Sending wives away – Ezra 10
I'm getting to the end of prep for teaching Ezra at Cornhill and must deal with one of the most perplexing parts of the book – what is going on when the foreign wives (and their children) are sent away in Ezra 10. Some of the most helpful comments I have read on this come from Carson in his For the love of God volume 2. This two volume devotional commentary is often a good go-to place for initial thoughts and it is now available online for free through the Gospel Coalition website. Basically he outlines two views:
- that the sending away is akin to a revival. Serious steps are taken to maintain purity.
- that the sending away is a wrong response to a rightly discerned problem and the Law does not sanction such inhumane treatment.
His conclusion is worth repeating in full. Note the last line which is full of pastoral wisdom for anyone ministering in a local church context.
Without meaning to avoid the issue, I suspect that in large measure both views are correct. There is something noble and courageous about the action taken; there is also something heartless and reductionistic. One suspects that this is one of those mixed results in which the Bible frankly abounds, like the account of Gideon, or of Jephthah, or of Samson. Some sins have such complex tentacles that it is not surprising if solutions undertaken by repentant sinners are messy as well.
A book I really like
Every now and again it's good to read books you really agree with. I don't think it's always a good idea, but it's good to be reminded that you're not a total goofhead and that some things you hold dear and feel passionate about are probably right.
This is one of those books. It's called The most misused verses in the Bible and is by Eric Bargerhuff, published by Bethany House. That does mean it is not too easy to get hold of in the UK – though Amazon and the Book Depository already have it – perhaps others will follow?
There are 19 short chapters focusing on 17 of the most misused verses in the Bible – how they are mistreated and what they actually mean. It's essentially a lesson in understanding the Bible well in the context in which it was written. As such, it ticks two useful boxes:
- First, it demolishes some shibboleths. I agreed with Eric's assessment of every one save James 5, where I'm more inclined to go along with Doug Moo in his little Tyndale guide.
- Second, it establishes a wonderful paradigm for understanding Scripture correctly. It's not just – in other words – here's not how to do it, but here's how to do it.
It's written at a popular level and would be useful for church members, small group leaders, Sunday School teachers and so on. Pretty much everyone really. Brilliant. And I'm not a complete goofhead. Here's the complete list:
- Matthew 7.1
- Jeremiah 29.11-13
- Matthew 18.20
- John 14.13-14
- Romans 8.28
- 2 Chronicles 7.14
- Colossians 1.15
- 1 Timothy 6.10
- 1 Corinthians 10.13
- Proverbs 22.6
- Philippians 4.13
- Exodus 21.23
- James 5.15
- Acts 2.38
- Proverbs 4.23
- Proverbs 29.18
- John 12.32
Ministry and suffering (5): contentment
What is the answer to suffering? How, as a minister of the gospel, do we endure the slings and arrows that come our way? How do we learn to live with tension, illness, family trouble, disgruntled church members, divided leaderships and so on?
We don't pretend that they aren't tensions. Gospel ministers are not called to be ostriches. We have to face up to difficulties, deal with them head on when necessary and realise that the world is sinful. It is sinful corporately – sin is in the world and the world is broken. It is sinful individually – the world is made up of sinners whom we interact with every day and the greatest sinner of all is closer to us than we imagine (work it out). That means that sometimes life is rubbish.
The answer is not to make the rubbishness go away. That could easily become the focus of our prayers. Whilst I don't want to play down praying for the particularities of situations we find ourselves in we must, at the very least, begin to recognise that every moment is a teaching moment given by a gracious father and the one quality we must learn above all is CONTENTMENT.
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4.10-13).
Ministry and suffering (4)
In the midst of current struggles, a colleague wrote us a very helpful and encouraging note. He too had been through some tough times and he took the time to write down (for his church) some of the lessons he had learned. I offer here the headlines…some of them really need a little more explanation but there is not really room – perhaps I will encourage him to write it up in a form we could publish…?
Anyway. with "the important caveat that sometimes the most profound lessons defy neat explanations in words" here are the lessons he learnt:
- God is infinitely sovereign and kind, even in the midst of difficulty when it doesn't seem like it.
- God is the only One who is control of my life and to desire control is, in effect, to desire to be God.
- To be conformed to Christ who was bruised, necessitates being bruised ourselves.
- It is a good thing to consider [one's own] death.
- It is good not to cross bridges until you have to cross them.
- Physical illness is part of a much bigger spiritual battle.
- God is more interested in building character than giving us explanations.
- The local church is a wonderful instrument in the Redeemer's hands.
- Above all else, guard your heart.
- The weight of glory far outweighs any number of momentary afflictions.
These have been really helpful for us. And here is John Ryland's great hymn (ALL the verses!):
Ministry and suffering (3): Question 26
Close friends and I often – rather mysteriously – say to one another (or text) – "Question 26" by which we mean Heidelberg:
Question 26. What believest thou when thou sayest, "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"?
Answer: That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father; on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.
It's that last truth which is such a great sustaining grace during times of suffering. We hold two truths in glorious tension – that God is both Almighty and Father. I was talking to my eldest daughter, Alice, about this just the other day and she, rather profoundly, said, "Wouldn't it be terrible if God was just one?"
- For a God who is Almighty but not Father would be a terrible despot – unconcerned for our wellbeing and acting out of selfish motives alone.
- For a God who is Father but not Almighty would be a terrible comfort – only able to put his arm around you and say "there, there…" (which, by the way is the irony of Open Theism which claims that God responds to tragedy by saying, "I didn't see it coming either" – some comfort, that is!).
It is the glorious tension of these two truths together that sustains us through the tough times. It doesn't matter whether the crisis is personal or church related; individual or corporate – God is both Almighty and a faithful Father.
By the way, pastorally speaking, I am convinced these are truths you need to learn in the good times. And teach in the good times. Try teaching someone about the sovereignty of God when things are bad. Not a good time to hear it for the first time!
And these truths are tied up with the consistent nature of God – so one song I find very helpful goes something like this:
Shall I take from Your hand Your blessings
Yet not welcome any pain?
Shall I thank You for days of sunshine
Yet grumble in days of rain?
Shall I love You in times of plenty
Then leave You in days of drought?
Shall I trust when I reap a harvest
But when winter winds blow, then doubt?
Oh let Your will be done in me
In Your love I will abide
Oh I long for nothing else as long
As You are glorified
Are You good only when I prosper
And true only when I’m filled?
Are You King only when I’m carefree
And God only when I’m well?
You are good when I’m poor and needy
You are true when I’m parched and dry
You still reign in the deepest valley
You’re still God in the darkest night
© 2008 Integrity’s Praise! Music/Sovereign Grace Praise (BMI)
Ministry and suffering (2): Ask for wisdom
Right now these are the hardest words for me in the whole Bible:
Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so tht you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
How can the real, painful, trials of life ever be joy? It's completely counter cultural. But here's what I've learnt:
- Firstly, we're not talking here about the kind of joy that shouts out "whooppee, another trial. BRING IT ON!" That's just stupid. And Jesus taught us to pray "lead us not into temptation" which could also be translated (and perhaps better is) "lead us not into times of testing." In other words, only the fool looks for trouble. So, if the joy doesn't come from the circumstance itself, where does it come from?
- It comes, secondly, from the result of the trials. James is clear. "The testing of your faith produces perseverance." Ultimately, the trials we are enduring will make us mature and complete – in other words they are part of our sanctification, making us like Christ. Think of them like this and you can begin to think about them in joyful ways.
- Thirdly, there is help in James for those who struggle to see joy in tough times. It comes in verse 5. it may seem like I'm stating the obvious but verse 5 comes after verse 4 and there is therefore a pretty good chance the two are linked. Verse 5 is often proof-texted as a kind of poster text. But in the context it must be about asking for the wisdom that is required to see our trials as joy because of the ultimate fruit they produce.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
So, in my sometime-joylessness, I have been praying for wisdom to the one who gives generously to all.
Ministry and suffering (1): Self pity
This week I'm putting up five posts on ministry and suffering. A wise elder once told me that "ministry is suffering." There's no particular direct Scriptural warrant for that, but every preacher/pastor knows that there is an element of truth about it. That suffering may take many forms:
- it may be personal and spiritual – struggle with a particular sin, for example
- it may be family – illness or trouble in family which can take many forms
- it may be opposition in church – from an individual or a group, or even other leaders
- it may be the hardship of mourning with those who mourn – or watching keen Christians slip away
- it may be the simple wearing down that comes from the sometimes hard graft of ministry
Most ministers know something of all of these. We need to be honest about them and help each other.
Of course, ministry is also joy if it is suffering. There are moments of unbridled joy and delight – and there is always deep Christian joy which comes from our security in Christ. But if the latter is to dominate ministry then we have to know how to think rightly about the struggles – and that is what this week is about. So five posts from my heart – as, to be honest, this is a particularly tough season for us.
Please – no pity. I need no help in this area.
I've been thinking a lot about this. Tough times make me cry. I don't think tears are necessarily unhelpful nor wrong. I certainly don't think the kind of repressed emotion and false masculinity that some people seem to have is godly. But the truth is I often feel sorry for myself when times are tough. Ultimately, this is why I like to solicit sympathy. But self-pity is one of the ugliest of sins. Self pity is self importance by another name. Self pity knows nothing about the sanctifying sovereign work of God. Self pity blinds me to the providence of a gracious God who knows what he is doing. Self pity prevents me from asking the right questions in difficult circumstances.
It saddens me greatly, therefore, to find self pity in my own heart. But if I'm honest I must confess pastoral strategies that develop and nurture self pity in others. "Poor you" is a common pastoral approach, and when I've not been thinking, it's sometimes been mine. What are we thinking? How are we helping people? We are those who should proclaim Christ and call people to look to him and fix themselves upon him. Tragic is the pastor who fails to do this noble thing and is the bringer of nothing more than empty platitudes.
Sex (and marriage)
Just dusting down some notes and doing some prep for a marriage seminar we're running in Jan. Looks like 2013 is going to be the year of marriage seminars as Mrs R and I are doing one at the EMA as well. Here's some Bible info on sex – what is the purpose of sex? I think this material may originally have been based on something from Driscoll, but it's almost 10 years old, so to be honest, can't remember where exactly we got it from. In no particular order:
- sex is for pleasure. Songs 7.6-8 clearly presents sex as pleasurable. There's no hint of children.
- sex is for reproduction. Genesis 1.28. It's a simple biological fact that sexual intercourse is the way children are conceived (whatever you may tell your toddler!). This has to be read carefully in the light of the trouble some couples have.
- sex is for oneness. Genesis 2.24. Sex expresses marital union in a way that nothing else can. In some cultures, for example, it is acceptable for two male friends to hold hands. But this can only be an expression of friendship. Sex is something more. This reason of course is linked closely to the picture of Christ and the church (almost worthy of a separate point?)
- sex is for comfort. 2 Sam 12.24. After the death of David's illegitimate son, David comforts Bathsheba with sex. This is an often overlooked purpose that many couples who are struggling would do well to heed.
- sex is for holiness. 1 Cor 7.2. God gives sex within marriage as a guard or protection against immorality and Satan (see verse 5).
Preaching the true Israel
There are some subjects I'm always nervous blogging about. I don't want to unnecessarily undermine people's faith and beliefs when they differ from me on secondary issues. But here's one that warrants some thinking – and please, even if you don't agree with me, give it some thought.
So, this post is about preaching the true Israel – I could have entitled it "Why I do not believe in replacement theology". There, that got your attention.
Replacement theology (also called supersessionism) is the belief that the Church has replaced Israel in the purposes of God as God's chosen people. I want to tell you why I believe that to be wrong and unhelpful for every Bible preacher. Perhaps I should start by stating what I do believe.
Jesus is the new Israel.
Not the Church.
I'm not just being pedantic. The kind of preaching that reads Old Testament texts about Israel and assumes they must be about the church is seriously Christologically deficient. Likewise for the kind of preaching that reads Old Testament texts about Israel and assumes they must be about the modern day nation. Here are just two proofs:
- Many studious Jews see the servant songs in Isaiah as being about the nation. That's no accident because, for example, "He said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'" (Isaiah 49.3). We know from New Testament interpretation that the servant songs are ultimately describing the Suffering Servant, Christ Jesus. No Christian denies that! And yet these songs do seem to describe a nation. That 'nation' is the new Israel.
- More clearly still, Matthew takes up the Hosea quote (Hosea 11.1) and applies it to Christ (Matt 2.15). Jesus is the true first born who is called out of Egypt.
Before you start sending me emails, please read the following sentence carefully – this does not necessarily rule out a place for a modern day Jewish nation. That's another moral, hermeneutical and political issue. And Christians who see Jesus as the true Israel will differ on this.
But the point of the post is more basic. As preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ we need to preach Jesus as the true Israel. Too often our preaching launches straight from Israel to the church and not only is this missing out the logic of the Bible, we are hardly preaching Christ in all his glory, goodness and fulfillment. Our task is, after all, to proclaim him (Col 1.28) and what it means to be in him. We're not preaching the church.
How to understand Greek words
It has come to something when the letters pages of the Times carry discussions on the meaning of words. In response to an article from Tom Wright about the Women Bishops vote, a Classics professor from Liverpool responded. Wright had asserted that the word authentein in 1 Tim 2.12 occurs nowhere else in the NT (true) and therefore we must be cautious about building an entire theology on its meaning. The professor – Christopher Tuplin – maintained that the word can be understood from contemporary sources where it is more common. NT Greek, he argued, is not a language in a vacuum. (Tuplin, it should be noted, is no Christian complementarian – quite the reverse).
It's an interesting debate – and one I'm not immediately going to get drawn into. There's enough ink spilt on this already. But it did get me thinking about how we determine the meaning of Greek words. Here are some ideas:
context drives a lot. Most words have a range of meanings and how they are best understood depends on the context in which they are used. peirasmos can mean trials, tests of temptations – and although there is overlap between these meanings, the precise meaning you allocate to each use of the word in, say, James 1, matters a lot.
- NT use of words helps. How is the word used elsewhere? This, again, is a great help. I think we should always try to use internal evidence before external. Are there obvious places where the word is used clearly? Clearly, if words have multiple meanings, then it is not as straightforward as saying a meaning in one place must be the same as a meaning in another, but it can be a help.
- external use of words. How is the word used elsewhere in contemporary literature? A lexicon which covers both NT use and external use is a help here – I use the majestic BAGD (expensive, but a great tool: £99 on amazon, £90 via Logos). By the way, to those who say going externally usurps our doctrine of clarity – that's a serious rewriting of the doctrine of clarity which has always involved ordinary means (see, for example, the Westminster Confession Chapter VII)
- use experts. On the whole, Bible translations are compiled by experts in language. That is a good thing for which we should thank God. They have already done all of the work above – thinking through context, NT use, external use. On the whole, in our English translations, their work is very reliable. Preachers should be cautious of sentences beginning, "I know our Bibles say [ ] but what this really means is [ ]" Am I being too provocative to say, most of the time, you're likely to be wrong?
And, if you're interested in the letter, here it is:
Sir, Much as I should like to believe that I Timothy ii, 11-12 does not refuse to allow women to teach men, I cannot see that “serious scholars” have any excuse for disagreeing about the meaning of the salient part of the text and Tom Wright (Opinion, Nov 23) ought not to suggest otherwise. The Greek text plainly says “let a woman learn quietly and in all submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to have power over a man”, and it contains no words that “occur nowhere else”. The verb translated as “have power over” does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, but its meaning is unproblematically established by its use (and the use of its cognates) in other Greek texts; New Testament Greek is not a different language, hermetically sealed from the Greek of other texts and documents. (If one wants a word that really occurs nowhere else, try instead the one translated “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer.) The interesting thing about I Timothy ii is not what it says (which is beyond debate) but the fact that it says it. One does not need to issue diktats against things that one cannot imagine happening. Paul’s pronouncements in favour of female subordination are just another sign that (as Tom Wright points out) the early Church community was inclined to value women and even that, had things developed without hindrance, a different configuration of teaching practice might have emerged more quickly. Meanwhile, the fact that progress can be a very messy and far from unidirectional thing does not forbid the belief that fulfilling the “promise of transformed gender roles” in an episcopal context might be a piece of progress whose time has come.Professor Christopher Tuplin Dept. of Classics and Ancient History, University of Liverpool