Ever Wonder How the Bible & Canon of Scripture Came to be?

canon-of-scripture

William Klein et al. demonstrate, “The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek kanōn, meaning ‘list,’ ‘rule,’ or ‘standard [and] the canon of Scripture refers to the collection of biblical books that Christians accept as uniquely authoritative.”[1] It is important to note, the canon, as it exists today, developed over time as God divinely inspired authors through a historical process. Early Christians relied heavily on the Old Testament and the early church fathers recognized the necessity to define exactly which texts should be considered as being divinely inspired and authoritative. Leo Percer illustrates, “The process of canonization was lengthy, asking questions such as: Was the book tied to an apostle? Did it come from Paul or Peter? Did the church generally accept it? Was it orthodox in its teaching about Jesus? And was it divinely inspired?”[2] All of these factors led to the early church adopting the twenty-seven books, which exist in the New Testament today by around AD 300. Klein et al. explain, “Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter festal letter of AD 367, is the earliest-known Christian writer to endorse without hesitation the twenty seven books that now comprise the New Testament.”[3] Of the factors that determined which texts made it into the canon, it is this writer’s opinion the most important factor would be whether the text affirmed God’s nature and pointed to Jesus being the fulfillment of humanity’s redemption. The least important factor would be definitively assigning authorship and while this is one of the first factors in determining the legitimacy of a text, there are many examples in the Bible of texts that are either anonymous, later added to, or edited.

Lee Fields, when addressing the issue of no known autographs/original manuscripts of the Old Testament existing today, makes the statement, “The preservation of God’s Word involves two processes: inspiration and providence.”[4] While conservatives hold that the autographs are inerrant and infallible, due diligence is still needed when making this broad declaration, and one must also ask themselves, “Does this mean Scriptures only in their original manuscript form are inerrant and infallible, and if so, does what scholars possess today meet this standard?” Within Field’s two process approach, inspiration points to God miraculously inspiring and directing the authors to write exactly what He wanted them to; while providence assumes that God works in and through His chosen and faithful people, despite any flaws they may have. Fields then asserts, “God is absolutely perfect and, though infinitely beyond humankind in His being, is perfectly able to communicate to us.”[5] An often-quoted Scripture from the apostle Paul is cited when dealing with the infallibility and inerrancy of the canon. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”[6]  However, Philip Towner reveals how:

All Scripture is God-breathed, (TNIV); or All scripture is inspired by God, (NRSV), have received a great deal of attention as a fundamental doctrinal statement (or theologoumenon) about the inspiration of Scripture. But this approach to the text has sometimes been only minimally alert to its function within the discourse and has perhaps returned certain results that exceeded the purpose of the argument. From the standpoint of methodology, the present discourse should determine the limits of Paul’s intention in making the statement. Paul’s insertion of the adjective at this point is intended to underline the authority of the OT, text by text, on the basis of its derivation from God.[7]

Given this information, Fields poses the question, “How can conservatives claim to have God’s very words?” In today’s skeptical world, tangible proof is required, and even then, when it relates or points to God, resistance still abounds. Christians maintain God’s Word cannot contradict itself, so to aid in establishing exactly what passages of text are truly God’s very words, Fields cites two declarations that aid in textual criticism and divine inspiration. First, Fields demonstrates, “The reliability of the Old Testament is very high, [and that] only ten percent is disputed at all. And of that ten percent, the vast majority of variations are matters such as spelling that have no significant affect on the meaning of the text.”[8] Fields second claim illustrates, “Though the study of textual criticism may affect the meaning of an individual passage, no major doctrine of Scripture rests solely on any disputed text.”[9]

One of the major issues the early church faced was false or uninspired writings being circulated, which led to Irenaeus stating, “False teachers were perverting Scriptures.” Among the most prevalent were the heretic Marcion, who believe Jesus and the God of the Old Testament were opposites and the rise of Gnostic teachings and writings, which alluded to secret revelations from Jesus.[10] Using Field’s model in figure 4.5[11] on textual criticism and inspiration, he shows the progression of exactly what text was divinely inspired and how it has been passed down through the generations. This is a dangerous area, because as most people know, there are many books that did not make it into the canon, based on the wisdom of the early church fathers, so Field’s model begins by showing the authors had to have perfect morals,[12] perfect works,[13] and perfect words.[14] From this platform, Fields illustrates the inspiration originated from Yahweh, through the Holy Spirit and was miraculous, therefore, whoever and whatever was inspired is inerrant and infallible. The Word was then given to the authors[15] for the faithful people[16] to know their God and obey the Law. Then God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to reveal Himself through creation and His Word, so immense care was given in producing the autographs, copies, and the various translations available today. God’s providence thus assures that while people are flawed and fallen, He still chooses to work through them in the metanarrative’s plan of redemption.

These assertions lead to a translation as close to the original text as possible, but considering written Hebrew did not exist until the time of Moses and that most of its contents were passed down by oral tradition, proving its accuracy is no small task. Over the course of time, textual variants began to surface. Some of the variants were common intentional changes, which Field explains, “Had to do with correcting spelling and adding vowels around 1000 BC and these changes were not meant to deceive, but to clarify the text.”[17] Fields warns, “It is the unintentional text that should cause concern as these errors may result in omission of text, addition of text, substitution of text, or wrong word division.”[18] While scribes were professionally trained, they were also not beyond making errors. To aid the scholars in choosing the correct text, Fields suggests four principles: (1) Manuscripts must be weighed and not counted; (2) the best reading is the one that explains all the others; (3) the shorter reading is to be preferred; and (4) the most difficult reading is to be preferred.[19] Ultimately, this meant the longer the translation was, the smoother it read, and the more details that were added pointed to a translation, which was farther removed from the original text.

In today’s world, there will always be people who refute the Word of God, but one day, “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”[20] Currently, there exists a veil that shrouds the truth claims of God, but just as the veil was torn, in the temple, following the crucifixion of Christ, so too will the veil be lifted from the eyes of skeptics and unbelievers. Disbelievers doubt the Word of God, demonstrating a lack faith, but followers of Christ understand, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.”[21] One final hurdle is the debate whether the canon is closed, meaning whether or not new books can be added. Klein et al. illustrate, “While it is true that one cannot prove either Christian or Jewish canons ever to have been conclusively closed as to preclude all further discussion, it is abundantly clear that no later sectarian literature could ever pass the early Church’s criteria for canonicity.”[22] Klein et al. make a valid point, but the question whether the canon is definitively closed is still a grey area. For the Mormon Church, the canon is still considered as being open, as new formative documents are still being added. However, Bruce Metzger seems to offer the best explanation of the canon being closed:

We must say that the canon theoretically remains open – if some additional document        could meet all the criteria for canonicity. But practically, the canon is closed, since a     work that had not been used for nearly twenty centuries could not meet the criterion of     catholicity and would almost certainly not command the acclaim of more than a minority of Christians today.[23]


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 103.

[2] Leo Percer, “The Canon and Translations,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 14:43. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931619_1 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[3] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 112.

[4] Lee M. Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 43.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] II Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

[7] Philip H. Towner, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Letters to Timothy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 589.

[8] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 111.

[11] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44.

[12] Psalms 18:25; 92:15; & Mark 10:18

[13] Deuteronomy 32:4

[14] Numbers 23:29 & Titus 1:2

[15] II Peter 1:20-21 & II Timothy 3:16

[16] Psalms 25:4-5; 8-9 & Ephesians 4:13-15

[17] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 41.

[18] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 42.

[19] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44-43.

[20] Romans 14:10 & Philippians 2:10-12

[21] Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

[22] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 113.

[23] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.), 271-275.

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Paul’s Letters to the Galatians & Thessalonians

galatians

Paul wrote to the Galatians following his visit to the region, around 48 AD and this would be the first letter he would write to a church he had personally established. Michael Burer explains, “Whether the book was written to North or South Galatia is a central interpretive problem for the exegete… Douglas Moo ultimately prefers the South Galatian theory, arguing that Paul wrote the book in AD 48 on the eve of the apostolic conference in Jerusalem; he thus believes that Galatians is Paul’s earliest letter.”[1] While Paul was there, he preached and taught of salvation and justification by faith, in Jesus Christ.

After leaving, he received word that a group of people Paul calls “Judaizers” were teaching the Gentile converts that they must also uphold the Mosaic Law and be circumcised, if they wanted to become true Christians. Thomas Lea and David Black describe these Judaizer’s teachings as “legalism,” which points to local Jews being the opponents since they were more interested in opposing the preaching of Christ rather than subverting what Paul taught.[2] As D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo illustrate, when Paul received word of this, “Without pausing for the customary thanksgiving greeting in his letter, [he] expresses astonishment that the Galatians are deserting not only the gospel but God Himself.”[3] In Paul’s opening remarks, he defends his apostolic status and emphasizes he received his gospel not from man, but by a special revelation from God. Here, Ronald Fung confirms, “The revelation spoken of obviously refers to Christ’s appearing to Paul on the Damascus road. It should not be taken as referring to ‘various revelations’ of the kind mentioned in 2 Cor. 12:1, thus making the revelation of the gospel not immediately a part of Paul’s initial experience of encounter with Christ, but subsequent to it.”[4]

            While there is some debate as to whether the opponents of Paul in Galatia were Jews or Gentiles, the overwhelming evidence seems to point to Jewish Christians. Part of Paul and Barnabas’ evangelism strategy was to start their efforts in the Jewish synagogues, where they could preach to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. As Carson and Moo demonstrate, “the emphasis [of Paul’s opponents] on keeping the Mosaic Law makes it almost certain they were Jews, as they taught those who embrace the Christian salvation must also submit to Jewish law, the Torah.”[5] Paul’s rebuttal was, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.”[6] He also cautions them, “Be careful, if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”[7] Paul is ultimately warning them of the dangers of division and fighting against one another. F. F. Bruce agrees stating, “Galatians was written by Paul to warn his Galatian converts against certain “trouble makers” who were urging upon them a line of teaching and course of action which, as he saw the situation, threatened to undermine the gospel which he had brought to them and which they had accepted.”[8] In more recent times, Bruce illustrates, “the opinion has been expressed by some scholars that the ‘trouble makers’ were inculcating a form of Gnosticism.”[9]

One of Paul’s fundamental goals in ministry was the unification of the church and this effort to undermine the work he had started surely angered him. He had sought to show them freedom in Christ, while his opponents sought to enslave them to the requirements of the law. Paul recognized the danger in this new teaching, as it seriously compromised the message of the gospel. Carson and Moo further explain, “What the Galatians were in danger of doing was not adding some interesting new insights into the meaning of Christianity, but of returning to the law-covenant in such a way that the climatic triumph of the gospel was implicitly called into question.”[10] This, Paul could not stand for, so he wrote primarily to address the issue of freedom in Christ, by justification of faith versus slavery to the Law, by adherence to the old ways. Paul left little doubt to the importance of the redemptive work Christ accomplished on the cross and his allegorical reference to Abraham further showed the law could not invalidate the promises of God.

Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians:

ms_1_2_Thessalonians

            Jeffrey Weima points out, “Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians had been neglected for a long time by biblical scholars-so much so that they were once named as ‘the Cinderellas’ of the Pauline corpus. Happily, the situation has changed as these two letters have now finally made it to the ball and begun to receive over the past decade or so the attention that they deserve.”[11] Carson and Moo demonstrate Paul was anxious to return and comfort the Thessalonians in the midst of the persecution that had arisen and that he had three basic purposes in writing I Thessalonians: (1) to clear up any misconceptions about his own motives in light of his hasty departure for Thessalonica;[12] (2) to remind the Thessalonians of some key ethical implications of their new faith;[13] and (3) to comfort the Thessalonians over the death of some of their fellow Christians.[14][15] In verse sixteen, Gordon Fee demonstrates:

What Paul appears to have done is to apply the language of the “Psalm of Ascent” to describe the coming from heaven of the truly Great King, the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, who is now seen as “descending” in a way similar to the “descent” of Yahweh at Sinai. The psalmist, in celebrating Yahweh’s “ascent” to Mount Zion after he “had subdued nations under us,” thus picks up the motifs of Exodus for the enthronement of Yahweh, which was celebrated by accompanying “shouts of joy” and the “voice of the trumpet.” In Paul’s version a further “adjustment” to the language takes place, since this is now less “fanfare” with regard to the coming of Christ than it is “summoning” language, thus powerful imagery for “waking the sleeping,” which after all is the singular point Paul is making in this context.[16]

            In II Thessalonians, Paul’s focus shifts to eschatology, as Carson and Moo highlight two important points that emerge: (1) Paul makes clear the reality of future judgment for those who are tormenting the Thessalonians;[17] and (2) the day of the Lord, the time when God through Jesus intervenes to save his people and judge their enemies, will only occur after the preliminary events: the ‘rebellion’ and the revelations of the man of lawlessness.[18][19] Another important theme Paul writes about relates to persecution, and even with this topic, he puts it into an eschatological perspective. Carson and Moo show Paul does this because of, “their erroneous notion that the day of the Lord had arrived[20] and their tendency to idleness.”[21][22]

            In addition to these themes, Paul also sought to deal with morality issues that had developed within the church, specifically idolatry and laziness. The converts Paul is addressing had come to believe now that they have become Christians, they did not have to do anything but live their lives as they pleased, until Jesus returned. Carson and Moo show, “Paul’s defensive posture about his motives and methods in preaching the gospel is evidence that he was combating definite opponents, usually thought to be Jews, spiritual enthusiasts, or Gnostics.”[23] Paul also sought to stress the importance of understanding and applying the  entire word of God in their daily lives, whether or not Christ’s return was imminent or not.

Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.

Burer, Michael H. “Galatians.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57, no. 4 (12, 2014): 832-5, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1645736912?accountid=12085 (accessed June 7, 2016).

Carson, D. A. and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.

Weima, Jeffrey A. D. “1 & 2 Thessalonians.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56, no. 3 (09, 2013): 636-40, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1495414270?accountid=12085. (accessed June 7, 2016)


[1] Michael H. Burer, “Galatians.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57, no. 4 (12, 2014): 832, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1645736912?accountid=12085. (accessed June 7, 2016).

[2] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group. 2003), 364.

[3] D. A. Carson, and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, Second Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2005), 456.

[4] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Galatians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 53.

[5] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 465.

[6] Galatians 5:2 (ESV)

[7] Galatians 5:15 (ESV)

[8] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 179.

[9] Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 179.

[10] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 468.

[11] Jeffrey A. D. Weima, “1 & 2 Thessalonians.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56, no. 3 (09, 2013): 636, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1495414270?accountid=12085 (accessed June 7, 2016).

[12]  I Thessalonians 1-3

[13] I Thessalonians 4:1-12

[14] I Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11

[15] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 542 – 544.

[16] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 176.

[17] II Thessalonians 1:6-10

[18] II Thessalonians 2:3

[19] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 550.

[20] II Thessalonians 2:1-12

[21] II Thessalonians 3:6-15

[22] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 546.

[23] Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 544.

The Jewishness of Jesus – Case Study of Luke 2:41-52

INTRODUCTION

A critical error many people make when trying to interpret scripture happens when they do not have a proper understanding of the context and culture of the time in which it was written, so in order to understand how a particular passage may speak to a Christian in the twenty-first century, one must first establish: who wrote it, why it was written, and who it was written for before they can extrapolate any potential significance to the modern day believer. As Dr. R. Wayne Stacy emphasizes, “Understanding the Jewishness of the New Testament is essential to the interpretive process… [And to be sure how] the New Testament is the Word of God for us today, we must first answer: what did it mean to those it was written for? [Only after answering that can we begin to understand:] what does it mean for us today?”

In this case study, the teacher should be commended on his or her attempt to provide as much background and explanatory information as possible in order to help the class understand the proper historical context and cultural setting. However, because of the wide range of diversity in the maturity and knowledge of believers, it is imperative that culture and context do not overshadow the meaning of the passage and how it can be applied today. The sad reality is the complexity of historical facts and vastly different customs and traditions have a way of causing people to lose perspective or interest and as Dr. Stacy suggests, “because of modern misconceptions the end result is often misinterpretation.”

At the conclusion of the lesson, one of the attendees challenged the teacher with several argumentative statements and questions, which ranged from saying Jesus was not a Jew, but a Christian to while Jesus may have been born a Jew, He rejected all that “law stuff” along with the rest of Judaism as a false religion. Ultimately, the individual was arguing as to why the teacher was trying to make Jesus out to be a Jew and why it was so important to know all this Jewish stuff to interpret the New Testament since they were in church and not a synagogue. Proper responses to both of those pivotal questions are as follows:

WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE JESUS OUT TO BE A JEW?

After proper examination of Luke 2:41-52 and according to Stacy’s assertion: “to know the Jesus of the Gospels, you must study a particular people, living in a particular place, at a particular time, speaking a particular language, sharing a particular culture, and worshipping a specific God.” In doing so, it is hard not to address the scandal of particularity, as God did not just reveal Himself to His people; instead He became one of them, lived among them, and ultimately gave His life for them.

As the teacher and after presenting the lesson based on this passage of scripture, I would highlight the piety of Joseph and Mary and clarify how Jesus was raised in a home focused on the purpose of God as demonstrated by their observance of Passover. Jesus was a Jew, His father was a Jew, and His mother was a Jew who could trace her bloodline back to King David. As Joel Green demonstrates, “Jesus is being raised in a pious environment, but his commitment to God’s purpose transcends that piety and that environment.” Jesus was twelve in this passage, and Thomas Lea demonstrates how Luke is the only disciple that sheds any light on the childhood of Jesus, pointing out, “At the age of thirteen Jewish boys became full participants in Judaism, [so] Jesus’ parents may have taken Him there when he was twelve… to acquaint Him with the Temple and its festivals.” Ultimately, He would in fact grow up to be a Jewish rabbi and all of His disciples would be Jewish as well. In this passage of scripture, Lea demonstrates in verse forty-nine how, “Jesus’ reply to His parents indicates a developing messianic consciousness at an early age. As an obedient son, Jesus dutifully returned to Nazareth with his parents, [but] Luke chronicled the development of Jesus intellectually (“in wisdom”), physically (“in stature”), spiritually (“favor with God”), and socially (“favor with man”).”

Regarding the Law, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” As R. T. France illustrates, “It raises acutely the issue of Jesus’ Messianic authority in relation to the existing authority of the Torah and of its authorized interpreters at the time, and illustrates the tensions which were to lead to the ultimate decision of the Jewish leadership that Jesus was a dangerous influence who must be eliminated.” This is the polar opposite of the reception Jesus received from the teachers when they were astonished by Him, His answers, and His understanding. Green goes on to say, “It is a good thing to keep the Passover, but the sort of pious environment to which Jesus has become accustomed at home serves and must serve the more fundamental purpose of God. Not even familial claims take precedent over aligning oneself uncompromisingly on the side of God’s purpose.”

It is interesting to note that Paul, even after his transformation on the road to Damascus, remained a Jew and adhered to all the instructions found in the Torah. Paul’s conversion experience did not mean he became a Christian, only that he now believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Stacy points out; “Luke went to great lengths establishing whatever Christianity may become, it had its roots in pious Judaism and that Christianity was formed through and by a move of the Holy Spirit within Judaism.” Antioch would be the epicenter and birthplace of Christianity and base of operations for Paul. As F. F. Bruce illustrates:

No difficulty seems to have been felt at this stage about the uniting in one believing community of Jewish converts and Gentile converts. The new way was wide enough to accommodate believers of the most diverse backgrounds. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city, where Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian rubbed shoulders, where Mediterranean civilization met the Syrian Desert; racial and religious differences, which loomed so large in Judaea seemed much less important here. The church of Antioch from the outset had an ethos quite distinct from that of the Jerusalem church. The pagans of Antioch, too, knew all about these people, for they did not keep quiet about their faith, but proclaimed it wherever they went.

The term Christian did not come about till well after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension and it simply meant followers of Christ in word and deed. Bruce demonstrates how, “Just as, in Palestine, the adherents of the Herod dynasty were called Herodians, so, says Luke, in Antioch the adherents of Jesus the Christ first came to be popularly known as Christians.” Stacy elaborates further by illustrating how in that time the issues between Christianity and Judaism were internal – that is a struggle within one religion and not two competing religions as we view them today.

WHY DO WE NEED TO KNOW ALL THIS JEWISH STUFF TO INTERPET THE NT?

Knowing and understanding Jewish culture and history is important because Christianity finds its roots within Judaism and J. Julius Scott Jr. highlights how just as the “Intertestamental Jewish writers assume the reader is familiar with the Old Testament, [he also explains,] how the primary and initial audience of the New Testament would understand the same significance of geographic locations, festivals, and ceremonies.” If readers of the Word are to have any relevant perspective, according to Stacy, “They must be able to negotiate vast distances between their world and our own by understanding the times, the languages, the culture, the geography, and the politics.” Bridging the gap starts with understanding the New Testament was written to the first century believers and early church, but also by accepting what it meant for them and why; only then can we apply it to the twenty-first century for application today.

God reveals Himself to us through His creation and through His Word, so having a proper understanding of Jewish history is crucial if we want to have closer relationship with Him and if we are to be successful in fulfilling the Great Commission. Through a deeper understanding of culture and times allows one to unlock passages and provide a more concise translation. The Word of God is timeless, so the truths found within its pages must never be discounted or forgotten simply because they are not easily comprehended and the Jewishness of Jesus and the forefathers of Christianity are fundamental in our understanding of scripture.


Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Green, Joel B. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.

Scott Jr., J. Julius. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1995.

Stacy, Dr. R. Wayne. “The Jewish Setting of Early Christianity, Negotiating the Distances Slide: Week One.” https://learn.liberty.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-10753578-dt-content-rid-84883558_1/courses/NBST515_B06_201620/Presentations/NBST515%20iSpring%20Presentations/NBST515%20Module%201%20Jewish%20Setting%20of%20Early%20Christianity%20%28LMS%29/res/index.html (accessed 1-19-16).

Philosophy of Small Groups

Small-Groups-Logo
INTRODUCTION

It takes personal relationships to earn the right to speak into someone’s life, it takes time to develop these personal relationships, and they are impossible to form within the four walls of the church during weekly services, so an approach must be found to use in the church’s endeavor to turn disciples into disciple makers.

For many churches, the answer has been found in small groups. Since every church is different, there will be diverse models, which correlate to the DNA of each church, but the premise behind all the models is you are either going to be a church “with” small groups, a church “of” small groups, or a church that “is” small groups.

As a new disciple is produced, they carry with them, in essence, genetic markers specific to their conversion experience, so making sure they are involved in proper discipleship and a small group is crucial in reproducing healthy disciples who will continue to share the same saving knowledge, love, and support they received. Too many believers think coming to faith is the finish line, but it is merely the beginning of the race to save humanity through faith in Christ.

With that understanding, this paper will explain this writer’s philosophy of small groups in general and in the context of Generations United’s ministry as well as the importance of relational groups in authentic disciple making. Because relationships are essential in the disciple making process, this paper will also show how missional groups can help the body of Christ move out into the community fulfilling the Great Commission. Lastly, this paper will demonstrate how to live within a community with other believers, while also maintaining a missional mindset inside that community.

PHILOSOPHY OF SMALL GROUPS

As Rick Warren said, “A church must grow larger and smaller at the same time. Larger through worship and smaller through small groups [And] when Jesus started His ministry, the very first thing He did was form a small group.” As Harley Atkinson demonstrates:

As the apostles proceeded to carry out the Great Commission, they utilized a two-fold approach of meeting in the temple courts for large-group meetings and in the homes for more intimate small-group encounters. Very quickly, the house church became the definitive expression of church in the early Christian movement. In the wake of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, numerous churches sprang up and virtually all of the New Testament churches mentioned in the letters of Paul were in private homes. The house church remained the most significant context for early church worship, fellowship, and Christian education up to the early part of the fourth century, when Constantine legitimized Christianity.

Between the three small group options, a church “with” small groups is not a model that bears much fruit because the group acts detached from the vision and mission of the church, with no oversight from any staff member. Over time, these groups also tend to crystalize, preventing new people from joining and they also become more relational instead of being missional during their existence. Despite good intentions, even if they were started about the Father’s business, they end up just satisfying individual needs.

A church “of” small groups is intentional about getting people plugged into a group ministry as soon as possible. This group strategy has proven effective because they are connected to the church through a pastor and they carry the vision and the mission of the church as their ethos. The challenge in finding the right philosophy has to do with balance as Larry Osbourne proposes, “A group needs to be small enough that everyone has a chance to contribute, but large enough that no one feels forced to speak up or share more than they want to.” In addition, as Carl George suggests, “A healthy small group consists of people at various spiritual levels and must be led by a leadership nucleus.” As a result, this writer contends this system “of” small groups is the best system for most churches to strive for.

The final system is a church that “is” small groups and this is a complex system of groups that generally meets in their member’s homes, but is still connected to a senior pastor or point person in the organization. Perhaps the best example of this model is Larry Stockstill’s Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, LA who believes small groups are, “A group of people who have laid down their personal agendas to work together as a team and that as the relational “cauldron” heats up in a cell, the “scum” rises to the top [And is able to] be removed. It may not sound pretty, but it sure is healthy.” At one point in time, as Dave Earley discovered during his investigation of “cell groups,” “[Bethany had] more than six hundred cell groups and was growing like wild fire.”

As Joshua Knabb suggests, “Within the contemporary Christian church, community is heavily emphasized and encouraged. Drawing from the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are to, among other things, fellowship with one another, disciple one another, minister to those in need, evangelize, and worship together.” At Generations United, we have developed a small group system centered on care. The vision and mission of this church is rooted out of love, acceptance, and forgiveness to ensure that no one has to fight alone. With this mindset, we set out to place a leader over four to six families so when a need arose, that family or individual had someone to reach out to putting a cord of three not being easily broken to the test. The program has been in existence for just over a year now and we are already seeing the benefits. More people are becoming members so they can be involved in this ministry, we are finding out about more needs allowing the church to meet them, and we are putting action behind our vision and mission. As Knabb’s research showed, “Groups that scored higher on Care, i.e., loving one another and treating each other like a family, were more likely to add members to the group; whereas those who scored lower on Care had a smaller growth rate” and we are seeing the same results.

IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONAL GROUPS IN DISCIPLE MAKING

As Jim Putnam illustrates, “The relational group forms the backbone for discipleship [And] the key is that the small group’s purpose is defined as encouraging discipleship – not primarily fellowship or counseling or even outreach.” From the beginning, the nature of the small group must be defined because if this is not established it opens the door for the group to constantly be in transition and lacking purpose. Granted, each group starts at the relational level, but must strive to evolve into fulfilling some part of the vision and mission of the church they are attached too, unless they are using some version of the church “is” model. Over the last decade, there has been considerable literature geared towards small group ministry and as Knabb illustrates, “Several themes permeate this growing literature base for lay audiences, including a biblical emphasis both on deepening relationships within small groups and on utilizing small groups to further the Kingdom of God and become more like Christ. Thus, small groups play a central role in relational development within the contemporary Body of Christ.”

Putnam identifies the leader of the group as a shepherd with the primary goal of, “Creating an environment in which people shepherd one another [And] in the end, he [or she] seeks to teach the group’s members to become shepherds themselves in their families and in future groups they may lead.” Being relational is all about doing life together and that means helping strengthening the weak, caring and praying for the sick, and sharing one another’s burdens much like Jesus did during His ministry. Members of a small group are in essence a spiritual family where teaching takes place and where authenticity and accountability run deep. These traits make it possible for people to feel safe in the group setting while also allowing one another to speak truth and life into individuals without our natural human defenses going up. John Baergen adds that:

When stripped of their masks (and we of ours), there is invariably an underlying longing for connection. Loneliness stalks Christians and non-Christians alike. Belonging to a church provides no guarantee against this deep sense of aloneness. In reality, this does not occur in the Sunday worship service nor does it automatically transpire in smaller settings such as Sunday school or small group Bible studies. Small groups don’t simply happen; they require careful, intentional planning. Healthy small groups will share a similar profile of characteristics as they focus on questions and needs that are real to the participants.

Whether your church uses the “of” model, or the “is” model, Dr. Rod Dempsey offers great advice pertaining to building and maintaining healthy small groups and he stresses the importance of the why and who more than the what and where when dealing with relational small group discipleship. To be successful and relational, Dempsey offers the acronym “SMALL GROUPS” to highlight each trait or characteristic, which are imperative:

Secure God’s vision in fulfilling the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment while also engaging the entire body of Christ in the vision.

Make sure the senior pastor is in the lead position casting the vision and the group is part of the team working towards the same common goal. Without the support and backing of leadership, small group ministry is doomed to fail.

Adopt the model that fits who you are and where you are. This means you must understand the history of your church, location, and context, while also discovering and recognizing the DNA of the organization.

Leader training is essential as well as learning to recruit, empower, and deploy. Jerry Falwell said it best, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Critical to the success of every small group are the qualifications of the leader because it is up to the leaders of the church to find capable people who, with a little help, can discover their giftings and put them to use. The training process should be a fun positive experience if done correctly, because you are not imposing or forcing someone outside their comfort zone; you are simply helping them develop the gifts God has already given them through the indwelling of the Spirit.

Launch the groups with the ultimate goal being groups forming new groups, as members become leaders through the discipleship process. This is a sink or swim moment, so making sure you set the ministry up for success is critical. Public relations, marketing, and recruiting are essential is this process and must be ongoing to ensure the survivability of the ministry.

Grow the groups in quality as well as quantity and make sure the group is lead by a strong leader or is overseen by a mentor who can act as a coach. Quantity and quality are not an either or; they are a both and status quo, so you must not sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Initially quantity is what everyone gauges success on and while quantitative growth is important, so is the qualitative aspect.

Reward the right behavior and continually retrain the leaders, while also understanding you cannot bring correction without first bringing instruction. By focusing on the good rather than the bad, you are encouraging future good behavior. Stressing the importance of having regular meeting times is also critical, so people can get used to meeting regularly every week or at the least twice a month.

Over-communicate the vision of the church to the small group so the end result is believers who know Christ, grow in Christ, and then go forth in Christ’s name proclaiming the good news. This process begins by opening God’s word, spending time in prayer, and meditating on what God is truly calling you to do. It is a pleasure to be involved in something especially when you know what is going on and even more so if you were involved from the inception. Lack of communication has destroyed everything from fortune 500 companies all the way down to small groups, so it is imperative to stay in constant contact with your leaders and members so they can continually feel the pulse of your vision and mission.

Utilize and develop coaches while also being united in serving is fundamental to showing members their role in the group and also by embodying how Jesus came to serve and not be served. As a general rule in life, you should always have someone in your circle who is less mature in faith who you can personally help grow and you should also have someone in your life who is more mature in faith who can help you grow by serving as a mentor. Tom Landry said it best, “Coaches make you do what you do not want to do, so that you can achieve what you have always wanted to achieve.”

Pray for one another, pray together, and use your interaction as a catalyst to fuel the mission God has called you to fulfill. Also, pray for the lost, the members in your church, your leaders, and for opportunities to share the Gospel and what God has done in your life personally. God answers prayers, so prayer must be vital in your small group ministry.

See God’s blessing in recognizing as you fulfill the Great Commission, God promises He will be with us as we make disciples.

These goals and initiatives form the umbrella of a healthy group and while the list is not exhaustive, it is a great starting point for those wanting to transform their small group ministry. Baergen also demonstrates:

Healthy churches know the fundamental difference of viewing small groups as one of many ministries of the church or as the basic building blocks of the church. When small groups are viewed only as a ministry, it becomes obvious the church does not understand that life-change occurs in small groups. Natural Church Development states, “The essence of true church is worked out in small groups.” When small groups are fully valued, pastors of healthy churches agree it is actually “more important … for people to be involved in a small group than to attend church.” That places small groups in proper perspective.

HOW TO USE MISSIONAL GROUPS IN THE COMMUNITY

This writer agrees with Steve Sjorgren that, “Every small group or church needs to have some form of evangelism going on in order to maintain health.” However, as Joel Comiskey highlights, “Small-group ministry constantly faces a dilemma: maintaining the intimacy of a small group while fulfilling Christ’s command to evangelize [with] the ultimate goal of each cell [being] to multiply itself as the group grows through evangelism and then conversions.” Ultimately, using missional groups in the community must first start with prayer and sound spiritual disciplines. Praying about what God is calling you and your group to do must be the priority because as Donald Whitney illustrates, “To abandon prayer is to fight the battle with our own resources at best, and to lose interest in the battle at worst.” As believers, we must continue steadfastly in prayer and pray without ceasing so that the line of communication with God is never broken. Dave Earley demonstrates, “After 25 years of leading small groups and coaching small group leaders, I have come to one clear conviction: prayer is the most important activity of the small group leader.”

Perhaps the best example in scripture of being mission minded in the community comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Just prior to this story, we are presented with an expert scholar attempting to perplex Jesus by asking, “Who is my neighbor.” Instead of answering the man’s question directly with a response to who his neighbor was, Jesus told the man what a neighbor was, He responded with what the neighbor needs, He told him what a neighbor looks like, and then He said, “Go and be a neighbor.” This story is so powerful because at the time the Jews hated and despised the Samaritans calling them half-breeds and would intentionally go out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaria. The art of community and God’s radical design to love your neighbor flows directly from His nature and it is from the heart of God that the Great and New Commandment resonate. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. The lowly He sets on high, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord and I will protect them from those who malign them. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; He will crush the oppressor. Though the Lord is on high, He looks upon the lowly, but the proud He knows from afar. God has a heart for the needy and He will always arise to protect them.
A great modern example of loving your neighbor is a paradigm shift that is taking place in South Africa where Jurgens Hendriks demonstrates how:

Congregations in South Africa empower [their members] to become involved in development work as a way of serving their neighbor. It also opens the possibility of working interdisciplinary without compromising theological and faith values… The new paradigm is a missional one, taking the focus on God as its point of departure and describing the identity and purpose of the church by looking at God’s identity and plan or mission with creation and humankind. Social development is seen, as being in line with God’s mission and as such the church should not have difficulty in working with those who pursue the same goals.

Part of understanding your community and how to be intentional in your missional focus comes from understanding who the needy are and how you can meet their needs. God hears the cries of the needy, even if they remain silent, so we must continually be looking for: orphans, widows, the poor, the sick, the unpopular, the outcasts, the neglected, and those who are left out because you can destroy someone’s’ life when you treat them like an outcast and the heart of God weeps for them. Christianity has already changed the world and it still has the power to continue doing so, but not until believers become active in evangelizing their communities. C.S. Lewis demonstrates how, “There are no ordinary people [and] you have never talked to a mere mortal…[because everyone is either an immortal horror or an everlasting splendor.]” Regardless of whether people believe it or not, they are going to have everlasting life; where they spend it rests solely on whether they have a relationship with God, so it is imperative in our mission to be Christ-like in order to love others to the same saving knowledge we have attained. Lewis believed, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

LIFE IN COMMUNITY WITH A MISSIONAL PUROSE

Jeffrey Arnold believes, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building his ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group and, through believers, into the world.” The sad reality is the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few and the only way this dilemma will change is when missional groups become focused on making an impact in their local communities. Week after week, we go to church waiting for people just to wake up and decide today is the day they are finally going to go to church. This mindset is nothing more than a façade! For our communities to change, we as the body of Christ need to be active in showing the love, grace, and mercy of Christ to those in our own backyards. This only happens when as believers, we are intentional in making sure all we do and all we say is centered on bringing glory to God. The people in our lives should see Christ in us, but unfortunately because evangelism has barely made the radar in discipleship, the world knows more what the church is against than what we are for.

Seeing Christ in us is a mystery that Dietrich Bonhoeffer brilliantly explains as, “Our human eyes see Jesus the human being; faith knows Him as the Son of God. Our human eyes see the body of Jesus; faith knows him as the body of God incarnate. Our human eyes see Jesus in the flesh; faith knows him as bearing our flesh.” Understanding this depiction, Martin Luther would say, “To this human being you shall point and say, ‘Here is God’” If those in our life do not see something in our lives that they want, in most cases, then we are not living a life which reflects the image of Christ. Bonhoeffer further explains, “The body of the exalted Lord is likewise a visible body, taking form [in] the church-community… [And] a body lacking differentiation is in the process of decomposition.” As a result, our spirit, our reactions, our wants, and desires should represent the salt and light in this dark world. The definition of darkness is the absence of light, so the only way darkness can overtake people, communities, and nations is either when we as the body of Christ hide the light, or when Jesus ultimately removes the lampstand.

As Christopher Beard suggests, “The missional church movement has emerged as a voice calling for a return to the church’s inherent missionary nature and identity. As a part of that call, “discipleship” has been identified as the key to success of the movement as well as the success of the Western church as a whole.” One of the key components missing in most discipleship models is teaching believers how to make an impact in their neighborhoods, at their workplace, and in their daily interactions. Every day there are countless opportunities to speak truth and life into the people’s lives around us, but until we are intentional in how we conduct our lives, we will never earn the right to. We have to be willing to pay the price to earn the right to enter into a conversation about how Jesus loves us and how Jesus loves them. Beard suggests, “Missional discipleship is the experiential process of identity formation which results in a disciple who exhibits tangible evidence of mission, community, and obedience in his or her life.” This is the heart of what life in a community with a missional purpose is all about and Ralph Neighbour illustrates why the early church was so successful using homes as their base for ministry:

There is a very important reason for the early church to be shaped in homes. It is in this location that values are shared. It may be possible to transmit information in a neutral building, but few values are implanted there. Value systems are ingrained through living together in a household. Something stirs deep within when life is shared between the young and old, the strong and the weak, the wise and the foolish. In the house groups, all participated and all were impacted by the values of the others as Christ lived within them.

CONCLUSION

Small groups are all about relationships and it takes personal relationships to earn the right to speak into someone’s life and it also takes time to develop these personal relationships. Because these relationships are impossible to form within the four walls on the church during weekly services, small groups have become the ministry most churches are turning to. Since every church is different, this paper has detailed you are either going to be a church “with” small groups, a church “of” small groups, or a church that “is” small groups. As a new disciple, proper discipleship and being involved in a small group is crucial in reproducing healthy disciples. As demonstrated, everyone is our neighbor; this means the people we like, the people we dislike, and even the people who hate us. Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity, He gave his life even for the people who spat on Him, beat Him, and crucified Him. If He can forgive and love us, the least we can do is love and forgive our neighbors as ourselves. Lastly, maintaining a missional mindset in everything we do will keep us focused on fulfilling our purpose and destiny and it is through this process where we will find true joy, peace, and happiness. Baergen reminds us, “Where aloneness, disconnection and fragmentation define life, small groups offer the opportunity for a life-changing connection. Acts 2:46-47 sums this up: ‘They broke bread from house to house and ate together with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’” and now as Banks stresses, “The challenge to the early Christians was to redeem a network of existing relationships; our challenge is… to create community where little has existed before.”

Bibliography

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Atkinson, Harley T. and Joel Comiskey. “LESSONS FROM THE EARLY HOUSE CHURCH FOR TODAY’S CELL GROUPS.” Christian Education Journal 11, no. 1 Spring, 2014: 75-87, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1517636268?accountid=12085 (accessed 12-10-15).

Baergen, G. J. “Cultivating Christian Community in Small Groups Series: Natural Church Development.” The Presbyterian Record, 03, 2000. 22, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/214349456?accountid=12085 (accessed 12-10-15).

Banks, Robert J. and Julia Banks. The Church Comes Home. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998.

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Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is… How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013.

Hendriks, Jurgens H. “Missional theology and social development,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies. ISSN 2072-8050, 05/2007, Volume 63, Issue 3, pp. 999 – 1016 http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v71i3.3116 (accessed 12-10-15).

Knabb, Joshua J. and Joseph Pelletier. “”A Cord of Three Strands is Not Easily Broken”: An Empirical Investigation of Attachment-Based Small Group Functioning in the Christian Church.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 42, no. 4 (Winter, 2014): 343-58, http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1735314366?accountid=12085 (accessed 12-10-15).

Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing, 1980.

Putnam, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.