Monday, 26 March 2012

Actually, David was the favourite

As I see another cultural reference to David vs. Goliath, I am reminded to post up what I was telling my children as we looked at 1 Samuel last week.

David was the favourite. That's the point of the story. Not just the favourite; the certainty.

Yes, Goliath was huge. His armour was awesome. He had been a man of war since his youth. Everyone in the Israelite camp was really scared.

But David went out faithfully in the name of Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, whom he had defied.

That meant that David had more on his side. He couldn't lose.

As I say, that's the point. In the cultural memory, "David vs. Goliath" means a really small guy against a really big one, with a surprising result. But in the Bible, it means a really small guy against a really big one, with the precisely expected result once you've worked out how to properly identify who the big one is.

And that's got major implications for our confidence in the preaching of the gospel. Right now your church might be dealing with the giants of apathy, atheistic secularism, humanistic intolerance, etc. The first step is to identify which side has Jehovah of hosts on it, and after the revised odds calculation to go out from there.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

How can it be?

"And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" - Luke 1:43
So said Elisabeth, cousin of Mary, in wonder and worship.

And so should we say... how can this be granted to me, that the Lord of glory should come to me?

Should carry my sins up the accursed hill of rejection and bleed and die for them?

How can it be, that the Son of God should love me and give himself for me?

How can the pure and holy one who fills time and eternity remember me, and make me an heir of glory?

And how often do we actually say that?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

More on the beloved disciple

Here, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington puts the case for Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple in a much more organised and thought-through way:

The disciple whom Jesus loved

As a Bible student, I want my first loyalty to be to God himself, and not to any tradition. I want to go wherever the evidence leads me.

There came a time when I was assigned to teach John's gospel in Bible college. As part of this, I taught the evidence that John's gospel was in fact written by John. Those familiar with this question will be aware that John does not name himself; the writer is referred to as "the disciple whom Jesus loved".

This blog post here summarises the traditional case - which is very strong.

However, as I studied, it seemed to me that there was also a strong case for another author. The author of the above post briefly refers to Lazarus as follows:

The internal evidence from the Gospel of John implies that the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was in fact John, the son of Zebedee. The “the disciple whom Jesus loved” could have been one the two unnamed disciples in John 21:2, but this seems unlikely. Other suggestions for the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” include Lazarus, who is identified as a person whom Jesus loved (John 11:5, 35-36), or the rich young ruler of Mark 10:21, because Jesus is said to have loved him. There were probably dozens of disciples that could have qualified for the title if all it took was being loved by Jesus. Lazarus and the rich young ruler simply do not qualify because they were not at the last supper.
But on the contrary, note that:
  • The rich young ruler is not in the fourth gospel. Only one individual is given this appellation in the gospel. The appellation is obviously some kind of authorial device; it does not do justice to the text to flatten away that self-conscious device by speaking about what "could have" been done, in distinction to what the author obviously did intend to do.
  • Earlier in the post, the author refers us to Mark 14:17 as the proof text that nobody except the twelve was at the Supper (which is how he rules out Lazarus). Mark 14:17 says: "And when it was evening, he came with the twelve." The word "only" is not there. It is an assumption, that Mark intended to give us a full list. However: 1) The gospels prove that often this assumption is wrong; e.g. Matthew 8:28 tells us that two men came us from the tombs at Gadara (8:28), whilst Mark wrote "immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit" (5:2) and never mentions the second man. 2) We can detect reasons why Mark would focus on the twelve - Jesus immediately goes on to explain that one of the twelve would betray him (v17); and then we read of the Lord's Supper, in which the twelve disciples stand as the counterparts of the twelve tribes who were redeemed at the original Passover - thus they are the New Israel, the true people of God. So there are contextual reasons to focus on the presence of the twelve, and which may explain why he does not trouble himself or muddy the waters by mentioning others.

The writer of this blog post has also significantly understated the suggestive evidence that the "disciple whom Jesus loved is in fact" Lazarus:

  • He correctly notes that Lazarus is specifically said to be one "whom Jesus loved";
  • But it is also true that Lazarus, alongside his sisters, are the only people to whom this attribute is given in the book
  • What is more, the name is only used after we meet Lazarus. Lazarus appears in chapter 11 - the title is not used before that point. The "beloved disciple" only appears after Lazarus appears.
  • It would be very natural for Lazarus, having been raised, and having heard Jesus' teaching that he was shortly to die, to "stick to him like a limpet" in that final week, and to be the one who was reclining on his chest at the Last Supper - so grateful for the life that had been so graciously returned to him, so that he could see Jesus bringing in the kingdom and continue to care for his single sisters.
  • The fourth gospel contains unique material from Bethany and concerning Lazarus - where that family stayed - from that last week. It would be quite natural for him to provide such extra detail.
  • The words in chapter 21 concerning whether the "beloved disciple" would die or not are also suggestive. Why would there be a rumour that John would not die? Why would Peter ask such a question? But in the case of someone who had, only a week earlier, been raised from the dead, the question is very natural - will he die again?
  • Also, we might think it more natural that Jesus would entrust care of his bereaved mother (19:26) to Lazarus, who lived near Jerusalem, in a loving home, apparently where there were no spouses or children but where she could be well-provided for by the brother and sisters - rather than to the apostle John (who we believe was single), who was shortly to be commissioned by Jesus to take the gospel to the nations and face imprisonment, beatings, constant danger and turmoil etc. Who would you entrust your mother too?

A lot of that is circumstantial. A good amount of it can also be explained on the thesis that the author is John. If Lazarus is the author, then unanswered questions remain. Why is John never named? The gospel must have a strong connection to John - the very strong thematic and even word parallels with the letters of John require an explanation. The gospel evidences the hand of a later editor; the author is spoken of in the third person in the closing section, and that from the vantage point of another person ("we" know that "his" testimony is true) - presumably the editor. Perhaps not an editor as such, but someone adding his commendation; though it seems possible that the whole incident around the question of whether he would die came from this "other" writer.

It is widely believed and accepted by Bible-believing people that the "second gospel" could have been largely written by Mark under Peter's oversight. I think that the above at least raises the possibility that the fourth is in some way a joint production of John and Lazarus, and that the "beloved discipled" is not John but Lazarus. On that reasoning, the reason why Lazarus did not name himself is simple - he did not want to usurp his apostolic friend, or want to be seen as trying to stake a claim for himself in the church. It was known that he was an associate of John, and the book was generally distributed in John's name and thus with his apostolic imprimatur, which is why it came to be known in church tradition, quite properly, as the "gospel of John". I think it's interesting that the Mark/Peter thesis is considered acceptable amongst evangelicals, but discussions of the fourth gospel tend to always look for a single author; why is that? As a matter of logical consistency it makes no sense to me.

Anyway, those are my musings. They are not a developed thesis. No time, no time... perhaps someone out there can pick it up and run with it.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Only the doctrine of creation ultimately stands against homosexual "marriage"

Only the Christian doctrine of creation ultimately stands against the oxymoronic idea of "homosexual marriage". Only an understanding of creation explains why the juxtaposition of "homosexual" and "marriage" is an oxymoron. Like a feline dog, or an infant elder. It's not so much "changing the definition" of marriage" as contradicting it.

Wealthy and weighty forces have brought the public debate to East Africa too. In reply there are responses about tradition. But is tradition ipso facto authoritative? What about the traditional beliefs about the twin curse and the ensuing twin murder? We also hear that 'homosexual marriage' is un-African. When we try to discover what this means, it normally collapses into the tradition response: it's un-African because Africans don't do it.

Consider the ironic situation which may emerge: the West still largely views polygamy as immoral, but sodomy as potentially an expression of love. Africa still largely views sodomy as a sign of extreme depravity, but polygamy as potentially normal.

Who's right? How would we know? How can we calibrate our moral compass?

The doctrine of creation cuts the knot. Marriage is a designed institution, given by a Creator to help fulfil his purposes for creation. He intended the two sexes to complement each other and come together in a complementary union. Bodily union was to express oneness of shared life and purpose. Godly male pursuit and godly female submission were to express realities that have both life-long and cosmic and eschatological significances. Hence homosexual sin is a radical rebellion against the created order and its Maker. And 'homosexual marriage' is a contradiction in terms.

It's right for Christians in public debate to point out the societal consequences and implications of rebellion against this order. It's good to demonstrate that God's way leads to stable societies and homes where others fail. Politics can call for different approaches at different times. But I hope too that we will not forget the foundational fact of God's law and order, and our duty to proclaim this to a world which needs to be convicted of its sin first so that it might then truly experience the grace and forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ. The key fact the West needs to hear from the church is that it is in clear rebellion against its Maker and Judge. We need to know what the ground on which we stand is, and not just point out some of the nice flowers that grow in it.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Eternal life

Recent I read NT Wright's "The Resurrection of the Son of God".

I am far from being an uncritical observer of Wright. Several of his positions are deeply worrying. I remain convinced that his position on justification is, if and when pressed to its inherent conclusions, ultimately destructive of the gospel itself.

Nevertheless, this book is both orthodox (barring the implications of various incidental comments along the way, which sadly repeatedly indicate a rejection of Biblical inerrancy - though Wright mostly disguises this under the cover of performing a "historical" investigation) and thrilling. If I am a churl, then it will only reflect on me and not on this book. The book is brilliant and inspirational; it takes on the critics of the orthodox doctrine head-on, and dismantles their every last hide-out. Either Christ departed bodily from his grave in a transformed resurrection life and the implications are that he is the world's one true Lord - or there is some other theory which in 2000 years has not been hit upon; because all the ones that have have fallen far short of explaining the facts we know.

Now to the point of this post.

One suggestion it contains is as follows: when we read the words "eternal life" in the New Testament, we should not read them as the Western church does today. That is, we should not think primarily of "life (or even, existence) that does not end". That is to read it quantitatively. Rather, we should read it qualitatively.

"Eternal life", within the Jewish world view, means "the life of the age to come; the heavenly life; the quality of life experienced by those who are the children of God and empowered by his Spirit". It goes on forever, of course - but that's a corollary of its nature, not the heart of it.

When Jesus promises us "eternal life", he is promising us something that comes down from heaven and reveals to us the heavenly glory, and transforms us according to its own nature. To many Western ears, "eternal life" means "what we now have but without ending", which may not necessarily be good news. Banal TV! Annoying family members! Corrupt politicians! Laziness and incompetence... forever! Erm... what were the other options again?

"Eternal life" means that we are part of God's purposes for his creation. We are part of the age to come and can now taste and will then feast on its glories. The Messianic age has been inaugurated, and we get to partake in its wonders. Jesus is the eternal life; he came down from heaven to earth. And he now offers that life to us to partake in to as we take part in the transformation of all things according to his heavenly purposes.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Let him hear! (2)

The challenge of the parable of the sower is powerful - for those who have ears to hear it.

What is the difference between one hearer of the word and another?

The difference in the parable was not in the sower. It was not in the seed sown. The same seed was sown everywhere, by one sower.

The difference was where it fell.

If there are people in the world who are far more godly and useful in Christ's service than you or I are, then why is that?

Why is one believer prayerful, holy, self-denying, resistant to the world, serious, Bible-studying - a shining light, a fruitful servant of Christ; and yet you are not?

It's not the sower.

It's not the seed.

It's the ground that the seed falls in.

Lord, change my heart today, whatever it costs and wherever it takes me.

He had better hear!

Despite studying a few languages and being a Bible student for many years, somehow this point foot-noted in the .Net Bible escaped me until this week...

"Let (person) do (action)" is the classic English form of the imperative, not the permissive... well, I knew that; but I never managed to apply it to my reading of the gospels.

The comment that .Net gives each time we get the verse which is historically translated "he who has ears, let him hear!" reads thus:
"The one who has ears to hear had better listen!" - The translation “had better listen!” captures the force of the third person imperative more effectively than the traditional “let him hear,” which sounds more like a permissive than an imperative to the modern English reader. This was Jesus’ common expression to listen and heed carefully.
A friend not so long ago commented similarly that, even though he had been familiar since childhood with the archaic KJV forms, which frequently give additional information to that available in modern English, he had in 40 years of Bible reading missed every time what Simeon was saying:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: (Luke 2:29)
That is not an interrogative (a request, "please let your servant depart in peace") but a simple indicative statement - because he had now seen the Lord's Messiah, he was now departing in peace; it had come to pass. His eyes had seen salvation and peace had thus been obtained. Amen!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Lowering our discernment threshold

Gary Benfold warns us against the lowering of the Biblical discernment threshold that the charismatic movement seems unable to avoid inflicting upon its adherents.

Am I just reading the wrong sources?

A thought occurred to me as I read a blog post this morning.

The subject was this: advice on young men thinking of ministry. How to guide them.

The advice ran through some advice on good books to read. Commonly too we will hear of good conferences to go to; good tapes to listen to; good seminaries to consider; good training programs to get on.

That's all good, of course.

But I find myself wondering about the balance, in the circles I've mostly been in (and mostly, that's because of doctrinal convictions - ones which I see no need to change).

When I first spoke to a trusted, older friend who was in Christian ministry about my own wonderings about whether God was leading me that way, the major burden of that friend's advice was as follows. To look at where I was now, and what opportunities to serve people that God was giving me now. As I took those up, whilst still prayerfully considering my future direction, I would gain a deeper appreciation of what gifts and opportunities I did and didn't have, to serve Christ. Ultimately, all service to Christ must be humble self-giving. I ought to seek out opportunities to take part in unnoticed humble service; then God would show me what he wanted me to do in future.

I believe that if I had merely received advice, or received advice that was dominantly, pointing me to a list of books/resources/institutions/programmes etc., I would have been dealt with much less faithfully and fruitfully than I was.

Again, let me repeat the point. It's great to equip people with excellent resources. But serving Christ means humbly serving people. Emphasis is a subtle thing, of course. But I am not sure that in the circles I know and have known, that we've got it right. When someone starts asking about full-time service, we need to make the major point to emphasise how much they are doing to actually bring Christ's love to the nobodies who make up his flock and the lost. It's only in losing ourselves ultimately that we will find our true lives.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Not just one step ahead

There's a beautiful and ironic/humourous touch in the story of Simon the Pharisee and the woman who came into his house:
Luke 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
Simon the Pharisee wonders why Jesus cannot perceive what he sees as he looks at the woman, and judges him for his lack of spiritual insight. Meanwhile, Jesus knows exactly what Simon is thinking... and wants to expose to him his lack of spiritual insight.

How often do we wonder why Jesus cannot see what we can see, and do something about it?

Meanwhile, Jesus not only sees what we can see, but wants us to learn to think of it differently.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Not wanting to be prejudiced, but I couldn't help noticing...

On Justin Taylor's blog, I read this paragraph:
Thomas Lake is quickly emerging as one of the best writers in America. At 31-years-old, he is currently writing Pulitzer-caliber stories for Sports Illustrated. See for example “Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?” and his latest, “The Legacy of Wes Leonard.”
I've not heard of Lake. But I immediately said to himself "I bet you he was home-schooled".

Next paragraph...
Below you can watch a half-hour chapel message at his alma mater, Gordon College, where he tells some of his own story (growing up as a homeschooled pastor’s-kid), how he became a journalist, and how the stories he tells reflects the story of Christ:
Can I collect the payout now please?

Why did I think that? Of course we cannot make total generalisations. Bets have odds, and some people beat the odds. But I've noticed a strong connection between secularist, state school and having the imagination knocked out of you. Secularist and state education appears to be routinely overly rigid, technical, test-focussed, conformist - the kind of thing necessary for building a secularist, statist, conformist society in fact. Curious, that. A society where people lack originality and the imagination to conceive a different way of seeing the world and living in it. A world with few stories, an no encouragement to look past the here-and-now and see what lies behind the curtain. No encouragement to transform, rather than just to conform. Co-incidence? Hmmm....

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Expanded covenant privileges

I was interested to read here, Derek Thomas's reasons for switching from a credo-baptist to a paedo-baptist position.

I have not yet ceased to be amazed at how routine it seems to be that when a credo-baptist changes his convictions, he also loses his ability to accurately describe the Baptist position. Derek Thomas is a professor of theology. Does he really think that "they shall all know me because every member of the church has made a profession of faith" is the Baptist understanding of Jeremiah 31? Amazing.

But the thing that struck me was his first point on why he ceased to be a credo-baptist:
My inability to convince someone like Simeon that the New Covenant was “better” than the Old in relation to children.
This is the 'expanded covenant privileges' argument. If children were covenant members and had covenant privileges before the coming of Christ... then should the coming of Christ leave them worse off? Is that progress?

I was struck by this because in the same week, a pastor in my class at Bible college made the same point - in a rather different context. This being Africa.

The context was discussing of the health-wealth-prosperity (false) gospel.

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were promised that they'd be the "head and not the tail" (Deuteronomy 28:13), etc. If they were obedient to the law, then prosperity would belong to them. The land would flow with milk and honey. There would be peace. They would be rich. Their enemies would lick the dust. Etcetera.

Since all of God's promises are "yes and amen" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20), then how can this not be so - more so - under the New Covenant? Has Christ left us worse off?

Every competent paedobaptist believer could answer that question straight away, of course. We need some nuance. We need to ascertain God's purposes in how his dealings with man were structured before Christ came. We need to evaluate properly the blessings we have, then and now. A simple "you had it then so you have it now" argument is crude and we need to be better Bible students than this. And so on.

The point and its implications are clear, I trust, as they apply to the discussion regarding baby baptism. I presume that Dr. Thomas wouldn't feel obliged to take up the health-wealth-prosperity heresy if he were unable to persuade someone like, say, Solomon that it really was better to take up the cross and follow Christ. But the difference between the two arguments ultimately amounts only to special pleading. Either 'expanded privileges' needs nuancing, or it doesn't; whatever the context is; can't have your cake and eat it.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The advance of Christianity and the advance of civilisation are ultimately inseparable

The on-the-money quote from Damian Thompson's article here is:
But the charity Trust for London is talking nonsense when it says that “no faith or culture promotes cruelty to children”
Some points of the Western secular narrative are that:
  • All "faiths" and cultures have inherent value and must be respected.
  • Christian missions are inherently vandalism because they seek to change cultures. They are all the same thing as imperialism and colonialism.

This is utter tosh, which is evident to all those who spend a moment to step outside the elite Western secular bubble.

Colonialism from the West was wrong, because the British Empire was not the same thing as the kingdom of heaven. Yet Jesus' claiming of his rightful heritage is completely right. The future of the West's own civilisation, as opposed to its self-destruction, depends upon recognising that fact.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

When Christianity declines...

As the West jettisons Christianity, all the old ways come predictably back.

This week in the news I've seen a good sample. People who keep sex slaves. Bestiality. A corrupt and selfish ruling political class who behave as if they are not servants, but masters. The spread of homosexuality. Yesterday, Oxbridge academics defending post-natal infanticide. Today - rich men keep harems. There's nothing new under the sun...

A generation ago people would have though such a regular and steady diet of such things in the news in the West to be impossible. Living in the pre-Christian third world, all we can say is, there's much worse to come. At least in the West those things are actually still considered news. The next stage is worse. When a friend of ours got kidnapped to become a sex slave, it wasn't even local news. Thankfully in God's mercies she was rescued...

Short term mission is not automatically beneficial; is often detrimental

The Western church is on the verge of a major paradigm shift in the way we are doing missions and service.

On average, 2 million members of American churches go on mission trips. For all of that compassion we should be saying major changes in poor places. But in reality, the poor are poorer and more dependent, and their work ethic and dignity is lower.

Why should we borrow money when the US church will give it to us? One report from the field: they are destroying the entrepreneurship of my people.

$8.3 billion given to Haiti before the earthquake; but they are 25% poorer today than when we first started given.

What are we doing wrong? We are evaluating our service based on how it affects us, rather than them.
Thank you Bob Lupton for speaking the difficult-to-hear truth.