Often times we open up the New Testament and read one of the letters thinking that Paul (or Peter, etc) wanted to write a theological pamphlet and send it to whoever would read. Maybe that day Paul was interested in atonement or communion or some other doctrine. So he got to writing his essay, put it in an envelope, and headed to his nearest post office.
While the authors certainly want to be clear on these deeply theological issues, what prompted the letters was very different.
Jesus Christ came to live among a fallen people. He revealed himself to be the Son of God who was ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus performed miracles and taught about new ways of living. He came fulfilling the law and the prophets. Then he went to the cross. Jesus died and then was raised on the third day and continued to open up his disciples minds to understand the Scriptures and how they relate to him. After forty days Jesus ascended to Heaven and gifted his people with the Holy Spirit.
Those early believers, if they truly believed this, must have had questions. It was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles who wondered what practices of the Old Testament should continue? In what ways should new believers be brought into the community? How did Jesus fulfill the law–did he end it or make it more demanding? What does God want me to do? What if we aren’t good enough and sin? How do I treat others who sin against me? What does the future hold? Is Jesus coming back and if so, when? If Jesus has defeated sin and death why are people still dying? If Jesus has authority over all powers why do we still suffer? How do we relate to those who are making us suffer? What is our purpose?
When you start to understand the context of the early church the letters that were written to them become more energized. The letters weren’t textbooks. They were compassionately written messages to churches needing help and guidance. They were life-giving.
As you read them I hope you see how vital they were and how vital they still can be for the church, a church always in need of being reformed according to our Scripture.
Last night I was talking with my wife about this week’s readings from Matthew. There are some truly challenging teachings that Jesus has in Matthew 5 and in the following chapters. One line is particularly difficult, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I’ll speak for myself here and say that I don’t measure up.
So what do we make of such a a line? In the conversation I had, my wife looked at it a bit differently and was thinking about how else Jesus could’ve said that. What else was Jesus going to say? What else would Jesus desire for us?
That absolutely should be our aim. Thankfully, when we don’t measure up we have one who does. Jesus Christ fulfilled all the laws demands perfectly for us. His righteousness is all that we could ever need. Whenever we miss the mark we can find comfort knowing that when the Father looks at us we are found in his Son, Jesus Christ.
This week we are reading passages that are written in a time when Israel has now come to possess the land that God has promised to them. God was faithful to Joshua and led the people to the land that was flowing with milk and honey. He was fulfilling the promise he had made to Abraham. But the people fail to be a blessing to others and fail to live in the way they were called to. In Amos we read how Israel is oppressing the poor and weak, treating them much like they were treated when they were slaves in Egypt. In Jonah we see the lengths Jonah would go in order not to go to his enemy, instead preferring Nineveh’s destruction.
Then when we look in the New Testament in Matthew 23, Jesus is criticizing the leaders of the Jews who similarly are not living as a blessing to those around.
This last Sunday I preached on Jonah, looking closely at his reluctance to even be a possible blessing to his enemy. The good news is that we have one who willingly came to his own enemies and sacrificed himself for us.
If you’re interested in reading the sermon, you can find it here.
If you’re a pharaoh that means you’ve got a great deal of power and not that many checks on said power. If you tell someone to do something, they should do it.
In chapter one of Exodus the pharaoh has a message for the midwives who are there at the deliveries for the Hebrew women. He’s not happy that the people of Israel were increasing in number and he feared them. So his idea is to control their population.
“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
This is not a suggestion. It is an order. But what do the midwives do? While they almost certainly feared the pharaoh, they valued life and they feared God more. They did not do as they were commanded, instead allowing the male children to live. They deceive pharaoh to cover up their actions and it says in verse twenty that “God dealt well with the midwives.”
These women knew who was truly king in the land and they protected life even in the face of a pharaoh who could have ordered their execution.
When God makes promises the timing is not always what we’d want. Abraham is promised that he will have descendants whose number will be like the stars in the sky. But then Abraham waits. He waits for a long time. And still he has no children. The promise of God was not for the next day–it was years later. It was to be fulfilled in old age, when he thought it was impossible. In the meantime Abraham took matters into his own hands and deviates from the will of God.
It seems that the trust is not always the hardest part. It is the trust carried out over time. It is the patience. Can we trust God for more than a moment? Can we trust when something promised is on the horizon or out of sight? Faith requires that we place our trust in God and then have the patience to endure.
What can help is knowing that God alone is the one who can really keep his promise. Only he is in complete control of all circumstances. So when he makes us a promise, he is always faithful. He is faithful to Abraham, and now we the descendants of Abraham can trust that he will be faithful to us.
Patience is hard, so we all probably need to pray for patience. (Although I hear that when we pray for patience, God doesn’t just make it appear. What does he do? He gives us practice. So be warned!)
I can’t help but link to this video. When I think of patience I think of the Tom Petty song, The Waiting, from which I took the title of this post. And when I think of that song, I think of this scene from The Simpsons. It’s not the best clip and leaves off the final punchline at the end–but it still gives me a chuckle.
Last week we saw how Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the garden. But this was not the end of hope. Humans were not then left to fend for themselves never to enjoy fellowship with God again. We saw in Ephesians 1 that God has always had a plan and eating the fruit of the tree did not thwart God.
As we continue in Genesis we see the revealing of God’s plan as he chooses Abram (later Abraham) in chapter 12 and makes promises to him. It is not a promise for Abram alone, but the great blessings that God will provide will be blessings for the whole world through Abram’s line.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Too often the Bible is read simply as a reference book. You pick it up, look up a topic in the concordance in the back of the book (if your version has one), and then go off and read on that subject. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the Old Testament because of its foreign places, unknown people, and strange religious practices and go straight for the New Testament. I’m not saying you need to read the Bible as if it were a novel, start to finish. This 10 week plan doesn’t even do that. But we miss out on the plan of God, a plan based in God’s promise, if we only read piecemeal. There is a continuing story that develops and all the promises of God to Abram will carry on throughout the marvelous book that is the Bible.
I have had a lot fun scratching my visual arts itch in putting together our plans for Year in the Bible. I’ve used several logos in the past and I leaned heavily on trees early on, inspired by Psalm 1. When we delight in God’s Word it is as though we are a tree firmly planted by streams of water.
But I continued to experiment and went with a more abstract visual that mixed the letter ‘y’ (from year in Year in the Bible) with an opened book. At least that is what I hoped it had looked like.
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to spend anytime changing things up, but I had an idea while driving one day about some of the animals we see throughout the Bible. I thought about including several, but I failed in those attempts. I settled on the image of a lion, often associated with Christ. I think it will work well because as we walk through the Bible we will see Christ on the move, as well. Under the lion is a sword, which represents the Word of God in all its power. As it says in Hebrews, which is part of this first week’s readings:
…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
My hope in this new reading plan is to see the plans of God that find their fulfillment in Christ all throughout the Bible. And as we read, doing so in humility and prayer, I believe God will use his Word to pierce our hearts. He can speak to us in a way that shakes us to our very soul. Such a reverberation that penetrates us and awakens us to the ongoing work of Jesus Christ will surely transform individuals, families, communities, and churches.
So if we believe that, do we dare pick up and read the Bible? Do we make ourselves vulnerable to that piercing work of God? Are we open to change? Or do we leave our Bibles on the shelf, afraid to see what God will show us?
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
It may be hard for some to imagine a scene in church where more than two or three are talking at once. Truly, it may be hard to imagine more than one person. Many denominations today are in no real need of hearing an instruction about making sure people are silent in worship, if anything it would be the opposite. But that is the scene in Corinth.
Take time as you read this to try to imagine what this would look like. What would worship be like if everyone had something to share, whether it be a lesson, prophecy, tongues, hymns, and there was no order in the way they shared. How would that sound? How would that look? Perhaps you can wonder, if you were one who was interrupted or shouted over, how would it feel?
If there was such a commotion, what would be the point? If you couldn’t understand someone why listen? I for one am not a fan of loud restaurants. I’m not the best at projecting and it is near impossible for me to have a good conversation. Because of that I’m drawn to more low-key environments. Paul likewise wants to turn down the noise to make room for encouraging words and provide peace for the people of God.