Read the Bible features devotional commentaries from D.A. Carson’s book For the Love of God (vol. 1) that follow the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. This podcast is designed to be used alongside TGC's Read The Bible initiative (TGC.org/readthebible).
2 Samuel 23; Galatians 3; Ezekiel 30; Psalm 78:40–72
Galatians 3 could usefully occupy us for an entire book as long as the one on which this devotion is based. But here I shall restrict myself to two observations.
First, in the first five verses Paul appeals to experience. He asks the Galatians whether their conversion and all their experience of the grace of God and the power of the Spirit came to them as a function of their observance of the Law of Moses, or as a function of their faith. After all, Christ had been placarded before their eyes as the crucified Savior (Gal. 3:1). They believed what they heard (Gal. 3:2), and they received the Spirit. This stance had cost them: they had suffered persecution (Gal. 3:4). Moreover, they had witnessed miraculous, transforming works of the Spirit, all in function of their God-given faith (Gal. 3:5). Why, then, should they think that, having begun with the Spirit, having begun by faith, they should now try to attain their “goal”—presumably further steps of maturation and knowledge of God—by carefully observing the law? That approach, Paul implies, is in contradiction to their conversion, a slur on the suffering they have endured, and in antithesis to their own experience of the power of the Spirit of God.
What this means is that the path to the Christian’s “goal” is faith and the life and power of the Spirit, not observance of multiplied law. To think otherwise is to be “foolish,” to listen to those who have “bewitched” us with false notions of spirituality that tear us away from Jesus crucified (see Gal. 3:1).
Second, the argument in the rest of the chapter focuses not on the individual Christian’s experience, but on the history of God’s redemptive purpose. In other words, Paul is not saying that the law of God must operate in each unbeliever’s conscience if that person is to come to Christ. That may or may not be true, but it is not what Paul is addressing. Rather, Paul seeks to establish the priority of faith for our justification as far back in history as Abraham (Gal. 3:6–9). That immediately raises the question as to why the Law of Moses was “added” at all. Paul does not here offer a complete analysis of the various purposes served by the Law, but emphasizes certain points: it was not added to overturn the principles already established at the time of Abraham, nor to offer an alternative path to salvation. Rather, it made human sin clear and undeniable as it exposed it as transgression; thus it drove people, across the redemptive-historical time line, to Jesus Christ. One of the ways in which Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament differs from that of his Jewish colleagues is that he insists on reading it along its temporal axis: Paul is explaining how the Bible fits together.
2 Samuel 22; Galatians 2; Ezekiel 29; Psalm 78:1–39
Some commentators understand Paul in Galatians 2:1ff. to be saying that after some years he returned to Jerusalem to set before the Jerusalem apostles and other leaders the Gospel he had been preaching among the Gentiles, because he wanted to have himself checked out. He did this privately, of course; yet the fact of the matter is that Paul was afraid he was running or had run his race in vain (Gal. 2:2). This proves that Paul was not as secure in his own mind as he pretends to be in the previous chapter. There is a sense in which he was a derivative apostle.
This reading will not stand up. What Paul means is something quite different. The Galatians have been invaded by agitators from the outside, men who have presented themselves as being authorized by Jerusalem, as somehow supported by the “regular” apostles. The book of Acts supplies evidence that Paul was sometimes dogged by such people. So he goes to Jerusalem, not to have his gospel validated or recast (at this point, Paul is not going to change his mind or direction), but to ensure there are no misrepresentations among the Jerusalem leaders as to what he is preaching, and to encourage those leaders to disassociate themselves entirely from the “false brothers” who are unfairly appealing to Jerusalem to damage Paul and his ministry among the Gentiles. In short, Paul takes steps to ensure that he is not running his race in vain; these agitators are trying to undo his work. He wants to take all proper steps to undermine their pretensions and destroy their influence. Acts 15 shows that that is precisely what the Jerusalem Council achieved. Indeed, Galatians 2:11–14 suggests that Paul achieved gospel consistency more quickly than some of the other apostles. Far from submitting to their judgment on the content of what he was preaching, he was prepared to administer his own rebukes if he saw them behaving inconsistently.
Although there are many piercingly important theological issues that emerge from these confrontations, at this juncture we may fasten on a practical one. While the Gospel is something worth contending for, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about this business. When Peter’s inconsistency is public and doing public damage, Paul’s rebuke is public (Gal. 2:11–21). When Paul is trying to clear the air, find out what is going on, and present the tenor of his own work, he approaches the others “privately” (Gal. 2:2). His concern, after all, is the advance of the undiluted Gospel, not his own public vindication. When we find ourselves in the place where we must tenaciously contend for the Gospel, we must think through how to do so most winsomely and strategically.
2 Samuel 21; Galatians 1; Ezekiel 28; Psalm 77
The opening lines of Paul’s letters are usually crafted with great care. The simplest form of letters in the ancient Greek world was: “From me, to you, Greetings”—often followed by some statement of thanks, and then the body of the letter. But Paul’s customary practice is to “tweak” every component to anticipate what is coming in the rest of his letter. Thus a study of his letter as a whole enriches our understanding of his opening lines—and vice versa (Gal. 1:1–5).
(1) Paul does not always introduce himself as “an apostle.” Sometimes he uses no designation (e.g., 1 and 2 Thess.); sometimes he refers to himself as a “servant” (Rom. 1:1). Here he is “Paul, an apostle” because some people were troubling the Galatian Christians with a “different gospel” that was “really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6–7), and to do so they had to undermine Paul’s authority and dismiss him as, at best, a derivative apostle.
(2) Not so, Paul says: not only is he an apostle, but he was “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal. 1:1). His apostleship was not mediated, as if he had been commissioned by the Jerusalem church, or by some individual first-class apostle there. Rather, he was sent “by Jesus Christ,” based on his Damascus Road experience of seeing the risen and exalted Jesus himself, and by God the Father.
(3) Paul further designates God the Father as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Paul had seen the raised Jesus, the resurrected Jesus. In his years as a devout Pharisee, he had dismissed Jesus as an evil pretender, a malefactor, cursed by God as was clear from the manner of his death. Seeing the resurrected Jesus for himself made Paul rethink everything. Jesus was vindicated by God himself, and the good news of which Paul was an apostle is grounded in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
(4) However much he insists on his apostolic status and authority, Paul wisely associates himself and his teaching with “all the brothers” with him (Gal. 1:2). If the Galatians angle off toward this “different gospel,” they must know that they are not only turning away from Paul, but from the countless believers who agree with Paul.
(5) Instead of the traditional greeting Chairein, Paul uses the Christian word grace (charis) and the Jewish greeting peace (shalom in Hebrew) and grounds these blessings in the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 1:3–5)—not on any particular relationship to the Law of Moses.
(6) Astonishingly, Paul leaves out the “thanks” section, and immediately drives toward his astonished rebuke of the impending defection of his readers (Gal. 1:6–10). However rare, there are times when a rebuke will not wait.
2 Samuel 20; 2 Corinthians 13; Ezekiel 27; Psalms 75–76
In many churches around the world, though comparatively less frequently in North America, the minister at the end of the service will quietly utter the two words, “The grace.” Those gathered know that this is a signal for the entire congregation to pray together, reciting the verse from which these two words are drawn: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
The text is short and simple, and we are in danger of flying by without reflecting on it.
(1) The triune God is the source of these blessings. That in itself is noteworthy: there was no long delay before Christians like Paul saw the implications of who Jesus is, and the implications of the gift of the Spirit, for their understanding of God himself. The entire Godhead is engaged in this vastly generous salvage operation that takes God’s fallen image-bearers and restores them to fellowship with their Maker.
(2) In the first two parts, the “grace” is undoubtedly the grace that the Lord Jesus Christ gives or provides, and the “love” is the love that God himself pours out. That makes it overwhelmingly likely that the third clause, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” does not refer to our fellowship with the Spirit, but to the fellowship that the Holy Spirit bestows, enables, or gives. The Holy Spirit is finally the author of Christian fellowship. We enjoy Christian fellowship with one another because of the Spirit’s work in each of us individually and in all of us corporately, turning our hearts and minds from self-focus and sin to adoration of God and a love of holiness and a delight in Jesus and his Gospel and teachings. Without such transformation, our “fellowship,” our partnership in the Gospel, would be impossible.
(3) Not for a moment should we imagine that grace comes exclusively from Jesus, love exclusively from God the Father, and fellowship exclusively from the Spirit—as if Jesus could not love or generate fellowship, the Father could not display grace, and so forth. There is a sense in which grace, love, and fellowship come from the triune God. Yet one may usefully connect grace with the Lord Jesus, because his sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross was offered up out of sheer grace; we may usefully connect love with God, because the entire plan of redemption springs from the wise and loving heart of God, of whom it is said, “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8 and the October 11 meditation); we may usefully connect fellowship with the Holy Spirit, since his is the work of transformation that unites us together in the partnership of the Gospel.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
2 Samuel 19; 2 Corinthians 12; Ezekiel 26; Psalm 74
“I must go on boasting,” Paul writes (2 Cor. 12:1), though of course he has been doing so only in the most ironic way (see yesterday’s meditation and the one for September 21). But now he faces a new dilemma. Apparently his opponents have been boasting about their spiritual experiences. They may even have been saying something like, “Well, of course, Paul had that Damascus Road experience, but that was a long time ago. What has he known of God since then? Yesterday’s grace grows stale.” In this case, of course, Paul cannot simply deploy irony and boast about the opposite of all that his opponents judge important, as he did in chapter 11. For the opposite of having various spiritual experiences is not having them—and in Paul’s case, to deny that he has enjoyed such experiences would not be true. So reluctantly he goes on “to visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1). But he cannot bear to talk about himself in this regard, so he retreats to a literary device: he speaks about himself in the third person: “I know a man in Christ,” he writes (2 Cor. 12:2), though clearly he is talking about himself (2 Cor. 12:5–6).
Even in this case, Paul offers three emphases to turn the focus away from himself and strip any virtue from the habit of boasting.
First, in his case, he says, the spectacular experiences of heaven he enjoyed fourteen years earlier he was “not permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4). The “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2) is the abode of God; “paradise” is where God dwells. Some of what he saw was “inexpressible”: people who have not enjoyed such visions do not have the categories to grasp them. More importantly, these visions were meant to strengthen Paul; he was not permitted to talk about them. Hence his silence.
Second, Paul is afraid people will think too much of him (the opposite of our fears), so as a matter of principle he dislikes talking about inaccessible matters. If he must be judged, he wants to be judged by what he does and says (2 Cor. 12:6), not by claims of visions and revelations that are inaccessible to public scrutiny.
Third, Paul recognizes that along with the great advantages he has received, God has imposed, through the agency of Satan, a “thorn in [the] flesh” that is not going to be removed, despite his most fervent intercessory prayer (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was given to keep him from becoming conceited, to keep him “weak,” so that he would learn that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness, and he would therefore never rely on or be puffed up by the extraordinary grace he had received. In this fallen world, it is a mercy that great grace is accompanied by great weakness, as well as the other way around.
2 Samuel 18; 2 Corinthians 11; Ezekiel 25; Psalm 73
In the continuing pressure he felt to respond to those who were undermining his authority in Corinth, Paul finds he must “boast” while not “boasting” (see yesterday’s meditation). In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul climaxes his argument by insisting that the Christian’s only proper boasting is in Christ Jesus: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17). In 2 Corinthians 11:16–33, he adopts a slightly different slant to get at the same truth.
What Paul does is take a kind of “time out”: he says he will boast, not as Paul the apostle, not even as Paul the Christian, but rather as Paul the “fool” (2 Cor. 11:16–21). He is frightfully embarrassed to do even this (2 Cor. 11:21b, 23), but he cannot see another way forward. True, he says, he was steeped in Hebrew culture and language from his youth, and he is a “servant of Christ” no less than others—but to talk like this is so painful that he explodes parenthetically, “I am out of my mind to talk like this” (2 Cor. 11:23). And then he inverts all the categories. He “worked much harder”: he means he worked physically, with his hands—something no first-class, self-respecting Hellenistic teacher would do. Further, he says, he has a longer prison record than they do. He has been flogged more often. Five times he has endured the synagogue sanction, the thirty-nine lashes. He has been shipwrecked three times in his voyages for the Gospel (2 Cor. 11:25)—and this was written before the one recorded in Acts 27. Constant danger has bedeviled him in his travels, and he has often been forced to go without food. Worse, he has been betrayed by “false brothers” (2 Cor. 11:26) while facing the perpetual stress of his concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:27–28).
We must not read this with Western Christian eyes as an exciting saga of endurance under pressure. We read Paul’s sufferings and admire his faithfulness and steadfastness, his conformity to the Christ who went to the cross. But his opponents would see all these “boasts” as signs of weakness and even stupidity: he does not even have enough sense to keep himself out of trouble. But Paul is determined to invert human boasting; he will boast about the things that display his weakness (2 Cor. 11:30). Even his last shot runs along these lines (2 Cor. 11:31–33). We tend to see Paul’s escape from Damascus through Luke’s eyes (Acts 9). Paul himself saw his flight as an embarrassing defeat. At a time when the highest Roman military honor went to the soldier of centurion rank or higher who was first over the wall at the end of a siege, Paul avers he was the first down.
In what ways do you boast of your weaknesses?