Today’s readings are from Genesis 30, Mark 1, Esther 6, and Romans 1.
Infertility (actually barrenness) seems to have been a problem among the matriarchs (Sarah, Genesis 16:2; 30:2; Rebekah, Genesis 25:21; and Rachel, Genesis 29:1; 30:22-24). There are only five women in the whole Old Testament identified as “barren” (Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:5-6; and Samson’s mother (Judges 13:1-3).
God had told Adam to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) and children were a blessing (Psalm 127:3-4). Biblical women who experience periods of barrenness often understand their inability to conceive as a divine withholding of blessing, a punishment, or even a curse.
But in the case of these three women, barrenness provided an opportunity for God to work in a miraculous way.
In the Rachel and Leah saga, the narrator tells us “When Yahweh saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Gen. 29:31). He later “remembers” Rachel and “opens her womb,” allowing her to conceive and bear her son Joseph (Gen. 30:22-24).
Cynthia R. Chapman notes:
Socially, barrenness as presented in several biblical stories caused a woman to experience reproach and even a form of social death. Sarah and Rachel found barrenness so stigmatizing that each offered her handmaid as a surrogate to her husband in the hopes that she might be built up through a son born through surrogacy. Rachel understood conception as her only path toward life, crying out to her husband, “Give me children, or I shall die!” When she finally bore Joseph, her hard-won first son, she proclaims, “God has taken away my reproach” (Gen 30:1, Gen 23). Similarly, when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, conceived despite being old and barren, she announced, the Lord “has taken away the disgrace that I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:7, Luke 1:25).
Rachel”s reaction to her barrenness and Jacob’s response contrast with how Rebekah and Isaac, and Sarah and Abraham behaved in similar circumstances. Sarah resorted to a custom acceptable in her culture, though contrary to God”s will, to secure an heir for Abraham (cf. Gen. 16:1-2). Isaac prayed that God would open Rebekah”s womb and waited (Gen. 25:21). Rachel and Jacob followed the example of Sarah and Abraham.
Rachel’s first reaction was to give her handmaiden Bilhah as a surrogate, who bore two children to Jacob (vv. 1-8). Zilpah, Leah’s maid, then bore two more (vv. 9-13). The score was now Leah 6, Rachel 2 (but not really).
Rachel’s second reaction was to try mandrakes, thought to help a woman conceive, in exchange for Leah sleeping again with Jacob. End result: Leah 7, Rachel 2 (but not really).
Finally, in vv. 22-24, God “listened to her and opened her womb” (v. 22) and she gave birth to Joseph, saying, “God has taken away my reproach.”
Verses 25-43 recounts how Jacob became rich, at Laban’s expense. Jacob, seemingly trying to outsmart Laban, was really blessed by the grace of God. His flocks grew, and this caused problems with Laban. But that’s for another chapter.
The lesson of this chapter is that even when we depend upon our own machinations and schemes to help ourselves, our only real help comes from God, who hears and acts.
Mark 1 begins “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The good news of Jesus Christ.
Possibly Mark began his Gospel as he did to recall the opening verse of Genesis. The good news about Jesus Christ provides a beginning of as great significance as the creation of the cosmos. When Jesus” came to earth and began His ministry, God created something new. This Gospel presents a new beginning in which God revealed good news about Jesus Christ. (Thomas Constable)
John the Baptist comes on the scene (Mark 1:1-8). He is the forerunner to the Messiah, preparing the way for people to hail him as King.
John’s ministry took place in the Judean wilderness, east of the central mountain range upon which Jerusalem sat.
Biblical Israel Tours
John was baptizing people in the Jordan river when they gave evidence of repentance.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized (in a place near the picture above)
10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, in their book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus have this to say about this portion of Scripture. It is about the rabbinic habit of “stringing pearls.”
Believe it or not, God himself seems to enjoy “stringing pearls.” Do you remember the scene in which Jesus is being baptized by his cousin John? Listen to how the Father spoke from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11): “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At face value this seems like a simple, though wonderful, affirmation. But it’s so much more than that. Did you catch all the references? If not, here they are:
- “You are my Son” is from Psalm 2:7: “He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’”
- “whom I love” is from Genesis 22:2: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
- “with you I am well pleased” is from Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”
What was God saying by making use of these quotations? To answer this question, you need to know two things: the context from which each passage is drawn and the way in which the people of that time understood the passage. Both Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42 were understood as powerful messianic prophecies. In Psalm 2, God makes a royal proclamation announcing his Son, the King of kings who would rule over the whole earth.
But in Isaiah 42, God speaks about his “servant” (also understood to be the Messiah). Paradoxically, God’s Messiah is both a king and a servant. This passage from Isaiah also proclaims that God’s Spirit is upon his servant. How fitting since the Father utters these words as the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the Jordan River.
The reference “whom I love” is likely drawn from Genesis 22, one of the most poignant scenes in the Old Testament. Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac out of obedience to God. Genesis heightens the drama by emphasizing how precious Isaac is to Abraham, foreshadowing the Father’s own feelings for his only Son. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, the Father is saying, “Here is my precious son, my Isaac,” hinting at the sacrifice he will soon ask of Jesus.
In just three brief quotes from the Scriptures, God speaks of Jesus as a king, a servant, and his Son, who will become a sacrifice. When God speaks, he packs a lot into his words! And be sure to notice where the three passages come from: the Torah (Genesis 22), the Prophets (Isaiah 42), and the Psalms (Psalm 2). Just like the rabbis, God links together the words from the three parts of Scripture. By quoting all three, he is proclaiming that the entire Scriptures point to Jesus as their fulfillment.
I think these words are words fathers should speak into their children’s lives (especially their sons). He identified him as “my son,” that he loved him and that he was proud of him. There are no greater gifts a father can give his son than these–identity, love and affirmation.
And, by the way, the Father affirmed His Son before He had done anything!
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Some think the mount of temptation was right outside Jericho.
Jesus then starts his ministry by calling his first disciples (vv. 14-20). Mark omitted Jesus” year of early Judean ministry (John 1:15-4:42), as did the other Synoptic evangelists. He began his account of Jesus” ministry of service in Galilee, northern Israel (Mark 1:14-6:6a).
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) summarizes Jesus’ whole ministry in Galilee. The Messianic could begin, Jesus says, but only through repentance and faith.
Map by A. D. Riddle
The area around the Sea of Galilee was the scene of much of Jesus’ 3-year ministry. He lived in Capernaum and here he met his first group of disciples, fishermen.
The command/invitation “follow me” would likely have thrilled the hearts of these men. Likely passed over for promotion to rabbinic school, they were given a new opportunity to follow a rabbi, and this one they had heard about–he was healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons. He was the real deal!
Verse 21-28 capture Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry in the Capernaum synague.
This is a reconstruction of 4th century synagogue, likely on the same site as the synagogue Jesus taught in.
Jesus taught with authority, cast out a demon, and grew in popularity (vv. 21-28), when to Simon’s house and healed his mother-in-law (vv. 29-31), then healed many otherss (vv. 32-34). All-in-all, a productive, but long and tiring day.
That’s what makes Mark 1:35 stand out…
35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Even Jesus, the almighty creator of heaven and earth, needed to get away, get alone where it was quiet, and pray. How much more do we need to get away early in the morning, to pray.
“Mark selectively portrayed Jesus at prayer on three crucial occasions, each in a setting of darkness and aloneness: near the beginning of his account (Mark 1:35), near the middle (Mark 6:46), and near the end (Mark 14:32-42). All three were occasions when He was faced with the possibility of achieving His messianic mission in a more attractive, less costly way. But in each case He gained strength through prayer.”
This time in help helped Jesus focus on the Father’s will for Him. He was always careful to follow the Father’s plan. Even though He was popular here, Jesus knew He had to move on.
38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”
We go to God in prayer to get orders from our commander and remind us why we are here today and what we are to do next.
Meanwhile (6:1-3), the king couldn’t sleep (cf. Daniel 6:18 for another king who couldn’t sleep), and asked for a boring book to be brought to him (the Congressional Record), to put him to sleep. There, the king realized that he had never honored Mordecai for his loyalty.
This was a remarkable example of Providence in action. King Ahasuerus can not sleep, and he can choose 20 different diversions to fill his sleepless night – but he commands that a book be brought to him and read. The one commanded to bring the book could have brought any one book of the records of the chronicles, but he brought one particular book. The book could be opened to any page, but it was opened to the exact page telling the story of Mordecai and how he saved the King from assassination. God guided every step along the way.
While Satan was putting it into the heart of Haman to contrive Mordecai’s death; God was putting it into the heart of the king to honor Mordecai.
Normally, this king quickly rewarded people who did him special services. Herodotus gave two examples of Xerxes doing this. [Note: Herodotus, 8:85,9:107.] Consequently, when he discovered that he had overlooked Mordecai”s favor, the king moved speedily to rectify the oversight.
Haman enters the court, ready to ask the King to impale Mordecai, and the king asks, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” (v. 6).
Thinking the king was talking about him, Haman suggests dressing him in a royal robe, setting him upon a horse from the king’s stable led by someone, and having people bow down in honor (6:7-9).
The king says, “Go and do this for Mordecai,” which Haman does, and then goes home in shame, where his wife “prophesies” that these events show that he will go down in flames! Then he had to go to the banquet. (6:10-14)
Esther 6:14 means that Haman hastened to go to the banquet. He did not want to be late. It does not mean that he was reluctant to go and that the eunuchs needed to hurry him along. He evidently looked forward to the banquet as an opportunity to lift his spirits, little realizing that it would be the scene of his exposure and condemnation.
Romans has always stood at the head of Paul’s letters, and rightly so. Since Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome, it is logical to have the Epistle section of the New Testament begin with the apostle’s letter to the Roman church, written before he visited the Christians there. More decisively, Romans is the most important book theologically in the whole New Testament, being as close to a systematic theology as will be found in God’s word.
Romans is the Paul’s greatest letter.
Augustine was converted reading a single verse from Romans 13:14. Martin Luther also, meditating on Romans 1:17. John Wesley “felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ” hearing someone reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.
“All roads in the Bible lead to Romans, and all views afforded by the Bible are seen most clearly from Romans, and when the message of Romans gets into a person’s heart there is no telling what may happen.” (J. I. Packer, in the last chapter of Knowing God).
Paul showed how human beings lack God’s righteousness because of our sin (1–3), receive God’s righteousness when God justifies us by faith (4–5), demonstrate God’s righteousness by being transformed from rebels to followers (6–8), confirm His righteousness when God saves the Jews (9–11), and apply His righteousness in practical ways throughout our lives (12–16).
In Romans 1 Paul begins with his introduction 1:1-17, with his typical salutation (vv. 1-7), identifying the writer (1:1), introducing the subject of the letter (1:2-5) and greeting the original readers (1:6-7).
Paul had not yet met these Christians in Rome and expresses his desire to see them (vv. 8-15).
Paul gives his thanksgiving for their faith (vv. 8-9) and expresses his desire to see them (v. 10). He felt an obligation to preach the gospel to them (vv. 14-15).
Why “preach the gospel” to them? Weren’t they already Christians? It is possible that some of them were unclear about the gospel. Or it is possible that, like us, the gospel is never something we leave behind, but need to delve deeper into.
In his article, “The Centrality of the Gospel,” Tim Keller helpfully elucidates the all too simple but all to neglected diagnosis of our spiritual ‘issues’.
We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A-Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make progress in the kingdom.
We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col. 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom. 1:16-17). It is very common in the church to think as follows. “The gospel is for non-Christians. One needs it to be saved. But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.” But Col. 1:6 shows that this is a mistake. Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and “in line” with the gospel will not sanctify you-it will strangle you. All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel. Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32).
The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel-a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine. . . . Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel-seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.
Starting in v. 16-17 serve as a bridge introducing us to the first major section of Romans–that all men are under sin (1:18-3:20)
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
It was the “righteousness of God” that first caused Luther to hate God, for it was what God (impossibly) required of us. But then it dawned upon him that this righteousness was not something he had to achieve, but something that could be received. It was a gift of God. The theme of Romans 1:18-5:11 is that God imputes (credits) righteousness into our moral account when we believe in Jesus Christ.
In August of 1513, a monk lectured on the book of Psalms in a seminary, but his inner life was nothing but turmoil. In his studies, he came across Psalm 31:1: In Thy righteousness deliver me. The passage confused him; how could God’s righteousness do anything but condemn him to Hell as a righteous punishment for his sins? Luther kept thinking about Romans 1:17, which says that in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Habakkuk 2:4).
The monk went on to say: “Night and day I pondered until . . . I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise . . . This passage of Paul became to me a gateway into heaven.”
Martin Luther was born again, and the reformation began in his heart.
Paul first elaborates on the sinfulness of humanity (1:18–3:20), demonstrating the universal need of righteousness.
Here in Romans 1:18-32 Paul is saying that everyone is responsible for the revelation they have received through creation. It is undeniable and therefore everyone is without excuse.
But because mankind chooses to worship the creation over the creator, we have degenerated into adulterers (vv. 24-25), into homosexuals (vv. 26-27) and finally into a depraved mind (vv. 28-32). The consistent phrase in these verses is “God gave them up” to reap the fruits of their own desires.
In each of these cases, mankind is venerating something (usually sex) above God.