How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans]

Certeza Unida and Kairos will publish my Romans commentary as part of their Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bible Commentary). More than 160 scholars participated in the project.

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What follows is adapted from the section “How to Read Romans,” in which I show its particular application for Latin America.

The epistle to the Romans meets the Christian on two levels: (1) as a treasure house of beloved gospel texts; (2) as an ancient missionary letter, written for a specific moment in Paul’s work among the nations.

Both levels are valid, since the disciple today first comes to know Romans because of its neat formulations of, for example, the deadliness of sin (3:23), the free gift of eternal life (6:23), the transformation of the new person in Christ (12:1-2). Then beyond that, we must enter into the mind of Paul and appreciate his plan for the final years of the AD 50s – a missionary journey that would take the gospel farther west from Jerusalem than it had ever gone, across several of what we know as time zones. We then see that Romans, when first delivered, was a clear call to action for the believers in the capital to receive Paul for a time, and later to sponsor his trip to evangelize Spain.

In Latin America too we are arming ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, in particular, unreached ones. We too will benefit from knowing, not just what Paul said about salvation, but why he said it to these Christians in Rome, and by extension how it is God’s summons to us to show forth the gospel.

Romans is the largest extant letter by Paul. It is also the most systematic in its structure, touching on many facets of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but saying little about other themes, for example, the Last Days. Paul begins with the lostness of the world, then God’s solution in the death of Christ, the power of the new life in the Spirit, and later, details about how to live the Christian life. He also introduces a long section in chapters 9-11 to answer the questions Why don’t Jews believe in their own Messiah? Will Israel come to God eventually?

The best way to enjoy this letter is to read it; one can read Romans aloud at an unhurried pace in about one hour.

“How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What I read in 2016, the short list

I have always been a big reader, but never anything close to my list for 2016. That’s when I began to use the wonderful online group, Goodreads.com, to log the books that I have read, am reading, and want to read. I am up over 1900 books that I have logged as “read” in my lifetime, so far, but I know there are hundreds I cannot remember; I imagine the number should be more like 2500.

“Do you want that reading list Super-Sized?”

Over Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016, and set a (as it turns out, too ambitious!) personal goal of 150 books/plays this year, including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Koran, and others, let alone material for class prep. Typically I am reading eight books at a clip; some short documents, some long tomes, some Audible recorded books from Amazon.

Overall, I read a lot more non-fiction this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Russian themed. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) was excellent. I am about a third of the way through the fictionalized biography of Trotsky by Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1868-69) is a Christ-allegory. All are available on Kindle.

George Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I have read 1984 a dozen times since Junior High, and decided I should branch out. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel (more…)

Lady Apostle Lands in Jail!

If I asked you “Who were the martyrs of the early church?” you would, quite properly, begin with Stephen in Acts 7; James in Acts 12; and then go on to Peter and Paul.

“Brave, godly men were early martyrs” = a right answer

But not a complete answer.

Why not? Because we all, simply by being human, look at history through our own set of lenses. Because of such “cognitive bias,” the data that confirm our expectations stand out in bold print, and the data that don’t fit into our grid fade into the background. To answer our question, may I suggest that:

“Brave, godly men and women were the early martyrs of the church” = a better answer

Christian women were singled out for persecution in a way that their Jewish and Gentile contemporaries were not.

lady-martyr

Let us first honor those Jewish women who were victims of (more…)

“Eye has not seen” – or has it? [Studies in 1 Corinthians]

What does it mean when Paul (quoting Isaiah) says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)? Is this a parallel to, for example, 1 Cor 13:12, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then [at Christ’s coming] we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”? Is he speaking about the unimaginable glories of the life to come?

In fact, this is one of those passages that loses some of its mystery, once it is read in its context:

 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.

First, we begin with 2:6-8. One reading of “the rulers of this age” is that Paul is referring to the invisible demonic principalities and powers that ultimately sought to destroy Jesus, including the devil, who pushed Judas to betray him (John 3:2). Although that opinion is plausible, the other viewpoint fits better in this context: Paul is referring to the human rulers who arranged the crucifixion, that is, the Jewish priests, Herod Antipas, and Pilate. Paul’s other use of this word in the plural definitely refers to human rulers (Rom 13:3; also Acts 3:17, 13:27)…The tension here lies between the gospel and human wisdom, the sort that a Pilate or a Caiaphas might claim to have.

Second, the reference to “no eye, no ear no mind” in the Isaiah quotation in 2:9 fits better with a reference to human beings. Paul’s point then is that, Human power structures are passing away; so why look to them for insight into God’s truth? They would not have crucified Jesus had they known God’s plan, and thus they cannot provide wisdom to the Corinthian church.

Paul then quotes from Isa 64:4 and amplifies it with his own words – No eye has seen, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.

This citation backs up what Paul has said in 2:7, that God has planned to reveal his truth from ages past.

“Heaven” is not the point at all here. Paul is speaking about the truth that can be known in the here and now, since the crucifixion. No human being could ever guess or observe or reason out the blessings of the gospel of Christ, but we Christians already understand them – “these are the things God has revealed [past tense] to us by his Spirit (2:10).

In that case the lesson of 1 Corinthians 2 is – enough of fancy philosophy! Enough of dividing the church over human wisdom! Every Christian already has the fundamental revelation of God’s truth, and should seek truth, wisdom, and love in the basic gospel message.

This post is adapted from my Corinthians commentary; you can download it HERE or purchase it on sale from Logos.

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“‘Eye has not seen’ – or has it? [1 Corinthians],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

Act now!

Last month I was waiting my turn at the barber shop, and a homeless woman stuck her head in and said she was hungry. I didn’t want to lose my place, but I told the barber, “Uh…hold my spot, be right back!” I popped over to the bakery right next door and got her some food and drink. As usual, I told her in Spanish, “This is in the name of Jesus, ¿sí?” pointing upward to heaven. She smiled and nodded, she understood, said thank you, and walked off.

Last week I went back to the barber, who told me, “Did you hear about the accident at our corner here, how some woman got mowed down and killed in the street a few weeks back? Well, I need to tell you, she was that same woman you bought the food for.”

It took a while for that to sink in: I was one of the last people to speak to her.

For me, the lesson is: If you’re aiming to do something for the Lord Jesus, or put in a good word for him, well, you’d better do it right away.

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An afterthought: yesterday I read a short biography of Francis of Assisi, who purportedly once said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I get his meaning, but suggest it’s better to say, Preach the gospel, lean heavily on action, but don’t forget to say the words that connect that action to Jesus.

“Act now!” by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Busyness is no excuse for being an uncommitted Christian

With all due respect to the original, this is my thorough paraphrase, condensation, and updating of George Whitfield’s, “Worldly Business No Plea for the Neglect of Religion,” Sermon 20 of his Collected Sermons

Matthew 8:22 – “Let the dead bury their dead.”

When Paul preached at Athens, he observed that they were “very religious.” But if he came and visited us today, he wouldn’t be able to make the same claim. Rather he would say you are very “fixed on this world” or “pursuing your careers,” so much so that you neglect or even ignore completely the one thing that a Christian needs to do. That’s why I will point out to such believers that they are too busy grabbing material things and instead must be fixed on their future.

It is so easy to be fixed on this world. We claim to be doing God’s will by working hard at our job, but we allow this to make us spiritually dopey.

“Let the dead bury their dead” shows how we should be focused on the life to come.

Jesus Christ himself said these words after he had called on a man to be his disciple, but the man replied “Let me go home first and bury my father,” which probably means, “Let me go and bring my business dealings up to date, first.” Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.” This means, leave the business of this world to people of the world, let your secular matters become unraveled, if that is what is keeping you from following me.

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We don’t know how this man responded in the end. But we do know that Christ is whispering the very same thing to people here, people who get up early and knock off late, and their income comes through stressful work. He says, “Stop fixing your heart on the things of this life (more…)

Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits You? A Response to Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and has a very popular blog on church life. Having read with approval a number of his other articles, I was surprised to find one that I roundly disagreed with.

It is titled “FIFTEEN REASONS WHY YOUR PASTOR SHOULD NOT VISIT MUCH”

And he is serious. He is really not happy with churches which expect to see their pastor in their home any time soon. Unless it’s an emergency. A big one.

So with all due respect, I responded to him on his blog, and will offer much the same thoughts here. (Here is another, very useful, response, by Andrew Roy Croft, who offers a positive argument for pastoral visitation).

To begin with, I thought this was one of those stealth articles that start off, “10 Reasons to Vote the Socialist Ticket,” but turn out to be pro-Republican. But no, I read it through a number of times, and it’s not ironic.

His point is that pastoral visitation a newfangled idea, that there’s altogether too much visitation going on, and it should be slimmed down and (perhaps) limited only to extreme situations. Otherwise pastor visitation is the Zika virus that will kill your church, leave your pastor burned (out) beyond recognition, and make him/her leave! Oh yes he will!!

Don't answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and destruction for your church!

Don’t answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and apocalyptic destruction for your church!

Pastor Rainer has 15 objections to pastoral visitation, many of which are, upon closer examination, the same reason stated differently. To quote:

  1. It’s unbiblical. 2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities. 3. It fosters a country club mentality. 4. It turns a church inwardly. 5. It takes away from sermon preparation. 6. It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus (the same as #4, right?) 7. It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. 8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. 9. It is never enough. 10. It leads to pastoral burnout (see #9). 11. It leads to high pastoral turnover (see #9, 10). 12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church (see #4, 6). 13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. 14. It causes biblical church members to leave. 15. It is a sign that the church is dying (see #14). And then later: It’s a key sign of [church] sickness. It’s a clear step toward [congregational] death.

So, it is no exaggeration that his message is that pastoral visitation may even now be killing your church!

Let’s define “pastoral visitation” as, where one or more of the leaders of the church go to where their people are, traditionally but not necessarily in the home, hospital, or long-term care facility, in order to spend time with them and to conduct pastoral ministry (exhortation, encouragement, correction).

Here is part of the response that I wrote on his website, that there were three weaknesses to the argument; I address the author as “you.”

First, the historical. You write that “‘Visitation of the members’ became a common job description of pastors about a century ago.” You imply that it is a recent innovation.

While it may have become more conventional these days to write the thing out in a job description, visitation of the members has been part of the pastoral task since the beginning. In fact, it was a vital aspect (more…)

Love, sure, but during an election year?

A fresh preface to my essay, “The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.” I include here not only things I observe in others, but principally the things I’d like to root out of my own heart.

The Lord’s return may – or may not – be near, but no-one who reads church history would conclude that we clearly live in the last days. There are relatively no more wars today than throughout history (probably fewer), no more frequent earthquakes, no worse famines. And we have 2000 years of unloving actions on the part of the church to make our current lack of love seem mild by comparison.

Still, Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 that part of the future apostasy will be that “the love of most [believers] will grow cold.” And while 2016 isn’t necessarily the end of history, the fact that it is a political season gives us pause to gauge our level of charitableness.

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Enemy is pleased to put our love on ice, and he uses arguments both old and new to entice us to join in with him.

A few of his LIES:

“If you really have the truth, then you have the right to be reckless in how you present it.”

“If you feel charitable toward the needy, that is just as good as actually doing something to alleviate their needs. E. g., if you ‘share’ a post about starving children, that’s as filling as a sandwich.”

“Violence is tolerable, so long as it is doled out against the Other, not Us. Because They probably deserve it.”

“Using bad words, even from the pulpit, is okay, since if we love people, we need to get their attention, and fast.  If not curse words, then at least use sheeple, wingnut, moron, etc. Oh, and again, this is cool so long as it’s against the Other, not Us.”

“If you want to help a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, don’t worry about saving the child she is bearing.”

And conversely, “Keeping her from ending a pregnancy is the sole expression of love we need to show toward her.”

Take up your cross and follow Christ refers to abstract, spiritual things, not our daily behavior toward other human beings, and certainly not to our behavior on social media.”

“Hasty and off-the-cuff responses are sweeter to the tongue than slow-brewed wisdom.”

“It’s okay to hate the haters.”

“Well, they started it!”

“Those victims probably deserved it and shouldn’t complain, Our victims are faultless.”

“When people encourage us to act with respect to others, that’s just a ploy of the Politically Correct to shut us down.”

“We should love ‘our own’ first (family, neighborhood, race, religion, tribe) and others less.” [Note: Charity begins at home, while a Christian truth, is perverted when in Satan’s hand.]

Cynicism is a favorite of Hell, to despise the sinner, to make the Other the focus of evil in the world and the butt of “Well, what do you expect of Them?” The fruit of cynicism is sarcasm, sneering, suspicion, contempt, and given time, hatred. Love teaches us remain vulnerable, and endure and even embrace the pain that results from being witnesses to wickedness.

Christ was the one who was “oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isa 53:7), and he invited us to take up our cross and follow him, even during presidential elections, and he gives us the mighty Holy Spirit to rewrite the code of our mind to enable us to do it. This is what separates Christian charity from mere pleasantness or good manners.

But from all indications, Christian love apparently is meant to follow some weird liturgical calendar, by which the church allows us to lay it aside in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020, etc., you do the math. That’s why Francis’s prayer of self-dedication, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand” (see more below), strikes us nice and Christ-like, but only applicable outside of election seasons. Don’t eat meat on Fridays is sooo medieval; Don’t be charitable every four years is the new fashion!

I urge myself, and invite you, to take Francis at his word, in the run-up to the November election and in any season:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

CLICK to go to The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.”

“Should we be loving during election years?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

‘Christianity-without-Christ’ and Other Pointless Projects

This was a commencement address that I gave in 1998 at Biblical Theological Seminary. You can download the text here. Shogren_Christianity without Christ

In the last century, during the heyday of Liberal Christianity, a fringe group of thinkers raised the question, “Does a person really have to believe in Christ in order to be a good Christian? Does the absence of Jesus do any real damage to the Christian faith?” Theodore Parker, for example, preached:

If it could be proved…that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil.[1]

Shouldn’t it be possible, they conjectured, to go forward with the lovely system of ethics that Jesus might have taught, but not accept all that religious baggage about miracles and the virgin birth and the resurrection?

One wonders, parenthetically, what charming ethical points they were talking about. Surely not the one about hating your mother and father for Christ’s sake? Or the warning about going to Gehenna if you slander someone? Well, no matter, let’s just run with the theory as it stands.

Now, if I were really lazy, I could raise that theory today, that is, can there be Christianity without Christ. With this crowd, I could probably knock it down with a one-word rebuttal (or two, if I wanted to use my boys’ lingo and say, “Well, duh!”). And we could all go downstairs for punch and cookies.

Instead, let me point out a few truths, old truths that are worth repeating.

First, yes, of course, we must reject a system “without Christ,” one in which Christ plays no part at all. Second, having repelled the obvious error, might we succumb to a subtler one? Might we settle for a Christianity in which Christ plays not large enough a role? We could strain at a “Christianity without Christ” and swallow a Christianity without, well…quite enough Christ.

Is this man dispensable?

Is this man dispensable?

Could your existence actually degenerate into a farcical stage play in which the really memorable characters are named Committee, Strategy, Effort, Advancement – and in which a minor character named Jesus Christ occasionally makes a walk-on appearance to bail you out whenever you get panicky enough to try prayer?…What if we have a heart in which Christ is present, our best God, if you will, but not all-consuming? (more…)

Speaking in tongues, speaking in English [Studies in 1 Corinthians]

Paul taught:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Cor 14:18-19)

Paul is not making a mathematical statement that five clear words are better than 10,000 unknown ones, but is speaking in hyperbole. 10,000 words is the product of a couple of hours of uninterrupted speech.

Yet even a sentence of five words or less could convey a more powerful message: “Christ loves you!” or “Christ died for sinners!” or “I forgive you, beloved sister!” or even a prophetic “Your sick baby will recover.”

Whether it is supernatural speech or everyday words said in the power of the Spirit, it’s all evidence of God’s grace to his people.

It is worth noting the number of words within this epistle: in the original Greek text it contains roughly 7,300 words; in the NIV about 8000.

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“Speaking in tongues, speaking in English,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica