gospel of luke

Revealing the Gospels (Part Three): The Gospel of Luke

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.

Luke 1:3-4

The Gospel of Luke is actually part of a longer book, referred to by scholars as Luke/Acts. This is because both books are written by the same author in a continuous manner. The section called Luke is the period from birth to just after Jesus’s resurrection. Acts continues the story from Pentecost until Jesus ascends to heaven and is followed by the story of the disciples post ascension. Later it includes Paul’s story. In effect, it is a complete history from the birth of Christ to a period near the end of the first century.

Luke, by itself, is the longest of the four Gospels.

It is believed to have been written very late in the first century with revisions being made into the second century. The earliest date given to the writing of Luke is 60 AD, but other estimates date it as late as 110 AD.

It is important to note that the author addresses the Gospel to Theophilus. In  ancient Greek Theophilus means “lover of God.” While Theophilus might have been a real person, it is just as likely a translation referring to early Christian converts. This interpretation becomes even more likely when you take into account verse 4, which says: “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” However, there is wide disagreement about who Theophilus was.

Luke, like Matthew, uses Mark and the document Quelle.

It also seems likely that the author had a copy of Matthew due to the similarities in some sections. Luke also contains language unique to only this Gospel. Luke is the third and final of the Synoptic Gospels. Together, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain similar material.

There is much debate as to Luke’s intended audience. Some scholars say the Gospel was originally intended for early followers to read during the celebration of the last supper—similar to the Jewish tradition of reading the story of Exodus during Passover. Other scholars, like my New Testament professor, declared it as the Gospel of the poor. This is in part because of the use of the word “poor” in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, which he called the Sermon on the Plain. Others believe it was intended for the educated Greco-Roman early converts.

Personally, I believe that because of its comprehensive history, these views depend on how those interpreting the Bible experience the Bible. In other words, one’s life experiences and connection with the Holy Spirit dictate how an individual sees and hears the words. I believe this is true of all other books of the Bible as well.

I like Luke for many reasons.

As a history buff, its historical narrative satisfies a lot of my questions about the foundational history of Christianity. The Gospel is filled with parables that are direct and frank. Of particular interest is the story of the Prodigal Son, which is a wonderful discourse on the essence of God as a God of redemption and forgiveness. The story portrays humankind’s struggle with God—to leave but then to return. Not as an inferior figure, but as a redeemed figure.

Another interesting aspect of this Gospel is the comparison of the rulers of the world to evil or Satan. These passages are somewhat hidden so as to prevent the ruling authorities at the time of its writing from banning the book. But its contrast is evident when you read the Gospel with this in mind. Conversely, Luke is strong in insisting that the Christian voice of authority is God through Jesus. Like the other Gospels, it also portrays the Pharisees as the main oppositional force to Jesus, painting them as villains in this wonderful story of salvation.

Read both Luke and Acts together

While lengthy, an interesting Bible study exercise is to read both Luke and Acts together with the knowledge that it was written as a complete history of Christ and the lives of early Christians. While reading, jot down in a journal after each chapter what was important to you. This will reveal some of what is most important to you in your relationship with Jesus. This will become even more apparent when you later read the journal in its entirety.

Just reading both Luke and Acts together will serve a primer on the history of Christianity—a solid base by which to get to know the Jesus story.

My primary focus after the first few years in theological school narrowed to the study of the Gospels. This is a common occurrence for most who become involved in advanced theological studies. Luke/Acts became a centering point in these studies for me. Because of its historical nature, it propelled me into deeper research of the Gospels. Then, transitioning from Acts to the letters of Paul increased my understanding of Paul, allowing me to gather a more complete theology.

Why not try this yourselves?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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washington monument

George Washington and Religious Freedom (Part Three):

Some scholars have proposed theories that George Washington may not have been a Christian, but a Deist. Deists believed that the existence of God was determined by reason and not divine revelation. In other words, both Jesus and the Bible did not prove the existence of a supreme being. Rather that belief was determined by reason and study of the natural world. During Washington’s lifetime, Deism was a popular religious thought.

Deists would use words like “providence” to both explain the existence of God and the reason for events that occurred. Washington, himself frequently used the word providence, leading many scholars to believe Washington was a deist.

Part of the confusion about Washington’s religious belief was in his very private nature about expressing them. Washington’s usual demeanor wasn’t to express his views without first hearing other points of view. He also expressed his religious views not from what he believed but by making sure others felt comfortable expressing their views. This was especially true after he became president. Also adding to this confusion is Washington’s later-life practice of not taking communion.

Circumstantial Evidence

However, we can find evidence that Washington’s Christian beliefs are determined by circumstantial evidence. During both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, Washington ensured there were military chaplains for those under his command. In fact, during the French and Indian War, when chaplains were few, he would lead services on Sundays himself.

The issue of Washington not taking communion in his later life, which led many scholars to believe that he was a Deist, provides other clues. As president, he would often attend church on Sunday but would leave just before communion was taken. This act drew criticism from pastors. But based on what we know about the prevailing spirit of communion at the time of his presidency, it actually isn’t that odd. At that time, many believed that you should only take communion when you were in the right state of mind. Washington’s days were filled with the responsibility of being president. Like all things Washington did, he wanted them to be done right. This might lead one to a conclusion that he never felt like he was in the right state of mind.

Another Theory

Another theory is that, as a former military leader, he had a difficult time reconciling the acts of war he led with personal piety. Later in his life, he struggled with thoughts of slavery. Was it moral and right to hold people against their will? A final thought was that as president of a new republic, he didn’t want to show bias to any form of worship, and perhaps giving up communion was his compromise.

In the period before the American Revolution Washington frequently went to church. At times he was the leading member of the laity and was responsible for running the church and its affairs. Going to church while he was at Mount Vernon was difficult. Mount Vernon was very large and located in two Anglican parishes. He attended both churches on different Sundays. Neither were close, and it often took up to two hours by buggy to arrive at church. He still went.

Washington bought Bibles for people, especially for his wife Martha, who herself was a very devout Christian who took communion. Washington strongly believed in the value of the church and would often say it was the pillar of society.

We must also remember that Washington took being the first president very seriously. He knew what was at stake and the direction he wanted to country to go—to be a true republic not dominated by royalty or aristocratic elite. In this spirit, he rebuffed the many who wanted to make him king or serve as president for life. He also knew about the persecution by some to those of different faiths. He had a strong desire to allow religion to be free for all people. But, He also knew he was model for the citizenry and strongly desired to show no partiality. With this mind, it is easy to understand why, during the period of his presidency, he was extraordinarily careful about expressing his religious views or acting in a way that might show favoritism.

Morality

Washington strongly believed that the health of any country or society was based on morality. He saw that morality coming from religious thought and expression. He acted to ensure all people could practice religion freely. From that, the new republic experienced a tremendous surge in spiritual growth. At the time of the Revolution, there was a church for every four hundred citizens, yet only eighty attended church—a mere 20 percent. In the following decades that would rise to as much as 80 percent. Today it stands at 65 percent.

While scholars can say Washington wasn’t a Christian, what was accomplished under his leadership brought religious freedoms to all people, which catapulted religious expression from a minority to a majority of Americans.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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shoots of hope

Green Shoots of Hope

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11

In the early part of the 20th century, many churches were built to house the growing population of Christian worshippers. At that time, because of the relative cost of building, churches were often large and statuesque buildings. They often served not only as a place of worship but also as a central place for the community. Many of these churches became artistic monuments and a great source of pride for local communities.

However, fast forward to today, thousands of churches are closing each year. This is a result of declining congregations and burdensome costs to maintain these older facilities. Some churches now spend the largest part of their budget maintaining these grand buildings, forcing them to cut back on community mission work and worship.

Attendance is Declining

At the same time, despite the growing population in the United States, worship attendance is declining, and population centers have shifted. In fact, 35 percent of churches today are experiencing declines in attendance. Much of this has affected the mainline denominations.

Non-denominational churches are also emerging and, in many cases, rent spaces at local schools or community centers, in effect lowering their operating costs and providing more services to the membership and local communities.

The effect of all these factors is the need to abandon these once-great pillars of our communities. Nostalgic memories are now not enough to keep them open.

Some churches are sold to create new housing, and others are just left abandoned. Millions of dollars’ worth of space is being sold or left vacant, while God’s work still needs to be done.

But there is a new trend starting to pop up like Easter flowers in the spring. New rays of hope for churches whose mighty edifices serve their communities. It is a trend to bring vibrancy back to these beacons of Christian light.

We recently moved to Asheville, North Carolina and came across one of these great churches from the past—the Bethesda United Methodist Church. Their membership had shrunk to a mere ten attendees each Sunday. Facing the inevitable decision to close, sell, or choose a new way to serve, they chose to continue serving, but in a new way.

Creating a Community Center

The congregation created a community center called Haw Creek Commons. Inside their building, they opened up meeting spaces for local businesses. They turned their kitchen facilities into a place for local chefs and bakers who needed space. They opened a retreat center that can sleep nine and started an Alcoholics Anonymous group and retrofitted space for local textile and woodworking artists, creating studios in an area where space is at a premium.

The congregation didn’t stop there. They changed their outside spaces as well. They constructed a community garden and food forest. The Haw Creek Bee Club needed space and were given a place for beehives. Next door was a school that had limited playground space. Once again, they responded to a community need and built a playground.

Instead of giving up, they changed.

They changed how they served their community. They didn’t stay riveted in the ways of the past. Ten people responded to save their Father’s House.

Today, the church is bustling with activity that creates and inspires. From a desperate situation, God answered their prayers by providing wisdom on how to make the bleak look bright.

A side benefit is that the church now has fifty attendees a week attending service—a welcome byproduct of change.

I can only imagine the discussions of the ten people that had to make this change. The hand-wringing and tough debates. Like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea many years before, this group had to walk between two walls of water into a brighter future. They trusted in God that the way forward, while unusual and dangerous, was the only course to take.

Change is Needed

We have all been in these situations, where the present conditions are no longer sustainable. Change is needed to step into an unknown future while seeking God’s will. It takes bravery and faith.

What Bethesda United Methodist Church has done is to show a way forward for the many churches in decline. This is no longer a mysterious step forward but a path created by a group of Christian pioneers. This isn’t the only place these new green shoots of life are arising for declining churches. It is happening at White Rock United Methodist church in Dallas, which has invited preschools to pop up in their building and they too are creating community gardens. And there are organizations like the United Methodist Development Foundation which is seeking to help these religious entrepreneurs change the course of what church life can look like.

Hope in the unseen is the very essence of faith. It takes blind faith in the power of God and a willingness to move forward.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

book of matthew

Revealing the Gospels (Part two):

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matthew 1:1

The Gospel of Matthew is directed to a Jewish-Christian audience who lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. More on why later. It is believed to have been written in the last quarter of the first century—between 75 AD and 100 AD and was intended for the second generation of Jewish Christians after the fall of the great Temple of Jerusalem. By this time, some of the Jewish population had converted to Christianity but kept their Jewish traditions as well.

Matthew’s Origin

Matthew’s origin suggests the author likely had the manuscript from the Gospel of Mark. It, too, is one of the three Synoptic Gospels. A significant amount of Mark is contained in this Gospel, either word for word or with details added. Interestingly, it also contains writings from a source called Q.

Q is short for the German word “Quelle.” Contained in the writings of Q or Quelle are sayings and history of Jesus’s life. Q was used in both Matthew and Luke to supplement these Gospels. There is no surviving copy of the manuscript, and scholars have used Matthew and Luke to determine its actual existence. None of the contents of Q are contained in Mark; they are only found in Matthew and Luke. For instance, in Matthew 7:7-8 it states: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. The wording In Luke 11:9-10 is remarkably similar.

Existence of Q

While the physical existence of Q doesn’t exist, these strikingly alike verses strongly suggest its existence. As a side note, there are other Gospels that were not included in the New Testament and have been discovered, and also contain similar sayings. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas contains many of the sayings of Jesus, which are also similar to those found in Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas written in a list form appears to be very similar to Quelle.

Previously, I mentioned that Matthew was written for a Jewish-Christian audience, most likely two generations after Jesus’s resurrection. The author (whose name was probably not Matthew) was more than likely a Jewish male, based on his heavy connection to Jesus’s lineage and its structure.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Matthew is the list of Jesus’ descendants. Also interesting is the genealogy from Abraham to David to Jesus. From Abraham to David is fourteen generations. The same is true from David to the exile in Babylon and then from Babylon to Jesus. Fourteen is an important number in numerology which was, in turn, an important part of the Bible imbued with subtle messages. The number fourteen helps explain why this extensive genealogy is included in Matthew. One biblical interpretation is that fourteen is twice the number seven, which is symbolic of divine perfection. But the number fourteen also means salvation and gives a clue to the reader that the biblical story will end as a one of salvation. The inclusion of fourteen was not an accident.

By including this long list of Biblical connections to Jesus, the author of Matthew reinforces for the Jewish Christian that Jesus is strongly connected to Abraham and all the way back through Israel’s history. While we know Jesus is God, the lineage to Joseph is symbolic.

A second feature that supports the idea that Matthew was intended for the Jewish-Christian community is that the Gospel contains five unique sections. This is similar to the first five books in the Old Testament, commonly called the books of Moses or Torah. The connection to Moses is an important link to the law of God and Jesus’s subsequent clarification that Humankind should use their hearts in interpreting the words of God.

Listed below are the five unique sections:

  • The first discourse (Preparation Phase): Jesus is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends on him. Later, he is tempted in the desert for forty days. Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Second Discourse (Miracles and Discipleship): Jesus establishes his authority and recruits disciples. He sends forth the disciples to deliver his message. Interwoven in this section are three sets of three miracles.
  • Third Discourse (Opposition): Jesus is confronted due to his radical views of heaven and earth. In turn, Jesus uses parables to contrast heaven and evil.
  • Fourth Discourse (Confession of Peter): Peter announces who Jesus is and is the first to say in the Gospels that he is “the Christ, the son of the living God.” Opposition increases and Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for his crucifixion and gives them post-resurrection instructions.
  • Fifth Discourse (Conflict Phase): Opposition to Jesus reaches its zenith. Pre-crucifixion events occur in Jerusalem that lead up to the passion period. Jesus turns the tables in the temple and confronts the Pharisees.

Matthew ends with the trial of Jesus followed by the crucifixion and resurrection and with the great commission for all “to make disciples of the world.”

The Gospel follows this course of connecting Jesus to Jewish history and tradition throughout in order to convince the Jewish Christians that Jesus is the appointed one. Frequent use of terms such as “Messiah” and “King of the Jews” that this population can relate to is spread throughout the Gospel. These words and phrases help the listener or reader to understand the Gospel in their own terms.

Matthew is a far more comprehensive Gospel than Mark, and much of the story flows historically in portraying the life of Jesus.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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american freedom

George Washington and Religious Freedom (Part Two):

After the end of the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia. When he arrived after the many years of serving as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he found his home had deteriorated and needed his attention. He was also tired from the duties of directing a citizen army and was more than ready to retire.

He was sure this was where he wanted to stay.

Washington quickly discovered he would still be involved in the development of the country. Many came to Mount Vernon to stay and discuss the state of the new nation. Each day, visitors would arrive to seek advice and guidance and give political insight. Washington, as usual, stayed above the fray and held his thoughts close to the vest. He would only reveal his concerns about the state of this new nation to his closest friends.

After the end of the war, the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which had been put in place by the Second Continental Congress. They weren’t working, and much rancor between the individual states developed. Finally, in 1787 it was decided a convention was needed to discuss drafting some changes.

First, they needed a leader.

Washington was the one person all could agree upon. His independent, non-opinionated, and above-the-fray demeanor was welcomed and sought after. At first, Washington wouldn’t agree to attend. Not wanting to be part of the rancor and selfish positioning of some, he refused. But two men, James Madison and General Henry Knox, knew that without Washington the efforts of this convention would not produce adequate results. Eventually, they convinced Washington, and he arrived in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787.

Quickly after arriving, Washington was elected as the president of the convention and took the seat at the head of the room. Washington led the convention not with opinion but to ensure adequate debate. He only expressed himself when things got overly argumentative. His very presence added dignity and trust for all who attended.

The Bill of Rights

By the middle of September, the Constitutional Convention had scrapped the Articles of Confederation and drafted a new document, now called the Constitution. But some still felt that the document wasn’t complete. After much handwringing, James Monroe agreed to draft a separate set of Bill of Rights to further amplify the protections for the citizenry. With Washington’s back-office lobbying, the new plan was agreed to, and Monroe would draft the supplemental document called the Bill of Rights.

Monroe drafted seventeen individual rights and submitted them for approval. Later, these were pared to ten and sent to the various states for ratification.

One in particular—number three in the first draft, which later became number one—was the statement about personal freedoms. This amendment now reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note the inclusion of religious freedom. This was of paramount interest to many who attended.

Washington and others were well aware of the need for this inclusion. Most European countries were actually theocracies in that, while there were some personal freedoms, there was also a state religion. The group was also well aware of the many wars in Europe over religion, and the Founders saw this as a threat to the stability of the new country.

Limited Freedom

Further, even in the new United States, religious freedom was very limited. Even though the Puritans had come to escape religious persecution, they themselves denied freedom to others. Maryland, which had been settled by Catholics were being persecuted by the local protestants. The only real place for the Jewish population to live without recourse was New York City. In spite of the original attraction of religious freedom in relocating to the thirteen colonies, many were still persecuted.

The inclusion of this amendment set the stage for the great expansion of religious fervor in the following three decades, culminating in a period called the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s. During this time, many were baptized and were able to select their own form of beliefs. This gave rise to two new denominations, the Methodists and the Baptists. In fact, by 1840, 44 percent of the country was Methodist, growing from nearly zero at the time of the American Revolution. Later in the nineteenth century, Catholicism would also experience a similar revival.

First President

Later, Washington would become greatly affected by this amendment due to his role as the first president. As a side note, Washington took office in 1789 and is the only president ever elected unanimously by the Electoral College.

Washington took this religious freedom to heart and became very private about his own religious activities. He stopped taking communion, only attended church once a month, and often reassured the various groups of his neutral stance.

Washington famously wrote while president: “Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.”

He wrote to the Jewish population, assuring them of their protection.

The Baptists, in particular, who had previously experienced persecution in Massachusetts and the south, wrote asking for assurances. Washington wrote back, stating, “No one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers to end spiritual tyranny.”

Washington knew that spiritual tyranny would threaten both society and the young union. For the balance of his life, he was a silent Christian for the sake of the great experiment of government for the people by the people.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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united methodist development fund

The United Methodist Development Fund, a Model to Follow

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters

Colossians 3:23

I have become very careful where I donate my time and money. Life is very busy, and we are all pulled from here to there. But like most, I strongly desire to help the world, and especially through the church. I want to make a difference and pitch in where I can. The tug from God to help the world is, many times, a constant and pervasive feeling for many of us.

Not all non-profit organizations are focused and creative.

While all try, not all hit the mark. Deciding with whom to work and what to do in order to satisfy our natural desire to make a difference can be daunting. No one wants to be stuck in hours-long meetings or at places where decisions are slow in coming. It is our very nature to like action, especially actions that make a difference for the world. There is no better feeling when we know we work with like-minded people who are collaborative, get things done, and listen to learn. We become energized when we are with these people and our assets of time and money are valued.

Finding organizations that can use our special gifts can be challenging and require a lot of trial and error. One that I have found is called the United Methodist Development Fund. As a Methodist, I am always naturally inclined to help their causes. But the United Methodist Development Fund (UMDF) isn’t a wonderful organization because they are Methodist. Rather, it is because it’s run by a mixture of like-minded clergy and business people.

One of the things I noticed about this group is that they possess the four qualities of successful people: they listen to learn, develop each other, analyze effectively, and get things done. This collaborative group is making a difference for the church and the world.

The UMDF is essentially a bank for churches.

When churches need more to grow or start, the UMDF lends them money. The UMDF also provides leadership training for United Methodist clergy and lay people. Training not in doctrine, but how to be missional in the world. In other words, how to turn churches into centers of mission.

They invest in churches that don’t just do the same-old, same-old. Instead, they support churches that are entrepreneurial in their approach. Creative in the way they approach church and mission.  Churches  that don’t just seek to help those of low income/low wealth, but also to encourage this group in recognizing their individual gifts.

These churches become social banks that identify community needs and seek to solve them. And now there are green shoots beginning to sprout. Churches are becoming more missional. Clergy are being rewarded for becoming social entrepreneurs. Churches are finally recognizing the need to think differently and move outside their four walls.

It is just a beginning, but the future is bright.

Thanks to organizations like the UMDF, differences are being made. There is a long road ahead to overcome the years of decline in all the denominations. But in the sea of decay is an island that provides hope, run by a collection of serious and mission-minded leaders.

While that sounds good on paper, it sounds better in results. The UMDF has lent almost one hundred million dollars to churches. The money is being used wisely and is being paid back. For every one hundred dollars loaned, there is less than one dollar thirty days overdue. Even for the strictest of lenders, who have two percent of their loans more than thirty days overdue, this is a testament to the quality of the loans and the mission the money serves.

But UMDF isn’t just a bank.

They distribute the profits made from the interest on the loans to help clergy become missional social leaders through grants to mission-minded entrepreneurs and education to leaders.

So while we all want to help and though we want our help to reach the right people who will do the right thing, our help is not always productive. Perhaps organizations like the UMDF can become the beacon of change.

Even in your own community, there are wonderful organizations that are strong and great contributors. If we pay attention to how they operate, we will get a clue if our time and money is well spent. If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you have found a worthwhile place like the UMDF to spend your time and resources:

  • Do they focus on getting things done?
  • Do they focus on developing those they help and work alongside?
  • Do they listen to learn?
  • Are they thoughtful in analysis?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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old text books

Revealing the Gospels (Part one): The Gospel of Mark was First and Foundational 

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:1

One of my first classes in theological school was called “New Testament Study.” Our instructor, Dr. Stephen Moore, was a learned professor who believed strongly but also listened to his students patiently. Our first topic of study were the four Gospels.

I always had wondered why there were four Gospels; why couldn’t they all be combined so we didn’t have to flip through each one to get the whole story. I also wondered why there was so much repetition between them.

I was soon to discover why.

My first task was to research and write about Mark. Huh! Why Mark? It is the second Gospel. Well, I came to discover it was actually the first to be written. The exact date isn’t firm, but scholars put it at between 66 AD and 70 AD. In fact, all the Gospels were written after the books written by Paul, such as Romans, Galatians, etc..

Still curious about why there were four different Gospels, I found an ancient book written by Origen—one of the early church fathers—who lived in the late second and early third century. He viewed the Gospels as having a different meaning targeted at very distinct audiences. For instance, Mark was written for the gentiles—the general population outside of Judea. Coincidently, these were the same people Paul visited on his three missionary trips. The other three Gospels are directed toward distinct groups as well, which we will discuss in future writings.

The book of Mark

The book of Mark is part of what is called the Synoptic Gospels, which also includes Matthew and Luke. The reason for this is that they share common sources of information. The Gospel of John was written much later and is more spiritual than historical, and, as such, is not considered one of the Synoptic Gospels.

Mark was written first, and much of Mark is contained in some way in Matthew and Luke. The original text was written in Ancient Greek, which was the common language of the Roman Empire. This is what led many scholars to conclude it was written for the gentiles.

Another interesting aspect of Mark is that, while it was written first, it was likely finished last. The original writing of the Gospel ended at 16:8. 16:9-20 was almost certainly added by a scribe later and gives the account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.

The word Gospel means “the good news.”

Specifically, the good news about Jesus. As such, Mark follows the life of Jesus. Mark can be very macabre at times, as many Christians were suffering some form of persecution. imposed by the existing  Roman emperor. The Gospel of Mark also portrays a dim view of the disciples understanding of who Jesus was. Personally, I am more optimistic that the writer was actually portraying that the common path to the acceptance of Christ includes a lack of understanding. Our Faith increases over time and is especially  reinforced by significant events. In this case, the death and resurrection of Jesus would have been the significant events for the disciples.

The very first line of Mark—”The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”— also gives us other clues. The first clue lies in the words “Son of God.” The capitalization of the word “Son” indicates Jesus’s divinity. But it is also a direct connection to Jesus’s relationship in the Holy Trinity. The second clue we receive is the intended purpose of the author. By saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the author intends to state the history of the good news of Jesus’s life. Ironically, or perhaps not, the words “the beginning” are true in terms of the whole account of the Four Gospels—the book of Mark itself is “the beginning.”

An interesting note about Mark, is the twenty occurrences of miracles or healings at Jesus’s hands, further highlighting his divinity. This may also make the reader ask: “why did the Disciples take so long to truly believe the messages of Jesus.” Again, I wonder if this interplay isn’t more of an indication of the human condition which caused them to move slowly in coming to believe in the power of Jesus.

The human author of Mark is believed to be unidentified.

While tradition holds that it was John Mark—Peter and Barnabas’s associate in the Book of Acts—scholars doubt his connection. While I describe a human author, it implies that the human author was inspired by God. This in an important distinction. If we believe that the Bible was written by human authors without divine inspiration, then the Bible itself loses its importance. We could also believe that God himself wrote the words of the Bible, and some do. However, scholarly critique suggests divine inspiration. Whether divinely written or divinely inspired it doesn’t change that it is the word of God.

I finally understand why Dr. Moore had us start here first. Mark is a great way to enter the Gospels and lays a good foundation for understanding.

While I express my opinions and provide scholarly interpretations for the text, each person experiences the Bible differently, and perhaps Mark will affect you differently than it has me.  

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

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valley forge

Ten Days that Saved the Country

This is the first of a three-part series that will run each Wednesday for the next three weeks. The series will explore the influence that George Washington had in forming the longest-surviving democracy in the world and the importance of religious freedom in its creation.

We start with the dire events that existed on the country’s first Christmas in 1776. Washington had lost all the battles with the British Empire up to this point. The Continental Army had been embarrassed and forced out of New York City. The army had retreated to Valley Forge just miles from Philadelphia, the then capital of the emerging nation, and were followed closely by the British and their paid helpers—the Hessians of Germany.. The British seemed poised to end the revolt and restore the thirteen states as colonies.

Washington knew something bold had to happen to reverse the trend. His army, which had once numbered over twenty thousand was down to seven thousand. Having lost many on the retreat to Valley Forge, the army was made up mostly of the destitute and a few remaining Patriots.

Christmas Night

Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware River and attack the Hessians who were holed up in Trenton. It was Christmas night, 1776. The weather was very poor, and the Delaware was laden with floating ice. The crossing would be dangerous. On top of that, the Continental Army was in poor shape, lacking supplies. Many had no shoes or blankets. Into the icy water, this band of winter patriots went to save the nation.

When they got to the other side of the Delaware, they were three hours late. It was 3:00 a.m., and any chance of surprising the Hessians had passed. Washington, after some thought, decided to press on. His army walked for another five hours to get to the outskirts of town.

They Were Ready

At 8:00 a.m., Washington sent two columns down two different roads to attack. It is commonly thought that the Hessians were drunk from celebrating Christmas, which is not true. In point of fact, the Hessians had sensed an attack and were on full alert. The previous evening, they had gone to bed fully clothed with guns loaded. They were ready.

When the first column arrived, it opened fire and put the Hessians in disarray. They began to retreat, only to meet up with the second column. Trapped, many surrendered while others fled.

The Continental Army captured nine hundred Hessians and a bounty of supplies. This was their first real victory in many months. Two critical factors helped them achieve this victory. First, American marksmen were better shots than the Hessians from years of hunting and practice with their long guns. Secondly (and ironically), a German general had helped train Washington’s men while they rested at Valley Forge. His knowledge of Hessian strategies and discipline had significantly helped the Americans.

Temporary Joy

While this victory in itself was a confidence builder, Washington knew it would only be a temporary time of joy. Many of his men had enlisted on the previous New Year’s Eve, and in just a few days, their time of service would be up. Few new recruits were coming, and this brave band of men that had created the victory in Trenton would be going home.

Washington wanted to continue pressing the attack but would have no army to do so. He gathered all the men together and gave a passionate speech, asking for one more month. For this, they would each receive ten dollars in coins. Moved by the speech and the money, most accepted.

On New Year’s Eve, the ragtag army once again set off into the cold Delaware River to attack a small garrison of British regulars in the town now called Burlington. Once again, the crossing was difficult and laborious. Though they did not win the battle, they held off the British army three times.

Preparing for the Attack

When the British staying in Princeton heard about the attack, they sent reinforcements. Washington and his advisors sensed danger for the next day. During the early evening, they sized up their situation and decided to abandon their position. They knew if they stayed with British reinforcements coming, they would be trapped with the Delaware River at their backs and would be facing a much stronger army than the previous day.

Instead of fleeing in the night across the Delaware, they decided to attack what would be the largely abandoned town of Princeton. They left in the middle of the night, leaving their  campfires burning to disguise their move north. They marched eleven miles to Princeton to engage in what would be their third battle in ten days.

As they were approaching Princeton, a band of British reinforcements headed south to Burlington spotted the back end of their army. Not realizing a larger force existed, they attacked the Continental Army’s rear. They quickly realized their mistake and fled, with Washington leading his band in pursuit.

The remaining British retreated and gave up Princeton. In those ten days, Washington and his army had strategically and bravely confused the world’s best-trained soldiers. When the famed German general Frederick the Great  heard about the events of those ten days, he declared them the most masterful stroke of strategic genius in the history of war.

Washington made one more strategic decision. Even with his army low on sleep and weary from the previous ten days, he headed north to the safety of Morristown, New Jersey. There they would spend the rest of the winter. You can still visit the site, called Jockey Hollow, in Morristown. There you’ll find replicas of the soldier’s quarters and fencing from that winter respite.

Ten Days that Saved the Country

While the war wouldn’t end until 1783, these ten days saved the nation. The war would finally end with the British army worn down by the constant hit-and-runs from the Continental Army and militias throughout the country. Also, aided by France who entered the war as American allies. Low on funds and public support, the British ultimately gave up on September 3, 1783.

These historic ten days set the stage for the creation of a new country built on the principle of government for the people by the people—a government that wouldn’t have a state religion like its European counterparts. America would be built, in part, on the freedom of religious beliefs which would help forge the morality of our burgeoning nation.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

beautiful church ceiling

God Revealed as the Holy Trinity

One of the most interesting and complicated facets of Christianity is the Holy Trinity. Simply put, the Trinity is the three essences of God: the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I get a lot of questions about this concept and its meaning. From a theological standpoint, it is very complicated, but once understood, it is invaluable to our lives.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (from the Latin “trinitas” for threefold) holds that God is one God, but three coeternal and cosubstantial persons. While not completely evident in the New Testament, there are a number of Trinitarian formulas or references. The early leaders of the church sorted this out in the early part of the fourth century.

God itself as a concept and God’s existence was never the issue; the question for early Christians to resolve and decipher was: how did Jesus and the Holy Spirit enter the realm of God?

First, was the divinity of Jesus.

Some thought of Jesus as a being that achieved divine nature through being “begotten by God”—in other words, created by God. This concept was formulated by Arius in the early fourth century. While controversial and later dismissed, this theory launched an important debate amongst the bishops and theologians of this period. It was ultimately resolved at the Nicean Council in 325 AD. Central to this debate was: when did Jesus exist? The answer to this question establishes a second figure of the Trinity.

Critical to this debate is the first line in the Gospel of John which says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In this line, the “Word” is Jesus. We know this because of the capitalization of “Word” and the intent of the Gospel of John, which was to persuade early first century people to believe in Jesus. With that understanding, if you substitute Jesus in the sentence, it will read: “In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.” In other words, Jesus existed from the beginning and was both with and was one with God.

At the council of Nicea, the Arianism views were successfully dismissed by Athanasius. The early church leaders agreed with Athanasius and proceeded to include this concept into the approved Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The third and perhaps most difficult entity to fully grasp is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is within each of us. In First Corinthians 6:19 it says: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” When I first came across this verse, it was a remarkable revelation for me personally. It gave me hope and a greater sense of my personal sacredness.

The idea of the Holy Spirit was wrestled with for many years by the early church fathers. The major question was: Did the Holy Spirit exist from the beginning or was it added later by Jesus and God? Some denominations believe the former and others the latter.

The essence of the Godhead

God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as three entities in one has been debated for centuries. When I was in theological school, I would hear various opinions from my professors and fellow students. Each had opinions that were uniquely different, leading me to the conclusion that, while the debate is very important, it is also about how one feels and how they have journeyed with God. Some, like my fellow student Wendy, feel very attached to the Spirit. For Peter, another fellow student, it was about the authority of God. While both believed in the Trinity, they expressed their feelings differently based upon how they interact with God.

This debate will continue for many years to come, driven by the many and varied relationships that people have with God. To me, it is more important that we know that God (the Holy Trinity) meets us where we are. Like snowflakes, each of us has a personal and unique relationship with God (the Holy Trinity).

Our lives have shaped the lenses of how we view and interact with God. It is never static and ever-changing. We can see this when we read a verse in the Bible and feel a certain meaning. Revisiting this same verse later, it might mean something else entirely. Both meanings are sacred but reflect how our personal relationship with God has changed.

So, while I concur that trying to understand the Holy Trinity is a rich and educational experience, it is also important how we both approach and meet God. This makes our experiences more personal.

Reflecting on this relationship in our daily prayers and conversations with God is a healthy state of being and one from which we all grow in our faith.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by David Siglin on Unsplash

protestant bible

The Protestant Reformation

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Romans 11:6

Tradition holds that in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. Actually, the legend is wrong. Luther, a professor at Wittenberg University, circulated these Ninety-five Theses to his compatriots at the university. Later, an unknown person nailed them to the door of the church.

Aided by the Gutenberg printing machine, the Theses spread throughout Europe in a matter of three weeks. In this age of immediate news, three weeks may sound like a long time, but in the early part of the 16th century, three weeks was remarkable.

The First Two Theses

The first two Theses are the most important part of Luther’s text. His first thesis was, that God intended believers to seek repentance. In other words, Luther believed that in humankind existed the compelling force of God pushing us to seek good and not evil.

The second was, that faith and divine grace alone, and not deeds would lead to salvation. In other words, actions are not relevant to salvation, but it is only through our faith in God and belief in the free and unmerited gift of grace by God we are provided salvation.

Luther studied Augustine’s writings and was heavily influenced.

Out of this study, Luther came to believe that the Bible was the central document for all believers. Luther extended this belief by stating the Bible shouldn’t be just written in Latin but in the language of the people. In fact, Luther’s translation of the Bible became the foundation for the existing German language.

Centuries before Luther, others had proposed similar ideas, but the reason Luther’s ideas “went viral” was because of the times and the Gutenberg press. The environment was ripe for these ideas to take hold and the Guttenberg press, akin to the introduction of smartphones in the 21st century, propelled the Theses in the 16th century.

The selling of indulgences also gave rise to the acceptance of Luther’s Theses. At the time, the Catholic church needed to raise funds to renovate St. Peters Basilica and so began selling indulgences to pay for the renovations. Indulgences were sold as a way of “buying” one’s salvation. In Germany, a local friar named Johan Tetzel was the chief salesperson. Many saw through this scheme, which created dissent among the intellectuals and clergy. Luther himself a Catholic priest, recoiled at this selling of salvation.

The political climate was also changing.

Luther had local support from the German princes. This nobility was seeking more freedom from the church to grow their business enterprises. These princes railed against the influence of the Holy Roman Empire and sought to distance themselves from it to become more powerful. Luther was a vehicle for them to create this power.

Luther, a Catholic priest, never really wanted to leave the church. His goal was only to reform internally. But subsequent events made this impossible.

The leaders of the Catholic church were obviously upset with Luther and declared him a heretic, a crime punishable by burning at the stake. Ona number of occasions the pope asked Luther to come to Rome and discuss his position. Luther, well aware of the trickery that had befallen Jan Hus a century before, refused. Hus had accepted a similar meeting and was captured then burned at the stake.

Protected by the German princes, Luther was able to continue his campaign. The crisis reached its apex when Luther called the pope the “Anti-Christ.” After this, no resolution would be possible. This was when the Protestant Reformation took hold.

Many followed suit, like Calvin and John Wesley.

Other nobles, sensing an opportunity to be free of the pope, took action and joined in. Henry the Eighth wanted a divorce, and when the pope denied him, he started his own church called the Church of England, also known as the Anglican church.

The Bible was soon translated into native languages, and the Protestant churches started to develop.

The church services themselves changed. They didn’t follow the Catholic church system of prescribed services. Instead, the local pastor decided on the structure of the service.

In many churches, the Eucharist was no longer held at the end of every service, as still occurs in the Catholic church. Eventually, it morphed into a once-a-month celebration in the middle of the service.

The pope had warned Luther that by allowing the individual to decide what the Bible said would lead to a fracture in the church, which it certainly did. Today, eight hundred million Protestants are members of hundreds of individual denominations.

Luther is considered the father of Protestantism.

He benefited from the times, political support, and a temporary ebb in Catholic morality. Luther was the right person at the right time in the right place. His independent thinking and bombastic style also made him the best catalyst.

He was able to appeal to both the noble and peasant classes. Both were in an emerging state of growth in the early 16th century. Luther was valuable to the nobles because he created a way for them to separate from the influences of the church. And for the peasant class, Luther made God more accessible.

However, there were many grandfathers of Protestantism who hide in obscurity, notably Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, whom we will discuss in future writings.

Before we take too harsh a view of the Catholic church, we must remember that of the 2.5 billion Christians, 1.5 billion are Catholic. They are faithful Christians with many wonderful traditions. In many parts of the southern hemisphere, it is the fastest growing branch of Christianity. The Catholic church has slowly reformed over the years, and ironically, many of Luther’s original theses have been adopted.

Creating other options

To me the reformation was more about creating other options for worship. Expanding the way we worship versus a repudiation of the Catholic church. All organizations have blind spots and the Catholic church is no exception. But I don’t feel comfortable judging the Catholic church, rather admiring its wonderful history and the saints it produced. I remain a Methodist because it fits me. And it is more than okay for others be members of other denominations. We are all Christians first and denominational second.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash