What Have They Seen in Your House?

Yesterday the Scripture for my Sunday School class was Isaiah 40:21-31. The daily readings in the student guide included the first 20 verses of the chapter as well. Those acquainted with critical scholarship on the book of Isaiah recognize this as the opening of 2nd Isaiah, chapters 40-55.

At first I was going to avoid the topic of authorship and date, but two things intervened: 1) The teacher’s guide brought the subject up, thus reminding me that people in the UMC will be hearing about and discussing this, and 2) I believe chapters 36-39 intentionally transition from the collection of oracles in the first 35 chapters. I don’t mean by this that I argue unified authorship for Isaiah. In fact, I favor the idea of an Isaianic school that was active from the time of the prophet through the exile, producing the three major horizons of the text.

But treating the book as two tends to make us treat it as though the first and second parts are not related. Just because one believes in collection and editing doesn’t mean that the original writers, the collectors, and the editors were stupid or uncreative.

The critical question of Isaiah 39, I believe, comes in verse 4: What have they seen in your house?

Chapter 38 tells us of Hezekiah’s miraculous healing. In fact, chapters 36-39 are about God’s power active in and for Israel. Then comes the time to show people what’s important, and what does Hezekiah show? His treasury and his equipment.

The power and sovereignty of God were there, but Hezekiah was more interested in the wealth and the military equipment. Despite God’s healing and rescue from the Assyrians, his value was in the stuff.

And so we get Isaiah’s prediction of exile and the loss of all that treasury.

Now comes chapter 40, and the horizon has changed. The people are in exile. What is it that they should be talking about? What should they rely on?

It’s the one who sits above the circle of the earth (40:22). It’s the One who saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians and who healed Hezekiah. But Hezekiah didn’t give credit where it was due for what had happened.

I think this might be the question God has for us in our churches today. When someone visits and we show them around, what have they seen in our house? When someone hears me talk, what have they seen? Is it the building or the parking lot? Is it the multitude of our programs? Is it the erudite pastor? When someone hears me teach about the Bible do they see Greek and Hebrew tools in action so as to praise my education?

If so, then I have failed if following God’s call. In Isaiah 36-39 we see Hezekiah receiving God’s blessings. Salvation came not from the treasury or the weapons in the armory but from God’s action. He is healed by God’s intervention. Yet when he has visitors, his witness is to the treasury and the armory. Similarly, when I speak about God, I can either bear witness to God, or I can bear witness to myself and my stuff, whether that “stuff” is knowledge, a library, a church setting, or a catalog of church programs.

Stuff is quite useful, yes, but only when it reflects its creator.

So what have they seen in your house?

Introduction to Perspectives on Paul

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky

Paul was impacted by his mystical experiences and the intervention of God by a vision of light. (Source: Adobe Stock [licensed]).

Tonight I begin my new series of Thursday night studies on the apostle Paul. My approach will be a bit different than usual. I’m more interested in developing the background, particularly in Israelite religion and Judaism and looking at the way Paul draws from his theological sources.

I’ll also introduce my approach to the subject. I’ll be working first with material from Energion Publications authors. I publish these materials and I’m acquainted with them. More importantly, I wouldn’t have published them if I didn’t consider them valuable.

You can find all of the materials in our The Apostle Paul category on Energion Direct. Most of these books are available in both print and ebook formats.

9781631991691I’m going to use Galatians as my basic guide. That wasn’t my first choice. I’ve often felt that Pauline scholars spend excessive time in Romans and Galatians and neglect books like 1 Corinthians or Philippians in developing their view of Paul’s theology. But I have come to believe instead that what I saw as deficiencies in building a picture of Paul from these letters is more a result of misreading Paul than of choosing the wrong letters. Of course, I will still maintain that in order to understand Paul and his theology, one needs to consult everything he wrote, but I doubt anyone actually disagrees with me on that point. It’s rather a matter of emphasis.

In studying Galatians, I’m going to start from a foundation of reading the book with Bruce Epperly’s study guide in the Participatory Study Series, titled creatively Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide. (The title is not Bruce’s fault. It’s standard for the series, and therefore my fault.) Besides the fact that I publish the book, my reason for choosing this is that it is written by a progressive theologian, also a process theologian, who is nonetheless very favorable to Paul’s writings. I would like to create a conversation here between evangelical and progressive approaches to interpretation and also to take a look at the way our existing theology impacts our reading.

As part of the resources for this study, I’m going to be interviewing scholars from our Energion Publications author list with a variety of perspectives. Because I’m using Bruce Epperly’s study guide, I’m starting by interviewing him. I completed it this morning, and I’m excited by the results and what he had to say. Bruce is always entertaining. He’s the first of several. I hope you will listen to (or watch) all of them. Here’s the video:

Meditations on the Letters of PaulIt’s not necessarily a bad thing for our theology to impact our reading. In  fact, I think it would be quite shocking if it didn’t. I am only reading the Bible because I grew up in a Christian home and have a theology that suggests that this book is useful. My existing theology is also going to have an impact on the way I place the content of the book. In turn, Paul is himself impacted by his own background and theology. This doesn’t suggest that interaction with the book doesn’t have the potential to change or even totally revolutionize our existing thinking. Paul  encountered God in a new and different way on the road to Damascus and his theology was revolutionized. Yet one can still see his background in his destination.

It’s easy to separate Paul from his own background. In fact, it’s easier to do so than not. So I’m going to emphasize the background. Now I’m not in search of some undiscovered country where I hear Paul 100% as he was. My theology will be in tension with his as I learn, and I hope yours will be there as well.

It’s my hope to provide additional video notes and some blog posts each week. Just as we have with the Energion Publications Tuesday Night Hangouts I’ve changed these to a half hour each. I also hope that you will pick up a copy of Bruce Epperly’s book and do a study of Galatians at the same time as I do.

I will be consulting the other books listed, and also providing a resource page with a list of available books. But another  book will be with me for the entire study is Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on the Letters of Paul. Herold brings some impressive scholarship to his reading of Paul, and I will be making full use of his material. As a suggestion, pick up copies of both of these books and follow along. And yes, I will be interviewing Herold as part of my series asking “Who was Paul?”

Here’s the viewer for tonight’s presentation:

Note that if you want to participate in live chat you will need to go to my YouTube channel and watch there. I will be watching the live chat for questions and comments. Note that I have put the books involved on sale on Energion Direct. You will be able to see them on the home page.


The Separation and Grief of God

Last night my wife Jody and I recorded a conversation about grief for the Energion Publications Tuesday Night Hangout. Those who are calendar-aware, so to speak, might notice that it was on a Wednesday night. We had a technical issue, so the conversation was delayed. It was an interesting conversation, and, if I do say so myself, I think quite enlightening and helpful.

In preparation for this event, I was thinking about grief in scripture. Now I’m not one to imagine that I will find an outline of the “right” way to do grieving somewhere in scripture. In fact, there are many stories of grief, expressions of grief, and reactions to it tucked away in the various stories. Paul, who isn’t sure whether it’s best to go on to glory now or to stay with his people, so sure of he was heaven (Philippians 1:21-26), is nonetheless also distressed at the illness of Epaphroditus and the sorrow he would feel should Epaphroditus not recover (Philippians 2:25-30).

As I was thinking, however, the one example of grieving that I find in the scripture is not human, but divine. For what is the story of our faith and our salvation if it is not a story of God grieving for the separation from his creation, and the efforts God makes to heal the rift? Many Christians seem to feel that attributing such an emotion to God is a bit irreverent. It’s bringing God down to our level. We’re comfortable with anger (though “wrath” sounds more theologically proper), we’re somewhat comfortable with “love,” as it is used so many times, though we try to distinguish divine love from its human shadows. But grieving? This seems somewhat odd.

The Bible does not shy away from speaking of God in this way, as it speaks of God changing his mind and being grieved (KJV-more like provoked!) at what people do. God is not emotionless in the stories of scripture. And surely the most important story, the longest one, the one that ties our theology together is a story of grief, of seeking, and finally of redemption and reunion. God walks in the garden which God has made for the first couple, but then separation occurs and things go very sour.

God crosses the gap in the incarnation and becomes one of us. Jesus showed sorrow many times. John 11:35, the famous “shortest verse in the Bible,” says that Jesus wept. There has been much controversy regarding what Jesus was crying about. If he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, which he does in the next few verses, why is he crying? I wonder if we might miss an obvious explanation. One can weep because of the sorrow of those who are hurt. Jesus knows what he is about to do, but nobody else does. He shares in their sorrow as one of them.

Comparing our grief with God’s separation from his creation makes the process long, but it also puts the same hope of reunion before us. God knows it’s coming, and we can too. But in the meantime, there is separation and there is sorrow. Not sorrow without hope. Not depressing, life-destroying sorrow. But real sorrow.

We don’t have to pretend that death is really a good thing, or that we are totally happy that we are missing our loved ones. But we also can look forward to the time when death is no more. Death isn’t good. Death will be defeated (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Hangout Postponed

The Tuesday Night Hangout will become a Wednesday Night Hangout because of a technical glitch. We’ll do this tomorrow night at 7:00 PM central time.


Energion Tuesday Night Hangout

Grief: Finding the Candle of LightTonight I’ll be talking with my wife Jody, author of Grief: Finding the Candle of Light, in a hangout titled “Grief 12 Years Later.” We will talk about our experience 12 years after our son James went on to be with Jesus.

Many Christians struggle over the experience of grief. We hope we can help with some ideas drawn from our experience, from scripture, and from wrestling with God. Once the live discussion has concluded, you will be able to view it using this same video embed.

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

angrymanfist-300px_redI’ve recently said and written a few things about the gospel commission, including my claim in my concluding presentation for my video series on eschatology that eschatology is all about the gospel commission. You’ll hear more about this in my foreword to Dave Black’s new book Running My Race. It’s in the final stages of production and should be available soon.

This isn’t a new perspective on my part, but as soon as I start using words like “evangelism,” “mission,” or “the Great Commission,” I start getting questions about whether I believe in dialogue or whether I’ve started to think that all non-Christians are horrible people.

On the other hand, each time I start talking about respect, interfaith dialogue, inclusion, and similar topics, someone is bound to ask me whether I’ve given up on evangelism and mission. Perhaps I no longer think Jesus is important.

So let me put both of these things together. First, I am never going to abandon the Gospel Commission. It’s what being a Christian is about. I follow Jesus and I help others follow Jesus. I am a witness to Jesus as I follow Him. I proclaim his good news, and that good news is the central fact of my life. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be a Christian publisher. Frankly, while there are many things I enjoy about publishing, it’s hard work, the pay isn’t as good as it is for my other occupation (small network technical support), and I’d hardly keep at it without this greater “joy set before me.”

Second, I believe that respect and love for one’s neighbor are central to the gospel. If I don’t love my neighbor as myself, I am not following Jesus Christ, and in turn I can hardly be effective in making other disciples, who would, in turn, be expected to love their neighbors as they love themselves. (There’s a “loving God” thing in there too, but see 1 John 4:20 for my emphasis in this case.)

Contrary to the perception of many Christians, not only is respectful dialogue not opposed to carrying out of the gospel commission, it’s essential to it. But there are reasons it so commonly doesn’t seem so.

Evangelism is tainted, I believe, by two false directions, each of which bears an abundance of poisonous and rotting fruit.

The first false direction is the idea that evangelism is about giving the maximum possible number of people their “get out of hell free” card or, seen more positively, getting them their ticket to heaven. In this diversion from the gospel message we look for ways to get people to say the right prayer, then wipe the sweat from our brows (evangelism is hard work!), and say, “One more person saved.”

This leads to other spiritually dangerous activities, such as promising people prosperity if they accept Jesus, emotionally manipulating them, or even converting them at sword point or gun muzzle. We can justify whatever behavior we might engage in on the grounds that even if we did use underhanded methods, the person should thank us for not burning in hell forever.

This can also (or even in turn) lead to other shallow approaches to faith, such as the meme I saw on Facebook today built around the old idea of the wager of faith. As I understand faith, the wager simply isn’t—it isn’t faith and it isn’t even a wager, since there’s nothing of value on either side. Believing in Jesus isn’t an “in case” sort of thing. It’s not a wager, it’s a total commitment. Pascal’s Wager is an intellectual approach to a spiritual problem.prohibitionsign2-300px

Further, this sort of evangelism doesn’t actually represent love for one’s neighbor. It’s a sort of concern, but it’s more like the hunter has concern for the deer. No, I don’t mean the killing part, though that can happen as well, but rather the concern is for how the deer will fill the hunter’s needs.

The second false direction is one of church growth. In this case, evangelism is simply the process of adding members to the church, and more specifically your church. At least this has a longer term goal, i.e., to get the person into a church community. But far too often, this simply feeds into another selfish numbers game. The value of the person is not in who they are or who they can be, or even what God wants them to be, but rather on church statistics. While evangelicals are more likely to go for the first diversion, even progressive churches can fall for this second one.

As the saying goes, however, sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. I think we can identify what’s really important to us by what we pay for and what we report on, and in many of our churches I’m afraid that the concern is increasing membership, which, in turn, is to produce increasing financial support, which will allow us to get more members.

What I believe about evangelism is this: It’s a lifestyle. You live as a disciple of Jesus, and you will, in turn, make disciples. I don’t mean that we should all shut up. Of course you talk about your faith because it’s not just important it’s fundamental. There’s another dichotomy between living our faith and proclaiming our faith, but I think it’s also false. Talking about our faith is one way we live it. If we’re talking too much, that’s ineffective living of our faith. I do not keep silent about something that is fundamental.

In looking at motivation, I can say that it is a command, and it is. But at the same time it simply follows essentially from what Jesus has done for me. I will share a good thing. Sharing a good thing doesn’t mean forcing others. It’s a natural and friendly thing to share, just as it’s a natural and friendly thing—not to mention loving—to let the other person make their own decisions, including about how long they want to listen.

Conversion, in turn, is something between God and the person converted. It’s gotten almost cliched to say that I can’t convert anyone; God does. But unfortunately we turn right back around and pretend it’s all about us. Grab hold of that mustard-seed of faith (I usually feel that I have somewhat less than that, but whatever) and trust God with salvation, conversion, and the spiritual health of others.

Further, however, trust God to let you know how you need to be involved, and listen. Listen to God. Listen to other people. God loves each person involved more than you do. He even loves you more than you do.

In studying eschatology (and I just completed a video series), I’ve found that God is deeply concerned about the spiritual health of God’s earthly children. I see the story of Revelation as being one of repeated opportunities, with the bottom line message that God does have this under control. Our part is to follow Jesus and make disciples.

That doesn’t require being rude, obnoxious, manipulative, violent, or disrespectful. It requires love, and love values the other person, not some imaginary thing I think that person should be.

On Using Titles in Church

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white background

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman’s hand on a white background

Titles for people, that is.

Thomas Hudgins makes some important points on this issue in a post on the Energion Discussion Network. I tend not to be radical (well at least I think so), but on this it seems like Jesus was pushing us pretty strongly away from hierarchies and spiritual authority.

There’s a great—and quite sarcastic—line in Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John, p. 152:

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control. (emphasis mine)

I’m thinking that often we consider the people we put in leadership to be such official channels. Isn’t that what we mean when we want the pastor, rather than some “ordinary” member to pray for us?

We are all ministers. “To each of us was given grace according to Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7).

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

kineso ten luchnian

Revelation 2:5

Christopher Ritter is complaining, though only in the nicest, most creative way, about critics of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association. It’s interesting how efforts to reform often end up creating new denominations, even when the leaders don’t intend to do so. Just look at the example provided by Ritter in his post.

I commend Ritter for his excellent way of presenting his complaint, but at the same time I have to ask whether a movement to reform the United Methodist Church at this point is not also likely to contribute to the division of the denomination. It seems that we require such organizations to deny that they contemplate schism in any way. It’s part of the game. I suspect that the WCA people are entirely sincere in that desire.

Reality may not be on their side.

I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. I would note that when my wife and I discussed the idea of moving to a new church prior to this move, we thought that our next church congregation would not be part of the UMC, but here we still are, and here we will stay as long as we believe God is leading us to do so.

What I’m not going to do is get stirred up over the survival of denominational structures. My friends sincerely wish to prevent schism, but as a church, we’re the product of a group that broke off from a group that broke off, and that earlier break-off was not very holy, I might note. Not to mention that I don’t see very much Jesus in the structures of any of the above.

Unless the Holy Spirit changes a bunch of people, the UMC is at an impasse over same-sex marriage and inclusion of LGBT people. We are a divided church. We can claim to be united, but it’s a fake. The question is whether the structures will follow the actual practice or whether we will continue to find ways (and spend large amounts of money) to pretend.

What is needed is to change our focus to become Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s witnesses, the bearers and proclaimers of Christ’s gospel. We are a church that is apathetic, self-centered, and wasteful. We are more concerned with our buildings and our power than with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But that is something that can change. I don’t know about the denomination, but the only person who needs to change in this is me. And you. And you. Each of us.

Is the church building taking up more money than caring for your neighbors? Get rid of it.

Do you pay more for Sunday School curriculum than for evangelism or textbooks for needy children? Cut it out of your budget!

Is your primary concern for your worship service done your way at your time? Drop it. Be concerned about your neighbors.

If you let the gospel become central, many things that seem critical right now will fade into the background. You may not change church headquarters, but you can change you.

Eschatology: Finally and Final Tonight

No, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of my series. I went into my hiatus in presenting these studies one episode short of completing the series, so tonight I’ll be wrapping up the eschatology series and preparing for my next series which will be looking at Paul’s letters and their background, especially in Hebrew scripture.

Here’s the embed:


NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Front)A little over a week ago I reviewed the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible using the Olive Tree electronic edition. On Tuesday I received my hardcover copy from the publisher. (Note: I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other strings were attached!) This is not an extraordinarily new experience in Bible editions, but it is a good one.

The Bible is 6″ x 9″, so fits nicely on all my disorderly stacks of books. It’s about 2 1/4″ thick, which makes it substantial, but not the largest Bible I use. The picture at the top shows it in my (not necessarily its) natural environment. That’s my actual desk, and so you can see it in comparison to the other study Bibles I have around it. You can click on the image to see it in high resolution. These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about theimg_20160908_141131 physical size of a study Bible.

These days I rarely carry a physical Bible to church, other than my Greek & Hebrew testaments (I have years of marking and marginal notes in them), so I don’t worry that much about the physical size of a study Bible. That said, I can say that I prefer working with the electronic edition of this Bible, even though I am not well-acquainted with Olive Tree software. There is a great deal of information to present, and the size of an edition is always a compromise.

NIV CBSB with 12 point fontIn this case, the text is small (as is common with study Bibles). The image just below shows it by comparison with my own Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, which is printed in a 12 point font. The notes appear slightly smaller, though I’m not good enough to say for certain, and the impression may be created by a different (sans-serif) font for the notes. This note on text size is not intended as criticism, but it is one of the major reasons I prefer to use an electronic edition in which I can set font size. This is a problem for just about every study Bible out there. There is so much information to be included that something has to give. Having done page layout on a large number of books myself, I understand this completely.

The biblical text is printed in two columns with reference notes in the center. This is a classical style of presentation, but not one of my favorites. Again, I should emphasize that nobody can avoid all criticisms for the layout of a text. Doubtless others would complain about a single column with notes on the outer margins, for example. The double-column format is so standard that I have only a couple of Bibles that don’t follow it. An excellent example is The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation), which uses a single column for the text with notes consistently in a narrower column to the right. I find their edition quite friendly.

There are a variety of excurses and notes included directly in the text section, besides the standard notes which are in two columns at the bottom of the page. The notes supplement and follow-up on the introduction, generally providing information that is applicable on a wider basis, i.e. not to just the text in question. For example, just before the text of Isaiah we have an introduction to “The Oracles of the Prophets,” followed by a short introduction to the book of Isaiah itself. But about three pages in we have a nearly three-page section titled “The Historical Background of Isaiah,” which provides a great deal of helpfNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Hebrews)ul information that will also relate to others of the prophets.

But just after these sections, on p. 1122, is an inset titled “Dating Methods.” No, this is not for those of you interested in origins and how rocks and fossils might be dated. Rather, it presents the basics of how one tries to place a particular oracle at a particular date. This is a tightly packed, extremely useful essay. Everyone should read it, no matter what portion of the Bible you’re studying. That’s why I chose Isaiah for this brief tour!

I mentioned that I will comment on some more specifics regarding the book of Hebrews. I will do so, but this past week has been intense, and I didn’t yet get to it. Nonetheless, the picture to the left at this point is the introduction to the book of Hebrews. I will go through that introduction in more detail in a post I hope to publish by Saturday.

Having the physical copy of this Bible in my hands makes me completely comfortable in recommending it. It’s easier to scan the portions I’m not emphasizing. For example, in using an electronic version I rarely “leaf through” the book, and thus might have missed the excellent introductory material for Isaiah. My main concern with study Bibles is that people tend to take the word of the note writer as to the meaning of the text. It’s certainly appropriate and valuable to get the opinions of others, but when one doesn’t find out why the writer believes a certain thing, one is left with either accepting it on authority—surely the author of such a fine volume would have his facts straight!—or having to dig elsewhere for that background information. That’s the value of this type of explanation.

For a few more notes on study Bibles in English, see my store collection.