The apostle Paul’s self-image

Graphing the apostle Paul's view of his sinfulness

The longer that Saul of Tarsus walked with Christ, the more aware of his sinfulness he became.

Before encountering Christ, he considered himself blameless (Philippians 3:6). Years later, he’d describe himself as “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Some years after that, he’d call himself “the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8) and “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Each time, the circle grew wider: apostles, saints, sinners.

Even allowing for Eastern humility and exaggeration, I think Paul did have a point to get across: the more he saw of his Saviour, the more he saw why he needed salvation.

What I find instructive is that the increased awareness of his sinful state didn’t leave him grovelling in the ash-heap. Instead, he breaks out in praise to the One who showed such incomparable patience and mercy to him (1 Timothy 1:16-17).

Now that’s a lesson I’m yet to learn…


The Lord moves in mysterious ways… Here’s a post that’s been sitting in  my feed reader that’s about awareness of our sin and expressing gratefulness to God. It’s got a video and a link to another blog post on the same topic.

Puzzling over Hagar and Ishmael

Any brilliant thoughts in this post aren’t mine but from Christopher Wright, in particular his sermon titled Abraham, father of the wrong family (length 35:56). Do have a listen to it!

A couple of weeks ago I was reading from the section of Genesis that contains the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, and some of it left me somewhat perplexed. We’re introduced to Hagar in chapter 16 when Sarai suggests that Abram may do well to sleep with her. Hagar becomes pregnant and looks down on barren Sarai; Sarai retaliates and Hagar flees to the desert.

Then came the first of my furrowed-brow experiences. The first appearance of the angel of the Lord was to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-12). To an Egyptian slave. Not only that, but He gives her a promise on par with the one Yahweh had previously given Abram: of descendants too numerous to count. Wait, what???! Equally surprising is that Hagar obeyed the command to return to the ill-treatment under Sarai. She delivers her son and gives him the name the angel of Yahweh instructed her to.

The next time we run into Hagar is in chapter 21 when Sarah tells her husband to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham’s reluctant to do so but Yahweh tells Abraham it’s okay saying, “I will make the son of the maid-servant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:13). Okay, fair enough.

So Hagar and Ishmael are sent off, but they run out of water in the desert. Yahweh finds Hagar again and repeats His promise. And then He provides an entire well of water! Genesis 21:20 says that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. Later in chapter 25, we read that God kept his promise to make him a great nation by giving him 12 sons. In fact, as Wright points out in his sermon, Isaac and Ishmael are blessed in identical ways except one.

What’s the point?

So why should we care what happened to the progenitor of the Arabs four millennia ago anyway? Answer: This account teaches us something of God’s unchanging character.

  1. God shows compassion to Hagar and Ishmael, because He delights to show compassion to the disenfranchised (Deuteronomy 10:18)
  2. Hagar named the place of her first encounter with God “the well of the one who sees me” and was instructed to name her son “God hears”.  This picture of a  God who sees and hears is an anticipation of the next book in the Bible (Exodus 3:7).
  3. God is determined to keep His promise moving, in spite of human error. His promise was to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3). All nations, including Ishmael’s descendants. Including you and me!

Leviticus: How to love your neighbour as yourself

The second greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbour as oneself. But how is that supposed to look?

That command is taken from Leviticus 19:18, and its original context helps us with the practicalities of loving those around us:

  1. Loving others with our possessions (vv. 9–10): We must deliberately plan our financial lives so that we have extra left over to give to those in need.
  2. Loving others with our words (vv. 11–12): God’s people love others by telling the truth in their transactions.
  3. Loving others by our actions (vv. 13–14): God’s people must not take advantage of the weak.
  4. Loving others in our judgments (vv. 15–16): Justice means there should be one standard, one law, for anyone and everyone, not different rules for different kinds of people.
  5. Loving others in our attitude (vv. 17–18): It’s not enough to be polite on the outside and full of rage on the inside. If we are angry with our brother we should “reason frankly” with him and try to work things out. The bottom line is that you are to love as you would want to be loved.

Note that each of these five sections is marked off by the phrase “I am the LORD”. Even our horizontal relationships with other people are bound up with pleasing the Lord.

Another thing worth noting is that these precepts are preceded by the command to be holy just as the LORD is holy (Leviticus 19:1).

So in the end, both commandments—to love your neighbor as yourself and to be holy—boil down to everyday social ethics. Simpler than you might think. But still easier said than done.

Adapted from 5 Love Languages of Leviticus

1 John: The one who

Here are the “whoever” constructs in 1 John (2:4, 2:5, 2:6, 2:9, 2:10. 2:11, 2:17, 2:23, 3:7, 3:8, 3:10, 3:14, 3:24, 4:6, 4:7, 4:15, 4:16, 4:18, 4:21, 5:1, 5:10, 5:12).


  • Adapted from “Whoever”: In 1 John
  • As you can see from the first panel, the Greek is variously translated as the one who, the person who, anyone who, everyone who, no one who, etc. The verses are quoted from the HCSB translation, which mostly uses the one who.
  • The ticks and Xs denote whether the statement is positive or negative.

A very long New Testament survey

A few days ago I (finally) finished listening to Bill Mounce’s New Testament survey over at the Biblical Training (BT) site, and I really liked it.

The thing is, I don’t know why. Maybe it was Mounce’s teaching style. Maybe it was the downloadable notes that helped me follow along. Maybe it was that I listened in the cool of autumn and winter and not the middle of summer as with other BT material. Or it could have been that it was more in-depth than other NT surveys I’ve followed.

If you have the interest, and more importantly, the time, do have a listen. The one caveat I would give is that Dr. Mounce is unapologetically Calvinistic in his worldview, which colours his interpretation of so-called “problem” passages. I certainly didn’t agree with him on every point he made.

Now, I need to dig around the BT site and see if they have anything comparable for the Old Testament…
(Addendum: this looks like it!)

Praying and praising with the psalmists

David in prayer, by Master of the Ingeborg Psalter (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
King David in prayer, via Wikimedia Commons

“What can miserable Christians sing?” someone once asked. Short answer: the psalms (read the long answer).

In the psalms we read raw human responses to and about God—be they the heights of praise as in Psalms 148-150 or the depths of despair in Psalm 88. The psalms teach us to praise God, in particular for His work of salvation (see Psalm 105); they give us words for praise when our prayers are answered (see Psalm 30). They also teach us to lament.

The lament psalms are among the most quoted in the New Testament. Jesus prays Psalm 22 on the cross; the early church quotes Psalms 69  and 109 (Acts 1:20); one of the prayers of the saints in heaven (Revelation 6:10) echoes Psalms 79:10, 94:3 and 119:84.

This certainly gives us warrant to use them today, one, because not every Christian is happy all the time. Two, by praying the laments, those among us who are happy can learn to empathise, as the apostle Paul exhorted us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

So the next time you feel on top of the world—or utterly crushed by it—pick up your Bible and simply read out a psalm or two aloud. If you’re particularly diligent, perhaps you could start the discipline of reading a set number of psalms a day. The God who came to the psalmists’ rescue is ready to respond to your cry.

Further resources:

This post draws on material from Praying the Psalms by Gordon Wenham (MP3). You may also have a look at the Psalms section here on this blog.

Those who worshipped the stars

Image via the Brooklyn Museum

Today is Epiphany, the day in the church calendar on which the coming of the Magi is celebrated. It is curious that these Gentiles from a far-off land came to worship the King of the Jews, and that Matthew, a Jew writing to Jews, is the one who records the account for posterity.

The Magi—wherever they came from and however many they were—were pagan astrologers. Their occupation was condemned in the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). And yet it was through that sinful practice that Yahweh drew them to worship His Son.

God used their sin to give them His salvation. How mind-boggling is that?

As the traditional hymn sung in Eastern Orthodox churches on Christmas day goes:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
hath shone forth the light of wisdom upon the world;
for by it those who worship the stars
have been taught by a star
to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high.
O Lord, glory be to Thee!

[source, emphasis mine]

Indeed, all glory be to God who draws sinners to Himself in sometimes scandalous ways!

This post draws on material from We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t and That Crazy Star of Bethlehem.