Sunday, January 5, 2020

Bible Challenge: The Writings

In January and February in the St. Paul's Bible Challenge we will be looking at a collection of books in the Old Testament called the writings.  Actually we will be looking at some of the books called the writings.   The Writings (which are the third section of the Old Testament: The Law and The Prophets being the other two sections) are made up of Ruth, Esther, Job, Ezekiel, Daniel, Psalms, Proverbs & the Song of Solomon.  In this section of the Bible Challenge we are looking at Ruth, Esther, Job, Ezekiel & Daniel.

What all of these books have in common is that they tell stories that are meant to illustrate the nature of God, God's relationship with his people and how God wishes for those who follow him to behave.

The book of Ruth tells the story of the great grandmother of King David and of how she came to be a part of the history of Israel.  The book was written at the same time as the books Ezra and Nehemiah.  This is after the Babylonian captivity of the nation of Israel and the major debate in Israel at that time was whether non-Jews who were faithful to the God of Israel had a place in the nation.  A story that identified the great grandmother of King David, the greatest king in the history of Israel, as a Moabite, not only a foreigner but an enemy, clearly puts God on the side of inclusion.

The book of Esther actually exists in two versions, a shorter version in Hebrew and a long version in Greek.  The shorter version is found in the Old Testament, the extension is found in the apocrypha, under the title "The Rest of the Book of Esther".  The book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish woman who becomes Queen of Persia and prevents the massacre of her people.  The extensions attempt to make God, rather than Esther herself, the principle actor in the story. 

The book of Job tells the story of a man named Job, who God points to as a just and honorable man in a conversation with Satan.  God then gives Satan permission to test Job, and in the course of trials and conversations with some of his friends and then with God, Job's faith is exposed and challenged, and ultimately made stronger. 

The book of Ezekiel is sometimes classed as prophecy, but it is as much poetry and history as it is prophetic oracles.  Ezekiel is almost exactly divided in half.  The first half of Ezekiel is oracles of judgement against the people of Israel.  The second half are words of support and hope in various forms.  Ezekiel is one of the newest books in the Old Testament and shows the movement to a development of an understanding of Scripture that makes the Torah the center piece.

The book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature.  The stories are set during the Babylonian captivity, but the book was actually written about 150 years BC, rather than in the mid 500's BC when the Babylonian captivity happened or in the century immediately following.  The stories about Daniel (which means God is my judge or God has judged) are meant to encourage and strengthen the faith of the people.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Bible Challenge: Acts & Revelation

For the Bible Challenge in November we are reading the books of Acts and Revelation.  The reason we are reading these two books together is that they are the only two books in the New Testament that aren't either a Gospel (that is a story of the life and teaching of Jesus) or an epistle (that is a letter to someone or some community).

Acts is the second part of the book of Luke.  It was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke and to the same audience.  Luke was probably a student of Paul and is believed to have traveled with him on his third missionary journey which took them around what is today north Africa, Turkey, Greece and Grecian islands from 52 - 57 CE.  Acts was written about 30 years after that journey - between 80 - 85 CE and recounts the story of the early church beginning with the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost and through Paul's journeys.  Acts is written to the same audience as the Gospel of Luke, that is Gentile Christians living in the cosmopolitan areas of what is today Turkey and Greece. The goal of the book is to use the story of the earliest days of Christianity to strengthen the faith of readers and hearers and to instruct them in how to live their faith. 

Revelation is an entirely different kind of book.  Revelation is a part of the books known as the Johanine corpus, that is books written by John (or by someone closely connected with John).  The other books in that corpus are the Gospel of John and the epistles known as 1, 2 & 3 John.  The Johanine community were, as far as we know, committed Christians and the writings, including revelation, are more focused on exploring theology more deeply than teaching the basics of the faith.  Revelation is an example of what is known as apocalyptic literature.  This is a kind of writing that was common from about 250 BCE until about 200 CE.  The common thread in this kind of literature is a negative view of the world and hope for salvation either in a new world or in a new life. 

Revelation was probably written in the 80's or 90's CE when the Roman Emperor was requiring his subjects to address him as Lord and God and to worship his image.  It is likely that Revelation was, at least in part, written to give Christians both hope and instruction in dealing with the political situation they were facing, but by setting it as a story about the end of the world, made it safer to distribute and pass around.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Bible Challenge: The Epistles

Welcome back to the Bible Challenge.

If you are new to the Bible Challenge, we read the Bible in sections from September to June.  There are readings for 6 days each week.  If you follow the Bible Challenge for two years you will have read the whole Bible.

The first section of the Bible Challenge this fall is the Epistles.

The word Epistle means letter in Greek and that is what all of these books are - letter from a leader of the early Christian movement to congregations of believers all over what is today Italy, Greece, Turkey, and most of the middle east.

What happened was that copies were made of these letters and they were passed around from community to community.  Most of the epistles were written between about 50 CE and about 80 CE.  That means that most of the epistles are some of the earliest Christian writings that we have.

There are 4 categories of epistle:

The Pauline epistles are those written (as far as we can tell) by St. Paul himself.  These are 1& 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians & Philemon

The pseudo-Pauline epistles are those written (as far was we can tell) by one or more of Paul's disciples, some of them after St. Paul's death. These are Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Colossians

The Johanine epistles are those that came out of the same theological school as the gospel of John. These are 1, 2 & 3 John

The pastoral epistles are written to individuals giving them advice. These are James, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude.

As you read the epistles, notice that most of them are focused on giving advice to the new Christians about what it means to live as a follower of Christ.  Most of the epistles are concerned with the new Christians living differently enough from the world around them that people notice they are different, but not being so different from the people around them that they are seen as so strange that they should be avoided.  That is because the followers of Christ at the time of the epistles believe that Jesus is coming back soon and that they need to share the Gospel with as many people as possible before Jesus returns.

Here are the readings for the section on the Epistles.
Week of September 8– Romans
Day 1 – Chapters 1-3   Day 2 – Chapters 4–6
Day 3 – Chapters 7-9   Day 4 – Chapters 10-12
Day 5- Chapters 13-14 Day 6 – Chapters 15-16

Week of September 15 – 1 Corinthians
Day 1 – Chapters 1-3   Day 2 – Chapters 4-6
Day 3 – Chapters 7-9   Day 4 – Chapters 10-12
Day 5 – Chapters 13-14           Day 6 – Chapters 15-16

Week of September 22 – 2 Corinthians & Galatians
Day 1 – Chapters 1-4   Day 2 – Chapters 5-8
Day 3 – Chapters 9-11 Day 4 – Chapters 12-13
Begin Galatians
Day 5 – Chapters 1-3   Day 6 – Chapters 4-6

Week of September 29 – Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians
Day 1- Chapters 1-3    Day 2- Chapters 4-6
Begin Philippians
Day 3 – Chapters 1-2   Day 4 – Chapters 3-4
Begin Colossians
Day 5 – Chapters 1-2   Day 6 – Chapters 3-4

Week of October 6 – 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy
Day 1 – Chapters 1-3   Day 2 – Chapters 4-5
Day 3 – 2 Thessalonians         
Begin 1 Timothy
Day 4 – Chapters 1-3   Day 5 – Chapters 4-6
Day 6 – 2 Timothy

Week of October 13 – Titus, Philemon & Hebrews
Day 1 –Titus                Day 2 – Philemon
Day 3 – Chapters 1-4   Day 4- Chapters 5-7
Day 5- Chapters 8-10  Day 6 – Chapters 11-13

Week of October 20 – James, 1&2 Peter
Day 1- Chapters 1-3    Day 2 – Chapters 4-5
Begin 1 Peter
Day 3- Chapters 1-3    Day 4- Chapters 4-5
Day 5 –  2 Peter

Week of October 27 – 1,2 &3 John, Jude
Day 1 – Chapters 1-3   Day 2 – Chapters 4-5
Day 3 – 2 John             Day 4 – 3 John
Day 5 – Jude  

Friday, May 3, 2019

Bible Challenge: Wisdom Literature

The last section of the Bible Challenge for the 2018-2019 program year is Wisdom Literature.

Wisdom Literature is the term used to cover the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Solomon.

Most of us are somewhat familiar with the Psalms, if only because one is always included on Sunday mornings.  The other four books are probably less familiar.

They are called "Wisdom Literature" both because of the content of the books and the style of them.  Starting with style.  They are all, in the main, books of poetry.  That doesn't mean that they all rhyme, but they are all poetic books.  They make extensive use of symbolism.  They also all show the characteristic repetition of the same idea in two different ways of Hebrew poetry.

The content is, broadly, about human response to environment and events.  The books all contain a variety of reflections on how people, individuals and nations, attempt to come to terms with their reactions to the work of God in their lives and the world around them.

These books were some of the last to come into their final forms, Psalms was the earliest to reach its current form, while many of the psalms are more ancient, the last edits to the book as we have it happened only a couple of hundred years before the birth of Jesus.  The final editing of the other books happened after that. 

As you read these books, remember that they are poetry, so look for symbolism and meanings beyond the words themselves.

The Bible Challenge will take a break for the summer.  Year Two of the Bible Challenge will begin in the fall.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Major Prophets: Lamentations

Sometimes called the Lamentations of Jeremiah, this book it is generally considered possible that it may have been written by the prophet Jeremiah.

The book consists of five poems written in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the forces of Babylon and the carrying off of much of the population into captivity.

The poems are in slightly different forms:
Chapters 1, 2 & 4 are in the form of a funeral dirge.  Rather than being a dirge for an individual, they are dirges for the nation as a whole.
Chapter 3 is an individual lament by the author
Chapter 5 is a community lament.

A lamentation is a cry of pain, it is a response to circumstances that challenge our sense of safety and purpose. 

Lamentations begins by acknowledging the magnitude of the current suffering.  It then turns to the past and acknowledges the power of God and the fact that the nation had become an enemy of God because it had turned away from him and that this was the cause of their destruction.  There is a small bit of hope at the end that God will not exile the people forever, but the majority of the book is confession and repentance.

Bible Challenge Reading:
Read Lamentations on April 12 & 13 - it will be an appropriate preparation for Holy Week.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Major Prophets: Jeremiah

The book of Jeremiah was written in Jerusalem between 627 and approximately 587.  The major concepts are that because of Judah's sin, God will use the Babylonians to destroy the land, but God will be with them in exile and eventually they will return to the land.

The years of Jeremiah's writing saw the decline of Judah and the carrying away of the leaders, educated and skilled people into captivity in Babylon.

Jeremiah was part of a priestly family, but it is not clear whether or not he followed his father into priestly service before becoming a prophet. 

Jeremiah continued to call the people to repentance.  This was not well received by either the king or the people.  Some of the most poignant pieces of the book are Jeremiah being rejected by the people. 

Jeremiah remained behind when many were carried off into Babylon.  He was a part of the remnant working to rebuild life in the land. 

Readings from Jeremiah for the Bible Challenge are:
March 26 - 30 - Jeremiah 1 - 16
March 31 - April 6 - Jeremiah 17 - 40
April 7 - 9 - Jeremiah 41 - 52

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Major Prophets: Isaiah

In our Bible Challenge we are beginning our look at the major prophets.  They are called major because they are long books in comparison to the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  However, both Isaiah & Jeremiah are certainly major theological work as well.

Remember that the word "prophecy" in Biblical literature doesn't necessarily refer to foretelling the future, but about calling the people of Israel, or the king, or the religious leaders or all three to repent and return to the ways of God.

This post is about the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah is actually not one book, but three.  The three are set far apart both in time and in the events of the history of Israel.

First Isaiah (sometimes just called Isaiah) is chapters 1 - 39.
This was written in Jerusalem during the years from 742 to 701 BC.  The key ideas of the book are that God, who is holy and just, demands that the people be righteous and that they trust in him.  The people will be judged, but a remnant will be preserved and God will raise up a king from the line of David.

First Isaiah took place during the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  Isaiah's call story places his call to be a prophet in the year of Uzziah's death.  Uzziah's reign was a time of peace in Israel and because there was peace, it was a time when wealth increased for many of the people of Israel.  That continued during the reign of Jotham, but when Ahaz came to the throne in 735, the Assyrian empire was gaining in power and more and more Assyria exerted power over Israel, even to the point of a temple being built to the Assyrian god in Jerusalem and the king participating in worship and sacrifice (possibly even including his own son) to that god.

The prophet of first Isaiah calls not only the king, but all the people to return to the ways of God, but fears that they will not and that they will be judged.  He holds out hope that after the judgement of God, a remnant of the people will remain and that from that remnant God will raise up a king from the line of David who will rule not only Israel, but the world and will restore them to righteousness.  Many of the writings about that king were believed, after the Babylonian captivity, to refer to king Cyrus of Persia and by the time of Jesus were being read to refer to the Messiah who would one day come to free the people of Israel.

Second Isaiah is chapters 40 - 55.
This was written in Babylon, during the captivity of the people of Israel.  The book was written shortly before 539 BCE, or about 200 years after First Isaiah.  The main concept is that God has forgiven the people and will restore them to their land.  The ministry of the "servant of God" will extend the knowledge of God to all the nations.

Israel had been defeated by King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon in the 570's BC.  The walls of the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, all the leaders who survived, all the priests, anyone who could read or write and anyone with any skill was taken into captivity, leaving behind the poor and subsistence farmers in Israel.  The author of Second Isaiah was among those taken into captivity. 

After the death of King Nebuchadrezzar in 562, the Babylonian empire began to decline and in 539 BCE Babylon surrendered to King Cyrus of Persia.  King Cyrus sponsored the return of the captives to Israel and sent Nehimiah to oversee the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Second Isaiah holds out hope that the people of Israel will be returned to their land and that a servant of God will prepare the way for them and then spread the knowledge of God beyond the people of Israel.  In it's own time the servant of God was taken to by Cyrus of Persia, but by the time of Jesus these verses had also come to be considered to refer to the coming Messiah.

Third Isaiah is chapters 59 - 66.
This is written in Jerusalem after 538 BC, after Cyrus of Persia had conquered Babylon.  The main concept is that God vindicates the righteous and destroys the wicked.

Third Isaiah focuses a good deal on the universal love of God and the forgiveness and grace of God. 

The Bible Challenge reading of Isaiah is:
March 3 - 9 - Isaiah 1 - 18
March 10 - 16 - Isaiah 19 - 40
March 17 - 23 - Isaiah 41 - 58
March 24 & 25 - Isaiah 59 - 66