Week 23: 1 John 4:1-6

Passage: I John 4:1-6 (read online)


Notes for Interpretation:

  • There are two issues at work in this passage. The first is a specific concern facing the congregation to whom John was writing. The second issue deals with how to evaluate whether or not someone’s position is based on sound, Biblical theology.
  • The specific issue facing John’s congregation was a philosophy called Gnosticism. The word in Greek for knowledge is “gnosis” and Gnosticism essentially taught that salvation involved having the right knowledge. Basically, Gnostics taught that the flesh/physical world was evil, the highest aim for humanity was to escape the physical world – the only good was the spiritual. The role of Jesus was to teach disciples the spiritual knowledge that would awaken within them the spark of spirituality within them. It taught that since the physical was evil, Jesus could not have been flesh and blood, but was only spirit and merely appeared to be flesh and blood.
  • John wrote to oppose the doctrine of Gnosticism that was slipping into his congregations. He implored them to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” (4:10), i.e., not everyone who comes claiming to speak in the spirit is speaking in the Spirit of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The “test” for their teaching is whether or not that they “confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (4:2) Gnosticism teaches the opposite of what is taught in the doctrine of the incarnation.
  • The early church continued to combat Gnosticism and took a stand against it in the first council of the church, the Council of Nicaea, in opposition to a form of Gnostic teaching that claimed Jesus was only half human and half spirit. The Nicene Creed, that was adopted by the council, affirmed that in Jesus Christ there was joined full humanity and full divinity: “We believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; who for us, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man…”
  • At the heart of all this is our salvation. Only one who was fully human, could experience the full weight of the punishment that Jesus took on to atone for the sins of humankind (if he was only half-human it would have been incomplete, see Hebrews 2:10; 4:15). Only one who was fully God would have the power and authority to forgive sins. Salvation is not a matter of having the right knowledge, it is having the right relationship – acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior.
  • Gnosticism was also a denial of the role of God as Creator of heaven and earth, a creation God called good. It was a denial of the ministry of healing and feeding of Jesus, the call to be involved in care of the physical and not only the spiritual. It was a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it ignored the resurrection accounts of Jesus with a body that could be touched, a body that ate with disciples.


I John 4 is a call to believers to know what they believe, to test new teachings to see if they are consistent the truth of the gospel. It specially calls into question the teaching of the Gnostics, but more broadly it draws us back to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. At the last supper Jesus spoke to prepare his disciples for life after his ascension, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25, 26). A question to ask before every new teaching: IS THIS CONSISTENT WITH THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST?


Questions for Reflection:

  • How does Gnosticism still appear today, how might we be in danger of imbalance between the spiritual and physical?
  • How are you struck by the position of the denomination, formed in the Confederate states when Presbyterians withdrew from northern Presbyterians during the time of the Civil War, which advocated that the church was only a spiritual assembly, that the church should only comment on “those areas which are manifestly spiritual” (Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, Lingle and Kuykendall, p. 81)? What is the role of the church in addressing the physically world?
  • How do you “test the spirits”?
  • What other issues are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 22: Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Passage: Ephesians 5:21-6:9 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • The fifth chapter begins a section of Ephesians that is concerned with the Christian’s interaction in the world.  The manner in which a person behaves with others bears a witness to his/her faith. It is a section that would lead the reader to examine, “Does my life bear a good or a bad witness to Jesus Christ?”
  • The particular verses for consideration this week call for an examination of how one’s faith affects one’s family life.
  • Verses 5:21 – 6:4 are a listing of “household duties.”  A such listing of how children, spouses, slaves interact was not unique to the early church.  There were many parallels in the first century.  What is unique in this listing is the presupposition behind it.  The similar lists that existed in the surrounding culture presupposed the subordination of women, children and slaves – they were property to be dominated by the head of the household, the husband, father, and owner.
  • The amazing presupposition behind the listing in Ephesians is a mutual subjection to one another that reflects the love of Jesus Christ, 5:21.
  • In each relationship there is a call for respect for the other and a call to limit one’s “rights,” that are given by the surround culture.  One is limited by the controlling love of Christ and recognition of how the one with the “world’s power” is still subject to Christ.


This passage is intended to guide the church in an appropriate answer to the world, to those who might ask, “So what difference does your faith really make?  When you are behind the closed doors of your home, do you take off the ‘mask’ of love, how fully does your faith in Christ shape your life?”

Questions for Reflection:

This passage has been found difficult by some because they have seen it used as justification in the 1800’s for the continuation of slavery and for all ages for the abuse of children or women.  How has this passage spoken to you?  Has it been used as license for control or motivation to love more deeply than the world expects?

  • “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” 5:25.  What does this kind of love look like?
  • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instructions of the Lord,” 6:4.  What does this kind of discipline look like?
  • “Masters… you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and
    ith him there is no partiality,” 6:9.  How do masters live so as to reflect that they have a Master?
  • What is inspiring to you about this passage?
  • Reflect on your own family life.  Based on your family interactions, how would an on-looker describe the God you worship?
  • There are poignant lyrics in the Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby:

 “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?”

  • What happens when we go out the door into the world?  Do we put on a face for the world that is like a mask we keep “in a jar by the door”?  Why or why not?  What is gained, or lost, by wearing such a mask?
  • What other issues are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 21: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 14:1-19

giftsPassage: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 14:1-19 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • Paul’s purpose in writing to the Corinthian church was to provide clarification and correction to the ways that they had been practicing the faith after he had left their community.
  • One of the issues that was confronting the Corinthians was their attitude toward spiritual gifts.  The gifts that were given, by the Spirit, are listed by Paul in 12:8-10.  The problem that had developed was that possession of a spiritual gift had become a cause for rivalry between the members.  Some gifts had apparently become to be regarded more highly than other gifts, and, consequently, a person who possessed a more highly regarded gift boasted of being more important than another person who possessed a less highly regarded gift.
  • One key point Paul makes in 12:4-11 is that the focus of the Corinthians needs to change.  They have been focusing on the individual gifts and on one  another.  Paul calls them back to a focus on the Giver of the gifts, the Holy Spirit.  Paul calls them back to the purpose for which the Spirit gave them the gifts: not for individual boasting, but for use within the body of faith and for building up the body of faith.  Reception of the gift was not an end in itself; the gift was given to enable one to serve others.
  • The discussion in 14:1-19 suggests that the gift that was creating the most disturbance was the gift of speaking in tongues.  In 13:1, Paul describes it as the tongue of angels.  It is speech that is unintelligible unless there is someone present who possesses the gift of interpretation and can give an interpretation of its meaning to other worshipers around.
  • The apparent problem in Corinth was that the gift of tongues was being used in a showy, self-serving way.  Persons would speak out in worship, in a language that could not be understood, and claim possession of the gift of tongues, but without any interpretation it was useless babble and was a disruption to worship.  It put the focus of worship on the human speaking and it took the focus of worship away from God.  The passage in 14:1-19 are Paul’s directions for the proper regulation of the use of this gift.  The key point is that the gift is to return to its intended purpose of being used for the building up of the body.


God has given many gifts and blessings to God’s people for ministry.  No gift makes one person more important than another.  Each person is to use his or her gift for the common good, to build up the body and enable the whole community to move toward becoming the people God intends.  No gift, even the one that in human estimation is the greatest gift, has no worth if it is used to vault oneself above others.  Any gift, even the one that in human estimation that is the least, is of invaluable worth if it is used to build up God’s kingdom.


Questions for Reflection:

  • Today, in the “typical” Presbyterian/ main-line congregation, the gift of speaking in tongues seems to have little appeal.  Do you agree or disagree, why?  Why do you think this gift had such appeal in Paul’s day?
  • Do congregations in 2013 run the risk of a false elevation of some members over others?  If yes, how have you experienced that?
  • Are there people you have known who possess spiritual gifts?  How have you seen these gifts used to divide, how have you seen these gifts used to build up?
  • Paul says everyone has a spiritual gift, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (12:7) Have you claimed your gift, have you put it to use?  If you have not claimed it and put it to use, what has held you back?  If you have claimed it and put it to use, what enabled you to do so?
  • What other issues are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 20: 1 Corinthians 7:1-16

couple walkingPassage: 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • Paul wrote this section of Corinthians in response to a letter he had received from the Corinthian church, (vs. 1).  It was the Corinthians who had raised the questions about the propriety of Christians engaging in sexual intercourse.  It was the Corinthians who offered the suggestion, for Paul’s approval, that “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”
  • It is suggested that the question was raised by the Corinthians out of their desire to attain higher levels of wisdom, spirituality and holiness.  As Gentiles, they did not have the Jewish perspective that humanity and sexuality were part of God’s good creation.  They did not have the Jewish perspective that spirit and flesh were combined in one person in God’s creation.  They apparently believed that sexuality, even within marriage, was unspiritual and should be renounced.
  • Paul writes to correct this and, with an almost revolutionary view for the time, speaks of an equality of obligation between both the husband and wife for conjugal rights.  (Not just the wife obliged to the husband, but the husband to the wife,  vs.  2 – 7)
  • To properly understand Paul’s words about remarriage after the death of a spouse, vs. 7-9, it is important to note that Paul is writing with the expectation that the Lord will return within his lifetime, see verses 29 – 31.  He is writing with the perspective that everything is getting ready to pass away, his counsel is that it is best to stay as you are in anticipation of the Lord’s return.
  • In verses 10 – 11, Paul addresses questions that had come about divorce.   Paul refers back to the teaching of Jesus as the authority that they should not divorce.  However, In verses 12 – 16, an issue is raised that was not envisioned in Jesus’ time, should a Gentile who converts and becomes Christian remain in a marriage to a non-believer (both were married originally as nonbelievers)?
  • In vs. 12, Paul clearly states that what follows is his word, not the Lord’s.  It is his adaptation of Jesus’ teaching in a new time.  His teaching is that if both parties agree, divorce is permissible, but if the unbeliever wants to remain in the marriage, then the partner is bound to remain.  The witness of the believing spouse may be the means of grace through whom the message of faith is delivered to the unbelieving spouse.)


Paul’s responses about marriage, to the Corinthians’ questions, hold together the best of past teachings, yet also reinterpret them for his current time.  He upholds the goodness of God’s intention in creation for marriage to be the union of not just two disembodied spirits, but the creation of one flesh.  He offers an adaption of past teaching that reflects his understanding of the issues at the current time:

  • The Lord’s return was expected to be eminent so it is best not to remarry after the death of a spouse.
  • There is now the possibility that a convert is married to a nonbeliever, divorce might be permissible.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Beyond the issues of sex/marriage/remarriage/divorce raised in this passage, it is important for the example that Paul gives us of how to work with Biblical passages.  It has been suggested that “this passage more than any other in the New Testament actively invites us into the process of rethinking and moral deliberation. “ (Interpretation: 1 Corinthians, Richard Hayes, p. 133)  What do you think about this “invitation” to rethink?
  • If Paul was writing in 2013, when the Lord’s return is still distant, how do you imagine Paul might write differently about marriage? Would issues of physical abuse be included?
  • Paul saw himself as trustworthy to make improvisations on the teachings of Jesus.  Are we trustworthy to make improvisations on the teachings of Paul?  Why or why not?
  • Are there places you have engaged in the process of rethinking and moral deliberation on this subject, on other subjects?
  • What other issues are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 19: Acts 2:1-12

Passage: Acts 2:1-12 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • Verse 1 is important, the reconstituted 12 apostles gather for prayer (Matthias was selected to replace Judas, 1:26).  Rather than taking matters into their own hands, they went to prayer – the next step was up to God.  This seems to reflect Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
  • Pentecost was a pre-existing festival within Judaism.  “Pentecost” literally means “Fiftieth Day” and was/is celebrated on the 50th day after one of the ceremonies that was part of the 7 day observation of Passover.  This particular ceremony was the “waving of the barley sheaf” – this was an offering of the first fruits of a harvest season, the first barley harvested was waved by the priest before God as a consecration of the harvest season that was beginning (see Leviticus 23:9-11)
  • Originally the festival was solely focused on the harvest and giving thanks to God for nature’s bounty.  By the first century, the time of Jesus, Pentecost had become primarily a celebration of God’s gift of the law.  There was thanksgiving for how they were not only fed physically by God’s gifts of nature, but were fed spiritually by God’s law.
  • Pentecost was one of the three festivals required to be celebrated by the Jews, Exodus 23:14-17.  This mean that on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:1, Jews from all regions would have been gathered in Jerusalem.  In verses 8 – 11, the list of those who were witnesses to the apostles being filled with the Holy Spirit indicates that no nationality of dispersed Jews (from the time of the exile) was excluded from this powerful event.  Some have referred to this event as “Babel in Reverse” (Genesis 11:1-9).  At Babel people who spoke one language sinned in their arrogance and were divided by many languages and unable to communicate with one another.  At Pentecost, people who did not speak the same language were able to hear the same message in their own language.
  • The miracle of Pentecost begins with the “rush of a powerful wind.  In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for wind can also be translated as “spirit.”   The wind/spirit of Pentecost is the same wind/spirit of creation, Genesis 1:2.  Genesis tells the story of the creation of the cosmos, Acts tells the story of the creation of the church.


So much is brought together in the Pentecost story according to Acts.  It was a day that had long looked backward in celebration for the gifts of God: nature’s bounty to feed God’s people and the law to spiritually feed and guide God’s people.  The Pentecost day in Acts becomes another act of God’s giving, the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus Christ, John 14:16, that God would give himself to dwell within us always through the Holy Spirit.  Now Pentecost is a day of celebration that not only looks back at what God has done, but it is a day to celebrate infinite possibilities because God’s Spirit is with us, with the church, always


Questions for Reflection:

  • The disciples prayed, they knew the truth, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  Do you think prayer made the disciples more receptive to God’s activity on that Pentecost recorded in Acts? Why or why not?
  • How have you experienced prayer as a channel through which you become aware of God’s activity in your life?
  • The account of Pentecost is a witness to how God “breathed” new life into his people, a new creation was possible.  Where in the church, where in your individual life, do you yearn for God to breathe new life?
  • How willing, how open are you to be blown into a new direction by God’s Spirit?  What are the obstacles that stand in the way of your being caught up in God’s wind?
  • What other questions are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 18: John 1-18

Passage: John 1:1-18 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • These opening 18 verses of John’s Gospel are often referred to as “The Prologue” of John.  They function very much like the overture played before a musical begins – in an overture, strains of every song sung in the musical are included;  the overture lifts up the individual themes that will make up the whole.
  • The following themes are present in John’s Prologue:
    • “In the beginning…” – words are the same as the opening of Genesis.  Genesis speaks of the origins of the cosmos and the human race.  John speaks about a new beginning for the human race, that will be “born from above,”  (3:3)
    • Christ, is not a “new” expression of God, or a replacement for the God of the Old Testament, Christ was present at the creation of the cosmos (vs. 2-3), was present in a chosen people (vs. 11), and was the fulfillment of the law given to Moses (vs. 17).  Knowledge of God in the Old Testament is fundamental to our understanding of the work of Jesus.
    • Christ is the light, the enlightenment of the world.  There is darkness in the world, but light of Christ is stronger than the world’s darkness, (vs. 4-5)
    • In Genesis, God spoke and creation came about, “”And God said let there be…”  In John, God continues not only to speak, God is the very Word spoken.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (vs. 14)
    • The literal meaning of the word “lived” in vs. 14 is “pitched his tent.” Clarence Jordan translates vs. 14 in his “Cotton Patch Version of John,” in this way: “Jesus became a human being and parked his mobile trailer right next to ours.”  The emphasis here is that in Jesus, God was not a disembodied spirit, but was incarnate, he became a real, human being.
    • If we want to know who God is, look at Jesus. (vs. 18)


In the person of Jesus Christ, we encounter the full expression of God.  In Christ is the God who called the world into being, is greater than any darkness, and is the ultimate expression of the fullness of God’s love and grace for us.

Questions for Reflection:

  • It has been said that vs. 14 is “the punch line of the whole Bible.”  Do you agree that this verse is what the Bible is all about?  Why or why not?
  • John’s gospel is clear; no human being can claim full knowledge of God.  Only Jesus has seen God, Jesus reveals to us who God is.  This gospel judges any who attempt to “shape” God according to their own particular preferences.  All our claims about who God is must be consistent with Jesus Christ.  How have you experienced others attempting to define God according to their particular preferences?
  • Have you ever shaped God according to your particular preferences?  Why?  How was it or how was it not beneficial to you to do that?
  • What other questions are raised for you by this passage?
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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Bible Study


Week 17: Luke 13:1-17

fig-treePassage: Luke 13:1-17 (read online)

Notes for Interpretation:

  • This section is in three parts:  verses 1-5, verses 6-9, and verses 10-17.  The three share a common theme:  Jesus addresses those who feel entitled to make judgments about others.
  • The first part, vs. 1-5, raised the question if misfortune is a sign of God’s disapproval. There are two opposing groups involved in this account:  Pharisees vs. Zionists.
    • The Galileans likely represented the Zionists, – those who were willing to engage in acts of terrorism to express opposition to the Roman rule of Palestine.
    • The questioners who come to Jesus with a question about the meaning of the disaster that befell the Galileans, were likely aligned with the Pharisee party – this group attempted to co-exist with the Roman occupiers, working to maintain the peace of the civil order so that Roman would leave them alone to go about their lives.
    • The group from the Pharisee party comes to Jesus about the Galileans who were killed at worship.  It is assumed that the Galileans were Zionists and their reputation for being willing to engage in terrorist acts led Pilate/Rome to assume that the assembly for worship would become a gathering that could lead to insurrection; therefore, Pilate ordered them executed.  The questioners assume that the disaster that befell the Galileans was a sign of God’s disapproving of their Zionist perspective and actions.
    • Jesus seems to sense that the questioners are seeking to use the disaster that befell the Galileans/Zionist as a sign that God did not approve their “politics.” Their question was intended to get Jesus to agree that their own politics of appeasement were preferred by God.  Instead, Jesus turns the tables and asks them about those killed when the tower of Siloam fell.  This was a tower that was likely part of an aqueduct system being built by Rome and some of the financing for it had come through the Pharisees from the Temple tax, an act designed to keep peace with Rome.
    • Jesus makes the point that disasters happen to people of all political stripes, it is not a sign of God’s approval or disapproval.
    • The second part, the parable of the fig tree, verses 6-9, is a parable about not being too quick to judge, that repentance and fruitfulness are continuing possibilities.  This parable speaks of how God nurtures the sinful to move them to a point of repentance.
    • The third part, vs. 10-17, concerns Jesus being judged for his observance of the Sabbath. He puts his objectors to shame when he points to their hypocritical care of animals on the Sabbath while objecting to his healing of a human being.

As human beings we like to pin down and control judgments of sinfulness.  Some look for signs of God’s pleasure or displeasure, some like established lists of rules that clearly defined sin.  Instead, God treats people with grace that gives them time and that overrides the letter-of-the-law with the law of love.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Why are humans so eager to establish reasons/timelines/rules for judging others?
  • What is gained in such judging, what is lost in such judging?
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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Bible Study


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