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    Buy Direct from CSS Publishing Company is a free website that provides brief yet probing exegetical commentary for:

  • Pastors who need inspiration and idea starters for their sermons
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  • Anyone who wants deeper insight into each week’s lectionary passages

These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Lent 3, Cycle B

Look! God doesn’t do things our way. The texts push us to an awareness that the commandments of God and reason alone (our common sense) cannot bring us to a right relationship with God, and that his ways of grace and love are not the ways of the world (Theological Method, Providence, Sin, Justification by Grace, and even Social Ethics).


Psalm 19
The Psalm is a hymn to God as Creator of nature and giver of the law, traditionally attributed to David. Again we are reminded that it is unlikely that David is the author of the psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). Many scholars argue that references to David in the psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about how all the faithful and all creation are to praise God and seek to avoid sin. The Psalm begins with a testimony to the fact that the sky and the succession of days praise God (vv. 1-6). The theme affords an opportunity to express ecological sensitivity. The verses that follow verse 6 may be a later addition, praising the revelation of God’s will in the Mosaic Law [torah]. The law is said to be perfect [tamin, whole or complete], reviving the soul [nephesh], and making wise the simple. It is clear, rejoices the heart, and is more to be desired than gold (especially  vv. 7-10). The law warns and reminds those who keep it (v. 11). This is compatible with a Christian understanding of God’s law. The psalmist prays to avoid sin, so that God not let the insolent have dominion over him (vv. 12-13). He concludes with the reminder that only with God’s grace can we keep the law, as he states that only by God’s action will we be innocent/clean/free [naqah]. The Psalm concludes with the famous prayer that our words and meditation may be acceptable/pleasing to God (v. 14).

Application: At least two sermon alternatives emerge from this Psalm. The text invites sermons on the ecological crisis and how the creation proclaims and praises God (Social Ethics or the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence). But sermons on the law, how it is the complete revelation of what God instructs us to do, the complete guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2), would be appropriate. However inasmuch as we come to realize that the law only warns us (due to our sin), the text drives us to an awareness, contrary to common sense, that it is only possible to live in such guidance because of grace (God’s action — Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

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Exodus 20:1-17
We have previously noted that the book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like all five books of the Pentateuch, this book is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. The lesson tells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments (likely the product of a combination of J and E, perhaps by P). The prologue identifying God and what he has done (v. 2) summarizes the previous chapters. In this sense the law and historical narrative are related. We also find this happening in verse 11b, as the sabbath observance finds justification in the Lord resting from creation on the seventh day.

Each commandment is reviewed. The name Yahweh in verse 2 may be significant. It means “I am that I am,” but could also be translated “he lets be” (i.e., creates). The reference to God being jealous [qanna] may be translated “zealous.” This is a gracious [chanan] merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [chesed] (34:6-7; 20:6).

Application: Like the Psalm this lesson affords opportunity to understand the Ten Commandments as a guide to lie (as Torah], but which cannot be kept apart from the gracious, loving God. This insight that we are not as good as we think or seem to be, and only by grace can we do good, seems to go against common sense (Sin and Justification by Grace). The dialectical character of faith as challenge to our ordinary perceptions of reality (Theological Method) is another logical theme to develop from the text. But we could also in turn focus on one or more of the commandments which speak to the pressing social issue of the day we would address (poverty, racism, adultery, etc.) (Social Ethics).


1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The lesson is drawn from one of Paul’s authentic letters, written from Ephesus prior to his epistle to the Romans, to a church in Greece he had established (Acts 18:1-11). Relations between him and the church had become strained. The letter aims to address doctrinal and ethical problems disturbing the Corinthian church. In the lesson, having sought to address the divisions in the Corinthian church (vv. 10-17), Paul continues his appeal for unity with a discourse on the cross [stauros] of Christ. He notes that the cross is foolishness [moria] for those perishing but is the power [dunamis] of God for those saved [soz ] (v. 18). Citing Isaiah 29:14 in the Greek translation, reference is made to how the cross destroys the wisdom of the wise (v. 19). God makes foolish the wisdom [sophia] of the world (v. 20).

Paul adds that the world’s wisdom could not know the wisdom of God. Thus God decided to save believers through the foolishness of Paul’s proclamation (v. 21). Jews demand signs [semeion] and Greeks [Hellen] wisdom, but Paul proclaims Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (vv. 22-24). God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness [asthenes] stronger than human strength (v. 25).

Application: The text offers an occasion to proclaim the hiddenness of Christian faith (how it confounds reason — Theological Method and Providence) and the lifestyle of rebellion against evil in all its forms (Sanctification) that faith’s hiddenness entails.


John 2:13-22
We have previously noted that this book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante- (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155).

This lesson is the story of the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. Unlike the parallel Synoptic Gospel accounts of the event (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), John locates this story early in Jesus’ ministry. According to the Johannine author, Jesus has traveled from the wedding at Cana to Capernaum and then to Jerusalem, presumably to spend Passover in the city (vv. 12-13). Seeing people selling animals and money changers, he drives them out of the temple with a whip of cords, then pouring out their coins and overturning their tables (vv. 14-15). He charges them with making his Father’s house a marketplace [house of merchandise] (v. 16). In so doing he seems to identify himself as God’s Son. The disciples recall Psalm 69:9 that “zeal for your house [oikos] will consume/devour [katapsage] me” (v. 17). They recall this after Jesus’ resurrection (v. 22). The Jews ask for a sign [semeion] and Jesus responds that in three days the temple will be destroyed and raised up (vv. 18-20). He was referring to his body’s death and resurrection (v. 21).

Application: The text provides opportunities to condemn commercialism (the buying and selling of goods and services in order to support the church) — the doctrines of Sanctification and Church. Besides urging more generous stewardship, the fact that Jesus and the church do not operate by the usual fund-raising techniques opens the way for sermons on the hidden, surprising ways of the God (Providence and Theological Method). Another possibility might be to point out how the resurrection challenges and even destroys the ways of the world and ordinary religiosity (the temple).

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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