God’s Very Verbal Word in the Words of Jeremiah

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10

mouth full of fireI’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.

At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:

..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph  is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.

-A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54

This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.

That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.

I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria

Wilson’s 3 Ways of Distorting the Bible and My 3 Options For Reading It Without Chucking It

andrew wilsonLast month Steve Chalke wrote a piece over at Christianity.com about the way we’ve been misreading Bible. It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wasn’t a fan. Then he and my buddy Andrew Wilson had those fun debates over at Premier.TV about the Bible. As you may remember I had an opinion on one of those as well. Well, Christianity.com has just posted Andrew’s piece responding to Chalke’s on the nature of the Bible, and whether or not we can call it the Word of God. He knows the difficulties involved with that:

Most of us know what it’s like to read a section of scripture and find ourselves thinking, I wish that bit wasn’t there.

Sometimes that’s because the Bible contains puzzling details (like when people start swapping sandals in the middle of a love story, or holding each other’s thighs when they’re agreeing a deal). Sometimes it’s because we feel embarrassed about the easy confidence with which it talks about impossible things (parting the Red Sea? Really?). Sometimes it’s because we’re genuinely confused by a difficulty, either within the text (how did Judas die, again?) or outside of it (did a flood really cover the entire Earth, and if so, why isn’t there any geological evidence for it?).

And often, it’s because we simply don’t like it. It’s ancient, different, challenging, scary, radical, courageous, provocative. We live in a world where many of the things the Bible says – God made everything, human beings are responsible for the world’s problems, God chose Israel as his special people, sex is only meant for one man and one woman in marriage, Jesus is the only way to God, the wages of sin is death, God is going to judge the earth one day, and so on – are profoundly unpopular. Saying them out loud may get you labelled a bigot or an idiot; saying them on a reality TV show means either you get kicked off or the show gets cancelled.

But what can we do with those sections?

The question is: what do we do when that happens? Do we stand as judge over the Bible, and decide which bits we will accept and which bits we won’t? Or do we sit under the loving authority of God, expressed through the scriptures, and allow him to shape us, correct us and challenge us? Do we let ourselves edit the Bible, or do we let the Bible edit us?

He helpfully lists three typical distortions one can make when it comes to approaching the Bible.

  1. First, we can make the mistake of “literalism”, essentially ignoring the context and, in general, a sloppy hermeneutic so that, in a misguided attempt to accept it all as true, we accept what it isn’t saying.
  2. Second, we can make the mistake of “liberalism”, which boils down to only accepting those bits we find acceptable according to our own modern reason and sensibilities.
  3. Third, we can make the “mix and match” mistake of selectively appropriating those bits we find lovely and wonderful and chucking out the rest.

That third one is the bit that seems to resemble Chalke’s approach most, which Wilson goes on to elaborate about at length. I’d highly encourage you to read the whole thing because it’s gold.

Also, interestingly enough, I had a post in the queue about 3 options we ought to consider when approach difficult, offensive texts we run across, before concluding it’s wrong and chucking it out.

Well, before we chuck them away in disgust, I would like to suggest at least 3 possible options to consider before you come to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong on a given subject:

  1. The verses you’re reading don’t say what you think they say. Honestly, a good commentary can clear up a lot of heartache by pointing out linguistic confusions and socio-historical factors that show you’re not reading the thing properly. Read carefully. If something disturbs you, don’t just chuck the Bible away in disgust, but wrestle with it and read it charitably, like a letter from a friend that initially reads offensively. Give it the benefit of the doubt and then try to understand it. Whether it’s Sabbath sticks, or the Conquest in Joshua, or maybe even slavery in the New Testament, there are often-times contextual issues at work that need to be considered when you’re reading an ancient text.
  2. The verses say what you think they say, but the problem is not with the Bible, but your own cultural presuppositions. I mean, let’s just be honest and say, this wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something, right? Sometimes we don’t stop and consider the finiteness or our intellectual horizons, both at the personal or the cultural level. It should give us pause that the very texts that we appreciate most on the Bible, (equality, forgiveness, grace), are some of the most culturally-offensive in other parts of the world, while the text that give us pause (judgment, wrath), are the ones quickly accepted in other parts of the world. As Keller points out in The Reason for God, if the Bible is the transhistorical truth of God, it makes sense that it would offend and correct some part of every culture throughout history.  You may just have to consider the fact that a dusty old book might get something right that our current culture gets wrong. Humble yourself and be open to your own fallibility.
  3. The verses say what you think it says, but the application is up for grabs. The Bible very clearly condemns adultery and divorce. Nobody’s going to argue that one. There’s still a difference of opinion amongst Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians as to what the state should be doing about that. Should the state make/enforce adultery laws? How hard should divorce be? Should non-Christians be held to the standards of the church? These are all legitimate questions that people who agree about what the Bible says on the moral issue still can discuss. Applying the text is not always a straightforward affair. My buddy Alan Noble has some good reflections on misguided Christian appropriation of the Bible for political rhetoric over at Christ and Pop Culture that are worth considering in relation to this.

To conclude, I know it’s a lot easier to look at the Bible and take the parts you like and scrap the parts you don’t like as it fits your own experience or judgments arrived at independent of the text, or simply “read” it and try to ham-handedly apply it to our lives no matter how awkward (or possibly wrong) we are in doing so. It takes a lot more effort to wrestle with the thing, struggle, read carefully, pray, be uncomfortable, struggle again, and submit to what the Lord says. Still, this is the call. May God give us grace to read carefully and read humbly.

Soli Deo Gloria

An Outline of Acts with the Lord Jesus at the Center

acts of JesusThe book of Acts has been known as “The Acts of the Apostles” for most of church history because of it’s focus on, well, the acts of the apostles. For the most part it’s Peter preaching here, Philip baptizing there, and Paul getting in fights everywhere. Scholars have alternatively suggested that it ought to be thought of as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” given the prominent role played by the Spirit in empowering the Church throughout the narrative. Recently, though, Alan J. Thompson has suggested what I think to be a more appropriate way of understanding the book: “The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus.”

In this new study of the theology of Acts, Thompson demonstrates that Luke’s sequel volume really ought to be seen as a depicting the continuing  Kingdom-ministry of the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus through the Church by the Spirit.  Now, while it would be fascinating to go into the case, I think it might be more interesting to see how Thompson thinks this should shape our view of the outline of Acts.

Thompson notes that there are a couple of different typical approaches to the outline of Acts. One is the focus on Paul’s missionary journeys, which, while somewhat intuitive, ends up focusing more on Paul than on Jesus. And the other is to key in on certain programmatic statements as marking movement in the story, which is a bit truer to the literary style, but it still has some organization disadvantages when viewed as a whole. Instead, Thompson presents us with an alternative structure with the “reign of the Lord Jesus” at the center:

Acts 1:1 – 2:47  The reign of Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit

Acts 3:1 – 8:3   The reign of Christ the Lord over rising opposition

Internal and external

Acts 8:4 – 9:31 The reign of Christ the Lord over outcasts and enemies

Samaria

Ethiopian Eunuch

Paul

Acts 9:32 – 12:25 The reign of Christ over all the nations

Peter preaches Christ in Lydda, Joppa, to Cornelius and household

The Jewish Gentile Church in Antioch is established

Peter is rescued from ‘King’ Herod Agrippa I and his prison

Acts 13:1 – 16:5 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 1

Commission in Antioch (13:1-3)

Ministry in Cyprus, Pisidia, Lycaonia (13:4-14:20)

Nurturing the churches (14:21-28)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (15:1-16:5)

Acts 16:6 – 21:36 The reign of Christ the Lord proclaimed to the nations: part 2

Commission in Troas (16:6-10)

Ministry in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus (16:11-19:41)

Nurturing the churches (20:1-21:14)

Evaluation in Jerusalem (21:15-36)

Acts 21:-37 – 28:31 The reign of Christ the Lord vindicated before the rulers

Trial before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21-22)

Trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 23)

Trial before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24)

Trial before Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26)

Final meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28)

The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, pp. 69-70

So then, maybe take up the book of Acts this week and read it with new eyes, focused not so much on Paul or Peter, but the way the Risen Lord advances his Kingdom through the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Theft, Lenten Reading, and The Final Days of Jesus

Book theft is real.

Book theft is real.

True story: I had a book stolen out of the mail the other day. All I received was an empty package with a sticker on it, notifying me that the last post office to handle it had received it in that condition. Somewhere out there, there is a book thief who is working their way through my review copy of Andreas J. Kostenberger  and Justin Taylor’s new volume, The Final Days of Jesus: The Last Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. I’m not too mad about that, though. Thankfully, Justin was kind enough to send another. Also, I’m hopeful the perpetrator in question will repent–maybe when he gets to the part about the thief on the cross next to Jesus.

In any case, I’m kind of glad I hit a delay in receiving my copy. It gave me time to reconsider my approach. Initially, I had planned on reading through it quickly and doing a full review, but the closer we move to the Lenten season, it makes sense to take it up as my yearly Lenten reading. For many of us, Lent is observed by giving something up–by sacrificing some food, activity, etc. in order to prayerfully remind ourselves of the course of Jesus’ life, ministry, and sufferings, as well as prepare for the joy of Easter. That can be a good and holy thing. One other way of celebrating Lent is to take up something–additional prayers, Scripture reading, acts of service, and so forth.

final daysIn that spirit, I’ve made it a habit over the last few years to make sure and read through at least one work focusing on Jesus’ life, or atoning work, to prepare myself for Holy Week. After skimming through the intro and the layout of the Kostenberger and Taylor’s work, I’ve decided this will be a perfect choice for my Lenten reading this year. For those of you looking to embrace a similar practice I’d like to encourage you to pick up their work as well.

Why? Well, a few reasons. First, it’s a cleanly laid out book focusing on the last week of Jesus’ ministry and passion, where all of his ministry, both in word and deed, are coming to their revelatory culmination in his death and resurrection. Basically, if you don’t get this week, you don’t get Jesus.

Second, Kostenberger and Taylor have taken every text from the 4 Gospels, arranged them in a harmonious, historically-sensitive manner, and then briefly commented on each of them, bringing out their theological and spiritual significance.

Third, it’s solid work. But that’s unsurprising. Andreas Kostenberger is a noted New Testament research scholar out of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an expert in the Gospels. Justin Taylor is a careful writer, sharp theological mind, and experienced publisher at Crossway. But don’t take my word for it. Here are just a few endorsements from actual scholars and respected pastors:

“This is a book about the most important person who ever lived during the most crucial week of his life. If you want to get to know the person and teachings of Jesus in the context of an engaging story with practical commentary, this book is for you. It is biblical, personal, and transformational.”
Darrin Patrick, Pastor, The Journey, St. Louis, Missouri; author, For the City and Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission

“An enlightening and edifying look at the most important week in history. Both those who want to know more about the history and those who long to behold the wonder will find much to love about this great work. One gets the sense that we should proceed through these pages on our knees.”
J. D. Greear, Lead Pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina; author, Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved

“You may be wondering what can be done to make Christ’s last week come alive in ways it hasn’t before. It would help to understand the historical background and cultural script a little better, but you don’t want a big book. It would help, too, if your authors were trustworthy, knowledgeable evangelical scholars who could write clearly for laypeople. Look no further—this is the book for you!”
Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

“Jesus’s last week shook but also saved the world. From Palm Sunday to Easter morning, each day and encounter were critical. This book leads the reader step by step along Jesus’s route from triumphal entry to the cross and finally to glory. Numerous maps and diagrams shed fresh light on each Gospel’s claims. We are reminded not only of what Christ did but also where his way points us now. An excellent beginning-to-intermediate guide!”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Holy Week is arguably the most sacred time of year for Christians. Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor provide a simple yet eloquent survey of the final week of Jesus’s life. They take readers on a pilgrimage through the Gospels and invite us to follow Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on to the dark and tragic moments of Golgotha, and through to the glorious and unspeakable joy at the feet of the risen Jesus. In short, this is a wonderful resource for individuals, families, and fellowships to learn more about the Easter story, the greatest story ever told.”
Michael F. Bird, Lecturer in Theology, Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry

“A clearly presented overview of the most important week in world history. Brief, helpful comments illuminate the biblical story and bring home its enduring and life-changing message.”
Douglas J. MooWessner Chair of Biblical Studies, Wheaton College

The Final Days of Jesus helps believers take note of the historical events leading up to Jesus’s death on the cross. Readers are challenged to see the provocation that Jesus’s message and life represented, leading to his arrest and execution. The book demonstrates that historical facts and Christian worship can and should go hand in hand.”
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mary F. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, Paul the Missionary

So then, if you’re looking to take a focused look at the work of Jesus this Lenten season, I’d suggest you head on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy. Maybe get a couple and go through it with some friends at church. It promises to be an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

10 Principles for Reading OT Narratives

old testamentIt’s safe to say that “narratives” is the most predominant type of literature in the Bible. Leaving aside the New Testament, over 40 % of Old Testament are narratives.  Given that, especially in light of the New Year when a bunch of us will finally be tackling the OT again, it’s kind of important to know what you’re doing when approaching these texts, especially when reading for theological and moral content. For instance, what do we do with the story of Abram giving Sara to the king of Egypt out of fear and gaining great wealth (Gen. 12)? Is this acceptable behavior for us? I mean, he is a patriarch? Or what about the story of Gideon and the fleece (Jdg. 6)? Should we set up little tests for God in order to figure out his will for our lives?

With these sorts of problems in mind Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give 10 important principles to keep in mind when reading Old Testament narratives for moral and theological content:

  1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
  2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
  3. Narratives record what happened— not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
  4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us.
  5. Frequently, it is just the opposite. Most of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect— as are their actions as well.
  6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21: 25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
  8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
  9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.

Fee, Gordon D.; Stuart, Douglas (2009-10-14). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Kindle Locations 1866-1879). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

This is not a full-blown hermeneutic for reading Old Testament texts, but these are sound principles that can help clear up some of the worst pitfalls an untrained-reader might fall into.

Soli Deo Gloria

N.T. Wright, Empire, and the Advent Hope of Eschatology

paul and the faithfulness of God “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” -Acts 17:30-31

While it’s become something of a truism in the last few years to note that much New Testament christology has an anti-imperial tone to it (as Wright puts it, the basic confession of the faith “Jesus is Lord”, means “Caesar is not”), what often goes unmentioned by many is the threat to Empire posed by its eschatology. N.T. Wright explains how this works:

…in particular, the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objections to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of he standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God.) It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 342-343

Rome might claim finality and ultimacy for its ‘peace’ and ‘justice’, but there is a greater judgment coming. Part of the political hope of early Christian eschatology is that no empire, or authority that sets itself up against the Lordship of Christ can last. There is one Lord who will judge and reign in righteousness, who will bring about the true Golden Age, and he doesn’t brook rivals forever.

As we celebrate the first week of Advent it’s important to remember this is not just hope for 1st Century Christians. Modern Tyrants still recognize a threat when they see one. When I was in college I took a class on Christianity and China and learned about some of the differences between the house churches and the government-approved Three-Self churches. One of the most surprising was their teaching on the end-times. In his work Jesus in Beijing David Aikman says while most are basically orthodox theologically, it is “unlikely a worshiper in a Three Self Church will ever hear a sermon the Second Coming of Christ.” Like all other Empires, the communist regime sees the coming consummation of Jesus’ reign as a threat to claims of its own.

One of the best ways to observe Advent this week is to pray for the persecuted church around the world. Lift up our brothers and sisters living in totalitarian or hostile religious environments that they might be protected and liberated. Pray that as they meditate on the First Coming of Jesus looking towards Christmas, they might be strengthened by the Spirit in the sure hope they have in his Second Coming. Pray that even the midst of their struggles they might be able to sing with Psalmist:

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:10-13, ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Lewis Couldn’t Write About Aliens AND Centaurs — (Or, N.T. Wright on Pauline Authorship)

paul and the faithfulness of GodWhen I got to seminary, I found out a lot of people think Paul didn’t all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Actually, it’s not just that some people don’t, but rather it’s the dominant position in non-conservative academia, and even many conservative scholars adopt it. The idea is that letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Timothys, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians are later compositions, pseudepigraphal, either by an imposter, or a devoted disciple that claim Paul’s name and authority. Depending on how conservative you are, you might say that the earliest recipients would have, of course, known this, and so there really wasn’t fraud being committed, but rather this would have been seen as an acceptable instance of a very common practice. Or, you might just call it lying.

While I can’t get into all of the details, one of the main arguments against their authenticity is the alleged difference in style and vocabulary. When you compare and contrast the undisputed letters to the others, you apparently find different vocabularies employed, special terminology missing or in use, sentence construction and so forth.

Now, I have to admit, when it comes to the Pauline epistles, I’ve never found this sort of argumentation all that convincing. Actually, I said as much in a footnote in one of my papers in seminary:

I’ve never been very impressed with arguments like that. “Paul couldn’t have said this, because he never says this kind of thing, as far as we know.” But what if he just said it in the passage? Then it would be the kind of thing he would say. I find this to be especially problematic given the contextual nature of these letters. It strikes me as kind of like saying, C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written The Space Trilogy because he never talked about aliens in The Chronicles of Narnia and the former is written for adults and clearly the latter is for children. Or it’s like saying “Oh, Bob could never have talked about that with his girlfriend Gina. I know that because I know what he talks about with his mother.” Barring a demonstration of contradiction or of unacceptably different conceptual backgrounds, these arguments often-times are simply an elevated exercise in question-begging that don’t take seriously issue of the way contextual concerns dominate the theology of Paul’s letters and the topics he chooses to address.

Now, you could easily chalk that up to a young, conservative student’s incredulity towards disturbing scholarship. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that N.T. Wright agrees with me!

Wright dives into the issue of authorship in his first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yes, I started it and a couple hundred pages in it’s great) in order defend his use of Ephesians and Colossians as source material instead of simply sticking to the undisputed seven letters. While he has a fascinating section dealing with the theological motives in play for doubting the letters I’d love to get into (in the early days, the problem was that the general epistles sounded too “Catholic” for modern liberal Protestants to stomach, nowadays it’s more from postmodern egalitarians who don’t like what Paul has to say in the household codes),  it’s his short (for Wright) little section on the style issue that I found worth highlighting:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 ...Among NT scholars who have written children's fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful.

–Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60

So then, style matters, but it isn’t everything. If a NT scholar can write children’s lit, and someone as limited in range as me can write about epistemology and dating tips, then we ought to be wary about these sorts of judgments, when you’re dealing with a versatile thinker like Paul who’s doing ministry on multiple fronts across a series of decades.

And that’s just one of the dozens of nuggets worth sharing out of Wright’s PFG.

Soli Deo Gloria

Joseph, Crappy Jobs, and Working for the Glory of God (The Story Notes #4)

josephMy church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Text – Genesis 39-

One of the big questions that a lot of us start asking in college, or should, is “How do we work in the secular world, maybe in difficult situations?” Right? A lot of us are getting our first jobs, or we’re thinking about what to study, and what career to go into. We’re starting to realize that if you don’t know how to live out your faith at work, then there’s about 40 or 50 hours of your week where you’re just saying, “Well God, I’ll check back in with you when I’m off the clock.” For followers of Jesus, that just won’t work. Jesus claims all of our lives, including our work lives. So how do you work as a Christian?

What’s more, how do we do it when it’s difficult? When your boss is a tool? When you’re at a job you hate? When your co-workers don’t love Jesus? When you’re kind of wondering why you’re even there?

 Well, while there’s a lot to say, tonight we’re going to talk about the story of Joseph and see the way trusting in God’s purposes allows us to engage the world at work for his glory.

To see this, let’s set up the story.

The Story – Here’s the set-up. so, last week we talked about Abraham. Abraham had Isaac who then had a son named Jacob. Jacob was a busy man who ended up with twelve sons. Joseph is one of Jacob’s sons. In fact, he was his favorite son and he made it very clear (special coat, privileges, etc), so much that his brothers became jealous of him. Now, Joseph was kind of an arrogant young idiot and even told them he had vision where he’d basically be ruling over them.

Well, later on they had a chance to get rid of them and so when they were far away from the house, and Joseph was coming to check up on them, they jumped him. Initially they were going to kill him, but instead, they ended up selling him into slavery. They took some of his clothes, tore ‘em up and bloodied them to make it look like a wild animal had eaten them.

Some time after that, he’s sold into the house of a very wealthy official in Pharaoh’s household named Potiphar, which is where we picked up the story in chapter 39 and we start to learn some things.

The Options – See, at this point, He was living in a new land, pagan, with a slave-owner boss who worshipped other gods. What we see is that Joseph avoided two basic options that we’re tempted to fall into, but opted for a third that comes from trusting in God. So what are these options?

Christians Don’t Slack — The first option would be to kind of slack off and shut-down. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, or interacting with non-Christians, you kind of do what you have to to get by, not more, not less, but just kind of half-it. A lot of Christians think that work in secular environments is just something you have to put up with. They refuse to participate, or accept positions of power because they think that working with non-Christians, or doing good at something other than churchy things is inherently sinful or inferior. Or maybe the situation is just so frustrating they get better and don’t work for that reason.

This is not what we see Joseph do. Joseph didn’t sit there getting bitter, cursing God for the situation and then just waiting it out.  See, it says that he worked and the Lord prospered his hand in all that he did. Now, if the Lord was prospering his hand, this doesn’t mean that he just kind of sat there and God worked it out. Clearly, Joseph applied himself to the best of his abilities and talents on behalf of his master. Despite being a pagan and his owner, Joseph worked to serve him and do the best job he could.

Christians are to work hard and do well in their jobs. We shouldn’t just punch our cards, and wait until the hours are done. Paul tells servants in Colossians that they should do their work as if they were working for Jesus himself. WE are to put our best foot forward, to try, to strive, to do a good job.

Christian Don’t Compromise – On the flipside, Joseph also avoids the other option: selling out. There are going to be times at work where it’s tempting to compromise. You may want to start giving in to the culture. It may be shady business deals. Or maybe its cheating your boss. Or maybe it’s just the general atmosphere of immorality. Whatever it is, the temptation is to just fit in and get cozy at the cost of your reputation and your relationship with God. Maybe you just figured all you can do is make the best of it because God has let you down, to you settle into the atmosphere of sin.

This is not what you see Joseph do either. Look at the situation with Potiphar’s wife. She’s coming on to him. She sees he’s young an attractive and she’s kind of a cougar, so she wants him. And, really, how easy would it have been for Joseph to give in? It probably would have been fun. What’s more, it might have benefited him short-term with his position. She might have put in a good word with her husband to set him free or give him more privileges, etc.

But he refuses to compromise and runs out the door on that. He says here quite clearly that he would not dishonor God or betray his master’s trust that way. He clings to his integrity and strives to honor God in what he’s doing. This is our call as Christians. We are to stand firm, not give in to the culture or sell out our integrity.

Being honest won’t always work out immediately either as you can see. She lies about him and gets him thrown in prison. You’re going to have these moments where being honest might not be the ‘smart’ thing to do, and yet the call is to stay firm and not compromise in our jobs.

Christians Glorify God by Bless Others – So what is driving Joseph? What is this third way? If it’s not shutting down, or selling out? What is his goal? What is his call? It is glorify God in his work. That’s what we see here, over and over again, as well as what we see in the rest of the story.

Summarizing some of the story ahead, you’ll see that once he’s in prison, he’s actually placed in a position of authority again. The jailer actually ends up trusting him so much he’s put in charge of the prisoners. While in there, he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants: the baker and the cupbearer. Both of them have dreams and he ends up interpreting the dreams for them: the baker would die and the cupbearer would return to his position. And that’s what happened. The cupbearer ends up getting out of prison and returning to his station right next to the Pharaoh.

Years later, the Pharaoh has a freaky weird dream about some skinny cows eating fat cows and it’s all very bizarre. None of Pharaoh’s wise men are able to decipher it and it’s at that point that the cupbearer remembers Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams. He brings him out of prison, where he is able to decipher the meaning of the dreams. They foretold seven years of crop abundance followed by seven years of famine. He then advised that the Pharaoh prepare by saving up during the fat years for the lean years.

And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Gen. 41:38-40)

Pharoah trusted in Joseph and because of his wisdom he took him and put him in charge of his empire. He was second only to Pharaoh. In other words, he went from the pit to the palace and from there, he administered Pharaoh’s kingdom wisely. And there he worked hard, and didn’t compromise either. But this shows us something else.

See, not only was he a hard worker and didn’t compromise, the wisdom of God helped him do things the people around him could not. See, this pointed ahead to what Israel was supposed to do in the world. God’s people have always been called to show the world what God is like through the wisdom he gives us. So, there might be times where the lessons of grace will give you extra peace, or graces, or care with a co-worker, or something like that which will give you an opportunity to be a light in the darkness for the name of Jesus.

And that  should be our goal: to glorify Jesus in the way we do our job with the wisdom of the Gospel

Christians Trust in God’s Sovereignty - How do we do this in difficult situations, though? How do we have the perspective we need to be faithful in trials, to work hard, to not compromise and not give up hope? To testify to God’s wisdom for the world? By trusting you are where you are by God’s wisdom. This is what we see this later in Joseph’s story.

See, Joseph was raised to the palace, meanwhile when the famine hit, his own family was still back in Canaan, where the famine had no relief. So the brothers came down to Egypt to buy food and after an interesting chain of events, they were all reunited, and Jacob and his family were moved down to Egypt under the protection of Joseph where they grew and were prosperous.

In two speeches, Joseph testifies in his belief that God was in control the whole time. In chapter 45:5-7, he’s telling his brothers about what has happened and that they should not be afraid of him because he wasn’t angry anymore. He says to them,

““I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!  And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

Later, after Jacob dies, they are again afraid that Joseph will take his revenge and so he has to reassure them and he says to them in 50:19-20:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

See, Joseph knew that God was in control and that he was working things out according to his plans. God was using the evil of his brothers and Joseph’s years to prepare  a way to save a great many lives, not only of Joseph and his brothers, but of many of the nations around him.  And, and, in the future, the bloodline Joseph preserved through his brothers, was that of the Messiah, the savior of the World.

Of course, Joseph had no idea at the time what redemptive purpose God had for him at the time. He only knew that God did have them, which is why he was able to serve without despair, or bitterness, and yet still work to glorify God. Only if you believe that God is at work in your work, that he has a plan for you can you follow after him.

Christians Look at Jesus- Of course, once again, we’re in a much better position to trust in God’s purposes for us at work because we’ve seen, not only Joseph, but the greater Joseph–Jesus Christ. Jesus was the perfect brother who went to work in a foreign land, not because he was forced to, but willingly. He was not made, but made himself a slave for his brothers. He worked in far worse conditions, amongst a people who rejected him, told lies about him, and threw him, not only into a pit, but the pit of hell itself on the Cross. But from there, that greater depth, he rose to a greater height, in the resurrection and ascension, he rose to heaven itself so that he might pass on riches, life, and health of salvation to those of us starving in sin.

This is what we see in the Gospel, and so even more than Joseph, we are able to trust in God’s purposes for our lives, even at work. As always, there are a number of take-aways to think about tonight:

Maybe God’s call is to quit slacking at work. Or, stop our compromise morally and spiritually. Or, it is to pick our head up and look for opportunities to bless those around us for the Glory of God. Whatever it is, know you’ve been called for God’s purpose wherever you are, serve as to the Lord, trust in God’s plans despite our lack of sight, and marvel at God’s ability to work that all out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why I’m Excited About N.T. Wright’s Big New Book: Paul the OT Theologian, Greek Culture, and the Roman World

paul and the faithfulness of GodN.T. Wright is releasing his big book on Paul Paul and the Faithfulness of God in his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series. It’s so big, that, in fact, it’s two books on Paul, each of which could be two books (2 volumes weighing in at 1700 pages.) Now, of course, this is the only excuse that I’ll accept given how long he’s taken to write it (10 years since RSG). In any case, I’m beyond excited to read this beast for multiple reasons, but as I was scanning through the table of contents (posted online), I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons I love reading Wright: he refuses to limit Paul’s horizons. His first volume is a few hundred pages simply tracing NT background in multiple fronts: Greco-Roman philosophy, Rome, and the OT/2nd Temple Judaism. He doesn’t get to Paul’s theology proper until the second volume!

See, for some Pauline scholars it’s all about Greece. Paul is a Hellenized Jew who is engaging and appropriating language and thought from the world around him to speak of Christ to the Greeks. For others, it’s all about Rome, and Paul is preaching a serious, counter-imperial Gospel that cuts to the heart of Roman political culture. And still, for others, he is chiefly an OT theologian, transformed by Christ, who is engaged in demonstrating Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who fulfills all the prophecies and, bringing about reconciliation with the Gentiles. For Wright it’s about Paul the OT theologian, transformed by Christ, apostle to the Gentiles, engaging Rome, and the surrounding Hellenistic culture with the Gospel of Jesus.

‘Gospel’ Backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome?
You can see this approach at work in an article of his on the gospel in Galatians. He notes that typically, exegetes have wanted to understand Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ (euangelion) in relation one of two backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome. Wright notes that the approaches are favored usually either by those who see Paul primarily as a Jewish thinker, or a Hellenistic one, respectively.

Gospel in Isaiah--
In the septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, the prophet Isaiah declares:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Zion);
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Ierosaleme)
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ (40.9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation.
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. (52.7)

These passages talking about God returning to Zion as king, the return from Exile, the defeat of Israel’s enemies (Babylon, etc), and so forth. They are majestic passages of national hope that were taken up in the 2nd Temple period (Wright cites a number of texts here) as foretelling a future day of salvation and good news where God would return and become King in their midst. And, of course, it’s easy enough to see how Jesus fits in as the fulfillment of all of this.

Gospel in Rome
Of course, there’s a pretty good case to be made for the Roman context as well. To quote Wright directly and save myself some time:

In the Greek world, ‘euangelion‘ is a technical term for “news of victory”’. More specifically, it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor following a long period of civil war, the coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .

In which case, you can see where the whole counter-imperial thing comes from. In this view, Paul’s gospel is: “These things are not true of Caesar, but of Jesus, the world’s true Lord, whose birth was real good news.”

Yes and Yes
Now, I’ll have to admit, both of these answers were tempting to me while I was younger. As a good Evangelical boy, I knew Jesus was the fulfillment of OT prophecy even if I hadn’t read too many of them. Then, when I was a bit older, all of the counter-Imperial stuff made a lot of historical sense as well, plus it sounded awesome. (I’ll just be honest, when you’re 20, being against Empire is sexy.) In fact, it’s what I favored most, until the last few years when I really started to see just how deep the Old Testament thread ran, especially with works by G.K. Beale and such. Not that I’d rejected seeing Paul’s gospel engaging with the wider thought-world, but it hasn’t been a focus.

Still, reviewing this passage reminded me of why I fell in love with Wright as an exegete and historian, and why I’m looking forward to this new book:

Which of these backgrounds, then, is the appropriate one against which to read the New Testament evidence? Is ‘the gospel’, for Paul, an Isaianic message or an Imperial proclamation? I suggest that the anti-thesis between the two is a false one, based on the spurious either-or that has misleadingly divided New Testament studies for many years

Yes, he just called out a false either/or (which is a great way to make me your fan) in NT studies, and moves on to a constructive solution that has the best of both worlds.

Wright pushes us to understand Paul as the OT theologian who takes the Gospel of Isaiah and uses it to answer the Gospel of Rome. He points out that the 2nd Temple Jews didn’t live in ‘water-tight’ worlds closed off from the surrounding cultures, nor the OT Jews for that matter. The Gospel of Isaiah was always about God’s true Kingship over and against the pagan rulers like Babylon, and later, for 2nd Temple thinkers, Greece and Rome. What’s more, the false bracketing between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that often underlay efforts to split the two backgrounds, makes no sense when Emperors and Kings are claiming divine honors.  Again, it was always about the Servant King who would come to conquer Israel’s enemies and reestablish God’s rule where the pagan pretenders were claiming what was his alone.

So, with that in mind, how much of a stretch is it to see Paul, the OT theologian and 2nd Temple thinker, applying the Gospel of Isaiah, in a fresh and Christ-centered way, to the Gospel of Rome? In other words, (and I think I’m stealing this from Wright), you have to imagine Paul with both feet planted firmly in the OT, staring out at the Greco-Roman world, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus the Lord promised to Israel to a world that thought it already had one.

As Wright puts it:

The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the Imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. It is because of Jewish monotheism that there can be ‘no king but god’…The all-embracing royal and religious claims of Caesar are directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s god. To announce that YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not.

Basically Paul was saying, “You think your Caesar is the King who brings salvation? I’ve got real good news for you, one that’s been promised for ages, Jesus, the Servant King of Israel is the one whose rule brings true salvation.”

That works nicely doesn’t it?

Paul’s Gospel and Ours
This is part of why I like reading Wright on Paul. Despite my qualms, which are real enough, on what he has to say about justification, (I prefer Michael Bird’s Reformed-Hybrid view) he is still one of the most faithful, creative, thorough, and helpful exegetes of Paul out there. He gets that while Paul was an apostle called to deliver the Gospel with divine authority, he was still a genius who expounded it with great intricacy and care. What’s more, he’s not just a dry academic, but a churchman who wants to present pastors with a vision of how to preach this stuff. In a sense, his vision of Paul as OT theologian looking to proclaim the biblical Gospel of Jesus to the pagan world around him, helps him present Paul as a model for pastors looking to do the same thing today.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming book, I’d suggest this interview with Michael Bird and N.T. Wright.

Soli Deo Gloria