What is the Best Way to Read the Bible?

Last week we looked at examples from the New Testament of people coming together in community to study the Scriptures. We also looked at the first few centuries after the New Testament to see the council at Nicea surrounding the deity of Christ. Christians came together around the Scriptures in order to clarify beliefs and put an end to false teaching. This council resulted in what we commonly call The Nicene Creed.

This community study of the Scriptures happened on many other occasions as well. As the years passed, again the Church saw need of solidifying doctrine amongst all believers. The decision was made to collect the writings held highly by the community and combine them into an authoritative collection. There was some debate concerning some of the writings we have today in our New Testament, and some differences still exist today (does your Bible contain the Apocrypha?) But when the Church came together in community, the most trusted writings were compiled to solidify the documents of our faith – the New Testament.

We are so used to having our sacred writings in one book. Can you imagine going through life and having to search from city to city to find a copy of John’s Gospel? The fact that you own a Bible, or have access to a Bible online, or in app form is because 1600 years ago the Church, the Body of Christ, came together in community in order to compile (not create) the writings we know and love.

Today, we must take the same approach toward interpreting Scripture. Renowned theologian, seminary professor, and author Scot McKnight has a suggestion for how we are to read and interpret Scripture today in his book, The Blue Parakeet. In this quote, he speaks of the “Great Tradition,” that is the understanding of the historical Christian community.

“I suggest we learn to read the Bible with the Great Tradition. We dare not ignore what God has said to the church through the ages (as the return and retrieval folks often do), nor dare we fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism. Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return problem), and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism). We want to walk between these two approaches. It’s not easy, but I contend that the best of the evangelical approaches to the Bible and the best way of living the Bible today is to walk between these approaches.”

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet

The history of the church shows that Scripture has been best interpreted in community. When believers come together and wrestle with the Scriptures to find truth, error is avoided, God is honored, and Scripture is upheld and interpreted in a relevant way. As history and the New Testament has shown us, it is the best way.

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2 Rules for Reading Scripture

Last week we looked at the human component in Scripture. All Scripture is from God, but it comes through the mind and hand of humans, sometimes humans writing in community as we noted last week in many of Paul’s writings. This makes the Bible more special in my eyes, that God was willing to partner with humans in getting his word to the world, just as he partners with us today in doing the same thing (See Matthew 28:19). Today we’ll unpack the last part of Bobby Valentine’s quote: “God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places.”

There are two rules for reading Scripture: Context, and Context. Because of the historical nature of revelation we must pay close attention to the historical occasion of the text.  Why was it said or written in the first place? For instance, Ezekiel records many times of coming calamities upon Israel and Jerusalem “from the north.” This does not mean that Americans should be arming our border with Canada and preparing for war. This is a ridiculous example, I admit, but there are some who take equally specific texts meant for a specific people group in a specific time and place and try to apply it to everyone today. We must honor the context of the statements in order to accurately derive their meaning.

Let’s take a look for a moment and look at another example.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 NKJV

I’ve seen this verse applied to people trying to make a difficult decision, athletes wanting to win a game, couch potatoes that want to work up to running a marathon, churches hoping to begin a new ministry, people hoping to buy a new car or find a new house, and the list goes on and on. This verse is poorly translated in the KJV/NKJV (the word “Christ” doesn’t even appear in the Greek text), and its meaning is poorly applied to our lives because we don’t understand the context of Paul’s statement.

Paul has been arrested for preaching about Christ, but he doesn’t view this as a bad thing. In fact, Paul believes this is good because believers now see their faith in Christ is worth even going to prison over, and therefore they are spreading the Gospel message more intensely (Phil. 1:12-18). Fast forward a few chapters. Paul exhorts the church to rejoice always, no matter your circumstances…even if you are in chains for the Gospel (4:4). They should focus on Godly ways rather than worrying about the things of this world (4:5-9). Paul acknowledges that for a while the church was unable to support him, or provide for his needs (after all, he is in prison so he doesn’t have much – 4:10) Then Paul writes:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13 NIV

Paul is saying he doesn’t need money or possessions in order to preach the Gospel. God gives him strength, and that is enough. Want to apply this to your life? You should go preach the Gospel and God will give you the ability in whatever situation you find yourself to do just that. And no, that doesn’t include winning your softball game.

The Gospel of Luke

(This post was originally published in our church bulletin on 6.13.18)

Our reading for this week is from Luke 1. Since we covered this chapter fairly extensively in my sermon on June 3rd, we’ll take a look at some major themes to look for in Luke’s Gospel.

Luke was a Gentile physician, and a missionary companion of Paul. Luke wrote two books in our New Testament – The Gospel of Luke, and Acts, making Luke the largest contributor to the writings of the New Testament. These two books should really be seen as one continuous story of the life of Jesus, and the continuation of what Jesus did in the life of the early church. Some have even referred to them as 1st & 2nd Luke. These two books (letters really) are addressed to Theophilus who is believed to be a person who could have influence on the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome, but it is also evident that Luke intended his writings to be read by Christians wrestling with their identity as people of God. Though Luke may have been present for some of the ministry of Jesus, we believe he got most of his details through interviews with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and others who were close to Jesus.

Luke has several themes that carry throughout his Gospel and Acts that can teach us something about the way he viewed the ministry of Jesus and the early church. We will see an emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the sign of the new age of salvation. We’ll also see quite an emphasis placed on women. This is something that the other Gospels include as well, but Luke really emphasizes that these women followed and served with Jesus right alongside the men.

We also see a table emphasis in Luke that will culminate in the Last Supper, and carry on through Acts in the form of the Lord’s Supper. As you read this Gospel, notice how many events occur around the fellowship of a meal.

The last theme I’ll mention is that of the Gentiles (as well as outcasts of Jewish society) becoming part of God’s people. It is clear that this was part of Jesus’ ministry from the very beginning in the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:32), to his teachings (6:27ff), to healing the Roman Centurion’s servant (7:1-10), his anointing by the sinful woman (7:36-50), casting out Legion in a Gentile land from a Gentile who was ceremonially unclean in every way imaginable (8:26-39), his teaching on the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), the parable of the Great Banquet (14:15-24), the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son (all of 15),  the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:9-14), Zacchaeus (19:1-10), and several other examples not listed here. This theme carries on through Acts as well (Acts 8-15 especially).

You will notice some similarities between Luke and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, but you’ll also notice that Luke adds much more detail to the events, especially when it comes to Mary and her thoughts and feelings surrounding the life of her son, Jesus. I hope you will enjoy our study of Luke’s Gospel as we seek to “Grow in FAITH” by learning more about Jesus.

– Matt

A Faith that Does

These series of posts are directly linked to our read through Gospels this year. If you haven’t started, but would like to join us you can download the reading/devotional list by clicking here.

In Mark 3 we are discovering two groups of people who have opposing views of Jesus. The crowds that follow Jesus love him because of his teachings, and miracles. They are amazed by the power of God displayed through him. We read in verse 8 that this was a very diverse crowd from all over the region. They believed in him and his message, and even the demons acknowledged him as the Son of God. (11)

Then we meet the religious leaders of the day. They refuse to see the good in what Jesus is doing, and only seem to notice that he isn’t doing things the way they have always been done. He perfectly keeps the law, but interprets it differently than they have. Of course Jesus is right in what he’s doing, but they can’t see that. Jesus asks them in verse 4:

“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or kill?” – Mark 3:4

In general, Jewish teachers during this time taught that anything that could be done before the Sabbath should not be done on the Sabbath. But they did accept life-saving procedures, and important medical treatments for the wellbeing of the patient as well. Jesus here is acknowledging their rules…actually he’s playing by them, but they still have issue. Notice that verse 4 indicates “…they remained silent.” It appears they really didn’t want Jesus to heal this man. Perhaps they felt that professing faith in God and not changing the status quo were more important.

Jesus challenges this type of assumption at the end of chapter 3 by saying “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” In other words, you’re my family if you do God’s will. Then Jesus gives us examples of doing God’s will. He tells the Parable of the Sower in which we all should identify as a type of soil, but we are also the sower. We need to improve the soil of our lives, but at the same time we need to be slinging the seeds of the kingdom anywhere we can…even to the undesirable soil! This is a faith that does. Then Jesus compares our faith to a lamp on a stand. A lamp is worthless unless it gives light. This is a faith that does. The Parable of the Growing Seed couches us as the sower again. We need to throw seed. God will make the seed grow (and does today in the lives of many in our community), and we need to be sure we’re ready to harvest it as it is ready. After all, crops that aren’t harvested die in the field. This is a faith that does. Jesus gives us another view of the kingdom. Even though it’s as small as a mustard seed, it will grow to be a large fruitful plant. We’ve already been told to grow the kingdom. This is a faith that does.

And then we have the disciples on the boat with Jesus. He is asleep as a “furious squall” batters their boat. The disciples are afraid, but Jesus was not.

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” – Mark 4:39-40

Instead of panicking like the disciples, Jesus remained calm in the storm. This is a faith that does. Jesus then has the power to calm the storm. And this is who we have faith in! We are called to have a faith that is full of action, good deeds, and seeks to spread that faith everywhere we can. And we’re called to do this because of our faith in Christ. We must obey him because: “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The Gospel of Mark

If you are following along with our Gospels Reading Plan for the year, you just completed Matthew’s Gospel last week, and this week we begin reading Mark’s Gospel by reading chapters 1 & 2.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels and was written first. As you read Mark, you will have the feeling you’ve read this before. That’s because about 90% of Mark’s Gospel appears in Matthew’s Gospel as well, although Matthew treats the stories and order differently than Mark. Keep in mind that the Gospel writers were not trying to create a chronological biography of Jesus, but rather a theological narrative geared at the needs of the audience to which it was written.

Early church history tells us that Mark was a helper of Peter, a member of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, an Apostle, and a close eyewitness of most of the events Mark records. It is possible that this is the same Mark (listed as John Mark) who was a cousin of Barnabas and worked with Paul on his missionary journeys (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37, 39), and again later in Rome (Col. 4:10). Peter also mentions working with Mark in Rome (1 Peter 5:13). Though we can’t be sure that these Mark’s are the same person, early church tradition presents it as such. This would certainly explain why Mark would write his Gospel to the Gentile Christians in the church at Rome.

Mark will use many Roman themes, as well as Roman imagery when we get to his recounting of Jesus’ last week (commonly referred to as the Passion), which makes up roughly 40% of the overall Gospel. Mark is writing in a time where great persecution had broken out against Christians, especially in Rome, and writes to encourage Christians to persevere through the suffering and persecution they face. The main them is Jesus as the suffering servant who died for us. The key verse to the Gospel is Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  In essence, Mark is calling us to be more like Jesus as we face similar situations in our own lives.

Most of chapter 1 & 2 are covered by Matthew, but I’d like to look at one short passage in 1:35-39:

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

When was the last time you spent time in a solitary place and prayed? When was the last time you sought out quiet to just be with God in prayer? We will see Mark mention this practice by Jesus several times, and Mark is calling his readers to be more like Jesus. I encourage you to spend some quiet time with God’s Word (why not read Mark along with us?) like Jesus did, and let that time focus your mind and thoughts on being more like Jesus. May you be blessed as you seek to be more like Him.

Woe to You!

Our reading this week is Matthew 22 & 23,  and here we will focus on 23:13-39 where Jesus condemns the actions of the religious leaders. Their job was to model/teach a Godly life to the people of Israel, but they had failed mightily by corrupt the Temple system for monetary gain. Jesus issues them seven “woes” or condemnations. We’ll cover each of them briefly here.

  • “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces…” (13) – The practices these leaders had put into place in worship (money changers, high priced sacrifices, etc.) as well as their impossible interpretations of minute details of the law made it all but impossible for people to worship God properly.
  • “…you make [converts] twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (15) – Scholars believe Jesus is speaking in a mocking hyperbole here. Proselytes, or converts, did occur, but no record of any organized effort to teach outsiders has been found. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus is condemning, a lack of care for outsiders, but more so anyone converted was joining a corrupted system that doesn’t honor God
  • “You say ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing…” (16) – They had created their own little legal language that meant they could make promises/oaths without having to fulfill them based on what they swore by. Jesus completely condemns this (Mt. 5:37)
  • “…you have neglected the more important matters of the law…” (23) – They had become so focused on details that they have missed the heart of the law. Nowhere was tithing of spices commanded, yet they were so wrapped up in this that they completely neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They weren’t letting the main point be the main point!
  • “You clean the outside of the cup and dish…” (25) – I think there’s a double entendre here. There was real debate about how to keep plates and cups ceremonially clean: wash inside or outside first? Jesus says the inside is first then the outside will be clean. The idea that it needs to look good (outside) before it is good (inside) wasn’t what Jesus was after. When it comes to dinnerware or people’s lives, we should be focused on the cleanliness/purity of the inside, then the outside will take care of itself.
  • You are like whitewashed tombs…” (27) – I think another double entendre. Tombs were whitewashed/painted as a warning sign so people wouldn’t accidentally come in contact with them and become ceremonially unclean. Jesus tells them they are whitewashed tombs because they look good on the outside, but are full of death inside. I think also Jesus is applying the concept that their lives should serve as a “whitewashing” to keep others away.
  • “You build tombs for the prophets…” (29) – The idea that these guys would honor/remember the prophets that their ancestors had killed was in some ways honorable, but Jesus calls them “decendents of…”, whether they actually were or not. This indicates they behaved just like their ancestors, and serves ultimately as a prediction/condemnation of their rejecting him to the cross. “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (32)

 

 

 

I understand we are in a different time and place, and are operating under a different system of life today. But I think we need to take an honest look at what Jesus was condemning to make sure the same type of condemnations can’t be said about our lives today.

Jesus is Enough

This week we take a look at three events from our weekly reading: Matthew chapters 14-16.

In Matthew 15:1-20 we see the Pharisees criticize the disciples for not washing their hands before they eat. Now I know your momma taught you to always do this, but there is a cultural connotation here. The Pharisees had developed a tradition of washing their hands in large jars before eating. This ceremony included saying prayers as the water ran off of each forearm. This tradition was found nowhere in the Scriptures, and there was nothing wrong with the tradition itself.

The problem here is the Pharisees were holding up a tradition as a measure of righteousness for everyone. They would monitor the hand washing stations and require everyone to follow their tradition or else face steep religious consequences. Jesus points out that they often ignored the Scriptures in favor of their own traditions and concludes by quoting Isaiah:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” – Mt. 15:8-9.

There’s nothing wrong with traditions…just don’t treat them like the Word of God, or hold them as a measure of one’s righteousness. And certainly don’t keep them if they keep people from God.

Matthew records two events of Jesus feeding large crowds in 14:13-21 & 15:29-39. It’s important to keep in mind that these were two separate events, and the location as well as the outcomes of the miracle tell an important truth about Jesus and his mission. We’ll start with the feeding of the 5000.

If you follow the geographic indicators in Matthew, as well as the parallel stories in Mark 6 and Luke 9, we know that this feeding took place in what the Jewish people referred to as the “Land of the 12,” meaning they were faithful Jewish people like the original twelve tribes. When Jesus feeds the multitude he does it through the miracle of multiplication, taking whatever the people had, multiplying it, and using it to minister to the many. In this case, Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds 5000 men (not including the women and children he fed!) Now the miracle is amazing, but the message behind the miracle is really what’s at play here.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” – Mt. 14:20.

Numbers in Scripture are always significant, and often have imagery attached to them. As mentioned before, the number 12 represented the nation of Israel. Through the 12 basketfuls of leftovers Jesus is indicating that he and his teaching is more than enough for the Jews.

Chapter 15 records the feeding of the 4000. This event happens in the “Land of the 7” (see Deut. 7:1). This was a heavily Gentile area that the Pharisees and Sadducees taught the Jews to avoid altogether. A similar multiplication miracle takes place and 7 basketfuls are leftover. Jesus and his teachings are for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Again, even though God had been telling his people the he loves the Gentiles too for centuries (just look at Jonah), this would have been a shock for many of Jesus’ Jewish followers. The Pharisees and Sadducees had promoted such a racism against the Gentiles that Jesus has to go a step further in his explanation in chapter 16.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Mt. 16:5-12

Here’s a moral from these stories: Traditions have a tendency to divide if we let them. Even though God had told Israel for years that his ultimate goal was to save Jew and Gentile alike, the traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. Traditions also got in the way of them seeing Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus makes it clear that he and he alone is sufficient for all. Traditions are fine and can be very good and useful as long as they don’t divide the body of believers, and don’t keep others from seeing Jesus. Let’s be sure we’re pursuing Jesus and not human tradition.