Posts Tagged With: introduction

BONUS: An Introduction to Revelation

Recently, a friend and mentor said he and his co-teacher had taught every book in the New Testament in their Sunday School class . . . except Revelation.  It is just too hard a book to teach responsibly.  True!  I am afraid this sentiment is true for many Christians too.  They avoid Revelation out of fear, confusion, or intimidation.  Some so neglect the book they don’t even realize the book is called Revelation (singular), not Revelations (plural).

But many of us also know people who hang out in Revelation to the exclusion of much of the rest of the New Testament.  Every news headline is a fulfillment of some obscure detail in Revelation.  This two-thousand year old book was certainly talking about the European Union or Barack Obama or Pope Benedict.  Making sure people know and agree with these interpretations of prophecy is equally as important as how one treats his neighbor or whether care is given to the destitute.

Whether one avoids the book or camps out in its pages, Revelation is an absolutely incredible piece of literature and fitting end to the Bible.  Personally, once I took a seminary class on the book my confusion over the book was far less.  Now, Revelation is easily in my top five favorite books of the Bible.  More and more I see how the teachings of this book have become integral to my own theology.  There is no way these short posts will help us all overcome our under- or overemphasis on Revelation, but may the last month of this blog help us all gain a new appreciation for this majestic book.

Revelation was written by a man named John.  But which John?  The apostle and writer of the Gospel and Epistles?  Probably not.  There is too many stylistic and theological differences to suggest these were all written by the same author.  Many scholars are content to simple say this is a different John, maybe “John the Revelator,” writing from exile on the island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor near Ephesus.

When was Revelation written is also somewhat contested and a question that many scholars believe can be answered very precisely because of cryptic references in the book.  What most agree on is that the book was written during a period when Christians were being persecuted and therefore had to speak in code.  This would fit the time period of Nero in the 60s AD when Peter and Paul are traditionally thought to have been killed, but an even better case can be made that this fits the 80s when the Roman Emperor Domitian brought about an even bloodier oppression of Christianity.  I tend toward a later date.

What kind of book is this?  Prophecy?  Yes, there is certainly prophecy in the book.  A letter?  We know from the first three chapters that this book was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (where the persecution of Christians in the 80s AD was worst).  Revelation is sermonic and poetic in places, and maybe the best term for the book is apocalyptic, in that it is giving a message veiled in exaggerated, fantastical imagery because of perceived opposition to free speech.  Bottomline: Revelation is good literature.

When is Revelation talking about?  This is somewhat simplified, but there are three main options:

  1. Then — John was addressing people in the first-century undergoing first-century problems, mainly political and cultural persecution.  The main evil in the book is Rome.  The grotesque beasts are emperors and political/economic institutions.  Maybe the last three chapters are talking about the end of time, but the rest of the book has to stay anchored in an ancient Roman context.
  2. Future — John was foreseeing cataclysmic events that would take place at the end of time as Jesus returns and the New Creation comes.  Of course, the beginning of the end could be right now, which is what many people have thought all throughout time since the first-century.  So look for the “signs of the times” all around you.
  3. Always — John was speaking in symbols and by nature symbolism is much more timeless and malleable to situation.  We press the images too far when we come up with singular, specific, time-bound fulfillments.  John is speaking of evil in its many faces and forms, all throughout time.  Thus, John is talking about Rome but also our world today and the Middle Ages and the age to come.

Personally, I prefer the last option, with a heavy emphasis on “then.”

This month we may not break the code on whether Sandy and Katrina, economic cliffs, and re-elections are harbingers on the end-times.  But if we keep our eyes wide open to the big picture I believe we will be encouraged by John’s main point: Do not be discouraged by the darkness you see all around you, God wins in the end!  Better days are coming!  Praise the Lamb who has made the victory sure!

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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 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 Galatians

Galatians was a favorite of the Reformers.  Martin Luther said of the book: “This is ‘my’ epistle.  I am wedded to it.”  Galatians has also been a favorite of evangelicals, given our focus on salvation.  As we start the epistles of Paul, there may be no better start.  Paul gives us the gospel, stripped down and simple, and leads us to the Holy Spirit as our power for spiritual living.

Almost no one questions whether Paul wrote Galatians.  In fact, Galatians may be his first letter, or at least one of the earliest.  Whether Christians have to be circumcised is a big question in the letter, and this was an issue that was settled definitively in Acts 15.  Strangely, Paul never cites that decision in Galatians, possibly suggesting this letter was written even before the events of Acts 15.  That would mean that the events of Galatians 2 refer to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30.  Regardless, what we have here is some of Paul’s earliest thinking.

Historically, there has been no agreement on whether Paul is writing to Galatian Christians in the northern part of that Roman province or to Christians in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, converts from his first missionary journey.  Remember back to Acts 13-14, how Paul had quick success in this region only to be followed by fast opposition from the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who believed that one had to become a good Jew in order to be a good Christian.  It makes most sense to me that Paul is writing the Galatians in the southern province as a rapid rebuttal to the Judaizers who are jeopardizing his work.

What do you have to do to really be considered a Christian?  What is it that truly saves a person?  These are the questions Galatians will take up in a big way.  They are also questions we often ask today as well.  There will be much that is helpful in this short book.

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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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