Monday 30 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #5: The Cross and the Defeated Enemy

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

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:13-15

Global warming. Terrorist threats. Nuclear weapons. Covid-19...

It’s not too difficult to draw up a list of reasons to be fearful. And that’s before we add in anxieties related to relationships, work, money, and childrearing. Small wonder that many have spoken of living in a ‘culture of fear’ – with the overwhelming sense that we are confronted by powerful forces that threaten our everyday existence.

Fear itself goes back to the garden of Eden, where it’s a mark that we are out of joint with our Creator. But, to those who live in the shadow of fears, there is good news.

As it happens, the good news also begins in Genesis 3, with God’s promise of the serpent’s crushing defeat by the seed of the woman. The fulfilment of that promise unfolds in the rest of the biblical drama, coming to its unexpected peak in the death of Christ. To bystanders it would have looked like the worst-possible, most-shameful defeat. But for Paul, it was the place where ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’.

Notice that Jesus defeats the enemy not only in his resurrection and ascension (those obvious markers of victory) but first and foremost at the cross – precisely at the place where it looks like the powers of darkness and death have triumphed.

But why was the cross necessary? Because, says Paul, of the record of debt ‘which stood against us and condemned us’. The victory Jesus brings comes only at the expense of the death he dies. His Devil-defeating, death-dealing, deliverance-bringing work on the cross is carried out on our behalf.

This paradox of victory through suffering carries over into the Christian life. As Paul writes, ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet’ (Romans 16:20), but there is a gap between the ‘It is finished’ of the cross and that final day. We’re not merely waiting around for that victory to come; we live into it now, as those who have been made ‘alive with Christ’ – but we do so only in the shadow of the cross.

In this way, the cross also points forward – to the worship of people from all nations, singing the triumph of the slain Lamb, victorious and enthroned, all enemies put down, all fears finally put to rest, that God may be all in all.

Friday 27 March 2020

Lausanne Global Analysis 9, 2 (March 2020)

The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here, including pdf downloads.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor writes:

‘In this issue we explore servant leadership as modelled by Jesus, suggesting principles for global 21st century mission; we ask how we can engage Sikhs, adherents of the world’s fifth largest religion; we consider creation care as part of the mission of the church in the light of the Amazon mission of the church in the light of the Amazon fires; and we examine global terrorism from an African perspective asking how we should understand and respond to it.’

Wednesday 25 March 2020

On Being Overwhelmed

The below is an extract from an email sent to my local church.

It was Harold Wilson who allegedly said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In these recent momentous days, it looks as if that should be reduced to five minutes!

In the last week, life has been turned upside-down. Work, school, family life, daily routines, leisure activities, including that number one pastime – shopping! – have changed for all of us, almost overnight.

It’s easy to see why our nation is not at ease. You may feel it yourself, or identify it in friends and colleagues, or see it reflected in your social media feeds. As a society, we’re experiencing what some have called ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Whether personally, professionally, or politically, it’s one thing to have a single event that knocks us off our feet; but what if the knocks continue to come thick and fast? Is it any wonder people are confused, anxious, angry, distrustful, and fearful?

In all this, though, shafts of light manage to break through – the neighbours forming WhatsApp groups to support people in their street, the already-exhausted NHS workers coming in for the next shift, the rainbows in windows of houses saying more than the occupants of those homes perhaps know about the commitment of God to his creation.

They all illustrate something of a refusal to be shaped by the prevailing culture, which Christians of all people should understand. Because while some ‘overwhelmings’ wound and crush us, others are life-giving. What would it look like at this time to be overwhelmed by gratitude? Overwhelmed by generosity? Overwhelmed by a passion for justice? Overwhelmed by a desire to see others thrive, even if it comes at our expense?

Given the resources available to us in the gospel, what might we be overwhelmed by today?

Monday 23 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #4: The Cross and the Law Court

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

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus... If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Romans 8:1, 31-35

Paul could hardly say it any more clearly. Read it again if you need to: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’

And that little word ‘in’ is all-important.

What’s the central thought of Paul’s letters? Is it justification? Reconciliation? Adoption? As important as they are, what’s most central is Jesus. The prior, primary, foremost, fundamental reality for Paul is our union with Christ, being in Christ. And all the benefits of salvation flow from that union – our justification for sure, but also our adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and our being joined to each other in the church, the body of Christ.

It’s on the basis of our union with Christ – in his death and resurrection – that we are declared right with God, free from the penalty of our law-breaking. As Paul has made clear earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians, what flows from being justified is ‘peace with God’ – not through anything we can bring to the table, but ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1).

Moreover, since God has declared us right in the present, that verdict will stand on the last day. We can look forward to the future with confidence, because it’s a future that Christ himself has secured for us. Being counted righteous in God’s sight, even now, brings hope as well as peace.

But more than a legal declaration of our status before God, justification takes us to the heart of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Like Abraham himself, all those who stand in right covenant relationship with God do so through faith, and on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross, whether they be Jew or Gentile. Here is how God makes good on the promises made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him.

As if this was already not enough, 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’ (Romans 5:5), a sign of his ongoing commitment to us. It’s a love, Paul says here, from which nothing can separate us.

If any of this was down to us, we’d have room for doubt. As it is, our assurance lies elsewhere. Peace, hope, blessing, love – and all through Christ.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Knowing and Doing (Spring 2020)

The Spring 2020 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: The Older Testament is Good News Too
In his President’s Letter, Joel Woodruff makes the case for the regular reading, teaching, and preaching from what is commonly referred to as the ‘Old Testament’ – Jesus’s Bible which was quoted and read by Jesus and His disciples as God’s authoritative Word.

Bill Kynes
How to Read the Bible, Part 4: How is the Bible Useful?
In this last of his series of four articles written to help people read God’s Word with profit, Bill Kynes considers the questions: What can we expect the Bible to do for us? What is it for? He explains that the end or goal of the wisdom the Bible gives us is our ‘salvation’, and offers practical advice for how to read the Bible with this in mind

Chris Morris
The Importance of Childlike Faith in the Workplace
According to Chris Morris, childlike faith is relevant not only to mature believers in their walk with the Lord, but also in the workplace, especially in terms of how we lead, interact with others, and make decisions. In this article, he explains that exhibiting the attributes of a childlike faith can not only lead to effectiveness in the workplace, but also serve as an effective witness to our faith.

William Fullilove
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Career Choices
According to William Fullilove, one of the joys of the past twenty years has been seeing a renewed emphasis on the doctrine of vocation in many Protestant churches – the understanding that God is pleased when each man and woman pursues his or her calling, whether that is to religious or ‘secular’ work. He argues, however, that this has led to some unintended consequences. In this article, Fullilove considers Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50, which he argues is a useful corrective.

Lynne Marie Kohm
Sexuality as an Apologetic
Lynne Kohm asks, ‘How does your sexuality affect your witness as a Christian?’ In this article, she argues that living and communicating a genuinely biblical view of sexuality is a most powerful apologetic today.

Thomas A. Tarrants, III
The Transformation of our Heart’s Desires
In this article, Tom Tarrants considers the question, ‘How do we navigate around the seductions of this fallen world and faithfully follow Jesus in daily life?’ He argues that the key is in and with our heart’s desires.

Mary Amendolia Gardner
Five Ways to Start Gospel Conversations
Mary Gardner observes that as Jesus’s disciples, we are commanded at the end of Matthew 28 to ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ In this article, Gardner identifies five practical things that, building on a foundation of prayer, will help cultivate gospel conversations.

John Milton (1608-1674)
Poem: Sonnet 19 – When I consider how my light is spent
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. We have selected one from John Milton.

W.E. Sangster (1900-1959)
Sermon: What if Calamity Comes?
An inspiring classic sermon from the pulpit of William E. Sangster that we hope will be a blessing to you.

Monday 16 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #3: The Cross and the Reconciled Enemy

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

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
Colossians 1:19-22

The New Testament writers use rich, evocative images to unfold the significance of Jesus’ death: a bloodstained battlefield, a slave market, a law court, a sacrificial altar... The word pictures engage our imaginations, even as they invite us to place ourselves in situations that might not be immediately familiar to us.

In several places, though, Paul writes about the cross in language most of us can readily identify with, often from firsthand experience – that of a broken relationship in need of mending.

In many such cases, the phonecall is made, the card is written, the flowers are given, apologies are offered and accepted, and the relationship moves on. In other cases, the hurt is all too painful, the hostility all too powerful. Issues of justice may also be involved, with reparation required. Forgiveness is possible, but won’t come cheap. The likelihood of reconciliation seems remote.

This heartbreaking reality is at stake in humanity’s relationship with God.

Here in Colossians and elsewhere in his letters, Paul is not embarrassed to describe us as God’s ‘enemies’, as ‘alienated’ from him, and to call out our behaviour as ‘evil’. All the more staggering, then, that reconciliation comes about at God’s own initiative, and does so through the Son. Central to the gospel is the announcement that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:19).

In particular, the cross is at the heart of this breathtaking plan. What will God do through Jesus? He will reconcile ‘all things’, writes Paul, making it clear that God not only makes peace with individuals, but will one day bring the whole universe back in harmony with himself. But at what price does this peace come? Again, Paul is clear: ‘through his blood, shed on the cross.’ He pays the cost required.

It’s the cross which brings about the ‘but now...’ relationship we enjoy with God, where formerly alienated enemies are now ‘holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’.

The cross of Jesus stands at the climax of the entire history of salvation. Everything is understood in the light it casts, a light extending forward to the day when all things will be fully restored. Meanwhile, that light illumines our daily lives as we seek to be shaped by its reconciling power, knowing that we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Tyndale Bulletin 70, 2 (November 2019)

The latest issue of Tyndale Bulletin recently arrived, containing the following collection of articles.

Geoff Harper and Alex C. H. Lee
Dodging the Question? The Rhetorical Function of the מה־זאת עשׂית Formula in the Book of Genesis
Building on recent research that demonstrates a rhetorical movement in Genesis from fratricide (Cain and Abel) to forgiveness (Joseph and his brothers), this article considers the function of a repeated question utilised throughout the patriarchal narratives. On eight occasions, variations of מַה־זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ (‘What is this you have done?’) are used to confront wrongdoers. The typical response is to mitigate culpability; the outcomes are generally negative. However, the final instance of the question in chapter 44 is markedly different. This subversion of expectation works powerfully as a rhetorical tool to instruct readers regarding a right response to the uncovering of sin.

Chee-Chiew Lee
A Theology of Facing Persecution in the Gospel of John
This article examines how John crafts the narratives and discourses to address the issue of fear and secrecy and to guide his audience/readers on how to face persecution. It is proposed that: first, John uses dualistic language with the rhetorical purpose of bringing across ironies, exposing underlying motives of characters, and heightening the impossibility of a middle ground; second, he deliberately portrays a few characters ambiguously to reflect the complexities of life – one cannot and should not easily classify everyone neatly into dualistic categories; and, third, John has a distinctive emphasis on divine providence with regard to facing persecution.

Luuk van de Weghe
Acts 27–28: The Cerebral Scars of Shipwreck
Conclusions drawn from recent studies on memory and trauma shed light on the vividness and immediacy of Acts 27:1–28:15. First, trauma catalyses enduring recollection. Subsequent memories can be visualised as ‘cerebral scars’ left by first-hand traumatic experiences. Second, shipwreck survival creates a plausible scenario for the formation of such memories. After analysing four possible approaches to Acts 27:1–28:15, this article concludes that the passage captures the cerebral scars of an eyewitness experience and ought to be approached accordingly.

Sean du Toit
Negotiating Hostility Through Beneficial Deeds
In this article we have surveyed the concept of ἀγαθοποιέω. It has been argued that this refers to various kinds of beneficial deeds, either for a community or individuals. At times the purpose of these good works is to neutralise hostility and convert an enemy into a friend. This strategy of benefiting an enemy is seen in both Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and early Christian writings. This provides an important context within which to understand and interpret 1 Peter. Contrary to Williams’ proposal, good works are not to be understood as exclusively Jewish and Christian practices that were used to subvert hegemonic power structures within the Graeco-Roman world. Rather, in keeping with the educational concerns of early Christianity, what we see in 1 Peter is an effort to communicate clearly to a Gentile audience using familiar topoi. The purpose of benefitting others, including outsiders, is to provide an opportunity to allay pagan concerns that these Christians were a dangerous community. Peter’s strategy is that by demonstrating that Christians were people who benefit others, the hope is that this will both alleviate ignorance and provide an opportunity for ethical witness.

Daniel K. Eng
The Role of Semitic Catchwords in Interpreting the Epistle of James
This article examines the arrangement of the Epistle of James in light of Semitic documents that display catchword association. James shows evidence of being a compilation, with adjacent sections frequently connected by a common cognate. After identifying patterns of catchword association in the Hebrew Bible, LXX, and Qumran, the article identifies instances of catchword association in the Epistle of James. Finally, some conclusions are drawn for James, including recommendations about the study of its genre, provenance, structure, and interpretation.

Peter M. Head
Epistolary Greetings in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri
This paper examines the function of greetings in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri by focusing on vocabulary, how individuals and groups of people are described, questions relating to format and presentation, differences in format, particularly when greetings are interrupted, and the function of greetings in consolidating and maintaining connections between writers and extended communities. It offers conclusions concerning the placement of greetings, the normal epistolary practice of Graeco-Roman antiquity, and the flexibility in the relationship between the greetings, the situation and main purpose of the letter. Included is a list of the 74 letters studied and the text of their greetings.

Mark Norman
Luther, Heidegger, and the Hiddenness of God
This paper seeks to trace how certain Lutheran themes, particularly the tendency towards fideism evidenced in the Lutheran ‘Deus absconditus’, were later adopted by Heidegger, and then misappropriated by certain ‘post-theological’ thinkers of the continental tradition in the late twentieth century. In what follows, the early Luther and his theology of the Cross will be firstly placed into its late medieval nominalist context, after which Heidegger’s employment of the Lutheran ‘hidden God’ in his formulation of the question of ‘being’ will be discussed. Finally, I will propose that the appreciation of Luther’s legacy and his relevance for philosophy lies not in popular ‘Heideggerian’ revisionist readings of the reformer but, alternatively, through integrating the Deus absconditus theme into the rest of his theological thought, including his historical context.

Dissertation Summaries

Ádám Szabados
The Tradition of the Apostles: The Relationship Between Apostolic Authority and the Earliest Tradition of the Church
I had two questions in mind when I began my research on the relationship between apostolic authority and the earliest tradition of the church: is it historically justified to talk about a normative tradition, and, if yes, how can we demarcate it? It was my initial hypothesis that the existence of a normative tradition is both warranted and demarcated by apostolic authority. I also presumed that apostolic authority on the one hand meant an authentic representation and embodiment of the tradition received from Jesus; on the other hand, it meant a legitimacy for authoritatively defining this tradition. If this latter hypothesis is true, apostolic authority was both ministerial authority (submitted to the earliest tradition given by Jesus) and magisterial authority (the only legitimate definition of this tradition) at the same time. The goal of my doctoral thesis was to test these hypotheses in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the dynamics between apostolic authority and the earliest tradition of the church.

Friday 13 March 2020

Mission Frontiers 42, 2 (March-April 2020)

The March-April 2020 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on the theme of ‘Movements: God’s Way of Reaching Entire Peoples’.

According to the blurb:

‘This issue of Mission Frontiers tracks the power of movements over the course of history. Movements to Christ have always been the way that God has reached entire peoples. While movements have become much more frequent in our day, they are not new. They have been a continual reality for two millennia as God has worked according to His sovereign will to reach entire peoples with the gospel. We highlight a few of these movements in this latest edition of Mission Frontiers.’

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

Monday 9 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #2: The Cross and the Slave Market

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

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
1 Peter 1:18-21

Imagine for a moment: you live under someone else’s control, bought and sold like a piece of property; you have no rights, and very little hope for the future. You’re a slave.

For many of Peter’s readers – as for millions around the world today – imagination wouldn’t be required. Slavery would be all too real. And Peter’s language of being ‘redeemed’ would resonate powerfully: short of an owner granting release, freedom would come about only through the payment of a ransom price.

Redemption always comes at a cost.

In using this imagery to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death, Peter weaves together several strands from the biblical story, echoing especially Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt. The image of the ‘lamb without blemish or defect’ brings to mind the Passover, recalling God’s great act of deliverance. In the case of Peter’s readers, redemption involves a liberation from bondage to an ‘empty way of life’. But such freedom comes with a price – nothing less than ‘the precious blood of Christ’.

Notably, God has not stood back and orchestrated deliverance from a distance. He has himself stepped into the situation, and at great personal cost. As Jesus put it, ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). Nothing less than his life was required. Nothing less than his life was given.

As Peter does elsewhere in this letter, he extends the blessing of God’s redemption to the scattered Christian communities, made up of Gentiles as well as Jews. Although they find themselves on the margins of society, they are brought into the very centre of God’s plan for all things, set in motion ‘before the creation of the world’, in which God has acted on their behalf – ‘for your sake’, Peter tells them, and for ours.

Moreover, this act of redemption doesn’t extract us from everyday life. Instead, it’s the ground for Peter’s exhortation ‘to live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear’ (1:17). Christ’s redemptive work is not merely an inspiration for living our lives this way, but the very basis for doing so. Our release from an empty and enslaving way of existence brings with it not the freedom to do as we please, but the freedom to enter service to God – a new Lord, with a new way of living.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Christians, Churches, and the Coronavirus

It’s been interesting to see what feels to me like a sudden proliferation of Christians reflecting on the Coronavirus, and denominations offering advice to their churches.

The Church of England’s advice is here.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain’s advice is here.

The Methodist Church’s advice is here.

The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches’ advice is here.

There’s a piece by Ed Stetzer on the Christianity Today website here, and a piece by Todd Wagner on the Gospel Coalition website here.

The Evangelical Alliance has posted some helpful reflections here.

Also helpful, and also from a UK perspective, is a piece from Ian Paul and others – ‘Responding faithfully to the Coronavirus’ – which concludes this way:

So how should we respond? Wash your hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer as you do (it is better than singing ‘Happy birthday’ twice). Trust in God, care for the sick, and share your hope of life beyond death.’

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mission Catalyst 1 (2020) on Power

The current issue of Mission Catalyst, published by BMS World Mission, is now available. This issue is devoted to ‘Power’, asking the question, ‘Are we holding on to it?’

Mission Catalyst is available as a free subscription, or can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Monday 2 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #1: The Cross and the New Humanity

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

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 5:17-19

As he does elsewhere, Paul places the account of salvation on a huge stage – nothing less than the story stretching from the first Adam to the second Adam.

He puts it even more succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:22: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.’ It’s by virtue of our union with Adam that we die, and by virtue of our union with Christ that we’re made alive.

And at the heart of this story is the cross.

We need it to be so. Though formed in the image of God to represent his good rule in the world, our reflection of that image is distorted. To be sure, threads of beauty, compassion, and industriousness are woven through the fabric of our lives; but so are threads of darkness, disease, and disorder. In our more honest moments, we need go no further than ourselves to be confronted with the twists and turns of the human heart. We walk tall, but fall short, and are unable to make good on our failings.

But there is another who does through his life what we cannot do in ours. There is another who, in his death, takes on the consequences of disobedience that rightly belong to us. Christ Jesus as the second Adam succeeds where the first Adam failed and undoes what the first Adam did – and what we have done since.

In doing so, wonderfully, the cross not only brings about the removal of guilt and the forgiveness of sins, but also creates a new humanity in Christ, people who now ‘put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of its Creator’ (Colossians 3:10).

Crucially, Jesus does his work as second Adam in human flesh, and the salvation he brings about doesn’t remove us from our own body or our existence in the world. On the contrary, it makes us more truly human, more what we were designed to be. Precisely because of the one who has fulfilled the destiny for which we were made, whatever realm the Lord has placed us in – whatever family, job, school, church, or hobby – we can bear fruit in it, as men and women made and then remade in God’s image to represent and reflect the glory of his grace in all the earth.