Posts Tagged With: background

BONUS: An Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

We now move from one of the last parts of the New Testament to be written (John) to one of the first (only Galatians and Mark may be older).  We know Paul was in Corinth when he wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1-2), and we know from an archaeological connection to the mention of the Roman government official Gallio in Acts 18:12-17 that this places Paul in Corinth around AD 51 or 52.  By al appearances, 2 Thessalonians was written shortly after, maybe six months later.

There are some letters of Paul that scholars argue were not actually written by Paul; the Thessalonian letters are not two of these.  There is almost universal agreement that these are authentic Pauline letters.

We see from Acts 17 that Paul and Silas had quick, evangelistic success in Thessalonica even with prominent people in the city.  Just as quickly, though, unbelieving Jews came in behind them to counter their work.  Specifically, a mob was formed that chased Paul and Silas south to Berea and then to Athens, causing hardship for the new Thessalonian Christians like Jason and others.  We should notice the charge brought against Paul and Silas by their opposition: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7).  Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia, a Roman colony widely inhabited by retired military officials in the Roman army and thus loyal to the king.  It is worth noticing that in this milieu, the kingship of Jesus was still so foundational that Paul and Silas did not back down from sharing this fact.

Have you ever done something in a hurry and just hoped it lasted?  If so, you understand why Paul wrote his Thessalonian letters.  We don’t know exactly how long Paul stayed in Thessalonica, but it would have been shortly after the first converts were made.  These new Christians were left unsupported and unguided, which would have been especially challenging as they had converted from paganism (1 Thess 1:9).  In his absence, Paul begins to instruct them through his letters in godly living in a hostile world.

There are no letters of Paul’s that have more to say about the second coming of Christ than these two.  Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the second coming (eschatology).  With a doubt, this theme will run throughout all of our reading this week and a half.  Eschatology is not an easy concept, therefore there is no surprise that the Thessalonians were struggling with this new teaching. Whether they should continue to work until Jesus returns appears to be an issue for them as does the cryptic “man of lawlessness” we will read about in 2 Thessalonians.

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Gospel of John

Though the book does not say so, there is widespread acceptance that this gospel was written by the apostle John, who often refers to himself in the book as “the apostle whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20, 24).  Though one of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles, John is never mentioned in the book, which makes sense if John wrote the book but doesn’t if he didn’t.

Traditionally, because of its developed theology, the Gospel of John was considered the latest of gospels, likely written around 85 or later.  A good case can also be made that John was written before the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 because the book refers to places in that city in the present tense.  A developed theology does not have to indicate a late date.

Scholars have argued that John had various goals in writing his gospel.  Maybe he was trying to write a gospel to a Greek audience, hence the emphasis on Jesus as the “word” (logos).  It is certainly possible that John was trying to combat false teaching through his account of Jesus’ life.  But John himself tells us the simple evangelistic purpose of his book:

These are written that you may believe (or continue to believe) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

Therefore, one of the fitting characteristics of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus, thought by many to be John’s twist on God’s self-revelation as “I AM.”  John would not have us miss the point that Jesus was more than just a man.  This is one of the reasons why John is often the first book non-believers are encouraged to read.

John is unlike the other gospels in many ways, supporting the belief that the other three were trying to borrow from each other and tell similar stories while John was attempting to do something very different, maybe for a very different crowd.  There are no parables in John.  Miracles (or “signs” as they are called in John) are not as common.  John tells stories not included in the other gospels.   Instead of fast action like Mark, this gospel is full of long teaching sections.  For these reasons and others, John is a favorite of many people.

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BONUS: An Introduction to Peter’s Letters

The author of 1 Peter is almost certainly the Simon Peter of the Gospels; only a few have doubted this.  On the other hand, if there is a letter included in the New Testament that was not written by the person who it claims to be written by (“pseudopigraphic,” is the technical term), 2 Peter is our best candidate.  It is rather different in style, language, and theme from the first Petrine epistle.  The mention of persecution in 1 Peter makes a date in the 60s AD more likely, and by that time in Peter’s life he is traditionally placed in Rome, where he will die by the Emperor’s order in the late 60s.  The cryptic mention to being in “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is most likely  referring to Rome, as we will see in Revelation.

The apostle Simon Peter is absolutely a classic Bible character.  He ranks up there with Abraham, Moses, and David.  Jesus is in a class of his own, of course.  Peter is well-known, including much of his psychology.  He is a full character.  Impetuous Peter!  If we go to the Gospels to learn about Peter, we must end that character study with a good look at his letters too.  This is where his changed heart comes out the most.

The last recorded instructions Jesus gave to Peter alone were to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).  That he does in grand style in 1 Peter.  Churches in modern-day Turkey that Peter had either started or ministered to in a special way (1:1) are now experiencing harsh treatment in their society.  The recipients are clearly Gentile Christians (with maybe some Jewish Christians thrown in), as they used to live an idolatrous pagan lifestyle (4:3).  Now, because of their devotion to Jesus, they refuse to live in the same coarse way that used to.  As a result, their pagan neighbors heap abuse on them.  This persecution is certainly social versus political; systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor by the Roman government won’t start for another twenty years after the death of Peter.  Peter’s recipients were mocked and even harmed physically, but the greatest suffering would have been social ostracism and the economic marginalization that would come from being shunned by their pagan society.  What is the faithful response to suffering a follower of Christ is supposed to give?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter.

Second Peter is either written by Peter at a very different time and place than First Peter (and a convincing case can be made for this) or as more and more conservative scholars are willing to accept, it was written by a disciple of Peter “in the spirit of Peter” or as a way to honor their master.  Efforts would have been made to convey what Peter would have said; good pseudopigrapha did not try to deceive readers and pass unorthodox views off as apostolic.  Regardless, 2 Peter addresses a group of false teachers akin to the early Gnostics we have seen previously this year.  Of special importance in this letter is Peter’s exhortation to his recipients to vigilantly hang on and prepare for the certain coming of Jesus.   

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Corinthian Letters

I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead.  Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church.  We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined).  We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians.  Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else.  As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.

Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.

Holy living in an unholy culture:  Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul.  The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served.  On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters.  This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice.  There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality.  Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.

Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring:  Wisdom was key to the Greek culture.  At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development.  Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem.  As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well.  This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit.  A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred.  Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.

Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead:  There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many.  Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.

Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem:  Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city.  Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.

Having to defend this apostolic authority:  Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians.  This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth.  The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders.  More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him.  They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled.  Paul responds will great passion and fire.  For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.

So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life.  This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.

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BONUS: An Introduction to Luke

Though he never identifies himself in the book, the author of this gospel is almost universally acknowledged to be Luke, the “doctor” (Col. 4:14) and “fellow worker” with Paul (Phlm 24) mentioned in Acts in several places.  This sure identification comes from the tight connection between the Gospel of Luke and Acts, both of which are addressed to “most excellent Theophilus” in what is clearly a two-volume set.  Because the author of Acts identifies himself in the “we passages” of Acts as one of Paul’s companions on his second missionary journey, there is confidence this is Luke.

Who was Theophilus?  The name simply means “lover of God,” so some have posited that this was only a general title for any Christians who would read this book.  However, the title “most excellent” suggests this was a specific person and an esteemed one.  The dedications at the beginning of Luke and Acts were common in Roman literature as a way to honor the patron and publisher of a work.  Thus, Theophilus would not only have been learning from this gospel himself, but also been responsible for duplicating it and spreading it around.  The introduction of Luke makes it obvious this is an apologetic:

So, most excellent Theophilus, since I had traced the course of all of it scrupulously from the start, I thought it a good idea to write an orderly account for you, so that you may have secure knowledge about the matters in which you have been instructed. (1:3-4)

Anyone who has read the gospels know that there is much overlap in the books (53% of the book of Mark is in Luke in some form), yet there is always something unique about each.  Those unique qualities give us a window into why they were written.  The Gospel of Luke is by far the most Gentile gospel of the four.  With his Greek name, Luke was likely a Gentile and one associated with Paul’s later work in Achaia and beyond.  His gospel was largely written in the most formal, educated Greek style and has a marked order and structure.  It is also the most exhaustive, moving from an extensive birth narrative to his ascension.  Theophilus is also a Greek name, so he too was likely from the culturally Greek or Roman parts of the Empire.

Luke’s most characteristic trait is the book’s attention to the typically marginalized of the Roman culture.  Women are more important in this gospel than the others.  The poor are given focus and dignity.  Sinners are included in Jesus’ circles more intentionally.  Gentiles show up often in Luke, no surprise given the book’s supposed audience.

In these dog days on July, it will be good to walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea as we head to Jerusalem with the one who “came to seek and save the lost” (19:10).

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BONUS: An Introduction to Ephesians

Though some have doubted it because of the lack of personal greetings so common in his letters, the apostle Paul is stated twice as the author of Ephesians (1:1; 3:1), a letter likely written while the apostle was under house arrest in Rome (3:1; 4:1; 6:20) around AD 60.  The other Prison Epistles — Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon — would have been written at this same time, and we will be reading all four together in the next month.

The Temple of Artemis

Ephesus was an important city in the ancient world and in the life of Paul.  Situated at the nexus of sea and land trading routes, Ephesus became both a commercial and cultural center, by far the most important in Asia Minor and one of the top five most important cities on the Mediterranean.  Home to the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, Ephesus also became a religious center as pilgrims flocked to the temple seeking a blessing from the many-breasted fertility goddess.  You may recall it was Ephesus where the silversmiths rallied a large part of the city to chant “Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians” for two straight hours (Acts 19:23-34).  Paul spent almost three years here (Acts 19:10) growing very close to the leaders in the church and using the Ephesian church as a home base for his evangelism of western Turkey.  This Ephesian church is the one to whom Paul sent Timothy in 1 and 2 Timothy towards the end of the apostle’s life in an effort to set them straight when they apparently went off track.  John would warn the Ephesian church to regain their “first love” in Revelation 2.

Ephesians may be the most general of Paul’s letters.  Whereas Paul usually addressed a problem or threat to the church, he only seems to be encouraging the Christians in Ephesus to know how blessed they are and to stand firm in those blessings appreciating the high calling of the Church.  In a unique way, Ephesians talks about how the work of God on behalf of Christians impacts all areas of life — spiritual, religious, ethnic, and social.  The general nature of this letter makes some theorize Ephesians was really a circular letter sent to many churches in western Turkey.

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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BONUS: An Introduction to Hebrews

As we start Hebrews today it might be good to take just a moment to survey the basic background of this great letter.  As we start a new genre of biblical literature — letters — it is wise to remember they were always written to address a particular situation in the life of first century Christians.

Who wrote Hebrews?  We simply do not know.  Unlike the standard practice in first century AD letters, the author does not identify himself or herself.  Those who study these letters in the original Greek are confident that Paul did not write Hebrews.  Compared side by side, Hebrews is not Paul’s kind of writing.  Barnabas, Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollos, Silas, Timothy, Epaphras, and Philip have all been offered as possibilities, none conclusively.  You know what they say: “anonymous was a woman.”  Thus, both Priscilla and Mary the mother of Jesus have also been put forward.  The church father Origen probably said it best: “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.”

To whom was Hebrews written?  Hebrews is specific enough to suggest a particular group was being addressed.  Given the intensely Jewish flavor of the book, the recipients were certainly Jewish Christians, maybe even living in Palestine or even Jerusalem, but as Judaism had spread throughout the Roman Empire by the first century AD they could be anywhere, even Rome itself.

What caused Hebrews to be written?  This question is the easiest to answer and the one for which there is the greatest consensus.  It is clear that these Christians have come from a rich Jewish religious background with its emphasis on law, priests, sacrifices, and the like.  First century AD Judaism was very black and white; do certain rituals and get predictable, desired results.  The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews have come from this background but now they are struggling with the freedom that grace brings.  Without the regular routines and actions of their past Judaism they are left to trust in an invisible God to save them by the one-time sacrifice of Jesus in an invisible spiritual realm.  The metaphysical nature of this new religion seems not to have been giving them the same surety and confidence they felt when their duty was law-observance.  They were tempted to give up on Jesus and his Way of faith and grace.  They were contemplating a return to the tangible Judaism of their youth.  The Hebrews author will make case after case that Jesus is superior to anything they might return to.

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