Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Corinthians

According to Acts 18 Paul first visited Corinth around 50AD. After writing our 1 Corinthians Paul paid a second visit, around 56AD, which in 2:1 he describes as ‘painful’. So what caused this pain? We get some clues from the second (or rather third) letter. He begins as usual with praise, but in a somewhat backhanded way he thanks God for his compassion and care during painful times.

It appears that people in Corinth are questioning Paul’s authority because they have doubts about his apostleship. Evidently some people had begun teaching that only those who had physically been chosen by Jesus to walk and talk with him for the three years of his earthly ministry were the real deal. Paul was an upstart, and as such who did he think he was to tell them off about the ways they were living their church life? In addition he appears to have changed his plans and not visited them when they were expecting a visit, which served to prove that he was fickle and unreliable. So a great theme in 2 Corinthians has to do with Paul defending his credentials as an apostle. He emphasises his sufferings for the gospel (1:8ff, 6:3-10), his lack of financial gain from his ministry (2:17), and the fruit of his ministry in changed lives and planted churches (3:1-6).

Nicolas Poussin. The Ecstasy of St. Paul.

He then attempts to lift their eyes off such pointless arguments and instead focus on the glorious truth of the gospel and the hope of resurrection life. Of course there will be trivial arguments while we are still here on earth, but we need to focus on a bigger reality. In 6:3-10 Paul recounts the number of ways in which he has suffered for the sake of Christ, but has remained resilient through it all.

In spite of this conflict, though, Paul can rejoice that his words have not fallen on completely deaf ears. The ‘sorrowful’ letter which he had written to them (7:8) did seem to make a difference, even though it upset them at the time. In a church where we don’t really like to do conflict Paul reminds us that hard truths can lead to repentance.

Paul then becomes more practical, and deals with generosity in giving, although he is soon back on his self-defence, recounting again the cost of his ministry and his equal status with ‘proper’ apostles. The book ends with a section warning them that he will continue to be hard on them if they don’t listen to his teaching, but that this harsh discipline is to build them up, not tear them down.

2 Corinthians is not an easy or comfortable book, but it reminds us of what is at stake, and raises questions about the place of godly discipline and hard words in God’s church today. Maybe we’re all just a bit too nice, and the mission of the church is weakened as a result. And maybe the lack of suffering for the gospel, at least in the comfy Western church, shows that we might not be trying hard enough to stand out from the culture around us. Discuss!

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Corinthians

Paul first visited Corinth, a major city and seaport of Greece, around AD 50, and planted a church there. As usual he began preaching in the Synagogue, but was rejected there and moved to the nearby house of a Gentile convert called Titius Justus, which became the HQ of the new congregation. When in 51 AD the Jews tried to prosecute Paul, the new Roman consul ruled that the dispute was an internal Jewish matter, thus ensuring that the church, like the Synagogue, had the protection of the Roman authorities.

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Although we only have two of them, there were actually three letters written to the Corinthian Christians: 1 Cor 5:9-11 speaks of a letter written previously. It seems also that the first four chapters of our 1 Corinthians were ready to dispatch when Paul received a further communication from the church, to which he replied in chapters 5 – 16. Our 2 Corinthians followed later.

 

The church was one which had some severe problems at its heart. Paul needs to address them on issues such as division and party spirit, Gnosticism, law-suits, immorality, family life, financial giving, the Eucharist, what love is all about, gifts of the Spirit, especially tongues and prophecy, and what happens when we die. The Corinthian church was one which did everything to extremes, from worship to incest. So it forms a pretty good agenda for any teaching series on Christian living today, in a society where many of the same issues remain hot topics.

 

1 Corinthians is the second letter from Paul which we have encountered on this journey, and we can immediately see a great contrast. In Romans he was setting out his stall, expounding the theology on which his preaching would be built if the church accepted him as their ‘missionary’. But here he is much more responsive to their agenda: several times we get the phrase ‘Now: about …’ they have clearly sent him a list of issues on which they want his opinions, and he goes through them systematically, dealing with each in turn.

 

The book is a rich store of purple passages. Chapter 13 on love, which you’ve heard at so many weddings, has nothing to do with marriage, as its context makes clear, and chapter 15 is well-used for funerals (and also the church crèche, which is dealt with in v 51). The teaching on the Body of Christ, which the church rediscovered in the 1970s, has revolutionised our lives, and of course the stuff on spiritual gifts has been used either to prove or disprove the appropriateness of charismatic renewal, depending on your point of view and interpretation. But there is much more in there which can still speak to us today, and which will reward further reading and study.

 

As (nearly) always Paul begins with heartfelt praise for the Christian community, its serious problems notwithstanding. Perhaps he gives us a glimpse of how God views his church today: horribly compromised, deeply divided, pretty ignorant, but on the way to glory, and providing a shining testimony to Christ. I sometimes wish I could see the church of which I am a proud part more as our Father sees it.

Image: “GR-korinth-bema-akrokorinth” by Bgabel at wikivoyage shared. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Romans

Romans is the first of Paul’s many letters, and I believe that the key to understanding it lies in an obscure passage in chapter 15. Paul is writing to a church he did not found, and which he has never visited, but he is setting out perhaps the clearest exposition of the Christian gospel to be found anywhere in the NT. Was he writing to put them straight over some points of doctrine or behaviour, as is clearly the case with some other letters? There is no hint of this at all in the letter: compare it, for example, with Galatians, to which we will come shortly.

 Dionisii (Dionysius). The Apostle Paul.

I think there is a different purpose behind his letter. He is not trying to get the Roman Christians to be orthodox: he is telling them that he is. 15:17 begins a section in which Paul is saying that he has finished his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From the origins in Jerusalem right round to Illyricum (modern-day Croatia, the last stop before Italy) Paul has preached the gospel and planted churches. We know that his ministry has always been to break new ground, rather than building on the work of others (v 20), so (v 23) there is nowhere else for him to go. But he has one burning ambition left – to do in the western Med what he has done in the east. He wants to go to Spain (don’t we all as autumn draws on?). But that is a bit of a distance from his base in Antioch, so he is looking for a new ‘sending church’, and Rome seems an admirable choice.

 

But how will the Christians there know whom they are taking on, and more importantly can they trust him? So Paul writes to them setting out in detail the gospel he will be preaching under their sponsorship, and in the process gives us the greatest account of what the Christian gospel means to be found anywhere in the Bible.

 

The first eight chapters spell out clearly and logically what the gospel is, beginning from human sin and rebellion and ending with the crashing crescendo of chapter 8 and the triumphal cry of ‘No condemnation’ for those in Christ Jesus. There is then a three chapter diversion into the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, a key issue in the church in Rome due to its particular history. Then, in 12:1 comes the fateful word ‘Therefore’ which marks the division between good theology and its outworking in right behaviour. Chapter 12 to 15 spell out how Christians ought to live in the light of the gospel, and covers such up-to-date topics as roles within the church, respect for secular authorities, and the treatment of those who see things differently from how we see them. Finally he sets out his hope to come to Rome to begin the new phase of his ministry, and adds a chapter of personal greetings: many of the characters he knows because their paths have crossed in the past.

 

Romans is one of the best NT books to study in detail, because of its clear explanation of the gospel. Some of its arguments may sound a little strange to our ears, but it all makes perfect sense and would be a great way to spend six months of your homegroup’s or congregation’s life.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Acts

It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.

 

The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.

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The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.

 

One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.

 

Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.

 

But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.

Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – John

The first three gospels are often referred to as the ‘Synoptics’ which means ‘seen together’. They tell largely the same story, although in their own unique ways, and, I have suggested, according to their own personality types. Sticking with the MBTI classifications, there is no doubt that John’s is the ‘N’ gospel, driven not by law, immediacy or human interest, but rather by a mystical desire to see the bigger picture.

Mark begins with Jesus’ public, ministry, Matthew and Luke start further back with different accounts of Jesus’ birth, but John goes further back still, to the beginning of creation. Deliberately echoing the language of Genesis 1, John’s Jesus is a cosmic figure who spans time. He tells the story in a very different way from the Synoptics, altering the order of events to suit his theological purposes. Luke tells us that he has carefully researched his evidence, while John has selected merely a few events from the almost infinite amount of material available (21:25). He structures his account around seven ‘signs’ or miracles, each of which reveals something more about Jesus and his purposes. Long teaching slots, such as Matthew’s sermon on the mount, are replaced with discourses in which Jesus teaches his disciples not about how to live in the present, but about what to expect in the future when the Holy Spirit will be given to the church. The book is full of symbolism, dramatic irony and poetry, and uniquely contains a chapter (17) in which we see Jesus in an extended period of prayer.

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For John the villains of the piece are clearly ‘the Jews’ rather than the Romans, although he intends this not as a racial group but as a religious system which promised much but is ultimately unfruitful and dangerous. It is the Jewish authorities who kill Jesus, with the romans playing only an incidental part in this trial, and Pilate actually wanting to show him mercy, and finally washing his hands of him under pressure from the Jews. Part of the irony is that it is these same hostile Jews, some of whom have tried before to make him king, are the ones who end up killing him and crowning him in the process.

It is when we come to the passion narratives that John’s distinctiveness is most clearly shown. The cross is a victory, not a defeat which needs to be reversed, and so the story is told to that end. Jesus is killed on a different day from the Synoptics, so that he is shown as the sacrificial Passover lamb. There is no mocking by soldiers, no darkness at the moment of his death; there is different vocabulary used of his crucifixion (hupsoo­ means ‘lifted up’, both physically but also in terms of exaltation), and of his death, where he does not give up his spirit but rather hands the spirit  over to the church symbolised by his friends below. Having told Nicodemus that he has to be born from above (a better translation than ‘born again’) of water and the spirit, Jesus pours out water from his pierced side and also pours out his Spirit on the waiting church below. The cross is the moment of crowning for the king. After his resurrection Jesus meets his disciples, stands by a charcoal fire and reinstates Peter who, whilst standing beside another charcoal fire, has denied his Lord. He recommissions his disciples, using an acted parable of fruitfulness in fishing, which he transfers here from the earlier position in the Synoptics.

John’s Jesus is the most mystical, fascinating and complex figure: this gospel has depths which it would take a lifetime to discover.

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Luke

For those into Myers-Briggs personality stuff, I have already suggested that Matthew was a dominant T and Mark an S. Luke, our third gospel writer, is definitely an F, and you can see this pastoral and personal flavour throughout his book.

 

We know that by profession he was a doctor, but that he was also no mean historian. In the intro to the gospel, in 1:4 he addresses ‘Theophilus’, who may be a personal friend, or may be a way of saying that the book is for the ‘Lover of God’ (which is what Theophilus means), in other words for the whole Christian community. He tells us, here, and at the start of his volume 2, Acts, that his desire is to check his sources carefully and to record an orderly account of Jesus’ life. Passages such as 3:1-2 show us how important it is to him to root his stories in real history, a real contrast to the vague ‘Once upon a time …’ with which folk tales begin. Those tempted to refer to the Bible as ‘just a fairy story’ take note!

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But Luke has other fish to fry too, and his account of Jesus’ ministry emphasises medical details (as you might expect), women and children, outcasts and the oppressed. He loves the human interest stories, and virtually all we know of Jesus’ early life comes from him, which suggests a close friendship with Mary. Mark, of course, has no time for these family details, and launches Jesus from nowhere at the start of his public ministry, but Luke wants us to know the background. Like Matthew, Luke gives us Jesus’ genealogy, but begins with Adam, rather than Abraham. Matthew, we have noted, wants to show that Jesus is the Messiah for the Jews: Luke goes right back to the common humanity we all share in Adam, thus demonstrating that Jesus is for everyone. He is also something of a gourmet: there are loads of accounts of shared meals in his gospel, and the promise that the Last Supper is merely a prefiguring of the banquet in heaven.

 

Structurally, although Luke uses a lot of material common with Matthew, he distributes it differently. Matthew, for example, has the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as a large wodge of teaching, sandwiched between narrative section about Jesus’ actions. But Luke chops the sermon up and distributes different bits of teaching among the miracles. The question as to whether Matthew has collected disparate teachings together, or Luke has split up one long sermon is one to which we will find the answer one day!

 

Luke includes a few details in the passion narratives which are unique to him. Jesus heals the ear of the servant whom one of the disciples has attacked, he dialogues with the weeping women of Jerusalem as he is being crucified, and he speaks words of salvation to the penitent criminal beside him. Luke emphasises the fact that it is the women who bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest.

 

Luke takes the time to present Jesus accurately, and as the friend of women, children and sinners. Luke’s Jesus is an attractive figure, very different from our fourth gospel-writing next week.

Image: By Deutsch: Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Mark

Our second gospel could not be more different from Matthew’s which we looked at last week. Mark is writing for a Gentile audience, which means that he has to explain some Jewish technical terms (for example in 7:11). He pays little attention to fulfilment of OT scripture, and only quotes the OT occasionally.  It is the shortest of the gospels, and has no great wodges of teaching such as the Sermon on the Mount. But more than anything else, Mark is in a hurry, or rather his Jesus is. One of his most common words is euthus (immediately), and we see Jesus on a whirlwind tour, rushing from one thing to the next and never letting the grass grow under his feet. And talking of grass, mark is the only one of the evangelists to tell us that the grass on which Jesus fed the 5000 was green, which makes him sound to me like a Myers-Briggs S.

Most scholars believe that Mark’s was the first gospel to have been written, and that Mark got his info from Peter. It has been suggested that the first recorded streaker (14:51-2) was Mark himself. The relationship between the first three (or ‘synoptic’) gospels is a complex one, but it does seem that Matthew and Luke used mark as one of their sources, although reworking the material for their own purposes.

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Theologian Paula Gooder has suggested that a good way to read Mark is to treat it a bit like a pantomime, with four main groups of characters. Jesus goes around doing his stuff, and while the crowds are amazed (‘We have never seen anything like this! 2:12), the disciples just don’t get it. Meanwhile the evil Pharisees play the villains, and the four groups keep interacting as the story unfolds.

But Mark’s is a gospel of two halves, and there is an abrupt change of tone at 9:2, after Peter has finally recognised Jesus for who he is, as the journey towards the cross begins in earnest. Mark’s account of the passion is short and to the point: Jesus is crucified by the Romans, with the slightest of Jewish complicity, and the resurrection gets only 8 verses. The ‘long ending’ is almost certainly not original, but was added subsequently, although probably not too long after, which means it must reflect something of the practice of the Early Church.

Another strong theme for Mark is what has been called the ‘Messianic secret’. Again and again Jesus begs people not to go around telling everyone about him, which is of course exactly what people do. He doesn’t seem to want to interpret his parables, but simply to let them stand on their own, although when with his disciples Holy Spirit does give some explanation, although scholars dispute whether this was actually what Jesus did, and whether Mark himself felt the need to explain more than Jesus did. The classic statement of this policy is in 4:11-12, in one of his few OT quotations. There is much dispute over the reasons for this secrecy.

Mark is a great place to start reading the story of Jesus: it is clear, simple and fast-moving, and will appeal to S people who like facts and details.