Bible Study: Week of November 2, 2014

October 1st, 2014

Old Testament: Joshua 3:7-17

The death of Moses, which brought to a close the Torah, was not the end of the story for the people of Israel. Under the leadership of Joshua, appointed by God to succeed the great prophet, they would claim the promise made so long ago to their ancestor Abraham. They would enter the land flowing with milk and honey. Their forty-year nomadic sojourn in the desert was coming to an end; their new life was soon to begin.

The Book of Joshua begins the second major division of the Hebrew Bible. Known as the Prophets, this section is made up of two subsections, the Former Prophets (from Joshua through Second Kings) and the Latter Prophets (from Isaiah through Malachi, excluding Daniel). Joshua, the first of the Former Prophets, is considered prophecy, as opposed to history, because of the influence of the great prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. in interpreting this period of Israel’s history. The books of the Prophets, therefore are not factual records of historical events, but rather a theological interpretation of these events from particular perspectives.

The Book of Joshua, therefore, describes events that took place 1250–1200 B.C., interpreted from a prophetic viewpoint emphasizing that it was YHWH’s intent that Israel receive the Promised Land, but that to keep it they must faithfully observe God’s covenant requirements. This is made clear at the outset (1:1-9). The book begins with YHWH summoning Joshua to lead the people into the land. The condition for attaining the land was that Israel must “act in accordance with all the law” of Moses (verses 7-9).

“By This You Shall Know. . . .”

Today’s lection begins with God’s assertion that Joshua is Moses’ appointed successor. YHWH would perform a sign in the people’s midst, so that they would know that “I will be with you [Joshua] as I was with Moses” (3:7). The sign itself was a recognizable one; God would hold back the waters of the Jordan, allowing the Israelites—and more important the ark bearing the Torah—to cross on dry land. This action would authenticate Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. The text is careful to point out that this crossing was to take place during the spring harvest, which follows the season of heavy rains. The Israelites were not simply crossing a river. They were crossing a river ravaged by floodwaters. Twice the waters are described as standing in a “single heap” (3:13, 16), signifying their intensity. It is only by God’s hand that the people were able to pass through on solid ground.

Coming Home

Verse 10 lists the pre-Israelite population of Canaan. Located in the politically strategic passage between Egypt and Mesopotamia, Canaan was divided primarily into autonomous city-states. YHWH, the “living God,” would “without fail” drive out the inhabitants of the land before Israel (3:10). Their years in the wilderness, which disciplined them in their life before YHWH, had also prepared them for the rigors of battle.

But first they had to enter the land. The people crossed over the Jordan River preceded by the priests (the only persons allowed to touch the ark), who stood on the dry riverbed as they entered the land. God’s people and God’s law had crossed a boundary into a new stage of their history.

Think About It: “The waters flowing from above stood still . . .” (3:16). God’s delivery of the Israelites into the Promised Land reminded them of their release from Egyptian bondage by passing through the Sea of Reeds. What events in your life do you understand as signs of God’s guidance, providence, or protection?

Psalter: Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

Psalm 107 is a characteristic song of thanksgiving, recognizing and responding to a particular action of God on behalf of the psalmist, perhaps a pilgrim traveling to Jerusalem. The psalmist has experienced God’s steadfast love firsthand in concrete redemptive situations. God has redeemed the people “from trouble” (Psalm 107:2) and “gathered” them from east and west. Gathered is often used in reference to the scattered people. These images would bring to mind both the Exodus and the Exile—more specifically, the end of the people’s exile from the land of Canaan.

Some scholars believe that verses 33-43, which praise God’s bounty, were probably not original to the psalm. They affirm, however, that it is only by God’s hand that prosperity and blessing come to the people. God alone brings forth life.

Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Today’s Epistle lesson continues Paul’s remembrance of his earlier visit to the church he established in Thessalonica. Like the preceding passages, this section offers encouragement to the Thessalonian believers and highlights Paul’s close and abiding relationship with the young church. Paul also asserts once more the purity of his motives and behavior in the context of this relationship.

“You Remember Our Labor”

While in Thessalonica, Paul did not rely on the charity of his fellow believers for support. He and his companions worked at his trade in order to provide for their physical needs. In that way, no claim could be made that he burdened the members of the church as he shared the gospel with them. This claim also dispelled the attacks of Paul’s critics, who often accused him of preaching for personal gain.

The Didache, called the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” and considered the first book of Christian order or discipline, warned against false prophets who took advantage of the hospitality of first-century church communities: “But if he be minded to settle among you and be a craftsman, let him work and eat” (Didache 12:2). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he had paid his own way among them.

God’s Word, Not Paul’s

As Paul recounts the blamelessness of his conduct, he does so in the context of the close and loving relationship he has established with the community; “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). Beyond the intimacy of his relationship to the Thessalonian believers, however, is the precedence of the message over the messenger.

The Thessalonians are commended because they have received the gospel as God’s word. There was no confusion concerning the source of the message. The Thessalonians received Paul warmly, but they did not receive the message as merely the word of Paul. Thus, God’s word “is at work in you who believe” (2:13, NIV).

Many scholars believe verses 14-16 are a later addition to the Epistle by someone other than Paul, because of their anti-Jewish sentiment, which contradicts the spirit of Chapters 9–11 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and because of its uncharacteristic structure, exemplified in part by a second thanksgiving. If it is original to Paul, however, it must be seen as a specific reaction to a specific series of actions by specific individuals and not as a judgment against the Jews as a whole.

Think About It: We plead that you “lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (2:12). Paul reminds the followers of Christ that their day-to-day dealings in the community are as much a part of their witness as the gospel message they proclaim. Think about how we conduct our life and business. Do those with whom we work and interact see evidence of our faith?

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

In preceding weeks’ passages, Jesus had encountered the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and Herodians—all intent upon tricking him into a public violation of the law. In each of these contests, Jesus had emerged the victor. While this episode begins with a denunciation of the practices of the scribes and Pharisees, the focus had shifted. The crowd surrounding Jesus no longer consisted of those seeking to foil his message and ministry; they had given up their efforts. Jesus was now speaking a word of warning directly to his followers—then and now. The message is as clear and poignant today as it was then: If you want to be a disciple—an effective witness to the gospel— you must practice what you preach.

“Do Whatever They Teach You”

As with today’s Epistle lection, care must be taken that the message is not understood as a condemnation of the Jews. Jesus, as a Jew, was exhorting his own community after the example of the Old Testament prophets who called their own people to accountability. The scribes and Pharisees “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2); by teaching the Mosaic law, their words conveyed (at least to a degree) the truth of God. Indeed, the law was God’s gracious gift to Israel, a manifestation of God’s great love. This was certainly the understanding of Matthew, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. The fault of the scribes and Pharisees was not in their teaching, but in their hypocrisy. Jesus used them as a reverse example of faithfulness.

“Do Not Do as They Do”

The Pharisaic interpretation of the law included countless rules and procedures that were impossible to follow in their entirety. They turned the law into a “heavy burden” and laid it “on the shoulders of others” (23:4). Bogged down in legalistic minutiae, the scribes and Pharisees had lost sight of the God whose love and compassion were given expression in the law. Jesus also cautioned against their ostentatious displays of piety. In accordance with the mandate to keep the commandments “as a sign on your hand, . . . an emblem on your forehead” (Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18; Exodus 13:9), leather pouches containing verses of Scripture (phylacteries) were worn on the arm and forehead. Those of the Pharisees were especially large. Another reminder of the commandments were the fringes at the corners of the outer garment (Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12); the Pharisees sported the longest fringes in town.

Do Not Exalt Yourself

Jesus’ final example of their hypocrisy dealt with power issues in the faith community. The scribes and Pharisees saw themselves as morally and socially superior to others. By virtue of their standing in the synagogue, they felt entitled to places and titles of honor. Titles of honor, however, were to be reserved for God; what earthly rabbi or leader could rival God? By exalting themselves, the scribes and Pharisees—as well as disciples— would only bring themselves down by their own self-righteous claims. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

The abuses of power, the displays of false piety, and the lure of prestige, which ensnared the scribes and Pharisees, are just as real—and dangerous— for all Christian disciples. Only in servanthood and humility before God is true faithfulness expressed. Our actions must be consistent with the gospel message that we confess.

Think About It: “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (23:3). Have you ever found yourself saying, “Do as I say, but not as I do”? Think about our discipleship. Are our actions consistent with the message we proclaim as Christians?

Study Suggestions

A. Open With Singing

Sing a hymn of practicing what you preach, such as “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” or “Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated.” Pray together that our witness, in words and actions, may present a consistent picture of discipleship.

B. Enter the Promised Land

Read Joshua 3:7-17 and the material above. Explain the interpretive viewpoint of the Former Prophets from which the book is written. Ask: What sets Joshua apart as a leader? What sets the Israelites apart from the people already inhabiting Canaan?

Ask group members to skim Exodus 14:15-27. How are the stories similar? How are they different? How is God’s presence experienced in each? Why would God choose a repeat miracle to bring the people into Canaan? Why does the ark both precede them into the Jordan and follow them onto the banks of their new home? What is the word of God that precedes and follows you? What impact does this have on your life?

C. Examine Witness

Read 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 and the commentary above. Ask: Why does Paul spend so much time asserting his own purity of motive among the Thessalonian believers? Why is the integrity of the messenger a vital component of Christian witness? Can one’s witness be believed (and believable) if one’s lifestyle seems incompatible? Give examples from your experience of times when a person’s witness was undermined by his or her behavior.

Read Acts 18:1-3 together. Ask: How might Paul’s faith have been revealed in his work as a tentmaker? Ask members to name several occupations, including their own. Divide into pairs; assign one of the listed occupations to each pair, asking them to brainstorm ways that persons in this field could witness to their faith in the workplace. Then ask them to brainstorm a second list of behaviors that could diminish their witness. Bring the groups together to discuss their findings. How can we become more effective messengers of the gospel in secular life? One helpful set of categories for witness in the workplace are ministries of words (sharing our faith), ethics (living our faith in relation to moral issues), justice (changing systems), and service (helping others).

Does today’s Epistle lection imply that “tent-making” evangelism is “more blameless” than full-time, professional ministry? Discuss: What happens when the messenger is given (or takes) credit for the message? Name some examples of gospel messengers who became larger than the message. How can we support one another in leading lives “worthy of God” and in keeping our focus on the gospel itself? Assess both our faithfulness and our effectiveness in our ministry of word, ethics, justice, and service. In which of these areas do we need the most growth and help? Why?

D. Explore Jesus’ Teaching

Read Matthew 23:1-12 and the material above. Ask: How is the message “practice what you teach” similar to Paul’s understanding of the relationship between the messenger and the message? Why did Jesus teach this lesson by using the negative example of the scribes and Pharisees?

Assign one of the following passages to each of three groups: Matthew 23:4; 23:5-7; 23:8-10. Ask each to discuss the way in which the scribes and Pharisees failed to “practice what they teach,” then identify some modern parallels. How are legalism, pietistic boasting, and an inflated sense of power and prestige expressed in the church today? Have groups share these discussions with the entire class. Then ask: How can these pitfalls undermine true faithfulness? How can they be avoided? What do we consciously do to ensure that our witness is without blemish? How can we help one another do this?

E. Close With Devotion

Read Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 responsively. Invite members to share personal experiences of God’s steadfast love and redemption. Offer a closing prayer of thanksgiving for God’s presence and guidance in this session.

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

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