Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Bible in a Year: Romans, Part 2

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

When my post about Romans went over 2000 words, I decided to make a second post, LOL.

What are some Old Testament connections in Romans? If you want to make a big story “arc,” you could draw one from Adam to Romans 5, where Paul writes how Christ’s grace is greater than Adam’s sin. Christ “recapitulates” Adam, to use the traditional theological term.

Another “arc” is Abraham to Christ. Abraham is a key figure for Paul, not only as the father of the Hebrew people (among whom, of course, are Jesus and Paul and Peter and all the rest) but also as an example of how God blesses faith. Similarly to Jesus, Paul goes to the Torah but goes back before Moses to Abraham. Because the Lord blessed Abraham’s faith long prior to the Mosaic mitzvoth, God blesses the faith of non-Jews through Christ, even though they don’t fit the halakhic definition of a Jew.

The faith of Abraham connects us to Habakkuk, from which Paul draws so much theological inspiration.

See, the enemy is puffed up;
    his desires are not upright—
    but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness (Hab. 2:4)

Psalm 14, a song of David, is another key passage for Paul:

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
   They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
   there is no one who does good. 
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
   to see if there are any who are wise,
   who seek after God. 
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
   there is no one who does good,
   no, not one. 

As Paul builds a case for the necessity of Christ, he emphasizes that Jews and Gentiles alike are in sin: this is no “diss” on Jews, but it is a dilemma for Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul explains how necessary is Christ, to save human beings from the morass of sin in which we’re all caught.

My Harper Bible Commentary (p. 1137) notes that Amos 1:2-2:16 is a prophetic condemnation of the Gentiles that turns back to Israel and Judah. Paul follows a similar pattern in Romans 1-3.

That same book (p. 1136) notes that “the wrath of God” is depicted in the Old Testament as a manifestation of God’s holiness that has been provoked by human wrongdoing (1 Samuel 5:6, 2 Samuel 6:7, and also 1 Enoch 91:7, Wisdom of Solomon 5:17-20). Although God’s actions are sometimes uncertain and although God may seem silent, God is understood not to be arbitrary. God’s wrath is connected with God’s love, and God’s righteousness is the way God helps and saves sinner.

Certainly the faithfulness of God—God’s hesed, or steadfast love/lovingkindness—is an Old Testament theme that finds exposition here in Romans because of Christ and his death and resurrection. So does the theme of the covenant with God with his people Israel---which will never been revoked.

As I said in the other post, the pattern of the Exodus—the rescue that God achieves from the slavery of Egypt/slavery of sin to the freedom of the Land/freedom of Christ---can be seen here in Romans, if not explicitly.

Romans 13:1-7 has always been a difficult passage. What if the state requires criticism and opposition? Paul isn’t setting out a thorough theology of the state; he’s simply urging the congregation to do their civic duties. My Harper Commentary (p. 1163) notes that this passage reflects a deeply Jewish idea that all authority ultimately derives from God (Isaiah 41:1-4, 45:1-3, Dan. 2:21, Prov. 8:15, Sirach 10:4, 1 Enoch 46:5, and others).

Some of my favorite passages from Romans? They’re the old standbys:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith (Rom. 1:17).

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26)

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25).

Pretty much all of chapter 8, and its lovely ending:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bible in a Year: Romans

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I diverted from Acts to the General Epistles and Revelation. Now I’m finally back to Paul’s letters,  beginning with Romans.

I love Judaism and have been influenced and inspired by Jews, Jewish devotion, and the Jewish commitment to “repair of the world” (tikkun olam).

So I feel sad when I read my own sacred scriptures when Jews and Judaism are caricatured and harshly labeled, depicted as a legalistic and substandard religion. Many Christians to this day think that Judaism is a religion in which one must earn God’s mercy via rigorous observance of laws---something no religion has ever taught, let alone Judaism.(1) Such scriptural language reflects the intense discussion of the first century, what defines a Jew and Judaism in light of belief that Jesus is the Jewish mashiach, or "Messiah".

The frequent Old Testament characterization of the Hebrews as “stiff-necked” and perennially disobedient fit within the early Jesus Believers’ narrative: God's people were rejecting their prophet and messiah just as their ancestors had always done.

But for Jews, Jesus just didn’t fit. If he was the messiah, nothing seemed changed and, if anything, things were worse for Jews because of Jesus belief. The Christians (a new term then, perhaps not yet widespread) looked disdainfully at Jews and, in time, would oppose and persecute Jews---in spite of the teachings of love and service that their own Christian scriptures taught. Jews responded with rejection and sometimes violence, which was a reason some of the New Testament authors write painfully of fellow Jews.

Further, even if the Christian movement were considered a Jewish sect (as it still was in the first century), Gentiles were being welcomed into fellowship with no obligation to follow Torah. Nor did Christians support Jews during the Roman war and the Bar Kokhba period---and, in fact, considered Jewish suffering as something they’d earned from disobedience. (2)

So (as Lawrence Stiffman discusses), the halakhah and the work of the Tannaim sages of the Mishnah preserved Jewish identity and heritage.(3) People like Paul were vitally concerned with Jewish identity, too—but they struggled with how to define a Jew now that Gentiles, unconverted to Judaism and unconfirmed to halakhic definitions of Judaism, joined with some Jews within the Jesus-Belief community. In his historical situation, the New Testament is not about Gentiles who thought Jews should convert; the New Testament reflects an intense discussion of what defines Jewishness if Jesus is the Jewish messiah, believed in by more and more non-Jews for whom the Jewish religion had previously just been another odd religion among many.

Of course, the Old Testament has many depictions of Gentiles eventually coming to Jerusalem to worship God. Some of the most beautiful are in Isaiah. The God of the Jews would become the God of the whole world. Early Christians thus combed the scriptures for indications that Jesus was the true Messiah, that he would open blessings for Gentiles--and that his suffering and execution, as well as his spiritual power that was being spread through preaching rather than (for now) cosmic events--were always subtle but true aspects of Old Testament witness. (Shameless plug: my little book, Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament, discusses many of the scriptures used in the New Testament to elucidate the meaning of Jesus.)

Mark D. Nanos points out tensions in Paul’s life and writings that made him such a key in the eventual separation of Judaism and Christianity. Paul faulted Jews who did not embrace his gospel and who opposed him. Yet Paul himself (famously) needed a vivid supernatural experience to convince himself.(4)

So Paul was also not anti-Jewish, nor anti-Torah. He was upset that what he believed should be happening was not happening. The Messiah had come; the worldwide power and redemption promised in the Torah and Prophets were happening through the Holy Spirit in powerful experiences among his and other congregations. For him, it was a great thing that non-Jews were becoming children of Abraham via God’s love and power! He hoped deeply that the message of his and other preachers (the true preachers, anyway: there were many false preachers with unsound doctrine) would soon bring about the worldwide redemption of Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus, the urgency of Paul’s message, his frustration at those who opposed his message, his very emotional entreaties in his several letters.

Yet Paul’s work helped drive a deeper wedge between Jews and Christian Gentiles and (something that would horribly distress Paul, if he could know) led to Christian mistreatment of Jews over the ensuing centuries. Many Jews and Christians have rejoiced together that, in the twentieth century, Nostra Aetate document of Vatican II and powerful interfaith dialogue experiences (I’m part of two local groups) have helped bring into fellowship two groups that, in Julie Galambush’s phrase, so reluctantly parted centuries ago.(5)

There is much writing about Paul and Judaism. Here are some books that I've been studying this winter:

E. P. Sanders, Paul the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

E. P. Sanders, Comparing Judaism and Christianity: Common Judaism, Paul, and the Inner and the 
Outer in Ancient Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).

E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017)

Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991).

Larewence H. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House 1985).

Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Casade Books, 2017)

A. Andrew Das, Paul and the Stories of Israel: Grand Thematic Narratives in Galatians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016)

And there are many more! This doesn't even scratch the surface.

On finally to Romans.

Romans is among Paul’s last letters but is certainly a magnum opus. While in seminary, I had a mini-spiritual experience of God’s great love and acceptance as I wrote a modest teaching outline of the book for a Sunday school class that I was teaching. I felt so loved and redeemed by Christ!

Paul wants to visit the congregation in Rome, has not yet done so (Acts provide some of the narrative of Paul’s eventual journey to Rome), and in the letter, he discusses his plans to meet the people and, after a while, to go to Spain. He hopes the Romans will support his planned travels.

He begins with an affirmation of the Gospel and its power. He describes the world’s need of God. The Gentiles can potentially be faithful to God via the majesty of the cosmos and their own consciousnesses; but many do not, and God gave up on them. But he continues in chapter 2, that even those who follow moral law are prone to be more tolerant of their own sins and those of others; and so their moral law ends up condemning them, too.

As far as the Jews are concerned: Paul is proud of his own Jewishness and heritage, and praises them as those who have God’s law and covenant. Jews have a wonderful gift of the Torah, which in turn is precious. But they, too, may fall into disobedience and break the covenant. Ultimately, Psalm 14:1-3 says it well: no one is righteous before God, neither Jew nor Gentile.

THUS, God’s gift of Christ is so precious. God is righteous—but God’s righteousness is understood in the way God helps sinners. Via faith in Christ, people have a rich redemption and salvation.

The Torah is wonderful, but Paul tells his readers not forget that God views all people impartially. Just look at Abraham: he lived over 400 years before the Torah, and God declared him righteous, and Abraham responded in faith. So faith is always primary. As for us, God’s gift of Christ was provided when people were still in sin—either through breaking the moral and religious law, or through Gentile rebellion. God did this while all were “enemies” of God—-further showing how wonderful is God’s love and salvation. Audaciously, Paul even declares that the salvation of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin; for Christ’s righteous multiplies the power of grace more significantly than Adam’s sin.

In the middle of the letter, Paul makes a subtle connection to the Exodus—the great story of God’s rescue. Those who are in sin are slaves (the unspoken allusion is to Egyptian slavery), but and the outcome (“wages”) of the “work” of slavery is only death. But the outcome of God’s rescue of us through Christ is life and prosperity.

But there is still struggle. He does not refer to the struggles of the Israelites in the Wilderness, so my connection may be tenuous. The great blessing of God doesn’t prevent us from struggling with sin and the downsides of human nature. Romans 7:7-25 is surely a favorite passage for many of us because we recognize our own frailty and futility in Paul’s words. But he comes back to God’s righteousness—God delivers us while we are sinners.

Chapter 8 is another favorite for many of us as Paul describes the wonderful blessings of Christ: the Spirit, the possibility of holy living, the future glory, the help that is available to us in time of need and crisis, the guarantee that God loves us no matter what.

This is Paul’s message that he plans to continue bringing to the Gentiles; but what of the Jews who have not believed? In chapter 9-11, Paul hopes that as he (and other preachers and teachers) can continue to bring the Gospel of the Jewish Jesus to non-Jews, then Jews will see what is happening in the Gentile world and will believe in Jesus, too. As he said earlier, God’s Torah and covenant are great blessings to Jews, and God has by no means rejected his ancient covenant with the Jews.

Paul finally says that God will have mercy on us all, and that God’s ways and wisdom are deep and unsearchable (11:32-36). His urgency to spread the Gospel, though, has motivated Christian missionaries for the history of the faith.

Paul next turns to ethical teaching. He calls believers to surrender to God and be transformed by God’s grace. He explains the proper use of divine gifts, and Christians’ conduct in personal relations, as well as Christians’ conduct to the secular authorities. He returns to the theme of judging: we should not pass judgment on one another! (How often have many of us used Romans 1:26-27 out of context to harshly judge LGBTQ persons, never thinking about the irregularities of our own sexuality!) Romans 14:13-23 is a condensed version of what he discusses more fully in the earlier 1 Corinthians: we should try not to make others “stumble” in their faith.

He concludes with more affirmation of Christ in his own ministry, and of his future hoped-for plans. In chapter 16, he greets several people by name—-interestingly, because he hasn’t yet visited this church—but either these are people at another church, to which these greetings have been appended to Romans, or he just knows a lot of the folks through his networks. It's worth noting that Paul greets several woman leaders in the church. As history moved on, Christian leadership would turn into an all-guys group--but fortunately that has changed in many Christian denominations.


1. E. P. Sanders, Comparing Judaism and Christianity: Common Judaism, Paul, and the Inner and the Outer in Ancient Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016). 237.

2. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hovoken: Ktav Publishing House, 1985) 75-78.

3. Ibid. 

4. Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Casade Books, 2017), 46-50.

5. Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting, How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperOne, 2006).

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bible in a Year: Revelation

Richard Danby, "The Opening of the Sixth Seal" (1828)
National Gallery of Ireland
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

You might not realize it, but Revelation is very rich in connections to the Old Testament. The letter opens with John stating that God gave him this revelation (apokálypsis, which means uncovering or unveiling), and he greets the seven churches that are in Asia (1:1-8). He states that he was on the island of Patmos when the Spirit came to him and ordered him to write down these visions and send them to the churches at Ephesus, Smyma, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Thus Revelation is an epistle, though a unique one in eschatological, apocalyptic visions.

John sees “one like a son of man” among seven golden lamp stands. The vision reminds us of Daniel’s and Ezekiel’s visions of heavenly realities.

The words to each of the seven churches, with different kinds of warnings, praises, and commands, fill chapters 2 and 3. The Old Testament has many depictions of faithlessness on the part of Israel, and the New Testament—though covering  a much shorter time period—does not hold back on criticizing aspects of the early church, as well. We find a notorious bit of anti-Judaism in 2:9, but again, we must remember that John is Jewish and writes in a Jewish milieu; he is not a Gentile who hates Jews. The warning about the lukewarm quality of the Laodicean church is also famous (3:15-16), but so is Christ’s words to that church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (3:20).

The remainder of the book (4:1-22:5) area various visions and depictions of the future. We have a depiction of the throne of heaven and the living creatures that give God glory (chapter 4). A prelude to the opening of the scrolls describes the slain Lamb of God who is declared worthy to open the scroll’s seals.

Rev. 6:1-8:1 is the Opening of the Seven seals:
First reveals the white horse and its rider (Rev 6:1-2)
Second reveals the red horse and its rider (Rev 6:3-4)
Third reveals the black horse and its rider (Rev 6:5-6)
Fourth reveals the pale horse and its rider Death, with Hades nearby (Rev 6:7-8)
Fifth reveals the martyrs under the altar (Rev 6:9-11)
Sixth reveals earthquakes and cataclysms.(Rev 6:12-17)

Chapter 7 is an interlude, about the sealing of the 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel), and the heavenly multitude.

The opening of the seventh seal results in a time of silence in heaven (8:1). The the seven angels who had seven trumpets made their sounds:
The first trumpet, a third of the world’s vegetation is destroyed (8:7)
The second trumpet, a third of sea creatures and a third of ships are destroyed as a third of the sea turns to blood.
The third trumpet, a star named Wormwood falls, and a third of rivers and waters turn bitter.
The fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars are struck. 
The fifth trumpet, the bottomless pit is opened, with locusts and the angel Abaddon are released (9:1-11).
The sixth trumpet, an four angels kill two hundred million people.

In an interlude, John eats the scroll (certainly a reference to a similar sign in Ezekiel), and two witnesses provide more visions of the end.

The seven trumpet, and Christ’s victory and Kingdom are announced, and the heavenly temple with the ark of the covenant are revealed (chapters 10-11).

Chapters 12-14 tell of seven mystic creatures: the woman with child, the dragon, the male child, the angel Michael, the beast from the sea, the beast from the earth (and the beast’s number is 666), and the Lamb on Mount Zion. Chapter 14 ends with a well-known vision of the winepress of the wrath of God, into which the grapes of the earth are pressed, resulting in deep blood.

Chapters 15-16 tell of the seven bowls of wrath: sores of people, the bloody sea, the bloody rivers and fountains, the sun’s fierce heat, the darkness, the foul spirits that prepare for Armageddon, and the earthquake.

Rev. 17:1-19:10 are visions of the great harlot Babylon, “mother of earth’s abdominations” who is drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. Though Babylon will fight against the Lamb, Babylon’s soon is sure, though the evil world may mourn the city’s fall. At last, the marriage supper of the Lamb is announced, with great rejoicing in Heaven.

When the beast and false prophet are defeated, they are thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur (19:11-21). Satan and the dragon are bound and sealed in the bottomless pit for a millennium, and Christ will reign in peace with the resurrected faithful (20:1-6). Satan, though, will emerge and gather forces for battle at Gog and Magog (another Ezekiel reference), but Satan will then be thrown into the fiery lake as well.

Finally, the great white throne appears and judge all the death according to the Book of Life (the Book of Life is very much a Jewish image). Death and Hades will be destroyed for good at this point (20:11-15), and a new heaven and new earth will be established; the blessed will be with God, and the rest will be thrown into the fiery lake, which is the second death (21:1-8).

The final vision of Revelation very much harkens back to Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Temple (Ez. 40-48). The new Jerusalem will be a bright, golden and jeweled, beautiful and bright place. As the Bible began with the Tree of Life in Eden, the Bible ends now with the restored Tree of Life as the faithful will be in God’s light forever (21:9-22:5).

Revelation concludes with warnings about the end times—which, the author believes, will occur soon—and while visions should not be added to the book, these words will bring blessing to those who keep them (22:6-21).

Regarding the various millennial interpretations of Revelation, I found this interesting site,, that discusses these views in helpful detail.

“The Rapture”--when believers in the end times will rise into the air to meet the Lord---is not part of Revelation, but 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, where Paul is reassuring the congregation about the certainty of Christ's return. For being such a brief passage in the New Testament (discussed nowhere else therein, and never called “the Rapture”), it has certainly captured the imagination of many conservative Protestant Christians, who import it from Paul’s letter into the overall eschatology of Revelation.


Here is more about Revelation, originally posted here.

The Book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book. I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. I’m not keen on interpreting the book's arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times.  But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible.

If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God's saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.

I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one times in some analyses of Revelation.  Perusing that article as well as my notes in my old RSV and the references in my NRSV, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation.  These are just my notes from these sources, to set up ongoing studies. That article gives many more references and other research about John's compelling visions and style of writing.  

The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.

The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.

Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory.

The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also, Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12.

The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful.

The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8.

The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11.

Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.

Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.

Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes.  Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.

The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge.  The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron.  Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days.

Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.

Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.

The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam's ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16.  This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum.

Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood.  Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.

As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1.

With that reference, I thought of my earlier post about the biblical theme of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, its connection to the land, and the hope of future redemption that the Exile inspires. Although the Bible isn't exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. As I explain there in my notes, the exilic experience pervades the Bible in many unappreciated ways. (The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God's people.) For Christians, the New Testament describes the fulfillment of that post-exilic hope, and the Book of Revelation brings together stands of biblical history and theology to show the final consummation of centuries of divine promises.


The book of Revelation is an endless source of fascinating questions for many people. I never quite shared an eagerness to decode the book. When I was in high school in the 1970s, barcodes began to appear on grocery products, and I heard someone express concern that barcodes were connected to the Antichrist as predicted in Rev. 13:17. I thought (privately) that was kind of silly.

Then a few years ago, my wife Beth and I led a study on the book of Revelation. We used Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, a wonderful book that delves into the Old Testament background and first century roots of the book. The first Sunday, we had a crowd. “I think the Lord has led me to this study,” declared a young woman that first time. During the next few Sundays, our group dwindled down to a faithful core. Where did the others go, including the woman pleased at God’s guidance? Beth and I didn’t attempt to interpret Revelation’s signs and symbols to our contemporary time, and so I’m sure we disappointed folks present at our initial gathering.

The notion that Revelation has a secret meaning about current events, in spite of scriptural caveats about predicting the end (e.g., Matt. 24:36), will always give the book qualities of mystery and urgency. In my experience, though, folks are certain that the book has contemporary meaning, are liable to become frustrated if you imply otherwise, and yet don't necessarily know what that meaning is. It's one of those unexamined opinions people swear to.

Of course, many attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. To me, the numerous failed efforts to connect Revelation to contemporary history advises against the effort---as does Jesus' own caution that only God knows history's final timetable.

Although Revelation is typical of the apocalyptic genre of writing (there are several such Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament, for instance), Jesus’ own end-time teachings aren’t so typical. While concerned about warning people, Jesus isn’t interested in tabulating and predicting the end times in a vengeful way.[1] Jesus’ teachings are not focused on divine retributation against  evildoers and Gentiles, but upon God’s salvation, e.g. Luke 4:16ff. We have to balance the visions of Revelation with the example of Jesus himself.

In portions of his teachings, Jesus warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire (Matt. 24:45-51, Matt. 25:1-13, 30, 46). He warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). The stories of people who followed Jesus, though, are overwhelmingly happy. People who discovered Jesus became filled with joy. Not only had they escaped God’s wrath, but they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. They had escaped Hell because Jesus suffered condemnation in their place. Jesus addressed the seriousness of sin with his love and blood.

Jesus also promised to return. According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25, 26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Whenever Jesus returns, one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us for our faith whether we came to Jesus early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16), but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)! We need to commit to a relationship with Jesus, however small our faith-steps may be. Readiness means believing in him, following him, trusting his power … and trusting his merciful desire to save us regardless of all our sins and failures!

Here is a very odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God's mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God's mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness. Although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, he already has defeated Satan. In light of that victory, he calls us to follow him with confidence.


1. Points made by Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 68.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Bible in a Year: 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude

Book of Kells representation of John
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We come to the three short letters of John and the letter of Jude. 1 John has no introduction or conclusion, and so we don’t know its audience. Tradition has always attributed it to the Apostle John—and it does echo the Gospel, with its light-darkness contrasts, emphasis on love, the eternal nature of Christ, the joy of Christ, the need to abide in Christ, and other aspects.

In the passage 1:5-2:6, which I long ago yellow-highlighted in my old Bible, the author explains righteousness, asserting that we all sin but Christ forgives and cleanses us, and so we can count on Christ and keep his commandments.

In 2:7-17, John reminds his readers that they should not love worldly things, but to focus on Christ and Christ’s love—for a person who hates another person lives in darkness. But to abide in Christ, who run less risk of being deceived—important because this is the last hour,. The end is coming soon (2:18-29).

In a seeming contrast to what he wrote earlier, John says that no one born of God commits sin, for sin is of the devil, and no one who abides in Christ sins (3:1-10). He seems to be contrasting a life of habitual lawlessness with a life in which Christ is continually trusted to remove our sin, to help us and forgive us.

Anyone who loves God must love one another in Christ-like love, for no one who hates a brother or sister can say s/he loves God (3:11-18).

But when we are of the truth, we have assurance if our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts and gives to us freely. It's another reason to abide in Christ (3:19-24)! John continues to urge readers to love and to have faith: as there is no hatred for others if one loves God (4:19-20), there is no fear, for God helps us with fear and casts it out through the divine love (4:18). Anyone who has faith in God through Christ has overcome the world and has God’s life within (5:1-12).

The letter concludes with similar injunctions (5:13-21). John may be redundant, but they are lovely teachings about which to be redundant.

2 and 3 John and Jude are one-chapter letters. John calls himself not by name but by the title “elder” and writes to “the elect lady and her children.” Is this a particular mother, or a congregation? The author writes about the importance of love, and the importance of right doctrine about Christ and God. One should not even show hospitality to a teacher of wrong doctrine: this is serious!  The author promises to talk in person soon.

3 John is also by the “elder,” written to Gaius. The author courages Gaius in showing service, hospitality, and love, and commends Demetrius. But look out for Diotrephese, who puts himself first and doesn’t acknowledge the elder’s authority. (How many churches have at least one Diotrephes, who insists on his/her own way against the minister!) The author promises to talk in person soon.

Jude identifies himself as a servant of Christ and a brother of James, so he may be a brother of Jesus, too, or another Jude. The audience is very general (verse 1). The letter is harsh toward false teachers, connecting back to Korah’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16), and even to Cain himself. False teachers are often depicted as having really bad morals, and such is the case here.

Much of Jude is also found in 2 Peter, which may make it a second-century work.

Interestingly, Jude quotes a noncanonical book, 1 Enoch, in order to condemn these false teachers. 1 Enoch, from about the first century BCE, can be found in collections of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha but is not canonical for Jews and Christians, except for the Ethiopic Orthodox Church. In Jude’s time, its canonical status was still debated.

Like some of the other epistles, Jude warns that the time is short, and one must keep the faith in these end times. More on that in the final New Testament writing!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bible in a Year: James, 1 and 2 Peter

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Somewhere on my bookshelves is a notebook that has my word-by-word translation of the Epistle of James. This was my project for third-semester-Koine Greek, which was my final college class, spring 1979. There were only two of us and the professor, but it was a fun class!

In the Harper's Bible Commentary, my seminary prof, Luke T. Johnson, discusses traditions about the epistle's authorship. Traditionally, James is identified as the brother of Jesus. The author doesn't identify himself as such. We don't know the letter's time period because it speaks to no obvious historical circumstance.

The author portrays himself as a wise teacher, and his advice has to do with practical religious living. The epistle is very much in the tradition of Old Testament Wisdom Literature, but not only that. Johnson writes: “James is remarkable for its positive appropriation of Torah, whose separate aspects it mediates to the messianic community… The short exhortations concerned with practical behavior resemble and incorporation elements of the wisdom tradition. Since wisdom is by nature cosmopolitan, James shows traces of Hellenistic moral philosophy as well as of the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasties. James also conemporizes the voice of the prophets. His attack on oppression echoes the accents of Isaiah and Amos (5:1-6). James also affirms the Law, calling it the ‘Law of Liberty’ (2:12). He does not mean ritual observances but the moral teaching of Torah, summarized by the Decalogue and the ‘law of love’ (Lev. 19:18; cf. 2:8-11) (p. 1272). Short as it is, James provides us with rich connections to Old Testament traditions.

The letter also provides an interesting contrast to the very christocentric Hebrews (and to Paul’s letters), because James only mentions Jesus twice (1:1 and 2:1) and contains helpful teaching about religion, faith, and wisdom that could be universally applied. He does reflect some of Jesus’ sayings (1:6, 2:8, 5:12), as Johnson notes.

Here is a brief outline: James teaches that true religion is evidenced by perseverance and patience during temptation and difficult times. But true wisdom and faith are from above, and God will grant our prayers for wisdom (1:2-27).

True and pure religion is evidenced in an ability to keep one’s tongue, to control one’s anger, to visit orphans and widows, to keep oneself “unstained” from the world (1:19-27).

If you truly hear God’s word, you will be a doer and not just a hearer (1:22). Several years ago, my daughter participated in her choir’s performance during the noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words: Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein. My German was rusty so I needed two or three seconds to recognize James 1:22. The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, the wonders of Vienna itself, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a deep sense of peace and assurance. Having faith in Christ is a very good thing, but faith isn't just intellectual assent or even simply trust in God, it is also an active, loving, service-oriented thing.

True faith is evidenced by impartiality toward persons: don’t defer to and praise the rich person while refusing also to honor the poor person. Those who are merciful and impartial do God’s will (2:1-13).

Famously, James asserts that faith without works is dead faith. Faith cannot save unless expressed in deeds of service to others (2:14-26).

Just as famously, James asserts that we need to control our mouths, because “the tongue is a fire” with great destructive power. He connects this kind of self-control and carefulness not only to being a general believer but also to being a teacher (3:1-12).

True wisdom is peaceful, gentle, merciful, sincere, peace-making, and other positive qualities from and commended by God, while false wisdom is bitter, jealous, and selfish (3:13-4:18). Friendship with the world is expressed in fighting and wars, but that makes one an enemy of God (4:1-10). Similarly slander (4:11-2) and false confidence (4:13-17). I've always loved the perspective on our lives expressed in 4:13-15.

James continues to criticize friendship with the world by despising worldly fortune (5:1-6) and by the careless swearing of oaths (5:12). But those with true faith and wisdom are patient and steadfast; they avoid grumbling; they pray for the sick and confess their sins to one another (5:7-11, 13-18). 5:16 is another favorite verse: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” or in the old KJV, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous [person] availeth much.”

The final verse, 5:20, is still another favorite: “you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Although I've not read the Qur'an extensively, James' emphasis on faith and works reminds me of verse 177, sura 2 of the Qur'an, found here in different translations. There, too, God approves of our faith when expressed in kindness, service, patience in times of trouble, and trust.


According to the Harper Bible Commentary, 1 Peter addresses concerns of Asia Minor Christians during the latter part of the first century. Because of this, and because persons named in the letter like Silvanus and Mark (5:12-14) were more Paul’s friends than Peter’s, the letter is likely pseudonymous (p. 1279). But pseudonymous authorship was common in those days and needn’t detract from the letter.

1:3-9 is a lovely opening blessing, encouraging the audience of the glories of Christ, and though they are being persecuted, their pain is like the refinement of gold. The author continues to encourage them by reminding them that they have experienced Christ’s Spirit, something that the prophets predicted (1:10-12). Thus, they can be focused upon living holy lives (1:13-2:3). Quoting passages from Isaiah, Hosea, and the Psalms, the author praises Christ and reminds the congregation of their own holiness, using images from the Old Testament about God’s people (2:9).

In 2:11-4:11, the author reminds the congregation of various ways to show themselves as faithful: to have good conduct (2:11-12), to be good citizens of the state and honor others (2:13-17), to be respectful to a master if one is a servant (2:18-20), reflecting the example of Christ himself (2:21-25); to have a domestic home life reflecting of the times (3:1-7); to bless those who persecute you and to have a tender heart and humble mind (3:8-12); to endure persecution mindful of Christ’s own sufferings (3:13-22), and to generally do one’s duty, to love one another and practice hospitality, and practice other virtues according to God’s will (4:1-11). The last section, 4:12-5:11, is another exhortation to remain steadfast and faithful.


2 Peter is written in the testament style, that is, the author--"Simeon Peter"---gives instructions in light of his impending death. It is a fictional genre used to convey true teachings but under pseudonymous authorship (HRC, 1286). My seminary notes in my old Bible indicate there are apocryphal writings of the 100s CE that are also under the name of Peter, who was killed in the 60s. My notes also indicate that the letter takes for granted canonical writings like the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s letters, which were likely gathered long after the historical Peter's death. Many verses in chapter 2 are echoed in the epistle of Jude.

The letter focuses first on true knowledge, which his readers must seek and treasure for they around founded in Jesus Christ himself (1:3-21). There are, after all, many false teachers around, but their fate is scary—God did not spare even the angels who sinned (2:1-10a), and will not spare the deceivers. One can know the false teachers by their bad character, though, and they will come to a bad end (2:10b-22).

In chapter 3, the author assures his people of the comfort of Christ’s coming, which he connects to the Old Testament “Day of the Lord.” But for God a thousand years is as one day (3:8), and God’s seeming slowness is for the sake of people’s repentance.

The letter ends with a recommendation to read Paul’s letters, though they’re not always easy to understand—but the unstable Christians will twist them, and so Peter’s readers should be mindful to stay steady and steadfast, and stay faithful to Christ.

Expectation of the end is a theme among these letters. Until Christ returns, there will always be some folks who expect him to return in their lifetime. Thus, New Testament teachings and warnings about the end times will seem to them contemporary. To me, James 4:13-15 is a reminder that's always applicable: we just don't know what's ahead in life, ever, and so it's better to trust God and acknowledge God in all our life and work.