Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: Wiersbe Bible Study Series: Nehemiah

book cover

Standing Firm in the Face of Opposition
by Warren W. Wiersbe

Trade Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook
Released: February 1, 2011

List Price: $8.99
ISBN-10: 078140455X
ISBN-13: 978-0781404556

Book on Publisher's Website
Book on Amazon

Source: Special thanks to Karen Davis, Assistant Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy. This post is part of the FIRST Wild Card Tour.

Book Description from Back Cover:
The life of Nehemiah is an inspiring testament to the power of determination. Years after Jerusalem's defeat by Babylon, the Jewish people returned to their land, only to discover a city left in ruins. Surrounded by enemies, Nehemiah finds himself tasked with an overwhelming charge: To rebuild the walls of his beloved city. This Bible study examines Nehemiah's remarkable journey from the everyday to the extraordinary, and explores the unique power found in perseverance.

The Wiersbe Bible Studies Series explores timeless wisdom found in God’s word. Based on Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe’s popular “BE” series, each study provides topical, relevant insights from selected books of the Bible. Designed for small groups or personal study, this eight-week Bible study features selected commentaries from BE Determined, engaging questions, and practical applications, all designed to help you connect God’s word with your life.

Nehemiah: Standing Firm in the Face of Opposition is a Bible study of Nehemiah that has 8 main lessons and an ending summary lesson. This study can be used with small groups that meet once a week or as a personal Bible study. The study mostly focused on what Nehemiah's example showed us about church leadership, building up the church, church services, studying Scripture, and Christian living.

Each lesson started with a reminder to pray and with the reading of the next one or two chapters of Nehemiah in your own Bible. The Bible study then asked two questions about what stood out to you in the reading. Next were eight questions to help you dig deeper into the themes found in the reading. Each of these questions was proceeded by a paragraph or two of comments by the author or material quoted from the author's Be commentaries on Nehemiah. Next were three questions reflecting on what was learned and how it mattered to your life today. The final question asked you to pick one idea from the reading to explore further in the coming week. Then you're prompted to say a prayer asking God to guide you in the areas you've noted during the study.

Overall, I felt like this Bible study would be most helpful to those in church leadership or those working closely with the church leadership. While I didn't feel like I gained much new insight into the actual events in Nehemiah, perhaps this study might also work well for those who are unfamiliar with Nehemiah.

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.

About the Author
Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe is an internationally known Bible teacher and the former pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago. For ten years he was associated with the “Back to the Bible” radio broadcast, first as Bible teacher and then as general director. Dr. Wiersbe has written more than 160 books. He and his wife, Betty, live in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Excerpt from Lesson One
A Caring Attitude


Before you begin …

• Pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and wisdom as you go through this lesson.

• Read Nehemiah 1—2. This lesson references chapters 1 and 2 in Be Determined. It will be helpful for you to have your Bible and a copy of the commentary available as you work through this lesson.

Getting Started

From the Commentary

“The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” George Bernard Shaw put those words into the mouth of the Rev. Anthony Anderson in the second act of his play The Devil’s Disciple. The statement certainly summarizes what Jesus taught in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), and it rebukes all those who fold their arms complacently, smile benignly, and say somewhat sarcastically, “Ask me if I care!”

1. What are some of the evidences in Nehemiah 1 that Nehemiah was a person who cared? Why are care and concern important traits for leaders? How might the lack of care and concern affect a leader’s ability to lead?

More to Consider: Nehemiah was a layman, cupbearer to the great Artaxerxes Longimanus, who ruled Persia from 464 to 423 BC. Nehemiah’s name means “The Lord has comforted.” What is the significance of Nehemiah’s name in relation to the task God has for him? Why do you think he mentions abruptly that he was the cupbearer to the king (Neh. 1:11)?

2. Choose one verse or phrase from Nehemiah 1—2 that stands out to you. This could be something you’re intrigued by, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that puzzles you, something that resonates with you, or just something you want to examine further. Write that here.

Going Deeper

From the Commentary

Nehemiah asked about Jerusalem and the Jews living there because he had a caring heart. When we truly care about people, we want the facts, no matter how painful they may be. “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” American historian Henry Adams said, but Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Closing our eyes and ears to the truth could be the first step toward tragedy for ourselves as well as for others.

3. Go through Nehemiah 1 and underline what Nehemiah learns about Jerusalem. What does this tell us about Nehemiah? About the Jews living in Jerusalem? About Jerusalem itself?

From the Commentary

The prayer in Nehemiah 1:5–10 is the first of twelve instances of prayer recorded in this book. (See 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 9:5ff.; 13:14, 22, 29, 31.) The book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. It is obvious that Nehemiah was a man of faith who depended wholly on the Lord to help him accomplish the work He had called him to do. The Scottish novelist George MacDonald said, “In whatever man does without God, he must fail miserably, or succeed more miserably.” Nehemiah succeeded because he depended on God. Speaking about the church’s ministry today, the late Alan Redpath said, “There is too much working before men and too little waiting before God.” This prayer begins with ascription of praise to God (1:5). “God of heaven” is the title Cyrus used for the Lord when he announced that the Jews could return to their land (2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–2). The heathen gods were but idols on the earth, but the God of the Jews was Lord in heaven. Ezra often used this divine title (5:11–12; 6:9; 7:12, 21, 23), and it is found four times in Nehemiah (1:4–5; 2:4, 20) and three times in Daniel (2:18–19, 44). Nehemiah began his prayer as we should begin our prayers: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9).

4. What’s the significance of addressing a prayer to “the God of heaven”? Why does Nehemiah begin his prayer this way? (See Neh. 1:5; see also 4:14; 8:6; 9:32.) What is the focus of Nehemiah’s prayer?

From Today’s World

Every few years, the church suffers through “media scandals” prompted by public revelations of leaders’ misconduct. Though the focus is usually on a single individual—or a tightly knit group of people in positions of influence— these media scandals can have a lasting effect on the church. Long after the details of the scandal have faded into the past, people with an axe to grind continue to point to these events as evidence that the church is at worst, corrupt, and at best, a place for hypocrites and fools.

5. Why does the media give so much screen time to church-related scandals? What makes scandals newsworthy? What impact does this sort of event have on the local churches? Church leaders? Believers in general? What are some positive ways to respond to such scandals?

It has well been said that prayer is not getting man’s will done in heaven but getting God’s will done on earth. However, for God’s will to be done on earth, He needs people to be available for Him to use. God does “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph. 3:20 NKJV). If God is going to answer prayer, He must start by working in the one doing the praying! He works in us and through us to help us see our prayers answered. While Nehemiah was praying, his burden for Jerusalem became greater and his vision of what needed to be done became clearer. Real prayer keeps your heart and your head in balance so your burden doesn’t make you impatient to run ahead of the Lord and ruin everything. As we pray, God tells us what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and all are important to the accomplishing of the will of God. Some Christian workers are like Lord Ronald in one of Stephen Leacock’s short stories who “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”

Nehemiah planned to volunteer to go to Jerusalem to supervise the rebuilding of the walls. He didn’t pray for God to send somebody else, nor did he argue that he was ill-equipped for such a difficult task. He simply said, “Here am I—send me!”

6. What are some of the lessons we can glean from Nehemiah’s prayer? What is significant about his use of “we” in the prayer? What does this say about Nehemiah as a person? As a leader?

From the Commentary

Unknown to him, Nehemiah was about to join the glorious ranks of the “champions of faith,” and in the centuries to follow, his name would be included with heroes like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Esther, Deborah, and David. One person can make a big difference in this world, if that person knows God and really trusts in Him. Because faith makes a difference, we can make a difference in our world to the glory of God. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace,” said Martin Luther. “It is so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”

7. Read Mark 9:23–24 and Matthew 17:20. How do these verses apply to Nehemiah’s faith? How can they help inspire church leaders today?

From the Commentary

The king asked him, “What is it you want?” What an opportunity for Nehemiah! All the power and wealth of the kingdom were wrapped up in that question! As he was accustomed to do, Nehemiah sent one of his quick “telegraph prayers” to the Lord (4:4; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31). But keep in mind that these “emergency prayers” were backed up by four months of fasting and praying. If Nehemiah had not been diligent to pray in private, his “telegraph prayers” might have gone unanswered. “He had only an instant for that prayer,” wrote George Morrison. “Silence would have been misinterpreted. Had he closed his eyes and lingered in devotion, the king immediately would have suspected treason” (Morning Sermons, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931, p. 243).

8. Review Nehemiah 2:4–8. Why is it significant that Nehemiah took a moment to pray before answering? What lessons can we learn from this small action? How did God answer his prayer?

More to Consider: Jewish rabbis often answer a question with a question, and Nehemiah followed that example. Instead of telling the king what he planned to do, he aroused the king’s sympathy and interest with a question regarding how he should feel about the sad plight of his ancestral city and the graves of his forefathers. Why do you think he chose this approach?

From the Commentary

Nehemiah is a good example of how believers should relate to unsaved officials as they seek to do the work of God. Nehemiah respected the king and sought to work within the lines of authority that existed in the empire. He didn’t say, “I have a commission from the Lord to go to Jerusalem, and I’m going whether you like it or not!” When it comes to matters of conscience, we must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), but even then, we must show respect for authority (see Rom. 13 and 1 Peter 2:11–25). Daniel and his friends took the same approach as did Nehemiah, and God honored them as well (Dan. 1).

9. How might the king’s reaction have been different if Nehemiah had spoken in more “religious” terms about his commission? What are some examples in today’s church where leaders have related well to nonbelievers in positions of authority? What are some bad examples of this? How can believers today apply Nehemiah’s wisdom in their dealings with non- Christian bosses or other authority figures they relate to in daily life?

From the Commentary

After his long, difficult journey, Nehemiah took time to rest, for leaders must take care of themselves if they are going to be able to serve the Lord (Mark 6:31). He also took time to get “the lay of the land” without arousing the concern of the enemy. A good leader doesn’t rush into his work but patiently gathers the facts firsthand and then plans his strategy (Prov. 18:13). We must be “wise as serpents” because the Enemy is always watching and waiting to attack. Leaders are often awake when others are asleep, and

working when others are resting. Nehemiah didn’t want the enemy to know what he was doing, so he investigated the ruins by night. By keeping his counsel to himself, Nehemiah prevented Tobiah’s friends from getting information they could pass along to Sanballat.…

As he surveyed the situation, he moved from west to south to east, concentrating on the southern section of the city. It was just as his brother had reported: The walls were broken down and the gates were burned (Neh. 2:13; 1:3).

10. Review Nehemiah 2:11–16. Why did Nehemiah not want the enemy to know what he was doing? In what ways was Nehemiah practicing what it means to be a good leader? What role did his “secret survey” play in his plan to rebuild the city?

Looking Inward

Take a moment to reflect on all that you’ve explored thus far in this study of Nehemiah 1—2. Review your notes and answers and think about how each of these things matters in your life today.

Tips for Small Groups: To get the most out of this section, form pairs or trios and have group members take turns answering these questions. Be honest and as open as you can in this discussion, but most of all,

be encouraging and supportive of others. Be sensitive to those who are going through particularly difficult times and don’t press for people to speak if they’re uncomfortable doing so.

11. What are some ways you show your care and concern for your local church? How do you show respect for tradition while also being sensitive to today’s needs? Are you more of an encourager or a complainer? If the latter, why? How can you be more constructive in your relationship with your church?

12. Nehemiah puts a great deal of emphasis on prayer from the very outset of his plan to rebuild the city. What role does prayer play in your plans? How much emphasis do you place on the importance of prayer before, during, and after a plan is put into effect in your life?

13. What aspects of Nehemiah’s leadership appeal to you most? In what ways are you like him? What are some things you’d like to work on in order to be a better servant leader?

Going Forward

14. Think of one or two things that you have learned that you’d like to work on in the coming week. Remember that this is all about quality, not quantity. It’s better to work on one specific area of life and do it well than to work on many and do poorly (or to be so overwhelmed that you simply don’t try). Do you need to work on expanding your prayer life? Is there a particular matter you need to pray about, perhaps for an extended period of time? Be specific. Go back through Nehemiah 1—2 and put a star next to the phrase or verse that is most encouraging to you. Consider memorizing this verse.

Real-Life Application Ideas: One of the key features of Nehemiah’s leadership was his deliberate prayer life. Take a few minutes to consider the various plans you have for your own life (and your family’s life). This could be anything from plans for a summer vacation to educational goals to career plans for you and every other family member. Now, think about how your prayer life intersects with these plans. What are some ways you can be more deliberate in your prayer life about these things? Make practical plans for how to become more prayerful, then commit to those plans.

Seeking Help

15. Write a prayer below (or simply pray one in silence), inviting God to work on your mind and heart in those areas you’ve previously noted. Be honest about your desires and fears.

Notes for Small Groups:

• Look for ways to put into practice the things you wrote in the Going Forward section. Talk with other group members about your ideas and commit to being accountable to one another.

• During the coming week, ask the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal truth to you from what you’ve read

and studied.

• Before you start the next lesson, read Nehemiah 3—4. For more in-depth lesson preparation, read chapters 3 and 4, “Wall-to-Wall Workers” and “Workers and Warriors,” in Be Determined.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: Jesus, In His Own Words

book cover

Jesus, In His Own Words
by Robert Mounce

ISBN-13: 9781433669194
Trade Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: B&H Books
Released: September 1, 2010

Source: Electronic review copy from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Description from Back Cover:
What if Jesus were to tell you in first person about His time on earth?

"You are about to read an account of the life and ministry of Jesus that combines all four gospels into a single narrative and allows Jesus himself to tell us the story," writes veteran Bible translator Robert H. Mounce at the beginning of Jesus, In His Own Words. "Although the style is contemporary, the desire is to clarify the meaning of the original text rather than to impress the reader with clever phrases."

To that end, Mounce's more conversational interpretation of the Gospels allows the reader to "be there" during" Christ's birth and boyhood, at his baptism by John the Baptist, on the hillside when he spoke about the kingdom, amidst the miracle workings, and so on. His approach makes the words fresh to longtime believers and inviting to those seeking Scripture for the first time. Complementing the prosaic text, a full index of people, places, verse units, basic themes, and paragraph headings is also included.

Robert H. Mounce is president emeritus of Whitworth College in Spokane,Washington, a noted commentary author, and has worked on several Bible translation teams including those for the New International Version, New Living Translation, and English Standard Version.

My Review:
Jesus, In His Own Words combined the gospels and told them in first person from Jesus' point of view. This book was written in everyday language, and a few modern words or phrases were used. The translation was easy to understand and helped bring out insights I hadn't noticed before. Mounce also occasionally inserted very brief commentary (often cultural information) that's not actually in the Bible.

The gospels were sorted into roughly chronological order (birth, childhood, ministry, death, resurrection). However, I found some of the ordering confusing or jarring. For example, Luke's family line for Jesus was placed after Jesus' baptism. Sometimes, the events didn't read like they were in order due to the time or place indicators for the various events. Also, I was surprised that John 6:25-71, which I view as one unit, was broken apart and John 6:26-59 and John 6:60-71 were separated by seven events that occurred at various locations in Israel.

Sometimes words were left out or changed from dialogue to description. For example, Luke 23:43 "Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise' in NIV became "And I assured him, 'This very day you will be with me in paradise.'" Perhaps some omissions, like "fasting" in Matthew 17:21, were because the word wasn't in early manuscripts.

There were also a few odd or potentially misleading translations of words, like "abandoning the Jewish faith" in "Because of Lazarus, many were abandoning the Jewish faith and beginning to believe in me" for John 12:11. And the ten virgins in the parable of Matt. 25:1-13 carried torches instead of lamps (which made the need for oil seem kind of odd).

Overall, though, I'm glad I read this book, and I liked it a little better than Eyewitness by Frank Ball.

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

Read an excerpt using Google Preview:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Review: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

book cover

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
by Brant Pitre

Hardback: 240 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Religion
Released: February 15, 2011

List Price: $21.99
ISBN-10: 0385531842
ISBN-13: 978-0385531849

Author Website
Book on Amazon

Source: Special thanks to Staci Carmichael, Marketing and Publicity Coordinator, Doubleday Religion/Waterbrook Multnomah, Divisions of Random House, Inc. for sending me a review copy. This post is part of the FIRST Wild Card Tour.

Short Book Description (from here):
In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Bible scholar Brant Pitre explores the ancient Hebrew traditions that influenced and defined the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. Here the author will explore "Communion as the New Passover," the "New Manna from Heaven," and the mysterious "Bread of the Presence" illuminating the heart of Catholicism in bold new ways. If you are looking to deepen your faith in, and understanding of, the inexhaustible treasure that is the Eucharist, then this book is for you.

My Review:
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist sets out to prove that the bread and wine in the Eucharist/Communion are literally Jesus' flesh and blood. The author stated that he would use the Bible and ancient Jewish sources to prove that's how the Jews would have understood it. While I knew this book was written by a Catholic, the description I was given for it made me think it was a "cultural background of the Last Supper" book with a chapter or two on why Catholics believe the wine and bread are literally Jesus' flesh and blood, which I was curious about.

There was some cultural background information, but it wasn't very comprehensive as the author tended to ignore anything that didn't directly support his argument. The first part of chapter 6 did do a good job of giving details about the "order of service" for the Passover at the time of Jesus, but Christ in the Passover by Ceil Rosen and Moishe Rosen covered the same information and more. The Feasts of the Lord by Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal also covered much of this same information for the Passover.

If you're looking for a book that explains or proves the Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist, then I wouldn't recommend this book. Despite all the quotes, the author's core arguments used his assumptions about the Eucharist to "prove" his assumptions.

For example, one core argument was that eating the Passover lamb was necessary during the original Passover or the firstborn son would have died even if the lamb's blood was on the doorpost. To quote from page 56, "If they took the lamb, sacrificed the lamb, spread the blood of the lamb, but did not eat the lamb, what would have been the result? Well, the Book of Exodus does not say. But it's a good guess that when they awoke the next morning, their firstborn son would be dead."

So he admits he can't prove this idea using the Bible. (In fact, Exodus 12:13, 22-23 makes it clear that the only requirement for having the house "passed over" was the blood on the door frame and staying inside that house.) He also didn't quote a single ancient source that said if someone in the family--or even just the firstborn--didn't eat the lamb, then the firstborn would die. So he bases his core argument on what he calls "a good guess" but which actually contradicts Scripture. Many of his arguments had this same flaw.

One of his stronger arguments could have been John 6:55. His argument (from page 101) is, "It is widely recognized by New Testament scholars--Protestant and Catholic alike--that Jesus is speaking here [in John 6:48-59] about the Eucharistic food and drink that he will give the disciples at the Last Supper....any attempt to insist that Jesus was not speaking about what he would do at the Last Supper here is a weak case of special pleading." So his argument is "don't question what I'm saying, the authorities back me up." He didn't even quote an ancient source that supported his view.

I don't think he's right. Read it yourself. In John 6:32-59 and during the Last Supper, Jesus is talking about his death and resurrection. It's a minor but important difference. Yes, Jesus' words in both places have similarities, but that's because they refer to the same event. The author gave no evidence that Jesus meant his speech in John 6:48-59 as a commentary on how to understand the yet-to-happen Last Supper.

The author's claim that Protestant scholars agree with his claim is untrue. After studying the passage for myself, I looked up what a few scholars had to say and it was easy to find scholars that disagree with Pitre. For example, from Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, commenting on John 6:51,
...our Lord explicitly introduces His sacrificial death--for only rationalists can doubt this not only as that which constitutes Him the Bread of life to men, but as THAT very element IN HIM WHICH POSSESSES THE LIFE-GIVING VIRTUE.

And commenting on John 6:53-58,
He says they must not only "eat His flesh" but "drink His blood," which could not but suggest the idea of His death--implied in the separation of one's flesh from his blood. And as He had already hinted that it was to be something very different from a natural death, saying, "My flesh I will give for the life of the world" ( John 6:51 ), it must have been pretty plain to candid hearers that He meant something above the gross idea which the bare terms expressed. And farther, when He added that they "had no life in them unless they thus ate and drank," it was impossible they should think He meant that the temporal life they were then living was dependent on their eating and drinking, in this gross sense, His flesh and blood.

Finally, some of the information Pitre used to support his position could equally support the Protestant view. This is true for the Scripture he quoted, especially when it's read in full context or along with other verses that he failed to quoted.

So, overall, I wouldn't even recommend this book to Catholics since his arguments weren't properly supported.

About the Author
BRANT PITRE, professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana, received his Ph.D. in New Testament and ancient Judaism from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is the author of Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile (Baker Academic, 2005).

Visit the author's website.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The Mystery of the Last Supper

Jesus and Judaism
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, received the Jewish sign of circumcision, and grew up in a Jewish town in Galilee. As a young man, he studied the Jewish Torah, celebrated Jewish feasts and holy days, and went on pilgrimages to the Jewish Temple. And, when he was thirty years old, he began to preach in the Jewish synagogues about the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, proclaiming the kingdom of God to the Jewish people. At the very end of his life, he celebrated the Jewish Passover, was tried by the Jewish council of priests and elders known as the Sanhedrin, and was crucified outside the great Jewish city of Jerusalem. Above his head hung a placard that read in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” ( John 19:19).

As this list demonstrates, the Jewishness of Jesus is a historical fact. But is it important? If Jesus was a real person who really lived in history, then the answer must be “Yes.” To be sure, over the centuries, Christian theologians have written books about Jesus that don’t spend much time studying his Jewish context. Much of the effort has gone into exploring the question of his divine identity. However, for anyone interested in exploring the humanity of Jesus— especially the original meaning of his words and actions— a focus on his Jewish identity is absolutely necessary. Jesus was a historical figure, living in a particular time and place. Therefore, any attempt to understand his words and deeds must reckon with the fact that Jesus lived in an ancient Jewish context. Although on a few occasions Jesus welcomed non- Jews (Gentiles) who accepted him as Messiah, he himself declared that he had been sent first and foremost “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5). This means that virtually all of his teachings were directed to a Jewish audience in a Jewish setting.

For instance, during his first sermon in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus began to reveal his messianic identity in a very Jewish way. He did not shout aloud in the streets or cry out from the rooftops, “I am the Messiah.” Instead, he took up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and found the place that spoke of the coming of an “anointed” deliverer (see Isaiah 61:1–4). After reading Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus closed the scroll and said to his audience, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). With these words, he proclaimed to his fellow Jews that their long- held hope for the coming of the Messiah, the “anointed one” (Hebrew mashiah), had at last been fulfilled— in him. As we will see over the course of this book, this was the first of many instances in which Jesus would utilize the Jewish Scriptures to reveal himself to a Jewish audience as the long- awaited Jewish Messiah.

You Shall Not Drink the Blood

However, if Jesus did in fact see himself as the Jewish Messiah, then we are faced with a historical puzzle— a mystery of sorts. On the one hand, Jesus drew directly on the Jewish Scriptures as the inspiration for many of his most famous teachings. (Think once again of his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth.) On the other hand, he said things that appeared to go directly against the Jewish Scriptures. Perhaps the most shocking of these are his teachings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. According to the Gospel of John, in another Jewish synagogue on another Sabbath day, Jesus said the following words:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of

the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life

in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood

has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last

day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is

drink indeed . . .” This he said in the synagogue,

as he taught at Capernaum. (John 6:53–54, 59)

And then again, at the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed:

Now, as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and

blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples

and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a

cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to

them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood

of the covenant, which is poured out for many for

the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26–28)

What is the meaning of these strange words? What did Jesus mean when he told his Jewish listeners in the synagogue that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life? And what did he mean when he told his Jewish disciples that the bread of the Last Supper was his “body” and the wine was his “blood”? Why did he command them to eat and drink it?

We’ll explore these questions and many others throughout this book. For now, I simply want to point out that the history of Christianity reveals dozens of different responses. Over the centuries, most Christians have taken Jesus at his word, believing that the bread and wine of the Eucharist really do become the body and blood of Christ. Others, however, especially since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, think that Jesus was speaking only symbolically. Still others, such as certain modern historians, deny that Jesus could have said such things, even though they are recorded in all four Gospels and in the writings of Saint Paul (see Matthew 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–30; John 6:53–58; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

The reasons for disagreement are several. First of all is the shocking nature of Jesus’ words. How could anyone, even the Messiah, command his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood? As the Gospel of John records, when Jesus’ disciples first heard his teaching, they said, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus’ words were so offensive to their ears that they could barely listen to him. And indeed, many of them left him, and “no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). And he let them go. From the very beginning, people found Jesus’ command to eat his body and drink his blood extremely offensive.

Another reason for disagreement is somewhat more subtle. Even if Jesus was speaking literally about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, what could such a command even mean? Was he talking about cannibalism— eating the flesh of a human corpse? While there is no explicit commandment against cannibalism in the Jewish Bible, it was certainly considered taboo. Again, the Gospels bear witness to this reaction. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). This is a good question, and it deserves a good answer.

Perhaps the strongest objection to Jesus’ words comes from Jewish Scripture itself. As any ancient Jew would have known, the Bible absolutely forbids a Jewish person to drink the blood of an animal. Although many Gentile religions considered drinking blood to be a perfectly acceptable part of pagan worship, the Law of Moses specifically prohibited it. God had made this very clear on several different occasions. Take, for example, the following Scriptures:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. . . .

Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Genesis 9:3–4)

If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers

that sojourns among them eats any blood, I will set

my face against that person who eats blood, and

will cut him off from among his people. For the life

of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you

upon the altar to make atonement for your souls;

for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason

of its life. Therefore I have said to the people of

Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither

shall any stranger who sojourns among you

eat blood. (Leviticus 17:10–12)

You may slaughter and eat flesh within any of your

towns, as much as you desire. . . . Only you shall not

eat the blood; you shall pour it out upon the earth

like water. (Deuteronomy 12:16)

Clearly, the commandment against drinking animal blood was serious. To break it would mean being “cut off” from God and from his people. Notice also that it was a universal law. God expected not only the chosen people of Israel to keep it, but any Gentile “strangers” living among them. Finally, note the reason for the prohibition. People were not to consume blood because “the life” or “the soul” (Hebrew nephesh) of the animal is in the blood. As Leviticus states, “It is the blood that makes atonement, by the power of its life.” While scholars continue to debate exactly what this means, one thing is clear: in the ancient world, the Jewish people were known for their refusal to consume blood. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper become even more mysterious with this biblical background in mind. As a Jew, how could he ever have commanded his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Wouldn’t this mean explicitly breaking the biblical law against consuming blood? Indeed, even if Jesus meant his words only symbolically, how could he say such things? Wouldn’t his command mean transgressing the spirit of the Law, if not the letter? As the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes points out,

[T]he imagery of eating a man’s body and especially

drinking his blood . . . , even after allowance

is made for metaphorical language, strikes a totally

foreign note in a Palestinian Jewish cultural setting

(cf. John 6.52). With their profoundly rooted

blood taboo, Jesus’ listeners would have been overcome

with nausea at hearing such words.

So, what should we make of these words of Jesus?

Through Ancient Jewish Eyes

In this book, I will try to show that Jesus should be taken at his word. Along with the majority of Christians throughout history, I believe that Jesus himself taught that he was really and truly present in the Eucharist. In doing so, I will follow the Apostle Paul, a first- century Pharisee and an expert in the Jewish Law, when he said,

I speak as to sensible men, judge for

yourselves what I say.

The cup of blessing which we bless,

is it not a communion in the blood of Christ?

The bread which we break,

is it not a communion in the body of Christ?

(1 Corinthians 10:16)

My goal is to explain how a first- century Jew like Jesus, Paul, or any of the apostles, could go from believing that drinking any blood— much less human blood— was an abomination before God, to believing that drinking the blood of Jesus was actually necessary for Christians: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” ( John 6:53).

In order to achieve this goal, we will have to go back in time to the first- century a.d., in order to understand what Jesus was doing and saying in his original context. To a certain extent, this will mean taking off our modern “eyeglasses” and trying to see things as the first Jewish Christians saw them. When we look at the mystery of the Last Supper through ancient Jewish eyes, in the light of Jewish worship, beliefs, and hopes for the future, we will discover something remarkable. We will discover that there is much more in common between ancient Judaism and early Christianity than we might at first have expected. In fact, we will find that it was precisely the Jewish faith of the first Christians that enabled them to believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were really the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, as soon as we try to do this, we are faced with a problem. In order for us to hear Jesus in the way his first disciples would have heard him, we need to be familiar with two key sources of information: (1) the Jewish Scriptures, commonly known as the Old Testament, and (2) ancient Jewish tradition, enshrined in writings not contained in the Jewish Bible.

Now, if my experience with students is any indicator, many modern readers— especially Christians— find the Jewish Scriptures to be challenging and unfamiliar territory. This is especially true of those passages in the Old Testament that describe ancient Jewish rituals, sacrifice, and worship— passages that will be very important for us as we explore Jesus’ last meal with his friends before his crucifixion. As for ancient Jewish writings outside the Bible— such as the Mishnah and the Talmud— although many people have heard of them, they are often not widely read by non- Jewish readers aside from specialists in biblical studies.

For this reason, before beginning, it will be helpful to briefly identify the Jewish writings that I will be drawing on over the course of this book. (The reader may want to mark this page for future reference as we move along.) I want to stress here that I am not suggesting that Jesus himself would have read any of these, some of which were written down long after his death. What I am arguing is that many of them bear witness to ancient Jewish traditions that may have circulated at the time of Jesus and which demonstrate remarkable power to explain passages in the New Testament that reflect Jewish practices and beliefs.

With that in mind, after the Old Testament itself, some of the most important Jewish sources I will draw on are as follows:

The Dead Sea Scrolls: an ancient collection of Jewish manuscripts copied sometime between the second century b.c. and 70 a.d. This collection contains numerous writings from the Second Temple period, during which Jesus lived.
The Works of Josephus: a Jewish historian and Pharisee who lived in the first century a.d. Josephus’ works are extremely important witnesses to Jewish history and culture at the time of Jesus and the early Church.
The Mishnah: an extensive collection of the oral traditions of Jewish rabbis who lived from about 50 b.c. to 200 a.d. Most of these traditions are focused on legal and liturgical matters. For rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah remains the most authoritative witness to Jewish tradition outside of the Bible itself.
The Targums: ancient Jewish translations and paraphrases of the Bible from Hebrew into Aramaic. These emerged sometime after the Babylonian exile (587 b.c.), when many Jews began speaking Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Scholars disagree about their exact dates.
The Babylonian Talmud: a vast compilation— more than thirty volumes— of the traditions of Jewish Rabbis who lived from around 220 to 500 a.d. The Talmud consists of both legal opinions and biblical interpretations, in the form of a massive commentary on the Mishnah.
The Midrashim: ancient Jewish commentaries on various books of the Bible. Although parts of these are later than the Talmud, they contain many interpretations of Scripture attributed to Rabbis who lived during the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

These are by no means all of the ancient Jewish writings that are relevant for understanding the New Testament, but they are the ones I will be looking at most frequently in this book.

In particular, I want to highlight the importance of the rabbinic literature: the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrashim. Although many of these writings were edited after the time of Jesus himself, both rabbinic experts and New Testament scholars agree that, if used with caution, they are still very important for us to study. For one thing, the rabbis often claim to be preserving traditions that go back to a time when the Temple still existed (before 70 a.d.). In many cases, there are good reasons to take seriously these claims. Moreover, unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls or the writings of Josephus, the rabbinic literature continues to play an important role in the life of Jewish communities to this day. For this reason, I will pay particular attention to the Mishnah and the Talmud, which are still considered by many Jews to be the most authoritative witnesses to ancient Jewish tradition.

With all of this background in mind, we can now focus our attention on those ancient Jewish beliefs about the coming of the Messiah that may shed light on the Eucharistic words of Jesus. Unfortunately, many modern readers are only vaguely familiar with Jewish beliefs regarding the coming of the Messiah. In fact, a good deal of what most Christian readers have learned about Jewish messianic ideas is often oversimplified, riddled with exaggerations, or even downright false.

Therefore, in order for us to situate Jesus’ teachings in their historical context, we need to back up a bit and answer a few broader questions: What were first- century Jews actually waiting for God to do? We know that many were expecting him to send the Messiah, but what did they think the Messiah would be like? What did they believe would happen when he finally came?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review: Women of the Bible

book cover

Women of the Bible:
A Visual Guide to their Lives, Loves, and Legacy
by Carol Smith, Rachael Phillips, and Ellyn Sanna

ISBN-13: 9781602606500
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Barbour Publishing
Released: February 1, 2011

Source: Electronic review copy from publisher through Netgalley.

Publisher's Book Description:
They didn’t get as much ink—but they contributed amazing things to the history of God’s people. Learn all about them in Women of the Bible, a brand-new, illustrated reference book from Barbour Publishing. Covering women’s roles and jobs, daily experiences, and interactions with Bible men, this book brings clarity to some of the strange, confusing, and forgotten stories of scripture. Also featuring lists of every named woman of scripture and most of the unnamed females, Women of the Bible is fully illustrated in color. It’s “readable reference,” equally helpful for study or pleasure.

My Review:
Women of the Bible is a Bible reference book on the named and unnamed women mentioned in the Bible. It also contained background information on what daily life was like for them based on ancient written resources and archeology. There were also full color pictures of paintings and sculptures done of Biblical women (not necessarily historically accurate), modern women (some doing "traditional" activities), and archaeological objects.

The sections about daily life gave an easy-to-read overview of many different topics but didn't go into great detail. The sections about specific women in the Bible primarily summarized what the Bible said about them. There was a scripture index and a proper name index in the back. Overall, I'd recommend this book to those wanting to know more about the women in the Bible with the bonus of getting an overview look at what their lives were like.

Chapter 1 talked about family; career; victimization; contraception; politics; health; relationships, dating, and men; clothing; hair and makeup; jewelry; influential women mentioned in the Bible; urban vs. country women; women's rights in the Old Testament and in the New Testament; women in Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, and Babylonia; gentile vs. Jews; Christian vs. non-Christian; Biblical laws regarding women (menstruation, childbirth, other discharges, divorce, remarriage, sex, adultery, property, clothing, vows); Jesus' treatment of women; Paul's view of women (keeping his words in historical context); slave vs free women; how women related to each other (mothers and daughters, co-wives, sisters, etc.); details about marriage (from arranging it to the marriage feast); a woman's roles throughout her life (from child to widow); pregnancy and childbirth; homemaking and marketable skills; working outside the home; and details about death, mourning, and burial.

Chapter 2 gave more information about the different stages of a woman's life, including information on child care, housekeeping duties, widowhood, and preparing for festivals. Also, slavery and prostitution.

Chapter 3 talked about the various roles women played with summaries of the lives of women mentioned in the Bible that had that role. The roles were judge, prophetess, worship leader, royalty and wealth, everyday heroines, notable mothers, symbolic women (like lady wisdom), female deities mentioned in the Bible. Also, women mentioned in Jesus' ministry, women in Jesus' parables, and women in the early church.

Chapter 4 talked about women's interactions with men in the Bible, including women who used their influence for evil, women who were used by men, women who triumphed over men, women who were loved and respected by men, Jesus' interactions with women, and New Testament teachings about male-female interactions.

Chapter 5 was an encyclopedia of women named in the Bible with information about each.

Chapter 6 was an encyclopedia of unnamed women mentioned in the Bible with information about each.

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 page 13
Though the biblical laws reflect an era and a culture in which women did not have the same rights women enjoy today, the Bible also confirms that God called women into His service. He expected them to answer His call whatever their situation. Some resided in traditional settings, while others lived outside the norm. Women of the Bible like Rahab, Sarah, Ruth, and Deborah faced life's circumstances and followed God through those circumstances, sometimes regardless of cultural expectations, just as women do today.

Most lists of women's issues include familiar concerns: familial, career, victimization, contraception, politics, and health. How different are the issues facing women today from those that faced females of the ancient world?

As important as family and children are to most women today, their value was even greater to the women of early civilization. The goal at that time was populating the earth and building one's family. Women were raised with the understanding that bringing children into the family was their primary contribution. Their family defined them.

Read a .pdf excerpt from publisher's website.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Quote: Transformation

From Transformation by Bob Roberts Jr., page 78:
What we began to do in our church in the early days was to push people to read through the Bible every year--primarily to educate them to God's Word. Remember, many of our people were new Christians. We didn't understand at the time the significance of what we were doing until we began to see the results....When they got up early in the morning with their Bible and journal, they were quiet enough to hear God impress his truth on them out of his Word.

Another thing we didn't understand at the time or realize we were doing is that we were also teaching our people listening skills. the early church hearing God and knowing his will was a basic life discipline, not a crisis situation. We learn to see him and recognize him in every event throughout the day when we start on our knees and his Word. But it's how we read it that makes all the difference.

We teach our people to begin their day with their Bible open and pen poised, quietly asking God to reveal himself and his will in every situation. Invariably, there is something they'll read out of the Old Testament history, wisdom literature, or the New Testament that gives them clear direction.

From page 87:
Jesus said imitate me. Paul said imitate me. John said imitate me. It's a way of life, not an instruction manual on part assembly. By being near Jesus, living in his presence in a daily manner, we come to know him.

From page 163:
We must love people and serve them regardless if they "say the prayer." If we genuinely love people as God's creation, then many of them will become believers. However, if our primary motivation of humanitarian aide is only to "convert" them and not to practice Christ's love in feeding the thousands and healing the sick (even knowing, as Jesus himself did, that some would not follow), then that negatively influences what we proclaim. What then is the motivation of our evangelism? What does that say about our sincere love of others?

I serve not as a "bait" but because it is the nature of Christ in me. Who would help a hurting person on the side of the road and then demand, "Accept Jesus because I helped you." ...[Instead] we communicate that we're here for the long haul and we care. That's how we earn credibility.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review: Stories of Faith and Courage from Firefighters & First Responders

book cover

Stories of Faith and Courage from Firefighters & First Responders
by Gaius and Sue Reynolds

ISBN-13: 9780899570181
Trade Paperback: 508 pages
Publisher: AMG Publishers
Released: September 2010

Source: Electronic review copy from publisher through NetGalley.

Book Description from Publisher Website:
Stories of Faith and Courage From Firefighters and First Responders is a 365-day devotional book in the Battlefields and Blessings® series. With many stories from first responders who have "been there," this book serves as a daily reminder that God is with you in even the most tragic calls. When armed with God’s protective shield and grounded in His Word and prayer, you are never alone, because God is with you.

• 365 daily stories pertaining to emergency responders and their experiences
• Provides daily food for thought and prayers directly from the hearts of first responders
• Though the stories come from those in fire departments, EMS, and dispatch units, they are applicable to civil servants in the police and military service everywhere.

My Review:
Stories of Faith and Courage from Firefighters & First Responders is a 365-day devotional targeted at firefighters & first responders. The daily entries (by date) were generally mini-sermons (in a good way) and words of encouragement from other Christians in the field. They dealt with challenges specific to these jobs.

The same publisher also puts out Stories of Faith and Courage From Cops on the Street and Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage From the War in Iraq and Afghanistan devotionals.

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.

Read an excerpt from the book.