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Archive for January, 2009

We’re just starting a section on Jesus and the gospels in our missions training school, and much like what Brian did with the Pentateuch, I thought I’d share some good books on this section of Scripture.  After all, it’s about Jesus; you can’t get more important than that!

But let me start with an important point.  There are more books on Jesus and the gospels than I have time to read.  In fact, there are plenty of books that have been published in the last couple years that I have yet to read.  A couple are on my shelves, crying out to me for attention.  Some I possibly haven’t even heard of yet.  So, if you know of any, I’m more than happy to hear suggestions- just leave a comment. 

The pride of place, in my opinion, goes to Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels.  I’ve read this book 4 times and have used it every year I teach on the gospels.  In short, it includes everything you need in 5 sections: Historical Background, Methods, Introductions to each gospel, A Survey of Jesus’ Life, and a Historical & Theological Synthesis.  Blomberg includes a ton of information, but is so readable it should put other scholars to shame (note: informative≠boring).  But, before you run out and buy this book, note that a newer edition of this book is supposed to be released this year at some point.  I’d suggest waiting until it comes out, then purchase it ASAP.

Another indispensable resource for me during my teaching prep is the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series), put out by IVP.  It’s full of articles covering a wide range of subjects related to Jesus and the gospels, written by top notch scholars.  It’s nice to have a wealth of scholarship in one book, though perhaps it, too, will need to be updated before too long.

If you’ve paid any attention to Jesus studies (or New Testament studies in general), you’ll have heard of NT Wright.  The first book I ever read of his was Jesus and the Victory of God one of the best books on Jesus in recent times.  Mind you, I disagree with him strongly at points (particularly his understanding of the Olivet Discourse), but you can’t help but come away having learned so much about Jesus and His historical context.  Along with this book is Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.  Quite frankly, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Both of these are heavy reads, so be aware.  You can always pick up his smaller The Challenge of Jesus to get an idea of his approach.

Under the category of Historical Jesus studies, I still find Ben Witherington’s book The Jesus Quest to be helpful.  I’m holding out hope that Witherington will update this helpful survey of scholarly portraits of the Historical Jesus (it’s been over a decade since it’s original publication).  One aspect I appreciate about this book is that you learn how to critique and discern differing views on Jesus simply by reading how Witherington does it.  Thus, it’s still quite helpful even if outdated.  Lastly, though I haven’t read too much of his stuff, I know that Craig Evans also has a number of books that are immensely profitable to read.

If you really want to wade through an important- and unique- book, check out Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  Bauckham is in the category of “you should read whatever he writes.”  In this book, he helps demonstrate that the gospels do in fact go back to original eyewitness testimony, contra the common scholarly view of floating stories about Jesus circulating in distinct “community traditions.”

Though I haven’t had much time to work my way through it, Klyne Snodgrass’ new book on the parables, Stories With Intent, has received rave reviews.  I’m a huge fan of the parables, and from what I understand, once you own this book, you won’t need another one on the parables.  So, since I own it, I guess I don’t need to look for any more books on the parables, huh?  Also note, Blomberg has written extensively on the parables as well, and has good insight in his previously mentioned book.

On the Sermon on the Mount, I know D A Carson has written a useful book.  I’ll confess, I haven’t read his book on the Sermon on the Mount, but I do own his Matthew commentary and find it excellent, so I’ll bet the book is good, too.  Also, John Stott’s book, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, in the Bible Speaks Today series is good.

Before anyone complains that I neglected their favorite author or book, I want to point out that I’m trying to select a representation here.  I’m also intentionally leaving books on Christology and commentaries out for now, though perhaps those will come in later posts.  As I previously stated, there are plenty of books out there that I’m sure are excellent.  I think especially of those by Darrel Bock, but I have yet to read much of his stuff on the gospels (except his Luke commentary, which is tremendous). 

So, I say start with Blomberg and the Jesus and the Gospels.  Mind you, I’m offering my opinion as one who teaches in a local church context, not an academic one.  So, Bauckham’s book might be more important in terms of scholarly research than either of these.  But when I’m teaching, theories of criticism are not as important as dealing with the content of the gospels themselves.  And for that, I have yet to read anything better than Blomberg’s work.

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Christian Carnival CCLXI

The Christian Carnival is up over at Ignorant Historian.  It includes one of our posts from the last week.  Check it out when you get the chance.

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This post is part of the continuing series known as Resource of the Month, where we highlight one particular resource for Christians and churches and show how it can help us in our walks with the Lord and ministry.  This month Brian and I have chosen to highlight the church, specifically the local church, as a resource.  This post focuses on one particular way the church (the gathering of Christians) can help each other.

In our circles, where not only the Sunday meeting is attended but smaller groups (which we call “Faithgroups”) are also emphasized, you won’t have to wait long before you hear someone quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (TNIV).

We apply this in any number of ways, moving beyond the “official” church gatherings (the aforementioned Sunday meeting and Faithgroups), and include meeting together in homes for dinner, discipling others, accountability, etc (many of which happen in our Faithgroups).  All of these fall under the application of the verse above.

But why was the author of Hebrews so intent on his readers meeting together regularly and purposefully? 

I think it’s easy to miss the connection with the verses around Hebrews 10:24-25, specifically what comes after it.  When you read verses 26-31, it seems like the author switches gears and begins a new topic, the problem of believers falling away.  But, the writer didn’t simply move on, these verses are connected.  If you are reading a more dynamic equivalent translation (TNIV, NLT), you might miss this connection (fans of the NASB & ESV cheer loudly). 

In fact, the writer gives us a clue that he is about to tell us why it’s important to continue meeting together when he uses the little word “for” (gar in Greek).  I’ll give verse 26 from the NASB translation: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…”  You can read the rest of the section for yourself to get an idea just how bad this “falling away” or “deliberate sinning” can be.  (Note: I’m well aware of the theological debates around these verses and the issue of someone “losing their salvation”, but I’m not going to address this here, since the point of this post stays the same.)

The author of Hebrews lets us know that regularly meeting together to encourage each other to live faithfully is vital in keeping us from falling away from our faith.  He knows, and we should too, that there is a day (or “Day” if you prefer) when God will judge us all, and you do not want to be on the side of those who “trample the Son of God underfoot” or “treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them” or “insult the Spirit of grace.”  Such people need to hear the warning in verse 31: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But God has not left us alone to fight against sin and temptation.  He has given us each other.  He tells us to assemble together, not to meet a requirement or get a star on our Sunday School attendance chart.  He tells us to meet together so we can build each other up and keep each other from sinning.  We are given the responsibility to restore each other when we do sin (Gal 6:1, I deal with that verse here).

We were not saved so that we could become an “army of one.”  We were saved into a community, bound with other believers by the empowering presence of God, His Holy Spirit.  While this is not the only reason, we do need to continue meeting together so that we do not fall away, so that we can live out the words in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

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It seems that I and my e-friend Steve both dislike the phrase “doing chuch,” so I will coin an alternative for this post: “churching.”  For my money, churching is an unbelievably difficult topic to tackle, though I wonder how much of the difficulty is self-inflicted.  Must it be so complicated, so nuanced, so controversial?  I would answer a non-committal “yes” and “no.”  It seems rather easy to paint broad strokes about what church should look like.  People are coming together to care for one another, share life, worship, serve, be edified, etc.  Simple enough.  The complexity, or difficulty comes in when one actually has to do something, rather than talk about it.  Sooner or later, the rubber must meet the road, and we need to get practical.

This tension has been one of my frustrations with discussions about churching.  There is no shortage of writing out there criticizing the way church is done today.  Much of this criticism is excellent, and I find myself saying “Amen,” multiple times.  Writers like David Wells and Marva Dawn make insightful observations about the church.  I’ve found comparatively few such books or articles, however, that get practical.

For example, at Steve’s recommendation, I recently read an article by David Fitch that is quite good.  Fitch makes a statement towards the end of his article that I believe is typical of the churching dialogue:

If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God.

Yea, and amen…but how?   Fitch offers some vague ideas towards the end of his post, but they don’t get much more specific than “simplifiy the service.”  So what does this ordering of worship actually look like?  Do I sing hymns?  With guitar?  Organ?  Contemporary?  Lyrics on the screen?  Hymnals?  How many songs?  Where?  What day?  How long?

I don’t wish to criticize Fitch here (indeed, we shall vindicate him!), but rather make the point that much of what I read about churching is ivory tower-esque; that is to say, true but ethereal.  (Much of my own writing is no exception, either).  The answers given to the practical questions, such as mine above are often “it depends…” or “ask God,” (ahem), or “pray about it,” or “with wisdom.”

I believe there is something important that we can learn about these nebulous recommendations.  Perhaps we shouldn’t get too specific.  Given the variety of circumstances, cultures and persons in and to which a church will minister, offering specifics could be either impossible, or at least, unwise.

I think the key to churching is not found in the specifics but the efficacy.  Are lives changed?  Are people growing in love and knowledge of God?  Is the community served?  Are people coming to saving faith in Christ?  In short, is the Kingdom advancing?  All of these questions transcend how slick the service is, how big the building, how entertaining the pastor, how numerous the programs, or how large the numbers.

I believe that it is possible to have a Kingdom-advancing, God-centered church all over the practical spectrum: from 10 believers meeting weekly by a tree in a field to something like Willow Creek (n.b., not an endorsement of Willow Creek).  To adapt part of Obama’s inaugural speech, it doesn’t matter if it’s big church or small church, but church that works.  Examples of church working are found in the pages of Scripture (as are examples of church not working!)

Back to Fitch’s (justifiably) vague advice, how do we order worship so that people encounter God?  Well, we pray about it.  We think about it.  We examine the assumptions about our methods as best we can, and make our choices intentional and theologically informed. 

Following the cultural norm of American churches isn’t ipso facto wrong, or automatically doomed to inefficacy.  What’s wrong is blind, thoughtless conformance to it.  What’s wrong is making the claim that certain forms of churching are normative for all Christendom.  What’s wrong is measuring the success of churching with a yard stick borrowed from corporate America, tempting though it is (after all, it’s easy to know if your weekly attendance has increased year-over-year; compare that with measuring the wax or wane of a congregation’s love and knowledge of God!)

My personal opinion is that a great deal of life could be breathed into the local church if people simply asked “why?” more often, and didn’t settle for half-baked answers.  Why do a drama?  Why choose this type of music?  Why get a building?  Serious interaction with these questions can go a long way.

In the end, I’m quite confident that God is supremely capable of working with and through any number of methods or forms of churching.  Go figure, but in terms of advancing the Kingdom, it’s always God that does the heavy lifting.  The trick to churching is to make sure it’s as useful as it can be for His purposes.  The church must be properly aligned and submitted to Him, no matter what it actually looks like.  Some churches might be a saw, others a hammer.  So long as they are effective at their job, I believe God will use them.  (Ah, the sweet, ethereal smell of vagary, I shall never tire of your ivory-tower baked goodness!)

Coming in Part II, I want to consider “cultural infections” in the church.  Whence do they infect?  How do we diagnose and treat them?  Better yet, how do we predict and prevent them?

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As I considered the local church for this RoTM (RoTNMaaH), I began to think of the ways that it has been a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  One of the first things that came to my mind was how I’ve been blessed by the diversity of the local church.  A clarification is in order, however.  It seems to me that today the concept of diversity has, quite oddly, taken on a more narrow focus than one might expect.  The mention of the word typically calls to mind different races: Asian, African-American, Latino(a), etc.  Diversity tends to be a synonym for multi-culturalism or simply a plurality of races.  This is especially apparent in light of the buzz around Obama’s historic inauguration and cabinet appointees.  This notion of diversity isn’t wrong, of course, but there is a broader sense of the word that comes to mind when I consider my experience in the local church which is independent of race.  I speak of the simple diversity of persons, or more specifically, backgrounds.

This was especially striking to me a few months ago on a weekend on retreat with about thirty people from my congregation.  The purpose of the retreat was to share our personal testimonies, so we spent our days in a large circle doing just that.  I was struck, awestruck even, by the tremendous diversity among the testimonies shared that weekend.  So many different people, from so many different backgrounds, all telling vastly different stories of God’s enduring faithfulness in pursing them and calling them to faith in Christ.  It was a perfect case study of unity in diversity; one body, many parts.

The local church has been an excellent vehicle for me getting to know brothers and sisters all over the demographic map.   As such, I’ve known deep friendships with people who I never would have met in any other capacity, and I’ve been exposed to personalities, histories, and gifts I might not otherwise ever experience.

I believe that the diversity of the Body of Christ is one of the most powerful encouragements available to us through participation the local church.   I could spend many paragraphs on the manifold blessings of diversity within the church community, but the one on my heart lately is the simple fact that it speaks to the inexhaustible grace of God in reaching so many different people, through so many different means, at so many different times.  God is still changing lives, and the diversity of these lives within the church is revelatory of His awesome power.

This fact is a counter to the pessimism one might feel in response to our fallen world.  There is no paucity for examples where we might heave a saddened sigh at some tragic news.  “How will that woman ever recover such a loss?  What chance do those children have?  How can he or she live a ‘normal’ life anymore? How will those wounds ever heal?”  The testimonies of the Church body answer the question: “By the awesome power of God.”

It is an encouragement to me as a parent when I wonder how my son will navigate through the jungle of lies that will surround him every day, or how he will weather the inevitable suffering that is a part of life.  Here again I can consider the testimonies of my brothers and sisters, who collectively have walked similar (often more treacherous) roads.  How will my son remain in the Truth? The same way my many brother and sisters have: By the awesome power of God.

God is the one who has redeemed, and will redeem, countless millions for His Glory.  Indeed, the whole earth shall be redeemed with them.  The Church is one of many indications that His redemptive power never rests, and His reach knows no bounds.

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Hey everyone, I thought I’d let you know that the Christian Carnival CCLIX is up over at Parableman (Cousin Jeremy’s site).  This is a collection of posts from around the blogosphere written by Christians about a variety of topics.  Brian’s 1st post on the Church is included this week.  We’ll try to submit posts to the Carnival on a weekly basis, we encourage our reader(s) to check it out when you get a chance.

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RoTM: The Church

Danny and I have been negligent about our Resource of the Month (RoTM) posts, and since this one is coming in the middle of Janurary, it shall be our RoTNMaaH: Resource of the Next Month and a Half, despite the unfortunate phonetic coincidence that the acronym sounds “rotten.”  Regardless, join us for the next 6 weeks as we write about the Church.

Growing up in New England, the start of winter meant the beginning of the snow day season. I remember the feeling of expectation and excitement that welled up in my heart when snow was in the weekday forecast. I’d wake up, look out the window, and rush to the radio, eager hear my school called. I doubt I ever listened so intently to an otherwise dull list of school names. The benefits of a snow day were twofold: (1) no school, and (2) playing in the snow. So powerful were these childhood emotions that the feeling sticks with me to this day; I’m still excited when it snows. The difference is that now I have no good reason for excitement.  Snow means little more than inconvenience, perilous travel, and back pain.

We got about six inches this past Sunday in Boston. Since I was serving in the worship band (a ministry that requires me to get to church a few hours early), I checked the cancellation web-sites (my, how times have changed) before I cleaned off my car. I didn’t want to get to church only to find out that our pastor had called off our service. He hadn’t. As I drove in on the snowy roads, I wondered to myself, “When is it appropriate to cancel Sunday worship service?”

The question nagged at me, because the more I thought about it, the harder it became to answer. The reason, I believe, is that the cancellation question really asks a bigger question: How important is Sunday worship service? Indeed, why go to church in the first place? We could probably write a book here, hence our decision to explore (the C)church over the next few weeks.  However, if I had just a few sentences to spend, I’d say that we go to church for (1) worship, (2) community, and (3) hearing the Word preached. Negatively, we don’t go to church to (1) throw God a bone, (2) earn our salvation, (3) feel good about ourselves (i.e., self-righteous).

The other meta-question asked by the prospect of cancellation is “Why would you cancel church in the first place?” In the case of a snow day, I propose two broad categories of answer: (1) Safety – it is unsafe to travel, (2) Pragmatism – nobody will be there anyway.

So, tackling my meta-questions in reverse order, I find more tensions than answers.  The pragmatic “nobody will be there anyway” reason for cancellation is valid:  Why labor for hours in travel and setup, or spend money on heat and electricity for a few (if any) congregants?  Fair enough, I guess, so long as the reclaimed time and resources are better spent.  Against the validity of this claim is the awesome truth that our God can be decidedly impractical.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Regarding the reasoning from safety, we may ask the fair question, “Why risk injury or accident for church?”  What if the governor declares a state of emergency and it’s illegal to travel?  Against this, of course, is the conviction afforded us by looking to countries like China, wherein millions literally risk their lives to illegally attend a worship service in the cold darkness of a cave.  I would guess that a few inches of snow would not deter these brothers and sisters of ours in the least.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Working back to the first question, “how important is worship service?” we can notice that in many ways the answer is a barometer for somebody’s feelings about church. It could also serve as a barometer for a given church’s efficacy at ministering to its congregation.  I submit for now that worship service is very important (more on this over the next few weeks).  If you should feel otherwise, you might ask yourself why.  If it’s because of your church, perhaps you’re there to be an agent for positive change (prayerfully, lovingly, and thoughtfully implemented without subversion), or, you might need to move on.  Ask God about it.  If it’s not because of your church, perhaps there are heart issues upon which God is placing His finger, or past wounds that need healing.  Ask God about them.

We might also think outside of the proverbial box, too.  “Church,” of course, is not the building we attend, and there is no hard requirement that we have to go there to worship, connect or be edified.  In the case of a snow storm, perhaps people who live near one another could gather together in houses.  Or, perhaps a simple phone call could be made to a brother or sister for prayer and connection over the phone.  The pastor could e-mail sermon notes, record it and post it on a web site, or families could have their own worship service.  Here, I think, is the key to my point above.  If service is cancelled, or it is truly insane to attempt travel, we ought to put the reclaimed time to good use.

In my personal experience, the church has vascillated between being a spa and a gym.  Sometimes, it’s immensely refreshing and I can’t wait to go again.  Other times, I dread going, labor at participating, and feel sore days afterwards.  In either case, I’m the better for having gone, and it’s been good for me.  As for the snow, since God gives it to us in the first place, it only stands to reason that He’ll tell us what to do about it if we ask Him.

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