It’s the jubilee
We're tempted to post a deep meaningful biblical theological post about biblical jubilee to celebrate the Queen's 60 years on the throne of GB and Northern Ireland. But we're too tired! Plus, we're a mix here in the office of those who love the idea of monarchy and those who are closet republicans (though, in line with Romans 13 we've no rebels). So, instead, it's a chance to replay the Queen's closing words from her Christmas Speech 2011 where she said what many of us wished our church leaders would say more often…
Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: 'Fear not', they urged, 'we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.' Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love. In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there's a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
A week in the life of Corinth
I've just finished reading Ben Witherington (the Third)'s little book A week in the life of Corinth. This is a semi fictional account of life in Corinth seen through the eyes of Nicanor (a released slave) who has a Christian master. It's tied closely to the Acts account – so features Paul, Priscilla and Aquila and Gallio and Sosthenes. The idea is to get a feel for what Corinthian or ancient life was like. Interspersed with the fictional accounts are detailed sidebars about various issues that come up – slavery, worship, life in the suburbs and so on.
First, its strengths. It's easy to read, compelling even – you want to find out what happens to Nicanor at the end. The prose is not high and mighty. The sidebars you can dip in and out of as you want. There are pictures and illustrations to help along the way. And it's informative. I don't think it will tell the average pastor much he doesn't already know – but it's the kind of thing you might want small group leaders reading, or even church members. It will give them a nice feel for 1st century Roman empire life.
But it's not without weaknesses. At times it feels a little contrived. The last chapter describing an early church meeting seems especially so. I'm no historian but the idea that an unconverted Gentile (Nicanor) might have been encouraged to take part in the Lord's Supper seems quite unlikely, for example. I'm not sure the tongues and prophecies reported at the meeting really ring true either.
Nevertheless, there is much here that is helpful. It's woven into the themes that arise from 1 Corinthians in particular – Paul often "speaks" whole sections and whilst this wouldn't have been the case it moves the narrative along. So, not bad at all as a way of "going to Corinth." At nine of your English pounds (on amazon) it's not cheap. Buy one, read and pass around.
Getting into the detail of Genesis 1-4
Of the making of books [on Genesis 1-4] there is much. As I've been wrestling with the text I've found this one particularly helpful – it's C John Collins Genesis 1-4, A linguistic, literary and theological commentary, published by P&R. I like it a lot. It's fairly technical – lots of Hebrew, for example, but still comprehensible to someone who's Hebrew is not much to brag about. There was a recent exchange of views over at Reformation21 about his latest book, Did Adam and Eve really exist? That might have put you off. It needn't. Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the review, that's a different book. (I also like very much Collins Science and Faith).
It has to be said, of course, that any commentary on these first few chapters, comes with the author's preconceptions about the nature of creation (days, age etc). There are no unbiased commentaries, in this sense. I don't always find myself agreeing with Collins, but it's testament to this volume that I still have found it immensely helpful. Not so easy to get hold of in UK, but worth searching out.
Men or people?
I have noticed that in our conservative evangelical circles we often refer to humankind generically as “man”. We speak of “God and man” or “man’s deepest problem” and so on. We mean to refer to human beings without restriction of gender. But in our culture the words “man” and “men” no longer refer to human beings in this way. Language has changed its meaning, and as soon as we utter these words, many of our audience begin to wonder why we have excluded the women from what we are about to say.
We gratuitously alienate our hearers, who think we are being chauvinistic when in fact we are just being dated in our use of language.
It is true that there are times when the words “man” and “men” are still necessary, such as in Genesis 1 and 2, where the text plays on the double meaning of “Adam” (the first male human being) and “humankind” in ways that highlight the creational priority of males over females. But these times are relatively few.
Mostly I think we are being thoughtless rather than theological. I have begun encouraging our students at Cornhill to speak of “human beings”, “humankind”, “men and women”, “people”, “a person” and so on. We may feel reluctant to do this, worrying that we are capitulating to political correctness; personally I think we should swallow our misgivings, avoid offending people and communicate to our audience of human beings in ways that men and women understand.
Getting the right answer the wrong way
Does it matter if you get to the right answer the wrong way? I think it does. Let me explain.
This weekend I'm preaching on Genesis 2.4-25. There's a huge amount there, and there's plenty of ink spilled. There are also some very obvious things to say – like, for example, that there are NOT two creation accounts. We know this because Jesus, in Matthew 19.3-5 draws from both in the same breath. However, I got a little stuck on Genesis 4.7
The LORD God…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now, there's some obvious NT work that needs to be done – not least 1 Corinthians 15.45 (where, according to Dick Gaffin, the word "spirit" should be capitalised – only the HCSB does this). But my interest was piqued by the number of popular level commentators who point out, again and again, that Gen 4.7 could be translated, "…became a living soul." This is evidence, so it goes, that mankind is super special and is different from the animal kingdom. He has a soul.
All sounds neat, don't it, Mister? Except that it's exactly the same way the animals are described in chapter 1 (Gen 1.24). And though the land produced the animals, they ultimately got their life from God. But the answer is actually right. We know, reading the creation account (singular) in Gen 1-2 that mankind is special. Moreover we know that to be true just from Gen 2 for other reasons – for example it is only mankind for whom this procedure of giving life is mentioned here. So, it's easy to get to the right answer by the wrong method. And this is why it matters:
- there's no guarantee that you will ever get to the right answer unless you are faithful to the text and use the method. OK, it worked here. But somewhere else, it will not work and you'll end up with the wrong answer
- if this is the kind of thing you need to include in a sermon (and there's no need to particularly) then you will not only be using a wrong approach yourself, but you will be teaching it to others
- in this particular case, the tendency is to elevate a slightly gnostic view of the text (I worked out this clever thing) with a much more basic approach – what does, for example, 1 Cor 15 say about it.
So, yep. The right answer from the right approach is always what we pursue.
Almost as soon as the EMA is finished, we're off to Hothorpe and the summer wives conference begins. This is for wives of ministers in the first few years of ministry. It's normally a sunny, happy, useful time as wives spend time together under God's word and afternoon's relaxing, refreshing and recharging. This year I'm leading three sessions on Numbers (including the amazing women collectively known as Zelophehad's daughters). Carolyn Ash is teaching alongside. We have 8 or 9 senior women to come and assist leading seminars, prayer groups and available for 1-2-1 help. Hothorpe is a great central location with lots of space and comfort. We have a few spaces left, so do think about coming to join us. More information here.
PS sorry if you're trying to book onto the EMA but there is no space left on Wednesday. We have one or two spaces left on Thursday and Friday.
John Dickson at Spring Younger Ministers
We've now got the video up for John Dickson's three talks (each about an hour). Fascinating stuff – and his enthusiasm is infectious…
I shed a tear. You may too.
I'm not ashamed to say that yesterday two things brought a lump to my throat and a little tear to my eye (not a full blown blub, you understand):
- Elections in Egypt. I saw a lady queuing to vote being interviewed on the BBC. "How long have you been waiting?" asked the reporter. Quick as a flash, she replied, "About 30 years." This is a significant moment in Egyptian politics/history and Christians and churches must be praying, not least because the outcome (known in about two weeks) could have significant impact on gospel witness in that historic country. Make sure you are praying this Sunday…
- A newsletter from friends in South Asia. They have gone for 18 months to learn the language and culture so they can minister to the large Diaspora back here in London. They've been gone 8 or 9 months and I miss them. But what brought a tear to my eye is that in this honest newsletter they admitted that they are all (kids too) desperately homesick. They're determined to keep going, but it's hard. Ministry is hard. If you went into ministry thinking otherwise, then you're a fool. We can get seduced by the fact that ministers in this country have been well looked after (relatively speaking) for the last few hundred years. And, praise God, there are still kind and generous donors who make sure ministers are cared for. But it is not the norm around the world, and it is certainly not the spiritual norm anywhere. Ministry is suffering, and if you don't feel it, perhaps you ought to pause and ask yourself, "What, exactly, am I doing wrong…?"
Credo, spaghetti and swords
I always find Credo magazine a stimulating read. And, for the misguided (!) amongst our readership, it doesn't wear its credo-baptist credentials on its sleeve too much. Latest issue is here. I thought Greg Gilbert had some particularly insightful things to say about preaching through Ezekiel:
Get a good handle on the structure of the book. Most Christians tend to think about Old Testament books—especially the prophets—as just a mash-up of various images and poems that aren’t really going anywhere or doing anything as a whole. It’s like a bowl of judgment spaghetti with a few Messianic meatballs thrown in here and there! But that’s a wholly inaccurate view of them. The prophetic books are more like swords than spaghetti. They have a weight, a shape, a point, and a thrust. They’re doing something, and they all have a tight—and sometimes brilliant!—structure to them. Spend the time necessary to drill that structure into your mind, and you’ll have a much better time studying and teaching them because you’ll know where you are in the “argument” or “story” of the book. Second, look for the Messiah! He’s there in every book and in every passage, sometimes even in places you don’t expect him. If you keep in mind the whole story of the Bible and how it all moves like a river toward Jesus, you won’t be so prone to get lost in moralism.
Younger Ministers 2012 -David Cook
David Cook's three sessions on preaching based on Acts were great. The last session, in particular, was gold dust and even if you skip the other two is worth downloading. The audio is online here or you can watch him through the medium of video….