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Archive for November, 2009

Superblogger Tim Challies linked this morning to the Personal Promises Bible.  Basically, you can insert your name into promises in the Bible.  I tried it out, to see how it goes:

Even when danny was dead in trespasses, God made danny alive together with Christ (by grace danny has been saved), and raised danny up with Him and made danny to sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.  (Eph. 2:5-6)

Not so bad, huh?  I suppose there is some good in this.  There are promises for those who are in Christ (“no condemnation”, for example) and it’s good to be reminded of this.

But this betrays a flaw, in my opinion, within evangelicalism today.  Though well-intentioned, we rarely are completely honest when it comes to playing this game.  That is, we insert our name into those promises that we’d like to claim for ourselves and leave out the ones that make us feel uncomfortable.  After all, if the Personal Promise Bible turned this up, I might not buy it:

If danny lets himself be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to danny at all. (Gal. 5:3)

Or how about this one:

But if danny does not wake up, I will come like a thief, and danny will not know at what time I will come to him. (Rev. 3:3)

This is what gets me every time I hear someone quote Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”) without any qualification (like, this wasn’t given to every individual believer ever to live).  Why not quote Jeremiah 25:29: “You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword on all who live on the earth”?  Is claiming the promises of God simply as arbitrarily picking which ones apply to me and which ones don’t.

That’s okay, I’ve decided to run in another direction with this one.  I’ve decided to claim promises for other people, specifically those who make me mad.  No evil sports franchise will escape my wrath (and of course, the wrath of God):

Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds will shake.  Bring them down on the heads of all the Yankees; the Yankees that are left I will kill with the sword.  Not one Yankee will get away, no Yankee will escape. (Amos 9:1)

Cut me off in traffic?  You might receive the Personal Promise Bible, courtesy of Danny, in your stocking this year:

Shatter the loins of the Audi driver, and of the late merger, so that they will not drive again. (Deut 33:11)

You get the idea.  So maybe some of evangelicalism’s foibles aren’t so bad.  If I can arbitrarily claim promises for myself, why not arbitrarily claim curses for others?

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I’m taking a break from Bible geekery today to plug a couple albums I’ve been listening to.  Now, I’m generally a rock/blues kind of guy.  I like guitar solos, loud drums and extended jam sessions (think: Clapton when he was with Derek & the Dominos, Phish and Waterdeep).  But once in a while I just need to unwind with some mellow music.  After all, as awesome as a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo is, relaxing it is not.

First, there’s Brooks Ritter’s album, The Horse Fell Lame.  I first encountered Brooks Ritter as one of the worship leaders at Sojourn Community Church, whose worship album Before the Throne is one of my favorites (see review here).  A couple of those songs made me think, “wow, that guy can sing!”  So, it wasn’t hard to convince me to get his album (do people still call them ‘albums?’).  At any rate, it’s really good and serves the “mellow acoustic mood” very well.  Highly recommend.  My only problem with it is that it shows up on my iTunes as “country.”  Since my wife subjected me to the Country Music Awards last week (which is husband torture on the level of being Notebooked), I’ve vowed never to own any country music.  Needless to say, it has been appropriately adjusted to “folk” (which is actually more accurate, anyway).

Second, and more personal, I highly recommend the latest from Todd MacDonald, Pilgrims Here.  Todd is a friend from my Gordon-Conwell days, now living in Nashville.  You can listen to the entire album on his site.  For those of us who enjoyed Todd’s music back in the “old days,” you’ll be glad to hear some longtime treasures (“Lesson from an Ant” is one of my favorite from the Gordon-Conwell coffee houses).  One of my favorite memories of seminary was listening to Todd practice, his voice and guitar echoing in the stairwell.  What makes this album stand out to me even more is knowing that Todd has been battling cancer for almost a year now.  (He has recently received some very encouraging news regarding this, you can see here.)  Hearing the expressions of his faith set to music has been an encouragement to my soul.

For those who have heard me teach in our training school, you’ll remember Todd as the guy who convinced me to change my mind about Romans 7 at Brian’s wedding reception.  Worlds colliding!  And for what it’s worth, my 7-month old daughter loves Todd’s music.  You can’t go wrong with that.

So, I realize you didn’t come to BBG to get music recommendations, but there you go.  I hope you take the time to listen to these 2 men use their God-given talents for His glory.

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Knowing God: God Unchanging

Why in the world would we read a text written thousands of years ago for knowledge of God?  Even if they are accurate in their teaching, why would we think that they are still applicable today?  As we read the Bible, we are confronted with cultures vastly different from our own.  How can we bridge that gap?  Should we even seek to build a bridge?

A great start at an answer can be found in Chapter 7 of Packer’s Knowing God.  In short, the linchpin to Biblical relevance and interpretation is the fact that “God does not change in the least particular” (p. 77).  The theological term in mind here is God’s immutability.  Packer expands on this in six ways:  God’s (1) life, (2) character, (3) truth, (4) ways, (5) purposes, and (6) Son do (does) not change.  (Sidebar:  Coming on the heels of a chapter about the Holy Spirit, this reader would have appreciated His appearance in Packer’s list as well as (7).  Of course it follows that if God is immutable, the Holy Spirit is immutable, but why not say it explicitly?)

We trust Scripture, then, because it is a faithful revelation by the God who does not change about Himself.  The culture and context of Scripture might often differ widely from our own, but the God who acted and spoke in that context is no different today than He was then.  This is one of the reasons why I believe that one of the safest questions ever to ask of the Bible is, “What does this say about God?”  You can’t miss, because if something was true of God then, it is true of God now, and will be true tomorrow.

We must always bear in mind, however, that inasmuch as God does not change, He is also a personality.  As such, He is dynamic and relational.  He responds to us, our circumstances and our prayers, this fact the Bible readily asserts.  It is possible to get so wrapped up in God’s immutability that we forget that His actions do change; only they change in ways that do not violate His character, purposes, ways, etc. (e.g., God relents from destroying the Israelites at Sinai upon Moses’ intercession in Ex. 32:14).  Interesting enough, this is foundation to one of the (manifold) reasons why we pray.

I found Packer’s concluding paragraphs among the most convicting in his book (p. 81):

If our God is the same as the God of the New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?  If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.

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It’s always interesting to see the reaction I get when I tell someone that I am a charismatic.  I’ve been getting weird looks since my undergrad days at a Baptist university.  Back then, it wasn’t so much that I was a charismatic, but that I, Danny Pierce, was a charismatic.  After all, I was a good exegete (or at least I had that reputation) and knew the Bible reasonably well (only to find out as the years have gone on that I didn’t know it very well at all).  I wasn’t overly exuberant; I never wore a “John Wimber is my Homeboy” t-shirt;  nor did I raise my hand in class to ask a question only to slip into an uninterpreted tongue.

I still get weird looks.  Even some people from my own church are confused by my labeling our church ‘charismatic’ (which, I should note, is not an official label given by our elders, but my reckoning of things).  I’ve had numerous people say to me, “wait, we’re charismatic?!?!?!”

There is a lot of confusion over this term.  Most of the people I talk to about the term ‘charismatic’ have all sorts of images pop into their brain.  Some see prominent televangelists bilking old ladies out of money and throwing Holy Ghost Hand Grenades into the first few rows of a healing crusade.  Others picture a rock concert trying to pass itself off as a worship service, complete with shouting, jumping and the ominous potential of a moshpit.  Still others see a group of people driven by emotional ecstasy and chasing after spiritual highs (or spiritual drunkenness, as some might say) without any care for the baggage that comes with those experiences.  And then there are those who see all of these things colliding for the perfect storm of charismania.

What drives me nuts is that this distracts from the biblical presentation of spiritual gifts, or the charismata (you know… the word we get ‘charismatic’ from).  The charismata exist to build the church.  They are gifts from God to be exercised in the life of the Christian and the church, primarily for the purpose of edifying and strengthening the body of Christ.  Most of the pictures that creep into our minds at the sound of that word are not what we ought to be focusing on.

So let’s clear the air:

  • The exercise of spiritual gifts does not have to be accompanied by showmanship, an event or even a prominently gifted person orchestrating a given meeting.  Spiritual gifts can be, and should be, exercised by any believer in any context.
  • The exercise of spiritual gifts is not tied to a particular worship style.  There is no reason to think that a church with electric guitars and a drummer who breaks 2 sticks in one set (coughbriancough) is any more ‘Spirit-filled’ than a church who sings hymns accompanied by a pipe organ (wait, the instruments can accompany the singing and not the other way around? Oops, sorry, tangent for another post).
  • Being charismatic does not require one to participate in any of the following activities: keeping Hillsong or Vineyard cued up on your iPod, being slain in the spirit (or badly wounded, for that matter), laughing uncontrollably, crying uncontrollably or just losing control in general.
  • Having a cool experience does not necessarily make one charismatic in the biblical sense.  It’s too easy to be deceived into thinking every good feeling is of God.
  • Being charismatic simply means that we seek and exercise the spiritual gifts (charismata).  No more, no less.  Everything else (for instance, upbeat worship) is gravy, and depending on how you like gravy it can be either good or bad.

So who’s to blame?  I’ll go ahead and place it squarely on us, the charismatics.  We have made secondary (if they’re ranked even that high) issues the most important ones.  We have convinced ourselves that the Holy Spirit moves in certain ways and amongst certain people.  We decried the box other traditions have placed God in, all the while keeping him nice and wrapped in a box of our own.  We have turned our preference for the way we like things to be into a law and called it the move of the Spirit.

Part of the danger, of course, is that by saddling all our junk on top of the term “charismatic,” as well as the eager pursuit of spiritual gifts, we have effectively ruined that pursuit for many others in the church.  True, each person is responsible for their own decisions, and I truly believe that everyone should pursue spiritual gifts regardless of what they think about us charismatics (see my post here).  But we, the charismatic portion of the church, are responsible for ourselves, too.  And if we see our role as building up the whole church, and not just the like-minded people sitting next to us on Sunday mornings, then we ought not to add more to the term than Paul himself does in 1 Corinthians.

‘Charismatic’ has, regretably, come to denote a style, not a theological understanding of how God continues to build the church through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  And as long as we think style is what defines us, we’ll fail to fulfill the goal of building the body of Christ.

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Knowing God: He Shall Testify

Knowing GodAh, the Holy Spirit.  It’s amazing to me how little knowledge there is of the Holy Spirit.  You’d think there would be more emphasis and biblical teaching on him, being part of the Trinity (i.e., God) and all.  Yet, most churches and Christians know very little of what the Bible teaches on the Holy Spirit (I’m not pointing fingers outward, by the way, the circles I run in are just as guilty, more on that to come).  In the words of J I Packer, in chapter 6 of Knowing God, the Holy Spirit is “divine yet ignored.”

Christian people are not in doubt as to the work that Christ did, they know that he redeemed us by his atoning death, even if they differ among themselves as to what exactly this involved.  But the average Christian, deep down, is in a complete fog as to what work the Holy Spirit does. (p68)

Packer focuses on two main reasons to see the Holy Spirit as important: (1) the inspiration of Scripture and (2) regeneration.  If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t have the Bible itself, because he inspired the authors to write it.  Nor would we have Christians, because the Holy Spirit is the one who convincts sinners and brings new life to their heart.  Packer is, of course, absolutely correct in making both points.

But part of me can’t help but note that there’s so much more than that.  This is the difficulty of a book like this, that Packer cannot dive deeper into what the Scripture teaches on a topic as broad (and crucial) as the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  If I could have placed a bet on what Packer would write about the Spirit, well, I’d be a rich man.  It’s a shame, however, because the predictability is disheartening: a charismatic would write about manifestations of the Spirit, a Reformed theologian would focus on inspiration and regeneration, many Baptists would focus on the fruit of the Spirit, and so on.  Each group is woefully partial in their emphases.

And this is part of the problem Packer decries here in this chapter.  I could ask Packer: what about the spiritual gifts?  What does Paul mean when he calls the Spirit “a deposit” (Eph 1:14) or refers to the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (Rom 8:23)?  What does it mean to live/walk by/in the Spirit?  What does it mean to be filled by the Spirit?  Let me be clear- what Packer says about the Spirit is spot on and to be appreciated.  But I finish the chapter with more questions than answers, and can’t get away from what Gordon Fee always says about the Holy Spirit- that in the New Testament church, the Holy Spirit was an “experienced reality.”

I guess it’s unfair to knock Packer on this point, since he’s trying to keep everything short and sweet (though a couple more pages wouldn’t kill the reader).  I want to close by repeating his application points, which are excellent (71-72).

  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our faith, acknowledging the authory of the Bible?
  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our life, by seeking to apply the Bible he has inspired?
  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our witness, realizing that he alone does the convincted and saving?

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

I received volume 5 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT) a few weeks ago.  This volume covers the Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  (You may also want to read Danny’s review of volume 3).  As my volume notes on the back cover, “Many today find the Old Testament a closed book.”  The purpose of this series of backgrounds commentaries, then, is to illuminate the cultural context in which the Old Testament was written.

Zondervan sets out to accomplish this goal with style:  thousands of pictures, maps, charts and other graphics are scattered throughout every glossy, full color page.  Each chapter (which covers an entire book) opens with a page or two of historical background before proceeding to the commentary proper.  As for the commentary itself, it is important to remember that this is a backgrounds commentary.  As such, it should be noted that these volumes are only one (essential) piece of the library one would consult when doing sound exegesis.

The information provided in my volume largely lived up to its promises, and indeed each page serves as a great start to uncovering the cultures in which the Old Testament books are couched.  I was particularly impressed by the “sidebars” that make frequent appearances.  These dive deeper into a particular concept, and are immensely helpful.  Consider, “To Whom do Hosea’s ‘The Ball’ and ‘The Balls’ Refer?” (pp.16-18), “The Early Days of the Persian Empire” (p.207), or “Community Lament in the Ancient Near East” (p.356).  Taken with the commentary text, they are an excellent addition that is often lacking in other background commentaries.  One would miss a large benefit of these commentaries if they were ignored.

Although all of the pictures are interesting, at times, I couldn’t help but feel that many of them were the commentary equivalent of eye candy.  That is, they’re fun to look at, but ultimately contribute little in the way of nutritional value to the text.  Do several pictures of various ancient clay tablets with indecipherable writing add much in the way of understanding?  Perhaps one or two do, but the return in small, in my opinion.  The graphics do add an overall sense of approachability to the text:  It’s far less overwhelming to open to a colorful page full of interesting pictures than a page of plain text.  They also contribute to an overall atmosphere that some may find helpful, albeit in a subconscious way.  If the graphics are the nudge that an otherwise hesitant reader needs to consult a commentary, then they’re worth it.  If you’re unintimidated by hundreds of pages of plain text, and you’d rather the sandwich without the parsley garnish, this may not be the commentary for you.

That said, many of the pictures are very helpful (e.g., a threshing sledge (p.60), a lamp (p.271), or the modern reconstruction of the Israelite view of the cosmos (p.264)).  As for the maps and charts, they’re often worth their weight in gold.

As Danny noted, the text can sometimes be uneven, since there are so many contributors, but I doubt I’d notice if I used the commentary as a reference (as I would), rather than reading it through.  Given the wide range of genre in my volume, differences should be expected anyway.  In all, I was very pleased with the choice of authors (especially the excellent Duane Garrett for Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs), and what they had to say.

Finally, I should mention something about the price tag.  Colorful glossy pages aren’t cheap, and neither are these volumes.  All 5 are selling for $158 on Amazon, and when I consider that IVP’s 800+ page single volume OT backgrounds commentary is $24, it makes it a hard sell for me.  The pictures and illustrations are indeed helpful, and I won’t deny that they set Zondervan’s commentary apart from others, but are they $134 more helpful?  The answer is ultimately a subjective one that likely enjoys direct proportion to your annual book budget, and how you best engage with a book.  If you have the money, and vanilla text makes you cringe, these are a great addition to your library.  Pastors, teachers and students alike will certainly benefit.  If you’re on a tight budget (financial, shelf space or both), and text alone will scratch most of your itch, I would look elsewhere.

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One of the things I marvelled at when reading The Da Vinci Code was author Dan Brown’s claim that the early church, (in a power grab, of course), shrouded Christ’s humanity in a veil of divinity, thus obscuring His humanity.  This created the need for the church as a mediator of Christ’s revelation, otherwise Jesus would be incomprehensible.  Brown’s claims are backed up by several gnostic “gospels,” such as those found at Nag Hammadi.

What was amazing to me about this view, (aside from the fact that it is historically puerile and hopelessly inconsistent to the point where one wonders if Brown even bothered to read a gnostic text, or even look up the word “gnosticism”), was that Brown made such an effort to assert Christ’s humanity, and emphasize his human ministry.  This was interesting to me merely on a personal level, because for the bulk of my Christian life, I have had far greater struggles convincing non-Christians of Christ’s divinity.

This struggle, I learned, was actually much easier than describing what Christ’s divinity actually meant.  How was he God and man?  This difficulty could have been much reduced if only I had read Packer’s 5th chapter in Knowing God.  Here, with the simplicity and clarity that has made this book so popular, Pakcer tackles the incarnation:  Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

Particularly helpful in this chapter is Packer’s precision in expressing that Jesus was not God minus certain divine characteristics, but God plus humanity.  His explanation of Paul’s text in Php. 2:7 is helpful (p.60,63):

When Paul talks of the Son as having emptied himself and become poor, what he has in mind, as the context in each case shows, is the laying aside not of divine powers and attributes, but of divine glory and dignity…a volutary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony-spiritual even more than physical -that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it.

As well as one may be able to describe Christ’s nature, we should note that it will always be mysterious and intrinsically baffling; there is nothing in the universe that serves as an accurate analogue for the Trinity.  God is our only example.  All we can do is express what the Bible teaches.

But even after understanding (best I could) the Bible’s teaching on Christ’s nature, I encountered a third struggle when I met with some Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss the Bible.  Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity, and instead claim that he was a created being, and while he may be ontologically superior to us, he is not divine.  As I labored to reason with them through the Scriptures that Jesus is indeed the God-man, a chilling question surfaced in my head:  What’s at stake?  Does it matter that Jesus was human and divine?  Am I still Christian if I deny this?

Packer hints at the ramifications of Christ’s nature in the beginning of his chapter.  Gallons of theological ink can be spilled to answer why it is crucial to Christianity that Jesus be divine and human.  Consider my very brief, very incomplete list:

  1. Jesus as the God-man is the only adequate explanation for the information we have of him (i.e., Scripture).  It best accounts for his self-understanding, his actions, words, and teachings.  If he were not divine and human, Jesus was either a lunatic, an apparition, or a scoundrel.  None of these seems a plausible option.
  2. Jesus’ nature as God-man means he is the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins in kind (he is human) and quantity (he is infinite).  Even more, we might ask of Scripture:  Who alone saves?  Who alone forgives sins?  It is only and always God.  Jesus is no savior if he is not God.
  3. Jesus’ nature explains the resurrection.  How could one die, yet raise himself up again by his own authority (see Jn. 10:17-18) if he were not both God and man?
  4. Jesus’ nature cements the authority with which we understand his teaching.  If he’s just another guy with amazing, revolutionary things to say, why would we listen to him over and against the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama or Karl Marx?
  5. If Jesus were not human, we lose the awesome realization of how deeply God loves us, and the expanse of Christ’s humility.  C.S. Lewis says it this way in Mere Christianity (p.179):

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body.  If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.

Packer concludes with the practical application of my point above, that as we model God, and “make our attitudes the same as Christ Jesus,” (2 Cor. 8:9), we too become poor, so that others might become rich.

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