God Speaks from an Ancient Book


The Breath of Life

We were made from dust, and we will return to dust. What animates us is “the breath of life.” God breathed life into us. In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, God creates people, and in chapter two the process is personalized: 

“The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature,” (Genesis 2:7).

Many, many years later, the Apostle Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, the same breath that transformed so much dust into a living, breathing human being, transformed the Bible from just an ancient book into the Scriptures – the very words of God. But if these are the words of God, why are they so hard to understand? 

“It Ain’t Easy”
The Apostle Peter claimed the Bible was inspired (2 Peter 1:21), but he – an inspired apostle – also made this observation about Paul’s writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, … “(2 Peter 3:15, 16).

Why is the Bible so hard to understand? First, it was written a long, long time ago, in a place very far away, in a culture that is very different from our own. Even the names are difficult to pronounce! 

Second, we are often listening to just one side of a conversation. It can be like playing the game show, Jeopardy! “Here is the answer; what is the question?” 

Finally, the Bible is designed for meditation (Psalm 1).

So what is the key?
Unlocking the treasures of the Bible is not impossible, but it does require work. Here are some keys:
Find a good teacher. Do you remember the struggle the Ethiopian had? (Acts 8:26 ff.) What a blessing it was to meet Philipp! 

Use a good translation. Have you read about Ezra the Scribe? (Nehemiah 8:8) They not only read the Scriptures, but there were also people present who gave the sense of the text.

  • Use good helps. Make the Bible come alive! Use good helps, including:
  • Choose a good introduction.
  • Use good maps.
  • Refer to a good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.
  • Judiciously use a commentary – after you have done your study!
  • Ask good questions.
  • Pray, pray, pray!

When Sunday was Saturday Night

While the Apostle Paul was on his way to Jerusalem with a gift for the poor saints there, he passed through Troas. The apostles and his friends decided to remain in Troas for a week so they could worship with the saints there. Some of the modern English versions differ in their translations in a most interesting way. For example, the New International Version reads:

“On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).

The KJV, ASV, CEV, ERV, RSV, NASB – even The Message, Geneva and Wycliffe, all agree, but the Good News Bible, for some strange reason, says “On Saturday evening we gathered together for the fellowship meal.” Why would they do that? Because it was.

Have you ever stood outside at midnight and looked up? Nothing remarkable happens. There are no flashing lights or ringing bells to inform you the new day has begun. It seems rather arbitrary, but the Romans started their new day at midnight and so do we. On the other hand, the Jewish people sensibly began the new day at sundown. (They could have just as easily used sunrise.) Sundown is easy to observe. (If they sky was cloudy, they used two threads: one blue and the other white. When you could no longer tell the difference, that counted as sundown.)

And so today, just as it has for thousands of years, the Sabbath begins at sundown on what we call Friday night and extends until sundown Saturday night when Sunday, the first day of the week, begins.

Remember, the first Christians were Jewish. They would have enjoyed the Sabbath meal “Friday” night and attended the synagogue services on the Sabbath (our Saturday). Then, when the sun set, they, like Paul in Troas, gathered for Christian worship and the Lord’s Supper. Thus, even though it was what we would call “Saturday night,” it truly was the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, so all the English translations are correct.

Over the years, as the distinction between Jews and Christians became stronger, the Roman practice of beginning the new day at Midnight became accepted and the saints met at 10:00 A.M. for Bible School and 11:00 A.M. for worship. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you get the idea.)

Leadership Paradoxes

Climbing in Colorado – Picture by John McKeel

 These Leadership Paradoxes were given to me years ago by one of the finest elders I ever knew, Bob Denney. Bob was a captain on Admiral Hewitt’s staff in the second world war, led the rescue of the American POWs near Nagasaki just after the second nuclear bomb was dropped (eventually Bob died from cancer — probably from that exposure). He was also the first television weatherman and a contractor. Truly an amazing man and a superb Christian leader. See if these Paradoxes don’t inspire you too:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  • Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  • The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest ideas. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help them anyway.
  •  Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best anyway.

The value in an action lies, not in the response it will receive, but in the quality of the action itself. Doing what is right, because it is right and honors God, is abundantly worthwhile, whether or not it is understood, appreciated, or reciprocated.

Peter’s Wife: Sarah’s Daughter

Ancient Capernaum – Photo by John McKeel

Her example shines from the shadows. Although she was not an apostle and we don’t even know her name, Peter’s wife is a true hero of faith. We begin our story in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sabbath synagogue service has just concluded. It was an amazing service! In the middle of worship, a demon-possessed man began screaming:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him (Mark 1:24 – 26).

Mrs. Peter probably missed seeing and hearing this. Her mother was home ill with a deadly fever. Now imagine what happened next. Peter, along with Jesus, Andrew, James, and John (and perhaps others), leave the assembly and come home with him. Now we know Jesus will take her by the hand and heal her completely, but Peter’s wife didn’t know that when Jesus and the rest arrived. How would you react if your husband brought home company under such circumstances? We are introduced to Mrs. Peter’s greatest virtue, what the Greeks called “makrothumia” – long-suffering.

In the very next chapter, we encounter her virtue again. Nearly the whole village has gathered in and around her house to hear Jesus teach. People are in the doorway and the windows. They have crowded into every corner of her home. Then, in the midst of it all, four young men carry their paralyzed friend onto the top of the house. (Did she hear them up there?) The young men begin digging a hole through the roof! (Can you see the bits of dirt and dust falling into the room and onto Jesus? How does Mrs. Peter react?) They lower their lame friend down in front of Jesus. The Lord not only heals the young man. He also forgives his sin! But, again, put yourself in Peter’s wife’s position. Not only is there a crowd in your home, but someone has dug a hole in her roof! She doesn’t rush to Peter to object. She doesn’t say anything to the young vandals. She was long-suffering!

On top of all that, Mrs. Peter encouraged her husband to leave and follow Jesus for three years. Later, the Apostle Paul asked: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)?” 1 Corinthians 9:5. Gone was his career as a prosperous fisherman and their life in Galilee. Just as Paul traveled across Asia Minor and Europe spreading the gospel, Peter traveled around the Black Sea starting churches (1 Peter 1:1). What I find fascinating is the presence of the long-suffering Mrs. Peter. According to Paul, Mrs. Peter traveled to distant lands, quietly helping her husband. She was content in the shadows.

Many years later, as we read Peter’s letter, I believe we see Peter describing his wife. He holds her up as an example for all wives:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

Finally, as we leave the pages of Scripture, we find one last tradition concerning Peter and his wife. They have arrived in Rome, but Emperor Nero has gone mad. Nero sadistically persecuted the Christians. Ultimately, Nero will have Paul beheaded, and Peter crucified. But before Peter died, he saw his wife led out the martyrdom. Eusebius records the words of Clement:

“They say that the blessed Peter when he saw his own wife led out to death rejoiced at her calling and at her return home and called out to her in true warning and comfort, addressing her by her name, ‘Remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed and the perfect disposition of those dearest to them.” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.30.2)

Did you notice the phrase “addressing her by name”? Someday, we’ll learn the name of this long-suffering saint!

Bedlam House

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – Photo by John McKeel

In 1274 A.D. a hospital called “St. Mary of Bethlehem” was established in England. Two centuries later the hospital was converted into an insane asylum. In those days, care of the mentally ill was cruel and closely akin to a prison. All day long the screams and shouts and pleas poured out of the doors and windows. It was a sad place of chaos and confusion and the name “Bethlehem” — the house of peace — was corrupted into “Bedlam” and a new word found its way into the English language.

Jan and I found ourselves in Arizona the day after Thanksgiving — on “Black Friday.” Because there is an hour difference between California and Arizona, we were wide–awake at 4:00 A.M. and decided to go to the mall and see what all the shopping fuss was all about. It was cold, raining and pitch black, but still, we had trouble finding a place to park. Some people had camped out on the sidewalk the night before just to be there for the race to the discounted television sets! Insanity ruled as crass consumerism ran unbridled through the mall. Wrong size? Just throw it on the floor and keep excavating. Coupons filled the air. Christmas carols blared and tempers flared.

We sat back and watched the show. There were the scientific shoppers who knew what they wanted and had carefully scouted the terrain the day before. There were team players as mom guarded the shopping cart and sent her minions on missions of consumption. “Mine! Mine! Mine!” It reminded me of a flock of seagulls fighting over a hot dog bun at the beach. I’d like to report that we rose above the fray, but alas I walked out with three pairs of shoes and a microwave gadget that makes hard-boiled eggs “without the messy shell.”

A few years ago, Jan and I visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is famous for her ancient olive trees and still, today shepherds tend their sheep in the hills below the village. And even though there is a massive, ancient church there commemorating the place of the birth of the Lord, it isn’t hard to imagine what it must have been like the night Christ was born. Yes, there was the chaos of the crowded village outside, but in the cave (for caves are still used as stables), in a stone manger lined with straw, a tiny baby was tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes. That child brought hope and salvation into the world in the most wondrous way. I can’t help but smile as I meditate on that moment and I wish the bedlam of Black Friday could be transformed back into the peace of Bethlehem.

Exercise

Today’s exercise is as simple as it is profound. Be nice. What does that mean to you? 

The Question That Can’t Be Asked

Working in the Boat Yard

A few years ago, Jan and I were looking for a new congregation to serve. The whole process was fascinating. I share an entire book of “Proverbs for Preaching” with young people who want to enter the ministry. The first one, of course, is “No congregation is stronger than her leaders.” By that, I mean the care and nurturing of elders and other leaders must be a top priority.  The second proverb certainly was in play during the candidate selection process we encountered: “It takes seven times longer to get anything done in church than anywhere else.”

The reason for that is easy to understand. Congregational committees only meet once a week, so the first half of the meeting is generally spent “bringing everyone up to speed” or reviewing last week’s meeting. This is especially true when selecting a new preacher. One congregation told me, “We’re going to take about a year to choose someone new.” At least they were honest! Other churches set aside three or four months to collect applications and then began the process of “weeding them out.” For ministers who are out of work and living on savings, that might be a little long. Of course, if they are looking to lure someone out of a pulpit to their congregation, it doesn’t matter, except to the congregation losing their minister!

But I stray. Generally speaking, the first question I was asked was a question that legally can’t be asked. “How old are you?” One elder acknowledged that, so instead, he asked, “In what year were you born?” (I’m not making this up!) I just sigh and tell them, but my wife, Jan, has come up with a great response. “Tell them you are a decade younger than Paul McCartney, 13 years younger than Chuck Norris, seven years younger than Sylvester Stallone, and six years younger than Arnold Schwarzenegger. You are the same age as the Apostle Paul when he wrote most of the New Testament, and you are a year older than Christie Brinkley.”

So how important is age? One congregation I met with announced the average age of the church was over 70, so they wanted to hire a youth minister and a young preacher “so young people will come back.” It’s a lovely thought, but a little late. I believe congregations should minister from their strengths, not their weaknesses, but that is a subject for another blog.

I admit some limitations come with age. I can’t run the mile in under five minutes anymore, and my hair is silver (although I earned every one of them!) However, we don’t generally think about the limitations of youth in ministry. For example, young ministers often have young families that rightly require more attention and time. Those pressures don’t apply to “empty-nesters.” A young man may have more energy, but an older minister typically has more time.

All of this doesn’t consider the matter of experience and maturity. Why didn’t God use Moses at 40 to lead the Israelites to freedom instead of waiting until Moses was 80? Likewise, people often wonder, “How many years does he have left to work with us?” They are polite enough not to ask the question directly, but I’ve had them ask obliquely, “When are you planning on retiring?” or (another illegal question), “Do you have any health issues?” So how old was the Apostle John when he wrote Revelation? Why did Paul tell Timothy and Titus to appoint “Elders in every church” rather than “Youngers”? Perhaps Oscar Wilde put his finger on it when he said, “I’m not young enough to know everything.” Finally, Lyman Bryson observed, “The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence.”

John McKeel

The Fashionable Sloth

Yawn.

Photo by William Phipps

One of the most memorable characters from the book of Proverbs is the “sluggard.” He is a lazy man. He can’t leave his house because “the sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!”

“As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.”

“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:13-16).

The sages of the middle-ages called sloth “the first deadly sin.” Sloth, in modern vernacular, means “laziness.” We might think of laziness as a weakness or common fault, but would we call it a sin? (See Proverbs 6:6-11.)

My first observation is that laziness doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of activity. Heaven knows we’re packing more and more into already too busy lives but is it purposeful activity? Are we moving towards a goal, or are we just bouncing off the walls? Do we believe it because we’ve heard something so often we accept it as truth, or do we believe (and behave) because we have discovered a precious truth?

Second, sloth prevents us from escaping lazy preoccupations and paying attention to the things that have eternal significance. For example, for the lazy of the world, love is something that “just happens.” We “fall in love,” and we “fall out of love.” Marriages are based on phileo (friendship love) or eros (erotic love), with the result when the attraction is over, so is the relationship.

Christian lovers are attracted to each other and are friends with each other, but marriage is based on agape (a love controlled by the will). Agape can never be lazy. It is proactive and involved. It works. It builds. It does. Therefore, if love is something we should do, then lazy people, who are unwilling to put forth the effort to love, should be justly condemned!

Let’s look at another example. Unfortunately, many Christians have just enough gospel to make them miserable, but not enough to make them joyful. They know enough about the biblical message to keep them from doing those things the world is tempting them to do, but they do not have enough of a commitment to God to do those things through which they might experience the fullness of His joy! I am convinced more people will be condemned at the Judgment because of sins of omission than commission.

Tony Campolo wrote, “Sloth deadens, but the Spirit gives life. Sloth thrives on feelings of inferiority, but the Spirit gives us the assurance that we are the children of God. Sloth is self-centered, but the Spirit creates a burning desire to change the world. Sloth leaves us bored and empty, but in the Spirit, we find the fullness of God’s joy.”

Anchors and Uninvited Guests

Two gas tanks might sound like a good idea but only if at least one of them has gas in it. Jan and I were motoring our boat through a narrow channel on Lopez Island in the Pacific Northwest. The channel connects Fisherman’s Bay with the rest of Puget Sound and the tide was running through it – fast. Our boat had plenty of power to make the run but the channel was lined with million-dollar yachts. Two wealthy couples, dressed in “yachty whites” were enjoying cocktails aboard that night when the unthinkable happened: our little boat ran out of gas and the current had a death grip on us. I flipped the switch to take fuel from the other gas tank only to remember I had forgotten to fill it!

We were about to become uninvited guests on that expensive yacht. Their eyes were wide with horror. The tide had us and we bore down on them at what seemed like light speed. Suddenly, just inches from their dinner table, we came to a stop. Jan had dropped our anchor in the nick of time. Its flukes dug in deep and, strained to the breaking point, the anchor line held fast. The crisis was over. There we sat in the roaring current, side-by-side. I reached over, shook hands, and sheepishly introduced ourselves. 

Christianity had many different symbols in her early years: the fish (“ichthus” the Greek word for fish is an acronym for “Jesus Christ God’s Son & Savior”), the cross (crucifixes, a cross with Jesus on it, didn’t show up until the sixth century), the lamb, and, my favorite, the anchor. 

It is frequently seen on ancient Christian tombstones and in the catacombs of Rome. The anchor symbol is based on Hebrews 6:18-19: Jesus “the hope set before us… is like an anchor for our lives, an anchor safe and sure.” Clifford Jones writes, “In this passage the anchor is a symbol of hope and steadfastness, and in the Church it soon became, especially, a symbol of Christian hope of life after death.” Thank God for anchors!

Real Bibles

Picture of a Bible

Like anything, technology is a blessing and a curse. The more I work with computers, the more convinced I am that demon possession is real. Camellia just told me her husband Mark believes Smith & Wesson created the first “point and click” tool for working with computers.

When texting first became popular a few years ago, I watched a little old lady lean across the pew and warn a college student not to text during the sermon. He sheepishly held up his iPhone and told her it was his Bible. Her reply was priceless: “Well, get a real Bible!”

As I’ve gotten older, I keep changing Bibles – not translations, but sizes. I’ve moved from a pocket Bible to large print to GIANT PRINT. The type is so big I don’t need to use PowerPoint. I think the whole congregation could read it if I hold it up!

Honestly, my leather-bound Bible is gathering dust. I use it on Sundays to preach from, but I rely on my computer for serious Bible study. It gives me access to hundreds of different translations (including Greek and Hebrew) and dictionaries, lexicons, commentaries, and specialized tools. But, as one wise person told me, “The only Bible that will do you any good is the one you read.”

One Size Fits All – Not!

Photo by Paul Jai

The holiday season is upon us and it’s time to start thinking about what to buy your spouse this year. As a young man lost in the department store, I thought “one size fits all” would be my salvation. That was only true until she tried to put it on. That’s when I learned better! This week, as I was doing a word study on “gentleness” (ἐπιεικής), I made some amazing discoveries that I would like to share with you today.

Gentleness has many sides. The New Testament describes a gentle person as someone who is “reasonable,” (ἐπιεικής). The Apostle Paul exhorts, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;” Philippians 4:5. Elders must be reasonable, (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2) because, “The “wisdom from above” is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason.” It is one of the goals for a man of God (1 Timothy 6:11).

While “meek” may have a weak connotation in English, to the Greeks it described a strong man who was able to control himself. The Apostle Paul asked the Corinthians, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). Meek and gentle are often used as synonyms. “I entreat you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:1). It is part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. When someone errs, we might be tempted correct them harshly, but a spiritual person “should restore him in a spirit of gentleness,” (Galatians 6:1. See also 2 Timothy 2:25). This calls for “humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). Again, Paul urges Christians to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” (Colossians 3:12). The result is “perfect courtesy,” (Titus 3:2). James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and challenges us to demonstrate that “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom,” (James 1:21). Finally, Peter says a Christian woman is adorned with “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious,” (1 Peter 3:16).

Gentleness is “kind” (Acts 24:4). For example, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus was a carpenter. Certainly, making yokes was a part of his craft. He describes himself as gentle. This is our word meek, and we can see meekness in action as Jesus lovingly fashioned each yoke especially for each animal. It was a perfect fit. It was easy. He didn’t mass produce “one size fits all” yokes!

Today, it is time to be kind.