Be honest: as you read through our Old Testament scriptures, are you getting tired of Israel in the wilderness? Well, so were they! We’ve been there six weeks now; they spent forty years!
In seriousness, there is a gift to claim in the deliberate pace of our Bible reading. When we read regularly and steadily, we need not rush through the passage. We can pause and reflect on what we are reading, imagining ourselves into the story and mining it for insights and meaning. Sharing the Israelites’ long trek through the wilderness allows the experience to shape us, as it shaped them, into people who notice and rely on God more fully.
Developing a discipline of daily Bible reading allows the Holy Spirit to do its transformative work incrementally, over time. As financial investments benefit from compounding interest, our regular Bible reading reveals cumulative gifts that accrue: repeated stories, recurring themes, familiar patterns. Where have we heard an idea before? In recent readings? Other places in the Bible? Prior sermons in worship? Reading the Bible regularly and steadily adds components to our faith and enriches our experience of God.
Old Testament Readings: Numbers 8-25
This week in Numbers we move past the census and back into action: properly accounted for and arranged, Israel is now ready to set out from Mount Sinai to head toward the Promised Land.
It is good to reflect on the large pattern of the books of the Torah. In Genesis we read of the “generations” or beginnings of the Creation, of human societies, and of the family descended from Abraham. Exodus pick up much later with this family enslaved in Egypt. Through Moses, the Lord leads the people out of bondage into freedom, through the deadly threat at the Red Sea, and into the wilderness to Mount Sinai, the setting for the second half of Exodus and all of Leviticus.
Why does the Torah (first five OT books) spend so much time in one location? The answer is that Sinai is the site of the Lord’s instruction to the people. All of the Law—both the moral instructions and the directions for right worship—comes from God to Moses. The “action” freezes for a book-and-a-half to emphasize the centrality of God’s instruction to the life of God’s people. Only after Israel receives fully the direction of the Lord will it be ready to proceed toward its destiny—to live as God’s people—and its destination—the land of God’s promise.
That great mobilization begins in Numbers 10. The nation heads out in procession, tribe by tribe, with the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in the middle, central to God’s people both physically and spiritually. But disappointingly, the people quickly fall into the same grumbling and complaining we heard in Exodus, before the Law. Even the manna from heaven becomes a source of complaint: the people want meat! God answers miraculously, with a month’s worth of quail but also with angry retribution for those whose spirits had been rebellious (11:31-35).
This pattern will recur: the people’s behavior rightfully elicits God’s anger, and each time Moses will intercede with the Lord to seek to avert their destruction. The rebelliousness intensifies with the people’s uprising in ch.14 and Korah’s revolt in ch.16. The spiritual threat of a disobedient spirit becomes the political danger of a nation’s disintegration; only Moses’ pleading delivers Israel from its deserved destruction by God. The narrative portrays God’s people on probation, needing to learn how to live so that their natural instincts do not lead them to destruction.
A concurrent theme in this section is the question of Moses’ leadership. In chapter 11 the people’s complaining leads Moses to question God’s plan and his own adequacy (11:10-15). The Lord answers by adding seventy elders into the leadership and endowing them with the same spirit that Moses has. This division of labor and distribution of gifts we will see again in scripture (cf. Acts 6); human limitations do not hinder the God who chooses to work through us.
Others share Moses’ concern about his leadership. Moses faces a challenges from his siblings, Miriam and Aaron (ch.12), then a rebellion by the people (ch.14) and the full-fledged revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (ch.16). The narrative seems to link Israel’s rejection of Moses with their failure to acknowledge the Lord: (e.g., 14:11: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me?’” Israel’s stability and security depend on its leadership, all of which starts with obedience to its Lord.
The deaths of Miriam and Aaron in ch.20 show us the progress of time and the impending generational shift that occurs in the wilderness. These deaths serve to prefigure the eventual death of Moses and the inevitable leadership transition that is ahead as Israel nears the Promised Land. The wilderness continues to threaten the peoples’ safety. We read of the defeat of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan—celebrated victories in Israel’s early history (ch.21). We have an extended and somewhat humorous story of Balak, king of the Moabites, who tries to procure a curse on Israel from Balaam the prophet. With divine guidance through his donkey (!), Balaam instead pronounces God’s blessings on Israel and curses on the rival nations (chh.22-24).
Our readings this week conclude with a sense of foreboding. Some Israelites succumb to the enticements of the Moabites and join in their worship of the pagan god Baal (ch.25). As does the earlier story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), this incident foreshadows a central and ongoing threat to the nation. Throughout the OT we will continue to see the danger that idolatry presents to the well-being of Israel and its vital connection with its Lord.
New Testament Readings: Colossians 1-4, Luke 1
The Letter to the Colossians warns against the particular false teaching that apparently beset the church in Colossae. We do not know the details of that heresy, but the letter describes it as “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col.2:8). Perhaps a leader was insisting on adding unnecessary religious practices: “matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:16). The Colossians seem to have been trying superstitiously to appease “elemental spirits”—demonic powers threatening their well-being.
As an antidote to this wrong teaching, the letter offers a vision of the supremacy of Christ over every power in the Creation. The magnificent hymn or creed quoted in 1:15-20 asserts that in Christ, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (1:16). In Christ, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:19-20). Christ’s supremacy over every power in the Creation nullifies the threat of the so-called “elemental spirits of the universe.”
The resurrection of Christ embraces his followers and conveys new life to us: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above . . . you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3). Freed by Christ to live in rich communion with God, we are to “put to death . . . whatever in [us] is earthly” (3:5); we are to “strip off the old self with its practices” and to put on “the new self . . . according to the images of its creator” (3:9-10). Clothing ourselves in Christian garb means adopting those qualities and practices that fit the image of Christ: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness . . . love . . . peace . . . wisdom . . . and gratitude” (3:12-16). Christ calls us and equips us to live this way, freely conferring on us the aspects of his personality so that our life together would represent his life in our world.
Close readers may recognize this letter’s similarity in themes and language to Ephesians. Colossae and Ephesus were close to each other, and the letters may have been written and delivered at the same time by Tychicus (cf. Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-8). Both letters include ethical instructions according to a “household code” (Col 3:18-4:1: cf. Eph. 5:22-6:4). More generally, the letters agree in their grand vision of God’s redemptive plan and Christ’s cosmic rule. Believers share now, not just after death, in the heavenly status accomplished for us through Christ’s resurrection—an encouragement for our faithful living to the end of our earthly days.
The Gospel according to Luke is the work of “Luke the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24), a fellow worker with the Apostle Paul in the gospel. The opening verses describe Luke’s project: “after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account” of “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1,3). Luke admits that he is not an eyewitness to these events; church tradition has assumed that he received his information mainly through Paul, lending apostolic authority to his account.
Luke’s contribution will become a two-volume account: the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The first volume, the gospel, tells the story of God’s redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The Acts of the Apostles picks up as the risen Jesus ascends to heaven and God gives the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, that the Church would proclaim Christ’s resurrection and continue his redemptive work. Though the order of New Testament books divides these works, our reading plan unites them: we shall read through them in sequence, to get the full effect of Luke’s literary effort.
The gospel’s first chapter demonstrates the orderly approach that Luke takes. Whereas Mark’s gospel started the story of Jesus with his baptism as an adult, Luke takes us back before Jesus’ birth. By pairing the birth stories of John and Jesus, Luke conveys the sense that God’s eternal plan is unfolding deliberately in these dramatic events. Both births are miraculous, heralded by divine messengers and happening by divine means to barren Elizabeth and virginal Mary. The relation of John to Jesus helped the church to interpret and order their later ministries: though John arrives earlier than Jesus in birth and in ministry, Jesus takes priority (cf. 1:41, 44, 76).
Psalms: 28, 113
Psalm 28 is an individual prayer for help. The speaker asks the Lord to hear the prayer (vv.1-2) and to help against the wicked (vv.3-5). As we have noted elsewhere, the psalms define the wicked functionally, as those who do not acknowledge or serve the Lord: “they do not regard the works of the Lord or the work of his hands” (v.5). In the typical pattern of such psalms, the tone shifts to praise, blessing the Lord for answering the need (vv.6-7) and envisioning God’s ongoing care for the nation (vv.8-9).
Psalm 113 is a beautiful hymn of praise that declares the incomparability of God: “Who is like the Lord our God?” (v.5) The Lord is worthy of our unlimited praise: “from this time forth and forevermore . . . from the rising of the sun to its setting” (vv.2-3). Wondrously this lofty status of the Lord, “who is seated on high, who looks far down” (v.6) does not prevent God from responding mercifully to the needs of the lowly (see vv.7-9). Indeed, who is like the Lord our God?