Category Archives: Applying the Scriptures

Philippian Math

Philippian Math (12.9.17)

You might not think it, but sometimes math can be a helpful Bible study tool! I used some basic arithmetic to verify something I suspected as I read Philippians recently, finding that the numbers did indeed confirm a significant difference in the ways Paul used his words in this letter. Since I think the results have implications for our reading of this and other epistles, I thought I’d share the process I followed and the results I came to, and then I’ll leave you with some questions to ponder.

In all of Paul’s epistles you will find elements of theological instruction, imperatives (or marching orders), as well as some personal notes. If I asked you which of these verbal styles were most prevalent in his writing, you’d probably guess instruction, followed by imperatives, with personal notes a distant third. Not so in Philippians.

As I began reading this letter a couple of weeks ago, I decided to interact with the text in a brand new way. Sometimes a familiar book or passage demands a novel approach, if we’re going to make sure we’re paying attention to it and not just skimming because we think we already know what it says. So this time, I gathered two pens and a pencil and set about copying out the whole epistle, bit by bit, color coding the different kinds of writing that I encountered.

My black pen recorded the theological indicatives. But I realized quickly that the old categories of “indicative” and “imperative” weren’t especially helpful after all, because only some of the indicatives in this letter are generalizable instruction about God and his ways; other writing that is technically in indicative form gives information about people and events personal to Paul and his contemporaries (e.g., “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.”). I wanted to distinguish the personal information from the general, so for this category I only counted theological instruction that would be as relevant to believers today as it was in the first century.*

I also discovered that some of Paul’s theological writing did not fit easily into any of my original categories. How are we to label his written prayers for his original readers? They are not marching orders; they are certainly personal, but they also point to unchanging truths about God and what he loves and is capable of doing for his people. I decided to count Paul’s prayers among the theological indicatives, noting that they indicate things that any Christians at any time may reasonably ask of God to do for them or for others.

My green pen copied out the marching orders. Here again I had need to distinguish between very personalized commands (“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord”) and those that could be generalized to all believers (“Rejoice in the Lord always”). This required some judgment on my part, and others might have categorized some of the verses differently.

Finally, I scribed with pencil the personal notes that Paul conveyed to his friends in Philippi. Some of these messages, like the entreaty mentioned above, named specific people that Paul and the Philippians knew in common, while others rehearsed Paul’s own personal history and recent experiences as an imprisoned missionary. Often Paul’s words explored the emotions associated with his relationship with these believers (“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart”) or with the Lord (“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”).

Having set myself this task, I was delighted by the challenge of sorting and identifying various kinds of writing, even within a single sentence. For example, here’s how Philippians 3:15 came out in my notebook:

I judged that the first line, an “invitational” (first-person) imperative, could apply to Paul’s later readers as well as to his contemporary ones. The second phrase seemed to be personally addressing his specific audience, and the third told me something that God was capable of doing (and indeed was pleased to do) for believers. Again, someone else may have made different judgment calls about these words and the kind of writing they represent. At any rate, by pursuing this tri-color analysis, my attention was certainly caught and held by this familiar little letter in a way it had never been before.

So where does the math come into the picture?

As I mentioned above, our assumption about the New Testament epistles is that they are there to teach us what we need to know about our Trinitarian God and about being the church. So, given this overarching purpose, we’d expect that theological indicatives and general imperatives would have precedence in Paul’s writing, because these two styles address our needs as later readers. But as I transferred this brief letter into my notebook, I found that I was using my pencil more than either of my pens. Was it possible, I wondered, that in Philippians Paul’s personal notes to a specific church took priority over instructing and directing the church in general?

To verify my suspicion that this was so, I used the online resource Bible Gateway to copy and paste the words of Philippians (in the ESV translation) into a Word document, arranged according to the same categories that I had designated by my three handwritten colors. I eliminated the verse and chapter numbers (because Word registered these as individual words), took a word count of each section, and did a little math. Here’s what I found:

Theological Indicatives:        673/2165 = 31% of total words

            Marching Orders:                  327/2165 = 15% of total words

            Personal Notes:                     1165/2165 = 54% of total words

Even granted differences between translations or in the judgment of readers regarding the three categories, you can clearly see that there is a significant jump between the number of words Paul devotes to Christian instruction and the number of personalized words he offers to his friends.

Why does the math matter here? An awareness of what Paul purposed to do with his words in this epistle should lead us to ask some follow-up questions, if not consider some implications for ourselves as readers. For example, how does the distribution in Philippians compare with other epistles? Is our general assumption about epistles—that they are primarily intended to instruct and direct Christians at all times and in all places—gathered from those other letters, while Philippians is the anomaly?

Also, how shall we process all of the personal messages in Philippians (and in the other NT epistles)? Here personal notes make up 54% of what we read whenever we study this letter. Is there any take-away for me from that 54%, or am I just expected to look on these sentences as artifacts of a distant place and time? Can I learn from these words indirectly something that I should know or do for my Christian walk, or is there no purpose to these personal notes other than Paul’s original connection with his friends, leaving me to take away only what I can get from the other 46% of the letter?

I won’t attempt to answer these questions definitively here, but I leave them for your consideration. It’s possible that we may need to adjust our assumptions about what the words are doing in a NT letter. If the personal notes are just meant to tell us about history, then we should not put too much weight on them for guidance in our individual lives as Christians. That’s not what they were primarily intended to do.

Yet here are these very personal messages, preserved for us to read and for our benefit. At the very least, they reflect a reality of relationship that we too have come to know in the family of God. Paul’s affection for his Philippian friends is an expression of the tenderness of Christian friendship that we have experienced as well, and his desire to let them know all about his internal and external struggles is echoed many centuries later by our own sharing of our very lives with our brothers and sisters.

So at the very least, that 54% of the letter to the Philippians humanizes the great Apostle for us, and affirms our own humanity.

**************************

* It’s certainly a possibility that people in other times and places might likewise “preach Christ from envy and rivalry” or “from good will.” However, there is no question that when Paul wrote the words he was referring to people right there and then. I therefore categorized this statement as a “personal note,” rather than a general indicative, because of Paul’s specific reference to historically contemporary individuals.

All biblical quotations taken from the ESV. Verses quoted in this post come (respectively) from Philippians 3:15, 4:2, 4:4, 1:7, 1:23, and 3:15.

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

Leave a comment

Filed under Applying the Scriptures, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Epistles, Historical Context, Paul, Philippians

Race Matters, Ch. 2: Defining White Supremacy

This is the second of three Race Matters posts in which I intend to define some troublesome terms often involved in the contemporary discussion of race in America.  The material for these posts was originally developed for a panel called “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in January of 2017.  Although I am white, I was invited by a friend to join four Christian brothers of color to offer some introductory thoughts on this subject, because I’ve been reading pretty deeply in the history of African Americans and listening carefully to my neighbors of color in the present.  (I don’t claim to be an expert, but now I know the basics.)

I’ve included these thoughts about race and history here in my Bible Journal because of my conviction that we believers are called to love our neighbors knowledgeably. It’s my hope that defining these terms will increase our understanding, and improve that neighborly love.

I’ll review a little below before I get into the topic of White Supremacy, but if you want to read more you can find my post about White Privilege here.  Eventually I will also write about White Guilt (describing the complex feelings of discomfort that tend to be bound up in this discussion for many white people).  By the way, these terms are not typically capitalized when people write about these topics; I’ve chosen to do so here to make sure they stand out in the text.

In my previous post, I noted that terms like “White Privilege” and “White Supremacy” have been in use for some time, and if we don’t realize this when we enter discussions about race we might incorrectly assume that we know what they mean.  For example, the term “White Privilege” is often misunderstood to be referring to wealth, power, and prestige, when actually it was coined by a sociologist named Peggy McIntosh to describe the ease with which white people move through life in America, relative to their neighbors of color.  I compared this “privilege” to having an invisible EZ-Pass stuck to our foreheads, allowing us to proceed smoothly through the toll plazas while our neighbors are slowed or obstructed at the Cash Only lanes.*

Similarly, the term “White Supremacy” conjures up in our minds one particular narrow reference:  White Supremacists, and White Supremacist groups, who openly advocate for the superiority of a white-male-led society.  Even if we rightly distance ourselves from such extremist views, we may miss the fact that this term is used in a much broader sense in contemporary discussions.

To put it simply, in general usage “White Supremacy” refers to the way whiteness tends to be the standard or norm for decisions that are made in our culture.  And whenever standards or norms are defined, it’s then possible to set expectations for, make evaluations of, and delimit possibilities for people.

Here’s a very, very innocuous-seeming example of White Supremacy in this sense—though it’s representative of a much larger reality about decision-making that pervades all areas of life in this country.  If I need to purchase band-aids at the grocery store, I can easily find a pack that has strips that more or less match my pale skin.  But if my skin were very dark, would I even know where to find band-aids that remotely blend in?

As I said, that’s an innocuous-seeming instance of the norm of whiteness informing decisions that were made about the production and marketing of one little item.  But multiply this by hundreds and hundreds of examples, some more life-impacting than others, and you begin to get a picture of the world our neighbors of color have to navigate every day of their lives.*

Whiteness has long defined what is “normal” in America regarding decisions about casting in television and movies, representation in classroom textbooks and children’s literature, and presentations of American history.  Historically, this standard has also informed decisions about who may access government loans, housing in middle-class neighborhoods, swimming pools, and union membership.* Participation in higher education, job hiring and promotion, and access to positions of influence in the political arena continue to be areas where being white is the norm and often informs expectations, possibilities, and decisions.  The fact that we are still numbering firsts among people of color achieving certain goals or positions should give us pause.  (Why is it, for example, that not until the year 2016 did an African American woman medal individually in Olympic swimming?  Google Simone Manuel and the story of American swimming pools for more.)

simone-manuel-swimming

Again, this normalizing of whiteness has deep, pervasive historical roots.  It’s something present generations have inherited, usually unexamined, from decision-makers in the past.  And since White Supremacy ends up being self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing—influencing, as it does, the very presentations of American history that we encountered in school and hear or read today—it requires an unusual degree of awareness and effort to recognize that we have missed great swaths of the American story, and to start to make up for lost time.  If you’re inclined to expand your view of the American experience, this list of resources that we put together for our panel should keep you busy for some time.

One example of White Privilege relative to our panel (and these posts) is the fact that if we are white, we can choose whether or not we talk or think about race.  We can also choose whether or not to accept the challenge to reexamine what we think we know about American history and life in our country, with all of the lens-adjusting discomfort that this challenge entails.

But our neighbors of color have no choice but to know, in their very skin, that whiteness is the standard for normalcy in this world that they navigate.  Recognizing that this is so is a good start to learning to love our neighbors knowledgeably.

***************************************

*For specific examples of how this plays out in contemporary American life, see my previous post on White Privilege.  You can also find a summary of Peggy McIntosh’s extensive list of the privileges she noticed, here.

* One African American friend likens this to the experience of a lefty continually reaching for scissors in a right-handed world: over and over again, you are reminded that you don’t fit.

*And no, this didn’t just happen in the South during Jim Crow.  Google “redlining” and “racist lending practices,” for a start.

The photo of Simone Manuel was found at https://mediadiversified.org.

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

Leave a comment

Filed under Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Race Matters

Race Matters, Ch. 1: Defining White Privilege

This month I had the honor of participating in a panel on “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in Langhorne, PA.  My friend Marcos Ortega invited me, two pastors, and a professor to speak out of our knowledge of (and, in their cases, their experience of) race/racism in America, giving us a chance to talk about the taboo subject of race in a Christian setting.  The other three panelists were powerhouses. I wish I could have captured their many wise words while they spoke, but I didn’t even remember to bring a pen up front with me.

I’m sure I’ll gradually remember some of the excellent things these brothers taught us that evening, and those ideas will make their way into a few “Race Matters” posts here at the Library.  I would love to share with my readers a robust vision for loving our neighbors of color knowledgeably, so I’ll start that project here with an introduction to the two terms that Marcos asked me to define during our panel conversation: White Privilege and White Supremacy.  If these terms have ever bothered or confused you, read on. (I treat White Privilege in this post, and I’ll cover White Supremacy in another one soon.)

To begin, I should explain that I am white, and my presence on the panel came about because my friend Marcos had noticed that I have been diligently seeking input for several years about African American history and the black experience in America.  Paying attention to these new sources and voices has paid off in a dramatic shift in my perspective on American history, the contemporary American experience, and my own life.  To illustrate how profoundly my perspective has changed, I like to use the analogy of viewing a printed optical illusion:*

optical-illusion

 

At first your eyes see only random lines, but then (if you’re lucky!) the lines resolve into meaning, and you perceive the word or picture that was previously hidden.  And after that, you can’t go back to unseeing the meaning.  That’s how it’s been for me, regarding my perspective on these matters of race:  I can’t unsee what I’ve come to perceive about our history and present situation.

Early in the panel discussion, Marcos asked me to define these two troublesome terms, White Privilege and White Supremacy.  As I explained that evening, the first thing to observe is that we white people are mostly coming to this conversation late—you might say we’re a couple hundred years late; but even in terms of the past few decades or half-century, we’re late.  And that means that there are some words and terms that have been in use for a while, and we need to learn their meaning in context.  White Privilege and White Supremacy are two such terms. In fact, our incorrect assumptions about their respective definitions can lead us to shut down or shy away from conversations where they are in use, either because we feel offended or because we figure they have nothing to do with us.

For example, when we hear or read the phrase White Privilege, our minds typically fasten on the word “privilege,” which we associate with wealth, power, and influence.  We’re likely to compare ourselves to those we deem privileged, people like the Kennedys, or even the Trumps, whose vast personal wealth means that they don’t have to work very hard to get what they want.  By contrast, we are hardworking people, keeping wary eyes on our bank balance; as a matter of fact, sometimes we’re barely scraping by.  How could the word “privilege” describe us?

But in the context of discussions about race, White Privilege has a very specific meaning.  It’s a term that was coined in 1989 by a white sociologist, Peggy McIntosh, who wrote an article that came to be known as “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  (Her figure of the “invisible knapsack” is supposed to convey the idea that it’s something that white people carry around without even realizing it.)

As sociologists will do, Peggy McIntosh observed human behavior and then wrote about it, trying to make sense of it.  In this case, she began with something she had noticed while out shopping with African American friends: they were likely to be followed by staff in the stores, or even harassed, because they were suspected of being potential shoplifters.  This had never happened to Peggy, and when she asked her friends about the experience they confirmed that this was typical; they pretty much expected it whenever they went shopping.  She also noticed that her black friends had to be deliberate about shopping for beauty products, while she could easily walk into the local grocery store and find the hair care products or makeup that she needed.

From these small beginnings, Peggy McIntosh made a list of many, many areas of American life that she, as a white woman, sailed through easily, relative to her neighbors of color.  (You can read over a summary of the list here.)  In everything from assuming that her race would be represented in movies and television shows, to never wondering whether the color of her skin would interfere with her getting a bank loan or buying a house, Peggy saw that her white skin gave her an advantage: she was privileged, just by virtue of having been born white.

Of course, the other key element of her observation was the invisible nature of this privilege, at least to the white folks that carry it around.  Usually we are oblivious to the difference, until someone points it out and we begin to perceive it.  My own metaphor for this phenomenon is that it’s as if we white people have an invisible EZ-pass stuck to our foreheads, permitting us to sail blithely through the toll plaza while our neighbors of color have to stop and fish for quarters.  Then we wonder why they can’t keep up with our achievements and progress, and fault them for not trying hard enough.

Here’s an apt illustration of White Privilege to round out this summary:  Those of us who are white can go away from a panel discussion like this one, or from a blog post like this one, and not think about the topic again for a week . . . or a year . . . or ever.  If we are white, the subject of race is one that we can decide to think about, or not; since it doesn’t intersect with our daily lived experience, we have the privilege of choosing to forget about it.

Not so for our neighbors of color, who cannot ignore an aspect of their existence that is constantly being brought to their attention as they navigate life in this country.* Cultivating an awareness that this is so is part of the challenging work of loving our neighbors knowledgeably.*

*************************************

langhorne-race-panel-2017

Participating in this panel, from left to right, were Marcos Ortega, Joe Kim, me, Luke Mason, and Keith Plummer.

*This optical illusion was found at http://www.opticalspy.com/opticals/category/interesting

*And the reason why it’s constantly in their face will be the subject of my next Race Matters post: White Supremacy.

*A good friend pointed out that terms like White Privilege and White Supremacy often come packaged with the message (spoken or implied) that individual white people are inherently guilty (blameworthy) for their position of privilege.  Sometime I will write more about the subject of White Guilt (where it comes from, what we do with it, and how we might sidestep the blame game in Christian love).  But for now let me say that bringing up these topics is not inevitably tied to that message, something that was stressed by the participants on our panel. These definitions of terms are offered as instruction about our neighbors’ experience, so we can begin to love these neighbors knowledgeably.

 

For the panel we prepared a resource list of books, films, podcasts, and topics to Google for those who want to learn more about the subject of race in America.

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

Leave a comment

Filed under Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Race Matters, Talks

Examining Ourselves

[Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34]

Paul’s Corinthian children were a challenge.  On the one hand, they were truly believers, confirmed in their faith by the more voluble gifts of the Spirit and zealous for the wonders of God in their midst.  On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the memo about “Love one another.”  So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to straighten out their many misconceptions about being the Body of Christ.

One of the targets of this corrective epistle is the Corinthians’ handling of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).*  More than just a bread-and-juice remembrance ceremony, this was apparently a full meal shared together as a church—only the “sharing” in this case seemed to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy members of the congregation, who gobbled up the feast while their poorer brethren went hungry.  Paul gives them a remedial lesson in the origin of the Supper—“This is a celebration of the Lord’s death, not an opportunity to get sated and drunk!”—thus putting into theological perspective any wrongheaded approach to the meal.  “If you get this wrong, it is very, very serious,” Paul warns.  “In fact, your unworthy approach to this celebration is the reason some of you have become sick, and some of you have even died!”

The wrong that Paul names here is failure to “discern the body,” a phrase that has led to some strange interpretive developments over the centuries of Christian history.  Where the focus has been on the elements (bread and wine), theologians and church leaders have usually quarreled over what true believers should “discern” these to be:  are they physically transformed into the very body and blood of our Lord?  Or do they spiritually deliver the presence of Christ within the participant?  Much additional attention has been directed to Paul’s solution to the problem, namely that each one should “examine himself” and make sure he is partaking “in a worthy manner.”  Elaborate schemes for determining a person’s spiritual readiness to participate in the Supper have been proposed, including the adoption of a token system indicating that one has appropriately confessed one’s sins before eating.

Suffice it to say that, just like the Corinthians, these discussions also miss the memo about “Love one another.” Paul hasn’t actually veered from his central theme in this section, so neither should we.

In context, the fault of failing to “discern the body,” and the remedy of examining ourselves to make sure we are partaking of the Supper in a worthy manner, have everything to do with believers’ consideration of and care for their fellow celebrants.  Harking back to the congregational factionalism that he dealt with earlier in the letter, Paul defines what this behavior actually is, in the eyes of God:  he writes that those who proceed to feast without regard for family “despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.”  It is unlove that is the problem here, not an improper evaluation of the elements or a guilty conscience in need of confession.

So Paul proposes that each one should “examine himself . . . and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”  Our English verb examine may not be the most helpful translation here, since in our experience it’s possible to accomplish an “examination” merely by looking at the subject.  Imagine a repairman examining a broken hinge to see how badly damaged it is, or a cook examining an egg to see if the shell is cracked.  Maybe just a cursory glance at the state of our heart is enough?

The Greek verb dokimazō, meaning to test or try, pushes us past this limited idea and back towards an older use of the English verb, which is, after all, the root of our academic word “exam.” This dreaded culmination of all the learning that we have (supposedly) done for a course involves questions that we are responsible now to answer.  Our readiness to answer has nothing to do with a sudden change of heart in the moment, and everything to do with how we have lived our lives up to this time of examination.*

So I want to propose a series of questions that should get at the heart of what it means to “discern the body,” in Paul’s use of the phrase.  These suggestions should be taken as friendly reminders of our call to love one another, not as a blueprint for a new era of communion-token exams in the church.  Consider asking yourself these sorts of things long before the next Communion Sunday:

Do I know the names of many of the brothers and sisters communing with me?*

Do I know something about their story?

Am I interested and involved in the lives of others, especially those outside my immediate circles?

Do I treat everyone here with gentleness and respect?

Do I share what I have with those who have less?  Do I perceive needs around me?

Do I ever mock, dismiss, malign or gossip about any individual or any class of people?

Do people in this church generally feel safe with me?

Do people in this church trust me to take them seriously?  Am I a good listener?

Am I sensitive to the bigger-picture issues that may affect some of them more than these things affect me?  Am I compassionate towards those who grieve things that I cannot immediately identify with?

As Paul indicates in this chapter, if we take the time to evaluate ourselves, we will avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of our Father God bringing our unloving behavior to our (and to others’!) attention.  Let’s examine ourselves, then, to make sure we are seeing our family of faith with clarity and compassion.

*****************

*Although some verses have been paraphrased, all direct biblical quotations used above come from the ESV.

*Those pastors in earlier times who quizzed their congregants about their beliefs and behavior prior to communion were also examining their people in this way; but they did not ask the kinds of questions about “discerning the body” that I am proposing here.  They were looking for evidence of catechesis and personal purity.

*Re. each of these questions, be realistic about how much you can know about the people in your congregation.  Not even the pastors can hope to know everybody well, especially after the population of a church reaches a certain number.  But do you know a reasonable amount about a reasonable number of people outside your circles of close friends and family?

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Jesus, Paul

Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness

[Text: 2 Thessalonians]

Generally when people visit Paul’s brief second epistle to his friends in Thessalonica, the main attraction that sets us wondering is the “man of lawlessness” described in chapter 2.  We want to know his identity, or at least pin him down in time – was Paul speaking cryptically about a Roman leader who would soon have his way in the Temple at Jerusalem?  Or was he prophesying about a world ruler who would emerge in the Last Days (in which we’re certain we’re living)?

Sorry to disappoint, but I have no new revelation about him.  But I did notice three prominent themes in this little letter that I think are worth savoring a little:  Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness, all of which are relevant to today’s believers, whether or not the “man of lawlessness” has anything to do with us.  Here are some observations that I hope will get you thinking.

On Afflictions:  In particular, the kind of afflictions that come from those who want to destroy the people of God.  These afflictions exist precisely because the people of God persevere steadfastly in faith.  If they gave it up and threw in the towel, they would no longer be targets.  So the faith of this community must be both strong and visible in order for their persecutions to rise to the level that they have.

It’s notable that the chief evidence of the Thessalonians’ faith, which is the subject of Paul’s boasting “in the churches of God about you,” is the believers’ love for one another.  If you think about how easily hardship and suffering isolate us from one another, as each of us tends to our own needs and wounds, a robust and visible mutual care during a time of persecution seems a wonder.

But it’s God’s pleasure always to work his kindness out in the world through community, undermining the fallen human tendency toward self-protection and wall-building.  Where you find a believing community compassionately involved in one another’s lives – especially in the foul-weather times – you’ve found the Spirit of God in action.

On Judgment:  The temporal distance between the present situation of suffering and a future day of cosmic justice seems diminished in this letter, as Paul vividly describes the second coming of Christ and the final separation of believers from the condemned.  With his apocalyptic language (think: angels, flaming fire, and eternal punishment) he evokes visions of the End that seem no less certain for their being set in the future.

Along with descriptions of the punitive justice that will fall on those who have rejected the gospel of Jesus, Paul’s picture of God’s ultimate justice includes the rewarding of those who have endured in the faith to the end.  Curiously, he expresses this thought in terms of the assessed value of the believers, insisting (and praying) that at the end they will be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God” through their suffering, and that they’d be in the meantime “worthy of [God’s] calling” in their conduct.

Since we know Paul’s emphasis elsewhere on the gracious gift of salvation, something that is undeserved, this stress on being found worthy of the kingdom may seem a troubling contradiction.  Yet in his letters Paul is not hesitant to look to the fruit of a life lived out for evidence of true faith.  Those who claim to be believers, then, ought to show outwardly – in patient endurance of suffering, steadfast belief despite persecution, and visible acts of mutual care – the inward activity of the Spirit.

On Idleness:  Our third chapter of this letter dwells much on the theme of idleness, the irresponsible shirking of work to the extent that one is dependent on others for handouts.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the admonition, “If a man will not work, neither should he eat,” and perhaps you remember Paul’s exemplary (and literal!) “tentmaking” missionary strategy, by which he supported himself so that he was never a financial burden to those he evangelized.

I quoted the KJV translation of the verse above (3:10) because that may be the construction of this phrase that we’ve read or heard most often.  Actually, though, this translation is somewhat misleading, and it unfortunately has resulted in an attitude of condemnation towards any able-bodied person who does not work and who instead relies on the generosity of others (or on the government).  A more accurate and helpful translation (such as in the ESV or NIV) brings out that it’s the desire to work that’s in view here:  “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Mark that small difference, because it’s important – and in fact it opens up the possibility of developing truly compassionate understanding of our fellow travelers.  It’s likely that, even in the first century, some Christian believers faced real and discouraging roadblocks in their efforts to support themselves and their families.  Perhaps there were no living-wage jobs available where they lived, or perhaps their education hadn’t provided them with the necessary training for the trades that had openings.  Maybe they lacked child care or transportation.  Maybe they had funny-sounding foreign names and so were passed over in favor of native applicants.  Maybe they’d been in prison and couldn’t shake off the stigma.

From a distance it might be easy to judge these people, too, as being among the idle: after all, in their unemployment they don’t look a whole lot different than those who aren’t working because they’re lazy.  In a community of believers, though, the particular obstacles faced by individuals would be known by their brethren, who would also recognize their willingness to work.  And once again, God’s kindly corporate arrangements come into play, and in this case actually provide for the welfare of the unemployed – for anyone who can heed Paul’s admonition about idleness should “not grow weary in doing good” but rather (as he writes elsewhere) “do honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”*

Perhaps this sharing looks like handouts, or like hand-me-downs; perhaps it looks like developing actual paid work opportunities for our brothers and sisters.  We can be creative with this ongoing, open-ended task of interdependence, and maybe take turns being the givers and the receivers.

Once again, we see that the heart of God is all about us loving one another.

*****************************

*Except where noted, all quotations are taken from the ESV (2 Thess.).  This one is from Ephesians 4:28.\

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

Leave a comment

Filed under 1&2 Thessalonians, Applying the Scriptures, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body

Take-Aways From Philippi

[Text:  Acts 16:16-40]

One of the reasons we pay attention to the different biblical genres that we’re reading is to avoid the error of taking history for marching orders.  A great deal of the Bible comes to us as narrative, and it’s meant more to teach us about God and his world than to teach us to do anything.  But this doesn’t mean we can’t go away from a narrative text with something to chew on that might just guide our steps in the future.  Acts 16, a literary window into an eventful little stretch of time in the Roman colony of Philippi, gives us a few such take-aways.

You remember the story, how it starts with a persistent demon-possessed slave girl who seems to have a bead on exactly what Paul and company are up to – “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”  True enough, this, but not such welcome advertising when it happens day after day.  Her tenacity eventually annoys even the patient Apostle, leading him to cast out the soothsaying demon.  This act in turn causes an economic crisis for the girl’s owners, an imprisonment for Paul and Silas, and a post-seismic salvation opportunity for a desperate jailer.

It’s a dramatic, entertaining, and even moving tale in itself, and as historical instruction it’s sufficiently satisfying.  But we need not stop just with learning about the people, place, and time involved.  Because we’re dealing with God’s plans and actions, and because we have Luke’s inspired behind-the-scenes perspective, we can carry away from this narrative some things to keep in mind for our role today in Christ’s ongoing story.  Here are a few examples of what I mean:

We learn that the spirit world is real, and apparently it knows about the Spirit’s work.

While encounters with prescient demons are probably not going to be the norm for Christians in a first-world context, missionaries in non-Western settings often report spirit activity that resembles the accounts we have from the Gospels and Acts.  This is a reminder to remember the reality of the spirit world, and Christ’s dominion over both its faithful and its malevolent inhabitants.

We learn that some of God’s people will be called on to pray, sing, and preach while suffering.

Again, something that is not the typical experience of North American believers; but it’s always a possibility, so it should not surprise us if it happens to happen.  We can remember, too, that somewhere in the world many brothers and sisters are presently suffering imprisonment as a result of their faithful words and actions for Jesus.

We learn that sometimes it’s appropriate to let mistaken justice run its course, while at other times it’s right to demand due process and public exoneration.

(See especially Acts 16:35-39 for this part.) There are examples of both tactics in this narrative, and I use the word “tactics” deliberately – I believe that Paul chose to submit to unjust imprisonment at first, perhaps to see what God was up to with this new development; but when the evangelistic opportunity had been accomplished in this case, he then chose to call attention to the lack of due process and public apology that should have been afforded to Roman citizens.*  Instinct, flexibility, humility, and strategy were all at play in his choices, giving us a model for our own potential interactions with hostile authorities, if not a precise playbook.

We learn that the privileges of the world’s systems of power (e.g., Roman citizenship) may be used in the service of the gospel, including for the protection of the messengers of the gospel.

In other words, if you have rights guaranteed by the law of the land you’re living in, it’s okay to appeal to them in order to protect yourself and your Kingdom work.  Remember Paul’s model above, though, and realize that this is not necessarily the path we can or should always take; it’s just fair to do so.

We learn that conversion happens through words.  Events may precipitate a crisis, though, which conversion resolves.

The earthquake didn’t convert the jailer, nor did his fear of his superiors’ reprisal for his failure to secure the prisoners from escape. He was still ignorant of the plan of salvation when he fell on his knees before Paul and Silas.  What changed the man was not the crisis, but the explanation given to him.  Our faith is word-based, so thinking hard about how to arrange those words for particular audiences is a faithful and fruitful exercise for every believer.

Paul’s example warned the jailer about what discipleship might involve, and yet the man was still interested.  We learn from this that the evidence of bearing up under hardship is in itself a testimony to our conviction that our words about Jesus are true.

Think of this when you are faced with your own heartaches and hard times.  The grace that carries you through them is teaching others about the sincerity of your faith, even when you’re not aware of it.  Your willingness to submit to the Valleys as coming from God’s hand, while still contained within His love, also models for them the heart-orientation that they will need if they venture down the same path themselves.

********************************************

*Note the plural, by the way.  This means that Silas was able to claim citizenship, too.

Biblical quotation from the ESV.

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

Leave a comment

Filed under Acts, Applying the Scriptures, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Instructing the Body