Bible reading for January 25--26
Jan 25 -- Esther 2 and Acts 25
Jan 26 -- Esther 3 and Acts 26
"In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, they cast lots) before Haman day after day; and they cast it month after month till the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar." (Esther 3:7)
READING ESTHER. Reading the book of Esther is to be immersed into a different culture and a distant time in history. This book precedes the events of Ezra and Nehemiah (5th century BC) and most Jews are still living in the Babylonian culture, now under Persian rule. We read of the decadence of imperial life, the abuse of power, the subjugation of women, much drinking, intrigue, and passionate hatred. In the midst of this we see a warm family relationship comprised of Mordecai, an older Jewish man of integrity, who cares for his orphaned younger cousin, Hadassah, whose Persian name is Esther (meaning "star"). These two bring a dignity and humanity to the story, and later on, even Ahasuerus, the emperor, will be humanized by his relationship with these two. However, in this book there is no mention of God, or even of prayer, though there is fasting later on. There seem to be two dangers the Jewish people in Babylon are facing: a) assimilation (loss of Jewish culture; in a sense they have "forgotten" God); and b) genocide instigated by a powerful politician, Haman. This evil character is casting lots (purim, like dice) to determine the ideal time for approaching the emperor about destroying the Jews. Will fate and unseen forces determine the outcome? Or will the unseen, unacknowledged God come through to save his people? Who actually controls the lot? If you can read Esther in one sitting, that is ideal. It is a drama and true history at the same time.
"If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar." (Acts 25:11)
APOSTLE TO THE WORLD. It appears the trial of Paul has come to a stalemate in Caesarea, and Porcius Festus, the newly-appointed Roman governor, suggests that Paul be taken back to Jerusalem for another hearing (chapter 25). This would mean almost certain death for Paul on the way. Instead, as a Roman citizen he exercises his right to appeal his case to Caesar. And to Caesar he will go! In the meantime, Paul (in chapter 26) gives a defense of his faith before Festus, Agrippa II (local monarch of the Herodian family), and Bernice, Agrippa's wife. We learn a few more details about Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus than was reported in chapter 9. The Lord said, "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles- to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me" (26:16-18). His commission was primarily to go to the Gentiles (nations), and he would be the recipient of further revelation from the Lord.
THE PLACE OF PAUL IN CHRISTIANITY. "I like the teachings of Jesus, but I don't accept what Paul wrote." I've heard this often enough throughout my years of ministry -- people trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. (One wonders, however, if they've actually read all the teachings of Jesus!) Some Christians want to give greater authority to the "red letters" in their Bibles as opposed to the prophets and apostles in the same Book. But it is impossible to make this separation. What we know of Jesus we know through his Apostles. We shouldn't underestimate the role of the Apostle Paul in explaining for us the full meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He expounds and gives clarity to the deity of Christ, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, grace, faith, holiness, judgment, and life in union with Christ, which are all vital to our understanding of salvation. (We'll soon begin reading the Epistle to the Romans.) By calling and sending him to the nations, Jesus made Paul to be a kind of apostle to the world. Indeed, the other apostles reached out to the nations but none of them shaped our understanding of the Christian faith like Paul did. The Holy Spirit testified to Paul's authority by signs and wonders (2 Cor 12:12), and the original disciples gave him "the right hand of fellowship," meaning they were in complete harmony with the gospel he preached (Gal 2:1-9). And the Apostle Peter wrote of Paul's letters as having the same authority as Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). So, we must never seek to separate our Lord Jesus from the teachings of Paul and the other apostles.
THE ROLE OF TESTIMONY. Another thing we learn from these chapters is that God advances his gospel through testimony. What do we mean by that? God has given sufficient evidence of his existence and goodness in creation, which should lead us to believe in him (Psalm 19; Acts 14:17; 17:26-28; Rom 1:20). At certain times in history he has confirmed his message to humanity through miracles and mighty works, like the parting of the Red Sea, the miracles of Elisha, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, and the signs of the apostles. People saw these and believed. But the Lord does not keep repeating miracles ad infinitum. He has not willed that everyone will get to see a private miracle. He said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). I was sharing my story once with a young man at a restaurant and he said that he wouldn't believe unless he could personally see a miracle. I shared about some miraculous answers to prayer I knew about, but he said that wasn't good enough, he needed to see them firsthand. After further discussion he admitted he really didn't want to believe the claims of the Bible anyway! In Acts we see that when Paul proclaimed the gospel he did not always work a miracle for each and every person, but rather gave the testimony of the OT prophets, of the eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection, and of his own call from the Lord. Just like testimonies are accepted in courts of law, so the testimony of Christ's witnesses, along with the witness of the Spirit (John 15:26-27), is what God uses to convict the hearts of men and women down through history. When we add our own testimony, being a "narrative of grace" (in how and why we came to faith), we are adding further testimony, that others might believe.
A PRAYER OF GRATITUDE. "We thank you for the witness of the apostle Paul, who was your chosen messenger. We rejoice in the glory of these matchless books which have enabled men to live lives of victory over sin and have stayed their souls. And we pray that this great apostle may again be heard, that the darkness may be dispelled, and that men may find here the great charter of Christian liberty, that without merit of their own, but through the blood of Christ, they may be free forevermore. Amen." ~ J. Gresham Machen, from "The Witness of Paul", in Selected Shorter Writings (P&R, 2004).
About this newsletter: I post three times a week on my Bible reading, following the Robert Murray M'Cheyne (RMM) two-year reading schedule, as arranged by D. A. Carson. Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Another resource I recommend is the NET Bible with its excellent notes at netbible.org.