The Bible in a Year – 5 December

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

5 December. Acts chapters 17-19

Paul is often held up as the example of a great evangelist, indeed one of the greatest orators, for he was able to be (as he writes elsewhere) “all things to all people”.   Among Jews he argued as a rabbi using their scriptures (17:2,11); in the debating place among philosophers he used the dedication of an altar to an “unknown God” to start speaking of the true God who is invisible but knowable (17:23); he could quote secular poetry (17:28) as well as religious texts. Not only was he gifted in public speaking but he could work with individuals too, Romans (18:7) as well as Greeks; he could encourage individuals who only had a limited understanding of the faith but going deeper with them (19:1-7).  He could also write complex theology in his letters.   If that was not enough, he performed healing miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus, as Jesus had done himself (19:11-12)

But in all this he continued to face opposition from many quarters: from Jews who opposed him as a heretic, from Greeks who scoffed at his illogical claims of resurrection, and from Romans who thought Christianity a dangerous cult.  There was opposition too from the idol-makers whose livelihood he had disrupted (19:21-40).  These various groups seemed to be able to draw on a “rent-a-mob” who didn’t even know what they were supposed to be demonstrating about (19:32).

If Paul had been around today, I am sure that he would have experienced much the same.  Religious conservatives, outspoken humanists and atheists, secular authorities who don’t know what to make of faith communities, powerful lobby groups with financial interests, and crowds of demonstrators – they are all still with us, and the ever-challenging message of the Gospel still attracts opposition from them all.

Paul would also undoubtedly have been a media presence.  His Twitter account would have had millions of followers (and attracted trolls too).  He would have been delighted to have been able to set down his theology in blog posts followed by thousands rather than letters to be heard by a few dozen.   He could have argued with the Corinthians instantly by messenger apps, rather than exchange postal correspondence over a period of months.  And no doubt would have been a popular contributor to “thought for the day” on Radio Athens and a controversial guest on chat shows.

But on the other hand, how long would such conversations endure?  How much of what is spoken, blogged and tweeted today will be searchable even in ten years, let alone two thousand?  The power and longevity of the written word – whether Paul’s letters, or Luke’s record of his travels, has meant that his writings and actions have endured down to this day as an inspiration and a challenge.  Let’s hear it for @Paul_Tarsus.

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 – 30 May

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

30 May. Ezekiel chapters 1-3

What a dramatic start!  Unlike some of the other prophets of the Old Testament, we hear nothing of Ezekiel’s past, but are presented with both a first-person and third-person accounts of his earth-shaking vision.  Full of vivid imagery of light, noise and motion – wheels, eyes, flashes of lightning, the faces and feet of humans and animals, angels’ wings –  clearly Ezekiel was struggling to put into words what could not really be described. This was the ‘shekinah’ or glory of God, a privilege which few people have ever had (Moses, Jesus and his disciples Peter, James and John among them).

 

The whole of the first three chapters is taken up with his two encounters (or ‘epiphanies’) with this glory. Before we get to read the details of God’s prophecy through Ezekiel to his captive people in Babylonia, we have to understand the instructions given to Ezekiel by God in this vision. Eight times the Jewish exiles are called a “rebellious house”, and it is clear that they are unlikely to act on whatever God’s instructions to them are going to be.  It is also clear that they would oppose Ezekiel, and would be like “briers, thorns and scorpions” to him (those things that prick, scratch and sting).  Nevertheless, Ezekiel would be failing in his calling and duty, and held guilty by God, if he did not pass the instruction on.

 

In a much smaller way, that is the challenge facing all people of faith.  If we believe we have a message for the world from God then we must deliver it, however much opposition we might face.  This week the Archbishops of England have asked all the churches to pray for their communities, and in particular for the spreading of the Christian message among them, under the title “Thy kingdom come” (words taken, of course, from the Lord’s Prayer as taught by Jesus).   Unlike Ezekiel who had no support for his one-man ministry, church members can come together for mutual support in prayer, speaking and action.