Old Testament Readings: 1 Kings 12-18; 2 Chronicles 10-16
Our readings this week recount the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s death. When his new subjects complain of being overtaxed, Solomon’s son Rehoboam unwisely scorns the advice of his elders to relax his rule; instead he doubles down on the people, fueling a revolt led by his rival Jeroboam. Jeroboam unites the ten northern tribes into the Kingdom of Israel, leaving only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the Kingdom of Judah.
Jereboam establishes rival worship sites with golden calves at Bethel and Dan, to prevent his subjects from returning to Jerusalem and falling back under Rehoboam’s influence. This blatant idolatry brings God’s curse upon Jereboam and his house, and “the sins of Jereboam” will become a refrain in the history of Israel’s bad kings who follow him.
Once the rival kingdoms are set, the narrative alternates between the two, portraying the kings as good or bad based upon their adherence to God’s rule. The chronology of each king’s reign dates to a year in the rival king’s rule. This device helps us navigate the dizzying series of kings that follow so quickly in this history, as well as conveying the sense of lost unity for God’s people.
The bias of 1&2 Kings is toward the Kingdom of Judah, but the history does not spare even Judah’s kings from judgment when they stray from God’s will. Both Israel and Judah allow their lands to become polluted with forbidden idols. This fundamental sin explains the devastation that will follow when the Lord withdraws the divine favor from the people who have rejected him.
Our readings in 1 Kings build toward the rule of Ahab, the king of Israel, in chapter 16. He and his wife Jezebel occupy the narrative for several chapters; their notorious sinfulness exemplifies the worst of Israel’s idolatry. Their rule also introduces us to the first of the great prophets, Elijah. Chapter 17 offers miracle stories that establish Elijah’s authority as a man of God. In the chapters that follow, the pace of the story slows so that we may deliberately consider the conflict of Ahab and Elijah, which dramatizes the king’s rejection of God’s expressed will.
New Testament Readings: Titus 1-3; Philemon; Jude
Titus is the third of the Pastoral Epistles. Like 1&2 Timothy, it portrays the wise guidance of Paul for a younger missionary partner, Titus, tasked with leading a congregation Paul helped establish in Crete (Titus 1:5). As with the other letters, the leading concern is to establish “sound doctrine” (1:9; 2:1) and to oppose the false teaching which has allowed shameful behavior to infect the church’s life. The letter urges self-control and discipline as marks for the believer, lifting up a picture of church life in which the older teach the younger members the orderly ways of fruitful living (2:1-9).
Notice how the letter relates the church’s conduct to the appearance of the Lord. Titus 2:11-14 tells us that “the grace of the Lord has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great god and Savior Jesus Christ.” God’s grace enables the disciplined behavior of the church, which prepares us to live in the age to come when Christ returns. The next chapter cites the appearance of the Lord as the occasion for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the means of the church’s renewal and our hope for eternal life (3:4-7). Christ’s appearance, remembered and anticipated, fuels the church’s righteous living.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is unique in the NT—a personal letter to a friend on a matter of shared concern. The letter’s intimacy and its practical occasion seem unusual compared to other NT writings. But the early church preserved this letter, likely because of its bold message of social freedom in the fellowship of the church.
Paul writes this brief letter to Philemon regarding Onesimus, a slave of Philemon’s whom Paul has befriended. It is not clear whether Onesimus has escaped from Philemon or if he had been sent by his master to assist Paul during his imprisonment. Has the slave stolen something from his master? (cf. 18). In any case Paul writes that he is sending Onesimus back, and he seeks a warm reception, not a harsh punishment, for him.
But Onesimus will return to Philemon as a different man: a fellow believer, a brother in Christ. In verse 10 we learn that Paul became his “[spiritual] father” during their time together, much as he had done with Philemon earlier (cf. v.19). Paul gently invites Philemon to consider welcoming Onesimus back, not according to their prior status, but in their new relationship, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v.16).
Part of the beauty of this letter is Paul’s wise approach: rather than demanding Onesimus’ freedom, he asks Philemon to offer it freely. Here the promise of the gospel cuts both ways, breaking the chains of servitude for both slave and master. We treasure this letter in the hope that God’s grace frees both Onesimus and Philemon into a new relationship based not on human economy or social status but on God’s liberating love.
The Letter of Jude offers another brief glimpse at the conditions and concerns of the early church. Like the pastoral epistles we have read, Jude focuses on the threat of false teachers: “For certain intruders have stolen in among you . . . who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v.4). Likely these intruders are teaching that the freedom of the gospel includes freedom from moral restraint; the concern of sexual immorality is clear in this brief letter (cf. vv. 7, 8, 10, 16, 18, 23). Yet the danger is deeper; this “ungodliness” (vv. 4, 15, 18) signals a rebellion against divine spiritual authority (cf. vv. 5, 6, 8, 11, 15-16, 18).
Jude introduces himself as “a servant [slave] of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (v.1). Invoking James without further qualification suggests that he refers to James the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. If so, then Jude himself is the Lord’s brother. [“Jude” in v.1 translates the Greek “Judas”; cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3.] Why, then, does he identify his connection with Jesus only as “servant”? Perhaps this detail signifies his humble devotion: Jude’s more important connection with Jesus derives not from family kinship but from spiritual subordination. To Jude, Jesus is less “brother” than “Lord.”
Finally, note the beautiful and familiar benediction that closes the letter (vv.24-25). Our salvation depends on the grace of the One who alone is able to secure us in the face of God’s purifying holiness. As ”those who are called, [we] are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ” (v.1).
Psalm 119 is the quintessential torah psalm—a celebration of the instruction God offers his covenant people. Its 176 verses make it the longest chapter in any book of the Bible. The psalm is carefully constructed in acrostic form, with twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each. Each stanza represents a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with each line of that stanza starting with the same letter. Furthermore, each verse includes some synonym for torah: e.g., instruction, word, decrees, statute, law, teachings, testimonies, ways. The form expresses God’s comprehensive and inexhaustible guidance for the covenant community—surely a sign of God’s loving care. The craft of the psalmist is a sign of devotion; the psalm invites the reader to discover the goodness of God by walking in the wisdom it proclaims.