Archive for the ‘Church’ Category
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.
In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Funny that Peter said this to the Church!
My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.
So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.
For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.
Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:
Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)
He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)
A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).
There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.
A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')
What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?
Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.
We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.
In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?
We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.
What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.
I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.
So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?
That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.
This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.
I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.
He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.
The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.
The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master.
I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.
It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.
Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)
This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.
I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
- Author: Michael Frost
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: Michael Frost
- Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
- Publisher: NavPress
- Pages: 125
- Year: 2015
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
One day I was scrolling through my twitter feed and this person I follow posted a link to this book. The link said the book was free. I wrote to the person who posted it, never heard back, waited a few days and downloaded the free Kindle version of this book.
Turns out the book is only roughly 70 pages. Turns out the book is little more than a diatribe against Christians who choose to use instruments in worship services. Turns out this was not worth the 2 hours it took me to read it. So my review will be brief.
If you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who use instruments in worship, this book is not for you. There is nothing in this book that will persuade you to believe the way the author does. He exegesis of certain passages of Scripture supposedly refuting the use of instruments in worship is specious at best an legalistic at worst. It's a fairly typical diatribe by an 'old school' member of the a capella church of Christ. He spouts the same line of reasoning those familiar with the debate have heard ad infinitum.
I try to read everything with an open mind and this book was no different. But really the subtitle of the book tells the reader all they need to know about the direction the book will go: Examining Excuses for Instrumental Music in Worship. Really. Use of the word 'excuses' tells the reader this is not a friendly book. And it's not. We who choose to use instruments do not need 'excuses.' We have chosen to worship God the way we have chosen and we will not be judged by anyone for doing so.
On the other hand, if you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who prefer no musical instruments in worship, then this book might be for you. In truth, though, you will not likely find anything new in the book that you haven't already heard from those who espouse this point of view. You will likely agree, say a few 'amens', and give the book to your friends. But let's seriously stop with the absurd exegetical nonsense that these 'ideas' are found in the Scripture. It's a choice we are permitted to make, not a command (or, more likely, a lack of command) we are required to obey.
I might be inclined to acknowledge some of his points as valid if it weren't for the rather condescending and judgmental way that the points are made. To be sure, others far more astute than I have done the hard work of refuting the arguments put forth in the book, so I'm not going to bother. This is a book review, and my review is that this is not a very good book. Some of the arguments are fallacious, some of the exegesis is specious, and there are quite a number of typos. (If you want me to list them, please feel free to email me.)
What is really sad is that many of the leaders in the Churches of Christ (a capella) and Christian Churches have worked very hard in recent years to bridge these gaps. It is sad, to me, that the christians of this world continue to make the church of Jesus Messiah so unappealing to the world at large. It is sad that some are so bound to a form of legalism that they effectively cut off fellowship with others or judge them in error. I simply cannot imagine trying to live up to that standard of 'christianity.' Books like this go a long, long way towards opening wounds that should never be opened and causing grief and frustration for those who would seek Messiah.
And they go a long way towards preventing Christian fellowship among brothers and sisters which I am certain the devil delights in daily.
I cannot say anything positive about this book. It's simply not the kind of book that seeks to reconcile or bring healing to the church. It's the kind of book that seeks to perpetuate open wounds and create more. This is unfortunate. It might do to remind ourselves that every good and perfect gift comes from God. It might do well to remind ourselves that what really matters when it comes to Christianity is Jesus. It might do well to remind ourselves that perhaps the reason why the churches 'back then' didn't talk about musical instruments is that a) a lot of the instruments we use didn't exist and b) if they did the churches probably couldn't afford them and c) if they could afford them they were too busy spending money on widows, orphans, and the poor.
There are far greater things for the church to worry about right now than whether or not we use mechanical instruments in worship. It might be time to let this sacred cow die and get on with them. But I doubt there are enough people in the church to make this happen.
Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians
I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.
The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.
And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.
Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.
So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.
Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?
You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.
If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.
And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.
Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.
So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).
Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.
We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.
Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12
It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life.
But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).
This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.
There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.
The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.
I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.
John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.
Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:
1. The coming wrath (v 7)
2. The coming kingdom (v 2)
3. The coming Lord (v 3)
4. The coming Spirit (v 11)
5. The coming King (v 17)
We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.
The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.
During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!
John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?
Read: Matthew 2; Psalm 2; Revelation 12; Genesis 12
I thought a little more about that genealogy from Matthew chapter 1: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." So, in some way, Jesus is related to David and Abraham. OK. And the Lord made promises to Abraham ("I will bless all nations through you") and to David ("Your offspring shall forever sit on the throne of Israel"). Now Matthew tells us these promises are somehow fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. So I'm thinking…hear me out…maybe the promise to Abraham originally was that God would bless the world through a king, a ruler. Maybe all along the plan was that God would be king of not only Israel, but of the nations.
Later Jesus says that 'all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.' Why would he say such a thing? What could such a thing even mean? Well, I think it's fairly clear what he means: I am the King. Now, keep that in mind and let's see Matthew 2.
What is amazing about chapter 2 of Matthew is the mention of Herod: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" Well, this is all very, very tantalizing isn't it? But it doesn't stop there because Matthew goes on to give us a fairly good description of just who this Herod was.
Ten different times Herod is mentioned in this chapter and we are not given a glowing report. He was 'troubled' by this report that another king had been born and that people wanted to worship him. He summoned the wise men secretly and questioned them–intrigue (see Daniel 11). He was so dangerous that the wise men had to be supernaturally warned (12)! We are told that he wanted to 'search for the child, to destroy him' (13). He becomes furious that he was duped (16) and ordered that all babies 2 years old and under be slaughtered. And, finally, we learn that he died (15, 19) and that his offspring, Archelaus, evidently worse than his father, was ruling.
Here's my point. From his very birth, Jesus was in conflict with the kings of the earth. Why? "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" Right there is your answer. There was conflict because Herod saw that he had a rival for the hearts and affections of the people of Israel. Herod, like Belshazzar in Daniel 5, saw the writing on the wall. The question the chapter is opening up for us is this: Who is the rightful king of Israel? Who is rightfully the heir of David, the son of Abraham (1:1)?
All we learn about Herod in Matthew 2 is that he was a fearful man, paranoid, secretive, prone to anger, violence, murder, that he died, and left offspring to rule who was, evidently, worse than Herod himself. That's what Matthew tells us about him. Herod was so fearful and unworthy of his position that he murdered innocent children. He did not rule in love, but by fear.
Then Matthew goes on to give us 26 more chapters concerning Jesus–the one we were told in chapter 1 is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. I don't think this means Jesus is necessarily opposed to earthly kings or rulers. And I don't think those rulers who rule with justice and righteousness need to worry much either. But there is a conflict because Herod rules this way: the sword, fear, aggression, violence. Jesus rules another way: by dying. Jesus is the one who would later say to his disciples, "Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus would surrender to violence at the appropriate time, but not until then (see Revelation 12). Jesus would demonstrate his rightful kingship by surrendering to the violence of Pilate, Herod, and others and eventually overcoming it in his Resurrection.
Jesus stands in marked contrast to the kings of this earth because on the mountain in Matthew 28 he said, 'All authority has been given to me.' All. "The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are to go and put that rule into effect" (NT Wright, How God Became King, 115). Yep.
So what? Well, here's the thing: Jesus is either king of the entire world or someone else is, but if Jesus is king then no one else can be. Herod tried to cling to that title, but he didn't understand that his rule was derivative. That is, like Pilate, he had no authority except that which was granted him by God (John 18-19). The kings of this world do not recognize this either in our day. They just don't. They think the world is their plaything and that they can do as they like, when they like, with whomever they like. Humans are stupid like that. Jesus' point is very simply this: the kings of the world did their worst to him, they tried from a very early age to kill him and end his rule before it began, but Jesus undid them. He exposed them for what they are. He triumphed over them at the cross and the Resurrection.
We have one king. It is not a president. It is not a prime minister. It is not a high priest or a pope. It is Jesus. He rules because he lives. Kings will come in conflict with him and they will lose because at the end of the day all authority belongs to Jesus. And no one else.
So what? The question is: Who is the rightful king of Israel, and consequently, the World? And: To whom have you given your allegiance: Jesus or or someone else?
There's only one king.
I only recently jumped on the Scot McKnight bandwagon. This year, in fact, although I have followed him on Twitter for a while and, if I am not mistaken, reviewed a book he wrote on Fasting a long while ago. I became interested in McKnight's writing when I saw another of his books called The King Jesus Gospel and in his important book Kingdom Conspiracy. I have also seen his name mentioned by NT Wright here and there. I enjoy McKnight's work because I think he has important things to say that more people ought to be listening to. I think when it comes to the Kingdom and the Gospel McKnight is dead on point. Now I'm kind of convinced that he's on the right track when it comes to the local church. I'm sure at some point along this journey he'll go off the wall and disappoint me, but so far, so good. Fingers crossed.
I don't say it too often about authors because there are so few authors that I truly appreciate–whose work truly resonates with my own heart. I say that because so many authors who write books for the church are afraid to get dirty, say the hard things that need to be said, and actually dig deep enough in Scripture to challenge the status quo. I don't find any of that to be true about McKnight. He writes his books like he writes his Twitter feed and blog: straight up and if you don't like it, well? We may not want to listen, but McKnight (among others) is saying something important. It's time for the church to hear what is being said.
But seriously, McKnight's commentary and arguments are nuanced, but not so much that they are misunderstood. I think he writes clearly enough–even if at times he has to repeat himself in order to make his point. Sometimes those of us who read are a bit of a challenge to those who write. We have to listen carefully or we might miss the bigger picture someone is painting.
So these three books of McKnight's I have mentioned so far are, I think, some of the most important books I have read. In truth, I don't think he's saying anything I don't already believe. It just so happens that he is smart and got the book deal and I got to teach special education. As I noted above, McKnight is really only doing what needs to be done–it's kind of revolutionary in a way because maybe if more people start writing books like he is writing, saying the things he is saying, and alerting Christians to what the Bible really says, then maybe, just maybe the church will hear what the Spirit has to say. Lord knows it's not like we actually read what the Bible has to say. Seriously. I say this because I read a lot of books and I see the things being written….and it's kind of…thin. I like McKnight's work because he consistently finds a way to take his readers deep into the Scripture without causing them the sort of palpitations that get their itchy fingers dialing the phone trying to get someone fired for preaching the truth.
So, A Fellowship of Differents. I don't think I disagree with much in the book, but I do have a serious question to ask. McKnight is selling us this idea that the church ought to reflect the culture in which we live. That is, the church ought to be made up of all sorts of people: different cultures, different colors, different tribes, nations, orientations, ethnic backgrounds, and so on and so forth. I don't disagree. We all together make up Israel expanded. Yep. No complaints. In fact, the book of Revelation is keen on this point too: "After this I looked and behold a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…" (Revelation 7:9)
But how do we make this universal vision of the church a local reality? In fact, is it necessary to do so? Let me give you an example. The church I belong to and worship with is white. Very white. There is one person in the congregation who is African-American–a young girl. She is quite welcome. She is quite active. She is quite happy. My own family has brought her to worship and taken her to dinner and so on. I'm not bragging. But here's my point. The community is small and I don't even know if there are any black families in the community. When I was growing up in that town, there were two such families. My question is this: for all the call to diversify the church, and yes! diversify!, how is a church in a white-washed town supposed to do such a thing? There's not a single personal or theological reason people of color are not among us. It's simple demographics.
I don't understand why it is 'wrong' for a church to resemble the community where it is located. I get the point McKnight is making, but I don't think it's quite as 'easy' to simply remake the church the way he thinks it should be made. Most congregations resemble the neighborhood where they are situated. Mine is no different. Maybe this works itself out in a different way practically so maybe that is his point. Maybe we are simply not practical enough as Christians when it comes to how we relate one denomination to another. Maybe we need a Revelation 7 kind of vision. Maybe this book will help us. Maybe the church is diverse and we need to simply celebrate what we have.
Maybe more of us ought to think and believe that 'we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.' It's just a thought.
McKnight says something I like very early on: "These three principals are a way of saying that local churches matter far more than we often know." (15). Yep. I agree. Which means, as far as I can tell, that more emphasis ought to be placed on the work that local churches do, that more preachers ought to take seriously what they preach, and that more congregations ought to take seriously the things that the Bible says defines the church. So McKnight is right to ask: What is the church supposed to be? And: If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like? (17). From which I draw the obvious conclusion: Why are there so many preachers on television?
Yep. So, if the local church matters, and these two questions are right, then what is the problem? Well, I suppose you'll have to read the book to find out what McKnight proposes. I have a hard time not recommending his writing. It's accessible and deep. Mostly what I like is that when he handles the Scripture, he doesn't yank a single word from a single verse from a single chapter from a single book and develop an entire theological dogma from it. This book, like what I've read of McKnight in other places, deals with context: literary, historical, and contextual. The reader will not agree with all of McKnight's conclusions. I didn't. But that doesn't mean the conversation isn't stimulating and worth the effort.
I recommend this book because it challenges us to think about the value of the local church and challenges us to keep that church in context and out of context. At the end of the day, this book is an apologetic for loving people because we love God who loves people. It's kind of hard to argue with that logic.
Notes are appended at the end. There is a Scripture index and subject and name index too.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase A Fellowship of Differents (Amazon: $15.92)
- Author: Scott McKnight
- On Twitter: @scotmckight
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Zondervan
- Pages: 272
- Year: 2015
- Audience: preachers, christians, anyone who likes McKnight's work, etc.
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of BookLook Bloggers blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I love when a book just sort of 'shows up' and it has immediate relevance to my life or ministry. Such was the case with Thriving in Babylon. I was searching through the David C Cook offerings on NetGalley and this book just appeared…I'm fairly certain I heard the sound of 'ahhh' sung by angels as a halo of gold surround the book. Needless to say I was happy to see the book, a book, any book focused on the Book of Daniel.
I have been engaged in serious study of the book of Daniel since sometime in 2014 as I prepared myself to teach an undergraduate level course on the book at a small Bible College located near my home in the Fall of 2015. I mean it must be providence because this is the fourth book on Daniel I have managed to get for review from publishers in the last year (and in fact, I just received a fifth one in the mail today from another publisher). All of the books have had unique perspectives on the Book of Daniel and have lent their insight to me as I sought to understand Daniel.
It does make me wonder though why there is currently so much popular and scholarly level interest in the Book of Daniel–so much interest that one noted author even published a lifestyle book based on something he read in Daniel. It's curious how it seems that perhaps people are slowly beginning to realize that all our American dreams are not quite the stuff that being a disciple of Jesus is made of. Or maybe what people are seeing is that the time is ripe, the axe is at the root, the signs are converging and coalescing, and maybe we imagine we hear just the faintest hint of a trumpet blast being carried by the wind.
This book started out strong with a heavy focus on the Book of Daniel and I was rolling along with Osborne nicely. He is correct: Daniel is neither an adventure story nor a prophecy manual. Where he kind of lost me is when he stated what he does think the main point of Daniel's book is: "When it comes to the book of Daniel, his incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless of environments is the main lesson we don't want to miss. It's a template that's particularly relevant today" (Location 128). Unfortunately, this kind of made me yawn a bit because I started sensing where the book was going–a mere manual for living, something the church does not need. Fact is, if we read the Book of Daniel as a book of mere examples for living, however incredible, encouraging, and faithful they may be, then we may as well read it as an adventure story and we probably miss the bigger story he is telling us about ultimate redemption of the world, of His saints, of his Son, and of a victory that even death cannot prevent.
A deeper look at Daniel reveals a deeply theological story, one that is entirely focused on the sovereignty of God over the nations and of how, despite the terribly negative outward appearance of things in this world, God will rescue and redeem his exiles from Babylon, establish his Messianic Kingdom by uprooting, supplanting, subverting, and at times destroying the kingdoms of earth, and establish his Son and People as the rightful heirs and rulers of the kingdoms of earth.
Somewhere in this, yes, we are called to live and thrive. Clearly the prophet Jeremiah, one of the books Daniel read, told the exiles that they should settle down, build houses, raise families, live, and seek the welfare of the city where they were confined, but I doubt Jeremiah did so without first giving those people a picture of the great God who led them there in the first place. I doubt that living and thriving are the main focus of the book–or of any book of the Bible for that matter. I'm not saying they are absent; I am saying they are the trees we see when we take our eyes off the forest.
I absolutely agree that we live in a world of chaos. I agree that for all intents and purposes our times are no different than those of Daniel and that Christians are, by and large, living in the shadow and confines of Babylon. I disagree that we are going to change this world simply by displaying hope, humility, and wisdom–the three ideas explored in the book. To me, however, this sounds like a convenient outline–kind of preacherly (if that's a word). Needless to say, however well he may find these ideas in the Book of Daniel, I was fairly disappointed that this was the route he chose to go. It's not that anything he says in the book is wrong or that it cannot be found in the book of Daniel. It's just that this is not the point of Daniel's book and, therefore, I think Thriving in Babylon was wanting for something more.
So let me wrap up by noting a couple of things that did resonate with me and ultimately were good constructs–even if I think the foundation upon which they were built was a bit beyond the blueprint. First, I agree that '[F]rom the first page to the last, Daniel clearly saw God's hand in everything that happened' (Location 203). I agree. This is laid out for the readers in Daniel chapter 1 and it carries all through the book. He goes on to note that 'God is in control of who is in control' (Location 222). Here I think Osborne nails it and, to this point, he is correct: upon this understanding of God we can indeed thrive in Babylon. I only wish he had explored his point a little more with respect to how Christians respond to the the kings of this world. Daniel is a decidedly political book and I think it needed to be explored, and could have been even at this popular level.
Second, he brings out some import and valid points about suffering in this world and our response to it. Key among his points is this: 'Those who walk away from God in anger and disillusionment in the midst of their suffering never do so because their test was too hard. They do so because their faith was not genuine' (Location 541). Whatever else I may have written, I want to be clear that Osborne has written a good book with much worth lauding. His points about our suffering as Christians in the midst of the Babylonian shadow are important and timely. We do well to listen. Yet we also do well to remember that there is no resurrection needed for those who remain alive. The saints of God will suffer at the hands of kings. Perhaps this timely message needed to be explored a little more.
My main disappointment with this book is that I don't think Osborne handled the Book of Daniel very well. Frankly, it was a huge disappointment. At times, it was like he utterly forgot he was even taking us through the book at all. Besides this, as noted above, I think he failed to get to the heart of what Daniel is teaching us. I get that the book is not designed to be a thorough exposition of Daniel and in this Osborne succeeds. The book of Daniel is a complex book and the character of Daniel–one of only two characters who 'survive' the entire book from start to finished–is a complex character. He has good days and bad days. He spends a lot of time sick due to the visions he has. He has to make difficult choices at times and seems at times to be all about his own self-preservation. Sometimes he doesn't tell the whole truth when interpreting visions and dreams. At times he us utterly brilliant and at other times he seems confounded. Sometimes he appears to compromise a bit and other times he is utterly bold and forthright. It is, therefore, difficult to make Daniel the sort of hero I think Osborne wants him to be.
Daniel is complex and I wish that complexity had been explored with a little more nuance than Osborne did. Again, it's not that anything Osborne said was wrong or out of place. It's just that Daniel is not so black and white as he leads us to believe.
It's a good read for the most part and I didn't disagree with all that much. He says a lot of important and timely things. There are some surprisingly fresh anecdotes and I like that he doesn't fall back on the the so-called standard sermon illustrations–oh thank God for that! I found the book to be honest and readable; accessible and, at times, challenging. It has plenty of Scripture references quoted and/or alluded to (notes are at the end of each chapter.) I also found the book a bit unbalanced. Chapters 1-4 talk about 'Daniel's Story'; Chapters 5-7** discuss 'Prepared for Battle'. He discuss all these things before diving into his thoughts about hope, humility, and wisdom. Chapters 8-13 are 'Hope'; 14-16, 'Humility'; 17-20', 'Wisdom'. It's slightly unbalanced as you can see, it's a small thing to be sure, but it bothered me.
One last thing. Daniel's book warns us over and over again of putting our hope in the kings who derive their position and authority 'out of the earth' or 'out of the sea' (see Daniel 7). Christians in America are particularly susceptible to this scheme of the devil–the one where he tries to convince us that our hope is found in the next great ministry or the next great up and coming politician. We are continually told about how important it is to vote for a particular political party or a particular political candidate. Sometimes we are even told that Daniel himself is a fine example of why Christians ought to be involved in the political process. At one point Osborne makes an utterly brilliant point when addressing this scheme: "[Satan] is still at it. Today, he's convinced many of us to replace our passionate hope in Jesus with a passionate hope in politics or the latest ministry on steroids. It's taken our eyes off Jesus and put our hope in that which can't deliver" (location 1334). Here I think he nails it because it is here, at this point, that I think the point of the Book of Daniel is clearly in view.
What the church needs is a formidable and robust picture of a great God who will wreck the systems born in this world, born of this world, born from this world, and who will set up his own kingdom which is 'not of this world' (Daniel 2; cf. John 18). Daniel gives us this vision–as a prophet should. I find that looking at mere examples of mere humanity is not enough to strengthen us in our current need. This is why, for example, when John the Revelator was writing to the seven churches in province of Asia who were muddled in persecution and complacency, he began not with a robust picture of an exemplary human being but with a picture of the cosmic Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. In short, I think the focus on Daniel as a person is misplaced.
So I'm a little disappointed with this book, but not entirely. There are times when Osborne gets Daniel brilliantly and other times when he falls down. It's a preacher thing to narrow down a book to a set of memorable ideas. In this case, hope, humility, and wisdom are the memorable ideas he wants us to remember. I think we would have been better served if he had asked us to remember that it is God's faithfulness to his people, to his own plans for this world, not his people's mere example, that is why and how and for what we thrive and survive and ultimately own this world and how he ultimately conquers Babylon.
**I would make one correction to the book. In chapter 7, he begins with an illustration of living near Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, California. In paragraph 2, he refers to those who train recruits as 'drill sergeants.' This would be fine if he were talking about Army recruits, but those who train Marines are called Drill Instructors. Trust me when I say this is a big deal to Marines. It should be addressed in future editions of the book.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Thriving in Babylon (Amazon: Kindle $9.28 ) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback $9.99) David C Cook (Trade-Paperback $15.99)
- Author: Larry Osborne
- Larry Osborn on Twitter
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 224
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.
**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.
Back in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.
Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music. Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth.
So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…
It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:
Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)
I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?
I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).
I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.
That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)
Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.
Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.
My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.
This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
- Author: Kyle Idleman
- Kyle Idleman on Twitter
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 224
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.
**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.
Can you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?
Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)
To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.
I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.
This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.
I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.
While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.
And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.
I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this.
When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.
Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.
I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said?
God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?
Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.
So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.
I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.
He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.
Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.
Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99) Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order) CBD (Paperback $12.99)
- God for the Rest of Us on the internet
- Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
- Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 255
- Year: August 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
- Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Grounding Text: Daniel 2:44-45; Hebrews 12:28-29
This is part of a sermon I preached from Daniel 2. I think it is still relevant and still carries some weight. If you would like to read the text of the entire sermon, click the link above.
The Kingdom of God will come upon when we least expect it, when we most fear it, when we are least prepared for it. It does not come upon those who have done all things right, prayed all things well, and said all things. It comes upon those who are ignorant and secure. It comes upon those who are sleeping or naked. It comes like a thief in the night or like a bridegroom arriving home to take his bride away. It comes like a seed that is planted small and grows beyond measure. The Kingdom of God—this unshakable, unquenchable, this undeniable Kingdom of God—will come upon those who are indifferent and looking the other way; we do well to keep an eye on the sky.
Walter Kaiser states, in his most emphatic voice: “The Kingdom of God will come into the midst of this world’s kingdoms with irresistible and unstoppable power. It will alter history forever. Christ will come into this world and destroy all kingdoms. He is calling us to action.” We are progressing not in some evolutionary sense of ‘getting betterism’ or ‘improvingism’. We are progressing rather towards the theological goal, the teleological goal, the eschatological Kingdom of God when all things will be enveloped in His power and ruled by his righteousness, when all tongues will confess His Name, when all knees will bow, when people willingly and unwillingly will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that there is none But Him. And what shall be our response? To what action are we called? But what else can we possibly do?
What did Daniel do when the mystery was made known to him? He broke out in a grand doxology. Not some cheap imitation of a praise song that merely extols the feelings and virtues of the hearts of men, but a doxology that cannot contain the truth that fills it: Here is Our King, He rules, He reigns, He does what He wants and asks for no opinion of the way He does it, He is God who is in control and not under the influence of any, He is God to Whom this world is and is going. Daniel, in other words, broke out in praise of God: Daniel Worshiped the Lord because when such information is given, there is, frankly, nothing else we can do, there is no other response, there is no other action that is appropriate. He broke out in wonder at the work of God. This is no action of man: The Rock was cut out by a hand that was not a human hand.
And when Nebuchadnezzar finally heard the truth of what God was doing, what God was revealing in his dreams, what did Nebuchadnezzar do? “Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The King said to Daniel, ‘Surely your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.’” What else could Nebuchadnezzar do? When you hear and know and believe in the God whose Kingdom is one of power, one that is undeniably unshakable, when you are convinced of the action and work and providence of God, what other response is humanly possible? You fall prostrate before the God who condescends and reveals to man what He is doing and will do: We fail to worship at our own peril.
The book of Hebrews says: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”
So we go through all this to make the point that when we come into an awareness of the Work God is doing, the goals of His Providence, and the Majesty of His Kingdom that cannot be shaken, that will last forever, that will not be destroyed, but that lays waste to all other Kingdoms, there is only one response: Worship. Annie Dillard wrote a little book called Teaching a Stone to Talk. In it, she writes about her experiences at worship with a couple of different congregations: a Catholic congregation and Congregational congregation. She compares worship of a Holy God to an expedition to the arctic pole. She writes,
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (58-59)
“In my hand I discover a tambourine. Ahead as far as the bright horizon, I see icebergs among the floes. I see tabular bergs and floe-bergs and dark cracks in the water between them. Low overhead on the underside of the thickening cloud cover are dark colorless stripes reflecting pools of open water in the distance. I am banging on the tambourine, and singing whatever the piano player plays; now it is ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’ I am banging the tambourine and belting the song so loudly that people are edging away. But how can any of us tone it down? For we are nearing the Pole.” (70)
We worship the King without fear because we belong to a Kingdom that will not fail, that will not falter, that will not be unseated or defeated. We belong to Him: Let us worship with the sort of reckless abandon that is required of the subjects of a Kingdom such as this!
[Note: I wrote this for Easter Sunday, 2007. The week before, while preaching the sermon, I had suffered a massive attack of a kidney stone. It completely incapacitate me. I was in so much pain I was unable to finish the sermon and the rest of the week I merely laid around on the couch unable to do anything. I was going through some files tonight and came across it. It seems I am still learning this lesson.]
You see, I learned this past week that the world can in fact go on without me. I knew that intellectually—I’m not so completely full of myself to think otherwise—but practically, in the real world, I think there are times when I am certain that if I don’t go to my office to work, or show up at the cafeteria to monitor, or travel here or travel there, or go to this meeting, or carry my guitar, or a song, or a Bible, or go to a Scout meeting, or a Soccer meeting, or do all the jobs for little league that no one else will do, that the world will simply fall to pieces. But wonder of wonders, I can lay on the couch for four days and the world did not stop, explode, or disintegrate. Life goes on in spite of my best efforts. I felt helpless, quite, and I was perhaps a bit disjointed that the world did not stop because I had to. But it did not. Last week, I had to learn to be helpless. It’s not a fun way to be or an easy lesson to learn. I don’t like being helpless and I like even less being a burden: But isn’t ‘burden’ the best description of us there is? I had to learn this week to be helpless and accept being a burden.
And isn’t that just the point of the cross? Well of course, tell us about the Resurrection, you bloomin' idiot! Today is Resurrection Sunday, not Good Friday. Even, more, isn’t that quite the point of resurrection? Isn’t it there, in the twin and singular event of the greatest tragedy the world could perpetuate, that we most learn about helplessness? Isn’t it there we become children all over again? Isn’t it there that our legs are broken beneath us and we unlearn how to walk and forever crawl? But how can that ever mean anything if we do not, in fact, learn helplessness, learn that the world doesn’t need us, learn that it is in Christ and not us that the world holds together, learn that it is Christ who is the Author and Perfector of our Faith, learn that He is the Trailblazer, learn that He is the One who has promised to finish in us what He has started?
Helplessness! Pshaw! I’m not about being helpless. I’m about self-sufficiency. I’m the alpha male! I’m about working it all out without doctors, without pills, without my wife, without you, and sadly, too sometimes, without God. It’s a hopeless confession to make and, once again, I am ashamed that I have to admit it. But it’s true. It pains me to confess it but confess it I must. I’m about as anti-doctor as it gets and yet in this last week I have spent more of my money on doctors and pills for myself than I have in the last five, maybe 10 years of my life. Making up ground I suppose, catching up on lost time I suppose. I scoff at the notion that I need help, that I cannot get done what needs to be done, that I need anyone’s help at all. This past week disabused me of any such notion. No, on the contrary, I am helpless. And if I am that helpless when it comes to myself and work, then how helpless must I be when it comes to my salvation? If ‘God did not spare his own Son’ speaks of the foundation of my salvation, then how helpless must I truly be?
In this Kingdom of God it is necessary that we learn to be helpless. It’s a dirty word, to be sure. And I don’t like saying it. But when you are on the floor crying like a baby from a pain that you know you cannot control and you are calling out to God for mercy, when this happens, you begin to realize that there is more wrong than you alone, you at all, can handle. It is then that you raise your eyes to heaven, dew drenched as you are, like Nebuchadnezzar, and you ask for God to do for you what you know you cannot do yourself. Helplessness helps us to learn that holy fear that apart from God’s grace we are simply doomed. Helplessness is our pass to enter in and partake of the death of Christ. Become like little children he said. Become helpless.
Become dead because the only way to be resurrected is to first be dead.
Publisher: Baker Academic
Kindle Price: $14.57
[Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.]
When I went to Bible College between 1991-1995 I was introduced to the brilliant and wonderful world of academia and Biblical scholarship that to this day, 20 years later (although I am no longer in located ministry) I thoroughly enjoy. I read theology now as a sort of hobby, still subscribe to theological journals, and still read commentaries for fun. But sometimes I think that it was my love of the academic side of Christian faith that caused my ultimate downfall in the pulpit–not that I am particularly smart, but that perhaps I didn't learn how to filter well enough the material I studied during the week in preparation for preaching. At the heart of it, I think many Christians sitting in the pew on Sunday morning do not care all that much about what the learned have to say and what those who read the learned think about it.
Thus I was excited to read this volume of introductory articles to the Bible. My own experience in Bible Survey in my undergraduate work left little to be desired and was often a source of frustration given how shallow it was. Well, I get it: it was a freshmen level class, so I shouldn't speak too harshly. So I read. I commend the authors of the book on a job well done. I like it because it has a rare combination of scholarly astuteness and pew sitter awareness. Frankly, I needed this book 24 some years ago when I was sitting in freshman Bible Survey. I needed the balance that this book brings to the difficult issues that surround the Scripture, its composition, its collection, and its interpretation. For example, I regret that when I learned of JEPD I only learned that it was the tool of liberal devils who wanted to uproot the Word of God from its Source and render it unreliable. What I didn't learn was that there are sincere reasons for accepting it as a reliable tool that was used to bring a certain cohesion to the Scripture, that it may have been useful to God, and that those who were the JEPDs were righteous in their intentions.
Maybe it's the years that have softened me or maybe the authors did a fine job of saying something like, "There are sources that critical scholars consider but the fact of these sources does nothing to render this less than the Word of God–useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." Maybe. Maybe I didn't read them well enough. Frankly, I have gotten to a point in my life where I really don't care how the books came together: whether through various sources and editors or by the hand of one author who was 'carried along by the Holy Spirit.' I think ultimately what matters when reading the Bible is that we read it as a whole. That is, Genesis may well have been 'edited' by 50 different people for all we know or it may have been written by one person, say, Joshua or Moses. But what matters is that right here, right now, we have one book that we call "Genesis." And we interpret Genesis as one book with one overarching theme from front to back and as God's word given to us.
The book was written with a clear audience in mind: "We intend for this volume to serve as an introductory textbook to the Christian Scriptures for students who are engaging in an informed reading of the Bible within an academic setting" (xi). To this end, I think the authors did a fine job. Their goal is not to undermine personal faith or catholic Christianity but rather to set the Scripture in a context where it can be properly understood in light of historical context, literary development, and theological contexts. In other words, they are not telling the student what to believe, but they are helping the student to see that even though the prophets spoke and wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, these books were not written in a vacuum devoid of context or unaware of the strictures of written language. These are two areas, especially, where I think the Christian church gets it wrong–both in the academy and the pulpit.
We tend to picture Scripture being written in a void as if the Holy Spirit took over a person's mind, set them on a mountain in the lotus position, and dictated word for word what was to be written. He may have at times, but I think one only needs to read the Bible to see that the authors who wrote the books had an agenda and were consummately aware of their surroundings. So when Christians read, we do not need to be afraid that there are scary things happening in the Bible or that some of the things might be culturally obscure to us. To this point, I suspect that even though this is a book written for an academic setting, perhaps that is too limited a market: not everyone goes to Bible college or seminary, but most Christians sit in a pew listening to someone who has and for too long that pulpit has not been challenged on a critical, local level. I'm not saying run the preacher down, but I am asking: Isn't there room within the church to discuss heady and deep issues we find in the Bible or that we find about the Bible?
Isn't there room for intelligence among people of faith? I think there is. I'd like this book to find its way into the local church and not remain merely in the classroom where ignorant freshmen waste away their days and squander opportunities to bring real change to our churches–real change that starts in the pulpit with the person preaching the Scripture. In my opinion, a book like this will go a long way to that end precisely because it is not so heady that the average pew sitter cannot understand it.
"We want the reader not only to know the contents of the Bible but also to gain a critical appreciation and respect for the historical distance between us as modern readers and the ancient contexts of the Bible. We want the reader to consider how these texts were heard or read by their ancient audiences by asking historical, literary, and theological questions of the texts. We hope this study of the Bible initiates a journey of both discovery and intellectual curiosity, and thus deepens engagement with the biblical text." (2)
The only thing I wish they had done is gone one step further and also indicated that they hope the book would strengthen faith and foster trust in the Scripture as God's word. The Bible is not a merely influential document or a tool for debate or a window into the past. It is those things, yes, but not merely and in their introductory comments I wish they had made further comment about the Bible being the Word of God to his covenant people. They ask, "Why study the Bible?" (2) and I agree with their answer that we may "evaluate contemporary interpretations of the Bible that one may encounter in various ways: in church-related and religious literature, in sermons, in politics, through the media, and in informal conversations with family and friends" (2). I give a hardy 'amen!' I think many would agree that the church's knowledge of Scripture is woefully inadequate to the tasks and pressures we are facing in this world today and no amount of television preaching is going to alleviate that inadequacy.
If this book helps people to be more informed, then good. But more: if it helps pew people read and engage their Bible with more consistency and regularity, then better. If it helps bring a certain note of wisdom to young men and women in bible college, then this is best.
I'm not sure I buy the Documentary Hypothesis to be honest. I might; I might not. I'm not sure that it harms the Scripture, but I'm not sure it helps. Again, my point is: we have the text so does it really matter how it came together or whose name is attached to it? Jesus accepted the OT Scripture so shouldn't I? It used to be that those who accepted and taught JEPD were on the outside, sort of fringe scholars one ought to be wary of. Now, I see in this book that the DH is becoming more mainstream, a more accepted thought among scholars and pew people. Make of that what you want.
I like the charts, graphs, maps, and pictures in the book. They are helpful and not intrusive. They help break up lengthy texts and explanations that may bore a young college student (as do the grey call out boxes where the authors give readers extra insight into structure, definitions, and more.) I like how explanations are given to difficult terminology–such as JEPD (Documentary Hypothesis (42). I like the engagement with historical documents, criticism, and manuscripts. I like that the authors take their time and explain difficult concepts to the reader in plain language. I also like that at the end of each chapter or section of Scripture examined the authors take the time to print a short bibliography of source material. Many of the sources are very recent and some of the authors may be a bit obscure to new readers or students. Some of the sources are from recognized evangelical scholars whose names will be immediately recognizable and will thus lend some credibility to the authors' work.
I want to say that I am glad this book is not merely a rehashing of what is already in the Bible. Too many times scholars write Bible surveys or introductions to the Bible and the book ends up being little more than a retelling of what is in the Bible–so much so that the person reading would get more from just sitting down and reading the Bible. I like that the authors seemed to keep the overarching theological strand of God's redemptive plan in Jesus in view from Genesis to Revelation and that their 'retelling' includes outlines of the texts, discussion of significant textual issues, and theological reflection on themes (context), purposes (audience), and literature (genre, author) (their discussion of the Book of Revelation beginning on 252ff is especially helpful and on the mark.)
Indeed, the authors conclude:
"The Christ even represents the beginning of God's end-time action to reconcile all creation to God's self. As it awaits the consummation of this redemption in the coming of Christ, the community of Christ followers gives witness to this divine action in its life together and its proclamation. This overarching story, of course, provides another context in which to interpret the texts of the Bible." (259
Scripture index. Subject index.
A helpful volume for new students and perhaps for students who worship each week in a local church. And given that this fall, September 2015, I will begin teaching at a small local Bible college, this will be a helpful volume for my students.