Some people experience a particular frustration when reading the Bible. Hoping for quick spiritual relief or guidance, they open the Bible randomly, choose a place to start reading, and fail to glean any help or benefit. They quickly discover that different parts of the Bible read differently!
The Bible speaks to through different voices, through many various times and situations. Some parts, like the Psalms, speak to timeless human needs and desires in an immediate way. Some books provide instruction and guidance; others pronounce blame and judgment. The historical parts of the Bible invite us to know the experience of our forebears in faith, so that we can learn from their mistakes and be heartened by God’s saving work on their behalf. Already our reading plan has provided us plenty of breadth in the Bible’s different voices.
As we continue this good work, we will learn how the Bible’s different voices all combine into a unified symphony, the eternal song of praise for the God who made us, loves us, saves us, and holds us forever. Any worthwhile practice takes time and effort to become easier and natural for us. As we deepen our experience of God’s Word each day, may we hear more clearly the one voice of our Lord addressing us in saving love.
Old Testament Readings: Deuteronomy 27-34; Joshua 1-13
The last chapters of Deuteronomy form the conclusion not just to the book, but to the Torah or Pentateuch—the five initial books of the Old Testament. After the comprehensive presentation of the Law’s covenantal instructions in chapters 11-26, the action turns to ratifying this covenant. Chapter 27 describes a ceremony by which Israel formally accepts this covenant, with curses on “anyone who does not uphold the words of the law” (Deut. 27:26) and blessings on the faithful adherents to God’s will. The remaining chapters focus on Moses’ impending death and the transition in leadership, from Moses to Joshua. The Song of Moses (ch. 32) and Moses’ final blessing on Israel (ch. 33) serve as a valedictory from the central human figure of the Pentateuch. Moses’ death (ch. 34) concludes the story of Israel’s birth as a nation. Properly instructed by their experience in the wilderness and Moses’ instruction concerning God’s Law, they are ready to enter the land of God’s promise and to live there as God’s chosen people. Their obedience to God’s instruction will determine whether this new season is one of blessing or curse to them.
The Book of Joshua continues the history of God’s people as they enter the land of God’s promise. The challenge facing them is considerable: to enter the land and supplant those currently living there, claiming it as their own by God’s promise and gift. To thrive in this new situation will demand courage, resolve, and continued reliance upon the Lord. We find the theme of the book in the first chapter, when the Lord commissions Joshua to lead the people across the Jordan Riven and into the land: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). The continuing covenant with the Lord ensures God’s presence with Israel and power to fulfill the divine promise of the Land.
Our readings this week recount the challenges of Israel’s entry to possess the Land. As if to underscore the danger of this new season, the narrative tells of Israel spies sent to discern the threats (ch.2); their unexpected protection by Rahab the harlot enshrines this foreign woman among the traditional heroes of Israel’s faith (see Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). Israel’s crossing of the Jordan occurs miraculously, with the piling up of the waters to allow their passage (chh. 3-4): this scene recalls Israel’s Red Sea liberation from Egypt, bookending the entire exodus event with signs of God’s wondrous power to save. In chapter 5 the people enact dual rituals that reinforce their identity as God’s possession: circumcision, the traditional sign of God’s covenant, and the Passover celebration, again recalling their formation by God’s saving power.
The military action that follows makes for tough reading. The narrative clearly portrays the fall of Jericho (ch.6) in terms of religious ceremony, suggesting both God’s power and holy desire for Israel to cleanse the land. The aftermath of this battle proves to be a test of Israel’s faithfulness to God’s command: a defeat at Ai (ch.7) reveals the sin of Achan, who took for himself items from Jericho that had been devoted to God. Only after Joshua purges the sin by executing Achan does the Lord grant Israel its victory over Ai.
Contemporary readers encounter a problem with this ban, God’s requirement that Israel “devote to destruction” the spoils of victory—especially the perceived slaughter of non-combatants. Such a “holy war” approach seems vicious and primitive, difficult to square with our customary picture of God’s love, kindness, and mercy. Admittedly, these concerns are difficult to handle. We live in a context greatly different from that presented in the book of Joshua. These stories reflect the author’s perception that Israel’s later troubles (faithless kings, invasions by Assyria and Babylon, exile) occurred because Israel failed at the beginning to cleanse the land of its pagan influences. God desires Israel to be a holy people set apart for the Lord (recall Exodus and Leviticus); the land God gives must likewise be holy.
Chapters 10-12 offer a catalogue of Israel’s victories, conveying the sweep of Israel’s conquest and establishing the nation in the land God has given them. The second half of the book, chapters 13-24, will deal primarily with the allocation of this newly-conquered land among the tribes of Israel.
New Testament Readings: Luke 12-16
At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem; his passion looms ahead, providing a gravity to his teachings. He is preparing his disciples for the impending tribulation, equipping them to understand and serve his God-given mission.
Many of his teachings speak to the challenges ahead for the early Church; some clearly speak to the eschatological (end-time) promise of God’s rule. See, for example, Luke 12:1-12: Jesus warns against hypocrisy, “the yeast of the Pharisees” (v.1)—ostensibly a contemporary concern--but he follows by encouraging his disciples to testify courageously “when they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities” (v.11)—foreseeing the persecution faced by the early Christians. And verses 8-10 relate the eternal dimension of the disciples’ testimony. Reading for these three temporal contexts—Jesus’ time, the later ministry of the Church, and the eternal rule of God—helps us mine the full implications of Jesus’ instruction.
There are some basic themes by which Luke seems to organize this section. Chapter 14 centers upon table fellowship: rules for guests (vv.7-11), rules for hosts (vv.12-14), and the parable of a great banquet (vv.15-24). This parable illustrates the tireless desire of the host to include all who wish to attend, suggesting God’s radical hospitality to all “who will eat bread in the kingdom of God” (14:1).
Chapter 15 notably offers three parables about “the lost”: the lost sheep (vv.3-7), the lost coin (vv.8-10), and the prodigal son and his brother (vv.11-32). The parables assert the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (vv.7, 10), Jesus’ response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes about his fellowship with sinners. The parable of the prodigal and his brother depicts this heavenly joy with the father’s lavish celebration of the younger son’s return. The elder brother’s brooding refusal to join the party leads us to consider the question of which brother is truly lost, and why.
Teachings about wealth and riches comprise chapter 16. The dishonest manager (vv.1-15) is commended not for his morality but for his shrewdness. As he uses the possessions at hand to secure a future for himself, so disciples should use “dishonest wealth” (Greek mammon) wisely, ensuring that our earthly decisions lead to “eternal homes” (v.9). The Rich Man and Lazarus illustrate the contrast between wise and unwise uses of wealth. The former “feasted sumptuously every day”; the latter “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (vv.19, 21). Their eternal destinies irrevocably reverse their circumstances.
Psalms: 13, 143, 14
Psalm 13, a personal prayer of lament, is a great example of this type of psalm. The speaker voices a complaint (vv.1-2), asks for God’s help (vv.3-4), and affirms faith in the One whose help will surely come (vv.5-6). This psalm reminds us of the anguish experienced by those suffering illness (presumably the problem; see v.3). Blessedly, the one praying overcomes the feeling of being forgotten by God (v.1) by engaging the Lord with this earnest plea for relief.
Psalm 143 is another personal prayer of lament. The unspecified threat of the enemies (vv.3,9) seems less the focus than its spiritual effect on the speaker, who feels crushed to a point near death (vv.3, 7). Through this lament the psalmist prays himself into a more hopeful state: reflecting on God’s past faithfulness (v.5), seeking God’s guidance (vv. 8b, 10), and honestly voicing the heartfelt need for God’s help.
Psalm 14 defines foolishness for us: not believing in God (v.1). The effect of this belief is widespread corruption that devours innocent lives (v.4). The implied opposite, wisdom, is to “seek after God” (v.2), to “call upon the Lord” (v.4), to make “the Lord [one’s] refuge” (v.6). Verses 6-7 affirm the salvation that rescues and “restores” God’s people. Paul quotes this psalm in Romans 3 illustrate his point that all people are under sin and need salvation.