The Apocrypha in Lent – 4 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

4 March. Wisdom chapters 1-4

After the last couple of weeks’ readings in Maccabees with all the glory and gore of warfare, coming to the book of Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon as it is sometimes known) is a blessed relief.  Here, instead of violent struggle in the name of God as the way to please him, we find that a holy and peaceful life is the better way.  These opening chapters contrast the virtuous person who places their trust in God and in the resurrection, with the “ungodly” who live amoral or even immoral lives with no thought for the spiritual consequences.  Several errors are highlighted that the “ungodly” make:

Firstly they do not realise that God, represented as Wisdom, is all-present and all-knowing, aware of our every thought, word and deed (1:6-11).  That in itself should make us stop short when we are tempted to become angry, to hurt someone else, tell lies, or sin in any other way.  But of course we quickly forget that in the heat of the moment.  That is why wisdom is paired with discipline (3:11) – it requires the discipline of frequent prayer to remember constantly that God is with us and aware of everything we do.  And I will be the first to hold my hand up and say that does not yet describe me.

Secondly, by not believing in the afterlife, they think that sins committed in this life have no consequences (chapter 2).  Rather, the wise person is willing to accept hardship or even martyrdom for the sake of God’s favour in the life to come (2:1-9, 4:7-19).

Thirdly, they think wrongly that hardship in this life, particularly in the matter of bearing children (who were very much seen in those days as a sign of God’s blessing) means a person has displeased God. In fact the opposite is true – a woman faithful to one husband but without children is more pleasing to God than someone who has slept around, perhaps in the vain hope of bearing a child by anyone; and the eunuch (perhaps meaning anyone who is sexually different from the majority) will be treated with special favour, again as long as they do not sin (3:10-4:6).  By contrast, the godless person who has many children will suffer God’s displeasure – and so (according to this text) will their children. Jesus contradicted this belief by assuring people that non-one is judged by God for their parent’s sins.

These black-and-white morals may look rather simplistic in our complicated multicultural world with its many different faiths and views on what is acceptable behaviour.  But the first of them, I would argue, is certainly worth thinking about – if you believe in a God who is ever present, that will affect everything you do and how you relate to other people.



The Bible in a Year – 31 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 10 December

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

10 December. Titus chapters 1-3

The letter to Titus is similar in its content to those to Timothy: both men are given instructions on who will make a suitable elder or bishop, guidance for living with integrity, and guidance on how to teach older and younger men and older women (it was for the latter to teach the younger women, presumably to avoid any impropriety).

One difference is the hint found here in Titus of the hope in the Second Coming.  I’m picking that out as it is one of the themes of the present season of Advent.  Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (2:11‑14).

The theme of Advent is often said to be that of waiting patiently for Jesus to return.   But that does not mean doing nothing.  On the contrary, the call is to be active in good works, as Jesus indicated in his various stories of the ten maidens with lamps, the tenants in the vineyard, and the rich man with his overflowing barns.  So Paul also writes here that Christians should “be careful to devote themselves to good works”.

He also tells them to avoid “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (3:8-9). It’s so easy to let our energies be diverted by discussions and debates, whether it is about politics, morality or church customs.  Not that any of these are inappropriate subjects for discussion, but if they distract us from the basic call of Jesus to serve the needs of others in his name, or if they result in divisions and distrust within the Church, then we have our priorities wrong.  When Jesus returns, there is nothing in the scriptures to suggest that he will judge people according to their preferred style of worship, the political party they support or how they have earned their living.  He will, however, judge us (living or dead) on what good or harm we have done for other people, whether immediate neighbours or unseen people across the world. Good works don’t save us, but unrepented evil acts will condemn us.

Hear again what Jesus will do on that day for which we wait: “purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”.  That is the Advent call.

The Bible in a Year – 21 November

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21 November. Luke chapters 17-18

People are always fascinated by the idea of the Apocalypse.  Or something like it.  A time when human society with its conflicts between good and evil, with all its joys and sufferings, will be transformed into something vastly different, and usually better (at least for “good” people).  It is a desire born of the frustration that even the best human leaders are far from perfect, and even the best systems of government leave many injustices unrighted.

There has rarely been a time in human history without at least one person who claims either to be the key figure in that transformation – the Messiah, the final prophet, the enlightened one, the immortal one – or at least to know exactly when that day will come.   The fact that no-one who has predicted the date of the Apocalypse has (yet!) been right, and that no-one other than Jesus has ever lived up to claims of immortality, does not stop many people from believing the next man who comes along with such a claim (and it does always seem to be a man).

In Jesus’ day there seem to have been lots of self-proclaimed messiah figures and prophets.  John the Baptist had been the most recent, and in Jesus’ estimation, the greatest, because he called people not to “get rich quick” but to a simple life and to repentance.  But John himself had been quick to point to Jesus as “the One who was to come”.

So it was, that people were asking Jesus such questions.  In chapter 17 it was the Pharisees. Their question was phrased as “when [is] the kingdom of God coming?”   Jesus told them that “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed … the kingdom of God is among you.” It sounds as if they have missed out on its coming.  But a few verses later Jesus describes what was clearly to be a future event, as unmissable as when “the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other”, which he calls ‘the day of the Son of Man’.

Are those answers contradictory?  No.  Jesus is talking about two things.  For him, “the Kingdom of God” meant any situation in which God’s will was truly done, as he was doing it.  His disciples, indeed anyone who tried then or tries now to follow him, would be able to experience something of the Kingdom.  “The day of the Son of Man”, as he described it, was something else, and closer to what the Pharisees had in mind – the time when God’s rule on earth would overthrow imperfect human rule.  But he warns that it would not be something for most people to look forward to.  It would be as catastrophic as Noah’s flood, he says, or the destruction of Sodom – both of which were seen as God’s punishment of human sin and evil.

“One will be taken and another left” on the day of the Son of Man. It is not clear whether that means the righteous would be taken away to heaven and the unrighteous left to suffer destruction, or the righteous would be left to enjoy life on earth while the unrighteous are carted off to hell.  It probably does not matter, for apocalyptic language like this is not intended to be taken literally.

What does matter is that we learn from the parables that follow in chapter 18. We should be like the widow who never ceases asking God for justice, like the tax-collector who continually seeks God’s mercy, like Simon Peter who was willing to leave his wife, home ad business to follow Jesus, and like the blind beggar who asked Jesus to make him see – metaphorically, to see the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, if only we will look with the eyes of faith.


The Bible in a Year – 19 November

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

19 November. Luke chapters 12-13

Today’s passage starts with what sounds like a stark warning from Jesus. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (12:2-3)

This is one of those verses that makes me feel uncomfortable.  As the old cinema adage has it, “be afraid, be very afraid!”  Not because I have some terrible crime to hide that would have me sent to prison if found out, but because like most people there are things that I say or do “in secret” that would be embarrassing or compromising if said in public.  You will know what your own secrets are and it is not for me to enquire about them.

But as someone said to me this morning, one test of someone’s integrity is their reaction to a note slipped to them that simply reads: “Flee! All is known!”  Just witness the shock that goes round a place of work, or a church, when someone everybody thought was trustworthy turns out to have been defrauding the organisation, or giving away industrial secrets, or abusing their position of power to sexually harass younger or less influential members of the organisation.

Jesus might have been warning about this sort of public disclosure, things that would be made public in the lifetime of his hearers, that would make people’s life difficult.  But it is more often interpreted as referring to the last judgement, that unknown day on which everyone’s deeds will be weighed in God’s balance.   The Biblical image of the day of judgement is often a very public one, in which the souls of all who have ever lived will be gathered together or the truth to be revealed.  And like one of Hercule Poirot’s denouements, what is revealed may surprise everyone gathered.   On that day, those people who might have been held up as paragons of virtue in their lifetime might be revealed as the worst of sinners – but the opposite might also apply, that those vilified in their lifetime may turn out to have repented and to have done good deeds that outweigh the bad.

But what if Jesus was talking about a different type of disclosure?  What if his words were addressed not to those who have something shameful to hide, but to his disciples who at that time (and certainly immediately after his death) were frightened to share the “good news”?   Maybe he is saying to those who would hide in their rooms for fear of their persecutors in the early days of the Church that there would come a time when it is the glorious Gospel of Christ that is “heard in the light”, and the stories of his faithful followers that are “proclaimed from the housetops”?

For that is the alternative understanding of the day of judgement that Jesus brought.  Not an occasion of weighing good deeds against bad and hoping that the former will be judged greater, but one of vindicating all those who have been oppressed for doing the will of God, of raising up those whose acts of love and mercy were done in secret and lifting them high as victors for Christ.

So if “what you have said in the dark and what you have whispered behind closed doors” refers to the unknown ways in which you have spoken to other people of your faith, the times you have said a kind word to someone in distress, the prayers you have offered in private for individuals or groups of people, then be encouraged, be very encouraged.


The Bible in a Year – 29 October

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

29 October. Matthew chapters 13-14

In the first of these chapters, Jesus uses several stories (parables) to try and explain what he called the “kingdom of heaven” – the new way of life with God that he came to bring.  Even his closest disciples did not understand these stories at first telling, so he had to explain the meaning of them.  The parables are intended to be mulled over by the hearer until they make sense in their own situation.  We are expected to ask ourselves, for example, “am I like the seed that is growing among thorns, letting the cares of the world choke the growth of God’s life in me?” (13:22) or “when the time of judgement comes, will I look more like a useful stalk of wheat or a useless weed in God’s kingdom? (12:40-43).

Not all the parables were about farming: others would have made sense to housewives, merchants or fishermen.   Jesus used as many ways as he could to explain his teaching to people from all walks of life.  Yet, in the last section of chapter 13, the very people who knew him best – his immediate family and other families in his home village of Nazareth – rejected him, for they thought they knew him too well.  Instead of being the famous preacher who walked into town one day and started to work miracles, he was to them just Joseph and Mary’s son, who had walked out on his family and now returned.  Unlike the prodigal son of one of his own parables, he was not welcomed back with open arms but with suspicion.

On top of that, in chapter 14 Jesus hears that his relative, the prophet John (“the Baptist”), had been killed by King Herod who now feared that Jesus was the same prophet come back to life.  Clearly Herod had not been paying attention, for John had baptised Jesus, and their approaches to proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven were quite different.    So it is not surprising that Jesus went away by himself, badly in need of solitude to deal with this bereavement, the rejection by his own neighbours and the implied threat to his life.  Yet that is just when he found himself surrounded by crowds desperate for more of his teaching.  Their physical need for food prompted perhaps Jesus’ best known miracle, the feeding of five thousand men and their families with a small quantity of bread and fish.  Other people’s needs always came first for him, however great his own.  Only with that attitude, made possible by the Spirit of God within him, could he face the ultimate test of the Cross.

Going back to Jesus’ family, perhaps the experience of meeting the needs of the crowds with both words and food persuaded him that his ministry to others was more important than his family, for at the end of this chapter he declares in response to the statement that they are wanting to see him, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  From that declaration we get the idea that all of us who put our trust in Jesus can call ourselves sisters and brothers – not only of each other, but of Jesus the Son of God, thereby claiming the status of children of God for ourselves.  But it is only Jesus’ self-sacrifice that makes that possible.

The Bible in a Year – 24 October

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24 October. Romans chapters 14-16

Paul’s emphasis in this final section of his teaching to the Roman Christians is on avoiding causing offence.  The sort of things that he suggests could easily cause offence are observing holy days (14:5), or eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) when other Christians think that doing one of these things is wrong.

Those particular differences do still exist within Christianity, although perhaps not for the same reasons. Some denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, believing that all days are equally holy; some believers refrain from all drugs including alcohol; many are vegetarian or vegan, but for reasons of health or animal welfare rather than the reason for avoiding meat in Paul’s day, which was to do with ritual sacrifice.

In addition, you will find differing approaches to the acceptability of such actions as lending money at interest (does the scriptural ban on ‘usury’ refer to any interest charge, or only excessive rates?), or buying raffle tickets (does that constitute gambling, or not?). Not to mention the never-ending arguments about human sexuality, abortion, the role of women in church, etc.   When Christian friendships, individually or between churches, are put under strain over such issues, we know that something has gone wrong and we are far from the ideal of loving each other as sisters and brothers.  As anyone who has (literal) brothers or sisters knows, we cannot expect our siblings to think or act exactly like us, and so getting along as a family has to involve accepting difference.

The principles that Paul lays down are ones that can be applied to these, or any other question of ethics.  Firstly, our actions should all be intended to “honour the Lord” (14:6) and we do not honour him if we show hypocrisy by criticising in others the actions that we find ourselves doing. Secondly, it is God’s role to judge people, through Jesus, and so while we might offer other people the benefit of our thinking on such an issue we must not condemn them for thinking differently (14:10). Thirdly, all our words and actions must be intended to work towards peace and harmony, not conflict (14:16-19). Fourthly, we should act in accordance with our own conscience, for it is more of a sin to believe something is wrong and yet do it, than it is to believe it to be acceptable in the first place (14:22-23). Finally, we should strive to please others and not ourselves (15:1-3).

Of course it is not easy to follow all these principles all the time.  The temptation to judge others whose actions we disagree with is a strong one.  Words of criticism slip out of our mouths all too easily. And at the heart of what we mean by sin is the will to please ourselves rather than others.  But if we can use as our guide these five principles of avoiding hypocrisy, not judging people, working for peace, acting according to conscience, and pleasing others, then we will not go far wrong.


The Bible in a Year – 23 August

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23 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 5-8

Chapter 5 starts with a warning that we should be careful in the words we use in prayer, for it is quite possible to speak foolishly to God or to make a promise (vow) to him that we cannot keep. After that the text returns to the theme of the opening chapters – that both the life of the rich and that of the poor is in vain.


Chapter 7 is a series of short proverbs of practical wisdom. Its conclusion is “I said, ‘I will be wise’, but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:23) In other words, as Pontius Pilate famously asked, “what is truth?” – even the wisest person by human standards cannot comprehend ultimate reality.


It is not until near the end of chapter 8 that we begin to see an answer to the “problem of vanity” that has occupied the writer since the start of the work – why is it that even being healthy, wealthy, wise and happy is pointless since we all die?  There can only an answer to that if death is not, in fact, the end of life.  What does make sense is an understanding that the righteous life and wise behaviour will be rewarded by God in the life to come: “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.” (4:12-13)

The Bible in a Year – 12 May

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12 May. Isaiah chapters 59-63

Towards the end of this book of prophecy, the style becomes ‘apocalyptic’. Which does not mean it is all about terror and vengeance (though there is some of that, in chapters 59 and 63).  But like other apocalyptic works in the Bibles such as Daniel and Revelation, there seems to be a conflating of the way God was working in the prophet’s own time, and what will happen at the end of history, the day of judgement.  Some of the descriptions of ‘Zion’ here refer to the earthly Jerusalem, being rebuilt by those who had returned from Babylon.   Some are clearly references to the future Kingdom of God when day and night have ceased to be, and God himself is the light of his people.  That is the vision of St John at the very end of the Bible, and Isaiah caught it too.


We see more clearly than ever now that when God comes to rescue his people from either external oppression or their own sins, whether in the ‘here and now’ or at the final judgement, he will restore ‘justice’ (more than legalism, rather fairness, wholeness and harmony), a word that occurs throughout Isaiah and especially in these chapters. At those times, two things always happen: those who are open to God’s justice and have repented of their sins will experience his coming with joy and a sense of liberation.  And those who have resisted justice and ignored God, and have let sin take over their lives, will experience it as terrible judgement – God “treading the grapes of wrath” (63:3, one of those well-known quotations that I had not realised was from the Bible until I came across it here).  There is no chance given at that time to change sides – we will be judged on our relationship with God as it has been until this moment.  That is why there are many verses in the Bible along the lines of “now is the day of salvation” or “seek the Lord while he is near”. The old billboard sign “repent, for the end is nigh” may be a simplistic and in many ways negative way of summarising the Gospel message, but it is still true.


In between these two visions – of the rebuilt worldly city of Jerusalem and several centuries of prosperity, and the final day of judgement – comes Jesus.  Of course he is not named here, except in the sense that his very name Yeshua means something like ‘God saves’, which is a good summary of these chapters.  But it is recorded by Luke that at Jesus’ first sermon following his baptism in the Spirit, he read the beginning of chapter 61 of Isaiah (“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed …”) and told people that it was being fulfilled even as they listened.  He knew that he was the Messiah, the suffering servant that Isaiah had seen in his visions, and that his role was indeed to bring in the “year of the Lord’s favour” in anticipation of the end times when justice would finally be brought to bear.


So, if you have not already turned to Jesus, now is the time to do so, to experience the day of God’s favour, and be ready for when he comes again in glory.