Archive for the ‘Resource of the Month’ Category

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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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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Most of us have heard of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.  We learned about them in world history class in high school, noting that it sparked the Protestant Reformation (which is more or less true).  A few of us know that Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany- and a couple of us even know this happened on October 31, 1517 (as noted by Brian here). 

What surprised me, however, is what I found when I actually sat down and read them.   I suppose I expected a compendium of Luther’s theology: sola scripture, justification by faith alone, etc.  What I found, however, was a different sort of Luther.  Luther wasn’t necessarily angry with the pope, he was angry that there were priests who were abusing the sale of indulgences.  He seemed more angry that the pope didn’t know about the abuses perpetuated by these renegade priests.

Even more surprising was Luther’s concern for the poor.  It’s not that I didn’t think Luther disliked the poor or anything, it’s just that I was expecting theological debate.  What I got was a good lesson in social justice and concern for those in need.  I’d encourage you to read the 95 Theses to see what I mean.

For example, check out number 45: “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his mony] for pardons, purchases no the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.”

It’s hard not to imagine that Luther was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan as he was writing this.  The poor were being asked to fulfill a religious duty, even when the needs of those around them were not being met (or even the needs of their own families, as number 46 of the Theses alludes to).  Of course, the devout Catholics of that day probably didn’t know Jesus’ parable, since they could not read the Bible for themselves (as Brian touched on in his Reformation Day post).

I also couldn’t help but think about the description of “true religion” in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Reading the 95 Theses is a lesson in a pastor’s care for the flock.  Luther was indignant at the abuse of the poor- those renegade priests who, in effect, turned the poor upside down and shook the money out of the pockets and said “God bless you.”  I suspect that as Luther continued walking down this path of fighting this abuse, he began to notice the flawed theologically foundations that led to such abhorrent practices, which is why we tend to think of Luther the Theologian before Luther the Pastor. 

When I look at the church today, I can see where Luther would find similar abhorrant practices.  We see the health & wealth preachers who bilk the devout poor out of their money, all the while flying in private jets from one mansion to another, or building some unncessarily elaborate facility in the name of God (they ought to read Thesis number 86).  If we wanted to go outside the realm of the church for a moment, we could note how many people throw money into already well-funded political campaigns in the name of helping our country (including helping the poor in our country), all the while walking past the hungry guy with the Dunkin’ Donuts cup sitting next to him holding a few coins.

Well, I could go on with this, but I’ll spare us all the speech.  My whole point is this: what Luther noticed was that those in need were being passed over in the name of religious duty, and devout believers were being taken advantage of by those they trusted.  Are there ways in which we do the same thing?  Are we able to walk past the beaten man on the side of the road so we can get to our next occasion to serve God?  Are there still devout believers who feel the message coming from the pulpit that they need to give (time, money, etc) in order to know God’s forgiveness?

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In the Western world, and for nearly two centuries, Halloween has occupied the limelight of October 31st. Few are aware, however, that October 31st marks another important event that has shaped our world far more than clever costumes and excuses to eat candy. I am speaking, of course, of Reformation Day.

On October 31st, 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to a church door in Wittenberg. While purposed to generate discussion on the Catholic sale of indulgences (N.B., and not intended to affect a break with the Catholic Church), Luther’s theses began a chain of events that ushered in the Protestant Reformation, forever changing the landscape of Christianity. In honor of Reformation Day, we’ve decided to unveil our Resource of the Month a day early, and honor Luther along with a host of other key reformers for their contributions to Christianity.  Our hats are also off to Tim Challies, for suggesting a third Reformation Day Symposium; stop by his site when you get a chance.

We can think of no better way to kick off this series than to consider the Reformation’s impact on the Bible. If you own a Bible in your native language, you can thank God for people like Martin Luther. In Luther’s day, the only Bible readily “available” was the Vulgate: A Latin translation of the original Greek and Hebrew penned some 1,000 years earlier. If you lived in 16th century Europe, chances were that you didn’t read or speak any Latin outside of the few phrases you might have picked up at church (since mass was in Latin, too). Latin was reserved for the small island of society fortunate enough to receive a proper education. To put it in modern terms, imagine that only high-ranking government officials and multi-millionaires had access to the Bible. This might give you a flavor for what it was like in Luther’s day.

Aware of this horrible disparity, Luther began his translation of the Bible into German while he was exiled in Wartburg castle in 1521. The completed work, which Luther would spend the rest of his life refining, was published in 1534. Even today, the Luther Bible is considered seminal in terms of its impact on Christianity and the German language itself. The advent of the printing press helped Luther’s translation (indeed, the Reformation itself) immensely, and thousands of copies were made and distributed to those hungry for God’s Word.

Of course, Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into the vernacular. John Wycliffe (the eponym for Wycliffe Bible Translators) published a translation in Middle English about 150 years before Luther.  Luther also had company in William Tyndale, who began publishing translations in English shortly after him.

While other partial Bible translations pre-date Luther’s, few had his impact. In addition to the aid Luther’s work received from the printing press, the Luther Bible was helped by the translator’s passion to make God’s Word accessible: He spent a great deal of time studying how people communicated in his day. Luther wanted to ensure that his translation would be readily understandable by people of every age and class.

So, to my titular question: How Much for that Bible? A lot: Years upon years devoted to faithful study of Biblical languages, many more pouring over the texts for translation, the logistical nightmare of managing the undertaking without modern contrivances, and the threat of public disgrace, imprisonment, or even death at every turn. Much like our salvation, the Bible you own today was bought at a tremendous price, and it is stained with the blood, sweat and tears of many saints who gave everything for the sake of furthering the Gospel.

Today the Bible is available in thousands of translations. For those of us in America, countless study guides, concordances, commentaries, cross-references and books complement the Bible, and the internet brings a wealth of free resources (this website to wit) right into your home with a slight twitch of your index finger.

What, then, will be our excuse should our Bibles spend more time on a shelf than in our hands? Have we sought after God’s Word with the hunger and zeal of one starving for bread? Do we cherish each page of God’s Word, understanding that what we hold cost more than we can imagine? Do we humbly and thankfully accept that over the span of human history, we enjoy today a luxury afforded by a very few?

This Reformation Day, let us take a moment to thank God for His Revelation to us through His Word, and making it so accessible to us. Let us put our thanks into action by diligent study and meditation. Finally, let us do all we can to make sure that the reformers did not labor in vain, and continue their work, by getting the Bible, history’s greatest evangelist, into the hands of all the world.

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Believe it or not, one of my favorite passages in the Pentateuch to teach is Leviticus 19.  I can think of a couple reasons, including the strong correlation between theology and ethics.  But, I’ve found that this is a good place for a Bible teacher to show how historical background can help us understand the seemingly random laws we find in Leviticus.  Enter October’s Resource of the Month, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament.


In verses 26-31, we see a combination of laws that seem, to our minds, arbitrary and disconnected to one another.  However, when we understand the pagan cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, we can understand why the Lord issued these commands.


The Bible Background Commentary informs us that the issues brought up here in these verses were a part of pagan religious rituals.  Some of this is obvious to us (practicing divination, seeking out mediums), while much of it may not be.  Let me share some relevant background information from our good friends Walton, Matthews and Chavalas (all of these quotes are from page 134).


V26– The connection of meat with blood still in it and divination is seen in nearby cultures (such as the Hittites), who used the blood of sacrificed animals “to attract the spirits of the dead… or chthonic (underworld) deities in order to consult them about the future.”


V27– “The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead. …In ancient thinking hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives of a person’s life essence.  As such it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic.”


V28– Cutting oneself was often a means of attracting a god’s attention (think of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:28).  As for tattoos, this was often “designed to protect a person from the spirits of the dead.”


V29– While the denunciation of prostitution does not necessarily require a pagan religious ritual context, it may well include that (and since this command falls in the context of pagan rituals, I would argue it does).  As we know, prostitution was often a part of pagan religion.  (Remember the story of the idolatrous Israelites and the Midianite women in Numbers 25.)


So, when we read Leviticus 19:26-31, we can see that these are not arbitrary laws, but rather are commanding Israel not to practice their religion like their pagan neighbors.  You don’t need to perform magical spells or stir up a special concoction in order to hear from the Lord.  You don’t need to mutilate your body to ensure that the Lord will hear you.  You don’t need to live in fear of the spirits of the dead because you have the God who created all things on your side. 


This all leads to another reason why I like teaching Leviticus 19: I find it ripe for hermeneutical reflection.  In what ways do we copy the surrounding pagan culture?  Have we adopted means of determining the Lord’s will that are actually unbiblical?  Do we worship in ways that reflect our godless culture more so than our holy God?  There are many more questions one could ask, which are admittedly open ended, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of our readers.

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One of the most popular Old Testament stories shows up in 1 King 18, the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Or, perhaps better said, it’s the showdown between Yahweh and Baal.  While certainly there is a contest between Elijah and his opponents, ultimately what this event proved is the superiority of Yahweh to Baal.


The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament gives us a little background help in understand the significance of this story.  The contest really begins back in 1 Kings 17:1, where Elijah reports that Yahweh will not allow rain in Israel, where Baal was worshipped (at least at that time).  As the authors point out, “By withholding rain, Yahweh is demonstrating the power of his kingship in the very area of nature over which Baal is thought to have jurisdiction.  …If Baal is the provider of rain and Yahweh announces that he will withhold it, the contest is on” (p376).


So, the showdown has already been started when we get to Mt Carmel (right in “Baal territory”).  The authors break down 18:23-24 into 3 main points (all from page 378):


1.  Fire is an indication of the presence of God.


2.  Fire is connected to the lightning of the storm god.


3.  Fire represents the acceptance of the sacrifice.


I’d like to focus mainly on the second point, the connection between fire and the storm god.  Since the contest was spurred on by the drought in the land of Israel, it was thought by the prophets of Baal that Baal would surely prove himself more powerful than Yahweh.  Baal, as their storm god, would be able to control the rain as well as the lightning, able to send both rain and fire to the earth. 


What some of this background knowledge helps us understand is that this battle is staged in Baal’s favor.  Sending fire and rain is supposed to be right in Baal’s wheelhouse, and the contest happens right in his backyard.  This would be like challenging Einstein to a calculus quiz or Michael Phelps to a swimming race.  God picks a fight with Baal and skews the rules in Baal’s favor.


Now, we know that Baal didn’t really exist; there was no god hanging out over Israel sending storms.  But they didn’t know that- at least until Yahweh whipped Baal in what seemed to be a one-sided contest.  Obviously you don’t have to know a bit of ancient history to get the main point of this passage.  But knowing what the prevalent beliefs were about Baal helps us to understand just how decisive this victory was for Yahweh.  Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that when God said “you shall have no other gods before me”, He really meant it.

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For the month of October, we have chosen the IVP Bible Background Commentary as our Resource of the Month.  This book is mentioned in our Article, Learning the Bible, as a helpful resource to learn the historical background of the Bible (as is its New Testament counterpart, which may be highlighted in a later month).  The book is written by a team of John H Walton, Victor H Matthews and Mark W Chavalas.

The book includes notes on helpful background information gleaned from archaeology, anthropology, historical writings, etc.  It is arranged canonically, so can be read side-by-side while you are reading the Bible.  Just as we are familiar with the present cultural assumptions and worldview as we hear a sermon or read the newspaper, so was the original audience of the Old Testament writings.  The goal of this book is to introduce the modern reader to that helpful information that informed the mind of the ancient readers.

Throughout this month we will be posting on particular places where we’ve found this book to be helpful.  Naturally there is much we could write but will be unable, but we hope what little we say will help our readers see how this resource can be profitable.

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