To the end of the earth

The final words of Jesus to his disciples, as he stood on the Mount of Olives before disappearing from their sight were: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

This commission to his followers is clear enough but if you continue reading the book of the Acts of the Apostles you start to realise that it is charting the outworking of that command. 

After the introduction in chapter 1, the narrative tells of remarkable events in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when Peter and the apostles spoke to the gathered crowds.  Regardless of their native tongue, the people heard a remarkable claim – God has created something new, he has raised Jesus his son from the dead!  He had been seen alive again and this was the evidence that he was God’s Messiah, not just for Israel but for “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21).  Acts chapter 2 to 7 recount the impact of this extraordinary claim on the people in Jerusalem.

From chapter 8 to 12 the narrative spreads out from Jerusalem to the surrounding countryside – Judea and Samaria. The first non-Jewish converts start to embrace the universal call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10).  Communities of believers start to develop, founded on the ground-breaking concept that no temple or building is required to worship God, the very community itself is the temple – a living temple!

The spread of the message of this new way of living which breaks down barriers (between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female) now starts to snowball.  Acts chapters 13 to 20 describe the missionary journeys of Paul through the Roman Empire.  His church planting achievements are astonishing, but the work for Paul was all consuming, fraught with both physical danger and the emotional stress of guiding the young Jesus-communities.  Despite all this, Paul had one further ambition – to take the Gospel of Jesus to the very centre of the Empire that stood for the opposite of Jesus – to take the Gospel to Rome.

Acts chapters 21 to 28 tell of the unexpected turn of events that eventually brought Paul to Rome, where, even while under house arrest, he actively preached the Gospel and supported the church there.  And here is where the book of Acts ends.  The Gospel had indeed travelled from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria and to the other side of the Empire. It had spread from Jerusalem in the backwater province of Judea to the centre of the world – Rome. 

But the book also finishes with this description of the people in Rome who heard Paul: “and some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved” (Acts 28:24).  It’s almost as if the book is begging the same question of its readers – will you be convinced?  Read the book of Acts for yourself, follow the extraordinary history of the spread of the Gospel along with the trials and triumphs of the characters that fulfilled their Master’s commission and perhaps be inspired to take it up yourself!

We think the Bible and its story-line centred in Jesus is the most wonderful thing.  We would love to learn with you and enrich your appreciation of the Scriptures, whatever your current level of knowledge!  We provide remote learning courses and materials so that you can read, study and enjoy the Bible at your own pace.  Please take a look at them here.

Latest Podcast: Why read the Bible?

For our final podcast of 2020, we’re bringing you a discussion we recorded when lockdown started in the UK in March 2020.  It seems like an age ago but also like yesterday – when we were just getting to the point of that first lockdown haircut!  The subject is “Why read the Bible?” which seems just as relevant as we go into a new year in a world very much still in the grip of uncertainty.  And so, whatever 2020 has been like for you, whether it’s given you sadness or joy or additional stress and strain, perhaps it’s comforting to know that the still small voice of the divine, revealed through an ancient text, will always be there waiting for us to listen.  So we hope you enjoy this discussion and we wish you all the best for 2021.

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You can also listen to our podcast from the Bible Feed website here, or you can search for “Bible Feed” and find us on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon, InTune and probably a few other podcast apps!

Chosen by God?

The Biblical narrative appears to be all about Israel. If you read it quickly you might come away with the impression that God just arbitrarily chose a nation over all others and showed them favouritism.  You may gain the impression that God is quite happy to favour some people and to leave others out, just ignoring them. 

Reading the Biblical text, however, soon suggests that this is not the whole picture.  Deuteronomy 7:7-8 makes it clear that God’s choosing of Israel was not due to any special attribute or behaviour they had displayed, instead it was because of the promises made to the fathers of the nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Let’s think a little about what those promises and other information from the Old and New Testaments tell us about the role of Israel in the grand narrative of the Bible.

In the Old Testament

  1. The promises to Abraham (or Abram as his name was originally) given in Genesis 12:3 include these words “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”
  2. When the nation was formed and given its law, Moses urged the people in Deuteronomy 4:6 “to keep them and do them for that will be your wisdom and you understanding in the sight of the peoples”.  One purpose of the law for this chosen people was to project God’s wisdom to all the people around them.
  3. When initiating the covenant at Sinai the words of God are recorded as: “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:5-6).  This is suggesting that the nation as a whole could act as priests, intermediaries, to bring all peoples to God.
  4. The prophetic image of the restored Jerusalem is that when it is lifted up: “all nations shall flow to it…that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

In the New Testament

  1. Paul in writing to the Galatians declares that believers, whether Jew and Gentile, are “all one in Christ Jesus” and “if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise”.
  2. In the book of Revelation, John hears a description of a people numbered according to the tribes of Israel but when he turns around to see the great multitude, it is composed of people “from every nation” (Revelation 7:4-9)

The picture emerging here is of a people chosen so that they might represent God’s ways to the surrounding peoples, God was reaching out to all peoples through one people.  The history of Israel in the Bible demonstrates that this was not quite the outcome that they achieved, more often Israel was influenced by the nations around them rather than influencing them.  But eventually the aim was achieved in one from the nation – Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God to all.
 
In short (and to quote New Testament scholar, Tom Wright) Israel were “God’s chosen people, chosen from the world but equally chosen for the world.”(1)  Let’s read the Biblical narrative with that perspective in mind and try to apply it to our role as Christians in a world which needs the influence of Christ.

  1. Tom Wright, 2018, “Paul A Biography”, SPCK, page 18

We think the Bible and its story-line centred in Jesus is the most wonderful thing.  We would love to learn with you and enrich your appreciation of the Scriptures, whatever your current level of knowledge!  We provide remote learning courses and materials so that you can read, study and enjoy the Bible at your own pace.  Please take a look at them here.

Podcast: Founding a Faith

Our latest podcast episode is all about the new book “Founding a Faith” recently published by Tom Gaston.  Dan Weatherall asks Tom about some of the concepts explored in the book, such as whether we should build our faith like a tower with a foundation or as a flexible web of interconnected ideas – which is more resilient?  Also discussed is the whole perplexing issue of why God should be so hidden and what that means we should expect from the Bible as containing his revelation.  Listen in to hear Tom’s perspective.

You can listen to our podcast from the Bible Feed website here, or you can search for “Bible Feed” and find us on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon, InTune and probably a few other podcast apps!

Tom’s book can be purchased from the usual online book suppliers, including here.

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah

At the end of the first section of our online Learn to Read the Bible Effectively course students are asked who the prophet Isaiah is talking about in Chapter 53 when he says things like “he was despised and rejected” and “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows“. The answer expected is that it’s a prophecy of Jesus and his suffering to save others on the cross, however one of the most fascinating aspects of Bible study is that the text will almost always connect to events at the time it was written as well as speaking of God’s grand plan of salvation in Jesus.

Isaiah 53 is like this. The prophet was a contemporary of King Hezekiah (Isa 1:1) and Isaiah’s words in chapters 52 and 53 would have resonated with his immediate audience in Hezekiah’s reign when Jerusalem unexpectedly escaped from an Assyrian siege and King Hezekiah himself recovered from a terrible, disfiguring illness. “Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.” (Isa 52:9)

The section of text from Isa 52:13 to the end of chapter 53 is known as one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs. In this one, the Servant is described as having a marred visage and form (52:14), he is considered to be stricken (53:4) for the transgression of his people (53:8).

The particular hebrew word for stricken is used peculiarly to describe disfiguring skin conditions under the Law of Moses (Leviticus 13 & 14) and shows that the backdrop to this prophecy of Messiah was Hezekiah’s illness and his recovery. Hezekiah’s recovery from a life threatening illness (scholars think it may have been Elephantiasis) meant that he was able to marry and have a son and heir. So Isaiah says “he who was cut off out of the land of the living…shall see his seed” (Isa 53:8,10).

There is a further connection however, revealed by the Apostle Paul when he said that Christ “rose again the third day according to the scriptures” 1 Cor 15:4. Where do the scriptures predict that Christ would rise the 3rd day? Well, we find that when Hezekiah had been healed he went up to the House of the Lord “on the third day” (2 Kings 20:8). Here then the scriptures predict, through the experiences of King Hezekiah, that the greater Servant of the LORD, Jesus himself, would rise again the 3rd day.

What grace is given to us that “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous” (Isa 53:11). As Hezekiah bore his terrible disease, in effect as a symbol of the wrongdoing of his people, Jesus Christ also bears our iniquities, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

We think the Bible and its story-line centred in Jesus is the most wonderful thing.  We would love to learn with you and enrich your appreciation of the Scriptures, whatever your current level of knowledge!  We provide remote learning courses and materials so that you can read, study and enjoy the Bible at your own pace.  Please take a look at them here.