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Introductions for Each Book of the Bible

Introducing Genesis

The name Genesis comes from the Greek for, ‘In the beginning,’ the first words in the book. And that’s what the book is about: the beginning of the world, of human civilization, and of God’s relationship with humanity. One biblical commentator, David Atkinson, calls Genesis an ‘overture to the rest of the Bible.’ It’s like a miniature introduction to the whole story of God, introducing every theme that the rest of the Bible will elaborate on.

The book of Genesis, and particularly the first chapter of Genesis, has gained some cultural currency recently in big debates about the place of Creationism and Evolutionism in school curriculums. For what it’s worth, I simply don’t think that this very ancient story is very well-suited to addressing specific modern scientific ideas, like the Big Bang Theory. Rather, it’s a story about the primary questions of existence; it both fits well into its ancient Near Eastern cultural context, and at the same time transcends that context in amazing ways. Let’s do our best to read Genesis on its own terms—and then apply it to the context of our modern lives.

It’s true that, as we read this story, we will encounter some things that will be foreign to us, a talking animal and a 900-year old man being just two examples. There are some unavoidable mysteries in Genesis, things that are difficult to grasp with our modern minds and experience of the world. Even more remarkable, though, than these places of dissonance between our worldview and the worldview of Genesis, are the points of connection. The people in Genesis seem to live in a much different world than ours, but I think we’ll probably be surprised to find how similar to us the people themselves are. They face the same problems, challenges, and opportunities as we do—and in very similar ways. As we see how God interacts with these people, ancient in their context but recognizable in their humanity, I believe we’ll learn a lot about ourselves, God, and the world.

Introducing Exodus and Leviticus

Both Exodus and Leviticus are written by Moses, the great leader who, by God’s power, rescues the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, introduces them to God, and leads them to the land God gives them. We began reading Exodus during the previous season, Lent. During the Easter season, we pick up the story toward the end of a major show-down between God and Pharaoh: God wants Pharaoh to let the Israelites go; Pharaoh continually refuses; and God shows his power and his determination by punishing the Egyptians with plagues of ever-increasing severity. God has just promised Pharaoh that he is about to do something so awful that the Egyptians will finally not just allow the Israelites, but beg them, to leave Egypt.

The rest of the book of Exodus is about God and the Israelites getting to know one another. God agrees to be the Israelites’ protector and provider, and they agree to be his followers. Using Moses as his messenger, God gives the Israelites a series of laws meant to make them distinctive from other people and to reflect God’s own character. We get a significant taste of those laws in Leviticus, and we read the story of the Israelites trying—and failing—to live them out in Exodus. We also see in Moses a model of a faithful follower and a godly leader.

We also have a Daily Guide to the life of Moses from a previous year’s 40 Days of Faith Bible guide.

Introducing Numbers

Numbers is one of the five books of Moses. As you might guess from the title, it involves a lot of counting; the results of more than one census and the receipts from various offerings are listed for us in great detail. So, Numbers is the place to go if you want to know how many people were in the Gershonite clan, or how much the typical golden incense bowl weighed (ten shekels, by the way). Numbers also contains several collections of laws, mostly having to do with instituting national holidays and establishing patterns of worship. But it also tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert, after God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt but before they reach the Promised Land. That’s the part of the book we’ll focus on.

If I were to give a title to the narrative sections of Numbers it would be ‘Second Thoughts.’ Now that they’ve left Egypt behind, the Israelites begin to wonder if that was really the best idea. Is Moses really the right leader for us?’, ‘Can God really provide for us?’, and ‘Do we like God’s plans?’ are all questions that continually come up. Now that they have a new life of freedom, the Israelites discover that it’s a little frightening; and they often look back wistfully at the comfortable predictability of their slavery.

It’s easy for me to be critical of the Israelites. Their fantasies about the wonders of their previous lives as Egyptian slaves are often laughable, and their short memories regarding God’s miraculous provision can be downright frustrating. So, it’s easy to look down on them. And yet, if I step back for a moment, I recognize that I’m not all that different from them: I certainly have a tendency toward the-grass-is-greener thinking; I have a hard time waiting patiently; and it doesn’t take much for me to begin complaining about how unfair life is. Paul, the author of many of the New Testament’s letters, tells us that the story in Numbers was written down so that we could learn from the Israelites’ example and avoid their mistakes. Seeing as the cost of their mistakes was that many of them died in the desert, never making it to the Promised Land, it seems like a lesson worth paying attention to.

So, if we’re going to make the most of reading Numbers, it seems like it’s going to take ridding ourselves of any feelings of superiority and instead asking a few humble questions:

  • How am I just like the Israelites in the desert?
  • What good things might I be missing because of that?
  • And what would it take for me to root those things out of my life?

Introducing Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is one of the five books of Moses. Moses was the great leader who, by God’s power, rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, introduced them to God, and led them to the land God gave them. After Moses and the Israelites escape from Egypt, they spend forty years wandering in the desert (it’s a long story, told in Exodus and Numbers). Toward the end of that time in the desert, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, but God has let them know that it will be Joshua (Moses’ protégé) who will lead them there, not Moses. Before he dies, Moses gives a long speech in which he reminds this new generation of the entire history of their parents’ generation and gives his final advice on what they can learn from that history.

Introducing Joshua

Joshua is the story of how the Israelites, after forty years of wandering around the desert, finally enter into the land God had promised them when Moses rescued them from oppression in Egypt. Joshua was Moses’ protégé, and he took over Moses’ position after Moses’ death.

This Promised Land isn’t vacant. In fact, it’s rather heavily populated by this group called the Canaanites and other associated tribes (the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, among others). The Israelites have to fight for the land. They are commanded by God to drive many of these people out and to completely destroy others of them. God-endorsed war and killing on such a large scale is, to put it mildly, quite disturbing to our modern sensibilities. While it certainly doesn’t remove all of my discomfort, it does help me to know that God’s decision to destroy these people or take away their homes is not sudden or arbitrary.

Apparently, God has had a long-standing relationship with these people in which they have taken a particularly hardened stance against him. God doesn’t take away their land out of convenience, or simply because he likes the Israelites better. It’s a conscious act of judgment, done after long consideration rather than in sudden anger (Genesis 15: 16). Like I said, I still find such complete judgment of an entire nation unsettling; but it’s at least helpful to know that God had his reasons, that he gave advance warning of the consequences of rejecting him, and that he showed a lot of patience before moving forward.

It’s also interesting to note that God’s judgment of the Canaanites is not absolute.  One of the feature stories of Joshua is the story of Rahab.  She’s a Canaanite prostitute who decides to take sides with the Israelites in their war against the Canaanites.  Not only is she rescued from the destruction of her city, but she is adopted into the Israelites, and ends up being an ancestor of such Bible bigwigs as King David and Jesus.  Rahab ends up being mentioned by one of the New Testament writers as one of our top examples of someone who lived by faith (Hebrews 11: 31).  Rahab’s story makes me wonder if, even at this point, God was more willing to show mercy to the Canaanites than the Canaanites were to receive that mercy.

We’ll read about some of the wars the Israelites have with these people and the way the land is then split among the Israelites. Then, we end with Joshua’s last words.

Introducing Judges

Judges tells the story of the Israelites, God’s chosen people, just as they are settling into the new land God has given them. It’s a relatively quiet period in the history of the Israelites. Each tribe, each clan, and each family settles down to the simple domestic task of enjoying their new land. However, there’s a danger in this peacefulness. One word that the Israelites’ earlier leaders, Moses and Joshua, often repeated was, ‘Remember.’ Again and again, they encouraged the Israelites to pass on to future generations the story of how God had rescued them from the Egyptians, provided for them in the desert, and led them into the Promised Land. Moses and Joshua continually reminded the Israelites that it wasn’t by their own strength or effort, but by trusting in God’s goodness and power, that the Israelites found themselves so abundantly provided for. In the period of quiet and plenty following Joshua, the people do indeed forget. They become complacent. And when they become complacent, they find themselves at the mercy of marauders and oppressors. The ‘Judges’ are people raised up by God to rescue the Israelites whenever they get into trouble. They’re a fascinating group of people, and I think we’ll find the stories quite enjoyable. We’ll also have the chance to learn much about remembering, about mercy, about God’s willingness to entrust even very flawed people with incredible gifts and responsibilities, and about just how much can be accomplished by people who trust in the goodness and power of a living God.

Introducing Ruth

Ruth is a short story that gives us a rare glimpse into normal, everyday life in the Old Testament period. Even rarer, it focuses on two groups of people who tend not to be the title character of biblical books: women and non-Israelites. Ruth is an ordinary woman from the neighboring nation of Moab who, through her devotion to her mother-in-law and her attraction to the God her mother-in-law worships, ends up taking part in the biggest things God is doing among the Israelites, eventually becoming the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s most famous king.

Introducing 1 and 2 Samuel

Originally a single work, 1 and 2 Samuel are a collection of stories by an unknown author that highlight the period of time when the Israelites transitioned from a loose coalition of tribes connected by a common religion to a unified monarchy. Up until this time, God considered himself the direct ruler of the Israelites. He governed through occasionally raising up people called “judges” to rescue the nation and keep it in order. However, the people of Israel wanted a king because they were jealous that other nations had their own kings. God was pained by their rejection, and he warned them that having a human king wasn’t as wonderful as they thought; but, he still granted them their wish. The story of this complex period of political and social change features the main characters Samuel, Saul, and David.

The scene begins with Samuel — a priest, a judge, and one of God’s messengers (also known as prophets). Samuel was tasked by God to find and anoint the first king of Israel. The king was not to have absolute power – instead, he was to be subject to God and the word of his prophets. Saul was brought into contact with Samuel and was made king. Saul’s rule was characterized by an unwillingness to observe the rules set up for the king. Because of this, Samuel had to go find the next king, David, and begin the transition of power to him. The period of time between Saul and David was anything but smooth. While initially friendly, they became dramatic enemies as Saul’s reign came to an end.

David is one of the most celebrated Old Testament characters and author (or inspiration) for many psalms. His story occupies the bulk of 1 and 2 Samuel. During his time as king, David gained great power and influence because of his many military victories and effective use of politics to unify the Israelites. However, his reign was tainted by murder, adultery, and ethical leniency within his family. Even though he fell short of the ideal, David’s rule would become the standard against which all future kings would be measured.

Some questions to ask as you read 1 and 2 Samuel: Why do you think God granted Israel a king even though he considered that desire to be sinful? What about Saul caused his reign to fail? In what ways do you find David’s great passion to be helpful during his reign? In what ways was it harmful?

Introducing 1 and 2 Kings

1 and 2 Kings continue where 1 and 2 Samuel left off in the chronology of the Israelite’s kings. The story begins with king David’s transfer of power to his son Solomon. A great deal of space in 1 Kings is given to Solomon’s reign and achievements. After his decline, the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, each with a different line of kings who individually had varying degrees of influence and power. As both kingdoms were constantly at war with other nations, both the northern and southern kingdoms eventually fall to enemy forces. Also featured in these books are the prophets (God’s spokesmen) Elijah and Elisha and their interactions with the various kings. Elijah was considered one of the most influential prophets in Jewish history.

The author of 1 and 2 Kings is uncertain; it may have been composed by royal historians using court archives or prophets using other written records and oral traditions, or even some combination. The historical perspective of the author is not like that of usual historical writings which normally stress the political, social, and economic climate of the time. While some of those elements are present in 1 and 2 Kings, the primary perspective is theological in nature. The primary question posed is this: who was a “successful king” or an “unsuccessful king” in the eyes of God? The author expresses a good deal of commentary throughout the writing assessing each king’s reign from this angle.

As you read 1 and 2 Kings, you may notice patterns about the author’s picks and pans for the kings being documented. What do you see as the criteria for successful and unsuccessful reigns? And how do these compare to the ones we might apply to contemporary world leaders?

Introducing 1 and 2 Chronicles

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles, are books detailing the history of Israel and its then-recent kings. The writings are dated around the mid 5th century B.C. as the defeated and scattered nation of Israel was being restored to their home in Judah. They cover much of the same period of time and content as the histories of 1 and 2 Kings, which we just read last season, but its message and intent are different. Here’s a brief comparison of 1 and 2 Kings with 1 and 2 Chronicles:
  • 1 and 2 Kings
    • Can read like a commentary or criticism on the quality of the Israelite’s line of kings.
    • Targets the concerns of an Israelite audience that was defeated in battle and recently exiled from their homeland.
    • Reflects on the issue of what happened when the Israelites failed to fulfill their end of the “covenant relationship” with God.
  • 1 and 2 Chronicles
    • Idealizes Israel’s kings, particularly David and Solomon.
    • Targets the concerns of an Israelite audience being restored to their homeland.
    • Tries to answer the question: Is God still interested in continuing this “covenant relationship” with us?

Ezra and Nehemiah

Historically, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered a single work and most scholars conclude that the author of Ezra/Nehemiah was also the author of Chronicles, and some suggest that Ezra himself may have been the author. The book of Ezra picks up where 2 Chronicles leaves off in its reckoning of Israelite history beginning with the decree from by the Persian emperor Cyrus for the Israelites to be restored to their home in Judah (538 B.C.). In 458 B.C., Ezra obtained permission from King Artaxerxes to travel back to Judah to oversee the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and promote the Israelites’ return to the observance of Mosaic law. In 444 B.C., Nehemiah, then a trusted cupbearer for Artaxerxes, was also given permission to return to Jerusalem in order to oversee the rebuilding of its defensive walls.

As you read the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah in their attempts to rebuild significant parts of Jerusalem, what do you notice about the circumstances under which their work was completed? What differences do you notice between Ezra and Nehemiah and their respective reforms?

Introducing Esther

The book of Esther tells the story of a young Jewish woman who becomes the queen of Persia. It’s set during what’s called the post-exilic period of Jewish history. The Jews had lost a war with the world power, Babylon; their capital Jerusalem was destroyed and the entire upper class of Judea was sent into exile, to limit their ability to foment rebellion. Shortly thereafter, Babylon itself was conquered by Persia. The Persians gave the Jews permission to return to Judea, but many of them, including Esther’s family, chose instead to stay in exile and, in fact, to spread throughout the Persian Empire.

The book of Esther is one story about what happens when the Jews, who had tended to remain somewhat separate before the exile, begin to mix more with other people and cultures in the larger Persian world. It’s also the inspiring story of the difference one person can make. If you’re interested, there is a Daily Guide of Esther, available on the 40 Days of Faith page.

Introducing Job

The book of Job is a poetic masterpiece that speaks to the issue of suffering, and specifically why bad things happen to good people. Job is bundled with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes under the category of wisdom literature in the Bible. We don’t know who wrote Job; best guesses are that it was completed in the seventh century BC. What we do know is that Job is the premier piece of ancient poetry that we still have to study and enjoy.

Job’s wisdom is unique in the Bible in that it’s formatted like a stage play, with extended speeches that function as dialogue between the characters. If it’s hard to imagine the characters on stage, since there’s only talking and no dramatic action, perhaps thinking of them as corresponding through postal mail might be helpful. In any case, as with most poetry and ancient drama, you can expect to find beautiful and extended metaphors and similes as a way to express the drama occurring between the characters. Here’s the cast of characters in Job:

  • Job: The protagonist of the story. He’s a great guy with a great life but encounters such hard times that he’s wondering how God could allow so many horrible things to happen to him. Job is most likely not an Israelite. He is one of the “people of the East” which means he’s probably an Arab, Edomite, or from some other tribe from their area, in what is now Jordan or northern Saudi Arabia. This is interesting because this paragon of wisdom and righteousness in the Hebrew Bible was not himself Hebrew, and may not have gotten his understanding of God from Hebrew tradition.
  • God: Does God need any introduction? He’s very proud of Job for his faithfulness.
  • Satan: Has been given permitted by God to make Job’s life miserable by taking away his possessions and health. Satan disagrees with God’s opinion that Job will remain faithful to God during these hard times.
  • Eliaphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: Job’s friends. They try to explain to him why he’s going through so much trouble. They assert that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor and that Job is suffering because of his wrongdoing.
  • Elihu: The youngest of Job’s friends and last to speak. Interestingly, he’s not mentioned until he first speaks, well into the book, and he never elicits any direct response from anyone. It’s as if he’s been listening in the whole time, says his piece, and then disappears. Because of the lack of response to him, how exactly he fits into the conversation is a bit hard to tell. In any case, along the way he certainly has some interesting and useful things to say.

To fully engage with the book of Job, try to imagine what the characters—particularly Job himself—are feeling. Why is Job so exasperated with his friends’ ‘comforting’? Is it tempting to see the world as simply as Job’s friends? Have you been in a situation similar to any of the characters?

You can also read our daily Bible guide of Job.

Introducing the Psalms

The Psalms are the Bible’s model prayers. About half of them are written by the famous king David, as well known as a musician and worshipper as he was as a warrior and giant-slayer. There’s a psalm for almost every occasion we’re likely to experience in life. In the Psalms, we find beautiful songs of praise, testimonies to God’s goodness, pleas for help, and questions asked when things don’t work out as they’re supposed to. The Psalms are really meant to be prayed—sung even—rather than just read. I find that I get the most out of them when I adopt them as my own, praying them as my own prayers. I tend to pray them verbatim—doing so aloud and with gusto whenever possible seems to improve the experience immensely—but I know other people who use them as jumping off points into further prayer in their own words. You might even want to try occasionally reading a psalm aloud together with someone else. Take turns reading stanzas aloud. At the end of the psalm—or in the middle of longer psalms—you could jump off-book to pray further about the ways the psalm connects to your own current life circumstances.

If you’re like me, praying two common types of psalms might initially make you a bit uncomfortable:

  • Extravagant claims of righteousness—occasionally, I find myself gulping when, aloud and with gusto, I end up praying something like, ‘I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered’ (Psalm 26:1). I wonder if the proverbial lightning will strike me down. Despite the fears of divine punishment, a few things have kept me praying these absurd boasts:
    • First of all, I’ve noticed that my praying of these psalms take on a tone of aspiration: it makes me want to be the kind of person who can pray those things without blushing. That seems like a pretty good result to me.
    • Secondly, I get the feeling that the psalmist doesn’t mean that he has never made any mistakes. I think what he’s saying is that he has never abandoned God. That’s still a pretty gutsy thing to say, but it’s not quite a claim to perfection. While the ‘not faltering’ thing still kind of trips me up, I think I can honestly say that ever since I met God I’ve taken my relationship with God seriously.
    • Thirdly, I have a growing suspicion that these extravagant claims to righteousness have less to do with my moral report card, as it were, and more to do with how God sees me. I noticed that sometimes in the same psalm the author will ask for God’s forgiveness and will make one of these audacious claims to utter blamelessness. Once he’s confessed and been forgiven, it’s as if he never even took a mis-step. Perhaps these psalms are saying that, because of God’s goodness, we can be certain that God likes us, sees the best in us, and wants the best for us. If that’s the case—and I’m beginning to believe it is—then we can pray those crazy things with confidence and excitement.
  • Calls for violent retribution—some of the psalms seem like they’re more suited to a Quentin Tarantino movie than to the Bible. While I sometimes still find myself a little squeamish at the sheer bloodthirstiness of some of these ‘crush my enemy’ psalms, I’ve been surprised to find them among the most helpful psalms to pray, for a few reasons:
    • They help me prepare for the difficulties of the day—if I start the day with one of these psalms, it reminds me that not everything is going to go my way. I can prepare myself, and ask for God’s help in facing the difficulties that are sure to come;
    • It’s a faithful and non-violent way to vent—it’s extremely liberating to unabashedly express just how I feel about the people who treat me poorly and unfairly. But in the end, it’s harmless. I’m expressing it to God, not letting it leak out in my interactions with people. I express my anger and my desire for revenge; then I leave it in God’s hands to protect me and to vindicate me when appropriate. Once I’ve expressed my feelings and left action in God’s hands, I can much more easily let it go;
    • I primarily focus the prayers on my true enemies—the New Testament author Paul tells us that our real enemies aren’t other people, but destructive spiritual forces whose entire purpose is to do us harm (Ephesians 6:12). I have no problem praying that these enemies die a gruesome death.

Introducing Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is classic Hebrew wisdom literature known for its large collection of short, pithy statements. A large section of it is attributed to King Solomon, who was traditionally known as the wisest and most prosperous of all the kings of Israel. Rather than being completely written by Solomon, this collection of sayings was likely compiled over time in ‘the tradition of Solomon’—perhaps with Solomon’s contributions serving as an original core. Scholars think the collection reached its final form sometime in the 5th-4th century B.C. (about 500 years after Solomon). Interestingly, one of Solomon’s named co-contributors, Lemuel, seems to have been a non-Hebrew king from a neighboring nation. Apparently wisdom literature was shared across national, cultural, and even religious boundaries.

Proverbs contains conventional rules for everyday life. They are based on simple if-then rules; every action has some predictable consequence. The proverbs cover everything from relationships to finance. A common recipe for a Hebrew proverb is to contrast the ways of wisdom and folly. Although I think you’ll find it applicable for men and women of all ages, Proverbs is framed as a father’s advice to his son. As part of this framing device, the author often personifies Wisdom as an attractive woman to be pursued. Continuing with the metaphor, he frequently contrasts Wisdom to what he calls the ‘wayward’ or ‘adulterous’ woman—a seductive woman whose charms ultimately wear thin or lead you astray. This Wayward Woman might simply be a corresponding metaphor for folly; or it could be that the author is acknowledging that, for his adolescent child, temptations away from the path of wisdom would often come in the form of sex.

In applying the proverbs to life, it’s important to keep in mind that the proverbs aren’t meant to be treated as ‘law’ or ‘absolute’. They are pithy sayings meant to be applied according to the situation. That’s why you may come across two proverbs that seem to be giving different messages. For example, Proverbs 10:15 says ‘The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their destruction’ while Proverbs 18:11 says ‘The rich think of their wealth as a strong defense; they imagine it to be a high wall of safety.’ The first takes a positive view of wealth while the second seems to imply that wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And don’t both of those strike you as true? Wealth does indeed come in handy, but it also fails to make us as secure as we’d really want to be. Because of the proverbs’ situational nature, it takes some wisdom to know which of these wise sayings to apply at any given time. It’s helpful to take the proverbs in context with each other and in context with the Bible in general. It’s also worth asking God or wise friends which proverbs might apply best to our current situation.

The book of Proverbs is a hodge-podge collection of wisdom and can be broken down generally as follows:

  • The first 10 chapters are collections of speeches or essays about the virtues of wisdom.
  • Proverbs 10:1-22:16 are the ‘Proverbs of Solomon,’ an apparently unordered list of sayings attributed to Solomon.
  • Proverbs 22:17-31:9 can be classified as ‘more sayings from wise people.’ Finally
  • Proverbs 31:10-31 is a description of an ‘excellent woman.’ This Hebrew poem is an acrostic, meaning that each line of the poem starts with the next letter in the sequence of the Hebrew alphabet. This technique is sometimes used in Hebrew poetry to aid in memorization and is unfortunately lost in English translations.

I like the proverbs because they read like clever Mark Twain quotations. They’re easy to digest, yet provoke deeper thought and imagination. In the original Hebrew they were meant to be memorable, like the English proverb ‘haste makes waste.’ Unfortunately, reading in translation, we often miss their snappiness. Readers of Hebrew tell us that they’re full of puns, world-play, rhymes, and alliteration. Even without reading them in Hebrew, they have a certain charm and refreshing bluntness. They seem to be observations from actual life experience — each statement could be prefixed with the words ‘In my experience…’ When I read them, I often find myself nodding my head and responding, ‘That’s so true.’

If you find a particular proverb helpful, consider sharing it with your friends when it seems relevant. Since proverbs are so short, memorable, and commonsensical, it’s easy to share them even with people who aren’t reading the Bible along with you. If you’re so inclined, you could even try making your own translation of your favorite proverbs, trying your best to add back in some of that zip and humor that might be getting lost in translation.

Introducing Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes has an unknown author and an unknown date. The author gives some hints that he could be King Solomon (‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem’), but linguistic analysis places it between 400 and 200 B.C., much later than the reign of Solomon. It’s possible that the hints of Solomonic origin are a literary device to add weight to the wisdom of the writing. It also could be that Ecclesiastes was written by another king in Jerusalem. Or maybe it was intended to be a work of imaginative fiction—an attempt to get inside the mind of Solomon.

Almost as enigmatic as the author and date is the style in which Ecclesiastes was written. The Teacher starts by declaring that the theme of his writing is life’s ‘meaninglessness’—but then he alternates between expounding on ‘meaninglessness’ and offering very practical words of advice. While the shifts of direction can feel a little lurching, the author’s experience with the meaninglessness of life resonates with me. One of the things I notice is the Teacher’s continual shift between positive and negative thoughts. In one sentence, he’s imploring me to enjoy my short life, and the next he’s pointing out the meaninglessness of it all!

Unlike the simple conventional wisdom in book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes contains a more speculative and critical look at wisdom. Because of this tendency toward speculation, and because the Teacher is building a pretty subtle argument over the course of his writing, it’s important not to take any single verse and immediately apply it to life: that single verse might very well be a false or tentative conclusion. Wait until the end to try to decide what it all means. If Ecclesiastes does, in the end, come to a conclusion, it might be about keeping life in balance: other than God, no pursuit totally satisfies; so don’t throw yourself too fully into anything.

It could be, though, that it doesn’t even mean to come to a conclusion. Maybe the point is to ask, and provoke, the big questions: What is the meaning of life? Where can I find happiness? The tone of writing is very reflective, as if an old man is looking back his life and wishes to share what he’s noticed with his family.

When reading Ecclesiastes, it might be helpful to think about times in your life that are similar to the author’s. Have you ever found a certain pursuit to be a total waste of time? Have you been dissatisfied in your work? Have you witnessed extreme injustice? The Teacher seems to have experienced it all. What can you learn from the Teacher’s experiences?

Introducing Song of Songs

Song of Songs is a steamy love poem, traditionally attributed to King Solomon (thus, it is also known as Song of Solomon). Some interpreters think Song of Songs is a contribution to the Bible’s wisdom literature, a meditation on the nature of romantic love. Other interpreters think Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about the love between God and his people. Who’s to say it can’t be both?

Introducing Isaiah

Isaiah is an Old Testament prophet. The primary role of the Old Testament prophets was not necessarily to predict the future, but to interpret current events from God’s perspective. Just like most other Old Testament prophets, Isaiah’s starting place is the local politics of Israel and Judah-in Isaiah’s case, around 800 B.C. But the scope of Isaiah’s prophecies is especially grand, encompassing surrounding nations, the future, and eventually all of the world and all of history.

Introducing Jeremiah and Lamentations

The books of Jeremiah and Lamentations are both poems written by a man named Jeremiah. Jeremiah was an Old Testament prophet tasked with interpreting current events from God’s perspective. Jeremiah’s prophesied in Judah from 626 B.C. through about 586. During this time, the small nation of Judah was caught up in the military conquests of the larger empires of Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. This period of stress for Judah led Jeremiah’s prophecies to have a morose edge to them. The anguish that he expresses has led him to be known as “the weeping prophet”.

Reading Jeremiah can be difficult because of his forceful declaration of God’s judgment on his fellow countrymen. Why the harsh judgment on Judah? Prior to Jeremiah, Judah was corrupted under the long reign of King Manasseh. Manasseh essentially led Judah to seek power from sources other than God, which is known as idolatry throughout the Bible. Attempts at reforms by subsequent kings did little to change this. Jeremiah interpreted Babylon’s violence against Judah as the consequence of their actions. Despite Jeremiah’s seemingly harsh words, he loved Judah and was always careful to point out that a sincere return to God from idolatry would help their situation. Jeremiah is a complex character! How might you go about taking his point of view on the affairs of Judah?

Introducing Ezekiel

Ezekiel is one of the Bible’s prophetic books. When thinking of prophecy, we can tend to focus on the idea of predicting the future. It’s true that biblical prophets did at times speak about the future, but that really wasn’t their main point. The prophets were like God’s official ambassadors to the people of Israel and Judah, and their function was to try to help the Israelites and Jews see current events through God’s eyes.

Ezekiel was God’s prophet during the period known as ‘the exile.’ During the sixth century B. C., due to a long series of bad political and spiritual choices, the Jews found themselves at a distance from God and in trouble with Babylon, the major world power of the time. The Babylonians went to war with the Jews, eventually destroying Jerusalem and deporting most of its population to exile in Babylonia. Ezekiel himself was sent into exile before the destruction of Jerusalem: he was one of a group of Jewish leaders taken hostage by the Babylonians at an earlier stage of the war. So, he’s writing from Babylon, commenting on the events in Judah which will eventually lead to the fall of Jerusalem.

The portions of Ezekiel we’ll be reading actually come after Jerusalem’s fall. Ezekiel shares with us God’s plans for Judah’s restoration. He warns us not to rely on false hopes, but also never to underestimate God’s goodness and his ability to bring something good out of even the worst circumstances.

As I read Ezekiel, or any of the prophets, it always makes me curious about how God sees our own current events. You might want to be on the lookout for similarities between our times and Ezekiel’s. It might also be worth asking God if he has any prophetic words for you about things that are happening in our world today.

Introducing Daniel

Daniel lived during a very tumultuous time. Egypt had long been the superpower in Daniel’s corner of the world, but was going through a period of decline just as three new rivals—Assyria, Babylon, and Persia—started to gain strength. These four heavyweights spent about 200 years duking it out for supremacy. Judah—Daniel’s homeland—was a tiny country which, to its great misfortune, happened to be located on the path the contenders’ huge armies used to get to one another. Because of this inconvenient placement, Judah was often used as a pawn in the larger nations’ strategies, a prize over which they fought, a convenient battleground for their wars, or simply a highway for advancing and retreating armies.

It was not just a political and economic disaster for the Jews (the residents of Judah), but a crisis of faith as well. The Jews tended to think of their city Jerusalem as the Center of the Universe, but they discovered that it was actually something of a small, backwater town in comparison to the cosmopolitan capitals of the giant empires that surrounded it. Furthermore, they had believed that their land could never be taken away and that Jerusalem could never be conquered, because the land was a special gift from God and the Jerusalem temple the unique dwelling place of God on earth; but here they were at the whim of these apparently godless nations. These catastrophes provoked profoundly unsettling spiritual questions:

  • Had God abandoned them? Forgotten them? Ceased to care about them?
  • Were the gods of these other nations actually stronger than the one they had always thought of as the only true God?
  • How would they relate to God without a Temple or the Promised Land?
  • Is worshipping God worth it?

The story of Daniel can be seen as a response to these questions. I think what we’ll find as we read it is that God cares more about and is more active in these other nations than the Jews would have ever imagined, but his interest in the Babylonians and the Persians doesn’t come at the expense of the Jews; he still cares very much about them, and, in fact, has bigger plans for them than ever.

Daniel is a young man from the Jewish upper classes who, when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem, is captured by them and conscripted into their college for training imperial civil servants. This forces Daniel to figure out how to faithfully follow God in an entirely unfamiliar setting. As it turns out, God ends up using Daniel in amazing ways to influence several Babylonian and Persian emperors.

Daniel is remarkable among Old Testament books in that half of it—the second through seventh chapters—is written in Aramaic, while the other half is in the customary Hebrew. Since Aramaic was the common language of the Persian Empire, it’s possible that the middle chapters were written in Aramaic for separate, wider distribution among the people of the empire (Baldwin, Joyce G. Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 21. D.J. Wiseman, ed. Downers Grove: IVP, 1978, 29-30); meanwhile, the beginning and end, which deal more specifically with Jewish concerns, were left in Hebrew, the Jews’ local language. Daniel is also split into two halves another way: the first six chapters tell Daniel’s story, and the second six chapters collect his dreams and visions. We’ll be looking at the first half.

If you’d like to know more about Daniel, you can find a guided walkthrough of Daniel (and Esther) on the 40 Days of Faith page.

Introducing Hosea

Hosea is one of the ‘minor prophets,’ so-called not because they are unimportant, but because their books are shorter than the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). Hosea speaks his prophecies during what ends up being the final days of the kingdom of Israel. After Solomon’s reign, there was a civil war which ended with the Israelites being split into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah.

For about two hundred years, both kingdoms existed side-by-side, behaving something like competitive siblings: often they fought one another; sometimes they banded together to fight other surrounding nations. During Hosea’s time, Israel draws the unfriendly attention of Assyria, a vast military power. Hosea tells us God’s perspective on Israel’s Assyrian crisis. In the book of Hosea, we also get an intriguing glimpse into the private life of a prophet: Hosea’s own troubled marriage is used as an extended metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel.

Introducing Amos

The book of Amos is the record of the prophet Amos’ messages to the kingdom of Israel around 750 BC. At that time, both of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were experiencing a time of great prosperity. One of the results of this prosperity was a widening gap between the rich and the poor. As a prophet, Amos felt his mission was to speak on God’s behalf a warning about this social injustice and to urge his audience to reconsider their relationship with God.

There are a couple of interesting things you’ll encounter as you read Amos. First, he lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, but was called to deliver his message in the northern kingdom of Israel. Second, he denies being a real prophet! How do you think Amos felt about his message if he was willing to travel so far away from home to deliver it? And what do you think about his denial of being a prophet?

Introducing the ‘Minor Prophets’

These books are called the ‘minor prophets’ not because they are unimportant, but because they are shorter than the writings of the ‘major’ prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). During this part of our reading schedule, we’ll read several of these shorter prophetic books: Micah, Jonah, Joel, Habakkuk, Malachi, and parts of Hosea and Zechariah.

The popular conception of prophets tends to focus on the idea of seeing the future, but predicting the future is actually just one surprisingly small aspect of what the Bible’s prophetic books are about. Most fundamentally, the Bible’s prophets were God’s spokespeople to kings and to society in general. Their job was to share God’s perspective on political events, mostly events that were current at the time of the prophecies. Often, the prophecies include God’s planned response to these events; that’s where predictions of the future play a part.

Since these prophetic books are God’s social and political commentaries, it’s helpful to have at least a little knowledge of the events on which God is commenting. Three different events figure particularly prominently in the writings of the prophets:

  1. The division into two kingdoms: After King Solomon’s reign, there was a civil war which ended with the Israelites splitting into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Israel was larger and more cosmopolitan than Judah. Judah was more attached to the Israelites’ historic roots: it was ruled by Solomon’s descendants, kept the capital of Jerusalem, worshipped at the traditional temple, and was led spiritually by the traditional priesthood. For about two hundred years, both kingdoms existed side-by-side, behaving something like competitive siblings: often they fought one another; sometimes they banded together to fight other surrounding nations. Eventually, Israel was overtaken by the Assyrian empire, leaving Judah alone.
    1. Micah is a Judean prophet who comments on societal problems in both kingdoms.
    2. Jonah is from Israel, but his story mostly involves him prophesying about Israel’s arch-enemy, Assyria.
    3. Hosea is about the last days of Israel, just before the Assyrian conquest.
  2. The exile: in time, Judah was also conquered by a major power, the Babylonians. Jerusalem was essentially abandoned, and a large portion of the population of Judah was forced to move to Babylonia.
    1. Habakkuk is set in Judah just before the Babylonian conquest, and Joel seems to be written just after Jerusalem was destroyed.
  3. The return: when the Babylonians were, in turn, conquered by the Persians, the Persians allowed any Jews (as the people of Judah were now called) who wanted to do so to return to Judah and Jerusalem.
    1. Zechariah is about the humble time of re-building just after the Jews return to Jerusalem. The part of Zechariah we’ll read is Zechariah’s foreshadowing of a more glorious future;
    2. Malachi and Haggai also write after the return from exile.

Introducing the Gospel of Matthew

Matthew, also known as Levi, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. Before becoming a follower of Jesus, Matthew was a collector of taxes for the Romans. It’s hard for us to understand just how unpopular that would have made him: first of all, he was collecting taxes; secondly, it was taxes for an unpopular foreign government; and thirdly, tax collectors at the time were famously corrupt. Perhaps the closest thing we have nowadays is a mobster running a protection racket. So, Matthew goes from being completely outside of ‘decent society,’ to being one of the closest disciples of the new rabbi Jesus, to writing one of Jesus’ biographies.

Matthew uses the earlier and shorter Gospel of Mark as a sort of outline for his story: the plot of the gospel of Matthew follows Mark very closely, and often they even have very similar wording for a story. But Matthew then supplements Mark’s story with significant additions. Matthew includes a far greater amount of Jesus’ teaching, and—interestingly for someone who would have spent much of his life on the outs with his fellow Jews—a particular emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies. Matthew, like Mark, places a lot of attention on the theme of the kingdom of God (although Matthew calls it ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ following the Jewish tradition of avoiding saying ‘God’ as much as possible). Whereas Mark demonstrates the kingdom of God through Jesus’ actions, Matthew illustrates the kingdom of heaven through Jesus’ teaching, and particularly his parables. It’s worth paying attention to the way Matthew fills out the picture of the kingdom of heaven over the course of his story.

Introducing the Gospel According to Mark

Mark was one of the early followers of Jesus. He may or may not have known Jesus himself, but he was probably a traveling companion of the apostle Simon Peter. Simon Peter never wrote a history of Jesus himself, but John Mark collected and wrote down Simon Peter’s story. I’m sure that as you read you’ll see that Peter’s perspective comes out strongly, and that it’s a really valuable perspective to have. Mark’s gospel was the first one written, about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It seems that both Matthew and Luke based their gospels on Mark’s. They took the basic plot from Mark, and added inserted additional teaching and stories. Mark’s story itself is very terse and quick-moving. Jesus is seen here as a man of action.

There’s a Daily Bible Guide for Mark on the 40 Days of Faith page of our website.

Introducing Luke

As we mentioned in the introduction to Acts, the book of Luke is part of a two-volume set with the book of Acts. The book of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ life and teachings; Acts tells us what happens to his followers later. The author never gives his own name, but from very early in church history the books of Luke and Acts have been ascribed to Luke, a traveling companion of Paul, a famous early follower of Jesus who was largely responsible for spreading the good news of Jesus to Europe. Luke was part of a small company who worked with Paul, sharing the good news and starting churches throughout the Mediterranean world.

Luke was a medical doctor by profession, and he was almost certainly the only non-Jewish author of the New Testament (and quite possibly of the entire Bible). The audience for Luke may have been cultured, highly-educated Greeks (Greek was the dominant culture of the eastern Roman Empire): he writes in the same formal historical style that was fashionable in Greek society at the time. There is some evidence that Luke intended his writings for wide publication: the Gospel of Luke and Acts are almost exactly the same length, which happens to be the length that was common in scrolls used for publication (IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament 187: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1993).

Luke’s gospel was probably written after Mark’s gospel, another of the four biblical gospels, and is apparently based upon it. Luke follows the same basic storyline as Mark, and about 40 percent of the material is drawn directly from Mark. But Luke also has much material that isn’t found in any of the other gospels. Luke’s unique contributions show up particularly in his stories about Jesus’ birth and the teachings of Jesus he shares with us. Perhaps because he is outside of Jewish society himself, he also shows a particular concern for Jesus’ interaction with people who would be outsiders in ancient Jewish society: non-Jews, women, and the poor.

As with Acts, you can find a Daily Guide for Luke on the 40 Days of Faith page of our website.

Introducing the Gospel According to John

The book of John is the last of the four gospels. Authorship is traditionally credited to John, one of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, known as the apostles (the ‘sent ones’). He refers to himself in the gospel as ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’ This is probably both a mark of humility—not wanting to refer to himself by name—and of the deep affection that he felt from Jesus and for Jesus. The book is dated at 70 AD which means that it was written later in John’s life, about 30 years after Jesus died and later than the other three gospels.

John’s perspective on the life of Jesus is notably different from those of the other three gospels (called the ‘synoptics’—Greek for ‘seen together’—gospels). There are some differences in the timeline of events, for example the duration of Jesus’ ministry, the overlapping of his ministry with John the Baptist, and the number of trips he made to Jerusalem. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, but in John, Jesus identifies himself for arrest. Only John contains the stories of turning water to wine at a wedding and the resurrection of Lazarus. John’s gospel contains more monologue and dialogue from Jesus with fewer miracles. The miracles he performs in John are perceived less as demonstrations of power and more as signs of things to come; in other words, the symbolic meaning of the miracles is given more prominence in John’s gospels than in the others.

The gospel of John’s differences with the synoptic gospels raises several questions. Is John mistaken on some points? Can we reconcile the differences? I think of it in the same way that two different writers can write a biography of the same person, ending up with two different but complementary stories. For example, if Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor were to write a biography of FDR, she might focus on his family life during the World War II and the Great Depression. His activity as the 32nd president of the United States would certainly play a role in that, but perhaps not as much as if Harry Truman (his last vice president and 33rd president) was writing the biography. Truman would probably take a much more politically-oriented approach to FDR’s life and leave out most of the details of his family.

John’s close friendship with Jesus gives us a very special perspective of Jesus. More than the other gospels, we see a Jesus that loves deeply and encourages everyone to love each other as well. We also see that Jesus stresses the value of something called ‘eternal life’ and that it can be experienced right now. Jesus also communicates the true nature of his miracle—they are signs of good things to come and proof of his divine nature.

As you read John, take note of the unusual way in which he dialogues with. He speaks of being ‘born again’ in a way that is disturbing to Nicodemus. He calls himself the ‘living bread’ and he offers a Samaritan woman ‘living water,’ both of which he says give eternal life. Why do you think Jesus seems to be intentionally confusing in his dialogue? What do you find appealing or troubling about Jesus’ view of eternal life?

Introducing Acts

Acts is the story of what happens to and through Jesus’ followers after his death. It’s the sequel to the gospel of Luke, written—no big surprise—by Luke, a traveling companion and teammate of Paul, the writer of Romans (you can read more about Luke in the introduction to his gospel below). One interesting feature of Acts is that it may well have been originally intended for publication—it contains the acknowledgement of a patron, and it’s written to be just about exactly the length of mass-produced scrolls.

It’s a gripping story, full of stirring speeches, dramatic action, plot twists, and amazing miracles. The book of Acts is written to explain how a small group of people in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire ended up starting a movement that spread throughout that entire empire and to Rome itself within a generation. Luke didn’t experience it himself, but he probably wouldn’t be surprised to discover that eventually the good news of Jesus spread throughout the entire world.

The book of Acts attributes this quick spread of Jesus’ message to an entirely new experience in the history of humanity: the widespread pouring out of the Holy Spirit—the very essence of God—on people who hear that message. This arrival of the Holy Spirit gives people a whole new access to the presence and power of a living and active God. As we read Acts, it may be worth it for us to focus on the Holy Spirit. What is it like to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? How is life with the Holy Spirit different?

If you’re interested, there is a Daily Guide of Acts available as part of a previous 40 Days of Faith.

Introducing Romans

Romans is a letter from Paul, one of the church’s early leaders, to the church in Rome. Paul was the person primarily responsible for spreading Jesus’ message beyond the Jewish populations in or near Judea. He was especially instrumental in starting churches in what are now Turkey and Greece.

Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches he himself founded, but this letter to the Romans is instead a letter of introduction to a place where he’s never been. Apparently, from his list of greetings at the end of the book, Paul has several friends who have over time made their way to Rome. But he himself has not been there and is somewhat unknown to most of the church. He is planning a visit, but before he arrives he feels the need to write this letter to lay out his beliefs about Jesus; apparently, some alarming misunderstandings of Paul’s message have reached the Romans.

In Romans, Paul pays a lot of attention to addressing what was a pretty major area of concern for the early church: the place of Judaism in following Jesus. As increasing numbers of non-Jews (often called ‘gentiles’ in the Bible-gentile is an Anglicization of the Greek for ‘the nations’) became followers of Jesus, it brought up the question of what their relationship to Judaism was supposed to be. Did Gentiles need to become Jews to be followers of Jesus? If not, what relevance did the Old Testament have for these Gentile Jesus-followers? And if non-Jews could become followers of Jesus, what did that mean about God’s previously unique relationship with the Jews?

It was a surprisingly thorny issue because it involved issues of culture, deep theology about the goodness of God and the reliability of his promises, and very practical questions of everyday living. While the specific issue of non-Jews following Jesus is certainly less of a big deal nowadays, the big questions behind the issue-of culture, dealing with difference, how rules help us and hurt us, and the nature of God’s promises-all still seem pretty relevant.

As we read these passages, it’s helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, reading someone else’s letters. Paul didn’t know that we’d be reading these letters. Because he has a specific audience in mind, Paul can make some pretty solid assumptions about things that they already know; so, there are many things Paul doesn’t bother to say. Instead, he uses the letters to address specific occasions, questions, or concerns. Since we’re only reading Paul’s half of what were probably exchanges of correspondence, we need to do a little bit of inference to figure out the situation or question to which Paul is responding. It’s sort of like overhearing one half of a phone conversation; it can sometimes be a little confusing or mysterious, but with a little work you can mostly get a pretty good idea of what the other people have said based on Paul’s responses to them.

In applying the lessons of this letter to our lives, it’s helpful to continually keep in mind that Paul is writing to specific groups of people with specific questions and concerns. It’s not always possible or beneficial to apply Paul’s instructions without some interpretation. Our culture and our concerns can be quite different from those of the ancient Romans. In the effort to figure out how I can make use of Paul’s advice to someone else, I find a good sequence of questions is,

  • What problem or question is Paul addressing?
  • What is his answer to his audience?
  • What’s the general principle behind his answer?
  • Are there circumstances in my life where that principle would apply?
  • What would it look like for me to take Paul’s advice?

Particularly when Paul is saying something confusing, troubling, or even offensive to me-often because of cultural differences between Paul and me-I find it extremely helpful to toss around this list of questions with a friend, or a group of friends, to see if together we can find out what value Paul’s advice has for us.

Introducing 1 and 2 Corinthians

1 and 2 Corinthians are two letters (of as many as four) written to the church in the city of Corinth in Greece in about 55 A.D.  They were authored by Paul, an early church founder and author of most of the other letters in the New Testament. At the time, Corinth was the political and commercial center of Greece. It had a typical Greek culture, especially its philosophy and wisdom. The citizens of Corinth were engaged in the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which brought a great deal of prostitution to the city through the temples dedicated to her.

Paul had founded the church in Corinth, personally knew many people there, and his writing to the congregation was specific to their current situation. In 1 Corinthians, Paul specifically addresses issues including division within the church, sexual immorality, questionable practices (such as eating meat previously offered to idols), and proper use of spiritual gifts. This letter has a mission to build up the followers of Jesus in Corinth while stemming behavior that’s gotten out of control.

2 Corinthians has a different structure and tone than the other. The structure seems fragmented and some speculate that it might be parts of two different letters. In it, Paul deals with issues of a more personal nature to him rather than the general issues in 1 Corinthians. Paul uses the first part of the letter to heal any rifts between himself and others in Corinth and to talk some about his current situation. He continues with a call for a collection for the poor. The end of the letter changes pace as Paul defends the authority given to him by God, probably in response to “false teachers” challenging his message.

Some of the material in 1 Corinthians can be challenging to apply today. What do you think about Paul’s advice on marriage? What principles can be learned from his example of eating meat to idols? How would you encourage people to use spiritual gifts in the church?

Introducing Galatians

It’s helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, reading letters—actually, we’re reading one half of an exchange of letters. Paul and his team would start new churches in new cities, and then rather quickly move on to other new cities. They would leave each newly started church with the task of living out their newfound faith within the culture and circumstances of their city. Inevitably, these new churches would encounter situations they didn’t know how to respond to, hear teachings that they didn’t know how to mesh with what they’d heard from Paul and his team, and run into other unexpected problems. They would send messengers and letters to Paul asking for his guidance; and he would respond with the letters we now have in the Bible. We don’t have a record of the letters and messages to Paul from these churches, but usually Paul’s responses gives us a pretty good idea of what’s going on; it’s sort of like overhearing one half of a phone conversation.

Galatians addresses what was a pretty major area of concern for the early church: the place of Judaism in following Jesus. As increasing numbers of non-Jews (often called ‘gentiles’ in the Bible—gentile is an Anglicization of the Greek for ‘the nations’) became followers of Jesus, it brought up the question of what their relationship to Judaism was supposed to be. Did gentiles need to become Jews to be followers of Jesus? If not, what relevance did the Old Testament have for these gentile Jesus-followers? And if non-Jews could become followers of Jesus, what did that mean about God’s previously unique relationship with the Jews?

It was a surprisingly thorny issue because it involved issues of culture, deep theology about the goodness of God and the reliability of his promises, and very practical questions of everyday living. While the specific issue of non-Jews following Jesus is certainly less of a big deal nowadays, the big questions behind the issue—of culture, dealing with difference, how rules help us and hurt us, and the nature of God’s promises—all still seem pretty relevant.

Introducing Ephesians

It’s helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, reading letters—actually, we’re reading one half of an exchange of letters. Paul and his team would start new churches in new cities, and then rather quickly move on to other new cities. They would leave each newly started church with the task of living out their newfound faith within the culture and circumstances of their city. Inevitably, these new churches would encounter situations they didn’t know how to respond to, hear teachings that they didn’t know how to mesh with what they’d heard from Paul and his team, and run into other unexpected problems. They would send messengers and letters to Paul asking for his guidance; and he would respond with the letters we now have in the Bible. We don’t have a record of the letters and messages to Paul from these churches, but usually Paul’s responses gives us a pretty good idea of what’s going on; it’s sort of like overhearing one half of a phone conversation.

Ephesus was a city in the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey). It was one of the largest and most important cities in the whole Roman Empire. It was a significant Aegean port and a center of trade, commerce, culture, and religion. Paul spent an atypical amount of time in Ephesus, preaching there for more than two years. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul places a special emphasis on the theological implications of being a community of people following Jesus together.

Introducing Philippians

Philippians was written by the apostle Paul to the church in the city of Philippi a prosperous Roman colony in ancient Macedon. Paul states in the letter that he is writing it while imprisoned, most likely in Rome in 61 AD. This letter served as both an update to the church (apostles like Paul would travel often to start new churches), and to encourage the Philippians in their difficulties. In particular he advocates a life that is self-humbling and presses toward their goal.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is notable in that Paul uses the word “joy” in various ways 16 times. Given that Paul was in prison as he wrote this, how do you imagine he’s able to speak about so much joy?

Introducing Colossians

It’s helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, reading letters—actually, we’re reading one half of an exchange of letters. Paul and his team would start new churches in new cities, and then rather quickly move on to other new cities. They would leave each newly started church with the task of living out their newfound faith within the culture and circumstances of their city. Inevitably, these new churches would encounter situations they didn’t know how to respond to, hear teachings that they didn’t know how to mesh with what they’d heard from Paul and his team, and run into other unexpected problems. They would send messengers and letters to Paul asking for his guidance; and he would respond with the letters we now have in the Bible. We don’t have a record of the letters and messages to Paul from these churches, but usually Paul’s responses gives us a pretty good idea of what’s going on; it’s sort of like overhearing one half of a phone conversation.

Colossae was a city in the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey). It was sort of a small rust-belt city along the interstate. As far as we know, Paul never himself visited Colossae. A Colossian named Epaphras became a follower of Jesus through Paul’s preaching in Ephesus and spread the message to his hometown and some neighboring towns in the Asian hinterland.

Apparently, the Colossians had been influenced by an esoteric sect out of Judaism with some interesting ideas about angels. These ideas have gotten in the way of the Colossians getting everything they could out of following Jesus; so Paul writes them to clarify his understanding of the relationships among Jesus, the angels, and human beings. What Paul wants for the Colossians is more freedom than they are currently experiencing.

Introducing 1 and 2 Thessalonians

Thessalonica was (and is) an important city in the Greek region of Macedon. Paul was rather quickly forced out of Thessalonica by disruptions caused by a mob (Acts 17:1-10). So, he wrote the two letters to the Thessalonians shortly after his departure, to give some of the basic teaching he never had a chance to tell them in person. For some reason, death and the end of the world are topics of particular interest to the Thessalonians. Paul addresses them somewhat in the first letter, and spends a significant amount of the second letter further clarifying his understanding of the topics.

In applying the lessons of these letters to our lives, it’s helpful to recognize that Paul is writing to a specific group of people with specific questions and problems. It’s not always possible or beneficial to apply Paul’s instructions without some interpretation. A helpful sequence of questions for me is,

  1. What problem or question is Paul addressing?
  2. What is his answer to his audience?
  3. What’s the general principle behind his answer?
  4. Are there circumstances in my life where that principle would apply?
  5. What would it look like for me to take Paul’s advice?

Introducing 1 and 2 Timothy

1 and 2 Timothy were written not to a church, but to individual people. Paul had left his younger ministry partner Timothy behind in a city called Ephesus; similarly. Timothy’s task was to select and train a group of leaders for the new church they had started there. This letter contains Paul’s follow-up instructions, probably based on some questions Timothy had sent to him.

In applying the lessons of these letters to our lives, it’s helpful to recognize that Paul is writing to specific groups of people with specific questions and problems. It’s not always possible or beneficial to apply Paul’s instructions without some interpretation. A helpful sequence of questions for me is,

  1. What problem or question is Paul addressing?
  2. What is his answer to his audience?
  3. What’s the general principle behind his answer?
  4. Are there circumstances in my life where that principle would apply?
  5. What would it look like for me to take Paul’s advice?

Introducing Titus

Titus, like 2 Peter and Jude, was written not to a church, but to individual people. Paul had left his younger ministry partner Titus behind in Crete. His task was to select and train a group of leaders for the new churches they had started there. This letter contains Paul’s follow-up instructions, probably based on some questions Titus had sent to him.

In applying the lessons of these letters to our lives, it’s helpful to recognize that Paul is writing to specific people with specific questions and problems. It’s not always possible or beneficial to apply Paul’s instructions without some interpretation. A helpful sequence of questions for me is,

  1. What problem or question is Paul addressing?
  2. What is his answer to his audience?
  3. What’s the general principle behind his answer?
  4. Are there circumstances in my life where that principle would apply?
  5. What would it look like for me to take Paul’s advice?

Introducing Philemon

This short letter from Paul was written to his friend Philemon from prison in order to persuade him to welcome back one of his slaves named Onesimus. Apparently Onesiumus had stolen something from Philemon, ran away, encountered Paul, and then became a follower of Jesus as well.

If you were Philemon reading this letter about Onesimus, a former slave and apparent thief, how might you react?

Introducing Hebrews

This book is unusual in that we don’t really know who the author was, but know it was not Paul, the author of most of the other letters in the New Testament. Hebrews doesn’t exactly follow the pattern of a typical letter, either. It’s clear, however, that Hebrews was written primarily to new follows of Jesus of Jewish heritage who were familiar with the Old Testament. The author makes a sustained case that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament predicted and looked forward to.

In the first five chapters, the author shows the supremacy of Jesus over angels and over Moses, both of great importance in the Old Testament and to the Jews. In the later part of the book, we read about Jesus as a high priest, the supreme mediator between God and human beings.

Introducing the Letter of James

The book of James was most probably written by James, the brother of Jesus. It’s hard to tell who exactly it was written to, but it was likely a letter that was was circulated to early churches about 20 years after the death of Jesus. James is a somewhat peculiar letter compared to the other letters in the New Testament. At first blush, it seems to be a kind of pastiche of practical advice on how to live out a vibrant faith in Jesus.

The topics include listening and controlling speech, prejudice, good deeds, wisdom, humility, and patience. This stands in contrast to some other letters which are highly theological and follow a sustained argument. Since the advice is intended to be directly applicable to everyday life, it might be useful to evaluate that advice for yourself and see what happens for you if you put it into practice.

Introducing 1 Peter

1 Peter was written by Peter, one of Jesus’ best friends and contemporary of Paul (author of Philemon above). In this letter, Peter writes to a general audience of churches in Asia Minor—modern-day Turkey. This letter has a reputation for containing some difficult passages for today’s readers. As you read, consider getting some friends to read and discuss with you if you aren’t doing that already — it can be helpful to get different perspectives. Some themes you will encounter in this letter deal with authority, suffering, and separation.

What kind of challenges do you think Peter was trying to address among the followers of Jesus he was addressing at the time? Do you share any of those challenges?

Introducing 2 Peter

2 Peter, like its companion 1 Peter, is a letter from Peter to some churches in modern-day Turkey. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He was one of Jesus’ closest friends, and the primary leader of the first church-the church of Jerusalem-during its earliest days. Sometime (we don’t know exactly when), Peter left Jerusalem to spread the message about Jesus more widely. We believe he’s writing 2 Peter from Rome, shortly before his death. This letter is a collection of final encouragements and warnings from one of the few remaining eyewitnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection, written down so that they wouldn’t be forgotten after his death.

Introducing the Letters of John (1 John, 2 John, 3 John)

Our New Testament readings begin with the three letters of John. John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and with Peter he took on primary leadership over Jesus’ followers in the early years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. These letters were probably written quite late in John’s life. Though short and simple, they represent the distilled wisdom gained from a long life of successfully and happily following Jesus. Apparently, the recipients of John’s letters have been distracted and confused by some persuasive teachers who have distorted or complicated Jesus’ message. John encourages them instead to focus on the basics: if you trust in Jesus, love one another, forgive others, and ask forgiveness, you can expect a joyful life and a happy future.

Since John’s letters are so profoundly simple, it might be worth reading them in the same spirit. Think of yourself as one of the ‘dear children’ to whom John is writing, and let yourself be encouraged by him into the peaceful life of love and joy John found in following Jesus.

Introducing Jude

The book of Jude is a short letter to early followers of Jesus meant to help them grow in their faith. Unlike many of the New Testament letters written by Paul to specific churches, this letter seems to have been written to no one in particular. There is some division among modern scholars about the true authorship of Jude. Jude claims to have been written by a “brother of James”, who has been thought to be the brother of Jesus. Division over the authorship aside, it’s clear that Jude shares a lot of material with 2 Peter, and one was most likely used as a source for the other.

An issue dealt with in both 2 Peter and Jude is the recognition and combat of false teaching (which is to say: at odds with what was known about Jesus’ teaching). As you read these books, look for ways the author suggests one can spot a false teacher. Why would spotting these false teachers be so important for Peter’s and Jude’s first readers? How about for you?

Introducing Revelation

Revelation is a collection of visions seen by John, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. They’re written in a genre, called ‘apocalyptic,’ that was apparently very popular at the time but has now become extinct. Apocalyptic writing is very stylized. Two prominent features of apocalypse are visions of fantastical creatures and the symbolic use of numbers. The best we can tell, certain numbers and images had standard, well-known interpretations; but we’ve lost the keys to interpreting them. So, this most popular of the biblical genres has become perhaps the most difficult to understand for modern readers. I often liken Revelation and other apocalyptic literature to comic books: easy to read if you know the conventions, but pretty confusing if the style is unfamiliar. I think Revelation can still be worthwhile to read, and even pretty entertaining, if we simply acknowledge that some of the code is lost to us. The over-the-top imagery is quite engaging, and I think it’s possible to get a decent (but not exact) picture of what’s being described by considering what impressions the images evoke and by seeing how an image is used over the course of the book. It’s almost certainly a lost cause to spend any time at all trying to figure out what the various numbers mean, apart from the vaguest of impressions; for instance, the most I get from the number 144,000 is something like, ‘a very large number, but not so large that it can’t be easily counted.’ The fact that it involves 12 sets of 12 speaks to me of order. But that’s about as much as I can get; a first century reader would probably have known exactly what it meant.

Almost everyone agrees that parts of Revelation refer to current events at the time of John’s writing and that parts of it refer to the end of time or to the distant future. People disagree about which parts refer to John’s time and which refer to the future. In getting the most out of my reading of Revelation, I try to avoid the temptation to map it to our own current events. Instead, I try first to ask the question, ‘What would John’s original readers have gotten from this?’ Then, I try to translate that message into a more timeless truth, which I can apply to my own life.