The Bible in a Year – 6 December

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6 December. Acts chapters 20-22

These chapters cover the end of Paul’s missionary journeys, as he returns to Jerusalem where he knows (from his own revelation and the prophecies of others) that he will be arrested and tried.  But he goes voluntarily, like Jesus on his own final journey to Jerusalem, believing that this is God’s will.  In each place he goes along the way, where there are existing communities of Christians, he makes his farewell speech, sometimes (as at Troas, 20:7-11) lasting all night.

We can get an idea of what his farewell speech would have focused on from the episode in Miletus (20:28-35) where he summons the elders (whom he also addressed as “overseers”, the term for what became bishops) from the church in the region known as Asia (meaning part of what is now western Turkey, not the whole continent) and speaks to them, urging them to be pastors to the church members like shepherds with their sheep, to teach the message of God’s grace, and to watch out for charismatic leaders who might lead people astray by ‘false’ teaching.   These remain the core responsibilities of bishops and other ministers today. They all face the tricky task of balancing these duties of pastoral Care, preaching and teaching, and making a public stand against any challenge to the Church.

In Jerusalem it happens just as predicted: Paul is arrested following a mob charge that starts with a false accusation that he has brought Gentiles into the temple.  When brought before the tribune (a low level Roman official) he avoids being flogged by playing the “get out of jail card” of Roman citizenship that I mentioned a couple of days ago.

The sensitivity over who was entitled to use the Temple was nothing new, as it had been a sacred site for the Jews for centuries. Even in today’s news, there is controversy over Jerusalem because the United States wants to have an embassy there. This would apparently be seen by Palestinians as recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and therefore (though there is no apparent logic in this) denying their rights to a share of the city, in which the Temple site (now a Muslim holy place) stands.

Christianity, although regarding Jerusalem as a holy place because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there, makes no territorial claim to it.  To visit the holy city as a pilgrim must be wonderful (I have yet to do it) but it must also be remembered that Jesus called the Temple “a house of prayer for all nations”.  Jerusalem’s role now should be to welcome all who worship the God of Abraham, and to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6)  is a command that never ceases to be relevant.

The Bible in a Year – 22 November

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22 November. Luke chapters 19-20

This is the turning point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus – what is called the Triumphal Entry.  Every year on Palm Sunday, churches re-enact his ride into Jerusalem on a young donkey, with crowds cheering him on with shouts of “Hosanna!” (“Please save us!”). We even keep small crosses made of palm leaves to remind us for the rest of the year both of his joyful entry to the holy city, and also his crucifixion a few days later.

After entering the city, Jesus goes straight to the temple (did he ride the donkey into it? – we don’t know) and begins to drive out “those who were selling things there” (other gospel writers say it was the money changers – probably both).   He was angry with them for turning what was supposed to be a “house of prayer” into a commercial enterprise.   This passage is sometimes used to criticise those cathedrals that charge an entry fee, although I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, as the cathedral chapter is only trying to cover its running costs from visitors who otherwise might not make a donation at all.

So we have Jesus being acclaimed by the crowd in great joy, then maybe an hour later angrily confronting the temple merchants.  What made him change his mood so swiftly?

In between these two passages are a few verses that get less attention in Holy Week observances.  “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (19:41-44).

It seems that as he approached the city walls, he was given a prophetic insight into the spiritual truth behind the immediate events around him.  He saw the Roman army marching against the city, laying siege, conquering, looting and setting fire to it.  His own act of driving profiteering merchants from the temple court was nothing to the sacking of the city that the Romans would accomplish a generation later, driving all the Jewish people from the city. It would be nearly 2000 years before the city was once again the City of David, and even then the temple site would be in the control of others.

Jesus also understood that this would happen because his own people had rejected him, rejected his peaceful path, passed up an opportunity to turn back to God.  Instead their desire for independence and their love of money and power would lead to their destruction, where he offered salvation.  No wonder he wept.

Probably only those closest to Jesus in the crowd noticed his weeping, as the praise continued around him. Sometimes we find our own emotions at odds with the people around, when we are aware of circumstances beyond the immediate events that give us concern. We might wish that those who are rejoicing at some trivial matter would share our understanding that there are deeper and graver issues at stake.  But like Jesus, we find ourselves alone.  In such circumstances, take heart, for he is with you, and he understands.  Jesus weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn.

The Bible in a Year – 20 August

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20 August. Lamentations chapters 1-3

The book of Lamentations is set at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, although probably written some time later.  In the first two chapters, the “voice” is that of the city itself, personified as a female character. She is grieving for the Jewish people who used to live in her and have now been taken away, apart from the poor who are reduced to selling their possessions and maybe even eating their own dead children to survive (2:20).

What comes across strongly in this poetry of lament is that what matters to the spirit of the city is not the wealth that built it – there is no mention of that – or even principally the buildings themselves, but the people and their activities.  “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate” (1:4); “hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity.” (1:18).

Too often these days we hear references, especially to “the City of London” with dire warnings about what will happen if the bankers leave it to go to Germany after Brexit.  Whatever your political views on Brexit, this is the wrong understanding of a city.  London (or any other city) is not its wealth, it is its people, their common memory, the traditions they have established, the relationships that have been formed and lived out there, and the worship of God that has taken place.  It is the loss of those things that is to be mourned, not the diversion of foreign investments. The Babylonians thought they were “investing” in Jerusalem by capturing it” with no thought for its people!

She has suffered terribly from foreign invaders – people without respect for God – entering the Temple: “She has even seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation” (1:10). But the greatest wound is God’s anger itself – “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel.” (2:5). If the God who had chosen this people as his special envoys to the rest of humanity and promised never to leave or forsake them, now sends armies against the Temple that Solomon had built as “God’s house” and removes his holy people from their holy place, then what hope is left?  Could anything good ever happen again?

At the very deepest point of Jerusalem’s despair, suddenly the mood changes: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (3:21-22). This is, not surprisingly, a ‘favourite’ Bible verse for many people. For it reminds us that although God may sometimes seem to have abandoned us, that is never true.  Suffering may not be the result of our own sin (as the book of Job made abundantly clear) but if we end up having to suffer indirectly from the sin of other individuals or humanity as a whole, God is still present if we only listen out for him. Our physical, emotional and financial circumstances may all fall apart, but God still loves us. Always.


The Bible in a Year – 17 June

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17 June. Joel chapters 1-3

Joel is one of the shortest books of the Bible, a mere three pages in most editions.  Its theme – that of God’s punishment of Israel for idolatry and other sins by sending the Assyrians and Philistines to conquer them, and a later restoration of the land to reoccupation and economic prosperity – is found in many other Biblical writings of the period.


But it also contains some of the most profound revelations of God’s future plans for his people.  Chapter 2, verses 28-32 are quoted by St peter in his address to the crowds on the day of Pentecost to explain the coming of the Holy Spirit: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions … everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.


Chapter 3 contains what seems like a vision of a final judgement of all people in the “valley of Jehoshaphat”.  The latter was a name of a king of Judah, but as the name simply means “The Lord has judged”, there is no real clue as to what location might have been intended.  It does however tie in with other Biblical prophecies such as that of Armageddon, suggesting that whatever the “last day” might be, it will involve some kind of war or other physical encounter in the Bible lands.


The penultimate verse of the book is a wonderful promise: “But Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations.” It has not been fulfilled literally, for there was a time when the holy city was abandoned, but it is still revered by all three Abrahamic religions as a holy place, and in Christian thought “Jerusalem” is a metaphor for the Church wherever it is found.

The Bible in a Year – 14 June

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14 June. Ezekiel chapter 46-48

Much of these last chapters of Ezekiel is the same sort of material found in the book of Leviticus, suggesting that they were written at the same time (although some people, including whoever produced the Bible reading plan that I am following, insist that all the “books of Moses” were written in his day).


I have little interest in the regulations concerning sacrifices of animals (chapter 46). But the first part of chapter 47 is more interesting as Ezekiel has a vision of water flowing to from the Temple towards the East (i.e. perhaps towards Babylon – remember all these last chapters are said to be a vision he had while still living there).  The water gets deeper as it flows along, and nourishes trees “whose leaves are for healing”. This is very similar to the vision of the New Jerusalem that St John saw in his Revelation. Perhaps what is meant is that the presence of God in the holy city will bring healing to the rest of the world – an idea which makes sense in later Christian understanding of the Church taking the place of Jerusalem, and Christ’s presence being made known throughout the world through the Church.


The reallocation of land to the tribes in chapters 47/48 is strictly equal – inequalities had arisen over the centuries but the return from exile would be a chance to start again with a fair allocation.  No longer is the land east of the Jordan counted as part of Israel, so the tribes that had lived there would now have an equal width strip between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley along with the rest.  But Judah and Benjamin would have land closest to Jerusalem, as before.

Thus ends the book of Ezekiel. Tomorrow, Hosea.




The Bible in a Year – 4 June

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4 June. Ezekiel chapters 16-17

When Ezekiel was not acting out the prophecies he received, he couched them in terms of allegories or parables, much as Jesus did with his teachings.  The first of these chapters pictures the nation of Israel/Judah as a prostitute, or adulterous wife, who left her husband (the true god) who had loved her as an abandoned child, married her as a young woman and brought her up into a royal household.  She left him and slept with all her neighbours and strangers, even paying them for love.  This could be seen as relating to Israel’s political alliances or the people’s worship of false gods – probably both.  The use of this imagery is found elsewhere in the Bible, but never in such an extended form.


Chapter 17 pictures those who had been taken into captivity in Babylon in a very different way, as a cutting from a cedar (a very large, useful and long-lived tree, often used in the Bible as another image of God’s love).  The cutting was planted in Babylon by God’s will but tried to transplant itself again to Egypt (with which Judah had tried to form an alliance), but the attempt was doomed to failure.  The only successful transplant would be that initiated by God, who would take a further cutting and re-establish it to become a mature tree back in Jerusalem.


Whether you prefer the gentle gardening imagery of a tree and its cutting, or the bloodier and more shocking image of the prostitute, the lesson is clear: unfaithfulness to God is every bit as bad, or worse, than unfaithfulness to your own husband or wife; and no attempt at saving yourself will succeed, as God is the only one who can save you.


The Bible in a Year – 13 May

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13 May, Isaiah chapters 64-66

The final climax of Isaiah’s prophecies continues in the apocalyptic style that I described yesterday, describing events that could be related to the immediate rebuilding of Jerusalem, or to its second destruction in 70CE and the subsequent spreading of Christianity as the new worldwide religion, or to the future and final ingathering of all God’s people on the last day.


Some interpreters would also add the renewal of the nation of Israel from 1947 as part of this vision. There remains controversy within the Church as to whether that was a fulfilment of prophecy, part of God’s plan, or merely a political phenomenon of our time.  Was it part of God’s plan that there should be Jews living in Jerusalem in order that it can feature as the central location of his final act of redemption (whatever that might look like in practice)? Or is the worldwide church – messianic Jews as well as gentile Christians – the ‘new Israel’ with God’s presence in the risen Christ in all places, and Jerusalem no longer anywhere special except as a matter of historic interest? The site of the Temple, of course, is now a mosque, so God is still worshipped there but in a different way.


These are not easy questions, and Isaiah may have understood nothing of the circumstances of the 21st century. What we can say with certainty, though, is that these final chapters of the longest and most profound of the books of Biblical prophecy leave the reader in no doubt that what matters to God is not forms of worship or religious allegiance (66:1-4) but an openness to the work of God’s spirit in “making all things new”.  Since the first day of creation the Spirit has been working, creating, constantly and restlessly seeking to bring all things to perfection, and only those who are open to the Spirit of God will have a place in paradise.

The Bible in a Year – 28 April

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28 April. 2 Kings chaptesr 23-25

The last chapters of Kings make terrible reading.  Taking a purely historical reading, after about 700 years of occupying more or less of the ‘promised land’ of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, God’s chosen people, are removed from it by force.  Unlike the first captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, this time a generation later it is the new superpower of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar who come to Jerusalem and capture it in two successive sieges.


‘Good’ king Josiah had known that destruction was coming, for it had been prophesied, and he did his very best to repent on behalf of the people, carrying out the Mosaic law to the best of his ability, reinstating the festival of Passover that had been quietly neglected for many generations, and destroying all the idols that had been placed, not only on hilltop shrines but even in the Temple of God itself.


Such iconoclasm is not uncommon when religious zeal is at work – think of the Reformation in 16th century England, where what started as a protest against the excesses of Catholicism ended in the wholesale destruction of the abbeys and priories, and the whole way of life that went with them.  Not only the abbots and their monks, but everyone employed on their farms would have suffered.  It must have been equally destructive in Josiah’s time – the list of his targets included “the women who did weaving for Asherah”.  In both cases the intentions was to ‘restore pure religion’, but in neither case did it lead to peace.


For even those reforms of Josiah were not enough, apparently, to satisfy God, for even if the king had genuine faith in him, the people did not. Destroying people’s way of life does not “win hearts and minds” as the US naively thought their invasion of Iraq would.  As prophesied, Josiah himself died (in battle) before the destruction of Jerusalem, but under his grandson Jehoiachin, the first siege started. Jehoiachin capitulated quickly and let the Babylonians take his own family, the leaders of society, artisans and all the treasures of the temple away.  But at that stage the city itself, and the common people of the land, remained.


The Babylonians allowed Zedekiah of the royal family to reign as a puppet king in Jerusalem, but when he rebelled against the occupying power, they started an 18-month siege which he resisted.  This time the whole city and its temple were destroyed and the remainder of the population except the “vine dressers and tillers of the soil” were taken away.


Which of these kings had the right approach?  Josiah who aimed to restore true religion to the remnant of Israel in an attempt to get God back on side (but actually destroyed the way of life of the common people), or Jehoiachin who capitulated to the enemy, or Zedekiah who resisted to the bitter end?  In the face of conflict, do we try reform at home, appeasement, or resistance? It’s not an easy question: between them these three kings let the nation be destroyed.

The Bible in a Year – 26-27 April

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26-27 April. 2 Kings chapters 18-22

The kingdoms of the Near East have always had shifting allegiances. Through the history of Israel,  Egypt in particular was sometimes an enemy, sometimes an ally.  The same was true of other powers such as Assyria (roughly what we now call northern Iraq – its capital Nineveh was on the site now occupied by Mosul). Judah was allied with them until the time of Hezekiah (c. 700BC) whose reign we now come to.


The Bible reckons Hezekiah a very good king for two reasons – he finally got rid of the pagan shrines which previous kings had tolerated, and he broke of dependency on Assyria, trusting in God to give Judah victory.  The Assyrian king Sennacherib was not happy about this and threatened to capture Jerusalem as he had already done to Samaria. At this point we first hear of Isaiah, best known for the separate book of his prophesies elsewhere in the Old Testament. His oracle against Assyria on this occasion emphasises that both victory and defeat are planned by God – his will is paramount.  That might seem simplistic to us, but in the culture of the time where all  events in human life were assumed to be influenced by gods or spirits of some kind, it would make sense. Sennacherib returns to Nineveh and is murdered there. The time had still not yet come for Judah’s defeat.


Next comes the kingdom of Babylon – southern neighbour to Assyria. After Hezekiah is granted an extra 15 years of life by God (I will pass over the miraculous reversal of the sun’s shadow, which we cannot begin to explain) he welcomes envoys from Babylon and boasts of his riches which presumably he must have amassed quite quickly by taxations, after previously, giving away all the silver and gold he could find to appease the Assyrians.  But Isaiah realises this is a mistake and prophesies that in his sons’ time they and all their riches would be taken captive by these same Babylonians.  Amazingly, Hezekiah is complacent, even at the thought of his sons being captured, reckoning that “peace in his time” was all that mattered.  That is either extreme cold-blooded self-interest, or a cowardly shrinking from risky actions, or the sort of short-term thinking (“my poll ratings matter more than the best interests of the country”) that often causes political problems.


In chapter 21 we read of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh who was everything his father was not.  He reigned for 55 years from the age of 12, but all that we read of his reign is evil. He reinstated the pagan shrines that had been torn down, turned to the occult, and even placed an idol in the Temple of the Lord. He also “shed innocent blood”. This long and bloody reign contrasting with Hezekiah’s provokes God to declare that Judah’s time is up. Like the rest of Israel, their apostasy has gone so far as to break the covenant that God had always kept.


After a brief two-year reign by Amon, we come to Josiah, another child anointed at the age of only eight.  He followed the good works of his great-grandfather whom he had never known.  After 18 years he instructs reserved funds to be used to repair the temple, and in the process something even more important happens: the book of the Law is discovered.  Sometimes we may assume that the people of Israel always knew God’s commandments (even if they often did not keep them) but this passage reads as if for a long time (maybe since Hezekiah’s time, maybe longer) the people had merely been following custom and did not know or understand God’s laws.  Josiah is savvy enough to know the significance of the book.  God’s word to him is that it is too late to save the people from the fate he had ordained for their idolatry, but Josiah would be allowed to die in peace before Israel as a nation was removed altogether from the promised land.

The Bible in a Year – 24 April

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24 April. 2 Kings chapters 12-14

The next few chapters give a list of kings of Judah and Israel, many of whom only reigned for a short time before they were killed either in battle or by internal rivals. It was clearly a very unsettled time in the history of both kingdoms.


But at the start of this section is an extended story of how the money that was supposed to be set aside for repairing the temple in Jerusalem had not been used for that purpose for many years. Instead, it seems, it had been either used to make yet more silver and gold items (as if they did not have enough already) or simply taken by the priests for their own purposes.  So king Jeohash of Judah (confusingly, Israel had a king of the same name bout the same time) made a sealed chest to ensure that the money was set aside for the right purpose, and had the temple properly repaired.  The gold and silver, meanwhile, were used to pay off the Aramaeans and avoid another war for a while.


This interests me as my professional role involves repair of church buildings.  Local congregations are always advised to make sure their buildings are wind- and watertight and generally in good repair as a priority. In the Church of England they even have a legal obligation to have a surveyor or architect inspect the building every five years and make a list of repairs needed.  But it is all too common to find that a congregation goes for at least one, sometimes several five year period without carrying out any of the recommended repairs, while still finding money for other purposes.  Sadly, it often ends up with the church building needing hundreds of thousands of pounds spending on it, and being proposed for closure.


The worship of God, of course, does not require special buildings, and many Christians meet in people’s homes, hired halls, or conference centres depending on their numbers.  And if we do have church buildings, they should not be the prime focus of our activity – the work of the kingdom of God happens out in the community as much as in church.  But if we do have church buildings, God is interested in them being fit for purpose, be they great temples or tin shacks.