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Archive for the ‘Books of the bible: introductory notes’ Category

Lamentations - DisasterSuffering is an issue which profoundly characterizes the human condition. We have many questions about suffering, frailty, guilt, sin and death and the bible has much to say about these things. The book of Lamentations is an often neglected response to these issues.

How do we respond when God brings catastrophe on our lives? Or, as a Christian, do you think you are exempt from that, so long as you keep believing that God will protect you?
Some Churches teach a muddled theology of suffering, suggesting that we prosper according to how much faith we have, and suffering, disease or tragedy are only the result of a failure in our faith. Like so much false teaching, this thinking has a grain of truth, but is dangerously skewed. If this is your outlook, and disaster strikes you, you have no way of dealing with it: it will damage not just your physical wellbeing, but your faith as well. And rightly so, because a false faith that cannot save you is as bad as (or worse than) no faith at all.

Jesus said that his followers would have to take up their cross and follow him, confirming that suffering would be as much a part of a Christian’s life as it was for Christ himself. But if we look at the book of Lamentations, we find the same truth playing out. It is written for those people in Israel who were “the remnant”, who experienced the full force of one manifestation of the terrible “day of the Lord”, escaping with their lives, only to live with the terrible grief and memory of what was lost.

All the good things that were associated with being God’s covenant people, the community, the temple, health, security and prosperity…all these things were removed from them because of Israel’s endemic unfaithfulness. God’s wrath at sin is kindled, and is displayed in a terrible way. Even those faithful to God felt this wrath. The writer of this book feels that judgement and loss keenly.

But what about the greatest loss of all? There is a loss from which no recovery is possible. It is a loss that is beyond the losses of the many gifts that God gives us, and it is the loss of God himself. We turn our backs on God many times, but what if he were to turn His back on us? The exiled people of Israel were doubtless inclined to ask that question. If they had put their faith in the gifts of God with no regard to God himself, then they would truly have felt devastated when it all turned to ashes.

It’s important to remember that the people in Jerusalem were religious people. They had a degree of cultural pride in their heritage, in their observances, in the name of their god. They showed that they didn’t really understand their calling by their growing unfaithfulness, but how aware were they of this situation? What would it take for us to learn the difference between faith in religion, and faith in God? Disaster, when sent by God, does not make us desperate, but rather it reveals our desperation.

Despite the totality and depth of the suffering which God’s people have experienced, the message of Lamentations is that God has not given up on his promises. The message is that God’s faithfulness goes deeper even than this kind of judgement, and we read that in Chapter 3:21 onwards.
When Jesus taught his disciples that they could “turn the other cheek” he was thinking about Lamentations 3:30 “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults”. Those who realise that “The Lord is [their] portion” (3:24) are able not just to endure all suffering, but find blessing in the midst of it.

We have the book of Lamentations that we might, through profound poetry, experience in our imaginations the kind of disaster that reveals our desperate need for God. Perhaps God will spare us from similar tragedy in our own lives. We need not seek it, but Lamentations shows us that we can find profound value in even the deepest of suffering, because we know that God has remained faithful to those who repent and seek his face.

There was one man who did not need tragedy to teach him what God’s love was worth. He knew the joy of communion with the Father in all its fulness, and he knew every blessing that came with it. But Jesus Christ entered and endured the deepest of tragedies: separation from God. He did this so that we, like the remnant of Israel, might have a firm hope in the forgiveness and faithfulness of God.

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Back in April 2010, Paul Maxfield posted an excellent introduction to the book of Psalms. It’s worth reading over this to help keep the book of Psalms in context.

Being honest, I can remember tuning out on a few occasions when reading the Psalms, because many of them sound similar, and the modern translations can’t retain the original poetry that took these important ideas and made them ‘musical’.

This time around I’m going to try reading each psalm as a prayer, reading it to God. Developing a regular prayer life that uses good, biblical theology is something worth aiming for, so that we can pray in line with God’s will, and get to know Him better.

If you’ve been struggling to keep up with the readings, why not use today as a catch-up point? Take note of where you fell behind, and join in afresh. I hope it’s going well for you.

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I’ve been remiss over the last few weeks in keeping on top of the blog posts. Nevertheless, if you’re still keeping up with B2Y, I’m praying that your readings are going well, and that they are serving to grow your love for Jesus, and your passion for God’s glory.

Here is the introduction to the gospel of Mark, from when we began reading it last year.

Please take the time to continue to encourage one another in bible reading. It is often difficult to even pick up the book when our lives are hectic, or in a downright mess, and God has placed us in community to support each other.

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It’s difficult to get a handle on the book of Jeremiah: it is long, was compiled over Jeremiah’s lifetime, and it covers a wide variety of subjects in a variety of ways. The lessons we get from Jeremiah can’t be easily summarised, but hopefully the following overview will help you to maintain a perspective of the book as you read.

———-

JEREMIAH

Jeremiah was young and reluctant, but God called him to be a prophet just the same.

 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”

He started out as a prophet when Judah was ruled by Josiah, the last faithful king of Judah.

Within two decades of Josiah’s death, Judah was in serious political, social, financial, moral and spiritual decay. Gone were those days when the people of Israel felt the sovereign protection of their God, when

“Israel was holy to the LORD,
    the firstfruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it incurred guilt;
   disaster came upon them”.

Now,

“The lions have roared against him;
   they have roared loudly.
They have made his land a waste;
   his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant.”

The lions of war were circling, in the form Babylon, Assyria and Egypt. Jeremiah prophesied at various stages during the political turmoil of these times. He watched as Judah tried negotiation, resistance, surrender and duplicity in any attempt to stay afloat, and to somehow protect its borders and national identity.

In the middle of this unrest, Jeremiah was the prophet who recalled the promises God made of old, the blessings and the curses of the covenant with Israel. God used Jeremiah to say, in uncompromising terms, exactly how the people had forsaken God.

“For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
have been utterly treacherous to me,
declares the LORD.”

The people were becoming godless, forsaking all of God’s commands. They didn’t fear him, respect him or even think of him. They pursued selfish gain and every kind of sin, all of which was the result of people desiring to be rid of God,  to rebel.

“for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me,
   the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
   broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

Jeremiah pointed out to the people cowering before the might of other nations like Babylon that God himself had summoned this “lion” to judge, and pillage and destroy.

God’s people had to learn the hard way that sin, injustice and rebellion are an affront to a holy God. He was sick of the people who turned up to weekly worship but refused to do anything about their sins.

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.

Jeremiah called the people to repent, or “turn away” from their sins again and again…over 100 times in the book. He wept at the stubbornness of people, and the coming judgement that was evidence of their sinful condition. Preaching repentance was just as popular in Jeremiah’s day as it is today. He rattled so many cages that Passhur the priest came and beat him up and put him in the stocks.

Jeremiah faithfully fulfilled his thankless duty, hammering home the message, even as God began to hammer home his judgement. God’s people had to understand the nature, the cost of their rebellion. But in the broken and fractured earth God was digging up, God, through Jeremiah, plants a seed of hope.

Jeremiah foretold a return from exile, when those people who placed their faith in God would make up a “remnant” of Israel. They would be participators in a New Covenant, and live under a wise king: the prophesied Messiah, David’s “righteous branch”.

The old covenant was given to a nation of people who collectively failed to honour it, despite God’s unerring faithfulness and patience. The new covenant would be for those people whose obedience demonstrated that they had faith in God. God’s law, the spirit of the law, would be written on their hearts, and somehow, for those people, God would “remember their sins no more”.  The broken, destitute, exiled communities of Israel and Judah would eventually be united in this new covenant community, and fulfill their calling to be the light of the world.

 

 

 

 

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I missed linking to the introduction to Philemon a while back, so here it is. Love Jesus, Love His Family

The letter of James reminded Christians what faith looks like in action: Faith Works Out

The First letter of Peter gave urgent instructions to Christians facing persecution, reminding them of spiritual realities, and the hope of the Gospel.

2nd Peter was a reminder to watch out for false teachers, and remember where the church’s Superhuman Power comes from.

First John helps us answer the question: Are You A Christian? and reminds us that sin and following Christ are incompatible.

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Isaiah’s contribution to the Old Testament was compiled over his whole life, though little is known about the author apart from his credentials as a prophet of God. It defies specific categorisation, because its remit is so broad, the style is varied, and the subject matter is so thoroughly profound.

Isaiah says little about himself (he is the son of Amoz), and he may have been a member of the royal family around 740 B.C. He appears to have lived in Jerusalem (7:3) and was a married man and a father (7:3; 8:3, 18). But Isaiah’s focus is on God himself, and everything else is defined by its relation to God. God is seen by Isaiah as the glorious centre of reality. How long will it take us to start seeing God in this way?

Isaiah is given the task of being God’s mouthpiece: revealing God’s character, his response to situations and attitudes, his judgements, and also his plans. This great prophet announces God’s surprising plan of grace and glory for his rebellious people, and, indeed, for the world.

In chapters 1-39, God speaks through Isaiah to His people who are quaking in fear before the threat of Assyria (the eighth century B.C.). They are in a state of rebellion towards God, and God is going to demonstrate to them that his judgement is required to purify the remnant: to teach them that they are rebels who were unwilling to return to God, despite his enjoinders.

In chapters 40-55, Isaiah speaks prophecies about the 6th century B.C. (long after his own death!) when God’s people will be exiled in Babylon. He speaks consolation to those discouraged exiles, and reminds them that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (40:5)

Chapters 56-66 reveal some more general prophecies about all times and occasions until the end, and are for people who are trusting in God’s promises. They remind us of the promise of salvation, and teach us to “Keep justice, and do righteousness” (56:1) which is pleasing to God.

Crucially, despite the fact that Isaiah denounces hypocrisy, greed and idolatry amongst God’s chosen people, he also foresees the Saviour of offenders, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God-with-us (7:14), the child destined to rule forever (9:6-7), the hope of the Davidic throne (11:1), the glory of the Lord (40:5), the suffering servant of the Lord (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), the anointed preacher of the gospel (61:1-3), the bloodied victor over all evil (63:1-6) and more. Isaiah is mentioned by name in the New Testament over 20 times and is quoted there extensively, for the message he preached is the very gospel of Jesus and the apostles.

How will you respond to the message of Isaiah? Will it harden your pride against God, (what right does God have to insist on these things?), or will it make you contrite, and give you comfort and hope in the God who has not let his plan for salvation be stopped by our sinfulness, but gave his very son that we might be redeemed?

Isaiah is no easy book to summarize, or even to offer an introduction to…hence the delay in getting this out there. Sorry once again for the delays. I hope everyone’s readings are going from strength to strength. And I’m again grateful for my trusty ESV study bible for much of the content of this post, lest anyone thinks I am able to write this stuff unaided!

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Before the fall, Adam and Eve were both naked, and felt no shame. After the fall, sexuality is one of the first places where they experience the painful and confusing effects of their sins. Since the bible documents God’s rescue plan for mankind, it’s fair to ask: where does Song of Songs fit into this?

If God intends to restore and redeem his creation to its proper functioning, then that process includes God’s plan to redeem human sexuality. God’s concern is that we learn to use sex and sexuality for its rightful purpose in a way that brings honour and glory to its author. The thing is not that we do it, but that we do it right.

Song of Songs is in many ways a challenging book. There are a variety of schools of thought regarding author, narrative flow, characterisation and the meaning of certain terms and passages. My ESV bible mentions a number of these approaches, and selects one while recognising that no one interpretation is devoid of academic difficulties. I’m not qualified to comment on these, but feel free to read up on the differences between the Allegorical Interpretation, the Anthology Interpretation, the Shepherd Hypothesis and the Solomon-Shulammite Interpretation.

This is not to admit that there are no lessons to be learned from Song of Songs. It’s always important to ask questions like:

  • Why is this book in the canon of Scripture?
  • What is particularly special about this book?
  • What does it teach us about God, about reality, about us?
  • Does it express ideas found elsewhere in Scripture in a useful or illustrative way?

Some observations about the main themes of Song of Songs (again from ESV study bible):

1. God’s covenant, which commands sexual purity, provides just the right framework (marriage) within which his people may properly enjoy the gift of sexual intimacy (cf. Gen. 2:23–24). Thus God’s people honor him and commend him to the world when they demonstrate with their lives that obedience in such matters brings genuine delight.

2. Marriage is a gift of God, and is to be founded on loyalty and commitment (see Gen. 2:24, “hold fast”), which allows delight to flourish. As such, it is a fitting image for God’s relationship with his people, in both the OT and the NT.

Song of Songs is a reminder that God is the inventor of pleasure; that sex is not somehow better enjoyed outside God’s jurisdiction. It reminds us that romantic love is something worth celebrating, and God often gives access to this profound joy to even the simplest among us.

A balanced view of sexuality identifies the power and fragility of the gift, both the risks and the possibilities. Above all, it acknowledges that sex is a gift from God, but not God himself.

For those of us who are not in a position to enjoy this particular gift of God, it is important to remember that we can yet celebrate what the gift foreshadows. God does not give everyone the blessings of wealth, or of health, or beauty, peace, or wisdom. But before you find this cause for despair, remember that he has given us Christ: God has given us Himself. We can derive greater satisfaction in knowing that the all-powerful God who saves us in Christ intends to withhold no good thing from those who love him.

There will indeed come a time when the church, the bride of Christ, will see the approach of the bridegroom. We need not be ashamed to understand Christ’s return in terms of marital consummation, but we should also be careful to understand that the gift of human sexuality is but a shadow of the joy which Christ plans for his church.

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