Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

On Being—and Doing—Church

There are many good New Testament passages one can explore to envision what the church should be and do: Romans 12-15, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4-5 are all good options, among others. Still, when I think about the church there’s one specific verse that always seems to come to mind first:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

To me this description of the first Jesus followers on the day of Pentecost nicely sums up what it means for us as Christians to “be the church,” to “do church” together.

As the church we are “devoted” to certain things. These are the things that we commit ourselves to, that we are centred on as a church—which is a way of saying that there are lots of other things, maybe even some good things, that aren’t so central, that we’re not as devoted to. There are lots of things we can be and do as a church, but these things are at the heart of them all.

First and foremost, we are devoted to learning and living the way of Jesus as taught by his Apostles: “the apostles’ teaching.” This means we commit ourselves to studying the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the New Testament where we find “the apostles’ teaching,” in order to learn about Jesus and his way of love. As we faithfully follow Jesus in his way of love, God’s justice and peace and flourishing life (“God’s kingdom,” or “salvation”) is manifest in and among and through us.

We are also devoted to the community of fellow Jesus followers, the common life we share together: “the fellowship.” This means we commit ourselves to one another within the church, to each other’s wellbeing, to caring for one another and helping to meet one another’s needs. At bottom this is because, in the midst of our diversity, we hold the absolute essentials in common: everything we are and do centres around Jesus and his way of love.

We are devoted to gathering together in worship and hospitality: “the breaking of bread.” This means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together around the Lord’s Table, along with other acts of worship (symbols, stories, songs) that likewise orient us around the central story of Jesus. This also means we commit ourselves to “breaking bread” together in our homes, following Jesus’ example of radical hospitality for all—not only friends and family, but also sinners and strangers, outcasts and enemies.

And we are devoted to regular times of prayer together: “the prayers.” This means we not only pray as individuals as an act of private devotion, but we also gather together regularly to pray: to meditate on who God is and what God has done for us, to praise and thank God for these good gifts, to confess our sins to God and accept God’s forgiveness, and to entreat God to move among us and through us in the world.

Jan Richardson, The Best Supper

For many Christians, this is not the church they envision. Or, perhaps more accurately, they might nod in agreement with this vision of church in theory, but in practice they are either not fully devoted to these things, or they are devoted to other things above these things.

Many Christians envision a church that has lots of programs—especially programs aimed at their particular demographic. These programs are not bad in themselves, of course, and they can in fact be wonderful ways of expressing and nurturing the devotion Acts 2:42 describes.

The problem comes when people want programs that have little if anything to do with that fourfold devotion—they really want a social club with a religious veneer, which they can participate in at their convenience and for their pleasure. Fine, but that’s not a church.

Many Christians envision a church filled with people, often recalling a bygone era of buzzing foyers and bursting sanctuaries. There’s nothing wrong this either—Acts 2 itself describes large numbers of people joining the Jesus movement and participating in new Jesus communities. However, a preoccupation with numbers can be problematic for at least a couple of reasons.

First, many Christians want the large numbers without having to devote themselves to studying the Scriptures and learning the way of Jesus, gathering together regularly for Jesus-centred worship and prayer, and showing radical hospitality in the way of Jesus. It’s ironic—though not terribly surprising—that the Christians who are most critical of “the way things are being done” at church are often the ones who don’t attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and only show up for Sunday worship once or twice a month.

Second, many Christians have bought into a “free market” notion of church. We are competing with other churches for “market share.” We need to produce a good church “product” in order to attract Christians, our “buyers.” If people don’t like our product they’ll go find another “seller,” another church with a better product: high quality music in a style they enjoy, interesting preaching that increases their happiness through moderate self-improvement, vibrant programs catering to their particular demographic, et cetera. So, if we want to increase our market share (i.e. “grow our church”) we need to produce a better product.

Not only is this view of the church thoroughly unbiblical, it’s also unethical—it’s church growth through sheep-stealing, not sheep-finding.

Programs and numbers, then, while being potentially good things, are not central to being and doing church. What is central is this: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Lest anyone think I’m being too idealistic, raising a bar too high for the church in the real world, let me add this: Jesus welcomes all to his table, whatever the level of their devotion. Jesus in his way of love stands at the centre of the church like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing people in by its warmth and light. Some gather close around the fire, freely sharing their songs and stories, bread and wine. Others stay back in the shadows, content to listen and observe. Some drift in and out.

However, while the level of devotion varies among Christians and even changes throughout our lives, the things we are devoted to remain the same: not programs and numbers, not pleasurable music or comfortable teaching or enjoyable socializing, not even correct doctrine or proper behaviour or rituals done right, but learning and living the way of Jesus together, gathering in worship and prayer, in radical hospitality and mutual care, all of this in love.

Anything less—and anything else—is simply not church.

But a church that looks like this? It’s what the world—and we ourselves—desperately need: a living embodiment of God’s kingdom vision of justice, peace, and flourishing life for all.

Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]

Exclusively Jesus, Inclusively All

Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only way to the Father, the only gate for his sheep (John 14:6; 10:7-10). But Jesus also has “other sheep who are not of this sheepfold” (John 10:16).

There is “no other name” but Jesus “by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). But the altars of other religions, the poets of many cultures, the very rhythms of the earth, can point us to the Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:23-28).

If we “confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead we will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10). But Jesus’ “act of righteous obedience leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18).

Jesus is supreme over all things, for “all things in heaven and on earth have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-18). But “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” have also been “reconciled through Jesus” (Col 1:19-20).

The Bible is filled with tensions like these, even right within the same biblical book or passage—like the examples above. On the one hand are radically exclusive claims about Jesus and God’s salvation through him. On the other hand are radically inclusive claims about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

Christians have often turned to one extreme or the other, either radical exclusivism or radical inclusivism. The extreme exclusivists see nothing good in other religions—only explicit Jesus-confessors can know God’s presence or experience God’s salvation. The extreme inclusivists see nothing all that unique about Jesus or Christianity—there are many paths to experiencing God and the life God desires for us.

But if we are going to be faithful to Scripture we need somehow to hold both of these truths together: both the radically exclusive claims Scripture makes about Jesus and God’s salvation through him, and the radically inclusive claims Scripture makes about the world and its salvation through Jesus.

This is, in fact, one of the most pressing theological questions for us as Christians today. We live in a religiously plural world. We are increasingly aware of other religions and their truth claims, and most of us rub shoulders regularly with people who adhere to other religions. The upsurge in aggressive or even violent religious extremism—whether Muslim or Christian or even Buddhist—gives added urgency to all this. We need to figure out how to live together within a diverse global village, which means in part facing head-on the question of how the truth claims of Christianity relate to those of other religions.

So how do I understand these things? How do I hold together both the exclusive and the inclusive claims of Scripture regarding Jesus and salvation? Here’s some of my current thinking.

I believe Jesus is unique. I believe Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, uniquely embodying God in the world. I believe that Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection offer us the clearest and fullest picture of God and God’s will for humanity that there is. I believe that through Jesus God deals decisively with human sin; through Jesus God makes right all that has gone wrong in the world because of the many ways we harm one another and the rest of creation. I believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life—justice, peace, and joy—for us as individuals, for us collectively as a human race, even for all creation.

This is why I am a Christian, and not a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or atheist or anything else. This is also why I seek to proclaim the message of Jesus and live out the way of Jesus in such a way that others are encouraged to follow Jesus also, and to follow Jesus ever more faithfully. (Whether I always succeed at this is another matter…)

However, I am not convinced that the way of Jesus is entirely unique to Jesus. Many of the particular elements of Jesus’ message and example, such as “love your neighbour” or the Golden Rule or equitable justice or nonviolent peacemaking or nonviolent atonement, are reflected in many ways throughout various religious and non-religious traditions. These are simply the best instincts of humanity, seen most directly in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.

This should not be troublesome to Christians, it seems to me. If all humans are created in the image of God, and Jesus is the image of God—if Jesus is not just “true God” but also “true human,” the fullness of what it means to be “human”—if God’s kingdom Spirit does indeed “blow wherever it pleases,” and God’s presence is everywhere throughout the earth—if all these things and more like them are true, then one should expect elements of the way of Jesus to be found in various religions, cultures, and societies throughout history and around the world.

All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because he is the true Way that leads to life.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to learn and experience this “true Way that leads to life.”

But this angle on things also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus or other truths that ennoble humanity reflected beyond the Christian tradition, in anyone’s life. I don’t even feel the need to “Christianize” those things, or to convert those people to the religion known as “Christianity.”

As for the question most Christians want answered—“Who will be saved in the end?” or, as I might phrase it, “Who will experience flourishing life in God’s fully restored creation?”—well, thankfully, that’s up to God. Jesus answered that question with an enigmatic challenge in return, essentially saying, “Different people than you might expect, with plenty of surprises for all. Just make sure you yourself are striving to follow my narrow way” (Luke 13:22-30).

I’m of the hopeful variety, trusting in God’s rich mercy and abundant love and persistent patience. After all, “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:3-4), and we are assured that “in the fullness of time God will indeed gather up all things in Christ Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).

Exclusively Jesus, inclusively all.

Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

Some Observations on Doing Bad Things

homerOkay, forget the theological jargon. Here are a few observations about doing bad things that most people should be able to agree with:

1) Everyone makes mistakes throughout their life. Some seem more prone to this than others. Some of these mistakes are harmless, others cause relatively mild harm.

2) Everyone does something bad at some point in their life—something truly harmful, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most people do several of these bad things in their lifetime. Some seem to do them frequently.

3) Some people—thankfully very few—do something really bad at some point in their life. One might even call this “evil”—we’re talking intentionally malicious with great damage done.

These three observations are true whether you’re talking about Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists or any other religion or non-religion. They are true whether you’re talking about North Americans or South Americans or Africans or Asians or Europeans or any other region. They are true whether you’re talking about refugees or immigrants or settlers or indigenous people or citizens or any other land-status. They are true whether you’re talking about people of European or African or Asian descent or any other ethnic category. They are true whether you’re talking about men or women, gay or straight, or any other orientation or gender. They are true whether you’re talking about rich or poor or middle-class or any economic status.

These things are true of humans—all humans, everywhere.

This might seem so obvious as to be trivial. But if these things are true, then they have some significant implications.

Yes, some refugees will do bad things. At some point a refugee will even do a truly evil thing. But so do native-born citizens—probably at a higher rate, actually, since these aren’t “vetted” at all.

Yes, some Muslims will do bad things, even a very few will do thoroughly evil things. But so will Christians, and atheists, and even peace-loving Buddhists. We Christians, in fact, have our own set of favourite bad things—self-righteousness being arguably top of the list.

Yes, some African Americans or Indigenous Canadians will do bad things. Sometimes one will even do an evil thing. But so do white Americans and Canadians—in fact, white folks commit certain crimes at far higher rates.

Yes, some gay people will do bad things, even occasionally a truly evil thing. But so do straight men and women—men in particular, as most violent crimes are committed by men, by far.

Yes, some poor people will do bad things. Every once in a while one will even do an evil thing. But so do the rich and the middle-class—and they have the resources to hide it or to evade the punishment.

Most importantly, if we all make mistakes, if we all sometimes do bad things, even occasionally evil things—if this is a human problem, not a problem confined to any particular religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or class—then we should be able to look deep into the disorder of our own hearts, and find empathy and compassion and forgiveness and a desire for the other’s wholeness and wellbeing, regardless of what they have done. We should also be able to come together as human beings and find better ways to nurture the good among us while reducing the bad.

Are we up for the challenge? Each of us? All of us together?

(By the way, Christians, this is Sin and Salvation 101. We should be leading the way in empathy and compassion and forgiveness and seeking the wellbeing of others and nurturing the good among us. Faith, hope, and love, you know?)

Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing

I have been teaching the Bible and writing about Christian theology in various ways, in a variety of settings, for over twenty years now. This has mostly been a rewarding task. I love learning new things or discovering new ways of seeing things, and I love seeing the same light bulb turn on for others. But this has also, at times, proven to be disheartening, even tremendously discouraging.

So why is it that I keep teaching and preaching? Why do I keep blogging and writing? Well, beyond the basic fascination I have with the Bible and theology, deeper than the enjoyment I get from interacting with others about these things, there is simply this: our world—including we who are Christians—desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am convinced of this: the gospel is our only hope. Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

“Wait a minute, Michael. That sounds so exclusive, so fundamentalist even. I thought you were one of those progressives.”

Well, I don’t know what box I fit into, to be honest. I say a hearty “Amen!” to all the gospel texts—John 3:16, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” “There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved,” “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” and more. Yet I’m convinced that many modern understandings of the gospel are in fact misunderstandings of the gospel.

While I would be delighted to have more and more people claiming to be followers of Jesus, I’m far more concerned about having more and more people actually following Jesus. While I would be thrilled to have crowds of people claiming the name of Jesus, I’m far more interested in seeing human beings—regardless of their religion—living out the way of Jesus. This is, in fact, the point of the Great Commission: not to make converts to a religion, but to make disciples of Jesus.

And when I hear key Bible words like “salvation” and “life,” I don’t hear these as “salvation from hell to heaven” or “living forever with God after death.” Yes, we have the promise of being “with the Lord” beyond death. But the biblical language of “salvation” is about rescue and restoration: rescuing us from all the ways we harm ourselves, others, and our world (our “sin,” in other words) and restoring us and all humanity and all creation to the way God originally intended things to be. This is why these words, “salvation” and “life,” are so often connected to other key words in the Bible: God’s “kingdom,” “new creation,” “justice,” “peace,” “liberation,” “reconciliation,” and more.

So here’s what I mean when I say “the gospel is our only hope” and that “Jesus offers us the only way to true life”: if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—salvation, in other words—the only way forward is to follow the way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” teaching can be summarized with the word “love”: we are to love God with every dimension of our being, and we are to love other persons as we love ourselves. These two loves are inseparable: our love for God is shown by our love for others. Jesus taught that loving others means giving ourselves for their good, even when this means sacrifice or suffering for us. He taught that those whom we are to love include not only persons who are like us, but also those who are different from us, even those who are opposed to us, who may even wish us harm.

Jesus’ gospel teaching on love included the way of peace. This way of peace is the difficult path of nonviolent resistance to sin and evil powers: resisting harmful attitudes, words, and actions both within ourselves individually and among us collectively, in order to effect positive change; but doing so in creative, nonviolent ways that seek restoration and reconciliation and not retribution, ways that may involve the voluntary suffering of oneself in order to bring about a greater good for all.

Jesus’ way of love and peace requires a devoted faith in God: freely committing ourselves to the God who is love, whatever may come. It also requires a resilient hope in God: persistently trusting in God to bring about good even, potentially, through our own suffering and death.

All this Jesus not only taught, he lived it out: forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, showing compassion, healing freely, standing up to oppressive powers-that-be, even enduring suffering and death because of sin and evil, ultimately experiencing true justice and peace and flourishing life through death, having been resurrected by God. Jesus taught the gospel, and he lived out the gospel—and so he modeled the gospel and planted the seed of the gospel in the world.

If we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet—true salvation—the only way forward is to follow this way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus: loving God through loving others, nonviolently resisting sin and evil both in ourselves and in the world, trusting in God to bring about good among us and in the world through this way of Jesus.

This is what I mean when I say that the gospel is our only hope. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus offers us the only way to true life.

And this is why I do not cease teaching and writing. This is what motivates me to keep on keeping on, even when I get discouraged, even in the face of opposition. Our world is filled with too much bigotry, cruelty, injustice, and oppression, for me to stop speaking the gospel. There are too many different being excluded, too many vulnerable being exploited, too many sick who are dying and poor who are trampled on for me to stop teaching the way of Jesus. There is too much guilt and shame and ignorance and fear for me to stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

menno-simonsAll you Mennonite history buffs will know that I’ve pilfered the title of this blog post from Menno Simons himself. He wrote a tract with this title, and some of the themes of my blog post are echoes of the original Menno Simons tract (other themes from his tract I’m happy to leave aside). Let me conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes from the very Menno in Mennonite:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.

And then Simons’ concluding words:

Beloved sisters and brothers, do not deviate from the doctrine and life of Christ.

Amen, brother Menno. Amen.

“Confess and believe, and you will be saved!”

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

This is one of those classic evangelistic texts, the kind that get painted on signs and propped up on billboards, like John 3:16. It’s a gospel text, a mission text, a conversion text: it gets right down to the core of what we should believe, and it promises salvation for those who do.

Here’s how I used to understand these verses. I used to think they are telling us what we need to do to be saved from God’s eternal punishment for our sin. We need to confess with our mouth and believe with our whole heart: we need to confess our own personal sin and confess Jesus as our own personal Saviour, and we need to believe in our hearts that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

The problem is, that’s not what these verses actually say.

Check it out again: “if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

No mention of sin.

No mention of Jesus as personal Saviour.

No mention of the cross at all, let alone of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Paul does talk elsewhere about some of these things. Sin and the cross are even pretty important to Paul. But why doesn’t Paul specifically mention them here, in this “classic evangelistic text”? How exactly can this particular “confession” and “belief” bring about “salvation”?

“You will be saved…”

Well, to make sense of this the first thing we have to get right is what Paul means by “salvation.” And to get that right, we need to go back to Paul’s Scriptures, our Old Testament. And a good place to start there is with the biblical writings Paul most quotes here in Romans 10: Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

Take Deuteronomy 30. Moses is speaking to the ancient Israelites before they enter into the Promised Land. Through Moses God promises to bring the Israelites blessings and life if they keep the commandments of the covenant. But God also warns them of curses and death if they disobey—in particular, being conquered by foreign armies and being sent into exile among the nations.

And then Moses makes this prediction: Israel will in fact fail to keep the covenant (which they did), they will be exiled (which they were), but if they return to the Lord they will be “saved”—they will be rescued from their exile and restored to their land to thrive once again.

This, then, is “salvation” according to Deuteronomy. Salvation is about God delivering God’s people from the powers of the world that have oppressed them, restoring them after they have experienced the consequences of their collective sin, bringing them back to where they can again experience life and liberty.

van Gogh - BibleThen take Isaiah 52. Isaiah speaks of God’s “messenger” who announces God’s “salvation”: “How beautiful are the feet of those who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

This, like Moses’ promise of God’s future salvation, is a message of salvation to the exiled people of Israel a few hundred years before Christ, scattered as slaves and refugees throughout the world. And the message of salvation is this: God is returning to his throne to reign over all, and God’s reign will bring peace and justice once again for God’s people.

Now back to Romans 10. This is what Paul is talking about when he talks about “salvation”: he’s referring to Israel’s promised salvation, drawing on these and other Old Testament passages.

But Paul says something new, something completely unexpected. He says this promised salvation is not just for Israel, but it’s also for the nations, for the Gentiles—for everyone. As he puts it: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This, then, is the salvation that Paul promises to those who confess and believe: God’s reign of justice and peace has arrived through Jesus, bringing deliverance from oppressive powers and restoration to flourishing life.

“…if you confess and believe.”

But what does it mean then to “confess that Jesus is Lord”? What does it mean to “believe that God raised him from the dead”? And how does this confession and belief bring about that salvation? To get at these questions we need to put ourselves in the sandals of those first Christians in Rome.

For us, it seems pretty simple to say, “Jesus is Lord.” But for those first Christians in Rome, confessing that “Jesus is Lord” was not mere words.

No, in Paul’s day, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was a bold declaration of allegiance.

As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8, there were many “lords” and “gods” in the ancient world, many “powers that be” that called for allegiance. And at the very top of the heap, king of the castle, was the Roman Emperor, Caesar. For good Romans—and anyone who cared about their lives—this was one of the most self-evident truths around: Caesar is Lord, master over any and all other powers that be. For them, this was the most fundamental confession: “Caesar is Lord.”

So to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a dangerous act, a revolutionary act, a radical commitment. It wasn’t something that slipped easily off the lips. This explains why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 12, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”—you would need the Spirit’s boldness to confess such a thing!

Jesus is Lord.

He is Lord over any and all other lords and gods, any other powers that be in the world: whether Caesar or the President or Prime Minister Trudeau, whether nation states or church structures or social norms, whether Supreme Courts or vigilante militias, whether ISIS or the UN, whether constitutions or confessions of faith, whether the boss at work or the bully in the playground.

Any power at work in the world you can think of, Jesus is Lord over it.

Jesus is Lord over all—and so Jesus commands our ultimate allegiance.

But Jesus is not like any other powers that be, whether back then or today. And that’s where the next part comes in: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

Our Lord that we confess, the One to whom we hold fast with total allegiance, is a man who was executed by the powers that be, but was vindicated by God by raising him from the dead.

Love DisciplesThat’s the point of the resurrection. The powers of this world have assessed Jesus and vilified him; but God has assessed Jesus and vindicated him. The resurrection is God’s loud shout of “Amen!” to everything about Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his self-giving suffering, his selfless death.

So we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” Jesus is Master over all, including us. But we follow a Lord who gave himself for us. We obey a Master who taught us to love one another, and who showed us what that love looks like. And we follow this Lord and Master because he is the one whom God has given his “Yes” to, he is the one whom God has stamped with his full approval, confirming that Jesus’ way is the only way to true blessing and real life.

It’s easy to say the words, “Jesus is Lord.” But it’s hard to truly “confess that Jesus is Lord,” that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life, and so we need to commit ourselves fully to Jesus’ way of self-giving love.

But that’s what it means to “confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It’s easy to agree with the words, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” But it’s hard to truly “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead,” that God has given his resounding “Yes!” to a man who spent his time with misfits and sinners, to a man who embraced the sick and the poor and the outcasts and the enemy others, to a man who would rather die than kill, to a man who willingly gave up his life for others—even if it meant being pronounced a blasphemer and condemned as a criminal and executed by the state.

But that’s what it means to “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

And this, Paul insists, is the only way to true salvation. This is the only way for all of us together to experience true justice and peace, to experience the flourishing life God desires for all humanity: following our resurrected Lord in his cross-shaped footsteps.

This post is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 14, 2016. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl