Category Archives: Redemptive History

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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Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!

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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

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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Filed under Acts, Biblical Literacy, Ephesians, Greek Mythology, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Redemptive History

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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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

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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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Biblical Theology, Epistles, Galatians, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Old Testament, Redemptive History

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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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Theology, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Eschatology, Historical Context, Jesus, Paul, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans

An Original Biblical Literacy Self-Evaluation Tool

Whether you are studying on your own or are responsible for the biblical instruction of others, you might find these two resources to be helpful tools for evaluating biblical literacy.  First, an evaluative tool for class or study use:

Self Eval Chart

(Here it is in pdf format)

I call this a “spectrum of reaction,” something that a learner can use to help assess his or her comfort level with questions posed about either a biblical text or the whole big storyline of redemptive history.  By finding his or her initial reaction to a question somewhere along this line (e.g., “I understand the question, but I have no idea how to find an answer” or “I may already know a few biblical texts that address this topic”), a reader can then match that reaction with some appropriate first steps to take toward engaging the question.

I have used this reaction spectrum in adult Bible classes to help students get a sense of what parts of the biblical story they are most and least familiar with.  It’s important for learners to realize that in some things, they lean more towards the “expert” end of the spectrum, while with regard to other subjects they are just beginners.  Sometimes adults who are approaching the Bible seriously for the first time, or for the first time since childhood, become overwhelmed by the amount of content that they do not yet know, and so they lose confidence in what they actually do know.  A little reassurance that we actually do know a few things already will encourage us to remember that we are capable of learning even more!

If you are teaching a Bible study or class, you might use the above reaction chart as you pose any significant question in your lesson.  Pause to give participants a moment to react to the question, and then let them consider what role they will play as learners during this part of the lesson (whether mainly listening, actively helping to answer the question, or considering how they in turn might bring a beginner along to the knowledge they already possess).

If you are studying the Bible on your own and would like to get a sense of your literacy level and what further steps you might take to enhance your knowledge, here is a second resource that addresses biblical literacy more thoroughly.  In this document you will find some intriguing questions that challenge your familiarity with the “big picture” of the biblical storyline, followed by suggested research steps categorized by biblical literacy level (Beginner,  Beyond Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced).  Questions include:

What is the relationship between Abraham, Judah, David, and Jesus?  What specific connections are made between David and Jesus in the NT? 

How are the songs of Miriam, Hannah, and Mary alike?  What was the role and era of each in redemptive history?

In what ways are the lives of Job and Joseph similar?  In what ways do they prefigure Christ?

At your leisure, then, you might react to each question and, if you wish, begin to research what you do not know, using the literacy-level-based suggestions provided on the following pages. (So if your reaction fell more toward the “Beginner” end of the spectrum, you would probably want to start with one or more of the “Beginner” steps on the chart, etc.)  Of course, this exercise also gives you a chance to delve into the biblical text and educate yourself even further!  Parents might consider using this as an exercise for older kids, if you home school or study the Scriptures together.

Every Christian is not called to be a teacher in the church, or to know the Bible with the expertise of a seminary professor.  But since the Scriptures are where we meet our Savior, increasing our knowledge of them will help all of us “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).  Who would pass up such an opportunity?

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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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Paul on Jesus: Part Two

[Texts:  Paul’s letters and speeches]

In a previous post I shared some of the fruit of a year-long study with friends in which we read the NT books in chronological order.  As I went along in my perusal of the Epistles, I gathered answers to the question, “Who is Jesus in this letter?”  This resulted in a chart of Paul’s collective teachings on Jesus, which can be accessed here.  Earlier I surveyed who Jesus is across time; now I’ll take a look at some of Paul’s major themes as he teaches about the Savior.

What does Paul spend the most verses talking about, across all of his letters and his speeches in Acts?  Any guesses?  Three categories stand out to me as the fullest sections on my chart:  Redemptive History, Forensics, and words about the Commander-in-Chief and His Troops.  So, speaking broadly, Paul was apparently most concerned to communicate Jesus’ historical significance, the judicial aspects of our salvation in Christ, and the duties and experiences of the soldiers of this Kingdom.  Let me dive a little more deeply into the details of each of these subjects.

Paul conceives of Redemptive History in its full sweep, from past through present to future, and emphasizes always the accompanying revelation that makes sense of it all.  Jesus is the Long-Expected One, and Paul seems to delight in connecting the dots in Scripture and in human history to show that this is so.  Much of his apologetic speech to Jews in Acts is concerned with how Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy, especially regarding the identity of the anticipated Christos.  Though his letters to the churches no longer have this evangelistic purpose, Paul cannot seem to help mentioning Jesus’ historical connections; to him, they are part and parcel of Jesus’ identity and role as Savior.

Among the many details of Redemptive History, two receive special emphasis when Paul speaks or writes about his Lord.  First there are all the ways that Jesus fulfills prophecies and promises, types and signs that have appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  He emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David’s line and Abraham’s family, showing how he fulfills “the promises to the patriarchs”; regarding Moses and the Law, Paul makes much of Jesus’ substantial embodiment of past “shadows” and hints, from the Passover lamb to the identity-marker of circumcision to the special Jewish holidays.

The second detail of Redemptive History that receives the most attention is the anticipation of Jesus’ return from heaven—a future event that has bearing on Paul’s (and our) present.  Again and again, Paul casts the behavior and hope of the church in terms of, and in light of, the expected reappearance of the Savior.  His “coming,” as Paul typically puts it, is as certain an event as his entrance into human history in the first place, and as certain as the suffering, death, and resurrection that form the foundation of our confession.  In his desire to persuade Christians to suffer faithfully, Paul continually returns to this certainty.  It is notable, by the way, that with one exception* he does not mention the Second Coming in his speeches in Acts: it seems that this information is most relevant to Christians who need reasons and reminders to persevere, but not yet to potential converts.

Forensics, or the judicial aspects of our salvation, comprises another major category of thought in Paul’s writings and speeches.  This theological topic is probably what usually comes to mind first when we think of what Paul had to say to the church, and with good reason.  Although not any more prevalent than the other two subject areas discussed here, Paul’s reasoning and teaching on forgiveness, judgment, law and faith, sin, salvation, and justification (to name just a few prominent terms!) certainly stand out as deeply important to him.

While there has historically been much debate over the exact meaning of some of Paul’s terms (especially justification), there is no question that he sees salvation in Christ Jesus as intricately bound to questions of sin and righteousness, wrath and favor.  The news in Christ is always good for those who have accepted him:  there is true and ultimate rescue in this Savior, a gift of innocence in place of guilt.  There are also wrong ways to go about solving the problem of our standing before the Judge of all—errors that have persisted since ancient times, and that still threaten to undermine the message of Paul’s gospel.

Finally, we could probably say that the relationship between a living and powerful Commander-in-Chief and His Troops is the topic at the forefront of Paul’s thoughts in his letters.  His own experience and that of his friends give Paul real-time illustrations of what it means to serve the Lord, and his explanations and exhortations provide a verbal framework for the embodiment of life as “good soldiers of Christ Jesus.”  Courage, perseverance, kindness, responsibility, generosity, and faithfulness to the delivered message of the Kingdom are qualities constantly reinforced in Paul’s epistles.  If you read through this section of the chart I created, I think you’ll get a sense of the nobility of our calling in Christ—something lovely to reach for, something worthy to strive after.  Paul’s many words still urge us on towards the finish line, so many centuries later.

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*The one exception is a mention in Acts 17 (in the Areopagus at Athens) of a resurrected man who will one day judge the world on God’s behalf.

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What Paul Said about Jesus (Original Chart)

I do intend to continue with my observations of Paul’s words about Jesus, which I began to explore in my previous post.  In the meantime, here is my topical concordance of What Paul Said About Jesus, based on the ESV.*  It prints out in 15 pages, double-sided.  I suggest using color, as I have indicated the verses found in Acts with red text, and there are colorful bars marking each new major category.  Some verses fit into more than one category or subcategory.

Topical teachers and teachers of Paul’s writings will surely appreciate the chance to compare his thinking across his letters (and the speeches in Acts) in these different areas.  Others will find this a treasure-trove of the riches of Christ as expressed by this prolific Apostle.

What Paul Said About Jesus (Original Chart) (pdf)

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*As per ESV copyright rules, whole verses constitute less than 50% of the text of this document.  I have paraphrased or truncated the rest.

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Paul on Jesus: Part One

[Text:  Paul’s Sermons & Letters]

After joining some friends in 2015 to “ride a fast horse” through the NT books in chronological order, I’ve ended the year’s race with four small notebooks full of observations and many a likely topic to Journal about.* I’m a Notebook Person (because I can’t remember anything I read unless I write it down), and I approach any kind of study with research questions to keep me focused.  This year I kept three queries in mind as we approached the Epistles:

What’s on [the writer’s] mind?

Who is Jesus?

What is faith?

The first kept me alert to the main ideas of the letter, the second to the letter’s presentation of the Savior, and the third to the multifaceted nature of biblical belief.

In this post I’d like to at least begin to organize the data I collected on Paul’s teachings about Jesus.* Whenever we read works of “systematic theology,” we’re looking at collections of information on different theological topics (Father, Son, Spirit, human beings, the church, etc.), really the results of research efforts that the theologian has made over time in his reading of the Scriptures (and of other theologians).  Each scholar presents the data in a different way, having decided what’s most important to communicate and how to arrange the material.  My own [very small-scale] theological overview will offer the ideas Paul communicates about Jesus, ordered from most often to least frequently mentioned.*

I’ve written elsewhere about Paul’s unusual and very personal use of Christ Jesus as a designation for his Lord, probably my favorite discovery out of the year’s study.  Of course he also makes use of the Kingly title, Jesus Christ, and continually resorts to the shorthand name-title, Christ, when he really gets going in his theological explanations.  He calls Jesus the Son of God (though, unlike the author of Hebrews, only once does he call him simply the Son) and also our Lord, usually in company with Jesus’ name.* So what does he have to say about this Jesus?

The first thing I noticed from my survey of Paul is that there is a LOT to tell about the Savior.  I found it helpful to group the Jesus-details that I found in Paul’s writings into thirteen subcategories, which are listed at the end of this post.  What I’ll highlight here is the fascinating way the Lord Jesus inhabits and owns all of Time—Past, Present, and Future.  This is what I discovered (and if you just read these Bible verses through in order, you’ll get a big-picture sense of Christ’s involvement in history!):

  • Paul teaches that the Son existed in Eternity Past and was active in Creation:

He was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God something to be grasped.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

For [by means of] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

  • He surveys Redemptive History, showing Christ’s relationship to it and fulfillment of it:

To [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.

…which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…

All the promises of God find their Yes in him.

  • He names what has been accomplished by Father and Son in the Near Past:

He was manifested in the flesh.

God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

Christ Jesus . . . in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.

He was crucified in weakness.

Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.

God has highly exalted him!

  • …and celebrates what our Lord is doing in the Present:

Christ Jesus . . . is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Christ nourishes and cherishes the church.

  • Finally, Paul holds out the promise of Christ’s activity in the Future:

We await a Savior from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. . .

. . .on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Christ Jesus.

For as in Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive.

Paul has much more to say, of course, about the theological meaning of these events, about the relationship between the Commander and his Soldiers, and about the blessings that are ours even during our earthly lifetimes because of our spiritual location “in Christ”; and I’ll bring out those themes in future posts.  For now, just savor the above statements about the Savior as a summary of his movement through time and his intersection with human history—exciting things accomplished and anticipated, and thoroughly true.

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*If my Bible Journal entries have seemed haphazard to you, this is why.  It was a very fast horse.

*I’m also including material from Luke’s account of Paul’s sermons in Acts, because I’m curious to understand Paul’s whole picture of Jesus.

*Obviously, the discipline of systematic theology holds particular appeal for tidy minds like mine.  But don’t think of the product as being just a dry recitation of propositions fitted neatly into pigeonholes!  The best theology should lead to the praises of doxology. A good systematician will fill in the bigger picture for you, since you might see only individual details when you read the Bible in your occasional devotions and classes.

*On the other hand, when Paul refers to the Lord, it can be tricky to decide whether he’s speaking of the Father or his Son.

(Quoted verses are from the ESV:  Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:17, 16; Rom. 9:5; 1:2,3; 2 Cor. 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 2:17; 1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rom. 6:3; Phil. 2:9; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:14; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:22)

I decided that Paul’s details about Jesus fall into the following categories:
Ontological Essence (what sort of Being is he?)
Place in Redemptive History
Near-Past Historical Events
Present Activity
Substitutionary Death (he died “for you”)
Forensics (the legal meaning of his death)
Resurrection, Ascension & Exaltation
Commander in Chief & His Troops
Example to Imitate
Subject of Preaching
Benefits to Believers
Reality of Believers (what is life like because of the Savior?)
Subject of Misunderstandings & Unbelief

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