The inspiration of Scripture and us
Have you ever wondered why the Spirit inspires as he does? ‘But there is a place where someone has testified…’ (Hebrews 2.6). Why doesn’t the Spirit quietly (or even loudly) prompt the author of Hebrews, ‘Psalm 8.’ Wouldn’t that have been helpful? Wouldn’t that have avoided the need for footnotes? Possibly. But, Peter Adam has suggested this week, isn’t it also a wonderful insight into the way God works in the world more generally, including the way he inspires Scripture.
He is not a divine puppeteer. Not when it comes to Scripture, nor in any of his dealings with the world. He is, and always is, sovereign. But his sovereignty is not compromised by human responsibility and accountability. Indeed, it shows him to be relational and intimate with his people. For the puppet master who controls and dictates in a world where we have no part to play does not and cannot relate to us as Father. No. That is impossible.
But a sovereign God who works through us and in us in ways which are – ultimately – beyond understanding, establishes relationship and personal communication. And thus it is with Scripture. For if Scripture was God speaking directly, who could read it or hold it or stand before it or bear to listen. But, rather, Scripture is written down by human authors as they are carried along. And so there is divine accommodation and God’s voice can be heard, understood and obeyed.
Praise the Lord!
I kid you not. Peter Adam (pretty senior and conservative) has just done a rap on Habakkuk. Truly. No, really. When the video is uploaded, it’s worth its weight in gold. But not as good as the teaching from the book.
I preached my very first sermon on Habakkuk. The whole of it. Literally. I had moved to a church and university where the Bible was actually preached and I loved it. So, when the church asked me to preach, I over-reached significantly. I still have my notes which I keep for humility. It means that Habakkuk is close to my heart and reasonably well-known but even so I’ve found this week’s highlights wonderfully alive.
Take chapter 3. Out of Habakkuk’s desperate prayer of ‘How long?’ comes the beautiful song for Israel to sing that Habakkuk wrote, inspired by the Spirit. And at the head of this song is a wonderful response to what we see in the world. ‘Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’
If it is true that praying ‘How long, Lord’ is a good prayer for Christians to be praying – at all times – then it also follows that Hab. 3.2 is a song we should always be singing. For our longing needs to be expressed in terms of what we long that God might do. Ultimately, this means longing for the mercy of Christ: a mercy our world does not even realise it needs. But as we reflect on the judgements God has wrought in the past and as we call on him to bring justice today, we must pray this prayer asking him to remember mercy.
It’s rather easy for us as Christians to ask God to bring justice. That is a good prayer, but – in one sense – it is a terrible prayer. If God came today in wrath, we can hardly even begin to imagine what that might mean. So, all we as Christians can pray is ‘in wrath, remember mercy.’
EMA, 22-24 June 2015
There’s still time to book for this years EMA though it’s now less than 8 weeks away so if you were thinking of coming, take the opportunity to book now.
The topic of this years conference – our identity in Christ – is a hugely important and exciting subject to grapple with personally, as a church and as we seek to interact with the wider community.
We look forward to seeing you there!
Your daily prayer
I wonder if you have something you pray regularly? Peter Adam, teaching us this week, has told us that there are things he needs to pray every day because they are expressing sentiments that are so far from where he is at present, he dares not let up.
He quoted the example of a previous Bishop of Melbourne who said his daily prayer was ‘Let nothing happen today.’ Hmm. I guess that may be our unspoken prayer, but what is actually the prayer we should pray?
Personally, each day I write out the fruit of the Spirit and make one particular word the focus of my daily prayer for myself. But I wonder if even that is too general. Perhaps I need to be honest about my fears and failures and make those my daily prayer. Will you join me?
‘May this day be both by best day of loving and serving Christ.’ (Valley of Vision)
Praying Scripture (again)
I am sure I have mused on praying Scripture before. I am sure I shall
do it again. For, you see, I’m not all that good at it. Neither are my
people. And, I’m pretty sure, neither are you. The bulk of our praying
takes something like the form, ‘please bless so and so’ or ‘I pray
for…’ followed by a list of names.
I’ve been challenged by this whilst sitting under the ministry of
Peter Adam at this year’s Spring Ministers Conference. We’re looking
at Habakkuk. It’s pretty intense stuff. But one of the key ideas is
the encouragement that Peter is giving us to pray Scripture. How long,
has it been, he has challenged us, since we prayed ‘How long, Lord?’
You can’t really read Habakkuk and not be moved to pray this prayer
So how might you or I make this work? How about trying this: do your
devotion and pick out one application from the reading. Use the Bible
words to pray for yourself and then pick up your prayer list. Now
apply the same truth for each person you pray for. I don’t mean to
simply repeat the Bible verse as a mantra, that would seem little
better than just saying, ‘please bless…’ Rather, work through what
the truth means for each person on your list and pray that in.
I’ve found that praying like this is a richly rewarding and pastorally
useful exercise. It brings me nearer to my people. It gives me a deep
desire to see them flourish as Christians.
Why not give it a go?
Free ESV Study Bible
Diversity and God
I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, not least because I’m leading a seminar on it at the EMA. We tend to talk about diversity in terms of completion: i.e. diversity somehow and in some way completes us, or even – we sometimes imply – completes God. Have you ever stopped to think about this? Why does God love diversity? Is it because we need each other in all our multi-faceted differences in order to be the people God wants us to be?
Logically, that doesn’t stack up as a primary reason. Is a white-only church in a white-only area which can never hope of being multi-racial (at least at present) somehow substandard to one which is cosmopolitan? That hardly seems right, even if there are benefits to being sharpened by people with different cultural expectations.
So how does diversity work, then? What – primarily – is its function and usefulness? I’ve just been reading Garry Williams’ excellent book “His love endures for ever” – possibly the stand out book of the last twelve months for me. This is what he says:
“God does not love the diversity because it brings him something he does not already have. He does not need the rich life of creation, because he himself lacks it richness. The necessity runs the other way; creation needs its rich life because its creator already has the richest life. If the creation is to reflect God properly then it needs to have a rich diversity for the very reason his divine life is already so rich and full.”
Taking a line in the difficult passages
There are some passages in Scripture which are, frankly, very hard to understand. They just are. And sometimes your understanding of them may lead to very different applications, even opposite ones. Take the crying in Ezra 3. Why are the older leaders crying? Tears of joy perhaps? Tears of sorrow? I think the text is ultimately clear in this place (though why they are crying is more difficult to work out). But your answer may lead you in very different directions.
Ezra 10 is a similar passage. You could tie yourself in a lot of knots trying to get to the bottom of this. So, what do you do with it in a sermon? If you were writing a commentary, you’ve got a much easier task. You can spend 10 pages presenting one view and 10 pages the opposing view. Then you can say “at the end, we can’t really be sure.”
But is that ever good enough for a sermon?
I do think a preacher needs to sit humbly before the text and his people need to see him submitting to the text. But a sermon is not a commentary, nor is it a lecture. Therefore, I believe a preacher should prayerfully and carefully hope and trust to come to a conclusion. That is not to say that he cannot reveal his struggles. ‘This is a hard part to get right.’ Nor ever claim to have the final word. ‘As I’ve prayed and considered, this is where the text seems to take us.’
But he won’t have time to do the whole ‘it could mean this, it could mean that’ rigmarole. Nor should he want to.
That’s not preaching, is it? At least, not in my book.
The ambiguity of Ezra 10
Ezra is a book in my bloodstream. I’ve preached through it three times; taught it at Cornhill pretty much every year since I’ve been here; lectured it here and overseas and I’m midway through writing our Teaching Ezra book. And yet, I still think that getting to the bottom of chapter 10 (when foreign wives are put away) one of the hardest parts of the Old Testament – especially in how we make it into New Covenant teaching.
I’ve just finished teaching this year’s course at Cornhill and am reminded that ending with this uncertainty is always unsatisfactory. Of course, that sense might be mitigated if we bundled Ezra and Nehemiah together (as I recommend the students). But our timetable, at present at least, does not allow for that.
I set the students two key questions. First, is Ezra’s response the correct one? Second, what is the New Covenant parallel, if there is one. These are two separate but not entirely unconnected questions.
For what it’s worth, I think the first question is easier to answer. Ezra is presented as the pre-eminent man of the law (e.g. Ezra 7.10). The whole second section leans heavily in this direction. He describes the remedy as “honouring the Lord, the God of your ancestors and doing his will” (Ezra 10.10). The people recognise this is good. “You are right! We must do as you say” (Ezra 10.12) having previously encouraged Ezra “Let it be done according to the Law” (Ezra 10.3).
DA Carson is somewhat more ambiguous than I could be: “Strictly speaking the text itself does not adjudicate between these two interpretations [Ezra is right, or wrong in his actions], though the first of the two is slightly more natural within the stance of the book.”
I want to go further. It seems to me that the text’s thrust and tone positively encourages us to think optimistically about Ezra’s actions. But given that to be the case, we are still left with the perplexing question of New Covenant application. Here are one or two ideas:
- First, the big thing going on is the supremacy of relationship with the covenant God. Nothing must be allowed to trump this. This point needs to be made, though that does not necessarily rule anything in or out in terms of our preaching application.
- Second, we must recognise that a New Testament believer’s relationship to law is not the same as an Old Testament believer.
- Third, there is a seriousness about sin and a ruthlessness about remedy that is reflected in the New Covenant – see, for example, Matthew 5.30.
- Fourth, it is possible to make a case I believe, for saying that these so-called “marriages” are not marriages at all. It is not that they are unethical, they are illegal. Is it possible to say that a legal parallel would be ‘marriage’ to, say, a sister? If someone told you that they were married to their sister, you would reply, ‘No, you’re not.’ The “wife” must be put away.
There are some things in Scripture that are hard to understand. We must not ignore them, but wrestle with them. And when it comes to preaching, I believe, we have to take a line. More of that tomorrow.
Pastoring the elderly
We had an interesting evening about the elderly at church last Sunday with Stephen Hammersley, CBE, the new Chief Executive of Pilgrim Friends Society. Some of the stats are breath-taking in terms of the growth in the numbers of those over 65 and also those over 85 (where dementia becomes a 25% reality).
It occurred to me once again that we are ill-equipped as churches to know how to minister into these situations. Stephen suggested, for example, that the secular care-world is much more advanced in understanding dementia and how to help those who suffer than the church is. In the church, very few people have begun to build any kind of pastoral theology around this huge issue.
Two quotes, in essence saying the same thing, stood out. First Billy Graham: ‘All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I die…it is not easy.’ Then John Stott: ‘I knew I had to prepare for eternity, but no-one told me I had to prepare for being old.’
Alongside these we might put the young pastor who, in my head at least, says, ‘All my training I’ve been taught how to minister to the fit and well, no-one ever taught me how to minister to the elderly.’
A glance at the bookshelves confirms the diagnosis. So many, many books on youth work. Some of them really good. So few books on pastoring the elderly (any decent ones at all?).
We need some thinking and help. It’s not just the NHS that has a ticking time bomb because of the ageing population. It’s the church too. Your church, in all probability.