Building community through the Word of God
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
When the Holy Spirit moved on the first church in Acts 2, a new lifestyle was introduced, which is described in these verses. Look at the elements of this lifestyle:
1) The devoted themselves to the apostles teaching;
2) We committed themselves to relationships linked by the Holy Spirit “ Koinonea”
3) They talked to Jesus together during times of prayer.
4) They met together in the Temple and in their own homes,
5) They shared meals together
6) They worshipped together
7) They shared their material goods with those who had need,
What was the result of this lifestyle?
“And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved”
We are going to focus one element of their lifestyle today- Devoting oneself to the study of God’s word.
That group was fortunate to have teachers of God Word who had been taught by Jesus Himself. It seems in the Gospels that most of the time, they had a hard time understanding what Jesus was actually saying to them, since they were so ingrained with traditional religious thinking. It took an infilling of the Holy Spirit for them to sort things out, understand God’s message to his people, and begin to communicate to them what was important to God.
Remember, for the most part, these were “idiotes” – untrained men and women, who now were able not only to understand the Hebrew Scriptures, but they began to make those principles part of their own thinking, apply it to their own life situations, and as a result, they were able to share God’s Word with those around them.
Does this reality encourage you? Yes, God want to use many “idiotes” in this room to build community through devotion to study the Word of God.
This is what Ezra decided to do when he led the refugees back to Jerusalem in the 5th Century BC to rebuild the Temple:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7:10
This is the challenge for us as well-
- to study and understand the Word of God,
- apply the principles to our lives, live it, model it to those around us through our lifestyle and how we respond to situations, and in the process
- teach God’s Word to our community.
There will be resistance in our culture to receiving the Word of God. Why?
Most people that you speak with think that the Bible is mythology. Here is how the thinking typically goes:
1) After Jesus died there were legends about his life that were orally circulated and over the years embellished,
2) Finally many of these legends were written down, so we have lots of gospels
3) Three Hundred years later the church leaders got together and chose these four, Matthew Mark Luke John, because these helped the consolidate their power and supported their leadership.
According to publications like Newsweek and the Huffington Post , all the other Gospels were left on the cutting room floor.
All of these comments are completely wrong.
Luke says they are not legends but eyewitness’ testimony that has been completely preserved right from the mouths of the witnesses.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4
Richard Bauckham wrote a book in 2017 titled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses;
He states that ancient historians valued eyewitness testimony over any other source. This was before printing, so Living Eyewitnesses were the ancient fact checker. Here are a few examples:
They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross. Mark 15:21
Apparently Alexander and Rufus were alive when Mark wrote his account of the life of Jesus, and they would be able to testify if Mark was telling the truth.
All four Gospels tells us that in the Garden of Gethsemane Peter took out his sword and struck the servant of the High Priest and cut off his ear, but John tells us his name- Malchus.
Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave’s name was Malchus. 11 John 18:10-11
Apparently Malchus was around, or at least there were those still alive who knew Malchus when John wrote his gospel.
Were the Gospels written hundreds of years after Jesus died?
- John Ryland manuscript (P52) is a fragment of John 18 found in Egypt dated to 110 AD.
- John was written about 85-90 AD – the last gospel written, 40-50 years after the death of Jesus.
- Paul wrote his letters in 50-60 AD, only 20 years after Jesus’ death.
- Only these 4 gospels were written during the First Century. The other accounts of the life of Jesus were written much later.
Did these Gospels help the power base of the Fourth Century ?
In a shame and honor culture, having the central figure of your religions die a horrible death on a cross is not a way to establish your religion.
As a historian, I was trained to analyze ancients works of history to determine their veracity- their truthfulness. There are three tests we give to ancient documents:
1) Manuscript evidence:
- How many copies of the document exist,
- what is the date of the oldest copy, and
- how close is that to the original writing?
Errors in copying were common. The closer the copy to the original date, the more accurate the document. Here is the comparison between a well known ancient document, Commentarii de Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars) by Julius Caesar, and the New Testament, comparing the date of writing, the date of the earliest surviving copy, the time gap between the original writing and that copy, and how many of these ancient manuscripts we have:
Caesar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,000 years 10
New Testament 40-95 A.D. 125 A.D. 30 years over 24,000
Dead Sea Scrolls are documents from the Second Century BC that were discovered in caves by the ancient community of Qumran in 1947. They provide an even earlier copy of the Hebrew Scriptures that historians believe authenticate those Scriptures even more.
2) Internal Evidence:
- Is the record from eyewitnesses (primary source)?
- Does the book describe how people of that time reacted to the events?
- Are all the facts and themes consistent within the work?
Many so called contradictions can be attributed to the authors were giving partial information in the telling of their story, which is common in historical writing. The author chooses the information that he thinks is important to his points. For example, Matthew tells us that when Jesus left Jericho on his final trip to Jerusalem, there were two blind men who cried out to him:
As Jesus and the disciples left the town of Jericho, a large crowd followed behind. 30 Two blind men were sitting beside the road. When they heard that Jesus was coming that way, they began shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” Matthew 20:29-30 NAS
Mark tells us that there was one, and gives us his name. Apparently Bar-Timaeus was well known to the congregation in Jerusalem.
Then they reached Jericho, and as Jesus and his disciples left town, a large crowd followed him. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus) was sitting beside the road. 47 When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Mark 10:46-47 NAS 3) External Evidence:
- What do outside sources say about the date and story presented in the document?
- Are there references to the document or information therein in other historical sources?
- What does archaeology say about the events described in the document?
William Albright, the preeminent archeologist of the 20th Century, who authenticated the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947-48, has made many statements about the Bible. Here is one:
“There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition. The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.” 2
Will Durant (1885 – 1981) was an American historian and philosopher who is best known for his 11 volume work titled The Story of Civilization, which he co-authored with his wife Ariel. These volumes were published between 1935 and 1975. I read large portions of The Story of Civilization while attending Miami University’s Luxembourg Campus in the Grande Duche’ in 1971-72. The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for the 10th volume, Rousseau and Revolution (1967). I have especially enjoyed Caesar and Christ, where I found this portion, which I used in Just Another Lump of Clay, with permission. Although I don’t agree with all that Durant says, for one of the most respectable historians of the 20th Century, he makes a truly remarkable statement!
“In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church….
All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essence the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)agree remarkably well, and the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament test of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies - e.g. Hammurabi, David, Socrates- would fade into legend.
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidences that mere inventors would have concealed- the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.
That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.
After two centuries of Higher Criticism, the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.”
The Story of Civilization, Caesar and Christ, p. 557 6
For me the external evidence for the Bible is overwhelming. All three tests show the Bible to be a reliable historical document.
Can I trust the Bible? I decided Yes!
But we often have our own problems understanding the Bible:
Luke records an encounter of two travelers with Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?”
19 And He said to them, “What things?”
And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.
22 But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.”
25 And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” 27
Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. Luke 24:17-27
This is where we are at.
We read the Scriptures within our own cultural framework, and according to our expectations, and we often miss forest because we are focused on some of the trees.
I’ve discovered that there are the three problems we have when we try to make sense out of the Bible:
1) We have a False Division of the Bible:
The separation between “Old” Testament and “New” Testament makes us think some things are “old and out of date”
We have confusion over the meaning of the “New Covenant”.
Actually, there are seven types of literature in the Bible, and each type must be read properly: History, Legal Code, Poetry, Wisdom, Lamentations, letters, and prophecy.
For example the imagery of song lyrics is taken differently than the literal meaning of the legal notices published in our newspapers.
2) We have a faulty interpretation: We try to fit Scripture into our culture and time.
3) We often have a false application:
- We forget that Scripture was not written to us, but for us- for our benefit.
- We forget it is the principles that we are to follow, not necessarily the cultural practices prescribed in the Bible, and end up binding people to restrictions that God never intended us to follow.
- And most importantly, we forget the heart of God that is revealed in the Scriptures, and focus on our list of convenient “rules”.
I had a conversation with a Utilian named Webb who told me that having a tattoo was a “sin”. When I asked him why it was a sin, he told me that the Bible says tattoos are forbidden, therefore if one has a tattoo he can’t be a Christian, and he won’t go to heaven.
I asked him what passage in the Bible he was referring to. He didn’t know, but he had heard preachers for years declare those who had tattoos to be sinners.
Webb has a few himself.
So I quoted the verse from Leviticus 19:27-28:
“Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.”
According to this complete passage of Scripture, if I insist that Christians cannot have tattoos, then I must insist that they let the hair on the side of their head grow long and they not shave but grow long ZZ Top/Duck Dynasty style beards.
So why did God tell his people this? There must be some logical reason for this admonition. On face value, it seems very random and senseless.
First let’s place this verse in its literal and historical context to see if that helps us make sense of this. This passage actually begins in Leviticus 18:1:
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. I am the Lord your God. 3 So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life. 4 You must obey all my regulations and be careful to obey my decrees, for I am the Lord your God. 5 If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord.
So, don’t be like the Egyptians or the Canaanites.
Don’t think like them, don’t act like them, and don’t even look like them.
With this in mind, God tells us how He feels about sexual relationships: No sex with mother in law, sister, man with man woman with woman, not with animals. God designed sex to be the ultimate expression of intimacy inside a committed relationship, and anything outside that will lead to the disintegration of the family.
God wants to build his community on a stable and healthy family unit. He did design us after all. He does know how we think. He does know what is best for us. He is the greatest lover of mankind and me. At least, that is how I understand God to be.
Then God tells us that he wants us to think and act like Him:
“The Lord also said to Moses, ‘Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel. You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’“. Leviticus 19:1-2
This word “Holy” has often been a nebulous term used by many to blur the theme of relationship with God and instead promote codes of behavior. My Hebrew dictionary defines this word (Qadosh) as meaning “Displaying a morality that is different than the people around you and is of a Divine origin.”
“Qadosh / Holy” does mean set apart; it means being different; but the standards of apartness and difference must come from God Himself, not man.
From Egyptian tomb art, we see Egyptian men as mostly clean shaven with shaved areas on the sides of their heads. They made cuts and tattoos on their bodies for religious reasons to honor false gods and worship the dead. Remember God is prefacing this passage by saying “Don’t be like the Egyptians nor like the Canaanites. Their standards of morality and behavior are corrupted. I will show you how to live safe, satisfying lives that are productive for now and eternity. Just follow my directives. The principles behind them are everlasting because they originate from me.”
Therefore the principle behind Leviticus 19:27-28 is
“Don’t act like the Egyptians or Canaanites. Don’t follow their customs. Don’t think like them. Don’t even try to look like them!”
Can we take that principle and apply it to our situation in this world today?
- Of Course! We are told over and over again in the Christians Scriptures not to “conform to this world in our thinking or actions” (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:17),
- but instead to be renewed in our minds and in our actions and be “Qadosh / Holy”.
- We are encouraged to adopt God’s standards of relationships and behavior and let Him help us grow to be more like Him.
In many South Pacific and Asian cultures, tattoos are actually associated with the Christian faith. I met Geronimo, who was our waiter on a cruise ship and from India. With that name, I suspected that he might be a Christian from the former Portuguese colony Goa, in southern India.
One night I asked him if he was from Goa. He smiled and said “Yes!” When I asked him if he was a Muslim or Hindu, he took off his glove and held his right hand in front of my face. Geronimo has a cross tattooed on his hand between the thumb and forefinger. I asked if every Christian has that mark in Goa. His reply surprised me:
“That is what makes us Christian.”
I have a friend Marek who is from Prague, Czech Republic. He and his wife Cori now serve as missionaries in Prague, but when I met them both on Maui a few years ago, neither one was in a relationship with the Lord. They were both trying to find their way. Our family was part of their process. One Saturday Marek and I were driving in his truck from our homes in Waikapu to Kihei for a men’s group meeting. Marek was a hellion when he lived in Prague, managing bands. He has a few tattoos, the largest one being a big bird on his right upper arm. As we were driving, Marek asked: “Maik, what does the Bible say about tattoos?”
I explained to him what Leviticus 19:27-28 actually means within its context- “Don’t look, think, or act like the Egyptians or Canaanites” and told him the story of our waiter Geronimo from Goa, who has the cross tattoo on his right hand. By this time we are at Sugar Beach ready to turn on to Piilani Highway, and Marek was smiling, relieved that he is not going to have to remove his tattoos.
When I finished, I asked: “By the way Marek, what is that big bird on your shoulder?”
With a smile he said, “It’s the Egyptian God of the dead.”
“Oh!” I replied with a straight face. “In that case you are going to Hell.”
Marek almost drove off the road. I started laughing. We both laughed all the way to Hope Chapel.
When we open the Bible, we literally step out of the 21st century and back into time. The writers of the Bible wrote to a particular audience. They never realized there would be people 2000 years later reading their books and letters. However the Holy Spirit did! This audience spoke a different language and thought in a different manner than we do. In addition, the writers assumed that you, the audience, knew certain things, many of which we have forgotten today.
Understanding the background to the writings, the cultural, political, linguistical, and geographical contexts, will allow us to more accurately draw Godly principles to apply into our lives, and the lives of those who we are ministering to.
It is the principle behind the cultural practice that I am after.
What everlasting truth can I draw from this story that is relevant and applicable to my life today?
Let me give a example of this Principle Approach to Scripture. Leviticus 1 says:
Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock.
‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. Leviticus 1:1-3
I cannot go today to the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to offer my sacrifice, so what is in this passage of God’s everlasting Word that I that can apply to my life today?
In verse one, we see God calling out to Moses.
From this I know God often takes the initiative in His fellowship with mankind.
This is an important principle for me to remember when I am feeling far from God.
In verse two, God orders the people to bring an offering from their own herd or flock.
I can conclude that God wants me to return to Him some of the things He has freely given me.
This is a good principle of relationship between God and me, and an important principle of God’s economics.
In verse three, God says to bring an animal without defect.
From this I see God wants my best; He will not be happy with a half-hearted response from me. If He asks me to give $100 to the missionaries, He will not be pleased if I give only $50. If I am to paint the widow’s house, He wants me to use the best paint I can afford.
According to some teachings, I could throw out the entire book of Leviticus by saying “We are not under the Law!”, but I then would miss many of God’s Truths that apply very well to my life today.
If we read the Scriptures, searching for the principles and truths behind the specific cultural practices, then we begin to receive life from the Word of God, not just dusty, out-of-date commandments.
Here are 4 Guidelines for understanding the message of the Bible
1) God always speaks to mankind in a way they can understand.
2) There is a difference between Narrative Scripture and Instructional Scripture
3) The Bible is one Complete Unit- The Old and New Testaments are one continuous revelation of God to mankind.
4) Context is Everything! Understanding the Biblical cultures, the politics, and the geography often help us understand the Message; Words matter! The Bible was written in Hebrew Aramaic, and Greek and sometimes it important to understand the translated words in the original languages.
From the beginning, God has reached out to mankind, letting them know that He desires to have a personal relationship with them.
- He walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.
- He spoke directly to Noah, Abraham, Jacob and others.
- Then He spoke to Moses, and brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
- When they arrived at Mount Sinai, God called Moses up on the mountain, and gave him “The Law”, which are practices and principles designed to maintain healthy and beneficial relationships between mankind and God, and among men and women
The Law was more information than legislation.
The reaction of the people when they arrived at Mount Sinai was indicative of their attitude toward God:
When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear.
And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”
“Don’t be afraid,” Moses answered them, “for God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!”
As the people stood in the distance, Moses approached the dark cloud where God was. Ex 20:18-21 NLT
Moses understood that God wanted a relationship with His people. However the people were afraid, and told Moses that they didn’t want God to speak directly to them. They preferred that Moses tell them what they should do.
- God was offering the Hebrew people a familial relationship of father-children.
- What the people desired was a system of practices and beliefs that would allow them to exist with God.
We call this “Religion”.
Later Moses returned with all the instructions of God. Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. Again they all responded, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded. We will obey.”
Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! Exodus 24:3-11 NLT
There is an important detail at the end of this passage that you should not miss.
- Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders climbed up the mountain and saw God!
- They had a meal with Him to celebrate the relationship between God and His people.
- They enjoyed the presence of God Himself.
In Biblical culture, you only eat with your friends. Having a meal with someone is making a declaration of friendship. God was trying to tell His people that He just didn’t want them to go through the motions of a relationship, but that He desired a true, living relationship with them.
My friend Keith Larkin was a brilliant inventor and one of the best pilots I ever knew. He was also very active in the work of the Kingdom in the Caribbean, India, and other parts of the world.
One Friday at his office at the Watsonville airport, he decided to call the florist and have a bouquet of flowers delivered to his wife Cynthia. When he got home, Cynthia was very appreciative! The next Friday, Keith called the florist and had another bouquet delivered. Cynthia was really feeling the love!
Keith did the same the following week, and with sudden inspiration told the florist to make it a standing order- each Friday they would deliver flowers to Cynthia. All went well for the next few weeks.
Cynthia was impressed that Keith was expressing his love in such a constant manner….until one Friday. Keith walked in the house that day and noticed the flowers on the table. Innocently he asked Cynthia “Who sent you the flowers?”
He had forgotten about his standing order with the florist. Cynthia suddenly was NOT feeling the love.
The gesture of sending flowers to his wife was a noble one. When it became “institutionalized”, the gesture lost its meaning. When our gestures with God become systematic and institutionalized, we become “religious” and we lose the personal aspect of our relationship with God.
God wants us to know Him. He gives us His Word and the Holy Spirit to make that possible. We don’t have to guess what God is like, He tells us throughout the Bible.
He gives us The Owners Manual – the Bible- for our lives, so we will know how
to get the most out of our relationship with Him and our relationship with others. It takes efforts to study the Bible, to step back in time, to understand what the message was for those people in the Bible and what it means for us today.
It is an effort that will pay big rewards. We will find our lives enriched by knowing God and actively following Him. The people around us will be blessed as we treat them in a caring loving manner according to God’s desires.
Through our understanding of the Word, and our obedience to it, we will see our lives fulfilled, and more and more come into our community.
Let’s finish with two words of encouragement:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 1 Peter 3:15