WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

African irisAt times, we can find reading the Bible rather disturbing. For me, Peter calling Lot “righteous” is upsetting; this man offered up his virgin daughters to be raped by a mob! Abraham’s willingness to hand over Sarah to other men’s lust is equally disquieting. Those are, however, real stories about real people and, among other things, they reflect the low status of women in the ancient world. The Bible’s words may have been God-breathed and intended for people of all times and places but they were penned by men thousands of years ago for their contemporaries and their words reflect a very different culture.

When we read the Bible, we tend to read it from our 21st century point of view. Picturing the cruel plantation owner Simon Legree and remembering our nation’s intolerable exploitation of a race of people, we find the Biblical acceptance of slavery repugnant. It’s difficult for any of us to picture a society where slavery was tolerated and people would willingly sell themselves into bondage to pay their debts. Then again, in our greedy nation, it’s hard to understand a culture where, every seven years, those slaves were to be freed and all debts were to be cancelled. When we read Paul’s admonishment to dress modestly, we think he’s writing about racy clothing but plunging necklines, mini-skirts, thongs, and see-through tops weren’t a problem in his day. He actually was telling women not to flaunt their wealth with extravagant attire and jewelry. Having multiple wives, requiring an unmarried brother of a deceased man to marry his widowed sister-in-law, rules about laying siege to a city, and Paul’s concern about hair length and food, are difficult to understand or find relevant in today’s society.

To a great extent, we don’t understand the times and people responsible for bringing us the Bible. Its words were written between 3,400 and 1,900 years ago and we’re neither nomadic shepherds nor 1st century Hebrews, Romans or Greeks. If we’ve not experienced exile, been persecuted for our faith or lived in an occupied country, we have difficulty understanding or appreciating the words of those who have. With our culture so removed from the original one, when we ask, “What does this mean to me?” the quick and easy answer is often, “Nothing!” Before we ask that question, perhaps we should ask, “What did this mean to the people of that day?” Once we understand how it applied to them, we will probably find the Bible far more relevant to our lives today.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. [Romans 15:4 (ESV)]

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. [James 1:5 (ESV)]

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NOT JUST HALF

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!” [Matthew 16:21-22 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronWhile talking with a friend, I mentioned how many people of our generation seem unprepared for the challenges of widowhood. Having relinquished certain responsibilities to their spouses during the decades of marriage, they’re ill-equipped when they lose that spouse. There are men who have no idea how to do laundry, grocery shop, clean the bathroom or use the microwave. On the other hand, many of my women friends have never done minor repairs, paid bills, made an investment or purchased a car. “That was me!” replied my friend whose husband died of cancer. His death, while unwelcome, was not unexpected so I asked why they hadn’t prepared her for widowhood. “He tried to,” she said, “but I wouldn’t listen.” As long as they didn’t talk about his imminent passing and her future life without him, she still could deny its reality.

While thinking of her experience, I thought of the disciples’ behavior when Jesus spoke of his death. At first, He spoke metaphorically: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” At least three times, however, He spoke quite plainly about what the future held: he would be killed and raised from the dead. He didn’t mince any words when he described his death but the disciples didn’t understand. Jesus forewarned them but they were confused and frightened when He died, hid in a room instead of waiting expectantly at the tomb, and didn’t believe the women who said the tomb was empty.

Jesus spoke of fulfilling the prophecies and the disciples knew those prophecies. They preferred the ones about the messiah’s glory, however, to those of the suffering servant. Still thinking about an earthly king, Jesus’s words were contrary to their expectations and the disciples couldn’t reconcile what Jesus said to what they wanted. How could suffering and death accomplish anything? Like my widowed friend, they didn’t want to face the truth of what the future held. Perhaps, like her, they thought their denial would keep the horror from happening.

We aren’t all that different when it comes to seeing and hearing only what we want. In his Bible commentary, Matthew Henry cautions that we’re like the disciples when we read the Bible “by halves” – only the half we like. Consistently, the top three searched-for Bible verses are John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, and Philippians 4:13; the rest of the top twenty are other reassuring verses of comfort. If the Bible was a buffet, we’d find those feel-good verses on the dessert table. Dessert is great and so are those verses; nevertheless, they only tell part of the story. The other half of the Bible, while just as nourishing, isn’t quite as sweet; it’s the meaty stuff on the main dish table that tells us we’re going to have trials, temptation, affliction, and persecution. It tells us of mankind’s failures, God’s warnings, and why He had to redeem the world He created. It speaks of sin and God’s wrath and uses words like sacrifice, suffering, judgment and tribulation.

Let us never turn away from God’s word because we don’t like what it says. Ignoring the prophecies didn’t keep Jesus from being crucified and ignoring the still unfulfilled ones will not keep them from coming true! As for me, I want to be prepared for what the future brings (both in this world and the next).

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. … Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. [Mark 4:23,24-25 (NLT)]

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THE CORNERSTONE

You are God’s building. Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 15: 9b-11 (NLT)]

oleanderTwo members of our small group attended Easter service at a Christian church in another town. Imagine their shock when the pastor began his sermon by saying he didn’t believe in the resurrection. Thinking his statement had been made for shock value, they patiently waited for him to make a case for Christ and defend the truth of Easter. Unfortunately, he only offered a feel good message about new beginnings. I was reminded of their story when another pastor mentioned his experience when a youth pastor. After one of the teens complained that he talked too much about Jesus, he was called into the senior pastor’s office and told that Jesus just should be a “side dish” in the church youth group!

As for the resurrection—can it be Christianity without the risen Christ? Without Easter, we just have a man who said some beautiful and wise things and was killed for his words. While He may have had a great message, he was either delusional or a liar. In the early church, an Apostle was someone who had personally known Jesus both before that dark Friday and after that glorious Sunday. Without the resurrection, Peter and the rest of the Apostles were equally delusional or liars who perpetrated a fraud with their claims of an empty tomb and their witness to the risen Christ. Without the resurrected Christ, everything that happened after the crucifixion and much of what happened before is suspect. When we read Acts, we find that the essence of every sermon preached is the resurrected Christ. Without the resurrection, how can we believe Jesus was God in flesh? Without the risen Christ how can we believe in the Holy Trinity, the resurrection of the dead, or the truth of the New Testament?

There are plenty of authors who make excellent cases for the resurrection and I’ll leave the Christian apologetics to them. Believing in the resurrection doesn’t mean we totally understand it, can explain how it happened, or know exactly what the body of the risen Christ was like but we don’t need those answers to believe in the risen Christ. Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity and, if Jesus is still dead, so is our religion

As for a “side dish Jesus:” side dishes are optional and you can take as much or as little as you want or skip them altogether. They’re like the Brussels sprouts or green beans at Thanksgiving dinner. Jesus, however, is not a side dish; along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, He’s the main (and only) course! Rather than a turkey, our Triune God is more like one of those Turduckens: three meats (turkey, duck, and chicken) rolled into one. When you slice through it, you get all three—each one equally delicious and equally essential. If we are going to call ourselves Christians, it seems that both the resurrection and Jesus are fundamental to our faith.

I don’t know about that doubting pastor from Easter but I do know a little about that teen who thought there was too much Jesus in her youth group. Her youth pastor refused to back down and, rather than put Jesus in a side dish, He kept the risen Christ front and center. The teen who objected to the main dish Jesus? Shortly after that meeting, she accepted Jesus—not as an optional add-on but as her Lord and Savior!

Scripture often referred to Jesus as the cornerstone: the foundation upon which the church is built. The cornerstone of a building gives it a reliable and firm foundation; it is indispensable and prominent. May the risen Christ remain indispensable and prominent in our witness as we build His church!

You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. [Ephesians 2:19b-21 (NLT)]

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READING HIS WORD

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)]

Bouncing Bet

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of Bible translations: paraphrase, word-for-word, and thought-for-thought. With their straightforward contemporary language, paraphrase versions like The Message and The Living Bible are easy to read. The further we get from literal translations, however, the more room there is for interpretive error. Paraphrase Bibles are a bit like a radiologist’s report on a CT scan. If we were surgeons, we wouldn’t base our surgical plan solely on his summary of the scan; we’d examine the patient and look at the actual scan before operating. A surgeon doesn’t perform surgery based solely on the radiologist’s analysis and we shouldn’t base our faith entirely on our reading of paraphrase Bibles. Nevertheless, just as the radiologist’s easily understood report has value (especially to the layperson), so do paraphrase Bibles.

For many of us, the word-for-word King James was our first Bible. Unfortunately, with its archaic grammar and phrasing, it wasn’t always easy to understand. The word-for-word English Standard Version, however, is quite readable. Unfortunately, a single English word often can’t capture the gist of the original Greek or Hebrew. The strict word-for-word translation in Young’s Literal can seem nearly incomprehensible to anyone but a scholar. Most of us probably prefer thought-for-thought Bible translations like the New Century Version, New International Version and New Living Translation. Rather than translating each word, they translate the meaning of a sentence or paragraph into modern English and are easier to read than many other translations. Regardless of the translation used, the additional explanations found in study or life application Bibles make them easier to understand. As for me, whatever translation used, I prefer it in large print!

Sadly, claiming that it’s beyond our comprehension, many of us don’t read any version of the Bible. Although the King James Version is considered twelfth grade reading, the New King James Version is written at seventh grade level. The Message and God’s Word translations are written at fifth grade level and the New Century Version is considered third grade reading. While the Bible can be confusing at times, it isn’t incomprehensible. What’s important is finding a Bible or Bibles with which we feel comfortable. We should never forget that the primary purpose of Bible study is not to become Biblical scholars or to win a Bible trivia contest. The reason we study the Bible is to know more about its author—God! That can be done any translation; we must, however, do the reading!

The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. [Søren Kierkegaard]

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)]

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THERE WERE TEN

Moses remained there on the mountain with the Lord forty days and forty nights. In all that time he ate no bread and drank no water. And the Lord wrote the terms of the covenant—the Ten Commandments—on the stone tablets. [Exodus 34:28 (NLT)]

Moses - Meiringen - MichaelskircheI ran into trouble while writing yesterday’s devotion. To double check myself when referring to the commandment about honoring parents, I reached for my copy of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism which said it was the fourth commandment. Since that just didn’t seem right, today I reached for my Book of Common Prayer; there I found honoring parents at number five! Of course, the obvious solution was to check the source—the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. For once, however, the Bible didn’t have the answer! Three places in Scripture tell us there were ten commandments but nowhere in Scripture are they numbered. Moreover, since verse numbers were added in the 16th century, they’re of no help. Clearly, a little research was in order.

The assigning of numbers to the commandments developed over the centuries as a way of making them easier to teach and learn. Around 220 AD, the Biblical scholar Origen of Alexandria numbered the commandments in the way familiar to most Protestant and Orthodox Christians. “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” are two separate commandments and not coveting your neighbor’s wife or anything else that belongs to him are combined to form the tenth commandment. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine numbered them so that the prohibitions about other gods and idols are combined into the first commandment. He then split coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting his goods into two commandments. Generally, Roman Catholics and Lutherans follow Augustine’s system.

Since Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk before starting the Protestant Reformation, Augustine’s numbering was the way he’d learned the commandments which explains why honoring parents is number four in his Catechism. My Episcopalian prayer book uses the Origen numbering, making the commandment about honoring parents number five. Without the original tablets, we’ll never know which is correct. Far more important than how they are numbered, however, is what those commandments meant to the Israelites and what they mean to us today. The first three or four (depending on your denomination) have to do with mankind’s relationship to God. They lay out our obligation to honor our Creator. The next seven or six (again depending on your denomination) have to do with the obligations we have to one another in family and society and lay out the foundation for building a community. Rather than worrying about how to number the ten, perhaps we should make a greater effort to live the two spoken of by Jesus!

I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them. [C.S. Lewis]

“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:36-40 (NLT)]

P.S. In spite of attending a Lutheran church when we’re north, I was raised in the Episcopal church and am most comfortable with the Protestant/Orthodox numbering of the Ten Commandments. With apologies to my Lutheran and Catholic readers, when writing about them, I will number the Ten Commandments as I did when a girl.

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GOD’S GOVERNMENT

Mt. RushmoreThe Lord does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths. [Psalm 135:6 (NLT)]

You will be secure under a government that is just and fair. Your enemies will stay far away. You will live in peace, and terror will not come near. [Isaiah 54:14 (NLT)]

Every nation has some system of government and I wonder what system is used in God’s Kingdom. Since He doesn’t govern by committee or with a privileged ruling class, it isn’t an oligarchy or an aristocracy. He is a King, has a Kingdom, and can exercise absolute power, yet His is not a monarchy. His power didn’t come from conquest or birthright, no one gave Him the crown, and no royal scion will follow Him; His reign always has been and forever will be. With all those Old Testament rules, perhaps His is a dictatorship, albeit a benevolent one, in which God exercises absolute power for the good of the population as a whole. That sort of rule, however, would be a one-size-fits-all government. A God who has numbered the hairs on our heads and written our names on his hand knows that one size can never fit all of his unique children.

God’s Kingdom isn’t like our nation, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” with its three branches of government and the checks and balances that come with it. In God’s government, all three branches are rolled into one; He makes the rules, implements them, and decides how they are to be interpreted. There’s no need for checks and balances; God can’t step over the boundaries because He has none. His reign is not dependent upon re-election or approval rating, the majority does not rule, His word is law, and the only being God needs to please is Himself. He didn’t consult with Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit rule nor with Sodom and Gomorrah about their destruction. The Ten Commandments were not created in committee, voted on by the Israelites, ratified by Moses or tested by an Israelite court. God doesn’t need our advice, consent, or support to make the sun rise or set. Clearly, He runs neither democracy nor republic.

With any sort of earthly government, the ruler’s power is limited to his life span and his nation’s border. God’s power, however, is unlimited. He is the eternal Sovereign God over the entire universe. His is a never-ending government of love, forgiveness, righteousness, peace and justice. Unlike other forms of government, His is truthful, dependable, and free of any corruption or bureaucracy. I don’t think there is a word that describes God’s reign except, perhaps, “perfect.” After all, God is God and we are not.

For the Lord is our judge, our lawgiver, and our king. He will care for us and save us. [Isaiah 33:22 (NL)]

May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9 NLT)]

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