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The Apostle Paul’s Backstory: An Interview with Jerry B. Jenkins

Jerry B. JenkinsThe Apostle Paul is a biblical giant who wrote almost one-third of the New Testament, yet most details of his life remain a mystery. How could a devout Pharisee become the most influential Christian theologian of all time? Into that void steps master storyteller Jerry B. Jenkins (@JerryBJenkins), weaving a gripping narrative that illumines Paul’s stunning transformation from bloodthirsty murderer of Christians to devoted bondservant of Christ.

Bible Gateway interviewed Mr. Jenkins about his novel, Empire’s End (Worthy Publishing, 2015).

What inspired you to write a novel about the apostle Paul?

Click to buy your copy of Empire's End in the Bible Gateway StoreJerry Jenkins: After having written The Jesus Chronicles (Matthew’s Story, Mark’s Story, Luke’s Story, and John’s Story), novels based on the Gospels, it seemed Paul was the next logical step. My first novel for Worthy Publishing was I, Saul, so Empire’s End is really the follow-up to that.

Why is the book titled Empire’s End?

Jerry Jenkins: When Emperor Nero imprisoned Paul and sentenced him to death, he believed he had severed the head of the snake of the Christian sect that so threatened the Roman empire. But rather than snuffing it out, he merely fueled the fire that would eventually bring the empire itself to an end.

Describe your research of the Bible in preparing to write Empire’s End.

Jerry Jenkins: To me the idea of using a real life biblical person as the lead character in a novel does not offer unlimited literary license. I feel its important to use Scripture as the timeline and geographical and historical framework (I used Bible Gateway extensively while writing this novel and many before it). So while I have a definite fictional construct—inventing the idea that someone has discovered the personal diary of the Apostle Paul to flesh out and fill in what we know from New Testament—I don’t send him on wild, fanciful escapades that would violate the realities of the historical record. Rather, I suggest details of what biblical episodes might have looked like, had we been given the entire picture. So all the principals have names and their relationships are played out. And Paul’s thoughts—as I imagine them—are recorded in his journal.

Naturally, to accomplish this, I had to become immersed in the biblical record—which proved a rich devotional experience. I urge writing students to never allow the Bible to become merely a textbook, and it certainly never did to me. To write about a writer whose prose has stood the test of two millennia was a convicting experience, while the majesty of it nearly lifted me from my chair every day.

How did the Old Testament factor into the writing of this New Testament character?

Jerry Jenkins: The Old Testament as we know it was the Bible of Paul’s day, and as a Pharisee from birth and a rabbinical student he was memorizing vast passages from the time he learned to read until he studied at the feet of Gamaliel. A major plot point turns on counsel he receives from an old rabbi about a significant passage in Isaiah. Being neither theologian nor scholar, I found myself a layman painstakingly slogging through passages a word at a time, commentaries and online helps constantly at the ready.

From what point of view is the novel written and why did you choose it?

Jerry Jenkins: Writing first person from Paul’s viewpoint seemed the only logical choice, given the premise that we have found his personal journal. It lent an immediacy and gave us insight into his heart and soul and mind—hopefully bringing him down from the sainted artist renderings and revealing his human side. Here was the most passionate, devout, zealous missionary in history, not only saying but also proving daily that “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

What did you learn about Paul that surprised you the most?

Jerry Jenkins: I came to believe that he was anything but an evil malingerer when he persecuted and even killed believers before his conversion. He later referred to himself as the chiefest of sinners, dead in his trespasses and sins. Yet he clearly believed he was doing the will of God and sincerely saw the people of The Way as a threat to the one true God.

I also believe that God had prepared him from birth to be the great missionary he became. Being a Roman citizen with Hellenistic roots, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, a brilliant scholar, physically fit, indefatigable, a Pharisee, he substituted the personal walk with God his heroes of the faith evidenced in the ancient Scriptures with laws, rules, and regulations. I think he really longed for a personal relationship with God like David and other patriarchs enjoyed, and short of that he became the most devout biblical scholar he could.

Also, his conversion was unlike most that have followed it. People talk about having had a Damascus Road-like conversion, but then they describe having come to the end of themselves and repenting of a life of deep sin and turning to Christ. Paul had no such experience until Christ confronted him. He had no regrets, no second thoughts, not even any hesitation about what he was doing. He was on his way to do more of it! Jesus himself had to appear to him and tell him who he was. Only then did Paul suffer three days of deep repentance and then redirect his passionate devotion to preaching Christ and Him crucified—rather than what he had been espousing: that the Nazarenes were worshipping a dead martyr who had been cursed by having been hung on a tree.

What did you learn about the early church that surprised you the most?

Jerry Jenkins: That wherever you have people, you have factions and disagreements and personality conflicts. We sometimes idealize the early church and want our churches to go back to the simple, old ways. We need to carefully read the history. Harmony takes work.

Explain the challenges of novelizing all the available information by and about Paul in the Bible?

Jerry Jenkins: The challenge is the sheer volume and that so many stories are hinted at that could be fleshed out. What might be just two or three verses in Scripture can become two or three chapters to the novelist. Like where the Bible says Paul’s sister’s son overhears a plot to kill Paul, tells Paul, and the plot is thwarted. So many questions immediately arise:

  • Where would Paul’s nephew have heard this?
  • Might he have been part of it?
  • Why would he care?
  • Wouldn’t Paul have been estranged from his family after having gone over to the “other side”?

That prompted me to want to give Paul’s sister and her son names, to personalize them, give them histories with Paul and play out their relationships. I believe readers allow me this literary license because they know I’m only suggesting how these scenarios might have evolved.

Describe the story’s arc (without giving away major spoilers).

Jerry Jenkins: In I, Saul, I fictionalized an account of much of Paul’s childhood and rabbinical training, so in Empire’s End I concentrate on his conversion, the escape from Damascus, his three-year exile in the wilderness, his introduction to the disciples in Jerusalem, and his return to Tarsus.

I contend that the majestic writing and theology of Paul that has lasted two millennia was imbued in him during that wilderness exile in Arabia, yet most people forget that about his history. But while you might imagine three years in the desert as a boring time of inaction, this resulted in one of the richest sections of Empire’s End. Here the story is replete with action, tension, romance, betrayal, bloodshed, heartbreak, and remorse. What happens at an enclave of Jesus following refugees—some of whom are revealed to be Paul’s own former victims—sets the course for the rest of his life and becomes the catalyst for his thorn in the flesh.

Promotion material for the book says it’s “steeped in bravado and bloodshed, conflict and deep devotion, romance and political maneuvering.” Give some examples.

Jerry Jenkins: As Saul, my hero is the enemy of the church of Christ, the followers of The Way, the Nazarenes. As Paul he becomes the enemy of the Roman Empire itself. He becomes the equivalent of today’s Public Enemy No. 1. The Romans hold nothing back in their attempt to bring him to justice, which puts everyone he cares about at risk—and they pay the price.

I speculate that he unwittingly falls in love with the widow of one of his own former victims.

Paul takes the same obsessive devotion to God that made him the ultimate Pharisee and becomes the ultimate missionary for the kingdom of Christ, facing the threat of arrest, imprisonment, and death every day until he is finally martyred at the hands of Emperor Nero.

How did you come to your conclusion of what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was?

Jerry Jenkins: Scholars and theologians for centuries have debated whether it was a physical ailment or a temptation, but I find a lost love humanizes him most. Even the most devout missionary in history had to have missed that need to love and be loved—and to have come close to marrying the love of his life would have left him pining for what might have been, praying that God would allow him to forget her.

How did you weave into your story actual verses from the Bible?

When Paul is in the wilderness and the Lord speaks to Him, teaching him what he was say when he ministers to both Jew and Gentile, I believe He impressed on Paul the very words he would eventually write in his magnificent letters to the churches and to his own protégés. So as he converses with God in the desert, I paraphrase God speaking to him almost verbatim from the Bible.

How will a person reading this book of fiction be better equipped to read Paul’s real writings in the Bible?

Jerry Jenkins: Robert Frost said, “No tears the writer, no tears in the reader.” Well, believe me, there were a lot of tears in the writer during the writing. Also a lot of thrill. My prayer is that the story will show my reverence for the Scripture and bring the apostle to life in a new way, spurring the reader to long to get back to the biblical accounts of his life and to the letters he wrote.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Jerry Jenkins: I hope readers will get to know Paul in the way I feel I did while working with his words for so long.

Bio: Jerry B. Jenkins is the author of more than 186 books with sales of more than 70 million copies. The phenomenal bestselling Left Behind series has inspired theatrical movies. Twenty of his books have reached The New York Times bestseller list, and The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, and Publishers Weekly lists, and Mr. Jenkins has been featured on the cover of Newsweek. He and his wife, Dianna, live in Colorado.

How Can We Refine Our Understanding of Biblical Theology?

howtounderstandthebible

This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


Theology is not limited to the work of professors and clergy. Any serious Christian who has invested time in reading and studying Scripture is doing the work of theology, because theology (from the Greek words theos, meaning “God,” and logia, meaning “utterance, speech, reasoning”) is simply seeking ways to understand and speak about God, and all else in life as God defines it.

This is one of the enormous blessings of being a lifetime reader of Scripture. We are learning God. And learning everything God has said about everything else that really matters in life. What is a person? Why are people violent? What does a good marriage look like? What is our relationship with the animal kingdom? What happens after we die? How can we find peace and prosperity in life? Why does money become a source of tension? Where can we find justice?

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What Scripture offers us, in its totality, is a comprehensive knowledge about God and life. This knowledge is not unlimited, for mysteries remain. Believers should not be frustrated by that. The Bible should never be criticized for not being what it never claims to be. It is not a comprehensive textbook of science. It does not address all areas of economics and government. The Bible is not a documentary of all the details of the historical periods it addresses, but rather, the telling of the story of God’s interaction with humanity.

So how do we, in our quest to reason about and speak about God, refine a “biblical theology”? First, we should not rely on the longstanding method of searching for verses, producing a list, and pretending that this produces a coherent and true doctrine or theology. It is easy, of course, to use a concordance or a computer program or an online lookup function to put in front of our eyeballs all of the biblical verses that use the words heaven, sin, Christ, baptism, money, or violence. While this can be a helpful exercise, creating such lists do not render overarching, rational concepts. If we are trying to figure out what the Bible says about violence, we will have to find the passages that offer major insights, and those passages may not even use the word violence at all—for instance, Cain murdering Abel (Gen. 4:8). It is helpful to do word searches, but only as part of a larger strategy of refining your understanding of biblical theology.

Theology is all about synthesis, which is to take many ideas and discover their connections, leading to an overall theory or system. We sometimes talk about our “belief system,” which is what theology leads to, and it is a wonderful thing. Biblically knowledgeable believers are not shocked when people lie, steal, and cheat. When wars break out. When people are used as slaves. We understand these harsh realities because the word of God describes the causes and development of sin—and our understanding is our “theology.” This understanding does not come from looking up the word sin online. Rather, as we read all of Scripture as a lifestyle, we discover and synthesize thousands of places where “sin” is described as transgression, stumbling, iniquity, wandering, crookedness, trespass, impiety, lawlessness, injustice, and more. The Psalms talk about brokenness. Jesus teaches about blindness. Revelation points to evil. Read Scripture as a lifestyle and you lose your naiveté—and that is a good thing.

Maturity is all about synthesis—putting together what you learned years ago, with what you learned months ago, with what you learned today. You see patterns of life. Lessons that are cumulative. So it is with refining a biblical theology. The most important thing we do is read Scripture regularly, widely (not just the parts we like), and for a lifetime. Synthesis happens in our minds automatically. You read along and your mind is picking up bits and pieces of the truth about love, and righteousness, and temptation, and angels, and God, and a thousand other ideas. In the back of your mind, connections are forming. Every time you come back to a certain biblical book, you see things you never did before, but the connections get stronger. You understand Jeremiah’s “new covenant” because you recall the prior covenants with Abraham, Moses, and others, and you remember Jesus and the book of Hebrews’ teaching about the “new covenant.” And so it is with hundreds of other big ideas.

So the main commitment we need to make for the big payoff of gaining a substantial “belief system” is the faithful and thoughtful reading of all of Scripture. The synthesis will happen in our minds. But to ensure that we are reading with understanding and effect, we need to read with concentration. Taking notes is extremely helpful. Just have pen and paper nearby when you read. Note a verse that strikes you, a question that comes to mind, a connection or contrast with another passage, something you want to remember, a thought you want to tell someone else. Do that as a lifestyle and the synthesis will go deeper. Review your notes months later, and you will make connections that are just waiting to happen.

Truth is too good to be viewed as a list. The word of God offers a faithful description of reality. The difference between a flourishing and a failing life frequently hinges on where we have made the effort to discover and live in reality. This is why we want to understand Scripture.


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Holy Resilience: An Interview with David Carr

Dr. David M. CarrHuman trauma gave birth to the Bible, suggests religious scholar Dr. David M. Carr (@davidcarrbible). He says the Bible’s ability to speak to suffering is a major reason why the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity have retained their relevance for thousands of years. He’s studied how the Jewish people and Christian community have adapted through the centuries to survive multiple catastrophes and how their holy scriptures both reflected and reinforced each religion’s resilient nature.

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Carr about his book, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014).

Click to buy your copy of Holy Resilience in the Bible Gateway Store

Explain how your personal suffering of chest trauma from a bicycle accident led to the writing of Holy Resilience.

David Carr and Colleen Conway in the CatskillsDr. Carr: Five years ago, on a beautiful Columbus Day weekend in 2010 I nearly died in a bicycle accident in the Catskills while on a tenth-anniversary bicycle ride with my wife, Colleen. Up to that point I had spent decades studying, writing multiple books and teaching about how the Bible was formed over time. This accident, and the months of physical and psychological recovery afterwards, led me to immerse myself in studies of trauma and memory. I came to realize that the Bible reflects the trauma of ancient Israel and early Christianity.

You’ve said empires are temporary, but trauma continues, and that the Bible speaks to this reality. What do you mean?

Dr. Carr: The past millennia have seen the rise of huge empires—Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and many others—each one with illusions about its own immortality. But each of these empires fell. Meanwhile, the people that those empires traumatized—ancient Israelites and early Christians—came to find God amidst their suffering. The scriptures of Assyria, Babylonia, and even Rome were buried in dust or relegated to school books. In contrast, the Bible of Israel and the early church has survived and become the center of believers’ lives, guiding them even now, centuries later, as they deal with life’s traumas.

What role do you see sin having in contributing to humankind’s trauma?

Dr. Carr: Trauma studies have shown that trauma is deepest when it is human-caused. Of course people are traumatized by natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes, but even there the impact of the trauma is often worse because of human factors. Worst are cases of war trauma, sexual violence, and other events where people are devastated by acts of other people, which are rooted in their sin. These human-caused traumas shatter the fragile trust in others on which our lives are built. They haunt us.

Explain the subtitle of your book, “The Bible’s Traumatic Origins.”

Dr. Carr: For believers the Bible is special because it is God’s holy and inspired word. In addition, it is distinguished from other ancient scriptures by being formed in trauma, not just one trauma, but wave upon wave of trauma: the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and oppression of Judah for nearly a century (2 Kings 15-21), the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and exile of thousands of Judeans to Babylon (2 Kings 24-25), the near destruction of Judaism by the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanes IV (told in the apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees), and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and criminalization of Christianity. These traumas shaped the writings of the Bible and help explain why the Bible has spoken so powerfully to centuries of believers experiencing their own traumas.

Briefly recount your book’s exploration of Judaism and Christianity as “facing catastrophic disasters that shattered their identities” requiring them to shape new understandings of themselves.

Dr. Carr: Both Judaism and Christianity took shape amidst trauma inflicted by Rome on Palestine. Rabbinic Judaism was a reaction to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem’s temple and brutal suppression of Jewish revolts in 66-70 CE and 132-135 CE (CE = AD). Christianity is founded on the trauma of Rome’s execution of Jesus, the traumas suffered by the apostle Paul, and the trauma of criminalization of Christianity by Rome as an illegal form of “atheism” (denial of the divinity of the emperor and other Roman gods).

What does the Bible teach us about trauma and surviving it?

Dr. Carr: Where the media often preaches happiness and success, the Bible reminds us that trauma is part of life. The Bible’s most central characters are not the rich nor are they mighty kings (even David has flaws and rules a relatively modest kingdom), but landless ancestors who experience their own traumas, figures such as Abraham and Moses. The Christian Bible climaxes with Jesus, who was crucified by Rome. We see in the Bible how God works through these traumatized figures, and the Bible teaches that traumatic suffering can be an opportunity for transformation.

Why do you use the Assyrian destruction of Israel as the impetus leading to victorious biblical ideals, instead of earlier events such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or Abel’s murder or Israelite slavery in Egypt?

Dr. Carr: I am focused on when the Bible was actually written down, and many scholars agree that the vast bulk of the Bible was written down long after the Garden of Eden or the exodus from Egypt. The Assyrian onslaught in 722 BCE (BCE = BC) (described in the Bible in 2 Kings 15-19) was the first of several traumas that hit Israel and Judah when they had scribes who produced longer writings, and this Assyrian trauma, along with others that followed, shaped how those scribes framed biblical stories and prophecies.

How does the story of Moses anticipate the trauma and deliverance experienced by Israelites in the book of Exodus?

Dr. Carr: Moses’s life begins with his rescue as an infant from the water of the Nile (Exod. 2:1-10), an event that anticipates Israel’s deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea (Exod. 14-15). In his early life he flees to the wilderness and meets God there at Mount Horeb (Exod. 2:11-4:18), and his people then follow the same way into the wilderness and to the mountain of God later in the book of Exodus (Exod. 16-24). There is even a parallel between the haunting story of God attacking Moses and Moses being saved by dabs of blood (Exod. 4:24-26) and the later sparing of Israel from the divine attacker (who kills the firstborn of Egypt) thanks to dabs of blood on their doorposts (Exod. 12:21-27). Moses embodies in his person the suffering and deliverance of his people.

Do you see the suffering of Job as a microcosm type of the group or communal trauma and survival described throughout the Bible?

Dr. Carr: Yes. Job is traumatized by the loss of his wealth, health, and children, a loss not explained by any act on his part (Job 1-2). His friends have lots of pat explanations for his suffering, suggesting that Job himself is to blame (Job 4-28, 32-37). But Job refuses their easy answers and eventually sees and hears God’s responses to his protests (Job 38-41). Job and the book about him express the kind of deep wisdom about suffering that only comes from direct experience of trauma.

Your book explores the trauma of Christ’s crucifixion and how early Christianity embraced the symbol of the cross—a tool of torture—as the decisive victory over the ultimate trauma of death. Didn’t that dramatic transformation result from Christ’s resurrection being seen as overpowering the trauma of sin?

Dr. Carr: If we only had the story of Christ’s crucifixion, there would be no further story of Christianity and most of us would be worshipping Mithras or some other deity now. But the Bible centers on the revelation that Jesus’s death was not the end of the story. And this is not just a message about Roman execution, but a message about how God works in life in general, helping God’s children triumph over sin and more specific traumas of tragedy and loss.

How does the Bible’s description of violence against Christians speak to your premise of trauma in Scripture?

Dr. Carr: The story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection was powerful in its original context because trauma was a reality of life for so many people in the Roman Empire. Early followers of Jesus, like Paul, experienced an extra measure of such trauma as they suffered beatings, imprisonment and even death trying to spread their message. Paul tells the Corinthian church in his second letter to them:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters. (2 Cor. 11:24-26 NRSV)

Experiences like these led Paul to suggest to his fellow Christians, also experiencing trauma, that their suffering was a way that they revealed Jesus to the world. He says,

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:8-11 NRSV)

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Carr: I thank you for your interest and very much hope my book helps people link their lives with the Bible in a way they may not have considered before.

Bio: David M. Carr, PhD, is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Over his decades-long academic career, he has become an international authority on the formation of the Bible, ancient scribal culture, and issues of the Bible and sexuality. A father/stepfather of four, Dr. Carr lives, rides his bicycle, and plays funk-blues organ in New York City with his wife and fellow biblical scholar, Colleen Conway.

Bible News Roundup – Week of June 7, 2015

Read this week’s Bible Gateway Weekly Brief newsletter
Bible Gateway Weekly Brief
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Idaho GOP Resolution Urges Use of Bible in Public Schools
Idaho Press-Tribune

Wycliffe Bible Translators Affiliate Seed Company Appoints Samuel Chiang as New President and CEO
News Release

8 Pages of the Gutenberg Bible for Sale; Comprise the Book of Esther
Fine Books & Collections

Pamplona Bible Manuscript Dated Back to 12th Century
University of Victoria

Precious Centuries-old Bibles in UK Parish Churches Being Stolen to Order, Police Warn
The Telegraph

Bible Dating from 1270 on Display in Jubilee Library, Brighton, UK, until July
The Argus

Bible Inside 1915 Time Capsule Removed from Cornerstone of Missouri Capitol
KMOV

New Smyrna, FL, Man Recalls D-Day and the Bible That Saved Him
The Daytona Beach News-Journal


See other Bible News Roundup weekly posts

Poll: Bible Gateway Users Are Reading Genesis to Revelation in 2015

The number one response of Bible Gateway users responding to an online survey is that their goal in 2015 is to read through the Bible from beginning to end.

[See our blogpost, Read the Bible at Your Own Pace with Bible Gateway’s New, Improved Bible Reading Plans]

We asked Bible Gateway Blog readers to answer the sentence: “What’s your Bible reading goal in 2015?” We allowed people to select up to three responses. More than 4,000 of you voted. Of that number, 41% chose the phrase, “Read through the entire Bible, Genesis – Revelation.” The second-highest response was less ambitious: “Read a verse a day” (24%) (subscribe to Bible Gateway’s Verse of the Day email).

The remaining answers are:

A few of you (4%) even admitted you have no plans regarding the reading of Scripture, by selecting “What goal?”. The reply “Other” was chosen by 10% of readers.

Since 2015 is half over, we hope you’re well on your way in reading the Bible at the pace you intended in January. To assist you in your objective, remember to use Bible Gateway’s many Bible Reading Plans that you can easily personalize to fit your own reading style and time schedule. And share what you read with your Facebook and Twitter followers, telling them about the options available on Bible Gateway.

[See results of our other Blog polls]

Now that summer is here, our next Bible Gateway poll asks “When do you read your Bible while on family vacation?” Cast your vote below.

When do you read your Bible while on family vacation?

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Just a reminder that you can support the ministry of Bible Gateway by browsing the Bible Gateway Store for all your Bible, book, music, and gift needs.

The Message Audio Bible Now on Bible Gateway

Click to browse The Message Bible section in the Bible Gateway StoreThe Message Bible, available for reading on Bible Gateway and in print, was born out of Eugene Peterson’s desire to engage his congregation in the Word of God—in a way that would make its relevancy obvious in their lives. His goal was to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. He says, “I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.’”

The Message Bible on Bible Gateway is now available to be heard as well as read, provided by Eugene Peterson, read by Kelly Ryan Dolan, and produced by Oasis Audio, LLC., under arrangement with NavPress, publisher of the printed book edition. Click to listen to and enjoy The Message right now.

Also see (and hear) our other online audio Bibles (in English and other languages). And browse the complete audio Bible section in the Bible Gateway Store.

Here’s the publisher’s explanation of whether The Message is a translation or a paraphrase:

Since Eugene Peterson worked with the text strictly from Greek and Hebrew to English, he did what a translator does by choosing contemporary English words that best express the meaning of the original language. As all translators do, he used interpretative skill in choosing those English words. However, he “paraphrased” the original by selecting language that communicates the style and flavor of the original in Bible times—rather than trying to achieve word-for-word correspondence. Translation is generally thought of as bringing the meaning from one language to another, whereas a paraphrase is usually a rewording of a document within the same language. But in a sense, all translation also involves paraphrasing. There is no distinct line that can be drawn between the two. Sometimes it takes five English words to bring across the meaning of a single Greek word; other times only one English word is required to communicate five Greek words.

When Eugene began his work on The Message, he looked at how scholars had translated Homer from Greek to English. Some had tried to match word for word; others attempted to recreate the poetry of Homer in English. The Message leans toward the latter. Eugene’s intent was to recapture the tone, to bring out the subtleties and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages while keeping a sense of firsthand experience for contemporary readers. He often asked himself, “If Paul were the pastor of my church, how would he say this?” or “If Jesus were here teaching, what would it sound like?”

So, is it a translation or a paraphrase? It is probably most accurately called a paraphrase—an intelligent paraphrase. It is a bridging of the gap between the original languages and English, and between centuries of time and language change, to bring to us the Bible as it originally sounded.

How Should We Apply Scripture to Life?

howtounderstandthebible

This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


It is dangerous to understand the Bible better. It is all too easy for us to feel just a bit of pride about pulling out the meaning of biblical texts, as if we were beginning to master the Scriptures when, of course, exactly the opposite is the whole point. The temptation may come from the power we may feel from having “spiritual knowledge,” which can move us from insecurity to superiority. Or we may want to put ourselves over Scripture so we don’t need to obey it. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

Here are a few of the reasons why many biblical authors charge us with not just knowing the word of God, but practicing it.

studying

God (through Moses):

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 11:18-20)

Jesus:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:24-27)

Paul:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

And using a mirror for a wonderful analogy, James charges us:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

These and many other passages suggest that applying Scripture begins with assimilating its content. Reading, meditating, discussing, practicing, praying, and memorizing are all ways for the biblical text to form the spiritual muscle tissue of our lives. This is not about having a list of verses rattling around in our heads, but having the shape and motion of our lives formed by biblical truth.

Much of this series has been about personal reading and comprehension of Scripture, but this is a good place to mention the power of group or community Bible discussion. It is enormously formative to discuss the meaning and application of Scripture in some kind of group. We see new things through the eyes of other people, especially those brave enough to share how their life’s difficulties connect or clash with biblical truths.

It is possible for a Bible group to wallow in ignorance if the mode of operation is to read a biblical text and throw it open to the group with the question: “What does this mean to you?” No! A biblical text means something specific, intended by the original author. Someone in a group Bible study needs to take responsibility to study these things ahead of time and dig out the meaning.

In the group setting, the question can and should be: “How do you see this applying to your life?” A biblical text means something specific, but it may be applied in many different directions, as long as the application is really connected with the meaning.

That raises another question: Can a biblical text motivate someone, even if the meaning and application don’t seem to be connected? The story can be told many times over, for instance, of someone reading one of the great missionary texts in Acts and believing God told him, through the text, to pack his bags and go overseas. It certainly is possible that the Holy Spirit guides someone through the words or sentiment of a biblical text—even if the text isn’t properly applied to everyone in that specific way. Such experiences are not about the meaning of a biblical text, nor its typical application, but a unique guidance of the Spirit for a particular person.

So the norm is this: biblical text first, original meaning next, and finally, present-day application. In this process we learn and relearn “Your word, Lord, is eternal” (Ps. 119:89).


Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Manhood in a Changing World by Carolyn Custis James

Carolyn Custis JamesSpeaker and author Carolyn Custis James (@carolynezer) suggests we step away from cultural definitions to examine God’s original vision for men.

In her new book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Zondervan, 2015), James explores the idea of manhood, a growing issue both in the wider culture and in the church. Until now, the entire discussion has been largely reduced to Western conceptions. Instead, James shows how our culture’s narrow definitions of manhood are upended when we consider the examples of men in the Bible and Jesus’ gospel. Together, they show a whole new Kingdom-way of being male and forging men and women into the Blessed Alliance.

Click to buy your copy of Malestrom in the Bible Gateway StoreThe following article is an excerpt from Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.

The Malestrom

Maelstroms—those powerful swirling whirlpools in the open seas—have been known to pull hapless fishing boats, crew, and cargo down into a deadly vortex to the ocean’s dark depths.

If the vivid image of the maelstrom seems frightening and destructive, its powers pale in comparison to the damaging currents and global reach of the malestrom. While the maelstrom that [Edgar Allan] Poe’s hero [in the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom”] encountered poses a threat to sailors and fishermen taking occasional careless risks at sea, the malestrom’s reach is global and relentless. It isn’t overstating things to say there isn’t a man or boy alive who isn’t a target. The malestrom’s global currents can be violent and overt, but also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares. The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally.

Historically, men have had a monopoly on positions of power and leadership in the world. They have dominated the public sphere and until recently (still in some cultures) held a virtual monopoly on education. The news is filled with their achievements, debates, and conflicts. World history and church history are largely comprised of stories of men. Even in the twenty-first century, it’s still considered breaking news and something of an anomaly when a woman appears on the global stage, as happened in the 2013 election of South Korea’s eighteenth president, Park Geun-hye. the big news was not simply that South Koreans had elected a new president and what this change means for the country’s future, relations with North Korea, and international affairs. The big news was that this president is a female—South Korea’s first—with the double distinction of being also the first woman to become the head of state in northeast Asia’s modern history.

Little wonder that soul singer James Brown belted out: “This is a man’s world!” Evidence supports his claim. Even the Bible can give the impression that we live in “a man’s world.” A good 90 percent of the characters are male, and Jesus, who of course is male, used father-son terms to describe his relationship with God—which led one evangelical leader publicly to embrace James Brown theology when he confidently asserted that Christianity has “a masculine feel.”

Even this perception reflects the destructive presence of the malestrom, for the “man’s world” mind-set is symptomatic of a world that has lost its center. The assumption that men own the stage or that the Bible gives preeminence to males over females positions men at the center. Inevitably this means men have turf to protect from each other and from women. It implies that women are to center their efforts on supporting and maintaining what God is doing through men. Women who rise to prominence today are perceived as threats; consequently, strong women in the Bible cannot be taken as exemplars for they are deemed aberrations and “exceptions to the rule.”

The pervasive impact of the malestrom is as fundamental as how one sees the world. Any meaningful discussion of what it means to be male is hopelessly off track before it even starts if questions of male/female equality or who leads and who follows become the starting point. The malestrom will outwit us, and we will be thrown off in our attempts to fill in that missing chapter if we don’t ground ourselves at the outset by asking the foundational question: Whose world is this?

The Bible doesn’t risk the possibility of our getting off to a false start. It opens by plunging a stake in the virgin ground of Planet Earth that is the basis for understanding everything that follows, including who we are and why we are here. The Bible’s story launches by proclaiming: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

This statement is not mere rhetoric or tribal folklore and certainly is not meant to inspire scientific debate. In the field of higher education, scholars Jan Meyer and Ray Land have coined the phrase “threshold knowledge,” which refers to “core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject.” We are standing on the threshold of human history, and the Bible does not leave us guessing at whose world this is or who stands at the center.

These inaugural words anchor us “in the deepest reality about which we can speak,” establishing the Creator God as the uncontested referent for all reality, including and most especially what it means to be male and female. God is at the center. Gloss over the significance of this one statement, and thereafter, everything is hurtling off course. Absolutely nothing is more important or definitive than words this Creator God will say about male and female. This “threshold knowledge” transforms everything else—our self-perception as well as our perception of gender. These first words are theological in the deepest sense of the term, because they center our attention first and foremost to the study of God and his ways.

The creation narrative is the first place we must go to recover the missing chapter. This is the world before the fall, before the brokenness, before the battle of the sexes, and before the malestrom began to distort, distract, diminish, and deprive men and boys from the high calling God entrusts to them.

The first two chapters of the Bible give us God’s original blueprints for humanity—the purest unedited version of what God had (and still has) in mind for us and for his world. This text must be given primary weight in any meaningful discussion of what it means to be male or female. If we merely employ these chapters to establish basic human equality or to argue for the primacy of male over female based on whom God created first, we will miss the big vision God is casting for his image bearers. To leap forward, as many do, to construct a theology of gender based on words of a post-fall curse or even on New Testament texts written thousands of years later, is to back into the subject from within the context of a fallen world. Such an approach is to attempt construction of an edifice without first laying the foundation.

The creation narrative escorts us back to the beginning—to the missing chapter and the world as God envisioned it. This is where God is defining kingdom strategies, identifying realms, and empowering all creatures great and small (and even celestial bodies) to fulfill their divine callings. This is where the Creator speaks powerful governing statements that define what it means to be human and that hardwire into his sons an indestructible identity, meaning, and purpose that even the malestrom is powerless to undo. Ironically, instead of diminishing Adam or any man-child born subsequently, the Bible’s inaugural statement will have an extraordinary exalting effect on what it means to be a man or a woman.

The above excerpt is from Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Custis James. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. All rights reserved. Taken from pp. 17-18 and 39-42.

Bio: Carolyn Custis James (MA, Biblical Studies) travels extensively as a popular speaker for women’s conferences, churches, colleges, seminaries, and other Christian organizations. Her ministry organization, WhitbyForum, promotes thoughtful biblical discussion to help men and women serve God together. Carolyn founded and is president of the Synergy Women’s Network. She is a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament and author of Lost Women of the Bible, When Life and Beliefs Collide, and Half the Church. Carolyn and her husband live in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. They have one grown daughter.

Connecting with Disconnected Tech-Savvy Teens: An Interview with Dr. Kathy Koch

Dr. Kathy KochAided by the convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices, especially smartphones, 92% of teens report going online daily—including 24% who say they go online “almost constantly,” according to a new study from Pew Research Center.

Technology is a non-negotiable for success in our educational, vocational, and social cultures. Yet, with all the advantages there are inherent dangers, deceptions, and abuses that can contribute to self-centered character, negative behaviors, and beliefs that inhibit spiritual growth.

Click to buy your copy of Screens and Teens in the Bible Gateway StoreBible Gateway interviewed Dr. Kathy Koch (pronounced “Cook”) (@DrKathyKoch) about her book, Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World (Moody Publishers, 2015).

Technology is here to stay. Is that good or bad?

Dr. Koch: Most people would agree we’re blessed to be living in these times. We have numerous digital/smart devices, the Internet and world wide web, social networking, apps/games, and expanded options for television, videos, and radio.

I’m glad technology is here and always evolving because I’m an author and I can’t imagine doing what I do with my old manual typewriter and only library research. People in sales probably greatly appreciate the convenience of their mobile devices. Sites like Bible Gateway make it easier for pastors and teachers to study and provide people in-depth teaching. Asking people what they’re most grateful for can be very interesting.

We, of course, determine if technology is good or bad based on how we use it. What devices? What reasons? When and for how long?

We can stay in touch with missionaries we support and more easily stay connected to people and causes. We can learn from a variety of resources. We can see and hear about crises in other parts of the world in real-time and we can hear great testimonies of God’s faithfulness, too. Today, we don’t have to wonder what to pray about. We are aware of people’s needs and can pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Yet, if we’re not careful, the use of technology can negatively impact character and beliefs. For instance, we might compare and compete more than is appropriate, become self-centered and selfish, and prioritize happiness rather than joy. I tell young people I don’t want them to be unhappy, but having a goal of constant happiness isn’t realistic, wise, or biblical. As a group of teens just told me, we’re called instead to things like service (e.g., 1 Peter 4:10), knowing God (e.g., John 17:3), loving one another (e.g., John 13:34-35), thankfulness (e.g., Colossians 3:15), following Christ (e.g., Matthew 10:38), picking up our cross (e.g., Matthew 16:24), faithfulness (e.g., Galatians 5:22-23), and praising God (e.g., 1 Chronicles 16:25).

How much do our children learn about technology by watching us and how much should we be teaching them?

Dr. Koch: Children of all ages learn a lot about technology and its uses by watching us. They learn when to use it and when not to use it. They learn what it’s good for and not good for. They learn how it helps us and how it can hurt us.

As with anything, hypocrisy won’t work. Are we always on the phone even though we tell children to take a break from theirs? Do we complain when they’re not focused, but we never seem to be either? This is hurtful.

When parents tell me their kids don’t listen to them, regarding technology, there’s almost always a legitimate reason. Sometimes children are responsible, but most times parents have yelled, demeaned or confused their children, contradicted themselves, and more. I often hear, “They’re hypocrites!” Ephesians 6:4 comes to mind: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

When our words and actions don’t seem to match, we must explain and teach. For instance, you might have a “no phone” rule when eating meals, but may need to occasionally leave yours on. For example, maybe you were told a committee meeting for that night may be canceled so you’ll need to know. This is a great opportunity to explain that purpose is relevant to the choices we make. This is also why your son should sometimes be allowed to leave his phone on during a meal. Maybe his soccer coach texted earlier that practice may be called off. Of course, he’ll need to know.

Also, with things like technology, age and maturity matter. It’s totally appropriate to have different policies for you and your children and for children of different ages. Even children the same age may be treated differently when it comes to freedom with technology because one has proved trustworthy and one hasn’t. To many children this all looks unfair. When they complain, calmly explain why the differences exist.

When children are young, we’ll tell them what to do and why. We’ll also be showing them. As children grow and we want them to be more responsible, we must talk about the “why” behind our decisions. We should never assume they’ve discerned our reasons by watching us. Teaching matters and our words are powerful. This will allow them to be wise stewards of technology in the future.

They’re not just learning about technology when observing us, are they?

Dr. Koch: No, they’re also learning about how we view ourselves, them, and others. For instance, if we post more pictures of them on social media than of ourselves, they may conclude they’re at the center of our world and maybe everyone else’s. They might wonder if it’s their job to help us look good to others. I know one mom (there are probably others) who posted pictures of her daughter getting ready for prom and commented, “I can’t wait until she’s home so I can post more pictures” rather than something like “I sure hope she has a great time!”

If we never post about our marriage, but always post about our kids, they might think mom comes before wife, children come before husband, and dad before husband. They shouldn’t.

Do we ever post prayer requests or Scripture? Praises and gratitude due to victories over longstanding battles? Do we share needs of others or indicate we’re aware of tragedies occurring on the other side of the world?

By the way we use technology and treat people, does it look like we or our kids are at the center of our world rather than God? Matthew 6:33 instructs us to “seek the Kingdom of God above all else.” He is not going to rewrite the Bible for these days of digital devices. This will never change.

In what ways can technology add stress to a teenager’s life?

Dr. Koch: When parents tell me they think their teens are stressed because of possible bullying on social media, I comment that it might be true, but there are other things going on that are actually more common.

For instance, our young people can be stressed by the competition that social media creates. Will my post be clever enough? Will my picture get enough likes to convince me I’m popular? (We must raise them to know and believe their value is determined by God and not man. Psalm 139:13-14 come to mind.)

The amount of information available adds to their stress (and ours!). Especially when young people don’t have the thinking skills to sort it all out and discern what’s true, complete, most relevant, and biased, it’s challenging. Because information is easily and constantly available, it can become satisfying. They may never learn how to put information together to arrive at knowledge and wisdom. But, we were created to know wisdom so these are additional reasons stress can exist. In Colossians 2:3, we’re taught that “in Christ is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” We’re taught in James 1:5 to “ask for wisdom,” therefore, it must be good and important.

As I mentioned earlier, technology is teaching teens they can be happy all the time. They can x-out of games they’re losing, change channels quickly when a show bores them, delete friends who disappoint them, buy something newer and faster, and always find something more engaging to keep them happy. This is what they think—but it’s not always possible. Therefore, they’re often disappointed and stressed. Technology and life don’t work the same. Life doesn’t have an undo button.

Teenagers aren’t the only ones stressed. It seems parenting is more challenging because of some of the things you’ve explained here. Are there other reasons technology is making parenting more difficult?

Dr. Koch: I’ll briefly mention two more realities. Teens and children can learn from technology that they are their own authority. Some games make them feel very powerful and in control. Many movies and television shows are absent any authority figures or the ones included are portrayed in very negative light. Teens can learn much from online videos and search engines so they can become very independent. Authority seems unnecessary and ineffective. This might explain why they don’t always listen to us, they complain about our advice, and ultimately reject it.

Second, those raised by and with technology can believe they have a right to choice. Those of us who are older know choice is a privilege. Our devices and many things we use them for have drop-down menus. TV Cable, DVR, Movies on Demand, iTunes, email, games to choose from, websites,…. We’re inundated with choice. Not only do our youth expect to have a choice, but because they prioritize happiness, they are often afraid to choose. For instance, many parents have told me their college-worthy high school graduates didn’t go to college. This is often because they had never been before and didn’t know if they’d like it.

I’ve asked many audiences of parents, pastors, and educators whether their children/teens argue and complain more than they thought they ever would. You can hear them sigh and moan as almost all of them raise their hands. They’re relieved to know that they might be doing an excellent job and still have dissatisfied and argumentative kids because technology is wiring their brains in these ways.

How do you see the Old Testament characters of Nehemiah and Mordecai relating to today’s technological environment?

Dr. Koch: It’s always been essential that parents connect consistently and authentically with their kids. Technology makes it more challenging and more important. If you need a Bible hero to motivate you, think about Mordecai, Esther’s older cousin who raised her when she was orphaned. Even after Esther was chosen for the king’s harem, and he could have gone on to live his own life, he stayed involved in hers (e.g., Esther 2:10-11, 20-23, 4:4-8, 12-17). If he wouldn’t have, God would have needed to find a different way to save the Jewish people. If you read the book of Esther through Mordecai’s eyes rather than Esther’s, you’ll learn much about parenting well during difficult times.

Nehemiah is another profound example of connection. When he saw Israel in exile trying to reconnect with their roots and reunify their hearts by rebuilding their home, he didn’t despair and do nothing. He stayed alert and was involved with his people (e.g., Nehemiah 1:4-6, 2:5ff, 4:6). The environment around him was full of distractions and obstacles. Yet Nehemiah courageously persevered, and the family of God was not just preserved, but strengthened.

“Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families.” Nehemiah 4:14

What do sites and apps like Bible Gateway contribute to the technology culture in general?

Dr. Koch: Bible Gateway and similar resources make it easy for everyone, no matter their knowledge or how much time they have, to know and study Scripture. I use BibleGateway.com all the time because it’s so convenient to compare Scripture in different translations, see verses in context, and find verses using the search box. I especially know many missionaries in challenging situations who depend upon websites and Christian blogs like this one.

These sites are important because there are so many false and dangerous ideas accessible on the Internet. We want people to accidentally run across this information when surfing the net and we want to purposefully direct people here because we know it’s dependable and true.

Why and how can teenagers be encouraged to use sites and apps like Bible Gateway?

Dr. Koch: Our modeling proper use of websites and apps like Bible Gateway will encourage our teens to use them. We can use the site when preparing to lead a small group, find verses to encourage a relative, and strengthen our personal study. Can you imagine what would happen if we’d use sites and apps with our children to look up cross references and commentaries related to our pastor’s sermons after lunch on Sundays or before bed? This shows our children we value our pastor’s teaching and view him as an authority. It demonstrates we’re curious, teachable, and value God and His Word to lead us.

I believe it’s also important for us to model the use of “good old-fashioned” Bibles. For instance, we might use a paper Bible in church because we don’t want to be tempted by other things we could do on our device during a sermon or Sunday school lesson. We should tell our youth why we do that.

Bio: Kathy Koch, PhD, is the Founder and President of Celebrate Kids, Inc., a Christian ministry based in Fort Worth, Texas. She is an internationally celebrated speaker who has influenced thousands of parents, teachers, and children in over 25 countries through keynote messages, workshops, seminars, assemblies, and other events. She also blogs regularly. Her books include No More Perfect Kids: Love Your Kids For Who They Are, How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences, and Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness: 5 Questions That Will Change Your Life. Dr. Koch earned a PhD in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University. She was a tenured associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a teacher of second graders, a middle school coach, and a school board member prior to becoming a full-time conference and keynote speaker in 1991.

Bible News Roundup – Week of May 31, 2015

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Bible Gateway Weekly Brief
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National Bible Week November 15-21, 2015: “The Bible: A Book for the Family”
Association of Catholic Publishers

Baltimore Washington Monument 1815 time capsule yields Bible & other artifacts
Baltimore Post Examiner

Audio Scriptures Bring Christ to Unreached Groups
Mission Network News

Cooperation Speeds Bible Translation in Panama
Mission Network News

Presbyterian Mission Co-worker Edits Innovative Study Bible on Mission
Presbyterian Church (USA) News

Will the iPad Replace the Bible?
Real Clear Religion
Bible Gateway App

Ramadan Begins June 18; Wycliffe Associates Takes Steps to Protect Translators
Mission Network News

Bible-themed Park in Sioux City, SD Dedicated
Sioux City Journal


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