Monday 30 September 2019

Exodus #3: The Lord who Fights

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
‘I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
‘The LORD is my strength and my defence;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.’
Exodus 15:1-3

Should it come as a surprise that the most significant event in the history of Israel is celebrated in song? It somehow feels right that such a monumental moment is recounted twice – in poetry as well as in prose. So it is that Exodus 14 tells the story of the crossing of the sea and Exodus 15 sings about it, inviting us to join in with the celebration.

We witness here something of a forward movement in Israel’s faith. God revealed his name to Moses at the burning bush (‘The LORD, the God of your fathers’, Exodus 3:15), and later in describing the work of redemption he would do (‘I am the LORD’, 6:6, 8). Now, at the point of deliverance, God’s people sing ‘The LORD is his name’ (15:3).

It’s our song as much as theirs.

We might feel less comfortable with their description of the Lord as ‘a warrior’ (or ‘a man of war’), but it’s a recognition that the Lord had fought on behalf of his people. The Bible will not allow us to underestimate the tragic consequences of evil in the world, but also assures us that God will do something about it.

The song doesn’t stop with the defeat of evil. It also looks to the future, when God will guide the people to his ‘holy dwelling’ (15:13), and make them secure in the place he has established (15:17). It’s another reminder, if we need it, that the exodus story doesn’t end with slaves being set free, but with former slaves now serving the Lord for the sake of the nations.

It’s our story as much as theirs.

The song celebrates the Lord’s victory, but is written in a way which allows it to be extended beyond the exodus and applied in other situations where God overcomes obstacles, human or otherwise, for the sake of his people and his purposes.

God will never allow evil to have the last word. It’s in the light of Christ’s victory over the powers at the cross that we can pray with confidence that God will ‘deliver us from the evil one’ (Matthew 6:13), and trust that one day his rule over all things will be fully and finally established. God will put all things right before he makes all things new.

This God is our God, and ‘the LORD is his name’.

Friday 27 September 2019

Grace for Crooked Timber

The below article was written for the WorkForum at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘Hire for character, train for skills.’ That line – and its variations – has become something of a mantra in many workplace contexts. Of course, on its own it says very little about how companies or organisations should apply it to their recruitment processes. It also seems to suggest that character and skill are mutually exclusive. Why not go for both?

Even so, the significance of character has become a topic of discussion in many circles – among politicians as well as philosophers, for educationalists as well as for employers. Cultivating virtues such as honesty, fairness, and self-control are increasingly seen as a way of addressing many of the challenges facing society today.

‘Character’ is a way of referring to certain qualities that mark people out. They have to be consistent enough in someone to be counted as traits, and they need to run through every aspect of life. Those of us concerned with working out our discipleship in the whole of life are unlikely to disagree: if I’m kind to my colleagues at work but an ogre with my spouse and children at home, I can’t claim to be kind.

People of distinctive character in an office or a shop or a department can set a certain tone for how the workplace operates. Working in a trustworthy manner, showing genuine respect for others, exercising resilience in the face of difficulties, taking responsibility for actions – all contribute to the development of trust within the workplace, and make a positive impact on employers and employees, colleagues and clients. Over a period of time, people of character may even set a business or organisation apart from others.

Small wonder, then, that character education is increasingly seen as the best preparation of young people for life in modern Britain, with calls for children to develop ‘grit’ – confidence, perseverance, resilience – in order to equip them to meet the challenges of future life. How this is to be done, and whether or not it places an unrealistic demand on educators are moot points. Also debatable is whether ‘grit’ is still about those qualities which look more ‘successful’ – whether in education or at work – rather than traits such as selflessness, humility, and generosity. When you ‘hire for character’, what kind of character are you looking to hire?

In his illuminating book, The Road to Character, David Brooks makes a helpful distinction between ‘résumé virtues’ (the skills you bring to the marketplace) and ‘eulogy virtues’ (the ones that are talked about at your funeral).

According to Brooks, we live in the culture of ‘the Big Me’, where success is achieved through competition with others, where the rules of life are those we make for ourselves, where the self is defined by tasks and accomplishments. Instead, he says, painting an alternative ‘moral ecology’, those to be admired are honest about their weaknesses (whether selfishness, pride or cowardice), but their character is built precisely through confronting weakness. They are humble, self-aware, other-centered, and ‘become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, and refined enjoyment’.

Brooks calls this the ‘crooked timber’ school of humanity, the recognition that we are richly endowed yet deeply flawed. He writes as a cultural and political commentator, not a theologian, but his unashamed use of words like ‘sin’, ‘righteousness’, and ‘redemption’ resonate with a Christian perspective, as does his declaration towards the end of the book that ‘we are all ultimately saved by grace’.

Whether or not he speaks more than he knows at this point, this is the ultimate answer to the issue of character and its formation – the need for a rescue that comes from elsewhere, outside our own capacity to make something of ourselves. Christianity is not alone in producing people of moral character, but it is alone in offering good news of free grace. And it’s that grace which not only brings about a new standing in Christ, but the empowerment to become leaders who reflect in our own character something of him.

Monday 23 September 2019

Exodus #2: The Lord who Redeems

‘Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.”’
Exodus 6:6-8

The word ‘redemption’ belongs, first of all, to the world of buying and selling. It has to do with gaining or regaining possession of an item through the payment of a price. That wider sense carries over when we use the word in other contexts, as when we might say: ‘She didn’t work hard in her first year at university, but she redeemed herself in her second year.’

One of the most enduring movies of all time – The Shawshank Redemption – includes the word in its title. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, it’s the story of a wrongly convicted man sent to prison, who refuses to abandon hope even in the face of adversity, bringing a liberation of sorts to his fellow inmates. Acknowledging its significance, Tim Robbins himself said that ‘many people feel enslaved by their environment, their jobs, their relationships – by whatever it is in the course of their lives that puts walls and bars around them. And Shawshank is a story about enduring and ultimately escaping from that imprisonment’.

Our cultural stories of redemption – and there are many – hold out the hope that all may not be lost. But they may also tempt us to think that it’s up to us to redeem ourselves from whatever hole we find ourselves in.

The exodus provides a different perspective.

The phrase ‘I am the LORD’ opens and closes these three verses in which God makes no less than seven declarations of who he is and what he will do for his people: I will bring you out, I will free you, I will redeem you, I will take you as my own people, I will be your God, I will bring you to the land, I will give it to you.

The passage embraces past, present, and future. It arguably captures not just the story of the exodus but the story of the whole Bible: God rescues us from slavery so that we might be his people, living well in the place he provides for us. The promise is ultimately made good in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is that which enables us to keep going when we’re tempted to doubt his love for us, when the opposition feels like it’s becoming too much for us.

What we can’t do for ourselves, he does for us. He loves. He pays the price. He redeems.

Friday 20 September 2019

The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 6, 2 (2019)

The latest issue of the Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies is now available online, with the below articles and their abstracts (where available). Individual essays are available from here, and the journal is available in its entirety as a pdf here.

Frederick J. Long
From the Editors

David R. Bauer
Streeter Versus Farmer: The Present State of the Synoptic Problem as Argument for a Synchronic Emphasis in Gospel Interpretation
The dominant method for Gospel interpretation over the past several decades has been redaction criticism, which depends upon the adoption of a certain understanding of synoptic relationships in order to identify sources that lie behind our Gospels. Yet an examination of the major proposals regarding the Synoptic problem reveals that none of these offers the level of reliability necessary for the reconstruction of sources that is the presupposition for redaction criticism. This consideration leads to the conclusion that approaches to Gospel interpretation that require no reliance upon specific source theories are called for.

Lindy D. Backues
Construing Culture as Composition—Part 2: Robert Traina’s Methodology
The present essay is the second of three articles that re-purposes Robert A. Traina’s exegetical/hermeneutical methodology, designed primarily for the study of the biblical text, to illustrate how methods in theological hermeneutics can cast light on the growing field of cultural hermeneutics and symbolic anthropology. This article summarizes Traina’s hermeneutical methodology, especially how it allows the exegete to uncover the embedded, fundamental structure of a given biblical text. Traina’s methodology also helpfully isolates exploratory interpretive questions tied to the now uncovered structure of the passage and subsequently leads the exegete to engage in a deeper and more accurate meaning of the text in question.

Biographical Sketch

James (Jim) C. Miller
My Journey with Inductive Bible Study

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Poverty in the Early Church and Today

Steve Walton and Hannah Swithinbank (eds.), Poverty in the Early Church and Today: A Conversation (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019).

Thanks to Bloomsbury T&T Clark, the above book has been made available as a pdf free of charge, here, on Knowledge Unlatched.

The book grew out of a conference on ‘Engaging with Poverty in the Early Church and Today’ held at St Mary’s University, Twickenham (London) in December 2015.

Here are some paragraphs from the editors on ‘How the Book Works’.

‘Poverty is one of the most significant challenges our world today faces, and it is a particular challenge for Christians, who follow the Jesus who urges giving to the poor and who includes people in poverty among his highest concerns. The essays in this book offer a fresh angle on debates about poverty by bringing together people who have expertise and experience in alleviating poverty today with people who have expertise in the ancient worlds of the Bible. We bring them together in order to have a conversation about how Christians today might think about and act on poverty issues, informed by the way our ancestors-in-faith responded to poverty in their places and times.

‘We are not simply interested in holding up modern practices to a supposed early Christian example. Rather, we are interested in the complex ways in which the early Christian ideas and practices relate to modern ideas and practices and vice versa. In other words, the conversation in this book aims to address both continuities and discontinuities between the ancient world and today. We are most interested in coming to grips with the full complexity of the matter, in order to inform and engage our readers, whom we hope will include church leaders, people working in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with poverty and thoughtful people, both Christian and not...

‘The body of the book is a series of sets of four essays, in which we pair an expert in early Christianity in its Jewish and Graeco-Roman settings with an expert in modern strategies for addressing poverty and benefaction. They each address the same topic from their respective areas of expertise in a substantial essay, and then each author responds to their partner much more briefly, identifying points which are mutually informing and stimulating. In this way, we hope we shall both model and encourage profitable conversation between those primarily engaged in today’s world and specialists in the biblical world.’

Monday 16 September 2019

Exodus #1: The Lord Who Remembers

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
Exodus 2:23-25

It’s been said that there are three signs of old age: the first is memory loss... and I forget the other two.

While it’s healthy to laugh at our occasional forgetfulness, the humour can mask the distressing reality of those who suffer with memory problems, both for the person themselves and for their relatives and friends. Writing about his mother’s loss of memory, the film director Luis Buñuel says: ‘You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Without it, we are nothing.’

Significantly, theologian John Swinton’s book on dementia bears the subtitle ‘Living in the Memories of God’. It’s not what we remember about ourselves that matters so much as what God remembers about us. Our being remembered by God provides our ultimate source of identity and hope.

In this is great comfort: for all that we might forget, God remembers.

The first two chapters of the book of Exodus cover a period of over 80 years. God is barely mentioned, but a turning point comes at the end of chapter 2 in the verses cited above. Spot the verbs: God heard, God remembered, God looked, and God was concerned, or (as the English Standard Version translates) God knew. Some of the words are picked up in Exodus 3:7-9 when God commissions Moses, and reaffirmed in 6:5 when God says: ‘I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.’

God remembered – as he did with Noah (Genesis 8:1) and Abraham (Genesis 19:29) and Rachel (Genesis 30:22). It’s not that he had forgotten. It’s that he is now ready to act. God’s ‘remembering’ gives the exodus a significance beyond the immediate predicament of the Israelites. God is now making good on a prior commitment – his covenant with Abraham, his plan for the salvation of all nations, a plan in which we by his grace are included.

Along the way, we might sometimes find ourselves wondering where he is and what he’s doing. But he hasn’t stopped listening to us, he hasn’t forgotten us, he hasn’t closed his eyes to us. Wherever we are this week, and whatever we’re going through, he hears, he remembers, he sees, and he knows.

Friday 13 September 2019

9Marks Journal (August 2019) on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats, is devoted to the topic of ‘The Heart of the Gospel: Penal Substitutionary Atonement’.

The issue contains J.I. Packer’s 1973 essay, ‘What Did the Cross Achieve?’, and several shorter pieces by others exploring the nature of penal substitutionary atonement, some of the challenges to it, its connections to other doctrines, and its implications for counselling and worship.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Theos Report on Science and Religion

A new report from Theos has been published:

Here are some paragraphs from the Theos website:

‘The “conflict” between science and religion is sometimes talked up in the UK as if it were part of an emerging culture war, as it apparently is in the US.

‘But what is the real picture in the UK? Is Young Earth Creationism on the rise? Do religious people think more negatively about science? And if there is a conflict between science and religion, who perceives it and why?

‘Published to coincide with his new three-part Radio 4 documentary The Secret History of Science and Religion, Nick Spencer’s new Theos report “Science and Religion”: the perils of misperception gathers over ten years of polling data to give the fullest picture yet of the science and religion landscape in the UK.

‘Drawing on 18 major studies, the report looks at public opinion – on science and religion; evolution and creationism; scientists, scientific progress, and its moral implications – and reveals “pockets of antagonism” (rather than all-out conflict), which focus less on God or evolution, than they do the nature and status of human beings.’

A pdf of the full report is available here.

Monday 9 September 2019

Echoes of Blessing #7: A Blessed People

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ
Ephesians 1:1-3

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Corinthians 13:14

It’s highly likely that an echo of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 is to be heard at the start of Paul’s letters – where the ‘grace and peace to you’ of the greeting is reminiscent of the final sentence of the priestly prayer: ‘and be gracious to you... and give you peace’.

If this is the case, Paul’s frequently-added words ‘from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ in his openings reinforce the source of the blessing. ‘Grace and peace’ provide more than just a convenient greeting, but summarise the blessings of the gospel – which come through Christ.

The link between God’s blessing and Jesus is beautifully expressed in Ephesians 1:3: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.’

The word ‘spiritual’ here means ‘of the Spirit’ – the blessing that comes by the Spirit. In which case, this blessing is triune-shaped: the Father blesses us through the Spirit in Christ – the three-in-one God working to bring about our salvation. Paul goes on to catalogue God’s amazing blessings – which come to us only because of the death of Christ, which brings about redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7).

Then, at the other end of the New Testament letters, the benedictions or doxologies function as blessings. 2 Corinthians 13:14 is perhaps the most well known of these: ‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’

Once again, like Ephesians 1:3, the blessing comes from the three-in-one God: grace is available only through Jesus Christ, is grounded in the love of God, and is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.

The God who blesses us in creation and the God who blesses us through his special covenant relationship is the God who brings those blessings about through his son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Only through him can we know God’s favour on us and his delight in us.

‘The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’

Sunday 8 September 2019

Mission Frontiers 41, 5 (September-October 2019)

The September-October 2019 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on the theme of ‘Making a Killing: The Global Death Industries and Missionary Response’.

The issue is available here, from where individual articles can be downloaded, and the entire issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Monday 2 September 2019

Echoes of Blessing #6: A Protected People

The LORD watches over you –
the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm –
he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and for evermore.
Psalm 121:5-8

Psalms 120-134 come grouped together, each carrying the same heading: ‘A song of ascents’. We don’t know for certain, but it’s most likely they were sung by those making their way to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals.

Of course, like other psalms, they have a reach beyond their original setting, down through the ages, even to us who journey not to the temple but to God himself. Indeed, with its final promise that ‘the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and for evermore’, something of those extended implications are already being worked out in the psalm itself.

That word ‘watch’ or ‘keep’ – which appears six times in the psalm – echoes the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24: ‘the LORD bless you and keep you’. The promise originally given to those on a journey through the wilderness is here reapplied to God’s pilgrim people in subsequent generations.

With some exceptions, the relative comfort and ease with which we undertake journeys today – in air-conditioned cars, high-speed trains, and planes which cross continents and oceans – means that some of the force of the psalm might be lost on us. Here’s a prayer which anticipates a long journey over difficult terrain where ankles can easily get twisted, where bandits might lie in wait, not to mention the heat of the day and the anxieties which come with the night.

For them, the promise of help comes from the Lord, ‘the maker of heaven and earth’, the keeper of Israel who doesn’t slumber or sleep. As they make their way to Jerusalem – and as they walk the path of life – he will not let their feet slip.

And that priestly blessing which reached across the ages to those making their way to worship in Jerusalem reaches yet further across the ages to those of us, like Abraham, looking for a city ‘whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:10). For us, too, the journey will involve challenges, even ominous or scary moments. But we, too, travel with others. (You do travel with others, don’t you?) And we claim the same promise, so amazingly comprehensive in its scope, which reaches into the whole of life.

God watches over your everyday comings and goings, day and night. Today. Tomorrow. Next year and the year after that. You and your family. You and your work. You and your life, ‘both now and for evermore’.