Tag Archives: Christianity

Locusts and Honey, Spirit and Fire

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’

There aren’t that many things that actually show up in each of the four Gospels.  Most of what’s in Mark makes it into Matthew, some of it finds its way into Luke.  There’s a smaller amount of material that appears in just Matthew and Luke.  And almost nothing in any of these three finds its way into John.  One of the notable exceptions is the curious record of a riverside preacher – John.  For some reason, each of these Gospel writers make it clear that one cannot properly understand Jesus apart from John the Baptist.  Even Jesus’ birth only manages to make its way into two of the Gospels.  So what is it about this revival preacher that’s so important?

In many of the churches I grew up in and have been a part of in my adult years, John has been a bit of a cult-hero in certain circles.  And while he is indeed an admirable character, those most closely identifying with him are usually men, typically younger or middle-aged, who admire the fact that John ‘speaks his mind,’ and ‘calls authority to the carpet’ (be it religious or even Rome’s puppet king – I’ll stop there with the characterization lest I cross the line).  A ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher if ever there was – at least in part.  It’s not my intent to necessarily debunk any John the Baptist myths or misconceptions, but to consider why his inclusion is so central to the introductions of all four Gospels.  We’ll only be considering John’s inclusion in Matthew, and while the other three may highlight a few different aspects, the overall thrust of will be essentially consistent with the others. Continue reading Locusts and Honey, Spirit and Fire

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Mere Shepherds? – Advent Reflections from Luke

Why bother?  I mean really – no one liked shepherds.  They’re dirty, rough, people – largely rejected by society and rather unrefined.  Yet, God decides to send a personal birth announcement to these men rather than the “movers and shakers” in Jerusalem (well, apart from the signs surrounding the temple priest Zacharias, Elizabeth and the birth of their son John).  These are the ones we would expect to be overlooked in the “strategic planning.”  So, aside from the obvious “God cares about everyone” (something we  dare not overlook), can we learn anything from the fact that God inspires Luke to include these societally irrelevant figures? Despite the fact that these were simple, uneducated men, despite the fact that they lacked refinement, these men are an example of how we ought to respond to the Word/proclamation of God.  These were hard-working men.  They worked long hours.  They took shifts on the late night watch.  But rather than rolling over and saying “A baby? That’s nice.  Catch me in the morning” these men ACT on what they heard.  Lets look at what they did in response to their visitation. Continue reading Mere Shepherds? – Advent Reflections from Luke

Does God Really Hate… Romans 1:18-32

Few passages in Romans have gotten more press in recent years than 1:18-32.  ‘Hate-mongering’ fundamentalists use it to prove God’s hatred of all varieties of sinners, especially homosexuals.  Those of more ‘enlightened’ persuasions use it to illustrate just how out of touch Paul, the Bible, Christianity is with today’s world – with the goal of either illustrating why we need to ‘re-imagine’ the passage or simply throw it (the passage or Bible) out entirely.  Most ‘polite’ Christians probably simply wish the passage wasn’t there.  But, for better or for worse, it is.  And, while the outside world is free to do whatever it wants with it, anyone professing to be a somewhat devout Christian has to find a way to deal with it.  And so, here we are…

In tackling this passage, and the content contained therein, I want to do a few things.  First, I want to consider the passage within the context of the larger argument of which it is part so that we can determine what is actually being said within the context of Romans.  As I do this, I want to take a little time to consider the cultural/theological backdrop assumed in the passage.  Then, I’ll attempt to consider the implications for our situation in the here and now.  Let me state up front, this will not be a comprehensive look at the topic.  Let me also state that over the years I have had regular interaction with a good number of self-identified homosexuals.  My contact with the individuals in mind has been very positive.  We’ve partaken in very lively and respectful conversations on a myriad of topics.  And in terms of personal character, life ambitions, productivity, and personal piety these particular homosexual individuals are just like anyone else I’ve known – no better, no worse.  Let me also state, this is a serious matter that cannot be addressed in a brief statement.  It deserves careful and serious thought.  So, be warned, this is a very long article and will need to be read carefully and fully to pull the pieces together in a meaningful way. Continue reading Does God Really Hate… Romans 1:18-32

How is it that God is faithful? – Romans 1-4

God’s faithfulness to WHICH covenant?

When I was young, I was taught the importance of delayed gratification – “don’t spend all your money on snacks, save it up until you find something you really want.”  Of course, whenever I asked how I’d know when it was time to spend, the answer was always the same, “you’ll just know.”  Its an important lesson that applies to many areas of life – education, skill development, money, love …. and Bible reading – especially Romans.  Often, the thing we need to do is suspend coming to personal conclusions on the text until later (at times much later) while the author (in this case Paul) further develops his argument and brings us to his conclusion.  Usually, in our present day “bottom line first” culture, I want to know up front what Paul is getting at – only Paul stubbornly insists on slowly building the argument up over several pages.  I ask,  “What does this mean?”  Then, I remind myself to be patient, keep reading (slowly if needed) and I’ll get there.  Its only after we’re at a place to take in the argument as a whole that we can say with certainty what Paul was getting at back there.  So, lets take a moment and try to see (very briefly) how Paul’s first major argument in the book is pieced together….

So, here’s Romans.  After a brief introduction (which also serves to hint at later content), Paul’s first argument begins at 1:16 and runs through roughly 5:11.  Chapter 5 continues as a transition into his second argument which then runs through chapter 8.  Chapters 9-11, form the third main section.  While Chapters 12-(most of) 15 form Paul’s 4th and final section.  The balance of 15 and 16 conclude the letter.  One may quibble about precisely where in chapter 5 the transition is made from section 1 to section 2, etc, but these sections are generally agreed upon as forming the basic structure of the book.  Each section arrives at a main point that gives context for the many powerful passages and sub-arguments that precede it and the necessary ‘working out’ that generally follows (the main point is a lens or grid through which to properly view the rest of the material).  In building each section, Paul asks the reader/hearer to hold the threads of several ideas up at once before eventually weaving them together to arrive at his conclusion to the matter.  Its important not to press the arguments of the individual threads too far, as often they can be used to argue precisely counter to the point Paul is trying to make.  But, Paul is careful to keep us from doing that – so long as we keep reading to see where he wants us to go before we jump to our own conclusion.  Its like my junior high teachers would say, “be sure to read the whole passage before answering the question.” Continue reading How is it that God is faithful? – Romans 1-4

How to Read – an overview of the argument: Romans 1-4 – part 1

As mentioned in previous posts, having an appreciation for history is an important factor in understanding the Bible.  However, the biggest stumbling block for most English speakers/readers is not our knowledge of history, but our inability to read well.  Most writing today takes the form of the business proposal, personal self help, or technical manual.  These styles have their place, although none of them are particularly good at argument development, story telling, truth telling or simply engaging the reader/hearer.  None of these styles help us to follow argument development over the course of even several sentences, let alone several paragraphs or pages.  Our culture’s most enduring English translation (the King James Version), while a very fine translation for its time (and still quite useful), complicates things for today’s readers due to its presentation style.  In the King James, every verse is its own paragraph.  Doesn’t matter if the literary style in view is epic story, poetry, proverbial couplet, history, gospel, epistle, etc – each verse stands alone.  Now one may argue that ancient Greek, Aramaic & Hebrew had no paragraph markings – and that’s fair enough (but there were no chapter or verse markings, either).  However to modern English readers, a new paragraph indicates a new thought or idea.  Now when every verse is its own paragraph the tendency is to consider each verse on its own rather than connecting the phrase/sentence to the context surrounding it.  As a result, phrases (let alone ‘paragraphs’) that form the premise of an argument are held up as ‘ends’ in themselves when Paul is simply using them as steps to a later conclusion.  This doesn’t make the steps ‘less true’ or simply ‘throw-away’ lines, but it does change the degree of emphasis that we place on that portion of the passage – the light in which we view it.

Many in my church tradition used to get very nervous when this kind of reading is suggested for Scripture (and some still do).  Its at times viewed as a challenge to the (verbal plenary) Inspiration of Scripture – as if a truly contextual reading of a passage somehow diminishes the value of the particular words in question.  Let me say plainly, a view of Inspiration that reduces the transmission of the Scriptures to mere dictation or ‘Spirit possession’ is not, nor ever has been, a Christian understanding of inspiration – it mirrors closely what some schools of Islam teach, but never what orthodox Christianity has taught – no matter what some well meaning church members (or leaders) may have suggested.  If a portion of Scripture bears a resemblance to a particular literary style of a particular time, and, if I believe that God is interested in people understanding what is being said, then I must believe that, somehow, God has inspired the use of the style/genre in view as well as the words contained therein – with the assumption that all the normal (human) rules employed for understanding that style are to be used (how else would anyone be able to understand what is written).

Why do I spill so much virtual ink on all this?  Because one cannot simply pull a phrase/passage out of Romans (or any other Biblical text) and suggest flatly that this is God’s mind on a subject without carefully considering how the bit plays in with the whole.  You can do that to some degree with a simple instruction manual.  You can do that with portions of a business proposal (assuming one pulls from the right portion of the document).  However, you can’t do that easily with most of the kinds of writings presented in the Bible – not even Romans (despite its famous ‘road’ and supposed denunciation or support of certain behaviors and lifestyles).  Its because of this sort of reading that many Christians find themselves trying to defend arguments that the writers of their books never intended to make (why waste energy defending, in the name of Christ, what the Bible doesn’t really present).  Countless Christians (and genuine seekers) have had their spirits crushed by this kind of Biblical abuse.  This sort of thing has led to countless, unnecessary church splits – the kind of splits that irreparably damage the church’s standing in the world (which is a REALLY big deal).

So, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, we’ll look more closely at the leading argument of Romans next time.  In the meantime, when you read the Book keep in mind that while indeed the parts are vitally necessary in order to see the whole, it is just as true that the parts cannot be understood apart from the whole.  Without context, there is no meaning.

– pastor Jim Kushner

Romans 1 (:1-15) opening reflections

St. Paul

As with the opening lines of most of the epistles, I often find myself passing over them quickly, pressing to get on to the ‘real stuff.’  And, as with the other epistles, when I go back to reread, I find I’ve skipped over a number of powerful statements that preview points that will be addressed in detail later.  Again, it’s not really my intent to do a blow-by-blow of the book (or even this passage), but I’ll take a few moments to reflect on a few observations …

In vss 8-15, Paul takes a fair amount of space to share how much he has longed to visit with them.  Paul did not have a hand in starting the church in Rome and we know from other correspondence that Paul has a real problem with others attempting to capitalize on his labors (pressing their personal agendas, which were often irrelevant, if not contrary to the Gospel).  However, he had no problems with others, such as Apollos (an outsider to Paul’s work initially) coming to expand upon what Paul had started (after all, Apollos, though a skilled orator, humbly submitted to Paul’s co-workers – Priscilla & Aquila).  It seems that Paul is quite aware of the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest, a double standard with respect to what he has stated elsewhere when he wants “to impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” – a potentially loaded statement – quickly clarified with “that you and I may be mutually encouraged…”  While Paul goes on in the letter to make some very strong statements to the church, he seems (to me) to be walking a bit of a tight rope at times so as not to come across as the presumptuous outsider with merely an agenda of his own that they can serve.  It seems even the great Paul understands the importance of humility as he approaches a ministry opportunity.

Continue reading Romans 1 (:1-15) opening reflections

Romans – background to consider – part 2

a young emperor Nero

While we don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle with respect to Paul and the Christian community in Rome, we can piece together a plausible picture from the the information we do have that provides us with a useful prism through which to view Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I understand that what I’m presenting isn’t the only possible scenario, but I think it makes good sense of the data from not only the Biblical canon, but also what we’ve been given through archaeology, cultural anthropology, and various historical disciplines with respect to first century CE Rome, Pharisaical Judaism, and the church.  Space and time will prevent me from addressing this matter in any thorough sense, however, for a more complete discussion of the matter there are a number of good materials available, including:

N.T. Wright – The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press (or any number of his books on Paul, specifically)
David deSilva – Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, IVP
Gordon Fee’s Semester Lectures on the Book of Romans available online at RegentAudio.com

For a more accessible treatment of the material, consider:

Gordon Fee – How to Read the Bible Book by Book
N.T. Wright’s For Everyone series on the New Testament – see Paul for Everyone – Romans Part 1 & 2

At the risk of painting with too broad a brush here’s the basic stuff to keep in view while reading Romans…

The 1st Century CE Mediterranean world, while ruled by Rome, is a Hellenistic world with local cultural undertones.  The region’s common language is Greek (Latin is still only the language of the elites in Rome for another couple centuries) and everything from Greek gymnasiums, Greek temples, and a variety of other Greek structures stand side by side with local landmarks in every major city of the region.   Meanwhile, Rome now stands as the political and military center of the region (the economic power was still the east).  Rome itself survives on the basis of the tribute it receives from across the region. Continue reading Romans – background to consider – part 2