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Paul’s Introduction to Romans and “The Gospel of God”

The Arch of Titus, Roman Forum

Discovering the variety of ways Paul opens his letters to the early Churches is like mining fields of gold—so many gems to uncover, chew on, then figure out how to apply and his introduction to Romans is no exception.

Paul launches his monumental epistle to the Romans with a self-description. That alone is a spiritual aha. If we were writing a church  to share an important message, how would we introduce ourselves? Some might try to impress with academic credentials; others with work experience, or family pedigree — something that would make the listener be impressed so they would sit up and take note. But not Paul.

He does use self-description, but only in relation to Christ and God: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” … (Rom. 1:1). This is not only how Paul knew himself, but how he wanted others to know him – and perhaps how he wanted them to know themselves as well.

This introductory phrase is Paul’s version of self-knowledge, but with a decided Christian stamp. Perhaps Paul was indirectly teaching his readers and listeners — then and now – that the well-known Plato maxim to ‘know thyself’ (attributed to the character of Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues) needed to be interpreted in a completely new way, based on one’s knowledge of and relationship with Christ Jesus. By introducing himself this way, to a Roman church group where he had never been and knew few personally, Paul models how they (and we, by extension) need to know ourselves if we too want to build a life of significance and service.

Paul never describes his physical person in his introduction to Romans – height, coloring, physique, or even his psychological or emotional profile. Instead the Apostle measures himelf by how totally he has given over his life to Christ Jesus, exactly as a Roman slave would to his master. ‘Doulos’ is Greek for ‘slave’. While it’s sometimes translated ‘servant’, conjuring up the starched uniforms of a Downton Abbey period, it is more accurately, ‘slave’.

For a social institution known for its cruelty, ‘slave’ seems an odd choice until realizing, as first century Roman citizens and slaves would know,  slavery is primarily about authority and submission, the absolute control of one over another. It was to this authority of Christ Jesus that Paul submitted — initially on the Damascus Road, then probably daily and hourly for the rest of his life.   How do we submit to the authority of Jesus Christ?  What does that mean and look and feel like?  These could provide a rich discussion for those studying Romans in a Bible Study group.  (And if you choose to take them up, please let us know about the outcomes of your discussion).

Paul’s second self-description, ‘called to be an apostle’, creates the stepping stone for the third, “set apart for the gospel of God”. This is not Paul’s personal story he tells, shares and preaches but The Story–God’s story of salvation for all humanity, through Christ Jesus who proved life, not death, was the reward of the faithful.  Thus, Paul so clearly calls his message, ‘the Gospel of God’.

Here is The Story that supercedes all others, whether tales of  patriarch or prophets.  Just in this opening verse we have moved onto holy ground from which all sandals must be removed. And we are in this great unfolding drama that continues, God’s Gospel, the news of how every man, woman and child is loved by God so much that He provided a savior for the world.

 

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The Quiet Power of I Thessalonians

Triumph_ThessaloniansSome people aspire to climb Mt. Whitney; others to write the Great American Novel. My desire has been to know the seven letters of Paul so well that they would become like old friends—familiar, trusted and treasured. The past ten years I’ve been on this quest and the latest deep dive has been in I Thessalonians. Each time I emerge in new awe of what Paul wrote, how he communicated and what he understood of God’s nearness.

Because it’s the first letter written in early Christianity, I Thessalonians has significant historical meaning. But that’s not why I’ve grown to treasure it. Rather, what makes it so meaningful is Paul’s understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit to help people grasp what is real and what is sham.

Here’s a brief example, early in chapter 1.   Paul writes:

For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true. (NLT)

PDF Instructions

Paul’s 2nd Missionary journey when he visited Thessalonica

Look at the realness of the Holy Spirit to Paul, which can come only from his own life experience of feeling the ‘knowingness’ that we all do when something is truly of God. Paul had been the recipient of the Holy Spirit’s direction, inspiration, and power for years by the time he wrote the Thessalonians. His is the voice of authority. And Paul knows these new converts have experienced it as well already. He appeals to their memory of this to distinguish any draw of the false gods of the pagan world so many were leaving behind, and the ‘somethingness’ — the actuality– of the world of Spirit,  a world they couldn’t perceive with their senses. Think how comforting this reminder must have been for people facing social, political and even physical persecution for their decision to become a Christian.

This is the world the Bible opens to us as well, the world of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, clarity and power.

You may recall that Paul had visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey but had to escape in the middle of the night when – once again—there was major civil unrest started because of his preaching and teaching. The letter is the result of asking Timothy to check on the new converts and see if they had collapsed under the opposition faced from pagans furious over his new teachings.

What a relief when Timothy reported back of their steadfastness, courage and even alertness to danger. Wow – that every Christian community could model those early Macedonians. Their reputation had grown far beyond Thessalonica and was even inspiring others to hold their ground and withstand the opposition surrounding them. Paul’s gratitude comes through in such deeply affectionate writing that one feels we’re almost reading a personal letter between the closest of friends.

Studying I Thessalonians to understand it’s underlying message, the issues those early workers were facing, how the lessons they learned can impact our lives today, a new glimpse into the nature of the Holy Spirit – these are just some of the reasons studying the Scriptures gets richer daily.

If this interests you, you’ll find a new audio talk on I Thessalonians resulting from this study – an offering of love to everyone that follows the Master’s command to continually ‘search the Scriptures’ (John 5:39).

I Thessalonians - Early Lessons in Discipleship

Image: Triumph of Titus and Vespasian by Giulio Romano

Map: biblemaps.com

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Unlock the New Testament with an Overview…

…or at least open the door ajar!

Establishing a big picture perspective of the Bible

One thing surprised me when I started giving Bible talks some 25 to 30 years ago: that people were so interested in brief overviews – and I mean brief! If our topic was a day on of Paul’s letters, for instance, I was concerned that not everybody had the same background.  The solution?  Create a rather crude human timeline by marching up and down the stage, pausing at a certain spot, asking audience members where Paul, Jesus, John, etc. would be on this imaginary line, or when one of the Gospels might have been written, then wait for them to shout out the answers. Let’s just say the audience didn’t shout so much as rather sheepishly ask if such-and-such was the accurate date.

New Testament Books TimelineDon’t misunderstand.  These people knew their Bibles and, most importantly, loved and tried to live its message.  They just were unsure of how it all hung together.  In college I had a professor who used the metaphor of a clothesline, a complete anachronism today for anyone born after 1980 or so!  There she would hypothetically ‘pin’ the characters and events to an imaginary rope in order of their appearance in history.  It was helpful, and thus, years later, I employed a similar technique.

Most of us are visual learners at least partly, and this turned out to be such an appreciated exercise that I began to do it consistently, always with the response:  ‘how did I never understand this basic time frame?!’  Because most of us are turning to the Scriptures not for any historical interest but to feed our spiritual hunger to know God and His Christ.  And that’s exactly what our motive should be.  But I’ve often seen in my own study and search that the more I understand the historical and geographical settings, for example, the more meaningful the stories, verses and characters become.

We might turn to verses, for instance, but not understand the context of the chapter in which they appear — or what comes before and after that informs that particularly story.  Likewise,  chapters constitute books and books make up Biblical sections or genres.  Pretty soon the Scriptures constitute the most astounding tapestry in which the threads that began centuries before now make up the garments of humility and grace which we want to metaphorically wear.  And this greater view is why I’ve been such an advocate of small group Bible study through the years.  Each deeper dive fills out a bit more of the Scriptural puzzle that unlocks to guide our lives.

As a result, the historical, political and even geographical context for much of the Bible’s characters and stories are a bit clearer to us – now seen from 30,000’.

New Testament Overview Video

This is the background for a gift from BibleRoads –  a New Testament overview video in about thirty minutes, free. We hope many will take advantage of watching it, tell your friends, use it in Sunday School with your iPad or laptop, start a BibleRoads study program with it providing helpful background,  etc. The goal is that after getting a clearer sense of the timeline, the books, letters and stories will be more meaningful.  Then the real goal – bringing their lessons forward to our lives today – happens with ease and grace.

Enjoy this free video overview by clicking on the image at the top of this post.  It’s divided into three parts for ease of viewing if you want to watch it in three ten-minute segments.  Or you can watch it all at once if you prefer.  Please let us know your response and we hope it whets your appetite for further searching of the Scriptures with our many BibleRoads talks and workbooks.

This particular overview is video, meaning you have maps and slides to aid the audio. It was given prior to an in-depth five day class on three of Paul’s letters at a beautiful ranch in the Colorado Rockies this past winter. All maps shared in this presentation are by Manna Bible Maps – http://www.biblemaps.com/

(***Note: This New Testament Overview video is a great accompaniment to the Bible Roads Overview of the Old Testament. If you have not seen it yet, you can gain access by signing up for our monthly newsletter.)

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Bible Journeys: Exploring the Bible through Organized Bible Study Groups

In 2013 I spent five days in the stunning Colorado Rocky Mountains studying the middle chapters of Isaiah with 50 fellow Bible students.  The background you’re seeing on the above video is from the lodge where we spent about five hours a day pouring over the chapters, sharing insights, working to understand the themes, history, context.  Why?  Because many of us have found, as perhaps you have, that there is something very special that occurs when we sit down with others to see how the Scriptures are talking to us today.  Not only are our own insights enriched and expanded, but the sense of fellowship, friendship, even awe, that comes from the many ‘holy ground’ moments of immersion in the Word, is like no other experience. “I rejoice at thy word”, writes the Psalmist (119:162), and what joy it gives as we explore God’s Word more deeply.

I often get asked for ideas about how to organize a Bible study group. Here are some ideas that may be helpful to get you started:

  1. How many should be involved? Think about starting with a small group, maybe 6 – 8. You might want to ‘find your footing’ before opening it to people of all denominations in your community. One of the challenges is learning how to really delve into the text and let it teach us, describing what we read in our own language, vs. denominational language that some are used to using. As groups become more proficient at using Biblical language or their own, free of denominational ‘speak’, then opening it to others can be a great blessing for all.
  2. Where do we meet? Hold it in participants’ homes or at a Reading Room or Sunday School if church members agree.
  3. How often do you meet? It completely depends on people’s availability. Some groups find that starting with once a month meetings, perhaps 2 hours at a time, is just about right. Others find that is too infrequent and go to a bi-weekly model. And some groups love this study so much that they agree to meet weekly. Whichever is right for you, you may want to start less frequently and scale UP rather than back, if modifications need to be made.
  4. How much of the Bible do we cover at each meeting? Many have found that about a chapter an hour is as fast as they want to go. Much faster and you’re unable to plumb the depths of a verse – each one so rich that you want to really delve into it. A number of groups find that two hours, or two chapters per meeting, is just about right.
  5. How do we best prepare? Again, this depends on your group’s preferences. Some choose to follow a guideline, like “Foundation Stones”, published by Bible Study Seminars and available at their website. These provide both background and study questions, but do not go consecutively chapter by chapter. Other groups choose to have a facilitator prepare five or so study questions per chapter, send them out ahead of time via email, then each one comes prepared with their answers. People may find different translations and commentaries helpful in their study and their monthly or bi-weekly meetings become a way of sharing. Of course we’re relying on prayer to illumine these texts but the Bible study is often just to help people understand the context and background for each book, and that helps us penetrate the spiritual meaning of the verses.
  6. Where would I find study questions if I don’t have time or interest in writing my own? Check out the shop page on this website to find workbooks for those Bible Study groups that want background and study questions per chapter. If there is an accompanying audio track, some Bible Study groups will get that and play it ahead of their study to amplify the book being studied.)

2nd Isaiah Online Video Course - Bibleroads.comInterested in having a very specific recommendation on where to start with your new Bible study group? You might want to check out the newly released Bible Roads 2nd Isaiah Online Bible Study Course which is a 12 hour video recording of the aforementioned Colorado Bible study group (and comes complete with its very own virtual facilitator).

If you have any suggestions or experiences you would like to share about organizing Bible study groups or if you have any additional questions about how to proceed, please comment below.

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