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Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

Jul 22, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 6; Acts 10; Jeremiah 19; Mark 5

THE HEALING OF THE Gerasene man who was demonized by a “legion” of demons (Mark 5:1-20) calls for explanations and reflection at many points. To pick up on six:

(1) The setting is Gentile territory on the east side of Lake Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis (Mark 5:20), the Ten Cities of largely Gentile constitution. That point is clear even from the herd of pigs, something that no self-respecting Jew would keep.

(2) The poor man described in these verses was subject to some sort of cyclical attack. At times he was docile enough to be chained, and then the attack would be so desperately strong that he could tear the chains apart and free himself. Banished from home and hearth, he lived among the tombs, where he cried out and lacerated himself, a man in the final throes of destruction by demonic powers (Mark 5:5). We should not assume that every case of what is today called insanity is the result of demonic activity; neither should we adopt the reductionism that reduces all demonism to chemical imbalances in the brain.

(3) The words addressed to Jesus (Mark 5:6-8), though on the lips of the man, are the product of the “evil spirit.” This spirit knows enough (a) to recognize who Jesus is, and (b) to live in horrible anticipation of the ultimate doom that awaits him.

(4) This exchange between Jesus and the “evil spirit” has two elements not found in any other exorcism in the canonical Gospels. First, the strange interplay between the singular and plural—”My name is Legion, … for we are many”—suggests an ambiguity in certain demonic activity. Moreover, as Jesus hints elsewhere, multiple invasion by unclean spirits is a “worse” condition to be scrupulously avoided (Matt. 12:45). Second, these demons do not wish to leave the area, and they do wish to be embodied (Mark 5:10, 12). Jesus accedes to both requests. Presumably this reflects in part the fact that the final hour for their banishment has not yet arrived.

(5) While it is essential to reflect on Jesus’ absolute mastery over these evil spirits, one must add that he does not call forth these spirits one by one, solicit their names, enter into conversation with them, or a host of other things commonly practiced by some who are given to “deliverance ministries.”

(6) The responses to this deliverance are striking. The delivered man wants to follow Jesus, and is commissioned to bear witness, in his Gentile world, to how much the Lord has done for him and how he has shown him mercy (Mark 5:18-20). The people of the region beg Jesus to leave (Mark 5:17): they prefer pigs to people, their financial security to the transformation of a life.

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Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

Jul 21, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 5; Acts 9; Jeremiah 18; Mark 4

THE IMAGERY OF THE POTTER and the clay (Jer. 18) recurs in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 9:19ff.). Slightly different emphases are brought forward in the different passages, though all of them emphasize God’s sovereign sway over the people who are likened to the clay. The emphases here may be clarified by the following observations:

(1) The potter’s wheel was a common sight in the ancient Near East, not so much a hobby item as an essential element in the manufacture of vessels both useful and aesthetically pleasing. The word wheel is in the dual form in Hebrew: two circular stones were fitted onto a vertical axis; the lower one was spun by the potter’s foot while the upper one served as the platform for the work.

(2) Often in the shaping of a pot some defect or other would become obvious—a defect in size or shape or in the texture of the clay or in some pollutant. The potter might then squash the developing pot into an amorphous blob of clay and begin all over again. It rather misses the point to ask if the potter is responsible for the defect. In the real world of pottery-making, of course, the potter might well be responsible or might be proceeding by trial and error. Certainly no one is suggesting that the clay itself, in the real world of pottery-making, bears some sort of moral responsibility for the way it turns out. But the point of the extended metaphor is not to assign blame for the defect: that is another subject. To try to read any such lesson here is to make the imagery walk on all fours. Moreover, in the context of the chapter at large—i.e., outside the world of the extended metaphor—God clearly holds the people of Israel responsible for the behavior that is calling forth his judgment (e.g., Jer. 18:13-15).

(3) What, then, is the point of this imagery? Perhaps there are two points. First, God has the right to destroy this pot and begin again. Whatever the cause of the defects, he has every bit as much right as the potter has to squash the pot and begin again. In other words, the people are not nearly as autonomous and self-determining as they think they are. That means their present course of conduct and disobedience is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Second, just as a competent potter may well begin again because he or she is dissatisfied with the way a pot is developing, so God begins again because he is dissatisfied with the way his covenant people are developing. Are God’s standards lower than those of the village potter?

God has the right, and he has the standards. What sense does it make to buck him?

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Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

Jul 20, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 4; Acts 8; Jeremiah 17; Mark 3

AMONG THE CHORUSES I learned as a boy in Sunday school were these two:

These are the names of Jacob’s sons:
Gad, and Asher, and Simeon,
Reuben, Issachar, Levi,
Judah, Dan, and Naphtali—
Twelve in all, but never a twin—
Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too; he has called us, too!
We are his disciples, I am one, and you.
He has called us, too; he has called us, too!
We are his disciples; we his work must do.

I am grateful that I was brought up at a time when many of the songs we learned gave us some facts, some data, some reasons for things. Many Christians today could not name either the twelve patriarchs or the twelve apostles, and are dismally ignorant of a lot of other elementary data that the least informed Sunday school student a generation ago mastered by the age of six or ten. Of course, the acquisition of mere data does not necessarily make a Christian. On the other hand, ignorance of Scripture almost always ensures a painful immaturity.

Nevertheless, the chorus of the second piece quoted above is slightly misleading. True, we are called to be disciples of Jesus, i.e., followers of Jesus. That is the calling of all Christians. Nevertheless, there were unique elements to the calling of the twelve apostles (Mark 3:13-19). Here I mention only one: these were appointed “that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14). This was important for at least two reasons: (a) They were trained by him, and a major component of their training was what we today would call “mentoring”—not merely the impartation of a message and a commission, but shaping people by example as well as precept as to how they should live. (b) These twelve were able to bear witness to the facts concerning Christ from the first days of his public ministry. Peter understood the importance of this point (Acts 1:21-22), for the revelation of Jesus Christ was not some private mystical experience but a unique, historical event that demanded witnesses.

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Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

Jul 19, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 3; Acts 7; Jeremiah 16; Mark 2

THREE OBSERVATIONS ON Jeremiah 16:

(1) The opening section of this chapter probably occurs quite early in Jeremiah’s ministry. He is forbidden to marry, not merely because women and children will within a few decades face an extraordinarily difficult time under siege warfare and subsequent exile, but as a symbolic way of anticipating the enforced asceticism that judgment will bring. In a culture in which almost all males married, his celibacy was doubtless a powerful symbol.

(2) One of the most striking features of this chapter is that the people really do not seem to be aware of their guilt. They cannot see why they should face judgment. “Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us?” they ask. “What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?” (Jer. 16:10). One of the most terrible indices of how far a people have strayed from righteousness is the degree to which they can no longer perceive their own guilt. Men and women who truly love righteousness and integrity are invariably aware when they breach it. The most holy people are the first to confess their sin with shame and contrition. The most guilty people are blissfully unaware of their corruptions and idolatries. So we must ask ourselves: where on this sort of spectrum are our churches found? Or our culture? Are we characterized by profound contrition, or by a frank inability to think that we have really done anything all that wrong? What does that say of us? What does that say about the Lord’s stance toward us?

(3) Although the Lord promises judgment, there are two hopeful elements. The first is that God will one day bring the people out of exile with so dramatic and unexpected a rescue that it will eclipse the glory of the Exodus (Jer. 16:14-15). The second is that part of the purpose of this judgment is pedagogical. The people have cherished false gods. “Therefore I will teach them—this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD” (Jer. 16:21). The exile was to reduce if not eliminate the chronic idolatry of the covenant people. At least at the level of formal idolatry it turned out to be remarkably effective in this respect. The history of the Jews after the return from exile is far different in this respect than what it was before. Despite horrible lapses, postexilic Jewish history displays far less polytheism and syncretism than preexilic history. Of course, for Jew and Gentile alike, the snare of idolatry is much more subtle and corrosive than the attractions of formal polytheism.

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Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

Jul 18, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 2; Acts 6; Jeremiah 15; Mark 1

JEREMIAH 15 PROVIDES SOME OF the most haunting insights into the inner life and thought of the prophet Jeremiah:

(1) Jeremiah has been interceding with God on behalf of the covenant people (Jer 14). God tells Jeremiah to stop, that he will not listen (Jer. 14:11-12). Indeed, he now says that even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before him and intercede for the people, he would not spare them (Jer. 15:1). Centuries earlier Moses and Samuel had successfully interceded for Israel (Ex. 32:11-14; Num. 14:13-24; Deut. 9:18-20, 25-29; 1 Sam. 7:5-9; 12:19-25)—though it is important to remember that they also secured, in some measure, the willingness of the people to return to the Lord with contrition and renewed obedience. This Jeremiah has not been able to achieve. Now God is telling him that he will not achieve it: the people will go into captivity. The iniquity and idolatry under Manasseh have been the last straw (Jer. 15:4; see 2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26; 24:3).

(2) In Jeremiah 15:10, Jeremiah frankly wishes he had never been born. The entire nation “strives and contends” with him. Everyone curses him, not because he has been corrupt in business, but because he faithfully conveys the word of the Lord. The Lord reassures him (Jer. 15:11-14; the best iron came “from the north,” from the Black Sea area, so this is a way of saying that Israel’s arms would be no match for those of the Babylonians). But that is part of Jeremiah’s anguish. One part of him wants justice, wants retribution for his persecutors (Jer. 15:15). That same part utterly delights in God’s words (Jer. 15:16a). Yet on the other hand, his allegiance to God and his words is precisely what isolates him from the people: “I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation” (Jer. 15:17b). Some of his most virulent foes were his own relatives (cf. Matt. 10:36). Jeremiah is sometimes tempted to think that it is God who has failed, like an intermittent spring (a wadi, Jer. 15:18) that flows at times with life and blessing, and at other times provides nothing.

God’s response (Jer. 15:19-21) is that if Jeremiah proves utterly faithful in conveying his words, he will continue as God’s spokesman and will be preserved from the evil machinations of his opponents. But one point is nonnegotiable: “Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them” (Jer. 15:19b).

The deep tension between faithfulness to God and alienation from one’s own people is an unvarying constant in the ministry of faithful preachers assigned to a declining culture.

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Judges 1; Acts 5; Jeremiah 14; Matthew 28

Jul 17, 2014 | Don Carson

Judges 1; Acts 5; Jeremiah 14; Matthew 28

THIS CHAPTER, JEREMIAH 14, oscillates between poetry and prose, and between God’s speech and Jeremiah’s response. The occasion is the calamitous drought devastating the country. Some reflections:

(1) A disaster may be no more than the effluent of the Fall, and not God’s specific judgment on a people. Even then it reminds us of our mortality and our lostness, and calls for repentance (Luke 13:1-5). Nevertheless, a specific disaster may be the immediate and direct judgment of God on a people. Therefore disasters demand self-examination and a humble heart. In exactly the same way, a crippling illness may not be the direct consequence of a specific sin (John 9). But it may be (John 5).

(2) Again and again in the Old Testament, God punishes the covenant community for their sins by using the recurrent banes of the ancient world: sword (i.e., war, and sometimes exile with it), famine, and plague (Jer. 14:11-12). This threefold combination is brought together seven times in the prophecy of Jeremiah. Ezekiel 14 adds a fourth: wild beasts. These are either “natural” phenomena (famine and plague) or are brought about by wicked human conduct (war, and sometimes famine and plague).

(3) Because our own culture tries so hard to detach from God what happens in the “natural” world, reserving for him only private or distantly “spiritual” things, we rush to give naturalistic explanations for our wars and famines and plagues instead of at least trying to learn the lessons providence may be teaching us. I am not suggesting that it is easy to read providence. We have seen that Scripture itself warns us against trying to infer too much too quickly (Luke 13:1-5). Nevertheless, not to draw any moral and spiritual lessons from disasters may be nothing more than an index of how far we have sold ourselves to the forces of secularization. We resolutely refuse to “hear” what God says when he speaks to us in the language of judgment—exactly the response of ancient Israel. Indeed, according to this chapter there was a hearty collection of religious leaders who denied any connection between disaster and divine judgment (Jer. 14:14). It is ever so. So not only will prophets be held accountable for what they say and teach, but the people are responsible for what they choose to listen to. Shall we not learn any moral and spiritual lessons in this bloody twentieth century from two world wars, the arms race, economic collapses, the Nazis, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Biafra, the Balkans, Rwanda, Vietnam, wretched totalitarian regimes of left and right, famines, slavery, the Sudan, racism, AIDS, abortion? Kipling was right: “Lord God of hosts, be with us yet / Lest we forget; lest we forget.”

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Joshua 24; Acts 4; Jeremiah 13; Matthew 27

Jul 16, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 24; Acts 4; Jeremiah 13; Matthew 27

MATTHEW TELLS US THAT AT THE moment Jesus died, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). The immediate cause was apparently the earthquake that accompanied Jesus’ death. Yet it is impossible for the thoughtful Christian not to nestle this brief and cryptic observation into the bigger picture—the account of what the curtain had already come to mean in the history of Israel and how it plays out in the later books of the New Testament, such as Hebrews and Revelation, where the first generation of Christian writers explain to their readers just what the cross achieved. Along this axis, the tearing of the curtain was a symbol-laden act of great significance. Four reflections:

(1) Neither the curtain nor the tearing of the curtain make any sense unless we see that, this side of the Fall, we have no right to come into the presence of a holy God. After their calamitous rebellion, Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden (Gen. 3). When the rescued Israelites construct their golden calf in the desert, God not only sends judgment, but threatens not to manifest himself among them, lest they be destroyed (Ex. 32-33). In narrative and oracle alike, the biblical writers drive home this truth: sin separates us from our transcendentally holy Maker. We do not have right of access to the most holy.

(2) That reality was symbolized in the construction of the tabernacle and later the temple. One third of the structure, called the Most Holy Place, had the dimensions of a cube. It was separated from the rest of the building by a heavy curtain. Here God manifested himself in glory. Only the high priest could enter—and only once a year, bearing the blood of the prescribed sacrifices, offered up for his own sins and for the sins of the people. All others were excluded under pain of death.

(3) The tearing of the curtain at the moment of Jesus’ death therefore symbolizes that Jesus’ death has gained access for sinners into the very presence of God. He is our great high priest; he is our atoning sacrifice. Nor does he have to slip into the Most Holy Place every year, once a year. He dies once for all and satisfies the holy demand of God, so that in principle the curtain can come down.

(4) Small wonder, then, that the “new Jerusalem,” one of the images for the final abode of God’s people (Rev. 21-22), is shaped like a perfect cube. Already Christians have access to the throne of God by the merit of Jesus Christ; in the consummation, however, we will stand unafraid and overwhelmed by joy and adoration in the unshielded splendor of his holiness.

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Joshua 23; Acts 3; Jeremiah 12; Matthew 26

Jul 15, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 23; Acts 3; Jeremiah 12; Matthew 26

IN THE EIGHTH CENTURY BEFORE CHRIST, Hosea experienced the terrible betrayal of a woman joined to him by the covenant of marriage who was tragically committed to prostitution. He learned thereby something of how God perceives the spiritual prostitution of the people to whom he was covenantally linked. In a somewhat similar vein, Jeremiah has suffered rejection by his friends and relatives (Jer. 11:18-23—yesterday’s meditation). His anguish and anger over the situation sets the stage for God to explain his own response to the people who have rejected him (Jer. 12).

The question Jeremiah raises is prompted by his experiences in the immediately preceding verses. He has been doing his bit to foster reformation, yet his life is threatened by the relatives and people of his own village. Although he still affirms the righteousness of God, Jeremiah protests, “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Plunged into despair and flooded with a sense of the sheer inequity of it all, Jeremiah in the opening verses of this chapter asks God why he does not simply root out the wicked and do away with them.

God does not directly respond to Jeremiah’s question (Jer. 12:5-6). Instead, he tells the prophet, in effect, that he hasn’t seen anything yet. If Jeremiah stumbles so painfully in his own village, how will he fare in the far more complicated and perverse atmosphere of Jerusalem? “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (Jer. 12:5). If you stumble in the relatively safe arena of Anathoth, “how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (In the preexilic period, the Jordan’s flood-plain was covered with luxuriant vegetation that protected many wild animals, including the Asiatic lion.) Many Christian leaders have had to learn that initial sufferings merely prepare the way for much more of the same.

At least Jeremiah is a little better able to understand what God means when he says, “I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become to me like a lion in the forest. She roars at me; therefore I hate her” (Jer. 12:7-8). So the following verses depict the judgment that must inevitably ensue.

Even here, however, God’s graciousness shines through. After God has “uprooted” them, he will bring them back to their own inheritance (Jer. 12:14-15). If exile is inevitable because of their sin, restoration will follow because of God’s compassion. Even pagan nations will join in the blessing of the Lord, wherever they repudiate the Baals and swear by the living God (Jer. 12:16).

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Joshua 22; Acts 2; Jeremiah 11; Matthew 25

Jul 14, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 22; Acts 2; Jeremiah 11; Matthew 25

THE OPENING LINE OF JEREMIAH 11 shows that what follows is a new prophecy, a new oracle from God, the fourth reported in this book. It is difficult to be certain exactly when it was preached. Many have suggested, plausibly enough, that it was delivered not too long after Hilkiah rediscovered the scroll of the Law, about 621 B.C. This generated something of a religious reformation under King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23). According to 2 Chronicles 34, the discovery of the scroll was preceded by a centralization of worship at Jerusalem. Inevitably this meant a decline of the rites shaped by Canaanite religion at the local shrines—and, presumably, an increase in the resentment of local religious leaders. Jeremiah certainly supported Josiah in this reformation. If this is the setting—and one cannot be certain, for there are other possibilities—two elements in the chapter before us take on new significance.

First, the Lord tells Jeremiah to threaten the people with judgment specifically grounded in the blessings and cursings of the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 11:6-8). What is threatened is more specific than the judgments reserved for other nations, judgments grounded in God’s response to unrighteousness and idolatry. Rather, what is threatened is no more and no less than what the covenant said would happen if the people fell away into disobedience (Deut. 28). The religion of the covenant people of God had apparently become so debased, so merely traditional, and so removed from any current study of the Scriptures, that such elements had largely passed from public memory, until the scroll of the Law was rediscovered. These specific covenantal threats of judgment were what caused Josiah to tear his clothes and utter, “Great is the LORD ‘s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13). Assuming this setting for Jeremiah 11, the prophet is carefully drawing out the covenantal implications of the failure to obey.

Second, this also explains why the men of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s own village, seek to do away with him (Jer. 11:18-23). Priests had lived there since the time of the settlement under Joshua (Josh. 21:18). Because this line had participated in the revolt against David, Solomon excluded them from temple service (1 Kings 2:26-27). Doubtless they were heavily invested in local shrines and resented the centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple, where they were not allowed to serve. So in addition to the animus against a local (a prophet is without honor in his home town, Luke 4:24), these men may have especially hated Jeremiah’s support for Josiah’s reformation. Where there is no passion for the Word of God, other passions take over.

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Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

Jul 13, 2014 | Don Carson

Joshua 20-21; Acts 1; Jeremiah 10; Matthew 24

TWO REFLECTIONS ON Jeremiah 10:

First, the catastrophic punishment about to befall Judah is traced to her incompetent leaders: “The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the LORD; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered” (Jer. 10:21). “Shepherds” in this context includes more than “pastors” (KJV): it includes all who direct the affairs of the nation—king, priests, prophets, and other leaders.

The arena in which these leaders are incompetent is not general administration, charismatic sheen, financial acuity, or management potential. They are “senseless,” and their folly is manifest in the fact that they “do not inquire of the LORD.” This cannot mean that they do not go through the mere forms of seeking out the Lord’s counsel, consulting the prophets and treating the prescribed rituals like a talisman that brings good luck. It means, rather, that they do not really want to do what God wants. They do not approach him with the contrition and profound reverence for his Word of which Isaiah speaks (Isa. 66). They do not treat him as if he is radically “other” and fundamentally different from the myriad false gods that surround them. Neither nations nor churches rise higher than their leaders. If our leaders are passionate about knowing and obeying the will of the Lord, our prospects are excellent; if they are dissolute and intoxicated by selfism, our prospects are dim or even desperate.

Second, in the closing verses (Jer. 10:23-25) Jeremiah identifies with his people in a startling way. “I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps. Correct me, LORD, but only with justice—not in your anger, lest you reduce me to nothing” (Jer. 10:23-24). These lines might initially be read as referring to Jeremiah the prophet, Jeremiah the individual, and nothing more. Certainly individual believers ought so to be aware of their own sins that they entreat God to spare them from the destruction they deserve. But closer inspection shows that the sins Jeremiah is confessing are the sins of the nation, in particular the smug self-determinism that refuses to acknowledge the sheer Godhood of God, the glorious truth that God alone is God and is in control. The next verse (Jer. 10:25) discloses that what Jeremiah wants God to spare is “Jacob,” the covenant people of God. Doubtless punishment is decreed against them, but Jeremiah pleads with God that he will not wipe out the people in his wrath, but reserve the worst measures for “the peoples who do not call on your name.” Thus Jeremiah cries to God for himself, but also for his people with whom he identifies—not unlike Paul in Galatians 2:17-21 and perhaps Romans 7:7ff.

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