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Genesis 26; Matthew 25; Esther 2; Acts 25

Jan 25, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 26; Matthew 25; Esther 2; Acts 25

THE CHANGE IN GOVERNOR FROM FELIX to Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27) brings no immediate improvement in Paul’s condition. Yet God remains in control, and in this chapter, Acts 25, under God’s providence Paul takes a decisive step. How was this brought about?

(1) New to the area and still relatively ignorant of its political and religious dynamics, Festus is determined to get off on the right foot. A mere three days after arriving at the regional Roman capital of Caesarea, he travels up to Jerusalem to meet the local Jewish authorities. He could have summoned them; he could have delayed his visit. But off he goes, and is promptly informed what a terrible man Paul is. The Jewish authorities see the accession of Festus as an opportunity to do away with Paul. They express their desire to have him brought to Jerusalem for trial, but in reality they plan an ambush that would ensure his demise (Acts 25:1-3). Festus replies that Paul is being held in Caesarea and insists that his interlocutors press their case there.

(2) In the next round of legal maneuverings the charges against Paul and his responses to them (Acts 25:6-8) provide Festus with no clear idea of what to do. Still trying to make a good impression on the Jewish authorities (and thus far more likely to listen to them than to a solitary man already in jail for two years), Festus asks Paul if he is willing to stand trial before the Roman court, but in Jerusalem.

(3) There is no hint that Paul is tipped off as to the planned ambush. Nevertheless, two years earlier he had been warned of a similar plot (Acts 23:16), and it would not take much to figure out that such a plot was likely being hatched again. If he agrees with Festus’s suggestion, he will be murdered; if he declines, he will appear obstreperous and arrogant. So he exercises the right of every Roman citizen in the first century: he appeals to Caesar. That was the judicial equivalent of appealing to the Supreme Court. Humanly speaking, this was a desperate move. Emperor Nero did not take kindly to frivolous suits, and he was already known to be corrupt and intoxicated by his own power.

(4) Yet by that means, as the rest of the book shows, Paul finally arrives in Rome. As Joseph was brought to Egypt’s palaces by way of slavery and prison, so Paul is brought to testify for King Jesus before the mightiest human authorities by way of prison and corrupt justice. Indeed, how did Jesus gain his place at the Father’s right hand?

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Genesis 25; Matthew 24; Esther 1; Acts 24

Jan 24, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 25; Matthew 24; Esther 1; Acts 24

IN THE TRIAL OF PAUL BEFORE FELIX (Acts 24), the governor comes across as a man in authority who has no moral vision authorizing him to take decisive action. He is, in short, a moral wimp. He also represents the many powerful people who are disturbed by the Gospel, and at some deep level know that it is true, yet who never become Christians. Note:

(1) Judging by his approach and oratory, Tertullus is an orator trained in the Greek tradition and thus well able to represent the Jewish leaders in this quintessentially Hellenistic setting. The charge against Paul of temple desecration (Acts 24:6) is serious, punishable by death. When Tertullus encourages Felix to “examine” Paul (Acts 24:8), he means more than that Felix should ask a few probing questions. Roman “examination” of a prisoner was open-ended beating until the prisoner “confessed.” Roman officers did not have the right to “examine” a Roman citizen like Paul, but a governor like Felix could doubtless manage to waive the rules now and then.

(2) Paul’s response, no less courteous than that of Tertullus, denies the charge of temple desecration (Acts 24:12-13, 17-18) and provides a plausible explanation of the uproar by describing the actions of “some Jews from the province of Asia” (Acts 24:19). Paul also seizes the opportunity to acknowledge that he is a follower of “the Way”—a delightful expression referring to first-century Christianity, bearing, perhaps, multiple allusions. Christianity is more than a belief system; it is a way of living. Moreover, it provides a way to God, a way to be forgiven and accepted by the living God—and that Way is Jesus himself (as John 14:6 explicitly avers).

(3) Paul insists that he believes “everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). This expression does not make the Law the final arbiter, yet nevertheless insists that the “everything” Paul believes agrees with the Law. The Law is thus a critical test that points to the “everything” Paul believes, but it is not the substance of everything he believes. Compare Matthew 5:17-20; Romans 3:21 (see meditation for January 31).

(4) And Felix? Owing to his Jewish wife Drusilla (Acts 24:24), he has some acquaintance with “the Way” (Acts 24:22). Yet here he ducks a decision between justice and his desire to placate Paul’s opponents, appealing to the need to hear from Lysias the commander. It is all pretense. He enjoys talking with Paul, and even trembles before his message, but always dismisses the apostle at the critical moment. For two years he is torn between a desire to repent and a desire for a bribe. In eternity, how will Felix assess those two years?

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Genesis 24; Matthew 23; Nehemiah 13; Acts 23

Jan 23, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 24; Matthew 23; Nehemiah 13; Acts 23

ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING EVIDENCES of sinful human nature lies in the universal propensity for downward drift. In other words, it takes thought, resolve, energy, and effort to bring about reform. In the grace of God, sometimes human beings display such virtues. But where such virtues are absent, the drift is invariably toward compromise, comfort, indiscipline, sliding disobedience, and decay that advances, sometimes at a crawl and sometimes at a gallop, across generations.

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

That is the sort of situation Nehemiah faces toward the end of his leadership in Jerusalem (Neh. 13). He has been away for a time, required by his responsibilities toward the Emperor Artaxerxes to return to the capital. When he comes back to Jerusalem for a second term as governor, he finds that commercial interests have superseded Sabbath discipline, that compromise with the surrounding pagans has displaced covenantal faithfulness, that greed has withheld some of the stipend of the clergy, and therefore their numbers and usefulness have been reduced, and that some combination of indiscipline and sheer stupidity has admitted to the temple and to the highest councils of power men like Tobiah and Sanballat, who have no interest in faithfulness toward God and his Word.

By an extraordinary combination of exhortation, command, and executive action, Nehemiah restores covenantal discipline. Doubtless many of the godly breathe a sigh of relief and thank God for him; no less certainly, many others grumble that he is a busybody, a killjoy, a narrow-minded legalist. Our permissive and relativizing culture fits more comfortably into the latter group than the former—but that says more about our culture than about Nehemiah.

Genuine reformation and revival have never occurred in the church apart from leaders for whom devotion to God is of paramount importance. If, absorbing the values of the ambient culture, the Western church becomes suspicious of such leaders, or else reacts with knee-jerk cultural conservatism that is as devoid of biblical integrity as the compromise it opposes, we are undone. May God have mercy on us and send us prophetic leaders.

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Genesis 23; Matthew 22; Nehemiah 12; Acts 22

Jan 22, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 23; Matthew 22; Nehemiah 12; Acts 22

READING PAUL’S IMPROMPTU DEFENSE to the crowd (Acts 22), one is struck by the sparse simplicity of the narrative. But two details urge reflection here:

First, we must ask why the crowd turns nasty when it does. When Paul starts to address the people in their mother tongue, Aramaic, initially “they became very quiet” (Acts 22:2). They listen to the entire account of his conversion and call to ministry without breaking out in anger. But when Paul says that the Lord himself told Paul, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21), the unleashed malice of the mob will be satisfied with nothing less than his death. Why?

Inevitably, the answers are complex. Some of the pressures Jews felt to remain distinctive from the Gentiles were doubtless sociological: their self-identity was bound up with kosher food laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the like, and a man like Paul, who was perceived to be reducing those barriers, was threatening their self-identity. But the heat of their passion cannot be explained by merely horizontal analysis. At least two other factors must be acknowledged. (1) For devout, conservative, Jerusalemite Jews, what was at issue was the Law of God, the exclusive primacy of the temple, their understanding of Scripture. From their perspective, Paul was destroying what God himself had set up. He was entangling the people of God in compromises with pagans. Not only was he jeopardizing their identity, he was blaspheming the Almighty, whose people they were and whose revelation they were appointed to obey and preserve. (2) At the same time, it is hard to miss the element of ownership: these people were acting as though God was so exclusively the property of ancestral Jews that Gentiles could not get a look in. From Paul’s perspective, this entailed a profoundly mistaken and even perverse reading of the Old Testament, and a sadly tribal vision of a domesticated God. Of course, their error is often repeated today, with less justification, by those who so tie their culture to their understanding of Christian religion that the Bible itself becomes domesticated and the missionary impulse frozen.

Second, we must ask why Paul stands on his Roman citizenship here, avoiding a flogging, while on occasion he simply takes the beating. At least one of the reasons is that he tends to appeal to his legal status when doing so is likely to establish a precedent that will help to protect Christians. One of Luke’s arguments in these chapters is that Christianity is not politically dangerous; rather, it is repeatedly legally vindicated. Paul, thinking of his brothers and sisters, acts, as usual, for their benefit.

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Genesis 22; Matthew 21; Nehemiah 11; Acts 21

Jan 21, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 22; Matthew 21; Nehemiah 11; Acts 21

IN ACTS 21 WE FIND PAUL AND THE CHURCH in Jerusalem trying to be as accommodating as possible, but nothing will avail. Paul is arrested, in line with the prophecies to the effect that he would be seized and bound (Acts 21:4, 11). Note:

(1) This is one of the “we” passages in Acts (Acts 21:1, 17). On the face of it, Luke the author is at this point traveling with Paul and is a witness to the events described here. That is worth noting, because many critics find these events completely unbelievable.

(2) The church and its leaders warmly receive Paul and his reports of gospel fruitfulness among the Gentiles. This is entirely in line with their earlier delight when Paul reported many Gentile conversions (e.g., Acts 15). In other words, experiences in Samaria (Acts 8) and Peter’s visit with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10-11) have prepared the church to delight in the manifest progress of the Gospel among the Gentiles.

(3) Nevertheless, the leaders are painfully aware that substantial numbers of conservative Jews are out to get Paul. They have heard that he is counseling “all” the Jews in the Diaspora not to circumcise their children or follow the Law of Moses (Acts 21:21). So they devise a plan to help him regain a reputation for observing conservatism (Acts 21:23-24). “Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law” (Acts 21:24).

It is this passage that is especially controverted, for does not Paul himself say that he is flexible on such matters (1 Cor. 9:19-23; Gal.)? Yet before we write off the Jerusalem elders and Paul himself for massive inconsistency, or Luke for making up stories, observe: (a) The initial charge is that Paul exhorts all Jews in the Diaspora to abandon circumcision and the Law of Moses. That he does not do. He refuses to allow circumcision and kosher observance to become a test of spirituality, but he does not advocate universal abandonment of the Law. He himself circumcised Timothy to advance the communication of the Gospel. (b) One suspects that the biggest fear of some conservative Jews was that Paul would desecrate the temple (Acts 21:27-29). The elders therefore sought to show that while he was in Jerusalem Paul was a carefully observant Jew, even paying for the temple purification rites of others. After all, neither Paul nor the Jerusalem leaders imposed full observance on all Christian believers (Acts 21:25; cf. Acts 15; see vol. 1, meditation for July 28).

So in the providence of God, Paul is arrested. Thus he arrives, for the first time, in Rome, and the Gospel is heard in Caesar’s courts.

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Genesis 21; Matthew 20; Nehemiah 10; Acts 20

Jan 20, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 21; Matthew 20; Nehemiah 10; Acts 20

NEHEMIAH 9 AND NEHEMIAH 10 NEED to be read together. Nehemiah 9 finds the Israelites confessing “their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (Neh. 9:2). Yet the scene is not of individualistic repentance and confession. There is a large-scale corporate dimension, organized yet powerfully empowered by the Spirit of God, that is wonderful to contemplate. For a quarter of the day the people hear the Scriptures translated and explained; for another quarter of the day they commit themselves to confession and worship. In this they are led by the Levites.

The corporate prayer in which they are led is in large measure a review of Israelite history. It highlights the repeated cycles of declension into which the people have fallen, and the repeated visitations of God to restore them. The heart of the confession is found in Nehemiah 9:33: “In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong.”

“In view of all this” (Neh. 9:38), then, the people enter into a covenant with God (Neh. 10). More precisely, this is a renewal of the old Mosaic covenant. Since the prayer is led by the priests, it is not surprising that many of its elements focus on the temple. Nevertheless, there are broader issues regarding marriage (to preserve the people from pagan contamination), Sabbath observance, and a generalized commitment “to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord” (Neh. 10:29).

Of course, had the feasts and rites of ancient Israel functioned the way they were designed to function, this covenant renewal would not have been necessary. For strictly speaking, the great feasts were to be occasions of covenant renewal. For instance, Passover was designed to recall the Exodus and restore to the people’s consciousness the Lord’s mercy and faithfulness in rescuing them, while providing an opportunity for a renewed pledge of allegiance.

No less than the ancient Israelites, Christians are called to covenant renewal. That is one of the large purposes of the Lord’s Supper. It is a time for self-examination, confession of sin, remembering what the Lord Jesus endured to secure our redemption, and, together with the people of God in local assembly, a time to remember and proclaim his death until he comes. Thereby we renew our pledge of allegiance. If we permit the Lord’s Supper to descend to the level of meaningless rite, all the while hardening our hearts against the living God, we face grave danger. It will do us good, in solemn assembly, to review our sins and confess them, to grasp anew the Lord’s faithfulness, and to pledge fresh loyalty to the new covenant.

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Genesis 20; Matthew 19; Nehemiah 9; Acts 19

Jan 19, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 20; Matthew 19; Nehemiah 9; Acts 19

CROWD PSYCHOLOGY IS EASILY EXPLAINED after the fact, but difficult to predict. I recall at a raucous campus election at McGill University thirty-five years ago, one student heckler made a couple of telling points that embarrassed the candidate in question. The crowd was instantly on his side, cheering him on. Thus emboldened, he attempted another sally, but this one was anemic and pointless. The candidate looked at him disdainfully and asked, “Is there some point you are trying to make?” Unable to reply with a quick and direct barb, the student immediately found the crowd hissing and booing him and telling him to shut up and sit down. In two minutes the crowd had turned from avid support to dismissive scorn. It was easy enough to analyze after the fact; it was difficult to predict.

Demetrius the silversmith learned this lesson the hard way (Acts 19:23-41). In the face of Paul’s effective evangelism, and therefore the threat of a diminution of his business as an artisan producing silver figurines of the goddess Artemis (her Latin name was Diana), Demetrius tries to stir up enough opposition to stop the Christian movement. Planned or otherwise, the result is a full-fledged riot. Paul sees this as a glorious opportunity to articulate the Gospel to a huge crowd; his friends, however, see this crowd as so dangerous that they succeed, with whatever difficulty, in persuading him to stay away.

Eventually the “city clerk” (more or less equivalent to a mayor) quiets the crowd. Ephesus is a free city; it is trusted by Rome to govern itself and remain loyal to the empire. The city clerk well knows that reports of riots in Ephesus could prompt an inquiry that might result in a change of status. Roman troops could be imposed and a governor commissioned by either the senate or the emperor himself. The Christians, says the mayor, are not guilty of desecrating the temple of Artemis. So why the riot? If Demetrius and his friends have a grievance, there are courts, or they can await the calling of the next properly constituted city “assembly” (Acts 19:39—interestingly, the word is ekklesia, from which we derive “church”). So the city clerk quells the crowd and dismisses it.

Some of the lessons are obvious. (1) It is usually very foolish to whip up a crowd. The results are unpredictable. (2) God remains in charge. Despite some desperate moments, the results in this case are wonderful: the Christian cause has been exonerated, Demetrius and his cronies have lost face, no one has suffered harm. (3) God can use strange economic and political pressures, including, in this case, a pagan artisan and a mayor, to bring about his good purposes.

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Genesis 19; Matthew 18; Nehemiah 8; Acts 18

Jan 18, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 19; Matthew 18; Nehemiah 8; Acts 18

SOMETHING IS TO BE GAINED BY bringing today’s two readings, Nehemiah 8 and Acts 18, into juxtaposition.

Much of Acts 18 is devoted to preaching and teaching the Word of God and to the issue of how to understand God’s revelation aright. When Silas and Timothy arrive in Corinth from Macedonia (Acts 18:5), presumably bringing with them some support money, Paul is set free to devote himself “exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5). Eventually the heat of opposition drives him to spend more time with Gentiles. No longer free to use the synagogue, he uses the house of Titius Justus next door. Soon the synagogue ruler himself is converted (Acts 18:8). Some Jews mount a legal challenge against Paul, but the local magistrate perceives that the dispute essentially involves controverted interpretations of Scripture (Acts 18:12-16). The end of the chapter introduces Apollos, learned in the Scriptures and a powerful speaker, but still somewhat ill-informed regarding Jesus. He “knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). He may well have known enough of John the Baptist’s teaching to announce the coming of Jesus and perhaps even details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; but like the “believers” at the beginning of the next chapter, he might not have known of Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit. After all, many Jews from around the empire visited Jerusalem at the time of the feasts and then returned home. If Apollos and others had left Jerusalem after the resurrection but before Pentecost, it was not impossible that years could have elapsed before they became better informed. And information is precisely what Priscilla and Aquila provide Apollos, explaining to him “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).

In Nehemiah 8, Ezra begins a seven-day Bible conference. He carefully reads “the Law” to the assembled crowd. The Levites join in; they “instructed the people in the Law…. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Neh. 8:7-8). The expression “making it clear” could be rendered “translating it”; after all, the Law was written in Hebrew, and by this time most of the people spoke Aramaic. The Bible had become a closed book to them. Whether through translation or exposition or both, the people are understanding it again. Joy dawns “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Whether under the old covenant or the new, nothing is more important for the growth and maturation of God’s people than a heart hungry to read and understand what God says, and people to make it plain.

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Genesis 18; Matthew 17; Nehemiah 7; Acts 17

Jan 17, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 18; Matthew 17; Nehemiah 7; Acts 17

WHEN A LARGE BUILDING PROJECT IS FINISHED, or when an important goal has been reached, often there is a tendency to slack off. Many a congregation has devoted considerable energy to building a new facility, only to retreat into lethargy for months or even years afterward.

Nehemiah perceives that the building of the wall is not the climax of the return, after which relaxation should be the order of the day. The rest of the book makes this point clearly enough. The rebuilding of the wall is scarcely more than preparation for a number of more far-reaching political and religious reforms. In ministry, it is vital always to distinguish means and ends.

With the wall finished, Nehemiah stays on for a while as governor of the entire region of Judah, but appoints two men to be in charge of Jerusalem—his brother Hanani (apparently a man he could trust), and a military man, Hananiah, chosen “because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do” (Neh. 7:2—compare meditation for January 6). There is something refreshing and fundamental about such leaders. They are not sycophants or mercenaries; they are not trying to “find themselves” or prove their manhood; they are not scrambling up the mobile ladder to success. They are men of integrity, who fear God more than most.

Nehemiah then gives instructions regarding the opening and closing of the gates—instructions designed to avoid any traps set between the dangerous hours of dusk and dawn (7:3). Thus the administration and defense of Jerusalem are settled.

The sheer emptiness of the city is what now confronts Nehemiah (7:4). The walls have been rebuilt more or less along their original lines. Jerusalem is a substantial city, and yet the vast majority of the returned Jews are living in the countryside. What takes place in the following chapters, then, is something that can only be called a revival, followed by the determination of the people to send one-tenth of their number into Jerusalem to become the fledgling kernel of a new generation of Jerusalemites. As a first step, Nehemiah digs out the now aging records of those exiles who had first returned from exile in order to determine whose genealogical records demonstrated them to be part of the covenant people, and especially those who could legitimately serve as priests. The steps Nehemiah pursues seem to be part of a careful plan, one which, as Nehemiah himself insists, “my God put … into my heart” (7:5).

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Genesis 17; Matthew 16; Nehemiah 6; Acts 16

Jan 16, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 17; Matthew 16; Nehemiah 6; Acts 16

IT IS COMMON FOR GREAT ENTERPRISES OF FAITH to be surrounded by extremely difficult relationships.

William Carey, the father of modern Protestant missions, may be a hero to us, but in his own day he was viewed as eccentric and had more than his share of personal and familial sorrow. The great magisterial reformers did not battle for mere ideas; they were enmeshed in a great controversy that included not only “enemies” but countless people who were “friends” in some arenas and foes in others. In any great controversy there is bound to be a spectrum of viewpoints and a considerable diversity of degrees of integrity. One cannot read a detailed and candid biography of any Christian leader without observing the kinds and frequency of the difficult, painful, and sometimes deceptive debates in which they were called to participate. Consider, for example, Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield or Iain Murray’s D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I cannot think of an exception.

Where sufficient information is provided, the same thing must be said regarding leaders of the faith whose cameos appear in Scripture. Despite the long list of physical sufferings inflicted on him by unbelievers and by his calling as a church-planting apostle (2 Cor. 11), doubtless Paul’s most anguished moments come to him from closer to home—from Christians behaving in sub-Christian ways, from false brothers and false apostles undermining his work with innuendo and half-truths.

These are the kinds of things Nehemiah now faces (Neh. 6). Failing to succeed by ridicule, threat, and direct opposition, Sanballat, Tobiah, and their colleagues embark on subterfuge and personal pressure. In this chapter there are lies, false prophets, and accusations of rebellion. Indeed, even some of the Jews, Nehemiah’s own people, owe allegiance through political and marriage alliances to Tobiah, and use their compromised positions to try to influence the governor away from a policy that is good for the Jews and honoring to God. In all these machinations, Nehemiah steers a straight course, asks God for help, and shows himself to be a discerning and far-seeing leader.

Similar problems assail genuine Christian leaders today, and similar quiet resolve and fearless discernment are required to meet them. This is certainly true in pastoral ministry. The most difficult challenges will erupt not from direct opposition or from problems with a building or the like, but from deceivers, liars, those committed to some other agenda but whose smooth talk is so superficially “spiritual” that many are deceived. Expect such difficulties; they will surely come. It is the price of godly leadership in a fallen world.

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