God is Setting All Things Right. So I am Blogging Through the Bible in a Year.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Five Tips to Reading the Bible Through in a Year (and an announcement!)

A few years ago I decided to read the Bible through every odd-numbered year. Yesterday I explained why and gave my top five reasons you should read the Bible through in a year, too. Today I want to give you five tips to reading the Bible thorough in a year. Then I have a big announcement.

Tip 1: Read the Bible Through Email (or some way that comes to you every morning).

**Warning: I'm a digital native (born after 1980) and I love technology. Tip 1 will not work if you are someone who does not want to supplement your analog life with digital tools. But read on! You might decide to do it anyway.**

I'm not against paper Bibles (Those things made from dead trees with leather covers, remember? I've had two people ask me what a "paper Bible" is.). I have several paper Bibles and when I preach I read from a paper Bible. However, I do not pick up books to read every day. I have a closet full of paper books that I have not touched in 5-10 years (to my wife's vexation). I'll get around to reading them someday. How many emails do I have unread from 5-10 years ago? None. I read all of my important messages and deleted the rest. Every day. This is what I have learned about myself: if it doesn't come to me, I don't read it. I want to read the Bible through in a year. Unless it comes to me every day (through email) I don't do it.

Here's how to read the Bible though in a year via email:

Go to BibleinaYear.org and sign-up with your email address. There are other ways, simply Google it and you'll see a few other websites that send daily readings through email. But this how I have done it in the past. Keep reading and I'll show you how to choose the type of reading and the translation.

If you do not want to have it delivered to your email, you can go to One Year Bible Online, bookmark it and read it online there as well. Or you can print out a schedule if you're a Luddite.

If you are computer-savvy, here's another tip: If you have trouble reading slowly, highlight the text on the email, copy, go to Spreeder.com, paste the text, and press "spreed!" It will force your eyes to look at one word and will help you read 300+ words a minute. I don't know if I would ever be able to read the Bible in a year without it.


Tip 2: Read the Bible through Chronologically.

This is very important if you plan to understand the entire message of the Gospel (and get through the books of history and the Psalms). The Bible wasn't written chronologically—each book was written independently of the others (except the two books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, obviously). Because of this the books do not line up exactly. 1 Kings repeats much of 2 Samuel. 1-2 Chronicles repeats much of both books of Samuel and Kings. The Psalms were written from the time of Moses until the time of the prophets. Even the prophets make more sense when they are read in the correct time period. Do yourself a favor, read the Bible chronologically. It (literally) makes more sense.

This is another reason a paper Bible doesn't work for me. I don't like flipping through it looking for each passage, especially on days when I am reading from Kings, Chronicles and Psalms. Email systems have all of them laid out for you. It's really nice.


Tip 3: Read the Bible through using a New (to You) Translation, Preferably an Easier-to-Read Version

This one is tricky. Many people are completely attached to their favorite version (mine is the English Standard Version—ESV) and do not want to muddle their memorization of favorite verses by reading from another one. I understand that. I appreciate that. What I wish to encourage is this: reading the Bible in familiar translations will cause to you gloss over passages that could otherwise deepen your understanding of God's Word. It is great for deep reading because you are paying attention. With the daily grind of text (2-4 chapters a day, or 1,200-2,500 words a day), your brain will go to sleep and you will miss important truths. Keep your favorite translation, but read the Bible through once in another version.

Which version should you choose? Let me make a suggestion. An easy-to-read version like The Message. These are meant to be easy-flowing translations that help you read the Bible with ease. When you are reading 2-4 chapters a day, difficult vocabulary, archaic words, and non-standard sentence structure leads to frustration. Frustration leads to quitting. Quitting leads to not reading the Bible through in a year. Reading difficult translations like the King James Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and to a certain degree the New King James Version may not be a great decision. I know, modern, easy-to-read translations may not sound like the Bible. But that's the point! Modern, easy-to-read versions want the Bible to come at you from a different angle. I will be reading The Message this year. I love the freshness it brings to familiar stories. In the past I have read The New American Standard Version (Updated) and the ESV. Either one would make an excellent read.


Tip 4: Read with a Purpose or a Question

I realize this often morphs into "read with an agenda," but I trust that you see the difference. I've tried the wide-eyed, clean-slate method and it doesn't work well. Without a purpose-driven plan, I come away with some interesting tidbits about the scripture but I never grasp one, solid truth that profoundly changes the way I see things. That is why I encourage you to read with one purpose or question in mind.

Let me give you one purpose or question to think of as you read:

How does this passage contribute to the Gospel: God is setting all things right?

This will be the question I ponder as I read the scripture during the entire year. Those at the Petaluma Church (AKA the Sonoma Mountain Parkway Church of Christ) where I preach will find this theme familiar. Once the lessons are on our website I'll post a link and let everyone see what I mean by the Gospel being "God is setting all things right."


Tip 5: Read with a Group

Finally, this is the one tip that is most crucial but most overlooked. If you wish to read the Bible through in a year, do it in a group, even if that group is one other person. The first year I read the Bible with my girlfriend, who became my wife during the year. We both made it. The second year I tried it alone and didn’t make it. I have found the simple fact of having someone else reading the Bible with you gives you motivation during those mornings you have 100 other things on your mind. Read different version and compare. Read the same, new version and complain about how it doesn't sound right to each other. Tell the others what you are learning. Hear what other read from God's word. Together.

I have challenged everyone at the Petaluma Church to read the Bible through in a year with me. To help with this, every Sunday's sermon will come from either that week's readings or readings in the past. We are going to make it through the entire Bible together. It's the most ambitious preaching schedule I have ever attempted or have heard another preacher attempt. I'm sure we can make it, but I don't know if we'll enjoy it. Come visit us and see.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Five Reasons to Read the Bible Through in 2013

As you may have noticed, the blog has gone silent for a quarter. This was partly because I became burned-out with Romans and needed a break (I am also finishing a year+ in-depth study in our Sunday evening Bible study) and because I was not getting the kind of engagement on the blog as I had hoped. That needs a lot of retooling on my part.

But I have not been completely idle.

Every odd-numbered year I resolve to read the Bible through in a year. Why every odd-numbered year? Because I wanted to make sure I had a good balance of big-picture and in-depth Bible study in my life. 2013 is an odd-numbered year. This year, I want you to read through the Bible with me.

So today I give my top five reasons to read through the Bible in 2013. Tomorrow I have an exciting announcement that will either force me to become a regular blogger or teach me to never write a post again.


Reason 1: See the Bible as a Whole Story

I grew up in a church that was notorious for "verse-ism." What is verse-ism? It's when you take single verses (or a few) to stand for large ideas in scriptures. Want an example? Explain how a person is to be saved. Most people will give one of two answers. They will either tell what their church says without adding verses or they will rattle off verses to go along with those points, for example: Hear – Romans 10:17, Believe – Hebrews 11:6, Repent – Acts 17:30, Confess – Romans 10:10, Baptism – Acts 2:38. The issue isn't correctness or how verses/steps should be added or subtracted. The problem is that this type of Bible reading flattens scripture down to just a few shallow verses and leaves out large swaths of deep scripture. This is why the biggest problem I see in churches is the inability to see beyond the small passage of the day and why many daily Bible readings turn me off. They give you one or two verses without any kind of larger-picture view of how this fits into the entire scripture—or as I like to say it, “verse-ism”. This type of shallow reading leads to shallow knowledge of the Bible and eventually to shallow spirituality.

Reading through the entire scripture will help you put the entire Bible into perspective and give you a leg-up in both understanding God’s story and understanding our place in it. You will see how the Old Testament and New Testament are not at odds with each other. You will no longer see God "maturing" but God showing humans their inability to enact the Gospel on Earth alone. You will see God’s true plan for Israel, how they never lived up to this purpose, and how the church has fallen into the same traps. You will see why Jesus had to come and reset the covenant. You will understand why Jesus dying on the cross was essential for the Gospel to be completed. This is something you cannot get from one verse a day.


Reason 2: God Speaks to You Through the Bible

The second problem I have found in churches is the simple lack of reading the scripture at all. God's Word has become the plaything of the theologian, property of the pastor, and tool for the schemer. It's become the biology book for non-biology majors: they keep it with them in class because the teacher forces them to but they wouldn't be caught dead reading it outside of class. It's cool to say, "Yeah, I'm a Christian, but I don't read the Bible. It's just not me."

If we are dedicated to become disciples of Jesus, the Messiah, we must read God’s Word. It’s God speaking to us! How can we have a relationship with someone if we only speak to them? By reading His Word every day you gain a greater appreciation for what God does for us and how he loves us. By reading the Bible through in a year you develop a habit of God’s Word speaking to you every day.


Reason 3: Learn how Messed-up Bible Characters Really Were

I never grew up thinking Abraham, Moses, David, or anyone from the Old Testament was like me. I thought of them as fabled characters of old who were saintly followers of God who never wavered. Boy was I wrong.

Trust me, before you finish reading Genesis you will gain a greater appreciation for God’s patience and learn why he loves Christians even though we mess things up more often than we don’t. These people were not angels walking around in people’s clothing. They were dysfunctional families living dysfunctional lives. God loved them because they were still pointed toward His Gospel, even if they didn’t' act it out every time. Your life is no different. But if we do not read the Bible through, we only see these people how preachers want us to see them. And preachers don't like messy stories.


Reason 4: Gain Comfort and Wisdom from Others

The problem is the same as Reason 3. If the people from the Old Testament and New Testament are not the same as I, what could I possibly gain from reading about their lives?

Once you understand Reason 3 from reading the Bible, your life’s problems seem less and less foreign to God and his comfort for others can be your comfort. His wisdom for others becomes His wisdom for you. By reading the Bible through in a year you are able to soothe your pains in a personal way that no preacher or Bible study group would ever be able to. This will help you have something to bring to others when they ask why anyone should become disciples of Jesus, the Messiah.


Reason 5: Gain a Greater Appreciation for the Bible as God’s Word for Us Today

Journalists for Newsweek, Time, and many other news outlets try to portray the Bible as an archaic relic of the past that no one reads because it's just too far removed from reality and unfit for enlightened minds. I don't blame anyone for falling on their side and not wanting to read the Bible—it's all we hear. However, I do not wish to let others define my relationship to God, so why would I want them to define my position toward His Word? Also, even if they were correct in their opinions, I would not want defend my lack of Bible knowledge because someone else told me it wasn't worth reading (like you aren't going to stop reading Newsweek, Time, etc. because I said not to).

I guarantee you, if you read the scripture in a year you will come away with an appreciation for God’s Word that no conspiracy theory or news journalist can shake. The Law of Moses becomes pragmatic and understandable beyond the one or two laws we read from people who want to discredit the Bible. Your appreciation of God's Word should come exclusively from your own personal readings of scripture, not someone else convincing you. Personal reflections stay with you for life. The Bible is the guide book for me, not because my parents believe it to be their guidebook (though they do) but because every time I read through the Bible I come away with the understanding that God truly is the creator of the universe and that He earnestly wants the world to be set right through his perfect law of liberty.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To the Jew First and Also to the Greek - Romans 1:17

Read Romans 1 – ESV, The Message
I am continuing my discussion of Romans 1:16-17.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV)
One of the troubling parts of this letter – and why many people do not wish to see Romans in the 21st Century as Churched vs. Unchurched – is that Paul does not fit easily into a quick summary. Those who are “Churched” want to summarize Romans as everyone is an evil person, the church is the way out and only those who are part of a church can be saved. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of Paul’s message to the church in Rome. Verse 17 challenges that summary.
Another troubling part of scripture.

To the Jew First and Also to the Greek

As I stated in previous posts, God still has a special place for the Jews. This is why Paul first went into the synagogue to teach the Gospel (read Acts) and why he states that salvation is for the Jews first. Paul is not, as some theologians want, throwing the Jews out on the curb to be taken out with the trash.

That God’s salvation extends to the Greek (or non-Jews) is what makes this statement important. Salvation was not and continues not to be for those who obey God’s written law only. God’s salvation comes to those who obey God’s moral law. More on that later.

21st Century

God continues to have a special place for those who are part of a church. Regardless of how faithful a church has been to God’s moral law He still has an important place for them. This is why I have decided to remain in my Churched background. As much as the church frustrates me, disappoints me and turns me off I still want to say, as Paul said, that salvation is for the Churched first and also to the Unchurched. I am grateful that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were Christians and passed our tradition down to my generation.

Salvation is not limited to those of your church. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, so I will punt this discussion to a later date.

Revealed From Faith For Faith

God revealed His righteousness to the Jews so they would know that He is the Lord of lords. At the same time, though, this wondrous love was to be revealed to the Gentiles. This is why Paul states that God’s righteousness was revealed from faith for faith. It was revealed to the Jews so they would tell the nations to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8. Unfortunately, they skipped this part – preferring to bask in the glory that is being God’s people and not praising that glory to the nations.

21st Century

God has revealed His righteousness, His trustworthiness, His faithfulness to those who are Churched so that they would take that good news – the Gospel – to the world. This is God’s purpose for the church – not a repository of the righteous but a light for the nations. Until we realize our purpose as a church is to go out and spread the news of the righteousness of God by word and deed we will continue to grow smaller while we wait for people to visit our church buildings.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Not Ashamed of the Gospel - Romans 1:16

Read Romans 1 – ESV, The Message

After Paul reassures the church he plans to visit with them and tells them his absence is due to God changing his plans (vv. 8-15), he gives an interesting couple of statements:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith.” (vv. 16-17, ESV)

I want to spend the next two posts on these two verses.

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Coming from a Jew, this statement is not as innocuous as we would think. Jews would have accepted a gospel that was “the power of God for salvation.” Jews wanted the Gospel to save them, as long as it included the Law of Moses and could be done in their spare time. Jesus’ message was not acceptable to proper Jews because it had less to do with physical acts and focused too much on the heart. Jesus wasn’t the Savior they were waiting for because his salvation did not match what they expected. Paul wanted them to see their inability to understand Jesus and the Gospel and that put him in great opposition to many Jews all his days (see all of Acts). Paul would soon be imprisoned and sent to Rome (ironically) because of this stance on the Gospel.

21st Century

Churched Christians are in a somewhat similar position today. If a church heard a minister speak of “the Gospel as the Power of God for salvation” they would accept it. Churched Christians want God to save them through Jesus – provided it includes going to worship service and service projects done in their spare time. When the Gospel of Christ is seen through the Sermon on the Mount things get complicated. "That was then. We’re very different now, thanks." Christians are too polite to place preachers in jail, but they would certainly not ask that minister back.

To Everyone Who Believes

One problem even believing Jews would find with his statement is the notion that God’s salvation came to everyone who believed. If he had stated “to every Jew who believed” he would have been tolerated. But this notion that God’s salvation comes outside the Law of Moses would have put Paul’s perspective at odds with the Jewish mindset of being the only Children of God. That God’s salvation could come to the Gentiles caused Paul to be expelled from Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:13-52).

21st Century

Try an experiment: Go to members of a church and suggest that salvation can be found outside the church. Tell them it comes by trusting the creator of the universe, not in following what your church teaches regarding salvation. This will go over like a lead balloon. I believe, because I held this belief for most of my life, that this comes from our wish to be the only Children of God. We have so institutionalized ‘church’ that we can no longer how God could work outside this arrangement. In so doing we have missed Paul's lesson to this church.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Obedience of Faith for the Sake of His Name: Romans 1:1-7


Paul Says Hello

Read Romans 1 – ESV, The Message

There are three things I want to point out from Paul’s opening (1-7):

Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh.

Although the Prophets predicted the Messiah would be a descendent of David and God promised Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), the most important reason Jesus was a physical descendent of Abraham was God proving once again that he would give his steadfast love “to a thousand generations” after one who obeye Him (Deuteronomy 7:9). God continues to have a special bond with the physical descendants of Abraham because of his faithfulness. Although Paul would later clarify that the benefits of this come only to those who obey as Abraham did, the point that Jesus is a physical Jew is relevant.

21st Century

When I read this, I cannot help but realize that the church does have a similar claim: we are open followers of Jesus. I know – I know – many Churched Christians do not act like it. Yet, just as God continues to have a special bond with the physical descendants of Abraham because of his faithfulness (despite them messing it up), God continues to have a special bond with the physical descendants of Churched Christians because of our ancestors’ faithfulness (despite us messing it up). We do not live on a historical island (21st century *insert geographical region here*). All of history is connected and God continues to reward the righteousness of our ancestors.

Paul’s goal was to bring the obedience of faith for the sake of Jesus’ name.

‘Obedience of faith’ is the major point throughout the book of Romans. Eventually Paul will explain that obedience must come through trust in Jesus (the one sent by God) and not through following rote laws and dead rules (the Law of Moses). Jesus said “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

21st Century

It seems apt to state that ‘obedience of faith’ is something churches today often struggle with. We either focus on obedience or faith - but not both. One side says you must follow x-number of rules set by their church and the other side states that all you need is one emotional connection to a theoretical being – using the word ‘faith.’ (I realized I am stereotyping, but I'm writing only 500-ish words at a time, remember?) What we should focus on today is that obedience must come through trust in Jesus to direct our lives and not through following your church’s rote traditions and dead rules.

This was to be accomplished among all nations.

In the same paragraph where Paul compliments the Jews for being the people who brought Jesus into the world he reminds them that Jesus’ message is for the entire world. The Jews no longer can call themselves the children of God. It also reminds the Gentiles that although they may not have been the physical family of Jesus they can still have a part in the inheritance which comes through Jesus.

21st Century

Churched Christians must remember that although Jesus is outwardly obeyed by Christians His message of obedience through faith in Jesus the Messiah – not of joining a church – is for the entire world. The church cannot claim to be the exclusive children of God any longer. Those who do not wish to be part of a church – the Unchurched – can rest assured that they do not need to follow a set of traditions to be God’s children.

Romans 1-4: Life Before Jesus the Messiah

Romans 1-4 provides the opening summation of all Paul attempts to tell the Roman Christians. He gives the summarized version of his entire message in one- or two-verse nutshells spread over all four chapters.

1:16-17 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

2:6, 13 – He will render to each one according to his works. … For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

2:28-29 - For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

3:21-24 - But now the righteousness of God has been made manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is not distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ….

4:13-15 - For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

I will make my way through each part of these four chapters in the next few weeks.

Friday, August 24, 2012

N. T. Wright and Romans for the 21st Century

This week I have been listening to the “Romans in a Week” lecture series by N.T. Wright that my father-in-law gave me a few months ago. Needless to say, I bumped it up to the front of my queue (past 955 tracks, 330 hours of music podcasts and lectures – I know, I’m a hoarder). Listening through it I find myself both sad and excited.

Why must you spoil my fun, N.T. Wright?

I am sad because I thought (though am embarrassed to admit) I had come up with something new or, to say it better, realized something lost: Romans is written not as a systematic theology but to make peace between two groups, the Jews and Gentiles who are fighting over who are the true children of God.


Almost everything I have been teaching in the Romans class on Sundays was taught in a better style and with more scholarship and depth – he even reads the Greek from memory – by Wright in this series.


Tim Spivey this week wrote a post “Theological Cartography Syndrome” meaning the inability to think critically about our favorite theologian(s). That worried me. Am I following Wright without critique? At this point I realized I did not come to these conclusions because I read or listened to N.T. Wright. I came to these conclusions before I listened to these lectures. Huzzah! I agree with Wright because we read and teach Romans the same way – as ancient history. It has a cultural context which must be addressed before we attempt to make sense of the text. This is what I (woefully) have tried to do in my posts so far – describe the history and mindset of the Jews and Gentiles in Rome reading Paul’s letter for the first time.

My Task: Romans Applied for the 21st Century

Where my work differs from N.T. Wright (at least in this series) is that  I want to go beyond mere exegesis and look at a new way to apply Romans today. I wish to compare the 1st Century to the 21st Century. I see many parallels between the Jews then and Churched Christians now which Wright may not agree with. This task is fraught with peril, for I realize there are not one-to-one equal comparatives between these two groups and it is uncomfortable to place yourself in the cross hairs of Paul’s rhetorical arguments; however, the similarities are too great to dismiss. What I wright will be similar to Wright’s findings. But know that these things come from me, not from a devotion to N. T. Wright.

This is why I have entitled the study Romans for the 21st Century. Just as Paul radically challenged the Jews and Gentiles of the 1st Century to live united together in Rome I want to challenge those who wish to obey God inside and outside of a church in the 21st Century to live united together wherever we live. ('united together' was intentional)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Letter to the Romans: Summarized #Romfor21stC

Romans can be summarized into four sections:

1. Romans 1-4: Life Before Jesus the Messiah

2. Romans 5-8: Life In Jesus the Messiah

3. Romans 9-11: Life Unified in Jesus the Messiah

4. Romans 12-16: Life Together in Jesus the Messiah


I feel these four parts build the entire message Paul wishes to give: the true children of God are not defined by their membership of a tribe, group or church. They are known by their actions.

1. Life Before Jesus the Messiah

Because the Gentiles suppressed the knowledge of God and became unrighteous, God chose Abraham’s descendants (the Jews) and gave them the Law of Moses to train them to become his ambassadors. They boasted in their election and disregarded the Law instead. So Jesus came to fulfill the Law and bring all the peoples of the world together in one election. Having not understood their first calling, the Jews misunderstood their second calling – requiring the Jewish rite of election and the Law of Moses for the Gentiles. Paul must remind them that the Law is no longer valid – though still upheld – and their election is no longer exclusive – though still relevant.

2. Life In Jesus the Messiah

The Law of Moses, though given by God, had a weakness. No one could obey it perfectly. Because the father of all, Adam, sinned all suffer the consequences – death – which comes as a result of sin. The Law of Moses, once intended to be the Jews’ guide for righteousness, became chains to the cycle of sin and sacrifice. Jesus took away this weakness by both perfectly following the Law’s requirements and becoming the sacrifice which took away our chains. He became a new Adam and all can enjoy the consequences – freedom – not to sin but to live as adopted children with grace covering our sins. This freedom cannot be taken away from us no matter what!

3. Life Unified in Jesus the Messiah

God (and Paul) still longs for the time that Israel returns to its first love. God invested so much in them that he does not wish for them to stay estranged. God’s election extends to Gentiles; however, if they fall into the same mindset as the Jews He would remove them and reinstate the Jews. God called the Gentiles with an ulterior motive – to cause jealousy within in the Jews so they would return. Then God would have his true Israel – a nation of Jews and Gentiles reconciling the world to God. What a God!

4. Life Together in Jesus the Messiah

Both the Gentiles and the Jews have a role in God’s kingdom – so bring out the best in each other. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be responsible citizens. Be tolerant of other believers and correct their misconceptions in love. Stay away from those who want to become one-trick ponies. Remember that God’s kingdom is not physical only. Let God’s service be your purpose in life. Then all will rejoice in God once and for all – no more as outsiders and insiders but as God’s children! May we all work together to accomplish that goal!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Defining 'Gentile' in the 21st Century #Romfor21stC

One of the most frequent questions I get from people when discussing Romans for the 21st Century is the question, “Who are the Gentiles of today?” This question is very difficult to answer, if it is answerable at all. The reason is multi-faceted as you will see.

The Jew-Gentile construct was of Jewish origin.

Used countless times in the Bible, the term ‘Gentile’ simply means, “a person who is not Jewish.” In essence, it means “not one of us.” If someone were to ask a Roman if they were a Gentile they would probably look quizzical and wonder what was wrong with you. ‘Gentile’ was “insider-language,” a word that only had meaning within Jewish culture. Paul would write to people very familiar with Jewish culture and therefore would make sense. But to talk about Gentiles today would be the same as asking, “Who are the people who are not one of us?”

The idea of the ‘other’ is not accepted today.

One of the most important aspects of learning to live and work cross-culturally is the understanding that no one is the ‘other,’ especially those around you. It is this barrier which prevents contact, sharing and relationships and foments ill-will, hatred and even violence. Churches unwittingly do this when discussing ‘Christians’ vs. ‘the world.’ Within Christian context that makes sense, the ‘world’ representing everything that does not help us love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. However, to everyone that is not part of your church it sounds like you are equating them with Satan. No one who tries to be a good person thinks they are Satan and they would resent anyone who would put them in the same category. So attempting to find who are the Gentiles today would insult those who might be labeled 'Gentile.'

The categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ are irrelevant to salvation and righteousness.

Paul’s major idea is the true children of God are not defined by their membership of a tribe, group or church. They are known by their actions. So to attempt to revive the debate is to misunderstand the reason Paul wrote to the Romans in the first place. Paul wants both sides to stop arguing over who are God’s children and help each other obey God through faith in Jesus.

Best possible answer:

Because this concept is essential to understanding the book of Romans in the 21st Century, I will use the terms, ‘Churched’ and ‘Unchurched.’ These are words which are more closely associated with what I am attempting to show through these posts and do not have an air of “holy” vs. “profane” which plagues ‘Christians’ vs. ‘the World.’ ‘Churched’ will mean those who consider themselves as part of a church – whether a denominational or non-denominational church. If you meet on Sundays (or are part of a church that meets on Sunday) you are churched. ‘Unchurched’ will stand for those who do not consider themselves as part of a church – which they call ‘organized religion.’ Any further attempt to define this group is an minefield and becomes a tedious exercise in hairsplitting.
Romans 1-3 – starting Monday! Summary of Romans Wednesday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Romans Requires More than One Verse #Romfor21stC

One of the challenges in reading Romans is the complex nature of Paul’s writing. Since he discusses complex issues of identify he is very thorough and takes a lot of space to delineate his points. This letter is not the only time he discusses the matter of Jew vs. Gentile. Galatians mentions the Jews and the Law of Moses specifically. 1 Corinthians and Colossians mentions judging others – possible allusions to the Jews as well. As “an apostle to the Gentiles“ (11:13) he is on the front lines in the Jew vs. Gentile battle of the time.

This complexity challenges the verse-by-verse nature of Christianity today. Think about it. When was the last time someone asked you, “What is your favorite paragraph in the Bible?” When ministers read long sections of scripture, they must first apologize or excuse themselves. In fact, when was the last time you listened to an entire sermon where only one, large section scripture was discussed? Verses are short, easy to memorize and fit easily on motivational posters.

Romans: doesn't fit on a motivational poster.

A few years ago I decided not to read anything smaller than a paragraph in a lesson. I also decided, with a few exceptions, to speak from only one section of scripture. By focusing on one section I now go deeper into the Word of God. Romans exemplifies the benefits of focused reading, reading more prevents being bogged down in the details. In other words: the meaning of Romans is in the letter – if you read enough of it.

Paul states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). This verse may be the most quoted verses without any context ever given. Paul writes this as one part of a much larger discussion acclimating the Jews and Gentiles to the understanding that the true children of God are not defined by their membership of a tribe, group or church. They are known by their actions. Both groups had unrighteous and righteous members. Because of Abraham (and the disobedience of the Gentiles) God chose the Jews to be His ambassadors to the world. They failed due to their own disobedience and inability to keep God’s law. God then called the Gentiles to join his ambassadors to the world. However, the Jews still had a special place in God’s heart and He longed for them to all choose to follow Him again. This is why God tells Israel,

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. Deuteronomy 7:9-10

When Christians, especially theologians, read Romans in short, choppy sections and dissect the minute details in each verse they miss the message Paul gives.

Friday I will look into one place where this is a glaring problem: who are the Gentiles today?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Preaching and Teaching in the Time of Facebook - A Heartfelt Apology and Overdue Results from a Survey

In the Spring of 2011 I took a course entitled Church in the Age of Facebook where we completed a project in a certain area of study. I chose church education and using online content to supplement/replace local, spoken content. With the help of others, especially a good friend Carrie DuShey, I put together a nice survey. I let my Facebook friends know about it. I got 12 responses. In somewhat desperation I emailed several Christian bloggers and asked if they would place a link on their blogs for their readers. Scot McKnight, editor of Jesus Creed, one of my favorite blogs that often links to other great content, was the only one to take me up on the offer. This generated over 300 clicks and 200 completed surveys – enough to justify the entire project and I got an A for the class. He hoped I would share with him the results.

But I didn't.

To be honest, that time in our lives was so hectic I mostly forgot about the survey and what he did for me. I finished a quarter of school on a Saturday and we moved to Northern California the next day. We looked for jobs for a few months and have been working since September. We have been scraping by and I have not had the time/money to finish the final four courses to complete my degree.

And I have forgotten Fuller.

It seems like a distant, foreign memory. Like some kind of phase in my life which is over. It both saddens and scares me. Sad because I want to take what I learned and go forward. Scared because I spent so much time and effort and yet it escaped so quickly.

However, that is not an excuse.

I dropped the ball. I'm sorry, Scot. You went to bat for me and I let you down.

So, 14 months later I wish to rectify my wrong by sharing the outcome of my survey.

The unedited survey results. It is long and somewhat tedious.

The full project paper. It is also long and somewhat tedious. However, it also includes my discussion of trends found in secular education and connects the two.

I'll split what I learned into two headings: Things I Already Knew and Things that Surprised Me.

Things I Already Knew

Most of the people who took the survey came from Jesus Creed and so the results about reading blogs were expected – 80% visit daily or more. 3/4ths of McKnight’s readers are male and also very educated – 57% have post-graduate degrees.

Half attend some type of in-person sermon or lecture weekly.

More people felt websites and podcasts they read/listen to helped them learn more about God, the Bible and how they fit into this world. I should put this in a pseudo-category “Things I figured but didn’t know.” I control what websites and podcasts I frequent. I can’t change the minister’s sermon.

Things that Surprised Me

When asked if in-person lessons help give purpose to their life less people “agreed” than “strongly agreed.”

Denominational affiliation was at the bottom of both lists of important aspects of both in-person and electronic messages. “Challenges me to think” came in first both times. This could be because Scot’s blog is inter-denominational or could be a shift in the Christian-cultural landscape. I hope for the latter, but that is more of an opinion than fact.

People seek in-person sermons to connect to others. They seek electronic lessons to learn from broader perspectives.

Most people considered their blog’s audience to be friends and family. But they wanted their audience to be challenged in their thinking and connect to their views while being exposed to different views. I’m not sure why this was surprising, but it was.


If you are a minister – think of your sermons and classes more as a place to connect people to each other since blogs often cannot do this, being removed from the reader’s life. Encourage the learning of facts to be done outside of class.

Encourage your members to seek out helpful materials to bring to class. Your role is more like an editor on Wikipedia instead of the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica – an expert curator instead of an authoritative gatekeeper. Help understand what is going on outside instead of preventing it from ever getting in.

If you are not a minister – don’t be afraid to go outside your group to learn. And don’t be afraid to bring what you read and learn back to your group.

My only fear is that due to the single-blog source of traffic that this does not give an accurate view of churches today. If only the minister reads blogs and listens to podcasts then the minister must connect the member to the both Word of God and each other. However, I think if Christian ministers were to start openly asking members to contribute by bringing in posts it might start a snowball effect.

Many thanks goes out to Scot McKnight and his readers for helping me out in this project. I could not have done it without you. And Carrie – I’m sorry we haven’t kept in better contact.

What do you think? Leave a comment here or on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Identity Crisis: A Harsh Reality for Christians

On Monday I began this project on the Letter to the Romans by giving what I believe is the crux of the entire letter: a church caught in a crisis of identifying who are true children of God. What I wish to do today is share a difficult but important point for Christians today.

Christians - or more specifically "church-goers," as the Jews of the 1st Century, have lost their way as Jesus' ambassadors to the world.

“I love your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” (Gandhi, 1925). Jesus is seen as a master teacher by most of the world. They love Jesus and wish to emulate him. Ask anyone that is not a skeptic or an ardent atheist and they will have a positive view of Jesus. Their view of Christians is not so favorable.

To a certain degree, they are correct. Many Christians who claim to follow Jesus are often ignorant of the Bible and lax in their morality. The phrases “I’m a Christian” and “go to church” often become social statements instead of deep reflections of who we are and what we are. Christianity often becomes less of a spiritual religion and more of a feel-good, shallow philosophy of life or a weak deterrent of bad behavior. The major reason behind this, in my opinion, is the institutionalization of Christianity. In other words, church is the problem.

Jesus is seen as contemporary, interesting and relevant. The church is old-fashioned, boring and stuck in the past. Jeff Bethke wrote a poem entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Listen to his resuscitation of his poem:

Before criticizing his stance on the church, think about what fuels this response. Is this an attempt to defend Jesus or your institution? At first, I thought he was too generalized, too focused on “liberal” ideals, too accommodating of sin. Then I realized this was my institutional baggage, not Jesus' words. Paul wrote in Romans (to the Jews): “… You have no excuse …. For in passing judgment on another you [the Jews] condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (2:1). I thought of the people I grew up with who still consider themselves ‘Christian’ but look exactly like those who don’t. I thought of the people I worship with who look more like non-believers than believers. Then I looked into my own heart to see whether I was a true disciple.

Christians often like to overlook the “bad seeds” – those who no longer come or those whose only act of following Jesus is their physical appearance at a building. We act as though they don’t exist when someone looks at our congregation. That’s not fair. We cannot treat the church as “a museum for good people” and dismiss members who don’t fit this high calling with the institutional phrase “we can’t make them leave, they’re struggling.”

When Christians wake up to realize we have grown more accustomed to being part of an institution instead of being disciples of Jesus is when our true identity can emerge. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Crux of Romans: the Identity Crisis of Jews vs. Gentile (#Romfor21stC)

The discussion of Romans often begins in the wrong place – at least not in the most important area to help understand the text. In this, the first foray into Romans, I wish to rectify that by diving into the question, “Why did Paul write this letter anyway?”

Understanding Judaism is essential for understanding Romans. In the USA we distinguish between religion and race. Jewish culture, expecially in the first century, does not differenciate race and religion. They would not understand the idea of “Roman Jews” or an “Asian-Jew.” They considered themselves Jews only regardless of where they lived or their mixed racial composition. Abraham as their father identified them as the Children of God and the Torah (the Law of Moses) provided a common tradition. Everyone obeyed God in the same physical way - circumcision, the holy days and sacrifical ritiuals. Gentiles were considered uncultured heathens who were in no way similar to Jews. When Jesus proclaimed that the righteous live at a higher level than doing only the physical actions commanded in the Torah and that he was greater than Abraham the Pharisees forced the Romans to crucify Jesus. He threatened what held their entire culture together.


Possibly because of their prejudice, the apostles taught the Gospel exclusively within their Jewish “race” for up to 10 years. Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10-11 caused a great stir by challenging the apostles’ concept of “the children of God.” Jews were forced to concede that their ancestry alone no longer gave them exclusive claim to being God’s chosen people. Many Jews thought circumcision, the identifying marker of a Jewish man, was identified a disciple of Jesus. Paul and others fought against this at the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 because it would also require the Gentiles to obey the entire Torah and would diminish Jesus’ message (Gal. 5:1-15). If you accepted one part of the Torah, you must accept the entire Torah.

The Church in Rome

The church in Rome consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. Around ad 49 the Jews were expelled from Rome (Acts 18:2). Approximately five years later they were allowed to reenter the city and found a church no longer centered around the Torah – causing a great rift. Paul writes the letter we call Romans hoping to redefine their identity as disciples of Jesus the Messiah.

Why this is important to understanding Romans

Stating that the overarching theme of Romans is “faith vs. works” glosses over this essential component of the letter. Paul is not giving a theological or theoretical treaties on the role of faith and works in salvation. He is helping a church caught in a crisis of identifying who are true children of God. Paul writes to the Jews to show them God’s kingdom now includes Gentiles who do not follow the Torah. He writes to the Gentiles to show them God still has a heart for the Jews and a place for the Torah. It is a great message of unity through mutual respect - a theme which has an important application to today's world.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Random Thought on Preaching - Preach the Gospel of Jesus

A random thought before diving into Romans.

Jessica and I visited a congregation near Nashville, Tennessee – which shall remain nameless. That particular Sunday was the preacher’s first there. Because of that he decided to start a series of lessons on the book of … Romans!

“A lesson on Romans! How wonderful!” I thought.

“Oh, great, Graham’s going to get more fodder for his Romans obsession,” my wife thought.

One of us turned out to be correct.

As a Romans-aholic, I know the basic idea of the letter. So I had my mental notes ready for him to use as he needed. Apparently he could not see them. His sermon consisted of 10 minutes of vague facts about the letter and then 15 minutes recounting how other major, historical theologians have misinterpreted the book. The three I remember were Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin. If I had never read the book of Romans before I would have left that sermon knowing more about how other people misunderstand the book than I would have understood what Paul wrote in the first place. To quote David Lipe, a retired professor from FHU, and James 3:10 (in the KJV), “These things ought not so to be!”

Got it?
Me, when you preach this way.

I understand the idea behind this type of preaching. You don’t want people coming away from the sermon with the wrong idea. You want to prevent people from going down the wrong interpretation path. When I knocked doors for a summer in the northeast USA I had this on the mind. I began almost all conversations by finding out where they went to church and start into the talking points against that particular denomination. Then I had a revelation:

If I am a Gospel preacher, I should probably preach the Gospel of Jesus not the how-others-have-gotten-it-wrong Gospel of Jesus.

This brings me to an important question for Christians, especially ones in the Restoration Movement:

At what point do we stop preaching against “false doctrine” and teach what we are trying to restore? 

If you were to ask 90% of members of almost any denomination (and the Churches of Christ as well) to give their views on a theological topic they would either look at you blankly, make up something that sounds correct or tell you to see their pastor/preacher. They don’t know the teachings of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or any other famous theologian. They probably have never read the doctrinal statement of their church (have you read your church’s charter?).

Knocking doors I became frustrated that I had to teach several people what their church taught before I could tell them why it was wrong. Does that sound dumb or what? No wonder I had little to no success. I wouldn't want to go to a church whose first act was to tell me what was wrong with the group I consider myself part of.

Preachers, teach what Jesus taught, not what is wrong with everyone else’s teachings. Then we will all understand the Bible.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Identity Crisis: Romans for the 21st Century (#Rfor21stC)

Paul writing the letter to the Church in Rome. In my mind, Paul is always writing Romans.

The Letter from Paul to the Church in Rome, also called the Epistle to the Romans, has been my biblical residence for the past three years. I fell in love with the letter studying at Fuller and moved in completely when we relocated to Petaluma. Almost every theological discussion I have eventually includes this amazing book. I currently teach a series on Sunday nights in the book. After about 9 months of study We are only to chapter 9. What can I say - I love this book.

I decided to share here on this blog how God has challenged me through this book. This is to help me get back into writing and share what I believe are great challenges to traditional views of righteousness, salvation, the church and the role each plays in life. These challenges are much deeper than the usual “faith vs. works” dribble I read and hear. The letter to the Romans is deeper and richer than that simple duality. This richness and depth is what I want to share with you in the next few months.

Almost everything I write will come from my personal readings of the letter. Although I am not against using commentaries or scholarly books, I enjoy reading the scripture by itself more. Also, I feel most commentaries and sermons have unnecessary doctrinal agendas or biases when coming to the text. When all you discuss is “faith vs. works,” everything in scripture looks like a “faith vs. works” argument. They also tend to focus so much energy on harmonizing the other letters of Paul that they detract from the profound message Paul is conveying in this letter. Although everything Paul has written is harmonious, he did not expect them to hold up the letter to the Thessalonians and state, “Why yes, Dorcus, this is similar to what he wrote to the Thessalonians.” So I do not plan to, either.

Here’s how I hope to present Romans:

Each post will be around 500 words. This is not because I doubt my reader’s intellect or their ability to concentrate. It is because I don’t like reading 2000-3000-word posts. I get bored easily. Each post will center on a section of each chapter but will not follow a strict verse-for-verse commentary method. I may (and will) write more than one post on a certain section. I will reference different parts of the book as I go, reminding of what came before more often than foreshadowing what is to come. I hope to write and post two a week, maybe Mondays and Wednesdays. If someone asks an interesting question or I get side-tracked (this blog is called Random Thoughts from Graham after all) I’ll post something on a Friday. However, as Papa from The Shack says, “Nothing is a ritual.” Prepare for changes.

I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts and I look forward to being challenged along with you as we dive into the deep, rich pool that is the Letter to the Romans – starting Monday.