Apr

01

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

Leviticus 5; Psalms 3-4; Proverbs 20; Colossians 3

THE CONTRASTS IN COLOSSIANS 3 are so stark they are haunting. On the one hand, the sins in Colossians 3:5-9 are foul: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying. Greed is labeled “idolatry” (Col. 3:5). One can see why. In effect, one worships what one most desires. If greed lies at the heart of our deepest desires, then acquisitiveness has become our god, and we are idolaters.

On the other hand, the virtues briefly spelled out in Colossians 3:12-17 have always been associated with genuine Christian character. Here I wish to focus on the last two verses: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:16-17).

(1) The “word of Christ” is not exactly the Scriptures. It is the Gospel—but the primary access we have to that Gospel is the Scriptures. The expression “word of Christ” is sufficiently flexible that it can mean either the word that Christ taught or the word about Christ. Insofar as the Gospel itself was both proclaimed by Jesus Christ and so embodied in his person and ministry that it is also what the apostles say about him, “the word of Christ” embraces both meanings.

(2) This is what is to dwell in us richly. It is to fill our memories, occupy our horizons, constitute our priorities. We are so to reflect on it, as we turn it over in our minds and learn how it applies in every area of our lives, that, far from occupying a little religious corner of our experience, it will dwell in us richly.

(3) This must take place not only in the privacy of personal study and reflection but also in our mutual instruction and admonition. Whatever teaching takes place within the local church, it must be full of the Gospel and its rich, life-transforming implications and applications.

(4) Over against all that is foul and all that is idolatrous, Christians are to be characterized by gratitude. We have been called to peace, the apostle says. “And be thankful” (Col. 3:15). The singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is to be done “with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Indeed, the apostle concludes, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17, italics added).

 
 

Mar

31

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

Leviticus 4; Psalms 1-2; Proverbs 19; Colossians 2

AT AN EARLY STAGE, I WORKED through Proverbs and categorized most of the individual proverbs according to topic. Some fitted into more than one topic. I recognized that there was a disadvantage in this approach: I would lose the thematic connections in some large blocks of material. Still, there was also a gain. I could see at a glance all that Proverbs had to say about poverty, for instance, or about the family, or about human speech.

One of the themes thus clarified is God’s sovereignty, worked out in sometimes mysterious providence. There is one verse on this topic in this chapter: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). By itself, of course, this might mean no more than that the Lord proves to be a superb chess player! Yet this verse is linked to an important set of passages (e.g., Prov. 20:24) that demand we think more deeply than that. For instance:

(1) “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Prov. 16:4). We should not seek to evade the sweep of this utterance. This is not a dualist universe in which two autonomous principles operate, one good and one evil. While there is a basic distinction between good and evil, yet God’s sovereignty reigns, through whatever mysterious means, so that even the wicked serve his purposes—not least his purposes in judgment. Paul reflects on the same theme (Rom. 9:22).

(2) “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Human beings are responsible for what they choose and what they do; the entire book of Proverbs maintains this perspective, for otherwise the fundamental chasms between wisdom and folly, good and evil, the fear of the Lord and haughty arrogance, could not be sustained. Yet at the same time, even with all the plotting in the world a mere human cannot escape the sweep of divine sovereignty. Elsewhere we are told, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1).

(3) “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33). This is a bit like saying that you can throw the dice as many times as you like, but which numbers come up is determined by the Almighty. This is why Christians have spoken of “the mystery of providence.” One cannot determine the moral excellence of an occurrence by the mere fact that it happens, since God’s providence rules over both good and evil, over every number that comes up. For moral distinctions, one needs God’s own pronouncements, his words, his law.

 
 

Mar

30

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

Leviticus 2-3; John 21; Proverbs 18; Colossians 1

A NUMBER OF PROVERBS in this book bear on the matter of disputes. Some deal with the judicial level—e.g., “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice” (Prov. 18:5). Again, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Prov. 18:17)—a proverb that has application in wider settings than the courtroom. This judicial element is scarcely surprising, since of course Solomon himself was the final court of appeal in his kingdom. But many of these proverbs about disputes have little to do with the judicial system (although even the most private of disputes may go to court—and it may well be that Solomon’s reflections even about private disputes were stimulated by some of the things he saw dragged into court). There are two such proverbs here: Proverbs 18:13, 18.

(1) “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame” (Prov. 18:13). This, of course, invites wide application. We think of those exasperating, aggressive conversationalists who rarely let you finish a sentence or a thought before they interject their own viewpoint. How much worse is the situation when neither side in a dispute really listens to the other side. In rare cases, of course, there is literally nothing to be said in favor of one particular side. But almost always there is at least something to be said for a contrary position, even if on balance it is not all that defensible. But how can you find out if you do not really listen? How can you hope to convince the other party of what you are saying if you cannot give that party the grace of courteous listening? In most disputes, tensions will improve if one party takes the initiative to lower the volume, slow the pace, cool the rhetoric, and humbly try to listen and discover exactly what the other side is saying.

(2) “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart” (Prov. 18:18). “Casting the lot” might refer to the priestly function of appealing to the Urim and Thummim for guidance (e.g., Ex. 28:30). But I suspect not. Some disputes become so vicious or so complex that the simplest way of sorting them out is to flip a coin—provided, of course, that both parties will agree to abide by the outcome. Some disputes cannot and should not be resolved in this manner. But where both sides, deep down, acknowledge that their dispute is six of one and half a dozen of the other, this might be the simplest way forward.

Inescapably clear from all this is the Bible’s profound commitment to truth, to integrity in listening and speaking, and to peace as much as to justice.

 
 

Mar

29

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Leviticus 1; John 20; Proverbs 17; Philippians 4

Leviticus 1; John 20; Proverbs 17; Philippians 4

FOUR MORE KINDS OF proverbs appear in Proverbs 17:

(1) Several proverbs offer an evaluative comparison introduced by the word better. “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet / than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Prov. 17:1). “Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs / than a fool in his folly” (Prov. 17:12). The first of these two provides a value judgment to be observed and cherished; the second makes an important assessment of the “fool,” with an implied warning to avoid such company. There are many of these “better” proverbs in other chapters—e.g., “Better to be lowly in spirit among the oppressed / than to share plunder with the proud” (Prov. 16:19); “Better to live on a corner of the roof / than to share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (Prov. 21:9).

(2) A few proverbs take the form of rhetorical questions. “Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, / since he has no desire to get wisdom?” (Prov. 17:16). This one is quite wonderful. It suggests that using money in ways that do not make you “wise” is so unprofitable that you would be better off without money.

(3) Some proverbs seem quite simple, but include an unexpected element that prompts the reader to ponder what is being said. “A wicked man listens to evil lips; / a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue” (Prov. 17:4). One might have expected “A wicked man speaks with evil lips; / a liar deploys his malicious tongue.” That would be true, but comparatively prosaic. The evil lips and the malicious tongue in Proverbs 17:4 are doubtless wicked, but the writer does not pause to argue the point. Rather, he focuses on the character of those who listen to evil lips, on those who pay attention to the malicious tongue. Perhaps the worst punishment of liars is not that they are not believed, but that they do not believe truth but prefer lies—both their own and the lies of others. And what does this proverb say about a culture that loves juicy sleaze, or comforting half-truths, or squalid, vacuous violence? Who buys the porn and the cash register “newspapers”? Such organs cannot stay in business if there is no market. How could local church gossips keep in business if they did not find ready ears—wicked ears, according to this proverb?

(4) A surprising number of proverbs tell us explicitly what the Lord does. Often we are told what the Lord loves or detests, to help us form our own values; but sometimes it is something else, such as, “[T]he LORD tests the heart” (Prov. 17:3); “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both” (Prov. 17:15). For other examples, read Proverbs 15:8, 9, 25, 26, 29; 16:4.

 
 

Mar

28

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 40; John 19; Proverbs 16; Philippians 3

Exodus 40; John 19; Proverbs 16; Philippians 3

IN PAUL’S LETTERS HE OFTEN, implicitly or explicitly, tells his readers not only to understand and follow what he teaches, but to imitate him. Nowhere is this theme stronger than in Philippians 3, reaching a climax in Philippians 3:17: “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” Not only does Paul instruct believers to imitate him; he has been building up a cadre of leaders who exemplify the pattern of life he has been teaching, so that they can serve as models for others to follow. Some reflections:

(1) Almost certainly one of the reasons why Paul provides so many details about Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:19-30) is so that they may serve as models to be admired and emulated. Paul says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20-21). He expects the more godly among his readers to react instinctively and resolve to become like Timothy. Paul is even more explicit with respect to Epaphroditus. After detailing the man’s Christian courage, Paul adds, “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him” (Phil. 2:29)—not only “him,” but “men like him,” for Paul teaches patterns of life that should be admired and imitated.

(2) Paul’s suggestion that the Philippians imitate Timothy and Epaphroditus, and his instructions that they follow his own example and the pattern of living Paul had regularly taught (Phil. 3:17), is proffered in part as an antidote to the alternative models that surround us. The assumption is that we inevitably imitate someone. There is always an abundant supply of bad models. Paul warns against “those dogs” (Phil. 3:2) who were trying to impose observance of Jewish covenantalism. Doubtless they appeared wonderfully pious. The apostle similarly warns against the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18) who, judging by the context, are almost certainly professing Christians who do not really grasp what the Gospel is about and who do not really live with eternity’s values in view. They too must have had some plausibility, or Paul would not have warned against them. Christians must be intentional in choosing whom they should imitate, or else they may drift toward poor models.

(3) Paul’s strong exhortation that the Philippians follow his example is saved from self-righteousness and religious cant by his insistence that he himself has not arrived, but is still on a pilgrimage (Phil. 3:7-16).

So follow someone who follows Christ; follow a pilgrim who insists that you live up to what you have already attained, and then press for more.

 
 

Mar

27

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 39; John 18; Proverbs 15; Philippians 2

Exodus 39; John 18; Proverbs 15; Philippians 2

FEW PASSAGES HAVE AS MUCH THEOLOGY and ethics in them as Philippians 2. We can pick up on only a few of its wonderful themes:

(1) Scholars have translated Philippians 2:5-11 in all kinds of creative ways. In large measure the NIV has it right. Christ Jesus, we are told, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped [or possibly "exploited"], but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). All that is quite wonderful, a glorious description of the incarnation that prepares the way for the cross. I might reword the translation in the first line of verse 6: “Who, being in very nature God.” At the level of raw literalism, that is a perfectly acceptable translation. But Greek uses participles far more frequently than does English, and Greek adverbial participles, such as the word being in this line, have various logical relations with their context—relations that must be determined by the context. Probably most English readers mentally paraphrase this passage as, “Who, although he was in very nature God …” Certainly that makes sense and may even be right. But there are good contextual reasons for thinking that the participle is causal: “Who, because he was in very nature God.” In other words, because he was in very nature God, not only did he not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but he made himself a nobody: it was divine to show that kind of self-emptying, that kind of grace.

(2) “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), who did not regard his rights as something to be exploited, but who humbled himself and died a death of odious ignominy so that we might be saved—and was ultimately vindicated (Phil. 2:6-11). The exhortation of Philippians 2:5 thus supports the string of exhortations in Philippians 2:1-4. Reflect on how this is so.

(3) The verses following the “Christ hymn” (as it is often called) of Philippians 2:6-11 emphasize perseverance. “Therefore” at the beginning of verse 12 establishes the connection. Christ made himself a nobody and died a shameful death but was finally and gloriously vindicated, and therefore we too should take the long view and “work out” our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Of course, there is all the more incentive when we recall that “it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). We reject utter passivity, “letting go and letting God”; rather, we work out our salvation. Yet at the same time we joyfully acknowledge that both our willing and our doing are evidence of God’s working in us. And he will vindicate us.

 
 

Mar

26

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 38; John 17; Proverbs 14; Philippians 1

Exodus 38; John 17; Proverbs 14; Philippians 1

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27)? The expression is striking. It is also adverbial—that is, it describes the manner of our conduct, not us. Paul does not say that we ourselves are worthy of the Gospel, for that would be a contradiction in terms: the Gospel, by definition, is good news to people who are not worthy of it. But once we have received the Gospel, however unworthy we may be, we are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of it.

The way Christians are to do this (Philippians 1:27-30) is by standing firm together (“in one spirit,” Phil. 1:27), “contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose [them]” (Phil. 1:27-28). People who have benefited from the Gospel are certainly not conducting themselves in a way worthy of the Gospel if they are ashamed of it (Rom. 1:16). Of course, in a time when the surrounding culture ridicules Christians or even persecutes them, it takes courage to stand together in bold and transparent witness to the power of the Gospel. But there, too, another element of what it means to conduct oneself in a manner worthy of the Gospel comes into play. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).

What a remarkable notion! Paul does not say that these Christians have been called to suffer as well as to believe, but that it has been granted to them to suffer as well as to believe—as if both suffering for Christ and believing in Christ were blessed privileges that have been graciously granted. That, of course, is precisely what he means. We often think of faith as a gracious gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9), but suffering?

Yet that is what Paul says. On reflection, it is easy to see why. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that in God’s good purposes Jesus suffered on our behalf, bearing our guilt and shame and atoning for our sin. Surely it should be no surprise, then, that conduct that is worthy of such a Gospel includes suffering for Jesus. In fact, that theme is part of what makes this paragraph transitional. For on the one hand, it looks back to the example of the apostle Paul (Phil. 1:12-26). He ends the paragraph by referring to his own “struggle” (Phil. 1:30), of which his Philippian readers have just read—a “struggle” so severe he was not certain he would survive. And on the other hand, the chapter ahead is one of the most powerful New Testament descriptions of Jesus’ humiliation and death. We are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of that kind of good news.

 
 

Mar

25

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 37; John 16; Proverbs 13; Ephesians 6

Exodus 37; John 16; Proverbs 13; Ephesians 6

THE PARALLELISM IN THE Bible’s Wisdom Literature is diverse. Understanding this helps us to reflect more accurately on Scripture. It is easy to illustrate the point with two or three kinds of parallelism drawn from Proverbs 13.

Some instances of parallelism are simple opposites. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, / but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Prov. 13:20). The second line is almost the opposite of the first, and the two lines together remind readers that they will be shaped by the company they keep and by the advice they listen to. “He who spares the rod hates his son, / but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). The first line may employ a touch of hyperbole, but the contrast between the two lines makes the lesson of the whole verse clear enough.

In some cases the second line is not the opposite of the first line, but an extension of it. “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, / turning a man from the snares of death” (Prov. 13:14). Of course, there is a contrast between “life” and “death,” nevertheless the thought of the second line is not the opposite to what is expressed in the first line, but a further exposition of it. This is sometimes called “step parallelism.”

Perhaps the proverbs that demand the most focused reflection are those in which the two lines are obviously meant to be opposites, and yet the categories do not, on first reading, quite line up. Such proverbs are gently provocative. Each of the two lines is subtly shaped by the other.

Here are two examples. “Pride only breeds quarrels, / but wisdom is found in those who take advice” (Prov. 13:10). Merely formal parallelism might have preferred, “Pride only breeds quarrels, / but humility generates peace.” But the text of Scripture invites more profound analysis. “Wisdom” is contrasted with “pride”—which gently discloses what wisdom is, while implicitly saying that pride is folly. The quarrels of the first line are generated by the arrogant refusal to listen to another point of view, to take advice.

Or again, “Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, but a fool exposes his folly” (Prov. 13:16). A simple contrast would have preferred: “Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, / but a fool acts out of ignorance [or folly].” But the second line says that the fool exposes his folly. The two lines become mutually clarifying. The prudent man who acts out of knowledge (line 1) thereby displays his wisdom; the fool acts out of folly, and thereby exposes it for all to see. In this light, reflect on Psalm 14:1!

 
 

Mar

24

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 36; John 15; Proverbs 12; Ephesians 5

Exodus 36; John 15; Proverbs 12; Ephesians 5

IN THE CONTEMPORARY CLIMATE, a straightforward reading of Ephesians 5:21-33 is increasingly unpopular. Without descending to details, I shall venture my understanding of the flow of the passage.

(1) Oddly, the NIV prints Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”) as a separate paragraph. In the original, this is the last of a string of participial expressions that fill out what it means to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18): functionally, being filled with the Spirit means everything in 5:19-21. Moreover, the words “submit to one another” should not be taken in a mutually reciprocal way, as if exhorting all Christians to submit to one another reciprocally. For: (a) the verb “to submit” in Greek always refers to submission in some sort of ordered array, never to mutual deference; (b) the idea is then picked up in the following “household table” of duties: wives submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (5:22-6:4); (c) the same vision of submission is repeated in the New Testament (Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6); (d) the Greek pronoun rendered “one another” is often not reciprocal (e.g., Rev. 6:4).

(2) Nevertheless, certain things must be said about the wife’s submission to her husband (5:22-24). (a) It is not to be confused with certain pathetic stereotypes—groveling, self-pity, unequal pay for equal work (as if God were the God of injustice), and the like. (b) This submission is modeled on the church’s responsibility to submit to Christ. This brings up large issues of typology that cannot be explored here. But practically, it ought to reduce nagging, belittling one’s husband, browbeating manipulation, and the like. (c) This submission does not deny equal worth (both are made in the image of God) or perfect functional equality in many domains (e.g., sexual rights, in 1 Cor. 7).

(3) Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25-33)—which at the very least means loving their wives self-sacrificially and for their good. More explicitly, the husband’s love for his wife must mirror Christ’s love for his church (a) in its self-sacrifice (5:25); (b) in its goal (5:26-28a), seeking her good and her holiness; (c) in its self-interest (5:28b-30)—for there is a kind of identification that the husband makes with his wife, as Christ identifies himself with his church; (d) in its typological fulfillment (5:31-33)—which again introduces huge typological structures that run right through the Bible.

The responsibilities of both husband and wife are dramatically opposed to self-interest.

 
 

Mar

23

2014

Don Carson|5:00 am CT

Exodus 35; John 14; Proverbs 11; Ephesians 4

Exodus 35; John 14; Proverbs 11; Ephesians 4

I WISH TO DRAW ATTENTION TO three proverbs, or kinds of proverbs, in Proverbs 11:

(1) Like Proverbs 10, this chapter includes several proverbs that focus on the tongue, on human speech. The entire section Proverbs 11:9-14 deals with one aspect or another of how the mouth may prove to be either a blessing or a curse. Among the more interesting elements is the twin mention of the fact that sometimes the most godly thing a mouth may do is keep silent: “a man of understanding holds his tongue…. a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Prov. 11:12, 13). Another striking feature of this section is its insistence that the mouth can either bless an entire city (and, in principle, a nation), or destroy it (Prov. 11:10, 11, 14). The one tongue offers sage counsel, prophetic rebuke, strategic planning, utter integrity in matters of government and jurisprudence, a respectful humility in dealing with others, and transparent encouragement to walk in the fear of the Lord. The other tongue is pretentious, deceitful, happy to corrupt both legislative and judicial processes, self-serving, and manipulative.

(2) “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (Prov. 11:22). Structurally, the Hebrew is simple parallelism without predication: “A ring of gold in the snout of a pig / A beautiful woman without discretion.” To make the Hebrew’s subtle comparison explicit (since English poetry is not as dependent on parallelism as Hebrew poetry is), the NIV has constructed a simile. But the point is the same, and the imagery wonderfully evocative. The large, half-wild pigs of the ancient world had rings in their noses to control them. Never were those rings made of gold! The obvious silliness of the image would for the Jew carry a touch of repulsiveness, since pigs were unclean animals. On the same scale, but in a different dimension, the excellence of beauty in a woman is demeaned, debased to the level of a repulsive joke, when the woman herself shows no discretion. There is a great deal in our culture, and not just in Hollywood, that could profit from this proverb.

(3) “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty” (Prov. 11:24). Paradox is another feature of many proverbs. This sort of utterance is far more powerful than a simple exhortation, “We ought to be generous,” or a simple slogan, “Generosity pays,” or the like. The way our providential God has ordered the universe, the generous hand, as a rule, has much to give. Very often the selfish miser ends up in bitter penury. Can you think of examples?