This month: 193 - All Things New
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for October, 2019

Realism and hope
Recently I had the honor of consulting with a lively, growing, suburban congregation. Although no church is perfect, several things stood out about this church. One could argue that their growth comes because they are located in an area where houses are sprouting up out of the prairie like sunflowers. One could say that they are growing because young families are moving into the local neighborhoods; those young families want to find a church home. Those things would certainly be true. However, in my four days with this congregation, several other factors emerged. These reasons for growth transcend simply being at the right place at the right time. In actuality, these factors are much more foundational than being next-door to a thousand new homes. Here is what I saw – which is what I see in most thriving congregations…
Click here to continue reading on Mosaic.
Looking Team
“When the right church and the right minister find each other, everybody wins.” These words from Randy Harris encapsulate the heart behind the Looking Team, a group that helps forge these connections. Read more about the team’s story from Harris and Beth Ann Fisher (’93), Siburt Institute graduate assistant. Read now.
Summit 2019 was a success in many ways. Registration grew by 22 percent this year, and we noticed increased student participation as we expanded our student programming. But perhaps the most astonishing is the surge in online traffic, measured as “views.” By Oct. 1, video recordings of the theme sessions had already been viewed more than 30,000 times on Facebook alone. These sessions are easily accessible on YouTube for you to watch and share with friends. Watch now.
The not-so-cheerful giver
Can you relate to many churches’ experience of asking members to pledge financial support for the upcoming year, and then spending the next year trying to get people to make good on their commitments? In a recent Mosaic article, Tiffany Dahlman, who ministers at Courtyard Church of Christ in Fayetteville, North Carolina, shares how that congregation took a different approach this year, grounding its process in discipleship. Read more.

Eddie Sharp at Agape Conference
Consulting partner Eddie Sharp (’90 D.Min.) is speaking at the Agape Conference (formerly the United Voice Worship Conference), with a session titled “ ‘The Talk’ as a Beginning of Understanding, Respect and Love.” Join Sharp and a diverse team of speakers and worship leaders Nov. 1-3 in Houston. Learn more and register.

Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative (CMI)
Earlier this month, we spent a week with early-career ministers at a CMI retreat. “Because of the interactions with other ministers and extended time of contemplative prayers, I am never the same,” says Ian Nickerson (’16), evangelist at Minda Street Church of Christ in Abilene and a CMI participant. “I leave the retreat more aware and in tune with the presence of the Spirit of Christ.” Learn more.

Biblical storytelling resources
Dr. Cliff Barbarick, who teaches New Testament in ACU’s College of Biblical Studies, has a passion for helping people experience and internalize Scripture through the art of biblical storytelling. He periodically leads workshops for churches, and his website offers numerous resources. We invite you to schedule a workshop with Barbarick or contact any of these members of the ACU community to work with or speak at your church.

Team spotlight: Gabe Fisher
As our first-ever doctoral fellow, Gabe Fisher (’14 M.Div.) will create and share practical material to serve churches, drawing on his research as an ACU Doctor of Ministry student. He will write several Mosaic articles each year and later develop a presentation for a ministry-focused academic conference or scholarly journal. Fisher’s ministry interests include spiritual care near the end of life, pastoral care, faith and vocation, and ministry with those who have cognitive deficits and disabilities. Read his first article.
Carmichael-Walling Lectures, presented by ACU’s Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts, Nov. 14
Equipping for Ministry: Houston Ministers’ Breakfast, Jan. 27
Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative Retreat, Feb. 10-13
Equipping for Ministry: DFW Ministers’ Lunch, Feb. 18
Equipping for Ministry: Austin Ministers’ Lunch, March 24
Equipping for Ministry: San Antonio Ministers’ Breakfast, March 25
Ministers’ Support Network Retreat, April 2-5
Our work in the Siburt Institute is made possible by the generosity of friends like you who support and share our mission to serve church leaders and other Christ-followers.

Give to the Siburt Institute. The Siburt Institute for Church Ministry exists to equip and serve church leaders and other Christ-followers for God’s mission in the world.   For more information, visit or contact our office at or 325-674-3732.

Over the years I have proudly stated that “I am a New Testament Christian.” That statement sounds noble at first glance. Think about it – who would object to someone wanting to go back to the founding documents of the church to draw their theology and practices in their own Christian walk?

The problem with saying, “I am a New Testament Christian,” is found in the reality that the original Christians would have no idea what that phrase means. Imagine you were able to get in a time machine and travel back to Corinth to the year 60 A.D. Let’s say you found the local house church in Corinth and you proudly proclaimed, “Hey guys I am a New Testament Christian!” They would probably look at you with a confused look because the only Bible they knew was the Old Testament, the letter Paul had written to them, and maybe one of the Gospels. Now one could argue that the New Testament encapsulates the teaching of the Apostles that churches like Corinth adhered to and found authoritative. This argument is true and valid. The NT does provide us with the authoritative teaching of Jesus through his apostles or their associates. But there is a deeper issue with saying, “I am a New Testament Christian.” When one considers how NT[1] writers viewed and used the Old Testament it becomes apparent that 21st century Christians should be “whole Bible Christians.” I hope that in this article I can make the case for the position of “whole Bible Christianity.”

One problem is that our truncated view of the Bible and neglect of the OT has robbed us of understanding the nuances and beauty of the theology and depth of the NT. We must realize that the NT writers’ minds and imaginations had been baptized and saturated in the thought patterns and themes found in the Old Testament. The NT is filled with echoes and allusions to OT themes and the writers assume that their readers are versed in those same concepts. One could make a case for the importance of knowing the OT because of the use of OT prophecy to prove the Messianic mission of Jesus, but it goes much deeper than that. What many do not realize is that the strands of theology that tie the OT and NT together run much deeper than just fulfilled prophecy. This is evidenced by two things we observe in how NT writers employ fragments and passages from the OT called intertextuality[2] and metalepsis[3].

Intertextuality simply means the writers of the NT used older bits of the Bible (OT) to make their point and to show a connection between the grand themes of redemption in Israel and the work of Christ. Metalepsis occurs when a NT writer quotes an OT text and wants to call the reader’s attention to an echo of the meaning of the original OT passage. Both intertextuality and metalepsis closely tie together the theology of the OT and the NT.

One could think intertextuality and metalepsis as a musician writing a new song but riffing off an older tune or melody in their new work. When the listener hears the old tune or melody their mind is transported back to the older song from which it originated, and it heightens the experience of the new song. This is similar to what the NT writers did when they embedded fragments and texts from the OT. If the reader does not recognize those echoes and resonances from the OT they will miss the message of the author. In our modern vernacular we do this at times. For example, I could say, “the New England Patriots met their Waterloo in Super Bowl XLII.” There is a cultural currency of thought in which one would know that this meant that in some way the Patriots suffered a shocking defeat. Without some knowledge of Napoleon’s battle with Wellington at Waterloo, it would be impossible to understand the full implications of this quote. Not only did the Patriots lose the game but the outcome was a stunning and shocking defeat. The writers of the NT are expecting a currency of thought and shared imagination with the reader.

I want to provide a quick example of how intertextuality and metalepsis work in the NT and demonstrate how recognizing these themes gives flavor and meaning to the text. In Hosea 11:1 we read, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (ESV).” This passage sounds familiar to us because we read in Matthew 2:14-15, “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son (ESV).” It appears that Matthew is saying that Jesus went to Egypt as a child so that He could fulfill the prophecy found in Hosea 11:1. My question is this, “are there clues that Matthew is giving us something deeper to consider than what we normally think of when we read the word ‘fulfill’?” To begin to answer this question consider this – Matthew employs the word ‘fulfill’ differently than we typically think. When Matthew uses the word ‘fulfill’ the OT passages he cites are typically not true Messianic prophecies. The one place where Matthew does quote an explicit OT Messianic prophecy is in Matthew 2:5-6 when he quotes Micah 5:2 in reference to where the Messiah would be born. In other words, when Matthew uses the term ‘fulfill’ he is asking the reader to go back to the passage being quoted and consider its context.

The passage in question of Hosea 11:1 had a specific meaning for its day and time. Does Hos 11:1 explicitly state that the Messiah will go down to Egypt? Hosea is not even concerned with the Messiah. He is looking back to the Exodus and using Exodus material for his 8th century BC context. God is talking to the northern tribes of Israel in Hosea and is looking back when he showed his love by redeeming them from Egypt. Israel will soon be put under the yoke of the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Exodus is the birthing of the nation and is one of the ultimate signs of God’s love and care. Matthew is applying those same themes to Jesus. It is true that on the surface Jesus is called out Egypt to return home, but Matthew wants us to delve deeper. Matthew wants us to consider how the ministry of Jesus will be a new exodus. One will notice that all through the Bible the theme of the Exodus is recapitulated. We are called to see that Jesus is much greater than Moses because he is God in the flesh, and he is bringing redemption from sin. Jesus’ liberation will be from the very root of all evil and oppression – sin. Jesus is even better than the original Exodus. Matthew is using Hosea 11 and its theme of Exodus and deliverance to Jesus as the ultimate telos (goal) of God in His grand scheme of redemption. Understanding the theme of Hosea and his message heightens one’s understanding of what Matthew is trying to communicate to us about Jesus.

This whole Bible approach to our faith also helps us see things like the entire shape of Matthew’s gospel as showing us that Jesus is a new and greater Moses. For example, a mind baptized in the theology of the OT notices that Matthew has a water event in the baptism of Jesus (Matt 3), a 40-day wilderness event with trials (Matt 4), and a mountain experience in the Sermon on the Mountain (Matt 5). One quickly notices the resonances with Israel and their Red Sea crossing as a water event, 40-day travel to Sinai with trials, and the receiving of the Law on a mountain. An imagination saturated in OT theology can also see that in John’s account he is telling you that Jesus is ushering in a new creation. John’s gospel starts with, “in the beginning.” When the reader gets to the passion week In John, we start to see a pattern emerge. In the final week of Jesus, we see that on day six (Friday) Pilate cries out “Behold the man,” on Saturday Jesus rests in the tomb, and on the first day of the week, he is raised. This pattern recapitulates and escalates the first creation by realizing the man is created on day six (Friday), God rests on day seven, and the first day of the week represents the start of a new creation. When one is working from an imagination saturated in the OT, they also  see that the church in the NT is more analogous to the ‘qahal’ of Israel instead of the Greco-Roman city-state concept of the ecclesia. Understanding the church in terms of God’s gathered covenant people has a deeper connection to the OT than with Greco-Roman categories. There are multitudes of examples to be given but just this overview demonstrates how important it is to have a thought world influenced heavily by the OT. My point in all this is that a mind enchanted with the world of the OT quickly picks up the themes of the OT and the resonances found in the NT.

I propose to you that we should become unashamedly “whole Bible Christians.” Part of being “whole bible Christians” means that we know the major themes and great acts of God from the OT. If we are going to espouse patternism the best type of patternism is to look to patterns of redemption that are recapitulated throughout the Bible. In connecting the Bible back together we have some wonderful insights such as the realization that the same Trinitarian God that is revealed more explicitly in the NT is the same God of the OT. In being whole Bible Christians we must also understand how the OT fits within the NT and how Jesus fulfilled the purpose and was the telos of the OT.[4] To truly be a restorationist people we must restore the early church’s love and appreciation of the OT in our churches today. [5]

[1] For the remainder of this article I will use the abbreviations of OT and NT for the Old Testament and New Testament respectively.

[2] Richard B. Hays defines intertexuality in the following quote: “The phenomena of intertextuality—the imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a latter one—has always played a major role in the cultural traditions that are heir to Israel’s Scripture: the voice of Scripture, regarded as authoritative in one way or another, continues to speak in and through latter texts that both depend on and transform the earlier.” Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 14.

[3] Metalepsis can be understood as occurring when, “a literary echo links the text in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed (transumed) points of resonance between the two texts.

[4] One great resource for understanding the relationship of the OT to the NT is found in N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today and pay close attention to his five acts of a play model.

[5] For more research on metalepsis and intertextuality see Richard Hays’ book The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as the interpreter of Israel’s Scripture and Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.

Now and Then

Two thousand years of Christian history separates today’s disciples from those we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. That distance has created some major conceptual changes that sometimes make it harder to hear the writings of the apostles.

For today’s Christians our first thought of Scripture will be Matthew, Luke, Acts, perhaps Romans and Ephesians. In fact it is not uncommon to find believers who carry only a New Testament. Many will think of a list of 66 books.

This, however, is significantly different than disciples in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, or Rome in AD 45 thought and experienced. When Jesus debates Scripture, when Peter teaches Scripture or Paul mentions Scripture … it is Genesis through Malachi. When Paul says “all scripture is inspired,” or tells Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture,” he means not Matthew to Revelation but Genesis to Malachi. The “New Testament” was not the Bible of the “New Testament” church. The biblical context of the NT writers is what is called the “Old Testament” today.

It is interesting that the New Testament never designates itself as the “New Testament.” The New Testament never designates the faith described therein as “Christianity.” And the New Testament is fully aware that there is already a “Bible” and defers to its authority.

Actually in the first century, and fourteen more after, no individual owned a “Bible.” What Mary, Jesus, Junia, Peter, Paul, Pricilla had was a story engrained in their heart. The story was inculcated through the calendar and its worship festivals and scripture was shared in the context of those festivals. This calendar and its festivals told the story of the Exodus. It is out of that biblical story that the New Testament writers talk about Jesus, talk about resurrection, talk about redemption and salvation, talk about the people of God. This is the biblical context of the New Testament itself and we often miss significant emphases because we fail to hear and see how the already existing Bible of Israel shapes the warp and hoof of the NT.

Christopher J. H. Wright, a respected biblical scholar, once noted that “the New Testament is the world’s first Old Testament theology.” That is worth ruminating upon.

The Exodus Motif in the Hebrew Bible and Calendar

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Exodus story in Israel’s life and faith. We could say that the Exodus is the foundation of the Bible itself. The Exodus was the amazing act of Yahweh the Savior who delivers, redeems and saves a group of powerless, and despised, nobodies. The Exodus is the paradigm of what salvation by grace really looks like.

God’s paradigmatic moment is celebrated by Moses and Miriam (as an ancient Ike & Tina) in Exodus 15:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously …
The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him …
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea …
You blew with your ruah and the sea covered them …
Who is like you, O LORD …
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed
(Exodus 15.1-13, NRSV).

Several themes emerge from Moses’ and Miriam’s song. First it is emphatic that Yahweh alone did the work, salvation belongs to him and it was not because Israel deserved it. Second it is interesting how the Exodus story uses terms borrowed from the creation story itself: divine action and spreading the waters with the activity of God’s Spirit (ruah), etc. Salvation is like a new creation.

* Yahweh brings out
* Yahweh delivers
* Yahweh redeems
* Yahweh brings up

My father was wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our Fathers … So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O LORD have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5b-10)

The story, pattern, of this Exodus is deeply ingrained in the Bible. Israel “rehearsed” this drama each year through worship. And no Israelite believed the Exodus was simply what happened back then to “them” rather they placed themselves within the Story and believed it happened to “us.” This confession of the Exodus patterned life is seen as Israel celebrated their “thanksgiving(s)” … The festivals of Israel are not legalism but dynamic proclaimers of God’s steadfast love and grace. There were four primary festivals, one weekly and three pilgrim.

Sabbath – Celebrates creation and redemption from Egypt

Passover – Celebrates God’s defeat of the cosmic powers to redeem Israel

Weeks/Pentecost – Celebrates that God took Israel from the water to the mountain as well as giving the harvest

Tabernacles – Celebrates the loving care of Yahweh for the people in the wilderness where Israel learns they survive not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus, like all pious Jews, was deeply immersed into this worship rhythm of life (cf. John 2.13, 23; 5.1f; 7-8; 11.55f).

The Exodus “motif” as narrated in the Hebrew Bible has basic markers that shape the texture of the New Testament. These include

* The cosmic battle
* The crossing of the water
* The wilderness
* The coming to the mountain
* The dwelling Presence of God
* The coming to the promised land/new creation

Exodus patterned Israel’s life (or was supposed to) and is fused into “the rest of the Story” by the biblical authors. Here are just a few examples:

* Entrance into the Promised Land is cast with Exodus imagery. Joshua 3-4 reverberates with the drama of the Red Sea
* Building the temple is dated from the Exodus (1 Kgs 6.1)
* Moral crises following Solomon’s tyranny is patterned after the sojourn in and following Egypt (1 Kgs 11-12)
* Psalms of praise celebrate the Exodus (i.e. Pss 66, 68, 105)
* Psalms of lament appeal to the Exodus for fresh deliverance (i.e. Pss 74, 77, 80)
* In Hosea, Amos & Micah (to name only three) paint Israel’s adultery with images taken from Egypt or from the wanderings in Sinai while casting Yahweh as the faithful liberating lover who would redeem Israel.
* Isaiah 40-66 takes the pattern of Exodus as the source for new hope for Israel.

The Exodus Pattern is burned deep within the Bible. Our quick “survey” helps us to see that the Exodus is more than a mere literary motif but that it was the paradigm Israel used to understand her past, her present, and her future.

The New Testament

The writers of the New Testament documents drank in this rhythm from the day they were born. The NT also has deeply ingrained within it this Exodus motif.

The Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, tells the story of the Messiah as if the Exodus was the template for Jesus’s life. The beginning of Jesus’ Story has fingerprints of the Exodus narrative all over it. In both there is an evil ruler. In both the children suffer. In both there is a “flight.” In both there is an “exodus” for “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt 2.15). In both there is a passage through water. In both there is a wandering in the wilderness for a time of testing. In both there is a journey to a mountain and the glory of God revealed. In both, at the moment of deliverance a meal is celebrated. Even the healing ministry of Jesus is related to his role as Isaiah’s servant in concert with the new Exodus (Mt 8.17; 11.5; 12.18; Isa 35.5-6; 53.4; 61.1-2). The work of God in Jesus upon the cross is cast in new Exodus like language. The Exodus Pattern is deeply ingrained in Matthew but he is not alone.

The apostle Paul places the church of God at Corinth squarely in the Exodus story. First Corinthians 10 continues Paul’s argument about meat from chapter 8. Paul suggests in chapter 8 that Corinthians need to be sensitive to one another regarding meat sacrificed to an idol. If one buys meat in the market, eat it. But in chapter ten, Paul is very much a Pharisee expressing concern where such meat is eaten. He explicitly plants the Corinthians in the Wilderness with Israel. “Our forefathers” drank the same “Spiritual” food and drink but they dared to test the Lord by eating at the table of an idol. Paul quotes Exodus 32.6 where “our ancestors” sat down before the Golden Calf. Just as Israel had gone through the Exodus, went into the wilderness and ate with God; so Paul brings the Corinthians through the Exodus, into the wilderness and to the table of God (1 Cor 10.1-17). If we eat with God then we cannot sit at a table with an idol.


This article could easily become a book. Indeed, there are whole books on the exodus structure of the New Testament. But our aim has been to introduce the motif and call attention to how early disciples would hear the New Testament writing out of a preexisting biblical context, namely the Exodus story. Hardly a page of the New Testament passes without the shadow of the “Bible” and its grand story falling upon it. What we have done with Matthew and First Corinthians can be done with John, Luke-Acts, Romans, Galatians, First Peter, even Revelation. If we familiarize ourselves with what the first century believers already knew and brought with them when they heard Mary, Anna, Paul, Peter, or Phoebe we will take one more step to coming within understanding distance of the Scriptures we all love and cherish as the word of God.

The biblical context of the early Way and the writers of the New Testament shapes the meaning of the faith they had and the documents they wrote. We would do well to learn the contours of that biblical story to better understand what we say we believe.

The Exodus is the Jewish story that unites the whole Bible into a unified whole. It is the story of love and grace and divine Presence. We celebrate it at the Table with Jesus.

The hitching of the story of the Exodus with the New Testament raises a familiar Stone-Campbell question rephrased,

Does the New Testament operate separate and apart from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible?

Further Reading

Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (IVP, 2018).

When women get antsy in the church, this is why.

It’s not just one or two snarky sexists, it’s a whole room of cackling voices seeming impressed and egging them on. They aren’t rambling out on the fringe, they are prominent, renowned leaders of large organizations, best selling authors, and public faces of our faith. They don’t put vocal women in their places by just telling them to go back to ladies’ Bible study, they tell them to “go home.” They aren’t content to eviscerate the women out to radically upend complementarian gender roles but also bare their claws at Beth Moore, who writes: “Being a woman called to leadership within and simultaneously beyond those [Southern Baptist] walls was complicated to say the least but I worked within the system. After all, I had no personal aspirations to preach nor was it my aim to teach men. If men showed up in my class, I did not throw them out. I taught. But my unwavering passion was to teach and to serve women.” They don’t just express concern over modern feminism, they discount feminism in general as pure power hunger and thus vilify women who speak out from places of empowerment– specifically, in this snippet, those who preach the gospel and those who share stories of sexual abuse. They claim Scriptural concern but posture and counterattack and turn blind eyes to Scripture like love manifesting as kindness, pride causing downfall, and Jesus’ example to consider those who wage war on darkness with us as allies not to be impeded.

We watch these respected, God-fearing men charge through topics like women’s relationship and obedience to the Lord, women’s gifts, women’s place and purpose in their faith communities, and women’s basic safety like bulls in red-carpeted china shops, and we fear, perhaps correctly, that for every brother as disgusted as we are by this locker room bully display, there’s another finding validation. We’re out here wrestling with questions of purpose and worth, trying to be brave enough for the boldness and vulnerability that are the fuel of community… and statements like this land in our hearts and minds to be the devil’s playthings.

If John MacArthur can say it so plainly on such a platform, why not my elder? Why not my teacher? Why not my friend? If not even Mama Beth is safe from heartless humiliation, why would I expect to be? Writing me off as a power hungry narcissist will be a cake walk if you’ve already made that leap on folks like her…

Yes, the fear will subside. I don’t live daily in paranoia or find it hard to connect with brothers in Christ. Neither will I let fear stifle the possibility that there may come a time that obedience requires Beth-level boldness. I watch her critics, count the costs like Jesus said, and know that, ultimately? That level of healing impact on the world is worth the cheap shots it returns. I will quickly settle back into my normal cheekiness toward the Accuser who won a victory this week through these men’s mouths– back into the belief that being on the receiving end of wickedness means you’re a threat to something wicked. The moment is already passing. *winks Jesusly at Satan*

But before the dust settles… Before I roll my eyes and remind myself this is why I take internet sabbaticals… Let’s name what this is and what this does.

This is misogyny masquerading as righteousness, and it stands a very good chance of alienating an essential half of the Body of Christ. Your family. Your peeps. And all those who could be. It’s a gross, ad hominem attack over a difference in ideas that was self-admittedly developed in a snap judgement and accidentally revealing of dismissive attitudes toward women. And it hurts like the place it originated.

I’m in no position to read John MacArthur & Co. the Riot Act. Our travel budget is pretty spent this month. But what I can do is flag this moment for my brothers and sisters to remember when some of us women seem sensitive.

We may be sensitive, but we aren’t delusional. When we feel shushed and rejected over things that seem small, remember we watched a beloved teacher and encourager be told to “go home.” Told her public speaking skills amount to “hocking” and qualifications for influence cap out at selling jewelry on QVC. That our rising voices– from preaching to hashtagging #metoo— are the alarm bells of a sinful world intruding on the Kingdom, not the roar of the Holy Spirit in us. That any authority we hold is suspect and impurely motivated. That to navigate the sometimes gradient bounds of complementarianism without absolute precision forfeits our right to Christian compassion. And all to auditorium-wide applause.

We bring that with us. Is it fair? Not really. There are plenty of hurt women who start on the offensive in conversations around the women’s roles topic. Some of us still brace for impact rounding every corner. We are responsible for doing battle with fear and defensiveness and for engaging from a position of openness and security. But sensitivity to certain undertones in our church talk and policy formation is understandable. Prudent, even. We know that in exploring our identities and roles as women we’ll rub elbows, somewhere somehow, with someone who harbors such attitudes, and not counting that cost only adds to the shock value and risk of discouragement when it happens. Sexism is real.

So we walk the fine line but don’t desert. We young women especially need community in our maturation, in defining our purpose, in facing our hurts. We need a church that bears with us through flaring fear and anger and lets us ask hard questions.

A great starting point? Hit play. Listen to this panel’s discussion, and then hit replay. Hear these men through our ears, cringe with us, and let it humanize and validate us in our most frustrated, contentious moments. When it seems like we’re teary over a 12-year-old boy leading closing prayer in a service where we’re disallowed, this is the iceberg beneath.

My “Natural” but Unnatural Assumption

For a good portion of my life I read Genesis 1 through my own Alabama eyes. The text was given to prove the theory of evolution wrong. I never once stopped to ask what the text could possibly mean to an Israelite in 800 BC that had never heard of Darwin. In this article I will focus on one verse, Genesis 1.14, that shows how I (maybe no one else) missed what was written on the page because of my own unchecked assumptions.

When I read Genesis 1.14 (and memorized the chapter) I simply assumed that the “seasons” (KJV/NIV) where winter, spring, summer and fall. That is the cycle of the year where we plant, harvest, leaves fall and possibly get snow. The same kind of seasons that James Taylor spoke of when he says we got a friend. It was natural to me to think in terms of winter, spring, summer and fall, after all those were the only “seasons” that I knew anything about.

I leaped over the vast distance between Israel and me. It never even occurred to me to ask, much less investigate, what seasons meant to an Israelite. I was a textbook example of simply assuming that my world and Israel’s world were the same. I was guilty of a huge error, that of anachronism. I read the Bible out of its context. My error contributed to my failure to hear Genesis 1 as it was intended.

One day I was reading the Bible in a different version than I used at the time. Genesis 1.14 read differently.

Then God commanded, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the night from the day and to show the time from the day, year and religious festivals” (Genesis 1.14, GNB)

What!? Religious festivals, not “seasons.” Suddenly this text was cast in a whole new light. According to Moses, the lights were given to determine the worship calendar of Israel.

I ignored the context of Israel, the context of Scripture. For those that believe biblical authority is real, and not simply a slogan, this error is anathema.

My rather “natural” assumption, shared by many in my Stone-Campbell heritage, that “seasons” was merely winter, spring, summer and fall, was anything but “natural.”  In fact it is quite unnatural because I brazenly ignored the vast historical distance between Genesis, ancient Israel and myself.

The biblical world was seemingly identical to my own world, except perhaps for cars and electricity but nothing that made me “see” the entire world differently.  It never once occurred to me that my ignorance was quite vast.  Israel’s “seasons” certainly were part of a calendar.  But Israel’s calendar was very different from the one we Americans use daily and simply impose without question upon the biblical text. 

Israel’s calendar is a lunar calendar and our modern one is solar.  Israel’s calendar was religious where as ours is not. I had no idea that Israel’s calendar and seasons might not be exactly the same as the calendar I use daily (which I never investigated) and its seasons were just like mine.

Israel’s calendar had “seasons” of course, but they are not what we call winter, spring, summer and fall.  Israel does not have the four seasons as most Americans think of as seasons. Rather the seasons are times, festivals, that celebrate the work of Yahweh as Creator and Redeemer. Israel’s calendar is much closer to what is known as the “church” calendar in our world.  But being raised in a rabidly anti-liturgical tradition, like the Stone-Campbell Movement, I likewise had only the foggiest idea of what that was.

Understanding Distance: Genesis 1.14, Calendars and Worship

Fifteen years ago I was working on my understanding of creation, new creation and Genesis 1.14 smacked me with my hubris. A number of facts came to light that I had no clue about. When I came to understand that the Genesis one was not written with Charles Darwin in mind, I was able to to ask “what did this mean to an Israelite in 1200 BC, 1000 BC, 700 BC, AD 1?” The contemporary, instinctive, apologetic against evolution was not even on their radar screen.  What did the text say to them? Several things, noticed and commented upon for centuries by rabbis, church fathers and others, became visible to me as well.

First, the word for lights is unusual. The text does not say “stars.” Moses could easily have said “stars” and we expect “stars” but the text does not say, “stars” but “lights.” And not just any “lights.” In other places where this word occurs in Scripture, it is in the description of the Lamp Stand or Menorah in the Tabernacle. But the Tabernacle/Temple was something that I had paid almost no attention to at all, I had less appreciation for its significance in Scripture than I did for the word “seasons” in Genesis 1.14.

The Tabernacle/Temple, in the Hebrew Bible, is the place where heaven and earth meet. It is the dwelling space of God within creation. It is a miniature cosmos. The Tabernacle/Temple is a map, if you will, of the whole realm of God.

The “lights” on the Menorah are the only illumination in the inside the sanctuary.  The lamps on each point of the Menorah look like stars or better planets against the velvet black sky. The night sky reminds us of being inside of the Tabernacle. It seems this term is deliberately chosen in Genesis 1. The word lights reminds us of the sacred furniture within God’s Space in the Tabernacle  (Exodus 25.37; 27.20).   The lights in the sky remind us of worship and the Tabernacle is a miniature cosmos.

Second, this is why the second word, “seasons” is also not the word in the Hebrew Bible that is used for winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the “appointed times.” In all the other uses in the Bible, it refers not to summer/winter but to Passover, Tabernacles, First Fruits, etc. It refers to festivals! For example the exact phrase from Genesis 1.14 occurs in the following locations in the Hebrew Bible:

And they shall stand every morning thanking and praising the LORD … and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the LORD on sabbaths, new moons, and APPOINTED FESTIVALS, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD” (1 Chronicles 23.31)

The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings; the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offering for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the APPOINTED FESTIVALS, as it was written in the law of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 31.3; see also Zechariah 8.19; Neh 10.33; Ps 10.19; etc, etc)

The “seasons” of Genesis 1.14 is translated “appointed times/festivals” more properly and is so in other texts.  But what are these “seasons” on the calendar that an Israelite in Hezekiah’s day would think of? They are outlined in several texts, the most convenient for our purposes is Leviticus 23 which uses the very language of Genesis 1.14.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the APPOINTED FESTIVALS [or seasons] of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my APPOINTED FESTIVALS …” (23.1-2).

The seasons are Sabbaths and Passover/Unleavened Bread (23.1-8), First Fruits (23.9-14), Pentecost/Weeks (23.15-22), Trumpets (23.23-25), Atonement (23.26-32), Booths/Tabernacles (23.33-43).

When Moses had finished teaching Israel the “seasons” on the calendar the text reads, “Thus Moses declared to the people of the Israel the APPOINTED FESTIVALS of the LORD” (Leviticus 23.44)

Genesis 1 does not speak to us primarily of the seasons associated with weather of the solar calendar. Genesis 1 speaks of the seasons of worship, the festivals of the Lord. The new Moon marked the time of great celebration and worship to Yahweh.  The Moon and the lights told Israel when it was the season of Passover, the the season of Booths and the like.

It would seem that the worship of God begins on the first page of the Bible.

Did Ancient Jews Understand Genesis 1.14 as Festivals?

The Septuagint translation of Genesis also translates Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite calendar. Sirach 43.7, numerous references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jubilees, and Philo interpret Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite worship calendar. Since many do not have access to these ancients sources I will cite them.

From Ben Sira we read,

It is the moon that marks the changing of the seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.
From the moon comes the sign for the festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.
The new moon, as its name suggests,
renews itself,
how marvelous it is in this change,
a beacon to the the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens
(Sirach 43.6-8)

From Jubilees 2, a passage that is an interpretation of Genesis 1 itself,

And on the fourth day he made the sun and the moon and the stars. And he set them in the firmament of heaven so that they might give light upon the whole earth and rule over the day and the night and separate light and darkness. And the LORD set the sun as a great sign upon the earth for days, sabbaths, months, feast days, years, sabbaths of years, jubilees, and for all of the (appointed) times of the years — and it separates the light from the darkness — and so that everything which sprouts and grows upon the earth might surely prosper. These three kinds he made on the fourth day” (Jubilees 2.8-10)

Many other passages can be cited from Second Temple Judaism, as well as the rabbis following the Second Temple period, that clearly indicates that Genesis 1.14 was understood in reference to the worship calendar of Israel.

Conclusion: Genesis 1.14 calls us to “Seasons/Festivals” of Worship

Roger Beckwith, who has studied Israel’s calendars in detail for many years writes in his Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian: Biblical, Intertestamental and Patristic Studies, on Genesis 1.14,

when the lunar calendar appears in the Old Testament, it is often precisely in priestly, or cultic, contexts that it does so. Thus, it is hard to believe that Gen. 1:14-16 and Ps. 104:19 are referring simply to secular ‘seasons.‘”

Gordon Wenham concurs with our conclusions in his Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis 1-15,

“‘What is clear is the importance attached to the heavenly bodies’ role in determining the seasons, in particular in fixing the days of cultic celebration. This is their chief function’.”

Wrapping Up

Our brief exercise with Genesis 1 has shown us how unspoken assumptions can blind us to what is rather explicit in the text itself. Our experience of public worship conditions us to see certain things. For those raised on an allergy to Catholicism we have “naturally” hidden from our eyes anything that looks like “liturgy.” In fact our experience has subverted the text itself and we come away with something that no one for thousands of years actually did.

But Genesis 1 reminds us that the seasons, the festivals, the rhythm of worship is woven into the fabric of creation itself by its Creator. Creation calls humanity to worship the Creator, a frequent theme in Scripture beginning right here.

The lights make us think of the Tabernacle and the “seasons” make us think of the pilgrimages to the Tabernacle … that is the festivals of Yahweh, appointed times of worship and great joy, great fellowship with both humans and deity.

This is why numerous modern translations have abandoned the rendering of “seasons.” And seasons is a fine translation as long as we read it as an Israelite. The seasons are Passover, Tabernacles and First Fruits! Those are the seasons on Israel’s calendar.

So translations for a hundred years (thousands if we include the LXX and other ancient renderings) have had festivals or religious festivals in Genesis 1.14. These include Moffat, TEV, GNB, NEB, REB, etc, but never knew.

From the first page of the Bible we are called to a different conception of time itself. The lights remind us to mark off God’s Time.

And I am reminded of the danger of ignoring the historical setting of Scripture. When I did I missed a fundamental point the Holy Spirit makes on the very first page of the Bible.

Genesis 1.14 is talking about time … festival time. The four “seasons” that this North American Bible belt disciple grew up with, were something that never even occurred to an Israelite.


For Further Reading

David J. Randolph, “Festivals in Genesis 1:14,” Tyndale Bulletin 54.2 (2003): 23-40

If you’ve been around the Bible a while, or you’re new, here are six things to know. These are important. They will help you understand Scripture in its proper context.

1. Language 

First things first: the inspired writers recorded Scripture in ancient languages. Three, to be exact: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Old Testament (the first 39 books) is mostly written in Hebrew. There are a few chapters in the Book of Daniel that appear in Aramaic. We find that section in chapter 2 through chapter 7:28. Aramaic is a different dialect only used in the Middle East at the time. The writings of the New Testament (the last 27 books) are in Greek. Why? It was the most common writing language in the Roman Empire

2. It isn’t a Single Book 

Even though it’s bound under a single cover, the Bible isn’t a book. The Bible is a library sixty-six individual books. It’s a library, not a novel. But, it is fascinating that it builds on itself and tells a seamless narrative from beginning to end. The composition of the Bible took place over a period of roughly 2,000 years. Forty different authors from three continents, wrote in three different languages. It never once contradicts itself. I admit that some will claim that it does, but a critical examination of the text shows otherwise.

3. Literary Types 

The Bible isn’t written in a singular literary style. There’s poetry, wisdom literature, history, Gospels, Law, proverbs, songs, letters, and apocalyptic literature. There are parables, psalms, narratives, prophetic writings, and instruction. Each of these need a different approach to understanding the text in proper context and form. For instance, you can’t read poetry the same way you read history. You can’t read a narrative like you would a parable. Keep that in mind as you read through the Bible.

4. Historical Context 

Approaching scripture through the historical-critical perspective is a must. Remember, it wasn’t written in the 21st Century. They didn’t have cars, smartphones, and sophisticated medicine like we have today. Instead, Scripture rings with the cultural assumptions of the original audience in mind. We filter the text, then, through the lens of history.

One should keep in mind and explore the cultural differences and phrases that occur. To neglect this is to miss the beauty and intensity of the text. A word about culture: There are some things that Scripture points out that are cultural. Some things won’t make a lot of sense to us because we don’t live in the ancient Middle-East. Cultural norms and societal understandings have changed. Keep history at the forefront when reading the Bible. Without it, you’ll come to some…interesting conclusions.

5. Covenant Theology 

There are two sections of the Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Summing up the Old Testament goes like this: Jesus is coming. A summary of the New Testament is this: Jesus is here and Jesus is coming back! Is there a difference between the two testaments (covenants)? A big difference. The same God wrote both, yet their applications and your responsibility to God differ in each. This is where things get muddy when we interpret the Bible. The word for this is hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics are the systematic framework one uses to interpret the Bible. Since there are two testaments, how they apply matters. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”. (Matthew 5:17-18, ESV). Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Old Testament that humanity could not do. Jesus came and lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God. Thus, He fulfilled the Old Testament. That means He brought it to completion. It’s no longer binding. It no longer saves us. Jesus does.

There are lots of great principles that we still strive to live by. But, what the Law could not do – restore us in a right relationship to God – Jesus did. He accomplished it through His death and Resurrection and Ascension. So, the 613 binding commands of the Old Testament are no more on us who follow the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

6. Context, Context, Context 

These are the three most important words in Bible study. I tell our congregation this on an almost weekly basis. Approaching the Bible can seem daunting. Yet, if we apply all the rules of literature and history above, we’ll be able to see it in its proper context. If we take it out of context, we can get a wrong interpretation of the text.

For instance, I often hear something like this: “Christians are such hypocrites! They don’t even do what their own book says. It says they can’t eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:12) but to stand against homosexuality (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10, etc.) But they eat fish, shrimp, and mussels! What a bunch of hypocrites!”

First off, you’re trying to cram the requirements of the Old Testament into the teachings of the New. It doesn’t work. Ever. These are two different contracts (Testaments) between God and man. Two different purposes. Two different ball games. Cherry picking scripture shows complete ignorance on the part of the person speaking it. The next thing it does is ignore the context of the Bible as a whole. That’s why context it paramount to successful reading of Scripture. Without it, you can make it say anything you want.

These are simple things to keep in mind when reading the Bible for yourself. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but these six things will get you started in a right direction.

What would you add to the list?

I love reading books about how to read the Bible. I guess I love that because I love meta-cognition, thinking about how we think about things. There are so many treasures in the scriptures and, as Bobby Valentine has written in the last two articles, the closer we come to understand things about their world the better we will understand the Bible!

Here are my favorite books on how to read the Big Book!

Searching for the Pattern By John Mark Hicks. This book came out this year and fills a niche I had hoped someone would fill. It is an in depth look at how we read the Bible in Churches of Christ and some of the ways that has traditionally been inadequate. This is done with a great deal of care, kindness and humility. Then the book goes into another approach that can help us come to a better understanding of the text and the God behind the text. Excellent book and a must read if you are in Churches of Christ.

The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner – If you are going to understand the biblical text it is important to understand how the Bible came to be. This book gives you the breakdown in a readable, accessible way that doesn’t require a PhD to understand.

The Art of Biblical Narrative By Robert Alter – This book changed my thinking on the Bible in a significant way. It showed me how to better pick up on themes and how the biblical narrative strings in various themes as the stories go along that I had never noticed before.

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson – Carson covers five fallacies people typically make when reading and interpreting the Bible: Word-study fallacies, grammatical fallacies, logical fallacies, and presuppositional and historical fallacies. Excellent book! For supporting material as to why this book is needed, check any discussion of the Bible on social media that has over 100 comments!

Scripture and Discernment By Luke Timothy Johnson – My favorite Benedictine monk writes prolifically about the New Testament and other topics like this book that tackles how to understand the Bible for application and decision making in the life of the Christian.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien – I really enjoyed this book. It is eye opening about the presuppositions and biases we come to the text with. Again, I love metanarrative (thinking about how we think) and this book unpacks that extremely well.

God’s Holy Fire by Cukrowski, Hamilton, and Thompson (all from ACU) – skip Kenneth Bailey’s work and go right to this one. This book is a one-stop-shop for so many relevant topic on how to read ancient literature.

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Third Edition) by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard – Excellent book! This book unpacks everything from you as interpreter to how to interpret various genres in the Bible. This is a must read for anyone who wants to get into hermeneutics (study of how to interpret the Bible).

Can We Still Believe the Bible by Craig Blomberg – I read this on the plan to Costa Rica a few years ago and got so much out of it. I love Blomberg’s scholarship. This book is basically a FAQ for how to read the bible, answering common questions from a theologically conservative perspective. Very helpful!

No list would be complete without Gordon Fee. Here are his three main books, the first is the most important:

How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Fourth Edition) – This book should top your list

How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth

How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour

“Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent” (Luke 20.20-26)

In this short article, I want to illustrate how historical context in the form of geography and political history can shed light on a famous episode in the life of Jesus. In fact, coming within understanding distance of Luke’s account may reveal something beyond mere taxes is going on.

Luke informs us this question takes place in Jerusalem not Galilee. This is our first clue that geography matters. Galilee, Jesus’s “home base” and center of much of his Messianic ministry, and Jerusalem (Judea) are governed differently even though both are part of the Roman Empire.

When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided his small realm among his sons. The most relevant for our purposes is Galilee and Judea where Jesus lived and worked. Galilee went to Herod Antipas who ruled that area until A.D. 39. Jerusalem and its environs went to Archelaus. But he was such an incompetent fool that the Roman Emperor took over and appointed a prefect in A.D. 6 to avoid a revolt.

As Jerusalem was now reorganized as an imperial province the taxes went directly to Caesar, (not the Senate) who even then claimed divine privileges. That same year Judas the Galilean (mentioned in Acts 5.37) propounded the doctrine that it was wrong to send the substance of the city of God – the True King – with his holy temple to a pagan ruler who also made divine claims. Josephus shares some information relevant to Judas,

“A Galilean named Judas was urging his countryman to resistance, reproaching them if they submitted to paying taxes to the Romans and tolerated human masters after serving God alone. Judas was a teacher with his own party …” (Jewish Wars 2.118)

Later in another work known as Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote more about Judas. I will quote a portion.

“Although the Jews were at first intensely angry at the news of their registration on the tax lists, they gradually calmed down, having been persuaded to oppose it no further by the high priest Joazar son of Boethus. Those who succumbed to his arguments unhesitatingly appraised their property. But a certain Judas, a Gaulanite from the city of Gamala, in league with the Pharisee Saddok, pressed hard for resistance …” (18.3)

Of course, the Romans dealt mercilessly with Judas, and thousands of his followers. The ghost of Judas never left Judea.

The matter of taxes to Caesar was never an issue in Galilee. Though, I am sure, taxes were never popular they were still paid and used quite differently.

So the hot theological debate is not merely taxes, but is it right to pay “tribute” (phoros. Luke uses the term phoros rather than kenos which appears in Matthew and Mark. phoros carries connotations that go beyond mere taxes or duties, cf. BDAG, p. 1064) to a pagan from the city of God. Tribute, praise, accolades, glorification are nearly worship ideas. To offer such to Caesar was tantamount to idolatry. Many believed it was. This is not a theoretical question and how Jesus responds will tell everyone if he is “sound” or not.

The brilliance of Jesus’s reply is that they are not using the things of God render tribute to Caesar. The denarius has a graven image on it! They are using the pagan’s own resources to “render” to him. The verb “render” also indicates simply returning or giving back what has his own (unholy??) image on it. And because it has an image on it, no Pharisee worth his salt would even want to touch such a thing … much less keep it.

Jesus is not endorsing Caesar’s claims in this passage. He is saying give the pagan what he has already defiled with his image. We on the other hand give all to God that he rightly owns. No wonder they were “amazed” at Jesus’s answer.

“Perfect love casts out fear.”

We learn early that some people seem to get the idea of love better than others. I’m not suggesting that I have met anyone who is perfect at loving God, themselves, or others, but it does seem some are very committed to perfecting the way they love. They seem to know that loving others well is essential to the good life—good for them and others. Good love becomes increasingly important to us as we refine our understanding of love. Bad love can make us leery and weary of relationships, but it will not quench our hunger for good love. I can’t count the people I’ve heard “give up on love” only to yearn for love again. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but we are at least looking for love that is in the process of perfecting. We want love that is intentionally getting better. 

But how does perfect love take shape? How is our capacity to love first perfected? Are there some conditions that signal when God’s love is being perfected—coming to maturity—in us? Thankfully the Bible gives us just such a description. And, although we should examine the entirety of Scripture to breathe in the fullness of God’s love, the Apostle Paul gives us the Cliffs Notes in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. After reminding us that authentic love is a non-negotiable, Paul outlines the essential characteristics of godly love. He starts and ends with what true love must be, and in the middle, he clarifies what must go! For example, love is patient, kind and never gives up, but it is not rude, self-seeking, or easily angered.

I wrote the book Love First: Ending Hate Before It’s Too Late because I realized the world is still hungry for the real thing. Bad love is literally everywhere—like a virus that is killing us. But we keep fighting. We keep hoping. We keep trying. We don’t want to give in to hate. Even when our hearts are broken and our spirits are crushed, we can’t stand the thought of hate winning. We won’t let go of the belief that good love is still possible, so what does this love look like?

In the Bible, the love we are looking for is called love first. The Apostle of Love writes in one of his letters:

“God is love. We know and rely on his love for us. Perfect love casts out fear. We love because He first loved us.” (Selected readings from 1st John 4:7-19)

God is love. Love begins with God. God leads with love. Love is who God is and what God does… first. The most famous passage from the Bible is John 3:16, which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” One doesn’t have to know much to be touched by the ethos and pathos in these fourteen syllables, but what is the logos—the word—behind them? We begin by noting that God’s love is climactically demonstrated in the giving of his son, but scripture testifies that “Jesus is the lamb slain before the creation of the world.” In him we were chosen before creation. He shared life and glory before creation. Are you catching this? If God gave his son before the creation of the world as an ultimate demonstration of his love, then God loved us before he created us, commissioned us, commanded us, and called us into account for breaking his commands. God loves humanity before he does anything else. This is God’s preemptive love.

But love first is also responsive. Jesus models this love for us as he steps into broken lives and offers them forgiveness, healing and hope. Jesus is willing to engage everyone. He converses with a Pharisee in the dead of night and challenges another in the light of day. Jesus stands with moral train wrecks. He openly abandons a socially acceptable reputation. He makes no effort to downplay his association with insiders and outcasts, the powerful and the marginal, those who will literally kill him and those who know they can’t live a day without him. Samaritans are heroes in his stories, but religious leaders who come to Jesus are received with an open heart and open arms. Jesus preemptively and responsively loves everyone.

I believe Jesus is calling us individually and as his church to live like him—like his body. But, offering love first—in every situation—is counterintuitive. We are taught that true love is always reciprocal, but this only accounts for responsive love. Jesus’s love is also preemptive, and it is this expression of love that opens doors when no one is knocking and offers forgiveness when no one is repenting. Loving first means hoping for something that is not yet seen and trusting that love has the power to initiate change. God models this love for us. God loved the world prior to creation. Loving first means loving others preemptively—before they do anything to “earn,” our love, but it also means loving others responsively even after they have done something that tests our love. We love because he first loved us.

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Alexander Campbell is one of the primary movers in the American Restoration Movement. This movement was primarily an effort to find ways of unifying the fragmented church. But Campbell believed the best way of accomplishing this goal was to facilitate better, not just more, reading of the Bible. To that end, Campbell devoted considerable energy toward putting an accurate Bible in the vernacular in the hands of believers. But people did not need to merely read the Bible, disciples need to understand what is being said.

Campbell recognized there was 1800 years separating, distance, American believers and the last sentence in the Bible. That is,

there is chronological distance,
there is geographic distance,
there is linguistic distance,
there is cultural distance between Scripture and ourselves.

It is not enough to be able to recognize the words on the printed page. Words often have different meanings in different times and places, sometimes just the opposite of what we think today. So Campbell frequently wrote to help people in his day to “come within understanding distance” of the biblical text. It is a great phrase. We who love God’s word must come within understanding distance of it. That is we need to pay attention to context. This reduces the distance between them and us.

In this article, I want to demonstrate that context is something we live with every day of our lives. By recognizing how we engage in assumed knowledge on a daily basis, we can see the necessity of coming within understanding distance of the most important book in the world, the Bible.

Context refers to the social and historical situation of the writer and the text produced. Context includes the sentence in which a word is found, the paragraph in which the sentence is found, and the paragraph within the structure of the writing. A word, a sentence, a paragraph even takes its meaning from the larger writing and in conjunction with the historical setting it is in.

It is actually unfair to two people, the author and the reader, when we ignore the fundamentals of contextual communication. It is not “common” sense to read a text that is at minimum two thousand years old in dead languages, from an alien culture as if it was written yesterday from Nashville, Tennessee.

Assumptions of Communication (Givens)

Every author, when he or she, writes a text makes lots of assumptions. She will assume a common framework in reference to accepted usages of words, cultural allusions, and the like. The author takes these common assumptions about the world as givens. These are simply part of the world the author and readers inhabit. If the author had to explain every metaphor, historical allusion or figure of speech, her piece would be clumsy, wordy and obtuse . . . and no one would read it.

It is these givens of context, that a contemporary author assumes on the part of his or her readers, that are lost on non-contemporary readers.

Givens, assumptions, of a text is natural and it is something we experience everyday. E.D. Hirsch, writing not about ancient books but contemporary media, calls this simply cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common “background information” that the “comprehending reader must bring to the text” in order for understanding to take place (Cultural Literacy, pp. 13-14). Hirsch illustrates his point beautifully with a series of excerpts from the Washington Post.

A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a Missouri farm, saying the U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended. The panel said that it is the responsibility of the agricultural secretary to carry out this intent ‘not as a private banker, but as a public broker.”

This passage, in a common newspaper, is loaded with givens, assumed knowledge, on the part of the author.

What is a foreclosure?
What is an agricultural secretary?
What is a federal appeals panel?
Where is Missouri and what about Missouri is relevant to this article?
Why are farmers debt ridden?
What is the USDA?
What is a public broker?

None of these “givens” would make any sense to even a chronologically contemporary person living in China.  For the citizen of that culture to grasp even this simple paragraph he or she would be required to investigate the social setting of Missouri and the Federal government. 

If we would expect this of a contemporary situation how can we think that less effort may be required of a text that is two thousand years old? There is simply a “ton” of information that authors take for granted, givens on the part of the readership. That shared information about the world “fills in the blanks.” (And I have just used two idioms (i.e. “ton” and “fill in the blanks” that I assume the reader will readily grasp).

Givens, this assumed information, is not specialized information. It is not information that only select individuals from certain fields would recognize, that is this information is not elitist. Rather this information is part of the common knowledge base of the readership. One can have a “common” knowledge of the USDA without having to write an encyclopedia article about it. The common knowledge is that folks recognize it, know what it means, and know why it is important. But it is that “common knowledge” that a person living in Hong Kong would simply miss.

I want to stress, once again, that assumed knowledge is the common knowledge of most any commonly educated Joe Cool walking down the street (and there is another common image that I assume most will get).

The problem for readers of the Bible is that those givens of the text are lost to us without coming within understanding distance. I once heard New Testament scholar Gordon Fee say,

today’s scholar could literally spend the rest of his life doing nothing but reading the classics, the Apocrypha, learning Greco-Roman legends, social customs and still not know what the average Joe Blow did walking the streets of Corinth in A.D. 54!!

He said it is sort of ironic that “we supposed to be scholars and yet still would not have a high school education in if we actually lived in the Roman world.”

The givens are simply the shared knowledge that is part of the fabric of the world that the author and readers inhabit. I am convinced that if we take the Bible seriously then we will in fact take its context seriously.

The Apostle Paul, Moses, Peter, Isaiah, John, like the writer of the newspaper article quoted above, simply assumes a great deal, quite legitimately, on the part of his contemporary readers. Those givens are simply lost to us and can only be recovered through immersion in Paul’s world. That is we must come within understanding distance of the text or we can misunderstand that newspaper article as much as a person from Tibet.

Closing the Gap

A thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible is essential filling in the blanks of Paul’s givens. When I say “thorough” I mean just that too. But most Jews did not read Hebrew but Greek thus encountered the Bible in the Septuagint. If a person knows Greek it is a wise thing to spend some time in the Septuagint (which can also be read in English translation btw). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that the Jews read, wrote and studied all manner of books beside the Bible. Traditions about the Maccabees, Greek theater/festivals and many other things simply “fill the air” like Star Wars does today.

This information becomes part of the givens, they are the context in which the word of God was given. The Jews and Greeks had a certain “Cultural Literacy” as much as Hirsch thinks Americans should.

Alexander Campbell believed we would move much closer to the spirit of New Testament Christianity not if we merely read the biblical text but that we come within understanding distance. Where we can hear the text now like Joe Cool did in AD 55 when Romans showed up and Phoebe read it to the gathered disciples in Rome.