How do you define power? As you read through the Bible this year, or look at the world around us, or look back upon your personal experience, where do you see power? And acknowledging all the various displays of power in our world, what power can we trust?
Reading the Book of Ruth invites us to see power not in the strength of kings and warriors, but in the faithful love of women for each other and the protective care that saves the weak. The judges and kings of Israel display great power, but only when they seek to follow the will of the Lord. The early Church in Acts discovered God’s power as it fulfilled the mandate to be Christ’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The message of the Bible—the good news of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ—subverts the world’s understanding of power. Embodying the power of God’s love threatens those who are vested in the world’s structures and practices of power. Doing so got Jesus crucified and led most of his apostles to martyrdom. God invites us to trust this power, disregarding the cost. As we read the Bible and grow as Jesus’ followers, we will continue to confront the radical claim that this self-giving, self-emptying power of God’s love is stronger than any power in all creation (Romans 8:38-39).
Old Testament Readings: Ruth 1-4; 1 Samuel 1-8
The Book of Ruth is a beautiful interlude in the history of Israel. In its portrayal of the relationship of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, the book depicts the gracious work of redemption through covenantal loyalty—the ideal picture of human life in response to God.
The story begins in hardship, “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Bethlehem with their two sons during a famine, settling in Moab. Elimelech dies; the sons marry Moabite women; then the sons die. As foreigners and widows, Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are utterly vulnerable. Orpah accepts Naomi’s offer to return to her family, but Ruth pledges her loyalty to Naomi: “where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). Ruth’s faithfulness exceeds any legal or practical obligation, and it joins her not only to Naomi, but to the chosen people of God.
Ruth and Naomi’s mutual devotion embodies a central concept in Israel’s faith, captured in the Hebrew word ḥesed. This word often translates as “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness”—the quality of divine love secured through God’s unbreakable promise in the covenant with Israel. These women demonstrate this kind of concern for one another, one that echoes the protective love of God who works through their circumstances to protect them.
Their kinsman Boaz becomes the example and the agent of this covenantal love. Instead of exploiting the refugee gleaning in his fields, he acts righteously to protect her, sending her home with grain to feed both her and Naomi. As kinsman Boaz acts to redeem the land of the late Elimelech: purchasing the land, accepting Ruth as his wife, and perpetuating the lineage of his relative. Boaz’ redemption of the land saves and secures Ruth and Naomi—a picture of God’s faithful love at work to enact salvation.
The end of the book drives home this message of God’s redemption. When Ruth gives birth to Boaz son Obed, the women of the town say to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!” (4:14). The concluding genealogy confirms the blessing: Obed becomes the father of Jesse, the father of David, the great King of Israel. God’s provision secures not only Ruth and Naomi, but the entire nation of Israel. And since David is the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus, this blessing extends to all the future people of God as well.
The early chapters of 1 Samuel focus on the birth and rise of the last of Israel’s judges, Samuel. The narrative presents Samuel as God’s answer to the prayers of the pious but barren Hannah, who dedicates the child to God’s service with the priest Eli at the worship shrine in Shiloh, where he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:26).
In his faithfulness Samuel contrasts with Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who desecrate the sacred offerings and exemplify the moral decay of the period of the judges. Samuel receives a word from the Lord that judgment will come upon Eli and his house for the blasphemy and iniquity of his sons. As this judgment unfolds, Samuel assumes the vacant leadership: “And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord” (3:20).
In these chapters Israel’s military safety relates unmistakably to divine power. Among all the surrounding nations the Philistines have emerged as the primary threat to Israel’s safety; we will see them throughout 1 Samuel (most notably in the story of their hero Goliath in ch. 17). In chapter 4 the Israelites bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines, presumably to invoke God’s power to defeat their enemies. The plan fails: 30,000 soldiers of Israel die, including Eli’s sons, and the Philistines capture the ark with its sacred content. When Eli hears the news of the ark’s loss and his sons’ death, he collapses and dies (4:18).
Yet this apparent defeat of the Lord resolves into a decisive victory. Each time the Philistines try to enshrine the ark in the temple of their pagan god Dagon, the statue of Dagon falls and breaks. The Philistines suffer plagues of tumors and mice that they ascribe to the power of Israel’s God, leading them to send the ark back to Israel. In chapter 7 Samuel assumes control over Israel, calling the people to repent of their sin. This spiritual renewal brings God’s power into battle, and Israel decisively defeats the Philistines. “So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” (7:13). Once again we see the familiar theme: Israel’s safety depends not on its own military power but upon its obedience to the Lord.
Chapter 8 marks a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. As Samuel ages, the people clamor for the security of a king, “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (8:20). At God’s direction Samuel solemnly warns the people of all the hazards to which they will be subject, but they insist nonetheless. A sense of foreboding looms over the narrative at this point. The people are asking for a king against the advice of Samuel and the will of the Lord. The Lord interprets this moment for Samuel: the people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being a king over them” (8:7). They seek a human substitute for the divine power that has called, secured, and loved them.
New Testament Readings: Acts 3-7
Our readings this week show us the thrilling fruit of the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples. We see their bold proclamation of the good news about Jesus, as well as the resistance they encounter. Committed to its Lord and his mission, the Church demonstrates courage, agility, generosity, and tenacity in these early episodes.
When Peter and John encounter a beggar near the temple, Peter gives him more than he asks for: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6). This public demonstration of God’s power in Jesus’ name creates a problem for the Jewish leaders, who cannot affirm Jesus as Lord but who cannot deny the reality of the healing. The leaders reluctantly release Peter and John, warning them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (3:18), instruction that they refuse to obey. The episode concludes with the disciples’ celebrating their God-given power of proclamation: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31). This conflict continues throughout Acts. [See 5:17-42 for another episode of proclamation, conflict, arrest, and release.] Just as it did with Jesus, proclaiming the good news brings his followers into life-threatening conflict with the religious powers.
These chapters lift up another characteristic of the early Church--generosity. Acts 4:32-25 depicts the remarkable attitude of the Church in God’s Spirit, unified in purpose and devoid of selfishness. “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). The passage lifts up the example of Barnabas, who notably sells a property and donates the proceeds to the apostles’ work. The following scene provides the cautionary example of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who defraud the Lord in their giving (5:1-11). These examples invite us to think about authentic generosity as the fruit of God’s Spirit in the Church, then and now: “great grace was upon them all” (4:33).
Chapter 6 offers an account of a crucial moment in the growing Church’s life. An administrative problem (unequal distribution of food to widows) exposes a cultural rift between the “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem) and the “Hebrews” (Jews who spoke Aramaic, the Hebraic language of that region). The apostles solve the problem through a division of labor, commissioning seven deacons to this service through prayer and the laying on of hands (6:1-6).
The first deacon listed, Stephen, exemplifies the faithful proclamation of the early disciples. Arrested on charges of blasphemy, Stephen addresses the Council (Sanhedrin) with a detailed account of Israel’s salvation history, concluding with the accusation that just as their ancestors opposed God’s prophets, the Jewish leaders have rejected God’s truth in killing “the Righteous One” (7:52). The stoning that results makes Stephen the first Christian martyr.
Three details in this scene are worth noting. First, see how the description of Stephen’s death proclaims the risen Christ. “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55; also v.56). Second, Stephen’s victorious acceptance of his death, and especially his words, follow the pattern of Jesus’ death on the cross (Acts 7:59 and Luke 23:46; Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34). Finally, the narrative introduces us to “a young man named Saul” (7:58). Now a supporter of the persecution, Saul will soon encounter the Lord firsthand (ch.9) and be transformed by the Word he seeks to suppress.
Psalms: 37, 120, 23
Psalm 37 reflects upon a problematic question: why do the wicked prosper? The psalm engages the question comprehensively, in acrostic form (each group of verses beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Though the wicked apparently benefit from their evil actions, the psalm assures us that God will hold them accountable. The psalm commends righteous behavior as the best path that leads to true security and peace.
Psalm 120 is the first of fifteen “Psalms of Ascent” (Pss. 120-134), songs likely sung by those headed up Mount Zion to celebrate one of the major religious festivals in Jerusalem. The lament of the speaker is the “deceitful tongue” (vv.2,3) of “those who hate peace” (v.6). In contrast, the speaker desires peace, God’s shalom, which presumably has occasioned the prayer in v.1 and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Psalm 23 is likely the most familiar of the psalms. It beautifully affirms an individual’s trust in the intimate, tender care of God for all of one’s needs. The speaker calls the Lord “my shepherd,” whose care is both material and spiritual (vv.2-3), in even the gravest circumstances (v.4). The image changes in v.5, in which the Lord is a host whose bountiful provision stands as silent rebuke to the “enemies” who seek the speaker’s harm. The concluding verse affirms that such abundant love is not fleeting but endures forever—a tremendous promise to claim.