Thursday, December 22, 2011

500 Posts

I recently passed a milestone on this blog: My post about Matthew 28:16–20 was my 500th post. (I probably should have posted this “milestone” post one post ago, except I figured I’d rather put up the Matthew Summary first.)

It’s kind of odd to me that my Bible Blog has now reached 500 posts while my “main blog” has become practically dormant. I guess I just don’t have much to say these days—and what I do have to say I’m saying on Google+ or Twitter or Yammer or LinkedIn—whereas this Bible Blog is much more targeted, and therefore leads itself to sustained use. (Well… except for a long period of almost a year where I posted close to nothing…)

I never mentioned it at the time, but I first started this blog in response to a series on Slate. David Plotz decided to work his way through the Bible and blog about it piece by piece. (I forget if he was doing it chapter by chapter, book by book, or on some other schedule; I lost track of his series after a few posts. There is a link in Slate to the series which doesn’t work, but Plotz’ summary can be found here. I believe he was only going through what Christians call the Old Testament, though, not the New Testament.) Plotz was purposely approaching the Bible as “a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic” (his words), rather than as a believing Christian or a believing Jew. In the end, Plotz decided that everyone should read the Bible—although, from my perspective, for the wrong reasons. You see, the Bible has been at the center of Western thought since it was written, and so much of the way we think and even the phrases we use come straight from the Bible; Plotz argues that reading the Bible will help us to understand where these things come from. He gives a bunch of examples in that summary post, things like “the writing on the wall,” or the first person to put a dummy in a bed to fool people into thinking a person was there, or who Jezebel was and why her name has become a byword for “bad women” in our culture.

But as for belief, Plotz says this:

You notice that I haven’t said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn’t really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God.

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

So Plotz approached the Bible as a non-believer, and left the Bible still a non-believer.

When I first saw Plotz’ posts about blogging through the Bible, I thought that a believing Christian should do the same. Someone who could go through the Bible not just looking at the literary merits or cultural significance, but at the spiritual significance of the events unfolding throughout the book (from a Christian perspective). I didn’t envision this as a response to Plot’ series; I wasn’t thinking of trying to argue against Plotz or anything. And I’m not trying to argue against him here, either; as a non-believer of course he’d have a different perspective on his biblical readings from a believing Jew, who in turn would have a very different perspective from a believing Christian. I simply envisioned this blog (or maybe wiki—that was my first idea, at the time) as a resource by Christians for Christians.

I personally wasn’t going to do it, however, because I don’t know enough about the Bible. I’m no biblical scholar, and without resources like the ESV Study Bible or the NIV New Student Bible or other online commentaries I know nothing more than what is on the page in front of me. So I surely wasn’t going to write something that would be an authoritative resource for other Christians. Not that I think you have to be a scholar to write about the Bible, of course, but I think there is a big difference between a non-believer blogging through the Bible vs. a person who believes that the Bible is the divine Word of God—a person who bases his/her very belief on this book. I think if you’re going to write a resource for others on a book which you consider to be a central source of truth, you should know what you’re talking about. (After all, if you believe the book is true, and then you misinterpret part of it, wouldn’t you be leading people astray?)

And then I just decided to go ahead and blog through the Bible for myself. After all, I’m a Christian, so I should be reading this book on a regular basis anyway. Why not create a diary of what I’ve read? And we all know that writing down what we study and giving it some structure helps us to understand it better, so blogging my way through the Bible would be especially useful to me. So the word “diary” is an important one; this is simply a chronicle of my journey through the Bible, not an authoritative source for others to come and get wisdom. I may be getting things wrong, occasionally. (Hopefully not often!) That being said, the vast majority of comments that come to this blog are of the “thanks for your resource” variety, so if people are getting use out of it, I’m glad.

Like Plotz, when I first started reading my plan was to go through cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation. I got as far as I Samuel and started to get very bogged down; as a Christian, I need to sprinkle some New Testament readings into my Old Testament readings. So I decided to follow a reading plan that came with my old NIV New Student Bible, which had a three year plan for reading through the Bible alternating between Old and New Testaments. (Obviously it would take me longer than three years to get through it; it took me over a year just to get through Matthew!) So I’m currently playing catch up; I just finished Matthew, and I need to get all the way through John before I go back to alternating between Old and New Testaments. (I still haven’t figured out how I want to tackle Psalms or Proverbs; I used to worry about that, but it’ll be years before I get there anyway so I’ve still got lots of time to think about the format for those posts.)

So I’ll continue blogging my way through until I’m called home or I finish. (And if I finish, I’ll have to decide if I want to start over and do it again…)

Again, though, let me stress that I have nothing against David Plotz, nor against his idea of blogging his way through the Bible. Quite the opposite, I applaud his effort. I’m writing about him because he was the original catalyst for starting this blog, but not because I want to “call him out” or argue these points with him. I would very much expect any non-believer to disagree with me (or Christians in general) on interpretation of many passages in the Bible, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Plotz sees God as “awful, cruel, and capricious” from his point of view. Obviously I disagree with that, and my reading of the Old Testament through a Christian’s eyes is a large part of why I disagree with him. He says that he sees moments of “sublime beauty and grace,” and “Grace”—the Christian definition of Grace—is exactly why we disagree on interpretation of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Matthew Summary

The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God and of the Son, Jesus Christ, but obviously the New Testament is more directly about Jesus than the Old Testament. It’s in the New Testament that He is born, and then gives his life for us and raises himself from the dead; the event which completely changes God’s relationship with His people. The religion of the Old Testament, on the surface, seems like every other religion in the world: Do what God says and He will reward you, don’t do what He says and He will punish you. To the casual reader it really seems like a “works” religion like any other; you “earn” your favour with God by keeping His commandments. But then Jesus arrives and shows us explicitly what was only implicit in the Old Testament: We can’t keep God’s demands perfectly (which is how He demands them to be kept), which means that no matter how hard we try we are all in danger of God’s wrath. And then Jesus solves the problem for us by dying on our behalf, taking the punishment and wrath that was due to be lavished out on us, paying our way into God’s presence. This is called God’s Grace: we didn’t deserve it, but He did it for us anyway. Of course Jesus also shows us that this Grace was required even in the Old Testament, and God’s people back then couldn’t buy their way into His favour any more than we can.

The books which are the most directly about Jesus, of course, are the four Gospels, which tell of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since it’s the first book of the New Testament, Matthew may very well be one of the more commonly read books of the Bible, and it’s definitely not a bad place to start because Matthew includes a lot of details about Jesus’ life, miracles, and teachings. (According to a comparison chart I found online it looks like Matthew is probably the most complete Gospel—followed closely by Luke—although it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison like that since each of the Gospels picks and chooses which episodes from Jesus’ life to chronicle.)

If I were more of a biblical scholar (or one at all) I’d probably be able to write about how Matthew differs from the authors of the other three Gospels, but I’m afraid my knowledge is not that deep. One post I found summed it up as well as any other; my paraphrasing would be:
  • Matthew: Focuses on Jesus as King, fulfilling the promises in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah
  • Mark: Action-packed version of the Gospel story, telling of Jesus the servant—willing to suffer and die for the sake of others
  • Luke: Focuses on the human side of Jesus, a man who was willing to make time for anyone, regardless of their state or stature in society
  • John: Focuses on Jesus as God, “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31 (ESV))
That being said, because the four authors of the Gospels had four different perspectives, and even four different specific reasons for writing their books, one finds that different aspects of Jesus’ story are told in the four different books, and sometimes even the same story will have a different slant from book to book. Therefore it’s usually helpful to look at the notes in your Bible to find the same story in the other three Gospels, and read it in the different versions. (I think most Bibles have these types of linkages; at the very least study Bibles do.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Matthew 28:16–20

Matthew 28:16–20 (ESV): The Great Commission


Jesus has now risen from the dead, and appeared to Mary and Mary, who were instructed to tell the disciples that they would see Jesus again in Galilee. Apparently the message was more complex than that, though, because in this passage we are told that Jesus told the disciples to go to a particular mountain, which is where they have now gone.

When they see Jesus they worship him, although “some” doubt (verse 17 (ESV)). Jesus then gives them what we now call “the great commission”:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (verses 18–20 (ESV))


When we read in verse 17 (ESV) that “some doubted,” of course we all think of Thomas. I don’t know if Matthew is specifically thinking of Thomas here or if there were other, less vocal doubters as well.

The “great commission” is a pretty famous passage, so I don’t know that I’ll say anything here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but here are the thoughts that jump out at me when reading this:

First of all, Jesus tells the disciples that all authority has been given to him, and then says therefore we should go and make disciples of all nations. Why should we go and make disciples? Because all authority has been given to him! Some thoughts just on this piece:

The whole reason we’re giving the gospel in the first place is that God deserves to be worshiped, because He is Lord and Master over all. If Jesus didn’t have “all authority in heaven and on earth” then He wouldn’t be worth worshipping, and we wouldn’t bother to make disciples. Like everything else we try to make giving the gospel about us instead of about God, but we’re simply tools, He is the reason we’re giving the gospel in the first place.

He is also the one who saves people, not us. Don’t be fooled by the phrasing in verse 19 where he tells us to go and “make disciples,” we give the gospel, we plant the seeds, but it’s Him who saves. Some of the seeds we sow will land on hard ground, some will start to grow but get choked by the worries of life, and others will take root and grow into real, saving faith; when it does, it’s not because we caused it, it’s because He did. We are “making disciples” in the sense that when someone is saved, we are to be training them how to live as Christians, who God is and who we are in relation to Him, etc. Remember that “disciple” loosely means “follower” or “student” so “making disciples” is more than just giving them the Gospel; it’s also training them in the faith once they have believed in God.

The first point gives us a reason to spread the gospel, and the second point should take some of the pressure off of us; since it’s His power that saves, not our gospel presentation or amazing oratory skills, it means that we just need to do our best and leave it up to Him. The greatest evangelists of all time have given the gospel to people who rejected it, and people who’ve had no skills at all have given the gospel—however falteringly, however stutteringly—to people who have received it with great joy and been saved. Not that I’m saying that we can “slack off,” and not put any thought into our gospel presentations, if there are things we can work at of course we should work at them, and try to do better, just like anything else. But we should also do so without undue pressure; just like anything else we do for God, we do the legwork and then allow Him to accomplish His purposes.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Matthew 28:11–15

Matthew 28:11–15 (ESV): The Report of the Guard


In a previous passage the religious leaders had worried that someone might steal Jesus’ body and fraudulently claim that he’d risen from the dead, so they took steps to have the tomb sealed and put a contingent of guards there to guard it and prevent that from happening. However, as we know, Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and his body really is gone from the tomb.

So in this passage some of the guards go and report to the religious leaders what has happened. At this point the religious leaders decide to double down: they bribe the guards, and tell them that if anyone asks, the guards should tell them that his disciples really did come and steal Jesus’ body. They also let the guards know that if the governor hears about it the religious leaders will keep the guards out of trouble.

The guards take the money and do as they’re told, and, “… this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (verse 15 (ESV)—and these days I’d say it’s not just among the Jews, but probably all people).


When the guards went to the Jewish religious leaders and told them what had happened, I have to assume that they told them the entire story; that there was an angel, and that Jesus had walked out of the tomb in person. Maybe they might have downplayed how scared they were at the sight of the angel, that would be human nature, but they’d have to be able to explain how Jesus’ body got past them. So this just makes me wonder all the more: What were the religious leaders thinking when they made this plan? And I don’t mean “what were they thinking” in the metaphorical “they’re so stupid” way we use that phrase today; I mean literally, what were they thinking? Did they assume the guards were lying? If so, then how did they think the body got past the guards, without, at the very least, a battle happening? (These were Roman soldiers, after all.) And if they thought that the guards were telling the truth, and that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then what did they expect to accomplish by attempting this cover-up? I know this probably isn’t the expected Christian response to passages like this, but I sometimes get caught up in the logistics of the situation more than the morality; it seems self-evident that it was wrong for them to lie about this, but I’m more concerned with what they hoped to accomplish by doing it…

The ESV Study Bible points out that the guards would have been in danger of execution for dereliction of duty, and says that this was the guards’ motivation for going along with the religious leaders. I’m not so convinced, though; if they go along with the religious leaders’ story, wouldn’t that make them more in dereliction of their duty? They couldn’t even stop a couple of measly disciples of Jesus?!? What kind of soldiers were these? But I guess the story about being confronted by a heavenly being wouldn’t go over that much better; people would assume that they were lying. In either event, it’s win-win to go along with the religious leaders’ plan: there is the promise of intervention with the governor—so no execution—and the bribe money on top of that.

As for the fact that the story has spread “to this day” (technically, to the “day” that Matthew wrote this book, but I’m sure it’s still believed), it doesn’t surprise me at all that a story like this would spread because it just seems to make more sense than the truth. Imagine that a controversial figure died, and then a few days later you started hearing two conflicting stories:
  1. He rose from the dead! But he’s not here anymore, he went to heaven, so you can’t see him.
  2. Some of his followers stole the body, and claimed he rose from the dead.
I’d believe the second one, and I’m sure most of my readers would too. Anyone who isn’t saved who reads this passage would probably think that the story that was spread was actually more realistic than what Matthew claims really happened; they might even think that Christians are foolish for believing this, when a more believable story is given us right there in the passage.

Jesus rising from the dead was an unusual event, and we’re sometimes in danger of forgetting how incredible this story is because we’re simply too used to it; at the very least we hear about it every year (at Easter), and many of us probably read it more often than that in our own devotional time. Just like we can get too used to the fact that Jesus came to earth in the first place, because we hear about it over and over at Christmas, but we start to lose sight of the fact that this is God, come to earth as a human. The birth of Jesus and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus are probably the two most amazing events that have ever happened, or will ever happen, in the history of… of history! We should not let these stories wash over us, and lose their impact.

For similar reasons, I don’t necessarily blame people who are not Christians for disbelieving these stories. They are incredible stories—that is, they’re stories that are not credible. They’re outside the realm of what’s actually possible in the physical universe; only God could cause such things (and other miracles in the Bible) to happen, and one has to believe in a God who is bigger than physics to believe such stories are true. If you are confronted with people who don’t believe these stories are true, try not to get worked up about it; I understand your frustration, but I also very much understand where those people are coming from. So instead of—or in addition to—trying to convince people that these stories are real, let us also live lives that are so pleasing to God that people will start to ask us how or why we’re living the way that we do. Let’s set examples for people, and spread the Gospel through not only our words, but also our deeds.

Let us, in other words, be Christians.