Reading Between the Lines of Paul’s Letters


'Paul, The Apostle' by Gustave DoréMy son and I have been reading out loud through the New Testament this summer. We’ve tried to read as much as we can of one book in one sitting so that the harmony of the books is maintained. I’m convinced that we too often approach the Bible with a piecemeal mentality that ends up losing the bigger picture. This is especially true of the epistles, which should never be read any way other than in one piece. Reading them this way spotlights the confusion that our over-reliance on chapter and verse markings has created.

While I’ve read through the Bible many times in my life, I’ve never tried to read it both out loud and in the biggest chunks I can manage. That another person is listening as I read makes an additional subtle difference that forces me to be clear in how I pause and phrase the written word. Truly, it makes a difference. Try it.

This time through the New Testament, I’ve focused on most everything BUT the theology. Too often when we read the epistles, we tend to gloss over the credential establishments, the callouts to this person and that, and the real humanity depicted by the writers as they communicate to their readers.

For this post, I want to share a few thoughts from reading through Paul as if I were a long-ago church leader reading to an assembly of new believers who were going against the flow of the age.

A baker’s dozen thoughts on the Pauline epistles:

  1. We tend to see Paul as a dry, driven, exacting, Type A personality, but his emotional life is more rich on these pages than we give him credit for. This shows us that Christians need to be in touch with their emotional lives and bring emotion to our assemblies. Ours is not an arid, intellectual faith, though a quick perusal of Christian blogs and websites often communicates it as such. There is much to grieve—and also much to be joyful over. You can sense Paul’s melancholy and father-heart when he talks about his love for these young churches. His imprisonment weighs on him, and you can feel the sadness in the distance it creates. His writings show how important a solid network of Christian confidants and supporters is to our emotional well-being.
  2. Paul faced enormous opposition, often from people who seemed to be genuine Christians but were slightly off. (Sounds like today, right?) That so much of Paul’s writings consists of establishing his credentials is both illuminating and sad. This Christian life is more fragile than we imagine, and it is easy to go off the rails from simple carelessness regarding truth.
  3. To a modern age we think of as truly connected, Paul’s writings hammer the importance of Christian community, the need for loving, caring community that functions with peace, order, and utter dependence on God for direction. (Are our churches living that way?)
  4. Church hopping isn’t a 21st century phenomenon. Witness the number of companions to Paul who fade in and out of his life, many starting off well but finishing badly.
  5. As much as we look at Paul’s letters as theological treatises, the majority of their text, both opening and closing, is dedicated to connecting with specific people and establishing what Paul is all about.
  6. Personal holiness, perseverance, and a sober understanding of the age are themes in nearly every one of Paul’s books. So is the reality that Christianity is not another religion. The Christian faith cannot be equated with other streams of religious thought because it is not a dry—and ultimately empty—system like those others. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ, based in complete reconciliation, and awash in grace for living each day.
  7. The Christian is to be the most average of people but one who lives an extraordinary, eternal life. Humility, gratefulness, and discipline are hallmarks of that life.
  8. Sins of a sexual nature and those that afflict male-female relationships are extraordinarily prevalent and a major stumbling block for many, but Christ can forgive, redeem, and restore.
  9. Paul’s letters repeatedly note that many people will wash out of the faith, and while we can have confidence in God’s preservation, the number of people who get sidetracked and seduced by the world’s offerings is larger and more common than we understand.
  10. The Christian life is NOT a set of rules and can never be. People who teach a set of rules are false teachers.
  11. Grace in our present age is largely misunderstand and rarely dispensed to the extent that Paul writes that it should be.
  12. Most of what Paul writes about isn’t rarefied, theological ponderings but practical Christian living. He points out how faith translates into real life and how practical our beliefs must be.
  13. A believer not living by the Holy Spirit is not living. The Christian life is less scripted than the religious life of the day, which is what makes it so exciting.

Those are a few thoughts on the writings of Paul from an overarching perspective. I hope they resonated with you. Have a blessed day and week.

Here’s a Crazy Idea–And It Will Change Your Life!


Read the Bible together out loudHere’s a “crazy” idea that will change your life:

1. Find an easy-to-read Bible translation such as the New Living Translation, Common English Bible, or Holman Christian Standard Version (I’d avoid The Message for this).

2. Set aside a half hour and sit down with someone else.

3. Starting in the New Testament, read the Bible out loud with that other person for a half hour every day.

And do it right by getting into your best acting voice, so that when pompous people are speaking in the text, give them a nicely pompous voice. When someone is yelling, then yell. (Really, this is heady stuff and demands some effort.)

We tend to relegate the Scriptures to quiet, personal reading, but for most of Christian history, they were verbalized for others to hear—”he who has ears to hear, let him hear,” right?

Five Steps to Transform Your Church in Seven Months, Guaranteed


Did that title grab your attention? Good. Because I mean it.

Rather than add some pointless setup here, I’ll go right into it:

1. Stop the sermons.

Most people can’t remember one point of the three-point sermon they heard last week. Many pastors couldn’t deliver a transformational sermon if the lives of their flock depended on it (and sadly, that is probably the case). I’ll go so far as to say that the average sermon given on an average Sunday doesn’t change the average American pew-sitter one iota. While that’s a crying shame— and shouldn’t be the case—I suspect it is.

So maybe it’s time to pack away the sermons for seven months. Discipleship is a long-haul reality, and no one will have his or her spiritual life derailed for want of seven months of so-so sermonizing.

Besides, we’re going to substitute something guaranteed to change lives.

2. Find a good orator—or three.

We put our best musicians in front of the church, right? Let’s find two or three people in our church who truly grasp the English language and can breathe life into words. This is both a gift and a talent. We should encourage those who speak the language with gusto and life. (Leaders, you are making it a priority to identify, encourage, and utilize the giftings of people in your church, aren’t you? And the best speaker in the church may not be you—or any of the other leaders.)

3. Open the Bible.

Remember the Bible? In some churches it seems as if hardly anyone does, despite its being the word of God. We’re going to open it and see what it says.

4. For that Sunday, have an orator read one book of the New Testament in its entirety before the assembled church.

Okay, so a few of those longer books may need to be split into two readings, but considering the length of the average sermon in an Evangelical church, it’s doable for most of the books.

5. Repeat for all 27 books of the New Testament.

Now enjoy the positive transformation. Your church WILL be changed.

I’m not kidding.

We’ve got our heads in the sand if we think that most Christians have experienced the Scriptures this way. Fact is, the way we Americans teach and read the Bible is a piecemeal shambles. We approach it in such microscopic bits that most Christians have no idea how it fits together. We have no vision for the wholeness of the Scriptures. Bible with crossIt’s why the Bible-reading plan I advocate reinforces repetitive reading of entire books. Simply put, most Christians have never read the New Testament books as they were meant to be read.

We’re also fooling ourselves if we think that most Christians have read the entirety of the New Testament. Nearly half of all college graduates, once they step out of those ivy-covered halls, will never again read a book all the way through. This is especially true of men. For those who didn’t graduate from college, it’s certainly worse. And no, I don’t believe the Bible gets a pass on that lack. Given how little Scripture is read in the average church on Sunday, most Christians may otherwise never hear the entirety of the books that forge the backbone of all we are supposed to know and grasp.

We get all huffy about interpretation and so on, but do we trust the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures to deliver on their promise to transform lives? Faith comes by hearing the word of God, right?

How then can this plan not be an EPIC WIN for your church—or for every church in North America?

I say we start this Sunday.

Because the system we have in place for transmitting the Scriptures to people in the pews simply is not working.

And because the Word of God doesn’t need our additions to work miracles in the lives of those who hear it.

All we have to do is believe that is true.

Do you?