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“Want ad for an Apostle…” 

The Apostle Paul, from a 4th-century cave painting in Ephesus, Turkey.

If God ever wrote a want ad, looking for an apostle, maybe it would include some of the qualifications below.  That may seem like a silly idea, but it was a way to begin to appreciate the remarkable career of someone who changed the course of Christianity forever.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it years ago when I began to realize just what one person had accomplished and the extraordinary qualifications he brought to the work.   Many have requested this after hearing it in talks, so I hope you enjoy.    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (Matt. 9: 37).  Indeed!

  • Must have a practical trade whereby he can support himself and not be obligated to those he serves.
  • Must be able to relate to and interact with all classes and types of people, from philosophers (Mars Hill) to tradesmen (Ephesus silversmiths and tentmakers), to politicians, government officials, women, wealthy, poor and slaves.
  • Must have an ability and willingness for public speaking (including to crowds who don’t like the message) in an articulate, thoughtful, persuasive and heartfelt way.
  • Must have a working knowledge of Hebrew and know the Scriptures about Me collected by my people, Israel, as well as understand the culture of the Temple and synagogue in which they worship.
  • Must be able to speak and write Greek, the language that the educated Gentile world uses and understands.
  • Must have demonstrated the ability to work in My vineyard, study My Law, be obedient to My teachings as best they understand them.
  • Must be freeborn and have a passport, i.e. Roman citizenship, in order to move freely throughout My world,
  • Must have significant spiritual receptivity, conviction, courage, and trust in Me, not himself or his own intellect or willpower.
  • Must have enormous nurturing abilities to express patience, tenderness, and care for those who don’t always get it, who backslide, who need course correcting.
  • Must have enough life experience that he isn’t fooled by the ways of the tempter, and is able to discern between My voice and that of the carnal mind
  • Must have the faith and courage to hear My voice in the darkest hours, such as in prison, and to consistently stand against envy, ignorance, greed, and hatred.
  • Must be on fire with the clarity and truth of the message I will provide along with indefatigable energy to walk, sail, or ride thousands of miles over three decades.

In short,  ‘I’m looking for Saul of Tarsus who I will transform into Paul.’

 

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Why linking Valentine’s Day and a Biblical Book isn’t crazy!

The judgment of Solomon, by Raphael (1483-1520) painted at the Vatican while Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel nearby.

The headline of this blog might be a head-scratcher for you.  After all, Valentine’s Day has its origin in the ancient pagan cultures of Greece and Rome when orgies celebrating romance and fertility regularly occurred. But as the Roman Empire was Christianized, the festival of Juno Februata – the Roman goddess of love, marriage, and women—was replaced with religious festivals to the Virgin Mary and an obscure Saint Valentine.  By 1536 Henry VIII, known for his womanizing, declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day and the modern custom of exchanging love messages began.

How does that relate to our Bible?  Because of that perplexing book, “The Song of Solomon” (or “Song of Songs” as it’s also called)–long been thought to be one of the most difficult books of Scripture to interpret.  Is it to be read as an allegory?  A drama?  Literally?  However one interprets it, “Song” is poetry chock full of timeless tips for lovers.  For instance, compliments, not complaints, bind the ties of affection.   A sample might be:  “ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song 1:15).

For all the steamy poetry that appears to be between a country girl and her beloved, a simple shepherd, the book made the ultimate ‘cut’:  the Canon.  Why?  Because the more we understand the love between two individuals, it is reasoned, the more we understand our relationship to God, often depicted as a marriage in the Scriptures (see the book of Hosea, especially chapter 4).

“Song” has no religious beliefs, themes or guidelines for ancient Israel, no plot that seems evident, not even a single mention of God.  And then there’s that erotic and figurative language filled with the longing, love, joy and fear of a man and woman in love.

What a puzzle it has been for Christians through the centuries, which most probably explains why Song ’s most popular interpretation is allegorical.  Couldn’t the references to love, for example, apply to God’s love for His creation, or to the love within a devoted marriage?  For Jews, it might be about God’s love for the chosen people, Israel.  And for Christians, some see it as Christ’s relation to his bride, the Church.

Whatever way one interprets “Song of Solomon”, its name derives from its opening verse:  “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song 1:1).  The book concludes the Old Testament’s collection of Wisdom literature – one of the three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the Law and the Prophets.  Like other books in this category, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, all three are attributed to the wisdom of King Solomon.   Scholars don’t believe Solomon actually wrote these books so much as an author wanted to associate its language with the renowned wisdom traditions of Solomon – not to mention, in the case of Song of Solomon, his love of women (see I Kings 11:3).

So this February 14th, perhaps try something a little different: read some love poetry from this rather baffling Biblical book.  Dig deeply to see why it has had a place in the Canon all these centuries and then please share what you discover with your fellow Bible Roads’ readers.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Six Reasons why Abraham is a January Role Model

Jozsef Molnar, Le voyage d’Abraham d’Ur à Canaan, 1850,  Galerie Nationale Hongroise, Budapest

With a new year, who better to look at biblically than Abraham, that Scriptural template for new starts.  His life spans 14 chapters in the book of Genesis (from 11 – 25) and weaves an extraordinary story of faithfulness, mistakes, and renewed efforts.  I’ve loved reviewing the sweeping events of this Patriarch of Israel’s life, not just because he is a key figure in the world’s three great religions –Judaism, Christianity and Islam –or even because his story launches the Bible’s ancestral narratives.

Rather, Abraham embodies timeless qualities we can model today:  flexibility, openness, willingness and especially faithfulness.  As you think about 2019 and your spiritual progress, it’s hard to aim higher than hearing and following God’s direction which requires trust and obedience, qualities that Abraham models – most of the time!

Below are six key events with lessons that yield, like interconnected threads of a tapestry, a life shaped by spiritual pursuits that grow into blessings for an entire nation.  This process of examining some of his pivotal moments has been instructive in discerning turning points that can fill a life with contribution, meaning, and influence.

Please share what these mean to you or add any of the other signposts you’ve noted in his spiritual journey that are helpful on your own.

  1. Abram, his original name, received God’s call (Gen. 12) to leave Ur in Mesopotamia–south of today’s Baghdad, Iraq—to relocate to an initially unnamed land God would provide. The unstated outcome of following this divine directive meant forfeiting his inheritance –all the animals, household possessions and land–from Terah, Abram’s father.  The fact that God promised the blessing of new land still meant turning away (as the expression goes) from ‘the bird in the hand (Ur) worth two in the bush (the promised land)’.  Attributes:  willingness, readiness, humility.
  2. Abram’s faith in God causes him to obey, a singular act so powerful that 2000 years later a young Pharisee-turned-apostle, Paul, will point to it as the model for the faith that new Christ followers (“all who believe”) will need on their spiritual journey (see Rom. 4:11). This obedience is all the more remarkable considering the promise of heirs in spite of Sarai’s barrenness, the central challenge of the Abraham saga.   Attributes:  trust, conviction, faith.
  3. Abram’s story is not just his own but a precursor to the nation of Israel’s experiences as well. In fact, God’s call in Gen. 12:1-3, is considered a ’fulcrum text’, meaning one that is central to both past and future events.  For the past, the text declares that God’s call to Abram will bless ‘all the families of the earth’, meaning those mentioned prior to Abram in Gen. 1 – 11 (Noah, his son Shem, and others).  These verses of God’s call then point forward to the rest of Genesis where the beginning story of the ‘great nation’ commences with the stories of Abraham’s heirs (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph).  How Abraham answers God will affect all those future children, families, and tribes, although Abraham himself won’t see this.  The patriarch’s positive response to the sudden divine directive of his calling reveals more spiritual qualities. Attributes:  obedience and vision.
  4. Abraham is already in his 7th decade, not exactly the time most people call the moving van and take off!  The journey was 560 miles northwest through the Fertile Crescent, along the Euphrates River to Haran, in eastern Syria. Attributes:  grit, persistence, stamina.           
  5. Along the route of his journey, Abraham is not told where this land or final stop will be, yet he continually builds altars as an acknowledgment of his faith in this God he cannot see. How beautifully this tees up what his grandson, Jacob, will do in Gen. 35, when he too will build an altar, acknowledging the Almighty’s presence every step of the journey: “He has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3).  We can only imagine how Abraham and his family told the stories of such stops and how this thankfulness for God’s blessings carried to subsequent generations.  Attribute:  gratitude.
  6. When in Haran, Abram is again directed to pick up and move the family, flocks and possessions.  Now seventy-five, he is finally told that Canaan is indeed the promised land.  Yet on arrival, he discovers no milk and honey but a terrible famine, one more test for Abram’s faith.  So he heads South to Egypt in order to survive, an act later generations will imitate. Like many life journeys, Abram makes a bad decision to ensure his own survival, positioning the much-desired Sarai as his sister.  (He reasoned that if the Egyptians knew she was Abram’s wife, they would kill him and take her.)  Gen. 20:12 reveals that they actually were half-siblings.  But failing to truthfully acknowledge Sarai also as his wife enables Pharaoh to take the beautiful woman into his home, paying Abram a significant amount in servants and animals as a dowry.

What a terrible price Abram’s cowardly, self-serving actions have cost:  he loses Sarai, and she loses her honor since the ‘marriage’ with Pharaoh was no doubt consummated.  Yet in spite of Abram’s duplicity, the deceived (Pharaoh) is punished instead of the deceiver (Abram).   Although the Pharaoh experiences plagues for his involvement with Sarai, he is a model of generosity, allowing Abram and Sarai to leave Egypt with all their possessions, thus becoming an example of how God is always in charge, saving his children even when they’ve erred.   Attribute: learning from the sin of self-centeredness.

Perhaps this last episode is the nadir of the father of Israel’s life, yet it is also the precursor to what the nation of Israel will itself experience:  the ups and downs of obedience, not unlike our own lives perhaps.   This is one of the dozens of reasons the Bible continues to guide us on our journey from whatever ‘Ur’ we come from to our own ‘promised land’.

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Six Reasons to Celebrate Jesus’ Birth

While answers to this question might appear so obvious that it doesn’t bear asking, I invite you to pause this Christmas Eve and actually write down your own answers.  They probably won’t match anyone else’s list and that’s just fine.  What this simple exercise does is bring the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth over 3 billion people celebrate this Christmas season, into our hearts a bit more.

So as we close another year, it is a joy to share with you, my much-appreciated BibleRoads friends, some of my reasons and hope you will share yours in the comments section below.

  • First, I celebrate that God loved His/Her creation enough to send the son who would not be fooled by what his senses told him was ‘real’ – leprosy, deafness, blindness, etc. His example in busting through compelling physical evidence remains an astonishing example to follow.  And where would we be without it?

 

  • Next, I celebrate Joseph, who had the humility to stay on the marriage track with Mary, since he was legally within his rights to have her stoned for a pregnancy that could only be explained through the ‘overshadowing’ of the Holy Ghost.

 

  • Mary is almost beyond comprehension as a teen whose spiritual-mindedness was so developed that she was receptive to the angel’s extraordinary message. She is a model of listening on tiptoe and then being obedient, regardless of how much the message stretches us or goes against popular custom and others’ opinions.

 

Far left end, lower register of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus (before mid-4th cent.): The Adoration of the Magi

  • The Wise Men are particularly appreciated this season since they symbolize the universal appeal of Christ, the divinity of Jesus’ nature. With today’s technology, we increasingly learn just how interconnected our little global village actually is.  I appreciate these insights from a sermon given around 440 CE:

How did it come to be that these men, who left their home country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in his appearance to enforce such  systematic adoration, offered these particular gifts?  It  was the  star that attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts, so that before they  started on their toilsome journey, they first understood that the One who was promised was owed gold as royalty,  incense as divinity, and myrrh as mortal…and so it was of great advantage to us future people that this infant should be witnessed by these wise men.1

  • The Shepherds are a lesson in preparation. The qualities their profession demanded – to see that those in their care found enough food and water, that they were well-guarded from wolves or thieves who would carry them off, that the animals wouldn’t be overdriven, that the young ones sometimes needed to be carried, not pushed, counting each animal at night as they passed under their hand – were the very attributes they would eventually recognize in the leadership of Jesus over Israel, willing to die for those in his ‘flock’.

 

  • And finally, the foiling of Herod the Great’s scheme to kill off the Christ child before his life’s purpose could be fulfilled. I sometimes forget that the Wise Men journeyed first to Jerusalem and there had that encounter with Herod who thought to use them for his own malevolent purposes. As someone threatened by anything or anyone that would encroach on his power, upend his authority, overturn his sense of reality, Herod is a reverse model for all that we want to rule out of our lives and actions:  jealousy, scheming, deception, and the draining ambition of personal power.  The Magi’s ‘wisdom’ was never more in evidence than when they wisely did not inform Herod of the child’s location and instead returned to their homes, content to have seen him.

This list is far from complete.  Please share what makes you pause this Christmas season in gratitude for all that the Master Christian’s birth means to you.

[1]Sermon by Pope Leo, quoted in “The Magi in Literature”, Robin Jensen, Bible Review, Dec. 2001, Vol. 17, #06.

 

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Thanksgiving Psalms for the Season

Praise the Lord!”  And so begins one of the glorious types of Psalms (Ps. 111) from the Psalter, built on a recognition of God’s many blessings.  What a perfect time of year to consider the Thanksgiving Psalm more deeply and maybe even write your own!

David dictating the Psalms.  Codex binding in ivory, from the Treasure of Saint-Denis, France, end of 10th century.

There are many types of Psalms, but two predominate:  the praise psalm and the lament.  The former is often sung as a hymn and the latter, a lament, is a prayer.  Both types of Psalms are found applying to either individuals or whole communities.  The Thanksgiving Psalm begins where the lament leaves off– the gratitude expressed for the very thing or situation that had before seemed so insurmountable.

Thanksgiving Psalms are complements to laments because they provide concrete testimony to answered prayer.  Just as laments are cries for help during a crisis, Thanksgiving Psalms are their natural corollary because they declare:  “My prayer is answered.”

Yet Thanksgiving Psalms are more than hymns of praise because they relish the language of proclamation of what God has done and is doing for both the individual and community.

The Psalter has long served as one of the most loved portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, treasured by Jew and Christian alike, and quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Perhaps one reason for the Psalms’ timeless appeal is that all 150 Psalms teach us how to pray, how to feel God’s presence.  They show why we can have unwavering confidence in God’s power to deliver men, women and children from every kind of evil that would intimidate, threaten or bully.

An example comes from one of my earliest childhood memories.  My mother, brother and I were shouting the 23rd Psalm together as we held hands in our Oklahoma home’s small hallway, the only room where flying glass couldn’t reach us. It was our way of remembering that God’s power is greater than any tornado funnel, including the nearby one which sounded like a freight train about to come through the house.  Not just that year but all our growing up years, we experienced protection and safety from diseases, accidents, school challenges and sports, and the Psalms were a significant part of those prayers.

Here are some Thanksgiving Psalms you might enjoy reading this season (Ps. 30, 46, 48, 66. 76, 126, 135, and 147), along with an extended portion here of Ps. 111.

*Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart

as I meet with his godly people.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!

All who delight in him should ponder them.

Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.

His righteousness never fails.

He causes us to remember his wonderful works.

How gracious and merciful is our Lord!

He gives food to those who fear him;

he always remembers his covenant…

All he does is just and good,

and all his commandments are trustworthy.

It is always a joy to hear from you, our thoughtful readers.  Please share how you think about these Thanksgiving Psalms, or better yet, share a verse of one you’ve penned to capture your own gratitude this beautiful season of giving thanks.

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