Monday 29 April 2019

A Definite Maybe?

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie producer and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was known for his malapropisms – amusing statements resulting from the use of incongruous or contradictory words. A story goes that when someone urged him to come to a decision about a project, Goldwyn replied: ‘True, I’ve been a long time making up my mind, but now I am giving you a definite answer. I won’t say yes and I won’t say no, but I am giving you a definite maybe.’

Whimsy aside, that’s perhaps the best that can be offered to us on a whole host of issues these days – a definite maybe.

In some cases, lack of certainty on our part can be bound up with personal insecurity or a self-worth that has been undermined in damaging ways. But these days, even assertive, self-confident people find it hard to be sure, or at least say they are. For that smacks of intolerance, doesn’t it? The entire drift of our culture makes it unacceptable to say ‘I am sure’, particularly when it comes to issues of faith.

Read again Paul’s words at the start of Romans 5.

Just what is it that flows from being justified? Not merely some vague, warm ‘spiritual’ experience, but peace with God, access to God. And how has this come about? Not through attainment to a higher level of consciousness or through anything we can bring to the table (as Paul has made clear in the previous chapters of Romans), but through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since God has declared us ‘right’ in the present, that verdict will stand on the last day. Even in the face of suffering, then, we have hope. Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, hope is not some vague wish-fulfilment. Hope involves looking forward to the future with confidence, because it’s a future that Christ himself has secured for us.

At the bottom line of it all, and the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence, is God’s love – not merely shown to us, but ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, a sign of his ongoing commitment to us. It’s a love, Paul will say later, from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:37-39).

If any of this was down to us, we’d have room for doubt. As it is, our confidence lies elsewhere. Peace, hope, love. Not maybe, but definitely.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament Series

Zondervan have promised a new series of volumes – Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament – offering ‘a volume-length engagement with subjects that normally only receive short treatments in biblical commentaries or in New Testament Introductions’.

So far, only the volume on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, by Nijay K. Gupta, has been flagged as forthcoming, but I look forward to seeing that and others as they appear.

Knowing and Doing (Spring 2019)

The Spring 2019 edition of Knowing & Doing – ‘A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind’ – from the C.S. Lewis Institute is now available online (from here), and contains the following articles:

Joel Woodruff
President’s Letter: It’s About Transformation in Community, not Information in Isolation
Joel Woodruff challenges us to resist the tide of individualism and seek spiritual growth in community. Rather than pursuing “information in isolation,” the C.S. Lewis Institute President urges us to learn from and challenge others as we grow in Christ.

Thomas A. Tarrants, III
Persecution and Suffering for Jesus Christ
Looking at the process of discipleship from the opposite side of most discussions, Tom Tarrants raises the important, albeit disturbing, topic of persecution for the sake of the gospel. Jesus warned many times that his disciples would face specific trials that come from following him. This article helps us prepare for those inevitable trials.

Tom Schwanda
Biblical Foundations for Growing in Intimacy with God
Tom Schwanda steps back from practical considerations about discipleship and begins to explore the Biblical foundations for spiritual growth. This is the first of a three part series that reflects deeply on why we need intimacy with Christ, how scripture sets the platform for it, and then offers suggestions for pursuing that noble goal.

Bill Kynes
How to Read the Bible, Part 1: Introduction and Overview to the Bible
The role of the Bible in spiritual life is often assumed but not as often pursued the way it should be. Bill Kynes begins a four part series that considers how to read, study, and meditate on the Bible. He begins with a reminder that the Bible’s overall storyline must be the context in which we examine any specific passage.

Bryan Hollon
Catechesis and Christian Discipleship
Bryan Hollon points us to a topic that rarely is addressed in contemporary discussions of spiritual growth – the role of catechesis in spiritual formation. Many people don’t even know what that word means. Hollon defines, describes, and encourages systemic training in doctrine and theological reflection.

Joseph Loconte
War, Friendship, and Imagination: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918
Joe Loconte reveals to us some of the ways C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien found faith in some of the most unlikely settings – the battlefields of World War I. While many people lost faith in God because of the carnage they experienced during those dark days, Lewis and Tolkien were transformed for eternal beauty. And their friendship after those days encourages all of us in profound ways.

Aaron Welty
Modern Mythology Matters
Just as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien looked to mythology and story as ways to experience the storyline of the gospel, Aaron Welty shines a similar light on comic book heroes and the appeal they draw through today’s blockbuster movies. If Lewis could create Narnia and Tolkien could tell of Middle Earth, perhaps Superman and Marvel movies could point people to a better “savior.”

William Cowper (1731-1800)
Love Constraining to Obedience
C.S. Lewis loved poetry and wished he could be remembered most for his poems. They grab us in different ways than stories or prose. In each issue we feature a poem. William Cowper’s offering tilts our hearts toward obedience and joy.

Dwight L. Moody
Sermon – The Christian’s Warfare
The great evangelist and preacher Dwight L. Moody didn’t shy away from weighty topics. This sermon on spiritual warfare is a welcome reminder of the nature of our experience in a fallen world.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Shaped by the Story #10: To the Glory of God

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11

The lordship of Christ and the glory of God – there could hardly be a better place to end our tour through some of the passages where the Bible tells its own story.

Paul wrote letters not narratives, but he draws on different parts of the biblical story as he writes to churches, and that story sometimes bubbles to the surface as it does in Philippians 2:5-11. Here, in the space of a few remarkable verses, we are taken from before the beginning of all things to the very end of all things. And at the heart of it is Jesus. Ultimately, it is this story of this one that shapes us – providing a pattern of thinking and living that is ours through being ‘in Christ’.

At the centre of the story stands the cross, Paul’s words here evoking the horror and shame associated with the public execution of criminals. And yet, it is that scandalous cross that was central to Christ’s own determination to press on to Jerusalem, showing the true nature of God’s self-giving love. And it is the cross that is central to understanding what it means to be a disciple, to follow in his footsteps in serving others – his death not only bringing about redemption but providing a model for our lives.

Even then, the cross is not the end of the story, for God raised Jesus to a place of highest status and assigned him a name that reflects his vindication, with the result that all will confess him ‘Lord’. Paul’s language here deliberately echoes Isaiah 45:22-23, with Christ receiving the glory God says is reserved for him alone. Beyond this, the confession would have carried political overtones, perhaps especially in Philippi, a colony of the Roman empire in which emperors were proclaimed as ‘Lord’. The church’s worship of Jesus as Lord not only limits the empire’s rule, but anticipates the confession that will be offered by the whole universe – the sovereignty of Christ over all things.

All of which has profound implications for the daily life of Christians in Philippi, and of Christians everywhere since, as we ‘work out’ our salvation, with God himself working in us ‘in order to fulfil his good purpose’ (2:12-13), concretely applied in our relations with each other and our integrity of witness in the world, where confessing him as Lord means committing to a way of life marked by his lordship.

And all for the glory of God.

Friday 19 April 2019

Looking at the Cross

For this year’s Good Friday, here is one of John Newton’s lesser-known hymns. This was published in the Olney Hymns, 1779, Bk. ii., No. 57, under the title ‘Looking at the Cross’.

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career:

I saw One hanging on a Tree,
In agonies and blood,
Who fix’d His languid eyes on me,
As near His Cross I stood.

Sure never, till my latest breath,
Can I forget that look:
It seem’d to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke:

My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair,
I saw my sins His blood had spilt,
And helped to nail Him there.

Alas! I knew not what I did!
But now my tears are vain;
Where shall my trembling soul be hid?
For I the Lord had slain!

A second look He gave, which said,
‘I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I die, that thou may’st live.’

Thus, while His death my sin displays,
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace,
It seals my pardon too.

With pleasing grief, and mournful joy,
My spirit now is fill’d,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by Him I kill’d.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Currents in Biblical Research 17, 2 (February 2019)

The latest Currents in Biblical Research recently arrived, with titles and abstracts of the main articles as below.

Julie Faith Parker
Children in the Hebrew Bible and Childist Interpretation
This article traces the rise of research on children in the Hebrew Bible (HB). While early contributions to the field provided foundational insights, this area of scholarship has gained significant ground over the last ten years. This article begins by reviewing seminal points for studying children in the HB. I explain why this study is critical for our understanding of the Bible, and clarify how we discern who is a child in the text and the ancient world. Since the word ‘childist’ is still new to many in the academy, I discuss the origin of this term, define it, and urge its adoption. Most of the article assesses scholarship on children in the HB, with an emphasis on publications that have emerged recently as well as works forthcoming (at the time of publication). The conclusion sketches some of the many areas in this scholarly field that are ripe for further exploration.

Kris Sonek
The Abraham Narratives in Genesis 12–25
This article attempts to trace the development of exegesis of Genesis 12–25 in scholarly works published since 2000. Five types of studies are introduced and briefly evaluated: (1) commentaries on the biblical pericopes in question; (2) works discussing the historical formation of the Abraham narratives; (3) synchronic and theological studies; (4) reception studies; and (5) other detailed studies of Genesis 12–25. The article presents a wide range of methodological approaches, and aims to delineate current trends in the study of Genesis 12–25.

Brandon D. Smith
What Christ Does, God Does: Surveying Recent Scholarship on Christological Monotheism
Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos, which argued that ‘high’ Christology developed in the early church due to influences from Hellenism, was and still is a pivotal book in studies on early Christology. Martin Hengel, however, rebutted Bousset’s sharp distinction with his own important insight – that early ‘high’ Christology actually developed out of Christians’ Palestinian-Jewish heritage, wherein the church confessed and worshiped Jesus as divine alongside the one God of Israel. This article will survey the torchbearers of this debate, particularly noting the major ideas and contributors to the ongoing conversation about the ‘Jewishness’ and modes of divinity in early Christology.

Karl L. Armstrong
The End of Acts and the Jewish Response: Condemnation, Tragedy, or Hope?
This article examines recent and historic views relating to the interpretation of Acts 28.26-27 (=Isa. 6.9-10) and the response of the Jews at the end of Acts. Among the conflicting views, scholars (with some overlap) fall into one of three general categories that suggest some degree of Jewish condemnation, tragedy or hope. Recent trends demonstrate a more hopeful prognosis than prior assessments with regards to Luke’s attitude towards the Jews. This trend is supported by recent studies regarding the wisdom background for the text of Isa. 6.9-10 in light of the growing recognition of and appreciation for an increasingly Jewish portrait of Paul in Acts.

Monday 15 April 2019

Shaped by the Story #9: Forgiveness and Freedom in Jesus

Brothers and sisters from the children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent... We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus... Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin... Acts 13:26, 32-33, 38-39

Acts 13 records Paul’s first main speech – given in a synagogue to Jews and God-fearers, Gentiles attached to Judaism. The address sets the programme for the next part of Acts, in the same way that Peter’s Pentecost speech in chapter 2 laid out the programme for the first part of the book. We’re also probably meant to understand that Luke provides here a glimpse of Paul’s synagogue preaching, a regular feature of his ministry as he takes the gospel ‘to the Jew first’.

So, what does he say?

In line with Old Testament figures (Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and others), Paul recounts the story of Israel. He begins with Abraham, taking in the exodus and wilderness wanderings, the Judges era and Samuel, before moving to David – from whose descendants, he says, ‘God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised’ (13:23). Paul’s claims about Jesus are grounded in God’s prior actions for Israel. The God who worked in the past is the same God who has brought salvation in the present, through the death and resurrection of Christ, in line with scriptural promises related to Abraham and David.

This good news is for Israel, but – in keeping with the whole tenor of the story – is extended to Gentiles too. Jesus is risen, and – as several Psalms promised – he is the one to whom is given the blessings of David, including the forgiveness of sins for ‘everyone who believes’.

As we reflect on how God works in our own lives day by day, our personal ‘stories’ are an essential dimension of how we understand ourselves. Even so, our own ‘narrative’ makes best sense not when it becomes an end in itself, but when it is connected to the overarching story of God’s redemption in Christ. We understand our life ‘plot’ in the greater light of what the loving, covenant-keeping God has worked on our behalf – individually and together.

For us, as for Paul’s original hearers, far from us offering a God an occasional walk-on part in the story of our lives, we are called to see our lives in the infinitely larger narrative of what he has done and will yet do in the world – through Christ, our Saviour and Lord.

Thursday 11 April 2019

Centre for Public Christianity (March 2019)

Among other items, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted links to a lecture (and the Q&A time) by Tim Dixon on ‘Crossing the Great Divide: Building Bridges in an Age of Tribalism’, offering ‘a vision for how we might reunite increasingly fragmented societies’.

There’s also an audio interview with John Milbank – ‘Space for the Sacred – on ‘secularism, politics, Harry Potter, and how Christianity is surprising’.

Monday 8 April 2019

Shaped by the Story #8: A Manageable God?

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you...’ When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Acts 7:1-3, 54-56

Originally selected to distribute food to needy widows, Stephen ends up being the first Christian to die for proclaiming Jesus. Falsely accused of speaking against the law and the temple, he replies by rehearsing the Old Testament story – providing, in the process, the longest speech in the book of Acts. But how does it work as a response to the accusations brought against him?

In part is a recurring theme of rejection, made explicit at the end when he accuses his audience of continuing the pattern of their ancestors, of rejecting Moses and the law, persecuting the prophets, and now killing Jesus (7:51-53).

More significantly, however, Stephen shows that God’s presence and blessing were never limited to the land or the temple. The ‘God of glory’ (note that ‘glory’ is regularly associated with the temple) appeared to Abraham not in Israel but in Mesopotamia. The ‘holy ground’ on which Moses met the Lord was miles away from the promised land, and there wasn’t even an altar there, let alone a temple! Noting that God does not live in houses ‘made by hands’ (7:48), Stephen even suggests that the temple has become an idol.

Even so, it is his vision and claims in 7:55-56 that tip his accusers over the edge, where it becomes clear that the ‘glory of God’ which appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia is now associated with Jesus.

Stephen’s criticism, of course, is not with the temple itself. And yet, properly understood, the biblical story has a global reach where God’s blessing is not limited to one nation, land, or building. The story of the Bible points beyond Abraham and Moses and the law and the temple to one who would come from the Father, full of grace and truth. That story has come to its climax in the ascended Lord who now occupies the place of universal authority, the location of God’s presence.

For us too, perhaps, Stephen’s speech is a reminder that God is not manageable. He cannot be isolated by a particular building or institution, a cherished tradition or ritual, a deeply held viewpoint or favoured version of the Bible. For us too, then, comes the challenge that he will not be captured by anything that might usurp the place that rightly belongs to him alone.

Thursday 4 April 2019

Broken Covenant

I co-wrote (with friend and colleague, Nell Goddard) this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, currently reflecting on Lamentations during this period of Lent.

The Lord has given full vent to his wrath;
he has poured out his fierce anger.
He kindles a fire in Zion
that consumed her foundations...
But it happened because of the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed within her
the blood of the righteous.
Lamentations 4:11, 13

The hope of chapter 3, it seems, has faded, and the present reality of the suffering is described as the poet contrasts the ‘then’ of pre-siege Jerusalem with the ‘now’ of today’s suffering.

But even more than that, the poet now seems to be seeking out someone or something to blame for the situation in which Jerusalem finds herself. And the answer is clear: ‘The Lord has given full vent to his wrath... it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests.’

The judgment of God has come upon Jerusalem because the leaders disregarded justice and sinned against God, ignoring countless warnings and failing to adhere to his laws, and so he has ‘poured out his fierce anger’.

To talk about suffering as a punishment from God is to venture into difficult territory. Suffering is a multi-faceted issue in the Bible, with different parts of Scripture addressing it from different perspectives. It is, of course, important to remember that not all suffering is a punishment from God.

Lamentations, however, is clear that the particular suffering it describes does come about as a direct result of God’s doing. It is not always easy to discern the difference between this type of suffering and that which is merely a natural outworking of our own actions, and we must always be careful not to go beyond the Bible in deciding what counts as God’s punishment and what does not.

The whole thrust of this book, however, suggests that the poet is aware that God is ultimately responsible for bringing about the suffering they are experiencing. This matches with all the warnings of the prophets of the exile, like Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah himself, all of whom warn the people in no uncertain terms that God himself will judge them if they continue to break the terms of his covenant with them. This, in turn, goes back to the warnings of Moses in Deuteronomy 28 and elsewhere which say that the Lord himself will be active in bringing about the covenant curses resulting in the sort of suffering portrayed in Lamentations.

As we have seen in the rest of the book, these are deep questions to which there are no simple answers. There are great mysteries here.

If nothing else, they must cause us to throw ourselves afresh on God’s mercy demonstrated supremely in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday 2 April 2019

Ink 2 (Spring 2019)

The second issue of ink, published by Tyndale House, Cambridge, is now available, this one exploring ‘the benefits of reading the Bible in its original languages’.

UK residents can sign up here to receive issues through the post, but the publication is also available as a pdf here.

Monday 1 April 2019

Shaped by the Story #7: The Family Tree

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham... Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. Matthew 1:1, 17

The growth industry in genealogy magazines and books designed to help people trace their family tree, along with the popularity of TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?, demonstrate our fascination with roots. In some cases it’s little more than a curiosity about family background, but in many cultures it reflects a desire, even necessity, to show connectedness and belonging. This was certainly the case for Matthew, as he lays out Jesus’ ancestry at the start of his gospel.

Crucially, he begins and ends the genealogy with David and Abraham. Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the hopes of a new king on David’s throne, but also the one who will extend God’s blessings to Gentiles in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham. But more than this, Matthew’s very first words – about the ‘genesis’ of Jesus Christ – are reminiscent of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. He is setting the account he is about to tell in the larger story of God’s dealings not just with Israel, but with creation, marking a new beginning in that story – a new beginning in Jesus.

Why Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are included in the genealogy remains something of a puzzle. Perhaps Matthew wanted us to note they were all ‘foreigners’ to Israel, brought within the orbit of the people of God. More significantly, perhaps, is that their unions and childrearing could be seen as outside the ‘norm’, some even carrying the stigma of sexual scandal. Matthew reminds us – as Joseph will learn in the passage that follows – that God doesn’t always work out his purpose within expected boundaries.

On the first page of the New Testament, then, the significance of Jesus is seen in the shape of the entire history of Israel, with all its ups and downs, which goes back through David to Abraham, and has its origins in God’s purposes for the whole of creation.

And this history becomes our history too, as we are adopted into the family of faith whose roots go back to the very beginning, carefully worked out by God, culminating in Jesus. Here is great encouragement, as the gospel story reminds me of my incredible significance in God’s grand design – that I find my identity and purpose, with others, in the one who stands at the heart of God’s plan for the universe.