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.
This last Sunday I preached on the topic of suffering, seeking to bring our attention to this simple point: We have a God who truly knows suffering himself.
This week we read the first half of Matthew and I’d ask that you pay close attention to the experiences of Jesus. What does he go through? What troubles does he face? What luxuries does he have? How is he tempted? What is he going through in order to accomplish his great work?
Jesus is the one who walked in our footsteps. Truly he walked the path that we should have walked–the path we deserved, the path up to the cross. Jesus came to earth and experienced all that we do and he did so in order to take our place. We now can know that our God is compassionate and he is not unaffected by suffering. God knows suffering in ways we can never understand and he did it all so we would not be left alone. Into this dark world Jesus brought us light and gives us hope.
We are now in week six and that means we’ve just crossed the halfway point in our reading plan.
We’ve read about the promises God has made to Abraham and how he has remained faithful to a people who are often faithless. God brought them out of slavery to a land that he had prepared for them. But they turn from him again and again. He still blesses them and while Israel has no problem enjoying the promised land, they fail to be a blessing to others.
We’ve also seen how God has has been their king leading through the judges that he has brought up in Israel in times of need, but Israel rejects God and wants an earthly king. They want to be like the other nations. But no leader can compare with God. In fact, the leaders that rise up often do more harm than good. Those who are entrusted to watch over Israel have oppressed the people.
This week we will look closely at those failure of leadership in Israel and see what God plans to do to about it.
My goal is that in these ten weeks we begin to see more clearly the big picture of the Bible, and that can’t happen if we read each week and forget about what came before. So take some time, especially since this week is a bit shorter than last, and ask yourself some good questions and do some review:
How would you describe creation?
What did Adam and Eve do?
What was God’s response?
Did God abandon them?
What plans does God have now?
To whom did God make his promise?
What was the promise?
Where did the promise take the people?
How did God begin to move his people into a foreign land?
How has God been at work in his people and accomplishing his plan?
This week we’ll pick up in Egypt and read what I believe will be both familiar and unfamiliar passages about Moses, the Exodus, and God’s ongoing interactions with his people.
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?
Since we finished reading 1 Corinthians just last week, what do we do now? The reading plan was pretty clear that we finished, but so you know, you are allowed to return to 1 Corinthians. You can reread it to your heart’s content.
If you want some methods of review, here are a few.
You could read it. Slowly. Again. Not a complicated method. Maybe you could try a different version this time around.
You could use the Bible studies to go in-depth. Besides that link to the website, you can also download them all as one PDF here.
Using the Bible visualizations you can review the memory verses. We did this in our final meetings of the Bible study and tried to remember what the context of those verses were. It’s great to know these verses, but it is even better to remember why Paul was talking about Christ as our Passover lamb or why he talks about eating to the glory of God. Again, if you want to download them, here is a big (20 mb) PDF you can use.
Something else we did to review at our study was like a puzzle. I stripped 1 Corinthians of all its verses and chapter headings and then mixed up all the chapters. The goal was to be able to put the letter back in order. You can use this to try it out for yourself. I’d recommend stapling the few chapters that are two pages together so that you have sixteen units to put in order.
This reading plan through 1 Corinthians has been intentionally slow and many weeks have been quite short. The aim wasn’t to allow for the study and reflection to be quick and easy, rather to give time to review and reread, and gain great depth from this wonderful letter of Paul.
As we near the end of Paul’s letter I’d highly encourage you to start over. Go back to chapter one and begin again. Read it a couple times even. This coming Sunday starts the final week of readings and the more we can see the whole of 1 Corinthians and then combine that with the close focus we’ve put on each week’s assignment, the better understanding we’ll walk away with when we reach Paul’s final words. Going back through it you may find that the text is much easier to understand. You may see recurring themes that hadn’t stood out on your first read through. I’m not saying you’ll necessarily be an expert by now, but the more you study and pray through this book, the more God is going to use it.
Five months can seem like a flash, but what we read back in June may seem far off. Refamiliarize yourself with the whole and be reminded that while there are sixteen chapters, 1 Corinthians is still just one letter.
If you’ve already read through 1 Corinthians 13, well done. If you haven’t, that’s fine and maybe you’d want to do a little exercise. This is a chapter on love. It’s a very famous chapter on love. Paul helps us to better understand what it is. But there are many other people in the world today that would want to do that job for us. Things like music, movies, and even greeting cards compete with one another to tell us what love is.
With all those definitions floating around it’d be good to know what you think. So, before you read and study this week’s passage, try sitting down and reflecting on how you’d define love. What is it? What’s love look like?
Then after you do that, see how well your understanding lines up with what we see in 1 Corinthians.