The Bible in a Year – 18 November

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

18 November. Luke chapters 10-11

When people ask for a “sign” to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of God, he refers them to the story of Jonah.  Why Jonah?  He shares some things in common with Jesus: perhaps most obviously in the storytelling, as Jonah slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.

That explains Jesus’ next comment, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (11:32). How else was Jesus greater?  Well he rose from the dead.  Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day, but he was resurrected.

Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?

The Bible in a Year – 8 October

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

8 October. Galatians chapters 1-3

The first of St Paul’s letters or epistles that we are covering is that to the Christians in Galatia.  Paul is concerned that they, whom he has previously taught the ‘gospel’, are now listening to others with different ideas about how to live as a Christian.  His use of the word gospel is interesting, since his letters were written before the biographies of Jesus that we call “the Gospels”.  The word simply means ‘good news’. It refers here to the teaching that Jesus came, not simply as a rabbi or healer, but as God in human form to reconcile all people to God.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post (on the letter of James) that whereas James insisted on the importance of ‘works’ (right living according to ethical principles), Paul stressed equally strongly that only faith in Jesus matters, and that trying to make oneself right with God by obeying the Law (religious rules) actually fights against all that Jesus came for.   How can these two contemporaries, who knew and largely respected each other, offer in the earliest surviving Christian writings two such opposed views?

For one thing, as Paul explains towards the end of his autobiography that occupies the first chapter and a half of the letter, his calling by God was to bring the gospel to the gentiles (non-Jews) who might be used to hearing all kinds of different religions with their various rituals, whereas James, along with Peter (Cephas) and others, were called to bring it to Jewish believers.

There is a very telling verse here: “for until certain people came from James, he [Cephas/Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (2:12).  It seems that James, who was concerned that his Jewish Christian hearers should not lose sight of the high moral standards that Jews were expected to follow, insisted on the new converts being circumcised. They might therefore have assumed that they had to obey the regulations too. Paul however felt that he had to emphasise that both circumcision, and keeping the regulations, were quite unnecessary for someone who had not grown up in the Jewish culture.

Few new Christians today come from Judaism (though there are a few, who style themselves ‘Messianic Jews’). For most, they will need more to take in Paul’s teaching that unlike all other religions, Christianity is not about conforming to rules, it is about being conformed by the Holy Spirit to the likeness of Jesus in the way that we live.  He showed that loving God and your neighbour is not optional; but it is not achieved by the keeping of many regulations.

The Bible in a Year – 27 August

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

Introductory notes to Esther

The book of Esther in the ‘standard’ Bible, i.e. the one generally read by the Protestant church, consists of ten chapters.  It is in fact an abridged version of the full story as found in the Greek (Septuagint) Bible still used by the Catholic Church and which consists of 16 chapters. However scholarship has shown that these are out of order.

 I am commenting on the fuller text as set out in the Revised Standard Version Common Bible (Collins edition, 1973), which sets these 16 chapters out in a sequence that tells the story of Esther in its natural order. This is why the chapter numbers may appear in my comments to be out of order.  I hope that makes sense.  In this version, the name of the King is Ahasuerus.  In other translations this Babylonian name is rendered Xerxes (don’t ask me why!)

27 August. Esther chapters 7 to 10

The third and final part of the book turns the fear of disaster among the Jews into salvation and celebration. In chapters 7 and 8 Esther explains Haman’s plot to the king; Haman’s attempt to plead to Esther for mercy is misinterpreted by the king as an assault on her, and he is hung immediately without trial. Esther and Mordecai are then allowed to write the text of a second royal edict, not only cancelling the first one and saving the Jews from ethnic cleansing, but permitting them to slay all their enemies without reprisal on the day when they were intended to have been the victims.

Again, the full text (in chapter 16) gives the text of this edict, which is more of a diatribe against Haman than a diplomatically worded legal text. Verse 7 seems very pertinent today with the very undemocratic actions of Presidents Putin and Trump: “What has been wickedly accomplished through the pestilent behaviour of those who exercise authority unworthily, can be seen not so much from the ancient records which we hand on, as from investigation of matters close at hand” (RSV).

The last two chapters explain how these incidents are the reason for the Jewish feast of Purim. The additional text in chapters 10 explains how God provided ‘purim’ (chances, opportunities), ‘one for the people of God and one for all the nations’ (10:10). That ties in with the later Christian idea of the Gospel of salvation through Jesus being given ‘first for the Jews and then for the gentiles’.

Esther may only be a story, rather than having any historical basis, but it reminds us of the ever-present danger of ethnic hatred and persecutions. We have seen such hatred flaring up in recent years in places such as Rwanda, Syria and parts of the former Soviet Union, as well an in Nazi Germany. In these situations, people of different religious or ethnic groups who used to live together peacefully find themselves fighting against each other, often stirred up in the first instance by a very small number of extremists.  But such events seem to have an unstoppable momentum, unless someone who is there ‘for such a time as this’ is courageous enough to step in and bring peace and justice.  For what time and purpose has God put you were you are?

The Bible in a Year – 29 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

29 June. Psalms 17-20

Reading these four psalms is a game of “spot the odd one out”. It is not difficult.  Numbers 17, 18 and 20 are all about God giving victory to one person or army against another – although there are differences, as they seem to be responses to quite different circumstances.

 

PS 17 is the cry of a man under pressure, who calls on God to be on his side because he is the underdog, he is the one trying to do what is right while all around him are unscrupulous people who will do anything to get the better of him.  Ps 18 is a song of relief, written from the safe place after being rescued by God, looking back on how he did in fact deliver the righteous person from their enemies. The imagery used to depict God’s saving power is that of storm and earthquake when the battles is at its height, and that of one soldier training another for victory.  Ps 20 is written from the sidelines of battle, or perhaps before approaching the enemy, quietly confident that God will give victory to one’s own side.

 

In between these is Ps 19, very different in character.  It celebrates how God is found in both the natural order and in the Law (that is, sacred writings).  Joseph Haydn famously set the first verse (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”) to music in his choral masterpiece The creation. Many people testify that it is in contemplating the natural world, whether galaxies or the equally amazing scenes viewed in a microscope, that they have come to understand the divine presence behind the visible world.

 

Others find their inspiration in meditating on the Bible or other religious writings, which lead not towards the outer world but the inner world – contemplation of one’s own spiritual life.  And that naturally leads to self-examination: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults”.   The last verse is often used by preachers to ask God to guide their thoughts and words:  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).

 

So whether in the heat of conflict, before or after it, whether gazing up at the stars, down into a microscope or into one’s own mind and heart, God is to be found in many ways.  He is never entirely absent from us and will take any opportunity to reveal himself.