1) Is it hard to wrap your mind around the fact that God's grace is a gift and not something we have to earn? Why or why not?
2) What emotions/thoughts come to mind when you hear this: "But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realizes that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another - God alone?"
3) Can you think of an example in your life, where you worked so hard on something but just couldn't 'do' it? No matter what you tried, your effort wasn't good enough? How did you move on from this? Did someone have to help you? Can you relate that to God's grace?
Hebrews - Who is Jesus to You?
As we conclude our series on introducing books of the Bible that we may not be familiar with, we will look at one last book, Hebrews. Hebrews is a book you probably recognize and may hear it quoted in a sermon from time to time. However, how much do you really know about the book, and more importantly, can it teach us anything today?
The author of Hebrews does not reveal who he is, other than the fact that he is a man. For a long time it was thought that Paul was the author but that has since been disproved. Most Christian scholars believe that the author was either Barnabas (who was a close friend of Paul and missionary partner) or Apollos (a Jewish Christian who was associated with Paul in the early years of the church in Corinth). We don’t have a clear answer to who the author of Hebrews is but it’s the audience and message of the book that can teach us something today.
The book is addressed to Jewish converts who were very familiar with the Old Testament and who were being tempted to revert back to Judaism. They were practicing Jewish people who had been converted to Christianity by the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus. They were either a group of being who were going to merge back with a certain Jewish sect or perhaps a group of priests who had converted to Christianity.
In order to ease their temptations and renew their faith, the author’s theme of the book is the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus as the mediator of God’s grace. He is reminding them that it is only through Jesus that we are able to have a relationship with God. This was a new way of thinking for most Jews because before Jesus they had a direct relationship with God, there was no mediator. Hebrews presents Jesus as God’s full and final revelation. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people. Jesus is shown to be superior than the ancient prophets, to angels, to Moses, and to priests. The recipients of the letter are told that there can be no turning back to the old Jewish system. They must look to Jesus whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension opened the way into God’s true presence.
When looking at our current lives, we can probably relate to the audience of Hebrews. We had an ‘old’ way to our lives. Things were for the most part fine and we had our routines down. Now that we are living in the midst of a pandemic, everything has changed. There is a new order to the world. The audience of Hebrews perhaps had a more clearer ‘new’ reality than we do. They were coming to grips of what Jesus meant to their relationship with God. We are yet to come to grips of what this change looks like in our lives.
What can be taken from Hebrews though is that no matter what our lives look like, Jesus is God’s full and final revelation and it is only through him that we relate to God. There may be some ‘new’ routines in our lives. There may be some ‘new’ ways of thinking that we will have to come to terms with. But the fact remains that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension are still our pathway into God’s true presence. Nothing is going to change that.
Questions for Discussion/Contemplation:
Jude - God's Grace
When looking at a table of contents of the Bible, we usually ‘know’ where the recognizable books are. Genesis is at the beginning, the Psalms are right in the middle, Revelation is the last book. Sometimes, ‘smaller’ books are lost in the middle. Right before Revelation, at the end of the Bible, there is a short book named Jude that we often skip right over. It is only one chapter and contains 25 verses. It is the fifth shortest book in the Bible with 461 words. Its length however, does not make it any less important.
The author of the book refers to himself as Jude, which is another form of the Hebrew name Judah (or Judas), which was a common Jewish name. Of the men named as such in the New Testament, the ones most likely to be the author are Judas the apostle (not Judas Iscariot) and Judas the brother of Jesus. The author is likely Judas the brother of Jesus because the author does not claim to be an apostle and seems to separate himself from the apostles. Even more, he refers to himself as the brother of James. If you’ve read our introduction to James, you know that he was likely the oldest sibling of Christ. Usually a person would refer to themselves as someone’s son rather than someone’s brother. Jude probably does this because James was so well known in the early church.
Jude and James never refer to themselves as the brother of Jesus. Others however, do not hesitate to describe them as such (Matthew 13:55, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19). They did not ask to be heard in this light because they were members of the household of Joseph and Mary.
Jude does not have a specific audience. His address is very general “To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ,” (Jude 1:1). He is very eager to write about salvation. However, he felt it important to warn this readers about certain immoral men who were circulating among them that were perverting the grace of God. These false teachers were trying to convince believers that being saved by grace gave them permission to sin. They were teaching that since they believed their sins would no longer be held against them, they were free to do whatever they pleased. Jude wants his readers to be on guard and ready to oppose this teaching with the truth of God’s grace.
So here we have another book in our Bible that was most likely written by one of Jesus’ biological half-brothers, just like James. It is interesting that both of these men to not claim on their own that they are Jesus’ brother. You would think that if they told people this, their words would carry more weight. Why wouldn’t they tell people this? Perhaps it was for their own safety, Jesus was crucified and many other early church leaders were arrested and executed. Perhaps they didn’t want to cloud Jesus’ message. If they claimed to be his brothers, would their teachings contradict God’s? Perhaps they were just humble men and didn’t want the spotlight. We may never know.
Overall, Jude writes on a pretty important topic. He wants his readers to know how God’s grace works. It is not that once you believe you’re free to do whatever you want. Your sins will no longer be counted against you. His point is that as believers we will still fall into sin. We should try our best to avoid it, but our best is never going to be good enough. Our faith in Christ doesn’t give us a free pass, but it offers grace and salvation even though we will still mess up.
I think this message is very important for us in our current season of life. Our lives have changed dramatically the last few months. Along with that change comes new patterns and new temptations. Sometimes change can throw us off course and we don’t realize that our temptations have changed as well. We don’t get a free pass to engage in these new habits. However it is important to know that when we do fall into new temptations, God’s grace is ultimately there to save us. It’s a different way of thinking. Jude wants us to be aware of that difference. It’s that difference that will help us recognize new thoughts and temptations as our lives continue to change.
Questions for Discussion/Contemplation:
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah appear back to back in our Bible and are often linked together. They tell the stories of these two men who return home to Israel from Persian exile. Very early on these two books were combined as one. Josephus (A.D. 37 – 100) refers to the book of Ezra but Nehemiah. The oldest manuscripts of the Septuagint (a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament) also treat the two as one book. The first distinction between the books comes from the early church writer Origen (A.D. 185 – 253). So even though we have two separate books, they are closely linked and therefore we are looking at them together this week.
The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell how God’s people were restored from their Babylonian exile. They are returning to their covenant land and community, even though it is not under their control. It was still ruled by foreigners. The books are about how these two men played a role in the restoration of Israel and specifically Jerusalem. There are five important themes that flow through both books:
Ultimately these two stories are about how God brought about a ‘return’ and ‘restoration’ to Israel. I think that’s something we are all looking for right now. A ‘return’ to normal life and a ‘restoration’ of our lives. We are not in political exile but our confinement can feel like an exile from normal life; school, work, friends, church, etc. So when that happens, what can we learn from these two books? Here is how we can look at those five themes mentioned beforehand from Ezra and Nehemiah and apply them to our current situation:
Our story of restoration and return will eventually happen, even if our new reality doesn’t quite look like our old one. What we need to remember is that God has been, is, and will continue to be with us and have a relationship with us. He is working behind the scenes to restore his world.
Questions for Discussion/Contemplation:
Deuteronomy - A Long Pause
When reading the Bible as a historical narrative, we often follow the story of God’s people. This means we often skip over books that have little story in them. Deuteronomy is one of those books. We know the stories of the Exodus and the forty years of wandering in the desert. The next ‘part’ of the story, it seems, takes place in Joshua when the Israelites finally enter the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy puts Moses and the Israelites around the area of Moab where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea. Deuteronomy is Moses’ final act before transferring leadership over to Joshua. He is delivering his farewell message to prepare the people for their entrance into Canaan. In the book, Moses emphasizes the laws that are going to be especially needed in the coming years. It is not so much matter-of-fact as Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy comes from Moses’ heart as this servant of the Lord presses God’s claims on his people.
As mentioned before, the trajectory of the story that unfolds in Genesis thru Numbers seems to call for a story of the conquest of Canaan (which is found in Joshua), to bring closure to the story line. However, Deuteronomy seems to be a massive interruption. There is very little forward movement. At the end of Numbers, Israel is “on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho” (Numbers 36:13), and at the end of Deuteronomy they are still there, waiting to cross the river. All that has happened is the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. The book of Joshua continues the story. So Deuteronomy creates this long pause in the story.
In that long pause, Moses reminded the people of their covenant with God. He tells them what is required of them if they are to cross the Jordan River, take possession of the land, and enjoy the promised ‘rest’ in fellowship with God. The Israelites needed to hear this again. The purpose of the book is to prepare the next generation of the Lord’s people to be his representatives in the land that was promised to them.
Deuteronomy is a ‘long pause’ in the middle of the story of God’s people, sounds familiar right? Our lives feel like they’ve been put on pause for the time being. Our stories were supposed to move forward and yet we are sitting around in our own homes, waiting, on pause. We are getting to the point where we are starting to feel that ‘pause’ more and more as each day passes. It’s not a short ‘pause’ anymore, but turning into a longer ‘pause’.
The Israelites were on pause mainly because Moses needed to remind them of God’s convenient and what was expected of them. What do you need to be reminded about during this pause in our lives? What are things that you’ve learned before that you need to remember? Is there something new you need to learn in order prepare to be God’s representatives in the world?
Our stories will continue some day in the future and we will be taken off of pause. In the meantime, maybe God is trying to tell us something we’ve forgotten or maybe even something new. A pause doesn’t have to be a negative thing, we can emerge from pause better off for it. What is God trying to tell you in this season of ‘pause’?
Questions for Discussion/Contemplation
John - That You May Believe
The book of John is probably the most familiar book that we’ve covered so far. It is one of the four gospels containing the story of Jesus. Since it is Holy week, I thought it best to reflect on one of the gospels and introduce this book. You’ve probably read many of the stories in John and it also contains a lot of quotable verses. Examples include:
John 1:1-5 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The author of John is the apostle John. He was also very prominent in the early church but is not mentioned by name is this gospel. He only refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). He knew Jewish life very well, as well as the geography of the Holy Land. The gospel has many verses that appear to reflect the recollections of an eyewitness – John was with Jesus when these things happened. An example is chapter 12:3 when the author refers to the house at Bethany being filled with the fragrance of the broken perfume jar. An observation that only someone in the room could have observed.
John’s gospel is very different from the other three gospels. In fact, it’s debated whether or not he even knew any of the other gospel writers. John focuses on the ‘signs’ of Jesus’ identity, mission, and Jesus’ theologically deep discourses. John begins with the announcement that Jesus is the “in the beginning” creative Word of God who had come to earth as a human being to be the light of life for the world. The other gospels slowly reveal who Jesus is, John comes right out and tells you.
John also states very clearly his main point in writing this gospel in chapter 20:31; “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” A helpful way to think about John compared to the rest of the gospels is this: John has a strong emphasis of heaven coming down, while the other three gospels have a strong emphasis of earth going up. What I mean by that is that John is all about connecting Jesus to God from the start, he is the Son of God come down to save us. The other gospels (as mentioned before) slowly reveal the fact that Jesus (the man) is actually the Son of God. It is revealed that this earthly man points towards and is God.
This Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter) is going to feel different than any other in our lifetimes because of our current situation. We will not be able to gather for services on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, or Easter. That does not mean, however, that we can’t experience and appreciate them in perhaps a new way.
John’s purpose for writing the book “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,” (John 20:31) hits home for me during this time, especially the last part. Our lives have dramatically changed this past month with school cancellations and home lock downs. Sometimes it feels like our ‘lives’ have literally been taken away from us. This Easter season I want you to reflect and think about that last line, “that by believing you may have life in his name.”(John 20:31). What does it mean to have life in his name for you this season of life? How can you let God enter your life and give it new meaning? Times may seem strange, hard, and dark right now but remember the beginning of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness HAS NOT overcome it.” (John 1:5). Celebrate that this Easter Season, the fact that God’s light is shining right now. Coronavirus is creating a very dark time in many lives right now, but it HAS NOT overcome God’s light.
Questions for Discussion/Contemplation
As we continue our journey of exploring books of the Bible we may not know as well, I want to take a little different approach this week and look at the author more than the content. The book we’re looking at is the letter of James in the New Testament.
The James we are talking about was probably the brother of Jesus. I say ‘probably’ because there are four men in the New Testament that had that name. The author of James could not have been the apostle James because he died too early to have written it. The other two men with the name James were not as influential or important in the church as this author, so we make the conclusion that this letter was written by James, the brother of Jesus.
James was one of many brothers of Jesus, and he was probably the oldest since he is listed first in Matthew 13:55 “’isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?’”
What’s interesting about James is that he first did not believe in Jesus and even challenged him. In John chapter 7:2-5 it says this, “But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him.”
James and Jesus’ other brothers are basically nudging or confronting Jesus here, as most brothers do. Galilee was far less populated and not as important as Judea (where Jerusalem is). So they are basically saying, “Stop performing your ‘miracles’ here secretly and go prove yourself in the big city.” They are urging him to fail. They are hoping the curtain is pulled back and that Jesus will be revealed not to be the son of God. They don't believe in him at this point.
Later in his life, James was a very important figure in the church:
So in conclusion, James was a younger brother of Jesus. Who, along with his other siblings, did not believe in him and even challenged him at first. He also later in life became a ‘pillar’ of the church whose letter ends up in our Bible today. What’s the connection to us today?
I think the historical person of James points to a fact that we’ve talked about before, but it is probably more relevant today with the pandemic we are facing. The fact is this: that it is OK, acceptable, etc., to have questions for God. A lot of us right now are asking a lot of why questions to God. Why did this pandemic happen? Why did my sports season have to be canceled? Why did this have to happen my senior year? Those questions are OK. In fact I believe that God welcomes them. There’s nothing he’s afraid of or trying to hide.
Questioning and/or naming things we ‘lost’ because of this pandemic are not only OK, they help us process our emotions. Naming or talking about things helps us process them. It’s when we keep those questions or emotions inside, bottled up that they can lead us down dark paths.
James and Jesus’ other siblings felt strongly enough to confront Jesus. Long term it probably helped James turn into one of the leaders of the early church. The strong emotions we are feeling right now are OK and it is healthy to name them. It will help us in the long term, and it will help us grow closer to God.
Questions for discussion/contemplation:
Micah: Hope amidst the Doom
As I continue to introduce books of the Bible that you may not be familiar with, I’m reminded each time that I also have something to learn and by no mean have these books figured out.
This week we are going to look at the book of Micah. Little is known about Micah other than what we get from his book and on passage in Jeremiah. He was from a small town call Moresheth Gath, which was in Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). He prophesied and did his work sometime between 750 – 686 BC. That means he was around the same time as Isaiah and Hosea.
Micah has a deep sensitivity to the social ills of his day, especially as they related to small towns and villages. This is probably because he came from such a small town. He (like Amos last week) was not very politically or religiously connected. He was somewhat of a ‘normal’ person.
Micah predicts the fall of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel), and also foretold of the inevitable destruction of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). Several significant events occurred during his time.
734 – 732 BC: Assyria led a military war campaign against Syria, Philistia, and parts of Israel and Judah. Some were defeated and others (like Judah, the southern kingdom) paid tribute to the Assyrian king. However Israel (northern kingdom) did not fare as well. According to Second Kings the northern kingdom lost most of its territory, including all of Gilead and much of Galilee (the area where Jesus would eventually launch his ministry). Damascus fell in 732 BC and was annexed to the Assyrian empire.
722 – 721 BC: Samaria fell, and the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria.
701: Judah (southern kingdom) joined a revolt against Assyria and was overrun by the Assyrian army, though Jerusalem was spared.
Micah’s message goes back and forth between doom and hope. In other terms it goes back and forth between God’s ‘sternness’ and his ‘kindness’. The theme is divine judgment and deliverance. Micah lists things that God hates (idolatry, injustice, rebellion, and empty ritualism), but also things he delights in. He ends by saying that Zion will have greater glory in the future than ever before.
The word ‘Zion’ appears a lot in the Bible. It most often refers to one of three things: the hill where the most ancient areas of Jerusalem stood, the city of Jerusalem itself, or the dwelling place of God. Although Micah was more than likely referring to multiple of these options, I want to focus on the third; the dwelling place of God. In essence he is saying the dwelling place of God will have greater glory in the future than ever before.
It’s a nice, short, seven chapter book in the Old Testament. So, here come the question “why does it matter to me, what can I learn from it?”
I want to point out again that Micah’s message goes back and forth a lot between doom and hope. Doom and hope are probably things we are thinking about a lot right now. How much ‘doom’ will this pandemic cause? How long will this ‘doom’ last? Is there any hope for a cure? Is there hope for what comes after all of this?
Doom and hope often go together unfortunately. In the midst of doom we look for hope. When hopes are realized, we often think about what doom would cause the hope to go away. Right now we are all getting a lot of messages of doom. What about hope? This week I want you to push the ‘doom’ away and think about hope. You won’t find it a lot on the news, you won’t find it a lot online, but there is hope. Micah spells it out for us. He says that the dwelling place of the Lord will have greater glory in the future than ever before. Through the Holy Spirit, we are the dwelling places of God. We can be hopeful for the future. We can be someone else’s hope by the way that we treat them during this time. Doom and hope go hand and hand. I hope that through the Holy Spirit we can be places of hope amidst the doom.
Questions for discussion or contemplation:
Does Amos matter to me?
What do you know about the book of Amos or what do you know specifically about Amos the man? My guess is not a lot.
Amos was from Tekoa, a small town in Judah about 6 miles south of Bethlehem. He was not a man of the court like Isaiah, or a member of a priestly family like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He earned his living from a sheep flock and a sycamore-fig grove. He was a very normal person.
Amos lived during the time of the divided kingdom of Israel, after David and Solomon. Though his home was in Judah (the southern kingdom) he was sent to announce God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel. He probably ministered for the most part in Bethel, which was Israel’s main religious city
The book brings his prophecies together in a carefully organized form intended to be read as a unit. If offers few, if any, clues as to the chronological order of his spoken message – he may have repeated them on many occasions to reach everyone who came to worship. According to the first verse, Amos prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah over Judah (792-740 BC) and Jeroboam II over Israel (793-753 BC). The main part of his ministry was probably carried out from 760-750 BC. Both kingdoms were enjoying great prosperity and had reached new political and military heights. In a sense, they were doing better than most. It was also a time of idolatry, extravagant indulgences in luxurious living, immorality, corruption of judicial procedures and oppression of the poor. As a consequence, God would soon bring the Assyrian empire to destroy the northern kingdom.
Israel at the time was politically secure and spiritually smug. About 40 years earlier, at the end of his ministry, Elisha had prophesied the resurgence of Israel’s power. The nation felt sure, therefore, that it was in God’s good graces. But prosperity increased Israel’s religious and moral corruption. God’s past punishments for unfaithfulness were forgotten, and his patience was at an end – which he sent Amos to announce.
Amos declared that God was going to judge his unfaithful, disobedient, covenant-breaking people. Despite the Lord’s special choice of Israel and his kindness to her during the exodus and conquest and in the days of David and Solomon, his people continually failed to honor and obey him. Places of worship were often paganized. The people thought performance of the rites was all God required, and, with that done, they could do whatever they pleased. Those who had acquired 2 splendid houses, expensive furniture and richly laden table by cheating, perverting justice and crushing the poor, would lose everything they had.
The God for whom Amos speaks is a God of more than merely Israel. He also uses one nation against another to carry our his purposes. He is a Great King who rules the whole universe. Israel must know not only that he is the Lord of her future, but also that he is Lord over all, and that he has purposes and concerns that reach far beyond her borders.
It’s easy to read Amos and think that the book has nothing to offer to us today. It was written to a specific audience for specific reasons. However I would argue that we have two valuable lessons that we can learn from Amos.
The first is that the people of Israel thought that as long as they performed their religious rights (go to church, pray, etc.) that they could then do whatever they wanted to do. Their spiritual lives were all about doing and not having a true relationship with God. That’s why they didn’t have a problem with their immoral ways or cheating the poor and preventing justice. Amos is often called the book of social justice.
I wonder how often we just check the boxes (church, pray, Christian school, etc.) and then live our lives in a completely different way. Amos says that all of these things need to add up. We can’t do it half way. It matters that we go to church, read the bible and pray. But it also matters how we treat one another and how we conduct the rest of our lives.
The second lesson I think we can learn from Amos, is Amos himself. Dr. Radcliff pointed this out in the video. That Amos was just a sycamore tree farmer. He wasn’t anyone important in religious or political circles. He was a simple man. We often look to the celebrity, professional athlete, politician, teacher, coach, pastor, etc. to deliver an important message. What of instead we were the messengers to others. Not just on faith based matters but on how to treat one another?
Amos is an example of doing what is right. I think far too often (even I need to admit it) that we look to others to do the right things when we also have the chance to do it. I think we need to look at ourselves as ‘humble vessels’ as Dr. Radcliff states. What truths can we bring to others, even if we feel unworthy of doing so?
Your social feed is going to be overly full during this time in our lives. Most people will be communicating through technology rather than face to face. What would it look like for you to be a humble vessel of truth during this difficult time?
Questions to discuss or contemplate: