Bible Theology Class #3: Abraham’s Call (and its Consequences)

Viewing Time: 53 minutes

This class will help students understand what the Bible is about and how its parts – Old Testament and New, Gospels and epistles – fit together. Such an understanding will better prepare Christians to express their faith to others and to live in the world as gospel people.

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Holiness Is Back in Vogue (or Should Be)

H. B. Warner is perhaps best known for playing the drinking druggist Mr. Gower in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but 19 years earlier he was cast by the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille to play Jesus in the silent film “King of Kings.” DeMille bound Warner to a contract that prohibited him from taking any roles for five years that might undermine his “holy” image in “King of Kings.” He wanted to avoid publicity that might negatively impact the film.

Warner was barred from playing cards, going to ballgames, swimming, and riding in a convertible. During filming, DeMille had him transported in a car with blinds drawn. On his way from the car to the set, he was obliged to wear a black veil. He was not allowed to eat with the other cast members.

If DeMille was hoping to impart an aura of holiness to Warner, he was unsuccessful. The pressure to be Christlike without the vision of the beauty and desirability of such a life, drove Warner over the edge. During production, he relapsed into his addiction to alcohol. It was the only way he knew to deal with all the stress.

Cecil B. DeMille seemed to think that holiness was defined by the things a person does not do. The early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underhill corrected such notions when she wrote, “The real mark of … that more lovely, more abundant life … is not an abstraction from this world, but a return to it; There is nothing high-minded about Christian holiness. It is most at home in the slum, the street, the hospital ward.”

Holiness – the very word has lapsed into disuse in contemporary culture – has often been misunderstood, even by those who think themselves holy. Real holiness is, in Underhill’s words, “that more lovely, more abundant, life.” Counterfeit holiness is unattractive and sterile.

Real holiness, again in Underhill’s words, involves a return to the world. Rather than seeking to escape the world, the genuinely holy person is God’s agent of love in the world. Rather than distancing oneself from others, the holy person is welcoming. Rather than being proud, which is the chief mark of counterfeit holiness, the holy person is humble.

A critically important, yet frequently overlooked, biblical passage that illuminates what “that more lovely, more abundant, life” is like is found in Leviticus 19. Many people, some who are earnest Christians, are entirely unaware of this passage, which elucidates the divine command to be holy. Were they to read it closely, they would come away with a different – and more positive – conception of holiness.

Leviticus 19 reveals what real holiness looks like in the real world. It does this by illustrating what it means to be God’s people in everyday situations, for example: in families; at work; in relationships with the opposite sex; and with immigrants. These examples reveal how relevant holiness is to everyday life.

Christopher J. H. Wright nicely summarizes the reach of holiness as it is portrayed in Leviticus 19. He notes that holiness transforms and beautifies family life (vv. 3, 32). It impacts a person’s finances, especially through generosity (vv. 9, 10). It demands economic justice (v. 13). It shows compassion for people with disabilities (v. 14). These are all contemporary concerns. Who would have thought that an antiquated concept like holiness could be so up to date?

There is more. Holiness entails judicial integrity on a societal level (vv. 12, 15). It calls people to show concern and compassion to their neighbors (vv. 16-18). It insists on sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29). It treats ethnic minorities with equality before the law, then goes beyond that by showing them practical kindness and compassion (vv. 33-34). It requires honesty in business transactions (vv. 35-36).

This is not what life looks like in most communities, but it is what life would look like if people were holy – that is, if they lived like they belonged to God. Of course, Christians claim they do belong to God. Therefore, this is how their individual lives, and life in their churches, ought to look.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Wide Angle: The Exchange (Barabbas)

In or around 29 A.D., a man named Barabbas found himself in the most secure prison in the country, awaiting execution in the morning. The story is told in Luke 23 but, before we get into it, we need a little background.

While Barabbas lay in prison, Jesus was being tried in another wing of the same huge building. His arrest had been orchestrated by insecure and envious government leaders. These politicians were also the nation’s religions leaders (similar to some contemporary Muslim states, where religious leaders are by default thebrokers ofpolitical power).

They held an emergency (and unlawful) session of court in order to try Jesus, found him guilty of blasphemy, and sentenced him to death. But these men had a problem: they had to answer to a foreign power, which alone retained the right to impose the death penalty. That meant they needed to work through the Roman procurator, Pilate.

He was, as in prior years, in town for the Jewish Feast of Passover. In their own court, the religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy, but before the procurator they brought charges of sedition. It was the only way they could think of to get the case heard in a Roman court.

The headquarters of the imperial government was far away in Caesarea, but when Pilate came to Jerusalem each year for the Feast, he stayed in the residential wing of the palace of Herod, which also housed the imperial guard and contained a high security prison. The district in which the palace was located was Jerusalem’s version of the “green zone”.

Barabbas (not his real name, but a nickname or an alias) sat in that prison on the night Jesus was arrested. He had been tried and found guilty of murder and insurrection and was scheduled for execution in the morning. He had one hope, though. Each year during the Feast, the Roman governor would release one prisoner, as a show of political goodwill. Barabbas knew that his friends and supporters would be at the palace at the crack of dawn, to plead for his release.

But when dawn came, the governor was busy questioning Jesus, the prisoner the Jewish high court had sent. When he then told the Jewish leaders that he had not found sufficient cause to try their case, they were outraged and countered that Jesus had stirred up rebellion from Galilee to Judea.

Hearing that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate immediately had him transferred to the governor of that province, Herod Antipas, who was also in town for the Feast. But Antipas sent him back without taking the case. Then Pilate brought Jesus out to his accusers, and for the second time announced that he had found no cause to pursue charges. He then offered to free Jesus as part of the annual prisoner release.

That’s when all of Barabbas’ friends and supporters began shouting, “Release Barabbas to us.” The wily politicians who wanted Jesus dead saw their chance and took up the cry: “Barabbas! Barabbas! Release Barabbas!” Now remember: Barabbas was being held in that same building. He may even have heard the shouting, “Barabbas! Barabbas!”

If he did, it must have sparked his hope. He never dreamt there would be so many people come to support him. Of course, he would not have been able to make out much of what was being said, but perhaps he heard the shouts: “Barabbas! Barabbas!” He would have smiled to himself. That brings us through Luke 23:18.

Pilate did not want to release Barabbas, who really was guilty of sedition. He wanted to release Jesus, whom he knew to be innocent. So, he appealed to them, verse 20, on Jesus’ behalf. That’s when (verse 21) the religious leaders started the chant, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Now put yourself in Barabbas’ place. You’ve heard your name being shouted by a huge crowd, and it’s given you hope. But after the shouts, “Barabbas! Barabbas!” the next thing you hear is the crowd shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” Something must have gone horribly wrong.

You would strain every nerve to hear the next sounds, but all you could make out was a jubilant shout and, shortly after, the Roman guards tramping toward your cell. Think of how you would feel: the time of reckoning had come. You were about to pay for your sins.

A guard, who hates you, says, “Get on your feet!” But instead of hauling you off to your doom, he unlocks your shackles. They open the door wide, and he tells you to get out; you’re free. Dumbfounded, you ask “Why?” And he answers, “Because the Nazarene, Jesus, took your place.”

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Secret Identity: 1 Peter 2:4-9

Approximately 27 minutes

A biblical reminder of who Christians are and helping them to know what they should do.

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Genesis 3-11(Biblical Theology, Class 2)

Class Time: 55 minutes
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Falling from Faith: The Anatomy of Apostasy

(Read time: approx. 31/2 minutes.)

I have been acquainted with numerous people who have fallen away from the faith. One I knew well and remains a friend. Some have been Christian ministers.

I am distressed when people leave the faith. I find myself wondering why it happens – what are the dynamics involved? Is there a reason why some people stick, and others do not? Is there a way to predict who will make it and who will wash out?

Apostasy is hardly a new thing. People were falling away from the faith and from the faithful even in biblical times. The Bible does not attempt to hide the fact; rather, it warns of the possibility and encourages people to take steps against it.

One of St. Paul’s colleagues was a man named Demas, which was probably short for Demetrius, a common enough name in Greek-speaking regions in the first century. Demas is mentioned three times in Paul’s letters.

The first time he is mentioned, he (along with three others) is described as one of Paul’s fellow workers. High praise indeed to be called a fellow worker by the great apostle. It is comparable to being called a teammate by Lebron James or a business partner by Warren Buffett.

Demas is mentioned again in another list of Paul’s associates. This time, five other men and one woman are mentioned and each of these receives comment. For example, Luke is “beloved.” Nympha hosts the church at her home. Epaphras is a servant of Christ.

In this list, only Demas receives no commendation of any kind. This cannot be without significance. What could have been in Paul’s mind that he offered commendation to everyone but Demas?

The answer comes in St. Paul’s final biblical letter. During his imprisonment, he wrote his closest colleague, Timothy, a final letter. Paul knew that death would soon take him from this “son in the faith,” so he wrote to offer encouragement and guidance while he still could.

Near the end of the letter, he urges Timothy to do his best to come quickly. The shocking reason for this is that Demas had deserted him. The man who had once been his fellow worker had left him in the lurch.

There seems to be a progression here – or perhaps a regression. On first mention, Demas was a member of the company of the committed, the great apostle’s fellow-worker. The second time, he stands apart from the company, for Paul can find nothing positive to say about him. And by the third time, Demas is gone. He has deserted the apostle and possibly even the faith.

The author of the Book of Hebrews had warned believers to “pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” This, I believe, is what happened to Demas. He didn’t wake up one day to say, “Today, I am going to desert my post, abandon my friends, and leave the faith.” Rather, he drifted away into competing desires and diminishing commitment.

Marooned in the dead waters of diminishing commitment, faith flounders and doubts grow. People like Demas, who thrive in the current of love, lose their focus and sometimes even their faith when they leave it. Outside that current, they drift, and it is rare indeed that someone drifts to their goal.

This is not to say that intellectual problems do not contribute to apostasy. Thoughtful people wrestle with real and troubling questions concerning the faith. It is possible to find answers to those questions in the swift current of love and obedience. They are impenetrable everywhere else.

When European and American adventure-seekers raft the wild waters of the Zambezi River, their guides caution them to stay in the current when – not if – they are thrown from the boat. Their team will come and get them but, whatever they do, they must not swim to shore. Why? Because crocodiles are waiting to eat them in the calm waters near the shore.

Doubts do not live in the current of love and obedience, but they consume people who try to get as near to the shoreline of cultural accommodation as possible.

(First published by Gannett.)

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New Class in Biblical Theology Offered

The Bible is a big book, containing around three-quarters of a million words. It’s easy to get lost in its pages. Readers often wonder what the Old Testament has to do with the New Testament and what Leviticus has to do with anything!

I have the privilege of co-teaching a class on how it all fits together, and I’m doing it with one of my favorite teachers: Kevin Looper. Kevin is an awesome teacher. His knowledge of the Old Testament, of original biblical languages and, even more, his love of the Bible and profound commitment to Jesus, make him the ideal teacher for this class.

As a pastor, I’ve known many sincere people who simply don’t have a solid grasp of what the Bible is about, which is to say, what God is doing in the world. Some only read the New Testament. Some only read the Gospels. And occasionally I meet someone who spends all their time in the Old Testament. A poor understanding of the entire message of the Bible inevitably leads to a narrow, culturally colored view of God.

So, Kevin and I are teaching a class on how it fits together. This, of course, means that we must leave a great deal out. Our goal is not to be exhaustive (which would be exhausting for class members and is more than we are qualified to do) but to be informative and helpful in bringing together the great passages of the Bible to understand God’s ongoing work with humanity.

Each Sunday, throughout the duration of the class, I will post a video session of the class. We will discuss the high points of revelation – Creation, the Fall, the Call of Abraham, etc. – in their context. We will then see how they contribute to the overall biblical message and how they connect to Jesus.

Hope you enjoy! If you have comments, please share them to make the class even better.

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The Cross: Summit of Salvation History (Wide Angle)

(Reading time: Approximate 3 minutes.)

We have been on a wide-angle journey through the Scriptures and have taken little time to pause and take in the sights along the way. We have been like mountain climbers whose goal is to stand on the twenty tallest peaks in the state. At times we have had to pass by wondrous sights with barely a glance, otherwise we would never reach our goal and scale those momentous peaks.

Not long ago, we were at Jesus’ birth; a week later we stopped at his baptism. Today we stand beneath his cross. That means we have bypassed some glorious scenes: The calling of the apostles; the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy-two; the miracles; the transfiguration – we could go on and on. These things are like roses and rivers and mirror lakes at the base of great mountains. Any other time we would stop and gaze, admire their beauty and ponder their meaning.

But during this series we are surveying peaks, and today we come to the highest of them all. All prior history rose to this, like the Himalayas rise to Everest. All subsequent history, including our own, flows from this. It is the Great Divide, the watershed between heaven and earth.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

But the mountain of revelation at which we have arrived is unscalable. Mysteries hide its summit, like a halo of clouds sitting on the head of some exalted peak. We will never dispel its mysteries, but we can take off our shoes and acknowledge that we are on holy ground. Our wide-angle journey has brought us to the cross of Christ.

It was the Old Testament that led us here. In the ruin of the Fall, God promised his damaged children that he would one day defeat evil, not in spite of them, but through them: the offspring of the woman, he said, would crush the head of the serpent.1 Later, on Mount Moriah, Abraham predicted that God himself would provide a sacrificial lamb. “He called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”2

A thousand years before Christ, the Psalmist seemed to see the cross through Jesus’ own eyes: “A band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”3

The Old Testament led us here. Hundreds of years after the psalmist, but still centuries before Jesus was born, Isaiah the prophet wrote: “He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”4

“Pierced my hands and feet.” “Pierced for our transgressions.” Add Zechariah’s prophecy, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced.”5 These and other ancient prophecies prove that the cross was no afterthought in the mind of God. The cross was part of the plan from the very beginning.

In coming to our text, we have climbed to the zenith not only of revelation, but of history. The prophets pointed to it, Jesus himself foretold it; and yet, all that being true, who could have imagined it?


               1 Genesis 3:15

               2 Genesis 22:14

               3 Ps. 22:16-18

               4 Isaiah 53:4b-6, 10b

               5 Zechariah 12:10

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Five Reasons to Change Your Life Now (1 Peter 1:10-190

Approximate Viewing Time: 27 minutes

Over the years, I’ve met people who bristle at the idea that being a Christian means they need to change. They think, “I’m already a Christian! How can that preacher imply that I need to change!” Or they say, “That’s works! That’s not grace!” and feel content to stay the same.

I feel sorry for them. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you need to change; it means you’ve already changed. It doesn’t mean you need to change; it means you get to change! You are not stuck. All kinds of new and beautiful possibilities have opened up for you.

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The Bible in Wide Angle: Genesis 1

Enjoy this class on how the Bible ties together. This week, the who and why of creation from Genesis 1.

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