Comparing the Gospels

Last fall, McVille Lutheran hosted a weekly Bible study with a focus on the Gospels. We’ll be picking up this month with some more lessons after taking Advent to focus on a different topic.

Here are some basics to know:
– There are four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and were all written in the last half of the first century CE (Common Era, aka AD)
– Some scholars believe that Mark is the oldest with Matthew and Luke drawing from many of the same stories and embellishing them with additional details. John is thought to be the newest.
– Matthew is thought to have an emphasis upon education and learning. Mark writes in a brief manner with everything happening “immediately” until the very detailed story of the Passion week. Luke is traditionally known as the physician and takes time to focus a lot on the poor and needy Jesus cared for. John is far more theological with an emphasis on intellectual statements.

So here is what we did on Wednesday morning (and will continue to do for a few more weeks)
Step 1. Announce what story (or stories) will be talked about, from at least two different gospels.
Step 2. Figure out what we remember about the story.
(And write it down)
Step 3. Read the stories and take notes.
What heard, what catches attention, what surprised us, etc.
Step 4. Compare the versions.
What did we remember?
What did we read as if for the first time?
What details were new or shocking?
What is the same?
What is different?
Step 5. Give space for talking about what we learn or hear.

So now that I laid out the basics, here is an example from the first week. Another post will have a complete list of the other texts we read week by week.

Step 1 – What story
We started with a very well known story. I mean, everyone can tell the story of the Nativity, right? Part of the requirements of being a Christian is to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ birth that we hear and see yearly through pageants and music.

Step 2 – What we remember
This was fun for the brainstorming as we listed various parts of the story like angel(s) showing up to Mary, Joseph, shepherds and kings. There was no room in the inn. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem. Star in the east. Wise men brought gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh after stopping by Herod. Jesus was born in barn/stable and laid in manger. Sheep, cow, camel and donkey looked on. There was straw. Angels sang. People knelt, amazed. Swaddling clothes. Census and decree.

Step 3 – Read the stories from the Bible
Our stories were from Matthew 1:18-2:12, Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20. Note that the story of Jesus’ birth is only in two of the gospels. John 1 talks about the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us (but no details about how that happened) while Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult.
Through our reading, we paid attention to details. Words and phrases that caught our attention were written down as we read the stories slowly.

Step 4 – Compare
For some examples:
– Luke has the story of Jesus in the manger being visited by shepherds, but Matthew’s visitors are the wise men and they come to the house sometime after the birth.
– Angels never visit kings/wise men since they were scholars who noticed the strange star rising and went on a journey to find out what happened.
– Nowhere in the gospels do we have mention of straw or animals looking on.
– We noticed that some similarities were the mentions about Joseph and Mary being engaged, the Spirit being a major part of the conception, and people were amazed.
– The child’s name was to be Jesus, but Matthew has Joseph being told in a dream to name the child while the angel Gabriel told Mary in Luke’s version.
– Following each version of Jesus’ birth, we have different stories. Luke has the child being circumcised and going to the temple to be presented while Matthew

Step 5 – Discuss
Through the conversation, we began to realize that the two versions had been woven together into one. Many of the details that we took for granted as being part of one seamless, simultaneous story were in fact likely happening at different times.
We also began to realize that artists had taken liberty with the story to make it connect with what was known or expected to have been found in a stable.
People for generations had been doing what they could to make the story come to life whether in it’s retelling through Christmas pageants, paintings, sculptures or music. And each time the story is presented, people add what they can to make it make sense to them. We often take what we know in real life and strive to use that experience to understand what read in the Bible, especially when the Bible stories leave out details that we deem important or essential.

Comparing the two versions of Jesus’ birth may be shocking to some. After that day, I began to notice nativity scenes more than ever before. It was shocking to think that what has become so beloved might not be scripturally accurate. Scenes with shepherds and wise men in the stable alongside animals looking at the baby in a manger was not likely how the story happened. Possible, but not likely.
But I had to remind myself and others that just because what we thought was true (as told through traditions), doesn’t take away the value and importance of the story of Jesus’ birth. It just happened in a different way than is often told to us, namely in two parts.

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Malachi

Summer is drawing to a close and I am adding one final Bible study post before we go back to regularly scheduled programming of Bible studies and adult education.

Malachi is listed in most Christian Bibles as the final book before we start the New Testament, which begins with the gospels telling the story of Jesus.
Malachi lived in the time after the return from exile. The people of God are back from Babylon, the temple is rebuilt and life is getting back to normal.
And by normal, I mean that people are once again falling into precarious habits leading to corruption or wickedness. The excitement of the return home is fading. People are becoming lethargic and ambivalent to following God’s will and God’s law. People are straying from God and God is not happy.
And like usual, it’s into such moments that God sends a messenger.
Malachi’s very name means “my messenger” and it seems appropriate to end our series with a prophet whose name matches his task assigned by God.

So what is Malachi’s message?

Read Malachi 1:1-14
The people are not offering their best to God (in particular blind, lame or sick animals are being sacrificed when God wants people to bring their best to the altar).
Why would that be upsetting to God, especially when the people ask for God to show favor?
How does God want people to show their honor for God?

Read 2:1-9
Why is God so angry with the priests?
How have the priests stopped honoring God?

Read 2:10-17
Who is being faithless?
Why would God compare the the worship of other Gods to cheating in marriage?
God is upset and hurting because his children are straying towards other gods (again) and yet his children don’t realize that they are doing wrong. They want justice and yet don’t want judgment.

Read 3:1-3:18
People anticipate the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way for God.
But messengers of God are now known for being gentle. They are known for bringing upset with their honest messages. Few can withstand the fire or lye soap.
Silver and gold are purified in fire. But fire burns and hurts.
Clothes require soap in order to be clean. But lye is a harsh cleaner.
If people are to be clean and pure enough to stand before God, it is not an easy road as people will be judged. And since God knows all of what has happened, God has enough evidence to convict anyone who mistreated their neighbors or didn’t worship God.
So what will God be judging?
God is upset that people are not sharing what they have with those who do not have enough, are not speaking honestly or are oppressing those under their command. The people are not loving their neighbors as themselves nor are they loving God with all they are and all they have.
God is upset that despite calling for people to return, they don’t. Or they think they return and yet they keep their gifts, offering and tithes to themselves.
How many of us do the same? Many times God will take the tithes and ensure that the children of God will have enough blessings but that doesn’t happen when the tithes are not being shared.
Instead people are watching as the arrogant and evildoers gain property, but God is calling for people to delight in how God provides for those who serve God.

Read 4:1-6
The day is coming when God will strike down the arrogant, the evildoers and the wicked.
This acts as a warning to those who do not serve God.
But this also acts a promise for those who live righteous lives and serve God.
Moses is the one who gave many commands (including but not limited to the 10 commandments).
Elijah, who is seen as one of the most powerful and influential prophets/messengers God ever had, was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Because he did not die, people await his return. And Elijah’s task will be to turn hearts between parents and children so that they will act in appropriate ways to each other and thus prevent Israel from being cursed.

Malachi is a short book but it packs a punch.
One of the most amazing aspects of the messages God sends through many and various prophets is that the messages are both specific to the time and place and yet remain timeless.
What did you read that connects with what you see happening in the world around you?
How can we read Malachi’s message and learn about how to live in our own time?
What might God be judging you and those around you for? Are you living a good and honest life or are you hoarding your possessions without sharing? Are you putting all your trust in the promise that God will provide for those who serve God? And how are you serving God? How might God be calling you to serve?
As anyone who actively tithes and serves can tell you, God truly does provide blessings beyond the stuff we need in order to live but also provides a joy that only God can give. Daily bread is provided for our survival as well as the emotional and spiritual support that we need in order to thrive.

Prophets – Haggai

Today we are going to be reading through the ENTIRE book of Haggai.
Now, don’t freak out since it’s a really short book.

A quick history recap to help us understand Haggai’s message:
The people of Israel had been united under King David, but after David’s son Solomon died, the country split into Israel (North) and Judah (South).
Israel strayed almost immediately from God, and around 720 BCE were taken over by the Assyrians and disappeared from history.
Judah, on the other hand, had the occasional kings that would bring about reform to the country and appease God’s wrath.
At least for a while.
Because around 590 BCE, Judah is taken over by the Babylonians and the temple in Jerusalem in destroyed.
Thus begins the Exile.
The people of God were living in Babylon, far away from their homes and mourning their homeland.
But all was not lost.
Prophets were sent to them in Exile with messages of hope (like Ezekiel 37:1-14 – dry bones coming back to life).
And as they turned back to God for help, God answered in the form of Cyrus (king of Persia) who let them go home to Judah and Jerusalem.

So we pick up our story with the return to Judah.
And as anyone who leaves home for an extended period of time (years or decades) will tell you, it’s nice to go back and yet struggles exist.
The people of God are home and yet face issues of what it means to be back from exile.

Haggai 1:1-11
The people are home and have taken up residence in buildings.
But God doesn’t have a building to call home.
God’s home had not only been destroyed (ransacked) but also desecrated, which means every imaginable unclean activity and object was brought in.
The message includes a comment that the heavens withhold dew (no rain) and the earth withholds produce (no crop). Only God has that power to stop the heavens and earth from providing, and he does so until he gets a new temple built.
Why would God be upset if his people have shelter but he doesn’t have a building?
Think of the history of immigrants to the USA. How many of them build crude shelter for themselves then immediately built a place to worship?

Haggai 1:12-15
The remnant (which is the portion that survived the fall of Judah and the Exile) follows their leaders and begins to build God’s temple.
Haggai brings a specific message as the building begins: I am with you.
For a people who had felt abandoned and forgotten during exile, this would be a word of comfort.
But also, this is a great promise from God as they begin again in Jerusalem: I am with you.
Can you imagine the emotions they were feeling as they begin to rebuild with the promise giving strength and hope?

Haggai 2:1-9
The current House of God is not much to look at in comparison to it’s former glory.
Solomon had built a House adorned and stocked with treasure; the exiles had nothing fancy to contribute.
Not only does God promise that the rains will come and food will once again be abundant, but also that treasure will be brought since all belongs to God anyway.
Have you ever seen a church be destroyed only to be built with more beauty and riches than the original building? Why would God help the people to make the new even more spectacular?

Haggai 2:10-19
This is a message that does two things:
1. Reminds people that God has the power to punish those who do not follow God (living in unclean ways).
2. Promises abundance now that the temple has its foundation

Haggai 2:20-23
Zerubbabel rules over Judah and the message for him is simple: I have chosen you and other nations will fall.
Being chosen and given the signet ring lets Zerubbabel know that God will be with the leadership once again.
And when God is in favor of the Kings of Israel or Judah, good things happen to the people.
Once again, God shows favor on his chosen people.

Haggai is a short book.
As a summary, what is the overall message you heard God speak to God’s people?
What do you hear in this book that applies to life today?

Prophets – Zephaniah

Welcome back to the “weekly” Bible study that is actually turning out to be every other week!

Today we are going to read from a book that is not as common as other prophets.
Zephaniah (not to be confused with Zechariah), lived during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). Josiah was a King in Judah, the southern kingdom. By this time, Israel (northern kingdom) had been conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians. The people had strayed far from God and did not heed any warnings brought to them by God’s messengers (like the prophet Amos among others). And so the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom are gone, wiped from the earth because of their inability to follow God.
The people of Judah had been better at remaining faithful to God and so God protected and spared them. But like any group of people, they are going astray. So messengers are sent, and we will read one such message today.
Zephaniah is a short book (only 3 chapters), but his ability to be succinct highlights how severe the situation is. He does not talk circles but is direct when speaking to the people of Judah.

Zephaniah 1:1
We learn who Zephaniah is based on his ancestry. He could be a priest (Jeremiah talks about a priest named Zephaniah) or have a royal background (Hezekiah was the name of a king), but just like today, there is no guarantee that there is only one person with the name.

Zephaniah 1:18
And the uplifting message begins…or not.
This prophetic message starts off on a harsh note, probably to catch the attention of the listeners. Did it work for you? Was your response along the lines of “wow, that’s harsh”?
God will “sweep away everything from the earth” and nothing will be left.
By specifically naming groups of people (Judah, Jerusalem, priests of Baal), we find out who has upset God and get glimpses into what has happened to bring such anger: the people have begun to worship another God. And if we all remember learning the 10 commandments, we should remember that we shall have no other gods because God is a jealous God.
But the people have been led astray.
God is so upset that he doesn’t want to hear any excuses and tells people to remain silent; their actions have condemned them already. Some have worshiped another god, others have filled their lives with violence and fraud.
Note that Zephaniah develops a refrain: “ON THAT DAY” God will bring his judgment, and that day is not going to be a nice one for those who have not been following God’s way. People will be punished. Those who thought that God would continue to ignore and not respond (not doing good nor bad) will see that God is about to act.
That day will be full of distress and anguish, and nothing will save them. People had become dependent upon their harvest and money to provide safety, but nothing will save them from God’s wrath.

Zephaniah 2:1-4
The small bit of hope emerges as God tells people to gather for one last chance before complete destruction on that day.
Their last chance is to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness and to seek humility. The people have been sinning against God by becoming overconfident in their own wealth and abilities, but God is about to act against all those who do not seek God.
Why do you think God is only giving a chance and not a guarantee against God’s wrath (“perhaps you shall be hidden”)?

Zephaniah 2:5-15
Here God is providing hope for the remnant (small portion), for those who seek the Lord and whose lives will be spared because they are humbled. Part of Judah’s hope will come at the expense of the nations that threaten and mock Judah. Lands belonging to those who don’t follow God will be used for God’s people. Their hope is that they will have a pasture and a fortune that comes from those who anger God, which is to say that God will give them a place where they will have all they need.

Zephaniah 3:1-7
But God is still angry with his people, even if there is hope for a remnant.
Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, is full of people so concerned with their own voices that they ignore warnings and advice.
Leaders are compared to lions and wolves, which we all know as vicious predators who show no shame in destroying others for their own sake.
Jerusalem has become corrupt and was eager to do so.

Zephaniah 3:8-13
Hope remains in the midst of corruption: God promises to give pure speech. Many of us to this day are leery of politicians for their abilities to twist their words but appreciate those who speak truth and honesty. The same was true in Jerusalem during the time of Zephaniah. After much pride and corruption, pure speech would truly be a blessing from God.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The message in the book of Zephaniah began with a harsh warning, but we end with a song of joy.
God has taken away judgment = shown mercy and forgiveness.
God spares the people and protects them from enemies (foreign threats as well as domestic oppressors). Even the lame and the outcasts (those who suffer greatly in times of oppression where the leaders are corrupt and greedy), will rejoice. All who had been pushed from their homes will return and praise God.

Zephaniah is a short book. We read the entire book in a short amount of time, but there is much packed into 3 chapters.
A few highlights to ponder as we think about how the message given to a specific people over 2600 years ago would matter still today:
What is it that is leading us astray?
Do we have any “priests” of other gods in our midst?
Who would be the lions and wolves in our society?
Who are the enemies from whom we need protection?
Who is more concerned with their wealth than with caring for the lame and outcasts?
Who might be given “pure speech” in the midst of corruption?
What should we be doing to avoid “that day” from happening in our own lives?

Prophets – Amos

Welcome back after a short break!

A quick note: this study series will be looking primarily at the “minor” prophets who lived after the Kingdom of Israel was split into Israel and Judah. There were several prophets before who were active in the times of the Judges like Deborah and in the time of united Israel like Samuel and Nathan.
The “major” prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose books are much longer than any messages of the “minor” prophets. The main distinction between major and minor is not one of importance but of length.

Today we are going to be looking at the prophet Amos, whose writings date back to around 750-775 BCE. His writings are among the oldest of a series of prophets who brought messages to Israel and Judah.
Amos grew up in the southern Judah but his message was given to northern Israel.
The book has a strong message for Israel to hear regarding their lack of morals in daily life. God is concerned that their rituals and their daily life have become disconnected.

Feel free to read the entire book (only 9 chapters long), but I will be asking you to read some of the passages with some reflections to help understand or to highlight some key thoughts or phrases.

Amos 1:1-5.
The first two verses are quick to summarize who is speaking and when.
Amos does not hesitate from the beginning with the harsh message. He wastes no time in bringing the message from God in Jerusalem (which is in Judah).
So begins a series of judgments against nations who are not behaving in the way God approves.
The nations around Israel are all judged: Aram (capital city Damascus) is the first listed with its crime described as threshing or pounding Gilead.
The following judgments followed the same rhetoric: “for three transgressions and for four.” One mistake can be forgiven, but multiple times implies no learning.

Amos 2:4-5
This is a judgment against Judah, who has stopped living according to God’s law. Even the home of God’s temple will not be protected if the people continue to be led astray.

Amos 2:6-3:2
Judgment against Israel is founded in how they have not cared for their poor and needy. They have instead become concerned with their greed. They do not simply ignore the poor, but have actively sought out ways to hurt. Even though God is the one who brought people out of slavery and protected them in battle, the people of Israel have enslaved others and brought about ruin.
The consequences for their actions will not be avoided.

Amos 4:6-13
God had tried in the past to get their attention so that they would repent. Repentance in Hebrew literally means to turn back. But the people of Israel did not turn to God.
When they had more than enough to survive, they did not turn to God.
When they were suffering, they did not turn to God.
The refrain “yet you did not return to me, says the Lord” is a powerful indication of how many times God tried to get their attention but failed as Israel continued to ignore God.

Amos 5:4-7, 5:14-24
Yet God is giving one more chance to Israel.
If they do not seek out the places where they have been wrongly worshiping others besides God, God will let them live.
God knows how they have been living and is calling for them to turn from the evil that pulls them away from the good.
The day of the Lord will not be a joyful day for those whose lives have been immoral. The day will be a dark day for those who worshiped at other altars, treated their neighbors poorly, or whose rituals and songs are merely noise without meaning.
God wants justice and righteousness to abound. God is more concerned with them living a good life every day than them putting on a good show at worship.

Amos 7:1-9
These are some of Amos’s visions regarding judgment against Israel. Each vision starts by Amos announcing what God has shown to Amos.
The first vision is of locust consuming grass and the second of fire destroying the land. It should not be too difficult to figure out who is destroying and who is being destroyed. (Hint: God will destroy the people). But Amos calls out and God repents.
A plumb line is used by builders to show that a wall is straight and not leaning.
But when God uses a plumb line in the midst of people, he is testing them to see if they are upright and good. Walls that are not upright either need fixing or tearing down to start over again. People that are not upright get the same treatment.

Amos 9:1-15
This final chapter in Amos’s message highlights the intention of God to seek out and destroy the sinful kingdom. No one will be able to hide when God is looking for them.
But God will not completely destroy the house of Jacob. The house of Jacob = descendants of Jacob (also known as Israel).
Sinners will be gone, but a remnant shall be restored and rebuilt.
There is still hope for God’s people because God will remain faithful to the promise made to King David that David’s house (Israelites) will live on and will be blessed.

Some questions to ponder:
What do you think about the message Amos brought to the people of Israel?
How do you think this message could apply to our world today?
What are some of the sins or transgressions that God would condemn?
What are some of the ways God might be striving to get your attention?
How are you called to live as one who follows God and have you been measuring up?

Prophets Bible Study Intro

Welcome to TCM’s online Bible study!
This is an introductory session about the biblical prophets and a brief look into the history of Israel.
Feel free to ask questions or make comments on this post. After all, the best way to learn is for us to learn together.
This is the first attempt at an online study, so please let your pastors know if you have suggestions for how to improve your experience. This is a learning experience for us all.

First, let’s think about what we have heard about prophecy.
In our society, prophecy is primarily known as predicting the future, fortune telling and other divining that attempts to figure out what will happen.
Sound about right? Watch some TV or films  (not the bible-based ones) and you can see how we as a society talk about prophets, and most tend to focus on the future and trying to know what is to come.

So now let’s think about biblical prophecy, which is a bit different.
1. Prophets are messengers from God. Prophecy is the message from God. Prophecy may predict the future, but typically in the way we set up future consequences for children: “if you continue to misbehave and to not listen, then this particular event will happen.”
2. Prophets seldom tell people what they WANT to hear. Instead, the message is always what people NEED to hear.
3. Prophecy can be harsh or uplifting  (sometimes both). Harsh when God wants people to shape up, get back on track and stop misbehaving. Uplifting when God is sending words of comfort or hope to people who are feeling lost, ignored, unjustly punished or weary of suffering.
4. Prophets tended to exist during the reigns of kings. Not all lived within the kingdoms of Israel or Judah, but most of the biblical prophets brought their messages to the people of God. Some prophets went to other kingdoms with messages.
5. Prophecy looked more at past and present actions to see how people were behaving than any attempt at predicting the future.
6. Prophets were given the words to speak, but they chose the way to get the message from God to the people of God. This could include some highly unusual methods or startling language in attempts to get people’s attention.

So a brief summary of biblical prophecy: message from God delivered by persons called by God to act as God’s spokespersons.

A few other key terms to keep in mind:
– Israel = “wrestles with God.” This can refer to a) Jacob the grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac and father of 12 sons; b) the entire people of God; c) the united kingdom under David and Solomon; or d) the Northern Kingdom
– Judah = a) one of Jacob’s sons, b) family tribe descended from Judah, or c) the Southern Kingdom
– Exile = being taken away from home country into a new, foreign land by a conquering army
– CE = common era  (academic way to refer to A.D. as the commonly accepted way of talking about time)
– BCE = before the common era  (academic way to refer to B.C.)
– House = physical building or family dynasty

And last but not least, a short timeline to help you (but remember that dates are approximate because ancient methods of timekeeping vary):
1000 BCE – David takes over Israel after King Saul. King David will unite all the tribes of Israel into one Kingdom moving capital from Hebron to Jerusalem. He rules 40 years before his son Solomon takes over
930 BCE – King Solomon dies. After his death, the succession is debated and the kingdom splits into Israel (Northern Kingdom, capital Samaria) and Judah (Southern Kingdom, capital Jerusalem). Israel abandons God before Judah, who has a few kings who lead the people back to God thus prolonging the Kingdom of Judah
722 BCE – Israel falls to Assyria and is lost forever (never identified as the people of God again)
587 BCE – Judah falls to Babylon and goes into exile, where the people of God live for three generations
540 BCE – King Cyrus of Persia defeats Babylon then lets exiles return to homelands in order to rebuild

Now that your brain is overwhelmed with details, aren’t you looking forward to actually digging into the messages that the biblical prophets brought from God to the people of God?

LWR Delivery

This is what the semi truck trailer looks like after two days of dropping off boxes by people in the Grand Forks area. I hauled up 16 boxes, filling my SUV. And I thought that was awesome (and assembling 110 school kits truly is awesome), but I was even more amazed by the sheer volume of donations people yearly gather to donate to people of the world. We at TCM are a small part of God’s church across the world, but I am excited to see how we contribute to the bigger picture!

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On a side note, we will be tracking our school kits and quilts as they make their way across the world. Those details to come later…