Sunday Lesson | August 24

Romans 12:1-8

 Why This Lesson Matters?

 Literacy rates in the ancient world were quite low. Romans was written by Paul not to be read but to be read aloud to an audience. Paul was writing something analogous to a radio script. Listeners would have heard the word “Amen” conclude Chapter 11, followed by a long pause, and then the word “Therefore.” Many have interpreted Romans 12-16 as a disappointing, anti-climatic ending of moral discourse following the magisterial doctrines of Chapters 1-11. A closer reading suggests something quite different.

 In Romans 1:16-17, we learn that the gospel is the “power of God to save…out of faith for faith.” Chapters 1-2 describe the conditions of Gentile and Jew before God. Chapters 3-7 speak of God’s and God’s Anointed One acting “faithfully.” This “Divine Faithfulness” gives rise to, results in, generates, even creates the human response of faithfulness which Paul begins to describe in our text today. Chapters 1-11 are focused on the Divine Faithfulness that generates the human response of faith. Chapter 12 answers the question of what an appropriate response to the mercies of God would be.

 The context for the verses we are looking at today is found in Romans 1 with its description of Gentile idolatry. Romans 11 ends with a magnificent Doxology. “Doxology” means “words of glory.” In Romans 1:21, Paul says idolaters did not glorify God. In 1:23, he says idolators had “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into” corruptible earthly beings. As a result of God’s mercy through the faith creating faithfulness of Jesus, idolators who had refused to give God glory now glorify Him.

 In 12:1, Paul exhorts Christians to “present you bodies as a living sacrifices.” In 1:24, idolators had misused their freedom in lust and uncleanness which resulted in God turning them over to “dishonor their own bodies.”

In 12:1, Paul mentions “reasoned service.” In 12:3, he directs his audience to “think soberly.” In chapter 1, Paul discusses the loss of reason that accompanies gentile idolatry. In 1:20, idolaters cannot see what is clear to see. In 1:21, their thoughts are vain. In 1:18 and 25, they are caught up in a “lie.” In 1:28, they did not “retain God in their knowledge, and God gave them over to a reprobate mind.”

In 12:3, listeners are told in the context of sobriety to think humbly of themselves because they are not self-made but are who they are through the giftedness of God. In Romans 1:21b-22, Paul speaks of the vanity and self-delusional wisdom idolators possess. Gentile idolaters think too highly of themselves.


Side Note

In Luke Johnson’s commentary on Romans (Reading Romans [Smyth & Helwys, 2001, 190-191], Dr. Johnson makes the following observations: First, the renewed and transformed mind in 12:2 is “the mind of Christ.” made available through the Spirit. The values and vision of this age are challenged and replaced by the values and vision of the “age to come” made known in Jesus. Second, Paul is acutely aware that the will of God is easily known at the most general level. We know God wants good and not evil. But, when we drill the will of God down to specific actions in concrete and nuanced situations, things get difficult. How am I to behave and what am I to do in this moment of tough decision I face? Now the will of God has to be tested through a process of discernment WITHIN A COMMUNITY OF FAITH. We need all that variety of support within a community.

Possible Questions

Is it easier to know or to do the will of God?

How badly do we need a community of faith?

How badly do we need the diversity that exists in a community of faith?

Does the individualism of our culture make it difficult for us to experience life in community?


Sunday Lesson | August 17

Romans 11:1-32

Why This Text Matters?

When Indiana Jones says “I have a bad feeling about this,” there is interesting crowd reaction. Many in the audience, but not everyone, immediately realize that this was a line in each of the Star Wars movies. Half the audience laughs. One story intersects with another. While this intersection is trivial in the movie, there is a story well known to Paul’s audience that is key to understating what Paul is saying in Romans 9-11.

In Romans 9:16, Paul speaks of a person who “runs.” In 9:30-31, Paul speaks of Gentiles who were not pursuing righteousness attaining a righteousness that Jews were pursuing but failed to reach. In 9:32-33 and again in 11:11, we hear of “stumbling” that God causes. 11:11 also speaks of “provoking jealously” which is “provoking to greater effort.” 11:12 references a “mistake” or “misstep.”  In 10:4, we hear that Christ is the “telos” or “goal line” of the law. Clearly, there is a foot race. Jews did not think Gentiles were even in the race; however, through Christ, God has not only made Gentiles followers but has made them highly qualified and highly competent followers. God has fit Gentiles to competent. This same Christ, who is the source of Gentile inclusion into the Kingdom of God, has caused Israel to stumble–but not to fall! If a runner falls, he or she is out of the race. Israel sees Gentiles winning and runs with greater zeal. The logic of the image demands that Gentiles and Jews will finish the race together–in a glorious tie before and because of God!

In A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles, Stanley Stowers identifies the story behind the story. It comes from Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad which tells the myth of the founding of the Olympic Games in the funeral games for Patroclus. Stowers tells the story as follows: “The race in the funeral games has three contestants–Antilochus, Ajax, and Odysseus–instead of two. In Homer’s race too, a god trips a runner. As the runners reach the homestretch, Ajax is in the lead with Odysseus on his heels. Approaching the finish line, Odysseus prays to Athena for greater speed. The goddess answers not only by giving the second place runner additional speed but also by causing Ajax to slip and fall into the disgusting filth left from a cattle sacrifice made by Achilles. Although Odysseus passes Ajax and takes first place, Ajax manages to get up and finish ahead of Antilochus. The god trips the runner who is on the verge of winning; the second place runner unexpectedly comes in first, but the runner who was tripped manages to finish the race and share in the prize.” This story would be almost universally known among Greeks. It is difficult to imagine them not knowing the beginnings of the Olympics. Homer’s story provides the controlling imagery for understanding Paul’s message. Paul’s original audience could not hear Paul’s story of Jews and Gentiles without simultaneously hearing Homer’s story. 

The image of God that Paul has and presents in Romans 9-11 leads him to conclude the section with a beautiful Doxology. The disobedience of Jews and Gentiles means that God can treat both sets of children with equal mercy. This picks up on the central theme of Romans: Since God is the Universal God of all and not just the God of the Jews, He will extend the same love, grace, mercy, effort, and relationship to Gentiles that He did for Jews. Romans 9-11 unfolds what Paul wrote in 8:28 where he said, “…we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” “All things” even includes “disobedience.”

Side Note

Using a different image, it is as though God has two sets of children–one Jewish, the other Gentile–who are on two different tracts. God uses the tense interactions in this sibling rivalry to save both. In Romans 1-2, Paul tells the story of Gentile idolatry and warns Jews not to be boastful. In Romans 9-11, Paul tells the story of Jewish disobedience and warns Gentile Christians not to be arrogant. We get an ironic twist to Paul’s phrase “to the Jew first and also the Gentile.” Paul warns Jews first (Romans 2) then Gentiles (Romans 11).

Historical Issues

 When Athena trips Ajax making him fall in filth,  she acts arbitrarily and unfairly, even, sadistically. Paul’s audience would notice how different Paul’s God is–He always acts with fairness and purpose based in goodness. Little wonder, Greeks were eager to leave paganism to accept Paul’s gospel with its vision of God.

Possible Questions

 When both runners are going to finish in a tie, how can either boast over the other?

 We tend to read Romans asking, “How can I know I am saved?” Does Paul ask something different? Does he ask, “How does God act so as to save us?”

 If God can find a way to rescue Gentiles from explicit idolatry, can’t He find a way to rescue Jews from a misstep?

 What is salvation by jealously? Does this method of Jewish salvation differ from the means of Gentile salvation?

Sunday Lesson | August 10

Romans 10:5-15

 Why this Text Matters

 The Bible of the first Christians was the Old Testament. They found the gospel of Jesus there. As early as the second verse of Romans, Paul tells us that the gospel regarding God’s Son was “promised” by God through His prophets in the Old Testament scriptures. We need to think broadly when defining who a prophet is. While Moses is associated with law-giving, he was also considered Israel’s greatest prophet. David, when he proclaims God’s message, is a prophet as well. The second verse of Romans demands that we look for Old Testament proclamations of the gospel.  Structurally, three stand out for special consideration.

First, there is the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. This is the first Old Testament citation, and we would rightly believe that it is important. Paul builds his concept of the gospel around it. The gospel displays God’s righteousness (His power to make persons right with Him) “out of faith for faith.” When the word “faith” is used by Paul, we tend to automatically supply the          word “human.” There are important alternatives. Paul can talk of “God’s faith” in the sense of God’s faithfulness (Rom 3:3). Paul can refer to “Christ’s faith” (see Rom 3:22 KJV). “Christ’s faithfulness” is his trusting obedience as the instrument of God–a trusting and obeying form of faith that took him to the cross. This display of divine faithfulness (God as agent and God’s Anointed as instrument) has a purpose–to create trusting obedience in us. For Paul, the gospel is the story of divine faithfulness creating human faithfulness (see Romans 1:5 and 16:26 which speak of our call to the “obedience of faith”–that the phrase begins and ends Romans is important). The Habakkuk quote tells us that one who is made righteousness “out of” the divine faithfulness will have eternal life.

 Second, there is the quotation of Psalms 32:2 in Romans 4:8. We might not think of David as a prophet, but here Paul finds an important part of the gospel. David did not say, “Blessed is the Jew whose sins are not counted.” David said, “Blessed is the man.” David is proclaiming something universal–David sees a day when non-Jews have a covenant relationship with God. Paul follows up the quotation from David with “Is this blessedness (of which David spoke) only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” The message of salvation for Jew and Gentile that Paul proclaimed and suffered for was “preached” by David. 

The Old Testament was understood to be written in three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. The first quote was from the Prophets, the second from the Writings. The Law remains. Is Paul going to argue that the universal gospel of the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles into the Kingdom of God can be found in the very Books of Moses? Did Moses proclaim Paul’s gospel?

The question leads us to our third and final text which is today’s lesson. In Romans 10:5, Paul reminds readers that Moses, in the law, writes, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Paul wanted his citation from the Law to form the climax. The citations from Habakkuk and David both contain elements that find their way into Romans 10:5. We get the theme of “life” from Habakkuk and the theme of universalism from David. So, Moses, who was at the center of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, envisions the inclusion of non-Jews.

The first word in Romans 10:6 is a little conjunction with huge implications. The Greek can be translated as “but” or an emphatic “AND.” If the conjunction in Rom 10:6 is “but,” then Paul quoted Moses in the previous verse in order to turn around and disagree with Moses. That isn’t Paul’s method of operation. While the Mosaic Covenant exclusive to Jews was not the means to universalism, it did envision universalism. That is Paul’s point. Faith (God’s faithfulness in sending Christ and Christ’s obedience) creates the universalism that Moses foresaw. The “righteousness that is by law” is completed by “righteousness that is by faith.” The universalism Moses envisions is accomplished by the faithfulness of God in Christ. 

What happens in Romans 10:5-13 is a rich and beautiful textual moment. For Paul, God has two sets of children on two tracks–His Jewish children and His Gentile Children (more next week). The major theme of Romans is that God treats both sets of children the same–with a perfect impartiality. As there is perfect impartiality, there is perfect correspondence. In Deuteronomy 30, we learn that God paved the proverbial 4-lane highway for the Jewish people to enter into a covenant with Him. He did not make a difficult, narrow, thorny pathway. In offering non-Jews a covenant relationship, God paved a 4-lane highway in Christ. Behind Paul’s words, we can hear a serious debate among Jews about Gentile salvation. Can Gentiles leave idolatry for advanced theism in a matter of moments? Surely not! They need years of theological training starting with the basics of the 10 Commandments (Rom 2:17-24). Salvation through human effort (an educational program taught to Gentiles) would take years; it would look like humans building a way to Heaven to bring Christ down. Salvation through faith, that is through God’s faithfulness in sending His faithful Son, is different. God has found a way to make very good theists out of pagans very quickly–God has sent and raised Christ. The “word of faith” that Paul proclaims says that God is eager and active to save whole peoples by bringing them into relationship with Himself and each other. God has done by gift what humans could never do through human effort.

 Side Note

Paul finds Universal Theism in the Law, Prophets, and Writings–every part of his Old Testament. This may shed a great deal of light on what Paul means by “doing the whole law.” Since the message of the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s Kingdom is in the Old Testament Writings (the Writings of the Law), doing the gospel is doing the law–the whole law.

 Possible Question

Since God is the God of all, can He leave Jews in a covenant relationship with Himself and exclude all others?

 Is that what Paul means by “no distinction?”





Sunday Lesson| July 27

I Kings 3:1-15

Why This Text Matters?

Today’s story doesn’t tell the whole story. When looking at this story within the context of the Solomon cycle, we’d be properly tempted to say that it is the story of Solomon’s one really good moment. Sandwiched before and after the story of this “happy” day are a lot of bad days. In our excellent lesson, Tony Cartledge writes, “…the editor of I Kings manages to praise King Solomon as a monarch of unparalleled wisdom and prosperity, but with a shadow over him.”

This shadow is cast by multiple clouds. First, in verse 1 we hear of one of Solomon’s numerous political marriages. Possessing a harem in which his wives worshipped their foreign, local deities was a fatal mistake for Solomon. Second, we are told David walked in the “statutes of his father David.” We would have expected that he would walk in the statues of a God. In the chapter just before our text, David instructs Solomon in the executions David wants Solomon to perform. Solomon executes them. Interestingly enough, David tells Solomon to reward the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite; yet, we don’t read that Solomon followed through. Third, there is the problem of where Solomon worshipped. For the Deuteronomic editors of I Kings, worship was to be performed only in Jerusalem. Centralizing worship there increased the chances that pagan influences in theology and rituals could be controlled. Verse 3 accuses Solomon of violating this principle by his sacrifice at Gibeon. Verse 2 could be read as something of an “out” for Solomon since the temple in Jerusalem had not yet been built. But, verse 2 says the people sacrificed in the high places outside Jerusalem implying that the king shouldn’t have. Indeed, in verse 15 of our text we see Solomon sacrifice in Jerusalem before the Ark. He could have always sac rifled in Jerusalem. Fourth, verse 14 is conditional. Promises are made to Solomon on the condition that he obeys God. This leaves the reader open to the possibility that the ongoing story doesn’t go well. The story doesn’t go well.

 Solomon inherited from David the largest expanse of territory any Israelite King would have. Solomon’s building projects included his palace, the temple and the Jerusalem wall. These projects were incredibly expensive requiring not only high taxes but even a large “draft” of men to serve in the military and in construction labor. The account is in I Kings 9:15ff. Jewish men were drafted into military service. Non-Jews were enslaved and put on building projects. Solomon’s over-reach may not have been “wise.”  When Solomon died, citizens asked his heir for relief. When he refused, 10 of the 12 tribes split off to form a new kingdom! No King ever ruled over all 12 tribes again (see I Kings ch 12). 

I Kings 11:4ff tells the story of the final rift between God and Solomon. Solomon’s pagan wives turned him to paganism.

 Side Issue

The following quotation is from The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3 page 40.  “A Model a Prayer.–Notwithstanding Solomon’s personal imperfections, the prayer ascribed to him is so appropriate for one who has just assumed a place of public power and responsibility that it has served as a model for rulers since his day. Americans will remember that when the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt placed the burdens of presidential office on the shoulders of Harry S. Truman, the new executive offered Solomon’s petition as his own prayer for guidance. His act enlisted the sympathy of his fellow citizens.”

 Possible Questions

Does one story ever tell the whole story? If so, how often?

We speak of people who are book smart but not street smart. Is Solomon “wise”in some ways and “unwise”in others?



Sunday Lesson | July 20

Lesson 7-20-14

Isaiah 44:6-20

Why This Text Matters? 

God doesn’t just want a relationship with us; He wants a covenant relationship. The first commitment we make when entering a covenant relationship with God is to have no gods before Him. Today’s text has the tone of ridicule and sarcasm directed at the folly of idolatry.

Verse 13 is key. In the Genesis story of Creation, God makes humans in His image. In the story of Idolatry, deluded humans make gods in the image and likeness of humans. The 10 Commandments strongly condemn the attempt to use graven images to represent God. While the Biblical presentation of God makes it clear that He is totally involved in creation, it is also clear that, in His being, He is “totally other” than the world. While imminent in the world, He is transcendent from the world. God is nothing like what can be found in Heaven, on earth, or beneath the earth. A major point of the Creation story is the separateness of Creator and creation.

Biblical scholars have looked at a Old Testament texts like today’s and raised a serious question: Did the Ancient Jews understand idolatry? In the Anchor Bible commentary on II Isaiah, John McKenzie writes: “The image was representational, though of a kind of representation foreign to our thought. The image was treated like the deity; it was served daily with food and drink and care as if it were a human king; resided in a palace, held audiences, and was carried in possessions. It was the earthly counterpart of the god, as the temple was the earthly counterpart of his heavenly palace. It was the symbolic presence of the god, and in this respect was not dissimilar to the Israelite ark of the covenant, which was also the symbol and seat of the presence of Yahweh in Israel. But the worshipers of these ancient religions did not make the simple identification of the god with the image…”

Solutions are difficult. McKenzie writes, “H.H. Rowley suggested that behind the scoffing was a certain Israelite inability to grasp the symbolism. The Israelites did not believe that there was anything behind the image, no reality that was represented; therefore the cult was directed toward the image, since it was the only reality toward which it could be directed.” Rowley’s suggestion makes sense. Idolators believed a real god existed who was represented by the idol, but the Israelites knew, because of the prohibitions of making an image, that no created thing could succeed at pointing to the uncreated Creator. The inability of Israelites to grasp the symbolism of idolatry was driven by their correct theological understanding of the inadequacy of grave images to the task of describing God.

Side Notes

Graven images of God are clearly inappropriate. But what about mental images? While there are a few conceptual geniuses among us, most of us think with images. In Your God is Too Small, J.B. Phillips suggested that we can have woefully inadequate mental images of God. In the first half of the book, Phillips explores the inadequate images–God as cosmic police officer, divine grandfather, bellhop, etc. The second half of the book is constructive. Phillips describes the God revealed as the Father of Our Lord Jesus. 

Historical Issues

Last week we looked at the composition of Isaiah. This week’s text and last week’s are both from II Isaiah. Verses 6-8 in today’s text is in poetry and is from II Isaiah. Verses 9-20 are the only proses verses in II Isaiah and seem to be an inserted essay on idolatry. Scholars are divided as to whether verses 9-20 are from II Isaiah or a later disciple of his.

Possible Questions

Are there idolatrous mental images of God? What are examples?

The Bible is a witness to God. Can it become so central that devotion to Bible displaces devotion to God?

Sunday Lesson | July 13

Isaiah 55:6-13

Why This Text Matters?

The Book of Isaiah is an anthology of writings from a “school” whose founder was Isaiah of Jerusalem. It is best to look at the Book of Isaiah as three writings. Chapters 1-39 were from the original Isaiah of Jerusalem whose ministry spanned the years between 742 BC and 687 BC. While Isaiah was warning the people of the Southern Kingdom to repent, the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrian Empire in 721 BC. Judah ( the Southern Kingdom) was a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire and lived under its enormous threat. So, Chapter 39 closes out around 687 BC.

Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah revolve around an event that occurred on October 29, 539 BC. A century and a half of time passes between the close of Chapter 39 and the opening of Chapter 40. A lot happened in this 150 years. The Southern Kingdom did not fall to the Assyrians but to the Babylonians. There were two deportations. The first in 597 BC saw the Babylonians take the leading citizens of Jerusalem into captivity. Stupidly, the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem decided to revolt against Babylon despite Jeremiah’s message. The Babylonians returned in 587 BC and made sure they would never have to return a third time–Jerusalem was left in ruin. For half a century, the Babylonian Captivity drug on.

Much changed on October 29, 539 BC! The Babylonian Empire fell to a Persian Ruler named Cyrus. Cyrus was a remarkable person. He believed in religious freedom. He allowed conquered peoples to retain their social identity, government, religion, and territory. When he learned about the plight of Exiled Israel, he issued an edict that allowed their return home. The Jewish people could rebuild their temple! It is in light of these events that “II Isaiah” wrote the 20 poems that are contained in Chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. Our text today is the conclusion of the 20th and final poem from II Isaiah.

All of Isaiah 55 is in the voice of God except for verses 6-7 in which the prophet calls on people to repent. It is interesting and intriguing that we are not told what the prophet wants people to repent from. It doesn’t seem to be idolatry. So, what is it? Some research is required. Just before the call to repentance in verses 6-7, we have the only reference to David in II Isaiah. It is an indirect not a direct reference–God will make an everlasting covenant with collective Israel because of His covenant love for David. Following the call to repentance in verses 6-7 we find God speaking of the mystery of His ways and thoughts. God had saved His people, BUT He had done it through the instrumentality of a pagan, Persian King and NOT by restoring a Jewish Monarch to the throne of David! II Isaiah NEVER hints at a restored monarchy. They were saved alright but not they way they wanted! Repentance required! Conformation of this reading comes in Isaiah 45:9-13 which warns that it is unwise to strive with our Maker. 45:13 is a direct reference to Cyrus in the voice of God–“I have aroused him in righteousness, and I will make straight all his ways; he shall build my city and set my exiles free.” People had trouble accepting deliverance from a very unexpected deliverer.

With this context in mind, Isaiah 55:8-13 becomes a beautiful summons in the voice of God Himself for His people to experience the salvation He has accomplished on their behalf. It should be no surprise that this deliverance would contain elements that were mysterious and powerful and effective and unexpected.
Side Note

That God would use a pagan to deliver the Exiled in Babylon does seem strange. How much more strange that He would use a felon executed by the state to deliver the world!

Historical Issues

In Isaiah 45:1, Cyrus is the only gentile in the Bible to be called an “Anointed One” or “Messiah.”

Possible Questions

What is the role of mystery in faith?

If the deliverance through Cyrus was mysterious, can we comprehend the atonement achieved in Jesus? Can there be a systematic theology of the atonement?

We build our image of God and form our expectations of Him based on His past activity, yet He moves forward in surprising ways. How do we navigate this?

Isaiah often combines images of God’s power to save with His power to create. Is Isaiah saying that He who has the power to create has the power and desire to re-create?

Sunday Lesson | July 6th

Zechariah 9:9-13

Why Does This Text Matter?

A central issue in the text involves the use of power. In exile, Napoleon had time to reflect and write. In his memoirs, he wrote that he had tried to establish a kingdom using coercion with terrible results–defeat and exile. In contrast, Napoleon said Jesus had built a kingdom using persuasion and, as a consequence, Jesus had followers on every continent. Philosophers have written about how different coercion and persuasion are. With coercion, I can restrict the power of another to work against me. In contrast, by using persuasion, my power and energy can be added to the power and energy of another. Coercive power diminishes the more it is used while the use of persuasion results in expansive growth. The power of persuasion is greater and superior to the power of coercion. Coercion and persuasion are represented by the image of the messiah riding an ass or a horse. While the horse was a symbol of power and war, the ass was a symbol of royalty and peace (see Genesis 49:10-11, Judges 5:10, Judges 12:14).

In majesty and mystery, the Messiah Zechariah envisions will oversee a universal kingdom. The 10 Northern tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Assyrians erased the nations they conquered by separating husbands and wives and forcing inter-marriages. The Assyrians made the maintenance of social identity an impossibility for the people the defeated. Yet, Zechariah envisions a restored Northern Israel and Southern Judah. Gentiles are included as well. The Hebrew word translated as “nations” in verse 10 can be translated as “Gentiles.” The Messiah will speak “peace” or “shalom” to the Gentiles. “Shalom” is a rich term including connotations of covenant, reconciliation, salvation, and fulfillment.

The use of the phrase “prisoners of hope” is fascinating. When we despair, God doesn’t abandon us to despair. Paul asks a great and leading question, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The People of God cling to the promises of God in hope.

There is no indication as to when Zechariah’s Messiah would appear. Victor Frankl, who survived horrible Holocaust conditions, was once asked why he survived when so many didn’t. He said many imagined they would be free in a week or month or year. Their disappointment was too much. In contrast, Frankl said he hoped without regard as to when his hopes would come true. He would imagine himself before groups telling his story but he never let himself imagine when.

Historical Issues

The Jews who returned from the Babylonian Captivity had restored the temple. Today’s text expresses the hope of the restoration of the office of king.

The historical background for Zechariah 9:1-17 involves the conquests of Alexander the Great. The city of Tyre was considered the wealthiest city of the time. Tyre was on a rocky island and had never fallen until Alexander succeeded. His engineers built a mole a half-mile long from the mainland to the island which was key to the seven month siege that fell the city. Any Jewish hope that Alexander would be an instrument of God died with his death at the age of 33. Four of Alexander’s generals fought for control of his former empire. Chaos and confusion and strife reigned (see Dan. 8:8). Little wonder that Zechariah had a renewed hope for a Jewish King. Little wonder that “salvation” would involve the “sons of Zion” overcoming the “sons of Greece” (see verse 13).

Side Note

The use of power was also the issue in Jesus’ temptation. Turning stone into bread for his own consumption would mean Jesus would use his power in his own self-interest. Throwing himself off a tower without harm would be to use his power to call attention to himself instead of God and God’s Kingdom.

Possible Questions

We often think of hope as a singular thing. Are there different types of hope? Forms that disappoint and forms that sustain, forms born in patience and impatience, forms that are healthy and unhealthy.

If there are differing types of hope, what kind do I possess?

Sunday Lesson | June 29th

Jeremiah 28:1-17

Why does this text matter?

Ever find yourself asking questions like “What does God want me to do?” or “What does God want us to do?” We can have the sincerity and determination to do God’s will and be clueless as to what God’s will is.

To illustrate we can look at the current situation in Iraq in light of what America should do. Conservatives like John McCain are calling on the President to fire his current team and replace them with the “successful” team former President Bush had. Liberals are questioning Senator McCain’s understanding of “success.” Glen Beck represents a conservative who supported the war in the past but who is saying now, ” Not one more!” He means not one more American dollar, bullet, soldier, etc. Given that America has spent the lives of 4500 service men and women and over a trillion dollars on Iraq, many Americans are watching the savagery and asking, “Can’t we do something?” What should we do? Confusion reigns.

Have you ever found yourself wanting to do God’s will and feeling guilt that you couldn’t clearly see what it was? Worse, have you ever acted on what you “knew” was the will of God only to become uncertain about what you did? Still worse, have you acted on what you “knew” was the will of God only to become certain the actions you took were wrong? Paul is the greatest biblical example of this last example. He was convinced the Church should be persecuted!

We might expect that we mere mortals would have these questions. It is something of a comfort to find a great prophet, whom we expect would know with certainty the will of God at each moment, struggles with them as well. We are taken aback that Jeremiah had no word from God to say to Hananiah in the moment Hananiah broke Jeremiah’s yoke. Jeremiah expresses doubt about Hananiah’s word from God but not certainty about Hananiah being incorrect. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Hananiah knew his word was wrong. In Hebrew, Hananiah means “God has been gracious.” His name coincides with his message. The crowd watching this incident would have seen two sincere prophets expressing opposite messages from God. One speaking of judgment while the other speaks of grace.

How do we tell a false message from God from a true one? That our text leaves a profound question unanswered may be profound in itself. It’s not easy! There is no formula! We need to study and pray and exercise care in whose human voice we hear the voice of God. When we are told the will of God is exactly our will, maybe a large amount of skepticism will take us as far as we need to go.

Historical Issue

In the Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah, John Bright writes, “The denouement of the incident is likewise interesting. Hananiah (vs. 16) is sentenced to death. This accords perfectly with the thought expressed in Deut xviii 20 that to prophesy falsely in the name of Yahweh, as Hananiah had done, was to commit a capital crime. We recall that Jeremiah’s enemies had tried to execute him, because that believed he had prophesied falsely (see ch. xxvi…). In this case, however, the sentence was to be executed by no human hands, but by Yahweh himself. There is no reason whatever to doubt that Hananiah, borne down–we may suppose–by this awful curse, actually did die as vs. 17 states: the incident would scarcely have been recorded otherwise.”

Side Note

In Bad Religion:How We Became A Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat identifies what he says are the false versions of the gospel preached in America including the prosperity gospel and what he calls the message of “the God within” in which we are told that experiencing our true self is experiencing “God.” His thesis is that millions of Americans sincerely follow “false prophets.”

Possible Questions

Consider beginning the lesson by asking the class how members go about deciding if a preacher is faithfully or unfaithfully speaking for God.

Reinhold Niebuhr said, “It is true that Christ comforts the afflicted, but he also afflicts the comfortable!” Can a version of the gospel that only comforts us be the true gospel? Would the true Word of God offer comfort and challenge?

What is the role of the social gospel in the true gospel?


Sunday Lesson | June 22nd

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Why Does This Text Matter?

Jeremiah is unique among the prophets in that he allows us to see the effects of the prophetic calling on his own individual soul. In six prayers, he pours his soul out to God.





20:7-13 (our text)


One of our basic human needs is the need for affiliation. In times of crisis, the need for affiliation increases. We saw this following 9-11. We pulled our SEC football logos off our vehicles and replaced them with American flags replacing symbols of rivalry with symbols of unity/solidarity. Jeremiah needed affiliation. In 16:1-13, God forbids Jeremiah to marry a wife, have children, or even take part in social gatherings. A prophet not only spoke God’s message but lived it out by enacting it. Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem naked for three years as naked was how slaves were taken into captivity. Jeremiah’s social isolation declared that God’s coming judgment would disrupt all social bonds and social rejoicing. The first confession suggests that the people of Jeremiah’s home town, even relatives, plotted to kill him. Today’s text tells us that the verbal abuse was unbearable. Based on his preaching, Jeremiah was given the nickname, Terror-Is-On-Every-Side! It gets worse. The failure and rejection of his message weighed heavily on Jeremiah. In some four decades, he had one convert–Baruch became his secretary. It gets worse still! In Prophecy and Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah, John Skinner suggests a real inner conflict can be seen in 17:16 where Jeremiah declares to God that he doesn’t really want God’s judgment to come on the people. But, how else would Jeremiah’s message be vindicated unless judgment reigned down. In our text, Jeremiah begs for vindication. Skinner believes Jeremiah comes across as conflicted–wanting God’s judgment on the people and feeling guilty that he wants it.

This text tells us a great deal about being a prophet. It also tells us that when life is tough and confusing and full of conflict that the God who made us as emotional creatures can handle our emotional honesty.

It is interesting to note that God responded to Jeremiah in the first two confessions but is silent in the last four. It is as though God helps Jeremiah through the first two and then leaves him to work through the others. In the first two, God has said all that needed to be said (see 15:19-20). Basically, God tells Jeremiah that He is with him and He encourages Jeremiah to stay with Him. God and Jeremiah have each other if Jeremiah will stick with his calling. Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian, has written, “…the fundamental experience of the prophets is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos.” Bernhard Anderson writes, “In a profound sense Jeremiah’s suffering was a participation in God’s suffering, so much so that God’s concern and God’s pathos, whether anger or love, flowed through his whole life and thought.”

Side Notes

In the tv show The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has difficulty with sarcasm. 20:13 could be original to Jeremiah’s writing and could be VERY bitter sarcasm directed at God. 20:13 does sound like something Job’s so-called friends would have quoted to him out of theological over-simplicity.

Historical Issues

In the book mentioned above, John Skinner argues that there are historical phases in the development of prayer. “The lowest is that of petition for the fulfillment of some particular desire, or removal of some external evil, solely in the interest of the individual himself. The second stage is that on which Jeremiah enters. Here prayer is the effort of the soul to bring every thought and feeling into harmony with the will of God…it contains a residuum of self-will…in Jeremiah’s case the overthrow of his enemies. There is a third stage, to which perhaps he hardly attains, where the thought of self is entirely lost, and the mind surrenders itself wholly to the divine will as that which alone is truly good. ‘Father, not my will but Thine be done.'”

Possible Questions

What would it be like to feel the feelings of God? His love for the world? His disappointment with it?

Is God the fellow-suffer who understands?

God is omniscient. Does that mean he knows about the world indirectly the way we sometimes read a news report? Or does God have direct knowledge of the world–experiencing what is experienced in the world? Is God’s knowledge informational or experiential?

Does this scripture text tells us that we are to honestly express our feelings to God even when they are ugly?

Mark Todd

Sunday Lesson | June 15th

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Why does this text matter?

As his last achievement before his death in the fall of 1971, Gerhard Von Rad revised his commentary on Genesis. The following is a highlight of his conclusions.

-The text is magisterial! Most writings reflect the thoughts of a single author in a moment of time. Not so here. This first of two creation stories comes from the Priestly Writer who represents the generational learning and generational reflections of Israel’s theologians whose theology was refined and tried by the very serious challenge of the Babylonian Captivity. Israel could have lost her identity; instead, her best thinkers went to work.

-The terminology and “science” of this creation story are Babylonian. Yet, Von Rad downplays the connection. Rightfully so. The Priestly School so thoroughly reworks the “science” that theological concerns overwhelm the inadequate “science” of pre-scientific Babylon. Every word of our text has been reviewed by generations of ancient Israelite theologians. Every word matters. As Von Rad puts it, this text is “Priestly Doctrine.”

-Verse 1 summarizes all that the following verses describe. The word “create” is the Hebrew “bara” and is used only of God’s creative activity just as the Hebrew word “Salah” is used only of God’s forgiveness. Theologically, the Creator and the Creation have separate existence. There are no divine emanations. The Creator is Wholly Other than the Creation. “Heaven and earth” mean absolutely everything. God has the claim to Lordship over everything.

-Verse 2 is a very important theological digression. The opposite of creation is not Nothingness but the Formless/the Meaningless. When life unravels in Chaos, we experience the unraveling of God’s work in creation.

-Verses 3-5 tell us that “light” was created. Pagans worshipped light as a divine emanation. Is light important? Yes, it was preeminent in creation. Is light Divine? No, it is neither a reflection or overflow of God Himself. Two recurring themes of great importance are introduced in these verses: a God “names” what he creates and declares it “good.” By naming creation, God asserts His Lordship. “Good” doesn’t mean “beautiful” but rather “architecturally sound to the point of perfection” meaning without glitches. Theologically, this means that no evil exists where things work as God ideally wills them to work.

-The text speaks of God making the world with His “word” and by His “hand.” There is appropriate theological tension is these two ways of speaking. The hands-on language suggests God is intimately involved in creation. That God spoke the world into being suggests distance/separateness.

-Verses 3-4 and 14-19 are written with idolatry in mind. Light was created separate from sun and moon and stars. The stars don’t create light! In idolatry, the sun/moon/stars are divine objects giving divine light. Further, in idolatrous thinking, the positions of sun/moon/stars control human fate. In verse 16, their position only controls “night” and “day” and not the destinies of humans.

-Verses 26-28 are about the creation of Humanity. Von Rad writes, “The creation of man is introduced more impressively than any preceding work by the announcement of a divine resolution: ‘Let us make man.’ God participates more intimately and intensively in this than in the earlier work of creation. The use of the verb bara in vs. 27 receives its fullest significance for that divine creativity which is absolutely without analogy. It occurs three times in the one verse to make clear that here the high point and goal has been reached toward which all God’s creativity from verse 1 on was directed.” The meaning of the “image of God” language is mysterious and debated. The author may have meant for it to be mysterious! The result for humanity is clear. Because we are created in the image of God, we can have dominion in our world. It is about correspondence in ability to act. As God and angels can get things done in Heaven and earth, humans can act within the environment created for them. So, humans are co-regents with God in creation.

-We usually think of God completing creation on a Day 6 and then resting on Day 7. The text is more complicated. The rest on a day 7 is the completion/climax of creation. God’s creative activity has a purpose above and beyond calling things into being. Von Rad writes, “…that God has ‘blessed,’ ‘sanctified’ …this rest means that P does not consider it as something for God alone but as a concern of the world, almost as a third something that exists between God and the world.”

Side Notes

What is this third something? What does it mean to Enter into God’s Rest? I don’t think it is about “inactivity” but is rather about the ultimate purpose behind activity–relationship. On a Day 7, it is as if God says, “Let the relationships begin!” The World-making God is a Covenant-making God. The command to rest in the Mosaic Covenant involves a creature made in God’s image participating in God’s activity of rest. God is a relationship creator Who is all about relationships. He not only creates them but also keeps them. Rest is God experiencing the experiences of His world. The Creation story is not about the How of Creation. Look at the relationship groupings: Creator to Creation, chaos to order, light to darkness, light to sun/moon/stars, land to sea, plants to animals, humans to the Divine, humans to the human environment, idols to humans, etc. The creation story is a story of relationships the climax of which is our full participation in God’s Rest–the temporal is destined for the eternal! God keeps all the relationships of all creation in Himself for eternity–nothing is lost to Chaos. In God, our meaning is found and kept. God makes relationships and keeps them. One of Saint Augustine’s prayers captures something of the point: “Oh God, my heart was restless until it found its rest in thee.” The ultimate relating is relating to and in God.

Historical Issues

Along with the other Books of the Law, Genesis is a complicated compilation of four sources designated as J, E, D, and P. Each source has characteristics and perspectives that are detectable. For example, the J writer likes to use the word Yahweh for God while the E writer uses the word Elohim.

Possible Questions

Is the theological story of relationships trivialized when it is read as a “how-story” placed up against modern science?

By entering into God’s rest, do we enter the relationships we were created for?

Being created in the image of God means having “dominion” or power to act. God exercises His power to build relationships in a vast community. Is Paul’s vision of Church exactly that? People using God’s power to build community.