Bible Reading Tip 1: Get a version of the Bible you can understand and enjoy.
These days there are numerous readable (and reasonably accurate) translations available to the reader of English. Let me especially recommend the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New English Translation, and the English Standard Version. Or maybe you would like to use the even more readable (though somewhat less accurate) New Living Translation, Contemporary English Version, or the favorite New International Version. But these are just a few of the better versions; English has dozens more!
If you have finished the Bible completely, maybe it is time to move on to a new version. Why not make such a shift at the start of the year? (And once you have chosen your Bible, do remember to write your name in it!)
Bible Reading Tip 2: Read paragraph by paragraph, not verse by verse.
The paragraph has been defined (Webster) as “a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker…” We tend to read atomistically—moving verse by verse, focusing on minute portions of a text rather than studying it as a whole. But each verse is part of a flow of thought, a developing argument, a logical sequence, a greater whole. Ask yourself, What is the point of this paragraph? Read paragraphs, not verses.
Bible Reading Tip 3: Read each book all the way through
When you read, do not feel compelled to read every book of the Bible in order (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus…), though if you begin reading a book (Genesis, Philippians, Amos…), do read that book all the way through. Get into the habit of finishing what you started! This will also make it easier to remember what is in each book, and to appreciate the larger point of that part of the multivolume library which is our Bible.
Bible Reading Tip 4: Finish reading the entire Bible
It builds confidence—not to mention credibility—if you have actually read the entire Bible. If this is your first time through, keep track of where you have been. (Choose a system that works for you.) Did you know that if you read 3-4 chapters a day, you will have read the entire Bible by the end of the year? I know many Christians who have read the whole Bible 10, 20, 30 or more times through, simply by reading a few chapters a day and remaining consistent—year in, year out.
Well, have you finished the whole Bible? (If not, what’s your plan?)
Bible Reading Tip 5: Put questions to the text.
To understand God’s word, we need to ask such questions as Who is speaking?, To whom is the person speaking? What is the occasion for the message? and How might this relate to us? Every passage has a “context”—a setting in which a truth of God’s word is somehow revealed, clarified, illustrated, or applied. Beware the isolated verse taken out of context, especially if it is being pressed into service to prove a dubious point. Remember, as someone said, “A proof text out of context is a pretext.”
Bible Reading Tip 6: Visit Useful Websites
This tip from Andrew Kaste (Atlanta):
“I thought readers might find a couple of websites useful for deepening their Bible study. The first is www.crosswalk.com which, among many other features, has an online Bible with definitions of most of the meaningful words in the text. In the Bible Study Tools section, select the Online Study Bible. Enter the Scripture in the box and select NAS (or KJV, if you prefer) with Strong's Numbers in the drop-down menu. It'll pull up the scripture and you can click on many of the words to get a lot of useful information about that particular word.
“The second is www.greekbible.com . It has the entire New Testament in Greek along with the definitions of each word. I have found these sites particularly useful in my Bible study, and thought others might as well.”
Bible Reading Tip 7: Be sure to read before/after the passage you are studying.
For example, 1 Corinthians 1:10 urges to be of one mind, to be completely united in thought. Taken by itself, the passage might seem to encourage us to hold the same opinions, with no allowance for variation. And yet that is not the meaning of the text. The disunity referred to is clarified in the rest of the chapter: following personalities rather than following God. That (correct) interpretation allows for considerably broader possibilities than the narrow view that all Christians must agree on opinion matters!
One more example from 1 Corinthians 11:1. Paul urges his readers to imitate him. Is this an undefined order to imitate him in every way? No, for to begin with, the isolated verse itself qualifies the imitation: “as I follow Christ.” Paul did not ask us to imitate him in his marital state, to change our name to “Paul,” or to spend more time in prison! Nor did he ask us to imitate his weaknesses. In context—the discussion of voluntarily surrendering Christian liberties for the sake of Christian love—he reminds us that Christ gave up certain freedoms, as should Paul and his readers. Again, a grave error of misinterpretation (one formerly quite common, in fact) has been avoided by simply reading around the passage to determine the context.
Bible Reading Tip 8: Study your text in more than one translation
No translation is perfect, only the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts! Since no one version is perfect, idiosyncrasies of translation can be detected and guarded against by opening up more than one Bible at a time. This is especially vital if you are someone who prepares lessons for teaching or preaching.
For example, the NIV of Philemon 6 is virtually alone among the 100 or so English translations in rendering “fellowship” as sharing one’s faith in language suggestive of evangelism, something alien to the context, which refers actually to the fellowship between Philemon and Onesimus, among other things. The NIV reads “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” How many lessons have been (mis-)preached from this text? The more literal NAS reads, “and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake.” What a difference!
Especially if you are an older Christian, isn’t it time you read from more versions than just one? Avoid getting into a rut. “Interpretive ruts” can be avoided by reading more than one translation. Furthermore, it is refreshing to hear old ideas in new wording—and may actually lead to a new understanding, even a more accurate understanding, of what God is trying to say to us.
Bible Reading Tip 9: Read Systematically
Haphazard reading of God’s word will not do! Everyone needs a system. The fact is, everyone has a system. Whatever your approach is, that’s your system! We need to ask ourselves: Is my system good? Is it good for me—considering the kind of person I am? Is it working? Reading systematically means reading every book of the Bible in its entirety, as well as reading the Bible in its entirety. That is the only way to understand the overall message, and the only way to comprehend the individual themes, plots, and principles found in each of the 66 biblical books. I ask you again: Do you have a Bible reading plan?
I supposed I knew my Bible,
Reading piecemeal, hit or miss,
Now a bit of John or Matthew,
Now a snatch of Genesis,
Certain chapters of Isaiah,
Certain Psalms (the twenty-third)
Twelfth of Romans, First of Proverbs--
Yes, I thought I knew the Word!
But I found that thorough reading
Was a different thing to do,
And the way was unfamiliar
When I read the Bible through.
You who like to play at Bible,
Dip and dabble, here and there.
Just before you kneel aweary,
And yawn through a hurried prayer;
You who treat the Crown of Writings
As you treat no other book--
Just a paragraph disjointed,
Just a crude impatient look--
Try a worthier procedure
Try a broad and steady view;
You will kneel in very rapture
When you read the Bible through!
—Amos R. Wells
Bible Reading Tip 10: Make sure your reading environment is suitable
Drowsiness and distractions are the enemy. Do you study in a room with frequent interruptions? Are you frequently drifting off (to sleep or to extraneous tangents)? Some of us (though not many) can study successfully in any environment. And there is nothing inherently wrong with studying out of doors. For most of us, however, the choice of setting will be crucial. Is the temperature too high, or is the room stuffy? Find a quiet room, lower the temperature if necessary. Increase the ventilation. As with driving a car, it is vital to stay alert.
Bible Reading Tip 11: Keep one foot in each testament
I have always found it helpful to read both testaments. If we were to give “equal time” to every book or chapter of the Bible, we would be spending three quarters of our time in the O.T. That is fine if you study, say, three O.T. chapters and one N.T. chapter a day. But unless we carefully balance our study, we can lose sight of Christ. He is, after all, the ultimate goal to which every book of the Bible—in both testaments—points. My advice is to do some reading in the O.T. on a daily basis, but also some in the N.T. And remember the old adage, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”
Bible Reading Tip 12: Read the book of the Bible through quickly, then slowly
Let’s say you are studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It is important to get the big picture before getting bogged down in particular passages. My suggestion is to read through Colossians (or Ezra, or Hebrews) quite rapidly at one sitting. Try to take in: the flow of the book, the major themes, recurrent ideas or phrases, the “feel” of the scriptures, and so forth. If you were reading Colossians (four chapters), you could do a rapid reading, or even a skimming through, in one to three minutes. Then go back and read more slowly. As you notice how each passage relates to the whole (including your own favorite, or more familiar, passages), you will come to appreciate the book in a new light. We tend to read atomistically—breaking the whole into small bits. The story line is easily lost. It is healthier, and less likely to lead to misinterpretation, if we read more holistically. Does this make sense?
Bible Reading Tip 13: Use highlighters, pens, and other tools
Although new students of the Bible may feel it is “irreverent,” in time most readers become comfortable writing in their Bibles. I remember the first time I wrote in a Bible. I was only willing to use a pencil, and only with a ruler to perfectly underline the passage I wanted to remember. In time, I “graduated” to a red fine point felt pen. Soon I was carefully drawing boxes around favorite texts, and within a couple of weeks I was even using highlighters! (Be careful, though, that they do not bleed through to the next page, especially if you are reading an ultra slim version of the Bible.) People often ask me what my various colors of highlighting mean. The system is quite complex: the color of the highlighted passage indicates the color of the highlighter I had in my hand that day! All kidding aside, color-coding your texts may work for you, as it does for many.
A final thought: as students in high schools and universities, we generally do not hesitate to mark a passage in a textbook if this will help us better prepare for the exam, or locate the selection when we are working on our research paper. Shouldn’t we take our own Bible study at least as seriously? Your Bible will probably not last you your entire life. Not if you read it every day. You will “move on” to new versions. You will give some Bibles away, and “archive others” after years of faithful service. I would encourage you not to hold back from doing anything that will help you plumb the depths of this incredible book—from any system that will boost your recall, memory, and ability to apply practically what you have been studying!
Bible Reading Tip 14: After reading through the whole Bible...
This is a great way to fortify your knowledge and ensure that insights you have gleaned during the previous Bible reading are not lost. With both Bibles open—your new Bible as well as the previous version—go page by page from Genesis to Revelation and review all your notes and comments.
If you come across things that you have already learned or committed to memory or used to the point that there is no need to transfer them into your new Bible, let them go. But if you think you might lose the insight, go ahead and copy the note, or highlight the same passage, or do whatever you need to do to ensure nothing is lost.
Each time you complete the whole Bible you will find out that you are transferring less and less of the “old” and more and more of the “new.” You will be growing in your knowledge of the Word. And as you do, the Lord will make himself known to you (1 Samuel 3:7).
Bible Reading Tip 15: If you are prone to distraction, why not try reading the Bible aloud?Are you someone whose mind wanders off as soon as you sit down and try to concentrate on your Bible study? There are many things you can do to enhance your attentiveness. One idea is simply to read aloud—as most people in ancient times did (for example, the Ethiopian in Acts 8:30). Other ideas:
• Have a glass of cold water to hand. Drink from it, staying hydrated and alert.
• Turn off the ringers on all telephones. Don’t worry—if it is important they’ll probably leave a message!
• Do some physical exercise before beginning your study—some push-ups, or running in place, or jumping jacks. Get the heart pumping and the blood flowing!
• Shake off the spirit of lethargy. Ask the Lord to give you an attentive mind!
Bible Reading Tip 16: If you’re entering your period of Bible study burdened or distracted, pray first! Sometimes we enter our time of study completely burdened, don’t we? We forget that the Lord wants us to cast our burdens on him (Matthew 11:28-30, 1 Peter 5:7). He delights in comforting us, his sons and daughters. He wants us to be anxious about nothing (Philippians 4:6). If you are anxious when you begin your personal devotional time, do not be surprised if your thoughts jump to your area of anxiety. Why not pray about this first, before you begin to study? Take a deep breath, pray, clear your mind, and prepare to open yourself to the wonders of God’s word!
Bible Reading Tip 17: Read the Bible in another languageIf you are comfortable reading more than one language, why not read through the scriptures in another language? If you read just one language, today’s tip isn’t for you, but for an increasing number of readers of this website, this is a great idea. Reading the scriptures in a different language tends to slow you down and focus your attention on some things you have never thought about before. A few suggestions:
• Don’t read the Bible in another language if you are not comfortable in that language. You are likely to miss the point of the passages you are reading!
• Similarly, don’t read the Bible in another language just to brush up your language skills! You can do that at any time.
• Make sure the other translation is a good one. The Bibles in many languages tend to one of two poles. They may be technically accurate, but they are old, stilted, wooden, and difficult to read. Or they are very easy to read, contemporary in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, but weak in fidelity to the original Greek and Hebrew. For example, if you are reading Spanish, the Reina Valera is an example of the first pole, Dios Habla Hoy of the second. La Nueva Version Internacional is reasonably accurate and strikes a nice balance.
One final suggestion: If you are sharing the Bible with a newcomer to Christianity whose English is very weak, make sure he or she is studying the Bible at home in his or her native tongue. People come to faith faster when the words they hear make sense!
Bible Reading Tip 18: Grasp the temporal framework of the N.T.
Today’s tip is a point of perspective. When you read the New Testament, you will notice three perspectives vis-à-vis Christianity.
First division: the Gospels
The gospels point forward. They describe the last days of Old Testament Judaism, during which time the Kingdom of God is beginning to break in. And yet, technically speaking, there are no Christians yet (John 7:39, Romans 8:9), since the church has not yet begun. Any references to Christian conversion are future. These include Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, and John 3:5.
Third division: the Letters
The letters and Revelation point backward. That is, they look back on and assume Christian conversion. References to becoming followers of Christ all have a time referent in the past. These documents were not written to tell believers how to become saved. If anything, they were written to instruct them how to stay saved. A few such verses would include Galatians 3:26-27, Ephesians 4:20-21, and Colossians 2:11-15. Similarly, when we come to Revelation, the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3) as well as the other twenty chapters of the book are addressed to the converted, not outsiders.
Second division: Acts of the Apostles
It is only in Acts that we see conversion in the present tense. This is the only part of the N.T. in which you can actually see men and women having their sins forgiven. Acts 2:37-41 is the first such passage, and there follow many more.
To put the temporal framework of the N.T. into a sort of linear perspective, consider the following line, and try to keep it in mind as you study the Scriptures.
Gospels-Look Forward –– Acts –– Letters-Look Backwards
Bible Reading Tip 19: Realize that the letters were written to converted insiders During the next few months we will give specific advice on how to read the epistles. The word “epistle” < epistula (Latin), epistolé (Greek) = letter. It is often used in English for a longer letter. (“I finally finished reading the epistle she sent me.”) But in fact, originally an epistle was simply a letter. Perhaps the Latinized form of the word sounded more “spiritual.” At any rate, we now have two words in the English language for letter.
The insight—the “tip”—to understand is that the addressees already understood the gospel, even though the gospels hadn’t yet been written. Reminiscences and records of the words and deeds of Jesus were undoubtedly current and frequently referred to.
As with all conversations, we must exercise caution when hearing only one side. And a letter does indeed represent a conversation. (And not necessarily the start or the end of it; the epistle may embody only a small part of the “middle” of the exchange.)
Finally, do remember that the letters were originally read aloud and publicly—far more than they were read silently or privately.
Bible Reading Tip 20: Try to be sensitive to context and culture Although many persons claim that the Bible is self-interpreting, this is a great oversimplification. There are in fact many parts of the Bible that you have to wrestle with before there is any hope of accurately understanding them and making practical applications. Today’s tip concerns context and culture. Please take a look at 2 Timothy 4:2 and 13. (Note: I am indebted to Gordon Fee for this particular illustration.)
2 Timothy 4:2: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
2 Timothy 4:13: When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
Both are commands, or imperatives. One popular tip to Bible study is to direct the reader to see if there is a promise to be believed or a command to be obeyed. Well, here we have two commands. (Both are in the imperative in the original Greek.) Is it possible to be a bona fide Bible believing Christian without obeying both?
The problem is not with the first command, which is a directive from the apostle Paul to his understudy Timothy. In fact, one often hears this passage read when an evangelist is appointed. (Now, to be truthful, there is no instruction in the N.T. on how to appoint an evangelist—but we won’t go into that right now!) All Bible believing Christians accept that all of us—not just evangelists like Timothy—are to proclaim the good news. But what about the second passage?
How many of us have secured the outer garment that Paul left with Carpus at Troas (Troy)? Have you even seen it, let alone touched it? (I certainly haven’t!) And what about the scrolls and the parchments? How are we to “obey” this command?
To begin with, we must respect context. The directions were not given to us, but to Timothy. Not only that, we do not normally wear cloaks anymore. Nor is it clear what the scrolls and parchments refer to. Biblical literature? Devotional reading? Secular literature? Musical lyrics? Who can say—dogmatically—what Paul was referring to? He knew, and Timothy must have known, or found out in the course of honoring Paul’s wishes, but it is not for you or me to know. We must be content with that reality.
By now it should be clear that while many parts of the Bible are more or less straightforward, others are not. It will not do to blithely assert, “You don’t need to study the background, context, or culture; the Bible does not require interpretation.” For it most certainly does!
Bible Reading Tip 21: Where possible, correlate the letters with Acts.
Many of the letters in the New Testament (the 21 from Romans to Jude) were penned during the time frame of the one generation of church history Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles. This book covers the period 30-60 AD. Not all the letters were written in this time frame (for example, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, and 2 Peter, to name three), but quite a few were.
To illustrate, Paul visited Corinth around 50 AD (Acts 18) and a couple of years later moved on to Ephesus (Acts 19). It was from Ephesus that he wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:7). (Not that this was his first letter to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 5:9]; he wrote at least four, based on the biblical evidence.) Similarly, Romans was written some time later, and this letter mentioned many men and women Paul had come into contact with throughout his journeys as recorded in Acts. The letters of Paul correlate with Acts.
Sometimes indirect evidence from Acts sheds light on an epistle. For example, Galatians deals with the Judaizing doctrine that one must be circumcised and made into a Jew before he can become a Christian. Given the acuteness of the crisis (Galatians 1:6), the fact that the churches in Galatia had been established during the First Missionary Journey (Acts 14, about 48 AD), and the lack of any reference to the decision of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15—which would have been very handy as Paul strove to reason with Galatians who had come under the spell of the circumcision party—it is highly likely that Galatians was written shortly before the Jerusalem Council. Thus we can assign provisional dates to the Council of 49 AD and to Galatians of 48 AD. For more on this, see the excellent volume by Ben Witherington III, The Paul Quest, particularly the “Appendix: Timely Remarks on the Life of Paul.”
• While James was likely written in the 40s, and the author was the same James who presided over the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, it is more difficult to “correlate” his letter with the history of Acts. He appears to be writing to Jewish Christians, but there just isn’t enough information for us to draw many solid conclusions.
• Peter’s two letters were likely both written after the end of Acts (approximately 60 AD).
• John’s letters are thought by most scholars to have been written in the 90s. There is another school of thought, however, which places them as early as the 60s.
• The Hebrew writer—whoever he is!—wrote his missive shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem (as intimated in chapter 8). I believe it was written in the late 60s, quite a few years after Acts 28.
• Jude, written by Jesus’ brother of the same name, has been dated to the 60s, and by some scholars even later. Once again, this is too late for the time frame of Acts.
• As we can see, Paul’s letters are the ones most easily understood against the backdrop of Acts (and vice versa). This fact should not be surprising, since Luke’s interest in Peter and Paul (more than in any of the other apostles) led him to write a book (Acts) covering some 25 years of Paul’s life.
In short, this week’s Bible tip pertains to the time period 30-60 AD. The letters of Paul can be “cross-checked” against the record of Luke, who was Paul’s frequent traveling companion in Acts. We are fortunate to be able to make comparisons in many cases and even connect the dots in some cases to flesh out the rather skeletal “history” the N.T. provides us. Not that that is the New Testament’s fault; it never intended to provide a full history, only to relay the pieces of the picture the Holy Spirit determined we needed for our spiritual benefit.
Bible Reading Tip 22: Reading Paul's Letter to the Galatians Galatians is Paul’s first surviving letter, dating to 48 AD. Only six chapters long, it is full of emotion and passion. Things to keep in mind:
• Galatia lay in modern day Turkey. Most conservative scholars believe this letter was sent to a group of congregations in South Galatia.
• These were churches Paul had established during the First Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14), in the late ’40s.
• Paul’s conviction and anger come from the very serious threat to the gospel. People’s salvation is at stake!
• The Judaizers are teaching that unless one is circumcised first, he cannot become a Christian.
• Galatians was probably written shortly before the Jerusalem Council of 49 AD, since there is no reference to the Council’s counsel, which would have been apropos, given the issues at hand.
• When Paul speaks about “the law” or “works,” he is not referring to the necessity of obeying God’s law, but to the futile attempt to be justified by keeping the Law of Moses.
Bible Reading Tip 23: Reading Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians
After three Sabbath days’ work in Thessalonica, Paul penned two letters to strengthen believers. The year the letters were written was 50 AD. Things to keep in mind:
• Paul established the church at Thessalonica during the 2nd missionary journey (Acts 16-18). What we call Greece at that time consisted of Macedonia (in the north) and Achaia (in the south). Thessalonica was a principal city of Macedonia, and the example of the Thessalonians “rang out” (chapter 1) throughout both regions. Acts 17 is when the church itself was established.
• It is certainly possible that Paul had been there only 15 days, providing that spanned three Saturdays, but it’s also possible he spent a longer time in the city before beginning to preach publicly. This is something to be considered, given the depth of emotional connection Paul seems to have established with the believers in this city. Would he have formed such a tight bond in only a few weeks?
• Those who have died as Christians—who have not remained alive until the return of the Lord—will still be saved, as Paul insists (chapter 4). It seems some members had concluded that all was lost for those who died before the second coming!
• Paul also reminds them that they are to live productive lives right up until the very end. He also tells them not to fall for attempts to predict the time of the return of the Lord. Would that modern-day “prophets” heeded Paul’s instruction!
• 2 Thessalonians, written just a few months after 1 Thessalonians, deals with confusion caused (in part) by the first letter. Apparently some members, enthused by Paul’s words and hopeful that the Lord might return at any moment, were dropping out of responsible civic life.
• Paul tells them in this second letter that the end will not come right away, though we must be prepared for it to come at any time.
• 2 Thessalonians 3:17 also demonstrates Paul’s custom of writing the concluding words of his epistles personally, taking over from his amanuensis (secretary/scribe).
Bible Reading Tip 24: Reading Paul's Letters to the Corinthians It was on the Third Missionary Journey (Acts 18-20) that Paul had established the church at Corinth (Acts 18), in about 51 AD. Corinth was a port town, and a crossroads for commerce going east-west (by sea) as well as for traffic moving north-south (by land). Take a look at a good Bible map and notice the strategic position of the city. Try to keep in mind:
• Corinth was an extremely worldly city, with all the vices of the world collecting and multiplying there. Temple prostitution, for example, was common, and this fact explains Paul’s references in 1 Corinthians 6.
• Corinth also boasted a number of charismatic temples. Various Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and Roman sects abounded. The favorite “gifts” among the pagans: prophecy, “tongues,” and healing! While the Corinthians had genuine miraculous gifts of the Spirit, they were tempted to misuse them—to fall into old patterns of self-glorification instead of putting others first.
• In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to a concerning oral report (from “Chloe’s people) and a letter from the Corinthians. There is thus a double agenda: to respond to the concerning news he has heard (divisions, immorality, etc) and to answer the specific questions the Corinthians had written down. He deals with the oral reports in the first six chapters (disunity, immorality, lawsuits…). Then, starting in chapter 7 (“Now concerning…”) he replies to their questions (singleness and celibacy, pagan feasts, women, communion, spiritual gifts, the resurrection, the collection for the poor saints…).
• 1 Corinthians is (at least) Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, since he refers to his earlier letter in 5:9.
• 2 Corinthians refers to another letter (7:8), one in which Paul said some very pointed and sobering things. The context of the letter—a direct challenge to Paul’s authority—does not harmonize well with 1 Corinthians. This means that 2 Corinthians is really (at the very least) the fourth Corinthian letter.
• In 2 Corinthians, Paul responds to challenges to this authority, and makes a key point about leadership and suffering. The true mark of leadership, Paul insists, is suffering. (This theme had earlier been elaborated in chapter 6 of Galatians.)
Bible Reading Tip 25: Reading Paul's Letter to the Romans
Paul had never personally visited Rome at the time of his writing of the epistle. Rome, at about 1 million in population, was the capital and largest city of the Empire. Keep in mind:
• Paul is writing Romans from Corinth—on his third visit there (2 Corinthians 13:1). We know this because Phoebe is going to Rome from Cenchrea, the seaport of Corinth (Romans 16:1, Acts 18:18). The letter may be dated to the mid-’50s.
• The strategic purpose of Romans: to preserve unity among Jews and Gentiles. Though there was apparently (as of yet) no boiling issue of unity, Paul realizes the strategic significance of Rome, and writes the letter to steel the congregation against potential seeds of division.
• Even though Paul has never been to Rome, he knows many people there, as the list of greetings in chapter 16 makes clear. The early churches were interconnected through relationships, and personal visits and letters were how they remained connected. These were also the principal means used by the apostles to keep up with the churches.
• Paul does not claim to have any particular authority over the Romans. He is not the “pope,” or the human “leader” of the Christian movement. Paul appeals to the Romans mainly on the basis of their mutual brotherhood in Christ.
• Paul is hoping to transit in Rome en route to Spain (chapter 15), with the financial assistance of the Roman Christians.
• Rome is the city where Paul would be arrested and imprisoned (around 58-60 AD)—thereafter released. (Acts 28:30-31 indicates that the maximum two-year period of incarceration ran its course, and unlike the situation in Acts 24:27, Paul was not kept in prison [against the law].)
• Thence he would launch into a fourth missionary journey (see the Pastoral Epistles)—only to be re-arrested and tried in the latter years of Nero. Nero crucified Peter in 64 AD, and Paul (as a Roman citizen) was beheaded no later than 68 (the year Nero took his own life).
Bible Reading Tip 26: Reading Paul's Letter to the Ephesians Ephesus was a leading city in Asia Minor (Turkey), and probably the fourth largest city in the Empire (after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch). Keep in mind:
• Ephesians is one of the “prison epistles” (see 6:20). Other prison epistles are Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul was incarcerated when he penned this letter, quite likely in Rome. The year is approximately 60 AD.
• Among the churches in Asia, some preachers were pressuring Gentile Christians to conform to Judaism. There was also considerable anxiety about fate (the astrological powers). On top of these pressures, the allure of sin and darkness was tempting some of the Ephesian members. Paul reminds his readers that Christ is supreme in power, and has vanquished not only the “dividing wall of hostility” in the O.T. law, but also the powers of evil in the heavenly places. His power is sufficient to conquer anything besetting us!
• Christ is supreme in every way, and in him we have every spiritual blessing.
• The original letter was not addressed to the Ephesians. In May 2005 I was able to view the earliest surviving copy of Ephesians, no later than 200 AD. It does not contain the words “in Ephesus” in 1:1. This has led many scholars to suppose that this was actually a circular letter, and would have made the rounds to a number of cities—not unlike the horseshoe-shaped mail-delivery to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3.
• Finally, notice that Paul has accepted that the Lord might not be returning very soon (3:21). Throughout all generations, Jesus Christ was to be glorified. The church was not a temporary institution—a sort of jury-rigged shelter thrown together when Jesus’ return did not take place immediately! It is how and where the Lord most magnificently expresses his glory and will and love for all humanity.
Bible Reading Tip 27: Reading Paul's Letter to the Philippians Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia, which roughly corresponds to northern Greece. It did not have a synagogue; that is why when Paul established the church there (Acts 16) he began at the river—a common place of prayer for Jews and God-fearers. The Emperor Cult was strong in Philippi, and after the church was founded, suppression challenged believers’ joy. Keep in mind:
• Paul is writing from prison himself, and models Christian joy in an excellent and admirable way! (See 1:12-14.)
• The letter is written to the church at Philippi, along with the overseers and servants (traditionally translated “bishops and deacons,” which really only transliterates the original Greek words: episkopos and diakonos). Interestingly, no mention is made of evangelists, whose work is primarily among those outside the congregation, while elders and servants minister primarily inside. I imagine that, while the letter is directed to the entire church, Paul especially hopes that his words will be heeded by those in position of influence.
• Some brothers were apparently preaching from false motives (Philippians 1), taking advantage of Paul’s incarceration to further their own spheres of influence. In addition, as in Galatians and Colossians, Judaizers—those who insist that one must become a Jew before he becomes a Christian—were troubling Paul (chapter 3). And still, he is joyful!
• Timothy is the model Christian in Paul’s book (2:19-24), illustrating the very example of Christ, who “emptied himself” (2:5-11). (Theologians called this kenosis—the Greek word for emptying.)
• Though joy is certainly a major theme of Philippians, even more emphasis is laid up on Christ.
• Paul ends his letter with a real punch, reminding us that “those [saints] who belong to Caesar’s household” [Roman government workers, not necessarily blood relatives of Nero] send their greetings!
Bible Reading Tip 28: Reading Paul's Letter to the Colossians Colosse is in western Turkey (ancient Asia Minor), and quite near to the other ancient cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis (4:13). Paul is probably writing around 60 AD (sometime before his release date from the Roman prison where he spent two years—Acts 28:30). As you read, keep in mind:
• Colossians in many passages is parallel to Ephesians, and both letters are full of teaching about the cosmic place of the church in God’s scheme of things. Try to read them in tandem, noting every parallel.
• Paul did not establish this congregation—Epaphras did (1:7). And yet this does not dampen his enthusiasm and concern for the Colossians and Laodiceans (1:28-2:21).
• In this epistle, Paul is attempting to help the Colossians deal with false teaching. Christ is the answer to the significant questions of life, not Gnostic speculations (2:4, 8), a return to Judaism (2:16-17), or external rule-keeping (2:20-23)!
• As with the other prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon), Paul is in prison as he writes (4:18). And yet he has recently had fellowship with many brothers: Timothy (co-author of Colossians); Tychicus (4:7), who is presumably the letter-bearer; Onesimus (4:8), who is certainly the runaway slave of Philemon (see comments next week); Aristarchus (4:10); Mark (4:10), the cousin of Barnabas—see Acts 15:39; Jesus called Justus (4:11); Epaphras (4:12); Luke (4:14); Demas (4:14)—but see 2 Timothy 4:10. It is possible that not all of these men visited Paul in Rome; to some extent, Paul may be merely relaying greetings. Still, he was hardly in solitary confinement.
• Finally, the short letter of Philemon may have been delivered along with Colossians to the church (4:16), especially assuming that Philemon is “Laodiceans.” (Compare the two letters.)
Bible Reading Tip 29: Reading Paul's Letter to the Philemon
First of all, please review the comments on Colossians (last week), since this short letter is bound up with Colossians and the situation surrounding its writing. This is the shortest of Paul’s surviving personal letters. Keep in mind that:
• Paul is writing from prison.
• Philemon is a Christian slave-owner. (Yes, let that sink in.) And Onesimus was his runaway slave, who became a Christian through Paul’s influence.
• Note that under O.T. law, no runaway was to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). But then this situation was not governed by O.T. law, was it?
• Paul is writing not only to Philemon, but to others too, including the entire church that met in his house—who are also let in on the situation and conversation.
• His adroit handling of this sensitive situation is a model for Christians:
• In how to approach with a social issue (obliquely).
• In how to persuade without manipulating,
• The little letter of Philemon is likely the letter that accompanied Colossians (see Colossians 4:16).
• Ask the question, Why did the Holy Spirit put Philemon in the Bible? What am I supposed to learn?
Bible Reading Tip 30: Reading Paul's Letter to Timothy and Titus
Paul writes his “Pastoral Epistles”—so named because of the pastoral advice he gives to Timothy and Titus in order that they may engage in effective pastoral ministry in Ephesus and on Crete—some time after his release from Roman imprisonment. Most scholars place 1 Timothy first in the sequence, then Titus, and 2 Timothy as the last of his surviving letters, penned no later than 68 AD (the year of Nero’s suicide). Do keep in mind:
• 1-2 Timothy and Titus are not only private letters, but are actually written to communities. (We know they are public because you [plural] appears at the end of each of these letters.)
• Timothy is a representative of the apostle Paul. Be careful how you extrapolate his function and role to church leadership today.
• Ask questions like: “What did the elders do in the first century? Although they led the local churches, were they open to outside influence? What exactly was the evangelist’s role? How may we have been affected by our own traditions about these roles?”
• In each of these letters, false teachers are troubling the churches. One of the greatest buffers against their pernicious influence is eldership. One the greatest problems in the churches, opening the doors to false teachers, is unspiritual leadership.
For further study on the Pastorals, please see my audio set. 1-2 Timothy & Titus.
Click here for tips 31-52.