Thursday, September 4, 2014

Nero vs. Paul


Nero's "Golden House" or Domus Aurea has been in the news recently (see here). Apparently it is in pretty bad shape and they are working to restore it. But don't hold your breath ... It isn't expected to reopen until 2018. In the meantime, we can talk about how Nero relates to New Testament history.

Nero ruled the Roman empire from 54 to 68 A.D. If you recall, Nero is the Roman emperor who burned part of Rome in 64 A.D., but he blamed the Christians for starting the fire. Consequently, he executed Christians publicly in various ways: crucifixion, feeding them to wild animals, and burning them. During his reign, he also murdered his mother and his first couple of wives, and he demanded to be worshiped as a god. Nice guy. And that Golden House we just talked about? That was built after the fire happened and it was built over part of the area that was burned. So his desire for a grand palace complex may have been his reason for starting the fire in the first place.

But the most amazing thing about Nero is that he is mentioned in the New Testament (although not by name). Nero was the ruler when Paul appealed to Caesar at one of his trials (Acts 25:11), and when he arrived at Rome Paul had an effective ministry among the household of Nero (Phil. 4:22) and among the imperial guard (Phil. 1:12-13). Nero was also on the throne when Paul encouraged believers to "submit to governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1-7) and Peter told believers to be subject to and to honor the emperor (1 Pet. 2:13-17). If Peter and Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could tell believers to submit to Nero's pagan government, then certainly Christians in the United States today need to submit to our government.  Things may be bad in our country today, but they are not nearly as bad as the early Christians had it under Nero.

This morning, I ran across an almost poetic passage about Paul and Nero in my Logos electronic library. So as a concluding thought, picture this:

This first imprisonment came at length to a close, Paul having been acquitted, probably because no witnesses appeared against him. Once more he set out on his missionary labours, probably visiting western and eastern Europe and Asia Minor. During this period of freedom he wrote his First Epistle to Timothy and his Epistle to Titus. The year of his release was signalized by the burning of Rome, which Nero saw fit to attribute to the Christians. A fierce persecution now broke out against the Christians. Paul was siezed, and once more conveyed to Rome a prisoner. During this imprisonment he probably wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy, the last he ever wrote. "There can be little doubt that he appeared again at Nero’s bar, and this time the charge did not break down. In all history there is not a more startling illustration of the irony of human life than this scene of Paul at the bar of Nero. On the judgment-seat, clad in the imperial purple, sat a man who, in a bad world, had attained the eminence of being the very worst and meanest being in it, a man stained with every crime, a man whose whole being was so steeped in every nameable and unnameable vice, that body and soul of him were, as some one said at the time, nothing but a compound of mud and blood; and in the prisoner’s dock stood the best man the world possessed, his hair whitened with labours for the good of men and the glory of God. The trial ended: Paul was condemned, and delivered over to the executioner. He was led out of the city, with a crowd of the lowest rabble at his heels. The fatal spot was reached; he knelt beside the block; the headsman’s axe gleamed in the sun and fell; and the head of the apostle of the world rolled down in the dust" (probably A.D. 66), four years before the fall of Jerusalem.

May we, like Paul, be faithful to the end, no matter what that end may be.



Excerpt from "Paul" in Easton’s Bible Dictionary, by M. G. Easton (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).
Photos courtesy of Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com. Pictorial Library of the Holy Lands, vol. 15.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong


I'm the type of guy who normally just toughs it out, but today I was reminded of my own weakness.

I got sick after church today. I wasn't feeling great this morning after wearing myself out yesterday cleaning, vacuuming, and washing our carpets until about midnight, and then I didn't eat much of a breakfast. So it wasn't too surprising when I started getting a headache after church. That headache turned into a migraine at the restaurant where my family went for lunch and I had to excuse myself to go curl up into a fetal position in our van. I'll spare you the gory details of what happened next, but let's just say that I was in no shape to drive myself home (nor were my clothes very clean anymore). :-\

Fortunately, God has blessed me with a wonderful wife who is living out her vow to love me "in sickness and in health." She took care of the kids, paid the bill at the restaurant, helped clean me up, held my arm as I hobbled around, and drove me home. As I was sitting in the passenger's seat with my head in my hands and my eyes closed, this verse came to mind: "When I am weak, then I am strong." I had no strength on my own at that moment to operate a vehicle ... no strength to get myself home and get to bed where I belonged ... and yet there I was, cruising down the interstate and on my home. Why? Because in my weakness God provided His strength.

In the passage leading up to that verse, Paul says this:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (1 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV)

I don't know what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was, nor do I know exactly how God provided for Paul in spite of that weakness. But the principle in that verse is that God provides for us in our weakness. He brings glory to Himself by putting His sons and daughters into situations where they must rely on His strength ... and then He comes through for them.

Today God's strength was made perfect in my weakness when my wife loved me, stood by me, and took care of me when I was sick and filthy and weak. I was carried on eagle's wings (Exod. 19:4; Isa. 40:31) when I had no strength of my own. (OK, maybe it wasn't actually eagle's wings, but "Toyota minivan" doesn't have the same ring to it.) Sometimes our "thorns in the flesh" can make us so weak that we can't do anything for ourselves. It is those times when God carries us like a good shepherd carrying his sheep.

Even in less extreme circumstances, God provides His strength when He puts us in situations where we can't change things on our own. When we find ourselves there, we just need to pray and trust. We serve a merciful and compassionate God who loves us in practical ways. Frequently in the Bible, we see God placing His people in impossible circumstances, just so He can come through for them in marvelous ways.

When I am weak, then I am strong.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Rainy Day Turned Upsidedown


Is a rainy day a good thing or a bad thing?

In my culture, a "rainy day" has a negative connotation. It starts when you're a kid and a rainy day means that you can't play outside. Then when you get older, you're taught to save money for a "rainy day," which means to save up for when times get bad and money is tight. And in general a rainy day tends puts everyone in a sleepy and somewhat depressed mood.

It is within this context that people in my culture open our Bibles and find Jesus saying this in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48, ESV)

At first glance, it may look like Jesus is saying that God sends good things (the "sun") and bad things (the "rain") to both good people and evil people. But that doesn't fit with the rest of the passage. Jesus is telling us to love our enemies, just like God loves His enemies. The point of the passage is to do good to everyone. So what's going on here?

It is here that a little context into Jesus' culture is helpful. The Jewish culture of Jesus' day viewed rain as a good thing. It was considered a blessing. As I've previously noted on this blog, the land of Israel was a land that required rain in order for anything to grow. This is spelled out in Leviticus 26 where the people are promised the "rains in their seasons" if they are obedient (Lev. 26:3-4), and the withholding of rain if they are disobedient (Lev. 26:18-20). This directly impacted how well their crops did in any given year.

So when Jesus says, "he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust," he is giving us two examples of the grace of God, not just one. To the people sitting at Jesus' feet as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, the word "rain" would immediately be associated with a blessing. A "rainy day" for them was a cause for celebration, not for moping around the house because you couldn't play outside. And "saving for a rainy day" wouldn't make any sense to them because a "rainy day" meant that you were going to have more wealth that year, not less.

From this we see that it is important to read the Bible in the context of the culture in which it was written. In many ways, our culture and the biblical culture will share the same values, but occasionally the biblical culture will have a completely different take on something than we do in our culture. In this instance, the concept of a "rainy day" is turned on its head.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review of "Rose Then & Now Bible Map Atlas"


If you are looking for a good introductory book to historical geography, allow me to make a recommendation: Rose Then and Now Bible Map Atlas with Biblical Background and Culture. A while back the team over at Logos Bible Software asked if I would be interested in reviewing the Rose Then and Now Bible Map Atlas, and after I agreed they gave me a free copy. It has been a pleasure to spend some time in this helpful resource.

First, a note about the author: Paul H. Wright has taught at Jerusalem University College in Jerusalem, Israel for many years. In fact, I sat under Dr. Wright in the fall semester of 2001 when I was a student at JUC. (I even recognized some of my fellow classmates in one of the pictures in the book!) He has led countless tours across the Holy Land and his depth of knowledge and his vast experience is evident in this work.

Although the title of the book contains the word "atlas," don't be fooled. The heart of the book is the historical and cultural insights that Dr. Wright provides. The book is an atlas in that it contains many helpful maps showing the movement of various biblical characters across the geography of the ancient Near East. However, the real value of the book is in the text that Dr. Wright has written. After an introductory chapter where he provides an overview of the geography of the region, he then proceeds, chapter by chapter, to walk through the biblical narrative. Starting with Abraham and the other patriarchs, he works through the various periods of biblical history ... Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, Elijah, Ezra ... all the way down to the apostle John writing at the end of the 1st century AD. Throughout the work, the maps, photographs, and drawings serve to illustrate and enhance the information provided. If I could take the liberty of renaming the book, I would call it Rose Biblical Background and Culture with Then and Now Bible Maps, placing the biblical backgrounds aspects at the top of the list.

The book gets its name, "Then and Now," from some overlay maps which show you the borders of the modern nations on top of the ancient names of the various regions and cities. In the physical version of the book, the modern borders are printed in red on clear plastic pages that can be lifted off the page with the map page sitting underneath (see the image above to get the idea). This unique feature of the atlas is actually one of the weaknesses of the electronic copy of the book. In the Logos version, there are two separate images for every map that contains the overlay: one map is plain and just shows the ancient names, and the other map shows the ancient names plus the modern borders and modern names in red. Within the e-book the plain map precedes the map with the borders, so you get the idea but it looses some of the impact of the physical version.

However, the publishers of the Logos version provided a workaround to this weakness. Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know, but this method helps restore the visual impact of the original version. By using the "Send to PowerPoint" feature within Logos Software, you can easily send both images to the same PowerPoint file and then toggle back and forth from one slide to the other to see the map either with or without the modern borders. To do this you simply right click on the map you want and click on "Send to PowerPoint":


Then repeat that step for the corresponding map with the modern borders. The Logos Software launches your PowerPoint software for you and inserts those images. Then you can just go back and forth between those two slides:



As a side note, this is a huge benefit of purchasing the electronic version versus buying the physical copy. If you are a teacher or a preacher, the ability to send a map to a PowerPoint deck with the click of a mouse is a big time saver.

So overall, I think this is a great resource, however it has some downsides as well. First of all, the chronological tables provided in the Introduction have an "early date" for the Exodus and Conquest (15th century BC) while Dr. Wright's comments in chapters 3 and 4 suggest a "late date" (13th century BC). Personally, I hold to an "early date" for the Exodus based on the clear testimony of 1 Kings 6:1 and the inherent difficulties of fitting the entire period of the Judges into such a short time span if you locate Joshua in the 13th century and Saul in the 11th century. Dr. Wright's position makes the book less convenient for me to use if I was to assign it as a textbook for my students. However, most of the insights that he provides in this work are not directly related to a particular date of the Exodus.

Another criticism of the book is that the story line moves too quickly from one thing to the next. Dr. Wright has some great insights into how the geography of the region affected the history of the region, but it seems he did not have enough space to flesh out those insights fully. Often these geographical insights are mentioned almost in passing. Because of this, the Rose Then & Now Atlas would be a great tool as a supplemental text in a course that covers the historical geography of bible lands. Alternatively, it would serve as a great way to review what you have learned after spending time in Israel on a study tour. But I wonder how much of the information in the book will be absorbed by someone who has never been to the land of the Bible. I'm sure the book will be helpful to anyone who has a basic grasp of biblical geography, but I think it will be especially helpful for people who have been to the biblical lands or who at least have a strong grasp of biblical geography.

However, again I want to emphasize that this is a helpful resource. Dr. Wright should be commended for the work that he put into this, and I am grateful that he took the time to write down many of the insights he has gleaned from living in and teaching students about the land of the Bible for so many years. Here is a list of many of the great features you will find in the Rose Then & Now Bible Map Atlas:

  • An informative book that tells the biblical story while providing the cultural and geographical background of the text.
  • Lots of images throughout the book that provide you with a taste of the biblical culture.
  • Image captions that add information, and don't just repeat what is found in the text.
  • Informative, simple maps that correspond to the story line discussed in the text.
  • An easy-to-read, conversational style of writing. This book is written for laypeople, not an elite scholarly community.
  • A wealth of information from someone who has lived and taught in Israel for years and years, and who believes the Bible and is a committed Christian.

The Rose Then & Now Bible Map Atlas is available here from Logos Bible Software. The price currently is about 25% less than the list price of the physical book, so you are saving quite a bit for buying the electronic version. If you don't currently use Logos Bible Software, you can download one of their free apps here for your smart phone, your tablet, your PC, or your Mac.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Grace of God in Everyday Life


This is my lawn. I live on an acre of land. It's great. We love all the space. God has truly blessed us here. But unfortunately I have a problem ... I have only a 22" push mower to keep my lawn trimmed. Yes, you read that correctly: a 22 inch(!) push(!!) mower with an acre of grass.

My lawn mower saga is long and complex and I don't have time to cover it here. The long and the short of it is that I currently have a 22" push mower with which to mow my lawn. (But thankfully that should be changing soon.) Most of the time I keep up with things pretty well, putting in a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there. But last week I was on a trip so my lawn hadn't been mowed since Memorial Day and it looked horrible. It was completely stressing me out and I was hoping to have a good chunk of time to devote to it tonight. I was going to get off work early, put in a few solid hours and make some great progress.

But then I couldn't leave work early. In fact I left later than expected. And then one of my daughters decided to take an hour and half to eat her dinner. And there were other pressures in the evening that I did not react well to and eventually I got completely frustrated and angry at the whole situation. I'm sorry to say that I was living proof tonight that "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:20).

After confessing my sin to the Lord and apologizing to my daughter, I felt a little more peace but was still discouraged at the situation. What was I going to do about this lawn? I should have trusted God, but mostly I just felt like it was all up to me. There was no way to finish it all tonight so I would just get as much done as I could. But I had forgotten that God sometimes puts us in impossible situations so that He can deliver us out of them in a powerful way. If you read the story of the Exodus, things got a whole lot worse before they got better. God did that on purpose so that His works would shine forth all the brighter. Little did I know that God was about to bless me tremendously.

I finally got to mowing and had been working at it for about 10 minutes when one of my neighbors drove across the street in his riding mower and said that he just couldn't watch me anymore and asked if he could help. I thanked him and said that would be great. So he started mowing the back yard while I continued to work on the front yard. 

The next thing I know, another neighbor whom I had never even met had driven his riding mower over and he joined the guy mowing the back yard! So now I had two riding mowers running in the back while I was pushing my ol' trusty 22" mower in the front. They worked for about an hour and a half, and together we got the entire property mowed. It was amazing.

I wish that this story put me in a better light. I wish that the story went: "I was up against this difficult situation, but I trusted God and He came through just like I knew he would." But unfortunately my faith was small tonight. Faith is something the Lord has been working on in my life. In fact it is something I have been praying for Him to help me with. Too often I am like Thomas, prone to doubt (John 20:24-29). And the truth is that I did not deserve God's help tonight. I was harsh with my family. I was frustrated and angry. 

But God give us grace and mercy each and every day (Lam. 3:22-23). And in His goodness, he blessed me tonight in spite of my sin. The truth is that He blesses me every day in spite of my sin. Some days it's just easier to see. Through His providence, He put me in a difficult situation tonight so that He could demonstrate His love for me in a tangible way.

To Him be the glory for the grace He gives us in our everyday life.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Broken Wall of the Sluggard


Proverbs 24:30-34 gives us the following piece of wisdom:

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
    by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
    the ground was covered with nettles,
    and its stone wall was broken down.
Then I saw and considered it;
    I looked and received instruction.
A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man.  (ESV)

I used to think that the stone wall referenced here was a stone fence around the farmer's field to protect his property, and that may be what the author had in mind when he penned these verses.  However, there is an alternative way to understand this verse.

In the hill country of Israel, farmers use what is referred to as "terraced farming."  Since the hills are steep, farmers in ancient times built stone retaining walls to create fields that they could cultivate and to prevent the soil from eroding away.  The importance of these retaining walls cannot be stressed enough: no wall, then no soil; no soil, then no crops.  As you can see in the photograph above, the stone retaining wall has started to collapse and it is only a matter of time before the soil erodes away through the gaping hole.  Maintaining these stone walls would have been of first importance to a farmer in this region.

So instead of referring to a free-standing stone wall constructed around a field to protect it, these verses may be referring to a retaining wall constructed as vital part of the field itself.  This only elevates the foolishness that is described.  It is one thing to leave you field unprotected from outside threats.  It is much worse to expose your field to severe erosion.  If you loose your crops one year due to thieves or animals, you can always plant again the next year.  But if you lose your entire field, then you are in dire straits.

There are many modern equivalents of this principle.  Are we being good manager of the resources that God has given us?  Are there basic things (such as balancing your checkbook or fixing that leak) that we are neglecting?  Don't be foolish, or "poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man."

Photo courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Did God Really Create the Universe in Six Days?


In my Old Testament Survey class this week we are studying the book of Genesis, so naturally the issue came up about how to properly interpret Genesis 1 and 2.  Does the Bible really teach that the earth and the rest of the universe was created only thousands of years ago within the span of six 24-hour days, or can the Bible be interpreted to match findings of modern science which indicate that the universe is much older?

Personally, I am convinced that the Bible clearly teaches that the earth and the universe are relatively young, and that all of creation was made and formed by God in six 24-hour days.  The topic can only be discussed briefly in a blog post, but the following are some of my thoughts on the topic based on a class syllabus that I developed for my church last year.
 
Did God Really Create the Universe in 6 Days?
Genesis 1 & 2


The creation narratives are some of the most controversial passages in the Old Testament, even among believers. Should they be taken at face value or can they be expanded to accommodate modern scientific theories? Is the earth relatively young or extremely old? There are godly, born-again Christians on both sides of this issue.

 
There are 3 main views held by Christians:

 
1) Scientific Creationism (Young Earth): God created the world and all its creatures through supernatural intervention in six, 24-hour days.  www.answersingenesis.org

2) Progressive Creationism (Old Earth): God created the world and all its creatures through supernatural intervention, but this intervention happened in stages spread over a long period of time.  www.reasons.org

3) Evolutionary Creationism (Old Earth): God created the world and all its creatures using macro-evolutionary processes over a long period of time.  www.biologos.org
 
Here are some of the arguments used on both sides of the issue:

OLD EARTH - Evidence for Interpreting Genesis 1 & 2 as Metaphorical and/or Poetic:
     a. The structure and flow of Genesis 1:1-2:3 has elements of poetry and differs from strictly narrative passages elsewhere in Genesis. This allows us to interpret this passage as poetry (including metaphors and other figures of speech) instead of as narrative.
     b. The word “day” in Hebrew (yom) can be used to refer to longer periods of time than a 24-hour period (cf. Gen. 2:4), similar to how “day” is used in English: “Only one more day until the weekend” vs. “Back in my day, we did things differently.”
     c. Genesis 1 & 2 were not intended to be scientific explanations about creation but to teach a theological truth that God is the Creator and that He alone should be worshiped.
     d. Scientific fact should influence our interpretation of Genesis 1 & 2 and other biblical texts. For example, the evidence of age (such as starlight) indicate that the universe is extremely old, so “day” in Genesis 1 & 2 cannot describe a literal week. Also, there are animals and insects which were created with aggressive, carnivorous characteristics and which need to kill other creatures to survive, therefore there must have been death on the earth before the first sin (cf. Rom. 5:12).


YOUNG EARTH - Evidence for Interpreting Genesis 1 & 2 as strictly literal, 24 hour days:
     a. The use of the phrase “evening and morning” in Genesis 1 indicates that “day” should be understood as referring to 24-hour periods.  The text itself is indicating that it is referring to a literal day.
     b. In Exodus 20:8-11, Moses uses God’s resting on the seventh day of creation as a reason why the Israelites should rest on the seventh day of every week. He makes no indication that the Creation Week was anything longer than a normal week.  In fact, he implies that the Creation Week was exactly as long as any other week.
     c. Jesus Himself taught that the world and mankind were created at approximately the same time. In Mark 10:6, Jesus indicates that Adam and Eve were created at the beginning of creation. In Luke 11:50-51, Jesus implies that Abel was murdered close to the time of the foundation of the world. [For more on this topic, see the helpful essay by Terry Mortenson, "Jesus' View of the Age of the Earth," published in Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), pp. 315-346.]
     d. Genesis 1 & 2 clearly indicate that the universe was created with the appearance of age.  God clearly did not create a baby Adam and a baby Eve ... they could walk, talk, work, and relate to one another.  The same principle holds true with the animal world, plant life, the sun, the stars, and the rest of creation.  If Adam and Eve were created with the appearance of age, then why couldn't starlight be created already in motion and already reaching the earth?
     e. Genesis 1 & 2 refer to a pre-fallen world (a world before man had sinned) and it was different than the world available for us to observe today. There was no death (Rom. 5:12) and even carnivorous creatures ate plants (Gen. 1:29-30). Thus, the modern world that scientists observe does not operate under all the same principles that were in place before the sin entered the picture.  Modern scientific observations about the animal kingdom (such the carnivorous nature of some animals) should not be allowed to trump a literal reading of the text.

 
In the end, it boils down to this question:

How much should science influence our interpretation of scripture?

Personally, I am content to let the scriptures guide my understanding of the world rather than let modern experts convince me to contradict a clear teaching found in scripture.  So I am convinced that Scientific Creationism has the best interpretation of scripture.

 
For further information on this topic, I encourage you to visit the resources posted at www.answersingenesis.org.  Photo courtesy of NASA Visible Earth.