Category Archives: Epistles

It Figures (Take One)

Figurative Language in 2 Corinthians

When we try to list examples of figurative language in the Bible, what comes to mind first is probably the poetry and striking analogies of the Psalms and the Prophets.  Among the New Testament writers, James stands out with his mirrors, figs, springs, ships, and forest fires.  I don’t think most of us would peg Paul as being particularly poetic in his epistles, but here and there even he comes through with a memorable metaphor.  These next three posts will highlight what seems to me an unusual concentration of figurative language in one of his letters, 2 Corinthians.  Hopefully a close look at these rhetorical decorations will enhance our understanding of his message to his friends in Corinth.

First, a general note about this letter:  the text of 2 Corinthians is almost entirely concerned with the shared and separate histories of Paul and the people of the church at Corinth, towards whom Paul felt strong fatherly affection.  Very little of the letter, relatively speaking, offers either theological instruction or practical marching orders.  Perhaps this unusual emphasis on recent and current events, as opposed to the background spiritual realities and responsibilities of the Christian faith, put Paul in a mood for crafting new figures of speech.  I can’t say for sure; I just note that both the subject matter and the rhetorical devices are of a different category and degree than those of most of his epistles.

What follows is a collection of some of the figures of speech found in 2 Corinthians (more to follow in the next post).  I’ve quoted just the most relevant phrases of the passages involved, but I’ve provided links to the context of those quotes (ESV) in case you don’t have your Bible handy.  These notes will be most fruitful for you in the context of studying the letter itself, which I encourage you to do!

  1. Triumphal Procession & Fragrance/Aroma (see 2 Cor. 2:12-171)

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are the aroma of Christ to God…

Paul’s first figures in the letter come entwined together in chapter 2.  They may or may not be directly related to one another; they both are historically bound enough to merit a little effort on our part to uncover just what he is referring to.  Your study Bible may provide one suggested referent, but a commentary on the letter will let you know that there are several possibilities here for Paul’s meaning, and really we’re just not sure which is the right one.  Here’s the relevant history and the general sense of the metaphor, at any rate:

In Paul’s day, a “triumphal procession” would be recognized as the pomp and circumstance surrounding the victory of a Roman general.  Everybody from captives taken in battle to soldiers to the general himself would parade into Rome, so there would be no mistaking the leader’s credentials.  Bible scholars disagree about where Christians should see ourselves in this picture:  are we the humiliated captives, or the soldiers?2 In any case, with this metaphor Paul means to convey victory in Jesus, despite desperate outward circumstances (some of which he has described in the verses just prior).

Along these Roman parade routes, incense would be burned in celebration, possibly corresponding with the “fragrance” that Paul mentions here.  There’s also a strong suggestion of Jewish sacrificial practices in the word “aroma.”3 Paul’s metaphor involves three different olfactory audiences:  God himself, who finds his Christians to be a pleasing aroma; the spiritually lost, who think we stink; and other Jesus people, who recognize and rejoice in the scent of salvation.4 The aroma doesn’t change—but its perceived meaning does.

  1. Letters (see 2 Cor. 3:1-3)

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all…You are a letter from Christ

In keeping with his need to justify and defend the authority of the apostolic ministry, Paul affectionately jokes that his Corinthian friends are collectively a sufficient “letter of reference” for the apostles’ integrity.  In the ancient world, a person could make his way best in circles of success if an influential person wrote a letter of introduction that opened doors.  This is what Christ has done for Paul, through the conversion of these Corinthians—for the changes wrought in them by the Savior can be “known and read by all.”  The invisible work of the Spirit is evident in the lives of individuals and (perhaps most powerfully) in the communal life of the church as a whole.

  1. Veils (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18; note the metaphorical veil in 14-16, 18 & literal veil in v.13)

With another metaphor about perception, Paul continues to comment on the ability of people either in Christ or without Christ to see reality clearly.  The “veil” idea comes from the story in Exodus 34, when Moses returning from his mountain meeting with the Lord has such a glowing face that his people are afraid to approach.  He dons a literal veil to block their view of the shining.5  Here, Paul turns that literal veil into a figurative one that blocks a person’s view of the knowledge of God in Christ.  The difference between a believer and an unbeliever, then, is that Christ takes away that veil and gives the new convert access to truth and reality.  Note that Paul is especially concerned with the difference between the reading of the Pentateuch with and without the veil:  thus Christian converts, both Jewish and Gentile, have a perceptual advantage over Paul’s kinsmen who read the same words of Moses without spiritual understanding.

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1If you’re studying the whole letter, you may have noticed that Paul produces this verbal picture right at a cliffhanger in his autobiographical account:  “I couldn’t find Titus in Macedonia!”  It’s not until our chapter 7 that he picks up that thread again, explaining how he finally was reunited with Titus.  This metaphor, then, marks the beginning of what commentators identify as the “long digression” in this letter.

2Personally, I think the victorious context supports the latter interpretation, and that those who equate us with the destitute prisoners in the parade are adopting an unnecessarily pious reading.

3See, for example, Leviticus 2:12.  And yes, there are two different Greek words used for “fragrance” and “aroma.”

4”We” in this metaphor probably refers to all Christians; but Paul may have a secondary message running along here regarding  his own credentials as an apostle:  he knows that God approves of him, and true believers recognize his authority; it’s just the false brothers who, like other unbelievers, consider him an insignificant charlatan.

5You will sometimes hear the explanation that Moses was veiling his face because the glory on it was fading away – but this is a misreading of Paul’s phrases in 2 Cor. 3.  From Paul’s enlightened point of view, the Old Covenant was indeed fading away; but there is nothing in the Exodus 34 passage to indicate that Moses was protecting the people’s eyes from anything other than a dangerous (and scary) holy shine.  Paul’s explanation in 2 Cor 3 tells us about the state of the Old Covenant, not the motivation behind Moses’ act of veiling his face.

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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.

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*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?

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A Topical Concordance of James

[Text: The Epistle of James]

The Book of James may be small, but it packs a lot of thematic muscle.  In an effort to accelerate my relearning of this letter before a last-minute Bible teaching assignment this fall, I set myself the task of collecting James’ statements on a number of subjects into a comprehensive topical list.  Listing things, by the way, is an effective strategy for getting to know the details of a passage or biblical book.  A topical concordance happens when an over-the-top list-maker publishes her lists so that others can use them as reference resources.  I highly recommend that you make your own lists while studying, because that’s a great way to train your brain to know what’s there; but if you would like to lean on a prepared collection of James’s themes, here you go:

Prominent Themes in the Book of James (pdf)

Here’s a brief sketch of the subject matter that James is working with in this letter, according to the categories that stood out for me as I read.  (I’ve listed these here from most prominent to least, though I have arranged them in random order in my document according to what fit neatly onto a sheet of paper for printing!)

Speech & Communication

From beginning to end, James shows his concern for how God’s people use their words.  How we speak to God or about God matters; how we speak to our brothers matters; how we speak to visitors matters.  Even what we say to ourselves matters (e.g., “God is tempting me!” or “Let’s go to such and such a place and make some money!”).  According to James, you can’t overestimate the power of the tongue.

Christian Conduct and Experience

This list overlaps with some of the others, as it’s a general catch-all for anything related to the behavior of believers.  James is big on “shoulds,” and in his brief letter I think he manages to communicate just about everything that is expected of a follower of the Way.  This collection of imperatives (mostly direct, though some are implied) would make a great overview of the life of faith for a class of new believers.

Theology

This densely-packed letter also manages to convey a significant amount of information about God and his work of redemption.  We are left with an impression of his majestic power and fierce compassion:  he gives generously, cannot be tempted, tempts no one, never changes, saves and destroys, gives grace to the humble, and listens to the cries of the oppressed.  Metaphysical realities are here too, hinting at what’s going on in the universe beyond what our eyes can see:  demons and the devil are active in the affairs of men; God chooses “the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” giving us new life by implanting in us the word of truth. James also conveys a strong message about future judgment, laying great stress on the consequences of the self-indulgent injustices practiced by the rich.

Don’t Be Like This

As a corollary to the collection of imperatives mentioned above, here is a list of warnings about behaviors and attitudes believers should avoid.  James’ whole letter may be seen as a series of corrections, aimed both at wrong thinking and wrong action.  Our assumptions about God, ourselves, and what is permissible in our treatment of others get a thorough housecleaning in this epistle.

Figurative Language/Nature & Agriculture

More than any other New Testament letter, the book of James offers a colorful glimpse into agrarian life in the first century.  From nautical metaphors (waves of the sea driven and tossed by the wind; the rudder of a ship) to agricultural figures (a flower of the grass; forest fires; the domestication of animals; fig trees and grape vines) James reinforces his teaching with the same sensitivity to his audience’s context that we see in Jesus’ parables.

Biblical Echoes

James’s use of Old Testament phrases and stories is a similarly rich strategy for underscoring his message to these new converts to the faith.  As his audience was likely made up of Jewish Christians, these references to familiar texts and figures would have caught their attention and convinced them the more strongly of his points.  Readers today will notice echoes of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians in James’s use of the words “justification” and “works” – but we should take notice of the fact that because James’s letter was written well before Paul’s, in this letter the terms retain an ordinary rather than a theologically specific meaning.  (See Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings for more on the difference between James and Paul.)

Socioeconomic Status

Much of James’s corrective teaching regarding the treatment of others has to do with economic status and power.  Wealth brings with it the temptation of self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, or of favoritism within the congregational gathering.  James also calls out the inconsistency of the church’s flattering a potential wealthy patron while undergoing legal persecution by that same class of people.  Apparently the allure of riches had not been dulled by conversion in James’s day any more than it is in our own.

Judicial Language

James does not hesitate to set all of his warnings in the context of the ultimate Day of Judgment.  The vocabulary of the courtroom is also in play as he describes the lawsuits pursued against these believers by wealthy persecutors and the right or wrong way of following the “perfect law, the law of liberty.”  In his argument that partiality is a flagrant offense against “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” James uses the analogy of the Mosaic law, which, if broken in any part, designated the transgressor as a breaker of the whole.

Bad Influences

James cites our own passions, the oppressive and blasphemous rich, the world, and hell itself as the influential powers that believers must resist.

Historical/Cultural Context

Finally, there’s a bit of incidental learning to be gleaned from this letter about the life experiences of James’s intended recipients.  They were apparently Jewish Christians, scattered throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire; they were being harassed and oppressed by people of influence and wealth in their communities; it was likely that there would be economic disparities among the members of their congregations; and they engaged in trade, travel, and agricultural pursuits with enough regularity that James could lean on these topics as handy illustrations.

As thorough as my list seems, I am sure that I have not exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but dense epistle.  Dig in yourself sometime and see what I’ve missed!

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All biblical quotations come from the Book of James, ESV.

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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.

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

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What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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In Step with the Spirit

[Text:  Galatians, especially Gal. 5-6]

As I noted in my previous post, Galatians is hard going, and most of us, I bet, breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive at chapters 5 and 6.  Here the complicated theological arguments, examples and allegories of the previous chapters transition into practical instruction for the Christian community, complete with memorable lines about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and having “the fruit of the Spirit.”  This is stuff we resonate with, not to mention recognize.  We can handle this part just fine.

Not to spoil the party, but our eagerness to move on to the “relevant” teaching of these later chapters does a disservice to Paul’s message in this letter.  Reading in this way, we treat Galatians as if chapters 1-4 (and maybe the beginning of 5) were written to The People Back Then, who had this obscure issue with circumcision and Jewish law-keeping, while chapters 5-6 were written to US.  In this post I’d like to try to show how the original context of the epistle to the Galatians extends all the way to the end of the letter, and why this matters for our contemporary attempts to interpret Paul’s words.

You know the gist of Paul’s concern, I’m sure:  Gentile congregations in Asia Minor, once happily converted, were now being plagued by the teaching that their salvation in Christ was not, in fact, complete; what was missing was adherence to Jewish laws, specifically circumcision (but probably Sabbath-keeping, holidays, and dietary rules as well).  Paul’s passion for these people, and for the true gospel, comes out in his fiery words.  “Don’t let ANYBODY mess with your minds,” he says, “not even an angel of God!  There is only ONE gospel, and you’ve already got it.”

Crucial to his argument, and to our understanding of the later “practical” chapters, is the history of the Galatians’ initial encounter with the Holy Spirit.  You remember the scenes in Acts, right, where certain conversions were accompanied by highly visible and audible “signs and wonders”?  In the early days of the Church, when the original Jewish believers were first venturing outside their ethnic boundaries with their message about Jesus, God apparently turned up the volume on the Spirit’s presence—especially in born-again Gentiles, just so there would be no mistake about his acceptance of them.  As Peter put it to a council of his brethren, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”*

In Galatians, written very early in the newborn Church’s history,* Paul could appeal to these Gentile believers’ unmistakable  experience of divine acceptance in an attempt to get them to see the logic of their situation.  “Didn’t God supply the Spirit and work miracles among you, just because you believed?” he asks.  “Did he wait to welcome you into Abraham’s family until you had jumped through all the hoops of the Jewish law?  Of course not.  So having begun by the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?  That makes no sense!”

Note the contrast there, between “Spirit” on the one hand and “flesh” on the other.  Paul is emphasizing the Spirit’s obvious acceptance of these believers, and the consequent uselessness of flesh-bound  Jewish identity markers.  But we have been conditioned to decontextualize these terms, reading them not with their historical references in mind so much as “what they mean to me today.”  And “what they mean to me” naturally has to involve something other than a Jewish-Gentile tension about law-keeping, because that subject was laid to rest long ago and in a faraway land.

In our context-free interpretation, then, any mention of the Spirit is automatically understood to refer to prayerful, pious, spiritual behavior and thinking, maybe involving an inner “nudge” in a godly direction.  In contrast, flesh is sinful—often specifically lustful or sexually impure—behavior and thinking, or sometimes it is whatever we do to “try to earn God’s favor.”  Our revision of Paul’s main subject into terms that are familiar to us becomes a speedy bypass to contemporary relevance:  why belabor that first-century ethnic tension, when we are trying to keep in step with the Spirit in the twenty-first?

Here’s how the interpretive bypass plays out in our reading of the practical instruction of Galatians 5 and 6, and what we lose because of it.  I’ll give a couple illustrations, and you can test this idea further on your own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Given our interpretative leanings, we are likely to take from this verse the idea that if we pursue pious, prayerful behavior and thinking, we will not be overcome by lust and other vices.  But is Christian morality Paul’s chief concern here?  I don’t think so: his driving passion is to protect already-believers from the unnecessary, destructive, and merely-human teaching that salvation was contingent on Jewish law-keeping.  “Walking by the Spirit” is, very simply, all about continuing on as you have started, secure in the knowledge that salvation doesn’t need the extra boost of circumcision or keeping kosher.

But what about the list of vices associated with flesh, and the virtues said to be the “fruit of the Spirit” at the end of chapter 5?

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, etc. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. . . .

Again, we are inclined to limit Paul’s discussion to questions of morality, seeing in these lists a cesspool of vices to avoid and a wellspring of virtues to cultivate.  Certainly human morality is in view here, but the original context remains important.  What would lead a person down the path to the cesspool of vices?  Why, accepting the false gospel and giving in to those who would add Jewish law-keeping to a Christian’s “To Do” list!* On the other hand, what path leads to the wellspring of virtues?  Why, the one they are already on, salvation by grace through faith!

Finally, consider this principle from chapter 6:

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

It seems a fairly intuitive equation—if I pursue the ungodly passions of my sinful nature, my moral character will degenerate; but if I remain prayerfully guided by the Spirit, I will get to heaven.  Actually, considered closely, the theo-logical conclusion of our intuitive interpretation should give us pause—since when is our eternal life contingent on our behavior?

It’s appropriate to have second thoughts about this familiar understanding of Paul’s principle, because a different interpretation is in fact more fitting.  Remember that “corruption” is not necessarily moral degeneracy; in fact, in the Bible it most often refers to the physical degeneration of the body after death.  Now the contrast works smoothly:  the way of the flesh, here the way of Jewish law-keeping and circumcision, is NOT the way of the gospel, and so it ends in death.  But the way of the Spirit—the way these Galatians first knew Christ, which everybody could plainly see in the signs and wonders that accompanied their conversion—is the one and only way to eternal life.

So Paul is still talking about circumcision versus plain-vanilla faith, even when we think we hear him talking only about moral choices.  Even these practical parts of Galatians are anchored in a historical context that is alien to us.  What can we hope to take away from these words, if we must shed our familiar assumptions about moral instruction and “Spirit v. flesh” in these passages?

Why not take away the message that simple, uncomplicated belief in Jesus leads to eternal life?  Be affirmed in your faith, and become familiar with the character traits that will mark you as one of Abraham’s offspring, part of God’s Church.  There’s plenty of good to strive for in Paul’s depiction of life along this path of the Spirit.  Just don’t get confused, overinterpreting his warnings about “the flesh” as a decontextualized call to struggle against our sinful nature.  As necessary as that struggle is in the believing life, it’s not a priority for Paul in Galatians.

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*Acts 11:17

*Probably around 48AD.

*Note, by the way, the shocking association of Jewish law-keeping with vice!  Paul intends to shake them up by way of this stunning incongruity, as he did when he connected Torah-keeping Jews with the decidedly un-Jewish figure of Hagar in his earlier allegory.

All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV, though sometimes I have paraphrased things.

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A Tale of Two Jerusalems

[Text: Galatians, especially ch. 4]

Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians can be a tricky one to track with.  Our vast cultural and historical distance from the peculiar concerns of the newborn Church leaves us baffled in the dense theological sections, and probably lets us off too easily as we sail through the “more relevant” practical parts.  In this post I want to offer some guidance through the mountainous terrain of Galatians 4, where biblical history and allegory collide; in a future post I hope to take a second look at the way we’ve always read Paul’s instructions in Galatians about “keeping in step with the Spirit.”

If you’ve read as far as Galatians 4, you’ve probably already figured out Paul’s chief concern:  these Gentile believers, who originally received the gospel message and the Holy Spirit with no strings attached, have come under the influence of some Jewish believers who insist that Hebrew law-keeping is a necessary component of everybody’s conversion.  Specifically, circumcision is being proclaimed as an imperative for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Paul’s letter hits them in the middle of these deliberations.  He urges the Galatian Gentiles to reconsider the theological reality of their already-accomplished salvation, and to turn aside from the temptation to upgrade their status by way of religious requirements like circumcision.

Since circumcision is a representative example of following Jewish law, you’d think that Paul would have a lot to say about that law, and how its specific life-ordering rules had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Messiah Jesus.  And you’d be right – in fact, that’s the gist of our Galatians 3.  In chapter 4, though, Paul does some fancy rabbinical-rhetorical footwork, playing with the flexible word “law” (Greek nomos, Hebrew torah) and making our heads spin.

Just before launching in on that difficult bit about Hagar and Sarah, he writes:

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons…”

Pause here, before we hit the two Jerusalems that are these sons’ mothers, and consider how Paul is playing with the word “law.”  Maybe these Gentiles (and maybe many of us reading today!) would typically define “law” in the Bible as all of those Jewish regulations and statutes and rituals.  But the Hebrew Torah, the big-L Law, is actually a collection of five books that includes both law (in a legal sense) and story.  And it’s the Story part of the Law that holds the key to unlocking the chains of the (legal) law that threatens the Galatians’ freedom.

Paul proceeds to identify the five dramatis personae in the part of the Story that he’s talking about:  Abraham, the slave woman and the free woman, and each woman’s firstborn son.  It must have been a familiar narrative by now even to the Galatians, who had, after all, hosted the great storyteller Paul himself on more than one occasion.  Here Paul is claiming that this Patriarch and his family history have repercussions even for former pagan Gentiles in Asia Minor:  through the continuity of the promise, even those outside Abraham’s bloodline are included now in God’s people.

So that’s the first curve ball in Galatians:  “Law” includes “story,” and it’s Story that matters in this wrestling match between faith and law-keeping.

The second curve ball involves another bit of rhetoric condoned by rabbinical scholars:  the allegorical use of real historical figures to convey a point.  Hagar and Sarah are convenient place-holders for the “law-keeping” and “promise-believing” contingents; and the respective locales, Sinai/earthly-Jerusalem and heavenly-Jerusalem, reinforce the contrast.

What ought to take the reader by surprise (but probably doesn’t, in our case) is that the Hagar/slave-woman/earthly-Jerusalem figure is the one associated with Mount Sinai, and therefore Jewish law-keeping.  There is NO WAY that this would be a comfortable allegory for a pious first-century Jew (or Jewish Christian).  Of the two women, Hagar is exactly the wrong figure to associate with all that defines Jewish identity, religion, and obligation.

And this discomfort is precisely Paul’s reason for structuring the allegory in this way.  Hagar and her son are cast off in the story, made strangers to the covenant that God had sworn to Abraham.  In the same way, God through Jesus has “cast off” Jewish law-keeping.  You don’t want to be associated with lost and abandoned Hagar, Paul insists.  And you always were associated with the other one, the Sarah/free-woman/heavenly-Jerusalem figure, because when you came into the family of faith you did it in a Sarah-way, by believing!

There is irony upon irony here, if we have eyes to see it:  the law, the pride of Judaism, linked allegorically to a despised slave woman; the law-keepers, now cut off from the covenant; non-Jewish believers in Jesus, identified with the ultra-Jewish heroine Sarah; and the despised Gentiles, now heirs of the promise.

Paul wraps up this rhetorical excursion to the two Jerusalems with these firm words:

“So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”

Interesting that he includes himself in this statement:  the former Pharisee here implicitly distances himself from Jewish law-keeping, at least as it relates to salvation (i.e., being counted among the people of God).* Through the allegory of the two Jerusalems, each identified with one of the women in the story of the promise, Paul has mapped out for the Galatians the alternatives presented to them by the true and the false gospels they have heard.  He prays that they will realize once and for all that they already belong to Sarah’s side of the family.

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*Though Paul internalized the implications of the gospel so radically that he could behave as a Gentile among Gentiles, it was often deemed prudent (by Paul and by other Church leaders) for him to maintain Jewish practices when among Jews.

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Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings

[Texts:  James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]

As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works.  On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation.  Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting?  Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?

Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder.  One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.

First, about timing:  although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.

As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers.  Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).

The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping.  At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point.  Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians.  But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.

So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.”  Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective.  Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.

When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.”  But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars.  His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds,  for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.

On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused.  In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.

In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently.  For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions).  To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.

Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well.  If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context.  In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.

In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion.  But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status.  (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)

We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.*  As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.

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*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups.  You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.

*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too.  But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.

References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.

Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD  —   Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD  —  Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s  —  Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD.  Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!

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Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.

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*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Before Speaking, Listen

[Text:  Acts 17]

This is the text of a short talk I gave last spring for Q-Commons in Lancaster, where the themes included neighborliness, leadership, and the relevance of faith.  I chose as my topic the neighborly art of listening before speaking, as exemplified by Paul in Athens.  I’m re-posting this today in anticipation of my participation on a panel discussing race in America a couple of weeks from now, where I plan again to emphasize the courteous decision to listen well to our neighbors.

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Hello, neighbors,

I want to lift up for you an ancient idea, and then give you a biblical picture of it to remember it by.

Here’s the old idea, from the biblical book of Proverbs: Prov.18.13

“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  (Proverbs 18:13)

Listening before speaking is slow, patient work that requires both self-control and self-denial.  It comprises both a stepping back from the stage and the honoring of a speaker who is not you.  I’d suggest, and maybe you have observed, that we in America are not characterized by either self-control or self-denial, and as a result we typically make very poor listeners, especially to those people we deem very much different than ourselves.

I’ve heard frustration about American listening expressed by some voices that I’ve been trying hard to listen to recently, the voices of my African-American neighbors.  As I’ve listened and read, I’ve realized that this is nothing new.  Here’s W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1903 (so he’s using an older vocabulary):

“We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence.”

I am hearing the same idea expressed in modern terms by my black neighbors today.  Here’s Ekemini Uwan, a graduate student at Westminster Seminary, writing her frustration just this past November:

“Either talk about race with some level of aptitude, precision, and intelligence or don’t speak on it at all.  Anything less is patronizing.”

And from Jemar Tisby, a pastor and educator, speaking this January about the past year of racial tension in our country:

“It reeks of paternalism to come to the table that you haven’t been sitting at, listen for a second, if that, and then offer suggestions or solutions.”

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Surely we can do better.  This is our challenge, as citizens in a complex and multifaceted country, as neighbors in a diverse community.  So here’s a biblical picture of how we might make courteous listening (before speaking) a reality in our own neighborhoods and conversations.

When I say “a biblical picture,” don’t think I’m going to tell you anything particularly spiritual or religious.  It’s just that I know a good story that illustrates this ancient idea, and it’s found in one of the books of the Christian Bible, the one we call Acts.

As you may know, Acts was written by a Greek doctor named Luke, who actually was himself a very good listener—he took the time to sit down with a lot of eyewitnesses and came away with two volumes of investigative journalism.  One of these books, Acts, tells the story of the first followers of “the Way,” a strange new offshoot of Judaism that centered on a man named Jesus.  And one of the leaders of that new movement was a Middle-Eastern man named Paul.

Now, Paul was a man on a mission, a mission of communication.  He was burdened with a message that he wanted to get out to people in all the diverse communities of the Greco-Roman world.  And it’s in one of his encounters with people who were to him significantly “other,” the Athenians, that Paul’s skills as a listener truly shine.

You probably realize that Paul’s message about his savior Jesus would have been both alien and challenging to these Athenians.  For one thing, Paul’s singular, personal deity bore little resemblance to their multiple (and moody) gods and goddesses, or to the impersonal divine force conceived of by many of the philosophers in this urbane cultural center.  And grasping Jesus’ significance in human history required the back-story of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Paul’s audience in the Areopagus likely did not have.

So Paul needed to build bridges of communication to get his very foreign message across, at least to make a start; and what is suggested in Luke’s narrative is that he did so—first—by listening carefully.  Basically, he was observant, and he did his homework.  What he came up with is a fascinating bit of apologetic discourse, but it’s also worth knowing as an excellent illustration of considerate listening.

Stuck in this city on an unplanned vacation, waiting for his friends, Paul puts the time to good use and even comes away from the tourist attractions with the opening lines of a sermon.  As he begins speaking, he shows right away that he’s taken the time to observe their context:

“Men of Athens, he says, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul proceeds then to introduce his theological beliefs very tactfully, aware that this audience wouldn’t be familiar with the vocabulary that he might naturally use among his Jewish brethren in a synagogue.  He speaks of creation, of providence, of the sovereignty of God—all ideas that his Athenian neighbors can track with in a general sense:

He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

And then, quite unusually for something recorded in the Christian Scriptures, Paul does a riff on a couple pieces of pagan literature:

“He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”

Note that he didn’t have time on this visit to duck into the local library and bone up on Greek poetry.   These quotes are the fruit of his previous study—this man has done his homework well before he even encountered these global neighbors, and he has listened well enough – paid attention well enough – that these poetic details have lodged in his mind.

As you might expect, Paul’s punchline in this speech is about Jesus; but there’s something UNexpected about the way he puts it.  He ends his intro to Christian theology with a provocative statement about judgment and immortality—two more categories of thought that would have been shared by these Athenians:

“[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s the Jesus part of this speech—that’s all he gives—blink and you’ll miss it.  But how considerate of Paul here, not to burden his audience with unfamiliar words like Christ and sin—there would be time to fill in the blanks later.

How kind of him also to avoid the condescending tones, the disregard and dismissal that might have colored his speech to these “others.”  Paul did not speak shameful folly, because he listened, well before he ever opened his mouth.  He was observant, and he did his homework.  And by this, he earned the right to speak in their neighborhood.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Be the difference, neighbors. Be observant; do your homework. And before speaking, always have the courtesy to listen.

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All biblical quotations are from the ESV.

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