Monday, December 2, 2013

Biblical Shalom: Finding the Common Ground

As I have visited churches in different parts of the United States and in countries overseas, particularly in Europe, Eurasia and China, I am saddened by the lack of substantive teaching on Biblical shalom. In fact, many Christians I meet are unfamiliar with the word shalom and don’t know how to respond when I greet them with this Biblical word.

My study of shalom has convinced me that there is ample “common ground” for agreement among Christians on this topic and that a deepened understanding of shalom would greatly impact the ministry and influence of Christians if they knew more about Biblical teaching on this powerful, dynamic subject.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Biblical Shalom: Living Life with a Purpose

My study of shalom changed my life. I have been thinking about this lately, after a number of conversations with former students who have become life-long friends and who told me how their lives were impacted by my teaching on this subject, since they could see the impact on my life. Similar conversations with close friends have re-enforced this.

Three years ago, when I began this blog, I described some of the background to my discovery of this powerful Biblical teaching. I decided to share this again, but now in more detail.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland pursing a Ph.D. in European and Russian history, I often thought about how my Christian faith related to my academic work. I knew God meant faith to be more than just a “private matter,” but I was unsure how to flush out the connections between my religious beliefs and what I was studying. My history profs at this state university were of no help, of course, and in fact their general approach was to ridicule religion and blame it for much of the violence and ignorance in European and Russian history.

After earning my degree, I spent four years in the State Department’s Historical Office, where I edited many volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, particularly those focused on the early years of the Cold War. In an effort to offset these daytime hours chronicling conflict and war, I began an in-depth study of Biblical peace, with the hope of gaining some insights that I could integrate into my work in foreign policy.

I left the Department of State to become the founding director of the American Studies Program for the Christian College Coalition in 1976. This semester program was specifically designed to work alongside students as they wrestled with public policy issues through the eyes of faith; the study of biblical peace – shalom – was definitely part of the mix! I shared with the students what I was learning in my own study and together we tried to figure out the implications of what we were learning. What a great experience – teacher and students learning together!

The event that focused my studies in a more concentrated fashion came in May 1983, when I served on the executive committee that organized a national conference on “The Church and Peacemaking in a Nuclear Age.” I was asked to edit the conference proceedings that were subsequently published in a book entitled Perspectives on Peacemaking: Biblical Options in the Nuclear Age (Regal Books, 1984).

The insights I was gaining during this time were so profound, so revolutionary. I was seeing themes in Scripture that I never saw before. God brought mentors into my life who helped me in this pursuit – mentors like Vernon Grounds, Nicolas Wolterstorff and Rich Mouw. I became so inspired that I decided to write a 16-week devotional guide entitled “Shalom: God’s Intention and Our Response,” which I thoroughly enjoyed preparing because it combined the results of all of my study on this subject. The manuscript was never published – after 4-5 rejections from Christian publishers, I quit trying.

Let me add that I was born and raised in a Christian home and educated in quality Christian schools through college and what I learned and experienced during these years impacted my adult life in many valuable ways. Still, my multi-year study of biblical peace opened up new and refreshing insights from the Bible that I had never seen before. It gave me a vision for how my faith could and should shape the way I evaluate all that goes on around me, and then how I should respond in thought and in action.

This magnificent biblical word – shalom – is so rich in meaning that no word in English is sufficient to capture its essence. When I think about shalom, I can easily imagine a beautiful multi-faceted diamond, which refracts different shades of light and color when slowly turned. Shalom – peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with God’s creation.

Beginning with the creation of the world, the Old Testament records God’s desire for a world that reflects his view for fullness, for well-being, for what it means to be truly human. Sin, of course, distorted God’s plan, but the God of grace and peace continued his relationship with humanity and eventually send his own Son to restore what was broken.

Jesus, the promised “Prince of Peace,” taught us to live as he did, to be agents of God’s shalom, following his example. He taught us that we have a calling – to be “agents of hope,” to be healers in a broken, sin-filled world. We have work to do – full-time jobs as shalom-makers. There is no unemployment for God’s Kingdom workers. Restoration – making whole what is torn apart – that’s a big job and we all can play a role in this exciting activity. It means living life with a purpose – never an easy path, but always a fulfilling one!

Biblical Shalom: What is it? 

“Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. . . . Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships.” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Peace and Justice Embrace, p. 69.)

“This webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. We call it ‘peace,’ but it means far more than just peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. . . . Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be.” (Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, pp. 14-15.)

“’Shalom’ is usually translated ‘peace’ in English Bibles, but it means far more that what our English word conveys. It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social and spiritual – because all relationships are right, perfect and filled with joy.” (Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, pp. 173-174.)

“Biblical Shalom is so rich in meaning -- good health, right relationships with others and ourselves, security, closeness to God, care for God’s creation. Think of shalom as peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with creation. It is, in fact, a way of summarizing the ‘good news’ (the Gospel).” (John A. Bernbaum,

Monday, June 24, 2013

Bring Them Here to Me

"Feeding the Multitudes,"
Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1600.
In my last post (June 10, 2013), I wrote about how Jesus gave his twelve disciples some “internship training,” sending them out two-by-two to “preach the Kingdom of God and heal the sick.” The next event recorded by the Gospel writers is when they come home and report to Jesus about their experiences. While I would love to know what they said to Jesus, the Bible doesn’t tell us. Apparently there are no major issues – at least according to the four Gospel writers.

The disciples are probably exhausted because the Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus hears their reports, he says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). But in John’s Gospel, he notes that at this point Jesus is informed of the beheading of John the Baptist and, when Jesus is told about this execution by Herod Antipas, “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (John 14:13). But neither Jesus nor the disciples can get away for some R&R (rest and relaxation).

When the crowds find out that Jesus and his disciples are leaving the area in boats and heading for another place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they follow on foot. As their boats come near the shore, Jesus sees the crowds and has “compassion on them” (Matthew 14:14) – which seems to be Jesus’ default position. He cares deeply about people, especially those in need, even when he is grieving himself over the death of his cousin.

All four Gospel writers describe what happens next – it is the only miracle recorded by all four of them, except for the resurrection. I encourage you to read about this miracle in the Gospel of John (6:1-13) or the Gospel of Mark (6:31-46). Why is the feeding of the 5,000 – actually closer to 10-15,000 – recorded by all four writers? Perhaps because it shows that Jesus cares deeply about both spiritual and physical needs. And he not only cares about hungry people, he does something about it!

The Gospel of John gives us a few important details not covered in the other reports of this event. When Jesus sees the size of the crowd, estimated at 5,000 men (if women and children are also counted the crowd was probably much larger), Jesus realizes that his desire for a retreat just turned into a large convention. The size of the crowd is important to note because the population of the nearest cities was only 2-3,000 people each, so this crowd came from some distance to be with Jesus.

Since it was getting late in the day and they were in an isolated area, Jesus speaks to his disciples about feeding the crowd. The disciples are surprisingly abrupt in their response to Jesus. They do not begin with an appropriate reference to him as “Lord,” as they often did, but simply tell him what he should do – “Send the crowds away” (Matthew 14:15).

Jesus’ patience with his disciples is as remarkable as his care for all these people. “Bring them here to me,” (Matthew 14:18) is Jesus’ response, and he instructs them to ask the people to sit down on the grass and organize themselves into groups of hundreds and fifties. Then, with the assistance of his disciple Andrew who finds a young boy with five loaves and two fish, he takes the boy’s food, offers a prayer of thanksgiving and divides up the loaves and fish. The Gospels record that everyone is fed and there are twelve baskets of bread and fish left over!

This last detail is interesting. Not only are all of these people fed by Jesus, the twelve disciples also each get their own picnic basket of food so their needs are lovingly met as well. What an amazing Lord!

But the story is not over yet, at least according to the Gospel of John – which is why it is helpful to read different Gospel records of the same event, since the writers often add insights not mentioned by the others. The Apostle John tells us that when the people see this miraculous feeding of the crowd, they want to “make him king by force” (6:14-15). Jesus, knowing their intentions, leaves them and goes off to be alone on a nearby mountain – finally!

So What?

  • What strikes me about this story is the disciples’ response to the pressing problem of how to feed so many people, who are in such an isolated place. These are smart guys – they know they have a real problem, so they respond like I am inclined to respond in similar situations – “Send them away!” I can identify with these disciples. “We are tired, we have just finished demanding ‘internships,’ we don’t need this right now.” But what is Jesus’ response? “Bring them here to me.” There is a powerful lesson in this.
  • The way in which Jesus meets both spiritual and physical needs is another important lesson from this story. He does not just pass out tracts or Gospel brochures to these hungry and sick people – he heals them and feeds them, thereby teaching all of us in the church to respond similarly. He also tells them about the Kingdom of God and how their spiritual needs can be met. Why do we often separate these two powerful responses to pressing human needs?
  • The demonstration of Jesus’ power is also remarkable in this story. On the one hand, his power is evident as he takes five loaves and two fish and makes them into enough food to feed everyone; on the other, his power is also clear when he simply walks away from their efforts to make him king. This is not God’s plan and their desire make him a “celebrity,” a political force in Galilee, is not going to detract him. This is another “teaching moment” for his disciples – and for us.

Monday, June 10, 2013

You’ve Got a Job to Do

"The Sending of the Twelve,"
Duccio DiBuoninsegnaca, 14th c.
After spending about a year with Jesus, the disciples are given a new challenge by their teacher. Jesus gathers his twelve disciples together and tells them to do the type of preaching, teaching and healing that they have seen him do. Now it is their turn. The most detailed record of this new phase in Jesus’ ministry is found in the Gospel of Matthew (10:1-11:1), with shorter versions in Mark (6:7-13) and Luke (9:1-6).

The context for this “internship training” for Jesus’ disciples is his sense that he’ll soon be going to Jerusalem for his final visit and he wants to prepare his followers for what is to come. This is the third tour of Galilee by Jesus. On his first foray into Galilee, Jesus traveled with the four fishermen who he called to follow him; on his second journey through Galilee, he was accompanied by all twelve disciples. This time Jesus will travel to Galilee by himself after he sends out his disciples two-by-two.

Jesus’ charge to them is simple and straight-forward: preach the Kingdom of God and heal the sick. Sending them out two-by-two is striking to me, since he leaves them and goes out on his own. Why two-by-two? We don’t know for sure, but I suspect that Jesus knew they would encounter stiff resistance or possibly hostile opposition, so having a partner would provide mutual support during this time of training. It may also have been to bolster their credibility by having the testimony of more than one witness, a key factor in the Jewish legal context.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, most of the missionary activity that resulted in the expansion of Christianity worldwide in the Roman Empire took place with teams of apostles and disciples, rarely with one person on his own. This is an important insight for us to remember in our own lives as disciples of Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we find the only detailed record of what Jesus said to his disciples before he sent them out and there are some hard teachings that are difficult for us to understand. For example, Jesus tells them, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (10:22). And similarly, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but the sword” (10:34).

How do we square these statements with the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus is the promised Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and the New Testament birth announcement that he brings “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). As we have argued since we started this Shalom blog, God’s gift of shalom to his people includes peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others and peace with the natural world. Jesus indeed came to bring peace between his followers and God and peace between all people, regardless of race, gender or social status, but he knew that Satan would resist his efforts and cause animosity to arise. It is a struggle between light and darkness and this struggle sometimes occurs even within a family. Jesus wants them to know what to expect. Satan will put up a battle, but God’s plan will not be defeated. Temporary setbacks, yes, but defeat, never!

So What?

  • As you read through Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, did you notice that Jesus warns them that they will meet resistance from those who prefer to keep living as if there is no God. I think it is so interesting that Jesus does not tell his disciples to argue with those who disagree with them. Their job is to be a witness – just tell their story of how God has come into their lives and made a difference. If people didn’t want to hear about this, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on.
  • Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are helpful for us as well. While we may not have the same special healing powers that the disciples were given in Galilee, we are charged with the task of being his witnesses. What is important for us to understand is that God has chosen to use us as his witnesses, but he is not willing to use force to get people to follow him. He doesn’t come to impose peace on earth by force. God gives men and women the freedom to chose to follow him or not. No one is forcibly brought into the Kingdom of God – it is a voluntary decision to receive God’s gifts of grace and salvation.
  • The two-by-two partnerships are also helpful reminders that no one is a “lone ranger” in God’s Kingdom. Working with partners is God’s choice for us, a choice that offers needed accountability and encouragement, when we stumble.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jesus and Two Very Different Women (Part II)

"The Raising of Jairus' Daughter"
Edwin Long, 1889.
In my last post (May 13, 2013), we were following Jesus on his way to the home of Jairus, whose daughter was dying. Jairus, the leader of the Capernaum synagogue, had fallen at Jesus’ feet when he returned from his trip to “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, and pleaded with him to heal his only child.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Jesus and Two Very Different Women (Part I)

Byzantine Mosaic,
Ravenna, Italy, 6th century
One of the most dramatic stories in the Gospels is Jesus’ encounter with two desperate people who are out to find him and two women, one young and one old, who have their lives changed by him. This story can be found in Luke 8:40-56 and Mark 5:21-43.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Battling a Legion

"The Swine Driven into the Sea,"
James Tissot, c. 1886.
When following Jesus’ ministry during its early stages, it is important to see how certain events are linked together in the Gospels. Sometimes when we read stories in the Bible, we focus on a single event and miss the connection to what proceeds or follows a certain encounter. This is the key to the miracle I will look at in this post.

In my last post, “Crossing Enemy Lines” (April 15, 2013), we saw how Jesus calmed a vicious storm on the Sea of Galilee and demonstrated his power over nature to his frightened disciples, many who were competent fishermen and knew this sea very well. I agree with Biblical scholars who see this event as an attack by Satan on Jesus.

What happens when Jesus and his disciples approach the shore on “the other side” of the lake is directly linked to the struggle with Satan during the storm. While three Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe what happens next, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read the fullest account in the Gospel of Mark (5:1-20).

You might remember from the first part of this story that the disciples would never have gone to this region, called the Decapolis (Ten Cities), because the Gentiles who lived there were engaged in all the things that observant Jews hated – idol worship, sexual promiscuity, forbidden foods, etc. -- yet their rabbi tells them to come with him, so they do.

Think about the setting. They’re approaching the shore, it is getting dark and they hear screams and see a naked man who lives in a cemetery coming toward their boat. They have been taught never to enter this territory, never to look at a naked man, and never to be around tombs in order to stay ritually pure.

Both Luke and Mark make it clear that Jesus is the only one to get out of the boat – not the disciples. I think we can identify with their reluctance. What are they doing here? Why did they come? What is he going to do?

The naked man, possessed by demons, approaches Jesus and falls down in front of him, but not as an act of worship. The demons that control him recognize that they are in the presence of someone who has superior power. In fact, the demons speak through the man who screams out, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” Mark tells us the demons are making it clear that they know who Jesus is (1:24).

When Jesus asks them their name, they respond, “Legion - for we are many.” It is interesting to note that nearby are pigs or boars – obviously this is not Kosher territory. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who worked for Rome, records that this area was occupied by the Roman Tenth Legion and their mascot was a boar. It would be stretching the story too much to say that Jesus was taking a prophetic action with strong political overtones by sending the demons into the boars who then ran into the sea and drowned, but it does make me wonder. By the way, some historians are convinced that boars are good swimmers, so the fact that 2,000 of them drowned would then be rather remarkable.

What is amazing about this story is that Jesus completely rescues and restores this man. Now the disciples have seen him win two amazing battles against evil, the second lesson they could easily see even from the boat that they refuse to leave! Mark tells us that after the boars run into the sea and people come running to see what had happened, they are frightened by Jesus’ presence. They see this wild man who lived in the tombs and who could break chains, sitting there by Jesus in his right mind and fully dressed. Where did he get his clothes? None of the Gospel writers tell us, but I would sure like to know!

After he is rescued and restored, the man asks Jesus if he can go along with him and his disciples, to leave this place where he had been so isolated and feared. But Jesus has another plan. He tells him to go back to his own people and “report to them how much God has done for you” (5: 19). He has been healed and now he has a mission, a purpose, a task to be done.

What many of us fail to notice is that when Jesus returns to this region several months later, thousands of people come out to see him (Mark 7:31-37). This man has become the first missionary of the New Testament to the Gentiles!

So What?

  • One powerful lesson from this story that I learned: We may have someone who we have been praying for who needs to be rescued and restored by Jesus, yet it seems like nothing is ever going to change in their life. As Doug Greenwold (Senior Teaching Fellow, Preserving Bible Times) reminds us, remember this man with a “legion” of demons and be encouraged. Jesus can bring healing, but in his own timing, so don’t despair.
  • A humorous footnote: When I learned about Josephus’ record of the Roman Tenth Legion having a pig or boar for a mascot, I thought what a choice – until I remembered that my graduate school (The University of Maryland) has a turtle for its mascot. Who am I to laugh at the Romans!
  • My former pastor, Dr. Craig Barnes, commented on this passage as follows: “It seems that the guiding principle for Jesus’ decision about who should leave and who should stay is that he always sends us to the place where we are most dependent on a Savior. If your demon is the fear of change, that means you will be hitting the road more than you want. Yet if you are tormented more by the thought of settling into a difficult place, it means you will be staying right where you are. In either case, your hope will come not from where you are, but from whom you find mercy.”