Biblical Chronology

For the last several weeks (okay, months) I have been doing a self-study of the New Testament epistles using one of my pastor’s former seminary books: The Word of the Lord Grows: A one volume guide to a fuller understanding of the origin, purpose, and meaning of the New Testament by Martin H. Franzmann.  It is fascinating, albeit slow going.  Each chapter in the book discusses the historical context and a brief content outline of one or more books in the New Testament.  For example, I am currently reading the chapter on Paul’s captivity letters.  So along with the chapter I am reading the books of Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians.  I am trying to read them quickly and as a set to give myself a sweeping historical foundation which I can use for further study.  Still, at the pace I am going, I hope my pastor doesn’t need his book back anytime soon!

As I was reading these letters last night, I began thinking about the order of the books as they appear in the Bible.  I knew before I began this study that the books in the New Testament were not necessarily in the order in which they were written.  For example, the Gospels were written later than the epistles but they appear first in the New Testament.  This makes intuitive sense to me.  The gospels are the good news, the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  They should appear foremost in the New Testament.  I began to wonder, though, how the order of the epistles was determined.  (If you know the answer to this, please comment below.)  They seem to be grouped by author, but not necessarily chronologically.  Here, for example, is a listing of when Paul wrote each of his letters compared to how they appear in the Bible (recognizing that the dates listed and events in Paul’s life are rough; as with any good researcher, historical scholars debate and question everything!)

Chronology + Paul’s Activities                                     Biblical Order

Galatians (48 A.D. – First Missionary Journey)                                      Romans

1 & 2 Thessalonians (50 A.D. – Second Missionary Journey)           1 & 2 Corinthians

1 & 2 Corinthians (55 A.D. – Third Missionary Journey)                      Galatians

Romans (56 A.D. – Third Missionary Journey)                                    Ephesians

Colossians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity)                                       Philippians

Philemon (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity)                                         Colossians

Ephesians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity)                                1 & 2 Thessalonians

Philippians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity)                                       1 Timothy

1 Timothy (62-63 A.D. – Between Captivities)                                    2 Timothy

Titus (63 A.D. – Between Captivities)                                                     Titus

2 Timothy (65-67 A.D. – Second Roman Captivity)                               Philemon

One of the things I enjoy most about my current study is that I am gaining a better picture of the historical context of the letters.  Reading them in order and with an eye to when and where Paul wrote them brings the letters to life in a new way.  They aren’t just pieces of the Bible; they are instruction, admonition, explanation, and defense from the apostle Paul to the young churches developing throughout the Roman Empire. 

One of the unique aspects of Christianity among many of the world’s religions is that it has a history.  It is not merely a spiritual faith; it also has a historical foundation supported through historical texts and archaeology.  For the historian and, in some cases, for the apologist, this historicity is important. 

As I was thinking of these things last night and wondering to myself why the Bible does not order Paul’s epistles chronologically, it suddenly occurred to me that regardless of the reason, it is good that they are not in chronological order.  While reading them in this way gives me a new perspective and a historical understanding of Paul’s work, the point of the letters is not Paul!  It is not the story of Paul that is important.  That is interesting and helpful historically, but nothing more.  It doesn’t really matter when Paul wrote each letter or where he was when he wrote it or even who he was writing it to.  It matters what he was writing about.  It matters what he said.  About Christ.  And about our relationship to Him.

It is Christ who is of foremost importance.  We can learn a lot from history, but history is nothing more than the story of our physical past.  Christ is the story of our spiritual future.  As Paul himself noted, The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.  The first man [Adam] was of the dust of the earth, the second man [Christ] from heaven… just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Corinthians 15:46-47,49).

History is important, but historical understanding should never be confused with faith in Christ.  Faith comes to us not from history, but from the Holy Spirit of God.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

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Southern Hospitality

Not too long ago, a visitor came to town.  I met with her briefly in my office and arranged a couple of meetings for her.  I gave her my phone number and told her if she had any trouble over the weekend to give me a call.  I thought I was being hospitable.

I am ashamed that in reality I was more concerned about my own weekend plans than in helping this visitor.  I failed to see through the business transaction to the person underneath.  I failed to see the opportunity God was giving me.  Even as I offered her my number, I was hoping my phone wouldn’t ring.  Would it have killed me to ask what she was doing for the weekend?  To meet her for lunch?  To take her to dinner?  To take an hour and walk her around town?

It took an extraordinary encounter to show me just how inhospitable I was.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29)

I recently boarded a plane to Brazil clutching a Portuguese phrasebook and an iPod of language lessons.  I figured I had 8 hours to learn how to say, “Where’s the bathroom?”  I was hoping my seatmate would be bilingual and willing to teach me a few essentials.  God had another lesson in mind.

My seatmate was not only bilingual, she was eager to practice her English.  Between her English, my phrasebook, and a pen and paper for when words failed us, we talked into the wee hours of the morning.  Before the plane touched down, she gave me her phone number and told me to call her.  She wanted to make me pau de queijo and show me some sites in Brasilia.  When I asked about taking a taxi downtown to meet her, she waved that away.  She would meet me at my hotel and drive me.

She arrived the next afternoon with a basket of freshly baked cheese bread and my own personal tour of the cathedral and all the capital buildings – both inside and out.  Downtown we ran into two people who I had met at my business meetings, and she invited them to join us.  We thought she was going to show us one more thing and return us to the hotel, but several hours later we were still circling the city, eventually stopping for acai ice cream along the river and then dinner at a local establishment.  The leftovers she asked them to box, and at a stoplight when she saw a man begging she held it out the window to him.  He took it with a softly spoken “obrigado.” 

She would have taken us all home with her if we had let her.  It was midnight before she finally dropped us back at the hotel with invitations to her family barbecue the next afternoon or an offer to take us to a concert at night.  My schedule did not allow me to connect with her again, but as I was packing the following night, my phone rang.  It was my new friend, wishing me safe travels on the rest of my trip and inviting me to come visit her anytime.  “Minha casa é a sua casa,” she said.  “My house is your house.”  And she meant it. 

I have never felt the story of the Good Samaritan as powerfully as when I witnessed this woman’s hospitality towards me.  Nor have I felt so convicted.  Not too long ago I considered the sharing of an emergency phone number to be hospitable.  Now, I have a new definition.

 “You go,” Jesus said, “and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). I have a long ways to go.

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you… And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:37-38, 40).

Tower of Babel

I was sitting in the Moscow airport when I heard it. 

After four days in Russia, I had managed to increase my Russian vocabulary by 400%.  From zero words to four:  tea, thank you, no, yes.  In that order, apparently the four most critical words for a traveller to Moscow.  Or at least the four I encountered frequently enough to learn.  Needless to say, as I was waiting for my outbound plane and listening to the chatter around me, I was at a loss regarding what was actually being said.  Until I heard it.  A familiar sound that caused me to suddenly pay attention.  Was someone speaking English?  I looked around as I listened intently, but everyone around me was speaking Russian.  I’m sure it had not been one of my four Russian words.  For a moment there, I had heard a sound I knew.

There it was again!  Only this time my brain registered the sound.  Laughter.         

I sat there musing on this as I listened to the incomprehensible flow of their words.  I smiled every time I heard one of them laugh.  I did not understand the conversation, but I understood the laughter. Laughter sounds the same in any language.

The Bible tells us that God introduced the world languages at the Tower of Babel.  Until then, the whole world had one language and a common speech.  Then the men of Babylonia said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).  But as Solomon noted, unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain (Psalm 217:1).  And the Lord was less than supportive of man’s latest endeavor.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city (Genesis 11:6-8).

At first glance, this may seem a little uncalled for.  What’s wrong with a little global collaboration?  I think the answer lies in that one phrase embedded in mankind’s plan: “Come, let us build ourselves a city…so that we may make a name for ourselves…” (Genesis 11:4).  People were once again falling away from God’s purposes and thinking instead only of themselves.  They were not glorifying God, or even acknowledging Him.  It was the original sin all over again – snubbing our Creator and grasping glory for ourselves.  I can almost hear the resignation in God’s voice.  See Him shaking His head with a sigh.  “Will they never learn?”  People were once more on track to distance themselves from God, and God in His wisdom put a stop to it.  Just as He sent Adam and Eve from the Garden, so He sent the people from Babylonia. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:9b).

And yet, God left one piece of language the same.  No matter where in the world we are, laughter and tears are the universal language.  I think this tells us something of what God expects from our relationships with one another.  When someone we cannot speak to is crying, we have no response but to cry with them.  When someone we cannot speak to is laughing, we have no response but to laugh with them.  God confused the languages of the world, but He left us enough language in common that we could share what is clearly of foremost importance.

Laughter and tears.  Compassion and joy. A conversation not to glorify ourselves, but to share with one another.

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Genesis 11:9