The Bible in a Year – 24 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.

The Bible in a Year – 25 October

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25 October. Matthew chapters 1-4

Well, there’s a surprise! As I have mentioned before, I am following an online Bible reading plan that’s supposed to be in the order the books of the Bible were written.  They don’t tell you in advance what the next day’s reading will be.  Suddenly we have moved from the letters to the Gospels.

But not for the first time, the good folks at Bible Gateway have got it wrong.  Every commentary I have seen or sermon heard that compares the gospels agrees that Mark was the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke copied most of what Mark wrote, edited it a bit and added their own material.  So why we are getting Matthew first, I don’t know.  But here goes…

Matthew, it is widely believed, belonged to a community of Jewish Christians – those Jews who had accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah or Christ.  Therefore in these opening chapters, and elsewhere in the book, Matthew appeals to the Jewish scriptures for evidence to support this.  To begin with, he produces a genealogy of Jesus that identifies him as the 42nd generation from Abraham in the male line, consisting of 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations of kings to Jeconiah, and another 14 after the Babylonian exile.  This is suspiciously neat and symbolic (3 x 2 x 7) and the last third seems to include names not known from other Bible books, but the point is made: Jesus (or rather his father Joseph, for it is Matthew who gives us the legend of the virgin birth) is a direct descendant in the royal line.

Matthew it is who also gives us the stories of the Magi, Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the stories we hear at Christmas time. At the end of this, we find Joseph, Mary and Jesus settling as returning refugees in Nazareth in Galilee without any suggestion that they had originally come from there. They would have had to make a new home and establish a place in a community.  Maybe that is why it was another 30 years or so before Jesus felt called to start his ministry, as he had to be accepted among the people before he could bring God’s word and power to them.

What is the application of that?  When I felt called to be a Reader (lay minister) in a church in London, I was fairly new to that community.  The Rector (parish priest) warned me that it would take ten years before the congregation fully accepted me as one of their leaders.  As it was, I moved to Yorkshire five years later, and after two years getting to know the congregation in a church here, I was licensed by the Bishop of Leeds as a Reader here.  Not quite the same as seeing the heavens opened and hearing the voice of God, but then Jesus was unique.    Will it take ten years for people to accept me as a leader?  Hopefully not – I think the priest in London was exaggerating – but even in the three years of Jesus’ amazing ministry of preaching and healing, after nearly thirty years living in Galilee, he met with opposition as much as praise.  I am aware that not everything I say will please all the people all the time, but I do try to listen to what God is saying, and pass that on.

The Bible in a Year – 26 June

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26 June. Malachi chapters 1-4.

This is the last book of the Old Testament (at least in Protestant bibles). The reason for putting it last is that it contains so many references to a coming “messenger” who would put right all wrongs.  These verses have often been used in Christian writings and worship as referring to Jesus Christ: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1); “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (4:2); “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5).

 

As with all such application of the Old Testament to the New, we have to be aware of the context, which is God’s condemnation of those who seek privilege and recognition among his people but actually live selfishly, showing hypocrisy in their offerings and infidelity even in their marriages.  They no longer even aspired, let alone reached, the ideal of a leader of the faith community: “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction” (2:7-8).

 

Understood this way, the main purpose of the coming of the Messiah would be to sweep away the Temple system for good, for it had been so abused. Given the issue this week of the report on the way the Church of England leaders protected a paedophile bishop rather than seeing justice done for his victims, this should be a reading to strike fear into the hearts of those responsible for leadership in the Church.

 

Another verse from Malachi that is loved by Christian preachers is this one: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse … see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (3:10).  It is often quoted to encourage people to give a fixed amount (ten, or even thirty, percent of their income) to the work of the Church.  But it should be seen in the context of a system in which the tithe of grain was actually the food for the workers in the temple, as part of the much wider laws of Moses.  Now that we are freed from that legalistic framework, the Christian principle of giving is that of the “cheerful giver”.  God’s blessing may indeed be felt more keenly by the one who gives a lot away, but that should not be out of a sense of duty, rather a response to being set free by Jesus to live more simply and without the cares of the world.  Not easy to achieve, but that should be what we seek.

The Bible in a Year – 22-23 May

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22-23 May. Jeremiah chapters 30-33

The prophesies in these chapters summarise the bittersweet message of Jeremiah: the bad news is that God’s punishment on them can be put off no longer, for such blatant sins as sacrificing children to false gods and setting up idols in the Temple could not be pardoned even by the all-loving One.  The good news, that he would not visit their sin on future generations, who would be allowed to return and rebuild.

 

So sure of this is Jeremiah (chapter 32) that he spends his own money on the apparently foolish act of buying agricultural land outside the city, even as the enemy army is besieging it and even as he himself is being held in custody for the crime of speaking against the king.  And so sure is he that he has the deeds to the land put in a safe place in front of witnesses, as proof to future generations that his prophecies had come true.  It is not enough to know what God’s will is in a certain situation: to prove it, we need to act, even at a cost to ourselves.

 

The other point to note is the frequent reminders of God’s covenants – the one with all humanity that the established order of earth and sky, day and night and the seasons would never fail, and that with the descendants of Israel (Jacob) that he would always love them.  God makes a further promise in 33;14-18 that there would never fail to be a descendant of David on the throne of Israel – a promise which taken literally is of course no longer true, but in Christian theology this has always been seen as a reference to Jesus, who since his resurrection has been reigning in spirit not only in Israel but over all the earth.

The Bible in a Year – 9 May

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9 May. Isaiah chapters 45-48

These chapters reveal explicitly what has only been hinted at in the preceding ones: that God would use another foreign ruler, Cyrus, to do his bidding in releasing Israel from slavery.  He is called ‘anointed’ which is actually the word for ‘Messiah’, a title of many kings of Israel/Judah before it was applied supremely to Jesus.  This shows that God can in fact use anyone, even a pagan king, and not just those of “his religion”, to bring about his will.

 

This is an important point in the run-up to our parliamentary elections – you will find Christians who consider Conservatives “un-Christian” for their social policies, others who consider Labour “un-Christian” for their socialist roots, others who find the Liberal Democrats rather too liberal when it comes to matters of morality. But all the parties have some politicians who profess to be Christian and are upright in character, others who profess faith but whose faults are evident, and others who make no claims to faith.  Yet any of them could be used by God to bring about much needed changes in our society.  Deciding who to vote for is never a simple matter of “one is good and the others are all evil” and as usual the Archbishops and other faith leaders are calling most of all for people to use their right to vote and not neglect it.

 

The remainder of this passage is a contrast between the Babylonians who relied on their religion (a mixture of idol-worship and astrology) to keep themselves as the dominant power in the region, and the remnant of Israel who appeared powerless and in captivity but who would in fact be freed by their invisible but all-powerful god to rebuild Jerusalem by the very “Messiah” who at the same time would destroy the Babylonians in the name of the God of Israel (or rather, of the whole earth).  Whoever is elected to govern our country should be humble enough, and a person of faith, to recognise that it is God who ultimately directs a nation’s fate, in accordance with the way that its people live and worship.  It may seem now that the Conservatives with their “strong and stable” leadership are here to stay, and maybe it is God’s will that they are in charge for the time being, but the time could suddenly come when that all changes.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 6 May

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6 May. Isaiah chapters 32-35

Chapters 32 and 33 are once again reference to particular political circumstances – King Hezekiah’s desperate and ultimately pointless attempt to appease the Assyrians by giving away all the treasures of Jerusalem.  Isaiah calls on the people to look beyond the immediate threat and to trust God who would eventually vindicate them and rule peacefully over them – but only when God’s Spirit descends (32:15) – a verse that some see as pointing towards the day of Pentecost rather than events in Isaiah’s own time.

 

But once again, that salvation from God can only come when the people truly turn to him in the midst of disaster: “‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting flames? Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil” (33:14-15).

 

In chapter 34 the Lord’s destruction turns from Jerusalem to “all the nations” and particularly to Edom (one of their traditional enemies).  Some Christian interpretations of chapters 34-35 see them as referring to the “last days”, the period before Jesus returns at the end of time. Maybe so, but the primary historical meaning must be that all the empires of the Ancient Near East (from Egypt to Babylon) would fall one by one over the coming centuries.

 

Chapter 35 offsets the dystopian horror of 34 by presenting a vision of the return of God’s people to Zion. Again it has a double meaning (as ‘Zion’ often does), both for the literal return of the remnant of Israel to Jerusalem from exile, and for the entry of God’s faithful people into paradise after the final judgement.  When John the Baptist asked how he was to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, the answer Jesus gave was that he performed miracles of healing for the blind, deaf, dumb and lame (35:5-6), clearly showing that he understood this passage in Messianic terms.  But the way to paradise is not for everyone: only for God’s people, who are the “redeemed” (in Christian understanding, those who have put their faith in Jesus), and not for ‘fools’ (those who ignore God’s instruction) or the ‘unclean’ (those who refuse to repent of their sin) (35:8).

 

The commentary I am following suggests that the natural break in the book of Isaiah between the prophecies of exile and of return, usually understood as being between chapters 39 and 40, could equally well be between 33/34 or 35/36, depending how you look at it.