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Tonight in Romans

Tonight in Romans

This evening, at 6 pm at Chumuckla Community Church, we continue the study of Romans, just starting chapter 2. Here’s a quote from some of my reading today:

The Gospel is not just a matter for the mind, a message that must be understood. It is a way of being in the world that must be lived. The Gospel may reach the individual through the mind, and the mind has a task to do with it, considering its premises, judging its arguments, evaluating its goals. But the Gospel must find its home in the heart, the seat of being. It cannot get to the heart without passing through the mind, but it is not effective unless it settles in the heart, changing it in the process. As Paul puts it, the heart must be circumcised (Rom. 2:29). The power of sin in it must be expurgated. The Christian has a mind renewed from above and a circumcised heart. Paul’s promise to his converts is that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). To keep the mind and the heart together is to live by faith and reason. The love of God that the Spirit pours into the heart does not dislodge the unity of the mind and the heart. It strengthens it. In the Christian, faith and reason abide as one. (Herold Weiss, Meditations on the Letters of Paul, pp. 59-60)

There are those who think we’re moving slowly. I think we’re moving at lightning speed! If you live in the area, come and join us for an exciting discussion.

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

When I talked about structure, I mentioned that I’d write a follow-up after my Wednesday night class. Here’s the rundown, though I plan to keep it brief. I’m indebted to David Alan Black for the basic note about the participles in this passage, and in a scholarly article I would need to cite a number of additional sources. The structure of the passage followed my own take on it in the context of Hebrews and made the argument easier. I include this discussion in my book To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide, which is currently under revision for a second edition. (The main problem with the current edition is that I created it with readings, exercises, and questions, along with several appendices with discussion. I’m putting some discussion in the lessons!)

There are a number of passages I referenced in class, but there are three passages before 6:4-6 that I see as key, and then one after. The reason is that the author of Hebrews signals new topics well ahead of the main discussion and then ties them in to later discussion.

So if you look at Hebrews 2:1, “drifting off course.” This is an early signal of what I think is the key theme of the book, one that is further developed in 6:4-6 especially. At this point, the author has presented Jesus as the true representation of God and is now ready to open up the door to the result. God has spoken in these last days through a Son, which sounds good, even exciting, but what does it mean?

Frequently Hebrews is read as a book with a message of works and perfectionism. In fact, as someone with a Wesleyan background, I’m used to starting there in my thinking. But the more I study the book, the less I think that is the correct reading. The warnings in Hebrews are not about human performance of good actions, but rather of total confidence in the one who has been presented here in chapter 1. Verses 1-4 present the Who, while the rest emphasizes that Jesus is greater than the angels. There will be more emphasis on precisely who Jesus is, but we have this pause in the first few verses of chapter 2 so we can get a preview of the theme.

Through the rest of chapter two and into chapter five, but especially in 4:12-16, we’ll develop the things that make Jesus ideal as our priest, even though we aren’t quite sure what such a priest will accomplish.

In 5:8-9 we get the second key connection, as we are told that Jesus learned obedience through suffering (and a rich passage that is, even though I’m just going to touch on it only briefly. Verse 9 tells us that he was perfected. It is this “perfection” that I think is the key object of Hebrews, the perfection of Jesus, not the perfection of any human being.

I see 5:11-14 as a bit of reverse psychology, challenging the readers/hearers with their dependence on milk just before he goes ahead and introduces some meat anyhow.

The third key passage is Hebrews 6:1, and “going on toward perfection.” It’s my understanding that United Methodist pastors are still asked this question on ordination, and I believe not a few have their fingers crossed when they answer. Figuratively speaking, of course! But though few translations do it, this can be taken as a passive, and thus be translated “carried on toward perfection” rather than “going on toward perfection.” I would go further and argue that the perfection that we are to go on toward is Jesus, and is only to be attained “in Christ” and not by us or as something possessed by us.

Having jumped from signpost to signpost, this leads to 6:4-6. I have noted previously that I don’t take this as a “once out always out” passage, but rather as a warning against rejecting the voice or urging of the Holy Spirit. Paying closer attention to structure and the participle tenses helped back that view up and expand it.

Here’s my translation with structure:

I have summarized the theme of Hebrews as “get on the right train and stay on it until you reach the destination.” The key is that if you have the best, the greatest, or even the only hope of rescue and you don’t take it, rescue escapes you. That’s why I have the temporal sense here. If you are rejecting the final sacrifice of Christ, according to the concepts developed in the preceding five chapters, what option is there? Jesus, the Christ is sacrificed once-for-all, and cannot be sacrificed again. If we continue to fail to accept the finality, we are crucifying him afresh.

But it’s even more simple than that. You can’t accept while you reject.

Does that make it too simple? Actually, I think it makes it a clear statement of precisely the point of Hebrews. You have two choices: This train or no train.

And that leads to the final passage I want to use, Hebrews 10:26-27. Here we have no sacrifice for sin after Jesus. It’s often used in sermons to threaten people with how seriously they should take New Testament commands. But that’s not the point at all. There is no more sacrifice because the sacrifice has been offered. If you don’t accept the sacrifice, there isn’t another one. You can’t redo it or substitute it.

The whole message centers on confidence in the grace that has opened this “new and living way” (10:20), in the perfection of our High Priest, and in the necessity of placing our full confidence in Him.

Let me add that I believe that the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1ff should be seen as those who are cheering us on because they have experienced the weaknesses and the failings that we have and know the grace of God and the final reward. It should not be used as a club as I have heard it preached, in the sense of: “Look at all these holy people who are watching you. Don’t screw up!”

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How People Mess Up Interpretation

How People Mess Up Interpretation

No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.

When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)

But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.

So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.

People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.

Like this one.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.

Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.

I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.

Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.

Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.

(Featured image credit:

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.

That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.

On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.

What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.

Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Notes on Terms and Language Teaching

Dave Black comments some on linguistics and teaching biblical languages in a post today. (Check out the linguistics conference coming up!)

The difficulty is the difference between teaching someone a language in a classroom and in discussing and describing that language in some detail as a linguist would want to do. Both the framework and the deeper understanding are good and proper goals, though there is often a conflict between the two. When do you teach what?

Dave covers a good selection of points from the debate over verbal aspect. There are problems with words like “punctiliar” or even “progressive” in terms of verbs. There are also problems in mapping the tense system (and the word “tense” itself) when teaching. But these issues are part of the problem of linguistics generally.

Consider a label like “tree.” What do I mean by the word tree? Is the plant growing in my yard that is three feet tall a tree, a weed, a plant, or perhaps a bush? It might, under the right circumstances be called any one of those things. A simple, singular label is necessary to communication, but at the same time, a singular, simple label is also a cause of problems. For example, if I say to my wife, “We need to throw that tree out,” I may mean that a potted plant has grown very large, and I’m using tree hyperbolically to refer to it while demanding its exit forthwith. On the other hand, I could be referring to a shoe tree that’s worn out and should be discarded.

This is why the line, “it’s just semantics” is so often lazy. When someone is playing rule book lawyer with the language, it’s quite appropriate to point out that one is expecting more of language than one is likely to get from it. We get along with ambiguity all the time. The problem comes in when we decide to be picky, or when we accidentally manage to use just the wrong word at the wrong time, meaning one that is almost right, but that can lead one off into a completely different semantic range than intended. But semantics is precisely what “it” is, and what it always is. It is about meaning. What did you expect? So it’s semantics. The word “just” is a bit oddly used. Bad semantics!

What I try to do is very quickly introduce students to the idea that labels are shorthand. When I use the term “punctiliar,” I point out that this is a shorthand label. Why don’t I change the word then? Because my new shorthand label will also pick up unnecessary connotations, and then I’ll have to explain how it applies. Further, the student is doubtless going to see the word “punctiliar” in commentaries (as Dave points out), and he or she needs to know its intention, and even how to understand the potential fallacy. Commentaries are quite capable of containing incorrect linguistic information.

It’s easier for me, because I teach by ones and twos, not by large classes of seminarians forced to do their required courses. I had that experience as a graduate student when I tried to tutor marginal or failing Greek students. They wanted me to get them past the test. I wanted to help them understand. Conflict! But those students I have taught since have come to me because they want to learn and understand, so I take the time.

My conclusion is that no matter how you label it, you’re going to have to make sure students understand how these labels we call “words” work. Even if you take a living language approach, and try to get the students to understand the language as naturally as possible, you’re still going to have to help them understand linguistics if they’re going to translate those words and ideas into their own language for the benefit of those who haven’t learned a foreign language. I’d almost, almost, prefer to teach a student linguistics over teaching that student Greek or Hebrew. If I had to choose, that is. Which I don’t.

(Featured Image Credit: Adobe Stock #126360408. Not Public Domain)

Thoughts on James 2

Thoughts on James 2

Our Sunday School lesson, which I’m not teaching this week, is from James, focusing on chapter 2. I’m not teaching, but in studying, I looked at a book I publish, Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James.

Bruce Epperly makes a number of important comments. I’m going to do a bit of quoting from his chapter 3, pp. 15-21.

One of my great joys is my first glimpse of the steeple of South Congregational Church, when I round the bend toward home. In earlier times, the church’s steeple guided mariners safely to shore. Today, the bells andsteeple serve a reminder that the church’s mission is to be a light on the hillside and, as our congregation’s motto proclaims, “to learn, love, and live the word of God.” (p. 15)

I like that motto, “learn, love, and live.” I think it may go the other way as well, we learn from what we live, especially when we’re trying to live the word of God.

Faith means nothing unless it lights the way of pilgrims and seekers, providing guidance, comfort, and nurture. (p. 16)

Here Bruce combines faith in action and faith in witness (and our action is, I think, our best witness) in a way of which I think James would approve. We are not Christians, or Jesus people, for our own benefit alone. We receive grace to share grace. That’s why grace cannot be a passive thing. It erupts in action.

… The Apostle asserts that because God loves us, our vocation is to love one another, even if this means crossing the barriers of race and ethnicity. Grace makes us all first-class Christians, worthy of respect regardless of ethnicity or economics. This is the essence of James’ message as well.

James believes that a holistic faith brings together belief and action. In the spirit of the Quakers, what is important to James is to “Let your life speak.” … (p. 17)

I think that the tendency of many interpreters to see James and Paul as opponents is misguided. They do have a different emphasis, but it is not because Paul hated or devalued action or that James thought beliefs were unimportant. Each had an emphasis, but these emphases are compatible or complementary.

Loving Jesus means loving your neighbor. And if James is right, it means standing aloof and becoming counter-cultural in
relation to socially-acceptable, but life-destroying, values – “being unstained by the world” – that put profits ahead of people, neglect the needy, and blame the poor for their poverty. We are all created in the image of God and we all deserve to be loved, to have a place to call home, and an opportunity to live out our gifts and talents as God’s beloved daughters and sons. (p. 19)

That’s were it will start to get with us. Sanctified wallets are the hardest of possessions to acquire. Or, looked at the other way, the wallet is the hardest thing to give up. How much stuff must we have? What is first in our life? Putting God first will result in also putting our neighbor first.

But what can you do? Maybe all you have to spare is coins in your pocket.

In the realm of God, no deed is too small, for with one action at a time we can become God’s companions in healing the world. Let your life speak. (p. 20)

This is a great little book, just 40 pages of text from Energion’s Topical Line Drives series, for accompanying a study of James. It might just be, as the subtitle suggests, life transforming!

Read Now


The Little Horn of Daniel (Again)

The Little Horn of Daniel (Again)

Since I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I almost have to be interested in Daniel 8, particularly 8:14, which is critical to the development of the Adventist movement. For those not acquainted with that history, this is the verse from which the prediction of the second coming of Jesus on October 22, 1844 was derived. In turn, that doctrine developed into the doctrine of the investigative judgment, which I list as one of my reasons for not being an SDA today.

While at first my objections were exegetical and based on Daniel 8:14, I have come to be more concerned with the soteriology involved. I still hold to those original objections.

Thus I link to an article from Adventist Today, Why the Little Horn of Daniel 8 Must Be Antiochus Epiphanes. I would note that the author, Winston McHarg, resigned from the SDA ministry in 1978, while I was a student at Walla Walla College, and still a few years before I left the SDA church. For a short article, this one is well-done exegetically.

A Note on General Revelation

A Note on General Revelation

No, that the horribly misused book, but the theological concept of general revelation.

It is quite common to express concern about the quality of knowledge of God that one can get from general revelation. It lacks specificity, it’s easy to misunderstand, or it has become corrupted.

I’m not writing this note to challenge the idea that extrapolating from the creation to the God of creation can be difficult. On the other hand, I was just reading Psalm 33 in preparation for next week’s Sunday School lesson, and I note that in vs. 6-9, we have a rather direct line drawn from creation to creator. By his word the heavens were created. He established, and that’s how it was. He commanded and it stood.

My thought is this: I have found in written scripture that often we reject the meaning of a passage because we don’t like it. I’ve told classes that you can get a clue to how little people like what a passage says by how much ink has been used explaining it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t obscure passages or those where the obvious is actually wrong. It can be a clue, however.

I suspect that it may be where nature does not tell us warm and comfortable things about God that we tend to think it’s unclear. Perhaps we need to find a way to distinguish “unclear” from “very clear, but annoying.”

Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

This was one of my texts from yesterday, though we worked from Titus 3:3-11, where I think vs. 3-8 parallels chapter 36 quite nicely.

But my interest today is not in a specific verse, but rather in the way in which Israel’s story is told. Christians often have ambivalent, if not downright negative, feelings about the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. You’ll hear people say, “I’m more of a New Testament person.” In a certain sense, we should all be New Testament (Covenant) people. We are God’s people under terms of the new covenant. That’s why we call that portion of Scripture the “New Testament.”

Nonetheless, Israel’s story is critical. One reason it is so useful is the way in which Israel told their story. Other nations record their triumphs and their successes, crediting the appropriate historical characters. Sure, one will have comments on how the gods favored this person or that, but the overall story is one of human triumph.

Israel, on the other hand, records key failures. We focus on things like slavery in Egypt, and the human leader who brings out Israel is a reluctant leader, taking actions as God initiates. One of the key high points, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy, is told with amazing details about the failings of the human players. Then we have the exile, from which Israel emerges due to the intervention of a foreign monarch. Ezekiel 36 underlines this by not claiming that Israel had, themselves, reformed, but rather that YHWH would cleanse them, give them a new heart, restore them, and be their God. He wouldn’t even do this for their sake, but for the sake of their reputations, ending (Ezekiel 37:28) with the nations knowing that he is God because he makes Israel holy.

Christianity joins this tradition as it is born out of the depths of despair and not the heights of triumph. We need to remember this as we strive for position and power. We serve one who did not. We honor (I hope!) a tradition that does not give its greatest honor to the powerful. We are sinners in the hands of a God who is making us holy. That is the story of salvation.


OT v. NT: God Does It

OT v. NT: God Does It

One of the differences some claim between the Old and the New Testaments is that in the Old Testament it’s about works, while in the New it’s about God’s grace. I’ve found vanishingly few Old Testament scholars who hold this difference, but in the pews it’s fairly common. One response, of course, is to read a good collection of the commands to action in the New Testament. On the other hand, one can read the Old, as I was doing this morning in preparation for teaching Sunday School.

I’m studying Ezekiel 36 & 37, looking particularly at the actions of the Spirit there. There is a theme in chapter 36, and it’s important. While God talks about Israel’s failings, and the reason they were scattered, when it comes time for redemption, there is no discussion of the punishment having taught them their lesson so that from now on they will be good on their own power. Rather, the emphasis is that God is causing them to be gathered for God’s reasons and purposes.

“I YHWH have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 36). “My Spirit I will put within you, I will make it happen that you will walk in my statutes, keep my judgments, and do them” (v. 27). Both those translations are a mite over literal, but I could get even more literal to connect the Hebrew vocabulary in v. 27 “I will do that … you will do.” The reform is presented here as a decision and an act of God, not of human beings.

Human action is certainly called for, both here and elsewhere, including all through the New Testament. But the decision and cause is put back to God’s Spirit.