Deep Dive #2: Apocalypse and Eucalypts

In the second of our thought-provoking Deep Dives, join Assoc Professor Keith Dyer, New Testament lecturer at Whitley College and all round good bloke as he brings together an exploration of Revelation, AND environmental issues….. (Clearly one hefty topic wasn’t enough!) We’ll be joining together over Zoom on Wednesday morning to explore this topic together more, so just email if you want to get involved.

Daily Readings for the 20th Week after Pentecost

Monday, October 12, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 32:15-35; Jude 17-25
The Psalms for this week (97 and 99) are both what have been termed ‘royal psalms’ in that they celebrate the kingship of Yahweh. Some scholars have seen these psalms as part of a cultic event called the ‘enthronement of Yahweh’ associated with the ancient Jerusalem traditions of God as king. Others see the tone of Ps 97 as more eschatological – reaching beyond the cult of Jerusalem to reveal Yahweh to all humankind. These scholars see echoes of Second Isaiah in this psalm. Whatever its setting, it is a praise song about Yahweh’s kingship and is structured in 4 clear sections.

Vss 1-2  acclaim Yahweh as king (vs 1a) and calls the whole world to rejoice in this (vs 1b,1c). Vs 2 offer two aspects of Yahweh’s greatness: the cloudiness and darkness that surround him (aspects of the thunderstorm theophany described in vss 3-6) and the foundations of righteousness and justice that support the divine throne (vs 2b).

Vss 3-6 describe a theophany – an appearance or revelation of Yahweh and the divine power. Vs 3 describes the fire of God which consumes his enemies and vs 4 focuses on the lightning – the form of that fire revealed in the storm. Vs 4b ascribes the thunder to the quaking of the earth at the sight of his lightnings. Vs 5 moves from the power of the thunderstorm to the presence of Yahweh in volcanoes and eruptions. Vs 6 describe the righteousness of God seen in the heavens and the glory all people behold there.

Vss 7-9 then outline the impact of all this revealed glory and power on humankind. Vs 7 relates the impact on worshippers of idols and on lesser gods. Vs 8 brings the focus clearly on Jerusalem and Mt Zion and Judah, before vs 9 zooms out and declares Yahweh’s universal supremacy.

Vss 10-12 then explore how this mighty, cosmic God cares for and protects the righteous who are called in vs 12 to rejoice and praise him.

Exodus 32.15-35: Exodus 32-34 were probably structured into the Exodus narrative late in the transmission of the tradition. The overall structure appears to be that chapter 32 relates the breaking of the Covenant in the worship of the golden calf, and chapter 34 relates its restoration. Chapter 33 is a composite of material that provides a bridge between breaking and restoration of the Covenant.

The earliest version of the tradition in chapter 32 can be seen in vss 1-6, 15-20 and 35. If you were to read the whole chapter these verses present a straightforward narrative. Vss 7-14 introduce a dialogue between God and Moses on the mountain that prefigure the narrative of vss 15-20 and vss 21-34 reflect on the role of Aaron and his failure of leadership, and Moses’ reasserting control through the organised violence of the Levites  (vss 27-29) and the calculus of sin and forgiveness that characterises the Priestly rendering of Israel’s story (vss 21, 30-34).

Jude 17-25: The letter of Jude shows marked similarities with 2 Peter, especially 2 Peter Chapter 2. Scholars have argued whether there was a direct dependence where one was a source for the other (with no consensus as to which was primary), or whether both texts may have depended on a common sermon tradition in the early church against false teachers. It was probably written late in the first century, around 90 CE. The late date can be seen in the retrospective reference to remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (vs 17).

The passage set for today includes exhortation to vigilance against mockers (vs 17-19), faith, love and the hope of eternal life (vs 20-21), an exhortation to mercy towards non-christians (vss 22-23) and one of the best loved doxologies of the NT in vss 25-26.

Vss 22-23 are difficult to interpret, as indicated in the footnote. Are there three categories of sinners to be saved (as in this translation) or only two, as some translations have vs 23: save others with fear, snatching them from the fire, abhorring the very tunic spotted by the flesh.  The background to these verses would appear to be Zechariah 3.2, 3-5 which refer to the brand plucked from the fire and the wearing and taking off of filthy clothes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 33:1-6; Philippians 3:13-4:1
For the Psalm see Monday.

Exodus 33 is a difficult chapter to interpret. There is agreement that separate stories have been rather loosely collected, but just what meaning the final redactor was intending to convey through this collection is harder to fathom. All the stories in the chapter revolve around God’s presence.

Through the catastrophic failure of Israel in the worship of the golden calf, Yahweh had decided not to accompany the people on their journey any further (see chapter 32.34). The critical verse is 33.3 where God decides to withdraw his presence, to be substituted by an angel (vs 2). God’s promise is preserved (vs 1) but God’s presence is ended (vs 3).

Now the structure of the chapter becomes clear, because after the interactions around the tent of meeting (vss 7-11 – see Thursday) in vss 12-23 the Lord repents and agrees that he will continue with the Israel on the journey).

Philippians 3.14-4.1: All our NT readings this week are of a paranetic character (advice, instruction). Following the Jude reading yesterday, this passage urges a forward looking, dynamic understanding of faith as a work in progress, of continuing in faith and growth (vss 13-16).

Vs 17 introduces a key spiritual principle: that of imitating our teachers and elders. Vss 18-19 include warnings of false believers before the note of forward looking, eschatologically focussed faith emerges again in vss 20-21. Chapter 4.1 is a final call to stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020Psalm 97; 2 Kings 17:7-20; John 6:25-35
For the Psalm see Monday.

2 Kings 17.7-20: This is a leap from the story of the Exodus – but not such a leap as we might first think. Exodus 32.34b (see Monday) says Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin. This theology of sin-punishment-repentance is part of the Deuteronomic theology of Israel’s history. 

Here in this chapter we have just such a reading that looks back over Israel’s history with the same framework. In vs 10 we see the later failings of Israel in following the idols and religious symbols of Canaan, but vss 13-16 recount the past story, including they … made for themselves cast images of two calves (vs 16) which may be reference to the golden calf incident of Exodus 32.

Note that this comes from a time when Israel had split into Judah and the Northern Tribes (Israel – later Samaria) – see vss 18b-20). Just as Ex 32 had told of the sin of Israel, here in 2 Kings 17 the story is updated and reinforced!

John 6.25-35: Just as the Exodus narrative framed Israel’s experience through the ‘sin-punishment-repentance’ interpretation of Israel’s history, here Jesus takes the Exodus story and sees an abiding parable of grace and life, not sin and punishment. This encounter follows the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6.1-15) and Jesus walking on the water (vss 16-21) – both miracles suggestive of the Exodus narrative in the crossing of the sea and the sending of the manna. John explicitly invokes the example of the manna in the wilderness (vs 31 – placed on the lips of the crowds) only for Jesus to reinterpret the bread from heaven (vs 32) as the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (vs 33) before closing the interpretive chain and identifying himself: I am the bread of life (vs 35)

Thursday, October 15, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 33:7-11; 3 John 9-12
Psalm 99 is one of the Psalms that affirm ‘Yahweh is King’ (Ps 96-99) but is slightly different to Psalms 96, 97 & 98. Here Yahweh is not presented as the King of all the nations (Ps 96) or the King of Creation (Ps 97) but as the King of Zion (vs 2), enthroned on the Cherubim (vs 1), which either refers to the figures atop the Ark of the Covenant or 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 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 Leviticus and Numbers passages about the cloud.

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).

Exodus 33.7-11 introduces a very old tradition about ‘the tent of meeting’. The Tabernacle as described throughout the Pentateuch was an elaborate structure (see Exodus 25-26) at the centre of the camp (see Numbers 2.2) with an extended staff of Levitical priests (see Numbers 3.5-10). In this passage ‘the tent of meeting’ is erected outside the camp (vs 7) which in the OT is usually a place of impurity and exclusion. Here there is only one attendant – [Moses’] young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent (vs 11). It was a place where God met with Moses.

The Tabernacle held the Ark of the Covenant at its centre and was where God dwelled. In this passage, rather than residing in the Holy of Holies, the glory of God in the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent (vs 9). There is no mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the whole chapter.

In this fragment of an ancient tradition – some early precursor of the later elaborate cultic tent at the centre of Israel’s corporate life – we see some key elements of a national engagement that leads to the reversal of God’s decision to abandon Israel we read in vss 1-6. Moses, having been rejected in chapter 32 in the national apostasy, is here respected and revered as the people stand by the entrance to their tents whenever Moses goes to speak with God (vs 8). The pillar of cloud (vs 9) attends Moses showing the continuing presence of God (vs 9). Seeing the theophany of the pillar of cloud the people are moved to worship (vs 10). Vs 11 presents the intimacy and power of the Lord’s interaction with Moses: in all these narrative elements from a very ancient and simple tradition we can see the freshness and vitality that will lead to the remarkable re-negotiation of the relationship between the Lord and his people that follows in the rest this chapter, and the chapters that follow!

3 John 9-12: These four verses from one of the shortest books of the Bible lead us into a dispute in the early church. The focus is a dispute with a powerful figure in the church, Diotrephes, against whom two charges are laid: vss 9b & 10a -that he does not acknowledge the authority of ‘the elder’ (the writer of the letter – see vs 1); and vs 10b – that he refuses to welcome the friends and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. Diotrephes is clearly a powerful figure within the church. Is he an office-holder or leader, perhaps even a bishop? Whatever his power base he is opposed by ‘the elder’. The reference in vs 9 I have written something to the church… may be a reference to 1 John 2. In both letters there is reference to coming to you (2 John 12, 3 John 10).

In contrast is the witness to Demetrius, perhaps the bearer of the letter, who is trustworthy and true. Between these two different men and their actions stands the injunction to not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good vs 11.

Friday, October 16, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 31:1-11; 1 Peter 5:1-5
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 31.1-11: This is an interesting passage. We read on Monday and Tuesday of some of the difficulties of interpretation in Exodus 32, and on Thursday of Exodus 33.7-11, a very ancient tradition of ‘the tent of meeting’ which almost certainly predates the elaborate descriptions of the Tabernacle given elsewhere in Exodus. The design of the Tabernacle and its contents are described in Exodus chapters 25-35.11 (ending with today’s passage) in the context of the Lord giving detailed instructions to Moses on the Mountain at Sinai. Vss 12-18 (the remainder of chapter 31) are a re-statement of the Sabbath law. 

In chapter 35 we have another restatement of the sabbath law (vss 1-3) and then the detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle from 35.4 through to Exodus 39. The form largely recapitulates the earlier chapters 25-35 but sometimes in changed order. In between are the crucial chapters of 32, 33 & 34 discussed above.

The treatment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur and of Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan is paralled in both Ex 31.1-11 (today’s passage) and Exodus 35.50-36.7. The name Bezalel means ‘in the shadow of God (El)’ and Oholiab means ‘the divine father is my tent’. There are similar ancient near-eastern names associating various divinities with tents reflecting a widespread background of tent shrines. The skill of these men is attributed to being filled … with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft (vs 3). 

This passage contributes to a biblical view of aesthetics and art but it also reflects the layering of a decorative and complex symbolic architecture over the more ancient and simple traditions of ‘the tent of meeting’. Part of the work of the authors of Exodus is to relate these traditions to each other, something that can be seen clearly in the detail of Exodus 40 where both terms (the Tabernacle / the tent of meeting) are used throughout the chapter either alternately or in combination.

1 Peter 5:1-5: This passage addresses a word to ‘the elders’ of the congregation and those who are younger. By the time of 1 Peter was written the ‘offices’ of ministry were beginning to take shape. Elders (or Presbyters) were one form of authority, as were Bishops or Overseers (episkopos). We can see in vs 2 that part of the role of these ‘elders’ was exercising the oversight – but note the question-mark over the text in the footnote: was the exact shape of leadership and the roles of ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ (Bishop) still evolving?  Vss 1-5 are wise advice for anyone exercising leadership within a Christian community. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 39:32-43; Matthew 14:1-12
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 39.32-43: As we noted yesterday, there are two large blocks of material detailing the Tabernacle in Exodus: chapters 25-31 describing its design and chapters 35-39 describing its construction. Just as yesterday we read part of the last chapter of the first block of this material, today we read the last passage of the second block of this material. In this final summary of the structure you can see its complexity and grandeur, and sense its symbolism.

However, personally I long for the majesty and power of the description of ‘the tent of meeting’ of Ex 33.7-11 (see Thursday) and the simple dignity of the wandering tribesmen standing to honour Moses at the door of their tents as he went to meet with the Lord in the pillar of cloud and talk with him face to face.

Matthew 14.1-12: The fate of John the Baptist prefigures that of Jesus. This made very clear in the earliest strand of the gospel in Mark, where the author places the beheading between the sending out of the twelve disciples on mission (Mark 6.7-13) and their return with reports of what they had done (Mark 6.30-32). Matthew has simplified Mark’s account and changed some elements. Whereas Mark tells us that Herod feared John … and protected him (Mk 6.20) and attributed the desire to kill John to Herodias, Matthew says Herod wanted to put him to death (vs 5).

Luke’s gospel includes a long passage of John sending messengers to Jesus (Lk 7.18-35) but his treatment of this story omits the details of John’s execution, but has a reflective question from Herod about John’s death and Jesus’ ministry: ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ (Luke 9.7-9).

Deep Dives #1: Toppling Statues

This week Box Hill Baptist starts a new weekly series, taking some deep dives into complex social, spiritual and environmental issues. Our first features Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison who is in discussion with Pastor Jim Barr on the topic of ‘Toppling statues’, and their perspectives on this global protest phenomenon.

Next week (7/10/2020) we’ll be running a Zoom webinar where you can join in questions and conversation with Graeme and Jim to take this even further. Just email and we’ll get you the information you need to join in.

Daily readings for the 18th Week after Pentecost

Monday, September 28, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:1-12; Philippians 1:3-14

Psalm 42 actually forms a unit with Psalm 43. This can be seen from the identical refrain which appears in 42.5, 42.11 and 43.5. Seeing that refrain gives us a guide to the structure of this three strophe Psalm. Today we look at the first two strophes. It is a beautifully poetic Psalm that has inspired devotion and been the stimulus for many hymns and Christian songs.

It is a prayer song. However, it is not until 42.9b and especially 43.1 in the third strophe that we can see the cause of the singer’s suffering. Psalm 42 expresses the brokenness, sadness and longing of the singer. The refrain is an exhortation to quieten oneself, to address one’s spirit with a call to patience and hope.

The location of the singer would seem to be the headwaters of the Jordan (vs 6) which may also inform the longing for flowing streams (vs 1) and the remembrance of thundering waterfalls (vs 7a) and either the sea or a raging inland flood (vs 7b). Vs 4 remembers the good times of attending worship in the house of God (literally, the archaic word for tabernacle) so it is clear that the singer is at a distance from Jerusalem.

Vss 7-10 speak not so much of distance and loneliness as of deep sadness (vs 7) and possibly illness (vs 10). My enemies taunt me is reminiscent of Job in his suffering. In the midst of this suffering vs 8 sings of assurance and peace.

This is a powerful and much-loved psalm that has encouraged and sustained many in times of suffering and spiritual drought. It is one to which we can return over and over for renewal and peace.

Exodus 18.1-12: This passage brings Moses back together with his father in law, Jethro, the priest of Midian (vs 1), and his family – wife Zipporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer (vss 3-4). The text has been silent to this point on Moses sending his wife and sons away (vs 2). When they are all reunited (vss 5-7) Moses tells what the Lord has done (vs 8). Jethro acknowledges the Lord and offers sacrifice (vss 9-11). Vs 12 suggests that Jethro has assumed some status in the eyes of all Israel because Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God. This sets the scene for the next part of the Jethro cycle.

Philippians 1.3-4 comprises the thanksgiving and greeting for the church at Philippi (vss 3-10).  Vs 7a includes one of the lovely ambiguities of the New Testament Greek text. The words for ‘your’ and ‘our’ in Greek are even more alike than in English: the letters are the same and the only difference is a small apostrophe (or breathing mark) over the first letter, leaning one way for ‘our’ and the other way for ‘your’. In the days of hand-written letters who can be sure which way an apostrophe is leaning? Is the writer ‘holding’ them in his heart? Or are they holding him in their hearts? We don’t know – and it doesn’t matter! In the church we should always be holding each other in our hearts and confident that we are held, even as we hold others in remembrance and love.

Vs 7b introduces two linked themes: my imprisonment and the defense and confirmation of the gospel. The relationship between these two is then explored further in vss 12-14.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:13-27; Philippians 1:15-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 18.13-27: This is a very significant passage. Jethro observes Moses sitting as judge for the people (vs 13) and then offers both a critique of Moses’ practice (vss 14-18) and a suggested new way of judging (vss 19-23). Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and institutes his suggestions (vss 24-26). After these changes have been established Jethro departs to his own country (vs 27).

The significance of the passage from a theological perspective is profound. The law will not be given until chapter 20, but here in chapter 18 Moses is already ‘judging’ and acknowledges his role in both hearing disputes and making known to them the statutes and instructions of God (vs 16). Jethro proposes that Moses refines his role to i) you should represent the people before God, and present their cases to God (vs 19); and ii) Teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do (vs 20); and iii) look for able men (vs 21) and Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves (vs 22).

What is being described here is the origins of a legal system, and the beginning of a ‘theology of law’. There are several things to note: the first is that all this is happening before the law is given to Moses by God. The primary act of justice is that of rendering judgement. Before law is codified or legislated Moses is rendering judgement, deciding cases, settling disputes. The second is that this act of judgement is grounded in Moses’ relationship with God. The third is that the formulation of laws and statutes is derivative of the first two.

In his book The Ways of Judgement, theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes of the primacy of judgement among the separated powers of government (the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary) so beloved of western political theory. He goes to far as to write that any act of governance (from exercising executive authority to drafting laws and regulations) is an act of judgement. As so many of the Psalms express it, the justice we seek from the king comes ultimately from God.

We are considering this passage at a time that the US is focussing on the appointment of a new member of their Supreme Court. If you are following the controversies surrounding that process you will know it is not proceeding nearly as smoothly as Exodus 18! One of the prime difficulties is actually theological in nature: the Republican Party seek a judge who feels bound to the understanding of Constitution that was in the minds of the original founders of the nation – bound, as it were, by the letter and ancient spirit of the law. This is not what is expounded in Exodus 18: Moses remains in relationship with the Lord and brings the tough cases him. There is room for change, for evolution, for a fresh word, a new insight!

Ironically, many of those most enthusiastic for a rigidly conservative or ‘originalist’ approach to the Supreme Court are evangelical Christians. However, when it comes to both justice and government, it is important to reflect on the Biblical teaching about these matters and to build a thoughtful and Biblical ‘political theology’. Some Christians disparage the term ‘political theology’, thinking it refers to party-politics, but it concerns far more than that. It is about how our states and our courts are to operate and how the philosophical and theological underpinnings of law and governance are understood and how they might guide our practices of statecraft & justice.

Philippians 1.15-21 outlines two possible motivations for proclaiming Christ: either envy and rivalry (vs 15) and selfish ambition … intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment (vs 17); or goodwill (vs 15) and love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel (vs 16).

Paul doesn’t mind which it is and rejoices that all will be well for Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by my life or my death (vs 20).

This is a great way to live, if we can attain Paul’s assurance and calm, greeting life or death with equal satisfaction and confidence, knowing that to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (vs 21).

Wednesday, September 30, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 19:9b-25; Matthew 9:2-8
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 19.9b-25 jumps over vss 1-9a, a poetic and artistic passage that now serves as an introduction to the chapter. We can also see that vss 20-25 forms a distinct unit with a different sense. Vss 20-25 prohibit completely the people going up the mountain whereas vs 13b states “When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 

The passage reads more clearly if we break it at the end of vs 19 and see vs 20 as a new beginning of an alternate version of this ancient tradition.

The passage is about consecration. It is the background for the wonderful words of Hebrews 12.18-24 which contrast the worship of the Christian church with the worship experienced by ancient Israel in this profound formative moment of their tradition.

Matthew 9.2-8 is a combination of a healing story and a controversy with the scribes. My New Testament professor always taught that a healing story is like any ad for medicine or a health product. They always have three parts: i) this is how sick I was, ii) this is what I took or what happened or what I bought, and iii) look at me now!  Watch any TV ad for a health or diet product and you’ll see this basic format still working 2000 years later. We can see the structure of the healing story as follows: i) he was paralysed and had to be carried – vs 2a;  ii) Jesus healed through a pronouncement/healing word (vs 6c); and iii) he stood up and went to his home (vs 7). The original healing story that would have circulated in the early Jesus community would have been:

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, …“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. 

Into this straightforward healing is inserted a controversy with the scribes in vss 3-6a. The ‘seam’ between the two elements is vs 2c which adds to the original word of healing (vs 6c) a saying about sin which sets off the controversy (vs 2c). The other seam is the repetition of he said to the paralytic found in both vs 2b AND in 6b. So the interpolated controversy reads:

… he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— [he said to the paralytic] – …

Matthew binds the two stories together with the closing verse (vs 8) that emphasises the authority of Jesus over both sickness and sin.

Thursday, October 1, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:1-9; Colossians 2:16-23

Psalm 19 is actually two Psalms. Vss 1-6 (Psalm 19A) praise God in nature. Vss 7-14 (Psalm 19B) deal with the glory of the Torah. Both the theme and the poetic rhythm of these two sections makes clear that they are different. We will explore each separately and then consider why the tradition has brought them together and passed them on to us as they are.

  1. Psalm 19A shows singular forms, yet it has elements of a song of praise, or a didactic poem. It exhibits signs of great age. Both parts of the psalm were probably intoned as cultic songs in the worship of Israel, probably in the cycle of autumnal festivals (see Friday’s reading on the Exodus passage). 

Vs 1 announces the theme which is then developed in two parts: vss 2-4a describing the process of communication and vss 4b-6 describing the actions of the sun.

Vss 1-2 include four verbs (declare & proclaims in vs 1 and pours forth and declares in vs 2) that describe the powerful testimony of the heavens. The word translated pours forth is literally ‘to bubble forth’ denoting ecstatic, bubbling, excited speech. Words describing singing or praising are noticeably absent. In vs 2 the transmission day to day and night to night are “like two choruses that take turns” (F. Nötscher). 

Vs 3 introduces a paradox – there is no speech and a voice is not heard, yet their ‘voice’ (see footnote: the Hebrew is ‘line’) goes out through all the world. The Hebrew word ‘line’ is unusual. In Isaiah 28.10, 13 it is used of the “stammering utterance of ecstatic prophets”: it refers to speech that is unintelligible. 

Does this mean that vs 3 says that the declaration poured forth in vss 1-2 is then unintelligible to humankind? This raises important questions about ‘natural theology’: can humankind learn what we need to know about God from ‘the book of nature’? Romans 1.18ff would suggest that we can’t. The Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries says we can. We tend to read Psalm 19 through romantic eyes which makes sense to us, but we need to remember that such a reading might not be true to Scripture! Vs 3 of Psalm 19 deserves careful consideration.

Vss 4b – 6 tell of the sun. Many ancient Near Eastern cultures had narratives of a sun god, but here the important part is vss 4b-5a, that God has set a tent for the sun which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy. Far from being a deity, the sun lives in a tent (a reference to Israel’s earlier social context as tent-dwelling wanderers) and is likened to a bridegroom and a strong man (vs 5b).

  1. Psalm 19B is a hymn in praise of the Torah but from vss 12ff it can also be categorised as a prayer song. It cannot be dated before the time of Ezra (the restoration of Israel following the Babylonian captivity).

It is similar to Psalms 1 and 119 in focussing on the Torah. As Christians we need to take care in reading these Psalms. We have been conditioned by the New Testament polemics about the limitation, shortcomings and powerlessness of ‘the law’. The Torah in the Old Testament was not associated with a strictly nomistic (= legalistic) conception. According to H-J. Kraus, Torah is Yahweh’s merciful expression of his will, which is an ‘instruction’. It comes to human beings and marks out a way for them as guide. It is a working power that radiates light and brightness in which human beings experience ‘joy’, ‘love’ and ‘cheerfulness’ (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (1993): 273). Kraus goes on to say: ‘the translation ‘law’ should be avoided as much as possible… we ought to consider presuppositions that exclude every thought of nomism, Judaism and narrow observance’ (Kraus, 1993: 274).

Vss 7- 10 are a hymn extolling the Torah with a cascading series of six synonyms for the Torah (= decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, ordinances), in each case … of the Lord. Ascribed to each of these synonyms are six differing attributes or effects of the Torah (reviving, making wise, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, enduring forever, righteous altogether). Vs 10 ties these together with a poetic description of the desirability and sweetness of the Torah.

Vss 10-14 comprise a reflective question in vss 11-12a, followed by a prayer for protection from hidden faults (vs 12b) and the insolent (vs 13a). Vs 14 is a formula of dedication.

  1. Why have these Psalms been combined and what is their meaning? Many commentators have spoken of the mysterious life force in nature as witness to the glory of God, that is here linked to another living entity in the unbreakable demand of the moral commandment. Kant spoke of the ‘starry heavens above’ and the ‘moral law within’ as a ‘divine unity’. The Catholic synthesis of natural law and biblical revelation reflects this approach.

But if our reading of vs 3 is correct then the teaching and praising of nature, which powerfully penetrates heaven and earth, remains an unfathomable secret… a powerful message comes our way, but we do not understand it. The glossolalian [= speaking in tongues] ciphers of transmission in the heart of nature, which praise and teach the Creator, no one can perceive. The cosmos celebrates God’s glory, but it does not teach his will. (Kraus, 1993: 275).

This has profound implications for people of faith – for our understanding of nature and its appreciation (contra the intuitions and values of Romanticism), the aesthetics we bring to art in its depiction of landscape and the natural world, our views on the limitations and insights of science as a way of perceiving and understanding the universe, and our theological grasp of natural law and revelation.

Exodus 23.1-9:  The giving of the law commences in Exodus 20 and runs through to Exodus 31. In chapter 32 the narrative of Exodus resumes with the worship of the Golden Calf. The Lectionary has passed over the opening three chapters of the giving of the law (Ex 20-22) and over the next three days brings us three collections of laws from Exodus 23.

Vss 1-9 follow on from the readings from Tuesday this week and relate to procedural justice – how fairness will operate in bearing witness (vs 1), conducting lawsuits (vss 2, 6-9). Vs 4-5 deal with how we are to deal with the animals of our enemies, with the underlying principle that we are not to oppress or abandon animals if their owners are our enemies: the beginnings perhaps of ‘animal rights’? Vs 9 introduces a key principle for the protection of aliens and refugees grounded in the people’s memory of Egypt.

Colossians 2.16-23: This passage is a counterpoint to the Exodus readings for the week which deal with the inauguration of the Jewish festivals (see tomorrow). Here the writer of Colossians speaks of Christian liberty from observing festivals (vs 16) or other ‘inspired’ views of what is required in worship (vs 18).  What matters is holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body … grows with a growth that is from God (vs 19).

This view of Christian freedom is then grounded in our liberty from the elemental spirits of the universe (vs 20). In vs 23 the writer denies that asceticism is of value in checking self-indulgence.

This view of the body is quite different to Paul’s concept in 1 Corinthians 12.12ff. There we are all members of the body and the body is Christ. There we might be an eye or ear, but in Colossians Christ has become the head and Christians are but subordinate ‘members’ under the control of the head, who is Christ.

Friday, October 2, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:14-19; Philippians 2:14-18; 3:1-4a
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.14-19: The heart of this passage is the establishment of the Jewish calendar. Scholars note that this is the oldest version of the various Jewish calendars (see Deuteronomy 16, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28ff which are later versions of Israel’s calendar). The three festivals are unleavened bread (vs 15 – note that it is not here associated with Passover which is unmentioned, and the separation of unleavened bread from some kind of Passover sacrifice may lie behind the unusual prohibition of vs 18), the festival of harvest (vs 16a) and the festival of ingathering (vs 16b). These were believed to occur around the time of the barley harvest (around the time of Passover in April), the wheat harvest 7 weeks later (around Pentecost in June) and then the ‘final ingathering’ of olives and grapes in September. It is an agricultural calendar rather than a cultic calendar.

Life has always been governed by various overlays of time. In agricultural economies such calendars were determinative of sowing and harvest and so much of life. We live with different rhythms, but rhythms no less determinative of life: the financial year, the football year, the holiday seasons, the cold and heat of our various seasons. 

Now that I have an electronic calendar I have constructed my own calendar and sense of time. This is built primarily around the ancient Celtic calendar of two main festivals a year (Samhain – Nov 1; and Beltane – May 1) that happily synchronise (approximately with the liturgical calendar (Easter – April/May; and All Saints – Nov 1). Fitting almost as neatly is the calendars of the Indigenous Bunurong people native to where I live with their 6 seasons. In that calendar summer (Bullarto-n’yoweenth) begins around early November and deep winter (Perrin) in early May. By also linking in other cultures and nations I know (for instance) that yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Mooncake Festival in China and tomorrow is the start of the Jewish feast of Succoth.

What calendars regulate or inform your life? Is your team still in the football competition or has your ‘season’ ended?  And what of the ‘roadmap to Covid-normal’ – the calendar that regulates all our lives now? 

Vs 19a introduces the concept of ‘first fruits’, something worthy of far more in-depth teaching than we can manage here, and 19b is thought to refer to a Canaanite ritual, possibly of a fertility cult that was prohibited to Israel.

Philippians 2.14-18 is a lovely passage of teaching. It continues the warm and encouraging tone of the earlier readings from Monday and Tuesday. Paul enjoins and positive and peaceful approach to faith (vs 15) before quoting Deuteronomy 32.5 in vs 15b and Daniel 12.3 in vs 15c. The motto of the Baptist College of Victoria is Ad Iustitiam (Towards Rightousness) and is also drawn from Daniel 12.3.

Vs 17a introduces a sombre tone before the mood of rejoicing and gladness is reasserted in vss 17b-18 and 3.1a.

Philippians 3.2-4 introduces a strongly polemical passage, clearly directed against a group committed to circumcision which Paul contrasts with his own confidence in the flesh and that it is we who are the circumcision who worship in the Spirit of God (vs 3.3)

Saturday, October 3, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:10-13; John 7:40-52
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.10-13: These few verses outline the law of sabbath for the land (vss 10-11) and for humans and animals (vs 12). Note the contrast with the alternate law on the sabbath (Exodus 20.8-11) where the Sabbath was grounded in the creation and God resting on the 7th day. Here the purpose of the law is that the land shall rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. (vs 10b).   The purpose here is threefold – to let the land rest, for the poor to eat, and the wild animals find food. 

Similarly, here the Sabbath is for the sake of humans and animals so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed (vs 12).

How different might the world have looked if this understanding and logic of the Sabbath had entered into Western consciousness rather the Exodus 20 rendering of the law?

John 7.40-52: This passage deals again with the issue of Jesus’ authority. The crowd has different views of Jesus (vss 40-44) and while some wanted to arrest him, his authority has overawed the temple police (vs 46). 

While the people were divided in their view of Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees are united in their unbelief.  Vs 48 is filled with irony. In suggesting that no one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him, the Pharisees set up the rejoinder from Nicodemus in vs 51. John reminds us that Nicodemus had already sought Jesus out (vs 50). Their final rejoinder to Nicodemus again emphasises that Galilee is no place from which a prophet comes.

Daily Readings for the 17th Week after Pentecost

Monday, September 21, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Exodus 16:31-35; Romans 16:1-16

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.

Vss 97-104 juxtaposes the spirituality of the law (the Torah tradition) with that of Wisdom. The superiority of the law as a spiritual path is shown in the superior wisdom of the person devoted to the law over enemies (vs 98), teachers (vs 99), and the aged (vs 100). It is more effective than wisdom in guiding the feet (vs 101) for it is taught by the Lord not a human teacher (vs 102). Vss 103-104 celebrate the pleasures and reliable guidance that come through the law.

Exodus 16.31-35 brings together various traditions about manna.  Vs 31 starts with its name followed by a description of its appearance and taste. The description of the taste as wafers made with honey differs from that of Numbers 11 which describes a taste of cakes baked with oil. The rabbinic interpretation took this to mean that its wonderful properties allowed it to change at will and suit every man’s taste to a delicacy (Brevard Childs).

Vss 32 and 33 double up in their statement of a command to preserve an omer (a daily ration) of manna to be preserved throughout your generations as a testimony to the Lord’s keeping of the people. This stands in tension with the tradition that the manna would only keep for a day, except on the Sabbath. Vss 34 includes the problematic placement of the jar of manna before the covenant (or treaty or testimony) where the Ark of the Covenant had not yet been either commanded or built. All this suggests that the writer is drawing together the traditions from long ago and binding together at the heart of Israel’s worship not just the law reflected in the covenant, but God’s gracious provision and deliverance as experienced in the wilderness wanderings.

Vs 35 would confirm this perspective with a historical note that the reliance on manna only continued while the people were in the desert, and after they entered the promised land they relied on more usual food sources.

Romans 16.1-16: I plan to preach on this chapter in October and will not make detailed commentary here. It is essentially a chapter of greetings and commendations, typical of the form of Biblical letters which open with a thanksgiving and blessing, convey their theological and ethical teaching, and conclude with personal greetings and information. Within the doctrinal focus that many evangelicals have brought to the letters, and being at such remove from the historical circumstances described in these greetings, we have tended to gloss over and even avoid these chapters. They are a bit like the OT genealogies: faced with long lists of either ‘begatting’ or of greeting, our eyes tend to glaze over and we move on.

But in an age of quarantine and lockdown the greetings at the end of the New Testament letters are rich sources of both encouragement and ideas! This was people keeping in touch when they were prevented from meeting by distance and the limited communications of their day. This was how they held communities together, and encouraged people who they couldn’t touch, or telephone, or email. The way Paul talks to them can teach us much about how we might address, affirm and encourage one another.

One of the significant elements of this long collection of greetings is found in vs 7, addressed to Andronicus and Junia (or Junias, or Julia). The most ancient papyrus manuscript we have has the feminine form Julia. What is significant is that Julia is described as prominent among the apostles and [was] in Christ before me (vs 7b). Feminist historians see here evidence of leadership by a woman at the highest levels of the early church, evidence subsequently erased by the emendation of Julia (fem.) to Junia (masc.). Or did the copyist who wrote out that earlier manuscript simply make a mistake?

Read the greetings and see if any of Paul’s feelings resonate with you about people you have known in the church. Try replacing the names Paul uses with some of those you know. How would you affirm them? What messages would you have passed on to them?

Note that there is mention of the church in their house (vs 5) and a family (vs 10b), and two lists of people who seem to belong together in separate groups (vs 14, and vs 15). What are the affinity groups, networks and families that you would like to address in your church?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:1-9; Romans 16:17-20

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.1-9 presents another tradition of the manna. The Exodus story (see yesterday) comes from before the people get to Sinai. This story comes after the people leave Sinai (see Numbers 10.11 ff). Note the threatening anger of the Lord and the recurring motif of the people’s complaining (vss 1-3). Vs 4 draws an interesting contrast between the rabble among them and the Israelites also… Their graphic recall of the food of Egypt and their disdain for the manner are clear (vss 4b-6).

The manna is described differently. While still shaped like coriander seed, the colour and flavour are different (cf. yesterday’s reading). There is also a description of how it was processed to be eaten (vs 8).

Romans 16.17-20 moves from greetings and encouragement to warnings and denunciation. As we worked our way through the earlier chapters of Romans we could sense a debate or dispute within the community about the relative place of law on the one hand and faith and grace on the other. Without naming it in these terms, Paul here brings a dispute into the open identifying those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching you have learned (vs 17). Their implied judgement (vs 20a) is harsh.  Vs 20b looks like a closing benediction but Paul resumes his greetings in vs 21 and then offers an extended final doxology in vss 25-27.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:18-23, 31-32; Matthew 18:1-5
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.18-23 follows yesterday’s reading in which the grumbling of the people was treated in detail. Here God’s answer to their complaint of a lack of meat is given. Vs20 expresses this abundant gift almost as a punishment: You shall eat … for a whole month – until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.  

The description of the quails on the ground is of hyperbolic abundance: they lay on the ground all around the camp to a radius of a day’s journey, piled on the earth in every direction to a depth of two cubits (approximately 1 metre). A sceptic might ask whether the ‘day’s journey’ was measured under normal conditions or when wading waist-deep in quails?  

With the manna, one omer (approximately 2.3-2.5 litres) was a daily ration – but with the quails the least anyone gathered was ten homers (one homer = approx 220 litres). So according to Numbers 11 the minimum any single person gathered of quails was 2,200 litres. They were then spread around the camp, presumably to dry.

Now if we ‘do the math’, 600,000 people gathering a minimum of 2,200 litres each yields a harvest of 1,320,000,000 (=1.3 billion) litres of quail. Estimates today of total world production of farmed quail is 1.4 billion individual birds, but the Numbers figure is 1.3 billion litres of quail. That certainly is an image of abundance bordering on the noisome! It also makes sense of vs 20 and quail coming out of your nostrils – the stench of that many drying quail would have ‘got right up your nose’.

Last week I provided the link to a song Then the quail came by Noel Paul Stookey – a folk song based on this passage. If you didn’t listen then, it is even more poignant to hear in the context of today’s reading.

Matthew 18.1-5 has no parallel in Mark or Luke, although Mark 10.14-15 contains a similar (but slightly different) teaching. Note that here Jesus is using the child as an example, as a simile: unless you become like children you will never enter the kingdom of God (vs 3)  and Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vs 4) (emphasis added). In Mark the kingdom belongs to such as these (Mk 10.14). Mark states whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it (10.15). It may just be a matter of style, but Mark seems to have a stronger identification of child-likeness with the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Isaiah 48:17-21; James 4:11-16
Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. Psalm 78 is unique piece in the Old Testament and it is hard to categorise. It could be designated a historical psalm, but there are also elements of thanksgiving. Vss 1-2 suggest that what follows would be a wisdom poem, but throughout the principles of the Deuteronomic history can be seen in how the historical material is presented. It is a didactic poem which joins together various traditions already established within Israel.

It begins with a formula for opening a teaching session and I will utter dark sayings from of old (vs 2b) suggests the revelation of enigmatic, even secret principles.

In vss 12-16 we can see why this Psalm has been included in this cycle of the Lectionary: here yet again is retold the history of the deliverance from Egypt (vs 12) the miracle by the sea (vs 13) , the pillars of cloud and fire (vs 14) and the miracle of the water from the rock (vss 15-16).

Isaiah 48.17-21 is an oracle of deliverance announcing the departure of Israel from their captivity in Babylon (see vs 20) in the early 6th Century BCE. The prophetic ‘signature’ Thus says the Lord opens vs 17 and vss 18-19 are a rebuke alluding to the faithlessness of Israel. Vs 20 announces God’s purpose and calls on the people to depart from Babylon / Chaldea. Vs 21 draws a direct parallel between this deliverance and the events of the Exodus / Wilderness Wandering that we have been reading through the lens of so many other parts of Israel’s story. Vs 15 retells the Meribah story.

James 4.11-16:   The letter of James is an unusual book. Luther deemed it ‘an epistle of straw’ and wondered why it had been included in the New Testament. He believed that it tended towards a faith built on law and judgement rather than grace. It has none of the usual greetings and personal touches that mark other New Testament letters and has the form more of a tract than a real letter written to address a particular issue. It has minimal reference to Jesus or Christ after the opening verse. There are several references to ‘the Lord’, but it is not always clear that this is a reference to Jesus: see 3.9 (the Lord and Father), 5.4 (the Lord of hosts). Even the coming of the Lord (5.7) could be a reference to the OT concept of the day of the Lord. It appears to have origins in Judaism or at least a Jewish worldview yet is written into a Christian context.

Today’s passage engages ethical teaching on two main themes: judging another (vss 11-12) and ‘boasting about tomorrow’ (vss 13-16). The first has a fascinating argument – the one who judges another actually speaks evil against the law and judges the law (vs 11b). This is consistent with James’ high estimation of the law (e.g. 2.8-13) and in contrast with Paul’s view of the law as seen in (for instance) Romans 4.13-16 and Romans chapter 7. For James, all judgement belongs to God (vs 12a) which then excludes any right for us to judge (vs 12b)

Vss 13-16 teach a humble and trusting attitude to the future in which believers should not presume

to know what tomorrow will bring. The saying in vs 15b has been taken up in the Islamic world as:

إن شاء الله

 ‘inshallah’ meaning “if Allah wills”

I think one of the cultural differences between Christians and Muslims is the much stronger sense in Islamic thought of the sovereignty of God as a day-to-day reality. The phrase ‘inshallah’ falls more readily to their lips than to ours and in this I think they have honoured God somewhat better than we have.

Friday, September 25, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 20:1-13; Acts 13:32-41
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 20.1-13 is a parallel account of the miracle of Exodus 17.1-7. Comparison of the two accounts yields significant agreement and variations. The place is called Massah (=test) and Meribah (=quarrel) in Ex 17 but only Meribah in Numbers 20. The language of Numbers reflects a more liturgical or religious framing of the narrative: (the (whole) congregation – vss 1, 2a, 8b, 11b; the assembly (of the Lord) – vss 4, 6a, 10, 12; assemble the congregation – vs 8). Vs 12 introduces a new element – the judgement of Moses for his lack of faith with the Lord pronouncing that he (Moses) shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.

How has Moses failed to trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites (vs 12)? Moses, in word and action has been entirely responsive to the Lord until vs 10. He was instructed to speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water (vs 8) but he raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff (vs 10). Whether it was the striking instead of speaking, or the striking twice (where in Exodus 17 he only struck once) or the self-aggrandizing statement of vs 10b that does not acknowledge the Lord but says “Listen, you rebels, must we [not the Lord!] bring water out of this rock?” – or whether all three betray a rising sense of power and arrogance on the part of Moses and Aaron – we cannot be sure, but the Lord saw their actions as a lack of trust and a betrayal of the Lord’s holiness.

Acts 13.32-41 is part of a sermon Paul preached in Antioch in Pisidia in the centre of western Turkey – not Syrian Antioch which was the church that had commissioned Paul and Barnabus for their preaching journey. The sermon was addressed to You Israelites and others who fear God (vs 16b cf. vs 26). The Jewish audience can also be discerned in reference to our ancestors (vs 32). Paul then explains the resurrection by referring to three texts from the OT. The logic seems to be:-

33b:  you are my Son (addressed to David – and Jesus?)

34b: I will give you (Jesus) the holy promises made to David (i.e. Jesus is made holy by receiving the promises)

35b: You will not let your Holy One (Jesus) experience corruption.

Vss 36-37 clarify that David died and experienced corruption but not Jesus followed by a succinct expression of the gospel (vs 39) and a warning, again grounded in the OT (vs 40-41).

Saturday, September 26, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 27:12-14; Mark 11:27-33
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 27.12-14:  Following yesterday’s divine declaration that Moses would not lead the people into the land given to Israel, today’s short reading begins the story of the succession of power and leadership from Moses to Joshua. Only half the story is told as vss 15-23 tell of the commissioning of Joshua. In vss 12-14 the judgement of the Lord already rendered is given greater clarity and detail as Moses is commanded to go into the mountains, view the promised land, after which he will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was (vs 13). This sounds as if ‘the gathering’ is imminent, but the book of Numbers has another nine chapters to go with no description of the aging or death of Moses. It is not until the end of the next book, in Deuteronomy chapter 34, that Moses dies and is gathered to [his] people.

The key point in this reading is in vs 14: because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarrelled with me. On this occasion the NIV perhaps captures their failing more accurately when it renders the text: for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.

Mark 11 tells the beginning of the last climactic week of Jesus’ life. Vss 1-26 tell of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing (or cursing?) of the temple, and the withering of the fig tree before we come to this argument with the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). This passage begins a series of arguments/controversies that continue unbroken with various enemies until 12.40. Then follows teaching about the end from 12.41 to 13.37. Chapter 14 opens with the plot to kill Jesus and unfolds the events of the Thursday before Passover.

Jesus’ enemies are variously described and it was as early as 3.6 that the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. This is not the place to analyse the range of enemies arrayed against Jesus, but here three significant groups – the chief priests, the scribes (see Mk 3.22) and the elders – come together arguing with Jesus. This particular encounter ends in a stalemate (vs 33), but by Mark 14.53 this group have the upper hand: They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders and the scribes were assembled. This was the council (Mk 14.55), the leadership of the Jewish people (that is, the Temple leadership), rather than the Herodians (a group clustered around the political leadership of Herod) and the Pharisees, a moral and religious group more identified with local synagogues and dispersed Judaism than temple-focussed religion.

It is appropriate and fitting that in every age we should reflect on who are the enemies of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is political folks (like the Herodians) who are the power as it was under the Nazis). Perhaps in some ages it is the centralised power of the church authorities – popes and councils who have condemned heretics and destroyed new spiritual movements. It may be movement like the Sadducees – highly cultured people suspicious of miracle and the spiritual realm.  It also sometimes can be the Pharisees – very devout and religious people committed to their communities and highly moral, but inflexible and judgemental. 

All these groups (or people who have drunk deep from the spirit of them) are found among the people of God. (On a personal note, I confess that my own personal temptation may be that of the intellectualising Sadducee.) In our zeal to share the good news with others, it is always salutary to remind ourselves of the saying of Jesus: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Mt 23.25).