Monday 27 June 2016

All’s Well That Ends Well?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God...  I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them... In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys... Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.
Nehemiah 13:6-7, 10, 15, 23

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a joyous story overall. Yes, there have been struggles along the way; but the temple has been restored, the city walls have been rebuilt, the people have heard the word of God and committed themselves to keeping their covenant with him.

Chapters 11 and 12 of Nehemiah continue to unfold positively in describing the repopulation of Jerusalem (there’s no point having a city rebuilt if there’s no-one living in it), the identification of leaders (it’s one thing for the city to be repopulated, but the people need continuity and purity in leadership too), and the dedication of the walls.

And that would be a great place to end the book! Except... we have chapter 13 to go, and – to be honest – things fall apart, with an ending that’s decidedly downbeat.

Nehemiah had returned to the king who had originally sent him to Jerusalem. We don’t how long he was away, but when he came back, all the old problems had resurfaced. The temple and its staff were being neglected, the sabbath was being dishonoured, and mixed marriages were compromising families and confusing children. The people still needed restoration.

And so the book comes to an end – with a bit of a whimper, truth be told. Renewal had come about, but hadn’t lasted; promises had been made, but had been broken.

Perhaps more significantly, this is where the story of the Old Testament finishes. We’re left wondering when the promises will be fulfilled; we’re left looking forward to the time when there will be full and final restoration. So it is that the book of Nehemiah points beyond itself to a time when there really will be no sin, no sorrow, and no pain, with Jesus and his people dwelling in the new heavens and new earth, the hope of all those who belong to him.

For Christians, hope is not an optimistic belief in our capacity for self-reformation or our ability to change the world. It is God himself who will bring about the new creation. But our hope frees us to live expectantly and confidently, though realistically, in ways that seek to transform the places we inhabit in the here and now in line with what will be – not as an act of self-assertion, but as a response to God’s gracious promise.

Sunday 26 June 2016

What’s in a Word?

I was recently asked by the Presbyterian Herald to write 330 words on my favourite hymn or book of the Bible for their ‘What’s in a Word?’ column. I went for favourite book of the Bible, and submitted the below piece for the June 2016 edition of the magazine.

Whenever I am asked to name my favourite book of the Bible, I never know quite what to say. It’s normally the one I’m reading at that particular moment. Right now, the answer is 1 Thessalonians. But in the recent past it would be Psalms or John’s Gospel. In a few weeks time it’ll be something different again!

Even so, there is something about Ephesians that I enjoy coming back to again and again. In its breathtaking opening, Paul outlines the sweep of God’s plan of salvation set in place before the foundation of the world. Even as he catalogues the amazing blessings we enjoy now, he looks forward to the moment when ‘the times reach their fulfillment’, when all things will be gathered together under one head – Christ, the one in whom God will restore harmony to the universe (1:9-10).

Then, as the letter goes on, it becomes clear that the ultimate unity of all things has already had its beginning in the church. Though dead in sin, enslaved by forces of evil, and deserving of wrath, we have been made alive with Christ (2:1-10). And Jesus’ death which brings together God and humanity also unites formerly alienated people, as Jews and Gentiles are made into ‘one new humanity’, reconciled through the cross (2:11-3:13).

So, far from being a passive spectator in this cosmic drama, the church is to live a life worthy of her calling, to display the unity of the Spirit, to reflect to the world something of God’s ultimate plan for the universe. While the vision is cosmic and grand, the outworking is local and specific as we demonstrate a whole new way of living – starting with where we find ourselves every day, with the choices we make every day, with the people we live with every day, with our families and in our jobs – as very ‘ordinary’ people through whom God is present to the world.

Thursday 23 June 2016

9Marks Journal 13, 2 (2016) on Prayer in Church

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available here as a pdf and here in other formats, is devoted to the topic of ‘The Church Praying’.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

‘Abraham prayed. Moses prayed. David prayed. The prophets prayed. The apostles prayed. Jesus himself prayed.

‘But do our churches pray when they gather together?

‘My own experience suggests, not much. There might be a few cursory upward glances through the course of a church service. But there are almost no studied, careful, extended times of prayer – little to no adoration, confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. And that lack of praying, when you think about it, is embarrassing. Do we actually think that we can change the leopard spots, or bring the dead to life? Any thing that a church does that will be eternally worthwhile must be done by the Lord, which is to say, through prayer.’

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Credo Magazine 6, 1 (2016)

The current issue of Credo is available, this one devoted to the topic of ‘Preach the Word’.

Matthew Barrett writes in the Editorial:

‘Some churches are so used to being fed soundbites from the culture, that sitting down and listening to a sermon for thirty minutes seems not only old fashioned but ridiculously burdensome. Other churches do hear preaching but it is anything but the preaching of “the word”...

‘Needless to say, this is not what the apostle Paul envisioned. Paul taught Timothy that it is absolutely essential to the spiritual health of God’s people to hear the Word itself. By expositing the scriptures, the people hear what God himself has to say, and they walk away knowing who God is, what he has done, and how they are to live according to his will.’

The magazine is available to read here, and a 16.4 MB pdf of the whole issue can also be downloaded here.

Renewing God’s People

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them... You are the LORD God, who chose Abram... You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt... You came down on Mount Sinai... You gave them kingdoms and nations... By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets... Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love... Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32

It is surely significant that at the heart of Scripture is not a list of rules to be obeyed or a set of promises to be claimed, but a grand, sweeping story that is told. It’s an account of God reaching out in love to sinful men and women, drawing them into relationship with himself, who then become the main ingredients in a plan – centred in Christ – which involves the restoration of creation itself.

Nor should it come as a surprise that several summaries of this story are found throughout Scripture. The story is narrated up to the point of telling, of course, but each of the tellers is concerned to place themselves and their listeners or readers into that larger story, in such a way that it becomes their story too.

That’s what happens in Nehemiah with those who return from exile, rebuilding their walls and rebuilding their lives.

In this case, reading the Book of the Law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.

Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to be faithful in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Joe Rigney on the Things of Earth

Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015)

Some of us may remember singing the old hymn about turning our eyes on Jesus, looking full in his wonderful face, whereupon ‘the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace’. Joe Rigney confesses to being puzzled by that; actually, in the light of God’s face, his gifts become brighter, better, and more beautiful – whether it’s scrambled eggs, wool socks, or the laughter of children. Despite the ways we misuse God’s good gifts, meeting needs and giving joy through creation was his idea.

In places this is a demanding read, but rewarding too, arguing that we don’t have to choose between our love for God and our enjoyment of his gifts. They mutually serve and enhance each other for God’s glory and our joy, and that remains true even if we lose those gifts through suffering or if he calls us to give them up for his sake.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

God’s Word for God’s People

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel... He read it aloud... And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law... The Levites... read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Nehemiah 8:1-8

To the delight of many a deacons’ meeting, parochial church council, or fabric committee, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of building projects. In Ezra it’s the temple, in Nehemiah it’s the city walls. Hard work. Bricks and mortar. Blood, sweat and tears.

No less real – and no less hard graft – is the rebuilding of the people themselves. A restored temple and rebuilt walls to be sure, but at the centre of it all is a renewed relationship with God, in community with others. And at the heart of that renewal, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God.

Picture the scene in Nehemiah 8: thousands crowd into the public square; Ezra stands on a raised platform; unusually, the people have asked him to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses; when he opens it they stand up, he blesses them, and they respond in worship. Ezra reads from daybreak to noon, for about six hours, and the people listen attentively and reverently.

However, reading and listening on their own are not enough. God’s word requires explanation, as we see with the Levites ‘making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’.

But something more is needed. For, as the story goes on, explaining and understanding lead to responding and celebrating – with weeping first, and then with delight, as the people discover that ‘the joy of the Lord’ is their strength (8:10).

Even this, it seems, is not the final goal of their encounter with God’s word, for the rest of the chapter shows them celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, recalling how their ancestors lived in the wilderness, with everyone taking part, acting out God’s provision for them.

As they hear, understand, and respond to God’s voice in the pages of Scripture, they are recovering what it means to be the people of God.

Here is a window on the significance of the word of God to the life of the people of God. It reminds us that God renews through his word, that it’s a word for men and women and children, that it addresses the whole community, that it is to be listened to attentively, understood clearly, and responded to obediently, that it makes a difference to how people live.

Minds informed, hearts touched, lives changed – God renews through his word.

Centre for Public Christianity (June 2016)

Among other items, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted part of an audio interview with Marilynne Robinson related to her most-recent book, The Givenness of Things, ‘on the beauty and tragedy involved in being human’, and some video interviews with Ryan Anderson on marriage equality and what he calls ‘marriage reality’.

Friday 10 June 2016

Barna on Millennials and Work

There’s a brief report from Barna here on ‘When Millennials go to Work’.

It comes out of the US, and I’m never quite sure how it stacks up in the UK context, but I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of overlap.

Here are some sample paragraphs:

‘Although most Millennials agree their career is at least somewhat central to their identity, only a third say their career is very central. In fact, Boomers are more likely than Millennials to believe their career is central to who they are.

‘So what do Millennials deem most central to their identity? “Family” and “personal interests” are the top two categories. “Career” is actually one of the least likely categories to be named – the only category it beats is “technology.”

‘For [Christian] Millennials, “calling” is more than just about being called toward religious or ministry professions – they are thinking about whether they are “called” by God to their secular jobs as well. To be clear, most of them (69%) define “calling” not in a fixed, permanent way, but as something that can change over time as they age. This means they are likely thinking about whether they are called to their current work at this point in their lives, not for a lifetime.

‘A lifetime career trajectory is not an expectation for most Millennials; they anticipate changing jobs often and will likely do so in pursuit of work that better aligns with their passions. As Millennials become a larger and larger segment of the employee market, companies will need to shift policies and incentives to appeal to these desires. Training, mentorship, opportunities for independence and fluidity within roles will become important factors in employee retention.’

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Timothy Keller on Center Church

Timothy Keller, Shaped by the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016); Loving the City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016); Serving a Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

These three books are essentially a reissue of Tim Keller’s Center Church, first published by Zondervan in 2012. For those who missed it first time round, or who struggled with the large hardback format and columns of small text, or would simply like to read it again (it repays a second read), this is a much easier way to access the material.

Keller’s vision is articulated around three core commitments, reflected in the titles of these volumes: gospel (proclaiming the gospel and its implications for the whole of life); city (exercising wisdom in how we contextualise the message, neither overadapting nor underadapting to culture); movement (the church engaging in mission as both ‘institution’ and ‘organism’, rooted in tradition and reaching out through its members).

In addition, each of the books contains reflections from two or more critical friends, to whom Keller then responds – a helpful reminder of the need for ongoing conversation in these areas.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Knowing and Doing (Summer 2016)

The Summer 2016 edition of Knowing & Doing – ‘A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind’ – from the C.S. Lewis Institute is now available online (here as a pdf), and contains the following articles:

Joel Woodruff
President’s Letter
Who is the best candidate for President? What do we know about that candidate's beliefs, wisdom, intellect and actions? Do they practice what they preach? Are they the type of person who would make good decisions and look out for the best interests of our nation?

Dane Ortlund
The Defiance of Grace in the Ministry of Jesus
The grace that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not measured. This grace refuses to allow itself to be tethered to our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and balancing of the scales. It is defiant.

Randy Newman
Engaging Conversation in an Age of Distraction
If we hope to engage in conversation about weighty topics, we need to have some level of competence in listening, asking good questions, and pursuing rich conversation.

Dennis Hollinger
Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith
We might think that the antidote to fear is courage, since it is one of the classical cardinal virtues. But, the biblical response to fear is really hope.

Thomas A. Tarrants III
Knowing God Personally
Knowing God more deeply was not the privilege of only a few luminaries in the Old Testament. God called all of His people to know Him personally and love Him supremely with heartfelt devotion.

Sandy Smith
Surprised by Belfast: Significant Sites in the Land and Life of C.S. Lewis, Part II, Dundela Villas
Joy, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, is never a possession, it comes from desiring something else, something yet to be; the desire implies the absence of its object.

Paul Joen
Redeeming a Skeptical Contention: ‘Why Are Christians So Bad?’
The gospel can uniquely address the skeptic’s contention – because the gospel’s response is to demonstrate that there is Someone they can trust.

Friday 3 June 2016

A Faith for Every None

I co-wrote with Neil Hudson, one of my colleagues, this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Christianity doesn’t rise or fall with affirmations from the national press, but it’s interesting to read them when they come along. Two recent ones in this case.

First up was an editorial in The Guardiannoting that Christianity’s move to the margins of public life ‘could change the country profoundly’, wondering – as we face the challenges of the next century – what will supply ‘a vision of humanity that transcends narrow self-interest’.

Then, writing in The Telegraph, Tim Stanley observed that in the peaks and troughs of the history of Christianity in Britain, one thing has turned around decline – evangelism. Christians, he says, have become their own worst enemy – killing their faith with silence. He has a point. We’ll never bring people to Jesus if we don’t tell them about him.

Both articles were reflecting on recent British Social Attitudes data which shows we are experiencing a rise in the number of self-labeled ‘Nones’ – those who, when asked the multiple-choice question about religion, identify themselves as ‘None of the above’. Apparently, it’s now the largest single identification in England and Wales.

Even so, having rejected formalised religion, people have not stopped engaging on a ‘spiritual’ quest. It has simply shape-shifted into different forms. Back in 1969, Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, wrote of ‘a rumour of angels’, signals of transcendence that won’t disappear: desires for order, joy, hope, justice, and a humour that mocks the self-pretension of the world.

It doesn’t take too long in a conversation with a friend, colleague or neighbour to find such yearnings embedded in the ordinary experiences of life, a sense that things aren’t as they should be, a desire for connection to something higher. It’s not that people don’t believe in fairness and freedom and decency, but they might struggle to articulate a coherent story which makes sense of those beliefs.

We saw it exemplified in the Brussels Vigil in March, where people gathered together, lit candles, sang, declared their hopes that evil will not have the last word, and offered prayers to whoever. For those and those like them, we can say that there is a light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

Just because many in this generation have the confidence to self-identify as ‘Nones’ doesn’t mean that they don’t long for more. For them, as for others, we have good news.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Tim Chester on the Kingdom and the Cross

I’ve written some mini book reviews for EG, a quarterly publication from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. I’ll post them individually here over the next week or so.

Tim Chester, Crown of Thorns: Connecting Kingdom and Cross (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2015).

The kingdom and the cross: what God has joined together, let no one separate. That’s the gist of this short but enormously valuable and timely book. Tim Chester helps us see that there are not two competing versions of the gospel – one focused on the kingdom with God’s plan to restore all things, the other focused on the cross with the offer of forgiveness for sin. Nor is the solution a delicate balance between the two dimensions, but a coordination ‘in which the cross is central to the gospel of the kingdom and the kingdom is central to the gospel of the cross’. Read this for a helpful exploration of the relationship between the kingdom announced by Jesus and the cross proclaimed by Paul, and for a wonderful reminder that the way of God’s rule is the way of the death and resurrection of the king.

Themelios 41, 1 (April 2016)

The latest Themelios is online here (and available here as a single pdf), containing the below articles.

D.A. Carson
When Did the Church Begin? 

Off the Record
Michael J. Ovey
The Art of Imperious Ignorance 

Gavin Ortlund
Conversion in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is often regarded as one of his most bizarre and unwieldy books. There are very few studies of it, and those that do exist tend to focus on its central social critique, leaving its ancillary theological and philosophical themes largely unexplored. This article examines the motif of conversion in That Hideous Strength. It traces out the contrasting conversion narratives of Mark and Jane Studdock, situates them in relation to the larger social message of the novel, and then draws two applications for what we can learn about evangelism today from this book.

Joel D. Estes
Calling on the Name of the Lord: The Meaning and Significance of ἐπικαλέω in Romans 10:13
In Rom 10:13, to “call on the name of the Lord” (ἐπικαλεῖν τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου) involves more than simply invoking the Lord, but expresses a prayer for deliverance with cultic connotations, that is “to worship Jesus as Lord.” Paul’s use of ἐπικαλέω in Rom 10:13 resonates with strong liturgical overtones, draws on a long OT tradition of employing such language in cultic settings, parallels closely other NT texts that are cultic in orientation, and coheres with our earliest evidence about the worship practices of the early church. These observations, in turn, suggest a tighter thematic relationship between Rom 10 and Paul’s description of humanity’s fundamental predicament as false worship in ch. 1, his exhortation for renewed spiritual worship in ch. 12, and his vision for unified Jew/Gentile worship in ch. 15. 

Ched Spellman
The Scribe Who Has Become a Disciple: Identifying and Becoming the Ideal Reader of the Biblical Canon
The literary notion of “implied reader” invokes a series of hermeneutically significant questions: What is it? Who produces it? and How can it be identified? These questions naturally lead to a further query: What is the relationship between this implied reader of a text and an actual reader of a text? This type of study is often associated primarily with reader-response theory and purely literary approaches. However, the concept can help uncover an often-neglected aspect of biblical interpretation, namely, the role of the reader. If biblical authors envision certain types of readers, then identifying the nature of this “implied audience” is an important part of the interpretive task. Further, because Christians read the biblical writings within the context of a canonical collection, this concept can be pursued in light of the Christian canon as a whole. Through this literary and theological study, I seek to demonstrate that strategic biblical texts envision an “ideal reader,” namely, an actual reader who seeks to identify with the implied reader. 

Thomas R. Schreiner
Paul and the Gift: A Review Article
John Barclay has written a stimulating and ground-breaking book on Paul’s theology of gift. He situates the meaning of gift in antiquity, noting that a return for a gift was part and parcel of what it meant to receive a gift in the ancient world. Barclay profiles the different conceptions of what it means to receive a gift in antiquity and explores the notion of a gift further in some Second Temple Jewish writings. He also provides a useful history of interpretation, concentrating on key figures. Finally, he explores Paul’s theology of gift, especially in Galatians and Romans. What marks out Paul’s understanding of the gift, according to Barclay, is its incongruity. Barclay’s work is a significant step forward, showing that there wasn’t a consensus in Second Temple Judaism as to what it meant to receive a gift. Different notions of grace and a gift were current. Nevertheless, some questions are raised in the review. Against Barclay, Paul’s theology of gift provides a platform by which other Second Temple notions of the gift can be criticized. Furthermore, evidence for a polemic against some form of works-righteousness is present in Galatians and Romans. 

Kyle Faircloth
Daniel Strange on the Theological Question of the Unevangelized: A Doctrinal Assessment
Although evangelicals agree the church must be fervent in seeking to reach those who have little or no access to the gospel, this missiological consensus has not led to a theological consensus regarding the salvific state of those whom the church never reaches. Yet Daniel Strange seeks to throw fresh light on the discussion by proposing an alternative understanding of “unevangelized” based on a more nuanced explanation of divine revelation. This article will summarize Strange’s theory and then evaluate his approach by using the doctrinal rules instantiated by the solus Christus, sola fide, and fides ex auditu principles. For however one answers this disputed question in theology, Scripture is clear that salvation is through Christ alone by faith alone and that faith comes from hearing. The hope is that this doctrinal typology will facilitate not only this particular review, but also indicate a common theological environment in which evangelical theories on the unevangelized might be formulated and assessed. 

Daniel Strange
This Rock Unmoved: A Rejoinder to Kyle Faircloth
Kyle Faircloth argues that Daniel Strange’s earlier work on the question of the unevangelised is undermined by his more recent theology of religions, and in particular his theory of a ‘remnantal’ revelation. This rejoinder argues that Faircloth has misunderstood Strange on this point and that his original work on the unevangelised is consistent with later work.

Pastoral Pensées
Wayne Grudem
The Eighth Commandment as the Moral Foundation for Property Rights, Human Flourishing, and Careers in Business
The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” has massive implications for human life on earth. Exodus 20:15 provides the necessary foundation for system of private ownership of property, of stewardship and accountability, and of an expectation of human flourishing. This article also argues that “business as mission” is a legitimate calling and that founding and running a profitable and ethical business glorifies God. 

Book Reviews