Book Review: Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture

Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture by Jeffrey D. Arthurs
Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture by Jeffrey D. Arthurs

Arthurs, Jeffrey. Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word. Pap/DVD ed. Kregel Academic & Professional, 2012.

One can only applaud Jeffrey Arthurs goal: “My vision is to increase the quantity and the quality of Scripture reading in church services. We need to do more of it, and we need to do a better job of it” (pp. 11-12). Over the past 40 years I have heard some excellent reading of Scripture; but I have heard less than satisfactory reading, more often that I want to admit. Thus, I concur with the last part of Arthurs’ goal—we can and should always do a better job of public reading of Scripture. Arthurs’ book provides a valuable resource to address this issue. The book is well organized and easy to use for follow up and referencing.

As I read the book, while very helpful and encouraging, I kept sensing that it is directed to churches with non-liturgical worship. In several places, his analysis or suggestions reflect little or no awareness of the historical liturgical pattern of Scripture reading throughout the 2,000 years of church history that is still the largest portion of Christianity. Chapters 3 and 7, in particular, reflect this bias. At the same time, this bias is helpful for those in liturgical churches to reflect on the value of its heritage and even strengthen its resolve to continue such things.

He uses the concept of preparing and eating a meal (following Eugene Peterson’s simile) to examine the various aspects of public reading. The simile works well for this topic. In chapter 1 (“Building an Appetite”) Arthurs provides the Biblical foundation and historical continuity of the public reading of Scripture. Unless we see this foundation and historical awareness, we can easily dismiss the importance of the public reading of Scripture.

Chapter 2 addresses the importance of proper preparation for reading. This is more than quickly reading through the text. Rather, Arthurs includes spiritual, mental, and emotional preparation. This is followed by a making and using prepared script. At first this seems odd, thinking, “Don’t we read from the Bible?” As he illustrates, a separate sheet of the prepared text allows the reader to mark the text with highlights and special notations for reading.

Chapter 3 (“Inviting the Guests”) is geared specifically to non-liturgical churches by changing the church culture to accept and expand its public reading of Scripture. Certainly this is a laudable goal and an encouragement for those churches that have very little Scripture reading in worship.  For those already immersed in the culture of pervasive public reading of Scripture, this chapter reaffirms such need.

In Chapter 4 Arthurs addresses “Serving the Meal: Communicating through What We Look Like.” He addresses not just the voice (chapter 5), but posture, mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact. The discussions of movement and “proxemics” (the use of space) while useful for general reading, are less helpful for liturgical churches (dictated by sanctuary design and history). Overall, this chapter is superb because it addresses those things that we seldom think about or examine; and it is immediately practical.

Chapter 5 (“Serving the Meal: Communicating with the Voice”) joins chapter 4 as critical for improving public reading of Scripture. As the quote from Mark Twain notes, this need includes clergy: “The average clergyman, in all countries and of all denominations, is a very bad reader” (p. 89). He uses the alliteration of six P’s to cover all aspects related to voice (projection, phrasing, pause, pace, pitch, and punch). Excellent resource chapter.

Chapter 6 (“Adding Some Spice: Creative Methods”) illustrates the difference between non-liturgical churches and solidly liturgical (for whom most of these items are already in place). Nevertheless, it is helpful for those within a liturgical tradition to review each of these and realize why we do incorporate them. For instance, his suggestions include:

Read passages other than sermon text: The lectionary readings include at least three readings (OT, Epistle, Gospel) plus a Psalm.

Let Scripture pervade entire service: The liturgical (Reformation/Lutheran) development has been exactly on this point.

Responsive readings: This is already done through the Introit (with Psalms).

Stand for reading: In liturgical services we stand for the Gospel reading.

Give listeners a response: That is built into the liturgical services (either spoken or sung responses).

I am glad to see Arthurs address group readings in chapter 7, as they can be very effective in special services. I would not see it as a regular Sunday morning feature of public reading. Thus, Christmas eve, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday would be appropriate.

In the accompanying DVD Arthurs demonstrates the key points throughout the text. This is helpful and gives the visual appreciation of oral reading. He demonstrates how even little non-verbal expressions can aid or hinder public reading of Scripture.

Arthurs is imminently qualified as a theologian and oral interpreter to address this important issue. He offers many valuable aids in helping congregations and individuals (pastors! and readers) improve public reading of Scripture. This is a book worth reading, reviewing, and learning techniques to deepen this critical aspect of worship.

Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic & Professional for the review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

In all honesty…

This is becoming a big topic in the blogosphere: honesty. In all honesty, it is within the Christian blogosphere. Honesty is viewed as positive, the goal, the ideal, the standard for relationships. And especially relationships within the Church.

Can we be that honest? Perhaps not as much as we think, desire, demand… I watched “The Interpreter” last week (this is not an evaluation of the movie itself). One line from the movie stands out. The woman interpreter says to the Secret Service officer:

Let me be honest with you. I don’t know whether I can be honest with you.

At first glance, we might laugh and claim that the person has no clue about honesty. And she is the Interpreter? But in all honesty… that quote is far more significant than initially thought.

In all honesty before God…

When we claim to be honest, are we being honest, or have we set limits on honesty? Before God, one of our challenges is to realize that God sees us, knows us perfectly. Honesty before God strips us of any sense of mystery and hiddenness. Sure, we might join Adam and Eve and run to hide behind the bushes. But in all honesty, that only works short term. Honesty about ourselves before God shows us as we are: broken, overwhelmed, alienated, scared, marred, scarred, humbled. Do I want to be honest like this?

We see that as the end before God. But God sees this as the beginning. Until and unless we are that honest before God we will never see God’s new work of love, mercy, forgiveness, restoration, peace. Our partial honesty is replaced by the true honesty of Jesus Christ. Denial, fear, frustration, condemnation give way to repentance, security, joy, and acceptance of God’s work.

This is a huge hurdle for people to overcome, for me to overcome. By nature we like to live in partial honesty before God, and we live partially as the the new person in Christ. We turn to that which is comfortable, even if we are not being honest with God. That is why Paul urges us:

Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–20 HCSB)

I like the fact that in our worship services, immediately after the invocation, we have the opportunity to become honest before God. We call it “Confession and Absolution.” In confessing our sins, we have time to review in all honesty our lives privately, and then corporately. We confess those sins to God. Then we hear God’s declaration: “I forgive you your sins for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

That means not only are the sins forgiven, the conscience cleansed, the shame taken away, but also that true honesty sets the stage before God. We worship in all honesty our God. Jesus told the woman by the well (John 4), “You will worship me in spirit and in truth.” Honesty before God brings that to completion.

And as a corporate body, for at least a moment we have been honest, united by our sin and condemnation, but even more united in the forgiveness of sins.

In all honesty before others…

We would like to think that if we are honest before God, then being honest before others is easier. But in most, if not all, cases, it is not true. Our honesty before others is tinged by many factors. Is that person’s love, forgiveness, and honesty the same as God’s? Not really.

As I am a sinner (chief of sinners!), so the other person is also a sinner, even while being Christian. In Lutheran terms we use the phrase simul iustis et peccator, “at the same time saint and sinner.” Until we  reach heaven, we will always live in this tension, with ourselves and with others.

The result? We tend to be guarded. Perhaps someone has hurt us, broken our trust, rejected us. Perhaps we struggle with suspicion, of everyone, at least a little. And so in all honesty we can only be somewhat honest before others.

In the church relationships such tensions can be stifling of true fellowship. In all honesty, I guard my thoughts, my past, my hopes, my fears… I want to be honest—to a point.

Reconciliation is key again. Even as we have been reconciled to God, so we are reconciled to one another. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians focused on what it means to be “in Christ” (37x in various forms). That standing “in Christ” involves the vertical (before God) and the horizontal (before humans).

For Paul the greatest barrier between humans was represented in the separation between Jew and Gentile. The hostility, enmity, however you want to describe it, prevented any crossing of the boundaries. Yet, in all honesty Paul wrote:

He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it.

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:16, 18-19 HCSB)

James extended the need for honesty, connecting healing, prayer, and confession of sins to one another—honesty before others. He wrote:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. (James 5:16 HCSB)

In all honesty… further reflection

The call to honesty on Christian blogs is good. But unless we examine what is behind it, and the implications of what it means to be honest before God, we will always fail. We will not be honest, only honest enough…

In all honesty

False prophets/teachers: now what?

Who’s Sleeping?

In my devotional reading a couple days ago I read 2 Peter 2, which I have read many, many times over the past 37 years. Reading this time, specifically vs. 3 stood out; and then 2 Peter 3:18 makes even more sense. Perhaps the events in Connecticut last week heighten the awareness of this text for me. We have many false prophets and teachers—even in our own midst! They may use “right words” but their hearts are far from God, leading people away from God’s grace in Jesus Christ. So what can we do?

2 Peter 2:3

NAS:  and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

GW: In their greed they will use good-sounding arguments to exploit you. The verdict against them from long ago is still in force, and their destruction is not asleep.

HCSB: They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep.

REB: destruction waits for them with unsleeping eyes.

Despite the wide spectrum on translation approaches, all three translations provide the same translation of the last phrase. In fact, almost every translation I have looked at has essentially the same phrasing; I particularly like the REB on this. In addition to the above, I looked at NKJV, KJV, NET, NABRE, RSV, NRSV, NIV84, NIV 2011, CEB, and a few others. The exceptions:

NCV “and their ruin is certain.”

CEV “God doesn’t sleep.”

NLT: “And their destruction will not be delayed.”

Pondering

And then I began to ponder that phrase: and their destruction does not sleep. First, “their” refers back to the false prophets/teachers 2:1) who work in the church to disrupt and discourage and lead people astray. Second, God’s judgment on them comes not in individual increments, but rather from long ago. The false teachers of the Old Testament stand in that line, condemned because they presumed to speak for God but did not know God.

I think of Jeremiah’s time:

“Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ — that you may do all these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7:8-10 NAS)

God’s judgment has always been against the false prophets and false teachers. That will not change, regardless of what happens in the present world. If a specific false prophet/teacher does repent and confesses Christ, then the judgment has passed (John 5:24), because Christ died for that sin, as well.

Sometimes it seems that false prophets/teachers go about unhindered in their deception, oblivious of any kind of problem they are causing. They leave in their wake, wounded, broken, hurting people. These people recognize something is wrong, but become withdrawn, resentful, and untrusting. (There are books written about this problem.)

But now, this text in 2 Peter 2:3 offers another perspective. In the immediate, it may seem as if the false prophet/teacher has escaped any kind of judgment. Peter tells us otherwise, and in rather oblique language: “and their destruction does not sleep.” We may not see the consequences of their false teachings, their seeming indifference to what is happening. Yet, this phrase lurks in the background as an encouragement to Christians. From our perspective, destruction may be delayed, may not be imminent, may even suggest God is nowhere in sight. Peter offers hope: “and their destruction does not sleep.”

Grace and Knowledge

If you have lived in the shadows of false prophets/teachers, then flee from the false prophet/teacher! If you have left that environment, good for you. God’s truth is there in his Word. He has not abandoned you, he has not turned a blind eye. And he has not forgotten his judgment of false prophets/teachers. Peter writes that to reassure you.

In contrast to that, Peter points to this:

but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18 NAS)

Notice he does not say: “Go on a campaign to get that false prophet/teacher.” Rather, the key is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Two aspects of the false prophet/teacher are noticeable:  changing grace into works and perverting the knowledge.

Grace is entirely a characteristic of God. The minute we read or hear someone talk about “our role in salvation” then we know that the person has moved away from grace. There are no “doctrines of grace,” only the grace of God in Jesus Christ. God has promised his grace through Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Confession/Absolution, and the hearing/reading of His Word.

Paul put it this way:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7 NAS)

Many years ago, I remember a woman who struggled with grace and the corresponding forgiveness of her sins. She had been taught for decades that only as she did something could she receive grace. “How can it be free?” she often lamented. Months went on, as we studied together, and she worshiped and participated in Bible study. One day as she entered the church building for Bible study, she shouted (very loudly!!): “I’m free! I get it, Pastor, I’m really free!” It was life changing for her.

By studying Scripture, not commentaries, not the latest fads, etc. but studying Scripture itself, we can gain true knowledge of who Jesus is and what He has done. It is not enough to turn from one teacher to another, believing everything or discounting everything the person says. Rather, we study the Word and check out whatever a teacher says:

The people of Berea were more open-minded than the people of Thessalonica. They were very willing to receive God’s message, and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 GW)

If it is good enough for the Apostle Paul to be examined like this, so it is for everyone who claims to speak for God.

Many years ago, a person visited out worship services. I couldn’t help but notice that she began crying during the service: Scripture readings, sermon; and when she came forward for communion the tears were streaming. After service she agreed to meet with me. Her first comment was: “I suppose you were wondering about my tears on Sunday.” She told me that while she grew up in another church body, she began reading the Bible every day beginning at the age of 19. For the next 17 years she read, visited churches, and read. The reason for her tears: “I have finally found a church that really teaches what the Bible says.”

Now what?

I think Peter says two important things: God’s judgment has been set against false prophets/teachers. Let God handle the when and how of that judgment: “and their destruction does not sleep.” God does speak to you through His Word. His grace is pure, free and entirely God’s. Receive what he gives in Jesus Christ.

Another Challenge of NKJV

As much as I like the NKJV, there are some challenges in using it. The first challenge, as mentioned in the last post, is the use of biblish (words used only in church settings that are unfamiliar or different than normal English usage). That is not insurmountable, as I noted: it can be overcome with sufficient teaching.

The second challenge relates to sentence structure and sentence length. The classic example I use is Ephesians 1:3-14, which combines the issues of complex sentence structure, sentence length, and biblish. (I removed the verse numbers and then separated according to sentences.)

3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.

7-10 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.

11-12 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.

13-14 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

So four sentences, and the length of each is far above the normal sentence length of most other writings. We can debate how that is a loss from previous generations, and lament the loss, but that doesn’t help in addressing the needs of Bible readers and Bible students today. Here is a sentence number and length comparison table for five current translations. The number behind the translation abbreviation indicates the number of sentences in 1:3-14, and the number in the table indicates the number of words in each sentence.

Ephesians 1:3-14 Sentence number and length

The NKJV essentially follows the Greek sentence structure used in  NA-27. And that is the problem. You can see NIV 2011 and HCSB try to avoid that extreme, generally keeping sentence length between 20-56, whereas GW avoids any sentence over 25 words. Note that GW can seem choppy with that many short sentences. But is that any worse than the extended, complex sentences of NKJV (and NAS95) or even ESV?

A few nights ago in our (my wife’s and my) devotion, I was reading Acts 3 in NKJV. For 3:2-3 the oral reading was awkward.

Acts 3:2-3

NKJV And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms.

Consider a couple other versions that remedy this problem:

NIV 2011 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money.

HCSB And a man who was lame from birth was carried there and placed every day at the temple gate called Beautiful, so he could beg from those entering the temple complex. When he saw Peter and John about to enter the temple complex, he asked for help.

Now keep in mind, I have been reading orally in worship for 35 years, preaching and teaching for 30 years, and using NAS for most of that time. So I am used to longer sentences, awkward phrases, etc. But this example illustrates the difficulty that people have in reading a text like this, not just in worship, but in the private room at home (most silent reading is actually oral reading in the head).

So while the NKJV is an excellent translation in many ways, especially for study, the complexity and length of sentences can become an obstacle for encouraging and continuing reading the Bible privately. It also presents a challenge for oral reading in worship, both for the reader and for the hearer.

Other Translations: NKJV

It seems appropriate to examine a few other translations that could be useful in this search. Thus, I will consider NKJV and NAS95. And then a quick look at a couple more recent ones: CEB (Common English Bible) and NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition). In this post I will comment on the NKJV (New King James Version).

Familiarity

There is much to like about the NKJV, especially for those who have some church background. The style while modernized still has the flavor of the KJV. Thus familiar passages “sound like they should.” The examples I provide may or may not be the best translation, but demonstrate the value and consistency of the translation. Perhaps the classic text is Psalm 23:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Just the rhythm feels like home. I tell younger pastors that if they are visiting elderly people, they should have Psalm 23 on a separate sheet in either KJV or NKJV. Another like this one, but I will only quote seven verses rather than all 20. Luke 2:1-7

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

What would the Christmas reading be without this familiarity? Well, still Christmas, obviously, but the sense of stability in hearing the story “once again.”

Other familiar renderings:

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Psalm 27:1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid?

Almost familiar

There are a few passages that recall the KJV (and liturgical formulations) but not quite. For instance, Psalm 51:10-12 (highlighted words denote those that are modified)

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.

I think the reader gets the idea.

Translation Issues

The NKJV translators offer a very traditional church culture translation; some would call many of the words in this category as “biblish,” indicating words that are only in a church/worship setting, and may not be understood even by those within the church. Words such as propitiation, righteousness, beseech, beloved, etc. fall into this category. However, even some of the more specific attempts by translations to avoid biblish are not entirely successful; witness how ἱλαστήριον (hilsterion) is translated in Romans 3:25 in NIV 2011, GW, NLT, etc. So, even with these translations there is a need to “see what it means.”

But having biblish in a translation is not all bad. Because we are a liturgical tradition (Lutheran), any translation must work within a liturgical service. The biblish can be useful in this context. It requires some teaching, but given many different contexts, when worship and the rest of the Christian life is integrated, then the teaching matches in each. And the continuity if faith expression is perhaps best done by the NKJV. (Note that HCSB changed in 2009 to include a bullet next to “propitiation” indicating that the definition was included in a special appendix for ease of looking up unfamiliar words.)

Some examples

This first example is even more than just biblish, it is a case of transliteration of the Greek word. But it opens up some understanding of the text that many other translations obscure.

1 Peter 3:21

NKJV  There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

NAS95 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

NAB This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

NIV 2011 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscienceb toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ

NLTse And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the worst translation is the NIV 2011 (also 1984), when using “symbolizes.” In English and especially within one segment of Christianity, the word denotes something far different than this particular Greek word. Even NAS95 is weak in translation. NKJV’s antitype is a transliteration of the Greek word ἀντίτυπον. In the context, the salvation of Noah and family through the water is the type. The greater saving action is the antitype (the type points to the greater thing which is the antitype), saving people through water of baptism. Again, this is a case where teaching in the community supports and expands the liturgical use.

In Amos 5:15, I think the NKJV (and ESV) is weaker than NAS95 (and NIV 2011).

NKJV Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

NAS95 Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the LORD God of hosts may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Amos is addressing the “credit card” mentality of the people—they wandered off after other gods, then came back to the temple assuming that God has to be gracious. They were presuming upon God. While the NKJV “it may be” indicates a little of tension, it is not nearly as strong as the word “perhaps.”

Textual Basis

Perhaps the most notable thing about the NKJV is that it essentially follows the same textual basis as the KJV called textus receptus [TR] (“received text”). The TR consists of the majority of manuscripts, but almost all are later dates. On the other hand, most other modern translations use the NA-27 (called an “eclectic text”) Greek text that is based on older, but fewer manuscripts. I won’t go into the issues in this post. Check our Michael Marlowe’s site for a thorough overview of the issues.

Most variations are insignificant, but there are a few passages that merit mention. The following texts do not appear in some of the earlierGreek manuscripts, but are consistently present in the later Greek manuscripts.

Mark 16:9-20

John 7:53-8:11

So, the question becomes “Are these portions part of the Bible or not?” In other translations you will see a note to that effect, and the passages will be marked off in some way. Thus, they acknowledge that there is limited early testimony to the passage, but there is extensive support for its acceptance within the text later on. In the NKJV (and KJV) there is no separation of the texts; in other words the “received text’ that was the basis for the KJV had each of them as part of the text. The NKJV translators were given the mandate to follow the same textual basis. But they also included footnotes to note the difference in the manuscripts.

Another example is 1 John 5:6-8

NKJV This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness on earth: [a] the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

NAS95 This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  7 For there are three that testify:  8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

In this case, the textus receptus included the highlighted words that were not present in any Greek manuscript. Only a few very late Latin manuscripts included the words. Obviously they were not part of the original text. The NKJV translation, however, was obligated to include them because of the decision to follow the KJV text basis.

But the NKJV translators provided a valuable service with more extensive footnotes regarding differences between the textus receptus and the NA-27 edition. This is far more than any other Bible provides and so is a significant help to the student of the textual traditions.

Assessment of NKJV

Obviously this is a very brief glimpse at the NKJV. My use of it since the whole Bible was published in 1982 persuades me that it is a very useable translation. I think it could stand an update in regard to some of the gender issues (as even the ESV translators partially addressed). With some of the caveats mentioned above, I could easily use this in liturgical settings, Bible classes, Bible memory, and could be useable in outreach.

I put the NKJV and NAS as the best of the more formal equivalence translations; it is much better than the ESV and NIV.

NKJV is a keeper of a translation.

Where HCSB failed

A year ago I wrote an initial evaluation of the HCSB. Over this past year I have used the HCSB more and found it is generally very good. It is one of the final translations we are considering for the congregational use. One concern I had was the inconsistent use of Yahweh [LORD in most English translations] in the Old Testament of the 6,600+ occurrences of the divine name (יְהוָ֜ה) HCSB translates it about 484 times with “Yahweh,” where it specifically refers to the name. The other 5,925 times it is rendered “LORD.”

In the month of September we used HCSB as the Scripture texts for the bulletin. It went well, and the texts in the Narrative Lectionary (focusing on the Old Testament) were good. But then for November 11, 1012 the Old Testament reading is Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11. As I was preparing the bulletins for November, I realized how the inconsistency of HCSB renders such a text, specifically 1:14-16.

14 So they called out to the LORD: “Please, Yahweh, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For You, Yahweh, have done just as You pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

So for this text, would the reader/hearer recognize that LORD and Yahweh are identical? Not hardly. But then it leaves all the other renderings in the three chapters confusing, trying to relate it to this section. Interestingly I read the HCSB that was last updated in 2003 and in this passage, each instance used LORD, not Yahweh.

This makes me pause about using it for every text. HCSB has been reliable in so many readings. But this highlights the drawbacks of the inconsistency. The translators should either change entirely to Yahweh or adopt the common LORD of other translations. Either option would be far better than this.

(Note: I still think HCSB is an excellent translation, despite this quirk.)

The real world meets Law and Gospel

The real world makes it a little harder to properly distinguish and apply Law and Gospel. How would you respond in this scenario? First, let’s look at a passage about forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NAS)

Clearly this is a statement of Law… “If you forgive… then…” and “if you do not forgive …then …” With that as background, let’s take one example about whether we should apply Law or Gospel.

“I will NEVER forgive him!”

Parents come to talk, but they are not sure how to start. Fear, anger, despair. They are disturbed to the extreme. Their teen daughter had been raped and murdered. And both expressed their anger to the one who did it, in this way: “I will never forgive him!”

So the question is: do they need to hear Law (Matthew 6:15) or Gospel?

When I raise this in Bible classes, the responses are usually split 50% on Law, 50% on Gospel. We usually have a lively exchange, discussing the advantages, etc.

So what is the answer? We don’t know enough yet about the people to determine whether they need to hear Law or Gospel.

If they speak these words from the stand point of hardened hearts, then that puts them on the Law side of the diagram, trying to justify themselves. And they need Law, for instance, Matthew 6:15.

However, if they speak these identical words from anger, confusion, despair, anguish, because they are now at the very bottom of the Law scale, and have nothing more to offer, give, even the capacity to forgive. Then it may be that the same desperate words require the Gospel. But not just that Jesus died for them.

The Gospel needs to be more specific: Jesus forgives your inability to forgive; but even more Jesus forgives that murderer in your place, even when you are not able to forgive. For you see, the Gospel is more than just Jesus taking our sins on himself, which is the negative side of our failure to meet the demands of the Law. The Gospel also includes Jesus’ positive fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). That means in every instance he fulfilled all requirements, including forgiving when we cannot. And because he did it perfectly, his righteousness is credited to us. That righteousness includes forgiving in our place.

But the key here is that we do an injustice to the person if we rush to judgment. We often assume we know what the underlying problem is. We assume that we can diagnose it correctly with only a fleeting glimpse into the person’s pain. Sadly, if we start giving our diagnosis to the person, we see three things happen: 1) the person clams up, and may not hear anything we say; 2) we move forward thinking that the person is so messed up “they couldn’t even listen to my Christian advice,” 3) and we miss an opportunity to bring Jesus to the person and the person to Jesus.

As I look back on my life and ministry I can see times when I rushed to judgment, where I thought I had it all figured out. And missed it completely. We fail in this task. Thank God, that he forgives even my inabilities in this area. I do not give up, though. For the reward of applying Law and Gospel appropriately is so great. To see a person in bondage to despair over not being able to fulfill a demand of the Law and who finally hears the extent of the Gospel and specifically applied to her or him is to see one move from death to life, from the crush of the Law to the sweetness of the Gospel, from despair with no hope to confident hope in Jesus Christ.

My desire is that we all see how critical the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel is for the Christian life, for the Church, for our mission. This is not about church politics, not about worship wars, not about a church with factions. This is about life, life on the raw edge, life filled with sin, and all its ugliness. This is about life redeemed, saved, renewed, refreshed.

No wonder Martin Luther noted that if someone can rightly distinguish Law and Gospel and apply them appropriately, then the person should be given a doctor of theology degree.

We may not get a doctor’s degree in theology, but we can speak God’s appropriate Word into peoples’ lives. And that is what God has called us to do.

When to confront…when to comfort

In the past few posts we have looked at Law and Gospel, as a lens by which we can see God’s Word. Properly distinguishing between the two is critical. But it doesn’t take too long for a student of the Bible to go through a passage of Scripture and determine whether it is a statement of Law (what we are to do or not do, and God’s punishment for that) or a statement of Gospel (what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what he is still doing). It might be tempting to say that we have learned to “properly distinguish Law and Gospel.” But have we?

The real challenge

Not really, because the real challenge is to determine whether Law or Gospel should be applied in a specific, real-life situation. Let’s look at two cases from the Bible: Mark 10:17-22 and Acts 16:25-31

Mark 10:17–22 NIV

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. 18 “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

So, is the question in v. 17 a Law question or a Gospel question? While it includes “eternal life” and some think it is Gospel, notice that the heart of the question is: “What must I do?” That is a Law question.

What is the answer to the question? In v. 19 Jesus provides the answer(s)—”Here is the Law, follow all of them (second table of the 10 Commandments).” So a Law question is answered by a Law statement. Makes sense, doesn’t it? By the way, the rich man claims to have followed those laws since he was a boy. Our first reaction might be: “Let’s get him on the Board!” But when Jesus confronts him with the the 1st commandment: “No other gods” then the man goes away sad. That Law statement was too much.

Acts 16:25-31 NIV

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

So in v. 30 is that a Law question or a Gospel question? Again, it is tempting to see the word “saved” and assume it is a Gospel question. But he asks the same question as the rich man in Mark 10: “What must I do?” It is a Law question. Now based on the consistency of the Bible, we would expect, just like Jesus did in Mark 10, that they would answer with the Law (“Do this, do that, don’t do this, etc.). Instead Paul and Silas answer with the Gospel (“believe in the Lord Jesus”). Notice that the word “believe” is the word which extends the Gospel to the jailer (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9).

So what is the difference between the two situations? The rich man was still trying to climb up the Law ladder (left side of the Law-Gospel diagram). What he needed to hear was the Law to show him that the only acceptable performance under the Law is perfection (Matthew 5:48). Whereas the jailer knew he faced death and there seemed no escape. He was at the bottom of the Law, crushed and waiting for death. Law would not help him at that point, only discourage him more. For him the answer is the Gospel, what Jesus has done. And that is what saved him.

The Next Step

With this new insight, we begin to look at our own lives and those around us. We discover that perhaps we have not always understood what was going on. A person can ask a Law question, and need the Law; at other times the same person will ask a Law question but need the Gospel. Maybe we didn’t understand what was going on behind the questions. Maybe we needed to listen more carefully before prescribing a “solution.”

Stayed tuned for the next post in which we look at a couple real-world examples.

Twelve Months, Twelve Religions? I don’t think so

29-year-old Andrew Bowen became a Christian in high school, but says that he took “a nose dive into fundamentalism. It just ignited a furnace in me.” His journey with God since then has been challenging. When his wife experienced a complicated pregnancy that ended tragically, Bowen says he plunged into a “two-year stint of just seething hatred toward God.”

Last year he decided it was time to explore what he really believed. He began Project Conversion. With the aid of religious mentors, Bowen practiced 12 different religions each for one month including: Hinduism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhisim, agnosticism, Mormonism, Islam, Sikhism, Wicca, Jainism, and Catholicism.

As I thought about that, I wondered how many others are drifting around sampling the Christian landscape and finding it bland. Has Starbucks met its match in Christianity de jour? Perhaps.

The question is whether he or anyone else can practice one religion each month. I don’t think so, for three reasons. Yes, a superficial practice and orientation is possible, but not the essence of the faith, especially the Christian faith.

Christian faith is not about me, but Christ

If we reduce Christianity to mere outward rituals, then we find that it is not really any different than some of the other religious samplings. But the Christian faith is about Jesus Christ, not me or anyone else. The heart of the faith is who Jesus Christ is and what he has done.

Who is this Jesus? Jesus is “true God begotten of the Father from eternity and true man born of the virgin Mary” (Luther’s explanation of the 2nd article of the Creed). Immediately that statement excludes all of those other options (except Catholicism) that Andrew tried. If Jesus is indeed true God, how could he put up with a pretender, no matter how well-intentioned? He can’t.

What has Jesus done? God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to take care of sin, death, and the devil:

He is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 GW)

Christ must rule until God has put every enemy under his control.  26 The last enemy he will destroy is death. (1 Corinthians 15:25-26 GW)

The reason that the Son of God appeared was to destroy what the devil does. (1 John 3:8 GW)

As a result, we can say that the Christian faith is both exclusive and inclusive. The Christian faith is exclusive in that no one can be in the center except Jesus Christ.

No one else can save us. Indeed, we can be saved only by the power of the one named Jesus and not by any other person. (Acts 4:12 GW)

The Christian faith is inclusive, in that Jesus died for everyone, to take the sins of the whole world upon himself.

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. (John 3:16 GW)

Christian faith involves death

Paul writes about it this way:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20 NAS)

This is far different than sampling Christianity. Being crucified with Christ takes the Christian faith out of the casual, drive-by kind of spiritual experience. Jesus invites us to follow him, even unto death. He does not invite us for a week long retreat, or even a one month retreat. That is not Christianity.

The battle with sin is real; the daily encounters with sin, confession, forgiveness, cannot be reduced to mere pantomimes that one learns in a month. That is why Paul is so graphic in his life-death struggle. A one month sampling doesn’t even get us to the point of recognizing how real the battle is, let alone evaluating what it is like.

Christian faith involves community

The Christian is saved alone, but never saved alone. By that, I mean that the individual must believe—no one else can take it upon herself or himself and “believe for another.” But God never saved people so that they live in isolation from other Christians. The Christian faith involves community.

Christian community is not living in a commune (it could, but not the requirement or expectation). Rather in community, we get to know one another beyond a mere hello. For some of us, we can barely know people’s name in a month. Living in community moves into the realm of having to deal with each other’s sins, failures, short-comings, irritations, etc. For a month, I can grit my teeth and endure just about anyone; but that is not living in community.

Community living means having to interact with other sinful humans. That means we take sin and its effects seriously. Even more seriously we take God’s approach to dealing with sin. First, in relationship to God:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 NIV)

Then in relationship to others:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32 NIV)

It is one thing to endure someone for a month. It is quite another to interact with, confront with sin, forgive, restore, and grow together. That does not happen in one month snatches of an outward observance.

My hope is that Andrew, and others who have been encouraged to prepare a pottage of spiritual experiences, will take a second look at who Jesus Christ is. Perhaps they will understand why they can’t sample him and mix in religious elements that deny Jesus Christ.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIV)

The Church is disconnected —and doesn’t know it

That’s a rather strong statement! Before rushing to judgment about it, based on your assumptions of what it means, take a moment to consider what I am saying and why. What am I not saying by this? This is not an exercise in pointing the finger at “someone” and identifying blame for something. This is not an attempt to “modernize” the church. Nor is it a call to be “relevant in worship” (I have much more to say about this!). Nor is this a call to move away from the solid doctrinal foundation of the Church. Nor is this any kind of “latest organizational technique to make the church more efficient.”

Rather, this assessment of the Church has developed over many years, but has come into sharper focus as I worked through the blog series: 15 Reasons why I came back to the Church; Searching for the Church—Part 1; and Searching for the Church—Part 2. And it is causing me to re-evaluate much of what we say and do in the Church.

The Church is disconnected for several reasons; some related to assumptions about people outside the Church, some related to people inside the Church, some related to language, and some related how we view the transition from evangelism to discipleship. Underneath all of these assumptions is the failure of the Church to see how disconnected it really is.

How bad is the disconnect?

I belong to an era that no longer exists. I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For some that was an exciting time to “throw off the chains of the past.” For others it is seen as the “golden era” of the Church. For me, it was neither. I was not outwardly rebellious even though I was 20 when Woodstock happened. At the same time, as a young child in church, with neither mother nor father present, I went to church with many people “keeping me in line” (including snapping my ears if I happened to turn around to look at people in the church). That was not fun, and certainly not the golden age of the church, for me. Why would I want to restore the Church to that?

So where is the disconnect? Some readers of the previous paragraph are probably wondering, “What is Woodstock?” Notice, even my reference to that event shows a disconnect, and even more a disconnect to all that Woodstock stood for. As the official site declares: “Woodstock is more than a moment of time. It is a way of being in the world.” But note, this disconnect is not because I don’t have those personal memories of Woodstock because I wasn’t there, nor is it a slam against those who don’t know what the event was. Rather, the referent (event) means something to someone my age, but most readers of this blog are not my age, and that event really means nothing to them. And this is a simple example of disconnect.

On a larger scale, the Church has not realized the disconnect across the board over the past 40 years. For many centuries (from the time of Constantine in AD 313 to 1970), the Church of the western world shared a common heritage with society, first in Europe, and then after 1500 in the Americas. That common heritage meant that the collective memories of the Church and of society were essentially the same. Even images, paintings, writings reflected that common heritage.

Assumptions about those outside the Church

Consider the two groups “outside the Church”: 1) those outside the Church in the basically shared heritage of what is called the “western world,” 2) those outside the Church with no societal connections (essentially the entire culture has never had any connection to the Church and the Biblical stories). The second one involves missionary work telling about Jesus in totally new areas. I remember as a young person, this second category was “the mission field,” while the first was “evangelism territory,” as if there were a difference.

As we look at the changing world, perhaps the two are not distinct, and we can and should learn from the second category; no matter where we live, we are involved in missionary work. And that is based on asking the question: Is that common heritage still a valid assumption? I would say it is not valid at all. With the disconnect of the last 40 years, how do we in the Church view those outside the church? My observations over that time indicate that we in the Church continue with the assumptions of previous centuries. We don’t recognize that we no longer live in the “shared heritage” of previous generations.

The unchurched population in the area in which I serve as pastor is 90-95%. When I was growing up, that would have meant that most of them had been in some church for an extended period of time and knew some of the Bible stories, but had drifted away. Today, that is no longer a valid assumption. Many of the unchurched have never read the Bible, never heard about who Jesus was, don’t know how to act in worship (how would they?), etc. This is not a put down, but a realization of the world we live in and the people who live in that world.

Assumptions about those inside the Church

So, we “see the mission field” more clearly. We are all set to move forward, right? Not exactly. The wrong assumptions about those outside the Church are matched by wrong assumptions about those inside the Church. This is perhaps the hardest for pastors and leaders in the Church to face. During the past 40 years of shift we have preached and taught as if everyone in the Church had the shared heritage of Church and society. But they don’t. Consequently we have not helped people grow to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Let’s take a couple quizzes…

How well do people in the church know the Biblical stories? Can they put the following people in correct chronological order (Paul, David, Abraham, Moses, Jesus)? These are not obscure people in the Bible; they are major players. My observation is that many within the Church could not put them in correct order.

How well do people in the Church know the basic Biblical doctrines? What is the phrase that describes the central teaching of the Christian faith? How does the view of original sin relate to Baptism? How do we relate what the Gospels present about who Jesus is and how the letters of Paul present Jesus?

Language — How do we communicate?

In this section I do not want to address the “worship wars” nor the contest between translation techniques of formal equivalence and meaning based translations. Both are important topics, but this question is even larger. How do we communicate with people inside and outside the church, when the basic foundations of faith and basic knowledge of the Biblical story are not present?

For those outside the Church, it means we have to think, speak, and act like missionaries at the edge. We have to speak with people at a level which connects with where they are. Those who are newest to the faith often are the best ones to learn from; they still have connections with the world outside the Church. As they learn the language of faith and worship from the Church, we in the Church can learn from them about speaking with those outside the Church.

Consider just one area: what do we read in worship services? Historically churches use a lectionary system, a series of readings for each Sunday of the year. Typically lectionaries include four readings from these four sections of the Bible: Psalm, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Over a period of years, a large portion of the Bible is read.  The lectionaries focus on “what everyone knows”— and we have to ask, is this helpful in today’s world?

Is this kind of lectionary helpful when those inside and outside the Church have little knowledge of the Bible and doctrine? Let’s take a series of recent consecutive Sunday Old Testament readings in the three year series (approximate years of the events in parentheses):

Isaiah 60:1-6 (~ 700 BC)

Genesis 1:1-5 (yeah, THAT beginning)

1 Samuel 3:1-20 (~1050 BC)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (~790 BC)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (~1400 BC)

Isaiah 40:21-31 (~650 BC)

What do you notice? Well, there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the selections (there is, but it is not evident when laid out this way). If someone inside the Church has trouble following this, what about someone who is new to the Church? So the question remains: Is the lectionary helping us communicate? 

Discipleship…how do we make the connection?

Regardless of church background, we would all essentially agree that the Church is to be involved in discipleship. Given the changed world both within and without the Church, how do we accomplish discipleship?

Or in terms of continuity, how do we move from evangelism/mission to discipleship? Is our process of Catechesis (teaching the faith) based on assumptions about what “everyone should know”? Are we helping people grow in the faith? Or are we not even connecting with them? Or are we confusing them by giving mixed signals about faith and “what is proper”?

Well, after this long post, it seems there are more questions than answers. But I think we have to begin looking at these questions. We have to examine our assumptions about what people “know” relative to what we “think” they know. And we have to rethink discipleship and Church in the broadest terms.

But I am not suggesting discarding everything in the Church. On the contrary, I think we have the answers, tools, and approaches already. But we in the western world have employed them with wrong assumptions. By doing so, we are not really church, then. We have the shell of being the Church, perhaps fighting and defending against something that is not the real challenge. Are we missing the living existence of “growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).