Category Archives: Bible Study

What is Romans all about?

I have found it frustrating to get the “big picture” of the book of Romans despite many attempts at studying it. To help myself in this project, I decided to outline it by giving a basic topic to each chapter of the book.

Romans 1. Gentiles have no excuse for their sinfulness.

2. Jews have no excuse for their sinfulness

3. We’ve all sinned, but Jews have an advantage over Gentiles.

4. Faith is a greater advantage, however.

5. Jesus justifies all who have faith.

6. We all used to sin, but it’s not to be expected any more.

7. Just because it’s not to be expected, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Reject the sinful nature.

8. Live in the Spirit.

9. God is testing the Jews by reaching Gentiles.

10. God can save Gentiles, and Jews need to be okay with that.

11. God still wants to save Jews.

12. Jews and Gentile Christ-followers are one. Serve God as one.

13. Serve outsiders and love each other.

14. Don’t enforce your own made-up rules on others that don’t need them.

15. Get along and meet others’ needs.

16. Greet each other and be hospitable.


Woman Washing – An attempt at a harmony

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the world is presented with 4 perspectives on the life and ministry of Christ. Many of the stories of his life are told in multiple gospels, and just a few are told in all 4.

One such apparent event is the washing of Jesus’ feet by a woman. I took interest in this story and its chronology and took to doing an independent breakdown of it’s key events.

I found this story unique in that the gospels that seem to be in the most agreement are Matthew, Mark, and John, whereas usually Luke is the one in agreement with Matthew and Mark (see here some nerdy stuff on the Synoptic Problem). That’s not to say Luke disagrees here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What all 4 stories have in common is that Jesus goes to someone’s house as a guest, reclines at a table, and a woman comes in with very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus. The response of those in the house is a general complaint about the waste of this costly perfume to which Jesus responds by defending the woman’s actions.

While those things are in common, Luke’s story has some significant differences including the events the story is sandwiched between. Luke places his story in the earlier half of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s account, the woman is an unnamed sinful woman who is thankful for the forgiveness she has received. In this gospel, it serves as an example of how the proud have the wrong priorities while the humble recognize the worth of Jesus.

In Matthew, Mark, and John the event occurs in the week leading up to Jesus’ death. All mention that he is in Bethany; Matthew and Mark say they’re at Simon’s house while John says that Martha served with the (recently-raised) Lazarus there. While Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed, John points out that it is Mary, Lazarus’ sister who is performing this action. This fits the apparent purposes of these Gospels. While Matthew and Mark aren’t too detailed about who gets angry, John specifies that it was Judas who was angry because he wanted the money for himself. In all three, Jesus concludes with the statement that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

What is strange to me are the times that the Matthew-Mark-John versus Luke connection doesn’t hold up. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that the host is Simon, though in the former 2 he is a (former) leper, while in Luke he is a Pharisee. John doesn’t name the host, just that Martha serves. It is Matthew, Mark, and Luke that mention an alabaster flask, while Matthew, Mark, and John mention Nard as the type of perfume. Matthew and Mark put the perfume on the head; Luke and John have it on his feet. Only Mark and John mention the potential sale price of 300 denarii, or 1 year’s wages.

I don’t ultimately see any issues with saying that we have 2 separate stories here: one in Luke and one in the others. Simon the Pharisee hosts Luke’s story while Simon the Leper hosts the other (with the Martha family helping out). In both stories an alabaster flask of nard is poured out on Jesus head and feet, and it was “unnecessarily” expensive.

In each Gospel, the author’s intent is apparent. John is pointing out the personal nature of Jesus’ ministry to this family while demonstrating Judas’ evil motives. Matthew and Mark quote Jesus saying that “she has prepared my body for burial,” showing their emphasis on his soon-coming death. Luke wants to point out the hypocrisy and pride of the group of Pharisees in the house.


Israel is a People

In our previous study, we saw the background of the person named Israel. Israel was the younger brother by a few minutes. He went from being a deceiver to one who wrestles with God. Apart from any good deeds of his own, God decides to bless him and his descendants with some of the best territory known to mankind of his day.

Israel’s family had some issues though. As any good rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will remind you, there were not good feelings between his sons. It starts when Israel plays favorites with his wives (a good start to any dysfunctional marriage). After having 10 sons with his second-favorite wife and two maidservants, he finally has a child with his favorite wife. This child, Joseph, is later sold by his brothers to their distant cousins. Joseph ends up in Egypt and rises in the ranks. Ultimately he saves Egypt and its neighbors (including his relatives in the land of Canaan) from famine. Pharaoh honors Joseph by inviting Jacob/Israel and his descendents to take some of the best land in Egypt.
A generation later, the Egyptians weren’t so happy about Israelites living in their best territory, so they enslaved them. Four hundred thirty years later, God delivered those Israelites out of Egypt into the land he originally promised Abraham: Canaan. This nomadic nation that had never possessed a permanent homeland was on its way to its final(?) destination.
Why make them wait over 400 years? There seems to be one practical reason and one theological reason. First, there were 70 people in Israel’s family when they went into Egypt–hardly enough to occupy a country. When the Exodus occurred, there were 600,000 men, or probably 2-3 million people. (By my math, that’s 5 kids per couple for about 12, 30-year generations.) That would fill a small country nicely in those days. The theological reason comes in when God is making his covenant with Abram. God tells him that his descendants will be enslaved but that it won’t be permanent. Then Abram is told the reason: “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were one of the nations in the “Promised Land” of Canaan. My understanding of this statement has been: The Canaanites aren’t bad enough to deserve losing their homeland yet… but give it 400 years.
These descendants of Israel come out of Egypt, spend 40 years having their faith tested in the wilderness, then they spend several generations trying to wrest control of Canaan from the Canaanites, only to cave in to their ways of living in worshipping. The rest of the story of the Old Testament is a struggle between a few God-fearing people who hate idol worship and a majority who would rather be just like the Canaanites. The books of Joshua thru Malachi trace the story of those few who stand against the majority and sometimes cave in themselves.
The trough of Old Testament story comes with the fall of most of Israel’s descendants to the Assyrians. This was followed within a few generations by the fall of the dominant tribe of Judah to Babylon. The next 70 years that Israel spends in exile in Babylon became the defining moment in its identity. For the first time in 1000 years, the nation didn’t have a land of its own. From that point until this day, there have always been Jews (hear the name in Ju-dah?) outside of the “land” of Israel. God had a lesson in humility to teach to this nation. Several, like Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra passed the test. God restored Judah to their ancestral land in former Canaan, and they began to rebuild.
This people group re-established its nation in the Levant slowly with the permission of the Persians (who had supplanted the Babylonians). However, it never had complete sovereignty for more than a few years here-and-there. These remaining Israelite descendants who held to their “promised” land lived under the rule of Persians, various forms of Greeks, and finally Romans. Rome had enough of their monotheistic ways and obliterated this Jewish land once more, exiling its inhabitants in 70 A.D. Jews would not live in this land again in any significant numbers for another 19 centuries.
Describing the history of a people that covers this much time will always do injustice to the nuances, but I hope you can see the trajectory of Israel as a people through its ancient history. Next, I hope to uncover what it means to say Israel is a land.

Israel is a Person

Israel is a frequent focus of attention in American Christian circles, but I suspect that a lot of people don’t have a good “big picture” idea of the role of Israel in the world according to the Bible. I would like to take you on a quick flyover of Israel’s history so that we can better understand what the Bible says about Israel’s role today.

(I pray you would consider this series for its own merits without assuming I’m going to fit in a certain niche. I’m going to try to avoid making conclusions that Scripture itself doesn’t make.)

First, we need to know who, (not what,) the “original” Israel was. Israel is a person, and for him, we need to go to Genesis. The Old Testament (i.e. Old Covenant) is a series of covenants that God made with man, and Genesis tells us about the first two. Noah gets the first one, sealed by a rainbow, including the promise that God will never again flood the whole earth (with water, that is).

Abram

The second covenant is given to Abram (Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson). Here, God promises that Abram (a 75-year-old man whose 65-year-old wife, Sarai, is infertile) that he’ll be a “great nation”. Abram, whose name means “father,” is told to leave his homeland, move across the known world, and settle among strangers. Once he arrives, he’s told that his (non-existent) descendants will inherit the land of the Canaanites. (I’ll talk about them, and their land, in a later installment.)

This is a real problem for “Father” Abram. If he died childless, the whole “nation” thing wasn’t going to happen. After 10 years of waiting for this promised child, Abram and his wife thought it would be a good idea to for him to have a child with their servant Hagar. It works, and God does indeed bless that child, Ishmael, with several children himself later on, but it wasn’t exactly what God was indicating in his promise to Abram.

Fast-forward to a 99-yr-old Abram, 89-yr-old Sarai, and 13-yr-old Ishmael. God appears to Abram, changes his name to “Father of many nations”–Abraham, and promises that Sarai (now, Sarah) herself will have a child. God specifically promises that this child, Isaac, will be the recipient of Abraham’s covenant. Isaac is born within a year.

Isaac

Isaac doesn’t get as much “air time” in Genesis compared to his dad and sons. For our purposes, we need to focus on the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, struggled to conceive for 20 years, but God answered their prayers and gave them twins. In a day before sonograms, Rebekah was wondering why the baby was kicking so much, so God told her:

“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.

Esau gets his red head out first, Jacob literally pulling his leg. In later years, Esau, like Ishmael, is blessed with wealth and a large family, but not with the unique covenant given to Abraham and Isaac.

Jacob

So, where does Israel come into the story? One day, preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, Jacob wrestles a guy. This guy may in fact be God. This guy tell Jacob (which basically means “deceiver”, a fitting description for Jacob so far) that his name is now “Wrestles-with-God”–Israel.

Earlier in his life, Jacob/Israel was taking a nap in northeast Canaan when God told him, “the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” Later, God also says, “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you.” As a result, God later calls this his covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.

Israel

So, before we proceed with the series, we need to know first who Israel, the person, was. His story covers a lot of family conflicts, but results in a strong, powerful group of people. We’ll talk next time about how Israel is a people.


Mothers in the Bible

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from May 2008.

When we think about Biblical mothers, we all know about Eve, the mother of us all, and Mary, the mother of Christ. However, we don’t often think about the many other mothers that influenced the stories of God’s people.

Jochebed
The Hebrew slaves had become quite numerous in the land of Egypt, and Pharoah gave the command, “Throw every newborn Hebrew boy into the Nile River. But you may let the girls live.” Jochebed was a Hebrew woman and became pregnant during this time. She did throw her baby into the Nile but took some extra precautions first. “She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she got a basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed it with tar and pitch. She put the baby in the basket and laid it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile River.”

God honored the actions that Jochebed took and protected her baby in a most ironic way. “The baby’s sister then stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to him. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. When the princess saw the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it for her. When the princess opened it, she saw the baby. The little boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrew children,’ she said.”

The woman was not ignorant of the baby’s origin but cared for him anyway. This baby boy who was passed from one mother to another was Moses, the future liberator of the slaves.

Hannah
There was a man from the hill country with two wives; one wife bore him children, and the other wife Hannah was not able to. Rather than belittle her like many men would have, he tried his best to encourage her. ” ‘Why are you crying, Hannah?’ Elkanah would ask. ‘Why aren’t you eating? Why be downhearted just because you have no children? You have me—isn’t that better than having ten sons?’ ”

Apparently it wasn’t. She sought God for a son and said, “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime…”

God answered her prayer and she gave birth, naming the son Samuel. She and her husband agreed that they would dedicate the child after he had been weaned, and they held to that promise.

She showed her amazing dedication to the Lord with the phrase, “Now I am giving him to the Lord, and he will belong to the Lord his whole life.”

Elizabeth
Elizabeth’s story is a strong New Testament parallel to Hannah’s, she too was without a child. An angel appeared to her husband and said that their prayers would come true, and that their son “will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

What an amazing promise! Elizabeth is six months pregnant when she learns that her cousin Mary (yes, that Mary) was also pregnant. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist (a descendant of Jochebed), later paved the way for the ministry of Mary’s son, Jesus. Elizabeth’s faith and encouragement had a strong impact on the life of Mary and of her son John.

Eunice
Finally, the story of Eunice is very short, but is a often-cited example of a mother training her son well. Paul wrote a letter to his friend Timothy saying, “I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you.” Lois and Eunice must have done something right, as Timothy was a very effective minister in one of the most influential cultural centers of the Roman Empire. If it wasn’t for Eunice’s training, the church would have been without a central figure in its historical development.

These mothers are not well-known at all. However their dedication to and faith in God lead to the development of great, godly children. Take the time to thank your mothers for their training, and pray that you will be as effective as these women were.

(All biblical quotes in this post are from the New Living Translation by Tyndale House Publishers.)