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Truth For Now

This Week's Study

 

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THE BAKER OF CAPERNAUM,
a new novel, plays out in the time of Jesus. How does the baker
of the village perceive the young rabbi? Read more...

~~~~~~~~~~

Last updated: 2014-08-23

New studies are put on top. Scroll down for previous ones.

 

The Good Book

1. Standing the test of time

Electronic devices have invaded the terrain held by newspapers, periodicals, books and paper-mail. In spite of Internet convenience, many people still prefer to read a story in printed form, not on screen. I’m glad the book is standing its ground. It has come a long way.

Ancient civilizations started to record ideas on monuments, stones, baked clay-tablets and earthenware. These earliest forms of writing survived, providing data about the lifestyle of those bygone eras.

Then they discovered one can write more and faster on cured animal skins, stitched together to form a scroll. To protect the writing, only the inside of the scroll was used. Woven papyrus was later used to make sheets. Both sides could be used for writing when the sheets were stacked and stitched together at the back to form a codex or book. It expedited searching in a book, as it could be paged instead of rolled as was the case with the scroll. The book with pages dates back to the 4th century AD.

Prints made by signet rings and wooden blocks were produced centuries before Christ, but it was Johann Gutenberg who envisaged in the 15th century a method to change the printing block fast, enabling the printing of a whole book. Exact replicas of each letter of the alphabet were made and positioned on the printing block. Some Gutenberg Bibles still exist in museums.

About 70 years later, Martin Luther translated the Bible to German from the  “received text” of Erasmus, so that every believer in Germany could read the Bible. Other countries followed, Bible Societies dispersed translations, and today the whole Bible is available in over 400 languages.

From the time Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Bible until Gutenberg’s printing press appeared, 3000 years elapsed in which the bible was copied by hand. Despite the human susceptibility to make mistakes, God’s hand can be seen in the preservation of his word. Only minor variations exist between different text-traditions.

Today, we can read the Bible in the language we prefer – in book-format or on the Internet – and delve into the thoughts our Father has recorded for our benefit. Because God has known all facts and truth from eternity, he does not have to update his book repeatedly. What has to be reviewed is our understanding of the ground texts.

 There is so much truth embedded in the Bible that theologians cannot fathom it completely. Yet, the Bible is so simple that small children can understand enough to surrender themselves into the loving arms of Jesus. The Bible presents itself as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105, 2 Tim. 3:15-17).

 

Characters Jesus created

3. Triumphant Underdogs

Jesus caught his audiences’ attention with sharp contrasts: casting pearls before swine; having a splinter or plank in the eye; and asking for egg but receiving a scorpion instead. In most of his people-parables, he lined up extreme opposites.

His story about a helpless widow taking on a mighty judge illustrated the power of persevering prayer. Like an agile mongoose, dancing around a deadly cobra, gradually wearing it down – so this widow kept coming to the judge, pleading for justice. To get rid of this nuisance, the judge eventually complied. The weak prevailed. As God is not an unjust judge, he will soon respond favourably to our supplications.

When a sanctimonious Pharisee and a guilty tax-collector enter the temple to pray, everyone would think that the prayer of the law-abiding Pharisee would definitely have better results. His words are well-chosen, his good works are highlighted, and his attitude is full of self-confidence. He did not ask anything from God; he only recited his wonderful record. He did not pray.

The tax-collector had few words but the right attitude: have mercy on me, a sinner! Once again, the weak, the despised, the underdog walks away with the trophy. Jesus made his point quite clear: true prayer is defined by attitude, not words; by genuine repentance, not a haughty pose.

Reality is not always what it seems to be: the rich living lavishly in opulent houses, while the poor suffer hunger and disease not far away. Why would it be different in the after-life? Life is like that – unfair.

Jesus lifts the curtain, painting the reversed roles of the rich man and the beggar after they had died. Lazarus enjoys the company of Abraham and believers in Paradise while the rich man suffers in the flames of Hades. He has not yet accepted his diminished status, trying to give orders from hell: hey, you, beggar, bring me some water! Father Abraham, send the beggar to warn my brothers! He is helped out of his illusion: one cannot give orders from hell, nor can one be a soul-winner from hell. Time’s up.

Again, the weak wins in the end. It happened in Jesus’ life too, especially during his arrest and crucifixion. Members of the dignified Sanhedrin slapped him in the face and spat on him. The governor had him flogged. The soldiers mocked him. The mob at Calvary scoffed him while he hang on the cross.  A few of his followers watched helplessly. Joseph and Nicodemus buried him hastily just before sundown.

Then came the surprises of Easter morning. Friend and foe were stunned, running around in confusion. The weak has conquered once more, opening salvation for other underdogs.

 

2. About employers and employees

The characters Jesus depicted in a work situation are real life people, and yet they display peculiar and surprising behaviour. Jesus gave catching twists to his stories: they don’t develop as most would have expected.

The twin parables about minas and talents (Luke 19, Matt. 25), told only a few days apart, are similar yet slightly different, giving them unique applications.

In the mina story, the employer is a nobleman who leaves his estate to acquire kingship. He is stern yet generous: he entrusts one mina to each of 10 servants and expects them to multiply it. He rewards the successful ones, and punishes the lazy one, as well as those who opposed his kingship. Likewise, Jesus would go to heaven to receive his kingship, and return, holding his workers accountable.

The talent parable paints a man who is ready to travel to a far country. He gives 5 talents of gold to one servant, 2 to another, and 1 to the third, telling them to trade with it till he returns. Here, Jesus clearly says that each one received according to his ability, while in the mina story each received the same amount. We all receive one life but different gifts. The figurative meaning of “talent” became so well known that we don’t use it anymore to indicate weight; we use talent to indicate a special gift or ability.

Those who received one life impacted 10, 5, or zero other lives. Those who received different talents either developed their talents (natural gifts) or failed to do so because of fear – fear of failure. Regarding talents, the saying is true: you either use it or lose it. God wants us to use our one life and several talents to the benefit of him, others and ourselves. Doing nothing is a bad choice.

The parable about workers hired at different times of the day (Matt. 20) carries another message. Out of need and generosity, a farmer hired workers to work in his vineyard, starting at different hours of the day. He agreed to pay each worker one denarius. One gets the impression that he had pity on those workers who waited in vain for someone to hire them. At the end of the day, he generously pays each worker one denarius. Those who worked the whole day moaned about the injustice – after all, they did more work. The owner reminded them of their contract. They should be glad they did not stand idle on the market place with anxiety in their hearts, wondering how they would feed their families that evening.

Jesus’ character portrayal of employers and employees illuminates the finer nuances of work-place attitudes and conduct, even today.

 

1. Selfish sons and a serving volunteer

Jesus never lied, but he did make up stories to convey truth to his audience. He created vivid fictional characters that we speak of as if they really lived. Think of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan – they have lived in the minds of Christians for 20 centuries. Jesus’ stories are so realistic that we may assume they might have happened.

In the story of the Prodigal, there are 3 main characters (the father and 2 sons), and several background figures (the friends and hog-farmer in the far-off country, as well as the servants on the family farm).

The 3 main characters could not be more different from one another. Some think the father is the main figure, because he plays the role of God. However, he can hardly be the protagonist, because he only reacts to the other characters rather than planning actively to reach a goal. In this story, Jesus made the sinner the main character, because saving sinners was the main purpose of his incarnation. The hero turns out to be an anti-hero. His pitiful downward slide, appalling rock-bottom, tough decision, and joyful reunion with his father depict the profile of every sinner.

His first adversaries were the fair-weather friends who helped him to spend his inheritance pretty fast. The hog-farmer actually helped him to come to his senses by giving him a dirty job. When he returned home, he was welcomed by his father and the servants. Then his main foe stepped onto the stage: his embittered older brother, who depicted the Pharisees who did not like Jesus’ outreach to sinners. Although the older brother did not leave the farm, his attitude showed that he and his father had also drifted far apart. The father was patient with both sons and wanted them to come back home wholeheartedly. The father’s love, not the efforts of the sons, offers the solution to the problems in the story.

The story of the Good Samaritan contains several characters. The robbers believed: what is yours is mine; I take it. The victim experienced: what is mine, is yours; I lose it. The priest and Levite, on their way to the temple, did not want to defile themselves with a corpse, so they opted for: what is mine stays mine; I keep it. The Samaritan had compassion on the wounded man, nursed his wounds, and took him to an inn. His philosophy was: what is mine is yours; I donate it. The inn-keeper accepted the patient and looked after him, thus stating: what is mine is at your disposal; we share it.

These 6 characters displayed different approaches to life, to the needy, and to the opportunity to serve others.

 

FAMILY

3. The Church is a family

The Bible compares Christ and the church to husband and wife (Eph. 5). Their mutual love and respect sustain a long-lasting, fulfilling relationship. The book of Revelation looks forward to the wedding feast of Christ and his bride (Rev. 19). It is fitting that Jesus started his public ministry with a wedding, and that he told several parables about weddings.

One of the purposes of marriage is to have children. Peter says we have to desire like new-born babies the pure milk of God’s word so that we may grow (1 Pet 2:2). Paul urges us to proceed from milk to solid food in our spiritual lives (1 Cor. 3:2). If we read only the beautiful promises of God in his word, we feed on milk only. We have to struggle with the tough parts of the Bible as well to absorb solid food.

Jesus emphasized the importance of children, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). On another occasion he said that those who make children stumble, should be thrown into the sea with a heavy millstone tied to their necks (Mark 9:42).

Jesus healed two demon-possessed children and the son of a nobleman. He raised the daughter of Jairus and the son of a widow from the dead. He used the loaves and fish of a boy to feed 5000.

Psalm 68 praises God as the Father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, and the One who sets the lonely in a family. Psalm 103 affirms: As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father who is in heaven. “Our” points to a family, not only to me.

Jesus sent the demoniac Legion back to his family to tell them about the great things God had done for him. Paul led the jailor of Philippi, including his family, to Christ.

In the first century, Christians met in homes and became one family. They were brothers and sisters, participating in love-meals, showing unity by eating together.

Families as well as single people are welcome in the church family. By song, prayer, word, sacrament and fellowship they are bound together with each other and with God. As one bread is made of many grains of wheat, and one drink is made of many clusters of grapes, so many believers are united in the community of faith, bound together by their love for one Saviour. By sharing their good and bad times with church friends, they double their joy and diminish their pain.

 

2. Changing family patterns

In family life, one learns to interact with other people. Parents provide love, care, and encouragement to promote good behaviour, and they supply guidance, warning and discipline to curb bad behaviour. Children learn that choices have consequences. By their authority, parents help children to relate to the authority figures of society. Parents also influence the growth of self-esteem and gender-roles in their children.

Interaction with siblings gives children the opportunity to test their ideas, practice their values and roles, handle hierarchy, and participate in the give-and-receive process.

 There are no perfect families, but they don’t have to be dysfunctional. Differences of opinion help the family to solve disputes in a way that benefits both parties, instead of keep fighting for dominance. Even animals know when to quit, and so prevent injuries.

What children see in their parents, they will most likely repeat in their own lives, such as the way sex and anger are handled. King David committed adultery, and his son Amnon followed his example of loose sex by raping his half-sister Tamar. David planned Uriah’s death, and his son Absalom followed in his footsteps by murdering his half-brother Amnon. Absalom’s unbridled anger and rebellion made him end up an exiled murderer and an executed rebel.

However, children can decide to stop the cycle of immorality and violence that jumps from one generation to the next. King Hezekiah did not follow the wicked ways of his father Ahaz, but instead became one of the best kings of Judah. He initiated social and religious reforms that stopped Judah’s slide to self-destruction for 29 years.

For centuries, painters and sculptors have portrayed the Holy Family as happy, serene and unified. Jesus was without sin, but the rest of the family was ordinary human beings. Jesus developed physically, but he was indwelled by the second and third Persons of the Trinity. He knew who he was and would become. At age 12 he said to his parents, “Did you not know that I have to be in the house of my Father?”

This remarkable child had to endure the usual sibling rivalry and parental discipline one finds in every household. As the eldest, he would have helped the others to solve their differences, stay in line, and do their chores. Naturally, the younger ones would  have questioned his wisdom. When Jesus later attracted great crowds, his mother and brothers tried to talk some sense into his head (Mark 3:21, 31, John 7:3-5). After his resurrection their eyes were opened about his true nature (Acts 1:14). His brother James became a leader in the first church, and his mother has been revered by Christians for 20 centuries as the most blessed of women.

 

1. Family problems can be solved

A family that plays together stays together. Summer is a good time to have family fun. Of course, family-life is not about play only; it includes raising the next generation and preparing them for life.  

Mammalian mothers care for their young by providing milk and protection, but in most cases the fathers are not involved in baby-care. Birds exhibit better cooperation: males and females both care for their young. As soon as the young birds can fly they become independent.

Human parenting is influenced by culture, but in general, fathers lead their sons, and mothers their daughters, to acquire skills needed for adulthood. Schooling is an extension of family education, providing knowledge about specific fields.

The Bible shows that God is the author of family life. In the beginning, God said, “Let us make man in our image… male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27). When a child is born to parents, the human three-in-one is completed.

God gave fauna and flora the ability to procreate. Apart from a few exceptions, fish do not look after their offspring, but birds and mammals do. The first human being was unfulfilled until he got a female partner. Sadly, because of sin, the first family became dysfunctional, producing the first murderer. Noah and his family survived the flood, but soon abuse set in. Abraham and Sarah tried to overcome their childlessness by using Hagar as a surrogate mother. It caused disharmony in the family, leading to a rift between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael for the past 4000 years.

Isaac and Rebekah had two sons, Esau and Jacob, who were totally different in personality. Moreover, Esau was his father’s favourite, and Jacob his mother’s. Esau traded his birth-right for a good meal, and Jacob stole his father’s blessing with the help of his mother. Jacob fled from his brother’s fury, and married two of his cousins. With them and their servants he had twelve sons, who became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Despite man’s failures, God proceeded with his plan.

King David progressed well until he committed adultery. It brought discord in his family, including rape, murder and rebellion. Absalom organized a revolt against his father David, who fled from Jerusalem and found refuge east of the River Jordan. When Absalom’s army faced off with David’s, Absalom was killed, pushing David into mourning.

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness and the many dysfunctional families, God’s plan of salvation went ahead. The Christ was born from the lineage of David and in the city of David. For more than 2000 years, the church has been celebrating this joyous event. The Saviour came to restore what was broken by sin, including family life.

 

Providence

3. Sticking to God's plan despite obstacles

As God has used people to our benefit, he wants us to become a blessing to others. I can see God’s hand in the way my wife and I met, becoming a blessing to one another and to others.

During my first 3 years at university, I did not find the right girl among thousands. Then I went on a daytrip to the mountains, and saw her for the first time. The next day I joined a group of Sunday-school teachers, and there she was again! A week later, I saw her in church and at the coffee social. We were introduced, chatted, and started dating. The chances for a theological and medical student to meet and fall in love is small indeed. We stuck to God’s plan for our lives and trusted him to work it out.  

After deceiving his father, Jacob fled from his brother’s wrath, landing with his uncle Laban far away. Jacob soon fell in love with his cousin Rachel. However, he had nothing to offer his uncle except his hard work. He made an agreement with the greedy Laban to serve him 7 years for Rachel – and it was in his eyes like a few days because he loved her (Gen. 29:20). I know that feeling: my wife and I had long studies to complete; we had to wait 4 years and 51 days before we got married.

Jacob deceived his father once, but Laban deceived him many times. When he completed his 7 years for Rachel, he learned he had to marry the eldest daughter first, and work another 7 years for the one he loved. Laban changed Jacob’s wages repeatedly. Jacob’s sons sold Joseph as slave to Egypt, deceiving Jacob for 23 years about the truth. Jacob learned the hard way about cheating.

Many Bible characters, like David and Solomon,  started well but messed up later in their lives. Jacob started on the wrong foot but improved in his later life. Spurred by his mother, he deceived his father. For many, this episode labelled Jacob forever as a cheat. Yet, God changed his name to Israel, and his descendants have proudly identified themselves by this name for 37 centuries. God said: “Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated” (Mal. 1:2-3).

God appeared to Jacob at Bethel when he fled for Esau, repeating the promise made to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob later returned to Bethel to renew his vows. God appeared to him again and affirmed the promise he had made before. God led Jacob step by step from a self-willed second son, to a devoted heir of the messianic line. Likewise, God wants to prune us to become fruitful trees.

 

2. Accepting God's plan for your life

God has a plan for our lives. When I look back, I can see how his plan for me unfolded. Without my help, he brought into my life people, who influenced my development and direction.

God granted me parents who knew God and his word, practicing what they preached. Poor as they were, they left me spiritual riches I will not trade for anything. At age 9, when I was being suffocated by diphtheria, a doctor unexpectedly arrived at the remote farm, saving my life with a tracheotomy. I decided to study for the ministry, but could not find the money. Then out of the blue, someone offered me an interest-free study loan. A professor awakened my interest in psychology and so directed me to pastoral counselling that I’ve enjoyed for decades.

Moses’ life was also governed by God’s providence. How else could a baby born to slaves end up as a prince in the palace of the Pharaoh – the one who ordered the killing of all newborn slave-boys? Moses’ mother put him in a basket, launched him gently onto the River Nile, and entrusted him to God’s care. Just at the right moment, when the princess was bathing in the river, the basket turned up, and she decided to keep the baby.

In the palace, Moses was educated in the lifestyle and knowledge of royalty (Acts 7:22). Suddenly, God took him from royal opulence to desert hardship. Accused of murder, he fled to Sinai, where he married a Bedouin girl, and shepherded her father’s flock. He got first-hand knowledge of the wilderness where Israel would later roam for 40 years. His palace and desert experience prepared Moses for his future task.

At the right time, Moses met God personally at the burning bush. When God told him that he would use him to lead Israel out of slavery, Moses tried to back off from this assignment, but God made him understand that he would miss the purpose of his life if he disobeyed. As the years rolled by, Moses gained perspective, realizing God was unfolding the plan for his life one step at a time.

In Egypt, God performed ten miracles through Moses, convincing the stubborn king to yield to God’s command: Let my people go! For good measure, God topped it off with the parting of the waters, enabling Israel’s escape and the demise of the Egyptian army.

God miraculously provided bread, meat and water for the whole nation in the desert. With thundering voice, God gave them the Ten Commandments while the earth shook and the mountain smoked under God’s awesome presence. Moses saw abundant proof in his life of God’s unfolding plan for him.

 

1. Discovering God's plan step by step

 

When Ben and I met as students at a small station near the Kalahari, I had no idea what significant role he would play in my life. I later realized that God let us meet on that winter night. God used him to open doors to accommodation, youth ministry, two congregations (where we served as co-pastors), and a clinic where I worked as pastoral counsellor for two decades.

God’s hand was also clearly visible in my coming to Canada 22 years ago. A friend opened opportunities several times as my wife and I moved from north to south, settling in Lethbridge eventually. We did not do much to open doors, but when we entered, we had a lot of work to do.

  The Bible is saturated with stories about God’s providence. God let Noah build the ark in time for the great flood. God provided for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in a land where they only owned a tomb and a well. He took Joseph through 13 years of tribulations and made him governor of Egypt. God called Moses and David from shepherding to national leadership. He called four disciples from their fishing boats to become fishers of men. Through them the foundation of Christianity was laid, which now includes one third of humanity.

On the second missionary journey of the apostle Paul, his itinerary was often changed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16-18). Paul planned to go east to Asia, but God directed him west to Europe. He first had to visit a physician, and so he met Luke in Troas who became the author of the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

While Paul waited for God’s guidance, he had a vision of a Macedonian calling: “Come over and help us!” On arrival, he did not find a synagogue, only a women’s prayer group. When he drove an evil spirit from a slave girl, he was beaten by a mob and thrown into jail. Were his high hopes dashed? Not quite. After an earthquake, he led the jailer to faith in Christ.

Authorities asked him to leave, and he walked with a bruised body to Thessalonica. Driven from there, he fled to Berea where he was well received at first. When enemies stirred up trouble again, he fled to Athens where he addressed a learned audience. He proceeded to Corinth and stayed there 18 months. He wrote 4 letters (of which 2 survived) to the Corinthian church while he worked in Ephesus. These epistles reveal the practical problems the early church faced.

 Although Paul had to change his plans often, he remained receptive to God’s plan, which was best for him and the church.