Reading through the Bible

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Turning the World Upside Down

“I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” Paul says to the church in Ephesians (Acts 20:27).  This shows there was a temptation for early Christians to do just that.   Why?  It is because, as Paul says, “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (20:23).

Throughout Acts, it is remarkable how afflictions come against the church, yet judges keep finding the Christians innocent, yet the church continues to grow, yet the teachers of the church do not shrink from proclaiming Jesus.

In Acts 17:7, we hear opponents of Jesus say, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”  Truly, the Gospel of Luke had promised just this, the turning of the world upside down.  Mary sang, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  Jesus taught, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).  To His disciples, Jesus insisted, “He who is the least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:46-48).

The view of the world Jesus teaches is upside down from the view of the world that is more natural to us.  When Christianity first burst onto the scene, this was obvious.  They could even claim that the Way was “contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13).  Derision of Christianity led to a riot in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-9) and in Ephesus (Acts 19:28-41).

When the difference between the Way and the world is more distinct, persecution follows.  But attack does not only come from outside.  Paul prophesied (as did Jesus in Matthew 24:23-28 and Peter in 2 Peter 2 and John in 1 John 2), “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).

Because the Way appears upside down, people within the faith try to compromise the faith to make it less offensive to the world.  This is a temptation we all face.  Each of us is called not to shrink from the whole counsel of God.

But it’s also because the Way is upside down that sinners are forgiven and grace lifts up the weak.  The reality of the world being turned upside down by the ministry of Christ Jesus is shown in a humble church beginning with just a handful of people in Palestine, and changing the whole world.  That same ministry continues among us.  May God preserve us in His Word, indeed, the entire counsel of God.  

Whose "Acts"?

Last week, having finished the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we moved to the Acts of the Apostles, written by St. Luke.  Acts begins:  “In the first book, O Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  So Acts is a sequel covering Jesus’ ongoing ministry.  Now, His Apostles continue what Jesus began.

Acts is a marvelous book.  On the one hand, you can see ways that the Apostles are following in Jesus' footsteps.  Just as Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem, knowing that there He would be rejected and killed (Luke 9:21-22, 51), so Paul makes a similar journey with similar expectations (Acts 20:22-24).  On the other hand, the Word of the Lord is growing (Acts 19:20), being heard in lands far from anywhere Jesus preached, first through Judea, then Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Even as Acts tells us exactly where things are going, the narrative takes unexpected turns.  For the first five chapters, the action follows Peter.  Then, in chapter 6, deacons are chosen to help with taking care of the needy.  But they also share the Gospel.  The longest sermon in Acts is not an Apostle’s, but Stephen’s in chapter 7!  It’s not until chapter 10 that Peter comes back into the narrative, but only for two chapters until he disappears from Acts almost entirely.

In chapter 13, it looks like Barnabas will take over the narrative.  He is sent, not by the church in Jerusalem, but by the church in Antioch, to take the Gospel to Gentiles.  He takes along as a helper Saul, a man who had once tried to kill Christians.  But by the end of the chapter, Saul is going by a name easier to pronounce for Gentiles, Paul.  Paul ends up driving the action from there to the end of the book of Acts.

Except that it’s not Paul driving the action at all.  That’s one of the great points of Acts.  Just when you think you know who the star of Acts is, the Spirit picks up a new brother, a new sister.  The Word of the Lord is growing.  Not just Peter, not just Paul, it was James and Lydia and Apollos and Mary and the Spirit through them all.  The hidden star of Acts is the Holy Spirit.

They trusted the Spirit’s work.  Time after time, it looked like the church was being defeated.  They were imprisoned, exiled, murdered.  But whatever earthly setback or suffering they faced, the Word of the Lord increased.  And they found blessing even in hardship (Acts 5:41).

As we read the book of Acts, we remember that the same Spirit is at work among us today.  We learn to look at what’s happening in our lives differently.  What may seem like a personal setback, what may seem to be meaningless suffering, may be something else entirely.  Jesus’ kingdom is coming.  Not just Peter, not just Paul, not just James and Lydia and Apollos and Mary, now it is you and me and the Spirit through us all.

Jesus' Realism

We sometimes hear that the Bible’s expectations for loving our neighbors are unrealistic in the modern era.  In Matthew 19, we find that Jesus’ teachings were considered unrealistic in His era.

First, Jesus describes marriage as God’s joining one man and one woman for their lifetime together (19:3-9).  Jesus’ own disciples find this impractical (19:10).

Then, Jesus offers His time to little children, running against His disciples’ certainty that Jesus had better things to do than mind children (19:13-15).

Then, Jesus offends a potential rich donor (19:16-22).  Jesus was glad to have the “rich young ruler” follow Him, but Jesus didn’t want his money.  Instead, Jesus told the man to give his money to the poor and follow Him.  When the young man leaves sorrowful, the disciples wonder if anyone can be saved (19:25).  Sounds like it was a hard day!

Today when we hear the Bible’s teachings about sexuality, about valuing children, and about money, we also are tempted to think Jesus doesn’t understand what we’re going through.  But when I look at Jesus’ response in each of these three cases, I think Jesus sees us as the unrealistic ones.

In the first case, people have wondered what exactly the disciples meant when they said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (19:10).  One suggestion is that the male disciples thought it would become impossible for men to keep their wives under control if they knew a Christian man could never divorce them.

Jesus knows, however, that marriage can work based on love and respect rather than fear and threat.  But if they'd really rather not get married, He also knows there are indeed men who have given up all sexual seeking for the kingdom.  “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (19:12).  Jesus knows what’s possible and what actually happens.  He chose the single life.  He has borne every temptation we have. 

Again, in the last case, Jesus’ demand seems impossible.  How can the rich young ruler give up everything?  Rather than follow Jesus' command, the young man leaves “sorrowful.”  Why do we choose these sorrowful paths rather than believe that what Jesus teaches is not only possible, but a way that is blessed?  The disciples had given up “everything,” they report.  Regardless of what they had given, Jesus truly had left much greater treasure than the rich young ruler, and He would give it all on the cross.

Despite all Jesus gave, He is a man at peace and full of love.  We see Jesus looking with compassion (cf. Mark 10:21) on the sorrowful rich man.  We see Him insisting to the flummoxed disciples that there is a better way to build a family.  And we see Him taking children into His arms.  We see His ministry full of love.

Why is it that we find it unrealistic, then?  “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30).  When this world’s natural way is to teach us to put ourselves first, Jesus’ teachings are backwards.  But it’s when we put others first that we flourish, even under a cross.  The husband and wife who make an absolute commitment to one another have a freeing foundation of expected love.  The mother and father who put the blessings of children ahead of career find a delightful fountain of love.  The Christian who gives generously finds ironically that, in giving, he lacks less!

"Beware leaven"?

One of the satisfying moments in baking is seeing how much a lump of dough has risen, filling its bowl.  A child seeing this for the first time exclaims, "Your dough has grown!"  

The dough expanded, yes.  It has not grown in substance.  There is no more dough in the bowl than there was two hours before.  If you look on your yeast package, you will find 0 calories in yeast.  

Leaven puffs up.  It is an apt symbol for human sinfulness.  Our pride puffs us up, makes us think of ourselves as better than our neighbor.  Yet not a single one of us is made more in the image of God than our neighbor.

In Matthew 16, Jesus tells His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  In the Old Testament, because leaven is a potent symbol (beginning in Exodus 12), Jewish rituals involved sweeping out every ounce of leaven from the house for various festivals.  For the feast of unleavened bread, for example, Moses said, “No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory.”  Jewish children grew up hunting the floors for the last crumb that could be leavened.

So, when Jesus told His disciples to beware leaven, they seem to have, at first, taken Him literally.  It was only when He explained, “Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:12).

The Pharisees and Sadducees were both teaching from the Bible and from holy rituals started by Moses.  But the way they taught did not humble their listeners.  Instead, it made them proud (see Luke 18:11).

Teaching that seems Biblical and makes us feel good about ourselves is popular in our part of the world.  It looks like growth.

On the other hand, Jesus’ teaching can be hard to grasp at first (Matthew 16:5-11, 21-23).  He lays on us a humility that comes in bearing a cross (Matthew 16:24-28).  We may well feel much smaller than our neighbors.

But what is added to us through the teachings of Christ is the very Spirit of God.  Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words eternal life” (John 6:68).  And Jesus has a promise for the one who hears His word and feels poor or weak.  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:5-6).

Keep at the task of reading through the New Testament.  I’m glad to answer any questions you have.  If the Apostles had questions, we certainly will, too.  God bless you!

"Be Perfect"?

We’ve started reading through the New Testament this year.  This takes about six chapters a week.  That means that if you haven’t started yet, you could catch up quickly.  We’re only on Matthew 8 today.  If you had an hour, you could catch all the way up right now.  Don’t worry about falling behind, it’s a lot easier to catch up this year.  You can do this.

About twice a month, I will be answering questions on what we’re reading and giving overviews of new books we’re starting.  This week, one member has asked what Jesus means when He says, “You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). 

This is one verse where the parallel passage in another Gospel is very helpful.  Luke 6:36 reads, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  You can see that both passages start with Jesus telling us to “love our enemies,” and culminate with a command to act as the Father acts.  For Matthew, it’s “be perfect;” for Luke, it’s “be merciful.”  I believe they mean the same thing.

The word that Matthew uses for “perfect” has a connotation of “completion.”  A variation on this phrase is used when Jesus says, “It is finished,” on the cross (John 19:30).  Jesus has paid the bill in full.  He has paid it perfectly.

So when the Father approaches the world, He has forgiven all our debts.  The world owes nothing to God.  If the world owes nothing to God, how can I think the world owes anything to me?  “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

Jesus teaches this lesson in reverse as a parable.  In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his brother.  Jesus answers by telling of a servant who owed what amounted to 10 billion dollars.  The master forgives his debt.  This same servant finds a guy who owes him $15,000 and has him thrown in jail.  The master, when he finds out, punishes the unforgiving servant.  Jesus concludes, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

To “be perfect” as the Father is perfect is to see the world as forgiven by Jesus.  It’s to approach people with free grace.  It is to love enemies.

If you have a question, you can either message me or post one here. Either way, send me lots of questions this year!

Reading with the CCV Plan

In 2014, some of us read through the entire Bible using a plan (called the CCV plan) found in the YouVersion Bible app.  In 2015, we will read through just the New Testament using the same plan.  Our goal will be to read through the entire Bible again, this time in either two or three years.  The New Testament is only about a quarter of the reading length of the entire Bible. Those who were daunted by the length in 2014 should definitely give this another try.

The CCV plan can be found under the "Plans" / "Whole Bible" tabs in the YouVersion app.  If you don't want to download the app, you can also find the readings here.  (Please note that I have not reviewed anything else on the website of the church that hosts the CCV plan. I am only vouching for their Bible reading plan.) CCV works for reading through the entire Bible; since we are focusing on the New Testament this year, just mark off the Old Testament readings and the app will help keep tabs of what you still need to read to meet your goals.

We began last year on Epiphany.  This year, some of us will begin again on Epiphany (Tuesday) and some will prefer to start on a Monday.  Either way, we'll be on very similar tracks.  Every two weeks, I will answer questions here about what we are reading.