November 7, 2014 1

Supplement 39a – BOOK Wrap Up

By in Blog, Podcast

book-toonHello! This is a BOOK Podcast supplement, and I am Josh Way. Well, we did it! We’ve completed our tour through the writings of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles! I’m sad and relieved and exhausted and excited for whatever’s next. Together we’ve looked at dozens (maybe hundreds?) of stories and songs and legends and genealogies and poems and dreams and apocalyptic visions and gospels and letters, and we tried to say something honest and helpful about each of them. And while I’m sure all of us have more questions than we did when we started, I think that’s a sign of success. We’ve really only begun to scratch the surface, even after two long years. By way of wrapping things up, I have a few things I want to say about BOOK, about my experience putting it together, and then about the bible itself.

First, and I probably should have mentioned this earlier, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Here’s what I mean: I’ve tried my best to provide commentary that reflects scholarship, history, language, church tradition, theology, and common sense, but I’m just one American dude with a Masters Degree who is still finding my own way through the murky waters of ancient foreign literature. From day to day, I have my best educated guess as to how this or that bible passage should be interpreted. Anything I say in a podcast is just one of innumerable possible approaches. I don’t have answers or conclusions so much as I have ideas and hunches and epiphanes and questions and doubts. If I did BOOK again in a year, I’m sure it would take a very different shape, and – if I kept doing my homework and growing as a person – I would surely have new and surprising things to say.

Even along the way, while making BOOK, I’ve changed my mind and my thinking on many topics, and will continue to do so. I don’t have a list of retractions or anything like that, but when I revisit some of the old podcasts, I do wish I could refresh or expand them. For example, I still think that reading creation as a hymn celebrating the order and function of the material universe is the best way to go, but after reading the work of John Walton I’d love to also talk about Genesis 1 as an ancient temple-building narrative. In regard to the whole Hebrew Bible, I’m coming to grips with the apparent likelihood that nothing in the collection was written earlier than 600 BCE. That has a huge effect on how we read it. In the New Testament I’m still wrestling intensely with questions of authorship and voice. These are huge and unsettled issues in my mind. But that’s OK! Everything about BOOK is meant to be preliminary, just a first step to being ready to begin reading the bible again with open eyes. As I said back in the very first episode, my goal has been to make an entertaining and intellectually honest presentation of the content of the bible so that each of us, believer, critic, or curious, would have an informed and productive launchpad for talking more intelligently about it.

I also predicted in that first podcast that BOOK would not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I was correct. Certain Christian friends and relations have, I think, found it offensive and disrespectful to familiar and beloved ways of reading the bible. And I’ve perceived that some of my skeptical and non-believing friends wonder why I spend so much time and energy talking about the bible in the first place. I understand these misgivings, even as I stick to my guns. On the one hand, if the bible represents our religious heritage as Christians, we ought to understand it as best we can from every possible angle. And for non-believers, the bible cannot be avoided as the major literary and religious influence on Western culture. We all benefit from being well informed and intellectually honest about the bible. I reject both religious paradigms that forbid questioning the bible and “secular” programs that would just throw it in the trash. Now, BOOK has always been more about the nuts and bolts of what’s in the bible than my personal religious beliefs, but I do have a blog at where I am quite open and talkative about my evolving Christian faith.

As BOOK draws to a close, a couple people have asked if I could give some sort of overview of the bible, say something that puts the whole thing together as a unit. Of course, one of the main themes of this podcast has been, I think, that the bible does not have the homogenous unity that most religious readings tend to impose on it. These authors were not aware that they were writing “The Bible,” and we risk losing their individual voices if we try to pretend otherwise. There is, of course, a certain historical and cultural consistency to these writings, in a broad sense, and there is an essential continuity in terms of the questions these texts explore, even as they offer diverse responses.

I would say, for example, that the central question of the Hebrew Bible is Israelite/Jewish identity throughout the pageant of history. With the possible exceptions of something like Job or Song of Songs or some of the other wisdom texts, I can’t think of a Hebrew scroll that isn’t about the struggle to maintain identity in the face of an historical dilemma (bondage in Egypt, settlement in Canaan, national formation, civil war, exile, or Persian/Greek/Roman occupation). Again, the answers are not always the same (Torah, priesthood, covenant, monarchy, prophecy, temple, rebuilding, new covenant), but the central questions are always about identity – who are we, who is God, and what will save us from this giant threat right now?

In the New Testament, Jesus-as-Messiah is clearly the thematic lynchpin of the collection. And I would argue that the authors of the Greek scriptures have those same basic questions of identity in mind. Jesus’ own teaching explores all of the old questions of Jewish identity, the nature of God, and the hope of rescue. In the wake of the Jesus event, the First Century apostles ask all of the questions again. Who are we? What is God like? What (or who) will rescue us from our oppressors and from ourselves? And they all point to Jesus, even as they offer various creative interpretations of what it means for them and their First Century friends to follow Messiah.

If there’s a center and a “heart” to the whole bible, I think it’s this quest for identity, both self identity and divine identity, which I think are more closely related than most of us realize. I can already think of a million more questions and caveats, but I think I’ll just leave this here for now, and close out this supplement. Here’s the last thing I want to say today: the part of BOOK where I look at all the bible passages one at a time is over, but I’d love to keep going if you’ll have me. If you have comments and questions and topics you’d like me to explore in future supplements, whatever you’re thinking about, I’d love to hear it and offer my thoughts. Have a technical bible question I didn’t cover to your satisfaction? Didn’t follow me on some weird train of thought? Did I lose you somewhere? You can comment here on, you can email me at, or you can leave me a voicemail at 801.760.3013. Please make my day and drop me a line. That’s it for now, bible pals, I’ll catch you some other time.

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November 3, 2014 2

Episode 39 – Revelation

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a sense of bittersweet emotion. In my right hand is the satisfaction of finishing something I started. This must be the final (official) episode of BOOK.


Hello, this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. For two years we have been exploring the writings of the Hebrew and Greek bibles with an emphasis on history and literature, context and meaning. And now, we have just a single text remaining, and boy howdy is it a barn burner. The Revelation of John (or John’s Apocalypse) is undoubtedly the most notorious and sensational book in the New Testament, though it was the last book to be canonized, a decision debated and disputed by Early Church Fathers, Reformation leaders and modern theologians alike. Biblicists and conservatives look to Revelation as a blueprint for our near future and the “end times,” and liberal Protestants tend not to look at it at all.

Throughout our bible journey here on BOOK, we’ve observed with troubling frequency how ancient texts can be so easily misunderstood, and how those misunderstandings can evolve into entire belief systems that confound and divide. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this is the conundrum of Revelation. For myself growing up, Revelation and the “end times” cast a terrifying shadow over every aspect of life and faith. I lived in constant fear that at any moment, the sky might tear open and the holy war would begin. Sometimes this was explicitly taught via pulpit or rapture movie, but most of the time it was just under the surface in our assumptions, a central and non-negotiable but unspoken feature of our view of the world. The bizarre irony of the whole thing was that, according to our doctrine, our beloved Lord was going to appear, and God’s ultimate purposes for the world were going to be realized, and yet we – the true believers – were scared!

As a kid I was assured that Revelation predicted at least four events in particular that would happen at any moment: the second coming of Jesus, the rapture of true Christians to heaven, the rise of the Antichrist, and the end of the world. So, if we open up Revelation together right now, that’s what we should find, right? Here we go.

Revelation is written from the perspective of a man called “John,” traditionally the gospel author, though some scholars identify him simply as “John of Patmos,” possibly but not necessarily the same man as the Evangelist. It was most likely written in the late years of the first century, during the early days of the church but after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple. Here’s how the text begins:

1 A revelation of Jesus the Messiah! God gave it to him to show his servants what must soon take place. He signified it by sending a message through his angel to his servant John, 2 who by reporting all he saw bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus the Messiah.

Then John drops this on us, verse 7:

7 Look! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: yes, even those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth shall mourn because of him. Yes! Amen.

The long narrative portion of John’s vision hasn’t even begun, and this already sounds like a description of the “second coming” of Jesus. But if you’ve been listening to BOOK and paying attention, these words will sound familiar to you. “Coming with the clouds” is a reference to Daniel 7, a passage invoked by Jesus when predicting his own vindication. John uses the language to announce that, in what he is about to reveal, this vindication will be complete, and it will happen in public, before “every eye.” John may or may not be predicting a physical appearance of Jesus in the sky, but he is surely saying that the “revelation” he is about to present constitutes the long awaited vindication of the Messiah and his people, the parousia on which Paul and the apostles fixated in their epistles.

And speaking of which, before the narrative portion of John’s vision begins, before the dragons and monsters and earthquakes, the author describes an encounter with Jesus himself. John sees the Messiah, wearing a robe, with blazing white hair, fire in his eyes, “holding seven stars” in his right hand, with a “two-edged sword coming out of his mouth,” standing among seven lampstands. This is apocalyptic writing, so these weird visuals have symbolic meanings. Jesus is pure, his eyes burn with power, and the words that come out of his mouth cut like a sword. Remember, this is how apocalyptic works: hyperbolic metaphors come to life. Jesus tells John that the lampstands represent the seven churches of Asia, and the stars in his hand are “the angels of the seven churches.”

The “seven churches” in question are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, and Jesus proceeds to dictate letters to each of them which John is to record and deliver. And here’s why these Revelation epistles are a biblical head-scratcher: are they to be considered the actual words of Jesus? Or are they a device the author is using to communicate, like the outrageous description of the Messiah’s appearance, or the fantastical spectacle that is the rest of the book? Some modern Bibles print these words in red, choosing to interpret them as the actual words of Jesus. Others see these as more epistles of John, embedded in his vision narrative and placed in the mouth of Jesus to give them more weight. Consult your doctor or theologian and judge for yourself if this sounds like the Jesus we met in the gospels. Very briefly, here’s what the seven letters say to the seven churches.

  • To Ephesus: You’re doing well, you have not tolerated “false apostles,” but you’ve lost the passion you had at the beginning. Repent and get your groove back, or I’ll “remove your lampstand.”
  • To Smyrna: You have suffered and you will suffer more, but stay faithful and you will be rewarded.
  • To Pergamum: You live in a city “where the satan has his throne,” and have not denied me! But some among you have followed false teachers. Tell them to stop or I’ll come and fight them!
  • To Thyatira: You have done well, except that you have tolerated that false prophet Jezebel. I am going to “throw her on a bed,” and “utterly slaughter her children.”
  • To Sardis: You are a “dead” church. “Wake up,” or you won’t be ready when I appear.
  • To Philadelphia: Don’t worry about the “frauds” from the “satan synagogue,” I’m going to make them worship at your feet!
  • To Laodicea: “I wish you were either cold or hot,” but you’re lukewarm, so I’m about to spit you out! You’re too fat and rich to realize you even need a Messiah.

The primary thing we notice about these letters, apart from how much more cranky and revenge-y Jesus seems to be since the last time we saw him, is how specific these words are to the First Century churches, to the point of naming names and describing current events. That’s very important to keep in mind as we enter into the main section of the “revelation,” an extended apocalyptic pageant. Here’s where we get to the juicy stuff, but first we need to brush up on our literary criticism.

This is the third major apocalyptic text we’ve examined, the first in the New Testament. And John isn’t just aware of the Hebrew apocalypses Ezekiel and Daniel, like Jesus he seems to be a big fan and he borrows from both liberally, creating a kind of mash-up for his own time and his own purposes. Remember the two defining attributes of apocalyptic writings: 1) they employ outrageous, impossible symbolism to describe the spiritual dimensions of mundane realities, and 2) they are intended as vehicles of hope and inspiration for suffering people, not a gloom and doom wet blanket for happy people. Ezekiel’s creatures, thrones and skeletons were a cryptic message of hope and survival for the people of Judah in the early days of the Babylonian Exile, and Daniel’s dreams about statues and monsters were about the fall of evil empires and the vindication of Israel. So here in Revelation, even as things are about to get profoundly weird, let’s remember that John’s whole purpose in composing an apocalypse is to inspire a specific type of hope in a specific group of Christians at a specific moment in history.

In Chapter 4 John is taken up into heaven, where he catches a glimpse “behind the curtain,” at the other side of reality. He sees a glimmering, bejewelled throne surrounded by a rainbow, with an unnamed “someone” sitting on it, with twenty-four elders in robes wearing crowns surrounding the throne, and the seven lampstands too. The lampstands, we recall, are the seven churches under John’s jurisdiction, and the twenty-four elders are probably a representation of the universal church – twelve elders for the tribes of Israel, twelve more for the apostles. Four “creatures” appear, not unlike the four beasts from Ezekiel’s throne vision, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a human, and one like an eagle, representing the totality of created living things. Together, the elders and the creatures worship the throne day and night, declaring, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who Was and Who Is, and Who Is to Come,” a refrain borrowed from Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim in his Chapter 6. In the logic of Revelation, this is what is happening in God’s dimension while we are going about our business here on the “earth” side of reality.

In Chapter 5, the “one sitting on the throne” holds out a scroll, covered in writing, sealed with seven seals. These are the plans and purposes of God, his decrees. An angel asks, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll…?” Opening the scroll will unleash God’s purposes and set them in motion. At first, no one is found who is worthy of opening the scroll, and so John starts to weep. One of the elders says to him, “Don’t cry, look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll!” John looks and sees… a mighty lion? Nope, a slaughtered lamb. This is typical of apocalyptic: mixed metaphors and subverted expectations. The slaughtered lamb/lion gets up and walks to the throne, taking the scroll. The throne room erupts with celebration and singing:

“You are worthy to take the scroll, you are worthy to open its seals;
For you were slaughtered and with your own blood You purchased a people for God!”

Even here in Revelation, the Messiah is great and powerful not because he is physically strong or clever or wealthy or domineering, but because he is a meek and lowly servant who surrendered his life freely for those he loves. This makes him the only one who can fulfill God’s purposes. And what are those purposes according to Revelation? Well, buckle up. Starting in Chapter 6, the seals are opened, one by one, and spectacular things begin to unfold.

At the breaking of the first seal, a white horse and rider are dispatched to earth to conquer lands and “win victories.” At the second, a “fiery red” horse and rider “take peace away from the earth,” turning people against one another. The third seal unleashes a black horse, its rider holding scales and setting prices on consumer goods. And the fourth rider sits atop a “pale horse.” This is Death, followed by Hades, who kills a quarter of the earth’s inhabitants via sword, famine, and wild beast.

So, wait – these are God’s glorious purposes? These are the amazing events only Jesus could bring to pass? Sounds like we should have left the scroll unopened! But in the strange, cryptic dream-logic of Revelation, this is the demonstration of the problem to which the lamb and the scroll are the solution. In John’s pageant, the four horsemen represent the problems which plague the earth: war, enmity, corruption, and death. But the sequence isn’t complete yet, there are three more seals to go.

At the breaking of the fifth seal, a host of Christian martyrs appears, pleading with God to be vindicated and avenged. At the sixth seal there is a great earthquake, the sun turns black, the moon becomes “like blood,” and the stars fall out of the sky. The kings and warriors of the earth run for cover. Before the four horsemen – now replaced by four angels – can unleash even more destruction on the planet, there is a pause so that the “servants of God” on earth can be “sealed” “on their foreheads.” 144,000 people are sealed, 12,000 from each of Israel’s tribes. These are, apparently, the Jewish “servants of God,” but John looks up and the throne room is suddenly filled with innumerable multitudes of people “from every nation, tribe, people and language,” dressed in white robes, holding palm branches. John’s angel guide tells him, “these are the ones who have come out of the great suffering.” They are martyrs, rescued post-mortem by God, and they will “never be hungry or thirsty again,” and “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Finally, some real hope! But, there is still the matter of the seventh seal. When the Lamb breaks the final seal, there is silence in heaven for a half of an hour, and seven angels with seven trumpets stand before the throne. Within the seventh seal, a new sequence of seven begins. The first angel blows his horn and hail, fire, and blood rain down on the earth, burning up a third of the planet. The second trumpet sounds, and a giant flaming mountain falls into the sea, turning a third of the sea to blood, killing a third of all sea creatures, destroying a third of all ships. Third trumpet, and a star called Poisonwood falls from the sky, contaminating a third of all the earth’s water sources. Fourth trumpet, and the sun, moon, and stars are dimmed by one third.

The fifth trumpet is blown (we’re in Chapter 9 now, if you’re playing along) and another falling star crashes into the earth. This one opens an abyss, out of which come smoke and a host of locusts which attack the earth. We’re told that the locusts look like “little horses, prepared for battle,” which sounds adorable, until they proceed to “torture” everyone who wasn’t sealed as a servant of God for “five months.” Yikes. The sixth trumpet releases four angels, who in turn unleash “two hundred million” troops on horseback who kill a third of the human race with various plagues that come out of their mouths. The text says those left alive after this attack still refuse to repent, and continue worshiping idols, murdering, stealing, and fornicating.

As before, there are a few distractions before we actually get to the seventh trumpet. Chapters 10 and 11 are even more bizarre and obtuse than anything we’ve read so far. John hears “the seven thunders” of heaven saying something totally amazing, but he is forbidden to write it down. Then an angel feeds him a little scroll that tastes like honey but gives John a tummy ache. He is then given a measuring rod to “measure God’s temple,” another allusion to Ezekiel. He then watches as “two witnesses,” two prophets with authority from God, are killed by a monster from the abyss. The world celebrates their demise, but “three and a half days later,” God raises them up and glorifies them to heaven. The seventh trumpet is blown, and it is officially announced: “Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Thunder, lightning, and earthquakes mark the occasion.

Thus ends the first half of the book of Revelation, and as we take a moment to catch our breath we might ask ourselves, what the heck does it all mean? What’s with the seals? The trumpets? The tiny horses? The measuring rod? The two witnesses? While in many cases we can’t be precisely sure of the meaning of each symbolic detail, it seems pretty clear in a broad sense what has just transpired. Messiah, the innocent slaughtered lamb, has facilitated the opening of the scroll of God’s plans, specifically God’s plans to identify, rescue and glorify those Christians who have died as martyrs in the “great suffering,” the persecution of the First Century church. The seals and trumpets – not unlike the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 – are a device for ordering and explaining the chaos of the believers’ experience. The world is full of corruption and conflict and death, but God has “sealed” his “servants” for rescue. In each round, a percentage of the earth and its inhabitants are destroyed, but a majority remnant always survives. The point is: yes, there’s suffering and loss, but it’s all part of a plan. As for the two “witnesses,” they seem to be another way of talking about the church martyrs, killed by a “monster,” but rewarded for their faithfulness. In the end, the “kingdom of the world,” that is, rule of the earth, is transferred to God and all of the rescued saints. And they all live happily ever after.

This could have been the end of John’s strange revelation, but it’s not. There is another extended vision which seems to tell the same story from a different perspective using very different images and ideas. Let’s go.

It begins in Chapter 12 when John sees a “woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” This woman is pregnant, in fact she’s in labor. As she cries out in agony, a “fiery-red,” seven-headed “dragon” appears from heaven, knocking a third of the stars out of the sky with its tail. The dragon positions itself beneath the woman, ready to swallow her baby as it is born. She delivers a “male child,” one “who is going to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” and God rescues the child from the dragon’s jaws. Enraged, it chases the woman into the desert where she hides for 1260 days.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to sort out these new characters and what they represent. The “male child” is clearly Messiah, and the text will explicitly identify the “dragon” as “the ancient serpent who is called the devil and the satan,” the accuser. But who is the “woman?” Since she gives birth to the Messiah, many have assumed that this is Mary, but the detail of her hiding in the desert for four years is quite peculiar. Given her endangerment by the dragon and her “crown of twelve stars,” I think we’re safe to speculate that this lady represents the universal church – Israel who gave birth to the Messiah, and the martyrs who are now left to be persecuted in his absence. War breaks out in heaven, “with Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon,” and the dragon’s own angels fighting back. The dragon is thrown down to earth, conquered by heaven, but left to run amok in the world. He knows he is defeated, but his fury is only increased.

In Chapter 13, things get even more interesting. Two “monsters,” sometimes translated “beasts,” join forces with the dragon. One climbs out of the sea, the other rises out of the earth. The dragon gives “authority” and “power” to the first monster, and “the whole earth” worships it. It speaks “blasphemous words” and it wages war against “God’s holy people.” One of its heads appears to have a “fatal wound,” but it lives. Meanwhile, the second monster is a sort of public relations manager for the first monster. It performs amazing miracles which deceive people into worshiping the first monster, makes images of the first monster, and marks everyone on earth with a sign so that “no one can buy or sell unless they have the mark of the monster.” The number of this monster, John tells us, is “six hundred and sixty-six.” And yes, this is where the dispensationalist obsession with the “antichrist” and “666” comes from, though the word “antimessiah” never occurs in this book, and “the beast” isn’t a singular, future human figure, it’s one of two monsters from this weird little apocalyptic cartoon. Let’s shake off everything we think we know about “the mark of the beast” and look at these two monsters in context.

While the dragon comes “from heaven” (which is weird), the two monsters rise out of the earth, and they carry out the will of the dragon. These are earthly powers that are animated by and in league with the accuser. And it’s not actually that difficult to discern what these two beasts might represent. The first one “speaks blasphemous words,” persecutes God’s people, and is worshiped by the world. This is pagan empire, the chief enemy of God’s people for most of the bible’s storyline. It’s Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now, Rome. And when one of the monster’s heads looks like it’s been mortally wounded and the nightmare is finally over… Nope! There’s always another head, always another emperor. The second beast is a false prophet and a cheerleader on behalf of the empire, he tricks people into pledging allegiance to the empire, and hands out Price Plus cards so they can participate in its economy. These are the religious and consumer systems that exist to support and feed the interests of empire.

As for 666? Well, this is a bona fide secret code. Not a code that can only be unlocked by future bible readers, but one for John’s readers that they would surely know how to decrypt. John tells us as much. Revelation is, first and foremost, an anti-imperial polemic, though it cannot identify the empire by name. Instead it uses monsters and dragons and one last big metaphor that we’ll get to in a moment. John says that 666 is “the number of a human being,” and says “anyone with a good head on their shoulders can work out the monster’s number.” In Hebrew cryptography, popular in John’s day, each letter of the alphabet also carries numeric value, and the name “NERO CAESAR” works out to 666. This also serves John’s purposes well, as 666 falls offensively short of 777, the apocalyptic number of divine perfection. In all likelihood, John is calling out the current emperor for orchestrating persecution of God’s people and being the “beast” who is in league with the dragon.

In Chapter 14 the Lamb prepares for battle with 144,000 elite, celibate warriors. That’s right, according to John, heaven’s best soldiers are those who have never “polluted themselves with women.” Three angels make three announcements: “The time for judgment has come!”, “Babylon the Great has fallen!”, and “Those who worship the monster and its image… will drink the wine of God’s anger!” John sees a human figure on a cloud with a sickle, who announces that “it’s harvest time!” More angels go forth into the world and gather the “fruit of the earth” – that is, human beings – which are put into the “winepress of God’s anger,” from which blood pours, “high as a horse’s bridle for about 200 miles.” Even granted that this winepress is as metaphorical as all the dragons and giant ladies, this is still one of the most horrifying images in the whole bible.

Chapter 15 brings seven more angels, this time holding seven “bowls filled with God’s anger.” They proceed to pour the bowls out onto the earth, one at a time, and various “plagues” befall the humans who worship the monster and bear his mark. Painful sores, the death of sea creatures, rivers turned to blood, and fire from the sky are only the first four. As in the sequence of trumpets, the humans who endure these heavenly assaults are unrepentant, in fact they curse God’s name. The fifth plague plunges the earth into darkness and the sixth dries up the Euphrates and gathers the kings of the earth at a place called Mount Megiddo or, in Hebrew, Har Megiddo, which is where we get the word Armageddon. There is no “Mount” Megiddo, but Megiddo is a town where Israel fought many ancient wars. A dramatic setting for John’s final battle. At the pouring of the seventh bowl, a loud voice from the throne room announces “it is done!”, and “Babylon the Great” – obviously the new code word for Rome – is dragged into God’s presence to be dealt with once and for all. The plagues unleashed on “Babylon” are so horrible that the very islands and mountains of earth flee away.

With the final sequence of seven completed, John looks and sees another giant woman, sitting on a “scarlet monster” with seven heads. This is not the beautiful mother from Chapter 12, but a “whore.” She is “Babylon the Great, Mother of Whores and Earth’s Abominations!” An angel explains to John that the monster’s seven heads are “seven hills” on which the Whore of Babylon sits. This is a clear reference to the geography of Rome. He explains that the monster will turn on the whore and destroy her, before being destroyed himself. This is all part of God’s purpose and plan. Another angel comes forth and declares once more that “Babylon the Great has fallen!,” and the kings and merchants of the earth weep over her destruction. But as earthly powers weep, heaven celebrates, and in Chapter 19 we head back to the throne room for the ultimate cosmic party. A multitude sings “Alleluia! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God! … He has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged the blood of his servants for which she was responsible!” As cryptic and dense as Revelation certainly is, it’s also remarkably clear what the whole thing has been about: John’s vision of Rome’s fall, and vindication for Christian martyrs. It’s no more complicated than that.

The last few chapters imagine the ultimate victory of God after the evil empire’s demise. The elders and creatures in the throne room continue to praise God, and all of heaven prepares for a marriage banquet, as theLamb welcomes his “bride” the church into her rest. Then suddenly, Jesus is back in his form from the beginning of the vision, in his white robe with his flaming eyes and the sword coming out of his mouth. He rides out on a white horse, heaven’s armies behind him. They capture the two imperial monsters from Chapter 13 and throw them into a burning lake of sulphur. The humans who served them are killed, and birds feast on their flesh. In Chapter 20 the dragon himself is captured and locked in “the abyss” for a thousand years, during which, the earth is ruled by Messiah and the Christian martyrs. After these thousand years the satan is released from the pit, only to be thrown into the lake of sulphur where he and the monsters will be “tortured day and night forever and ever.” What follows is a judgment scene not unlike Daniel 12 or Jesus’ “sheep and goats” parable in Matthew 25, in which resurrected humans are judged on the basis of “what they have done.” The righteous are ushered into their reward, and the wicked find only a “second death.”

The final vision of Revelation, in Chapters 21 and 22, is one of the most remarkable in all of scripture. In it, a “new heaven and a new earth” are unveiled, and a “holy city” called “New Jerusalem” comes down out of the sky to the earth, and God sets up shop forever. This new city is made of precious stones and radiates God’s light. There is “no temple,” for God and the Lamb are always there. There is no more death, no mourning, no pain. And furthermore (this is most remarkable), the gates of this city will never be shut, and the nations and kings of the earth will bring tribute to it. In John’s vision, even after the apparent judgment of all humans and the defeat of evil, the earth still goes on. There are still kings and nations and projects and things to be done. The ultimate eschatological vision of Revelation (and thus, of our Bible) is of a future for humanity, for the world, for all of creation. For all the scary, ugly stuff in this book, the ending catches us off guard with its beauty and joy. John ends his book with a warning to the reader to heed its words, and the hopeful refrain, “Amen! Come Lord Jesus.”

Now, having read the whole book of Revelation, let’s go back to our checklist and see how we did.

#1 – Did we find… the “second coming” of Jesus? Well, the entire book anticipates the parousia or the vindication of the Messiah, and Jesus makes several appearances in both heaven and on earth in various parts of the vision. But there was no “second coming” narrative per se, at least not in the way I was always taught to expect it.

#2 – How about… “the rapture”? Well, we saw some First Century martyrs appear in heaven, but they had been killed, not raptured. No, I don’t recall a rapture scene. Do you?

#3 – The rise of “the antichrist”? There were a couple of monsters that represented the Roman Empire, but… nope. No antichrist.

#4 – And finally… what about the “end of the world”? Well, we just read about the new heaven and the new earth, and how life continues happily on earth FOREVER, so that’s another no-show.

How did this happen? How did Revelation become synonymous with events and expectations that it doesn’t even address? How did its true storyline – about the defeat of Rome and the vindication of Christian martyrs – take a back seat to speculation and modern politics? On the one hand, we’ve only made certain advances in our understanding of apocalyptic literature in the last couple of centuries. On the other hand, some of the most egregious misreadings of Revelation come out of European and American theologies of the last two hundred years. I think, ultimately, that the cryptic nature of the text, combined with our hunger for certainty about our future have created a perfect storm for missing the point. The biggest irony that I see, looking at Revelation in context, is that Europeans and Americans would be the ones to miss the book’s anti-imperial message. Or maybe that makes perfect sense. We’ve always imagined that the “beast” was going to be a Muslim, or some foreign politician. Perhaps our misunderstanding has kept us from examining our own relationship to empire, and how our wallets and lifestyles “feed the beast” in our own context.

Even as I read Revelation through fresh eyes and with help from scholarship, I struggle with what I find. On the one hand, John’s vision of the Lamb’s victory and the beauty of New Jerusalem is some of the most compelling and exciting material in the bible. On the other hand, we see an insistence on divine violence and retribution that is troubling to say the least, and possibly even at odds with the ethos of Jesus’ own teaching. As with the epistles, I think we can sympathize with the author’s sense of calamity and hopelessness in the face of ruthless persecution, but I don’t think that obligates us to embrace violent visions of “the end.” Of course, in Revelation, we are also dealing with a highly stylized and symbolic work, something that should always factor into our interpretation.

Revelation is, first and foremost, a coded message of hope for frightened and persecuted First Century Christians. Its hope can be ours too, if we choose to embrace it, but we do a great disservice to its author and original recipients when we reappropriate it for our own purposes and agendas and pretend it never meant much until we came along. In a way, Revelation is a more extreme version of every other bible book: it has a great deal to say to us, but it has to say it in its own way and its own language. Not just Koine Greek, but the language of ancient apocalyptic. If we don’t bother to learn the language, we might as well write our own bible.

This is the end of our journey together through the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. I have a couple of things to say by way of wrapping up in a forthcoming supplement, and I’m keen to keep the podcast alive by answering questions if you’ve got any, so this doesn’t need to be goodbye. Still, it does represent the end of a very long journey that I have enjoyed very much. I thank you sincerely for listening and traveling alongside me.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you again, I promise…

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October 21, 2014 0

Episode 38 – The Non-Pauline Epistles

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[clears throat] BOOOOOOOK.


Hello, and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. We are rapidly approaching the end of our endeavor, but there is still much work to be done so let’s get to it. Today we’ll look at the seven remaining epistles, short letters written by apostolic figures from the church’s first century. This is a diverse bunch of writings, which run the gamut from benign to angry to contested. Let’s get started. First up is James…


The author of our first epistle identifies himself as “James,” and tradition says this is James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus. No such claims are made in the text, and so this author is either very humble or someone else. The general tone of James is very positive and affirming, even as some of the theology seems to clash with what we’ve read elsewhere. In fact, James is one of a handful of books that Martin Luther wished he could delete from the Protestant Bible due to its message. What could be so controversial? We’ll see in a moment.

James addresses “the twelve tribes,” a common apostolic way of addressing early Christians and an attempt to draw a comparison between the Messiah movement and biblical Israel. He piles up encouragements, one after another, for Christian readers facing all manner of challenges. When you find yourselves in trouble, “look at it with complete joy!” When faith is put to the test, “what comes out is patience!” If you lack wisdom, “ask God for some!” For the author of James God is always good, and if we suffer, it’s not God testing us, it’s our own muddled desires that leads us astray. God is the giver of “every good gift.” And so, Christians should be quick to listen and slow to speak, slow to get angry. They should learn to control their tongue, and to do good deeds like visiting widows and orphans. He then goes on a short rant about rich people in the church, whom he calls “blasphemers,” whereas the poor will “inherit the kingdom.”

James’ next topic is faith, and this is where he steps on some Protestant toes. This is why Luther wanted James out of his Bible. Consider these two verses back-to-back. First, this is from Paul, in Galatians 2:16:

But we know that a person is not justified by works, but by faith in Messiah.

And here’s James 2:14:

What use is it if someone says they have faith when they don’t have works? Can faith save them?

On the surface, we see the apparent contradiction. Paul says it’s what you believe that’s important, not what you do, and James says that faith without action is worthless. This is a problem, IF you read the bible as a technical manual for how to “get saved” and “go to heaven.” Which is it? Faith or works?? But in context, of course, neither apostle is talking about technical “salvation.” Paul is telling Jews and Gentiles that they are “justified” by faith in Messiah, not by keeping Torah. He’s talking about the practicalities of what it means to belong to their specific community. James is telling his audience of Christians that their beliefs and ideas are of little significance if they are not demonstrated with acts of kindness. Paul and James may or may not have disagreed about theology, but here they are just saying two very different things.

James’ letter is mostly bright and cheery, but he does have a warning for his readers: “Not many of you should become teachers, because you know that you will be judged more severely.” People who tell others how to live their lives should be held to a high level of accountability. This is why, says James, the tongue is the most dangerous part of a human. It can sink ships, burn down forests, and an irresponsible tongue can “defile the whole body.” What comes out of a person’s mouth, says James, is an indication of what’s inside their heart. So Christians should hold their tongues, seek God’s wisdom, and above all be humble.

The letter’s almost done, but James has a few more choice words for his wealthy Christian friends: “Look here, you rich, weep and wail for the horrible things that are going to happen to you!” (5:1) He accuses these rich citizens of hoarding resources, exploiting the poor, and fattening their own hearts “for the day of slaughter.” (5:5) Ouch. Maybe today James would have his own show on MSNBC. James closes the letter by imploring his flock to wait patiently for the Messiah’s “appearing,” and reminds them to pray their way through hard times as a community. That’s the epistle of James.

1 Peter

Next we have two epistles attributed to Peter, Jesus’ trusted right-hand-man and a major presence in both Acts and the gospels. There are also gospels and apocalypses attributed to Peter among the early church writings, but only these two epistles were deemed authentic and canonized. Actually, evidence suggests that the authorship of 2 Peter was in question even before it was canonized, and today a majority of scholars doubt that Peter could be its author. Both of these letters are intense and sort of outrageous, as they were written to communities of Christians undergoing some form of persecution. Since the earliest known coordinated persecutions of Christians took place well after the time of Peter, we are left to speculate as to what exactly the church was dealing with at the time of 1 Peter.

Whatever the case, the author of the epistle is writing to encourage his audience, whom he calls “God’s chosen ones living as foreigners” among the provinces of Asia Minor. These are Jewish Christians, most likely, who are attempting to find an identity and a voice in the volatile world of the first century Roman Empire. They are alienated from their Jewish neighbors by their belief in Jesus as Messiah, and they face an even bigger challenge among pagans. As Christianity evolves from a Jewish faction into a full-blown new religion, its adherents forfeited the comforts and perks enjoyed by Judaism, which was respected by pagans for being so old. Ancient religions were privileged in the Roman world, and new beliefs were considered strange and suspicious.

Peter writes to Christians in this climate who fear for their well-being, and who may have already faced some form of victimization. And his message is, “hang in there!” He says this in the letter’s opening:

6 … Yet it may well be necessary that, for a while, you may have to suffer trials and tests of all sorts. 7 But this is so that the true value of your faith may be discovered. It is worth more than gold, which is tested by fire even though it can be destroyed. The result will be praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Messiah is revealed.

This is an apt summary of the whole letter. You suffer, but suffering will refine you like fire, and it will strengthen your faith until Messiah comes back. Peter is fixated on the parousia of Jesus. This is what traditional Christianity calls the “second coming,” the Greek translates “appearance,” and it connotes the long-awaited presence of a ruler among his people. This is very much in tune with Paul’s vision, not of a rapture of believers someday in the long distant future, but of the imminent return of the Messiah to rescue and rule the world. This is a one-way parousia, not an escape plan, and it’s the reason Peter tells his readers that they can not only endure suffering and persecution, but actually “celebrate” because of it.

Peter’s name means “rock” or “stone” and he uses the word as an entry point into the Hebrew Bible to make a point about Jesus. God has laid a “cornerstone” in Zion (Isaiah 28), which the builders “rejected” (Psalm 118), but which has now become a “stumbling block” (Isaiah 8) to those who don’t believe. His point is this: Israel may have rejected Jesus, but God has not. So Christians should not be discouraged or deterred. Here Peter also says, rather unexpectedly, that his readers should be “subject to every human institution” and even “honor the emperor.” Scholars wonder if this isn’t here to placate any imperial officials who might have read the letter as it passes through their territory, but Peter says this is “God’s will: He wants you to behave well and so to silence foolish and ignorant people.” (2:15)

The author rounds out his letter with practical ethical advice for his readers. Wives should be “subject” to their husbands, not out of duty or inferiority, but so that wayward husbands might be “won” over. Husbands should pay their wives “full respect,” since they are both “heirs of the same grace.” Christians should be “like-minded, sympathetic, and loving to one another.” If they are to suffer, it should be for standing up for what is right, not for doing what is wrong or cowardly. “The end of all things is upon us,” so Christians ought to put aside foolish ways of life and live worthy of the Messiah. For all their recorded differences of opinion, here Paul and Peter seem to have very similar visions for their churches. His final word is to the “elders” or “shepherds” among the people, who must live as examples for their communities of humility and love. “Peace to you all in Messiah.”

2 Peter

The second epistle attributed to Peter is a shorter and very different text. We’ve seen how the first letter works and how much it ultimately reminds us of Paul’s writing, but some of the material in 2 Peter seems to come from a darker sort of place. To complicate matters even more, several passages throughout the letter are identical or similar to passages from the epistle of Judah, which we’ll look at a little later on. I think it’s safe to say that, from all perspectives, 2 Peter is what we call a difficult text.

The letter starts off in familiar territory, urging its readers to compound “faith” with “virtue,” “virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self control with patience, patience with piety, piety with affection, and affection with love.” (1:5-7) This is what grants one entrance into the “Kingdom of God’s coming age, the Kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus the Messiah.” Peter then alludes to his own impending demise, and we’re not sure whether this is a message from prison or a general prediction of his own passing. He proceeds to explain that he is writing that they may never forget the witness that the apostles bore to them. “I was there,” he says, “when a voice spoke from above saying, ‘This is my beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.’” Unlike the first epistle, this one sees Peter quoting gospel traditions to establish his credibility. He pleads with his readers to “hold on” to this prophetic word. And why? Well, because it’s true, but also because there are false teachers among you, offering false prophecies and leading you to destruction.

The author uses three examples to show how God deals with bad guys like these unnamed “false prophets:” 1) God took rebellious angels and threw them into an abyss to await judgment, 2) God sent the Genesis flood to blight the wicked, and 3) God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Notice anything odd about that trio? Not only are these dark and scary God stories, only two of them are actually from the Hebrew Bible as we know it. The story of the rebellious angels comes not from Genesis, but from the Book of Enoch, a sort of midrash on Genesis that was not considered scripture by the makers of our Western canons. This opens a strange kind of wormhole in biblical interpretation, as we have a canonical allusion to a non-canonical text. But getting back to the letter, the author points out that God rescued Noah and Lot from the destruction of the wicked ones around them, and he will do the same for the Christians.

Peter goes on to describe in angry detail just how foul and unrighteous these “blasphemous” teachers are: they are “arrogant,” “self-willed,” “like unreasoning beasts,” “born to be destroyed,” they “wallow in disgusting pleasures,” their “eyes are full of adultery,” and they “can’t get enough of sin.” The “depth of darkness has been reserved” for these people, and they should be avoided at all costs. And in the closing of the letter, Peter gets a little more specific about what these false teachers are saying. Apparently, they are asking why it’s taking so long for Jesus to come back, and questioning the idea of an imminent parousia. Peter’s response is that, as in the days of Noah, God is delaying the “day of judgment” as long as possible so that more might be ready to be rescued.

It’s easy to see how some of the more gloomy aspects of dispensationalist eschatology owe a great deal to this letter. While Paul rarely spoke about hell and punishment and fully expected immediate messianic appearance and rescue, the author of 2 Peter has a more drastic view of judgment and “the end times.” We can perhaps attribute this to his age, his impending martyrdom, or the general persecution faced by the church in his time, but we can see why interpreters from a range of ideological perspectives have been quick to either celebrate or dismiss 2 Peter.

1 John

Next we have three short epistles attributed to John. One of the letters claims no author, and the writer of the other two calls himself “The Elder,” but all three are traditionally attributed to John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, said to be one of the original disciples of Jesus. All three of these epistles read like the work of the same author, and there are striking similarities in style and content to John’s gospel, as we notice right away with the First Epistle of John:

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at, and our hands have handled – concerning the Word of Life! 2 That life was displayed, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and we announce to you the life of God’s coming age, which was with the Father and was displayed to us.

Only two verses in and like the gospel author, this John invokes Genesis, refers to Jesus as the “Word,” or logos, and talks about “God’s coming age.” We’re in familiar territory. Unlike the two epistles that follow, 1 John looks more like a sermon or essay than a letter, and its message resonates with the portrayal of Jesus the author served up in his gospel. Jesus came to shine God’s light, which exposes our sin, but he also died to “atone” for our sin, and not just ours, but the sins of the “whole world.” And all of this happened because of God’s great love. Christians should respond by obeying God’s commandment, which is, of course, “love one another.” Again, all of this could be straight out of John’s gospel.

The flipside of this, however, is a warning. Don’t love the world, because it’s a kingdom that is passing away. And here, in chapter 2, John gives a warning that has ignited the imaginations of Christians throughout history. He says this:

18 Children, it is the last hour. You have heard that “antimessiah” is coming – and how many antimessiahs have appeared! That’s how we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from among us, but they were not really of our number.

John warns of the “antichrist,” or rather, of many “antimessiahs,” and this language has been co-opted by dispensationalist Christians, mashed up with other texts from Daniel, Paul and Revelation to create a theological cocktail about a coming “Antichrist” figure who will usher in the end of the world. But comments here and elsewhere in the letter indicate that John understands “antimessiah” to be a spirit, or an attitude, not a human figure, and the point of this particular passage is clear, that some opponents of Messiah’s teachings have already left the movement. John goes on to explain what an “antimessiah” is: anyone who denies that Jesus is Messiah. These people, says John, deny the Father when they deny the son. This isn’t about a future evil guy who will take over the world, it’s about those who opposed the apostolic movement here in the First Century. We’ll talk more about this stuff in the Revelation podcast, which I can’t believe I get to write next…!

John gets back to the central message of the letter, which is “love one another!” The world hates us (the Christians), but we know love because Messiah willingly laid down his life for us, and so we should do the same for our brothers and sisters. And for John, as in his gospel, “faith in Jesus” means believing that he is God’s son, his true representative and the ultimate expression of his love. This, the apostle says, is how to “conquer the world.” (5:5) Three things bear witness to this: water, blood, and spirit, or rather, Jesus’ birth (or perhaps his baptism?), Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ resurrection. In conclusion, he invites his readers to confidently cling to these things, for they are the key to the life of the age to come.

2 John

The second epistle of John is extremely short, thirteen verses amounting to just a couple of paragraphs in English. It begins “from the Elder to the Chosen Lady,” which is a poetic way of talking about the church, and the letter reads like a summary of 1 John. Do not forsake the commandment of our Lord, “love one another,” and beware of deceivers and “antimessiahs” who deny that Jesus  “came in the flesh.” Such people are to be avoided. He ends the letter abruptly, saying he would rather speak to his recipients in person.

3 John

3 John is just as short as 2 John, but unlike the first two letters it concerns particular individuals who are identified by name. The letter is addressed to “Gaius,” and the Elder praises him for his spiritual prowess and love for his fellow workers. He then calls out a troublemaker in the same church named Diotrephes, who has been speaking “slanderous words,” and briefly praises someone named Demetrius before closing the letter with almost the exact words from 2 John.


Judah is another very short epistle, and another contested bible book. Much like 2 Peter, it was canonized in spite of doubts about its authorship, length, theology, and its quotation of a non-canonical text. It also appears to have been a source document for the author of 2 Peter. This letter is traditionally referred to as “Jude,” to avoid the negative connotation of its author’s real name, Judah, or Judas. This Judah identifies himself as “brother of James,” which tradition says makes him another brother of Jesus, but this is uncertain.

Like many epistles before it, Judah is concerned with “false teachers” who have “sneaked” in among God’s people to lead them astray. As in 2 Peter, the author uses literary examples to demonstrate how God will rescue his faithful servants and punish the other guys. God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, and “destroyed the unbelievers.” Likewise God banished the angels to await judgment day (another allusion to Enoch), and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Judah curses the false teachers, referencing an unknown story about an angel named Michael arguing with “the devil” over Moses’ corpse. After a few more literary allusions (they are like the wicked prophet Balaam, they are doomed like the Korahites), Judah actually quotes directly from the book of Enoch, a prophecy about YHWH coming with “ten thousand holy ones” to judge mankind. This is bad news for the false teachers, good news for Judah’s readers. The letter ends with an encouragement to those readers to stay the course and trust in the Messiah’s promise to return “in the last time.”

Its reliance on extra-biblical sources makes Judah one of the most problematic texts for critics and biblicists alike. The message and theology of the book are extreme, but not completely out of line with the other apostolic texts. There are some beliefs and presuppositions that pervade all of the New Testament texts: the supremacy of Jesus, Jesus as Messiah, the challenge of Christian identity in the pagan/Roman world, and the expectation of immediate divine rescue. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the apostolic writers considered it their vocation to speak hope and challenge to the self-proclaimed “people of God.” And our job, as with the prophets, is to reach back across time and culture and to use the tools at our disposal to try and hear their voices afresh, as clearly as we can, for our own day.

Friends, we have only one official episode of BOOK remaining. Next time we’ll crack open the book of Revelation, a loved, loathed, contested, and deeply misunderstood text. Talk about going out with a bang. I can’t wait…

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you one more time…

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October 8, 2014 0

Episode 37 – (Not) Paul’s (Not) Letter to the (Not) Hebrews

By in Blog, Podcast


It’s episode 37 and we’ve just a handful of bible texts left to explore. Today we’re looking at the Letter to the Hebrews, which is not really a letter nor is it really “to the Hebrews.” We’re off to a great start, today on BOOK…


This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. Last time we wrapped up our look at the writings of the apostle Paul, letters written to various first century church communities facing various first century crises. The next text in the New Testament canon is a bit of an odd duck, not being attributed to any author or community. Early Christians assumed it to be another letter of Paul, first and second century church fathers almost unanimously insisting that the apostle had written it and chosen to withhold his name for strategic reasons. By the third and fourth centuries, however, serious doubts arose and Hebrews was ultimately canonized, but without a consensus.  Today scholars and theologians generally agree that Paul is not the author, and while many theories have been put forth as to who is, ultimately we have no idea.

But here’s the other thing about the “letter” to the Hebrews: it doesn’t look much like a letter. Except for a few comments at the end that indicate it was written for a specific community of Christians, Hebrews does not have the form of a letter. There’s no greeting at the start identifying the writer and recipients, and the content of the letter looks more like a sermon or an apologetic essay than correspondence. And, while we’re at it, this text is not really “to the Hebrews” in the sense of being addressed to Israel or to non-Christian Jews. It’s clearly addressed to Christians, most likely a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile converts. Perhaps “About the Hebrews” would be a more appropriate title, as the thrust of the sermon is a point-by-point explanation of why and how Jesus is superior to anything found in the Hebrew Bible or Jewish religion. This raises all sorts of questions for us in light of what’s going on in the New Testament, but before we get into that let’s read the text.

1 In many ways and by many means God spoke in ancient times to our ancestors in the prophets; 2 but at the end of these days he spoke to us in a son. (Hebrews 1)

The first verse establishes the message and format of the entire book: in the Hebrew Bible it used to be like this, but now it’s like this, because Jesus is better. His first argument is that God used to reveal himself through prophets, but now he has revealed himself through a “son,” an agent, a true representative. Of course, we observe, Jesus was himself a prophet, but for the author of Hebrews, he is the prophet to end all prophets. Moving on, this is verse 4:

4 See how much greater he is than the angels; The name he was granted is finer than theirs. 5 For to which angel did God ever say, “You are my son; today I became your father”? Or again, “I will be his father, and he will be my son”?

Suddenly the topic is angels, and – you guessed it – Jesus is way better than angels. And here the author makes the first of many appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures to prove his point. But for those of us who know our way around the “Old Testament,” his strategy is a little… interesting. He uses two quotes – one from Psalm 2 and one from 2 Samuel 7 – to “prove” that Jesus is better than angels because he is the “son of God.” But angels are often referred to as “sons of God” in the Hebrew Bible, and these two verses aren’t directly about Jesus. Psalm 2 is about Israel’s king and his special relationship with YHWH, and 2 Samuel 7 is about Solomon. By the time this author is writing, however, all such references have been re-appropriated by Christians to describe Jesus, the Messiah, true king and “son of God.”

In Chapter 2, the author mounts a new argument, one that needs some delicate unpacking. He starts by quoting a famous bit from Psalm 8:

6 … What are humans, that you should remember them?
What is the son of man, that you should give him a thought?
7 You made him a little lower than the angels,
You crowned him with glory and honor,
8 And you placed everything under his feet.

This well known poem celebrates humanity’s special place as the pinnacle of creation, as God’s stewards over the natural world. But the author of Hebrews latches onto the phrase “son of man.” In Hebrew poetry, it simply means “a human” or a “mortal person,” but it was also one of Jesus’ favorite ways of referring to himself, taking a cue from the book of Daniel. So here in the New Testament, this writer chooses to read Psalm 8 as a prophecy about Jesus:

8 … When it speaks of everything being subjected to him, it leaves nothing that is not subjected to him. As things are at present, we don’t see everything subjected to him. 9 What we do see is the one who was, for a little while, made lower than the angels – that is, Jesus – crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death on behalf of everyone.

What was originally a Psalm about all humankind is reinterpreted as a description of Jesus’ incarnation and glorification. The question before us as explorers of the whole bible is: can an interpretation of a text be considered valid if it disregards or twists the original meaning? On an academic level it seems unacceptable, but for religious readers it often goes unnoticed, especially when the new interpretation is about Jesus. After all, one of the major Christian presuppositions is that all of the Hebrew Bible is secretly about Jesus. But I think the real question pertains to the environment in which this author is operating. In the First Century, was it acceptable to use ancient scriptures in this way? And the answer seems to be yes, in fact, it was common. This is similar to the Jewish method of interpretation known as midrash, wherein old and familiar passages of scripture are embellished and interpreted to answer contemporary questions and concerns. We’ve actually seen a similar approach elsewhere in the New Testament, in gospel passages (especially the early chapters of Matthew) and to a lesser extent in the writing of Paul. The author of Hebrews wants to show that Jesus outshines anything that is going on in Judaism, and he’s determined to use the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate it, whatever it takes. My own response is to accept the commonality of the “midrash” approach, but to always keep one eye on the original context as well.

In Chapter 3, a new argument: Jesus is better than Moses. Says the author:

5 … “Moses was faithful, as a servant, in all his house,” thereby bearing witness to the things that were yet to be spoken of; 6 but the Messiah is over God’s house as a son.

So Moses was the servant over God’s house, but Jesus is the son – the eldest son, in charge of the whole estate. “Moses” here is a codeword, I think, for the Law and the Temple, for Jewish religion, which has been supplanted by Jesus, according to this author. He reimagines Psalm 95 as an invitation to follow the Messiah. In Chapter 4 he extends his Moses/Exodus metaphor by warning his listeners to have faith, lest they be like those who “hardened their hearts” and failed to enter into God’s “rest.” This is a reference to the generation of Israelites whose sinful behavior kept them from entering the promised land. We note that this group included Moses himself.

Next topic: priesthood. From the end of Chapter 4 through Chapter 7, our author piles up reasons why Jesus is superior to Jewish priests. Human priests, we read, are weak and must atone for their own sins before they can mediate for others. Jesus was without sin and is uniquely qualified to intercede. And now the author invokes the name of Melchizedek, the mysterious priestly figure we encountered briefly in Genesis 14. If we recall, Melchizedek was a king who blessed Abram, a “priest of God Most High” long before there was an Israel or a Temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 110 made reference to Melchizedek as a “priest forever,” and the author of Hebrews pulls on this thread to make his case about Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a priest according to human lineage. In fact, he’s from the wrong tribe, Judah. But he was appointed by God to an eternal office of priesthood, and thus he is a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” And, while human priests had to sacrifice over and over to cover the sins of every new day until they passed away and the job was taken up by a new priest, Jesus is a priest once-for-all, who never dies, whose sacrifice is sufficient for all the sins of the world.

In Chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is not only a superior priest, but he heralds a superior covenant, and a superior tabernacle. The covenant is the law, and the tabernacle is the forerunner to the temple. Both, says our author, were pale pre-echoes of a divine reality that has been ushered in by Messiah. He quotes Jeremiah 31’s vision of a “new covenant,” one in which God forgives sins “forever” and writes his laws on human hearts instead of stone tablets. Likewise, the temple furnishings were designed to resemble the heavenly sanctuary, where Jesus himself now resides for real. And, according to Chapter 10, all of this is made possible because of the “perfect” sacrifice of the Messiah’s blood, which is a superior and ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices. This is why Christians should worship Jesus, and have hope in spite of persecution and suffering.

Hebrews Chapter 11 is a famous passage on the subject of faith. The author starts by defining faith as “being sure in hope, and convinced of things we cannot see.” He proceeds to list many men and women from the Hebrew Bible who were great examples of faith. (We note that this is first time in the text that the Hebrew Bible serves as positive example rather than inferior antecedent.) Heroes of faith include Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Even Moses is portrayed as a paragon of faith, despite the author’s words in previous chapters. And he laments that he has insufficient time to cover others like “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.” Because of this group of faithful ancestors, what the author calls a “great cloud of witnesses,” the early Christians must follow their trajectory and follow after Jesus, the ultimate faithful one, who trusted God to the point of death, and whose reward was glorious beyond imagination. So the Christians should shape up, get to work, and “run the race” with patience and discipline.

And, in closing, in case we forgot the primary conceit of this whole essay, the author reminds his readers that they have not come to Mount Sinai, the temporary and inferior site of an ancient covenant. They have come instead to “Mount Zion – the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This is a permanent and unshakable reality, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” In Chapter 13 he wraps up, admonishing his congregation to remain faithful, and not to be distracted and lead astray by “strange teachings” or “rules about what to eat.” Not unlike Paul, the author of Hebrews seems to be warning his people against the “Judaizers” who taught that Christians must observe Jewish customs to properly follow the Jewish Messiah. But much more than Paul, this author seems fixated on demonstrating the inferiority of Judaism and the old covenant.

And this is our challenge as we read Hebrews today. It’s not that it’s anti-Semitic or openly hostile to Judaism. Like Paul and the other apostles, this author (quite likely a Jewish Christian his or herself) sees Jesus in continuity – not conflict – with the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet, in their attempt to praise and elevate Jesus, they have painted a particularly harsh and negative picture of Jewish traditions and beliefs. And, unfortunately, in the centuries after the New Testament, as Christianity became increasingly detached from its Jewish roots, texts like this one became the foundation for very real and damaging anti-Jewish sentiment.

Still, Hebrews, in its original setting, remains a valuable and beloved text for its exhaustive and celebratory portrait of Jesus as perceived by the First Century church, and for its inspiring words about faith and perseverance. In the next podcast, we’ll look at the remaining New Testament epistles, texts by and attributed to apostolic figures like Peter, John, James and Judah. With a little persistence and attention to detail on our part, they will help to fill out our understanding of the early Christian church and the Messiah it worshiped.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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September 18, 2014 1

Episode 36 – Paul Part 3: And the Rest

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand, I’m holding a bottle of water. In my right hand, I’m using a mouse as I conduct this recording of my podcast. But there’s also a bible around here somewhere, so let’s do a show about some of that stuff in that book.


Welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue and conclude our look at the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul. There’s a lot of ground to cover today, so I’m going to assume you’re caught up on Parts 1 and 2. Today’s menu features ten short letters and one very spicy controversy. That comes later. First up today is Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.


Galatians is a very cranky letter to a church that Paul believes has lost its way. They have been infiltrated by Christians who teach, in Paul’s words, “another gospel.” That is, they deviate from Paul’s own teachings. These Christians are sometimes referred to as “Judaizers,” and they taught that Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and observe Jewish laws and customs in order to be accepted into the church community. This outrages Paul, who delivers a rhetorical assault in the form of this letter. First, he defends his own version of the gospel, insisting that he received it from Jesus himself on the road to Damascus. He recounts his conversion story in a telling that seems to contradict Acts Chapter 9 (which would have been written later anyway). Paul claims that he did not go to Jerusalem and meet Peter for three years after his conversion, and that it was a total of 14 years before he met the rest of the apostles. His point seems to be that no human teaching has altered or compromised his version of the gospel.

Paul then takes on the Judaizers themselves, explaining why he considers their teaching so poisonous. They “pervert” the gospel, he says, because they teach that something – anything – other than Messiah is necessary to be made “righteous.” Out of context, some have taken Paul’s “faith not works” teaching as an indication that what you believe is more important than how you live. But not unlike what we saw in Romans, Paul’s context is the relationship between Gentile converts and the demands of the Torah law. He’s not discouraging his readers from doing good deeds, he’s denouncing anyone who would burden new Christians with a heavy yoke of religious obligation. For Paul, to saddle Christians with anything other than trust and hope in Messiah is an obstruction and a perversion.

Paul piles up a series of arguments against the Judaizers and the notion of Christian Torah-keeping. Some are familiar arguments from Romans and Corinthians, some are new. In Chapter 3, he celebrates the radically egalitarian nature of the Christian community, declaring, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, no male and female, you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus!” And in Chapter 5, he gives the Galatians a stirring pep talk, reminding them that “Messiah set us free so that we could enjoy freedom! So stand firm, and don’t get yourselves tied down by the chains of slavery.” Paul pleads with the Galatians, if we have truly been liberated by Messiah, let’s not become willfully enslaved to religion again! And at the end of the letter, he gets in one last dig at the Judaizers, suggesting that the only reason they want Christians to be circumcised is to avoid persecution. They want to “boast in their flesh,” as Paul puts it. But he’d rather “boast in the cross of Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

That’s the Letter to the Galatians. In some ways similar to Romans, being primarily concerned with the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. However, there’s a new dimension in Galatians concerning Christian factions and rivalries. In a lot of ancient Christian literature, even here in the New Testament, we see strong rhetoric against “perverts” and “false teachers” and “heretics.” But these are not satanists or enemies of Jesus, they are Christians who simply represent different forms of the faith that were not ultimately declared “orthodox.” While I’m sure most of us would look at Paul’s arguments here and declare him to be in the right, I sometimes feel compelled to take a moment and appreciate the fact that the “false teachers” in these letters were likely well-meaning people who simply had their own ideas about how to follow Jesus. We shouldn’t imagine that they were evil incarnate, nor should we use biblical rhetoric like Paul’s as an excuse to demonize those with whom we disagree today.


Ephesians is a strange letter, to be frank. It’s kind of hard to determine what Paul’s point is, other than a general exhortation to one of his churches. His overall message to the Ephesian church seems to be, “you’re doing great, but you can do better!” This is not a crisis letter like most of what we’ve seen from Paul so far, it’s an encouragement to a community of new Christians. Never one for subtlety or restraint, Paul’s encouragement takes the form of cosmic apocalyptic pronouncements: “God chose us [the Christians] for this before the foundation of the world!” The church, says Paul, like Messiah, was predestined for its mission by God in ancient times. They were once “dead” in sin just like everyone else, but God “raised” them up with Messiah and sat them with the King in heaven, they were vindicated and exalted along with Jesus, and with great power comes great responsibility. Paul declares that the Messiah has brought Jews and Gentiles together by “abolishing the law” (something the Jesus of Matthew Chapter 5 specifically says he refuses to do). As a result, Gentiles can share in Israel’s “inheritance,” because God’s “secret plan” to do all of this has been revealed. More apocalyptic language.

Most of the rest of Ephesians consists of practical advice, as Paul admonishes the church to ”live up to the call” they have received, to be loving and unified. “You were spiritual babies,” he says, “and now it’s time to grow up!” This involves taking off the old kind of life and putting on a new kind, and not be “ignorant” like the Gentiles. They should imitate God, tell the truth, and avoid fornication and idolatry. Wives and husbands should be “subject to one another” because of the Messiah. Parents, children, masters and servants should respect and love one another. In these passages, Paul presents a sort of Christian subversion of Greco-Roman “household codes,” the social structures and hierarchies by which Gentile society was structured in the First Century. While Paul’s Christian codes don’t exactly abolish slavery and patriarchy, they do emphasize mutual love and respect instead of domination and exploitation. In context they are actually rather progressive, and hint at the radically liberating potential of Paul’s gospel.

In a famous passage at the climax of the letter, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “put on the armor of God,” a military metaphor that probably worked a bit better in an ancient context. Christians are to fasten the belt of truth, don the breastplate of justice, wear the boots of the gospel of peace, wield the shield of faith, polish the helmet of salvation, and draw the sword of the spirit. Finally, he says, pray all the time, for everyone. For all Christians, and pray for Paul. He mentions at the end that he is “chained up,” indicating this is one of his prison letters, which makes its positive and even triumphal content that much more remarkable.


Philippians is another very happy letter to a church for whom Paul seems to have a great deal of affection. Paul establishes in the salutation that he is once again writing from prison. In fact, Paul celebrates the fact of his incarceration, as the “Imperial Guard” and the everyone else in the prison has had the opportunity to hear the gospel about Jesus the King. Paul says he expects to he rescued, but if not he will happily die and be “with the King.” As in Corinthians and Ephesians, Paul stresses conduct and unity in his churches that is worthy of the Messiah’s reputation. “Look after each other’s best interests, not your own.”

Then we read what appears to be an extended excerpt from a poem or hymn in Chapter 2, probably one of the earliest Christian hymns on record, if not the oldest. It’s quite beautiful and has a very high view of Jesus, who, according to the text, was divine but chose to be human, “obedient” to the point of death on the cross, having now been exalted and made king over all the earth. The last line of the hymn:

10 That now at the name of Jesus, Every knee within heaven shall bow – On earth too and under the earth;
11 And every tongue shall confess That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, To the glory of God the father.

This last refrain functions on two levels. First, as an echo of Isaiah 45’s declaration of YHWH’s sovereignty, and as a challenge to the claims, in Paul’s own day, of Caesar to be the name to which all allegiance was to be sworn.

Paul does have a general word of warning for the church at Philippi: don’t trust in “the flesh.” For Paul, the term “flesh” seems to refer to human ambition and earthly wisdom, not skin or sexuality. Paul goes on a tirade about all the circumstances and achievements in which he might well boast, but then declares that he considers them all “rubbish” and “nothingness” compared with the gospel of the Messiah. Live your lives like you’re running a race, with Jesus as the prize, he says, consider yourselves “citizens of heaven” – not of an afterlife destination, but of the divine reality. Be like God as revealed in Jesus, and most of all: celebrate in the Lord. Be happy and have a party! Sounds like a good time.


This epistle, from Paul and his associate Timothy to the church in Colossae, is another prison letter not very unlike the two which immediately precede it. Paul seems to think very highly of this congregation, and he prays that they will continue to grow in wisdom and gratitude. He even offers up another Messianic hymn as he did in Philippians, this one celebrating Jesus as a preexistent divine being:

1:15 “He is the image of God, the invisible one, The firstborn of all creation.
16 For in him all things were created, In the heavens and here on earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot – Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers
All things were created both through him and for him.

Paul’s point in quoting this song is that Jesus represents God’s own wisdom and power, the same power that created the world, coming into the world to reconcile all things to himself. This echoes the first chapter of John’s gospel, or rather the other way around since this is a much earlier text. Here in Philippians, it’s the basis for Paul’s encouragement to Christians: you were dead to sin, but you are now part of this amazing work that God has done in Messiah.

He goes on to warn the Colossians about false teachers who might use “philosophy and hollow trickery” to mislead them. They, says Paul, are interested in the “elements of the world, not in the King.”  They judge people according to “festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” – not the Messiah who brings freedom and life. Paul emphasizes again and again in this letter that the early Christians have “died and been raised” with Messiah, freeing them from the old way of life and liberating them for a new way. A way not of laws, rituals, and myths, but of love, peace and thanksgiving. And we close with a familiar salutation, “pray for one another,” and for Paul, who is still in chains.


1 Thessalonians is considered by many scholars to be the earliest of Paul’s letters. The apostle is apparently following up with the Thessalonian church after his associate Timothy has returned from a visit there. The letter is fairly typical of Paul’s short epistles. He praises the Thessalonians for their strong faith, calls them “model believers,” and defends his own reputation and that of the apostles, indicating that while many would seek to persecute and discredit them, they remain stalwart in their duty to spread the Messiah’s gospel. To him, churches like Thessalonica represent the “glory and joy” of the apostles and their work.

Paul talks about Timothy’s visit and the good report he brought back, and closes out the brief letter with some admonishments and corrections for the congregation. First, he urges them to “be holy,” to avoid fornication and uncleanness, not to behave like godless Gentiles, and to be more charitable. And at the letter’s climax, he offers a bit of eschatological correction concerning “those who have fallen asleep.” Apparently there is some confusion in this church regarding the fate of the dead, and Paul seeks to correct and comfort them according to his own understanding of the resurrection. But unfortunately, his words of correction to the Thessalonians have caused major confusion throughout the church in our own day. Here’s the passage in question:

15 We who are alive, who remain until the Lord is present, will not find ourselves ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first, 17 then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we will always be with the Lord. 18 So comfort each other with these words.

A couple of observations about this passage. First, Paul clearly expects that this event, the “appearance” of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, will occur soon, within his own lifetime. He plans to be alive to witness it! And the last bit here about being “snatched up among the clouds” is the basis – almost the sole basis – for what we know today as “rapture theology.” The Left Behind franchise and its imitators are all largely based on a dispensationalist interpretation of verse 17, and very little else. Now, we know from elsewhere that Paul’s eschatological vision does NOT involve a mass rapture to heaven, but a rebirth of this world and a resurrection of humans within it. And we also note that there is nothing explicit about “going to heaven” in this passage. So what do we do with the “snatched up in the sky” language?

Here’s what’s going on. The image here is of a king or an emperor, coming to a city to judge and rule his subjects. The people are so excited to see their ruler and so desperate for his judgment that they pour out of the city to meet him and welcome him back into the city to live among them and save the day and give them free tacos. In Paul’s eschatological vision, Jesus is the king, coming to judge and save his world, and his people will be so enraptured to see him, they will meet him up in the clouds – and welcome him back to his world, where they will all live together forever. “And in this way we shall always be with our Lord.” Paul’s message of comfort to the Thessalonians is not about escape from earth, but about the rescue that is coming to it – even for those who are already “asleep.” What’s more, Paul strongly believed that he and the Thessalonian Christians would see this rescue come at any moment within their own lives.


The very short 2 Thessalonians is a puzzle. It shares many attributes with Paul’s other short letters, especially with its prequel letter 1 Thessalonians, but it centers around an eschatological message that seems to contradict the spirit (and details) of the apostle’s teachings up to this point. Try this on for size:

6 …since it is just, on God’s part, to pay back with suffering those who inflict suffering on you, 7 and to give you, with us, respite from your sufferings. This will come about when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 in a flaming fire, meting out punishment to those who don’t know God and those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

Paul, whose message has been one of new creation and reconciliation and salvation, now envisions Jesus coming back with guns blazing to “mete out punishment” against his enemies. Where is this coming from? How does this fit in with the Messiah’s own commandment to “love your enemies”? This is a very difficult passage, especially if we are looking to Paul for instruction or as an example. Is this how Christians should view the world outside the church, as cannon fodder or kindling when Jesus comes back to “settle the score”?

It might help here to remember that Paul is a human being, located in time, space, and culture, who is addressing the needs and hurts and questions of a congregation of human beings. We already know from 1 Thessalonians that opposition and persecution are an ongoing concern, and given the brutal reality faced by some of these early Christians, we might understand their desire for “justice,” even as we question how truly Christ-like that vision of justice might be. But things get weirder still. Paul also warns them about a mysterious “lawless one,” an earthly ruler who will rebel against God and “set himself up in God’s temple.” Whether he’s talking about a particularly ruthless emperor or an “antichrist” figure (he never uses that word), this is something Paul expects before the Messiah can return and rescue the world. But this presents another problem. Why is Paul suddenly making predictions and putting conditions on the “appearance” of the Messiah? In previous letters, this was something that was going to happen at any moment, but now there are additional events which must be fulfilled first. This appears to represent a major shift in thinking for the apostle.

All of these problems have led some to speculate as to whether or not the same Paul actually wrote 2 Thessalonians. Was it an older Paul, from a later time? Or was it another author altogether, writing in Paul’s name? To confuse matters even more, Paul acknowledges in this letter that letters forged in the apostles’ names are being circulated. Speaking of which, we now turn our attention to the pastoral letters of Paul, and enter into a rather sensitive discussion.


I’ll just lay it out on the table: there are some serious scholarly questions about the authenticity of these next three letters of Paul. We’ll examine some of those reasons in a moment, but first let’s talk about authorship and the bible.

Up to this point, questions of authorship have been raised on this podcast, but none have been of a “life or death” nature. Because, in reality, more of our ideas about bible authorship come from tradition than from the actual pages of scripture. We’ve questioned who actually wrote the Torah, Song of Songs, Qoheleth, and even the gospels and Acts, but none of these texts actually names an author. They are all attributed to authors by tradition alone. The letters of Paul are more akin to the writings of the prophets; they claim to be the work of a specific figure from religious history, and we approach them under the pretense that they were actually written by the author they claim. So while more conservative forms of Christianity consider all authorship traditions to be sacred and unquestionable, many others don’t see it as a major issue until we get to something like Paul. The alarmist version of the problem is this: if any letter attributed to Paul could be demonstrated to be pseudonymous (a forgery), then how can we trust any of the texts in the bible? Of course, this objection presupposes a certain view of the nature of the canon and the relationship between these books, but the question remains pertinent: what if Paul didn’t actually write even one of these letters?

To exacerbate the problem, we know from Paul himself in 2 Thessalonians that letters forged in his name were in fact circulating throughout the early church. So the question is not whether or not forgeries existed (they did) but whether or not any made it into our canon. I can’t definitively answer that for you, nor will I choose a side. I’m just going to lay out the reasons scholars have for calling these particular letters into question and demonstrate some of the internal evidence from the letters themselves. So, why do scholars question the authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? There are a wide variety of reasons, but I’ll highlight a few of them and explain how they work.

For one thing, the writing style and vocabulary are substantially different from the rest of Paul’s writings. On its own this suggestion is not particularly compelling, and this sort of “data” is easily dismissed, but it is interesting to note that the bulk of the Greek words used in these three letters are not found in Paul’s writing but are common in Christian writings of the following couple of centuries. Hmm. OK. Whatever. Far more compelling are the radically different setting implied by the letters’ content, and the drastically different things this author has to say on some familiar topics.

These three letters are labeled “pastoral” because they are addressed to young pastors, Timothy at Ephesus and Titus at Crete. The letters are filled with advice about running their churches and choosing qualified men to be elders and deacons. Notice anything strange about that? In the undisputed letters of Paul, there were no pastors. These were charismatic communities operated by male and female deacons, but led by the whole group – or rather, led by the holy spirit working through the gifts and talents of the group. When the churches at Rome and Corinth were in trouble, Paul didn’t write to the pastors, he wrote to the congregations, because (as far as we know) the office of “pastor” didn’t exist. These three letters assume a church structure that developed later in the history of the church.

In addition, some of the advice Paul gives to these pastors doesn’t exactly line up with things he wrote in his other letters. Paul’s criteria for elders is that they not only be men, but married men. In 1 Corinthians Paul’s ideal for all Christians was to remain celibate, but now he requires that men in leadership be married. In a notorious passage from 1 Timothy, Paul forbids that women should teach or hold any authority in his churches, explaining that they are weak and gullible and should instead stick to childbearing. Conservative interpreters cling to this passage as justification for denying women the right to serve in the church, and some liberal interpreters have worked overtime to try and dumb down its meaning, but it’s pretty clear what the author is saying. The question is, is this the same Paul who praised women deacons and apostles in Romans, and talked of women praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians?  And is the same Paul who prescribed celibacy to all Christians now telling women they must be “saved through childbirth”?

Now, some suggest that these are indeed legitimate letters of Paul, but from a later time. And of course that is possible. But questions still abound: How much later? Did Paul live to see such drastic changes in both church structure and his own opinions on gender and marriage? And, if these are later writings of the apostle, do his teachings here eclipse and invalidate his previous teachings when they contradict them?

One last thing to consider. The main thrust of these letters is a warning to the young pastors about “false teachers” who have infiltrated the church. The author doesn’t give many details about who these false teachers are and what they teach, but the clues we get are intriguing. Paul says in 1 Timothy that these false teachers are obsessed with “false myths and genealogies,” and that they preach a “false knowledge,” gnosis in Greek. Could this be a reference to Gnostic Christianity? Some scholars are convinced, which would place the letters at least a century after Paul’s time.

Now, once more, let me be clear: I’m not saying that Paul didn’t write these letters. I’m not even saying I suspect that he did not. But this is the type of issue you must confront if you want to be serious and intellectually honest when engaging the texts of the bible. This is not the type of conversation one can typically have in the church, so I wanted to face it head-on here on this podcast. There’s much more that could be said, but for now I’ll leave it up to you to consider these ideas and read the text of the letters for yourself.


There is one more super-short epistle, the undisputed Philemon, the shortest of Paul’s letters. It’s a fascinating letter written to Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave named Onesimus, both apparently Greek Christians. Paul writes Philemon from prison, where he has met and developed a deep friendship with Onesimus. He is now sending him back to the household with this letter of appeal. ”Take him back!,” says Paul, “and not as a slave but as a brother!” He stops short of ordering Philemon to do this, but intimates that he could if he wanted to.

It’s one of the shortest bible texts, but it packs a profound punch. It gives a practical example of the Way of Jesus laying the foundation for actual forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s an excellent testimony to the “gospel” Paul preaches, and a perfect note on which to end our encounter with the Paul.


It’s a formidable task wrestling with Paul after meeting Jesus in the gospels, for on the surface the two seem so very different. I spent many years avoiding Paul, to be honest, and it’s refreshing and exciting to finally revisit him with fresh eyes. I hope I’ve been helpful to you in our search for the true heart and message of a figure who has been somewhat divisive in times both ancient and recent. Above all, I hope I’ve emphasized sufficiently the human Paul, the excitable, defensive, brilliant, devoted and repentant apostle, committed to carry the “good news” about the Messiah to the corners of the world. Paul believed that Jesus was the King of the world, and that the King would be soon be back to reclaim his Kingdom. Two millennia later, his letters have a life and a readership that he could scarcely have imagined.

There are more epistles in the bible, by authors other than Paul, and next time we’ll start with a look at the so-called “Epistle to the Hebrews.”

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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August 26, 2014 1

Episode 35 – Paul Part 2: 1 & 2 Corinthians

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a Lego spaceship which I purchased disguised as a shopping dad, but which I actually purchased for my own therapeutic enjoyment… Oh and in my right hand is a bible, and that’s what we’re gonna do a show about, because it’s a book…


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, I am Josh Way. This is the podcast that explores the content of the Jewish and Christian bibles through the lenses of history and literature – who wrote these texts, and why and how did they do it? And, my friends, believe it or not, we are entering into the home stretch. In fact, it is possible that we might count the number of remaining podcasts on a single stubby human hand. That is both exciting and sad…

Today we continue our look at the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul, written to various churches with various problems. Last time we read Romans, and I’m going to assume you’ve read or listened to that one as we press onward. Two things to keep in mind as we continue: 1) when Paul talks about “the gospel” he’s referring to the apostolic declaration that the crucified and resurrected prophet Jesus is Messiah and Lord, and 2) he’s addressing both Jewish Messiah followers and converted Greek pagans. Everything we observed about the context and vocabulary of Romans applies here, even as we move into some uncharted territory.

On the docket today are a pair of letters to the church in Corinth, which Paul himself helped to found on a missionary voyage narrated in Acts Chapter 18. In Romans, Paul addressed a broad crisis affecting all First Century Christians, namely the challenge of Jewish and pagan relations in the new church family. In 1 Corinthians the crisis is much more specific and… well, colorful. This church has a lot of problems. Paul is going to have some harsh words for this group, but he opens his letter much like he did Romans, with a brief articulation of the gospel and his standard greeting, “Grace and peace to you from God our father and King Jesus the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:3)

In the body of the letter, Paul identifies and addresses at least seven specific problems faced by the Corinthian church. In each case, he admonishes them (much as he did the Romans) to pursue love and unity, but this letter is also uniquely concerned with eschatology, and all of Paul’s responses have something to do with the “last things,” or “the new age.” We’ll discover as we read on that Paul’s view of the “end times” (or perhaps they should be called the “beginning times”) looks very different from what many modern day Christians expect. For Paul, it’s not about the “end of the world” and “going to heaven,” it’s all about the world and its residents being reborn in splendor. You’ll see what I mean.

The first problem addressed by Paul is division among the Corinthian Christians. Some are boasting that they are students of Paul, some of Apollos, others are disciples of Peter, and some claim the Messiah Jesus as their guru. Paul scolds them all for being proud and foolish, joining fan clubs based on a cult of personality. We should all be united in Messiah, he says, not forming new tribes (also known as “denominations”). He uses an eschatological parable to put it in perspective: On “that day,” what we might call “Judgment Day,” the whole world – including us and our accomplishments – will be forged with a refining fire. Those things that were made of wood and straw will be burned away, and only truly valuable things – gold and jewels – will remain. We will all come through this fire, says Paul, and thus will be purified and “saved.” The point of the metaphor is clear: we ought to get busy now with things that will last. For Paul this means celebrating Messiah in love and brotherhood instead of bragging about which team you belong to.

Problem number two is a full-blown sex scandal. In Chapter 5 Paul is horrified to learn that a man in the Corinthian church is sleeping with his own stepmother, and the congregation seems just fine with the idea. Paul’s response is, kick the guy out. Once again he puts it in terms of eschatology: “Hand over such a person to the accuser (the satan) for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus.” The apostle goes on a fascinating rant in which he tells the church to stop worrying about all the sinners outside their walls, and to clean up their own household. Stop judging people who don’t even believe the same things as you, and stop giving your own family a pass. Interesting stuff!

Corinthian crisis numero tres in Chapter 6 finds Christians suing other Christians in court. Paul’s initial response reveals yet another fascinating aspect of his eschatology. He says, “Don’t you know that God’s people are going to judge the world?” The apostle, who frequently implores his churches not to judge one another, actually believes that these same people will one day be “judges” by Messiah’s side over the whole earth. And yet, they can’t even settle small disputes among themselves. Sheesh. Paul concludes this section with a more down-to-earth point by asking what Christians are doing in court in the first place? Only the proud and the powerful go to court, and Christians ought to take the loss. Isn’t that the way of Jesus?

In Chapter 7 Paul addresses a fourth problem. Not an incident or a scandal, but a pressing question about Christians, sex, and marriage. We might assume that we know what the bible has to say about sex and “family values,” but what Paul says here is completely surprising. And, it turns out, it’s all because of his eschatology. Paul expects Jesus to return at any moment to rescue creation, and so he actually advises his congregations not to bother getting married. He concedes that those who are already married should remain married, and advises those with sex on the brain to get married if they absolutely must, but he recommends celibacy to everyone as an ideal. This is one of the surprises of the early church. In the First Century, it was the Roman Empire that stood for “family values,” seeking to fill the world with as many Roman citizens as possible, while the Christians were the ones who considered family a distraction. Keep that in mind the next time you crack the bible open for some advice on courtship or parenting.

Problemo cinco, in Chapter Ocho, pertains to the collision of religion and commerce. Long story short, pagan butchers were also priests, since they oversaw the slaying of animals, and all animals were killed as sacrifices to the gods. Thus, all the meat in the market was sacrificial leftovers. The Corinthian Christians ask Paul, is it OK for us to buy and eat this stuff? Paul spells it out: On the one hand, the Christians don’t even believe these Roman gods exist, so what’s the big deal? But on the other hand, buying the meat might be perceived as an endorsement of pagan religion. For the sake of those with a “weak conscience,” Paul advises the Corinthians not to eat the meat. This leads to a rant in chapter 9 about all of the “rights” that Paul has forsaken in his life as an apostle: the right to eat or drink whatever he’d like, the right to get married, the right to earn money – he’s given them all up so that he will be above reproach with everyone he meets.

In Chapter 11 Paul addresses problem #6, pertaining to gender roles within the church. Paul believes that there is a hierarchy built into the fabric of the universe (and thus the church): God is the head of Jesus, Jesus is the head of every man, and every husband is the head of his wife. And so, everyone should know their place within the system. Christians today, generally speaking, come down on two sides of this issue: some suggesting that Paul’s view is a product of the patriarchal time and culture in which he lived, and others insisting that it represents a God-given natural law, that the gender hierarchy is a cold, hard fact of nature. For my part as a history and literature guy, I make two observations: 1) No one, not even the most conservative traditionalist, follows Paul all the way on gender issues. Right here in 1 Corinthians, Paul insists – appealing to nature itself – that women must cover their heads when in worship and remain silent in church. And (this part rarely gets mentioned) he elsewhere instructs men to raise their hands in worship and greet one another with a holy kiss. No church enforces all (or even most) of these rules. And 2), as we’re discovering in this letter, most modern American Christians disagree with Paul on a lot of very important topics, such as marriage and celibacy and even eschatology, which one would think is even more important to the life and belief of the church.

Let’s leave that minefield behind us and look at the weird and wild seventh (and final) problem of the letter. If you’ve ever taken the Lord’s Table or Holy Communion in a church, you might be surprised to learn that the ancient practice of eucharist actually consisted of a celebratory meal, a sort of party. To Paul’s chagrin, however, the party in Corinth has been getting out of control. In addition to general disorder and chaos, the wealthy Christians are showing up early, eating everything and getting drunk, leaving nothing for the poorer members who can’t get there until after work. Paul reminds the Corinthians that when they celebrate the table they are joining themselves symbolically with Messiah, and that they ought to act worthy of such an occasion. He goes so far as to suggest that their bad behavior at communion might bring curses and sickness upon them. Protestant churches today often appeal to Paul’s words as a warning to their congregations not to take the elements without first confessing their sins, but I think that really oversteps the context and message of the passage which is aimed specifically at the unruly conduct of the wealthy Corinthians. In fact, while Paul doesn’t say anything about confessing sins, he does say, “have something to eat at home before you come to church!” (1 Cor 11:34)

In Chapter 12 Paul talks about the holy spirit and expands on an idea we glimpsed in the letter to the Romans. He explains that every member of the church – in this case the Corinthian church – has certain gifts bestowed on them by God through “the spirit.” For the letter’s recipients, this is a word of encouragement, but for us it provides a fascinating glimpse into the way these earliest churches were organized and structured – or rather, not so structured. This is an important observation: Note that in these letters, Paul is not writing to “pastors” or “elders” or “bishops,” he writes to a community. He doesn’t mention “pastors” and “elders” because, as far as we can tell, these positions didn’t exist. Paul’s churches are “charismatic communities,” from the Greek charisma or “gift.” They are founded by apostles and operated by male and female deacons, but are otherwise run by the holy spirit working through the diverse and talented membership. Of course, this won’t be the case later in the church, but this is how it was at the beginning, and this is the context for Paul’s message as he tells them to start acting like a unified community instead of a chaotic group of self-interested individuals. Side Note: This business of charismatic versus structured churches will have big ramifications when we look at some of the other letters attributed to Paul next time.

Paul starts to wrap things up, and he’ll close the letter out by readdressing its two major themes: love and eschatology. His plea to the church at Corinth has been twofold: 1) you don’t have enough love for one another, and 2) you don’t properly understand the future. In Chapter 13 he writes (or perhaps quotes) a beautiful poem about the centrality of love in the Christian experience. This really is an amazing work of art, with some very well-known lines:

13:1 If I speak in human languages
Or even those of angels,
But do not have love,
Then I’ve become a clanging gong or
A clashing cymbal…
4 Love is big hearted, love is kind,
It knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
Is not puffed up, 5 has no shameless ways,
Doesn’t force its rightful claim,
Doesn’t rage or bear a grudge,
6 Doesn’t celebrate another’s harm,
Rejoicing rather in the truth…
13 So now faith, hope and love remain, these three, and of them,
Love is the greatest.

Paul tells Corinth: all the religion in the world is meaningless without love. And while this might feel like a good place to leave things, Paul’s not quite finished. After some practical instructions in Chapter 14 about orderly worship, Paul comes to the climax of the letter in Chapter 15 with one last lengthy discussion of eschatology. This is a hugely important passage for our understanding of Paul and his message, and I’m sorry to say that this is yet another one that has been notoriously misunderstood. In my own upbringing, for example, this chapter was frequently read as a description of what our bodies and our experiences would be like “when we get to heaven,” with endless conjecture about seeing dead relatives and floating around and playing harps and being indestructible, and whatever else. But here’s the thing: this chapter isn’t about going to heaven, it’s about resurrection.

Most people, Christians included, think that resurrection is about what happened once to Jesus, but for Paul, it’s much bigger than that. We glimpsed the Jewish notion of resurrection around the time of the exile, in Hebrew Bible passages like Daniel 12, which imagined a post-mortem vindication for the murdered Jews, and a “judgment day” for their persecutors. Not all streams of Judaism embraced this idea of resurrection, but many did – including the Pharisees of which Paul claims to have been a member. When Paul becomes a follower of Jesus, he doesn’t stop being a Jew or believing the things he believed before, but he reconfigures them around the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, in 1 Corinthians 15, he explains why he considers this the single most important aspect of the Christian hope, and the answer to all of the Corinthians’ problems. Here’s a summary of Chapter 15:

Paul starts with a more detailed narration of his gospel message, that Jesus the Messiah “died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” This first section, verses 3 through 8, appears to be some kind of early creed that Paul is reciting, making it one of the earliest extant Christian liturgies. Jesus died and was raised, and was then seen by many witnesses, a group in which Paul includes himself, referring to his vision described in Acts. Paul’s first point is that the resurrection was real, which leads to his second point, that this is a proof and vindication of the old Jewish expectation of resurrection. This is the aspect of Paul’s eschatology that we often miss. Jesus doesn’t introduce a new, Christian eschatology which is all about going to heaven when you die, he fulfills and inaugurates the old expectation, which turns out to be true. Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, meaning that he is only the first of many. And, for the apostle, this resurrection isn’t some spiritual metaphor or afterlife escape, it’s something that will happen here on earth. Recall from Romans that Paul expects the world itself to be remade and reborn, not destroyed, and resurrection is the other side of that coin. New creation, new people, new bodies, new world. And Paul sums it up for the Corinthians like this at the end of the chapter:

56 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be in vain.

The big point for Paul is that the Messiah’s family is not called to escape a doomed world for another dimension, but that they are the firstfruits and ambassadors of a new world, and this should change the way they live and relate to one another and to creation itself. Fascinating that most Christians throughout history have not followed Paul on this road, either because they don’t really believe in resurrection, or because they have embraced some other eschatology (that they probably assume is Pauline). Much like the whole letter of Romans, 1 Corinthians 15 is a passage that is just begging to be read in entirety and context.

Paul wraps up the letter by taking care of some business concerning charitable donations and shout-outs to colleagues like Timothy and Apollos, and other friends like Stephanas. He then closes the letter with some rather colorful words:

16:22 If anyone doesn’t love the Lord, let them be accursed! Come, Lord, come!

OK, Paul, tell us what you really think. And that’s the first letter to the Corinthians. We’ll take a very brief look at the second letter to this same church before we call it a day.

While 1 Corinthians was characterized by finger wagging and scolding, the sequel letter is all about comfort and encouragement, with some passive aggression and a few guilt trips tossed in for good measure. Of course, there may have been any number of letters between Paul and this church, there’s no reason to think these are the only two. In fact, there is a 3 Corinthians, widely believed to be a forgery, that didn’t make it into the New Testament library. 2 Corinthians does make reference to a “first letter,” and makes some possible references to issues from our 1 Corinthians.

Paul’s tone in 2 Corinthians is very different from the start. Though specific details are lacking, it appears that both the Corinthians and Paul’s band of apostles have been through some traumatic experiences. The church has been through some kind of ordeal since Paul’s last letter, and the apostles faced some form of “suffering” in Asia, possibly persecution such as was narrated in Acts. Through tears, it seems, Paul alternates between reassuring and praising the Corinthians for their faith and progress, and defending the reputations of the apostles. Through it all, as usual, he urges unity and hope in Messiah.

After acknowledging everyone’s pain in Chapter 1 and lamenting that he hasn’t been able to visit the church, Paul goes on in Chapter 2 to address a matter of discipline in the church. Someone was severely punished on Paul’s last visit, and he urges them now to forgive and reconcile with the man in question. We might speculate that this was the man sleeping with his stepmother from 1 Corinthians, but it would be pure speculation. This is where Paul does make reference to that first letter, in which he urged unity in condemning wrongdoers in the congregation, and now, in the midst of great suffering, he commends leniency and forgiveness.

In Chapter 3 Paul pays the Corinthians a compliment, telling them that they constitute a sort of “letter of recommendation” for the apostles – a source of pride and validation for those announcing the gospel. This compliment also functions as a defense of the apostles, and we get the sense that Paul is responding to some kind of criticism, either from within the church or without. The apostolic missionaries may be slandered, but Paul says their work among the churches speaks for itself. He continues into Chapter 4, saying that those who don’t embrace the gospel are like the ancient Israelites who made Moses veil his face after coming down from Mount Sinai so they couldn’t see the radiant glory of YHWH. If people don’t see the glory of Jesus, says Paul, the accuser has blinded them. But those who are in the Messiah have their eyes open. This prompts a Chapter 5 review his eschatological teaching: Messiah’s people are a participants in and ambassadors for the new creation, anticipating resurrection and announcing reconciliation with God through Jesus (5:19-21). Again we note how far this is from the doomsday, “repent or burn” message of so many Christian groups throughout history. Paul’s gospel is truly “good news” by comparison.

In Chapter 6 Paul describes what God’s servants the Christians should look like from the outside: patient, longsuffering, honest, kind, and genuine in love. He then urges the Corinthian church to fear the Lord and not to partner with unbelievers. In Chapter 7 he rambles on a bit, apologizing for the harshness of his previous letter, but then being glad that he sent it for it led to their repentance. He boasts again and again about their progress and his pride. This high praise comes, perhaps by design, before an appeal for financial assistance. Paul goes on and on about how generous the church in Macedonia has been, despite its own crises, and suggests that maybe Corinth should consider being generous too? Then he lays it on a little thick: I’m not ordering you to give us money, I’m just saying that Jesus forfeited everything and died for your sins. But no pressure.

In Chapter 10 Paul defends himself and the apostles once more, explaining that – like Messiah himself – they are meek and mild, and yet bold in telling the truth. They don’t argue and fight for power in the typical human way, says Paul, they fight a spiritual battle. While others boast in their accomplishments or their own wisdom, the apostles boast only in God’s power revealed in the story of Messiah. In Chapter 11 this segues into a warning about false apostles, who might come to Corinth announcing some “different Jesus.” And it’s very clear from Paul’s words here that he has some specific false apostles in mind. We recall from Acts that itinerate apostles were everywhere, and not all of them had the same set of cookie-cutter beliefs. Paul pleads with the Corinthians to remain faithful to him, and in Chapter 12 he caps it all off with a vague, third-person retelling of his own conversion experience, which seems to be intended as a final defense: God revealed himself to me in a vision!, says Paul, and this is why you should trust me! After announcing his plans to return to Corinth and a final admonition to “keep in the faith,” Paul closes the letter with these words:

13:11 … Celebrate, put everything in order, strengthen one another, think in the same way, be at peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Because of Paul’s harried and desperate state of mind, 2 Corinthians appears to be perhaps even less structured than the other letters we’ve examined. There’s never any doubt reading Paul that you’re reading the words of an opinionated and emotional human being. In this letter, he seems defensive and hurt to an almost pathetic degree. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we made a point of how creative and human the voices of the prophets and poets were, and the same is absolutely true in the New Testament. But for so many in the modern church, Paul is a venerated teacher and master, but almost never a fallible human being. The result is severe cognitive dissonance when we try to read his letters, ignoring his ranting and raving and pretending this is a textbook.

When reading any bible text, regardless of our “view of scripture,” the first step has to be an authentic encounter with the thoughts and feelings of a human author. In 1 Corinthians we meet an excitable and determined apostle offering eschatological hope to a church in crisis, and in 2 Corinthians we meet a broken and persecuted evangelist, begging his friends not to abandon him. It’s part of the magic and value of these texts that we can enter into Paul’s reality from across such a great distance of time and culture. For those today who claim membership in the same Messianic family, there are many treasures waiting to be discovered, if we have ears to hear. Next time, we’ll look at some of Paul’s shorter letters, and then we’ll have a tough talk about the disputed “pastoral epistles.”

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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August 13, 2014 1

Episode 34 – Paul Part 1: Romans

By in Blog, Podcast


Warning: I get a little more personal and critical in this episode than I typically do. I’ll try to explain why along the way. Oh and, uh, BOOK…


Hello, and welcome to BOOK: a bible podcast for everybody, I am Josh Way. We’re exploring the content of the Jewish and Christian bibles in the context of history and literature, and (believe it or not) we’re more than halfway through the Greek “New Testament.” To my friends who told me I’d never make it out of the Torah, I’m as surprised as you are! We recently examined and compared the four gospels, and last time we looked at Acts, a travelogue featuring the first Christian apostles as they spread the word about Jesus the Messiah throughout the Roman Empire.

In Acts we met a superstar apostle, a former Jewish Pharisee and Roman citizen named Paul, who was the closest thing to a main character in that narrative. The next thirteen “books” of the New Testament are not really books at all, but letters and correspondence attributed to this apostle Paul. We’re going to devote the next three episodes of BOOK to these letters. Today we’ll look at just one – the first and best known, the letter to the church at Rome – and then we’ll look at the other “undisputed” letters, with a final look at the pastoral letters. And yes, the word “undisputed” has certain implications which we’ll deal with another day.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, for many Christians (conservative Protestants, in particular), the most beloved and load-bearing document in the whole New Testament. Of course the gospels tell the all-important story of Jesus, but it is Paul’s writing which (according to this popular view) explains and illuminates the gospel so that Christians know how they ought to interpret, understand, and believe it. And since Paul is writing to the church, his “theology” is seen as a sort of textbook for how today’s church should think and behave and – most important – evangelize. For many modern believers, Romans is their “desert island” bible book.

And to be sure, Romans is one of the most valuable texts to have survived antiquity, a spiritual treasure and an historical goldmine. It is one of the oldest writings (if not the oldest) in the New Testament, pre-dating even the earliest gospel, Mark. Scholars of many stripes affirm it as a legitimate work of Paul, meaning that we have what is almost universally regarded as an authentic text written by the most prominent apostle of the first wave of Christian churches. Romans is a profoundly valuable letter.

But it is a letter! When we read Romans, we are literally reading someone else’s mail. This is not a theology textbook. It contains theology (which simply means “God words”), but it’s not theology for its own sake, nor is it comprehensive. Paul is not writing a systematic treatise for all Christians for all time, he’s writing an apostolic letter to a community in crisis. His words are meant to address a specific First Century problem, and to help a group of First Century believers find a way through it. The biggest problem with the traditional Protestant view of Paul is that it tends to overlook or downplay the crisis context of his letters, providing its own context in which the apostle’s words are to be read and interpreted.

In the tradition in which I was raised, what I would call non-denominational evangelicalism, Romans is read and taught in a very specific way, according to an externally-imposed rubric that says the book is all about how to get saved and become a Christian so your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die. In fact, we memorized a routine called the “Romans Road” that was designed to help us explain “the gospel” to others in five easy steps. And I still remember it, it goes like this:

  1. Romans 3:23 – Everyone is a sinner…
  2. Romans 6:23a – Sin leads to death…
  3. Romans 5:8 – Jesus died for sinners…
  4. Romans 6:23b – Eternal life comes through Jesus…
  5. Romans 10:13 – Call on Jesus and you will be saved!

Putting aside the question of whether this list of propositions is true or helpful or coherent, even when I was a kid there was something obviously strange and wrong about our need to rip these verses out of context, chop one of them in half, and put them out of order just to tell our story. Paul does talk about sin, he does talk about Jesus’ death, and the life of the coming age and salvation. All that stuff is in the letter in some form, but it’s part of Paul’s bigger story, Paul’s argument, and – most important – it’s first and foremost for the benefit of the Roman church in crisis.

And what is the crisis? Let’s discover that together as we explore the actual letter that Paul wrote. Here is the opening salutation:

1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings – 3 the gospel about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord!

Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as an apostle of Jesus and articulating “the gospel” as he understands it: that the Jewish prophet Jesus, who was killed, was revealed to be God’s son through resurrection from the dead and is now king. This is Paul’s gospel – not a plan of salvation or an atonement theory or a theology of justification – but the simple and bold declaration that the vindicated prophet Jesus is now king of the world. It’s important to get this right now for two reasons: 1) to keep it simple, so we don’t get bogged down in some of Paul’s more convoluted arguments, thinking his gospel has gone off the rails, and 2) to draw a more organic connection between Paul and Jesus. Throughout history, many have struggled with the question of how to reconcile Jesus’ message of selfless love and humility with the way their own church presented the seemingly complicated soteriology of Paul. But I think the answer is right here in a fresh reading of Paul’s own words. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is here,” and Paul says “Jesus is king.” That’s the gospel.

Another title Paul assigns to Jesus, beside Messiah and king, is “Lord,” kyrios in Greek, and this prompts me to mention something I wish I’d pushed a little harder in the Acts podcast. Much of the language employed by Paul and the other apostles is language ripped from the political realities of their time, specifically the Roman imperial reality. Terms like “lord” and “gospel” and “salvation” are all jargon straight out of Caesar’s empire. Paul and company know this, and are surely being provocative by choosing these words. In the imperial cult, Caesar is the divinely appointed “lord of the world,” the “son of god,” and the “gospel” or “good news” of his reign is that he will bring “salvation” to the people he conquers. The early Christians frame their proclamation of the Messiah as a countercultural, anti-imperial protest. Jesus, not Caesar, is this world’s true “lord,” and the “good news” is that he brings real “salvation,” not a program of lies and violence. This is an often overlooked dimension of Paul’s writing that brings it into sharper focus. Of course, these words also have explicit Jewish parallels as well, as we’ve seen before. The fact that Paul’s words operate and resonate in these two spheres simultaneously – classical Judaism and Roman imperialism – is no coincidence. It’s a central and integral part of his whole message and ministry, which we shall presently see.

Before launching headlong into the purpose and argument of his letter, Paul takes care of a little business and mentions how badly he wishes he could travel to Rome and see the letter’s recipients in person. This is significant because most of Paul’s other letters are written to congregations in churches he himself had planted on his missionary journeys. In Romans, he is writing to a group with whom he has no personal experience, and it seems to frustrate him that he can only try to help them from afar. Then in verse 14 he gets to the point:

14 I am under obligation to non-Greeks as well as to Greeks, you see, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 That’s why I’m eager to announce the good news to you too, in Rome. 16 I’m not ashamed of the good news, it’s God power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes – to the Jew first and also, equally, to the Greek. 17 This is because God’s righteousness is revealed in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it is written, “the just will live by faith.”

Paul says that his gospel – the announcement that Jesus is king – is good news for both Jews and Greeks, because in it God’s goodness is revealed, and that, as the prophet Habakkuk has written, “the just will live by faith.” What is the point? It’s this: In the first Christian communities, as we saw in Acts, both Jewish Messiah believers and Greek converts come together to become a new and strange kind of family. Each of these groups comes with its own ideas of what it means to believe and belong. Jews have the Torah law, Sabbath and circumcision, and Greeks have the pagan practices and pantheon. The underlying tension of that early church and of the letter to the Romans is, how can these two fundamentally different groups of people possibly live together as the “people of God”? It must have seemed impossible, but Paul’s argument is and will be, that it comes not through any religious rituals or practices, Jewish or pagan, but through a living trust in the good news about Jesus. “The just shall live by faith,” not by making sacrifices or cutting themselves or building temples… And, argues Paul, this is what the prophet already said long ago.

This is the message of Romans, and every argument that Paul is about to make – and some of them go in strange directions – will be in support of this central thesis. Let’s keep that in mind as we continue with Romans Chapter 1 and discover Paul’s first and most drastically misunderstood argument. After saying that Jews and pagans are both equally saved by their trust in Jesus, he seems to go off on an angry rant against the pagans and their wicked practices. At first glance it seems to undermine his entire premise, and some modern Christians have been only too happy to use this material for their own purposes in condemning “worldly” behavior they find unacceptable. Here’s what Paul writes:

18 For the anger of God is unveiled from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth. …
22 They [pagans] declared themselves to be wise, but in fact they became foolish. 23 They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans – and of birds, animals, and reptiles. …
26 So God gave them up to shameful desires. Even the women, you see, swapped natural sexual practice for unnatural, 27 and the men, too, abandoned natural sexual relations with women, and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways.

This is one of a handful of what are sometimes called “clobber verses,” bible passages that appear to patently condemn homosexual behavior. And while we should be realistic about how a First Century apostle and former Jewish Pharisee would have felt about same-sex relations, we must also be careful and precise about the text we are reading and how it works. Paul’s words about “unnatural desires” come as part of a long screed in which he also condemns making images of birds and reptiles. In fact, Paul’s rant looks like a boilerplate criticism of pagan religious practices, including idolatry and temple prostitution, in which heterosexual men and women would “exchange” their “natural relations” for a same-sex experience as part of a religious ritual.

But whatever the case, we’ve interrupted Paul before he can make his real point. Unfortunately, Chapter 1 breaks at the end of this rant, and so most modern readers have stopped reading and taken Chapter 1 to be the “we hate pagans and gays” chapter. But of course, chapter breaks are superficial divisions added centuries after-the-fact, and Paul’s argument actually keeps on going into Chapter 2. Here’s what he says, coming right out of the “unnatural” rant:

1 So, you have no excuse – anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving like a judge, are doing the very same things!

Well here’s a different kind of “clobber verse”! Paul’s whole point, it turns out, is not “God hates pagans,” but rather “Jewish Christians have no platform from which to judge Greek Christians based on common pagan stereotypes.” That’s a very different message from the way this passage is traditionally understood. He goes on to talk about God’s judgment, and how it – just like God’s love and salvation – is impartial and universal. This is not unlike Jesus’ “sheep and goats” parable: those who do what is right to their fellow human are judged to be God’s people, and those who do not, are not, regardless of religious affiliation. This is remarkable, and something we should hold on to as we read on.

In Chapter 3 Paul strings together a series of quotes from various Psalms to further illustrate his point: no one is righteous, even those who have Torah, so Jews and Greeks find themselves in the same boat. And here we find verse 23, the first stop on the “Romans Road” that says “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” In our evangelistic presentation, this was meant to illustrate our premise that all people are guilty of sin and hence condemned to hell. But let’s pay Paul the respect of actually reading the second half of his sentence in the next verse: “and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.” Paul’s premise isn’t that everyone is hellbound (he doesn’t really talk about hell in his letters), but that Jews and Greeks are both “members of the covenant,” part of God’s family, because of their common trust in Jesus and not because of any special rituals or status.

In Chapter 4 Paul begins a new argument, the first in a series of appeals to the Hebrew Bible. He uses the example of Abraham, the great father of Judaism, and quotes Genesis 15 to make a fascinating point: Abraham lived before Torah, but God “counted his faith as righteousness.” If it was possible for Abraham to be “righteous” without Torah, it must also be possible for Greeks! For anyone! In fact, says Paul, the covenant, the promise to Abraham that his family would be great and bless the earth, came before Torah as well, and so he argues that non-Jewish believers can be grafted into this family apart from Torah, by faith in God through Jesus that is counted as “righteousness.”

Paul moves into a new argument in 5:12, shifting from Abraham to Adam. In Adam, says Paul, sin and death entered into the world. But Jesus is a “New Adam” who brings life instead of death, and grace instead of sin. Where sin increases, grace abounds, though Paul is quick to add that this is no excuse to commit more sins. Paul’s writing style can be funny sometimes, as he rants, changes his mind, and frequently answers his own questions. The apostle’s personality is all over this text, which is actually sort of endearing. In Chapter 6 he throws out a bunch of metaphors for the relationship with God that is made possible because of Messiah: we no longer resemble death, we resemble resurrection; we are dead to sin, and alive to God; we are no longer slaves to sin, we are slaves to God. We may find that last one less than inspiring, but class-based slavery was commonplace in Paul’s world and is one of his favorite metaphors.

In Chapter 7, a new metaphor. He compares Jewish Christians to abused wives who were bound to a bad husband by the law, but the husband dies and they are now free. Torah, he says, was the abusive husband, and in Messiah’s death his people have also died, and are now free from the law. Paul clarifies that this doesn’t mean Torah is bad or sinful, but that it brought awareness of sin and the consequences of sin, since no one could keep it. The law was good, but it shined a light on Israel’s failure. It brought only condemnation. But, according to Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah Jesus.” Paul goes on to describe the role of the holy spirit (which he sometimes just calls “the spirit” or “God’s spirit”), in leading and guiding the Messiah’s people. They no longer live according to what Paul calls “the flesh,” their own will and experience, but they have access to “the spirit” and live according to it. This isn’t the same as dualism or gnosticism, which literally separate matter from essence into two warring realms. It’s more of a metaphor in which these new Christians can conceptualize their living. And, frankly, it’s an attempt to answer the question of how they can possibly expect to know right from wrong without Torah.

I can already tell I’m going to run long today, but I have to quickly mention something else here at the halfway point (of the letter, if not the podcast). Something very subtle and interesting has been going on in the last few chapters, not unlike what Matthew did with the opening chapters of his gospel. In Chapter 5 Paul talks about Adam, in Chapter 6 he talks about slavery and rescue, in Chapter 7 he talks about the law, and in Chapter 8 he talks about God’s spirit “leading” believers in the metaphorical wilderness of life. Paul’s arguments seem manic and off-the-cuff, but they actually appear to follow a sequence, a sequence that hits all the same beats as the story of Israel.

Still in Chapter 8, Paul takes his argument in yet another unexpected direction, and introduces a topic that is too often ignored in treatments of this letter. The apostle explains how creation itself – the physical world of trees, mountains, and oceans – is anticipating salvation. This is verse 22:

22 Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time.

In Paul’s imagination, creation itself longs for deliverance, groaning like a woman in labor, ready to give birth to a beautiful new world. This is like the Gospel of John’s “new creation,” and it’s a radical framework that challenges the traditional, conservative view of eschatology which says the earth is doomed, and our goal is to get ourselves “saved” so we can escape to paradise. That is not Paul’s eschatology. He expects this world to be transformed and rescued, and he believes the Messiah’s people bear the “firstfruits” of that new world. This may sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but here’s the big question of eschatology: how different do faith and life look when people believe the earth will one day blossom into new life and glory, instead of burning away into oblivion? When the question of “eternity” has as much to do with nature and ecology as it does with the fates of human beings? Paul’s vision of “new creation” also provides a powerful foundation for the message of this letter: how is it possible for Jewish and Greek Christians to share a life together? It’s possible because they are both part of the same creation, with the same ultimate, glorious global destiny. Chapter 8 concludes with a beautiful poem about the confidence the apostle finds in following Messiah:

35 Who shall separate us from Messiah’s love? Suffering, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …
37 No! In all these things we are completely victorious through the one who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded, you see, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present, nor the future, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord.

Stirring words, but then in Chapters 9-11 Paul acknowledges an elephant in the room, and wrestles with a very difficult and formidable question raised by his own theology: what about Israel? What about mainstream Judaism and the majority of Jews who do not accept that Jesus is Messiah? Paul argues violently with himself on this topic for three chapters, and in the interest of time and sanity I’ll try to summarize his train of thought:

  • Jews are “Israelites,” the original recipients of the promise and covenant, and the Messiah is one of their own. (9:1-5)
  • But not all “children of Abraham” are true Israelites. Even in the Torah, God said “I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” God’s thoughts are mysterious, and he will choose his own family – even from among the Gentiles. (9:6-24)
  • During the Exile, the prophets said repeatedly that only a remnant of Israel would survive, anyway. (9:25-29)
  • Pagan nations have been granted membership in the covenant while Israel has failed to keep it. (9:30-33)
  • But Paul’s deepest desire is for Israel to find salvation, which is accomplished not by keeping the letter of the law but by trusting in the Messiah. (10:1-15)
  • God told this “good news” to Israel through the prophets, but they did not listen, and now others are listening. (10:14-21)
  • So, has God abandoned his chosen people? Not at all! Paul and half of the Christians are Jews! There is a remnant, selected by God’s grace. The remnant are blessed, and the rest have been “hardened,” but not forever. Paul believes that all Jews will see the glories of following Messiah and become “jealous.” (11:1-15)
  • The family of God is like an olive tree – Israel is the root, and Gentiles are grafted branches, replacing natural branches that had to be cut off. But don’t worry – even those old branches will eventually be grafted back on as well! (11:16-24)
  • This is why, Paul concludes, “all Israel will be saved.” (11:25-26)
  • And it will happen because of God’s boundless mercy. (11:27-36)

You’d think Paul would be tuckered out and ready to end the letter, but you’d be wrong. Chapters 12 through 15 are a sort of practical application of Paul’s central argument, an answer to the question, “what do we do now?” Paul tells the Roman Christians to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God,” which sounds kinda creepy and religious, but Paul elaborates:

12:3 … don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to. Rather, think soberly, in line with faith, the true standard which God has marked out for each of you. 4 As in one body we have many limbs and organs, you see, and all parts have different functions, 5 so we, many as we are, are one body in Messiah, and individually we belong to one another.

Paul’s advice to a diverse and nervous group of Christians is to think of themselves as members of the same body – each with a different purpose, but part of the same whole. Everyone is needed, everyone has a special set of gifts, and everyone belongs. This “members of the same body” metaphor is fundamental to the way Paul’s own churches are set up, and we’ll learn more about that in some of his other letters. He rounds out Chapter 12 with some familiar advice: that those in the community should, above all else, love each other. This is where Paul sounds the most like Jesus:

10 Be truly affectionate in showing love for one another, compete with each other in giving mutual respect. …
14 Bless those who persecute you, bless them don’t curse them. 15 Celebrate with those who celebrate, mourn with the mourners. …
17 Never repay anyone evil for evil, think through what will seem good to everyone who is watching. 18 If it’s possible, as far as you can, live at peace with all people.

Romans Chapter 13 is another passage that has been read out of context with unsavory consequences. Consider verse 1: “Every person must be subject to the ruling authorities.” If Romans is a kind of universal instruction book or Torah law for all Christians, then this “commandment” has all sorts of dangerous implications. Does this mean that Christians ought to be supportive or complicit in war, genocide, and exploitation? Let’s remember the context. Paul is writing to a congregation that is having an identity crisis. How can Jews be Jews, Greeks be Greeks, and all of them be Christians? In addition to the advice he gave them in Chapter 12, Paul now advises them to be good citizens, pay their taxes, and not assume a default posture of revolution or civil disobedience. This is a general exhortation and pep talk, not a pledge of allegiance to empire.

In Chapter 14 Paul gets more specific about the challenges facing this particular congregation. He warns the Roman Christians against judging one another for their personal beliefs and practices, but also warns them against flaunting those practices in front of each other. For example, some of them are vegetarians, and some eat meat. Some observe certain holy days, and others do not. No one should be shamed or shunned because they do or don’t, and no one should think they are privileged because they do or don’t. God has declared that “nothing is unclean,” says Paul (recall Peter’s dream in Acts Chapter 10), so anything goes, but you musn’t lord it over each other. Think of your neighbor before yourself. And in Chapter 15 Paul reaches the climax of the letter, bringing all of his arguments to a glorious conclusion:

5 May the God of patience and encouragement grant you to come to a common mind among yourselves, in accordance with the Messiah Jesus, 6 so that, with one mind and one mouth, you may glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.

The fundamental spirit of all of Paul’s ramblings can be summed in a single word: unity. He is pleading with this troubled congregation to find a common denominator in Messiah, so that their diverse beliefs and lifestyles can become an asset, not a source of conflict. Their devotion to Jesus is what makes them a family, not religious conformity or ritual. Paul concludes that Jesus has made it possible for different nations to come together in praise and brotherhood instead of resentment and violence. As he says in the last line of the letter proper:

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the holy spirit.

There follows a bunch of postscript material in chapters 15 and 16, where Paul restates his burning desire to visit the Roman church, but explains that he must go to Jerusalem instead to deliver some much needed financial support to the poor Christians there. He introduces a deacon named Phoebe, who is likely the person who will actually present and read this letter to the Roman congregation. Lastly he sends greetings to a long list of names, fellow apostles in Rome, deacons, believers, and friends. We note the overwhelming number of female names on the list, which reflects a reality of the early church that might surprise modern readers. Since the earliest Christian communities met in people’s homes, women played a major role in both hospitality and leadership. Most fascinating is a reference to a female apostle named Junia, which should have had major repercussions for the modern church, except that most of our bible translations have chosen to quietly change her name to the male moniker “Junias.” A groundless and ideologically-motivated redaction, and not the only one to be sure.

After a short final blessing in the name of the Messiah, Paul’s letter ends. I hope I’ve given you what I was missing for years: a clear and simple exposition of the letter to the Romans in full, in order, and in context. Paul is not easy to read. He rambles and pleads, throwing every argument he can think of against the wall to see what sticks. It’s just easier to chop him up and do whatever you want with the bits and pieces, but it’s not really fair or helpful. The result has been a reading of Romans that is out of tune with the real heart of Paul’s message.

In the church of my youth, Romans was an instruction manual for converting others to the faith. But as we’ve just seen, this letter isn’t concerned with how to convert the lost, it’s about how those already in the church might find love, hope, and unity. And it’s specifically concerned with a social dynamic that is virtually unknown to churches in our time, as Jewish and pagan Christians – old enemies – were trying build a life together. Of course, there is plenty for us to learn from Romans about how Paul understood the gospel and the challenges of diversity in the church, and these are relevant in any century. But we should do our best to approach the material on its own terms. The sad and ironic thing is that while Paul so desperately wants the church to discover its freedom from law and embrace the grace of the Messiah, the church, it seems, would rather just turn Paul’s words into a new kind of Church Torah. It’s our problem, not Paul’s, if we’ve allowed his words to become a burden and a stumbling block.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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July 31, 2014 0

Episode 33 – The Acts of the Apostles

By in Blog, Podcast



OK, gang, get ready for the longest podcast yet, and one of the busiest. Here comes a big old BOOK…


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, I’m Josh Way. Here on BOOK we’re exploring the texts of the Jewish and Christian bibles, trying our best to understand their original purpose and meaning in light of history and literature. We’ve just finished looking at the four Greek gospels of the New Testament, and today we’ll look at the “Book of Acts,” which is actually the last fully narrative text in the collection, the rest consisting of mostly letters and an apocalyptic cartoon called Revelation.

The “Acts of the Apostles” as tradition has branded it, is the only canonized narrative about the deeds and experiences of the early Christian movement and the “apostles,” the ambassadors appointed by Jesus himself to spread his message to the “ends of the earth,” a.k.a. the corners of the Roman Empire. We’ll have much more to say about the message and methods of these first century evangelists, but first a few words about the origins and format of this book.

Having established this as the only “Acts” narrative in the canonized collection of the New Testament, it’s worth noting that it is not the only one in existence. Many others have been discovered: Acts of Paul, Thecla, Thomas, Barnabas, John, and others. While these lie outside the scope of this podcast, we should at least acknowledge their existence and our disadvantage for the lack of multiple “Acts” texts in the bible. We’ve just seen how dynamically diverse the four gospels are, and how that diversity helped us to appreciate the unique voice and perspective behind each one. With Acts, this is the only version we have of these tales, and we shouldn’t assume that these stories are any less artful and persuasive than anything we saw in the gospels.

Like the four books that precede it in the canon, Acts was written by an anonymous author, but is traditionally attributed to the same author as the Gospel of Luke. The opening of this book makes the connection explicit:

1 Dear Theophilus,

The previous book which I wrote had to do with everything Jesus began to do and teach. 2 I took the story as far as the day when he was taken up, once he had given instructions through the holy spirit to his chosen apostles.

Luke’s Gospel was also dedicated to Theophilus, and it did in fact end with Jesus being “taken up” into the sky. Seems rather straightforward, but things get complicated almost immediately. In both Luke and Acts Jesus tells his followers to remain in Jerusalem until they receive “power” from the holy spirit and then he leaves them. In Luke, it all happened on the same day as Jesus’ resurrection, but here in Acts it happens after “forty days.” Why the change? Of course we don’t know any more about this author’s thought process than we do about their identity, but an educated guess is that what we have here is the first of many intentional structural echoes of the gospel narrative. Just as Jesus patiently endured a (likely symbolic) “forty day” period of testing before beginning his prophetic campaign, so too the apostles must wait their “forty days” before their mission begins.

While they wait for this “holy spirit” character to show up, the apostles take care of a little business. They find themselves short-staffed after the loss of Judas Iscariot who, according to Matthew 27 hanged himself after returning the blood money to the Judaean authorities, but who here in Acts used the money to buy a field and then fell to his death. Either way, a position opens up, and it’s time to choose a new apostle! And… they choose a guy named Matthias we’ve never heard of before. By casting lots. Which is kinda weird. Christians don’t cast lots too often these days.

On to Acts Chapter 2, in which the “holy spirit” shows up in a big way. This is a hugely popular passage of scripture with Christians of many stripes, not least those labeled “charismatic.” We’ll see why in a moment. First, a nitpick: This episode is often referred to as “Pentecost” or, most egregiously, “The First Pentecost.” But this is certainly NOT the “first Pentecost” by any measure. The events of this chapter take place at a celebration of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” a celebration of both the harvest and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We’re not just stepping on the toes of our Jewish neighbors by getting this wrong, we’re also missing the poignant religious context in which this miracle unfolds. And what is the miracle? Here’s Chapter 2 Verse 2:

2 Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like the sound of a strong, blowing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then tongues, seemingly made of fire, appeared to them, moving apart and coming to rest on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the holy spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them words to say.

The apostles begin to preach in the busy streets of Jerusalem, where Jews from far flung places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Libya have congregated for the festival, and everyone hears them speaking in their own native language. This is the miracle that takes place at Pentecost, and I can think of at least two layers of literary significance. First off, it’s another echo of Luke’s gospel, where Jesus was anointed at his baptism by the holy spirit descending on him like a bird. Now his followers encounter that same spirit that fueled Jesus, and they’re ready to spread the word. On a broader level, this is a sort of reversal of the “Tower of Babel” legend. Where God had long ago confused the languages of men, he is now bringing them back together. Something very special must be happening. Of course, we should also acknowledge the significance of this miracle happening during Pentecost. Is the author suggesting that this is the coming of a new kind of Torah, or the beginning of a new kind of harvest?

Some of the onlookers accuse the apostles of being drunk, so Peter steps up and addresses the crowd, saying “uh, we’re not drunk – it’s nine in the morning!” He proceeds to preach a sermon to his fellow Jews which uses quotes from the Hebrew Bible to make two points: 1) the miracle they have just witnessed is a fulfillment of the writings of the prophet Joel, who said that God would “pour out his spirit” one day on all people, and 2) that Jesus had been “marked out” for Israel as Messiah, that Israel had manipulated Rome to have him killed, and that God had vindicated him in resurrection. The author of Acts says that the crowd of listeners are “cut to the heart,” and ask the apostles what they should do. Verse 38:

38 “Turn back!” replied Peter. “Be baptized – every single one of you – in the name of Jesus the Messiah, so that your sins can be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the holy spirit.”

Peter’s words are very familiar, though they are traditionally taken out of context. “Repent and be baptized so your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven!” But let’s not lose the thread of this particular moment in this particular story. Peter (himself a Jew) has just accused a crowd of Jews of killing the Messiah. Now he tells them that they must repent and embrace the baptism that Jesus taught so that their collective sin – not least their complicity in the murder of the Messiah – can be forgiven and so they can participate in the outpouring of God’s spirit they have just witnessed. This isn’t about “saving souls” for heaven, it’s about a second chance to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. This is the primary concern for the author of Acts.

And the response is massive. According to Acts, three thousand people join the apostolic community. The text says that they all lived together, shared all of their possessions in common, and attended Temple together. This is remarkable in many respects. The first members of the Jesus movement formed a kind of hippie commune, and they all continued to observe Jewish customs. Did you catch that? They don’t give up Judaism for a new religion called Christianity, they remain Jewish and radically revise their lifestyle based on Jesus’ teaching. The movement gains traction and becomes known as “The Way.”

In Chapter 3 Peter and John perform some miraculous healings in and around the Temple complex that remind us more than a little of Jesus’ signs and wonders in the synoptic gospels. As crowds gather, Peter takes the opportunity to preach his message again: Israel killed the Messiah, but God raised him up. If they repent, God will send them “times of refreshment” (Acts 3:20). (Note that the apostolic mission at this point is still centered and contained within Israel. The question of a mission to non-Jews won’t be raised for a while.)

In Chapter 4, the Way hits its first patch of resistance, as the religious authorities arrest Peter and John for creating a public disturbance with their teaching and healing. The text says that the real motivation for the arrest is that the apostles, in talking about Jesus, are proclaiming the resurrection of the dead, an idea opposed by some influential factions of Jews. They interrogate Peter and John, asking them by what power they heal people, and Peter tells them it’s “the name of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). The council threatens them, warns them to cut it out, and lets them go.

An even darker incident is recounted in Chapter 5, when the apostolic community – now more than 5,000 strong – is selling their possessions and land and pooling the funds together to ensure that “there was no needy person among them.” In the midst of this, two members of The Way – a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira – sell some property and keep a portion of the profits for themselves, lying about it to the group. When they are caught in their deception, they both fall down dead. It’s a shocking episode and feels like something we’d be more likely to find in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it’s very much like stories from early Israel where individuals break Torah commandments and are struck dead by YHWH. However, it’s worth acknowledging that the text never actually says that God struck Ananias and Sapphira down. They tell their lie, and they die. This may simply be a dramatic device linking The Way to ancient Israel, stopping short of actually suggesting that God is still in the business of smiting people.

A little later Peter and an unnamed group of apostles perform more healings and are thrown into prison a second time. The religious bigwigs hold council to discuss how to handle the problem. The prevailing suggestion is “kill the apostles,” but a Pharisee named Gamaliel advises his colleagues in a different direction. He warns them to “be careful,” for if this new movement is just a religious fad, it will die out and the crowds will eat them alive. But if, by some chance, it’s of divine origin, we’re going to be the ones who are in trouble. The council agrees and releases the apostles once again, this time after a light beating.

Back at the Jesus commune, a dispute breaks out among the adherents of the Way over the distribution of food. A committee is appointed to address the problem, and one of its members named Stephen quickly rises to prominence. He starts “performing wonders” and teaching about the Messiah in the local synagogues. In one particular synagogue, his fellow Jews are simultaneously mesmerized by Stephen’s wisdom and horrified by the “blasphemies” he is speaking. They object especially to his claim that Jesus has superseded Moses and the Temple. The high priest interrogates him, giving him a chance to clarify his teaching, and Stephen responds with a chapter-long discourse in which he retells the story of Israel, from Abraham to Jesus, with a rhetorical emphasis on Israel’s consistent rejection of God’s prophets culminating in her rejection of Jesus. This is basically the same message preached by Peter, but maybe it’s the way Stephen emphasizes Israel’s law-breaking and calls them “murderers” that provokes the priests and scribes to stone him to death, then and there.

In another moment that evokes Luke’s gospel, Stephen prays for his killers as he dies: “Lord, don’t let this sin stand against them!” The stoning is supervised by a devout Pharisee named Saul, who then leads an organized persecution against The Way and its adherents. This forces the Jesus commune to disband, and its members to flee into the surrounding territories. As a result, we get our first accounts of Jesus evangelism outside of Judaea, and a couple of fascinating encounters with non-Jewish characters.

In Samaria, to the north, an apostle named Philip starts telling the good news about the Messiah. Samaritans were semitic cousins of the Jews, not Jewish and yet not considered Gentiles either. Many hear the message and rejoice, much to the chagrin of a local magician named Simon who has been making his living astonishing Samaritans. Acts says that he “believed and was baptized,” but this is apparently just a ploy to get close to the apostles and attempt to learn their tricks. When he offers them money for the secret of the holy spirit, Peter tells him where to stick it and the apostles return to Jerusalem.

On the road, still in Chapter 8, Philip has an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, a Jewish convert who’s been to Jerusalem to see the Temple. Being African AND a eunuch, it’s highly unlikely that this fellow would have gotten very close to the Temple, and when Philip discovers him, he’s in his chariot reading scrolls of Hebrew scripture, puzzling over a passage from Isaiah about the rejection and humiliation of the mysterious “suffering servant.” Philip seizes the opportunity to talk about Jesus, whom he and the apostles firmly believed to be fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. The eunuch believes and is baptized on the spot.

In Acts Chapter 9 there is a major shift in focus, and we will spend most of the rest of this book following the exploits of a new apostle, one who will be the towering figure in the next several books of the New Testament. But unlike all of the apostles up to this point, this man was not one of the personal disciples of Jesus nor a member of the Jesus community. In fact, he is the one orchestrating their persecution, he’s the man who killed Stephen. This is Saul the Pharisee. How does an enemy of The Way who never knew Jesus personally become known as the greatest apostle of all time? Step one: he’s got to meet Jesus.

And that’s what happens, in a story so important it will be told THREE TIMES here in Acts, and again later in letters by Saul himself. As with most gospel and apostolic traditions, there’s a bit of wiggle room regarding the facts and details in the various versions of this event, but the basic story is always the same: Saul is on a journey to the northern city of Damascus to round up some Jesus followers when he is blinded by a bright light and hears the voice of Jesus saying “why do you persecute me?!” In the aftermath, Saul is blinded and refuses to eat or drink. His traveling companions lead him onward to Damascus.

Meanwhile in Damascus, a disciple of The Way named Ananias has received his own vision telling him to welcome Saul and restore his sight. Ananias knows who Saul is and objects, but Jesus insists, “He is the chosen vessel for me, to carry my name before nations and kings – and the children of Israel too” (Acts 9:15). Ananias finds Saul, lays his hands on him, and at once “something like scales” fall from his eyes, his sight is restored, and he is baptized. Saul immediately begins to evangelize in the local synagogues, and everyone is astonished to see the famous persecutor of apostles proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. His impact in Damascus is such that the Jews there want him dead, and the local followers must help him escape and return to Jerusalem. When he shows up at The Way headquarters, the apostles are stunned and frightened, but they listen to his story and eventually welcome him enthusiastically.

In Acts 10, we cut briefly back to Peter, who is taking a nap on the roof when he has a really weird dream. He sees a great sheet of cloth, like a ship’s sail, filled with every kind of animal and bird, and a voice says, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat! What God has made clean you must not regard as common!” The dream repeats twice, and as Peter puzzles over its meaning, he receives an invitation to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius is a “devout man,” a “godfearer,” a Gentile who has come to worship the God of the Jews. It seems he had a vision of his own which urged him to meet Peter. Peter puts it all together: “God doesn’t show favoritism! In every race, people who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) This is a wonderful moment for peace and brotherhood, but it puts Peter in hot water. He’s not supposed to be associating with a Roman, much less baptizing one. He tells the other apostles about his dream, and they make it official: the good news about the Messiah is for everyone, not just Jews.

A note in Chapter 11 says that at this time in the city of Antioch, when Peter and Barnabas and Saul begin preaching the gospel to Gentiles, the members of The Way are first referred to as “Christians.” But in this context, it doesn’t mean, as it does today, adherents to a religion called Christianity. It literally means “Little Messiahs,” or “Messiah People.” Meanwhile, Saul may not be persecuting Christians anymore, but in Chapter 12 King Herod picks up the slack. He assassinates James, the brother of the apostle John, and imprisons Peter. Peter escapes with the help of an “angel,” and verse 23 tells us that Herod is “eaten by worms” and dies. In that order.

In Chapter 13 Paul and Barnabas set out on one of many “missionary journeys,” this one to the island of Cyprus in the middle of the Mediterranean. And, by the way, another note about names: From now on the text will refer to “Saul” as “Paul,” and the traditional reading indicates that God changed his name at his conversion. However, there’s nothing in the text about a name change, and it’s probably just a practicality. Among Jews, his name is the Hebrew Saul, and as a missionary throughout the Greek-speaking world he is known as Paul. Two versions of the same name.

In Cyprus the apostles clash with another local magician. In Pisidian Antioch (not to be confused with Antioch Classic back in Syria), their message is met with violent resistance and they move on to Iconium, and then to Lystra, where they are mistaken for Zeus and Hermes, and then to Derbe. In each city they preach and heal and are ultimately driven out by offended Jews. Their first journey completed, they regroup with the other apostles back in Syrian Antioch, where a major rift has divided the community.

In Chapter 15, we learn that some of the Jewish disciples are insisting that Gentile converts (of whom there are now many) must be circumcised in accordance with Jewish Law in order to become Christians. Peter pleads for sanity, reminding them of his vision and the open invitation God had given to the all people. James, the head of the apostles (and traditionally the brother of Jesus), makes an official decision: Non-Jews will NOT be required to be circumcised. This is excellent news for adult male converts, and a letter detailing the decision is sent to all the Christian communities, a.k.a. “churches.”

Meanwhile Paul and Barnabas split up over creative differences and Paul chooses a new missionary partner, a fellow named Silas. In Chapter 16 Paul takes a journey, revisiting some of the cities from his first tour, and he meets a young disciple named Timothy, whose name will be very important later in our discussion of the New Testament. Paul immediately has Timothy circumcised, which is kinda weird considering what we just read in the previous chapter, and what we’ll hear from Paul about circumcision in his letters later on. Paul’s tour continues, and he founds church communities in some places that sound familiar to readers of the New Testament, like Philippi and Thessalonica.

Another quick technical side note: Around this point, Chapter 16, we notice a strange phenomenon in the text of Acts. In certain passages, usually about missionary voyages, the third person perspective of the book shifts and the narrative is suddenly told in the first person. For example, 16:8 says “So, passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.” But verse 10 says, “…at once we set about finding a way to get across to Macedonia.” Then a few verses later, we shift back to “they” again. The traditional reading of the book says that these are indication of Luke’s personal recollection of certain journeys, but there’s certainly nothing in the text to indicate this, and the rather abrasive way the pronouns shift may actually be evidence of some rather sloppy editing. Since we don’t have an explicit authorial claim on this book anyway, it’s not terribly controversial.

In Acts Chapter 17 their anti-fanclub catches up with Paul and Silas, and they must flee southward to Athens. Here paul has a unique opportunity (some text critics would say a suspiciously opportune opportunity) to address the greatest minds of Greek philosophy in the Areopagus. What Paul says before this audience is remarkable. He congratulates them for being “extremely religious,” and tells that that in worshiping their Greek gods and idols they have actually been worshiping the creator God of Judaism unawares. He says that God has permitted them to do so until now, when Jesus has provided a more explicit way of knowing who and what God is. This is quite different from what the Paul of the epistles will say about Greeks and their religion in a book like Romans, for example, where he condemns pagans for their perverted passions and says that God’s wrath is poured out against them. This is either a case of the apostle changing his tone to appeal to his audience, or of an author writing a scene the way he believes it should play out.

(Ten chapters left in the Book of Acts, this might be a good time for a snack break!)

Paul moves on to the city of Corinth in Chapter 18, where he’ll found one of his most famous churches. But after a major falling out with Silas and Timothy, Paul announces that he will exclusively evangelize Gentiles from now on. After spending a year in Corinth among the Greeks, Paul sails back to Syria with new traveling companions, a married team named Priscilla and Aquila. On the way they stop in Ephesus – home to another famous Pauline church – where a curious thing happens: a Jewish convert, a self-styled evangelist named Apollos shows up and starts preaching in the same synagogues as Priscilla and Aquila. The apostles welcome him into their fellowship after giving him a few pointers. This is fascinating, not least because it reveals the splintered and somewhat ramshackle nature of the early Jesus movement. In addition to the mainstream apostolic evangelists of The Way, there are amateur preachers like Apollos, a Jesus follower who admits that he has never even heard of a “holy spirit.” It’s just interesting, is alls I’m saying.

Another odd occurrence at Ephesus: as Paul’s ministry becomes more and more popular, people start to exploit it, selling handkerchiefs that he has touched and invoking his name in their own spiritual practices. A group of exorcists attempt to cast out an “evil spirit” in the name of “Paul’s Jesus,” and the spirit answers back, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you??” Paul makes a decision to return to Jerusalem and plan his next journey, this time to Rome. The big leagues. (Spoiler alert, he’ll make it to Rome alright, but not the way he expects.) In Chapters 20 and 21, Paul travels back in the direction of Jerusalem, but disciples and prophets along the way warn him not to set foot in the capital or he will be arrested. Paul’s response is “I am quite prepared not only to be tied up but to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul’s slow and fateful march toward Jerusalem is another blatant gospel echo.

Paul does enter the capital, where James and the apostles welcome him, but warn him that he is hated among the devout Jews, who believe him to be a blasphemer and hater of Torah. Soon thereafter Paul is spotted in the Temple by his enemies, who drag him outside and beat him – until the Roman authorities break up the crowd and take the apostle into custody. All the while the Judaean crowd chants “Kill him! Kill him!” Paul uses his Greek language skills and Roman citizenship to demand the right to defend himself to the crowd. In Chapter 22, Paul tells the story of his conversion from a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of The Way to a bold Christian evangelist (with a few slight changes in the details). His story only seems to make the crowd more angry, and Paul is hauled away by the Romans, flogged, and imprisoned.

The next day Paul is brought before the assembly of Jewish elders, the Sanhedrin, and given another chance to explain himself. He uses his deep knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures to incite a debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees, two factions within the assembly. The argument turns into a riot, and the interrogation goes nowhere. Later, some of the same Judaean authorities devise a plot to murder Paul, but he discovers it and informs his Roman overlords. The tribune decrees that Paul should be protected and sent up north to Caesarea for a proper Roman trial with the governor Felix.

In Chapter 25, after a TWO-YEAR-DELAY and a chaotic trial in Caesarea, Paul is finally granted an appeal at the highest level – he will get his voyage to Rome after all. However, before he can go, King Agrippa of Judaea demands to hear Paul’s testimony, which he gladly offers up and which features one last retelling of Paul’s conversion story, this time with an oddly specific new speech on the lips of Jesus. Agrippa and Festus, the procurator of the region, declare Paul to be mad, but innocent of any crime. Says Agrippa, “this man could have been set free, had he not appealed to Caesar!” And I believe the Greek text here literally translates “facepalm.”

Chapter 27 (only two to go!), and Paul sets sail for Rome under the care of a sympathetic centurion named Julius. After a long and treacherous voyage, a violent storm overtakes their boat and the Roman crew become very anxious. In a curiously framed passage, Paul calms the men by “breaking bread” and eating with them, and they all “cheer up.” (I confess that I’ve never noticed this gospel echo before!) Everybody’s feeling great, until the ship runs aground on the island of Malta. In the final chapter, Paul and his Roman handlers encounter some friendly Maltans who help them build a fire. As Paul is gathering wood, a serpent bites his hand and the locals shriek, “this man must be a murderer!” Paul simply shakes off the snake and the Maltans reconsider: “he must be a god!!” This has a weird resonance with the tacked-on extra ending to the gospel of Mark, which predicts just this sort of phenomenon. This might raise all sorts of interesting questions, but for the fact that we’re all very tired and the end of this book is now in sight.

Finally, finally, finally, Paul and his entourage make it to Rome, where Paul has the opportunity to address the Jewish leadership there. He begins to defend himself, but they tell him, “we haven’t heard anything bad about you personally, but this Christian movement of yours is not very popular in Rome!” (Pause for irony.) The scroll ends with Paul quoting the prophet Isaiah to the Roman Jews:

26 “Go to this people and say to them:
Listen and listen, but never hear;
Look and look, but never see!
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
And their ears are dim with hearing,
And they have closed their eyes –
So that they might not see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And turn, and I would heal them.”

And Paul adds this comment:

28 “Let it be known to you that this salvation from God has been sent to the Gentiles. They will listen.”

The book that opened with Peter telling his fellow Jews “you’ve missed the Messiah train,” ends with Paul telling them, “If you won’t listen, the Gentiles will!” The author of Acts, it seems, intended this to be the story of how the gospel of Jesus went from Jewish innovation to global phenomenon. Of course, it won’t be truly “global” until a few centuries later when it becomes the official religion of the Empire, but to the author of Acts this is how the seeds were sown by the apostles, and how they dutifully and technically fulfilled Jesus’ command to take his legacy “to all the nations.” And, just as Luke’s gospel was an attempt to go “on record” with Theophilus concerning Jesus’ legitimacy and innocence, Acts appears to be an attempt to do the same for the early church.

We’re running kinda long today, but a few more observations before we call it quits. First, we have to talk about what’s missing from the end of this book – there’s no closure! Most of the second half of the book is about Paul’s slow trip toward Jerusalem and his even slower journey toward Rome, and then it just ends! We never read about his trial before Caesar or (historical spoiler alert) his execution by beheading. Is something missing from our manuscripts of this text? Maybe, but probably not. It has been compellingly suggested that Paul’s martyrdom is omitted out of reverence for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Given all of the gospel echoes in this text, the author wouldn’t want to go too far by juxtaposing Paul’s death with that of the Master.

Finally today, what about us? How should we read this book? Many Christians today look to Acts as a sort of instruction manual for spreading the gospel. That’s fine, as long as we remember that we’re reading an ancient text that doesn’t share our modern assumptions, and that words like “gospel,” “salvation,” “Lord” and even “church” had very specific meanings in the First Century world of Second-Temple Judaism and the Roman Empire. Acts isn’t really an instruction book for future Christians, it’s one author’s narration of the unbelievable events that occurred after Jesus left – how his message of repentance, salvation, and the kingdom of God was lived, disseminated and popularized. The apostles proclaimed that the risen Jesus was still alive, and Acts is one community’s testimony to that new reality. And whether this is a factual news report or a persuasive interpretation of events remembered, our connection to Acts is this: that these many generations after, we’re still talking about the prophet from Galilee.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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June 26, 2014 4

Episode 32 – Gospel of John

By in Blog, Podcast


Very excited, can’t wait to get things going! Music!


Welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, I am Josh Way. This is a podcast for people who long for a fun and intellectually honest exploration of the history and literature of the bible, without all the doctrine and hairspray and spaceships. This show is neither religious nor irreligious, we leave that up to you and your doctor. We’re just here for the text.

We’ve been looking at the early Christian texts of the Greek “New Testament,” specifically the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, traditionally labeled the “synoptic” gospels for the basic similarities in their portrayals of Jesus. There is a fourth gospel, attributed to John, which is usually considered apart from the synoptics, not least because of its radically different style and unique portrait of Jesus. We will discover momentarily what makes John’s gospel such a surprising read, but first I want to apply some of my trademark scrutiny to the notion that the “synoptics” represent a homogenous presentation of Jesus.

We’ve already seen that, though they share common sources and a narrative kernel, the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke also differ in many important details, small and not-so-small. Lumping them together as “basically the same” does a great disservice to the unique voice of each text, and creates a facade of homogeny that makes a text like John’s gospel seem like some kind of a problem that has to be managed. Traditionally this has meant over-apologizing for John’s apparently “Greek” point of view and his “artistic” storytelling choices. The fact is that each gospel tells the story of Jesus from a unique point of view, and all four of them are overflowing with “artistic” storytelling. The best way to manage the material is to allow each gospel to speak for itself, and to put concerns about harmony and contradiction aside while you do so.

So what exactly is it that makes John’s gospel so different from the others? See for yourself. Here are the opening verses:

1 In the beginning was the word. The word was close beside God, and the word was God. 2 In the beginning, he was close beside God. 3 All things came into existence through him; not one thing that exists came into existence without him. 4 Life was in him, and this life was the light of the human race. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

14 And the word became flesh and lived with us. We gazed upon his glory, like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Where Matthew and Luke opened their gospels with genealogies and stories about the birth of Jesus (and Mark skipped it altogether), John’s gospel opens with a sort of philosophical prologue about Jesus’ heavenly origins. He goes all the way back to creation, invoking Genesis with the phrase “in the beginning,” and making an apparent claim that Jesus himself was present when God made the world. The language does seem to be intentionally ambiguous – he WAS God, but he was also WITH God and NEAR to God – but the author’s point seems to be: The “word of God,” logos in Greek, the wisdom, will and essence of Israel’s God, the Creator, is somehow incarnate or embodied in Jesus. This is standard church doctrine on our side of history, but for our purposes as text critics we have to acknowledge that this goes beyond anything we’ve seen up to this point. The “synoptic” gospels were about a human prophet who was vindicated and revealed to be the “messiah,” Israel’s long awaited king, and the “son of God,” a genuine representative and agent of Israel’s God on earth. Here in John, Jesus is a manifestation of God himself, or at least of his logos.

John then begins his narration of Jesus’ life and deeds, and while the characters, settings, and climax of the story are familiar, the events and details are radically different throughout. In fact, most of the scenes and plot points we know from the synoptics are missing here. Jesus is not born of a virgin, he isn’t baptized by John the Baptist, he isn’t tempted by the devil, he doesn’t proclaim the “kingdom of God,” and he doesn’t tell any parables or cast out any demons. There’s no “sermon on the mount” or “lord’s prayer,” no “transfiguration” or “last supper.” The message and methods of this Jesus seem to be wildly different from those of the apocalyptic prophet from the other gospels. Curious indeed.

The first episode in John’s narrative involves Jesus and John the Baptist, and it’s a good example of the unique vibe of this gospel. In the synoptics, John baptized Jesus as a sort of inauguration for his messianic career, and God’s voice declared from heaven, “this is my son, listen to him!” In John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t baptized, but the baptist is the one who announces that Jesus is the “son of God.” He also refers to Jesus as the “lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin,” which is a unique saying to this gospel. Keep that one filed away for later.

The text explains that John says these things as “evidence” about Jesus, and that’s a major keyword in this gospel. This is a Jesus whose primary task is to “prove” his identity so that people will “believe in him.” This is actually in strong contrast to synoptic Jesus, who healed and blessed in the name of God’s kingdom but refused to glorify himself with magic tricks. When the devil tempts Jesus to perform a sign, he retorts “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test!” And in Matthew 12 when some Jews beg Jesus to give them a sign, he refuses saying, “no sign will be given to this wicked generation!” In Mark 8, Jesus orders his disciples to keep his messianic identity a secret, but here in John he’s on a mission from day one to reveal his divinity to everyone who will listen.

And so the first twelve chapters of John’s gospel are structured around seven signs that Jesus performs in public to reveal his identity. Each one takes the same basic format: at some significant Jewish ceremony, festival, or location, Jesus performs a miracle or a “sign” that illuminates something about him, and people believe. Here’s the run-down:

  1. In John 2, Jesus is at a wedding in his hometown when the wine runs out. He turns about 200 gallons of water into wine, and John says “he displayed his glory, and his disciples believed.”
  2. In John 4, in the same region of Galilee, Jesus heals the dying son of a “royal official,” which I guess might mean a Herodian Jew or perhaps even a Roman. Whoever he is, Jesus tells him, “unless you see signs, you won’t ever believe!”
  3. In John 5 Jesus travels to Jerusalem during an unnamed festival, to a “healing pool” near the temple where he heals a paralytic man. He performs the miracle on the Sabbath, and John tells us that this is when the Judaean authorities began to “persecute” Jesus.
  4. In chapter 6, during Passover, Jesus feeds the crowd of 5,000, the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be recorded in all four gospels. In this telling, Jesus follows the sign up with his statement, “I am the bread of life, anyone who comes to me will never be hungry!”
  5. In the same chapter, Jesus’ disciples are out on a boat on the sea of Galilee, when they spot Jesus walking out to them on the water.
  6. In John 9 Jesus heals a man who was born blind, announcing, “I am the light of the world!”
  7. In John 11 Jesus resurrects a man named Lazarus who had been dead for several days, declaring, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die!”

Jesus makes several of those “I am” statements (seven or eight depending on your criteria), which some interpreters take to be additional references to Jesus’ divinity, specifically invoking the moment in Exodus when Israel’s God revealed himself to Moses in a burning bush and identified himself as “I Am.” And while we’re on the subject of Jesus’ unique use of language in John, we should backtrack a little and examine two of his most famous sayings that are unique to this gospel.

In John Chapter 3, Jesus tells a prominent Jewish teacher named Nicodemus that he must be “born again.” Later in the same passage, Jesus promises that everyone who believes in him will receive “eternal life.” Being “born again” and receiving “eternal life.” These phrases are so well known today, even among non-religious people, that we might forget how strange they sound here in the New Testament, especially in light of the message of Jesus according to the synoptic gospels.

First, what does it mean to be “born again?” This phrase has become a sort of litmus test for belonging among fundamentalists, and a byword of bad religion for many outside the church. For most people today, being “born again” means adopting a particular brand of religion and the ideologies that come packaged with it. This language has had a huge impact on Western culture, considering it only appears in this one passage in John. If you’re confused or weirded-out by the phrase “born again,” you’re not alone. Nicodemus asks Jesus to clarify, and he does: we are all born of “flesh,” Jesus says, but we must also be born of “spirit” as well. Another (perhaps more precise) way of translating the Greek phrase is “born from above.” Essentially, this is a metaphor about obtaining a new kind of life, one that is “from heaven,” or rather in tune with God’s character as revealed by Jesus. Not too far from what Jesus calls “repentance” in the synoptics, I think.

But what about this “eternal life” business? Not unlike the phrase “kingdom of God,” this phrase has too often been misunderstood as a reference to an afterlife, to “going to heaven when you die.” Once again, however, a more precise translation of the Greek sends us in a better direction. This phrase doesn’t mean “eternal life” as in “life that lasts forever,” but rather “the life of the new age.” Lots of Christians don’t like the sound of that, but that’s really what it means. It’s actually John’s poetic way of describing the kingdom of God, the coming reign of God on earth.

So in one sense, Jesus’ message according to John is similar to his message in Mark, Matthew, and Luke: if Israel leaves off her old way of life and puts on a new one (if they are “born again”), they will participate in God’s “coming age,” or “inherit eternal life.” In the synoptics, this was to be accomplished by “repenting” of sin and, in the case of Matthew, by keeping every letter of the Torah law. In John, the word “repent” never appears, but Jesus repeatedly invites everyone he encounters to “believe in me.” In fact, right here in Chapter 3, Jesus summarizes his message in what may be the most famous of all bible verses:

16 “This is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.”

Another aspect of John that differs from the other gospels is the geography of Jesus, specifically his relationship to Jerusalem. In the synoptics, Jesus traveled and preached throughout the land of Palestine, moving slowly toward his single, fateful visit to the capital. Here in John, however, Jesus takes multiple trips to Jerusalem. In fact, he’s there already in Chapter 2, driving the merchants out of the temple, an event that served as the climax of his ministry in the previous gospels. In those texts, the temple tantrum was the inciting incident which sealed Jesus’ fate. Here, it’s the very beginning of his public ministry, and it’s the raising of Lazarus in Chapter 11 which sets “Holy Week” into motion.

John 12 narrates Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, which takes place “six days before Passover.” And while John’s gospel lacks a “last supper” story, there’s a somewhat similar account in Chapter 13 where Jesus meets with his disciples in private, not to eat a Passover meal, but to wash their feet and tell them that he must soon leave them. Verse 33:

33 “Children, I’m with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Judaeans, where I’m going you cannot follow.
34 “I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other!”

The confused disciples ask Jesus where he is going. He replies, in Chapter 4 Verse 2:

2 “There is plenty of room to live in my father’s house. If that wasn’t the case, I’d have told you, wouldn’t I? I’m going to get a place ready for you! 3 And when I go and get a place ready for you, I’ll come back and take you with me, so you you can be there, where I am.”

This is more language that has been traditionally read as a promise of afterlife reward. In fact, until recently most translations have had Jesus saying, “in my father’s house are many mansions,” but that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus is actually quoting from the traditional Israelite wedding ceremony, wherein the groom tells the bride, “I’m going back to my father’s home to get a room ready for us, then I’ll come and get you.” He’s comparing his relationship with his followers to a marriage, and promising he’ll be back to live with them after he goes away for a short time. It strike us as a metaphor about his death and resurrection, but the disciples are still confused, and Thomas says, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response in Chapter 14 verse 6 is famous:

6 “I am the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the father except through me.”

Here’s a verse that has often been taken out-of-context and used as a statement about the exclusivity of Christianity. “The only way to go to heaven is through Jesus!” But in context, it’s not really about “going to heaven” or even about Christianity. It’s about Israel, represented by Jesus’ disciples, and their relationship to their God, embodied in Jesus. If they want to see God, they must look at Jesus to know what he’s like. And what does God look like in Jesus? He’s a God of love, whose only commandment is “love one another,” and who loves his people like a groom loves his new bride. This isn’t an exclusivist religious claim, it’s far more radical than that: it’s a claim that the God of Israel, Jesus, and the bible is first and foremost a God of love. That’s not how everyone has traditionally imagined God to be, even in the bible!

Over the next few chapters Jesus continues to teach his followers, frequently repeating his central instruction: “love one another as I have loved you.” When he reaches the end of his lengthy discourse in Chapter 17, he prays for his followers, that God will keep them safe, unified, and, surprise surprise, loving one another. Then, in Chapter 18, Jesus is arrested and hauled before the high priests, who briefly interrogate him before passing him off to Pontius Pilate, the local Roman governor. Jesus’ interaction with Pilate is a bit more juicy here than in the synoptics, where Jesus says almost nothing. Here’s John’s version:

33 … “Are you the king of the Jews?,” [Pilate] asked.
34 “Was it your idea to ask that?” asked Jesus. “Or did other people tell you about me?”
35 “I’m not a Jew, am I?” retorted Pilate. “Your own people and the chief priests have handed you over to me! What have you done?”
36 “My kingdom isn’t the sort that comes from this world,” replied Jesus. “If my kingdom were from the world, my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans.”

For John, the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate isn’t just a conflict between Israel and Rome, it’s a collision between an earthly empire and the kingdom of God. And when Pilate flexes his Roman authority, Jesus fires back, “you have no authority over me that wasn’t given to you from above!”

Shifting gears from the political to the poetical, we begin to notice something profound going on with John’s storytelling as the “passion” plays out. In this gospel, Jesus will die on the day of Passover, at noon, as the sacrificial lambs are being slaughtered in the temple, not on the day after Passover as in the synoptics. John has been counting down the week until Passover and, thus, the death of Jesus. By that count, this is day six, and so when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd and announces “Here is the man!,” we are reminded that God created mankind on the sixth day. As Jesus hangs on the cross, at the end of the sixth day, he announces “It is finished!,” as he dies, and we recall that on the seventh day, God finished the work of creation. As God “rested” on the sabbath, so will Jesus “rest” in his tomb on this sabbath.

That’s all fascinating, but what does creation have to do with the crucifixion of Jesus? In Chapter 20, we finally see what John is up to. In this account of the resurrection, we’re told that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb “on the first day of the week,” while it is “still dark.” This is the eighth day, or day one of a new week. Mary (and us, the readers) will discover that Jesus is no longer dead, and John’s implication is that this is the first day of a new world, a “new creation.” Jesus’ death and vindication, says John, aren’t just about “saving souls” for the afterlife, it was all about renewing and regenerating all of creation itself! And if we missed any of the clues up to this point, John throws us another bone: Mary encounters the risen Jesus but doesn’t recognize him, assuming him to be the “gardener!”

Jesus then appears to some of the disciples saying “Peace be with you!,” and then he “breathes on them,” which is yet more creation imagery. The stunned disciples report back to the rest of the group, and Thomas refuses to believe it. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers into the nail-marks, I won’t believe!” A week later, Jesus appears to the full group, and presents himself to Thomas saying, “Go ahead! Believe!” The disciple examines Jesus’ wounds and cries out, “my lord and my God!” Jesus says, “You believe because you’ve seen me, God’s blessing on those who don’t see and yet believe!”

To the last page, the emphasis of John’s gospel is on evidence and believing. Why is this? Could it be because this gospel was written substantially later than the synoptic gospels, as late as 95 CE or later, perhaps even early in the second century? The distance between the text and the events it interprets could explain a lot about its odd tone and its obsession with proof and belief. A late date might also explain the portrayal of Jesus as a pre-existing divine being rather than a virgin-born human anointed and venerated by God.

But even as we consider the undeniable uniqueness of John’s gospel, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental continuity between all four gospels. In each presentation, Jesus’ message is not about achieving reward in the afterlife, but about renewed life in this world, John’s “new creation.” Despite all of their peculiar emphases and discrepancies, every gospel boils Jesus’ prophetic message down to love of neighbor. Whether it’s “repentance,” or being “born again,” or inheriting the “life of the new age,” each invites its readers to follow after Jesus in his way of selfless love. We’ve no shortage today of religious interpretations of Jesus’ message, but we’ll always have these four remarkable ancient books to help us rediscover how the earliest Christians understood it. Next time we’ll begin our exploration of the literature about the early church, about how the first followers of Jesus attempted to put his message into action.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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June 5, 2014 0

Fig Tree Meme

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