Readings today are from Genesis 24, Matthew 23, Nehemiah 13 and Acts 23.
Abraham, in Genesis 24, is seeking a wife for Isaac. He didn’t want a wife from the Canaanites and he didn’t want Isaac to return to the land he (Abraham) came from. If a woman wouldn’t return from there to be Isaac’s wife, the servant was relieved of his duties.
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor.
It is more than likely that Nahor is the name of Abraham’s brother who lived in Haran. It was the city where Abraham’s brother Nahor lived with his son Laban, where Terah and Abraham made their home after they left the land of the Chaldees, where Terah died and from which Abraham left to go to that land God promised to him (Genesis 12:1-3).
Notice how the servant prayed, first generally (for success) and then specifically.
12 And he said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’–let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
“Steadfast love” to Abraham meant that this servant knew that God would be faithful to keep His covenant promise to Abraham–to have many descendants. That couldn’t happen if Isaac remained unmarried.
15 Before he had finished speaking
God was already answering his prayer.
And Rebekah did exactly as the servant had prayed
18 She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19 When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.
Now this was no mean feat. “Since camels could drink 25 gallons [and he had 10], the servant’s sign was sagacious (v. 14). It tested Rebekah’s kindness, hospitality, industry, and willingness to help a stranger” (Thomas Constable)
After praying, the servant watched (because of the specificity of his prayer he knew exactly what to look for) and waited (which we often have to do), then he worshiped (vv. 25-26) and witnessed to Laban what the Lord had done (vv. 34-48).
“As we overhear the servant recount more details, we see that the miracle of God’s provision was even more grand than that suggested in the narrative itself” (John Sailhamer, Genesis, p. 177).
Rebekah went with the servant and united with Isaac in the field where he was meditating. David Guzik mentions these comparisons between Genesis 24 and our “marriage” to Jesus:
- A father desires a bride for his son.
- A son was just accounted as “dead” and “raised from the dead.”
- A nameless servant is sent forth to get a bride for the son. The servant’s name is actually Eliezer, meaning “God of help” or “helper” (the Holy Spirit, John 14:16).
- The lovely bride is divinely met, chosen, and called, and then lavished with gifts.
- She is entrusted to the care of the servant until she meets her bridegroom.
Matthew 23 is Jesus pronouncing woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Years ago I read a book by Jeff Vanvonderen and David Johnson called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church. Part of it discussed the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
Jesus warns the crowd and his disciples not to follow the false leadership of the Pharisees (vv. 1-12), then directly pronounces woes upon those leaders for their deadly actions (see vv. 13-39). They had rejected Him and now He was formally rejecting them.
Evidences of spiritual abuse:
- They don’t practice what they preach (v. 3).
- They require others to do things they won’t do (v. 4).
- They want their righteousness to be seen (v. 5), so they are honored (v. 6) and greeted (v. 7)–more important than others.
- They want to be called exalted and respected titles (v. 8-10).
- They are not servant leaders (vv. 11-12).
There are seven “woes” in vv. 13-36.
- They are religious charlatans, whose “religion” doesn’t get people into heaven (v. 13). These focus particularly upon “works righteousness” ways to “salvation.”
- Pious thieves, who “comfort” widows only to steal from them (v. 14). It reminds me of prayer cloths sent to older people to persuade them to give more money.
- Promoting legalism (v. 15). The self righteousness of scribes & Pharisees was enough of a curse, but these converted Gentiles would be zealous for their new religion, and some in that zeal would surpass their teachers in self righteousness, and thus “twice as much a son of hell.”
- Fake vows (vv. 16-22) are made when using religious artifacts to bolster your credibility, when in fact you have no intention of keeping your promises. They were looking for loopholes, which Jesus consistently discouraged. Just keep your word!
- Missing the important things (vv. 23-24). While it was commendable that they were meticulous to keep this law, they neglected the more important aspects of the law including justice, mercy and faithfulness. They were distorting the will (focus) of God in the Scriptures for minutia.
- Masked thieves (vv. 25-26). They were careful to appear pious, but they were in reality taking advantage of people. They needed, like we all do, an inside-out change.
- Beautiful but dead (vv. 27-28). These people looked great on the outside, but inside they were full of death–hypocrisy and lawlessness. Many today claim to be “more tolerant,” “more compassionate,” but are hypocrites.
- Pretentious superiority (vv. 29-31). We all like to think we are better than others, but in reality our motivations betray the fact that we would do exactly as they did.
The Old Testament idea behind verse 32 is that God will tolerate only so much sin. Sooner or later His patience (the only attribute of God that is not infinite) will run out. Then He will act in judgment (cf. Gen. 6:3, 7; 15:16; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). Here Jesus meant that Israel had committed many sins—and incurred much guilt—by murdering the prophets. When the Pharisees killed Jesus and His disciples (cf. v. 34), the cup of God’s wrath would be full, and He would respond in wrath. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the worldwide dispersion of the Jews—resulted—in A.D. 70.
Notice that the primary sin aimed at in most of these verses was hypocrisy. That is something that you and I are in danger of committing. It is so much easier to focus on the externals, to “look good” there, than it is to really change our heart’s motivations and desires.
With a strong assertion of certainty, Jesus predicted that God’s judgment would “fall” (v. 35) on the “generation” of Jews that rejected Him. This is Jesus’ formal, culminating rejection of Israel for rejecting Him as her Messiah. “These things” refer to the outpouring of God’s wrath just revealed (vv. 33, 35). That generation would lose the privilege of witnessing Messiah’s establishment of the kingdom, and the privilege of being the first to enter it by faith in Jesus. Instead they would suffer the destruction of their capital city and the scattering of their population from the Promised Land (in A.D. 70). The whole generation would suffer because the leaders acted for the people, and the people did not abandon their leaders to embrace Jesus as their Messiah (cf. Num. 13—14). (Thomas Constable)
After this stinging indictment of Israel and their leaders, Jesus’ heart breaks for Jerusalem, especially given the soon destruction in another nearly 40 years.
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
Carl Rasmussen, in his online article Why is the Hen Gathering Her Chicks? (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34) that a farmer once explained…
He said that he had grown up on a farm and that a hen has a variety of informative “clucks.” For example a certain clucking sound would call her chicks to eat. He also said that as a prank, he would cut out a cardboard eagle or hawk, affix it to a long stick, and would then maneuver it so that the shadow of the bird of prey would fall within the vision of the hen. Upon seeing [the shadow of the fake] bird of prey she would utter a special clucking sound that called her chicks to gather under her wings for protection from the danger! This of course is what she would do when a real bird of prey was threatening her or her chicks. (my paraphrase)
Jesus desired to protect them from danger, but they would not heed His voice and come to him. On the cross, He spread His “wings” again, and all who come under Him will find rest and joy and peace and life.
Nehemiah 13 speak of reforms that Nehemiah instituted.
To understand when the events described in this chapter took place, it is necessary to read verses 1-7, not just verse 1. Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes in 432 B.C. (v. 6). It was customary in the ancient Near East for kings to require their servants to return to them periodically to reaffirm their allegiance. “Some time” later Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem (v. 6). The text does not say how much later this was.
However, since the prophet Malachi reproved the Jews in Judah for the same sins Nehemiah described in this chapter, and conservative scholars usually date his prophecies about 432–431 B.C. Therefore Nehemiah may very well have returned to Jerusalem about 431 B.C.
Undoubtedly he would have wished to return as soon as possible.
Each of the following reforms dealt with a violation of the covenant these people had just made with God (cf. 10:29-32)!
We see here that the slide into moral permissiveness is not new, it is normal.
Warren Wiersbe reminds us…
“General William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, once said to a group of new officers, ‘I want you young men always to bear in mind that it is the nature of a fire to go out; you must keep it stirred and fed and the ashes removed.’”
Hosea has said of Israel’s loyalty, that it was like the morning dew (Hosea 6:4).
A lesser man would have said, “I give up on these people. It is useless!” But Nehemiah did not give up on them, but confronted them of their sins.
First, to deal with spiritual permissiveness, we must be aware of the problem areas. Apparently no one else had done anything, allowing the moral slide to continue. Apparently Ezra was dead by now, since Zadok is mentioned as “the scribe.”
The first problem was intermarriage. According to Deuteronomy 23:3-4 neither an Ammonite or Moabite could enter the assembly of the Lord.
Apparently, Eliashib (possibly the high priest, 3:1, 20; 13:28) had cleaned out one of the temple storerooms and converted it into an apartment for Tobiah, because he was an influential friend and blood relative (13:7). But he was an Ammonite and an enemy of the people of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was very angry when he returned to Jerusalem and discovered this enemy of the faithful remnant living in the temple, so he threw him out. Nehemiah’s anger was not only due to Tobiah’s presence in the temple, but also Eliashib’s lack of spiritual discernment and the recognition that the Israelite’s commitment had already disappeared.
The next problem was the lack of tithes to supply the Levites (13:10-14).
In Nehemiah 10:39 the people promised: we will not neglect the house of our God. But later in Nehemiah 13:11, Nehemiah had to ask: Why is the house of God forsaken? It was forsaken because Israel did not keep its promises before God.
Because the people had failed to bring their tithes to the temple, the Levites had to abandon their service in the temple to provide for their own physical needs. This failure may have resulted in rooms standing vacant for Tobiah to occupy as well.
In response to Nehemiah’s reprimands, and Malachi’s preaching, the people began to tithe again (cf. Mal. 3:8-10).
Thus far all of Nehemiah’s reforms, following his return to Jerusalem, involved temple service. Verse 14 records his prayer in view of these reforms (cf. 5:19).
The people had also failed to observe the Sabbath (13:15-22). Foreign merchants were selling on the Sabbath and people wre preparing and transporting goods on that holy day. Nehemiah rebuked them and locked the city gates on Sabbath.
Again, he asks God to remember him for his loyalty to the Mosaic law (13:22b).
Ultimately, Nehemiah gets to the problem of mixed marriages (13:23-29).
Nehemiah confronted this problem as Ezra had several years earlier (Ezra 9—10). Evidently some of these Jews had divorced their Jewish wives to marry foreigners (Mal. 2:10-16).
The text records only Nehemiah’s words to the people, but since we know what kind of person he was, we can safely assume that he followed up his words with action.
The marriage of Joiada’s son to a foreigner (v. 28) was especially bad since he was the grandson of the high priest, and priests were to marry only Jewish virgins (Lev. 21:14). Anyone in the high priestly lineage could become high priest, so this was especially dangerous.
In the ancient East, marriages involving prominent families were often arranged to secure political advantage and to form alliances. Probably this was the case in the marriage of the high priest’s grandson and Sanballat’s daughter.
Again, a similar prayer by Nehemiah marks off this significant reform (v. 29; cf. v. 14).
As Nehemiah and Ezra were both reformers and typological mediators of Christ, their faithfulness are but shadows of the faithfulness of Christ. It is Christ’s faithfulness which is remembered by the Father and truly eternal in the sense that Nehemiah and Ezra sought to achieve in the ancient Reformation.
Israel’s failure, in the very areas where they had made a strong commitment in chapter 10, just proves what Paul says in Romans 8:3
3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us…
All of Nehemiah’s reforms mean nothing if Christ is removed from the picture.
Acts 23 continues Paul’s defense. Evidently Paul intended to give his testimony again, this time to the Sanhedrin (“Council”).
Paul frequently claimed to have lived with a clear (“perfectly good”) “conscience before God” (cf. 20:18-21, 26-27; 24:16; Rom 15:19, 23; Phil. 3:6; 2 Tim. 4:7). Here this claim meant he believed that nothing he had done, which he was about to relate, was contrary to the will of God contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Specifically, his Christian beliefs and conduct did not compromise his Jewish heritage.
Paul’s claim to uprightness so incensed “Ananias the high priest,” that he ordered a soldier to “strike Paul (him) on the mouth.”
Jewish law considered a person innocent until proved guilty, but Ananias had punished Paul before he had even been charged, much less tried and found guilty. Paul reacted indignantly and uttered a prophecy of Ananias’ judgment that God fulfilled later. A “whitewashed wall” was one that was frequently inferior on the inside, but looked good outwardly (cf. Ezek. 13:10-16; Matt. 23:27).
Was this disrespectful of the high priest?
Paul may not have known that it was the high priest who had issued the order to be slapped. Some blame his eyesight, but that seems unlikely. Paul somewhat apologizes in verse 5.
Then Paul changed tactics, dividing the crowd. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection; the Pharisees did. So you drop that word in this crowd and it is combustible.
Paul was undoubtedly wondering how he would ever get out of the mess in which he found himself. At this critical moment, during the “night of the next day” (“following night”; Gr. te epiouse nykti), the Lord appeared to him again (cf. 9:4-6; 16:9; 18:9-10; 22:17-21; 27:23-24; Gen. 15:1) and “stood at his side.” The Lord’s appearances to Paul all occurred at great crises in his life.
He assured the apostle that he would bear “witness in (at) Rome,” as he had already done in Jerusalem (1:8). This revelation is essential to Luke’s purpose in writing Acts, and it certainly must have given Paul confidence as the events that followed unfolded.
This was needed because the Jews were plotting to kill Paul (vv. 12-15), but Paul’s nephew heard of it (v. 16) and reported it to Paul. Paul brought him to tell the tribune (vv. 17-21). The tribune then planned to get Paul out of town that night and take him to Caesarea Maritima, to Felix (vv. 22-24). A letter was written explaining about Paul and his situation to Felix (vv. 25-30), so they took Paul first to Antipatris (v. 31) and Caesarea (v. 33), to Felix.
Stephen Miller’s map for Acts 23. Casual English Bible.
34 On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod’s praetorium.