where Jacob now returned to live, and where Abraham had first camped and built his first altar to the Lord in Canaan (Gen 12.7). 

We cannot be exactly sure of the location of ancient Bethel – it was either 12 miles from Jerusalem or 3 miles north east of Ramallah (Ramallah and Jerusalem are quite close).  So Mamre (modern Hebron), and Bethel (close to modern Jerusalem and Ramallah – the administrative capitals of Israel and Palestine respectively) are still centres of resistance and politics within the modern Holy Land. 

Abraham had also journeyed through Shechem (Genesis 12.6) – note the reference there to the ‘oak of Moreh’ at Shechem. Shechem was named in the Old Testament as the first capital of Israel. It was located in the middle of the northern part of the country. Its modern name is Nablus – an Arabised version of the Roman name Flavia Neapolis (“the New City of the Emperor Flavius”). How typical of an imperial power to take an ancient city and rename it as the ‘New City of […insert name of conqueror here…]’. Nablus (= Neapolis) is a centre of Palestinian culture, identity and resistance. If you read the history of Old Testament, Shechem was often the place where rebellion was plotted against the king in Jerusalem. It became the capital of the Northern Kingdom when Israel split following the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12.1, 14.17; 2 Chronicles 10.1). It was a political and urban centre for the Samaritans. It is still a distinctively political and cultural centre in modern Palestine and is sometimes even in tension with Ramallah!

At a time when we are exploring the book of Romans against a background of ‘tribalism’ and tensions between Jews and Gentiles, it is fascinating that other Bible readings this week (that I stress I did not chose!) reveal the deep problems of tribalism, suspicion and violence dating back to the time of the patriarchs (later seen as Jews vs Samaritans) and still continuing into contemporary times (Israeli Jews vs Palestinians).

Acts 5.17-26 continues with a similar theme – suspicion by one religious group (the Sadducceean party of the Jewish leadership) against another (the apostles). The motive for this enmity was described as being filled with jealousy (vs 17). The successful and quite spectacular ministry of Peter and the other apostles is described in vss 12-16. The apostles are imprisoned (vs 18), then mysteriously and miraculously delivered (vs 19) and resume their popular ministry (vs 21a). They are finally recovered from the Temple and brought before the authorities, but without violence because they [the temple police] were afraid of being stoned by the people (vs 26).

There was no ethnic dimension to this dispute – all those involved were Jews. It is not until Acts 6 that disputes arise between the ethnically Jewish Christians and the Greek (converts to Judaism?) Christians. They fall out and develop separate leadership structures, eventually leading to the kind of dynamics that are the sustained focus of the book of Romans.

Again, I could not but think how contemporary the Scripture is! As I write this reflection, various politicians in Australia (including our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) have lamented the antipathy of the demonstrating crowds (opposed to racism) to the police (who are seeking to suppress and limit the size of demonstrations for reasons of public health). In the USA, General Milley, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has apologised two days ago for walking with the President from the White House to St John’s church after the military police and park police had used force to clear demonstrators from Lafayette Park and the road before St John’s Church. (It is interesting that we moderns have park police, whereas in Peter’s time they had temple police – a sign of what we value?)  Many U.S. and even Australian police are now avoiding violence and showing their respect for the crowds by ‘taking a knee’, as have many footballers as the AFL and NRL seasons commence!

When you read through the remainder of Acts 5 you will see members of the Jewish Council who are filled with rage (vs 33) and seek to ’dominate the battle space’ (to use the modern expression). Others, like the Pharisee Gamaliel (vs 35 ff), urges caution and reminds them of previous demonstrations that, while violent, didn’t come to anything, so let’s not overreact.  He also rather guilelessly points out that the insurgents/demonstrators may be right – that God might actually be on their side (vs 39)!  Again, Gamaliel was a Pharisee, a member of the opposition party to the Sadducees.

The ‘counsel of Gamaliel’ won the day (vs 39b) and has passed into English idiom. Such wisdom is desperately needed this week – from Canberra to Washington, Melbourne to New York, Berlin to London!

Need I point out that the cause of these events, both then and now, was the death of an innocent man while in the custody of the authorities?

Saturday, June 20, 2020Psalm 86:1-10; Ezekiel 29:3-7; Luke 11:53-12:3

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Ezekiel 29:3-7 is a clever prophetic oracle denouncing the Pharaoh and Egypt. Ezekiel was writing from Babylon in the early days of the Exile: what threat could Egypt possibly be?

Something seen in all world literatures is that oppressed and occupied people need to find forms of speech to express their hope and their critique of their captors that will not bring down violence on their heads. In Welsh poetry of the period after 1300 when Edward 1 of England had conquered Wales, there were traditions of satirical poems lambasting the ‘kingdoms’ of the mole and the rat and the owl – all just local colour to the colonising English, but the common Welsh people knew which English kings ‘the mole, the rat and the owl’ were referring to!

Ezekiel takes 7 chapters to deliver prophetic denunciations and judgements against the nations to the west of the vanquished land of Israel and a few small nations very close to the old Israel: Ammon, Moab, Edom and Philistia in Chapter 25. Tyre (west of Israel on the Mediterranean coast) gets three whole chapters (26-28) and then he lays into far-away Egypt over four chapters – 29, 30, 31 and 32!!   Our reading today comes from the beginning of this long denunciation of Egypt.

Part of Ezekiel’s purpose can be glimpsed in chapter 31. Ezekiel is an exile in Babylon – far to Israel’s north-east. He makes no denunciation of this dominant nation and military power which had destroyed his own nation – that would be far too dangerous!  Look to the west and the immediate neighbourhood of the old Israel. Remind far-away Egypt of how vulnerable it is to God’s justice and action.

Then in Chapter 31 he points out to Pharaoh the example of Assyria, described in its glory days (Ezek 31.3-9) and how God acknowledged its greatness and pride (Ez 31.10) only to pronounce the judgement I gave it into the hand of the Prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves (Ez 31.11). Very clever: denounce the king of Egypt (who is  safely far away to the south-west), and rub his nose in the fact that great Assyria (right next door to Babylon) was dealt with by the prince of the nations. Who would that prince of nations be? Why, the king of Babylon, of course, who overthrew the Assyrians – and destroyed my nation – and will in his turn be overthrown by the Persians!! But I have only said nice things about him, and I would never comment on the politics of the place where I am living.

So I will call the Pharaoh a crocodile and mock his love of his great river (vs 3)  [Oh, does Babylon also have – not one river – but two, Tigris and Euphrates? What did I write? …you great monster lying among your streams (plural!) vs 3 – NIV.  But the Babylonians don’t have crocodiles so it can’t be them – can it?]  I will hook his jaws and make the fish stick to his scales (vs 4) – until he is left in the desert to die and I will give you as food for the beast of the earth and birds of the sky (vs 5).  Hmmm. A great river flowing through desert country: who on earth might he be talking about?

Vss 6-7 is a fascinating study – the ‘staff of reed’ injures through its weakness!  Although you, mighty king, may have injured my people, it is only because you were weak and unreliable.

Like the medieval Welsh, Ezekiel knew a thing or two. Don’t go criticising the powerful who rule you, but moles, rats, owls – and crocodiles – are fair game!

Luke 11.53 -12:3 resonates with yesterday’s Acts reading about the machinations between Jewish parties and Jesus’ followers (although here it is the Pharisees who are warned against). While they are the good guys in the story of Acts 5, the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy (vs 1) is criticised here by Jesus. The gospel accounts describe the enemies and opponents of Jesus is various ways – Scribes, teachers of the law, Pharisees, Sadducees. These were distinct groups. 

Whether Pharisees and their approach to moral rigour continued to be an issue within the early community of Jesus we cannot be certain. There was certainly tension between Judaizers and those who followed Paul’s gospel of grace (see Galatians for instance). But was that a specifically Jewish/Gentile cultural boundary (in that moralism tended to find expression through Jewish laws and rules) or was there an issue between moral ‘hard-liners’ and moderates quite apart from the question of Jews and Gentiles? In later centuries the hard-line and very moral Christian movement known as the Donatists was widespread through North Africa and the Near East – that was entirely a struggle within Christianity as to what the gospel should look like. 

Jesus teaches here that the flaw of the Pharisees is not their moralism but their hypocrisy (vs 1). This accords well with Paul’s teaching in the opening verses of Romans chapter 2.  Jesus argues the antidote to hypocrisy is transparency – the broadcasting of secrets, the revelation of that which is hidden (vs 2) and (in a curious mixed metaphor) what you have said in the dark will be heard in the light (vs 3a) and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops (vs 3b – NRSV). This is one occasion when I think the NIV translation is actually more accurate: And what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (vs 3b).

The word for ‘inner room’ has the sense of ‘hidden or secret room’. It is this word for room that Jesus urges us to go into to pray (Mt 6.6). It is the same word for secret room or storeroom (in the sense of a hidden or secure room) that Jesus uses later in this chapter in his parable of the trusting ravens who don’t have such rooms (Lk 12.24).  There is the sense that what happens in our hidden room will eventually come out.  

In support of this idea, there is an artful use of language weaving through Luke 12. Jesus uses the word for storehouse/inner rooms (tameiois) in 12.3 (where what is whispered in the inner rooms will be shouted from the housetops), and the word for storage barn (apothekas) in 12.18 (where the foolish man thinks bigger barns to store more stuff will save him). Jesus then uses both words in 12.24 to describe the ravens (who have neither storehouse (tameion – singular) nor barn (apotheke – singular) but God still looks after them! There is no security in either keeping secrets (playing political games?) or amassing wealth – only trusting in God will make you secure.

Daily Readings for the Second week of Pentecost (June 8-13)


During the time after Trinity Sunday (eight weeks after Easter) and before Advent (four weeks before Christmas), the lectionary has two series of daily readings, complementary and semi-continuous. There is no right or wrong way to use the readings. Both series use the same New Testament lesson. It is better to read one or the other series consistently than to try to do both and give up because of the time commitment

The complementary readings are linked more closely with the Sunday readings, and the gospel focus is the main basis for the selection of the other Sunday lessons. 

The semi-continuous series are chosen around related biblical themes or stories, so aren’t in biblical order. They are often selected from the same neighbourhood in the Bible, but not always, particularly when dealing with broader topics. 

As we will be adapting the NT readings to encompass our study of Romans, it seems pointless to follow readings that are ‘complementary’ to readings we may have altered for that day. Hence it is more logical to follow the semi-continuous series in these notes on the daily readings.

If you would like to see the alternate complementary readings for each day they can be found via this link:  https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/daily.php?year=A

Monday, June 8, 2020Psalm 29; Job 38:39-39:12; Romans 3:1-8

Psalm 29 presents Yahweh as the one whose great voice speaks through the thunderstorm. There are clear marks that this is a very ancient Psalm, most likely taken over from early Canaanite worship. There are ancient Ugaritic and Egyptian writings with very similar themes. This is possibly the oldest Psalm in the whole of Hebrew poetry. Some of the marks of this ancient lineage are the mention of ‘the heavenly beings’ in vs 1 – a reflection of an original pantheon of gods – over which a ‘god King’ (cf. vs 10b) ruled with his mighty thunderous voice.

In taking over an ancient pagan hymn of praise the Psalmist is very keen to make sure that there is no mistake that the hymn has been pressed into the service of Yahweh, represented in the NRSV by the capitalised form ‘the Lord’. This form, ‘the Lord’, recurs in every line of the hymn for the first 5 verses (with the exception of vs 3b) – ten occurrences in all! A further 8 occurrences in vss 7-11 yield 18 declarations of the divine name in 11 verses.

Lines not to mention the tetragrammaton (the four letter divine name in Hebrew – YHWH) are 3b, where an artful theological point is made – God is not ‘the God of thunder’ (as elsewhere across the ancient near East) but ‘the god of glory’ – who thunders!)  Vs 6 describes how ‘he’ makes Lebanon and Sirion ‘skip’ like young animals and vs 9b, c describe the impact of the voice of ‘the Lord’ mentioned in vs 9a.

Vs 9c introduces a marked change – so sudden that many scholars think something may have slipped from the text here. To this point the psalm has described the mighty God who is heard in thunder and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire (literally ‘splits’ the flames of fire –lightning,  vs 7) and outlined the impact of the thunderstorm on forests, deserts, oceans, trees and animals (see the alternate reading of vs 9a in the notes to the internet version of this verse). Vs 9c takes us away from nature and the wider region into the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: and in his temple all say “Glory!” The cosmic power of the natural realm is here grounded in the temple, and while the Lord sits enthroned over the flood (reference to the waters of the heavens – vs 10a) and the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever (reference to a pantheon of ‘the gods’ over which Yahweh rules – vs 10b), all this power and might is invoked as God’s strength and peace to be shared with God’s people (vs 11a, 11b).

In an age when science has demythologised thunder and lightning and largely taken away their terror, this Psalm may lose some of its power. That is a tragedy! The repeated uttering of the sacred name YHWH – revealed to Moses on Sinai – rolls repeatedly through this psalm like thunder rolling through a great thunderstorm. In the poetry the previous cultural understandings of a ‘god of thunder’ known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Scandinavian mythologies (among others) are reinterpreted through a theology of a god of glory who reigns over all other ‘gods’ and blesses his people with both power and peace.

In an age of increasingly common ‘extreme weather’ this Psalm may recover some of it ancient authority – although even as we think of God’s power behind the might of the weather we will perhaps also reflect upon the sins and negligence of humanity in our stewardship of oceans and wilderness, forests and animals.

Lest we relegate this Psalm to a primitive age and primitive people, remember that on 2nd July 1505 Martin Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm while returning to his home at Erfurt. That was 515 years and three weeks ago this coming Thursday! He was terrified. Lightning struck very near him. Luther vowed that if he survived the storm he would enter a monastery. He fulfilled his vow – in consequence of which I am writing these notes, and you are reading them. The Voice of God can still speak in a Great Storm!

The Job passages we are reading this week continue God’s questioning of Job after Job had (perhaps rashly) sought an interview with God to argue his innocence (be careful what you wish for!)   In Job 38.1-3 the Lord answers Job’s challenge: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you shall declare to me.”  

Here God raises four questions for Job in four succeeding passages of initially 3 verses (38.39-41) and then three of passages each of 4 verses (39.1-4; 5-8; 9-12). The questions deal with whether Job understands hunting and how the wild animals and birds find their prey (38.39-41), his grasp of conception and the birthing of wild animals (39.1-4), a reflection on the phenomenon of ‘wildness’ itself through the case of the wild ass. (vs. 5-8) and finally, inviting comparison between the wild ox and the domesticated ox, with the overtones that Job cannot use a wild ox – but the Lord can, and is confident of its patterns of life (39.9-12).

There is a subtle link with the Psalm for the day in the Lord’s question to Job ‘do you observe the calving of the deer?’ (Job 39.1b), where the Psalm declares the voice of the Lord causes the deer to calve (Ps 29.9 footnote).

Romans chapter 3 is a central text in shaping how we read the book of Romans. A classic Reformation reading of this chapter has interpreted it as ’a justification account’, that is, Paul’s explanation of how God justifies sinners through the gospel. However, a number of scholars have raised questions as to whether this really was Paul’s purpose. Such a purpose does not sit well with the recurring engagement with the issue of ‘Jews first and also Gentiles’ announced in 1.16 and very much centre stage in chapters 9-11. Another suggestion has been that Paul is trying to explore how the Creator relates to the whole Creation (which connects well with some of the themes of chapter 8). A third idea by Melbourne scholar Dr Wendy Dabourne, sees the purpose of Romans to deal with an argument by some conservative Christians that salvation by faith is OK for the Gentiles, but God’s election of the Jews continues and we have to make distinctions between Jewish and Gentile Christians and the way salvation works for them. These Conservatives (her word) argue that, if God brings everyone in together and abandons the law and the covenant, then God is actually unjust, and Paul’s proclamation of the gospel is unrighteous.

Now in saying this I am simplifying a complex and very subtle argument. There is no doubt that Paul’s gospel was thoroughly centred on the idea of ‘justification by faith’. But is that his purpose in writing Romans and was that the real focus of Chapter 3, especially vss 21-26? The Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the Evangelical tradition in which many of us were raised, have interpreted Romans as a kind of systematic explication of ‘justification by faith’ as Paul understood it. But what if Paul is using the accepted understanding of ‘justification by faith’ that the Roman church would have known, to make a related, but different, point about the nature of God, God’s ways of working with humankind and the righteousness of God?  In our notes this week we can only explore some textual hints that the usual reading of this chapter as ‘an account of justification’ might actually be missing the point.

In 3.1-8 Paul continues his discussion of circumcision and its value. Having at the end of chapter 2 argued that physical circumcision is not what God is interested in, but ‘spiritual circumcision’ (proved by doing of the law) Paul now wants to defend the value of physical circumcision. The Jews (who are of course circumcised as the sign of their Jewishness) have great advantages. They were entrusted with the oracles of God (vs 2). Their unfaithfulness does not nullify the faithfulness of God (vs 3). Paul has argued in chapters 1 and 2 that ‘all’ are sinners. Now, has he argued for the universal sinfulness of humankind? Hardly, as he has already raised in chapter 2 the possibility (however remote) of the righteous Gentiles who are a law to themselves. He seems to be making the point that Gentiles and Jews are equally likely to be sinners and to fall under judgment. In vss 2-3 here he does not allow the failure and sinfulness of Jews to be a sign of God’s failure (let God be proved true vs 4).

Vss 5-8 specifically engage the question of whether God is to be considered unfair or unjust to inflict wrath on us (cf 1.18)?  In vs. 7-8 we have a version of Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?  (Rom 6.1). Note how densely woven is the text, harking back to chapter 1 (on wrath) and forward to chapter 6 (on sin and grace). Paul’s argument is cutting two ways: first to ‘protect’ the value of Jewish identity even while he seeks to radically redefine it (2.17-29) and, secondly, to defend the justice, the righteousness of God (justice and righteousness have the same root in Greek).

Tuesday, June 9, 2020Psalm 29; Job 39:13-25; Romans 3:9-18

For the Psalm see Monday.

God’s interrogation of Job continues with the presentation of two contrasting animals, the ostrich and the horse. The ostrich is presented as a rather dopey animal which flaps wings without feathers and without flight (vs 13), leaves its eggs and offspring vulnerable (vs 14-16a), but has no fear because God has deprived it of wisdom and understanding – it lives according to God’s ordering and wisdom (vs 16b-17). And for all this, when it spreads it plumes aloft and runs, it laughs at the horse and rider (vs 18). So it has its strengths: God has created it in wisdom to have its own gifts.

God then describes the horse in beautiful terms – strong, brave, majestic, it laughs at fear (vs 22 note the parallel to the ostrich in vs 18) and is at ease with all weapons. When the battle is near it is almost human in its readiness for war.

Romans 3.9-19 is Paul’s integration of the argument so far. He has raised the possibility of just Gentiles who do what the law requires (2.14) and of Jews who sin (2.1). He has re-interpreted the value of law (2.17-24) and circumcision (2.25-29) in ways that dethrone Jewish chauvinism. Having then defended the value of Jewish identity in more cultural terms (they were entrusted with the oracles of God vs 2) he summarises his position: What then? Are we [i.e. Jews] any better off? No not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin… Vs 9. What is interesting here is that ‘all’ is not necessarily expressing a universal view of human sinfulness, but the radical equality of Jews and Gentiles under the power of sin.

Paul then grounds this view of shared sinfulness is a string of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that (according to scholar Brendan Byrne) ‘is quite unparalleled in the New Testament both in its length and in its single-minded focus upon the one theme of universal moral failure’. Six times we are told ‘there is no-one’ or ‘all have turned aside’ or ‘there is not even one’ who have done right (vss 10-12). What follows is a list of all the human body parts that lead to sin – throats, tongues, lips, mouths (vss 13-14), feet and eyes (vss 15-18). The main passages quoted are Ps 14:1-3 (=Ps 53:1-3) and Isaiah 59:7-8 with an introduction modelled on Eccl 7:20.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020Psalm 29; Job 39:26-40:5; Romans 3.19-31

 For the Psalm see Monday.

God drives home to Job another series of questions – about the flight and nesting patterns of hawks and eagles (vss 26-30). This ancient book, around 2,500 years old, has great insight and asks not only about the mysteries of flight, but the visual acuity of these birds (vs 29), something that science has really only come to study and understand in very recent centuries.

Job chapter 40 opens with a brief dialogue between God and Job. Job has spoken and dialogued with his friends from chapter 3 to chapter 37 inclusive. From Chapter 38 through to the end of 41, it is God’s turn to speak. The only answers of Job are given in 40.3-5 and 42.1-6. In 40.3-5 Job acknowledges I am of small account; what shall I answer you? (vs 4) and vows to keep silent (vs 5).

Romans 3.19-31: Here we come to the heart of the early part of Romans and one of the key passages in Paul’s argument.

In closing the previous section (vss 19-20) Paul reminds his hearers that the law only has effect on those who are under the law (i.e. Jews) – and the purpose here is that every mouth may be silenced , and the whole world  may be held accountable to God (vs 19). Presumably the mouths to be silenced are Jewish, and it is Jews too who are to be held accountable to God.  The closing verse makes clear that the law does not lead to justification, only to the knowledge of sin (vs 20).

Vss 21-26 are held by some to be the kernel of the gospel as preached by Paul. The number of Bible tracts that have been built around these verses is probably beyond reckoning! Rather than a detailed exegesis of the passage I want to point out two significant issues than run right to the heart of how we read these verses. The first is ‘the righteousness of God’ (named in vss 21, 22, and 25, 26 – see below) and the second is ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ (vss 22, 26).

The ‘righteousness of God’ is grammatically a genitive construction. It is common in English and can sometimes indicate possession, but also has other uses. May I illustrate by referring to my wife, Jane? I have a photograph of her in my wallet which I carry with me. It is Jane’s picture. She is the subject of the picture and this genitive construction is called a subjective genitive. I could ask you ‘Have you seen Jane’s picture (or ‘this picture of Jane’)?’  

On the wall of our guest bedroom is a charming painting of a French village. It was her late mother’s and belongs to Jane. Because she married me and promised to share all her worldly goods with me, it is also mine, even though it remains Jane’s picture. In time, when we are both gone, I assume one of our children will own it, though it will probably still be Jane’s picture. Although the words are identical to those describing the photo in my wallet, this is something quite different: an objective genitive – a genitive construction depicting an object related to the subject, Jane.

Now, is the ‘righteousness of God’ as used by Paul in the book of Romans a subjective, or an objective genitive? In other words, does it describe the righteousness that is intrinsic to Godself, (just as Jane’s photograph is intrinsically connected to her image)? Or does it describe a righteousness that God gives to others, something separable from God and able to be passed to others (like that painting of the French village)?

Since the Reformation, we have read ‘the righteousness of God’ as an objective genitive, that is, the ‘righteousness of God’ is what God shares with us through our faith in God and God’s justification of us.  

But what if it is a subjective genitive? What if this passage is actually talking about the righteousness of God in Godself, whether God as God is righteous and just and fair? Try reading the passage with both senses in your mind and you may begin to see completely different depths in Paul’s words. 

For instance, in vs 25b (He did this to show his righteousness…(emphasis added)) and vs 26a (it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous … (emphasis added)) both make much more sense when read as subjective genitives (actually it would be hard to read them the other way). What then of vss 21 and 22? Should we not read them as subjective genitives as well?

Vs 21 makes more sense (to me) as a subjective genitive, but vs 22 is a different matter.  However, this brings us to through faith in Jesus Christ (vs 22) which we should consider further.

Note in the biblegateway.com version of this text there is a footnote which gives an alternate translation of the Greek: or through the faith of Jesus Christ (vs 22a – emphasis added). Variant readings can either be due to differences in the early manuscripts that have come down to us,  or the intrinsic difficulties of deciphering ancient Greek texts. Here it is not manuscript variations but the ambiguities of the Greek syntax – and again it is a question of how a genitive is to be interpreted! Does Paul mean ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ (that is, our faith and trust vested in Jesus – an objective genitive) or does he mean ‘the personal faith or faithfulness of Jesus’ (a subjective genitive)? 

The same issue emerges in vs 26. Here God justifies either the one who has faith in Jesus OR the one who has the faith of Jesus. Here the issues are a little more complicated in that not only are there syntax and grammar questions about how to read the genitive case, there is also a significant manuscript tradition that includes the word ‘the’ before the word for ‘faith’ (which would definitely support the interpretation  the one who has the faith of Jesus. The textual scholars have given the variant readings here (‘faith in Jesus’ vs ‘the faith of Jesus’) a ‘D’ rating – which means they can’t decide on the textual evidence which is the ‘true’ version, the original author’s words. What this means is: take your pick!

Brendan Byrne, a leading Pauline scholar, says that the subjective reading of ‘the righteousness of God’ was ‘formerly a somewhat maverick view … [but] has gained ground in recent years’ (he writing in 1996).  Byrne’s conclusion is that ‘[d]eciding between the two rests upon the context and an overall view of Paul’s theology’.  Given the long standing reading of ‘the righteousness of God’ as an objective genitive so that the ‘righteousness of God’ is all about our righteousness and our justification, then an objective reading of ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ would be suggested by the context as we have traditionally read it, and by our assumptions about Paul’s intention.  In that reading, ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ then marks out another religious tribe, this group having, by virtue of their faith, appropriated or been granted ‘the righteousness of God’ (understood as an objective genitive).

But if we read both the ‘the righteousness of God’ and ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ as subjective genitives, then the passage is saying something else entirely: it is telling of a revelation of the righteousness of God in Godself, that was revealed to the world through the faithfulness of Jesus (vs 22). Just as Jews and Gentiles (all – vs 23) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (vs 23) they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (vs 24) (because of his faithfulness vs 22) whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement (or – again! – as a ‘place’ of atonement – see the footnote).

Far from being a straightforward presentation of the theology of ‘justification by faith’, Romans 3.21-26 presents many challenges of interpretation. In deciding how to read this passage we will need to come back to it over and over and read it in the context of all that Paul is saying in the rest of the book.

Vs 27-31 then apply this densely packed argument to the status of Jews and Gentiles. Boasting is excluded (presumably the boasting of Jews over Gentiles). It is not excluded by the law of worksbut by the law of faith (vs 27). The clear principle is declared For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (vs 28). God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles (vs 28) and justifies both on the same grounds – the ground of faith! (vs 29). Paul then asks a key question Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? (vs 31) and concludes that faith upholds the law!

Thursday, June 11, 2020Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 21:1-7; Romans 4:1-12

(Note: We dealt with this Psalm in the second week of Easter and these notes are adapted from the remarks previously published: if it sounds familiar, that’s the reason!)

Psalm 116.1-2,12-19:  If you have watched the first edition of our Bible Chef podcast on the BHBC website (which dealt with the importance of ‘peeling’) you will immediately notice that vss 3-11 of this Psalm have been peeled off and left in the trash. Why? Possibly because these verses deal with the nature of the distress that the petitioner has experienced. What remains is much more purely a brief expression of the problem followed by a ‘song of thanksgiving of an individual’ that is offered as testimony within the shared worship of the community. Scholars see this Psalm as a series of fragments of praise and thanksgiving that have been gathered together. Some scholars have tried (probably unsuccessfully) to see Psalms 116 and 117 together as part of a larger whole (Psalm 117 is a very short fragment (2 verses) that is clearly a public responsive piece from a worship liturgy.)

Vss 1-2 express the devotion of the singer to the Lord arising from the Lord having heard the singer’s distress. 

The motif of ‘lifting up the cup of salvation’ (vs 13) is difficult to place with accuracy within the cult of the temple. There were libation offerings to be offered (see, for example, Ex 29.40ff and Num 28.7). There were also descriptions of the opposite to ‘the cup of salvation’, namely ‘the cup of wrath’, but this was usually used as a metaphor rather than any form of ritual or cultic participation (see Is 51.17, Lam 4.21, 32, 33). In the NT we have mention of the ‘cup of blessing’ (1 Cor 10.16) with reference to the Lord’s Supper. We cannot be certain as to what ‘the cup of salvation’ in Ps 116 referred.

Vss 14 express the singer’s determination to ‘perform their vows’: the Lord has delivered them they will offer praise and fulfil the vows that they have made. 

Vss 15-16 contain expressions of trust in the Lord – the Lord is not unconcerned or ignorant of the death of the Lord’s people, and I am your servant, the child of one of your servants.

Vss 17-19 elaborate the performance of vows expressed in vs 14: offering a thanksgiving sacrifice (vs 17a), calling on the name of the Lord (vs 17b), paying vows publicly (vs 18) in the temple in Jerusalem (vs 19a,b) ending with an acclamation of praise (vs 19c).

Genesis 21.1-7 is a story of great importance to the Bible story as a whole. Isaac, as the child of promise, stands as the ancestor of Israel. Ishmael, another son of Abraham but a son by a slave woman, is claimed by the Muslim nations as their ancestor. So far, so good, but the question as to who can claim Abraham as their ancestor – or how he and Sarah are to be shared – is a tale of politics and violence than has extended back for many centuries. 

A sign of how deeply this story is entwined in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that my preaching plan just happened to allocate Romans 4.1-12 to this day – Paul reflecting on Abraham and his ‘believing God’ – and what did the lectionary ‘just happen’ to direct us to this day? The fulfilment of God’s promise (or one of them!) that Abraham ‘believed’!

When I visited Hebron in the West Bank, I knew that it had been a place of contention and violence between Jews and Palestinians for many years. It wasn’t until I went there that I understood why: it is the location of the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sarah lie buried. You can read something of the chequered history of their grave here.

When we read passages such as Genesis 21 and Romans 4, they are not just old tales and dead letters: they are absolutely alive, and sometimes ticking!  The Prime Minister of Israel has given notice that in a few weeks Israel will annex further territory from the West Bank (in defiance of international law). Will it include Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Islamic shrine of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi (the Ibrahimi Mosque)?  Over the cave stood a large rectangular enclosure built by the Jews in the time of Herod. Byzantine Christians later took it over and built a Christian basilica. After the Muslim conquest it was converted into a mosque. Crusaders took it over in the 12th century and it was Christian site, but then in 1188 Saladin re-conquered it and converted it back into a synagogue and a mosque (which is the format of the site today). Are we living in an age where this ancient contest over ancestors and their resting places will again break forth?

Genesis 21.1-7 is straightforward. The promise of God is mentioned in vss 1 (to Sarah) and 2 (to Abraham). The name Isaac (vs 3) and Sarah’s delighted statement in vs 7 are anchored in the events around the promise being given (see Genesis 18.9-15).

The sign of circumcision is mentioned in vs 4 and also forms the basis of the discussion in Romans 4.9-12. However, the origin of circumcision as a practice in the Old Testament is difficult to chart clearly. While here in Genesis 21 we are told that Abraham circumcised his son when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him (vs 4) – a reassuring reflection of later Jewish practise – we have in the traditions of Exodus a much more mysterious tale of the appearance of circumcision. Moses’ wife Zipporah (when the Lord tried to kill Moses) cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”. So he [God] let him [Moses] alone (Ex 4.24-26).  [See also the reflections on Romans 4 below.]

We worked very hard on Romans 3 yesterday, but we will not be nearly so taxing about Romans 4. If we read Romans 3 not as a traditional presentation of a generalised Evangelical theology of justification, but as a revelation of a new way of God’s justice being revealed in the ways of grace – equally available and relevant for Jews (the supposedly holy people) and Gentiles (the supposed sinners) – then Paul has to deal with the (apparent) tension between faith and law, or faith and works, and show that they are not opposed.

He does this by reflecting on Abraham. The foundation of his argument is vs 3: Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. This principle is unpacked through vss 4-8.

Vs 9 heads in a related but slightly different direction in speaking of circumcision. Paul argues that Abraham’s faith was prior to circumcision, which is but a sign of what has already been covenanted (see Genesis 17). Vs 11 develops the view that God’s purpose was to make Abraham the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them (vs 11) and  likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised (vs 12).

Now this text raises a whole new question that will come back to us especially in chapters 9-11. We have seen that the heart of Romans from 1.16 onward has been about Jews and Greeks, people of Israel and Gentile foreigners, those under the law and those apart from the law, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul is arguing strongly that all are equal and God shows no partiality. But here, in arguing for Abraham as the ancestor of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, and that the basis of their righteousness before God is, in all cases, ‘believing God’, Paul poses a question for us of which he must have been completely unaware: What about Muslims? 

They too are circumcised and see their descent through Ishmael (see Gen 17.23). Do they too ‘believe God’ and stand among the children of Abraham? As Paul argues relentlessly that God shows no partiality, that God deals with all with fairness and equity, how do we see his argument and his theology informing our attitude to Muslims (as well as Jews)?  If (as we saw in one reading of Romans 3) we are not justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but rather the faith of Jesus Christ, what does that imply for our relationships with Muslims, themselves numbered among the peoples of the circumcised?

Friday, June 12, 2020:  Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 24:1-9; Romans 4:13-25

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 24: Yesterday Isaac’s birth – today his marriage! This is not a story that drags! Note that we have completely passed over the rejection (and sacrifice?) of Ishmael and Hagar his mother (Gen 21.8-21), the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) and the death of Sarah (Genesis 23), Isaac’s mother, and her burial in the Cave of Machpelah (discussed above). 

An element of the Bible that we do not always recognise is that love and marriage were not always conducted as they are in our Western tradition of romantic love. At various points in Israel’s history endogamy (marrying within the tribe) was very important. Here Abraham charges his servant to get a wife for Isaac from among my country and my … kindred (vs 4). Although Abraham’s family had originated in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11.28), the land to which the servant was sent was a region in northern Mesopotamia named Aram-naharaim (vs 10) where Terah (Abraham’s father) had spent time after leaving Ur (Genesis 11.31-32)

The swearing of the oath with your hand under my thigh (vs 4, 9) was a solemn form of oathtaking or sealing a contract  in which two men would each place their hand around the other’s genitals as a sign of mutual vulnerability and deep trust. A hand-shake as a way of agreeing a deal is no longer acceptable in this Covid-19 age, but I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for a return to the ancient practice.

Romans 4.13-25 carries on Pauls reflections on Abraham. Vs 13 is a fine summary statement. Vs 14 discounts the claim of the adherents of the law to be considered the heirs of Abraham and vs 15 presents Paul’s principle that law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no violation (cf 1.18ff where ‘the wrath of God’ has been revealed to all apart from the law and through ‘the book of nature’).

Vs 16-22 further unpack the story of Abraham and his faith, this time through an analysis of the circumstances of the birth of Isaac (see yesterday’s reading from Genesis). Vs 22 repeats vs 3, thus placing the basic principle (Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness) at the beginning and end of the Abraham account.

In this extended account of Abraham’s ‘faith’ across all of chapter 4 there are two clauses that describe God. Remember the reading of Chapter 3 that suggested perhaps the whole focus of Paul was not our justification but the justification (or vindication) of ‘the righteousness of God’ in Godself. Note that these two clauses are profound statements of the power and majesty of God, continuing Paul’s defence of God as the one who shows justice and greatness. The two clauses are vs 5, about him who justifies the ungodly and vs 17, about the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This latter text has been a foundation for the doctrine of the creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Even while describing Abraham and interpreting his history, Paul is continuing to defend and extol God in the highest possible terms!

Vss 23-25 take us out of the historical and into the immediately existential: these words were written for us!  Vss 24-25 are a kind of creedal statement that now, rather than in 3.21-26 become a hinge point to discussing what this thing called ‘faith’ looks like. Examine closely the wording that is used here: [Righteousness] will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (vss 24-25).   The faith described here is not ‘belief in Jesus Christ’ but believing in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. Our justification is not a consequence of our faith in Jesus (cf. the traditional reading of 3.26) but a result of the resurrection of Jesus!

Saturday, June 13, 2020Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Genesis 24:10-52; Romans 1-4 Review

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 24.10-52 is a long passage, and one of the most beautiful and romantic passages of the OT, especially the ending (not included here) of vss 53-67 in which Rebekah comes to Isaac. Detailed commentary is not necessary as it is essentially a narrative.  The action takes place in Aram-naharaim in northern Mesopotamia, the land of the Arameans (northern Syria). A prayer for guidance is offered by the servant and before he had finished speaking Rebekah ‘enters stage left’ (vs 15). Rebekah (we are told) is the granddaughter of Milcah, wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (vs 15). Note that Milcah was married to her uncle (Nahor), because she was the daughter of Abraham’s other brother, Haran (Genesis 11.29). So Rebekah was a descendant of both of Abraham’s brothers, one her grandfather and the other, her great-grandfather. (If the generations seem improbable, remember that Isaac was born when Abraham was very, very old.) In Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, the bloodlines of the three sons of Terah (Nahor, Haran and Abram) come together.     

Romans 1-4 Review 

If you have followed the notes for this week and last week, you have worked very, very hard, especially in dealing with Romans. I am sorry to have dealt with so much in so little time. 

The reason has been that the lectionary readings on Romans for June – September completely leave out chapters 1-4 from this cycle of readings. If we were to engage with these chapters we had to cover a lot of complex ground very quickly. 

Why did the Lectionary leave it out? Is it that they think the teaching of Romans 1-4 is so settled and ‘safe’ that we all know it? Is it that the issues are so complicated and intertwined that they wanted to avoid it?

I felt it was vital to try and open up some of the complexities of the book of Romans and to help us to read it with new eyes.  What does it tell us about who is ‘righteous’ and who are ‘sinners’?  What does it tell us about ‘faith’? Is faith ‘in Jesus’ the only path to salvation and the only way to God? Does ‘faith in Jesus’ create a new religious ‘tribe’ who are now the chosen race? Or does the faith of Abraham, and the faith of Jesus, point us towards a way of believing and trusting God that transcends our religious ‘tribes’ and brings us together on a new path?

Above all, who is God? Is God truly good and fair? Does God play favourites, blessing the pious and the morally superior with wealth and good experiences, and leaving the rest (the sinners, the ‘losers’, the also-rans) in their failure and struggles? Is Paul trying (to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost) to assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men? If so, do we need to engage a similar task in the 21st century, where talk of God seems banal and clichéd, where the paths of much Christian teaching are dusty and well-trodden, and the church seems to echo the now shabby respectability of a former age? 

I’m excited by Romans, and I find it a revolutionary and timely text for this world and this generation. Some of you might be disconcerted – or scandalised, or even angered – by some of these studies. If so – excellent!  Please push back, and offer YOUR views, YOUR readings of the text, YOUR questions, and above all YOUR insights as to what God is calling us to live and teach in this place, at this time.

Grace and peace,

Jim Barr

7th June 2020