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Off the Rails

by on Jul.04, 2007, under Uncategorized

Ever found God’s way a bit too constrictive? Wish you could go your own way for a bit? Consider this illustration:

Can you imagine Thomas the tank-engine thinking to himself, “I don’t need these silly rails, they restrict me too much and I cannot go wherever I please and I cannot do whatever I chose”?

So one fine morning – with a full head of steam, Thomas hits the bend – at speed – and deliberately derails himself in a field.

“Wee!! I’m free!!”, he says.

The earth is soft and warm, the sky is clear, and the sun is strong.

But as the weather changes, and the rains begin to fall, and Thomas’ wheels begin to rust, and the weeds and vines begin to cover his once gleaming but now faded paint work, and the water in his tank turns pale green, Thomas regrets his decision.

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And that is because trains function best when they are on the rails.

Thomas is going nowhere and what is more, he is falling apart in the process.

He is miserable, and he is very frustrated, and there is not one thing he can do to change his situation.

Sin is like that.

Sin, fuelled by self-interest and a contempt for God’s decrees and commands – drives people at full speed off the rails (as it were).
Not only is human kind off-course, we are also held fast in that predicament.
There is nothing that we can do to right the situation.
Getting back on track is beyond us.

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- Stuart Robinson, “Looking for Justice”, preached to St Paul’s Anglican, Chatswood, 29/1/06

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Flying in the Fog

by on Jul.02, 2007, under Uncategorized

To get a pilot’s licence, you have to get an “instrument rating”. This means that you understand the instruments that your plane is equipped with – compass, altimeter etc. – and are capable of flying your plane using those and nothing else should the need arise. This is important, because otherwise it is easy to become disoriented when flying through fog or cloud. In some circumstances it is even possible for pilots to suffer what is called vertigo – ‘up’ and ‘down’ become confused, and you feel like you’re upright when you’re actually upside down.

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To be able to fly using instruments only, a pilot needs the following:

  • Good instruments: What’s the point in relying on your instruments if they are telling you the wrong thing? Even a slightly misaligned compass can lead you a long way off course.
  • Understanding: You need to know how to use your instruments in order for them to be useful. You could hand me a compass, or a GPS device, but unless I had been taught how to use it it would be nothing more than a paperweight to me.
  • Faith: Sometimes a pilot has to believe his instruments, even when they are in direct contradiction to what his senses are telling him.

I believe that Christians, too, need to get an “instrument rating”. Too easily we can get caught up in what our senses are telling us about the world that we are deceived. I believe that this is what happened for John the Baptist, when he sent word to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah, or if they should be looking for someone else (Matthew 11:2-6). This was a bit of a strange question, really, since John had been one of the very first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 3:13-17), and had witnessed “the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting on him.” (16) and the “voice from heaven” proclaiming “‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'” (17).

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Things had taken a bit of a bad turn for John since then, however, and he was now in gaol and facing death. Is it any wonder that he began to think that something must have gone wrong somewhere?

Jesus’ response serves to remind John of his instruments. First, he suggests that John needs to consider more than just his immediate surroundings – he tells the messenger to let John know about all the wonderful things that are happening. The things he specifically directs the messengers to take not of, however, are particularly important as they are things spoken of in the scriptures as being indicative of the Messiah. Jesus is commanding, “Go back to your Bible and compare what you find there with what your disciples report – then answer the question for yourself.”

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The Bible is Jesus’ answer to not knowing which way is up and which way down. When being tempted in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), it is scripture which Jesus relies upon in overcoming Satan. If he allowed himself to be caught up in his own situation (I love the subtly understated “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (2)!) then Satan’s suggestions would no doubt have seemed like good sense – after all, how could he possibly be any good to anyone if he starved to death? Perhaps it would be easier to accept the world from Satan’s hand as a gift, rather than pay the price to buy it back. But Jesus knew the scriptures and trusted that the words spoken there were truth, even though his senses and his understanding of the world he was in right then and there were screaming there was a better way.

We need that instrument for ourselves. We need to know what the Bible says in order to know what is right. We need to rely on scripture to navigate us through the fog of this life. We need to trust God’s word, even when it seems totally contrary to what our senses are telling us.

Are you instrument rated?

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How to read a psalm

by on Jul.01, 2007, under Uncategorized

The psalms are some of the most-loved portions of Scripture – after John 3:16, Psalm 23 is probably the most recognisable biblical text for Christians and non-Christians alike. There is something about them that allows them to get through our guard and pierce us to the heart in a way impossible for, say, an epistle.

It has been said that the Psalter (i.e. the book of Psalms) is the hymn-book of the Jews, and this is indeed true. The psalms were generally set to music1. It has been used in the same way by the Church over the centuries. Not all psalms are found in the book of Psalms – there are examples in the writings of many of the Prophets and mixed in with various historical narratives.

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Understanding the psalms

The psalms as poetry

The psalms are Hebrew poetry. One of the things about poetry is that it is more easily remembered than prose. This was important to the Israelites, as it allowed them to transmit the psalms orally, thus making them available even to those unable to read.

One of the most obvious poetic features of the psalms is their use of parallelism. e.g. “The heavens declare the glory of God; / the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”2. The psalmist is not trying to say that the heavens do one thing and the skies another. Instead, he is using parallelism to reinforce the idea.

Parallelism comes in 3 different flavours:

  • Synonomous: The second line reinforces the first. e.g. “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud / your sins like the morning mist”3.
  • Antithetical: The second line contrasts the first. e.g. “They do not cry out to me from their hearts / but wail upon their beds”4
  • Synthetic: The second line adds to the first. e.g. “Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion / to govern the mountains of Esau”5

Psalms were addressed to the mind through the heart. We should be wary of overthinking them, or looking for doctrinal truths where none are intended. Psalmists commonly used what we might call ‘poetic/artistic licence’ in order to get their point across – consider, for example in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” the psalmist was not trying to say that conception is sinful, but was rather using hyperbole (exaggeration) to reinforce the idea of his sinfulness. This is an especially important consideration when reading the so-called ‘imprecatory’ (i.e. cursing) psalms, such as Psalm 137 above. In these the psalmist plumbs the outer reaches of human emotion, making for strong reading.

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Similarly, psalmists often employ metaphor e.g. mountains leap like rams6, enemies spew out swords from their lips7 etc. It is important that we not press the metaphors beyond the author’s intent, or take them literally. e.g. the reader of Psalm 23 might make the mistake of believing that God wants them to be like sheep! Instead we need to seek the point that the psalmist is making through the metaphor.

The psalms as literature

The psalms come in many types:

  • Lament: A lament psalm is one that speaks of struggles, suffering or disappointment. They can either be individual8 or corporate9. They assume a deep trust in God.
  • Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving psalms express gratitude to God for what he has done, either for an individual10 or for the Israelite community11.
  • Praise: Praise psalms focus on God, without any particular reference to specific miseries or joys. God is variously praised as creator12, protector/benefactor13 and the Lord of history14.
  • Salvation: Salvation psalms review the history of God’s saving works15. These may have many different purposes e.g. celebration, thanksgiving, warning etc.
  • Celebration/Affirmation: The psalms celebrate such things as the renewal of the covenant between God & Israel16, the covenant between God and the line of David17, kingship18, coronations19 and the special relationship between God and Jerusalem20.
  • Wisdom: Wisdom psalms praise the merits of wisdom and living a wise life21.
  • Trust: These focus on God’s trustworthiness22.

Individual psalms often follow a formal structure, much like our own poetry e.g. a sonnet conforms to a particular structure and rhythm. Knowledge of that structure can help us to recognise transitions from one theme to another, or to usefully divide a psalm up for closer inspection. Similarly, the psalms abound with patterns – alliteration, assonance, word plays and acrostics – which are all but impossible to spot unless reading them in their original Hebrew.

It should be noted that the psalms were functional, inasmuch as they were written for a specific purpose, and often for a particular occasion. Careful consideration should be given to the original purpose behind the psalm before appropriating it for some other purpose. The royal psalms, for example, were composed to be sung at the celebration of Israel’s kingship and not at weddings!

For these reasons and more, it is important that each psalm be read as a whole, and not just a verse at a time. Otherwise, for example, readers of Psalm 51:16 might think that the sacrificial offering system was of no benefit… until they got to verse 19!

Applying the psalms

Unlike other portions of Scripture, the psalms are not necessarily a message from God to people, but are instead from people to God. For this reason they are not primarily for teaching.

They are, however, immensely useful as a demonstration of an honest relationship with God – he would rather that we pour out our feelings before him, allowing him to address them, than for us to bottle things up inside and try to ‘hide’ from him. The psalms are a useful help in expressing joys & sorrow, successes & failures, hopes & regrets – both individually and corporately.

The psalms demonstrate for us the importance of reflection and meditation on God’s works. They call us to prayer, to think on God’s Word, and to fellowship with other believers. They encourage us to trust in God in spite of our feelings, and to wait and to watch for the Lord’s deliverance.

Further reading

  • Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayer and Ours” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd Edition, Zondervan, 2003) pp. 205-223


Endnotes

  1. indeed the word ‘psalm’ derives from the Greek word ψαλμοι (psalmoi), meaning “songs sung to a harp”.
  2. Ps 19:1
  3. Is 44:22
  4. Hos 7:14
  5. Ob 21
  6. Ps. 114:4
  7. Ps 59:7
  8. e.g. Pss. 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 88, 120, 139, 142
  9. e.g. Pss. 12, 44, 80, 94, 137
  10. e.g. Pss. 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138
  11. e.g. Pss. 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136
  12. e.g. Pss. 8, 19, 104, 148
  13. e.g. Pss. 66, 100, 111, 114, 149
  14. e.g. Pss. 33, 103, 113, 117, 145-7
  15. e.g. Pss. 78, 105, 10, 135-6
  16. e.g. Pss. 50, 81
  17. e.g. Pss. 89, 132
  18. e.g. Pss. 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144
  19. e.g. Pss. 24, 29, 47, 93, 95-9
  20. e.g. Pss. 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122
  21. e.g. Pss. 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133
  22. e.g. Pss. 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131
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How to read an epistle

by on Jul.01, 2007, under Uncategorized

The bulk of the New Testament is composed of epistles – what we would today call letters. These letters contain a wealth of different things that are helpful to Christians, but they have the following things in common:

  • They were written to a specific person or group of people (although they were evidently ‘passed around’ – indeed Paul commands this on at least one occasion1)
  • They were written for a specific purpose or occasion.
  • They were all written in the 1st Century AD.

Biblical epistles followed the same conventions as other letters of the 1st Century. Much like we are taught to write letters today, with our address, the date, greeting etc., 1st Century letters had a common form. The Microsoft Office AD letter template would have looked something like this (the examples are taken from 1 Corinthians):

  1. Name of writer e.g. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes” (1:1)
  2. Name of recipient e.g. “To the church of God in Corinth” (1:2)
  3. Greeting e.g. “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3)
  4. Prayer wish or thanksgiving e.g. “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus…” (1:4-9)
  5. Body e.g. (1:10-16:22)
  6. Final greeting and farewell e.g. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (16:23-24)

This is the general form, although there are some variations, particularly in #4 – for example it is missing in Galatians, 1 Timothy and Titus; in a number of Paul’s letters both thanksgiving and prayer are found; and in 3 of the New Testament epistles (2 Corinthians, Ephesians and 1 Peter) the thanksgiving leads into a doxology, which is an expression of praise to God.

Reading a Biblical epistle

The first and best thing you can do with an epistle is to read it through in its entirety, preferably in one sitting. This may involve setting aside an hour or more, but it is worth it to get the big picture. As you do, jot down your initial impressions and observations, but don’t get too distracted from the flow of the epistle by details – there will be plenty of time for these things later as you study smaller segments in depth. Here are some of the things to note:

  • Recipients, author etc.
  • The author’s attitudes
  • Comments and references to specific events/occasion for writing
  • The letter’s natural and logical divisions

The answer to the last question will help you to form a plan of attack for in-depth study. If the structure of the letter isn’t clear, many modern Bibles will include an ‘outline’ at the start of the book, which may be useful in formulating your plan. As you read each individual section, then, try asking the following questions:

  • What is the historical context? Why was the epistle written? What were the author’s circumstances? What about the circumstances of the recipients? The answers to some of these will be readily apparent from the epistle itself (e.g. most of the epistles directly identify both author and recipients), but some will not. For these you may want to consult the introduction to the epistle found in most modern Bibles, or a Bible Dictionary.
  • What is the argument? To find this out, you will need to trace the argument being made, paragraph by paragraph. For each paragraph ask:
    • What does the paragraph say?
    • Why does it say it at this point?

Sometimes you will come across ‘problem’ passages, which make little or no sense, or are ambiguous. I believe that, sometimes, the reason for this difficulty is that that portion of Scripture is not written to us, or perhaps is not written for us at that moment in time. As I said earlier, don’t panic if you don’t understand something as you’re certainly not alone in that. Where there are ambiguous or uncertain details, I’d suggest that you look for certainties first, before wondering about the merely possible. Sometimes we need to be satisfied with our own ignorance. I’d also recommend consulting a good commentary or a more experienced Christian friend, but do this once you’ve done your own thinking, rather than as a first resort.

Applying a Biblical epistle

One of the biggest problems in applying the epistles (and arguably any portion of Scripture) is the question of whether a given text is applicable to us in the first place, and if so to what extent. The reason that this is such a big problem is that everyone seems to have a different answer, and indeed a different method for arriving at that answer. For example, consider the following instructions from the book of 1 Timothy. Which ones do you consider applicable today? Why or why not?

  • 1 Timothy 1:3
  • 1 Timothy 2:1
  • 1 Timothy 2:8
  • 1 Timothy 2:9-10
  • 1 Timothy 2:11-12
  • 1 Timothy 3:4-7
  • 1 Timothy 4:12-14
  • 1 Timothy 5:9-14
  • 1 Timothy 5:23

Get the picture? All of these are written by the same person, to the same person and at the same time. Yet there is such a variety of opinion what is universally applicable, and what is only applicable to the original recipient. Some are easily decided – none of us, for example, have ever felt called to make a special trip to Troas in order to deliver Paul’s cloak2! Similarly none of us would have any problem accepting 1 Timothy 6:10 (“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”) as being true today. But what about the more ambiguous statements? How shall we resolve them?

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To help develop a consistent approach to answering this question, I want to suggest the following guidelines:

  • As we discussed earlier, a given text cannot mean for us what it never could have meant for its author and/or readers.
  • Whenever we share comparable situations, God’s Word to us is the same as God’s Word to them.

That seems straight forward enough, right? Well, perhaps, but there are still a few problems that need to be addressed.

Firstly, be wary of extended application. Here’s an example. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” This text is directed to the local church (“you yourselves”, plural), but some would look for a more general application (i.e. an extended application) here e.g. your body is God’s temple and so abusing your own body brings you under God’s judgment. In this case the extended application is correct, because it is spelled out in other passages where that is the intent of the passage3. Generally I would say that if you are only taught something by extended application, then it is probably not God’s Word.

Sometimes we find that a clear principle is being articulated, which is being applied to a specific historical circumstance. We should not necessarily throw away the principle just because the application seems, to us, irrelevant. Having said that, neither does such a principle become timeless, to be applied to any and every situation. Instead, it should only be applied to genuinely comparable situations. For example in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul forbids participation in temple meals based on the “stumbling block” principle. Some will interpret this to mean, “Don’t do anything that will offend another believer.” But this is not really comparable because the situation Paul was describing was one where the other person would be “destroyed by your knowledge” (11), not simply offended.

When it comes to questions of cultural relevance, you need to be consider what the New Testament sees as inherently moral and what is simply cultural. Those items that are moral are universally applicable, and those which are cultural may vary from culture to culture.

It is also worth considering whether there is a consistency across the New Testament. For example, the New Testament consistently teaches love as a Christian’s basic ethical response, non-retaliation etc. It is not quite so consistent when it comes to questions of women in ministry4, politics5 or wealth6.

Finally let me say that your best tools in resolving any of these issues will be common sense and Christian charity. We need to recognise that there are difficulties, communicate with one another, and have love for those with whom we differ.

Further Reading

  • Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, “The Epistles: Learning to think Contextually” and “The Epistles: The Hermeneutical Questions” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd Edition, Zondervan, 2003) pp. 55-87
  • E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, (InterVarsity Press, 2004)


Endnotes

  1. Colossians 4:16
  2. 2 Timothy 4:13
  3. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20
  4. See, for example, Romans 16:1-3 vs. 1 Timothy 2:12
  5. Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 vs. Rev 13:-18
  6. Luke 12:33 & 18:22 vs. 1 Timothy 6:17-19
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How to read the Bible

by on Jul.01, 2007, under Uncategorized

Because of its incredible diversity – of background, form and content – it is sometimes difficult to know how to approach the Bible. All of us have, at some time or other, found ourselves frustrated over some obscure reference, comment or ‘problem’ passage. How should a Christian react, for example, to the instructions from Deuteronomy 22 that “A woman must not wear men’s clothing” (v. 5) or “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof” (v. 8)? Should we take the Genesis account of creation literally, and thus discount more ‘scientific’ explanations? Or consider Psalm 137:

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us -
he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rock.1

Huh?

Then, too, many of us will have heard (or heard horror tales of!) people misusing and abusing the Bible in order to justify their own theories. These range from the well-intentioned but misguided (e.g. “Take up the 5 stones of… and defeat your personal Goliaths!”) to the truly evil (e.g. those who use the Bible to justify slavery). Satan himself was not above attempting to turn scripture to his own purposes2.

It is important, then, that we have some sort of control over the way we use the scriptures to ensure that we hear what God is saying, rather than putting our own words and ideas in God’s mouth. We cannot afford to be Christians who hear only what they want to hear. God desires that we be conformed to his image and will, not that we attempt change him to suit ourselves – that’s idolatory.

The remainder of this course, then, is designed to help us to develop our ability to ‘listen’ to God’s word.

There are two tasks that we must undertake in order to correctly understand any section of the Bible: first we must understand what it meant to its original recipients; then we must translate that meaning across into our own 21st Century context for application to our own lives. Failure to do the first is the most common cause of misunderstanding the Bible. On the other hand, failure to complete the second task of translation across the centuries relegates the Bible to being just ‘another book’, an intellectual and historical curiosity.

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By the way, if you’re interested, the fancy-schmancy technical terms for these tasks are exegesis (understanding original context) and hermeneutics (applying to today’s context).

Let’s examine these tasks in a little bit more detail.

Understanding in the original context

Here are some of the questions that would be typical of this task:

  • What is the source of the text? Who wrote it? When? Where? Why? If the passage was written to a particular group of people, or for a particular circumstance then knowledge of that group or circumstance will help us to understand exactly what is being said.
  • By what process have we received this text? What oral or written traditions are involved? e.g. it is generally believed that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses… even though he wasn’t actually present in the Garden of Eden! It is probable, therefore, that he learned about creation via an oral tradition (stories told by the campfire from generation to generation). This might lend credence to a suggestion that the Creation account is metaphorical rather than literal, as metaphor is a common device in story telling.
  • What form does the text take? Is it poetry, narrative, a letter? e.g. we should read a psalm differently to a narrative because poetic devices such as hyperbole (exaggeration) and metaphor are commonly present in psalms but not in narratives. We will be exploring this in more detail later on.
  • What role (if any) did the editor(s) take in assembling the work? e.g. as you read through Acts, we know that Luke (as a gentile) was at pains to point out that God’s gift of his son was not only for the Jews but also available “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”3

There are a number of tools available to help you in answering these questions:

  • A good translation: The fact that you are reading the Bible in English suggests that someone, somewhere, has translated it for you. But how do you know it is accurate? Personally I tend to use the New Internation Version (NIV), partly because it is what I have grown up with, partly because it is the most commonly used translation.4
  • A good Bible dictionary: A Bible dictionary is good for looking up concepts that you may not have come across before, getting background on particular authors and characters in the Bible, as well as details such as weights, currencies etc. Often you will be able to find some of this information within your Bible itself – I use an NIV Study Bible which contains many of these details.
  • Good commentaries: A good commentary should help you to gain a deeper appreciation of the passage that you are reading. It should not, however, be your first port of call! Take time to read through your passage carefully first and glean what you can first. Going straight to a commentary is like a person who, searching for treasure in a still pond, immediately digs in to the mud at the bottom. In this way, they totally obscure the ‘obvious’ treasures that are otherwise clear to see.

One warning. Always consider the text in context. Don’t read one verse without considering the paragraph, chapter and book it falls within. The better your understanding of the big picture, the better you will understand how that particular verse fits into the whole.

Understanding in my context

It is the matter of the here and now, how it can be applied today, that brings us to the Bible in the first place. So why not start with that? Why worry about what it meant then? Can’t the Spirit, who inspired the writing of the Bible, equally inspire me in the reading of it? Well, far be it from me to limit the work of God’s Spirit, or to claim that he cannot or will not work in that way, but it is my belief that that is not his ordinary way. Instead he expects us to be disciplined in the way we approach God’s Word. And that discipline requires us to first understand the original context.

The reason we don’t begin with the here and now is that our only control in application of a given text is found in the original intent of that text. That is to say, a text cannot mean what it never meant.

Let me give you an example. 1 Corinthians 15:29 says “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” On the basis of this verse, Mormons have a practice whereby they can be baptized for someone who has already died. In fact they have an entire theology whereby there are Mormon missionaries in the afterlife, who continue to preach to those who have not become Mormons in life. (So much for resting in peace if you still have to get up and answer the door to Mormons after death, hey?) But because these dead converts cannot be baptised in the afterlife, someone must be baptized in their stead. They have started with their own ideas about what happens after you die, and have then read 1 Corinthians 15:29 through that filter. In reality, Paul is merely using a contemporary custom as an illustration within his overall argument that if there is no resurrection then all that happens in this life is pointless.

This task of application is the more difficult of the two, and so it is difficult to give much in the way of general ‘rules’. As we go through the rest of this course, however, we will consider some appropriate ways of applying each of the specific genres.

Some final advice. As you read through the Bible, you will come across things that seem impossible to understand. That’s OK – don’t stress about it. As C. S. Lewis writes:

Whenever you find any statement in Christian writings which you can make nothing of, don’t worry. Leave it alone. There will come a day, perhaps years later, when you suddenly see what it meant. If one could understand it now, it would only do one harm.5

By all means ask people around you, look stuff up etc. Just don’t be upset if you still can’t understand everything you read – in that you are hardly alone!

Acknowledgements

I must acknowledge up front that I am indebted to to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart for their excellent book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth6, upon which much of the structure and content of this course is based. I can also recommend their companion volume How to read the Bible Book by Book7 as an excellent introduction to the form and content of each of the books of the Bible. In addition, I have drawn material from a number of John Dickson’s books and talks8.

Further Reading

  • Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, “Introduction: The Need to Interpret” and “The Basic Tool: A Good Translation” in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd Edition, Zondervan, 2003) pp. 17-53.


Endnotes

  1. Psalm 137:7-9.
  2. Matt. 4
  3. Acts 1:8.
  4. For a detailed description of the translation philosophies and a comparison of the relative merits of the most common translations available today, see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Third Edition, Zondervan, 2003) pp. 33-53.
  5. C. S. Lewis, Christian Behaviour (J. And J. Gray, Edinburgh, 1943) p. 60.
  6. 3rd Edition, Zondervan 2003.
  7. Zondervan 2002
  8. Available at time of writing via podcast at the fm 103.2 website.
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How did we get the Bible?

by on Jul.01, 2007, under Uncategorized

‘More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them.”Who chose which gospels to include?’ Sophie asked.

‘Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.’

‘I thought Constantine was a Christian,’ Sophie said.

‘Hardly,’ Teabing scoffed. ‘He was a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his deathbed, too weak to protest. In Constantine’s day, Rome’s official religion was sun worship – the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun – and Constantine was its head priest. Unfortunately for him, a growing religious turmoil was gripping Rome. Three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Christ’s followers had multiplied exponentially. Christians and pagans began warring, and the conflict grew to such proportions that it threatened to rend Rome in two. Constantine decided something had to be done. In 325 AD, he decided to unify Rome under a single religion. Christianity.’1

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OK, I’d better stop there before I get struck down by God (or by Rod!) for perpetuating lies. In case you didn’t recognise it, that was an extract from Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. I can tell you, however, that with the exception of the year of the first Council of Nicea (325 AD), not a single one of Brown’s ‘facts’ in that extract checks out.

Brown raises an interesting point though. As he pithily observes just a page earlier:

‘The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven… The Bible is a product of man… it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.’2

If, as Brown rightly points out, “the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven” then how exactly did it arrive? If it’s a “product of man” then where does God fit in to the equation? Who decided what should or shouldn’t be in the Bible? If it has “evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions” how do we know that what we call the Bible is the same as what was originally written?

The Bible: work of man or of God?

It is true that all of what we call the Bible was, originally, written by men. In that sense it is a “product of man”. Why then do we call it the ‘Word of God’? The answer has to do with what we call ‘inspiration’.

Inspiration recognises the role of the Holy Spirit in producting the Scriptures. Specifically, inspiration refers to the supernatural guidance of the writers by the Holy Spirit which resulted in every word being accurate and reliable in the original manuscripts. When we talk about the authorship of Scripture, we recognise dual authorship. God wrote the Bible using human authors.

This is not the same, however, as the way a boss might dictate a letter that a secretary then types. There are places in Scripture where this sort of thing happened3; in most cases the style and selection of words reflect the personality and background of the writer. Consider, for example the four Gospels:

  • Matthew was a Jewish tax collector, who was most impressed that Jesus was the King of the Jews – hence his Gospel begins with a royal genealogy.
  • Mark, a young disciple of Peter, mirrors his mentor’s activism in his writing – hence his Gospel is liberally scattered with the words “straightaway” and “immediately”.
  • Luke’s Gospel is more methodical, reflecting his education and his historical interest and integrity.
  • John’s Gospel, written by one “whom Jesus loved,” seems to be obsessed with love for Jesus and his love for others.

Though each of the four Gospels reflects a different style and a different perspective, they do not contradict each other. Instead, they harmonise to give us the fully inspired, accurate record of the life of Christ.

Whilst it may seem paradoxical to examine the Bible’s credentials based on what it says about itself, the question must be asked: if the Bible truly is the Word of God, what greater authority can we refer to? Let us consider, then, some of the Biblical statements about the nature of the Bible:

  • “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21)
  • Moses acknowledged the source of his writings: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)
  • At his trial, Stephen recognised the Scriptures as the revelation of God. After citing the teachings of Moses, Amos and Isaiah he continues, saying, “‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!'” (Acts 7:51)
  • Speaking of Paul’s letters, Peter writes, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom the God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:15-16) In Peter’s eyes, therefore, Paul’s letters are on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures.
  • “From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:15-17)

The Bible: who decides what’s in and what’s out?

Some religious groups today accept the Bible as on of their religious books but they also accept other so-called “revelations from God”. For example the Qur’an testifies to the Scriptures as being of God, but then goes on to add to them:

Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal. It is He Who sent down to the (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and he sent down the Criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).4

Similarly, the Mormons supplement the New and Old Testaments with the Book of Mormon, purportedly a translation of a set of golden plates delivered to Joseph Smith, Jr. by an angel in 1827, and translated by him before being returned to the angel in 1829.

How is it, then, that we do not accept these additions? How do we justify the inclusion of the 66 books that we do have? Who decides what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’?

The 66 books of the Bible form the completed canon of Scripture. ‘Canon’ is a fancy word that comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning a rule or measurement. A canonical book is one that measured up to the standard of Scripture.

Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus, states that the books of the Old Testament were brought together during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus (464 to 424 B. C.) during the life of Ezra the scribe5. In the third century B. C. they were translated into Greek, and compiled into a book since referred to as the Septuagint6. (It is this Greek version that gives us the ordering of books adopted in our Bible.)

The New Testament was assembled over time. By the end of the second century, all but 7 of the books we have today (Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James and Revelation) were recognised as being apostolic. By the end of the fourth century all 27 books in our Bible were recognised by all churches, and ‘locked in’ for western churches at the Councils of Rome (382 A. D.) and Carthage (397 A. D.).

The books included were selected on the basis of having been penned by the first generation of Christian leaders i.e. by those whom Jesus appointed (Peter, Paul, John, James etc.) or their immediate colleagues (Mark, Luke etc.)

The Bible: is it accurate?

Have you ever played ‘Chinese Whispers’? It is a game where everyone gets into a chain. The first person whispers a secret message to the second, who in turn whispers it to the third etc. This continues until the message reaches the end of the chain, who then declares the message aloud for all to hear. Depending on the length of the chain and the faithfulness of the individual whisperers, the message often becomes distorted.

The Bible is in some ways like that. Because of the relatively short durability of papyrus and other materials upon which the Scriptures were originally written, the message had to be periodically recopied in order to overcome issues of wear and tear. But how can we be sure that these copyists have not distorted the words they were copying?

Let us return to our game of Chinese whispers. There are 2 things we can do to ensure that we maximise accuracy: decrease the length of the chain; and ensure that our whisperers are accurate in their message reproduction. The first will minimise the number of chances for an error to occur, the second will reduce the likelihood of an error occurring at each transmission.

Similarly, historians develop confidence in the accuracy of a given text (the Bible documents included) by seeking manuscripts for as close to the events as possible (minimising the chain) and by examining the details about how the manuscript came into our hands to understand the copying/transmission methods.

In terms of the first criteria, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts now extant are amongst the much-publicised Dead Sea Scrolls, found at Qumran, in the Judean desert, in 1947. These documents are dated between the middle of the 3rd Century B. C. and the 1st Century A. D., and include portions of the Old Testament. When these were compared with our modern Bibles, the accuracy was clear: what we read today is, in fact, what was written more than 2000 years ago. The earliest New Testament manuscripts are even closer in age to when they were originally written – there is a fragment of John’s Gospel generally dated about 125 A. D., with almost complete New Testament manuscripts dating back to the early 4th Century A. D. In historical terms, this is almost unprecedented – and each new find only serves to reinforce what we already have!

Conclusion

In summary, then, there is no good reason for anyone to doubt the authority and accuracy of the Bible. The impact of the Bible on so many lives, combined with its own testimony about itself, serves to convince us of its divine authorship. The careful consideration of the Canon of Scripture by the early Christians has ensured that we get only what God has inspired and keeps us from being deceived by further ‘revelations’ such as those espoused by Mohammed (the Qur’an) and Joseph Smith, Jr. (the Book of Mormon). The historical evidence suggests that we have received exactly what was written.

Further reading

  • Lee Strobel and Garry Poole, Exploring the Da Vinci Code (Zondervan, 2006).
  • John Dickson, The Christ Files (Blue Bottle Books, 2006), particularly Chapter 4 “Behind the New Testament” and Chapter 5 “Before the Gospels”.
  • John Dickson, “God in a Book: Making Sense of the Bible” in Hanging in there (St Matthias Press, 1991) pp. 26-32.
  • Elmer L. Towns, “Understanding the Doctrine of the Bible” in Concise Bible Doctrines (AMG Publishers, 2006) pp. 21-56.


Endnotes

  1. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Corgi, 2004) pp. 313-4.
  2. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Corgi, 2004) pp. 312-3.
  3. See, for example, Rev 2:1 – 3:22
  4. Surah 3:2-3 (tr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali).
  5. Antiquities XI.v.
  6. Antiquities XII.ii.
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Perspectives on Pain (Part 1)

by on Jun.30, 2007, under Uncategorized

One of the hardest questions to deal with in life runs something like this: Why is there (so much) suffering in the world? Each of the major religions has something to say in response to this question. In this article, I will attempt to capture the kernel of each of these responses for Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and (not a religion, but still worthwhile considering) atheism.

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Hinduism: Suffering brings balance

Most of us will have come across the concept of ‘karma’, the universal principle by which all events in the past balance out with present and future events. This balance spans not only your life, but all of your past and future lives (i.e. incarnations). When you die, according to a Hindu, you will continue being reincarnated until your personal karma allows you to escape physical existence altogether and reach a state of nirvana.

As a result, a devout Hindu encountering a person suffering from disease, illness or poverty will consider it to be ‘payback’ (to put it crudely) for that person’s actions, either in this life or in a previous one. Similarly, a child who dies at birth was obviously wicked or cruel or unjust in a previous life. Which is not to say that Hindu people are any less compassionate or humane than their counterparts who subscribe to other world views; rather this is how, philosophically speaking, a devout Hindu would explain the presence of suffering.

The solution offered is to seek to improve your karma, until such time as you are able to achieve nirvana.

On the one hand this is a brilliant explanation: it is intellectually satisfying and all but impossible to gainsay. On the other, however, such a world-view leaves little room for consolation. Granted, Hinduism emerged well before our therapeutically intensive society, and so does not share what John Dickson calls our “modern Western fixation with consolation,” (John Dickson, If I were God I’d end all the pain [Matthias Media, 2001] p. 21) this remains cold comfort to those suffering under oppression, persecution, poverty, illness or grief.

Buddhism: Suffering is an illusion

Buddhism arose in direct response to the problem of suffering. Sometime around 500BC a man named Siddhartha Gautama, the Prince of a regions near the present-day borders of Nepal and India, left his palace and stumbled across 3 examples of human misery on his doorstep: a man withered by age; a man incapacitated by illness; and finally a dead body. On returning to his palace he decided to devote the rest of his life to understanding the problem of human suffering.

After searching diligently for 7 years, lived in self-denial and asceticism, he still did not have any answers. According to legend he vowed to meditate day and night under a Bo Tree until he had gained the insight he sought. One night, under a full moon in the month of May, Siddhartha found what he was looking for: all pain is an illusion through which we must train ourselves to see. According to Gautama (known to later generations as the ‘Buddha’ or Enlightened One, in honour of this insight) suffering is directly related to our desires and affections for the things of this world. Thus the pain of losing a loved one is caused not by the loss itself but by the affection I feel towards my parent, spouse, child or friend. If I lose my job, my anguish is brought about by my desire to be employed. If I desire intimacy then being single will bring anguish.

To overcome suffering, therefore, you must follow the Buddha’s eightfold path in order to purge yourself of all desires and affections.

There is little doubt in my mind that the Buddha’s solution is an insightful one: who can argue that our experience of suffering is unrelated to our desires. But does this ‘solution’ provide us a way forward? Is it possible to live this way, to isolate myself of all desire and affection? What kind of life will I be left with?

Islam: Suffering is the will of Allah

Unlike Buddhism, Islam deals with questions of suffering only peripherally. Nevertheless the Muslim position is clear: all events in history, from the least to the greatest, occur according to the will of Allah. The word Islam translates as ‘submission’ (to Allah’s will) and the word Muslim translates ‘one who submits’. Suffering becomes an opportunity for the devout Muslim to ‘submit’ to Allah’s will; to do otherwise, to cry out ‘Why God?’, is to presume to question the Almighty, and therefore all but blasphemy.

Thus, all that happens in this world – good or bad – is attributed to Allah: a young woman dies of cancer; chemists develop a life-saving drug; a family breadwinner dies of AIDS, plunging their family into poverty; a couple get married; a child is born with a heart problem… all these things are according to Allah’s will.

Perhaps of more importance, however, is Allah’s reaction to all of these things: none. According to standard Muslim theology, Allah is the ‘unmoved mover’. He causes all things to happen, but is impacted by none of them.

The Muslim solution, then, is to train yourself to submit to the will of Allah.

Atheism: Suffering is natural

For an atheist, the question “why does God allow suffering?” is meaningless as God does not exist. Instead, suffering is purely according to chance, and is the outworking of the interplay between our actions and the laws that govern the universe.

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and we won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

- Richard Dawkins, “The Evolution of the Darwin Man”, published during 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald and cited in John Dickson, If I were God I’d end all the pain, (Matthias Media, 2002) p. 29.

There is no point searching for meaning or purpose in life, because there is none to be found. That’s just the way things have always been and will always be. There is no solution to be found.

So, we have now looked at 4 of the main approaches to understanding suffering in the world today. Next time, we will look at how Christians understand both the problem, and its solution.

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1 Peter 1:1-21: “Live in Hope”

by on Jun.29, 2007, under Uncategorized

I love the apostle Peter. I love the way he always knows exactly what not to say, and exactly when not to say it. I mean, come on, if there was anyone of whom the saying “he doesn’t open his mouth except to change feet” were true, it’s Peter. Many of you, like me, would have been amused at Stephen Hilaire’s Black Stump renditions of “Jesus and his Merry Men” – with poor Peter the butt of every joke and the source of much frustration and headshaking on Jesus’ part.

As we read on in the Bible, however, we start to get a glimpse of a very different Peter indeed. Here is a man confident to speak in front of huge crowds1 and courts2, to heal cripples3, to pronounce judgement leading to death4 and even to minister to his gaoler. What could possibly change a man who is afraid even to be associated with Jesus( (Luke 22:54-62)) into one who can rejoice at being flogged because he had been counted worth of suffering disgrace for the Name5?

  • What do you think could cause such a change in you?

I believe that Peter reveals some of his secrets in his first letter. Throughout the course of this and the next couple of studies I reckon we should get a picture of exactly what motivated this change in Peter… and what can bring about the same kind of change in you!

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Background to 1 Peter
The first thing to know about 1 Peter is who it is written to and why. Peter, probably writing from Rome, is writing at a time when Christians are just starting to enter a time of intense persecution. The emperor Nero had recently come to power, and tormenting, torturing and killing Christians was starting to become the in vogue thing to do. History tells us that people lost their jobs for being Christians, were shunned by their society, cast out of their houses, deprived of all their possessions. Many ended up running for their lives and hiding in tombs just to stay alive, whilst others were cast into the Circus Maximus to do battle to the death with gladiators or lions for the public amusement. Peter himself was crucified (upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy of suffering in the same way Jesus did) under Nero. Peter no doubt had some insight into all of this, and so he writes to those who are strangers in the world (1:1), for whom the world has no love but rather hatred and enmity.

  • Imagine that you were facing such horrific prospects. Where would you look for strength? What would give you hope?
  • On the flip side, what kind of things would you offer as encouragement to Christians today who are suffering persecution?

Living Hope
Read 1 Peter 1:1-5

  • How could the words of Peter in the opening verses of his letter (1-5) bring comfort and hope to people who had been driven from their homes and exiled to foreign lands?
  • God has offered a storehouse of treasures for all who follow Him. What are some of the treasures Peter highlights that can never be taken away? How have you experienced one of these treasures in your own life?

Our “inheritance is kept for us, and we are kept for it”6. Not only will it not perish, spoil or fade, but we ourselves are shielded by God’s power until we receive it.

Read 1 Peter 1:6-12

  • Peter describes some of the fruit that is born in our lives through times of trial. What grows in the life of a follower of Christ through times of struggle, loss and trials? (vv. 6-9; cf. Romans 5:3-5)
  • Tell your group about a loss or time of struggle you have faced. How did you experience God’s presence and work in your life through this time?

Footprints in the Sand

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?”

The Lord replied,
“The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,
is when I carried you.”7

  • Peter promises that hardships lead to “praise, glory and honour” to Jesus. Do you believe this? Have you seen it happen? How?

Read 1 Peter 1:13-21
Verse 13 signals a big shift in Peter’s train of thought. The first 12 verses have been focused on the hope that God provides us, but now he is more interested in how we are to respond. He is calling us to have right attitudes and actions.

All of us have faith that may be mixed with improper attitudes or sinful motivations… In the crucible of life, God our Goldsmith skims off our impurities. Through trials, God burns away our self-reliance and self-serving attitude, so that our genuineness reflects his glory and brings praise to him.8

  • What are some of the attitudes and actions that Peter calls us to?
  • How is God challenging and growing you in one of these areas? How can your group members encourage and pray for you in this area?

Christians look toward the return of Jesus, when pain will end and perfect justice begin. Faith will be rewarded and evil will be punished. But what should we do until then?

The Bible’s answer is simple but not easy: Because we know the future, we must faithfully server God here and now. If today that means resolving a conflict, mending a hurt, working a dull job, confronting a belligerent child, rebuilding a marriage, or just waiting for guidance – do it all with the joy of God, who will return with his reward!9

Some prayer suggestions

  • Pray for group members who shared about a trial they are facing.
  • Pray that God will show you how to respond to Peter’s call to right attitudes and actions, particularly the specific areas that God is challenging you in at the moment.

[Parts of this study were adapted from 1 Peter: Stand Strong by Bill Hybels (Zondervan 1999)]


Endnotes

  1. Acts 2:14-41
  2. Acts 4:1-22
  3. Acts 3:1-10
  4. Acts 5:1-10
  5. Acts 5:41
  6. Edmund Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, IVP 2006, p. 47
  7. Mary Stevenson, “Footprints in the Sand”
  8. Life Application Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Tyndale 1995) p. 32
  9. ibid. p. 33
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Vessels (Part 1)

by on Jun.17, 2007, under Uncategorized

I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts by Bayless Conley (available at answersbc.org), and there was one in particular that caught my attention, and that I wanted to share parts of here over this week and next week. It has to do with vessels.

In simplest form, as vessel is anything that can act as a container e.g. a jar, a bowl, a cup etc. What they contain can be vastly different, depending on the purpose for which they were created. Conley describes 7 different kinds of vessel used in biblical times:

Vessels of honour
Outside of every Judean home would have been a stand with 3 vessels on it: a vessel of honour, a vessel of dishonour and a small drinking vessel. Whilst we will come to the vessel of dishonour later on, it is the vessel of honour that we are initially interested in.

The vessel of honour was the largest of the three, and was used to hold water. In a time before running water to the home, this would have been the main source of water for the family, as well as for guests to the home. The water would have been used for drinking (hence the drinking vessel on the stand) and washing of hands & feet. It would have been refilled daily.

This is the image that Paul is drawing on as he writes to Timothy:

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.

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- 2 Timothy 2:20-21 (NIV)

The word translated “articles” is the greek word skeuos (σκευος). It has been variously translated “article” (as here in the NIV), “instrument”, “container”, “jar” or “vessel”. Assuming “vessel” as the correct translation here (as do the KJV & NASB, for example), Paul is urging Timothy to be a ‘vessel of honour’, or, as The Message puts it, “the kind of container God can use to present any and every kind of gift to his guests for their blessing.” (v. 21).

By custom almost as strong as law, it was forbidden to refuse anyone a drink from your vessel of honour as you were carrying it back from filling it up at the well. Hence, when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink at the well (see John 4:1-10), it would have been nearly as much of a scandal for her to refuse as it was for him to be talking to a Samaritan woman in the first place!

I believe that this instruction to Timothy is one that Paul would urge upon all of us also – are you “holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work?” If not, pray that God might make it so.

Vessel of Mercy
Similar to a vessel of honour, a vessel of mercy was a water jar kept in the town square. Its purpose was to provide water for any stranger to the town. Paul writes to the Romans that God chooses to “make the riches of his glory known to the objects [skeuos] of his mercy.” (Romans 9:23, NIV)

You see, whereas the vessel of honour was primarily kept in the home or the temple, special provision was made for those who were a part of neither. Paul is explaining that God has similarly made allowance for those who are not in Christian homes, who are not a part of a church. If the water is the news of God’s saving grace through Jesus, then the vessel of mercy would be those whose calling is to evangelism. This is not to say that only some Christians have the responsibility for sharing the gospel – remember, anybody could ask for a drink from the vessel of honour – but rather to say that God sets apart people whose specific purpose is to “make the riches of his glory known.”

Chosen Vessel
On occasion, you might have need of a particularly special vessel, for a very specific purpose e.g. as a wedding gift, or to celebrate/commemorate an occasion. In this case, you would go to the potter, and ask for a ‘chosen vessel’. The potter might raise an eyebrow, and would probably ask you what you required it for, before turning and walking by himself into the back room, where he keeps his very best work. After selecting an appropriate vessel, the potter does one last thing: he turns it upside down and gently chisels his mark.

You see, by asking for a chosen vessel, you are asking the potter to choose for you. After all, he knows his work, he knows which is good, which is not so good, and which is his absolute best. A chosen vessel represents his utmost skill and effort, and he puts his name on it because he knows that he will never be put to shame by it.

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Consider, then, the impact of the following words God speaks to Ananias:

Go! This man [Paul] is my chosen instrument [skeuos] to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.

- Acts 9:15 (NIV)

God, the Master Potter, says of Paul, “He is my chosen vessel, my finest work, selected and crafted by me for a very specific, very important purpose.”

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Punished

by on Jun.14, 2007, under Uncategorized

The Sydney Morning Herald last month published this article about whether the recent tsunami in the Solomon Island’s represents God’s punishment for “straying from Christian ways”. Similar accusations have been made concerning many natural disasters – our present drought, Hurricane Katrina, the Sri Lankan tsunami etc.

I don’t believe that this is the case however. Those who work regularly with children will tell you that discipline is only effective if the child knows what they are being disciplined for. Throughout the Bible, where God has used natural disaster as a means of judgment, he has accompanied it with prophetic explanation of the reasons for it – which hasn’t (so far as I know) occurred in this instance. See, for example, the book of Joel, where Joel announces the Lord’s judgment through the recent plagues of locusts. Further, that judgment was on the basis of the people having transgressed the laws that were given them through Moses, and God was enacting the punishment dictated in those laws – see Deuteronomy 28.

This disaster, to me, is another instance of a world in trouble, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8:22). A world where such things happen and lead to death is a world gone wrong, a world far astray from the perfect creation God had planned for us. So whilst the tsunami is not a specific judgment upon the people of the Solomons, it is in many ways an ongoing judgment upon humanity in general.

I also believe that God uses the forces of nature to remind us that he is ever present, to cause us to lift our eyes to him even if only to cry out, “Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?” (Gen 18:25), or, “Oh that I had someone to hear me!” (Job 31:35). I was talking tonight to a friend who was in India when the tsunami hit India, Thailand and Sri Lanka in 2004, and he was telling me of the numerous conversations about God started by that event. He spent 3 hours talking to one guy who wanted to understand how God could allow such a thing, and why. I, like my friend, don’t know the answers for sure, and probably won’t this side of heaven. But maybe, just maybe, it was so that that conversation (and perhaps many more just like it) would take place.

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