Who were the Gentiles? (and why should I care?)

WHO WERE THE GENTILES?

 

Paul, this Jewish zealot who was tagged by God, knocked off his horse, you might say, embraced Jesus as Messiah and became the Apostle to the Gentiles.  Thirteen of the Books of the New Testament — right at one-half! — are by Paul; nine (one-third of the New Testament) are Paul’s letters to the Gentile churches (the remaining four are “Pastoral Epistles” written to individuals).

So. Who were these Gentiles? And what does it matter for us?

I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that, for many years, I had this mental construct of the Gentiles as something akin to “protestant Jews.”  People not so very different from the Jews, but not on the inside track to knowing God.  Not the “cool kids.”

It’s a bit deeper than that, though.  Put plainly, the Gentiles were pagans.  They were a polytheistic people.  Remember your Greek and Roman mythologies from school?  Those myths developed out of other myths, which simultaneously reflected and shaped whole cultures of polytheistic peoples who lived all around Israel, even before the first time Abraham said “Yes” to God and went forth to the land promised to him by God.  Later, ass Greek and Roman civilization spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the various smaller nationalities and their deities became absorbed and influenced …

From the earliest days, the Gentiles were a very different people from God’s own people.  We see in the Old Testament that they worshipped gods called the Baals and the Ashteroths — fertility gods, in polite parlance, but they also represent all sorts of sexual activity and depravity.  There was the demon god Moloch, to whom these people sacrificed children.  In fact, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that the two major points of pagan culture from which the Israelites, the Jews, were to separate themselves were sexual depravity and human sacrifice.

The Greeks, and later the Romans, expanded the old pagan deities.  They (the gods) became a bit more sophisticated. Complex stories were developed to tell of their various exploits.  The stories we read as literature in school were the tamer ones;  Zeus, then Saturn, was not only a capricious and jealous deity, he had insatiable sexual appetites that extended not only to beautiful girls, but to boys, to beasts, to inanimate objects.  The citizens of these cultures that celebrated these myths lived much the same way as the deities they worshipped.  The decadence and depravity of Rome — remember your arenas and the gruesome events that occurred there; remember the massive banquets where people would go and vomit in order to be able to gorge some more? — spread in influence throughout the Empire.

It’s out of this environment that those early Gentile converts came to Christ.  Boy, talk about a major paradigm shift!!!  from the decadence and depravity of Rome and the pagan world to the radically different life of the Christian disciple – Whoa! When Paul writes to the Roman Church, in Romans 12:1 “present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice…be transformed by the renewing of your minds,”  they knew exactly what he was talking about.  This Christian discipleship wasn’t just a nice philosophical construct; Paul’s talking about bodies that had been indulged in every possible way, now being given to God and disciplined and sacrificed to chastity and moderation, concepts quite alien to the Gentile, pagan, mindset — hence, the call to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” in the very next verse.

 

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE TO US?

We live in a world that has come full circle.  Western Civilization, also known as Christendom, now has more in common, in terms of pop culture, with the ancient pagan empires of Bible times than with the Christian America my parents knew and loved when they died just over twenty years ago.

We have a major radical feminism campaign promoting a woman’s right to sexual depravity without consequences of pregnancy, and her vulnerability to becoming pregnant is identified as a War on Women.

Major television shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, Game of Thrones, etc., are really little more than dressed-up pornography.  At least, when I was growing up, such graphic depictions of sexual intercourse would be considered pornographic; now we’ve become so desensitized that people, even good Christians, look askance when I say something about the utter inappropriateness of a depiction of oral sex on television.

We sacrifice our children through abortion. Child abuse and murder are on the increase — and this despite the propaganda, more than thirty years ago, that if we only legalized abortion, child abuse would no longer occur.  What lies.

WE, we Christians, we disciples of Jesus Christ, have become a remnant, a countercultural minority living within a vast, increasingly-depraved world.  Many of us have had experiences, have been distracted and seduced into a worldly lifestyle and are finding our way back to Christ.

The words of Paul to his Gentile converts are so very vividly applicable to us, today, Christians living in a post-Christian, newly re-paganized world.  If we pay attention, if we put our hearts and minds into it, these counsels will see us through, just as they did two thousand years ago as the Church was being born throughout the world.

Thoughtful Bible Study

I don’t suppose anyone actually pays attention to this blog.  I certainly have a feeling of nattering to myself whenever I post…. which I haven’t done in quite a long time because… well, several reasons.  Working on some other projects, feeling my mind drying up…  having the nagging feeling it doesn’t make a bit of difference to the Grand Scheme of Things what I think so why bother?

Still, here I return, again and again.

Today I want to talk about getting your teeth into your Bible reading. Commonly, and erroneously, called “Inductive Bible Study,” is a method of going beyond the surface of a text into its heart, using a series of basic questions  —- the good old Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? we learned in school, back in the day.

Now, I say this is an erroneous label.  Actually, Induction starts with a premise, then seeks the details to support it.  Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries coined this phrase and made it a brand name for her own Bible studies.  Kay has some good stuff going, and I’m going to recommend some of her study techniques and notations — but keep in mind that, when you start with a point and seek to prove it (inductive reasoning), you can get all the points right and still reach an incorrect conclusion.  Kay’s an evangelical Protestant, which means she misses the Catholicity of the Scriptures; she often has wrong conclusions of a passage; she too often misses the subtext. For example, II Corinthians is predicated upon the practice of Sacramental Confession — but as a Protestant, Kay would say that we confess our sins only to God, not to a priest; that the priest is extraneous to the Reconciliation process.  She’s missing much of what’s actually happening underneath and behind the text and what it means for us.

I can say that without malice because I was blind to the Catholicity of the Scriptures for more than 25 years, myself.  It’s just one of the weaknesses of Protestantism as a culture.

No, what we want to do is a bit different.  I’m starting with a premise:  the Scriptures are the Inspired Word of God (His written Word, since Jesus is also the Word, the Logos) — and it’s up to us to carefully, thoughtfully pull out the life lessons from there.  What those lessons are is what we’ll be doing with our study.

Now — here’s how it works.  I’m going to start with the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament (from Romans through to Philemon).  Right now I’m re-reading the Book of Romans, which is a very good place to demonstrate a few ideas.

Now, let me point out one other thing, here.  You will develop your familiarity with the Scriptures in LAYERS — I’d use an analogy, like building a Cornish pasty, but I’m typing with a Benadryl hangover and analogies are a bit beyond me right this minute.  If you’ve read the Scriptures before, you’ve got a foundation, and you’ll build on it, and go deeper and see more every time you thoughtfully and prayerfully re-read.  I’ve lost track how many times I’ve read some of these Books, so don’t let my enthusiasms or any of the points that follow daunt you.  Okay? Promise?

A GENERAL OVERVIEW:

The Book is Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

WHO — who wrote this? to whom did he write it?  (MUCH of this will carry through as the introduction to all of Paul’s epistles.)
Okay, that’s easy.  The Epistle to the Romans was written by Paul.  WHO was Paul?  Well, we see in the Book of Acts that he was a Jew, a Pharisee, who’d been persecuting the Christians out of zeal for the Lord… and God blinds him and gives him this amazing revelation that Jesus of Nazareth really was/is the Messiah…. and he went and studied and then after 3 years was approved by Peter to take the Gospel to the Gentiles…. etc., etc.  — Paul tells us a LOT about himself in his letters.  Why he does this is important, and we’ll look at it as we go.

So… who were the Romans? Well, the Romans were citizens and residents of Rome who’d converted to Christ.

And so it goes.

In the interest of brevity, let me move to a new post for what I have on my mind and think is important enough to write about it:  Who were the Gentiles? And What difference does it make, anyway?

Continuing our Bible study –

Yikes! Nearly 3 months since I last posted!  My most sincere apologies.  No real excuse for my negligence, only procrastination (time is passing so much more quickly now that I’m really middle-aged) and chronic lack of energy.

Now that three months have passed, I’m going to work on the assumption that you’ve been browsing through and are beginning to get a sense of the arrangement of the Bible.  Chances are also good that you might have begun reading at Genesis 1:1 and just kept on reading until…. WHAM!!!  Where’d the story go?

Remember — the Bible is not just one Book, it is a library, a compilation of shorter works, or Books.  These are arranged as follows:

The first five Books are called the Pentateuch (penta=”five”  You’ll remember from high school prefixes and suffixes, right?).  Genesis and Exodus are narratives of God’s creation of the world and the beginnings of His working to redeem mankind from their sins.  These two books make for some pretty exciting reading, but…

When you hit the third Book, Leviticus, you are suddenly in new territory.  In Exodus, Moses went up on the Mountain to receive the Law of God.  Leviticus is that law, detailed in the extreme.  And there’s a lot of repetition. Leviticus (and Deuteronomy, the 5th Book of the Pentateuch) are well worth delving into — but for the time being, you might want to wait until you’ve read more of the narrative, gotten more under your belt.

After the Pentateuch come the History Books, outlining the history of the development of the Nation of Israel, from the earliest battles to secure the Promised Land, the cycles of faithfulness, followed by compromise followed by deterioration into abandonment of God…   followed by punishment, followed by repentence, followed by renewed faithfulness….   The writers of these books are tough and gritty and although some of our modern translations want to make some of the grit a bit more polite, the stories in these Books are the sort that grab the imagination and pull you forward.

The Book of Job sits with the Poetry and Wisdom Books.  It’s not really a history, per se, or a prophecy… although it contains both.

After the Wisdom literature (which probably should be read a bit at a time, interspersed with the other readings — I’ll outline that soon) come the Prophets.  A “Major'” prophet is not more important than a “minor” one — he’s just had a lot more to say!  The Prophetic books fit in with the narratives of the Histories, but they also stand alone.  (Note: in reading the Book of Isaiah, if you’re a musician, you’ll recognize many of the texts from Handel’s Messiah.)

The New Testament is divided:

Four Gospels
History (The Book of Acts)
Pauline Epistles
General Epistles
Prophecy (Revelation)

Having a sense of the genre of a particular book will help you have an greater ease in its writing and style.

Next up: reading for meaning.  Inductive Bible Study.

From Elisabeth LeSeur –

September 25, 1899 — No one knows what passes in the profound depths of our soul.  To feel God near, to meditate, to pray, to gather all our deepest thoughts so as to reflect on them more deeply: that is to live the inner life, and this inner life is the supreme joy of life.  But so many moving thoughts and ardent desires and generous resolutions should be translated into deeds, for we are in the midst of human life and a great task lies before us.

It is time for painful effort: one must tear oneself asunder, forsake the realm of thought for that of reality, face action, know that one will either not be understood or be understood wrongly; and that one will perhaps suffer at the hands of humanity for having willed the good of humanity.  We must already have drawn from God an incomparable strength and armed our hearts with patience and love, in order to undertake day by day and hour by hour the work that should belong to every Christian:  the moral and material salvation of his brothers.

(Leseur, Elisabeth. My Spirit Rejoices. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1996.)

Prayer before reading

There are lots of prayers before reading the Scriptures.  I just did a quick Google search, and I found dozens, probably hundreds.  Pick the one you like best.

I talk to God rather plainly, and I say something like, “Father, come to me in the Scriptures, and help me to know You better. Make me tender-hearted to what I learn here, so I might be more fully converted. Amen.”   It varies from day to day.

Point is, do ask God to “open the eyes of your heart” and increase your receptivity to the Message.  The fancy words don’t matter. The intention of the heart does.

Lectio Divina – baby steps

Please, please read through to the end of this post, because I’m about to open with a very controversial statement, here:

I am not a biblical literalist.

The reason for this is simple:  I’m an American, steeped in a culture that still clings to vestiges of Puritan legalism and narrowness of perspective. Puritans left the Church of England because they thought all the splendor retained after the break from Rome was an insult to God — never mind that the Bible is chock full of descriptions of the extravagant beauty associated with worshipping Him. Ignore the beauty and splendor associated with worship of God from time immemorial. We have a purer way … 

The writers of the Bible, however (and remember, the Bible is a collection of Books, not just one Book), were not Puritans. They were Middle Easterners, a people whose culture and manner of speaking and writing are colorful and poetic and… probably quite antithetical in many particulars from our Puritan forebears.

An example of that poetry that no one, not even the most rabid fundamentalist, takes literally is found in the Psalms — 17 and 91, to name two — where God’s love and provision for His people is described through a hen covering her chicks. No one thinks God is a chicken or any other type of bird.  But the first thing a fundamentalist will ask you is whether you take the Bible literally.  He forgets that powerful truths are conveyed through the poetic devices which are never to be taken literally.

Even the anthropomorphic representations of God as a man with hands, feet, eyes, and so on, are metaphor.  But the metaphor gets the point across. That’s what metaphor does.

Much of the biblical narrative is metaphorical.  There are bigger truths to be gained behind the word pictures we read.  So when we read the Bible, we’re going to look at a literal context, yes – but we’re also going to look for a spiritual meaning.  When Israel battles a particular enemy, we may be reading an account of a war that might have actually occurred…  but there’s a spiritual significance to this story, it’s included in the text for our benefit — and our benefit goes far beyond an isolated literal event.  So we’re going to be conscious of that, and we’re going to look for that deeper meaning.

In other words — I may not take the Bible literally, but you can bet your bottom dollar I take it seriously.  Very seriously.

 

Next up: some tips to get more mileage out of your reading.