Bible Study: Week of October 19, 2014

September 9th, 2011

Old Testament: Exodus 33:12-23

Today's Old Testament lection continues the story of Moses following his return from the presence of YHWH on Sinai. Omitted from the lectionary readings in this cycle are the dramatic events recorded in the concluding verses of Chapter 32. Moses returned to the camp to find the people running wild (32:25). Enraged by the scene of reveling before the golden calf, he smashed the stone tablets upon which the divine commandments had been written—a most fitting metaphor for the breaking of the covenant and the relationship between YHWH and the people.

Moses burned the calf and ground it to a powder, which, mixed with water, he forced the Israelites to drink. Calling for those “who [are] on the Lord’s side” (32:26) to come forward, he instructed the sons of Levi who would respond, to take up the sword and kill “your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (32:27). At his command “about three thousand” of the people died. Then, in a somewhat ironic turn, Moses went again to God to seek forgiveness for the people. The chapter ends with YHWH visiting a plague upon the people.

I Will Not Go Up Among You

Chapter 33 begins with God instructing Moses and the people to “go.” They were to continue on their journey to the land of promise; from now on, however, an angel would go before them—not YHWH. God knew that the rebelliousness of the people would result in their destruction along the way. The verses directly preceding this lection set the stage for Moses’ ongoing role as mediator between YHWH and the people. He set up the tent of meeting outside the camp where the pillar of cloud—the presence of God—descended, and where “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11).

Show Me Your Ways

Moses intervened on the people’s behalf. “Show me your ways,” he asked, seeking to understand God’s refusal to accompany the people further. Again Moses reminded God that “this nation is your people” (33:13). The incident with the golden calf had shown that this nation was not set apart by its own righteousness or moral fortitude. The distinction between the Hebrews and all the other peoples rested solely in God’s continued presence among them. Once more, Moses’ argument proved persuasive; “I will do the very thing that you have asked” (33:17), said YHWH.

Several interesting parallels now emerge. “Show me your ways” precedes “Show me your glory” (33:18). Moses’ plea now was for a sign of confirmation from God. The sign was the proclamation of the divine name. Echoing the initial encounter between Moses and YHWH in the third chapter of Exodus, the very name of God was a revelation of God’s nature: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33:19).

Think About It: “This nation was not set apart by its own righteousness.” Can any nation claim to have earned God’s special favor through its own virtue? What happens to a people when they start thinking of themselves as better than others? “The distinction . . . rested solely in God’s continued presence among them.” What insures God’s continued presence with a people? Is God absent from any people? How do we know when God is present with us? What can we learn as a nation from Israel’s experience with the golden calf and God’s response to that idolatry? “I will be gracious . . .” (33:19). More than an attribute, mercy is part of God’s very being. How does this truth inform our relationship with God? How might it inform our relationship with others?

Psalter: Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is a fitting companion to today’s Old Testament lection, highlighting God’s sovereignty, justice, and mercy, as well as remembering those who acted as mediators between God and Israel (Moses and Aaron in relation to the Exodus narratives). Characteristic of a hymn of praise, Psalm 99 begins with a call to praise, followed by a recitation of God’s mighty acts in history. “He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud; . . . / you were a forgiving God to them, / but an avenger of their wrongdoings” (99:7-8).

Moses and Aaron gave voice to the cries of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt. YHWH, the “lover of justice” (99:4), heard their cries and “executed justice,” freeing the people and giving the commandments as a medium of liberation. YHWH will respond when the people call. Justice is rendered with mercy as well as accountability—with tough love.

God’s sovereignty extends to all creation. “Holy is he” is a refrain throughout the psalm, indicating both the cosmic scope of YHWH’s dominion and the absolute power of YHWH’s will. God’s justice will prevail. The psalm ends as it begins, with a call to praise and humility before the One who “sits enthroned upon the cherubim” (99:1).

Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, his earliest letter, is the earliest writing in the New Testament. It is intensely personal, giving an intimate portrait of Paul as an evangelist with heartfelt affection for this church. As the Thessalonians had been moved by Paul’s faith, so was he moved by their response to the gospel. When Christ is shared, both bearer and receiver of the message are profoundly changed.

Paul founded the church in Thessalonica, capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, after leaving Philippi. The letter is addressed to the Gentile believers (converted from pagan faiths), although the Acts account of the Thessalonian ministry is centered in Paul’s interaction with the synagogue community. One of the letter’s primary concerns is Paul’s thanksgiving for and encouragement of the Thessalonians, who held firmly to their faith in spite of persecution and adversity. The Gentile Christians faced ongoing pressure, and often threat of physical violence (see Acts 17:5-9), to return to the beliefs and values of the prevailing culture.

In Power

Paul never refers to himself as an evangelist, preferring the designation “apostle.” The root of our term evangelist, however, comes from the same core as evangélion, which means “gospel.” Not a common term among Greeks or Jews, the good news for Paul was more than a recounting of the story of Jesus. The gospel message itself had power, as was evidenced by manifestations of the Spirit among those who accepted it. Paul uses the term gospel more than any other New Testament writer.

The Thessalonians were moved by the example of the evangelists’ faith—not just their words—and became their imitators. In turn, they became examples of faith for the believers in Achaia and Macedonia and “in every place your faith in God has become known” (1:8). The power of the gospel was also evidenced by the joy with which the Thessalonians received it—joy in the hope that Christ would come again.

Think About It: “You turned to God . . . to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The power of the gospel profoundly changed the lives of these Christians. When they accepted Christ with joy, others were influenced by their example. What impact does our faith have on those around us? Do others see evidence of a living, joyous faith in us?

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s Gospel lection sets a familiar scene: the Pharisees conspiring to trap Jesus by asking him a trick question. He responded, as was his habit, by turning the question back to them. His subsequent comment, though, is the best-known verse in this passage: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” (Matthew 22:21). Taken out of context, this pronouncement of Jesus is often cited in debates over the relationship of church and state. At the heart of the lection, however, lies the truth that ultimately our allegiance belongs to God.

Strange Bedfellows

Jesus was approached by the students of the Pharisees together with a group of Herodians. Only the possibility of entrapping Jesus could bring two such divergent sects together. The Herodians, a priestly class, achieved their power and influence through cooperation with the Roman authorities. By contrast, the Pharisees—strident in their devotion to Mosaic law—regarded such collusion as treason. Stronger than the suspicion and hatred these opposing groups held for each other was their mutual desire to discredit Jesus.

The Plan Unfolds

The exchange began with false flattery: “We know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God” (22:16). They posed a yes-or-no question that could not be answered without offending one group or the other. For some of the Pharisees, even touching a coin depicting the emperor’s image was offensive; to pay a tax to the occupying government, an act of utter treason. When the tax (approximately a day’s wage for a laborer) was instituted nearly twenty-five years earlier in A.D. 6, some instigated an armed insurrection.

A “yes” to the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” would have set Jesus against the law of Moses in the eyes of the Pharisees. To answer “no” would be an act of treason against Rome, enabling the Herodians to level an accusation against Jesus with the ruling officials. A yesor- no answer would link Jesus either with the Zealots or with the Roman sympathizers, alienating him from the crowds. “But Jesus [was] aware of their malice” (22:18).

Whose Title?

Jesus answered with another question. Calling for a coin, he asked, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Between A.D. 14 and 37, a portrait of Tiberius would have appeared on the coin together with an inscription affirming his divinity.) To “give” to the emperor (verse 21) carried a different connotation than the “pay” of verse 17 (some translations render both verbs as “pay”). A more complete translation might be to “give back what is due,” to both the emperor and God.

The coin bore the image of the emperor, but the Jewish believer— Herodian or Pharisee—bore the image of God. There was no competition. A tax might be paid to Caesar, but allegiance belonged to God alone. God’s “due” was the complete devotion of the believer. Those listening would have to decide for themselves where their ultimate loyalty lay. But note that Jesus had to ask for a coin from the crowd; he himself did not carry the image of the emperor. Their hypocrisy revealed, the Herodians and the Pharisees went away, amazed at his words.

The question of the authority of church versus state is not clearly resolved in this encounter. Requirements, such as taxation, imposed by the state, are not the main issue. The believer’s total allegiance belongs to God. All other obligations are subordinate to this supreme loyalty.

Think About It: “Give . . . to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). Believers bear the image of the Divine; believers belong wholly to God. Does this awareness influence the decisions you make in the political and social realms?

Study Suggestions

A. Open With Singing

Sing a hymn celebrating God’s sovereignty, such as “The God of Abraham Praise” or “El Shaddai.” Ask members to reflect silently on personal experiences of God’s mercy in their lives.

B. Explore Mercy

Review the commentary account of the sequence of events between the casting of the golden calf and today’s Old Testament lection. How would you characterize the relationship between Moses and God? Point out that these events represent the ongoing struggle of the Hebrew people to move from the worship of many gods to loyalty to YHWH alone and from being a loose collection of slaves to a distinctive people with an identity and standards of their own.

C. Examine Evangelism

Read 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and the accompanying material above. What was it about Paul’s evangelism that touched the Thessalonian believers? Note the importance of intercessory prayer (verses 2-3), preaching with power and conviction (verse 5), setting an example (verses 6-8), and turning “to God from idols” (verse 9). Ask: What are contemporary parallels to these elements in evangelism? What else must be involved in effective evangelism today?

D. Discuss Allegiance

Read Matthew 22:15-22 and the commentary above. Stage a debate over the question of taxation raised to Jesus, assigning half the class the role of Herodians, the other half the role of Pharisees. Discuss the validity of each argument from a faith perspective. Why did Jesus recognize this controversy as hypocrisy instead of an authentic desire to do what was right? What is the real faith issue here for Jesus?

E. Trace Common Themes

God’s absolute sovereignty and the call for a faithful response are recurring themes in today’s lections. Form four teams, assign each team a lection, and ask them to trace these themes through their passage. Ask: How is God’s sovereignty emphasized in your passage? What kind of faithful response is called for? How would your life change if you were to take seriously the message of your lection? Have each group report its responses, write them on chalkboard or piece of poster paper, and identify commonalities in the reports.

F. Close With Devotion

Read Psalm 99 in unison as a hymn of praise, then ask members to compose brief psalms of praise, and share them with the group as a closing prayer.

Adapted from Keeping Holy Time: Year A © 2001 Abingdon Press

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