Reading Jeremiah for God's mission

Reading Jeremiah for God’s Mission

When we feel the world unraveling around us, the Old Testament book of Jeremiah is a particularly relevant book for us to go and listen to God. The book of Jeremiah shows us what God is like when everything around us seems to be falling apart. For this reason, it’s a perfect place for shaping our imagination for God’s mission in the world.

Jeremiah is a sobering read. It’s a tragic story. The events that make up the backdrop of this material can be read in 2 Kings 22–25 and 2 Chronicles 34–36. Jeremiah reminds us what sin is. Jeremiah reminds us that their are consequences for unfaithfulness to God. Saying “no” to God over and over and over again isn’t without tragic results.

Abraham Heschel writes, “A prophet’s true greatness is his ability to hold God and man is a single thought.” It’s a common misconception that prophecy in the Bible is about predicting the future. This isn’t the case at all. Prophecy is about telling the truth. I like to think of the prophets as the “Deuteronomy police.”

The book of Deuteronomy was the covenant—the official agreement defining the relationship between God and Israel. Deuteronomy concludes with a list of what good things that happen as a result of keeping all the terms of the covenant, and a list of what bad things happen when the terms are violated. And this is what the prophets do. They’re like the alarm bells going off, announcing to the nation that the terms of the covenant have been broken and consequences are coming.

Books like 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings give a straight forward account of Israel’s history. The books that make up the prophets shows us how God feels about these events. They are largely poetic and the words grab us by the emotions and shake us.

Jeremiah can be a difficult read largely because it isn’t structured like a 21st century story. Chapters 1–25 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against Judah organized topically rather than chronologically. Chapters 26–36 are stories that provide the background for those pronouncements. For instance, chapter 26 tells the story behind chapter 7. Chapters 37–45 tell the story of the fall of Jerusalem. Finally, chapters 46–51 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against the surrounding pagan nations.

Jeremiah in the story of Israel

The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the end of the world it—at least that’s how the people of Judah probably would have described it. But it wasn’t always terrible. As a young priest, Jeremiah would have had a front row seat to the religious revival under King Josiah. The spiritual renewal that happened as a result had no precedent in Judah or Israel.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. King Josiah was killed in battle and what follows would rival a George R.R. Martin plot. To Judah’s east, the nation of Babylon was overtaking Assyria as the dominant political force, and for the next generation, Judah would swap its allegiance back and forth between Babylon and Egypt for its very survival. Like it or not, politics are front and center throughout the book of Jeremiah.

In 598 Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, taking Judah’s best and brightest (such as Ezekiel and Daniel) across the Fertile Crescent into exile. Twelve years later, Babylon would return, this time razing the city, burning the temple, and marching the remaining survivors to Babylon. A small remnant of Jews, holding Jeremiah as a political dissident because he advocated surrender to Babylon, escape to Egypt. For the Jewish people, this was the end of the world. It’s why the book of Lamentations functions as an appendix to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah in the story of Jesus and the Church

The prophet’s legacy stretches into the New Testament. When Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is, one response is Jeremiah. And it’s no wonder. When he’s not directly quoting the Old Testament prophet (“You’ve turned [my Temple] into a den of thieves!”), he’s riffing on his sayings (“You’ll find rest for your souls”).

In fact, that “den of thieves” line in the gospels comes when Jesus famously cleanses the Temple. For the first century Jews witnessing this guerrilla theater of Jesus, their minds would have immediately called to mind the scene in Jeremiah 7. This is Jeremiah’s famous Temple sermon. Though a priest himself, Jeremiah calls out the rot and hollow hypocrisy of the religious establishment. More than any other Old Testament character, Jeremiah is the sharpest critic of the religious establishment. Jesus isn’t acting impulsively, losing his temper. He’s standing in an ancient tradition of calling out corrupt leadership. Israel’s leaders, just as in Jeremiah’s day, are on notice.

Add to this, when Paul talks about boasting in the Lord to the church at Corinth, he’s quoting from Jeremiah. The book of Hebrews makes a critical argument about a new covenant made in Jesus that the writer builds from words in Jeremiah. The fingerprints of this prophet are all over our New Testament story.

Jeremiah as a guide in the contemplative life

One major theme throughout the book is that things are not what they appear. It’s what’s inside that matters most. Just because the Temple (God’s dwelling place) is found in Jerusalem doesn’t make it safe. Just because the people have the Law, doesn’t excuse them from not keeping it. The state of one’s heart before God matters. God promises to provide a new heart. God promises to change us from the inside out.

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Isarel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

In addition, Jeremiah provides a model for the spiritual practice of lament. The prophet mourns and weeps over the state of his community. He takes on the posture of lament and intercession before God on behalf of the corrupt and broken people around him. He holds this sorrow before God. Lament, the acknowledgment before God that things are not okay, is a much needed spiritual practice today.

Jeremiah as a guide in the mission life

An important passage related to missional theology is found in Jeremiah. The prophet sends a letter from Jerusalem (before its fall) to the first wave of exiles living in Babylon. Apparently, there was a contingency that believed this was a temporary situation, and they would return any day.

But Jeremiah tells them to plant themselves where they are, in the pagan land, surrounded by pagans: “Work for the peace and prosperity [in Hebrew, shalom] of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare [shalom] will determine your [shalom]” (Jeremiah 29:7). In fact, the prophet continues with the popular, though most often quoted out of context, statement, “I know the pans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good [shalom] and not for disaster, to give you a hope and a future.” And then Jeremiah says they are to stay for 70 years.

The idea of shalom is all over this passage. It shows us that shalom is God’s vision, not only for the exiles, but also for the people of Babylon. Shalom, the creation work of Genesis 1 where everything is in its right place, is the goal of God’s mission. Our invitation is to something bigger than growing our churches or committing ourselves to discipleship. It is to work for the shalom of our neighborhoods.

Even when the world feels like it’s unraveling all around us, the book of Jeremiah reminds us that God is ever-present. God doesn’t abandon us. Though our circumstances are dire and make no sense, we are not alone. In that, we have hope.

If you want to go deeper:
Jeremiah for Everyone by John Goldingay
A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming by Walter Brueggemann
Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best by Eugene Peterson
The Prophets by Abraham Heschel

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Reading 1 and 2 Corinthians for God's Mission

Reading 1 and 2 Corinthians for God’s Mission

“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor of the 20th century. “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I bet Paul’s community in Corinth would have gotten a kick out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sometimes the Church is its own worst enemy. Life in community, even Christian community, especially Christian community, is a messy thing. It’s messy because we don’t walk away from it. We commit to making good things in the mess.

These two letters in the New Testament are a profound witness for us today in participating in God’s mission in the world. They show us that even the messiest, ugly, hopeless Christian community can be a compost pile of God’s new creation.

After Rome, Corinth was the largest, wealthiest, most cosmopolitan city in the Roman Empire. Located on the coast of Greece, it was like a modern day New York City—a melting pot of immigrants, cultures and religions. According to Acts 18, Paul visited Corinth on his second journey, establishing a small group of believers. Between AD 50–55, it is thought Paul wrote as many as five letters to the Christians in Corinth.

While in several of his letters in the Bible Paul confronts enemies outside the churches, all of the conflict he addresses in 1 and 2 Corinthians has to do with issues inside the church. Maybe we could title these “Christians Gone Wild” or “Believers Behaving Badly.” No fewer than 11 problems are talked about in 1 Corinthians, from suing one another to visiting prostitutes to abusing spiritual gifts. Clearly, the life of Jesus didn’t come easy for these people. Maybe there’s hope for us, too, when we see problems in our own church.

Second Corinthians may be one of the most difficult of the New Testament books to read because it’s Paul’s most personal correspondence. It’s like turning on a movie half way into it, not knowing what’s going on or who the characters are. Still, this letter speaks powerfully to the character of God. It contains some of the most memorable language in the Bible about the new life found in the way of Jesus.

These are extremely practical words for the church today. How can we live together? How can we all get along? How should leaders talk? What kind of leadership should be trusted?

Here are some things to keep in mind as you read 1 and 2 Corinthians:

What’s the backstory?

According to the account in Acts 18, Aquila and Priscilla are a couple of refugees from religious persecution in Rome who cross paths with Paul in Corinth. Together, along with Silas and Timothy, this group spends time preaching Jesus in the synagogue until they’re kicked out.

Titus Justus, a Gentile who lives next to the synagogue invites them in and hosts this house church. In time, the synagogue leader joins their group. Imagine those awkward encounters coming in and out of such a personal worship space right next the folks who kicked you out. It’s to these people that Paul writes about reconciliation.

God tells Paul in a dream, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” No doubt, an encouraging word in such a cosmopolitan, pagan place. When Paul is finally dragged before the Roman authorities by the Jewish leaders, it’s his accusers that wind up getting publicly beaten. In time, Paul with Aquila and Priscilla then travel on to plant a church in Ephesus.

The big ideas

First Corinthians is a letter about community life. It’s about how Christians should play well with one another. It’s quite clear that getting along doesn’t come easily this group that’s believed to be no more than 60 in number.

If there’s a thesis statement to 1 Corinthians, it’s this:
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1:10).

Unity is the big idea. Apparently, the community has communicated with Paul about a variety of specific points of conflict to which he’s responding. This is real life. This is messy church life. Notice how many time Paul writes, “Now regarding your question…” Consider what questions your community might ask Paul. How do you think he might respond?

If there’s a thesis statement to 2 Corinthians, it’s this:
“You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2:17).

Paul’s leadership has been called into question, and he is defending his reputation and credentials against his critics. Boasting and clever speeches were the measure of important people in the world of Corinth, and Paul maintains that his authority comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth, and not his own techniques. There’s a powerful lesson here for leaders today about what Christ-like influence looks like in an age of social media and platforms.

Bodies and resurrection

First Corinthians differs from most of Paul’s other letters in the New Testament. Many of them—Romans is a clear example—lay a clear theological foundation before coming to the practical working out in real life with real people. This letter focuses heavily on behavior, community life, and ethics.

But there is a theological frame that holds it all together. It starts with a discussion about the importance of the cross and it ends with the resurrection. This frame emphasizes how much our bodies matter—our appetites, whether food or sex—because our bodies will be resurrected just like Jesus’s body.

The world isn’t split into physical and spiritual worlds. There’s just one world that is both physical and spiritual. Matter matters. Bodies matter. The physical person of Jesus in the Incarnation and Resurrection prove it. As Paul writes, if there’s no Resurrection, the Christian faith is a sham.

Reading somebody else’s mail

Working through Paul’s second letter to Corinth is one of the more challenging reads in the New Testament. Paul writes with intense passion and emotion. Reading this is like walking into the middle of a heated discussion between two arguing parties. Apparently, over time the community has started to doubt Paul’s credentials and authority as a leader. If you’ve ever been a leader and had your people turn on you, you know what a crisis this can be.

Second Corinthians reminds us how removed we are from the New Testament. This isn’t a letter to or for us. We’re eavesdropping. And yet, the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully through this letter. It contains some of our most powerful biblical images of new creation, reconciliation, and strength in vulnerability. As wounded and defensive as Paul is in this letter, he never loses sight of Jesus and the good news that God is putting the world back together.

If you want to dig deeper, I recommend you check these out:
Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians by N.T. Wright
Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington

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Reading the Book of Psalms for God's Mission

Reading the Book of Psalms for God’s Mission

“If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life…We learn from the Psalms how to think and act in reference to God. We drink in God and God’s world from them. They provide a vocabulary for living Godward, are inspired by God himself. They show us who God is, and that expands and lifts and directs our minds and hearts.”
—Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Ever written a poem or a song? There’s something unique about a lyric. You’re not trying to communicate facts or data. It’s all about feeling and emotion. It’s art. It’s just the right words in just the right order. And so we find in the Pslams imaginative metaphors, and we find dramatic hyperbole that inspires our emotions.

The Book of Psalms just might be the most important book in the whole Bible. Like the anchors of a mountain climber that keep their line attached to the rock face, the psalms keep us anchored to the heart of God and God’s mission in the world. Without them, we float away in the churn of our own self-centered chatter and busyness.

I grew up in a tradition where prayer was something that happened spontaneously. Authenticity was key, and so, it mattered deeply that it be off the cuff, not rehearsed, top of mind. Hear me that it’s not wrong to pray this way. It’s not bad. But there’s more.

Imagine the churn of things floating in a stream or creek—leaves, sticks, trash. That’s just the surface. There’s so much more happening beneath. We can pray from the churn of our mind and heart, but those things are so temporary. They come and go. We can find those thoughts and emotions aren’t nearly as important to us as we begin to give them space. Psalms provide us an on-ramp for diving beneath the surface of our hearts and minds.

The psalms help us understand both the Old and New Testaments.

We find the entire story of God in the Old Testament throughout the Psalms: creation, sin, wickedness, righteousness, salvation, the law that brings life, the hope for Messiah (the “Christ” or the “Good King”). Then, along with Isaiah and Deuteronomy, Psalms is one of the most quoted Old Testament books by the writers of the New Testament. The psalms helped them make sense of Jesus.

The psalms are not a random collection, but rather an ordered manual of prayer. There are five “books” (they would have originally been scrolls) that parallel the five books of Moses, the Torah:

  • Book I: 1–41
  • Book II: 42–72
  • Book III: 73–89
  • Book IV: 90–105
  • Book V: 106–150

John Goldingay notes, “The five Moses books teach people how to live; the five David books teach them how to pray and praise.

In this way they call back to God’s story with Israel, but they also look forward. In Acts 4, we see the early church gathered together in prayer and interpreting their situation in the words of Psalm 2. The first Christians were soaked in the worldview of the psalms.

The psalms help us understand corporate worship.

From the time that the Psalms were first complied, they came to be the structure for the corporate worship of God’s people. They weren’t for individual devotional reading, but for praying together.

Anne Lamott suggests there are really only three prayers that we come back to again and again: Thanks, Wow, and Help. This is evident as we make our way through the psalter. There are psalms of praise. There are psalms of lament. We do well to make space for the whole gamut of these emotions in our worship gatherings. Not only this, but as we pray these prayers we find ourselves praying with the universal Church throughout history, rightly centering our lives together around God.

The psalms help us understand spiritual disciplines.

The psalms are our teacher for prayer. They give us a vocabulary for talking to and about God. They aren’t magic words, but they are words that generations after generations of God’s people have used as good and true words about God. When we pray, we pray like the psalms. They are time-tested, almost like a collection of “greatest hits.” It’s good to pray these prayers.

Prayer is easy and natural enough for children to do it. Prayer is also a skill we hone and craft over time. The psalms teach us to pay better attention to state of our own emotions and the emotions of others over time. I can submit myself to the rhythm of the daily office and find that the psalm for the day gives me words my state that I didn’t know I needed. Or the daily psalms may lead me to pray in solidarity with a someone I know who may be in crisis.

The psalms help us understand theology.

We can find the entire continuum of human emotion—joy, despair, fear, celebration—in the psalms, but in the end, they always come back to the character of God. God is king. God can be trusted. God is faithful. God is with us. These prayers are always about God, first and foremost.

There are several key words to be on the look out for as you read Psalms. Depending on your translation, these are “unfailing love” (or lovingkindness) and “faithfulness.” Often they show up together as defining marks of what kind of deity the psalmist experiences Yahweh to be.

Let your unfailing love and faithfulness always protect me” (40:11).

I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness” (138:2).

This is who God is. This is true, good theology.

It helps us understand God’s mission in the world

Through the psalms we come to understand God’s hopes and dreams for the world, for our neighborhoods. Psalms, like 146, highlight God’s desire for justice, for God’s presence with the poor. In addition, Psalms like 2 and 138 illustrate God’s sovereignty over the rulers of the nations, even in the most unexpected places.

Psalm 1 functions as a lens through which we can understand the rest of the book. This is God’s vision for all the people of the world—thriving, flourishing trees, whose life is rooted in God’s goodness and beauty. God is present with us and our neighbors in our ordinary day-to-day affairs. The psalms keep us anchored in the ordinary everyday goings-on between our neighbors. To draw near to the heart of God, leads us to the hearts of our neighbors.

We can more fully become people of God, people of Jesus, by becoming people of the Psalms.

“Praise Yahweh forever! Amen and amen!” (89:52)

If you want to go deeper in Job, be sure to check out:

Psalms for Everyone: Part I & Part II by John Goldingay

Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson

Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight

Psalms by James Luther Mays

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Reading Job for God's Mission

Reading Job for God’s Mission

Why does it hurt so much to be a human being?

Last week I was having coffee with a friend who teaches at a Christian university. He told me that in research he’s done with American missionaries coming off the field the two most critical things they need are self-care and a theology of suffering. When he said this, I thought: This is why we need the book of Job, because it gives us a laboratory for learning where God is present in suffering.

Reading the Old Testament book of Job is challenging, to say the least. It’s a book that resists most of our habits, techniques, and strategies for “getting something out of” reading the Bible. It’s a book that refuses our modern question of “How does this apply to my life?” It’s a book where you have to see the whole to make sense of the pieces. Not every statement can be taken at face value. We need an uncommon amount of diligence and patience when we come to Job.

The naturalist John Muir writes, “We look at life from the backside of the tapestry. What we normally see is loose ends, tangled threads, frayed chords. But occasionally light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design.” These words capture the big ideas in Job. We are a complex mess of raw and exposed emotions, but somehow these are the building blocks of God making something beautiful.

Here are some helpful ideas to keep in mind as we read Job.

Job is an ancient work of Middle Eastern art

Herein lies one of our greatest obstacles as modern Western people. Our default is to read Job as literal history. And yet, Job begins with the line, “There once was a man named Job,” and then the bulk of the book is highly stylized poetry. The artist who brings us Job is more interested in persuading us with emotions and making us feel rather than constructing a systematic theology or doctrine. Job is art. Job is poetry—elaborate metaphors, crafted rhetoric. Watch for how it makes you feel.

We see movies all the time that are “based on a true story.” And this might be a helpful way of considering the book of Job. There may very well have been a historical man named Job who lost everything and then got it back. This book represents an artistic interpretation of those events.

There’s a purposeful structure to Job. It has a narrative prologue (chapters 1 and 2), a series of dialogue speeches between Job and his friends (3–26), some concluding remarks of Job (27 and maybe 28), and then three monologues, one by Job (29–31), one by a fourth friend (32–37), and then finally one by Yahweh (38–41). This is all wrapped up with an epilogue (42).

It’s critical to keep track of where we are in story and pay attention to which of the characters is speaking at any given point. The speeches of Job and each of his friends can often sound like good theology, but when we hear the speech of Yahweh we discover that each is missing something critical. Job’s friends may sound pious. They might even mean well. But, only Yahweh has the total picture in view and knows what really is going on.

Think of Job as you would a play

I like to imagine this as a play. A narrator stands in front of the curtain and dramatically gives the setup. Then the curtain rises and we see Job, lamenting as he does in chapter 3. Eliphaz tries to comfort Job. Job responds. Bildad gives his theological two-cents. Job fires back. Zophar rebukes Job. Job says it’s not so simple.

This cycle repeats three times and then Job has the final word. The curtain closes and we have an intermission. The narrator comes out again with the words of chapter 28, a beautiful poem about the source of wisdom (and this, I really think is key to understanding the book). The curtain rises again with chapter 29 with Job alone, followed by Elihu, and finally Yahweh. The curtain closes and narrator delivers the resolution.

Reading Job as a play shakes out of some of our default reading habits and helps us see the big picture that’s happening.

Job exists within the Wisdom Literature

The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. These are books that aren’t concerned with the story of God and Israel and salvation. Rather, their interest lies in nitty, gritty ordinariness of being human.

What does suffering mean? How do we pray? How does one live the good life? Where is there meaning in life? How do we love? These are the questions driving this section of the Bible. Here Bible says to us that everyday life in this world matters.

Particularly in Job, we sense questions like, Why does it hurt so much to be a human being? Where is God when we grieve? How does God deal with lament? And the age old “Problem of Evil” question: If God is sovereign and God is good, why do bad things happen to good people? Is God not sovereign? Is God not good? We also see that life isn’t as predictable as the book of Proverbs sounds. That both Proverbs and Job exist in the Wisdom Literature show us the level of complexity with which the compilers of the Bible were comfortable.

Wisdom literature should inspire us to wonder, both the kind that leads us to inquisitive questions but also the kind that sits with the fact that we’re a part of a great big world for which we don’t have all the answers.

What do we make of “the Satan” in Job?

Western medieval Christian art has given us the image the devil in the Bible is a red demon with horns a pitchfork. But that image doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. In the book of Job, we see a picture of a character we don’t see anywhere else in the Old Testament.

This antagonist to God and Job appears only in the prologue, which is notable. The Hebrew word used is “the satan.” It’s always preceded by the definite article “the.” This isn’t a proper name but literally means “the accuser.” “The Satan” is never acknowledged by the human characters in the story, which is also interesting. This scene in chapters 1 and 2 portrays something like a government cabinet and “the accuser” acts like the minority opinion or a prosecuting attorney.

The idea it gives is that good and evil are not equal and opposite forces in the universe. Rather, evil is, for a time, allowed to exist within the sovereignty of good. Why this is so isn’t a concern of the artist. It’s simply taken for granted. It’s just the way the world is. There is evil in the world, but it never has the final word.

Think of Job as the scene of the cross

In multiple places, the New Testament portrays Jesus as a similar but better version of a numerous Old Testament characters—Moses, David, Melchizedek. Jesus is like Job, but Jesus is so much more.

Jesus was innocent, as was Job. Jesus suffered, as did Job. Jesus cries out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” While it’s a quote from Psalms, it’s much like Job’s laments. In the end, Jesus because of his faithfulness is vindicated by God, even more so than Job was.

Imagine the scene of the cross but with the words of the book of Job. Jesus speaks the lines of Job. The religious leaders stand in for Job’s friends. What does that exercise show you about Job’s story? What does it illumine about the story of Jesus?

When we stop to consider the problem of evil and suffering in the world, we can’t do that without the cross in full view. The suffering and ultimate vindication of Job point us to the suffering and ultimate vindication of Jesus.

But what about God’s mission?

The world is in pain. What is God doing about it? What are we doing about it? How we do cultivate a healthy theology of suffering?

I serve as a chaplain at a poverty outreach ministry. I hear stories of pain everyday. A grandmother whose grown grandson stole her rent money for drugs. A father whose drugged out son physically and verbally abuses him. A 22-year-old, bi-polar, unemployed mom of three who was fired because she had a baby and now can’t find work because she can’t find childcare. A grieving mother who carries paranoid resentment because her son was murdered a decade ago but the case was never solved. A married couple that passionately loves God but can’t seem to get untangled from their drug addictions. Young parents who are trying to get their kids back from DHS.

I hear these stories in view of a stained-glass Jesus under the words “Come unto me.” I don’t know what the do with these stories. But I sit before Jesus and I tell them that their story isn’t over yet. It’s going to be okay in the end. It’s just not the end yet.

The book of Job provides us clues for entering into the pain and misery and conflict present in our neighborhoods. It’s hard to be a human being. The presence of suffering is universal. The meaning that Christian communities infuse into their own deepest wounds provides a witness of hope to a watching world that’s desperate to escape, ignore, and numb pain.

When the rug is swept out from under us, when the world is turned upside down, when tragedy robs us blind, even there, “Look, the fear of Yahweh is wisdom, turning from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

The book of Job invites us to ask the most difficult questions. It welcomes us to articulate our angriest, most emotional questions and to throw them at God. God can take it. God can not only take, God can bear it. Jesus has experienced it himself. If God vindicated Job, if God vindicated Jesus, can we trust God to vindicate us in our deepest suffering?

If you want to go deeper in Job, be sure to check out:

Job for Everyone by John Goldingay

Job by Francis Andersen

On the problem of evil, there’s Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright, and on the deep mysteriousness of God, there’s the contemplative classic The Cloud of Unknowing.

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17 Books for Seeing More in the Bible

17 Books for Seeing More in the Bible

I’ve been spellbound by the Bible for as long as I can remember—by its stories, by its world, by its language, by the God who shows up like a jack-in-the-box throughout its pages.

When I went to college, I took Hebrew and Greek classes because I wanted more. I went to seminary because I still wanted more, thinking I’d teach Bible at a university some day. I took every Bible class they’d let me.

I love the Bible.

I live in Tulsa, and we have a pretty great skyline. You can walk downtown and soak in the beauty of the architecture and the history of streets that sprung up during the oil boom of the 1920s. You can enjoy all of that all on your own.

My friend Kelly gives tours downtown. She tells stories of the colorful characters who shaped Tulsa in the early days. She points out details in the ceilings and doorknobs. She illustrates the intentionality of the architecture and their context in the local character of the place. And because she’s shown me around downtown, I love it even more.

Books about the Bible should be like this. We don’t need a mediator to read Scripture. Anybody and everybody should pick up the Bible and read. So many characters in history like Augustine and John Wesley have had their lives flipped upside down because they read it. But at the same time, reading is a skill we develop over time, and we need mentors and teachers in how to read well—how to notice the details of plot, story, and characters, how to pay attention to the nuance and movement of storytelling, how to understand differences in culture and language from our own.

All different kinds of books are helpful when it comes to the Bible. There are commentaries (of infinite kinds), atlases, surveys, group studies, study bibles.

Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful in tackling questions like, What is the Bible? What is it for? How do I encounter God in the Bible? How do I understand the cultures that the Bible comes from to make sense of what it means today?

We read the Bible, not for information, but for the transformation of our whole beings. So, some of these books exercise our minds while some exercise our hearts.

For general reading

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
Let’s admit it: reading the Old Testament is difficult, to say the least. This book shows the intricate artistry of storytelling that the writers of the Bible utilized. You won’t read Genesis or 1 Samuel the same way again, and you’ll likely be persuaded to start learning Hebrew.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
Culture is one of our greatest obstacles in interpreting the Bible. In the West, we often take for granted that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. This book takes a variety of selected stories from the gospels, highlighting the Middle Eastern cultural assumptions at work in them.

The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays
This collection of essays explores ways of reading the Bible in today’s world. The essays spring from “Nine Theses” outlined at the beginning that provide a framework for faithfully interpreting Scripture. Few books I encountered in seminary impacted like this one.

Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation by Richard Foster
This book focuses on bible reading as a spiritual discipline that forms our Christian character. Foster helps show how the ancient practice of lectio divina helps spur our Christian growth.

The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding
This is a great book for beginner’s to the Bible. It tells the whole story of the Bible like a novel—the Old Testament from the perspective of a family around a campfire during the Babylonian exile and the New Testament from the setting of a Roman house church dinner.

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight
Why do we need the Bible? And why do Christians get such different things from reading it? These are just a few of questions raised by this book.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Like Foster, Peterson writes not so much to fill our head but to shape our soul. From the imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation, Peterson shows what’s possible when the God of this Bible gets inside us, and shares from his experience producing The Message.

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter
This is my favorite resource for telling the story of the Old Testament. Richter uses the image of a disorganized closet to describe the experience most of us have with the Old Testament. We know the stories of Daniel and Noah and Elijah, but most of us have never been taught how these stories are organized into one coherent story about the God who is redeeming the whole world.

(re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World by Brian Russell
What I love about this book is that it answers the “So what?” question one might raise regarding all this Bible stuff. We’re not out to win any Bible trivia contests. Russell illustrates how the story of God from Genesis to Revelation shapes our imagination for God’s mission in the world.

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N.T. Wright
The issue of the authority of the Bible is a controversial one, and Wright suggests that what we really mean in that phrase is “the authority of the God revealed in the Bible.” Wright talks about how we read, understand and live out the Bible on this side of the European reformations of the 16th century and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

For a reference library

An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry by David Bauer
For thousands of years, people have been writing books about the Bible. So how do you know what to read? That’s what makes this an invaluable resource for pastors and teachers. Imagine this post as an encyclopedia and that’s this book.

Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics by David Bauer and Robert Traina
Inductive Bible Study is a highly structured method for reading and studying the Bible. While not the only way to read the Bible, this method can train us in skills for slowing down and paying close attention as we read.

A Survey of the Old Testament by Andrew Hill and John Walton
Surveys are useful for your library for seeing the 10,000-foot view of the whole Old or New Testament. I confess, I’m partial to this one as it features photos that I took while touring Israel.

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
Two of our most important considerations in reading the Bible are context and genre. This book details the various literary genres found in the Bible, along with helpful approaches for understanding each genre, whether poetry or narrative, wisdom literature or law, epistle or apocalyptic literature.

How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
This is a permanent fixture on my desk, never out of arm’s reach. It provides introductions, key themes, and general outlines for each Bible book. It’s an essential resource for teaching.

Others

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture
I’m not a fan of all-in-one study bibles. Like a Cheesecake Factory, they may do a whole lot of things, but nothing particularly well. But if you really prefer having everything in one single volume, I recommend this one. I’m a visual learner, so I love the maps and pictures.

The Old Testament for Everyone series by John Goldingay & The New Testament for Everyone series by N.T. Wright
These aren’t quite commentaries and not quite devotionals. They are deeply unsightly and engagingly practical. Great for individual study or for small group reading.

Much like the scenario in the film Arrival, opening the pages of the Bible is an encounter with the living God and should arouse in us a deep sense of wonder. Do we catch our breath? Does our jaw drop?

Whether you’re brand new to the Bible or you’re a pastor or teacher, I hope something here increases your capacity for wonder at the God in the Bible.

~~~~~

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Reading Hebrews for God's Mission

Reading Hebrews for God’s Mission

What are the questions that Jesus answers for you? What are the questions that Jesus answers for your neighborhood? This is what the book of Hebrew is all about. This is how the book of Hebrews shapes our lives for God’s mission in the world.

Our story is the story of the Church. And the story of the Church is the story of Jesus. And the story of Jesus is the story of Israel. And the story of Israel is the story of the God who made the world and is re-making it amidst all the pain and suffering in the world. The book of Hebrews contributes to the story of the Church and God’s ongoing mission by illustrating just how the story of Israel fits with Jesus.

Is Jesus enough? Is Jesus really God’s best answer to all the suffering and pain in the world? This is the question that undergirds the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is all about Jesus.

My favorite story of Jesus in the Gospels is found in Luke 24. Two disciples, shellshocked from the events of Holy Week, make their way from Jerusalem to the neighboring village of Emmaus. A stranger joins them on the walk, and we the readers are told it’s the risen Jesus, but for some reason, the disciples don’t recognize him.

As Jesus gets them talking, they share in their own words what they’ve seen. And this is the part that gets me. Jesus scolds them. Then he takes all the pieces of the story they just told and rearranges them in such a way that the resurrection makes perfect sense. Luke doesn’t give us specifics of what Jesus said, just that he started with Moses and the prophets, “explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

I really want to know how Jesus told this story. Maybe Luke doesn’t say because it’s the way he’s told his whole story up to this point. But I wonder, does Jesus sketch out the arguments presented in Hebrews?

Does Jesus tell them he’s better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, better than the high priest, even the legendary Melchizedek? Does he share the true definition of faith? Does he encourage them with the communion of saints?

Could be. Maybe not. Regardless, what Hebrews shows us is that the story of Jesus makes sense. It made sense in the first century. It makes sense now. The writer of Hebrews takes a variety of Old Testament images and arranges them in such a way that the story of Jesus makes perfect sense. It’s the plot twist we never saw coming. But how did we not because now it seems so obvious?

Because if there’s a thesis question driving the letter of Hebrews it’s this: How is the story of Jesus compatible with the story of Israel in the Old Testament? Maybe that’s a question you don’t lose a lot of sleep over or perhaps it’s a question you take for granted. But for many communities in the first century, this is a burning question. Does the story of Jesus really include us? If the story of Jesus is truly for Gentiles (as letters like Romans and Galatians communicate), can it still be for Jews, too?

And the writer’s answer to this driving question is that the story of Jesus is not only compatible with Israel, it’s continuous with the story of Israel. What happens in the life and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is the icing on the cake of something God has been doing for generations and generations. God has been playing the long-game and Jesus has been one more piece in the plan.

So what are we to make of Hebrews? The thought world of ethnic Jewish Christians is completely foreign to modern North Americans. Reading Hebrews is a cross-cultural experience.

Here are a few of the key images and ideas to keep in mind as you read the book of Hebrews:

Genesis 14 in Hebrews

There’s an obscure story about Abraham in Genesis 14, where after a great battle, Abraham pays tribute to a character named Melchizedek (a name that means “Righteous King”). Precious little is said about Melchizedek. We’re told he is the king of Salem (which means “peace”). He is a priest of El-Elyon (literally, “God Most High,” a name nowhere else in the Old Testament associated with Yahweh).

He brings Abraham bread and wine and blesses Abraham after Abraham’s battle. And that’s all we get. In part due to the lack of any more details, Jewish tradition spins Melchizedek into a mysterious allegorical and metaphorical idea (see Psalm 95). So the writer of Hebrews adds Jesus to this tradition. In suggesting that Jesus is more than the priesthood started with Moses and Aaron and the tribe of Levi, the writer goes so far as to associate Jesus’ priesthood with “the order of Melchizedek,” a priestly order older than Moses, older than even Abraham.

The book of Leviticus in Hebrews

While never directly cited, the book of Leviticus looms large over the text of Hebrews. Leviticus is a book about worship and how a community rightly orients itself with God in its center, much like Hebrews. Particularly, the system of priests and ritual of sacrifices that make the community right with God that are outlined in Leviticus are addressed at length in Hebrews.

The writer is a harsh critic of this system, calling out a flaw in its design that sacrifices had to be made over and over and over. The writer argues that Jesus on the cross once-for-all solves this problem. The reason that Christians don’t practice the rituals in Leviticus is because of this argument in Hebrews. Jesus is enough where the priests and sacrifices were not enough.

The book of Psalms in Hebrews

The writer of Hebrews makes ample use of three Psalms especially—2, 95, and 110. A common theme in each of these is king and royalty, and the writer makes explicit connection to Jesus as this king. Psalm 110 again calls back to Melchizedek, while Psalm 95 references a story in Exodus 17 where the people rebel against God in the wilderness. In that story, “rest” is understood to be the Promised Land, but the writer of Hebrews insinuates that Jesus himself is the “rest.”

Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews

Among the prophets, Jeremiah is the harshest critic of institutional religion—priests, sacrifices, the temple—which is pretty fascinating given the subject matter of Hebrews. Jeremiah lives during the time of Judah’s greatest political upheaval and uncertainty. He witnesses the exile and destruction of the temple. Those first reading Hebrews would have much in common as the Romans again destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. (As there’s no reference to this significant event in the letter, so it was probably written in the years just prior to it.)

In chapter 31 (quoted in Hebrews 8), Jeremiah talks about hope and restoration and a new covenant, subversive and controversial ideas to his cynical and despairing audience, to be sure. Further, Yahweh promises a “new covenant,” that will be better, more effective than the one given in the wilderness. For the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is this new covenant.

Every context, every community and neighborhood, in every generation, gets to do the hard work of wrestling with the question, what difference does the resurrection of Jesus make in this place and time. The writer of the book of Hebrews gives us a model of dealing with questions like this. Hebrews shows us how we might contextualize the story of Jesus in our own place and time and neighborhood.

Is Jesus enough? Is Jesus God’s best answer? If Hebrews is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

If you want to go deeper, be sure to check out:
Hebrews for Everyone by N.T. Wright
Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude by Ben Witherington

~~~~~

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Essential questions when reading the Bible

4 Essential Questions When Reading the Bible

Life is all about asking the right questions in the right place at the right time. This certainly applies each and every time we open the Bible. When it comes to the Bible, some questions are better than others. Some questions are essential and need to be asked first before going on to other questions.

Asking the right questions makes all the difference in the world. You don’t open a work of historical fiction asking it, “How do I make potato soup?” You might get lucky and find some characters who happen to be chefs making soup, but those odds are slim.

There are always better questions to ask. This is a general life rule, whether you’re reading the Bible, navigating a relationship or buying a refrigerator. What’s the most important question I need to be asking right now? When you open the Bible, are you aware of the questions that you’re asking?

Who’s Epaphras? What’s Ephraim? What’s the book of Jonah even doing here? There are no bad questions, but there are questions that are more helpful than others.

Unfortunately, for many of us whose imaginations have been shaped by Christianity in the West in the late 20th century and early 21st, the question guiding us has been some version of “What does this have to do with me?”

But the Bible is not about you.

The Bible is first and foremost about God.

The Bible is secondly about who are are—collectively, corporately, communally.

Only when we wrap our minds around these first two truths can we grapple with our individual story. Our own personal story does matter, but not in a vacuum. We can only find meaning in our own story once we’ve centered it within both the stories of the whole human community and of God.

The world presented in the Bible offers us an alternative imagination for living in the world. Opening the Bible is crucial to a dynamic Christian life because, as Alan Roxburgh writesthe Scriptures challenge and turn upside down some of the most basic and cherished assumptions we have about what God is doing in the world.”

Do you want to change the way you think about things? How you feel about things? How you experience things? This is why we come to the Bible attentively, open, listening.

Whether you’re reading by yourself, or better yet, reading together with others, here are some helpful questions to start with:

What do you see?

Start by naming what you see. Nouns. Verbs. Adjectives. Characters. Settings. Dialogue. Who’s doing what? Does the text say why? Does what a character says line up with or contradict what they’re doing in the story? What happened just before this? What happens after? Are there words or phrases that are repeated?

We come to the Bible in a posture of listening. Paying attention to the Bible is a critical skill, especially if we’ve spent extensive time in church and with the Bible and suffer from a kind of overexposure. It’s an unhealthy habit to fall into shortcuts, thinking, “I’ve already heard this.”

In naming what you see, it’s like spreading out all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle out on the table. We’re not assigning meaning yet. Don’t rush connecting the dots. Simply start out by noticing all the dots. Otherwise you start connecting dots you think are there but aren’t. Be patient and slow down.

Summarize what you see in your own words. If you’re in a group, hold one another accountable to not missing anything.

What does it say about God?

God is the central character in the Bible. When we start reading and immediately jump to asking, “How does this apply to my life?” we’re reading the text selfishly, putting ourselves in the center. But it’s not about us. It involves us, it invites, it welcomes us, but the Bible is not about us.

The Bible reveals to us what kind of god God is like. The Pentateuch shows us the God has made the world and God is working to redeem it. The historical books show a God who shows up in time and space on behalf of the people of Israel. The wisdom books display the daily ordinary things, like suffering and love and household duties, that God cares about. The prophets show God’s passionate heart.

The Gospels reveal God extraordinarily putting on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. The letters of the New Testament show how God forms and nurtures the community called “church.”

Writing about the power of the “word of the Lord” that comes to us in the Bible, N.T. Wright says, “It is as though, to put it one way, ‘the word of YHWH’ is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, into which the prophets and other writers tap by God’s call and grace, so that the word may flow through them to do God’s work of flooding or irrigating his people.

Whether we’re reading Numbers or Galatians, Nahum or Revelation, we’re reading something that shows us what God is like. The books of the Bible peel back layers for us as we daily discover God.

What does it say about humanity?

Not only does the Bible reveal God, it also reveals to us all the complex depths of people. And what we see in people like Abraham and Gideon and Mary and Peter is people have an incredible capacity to say “no” to God. At the same time, these same people have an incredible capacity to say “yes” to God. When God initiates, what are human beings capable of?

God speaks or acts, and people respond, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. The stories within the Bible host a vast array of options for ways that human beings experience God. These stories give us an imagination for all the various possibilities we might experience God.

It’s through the human beings in the stories that we find our own place in the stories. We relate to the suffering of Job. We know the all-at-once arrogant, naive, and confident faith of Peter. We connect with the disbelief of Sarah.

Each one of us is part of the human family, and God’s work involves redeeming all of us—man, woman, adult, child, rich, poor, every race and nationality.

What is God saying to me/us?

If we’ve come to some true conclusions about what God is like and what people are like, what does this mean for us today? Once we’ve been attentive to God’s story and the human story, now we can finally find ourselves in the story. Now it can be personal.

It’s unhealthy to start with yourself, but it’s just as unhealthy never to allow the story to get inside you. I remember a Bible professor once praying before class that our experience might be something like the board game Operation, that even as we analyze and dissect the text we would be shocked by its electricity.

We want to walk away from reading Ecclesiastes and Habakuk and 2 Peter having had some kind of personal encounter with God. That God shows up and speaks to us in these pages it what makes it different from reading Moby Dick or Harry Potter.

How do you respond in cooperation with God?

And now, if these things about God and people are true, and God has spoken to you, what do you do with it?

Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me.”

If I ask my kids to pick up their toys because they’ve made a mess of the living room, and they don’t, there’s a problem. If they get together with their friends to discuss all the ways that it’s important to pick up their toys, and they still don’t pick them up after I’ve asked, there’s a problem. If they memorize my request to pick up the toys and quote my request on social media, but they still don’t actually pick up their toys, there’s a problem.

It’s far better to read a single verse, be changed by it, and respond cooperatively with God than it is to read the entire Bible and walk away saying, “Well, that was interesting.”

Respond cooperatively—that’s where we want to land. In our household with our kids we use the language of “cooperate.” We were drawn to that because of the way it communicates invitation and relational participation rather than coercion. I think it works for our relationship with God, too. Some days it might be a task, like praying for your enemies or reconciling a broken relationship. Other days it may simply mean being and resting with God.

There are no prizes at the end for Bible trivia. The Bible is one means by which God’s voice is available to us. We can listen. We can learn. We can be present and attentive. Over time, we can be changed, and we have eyes to see and ears to hear God’s activity in the world and in our neighborhoods.

We get to this place by asking good questions of the Bible.

~~~~~

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Reading 1 and 2 Kings for God's Mission

Reading 1 and 2 Kings for God’s Mission

The books of 1 and 2 Kings are tragedy of epic, Shakespearean proportions. They are a Fall story. As such, they display human frailty, corruption, out-right rebellion, and unfaithfulness to Yahweh and Yahweh’s covenant.

The books of Kings invite us into the story Israel, and in this way, we see how God responds to our own brokenness and what God plans to do about it. God’s mission is fixing this mess. We very well may see ourselves in the apostate Ahab, the hero-prophet Elijah, the defiant Hezekiah, and the corrupt Manasseh.

It’s crucial to wrestle with the ways in which we see ourselves in these stories. Amidst our own pride and stubborn rebellion, God is on a mission, pursuing us in order to restore God’s good creation once again.

These books are not meant to be an encyclopedic account of what each king accomplished and why. Plenty is left out and left up to the imagination in the telling. Instead, what matters most to the writer is how each ruler adhered to Yahweh’s covenant. Were they faithful to Yahweh? Did they lead the people in the ways of Yahweh? Yahweh’s kingship hovers over the entire narrative just out of frame. Yahweh is always the central character of these stories.

Consider 1 and 2 Kings a series of short stories that chronicle Israel’s tragic descent from the Golden Age under David and Solomon to the kingdom fracturing in two (barely avoiding civil war) to finally the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile.

Spoiler alert: There is no happy ending to the books of 1 and 2 Kings. What happens at the end is the undoing of the Exodus. Instead of moving from slavery to freedom, Israel now moves from freedom to slavery. These stories lead to the exile, the next narrative problem in the Great Big Story.

Here are some important themes to keep in mind as you read 1 and 2 Kings:

What does it mean to be “king”?

This story begins where so many stories begin—at the beginning. At creation, Adam is made to rule justly and righteously God’s world on God’s behalf. But Adam fails. As the story continues to involve the nation of Israel, human kings—broken Image-Bearers, frail and corrupt—are incapable of the just and righteous rule required for God’s world. Broken Image-Bearers are an affront to God’s rule. They are usurpers to God’s kingdom.

So when we come to the story in 1 Samuel 8, when the nation demands the prophet Samuel to anoint a king, we should expect that there is no way this can end well. God chooses David, who becomes the standard by which each succeeding king is measured. David represents the best we can hope for in a broken Image-Bearer. But no one who follows David measures up. This is the tragedy in 1 and 2 Kings.

Until…

In the New Testament, we come to Jesus. Jesus not only measures up to David, he accomplishes what Adam could not—be an human Image-Bearer capable of a just and righteous rule over God’s world. In Acts and the letters of Paul, when we see the title “Christ,” we should understood this as “Good King.” Jesus Christ means Jesus the Good King. The stories in 1 and 2 Kings display the messy middle from David’s sons to the situation that necessitates good King Jesus.

The descending narrative from Joshua to 2 Kings

There’s a continuing story that runs through Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. We might even imagine them like successive seasons of a TV show.

Through the story of the Bible, we see a recurring pattern where God initiates and humans ruin it. We might call it a “Creation/Fall pattern.” God makes the world in Genesis 1 and 2. Humans un-make God’s world in Genesis 3–11.

God brings the people of Israel into the Promised Land in the book of Joshua. This should be a happy ending. In the book of Judges, Israel ruins everything. It’s like the Fall happening all over again. In 1 and 2 Samuel, God again acts and establishes the monarchy and makes a covenant with David. Again, it could have been a happy ending to the whole story. But in 1 and 2 Kings, the people rebel, and it’s like the Fall happening, yet again.

Covenant loyalty

The stories in 1 and 2 Kings cover about 400 years. Throughout these generations, the ultimate question is: Will the nation be loyal to Yahweh? Will it commit to Yahweh’s covenant (basically, the book of Deuteronomy)? Will they be faithful? Or will they worship the gods of the surrounding nations? Will they fall into idolatry? Will they be unfaithful? All of their behavior revolves around this issue of faithfulness versus unfaithfulness.

The divided kingdom

One crucial detail to understanding 1 and 2 Kings is the catastrophic break that happens in 1 Kings 12. Here, the nation of Israel fractures in two separate kingdoms, a northern kingdom, which will be called Israel (or sometimes Ephraim, the most influential of its tribes), and a southern kingdom, which will be called Judah.

It may be helpful to imagine Israel’s situation in the books of Judges and 1 Samuel as comparable to the early days of the United States when there were 13 colonies and no central government. Early on, Israel is a loosely held-together federation of 12 tribes with no central leadership, until the Philistines require them to get their act together.

It’s a testament to David’s leadership that he brings them together. Solomon’s leadership is controversial enough that his son, Rehoboam, inherits problems he can’t handle and ten of the tribes revolt. Thus, a new Israel is formed with a capital established in Samaria and new alternate religious shrines set up in Dan and Bethel. Echoing Aaron and his golden calf in Exodus, Jeroboam announces that these gods at Dan and Bethel are really Yahweh. (They’re not.) And so Jeroboam represents the anti-David, and succeeding wicked kings are compared to Jeroboam instead of the righteous David. The northern kingdom will be marked by a series of violent coups, idolatry, and unfaithfulness to Yahweh. In the south, worship continues in the temple in Jerusalem, and the family of David retains the throne.

After chapter 12, 1 and 2 Kings chronicles two overlapping timelines, that of Israel and the rebel kings and that of Judah’s kings from David’s family. The northern kingdom of Israel abandons the covenant of Yahweh and is wiped out by the nation of Assyria in 2 Kings 17. Judah will exist for another 150 years until the nation of Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem and takes the survivors into exile.

The role of the prophets

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel introduce the office of prophet through characters like Samuel and Nathan. In 1 and 2 Kings, prophets come to play a much larger role. Elijah and Elisha are major figures, as they represent the voice of Yahweh to unfaithful kings in the north. And while they don’t appear in the narrative, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Joel, Jonah, Obadiah, Micah, and Nahum overlap the history in 1 and 2 Kings. One way of thinking about the prophets is as “the Deuteronomy police.” Any time the nation begins to stray from the covenant, the prophets sound the alarm. They’re like referees blowing the whistle when things start going out of bounds.

Exile

The exile is one of the most important plot points in the story of Israel. It was a tragic undoing of the Exodus. It echoes the Fall. At the conclusion of Deuteronomy, which contains Yahweh’s convenant, consequences for breaking the covenant are outlined in horrifying detail. This is precisely what happens at the conclusion of 2 Kings. This is what happens when broken Image-Bearers aspire to ruling God’s kingdom.

The geo-political landscape

From an objective, historical standpoint, Israel and Judah were insignificant players among the political powers of the ancient world. To the north and east, there was Assyria, and to the south and west, there was Egypt. And Israel and Judah were stuck in the middle between these superpowers who were locked in constant struggle. And so depending on what was most advantageous for survival, Yahweh’s people would make a treaty with Assyria or Egypt in order to protect them from the other. And Yahweh, through the prophets, demanded they stop that. Yahweh’s protection was sufficient. Later Babylon overtook Assyria as the threat from the east. God’s story happens within the stories of competing political struggles.

These ancient stories still speak powerfully to us today. If we want to speak to the timely issues of faith and political power in our own day, we would do well to pay close attention to 1 and 2 Kings. If we want to speak the issues of idolatry and unfaithfulness that are lodged inside our own hearts, we would do well to pay close attention to 1 and 2 Kings.

These books show a God on mission in the world.

If you want to go deeper, be sure to check these out:
1 and 2 Kings for Everyone by John Goldingay
1 & 2 Kings by Walter Brueggemann

If you want to know more about the idea of “kingship” as it relates to Jesus and the Great Big Story, be sure to read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.

~~~~~

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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Reading the Gospel of Mark for God's Mission

Reading the Gospel of Mark for God’s Mission

There is no more fascinating character in the Bible than Jesus. It’s in the Gospels where we find the stories about Jesus. There’s something unique that Mark has to show us about the nature and character and mission of God and what we can do to cooperate.

In church, we tend to conflate the four Gospels into a single narrative biography of Jesus. And in fact, the early church debated and ultimately rejected doing so. Each of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—have something distinct to teach us about the heart and mission of God.

While it shares overlapping stories with Matthew and Luke, particularly, the way Mark puts these pieces together—like jigsaw puzzle pieces—gives us a unique vision of Jesus, who he was and what he was up to.

When I encounter people who are discovering the Bible and the story of God for the very first time, the Gospel of Mark is where I direct them to get started. It’s short, succinct, and to the point. More than other Gospels, it reads like a novel.

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is constantly on the move. While Mark tells us that Jesus teaches and often shares with us the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching, it provides relatively little of what the teaching actually was compared to other Gospels.

Mark wants to tell us what Jesus did. I have a friend, who some years ago, during the height of WWJD mania, taught Bible at a Christian high school. He taught his students “HCYDWJDIYDKWJD” or “How Can You Do What Jesus Did If You Don’t Know What Jesus Did.” Mark is how we know what Jesus did.

The Gospel of Mark exists not to provide a biographical account of Jesus. Rather, it exists to offer a persuasive argument that God is undoing the devastating work of sin and death in the world through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. The “good news”—the gospel—is that God is making everything right in the world. The kingdom of God is present in and radiates out from the person of King Jesus and his people.

Here are some tips as you read the Gospel of Mark:

Notice the big picture

Mark can be broken into four coherent pieces with a prologue and an epilogue. This outline follows the work of Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in How to Read the Bible Book by Book:

  • The Prologue—Introduction to Jesus and the Kingdom (1:1-15)
  • The Kingdom Goes Public–Disciples, Crowds, Opposition (1:16–3:6)
  • The Mystery of the Kingdom–Faith, Misunderstanding, Hard Hearts (3:7–8:21)
  • The Mystery Unveiled–The Cross and the Way of Discipleship (8:22–10:45)
  • The King Comes to Jerusalem to Die (10:46–15:47)
  • Epilogue: The Story Is Not Over (16:1–8)

If there’s a thesis to Mark, it’s 1:15: “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Everything that follows spins out of this proclamation.

Notice how the stories fit together

There’s an urgency to Mark’s narrative, which lends itself to reading large passages at time, even the whole thing in a single sitting. If you come from a church setting that only presents Jesus stories one at a time, reading longer passages in Mark can reveal all kinds of new, fresh insights.

There’s a strategy to the way Mark unveils the story. The individual stories aren’t random. They seem to stack, one on another, into a greater whole. When I first discovered the way the author of Mark builds one story into the next, almost like successive episodes of a TV show, it was like learning this world of Jesus all over again for the first time.

Think bigger than the chapter breaks, and even the section headings of most English translations. As you may notice in the outline above, they often artificially break up the flow of what Mark communicates.

Keep the book of Isaiah nearby

In any story, where the story begins is significant. And Mark begins not with the Christmas story, but with the prophet Isaiah. Several key passages in Mark call back to this Old Testament book (1:2-3; 4:12; 7:6-7).

Know a little bit of Roman culture

Words like “gospel/good news,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “Lord,” and “Messiah” are significant words in the Gospel of Mark. And take an even bigger role when we remember these aren’t churchy theology words but rather words taken from the political world of the first century. These are Caesar words. These are Empire words. And Mark subversively flips our expectations each time he uses them and uses them to describe Jesus. Go and read 1:1-15 with this in mind.

Read as if this is everything you know

Try your best to forget everything you know about the story. Allow yourself to enter the story and dwell in it, episode by episode, like you would your favorite TV show or novel. Let the suspense build. Cultivate your curiosity as the plot advances and the character of Jesus develops.

Respond to the invitations in Mark

Mark invites us to be amazed and awestruck by Jesus
Amazement gripped the audience, and they began to discuss what had happened” (1:27).

“They were all amazed and praised God” (2:12).

“When the crowd saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with awe” (9:15).

“This amazed them” (10:24).

“The disciples were filled with awe” (10:32).

“But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise” (15:5).

Mark invites us into the mystery of “Who is Jesus?”
Speculation as to Jesus’ true identity sparks misunderstanding and mystery throughout the story. Nobody knows!

“What sort of new teaching is this?” (1:27)

“What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!” (2:7).

“Who is this man?” (4:41).

The demons know, but Jesus forces them to be quiet.

Finally, in one of the key passages in Mark, Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?… But who do you say I am?” (8:27, 29).

Mark invites us to follow Jesus all the way to the cross
The third section of book begins at 8:22 with the healing of a blind man. This opens an important series of events that begin with the disciples blind to who Jesus is and slow builds to their beginning to understand. Three times in this section Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, immediately followed by the disciples grossly misunderstanding, and then Jesus giving an intense teaching about the nature of discipleship.

One third of Mark is devoted to the events between Palm Sunday and Easter. This is significant. The events of Holy Week are the key to unlocking Mark’s mystery about Jesus. Jesus ministry lasted three years, but Mark spends a third of the narrative on one week. Time seems to slow down. The cross, and the events leading to it, are the main event.

In Mark’s Gospel, the way of discipleship is a radical commitment to cross-shaped self-sacrificial love for others. Suffering has profound meaning in the life of Jesus, not in a masochistic sense, but rather in a rugged commitment of self-giving love.

Live as if you are the ending of Mark’s Gospel

Spoiler alert: There’s no ending to Mark. Well, if there was, it’s been lost to history. It just ends with 16:8. No closure. Many contemporary English translations provide a couple alternative endings, but those are late additions to the text.

Keep in mind, the original manuscripts would have been rolled up scrolls. It’s likely that the end of Mark wore off and was damaged in handling or transport. That’s one idea.

Or we can take form as is and imagine that you and I continue the story. The lack of closure invites us into the story. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, and we get to continue the deeds of Jesus in the world.

God is on a mission, re-making the world. The Gospel of Mark presents God revealing this new kingdom through the suffering of the cross and the victory of Jesus’ resurrection.

In reading Mark’s Gospel, dwelling in the stories, imagining ourselves in this world, we cultivate our affection for Jesus. We find ourselves in a new world of thinking what Jesus thought, saying what Jesus said, loving what Jesus loved, and doing what Jesus did.

As you read Mark, find yourself drawn deeper into the heart of Jesus. Find yourself drawn deeper into the mission of God for the healing of the world.

If you want to go deeper, be sure to check out N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone or Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.

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A Beginner's Guide to Reading the Bible

A Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Bible

Why do you read the Bible?

Why do you read the Bible the way that you read the Bible?

I once heard theologian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright asked the question, “What’s the best way to read the Bible?”

Frequently and thoroughly,” was his response.

I think we’ve been convinced that the reason we read the Bible is simply because we’re supposed to. It’s good for you. Like eating green vegetables. It’s what good Christians do. But when that’s the sales pitch, it’s not persuasive and we’re left with a lot of guilt and shame when we leave our Bible unopened for days, even weeks, at a time.

And that shouldn’t be.

We read the Bible because we meet God when we open its pages. In reading the Bible, we make ourselves available to be surprised by God. We allow ourselves to be shaped and formed by its stories and poems and prophetic words and commands and exhortations.

The different kinds of books

Open a Bible to the table of contents. The Bible isn’t just a single book. It’s a library. And like your local public library, it’s filled with a wide variety of different kinds of literature. Like you’d read a mystery novel differently than you would a cookbook, you’d read different kinds of books within the Bible differently.

Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These are often called the Pentateuch or the five books of Moses. They start with creation, tell the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then God’s recuse of the this family from slavery in Egypt. They include the first laws that God gives Israel and the stories of wandering in the desert for 40 years, leading right up to entering the Promised Land.

Historical books: These include two different takes on one story. First, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. This version begins with entering the Promised Land, how there came to be kings, the stories of David, when the nation divides in two, and ends on the tragic note of exile from the Promised Land.

Second, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. This version retells the stories about the kings from a different perspective, and then continues the story when the nation returns from exile.

Wisdom literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes. These are poetic books. They’re like philosophy, asking what does it mean to live a good life through the lenses of suffering, worship, wisdom, and love.

Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

These are poems that parallel the events found in Kings and Chronicles. Where Kings and Chronicles tell what happened, the prophets communicate how God feels about what happened. Emotion is important in the prophets. And where the book of Deuteronomy is like the constitution for the nation, the prophets sound the alarm that the people are failing to keep their end of the covenant with God.

Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. These are four separate collections of stories about Jesus. Many of these stories appear in more than one of these books (Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a fair amount of material). They all share in common the radical good news that the life, death, and resurrection bring to God’s world.

Letters: The rest of the New Testament. Each of these is written by one a leader of the early church (most of them are from Paul) to a specific community of people, oftentimes addressing a particular situation happening in that church. In some ways, it’s like overhearing one side of a phone conversation. But these letters are packed with theology and ethics and encouragement. They are the manifesto of the Church today. They answer the question: Jesus is alive, now what?

When I was a part of an Anglican church, each week in our Sunday worship we read from a Psalm, had an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading (usually from one of the letters), and it all culminated in a Gospel reading when the congregation stood up. Each week we were being trained to hear Jesus—the Psalm pointed us to Jesus, the Old Testament pointed us to Jesus, the New Testament pointed us to Jesus, until finally, Jesus himself spoke to us in the Gospel.

Again N.T. Wright likens it to windows in different rooms of a house overlooking the same landscape. When you stand in the living room you can see the road outside. When you’re in the bedroom, you can see the same road, but the different angle reveals different details. It’s similar to our reading the Bible. All of Scripture tells a single, coherent story of God rescuing the world, but each individual book reveals to us different aspects of the story.

Different ways to read

There are a variety of ways to read the Bible. You may find yourself in a rut. I find I change up the way that I read about every 6 months or so. Here are a couple.

A chapter a day: This is probably the easiest when you’re just getting started to develop a regular habit. It can be limiting because the Bible wasn’t written broken up into chapters in the same way modern writers break up stories into chapters. These chapter numbers were added in medieval times for making reference easier.

A whole book in one sitting: The first writers, readers, and hearers of the Bible didn’t experience it a chapter at a time. It’s not meant to be soundbites. church in Rome heard the book of Romans all in one sitting. And it sounds and feels so different like that instead of single verses at a time. There are just different things that you see when you read books like the Gospels and Revelation all in one sitting.

Lectionary: Several denominations provide a lectionary, which is pattern of dwelling in God’s story throughout the year. You can use the Revised Common Lectionary, which provides a Psalm, Old Testament reading, and New Testament reading for each day of the years.

A Bible reading plan: If you use an mobile app like YouVersion, you can access hundreds of different daily plans for going through the Bible. (Just make sure the content is actually the Bible.) Some are for covering the entire Bible in a year. Some take you through it in 90 days, if you’re feeling ambitious.

You can subscribe to The Sabbath Life newsletter, where I provide a weekly reading. Each week I send an email with readings for 5 days. That way, if you forget a day or miss for any reason, there’s flexibility. This plan covers the entire Bible over four years and utilizes each of the genres each year. Right now we’re reading Exodus. Next we’ll read Mark, and then 1 & 2 Kings.

“But where do I start?”

Here are some helpful places to get started in reading the Bible:

Mark: This Gospel, more than the other collections of Jesus stories, flows like a modern novel or movie. Mark tells stories about things Jesus does and people Jesus encounters.

Psalms: This is a collection of praise and worship songs. They are prayers of gratitude and wonder and also prayers of sadness and anger. They show us how to talk to God honestly in all our ups and downs.

Philippians: One of Paul’s letters to a small church in Greece. It’s full of encouragement to live a life full of joy.

1 John: A brief letter from one of the people who knew Jesus firsthand. John writes in simple language about how we know what the love of God looks like.

Others: Romans 12, Matthew 5–7 (the Sermon on the Mount), Isaiah 40, John 15.

So get started. Open the Bible. Explore. Meander. Loiter. Sit and wait. Don’t be in a hurry. Get ready to encounter God.

If you want to go deeper:
The Story of God, the Story of Us by Sean Gladding.
This is like a novelization of the Bible. The Old Testament is told through the perspective of a grandpa sitting around a campfire with his family during the Babylonian exile, while the New Testament is presented around the supper table of a house church as they remember the stories of Jesus.

How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
This is a reference book that I always keep handy. It takes each book of the Bible, breaks them down by outlines, and offers hints and tips for things to look for as you read.

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more