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Showing posts from January, 2021

Can we really ask God for anything we want?

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Matthew 7.7-11, Luke 11.9-13, John 14.13-14, 15.7, 16.24. These passages are found in the middle of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in Jesus’s teaching on prayer requests in Luke , and as part of Jesus’s Last Supper lesson in John . Obviously the Matthew and Luke bits line up more neatly than the John bits, but the same idea is found in the John verses. I tend to summarize this idea as “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” If we want something from Jesus, ask! It’s okay for us to do that. He does take prayer requests. Matthew 7.7-11 KWL 7 “Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you. 8 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God ’ll unlock for. 9 Same as any of you people. Your child will ask you for bread; you won’t give them a cobblestone. 10 Or they ’ll ask you for fish; you won’t give them a snake. 11 So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good

The widow’s mite, and ancient money’s value.

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Mark 12.41-44, Luke 21.1-4. On the temple grounds there’s a room called the treasury; Greek γαζοφυλάκιον / yadzofylákion , a “guarded vault.” Thing is, the treasury’s in a place inaccessible to women. And since there’s a woman in this story, throwing an offering in, it simply can’t be what the writers of these gospels meant by “treasury.” It has to be in some other place. Hence most commentators are pretty sure yadzofylákion actually refers to the lockboxes which the priests set in the Women’s Court. Each of these boxes were at the end of a big metal funnel—which looked like a shofar , a ram’s-horn trumpet, and may very well have been what Jesus was thinking of when he talked about trumpeting your charitable giving. Mt 6.2 Because throwing metal into a big metal funnel made a loud noise. And throwing lots of metal—like a big pile of bronze coins, as opposed to, say, far fewer silver or gold coins—made a big ol’ noise. Probably too noisy to teach! Yet that’s what the gosp

No seriously. Start giving.

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Too many Christians falsely believe the Spirit’s fruit grows spontaneously. Since it’s the Spirit’s fruit, he grows it, just like in Jesus’s Independent Fruit Story where wheat grows without the planter realizing how. Mk 4.26-29 That parable, by the way, is about God’s kingdom, not the Spirit’s fruit —but hey, if it means we get freebies and don’t have to lift a finger, people are perfectly happy to receive freebies. So the assumption is if we’re truly following Jesus, fruit happens. Obviously we’ve not thought this idea through: Exactly how are we following Jesus when we’re not deliberately behaving in ways that’ll grow fruit? Passively? Is anyone meant to follow Jesus passively? (Spoiler: No.) If we’re gonna grow in love, we gotta love others, particularly unloveable people. If we’re gonna develop patience, we gotta be patient despite suffering in minor or major ways. (Which is why I hate developing patience.) And if we’re gonna develop generosity, we have to give.

Generosity.

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Generosity is a form of kindness. It’s about helping the needy, being an aid and comfort to them, being gracious regardless of whether they deserve our help, and fighting our fleshly urges to hoard and covet. Those fleshly urges definitely do get in the way of generosity. Sometimes we’ll only give because it’ll profit us. We’ll feel proud of ourselves for being wealthy enough to fund good deeds. Or we’ll feel this paid off our karmic debts —we may have done some evil before, but this totally makes up for it, and this means we’re good people. Or we’ll expect to be compensated: “I’m doing this for you now, but someday later I expect you to pay me back, or pay it forward to society.” Or we have an ulterior motive; we want to look like benevolent people while we’re hypocritically hiding our sins. This is why there are a lot of “generous” people out there, but they’re doing it for self-interest, not goodness. This is why a number of Christians will tell me, “Generosity is found i

How the apostles approached the Thessalonians.

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1 Thessalonians 2.1-12. When a salesman shows up to pitch something, how do they usually look? Most of the time—unless they’re trying out a clever new tactic—they try to look successful. They try to give off the vibe that what they’re selling made them a success, and if you buy it you’ll be a success. They figure successful-looking people are attractive… and they’re not wrong. So they dress nice. They try to appear classy and stylish. They bring in plenty of resources, plenty of helpers. They look like a big deal. Contrast that with how Paul and Silas first appeared in Thessaloniki, Macedon. It was right after they left Macedon’s biggest city, Philippi—right after having been been arrested, caned, jailed, then thrown out of town. Ac 16.12-40 They didn’t look successful; just the opposite. Even if they had a miraculous getting-out-of-jail story, they sure didn’t look like success stories. That’s the condition the Thessalonians found ’em in, and how they appeared when the Th

Deaf ears aren’t opportunities.

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Matthew 7.6, Luke 13.6-9. Back in college I was at my home-away-from-dorm, a popular Capitola coffeehouse called Mr. Toots. (Figured I’d throw ’em a free plug.) I got to talking to some UC Santa Cruz students, ’cause they quickly figured out I was a fellow student and wanted to know which school I went to. Once they realized I was a biblical studies major—a “God expert” (in training, anyway)—they wanted to talk God. A lot of pagans go through a phase when they head off to school where they question their faith—and rightly so, ’cause they need to question everything , and get rid of those things in their religions which aren’t growing their relationships with God any. But a lot of ’em ditch their faith altogether, assuming they ever had any. Some of ’em dabble in other religions; some of ’em even invent their own. And some of ’em flirt with nontheism —either because they really think there might be no God, or because they’re jerks and just wanna outrage theists. That’s what

Which bible translation’s the best?

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HE. “So lemme ask: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?” ME. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.” As soon as someone finds out I know the bible’s original languages, that’s nearly always the question they ask me. Sometimes because they earnestly wanna know, and figure I’m more an expert than they are. Sometimes because they already have a favorite, and want some affirmation. Sometimes because they already think their favorite is best, so they’re testing me. Well, this question has a long answer. It’s the rest of this article! But I found when you being with the long answer, their eyes roll back in their heads; they don’t wanna deal with the complexities of bible translations. They only wanted a quick ’n dirty answer. Tell ’em the best bible version, so they can go get that version and use it forevermore. Or judge you. Whatever. So I start with my joke answer: “None. Learn original languages.” Sometimes, but rarely, they realize I’m kidding. The

Do you know your bible quotes?

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Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible. ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD. Or “come short” in the KJV . Comes from Romans 3.23 ; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23 ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. Or “all men” ( KJV ): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing. ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

The bible, in chronological order. (More or less.)

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Some of TXAB ’s readers intend to read the bible in a month —or in four weeks, anyway—and have expressed curiosity about reading the bible in chronological order. It’s not enough that the creation of the cosmos comes first in Genesis , and the beginning of New Earth last in Revelation : They want everything sorted out by date. Okay, fine. But I will point out this order is debatable. ’Cause of course it is. Since when aren’t Christians gonna debate about who came first, Job or Abraham? (It’s Abraham. Job’s an Edomite; Edom/Esau is Abraham’s grandson.) Or which letter did Paul write first 1 Thessalonians or Galatians ? (My money’s on Galatians .) Other chronological-order lists are gonna have a slightly different order, although Genesis is usually first and Revelation last. Here, for your convenience, is the bible in chronological order. Not always the order it was written , but the order of the events which took place in the books. Print it out and check ’em off as you

The Thessalonians’ reputation. And ours.

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1 Thessalonians 1.6-10. In a few of the apostles’ other letters, the churches they were writing to had gone wrong, so they seriously needed to correct ’em. (I’m looking at you, 1 Corinthians and Revelation .) In the letters to Thessaloniki, Macedon, the locals needed a few pointers and minor corrections, but for the most part they were good. Better than good: They had a reputation for being amazing Christians. Not just in cranking out the good works, good fruit, and miracles: They were known for being a bunch of reformed pagans who eagerly pursued Jesus. And that’s a reputation you want . Certainly the reputation I want; certainly the reputation we all should have. Paul, Silas, and Timothy continue to recap their experiences with the Thessalonians: 1 Thessalonians 1.6-10 KWL 6 You became imitators of both us and the Master, accepting the message in great persecution, yet joy in the Holy Spirit. 7 Thus you became an example to all the believers in Macedon and Achae

Double standards.

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Mark 4.24, Matthew 7.1-5, Luke 6.37-38, 41-42. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a really popular verse for people who don’t wanna condemn anyone. But I already wrote an article about how people take it out of context. People use it to avoid making judgment statements, or to rebuke those who do… and it’s not at all what Jesus means. So today I get to what Jesus means. This bit of his Sermon on the Mount comes right after Jesus taught us about worry. Which is appropriate: Don’t prejudge circumstances indiscriminately, and don’t prejudge people unfairly. Matthew 7.1-2 KWL 1 “Don’t criticize. Thus you won’t be criticized. 2 For you’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with. The measurement you measure with, will measure you.”   Luke 6.37 KWL “Don’t criticize, and you won’t be criticized. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.” Obviously I translate κρίνετε / krínetë, “criticize,” differently than the KJV ’s “jud

Apostolic succession.

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APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION æp.ə'stɑ.lɪk sək'sɛ.ʃən noun . The action, process, or sequence of inheriting a title and office in church leadership, founded by one of Christ Jesus’s first apostles. Jesus sends his apostles on various missions, and in so doing, many times these apostles start ministries. Sometimes a church or denomination. Sometimes hospitals and hospices, schools and universities, shelters, charities, or whatever Jesus tells ’em to start. Sometimes the apostle’s job is to only start this ministry, then move along to the next task; Paul of Tarsus obviously did that with churches and schools. But a lot of times it’s to run the ministry for the rest of their lives. Or until they reach a point where they can’t physically do it anymore, and have to retire. Does this mean the ministry is over? Occasionally yes; the apostle kinda was the ministry, and without that apostle it becomes a shell of itself. (Or worse, a mockery.) But if Jesus wants it to keep going, he

What does Jesus send apostles to do?

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When people investigate what an apostle is, mainly they wanna know whether Jesus still makes them, or whether they’re just a first-century, back-in-bible-times phenomenon. Especially when they don’t want there to be any more apostles, ’cause they don’t like the idea of Jesus designating leaders himself, with no input from them. (I already discussed this in my article on apostles.) The rest of the time they’re usually looking for a job description. ’Cause some Christian has claimed, “This is what an apostle does,” and they wanna know whether that’s true. Do the scriptures tell us that’s what an apostle does? Or is this person all wet, and claiming some heretic weirdness instead of something truly biblical? Here’s the thing: The bible doesn’t spell out an apostle’s job description. Because it’s not actually a particular job. It’s a person. The word ἀπόστολος / apóstolos means “one whom [God] sent.” That’s a person. An individual. A woman or man to whom Jesus appears,

Apostles: Those whom Jesus sends out to do his work.

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APOSTLE ə'pɑs.əl noun. Person commissioned by Christ Jesus to perform a leadership role. [Apostolic æ.pə'stɑl.ɪk adjective , apostleship ə'pɑs.əl.ʃɪp noun ] Jesus didn’t just have the 12 students. The actual number fluctuated, as some joined the group, Mk 10.52 and others quit in frustration. Jn 6.66 Jesus had loads of student-followers. But he designated the Twelve in particular as ἀπόστολοι / apóstoli, “sent ones.” Lk 6.13 Eleven of ’em—including another student named Matthias whom they promoted apostle Ac 1.26 —became the core leaders of his newly-created church. And apostle still designates anyone whom Jesus, or the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s behalf, sends forth to do his work. Well… in some traditions. Y’see, various Christians insist the only apostles in human history are Jesus’s original 12 guys. Well… okay, they concede Judas Iscariot turned traitor and died, Ac 1.16-20 and Matthias replaced him, so Judas is out and Matthias is in. And okay, P

The Spirit’s power in a new church.

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1 Thessalonians 1.1-5. This letter, which we traditionally call 1 Thessalonians , was a team effort. Most commentators, myself included, usually talk about it as if Paul of Tarsus did all the writing, and gave co-authorship to his team members out of courtesy. Timothy gets a mention in 1 Thessalonians 3.6 , and since he’s spoken of in third person whereas Paul is always “I,” y’gotta wonder how much authoring Timothy really did. But the giant run-on Greek sentences are a dead giveaway: This letter, same as probably all Paul’s letters, was dictated , spoken aloud to a scribe. Probably Paul doing most of the talking; possibly the other guys added a sentence or two. We don’t know the level of their contributions. We do know they’re listed as co-authors, so it wasn’t nothing. Still, for convenience, I’ll refer to 1 Thessalonians ’s authors as “Paul.” Here they go. 1 Thessalonians 1.1-5 KWL 1 Paul and Silas and Timothy. To the Thessalonian church, in Father God and Master C

Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.

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Matthew 6.25-34, Luke 12.22-32. Right after Jesus taught we can’t make masters of both God and Mammon, he got to the core reason why we humans tend to slide away from trusting God, and instead put our trust in money: When it comes to basic daily needs, we don’t look to God first. We look to our wallets. Can we afford it? If not, then we might call out to God… but too often we don’t. This is a much harder lesson to learn for rich Christians than poor ones. In rich countries, we have crazy standards for what denotes “basic daily needs.” It’s not just food, drink, and clothing, as Jesus addresses in the following teaching. It’s having a roof over your head. A bed. Electricity and gas, for the central heat and air conditioning. Oh, and since you have electricity: A refrigerator to keep the food in. Internet and wifi. A phone. An email address. A television—’cause you can’t expect us to watch all our TV on our phones. And probably a car, ’cause you can’t expect us to walk every

Spiritual disciplines: Gotta develop the Christian lifestyle.

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If we’re gonna become better Christians, we have to get religious. I know; it’s popular among conservative Evangelicals circles to insist, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” For much the same reason pagans insist they’re spiritual, not religious : They have no interest in getting methodical, disciplined, or systematic about God. They want their heavenly Father to be a Disneyland dad, with all the fun and none of the obedience. They wanna do as they please, take advantage of God’s grace, and get into God’s kingdom despite being wholly unfit for it. True Christians can’t sit back on our salvation: We follow Jesus. We do stuff. We act saved. We stop behaving like we can’t help our sinful behavior; we know the Holy Spirit’s empowered us so we totally can. We stop acting like pagans do, as if we’re not a holy people, and behave as if we really are filled with the Holy Spirit. We stop being jerks and start producing fruit. I know; it’s way easier said than done. But

Epiphany: When Jesus was revealed to the world.

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6 January is Epiphany , the day which celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world. True, the Christmas stories figure that was with the angels and sheep-herders, and maybe with the magi. But technically he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son. John 1.29-35 KJV 29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. 30 This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. 31 And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. 32 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. 33 And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth wi

Read the bible in a month. Yes, seriously. A month.

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January’s here; you made resolutions, and one of ’em was to read the bible. As you should! It’s gonna make you more familiar with God. Some people unrealistically expect a new, profound God-experience every day, as the Holy Spirit shows ’em stuff, but hopefully you’re more realistic about it. Hopefully you’re realistic about all your resolutions. Not everyone is. So we need to read through through the entire bible, Genesis to maps. (That’s an old Evangelical joke. ’Cause a lot of study bibles include maps in the back. Okay, it’s less amusing once I explain it.) So Christians get on some kind of bible-reading plan to make sure we methodically go through every book, chapter, and verse. ’Cause when we don’t, we wind up reading only the familiar bits, over and over and over again—and miss a lot of the parts we should read. The reason so many Christians misinterpret the New Testament is because they know so very little of its Old Testament context. Every time I quote just a