Patterns within Patterns

Eli T. Evans

Before assembly lines, computer-aided drafting and universal public education, replication was the accepted way to produce crafts and craftsmen. Without a blueprint, the best way for a carpenter to build a certain kind of bench would be to reproduce an example. Likewise, the best way to build a certain kind of carpenter was to emulate a master carpenter by working at his side. Tradesmen didn’t go to college; they apprenticed. Nor were there any Bible colleges to mass-produce Christians.

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Unlike the debate societies of the Greek philosophers or the Torah schools of the Jewish synagogues (from which they were cast out), early Christians were trained through direct contact with other Christians. Indeed, discipleship is nothing more than apprenticeship extended into all areas of life and worship: behavior, speech and thought.

The Thessalonians were such good apprentices of Paul that their reputation spread among the other churches (1 Thess 1:7–8; 2 Thess 1:3–4; see also 1 Tim 5:10). This fact brings Paul great joy, even in the midst of personal hardship (1 Thess 1:6; 2:19–20; 3:9). He knows that through them, the church will branch out and grow—beyond him, and if necessary, without him (1 Thess 4:9; 5:1).

Each branch of a tree is a smaller copy of the one it sprouted from, all the way back to the trunk. If all the branches follow the right pattern, the tree will be well-formed, but if a branch is deformed, it will break the chain of healthy replication, and any branches that grow from it will be malformed.

In this regard, Paul commends Thessalonian believers for being good, healthy branches in the Christian tree, and he encourages them to continue to grow as “imitators” of himself, Christ and other churches (1 Thess 1:6; 2:14). He encourages them to repeat the pattern of living that he showed them (1 Thess 4:1–2, 11–12; 2 Thess 3:7–9). In this way, they would “become an example” for other churches and even the world (1 Thess 1:7; 4:12).

Thus, Paul’s main ongoing concern for the Thessalonians is not that they recall his best sermons while he was with them, or even that they read and disseminate his letters, but rather that they remember how he treated them and how he worked and lived when he was among them. In addressing the problem of some lazy members of the community, he doesn’t appeal to the Thessalonians’ intellect through reasoned argumentation, but to their memory: “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you” (2 Thess 3:6–9). Having been shown the pattern, they should have no need for further teaching on this point. Nor did they have any “need for anyone to write” to them about brotherly love or the timing of the second coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:9; 5:1).

In general, Paul harbored deep suspicion of teachers and “super-apostles” who made their appeal through “smooth words and flattery” rather than by aspiring to “live quietly [among their disciples] and to mind [their] own affairs” (1 Thess 2:5; 1 Thess 4:11; see also Rom 16:18; 1 Cor 1:17; 2:1–5; 2 Cor 11:5–6). It isn’t a know-nothing bias against learning as such—Paul was well-educated and could hold his own in a debate (just ask Peter or the Galatians)—but he had no patience for “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words,” nor endless discussions of “myths” and “speculations” (1 Tim 1:4; 4:7; 6:4; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14). It’s worth noting that every time Paul uses the word “doctrine,” it is in the context of a whole-life pattern of ministry, where followers speak and act the way their leaders do. For Paul, the point of Christian learning is sanctification and growth in personal holiness, not to gain ammunition for theological turf wars.

It’s tempting to think of Paul as having a purely rhetorical bent. All that remains of his teachings are his letters, which of necessity were written when he was far away from his audience. Being even further away ourselves, it is comfortable to view him through the lens of the theological treatise he wrote to the members of the Roman church—whom he had never met in person, either. Nevertheless, the letters to the Thessalonians show that Paul preferred an incarnational style of ministry whenever possible, a hands-on method in which he reared his spiritual children like a nursing mother or an admonishing father would (1 Thess 2:7, 11–12). Even when he was unable to be with them in person—or as he puts it, when he was “torn away” and could “bear it no longer” (1 Thess 2:17; 3:1)—he was still “with them in heart” (1 Thess 2:17; compare 1 Cor 5:3; Phil 1:27; Col 2:5). Whether present or absent, Paul was always expecting (and praying) that each brother and sister would be sanctified, that is, conformed to the image of the Son of God—copies of copies, never flawless, but nevertheless true and faithful reproductions of the perfect original, Jesus Christ.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 5

How Many Times is Jesus Coming Back?

Michael S. Heiser

Few things in the Bible attract more attention than prophecies about the end times. Even people with only a passing acquaintance with the Bible know that it foretells a second coming of Jesus. Those who study the Bible know the book of Revelation reveals that the second coming brings an end to the reign of the antichrist (the “beast”; Rev 19:11–21). The risen Christ, the incarnation of God, returns to earth not as a suffering Savior, but as the glorious warrior-king. But does the Bible describe an earlier return of Jesus—one that precedes this triumphant arrival?

The “Rapture”

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Some Christians believe that 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 describes how all believers will be taken from earth, dead or alive, at an appearing of Jesus before the second coming described in Revelation 19.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:16–17).

This earlier return of Jesus is called the “rapture” by believers who embrace this idea. The term is derived from the Latin word rapiemur (from rapio, meaning “to carry off”) used by the translator of the Latin Vulgate for the Greek word harpazō (ἁρπάζω), translated “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

Other Christians, however, reject the idea that 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of a different event than the return of Jesus to earth described in Revelation 19. For them, there will only be one return of Jesus in the future. So, who’s right?

Harmonizing

The answer to the question is “it depends.” If we were to read all the passages in the New Testament that speak of Jesus’ future return, along with Old Testament passages that speak of a final, climactic visitation by God on earth that will put an end to evil (“the Day of the Lord”), we would notice immediately that they do not agree in the details or descriptions. For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 seemingly has Jesus returning in the air, gathering believers into the clouds, whereas the prophet Zechariah foretold the physical arrival of the pierced Lord on the Mount of Olives with His holy ones at the Day of the Lord (Zech 12:10; 14:1–5; compare Rev 19:14).

Interpreters are forced to make a decision: Should we take these verses and split them into two events, or should we harmonize them? The former approach produces two events: a rapture and a second coming. Harmonization, the second approach, eliminates the rapture and leaves only one event: the second coming. Harmonization is a tried-and-true method frequently used by interpreters to resolve disagreements between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It is also used to reconcile Old Testament accounts of Israelite history recorded in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. But many see the harmonized differences as “inconsistencies” between biblical prophecies.

The Bible doesn’t telegraph which interpretive approach is correct. There is no appendix on interpretation following the book of Revelation. Both views are based on choices we bring to the text. Neither is self-evident as the “biblical position.” That realization should prompt us to act with humility and charity toward each other, no matter what position we take.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 5

After the Storm

John D. Barry

Jeremiah 29:1–30:24; Romans 6:1–14; Proverbs 20:13–30

As we blink and squint in the light that emerges after a storm, we marvel that the sun was there all along and we just couldn’t see it. The same is true during times of difficulty. When we’re in pain or worried, it seems impossible to find God, but in retrospect, it always seems obvious: God was there all along.

Jeremiah prophesied to God’s people about their unraveling. The people heard words from Jeremiah’s mouth that must have seemed hopeless and full of despair. But in Jeremiah 29, we catch a glimpse of the light that comes after: “Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and father sons and daughters … and multiply there, and you must not be few” (Jer 29:5–6).

Even in exile, God will continue to guide His people. Because of their sins, they have endured (and lost) war and have been driven away from the land that God gave them; but God remains with them nonetheless. They may need to experience the pain of exile to understand the consequences of turning away from God, but God still plans to be good to them. He will provide for them.

We witness a parallel picture in Rom 6. After describing the death that sin brings into the world and the current sad state of humanity, Paul presents a full vision of living without sin—of conquering the very problem that drove God’s people into exile: “What therefore shall we say? Shall we continue in sin, in order that grace may increase? May it never be! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1–2).

Even with the grace God has offered us, Paul encourages us to live the vision God has created through Jesus—one that strives to be sinless. Likewise, Jeremiah does not offer empty words without the command that God’s people follow Him with their entire beings (Jer 29:8–14).

We have all made mistakes. We’ve all lost ourselves in the storms—in storms we caused and storms that came upon us for no apparent reason. But what’s certain in both instances is that God is with us and desires for us to be one with Him.

What storm are you currently in, coming out of, or anticipating? What is God teaching you through it? What is He asking of you?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Shelf Life Book Review: Bible Savvy Series

James Matichuk

Bible Savvy Series

In the Bible Savvy series, a collection of four short books, James L. Nicodem provides a brief guide for understanding and interpreting the Bible. He especially writes for those who are interested in the Bible but intimidated by its size, scope and ancient context.

In the first volume, Epic: The Storyline of the Bible, Nicodem summarizes the story of the Bible with an emphasis on redemption. The second volume, Foundation: The Reliability of the Bible, covers issues from inspiration and inerrancy to the formation of the canon and the doctrine of revelation. Context: How to Understand the Bible explores how we can understand the Bible through studying the historical, literary, theological and immediate context of each book. In Walk: How to Apply the Bible, Nicodem proposes a structure of Context, Observation, Message and Application to bring the Bible off the page and into our lives. According to Nicodem, once we understand a passage in context, our personal observations of the passage’s features prompt us to discover the message God has for us. Then we make a plan and put the passage into practice.

Nicodem’s engaging writing and study guides make this Bible Savvy series a good choice for group Bible studies.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1

Meeting God

Elizabeth Vince

April 11 came and went. Our grace period was over. If we didn’t vacate the country by the next day, my husband and I would be illegal residents of Canada. Not wanting to overextend our welcome, we packed a few essentials and drove across the border into the state of Washington. There, we would wait for his work visa. “It will be two weeks tops,” we assured ourselves.

Days, then weeks ticked by with no word. Our optimism deflated along with our rainy-day fund. After two months in limbo, we faced a decision: wait it out or move on. In the process, we each encountered our own demons.

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I’ve never favored spontaneity. When it comes to making major decisions, I research. I arm myself with lists of pros and cons. Flexibility must be served with a selection of practical options. As the plans that had seemed definite eroded alongside my sense of control, worry became my constant companion. Rather than find comfort in Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:25–27, I felt chastised: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. … Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” “That’s great and all,” I thought. “But what does God’s provision actually look like?”

It can sometimes be difficult to see prayer and trust in God as viable solutions.

Meanwhile, my husband had to grapple with his own questions. After all, it was his job on the line, his career in peril. His confidence in God’s plan was giving way to uncertainty. “What if I’m misinterpreting God’s direction? Does creating a backup plan and exploring options mean my faith is faltering? How long is long enough?”

Our individual anxieties isolated us and set us on separate paths on this journey we were stuck on—his one of waiting, mine one of worrying. When my life was comfortable and my future secure, seeking God’s guidance seemed like a last resort. Even His Word felt like a backup plan. Now, with all that security gone, it was difficult for me to grasp that we were relying on such abstract ideas for answers.

As each day passed, our waiting on God’s guidance dragged us closer to complete dependence on His provision. What had once felt like well-intentioned advice became a concrete directive: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18).

The words of 1 Thessalonians 5:11 also came to us as a stern reprimand: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” God’s Word doesn’t allow for struggling in isolation; He calls us to rely on each other and, most important, to depend on Him.

Taking these words to heart became our balm in this ordeal. When despair threatened to overwhelm, we tackled it with words of encouragement; in the process, we gained opportunities to uncover insecurities and affirm each other’s strengths. As we wrestled with the tough questions, we caught glimpses of each other’s doubts and convictions. Together, we accepted the reality of walking in God’s will and relying on Him to provide. To our delight, God met us in our surrender, surpassing our expectations with provision through friends and strangers who also took these words seriously, lending resources and support to a couple of humbled refugees.

Trusting in the unseen can be a lesson in humility. Waiting patiently for the Lord can seem like inaction. But we can trust in our God, who “inclined to me and heard my cry … and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” (Psa 40:1–2). May you thrive in the security of God’s guidance and provision.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 5