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The Biblical Story

September 7, 2016

The word “Bible” in English is derived from Greek through Latin.  In Greek the word biblia is a plural form and means simply “books.”  In the Middle Ages the word biblia, when transliterated into Latin, was mistakenly thought to be a singular noun; hence our word “Bible.”  A more commonly used term in referring to the books of the Old and New Testament was “the writings.”  This was translated into Latin as scripturae; hence in English “the Scriptures” – used by way of eminence or distinction.

            The adjective “holy” appears in the titles of English Bibles beginning with Coverdale’s and in most of the following versions (Matthew’s, Tavener’s, the Great Bible, and the Genevan) in their various editions, but it is usually associated with the word “Scripture” in the subtitle.  For example, the full title of the Coverdale Bible of 1535 is:  Biblia  / The Byble:  that  / is, the holy Scrypture of the  / Olde and New Testament,  / faithfully translated in  / to Englyshe.  M.D.XXXV.

            The title “The Holy Bible” seems to appear first in English in the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 in the form:  The  .  holie  .  Bible. conteyning the olde   /  Testament and the newe.  The spelling of the Holy Bible appears first in 1584 and remains constant in the last four editions  (1588,  1591,  1595,  and 1602.)  It occurs next in the Douay Bible of 1609-1610 in the form of the Holie Bible.  It appears again in the editio princeps of the King James or Authorized Version of 1611 in the form The Holy Bible.

 

 

The Number of Books in the Bible

 

            The number of books in the Bible varies in different religious traditions.  The Hebrew Scriptures contain twenty-four books in three distinct sections.  The first section, comprising five books, is the Torah or Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).  The second section of eight books is the Prophets:  there are four books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and four books of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve [the so-called minor prophets]).  The eleven remaining books, called the Writings, are in the third section (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles).  Samuel, Kings, The Twelve, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles are each counted as one book.  This appears to have been the form of the Hebrew Scriptures with which Jesus was familiar.  In Luke 11:51 Jesus seems to be referring to the first and the last murder recorded in Scripture:  Abel in Genesis and Zechariah in 2 Chronicles, the first and the last book in the Hebrew canon.  After the Hebrew scriptures had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in the third and second centuries of the pre-Christian era, the sequence of the Greek books was eventually rearranged in accordance with their literary character or content.  The Law and the historical books (Genesis through Esther) are followed by potential and wisdom literature (Job through Song of Songs) and conclude with the books of the prophets (now including Daniel, formerly among the Writings).  This is the conventional order of the books in the Christian Old Testament today.

            When scribes made copies of the Greek text of these books, they sometimes included, at various place, the Greek text of other Jewish writings.  Some of these had been originally composed in Hebrew (Judith, the first part of Baruch, Ecclesiastes, known also as Sirach, and I Maccabees) or in Aramaic (as Tobit); others were written originally in Greek (Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Maccabees, Additions to Esther and to Daniel).

            These and other such texts outside the Hebrew canon came to be known as the Old Testament Apocrypha (fourteen books and texts).  Eighty per cent of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament reproduce the Septuagint, though by no means always verbatim.  The New Testament writers never quote from the Apocrypha, but allusions are occasionally made to certain passages.

            Subsequently, books of the Greek Septuagint were rendered into Latin by various translators.  In A.D. 383 Pope Damasus asked St. Jerome to make a unified, standard Latin version of the Bible.  Jerome worked for more than a scored of years in producing the Latin Vulgate, which became the Scriptures for Western Europe for a thousand years.  In this version Jerome separated the later Jewish texts (Apocrypha) from the books that comprised the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Other early Church Fathers permitted these books to be read for edification and recommended them to catechumens of study, but rejected them from the canon.

            Eventually the earliest English translations of the Bible included the Apocryphal books between the Old and New Testament.  In fact, in 1615 one of the translators of the Authorized or King James Version, George Abbott, Archbishop of Canterbury, directed that public notice be given that no Bibles were to be bound up and sold without the Apocrypha on pain of a whole year’s imprisonment.  Nevertheless, as early as 1629 the Apocrypha began to be omitted from some editions of the English Bible.

            Today, among several major branches of Christendom, there are basically three attitudes toward the Apocrypha.  Roman Catholics and Easter Orthodox accept them as authoritative Deuterocanonical books.  Several Eastern churches receive one or more additional books:  3 and 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, and the Prayer of Manasseh.  Lutheran, Anglican, and Zurich Reformed Churches do not use them for establishing any doctrine, but they accept them as edifying and useful for example of life and instruction of manners.  Calvinistic and other Protestant Churches reject them as possessing no canonical status and therefore to be used only as any other human writings.

            All the major Christian Churches accept twenty-seven books of the Greek New Testament and translations made therefrom.  The sequence of the New Testament writings varies in the manuscripts, not only in the order of the four groups of writings themselves – Gospels, Acts, Pauline and General Epistles, Apocalypse – but also in the order of the books within each group.  The only characteristic common to the whole manuscript tradition is that the Gospels stand at the beginning and the Book of Revelation at the end.  In the great majority of Greek witnesses the General Epistles precede the Pauline Epistles.  In some Latin manuscripts these are reversed, a sequence followed today in most modern translations.

 

 

Introduction to the Biblical Story

            When one considers the content of the Bible one is immediately struck by two features that seem to be antithetical: its diversity and its unity.

            There is diversity in that several dozen books are now bound together between the two covers of the Bible.  These books come from various times and places, spanning centuries of time and originating in various countries.  It is not surprising that these books were composed in different languages:  Hebrew for the Old Testament, with some chapters of Ezra and Daniel in Aramaic, a related Semitic language; and the New Testament in Greek.

            There is also, of course, diversity as to authorship, with materials coming from a broad spectrum of speakers and writers, including the Song of Deborah in the Old Testament and the Magnificat of Mary in the New Testament.  All told, scores of men and women have contributed oral and/or written materials now incorporated into this small library of books.

            Furthermore, there is diversity in the qualifications and backgrounds of these different authors.  Here are words from people of such varied callings in life as Moses, who was trained in the wisdom of Egypt; David, who grew up as a shepherd boy, Solomon, reputed to be the wisest of kings.  Isaiah was a priest; Amos, a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees; Peter, a fisherman; Paul, a tent maker; and so on.

            There is also diversity in the literary forms included in the Bible.  We have law in the Pentateuch, history in the books of Samuel and Kings, philosophy in the book of Job, love lyrics in the Song of Solomon, prophecy in Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as in a dozen other books in the Old Testament.  The Psalms have served as a hymn book for Israel and the Church.  In the New Testament we have books of news – but this is good news, not the kind that grows stale the following week.  There are also twenty-one letters written by several leaders in the early Church and sent to congregations and to individuals, climaxed by the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, at the close of the Bible.

            With such great diversity we might well expect nothing but confusion among so many pieces from different times, place, and authors, representing very different levels of religious understanding.  But there is another remarkable feature of the Bible, and this is its unity.  By unity, of course, we do not mean uniformity but rather an underlying harmony, like that of a musical composition.  This harmony arises from bearing witness to the same revelation of God as (1) a God who acts, (2) a God who redeems, and (3) a God who gives hope.

            A word also needs to be said concerning the vantage point from which one attempts to grasp the artistic shape and design of the Scriptures.  The form which the Bible takes in one’s mind will be determine, at least in party, by the angle from which it is viewed.  It is evident, for instance, that the ultimate meaning of the Old Testament will be drastically different for those who view it from within the Christian community rather than from within the fellowship of Judaism.  This does not mean that Christians will have a different understanding of every verse of the Old Testament, or even of very many of the verses, but the fact that they see Old Testament history as reaching its logical terminus in the New Testament rather than in the Talmud will determine one’s view of the overall significance of the Hebrew Scripture and therefore will influence the interpretation of some crucial passages.  A Christian cannot help believing that the New Testament gives the clue to the meaning of the Old Testament at its deepest level.

            Assisting such an understanding of the Old Testament is the revised order of Old Testament books in the Greek Septuagint translation, ancient copies of which have come down to us.  As was mentioned earlier (pages 00-00), instead of the miscellaneous group of Writings in the Hebrew Scriptures closing with the books of Chronicles, the Old Testament in Greek Bibles concludes with the prophetic books.  The account of creation is followed by the series of covenants that God made with humankind after the Fall, the covenants themselves culminating in the Law of the covenant made through Moses on Mount Sinai; this merges into an account of the history of Israel, presented as the nation from which the prophets came, who foretold the coming of the Messiah.  Consequently, in the Greek Bible the Old Testament forms a kind of ascending gradient, leading from creation to the formation oft eh Messianic hope, a hope that is fulfilled in the New Testament which follows.  The New Testament thus supplements the Old Testament – the New to be interpreted in terms of the Old and itself providing the key to the understanding of the Old. 

The following discussion will consider the Bible under the general rubric of the gospel or good news about Jesus Christ.  The stages of growth of the Biblical Story extend from the Old Testament, considered as the preparation for the gospel of Jesus Christ, followed by four Gospels that record the manifestation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, continuing in the Acts of the Apostles which reports the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the twenty-one epistles that provide an explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and concluding with the Book of Revelation, focused on the consummation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

           

Preparation

            Genesis, the first book of the Bible, falls into two parts, chapters 1-11 and chapters 12-50.  In the first part the writer tells of the creation of the heavens and the earth and of our first parents, who were put in the garden of Eden.  But Adam and Eve were disobedient and spoiled God’s plan.  After they had sinned by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are banished from Eden by the mercy of God lest they eat also of the tree of life and become immortal in their sin (Gen. 3:22-24)

            Subsequently, a series of human sins call forth God’s judgment.  Cain’s murder of Abel, Lamech’s vengefulness, and the evils arising from the unions between angelic beings and human women result in God’s sending the flood.  Civilization after the flood begins with sacrificial offerings.  In response, God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants.  The rainbow in the sky becomes the perpetual sign of this everlasting covenant.  In blessing Noah, God commissioned him to populate and posses the whole earth.

            Being a racial and linguistic unit, the human race remained in one location for an indefinite period.  On the plain of Shinar people undertake a tremendous building project.  The construction of the Tower of Babel represents pride in human achievement as well as defiance of the divine commission to populate the earth.  God terminates the endeavor by causing linguistic confusion, resulting in the dispersion of the human race “over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9).

            These earliest traditions concerning the prehistorical period (Gen. 1-11) form the setting for the history of Israel in the second part of Genesis (chapters 12-50).  This part begins with the call of Abram, later know as Abraham.  Born in Ur in southern Mesopotamia, Abram is called by God to leave his relatives and his country, and to set out for another land, where God promises to make him the father of a great people.

            When Abraham was 100 years old, his son Isaac was born.  While Isaac was still a youth, God put Abraham to the test and commanded him to offer his son as a human sacrifice on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah.  At the moment of slaughter, Abraham is providentially shown a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket; this is accepted as the sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-19); and see Heb. 11:17-19).  The incident reveals both the strength of Abraham’s faith and the obedience of Isaac.

            The election promises given to Abraham and the gracious guidance of God are themes around which the various cycles of patriarchal traditions were collected, while the Book of Exodus presents the first stage of fulfillment of the promises.  The traditions concerning the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19-24) are built into the over-all theme as the immediate goal and purpose of the deliverance from Egypt.  Having rescued Israel from slavery, God binds the people in a solemn compact and thus forms them into a nation.  Together with the good news of the election promises there is now the remainder of the obligation for unconditional obedience to the will of God.

            In Leviticus various kinds of offerings and sacrifices are prescribed.  The thank offering is to be given freely in gratitude for mercies received (Leb. 7:12; cf. Psa. 27:6).  The burnt offering, where the whole animal is offered by burning it, is most completely a gift to God.  In other sacrifices there is a communion, or sharing, between God the worshippers.  The fat of the inward parts is offered to God and burnt (Lev. 3:3-5); the rest is eaten by the person who makes the offering and his guests (Deut. 12:17, 18).  Fellowship between God and the worshippers is expressed and strengthened when they “eat in the presence of the Lord your God” (Deut. 12:7)

            In polytheism the idea that sacrifices were the needed food and drink of the gods was never completely spiritualized.  Yet in Israel there is not thought whatever of God’s need of physical sustenance.  In Levitical terminology the words “pleasing odor to the Lord” are a technical expression referring to an offering’s acceptability to God (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; etc.)  In short, the theological basis of the sacrificial cultus is shifted to a different foundation from that on which it rested in paganism.  The whole cultus is conceived as a special revelation to Israel, a means which God provides and through which God can be worshipped.  There is no thought whatever of God’s personal need of the sacrifice.

            Sacrifices were offered for the removal of sin and guilt.  Israelites believed that the life of the animal is in its blood, and that this can be effective in saving the life of a person from the consequences of sin and guilt (Lev. 17:11).  TO be effective, however, one must come with the right attitude, confessing one’s sins (Lev. 5:5, 6; 16:21), for “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination” (Prov. 21:27)

            Perhaps the most solemn of all the sacrifices was offered on the Day of Atonement, held on the tenth day of the seventh month, Tishri.  A fast was commended and now work was to be done (Lev. 16:23-34; Num. 29:7-11).  This annual celebration served as a reminder that the daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices made at the altar of burnt offerings were not sufficient to atone for sin (see Heb. 10:1-4).  On this one day of the year, atoning blood was brought into the Holy of Holies, the diving throne-room, by the high priest as the representative of the people.

            At the heart of biblical messianism is the conviction that God will intervene in history by sending a savior to deliver his people from suffering and injustice.  In some passages it is the Coming One’s wisdom that is referred to (Isa. 9:6; 11:2); in others, his gentleness and humility (Isa. 42:2-3; Zech. 9:9-10).  The mysterious figure of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18) provides a title for one who is at the same time both king and priest (Psa. 110:4; see also Heb. 7).  A third model is that of a prophet, anointed to “bring good news to the oppressed” (Isa. 61:1; see also Luke 4:18).  The belief that a prophet like Moses would arise (Deut. 18:18) is referred to in Acts 3:22.

            Finally, the expectation that the divinely appointed savior should suffer (Luke 24:26; Acts 3:18) has its roots in several psalms attributed to David (e.g. 22; 55; 88).  The idea that the suffering or self-sacrifice is in itself saving (cf. Ex. 32:32; Isa. 53:5,10,12) is given a unique emphasis in Christian messianism (e.g. Rom. 5:6-8; Gal. 3:13; cf. Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 2:24-25).

            Among the several Old Testament antecedents pointing to features in the New Testament – some more striking than others – it is only retrospectively that they are found to prefigure the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.  At the same time one must acknowledge that cumulatively such foregleams are certainly impressive.  Furthermore, unlike many fanciful typological parallels proposed by several church fathers, the examples identified by apostolic insight have been recognized to be generally convincing to the Church at large.  In short, the Old Testament preparation for the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ provides ethical monotheism and the ritual and sacrifices of both thanksgiving and atonement for sin.  There is also the prefiguration of the promised Coming One as a prophet, priest, and king.

           

 

Manifestation

            All four evangelists agree in placing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry within the framework of the ministry of John the Baptist.  A forceful preacher, John urged his fellow Israelites to repent of their sins, receive baptism in the Jordan, and live a life of righteousness (Luke 3:10-14).  What made John’s message so thrilling to every Jewish heart was the strong messianic hope present in his message.  He declared that nothing less than the Day of the Lord was at hand, and that at long last God would vindicate his people and deliver them from oppression.’

            One day, probably early in A.D. 27, there appeared among the Baptist’s followers one who particularly attracted his attention.  This was Jesus, kinsman of John’s (John’s mother Elizabeth was a cousin of the virgin Mary).  By receiving baptism at the hands of John, Jesus showed his acceptance of John’s message of impending doom for the wicked and the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.  Since for Jesus the Baptist’s message and movement were from God (Matt. 21:25; Mark 11:30; Luke 20:4), by submitting to baptism he dedicated himself to God’s work which John had announced.

            According to all three synoptic Gospels immediately after his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).  The testing in the wilderness grew out of Jesus’ experience at his baptism when a divine voice proclaimed that this was the beloved Son of God.  For forty days Jesus fasted and wrestled with questions of how and for what purpose he should utilize the extraordinary powers that he was conscious of possessing.

            The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, was a temptation to use these powers for his own advantage.  The second temptation (in Matthew’s account) to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the temple, expecting to be supported, as it were, by a celestial parachute, was a temptation to win a large following by means of a spectacular miracle.  The third temptation, to secure the kingdoms of the world by bowing in temporary homage to the devil, was a temptation to acquire power over secular kingdom by temporizing with evil.  In short, the several temptations were enticements to selfish security, cheap popularity, and worldly power.

            At the same time, Jesus’ temptations had also far-reaching significance.  They involved his deciding at the beginning of his ministry what kind of Messiah he would be, the strategy by which he might accomplish his work, and the extent of hi warfare against evil.  The decisions that Jesus made in the wilderness he carried out again and again in later months when confronted with similar testing.

            Thus, the temptation at the end of his life to avoid personal suffering by calling upon God for twelve legions of angels (Matt. 20:53) he denied for the same reason that had led him in the wilderness to prefer suffering the pangs of hunger rather than to help himself by utilizing more than human resources.  An early Christian theologian perceived that, had Jesus succumbed to the temptation to avoid unpleasant circumstances by relying on means that are not available to ordinary humans, he would have been “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15).  Because he himself “was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18).  According to this interpretation, the essence of the devil’s temptation was to entice Jesus into doing what would have prevented his full participation in the human predicament. 

               As was mentioned earlier, Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry took place probably sometime early in A.D. 27.  The time between that date and his crucifixion (probably on April 7 of A.D. 30) can be divided into three periods, each roughly one year in length.  Each of the three periods has special features of its own.  The first may be called the year of obscurity, partly because the records of it which we possess are scanty and partly because during it Jesus seems to have been only slowly emerging into public notice.  The second period was the year of public favor, during which his fame as a teacher and healer spread far and wide.  The third year was the year of opposition.  Now public favor ebbed away and Jesus’ enemies multiplied, until at last they managed to secure his execution.

            It was during his last week during Passover season when Jesus approached Jerusalem, that an atmosphere of intense expectation increased among his followers.  Luke comments that “they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (19:11).  At this juncture Jesus quite deliberately offered himself publically as the Messiah, in fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophet of Zechariah (Zech. 9:9).  Unlike the warrior king of popular expectation, Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, thereby illustrating the peaceful character of the kingdom he had come to inaugurate.

            At the evening of what is now called Palm Sunday, Jesus left the city (Mark 11:19), preferring to go to nearby Bethany where he spent the night at the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

            The following morning Jesus returned to Jerusalem, where he engaged in teaching and in controversies with the religious leaders of his nation.  The stories of these controversies reflect the mounting tension between Jesus and the authorities.  A delegation from the Sanhedrin came to him to demand his credentials for his acts.  Jesus, however, countered by asking about the credentials of John the Baptist, whether his authority came from heaven or was of human origin.  When they refused to commit themselves, Jesus, with scathing rebuke and warning, told the parable of the wicked tenants, the point of which was that to reject God’s messengers and finally his Son will result in being rejected by God (Matt. 21:33-36; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19). 

            On Thursday of his last week Jesus sent Peter and John into the city to prepare the Passover meal for him and the twelve (Luke 22:8).  I was in such a context that Jesus deliberately introduced a new element into the ancient liturgy that commemorated the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.  After lifting the platter of unleavened bread and speaking the Aramaic formula prescribed in the ritual of the time (“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is in need come and eat the Passover meal”), Jesus took up the Passover loaf, blessed it and broke it, and giving the pieces to his disciples, spoke words that went far beyond the prescribed ritual, saying: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  At the close of the meal, after pouring the so-called Cup of Blessing, Jesus again introduced some sentences into the ancient ritual:  “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  Do this, as often as your drink it, in remembrance of me.”

            Among serious-minded Jews it was customary to remain together at table for several hours after the conclusion of the Passover meal and to talk about the Passover miracles past and future.  Jesus, too, no doubt remained for some time with his disciples, talking with them of things past and future, and explaining in more detail the significance of the new features that he had just introduced into the Passover ceremonial.

            Then Jesus left the house and walked through the dark streets of the city into the Kidron Valley in order to reach the Mount of Olives.  He sought a favorite spot of his for prayer and meditation, the garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives (John 18:1).            What Jesus endured there in spiritual agonizing we doe not know, but the evangelists indicate that, being greatly distressed and sorrowful, he prayed that the cup of his sufferings might be removed from him (Matt. 26:36-44; Mark 14:32-39; Luke 22:40-44).  According to an early Christian writer, Jesus’ prayer was heard, not in the removal of the suffering, but in his reverent submission to the divine will, which involved suffering and death (Heb. 5:7-8).  He attained a remarkable degree of tranquility that accompanied him through his arrest and trial to his last moments on the cross.

            The accounts of Jesus’ trial, first by the sanhedrin and later before Pilate, then Herod, and once again before Pilate, result in his condemnation to die by means of crucifixion.

            The four evangelist include among their several narratives of the crucifixion seven words (that is, seven sentences) that came from the lips of Jesus while on the cross.  In their traditional order, the first and last are prayers: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24), a prayer of intercession on behalf of those who were responsible for his death; and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), a prayer of confidence and trust.

            Arrangements for the burial of Jesus’ body were made by a certain Joseph of Arimathea.  According to all four evangelists, this man, a respected member of the Jewish council, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.  After Pilate had satisfied himself that Jesus was already dead, he gave permission for the burial.  Then Joseph, joined by Nicodemus, took the body, wrapped in a linen shroud, and laid it in his own rock-hewn tomb, over the mouth of which a great stone was rolled.  According to Matthew the Jewish leaders set a guard at the tomb for several days (Matt. 27:62-66).

            Nothing is more certain in history than that the disciples believed that Christ arose again from the tomb on the third day, and that at intervals thereafter he met and conversed with them.  The most obvious proof that they believed this is the existence of the Christian church.  It is inconceivable that the scattered and disheartened remnant could have found a rallying point and gospel in the memory of one who had been put to death as a criminal, had they not been convinced that God owned him and accredited his mission by raising him from the dead.

            The evangelists give the impression of being unconcerned to provide all the evidence on which the church rested its belief (John 20:30-31).  That is, they offer only a part of the proof by which belief in the resurrection was created and sustained.  Taken as a whole, the narratives imply that Jesus’ body had passed into a condition new to human experience.  He had entered into a mode of being out of which he “appeared,” superior to all obstacles, and into which he disappeared again.  Since we have no category from personal experience of such a mode of being, theologians are accustomed to speak of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection.

            The forty days between the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord formed a transition period, during which the disciples were being trained for their future ministry.  The records contain numerous references to Jesus’ giving instruction to them concerning the continuity of God’s work in the past and in the present, and the fulfillment of Old Testament scriptures by his death and resurrection (Luke 24:44-48; John 20:21-23; 21:15-22; Acts 1:3-8).

            Several early Christian theologians expressed the meaning of the resurrection and the ascension in terms of the lordship of Christ.  With joyful certainly they declared: He no longer lies mouldering in a tomb; he is seated at the right hand of God on high (Eph. 11:20; Heb. 1:3; I Pet. 3:22). What is God’s right hand?  This is symbolic language for divine omnipotence.  Where is it?  Everywhere.  Consequently, to sit at the right hand of God does not mean that Christ is resting; it affirms that he is reigning as king, wielding the powers of divine omnipotence.  It is altogether appropriate, therefore, that in the closing lines of the Gospel according to Matthew, Christ says to his followers: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”  (Matt28: 18-19).

 

 

Propagation

            According to the Acts of the Apostles, at his final meeting with his followers the risen Lord promised that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and would become his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Devoting themselves to prayer, the little group of disciples, numbering about one hundred and twenty persons (Acts 1:15), waited in eager expectancy.

            After a lapse of ten days, the Spirit came with power upon the apostolic assembly.  Their minds were filled with joyous exultation and spiritual enlightenment, and they broke forth into ecstatic and spiritual enlightenment, and they broke forth ecstatic praise of God, speaking “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:3-4).  It is obvious that the whole narration is intended to describe the inauguration of the Christian church by the supernatural operation of the Spirit of God.  Indeed, throughout the book of Acts the author makes so many references to the Spirit that the book has sometimes been called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

            The summary that Luke gives of Peter’s sermon at the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) includes first an explanation of the unusual happening.  It was, he said, the fulfillment of the oracle given through the prophet Joel concerning the outpouring of the Spirit upon Israel before the messianic judgment would take place (Joel 2:28-32).  Then Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah whose death and resurrection were in accord with the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  The conditions for receiving the promised gift of the Spirit, the apostle declared, were repentance for sin and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.

            As a result of Peter’s sermon, faith was awakened in may of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem from other lands to celebrate Pentecost, and by the close of the day the little band had expanded into a company of about three thousand.  From what Luke tells us about the early church, it is clear that the members were a closely knit group within the Jewish community.  Though the church regarded itself as the true Israel of God (Gal. 6:16), and as the people of God’s new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), outwardly it differed little from the numerous separate synagogues that existed in Jerusalem.

            The rapid expansion of the church in many parts of the Roman Empire during the middle decades of the first century has often been the cause of amazement.  Without detracting from the achievements of subsequent missionaries of the faith, it should be pointed out how natural it was that the newly-made coverts at Pentecost would return to their countries as evangelists of the gospel.  Even though only some of them may have continued to be active in the propagation of their faith, within a relatively short time many Christian congregations would have been established far and wide.

            Besides emphasizing the universality of the gospel message in the events that took place at Pentecost, Luke also symbolizes the suitability of the new faith fro all races of people; he includes accounts of the conversion of three individuals of different nationalities -- a black man from Ethiopia, a Jew from Tarsus, and a Gentile from Rome.  In successive chapters the reader learns how a court official of the Candace, or queen, of the Ethiopians, believed and was baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-40); how Saul of Tarsus, intent upon the presentation of the early church, was converted on the way to Damascus and because Paul the apostle (Acts 4:1-19; compare 22:4-16; 26:9-18); and how Cornelius, a pious Roman centurion stationed at Caesarea, heard of Jesus Christ through the testimony of Peter, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:1-48).  N this way Luke calls attention to the diverse backgrounds (African, Asiatic, European) of those who became members of the early Christian church.

            The propagation of the gospel awakened official opposition in several quarters.  The first opposition came from the Sadducees, the party to which most of the nobility belonged, and especially the branches of the high priestly family.  The contagious enthusiasm of the new sect was obnoxious to them for several reasons, particularly because it threatened their own position of power.  Twice Peter and John were arrested for publically teaching in the temple about Jesus the Messiah.  The apostles were flogged and ordered once more not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:40).

            The whole situation, however, was suddenly changed by an event that roused the anger of the Pharisees even more than of the Sadducees, and thus brought upon the disciples the hostility of the whole Sanhedrin.  Among the Hellenists (that is, Greek-speaking Jews) who had been converted to the Christian faith was a man named Stephen.  Stephen appears to be the first Christian to make a clear distinction between Judaism and Christianity, and to proclaim a Christianity that was emancipated from Jewish national limitations.  Failing to refute Stephen’s arguments, his opponents produced witnesses who accused him of blasphemy against Moses and God (Acts 6:11)

            Stephen’s speech in his own defense aroused such hostility that the trial turned into a riot during which he was dragged outside the city and stoned to death.  At this point Luke skillfully introduces as a witness of the lynching a young rabbi named Saul, who later was to become Paul the apostle (Acts 7:54-8:1)

            To judge from the amount of space that Luke devotes to recounting Stephen’s address (it is the longest of all the speeches in Acts), he must have regarded it as especially significant and as marking the transition of Christianity from its earliest Jewish form to its extension among the Gentiles.  The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history.  How far Stephen’s theological insights were shared by others in the primitive church we cannot tell.  Some years later, however, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews embodied in his treatise elaboration of principles inherent in Stephen’s address (see pages 00-00 below). 

            As the first Christian martyr, Stephen’s death was a signal for the outbreak of a general persecution against the Christian community at Jerusalem, and the great majority of the disciples fled from the city, scattering throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).  Contrary to the expectation of their persecutors, however, so far from repressing the new religion, this scattering resulted only in the wider spread of the gospel.

            Eventually some of the refugees traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.  Throughout their work of evangelism these nameless men and women appear to have made an appeal primarily to Jews, or to Gentiles who had previously become Jewish proselytes.  At Antioch of Syria, however, for the first time, as it appears, the gospel was preached to Gentiles who had no previous contact with the synagogue (Acts 11:19-20; also marginal reading Greeks).  The establishment of the first mixed church at Antioch is a landmark in the history of early Christianity.  It was here that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).  In the subsequent expansion of the church, Antioch came to assume a more important role than even Jerusalem, and strongly supported Paul’s anti-Judaizing policy.

            The second part of the Acts of the Apostles concentrates on the wide-ranging missionary travels of Paul.  One of the heroic figures in the development of the early church, the apostle had been converted from being an arch-persecutor of the Christians into an indefatigable missionary of the gospel; the impact of his personality upon the church was both widespread and permanent.  His strategy was to concentrate on populous centers in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy.

            This was accomplished during three great journeys.  The first, to Cyprus and the interior of Asia Minor (chapters 13-14), led to the Council of Jerusalem (15:1-35), where the standing of uncircumcised Gentiles in the church was formally recognized.  The second journey, to Macedonia and Greece (15:36-18:22), and the third journey, to Ephesus as well as to Greece (18:23-20:3). Was followed by Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem (20:4-21:26), where he was arrested.  Following two years of imprisonment in Caesarea (23:23-24:27), he was sent, on his appeal to the emperor, to Rome (25:11-26:32), where he preached for two years (28:17-31).  All told, chapters 13-28 of Acts provide a stirring and entertaining account of the propagation of Christianity from the small capital of a minor country to the capital of the huge Roman Empire.

           

 

Explanation

            Among the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, twenty-one are in the form of a letter.  The letter-format is admirably suited for imparting religious instruction, allowing the writer to make specific statements of fact and explanation as well as direct, personal exhortation addressed to the recipients of the letter.

            Some of the letters are addressed to particular churches and deal with doctrinal and practical matters.  Others were sent to individuals, yet contain matter of wide import.  Still others are addressed to Christians generally, and not to any one person or church.  In each of the three groups the letters are arranged roughly in accordance with their length.  Thus, among the letters attributed to the apostle Paul, the longest (Romans) stands first and the shortest (Philemon) last.  As it happens, in this sequences the nine letters to seven churches (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians) fall into one group, and the four letters to three individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon) fall into another.  Five of the seven other letters are called General in the tiles prefixed to them in the King James Version (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude).  In the early church, however, seven were classed as general of catholic, 2 and 3 John being included to individuals.

            Since the recipients of the letters were already Christian believers, the writers needed only to recall briefly the preaching they had imparted earlier (1 cur., 15:1; Heb. 10:32; 2 Pet. 3:2); they devoted most of their letters to explaining the implications of the gospel message to the diverse conditions of everyday life.  In writing the several authors naturally take for granted much of the background and local situation, which would be well-known to the recipients; for us today, however, it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the details of the motives, circumstances, and problems that called forth their correspondence.

            In the discussion of the book of Acts, it was observed that the real hero of that book is the Holy Spirit of God (p. 00).  The preeminent importance of the Spirit is one of the distinctive notes of the entire New Testament period.  For Christian believers of the apostolic age, the Church was no mere human society for the propagation of a certain philosophy of life.  It was the actual sphere in which God’s Holy Spirit was at work.  The Holy Spirit was not, of course, something different from God.  It was God, God in action.  The God of the New Testament Church, like the God of the Old Testament, was a living God, not philosophical abstraction or merely a necessary idea.

            To become a Christian has never meant merely to adopt a new set of beliefs or even to accept a new standard of conduct.  It has always involved at least two things: first, a willingness, in faith and truth, to accept Christ as Lord; and second, to become a member of his Church.  In New Testament times those who had accepted Christ as Lord were convinced that in doing so they had undergone n experience equivalent to passing from death into life (John 5:24).  The Christian believed that he or she had come to share in the very nature of Jesus Christ.  The sense of such a mystical union was so intense that Paul could say, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  So strong was the certainty of having found new life in Christ that the relationship of Christians to him could best be described in biological terms: Christ was the vine and they were the branches (John 15:5).  Or, to use a more striking image, he was the body, they were the members: “We are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones” (Eph. 5:30 margin).

            Obviously, people who used this kind of imagery could not be thinking of Christianity merely in terms of individual salvation.  The character of their relationship to Christ involved a close relationship to other Christians.  The Church was the society of the New Covenant that Jesus had come to establish.  It is called by many names in the New Testament:  it is “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15); “the body of Christ” (Cor. 12:27; Eph. 1:22, 23, etc.); “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16); and, by implication, “the bride of Christ” (Eph. 5:23 and 32).

            It was not enough to have accepted Christ as Lord in the privacy of one’s heart.  As in the case of the apostle Paul, the first step after conversion was the public acknowledgement of one’s faith and a formal incorporation into the fellowship of Christians by a ceremony of initiation, the rite of baptism (Acts 9:18).  To the early Church, baptism was not, of course, merely an empty ceremony, but an effective sacramental means by which an individual was brought into a direct and personal relation with Jesus Christ and made to share in some mysterious way in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3,4).

            The newly baptized Christian found himself or herself as the member of a society of persons deeply conscious of their relation to each other and of the responsibility of all for each (Eph. 4:25; 1 Cor. 12:12-26).  There was an intimacy to their common life which was partly lost when the Church later became larger and more prosperous, but there has never been at time when this New Testament sense of community has entirely disappeared.  The center of life for the New Testament Church was the weekly assembly for worship and fellowship.  The most important event of the Lord’s Day was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7).  TO the early Church this observance lay at the very heart of its life, as we can see from a description of the primitive church at Jerusalem: “They have devoted themselves to the apostle’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:46).

            In Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians (I Cor. 11:23-34) he gives a picture of the way in which the Eucharist would be celebrated in one of these New Testament churches.  There were, of course, no church buildings, and the service would, of necessity, be held in private houses, probably in the homes of one of the more well-to-do members of the congregation, since it would have to be large enough to hold a considerable number of people.

            The Lord’s Supper was, at that time, part of a common meal to which apparently everyone brought some food. This custom of the fellowship meal, or love-feast (Jude verse 12), beautiful and appropriate though it was, later died out, partly as a result of abuses that can already be seen in Paul’s description of the way in which it was conducted in the Corinthian Church (Cor. 11:17-22).  At some point in the meal, the elder or bishop blessed some of the bread and wine in imitation of Jesus’ act at the Last Supper and all those present thankfully received of that which he had blessed.  At each celebration the sacrifice of Christ became a present fact (“you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”) and the communicants became partakers of “the body and blood of the Lord.”  In such a service was gathered up the whole meaning of Christian fellowship, participation in a common source of strength, and the expression of a common life.

            At these services and perhaps on other occasions, there was a place for prayers, for the reading of Scripture, and for the singing of hymns.  Psalms would be used as well as new Christian hymns that were beginning to appear (Col. 3:16).  Sometimes there would be an exposition of a passage of the Old Testament Scriptures (the only Bible the early Christians had) or a stirring declaration concerning some aspect of the saving work of Christ, or a homily upon an ethical theme.  The Letter of James is a good example of this latter type of preaching, and is particularly notable for its sy0pathy with the social underdog (5:1-6).

            One of the greatest New Testament words is the Greek word koinonia, which has been translated in different places in the Epistles as fellowship, communion, communication, and distribution, but always implying the thought of sharing – sharing in the common life and sharing in the common responsibility of the group for all its members.  The basic ethical principle of this early Christian fellowship is expressed in the words of Paul, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

            The longest of all the New Testament letters is Paul’s letter to the Romans, written by the apostle on his third missionary journey and addressed to Christians at Rome in order to prepare the way for a visit that he expected some day to undertake.  The basic argument, which is presented in chapters 1-8, is that salvation comes to men and women only through faith in Christ, not through any sort of personal achievement nor by mere obedience to any set of laws, whether ceremonial or moral.  This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  By “faith” Paul means not just belief or the mere intellectual acceptance of a set of propositions, but one’s personal commitment to Christ in a relationship of love, trust, and obedience.  In other words, one is saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves does not remain alone.  From chapter 12 on, Paul describes the kind of moral life that is the inevitable outgrowth of saving faith in Christ.  The word “therefore” at the beginning of chapter 12 shows how closely related these ethical chapters are to the theological discussion in chapters 1-8.  Nest to the Sermon on the Mount these chapters contain the finest account of the Christian life to be found anywhere in the New Testament.

            Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is an eloquent, though subtle, appeal to one’s sense of fair play.  Onesimus, a slave owned by Philemon, a Christian at Colossae (Col. 4:9), became Paul’s servant in prison.  Paul sent him back and wrote this not to beg his master not to treat him rigorously, as the law allowed, but for love’s sake (verses 7-9) and Paul’s sake (verses 13, 17-20), to welcome him kindly as “ a beloved brother.”  Although, admittedly, Onesimus had done what was wrong, he had redeemed himself by his subsequent conduct (verse 11) and was entitled not merely to cold human justice but to the higher justice that Philemon had learned in Christ (verses 4-6).

            The Letter to the Hebrews was included among the Pauline letters only by accident, as it nowhere claims to have been written by Paul, and it is very different in style and thought from the mind of Paul.  As a matter of fact, Hebrews is not even in the form of a letter except for the concluding verses.  It is rather a formal treatise, the longest sustained argument of any book in the Bible, written to Jewish Christians who were on the point of returning to Judaism, perhaps because of persecution.  In order to win them back to the Christian faith, the author emphasizes three points: the superiority of Jesus Christ over Old Testament figures (the prophets, the angels, and Moses himself, 1:1-4:13); the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the priesthood of Aaron (4:14-7:28); and the superiority of Christ’s sacrifices of himself over the Levitical sacrifices (8:1-10; 39).  The emotional climax of the essay is reached in chapter 11 with its stirring account of Hebrew heroes and heroines of faith, and of Christ himself (12:1-2).  The author’s purpose was to stimulate his readers to show a like faith and to stand firm in the face of imminent persecutions (12:3-11).

           

 

Consummation

            Fifty miles offshore from Miletus in Asia Minor lies the rocky, mountainous island of Patmos.  Here a Christian prophet named John, who had been exiled for refusing to worship the image of the Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96), experience a series of remarkable visions.  Some were beautiful, some were horrible, but all of them strengthened his belief that Christ and his church would ultimately triumph. When his harsh exile was over and he could obtain writing materials, John wrote the substance of his visions in a book in order to inspire hope, courage, and endurance among persecuted Christians.  His book is arranged in elaborate patterns of sevens, and contains prophetic symbolism from the Old Testament, especially from Daniel and Zechariah.  John’s final vision of a new heaven and a new earth, predicted by Isaiah (66:17,22), describes the renewal of all creation, freed from imperfection and transformed by the glory of God.

            Although we may not understand in every detail what the author intended to convey through his symbolism, even the casual reader can appreciate something of the poetic power and beauty of its magnificent word-pictures depicting cosmic struggles between the saints and their persecutors, between Christ and antichrist, between God and the devil.  Throughout the book John is trying to make vivid to his readers the one great truth that all history, both human and cosmic, is under the dominion of Almighty God and that those who trust and obey him need have no fear however dark the human situation may seem to be. 

            John introduces his first vision by telling us that on a certain Lord’s day he fell into a trance and was caught up in the spirit (1:10).  He beheld the heavenly Christ in majestic, breathtaking splendor.  In the presence of such a sublime and wonderful experience, John is overcome with awe, and he falls down as though dead (1:17).  But he is quickly made to stand up again by the touch of Christ’s right hand – for the whole point of the vision is not to overwhelm John, but to reassure him by showing Christ resplendent with divine attributes.

            After bidding John not to be afraid, Christ identifies himself, saying “I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades” (1:17-19).  In these three statements the seer is assured that the heavenly Christ bears the same titles as does the Lord God, the Almighty (1:8), and that after Jesus had conquered death, hi is preeminently “the living one…alive forever and ever.”  To “have the keys of Death and of Hades” is to possess authority over their domain.  Because Christ has the “keys,” the time and manner of the death of each person is under his control.  Therefore his people, though sometimes threatened with death because of their loyalty to him, need not fear that death will separate them from his love. 

In another vision John has a glimpse of heaven itself, where God, radiant with jewel-like brightness, is seated on a throne circled with rainbow light (4:1-3).  John “saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll…sealed with seven seals” (5:1).  Only one person among the multitudes “in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3).  That person was Jesus.

What follows is altogether unexpected.  John looked to see a strong, lion-like figure, and instead he sees a lamb ready for sacrifice(5:6)!  He looked to see power and force by which the enemies of his faith would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and gentleness as the way to win the victory.  The might of Christ is the power of love.

When the Lamb took the scroll thousands upon thousands in heaven burst out singing a seven-fold ascription, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:12).

As Jesus began to unroll the sealed scroll of the future, John sees the pictorial enactment of what was written therein.  Now he knows for certain that God is in control.  Although Satan, the old enemy of God, had plunged the world into sin and suffering, John is assured that Jesus, by dying and rising to life again, has won the victory against evil.

            The following chapters of the Apocalypse comprise the substance of John’s visions that repeat with kaleidoscopic variety certain great principles of God’s just and merciful government of the whole creation.  Although some of the imagery of the book may seem unusual or even bizarre, upon further reflection, and with the use of one’s disciplined imagination, the author’s meaning will usually become clear.  In any case, it is important to recognize that John’s description are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols.

John’s book closes with an account of his vision of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2).  That is to say, the city originates in heaven and is beautiful beyond all comparison.  The heavenly Jerusalem, John tells us later (21:9), represents the church, and a description of that wondrous city is given in John’s closing vision of the book (21:10-22:5).

To all who are thirsty, God promises to “give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (21:6).  In lands where water is such an essential commodity, salvation is beautifully described by the symbolism of a spring and a river (22:1).  Reminiscent of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9), the tree of life is present here.  Besides producing fruit to be eaten, the tree also has leaves that “are for the healing of the nations” (22:2).  The saving benefits of the gospel promote the well being of all aspects of personal and communal life.

At this point the seer of Patmos directs the reader’s attention to the most important feature of all: namely, that the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the heavenly Jerusalem, and that God’s servants “will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (22:3-4).  Then will be realized the promise in Jesus’ beatitude, “Blesses are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8).

But what does that mean to see God?  St. Augustine wrestled with this question in his classic work, The City of God.  He asks whether, in heaven, when we close our eyelids, we will shut out the beatific vision.  Very sensibly he concludes that this cannot be true, for to see God means more than to look at God, to gaze at God.  In heaven, he says, “God will be seen by the eyes of the heart, which can see realities that are immaterial.”  Here Augustine is reminding us that the verb to see also means to comprehend and understand.  In its totality, then, one can say that to see God involves being near God, knowing God, and rejoicing in God, all at the same time.

John’s words, however, go beyond the thought of seeing God by either sensory or spiritual perception; he says that God’s servants “will see his face” (22:4). What special nuance of meaning does this expression convey?  In antiquity, to see the face of the king signified more than glancing up at the king when he might be riding by.  The expression implied that one has been granted an audience with the king, an opportunity to present one’s personal petition in direct personal conversation (Gen. 43:3, 5; Ex. 10:28, 29; and elsewhere). Thus, to see God’s face means not only to be in God’s nearer presence, but also to enjoy a relationship of absolute trust and openness.  This is confirmed by John’s following assertion, that God’s “name will be on their foreheads,” signifying their preciousness to God to whom they belong.

The Book of Revelation stands as a fitting close to the entire Biblical Story, for it was written to enable its readers to control their fears, to renew their commitment, and to sustain their vision.

John’s final sentence is a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints” (22:21). Thus, the Bible closes with words of hope and of heaven, promising that believers will eventually enjoy the vision of God because of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

            

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