The Bible in a Year – 12 December

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

12 December. Hebrews chapters 1-6

The letter to the Hebrews is difficult to follow, since it consists of dense theological argument in the Jewish tradition, in which verses of scripture are quoted out of context in support of the writer’s argument, a practice that would be frowned on these days.  And the argument itself is difficult to follow.  Since the plan I am following covers the whole book in only three days, I can only scratch the surface of its meaning.

In the first two chapters, the focus is on angels. Angels have had a bad press at times.  Go back forty years and you would find that few people would claim to believe in them.  The “age of reason” had no time for angels, and classed them along with ghosts, fairies and UFOs as mere mythology.  But times have changed.  Spirituality is back in fashion, experience matters more than doctrine, and you will find plenty of people who claim to have experienced angels. I know at least two.

But what are angels, or rather where do they fit in a Christian worldview?  The danger is to consider angels as demi-gods and pay them too much attention.  The anonymous writer of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus was, in his earthly form, “a little lower than the angels” (2:7, quoting a psalm). But also that after his resurrection he ascended from earth, through the heavens (sky) in which he angels dwelt, to the throne of God above.  Such “up and down” imagery cannot be taken literally today – if it ever was – but as a metaphor it works, if by “up” we refer to importance.  Jesus is more important than the angels.  Why? Because as the Son of God he has more authority than angels who are mere servants of God.  And he came to earth, not to serve angels but people (2:16).

Not only that, but Jesus is also more important than Moses, the greatest of Jewish prophets and leaders (3:3).  The rest of chapters 3 and 4 concerns the concept of “rest”, which is an extension of the ides of the Jewish Shabat (sabbath). If God ‘rested’ after his work of creation, so he intends humanity to ‘rest’ after our work on earth.  That ‘rest’ might be seen in an individual sense of “rest in peace” after death.  But more constructively, it is the new heavens and earth” that Jesus promised would come at the end of time,  a new existence like an endless sabbath, where praise and worship are all that matters, and there is no toil or suffering.

Chapter 5 starts on the major theme of the book – Jesus as High Priest -and I will look at that tomorrow.


The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.


The Bible in a Yer. 11 September

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11 September. Nehemiah chapters 12-13

In these chapters Nehemiah establishes the pattern of Temple worship and the Sabbath observance. He leads a great procession around the city walls to bless the rebuilt city. But he treats badly those who continued to buy, sell or work on the Sabbath day, those who have failed to give the required tithe to pay the temple servants, and Tobiah who had set up a home or office in the temple store, thus defying its purpose.

As with my comments yesterday about the condemnation of intermarriage (which is repeated here in chapter 13) it seems that this re-establishing of the patterns of a religious life was Nehemiah’s overriding concern.   People would naturally start and grown their businesses – farming, shopkeeping or whatever – but they needed encouragement (sometimes of a rather forceful kind) to build religious community.

It is no different today.  As a lay reader in the Church my role is largely to encourage “ordinary” Christians in church attendance and in relating faith to everyday life.  This is not easy. The many secular activities that we all get involved in make it difficult to establish or keep patterns of prayer and worship. The hectic, technological and rapidly changing pace of life around us makes it increasingly difficult to see the relevance either of an “unchanging” faith or of ancient books.  But we must try, or we will quickly lose touch with the spiritual side of life.

The Bible in a Year – 28 January

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

28 January. Exodus chapters 30-32

This reading starts with the end of the account of Moses and Joshua up on the mountain for forty days (i.e. a long time) receiving the Law. At the end of this narrative, before they are given the carved tablets of the law (which incidentally were written on both sides, not one side as usually depicted) is a reiteration of the commandment to obey the Sabbath, perhaps the most defining mark of Judaism to this day. Why did God repeat the Sabbath commandment at this point, and not the others? He must have thought it in some way the most important.  There is a perpetual tendency in all of us, however committed to a particular religion, to “backslide” – to let the busyness of everyday life get in the way of a relationship with God. I’m as prone to that as anyone. But if we can observe the Sabbath, which for Christians is usually interpreted as meeting with our fellow believers at least one a week for prayer and teaching, then there is less chance of slipping away from the faith altogether.


Meanwhile down in the camp the people performed sacrifices, and in the absence of Moses and despite the “first and greatest” commandment only to worship the invisible God already being given, they quickly turned to the idolatrous worship of a home-made golden calf.  Aaron’s pitiful excuse – “I threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf” – is like the desperate lie of a 3-year-old caught with chocolate in his hand. How slow we all are to acknowledge our sins! Moses’ reaction, apart from destroying the idol and scattering the gold dust on the water to prevent it being re-used, was to ask those who are truly “on the Lord’s side” to murder members of their own families who had participated in the ritual, presumably to prove that they truly did love God more than their families.  Yet another reminder that their culture was so different to ours, although Jesus did also controversially say that we should love God so much that by comparison our love for our families should be as hate.