How do ordinary people grow into God’s people? By God’s grace working through the events and experiences of their lives. As we follow the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness, we see that the challenges that threatened them were occasions for them to seek God’s help and trust God’s guidance. God offers them food and water for their physical needs, plus the Law and the Tabernacle for their growth in faith. Step by step, for more than a generation, Israel moves closer to the promised land and towards the goal and purpose of their calling, to be people wholeheartedly committed to the Lord.
Notice how the growth is communal rather than individual: the gathering of peoples becomes unified as the beloved and chosen people of God. The same focus holds in the New Testament. Both of Paul’s letters we read this week he addresses to “the saints,” people being made holy by the power of God. Importantly, this term saints is always plural in the NT; true Christian growth occurs always in community, never solely in isolation.
Holiness. Community. May God grant both of these gifts to the church as we grow together in faith and consecrate our lives to God’s service.
Old Testament Readings: Exodus 16-31
The Israelites’ exhilaration after their rescue from Egypt fades quickly with the challenges of their wilderness journey. Where will they get the food and water they need for their long trek? The people’s “grumbling” expresses their understandable concerns for sustenance and survival; it also challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God’s provision answers the needs of both the people and the leaders: miraculous sources of water at Marah (Exodus 15:25) and at Massah and Meribah (17:1-7), plus manna, the bread from heaven with which God feeds the people on their journey (ch.16). God not only answers the peoples’ needs but also invites them to grow in faith, learning to trust that God’s guidance is for their blessing and his provision will sustain them.
Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai (19:1), the setting for the rest of the Book of Exodus. The story focuses now on the Lord’s covenant with his people, which he reveals to Moses on the mountaintop. This covenant is a detailed arrangement with specified rules and practices--a codified version of the same promise that the Lord made to Abraham in Genesis: God’s gift of land, descendants, and blessing in return for Israel’s absolute devotion. The Law revealed by God provides the guidance for the people to maintain their covenantal faithfulness. Abiding by the Law--the terms of the covenant—keeps Israel righteous with the Lord. Understanding the Law as covenantal guidelines explains how there developed the great devotion to the Law that we later see in the Pharisees of Jesus’ time: keeping the Law meant abiding in right relationship with God.
Chapters 25-31 present another dimension to Israel’s covenant with the Lord: its worship. The Lord provides the plans for building the Tabernacle, a large tent that could be carried on the peoples’ journey and erected wherever they stopped. Israel understood the Tabernacle to be the tent of meeting, a location for the glory of the Lord to encounter Moses and for the priests to offer sacrifices to God. Within the holy place in the tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant—the stylized box built to contain the tablets of the Law—as well as a golden lampstand and a table for the Bread of the Presence. The lavish materials and the detailed instructions demonstrate the importance of this worship encounter for God’s people. They understood that the Lord’s glory would only come into a place that was holy, set apart from ordinary use, and only to people who were likewise holy. We will see much more of this idea of holiness throughout Exodus and the rest of the books of the Torah.
Questions to consider:
- Look at the stories of the Israelites’ grumblings (chh. 15-17). Can we sympathize with them? Try to list the concerns and fears they must deal with in order to traverse the wilderness with the Lord.
Wilderness is a rich image in the Bible. What does it mean to you? Can you name other wilderness stories in scripture? What are the dangers of wilderness? What are the potential discoveries we might make only in “the wilderness”?
- Look through the many instructions in the Law, starting with the Ten Commandments and continuing through chapter 23. Do they seem reasonable, or picky? Take note of particular rules or laws that you would like to discuss.
- Think about the elaborate set-up for Israel’s worship in the Tabernacle. Why does Exodus spend so much time talking about how to set up the fixtures for worshp? Take note of particular aspects or elements you wish to understand better.
New Testament Readings: Ephesians 4-6; Philippians 1-2
The second half of Ephesians turns from theology to church practice. Having asserted that God has a plan to reconcile all people and things unto himself, and that believers have been blessed with every spiritual blessing to share in this work, Paul now exhorts the Church to live out its calling. In Christ the Church has been given the unity that God seeks for all the world: “one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Despite our different gifts and roles, we are called to a mutual care so that the whole body of believers grows into the fullness of Christ’s life (4:15-16).
With lives transformed by Christ, we are to “put off [our] old self . . . and put on the new self” (4:22-25). Paul provides a host of vivid examples of the sins we are to relinquish and the righteous behaviors we are to adopt. One notable feature in our readings is the “household code” of behaviors (5:22-6:9) for wives, husbands, children, and servants. Here Paul adopts a familiar scheme from secular culture to illustrate the transformation of those who live as followers of Jesus, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).
The concluding exhortation in Ephesians is to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God” (6:10). This vivid image of God’s armor captures both the urgency and comprehensiveness of our spiritual work. Each piece plays a part, and all of them work together to protect the body of Christ as a whole. Paul sees the world as spiritually active, with demonic powers contending against God’s rule. Through our identity in Christ, God arms us with divine strength and protection to enter spiritually into Christ’s reconciling work in the world.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is notable for its theme and tone of joy—surprising, considering that Paul writes the letter from prison. He assures his brothers and sisters in Philippi that his imprisonment has not impeded but rather has “served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12), since members of the Roman guard have learned of Christ through their prisoner! By such a faithful perspective on his challenging circumstances, Paul embodies his message of encouragement: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (1:18-19). Whether he lives or dies matters less to him than that Christ would be honored through his living (1:24).
Paul’s encourages the Philippians to seek unity by humbly focusing on the needs of others: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love. . . . [In] humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:2-3). This “mind” is the mind of Christ, so Paul offers a stirring recap of the pattern of Christ’s example of humility (2:6-11). These verses likely come from an early Christian hymn celebrating Christ’s willing descent from heavenly glory into earthly flesh, thence into servitude and the shame of the cross. Christ’s self-emptying service does not remove him from God’s care or the hope of glory; rather, God honors Christ’s sacrificial work by elevating him to even greater glory than that which he initially relinquished. By showing us the pattern of Christian service in Christ himself, Paul commends this humble attitude for all who would be faithful followers of Jesus.
Questions to consider:
- Consider the roles of church leadership in Ephesians 4:11. Do you see these functions in the life of our congregation or the larger Church? What is the purpose of church leadership (see vv. 12-16)?
- How helpful for you is the image of the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20)? What particular items or aspects connect with you in this image? Do you see our Christian life as a spiritual battle?
- Look at Philippians 2:12-13. What does it mean for us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling”? Do we have to earn our salvation? Why “fear and trembling”?
- Study the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11. Can you discern the “stanzas” or movements in this passage? Imagine the early Christians singing this song of praise for Jesus Christ.
Psalms: 33, 109, 90
Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise, calling us to praise the Lord and teaching us the many reasons why we should do so. The Lord deserves our praise as the One who created the world and rules over all people (vv. 6-9); as ruler over the nations of the earth (vv. 10-12); as One who sees and comprehends all the thoughts and deeds of human beings (vv.12-15); and as the God of salvation (vv. 16-19). The “righteous” (v.1) are those who put their hope in the Lord (v.22).
In Psalm 109 we read an earnest lament—the prayer of one who seeks God’s help against the threat of accusers. We can understand the speaker’s dismay: the enemies have returned his good will with evil and his love with hatred (vv. 4-5). The depth and threat of this betrayal bring forth not just his prayer for God’s help but his plea for God’s curse upon the evil ones. Such emotional honesty is a hallmark of the psalms, inviting us to trust God intimately with all our thoughts and feelings.
Psalm 90 offers sober reflection on the human and divine experience of time and eternity. The Lord is “our dwelling place in all generations” (v.1), but each generation’s time on earth is brief: “you sweep them away as with a flood” (v.5). In light of our transience and God’s eternity, the prayer of v. 12 is appropriate: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” You may recognize this psalm as the basis of Isaac Watts’ classic hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.”