Our (In)Significance

Jessi Strong

For most of my childhood, I didn’t know I was weird. I grew up homeschooled, and most of my friends came from conservative Christian households similar to my own. When I finally figured it out, I embarked on a series of attempts to fit in. Often that meant repeating jokes I didn’t understand, quoting movies other people liked, or pretending to be familiar with music I didn’t listen to.

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I became an expert on a topic overnight in an effort to create a niche for myself. My contributions to conversation always began with things like, “That’s nothing. One time, I …” And while there was nothing inherently wrong with my desire to have friends and fit in, my attempts at belonging became unhealthy when my goal changed from finding human connection to establishing my own importance.

My mother was the first to suggest that seeking to be the center of attention was not the best way to make new friends. Instead, she suggested, “Find someone at the party who doesn’t have anyone to talk to. If you can make their night better, you’ll end up having fun too.”

Mom’s advice to look outside my own self-interest was a practical application of Paul’s instructions for the Philippian church: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:3–4).

Earlier in his letter, Paul warns the Philippians that some men were preaching the gospel to inflate their own self-worth (1:15–17). When discussing those who were not preaching the true gospel, Paul appeals to Christ’s example of humility.

In my search for approval, I was trying to fulfill my own needs, but I had little motivation to look out for others’ interests. Feeling well-liked inflated my conceit—it didn’t teach me to elevate others above myself or to sacrifice for them.

Little by little, I changed my approach. I began to look for the new person in the room. Instead ofdominating the conversation, I learned to ask questions. On the surface, I was practicing useful friend-making strategies, but underneath I was undergoing a change of heart. In his letter, Paul goes on to admonish the Philippians to take their example from Jesus Christ:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (2:6–8).

This call to imitate Christ’s humility can be hard for us to hear. It turns our working model of social class on its head. We like knowing our place—especially if it’s a good one. But the gospel levels the playing field. We are all sinners. And if we are all equally in need of God’s grace, how can we evaluate our worth by comparing ourselves with others?

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Can Christians Really Do “All Things”?

Derek R. Brown

“I am able to do all things by the one who strengthens me.”

Paul’s bold declaration in Philippians 4:13 is one of the most commonly quoted passages in the New Testament. We find the verse on everything—from clothing to tattoos, and even eye makeup worn by professional athletes. A friend of mine recently quoted this verse to support her belief that God would help her achieve an exercise-related goal.

The assumption is that Paul’s statement promises that we can accomplish any task in our lives because Christ will strengthen us. We invoke this verse to comfort ourselves and others in difficult circumstances. While the Bible affirms God’s ability to do anything he pleases (e.g., Matt 19:26; Mark 9:23; compare Job 42:2; Jer 32:17), this is not Paul’s point in Philippians 4:13.

Context of Philippians 4:13

If we look at the surrounding context of this passage, we find that Paul’s primary concern is the Philippian church’s financial support of his ministry. Philippians 4:13 is part of a side note to his main point. In 4:10, Paul begins to thank the Philippians for their financial contribution to his ministry; he resumes his thanksgiving in 4:14–20. In between those sections, in 4:11–13, Paul pauses to tell his readers that he was already content before they gave him a single denarius.

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These verses may seem odd in this context. I used to think Paul was being somewhat impertinent by implying that the Philippians’ support was unappreciated or unnecessary. Or perhaps Paul was downplaying the gift, to avoid creating the impression that the Philippians were his financial patrons (compare 1 Cor 9:3–18; 2 Cor 11:7–11). But both of these explanations fail to explain why Paul lets us see into his heart in these verses. It seems that Paul’s motivation lies elsewhere.

Contentment in All Circumstances through Christ

We can grasp the meaning of Philippians 4:13 by reading the verse as the conclusion to the digression in 4:11–13. In this brief passage, Paul tells the Philippians that he has figured out the key to being content in the Christian life, though he does not immediately reveal it. He first states that his contentment does not depend on his present situation. He can be content whether he is full or hungry, rich or poor (4:11–12). Earlier in the letter, Paul gives an example of a time during his imprisonment when he was in need (1:12–26). He later describes how the Philippians’ gift “filled” him up; he even speaks of their financial contribution as a “fragrant offering” and a sacrifice to God (4:18 ESV). While Paul recognizes the highs (financial abundance) and lows (imprisonment) in his life, he does not derive his contentment from them.

According to Paul, the source of contentment runs much deeper—“I am able to do all things by the one who strengthens me” (4:13). Thus Philippians 4:13 both concludes Paul’s digression and provides the key to Christian contentment: Christ himself. For Paul, to be content is to know Christ and be strengthened by him. He declares, “to live is Christ” and explains that everything else is meaningless in comparison to knowing Christ (1:21; see also 3:7–9). Paul does not press on in his faith because circumstances are favorable or convenient, but because Christ Jesus made him his own (3:12; compare Gal 4:9). The contentment of knowing Christ brings joy, a theme Paul returns to more than 16 times in this short letter. Contentment in Christ also gives believers a peace that passes all understanding (Phil 4:7).

The Secret to Being Content

Philippians 4:13 does not promise that God will empower us in everything we wish to accomplish. It assumes that we, like Paul, will experience both success and failure, both prosperity and great need. Even so, the verse applies to us today and has implications for life beyond finances. We can have true contentment in Christ because we need only Christ to be satisfied. If we know this “secret,” we are immune to the ups and downs of life. Philippians 4:13 is not a promise of future success, but one of present sufficiency in Christ.

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most powerful verses in the Bible. We should turn to this verse for encouragement when life’s ever-changing circumstances bring stress and uncertainty. Let Paul’s words remind you of the gift of Christ’s presence and strength whether you are in need or abundance. May we learn this truth—just as Paul did (Phil 4:11, 12)—and be empowered by Christ to face all circumstances.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Shelf Life Book Review: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

Elliot Ritzema

Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy
Zondervan, 2013

The doctrine of inerrancy has long played an important role in American evangelicalism, even giving rise to the “Battle for the Bible” in the 1970s, which resulted in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). Even after the CSBI, however, debates have continued regarding what it means for the Bible to be without error, and whether the doctrine accurately reflects what the Bible does.

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In this book, James Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett gather five contributors for a conversation about inerrancy. Albert Mohler argues that the CSBI articulates well what inerrancy is and the role it should play within evangelicalism. Peter Enns argues that inerrancy does not describe what the Bible does, and the term should be abandoned. Michael F. Bird argues that debates about inerrancy are rooted in historical developments within American evangelicalism, and the term is unnecessary in non-American and non-Western contexts. Kevin J. Vanhoozer argues for keeping the term, which he says means that “the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly)” (207, italics original). John R. Franke argues that the CSBI’S form of inerrancy is not sufficient and argues for an approach that better accounts for the plurality of the biblical writings.

Each author responds to the others, and Garrett and Merrick sum up the debate and present ideas for moving forward. This book illustrates just how much more work must be done in crafting a doc-trine of Scripture that captures what the Bible is, but it is a good first step.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Paul, Puppies and Tattoos

Michael S. Heiser

We love the letter of Philippians for its uplifting, faith-affirming tone. Although Paul wrote it in prison, it resonates joy. Paul’s circumstances didn’t put him in a bad mood. But something else did.

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:1–3).

We have no trouble understanding Paul when he says, “Look out for the evildoers.” But dogs? People who mutilate their flesh? Did Paul hate puppies and people with tattoos? Not exactly. Like any statement in the Bible, this one requires context for getting inside the writer’s head.

Dogs in the Ancient World

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In the ancient world (except for Egyptian and Phoenician cultures), dogs were routinely despised. Their instinctive, base behavior—such as eating dead, decayed flesh or consuming their own vomit—disgusted ancient people (Exod 22:31; 1 Kgs 14:11; Prov 26:11). The appropriate insult to heap on someone you considered worthless was “dead dog” (2 Sam 16:9; see also Deut 23:17–18).

Paul, with his thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, would have been acquainted with the use of the term in the Bible and in his culture. The label makes sense here, since Paul follows it by warning, “Look out for the evildoers.” Paul didn’t hate puppies. He hated evil.

Mutilators of the Flesh

But what about “those who mutilate the flesh”? What sense can we make of that? As odd as it sounds, this phrase is one of the keys to understanding just who Paul is referring to in Philippians 3.

The phrase literally reads, “Look out for the mutilation.” The Greek word behind “mutilation” is the noun katatomē (κατατομή). Paul likely chose it deliberately because it sounds a bit like another Greek word— peritomē (περιτομή), which means “circumcision.” Right after Paul warns the Philippians to “look out for the mutilation,” he adds an explanation in Philippians 3:3: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Paul was using a satirical play on words to make his point.

Paul wasn’t objecting to circumcision itself. He never characterizes circumcision as something to be abhorred (Rom 3:1–2; 1 Cor 7:18). What he did object to was the insistence that circumcision was essential for salvation—for inclusion in the community of believers. The idea that any ritual could result in salvation or merit God’s favor was incompatible with salvation by grace through faith.

Gentiles who believed according to the faith of Abraham were “blessed along with Abraham” (Gal 3:9), because “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26). Whether Jew or Gentile, those who believe in Jesus are the spiritual children of Abraham; they are heirs to the promises God made to him (Gal 3:29). His opponents’ perversion of the gospel infuriated Paul. Using the term “mutilation” was his sarcastic way of showing contempt for false teaching.

Paul’s derogatory terms for his opponents weren’t thrown about lightly. They were born out of a deep concern for the gospel message: We cannot merit salvation, nor can we earn grace. Salvation comes through faith in the grace God showed us through Jesus’ work on the cross.

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Rejected and Despised by Men

Rebecca Van Noord

2 Kings 6:1–7:20; Mark 15:16–47; Proverbs 6:20–27

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion and death occur in stages of mockery and humiliation. The story is propelled by those who scorn—the soldiers, the chief priests and scribes, and even those who pass by. Jesus is spat on, stripped of His clothing, and mockingly forced to wear a purple robe with a crown of thorns. Throughout, He silently receives His undue punishment.

It’s not until Jesus nears death that Mark slows the narrative: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Mark 15:34).

These words have been spoken before, and this pain and humiliation has previously been told. In Psalm 22, the psalmist cries out to God in the midst of being mocked and scorned by his enemies. The song of lament relates the bitter anguish the psalmist experiences at the hands of enemies. “He trusts Yahweh,” the psalmist’s enemies jeer, “Let him deliver him because he delights in him” (Psa 22:8). The psalmist says he is “poured out like water” in his weakened state (Psa 22:14). His clothing is divided and given out by casting lots (Psa 22:18).

The psalm doesn’t end here, though. It ends with the psalmist proclaiming God’s deliverance to all the nations and to future generations: “Descendants will serve him. Regarding the Lord, it will be told to the next generation. They will come and tell his saving deeds to a people yet to be born, that he has done it” (Psa 22:30–31).

Jesus’ words reveal Him to be the ultimate sufferer. It wasn’t until His death that He was acknowledged for who He was. The Roman centurion proclaims it: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). The Servant who obediently came to die has delivered us. He has done it.

In what ways do you feel forsaken by God? What difference does it make to know that Jesus also cried out in His godforsakenness?

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

Shelf Life Book Review: Gospel Writing

Abram Kielsmeier-Jones

Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective
Eerdmans, 2013

Sometimes the Synoptic Gospels appear to differ on a given detail when recounting a story about Jesus. Historians and theologians speak of these variances as the “Synoptic Problem.” Augustine of Hippo went so far as to attempt to harmonize the Gospels, trying to make one unified Gospel from the four canonical ones.

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In his book Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Francis Watson offers a refreshing approach to the problem. In nearly 700 pages, Watson explains how the Gospels should be treated as a necessarily interrelated whole. Believing each Gospel is worth studying independently, he details the reception history of each and compares them with the non-canonical gospels of Thomas and Peter, among others. He concludes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John together comprise “a new text, more than and other than the sum of its parts” (453), and suggests that readers allow historical inquiry, biblical interpretation and theology to work together to understand how “the fourfold gospel is … the culmination and goal of all earlier gospel writing” (615).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Supernatural Joy

Aubry Smith

During college, I spent a summer working in a large city in India with Christian believers from a Muslim background. One Sunday, we worshiped together in the small home of a man named Amir. Afterward, he told us how he had come to faith in Jesus—and what it had cost him. Disowned and despised by his family, Amir had repeatedly been beaten for sharing the gospel with family and friends; he had also lost his job and his status in the community. Just 10 minutes before, he had been weeping with joy and gratitude in worship; now, as he told his story, he praised God for his mercy.

As Amir spoke, I thought about my own times of suffering—so few compared to what he had endured—and how I responded with anger at God for allowing such hardship in my life. I often put on a brave front to hide my offended attitude, but how could this man truly shout for joy in the face of such suffering and loss?

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Amir brought the book of Philippians to life for me. Written while Paul was in prison, this letter exudes joy. Rather than simply suffer with a smile, Paul explains that suffering for the sake of Christ is a privilege graciously granted by God (1:29). Throughout his afflictions, he rejoices at the spread of the gospel (1:12–14, 18), and he commands the Philippians to rejoice in all things (3:1; 4:4)—even though they are suffering too (1:30). The apostle declares that he longs to share in Jesus’ sufferings by becoming like him in his death (3:10).

Although Paul values this strange pairing of joy and suffering, he does not embrace sadism. With a single-minded focus on Jesus, he views every circumstance through the lens of the gospel. His only concern is exalting Jesus (1:18, 20; 2:30) and ensuring that the Philippian church worships, proclaims, and imitates Jesus. Paul’s goal isn’t financial security, a lofty reputation, or even staying alive. He simply wants to know Christ—any other gain is loss (3:4–11). And Paul knows that knowing Jesus and becoming like him means embracing suffering to glorify God (3:10–11). For Paul, Jesus is the center of it all.

Scripture contains many responses to suffering—from lament and endurance to grief and cries for vindication. But there is something magnetic and supernatural in the joy Paul and Amir expressed. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not a false emotion manufactured by pretending things are fine (Gal 5:22–23).

I don’t yet understand God’s heart the way Paul did, rejoicing over God’s grace for the privilege of suffering. I still harbor anger and project malicious motives onto God when I need to learn to trust him in all situations.

I take heart when Paul explains that he has not yet reached his goal, so he presses forward in the hope that “the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20–21). As we await that final day, let’s rely on Jesus and allow him to transform us into his likeness. Let’s seek joy, no matter our circumstance.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

Warring Tendencies and Spiritual Airs

Rebecca Van Noord

2 Kings 3:1–4:17; Mark 14:22–50; Proverbs 6:6–11

“I will do this!” I declare as I resolve to get in shape, eat better, save money, study and meditate on the Word more, journal more, read more. My plans escalate, growing grander in scale and depth. Although I succeed in them for a while, I easily become overwhelmed when I can’t live up to the inflated vision I’ve projected for myself.

It’s especially easy to do this spiritually. It’s simple to hand out godly advice with a spiritual air, to speak wise words about past failings (read subtext: “Look how far I’ve come!”), and to talk about personal growth. But when we mess up on a colossal scale, it’s humiliating and surprising to all—especially ourselves. “What happened?” we might ask. “I was doing so well!”

Simon Peter had a tendency to make grand plans: “Even if they all fall away, certainly I will not!” he declared, proclaiming his loyalty to the Savior (Mark 14:29). They’re words to fall flat on your face by. When Jesus found the disciples sleeping, He knew who needed the reprimand and the warning: “And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Were you not able to stay awake one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!’ ” (Mark 14:37–38).

Jesus’ reprimand should have exposed Simon Peter’s pride, which was parading as loyalty. For all his exuberant claims, Simon Peter lacked true understanding of his nature. When he considered his spiritual state, he was optimistic about his own efforts. No one was more humiliated and more surprised than he when he later betrayed Jesus around a charcoal fire to curious strangers.

Our desire to follow Jesus is not the problem. Instead, it is our competitive nature, our pride, that needs to be repeatedly humbled. We need real understanding of our spiritual state—a picture we shouldn’t try to project in any other way—coupled with a total dependency on Him. A war is being waged inside of us. We can only win because of what Christ has done and because of the Spirit’s work in us. To God belongs all the glory.

Are you spinning your sin, making it seem less dire than it really is?

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

Shelf Life Book Review: The Common English Bible Study Bible

Ben Espinoza

The Common English Bible Study Bible
Abingdon Press, 2013

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More than 700 Bible scholars, pastors and laypeople from varying denominations came together to create The CEB Study Bible—a readable and relevant resource that illuminates Scripture while it speaks into our contemporary contexts.

The study notes are clear and concise, allowing readers to understand the flow of Scripture and the historical context of each book. The notes reflect broadly held Christian beliefs, unencumbered by explorations of divisive issues. This study Bible includes 21 full-color maps, a complete concordance, numerous graphs and illustrations, and a brief introduction to each biblical book that summarizes its main plot, themes and context. It also contains several engaging essays, written by scholars such as Joel Green and Brian Russell.

The CEB Study Bible is a worthwhile purchase for anyone seeking to better understand the Bible. Its intent is not to persuade readers to a particular theological viewpoint, but rather to inspire them to apply scriptural teachings to their daily lives.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4

4 Gospels, 4 Perspectives

Rebecca Van Noord

United in intent, but unique in persective, each Gospel writer presents a different picture of the life and work of Jesus. Here is how the four Evangelists annouce the good news of Jesus and call people to believe in Him.

Who is Jesus?

Matthew presents Jesus as the heir of David and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (1:1–17). He is the true King and the new Moses. He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets and usher in God’s kingdom.

Mark shows Jesus as the Son of God, come with authority to teach, heal and cast out demons. He is also the Son of Man, the true representation of what it means to be human. Jesus’ rejection and suffering are raw and pronounced in Mark.

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Luke presents Jesus as the prophet who has come to suffer for His people (7:16; 13:33). He is a healer and a friend to tax collectors. He has come to save the lost and the outcast. He is the Servant from Isaiah, who brings comfort to the suffering and oppressed.

For John, Jesus is the Word made flesh—God present since the beginning of time. He is the Son of God and the one who reveals the Father. Jesus makes bold claims about Himself that require bold faith from His listeners.

How do the Gospel writers tell their stories?

Matthew intersperses five major blocks of Jesus’ teaching throughout his narrative, emphasizing that Jesus is the true teacher of the Torah.

Mark intentionally groups events and teachings according to theme. He sandwiches these events so they lend meaning to one another. For example, he places Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve near John the Baptist’s death, emphasizing the cost of discipleship (6:7–30).

Luke emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to the outcast. His travel narrative—Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem—is often called the “Gospel for the Outcast” (9:51–19:27). Jesus tells parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan as He travels to fulfill His messianic role.

Jesus’ miracles or “signs,” many of which are not recorded in the other Gospels, feature prominently in John’s narrative and bring attention to His identity as the Son of God (1:19–12:50).

What literary techniques does each writer use?

Matthew draws on Old Testament passages to show how Jesus’ life fulfilled ancient prophecies (e.g., Matt 1:22–23 and Isa 7:14; Matt 2:15 and Hos 11:1). He also begins with a genealogy to emphasize that Jesus is the heir of David and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (1:1–17).

Mark relies on the secrecy motif to build suspense and highlight Jesus’ mission. Numerous times Jesus commands demons, the people He heals, and even His disciples to keep quiet about His identity.

Luke has the largest vocabulary and uses fine literary Greek. His extended preface is modeled after prologues of Hellenistic Greek histories and Graeco-Roman literature and displays great artistic skill (1:1–4).

John’s simple prose is infused with symbolism and profound theological significance. Jesus is the Word (1:1), the Bread of Life (6:35), the Light of the World (8:12), and the Good Shepherd (10:11). John also wields dramatic irony. Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46).

What are the themes of each Gospel?

The kingdom; the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (5:17)

The kingdom of God, which has arrived but has not fully manifested itself (1:15; 4:30–32; 14:25)

The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven; condemnation of wealth used inappropriately (16:1–31; 19:8)

Belief in Jesus for eternal life (5:21–25)

Why do the Gospel writers tell their stories?

Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s expectation of a coming messianic king (e.g., 1:22–23; 2:5–6; 3:3).

Mark proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God and that the kingdom of God is here: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15).

Luke writes, “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:3–4).

John says, “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

As you closely read each Gospel, consider how individual events fit within each Gospel narrative. When you compare events across the Gospels, consider how each telling highlights different concerns about Jesus’ life and ministry

Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 4


Resources used:
Edward Adams, Parallel Lives of Jesus: A Guide to the Four Gospels (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Nicholas Perrin, “The Synoptic Gospels,” Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). FaithlifeBible.com
Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007). Logos.com/FourPortraits