Saturday, December 10, 2016

Explore the Bible: Joshua 1:1-9

Explore the Bible: Joshua 1:1-9

One of the areas of study that fascinates me is the origin and transmission of the Bible. From its writing to its preservation, from its beginnings to today, the way that we have received the Word of God in writing is a truly remarkable process. The long span of time covered by the writing of Scripture- about 1500 years- is amazing in historical context. To put it in perspective, 1500 years ago there was still a Roman empire, the prophet Mohammed had not yet been born, the AD/BC system for dating had not yet been invented, and Christianity had not yet split into its Eastern and Western branches (and the Protestant Reformation was still a millennium away!).

One of the questions that arises when examining the history of the Bible is how the books that eventually were recognized as the official canon of Scripture were treated when they were first written. We have hints that at least some were accepted as coming from God at an early date, while others took a while for the church to fully recognize. Occasionally we find passages of Scripture that provide us with clues to this process.

In Joshua 1, we have some indications of the beginning of the recognition of the writings of Moses as an authoritative book of law (instruction, in the ESV). Moses had just died, and Joshua, as his assistant, would have had access to all that he had written during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It’s even possible Joshua might have helped in the writing, as a secretary or amanuensis, but we are not told this in the Bible. Still, given that Deuteronomy is largely a long sermon by Moses, it isn’t hard to imagine that Joshua at least “took notes” as he spoke.

What we do clearly see in Joshua 1 is that the Lord instructs Joshua to take the book that Moses has written and to read and meditate on it daily. We break Moses’ writings down into five books, but as a collection they are called the Torah (Law) by Jews, and the Pentateuch (five books) by many Bible students. This book was now the guide Joshua was to follow as he took over the leadership of Israel from Moses. Within a few years of its composition, or even just a few weeks or months of the writings at the end of Deuteronomy, Joshua received the command to treat this collection as an authoritative source of God’s commands and instructions.

If this is true, then at least parts of the Bible were treated as Scripture almost immediately. This doesn’t fit with what some scholars suggest about the history of Judaism. They believe it evolved gradually over many, many years, and that when we see something that looks like an early acknowledgement of an authoritative Scripture that means the book in which we find that reference must have been written centuries later. Some go so far as to question whether Moses and Joshua really lived, or were just later legends conceived by the priests to establish what they wanted Israel and its kings to believe about the origin of the nation.

Now it is true that we do not have the original books of Moses as written by his own hand. However, some scholars believe that Moses’ original manuscript may have survived until at least 620 BC, when, during repairs under King Josiah of Judah, Hilkiah found the “book of the law” in the Temple. Moses had originally deposited a copy of the book next to the ark (Deuteronomy 31:26), and many believe this was the copy Joshua would have read, passed down for generations. While we don’t know how the book was lost, under these circumstances it would have been found over 800 years after it had been written! While this seems almost impossible, we have manuscripts today that have survived far longer and are still readable. I have seen fairly up close some of the Dead Sea scrolls fragments, which date back 2000 years, and although my language skills are rusty, I could definitely make out the letters and words on those manuscripts.

We do know that copies were made, and that the scribes who wrote these copies came to have very strict rules so that they could guarantee that they transmitted the words accurately. (In fact, some of these strictures are still applied by those who write out the Torah scrolls for Jewish synagogues today.) The Torah still guides the worship and practice of Jews today, and has a great influence of Christians as well. Given what we read in Joshua, the Torah has been seen as God’s Word and God’s Law for over 3400 years, ever since it was written by Moses and handed over to Joshua. The Bible began with the books of Moses, and has continued to hold its place of authority ever since, even as the Holy Spirit inspired more books to be written and added to Scripture.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Explore the Bible: 2 Peter 1:12-21

Explore the Bible: 2 Peter 1:11-21

The inspiration of the Bible is one of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity. While the doctrines of God and of Jesus Christ may be more important in and of themselves, since God is the source of all things and salvation comes through Jesus, without a reliable revelation of God we could never know the truth about God Himself. There is a certain amount of information about God available through what we call general revelation, the natural world and the inner conscience of the person, but that only helps us understand that there is a God and that we are not innately good. We need to know far more to be right with God, and only He can reveal to us the truth that we need.

2 Peter 1:20-21 is perhaps the clearest statement about the inspiration of Scripture in the Bible, along with 2 Timothy 3:16. The role of the Holy Spirit in “carrying along” the writers of the Bible gives us a good picture of the process. The Bible was not simply dictated by God and dutifully transcribed by the human authors (except for a few places where the authors indicate that they are writing exactly what God says), but the human authors wrote in their own words and styles while the Holy Spirit guided and protected the final product so it was exactly what He wanted written. The Bible is without error and authoritative because it comes from God, but it also is a collection of works that show the personalities and emphases of human writers over some 1500 years.

Despite being a clear statement of inspiration, the phrase “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation” has caused some disagreement among scholars. Some see it as referring to the original authors, with the implication that what they wrote was not merely their own ideas but the words the Spirit wanted written. Others see it as referring to the readers of Scripture, who cannot simply make the Bible say what they want it to say, but must be subject to what the Spirit intended the author to say.

When the context is considered, I believe that more weight should be given to the first option. Since the passage makes note of the role of both the human author and the Holy Spirit, and the previous passage deals with the reliability of the testimony of witnesses to Jesus’ glory, there is a definite idea that the authors of the Bible were not operating on their own, but that they were following the guidance of the Spirit, even though they may not have been aware of it at the time.

However, sometimes when a Biblical author uses an ambiguous word or phrase, he may have both ideas in mind. I don’t think there u\is anything wrong with seeing both of the explanations above as true, even if one is primary. The second meaning also is needed in our modern setting, in which so many people try to import into the Scriptures a meaning that the author never intended to convey (and in some cases couldn’t have meant, given his historical setting). Before we start to apply the Word of God to our lives, we have to know what it says, and to do that we need to know what the author wanted to express to his original readers. We can’t just twist the words of the Bible to say what we want them to mean and think we have the truth that God has revealed in our own ideas.

The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible boils down to one question: is the Bible the true, reliable authority over our beliefs and practices, or are we the authority over what the Bible says? If it is truly God’s revelation, we have no choice but to submit to His authority. If it is not God’s revelation, then we can ignore it at will. Without the Holy Spirit, we will not see the beauty and glory of the Word. As we submit to the guidance of the Spirit, we will all that the Lord reveals to us, and put it into practice in our lives.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 4:12-19

Persecution is a very real issue for the church of Jesus Christ today. You’ve probably seen the videos of Christians being executed for their faith, or read the stories about the way Christians in some countries are being exiled from their homes and all they have. In places like that, standing for Jesus literally requires a believer to lay down his or her life for Him. As their brothers and sisters, we need to stand up for the persecuted church and the martyrs who are giving their lives for His sake.

In our culture, we face opposition, but at this point in time not at the same level. That doesn’t mean that Christians in Western society don’t face serious consequences for standing up for Christ. Some have faced lawsuits, some have lost businesses, others have been fired (or not hired) because of their beliefs. Still, most of our opposition at present comes in the form of attempts to denigrate our faith, to paint us as bigots of various stripes, or to try to shame us socially. These are uncomfortable, but certainly not risks that warrant abandoning our Lord and our faith.

Sometimes when we face opposition, we start to see everything as persecution. If anyone criticizes us, or finds our behavior or words objectionable, we think of ourselves as martyrs suffering for our Savior. When we do face opposition for the sake of Jesus, we should stand strong, but not overstate what is happening to us. But in some cases, Christians aren’t suffering because they are standing for the cause of Christ, but because they engage in genuinely objectionable behavior.

I knew a young man once who, as a new Christian, believed he was being persecuted for his faith. When I asked him about his “persecution,” he told me he was being reprimanded for sharing his faith and reading his Bible. As I probed a little deeper, I found that he was witnessing to his co-workers while he was supposed to be doing his job, and that he read his Bible not on break times, but while he was on the clock. I had to gently explain that what his company objected to wasn’t his faith, but his theft of time from the company.

Peter reminds us in this passage that when we are persecuted because we have done evil, we should not expect the Lord to reward us. We must stand up for Christ, but we must also be people of integrity. Perhaps that will bring us into conflict with what we are ordered to do on the job, and we may have to take a stand and face the consequences. Generally, however, we can be those who do our jobs, or live in our communities, with an honesty, integrity, and compassion that those who do not know Jesus can’t match.

When we do face opposition for the name of Jesus, Peter tells us we are blessed. We may not feel blessed as we stand up to the world, and suffer the consequences, but we must remember that this world is not our home. As followers of Christ, we measure what we have in light of eternity, and when our priority is to honor and serve Jesus we can stand, whatever may be thrown at us. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 4:1-11

The lifestyle of a committed Christian should look much different from the lifestyle of someone who is still living according to their own standards. Sadly, this isn’t the case in our society anymore. Polls about attitudes and practices consistently show that professing Christians, even evangelicals, live in a way that is barely distinguishable from the world around them. There is an attraction that sin holds that can tempt any of us to stray from God’s standards. The lure is the same as it was in the Garden of Eden: to be like God, determining for ourselves what we will do.

Peter reminds his readers that their lives have changed in this passage. The time that they lived as pagans in the past is more than enough time to have indulged in sin. This isn’t a comment on the quantity of sin that is expected of the unbeliever; instead, it is a comment that any time spent in sin is more than enough time. In light of the change brought by Jesus, sin is to be a past practice. While we know that in this life we never achieve perfection, we should be more and more drawn to following Jesus and to turning away from the sins that we practiced in our past.

The list of sins in this passage is typical of the lists we see in other New Testament passages, and is not meant to be a comprehensive list of sins but a list of sins that typically reflected pagan practices. Overindulgence in food, wine, and sex were rampant throughout the Roman world, and people generally expected their friends and neighbors to participate in wild parties. When Christians did not, it surprised those around them, and maybe even made them a little suspicious of what they were up to. It certainly would lead to pressure being put on the Christians to conform to the world around them.

Now read that last paragraph again, except change “pagan practices” to “American culture.” I joked with my group studying this passage that verse 3 sounds just like college life! In many ways, our culture is reverting to the ethics and morality of the pagan cultures that thrived around the early church. We’re told that humanity is essentially good and getting better, but when we look at what people actually do we see this isn’t so.

So what are we as Christians to do in light of the “paganization” of our culture? We need to do what Peter encourages the readers in his day to do: to live out our faith consistently in the eyes of the world. It won’t be easy, and we should expect opposition when we challenge the world’s value system, but we need to show Jesus Christ to a desperately sinful world. This is what the early Christians did, and it was their lives, even more than their words, that caught the attention of their unbelieving neighbors. We can’t afford any longer to have the church look like the world.

Both our lives and our words should speak of Jesus every day. The time for sin is past, and we need to commit ourselves to living more for our Lord every day. We will stumble, but as we live, serve, and witness together, we will help each other grow to be like our Savior, and we will bring a message of truth, love, and hope to those around us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 3:13-22

One of the most controversial passages in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:19-20. One commentary on 1 Peter spends 43 of its 248 pages just one these two verses! Throughout the history of both Jewish and Christian exegesis, there have been many different interpretations of this passage suggested. Here I can only touch on a few of these, and share my view on the subject.

In his commentary on 1 Peter (the one mentioned above), Wayne Grudem lays out five general approaches to the interpretation of this passage. While there are some other variations, these cover many of the alternatives proposed by commentators. These are:

1) Christ preached in spirit through Noah to those who would reject that preaching, thus ending up “in prison” due to their unbelief.

2) Christ preached after His death but before His resurrection to those people who were imprisoned in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.

3) Christ preached after His death but before His resurrection to those people who were imprisoned in hell, showing them that their condemnation was final.

4) Christ preached after His death to those who repented before they died in Flood, releasing them from Purgatory and bringing them into heaven.

5) Christ preached after His death to the fallen angels in hell, proclaiming His triumph over them and His ultimate victory. (Some commentators link this to a belief that in Genesis 6 the “sons of God” are fallen angels who had relations with human women, and that this pronouncement of judgment was particularly pointed at them.)

Option 2 is clearly out of line with the teaching of the rest of the Bible concerning the finality of death on our decision about Jesus. Option 4 is only viable to someone who believes in Purgatory, which I do not believe is a Biblical teaching. Option 3 doesn’t really connect with the time of Noah, unless it is limited to just those unbelievers, and that seems a rather limited application.

Option 5 is favored by many commentators, both Jewish and Christian (including the author of the Explore the Bible study guide). They argue that the use of the word “spirit” strongly suggests angels/demons rather than people. They also point to some Jewish literature as background to this passage, particularly 1 Enoch. According to this view, Peter is using material familiar to his readers to make his point, and they would have readily understood this as a reference to 1 Enoch and to fallen angels.

While there is much to commend this view, I think when we place the passage in its literary context option 1 is a preferable view. There are certainly issues with this interpretation, as there are with any of those mentioned, but I think this best fits the context, and has support from scholars both ancient and modern. It also does not require Peter’s audience to have a familiarity with literature like 1 Enoch, which may be more consistent with the historical and cultural situation of those readers.

Going back to verse 13, Peter is discussing not only the way a believer should live, but also the readiness of the Christian to proclaim his faith in Jesus. He notes that when we stand for Christ, we may encounter opposition, but that we should live and speak in such a way that those who slander us and reject our message will be put to shame. He then summarizes the gospel, then moves into our problem passage.

Using option 1 as our interpretation, this then becomes an illustration from the Old Testament of someone who proclaimed the message of the Lord faithfully, but whose preaching was rejected for 100 years. In the end, only the tiny number of faithful were saved, while the majority who rejected Noah’s preaching died in the Flood. It was Jesus who preached through Noah, with a message that foreshadowed His own redemption.

Whichever interpretation is correct, we must not allow the controversy to become our focal point. Instead, we should focus on the challenge of being faithful witnesses to the Gospel in a society that will revile us for standing for Jesus. As those who have an eternal hope in Him, we need to be ready to give our reason for our hope, and to proclaim the salvation given to us through Jesus whenever we have the chance.

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 3:1-12

If Peter’s teaching on our relationship to authorities makes some Christians uncomfortable, his teaching on the relationship between husbands and wives makes some positively squirm. In our society, any thought of a woman being submissive in any way to her husband is viewed as a throwback to a time when women were considered property and husbands could do whatever they wanted to them. Many is Western culture believe that they have transcended the ethics of the Bible with a more enlightened, egalitarian view of marriage.

I find it interesting that while women are told to voluntarily submit themselves (as the Greek verb tense indicates), husbands are told to honor their wives. A submissive wife might be found in the pagan culture, but an honored wife would be hard to find. Peter does not encourage here merely verbal praise; a husband is to actively give his wife respect and honor. This went against everything that society in the first century believed.

Sadly, it also goes against what many in our 21st century society believe. Marriage is looked at as a temporary contract by many. A man and woman may marry, but each can go on living their own life and seeking their own interests. A modern wife would never consider voluntarily submitting to her husband’s authority, and a modern husband would not view his wife as a person deserving of honor. Peter’s words not only shook his first readers, but they shake us today.

In many respects, a wife’s submission depends on her husband’s honor. Peter did not intend for women to subject themselves to abuse or mistreatment, or to engage in sinful activities because their husbands told them to. In the case of a woman with an unbelieving husband, she was to live a life that demonstrated what Jesus had done for her. A wife with a believing husband, one who honored her as he should, would have no impediment to following his leadership.

The Biblical standards for our relationships, including our family relationships, often run counter to our culture’s standards. We would be much more comfortable obeying the Lord if we could make His will match the will of our world. We can’t do this, however. As difficult as it may be to live by God’s standards, we are called to do this to show the world just what the power of Jesus can do in our lives and in our relationships with others.

We may have to stand for something that is unpopular. We may be called names and insulted for our beliefs. Even other Christians may urge us to reconsider, and find a way to live like the rest of the world. In this matter, as in any others where the Biblical teaching opposes our cultural norms, we must choose to follow God rather than man. Yet in doing so, we can become a powerful witness for the Lord and the order He ordained as we live out His will and His Word before the eyes of a watching world.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 2:12-25

Peter has some timely advice for those of us who are going through the pain of another interminable presidential campaign in America. It seems no matter which candidate or party someone supports, they claim that the country will be permanently damaged by their opponent, while their candidate is the only hope for any kind of a decent future. This really isn’t something new; it’s just accentuated by the particular qualities (or lack thereof) of the major party candidates.

It wouldn’t matter if both candidates were sterling examples of morality, ethics, and professionalism, however. No human being is capable of meeting all the expectations our modern society places on the President. In many ways, a large number of Americans, including evangelical Christians, have set up our government as a god. The President is viewed as a Messiah, and we place our hope and trust in a person or a party to protect us and uphold what is right. We may not be burning incense on the steps of the White House, but we do look for answers in human institutions.

Peter reminds us of the role of those institutions. He wrote this letter during the reign of Nero, so he wasn’t looking to a stellar example of a just and fair ruler when he told Christians to be subject to the Emperor. I doubt Peter expected Nero to be a champion of Christian virtues or someone who looked to Jesus for guidance. What he did understand is that Nero sat on the throne by the will of God. Not every ruler gains power because of their outstanding virtue in the eyes of the Lord, but all serve a purpose in the unfolding of human history.

No matter who wins an election, we as believers are to be subject to them, as far as we are able. But note that Peter places “honor the Emperor” after “fear God.” The demands of any human institution, including government, are themselves subject to the commands of God. Peter knew this, and would later experience it for himself when he was martyred under the Emperor he is here telling Christians to follow. We must follow the Lord first, before any human institution.

In our country, we have ways to address governmental demands that fly in the face of godly principles. We can vote for new leaders, petition for changes, go to court, and peacefully protest. If we must obey God rather than man, we may also have to face the reality of persecution and punishment for refusing to obey the government. Christians are called to be good citizens of their earthly kingdoms, but to be good citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ above all.

So whoever wins the election this November, don’t expect a new messiah, or an earthly kingdom that is the kingdom of God. Rather, prepare to be a good citizen, to pray for your President and other officials, but to fear God first, then honor the rulers. And remember, no matter who is the President, Jesus is still the King.