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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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Genesis 16; Matthew 15; Nehemiah 5; Acts 15

Jan 15, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 16; Matthew 15; Nehemiah 5; Acts 15

WHEN I WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT IN CANADA, I heard a story told by our history teacher. He related it with deadly anger. He had just returned from the battle-fields of World War II, where he had seen many of his friends killed. Furloughed home because of a war wound, he was riding a bus in a major Canadian city. Seated behind two prosperous-looking women, he overheard one of them say to the other, “I hope this war doesn’t end soon. We’ve never had it so good.”

There are almost always people who profit from the disasters of others, not least from war. So it was in Nehemiah’s day (Neh. 5). Even while there was a disciplined effort to rebuild the city, in the surrounding countryside the fiscal pressures of the times, coupled with famine conditions, made the rich richer and the poor poorer. In an effort to keep going, the poor mortgaged their land and then lost it; they sold themselves or their families into slavery. From Nehemiah’s perspective, slavery was slavery; to be a slave to a fellow Jew was still to be a slave. In some ways it was worse: Nehemiah was concerned not only with the slavery itself, but with the moral hardness of the rich who were profiting from the bankruptcy of others—the want of compassion, the failure to obey the Mosaic code that forbade usury, the sheer covetousness and greed. Transparently they did not need more. Nor was this a question of buying off the lazy. What conceivable justification could they offer for such profiteering?

Yet, mercifully, the consciences of these rich people were tender enough that they did not rebel when they were rebuked. “They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say” (Neh. 5:8). Indeed, in due course they repented, returned what had been taken, and stopped charging interest to their brothers.

Clearly one of the factors that enhanced Nehemiah’s credibility as he labored to bring about these reforms was his own conduct. Doubtless the vast majority of governors at the time used their positions of power to accumulate considerable wealth for themselves. Nehemiah refused to do so. He received, presumably from the central treasury, an ample stipend and sufficient support for himself and his staff, and he therefore declined to use his power to demand additional material support from the local population. Indeed, he ended up supporting many of them (Neh. 5:14-18).

Obedience to God, compassion toward one’s fellows, consistency in the leadership, covenantal faithfulness that extends to one’s pocketbook, repentance and restoration where there has been either corruption or rapacity—these were values more important than the building of the wall. If the wall had been rebuilt without rebuilding the people, the triumph would have been small.

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Genesis 15; Matthew 14; Nehemiah 4; Acts 14

Jan 14, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 15; Matthew 14; Nehemiah 4; Acts 14

THE DRAMA OF NEHEMIAH 4 ABOUNDS with lessons and illustrations of various truths. But we must not forget that what to us is a dramatic narrative was to those experiencing it days of brutally hard work, high tension, genuine fear, insecurity, rising faith, dirt and grime. Nevertheless, some lessons transcend the ages:

(1) Among the hardest things to endure is derisory contempt. That is what Nehemiah and the Jews faced from Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest (Neh. 4:1-3). The Judeo-Christian heritage of Western nations was until recent decades so strong that many Christians were shielded from such scorn. No more. We had better get used to what our brothers and sisters in Christ in other lands and centuries handle better than we.

(2) Although God sometimes works through spectacular and supernatural means, he commonly works through ordinary people who take responsibility for themselves and seek to act faithfully even in difficult circumstances. So the Jews “prayed to [their] God and posted a guard day and night” (Neh. 4:9). They armed themselves and divided their number between fighters and builders, but were also exhorted to, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for … your homes” (Neh. 4:14). Jews living near the enemy heard of the plots to demolish the building project and reported it to Nehemiah, who took appropriate action—but God gets the credit for frustrating the plot (Neh. 4:15).

(3) Practical implications flow from this outlook. (a) It presupposes a God-centered outlook that avoids naturalism. If God is God, if he has graciously made himself known in the great moments of redemptive history and in visions and words faithfully transmitted by prophets he has raised up, why should we not also think of this God as operating in the so-called “natural” course of events? Otherwise we have retreated to some myopic vision in which God works only in the spectacular and the miraculous, but otherwise is absent or asleep or uncaring. The God described in the Bible is never so small or distant. (b) That is why God can be trusted. Nehemiah is not resorting to mere psychological puffery, nor to shameless religious rhetoric. His faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the ending of the exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem—just as today our faith is properly grounded in the God who is always active and who is working out his redemptive-historical purposes in the calling and transformation of the elect and the building and purifying of his church.

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Genesis 14; Matthew 13; Nehemiah 3; Acts 13

Jan 13, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 14; Matthew 13; Nehemiah 3; Acts 13

IT IS ALWAYS WORTH ASKING WHY the summary of a particular sermon is included in Acts. Sometimes the answer is immediately obvious, at least in part. For example, Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, reported in Acts 2: whatever its distinctive features, it is above all the first post-resurrection Christian evangelistic sermon, the first Christian sermon after the descent of the Holy Spirit. The sermon Paul preaches in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52) has many interesting features that help explain why Luke records it:

(1) It is preached in a synagogue, and thus to people whom Paul views as biblically literate—Jews, proselytes, God-fearers. He does not have to explain basic categories the way he does to the Athenians, who are biblically illiterate (Acts 17).

(2) Preaching to the biblically literate, Paul begins with a selective recitation of Israel’s history—obviously a standard approach in some Christian preaching, for Stephen does the same thing (Acts 7).

(3) More importantly, this selective history is directed toward establishing one central point: God had promised the coming of a king in the Davidic line. That provides Paul with the base from which he springs forward to Christian witness: the Messiah, that Davidic king, has arrived, and his name is Jesus.

(4) With this line of thought, and to this biblically-literate crowd, Paul devotes part of his sermon to exposition of particular texts in order to demonstrate his major points.

(5) Paul makes it clear that the purpose and focus of Christ’s coming is the forgiveness of sins. He compares and contrasts the nature and scope of this forgiveness with what the Law of Moses provided. Paul is interested in the salvation-historical developments that have taken place with the coming of the Messiah (Acts 13:39). Further, the salvation Paul announces assigns a central role to justification.

(6) The following verses (Acts 13:42-52) explain how Paul’s popularity incites jealousy, which generates various results—including Paul’s move away from the synagogue to the broader Gentile population. This is a concrete demonstration of something that characterizes Paul’s evangelistic ministry in every new place he visits: he begins with Jews and all those gathered in the synagogue—a matter of theological conviction for him; but he eventually turns, or is forced to turn, to the biblically illiterate pagans—a matter of calling for him, for he knows he is called to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:8).

(7) As on other occasions, Paul’s preaching causes both a riot and a revival.

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Genesis 13; Matthew 12; Nehemiah 2; Acts 12

Jan 12, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 13; Matthew 12; Nehemiah 2; Acts 12

IT IS WORTH COMPARING THE TWO italicized passages (Neh. 2; Acts 12:1-19).

The same God is behind both situations, of course. In both situations, a lone servant of God faces the challenge of building up and strengthening God’s people in the teeth of opposition from some pretty hostile customers. Both men are in danger, in part for political reasons, though Peter’s danger is the more immediate. Both are unflinching in their loyalty to the living God and to the mission to which each is called.

Thereafter the stories diverge. Having won the ear of the emperor, Nehemiah finds himself on the imperial frontier. He has a certain paper authority, but the locals are set on giving him a hard time. He proceeds step by step, wisely, winning the support of the local Jewish leaders, securing the supplies needed for building the wall, dismissing the opponents and all their wiles. For Nehemiah there are no miracles, no mighty displays of power, no angels in the night. There is only a great deal of risky and courageous work.

By contrast, Peter’s situation is much more restricted. He has been arrested and is in prison awaiting execution. Since James has already been killed, Peter has no reason to think he will escape the executioner’s sword. In a strange apparition that he mistakes for a dream, Peter is rescued by an angel; the chains fall away from him, the doors open of their own accord. Finding himself outside the prison walls, Peter comes to his senses and presents himself at the home of John Mark’s mother, where people have gathered to pray for him. Eventually he secures entrance, and in due course leaves for “another place” (Acts 12:17). In Peter’s case, to escape death is a triumph, and the faith of the church has been strengthened by what has happened. And it all happened because of a miraculous display of angelic help.

The lesson of these radically different experiences is one that we must learn again and again: God’s servants do not have the same gifts, the same tasks, the same success, or the same degree of divine intervention. It is partly a matter of gifts and calling; it is partly a matter of where we fit into God’s unfolding redemptive purposes. Has he placed us in times of declension, for example, or of revival; of persecution, or of major advance? Let God be God; let all his servants be faithful.

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Genesis 12; Matthew 11; Nehemiah 1; Acts 11

Jan 11, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 12; Matthew 11; Nehemiah 1; Acts 11

IN THE COMPLEX HISTORY OF THE postexilic community in Judah, Nehemiah plays a singular role. He was not part of the original party that returned to Judah, but before long he was sent there by the emperor himself. In two separate expeditions, Nehemiah served as de facto governor of the remnant community and was largely responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, not to mention other reforms. His work overlapped that of Ezra.

The book of Nehemiah is often treated as a manual on godly leadership. I wonder if this does justice to the book. Did Nehemiah intend to write a manual on leadership? Is the book included in the canon for that purpose—as if we turn, say, to Acts to discover the history of the early church and to Nehemiah to discover the principles of leadership?

This is not to say that there is nothing about leadership to be learned from Nehemiah—or, for that matter, from Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. Yet a reading of this book that focuses on the theme of leadership is bound to be skewed; it is in line neither with authorial intent nor with canonical priorities.

Nehemiah is a book about God’s faithfulness and about the agents God used in reestablishing his covenant people in the Promised Land at the end of the exile—about the first steps taken to secure their protection and identity as God’s people and to assure their covenantal faithfulness. Canonically, this part of the Bible’s story-line establishes chunks of postexilic history that take us on to the Lord Jesus himself.

But perhaps we can profitably focus on one or two elements of Nehemiah 1, trailing on to Nehemiah 2.

Early reports of the sorry condition of the returned remnant community in Judah (1:3) elicit from Nehemiah profound grief and fervent intercession (1:4). The substance of his prayer occupies most of the first chapter (1:5-11). Nehemiah addresses the “great and awesome God” in terms of the covenant. God had promised to send his people into exile if they were persistent in their disobedience; but he had also promised, if they repented and returned to him, to gather them again to the place he had chosen as a dwelling for his name (1:8-9; see Deut. 30:4-5). Yet Nehemiah is not praying for others while avoiding any role for himself. He prays that he might find favor in the eyes of the emperor, whom he serves as cupbearer (1:11), when he approaches him about this great burden. Even Nehemiah’s “bullet prayer” in the next chapter (2:4) is the outcropping of sustained intercessory prayer in secret.

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Genesis 11; Matthew 10; Ezra 10; Acts 10

Jan 10, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 11; Matthew 10; Ezra 10; Acts 10

BROADLY SPEAKING, EZRA 10 is understood in two different ways:

According to the first view, what takes place is something akin to revival. Ezra’s tears and prayer prove so moving that the leaders of the community, though they too have been compromised by these intermarriages, enter into a pact to divorce their pagan wives and send them home to their own people, along with whatever children have sprung up from these marriages. Those who disagree with this decision will be expelled from the assembly of the exiles (Ezra 10:8), henceforth to be treated like foreigners themselves. The appropriate councils are set up, and the work is discharged. This is remarkably courageous, a sure sign of God’s blessing, ringing evidence that these people love God even more than they love their own families. The purity of the postexilic community is maintained, and the wrath of God is averted. The lesson, then, is that one must deal radically with sin.

According to the second view, although Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 9) is exactly right, the steps that flow from it are virtually all wrong. Marriage, after all, is a creation ordinance. In any case, one cannot simply undo a marriage; if the Law prohibits marriage with a pagan, it also prohibits easy divorce. What about all those children? Are they to be banished to their pagan grandparents, without any access to the covenant community and the one God of all the earth—quite apart from the psychological damage that doubtless will befall them? Could not other steps be taken instead? For example, all further mixed marriages could be proscribed and rigorously prevented, under the sanction of being expelled from the assembly. Priests who have intermarried could be stripped of priestly rights and duties. The kind of widespread repentance that is evident could be channeled toward faithful study of the Law, not least by these mixed families. What sanction is there for so inhumane an action as that in this chapter?

Strictly speaking, the text itself does not adjudicate between these two interpretations, though the first of the two is slightly more natural within the stance of the book. But is it more natural within the stance of the entire canon or of the Old Testament canon?

Without meaning to avoid the issue, I suspect that in large measure both views are correct. There is something noble and courageous about the action taken; there is also something heartless and reductionistic. One suspects that this is one of those mixed results in which the Bible frankly abounds, like the account of Gideon, or of Jephthah, or of Samson. Some sins have such complex tentacles that it is not surprising if solutions undertaken by repentant sinners are messy as well.

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Genesis 9-10; Matthew 9; Ezra 9; Acts 9

Jan 09, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 9-10; Matthew 9; Ezra 9; Acts 9

IT MAY BE DIFFICULT FOR SOME CHRISTIANS, immersed in the heritage of individualism and influenced by postmodern relativism, to find much sympathy for Ezra and his prayer (Ezra 9). A hundred or so of the returned Israelites, out of a population that by this time would have been at least fifty or sixty thousand, have married pagan women from the surrounding tribes. Ezra treats this as an unmitigated disaster and weeps before the Lord as if really grievous harm has been done. Has religion descended to the level where it tells its adherents whom they may marry? Moreover, the aftermath of this prayer (on which we shall reflect tomorrow) is pretty heartless, isn’t it?

In reality, Ezra’s prayer discloses a man who has thought long and hard about Israel’s history.

First, he understands what brought about the exile, the formal destruction of the nation, the scattering of the people. It was nothing other than the sins of the people—and terribly often these sins had been fostered by links, not least marital links, between the people of the covenant and the surrounding tribes. “Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ezra 9:7).

Second, he understands that if this community has been permitted to return to Judah, it is because “for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage” (Ezra 9:8).

Third, he understands that in the light of the first two points, and in the light of Scripture’s explicit prohibition against intermarriage, what has taken place is not only singular ingratitude but concrete defiance of the God who has come to Israel’s relief not only in the Exodus but also in the exile.

Fourth, he understands the complex, corrosive, corporate nature of sin. Like Isaiah before him (Isa. 6:5), Ezra aligns himself with the people in their sin (Ezra 9:6). He grasps the stubborn fact that these are not individual failures and nothing more; these are means by which raw paganism, and finally the relativizing of Almighty God, are smuggled into the entire community through the back door. How could such marriages, even among some priests, have been arranged unless many, many others had given their approval, or at least winked at the exercise? Above all, Ezra understands that the sins of the people of God are far worse than the punishment they have received (Ezra 9:13-15).

How should these lines of thought shape our thinking about the sins of the people of God today?

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Genesis 8; Matthew 8; Ezra 8; Acts 8

Jan 08, 2016 | Don Carson

Genesis 8; Matthew 8; Ezra 8; Acts 8

OUR VISION IS MYOPIC AND OUR understanding patchy. We rarely “read” really well the events going on around us. Consider the immediate aftermath of the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-5). “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). That situation probably was not very comfortable for the believers undergoing it. Nevertheless:

(1) “[A]nd all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Doubtless it was easier to hide twelve men than the thousands of people who now constituted the church. Moreover, to keep the Twelve at Jerusalem was to keep them at the center, and therefore to maintain some oversight of the rapid developments.

(2) “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). This signaled far more rapid extension of the Gospel than if the apostles had all gone out on missions while the rest of the church stayed home. Here was a force of thousands and thousands, most of them simply “gossiping the Gospel,” others highly gifted evangelists, disseminated by persecution.

(3) “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there” (Acts 8:5). Often in the book of Acts, Luke makes a general statement and then gives a concrete example of it. For example, in Acts 4:32-36, Luke tells how believers regularly sold property and put the proceeds into the common pot for the relief of the poor. He then tells the story of one particular man, Joseph, nicknamed Barnabas by the apostles, who did just that. This simultaneously provides a concrete example of the general trend Luke had just described, and introduces Barnabas (who will be a major player later on), who in turn provides a foil for Ananias and Sapphira, who lie about the proceeds of their own sale (Acts 5). Thus the account is carried forward. So also here in Acts 8: Luke describes the scattering of believers, observing that they “preached the word wherever they went,” and then relates one particular account, that of Philip. He was one of the seven men appointed to the nascent “diaconate” (Acts 6); now he becomes a strategic evangelist in bringing the Gospel across one of the first social-cultural hurdles: from Jews to Samaritans.

(4) “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:2-3). The contrast is stunning. Saul thinks he is doing God’s work; in reality, the really godly mourn for and bury the first Christian martyr. Yet in God’s peculiar providence, this Saul will become one of the greatest cross-cultural missionaries of all time and the human author of about one-quarter of the New Testament.

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