When circumstances make us bonkers
I had to stay at home briefly the other morning to meet someone so, for a change, I was around for Radio 4's Thought for the Day. It was Lucy Winkett and – not to put too fine a point in it – she was bonkers. I'm not sure how much of what she said she actually believes, or how much she was trying to say Christian things in a way that people who weren't Christians understood. But it was still bonkers.
Before we cast too many stones, I'm sure that all of us shape what we say by circumstances. That's right and good, and part of being as wise as a serpent. But whilst circumstances should shape language and how we present things, it should not change the heart of what we say. We might want, at a funeral, say, to speak sensitively of the judgement to come, but we should not deny its reality.
It's a fine line. And in seeking to step carefully along it, I'm sure we often err both one and the other. But one thing is sure – if we start changing the gospel, however well meaning we may be – we are just as bonkers as Canon Lucy.
When you're studying a passage, inevitably you want to ask questions of the text to which there are not always answers. That's fine and good. And it's OK to think what the answers might be and whether they scan when comparing Scripture with Scripture. But it is easy to make too much of this kind of groundwork for application which must always be, at best, somewhat speculative.
Take Ezra 2, for example. It's a long list of names of those who returned to Jerusalem in 538BC. Names are grouped (broadly speaking) by leaders, geography, family and role and there are not a few mysteries. Take Nehemiah (Ezra 2.2). Who he? Could it be that the eponymous hero of the second part of this story made an early visit to Jerusalem? No wonder that he was so moved by the state of the capital in Nehemiah 1.
There's nothing in the immediate text to suggest yay or nay, but do some basic background work and you will discover that Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in Nehemiah 1 in the year 445BC. Even if he were a very young adult leader in Ezra 2, that would make him at least 115 by the time of Nehemiah. Highly unlikely. That's a clear avenue of application to avoid.
But sometimes there are no answers. Take the small number of Levites who returned (compare Ezra 2.40 with Ezra 8.15-19 and 1 Chronicles 23). Why so few? I don't think there's a clear Scriptural answer. Fensham suggests that it may be because their work was lowly and so they didn't want to return. Possibly. but, do you see, there's no way of cross checking that fact, and so, I would suggest, that is not a legitimate line of application: "even if your work is lowly, you should still be committed to it."
It's not that it's unbiblical (See Col 3.23, for example). But it's not derived from the text and so it's you making a point, rather than God making a point, if you preach it that way.
Five things that have gone
Preachers are always behind the times. Here are five things no longer available, just in case you've forgotten. Many preachers do.
- Berni Inn. 1997.
- Russell Harty. 1988.
- Posthouse hotels. 1996.
- The Old Covenant. 33AD. Important one this. We cannot preach the Old Covenant. It is finished. When preaching from the Old Testament, therefore, we must preach the New Covenant. Duh!
Serving God’s words
Peter Adam has recently retired as principal of Ridley Melbourne having reached the milestone of his sixty-fifth birthday. IVP have published a Festschrift which is meant to accompany his two volumes (Speaking God's words and Hearing God's words – now called Written for us). Entitled, Serving God's words, it has some excellent essays in it which will stimulate the mind and heart. Contributors include Don Carson, David Peterson, our own Mr D Jackman Esq, Peter Jensen and Gerald Bray (see full list of contributions here).
There is a consistently high standard of contribution, including the slightly idiosyncratic (but ultimately worthwhile chapter on the use of the Homilies today by Gerald Bray). But for the purpose of this review I want to pick up on the chapter by Michael Raiter. Michael is the Director and Founder of the Centre for Biblical Preaching in Melbourne. He has written a chapter on unction, entitled "The Holy Hush." It's a careful and measured response to the sometimes difficult territory of what it means to preach in the power of the Spirit, especially engaging with Lloyd-Jones and some of the Acts and 1 Corinthian texts. It's a useful chapter because Raiter starts off by describing one situation where he experienced the so-called 'hush.' He's got no axe to grind, therefore; but he wants to understand the experience biblically and know how to pray for his ministry and others. Is it really true. as EM Bounds puts it, that "there is a wide spiritual chasm between the preacher who has it and the one who has not"?
It's getting to be a cliché, but it's worth the price of the book, I think. I'm glad the good folk at IVP pressed ahead with this book, despite it being somewhat niche. I hope it finds a wide readership.
Underestimating the enemy
I did enjoy the Ryder Cup. Incredible golf and astounding drama all rolled into one. And, of course (sorry US readers) drubbing the home team. Well, scraping by at least. No one can deny the drama. It was especially precious because Europe had been written off Sunday morning (and not just by those West of here). Here, for example, is a delightful ESPN article which makes delicious reading in the light of later events (it's gone viral).
It's a reminder, however, that it is possible to underestimate the enemy. Evangelicals probably waver between two extremes when it comes to the activity of Satan – overestimation where we see him under every stone (strange, because he's not omnipresent), and underestimation, where we see him not at all. My sin is the latter, I'm sure. Partly this may be shaped by our particular eschatology – whether pan, post, a etc. Partly it may be shaped by our reaction against certain excesses we see elsewhere. But he is real, dangerous and – though the vanquished – present. Preachers need particular wisdom to fight his guiles and prowling nature (1 Peter 5.8).
Carrie on tour
It's been too long since Carrie Sandom, who runs our women's ministry stream, spoke at The Gospel Coalition women's conference. Here she is.
Pray now, use later
Here's a very exciting project. It's the latest in UCCF's gospel reading initiatives and, I think, the best so far. It's called Uncover and is Luke's gospel in a small pocket moleskine format with space for notes and occasional QR codes (don't worry, oldies, they're students, they'll get it) which link through to videos and other material. It's not overloaded with notes – there's space to let the gospel speak for itself. I'm very excited about the potential for getting students reading the gospel.
Please pray for this. It's a huge project being taken up by lots of CUs – some of whom will be more comfortable doing this kind of thing than others. Some will be stretched. There will be discouragements – and, we trust, a whole heap of encouragements and, most importantly, gospel success. It's not wrong or ungodly to pray for this!
But if you're very excited about the idea of using something similar yourself, you've got to wait a bit. The pocket book gospels will be more widely available, probably from next Easter on. But you needn't wait for the resource. Why not start reading with a friend now…?
On the value of notes…
I had a note last week that meant the world. Short, simple, straightforward. And it brought the warmest encouragement to my heart.
I often try, as a pastor-teacher, to send such notes. We often – in our moments of self pity – think that people should be sending us such communication. And of course, isn't it lovely and delightful when people do? But actually, we didn't sign up for that. We are the servants of our people – not the other way around. And a great way to serve is to write. So get yourself a pen, a postcard and consider writing 140 characters to someone in your church. Wait, that's Twitter, but it's the same principle.
"Lovely to see you on Sunday"
"Hope the Lord is sustaining you through the hard times you're experiencing"
"Great to hear you pray in the prayer meeting"
"Thank you for reading the Scriptures so well"
And so on. It's a great way to keep connected to your people and it will mean the world to them. As it did to me.
Adrian recommends Lamy fountain pens. (Well, you never know – they may send me one.)
Should discrepancies worry us?
This is going to sound crazy. But I started looking at Ezra 2 a few mornings ago, and didn't really get very at all because there was so much to think about. It got me, I have to say, quite a while to just get beyond Carson's helpful summary in his devotional book "For the love of God (volume 2)":
In this case, there are several reasons for the precision of the report. For a start, such precision gives the account authority: this is not some distant hearsay, but the close reportage of someone who had intimate knowledge of the details. Further, naming these individuals and their families bestows on them an implicit approval. Countless tens of thousands of Israelites never returned to the Promised Land; they were too settled where they were, and the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple was of too little importance to them to warrant such dislocation. Their names have been lost; they are of little consequence in the sweep of redemptive history. But these names are remembered and written down in sacred Scripture. Read them slowly; they call forth our respect and gratitude.
Really helpful stuff. And in fact, I looked at my watch and I had been at it for two hours and hadn't got very far into the text. The time had just flown by. That does happen! It's difficult to exegete the passage without realising it's repeated in Nehemiah 7 and without having to work through in one's head what to do with the differences which some love to make much of. I think it's an error to do so, but nonetheless, we must tackle the issue because it could easily strike at our fundamental understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.
So should these differences worry us?
First, we need to understand that inspiration does not mean that every word we have written down in front of us is without error. Inspiration generally means we believe the Scriptures to be inspired as 'originally given' as the UCCF basis of faith has it.
There will be occasional copying errors. We are talking about manuscripts dutifully copied thousands of years ago. Doesn't this totally undermine the authenticity of the Scriptures? No. There's a practical and a theological reason.
- The practical reason is that the scribes knew they were copying out the Word of God and so they would have taken extreme care in transcription. The very fact that hard things remain and are not copied away gives us confidence that they copied faithfully and accurately. These differences, for example, are nearly all in proper names and digits (Hebrew numbers being all long hand and so relatively difficult to copy).
- The theological argument is that God's character is such that in his sovereign goodness he would not allow the Scriptures' meaning to be distorted and any discrepancies, such as they are, must therefore not be of significance to the overall message of the passage or the Bible. This is not an argument that will wash with unbelievers of course, but it is actually the strongest of the many that could be offered.
As Scottish Cornhill hero Bob Fyall puts it in his excellent commentary,
"Attempts to explain these discrepancies tend to say that the missing numbers represent women, children and perhaps northern tribes. Probably lists, like genealogies, are selective rather than exhaustive, and plainly in material such as this ancient copyists would easily make mistakes in large lists of numbers."
CS Lewis and church
As I blogged yesterday, I did enjoy the background to Screwtape – particularly the part that the Inklings had in forming and reforming the idea. But what struck me most was CS Lewis' view of church. The evangelical world has much to thank CS Lewis for, many of his writings are extremely valuable – but we must not make him into the evangelical hero he is not. I saw this clearly in terms of what he thought of church. According to his biographer, he slipped in late after the service had started, and left during the last hymn. He didn't like the hymns anyway as it involved him interacting with others. And his pew was carefully chosen – small (so it would only fit him) and beside a pillar so he wouldn't have to feel he was with others. "He was a very private person."
I guess there are many today (including evangelicals) who wish church was just like this – entirely private. But (and I'm thankful for this), it's not. The pew in Lewis' church has a plaque – "CS Lewis worshipped here", but in reality that is true only in the very loosest sense if we understand Christian worship to be the gathering of people together to worship God in Christ Jesus. For all his brilliance, it seems CS Lewis had a somewhat defective understanding (or at least practise) of church. Even today, we need to keep teaching what Scripture says about being the people of God.