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Archive for July, 2009

Craig Blomberg has recently written a book review of N.T. Wright’s book, “Justification.”  You may find the shorter review here, and a longer, scholarly review here.  The book under review is the latest in a series of exchanges that are best known to be between Wright and John Piper.  The exchanges concern the proper Biblical understanding of justification, and the consequences of said interpretation.  Even if you are not well acquainted with the debates over what is called the “New Perspecitve” on Paul (I am only lightly read on them myself), I think you will find Blomberg’s review helpful and insightful, per his custom.

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A few months ago, John Piper paid a visit to Park Street Church in Boston as part of their bicentenial celebration.  I often listen to the sermons at Park Street during my commute to work (indeed, said sermons, in conjunction with the Mars Hill Audio Journal, are among the short list of things that make my commute tolerable).  Piper preached a two part sermon that centered around what is arguably one of the cornerstones of his ministry:  Joy.  Specifically, Piper’s thesis is that God is most exalted and glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.  Similarly, our greatest joy is found in God, so God’s frequent call to worship, adore and love Him is the most loving thing God could do, because God is the greatest good in the universe, and we find maximum satisfaction when we’re satisfied with Him.  Even more, as we fervently pursue maximum joy in life (as we ought), that works out as an unselfish, loving joy that blesses others.  (Piper develops this very well in his sermons, as well as his other writings (e.g., The Dangerous Duty of Delight), so please don’t take my three sentence paraphrase as doing any justice to this powerful message.)

While I thoroughly agree with Piper, I often struggle with what it looks like for our satisfaction to rest in God.  I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode wherein Lisa saw a sign advertising the works of Australian actor Yahoo Serious.  The sign reads “Yahoo Serious Film Festival.”  Lisa remarks, “I know those words, but that sign makes no sense.”  Well, ditto.  I know the words “find your satisfaction in God,” but I struggle with what it actually means.

How does finding satisfaction in God make itself manifest in our lives?  What does it actually look like?  Piper offers answers here, and I have some thoughts myself.  However, I wanted to try a more interactive post, and throw the question out to our reader(s).  What does that mean to you?  How do you find satisfaction in God?  How is God the wellspring of your joy?  Is it a mental exercise?  An intellectual recognition of who He is and what He’s done?  Is it spontaneous praise when you experience some wonder of His creation?

To make matters worse, how does one keep satisfaction in the Creator separate from satisfaction with creation?  I am indeed filled with love and joy when I look into my son’s eyes, or share a special moment with my wife, but am I misplacing this satisfaction in creation and not the Creator?  Am I loving the painting but not the Painter?

I eagerly await your thoughts and comments, and hopefully through our interaction we can flush out these questions some more.  Interaction for mutual edification is one of the goals of this website, so let’s not be shy and give it a go!

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Some of you might read the title of this post and have two questions: who is John Huss and when did he die (and why didn’t I read about it on CNN)?  To answer the first question, John Huss (or Jan Hus, to be more accurate) was a 15th century Bohemian priest who was highly critical of the excesses in the Catholic Church at that time.  Yesterday (July 6) was the 594th anniversary of his death.

Huss is often overlooked by most Christians today, which is to our detriment.  The fact is that most Christians know about the Protestant Reformation; they know the names of Martin Luther and John Calvin.  While the Reformation is generally seen as “starting” when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the chapel in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517 (an event I celebrate), the truth is that Luther was not the first to stand against the excesses and doctrinal errors of the Catholic Church (he was, I suppose, the most successful).  Before Luther, there was John Wycliffe, John Huss and William Tyndale.

Huss himself was less theological than some of these other men.  His greatest concern was for the purity of the church, especially her leadership, which he saw lacking in his day.  He protested the exploitation he saw in the indulgence sales; he opposed the Catholic Church declaring war on another group of Christians and he stood against a ban that only allowed preaching in approved church buildings.

When I read about Huss, I’m amazed at his courage.  I’m not entirely sure we understand how courageous it is to stand against corrupted authority, who possess something close to total power.  We think someone is courageous when they write an op-ed calling out our President on some matter.  That’s not courageous- it’s built into our system of government.  Calling George Bush an evil warmongerer or Barak Obama an immoral liberal is hardly courageous.  We have thousands of bloggers in this country who spout off all sorts of rhetoric against our country’s leadership and have no fear of retribution (in fact, one could argue that it takes more courage to defend American politicians, but that’s not our concern now).

Huss, and the other Reformers, had to face the possibility of retribution.  They knew that they would have their possessions taken from them, so they held to them loosely.  They knew their churches would be endangered, so they continued to preach the Word and encourage them to stand firm.  They knew their lives could be taken from them, so they did not waste time in preaching the truth.

Huss, after multiple excommunications and threats, ultimately was brought before the Council of Constance and called to recant.  He refused, though claiming he would recant if someone could show him where he had been wrong.  He wasn’t being stubborn, he was simply calling out immorality when he saw it and calling for repentance.  His priestly tonsure was shaved off and a paper crown of demons was placed on his head as he was lead past a pile of burning books- the very ones he had written that got him into this situation.  Finally, he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.  Huss once said “Fire does not consume truth.”  When he uttered those words, did he know he would be burned at the stake?

We can take away any number of lessons from all this, but specifically I’m impressed by the courage of Huss.  He stood against the most powerful force of his day because he saw that the Church was not living like the people of God.  Sexual immorality, simony (buying a clerical appointment0,  exploiting the poor- these were practiced by the clergy!  Huss noted the irony that the immoral clergy walked about freely, while those (like him) who stood against those practices were thrown in jail.  What had the Church become?

It takes courage to stand against such things, especially when you’re confronting those of your own ilk (in this case, other priests and church leadership).  The easy road would be to turn a blind eye to sin in the church, the even easier road would be to partake in those sins, too.  But Huss refused, claiming that if he did not oppose these practices, he would be just as guilty as if he participated in them.  We have in John Huss a model of willingness to fight for the purity of the Church.

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Once again, I extend my thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.  For more on this book, consult Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

We Become What We WorshipIn this last portion of the review I will summarize briefly the contents of the last 2 chapters, as well as offer some final thoughts on the book as a whole.

G K Beale set out from the beginning of the book to demonstrate his thesis: we resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.  He surveys the biblical data thoroughly and fleshes out nuances carefully.  It is easy to tell that he has spent years, if not decades, thinking on this subject and what the Bible teaches about it.  We stand in his debt for all his hard work.

In the final 2 chapters, Beale discusses briefly the flip side to idolatry, being conformed to the image of Christ.  Since humans are “imaging beings” (a phrase he likes to use), we will reflect the image of something, whether it be God Himself or something we have constructed in His place.  The final reflection of Christ’s image will be seen at our resurrection, which itself follows Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:45-54, Philippians 3:20-21).

As far as the contemporary church, Beale relies heavily on David Wells (the theologian, not the pitcher) in demonstrating modern forms of idolatry, specifically idolatry in personal life (the idolatry of self) and idolatry in church life (the idolatry of psychology and business managing in running our churches).  Beale issues a call for the church to reflect the character of God more than reflect the latest trends in marketing and entertainment, which our bound to change rapidly.  We must realize that idolatry is more subtle in our day than in the days of wooden idols, but it is no less dangerous.  “Sometimes the sin of idolatry is like gum disease: we may not feel the spiritual hurt until significant harm has happened; though we have eyes we may not be able to see the destruction that is occurring within us” (p309).

Of course, one could wish for a more extended discussion of contemporary applications, particularly how the theme of reflecting an idol is seen today (in other words, how does one reflect money when money is his idol?).  In fact, I’d love to see more work done on modern forms of idolatry in the church.  Beale could have also spent more time on reflecting the image of God (in case he’s looking for ideas for his next book), though what he does say is very good.  But Beale’s book is intentionally a detailed study of relevant biblical texts on idolatry, and he surveys the texts admirably.

If you have been reading the previous portions of this review, you’ll know that I have lodged some disagreements here and there.  There have been times I felt that Beale was digging a little too deep for support of his thesis.  I just wasn’t always convinced it was as front-and-center as he thinks it is.  I’m not denying that it is explicitly stated in Scripture, nor am I denying that it is assumed rather than demonstrated in certain places.  I’m just not sure it pops up as often as Beale does.

But these disagreements can be misleading, because I’m convinced that Beale has done us a great service by writing this book.  Truthfully, I would not have spent the time working on a 5-part review of a book that I didn’t think was worthy of it. I not only learned a ton about the biblical teachings on idolatry, but learned more about picking up intertextual hints and echoes throughout Scripture.  In fact, at numerous times throughout the book I found myself thinking, “I really need to get a copy of his book, The Temple and the Church’s Mission.”

For any pastor or teacher who is covering the issue of idolatry, Beale’s book is a must read.  Not only does it include countless helpful insights, Beale brings to the fore the gravity of idolatry and its disastrous consequences.  For those who have ears to hear, the call to forsake the idols of our generation and turn back to our Creator will be heard loud and clear in this book.  May we grow to reflect the image of God in Christ more fully as we learn to worship Him as He deserves.

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Thanks to Chris at Zondervan for a review copy of this book.

OT Theology by Bruce WaltkeIt has admittedly, and regretfully, been a while since I’ve posted more of my review of this book.  I won’t make excuses, but I’ll reiterate that Waltke’s book is well worth the time it takes to plow through it.  I left off in my last portion of the review with the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants and some of Waltke’s thoughts on kingship in the OT.  In this part, I’d like to summarize Waltke’s treatment of the historical narratives written for the postexilic period: Chronicles, Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah (these constitute chapters 27-28).

Waltke favors a date shortly after the return from exile for Chronicles, written to address the issues of that community.  As one might expect of a community coming out of exile in a foreign land, there were many questions to ask.  For example, Chronciles highlights the Jerusalem temple.  In fact, Waltke follows Pratt in pointing out that 17 of 21 chapters about David are dedicated to his preparations for the temple, which was built by Solomon.  This fact helps lean the reader towards a date around the time of Haggai and Zechariah, post-exilic prophets who were instrumental in getting the temple rebuilt.

It has been noted time and again that the Chronicler “whitewashes” some of Israel’s history, leaving out some of the negative details and including more repentance on the part of certain kings, notably Manasseh.  “His portrait of Manasseh serves as an object lesson for the Judahites and the covenant community at large: God is more concerned with repentance and restoration than with retribution” (p764).

Regarding Esther, Waltke takes the intriguing point of view that Esther and Mordecai are nothing more than “nominal covenant people” rather than heroic figures.  He notes: they do not return from exile, Esther hides her nationality (which would have to include breaking certain Mosaic laws that contradicted pagan practices in order not to be discovered), they do not give glory to God when they come out victorious, etc.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but it’s something I’m going to spend more time studying.  I know Douglas Stuart, one of my former OT professors, takes a similar approach.  If scholars of this caliber agree on something, one would do well to pay attention, at the very least.

As for what the book of Esther teaches about God, it certainly shows his providence and his faithfulness to his covenant people, even using nominal covenant members for his purposes.  There are far too many “timely reversals” in this book for it to recall mere coincidental happenings.  The book of Esther demonstrates God’s behind-the-scenes work on behalf of his people.

Ezra-Nehemiah constitute one book, compiled through official records and the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Perhaps the most informative aspect of this chapter is Waltke’s careful weaving of the structure of the book- he apparently have never met a chiasm he didn’t like- with insightful comments regarding the content of the book.  The reader comes away with a strong summary of Ezra-Nehemiah and a better idea of how the book coheres.

Waltke also discuss some of the theological aspects of Ezra-Nehemiah.  Again, the reader learns about how God’s providence works to bring his people back from exile.  There is also an emphasis on the need for a pure community wholely devoted to God.  Waltke also detects in the prayers of repentance found in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 a longing for the Messiah, the promised Davidic king, as the people are still enslaved to a foreign nation.  This fits well with the thesis that even in Jesus’ day there was a sense in which the exile had not ended because Israel was not self-governing.

In all, these 2 chapters provide the reader with a strong grasp of the biblical material and how God worked to bring about the restoration of his people.  I found nothing in these chapters particularly disagreeable, in fact, I’d highly recommend them as reliable guides for those wishing to become oriented to the books of Chronicles, Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah.

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Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

In the wake of the short term trip from which I returned a few days ago, I could not help but think of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  No doubt, this passage has been the center of many sermons on missions, and for good reason.  On a mount in Galilee, the risen Christ offers a few sentences to His disciples that close Matthew’s gospel.  Last words were no small thing for Matthew’s audience, so their importance is doubly highlighted.  As such, these three verses remain a centerpiece of discussions today about the spread of the Gospel of Christ.

Whenever I consider this passage, my focus tends to land on verses 19 and 20.  After all, herein lies the meat of the command.  Here is what we’re supposed to do (make disciples), how we’re supposed to do it (going, baptizing, teaching), and to whom (all nations).  However, as I reflect more on the passage as a whole, I am increasingly struck by verse 18.  I believe the importance of this verse cannot be overstated, and what follows hangs on the truth therein.

Verse 18 is an undeniably strong affirmation of Christ’s Lordship over the universe.  Our obedience to the command in verses 19 and 20 is predicated on Christ’s authority.  This theme runs throughout the canon of Scripture.  God’s being precedes our doing.  The work of reconciliation, of redeeming fallen creation, is always at His initiative, not ours.

We see this pattern emerge in the first chapter of Genesis.  When God speaks all creation into existence, out of nothing, entirely on His own, He firmly establishes His complete, unchallenged Lordship over everything that is.  When humankind is spoken into the picture, our very existence is defined in terms of God.  We are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  We know who God is before we know who we are.  Conversely, we cannot properly know who we are until we know who God is.  Good anthropology flows from good theology.

When sin enters the world a few chapters later, it is God who begins His work of redemption.  God is the one who initiates with Abram, and chooses a people for Himself, through whom He reveals Himself, and blesses all nations.  God is the one who gets hold of Moses and frees Israel for His glory.  Chapter by chapter, book by book, we see God as the one at work in revealing Himself, and affecting His redemptive plan for humankind.  From anointing judges to ordaining kings to appointing prophets, it all starts with God.

When God becomes man in Christ, He brings His reconciling work to an entirely new level.  Christ in turn charges His disciples to continue in His work: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21).  The order is clear once again: The Father sends Jesus first (v.21a), then we are sent by Him (v.21b).  God is the starting point in both clauses.

Also, lest we forget, the latter half of verse 20 in our Great Commission passage reminds us that God has in no way stopped His work, and simply passed the Heavenly baton to us.  No, Christ is with us “to the very end of the age.”  Indeed, even a casual reading of Acts indicates that the book is much less about the “Acts” of the Apostles, than the “Acts” of the Holy Spirit.  God didn’t quit after the Ascension and leave the rest up to us.  Quite contrary, He’s dialed it up a notch or two.

When we arrive at the missionary scene, then, God has already been long at work.  Stories upon stories from the mission field testify to this.  A missionary meets a Muslim man who had a dream about Jesus the night prior; a woman feels an emptiness in her heart that longs to be filled; a teenager finds a Bible, and questions of God burn on his heart.  Salvation always comes through God’s prior work, never by our clever words, strategies, or programs.  After all, it is the Holy Spirit who testifies about Christ, and convicts the world of sin (Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11).

In this way missions is best understood as joining in God’s Mission.  It is by His authority, His initiative, and His Mission that we make disciples of all nations.  This is our starting point for missions.  Missions is the project of aligning ourselves with God’s Mission, which is already well under way, and firmly in His capable hands.  As such, we labor with confidence, knowing the certainty of the outcome, because it is God’s undertaking, not ours.  Praise be to God that we are asked to be a part of His great work!

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