Blessed Are: Conclusion

Moses stood on the side of a mountain and delivered commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) to help God’s people behave. Jesus sat on the side of a mountain and delivered descriptions (Matthew 5:3-12) to help God’s people become His representatives. There’s an obvious comparison between the two. In fact, some people say Jesus is a second Moses.* (More about this connection in the introduction to this series, Blessed Are: Ten Commandments Turned Inside Out). Between the two Moseses, prophets, kings, leaders, and at least one simple widow show us all that God’s grand plan has always been about who we are more than what we do. Jesus was just the first to spell it out. Continue reading

Blessed Are: The Insulted

I'm happy to introduce you our guest writer, Carla Pollard for this month's
installment of our series, Seeking the Beatitudes in the Old Testament. You
will be blessed by Carla's insight, and you can read more about her at the 
end of this post.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  –Matthew 5:11-12 

David was God’s anointed leader for the nation of Israel. He was the giant-slayer, a conqueror, the one who was hailed as a man after God’s own heart. David, the shepherd boy who worshiped his Lord through music and song was a great leader and mighty servant of the Most High. Continue reading

Blessed Are: the Peacemakers

We return to that hillside somewhere in Galilee. “Large crowds,” Matthew says, from cities across the region and down into Judea, followed Jesus as he taught, proclaimed, and healed (Matthew 4:23-25). As we look back into the Gospels, we call his lessons on that hillside “The Sermon on the Mount.”

He began with an attention-grabbing list, an inside-out set of commandments designed to question everything the people had been taught. I imagined he paused between each one, giving it time to “sink in” before he continued. Continue reading

Blessed Are: the Pure-Hearted

King Solomon questioned, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9). He’s right. It’s hard to find an Old Testament example of someone who is pure-hearted.

For one thing, the Hebrew idea we typically translate as heart means “the center of the human spirit, from which spring emotions, thoughts, motivations, courage and action” (NIV Study Bible notes for Psalm 4:7). It’s a tall order to keep all that pure! Continue reading

5 Things to Try When Your Bible Study Feels Dry

I started Amos last week in my personal Bible study time. I could spend the rest of my days in the Gospels, but we need the whole of Scripture. Every portion—every verse—has a purpose. So about once a year, my husband and I venture back into the Old Testament. I studied Amos for a Hebrew exegesis class in seminary, but I have never walked through it in my personal quiet time.

The first couple of chapters were interesting, from a historical and geographical perspective, but I had some trouble with application. My Bible study time felt dry. What do you do when your Bible study time feels dry? Continue reading

He Will Be Called: Wonderful Counselor

Have you made plans for Christmas yet? I haven’t. I like to plan, but often my plans don’t come to fruition. Not so with God. When God plans something, it doesn’t change. God’s plans are so certain that the Old Testament authors speak of them in the past tense, what scholars call “the prophetic perfect.”

When God spoke to His people about His plans, however, He used future tense. We call them promises, and the Old Testament prophets gave us many of them. What a comfort it must have been for the Israelites to carry these promises into captivity in a foreign land! Continue reading

Two Nazarites Walked into a Juice Bar

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar. (It was a juice bar because, being Nazarites, they don’t drink alcohol.) Both were the long-desired offspring of barren couples, both dedicated entirely to God before they were born, and both destined to die at the hands of oppressors (though the reasons for their death were very different).

They are the only two Nazarites most of us could name, one from the Old Testament and one from the New: Samson and John the Baptist. (You get extra credit if you know that Samuel was also a Nazarite. See 1 Samuel 1:11. I didn’t know it until I read the study notes in my Bible today.) Let’s stand these two side by side and see what we can learn.

Birth: Barrenness, Angels, and Life-Long Dedication

Both men were set apart for
God from before conception.

Manoah’s wife (we don’t get her name) was barren when “the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son’” (Judges 13:3). Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was also barren when an angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple and said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Luke 1:13). On both occasions, the angel went on to explain that the boy would be set apart for service to the Lord. In Samson’s case, it was explicitly as a Nazarite (Judges 13:5). In John’s case, we infer from the text, which says he would never drink alcohol and he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

Not clear on what a Nazarite is? Check Numbers 6 and/or skip down to the first comment below, where I’ve summarized it.

Life: Wilderness, Honey, and Owning One’s Identity

Both Samson and John the Baptist grew up to be “the outdoorsy type.” After killing a lion, Samson knew how to find the exact spot later (Judges 14:5-9). He was also able to catch 300 wild foxes—no easy task (Judges 15:3-5). John lived in the wilderness when “the word of God came to him” (Luke 3:2), and he stayed there to do his preaching (Matthew 3:1, 5). Both men liked wild honey, but only Samson took his from a dead animal (Judges 14:8-9, Matthew 3:4).

From the beginning, Samson disregarded his Nazarite identity. While he enjoyed supernatural strength from God (despite his bad behavior), he never guarded his vows and frequently touched dead things (e.g. Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14-15; 16:3). Judges doesn’t say, but I bet he drank alcohol at some of those parties, too. Throughout his life, Samson never pointed people to God. John, on the other hand, embraced his Nazarite identity. The gospels aren’t explicit, but one gets the impression that John’s wilderness roamings, his hermit-like tendencies, and even his camel hair clothes (Matthew 3:4), reflected his effort to uphold the vows he never asked to take. John’s whole adult life centered on pointing people to Jesus (John 1:26-34).

Death: Oppressors, Lust, and Leaving a Legacy

Both men died
because of lust.

Lust led to the death of both Samson and John, and both died at the hands of oppressors. But they left very different legacies.

Samson’s desire for Delilah—a woman to whom he wasn’t married—clouded his judgement. After much nagging (Yes, the Scriptures use that word!), he told her the secret of his strength. She shaved his head, and the Philistines captured him, plucking out his eyes before they put him to work in prison (Judges 16:4-21). At a big party, the Philistines put the blind, weak Samson on display. The Bible says, “He performed for them” (Judges 16:25). How humiliating! But Samson saw his opportunity. He prayed,

Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.  –Judges 16:28

Even here, weakened and humiliated, Samson didn’t honor God with his request. Instead, he sought revenge, even though it meant his own death. Samson’s lust led to his death.

Herodias hated John for telling the truth about her marriage to Herod. She talked Herod into arresting John and putting him in prison (Mark 6:17-20). On Herod’s birthday, he threw himself a big party. Salome, Herodias’ daughter, danced for her step-father and his guests. Matthew explains:

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.  –Matthew 14:6-10

His judgment was clouded by lust (for his wife’s daughter!!) and probably alcohol, but Herod had to fulfill his oath. John died because of Herod’s lust.

Samson lived a reckless
life solely for himself.
John lived a weird life,
but he focused on Jesus.

Samson lived a reckless, sinful life, taking advantage of God’s gifts and grabbing as much attention as he could for himself. Yes, God used Samson to destroy Israel’s enemies, but He could have been so much more, had he gotten beyond himself—his pain, his resentment, his selfishness—to focus his life on God’s glory. Instead, he remained vengeful and proud, and he died in that vengeance.

John lived an unusual (to our eyes), single-minded life pointing others to Jesus. “Look,” John said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He died for speaking Truth to power.

09-01 lunch - Ju's drink 1
Random photo of me at an outdoor cafe with a juice drink. It was a long time ago… (c) Carole Sparks

We’re all born into situations for which we never asked. Some are negative: hereditary diseases, legacies of substance abuse, racism. We struggle to rise above those. Others are seemingly positive: preachers’ kids, high educational standards, parents in demanding occupations. We may rebel against those for a time (some do it for a lifetime). Both Samson and John the Baptist received their Nazarite vows before they were born, but they “grew into” those vows very differently. This comparison makes me question how I accept and use my heredity, call it my received legacy (the good and the bad), for God’s glory.

Or maybe we need to talk about what we’ve claimed for ourselves. We say we’ve dedicated our lives to Jesus, but how’s that playing out in our attitudes and actions? Which kind of Nazarite will I be? Which kind of Nazarite will you be?

I imagine Samson walking into the juice bar with lots of tattoos, his seven braids like dreadlocks, his massive bulk filling the room. What kind of drink would he order?

I imagine John walking in right behind him, his long hair and beard studded with twigs, his camel hair vest drawing a few eyes, an intense look on his face. They don’t serve locust protein powder yet (that’s a thing—Google it!), so what would he order?

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar—one struggling against his identity and one embracing it. What can we learn from their lives? My #dedication is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long post! Use the comment section below to let me know your thoughts on Nazarites in general, these two guys in particular, their comparison, or what you think they’d order in the juice bar. I love hearing from my readers!

For a great summary of these lives (plus Samuel) and an interesting comparison of them to Jesus, check out Vanessa’s recent post.

The Completely Not-Boring History of the Bible, part 1

If there’s such a thing as a Bible nerd, I’m it!

I love the Bible because it helps us know God. In His Word, God reveals His heart and everything we need to know about Him and our world. It’s not everything there is to know, but it’s everything we need to know. I’m guessing you love the Bible, too, or you probably wouldn’t take the time to read this blog. Today and one week next month, I’m stepping away from application and study to share some of the fascinating, affirming history of the Bible. I hope you learn something new!

It All Starts with Inspiration

Most Christ-followers believe the Bible to be inspired. That is, God used human authors, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to write down the information He wanted conveyed. That’s why we see different styles and perspectives among the different books of the Bible despite the unified themes.

It’s been a long time since
those days of inspiration…

But it’s been a long time since those days of inspiration, and even people who believe the original texts were inspired may have doubts about the clear transfer of that information over two thousand (or more) years. After all, we don’t have any of the original documents. The history of the Bible, however, shows us that God has preserved His Word through time, and that’s why I find that history fascinating.

Hebrew Scriptures

Lots of dates here, but just follow the order of events.

The original Hebrew Scriptures are made up of three parts: Torah, Nebihim, and Kethubhim (law, prophets, and writings, respectively). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch, and includes the first five books of our Bible. We know it was recognized as authoritative in Ezra’s lifetime, which was about 440bc. The section called Prophets includes the major and minor prophets, while the Writings includes Psalms and the books surrounding it (Job, Ecclesiastes, etc.). The last books to be written were Malachi (450-430bc) and Chronicles (before 400bc).

By 150bc, all thirty-nine books of our Old Testament had been accepted by the Jewish community. The translation of Jewish Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint), however, began one hundred years earlier, in 250bc. They did this because so many Jewish people spoke Greek. This is important to us for two reasons.

  1. The Greek translation was based on the set of Scriptures available to the translators at that time (250bc). If you compare the Greek translation with the Hebrew Scriptures currently available to us, you’ll see there are very few differences, which means there haven’t been any major changes or errors enter the text between 250bc and whatever dates our documents reflect. That’s impressive.
  2. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, which means New Testament authors used the Greek translation when they quoted the Old Testament. This helps explain many of the differences between quotations of OT verses in the NT and the actual verses in the OT. These days, translators sometimes work to align the two.

“But wait, Carole,” you say, “You just said there weren’t any big differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint.” You’re right; I did. The differences we see are the result of differing translation techniques for Hebrew and Greek. Some of the words may be different or in a different order, but the “jist” of the quoted verses will be the same. Check out this example…

1 Peter 1:24-25 NIV
Isaiah 40:6-8 NIV

The original Hebrew text had consonants but no vowels. That’s just the way Hebrew was written, and because the Scriptures were designed to be read aloud in the Temple by educated theologians, it wasn’t necessary to have all the vowels. Imagine you read, “Lrd my Gd.” You know what that’s supposed to say. Then read, “Evrythng ws gd.” A bit harder (Everything was good.) but still possible. It’s easy for you to tell the difference between “God” in the first example and “good” in the second. But if you weren’t a native English speaker, you would find it much harder.

Here are the same verses as above but in Hebrew and Greek.

Isaiah 40:6-8, Hebrew (BHS)
1 Peter 1:24-25, Greek



After the Jewish people were scattered (diaspora) and the Temple destroyed, laymen needed to read the Scriptures in synagogues around the known world. Therefore, a group of scholars (the Masoretes) standardized the consonantal text and added vowels and punctuation based on the traditional readings. “Standardized” means they decided on a correct spelling for things (like color v/s colour) and a single set of grammar rules (like was v/s were). This happened after ad500, but don’t let that gap in time worry you. The Jewish scholars were serious about tradition, so we didn’t lose anything. The vowels and punctuation obviously help us significantly with translation.

How We Christians Got the Books of the Old Testament

The first Christians, being Jews, accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as-is…or as-was. It wasn’t long however, before they rearranged the books, split the minor prophets from the major, instituted all the 1st- and 2nd- books, and separated Ezra from Nehemiah. There was no big theological reason for all this. It was a practical issue: how much Greek text would fit on a standard scroll. Greek, with all its vowels and cases (a grammar thing) takes up a lot more room on the page than Hebrew, with its vowels that are just dots and dashes under the letters. The best example I can think of (and it’s not exact) is our wordprocessing fonts. Try typing the same thing in Courier then in Times New Roman. It takes up different amounts of space, doesn’t it? (I wanted to demonstrate here, but my blogging platform wouldn’t let me.)

How We Get Our Translations

The Hebrew text used by scholars and translators today is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. By the way, the part that’s not in Hebrew is in German. The BHS is based on the Leningrad Codex, which was transcribed and put together in ad1008. “Codex” just means it has separate pieces of paper bound like a book rather than scrolls, but it was still hand-written. Think of medieval monks writing out books by hand and decorating (called “illuminating”) the pages. The BHS has been updated many times since 1008. Modern-day translators start with it, then consider the latest archaeology, historical discoveries, and language research as well as variances from other sources before they settle on what words to actually write for the translation.

We’re always learning more
about history and language…

The fact that we’re always learning more about history and the evolution of language is one of the big reasons we need new translations. The other big reason, by the way, is that our own language changes over time. Remember reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in high school? Aren’t you glad our English Bible doesn’t read like that?

I hope understanding a little of where your Old Testament comes from helps you love and appreciate it even more. Next month, we’ll look briefly at Apocryphal books, the New Testament, the meaning of Canon, and our modern-day chapters & verses. (Go straight to that post *here*.)

Knowing the history of the Bible helps you value it more. Check out this brief intro. (click to tweet)

I told you I was a Bible nerd! I love this stuff! If you have a question or thought about the history of the Bible, please leave it in the comments. I’ll find an answer for you or at least point you toward an answer.

Note: I didn’t include any references because I wanted this to read like a conversation. If you’re interested in where I got my information, please just leave a comment or e-mail me: carolesparks(at)outlook(dot)com.

We Are Built to Last

It’s a long-standing Rubbermaid slogan: “Built to Last,” but it’s also an apt description of our life in Christ…and of wheat. Intrigued?

I had the privilege of guest posting on Walk With Me this week. You can read my full thought process *there*. Comment on that blog (I’ll reply.) or come back here (where I will also reply) to like and comment.