Archive for March, 2009

coverpichebRecently, I sat down with Edward Fudge (him in front of his computer in Katy, TX, and me in front of mine in Redwood City, CA) to discuss his forthcoming book, “Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement For Believers Today” (Leafwood Publishers, 2009, softcover, 262 pages, $19.95).  This is what Fudge had to say.

A neglected book

SP: Hebrews is not a book we hear discussed very often. Why do you suppose that is the case?

EWF: You are right about that. This neglect is very unfortunate, in my view, because Hebrews is one of the most Jesus-focused, gospel-packed books in the New Testament. You will see the evidence for that on almost every page of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today.

SP: Why do most people miss this focus?

EWF: It comes from a lack of real study of Hebrews. Folks go away from it without ever seeing and appreciating the book’s real message. They assume it is just an old book about even older Jewish rituals, sacrifices and priests, with no meaning or value for them.

Who wrote Hebrews?

SP: Do you know who wrote Hebrews?

EWF: I know as much about it as anyone else, which is finally nothing for sure! ☺ Origen told the truth about two centuries after Christ when he said that the author “is known to God alone.” It almost certainly was not Paul, for a variety of reasons. My personal vote among the candidates goes either to Barnabas or to Apollos.

SP: Why do you favor Barnabas?

EWF: The author of Hebrews calls his own work a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). The same Greek expression is found at Acts 13:15, where it is translated as “word of encouragement.” There, Paul and Barnabas are invited to address a Sabbath synagogue audience, which they do for the next 31 verses. Their remarks are called a “word of encouragement.” Not only is Barnabas involved in that, his name means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) – a comment on one of his chief characteristics. He is also a Levite, who would be very interested in the subjects of priesthoods, sacrifices, and their results. These themes  permeate Hebrews and can also encourage us today, as I show in Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today.

SP: What can you say in favor of Apollos?

EWF: Well, for starters he is called “mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). This fits Hebrews very well since its author clearly was exceedingly familiar with his ‘Bible,’ which was the “Old Testament” as we call it. (Hebrews actually tells the Story of the Son of God — from heaven to earth and back to heaven again — based on four different Psalms.) Apollos was also “an eloquent man,” as was the author of Hebrews). And he was from Alexandria, Egypt – a city of learning noted for a particular type of Scripture interpretation. The author of Hebrews reads his Bible in a similar manner.

Why was Hebrews written?

Q: Do we know why Hebrews was written?

EWF: Yes we do, although we don’t know exactly to whom, when, where, or precisely what was going on. But we do know that, for a variety of reasons, the original recipients of Hebrews were worn out, disheartened, tempted, and seemingly about ready to walk away from their faith. The book hints at some possible causes, including persecution, passing of time, being misfits in their culture, the appeal of sin, and so forth.

Q: That situation sounds very up-to-date! How does the author of Hebrews respond to it?

EWF: I love it! To revive his readers’ spirits and to renew their commitment, the unknown author re-tells the Story – the story of the Son of God who became a man, to live and die as our representative, and who is now in heaven representing us as our High Priest. Hebrews is thoroughly focused on Jesus! Its message is always contemporary. We can never go wrong by focusing on the Savior himself. I am very pleased that several reviewers have described Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today in those same terms.

A ‘bridge’ commentary

Q: You call Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today a “bridge” commentary. What does that mean?

EWF: When it comes to Bible studies, there are two worlds out there which often never come together. One is the ivory-tower world of academic specialists with all their scholarly issues and technical jargon. The other world is where most believers live and work and worship. Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today attempts to bridge this gap. For example, I worked from the Greek text of Hebrews but Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today doesn’t have a single Greek word in it. Although the bibliography covers eight pages and includes 80+ scholarly articles from theological journals, this book uses everyday language. By linking scholarship with simplicity, I hope to give the reader the best of both worlds.

A narrative-style book

Q: You also describe Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today as a “narrative-style” commentary. Tell us about that.

EWF: That refers to the fact that Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is written as flowing narrative, although it discusses each verse of Hebrews in detail. It does this in 48 chapters, each covering a portion of the Scripture text. Each chapter begins with a very short section called “Why & Wherefore,” which relates that section to the big picture. That is followed by “Unpacking the Text,” which goes into detail, but in narrative style, with subheads to make it read more like a typical book.


Q: I see that Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is already endorsed by a considerable variety of notable scholars and church leaders, even before its release. Isn’t that a bit unusual?

EWF: What is somewhat uncommon in the case of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today is the theological and international diversity of the endorsements. Hebrews contains a number of quite controversial passages, about which Christian “tribes” traditionally disagree. I am very pleased, therefore, that this book is recommended by knowledgeable reviewers across the spectrum.

For example, the quotes on the back cover of Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today come from Methodist, Calvinist, Church of Christ, Baptist, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal and Emergent church scholars. The full text of these seven endorsements, plus 29 others, fills the first six pages of the book. You can read the endorsements online already, with photos, biographical comments and (where applicable) website links of the reviewers, by clicking here.

The Cutting Room Floor

Posted: March 23, 2009 in Bible, church, ministry, preaching

For every sermon there are lots of notes, thoughts, ideas, and stories that are left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Stuff that there’s either not time  for or doesn’t fall within the sermon focus or function. But every now and then there’s something that is omitted during delivery of the sermon. Yesterday it was towards the sermon and I left it out intentionally (there were 2 stories intentionally omitted yesterday). The reason? As a listening/discerning community we had already arrived where we needed to go, therefore, we didn’t need anything else. 

I intended to end with the story of Carol Heath, that I read recently in Todays-Christian. If you recall, yesterday we were talking about God using our past for future glory. I think Carol’s story captures some of that. You can read it here.

To hear the entire sermon, entitled “Spin Machine,” click here.

Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today, by Edward Fudge (Leafwood Publishers, 262 pages, Expected Release: April/May 2009).

Mention the Book of Hebrews and many Christians start to yawn or even to nod. Mention commentaries, and they practically begin to snore. One would think, therefore, that a commentary on Hebrews would leave them out cold on the floor. In fact, this new book (due out for Pepperdine Bible Lectures in May) by Edward Fudge, my friend and former elder in Houston, is certain to waken the whole lot, and set their feet to dancing with joy! For at least three reasons.

First, it is all about Jesus. Edward sees the Book (it is really not an “Epistle”) of Hebrews as a sermon of encouragement to a group of unknown believers (who might or might not have been “Hebrews”) who, for a whole bunch of reasons were worn out, disheartened, and ready to walk away from their faith. To revive their spirits and renew their commitment, the unknown author re-tells the Story – the story of the Son of God who became a man, to make human men and women children of God. The whole book is focused on Jesus. We can never go wrong doing that.

Second, this is a “narrative” style commentary. Although the author covers every verse, the layout of the book is so arranged that it reads more like a novel than like a traditional commentary. There are 48 chapters, each covering a portion of the Scripture text. (The text is another story of its own! Rather than use a particular modern version and risk losing those who prefer a different one, Edward has created a new version of Hebrews just for this book which sounds almost like every modern standard English text but is exactly like none.) After the text portion at the top, each chapter has an intro section called “Why & Wherefore,” which relates this section to the big picture of the whole book. That is followed by “Unpacking the Text,” which goes into detail, but in narrative style with subheads to further enhance ease of reading.

Third, this is a “bridge” book. It bridges the gap that too often exists between the ivory-tower scholars and the Christian on the street, or even the preacher or teacher in the church. Edward worked from the Greek text of Hebrews but his book doesn’t have a single Greek word in it. He has about eight pages of bibliography including 80+ scholarly articles from theological journals, but talks in everyday language. For example, Hebrews 1 includes a cluster of Old Testament passages which the technical commentators call a “catena” or a “florilegium.” Edward refers to them as a “bouquet of Scriptures,” which is what that second word really means to begin with. With such bridges linking scholarship and simplicity, the reader gets the best of both worlds.

Although this book has not yet been released, the publisher already has 36 impressive endorsements from Bible scholars and church leaders in five countries and across the theological spectrum. This is particularly impressive, since Hebrews is highly controversial and different Christian “tribes” have strongly differing views about its meaning. Yet somehow, this book has gained endorsements from all over the map.

Methodist Bishop and author Will Willimon, for example, calls this “a strong, theologically-informed exposition that will be of especial help to preachers seeking to encourage contemporary believers.” Yet Simon Kistemaker, retired New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, says: “I heartily recommend this commentary which, written by a scholar for lay people, is balanced, clear and transparent.” The back cover includes seven endorsements (all 36 are found on the front pages) which, besides these two, include churches of Christ professor and well-known preacher David Fleer, Baptist professor and author David B. Capes, Pentecostal theologian Sarah Sumner, mainline Protestant scholar and former professor at Yale Divinity School David Bartlett, and my friend the well-known and much-read Brian McLaren. Talk about covering the waterfront!

Although the author sent me a copy of the manuscript, I am eager to get the book itself. Keep informed on its progress and grand arrival at Edward’s website, .

I’ve been attempting to pray the daily office with Thomas Merton’s book, A Book Of Hours. Rochelle gave it to me at Christmas. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my life in no way is arranged to pray the hours. So I’ve been doing what I can when I can.

This past Sunday morning after I did final sermon edits, I sat down with Merton and read these words: “The most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to “be” once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”

This struck me for a lot of reasons, the least of which was the fact that at that moment the dawn was just breaking, the sun beginning to rise. These words reminded me of the complete dependency of creation on the will of her Creator — myself included. I was humbled again by humankind’s feeble, immature and useless attempts to reduce God into something quantifiable; something that we can control and/or master. People have tried to control God with doctrine, particular denominational practices, oppressive congregational authority, and any number of hurtful ways. Yet God defies these attempts. How silly to imagine that any of our hermeneutical or theological systems could contain the very God from whom permission to exist must come.

Perhaps when the Scriptures remind us that creation sings the glory of God there is a not-so-subtle reminder for us that God is simply too grand, too big for us to manage or manipulate. After all, most of us cannot manage our lawns, much less the God of creation. And, perhaps, in the face of all our prideful blubbering, boasting, and grasping for power, influence and control, we too, should rejoice in God that He has given us breath and “permission to be once again.”


Footnote: For those of you checking back to read my review of Edward Fudge’s upcoming commentary on the book of Hebrews, the publisher has asked that the review be held so that it will coincide with the release of the book. This is standard. I the same thing when asked to review Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation and The Voice: New Testament. As the publication date draws near, I will post the review, as well as an interview with Mr. Fudge regarding the commentary.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a class on spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. The class is going well, but as is the case whenever a group of people explore spiritual formation, there are points that stretch all of us. The stretching is always both painful and necessary. After all, theses practices are designed to aid us in our drawing closer to God and becoming more like Jesus. That, it seems, has never been easy.

This week we focused on approaches to prayer. At root, we were attempting to move away from what I call “Laundry List” prayers and embrace a more robust view of the discipline. Prayers that perhaps are less about speaking and more about listening. Prayers that lead us more toward mystical union with God and a sense of His ever abiding presence with us. 

Particularly we considered The Jesus Prayer as written about in The Way Of The Pilgrim” and contemplative prayer as practiced by John Cassian. The Jesus Prayer is a simply repetition of these words: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Today I took it upon myself to pray the prayer 50 times. The result? The Jesus Prayer keeps one in touch with their own sinfulness (and self-centeredness). Fortunately, this “in-touch-ness” does not come in a negative way, wherein the continued realization of our sinfulness depletes us making us feel depressed and worthless. Rather, one feels — quite appropriately, I think — the sense that they should be careful about the way they “face” the world and speak about others.

Perhaps as we are armed with the knowledge that we are sinners we will embrace patience rather than picketing with those we disagree with or have failed to understand. Perhaps within the church and without it we can extend grace and harmony to others. Perhaps we would be slower in claiming our own rightness or high ground when other faithful Christians disagree with us about denominational (or non-denominational) distinctives. And we should do so simply because we so desperately need it ourselves. 


Next week I’ll be reviewing an upcoming commentary by attorney, theologian, author and friend, Edward Fudge. Edward’s new commentary tackles the meaty, dense and oft-misunderstood book of Hebrews. Trust me, you’ll be interested in what Edward brings to light from this fabulous book. Before year’s end I will be preaching through Hebrews and Edward’s commentary will surely be a trusted guide.


On my “Sean Palmer” page I’ve highlighted that I have reduced my out-of-town speaking and travel this year due to my new ministry context. However of you want to catch me somewhere I will be doing some limited traveling.

Pepperdine Bible Lectures: May 5-8 (Loving and Affirming the Justice of God)

Houston Summer Youth Series: July 13

Abilene Christian University Summit: September 20-23 (Hear The Voice)

Of course if you live in Silicon Valley you can join me for worship each Sunday at 9:00 ( a cappella) and 10:45 (instrumental) AM at Redwood Church or listen to the weekly podcast.

Tomorrow night I continue a series I’ve been teaching called, The Sacred Way. For 8-weeks we are looking at some of the ancient spiritual disciplines. I call them “ancient” for two reasons: (1) They were all conceived a long time ago and (2) Most people in American Evangelical churches don’t practice them (out of ignorance or willing abandonment, I don’t know). At any rate, our community here in Northern California is attempting to recapture them. Were coming to better understand that knowledge and narrow readings of scripture alone do not produce the Life that Jesus promised. We’re also learning together that our brothers and sisters throughout the ages have something to teach us regarding drawing closer to God.

This week’s reflection is prayer. In particular we will be looking at The Jesus Prayer, Breath Prayer, and Centering Prayer. This is scratching the surface, but it is enought to get us started. While we will be exploring these ancient disciplines, our time will begin with C.S. Lewis — a comparatively contemporary figure. Though most of us know Lewis as a writer of prose, we are going to begin our discussion of prayer with one of Lewis’ poems, and I want to share it with you here. This poem — IMHO — is deeply powerful and provocative.

Footnote To All Prayers…C.S. Lewis

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow,
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou.
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart.
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme.
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address,
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless,
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense.  Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.