Posts

Important factors to consider when reading the Epistles

This is probably the fifth time the same matter in this background series is being repeated. Context. The two most important factors when reading the Bible are context and inspiration. We have to know what was going on and what was being taught. We are lost without this knowledge.

Equally, we are lost if we know the context and what was being said but yet it’s dead to us. The Holy Spirit has to make it ‘God’s word to us here and now’. It needs inspiration. We should strive for both. Inspiration without context leads to false messages, and context without inspiration is just dead book reading.

It is not inspiration being emphasised here. But please don’t forget that the Holy Spirit wrote what we are reading. This book is from the God we want to know. It tells us that its words are life and if we follow its teaching we will come to know eternal life forevermore. Our Bible reading plan is dead if prayer and careful thought do not accompany it. Who cares if you fall a few days behind because God is talking to you through a certain passage and you really grapple with its meaning for your life.

The inspired epistles need their partner – context. The Holy Spirit will inspire the truth. The right message and teaching is the truth He will inspire and drive home. The epistles are essentially letters that were written to churches or people that were kept and copied. They are packed with truth and teaching for us. They explain and draw to a high point all that has gone before in the Old Testament and the Gospels. But they are hidden in a context. They are most often one-sided phone call conversations for which we don’t have much clue what the other party was asking or saying. Without this information we limp through our understanding of the teaching.

The writing of this background series hopes to fill in a few of the gaps in this regard. What was being said and why are vital questions to ask. Please ask them. This is not for the ‘academic’ or theologian. Actually, theology means the study of God’s revealing of himself, so we are all doing theology; some are just better at it than others.

The book of Acts

Acts is Luke’s second part to his gospel. He addresses it to Theophilus, probably a name for a judge or lawyer, as he did his gospel account. In Acts, Luke shows us what Christ continued to do in the earth by the Holy Spirit. The book is exciting reading full of energy and action. Admittedly, it doesn’t have as much action as his gospel that covers a history of three and half years (excluding Jesus’ early years) as Acts covers about thirty years of history (A.D 33 – A.D 63).

Acts is not difficult to understand like some Old Testament books. It tells us stories and explains happenings in the life of Peter and Paul in particular. It is a collection of high and low points. A summary of thirty years of history will always be that. Please keep this point in mind when you read it. More than one person has felt ineffective and unproductive in their life for Jesus after seeing in Acts all that was accomplished. You may think this is an every day life of thrills and drama. Not so, Paul spent a lot of time in prison doing nothing at all but praying and thinking and talking. The gaps in Acts speak just as much as the activity. The Holy Spirit leads us as he lead them.

Acts has a lot to teach us about many aspects of our Christian life. In the characters of the disciples we see simple, straightforward and successful men and women. They depend entirely upon the power of God and move with an unflinching zeal and determination. They are examples to follow. Focus in on what they did and what they were. As with the Old Testament, do your best to get into the story and feel the characters and situations. Many of the places spoken of can be brought to more life with an online search for photos and maps. I encourage you to consult the maps at the back of your Bible. There you will see just how far they travelled and what town and cities were like where they ministered.

Acts has lot to teach us but you do need to be aware (as do many church leaders) that Acts teaches us descriptively, not prescriptively. The narrative tells us what they did; it’s our role to determine what we need to do. It may be the same, similar, or not necessary. This is the difficult part. Many people take Acts too prescriptively.

There are a good few “once-offs” in the book of Acts. For example, technically speaking, there are people looking for a second Pentecost, but there never will be one like Acts 2 – it was a once off. The Holy Spirit is already here. We need to consult the epistles for confirmation on what was a once-off and what was to continue. Again this is not a simple task but a very important one.

Acts introduces us to a few new concepts not seen before. We meet the apostle Paul who will turn out to write most of the New Testament. We see Christians being baptised in water. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is totally new in Acts. Christians form a church – a never before understood people. People will relate to God in a new way and the Law of Moses will not be the way they will do it in future.

This book should encourage you along with whatever else the Holy Spirit highlights to get busy for Jesus. We see these raw new followers energised and willing to work with Jesus. May God give us such energy and success!

Pic: Paul on trial before Agrippa (Acts 26), as pictured by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875.

The Gospels

An introduction to the Gospels might prove fruitful for you. As you will have seen by now, context is very important when reading the Bible. If we don’t know what it meant to those at the time it was written, we don’t know what it meant at all! It is a very recent idea that we should read the Bible and then come to the conclusion of ‘what it means to me’. There is nothing wrong with that if you know ‘what it means’ first. Whatever it means is then what it means to you as well. This is most important. The Bible will never mean what we think it means. It means something outside of us and it’s our job to find out what as best we can.

The gospels are the first four books of the New Testament. They’re not called the ‘gospels’ by themselves but were given that name, which means ‘good news’. They are four witnesses of the truth about Jesus. There are differences in them and similarities. In court, if all the witness’s stories were identical, their authenticity would be questioned. Each author tells the bios of Jesus in their own way, emphasising specific details.Matthew, Mark and Luke are strikingly similar. They are referred to as the Synoptic gospels (a view together). John’s gospel stands by itself as rather different in focus.

Before the Gospels were written the accounts were all oral and the most important stories were spoken over and over again preserving their accuracy. Once written down from their own angle they tell us the eyewitness account of what Jesus said and did. Matthew tells us about Jesus Christ as the King. Mark tells us about Jesus Christ as the servant. Luke zooms in on Jesus’ humanity and John tells us plainly – Jesus is the Son of God. All of them put us into the context, revealing all the most important information about the life of Jesus Christ. The Gospels are God’s presentation of what we need to know about His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are many good background books out there with plenty of detail on the gospels. This introduction won’t go into such detail. Below are a few details and hints that will help you as you are reading the gospels. The inter-testamental detail about who the Pharisees are etc. will also make the text come alive in a richer way.

What we are reading is actual history

Lately there are attacks on the authenticity of the Gospels. But Jesus was a real man. He lived in the history of the world. Other historians (Tacitus, Suetonius and more) attest to this fact. Make no mistake, these are historical, real facts we are reading here.

The gospels are full of teaching and narrative

At times we are being told what Jesus and the other characters did. The teaching from these situations is inferred. Then at other times the teaching is direct – we are told exactly what we are to know as though Jesus were teaching us directly. A helpful hint in this regard is to make sure that you are aware of ‘who is talking to who’. You will notice sometimes Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, at times the disciples alone, other times the crowd. This context does make a big difference to the reading and understanding.

How to deal with the parables

Jesus was famous for talking in parables. They are very simple stories and generally the meaning is very easy to understand. People tend to read more into parables than is necessary and warranted. The parables can mean only one thing, or at most two teachings come from a parable.

For example, the complicated story of the virgins in Matthew 25 has been taken to mean all sorts of things about the Holy Spirit. The teaching of the parable is most probably only one thing – to be ready. Just like the bride had to be ready because she didn’t know when the groom would arrive according to custom, be ready at all times for Jesus’ coming! You will be tempted to sleep and get lazy. Don’t! Be ready! And that’s it!

A brief overview of Jesus’ life and ministry

If you put the Gospels together this is the basic story of the life of Jesus:

  • The Birth and childhood of Jesus

The gospels detail all that is necessary to know about his birth and upbringing. Jesus was born in obscurity – a little town called Bethlehem. There are only a handful of events recorded about his early life. Shepherds and wise men visited him. Herod tries to take his life and at a young age Jesus is found in the temple learning the Scriptures and talking with leaders about the Father. This period is about 30 years long.

  • Jesus’ preparation for ministry

Just before he started his public ministry, Jesus is baptised by John. The Holy Spirit anoints him and he is tempted in the wilderness. All three synoptic gospels record these events.

  • Jesus’ first year in ministry

The early part of Jesus’ first year of ministry is exclusively covered by the gospel of John and can be found in John 1:19 – 4:42. After Jesus’ temptation he made initial contact with five of his disciples in the area of the desert of Judea. They then went to Cana where they attended a wedding where Jesus turns water into wine – his first miracle.

They then travelled back to Jerusalem to attend the Passover. This would be the first Passover of his public ministry and it would also mark the beginning of the first year of his ministry. There Jesus presented himself to the Jews. He did it by clearing the temple, performing miracles, and teaching. After the Passover he returned to Galilee and on the way witnessed to a Samaritan woman and to her town.

Jesus leaves Nazareth (where he grew up) because he was rejected there when he claimed himself to be the Messiah. Capernaum, a poor town, becomes his base, and for the remainder of His first year of ministry we find Jesus here, enlisting disciples, engaging in preaching tours and performing miracles. This period ends with the second Passover festival mentioned in Luke 6:1-5.

  • The second year of his ministry

Jesus’ second year was particularly fruitful and busy. It ends with his feeding of the five thousand. He designated twelve apostles and sent them out, continued extensive teaching, performed many miracles in and around Galilee.

  • His third year

In the first six months Jesus concluded his Galilean ministry before setting out to minister in Judea for the last six months of his life. A significant turning point in his ministry comes when Jesus challenges the Galilean crowd after feeding the five thousand about their real motives for following and listening to him. The crowd and many followers reject him. His strategy changes from crowd ministry to house to house.

The last six months show Jesus changing his ministry area to Judea and Perea. He visits Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles and spends time in and around Jerusalem until his last week.

  • The last week

Six days before the Passover Jesus arrived in Bethany. This would have been on the Saturday, seeing that the Passover and Jesus’ crucifixion was on the Friday. On Sunday morning Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey where a large crowd shouting his praise met him. On Tuesday, Jesus disputed with the Jewish religious leaders for the last time. He openly refuted their objections and therefore sent them away silenced. There’s no reference to anything happening on the Wednesday in the Gospels. On Thursday, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples, known as the “Last Supper”. A lot happened that night. After the dinner Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. He was arrested there that night. After some illegal trials in front of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Pilate finally succumbed to the pressure exercised on him by the Jews and sentences Jesus to be crucified. Jesus hung on the cross for about six hours before he cried out, “It is finished” and he breathed his last.

The inter-testamental period

If you turn in your Bible from the last page of Malachi you are immediately in Matthew 1. Historically there is about 400 years in that page turn. It is called the 400 ‘silent years’ by scholars because although God was working there were no prophets speaking, and no Scripture being written to Israel until John the Baptist arrives in the desert.

A brief overview of the history we have covered so far will help to orientate you with these 400 years.

Intertestement-pic

Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” In this period God was preparing the world for the perfect situation for Jesus to come to earth. He was ‘silent’ but working none the less.

Dr. Bert Downs breaks up this history into three parts: rulers, readings and religions.

Rulers

We leave the Old Testament with Israel under the power of the Persian Empire. Their rule continues to 331 B.C. The Persians are key in history because if you remember their foreign policy allowed for the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. They allowed for the population of Jerusalem, the building of the Temple, and securing of the city. But the rule of Persia doesn’t last and in 331 B.C. Alexander the Great conquers the Persians and sets up Greek rule until about 164 B.C. Greek rule came with profound influence to God’s people. Greek culture pervades the land. This culture is an educated, multi-god worshiping culture full of magic and special ceremonies. Perhaps the most important impact they had, outside of culture, was that they brought a language. They brought the Greek language that would become the language of the land. Most people become bilingual. Greek will stay in place as the language, even as Greece loses control of this area, which it ultimately does.

The Greeks eventually loose their ability to control and a group lead by a priest overthrow Greek rule and the people of Judah effectively rule themselves from 154 B.C to about 63 B.C. It is referred to as the Hasmonean dynasty – starting with the Maccabean revolt against Greek rule. Much of the history is recorded in the books Maccabees in the Apocrypha. The time under ‘their own rule’ is one of battle for land and religion.

The Hasmonean dynasty ends in about 63 B.C when General Pompeus makes Judah a client of Rome. The Romans rule until 135 A.D. The Romans bring law, judicial systems, peace, stable government and systems. Notably the Romans are furious road builders. They connect almost their whole empire: Roads that will carry the message of the Gospel far and wide.

Readings

Four major works come out of this period. Firstly, the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha was a group of books, about fifteen of them, never credited as Scripture but worth reading for good history. Also when you read them you will realise the difference between them and inspired, authoritative Scripture –it is quite obvious. If you have a Bible that is used in the Roman Catholic Church, or typically in the Orthodox Church, you will find these books in the middle of that Bible edition.

Secondly, the Pseudepigrapha. The pseudepigrapha were basically sectarian writings. They tended to focus on values and thoughts of people of the time. There were sixty or so, various kinds of writings that also make up an important group of historical things that we want to keep track of.

Thirdly, the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have heard a lot about those in our time because they were discovered not too long ago. They basically reflect the thought and practices of various separatist groups that pulled away from Rome and away from the common culture of the day, trying to preserve the values and certain things that they considered to be important.

Fourthly, the Septuagint, often abbreviated LXX. There is a belief that seventy scholars produced this Bible in seventy days, which probably is not true, but it is a nice story. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Now remember that Greece made their language the main language, and that language now is a key in carrying the scriptures through the land. The Septuagint becomes a key tool, the translation from Hebrew to Greek; and as people learn the Greek language through the land, then that addition of the Hebrew scriptures becomes the much quoted, much read edition through the Roman Empire.

Religions

In this period of time the Jewish religion takes a significant shift. Temple worship is re-established, but it struggles. The priests become more and more politically connected to whoever the ruler is and they become a little more compromising in their approach. In response the synagogue appears. The synagogue is a local-level gathering that teaches the people and is heavily moral and ethical. The synagogue is very formal and has a great influence on the people.

It is the Temple-synagogue separation which leads to the rise of two groups which we see clearly in the New Testament writings – the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees are connected to the Temple. The High Priest comes from this group, as do most of the priests. They become very connected to the rulers of the land, to the Greeks, and when independence comes they are very prominent; and when Rome comes on the scene, they connect themselves to Rome. Power, wealth and prestige are attached to being a Temple servant. The Pharisees are connected to the synagogue and they become the local teachers. They ask much more of the people, brilliant by all accounts in their formalism and moralism.

Another group arises called the Sanhedrin. They are a ruling counsel of Jews that have managed to stay in power from the time of the Greeks and they basically are the local group, the Judean group, that brings civil law to the people. They answer to the rulers, but they are the Jewish people who rule during this time.

There is another group that does not connect to the politics of the time, and they are known as the scribes. The scribes are teachers and they are those who were most involved in the preservation of the Hebrew scriptures.

There are Herodians who are Jewish people, who have been connected very closely to the Roman rulers. They tend to be wealthy people who attached their wealth to Rome, known as the Herodians because the Herods were the rulers from Rome who ruled over this area we know as Judea. And as opposed to those, we have a group called the Essenes. They are a large, fairly diverse group that pulled out of civilisation, becoming separatists. Many of them moved down by the Dead Sea and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The stage is set for Jesus to arrive on the scene. The time is ready for God to send his only son into the world, the promised Messiah who will fulfill God’s plan for the people he made all those years and pages ago in Genesis 2.

The book of Malachi

Malachi is the last book in the Hebrew Canon and in our Bibles. It can be placed after the rebuilding of the Temple by Zerubbabel (516 B.C) and before the arrival of Ezra in 458 B.C. It can also be dated some time after Nehemiah had left (445 B.C). Whenever it is dated, what is certain is that the people had become religiously cold and morally lax. They had heard the promises of restoration but now time had passed and disillusionment was the feeling of the time. God appeared to have abandoned his promise and Judah remained a small insignificant province in the Persian Empire.

The problems amongst the people that Malachi addresses are: mixed marriages (2:11-15); failure to tithe (3:8-10); no concern for the Sabbath (2:8-9); corrupt priests (1:6-2:9); and social problems (3:5). In a unique structure Malachi records the Lord’s words to the people. Malachi lists the problems as disputes that the people have with the Lord. He takes each one in turn describing God’s character, the people’s failure, and God’s solution.

Take for example (1:6-2:9). Introduction: God is father and master and you have defiled that. Question: How have we defiled you? Answer: you have placed lame animals on the altar.

The work pictures God as showing his great love for his people but questioning their love for him. He loves his people (2:1); He is their Father and master (1:6); their Father and creator (2:10); a just God (2:17); He does not change (3:6); and is totally honest (3:13), but they have failed to love him with the same enthusiasm. The book lists their behaviour that proves what God ‘suspects’.

Malachi ends, promising the Sun of righteousness will come with healing in his wings – a fitting end.

The book of Nehemiah

Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s stepmother was most probably Esther the Jewess. Nehemiah is faithful to the king but he still has a heart for his people in Jerusalem. He asks the King if he may have permission to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild the wall of the city. When Nehemiah arrived in 445 B.C., Ezra had been there thirteen years. Nehemiah was an engineer who carried civil authority from the King. By assigning each family to repair a portion of the wall they accomplished the task in fifty-two days.

The rebuilding didn’t happen without opposition. The Samaritans tried to derail the work and troubles from within also threatened to stop progress. But Nehemiah prays, stands strong, and succeeds. He gives his brother Hanani the charge of the city that consisted of 42,360 people, besides 7,337 servants and 245 singing men and women.

The exile in Babylon had worked. God’s people from then until today have never en masse worshipped foreign gods. Nehemiah works with Ezra to uphold reform of the heart and a revival comes to the people who vow to follow God. But we all know, without the Messiah who will ‘put the law into the heart’ as Ezekiel said, total reform will always allude anyone who tries to follow the God of the Bible.

The book of Esther

Almost snuck in unnoticed in the exile-restoration period is the great story of Esther. The events of the book are set between 486-465 B.C in the reign of Xerxes the Persian. The Temple has already been restored for 37 years. Ezra will arrive with a contingent from Babylon about nine years later. After that Nehemiah will rebuild the wall.

Interestingly, God is never mentioned directly in the whole book. But the message is clear, even though the story follows the life of a Jewish peasant woman who comes to be the wife of a non-Jewish King. The road is paved with trouble, but multiple ‘co-incidences’ protect and keep her on track. Co-incidences are the author’s masterful stroke in showing God as the Lord of all events in history. It becomes obvious that there were no coincidences here and God was behind it all.

The exact teaching of the book each reader and teacher has to arrive at himself or herself as the rich narrative lends itself to many life lessons along the way. Big themes in the book are: the Lord of all people in all nations; the Lord orders history; the Lord protects his people; the Lord’s promises stand; Jews will be kept by God in ungodly nations; in Jesus, the dividing lines between Jew and Gentile will break.

Pic: Kate Gardiner Hastings (British, 1837-1925), Esther.

The book of Zechariah

Only because of the messages and help of Zechariah and Haggai do the discouraged in Jerusalem rebuild the Temple which was finished in 516 B.C. Zechariah and Haggai have very similar themes to their prophecies, understandably. Zechariah’s work can be divided into two parts: Chapters 1-8 deal with more immediate concerns that the community would have been facing, while Chapters 9-14 deal with future events.

Zechariah might be the hardest of the minor prophetic books to understand. Chapters 1-8 consist of visions and reports of historical events. There are eight visions and their probable meanings are below:

  • Vision 1 – Israel had experienced the Day of Lord but the other nations were at ease – how come? The answer comes that God has not forgotten his people and the nations will have their day, too.

  • Vision 2 – opposition against God’s people will not last nor succeed.

  • Vision 3 – the glory of God will no longer be confined to the Temple but the city will be the dwelling place of God.

  • Vision 4 – the people would be able to build an acceptable Temple for God.

  • Vision 5 – the temple they were building was God’s work and although they didn’t find it acceptable, God did.

  • Vision 6 & 7 – God had initiated the exile for purification but sin had returned in the hearts of the returned exiles. This would be dealt with too.

  • Vision 8 – God would have the final say and clear his name amongst the nations.

The chapter closes out with the scene of a coronation (6:9-11) in which most Christian interpreters have seen the blending of Priest and King in Christ. The last thoughts in chapters 7-8 are around fasts that the Jews had observed and set up. Zechariah warns that cold formalism is a possibility that they should fear and shun.

Chapters 9-14 are Zechariah encouraging the people with future events. The return of the exiles was a great victory and restoration but complete restoration still waits. This is the theme of the chapters. The restoration from captivity was only a token compared to the great redemption to come.

The book of Haggai

Ezra tells us that 50,000 Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Their arrival was not welcomed with palm branches and cheers. Opposition to their return caused them to stammer and fall in discouragement. Ezra reports their rebuilding of the temple but there is a little space that he leaves out. It is the space of the words of Haggai.

Haggai and Zechariah arrive to a discouraged people. They are busy restoring their homes and restoring agricultural productivity (Haggai 1). It was in 520 B.C that the two prophets begin telling the people their priorities are upside down. The Temple is to be built first. By 516 B.C the Temple is built.

The book consists of four oracles that Haggai recorded. The first oracle (1:1-11) covers Haggai telling the leaders and people that the trouble they were facing was because they hadn’t tended to the most important thing – the Temple first.

His second oracle came less than a month after the rebuilding had started (2:1-9). It was clear to all that the second Temple was nowhere close to the glory of Solomon’s Temple. The people who saw Solomon’s would have been in their seventies. Haggai assures them that the second Temple will none the less far exceed Solomon’s in glory.

The third oracle (2:10-19) is in two parts. The message is that holiness is not contagious. Having a temple would not make the people holy. The only hope the people had was not the ‘magic’ of the Temple but the grace and mercy of God.

His fourth oracle (2:20-23) is for Zerubbabel the governor of Judah. The message is that Zerubbabel would not be the one to see a return of David’s rule to Judah, this would come in the future.

The book of Ezra

The purposes of God may sometimes be delayed but they are never abandoned. God had promised through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10-13) that the exiles would return after seventy years to Jerusalem. Ezra tells us about this return.

Nehemiah and Ezra were one book in the Hebrew Bible. The Ezra-Nehemiah- Esther period in Israel’s history is arguably the least known amongst Christians generally. It would be pertinent to set the books in their historical setting.

You have just finished reading Ezekiel and Joel and Daniel. Ezekiel and Daniel are figures around during the exile of Judah in Babylon. The story of Daniel in the Lion’s den happened about ten years before Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians. In the first year of his reign, Cyrus (spoken of by Isaiah 200 years earlier) issues an edict permitting all Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. From this point on Jews are only the people of Judah that return to Jerusalem. The people of the ten Northern tribes (Israel exiled under Assyria) never return. At Cyrus’ first call to return in 537 B.C., only 50,000 Jews return under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:1-4). Cyrus even returned the valuables that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem.

The names of the people who returned are listed in chapter 2. They set about rebuilding their lives in Jerusalem. First the altar is built, then the Temple, and last their homes, which is significant. One could almost expect that hindrances would come. Chapter 4 covers the trouble. Chapter 4 also shows that the messages of Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people in this tough time. Within four years the Temple was rebuilt (in a very plain way) and dedicated. This would have been 516 B.C. (Ezra 6).

Ezra appears in person in chapter 7. This is in 458 B.C., about sixty years since the first exiles returned. He was sent by king Artaxerxes with a contingent of 1,700 Jews. Ezra is an outstanding minister of the Word or God. His name means ‘help’ and he helps the people understand the Law of God and living under God’s Law. Tradition says that Ezra was responsible for setting up a council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon. The rest of the book it taken up with Ezra applying the ways of God to the people as they see and acknowledge their sin and change their ways.

After Ezra comes Nehemiah (445 B.C) to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. History stops one hundred years after the return from the exile. We then turn to secular history where Alexander the Great conquers Persia and takes Jerusalem. He shows favour to the Jews.

Pic: Cyrus returning the Temple treasures to the Jews.