(If you prefer, you can download this week’s set of devotions as a PDF below)
We are diverging slightly from the Sunday Lectionary readings for the next few weeks. The reason for this is that the Sunday Readings from 14th June to 13th September follow sequentially from Romans Chapter 5 through to Romans Chapter 14. We will slightly modify and extend the lectionary readings so that we reflect on Romans chapters 1 & 2 on 7th June, chapters 3 & 4 on the 14th June, then chapter 5 on the 21st June. On the 28th June we will synchronise again with the Sunday lectionary and follow the Sunday lectionary readings though to the 13th September (Romans 14). I will then extend the Romans readings to preach on the last two chapters on 20th and 27th of September.
Four months reflecting on the one book of the Bible? If there is a single book in Scripture (apart from the gospels) that can merit such intense scrutiny, it is Romans. At different points in Christian history, understanding Romans has been the engine for significant renewal in the Church. In the fourth century it was reading Romans that led to the conversion of Augustine, who became one of the significant shaping influences of the church in the 5th century. In the 16th century Luther and Calvin were influenced by Romans as they led the Protestant Reformation. So many of these and other leading Christian thinkers wrote commentaries on Romans. Every generation should re-appropriate the book of Romans and see what it says to their age.
I am not a Biblical scholar, just a ‘common-or-garden’ preacher. I come to the book with the questions of someone trying to live and lead in the Christian faith in the early 21st century. I find that some of the great questions of the present day (such as ‘What is the gospel?’, ‘How do the various religions live together?’, ‘How shall we live in conditions of Empire?’, ‘How do church and state relate?’) are directly addressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It is well deserving of our reading, reflection and prayer!
Accordingly, the Daily Readings from the lectionary will be reshaped to support this extended engagement with Romans. I will give notes on Romans passage by passage, chapter by chapter. We will retain the Psalm for the day, and where possible, the Old Testament Readings. The New Testament readings will be from Romans and, space permitting, other related readings from the Gospels or other NT writers.
I have re-written the links to take you to the amended readings for the day in bibIegateway.com where you are able to select in the header of the website which translation of the text you prefer. The notes will refer to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I hope you enjoy this journey in Bible study!
Monday, June 1, 2020: Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Joel 2:18-29; Romans 1:1-7
Pentecost season begins with a selected reading from Psalm 104. A strong theme of Creation emerges this week in Psalms 104 and 8, and in the readings from Job. Ps 104 and Ps 103 are similar. Both are hymns of an individual (note the use of I / me / my throughout). Psalm 104 is an extended hymn of praise in creation, but the lectionary has selected the latter part of the Psalm. The earlier part of the Psalm (vss 1-23) opens with praise of the God who is above all worlds (vss 1-4), telling of God’s conquest of the primeval flood and establishing of the earth (vss 5-9), springs and brooks (vss 10-12), Yahweh’s rain refreshes the earth (vss 13-18), God brings night and daybreak (vss 19-23).
Vs 24 is a summary statement of the abundance of creation which leads into a brief celebration of God’s creation of the seas (vss. 25-26). Vss 27-30 expresses how all life depends upon the Lord and vss 31-35 are a brief hymnic conclusion.
The power and beauty of nature and God’s goodness in creation shine right through this Psalm. The reason that this Psalm is read in Pentecost is probably vs 30 about sending forth your spirit (Hebrew: breath) to create and renew the earth. Note how modern sensibilities are reflected in the suppression of vs 35a from the reading: announcing the judgement and sweeping away of sinners and the wicked is hardly polite for modern Christians!
Joel 2.18-29 is well known as the source of the quote that Peter uses for his sermon on Pentecost. This is the very first Old Testament text (vss 28-29) that any Christian preacher invokes in the service of the gospel! For that reason alone it deserves to be better known.
The preceding passages of Joel have told of a devastating locust plague (Joel 1.4), also presented through the metaphor of military invasion (Joel 2.1-11). Vss 2.12-17 are a call to conversion and penitence and then comes our reading for today, announcing salvation. The promise of restoration after agricultural devastation is clear in vs 19. Is the locust horde the ‘northern army’ referred to vs 20?
What is lovely in our social context is vss 21 and 22 where an oracle of salvation is directed to the hearing of the soil (!) and the animals of the field. In vss 23-27 the people are addressed in words of comfort and salvation appropriate to those recovering from social and agricultural devastation.
The announcement that God will pour out my spirit on all flesh follows in vs 28-29.
Romans 1.1-7 is the opening section of the book of Romans. The common form of biblical epistles or letters is almost like a modern inter-office memo:-
From: Name, and position held
To: Addressee, location, description of these persons
Salutation: Word of greeting
Missing from the ancient epistle is the Memo heading of Subject: (we have to work that out for ourselves from the context and language of the document!) but there are one or sometimes two extra elements at the beginning of the letter – a thanksgiving and sometimes a blessing.
Here we have the ‘From:’ line extending from vss 1-6 and both the ‘To:’ line and the ‘Salutation’ in vs 7.
The From: is the longest in any of Paul’s letters and has been carefully structured. Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God (vs 1). Note that he doesn’t emphasise his apostolate but opens with servant of Jesus Christ with the rather humble called to be an apostle before saying set apart for the gospel of God. The phrase ‘gospel of God’ occurs 7 times in the NT: twice in Romans, once in 2nd Corinthians, three times in 1 Thessalonians and once in 1 Peter.
Paul then takes a detour to say some things about this ‘gospel of God’, the main points of which are:-
- promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, (vs 2)
- the gospel concerning his Son (vs 3a)
- who was descended from David according to the flesh (vs 3b)
- and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness (4a)
- by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (vs 4b)
- through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name (vs 5)
- including yourselves who are called to belong to Christ Jesus (vs 6).
All of this is included in expressing just who is writing the letter! Right from the outset Paul is asserting his authority and grounding some of the essential themes of what is to follow. His message is anchored in the prophets and the Scriptures (vs 2) and it relates to the gospel of the Son (vss 3a, 4a) and his resurrection (4b), to whom you also are called to belong (vs 6).
An interesting construction is vss 3b and 4a where there is a contrast between Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and his being declared to be the Son of God according to the spirit of holiness. There is no sense here of the eternally co-existent Logos of the opening of John’s gospel. Some have seen here an almost ‘adoptionist Christology’ where Jesus is just a human being who was ‘adopted by God’ at some point in his earthly life. This is an interesting overtone, especially given the specific mention of ‘waiting for our adoption’ in Romans 8.23. What is clear from the earliest parts of Romans is that Paul is wanting to straddle the divide of Jews and Gentiles (… to the Jew first and also to the Greek… 1.16). This double pedigree of Jesus descended from David according to the flesh (the Jewish connection) and declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness is not about dividing Jesus or setting his human pedigree against his divine nature. It is about Jews and Gentiles finding their point of connection and unity in a multi-faceted understanding of the richness of who Jesus was. Paul is making this plain before he’s even finished introducing himself!
The To: line is deceptively simple: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. This is clear and direct and allows no room for whatever diverse identities may be within the Roman Christian community. There are only two things that define you: you are God’s beloved, and you are called to be saints.
What follows is the Salutation: which is again simple and direct. Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
By the time this opening has concluded a great deal of territory has been staked out. In ‘addressing the envelope’ of this letter Paul has managed to mention God (4x), Father, Son (2x), Lord (2x), Christ (4x), and Jesus (4x). He has carefully stated (but humbly not overstated) his authority as servant, apostle (mentioned twice!) and ‘one set apart’. The twofold statement of Jesus’ nature is an interesting piece of theologising to have placed ‘right up front’ and having made this complex and impressive opening he then uses a simple and safe salutation.
Tuesday, June 2, 2020: Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Ezekiel 39:7-8, 21-29; Romans 1:8-15
For the Psalm, see Monday.
The Ezekiel reading has been chosen to follow Joel (I suspect) because of vs 29, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. Ezekiel is written into the situation of Exile (see vss 23, 27, 28). What is here announced is that going into captivity or exile was the punishment of the Lord because of the nation’s sin (vss 21, 23-24) and that the time has come for God to restore the nation’s fortunes (vss. 25-29)
Romans 1.8-15: After the opening address and salutation, Biblical letters usually have a form of thanksgiving and sometimes blessing. In modern times we usually just use ‘Dear….’, unless of course we are writing to thank someone, or butter them up so we can ask something of them, or are so desperately in love that we have to sing their praises, and the writer’s devotion, for the next page and a half! (Does anyone write love-letters anymore or has the text message – with emoji’s – supplanted them?)
Paul starts with a thanksgiving that their faith is proclaimed throughout the world vs 8. This may have been subtle flattery (always wise when addressing people in centres of empire) but he goes on to assert his unceasing prayers for them (vs 9). Note here that he again describes himself as a servant. That he has been wanting to come to them for some time is clear (see vss 10, 11, 13, 15) but he very careful in how he describes his purpose which is to share some spiritual gift to strengthen you before immediately softening that to so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (vs 12).
In closing Paul describes his indebtedness to both Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Is he describing here (wise/foolish) some factional labels within the Roman church or is this echoing the argument of 1 Cor 1.18ff? He closes with his declared eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome (vs 15). This declaration summarises what he has been saying in the preceding verses, but it also sets the stage for the beginning of his argument in the following verses.
Wednesday, June 3, 2020: Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Numbers 11:24-30; Romans 1.16-32
For the Psalm, see Monday.
The Numbers reading continues the theme of the Lord ‘pouring out the spirit’ on the people (vs 29). What is interesting here is the notion of ‘spirit’ as some kind of substance that can be ‘taken off’ Moses and put on other people (vs 25). The presence of prophecy as a sign of the spirit’s presence (vs 25) occurs in various parts of the Old Testament. That such a sign can be a one-off experience has informed some views of Pentecost that ‘speaking in tongues’ was a limited sign and not a usual experience for the people of God.
The story of Eldad and Medad reflects issues around authorisation of religious experience and activity (vss 26-29). These men were among those registered to be part of the new leadership group (see vss. 16-23 for the story of the Lord taking initiative to broaden the leadership group of Israel and lift some of the burden on Moses). However, they had not gone out with the other elders to meet the Lord and receive the spirit. Moses affirmed their experience and action (vs 29). We see similar issues emerging among the disciples in the time of Jesus (see Mark 9.38-41).
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.
Thursday, June 4, 2020: Psalm 8; Job 38:1-11; Romans 2:1-10
Psalm 8 has been one of my favourite Psalms since I was a child. Having been brought up on Australian ballads (…where he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/ and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars…) and appreciating the beauty of nature, this Psalm has a great beauty and power of expression which always moves me.
Psalm 8 is a praise song of an individual. The structure has an opening and closing refrain that is largely the same, (vss 1, 9) except that (unusually) the second half of the opening refrain (you have set your glory above the heavens) is not repeated in the ending – possibly because the focus of the Psalm appears to be humankind and the ordering of the earthly creation rather than the heavens. This refrain may have been intoned by the whole community whereas a lone cantor spoke vss 2-8.
The setting of the psalm may well have been a night ritual of some kind (cf. Ps 134, Is 30.29 ff, 1 Chron 9.33). Anyone who has spent time in the rural regions of poorer countries without electricity will know how the night brings deep darkness to such societies – with the exception of full moon nights. This is why many Buddhist countries in Asia have a monthly night worship festival that coincides with the full moon. Within Israelite society there appear to have been minimal night festivals. Compare that with our own societies where in the 19th and twentieth centuries evening services became common – although the Protestant night ‘gospel service’ has diminished in recent times.
The voice of the Psalm is framed first and last in the second person (you / your – vss. 1-2, 5-9) with a first person voice in vs 3 – leading into the critical verse which expresses the overarching theme of the psalm – vs 4 – what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Vs 2 is unique in all the Old Testament – there is no other text that expresses a similar theme. What is the bulwark that is founded out of the mouths of babes and infants? One possible interpretation of this verses is that if there were a night setting for a cultic ritual, children may have played a role in the event. This verse is quoted by Jesus in Mt 21.16 at the end of the day of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Vss 3-8 echo the creation story of Genesis 1, (especially the creation of humankind and the granting of ‘dominion’ over creation to humankind). Vs 3 evokes the setting and the sense of wonder that viewing the night heavens creates in a person, before the artful segue into the main theme of the psalm – the place of human beings in the created order (vs 4).
This is explored in vss 5-7. What is interesting here is the distinction made between sheep and cattle (vs 7a) and the beasts of the field, birds and fish and whatever passes along the paths of the sea (vss 7b-8) – a distinction between the animals of domestic farming and the realm of the wild. In the Genesis account there is mention of cattle in the intra-divine dialogue about the creation of humanity (Gen 1.26) but not in the commission given to humanity by the voice of God (Gen 1.28). The Psalm recognises a distinction between the realm of ‘farmed/husbanded’ nature and wild nature.
The creation stories of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 arose in a world of scattered nomads and primitive societies with limited technology. Despite the poetic and powerful evocation of the beauty of the night sky and humankind’s exalted place within the ordering of creation – poetry we can and should savour and celebrate – can we blithely accept the teaching this Psalm in a world where human technology and lifestyle is threatening the existence of the rest of creation? It is not just the living elements of creation (the plants and animals – the biosphere), but the very foundations of creation in oceans and atmosphere (the geosphere) than are at risk. Can we read Genesis 1 without remembering Genesis 2 and 3, let alone Genesis 11? Can we sing Psalm 8 without also singing Psalm 51 at the same time?
Job 38.1-11 begins the wonderful answer of God to Job’s repeated requests for a chance to argue things out with God – Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind… Since chapters 1 and 2 of the book when Job was struck with disease, disaster and distress out of a clear blue sky, he has badgered God for an explanation and a chance to present his own defence. His friends have spent 33 chapters trying to talk him out of it, but Job wants ‘his day in court’ and finally, in chapter 38, he gets it!
The Lord’s answer to Job is to make Job to reflect on the knowledge and power than the Lord has shown in creation. After accepting Job’s challenge (vs 2-3) the Lord asks Job what he knows about the foundation of the earth and how it was established (vss 4-7) and then about the sea and how its limits were set (vss 8-11).
Romans 2.1-10 is the sequel to Paul’s careful analysis of human sinfulness in chapter 1. After listing three different kinds of sinners in chapter 1, chapter 2 opens with the emphatic Therefore …. All I have written in chapter 1 feeds into this conclusion: you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. ‘Whoever you are’ (rather inclusive), you have no right to judge other people because, as I have just shown you, you are doing the very same things (that is – you fall somewhere in those groups I described). Far from picking out gays, or idolators, or murderers, for particular opprobrium, Paul has swept us all into the same basket and said – you have no basis for judging others.
The first defence of those who love to judge is then trotted out: “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (vs 2) In other words, “You can’t criticise us or stop us from judging others – it’s in the Bible!’
Vss 3-4 are Paul’s answer to this. He argues that they may be right, but if God is going to judge the others, won’t God also judge you? (vs 3) He then asks a question that I find quite devastating: Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience (vs 4a)? Asked slightly differently this question is ‘Are you so in love with judgment that you despise the grace of God?’
For all those who have ‘moral concerns’ about other people and their acceptability before God this is an incisive and unsettling question. It is THE question that anybody who condemns gay people should to pose for themselves. Vs 4b takes it further: isn’t God’s kindness meant to lead US to repentance, not give us cause to rail against and condemn other people?
Vss 5 and 6 focus on the consequence of this judgemental attitude – that you are storing up wrath for yourself, and reinforcing the key point For he will repay according to each one’s deeds…
The deeds that form the raw material of God’s judgement are not specific moral judgements or laws, or values but patiently doing good [in order to] seek for glory and honour and immortality (vs 7) for those who are rewarded with eternal life. An adverse judgment awaits those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness (vs 8). Note the rebuke here of those who claim that their judgmental attitude is in accordance with truth (vs 2).
Vss 9 and 10 bring this calculus of divine judgement back into the key framing of Romans 1.16b – the Jew first, and also the Greek. This framing is central to Romans. Judgement belongs to God, not to humankind. God will exercise that judgement not according to the minutiae of moral rules and laws but in view of honour and goodness and glory on the one hand, and self-seeking, ignoring of ‘the truth’, and wickedness on the other. Judgement will be in an even-handed way treating Jew (first) and Greek with complete impartiality.
Friday, June 5, 2020: Psalm 8; Job 38:12-21; Romans 2:11-16
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Job 38 continues with God demanding of Job his knowledge of the mechanics of the opening day (vs 12-15). The poetry here, as in so much of Job, is beautiful: the morning ‘taking hold of the skirts of the earth’ so that the wicked shall be shaken out of it (vs 13). Daylight stamps the earth like a seal on soft wax, like a dye transforming a garment (vs 14). Vs 15 is an interesting metaphor – day-time withholds light from the wicked and breaks their uplifted arm.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the essential structure of Hebrew poetry and it’s basic form of the couplet – two successive lines (usually a single verse) where there is a parallelism of theme between the first and the second lines of the couplet. Sometimes the second line repeats the theme of the first (synonymous parallelism), sometimes it expresses to opposite idea (antithetical parallelism) sometimes it develops the first line further.
Vss 16-18 take us back into the sea. Whereas vss 8-11 dealt with setting the limits and bounds of the sea, these verse invite Job to ‘wander in the depths’, of the sea, of the experience of death, of the broad expanse of the earth.
Vss 19-20 invite Job to share his knowledge of the mysteries of light and darkness, where they come from, how they led out from, and back to, their home.
From vs 21 I take great comfort. A lovely Christian lady I know well – a truly good person – says that sarcasm has no place in a Christian’s life and mind. I can be very sarcastic, and I often feel guilty about it, and I suspect she is right. But here, in this verse, the Lord lays on the sarcasm with a trowel: perhaps there is hope for me yet?
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).
As a young student minister I got into a great deal of trouble over this verse. I refused to say to some forceful questioners in my congregation that ALL Buddhists and ALL Muslims were destined for Hell. I quoted this passage in my defence, arguing that even St Paul was willing to admit that conscience might excuse someone who had never heard the name of Jesus or studied his teaching. At the very least, I wanted to leave the decision to the Lord himself as to whether any of those billions of people might be allowed into heaven. I didn’t feel it was really appropriate for me to declare what the Lord should or should not do! Alas, my questioners formed the definite view that I was utterly unfit for the Christian ministry and I went into the final Baptist Assembly vote to approve my ordination unsure whether there would be a dissenting speech in the Assembly exposing my snivelling weakness on this vital theological point!
Saturday, June 6, 2020: Psalm 8; Job 38:22-38; Romans 2.17-29
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Ah, the glories of Job. By now, the Lord is on a roll! He asks Job about the storehouses of the snow and the hail (vs 22) and how the light is distributed (vs 24).
Vss 25-27 ask about the mechanics of rain and the thunderbolt, and God’s profligacy in sending rain into the desert where no-one lives (vs 26), to satisfy the waste and desolate land (vs 27). Here is an important point for the theology of the environment – God’s ways care for the waste and desolate lands, not just the ones that human beings value and live from!
Vss 28-30 ask Job more about the mysteries of the rain, the frost and the ice on mid-winter waters. Vs 28 runs directly counter to the theology of the fertility gods where the rain is precisely understood as the blessing and ‘seed’ of a ‘fatherly’ heavenly being.
With dizzying rapidity, vss 31-33 then take Job into the heights of the heavens and asks whether he can order the constellations of the stars, or establish their rule on the earth, a reference to the idea that the stars govern our lives and destinies (still with us as the practice of astrology).
Vss 34-38 are somewhat more complex. The opening line asks if Job can command the clouds (lift up your voice to the clouds) to send down a flood. Can he send forth lightning (with the rather charming detail of the thunderbolts lining up and saying to Job ‘Here we are’)? With another lightning fast (ba-boom!) transition, the Lord takes him into the intricacies of the mind and human wisdom and consciousness.
Vs 37 is delightful: the Lord weaves together the speaking to the clouds and flooding rains motifs of vs 34 with the mind and wisdom motifs of vs 36: Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? / Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
In this whole passage (vss 22-38) the Lord has lifted up Job’s eyes to the snow and the hail and the rain, and the mystery of light, and then the stars and the constellations and back to the clouds and the lightning and the mysteries of the human mind – and can that mind do something as ‘simple’ as even numbering the clouds?
This beautiful synthesis of all this mysterious natural wonder at work in the weather (that the Lord is making plain Job doesn’t have a clue about) then congeals around Job’s feet:-
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together? (vs 38)
Romans 2.17-29 addresses directly those who pride themselves on their Jewish heritage and value their relationship to God and to the law. It falls into two main parts.
Vss 17-24 stresses the law. Vss 17-20 tease out the self-understanding of the skilled practitioner of the law. The hinge of the argument is vs 21 – you that teach others, will you not teach yourself? The assumption of vss 21b to 23 is that a teacher is a hypocrite, committing the sins against which he is teaching. Here Paul is re-asserting the point of vs 13 – that it is not the hearing (or the teaching!) of the law which matters, but the doing of the law. Commentator Brendan Byrne says of this passage:-
Within an established rhetorical pattern, he is attempting to drive home the point that possession of the law has not prevented Jews from failing to abide by its key moral precepts as formulated in the Decalogue (Byrne, 1996, 98)
The passage ends with the statement that such failure to perform the doing of the law leads to the Gentiles blaspheming the name God because of you (vs 24).
Vss 25-29 deal not with ‘the law’ as such but with circumcision, the sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. Again, the contrast is made between circumcision being not an outward sign but something embodied in the keeping of the law. The clearest statement of Paul’s thesis is vs 27 where the physically uncircumcised who keep the requirements of the law will condemn you that have both the written code and circumcision but break the law.
The possessing of the law, and the status of the circumcised, mean nothing in the eyes of God: what matters is the doing of the law. In the final verse Paul redefines Jewish identity as matter of the heart, an inward, spiritual reality.
Monday, May 25, 2020: Psalm 99; Leviticus 9:1-11, 22-24; 1 Peter 4:1-6
Psalm 99 is one of the Psalms that affirm ‘Yahweh is King’ (Ps 96-99) but is slightly different to Ps 96-98. Here Yahweh is not presented as the King of all the nations (Ps 96, 99) or the King of Creation (Ps 97) but as the King of Zion (vs 2), enthroned on the Cherubim (vs 1), which either refer to the figures atop the Ark of the Covenant OR as a metaphorical reference to thunderclouds. The whole Psalm seems to be anchored in the story of Israel, the origins and traditions of the priests and the cult of the Temple.
In determining the structure of the Psalm some commentators ‘cut it up’ into 1-3 / 4 / 5 / 6-9.
Vss 1-3 are a cry of homage and call to praise. Note that the holiness of God forms almost a refrain with its repetition in vss 3b, 5c, 9c. This would fit well with this structure, especially if vss 4 and 5 are linked.
Vs 4 (Mighty King – or a King’s strength) is a reference to military power (‘The Lord of Hosts’) but is immediately links this power with the establishment of justice and equity. Vs 5 takes up the call to praise again but anchors that praise at his footstool – a reference to the Temple? So the mentions of Zion (vs 2) the cherubim (vs 1) and the footstool (vs 5) seem to locate the focus of this Psalm within the Jerusalem cult.
Vss 6-9 would confirm this with the mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel all of whom not only held priestly office but ‘talked with God’ (vs 6). The mention of the pillar of cloud in the context of obedience to laws and statutes could be reference to the early Exodus tradition of the Wilderness, or to the Leviticus and Numbers passages in the readings for today and tomorrow.
Vs 9 concludes with the return of the holy is he theme and a final call to extol the Lord and worship at his holy mountain (conflating Sinai with Zion).
The Leviticus 9 readings tells of the inauguration of the Priesthood of Aaron. Vss 1-4 describe the offerings to be brought. Vss 6-7 describe the instructions and rationale for these events given by Moses.
Vss 8-11 describe the process of sacrifice and vss 22-24 describe the consequences of the sacrifice when a spectacular ‘fire come out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering’, greatly impressing the people (vs 24b). Note however the tension between vss 24a and 10. Were there 1 or 2 fires described in this passage?
1 Peter 4 – takes up again the recurring theme of suffering, and calls upon the readers to live a holy life that will surprise the Gentiles among whom they live out the particular ethic and lifestyle of the people of God. This will be a form of witness to the citizens among whom they live, who must also be judged by God. Vs 6 presents a reason that the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead (vs 6) – a doctrine associated with the descent of Jesus into Hell between his own death and Resurrection, a doctrine also grounded in 1 Peter 3.19.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020: Psalm 99; Numbers 16:41-50; 1 Peter 4:7-11
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Numbers 16.41-50 follows on from the judgement of the Korahite rebellion (vss 1-40). Reading that story gives the background to this interchange. The legitimacy of Moses and Aaron was being challenged (again!) and the Lord validated their ministry through the appearance of the cloud and the glory of the Lord on the Tent of Meeting, the plague that spread through the people and Aaron’s power to stop the plague by making atonement for the people. Note the similarities between their situation and ours – both the contested nature of actions to stop plague and the use of death tolls (vs 49) to measure the impact of such an event.
This text is related to the Psalm through the connection with Moses and Aaron and their role as priests which is referenced in vs 6 of Ps 99.
1 Peter 4.7-11 is very eschatological in tone (the end of all things is near vs 7 ) and calls the readers to a life of discipline, love, hospitality and service. Vs 11 speaks of the presence of God in our words and in our service, to the end that God may be glorified in all things.
Wednesday, May 27, 2020: Psalm 99; 1 Kings 8:54-65; John 3:31-36
For the Psalm, see Monday.
1 Kings 8 tells of the dedication of the Temple following its construction by Solomon. The Psalm (99) is clearly in the tradition of Temple worship and here we have the dedication of the Temple, the affirmation that the Lord is with his people (vss 56-57), the exhortation to obedience (vs 58) and devotion (vs 61) and the great festival of sacrifice (described in vss 62-65).
Why this focus on the Temple? This is the week between Ascension (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday). During this period Luke tells us they were continually in the temple blessing God (Lk 24.53). In the Acts depiction of the mission of the church and the growing proclamation of the gospel, it all spreads out from Jerusalem with the temple at its centre. That is why, just for a few days, we have been taken back into the heart of the Old Testament Temple.
The gospel of John presents us today with five verses (3.31-36) that are very typical of the themes running right through John: the life (or the birth) that comes from above (vs 31), the contrasts of earth and heaven, the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit (vss 34-35), the concept of testimony (vss 32-33) and eternal life (vs 36). What is intriguing is that these words are not Jesus speaking, nor John the Baptist (whose voice is quoted in vss 27-30) but commentary (teaching) from John. Again, the one who comes down from heaven is the one who has just ascended into heaven, so this reading is again placed in the short ten-day season between Ascension and Pentecost.
Thursday, May 28, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 19:1-9a; Acts 2:1-11
In the reading from Psalm 33 we again have around half of the Psalm (vss 12-22). The opening 11 verses contain a call to praise (vss 1-3), a declaration of the truth, justice and goodness of the Lord (vss 4-5). Then there is a presentation of the creative word of the Lord and its relation to the whole created order (vss 6-7, 9) and to the fates of nations within history (vss 8, 10). Vs 11 brings this section to a close with an affirmation of the Lord’s counsel standing for ever.
Our reading starts in vs 12 which, after the cosmic and historical scope of the first part of the psalm, particularises the focus on the people of Israel– Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord… Vss 13-15 develop the theme that God is not only the Lord of creation and the Lord of history, but is personally involved in seeing, watching and fashioning the hearts of all human beings. In consequence of all this, human power in political and military forms is ultimately futile (vss 16-17).
True security is found in trusting the one whose eye is upon us (vs 18) and who can deliver us from death (vs 19). The closing three verses (vss 20-22) express the devotion, patience, hope and joy that comes to those who trust in God.
Exodus 19 nears the climax of the journey of the people of Israel as they arrive at the holy mountain of Sinai. In chapter 20 the Ten Commandments are given. But here the voice of the Lord calls to Moses from the mountain (vss 3-6) telling of their deliverance and calling them to obedience and holiness.
The response of the people follows (vs 7-8) and again, as in so many of the OT readings this week the Lord has appeared in either fire or cloud, his presence is signified in a dense cloud (cf. and a cloud took him out of their sight in the Ascension – Acts 1.9)
Acts 2 anticipates the readings for Sunday, the Day of Pentecost (fifty days after Easter). This passage is so well known, opening with a description of the gathering all together in one place (vs 1), supernatural signs of a great sound like wind (vs 2), divided tongues as of fire resting upon each of them (vs 3) and the miraculous gift of speech in other languages (vs 4).
Note that all those who heard were devout Jews (vs 5), both Jews and proselytes (vs 10) from across the ancient near east, and even the Mediterranean world (the list of nations in vss 9-11). The Pentecost event was still confined to the Jewish world and had not yet crossed into Gentile cultures.
Friday, May 29, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 19:16-25; Romans 8:14-17
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 19.16-25 is one of those dramatic OT texts with wonderful special effects! Again the motif of smoke, fire and cloud threads through the OT readings for this week. It is the background to the NT passage of Hebrews 12.18-24. The emphasis is on the holiness of God, the danger that comes from associating with such holiness and the proper fear than holiness evokes in sinful human beings. The language is interesting in that the people are warned not to break through towards the Lord (vss 21, 24) lest the Lord break out against them (vss 22, 24).
Romans 8.14-17 is a mirror and contrast to the Exodus passage above. Just as the children of Israel trembled before God and shrank back from the smoke and fire of the holy mountain, we are the children of God (vs 14) but not as slaves who fear – we have been adopted through the spirit (vs 15) which makes us heirs with Christ and partners in both his suffering and his glory (vs 17).
Saturday, May 30, 2020: Psalm 33:12-22; Exodus 20:1-21; Matthew 5:1-12
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 20.1-21 now brings us to the giving of the Ten Commandments. The chapter opens with Then God spoke all these words… Looking back to the end of chapter 19 we see that God had called Moses and Aaron to him on the mountain. The next 12 chapters are the giving of laws and rules and commandments by God, with some narrative interruptions (e.g. the fear of the people and dialogue with Moses (20. 18-21); the Lord calling a different group of leaders to ascend the mountain (24.1-11)).
The Ten Commandments are well known. What is not quite so well known is that the first commandment is the proscription of idolatry (you shall have no other gods before me – vs 2). The second commandment, even though it mentions the word idol, is actually the prohibition of the making of images of anything in the sky, on the earth or under the sea. Vss 5-6 can be read as related to both Commandments 1 and 2 and offer a blessing for those who observe them.
This antipathy to images has entered deeply into Jewish (and Islamic) cultures. There are many great Jewish composers, writers and philosophers, but not many great artists and sculptors. Within the Christian worship tradition (apart from some iconoclastic movements) and in Western art there has been a far stronger embrace of image-making and sculpture, probably reflecting the Greek and Roman culture that came in when Gentiles were accepted into the church and were exempted from keeping the law.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) echo for Christians the tables of the law. While there are nine Beatitudes or announcements of blessing (rather than ten), their focus is not moral principles, but promises of good things to various categories of persons. The first three are addressed to the poor, those who mourn and the meek – each with a promised blessing! The next four are addressed to those with positive moral character (those seeking righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers) all of whom are promised blessing or reward. The last two are almost repetitive and promise reward to those persecuted, reviled and falsely accused on my account (vs 11).
The readings here contrast the fundamental frameworks of principle in the teaching of Moses and of Jesus. As we stand on the eve of Pentecost, when the Christian Church burst upon the scene among the great cosmopolitan Jewish crowd in Jerusalem, we read and pray over these two contrasting frameworks to give us the context of why tomorrow’s events are so significant.
Monday, May 18, 2020: Psalm 93; Genesis 9:8-17; Acts 27:39-44
Psalm 93 is about ‘the kingship of Yahweh’. Scholars have placed this Psalm in three different contexts: the first was a ‘festival of the enthronement of Yahweh’ (i.e. ‘the Lord is King’ in the sense of ‘the Lord is becoming King’). A second view (held by a small minority of scholars) holds that it is an eschatological Psalm about the enthronement of the Lord at the end of time. A third view (and one that I think is most persuasive) sees this as a Psalm associated with the Feast of Tabernacles (the Jewish autumn festival) in which the abiding Kingship of Yahweh (The Lord) from the earliest times, a kingship grounded in the act of Creation and the stability of the natural realm, is celebrated and reaffirmed.
This Psalm is set for the whole week, and the reason for this can be seen on Thursday, the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord – which celebrates Jesus’ Ascension to his role of kingly power at the right hand of the Father.
Within the context of the ancient Near East, in many cultures, there were two forms in which the chaos that threatened the fundamental stability of the universe was manifested: earthquakes and out of control waters – either in the sea (the primal source of chaos in early Jewish myth) or in great floods (cf Genesis 7-8). Here in this Psalm, the Lord is praised as the one who has overcome these twin threats: indeed, the world is established, firm and secure (vs 1c) and
mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea –
the Lord on high is mighty. (vs 4)
For those who are keen surfers, or know the Australian coastline very well, there is a lovely poetic note in vss 3 and 4. My father, a sea captain who had learned to read the behaviour of the sea as a key professional skill, once pointed out to me that you will usually only ever see a maximum of three white-topped waves cresting or breaking on any Aussie beach. Behind them will be smooth swells still building up, in front of them the foam of the waves that have broken, but usually only two or three waves with white crests in the process of breaking. Good artists know this, but you can spot a poor beach painting by too many waves!
The Psalmist also knew this, and the threefold, repeated structure of both vs 3 (the floods have lifted up, O Lord /the floods have lifted up their voice/ the floods lift up their roaring) is describing the waves crashing on the beach and mirrors them in form, as does vs 4 (above) which is the three-fold assurance of God’s dominion even over the chaos of the mighty sea. It is supremely poetic, bringing together the sight and the sound of waves crashing on a beach into the very structure of the language.
Vs 5 affirms Your decrees are very sure (vs 5a) which cleverly suggests both the Lord’s commands which ordained the Creation, and his commands to humankind in the law, before affirming that holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore (vs 5b).
In its calm assurance of the stability of nature and the conquering of chaos, this Psalm spoke to the fears and anxieties of ancient peoples. In our age, when the fragility of nature and its devastation (through human activity driving increasing climate instability) is known to us, can we sing this Psalm in quite the same way as the ancients? How is our faith in the Lord’s decrees that govern nature expressed, when we have risen in rebellion and caused the chaos that now threatens us?
Tuesday, May 19, 2020: Psalm 93; Deuteronomy 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:8-12
For the Psalm, see Monday.
The book of Deuteronomy (from Latin for ‘the Second Law Book’) might be associated with the ‘rediscovery’ of the law by Hilkiah in the reign of Josiah and the resulting religious reform (2 Kings 22.2-20). Whatever its origin, it has a distinctive form in which Moses ‘narrates’ to the people of God their story and recalls them to obedience and faithfulness. If it were a movie we would call it a sequel, even though it covers much the same story as Exodus.
This passage (5.22-33) reflects that overall structure. The key to understanding this passage (and Deuteronomy as a whole) is to remember at all times who is speaking, and to whom they are speaking. So much of the narrative is actually re-narration, set in the past tense. When the voices from the past are quoted (as in vss 24-27) the language moves into the present tense, only to return to the past tense when the re-narration resumes. Occasionally we hear hortatory speech or commandments that are directed to the current reader in the present tense. Thus vss 32-33. It is vital to distinguish who are the speakers and listeners, and whether a present tense passage is reportage of an older strand of the narrative (such as vss 24-26 in this passage) or teaching addressed to the current readership (as in vss 32-33).
1 Peter 3.8-12 is the immediate precursor of the passage on which we reflected in yesterday’s worship service. As discussed there, 1 Peter is addressed to a community that is marginal to the mainstream of their society, perhaps a group of migrant workers or refugees, striving to find a place in a new land. Vs 8 is addressed to relations within their migrant community which will be strengthened through unity, sympathy, love and humility. Vs 9 reflects the relationship of oppression from the surrounding society, and their need to not retaliate. Vs 9b is interesting in this context of social marginality: It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. So much of the ‘calling’ of the migrant or the refugee is about what will be received in the future – finding acceptance, peace and prosperity. Such promises as these are not abstract and solely spiritual. To the people addressed in 1 Peter such a promise is tangible, very real and greatly encouraging.
Vss 10-12 are an exhortation to good living drawn from Psalm 34.12-16a.
Wednesday, May 20, 2020: Psalm 93; Deuteronomy 31:1-13; John 16:16-24
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Deuteronomy 31 includes the end of Moses long speech to the children of Israel. There are three main themes in successive sections of this passage following an introductory statement that expresses that Moses’ time of leadership is ending (vss1-2).
Vss 3-6: From recounting the events of the past, Moses moves to a predictive mode, speaking of what will happen ‘in the future’ (from the perspective of the narrative – but probably already in the past for the first hearers of this text). The success of the possession of the land is predicted and the people exhorted to be strong, bold and courageous.
Vss 7-8: Moses commissions Joshua as his successor (cf. Deut 31.23 where the Lord commissions Joshua and also Joshua 1).
Vss 9-13: A summary of the transmission of the law, from Moses to the sons of Levi (the priests), the Ark of the Covenant and the elders of Israel (vs 9) and how the law is to be commemorated and taught to the people (vss 11-13).
John 16.16-24 is part of the long 4-chapter passage from John 13-17 in which Jesus gives extensive teaching to the disciples. It is in didactic style with Jesus repeating the point in different ways. There are some themes woven through the long dialogue of these chapters including the leaving / returning and sorrow / joy.
Vss 23-24 (… ask anything of the Father in my name…) has been a difficult and problematic text that (in my opinion) has caused much misunderstanding about prayer and led to great difficulties for some Christians. There is a range of similar texts across the gospels (e.g. Mk 11.24, Mt 18.19, Mt 21.22, Jn 14.13-14 and here). A full exploration of the issues is beyond the scope of these notes, but I do point out that in this text Jesus says that on that day you will ask nothing of me (vs 23a emphasis added) and Until now you have not asked for anything in my name… (vs 24a). Given the parallel construction of these two verses contrasting not asking (in the first part of each verse) with asking and receiving (in the second part of each verse), this passage should not be treated as a straightforward guarantee that some kind of verbal formula (..ask in my name …) will always lead to prayer being granted.
Thursday, May 21, 2020: Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Acts Chapter 1 is a key passage in the New Testament. It endeavours to ‘bridge the narrative gap’ between the life and death of Jesus (told in the four gospels) and the beginning of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2). Vss 1-11 can be broken into parts thus:
Vss 1-2 makes clear the linkage between the gospel of Luke and Acts (read Luke 1.1-4 alongside Acts 1.1-2 to see the obvious connection between the two books).
Vss 3-5 summarise what happened after the Resurrection. Note especially the elegant structure of 4b-5 in which Jesus in a single statement links John the Baptist’s teaching and ministry with Jesus’ own ministry and practice and the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit.
Vss 6-11 describe the Ascension (cf. Luke 24.50-53). Matthew’s gospel also ends with Jesus and the disciples on a mountain but there is no mention of Ascension, but rather the commissioning of the disciples (Mt 28.16-20). The Ascension is therefore a distinctively Lucan theme and it has passed into Christian theology and into Western art.
Vs 8 holds the key to the narrative structure of Acts: the story of the church as told in Acts unfolds in exactly the way Jesus describes as the Apostles bear witness to him in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The Ephesians reading (1.15-23) is included today because of the wonderful and high Christology of verses 20-23. These verses are the cosmic outworking of the Ascension of Christ: God has exalted Jesus far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come (vs 21). This immeasurable greatness of his power is for us who believe (vs 19) and the church finds it proper place in this new cosmic order as his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (vs 23).
This passage is a closely structured foundation for some of the later and much-loved passages in Ephesians about the cosmic role of the church (2.15, 2.19-22, 3.9-10) and her spiritual battle (6.10-17).
Luke 24.44-53 is the conclusion to Luke’s gospel, included today for the description of the Ascension in vs 51.
Vss 44-47 summarise the meaning of Jesus life, teaching and death using words very reminiscent of the Emmaus Road story earlier in the chapter (while I was with you / opened their minds to understand the scriptures/ thus it is written.
Beginning at vs 47 are a series of statements that become foundational for the work of the church as depicted in the book of Acts:
- The work of the church beginning from Jerusalem (vs 47)
- You are witnesses of these things (vs 48)
- The promise of the Spirit (what my Father promised / clothed with power from on high) (vs 49)
- The centrality of the Temple to the early church in Luke’s telling of the story (and they were continually in the temple blessing God – vs 53).
Friday, May 22, 2020: Psalm 93; 2 Kings 2:1-12; Ephesians 2:1-7
For the Psalm, see Monday.
2 Kings 2.1-12 tells the story of the succession from Elijah to Elisha, probably included because of the ascension of Elijah in a whirlwind after a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them in vs 11. It’s a lovely story because of the devotion and commitment of Elisha, and the thrice repeated pattern of Stay here / I will not leave you, on each occasion with a ‘company of prophets’ to act as a Greek chorus!
The company of prophets is attested in this time of Israel’s history. Sometimes translated a band of prophets or a school of prophets it seems to have been a kind of religious collective with a social function around ‘prophecy’ (whatever the content of that term meant in the early days of ‘prophecy’) and possible service to ‘the community’ (see 2 Kings 6). We don’t know very much about them as their work appears to be related to diverse towns and places rather than the centre of worship, scholarship, learning and chronicle writing (!) in the temple at Jerusalem.
The role of Elijah’s mantle (vs 8) as the tool that parted the Jordan (evoking the crossing of the Red sea and the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the people) is established.
Ephesians 2.1-7 follows on directly from yesterday’s reading. The climax is in vss 6-7 in which it is stated that we too have been raised up and seated with him in the heavenly places. The passage begins with our ‘dead’ state under the ruler of the power of the air (vs 2 – again note the framing of the cosmic powers that is so much a feature of Ephesians). The decisive action of deliverance is described in vss 4 -5 leading to the exalted outcome of vss 5-6.
Saturday, May 23, 2020: Psalm 93; 2 Kings 2:13-15; John 8:21-30
For the Psalm, see Monday.
In 2 Kings 2:13-15 Elisha retraces the steps of his master and re-enacts the crossing of the Jordan. Note that that Elijah’s mantle is not technically passed but has fallen and is taken up (vs 14a). This has not stopped ‘the passing of the mantle’ becoming a metaphor for the (usually friendly) act of succession in the English language!
Ascension and succession (complete with the mention of a succession of ‘spirit’ in vs 15) are the themes of this chapter of second Kings – themes also appropriate to the Christian festivals of both Ascension and Pentecost (May 31st this year).
John 8.21-30 presents a prediction of his death by Jesus. It includes some of the recurring themes of Jesus teach as presented in John’s gospel (I am going away / you cannot come; I am not of this world; Jesus’ relationship with the Father; many believing in him).
The ‘I am going away / you cannot come’ motif probably reflects aspects of the gnostic worldview common around the turn of the first century. In this worldview there was a gradual and stepped series of ‘emanations’ linking the earthly and spiritual realms. In contrast, Jesus stresses i) a coming radical separation between himself and his followers, and ii) his complete union with the Father.
Sometimes we can struggle to see the logic of the Lectionary in the texts chosen for each day. This week the logic is fairly clear. The first half of the week is built around Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, with related texts around trust, wisdom, truth and freedom – and an historical ‘anchor’ describing the liberation from Egypt as a counterpoint to Stephen’s treatment of the same theme in Acts. The passages for the second half of the week focus on the shipwreck of Paul and his companions in Acts 27 and the corresponding narrative of Noah and the Ark from Genesis chapters 6, 7 and 8.
Monday, May 11, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Exodus 13:17-22; Acts 7:17-40
Psalm 102.1-17 is a little over half of the Psalm (28 verses in the whole). For those familiar with Bible Chef podcast 2, the text of this Psalm has been ‘cut-up’ very differently by various commentators (that is, they analyse the structure in very different ways). There are elements of individual lament, communal hymn and even some elements of prophecy! How has all this come together? One scholar has referred to the ‘unusually misshapen structure’ of the Psalm. Another explains it thus:
“We have here an eloquent witness for the manner in which ancient prayers, originally written as an individual’s lament about sickness, have in later times been read. The words, contrary to the meaning that was obvious to the eyes, were applied to the all-important concern of that later time, to the longings of the people uprooted from their homeland.” (H. Schmidt)
At issue in the Psalm are the two layers of ‘individual petition’ (the song of an individual person) and the ‘communal hymn’ (the liturgical expression of the gathered community). This tension is seen in modern hymnody in the distinction between what in German are called ‘ich lieder’ and ‘wir lieder’: ‘I-songs’ and ‘we-songs’. ‘I songs’; are in the first person singular and ‘we-songs’ are in the plural. Some churches have ALL their songs in the I-song format (me! me! me! …) others are all about the shared affirmations that we make, and the shared praise that we offer (we! we! we! ….) There is a good case to be made that a healthy spirituality will have a balance of I-songs, we-songs and You-songs (hymns addressed to, or descriptive of, God)!
The Lectionary has simplified these issues for us by ‘peeling off’ the last 11 verses and giving us solely the first three sections of the Psalm. The ‘I-song’ predominates in vss 1-11 and the ‘we-song / you-song’ in vss 12-17. In the remainder of the Psalm these voices are more alternating or intermingled.
Vss 1-2: A formulaic address to God from an individual petitioner asking for help in a time of distress.
Vss 3-11: These verses are intensely personal and describe bodily experience of serious illness or old age and approaching death. Vss 6-7 evoke loneliness through bird metaphors. Some scholars quote similar references to birds from ancient Babylonian laments. In our own time these verses may evoke for some of us the imagery of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Like a bird on a wire’.
Vs 8 introduces the motif of ‘the enemy’. Throughout the Psalms we often find descriptions of personal pain and illness transitioning quickly to naming the role of enemies – in a way that is jarring to modern sensibilities. For us, illness is one thing, and conflict another. The world of the Psalms was very different. As we see in the book of Job, illness and misfortune were interpreted as the judgement of God for sin (a kind of reverse prosperity gospel). Job’s ‘friends’ gather around him to ‘suggest’ ways he might have sinned and call on him to repent. In times of illness a more aggressive probing of one’s character and actions would be done by ‘enemies’ – and these might simply be your pious neighbours who see God’s hand at work in everything.
In that ancient world, some scholars see another phenomenon familiar to us in the Australian indigenous belief in ‘pointing the bone’ – that magicians and cursing can cause mysterious illness and death.
The possible connection between our illnesses and those who don’t particularly like us, would occur to the ancient mind much more readily than to us. So completely have we separated personal feelings from our understanding of illness, that many people today feel a kind of personal moral failure if they express schadenfreude (or something stronger) when a person in authority who has denied, or obstructed responses to, a major health challenge like Covid-19 eventually gets the same disease. I suspect that the people who first worshipped with the Psalms would have had so such compunction: they would have dished it out in spades, relishing the irony and rejoicing in ‘the justice of the Lord’!
Vss 12-17: These verses describe the steadfastness of God (vs 12) and the hope of the future (vs 13-17) in terms much more redolent of the voice of the community. What is very interesting is that instead of recounting the great acts of God in the past (the usual further development of the affirmation expressed in v 12), this Psalm moves into a prophetic mode and confidently predicts the great acts of God in the future (vss 13, 15-17). This prophetic voice is not widespread in the Psalms. The context here would appear to be the time of Exile, indicated by vs 14 which affirms how much ‘your servants’ (note the plural and clear naming of the community) hold dear the rubble and dust of the destroyed city of Jerusalem (or Zion).
Exodus 13.17-22 tells of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the people in the Exodus. It is here as a counterpoint to Stephen’s preaching about Moses. A fascinating detail is vs 17 – that God did NOT lead them the short way through the land of the Philistines (today’s Gaza Strip) because of the danger of war. The route took them ‘the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea’ (18a) with the rather contradictory statement The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle (18b). Does this verse refer to an ancient and enduring antipathy between the Philistines (that is, the Palestinians – the modern form of the ancient name) and Israel that runs through the book of Judges, the time of David and Solomon and right through to modern times?
Acts 7.17-40: The death of Stephen was the reading for Sunday (yesterday), and today and tomorrow we have large swathes of Stephen’s long sermon that preceded it. A detailed comparison of the Exodus narrative and Stephen’s telling of the story reveals just how much Stephen was deconstructing or attacking the Jewish reading of their founding prophet: Stephen sees Moses as anointed from birth (he was beautiful before God vs 20); Stephen seems to affirm the wisdom of the Egyptians and notes that Moses was powerful (vs 22); Moses’ awareness of his role as deliverer predates the burning bush epiphany (vs 25) and Moses’ key identity to Stephen was as a resident alien in the land of Midian (vs 29 cf Stephen’s denial that the land was given to Abraham as his heritage (vs 5) and that Abraham too lived as a resident alien (vs 6). Stephen directly names both Abraham and Moses as resident aliens and implies as much for Jacob and Joseph (vss 9-16).
Stephen also frames the death of the infants in Egypt not as the command of Pharaoh to ‘all his people’ that all Hebrew baby boys be killed (Exodus 1.18-22), but that Pharaoh dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die (vs 19). Stephen lays the death of their sons directly at the door of the Israelites! He stresses over and over how the people of Israel rejected Moses, but how Moses prophesied that God would raise up a new prophet (vs 37) who Stephen identifies as Jesus.
Note too that Moses is not portrayed as the one who receives the law, but as the one who received living oracles to give to us (vs 38), a description more applicable to Moses as the forerunner of Jesus than Moses as the great founding law-giver of Israel.
This is hardly a neutral telling of the story of Israel, but a condemnation of Israel’s historical self-understanding.
- Tuesday, May 12, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Proverbs 3:5-12; Acts 7:44-56
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Proverbs 3.5-12 is a part of the Wisdom tradition (found mainly in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs). While not directly invoking Wisdom in personified form, these verses speak of the blessing that results from trusting and serving the Lord, accepting discipline and knowing that when we are disciplined, the Lord delights in us.
As a High School student vss 5-6 were very important to me. I would recite them to myself in every exam season with a slight amendment in vs 6: In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your pass. I happily sailed through all my school exams, but by the end of first year university I had been elected the Secretary of the Evangelical Union and I knew that this was a dishonest use of Scripture. So I stopped invoking it to myself every October – and promptly failed Economics 1 and just scraped through Pure Maths!
In Acts 7.44-56, Stephen, having already attacked the place of both Abraham and Moses in Israel’s history, decides to give the Temple the same treatment. He grounds the Temple in the ancient tent of testimony (itself an interesting concept) (vs 44) which is quickly traced through Joshua and David (as the tent) and then Solomon who built a house for him (vss 45-47). Stephen then demolishes the whole concept of ‘the house of God’ with the prophetic denunciation of vss 49-50. The tension between ‘the creator of heaven and earth’ then ‘living in a house made by human hands’ is recognised and negotiated by Solomon in the service of dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 6, see especially vs 18) but here Stephen invokes the prophets who voice God’s scorn for the Temple.
Having attacked Jewish understandings of Abraham and Moses, depicted Israel as perpetually faithless and disobedient, and then demolished the legitimacy of the Temple, Stephen closes by adopting the pastoral approach of John the Baptist (You brood of vipers! ….) and addresses his conclusion directly to ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit…’
Perhaps understandably, his listeners then took up stones and killed him.
What sort of person was Stephen? Where in the tradition of strong, denunciatory preaching from the ancient prophets through various figures in the history of the church shall we place him? He comes to our notice after a stoush between Jewish and Gentile factions in the early church, and then was at the centre of a Christian/Jewish dispute in the synagogue of the Freedmen (both in Acts chapter 6). By the end of chapter 7 he was dead – a brilliant, courageous, but perhaps inherently adversarial and controversial man. I have always found most of the Stephen’s (and the Stephanie’s) who I know to be peaceable, rational and calm people (as much as one can generalise). Perhaps they are all still recovering from the spirit of their namesake!
- Wednesday, May 13, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Proverbs 3:13-18; John 8:31-38
For the Psalm, see Monday.
In Proverbs 3.13-18 (the continuation of yesterday’s reading) the framework of ‘trusting the Lord’ changes to a commitment to finding ‘wisdom’ which, from vs 14 on is personified in female form. In the Orthodox tradition in particular, this personified Wisdom is seen as a form of the Logos (the Word), is named by the Greek word for wisdom Sophia, and in some formulations would almost appear as a part of the Trinity. The imagery of vss 15-18 is both beautiful and powerful.
John 8.31-38 appears disconnected to anything else in the readings this week, until we recognise that it is a kind of ‘hinge’ between the Stephen themes of the previous few days (going back to last Thursday) and the emerging dramatic story of the shipwreck of Paul in Acts 27. Note too that Saturday brings John back again!
In this passage Jesus is teaching (or arguing with?) the Jews who had believed in him (vs 31). They claim freedom through being descendants of Abraham (cf. Stephen’s argument with the Jews), but Jesus seeks to ground freedom in the truth of the Son’s word (vss 32, 36).
- Thursday, May 14, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 6:5-22; Acts 27:1-12
The reading from Psalm 66 again presents us with a part of a Psalm. The first 7 verses have been ‘peeled away’, perhaps because they are in the form of a great hymn shared by the people in a public liturgical setting. Vss 8-12 are in the collective voice – a ‘we-song’ – expressing on behalf the people praise for God’s protection (vss 8-9) and describing the suffering that God’s testing (vs 10) has laid upon them in terms evoking imprisonment and heavy labour in Egypt (vs 11) and the miracle of the Exodus (vs 12).
In vss 13-20 we have a different voice – an individual singer (an “I-song”). Vss 13-15 are a declaration of personal commitment to sacrifice and 16-20 is a proclamation from the individual to the community of how God has delivered him. Note that the sacrifices described in vs 15 are extensive and would indicate the sacrifice offered by a very wealthy person.
In asking the question of how these two very thematically- and rhythmically- different halves of the Psalm (vss 1-12 and vss 13-20) came to be linked together one scholar puts the twinned message very succinctly: “Yahweh liberates his people” (vss 1-12) and “Yahweh helps an individual person” (vss 13-20). Isn’t that the heart of the gospel: that we proclaim not only what God has done for us (the community), but also what God has done for me (each individual)? I-songs and We-songs always belong together!
Genesis 6.5-22 commences the saga of Noah and the Ark which will be read over three days. It is placed in parallel with the shipwreck of Paul and his companions in Acts 27, read over two days (this week – one day next week). This parallelism is interesting: the ancient story of the judgement of the world and the saving of humanity through Noah, presented as a ‘type’ of the extended story of a shipwreck involving Paul and some sailors and soldiers. The people who juxtaposed these stories are suggesting that, just as humanity was saved and ‘recommenced’ through Noah and the Flood, so the world was ‘saved’ and begun again through the survival of Paul and his companions through the shipwreck.
Vss 11-13 seem to be a repeat of vss 5-8. Vs 11 is a new beginning but 11-13 conveys substantially the same information as 5-8. Note that the word used for God in vss 5-8 is the LORD (small capitals indicating the Hebrew word Yahweh) whereas vss 11-13 use ‘God’. These parallel accounts are from different sources and are arranged around a description of Noah and his family (vss 9-10).
Vs 18 introduces ‘my covenant with you’. There are various ‘covenants’ between God and God’s people. This Noahic Covenant is expressed in two passages – Genesis 8.20-22 from the source who uses the name ‘the LORD’, and Genesis 9.1-17 (in terms reminiscent of the Adamic Covenant of Genesis 3) by the source who uses the name ‘God’.
Acts 27 is one of my favourite Bible passages – perhaps because I like boats and sailing! The first thing to note is that it is an extended and detailed narrative. Luke-Acts is a two-volume work (read the opening verses of the two books). Both books have long and detailed narratives just prior to their conclusions (Luke – the Emmaus Road; Acts – the shipwreck) as a kind of narrative summary and climax to the books. Today’s passage is the introduction to the exciting narrative of the shipwreck. Julius the centurion (vs 1), and Paul’s prophetic advice of what will unfold (vs 9) are introduced. Julius is kind to Paul (vs 3), but disregards Paul’s crucial advice (vs 11) – and the stage is set!
- Friday, May 15, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 7:1-24; Acts 27:13-38
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Genesis 7 is one of the great epic passages of the Bible. The language and style is majestic: I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made (vs 4); …on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened (vs 11); then the LORD shut him in (vs 16).
Again, the name of God used is ‘the LORD’ – indicating a particular tradition of ancient Israel (in which God is always called ‘the LORD’). Chapter 7 almost follows on perfectly from chapter 6.5-8 (which comes from the same source).
Acts 27.13-38 is part of the main body of the shipwreck story. Full commentary on this wonderful passage is beyond our scope here, other than to note; the detailed descriptions of weather and geography (vss 13-15); the extensive and escalating attempts to save the ship which are consistent with marine practices (vss 16-20, 27-29, 38); and two interludes in which Paul encourages (vss 21-26) and directs his companions (vss 30-36). In the latter episode, the shared meal has all the signs of a Communion meal (vs 35).
- Saturday, May 16, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 8:13-19; John 14:27-29
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
The Genesis 8 passage does not follow on directly from yesterday’s narrative. Note that again the name of the Divine Being changes to ‘God’. The language is not so grand. It is clear that throughout Genesis 6, 7 and 8 the Noah story is woven together from two different sources who used different names for God.
Rather than giving us the ending of the shipwreck story (we have to wait until Monday!) the lectionary gives us John 14: 27-29: this passage has artful echoes of John 14.1-3 (Do not let your hearts be troubled / Jesus going away, with the associated theme of ‘in my Father’s house are many dwelling places’ – reminiscent of both Psalm 102 that opened the week which looked to God’s rebuilding of Jerusalem, and also last Sunday’s reading from 1 Peter about being built into a spiritual house). The passage also looks forward to John 20.19-23 with Jesus announcing the blessing of peace.