Revelation 0: Intro and Background

Before we begin studying the Book of Revelation there are a few important pieces we need to walk through. Some of them are important to read any book of Scripture (like author, audience and time period) but there are a few which are unique to Revelation.

 

Author: Who is this John who write the book of Revelation? Well the short answer is we’re not super sure. The earliest biblical commentators of the first few centuries always erred on the side of simplicity when ascribing authorship. That means the most books by the least number of figures. So for them this clearly means that John the Gospel writer, John the apostle, John the Elder (who wrote the 3 epistles) and John the Revelator are all one person. This makes for a neat answer but it doesn’t really line up with what we actually have.

First, all three of these sets of books Gospel, Epistles and Revelation, are addressed in a different way. The Gospel writer refers to himself in the third person, calling himself “the beloved disciple.” The epistle author seems to call himself “The Elder.” And the author of Revelation refers to himself by name “his servant John.”

We also have a writing style problem. While all three sets of books have overlapping images and words like “lamb” “light” and “darkness” Revelation completely loses the love language of the Gospel and epistles. There is also a technical style difference. The Gospel of John is some of the clearest simplest Greek in the New Testament. Its so easy some professors don’t want to use it to teach beginners because its so basic. The epistles are also fairly simple, technically solid Greek. Revelation’s Greek is a mess. The author was definitely a native Hebrew speaker and writer. Then he either learned Greek poorly and thus made lots of mistakes (like saying “They is” in English). Or he learned Greek very very well and made an intentional poetic choice to use Hebrew phrasings in the Greek to highlight his Old Testament images. Either way it is very very different from the other 4 books. So for our purposes we’re going to assume we have a distinct “John the Revelator” or “John of Patmos” who is familiar with or somehow related to the apostle/Gospel writer John but is not the same person.

 

Date: There are two fairly narrow windows which could be the time period for Revelation. Based on the cultural references, especially those around Rome and its emperors, we can get some fairly precise dating. John seems to assume that Nero is dead at the time of writing but still holds him as highly culturally significant which would put us around 70 AD. However, Nero was not a major proponent of the emperor worship to which Revelation is at least in part responding to. He also did little systematic persecution beyond the borders of the city of Rome. Our second window is right around 100 AD. In this case the author is making some allusions to Nero but mostly to link him to the emperor Domitian who did in fact demand emperor-worship which was the root of his persecution of Christians. The Domitian date seems more likely because of the intersection of the imperial cult and a widespread state sponsored persecution. So it was likely around 100 AD.

 

Audience: So who was John writing to? Well it was certainly Christians sometime around 100 AD. They had deep familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures and were suffering under Roman persecution. Though he cites 7 specific churches its likely his letter was meant to be circulated to any Christian who was being persecuted. Those 7 specific churches were evenly distributed along a major trade route, likely chosen as ideal sites for mass distribution.

 

Purpose: Revelation is ultimately about hope and faith in times of trial. John wrote to lift the spirits of Christians suffering under intense persecution, giving them a vision of God’s ultimate victory and rescue. This was to give them the strength to continue to resist Roman influence and idolatry even under threat of death.

 

Genre: Revelation is an Apocalypse (from the greek word Apocalupso which is the first word of the book) a specific mostly Jewish genre of book which literally means “Unveiling.” Apocalypse is similar to but ultimately different from prophecy. It is usually published under the name of a famous Jewish figure like Moses (though Revelation breaks this pattern). It talks about the world in terms of rich, vivid and sometimes seemingly contradictory images and symbols. References to the world around them and the Hebrew Scriptures fill small details with big significance. The closest modern parallel would be something like a political cartoon, where symbolism is drawn from current and past events to offer up some kind of insight. Apocalypses are usually focused around dualism, opposing pairs like good/evil, light/darkness. They often include messengers, angels, dreams and break the world down into a current and coming age.

 

 

So we have one more important question, the one which is unique to Revelation. Is Revelation about the past or the future? There are some strong arguments for each.

The Past: Revelation seems to mostly be about Roman persecution of Christianity during a very specific point in history. It references ancient emperors and uses a lot of imagery and symbols unique to the first 1st/2nd century Roman world. And in fact Rome has fallen since Revelation was written, seemingly fulfilling much of its words. Also, John was writing about a very urgent present situation. It seems strange if not cruel to tell people who are suffering deeply this very moment to “hold on because sometime thousands of years from now God will fix this.”

 

The Future: Well, Jesus hasn’t had a glorious second coming yet. We would probably have noticed. There also seem to be large portions of the story which haven’t quite come to a head yet. So it certainly seems that some if not all of this story have yet to play out.

 

There is also another way of reading Revelation, a view called Dispensationalism which situates us part of the way through the book of Revelation. Different passages correspond to different points in history, usually lined up around European history and the Catholic Church. So the book moves from the past and is heading towards the future.

 

Well, many of you have spent enough time in Colby-style youth lessons by now to know that when I present you with an A or B (or C) question the answer is probably “both and neither.” Revelation is simultaneously about the past, the present and the future together. Revelation is a historically rooted book which conveys its meaning through first century and ancient Hebrew imagery. It was written to a group of Christians in the past and had a specific real meaning for them. Revelation is also a book about the future. It is about God’s final victory and the restoration of the whole creation, something which we have not yet seen but never quit awaiting.

 

But the place where Revelation really hit us is here in the present. Revelation is an unveiling. It is God peeling back the curtain and showing us the way things are right now. The patterns of powers and empires, good and evil and ages and martyrs and the suffering of those who carry their cross and challenge this world, all of those things are just as true today as they were in 100 AD. So we will use the historic images to help us understand and we will chart our course by a future resolution but ultimately Revelation is a book about living faithfully in the world the way it really is.

Isaiah 58 and Amos 2, Praise and Mercy (30HFHVBC Devotional 3)

Isaiah 58
1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Amos 5
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19   as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

These might be two of the hardest passages of Scripture for Christians in churches today to live into. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, not just denouncing injustice but rejecting the worship and adoration of the unjust. This is a hard hard word to hear. This passage actually gives us what one might call the thesis statement of the prophets, right worship, justice and love for neighbor are all so intimately interwoven that we can’t meaningfully do one without the other.

In the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the stories from the start of the Kinghood of David and on, we see a repeated cycle. The powerful upper classes of society become wealthy and complacent. They fall out of their trust and relationship with God. They turn to worshiping idols. And they abuse the poor, the stranger and the vulnerable. Isaiah brings together all the different prophets when he tells us that these three pieces rise and fall together. When we trust God with our lives we live justly, we worship truly and we treat others well (and doing all of these things probably also means we are not unjustly rich either). But when we begin to fail in one of these we tend to lose the others. Wealth drives us to protect wealth by turning to other gods who make false promises. It drives us to abuse others to grow and defend that wealth. It’s a vicious cycle that plays out again and again. Even wise Solomon lapsed into idolatry and injustice in his complacent life of luxury, conscripting Israelites to build a massive temple to God even as he set up idolatrous altars around the kingdom.

While few of us would consider ourselves rich that is because we are usually comparing ourselves to others in the very narrow world of middle class (and higher) American culture. When we set our possessions and lives against the global community, all people everywhere, we realize that we are actually sitting not just towards the top of the global pile but actually at its peak. This makes these passages quite a bit more worrying. What seems to be a comfortable middle in the United States and the industrialized world looks palatial and extravagant to much of the world.

These passages remind us that our worship can’t exist in a vacuum. Never, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, has God separated out our worship and our lives. We have to back our songs of praise with mercy and our justice must be rooted in our worship. We can’t have one without the other. The two hold us in balance and help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. These passages help to keep us honest before God.

Matthew 25, Jesus with skin on (30HFHVBC Devotional 2)

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

When moderate Christians talk about judgment we often feel uncomfortable. When we read passages where God threatens or enacts some kind of judgment we might even feel embarrassed. Like hanging around an older relative who’s started to say awkward things in public. We have this subtext of “Oh God, you don’t mean that.” Jesus and mercy and forgiveness and love are the whole story now. Judgment is some sort of historical holdover.

But this isn’t really a whole answer. Ultimately, we don’t want to go to either extreme, completely ignoring words of judgment in Scripture or making them the central or even only thing we talk about. But this leaves us in a hard place. People just generally have a hard time finding balance between two contradictory positions. So what do we do?

Well we have to remember something important right out of the gate. We have a very different perspective on judgment in this time and place because we are living very comfortable lives. God’s judgment looks like an unnecessary burden. But there are places in the world where horrific things are happening. Where people strive and struggle and do their best and then something awful happens. Something or someone takes what little they had away. There is weeping, bleeding, bone deep brokenness being inflicted on the world and if God is God that has to matter.

We see this so rarely around us because we are blessed to be in a place of deep safety. But much of the world needs judgment, needs the profound intervention of God and God’s people which says “this evil which has happened and continues to happen is not right and will not continue forever” Thousands and thousands of children under five die each day from poverty and hunger. Girls seeking an education to free them from poverty are harassed and abducted and killed. Millions go hungry when we have enough food to feed the world twice over. If Jesus is who we believe He is then we cannot call ourselves his followers and say that these things go unnoticed by God and will be allowed to go on forever. We cannot be uninvolved.

What is even more amazing is what Jesus claims here. The distant infinite cosmic, mountaintop and creation, heights and depths and stars in the sky God took on flesh at Bethlehem. God incarnate. But Jesus goes a step further. Because Jesus didn’t just take on the human condition of one first century dusty peasant rabbi but here in Matthew 25 he takes on all the human condition. Everywhere someone suffers and hurts, every time someone is struck or beaten or broken down, Jesus is there.

God stakes God’s self on and in humans. Jesus says if you want to see me, know me, serve me, go find the broken and the hungry and there I’ll be. When we fix our eyes on Jesus in worship Jesus points beyond himself and back into the world, reminding us of our brothers and sisters in need. When we serve our brothers and sisters in need and look into their eyes we see Jesus staring back at us.

 

 

James 2, Faith, Trust, Love and Service (30HFHVBC Devotional 1)

This is the first of our 30 Hour Famine devotionals. As we joined together in fasting, prayer and service for those who suffer in poverty and hunger we also dove into some of the harder passages of Scripture that call us to serve God’s people. I will add our actual discussion video to the end of this post as it becomes available. Donations for 30 Hour Famine have not ended and you can still contribute here to help HVBC Youth address hunger and starvation in the world! www.tinyurl.com/hvbcfamine2014

When churches talk about helping those in need we often find ourselves stepping back to discuss the bigger question of faith and works. After all many of us, and Baptists especially, take the framework of our faith from Paul’s discussion of faith and works in Romans. Paul says things like “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Later major thinkers like Martin Luther took this even further making sola fide or his doctrine of “faith alone” a central piece of his theology, a Protestant theological heritage many of us share.

Unfortunately this often becomes a conversation killer. It’s the shut down conversation move. A lot of folks, with good intentions, end up using this thinking to throw the brakes on involvement in the community or service to others. It even becomes a put down we throw on other Christians. We invoke this argument to make ourselves feel better about not being involved. If they’re trying so hard at works they must not have faith. (This is of course a great big straw man version of this argument, written so you can see the problem in a paragraph or less, but you see where its coming from.)

But this problem isn’t new at all. When Paul wrote Romans he was still living in a church that was both literally and culturally Jewish. The oldest, earliest and most influential leaders, churches and thinkers in the early Church were all Jewish. And what they passed on to the Gentiles was still full of Jewish influence (and for good reason of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and understood himself as flowing out of Judaism). But something tricky happens here. The particular brand of Jewishness that was being passed on didn’t just contain many of the great things of 1st century Judaism but was also laced with that “yeast of the Pharisees” Jesus himself had warned against. This kind of Jewishness took “works” which for them meant very specific Jewish cultural elements (like circumcision, sacrifices, following the calendar of feasts and holy days and a very calculating petty version of tithing) and made them the center of salvation. They turned Judaism’s center from the people’s relationship with God and the lives of holiness He created in them to a narrow racial/cultural definition of salvation.

This got passed on to some of the early Gentile converts. Missionaries and evangelists other than Paul were spreading a Gospel which included Jesus but also (contrary to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) insisted that Gentiles take on all these cultural markers of Judaism to be saved. In light of all that its not surprising that Paul comes out pretty strongly against works and for faith when he writes his letter to the Romans.

Christians took Paul’s letters and their response to these specific “works” and started to take them to extremes. They made a version of the Gospel where God’s salvation was totally set apart from the things Jesus commanded us to do. So we see this pendulum swinging. God lays out commandments for life and justice and worship and over time people bend them towards one extreme or another and then back again.

So if we stop at Romans we don’t realize that we’re only getting half a conversation. To see a whole cycle we have to flip over to James chapter 2.

 

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James is a corrective, bringing us back to the middle. Our trust and our worship are important, when we try and separate them out from our service and God’s justice in the world it’s a bit like a dissection. We only find out how deeply connected they are when we start cutting those connections and find the pain, damage and suffering that follows.

Our love of God and our service to others are interwoven so tightly we can’t tear them apart. We see Jesus in the faces of those we serve, we have our hearts widened and deepened, when we carry God’s love into the world through our actions. We have the strength, the compassion and the courage to serve because we have been caught in God’s love and are being transformed by His holiness. When we neglect the poor we are not just callous but failing those whom God loves and died for. When our faith and worship fails we are no longer rooted in the source of our strength and our true hope for change.

Fasting through Lent

Fasting is one of the most common and visible practices of Lent. It is one of the fundamental practices of Lent, recommended or even required in varying degrees by many denominations. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays through all of Lent. The Orthodox churches take on a progressive fast, simplifying and restricting their diet more and more each week of Lent.
So what exactly is fasting? In the most literal sense it means refraining from eating. But thousands of years of tradition have given us many variations on what fasting can look like. Many now fast from things other than food, like caffeine, alcohol or media. Or give up certain types of food, usually particularly rich or extravagant foods.

So why in the world would we do this? Well, at the most basic level, we do it because it is a biblically recurring practice. Kings, prophets and even whole nations have fasted to show repentance or to prepare themselves for some great calling or event. Jesus himself fasted in the desert for 40 days in a time of preparation for his ministry.

We fast to take seriously our bodies as a part of us. We are not souls inhabiting a fleshy machine or a mind being carried about in a vehicle of blood and bone, instead we are some mix of all of these, a mind, a body, a soul, inseparable and interwoven. How we treat our bodies and what happens to them will affect the state of our minds and souls. We pray with our bodies. We preach with our bodies and we serve with our bodies. If we ignore them in our life with God we are leaving a part of us behind.

We fast to take God’s blessings more seriously. Many of us fast from things which are not inherently bad, like caffeine or meat, to be reminded of the goodness of God in giving us those things. When we have an uninterrupted flow of something we can be tempted to forget its source and become unthankful and entitled. We forget that the good things we have are a blessing and not a thing we have earned or required. Fasting helps reset us to 0,0. So we can see things where they really are and not where our skewed perspective puts them.

Finally, We fast to free ourselves for devotion to God. Many good things can become sinful if we let ourselves become reliant on them. They become one more barrier to our love and devotion, one more piece of baggage we are carrying. Many of us are literally addicted to things like sugar, caffeine, social media or technology. A dependence which should be reserved for God and a dependence which the world can use to twist you around. When we fast we invite God into our lives to free us from good things which have overtaken us.
Fasting reminds us of our bodies, reminds us of our blessings and invites God to free us from addictions and burdens in our day to day to life. When we fast we are joining with thousands of years of Saints and believers who have gone before and millions of Christians around our present world who also yearn to grow closer to God. And fasting doesn’t have to end with Lent. Through Lent we have been assembling a series of spiritual disciplines to carry with us all year. Fasting, prayer, bible study, silence, we take these with us to continue to grow in our faith and devotion all year.

 

Last night we did nothing…

Last night at Youth we took a break. For almost two hours we did nothing but talk, eat pizza and play volleyball. There was a Lenten lesson written, the practice of fasting to discuss, which would have segued neatly into setting up our next big event and service project, 30 Hour Famine. But instead we didn’t.
As a church and as a Youth ministry we talk a lot about Sabbath. It is a frequent theme of Sunday school lessons, bible studies and youth discussions. But last night I realized that, even if no one else will, we have to put our money where our mouths collectively are on the importance and immediacy of God’s rest.

Our Youth are coming off of a busy week in church life alone, with two Missions fundraisers in a week span, spending not only extra time at church but also outside work preparing for our Talent Show fundraiser, promoting the event and selling tickets. All of this on top of the usual madness of school, homework, tests, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, chorus, ACT, SAT, AP, College Prep, piano recitals, guitar lessons, track, swimming, eating, breathing and sleeping. Oftentimes with a distinct lack of the latter.

There are always more lessons to teach. God and Scripture and Life go on and on and there is always more to learn and discover, always one more adventure to go on, one more service project to do. Sabbath can’t wait till everything else is finished. It’s no longer Sabbath then (it will also never happen).
Even if no one else will, the church has to demonstrate to youth and young adults that a good and holy life contains a balance of work and rest. It means sometimes we get one less lesson here or there. One less chance to discuss and grow and all the important things we try to cultivate in our Youth Group times. But that’s the point. To answer God’s call to rest will sometimes mean leaving things unfinished. Maybe a little less polished, a little less perfect. It will mean leaving some doors closed and some opportunities unanswered.

But if we never learn to say no we will grow into a kind of slavery to work. If we can never say no then all the good things in our lives, like work and relationships, hobbies or even worship and service to our communities, can rise up and consume us. The tiniest bite at a time.
So even if everything else won’t or can’t stop to rest, we will. Because no matter what we say or teach what we fail to demonstrate in our church life is not real. If we burden ourselves, drives ourselves to the edge of exhaustion for one more lesson, even on Sabbath, we are still failing to truly teach.

Scripture in Lent Part 2: How do we read this thing?

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Last time we took a more up close look at the process that gets us from Oral Tradition to printed bibles. This time we are going to look at the different ways we study scripture.

The first way we read Scripture is devotionally. This is often what we mean when we talk about having a quiet time or daily bible study. This is when we read the bible specifically to hear what God might be speaking to us. We focus on God’s commands and God’s promises so we can carry those things with us throughout our daily lives. To read devotionally its often helpful to set aside a daily and regular time of silence or worshipful music and prayer. When you read devotionally you aren’t just wanting to understand but to be transformed, to have a conversation with God.

The second way we read Scripture is to understand a specific section or book of the bible. This is very important. Scripture is God’s word but God has chosen to mingle and inhabit that word in human words which comes from a specific time and place. What a 1st century Pharisaic Jew turned Christian with strong Grecco-Roman influence (Paul) or a Judean prophet of the 8th century (Isaiah) might mean by a phrase is not always obvious to us. We need to read for understanding much the same way we would try to understand something like Shakespeare. We try and get our heads into their worldview so we can understand their phrases and stories the way they were meant. When we read this way we often focus on reading whole books through, looking at questions like genre, history and language. To do this we often go to outside sources like histories or commentaries where specialists answer some of these complicated questions for us. When we understand the book and where it comes from it is easier to hear what God might be speaking through it.

The third way we read Scripture is to understand a specific issue or question we might be struggling with. This can be a very difficult approach. We might use tools like indexes to see where certain topics are referenced throughout Scripture. When we read this way it is important we gather the sometimes contrasting answers of Scripture (Pray for those who persecute you v. Eye for an eye) to get the full view of how God and God’s people have answered these questions. We also need to see those verses and passages the way they are situated in a chapter or book of scripture. But it is also important we remember that some parts of Scripture are more authoritative for us as Christians. The life and words of Jesus are the core of what we believe and follow, we should weigh different voices in Scripture with this in mind. We also generally take the New Testament to be more authoritative than the Hebrew Scriptures because it builds upon and even changes some of the earlier traditions. This process can be complicated but it is also, often, the main place where practice meets theology and we put our faith into action.

 

So why do we have these three different lenses for reading scripture? Its because only all three together can sufficiently honor what Scripture is. In the bible we see God’s word and inspiration coming together with human authors in real communities with real needs at a specific moment in history. If we read the bible only for devotional purposes we will neglect God’s choice to use these very real human situations to speak into the world. We will misunderstand God’s Word if we can’t understand the human word that delivers it. Thankfully God didn’t choose to speak for all time through a theology textbook. God gave us letters and stories and laws and songs and visions, written by real authors to real communities for specific reasons. Paul clearly didn’t expect his letters to become Scripture. But God chose them, with their unique historical moments, to deliver divine Word to us.

 

So what are your thoughts on reading Scripture? Do you see a sense of reading that isn’t covered here? (Other than entertainment, Sarah) Do you have a regular bible study plan? What helps you to better understand Scripture? Leave a question or comment or send me an email and let me know!

What does it mean to be Baptist? Part 1

What does it mean to be Baptist? Surprisingly this answer can be quite difficult to parse out if you’ve been born and raised in what I call “Baptistland.” You’ve never needed to name what is uniquely Baptist about you or your church because those things are a seamless part of “the way things are” or “church.” Fish wouldn’t have a word for water.

But unlike Fish, it actually does matter that we understand the legacy of Baptistness. Whether you’ve been part of the fold your whole life or are an immigrant in a strange land, you not only have a name but a community, an identity and an inheritance of spiritual gifts and faithful ancestors who have gone before you.

So what does it mean to be Baptist? One way to identify Baptists is by the unique practices they share as a church. Baptists are literally named for their most obvious practice, believer’s baptism. Baptists believe that while your community and family will have an impact on your spiritual life, your decision to join the church and your relationship with God is something that each believer has to come to in keeping with their own conscience.

Even if it sometimes feels that way, if you are a member of a Baptist church it isn’t because your grandfather was, it’s because you made a confession of faith of your own. Many other denominations practice infant baptism (which can have its merits), where an infant or child is baptized at their parent’s prompting. Their church commits to helping the parents in caring for them and raising them in the faith family (which is awesome) and they are automatically members of their church. This practice has a strong showing in the history of the Church but Baptists believe that this model of baptism and church membership is not the one seen in the New Testament. (For the same reason Baptists believe in full immersion as the preferred way to Baptize).

Another part of Baptist life are what we call local autonomy and free association. These are fancy ways of saying each local Baptist church takes its cues from God and Scripture directly which is then put into practice by leaders from that church community. Baptist churches are often members of many associations, national groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or Southern Baptist Convention or local associations like the Yates Baptist Association, but these associations are not in charge of the local church. In fact, it’s the other way around. In Baptist church’s authority starts with the local congregation and moves up. The Fellowships, Conventions and Associations takes their cues from the churches and offer resources and networks for churches to be better equipped to serve together. This is why most decisions in local Baptist churches are made by congregational vote. Baptist believe that God’s prompting is best heard by the faith community listening, discussing and deciding together. Baptist ministers are also ordained by the local church, sometimes in cooperation with other churches but ultimately in the hands of the individual congregation.

By contrast some denominations have an organizational structure that all their churches are a part of. Every individual Catholic, Anglican or United Methodist church is under the authority of their denominational leaders. Catholic churches answer to Bishops, Cardinals and ultimately the Pope. Methodists are organized under District Superintendents, Bishops and the United Methodist General Conference. While they can disagree with some of the things they are told and participate in the decision making process in certain ways, each individual church in these denominations has to largely abide by what comes from these bodies.

Baptists also believe strongly in the authority of Scripture. While every Christian denomination takes Scripture to be important, Baptists hold it in especially high regard as the source for our faith and practices. Baptists are often reluctant to practice things not specifically found in scripture (even if they’re beneficial) and discussion is often centered around interpreting scripture’s view on an issue rather than offering outside opinions. Baptists also generally encourage practices like verse memorization and personal and weekly bible studies. You can find all of those things in other churches but they just tend to be more prominent for Baptists.

These are just a few of the things that make Baptists distinct. I’ll be swinging back around to this topic soon to talk about the history of Baptists and the diversity of Baptist churches. If you are a Baptist, or especially if you are a member of another denomination, and you see something that doesn’t sound right about your church or denomination leave me a comment and let me know!

Scripture in Lent Part 1: What goes into a Bible?

Alongside Prayer, Bible Study is at the heart of everything we do. We take our words, our songs, our practices and our beliefs from its pages. It is our encouragement in trial and a distressing challenge to our boredom and complacency. The season of Lent offers us a time to grow in our study of Scripture. Wherever you fall, be it an avid daily reader of Scripture or you haven’t seen your bible since the Winter Retreat, there is room to grow.

Today we want to look at what the Bible actually is and what processes went in to putting the printed Bible in our hands. So where does it come from?

-The Oral Tradition: Nearly every story or passage of Scripture was first passed on by word of mouth, repeated from one generation to the next. This is true of the Old Testament, where much of its pages weren’t actually written down until the 8th century BCE and later, as well as the New Testament, which of course began as the stories of Jesus told and retold by the disciples. Remember, its only relatively recently in history that most people could read!

-The Written Tradition: But the stories of Scripture are important. They needed to be preserved and they needed to be portable so they could be shared from community to community. So the words were written down. The apostles and the students of apostles wrote down the things they had heard and believed and shared them with other Christians (most of this happened from about 50 AD until some time in the 2nd century AD)

-Canon: Canon, literally meaning “measure” or “rule”, is the body of books we agree to make up Scripture. There are other texts out there written about Jesus but we don’t accept all of them as Scripture (some make crazy claims like Jesus was a ghost without a body or that Jesus blew people up with eye lasers as a child, no joke). The early churches got together and made specific lists of books which were to be called “Scriptures.”

They used criteria like age (the closer to the original time the better), apostolic connection (they looked mostly for books written by the disciples or close students of theirs) and their own understanding of Jesus’ teaching (after all they were only a generation or two of leaders away and had learned from the disciples what they learned from Jesus). Together with prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit they used these criteria to set out the NT canon. The final canon process didn’t come until the 4th and 5th centuries but the majority of books were pretty well agreed on by then.

-Compilation: We don’t have the original documents that make up the Bible. We don’t have a pristine, fresh copy of Romans or Matthew. Over time paper deteriorates. Many of the earliest church documents were lost to persecutions of the first few centuries. What we have instead are a variety of different copies from lots of different times and places. Scholars take these various pieces, sometimes nearly whole groups of books like the Codex Sinnaiticus or the Dead Sea Scrolls, sometimes just a sentence or two from one book, and join them together using the oldest and most authentic versions they find.  These produce manuscripts of Greek and Hebrew which are as close as possible to the original documents (which is very very close, the bible is one of the most well preserved and most copied ancient documents in the world).

-Translation: If compilation leaves us with big manuscripts of Greek and Hebrew (and most of us don’t read both or either of those), we need translators to get a final copy. Translators are scholars of Christianity, Judaism, Greek, Hebrew and ancient languages who try to convey the original sense of the Gk. or Hebrew words into English.

There are two main kinds of translation, literal translations and paraphrases. Literal translations focus on getting the word for word or phrase for phrase meaning of the original text into English. These are translations like the NASB, NRSV and NIV. Paraphrases focus on broad meaning over specific words, like the Message or New Living Translation. These translations try to convey the complicated original phrasings in a way that is clear and readable in English. Personally, I prefer a strict translation if you can read it and understand it. The NRSV and NASB are usually very accurate to the original words. This is important because even a translation can be skewed by the translator’s bias.

-Helps: There is one last phase that goes into most bibles. Most of us have more than just a raw translation of the Bible. We also have footnotes, endnotes and even essays, charts and maps that help us to understand the bible more clearly. These can be very very important. Oftentimes footnotes point you to other verses that reference similar topics (or show you where the author is referencing an earlier piece of scripture). An index might help you find verses about a topic. A map might help you understand the very geography centered stories of Paul’s missionary travels or the Exodus wandering.

These are also very very dangerous. Most translations show the bible well enough, meaning that they haven’t skewed it too much in any one direction. Most major translations will be just fine. But footnotes are not scripture! Oftentimes bibles don’t even list their authors and editors of their footnotes. They might be a renowned biblical scholar or a gifted and wise preacher or they might be a random person off of the street with an unknown agenda. The very literal “Left Behind” reading of Revelation is actually the result of one of the most popular early footnoted bibles, the Scofield Reference Bible. Many readers had never used the footnotes before and had difficulty distinguishing the extremely literal minded and agenda heavy comments of the author from the Scripture itself.

So what are the three questions you should ask about your bible?

1) Is it accurate?

2) Can I read and understand it?

3) Are the notes and comments helpful and accurate?

If you aren’t sure send me a text or email, drop by or leave a comment. These are the most important factors in bible choice and you absolutely shouldn’t be without one. If you need one let me know ASAP and we’ll make it happen.

We’ll check in again in a few days to talk about why the bible is so important and the various ways people read it.

Praying through Lent: Prayer Station

Prayer, along with the study of Scripture, are the core of everything we do as Christians. Every act of worship, every act of service, every time of fellowship flows out of these two things.  So it is no wonder that we should refocus ourselves on Prayer during the season of Lent. This leaves us to ask “how should we pray?”

And the answers are many. Paul commends us to “pray without ceasing.” And if we are going to pray in many times and many places it stands to reason that we would also need different ways to pray. For many of us, our prayers are silent, casual and nonphysical. This kind of prayer is important. This is everyday walking, driving, in class, at work, in the shower kind of prayer. It’s the running conversation with God. We need this.

But there are other dimensions of prayer that we often neglect. We tend to separate out our bodies, our minds and our souls when we think about daily life. We assume it doesn’t matter whether we sit or stand or speak when we pray because those are functions of our bodies and prayer comes from the soul or the mind.

But Scripture doesn’t support this clean break of body and soul.  When God creates Adam it is only when the body and the breath (or spirit) of life are joined together that Adam is a living being. Christianity itself is fundamentally about bodies, as we look to a God who takes on a body, lives and suffers and dies in a body and then is resurrected in a body (still carrying the scars of his life!)

What does it say about prayer then if bodies are so central to who we are? The way we feel, the way we present ourselves and arrange ourselves in prayer matters. This doesn’t mean that we do away with our silent conversations with God but it does mean that we need other tools to bring to our lives of prayer.

Just like there are learning styles there are styles of prayer and they engage us in different ways. This Lenten season we are creating prayer stations for use at home in daily prayer. Each of our Youth is beginning with four items to help lead them through prayer.

The stone calls us back to the ebenezars and altars of Genesis. Hold the stone in your hand as you thank God for the blessings in your life. We begin our prayer in thanksgiving for the many things God has given us in our lives.

The water reminds us of our baptism and the way we are joined with other Christians in communities of faith. Dip your fingers into the water water and pray for your church, the churches in our community and the capital C Church, of all Christian believers in the world. They come from many different worldviews and places but through baptism and God’s Spirit we are still one body and one family.

The burlap is like the sackcloth and ashes worn by devout Israelites for mourning and repentance. Rub the rough material between your fingers. Notice the discomfort and unpleasantness of it. Take time to offer up to God the sins and failures in your life and pray for strength and transformation to turn away from them.

Finally the sand reminds us of the wilderness and exile stories. Stories where God’s people were called into times of waiting or preparation. First offer up to God the things that trouble you. Pray for patience but also ask God to intervene. We need to be able to be honest with God with the things that anger and upset us. That too is part of prayer. After that pray for God to prepare you for where He is leading you. God has a vision and a call for all of us. Pray for God to help you see that vision and equip you to follow it.

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These are only four items of many which could rest in a prayer station. In the photo you’ll notice that I also have a glass cross. That cross reminds me to thank God and pray for the many amazing teachers and mentors who have helped prepare me for ministry. It also reminds me to pray the amazing classmates and peers I have in ministry who are out serving in all sorts of churches and ministries all over the world. The mountain dew bottle isn’t just recycling either. It’s a physical reminder of my Lenten practice that sits over my desk and frames my prayers.

Hopefully this will be the start of a prayer practice that can carry you through and beyond the Lenten season. As with our other Lenten practices, we encourage families to ask questions and participate alongside our Youth in this season of prayer. Use your imagination and find suitable items to add to your prayer station. I will include a few ideas below.

-Candles have been a part of prayer in Christian practice for the entire history of the Church. Fire reminds us of strength and purity. It is also a reminder of the Holy Spirit (as we saw it at Pentecost). If you are comfortable (and parentally allowed), consider adding a candle to your prayer station.

-A notebook is a common sense addition to a prayer station, allowing you to write down the people and things you are praying for.

-Instrumental, choral or worship music could also be a focusing tool to add to your prayer station.

If you have a cool idea for a prayer station addition or a comment or question about prayer feel free to leave it in a comment or drop me an email (text/call etc)