- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1 Kings
- 2 Kings
- 1 Chronicles
- 2 Chronicles
- Song of Salomon
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
The Israelites have had an amazing roller coaster of a ride, and because of their failure to get on-board with God’s plan for them, have been subjected to the split of their kingdom, the invasion of foreign powers and the exile of many of their people. They have been invaded by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and currently, they are under the thumb of the Roman Empire. The people are enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of a deliverer, like the big guns they read about in their scriptures. They are expecting a leader like Moses or Samson or David to rise up and rescue them. And they do get their deliverer in the form of God’s own son – Jesus, born of a teenager called Mary in a backwater town called Nazareth.
This account, being one of the four gospels (meaning “good news”), is traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples. His choice as a disciple is unusual in that he was a tax collector. (They were locals who sided with, and worked for, the ruling Romans in collecting fees and taxes. They were despised by their own countrymen and were as about as popular as corrupt police because of the implication that they were unfairly over-charging, ripping off and profiteering from the misery of their own people).
Matthew (whose other name is Levi) had a specific reading audience in mind when he wrote his account. He wrote for Jews, specifically emphasising the theme that Jesus was their Messiah. As such, there is a lot of reference to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, and links between the great king David’s bloodline to Jesus.
It is a gospel rich in several of Jesus’ great teachings as well as many parables and miracles. Matthew presents us with an account of Jesus that is powerful and varied, reinforcing the idea that Jesus is God’s great king and the promised Messiah who came to save.
Luke was a doctor and a contemporary and companion of Paul (who wrote most of the letters that make up the New Testament). Luke, who was probably the only non-Jewish writer in the entire Bible, states at the start that after much research he is writing this account about Jesus to provide a true picture of what went on. He is writing for a man he identifies as Theophilus, probably a patron of some sort or a man of some importance.
The book of Luke is actually only Part 1 of Luke’s writing. He followed it with a sequel – Acts – which describes what went on in those early days after Jesus as the apostles spread out preaching and teaching about Jesus. More of that later.
Whereas Matthew had a Jewish audience and Mark was written for a Roman mind, Luke wrote for the "Gentiles", for the "non Jews". Luke’s focus is to challenge wrong or misleading teachings about Jesus and instead to encourage the faith of all believers. We read about the importance of the Holy Spirit and the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection.
In his writing, Luke particularly shows Jesus’ heart for the poor, the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the outcast. And as we read Luke, we have no alternative but to ask ourselves the confronting and sometimes uncomfortable question: how does my life reflect Jesus’ heart for the less fortunate?
Okay, a bit of a jump this month. We leave the early days of the Israelites (we’ll come back to them in two months) and fast forward 1500 years to the time of Jesus. The Israelites have had an amazing roller coaster of a ride, and because of their failure to get onboard with God’s plan for them, have been subjected to the invasion of foreign powers and the exile of many of their people. They have been invaded by the Babylonians, the Greeks and currently, they are under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
The people are enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of a deliverer, like the big guns they read about in their scriptures. They are expecting a leader like Moses or Samson or David to rise up and rescue them. And they do get their deliverer in the form of God’s own son – Jesus, born of a teenager called Mary, and raised in a backwater town called Nazareth.
This account of Jesus’ life, teachings and ministry is attributed to John, who also wrote the book of Revelation and the letters 1 John, 2 John and 3 John. John was Jesus’ first cousin, a fisherman and a close friend and follower of Jesus.
Unlike the other accounts of Jesus, John doesn’t recount any of Jesus’ parables, and nor is his focus on miracles. There is, however, a lot of teaching and interpretation.
We can go at a slower pace this month, to really focus our attention on Jesus.
Strap yourselves in, folks, for one of the most exciting parts of the Bible. Acts narrates for us what happened as the curtain came up on the very first days of the church. Like all good sequels, Acts picks up where the previous story (as told in Luke) left off. It is here that we read about important people like Peter, Paul and Stephen and their adventures and encounters. We read of dynamic preaching and defences, arrests, hardships, travels, beatings, miracles, shipwrecks, riots and attempted murder.
Acts traces the spread of the news about Jesus as it moved out into the wider world, thanks to the missionary journeys of Peter through Judea, Galilee and Samaria as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Paul takes the gospel from Antioch, throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, over to Macedonia and eventually to Rome, where he served two years under house arrest. The number of believers begins at just over 100, but soon swells to thousands throughout Asia and Europe.
This narrative, probably written by Luke around AD65, is important because it:
- Links the gospel narratives, filling the gap between the accounts of Jesus and the letters written around the early churches
- Gives us a context through which we can better know Paul and thereby make more sense of all the letters that follow.
- Provides a window into history, covering the first 30 years of the church (in tumultuous times) as the news about Jesus expands from Jerusalem all the way to the centre of the Roman Empire. (1:8).
- Provides us with universal principles of church ministry and life as we see specific situations, conflicts and problems arise.
Also, in short, it is simply an exciting book, up there with any good action film. When you read it, try to pause and picture the events as they unfold. It is a breath-taking window into the first days of Christianity, and it is humbling to read of the enthusiasm, determination, boldness and the persecutions endured by these first followers of Jesus. Pray that we might have just a spark of the clarity of purpose that these people had!
Following on from last month’s Gospel of John, we jump over Acts (which describes the first days of the church) and into the first of the twenty-one letters (or "Epistles") that make up a good hunk of the New Testament.
In this case, we are reading a letter written by Paul (whose conversion to Christ and further adventures you can read about in Acts 13-28) to the people of the new church in Rome. Only decades after the execution of Jesus, this new faith had found its way to the capital which was responsible for his death. Rome at the time was a huge city, the crowning achievement of the Roman Empire’s architecture, arts and culture. But like any city, it had its problems.
Paul probably wrote this letter in about AD57 when he was in Corinth. He was writing to introduce himself to the people there and to tell them of his intended visit there as part of a trip he wanted to undertake to Spain. At this time, however, he was on his way to visit the suffering and impoverished Christians of Jerusalem.
Paul writes a lot about faith and salvation. He talks about dealing with sin, and the importance of the church community – made up of Jews and "Gentiles" – to be united, not divided. It is a very practical letter, in which Paul talks about ways in which their faith can be reflected in action, and it speaks very clearly to us even all these years later.
About half a century after Jesus, Paul wrote two letters – a couple of months apart -to the Christians living in Corinth. We have given these the (rather unimaginative!) titles of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
It appears that Paul had heard reports of some problems which had arisen amongst the believers there…. and he was writing to rebuke, encourage and instruct them about how they should be living.
Corinth was the largest of the Roman Greek cities, a cosmopolitan centre with a population of over half a million – most of whom were slaves. It was a centre of trade and a focal point for Greek temples, including the Temple of Aphrodite. At one point, over 1000 prostitutes served in the temple and – like many modern big cities – Corinth was well known for its immorality. (So entrenched was this debauchery that in fact, the verb "to corinthianise" actually meant to participate in sexually immoral practices.)
This provides an important backdrop for Paul’s letters. It appears some of the believers in the city were struggling to cast off the ways of their town. Some were finding it hard to break away from the lure of their city and they were indulging in sexually immoral activities and suffering under internal divisions. Their worship was plagued by problems and divisions. They also had fallen under the influence of some misleading teachers who were challenging Paul and causing dissent. There was also some hostility to Paul from within the church. Paul urged the believers to deal with these false teachers harshly.
Paul’s two letters make a universal connection with us, as churches today still struggle with the issues tackled by Paul.
Somewhere around AD50, Paul wrote this letter to be circulated around the churches of Galatia. In it he confronts the division that was starting to emerge amongst the believers because of some misleading teachings. Paul seems quite exasperated that the believers were so quickly being drawn away from his teachings about Jesus.
Some Jewish Christians had been promoting the belief that some of the old practices and rites of the Old Testament law (especially circumcision) were still binding on the new church. It appears these people had also been criticising Paul as having no authority, and they accused him of watering down the old ways to make them more appealing to the non-Jewish believers.
Paul responds forcefully by declaring his authority as an apostle. He also strongly argues that people are put right with God because of their faith in Jesus, not by outward shows, such as circumcision. He argues it is grace and not blind obedience to rituals that allow people to be in right relationship with God.
Aside from being an interesting glimpse into some historical conflict within the new church, it is also a powerful reminder to us today not to get caught up in creating our own hoops for believers to jump through.
Ephesus was a major trading city, a large commercial centre situated on an inland harbour with river access, making it important on the trading routes. It was highly regarded as a significant urban centre, along with Rome, Alexandria and Corinth.
Paul wrote this letter around AD60, perhaps while he was in prison in Rome. His letter was not written (unlike others) to address a particular heresy or problem within one of the new churches. Rather it expands and explains some of his themes about God’s purposes in the world and the importance of unity within the church.
Paul details God’s great plans for the church. Through grace, God has made believers right with him, and with each other. They are all unified as a single body, regardless of their background.
He then goes on in the second half of the letter to detail practical ways that believers should live. Their thoughts and actions and deeds should all be honouring to God, and this should be seen in daily life and relationships. He also exhorts his readers to arm themselves spiritually so that they can cope with the obstacles and challenges that they will invariably face.
It is an encouraging and exciting letter as Paul enthusiastically communicates the grand scope of God’s plan and his (to quote the famous hymn) "amazing grace".
On his first missionary journey somewhere around AD50, the apostle Paul founded a church in Philippi in northern Greece – perhaps the first "church-plant" in Europe. It was a place and a church that would remain close to his heart.
Philippi (which was named in honour of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II) was a significant Roman colony with a large population of retired Roman military. It was a cosmopolitan and prosperous city and a centre of communication and business.
Fast-forward ten years (AD61?), and Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He had remained close to the people of Philippi, however, and they had continued to support him with gifts and donations.
Philippians is Paul’s letter of reply to them, to thank them for their ongoing support and encouragement. However, Paul also uses the opportunity to encourage the people of Philippi in their beliefs and the way they live, even in the face of hostility and persecution. It is a letter of joy, hope and friendship.
This is another of Paul’s letters, penned (along with his letters to the people of Ephesus and Philippi, and to Philemon) while he was under house arrest in Rome around AD61.
Colosse was a town that had passed its use-by date. Hundreds of years before, it had been an important and prosperous town on the east-west trade route, but its glory days had long gone. Now it had declined into something of a second rate market-town, overshadowed by newer and bigger towns.
Paul had not been to Colosse, but he had heard of the young church from a man by the name of Epaphras (who may have actually founded the church there.)
It appears that the church there had been influenced by some false teachings, which were steering them away from the gospel. The letter does not detail specifically what the heresies were, but we can infer from the letter that the church had adopted a number of old practices and beliefs and in doing so, had watered down the importance of Jesus. Paul is critical of their strict adherence to old ceremonies, dietary laws, philosophy and angel worship. They are to stay away from the teachings of men, which appear as wise, but are lacking in value. He is critical of what appear to be the influences of two groups: the ascetics (who preached the denial of any worldly pleasure) and the gnostics (who preached that spiritual things were secret mysteries that were only revealed only to few special and select peoples).
So Paul wrote this letter to directly target and address these issues and to firmly and clearly declare the centrality and importance of Christ, and to spell out appropriate ways of right living.
It is an inspiring letter to us today, as it reminds us of the importance of getting back to basics and to beware getting swayed by the influences and ceremonies invented by man. It encourages us to test what we are taught to ensure it is supported, not by wisdom, culture or appeal, but by biblical teaching.
1 and 2 THESSALONIANS
With a population in excess of 200 000, the capital of Macedonia – Thessalonica – was an important urban centre and seaport.
In the winter of AD49, Paul and Silas were in the thick of their second missionary journey. They had experienced trouble with the locals in Philippi, which lead to a brief stint in prison. They arrived in Thessalonica and on three consecutive Sabbath days, Paul spoke in the synagogue, preaching his message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ who died and rose from the dead. He met with success, as many people – some Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greeks and a number of influential women of the town – were persuaded to become followers of Jesus as the Christ. But this caused some problems within the local Jewish community who stirred up trouble against them, which lead to a riot in the town. So Paul and Silas left the town in a hurry.
In AD51, Paul penned his first letter to the young church in Thessalonica to provide them with guidance and encouragement. He defends his ministry and authority amongst them, as he had come under fire from some critics. He encourages them to stand strong in the face of persecution from their town, to avoid sexual immorality and not to shy from hard work. It also appears that a prevailing expectation was that Christ would return any day, and the people were concerned for those who died before this event. So Paul reassured them about this and encouraged them to be faithful, hard-working, loving and hopeful.
About six months later, Paul sent his second letter to the church in Thessalonica. The situation is very much the same. So Paul again encourages them to stand strong in the face of suffering. He also counters some false teachings that have unsettled many of the believers, that Jesus had already secretly returned. Paul berates those in the church who are idle loafers, exhorting them to settle down and "earn the bread they eat".
What does it mean to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus? How does Jesus fit into the bigger picture of things and how important is he really?
People living just a few decades after Jesus sometimes struggled to work out how Jesus changed their beliefs. They were, after all, Jews who had a tremendously complex, established and historic religious system. But at the same time they were trying to balance this "old way" with the "new way" of looking at things with Jesus as the fulfilment of their ancient (Old Testament) prophecies about the Messiah and saviour. What did that mean exactly and how did it change matters such as worship and rites and behaviours?
Within the community, there were, in effect, Jews who sought to follow Jesus (who only later would become more distinct and adopt the term "Christians") and Jews who denied Jesus was the Messiah (who basically stayed "Jews").
Hebrews is a letter written to the early followers of Jesus ? Jewish Christians ? probably around AD60. We don’t know who wrote it. Early suggestions that it was penned by Paul are now not well supported and it appears more likely it was written either by Barnabus (a friend of Paul and a Jew of the tribe of Levi) or Apollos (a Jewish Christian from Alexandria, who also had a connection with Paul). Both of these men were learned and public figures in the community; both had a sound knowledge of the (Old Testament) Scriptures and were involved in evangelism.
The letter was not written to a specific person (such as Philemon) but rather to the body of Jews who had ?converted? to following Jesus. It is a group letter which would have done the rounds, much in the same way someone might send out a group email today to a large body of people, which would be forwarded and circulated around.
The central theme of the letter constantly drives home one point: Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptural (Old Testament) prophecies and he is now the ultimate and supreme provider of God?s grace. The old ways have been superseded by Jesus and there is no going back. It is a straightforward explanation that Jesus is the way to God.
While obviously this book was written in, and for, a specific audience and a particular point in history, its words still have significance for us today. It is a book which inspires those of us following Jesus today not to give up the struggle of our faith but to depend upon Jesus as the way to God. We are to "run the race" and live a life worthy of our faith. It is an important theological statement of belief containing some very memorable words and phrases often quoted today.
How well did you get on with your brother or sister (if you have one) when you were kids? Can you imagine what it would be like having an important figure like, say, the Messiah, as your sibling? (!)
Like Jude, James is generally considered to be Jesus’ brother. Although his family at first rejected Jesus and his claims of divinity (a perfectly natural reaction), James later became a follower of his brother. He met Jesus after his execution during the resurrection, and later James went on to head up the emerging Christian church in Jerusalem.
Along with other early writers of the era, James wrote to send a message to his readers about what it meant, in the post-Jesus world, to live as a follower of Jesus. It’s easy for us two thousand years later to truly appreciate the uniqueness and worth of a letter like this. We have thousands of books, tapes, blogs, internet sites, conferences, courses, Bible study notes, and heck, even the Bible to inform us and to deconstruct the nuances of Christian living.
But what if you had, well, next to nothing to go on? Enter… James.
Some people dislike the letter because it is not a lofty theological piece. It doesn’t rabbit on (like some other books do!) but rather gets down to brass tacks. What does it mean to live as a Christian? In turn, James addresses the following topics:
1. Facing Trials: Perseverance develops faith. Do not doubt. Remain firm in your faith. Stand on your own two feet against sin.
2. Listening and Acting: Don’t just listen to the word of God. Act on it. There’s no point nodding your head in church and saying all the right things when as soon as you leave you default to the ways of the world. Here’s what service to God is: looking after widows and orphans. In comparison to that, all the show and talk counts for nothing.
3. Status: James has little time for preening show-offs. Don’t suck up to the rich, the powerful, the popular and the pretty. Instead, if you want to follow God, treat everybody equally well, even the helpless, powerless and awkward ones who the world rejects.
4. Faith and Actions: Again, James drives home the emptiness of mere words if not backed up by actions. Here it is in short: Faith by itself as a concept, unless backed by works, counts for nothing. He asks, what is the point of wishing or hoping or praying someone well, unless you actually DO something to make that happen? To modernise his example, you can pray all you like for “the poor” but unless you put your money or time or effort where your mouth is, all you are doing is using up oxygen.
5. The tongue: James touches on a universal truth: our words are a powerful force for good or evil. We need to be very careful in the way we speak. The tongue is only a small muscle, but our words are a reflection of our whole lives. He issues a warning: a forest-fire begins with a spark. We too need to watch what we say, lest our words unleash something that will soon get out of control and cause huge amounts of damage.
6. Wisdom: True wisdom is shown in a good and humble life of service, not in boastful ambition or self-aggrandizement. Submit yourself to God. Control your petty desires. Stop judging each other. Stop boasting about how important you are.
7. Coping with wealth: Riches are only temporary and fleeting. Don’t bother hoarding and clinging to luxury and self indulgence. Instead, treat people well.
8. Patience: Be patient and stand firm in your faith. Don’t get thrown by the first challenge or difficulty that comes along.
James’ letter is just as powerful today as it was when he wrote it. It is also strangely fascinating that so many of the themes and challenges still translate and make so much sense two thousand years later. It is a book that is worth a constant revisit, to remind ourselves of some of the nitty gritty of Christian living, and as an inspiration and occasional clip over the ear to help us, as followers of Jesus, to stay on track.
1, 2 Peter
This letter was written by the apostle Peter somewhere in the early AD60s. Peter was once a fisherman before becoming, along with his brother, a companion to Jesus. Although a short letter, it is dense and rich with themes of Christian life, themes which although played out very differently today, still have a bearing on the way we lead our lives as followers of Jesus. The letter touches on matters of holiness, leadership, suffering and hope.
The letter was not written to a particular person or church, but rather as a circular, much in the same way an email might be circulated and forwarded to various groups of people today. Remember that the followers of Jesus were still a relatively small and scattered bunch in this era, one marked by its persecution and hostility towards believers. Followers of Jesus were socially ostracised, and could find themselves out of work, isolated and at worst, the victims of random or organised violence and death. It is difficult for us in a modern “Christian society” – where faith is generally accepted or even admired – to come to terms with the daily threat of genuine suffering and persecution, and where “hope” took on a whole more significant meaning. Yet these were huge themes for the early Christian communities.
Peter begins by discussing hope. The hope of the Christian is something that – despite what the world does – can never fade, spoil or perish. He encourages the believers to endure the suffering and trials of the moment, as this refines their faith and character as gold is refined in a fire.
He then encourages the readers to be holy. What does this mean? It’s a word we sing about and use a lot in Christian circles, but what does it mean? When something is holy, it is set apart. A decision to lead a holy and proper life is a deliberate act. It is a matter of decision and commitment on a daily basis, in the way we think, treat people, conduct business, speak and act. Peter tells people to be self controlled and obedient, and not to default to unhelpful and wrong ways of living. “Love one another deeply from the heart,” he says. “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander.” Peter couldn’t be clearer: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God”; now act like it! Live good lives so the people around you will honour God.
He then also promotes the importance of social order. In an era very different to ours in terms of social structures, welfare, international relations, cultural standards, law and order, he encourages appropriate relationships and submission to authority. In our individualistic age, which glorifies personal rights and freedoms, some of this can be challenging. Our society, for example, finds slavery abhorrent. Yet at the time of Peter it was an accepted part of the social and financial fabric of society. Peter says, within that context, slaves, do your job and do it well. To others he says, submit to the kings and governors as good citizens supporting the social order. Within the family too, he exhorts wives to be less concerned with outward adornment and more concerned with their spirit. And to husbands – in this era where women had next to no rights or capacities to live independently – he says do not take advantage of that, but be considerate and respectful of them.
All of this is part of the package of living in harmony with one another; not living spiteful lives, but lives that help others, lives of compassion, sympathy and humility. Do not be swayed from this expectation by threat or suffering or danger. Endure the suffering and have the strength of character not to be swayed by the world and what it throws your way. “In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord” over everything you do, he says.
Peter encourages his readers to live for God, and not to participate in all the unwholesome and hurtful and dangerous things of life. Instead, believers should love each other and show hospitality.
Living for God, however, comes at a cost. It makes you different to the rest of the world; hopefully not smugly or boastfully different, but different all the same. This will draw attention to you and may cause people to react to you negatively. People can be threatened by righteousness because it amplifies their own weaknesses and this may lead to persecution, insults or suffering. Peter tells his readers not to be surprised, but rather that they should praise God for what comes their way.
Peter finishes his letter by exhorting leaders to lead well and with good conscience and willing hearts. He tells them to be motivated by love and not money, kudos or power. He tells them to be self controlled and humble and to be servants of the people.
In summary, this letter powerfully encourages us to reflect upon our own lives, attitudes and relationships. It exhorts us to live lives honouring to God and to love others. It shines a light on us and forces us to self-reflect and ask the question: am I living in a way described by Peter?
1,2 & 3 John
John was a companion of Jesus, sometimes referred to as “the one who Jesus loved”. After wrapping up his career as a fisherman, he travelled with Jesus as he moved from town to town, preaching, healing and performing other miracles. He was there the night they shared their last meal together and was witness to his rabbi’s execution. He recorded these events in the gospel that bears his name, and later he would go on to pen the book we know as Revelation.
But Jesus’ death did not bring an end to his following, but rather a new beginning. Instead of disappearing, the word about Jesus grew and communities of his followers grew and expanded. And with that also came a variety of ideas about who Jesus was and what it meant to be his follower. While some of these ideas remained true to Jesus’ teachings, there was a bit of argy-bargy as assorted teachings of varying reliability and accuracy began to surface around the place. Like Peter and Jude, John wrote letters to various leaders and churches to address these suspect teachings.
His first letter – known as 1 John – is generally thought to have been written in Ephesus and sent out as a circular to various believer communities in the province of Asia. He was writing to discredit and expose false teachers and teachings, particularly addressing the growing appeal of Gnosticism. This pseudo-Christian teaching taught that spirit is pure and matter (or the body) is evil, and that to escape the evil body, salvation came not in Christ but in the acquisition of special secret knowledge. A side effect of this was a harsh treatment of the human body mixed with the promotion of licentiousness and immorality. (As the body was evil anyway, what did it matter?) This was totally opposed to the appeals for righteous living promoted by the New Testament writers.
John’s purpose was to assure his readers that they were saved. He begins by affirming the concrete reality of Jesus. He exhorts his readers to “live in the light”, and in doing so, reminds them that there such a thing as sin, and we should not kid ourselves about that. The Gnostics were perhaps promoting the idea that sin was not a matter for concern, but John directly contradicts this. Everyone sins, and Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He tells his readers if they are to “live in the light” they need to behave like that. He doesn’t mince words: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” and “Do not love the world or anything in the world”. Instead, he exhorts his readers to do God’s will.
John warns against those who would lead the people astray, people who pretended to be part of the Christian community but who proved to be false. He tells the people that those now born of God need to live lives that reflect that fact. They should not continue to sin. They should love each other. Jesus was the model of true love in laying down his life for others, and we too should be putting ourselves out – laying down our lives – for each other. “Dear children,” he says, “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Obey God’s commands. Let the Spirit dwell in our words and actions. Do not surrender to the world.
John hammers home some of the most central Christian theology in this letter: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” As a result, “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another”. In fact, the word “love” dominates the latter part of this letter. It was obviously a significant bone of contention for John.
In short: Love God and carry out his commands. Don’t surrender to sin. Know that you are saved.
2 John is a short follow-on letter. John begins his address reminding the reader that it is important to stay obedient and focussed on God’s commands to love. However, he warns that some false teachers are doing the rounds, relying on the hospitality of Christian people to spread their inaccurate and misleading messages. John warns the reader to watch out and be cautious that they do not consciously or subconsciously undo all their good work by supporting these false teachers.
3 John is a familiar letter written to someone close to John: his dear friend Gaius. He wishes him good health and expresses joy at his friend’s ongoing faith and example. He is grateful to Gaius for showing hospitality to preacher/teachers who John has sent out. However, John is openly critical of a church leader – Diotrephes – who has been hostile to John’s preachers, even excommunicating those who have shown hospitality to them. John describes Diotrephes as someone interested in building up is own personal empire and maliciously causing division in the church by gossiping. John has no patience for this. It is not a right way to live. He encourages his friend to keep doing good and not get sucked into doing evil.
It is interesting in reflecting on John’s three letters to realise that while times have changed, he was facing many of the same issues – some theologically lofty through to mundane logistical matters of personal conflict in the church – that we face today. His message is just as relevant: Love God. Love each other. Watch out for bad teaching.
Notes on Revelation
Some books of the Bible are straightforward. They provide a clear narrative of events or a logical explanation of theology, ethics or teachings. You read the words and they are immediately accessible. They make sense.
Revelation is not one of those books. It is instead, perhaps, one of the most controversial and debated books of the Bible. It was written toward the end of the first Century AD.
While the Christian Church today is well established and institutionalised as the biggest single body of people on the planet, it was not always that way. At the end of the first Century, the followers of Jesus – Christ-ians – were still something of a fringe community, geographically dispersed in various locations, and increasingly falling under persecution from the might of Rome. For decades, Nero and other Emperors actively sought to crush this strange but annoyingly resilient Jewish sect. But to no avail.
It is here that, at the end of the first Century, an aging John finds himself a prisoner on the rocky prison island of Patmos. And it is here that he records his thoughts and visions from God, this revelation being an important manifesto for his fellow believers of the time.
In the face of Roman Emperor worship, John writes this group essay to seven pockets of Christians, encouraging them to stand firm. He writes that Satan’s attack and the persecution of the early church will increase, but even so, they must not succumb, but instead must have hope in the future. God will win out in the end.
But Revelation is not a straightforward sermon. It is a highly descriptive and symbolic form of writing, and that makes it in parts difficult to understand and even unpalatable to a mindset used to modern Western thought and expression. There is, consequently, a lot of debate over various parts of the book. For this reason, the modern reader should be wary of anyone who claims to have “the” correct interpretation of the book. (Including these study notes!).
It is an unusual book to the say the least. There is a constant repetition of the number seven, strange and unusual beasts, unappealing or non-sensical visual images, Old Testament references and allusions, different ways of interpreting the various sections and a very elastic time frame which makes it hard to know if we are talking about the past, the present, the future or even the ominous sounding “end of time”.
But there is one thread that runs through the book: While there may be suffering in the present, here is a surprising statement, a revelation: God will make things right in the end. The grand relationship of God and humankind will be restored. Therefore, be encouraged to stand firm in your faith.