What Does it Say?

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Rob Walker, in The Art of Noticing newsletter issue No. 70 (“Play Attention”), recorded this anecdote from podcaster Stephen Dubner:

[Dubner] described how his father used to play a game with him called Powers of Observation. One day when Dubner was 7 or 8 years old, they went to a diner, where they took a seat and his father said:

“All right, Stevie, I want you to just sit and look around you and really take everything in. Just pay attention. Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.”

After five minutes, he told Dubner to close his eyes, and started asking questions: “What did the lady sitting right behind us order?” And so on.

“He’d grill me on these facts, large and small,” Dubner says. “And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation! But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses — they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying, ever since that day, to flex that muscle. So maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time.”

When I was a seminarian, I took a class with Professor Howard Hendricks called “Bible Study Methods.”

After laying groundwork and establishing how we’d approach the Bible, we were assigned one verse: Acts 1:8.

…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth.”

Acts 1:8, NASB

What were we supposed to do with these thirty eight words? Record twenty five observations.

When we turned in our twenty five observations?

We were told, “Thank you very much. For your next assignment, I would like twenty five more observations.”

Before asking what something means, or how something works, or what to do next, ask, “What is it? What does it say? What is going on?”

Make some observations. Then work with the facts.

Kingdom Big. Kingdom Small.

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The central message of Jesus was the kingdom of God. Following Jesus’ temptation, what happened? Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'”

Mark 1:14-15 adds, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

In Luke 4:43, Jesus says, ““I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.””

But what is the kingdom? Where is it? How do we enter it? Respond to it? Live in light of its reality?

Is the kingdom big? How big?

Is it small? How small?

We can seek the kingdom. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

How do we enter it? Regeneration is the theological term. We’re born into it. Jesus says in John 3:3, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” The Holy Spirit is involved here.

The kingdom of God can be present but missed. In Luke 17:20-21, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” Other translations render this “the kingdom of God is within you.”

When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, he taught them about the kingdom. Acts 1:3 says, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”

Whatever the kingdom of God is, it is distinct from the kingdoms of this world. In John 18:36 Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” The kingdom of Jesus has its origin in God’s realm, the heavens.

The kingdom of God is not only a matter of outward observances, but an inward quality. In Romans 14:17-18, Paul says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.”

In Matthew 6:10, Jesus tells us to pray for the kingdom to come.

In Luke 12:32, Jesus says, ““Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” That’s a tremendous claim.

Jesus compared the kingdom to a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price, leaven, a mustard seed, a sprouting seed, a net, a king offering a feast on a wedding day, a king settling accounts, a man going on a journey who entrusts talents to his servants, a group of young virgins, and a generous landowner.

Some big things. Some small things.

Things plainly visible. Things hidden.

It’s a broad metaphor.

But it tells us a lot. It invites us to pay attention. To seek. But also to stand confident. The kingdom is a gift. Something that is received. Something the Father gives and the Spirit initiates us into by the new birth. It pleases God to give us the kingdom.

The Apostle Paul: A Convert?

Image by Dorothée QUENNESSON from Pixabay

Larry Hurtado writes:

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.