What’s it like to read through a biblical book out loud in a group?

 

Q.  I’m trying to get my small group to study the gospel of John using your guide, but they’re hesitant to begin with a read-through out loud of half the gospel (the “book of signs”), with a read-through of the other half coming up several weeks later.  They think these sessions will be long and tedious.  What can I tell them to encourage them otherwise?

Maybe the best thing I can do for you is to quote from the place in my book After Chapters and Verses where I discuss reading through biblical books, or large sections of them, out loud in groups. This part of the book relates several positive experiences that groups I’ve been in, or have heard about, have had with such read-throughs:

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A campus staff worker in California was going to be leading a semester-long study from the first part of Mark. She recounted what happened when she asked the group to read this whole portion aloud at their first meeting:  “I could tell that the students were not excited about it when we started, and doubtful of how helpful it would be.  But reading it out loud together was engaging.  As we read, people could jot notes and thoughts on their manuscripts.  We took 30 minutes to read the section, much faster than anyone imagined.  Then I gave them time to look for big themes.  They did a great job seeing big themes and putting things together.  I was impressed, and they enjoyed it.  That set us up well for our semester of studying the book.  They knew what was coming in the book and were able to read in depth more in context.”

I had a similar experience in a Bible study I participated in.  This group began its consideration of Romans by reading the entire epistle out loud.  We took turns reading sections of the epistle.  This took just about an hour, so it fit very well within the usual hour-and-a-half time we devote to reading and discussion.  People were surprised that it didn’t take any longer.  After we finished reading the epistle, the leader asked what our impressions were.  Many members spoke about key themes in the epistle:  the resurrection life; the relationship of Jew and Gentile; law and Spirit.  An international student who was reading the Bible for the first time asked, “What is ’righteousness’?”  She very perceptively zeroed in on this term, which is truly a key one in Romans, as essential to understanding everything she’d just heard.  And this was in a first-time encounter, in a second language!

The leader himself admitted that in the past he’d always stopped reading Romans “after the first 3 chapters.” He would get to the declaration that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” get himself saved (as he put it), and not read the rest of the book.  Now he saw that this opening part of the epistle flows into an extended discussion of how we can be not just “saved,” but transformed by the Spirit.  In fact, he noted, all of creation eventually gets in on God’s salvation.  When he saw how everything in the epistle flowed together, his understanding of salvation was greatly expanded.  At the end of the evening one of the participants said, “This was the best Bible study I’ve ever been in.”  So a valuable new practice we can adopt in our group Bible studies is to read entire books, or major sections of longer books, aloud together before studying their parts in detail.

This is very close, in fact, to how the New Testament letters were received by the churches they were originally sent to.  They were read aloud in their entirety to gatherings of those communities.  The Bible itself records other times when the people of Israel assembled for an extended reading or proclamation of God’s word.  The book of Deuteronomy, for example, tells us that its contents were originally delivered orally by Moses to a great assembly of the Israelites “in the wilderness east of the Jordan.”  And after the return from exile, Ezra read “the Book of the Law of Moses” to a special assembly in Jerusalem “aloud from daybreak till noon.”  So the extended public reading of Scripture is part of the heritage of our historic community of faith.

Readers of The Books of The Bible have called this to mind as they’ve seen the literary forms of the biblical writings recaptured in that edition.  One pastor told me he could “picture what it would have been like in Colossae when the letter from Paul first arrived and everyone was very excited and gathered around to hear the letter read.  How cool would that have been?”  Another reader told me that while he could “remember being astonished the first time I learned that the early church read whole epistles at church services,” he now thought it would be very appropriate to use the Scriptures in a format like The Books of The Bible for “corporate reading at a small group or congregational level.”  Yet another reader noted, “The Bible is an oral document to be read in community and not just to be studied individually. Paul’s letters often were addressed to churches (literally, gatherings) and were read aloud to those congregations. I think this Bible would lend itself to that activity.  This is something to which maybe we need to pay more attention.” 

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Beyond these thoughts from After Chapters and Verses, let me share that since writing that book, I’ve been in several more small groups that have read through biblical books out loud together before studying their parts in detail, and in every case the read-through was a real highlight for all the participants.  In fact, in one group where we were using one of my guides that covers multiple books, I suggested that perhaps we wouldn’t need to read through one of them out loud, and they wouldn’t hear of it!  They told me how much they’d been looking forward to it.

So in my experience, and from everything I’ve heard from others, reading through a biblical book, or a large portion of one, out loud in a group is not a long, tedious exercise.  The time goes faster than anyone expects, and the experience is a fresh and invigorating way to set up the study of the book in its individual parts.  I trust that your group will discover the same thing!

Is there any evidence to suggest that John believed 666 to mean Nero?

Q.  Is there any evidence to suggest that John, the author of the book of Revelation, believed 666 to mean Nero? I read your post about whether early Christians believed this; I am wondering about John specifically.

In my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, I discuss how John, writing towards the end of the first century AD, portrays the reigning emperor Domitian several times as “Nero come back to life”—that is, as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero.  These portrayals, taken together with the fact that the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew adds up to 666, provide evidence that the author of Revelation himself intended us to see that name in the number.

As I explain in the guide when discussing John’s vision of “the beast”:

Nero, Roman emperor from AD 54-68, was remembered as a tyrant and a murderer.  He executed many of his opponents and was widely believed to have killed his mother and stepbrother to consolidate his power.  He was also suspected of causing a great fire in Rome to clear the ground so he could build himself a huge palace.  But Nero blamed the Christians in the city for the fire, and they were severely persecuted.  When his generals finally revolted against him, to avoid execution Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat.  But rumors circulated that Nero was still alive or would come back to life, and that he would  reclaim his throne and resume his despotic reign.  John’s vision of “the beast” can be understood against this background.  The “beast” appears to be a depiction of the current emperor as if he were “Nero come back to life.”  That is, Domitian will become a tyrant like Nero and persecute the followers of Jesus as he did.  And so he’s described as “the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.”

In discussing this same vision I also explain in the guide, as I do in this post, how the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.

Later in the guide, when discussing John’s vision of “the great prostitute,” I share these further thoughts about the portrait in Revelation of Domitian as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero:

Some details are quite transparent.  John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome.  The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification.  Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.  The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of Domitian as “Nero come back to life.”  The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.”  . . .
The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that represent “seven kings.”  As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle–some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted.  Unfortunately a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified; interpreters offer a variety of explanations.  But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into Satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

Essentially, until Nero, followers of Jesus could count on the Roman authorities for protection (as we see Paul doing often, for example, in the book of Acts).  It was hoped that Nero’s persecution had been a one-time exception to this policy of tolerance and protection.  But John warns in Revelation that under Domitian, followers of Jesus will one again have to “not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”  in order to remain faithful to their true Lord.

The portrayal of Domitian as “Nero come back to life” is essential to this message, and the use of the number 666 to represent “Nero Caesar” is a vital part of the portrayal.  So yes, John, the author of Revelation, did indeed understand 666 to mean Nero.

Bust of Domitian, Roman emperor AD 81-96, Capitoline Museum, Rome

Would the original recipients of the book of James have read it through out loud?

Q.  In our small group we’re using your guide to biblical wisdom literature to PEJstudy the book of James.  We have a question about the first session for the book [Session 21 in the guide], in which you have us read all the way through James out loud.  Is this really what the early communities of Jesus’ followers who were sent the book would have done when they received it?  As you say, “it’s not really a letter at all” and “it doesn’t develop like one.”  So would these communities have treated it like the other actual letters they received, which we know they read out loud in their gatherings?

Of course I can’t say for certain what these early communities would have done, but I believe that they would have read the book of James out loud in one of their worship gatherings, just as they would have done for a normal letter, even though, as I explain, James is actually “a collection of sayings and observations about life, written in the same stream of wisdom teaching that flows through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.”

I suspect these communities would have done this in order to give everyone an overview of what was in the letter, so that they could later return to particular parts of it when questions or issues arose that specific teachings addressed.

I try to highlight the character of the book as a collection of wisdom sayings and teachings (which I say are probably “summaries of, or excerpts from, messages that James gave in the synagogues of Palestine”) by instructing groups like yours, when they do this read-through, to “have people take turns reading the individual teachings that make up the book.” (I explain how to recognize them.)  By hearing these various sections read by different voices, group members are enabled and encouraged to see them as distinct teachings that nevertheless, when taken as a whole, present a coherent view of what it means in practical terms to live as a person of “faith” (James’s equivalent of the “fear of the Lord” in Proverbs).

It sounds as if your group is off to a great start, and I’m sure you’ll be getting a lot out of the rich and profound wisdom of the book of James!

Are these Bible studies available through the mail?

Q.  Can I receive your Bible studies through postal mail?

Yes, you can get printed editions of all of the study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series through the mail, even though they can also be ordered through your local Christian bookstore, or downloaded in electronic formats.

Probably the easiest way to get a printed copy of any of the guides, since you’re already on this blog, is to point to the link at the top right of this page that says “The Study Guides.”  A drop-down menu will lead you to pages that describe each guide.  On each specific page, you can click on the link that says “Printed Edition,” which will lead you to an amazon.com page where you can place an order to have the guide sent to you in the mail.  (Just be sure to select “Paperback” rather than “Kindle.”)

Thanks very much for your interest, and I hope you enjoy using the guides!

Jesus: One with the Father, distinct from the Father

Q. Our Bible group is wondering if you can give us your thoughts on the following question from your John study guide so we can better understand what you were thinking when you asked the question (in Session 20, 2nd discussion section):

In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks both of his unity with the Father (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”) and of their distinct personalities (“the Father is greater than I”). They are one, but they’re distinct. What are the dangers of losing sight of either side of this paradox, and saying either that the Father and Son aren’t distinct, or that they aren’t one?

As I mention in that particular discussion section, the unity that Jesus enjoys with the Father even while the two of them remain distinct persons is “one of the most profound and difficult concepts in the gospel of John.”  So I’m not surprised that you’ve asked about this question, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to expand on it a bit further here.

Basically I wanted groups like yours that are working through the gospel of John to think about what is lost from the paradoxical but magnificently balanced picture we get in that book of Jesus’ relationship with the Father if we lose sight of either their unity or their distinctness.

For example, if we see Jesus as operating too independently from the Father (losing sight of their unity), we might conclude that he is able to do the significant things he does simply because he’s divine himself.  In that case, we miss out on the way Jesus in his humanity provides an example and model for all of us of how to be a channel for God’s powerful works through attentive obedience.  Jesus explains earlier in the gospel, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”  This is the phenomenon of “co-operation” (working together) that I explain in Session 21 of the study guide and it is a model for all followers of Jesus today.

On the other hand, if we lose sight of the way Jesus is nevertheless a distinct person from the Father, we might make the mistake of believing that he was in some way just an “appearance” or “manifestation” of God on earth.  In that case he would not have taken up our humanity and he would not have become the agent of our salvation as a representative of the entire human race, as a “second Adam” (as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians).  Or, as the second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon expressed it (as described in this post), “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”  If Jesus was just a “manifestation” of God and he did not take on our humanity, then he did not redeem that humanity.

In addition, if we don’t see Jesus and the Father as distinct, then we can fail to recognize the amazing community between persons that lies at the heart of the Godhead.  John writes in his first epistle that “God is love,” and we come to appreciate some of what this profound declaration means when we recognize that a loving community between persons that has existed from all eternity, and which will have no ending, is a constitutive part of the very essence of God.

I wonder, however, whether in expanding on my original question here I might be introducing further profound and difficult concepts in order to try to explain the first one!  But that’s the nature of John’s gospel:  it poses profound paradoxes for our consideration, but it then rewards us with deeper insights into the character of God when we ponder them, even though we can never resolve them completely.  Those are the rewards I wanted for groups like yours when I invited reflection on the paradox of Jesus’ simultaneous oneness with and distinction from the Father.

I hope you continue to have a good experience using the John study guide in your group, and thanks again for your question!

Where do the various topics in 1 Corinthians come from?

Q.  My Sunday school class has just started studying 1 Corinthians. I have your study guide and I agree that the questions Paul addresses are of two sorts, some that were asked in person and some that were asked in a letter (that we do not have today).

My question is, what are the clues to do the sorting? Before your book I just thought that the division came about halfway through 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “Now for the matters you wrote about.”  I thought that everything after that was addressing the questions from the Corinthians’ letter, and everything before that was addressing the questions delivered in person.  But your book does not sort them that way, so I was wondering what clues I might be missing.

Here is how my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters divides up the material in 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians Outline
(click to enlarge)

You’ll see that I distinguish between “things Paul heard about” and “things the Corinthians wrote about,” rather than between “things the Corinthians asked about in person” and “things the Corinthians asked about by letter.”  This helps account for the way I sort out the material a little bit differently from the way you are used to.

I agree that it’s a perfectly straightforward reading of the epistle to understand that starting at the point where Paul says, “Now for the matters you wrote about,” he is answering questions that the Corinthians have asked him by letter.  That’s really the only explicit indication he gives of the distinction between where the questions have come from.  So why do I feel that two of the topics he addresses after this point (head coverings and the Lord’s Supper) actually aren’t things the Corinthians have asked about?

It’s because of the way Paul characteristically introduces topics as he takes them up in the letter.  Paul explains when he begins to address his first topic, divisions in the church, that “some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”  Paul is in Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, and apparently some servants of a woman named Chloe (presumably a member of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus) have just returned from Corinth with disturbing news of problems in the community there that weren’t mentioned in the recent letter to Paul.  So these aren’t so much matters that the Corinthians have asked about verbally via these servants; rather, they are matters that the servants have reported back to Paul.

And so Paul also says, as he takes up his next topic, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you.”  And since he does not refer to “the matters you wrote about” until after he has addressed his next two topics, lawsuits within the community and believers going to prostitutes, it appears that these are matters he has heard about from Chloe’s servants as well.

As Paul does take up the topics from the Corinthians’ letter, he characteristically introduces each one with a standard formula, peri de, translated “now for” or “now about” in the NIV.  This is how he introduces his discussions of abstinence within marriage, whether to get married, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the collection for the poor.  Paul does not begin his discussion of the resurrection with this formula, but he nevertheless appears to be responding directly to their questions in what he writes on this topic.

By contrast, when Paul talks about the observance of the Lord’s Supper, he begins not with the formula peri de but once again by saying, “I hear that . . .”  He doesn’t say this specifically when introducing the topic of head coverings, but he does use language of “praise” that is reminiscent of his adjacent discussion of the Lord’s Supper.  Regarding head coverings he says, “I praise you for . . . holding to the traditions . . . but I want you to realize . . . ,” and about the Lord’s Supper he says, “I have no praise for you.”

These are admittedly subtle indications that are open to different interpretations.  Nothing in them absolute rules out the division of material that you’re used to.  But if we do take them as cues to where the topics in 1 Corinthians may have come from, they suggest that Paul is actually grouping his material somewhat thematically in places.  He ends his opening discussion of things he has “heard about” with a teaching against going to prostitutes, and begins his discussion of the matters the Corinthians “wrote about” with thematically related teachings on sexual relations within marriage.  And since the teaching about spiritual gifts has largely to do with their use in worship, he addresses two other topics related to worship, head coverings and the Lord’s Supper, just beforehand, even though they are matters he has presumably “heard about” rather than matters the Corinthians have “written about.”  So in my understanding at least, Paul is not strictly dividing the two types of topics into separate sections of his letter.

I hope this explanation is helpful.  And I wish you all the best as you teach this fascinating letter in your Sunday School class!

Corrections to Daniel-Revelation guide

 

Though you are probably already aware of it, I just wanted to let you know that there seem to be two typos in the guide to Daniel and Revelation, on pages 36 and 47. On page 36 in the second paragraph the second sentence says “in some cases it can so destructive.” On page 47 in the chart on the ancient empires under “Little Horn” it says “Seleucid emperor… 175-64 BC.” Then on page 49 it says that he ruled from 175-164 BC. Just making you aware in case you weren’t, but otherwise this was an excellent guide.

 

Thanks very much for catching these typos.  P. 36 should read, “In come cases it can be so destructive . . .”  And the correct dates for the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes are 175-164 BC.  I have contacted the publisher and these changes will be made in the next printing.

I’m glad you enjoyed the guide.  If you have any questions about its content, or about anything in any of the other guides, please feel free to post them to this blog and I’ll try to answer them.  Thank you.