Category Archives: Instructing the Body

New Talk: “Seeing a Tree and Remembering the Forest”

It took a while to hammer this one out, but I’m excited to finally share this 26-minute talk on Bible study strategies with you.  Originally commissioned for a Bible study conference in October of 2016, this is my whimsical way of getting people up to speed on the difference between “doing our devotions” and studying a passage of Scripture.  I walk through Isaiah 61 to demonstrate different detailed and big-picture study strategies, illustrating everything with lots of gorgeous shots of TREES (mainly thanks to our local photographer extraordinaire, Missy Herr!).

If you’re a Bible teacher working with teens or others who are new to a “studied” reading of Scripture, or if you would like to brush up on your own Bible reading practices, or if you are my good friend and you want to make my day, please listen along and share this!  (The video slides just supplement the audio, but they aren’t important if you just want to listen to it.)

The page of Paige’s Quirky Symbols mentioned in this talk can be found here.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Body of Christ, Instructing the Body, Isaiah, Jesus, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Talks, Women in the Word

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.

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*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.

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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.*

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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.

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

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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Greek Gods in the NT

[Text: mostly Acts 16-19]

Context matters, when we’re reading the New Testament.

In fact, if we ignore the history and geography and worldviews that are the larger settings of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, we’re likely to miss some of the main threads of the story, and the main concerns of the writers.

If we’re reading the Gospels, for example, it’s important to be familiar with Old Testament norms and rules, as well as with the culture of Second Temple Judaism1 under Roman occupation.2 In Acts, as the story of the early church moves beyond the boundaries of Palestine and out into the wider Greco-Roman world, we need another kind of background knowledge.  Surprisingly enough, you may have learned some of it in the sixth grade!

It’s funny to think, but there are actually some Greek gods and goddesses walking around in the NT.  Well, maybe not the gods themselves; but their memory is alive, especially among the country people, and the idea of these ancient deities permeates the first-century Mediterranean world.  The early Jewish-Christian missionaries, emerging from Jerusalem and Judea into “the ends of the earth,” would have encountered the influence of the Greek gods on architecture, economics, philosophy, and even language itself.  So as readers who must look back on a time that was long ago and far away, we should expect to find evidence of Greek polytheism sprinkled through these Christian writings.  Time to brush up on our Greek myths!

In this post I want to give you a little tour of the NT’s museum of Greek gods.  Just where do they show up, and who are these divine characters when they’re at home?

As a little background first of all, let me note that while the world Peter and Paul traveled through was presently owned and controlled by the Romans, these military-minded empire-builders were mostly content to piggyback on the language, art, and legends of the Greeks they had conquered.3 Greek culture was so pervasive, even outside the land of Greece itself, that everyday Greek was the lingua franca of the known world.4 This is, in fact, the original language of our NT books.  So that’s how come the polytheistic culture of the day finds its way into the Christian Bible.

Sometimes in the NT a person’s name will preserve the cultural memory of a myth.  Apollos, the eloquent Alexandrian evangelist, was aptly named by his parents: Apollo, who alone among the gods retains his Greek name in the Romans’ divine lineup, presided over the realms of knowledge, lyrics, and oracles.  In Athens, a man named Dionysius rose above his unfortunate handle (he was named for Dionysus, god of wine parties and madness) to follow Paul in faith.  And one of the friends Paul greets by name at the end of Romans is Hermes, who must have endured in his life a lot of ribbing about winged sandals and talking too much.

Luke reports (with some delight, I think) that one time Paul himself was mistaken for this smooth-tongued messenger of the gods.  This happened in the mountainous region of Asia Minor called Lystra, truly a back-country town where pagan religion was flavored more with superstition than with the sophisticated philosophy of a place like Athens. The people of Lystra spoke their own language, Lycaonian, and as you can see on the map below they were not geographically Greek, either.  But Greek influence was evidently pervasive:  when Paul the preacher and Barnabas his quieter companion worked an orthopedic miracle, the people immediately decided they were gods walking around in the flesh—Hermes and Zeus, to be exact.  Luke makes sure we know that Paul was thought to be Hermes “because he was the chief speaker.”

The goddess Artemis5 gets a lot of attention in one chapter of Acts, as the gospel of Jesus begins to affect even the economics of a city.  Demetrius, an Ephesian silversmith who specialized in idols of the goddess, recognizes the threat of this powerful new monotheistic religion in a region dominated by Artemis’s temple and the consequent tourist trade.  He gathers his guild and makes a public scene to oppose Paul’s message that “gods made with hands are not gods,” ending up with a crowd in the city’s open-air theatre shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours. Though the motivation behind the demonstration was originally financial, Demetrius knew what buttons to push to rile up the passions of the local populace.  Nobody was going to displace their beloved goddess of the hunt.

Ephesus is still not quite geographically Greek, though it is across the Aegean from Achaia, the island home of the original Greek city-states.  Here we find Athens, named, of course, for the gray-eyed Athena,6 goddess of reason, arts, and literature.  When Luke narrates Paul’s visit to this city he notes that “all the Athenians7 and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” aptly reflecting the interests of their city’s patron goddess.

Notice that Paul is brought by the curious crowd to the Areopagus, literally “the rock of Ares” – where the god of war was supposedly tried for the murder of Poseidon’s son – to discourse more fully on the “foreign gods” that he was preaching.  If you have heard of apologetics-oriented churches or ministries that call themselves “Mars Hill,” they take their name from Paul’s apologetic moment on this rocky outcropping (though they give it a Roman twist).

One more story to round out this panoply of Greek deities. This one is hidden in the language of the NT, like an “Easter egg” in a computer game.  When you read in Acts 16 about a slave girl with a “spirit of divination” (ESV) who persistently announced Paul’s divine credentials, what you don’t realize is that the unique word used to name her particular experience of possession is pythōna—which looks a lot like a word you know in English. There’s a story behind the use of this word to diagnose demonic divination: first, there’s the legend of Apollo’s struggle with the monstrous Python at Delphi; then later its association with the place of the Oracle connected the word with the idea of soothsaying.8 That the name of Jesus quieted that serpent’s tongue is significant on all kinds of levels.

By the time of Jesus and Paul, the gods and goddesses of the Greeks had retreated, as it were, into the imaginations of the country folk, where they still enjoyed a lively presence and devotion.  To the philosophers and scholars of the cities, the deities had become mere handles for abstract concepts, or figures in famous epics; to the metalworkers and other craftsmen, they had become a source of income.  And to a mob in an open-air theatre, idolatry had merged with political identity:  “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

It was this world that Paul and his fellows traveled, making their way down the Roman roads and through the Greek superstitions and philosophies that they found along their path to declare something still unknown to many of their listeners: “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man…”

The time was ripe for a changing of the gods.

Map of Greek Gods in NT

Postscript:  After posting this I realized I had forgotten to mention Castor and Pollux, better known to us as the constellation Gemini (the Twins).  See what you can find out about their story, and then try to track down their cameo in the NT.  Can you also recognize any significance in their intersection with the Christian story?

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All quotations from the Bible are taken from the ESV.

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1The “Second Temple Period” is the name scholars give to the stretch of time that lasted from the initial rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (finished around 516 B.C.) to its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.  This time period overlaps the end of the OT (think about the rebuilding narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah, for example) and all (or almost all?) of the NT.  Then there are many centuries in between those bookending dates during which Herod the Great invested in some dramatic refurbishing, and various empires competed for control of the area.  It’s worth some research to learn more, because this is the history that most immediately informs Jesus’ context in Roman-occupied Palestine.

2The Roman General Pompey conquered the region in 63 B.C.  The Roman Empire per se started a little before Jesus’ birth, with Caesar Augustus declaring himself in 27 A.D.

3The Romans did coin their own deities at times, rather than just renaming those belonging to their more mythologically accomplished Greek neighbors.  But Roman-origin deities, like their creators, are less about good storytelling and tend more toward the political and partisan (e.g., the Caesars, and concepts like Victory, Liberty, and even the city of Rome itself).

4Thanks to Alexander the Great, the hotshot Macedonian general whose personal tutor was Aristotle.  He lived and conquered about 300 years before Rome became an Empire.

5Artemis is rendered Diana in the KJV and NKJV, which is a strange choice because it means there’s a double translation going on here—Diana is her Roman name, but the people spoke Greek in Ephesus.  You can read about this story in Acts 19.

6Homer, anyone?  You can read about Paul’s trip to Athens in Acts 17.

7Luke is using hyperbole.  He was probably sensitive enough to notice that the only Athenians with time on their hands for conversation about ideas were wealthy men.

8The word is used at Acts 16:16. You can read the legend of Apollo and the Python here. My interest is purely in the historical context of this word and how this intersects Paul’s missionary activity; other Christians have apparently adduced from this idiomatic allusion diagnostic information about possession and the spirit world.

 

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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.

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

Biblical quotation from the ESV.

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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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