Thursday, December 17, 2009

Was Jesus Born in a Stable?

I have been a pastor for over 20 years, which means I have preached on the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke 2 nearly 20 times. It is amazing how one can study and preach the same passage over and over without examining one's assumptions.

Recently, my friend Nabeel Jabbour gave me Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I can't endorse the whole book, yet, because I have not read it all. However, his first chapter on "The Story of Jesus' Birth" has already challenged some of my assumptions.

The traditional telling of the birth story goes something like this: Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The city is over run with guests. They try to check in to the local inn, but there are no rooms. So, they sleep outside in the stable. Mary and Joseph are all alone as Mary gives birth. There is no one there to help. There only guests are a group of smelly shepherds. The shepherds come, see the homeless people, then leave them there in the stable without any assistance. However, is this an accurate reading of Luke 2?

Bailey brings in some archeological data to challenge this traditional telling. Besides the archeological data, there are problems with this traditional understanding that are right in the verses of Luke 2. The first problem is the translation of the world "inn" in verse 7. The second problem is with the word "all" in verse 18.

The first issue one must confront is the word "inn" in Luke 2:7. Nearly every English translation says something like "there was no room for them in the inn." Most of us, when we think of inn, think of something like a small hotel, or B and B. We think of a commercial lodging. There is a Greek word for this sort of inn, but that is not the word used here. In fact, this word is only used two other places in the New Testament--Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11. In both cases, it is translated as "guest room" and refers to the Upper Room where Jesus and His disciples celebrated the Last Supper. The word is used several times in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) and no place in the Septuagint does it refer to any thing like an inn, at least not in my reading of those verses.

So, rather than reading "there was no place for them in the inn," Luke 2:7 should read, "there was no place for them in the guest room."

Still, you might ask, "Doesn't it say that Mary wrapped Jesus and put him in a manger? Isn't a manger an animal feeding trough?" Yes, that is all true. However, we must remember that common people did not have large houses and barns in the old days. The people of Bethlehem would have had homes much more akin to those in Third World countries than our 2000-4000 square foot homes in America. Most homes were one room houses. Some would have had a guest room attached, or an "upper room" for guest. In this time, the house would have had a main floor. Then, a few steps below would have been an area where the animals were brought in for the night. Dug out of the floor of the main level, right where the cows could reach it, would have been mangers for the cows. For sheep, there would have been wooden mangers that sat up on the floor. However, these were inside the house, not outside in a separate stable.

For most of us, the idea of bringing your animals into your house for the night sounds rather strange, but this is what they did in the ancient world. Also, it happens still today in some Third World countries. I remember being in Mexico in a rural village. It was not uncommon to be in the bathroom and have a pig wander in. Poorer people did not have the money or land for barns and stables. They kept their animals in their courtyards in the day and in the house at night, just as is the case in rural villages of undeveloped areas today.

The next interesting bit of information directly in the text is found in verse 18. The shepherds come to visit Joseph and Mary. They tell of their encounter with the angelic hosts. When they tell this account, Luke 2:18 says "all who heard it were amazed." The traditional understanding of this verse is this: the shepherds see homeless Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They leave them there, sleeping in the town stable, then go through town telling people about the things that they have seen and, "all" who hear them are amazed. The NIV lends itself to this misunderstanding by saying that the shepherds "spread the word" concerning what had been told to them. "Spread the word" implies that they went all over town telling everyone what happened. That is misleading. The shepherds haven't left the house, yet. When the shepherds speak, all are amazed and Mary Mary is pondering these things. Then, after these things, the shepherds leave. So, I think the ESV gets it better when it says "they made known" rather than the NIV's "spread the word."

The sequences of events as Luke records them is this: 1) The angels appear to the shepherds, 2) the shepherds visit Jesus, 3) the shepherds make known to all what has been told to them, 4) the shepherds return to their fields praising God.

Following the order of events as Luke describe them, that means that the "all" who were amazed at the shepherd's story are those who are gathered around the stable. Luke wouldn't say "all" if he were only talking about Mary and Joseph. It seems that there is a crowd of people gathered there around the manger. That is the plain reading of the verse. Mary and Joseph are not alone, terrified in a barn. They are surrounded by people who are showing them real hospitality.

If this is the case, then it seems that this is what happened: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem. Someone invites them to their house (probably a relative). The guest room is already full of people. So, the relatives offer Mary and Joseph the lower level connected to the main room of the house. Mary gives birth to Jesus. They clean out the manger and put down fresh straw and put Jesus in it. Later that night, the shepherds arrive. They enter the house and find Mary, Joseph and "all" gathered around. The whole house is up--the owner and family, the guests who are in the guests room--all are their celebrating the birth of Mary's baby. The shepherds arrive. They tell everyone gathered in the house about their encounter with the angels. All are amazed at what they say. Mary, however, ponders these things. Then, the shepherds leave praising God.

I'm not saying we need to get rid of our creche's with the cute little stables, but that may not be an accurate picture of the birth of Jesus. Still, if you have a manger scene in your house, at least put the wise men across the room.... but that is the subject of a different (and shorter) post.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Funeral for an American Hero

I only do a few funerals a year. The amazing Carl Nelson does most of them at Village Seven. Yesterday, I had the privilege of doing the funeral for the father of a member of Village Seven. The man is General David W. Winn. I never met General Winn, but all remember him as a man who loved Christ, his family, and his country. You can read his biography on the link attached to his name. He fought in World War II as well as Vietnam. In Vietnam, he was shot down and spent nearly 5 years as a POW. His cellmate was James Stockdale. In that "prison" (hell hole really is a more appropriate description), he was tortured and suffered greatly. Yet, there in the darkness, he knew God was with him.

In situations like that, men must come to one of two conclusions: 1) There is no God. Therefore, all of my suffering and dedication is meaningliess, or 2) There is a God. Therefore, even in this pit, He is working out His glorious purposes. One must choose either despair or life. One doesn't have the luxury of merely seeking or inquiring. God was gracious to General Winn and opened his eyes to the truth, that God is real and he is at work, even in suffering.

The service was in the Air Force Academy Chapel. This is one of the great architectural structures in the West. Absolutely spectacular. After the service, there was a "fly by" with some F15 fighter jets. The planes came in so low that you could count the bolts on the wings. It felt like an earthquake as they streaked by, setting off all of the car alarms in the parking lot. It was spectacular.

I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before us, and are still fighting now, so that we can enjoy a life of freedom. Many have made amazing sacrifices and endured unspeakable horrors so that we can live in peace.

I am also thankful that, for those who trust in Christ, our suffering is not in vain. God has a purpose even for our pain. Life is not meaningless, but is a glorious story being told by God moving to a marvelous "happily ever after."

At the same time, events like this, as well as the recent events in Fort Hood, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that we live in a world that is broken. As long as there is evil present, there will be a need for warriors like General Winn. Yet, even more, these events should cause us to long for the day when Isaiah 9: 5 comes true - "Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire." We long for the day when "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). That day will come. It is certain because God has decreed it. May it come soon.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween

I haven't had time to write my own stuff lately. However, here is an excellent article by Sean Lucas on Halloween. Sean is now the Sr. Pastor of First Presbyterian in Hattiesburg, MS. Prior to that, Sean was a church history professor and academic dean at Covenant theological seminary.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dwelling in Possibilities

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that I am becoming a curmudgeon. For example, most people have great music on their Ipods. I have sermons and lectures (not my own). Is that an stodgy old man thing to do or what?

The other night as I was out for my evening run, I was listening to a sermon by Tim Keller. He quoted an from an article by Mark Edmundson entitled "Dwelling in Possibilities." After hearing Keller quote it, I had to read the whole thing. The fact that I loved the article is further proof that I am, indeed, a curmudgeon because Dr. Edmundson clearly is one. He also is an English professor at the University of Virginia. He writes with great wit and insight. His major thesis is that young people today are so caught up in the possibilities that they never fully engage in the present. Here are a few quotes:

Ask an American college student what he's doing on Friday night. Ask him at 5:30 Friday afternoon. "I don't know" will likely be the first response. But then will come a list of possibilities to make the average Chinese menu look sullenly costive: the concert, the play, the movie, the party, the stay-at-home, chilling (or chillaxing), the monitoring of SportsCenter, the reading (fast, fast) of an assignment or two. University students now are virtual Hamlets of the virtual world, pondering possibility, faces pressed up against the sweet-shop window of their all-purpose desiring machines. To ticket or not to ticket, buy or not to, party or no: Or perhaps to simply stay in and to multiply options in numberless numbers, never to be closed down.

And once you do get somewhere, wherever it might be, you'll find that, as Gertrude Stein has it, there's "no there there." At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? "They're talking to their friends." About? "About another party they might conceivably go to." And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they're now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity.

Here is another:

The idea is to keep moving, never to stop. It's now become so commonplace as to be beneath notice, but there was a time that every city block contiguous to a university did not contain a shop dispensing a speed-you-up drug and inviting people to sit down and enjoy it along with wireless computer access. Laptops seem to go with coffee and other stimulants, in much the way that blood-and-gold sunsets went with LSD and Oreo cookies with weed. (It's possible, I sometimes think, that fully half of the urban Starbucks in America are located in rental properties that, in an earlier incarnation, were head shops.) Nor were there always energy drinks: vile-tasting concoctions coming in cans costumed like superheroes, designed to make you run as fast and steady as your computer, your car, and — this is Darwinian capitalism after all — your colleagues. You've got to keep going. Almost all of my students have one book — an old book — that they've read and treasured, and read again. It's the American epic of free movement, On the Road, a half-century old last year, but to them one of the few things in the culture of my generation that's still youthful.

I would suggest that all young people read the whole thing. However, it may be too long to sustain their attention span. (Spoken like a true curmudgeon).

Monday, August 31, 2009

More on Understanding the Old Testament

Introduction

The article by Tim Keller in the previous post is a description of what is known as the Redemptive-Historical approach to interpreting the Bible. It answers the question how does one interpret the Bible and apply it to life? In the Redemptive-Historical approach, one reads every story of the Bible in light of the larger story—the story of redemption.
In order to understand this better, let’s contrast it with some other approaches to reading the Bible by examining the story of David and Goliath. In the story (1 Samuel 17), the nation of Israel is at war with the Philistines. Rather than having the whole armies engage, the Philistines send out their champion, Goliath, to fight for them against Israel’s champion. Goliath, however, is 9 feet tall. He is a giant of a man. No one from Israel wants to fight him.

David is too young to be in the army. Yet, his father sends him to the battlefield to take food and provisions to his older brothers. When he hears the taunts of Goliath, he volunteers to fight. Rather than clothing himself in armor, he takes five stones from a stream and kills Goliath with his slingshot.

How can we apply the story of David and Goliath to modern people? There are four basic approaches.

The Moralistic Approach

In the moralistic approach, one reads the stories of the Bible in the same way one would read Aesop’s Fables or William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. In this case, you read the story for the moral and the moral becomes the application. So, the moral of this story is that David is brave in facing his challenges. Therefore, we should be brave like David.

There are some good things in the moralistic approach. In this case, David is a good example for us. We should be brave like David, or courageous like Daniel. We should not be greedy like Judas, or immoral like David with Bathsheba. However, the moralistic approach will not always work. There are times when biblical characters engage in morally ambiguous behavior and the Bible offers us no immediate commentary on whether it was right or wrong. For example, was it sinful for Isaac to marry Rachel (which violates later Old Testament laws)? Should he have just settled for Leah, even though Laban deceived him? Was Noah in sin when he got drunk or did he not understand fermentation? If you simply approach these stories as morals, you will miss some very significant parts of their meaning.

The Allegorical Approach

In the allegorical approach, one usually says that Goliath represents all of the big problems and challenges we face. These problems might be money, health issues, relationship problems, etc… We should be like David and “face the giants”. We simply need to go up against our problems in faith, trusting God to take care of us.

There are some good things about this approach. After all, the issue of faith and trust in God is clearly a part of the story. David’s brothers and the other soldiers are afraid of Goliath. They do not trust God to help them. However, David exemplifies faith. David gives this wonderful expression of faith in 1 Samuel 17:34-37a: "But David said to Saul, 'Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.'"

Clearly, part of the emphasis of this story is a call to trust God in difficult circumstances.

However, there are some great problems with the allegorical approach. First, you can take a story out of the Bible and make it say just about anything. There is no way to know if you are reading the Bible as it was meant to be read because your meaning is governed only by your creativity.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is nothing distinctly Christian about such an interpretation. The same is true of the moralistic approach. One can teach the story of David in this way in a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim Mosque, or a public school, just as easily as in a Christian church. Yet, Jesus said that all of the Scriptures speak of Him (Luke 24:25-29).

Thirdly, if one approaches the stories of the Bible as merely allegory or as morals, then the Bible will be crushing. We are not brave like David. We are much more like the cowardly army of Israel. Is the Bible merely telling us to “buck up”? If that is all it is saying, then we are without hope.

The Typological Approach

The typological approach looks for a type of Christ in the story. In this case, the typological approach would say that David is a type (a symbol or model) of Christ. Just as David rescued Israel from Goliath, Jesus rescues us from our giants.

In this particular instance, the typological approach is superior to the other two. David often is a type of Christ. In many ways, David shows us what Christ is like. He points us to our Rescuer.
However, the typological approach has severe problems when applied to other stories. If one tries to use the typological approach, he begins to look for Jesus under every rock. Furthermore, as is the case with the allegorical approach, some in using this approach try to find symbolism in every aspect of the story. As a result, many of the same problems that are in the allegorical approach are also in the typological approach.

Furthermore, just as with the moralistic approach, there are many stories that seem to be ambiguous. What does one do with these stories?

The Redemptive-Historical Approach

The Redemptive-Historical approach seeks to understand the story in the context of the history of redemption. As one reads a story, he determines where it fits in the history of redemption. Since the history of redemption culminates in Christ, he then connects the story to Christ. After connecting the story to Christ in the history of redemption, he then seeks to understand its significance for the people of today.

The chart below illustrates this approach. [Note: This chart came from a D. Min. course I took at RTS with Dr. Edmund Clowney and Dr. Timothy Keller] The red lines show the other approaches while the black lines show the redemptive-historical approach.

In the redemptive-historical approach, one understands that David is the future-king of Israel. Furthermore, one understands that Jesus is the rightful heir to David’s throne and will reign forever and ever. That is, Jesus is an even greater king than David. In the story of David and Goliath, we do not identify ourselves with David (as in the allegorical or moralistic approaches). Rather, we are the fearful people of Israel in need of a savior. Yet, where David risks his life to save his people, Jesus gave His life to rescue us. The central message is not to be brave like David. Rather, the main idea is to see that you are weak and that you need a Savior.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Promised Redeemer

The Bible, while it contains many different stories that transcend thousands of years, is a book about a single story. All of the great stories of the Bible—Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Daniel and the Lions’ Den—are merely subplots in the Great Story. They are all part of the unfolding drama of redemption.

Like all great stories, the Bible begins with a crisis, moves to a climax, and concludes with resolution. The crisis happens quite early in the story, shortly after creation. Here we find Adam and Eve living in a world that God has proclaimed “very good.” They enjoy perfect intimacy with God and with one another. They also enjoy a world that God has made for them filled with delights. Nothing could be better.

Then, in Genesis 3, the Serpent slithers into Eden. In a single act of cosmic rebellion, Adam and Eve reject God’s blessings, turn their noses up at His provision, and make a grab for divine power by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

That could have been the end of the story. Yet, God is a merciful and gracious God. Rather than immediately giving Adam and Eve the punishment they deserved, He gives them a promise of hope. In Genesis 3:15, God pronounces His judgment on the Serpent, Eve, and Adam for their rebellion. In His curse to the Serpent, He gives hope to humanity. God said to the Serpent:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15).

In this curse, God promises that one day, the Offspring of the woman will rise up and crush the head of the Serpent. The Serpent, of course, is no ordinary snake, but is Satan disguised. So, by crushing the Serpent’s head, the Offspring of the woman will put an end to the tyranny of evil and restore the world to its proper order. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding of this oracle. It is the story of conflict between the Serpent and his offspring and the offspring of the woman. It is also the story of hope and expectation as the faithful look to the day when the Offspring of the woman will come who will crush the Serpent’s head.

So, the conflict that has been raging since the fall is between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan. It is not the story of physical conflict, but of the great spiritual war of which all other wars and conflicts are but faint echoes.

When God speaks of the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan, He is distinguishing between the godly descendents of Adam and Eve, who will be influenced by God, and the ungodly descendents, who will be influenced by Satan. This idea is reinforce throughout the rest of Genesis, particularly chapters 4 and 5. In chapter 4, Adam and Eve have two sons—Cain and Abel. Abel follows God. Cain does not. Cain murders Abel. There we see the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman illustrated.

Then Adam and Eve have another son named Seth. In chapter 4, we read the story of Cain’s ungodly line. In chapter 5, we see the account of Adam’s line as it goes through Seth. In these chapters, the writer is contrasting for us the godly line with the ungodly line, the descendents of the serpent through Cain with the descendents of the woman through Seth. In those chapters, you will see that each line creates its own cities and its own cultures.

The book of Revelation explains this further. In Revelation, we have the same image of the Serpent-Dragon and the Woman. In Revelation 12:17, we read, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

Later in the book of Revelation, we are told explicitly that the dragon is that great serpent of old, which is Satan (Revelation 20:2). So, it is Satan the Serpent who is making war against the offspring of the woman. The offspring of the woman are those who hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Here we see the theme of the Bible from Beginning to end. In the first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-3), we read about: A) Creation, B) Life in Paradise, and C) The Fall, and D) The prophecy of hope. In the last chapters of the Bible (Revelation 20-22), we read: D) the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 is fulfilled, C) the effects of the fall are undone, B) Paradise is restored, and A) the New Creation.

In between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, the Bible tells the story of this conflict and the One who will finally put an end to it by crushing the serpent’s head. So, throughout the story, the hero is the Offspring of the Woman. Essentially, it is His story—the story of Jesus. While it may seem that Jesus does not show up in the story until the New Testament, the truth is that He is the central character on every page.

The rest of this post is an article written by Tim Keller on how to read the Bible. I wanted to post a link to it on the web instead of reproducing it here, but I couldn't find it anywhere else.


How to Read the Bible by Tim Keller

Jesus Teaches Us How to Read the Bible

There are two key places where Jesus teaches us how to interpret the Bible. When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he discovered that they were in despair because their Messiah had been crucified. He responds, “‘how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken!’...and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-29) Later he appears to his disciples in the upper room. And we are told “He said to them, ‘this is what I told you while I was still with you; everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45). What do we learn? Jesus blames the confusion of the disciples on their inability to see that all the Old Testament is about him and his salvation. He shows them that “all the Scriptures” point to him and that each part--the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature--are all about him.

Another major place where Jesus teaches this is John 5:31-47. There Jesus says that there are several parties that “testify” to him. The first testimony is from John the Baptist (v.33) who said that he did not come to be the light, but to point beyond himself to the one who is the light (John 1:7-8). Then Jesus says, second, that the Father has given us another testimony to him in the Scriptures (v.39). But he confronts his hearers with how they do not understand the Scriptures as bearing testimony by pointing (as John the Baptist did) beyond themselves to him. He says, for example, they think they follow Moses, but “Moses wrote about me” (v.46). The Law of Moses can only be understood when you see it as pointing beyond itself to Christ.

The Story in the Stories

"There are great stories in the Bible...but it is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story...The Bible has a story line. It traces an unfolding drama. The story follows the history of Israel, but it does not begin there, nor does it contain what you would expect in a national history.... If we forget the story line...we cut the heart out of the Bible. Sunday school stories are then told as tamer versions of the Sunday comics, where Samson substitutes for Superman. David...becomes a Hebrew version of Jack the Giant Killer. No, David is not a brave little boy who isn’t afraid of the big bad giant. He is the Lord’s anointed...God chose David as a king after his own heart in order to prepare the way for David’s great Son, our Deliverer and Champion..."
- E. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery

The Interpretive Principle

The principle is that every part of the Scripture is not understood unless it is seen as pointing beyond itself to Christ. No history, no set of laws, no prophecies, no wisdom literature is ever an end in itself. Like John the Baptist it points beyond itself to Christ.

For example, the moral law testifies to Christ. As we see Paul saying in Galatians 3 and 4 the law does demand that we be perfectly holy. But we are not really listening to the law if we think we can obey it! The law is saying, “you can never fulfill me—you need a savior!” Only if we know we are saved by faith do we have the strength to actually hear how extensive and searching and deep the demands of the law are. If we don’t see them as pointing to our need for salvation-by-grace, we will be in denial and try to whittle down the demands of the law into external behavioral demands that are do-able.

But that is not all. Every part of the Bible points to Christ.

A Schematic View of the Bible through Christ

Jesus fulfills the writings of the prophets (I Peter 1:11).
The Redeemer will be human (Gen.3:15 -the seed of the woman).
The Redeemer will be God (Isaiah 9:6- the Mighty God).
The Redeemer will suffer and be killed (Isaiah 53:6--our iniquity on him).
The Redeemer will rise again (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31).
The Redeemer will be a Jew (Gen.49:10) yet bring in the Gentiles (Gen.12).

Jesus fulfills all the ceremonial law and writings
Jesus is the sacrifice all the sacrifices point to (Hebrews 10).
Jesus is the bread on the altar in the temple (John 6), the light stand in the Holy Place (John8), and the temple itself (John 2), for he is the presence of God with us.
Jesus fulfills all the ceremonial clean laws about foods and ritual purification (Acts 10 and 11).
Jesus fulfills circumcision--it represents how he was cut off from God. Now we are clean in him. (Col.2:10-11).
Jesus is the Passover lamb (I Cor.5:7).

Jesus fulfills all the moral law
Jesus is the one who “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matt.3:15).
Jesus is the one who embodies the law. The law shows us who Jesus is.

Jesus fulfills all the characters of history
Jesus is the better Adam, the one whose obedience is imputed to us (I Cor.15).
Jesus is the better Moses, who mediates a new covenant (Heb.3).
Jesus is a better David, who delivers his people (II Sam.7).
Jesus is a better Job, who truly suffers in innocence and then intercedes for us (Job 42).

Jesus is the better hero than Samson, whose death accomplishes so much good (Judges 16:31). He is the fulfillment of the history of the judges who show that God can save not only by many, or by few, but by one.

Jesus is the judge all the judges point to (since he really administers justice), the prophet all the prophets point to (since he really shows us the truth), the priests all the priests point to (since he really brings us to God), and the King of kings.

All the failures and successes of the great characters, in one way or other point us to Christ. Jesus is the true “Teacher” (Ecclesiastes) who may lead us through despair to help us find God. He is the true “Isaac” who is the son of the laughter of grace who was offered up for us all. He is the true Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved so we like Jacob only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up. He is the true Joshua who is the general of the Lord’s army. He is the true Job--the only innocent sufferer. He is the true Joseph, who at the right hand of the king forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them. He is the true Rock of Moses who, struck with the rod of God’s justice, now gives us water in the desert. He is the true Jonah who went into the belly of the earth and died so his people could be saved.

Jesus fulfills the history of Israel
Jesus is the one through whom all things are created. (John 1)
Jesus is the true Moses who leads a true exodus for his people through his death (Luke 9:31). Jesus goes through 40 days in the wilderness as Israel goes through 40 years in the wilderness.
Jesus is very literally the true Israel, the Seed (Gal.3:16-17). He is the only one who is faithful to the covenant. He is a remnant of one. He fulfills all the obligations of the covenant, and earns the blessings of the covenant for all who believe. When Hosea talks about the exodus of Israel from Egypt, he says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hos.11:1). Hosea calls all of Israel “my son”. But Matthew quotes this verse referring to Jesus (Matt.2:15) because Jesus is the true Israel. As we have seen above, just as Israel was in bondage in Egypt but was saved by the mighty redemptive actions of God in history, so Jesus leads the new people of God out of bondage to sin through the mighty redemptive actions of God in history (his death and resurrection).

In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on. Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is the gospel--Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).

The Personal Principle

Not only must we read the Bible Christocentrically to understand its meaning, we must read it Christocentrically in order to grow from it personally. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never be able to fight giants in life. Unless I see that Jesus makes the big sacrifices for me, I will never be able to make the normal sacrifices of life. Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him. As a model, Jesus and the rest of the Bible is a crushing, terrible burden. So reading “Christocentrically” is not just a trick of interpretation, but the key to new life.

Summary

Every part of the Bible about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel salvation through Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a collection of “Aesop’s Fables”; it is not a book of virtues. Paul shows in Galatians 3 that there is a complete unity in the Bible. There is a story within all the Bible stories. God is redeeming a people for himself by grace in the face of human rebellion and human desire for a religion of good works.

This section was taken from a D. Min. course at RTS Orlando, taught by Dr. Timothy Keller and Dr. Edmund Clowney.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Story of the Bible

The Bible, while it contains many different stories that transcend thousands of years, is a book about a single story. All of the great stories of the Bible—Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Daniel and the Lions’ Den—are merely subplots in the Great Story. They are all part of the unfolding drama of redemption.

Like all great stories, the Bible begins with a crisis, moves to a climax, and concludes with resolution. The crisis happens quite early in the story, shortly after creation. Here we find Adam and Eve living in a world that God has proclaimed “very good.” They enjoy perfect intimacy with God and with one another. They also enjoy a world that God has made for them filled with delights. Nothing could be better.

Then, in Genesis 3, the Serpent slithers into Eden. In a single act of cosmic rebellion, Adam and Eve reject God’s blessings, turn their noses up at His provision, and make a grab for divine power by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

That could have been the end of the story. Yet, God is a merciful and gracious God. Rather than immediately giving Adam and Eve the punishment they deserved, He gives them a promise of hope. In Genesis 3:15, God pronounces His judgment on the Serpent, Eve, and Adam for their rebellion. In His curse to the Serpent, He gives hope to humanity. God said to the Serpent:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15).

In this curse, God promises that one day, the Offspring of the woman will rise up and crush the head of the Serpent. The Serpent, of course, is no ordinary snake, but is Satan disguised. So, by crushing the Serpent’s head, the Offspring of the woman will put an end to the tyranny of evil and restore the world to its proper order. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding of this oracle. It is the story of conflict between the Serpent and his offspring and the offspring of the woman. It is also the story of hope and expectation as the faithful look to the day when the Offspring of the woman will come who will crush the Serpent’s head.

So, the conflict that has been raging since the fall is between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan. It is not the story of physical conflict, but of the great spiritual war of which all other wars and conflicts are but faint echoes.

When God speaks of the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan, He is distinguishing between the godly descendents of Adam and Eve, who will be influenced by God, and the ungodly descendents, who will be influenced by Satan. This idea is reinforce throughout the rest of Genesis, particularly chapters 4 and 5. In chapter 4, Adam and Eve have two sons—Cain and Abel. Abel follows God. Cain does not. Cain murders Abel. There we see the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman illustrated.

Then Adam and Eve have another son named Seth. In chapter 4, we read the story of Cain’s ungodly line. In chapter 5, we see the account of Adam’s line as it goes through Seth. In these chapters, the writer is contrasting for us the godly line with the ungodly line, the descendents of the serpent through Cain with the descendents of the woman through Seth. In those chapters, you will see that each line creates its own cities and its own cultures.

The book of Revelation explains this further. In Revelation, we have the same image of the Serpent-Dragon and the Woman. In Revelation 12:17, we read, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

Later in the book of Revelation, we are told explicitly that the dragon is that great serpent of old, which is Satan (Revelation 20:2). So, it is Satan the Serpent who is making war against the offspring of the woman. The offspring of the woman are those who hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Here we see the theme of the Bible from Beginning to end. In the first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-3), we read about: A) Creation, B) Life in Paradise, and C) The Fall, and D) The prophecy of hope. In the last chapters of the Bible (Revelation 20-22), we read: D) the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 is fulfilled, C) the effects of the fall are undone, B) Paradise is restored, and A) the New Creation.

In between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, the Bible tells the story of this conflict and the One who will finally put an end to it by crushing the serpent’s head. So, throughout the story, the hero is the Offspring of the Woman. Essentially, it is His story—the story of Jesus. While it may seem that Jesus does not show up in the story until the New Testament, the truth is that He is the central character on every page.

All of the numerous stories of the Bible are really just subplots in this grand narrative. The whole Bible is the story of this conflict and the promised child of the woman who will deliver us from evil once and for all.

The Serpent is bent on destroying the people of God. He will use any and all means at his disposal. He is hell-bent on stopping this promised Head-Crusher from coming. First, he will try to destroy the people of God through murderous plots. If that doesn’t work, he will try to get them to abandon their faith through three means: persecution, heresy and false teaching, and tempting them with the pleasures of sin.

Let me take you on a quick tour of the whole Bible and you will see this. In chapter 4, Adam and Eve have two sons—Cain and Abel. Abel follows God. Cain does not. Cain murders Abel. Why? Brotherly jealousy? That certainly comes into play, but there is more. The Serpent is trying to destroy the offspring of the woman.

Skip to the book of Exodus. The story opens with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, trying to kill all the Hebrew babies. Why? Is it really just an issue of population control and political expediency? No. No, it is the Serpent making war against the seed of the woman. Because, in Genesis 12, God promised that the Redeemer would be a child of Abraham. The Serpent knows that, if he destroys the Hebrews, then he will stop the prophecy from coming true.

Skip on down to 1 Samuel. We see the Serpent at work again. King Saul becomes a tormented man, literally goes crazy, and multiple occasions tries to kill David,. Why? Because as we see later, God promises that David will be king and that someone from his family will sit on the throne forever. He will rule and make everything right. This tells us that the Offspring of the woman who will crush the Serpent’s head will come from David.

Move on to the book of Esther. Why does Haman escalate a personal slight to the point of genocide? He is not acting on his own. Unbeknownst to him, he is part of Satan’s conspiracy to wipe out the Jews. If Satan can wipe out the Jews, then Jesus could not be born.
Skip to the New Testament. When Jesus is born, why does King Herod try to kill all the baby boys around Bethlehem? He is a dying old tyrant. He won’t even be alive when these children are grown. The Serpent is at work in Herod making war against the Offspring of the woman.
Then, in John 13, we read that the Devil prompted Judas to betray Jesus. Why? Because he thinks if he can kill Jesus, then Jesus won’t be able to crush his head. Yet, ironically, it was on the cross that Jesus sealed the Serpent’s defeat. By dying on the cross Jesus took the curse of sin upon Himself, Jesus took the curse of death that Adam, Eve, and all of us have earned, and paid the penalty in full.

However, even though Satan now knows that he has lost the battle, does he quit? No. Look again at Revelation 12:17: "Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring-- those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus."

He can’t get the seed of the woman, he can’t get Jesus. So, what does he do? He makes war against her children. This is the conflict we see in the New Testament and even today. Satan is seeking to devour the offspring of the woman--those who hold to the testimony of Jesus—that is all who have put their faith in Christ.

Satan employs the same strategy to destroy us that he has been using throughout the ages. He will seek to destroy you through persecution. He will bring suffering into your life so that you will abandon God. He will seek to destroy the people of God through false teaching. He wants you to be biblically ignorant so that you can be easily led astray. He will seek to destroy you through the pleasures of sin. He will entice you with sin so that it looks more attractive to you than the love of God.

Why do you think the Communist tried to snuff out Christianity in the Soviet Union? Why are our brothers and sisters in Christ being persecuted in places like China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and numerous other countries? Why do we have people publishing heretical books, even being sold in our Christian bookstores that lead you away from the faith? Why do you think the temptations of the internet, comfort, and other idolatries are encroaching on you? The Serpent is at work.

The whole Bible is the story of this great battle of the ages. The battle continues to this day. Yet, while the fighting continues, the battle has already been won. The battle is the Lord’s. Just as Genesis 3:15 promised, a Son was born to the Woman. 2000 years ago, He crushed the Serpent’s head by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. One day, just as God has promised, He will cast the Serpent into the Lake of Fire.

Just as the Bible is the story of the conflict, it is also the story of the Promised Redeemer. It begins with the promise of a Son born to Eve. Later, we discover that he will be a son of Abraham. Later on, we find out that he will sit on David’s throne. As the Bible unfolds, the mystery of redemption becomes clearer and clearer. . . and it all points to Jesus.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Study the Old Testament?

I mentioned in my last post that I am preaching through Genesis. I have been going for about a year and have another 9 months to go. As some commenters mentioned, Bruce Waltke has an excellent commentary on Genesis. It is one that I refer to frequently. Dr. Waltke is one of the greatest living scholars of the Old Testament. The joke is that he helped Moses write the Pentateuch. He isn't THAT old. Still, his commentary is remarkably fresh.

Even though I majored in Greek (the language of the New Testament), and have forgotten most of my Hebrew (the language of most of the Old Testament), I love preaching through the Old Testament. One reason is, I love to show people how the gospel story is woven throughout the Bible. After all, Jesus said that the whole Old Testament is about him (Luke 24:27).

For many Christians, the Old Testament is a collection of interesting stories, enigmatic proverbs, and bewildering prophecies that have little application to daily life. Parts may be inspirational, but as a whole, the Old Testament remains a closed book of hidden mysteries and confounding tales. Yet, this clearly is not God’s intent. In writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said,
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV)

The Old Testament, therefore, is useful for the believer. It is not merely a collection of archaic tales and mysterious prophecies, but an essential tool in equipping believers to fulfill their mission of glorifying God.

While there are many stories in the Bible, it is essentially one story—the story of Jesus. Jesus said that all the Scriptures are about Him (Luke 24:27). The Old Testament is not just an archaic precursor to the New Testament. Rather, together with the New Testament, it tells the story of God’s grace. In the words of Alec Motyer, the Old and New Testament form a two-act play. “If we only had Act Two, we would have to ask, ‘But where has it come from? Who are these people?’ . . . And if we only had Act One, we would say, “Yes, but where is it going? How will it develop? Will the hinted climax come and in what form? Without the New Testament, the Old is going nowhere, it is only a might-have-been, an unsubstantiated longing. And without the Old, the New lacks explanation. Its very words require Old Testament definition, and its central event, the cross, is inexplicable.”[1]

Therefore, to understand the Old Testament, one cannot read it in isolation from the New (nor can one read the New Testament in isolation from the Old). Together, the two testaments tell one story.

There are several themes that one can observe throughout the Bible that illustrates this story line. Three of these are the Promised Redeemer,the covenants, and the kingdom of God. These are not two separate themes, but different ways of looking at the same theme because the Promised Redeemer is a King who has made a Covenant with His people. I will post about these and other themes later on.

[1] Motyer, Alec, The Story of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), p. 10.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to Apply Genesis

I am preaching through Genesis. I wrote the following as part of my introduction to this series. Much of this was adapted from He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt.

The Bible is one of the means of grace that God gives to His people so that they can grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. It is not simply a book of information. Rather, it is the Book for life transformation. Since the Bible is thousands of years old, applying it to your life in the 21st century requires some understanding.

To understand how a passage of the Bible applies to your life, you must begin with the original meaning, then see how the rest of the Bible elaborates on it in biblical elaborations, and from there draw legitimate applications.

The original meaning is what the passage meant in the setting of its original writer and audience. The original meaning defines and guides the process of understanding and applying a passage of Scripture. It does not tell us everything about the passage, but it is the starting point.
To understand the original meaning of a book of the Bible, one must study the text itself (document), understand something of the writer, and know something of the original readers (audience). Without understanding of the writer, the document, and the audience, it is difficult to understand the true meaning of any text.

For example, let’s say you found the following note:

Bill,
Our evening together last night was simply wonderful--our most memorable ever. Moreover, you were terrific. I hope we can sneak away again for another evening like that one.
Sam


If Sam and Bill are tennis partners who won their match last night, the note takes on one meaning. If they lost their match, then it may be sarcasm. If Sam is short for Samantha, and they are married, it takes on another.

If you are to know the meaning of the note, then you must know something of the writer, the document, and the audience. You must also see how these three are related and interact.

The Document
Genesis is one portion of a larger book called The Pentateuch. The Pentateuch contains the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Together, these five form a single unit called the Pentateuch. Often times, Jews (including Jesus) referred to the Pentateuch as the Torah, the Law, or even the Book of Moses.

The Writer
No where in the Pentateuch does the author give his name. In that sense, it (including Genesis) is an anonymous book. However, from the outset, the ancient Jews regarded Moses as the author. There is no reason to doubt their testimony. Moses was a prophet of God, having been used by God to utter the infallible word. Historically, Christians have regarded Moses as the author as well. Jesus Himself, as well as the gospel writers, cite Moses as the author, which leaves no doubt that it was Moses who indeed wrote it (see Matthew 8:4; 19:7-8; 22:24; Mark 10:5; 12:19, 26; Luke 16:29; Luke 20:28; 24:27, 44, John 1:45; 7:19; 8:5).

Still, there are signs that a final editor other than Moses was involved in the final edition of Genesis and the other books of the Pentateuch. For example, Deuteronomy 34:10-12 records the death of Moses. Other signs of a post-Moses editor are a) Genesis 12:6, where it says that the Canaanites were in the land then (the Canaanites were still in the land at the time of Moses), b) the mention of Dan in Genesis 14:14 (Dan was not established until after the Exodus), and c) the reference to the kings of Israel in Genesis 36:31. Yet, even the final editing of the book was done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which means that the text itself is fully inspired by God, and therefore both infallible and inerrant (without errors) as originally given.

Moses wrote these books during the time between the Exodus and the nation of Israel’s entrance into the Promise Land under Joshua.[1] That places the date of the writing of the Pentateuch during the 15th Century BC.

The Original Readers of Genesis
Moses wrote Genesis (and the rest of the Pentateuch), while Israel was wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt and before entering the Promise Land. That means the original audience of Genesis were the people preparing to enter conquer the land of Canaan.

These people had been slaves in the land of Egypt. They were preparing to go into a land that they had never seen and fight off enemies they had never met. They had never been to war. They had never encountered some of the challenges that were ahead of them.

This is important because Genesis must be read from their eyes first, before you can apply it to your own situation. Any history book has to be selective.[2] No book can record all of the events that occurred during a specific time period. Therefore the author selects what events he will include and how he will tell of these events based on what he believes is significant for his audience.

As you read Genesis, ask yourself, “How would this help the Israelites in the wilderness? What was God’s purpose in telling them this? How would this strengthen their faith?” Moses purpose in writing to them was to inspire faith in God as they faced the challenges of the exodus and the conquest.

Moses did not write Genesis in response to Charles Darwin. However, he may have written parts in response to Marduk, the Baals, and the Asherahs (pagan deities of his day).

Richard Pratt says the following about Genesis: “Moses wrote the book of Genesis to teach his readers that leaving Egypt and possessing Canaan was God’s design for Israel. The primeval acts of bringing creation from chaos to sabbath rest, recreating the fallen world through waters of judgment, choosing Shem’s descendants to dispossess Canaan, and defeating the city of Babel explained what God was doing or Israel in the exodus from Egypt. The lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob anticipated Israel’s interest in their numerical expansion, possession of the Promised Land, and relationships with surrounding nations. The interaction among the tribal patriarchs in the Joseph story establish proper inter-tribal relations in Moses day and assured Israel of her destiny in Canaan.”[3]

More than that, the Pentateuch establishes God’s plan for redeeming the world by establishing His covenant relationship with Israel. All of this ultimately points to the Christ of the New Testament.

The Relevance of Genesis
If the original readers were so different from us, then how can Genesis have any relevance to us? This is the issue most people struggle with when reading the Bible, particularly Old Testament history.

While the specifics of your situation may be vastly different from that of God’s people in the wilderness, the real issues have not changed, and neither has God. The Israelites wondered how order could be brought to their world of chaos. They wondered why the world seemed so messed up. They wondered if life was out of control. We wonder the same things, and Genesis answers all these questions and more.

Notes
[1] Deuteronomy 34:10-12 records Moses’ death. So there obviously was another editor involved in the final edition. Still, for the most part it was written during the Exodus and prior to the conquest.
[2] “World War II is a matter of fact; telling the story of World War II is a matter of selection; understanding World War II – why it happened, who “won” it – is a matter of interpretation. Whenever anyone undertakes to write narrative history these three things are involved” (Alec Motyer, The Story of the Old Testament, p. 43.
[3] Pratt, p. 281.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Importance of Confessionalism

One criticism that many people, especially those from non-denonimational backgrounds, levy against Presbyterians is that Presbyterians are confessional. That is, we have a doctrinal statement to which our ministers and other church officers must subscribe. Some charge that we have elevated a human document to the level of divine authority, putting it alongside Scripture, or even above Scripture. However, I would argue that doctrinal statements are not merely useful, but almost necessary in our pluralistic age. Dr. John Frame has written on this far more persuasively than I can. So, let me refer the reader to his paper, Introduction to the Reformed Faith.

Dr. Frame makes two arguments that are particularly helpful. First, he notes that, to say that one is a Christian or that one believes the Bible does not really say anything. "All sorts of people today claim to be Christians, and even Bible-believers, who are actually far from the kingdom of Christ. [Theological] Liberals, cultists, and new-age syncretists abound. When you visit a neighbor, inviting him to church, he has a right to know what you believe. If you tell him you are a Christian and believe the Bible, he has a right to ask the further question, "what do you (and your church) think the Bible teaches?" That is the question which creeds and confessions are designed to answer. A creed is simply a summary of an individual's or church's beliefs as to the teachings of Scripture. And there can be no objection, surely, to placing such a summary in writing for the convenience of members and inquirers."

His second argument, which is near the end of the paper is, in my opinion, equally compelling. Dr. Frame points out that a confession gives one the some helpful theological guard rails for engaging the culture from a biblical perspective. Dr. Frame notes, "Because the Reformed faith has, at its best, been critical of human traditions even within its own circles, the Reformed faith has the resources for effective contextualization. Contextualization is the attempt to present scriptural truth in terms understandable to cultures different from our own and different from the culture in which the Scriptures were written. Reformed preaching has been remarkably successful through history in the work of contextualization. Calvinism has profoundly affected cultures very different from the Swiss culture in which it began: Dutch, German, British, Hungarian, Korean. Calvinism had large followings in France and Italy until it was largely snuffed out there by force. It is, therefore, entirely Reformed, to say as I do in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God that theology is the application of scriptural truth to human situations. Progress in theology is the continual application of Scripture to new situations and contexts as they arise. It is not the mere repetition of doctrinal formulations worked out in past generations, as some "traditionalists" might suppose. Rather, the work of theology engages our creativity, without compromising the authority and sufficiency of Scripture." Here, Dr. Frame is talking about the Reformed faith in general, but I am fairly certain that he would apply this to confessionalism.

I realize that many confessional churches have fallen into dead orthodoxy. A confession alone cannot keep a church spiritually vital. However, safeguarding against false doctrine is critical to maintaining spiritual vitality. In this way, a confession can function as a guard rail to help keep the denomination on track.

I also realize that many confessional churches have drifted into liberalism. Yet, this could not happen without the confession being ignored, contradicted, or men being dishonest about their subscription to the confession. One of the ways that our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is seeking to guard against this is by requiring men in church leadership to subscribe to the system of doctrine contained in our confessional standards. A man does not have to agree with every word (very few do), but he must agree with the system contained in them. So that all are honest in what they profess, each church officer is required to state every place he differs with the standards--even if he thinks it is a small difference. Then, the governing body (either the local session or the presbytery) determines if that difference is acceptable or not.

Having a confession helps as we seek to engage our culture with the gospel. There are many writers and thinkers who recognize the need to engage our post-modern culture. They recognize that this requires some changes on how the church engages the world around us. However, because they do not have a confessional anchor, they seem to throw out the baby with the bath water. One example of this is Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. He seems to have a good analysis of the culture. However, as he moves to prescription in his book, he runs adrift, proposing that theological heresies like the openness of God, might be acceptable. Even Gordon McDonald, a man who has written a number of very helpful books, seems to run adrift in this cultural shift. In his book, Who Stole My Church?, he gives a good analysis of the cultural/generational shift facing many churches. Yet, as he opens the door for changes that may be legitimate, he leaves it open for changes that are unbiblical, like women in pastoral ministry. A confessional grid can help in matters like these by keeping the guard rails up so that the boundaries always stay visible.

A confession will not keep a church orthodox, it will not prevent it from falling into dead-orthodoxy. It is not a panecea. However, it is a very helpful tool and safeguard for the church when it is honored by those who are honest in their subscription to it.

Living Out the Gospel

I mentioned earlier that my desire is that our church be marked by three distinctives: Gospel Community, Authentic Community, and Missional Community. We have seen some of the problems with the word “missional,” and I will revisit this later. However, for the moment, I want to focus on what it means to be a gospel community. Before I get to that, I thought it might be helpful to explain why I believe this should be stated as a distinctive. To explain this, let me backtrack to our previous discussion.

In my last post, I mentioned that missional is a call to return to biblical, holistic ministry of both word and deed. I will admit that I am no church historian, but from what I have read, it seems that ever since the fundamentalist/modernist split, the evangelical church has neglected biblical deed ministry. Of course, there have been some marvelous exceptions to this. I would also argue that even during this time period, conservative, evangelical Christians did a tremendous amount of good for the poor around the world. For example, Christians were helping the starving people of Africa long before the celebrity culture got engaged. Yet, overall, the conservative church neglected deed ministry while the liberal church engaged in the social gospel.

D. A. Carson warns us against making statements like “The previous generation came down either on the social-transformation side or on the gospel-fidelity side, and we want to put together both.” Certainly, such a statement can be arrogant. At the same time, as the church is always reforming (semper reformanda), we should always be looking to correct what we are doing in light of Scripture.

Besides the neglect of ministry in deed (acts of justice, mercy, and compassion), something else seems to have been lost, or at least obscured, in the wake of the modernist controversy. That is the preaching of the gospel to believers (I will explain this later).

In a recent discussion, noted Christian author, Jerry Bridges, said, that if you trace Christian preaching and teaching all the way back to John Own, then through the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries stopping with B.B. Warfield, you will see that the preaching constantly emphasized the necessity of the gospel for Christians. Bridges goes on to note that at some point around Warfield (which is during the height of the modernist controversy in America in the early 20th century), this sort of preaching was clearly lost. He says that it does not begin to appear again until Richard Lovelace’s wonderful book, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life. (By the way, I found that Mr. Bridges made this same statement in a recent interview that you can read here.)

I will post more later on what it means to be a gospel community. However, there are already some wonderful articles on this on the net. Let me point you to two that I find very helpful:

Gospel Driven Sanctification by Jerry Bridges

The Centrality of the Gospel by Tim Keller

Here are a few books on the theme:

The Bookends of the Christian Life by Jerry Bridges
Holiness by Grace by Bryan Chapell
Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges
TruFaced by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John S Lynch
The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Walter Marshall (get the “modernized” version edited by Bruce McRae)
Dynamics of the Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace
The Reign of Grace by Scotty Smith

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Importance of Missional

As I mentioned before, I am not about to die for a term. Certainly, the term missional has its problems. One of the most significant problems with the term is that it is trendy. Things that are trendy tend to be both trivial and temporary. Someone, I am not sure who, once said of fashion, that young people are obsessed with it and old people are bored with it. The same probably could be said with theological and church terms like “missional.” That is why Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, adopted the term "missionary-minded." By that, he means that every Christian should have a missionary mindset as he lives out his life in his community.

Still, I believe the term missional communicates several things that are important to us in the evangelical and Reformed world. Whatever term one chooses to use, these are some of the important thoughts that need to be expressed:

1. It is a reminder that the church as a body, and Christians as individual members of this body, are on a mission. We are the “sent out” people of God. The Greek word for church, ecclesia, means called out. The idea is that we have been called out of the world as God’s beloved, chosen people. Yet, as the whole thrust of Scripture shows, God never calls you in unless He also sends you out. Jesus said, “So send I you.” We tend to live in our Christian ghetto, forgetting that we are to carry out the mission of Christ.

2. It is a wake up call to the reality that we are in a post-Christian culture. Christendom is over in the west. I don’t think the majority of Christians realize this. We need to view our own culture as the mission field. Certainly, the rest of the Christian world does. So, if you were going to send missionaries to America, to your state, and your city, what would you expect those missionaries to do? How would those missionaries seek to embody the gospel in such a way as to reach the people of your community for Christ and enfold them into the Church? Well, God has sent you and has sent your church. You and your church should be doing what missionaries do. Failure to take this seriously is to be unfaithful to the God who redeemed you.

3. Missional is a call to return to biblical, holistic ministry of both word and deed. The fundamentalist/modernist split resulted in two significant errors for us as conservative believers: 1) It resulted in moralistic/self-righteous preaching in the church. 2) It resulted in the loss of biblical deed ministry. The liberals engaged in the “social gospel.” Certainly, some in the missional movement seem more concern for feeding the poor than the salvation of souls. However, the proper response to this is not to go in the other ditch. If one traces the history of the church and the history of missions up until the 20th century, it seems obvious that the church has always been engaged in both word and deed ministry. Missional seeks a recovery of this.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Slippery-Ness of Missional

Terms and labels are slippery things. Don Carson, in his lecture, “What is Evangelicalism?” says of the term “Evangelical,” “There is a sense in which the topic really isn’t all that important. Labels come and labels go. And I am not quite ready to be crucified for a label.” I would say the same thing about the label “missional.” I am not about to die for a term. However, there are some important aspects of the concept of being missional that I believe are important for the church.

As I noted in my last post, the term “missional” is being used by a variety of people in a variety of ways. This has caused some to wonder if the term should be used at all. As I mentioned, Tullian Tchividjian, the new pastor at Coral Ride Presbyterian Church, has been heavily influenced by Tim Keller’s thoughts on the missional church. Yet, because of the variety of ways the term has been used, he has chosen to use the term “missionary minded” instead. My friend, Dr. Dominic Aquila, who is the President of our local seminary, New Geneva Theological Seminary, has written a rather severe critique of the term. Dr. Aquila’s primary concern stems from how the term has roots in the Gospel and Our Culture Network and how it has been used by liberal and neo-orthodox theologians. Certainly, with our history as Presbyterians, we should be concerned about Trojan horses bearing neo-orthodoxy.

However, not everyone who uses the term "missional" is liberal, neo-orthodox, or emergent. Many terms that are dear to us are slippery. Most people associate Presbyterianism with liberalism. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Presbyterian churches in the United States are part of denominations that have a strong liberal and neo-orthodox bent. The large Presbyterian body is often in the newspaper for discussions about women as elders, ordaining homosexuals, even redefinitions of the Trinity. When I identify myself as a Presbyterian, I have to qualify the term in a way that is very different from the term’s meaning in popular usage. So, while many people believe that Presbyterian equals liberal. That is not the case. The same is true of missional.

We can say the same thing about the the term “evangelical.” In his lecture on the term, Dr. Carson demonstrates that the term means different things to different people and different things in different parts of the world. He mentions being in Columbia. There, the term refers to people who go door-to-door like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. He goes on to say, “If I lived in New York City with my dear friend, Tim Keller, I would never call myself an Evangelical, unless I were in a very friendly group because, by and large, in Manhattan evangelical means the Christianized version of the Taliban. It roughly means right-wing, stupid, ignorant, bomb-throwing people, and I don’t think of myself that way. So, I wouldn’t call myself an Evangelical there unless I had a lot of time to explain my position. . . . This is true of almost all labels. There are many, many contexts I would never call myself Reformed. In many parts of the deep South, Reformed basically means you don’t like evangelism. And I don’t think of myself like that, either.” Interestingly, Dr. Carson teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is known as a Reformed scholar.

There are many who wear the term "Evangelical" today that I would not call evangelical. There are even some who write for the leading evangelical magazine that I would hesitate to call evangelical. It seems that evangelical doesn't always mean evangelical any more. It also is apparent that evangelical means different things to different people.

So, all terms have baggage. One must be careful in using such labels that he defines the term and understands how they are being used in a particular context. Still, it is impossible to talk without labels. Labels provide a short-hand for explaining larger ideas. If I could not use the terms “reformed,” “Presbyterian,” or “evangelical,” then I would have hand them the Westminster Confession of faith, the PCA's Book of Church Order, and then add the following statement: "I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, that Scripture is infallible, inerrant, and our only infallible rule for what we are to believe and how we are to live. Furthermore, I believe that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Etc..." Frankly, it is much easier just to say that I am Evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian, even though all of those labels have problems.

So, do we need the label "missional?" That will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

History of the Term Missional

There is some debate over the history of the term “missional.” I first heard the concept, although not the term, when I went through the Inquirer’s Class at Perimeter Church (PCA) in 1983. In the class, Randy Pope makes the point that the church is supposed to be both a home to her people and a mission to her community. That is, the purpose of the church can be divided into two parts: 1) A home – this includes worship, nurture, edification, training, etc.. and 2) a mission – the church exists to announce the gospel to its community.

The first time I heard the term "missional" was in listening to and reading information on ministry from Tim Keller. I loved both its corrective to some of the problems I saw in the seeker-church movement as well as its emphasis on reaching the lost with the gospel.

According to an article in Christianity Today, the term “Missional Church” was first used in the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending Church in North America, edited by Darrell Gruder in 1998. However, D. A. Carson claims that Tim Keller coined the term “missional” in 1989 (he makes this claim in his lecture Keeping Up the Conversation).

However, it appears both are wrong, Ed Stetzer, who is a missiologist in residence at LifeWay (the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Church. You can read his blog here) says that the first use of the word (at least in the way it is used today) occurred in a 1983 book by Francis Dubose called God Who Sends. Dubose was a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary, a Southern Baptist Seminary which, according to Al Mohler, "trains clergy in the most conservative branch of a conservative church." Stetzer probably has done more research on the historical use of the term than anyone. He recently spoke at Dallas Theological Seminary’s conference on “Beyond the Church Doors: Developing a Missional Culture in Your Congregation.”

From Stetzer’s sketch of the history, the term was first used at a Southern Baptist Seminary, popularized further by The Gospel and Culture Network, and even further by Tim Keller, and has been used widely by such diverse groups as the Southern Baptist, a keynote address by Randy Pope at the PCA’s General Assembly, Dallas Theological Seminary, the emergent church, and Mark Driscoll and his Acts 29 Network. Furthermore, I as noted above, I have seen the term used positively by such conservative stalwarts as D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Tullian Tchividjian (the successor to James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, PCA, although Tullian prefers the term "missionary minded").

So, if the term is being used so widely by a variety of people in such varying contexts, some question if it is a helpful term. I will address that in a later post.

The Meaning of Missional

As some have pointed out, the term “missional” has been used by various people in different ways. The question is, at Village Seven, what do we mean by the term missional? Since I have been heavily influenced on this by Dr. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA), let me start by giving his five characteristics of a missional church:

1. Discourse in the vernacular. That is, we want to speak in common language, not in Christian jargon (more on this in a future post). Furthermore, it seeks to avoid “we-them” language that speaks disdainfully of unbelievers and those who differ from us.

2. Enter and retell the culture’s stories with the gospel. This means understanding the hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns of the people in our culture and then addressing these issues with Scripture and the gospel.

3. Theologically train lay people for public life and vocation. In our grand Calvinistic/Kuyperian tradition, we want to train people approach all of life from a biblical worldview and to engage the culture from this biblical worldview.

4. Create a Christian community that is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Because the gospel turns the world’s values-system on its head, we want a Christian community that demonstrates this. This shows itself in our love for neighbor, our concern for holiness, and our compassion for those who are hurting.

5. Practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level. The church should display the unity for which Christ prays. That does not mean we obliterate theological distinctions. Rather, we maintain our distinctions but unite with other brothers and sisters over the cause of the gospel.

I heard one person say that the missional church where the Christians understand their calling to “go and be” rather than “come and see.” It is a church that understands that part of its calling is to be a mission to the community in which God has placed it.

The Missional Church is Different from a Seeker Church

It is important to note that a missional church and a seeker church are vastly different. In fact, many of those who call themselves “missional” are reacting to some of the trends they saw in the seeker-church movement. A seeker church attempts to attract non-Christians by putting on great programs. Usually, this involves having separate services for believers and unbelievers. According to Bill Hybels, these seeker services are modeled on programs like a Billy Graham Crusade. They seek to put on a great show with an evangelistic message.

In missional churches (at least those who use the term in the PCA), non-Christians are invited to come to worship services where the focus is truly worship. That is, it is not a presentation or show about Christianity, it is not an evangelistic meeting. Rather, it is an invitation to come and experience the Christian community and Christian worship from the inside. So, while missional churches work hard at making their services intelligible to non-Christians, they also work hard to keep the focus and liturgy set on the worship of God and not a presentation for unbelievers. Tim Keller addresses this issue further in this video from Desiring God.

The Missional Church is Different from the Emergent Church

For an excellent critique of the Emergent Church movement, listen to D. A. Carson’s lectures on The Gospel Coalition’s website. You can find it here. In this audio, you will notice that Dr. Carson quotes Keller’s use of the word “missional” favorably, but is critical of how emergents use the term. This is helpful because it shows an important distinction that missional, rightly defined, is good. However, like many other terms (e.g. Reformed and Evangelical), it can be used in ways that no evangelical (another slippery term) would want.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What is a Missional Church?

Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging on the three distinctives (beyond our theology, polity, and values) that we want to characterize our church. The three distinctives are 1) A gospel community, 2) An authentic community, and 3) a missional community. I will not be taking these ideas in order, but will bounce between them but will start with what it means to be a missional community. However, before I give my thoughts on what each of these mean, let me direct you to some excellent resources on the topic.

While there are varying definitions of what it means to be missional, around Village Seven, we are using the word in the way it is defined in this paper by Dr. Tim Keller. Also, Desiring God Ministries (the ministry of John Piper) has posted this interview with Dr. Keller on what it means to be a missional church.

The following articles and MP3s do not all use the word "missional" but they touch on some of the themes of what it means to be missional. However, one should read the paper above by Tim Keller first before moving to these other articles.

Living a Magnetic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Denis Haack
Advancing the Gospel into the 21st Century by Tim Keller
The Gospel and the Poor by Tim Keller
Let the Nations be Glad by John Piper - In this MP3, Piper shows that a missional church must be concerned about missions.
What in the World is Missional Church? by Jonathan Leeman on the 9Marks site (Mark Dever's ministry) is a helpful critique of the missional movement.

The Church: A Gospel, Authentic, and Missional Community

The leadership of Village Seven is working on its strategic plan. While there are many practical steps that need to be determined in order to formulate this plan, there are some more foundational characteristics of the church that must always be kept in view.
First, the church must know and understand its mission. At Village Seven, our mission is to be a life giving church to Colorado Springs, the West, and the World. Beyond our mission, we have four core values—worship, teaching, nurture, reaching. Furthermore, in terms of theology, we are Reformed. In regard to church government, we are Presbyterian. Our mission, values, theology and polity all are components in making us who we are as a church.

Besides these, there are other important distinctives of who we desire to be as a church. These distinctives are 1) Gospel-based community, 2) an authentic community, and 3) a missional community. There is much overlap between these three. As people understand the gospel, they will become more authentic in their relationships, and more missional in their living. At the same time, as people live in community and live with a sense of mission, it will drive them back to the gospel. Therefore, in order to achieve one, we must aim at all three.



Gospel Community
We desire to be a community of God’s people that are living in line with the gospel. This means that we want to live based on the understanding that we are fully loved and accepted by God based on the finished work of Jesus Christ (Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). We always want to grow in our understanding of the gospel that reminds us that we are more sinful than we ever dared to imagine and in Christ, we are more loved than we ever dared to hope.

As a result of this understanding, we are completely secure because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We can be honest about our sin in full repentance because we know God’s love for us is not based on our performance. We can embrace fellow sinners because we know that we, too, are broken and sinful. This understanding of the gospel enables us to be bold, yet humble, secure, yet vulnerable; repenting, yet joyful.
Authentic Community
Being a gospel-based community frees us up to be an authentic community. Instead of maintaining a fa├žade of righteousness, we are free to be honest about our sin because our security is found in Christ’s righteousness, not our own. As an authentic community, we are learning to let down our masks. We want to be passionate in our pursuit of holiness, but honest about our sin. We want to be a community that lets other people in our lives, to see the dirt, hurt, and ugliness of sin so that we can minister to one other out of the gospel. So, we desire to be transparent with one another, to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to forgive one another—all because that is what Christ has done for us.

Missional Community
As a gospel-based community, we are passionate about continuing Jesus’ ministry of redemption. Therefore, we want to love our city and our world even as God so loved the world. Just as Christ gave Himself up for us, we desire to give ourselves up for the world, to join in His suffering to take his ministry of reconciliation to those in need. Therefore, we want to follow Christ’s pattern of ministering to the world in both word and deed. As the body of Christ, we desire to bring healing where sin has brought hurting. In the words of a great hymn, we want to join with Christ in making his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Happy Birthday John Calvin


Friday, July 10, is John Calvin’s 500th birthday. Mentioning Calvin’s names draws mixed responses. People seem to either love him or hate him. Yet, any student of history and/or theology would agree that Calvin has had a profound impact on western civilization and the development of the church.


While it seems that most people have a strong opinion about Calvin, few know much about him. Some of this is due to the fact that he is not as dramatic a character as some of the other Reformers. Some good movies have been made about Martin Luther, particularly the relatively recent Luther, staring Joseph Fiennes and Peter Ustinov. John Knox’s life would make a good movie as well. However, a movie about Calvin would have little success selling tickets at the box office (or even a church). He was a pastor and a scholar, which is not the stuff of which movies are made.

Still, since Calvin played such an important role in the church and culture, learning about his life and influence would be worthwhile for most Christians. Recently, I read Robert Godfrey’s John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. I found it very helpful and enjoyable. Also, it is relatively brief.
If you prefer listening to reading, Dr. Frank James has a good 4-part lecture called “The Calvin I Never Knew.” It is available from Reformed Theological Seminary on I-Tunes and is free.

While Calvin is probably most famous for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is a treasure trove of theology, what I have appreciated about Calvin over the years are his commentaries. His commentaries are still helpful and very relevant today. That is because he interacts seriously with the text in a pastoral way. While I love Luther’s commentary on Galatians, exegetically, Luther’s commentaries can’t touch Calvin’s. If a person is wrestling with the meaning of a biblical passage, Calvin is always a good source of help and clarity.

While I am sure Calvin would prefer that we not honor him (just as I am sure he would not like the term “Calvinist”), it is good for us to honor those who have gone before us, who have enriched our lives with their teaching and their sacrifice. John Calvin certainly has enriched mine.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday Leftovers - More Thoughts on Genesis 4

For every Sunday’s sermon, I usually have about twice as much material as I have time to use. So, a lot of it ends up on the cutting room floor. Obviously, the stuff I delete are things that I do not believe are essential to the point of my sermon. My main point is that Abel was living by faith while Cain was living by works. Grace leads to joy. Works leads to bitterness. Joyless, self-righteous, angry, religious people show by their emotions a lack of confidence in the gospel. To understand why I believe this is what Genesis 4 is teaching, you can listen to the sermon here. Still, there are usually some interesting tidbits that I don’t have time to mention. Below are some quick hits on the leftovers.
  1. Notice the parallels between Genesis 3 and Genesis 4. You have the sin, God’s inquiry, and then the pronouncement of judgment. One of the great differences is in how Cain responds to God’s inquiry. Adam shifts the blame. Cain is still downright defiant—even being sarcastic with God—“Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?” Sin has become harder and more brazen.
  2. The curses of Genesis 3 become worse in Genesis 4. Since Cain rejected family by killing his brother, he will live in alienation from family. Since he spilled his brother’s blood onto the ground, he will live in alienation from the ground. The earth will no longer yield to his strength. Since he chose to alienate himself from God by killing one made in God’s image, he will be driven from the presence of God. Notice the food theme going on as well. Adam eats of the fruit. Then, in pronouncing the effects of the fall to Adam in Genesis 3, eating is mentioned five times. Adam sinned by eating. Now eating is going to require pain and toil. Then, in Genesis 4, Cain works the ground. Now, the ground will not produce food for him. Man is getting more and more alienated from the earth. Man was supposed to rule the earth, but now the earth will not yield to man’s strength.
  3. In judgment, God gives you what you want. Here is part of the deceptiveness of sin. It lures you in, promises you freedom. As judgment, God lets you have it. Cain despises his family, so God drives him out from his family. Cain rejects God’s Word and promise. So, Cain is driven from God’s presence.
  4. We see the shocking degradation of sin in Cain’s response. Even after God had confronted him, even after God has pronounced his judgment, Cain shows no repentance and no remorse. Instead of falling on his knees, pleading with God for mercy, he still clings to his self-righteousness by claiming God is unjust. He says, 13 Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear. He is complaining that God is treating him unjustly and still seems clueless as to how he treated his brother unjustly. It is all about Cain. His blindness is astounding, as it is with our sin.
  5. Because Cain has rebelled against God, he is driven to restlessness. There is a whole sermon in this point. If I had time, I would love to explore the theme of Sabbath rest on the seventh day of creation and man’s restlessness apart from God.
  6. This restlessness is rooted in our separation from God. As Augustine said, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Calvin said, ““There is no peace for men, unless they acquiesce in the providence of God, and are persuaded that their lives are the objects of his care… they can only quietly enjoy any of God’s benefits so long as they regard themselves as placed in the world, on this condition, that they pas their lives under his government.”
  7. God shows remarkable mercy on fallen mankind. Genesis 4 is not just a story of sin and saving grace, but also a story of sin and common grace. Cain and his posterity go on to build cities, develop marvelous technology, create art, and other cultural developments. Even the line of Cain makes beautiful culture. As Christians, we can celebrate this with our fellow man. We enjoy the technological developments of fallen mankind. As Steve Brown often says, he doesn’t care if the pilot is a Christian or not. All he wants to know is, can he fly this airplane? This is also why we can enjoy the beautiful creations of people who were not necessarily Christians. Both Beethoven and the Beatles produced great music. Neither Beethoven or any of the Beatles had what we would call an orthodox faith. Yet, we can celebrate the beauty of their work.
  8. God also showed his mercy in the mark of Cain. The mark of Cain was not a sign of judgment, but of protection.