Matthew 9:35-38

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Matthew 9

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, ”The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The first time I ever went to Honduras I was emotionally overwhelmed. I had never seen such poverty but I had also never seen such joy as I saw reflected in the faces of those dear people. It was a powerful reality to behold and, throughout the week, I was deeply touched and moved.

I remember on one occasion on that first trip standing on a high place above the village in which we were working. I, along with a friend, was standing and looking down at the village and at all the people moving about its streets. I was also looking at the long line of people who had lined up early that morning to see the doctors and nurses in our team.

I recall standing there in silence taking it all in. My heart was full to overflowing with love for the people and love for Honduras and, above all else, love for the God who made and loves us all! It was a pure moment. A powerful moment. My friend was standing next to me, likewise in silence.

After some moments, I broke the silence with, “Man, just look at that.”

He nodded knowingly and then responded from some deep place within him: “I know, man. I know. You know, that land would make an unbelievable golf course.”

I looked at him in disbelief and said, “What?!”

My friend and I have laughed at the absurdity of that statement over the many years since he said it. I hasten to add that he is a dear brother who loves the Lord and loved those people and served them well that week. But, somehow, in that moment, we were looking at two very different things!

When Jesus looked at the crowds, His heart was stirred and moved within Him. He felt deep compassion. Our text bears that out. It speaks of His ministry, of His burden, and of His calling of His disciples to join Him in loving the lost. It all raises an important question: what do you see when you see the masses?

In fact, I believe it raises three questions. I ask these questions out of the conviction that the church is the body of Christ—“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27)—and therefore should be about what Christ was about.

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Genesis 41:1-36

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Genesis 41

1 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh. Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” 14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” 16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” 17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile.18 Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. 20 And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. 22 I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. 23 Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, 24 and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.” 25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. 28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, 30 but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, 31 and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. 32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the landof Egypt during the seven plentiful years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

“I’ve hit bottom.”

“I’m at the end of the rope.”

“The wheels have come off.”

Human beings have powerfully descriptive ways of communicating when life has not gone as they planned, when the worst thing that could happen has happened. There is in these statements an implicit protest and possibly even an indictment. It is not that we do not know these misfortunes happen, it is just that we somehow are shocked that they should happen to me!

And yet, they happen. We hit bottom. We find ourselves at the end of our ropes. The wheels come off.

Consider Joseph: the favored son of his father who was given dreams of exaltation above his family. Yet troubles come: he is sold off into slavery and then pronounced dead by his plotting brothers. After finding a position of authority he is then imprisoned on trumped-up charges after the scorned and rebuffed wife of Potiphar falsely accuses him. Then he is given a place of prominence in the prison and demonstrates the presence of God in his life by correctly interpreting the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer. However, just when things are looking hopeful, the cupbearer forgets poor Joseph so he languishes in prison.

Let us consider Joseph’s time in the pit. Let us watch closely what God does.

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Matthew 9:32-34

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Matthew 9

32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” 34 But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”

Pastor Mason Beecroft has described an interesting Sunday called “Oculi Sunday” and how it was observed in the earlier years of the church.

…[T]he third Sunday in Lent…is known as Oculi Sunday. Oculi, the Latin for “My eyes” comes from Psalm 25, the appointed Introit, the Entrance Psalm of the day: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.

Approximately 1,500 years ago, on Oculi Sunday, if you found yourself in Rome, you would witness a large procession winding its way through the city. The procession would be led by catechumens, people who were preparing for Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Before this day these candidates would have gone through instruction in the faith and been subject to a series of exorcisms. A late fifth-century letter from John the Deacon offers some insight into the faith of this community: “There is no doubt that, until born again in Christ, one is held bound by the power of the devil. Indeed, one thus bound should not approach the grace of the saving bath, unless, renouncing the devil as part of the early rudiments of faith, one is extricated from his snares.” So on Oculi Sunday, as they entered into the sanctuary after the procession, they would pray, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.” The catechumens, along with all the faithful, were confessing that their hope and salvation was in Jesus Christ. They were turning their eyes to the Lord and seeking His mercy for they were desolate and afflicted by sin and death and the power of Satan. So they confessed the faith of the church and renounced Satan and all his works and all his ways. This then marked the beginning of a series of tests for the catechumens called scrutinies to determine their desire to remain faithful to Christ. John the Deacon continues, “For we thoroughly test their hearts concerning faith to determine whether, since the renunciation of the devil, the sacred words of the creed have become fixed in their minds.” The intensity of their preparation heightened in anticipation of entering the waters of Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil, which was the transfer of their citizenship from the realm of Satan, with its sin and death, into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, where Christ rules with forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.[1]

What strikes me as interesting about this is the vivid understanding these earlier Christians had that entry into the Christian life meant rejecting the life of the devil in which they were previously mired. One still gets the feeling that many modern Christians are a bit squeamish about their belief in the devil…which is odd, given how much evidence we see daily for his existence. But these earlier Christians knew and saw that the devil exists, that he is powerful, and that he is seeking to hold us in his murderous clutches. Furthermore, they saw that coming to Christ meant making a definitive break with the devil’s kingdom of darkness.

I found myself twice in the last two days speaking to people who were seeking counsel. In both cases I found myself encouraging them to remember that the devil is real and is out to hurt and wound them but that Christ is greater, stronger, and has defeated the devil. I believe this. I believe it is a powerful truth we must hold to, for if we do not understand the power of the devil we will be stunted in our understanding of the victory of God in Christ.

Our text is a brief one that reveals much about the attacks of the devil and the power of Jesus Christ. The occasion is the healing of a mute possessed man.

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Genesis 40

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Genesis 40

1 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody. And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.” 16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.” 20 On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them.23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

Last Tuesday night I had something unbelievably unpleasant happen. It happened around 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. I had the most horrible and unbelievably realistic dream. I dreamed that Roni and Hannah and I were walking through this abandoned little town with the storefronts boarded up and trash strewn throughout the streets. We turned down a little alleyway and as we were walking through the alley I realized to my absolute horror that the alley was filled with rattlesnakes. We panicked and I said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”

When we emerged through the alley I realized with absolute dismay that Roni had been bitten. Her face was starting to swell up. I said, “You’ve been bitten!” She said, in her sweet voice, “No, I’m fine, I think.” I said, “You’re swelling up!” I picked her up and started running looking for help. We found a makeshift medical clinic in an abandoned Winn Dixie (!) and I ran into the building holding Roni in my arms. There was a long line and I started shouting, “Somebody help! Somebody help! She’s been bitten by a snake!” But nobody moved and nobody helped.

Then I woke up.

It was horrific.

I then did what any courageous man does in the middle of the night when he has had a bad dream: I woke Roni up! I wanted to make sure she was ok and tell her about my dream. She patted my shoulder then went back to sleep.

I lay there thinking about the dream. It was so real and so jarring. What on earth could it have meant? Why did I dream it?

Then it hit me: last Sunday I began my sermon by recounting Wendy Bagwell’s famous story about finding himself in a snake handling church and how he was determined to either find an exit or make one once the two ladies brought the rattlesnakes out. I had interpreted, at least somewhat, my dream.

Dreams can be tricky things to understand. Sometimes they are easy things to understand. Robert Alter writes that, “[i]n Egypt, the interpretation of dreams was regarded as a science, and formal instruction in techniques of dream interpretation was given in schools called ‘houses of life.’”[1] This was the context in which Joseph found himself when he was cast into prison after being wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife. He found himself with an opportunity to interpret the dreams of his cellmates and, in so doing, promote a right understanding of God.

In this chapter we see the man of God refusing to waste his unique opportunity. We see him bearing witness and we see him pointing to a greater Savior to come.

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Matthew 9:27-31

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Matthew 9

27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” 31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.

The word “Evangelical” has come under fire a great deal recently and is the subject of a lot of misunderstanding. It was originally a word that described a type of Christian. Nowadays it seems to describe a type of voter. Some of us still want to hold to the old form of the word but suspect we may be losing it to politics. Who knows?

One of the better descriptions of an Evangelical is the 1989 thesis put forward by David Bebbington, a British historian, that has come to be known as “the Bebbington quadrilateral.” The quadrilateral refers to four distinguishing marks of Evangelicals. They are, according to Bebbington (as summarized here in the Wikipedia article about him):

  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
  • Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
  • Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted
  • Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort[1]

I oddly enough thought of the Bebbington quadrilateral when considering the two blind men Jesus healed in Matthew 9:31. Now, please do not misunderstand. I am truly not trying to force these brothers anachronistically into some sort of American Evangelical template. I mean the structuring of this message somewhat tongue-in-cheek (the structuring of the message, not the content). But only somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In fact, it is uncanny to me how this episode reveals the four points of the Bebbington quadrilateral. Let us see how.

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Genesis 39

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Genesis 39

1 Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 10 And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. 11 But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, 12 she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. 13 And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, 14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. 15 And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.”16 Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, 17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. 18 But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” 19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.

For a good bit of my life I have heard people talk about Wendy Bagwell’s rattlesnake story. Sometimes it is attributed to Jerry Clower, but it appears to have been original to Wendy Bagwell. Bagwell talks about being invited to a little country church of about twenty-four people. He and his group were playing their guitars and singing and the little congregation had all gotten up on their feet and were shouting and dancing and singing. He said everybody was so excited that he and Geraldine did not notice what was happening behind them. He said that a couple of ladies went behind the band, behind the stage, and brought out five big rattlesnakes and started handling them. He said that he and Geraldine looked at each other and backed up while one of the ladies went nose to nose with one of the snakes. He said she brought the snake near him and he couldn’t back up far enough. She then threw the rattlesnake on the ground, took her shoes off, and put a bare foot on the head of one of the snakes.

In the midst of all of this, Bagwell says that Geraldine looked at him and said, “Wendy, what are we going to do?”

He responded, “Just relax. It’s going to be ok. Look around and see where the back door is.”

She said, “I already have. There ain’t one.”

To which Bagwell famously responded, “Reckon where do they want one?”

I have heard that story recounted most of my life. It is a product of older southern gospel humor and I have always found it charming. “Reckon where do they want one?” If there ain’t an exit, I’ll make an exit!

When you really need to leave a room—I mean when you absolutely must leave a room!—you will either find an exit or make one.

Genesis 39 is a story about a man who determined to find an exit or make one. In fact, so ready was Joseph to get out of the room with Potiphar’s wife that he ran out leaving his clothes behind. Why? Because there was something in that room more dangerous than a rattlesnake. Temptation was in that room and, with it, the death that sin brings.

I would like to talk about how to make or find an exit when temptation comes at you. There are few texts that give us clearer principles in this matter than Genesis 39.

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Matthew 9:19-26

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Matthew 9

18 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. 20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. 23 And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. 26 And the report of this went through all that district.

In Erasmus and the Age of the Reformation, John Huizinga’s fascinating biography of the Christian humanist and public intellectual Erasmus of Rotterdam, Huizinga writes about Erasmus’ defense of and sympathy toward women, views which were all too uncommon in the 15th as 16th centuries. Huizinga writes:

The same holds good of his views about marriage and woman. In the problem of sexual relations he distinctly sides with the woman from deep conviction. There is a great deal of tenderness and delicate feeling in his conception of the position of the girl and the woman…Who stood up at that time, as he did, for the fallen girl, and for the prostitute compelled by necessity?…Erasmus does not hold with the easy social theory, still quite current in the literature of his time, which casts upon women all the blame of adultery and lewdness. With the savages who live in a state of nature, he says, the adultery of men is punished, but that of women is forgiven.[1]

This is so fascinating. Erasmus really broke with the spirit of his day in the way that he valued, defended, and treated with kindness and equity women in his society. In so doing, he really was modeling something that Jesus had demonstrated in His own ministry. We can see this at various points in Jesus’ life. Our text is one notable example. Here, Jesus sees and helps two females: one younger and one older. In so doing He demonstrated various things about who He is and about what the Kingdom of God is like.

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Genesis 38

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Genesis 38

1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him. And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. 12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.” 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. 27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.

One oftentimes encounters a great deal of confusion when it comes to Genesis 38. One well-known and otherwise strong commentator on Genesis begins his treatment of this chapter thus:

            This peculiar chapter stands alone, without connection to its context. It is isolated in every way and is most enigmatic. It does not seem to belong with any of the identified sources of ancestral tradition. It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource. It is difficult to know in what context it might be of value for theological exposition. For these reasons, our treatment of it may be brief.[1]

I am loath to disagree with one of the great Old Testament scholars of our day, and I do grant that Genesis 38 is a surprising and odd chapter in many ways that seems to rudely interrupt the Joseph narrative, but for the life of me I cannot understand how it can be said that “[i]t is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource.” On the contrary, one may grant its enigmatic status and yet see this chapter as a profoundly theological statement about God’s redemptive work in the world. Furthermore, there is a fascinating bridge between this chapter and the very beginning of the New Testament that in and of itself makes it more than worthy of deep consideration.

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Matthew 9:14-17

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Matthew 9

 14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

I love memes, those popular and oft-repeated sayings, often attached to images, that make their periodic rounds via social media or text or simply conversation. One I really like is “Metaphors Be With You!” Get it? It is playing off the Star Wars line, “May the Force be with you!” I know, I know. Corny, but fun.

Metaphors are great tools to employ in descriptive communication. A metaphor is an image that captures a truth and advances communication. Some people have a weak metaphor game and some people have a strong one. Jesus’ was strong! He used metaphors frequently. In fact, scripture is filled with metaphors.

In Matthew 9:14-17 Jesus employs two metaphors in responding to John the Baptists’ disciples who approach Him with a question. Here is the question:

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

It was a reasonable question. Fasting was part and parcel of righteous living among the Jews, even if it was seemingly often corrupted by self-righteousness and showy, empty religion. Rightly practiced, it was an act of mortification and was generally seen as a holy thing to do. So, yes, this was a reasonable question.

The fact that John’s disciples ask this of Jesus shows that there was some confusion between the camps while there remained a unity of purpose and deep appreciation. John and his followers were not attacking Jesus. They appear to have been honestly trying to understand. Frank Stagg sums up the dynamic between John and Jesus like this:

There is no evidence of a clash between John and Jesus, although it is explicit that John was at least puzzled over the ministry of Jesus (11:2f.), and for some time there were those who followed John and not Jesus (cf. Acts 19:1-7). Jesus held John in high esteem, but differed from him.[1]

It is because of this that John’s disciples ask their question about fasting. Why do they fast but the disciples of Jesus do not? In his answer, Jesus employs three metaphors. We will consider two of those here, for the second and third are very similar.

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Genesis 37

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Genesis 37

1 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. 12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. 29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

Some years back (a great website that has numerous Bible versions and study tools) published its list of most downloaded verses. Here are the top 3:

  1. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
  2. Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
  3. Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[1]

John 3:16 being the number one most downloaded verses is as predictable as it is awesome. John 3:16 is the greatest encapsulation of the gospel in one verse in all of Scripture (though there are other great encapsulations as well). But what strikes me most about these three is that they all have a strong note of providence about them, or the idea that God is in control and is working all things to our good and His glory. Theologian James Leo Garrett Jr. wrote of this doctrine:

The word “providence” is derived from the Latin verb providere, which means “to see at a distance” and hence “to prepare for, to take precautions about.” “Providence” is associated with the English word “provide” and connotes “seeing ahead.” “By an interesting juxtaposition of English usage it means also ‘to look after.’ [Georgia Harkness]”

Garrett then provides some helpful definitions of “providence” from other theologians:

Providence is that continuous agency of God by which he makes all the events of the physical and moral universe fulfill the original design with which he created us. (A.H. Strong)

By the providence of God we mean his control or direction of the universe toward the end which he has chosen. (E.Y. Mullins)[2]

These are helpful and insightful definitions. I would argue that greatest demonstration of God’s providence in the Bible is the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, Genesis 37 would have to be counted as one of the truly great providence texts as well, for in the story of Joseph we see God at work directing all things to His desired ends, even if those “all things” were difficult and frightening at times.

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