Posts Tagged With: Jews

Revelation 7: The Blessed Life of the New Creation

Six seals down and we are all expecting the seventh seal next.  We know only more woe will come.  Before that seal is broken an angel rushes in to plead that God’s people be marked on their foreheads (a visible place that one sees immediately when meeting a person) lest they be caught up in the judgment to come.  We think of the blood on the door frames of the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt during the Exodus.  One hundred and forty-four thousand people from the twelve Jewish tribes are marked.  As 12 and 1000 are both numbers in ancient numerology that connote completeness, the point is not a literal number but that God’s plan has reached completion.

Lest we think this vision only favors the Jews, next we see a countless number of people from “every nation and tribe and people and language” (7:9) gather before the throne of God dressed in white robes, praising God and waving palm branches.  The New Creation will be a place for all people, not just the chosen people.  Not just people like us.

cityzen of world

Presently, there is once again an anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping through Europe, not unlike what was present in the 1930s and at various points before, though not to that degree and wide acceptance (remember that mass shooting at a summer camp in Norway a year ago?).  Sadly, these same feelings are becoming more and more prevalent in America as well, even in our churches.  Socially, this concerns me for what’s coming.  Spiritually, this cultural enculturation saddens and sickens me.  God’s Kingdom is the place where color, language, citizenship, and customs neither matter nor separate because there is a more important commonality in the blood of the Christ that trumps all of these.  There is no place for racism, suspicion, and cultural superiority in the Body of Christ.

That being said, today’s chapter ends with an incredible encouragement.  Imagine how welcome these words would have been to the original recipients of this letter, those who knew they would have to suffer before this passage came true.  When asked who the countless masses are, one of the elders says:

These are the ones who have come out of the great suffering.  They have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.  That is why they are there in front of God’s throne, serving him day and night in his temple.  The one who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They will never be hungry again, or thirsty again.  The sun will not scorch them, nor will any fierce heat.  The lamb, who is in the midst of the throne, will be their shepherd.  He will lead them to springs of running water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (7:14-17)

There is suffering to come, but then there are blessed days ahead in the New Creation.

What caught your eye today?

Categories: Revelation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Luke 23: Evil Won The Day

There is no mistaking Luke in this chapter.  Jesus was innocent.  He did nothing wrong.

“I find no fault in this man,” said Pilate to the chief priests and the crowds. (23:4)

“I [Pilate] examined him in your presence and I found no evidence in him of the charges you’re bringing against him.  Nor did Herod.” (23:14-15a)

“There is no sign that he’s done anything to deserve death.” (23:15b)

“What’s he done wrong?  I [Pilate] can’t find anything he’s done that deserves death.” (23:22)

“We’re [the criminals crucified with Jesus] getting exactly what we asked for.  But this fellow hasn’t done anything out of order.” (23:41)

“This fellow,” he [the centurion] said, “really was in the right.” (23:47)

Remember Luke is writing to the Gentile world where it might have been easy to write Jesus off as another rabble-rouser who got himself killed.  Maybe some said Jesus just got what was coming to him.  Luke makes it clear: he was an innocent man.  Pilate thought so.  Herod said as much.  Soldiers and bystanders saw it.  One of the criminals crucified beside him realized it.  Even one of the Jewish rulers, Joseph of Arimathea, wouldn’t go along with the court’s decision (23:51).  This was unjust, plain and simple.

And yet, Jesus was killed.  Pilate caved to the pressure of the crowd.  The conniving, power-hording Jewish leaders got their way.  Herod sat by and watched his people nail an innocent man to a cross like it was just another sideshow in the circus that was his kingdom.  Wright phrases the tragic reality of the situation well:

But they [the Jewish rulers and people] went on shouting at the top of their voices, demanding that he be crucified; and eventually their shouts won the day. (23:23)

Some days those who can shout the loudest win.  Some days wicked things are done.  Some days innocent bystanders are struck by gangbangers’ bullets.  Some days desperate meth heads break into houses and hurt the homeowners if they stand in the way.  Some days drug cartels take over whole parts of countries making them unsafe for virtuous people.  Some days angry citizens bomb their own federal buildings.  Some days terrorists fly planes into crowded office buildings.  Some days high school graduates are carted halfway across the globe to fight wars generals are not sure can be won.  Some days delusional loners cut down good people while they watch movies or shop in malls.  Some times evil wins the day. . . .

What injustice or act of evil do you lament today?

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Romans 11: The Powerful, Fair Promise-Keeper

Romans 9-11 is certainly on my list of the top five most difficult passages.  Maybe top three.  So I don’t feel like I have much to offer today.  But I guess that is another benefit to a comprehensive reading plan: you can’t avoid hard passages!

Here are the two main points I gather from the chapter:

1. God can do what He wants:

Paul describes God as having at that time a “remnant” of faithful Jews that He has chosen by grace (11:5-6).  At the same time God hardens the hearts of other Jews so as to open a door for Gentiles (11:7-9, 25).  Then God uses this influx of Gentiles to drawn back Jews through jealousy (11:12).  But the Gentile Christians in Rome should bear in mind that the same God who cut off Jews because of unbelief can do the same to Gentiles who get a big head and stumble (11:20).  This is a very active, sovereign view of God.

Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees”

2. But God is more than fair:

This second point ameliorates any anxiety about such a high degree of divine control that the first point may bring.  The central question of the chapter is stated in the first sentence: “Has God abandoned his people [the Jews]?”  The resounding answer throughout the chapter is “no” (11:2).  Even those Jews who had “tripped up” presumably by unbelief will not have “fall[en] completely” (11:11).  God wants to use Jewish jealousy to save Gentiles (11:14), and if those Jews return to belief they can be grafted back into God’s olive tree (11:23).  In what might be the biggest statement of God’s extravagant kindness, 11:28-29 seems to suggest that God will even honor his promises to the Jewish patriarchs to Jews who were still choosing not to believe.  God will keep his promises, even if they don’t.  We can rest assured that God will assert his power in a manner that is exborinantly fair.  

What struck you in this chapter?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Romans 4: Saved by Faith

In what would have been a powerful illustration to the Jewish Christians in the Romans church, Paul makes the point that just as was true in the life of Abraham, we are saved by faith not works.

Everyone has a definition of “faith.”  This chapter has a pretty good one too:

He [Abraham] didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise [of a son even though he was approaching 100 years old].  Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised [even though it defied logic]. (4:20-21)

Faith is believing that God can do something even though it is entirely against all odds.

When was the last time you acted on a belief in God that defied logic and was against all odds?  

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Romans 3: Bad News, Good News

Sometimes to really appreciate the good news we have to first understand the bad news.  It seems this is what Paul has been doing in Romans and it all comes to a head in Romans 3.

Lest the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church who have been jockeying with each other for power miss the point, Paul makes everything crystal clear:

Jews as well as Greeks are all under the power of sin. (3:9)

No one is in the right — nobody at all!  No one understands, or goes looking for God; all of them alike have wandered astray, together they have all become futile; none of them behaves kindly, no, not one. (3:10-12)

For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory. (3:22-23)

Both sides need to stop their posturing for a minute and face a fact.  Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter.  Both are sinful in their own ways.  Both are equally sinful.  Sin, of some sort, has slithered into their hearts and is slowly taking over.  At this point there is only one thing that matters and they are all the same in this way: they are doomed because of sin.

And right at the point of that depressing fact is when Paul gives the first of several statements of the gospel or “good news” in Romans:

By God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.  God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. . . . He declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (3:24-26)

It isn’t how good we are that matters, it is how good Jesus was.  It isn’t what kind of blood we have running through our veins that matters, it is whether we have been covered by Jesus’ blood.  It isn’t the rituals we have done that save us, it is the ritual of sacrifice that Jesus did that saves us.  Jew, Gentile, Greek, Barbarian, American, Afghani, Iranian, devoted church attender, or tortured soul — it doesn’t matter.  We are all the same at the foot of the cross.  Sinners saved by grace.

What one phrase from this majestic chapter means the most to you, and why?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

Imagine you are one of the Jewish Christians in this ethnically divided, prejudicial church and you hear Phoebe read the last part of this chapter aloud.  You know Paul can only be talking about Gentiles.

They knew God, but didn’t honor him as God or thank him. (1:21)

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans — and of birds, animals, and reptiles. (1:23)

They dishonored their bodies among themselves. (1:24)

Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways. (1:27)

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed and evil. (1:29)

They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. (1:32)

Andrea Mantegna, “Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat” (c. 1500)

If you are one of the Jewish Christians who had started this church in Rome after returning home from Jerusalem after that first Pentecost of the Church (Acts 2), who then had been expelled from Rome by Claudius only to return to a very different, Gentile church, what are you thinking?

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

Sure, they are Christians now, but can anyone really reform that much?

Their heritage is riddled with perversion, idolatry, and revelry.

We are so much better than they are!

Get rid of circumcision?  What comes next?  Some pagan festival like the Bacchanalia?

We should be the leaders in this church.  You can’t trust people like this.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church, you are liking this new letter from Paul, a fellow Jew.  Preach on, brother!

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matthew 15: What Makes One Unclean?

Today’s post is more of a question than a thought.  Even if you are not the kind to give a comment I would love your input on this one.  Please consider.

Jesus argues with the Jewish religious leaders again in today’s chapter.  Today, the issue is eating with unwashed hands, an elaborate tradition they had developed in an effort to remain a ceremonially clean people.  Notice that is ceremonially clean.  They hadn’t developed this ritual to remain a physically healthier group.  Jesus’ disciples evidently weren’t as meticulous about this tradition as the Jewish religious leaders would have liked.  Jesus points out the error in their logic:

What makes someone unclean isn’t what goes into the mouth.  It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. (15:11)

What comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and that’s what makes someone unclean.  Out of the heart, you see, come evil plots, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy.  These are the things that make someone unclean.  But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean. (15:18-20)

In fact, a tradition could make a person unclean if it caused them to nullify or trespass against God’s law.  The Pharisees were doing exactly that with their unwillingness to honor their parents by devoting money to God needed to help their parents (15:3-6).  God’s desire is for honor, not donations.

So, I am wondering today what, if any, are the “traditions” we have in our churches today that miss the point and maybe even cause us to work against what God is really looking for?  What are the “unwashed hands” that we get up in arms about even though these are not the things that really cause moral problems?  

What do you think?  

Categories: Matthew | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Matthew 8: Amazing-Faith or Little-Faith?

Some times I have to remind myself how I probably would have been cast in the story of Jesus’ life had I been there at the time.

Matthew marches a fast parade of characters past us in this chapter.  A man with a skin disease that would have made him unclean.  A powerful Roman centurion.  An infirmed mother-in-law.  Handfuls of demon-possessed and sick people.  Two demon-possessed Gentiles from the “other side of the tracks lake” who terrorized their town.  A bunch of dirty pig-farmers.

All of these characters have two things in common.  One, they were unclean, foreign, odd, “others” who did not fit the mold of the “children of the kingdom”  (8:12) and therefore should not be those sought by Jesus.  Two, they were all filled with immense faith.  They flocked to Jesus for healing.  They pleaded dependently for help.  At the least, the pig farmers acknowledged Jesus as awe-inspiringly powerful.  It is the Roman centurion whose faith stands out the most:

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said to the people who were following.  “I haven’t found faith like this — not even in Israel!” (8:10)

But there are also three other characters.

A scribe — a religious functionary who labored with holy words all day long.

A disciple who had decided to make Jesus his “Rabbi.”

A group of disciples (maybe the apostles) who stick close to Jesus, even running to him in a storm.

These are the orthodox ones, the insiders, the chosen ones.  They are religious, clean, upstanding citizens.  These three are who you would expect to come off looking good in the chapter.  But Jesus doesn’t seem to be so sure about the scribe’s claim of commitment (8:19-20).  Jesus seems to think the disciple with a dead father is really just making excuses (8:21-22).  The disciples with Jesus in the boat that stormy day are sure they are about to die.  In contrast to the amazing faith of the Roman centurion, Jesus chastises his own disciples:

“Why are you so scared, you little-faith lot?” (8:26)

The religious don’t come off looking so good in this chapter.

 

I was born to religious parents.  I have been in a church most Sundays of my life.  My family went to church every time the doors were open, and other times too to take care of church matters.  My father was an elder.  My mother a president of a woman’s auxiliary for a Christian school.  I went to Christian camp.  I graduated from a Christian high school.  I have two degrees from Christian colleges.  I work for a Christian high school.  I am a deacon in a large church.  I teach adult Sunday school.  I read Christian books and listen to Christian music.  My wonderful Christian wife and I named both of our kids biblical names.  My blogs are religious.  And if I had enough guts to get a tattoo, it would be a cross.

I am thoroughly religious.

But do I have any faith?

What did you notice as you read this chapter?

Categories: Matthew | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

Categories: James | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Galatians 1: No Other Gospel

“Good news,” she said.  “You’ve qualified for twice as much as you are asking for!”

“She” was the woman at the bank where my wife and I applied for a mortgage loan to buy the house in which we presently live.

Naturally, thoughts of a bigger house, a better zip code, second and third bathrooms, a guest room, a workshop in the garage, and more modern amenities flew through our minds.

I am very thankful today that we had enough sense to balk at her suggestion and proceed with the modest amount we had originally been seeking.  I can’t imagine how we could have afforded the monthly note had we listened to her “good news.”  I still wonder what she was thinking, but then the word “predatory” comes to mind.  It was the early 2000s after all.

Not all “good news” is really all that good.

Slavery is a perfect word to describe what my wife and I would be experiencing had we taken on a mortgage payment twice what we pay right now.  Working long hours and extra jobs to pay the mortgage company.  We would be truly house-poor.  Feel free to sit in the corner over there where a couch should be, had we the money!  In fact, I have noticed that any time I do something largely or completely for money, I end up regretting it.  It is never worth it.  Anything but good news.

The resounding theme of Galatians 1 is “gospel.”  The word is used six times in this short chapter, and the phrase “good news” — the literal meaning of the word “gospel” — is used twice more.  But back then as much as now, not all good news is really all that good.

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace, and are going after another gospel — not that it is another gospel. (1:6-7a)

Bear in mind the context of Galatians (see the bonus post below).  The Galatians are new Christians, some of the first converts of Paul’s first missionary journey.  But just as quick as they accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ laced all the way through with grace as it should be, they were being told by a group of hardline Jewish Christians — typically called the Judaizers — that good Christians are good Jews as well.  If you really want to follow God, you have to follow the Jewish law and customs.  Step right up for your circumcision, sir.  Stop cooking that filthy swine, madam.  Family, stop, it’s the Sabbath.  This was the new “gospel” they were hearing, and it seems from this verse above that some of the Galatian Christians were persuaded.  Jesus was a Jew after all.  God did come first to the Jews, didn’t he?  Paul himself was a Jew.

In no uncertain terms, Paul made it clear that not all gospels are truly good news:

If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (1:9)

Paul will tell us more later about why all gospels are not equal.  Simply put, some “good news” enslaves.  Well, that’s no good news after all.  Are we made right with God by grace or by law?  Because if it is by grace, you are free.  All debts are paid.  No obligations are in place.  One obeys out of gratitude and love.  But if it is by law that we are made righteous, then we are enslaved to a system of our own best efforts, which sadly always come up short.  There is always more to do.  We can always be better.  And we are obligated, for sure.

That’s slavery.  And that’s no good news!

What modern day “good news” isn’t really as good as it sounds?

Categories: Galatians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Hebrews 11: We Are People of Faith

For many of us, this is a very familiar chapter.  Maybe you grew up like me calling this the “Hall of Fame of Faith.”  With its definition of faith,

What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see. (11:1)

and its many examples of faith, this chapter is certainly that.  But hopefully now with an increased appreciation for the context of Hebrews, we can see that these are all examples of a certain kind of faith.

If you are a Jew (now or then), the people mentioned in this chapter are heroes.  It is their kind of faith you would want to have.  That is exactly what the Hebrew author is hoping his audience will realize.

Faith is defined here as pressing forward with confidence into a rewarding but unseen future.  This definition comes in four parts:

  1. Pressing forward: Faithful people don’t sit still in a comfortable place.  And they certainly don’t go backward, reverting to a comfortable past.
      • Abel proceeded to offer what he understood to be the right kind of sacrifice
      • Actively “seek” after God like Enoch
      • Noah actually built his preposterous Ark
      • Abraham picked up his family and moved to an unseen land
      • Sarah and Abraham did what was necessary to bear a family
      • Abraham actually took Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice
      • Both Isaac and Jacob promised his descendants land that his family did not yet possess
      • Joseph saw the coming slavery but could also see the Exodus
      • Moses preferred to suffer than enjoy the luxury of a pagan king’s palace
      • Moses kept God ever before him, even as he was chased by the murderous Pharaoh
      • The Israelites carried out their ridiculous battle plan at Jericho
      • Rahab betrayed her own people by welcoming the spies “in peace”
  2. Confidence:  Faithful people are sure of better things to come.
      • Like Enoch, faithful people “must believe that he really does exist”
      • Noah “took seriously” the warning of a flood
      • Abraham “looked ahead” with expectation
      • Sarah considered God “trustworthy”
      • Abraham figured God could raise Isaac from the dead
      • Jacob was so sure of the promise that he “worshipped” God for it ahead of time
      • Joseph made plans to be buried in a land they did not have
      • Moses’ parents were not afraid of Pharaoh
      • Moses “reckoned” the promise of God was better than the “pleasures of sin”
  3. Rewarding: There is every reason in place to have this sort of faith.
      • Abel was vindicated by God.
      • Enoch was taken directly to be with God
      • Noah and his family were saved from drowning
      • Abraham’s descendants inherited Canaan
      • Sarah conceived a child though barren
      • Abraham did not lose Isaac
      • Moses was rescued from death as a baby
      • Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry ground
      • The walls of Jericho fell
      • Rahab was spared death at Jericho
  4. Unseen: The unseen nature of faith is punctuated in this chapter by the many uses of “seeing” language — “seen” (11:3, 7, 13); “visible” (11:3); “bore witness” (11:4); “see” (11:5, 10, 14); “find” (11:5); “seek” (11:6); “not knowing where he was going” (11:8); “looking ahead” (11:10, 26); “looking” (11:14); “hidden” (11:23); “saw” (11:23); “invisible” (11:27); and “eyes” (11:27).  This would have been especially poignant to the Hebrew Christians who seem to be missing the tangible nature of their past Judaism.  Their heroes always pursued the unseen as well.

Maybe the astonishing thing in this chapter is how it ends:

All these people gained a reputation for their faith; but they didn’t receive the promise. (11:39)

Now, the Hebrew Christians have a chance to receive something their own heroes longed for but were never given: a true inheritance in God’s perfect city (11:10, 13-16).  What a privilege!  It is for them to simply press on as the “people of faith” (10:39) even if it stretches them past the tangible.

What struck you in this chapter?   

Categories: Hebrews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hebrews 4: There Is A Better Rest Coming

We are headed toward Spring Break.  Some of us will have that week off as teachers and students, others will take the week as vacation time because kids are out of school.  Some will head to the beach or Disney World or out west to ski if the man-made snow can hold out.  Others will simply sit still at home, catch up on the “honey-do list,” and truly rest.  These will be wonderful days of restoration.  Even if the week is filled with travel and fun-filled attractions, there is still a rest for the soul that is so precious.

I would guess most of us love those times of vacation and rest when they come.  We feel more sane, more centered, more whole.  Probably many of us are thankful for our jobs and feel a sense of purpose in those careers, but we love our breaks too.

The Hebrew Christians knew something about breaks too.  These thoroughly Jewish Christians would have likely still observed the Sabbath, a precious time of rest and reconnection.  In the Old Testament this idea of “rest” was also a way to talk about the kind of life that would be experienced in the Promised Land of Canaan, and this is how it is being used in today’s reading:

They will never enter my rest. (4:3, 5)

You may remember that during the forty-year Wilderness Wanderings from Egypt to Canaan, there were some Israelites who let go of their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Punishment came and they died in the desert, far shy of the promised rest.

The idea of “rest” would have been precious to the Hebrew Christians.  Each week in their Sabbaths they were experiencing a small piece of the Promised Land rest of their ancestors.  But the Hebrews author reminds them,

There is still a future sabbath “rest” for God’s people. (4:9)

There is a new Promised Land we are journeying towards.  We will cross over Jordan, led by a new Joshua, to a land overflowing with milk and honey.  Better than any Sabbath will be the endless rest we experience in the New Creation with God.  So don’t give up on Jesus:

Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. (4:7)

Personally, I plan on enjoying my Spring Break.  But I am also remembering there is a rest coming that is far longer, richer, and better.

What sorts of “rest” do we long for that pale in comparison to God’s final rest? 

Categories: Hebrews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Acts 28: What Will You Do With Paul?

Luke has been following Paul’s judicial proceedings for many chapters, often with tremendous detail.  Why do we just end with Paul in house arrest for two years in Rome awaiting trial?  We need more closure than that.  Was Paul exonerated?  Did Jews show up from Jerusalem to plead their side of the case and did it go south for Paul?  Was Paul released and freed to go to Spain to preach the gospel as he so desired?  Was Paul killed in Rome for some charge brought against him successfully?  We are simply left to wonder.

Scholars have taken up the question and posited many a theory.  Here are a few:

  1. Acts was intended by Luke to be a legal defense for Paul before the Roman court, thus it had to be completed without these answers.
  2. Things did not turn out well for Paul and it didn’t fit the kind of ending Luke wanted to have so he left these details out.
  3. Luke was forced by sickness, jail, or traveling to finish his account abruptly.  Maybe a protegé of Luke finalized the letter quickly after Luke’s unexpected death.
  4. Acts starts with the word “first” (1:1), so maybe Acts was the first volume of two or more intended books about the gospel and the early apostles, but we do not have the later volume(s) or it/they were never written.
  5. The favorite theory amongst conservative scholars (and the one I like) is that Acts does end in the most appropriate way theologically, even if not historically.  Paul is not the focus of Luke’s book, the gospel is.  Luke starts in 1:8 with a charge from Jesus to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the “very ends of the earth,” a place like Rome.  Thus, Acts ends with the gospel being preached in Rome with great freedom and acceptance, especially amongst the Gentiles.  Luke would have felt like this was a very fitting ending, so the argument goes.

This is now the second book in a row where we come to an abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending.  We saw the same thing at the end of Mark.  We saw there that Mark seemed to be leaving the reader with the question, “What will you do with Jesus?”  Let’s take that same approach here in Acts, just to experiment again.

Maybe Luke wants to leave us with these questions: “What will you do with Paul?  What will you do with a gospel that is open to all?  What will you do with a church that includes Jews but also Gentiles who are much more receptive to the Gospel?”

Back then, some would have said Paul is a heretic who has hijacked this restored Judaism and perverted into an ecumenical, watered-down movement of grace and acceptance to all.  Some would have said Paul has got it exactly right; come join a “new Israel,” no longer defined by race.  Some would be quick to write off the Jews because they had their chance.  Some would like to muzzle Paul or even kill him.

Interestingly, people say the same things about Paul and other more modern religious thinkers today who say similar things, don’t they?  Give me Jesus, but you can keep your Paul.

The question for us, though, as we end this great book of Acts is the same question Caesar will have to answer: “What should I do with Paul?”

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Acts 25: Give Me Justice

I have offended neither against the Jews, nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar. . . . I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, which is where I ought to be tried.  I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you well know.  If I have committed any wrong, or if I have done something which means I deserve to die, I’m not trying to escape death.  But if I have none of the things they are accusing me of, nobody can hand me over to them.  I appeal to Caesar. (25:8, 10-11)

Paul is willing to stand trial where he should stand trial.  He is even willing to pay the just price for what he has done, though they will find out that he has done nothing wrong against anyone and shouldn’t be punished at all.  He will jump through whatever hoop they put in front of him, wait in jail as long as it takes, even appeal to Caesar and be shipped off to Rome, just so long as he gets justice.

But injustice Paul cannot abide.  Be framed on trumped-up charges without a fair trial?  No way!  Allow the Jews to spout slanderous half-truths without a response?  Not for a minute!  Be turned over to the bloodthirsty Jews because of some back room deal?  Paul will not stand for that.  That would simply be unjust.

Paul wants one thing: justice.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we have to just lay down and take it.  Yes, the way of Christ is the path of self-denial and sacrifice, but justice does not have to be ignored in the process.  Meekness is most certainly a virtue (Matthew 5:5), but that does not mean a person has to offer themselves to any malevolent soul that wishes to do them harm.  One can be humble and sacrificial while also upholding and pursuing justice.  We are not called to let injustice proliferate in an already unjust world.  Even Jesus didn’t die because of injustice.  He died to uphold the justice of a God whose holiness had to be honored.

Like Paul, we can humbly serve a world that is not always hospitable.  We can put ourselves in places of discomfort and risk.  But we can do all of this while insisting that justice be done by those whose job it is to ensure it.

What struck you today?

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Acts 23: Rescued by Rome

Seemingly insignificant things can end up making a world of difference when God is concerned.

Paul is born in Tarsus in Cilicia making him a Roman citizen.  He is born a Jew, and it clear from today’s passage that it is this Jewish heritage that mattered most to Paul’s family.  These were Pharisees, apparently a long line of them (23:6).  Paul’s father will go to the expense and trouble to get him to Jerusalem to train under Gamaliel the Pharisee (22:3).  This is a good education.  By all of his own accounts scattered throughout Acts and his letters, it is this Jewish background that Paul gloried in.

And yet in today’s reading it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that makes all the difference between life and death.  The Jews are ready to tear him “in pieces” (23:10).  A gang of Jewish extremists have pledged not to eat or drink until they kill Paul (23:12).  An assassination plot is hatched (23:15).  But leave it to the Jews and Paul is as good as dead.

Ancient Roman Citizenship Diploma

It is because of his Roman citizenship that the Roman tribune is involved at this point.  The tribune’s greatest desire is simply to preserve peace, but he ends up protecting Paul nonetheless.  The tribune’s palace guard whisks Paul out of the fomenting Sanhedrin.  The Roman respect for law ensures Paul a fair trial.  An army of two hundred foot soldiers and seventy horsemen escort Paul out of Jerusalem and off to a Caesarean prison, and safety as well.  Ultimately, it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that will bring him to Rome so he can give his “testimony about [Jesus] in . . . Rome” (23:11).  Bottomline:

When I [the tribune] learned that he was a Roman citizen I went with the guard and rescued him. (23:27)

Where one is born is not nearly as important as what one does once one is born.  And yet Paul’s place of birth is what rescues him at this moment.

What seemingly insignificant detail from your life has turned out to have made a world of difference?

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Acts 15: What Does It Take to Be Saved?

Now, that’s a loaded question!  And not one I am about to try to answer here.  But it is the question the Christians in Antioch were asking.

Grace through faith in Jesus?  Definitely!

He [God] purified their [Gentiles] hearts through faith. . . . It is by the grace of the Lord Jesus that we shall be saved, just like them. (15:9, 11)

But is there more?  At least some of the early Christians thought so:

They must be circumcised,” they [believers from the party of the Pharisees] said, “and you must tell them to keep the law of Moses.” (15:5)

Much like Acts 2, Acts 15 is one of the more significant chapters in the book.  There is so much to say about this chapter.  The chapter also produces so many further questions.  Some of these observations and questions would be:

  • When an argument ensued, they gathered together to talk it out.
  • The Scriptures played a important role in their decision-making (15:15-18), but so did the everyday ministry experiences of the apostles involved (15:12).
  • Early Christianity was diverse enough to encompass former Pharisees and former prostitutes, Zealots and tax collectors, those with a great level of obedience to the Jewish customs and those who thought those customs were largely irrelevant.
  • Even after the decision was made to disagree with the Pharisaical Christians, the apostles and elders still accept them as “some of our number” (15:24).
  • This conflict ends with feelings of “delight,” “encouragement,” and “peace” (15:31-33).
  • How did the apostles and elders making the decision know what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (15:28)?
  • Why was blood in food deemed that much more important than circumcision or the Sabbath?
  • This decision was given to Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.  Was it also intended to apply to other churches too?  For instance, Paul didn’t make a big deal over food sacrificed to idols in Corinth.
  • Is baptism equivalent to circumcision?  Do the principles here regarding circumcision apply to modern debates over baptism?
  • What modern issues of debate would be in line with the topic of law observance?  Worship styles, gender roles, marital history, sexual preference?

However, I don’t want us to miss the big point in this chapter, so important that Luke says it twice:

Therefore this is my judgment: we should not cause extra difficulties for those of the Gentiles who have turned to God. (15:19)

For it seemed good to the holy spirit and to us not to lay any burden on you beyond the following necessary things. (15:28)

This did not mean there were no boundaries or requirements.  The Gentiles in Antioch were expected to avoid food associated with pagan idolatry, food that would still have a good amount of blood in it, and sexual perversions (15:20, 29).  Still, the apostles and elders decided to go the path of least resistance.  They endeavored to place as few barriers as possible between God and those Gentiles seeking Him.  Important to any debate Christians might have today regarding what it takes to be saved should be this same principle: don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be.

What stood out to you in this important chapter?  

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Acts 13: Pure or Prejudiced?

Tell me if I am reading this passage wrong:

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving, they [Jews in the synagogue] begged them to come back the next sabbath and tell them more about these things.  Many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed them once the synagogue was dismissed.  They spoke to them some more, and urged them to remain in God’s grace. 

On the next sabbath, almost the whole city came together to hear the word of the Lord.  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with righteous indignation, and spoke blasphemous words against what Paul was saying. (13:42-45)

At first, when Paul and Barnabas were in a synagogue, the Jews were interested and wanted to hear more.  Less than a week later when the whole city — Jew and Gentile — shows up to hear Paul and Barnabas, the Jews who were rather receptive turn on them in anger and have them driven out of the city.

Why such a strong change?

I am wondering if the answer isn’t at the beginning of verse 45: “But when the Jews saw the crowds.”  Now, when they were out in the city streets, in neutral or even foreign territory, in mixed company, when Gentiles are included in the audience being encouraged to turn to God, things change.  They don’t like what Paul is preaching.  More to the point, they don’t like who Paul is preaching to.  God is our god, they thought.  This party is by invitation-only.  No Gentiles allowed.  The Gentile water-fountain is around the corner.

Why the change?  Well, it wasn’t because of doctrine or theology.  As Paul points out in 13:47, they were arguing with their own prophet Isaiah, not him:

“I have set you for a light to the nations, so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth.”

Jewish election was not an end unto itself.  God didn’t just want the Jews to receive divine light then keep it to themselves.  The election of Israel was a means to an end.  They were given light in order to shine it on the whole world.  Blessed to bless.  As far back as the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, the Gentiles were in God’s sights.

So it seems to me that the Jews in Pisidian Antioch (and so many other places) were actually reacting from emotion rather than theology.  Socially driven prejudice, not the Scriptures, flavored their decisions about what they thought God should and should not do.

I am sure glad we don’t ever do that today.

What do you think?

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.