Friday, April 30, 2010

The Jewish Background to the Bible

You can read back issues of Jewish Voice magazine for free as .pdf files. I'd recommend reading the Sept/Oct 2009 issue.

The main articles were:

The Teaching of Mount Sinai
By Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg

The Four Messianic Miracles
By Cheryl Schang

Understanding The Fall Feasts
By Jonathan Bernis

All three article are interesting and insightful, but I'd highly recommend reading the article: The Four Messianic Miracles by Cheryl Schang. It's a quick read and gives a great insight into the gospels that I've not heard before but which makes perfect sense with what's going on in the gospels.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: Loving God and Others

book cover

Loving God and Others
by Kay Arthur, David Lawson and BJ Lawson

Trade Paperback: 90 pages
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
First Released: 2009

Source: Won in a Twitter contest from the publisher.

Back Cover Description:
What Does God Really Want from You?

It’s easy to get confused about how to please God. One Bible teacher details a long list of the commands you should be keeping. The next teacher says only grace matters. Who is right?

Centuries ago, in answer to this question, Jesus simplified all the rules and regulations of the Law into just two great commands: love God and love people.

Loving God and Others looks at how these two commands define the heart of Christian faith. As you rest in the certain knowledge of what God calls you to, you will be challenged to live these commands out—and discover how obeying Jesus’ simple commands will transform not only your life but also the lives of those around you.

Loving God and Others is a no homework, 6-week-long Bible study. It's designed for small groups to do in a short period of time, like over a lunch break. The Bible study pretty much let Scripture speak for itself and explored what the whole Bible taught on the subject.

The study had people read several verses (which were included in the book along with information about the context of the verses), mark/highlight certain words, then answer several questions about what was just read. A few lessons had "insights," brief bits of historical information that helped make a verse more understandable. At the end of each week, there's a page summary of what was learned that week.

Some lessons were shorter than others--either because there were fewer verses to read or fewer questions to answer--but all were pretty quick to get through and the questions were helpful to focus attention on all the points that needed to be looked at. Each lesson in week one through week five built upon each other, going from the basics to more advanced ideas. However, to me, the lessons from week six felt tacked on at the end, though they were vital. I think they would have flowed better if put between week one and week two.

Overall, I'd recommend this Bible study to Christian believers, especially new believers or those who feel confused on the subject of "what does God want from us."

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Week One, Lesson One
The religious leaders of the day had one goal: to get rid of Jesus. To that end, they had been challenging Jesus' authority. The scene we're about to look at opens just after the Sadducees tried unsuccessfully to trap Him into saying something that would get Him in trouble with the people and the Roman rulers. Now the Pharisees were trying to do the same. They sent a lawyer to Jesus with a question hotly debated among the religious leaders of the time.

Leader: Read Matthew 22:34-40 aloud. Have the group say aloud and...

* mark every reference to Jesus, including synonyms and pronouns, with a cross
* draw a heart over each occurrence of the word love

Mathew 22:34-40
34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together.
35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him,
36 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"
37 And He said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
38 "This is the great and foremost commandment.
39 "The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
40 "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."

* What did the Pharisee ask Jesus?

* What was Jesus' response?

* What did Jesus identify as the second most important commandment?

* What do we learn about these two commandments in verse 40?

The phrase the Law and the Prophets was the standard way of referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). When Jesus said, "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets," He meant that all other commands are summed up or contained in these two.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Quotes: One Flesh

From The Forever Feast by Paul Brand (page 116). [I haven't reviewed this book, but I like the quote.)

In marriage, two people become one flesh, which means that there are no barriers, and each becomes vulnerable to the other. In that sweet intimacy there can be true sharing. An atmosphere is created that promotes trust and friendship as the family widens with the arrival of children.

The very words "they shall be one flesh" are descriptive of the merging of two lives, almost to the extent that they share the same skin. Such oneness is the very basis of future happiness for themselves and for the children whose security is bound up also in that same identity of shared life.

Intimacy and vulnerability go together. A husband and a wife each know the other so well that they are in a position to cause more intense pain than anybody else can cause. It is a refined cruelty because it happens from within shared confidences and lowered barriers. The result inevitably is a hardening...and the development of defenses that isolate one from the other.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Review: Crash Course Faith Foundation for Life

book cover

Crash Course:
Forming a Faith Foundation for Life
by Daniel Darling

Trade Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: New Hope Publisher
First Released: 2010

Author Website

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description (from author's website, slightly modified):
Life contains more surprises and twists than most teens could ever imagine. These unforeseen, often difficult, events routinely lead to doubt, worry, and anxiety. Crash Course, a 100-day devotional for teens, encourages teens to form a solid foundation of faith in God’s Word that will support them when life’s obstacles come harder and faster. This unique 100-day devotional is a crash course on life for young people ready to face life on their own.

It will help them develop a faith they can confidently defend, make their faith one they can call their own, build a faith that endures through difficulties, champion a faith that conquers compromise, and grow in a faith that depends on Christ and not themselves.

Crash Course is divided up into 5 key areas:

* Doctrine – Know what you believe and why
* Decisions – How to make good choices
* Devotion – How to stay connected to God.
* Direction – Finding God’s purpose for your life.
* Delight – Discovering joy in a hard world.

Crash Course is a 100 day devotional aimed at teenagers, but it's written simply enough that ages 8-18 would all get something out of it. It's written in a conversational tone and was easy to understand.

The author gave one or two Bible verses, then a very brief illustrative story and an explanation of the day's concept based on those verses. He then suggested other resources for in-depth study (like other Bible verses to look up or another book or website or YouTube video on the subject).

Though each day's lesson was brief, his explanation was clear, concise, and covered the most important points. The lessons usually built on each other, were Bible-based, and were Christ-focused.

Section One covered subjects like God, Christ, Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the Bible, Creation, Sin, Satan, Heaven, Hell, Baptism, Communion. His explanations were consistent with what most Protestant denominations teach. If there is some conflict in teachings (like the when of Rapture), he mentioned that before he explained what he believes.

Section Two covered subjects like God knows everything about you, cares for you, intends good toward you, wants you to show love toward others, and how to determine God's will for your life.

Section Three covered making decisions--by seeking God, who do you ask for advice, who influences your decisions, deciding on friends, dating, your future job, how to spend your money, etc.

Section Four covered making your faith your own, how to overcome temptation and sin, and how to grow and help others grow in their faith.

Section Five covered handling changes and sorrow, forgiveness, the source of happiness, getting you focus right, etc.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this devotional to youth, especially to those who might not have a firm foundational understanding in these areas.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt (pages 14-15)

Why is one truth better than any other truth?

A few years ago, Angela and I were visiting South Bend, Indiana. As a football fan, I wanted to see the Notre Dame Hall of Fame, where the legend of Knute Rockne lives. We parked at the university's information office and grabbed a campus map. It's not a very big campus, but big enough for us to lose our way. Instead of ending up at the football stadium, we arrived at the performing arts center.

The problem wasn't the map. The problem was the person holding the map. There was only one way to the football stadium, and we didn't take it.

The Bible is the map for life. It says that Jesus is the only way to reach God. But people often want to say, "That's your version of truth, I've got mine."

Well, you might have your beliefs and I might have mine, but there can only be one right way.

Imagine if I took that Notre Dame campus map and tossed it aside in favor of a map more to my liking. I might discover a lot of cool buildings, but probably wouldn't see the inside of the stadium.

That's what happens to those who reject the truth. They're headed for a life of confusion and may never end up where they were intended to be: safe in the arms of God.

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6

Truth is a matter of life and death. If Jesus Christ is the only way, then all other ways to God are false in their basis--and are paths to destruction.

For a good comparison of world religions, check out They Can't All Be Right: Do All Spiritual Paths Lead to God? by Steve Russo.

POWER PRAYER: Dear God, I don't want to live a life of confusion. Help me to discover the truth as only You can reveal it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Quotes: Our Focus

From excerpt from Focused by Lilias Trotter in A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Huffman Rockness (page 332-333):

And they lie all around, these interests. Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen good harmless worlds at once--art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the "good" hiding the "best" even more effectually than it could be hidden by downright frivolity with its smothered heart-ache at its own emptiness.

It is easy to find out whether our lives are focussed, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Does this test not give the clue? Then dare to have it out with God--and after all, that is the shortest way. Dare to lay bare your whole life and being before Him, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focussed on Christ and His glory. Dare to face the fact that unfocused good and useful as it may seem, it will prove to have failed its purpose.

....Look at the window bars, and the beyond is only a shadow; look through at the distance, and it is the bars that turn into ghosts. You have to choose which you will fix your gaze upon and let the other go.

...Will it not make life narrow, this focusing? In a sense, it will--just as the mountain path grows narrower, for it matters more and more, the higher we go, where we set our feet--but there is always, as it narrows, a wider and wider outlook and purer, clearer air. Narrow as Christ's life was narrow, this is our aim; narrow as regards self-seeking, broad as the love of God to all around. Is there anything to fear in that?

And in the narrowing and focussing, the channel will be prepared for God's power--like the stream hemmed between the rock-beds, that wells up in a spring--like the burning glass that gathers the rays into an intensity that will kindle fire. It is worth while to let God see what He can do with these lives of ours, when "to live is Christ."

How do we bring things to a focus in the world of optics? Not by looking at the things to be dropped, but by looking at the one point that is to be brought out.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: The Challenge of Easter

book cover

The Challenge of Easter
by N.T. Wright

Trade Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
First Released: 2009

Source: Won this book in a giveaway by another book blogger.

Back Cover Description:
Why do we celebrate Easter? Lost among the colored eggs and chocolate candies is Easter's bold, almost unbelievable claim: Jesus has risen from the dead, and now everything is different.

Historian, biblical scholar and bestselling author N. T. Wright, in this excerpt from The Challenge of Jesus, takes a step back from the hoopla surrounding Easter to look at it in its earliest context, where we see a band of followers discovering the fulfillment of all the promises God had made to their people over the centuries, and pronouncing a new era that unsettled their friends and scandalized their oppressors. That era extends to our day, where to celebrate Easter is to receive an invitation to live as though God is among us, making everything new.

The Challenge of Easter was written by a New Testament historian who's also a bishop (in the Eastern Orthodox Church, I think). This book is more for professing Christians than unbelievers. The author assumed the reader would agree with him and so didn't give much actual evidence to back up his claims.

He mainly focused on how the Jewish disciples of Jesus would have viewed his resurrection and how they would have understood the phrase "the kingdom of God." Referring to the Bible (mainly 1 Corinthians 15), he showed that they really were claiming that Jesus died, came to life again, and had a physical body after his resurrection. He had some ideas that I've never heard before but appear to be Bible-based, so it made me think. The writing was also a bit formal and got technical at times.

The last chapter didn't make much sense to me and most of it didn't seem related to the Resurrection. It seemed to be about how we can apply the early Christian understanding of the kingdom of God to our lives today. He may have been referring to some Catholic teachings, as he clearly did so once without explaining what he meant. Since I'm a Protestant, this may have been the source of my confusion. However, I do know that some of what he said in this chapter went counter to clear teachings of the Bible.

People interested in Jewish messianic expectations in Jesus time would probably find reading this book worthwhile. Otherwise, More Than a Carpenter covered much of this same information in a more thorough, easy to understand fashion, so I'd recommend reading that instead.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
At the heart of the Christian faith lies the question of Jesus' resurrection. Why did Christianity arise, and why did it take the shape it did? The early Christians themselves reply: we exist because of Jesus' resurrection.

There is no form of early Christianity known to us--though there are some that have been invented by ingenious scholars--that does not affirm at its heart that after Jesus' shameful death God raised him to life again. Already by the time of Paul, our earliest written witness, the resurrection of Jesus is woven into the very structure of Christian life and thought, informing (among other things) baptism, justification, ethics and the future hope both for humans and for the cosmos.

It has of course been argued, indeed insisted upon in many circles that whatever we mean by the resurrection of Jesus, it is not accessible to historical investigation. There have been several false trails in the investigation of this question, not least at a popular or semipopular level.

Barbara Thiering proposed that Jesus and the others crucified with him did not die, despite the two others having their legs broken, and that one of them was actually Simon Magus who was a doctor and had some medicine with him which he gave to Jesus in the tomb so that he revived and was able to resume his career, traveling around with Paul and the others, not to mention getting married and having children. This is simply a new and highly imaginative twist on an old hypothesis, that Jesus did not really die on the cross. As has been shown often enough, the Romans knew how to kill people, and the reappearance of a battered and exhausted Jesus would hardly be likely to suggest to his followers something for which they were certainly not prepared, namely, that he had gone through death and out the other side.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Book quotes: Washing of the Feet

From The Feasts of the Lord by Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal (page 55):

The second ceremony of the Seder is known as the "washing of the hands." One of the family members brings a pitcher, bowl, and towel to each person at the table to wash his hands. The ceremony is a symbolic act of purification as they prepare to handle the food.

It was probably this ceremony in the Seder that the Messiah used to teach His disciples an object lesson. "[Jesus] rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded" (Jn. 13:4-5). His object lesson demonstrated that He was about to become the suffering Servant of the Lord, and as such, He would be the One to cleanse them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review: Christlike

book cover

The Pursuit of Uncomplicated Obedience
by Bill Hull

Trade Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: NavPress Publishers
First Released: 2010

Author Website
Author on Twitter

Source: I received this book free from NavPress Publishers as part of their Blogger Review Program.

Back Cover Description:
To make a difference, you have to be different.

The key to the spiritual life is cultivation of a spiritual heart. This is what makes the difference between hoping to change "someday" and actually changing our thoughts and behaviors now. Bill Hull says the great teachers of the past (such as William Law and John Wesley) and the best guides in the spiritual formation today (such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster) all agree on the central importance of the intent of the heart.

Such a heart is cultivated, writes Hull, in the simplicity of a life fixed on the words and ways of Jesus. In Christlike, the author helps us grow intentionally in "uncomplicated obedience" to Jesus so that "our minds and hearts are in alignment with each other." But this is not a privatized spirituality. Instead, writes Hull, this simplicity is the key to effectiveness in the larger mission of changing the world for Christ.

Christlike is a book about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and why we should want to be one. It's Christ-focused, Bible-based, and the author used Scripture to make his arguments. I enjoyed that he presented a balanced, whole-Bible view of the various points of theology that he touched on. He understood that sometimes it's not a matter of one or the other being more important but of both being equally important since they're interconnected.

Chapter two examined the five main leanings in the Western church today (like a social justice focus, prosperity focus, etc.) and how they have some things right but that their focus is off. This causes problems in the type of Christians they turn out. I understand why he put in this chapter--and he handled it well and didn't come across as condemning--but I felt the heart of the book was the topic of discipleship, which was covered in the rest of the book.

He promotes following Christ's example. He showed how reading the Bible is a way to grow in your relationship with Christ and how to let what you read in the Bible change your life. He described how surrendering to Christ's work in our heart and being obedient to God with our actions (even when we don't feel like it) leads to changes to our thoughts and emotions that work outward to effect our everyday actions. This leads to uncomplicated obedience to God that can change the world, one person at a time.

I was sometimes a little hesitant about how the author worded things when trying to describe an idea, but his conclusions were always spot-on and Bible-based. The book makes you think because he correctly doesn't try to simplify what is complex, but the information is not difficult to understand and he does get to "the simplicity on the other side of complexity."

I'd highly recommend this well-written book to all Christians. Instead of grabbing the latest "Christian Life" book, grab this discipleship book. It'll be worth it.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from pages 41, 50
[From page 41]: The kingdom of God is a locality where God rules, where his will is done. That locality can be in this world or out of it; it can be in the human heart, a home, a group of people, and a society, even a judicial or political chamber.

[From page 50]:The mission of the church has been limited to the "spiritual mission" of getting souls saved. Is there anything more important than that? No, there isn't, but what is meant by salvation? Salvation is a journey that begins with entrance into a relationship with God. It is about the whole person, not just the soul. It is about growing and being shaped into the image of Christ in this present life, and it is about the future life. There is also real life to be lived here and now. Not only the life after death, but life before death. More precisely, eternal life before death. Salvation is about the reign of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom exists when the life of God is within us, when his presence is evident. We might even say it would need to be his active presence. It is within us and travels with us, wherever we go. (It also has a futuristic dimension that is not a part of this discussion.) So how can the life of Christ that is being lived and shaped in me cause me to have the same affect on others that the early Christians had? How can the life of Christ in me cause a resurgence of the faith in the West instead of the steady decline that is now the case?

Read the introduction and chapter one.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Book Quotes: The Purpose of Rules?

From Crave by Chris Tomlinson (pages 124, 125, 126):

So the law was God's way of showing us that we need Him. And needing God sounds a whole lot like a relationship, not like following rules. ...following rules simply cannot lead to a deepening relationship....but some of those rules...are actually good things....

Perhaps rules don't create intimacy by themselves. Maybe they create the space for intimacy.

We can think of this another way: Following rules like these makes intimacy possible. In fact, staying within certain boundaries is the only way to deepen a relationship. A man cannot develop a soul-deep bond with his wife in an open marriage. But he also cannot develop a soul-deep bond with his wife by avoiding an open marriage and doing nothing else. Having a monogamous relationship simply creates the space for the man and his wife to develop trust, deepen their understanding of one another, and enjoy the intimacy that grows as two lives are joined into one.

The Bible compares the church's bond with Jesus to a marriage, so I think we can say similar things about our relationship with Him. We just saw how God's commandments served to highlight our sin so we'd know we needed God in the first place. We might like to leave the rules behind once we're justified, embracing grace, and moving beyond the old legalism of the past. But when we commit our lives to following Christ, the rules don't just suddenly disappear. In fact, Jesus stepped up the commands in many ways. So why did He do this?

I think Jesus' commandments create space for us to enjoy intimacy with Him. ...[Jesus] made it very clear how His disciples should relate to His rules: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

....He was making a point, a really important point: Love and obedience go together. Intimacy and rules go together. You can't separate one from the other.