Biblical Landscapes – Sea of Galilee

Sometimes we read our bible and we skim over the geographical details. If we are not familiar with the biblical landscapes then we can over look some of the details that help us understand the biblical narrative. Some of the gospel stories take place around the Sea of Galilee, a body of water in the north of Israel. From the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee flows the Jordon River which flows south, past the baptismal spot of Jesus, into the Dead Sea which is 33% salt.

In understanding the significant landscapes of northern Israel at the time of Jesus, we need to understand that there are two sides to the Sea of Galilee:

  1. The Jewish side – the people known as Galileans are the Jewish people that live on the western side of the sea. Their towns were adapted to their Jewish culture with synagogues and ritual cleansing baths. The farming and work practices on this side allowed the people to follow the jewish law and cultural practices. Many of the jewish people stayed in their area of Galilee to avoid the unclean habits of non jewish towns and cities. The Jews also reduced their payment of taxes to Rome if they did not cross the borders into the other regions.
  2. The other side – many other people lived and worked around the Sea of Galilee that were not practicing Jews. There were some hellenized or secular jews living in these towns The towns on the other side of the sea were formed around roman culture and roman styles of building. The towns often had pagan temples, secular bath houses, amphitheatres and cultural buildings.

In the gospels we read stories where Jesus got into a boat and traveled to the other side. Perhaps we might have over looked this geographical detail in the past. If we understand that this also means Jesus is taking the disciples into gentile areas then perhaps there is deeper meaning to the travel log given by the Gospel writers.

For example in Matthew 8 and Mark 5 we hear that Jesus is talking to teachers of the law, this places Jesus in the Jewish areas of Galilee. Jesus heals sick people here showing that He has command over sickness. Jesus and the disciples then cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. On the journey across Jesus calms the storm, showing that He has command over the elements of nature. Final Jesus arrives on the other side.

When we read the narrative that takes place on the other side, we might notice that this is a pig farming area which indicates it is a gentile area. In the Matthew account the people of the region (gentiles) are not impressed by the loss of their pigs and force Jesus to leave their region. This was perhaps a good learning opportunity for the disciples to have an encounter with non-jewish region. In the gospel of Mark the reaction is a little different because the man who was healed goes back to “his people” and shares the good news in the Decapolis, a region of 10 roman cities. Mark states that all the people were amazed; gentiles were amazed at the work of Jesus.

So why did Jesus cross over to “the other side”? Maybe Jesus just wanted to go for a sail and he just happened to land on the other side. It is more likely that Jesus saw this as a training opportunity for the disciples. Perhaps Jesus knew that the good news would go to all the nations and therefore he needed to form the disciples for cross-cultural ministry while he was still with them.

In our world today there are secular forces that would love to push the church back into its shell, to keep the church on its side. The temptation for Christians is to stay out of the public and stay on our side of the public debate. Yet Jesus didn’t just cross over to the gentile areas, he sent the disciples out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of the whole world. Are we prepared to go to the other side to spread the good news? I wonder what the other side looks like in your work and ministry setting.

My hope is that this insight into the biblical landscape might help you take notice of other geographical details in the biblical narrative. Even if you need to read your bible with a map in your hand, there is often one in the back of the bible, hopefully you will gain new insights into the stories by locating them in the Jewish or gentile areas.

Please leave a comment.

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Biblical Landscapes – The Desert

If you have ever seen pictures or movies set in the desert they are usually dry, hot and barren landscapes. My mental image of the desert come from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia; lots of camels walking up and down hills of sand. In Australia we have lots of stories related to the harsh desert and wilderness areas of inland Australia. In the early explorers period of European settlement it seems that explorers died in the outback due to the heat and lack of water in the desert. Perhaps like me you have an image of the desert as a harsh and dry place.

The desert areas in Israel vary in their geography. Many areas that we might think of as desert are called wilderness areas because almost everywhere in the middle east is dry. In the bible, the desert or wilderness might just refer to areas outside the city. For example some translations say that Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, others say he withdrew to the desert.

Rather than debate the geographical definition of a desert. I want to look at the biblical significance of the desert or the wilderness. There are three key insights that I want to share with you from my recent visit to the wilderness or desert in Israel.

  1. The desert as an image of simplicity – when a person or group is in the desert within the biblical narrative it is an image of simplicity to life. In the desert people would live in tents so there isn’t the complexity of buildings as there is in the city. In biblical times the desert was a simple working life rather than the complexity of the working farming communities. In the desert the food choices are much more limited, for example during the biblical Exodus the people of Israel complain to Moses about the choice of meat they had available to them in Eygpt compared to the basic food in the desert.

The desert can be a place of danger even death if people don’t know how to find food and water. There were people groups in the bible that preferred the desert nomadic lifestyle. Today in Israel there are a lot more options for living in desert areas but it still represents a much more basic lifestyle than that of the city.

  1. The desert as a quiet place to hear from God – the complexity of noise in the city can sometimes drown out the voice of God. In the bible God often calls people out into the desert in order to speak to them. Abraham lived in the desert and heard from God about his future as the father to a great nation. Elijah headed out into the desert to hide from his enemies but it was here in the desert that God spoke to Elijah and strengthened him (read 1 Kings 18-19). Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness or the desert to spend time with his Father in prayer. The lack of distractions in the desert makes it easier to listen to God.
  1. The desert is the place of preparation for a future mission – the book of Exodus and Numbers the people of God were being formed into a nation as they wandered through the desert. In the book of 1 Samuel David was being formed for Kingship as he ran from Saul through the desert. In the gospels Jesus was preparing to begin his earthly ministry during his 40 days in the desert. And Jesus withdrew to the wilderness before he headed to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission on the Cross.

In many biblical stories the desert is like the modern day retreat centre. Just like the desert in biblical stories the retreat centre is usually a quiet place where people head for some time away to reflect on their life. Most contemporary retreat centres are comfortable without being luxurious; the person going on the retreat doesn’t need the distractions of a 5 star luxury resort. Just like those who were called into the desert, many people spend time in a simple retreat centre to listen to God as they transition into a new period of ministry or mission.

My desert experience was visiting a retreat centre prior to my ordination as a Priest. We were asked to spend three days in silence to listen to God as we prepared for the ordination day. We were given a small room with a basic desk so that we could write in our journal. To add to the wilderness experience the retreat centre was off the mobile phone coverage area so we couldn’t check Facebook or email.

The retreat centre is a special place not because of the place but because of the transition that takes place. Just like the desert in biblical times, the transition that God takes people through is what is important. We might not need to go into the desert ourselves but we do need a simple place that we can go to hear God. Where is your desert place?

The desert was an important image in the bible because it was an image of seeking out God. At times in the bible the desert is just a physical landscape that people travel through, not every reference to the desert is a reflection of the thoughts listed above. Yet if we open our minds to the idea that the desert is the biblical equivalent of our retreat centre then perhaps we will gain new insight into the biblical text.

Please leave a comment about your thoughts on the desert in Biblical narrative.

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Bible reading plan for parent with little kids – Part 2

In a previous post about a bible reading plan for parents with little kids I suggested how you might find 20 minutes in your day for spiritual reading.  The post was so popular that I thought I should add a few quick thoughts about what parts of the bible to read first.  Whilst any spiritual reading is worthwhile, it is always important to come back to God’s word in the bible.  So here are four thoughts about where to begin your bible reading:

  1. The Gospel of Luke:  it is great to get into the life and ministry of Jesus.  Many of the stories will be familiar to you but often we don’t read the gospels “from cover to cover” so we miss the connections and how the stories unfold an image of Jesus.  Also many scholars see the Gospel of Luke as Act 1, see the next suggestion.
  2. Acts of the Apostles:  this is the unfolding story of the early Church and it reads like a narrative so it is a bit of a page turner.  The continuing story will help you pick up the theme each night as you come back to the text.
  3. Psalms: many of the Psalms are like the mind of a parent; one day is great, the next day is difficult.  Hearing David praise God in one verse and lament that God is nowhere in another verse might resonate with you.
  4. Proverbs:  these are one or two lines of wisdom that might hit the mark with you.  Instead of reading chapters of text this is one book to stew over, maybe read four or five proverbs and let one speak to you.

One style of bible reading is to get through as much as you can in 20 minutes.  Another style of reading is to read one section or one chapter at a time.  A third method is to read sentences and reflect on the text as you go; sometimes you might take 20 minutes to read one paragraph.

Whilst all of the bible is God’s inspired word, the reality is that some passages are harder to understand than others.  There are passages which have great significance to the overall theme of the bible but are hard to capture in just 20 minutes in your day.  As a parent you have a lot going around in your mind so you want to read something that encourages your rather than make you feel like you can’t understand texts.  Remember that many bible scholars struggle to understand some texts and spent years in research so go easy on yourself.  So here are four areas to be cautious of:

  1. Numbers – parts of it explain how Israel became a nation during the Exodus but there are huge sections that describe details and numbers.  Perhaps read the narrative but skip the details and numbers.
  2. Leviticus – parts of the book establish the laws for the new nation of Israel during the exodus and may be hard to understand without a bible commentary so save that for another season in life.
  3. Romans – even St Peter said that some of Paul’s letters were difficult to understand.  You might find yourself reading Romans and not understanding a single paragraph, so again save that for a different season in life where you have more time to digest the text.
  4. Revelations – the imagery may be interesting but this is another book that needs a bible commentary and not suitable to sitting in the doorway of your child’s bedroom.

I hope this has been a helpful addition to the topic of spiritual reading for parents with little children.

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A Bible reading plan for Parents with little kids

Parents – what if I told you that you could find 20 minutes in your busy schedule each day to read the Bible?  You would most likely say that you are too busy running around being a parent to have 20 minutes for “quiet time”.  Whilst most parents of little kids find it hard to get quiet time, they need it to keep them sane.  So what if there were 20 minutes within your parenting time where you could read the bible or any other spiritual reading?

When I was a young parent I found it frustrating putting my boys to bed each night. It would take almost an hour as I put them in bed, they got out, I put them back etc etc.  Then I learned a simple technique from the SuperNanny that involved sitting in the room whilst they were in bed without giving the child direct eye contact.  Her suggestion was based on the thought that the child is seeking comfort and gets security from knowing their parent is in the room.  Once you establish that you are not there to interact with them in a playful way, the child will go to sleep.  Whilst it doesn’t work perfectly I did get results from this technique.

What I found was that my boys would stay in bed whilst I was in the room but get out if I left the room.  If I stayed in the room for too long would get bored with not looking at them so I started reading a book to fill in time.  After a few months I developed a pattern where I spent about 10 minutes putting them to bed then the next 20 minutes reading a book on the floor in the doorway.  This is where you find your 20 minutes to read your bible, read some spiritual classics or any other material you want.  In my case I worked my way through Visioneering by Andy Stanley.  Some nights I found myself sitting in the room long after the boys were asleep as I wanted to finish the next chapter of a book.

My encouragement to all the parents of young children is to use this technique to accomplish two things:

  1. Spiritual reading – if you think about how much spiritual reading you can get through in just 20 minutes a night it is a lot.  You will start to look forward to bed time each night because you get into the next chapter of your book.
  2. Sanity – instead of becoming frustrated with your children’s bed time, which every parent feels, you might have a way of bringing comfort to your child by being close to them while doing a little something to keep you in “adult land”.

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Eye witness proof of Jesus

People often ask about the proof about the existence of Jesus, did you know that we have eye witness testimony of the existence of Jesus?  Yet why do so many people base their views on Jesus from writers from a different millennium?  Do they have factual evidence to reject the testimony of eye witnesses?  What are the claims of eye witness testimony in Scripture?

On Sunday night here in Melbourne, Channel Nine aired a television drama called “Howz that!”  It is a re-creation of the events surrounding the 1970’s split between the Australia Cricket Board and the cricket players, leading to the creation of World Series Cricket.  The interesting thing about the drama was the actors were portraying real people and their version of events.  In the week after the show aired most of the media were asking the real people about their version of events.  Whilst the show was exciting to viewers, nothing beats the testimony of a person who was actually there.

This got me thinking about the value of eye witness testimony to prove what happened at certain events.  At the same time I was reviewing commentary of 1 John and realised the weight of eye witness testimony in the Epistle.  So what is the eye witness testimony in the bible:

  • The Epistle of 1 John claims to be from an eye witness of the life and ministry of Jesus.  In the Epistle it claims that Jesus was the Son of God and really died on the Cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin.
  • The Second Letter of Peter, 2 Peter, also claims to be an eye witness to the life and ministry of Jesus.  Peter also claims to have seen and read the writings of Paul, and found them difficult to understand.  See 2 Peter 3:15-16.
  • The Gospel of Luke claims eye witness testimony of life and ministry of Jesus.  The author, Luke, also claims eye witness testimony of the life and ministry of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.

Some modern writers claim that the Old Testimony prophesies about Jesus are so vague that they could mean anything.  Whilst I disagree with this perspective it still doesn’t change the fact that there are at least three written eye witness accounts of Jesus.  We also know that  these writings have been tested over the centuries and found to be as legitimate as any document from that period.  If you want more on this see the work of John Dickson from the Centre of Public Christianity.

So it really comes down to the question “why do people reject the eye witness testimony of Jesus and get their understanding of Jesus from a 20th Century atheist?”  We have to wonder if it is because the message of Jesus is too confronting for them.  Perhaps the message of Jesus demands too much change in the way these people live their life.  Just because a person don’t like a message doesn’t make it untrue.

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The Reformation and the 12 tribes of Israel

When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses, they were one people.  When Jesus sent out the 72 to preach the Gospel they were one Church.  In the Book of Numbers we read that Moses ordered the people of Israel into 12 tribes ready to enter the promised land.  In the book of Acts we read that Peter and Paul are ordering the Church ready for Mission.  So where did it all go wrong?  Why do we read in the Book of Judges that the tribes are at war and one tribe is almost wiped out?  Why do we read the books of history and have a church that is so fractured that some branches are almost wiped out?

It seems that we have become used to the history of Israel as we read the Old Testament.  We know that the tribes have come together, worked together and survived many attacks from other nations.  Yet we also know that in some periods of the Old Testament the people of Israel were fighting against each other.  In Judges the tribe of Benjamin are almost wiped out and God has to give them wives to keep the tribe multiplying.  In Samuel the Kingdom is divided into Israel and Judah.  We also know that the theme of exile runs through the old testament but that God always remains faithful to His Promises.

So it seems to me that the Reformation both in Europe and in England were like the tribes of Israel splitting in the promised land.  Once the Israelites and Christians moved from being the people of God into Geopolitical nations all the trouble started.  Is it just me or does this feel a little bit like the Book of Samuel where God says that it is not good to have worldly kingdoms for God is our King.  Whilst I am no Church history scholar it seems that many difficult times in Church history have been tied to political forces.

In January 2012 the Tablet published two articles about the formation of a joint commission between the Vatican (Catholic Church) and the Lutheran World Federation.  The commission will look at a joint statement on the history of the Reformation in preparation for the 500 anniversary of the Luther statements in 1517.  In the articles it acknowledges that in the past both churches have blamed each other for the Reformation, yet now they recognise that both sides had a hand in the split.  It seems that it became Geopolitical, the tribe of Vatican were at war and split with the tribe of England and the tribe of Germany.

In recent years as the Church has lost it hold on almost every Government in the World, it is becoming easier for the Church to reunite as the people of God.  Instead of seeking to become one Church under one banner (such as Catholic), perhaps we should learn from the bible.  The 12 tribes of Israel is an example to us all that the Body of Christ is made up of many parts, each with its own special role.  Lets not try to be the same but seek unity as the Body of Christ.

A Lesson about tithes and offerings from Exodus

When ever it comes time for the collection at Church, taking up the tithes and offerings, people often use the passage “God loves a cheerful giver” 2 Corinthians 9:7.  Whilst this may be a standard passage used at the offerings time at Church, there are a few good lessons about God’s purpose for offerings in the book of Exodus:

  1. God prepares hearts – In Exodus 11:2 God tells Moses that the hearts of Egyptians are being prepared to give the fleeing Israelites gold and silver.  So each Israelite is to ask their neighbour for gold, silver and clothing before they leave Egypt.  At this point the purpose of this “treasure” is unclear.
  2. God provides abundantly – true to God’s word when the fleeing Israelites ask for gold, silver and clothing the Egyptians hand over these items.  In Exodus 12:36 it reveals that the Israelites were able to “plunder” Egypt as they left.  Again at this point the purpose of this “treasure” is unclear.
  3. God invites people to give an offering – after the Israelites have been “on the road” for some time, still carrying the gold, silver and clothing, God asks Moses to give the people an opportunity to make an offering.  They should make their offering if their hearts are “prompted” Exodus 25:2.  At this point Moses collects and offering of gold, silver, bronze,yarns and linen, skins and leathers, oils and spices.  Whilst the purpose of this “treasure” is unclear to the people, Moses knows that God is about to use the items.
  4. God uses the offering for His glory – In the rest of Exodus we read how God uses these gifts to build the tent of meeting, the ark of the Covenant and the Mercy seat.  None of the materials needed to create these would have been found naturally in the desert.  It seems that God had an intention for these materials that had a higher purpose than making the Israelites rich.

Exodus provides us with three important lessons about giving offerings to our local Church:

  1. God provides – how often do we think that we earn the money that we give to the Church.  Exodus reminds us that God has a plan to provide us resources long before we have earnt them.
  2. God prompts us – sometimes we know we should be giving more in our tithes and offering but we don’t.  There were probably Israelites who held back their items from the offering, they wouldn’t have received a blessing that God promised.   Whilst God may prompt us to give an offering it is not forced, an offering without free will is not an offering at all.
  3. God knows the plan – often we don’t give in our tithes and offerings until we know the plans for how they are to be spent.  Churches find it easier to get offerings if they identify the plans before taking up the offering.  In Exodus 25 we are reminded that God asks for the offering before revealing His plan.

So God does like a cheerful giver, but perhaps there is more to offering than just being cheerful.  Perhaps there are bigger plans for our tithes and offerings than we can image.

Are there “Flashbacks” in the Bible?

Sometime when people want to be critical of the bible they point to passages in the bible that they call “errors”.  An issue that some critics raise are what they perceive as chronological errors.  Some critics look at stories that are out of chronological sequence as a proof that the bible is made up.  Yet if we look at modern day film making, we may have a clue to why some passages in the bible seem out of chronological order.

For example in Judges 1:1 we read that Joshua died, yet in Judges 2:6 we read that Joshua is still alive sending out the nations then dies again.  Did the author get it wrong? Is this a chronological error?  Is this a different Joshua?  In Genesis 10 we read that after the flood, people filled the earth yet in Genesis 11 all the people are back in the one place, is this right?

It seems that some people look at these literary tools as “errors” in the bible but when it happens in modern movies we all call these “flashbacks”.  Whilst I use this term here I have to be careful because the ancient writers didn’t use the term “flashbacks”.  However if you want to explain some literary tools of the bible in terms that young people might understand then you can suggest the parallel to flash backs in modern movies.

For example in the movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy we see one character go into an optometrist to get a new pair of glasses.  Whilst the scene is quiet boring and might seem unimportant, the film maker uses the two different set of eyewear to show different periods of time in flashbacks.  When the character is wearing the old set of glasses the audience knows it is a flashback without the date having to appear on the screen.

So flashback to the example in Judges, the author is reminding the reader that Joshua sent out the nations to fill Canaan because it explains the problems Israel faced in chapter 1 and the rest of the book.  So Judges 2:6-8 is like a mini flashback to remind the reader of an important point for interpreting the future chapters.

Likewise with the earlier reference to Genesis 10 and 11.  In Genesis 10 the author is showing what happened after the flood involving Noah and so finishes the narrative with the people filling all the earth, which would have taken some time.  In Genesis 11 the author has a flashback account to explain why the people dispersed rather than stay together in the one place.  This is not a chronological error in the bible, simply a literary tool that the author uses to tell compelling accounts of God and God’s people.

What other “flashbacks” can you see in the Bible?  Leave a comment.