Advent reminds us salvation comes differently than we expect. Not a warrior wielding a sword to show off his military power, but as a baby. 5:03 PM – 29 Nov 2015
Archive for the ‘New Testament’ 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!
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 6
Let's be short today. Maybe.
Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.
I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.
Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.
So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?
Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?
I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.
This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.
Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.
Read: Matthew 5; Galatians 5; Exodus
At its very core, Advent is a time to think about the first coming of Messiah and, perhaps, to telescope that thinking into the future and his Second Revelation. When we take the time to pause and think about the Advent of our Lord, we are pausing to note that God's will was to undo this present darkness and replace it with light. Yet we also pause to understand that He was determined and willful that it would not be accomplished in the way or with the means by which the world gets things done.
So we read Matthew. Early on Matthew tells his readers that a certain king was on some throne and his name was Herod. This king got all worked up because a baby had been born who was also a king. This bothered Herod a great deal so he went out of his way to protect his position of power. He called for secret meetings with the wise men, he lied to them, maybe he threatened them, and then, when he saw that he was making no progress–two years down the road–he took the sword in hand and slaughtered children.
Because when you are a king and your power is threatened, it's always best to slaughter the innocent as a reminder of who really holds power. That's how the world gets things done. God did not accomplish things that way.
I read this tweet from someone I follow on Twitter. I don't know the guy from Adam, but I follow him and this could be the only tweet of his I have ever read. He wrote:
I think that so perfectly captures the point of Advent. And it was the Advent of Jesus–not Herod. Herod shows us exactly how the world does things. God shows us another way.
We are reminded, then, that God does things differently and as such he calls you and me, his followers, to do things differently, to be different. Thus prepared we arrive at Matthew 5 where Jesus blows the lid off of conventional wisdom by showing anyone who wants to follow him exactly the ways in which they will be different from the world.
Some people read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and think that perhaps it is a checklist we have to follow in order to be good Jesus people. But that's not quite what I take away from this sermon at all. Rather I think the point of the sermon is to mark Jesus' followers as different from the world. We are going to fail at most of these things he says, but that shouldn't stop us from being different, or from walking a different path, or, and here's the kicker, not doing things the way the satan or the Herod did things.
So our ambition is not the same as the world. We are content with our own poverty if that is what Messiah calls us to. We are merciful people, because we know the world isn't merciful. We are about peace! How many Christians do I see all over Facebook and Twitter continually calling for the death of people of Islam? That is not the Jesus way. That is not how the Lord accomplishes things.
As a Jesus follower, my heart is breaking for the world. I see people being raised in an ideology where their only hope is in killing or being killed. I see people being raised to believe that the only way to stem the tide of violence is to increase our own violent output–and to encourage our young men, and now women, to bear the burden of knowing they have killed another human being. I see other Jesus followers following the masses and making calls for death, deportation, and/or destruction of human life. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. I see Lord. Seated high and exalted. His will shall not be thwarted and I, as a follower of Jesus, will in no way promote the violence towards others that they would bear against me.
Jesus called his followers to be different, and told them not to follow the ways of the satan to accomplish His goals. If we are no different from those who wish to kill us, what's the point of following Jesus?
But we often forget these things. We forget that we are to be differently angry, if we are to be angry at all. Our hearts should reign in peace and forgiveness. Our hearts and eyes are to be pure. Our marriages are to be differently organized–but we find ways to justify our divorces in the church, don't we? We really do. It's really quite a problem in the church that our marriages are no different from the marriages of the world. So he goes on…
I find it simply amazing that in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus focuses so much energy and attention on how we get along with others. We should be merciful, peacemakers, we should be salt and light, we should not be angry people or lustful people. We should treat our spouses differently. Ours is not the path of revenge and retaliation but of grace and peace: Turn the other cheek, do not resist the one who is evil, be kind, generous, and forgiving.
And lastly, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his followers that they are to treat their enemies differently. It's a hard thing he asks us to do, he commands us to do: don't think your own sins are any better than the sins of others. That's typically why we love ourselves and not our enemies. Jesus is very explicit, very clear on this point: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
That, my friends, is revolutionary. That is how you and I can be different in this world. Jesus pulled no punches when he said it and it probably shocked his listeners that day. I suspect few can actually do it, but there it is. The only weapon that Christians ought to be calling for right now against those who wish to kill is love and prayer. The world will call for weapons. The world will call for deportation. The world will call for blood and cheer when it flows. Those who follow Jesus must not do these things. We must be different. It may well cost us. Yep. No doubt about it. Yet in no way must we, Jesus' followers, disgrace his name by calling for more violence and bloodshed.
That's not His way. That's the satan's way. That's Herod's way. That's not our way.
We must not forget these things.
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 remember when I was younger, a mere twenty-something going off to Bible college in the 'big city'–full of small town conservative enthusiasm. I was from a small-town, a little right of right conservative church of Christ/Christian Church. We, of course, do not 'permit' women to have positions of 'authority' or to 'teach men' or to be 'elders' or, for the most part, 'deaconesses.' Imagine my surprise when I went off to college, in the denomination, and in one of my first classes, on Genesis, I was asked to read a commentary by Joyce Baldwin. I still remember, to my shame, speaking of her in a rather condescending way. (Ironically, I'm now teaching part-time at a small Bible college and using Baldwin's commentary on Daniel for the students' textbook. Good times.) I had much to learn about who God uses to teach ignorant people like myself. It's funny, now that I think about it, how much I have had to learn.
Well, here I am many years removed from Bible college. I have moved back to my hometown after 25 some years away and still not much has changed–except me. I have spent considerable time–even this summer–reading a number of books written by female authors and I have been, to a large degree, disappointed. There always seems to be an agenda of some sort or other instead of a simple commentary on what is written. (Oftentimes I find that commentators, whether male or female, tend to read issues back into the commentary so that even though the Biblical author had absolutely no idea such and such was a problem, low and behold, our modern commentator has corrected the biblical author or simply pointed out how, through some exegetical gymnastics, he actually was talking about such and such.) I don't bring this up for no reason. On the contrary, I have learned to appreciate good scholarship regardless of whether its a man or woman writing and in the case of this particular commentary, I am simply happy to have read it because it is just an outstanding, excellently written commentary on the letters of John.
I don't want to hide the fact that I love that Karen Jobes wrote this book. I believe that the church needs to have more female academics writing commentaries and engaging in the difficult work of exegesis. It is my hope that authors/scholars like Karen Jobes will be role models for young girls who are considering Biblical scholarship for a career. I realize it's hard to say that without coming across as a complete and utter chauvinist but here's my point: what I look for in a commentary is a serious scholarship–working with the text, digging deep into the Greek, engaging the tough issues that the text highlights and often what I get is something that is less than serious. I look for an author who wrestles mightily with the text and stays humble before it. I found such an author in this commentary. Maybe I've been out of the loop for too long, but I am glad that the typically male dominated world of New Testament scholarship has authors and scholars like Karen Jobes writing books and explaining the Scripture to us. My life is enriched after having read this book. I recently read and reviewed a book full of sermons. One of the editors was a woman, but sadly there was not one contribution in the entire book by a female preacher. It was a glaring and significant failure of the book.
There's no pretense to this commentary. Jobes alerts the ready in the preface what her positions are with respect to her hermeneutical lens. Basic to this lens is the a priori devotion to the assumption of authorship: whoever wrote the letters we call 'John' also wrote the Gospel we call 'John' (or was at least a 'close associate.') With this said, she goes on to assert that "while the letters must be allowed their own voice, they cannot be properly understood without reference to John's Gospel as the interpretive framework for the metaphors, images, and theology common to both" (15). What follows, then, is a commentary that helps us see and make these connections, at a number of different levels and ways, and it is thus extremely helpful to have the Gospel open at the same time as the commentary. This, in my opinion, is one of the stronger aspects of this commentary because I think too many are willing to divorce the letters from the Gospel.
The commentary is arranged in a convenient manner following what seems to be a fairly standard format. The introduction, which covers all three letters, discusses briefly the significance of the letters, authorship and provenance, historical situation and the so-called 'polemical view' of the letters. In this regard, Jobes makes an important point, that I happen to agree with which is to focus the discussion of these letters based on the author's own statements of why he wrote. Again, this goes to my earlier point that too many times authors bring to the text their own ideas and try to force them to make sense. Jobes' point is this: "His concern was to shepherd those in his spiritual care to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy rather than to directly address the heresy(-ies) that disrupted the church(es); that makes it difficult to reconstruct with specificity the problems being addressed" (25). She notes how this 'frees the interpreter' to focus on John's definition of 'orthodoxy' which necessarily and implicitly 'argues against' many different heresies from then and now. It seems so much easier to do things this way.
I mean this with no hint of sarcasm at all, but imagine that! A commentary that is interested in reading and commenting on what is in the text instead of trying to reconstruct all sorts of things that are not there or that we have imagined are there. This is brilliant and I applaud Jobes for taking such a revolutionary and radical step in exegetical sanity.
There is a lengthy section on the relationship between the letters and John's Gospel and a nice chart showing verbal parallels. Other aspects of the introduction include the date and relationship between the three letters, the place of the letters in the chronology of New Testament history, and canonicity. There is a lengthy bibliography after the introduction just before Jobes engages in a separate introduction for 1 John. (Each letter receives its own introduction.)
The individual introductions will provide more specific details such as genre, purpose, structure, and and outline. There are a couple of different outlines including an exegetical outline. There's also a fresh translation of the text–all of this before we finally arrive at the explanation of the text.
Up to this point in the book, the text has been a one column affair. For some reason I am unable to discern, the book turns to a two column approach when we get to the explanation of the text part and then reverts back to a one column format when we get to the Theological reflections at the end of each section of verses being discussed. I suppose maybe it had something to do with space concerns, but I'm not sure. It's not a terrible thing, but I didn't particularly care for it. The explanation is based wholly on the Greek text and it is particular. Nothing escapes Jobes and she is willing to make as many literary and verbal connections as the author gives us ("The Johannine corpus is well known for its abundant wordplays and double entendres.." (47)). It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this commentary that the first four verses of 1 John are particularly infused with meaning and depth and that Jobes takes us as far as the text can take us.
The book is heavily footnoted–which is greatly appreciated–and Jobes is well acquainted with all the important literature, developments, and authors on the subject of John's letters in particular and literature in general. She doesn't skirt controversial issues or try to explain them away, but engages them and makes her case for each point of view she supports. In other words, this is a thorough work–as one might expect from the title.
There are also blocked out sections where the author goes 'in depth' and discusses a 'side-issue' such as whether or not we should use the word 'Messiah' or 'Christ' when talking about Jesus or 'truth' in John's letters. Finally, each section includes a 'theology in application' section where she talks about the aforementioned 'explanation of the text' in practical terms.
I love the section where Jobes translates the Greek text for the reader. It's in a text box and is analytical in nature or, maybe the old fashioned way is to say that the sentences are somewhat diagrammed so that each aspect of translation is also somewhat interpreted. So, for example, 1 John 2:1-6, verse 1 is: 1a (address: my little children) b (assertion: these things I write to you) c (purpose: so that you will not sin). This is a most helpful analysis because it opens up our understanding of the text insofar as we can 'see' it before us–even if there may be some subjectivity involved. I think this will be especially helpful for the reader who is new to Greek or maybe someone who just wants to visualize it without doing the work for themselves. It is a bit interpretive, so as with all things, one really should do their own analysis.
At the end of the book, there is a section called: The Theology of John's Letters. Here the author explores the significant contribution these letters make to our understanding of New Testament Christianity: "The preeminent theological point of John's letters is consistent with the overarching message of the NT in general: that Jesus Christ, God's Son, has come from God the Father to die as the atoning sacrifice for sin, and on the basis of his self-sacrifice, to create for God a new covenant people who will both know him and enjoy eternal life with him" (340). I might quibble a bit with that wording because it sounds way too neo-Reformed for my taste, but Jobes does make her case in this work for her perspective and point of view. At best, she is keeping the meta-narrative in mind as she writes; at worst, she snaps it off just a bit too soon (I think there's more to it than Jesus merely being the 'atoning sacrifice for sin'; that's a big part of it, but there's certainly more. Jobes may or may not agree and it may or may not be a part of 1 John.)
There's a substantial Scripture index, Apocrypha index, subject index, and author index at the very end–substantial enough that whoever wrote it might have been awarded co-authorship of the book! But it is worth the effort to put these appendices together and I am, personally grateful for their inclusion.
I think the same thing can be said of most commentaries: there are things you will agree with the author upon and things you will not. When it's all said and done, I don't think any commentary is written by an author with the expectation that there will be a unanimous voice raised in agreement. Authors write these books to address issues and raise questions that are close to their own hearts, to help us think more deeply about the biblical text, and to engage our minds in significantly deep, Spirit led, thought. Sometimes I think they write them so they can themselves can think through a particular subject. Ultimately, I think what we hope to find is nuggets of exegetical wisdom and splendor–stuff we can use. In this accessible, well written commentary, the author gives us a variety of ways to approach the text of John's Letters:through theological reflection, Greek translation, explanation of the text, outlines, excursions, and introductions. Everyone will find at least one of these approaches useful in their own search for understanding of John's literature.
This commentary is thorough, enthusiastically written, and a welcome addition to the pantheon of literature available on Johannine literature. The reader will be greatly rewarded for journeying through this book and enjoying the thoughtful and timely insights Jobes has to offer. I am supremely happy to have read this book and I am glad I now know of Karen Jobes. I will look forward to reading more of her work and mixing her work with the authors and scholars whose work I have already enjoyed, and keeping it close at hand when I study John's literature again.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John Amazon ($27.93, Kindle $22.99) Zondervan Academic ($34.99) CBD ($24.99)
- Author: Karen Jobes
- Academic Webpage: Karen Jobes
- Editor: Clinton E. Arnold
- Publisher: Zondervan Academic
- Pages: 369
- Year: 2014
- Audience: Preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
- Reading Level: College Level
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan Academic via NetGalley.
Title: Bringing Heaven to Earth
At Amazon: Bringing Heaven to Earth
Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah
I like to mark up the books I read with my pen. In this way, I will be able to go back through the book at a later time and note important passages or thoughts that I may wish to use in a lesson or blog or whatever. For this book, I used a nice red ink and on page 2, near the bottom, I wrote, "I'm already on board!" I wrote that after reading this:
We don't believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn't a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling. (2)
I like that. I like that very, very much. I like it because it resonates with me deeply in that I want something different from the pie in the sky Christianity I was raised on–the kind I have complained about elsewhere. That sort of Christianity gets us in the club and we talk an awful lot about how to get into the club. Then we go through the motions. I was a church preacher for nearly 20 years and I have seen the results of preaching that simply aimed to get people into the club and along for the ride.
Frankly, it's boring. It's meaningless. And it has killed the church. Or it has at least ruined it for some of us. Books like Bringing Heaven to Earth will, hopefully, go a long way towards rectifying one of our most significant problems in the church: definitions. In my opinion, for too long the church has misused some of its language. We have misused words like kingdom, heaven, mission, and judgment. Maybe we have even misused the name of Jesus. N.T. Wright has done the lion's share of the work in helping us re-acquire proper definitions of bible words and others, more recently Scot McKnight in his book Kingdom Conspiracy, and I think Tim Keller to an extent (we might also say Yancey, Hauerwas, Willimon, and others), have taken Wright's heavily historical and theological work and brought it down to the level of the pew. I do not mean this in the sense that McKnight's work or the current book is 'easy' or pedestrian. Wright's work needed a filter for the average pew sitter and these author's have done remarkable work in bringing Wright's message home to the church.
The church has benefited from their work and now I am hopeful that the church will also benefit from the work of Ross and Storment. I come from the same church background as Storment and I can say with utmost confidence that this is a message our churches need desperately to hear. IF there is a denomination in America deeply entrenched in mis-applied definitions it is the church tradition I belong to. Storment's message resonated with me deeply for this reason–especially since I only have a limited voice in that church at this point in my life.
Back to definitions. As one example, take the word 'heaven.' Churches in America have this strange idea that heaven is a place 'we go' after we die. Preachers have done a remarkable job painting pictures of mansions within mansions, ethereal whispiness, clouds, and harps. I confess that when I was younger I used to think to myself that such an existence, no matter how long, would be utterly mind-numbing. And I could never reconcile that vision with Jesus' words about 'heaven being God's throne and the earth being his footstool.' Then along came N.T.Wright who began articulating for me what my heart had only been whispering. I'll never forget the time I preached from the pulpit that when we are resurrected we will have bodies, real flesh and blood bodies and one of the ladies approached me afterward and virtually questioned my sanity. Didn't matter that Jesus was resurrected with a body. But I digress. Ross and Storment bring it home to all of us:
In the Christian worldview, heaven is the realm in which everything is as God wills; it is not just a far off location out past Jupiter. Heaven is less a location and more a reality defined by God's will being done. Yet here on earth, a lot of people are working against heaven by trying to make sure that what they will is what gets done. (33; their emphasis.)
Don't get us wrong, the Gospel is about heaven. But heaven is not the distant, otherworldly place we often imagine it to be. Heaven will come down to earth. We will live on earth in a renewed, restored world. (59; except that the Gospel is not necessarily about heaven; it's about Jesus and how he has brought about heaven's rule here on earth.)
This is good, solid theology for the masses here (except I would eliminate the word 'just' in the first sentence.) The point is clear: so many Christians are caught up thinking about the 'Promised Land' that they haven't given any thought to what God is doing right here, right now, and how what he is doing right here and now will last into eternity. Our lives are about what Jesus continued to do and teach (Acts 1) and what we are doing will be tested in fire. Some will burn up; some will last. Yet there is a reason why Jesus died, was resurrected, and bids us to keep on living here instead of swooping us up as soon as we believe. There is work to be done here, now, and it matters now and then. In one sense it is true that 'this world is not' our home, but there's a better sense in which we do not have much of a choice.
Later on, the author's write:
If we think God's future has nothing to do with our lives and this world, then it won't affect how we live. It's possible to be a Christian and waste your life. It's possible to think that the gospel is all about another time and another place, and totally miss out on what God is doing right in front of you. (190)
What encourages me greatly about this book is that it was written by two preachers. What this tells me is that the message is getting into the hands and hearts of people who live in the world every day of their lives. It tells me that at least in some places in the church words are being defined properly and people are taking in the message and not kicking out the preachers who are doing the defining. What it tells me is that there is leadership in positions of authority who are supporting the message of these preachers. Finally, what it tells me is that the Holy Spirit is indeed moving in our congregations and that the famine might be staved off for a while yet.
This book greatly encourages me not because they have it all correct (although there were more than a couple of times when their insights were deep), but because they are living it, preaching it, and sharing it with others. It's easy to be innovative for the sake of an audience, but I don't sense innovation in this book. I sense a deep personal conviction that this is a message that needs to be heard by the people of the church. It's a strange sense of conviction I get from these two authors/preachers that this is a fire in their bones that cannot be quenched. I'm encouraged because when so many preachers are taking the easy way, they are sticking with the Gospel.
The book reads easily; although, it's easy to get reading and miss the depth. They tell plenty of stories. Quote plenty of Scripture even though I thought perhaps a little too much prominence was given to the story of the Prodigal son. There are several pages of discussion questions at the end and also notes are at the end as well. In my ARC there was no subject index but it may have been added in the final edition.
The only real quibble I have is that I wish they had pushed the metaphor a little more. That is, I wish 'bringing heaven to earth' had been a little more obvious in each chapter because I thought at times it was a bit obscured by other things. It doesn't take away from the book. It just means that a little more work has to be done to find it.
This is an excellent volume and I think it will be a welcome edition to anyone's library–preacher, teacher, church member/parishioner, Protestant or Catholic, or whoever. I applaud the men on their work of bringing this timely message to bear on the church in these days.
Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via the Waterbrook Multnomah Blogging for Books readers' program. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review. I was only expected to be honest and that I have been. Enjoy.
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.
Author: N.T. Wright
I am typically disinclined to give an N.T.Wright book a poor review. I'm not going to start doing so here. That's not to say I have no criticisms; I do. But I really have a difficult time understanding why so many folks get their pants in a wad when it comes to Wright's work.
Every now and again an author comes along on our planet who understands that deep inside the human heart there is a profound emptiness–an emptiness that cannot and will not ever be filled by the things this world has to offer or withhold. What I think N.T. Wright does is points his readers in the direction where that emptiness, that intellectual, spiritual, psychological void, can be filled. But he doesn't do so in the way of so many other authors–where Jesus is a mere helper who teaches folks how to be a good American. Many theologians are just that: therapists or counselors. That is, they have an eye for the great God of the universe, but very little idea of how that great God has effectively taken back this world. Oh, yes, God is sovereign, they say, but only in some sort of strange and controlling way that most folks can scarcely relate to or understand. Thus the stories of the Gospels, the Old Testament, Acts, and the Epistles are merely the stories a good counselor might tell a patient: here's how to pray, here's how to be compassionate, here's how to have a good marriage, or here's what Jesus said about conservative (or liberal!) American politics.
Wright will have none of that. His is the voice not of a counselor or therapist who sics Jesus on a would be patient who is having a bad day or a bad year or a bad life. N.T. Wright is the voice of the prophet crying out in the wilderness: here is your King! So the subtitle, a 'new vision,' is not entirely accurate because what Wright is really doing is pointing us back to what has always been there but what has been covered over by so much encrustation and (wrong) theology in the 2,000 or so years since Jesus walked among us. If Wright is doing anything he is chiseling away the barnacles that have been built up around the Scripture–barnacles I suppose that may have at one time been designed to protect the Bible but that in more recent years have been thickened over in order to protect a theological and/or political system from scrutiny. It is this action of Wright that I suspect lends many folks to label him a theological liberal. To wit:
We have reduced the Kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself. (5)
This is the point in a nutshell. And sermons that do little more than teach me how to be a good Christian or worse a good American (complete with the requisite 'special worship services' on significant holidays) do nothing for me. I want to hear about Jesus and what he has and is doing to upbraid the world and bring about his rule and reign. This is why I read N.T. Wright over and over and over again. He shows me Jesus. "We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!" (5) And so right he is.
Wright has a way of making God understandable, but certainly not palatable in the 'I'm now comfortable with this God' kind of way, to everyone and I don't really care if you are reading his lofty theologies or if you are reading his 'made for the popular reader' books. He challenges readers at every step of their presuppositions. He confounds them at every point of their preconceptions. He unravels every blanket of theological safety they believe they have wrapped themselves up into. He does this in such a way that, you might not believe me unless you read it, neither political (or theological) conservatives nor liberals come out unscathed. And, frankly, this is so because Jesus spared no such pain to anyone either. Jesus is the King. God is taking back the world. Get on board or get left behind, but there is nothing anyone can do to stop Jesus from being King and, in Wright's words, 'setting things to rights.'
Simply Jesus is another of Wright's books that does so much the same. He places Jesus firmly in the context of his culture and is quite content to interpret the New Testament within that context. And let me be frank: that's exactly where Jesus ought to be interpreted. Preachers spend far, far too much time trying making Jesus 'relevant.' I say leave Jesus in the first century, understand what his words and actions meant then and there, and then figure out how that works out in words and actions in our own time and place. But here's the key: Jesus' words and actions really have one meaning and purpose. Preachers around about our times have made Jesus far too predictable. "Blessed are those who can see this, who can spot what's going on, who are prepared to go with Jesus rather than with the princelings of the earth, even though what Jesus wasn't what they had expected" (84).
The only quibble I have with Wright, in general (and as it particularly pertains to Simply Jesus), is his take on the event of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent war afterwards. I fully understand that, ultimately, our battle is against the satan. Yes! (See pp 126ff.) With this I find no disagreement. I have no doubt that the satan uses people and powers to his/her own end. Yes! But he writes, "It is the battle against the satan himself. And, though the satan no doubt uses Rome, uses Herod, uses even the chief priests themselves, Jesus keeps his eye on the fact that the satan is not identified with any of these, and that to make such an identification is already to give up, and so to lose the real battle" (126). But Wright appears to mitigate human responsibility when he says such things. Maybe I'm not reading closely enough; maybe I'm reading too closely. I'm not sure.
That is, I'm not sure how to understand Wright when he accuses (!) the U.S. government in power during 9/11 (a conservative government, to be sure; yet a government that passed bi-partisan legislation authorizing the sword) and fails to see what those who might otherwise be labeled 'enemies' did to provoke the U.S. government (and many nations around the world besides, including his own!) He is fond of Romans 8; not so fond of Romans 13. I think this is bothersome. He is fond of criticizing the United States (and not so subtly George W. Bush) but eschews criticism of other governments who were also involved in action against those who attacked the U.S.A on September 11, 2001. Here I think Wright is unable to make the correct theological connection and fails to understand the difference between a secular government charged with responsibility to protect its citizens (Romans 13 and elsewhere) and an ecclesial authority not authorized to use the sword ('put your sword away', Jesus said to Peter).
In my opinion, Wright makes a serious error here. Yes, war is bad. Yes, we should avoid it. But the truth is this: in international politics, in global politics, the ethics of the kingdom of God are not always so neat and tidy or evenly applied or understood or appreciated or cared for. Ask one of the folks who flew an airplane into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if he cares a lick about what Jesus said about war, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. I'm not sure what the answer is; I'm not sure Wright's ongoing criticism of the United States government (he rarely says anything about the current government of Barack Obama) is wholly justified. I do know this: the radicals who continue to kill (women, children), main, murder, and provoke wars in the name of God are not the same as those folks who take up the sword to defend women, children, the weak, and others whose daily goal is simply to live life. Is it fair to apply a biblical standard of ethics (loving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc.) to a secular government?
The reality of this life is this: sometimes evil does have a face. Sometimes evil is more than an invisible being or force. Sometimes evil does have a name and we do well to name it as such. I'm not suggesting I have all this worked out, and at times (like when Jesus looked at Peter and commanded Satan to get behind) I am stretched too thin to wholly justify my position. What I am suggesting is that Wright's position at this point is weak and, in my opinion, mitigates human culpability. Suggesting there are no evil people really fails to understand the full workings of evil and the evil one in this world.
I can go on and on telling you how important this book, along with any other by Wright, is. I could tell you that Wright is at his best when he is engaging the text and tying together all the threads he is remarkably twisted from so much ancient history and text. I could tell you of his masterful understanding and application of Daniel, Isaiah, and Zechariah. I could tell you about his superior interpretation of the historical events from the time of Jesus. But to what end? Those who have read Wright already know and those who haven't will not be disappointed.
I have read enough of Wright's work to see and know that a lot of what is in this book is repetitive. How God Became King is a similar, and in my opinion, superior book by Wright. His monumental Jesus and the Victory of God is a much expanded and academic version of Simply Jesus that may appeal to more detail oriented readers. Simply Jesus kind of distills a lot of what is written in the academic volumes to a more popular level; it is no less potent.
The person who knows Jesus will appreciate very much Wright's work to interpret Jesus within his own context. The historical details Wright brings to our attention, the cultural phenomena of the time, the complexities of would be messiahs, revolutionaries, and temple authorities, and the sophistication and intrigue of secular politics are all woven together nicely and interpreted brilliantly to help the reader see that God's plan has always been the same: to reclaim the earth for himself through his appointed Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God.
And God wins.
4/5 stars (because he has written better versions of these thoughts elsewhere and it gets repetitive, and because I struggle with his interpretation of evil and his seeming inability to distinguish the role of a secular government in protecting innocent people from the forces of evil at play in this world.)
Title: Jesus Now
Author: Frank Viola
Publisher: David C Cook
[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this e-book via NetGalley. It is my duty to inform you that I was provided this resource for a short period of time in exchange for my fair review of the contents. This is yet another example of the government intruding and infringing upon the rights of citizens. Nevertheless, this is my disclaimer.]
I cannot remember how I came across the name Frank Viola. It may have been when I was reading Primal Fire by Neil Cole. It may have been chance. It may have been Twitter. At this juncture, I'm not really sure that it matters all that much because I'm just about sold on his ideas. I probably need to do some more reading, but it is probably important that I started with Jesus Now. This really is an excellent book and I highly recommend that if you are a leader in the church or someone who seeks to be a catalyst for change in an otherwise boring and stagnant vacuum of faithlessness.
That sounds remarkably harsh, but I speak from experience. Since being evicted from the ranks of paid, professional clergy five years ago, I have had the opportunity to travel about to various churches from various denominational backgrounds and listen to a variety of preachers. It has been my experience that for the most part most churches in most parts of the world are utterly boring–and it is precisely for reasons that Viola expounds upon in this book: "One of the greatest concerns I have for the 'good news' today is that we often present a gospel that is more 'true' than 'useful.' This is never more true than when we're considering the subject and actor of our entire faith: Jesus Christ" (6).
Or maybe I should say it this way: churches are bored. Yet I can attribute the same reason for their boredom: there is simply not any significant emphasis on Jesus as the Resurrected Lord who is our power, as the Lord who has been given all authority in heaven and earth, as the King who has ascended to the Right Hand of God, as the Messiah who has exposed the powers of this earth through His death on the Cross. Frankly (no pun), I don't think the church is enamored with Jesus. Maybe the church doesn't really know Jesus well enough.
I like the idea behind the book: that we will see Jesus didn't just quit working because he ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he continues to work in us, through, and for us in a variety of ways and in a variety of capacities. Some of the important ways Jesus continues to work are as our Great High Priest, as the Chief Shepherd, the Author and Finisher of our Faith, Head of the Church, and Lord of the World. There are others too, but I think you get the idea of where Viola is going with this. He pays particular attention to the book of Hebrews which I appreciated immensely, but that's not all. The book is just filthy with Scripture references, quotes, and exegetical ideas from Scripture. This is for sure: there is no lack of Scripture in this book–in fact, take away the Scripture references and there's not much book left.
Theologically there are, of course, areas where the reader will find some disagreement with Viola. There were a few examples for me. For example, I am somewhat in disagreement with him concerning the idea of cessationism. Many competent theologians have concluded that some of the Spirit's gifts have, in fact, ceased to be fully present in the church–which is not to say that such gifts are not manifested ever. He writes, "There is no biblical merit for the cessationist idea" (65). I'm not so sure about this because there seems to be some indication that even for Paul such gifts were not perpetuated (i.e., leaving people sick at places, exhorting Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach ailments). That said, it's a disagreement that I'm not willing to die for. If the Spirit chooses to do what the Spirit chooses to do, then so be it. Maybe if the church stopped stumbling around in the darkness over silly arguments we would see an atmosphere where the Spirit is manifest more often. Maybe the Holy Spirit is waiting for us to finish with all our petty bickering and treating each other poorly. Or maybe the Holy Spirit simply refuses to show up in churches where the predetermined conclusion is that he is no longer working among his people. That is, maybe we prevent his appearance because of our disbelief.
There are also areas where I am complete agreement with Viola. In chapter 5 he talks about Jesus the 'builder of ekklesia.' His question early on is: "So what happens when gifted Christians are reared in a human organization built on unbiblical systems rather than in an organic expression of the body of Christ?" So what happens? Let me be honest. I am new to this whole 'organic church' movement so I remain just a tad bit skeptical when it comes to abandoning the 'old ways' of doing things. On the other hand, as someone who grew up, learned, and sought to perpetuate the 'old way' of doing things, I know how badly I was burned–strike that–how badly my faith has been wrecked by those old people doing old things the old ways. Much of the wrecking of my faith has occurred at the hands of people who simply didn't want to hear the truth about grace, Jesus, and the hard cost of following Jesus.
So I think it is true that Jesus can work through these structures and that perhaps he does; nevertheless, who is to say that the gigantic growth of a relative few churches has been the best thing for the many churches that have not experienced such growth? And who is to say that setting up the church like a multi-million dollar corporation with a CEO at the head is necessarily what Jesus had in mind? We Protestants scoff at the idea of the Papacy of the Catholic Church, but we are no better when we have one preacher set over thousands of people on several different campuses all connected via satellite and the internet. We just do it on a smaller scale than the Catholics.Viola is right: "The great need today in the body of Christ is to reinstate the headship of Christ. Tragically, all sorts of things have replaced Christ's headship. Church boards, committee meetings, church leaders, church programs, manmade rules and regulations, etc., have often supplanted the headship of Jesus Christ" (75).
As someone who has been at the mercy of these supplanters, I can only say 'amen!' and ask how many other preachers like me have suffered at the hands of these interlopers? How many of us have had our faith wrecked and turned upside down because of such ideas? I couldn't agree more that there must be something better for the church. And Viola may not come right out and say it in the book, but I have a suspicion he would agree that these things are not only killing God's prophets, apostles, and evangelists, but they are also slowly choking the church to death. When a church spends more time in committee talking about 'business' than they spend on their knees seeking the face of God there is a problem. A serious problem. "Christ alone has the right to rule his church–not any human or committee. It is His body, not ours" (76).
I could go on and on about this, but I'm writing a review of a book so I must stop. In that spirit, just a couple of final thoughts.
First, I love the few times that Viola gives us big long lists of things such as things the Holy Spirit is doing, names of the enemy, or the ways in which Jesus is exercising his authority over the church and directing the Work. I seriously believe that if the church took more time to see Jesus for who he is the church would be like Josiah whose architects found the word of God: "When the king heard the words of the book of the Law he tore his robes" (2 Kings 22:11) except that we would be tearing our robes and saying, "That is Jesus?!?!?! Woe is us!"
Second, I read the Nook version of this book (e-pub using Adobe Digital Editions) and I found the book very nicely put together (I only found one typo in the book). I always put in a plug for the Nook version of e-books since the other guys seem to get all the publicity.
I highly recommend this book. Again, it is true that not everyone is going to find agreement at all points, but that's not a bad thing. The author's enthusiasm for Jesus is what comes across in the book and is what, in my opinion, needs to come across. If you are interested in what Jesus is doing now, if you need a spark to your boring church life, or if you need your passion for Jesus reignited, this is a good place to start. And when you are finished reading it, give it to a friend or a preacher or to your entire church board. Do your best to be a catalyst to get the church's eyes turned back to Jesus.
This is an important work for the way in which it redirects our attention to Jesus and away from the wreck we have made of the church which will only be repaired when we fix our eyes on Jesus.
Here are the box.net links to four sermons I preached last summer on the resurrection of Jesus. Each sermon was introduced by watching a clip from a DVD featuring NT Wright. There are four sections to the DVD and I roughly followed their progression. The video is ‘on location’ and it is excellent.
The main idea is that the Resurrection of Jesus has real life implications for Christians now. Since He rose, we have no right to be sitting around doing nothing. The Resurrection is our catalyst to action. The end of each sermon is a look at how some Christians are living out the Resurrection of Jesus now.
The sermons follow a rather basic structure, but they are not typical, and cover three areas: History, Theology, Praxis. As I said, I began each sermon with a short 10-12 minute DVD clip from Wright (history). From there, I read a passage of Scripture and did a short exposition on the passage (theology). And finally, I concluded with another video clip or a ministry introduction (praxis). The series was important, and I think it was well received. I confess that the sermons themselves did get a little long due to the many components.
I have listed the primary texts dealt with in each of the sermons. Be blessed. jerry
Resurrection 1: Mark 9:2-10; 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12
Resurrection 2: Acts 17:16-34
Resurrection 3: Matthew 27:62-28:15
Resurrection 4: Ephesians 2:1-10
About a month ago I finished FF Bruce’s book The Message of the New Testament. Near the end he has this quote:
In Jesus the promise is confirmed, the covenant renewed, the prophecies are fulfilled, the law is vindicated, salvation is brought near, sacred history has reached its climax, the perfect sacrifice has been offered and accepted, the great priest over the household of God has taken his seat at God’s right hand, the Prophet like Moses has been raised up, the Son of David reigns, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated, the Son of Man has received dominion from the Ancient of Days, the Servant of the Lord, having been smitten to death for his people’s transgression and borne the sin of many, has accomplished the divine purpose, has seen the light after the travail of his soul and is now exalted and extolled and made very high (from This is That, p 21 as quoted on page 114 of The Message of the New Testament.)
And to think that in all of that, God Almighty was thinking about humanity. We are blessed. Thank God for Jesus Messiah.
Soli Deo Gloria!