Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:
My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.
Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”
I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.
To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.
But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.
However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.
Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).
Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?
This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.
I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
Serendipity (or coincidence) never ceases to amaze me. I had been thinking of a passage of Scripture for the past several days, and then in my daily Bible reading it came to me today – Ezekiel 22:23-31. I want to devote this post and the next to this passage of Scripture. I think Ezekiel has something for us to hear today.
In this post I want to mention the LORD’s word concerning the four perilous “P’s” in Ezekiel’s day. They were the princes, the priests, the prophets and the people. I am basing this article on the RSV, which may read slightly different from other translations as it incorporates a structure found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew, and not the Hebrew exclusively. I believe the content of the passage bears the RSV translation, so I will stick with it. This structure is prince, priest, prince, prophet, people – or, political, religious, political, religious, public. This is a striking construction, and adds to the message of the words themselves.
The princes were condemned because of their barbarous behavior, both in the taking of human life and the greed that drove them to steal helpless victim’s belongings (verses 25 and 27). They are pictured as roaring lions and ravenous wolves. What is terrifying here is the graphic manner in which the LORD indicts these political leaders. They are murderers and thieves. They were to lead the people, and instead were destroying them.
The religious leaders are dealt with following the condemnation of the political leaders. They are identified as being both priest and prophet (verses 26 and 28). The priests, in charge of the formal worship, had done violence to the law. They had profaned the Holy things. They had disregarded the Sabbath (a major theme in Ezekiel). But, in a strange indictment, Ezekiel condemns the priests for not making any distinction between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean.
Ezekiel turns to the general populace in verse 29. They are accused of committing crimes of greed. They extort, they rob, they oppress. In particular they are guilty of treating the sojourner violently, a crime that is specifically condemned in the Levitical law code.
I believe the correlation between Ezekiel and the present day is so obvious as to not need any further comment, but comment I shall. Are our political leaders guilty of shedding innocent blood? Maybe not in the sense of lynching innocent victims on the street corner, but the manner in which we have chosen to use our military in a long series of “police actions” gives me serious concern. There are more ways to shed innocent blood than lining individuals up against a wall and shooting them in the back. You can ruin the water supply with poisonous chemicals. You can pollute the air that must be breathed. You can allow carcinogens to be mass marketed. The list could go on for quite some length. Yes, I would argue quite forcefully that our political leaders are guilty of shedding innocent blood.
What about our religious leaders. Are we (and I am one) guilty of profaning God’s law, and thus of profaning God himself? Do we “daub with whitewash” when we should be using a scalpel to excise sin? Do we preach “thus says the LORD when the LORD has not spoken? And, most critically for today, have we become guilty of erasing the line between that which is Holy and that which is profane, between that which is clean and that which is unclean. In particular I have read several books of recent publication in which that very process is praised. “Everything is Holy” trumpet the post-modern prophets. “Everything was created good, so everything needs to be honored as good.” That sounds like good theology (and God DID say that everything he created was good, but man sinned and fell from his relationship with God, and most of what the post-modern theologians are calling “good” was not created by God in the garden, but by man in his fallen situation. Simply put, there is a Holy, and if there is a Holy there must be a profane. That means there are times of Holiness and times that are not Holy, there are places where we are in the presence of the Holy and there are places that are purely profane, or non-Holy. Not everything man has done is to be considered clean. Our spiritual leaders must be in the forefront of those who proclaim what is Holy and what is profane.
And, of course, there is the general public. Not too much has changed from the time of Ezekiel. Our public is still greedy and covetous. We still treat outsiders fare worse than we treat insiders, and we do not treat insiders all that good to begin with. It is no wonder that the people act this way – if the political and religious leaders of a group of people are corrupt then the people will not be far behind. Our present situation in which greed, corruption and covetousness run rampant is simply the result of years and years of our political and religious leaders either actively demonstrating those traits of character or passively failing to confront and condemn them.
So, the moral to the story is this – Ezekiel 22:23-31 was written to a people, a culture, and to a historical situation that has long since passed into oblivion. And Ezekiel 22:23-31 is just as relevant today as it was when the words were first written or spoken.
There is one additional point I would like to address concerning this passage, and that will be the topic of my next entry.
Continuing in my explanation and discussion…
As I was compiling my original list of undeniable truths I wanted to explain both the importance of and the difficulty in doing serious theology. In many people’s minds theology is a bad word. “We are not supposed to do theology, we are just supposed to study the Bible.” “Only ivory-towered egg heads can be theologians, but we are all supposed to read and study and apply the Bible.” It is difficult to get the people who think this way to change their minds. So, since I am one who is only too willing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I decided to give it my best shot. Hence, I needed to explain my vision of what theology is all about. That led to undeniable truths numbers 4 and 5:
4. The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.
5. Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.
So there you have it in 4 incredibly short sentences. I really don’t think I could make it any more clear. But, I can certainly make it longer.
First, the Bible is not a compendium of rules and regulations. The Bible is not a “how to” book for marriage, for parenting, for dating, for making money, for acquiring personal wealth. The Bible is certainly not a science or math text book that explains every answer to every question man has ever asked or will ask. The Bible is a story – mostly told as a story – of a relationship between God and man. The relationship begins when God creates a place for man to live and then creates that man. The relationship is broken when man (and his mate) decide they want to be “like God” instead of being “in the image of God” and so they go off and try to make God in their image. The story continues through the incarnation of God’s only Son as the only way to restore this broken relationship. The story ends with an apocalyptic view of how that perfect relationship can be ultimately restored and renewed. There you go – the story of the Bible in one neat little paragraph.
Theology is not the sole refuge of geeky eggheads who sit around analyzing little squiggles on an ancient piece of papyrus. Granted, there are geeky eggheads who do that, and may God bless them and we need more of them. But that is not the sum total of theology. Any time you pick up the Bible and read it and react to the text you are doing theology. Theology is the process by which we read a passage of the Bible, attempt to understand it, and upon deriving some meaning from the text, attempt to go out and live that message. So there are many sub-branches of theology, just as there are many sub-branches of any large scientific field. The point I want to make is that every preacher is a theologian. Every Bible class teacher is a theologian. Every evangelist is a theologian. In fact, if you read your Bible this morning and you responded to that text in a meaningful way you engaged in the process of theology.
So, why do we hate the subject of theology so much?
Mostly it is because there are a number of theologians who want to be held in a special measure of esteem. In a beautiful phrase that comes from the movie Man of La Mancha, they carry their self-importance as if they are afraid they will break it. They don’t just carry a chip on their shoulder, they carry a whole wood pile. They do not want anyone to attempt to do what they do unless this other person has been officially accepted into the “theology gang,” complete with secret handshake and funny little hats. You can tell these people when you see them – but you can’t tell them very much. This person might be a tenured professor at a major theological university or seminary. But it just as likely might be your local pulpit preacher, or Bible class teacher who has had one, count it one whole year of Greek or maybe attended a special lecture 20 years ago and so they feel absolutely above and beyond anyone else in the congregation. They give theology a bad name, and it is for a very good reason that people want no part of that game.
That is what is so sad about the whole conversation about theology. Theology is reading about, and thinking about, and discussing God! How in the world can a person mess that up? The desire to participate in theology should be like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when he sings about having the time that he wants to go to the synagogue and pray and discuss the Holy Books with the learned men. It was something that he would cherish. We turn it into boredom and drudgery.
I am an educator at the very bottom of my soul. I simply love to teach and to inspire. And what I most love is to teach the “Holy Books” that Tevye was so in love with. I want to inspire others to love the Bible and the story that the Bible tells. I want to draw others into that story and to help them see how their life is a piece of the beautiful mosaic that God is creating. So, I am unabashedly in love with theology. It is a most beautiful term in my vocabulary. I want everyone to understand and to accept the challenge to become a greater and wiser and more complete theologian. It truly is a beautiful place to be.
For those of you who are interested, an absolutely great resource for this discussion is Stanley Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. I heartily recommend this book.
[Continuing my discussion of positive evangelism]
Okay, so far we have examined the weaknesses of the “one size fits all” question and answer or “follow the bouncing Scripture” type of evangelistic programs (and those weaknesses are legion). We have seen how we need to take our students seriously and attend to their personality and to their needs. We have seen that the best tool to use in evangelism is the evangelion – the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus exactly as the Holy Spirit intended it to be written down and preserved for us. Now we turn to the role of the “evangelist.” What is the role of the human in this process?
One comment that might be in your mind regarding this series of thoughts is that I have been too harsh on those who write these “one size fits all” type of evangelistic studies. I have been pretty harsh on the studies themselves, but I really do not want to attack those who write or publish them. On one hand I do believe they have made some serious errors. But I will grant to them that they were working with the best of intentions. Good intentions do not always transition into good results, however.
No, the real culprits in the proliferation of these question/answer and “follow the bouncing Scripture” outlines are the members of the congregations who demand such materials. They (we) say that we want easy to comprehend study guides that are fast, effective, and require little in the way of study and preparation. So, that’s what the authors and the publishers have given us. These study guides are cheap, easy to master, require very little in the way of genuine in-depth Bible study, and at least on one level, can be described as effective. The long-term results, however, are distinctly negative. Campaign after campaign results in large numbers of “conversions;” people who rarely, if ever, darken the door of a church building within six months of their baptism. But we have our fast, easy and cheap evangelistic guides and the authors and publishers have their money so everyone is happy.
Is that the role of the evangelist? Baptize a person and move on to the next target? What does the Bible say? What saith the Scripture?
The apostle Paul makes clear that the gift of evangelism is one of the specific “gifts” of the Holy Spirit that he bestows on the church community (Eph. 4, Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12). I take this distinction quite literally. That is I believe some individuals have the gift of evangelism, and others do not. What are the implications of understanding this “spiritual giftedness” aspect of evangelism?
For one thing, it means that it is manifestly NOT the duty of every Christian to be an evangelist. It IS the obligation of every Christian to be ready to give an answer for their faith (1 Peter 3:15). That is a far cry from the active role of evangelism. Nothing as complex as the process of conversion can be so “simple” that every member can perform the task. As I believe I have already demonstrated, the “one size fits all” mentality is dangerous and unbiblical. Once we free non-evangelists to discover the gift that they have been given we will go a long way toward freeing those who do have the gift of evangelism to do the work that they have been given to do.
Recognizing the spiritual giftedness of the evangelist also suggests that in every congregation there very likely is at least one, if not many more, who do have this gift. But they may not be comfortable using the “approved” method of evangelism that the preacher demands the congregation to use. My solution is to throw the program away and just teach the gospel! Our task is not to make disciples of the minister (preacher). Our task is to make disciples of Jesus. Evangelism is sharing the gospel of Jesus, it is not mastering a set of questions or becoming adept at proof-texting the Bible.
Notice, second, that if evangelism is a gift, then the one who uses it is simply a recipient, and not the source of the gift. This simple but profound truth must be remembered! We are not the masters of the text, we are simply fellow students with our non-Christian students. You can, and actually you have to, master a set of questions and answers. You can and must master a Scripture chain reference. But no matter how many years you study the text and how many commentaries and how many devotional studies you read you will never, ever master the Bible. Every time you study a gospel with a new student you will learn something new. Evangelism is a gift that keeps on giving!
Related to this, if the gift is of the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit is the teacher of the student. The evangelist is simply one who shares the good news. Jesus Christ will “draw” all men to him if we will just lift him up (John 12:32). The one who masters the question and answers, the one who miraculously produces the next magic verse in the chain reference, these are the revival building gurus, the “sage on the stage” that everyone brags about. That kind of response feeds their ego, and they are quick to tell you exactly how many people they have “won” for Jesus. The Holy Spirit is nowhere to be seen or heard. But that is the kind of self-seeking person that Paul condemns. The faithful steward, the one who simply exercises his or her gift, the one who shares the text and then gets out of the way so that the Holy Spirit can do His work – THAT is the true evangelist.
Now, does this mean that all one must do is sit and read with a student to be an evangelist? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that we want the Holy Spirit to do the converting, but there is a role for the evangelist. The Ethiopian Eunuch told Philip, “How can I (understand) unless someone explains it to me?” So we want to guide, to lead, to share. That means we must know our subject. An evangelist will not be content to just read the text – he or she will want to increase his or her knowledge of the four gospels as much as he or she possibly can. This means the purchase and study of commentaries (commentaries must be studied, not just read). It is not too much to expect that a person can read a new commentary every six months or so. Certainly, one can read a new commentary every year. It will mean the purchase and study of special study type books focused on the gospels (focused on the parables, or the miracle stories, or maybe some technical aspect like the various endings of Mark). It will mean that he or she will want to buy and study books, or attend lectures dealing with, the various personality types of human beings and how various humans learn. The point is that Paul told Timothy he had received a special gift (2 Timothy 1:6 ) but Paul also told Timothy to study to show that he could properly handle the word of God (2 Tim. 2:15)! Being gifted is not an excuse for not studying – rather it is the invitation to deeper and greater study!
Next – summation and conclusion – putting everything together.
I have been working for some time on launching a website where I can not only blog, but also upload sermons, special lessons, have a “message board” type of conversation with my readers,- something that this site does not allow me to do. I must say that I really love my WordPress site, and would wholeheartedly recommend this blogging site. The other folks, not so much. I am not going to reveal my antagonists, simply because I do not want to generate any more hits to their misleading (in my opinion) website.
What finally made me deal with these folks was a promise – the site would just be so easy to use. Clear instructions, easy to follow tutorials – why, anyone who knew how to use a keyboard could have their site up and running in days. Now, mind you, I am not a dummy. I have two Masters degrees and I am more than half-way through a Doctoral degree. This blog is evidence enough to show I know my way around a keyboard, and even if it is somewhat amateurish, I have no problem with that. In Latin “amateur” simply refers to one who loves. I love to do what I do, and if it is not professional then I can at least say it comes with a lot of love. So, back to my story, I signed the contract and started what I thought would be a journey into website euphoria.
Big mistake. “Easy to use” was simply a clever abbreviation of the true statement, “Easy to use if you have an advanced degree in Information Technology.” I have a really, really nice looking home page and nothing else because I cannot figure out how to set up or configure any of my subsequent pages. The techies are only too happy to assist me, at a rate that varies between $75.00 – $150.00 an hour or more. I am beginning to think the entire process is set up for the little guy to fail and look stupid, so that he/she has to turn to the experts, who can then charge an exorbitant fee to solve what in reality should be a fairly simple problem. I am not a happy camper, but I signed on the dotted line so I really have no one to blame but myself.
How does this relate to theology? I am so glad you asked, dear friend!
How many times have you felt put off or made to feel stupid by an “expert” in theology who promises that his/her system is perfectly “easy to use” only to discover it is only “easy to use” by that theologian? Or, how many churches have you attended that promised “easy to use” worship or Bible study sessions, only to discover that you have to be an insider with years of experience in order to use the “easy to use” worship or Bible class?
And, more to the point in my life, how many times have I said the very same thing, only to have someone tell me, “yeah, that is easy for you to say.”
I remember in my student pilot days, while I was training for my instrument rating, I rode along in the back seat during a training flight with another student. He was ready for his check ride, and he was GOOD! The altimeter looked like it was frozen in place at his assigned altitude (not an easy trick in a C-172 in the hot and windy conditions of Oklahoma City) and every procedure was performed beautifully. I was truly impressed. He made flying instrument procedures LOOK easy. Believe me, those procedures are NOT easy. There is a huge difference.
If we as preachers, teachers, Bible school teachers or just every-day Christians tell the “unchurched” that the Christian life is easy we are flat-out lying. Some people may make it LOOK easy, but for the beginner or the total outsider the Christian life is anything but easy. We should back up and examine what we are really saying. Just compare how many times Jesus said, “Follow me and everything will be a piece of cake” compared to “Before you decide to follow me, you had better do some serious thinking and decide if you are willing to pay the price.”
With my website I failed to do due diligence. I signed before I examined, and I have paid the price big time. I seriously doubt the site will ever be functional.
I never, ever, ever, want to tell someone that if they become a disciple of Christ that everything will be easy and that the path to Christian discipleship is “easy to use.” Much assembly is required, and the assistance, love and guidance of a healthy Christian family (a church) is mandatory. Failure is anticipated, but forgiveness and restoration is limitless. I want everyone to know the teacher from Galilee. HIS promises are the only ones worth believing!