Monthly Archives: September 2012

An Ancient Fragment about Jesus’ Wife?

In recent days you may have heard about a discovery of a small fragment written in the Coptic language in which Jesus appears to be making a comment about his wife (Jesus said to them, “My wife and . . .”). What do we make of findings such as this?

1) It typically takes palaeographers and religious scholars some time to sift through the reports and evidence once something like this is brought to light. Judgments about the origins and meaning of ancient written documents can often remain somewhat tentative for years after the discovery.

2) One of the first questions experts will ask is, “Is this a genuine ancient work, or a modern forgery?”

In just a few days after the announcement about the fragment about Jesus’ wife, Francis Watson, a respected biblical studies scholar in England, has already identified compelling reasons to believe that the fragment is a modern forgery that patches together language from two verses in the Coptic version of the so-called Gospel of Thomas. The forger was not confident in the Coptic language and so just made minor alterations to wording he or she found in the Gospel of Thomas. This theory is further supported by the relatively straight and parallel edges of the fragment (it doesn’t appear to have naturally broken off from a larger work) and the fact that the snippets of wording are difficult to fit together into a coherent discourse (suggesting that there is no broader discourse, and that there is no larger work that the forged fragment was once contained within).

3) If the manuscript or manuscript fragment is suspected to be genuine, scholars will attempt to determine the date of the manuscript using various means.

4) Students of ancient religious writings will try to discern the meaning of the text and relate it doctrines or philosophies that are already known from that era.

Even though this fragment may very well turn out to be a forgery, there are a number of other documents from the second and third centuries that do speak about Jesus. These often promote gnostic philosophies. The authors recognized the power of the “idea” of Jesus and wanted to link Jesus to their own teachings. The “Jesus” that emerges from these texts bears little resemblance to the Jesus the apostles testified about in the New Testament books, which were written generations before these gnostic writings.  The apostles of Jesus taught and preached publicly about Jesus at a time when there were many eyewitnesses (some believers in Jesus, and others opposed to Jesus) who could confirm (or challenge) what the apostles were saying. The gnostic texts were written generations after by people who had no historical connection to Jesus. In other words, the gnostic teachings about Jesus add nothing historically to the testimony the apostles give us about Jesus.

The Jesus that is portrayed in the New Testament is consistently shown to be the promised Messiah/Christ, who taught about and demonstrated the kingdom of God in his ministry, who died for the sins of the world, who was raised from the dead, and who will come again one day to bring salvation and implement God’s kingdom in its fullness. Genuine and forged gnostic texts about Jesus receive a lot of attention from the media, but they are hardly worth the time, as they present a Jesus with no connection to history and no power to save.

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Filed under Church History, New Testament

Interpreting Parables – The Wheat and the Tares

Jesus often used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God (kingdom of heaven) was a central emphasis in Jesus’ teaching ministry (and this continues into the ministry of the apostles as well). It was a controversial topic though, since many in his audience already had strong opinions about the kingdom of God.

Jesus taught in parables in order to subtly but effectively challenge people’s views about the kingdom of God. In order to interpret the parables well, we need a good overall grasp of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom as a starting point (for instance, that the kingdom of God describes the implementation of God’s abundant, just, and righteous reign over the world, and that through Jesus this reign is already being inaugurated but is not yet fully realized).

For interpreting a specific kingdom parable, then, I recommend following three steps:

1) Identify the flawed or incomplete view of the kingdom that Jesus was challenging (being keen especially to the original setting and misguided views of the kingdom that were prevalent in Jesus’ day).

2) Understand the main point Jesus proposes about the kingdom – a truth that replaces the erroneous view.

3) Determine what response Jesus calls for from his hearers (then and now) as a result.

How does this work for interpreting the kingdom of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43)?

1) The dialogue in the parable – confusion about why there are weeds growing up in the field the master planted and why the master is not acting immediately to deal with those weeds – gives us a hint about the faulty view Jesus opposes. Inherent to the Jews’ kingdom expectation at the time of Jesus was the idea that God as king would defeat his enemies and judge evil once and for all in this world when his kingdom comes. The roots of this idea are found in the Old Testament itself. As the Jews heard Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, they probably wondered why Jesus wasn’t doing more to deal with the enemies of God and the evil in the world. After all, the kingdom of God means victory, triumph, gaining the upper hand against all of our foes! (Note, as Jesus later makes clear in the explanation of the parable, that the field is the world as a whole, and not just “the church” that would emerge after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

2) To redirect people’s thoughts about the kingdom, the parable explains that there is a reason why this decisive judgment has not yet taken place: the harvest is not yet ripe (and at this stage the wheat and weeds are hard to distinguish from one another). But God has a perfect plan, and when the time is right, he will bring the judgment that accompanies his glorious reign. At that time evil will be defeated, and God’s enemies will be judged.

3) What response did Jesus pursue with this parable? The seed of the kingdom has been sowed, but judgment is still in the future. Now is the time to determine allegiances, to be disciples of Jesus on the path to the kingdom. That decision to trust and follow Jesus will not be vindicated in a visible way immediately. There will not be immediate judgment on those who refuse Jesus and immediate blessing for those who receive him. But we can trust that God will make all things right in his perfect timing. When his kingdom comes in full force, God will bring salvation for his own children and protect them from the judgment upon a world system under the dominion of his enemy (the devil – Matthew 13:39).

It is a good thing to desire the arrival of God’s kingdom and justice. But Jesus calls us to follow him faithfully in the meantime and trust in God’s timing for the completion of his perfect plans for us and our world. The eternal result is beautiful: “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

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Imagine a World

Imagine a world in which God is silent:

Why are we here? Is there any design or meaning in this world?

Was I born into chaos, or do I have a purpose in life?

Silence.

Is there more to life than eating, drinking, achievements, stuff?

Silence.

How do I make sense of a world that is filled with so much beauty yet so much horror?

How can I cope with seeing ruthless people succeed through treachery and manipulation?

Silence.

How can I begin to deal with the guilt and shame of my failures, my shortcomings, my broken relationships?

Silence.

When I feel powerless to unseen spiritual forces in this world, how do I appease the spirits so that life can go well for me?

When something good happens to me, whom do I thank? Or is it all random?

When I really need a change of fortune or deliverance from my troubles, to whom do I pray, and how do I address that powerful one?

Silence.

What will happen when I die? Is there any hope for me after my life is but a distant memory?

Silence.

 

But praise God – he has not been silent, and he has not left us alone. He revealed himself throughout history to his people and has graciously made himself known to us – his character, his perfect plans for this world. He has given us his gospel, the good news of his reconciling work in Christ. We have hope.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

He is not silent.

 

 

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Filed under Bible Study, Biblical Theology

Drawing Nourishment from Scripture

Thomas Boston, who lived 300 years ago, had this to say about how to gain nourishment from Scripture:

“Read with a holy attention, arising from the consideration of the majesty of God, and the reverence due to him. This must be done with attention, first, to the words; second, to the sense; and, third, to the divine authority of the
Scripture, and the obligation it lays on the conscience for obedience.” (HT: Fire and Ice: Puritan and Reformed Writings).

This quote gets to the heart of Bible study that nourishes. First, our attention must be focused in order to discern the meaning of a passage. Focused attention can involve studying the Bible using insights from language, genre, literary context, and relevant background information. It can also consist of memorizing, meditating on, and prayerfully reflecting on Scripture. Second, recognizing that Scripture carries the stamp of “thus says the Lord” helps us realize that we are encountering God as we read. Seeing the Bible as God’s revelation of himself prepares us to draw near to God with worshipful, teachable, and obedient hearts.

The goal of Bible reading is to experience transformation through God’s word, by the work of the Spirit. Why be content with just letting the words skim off of the surface of our lives (see James 1:21-25)? With careful and prayerful study we can be intentional about letting God speak to us and shape us when we read the Bible.

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A Fun Method of Bible Study

If I remember correctly I first learned of this Bible study method from a missionary with the Navigators. The method is quite simple: study a book of Scripture, divide it into sections, and summarize each section with a brief (4-8 words), catchy title. I like the method because it engages both the “left brain” (careful observation skills) and “right brain” (creativity).

Here’s what I came up with for the book of Nehemiah a number of years ago. Why not give it a try with some of the Scripture you are studying!

(Picture of the Broad Wall in Jerusalem – see Neh 3:8).

1:1-11 – Jerusalem in disgrace, Nehemiah prays

2:1-10 – King permits Nehemiah’s trip

2:11-20 – Walls inspected, plans detected

3:1-32 – Task shared, Jews begin repairs

4:1-23 – Threats alarm, pray, arm!

5:1-13 – Jews’ usury, Nehemiah’s fury

5:14-19 – Nehemiah refuses power abuses

6:1-14 – Enemies harass, Nehemiah holds fast

6:15-7:3 – Walls raised in 52 days

7:4-73 – Credentials on file of returned exiles

8:1-12 – Ezra reads Law, tears, then joy for all

8:13-18 – As Law dictates, in booths celebrate

9:1-37 – Israelites raise confession and praise

9:38-10:39 – People aligned, to Law they bind

11:1-24 – Who’s who in Jerusalem new

11:25-36 – Who’s who in Judah new

12:1-26 – Generations span priest and Levite clans

12:27-43 – Choirs’ celebration of wall’s dedication

12:44-47 – Just reward for servants of the Lord

13:1-9 – Ammonite Tobiah expelled by returning Nehemiah

13:10-14 – Nehemiah re-invites unpaid Levites

13:15-22 – Nehemiah amends Sabbath sins

13:23-29 – Strong rebuke to intermarriage abuse

13:30-31 – Nehemiah’s plea: Lord remember me

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Filed under Bible Study, Old Testament

My Favorite New Testament Book

At a wedding recently someone asked me what my favorite New Testament book was.

That question always stumps me.

The great thing about teaching the whole NT several times every semester is that I get exposed to every book on a regular basis. I learn to appreciate the contribution each book makes to the whole. Teaching the whole NT also keeps me accountable to the whole NT. I can’t ignore parts of the NT that don’t conveniently fit into a simplistic paradigm of God and his work.

The Gospel narratives remind me that Christianity is more than a philosophy or a set of abstract principles. It is based on historical events in which the Son of God was born among us, ministered in our midst, was rejected, was crucified, was buried, and rose again. The comforting, unsettling, inspiring acts and teachings of Jesus lead me to both deeper worship of the Lord and greater eagerness to read about and understand him more.

Acts tells the exciting history of how the church blossomed by the power of the Spirit and under the leadership, ministry, and teaching of the apostles. There were significant bumps along the way though – pretenders struck down for lying to God, accusations of insensitivity to the needs of some members of the church, sharp theological disputes that required the convening of a church council, and the breaking apart of a ministry team because of a disagreement over personnel. But God’s word and his church still advance.

Paul’s letters are a diverse bunch themselves. Paul unpacks the implications of Jesus’ work – for the present life, for the life to come, for Jewish believers, for Gentile believers. He presents the ideal of unified churches guided and empowered by the Spirit and yet churches that need leadership and organization too.

The general epistles include uncompromising stands against false teaching (Jude), descriptions of worldwide judgment on the unbelieving world (2 Peter), and the challenge of living counter-culturally and not just inwardly spiritually (James).

And then there is Revelation, where the vivid portrayals of God’s vindication of his people, triumph over evil, and creation of the new heavens and new earth remind us not to reduce God to a tame, grandfatherly figure.

The NT books are all part of our heritage as Christians. They all contribute to a complete Christian world view, and God uses them all to speak to us and shape us into worshipful disciples. Treasures await in each book for those who are diligent seekers.

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