Why did Jesus say he wasn’t going to the Festival of Tabernacles and then go?

Q. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go to the Festival of Tabernacles, but then he goes anyway. By faith I’m accepting that this is not sinful deception, but do you have any thoughts about why it’s not?

I don’t address this question specifically when I come to this episode in the John study guide, but I do note earlier in the guide (pp. 27-28) that often in conversations between Jesus and others:

“Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities. They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further.”

I discuss this dynamic specifically in the cases of people like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and the same thing is going on when Jesus speaks with his brothers here.

When he says, “I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come,” his brothers think he’s speaking on a material level and saying that it’s not a convenient or strategic time for him to travel to Jerusalem. But since he does then go to Jerusalem, readers of the gospel are supposed to understand that this wasn’t what he meant. Instead, his reference to “my time” (a richly symbolic phrase in this gospel) shows that he means he won’t be “going up,” that is, ascending to the Father after dying as the Savior of the world, at this particular festival, but rather at a later Passover.

Raymond Brown, in his excellent commentary on John in the Anchor Bible series, observes that “John is giving us a play on the verb anabainein, which can mean go up in pilgrimage to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, and can also mean ‘to ascend.’ In 20:17 Jesus uses this verb when he speaks of ascending to the Father, and that is the deeper meaning here.”

So this is one of the many places in John’s gospel where a deeper meaning lies behind Jesus’ words and where the difficulty we have in understanding those words should drive us to seek that deeper meaning. (“How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb!” “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”) Accepting by faith, as you did, that Jesus is not being deceptive is the first step in discovering the true, rich, saving meaning of his words.

Rembrandt, Jesus Preaching

Does “contemplating the Lord’s glory” mean mystical experiences?

In your study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, you ask a question about the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about “contemplating the Lord’s glory.” I wondered whether it was at all possible he was thinking (in part) of mystical practices. I’ve read that some Jews at the time were interested in having chariot visions, etc., and since “glory” is so closely associated with visions of God in the Old Testament, I wondered whether there could be a connection. Paul does talk elsewhere about seeing into layers of heaven.

Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St. Paul

This question is in session 14 on page 73 in the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters:  “What do you think it means to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed by it? Have you begun to experience that? If so, talk about your experience.”

It’s true that some Jews, starting a couple of centuries after Paul, did try to have mystical visions of God’s heavenly enthronement, including visions of God being conveyed in a celestial chariot like the one Ezekiel saw that was formed by four living creatures or cherubim.  Some interpreters have even suggested that Paul’s Damascus Road experience and his vision of the third heaven (described later in 2 Corinthians) are early examples of this type of mystical vision.

However, in light of the overall argument in 2 Corinthians, I think this is unlikely.  As the study guide shows, that letter has four main parts.  It culminates in a showdown, in the last part, between Paul and the so-called super-apostles.  There he argues that the visions they pride themselves on are no real indication of spiritual maturity or authority—even though his own visions greatly surpass anything they’ve seen!  Paul says he will not boast about visions like this, but only about his weaknesses, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Since Paul is building towards this climax, it would be inconsistent and self-contradictory for him to suggest earlier in the letter that he’s been seeking visionary experiences himself.

Rather, given his references to Moses and the tent of meeting, I think he’s picturing a similar, transforming, “face-to-face” relationship with God in his personal spiritual life and that he’s commending that kind of relationship to all of his readers.  In the liberty of the Spirit, with nothing held back between us and God, “with unveiled faces” we “contemplate the Lord’s glory” and are “transformed into his image.”

Which brings me back to the end of the question in the study guide, about whether we’re experiencing this in our own lives.  What things do we need to take out of the way between us and God so that we can directly contemplate his glory and be transformed?

Why don’t your study guides tell me what to do?

Q. I’ve come to the Christian faith only recently and I’m part of a small group that’s using one of your study guides.  One of the things I’m looking for in the Bible is advice for how to live.  But I have a hard time sometimes understanding from the study guide what the Bible stories are telling me to “do.”  Do you have any suggestions?

It’s perfectly legitimate for you to expect to learn from the Bible how you should live as a follower of Jesus and what you should believe about the character and purposes of God. But learning these things isn’t a simple matter of being told what to do and think.

Sometimes we’re led to believe that the Bible is an instruction manual. It’s often treated that way, and when we see it divided up into short propositions that are indexed by chapter and verse number, that’s what it appears to be. But the Bible is actually something much more beautiful and profound than that. It’s the story of God’s unfolding relationship with humanity, told through an elegant variety of different literary forms. We appreciate this story when we engage these forms on their own terms, ideally as part of a community that’s seeking their meaning together (like your small group).

That’s why the study guides, as they say at the start, pose questions that “aren’t looking for ‘right answers,'” but instead “invite the group to work together to understand the Bible.” The questions “invite you to share deeply about your ideas and experiences. The answers to these questions can’t be found just by ‘looking them up.’ They require reflection on the meaning of the whole passage,” in the wider context of the book in which it appears, “in light of your personal experience.”

This approach requires more patience and perseverance than one in which you are told what to think and do. But it will also lead to greater maturity and stability in your faith and a deeper relationship with God, rather than with a set of rules and doctrines. So I encourage you to keep going to your group, keep engaging the questions, and look for these results over the longer term. You’re off to a great start. Just keep on going!

The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings

Are the stories in Genesis really true?

Q. The small group at my church is going through the Genesis study guide right now. There seems to be a wide variety of opinions in the group about whether these stories actually happened or not.  Are the stories of Genesis historically true, or are they just stories?  No one in our group seems to know the answer.  If they’re not true, then why are they in the Bible?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

Faithful followers of Jesus who are equally committed to the divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of the Bible have long given different answers to the question you’re asking about Genesis.

Some believe in what is known as the scientific and historical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that all the events happened exactly as they are described. But even this view makes some allowances for the observational perspective from which the stories are told, for example, the apparent understanding that the sun revolves around the earth.

Others believe in the doctrinal and practical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that through the stories it relates, the Bible primarily teaches us what we should believe about God and how we should live in order to please God. This view acknowledges that the stories in Genesis have been passed down faithfully over the centuries through the community of believers. But this view sees those stories as potentially more affected by the limits of the human perspective than the other view does.

Either way, because the Bible is the word of God mediated through human authors, these stories have a legitimate place in the Bible, whether or not we can verify every detail historically and scientifically.

It’s easy for any discussion of Genesis to be completely taken over by the debate between these two views. That’s why the study guide you’re using invites group members, at a couple of key places, simply to share their views (about the age of the earth, session 2, and about Adam and Eve, session 3) and then hold those views confidently and humbly and join the others for a profitable discussion of the Genesis stories on their own terms. I trust you’ve been able to do that in your group.

Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?

Q. You say at the start of your study guides that they won’t jump around in the Bible. But your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters begins in First and Second Thessalonians, then jumps back to First and Second Corinthians and Galatians, and then jumps even farther back to Romans.  What’s going on?

The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters takes up his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his missionary journeys, in the order in which he likely wrote them. This allows groups to understand these letters within the course of Paul’s life and journeys and to appreciate how they express the development of his thought.

In traditional Bibles, Paul’s letters are placed in order of length, from longest to shortest. This makes it difficult to catch the flow from one letter to another as Paul travels from place to place and interacts with different communities of Jesus’ followers.

Someone once told me that they’d been to seminary and taken a New Testament background course, but they still didn’t “get” Paul until they read his letters in The Books of the Bible, where they’re placed in the same chronological order as in this study guide. (The just-published guide in this series to Paul’s Prison Letters takes up the rest of his letters in chronological order.)

If we’re used to the traditional order of the books of the Bible, we may indeed feel that we’re jumping around when we move “backwards” from Thessalonians to Corinthians and Galatians to Romans. But it’s important to realize that a fixed order of the books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon. The order we know dates to the advent of printing a little before 1500. Prior to that, the books of the Old and New Testaments appeared in a great variety of orders.  (You can read more about this in chapter 2 of my book After Chapters and Verses.)

So we’re really not locked into any particular order and can use other orders to reach important goals. Reading and discussing Paul’s letters in the order he wrote them expresses respect for the way the word of God came to us in place and time as God inspired the Scriptures. It helps us appreciate how these God-breathed documents took form amidst the real-life experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

So even if this guide takes you through Paul’s letters in an order you’re not used to, let the newness of that experience help you develop a fresh appreciation for this man of God who became a powerful instrument to bring us the word of God.

How to get a copy of The Books of the Bible

To follow up on the previous post, here’s how you can get a copy of The Books of the Bible.

Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) developed the edition, but it is now available through Zondervan, the commercial publisher of the NIV. The Books of the Bible is now being published in four volumes, which you can order  through this site.

If you have more questions about how we can read, study, preach, and teach the Bible without using chapters and verses, you can find out much more in my book After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations.

Do we need to use The Books of the Bible with these guides?

Q. I have a Bible I like and am used to using. I’d prefer not to have to buy a new one to use these studies. And I am fairly certain the members of my small group might feel the same. How can I use your studies with a traditional Bible?

Your concern is perfectly understandable. We anticipated it, and that’s why we designed these guides so that they can be used with any kind of Bible. Each session is typically devoted to a natural section of a biblical book, and as the instructions at the beginning of the guides explain, “You’ll be able to identify these sections easily because they’ll be indicated by their opening lines or by some other means that makes them obvious.”  In fact, since the sessions go sequentially through biblical books, in each new session you can just pick up where you left off the last time.  So even with a traditional Bible, you’ll get much of the benefit of approaching the biblical books through their own natural structures rather than through the later artificial additions of chapters and verses. You don’t need to get a whole new Bible just to use these guides.The Books of the Bible

That much said, you will definitely have the best experience with these study guides, and in your small group discussions, if you do use The Books of the Bible.  Without chapters and verses, the Bible reads like the collection of books it really is.  I invite you to to give this way of reading Scriptures a try–I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised!  (You can find out more about The Books of the Bible by reading this Wikipedia article.  You can download and preview several biblical books from the edition here. To find out how to order a copy, see this post.)

I think you’ll quickly adjust to reading and discussing the Bible without using chapter and verse references. You’ll find that this is much closer to the way you’d discuss any other book, for example, in a book club.  You’ll discover that you can refer to places in the passage descriptively (“When Nicodemus first arrives . . .”) or by quoting short phrases (“When he says, ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .'”). It doesn’t take long to catch on.

I wish you and your small group a great experience, whatever Bible you use with these guides. (But I definitely encourage you to check out The Books of the Bible!)