August 26, 2010

The Kindness of God through the Law

Ever have that experience where you hear something you know, but this time the speaker phrases it so that you feel as if a light has come on and you see other things clearly.  I've been listening to lectures on Paul from Covenant Seminary's Dr. Hans Bayer recently.  As he was working through the themes in Romans, he pointed out that God's pattern for dealing with human sin is not to restrict it but to remove all restrictions.  This is the meaning behind the verses in Romans 1:18ff which refer to God's handing people over to their depravity.  When human beings worships false gods, God does not divinely intervene to restrict us.  Rather, Paul indicates that he has handed humanity over to its sinfulness, and humanity became increasingly darker and dirtier.  Anyone who's read Romans even slightly carefully knows this, but the way Bayer phrased it was spectacular and helped me to better understand the function of the law.  If the consequence of sin is the removal of restriction, then the giving of the law and the restrictions therein is a manifestation of God's kindness.  No wonder the Israelites were proud to possess the oracles of God, it meant that he had not abandoned a relationship with him.  We know that the law functioned to restrain sin.  But we don't always think of the restrictions as positive and helpful.  What we don't consider is that if the restrictions were removed it would be the sign of divine judgment. 

August 22, 2010

Reading and Reading Goals?

Here's a quick post with a few questions for all of you out there in the blogosphere.  This is the first year I've ever set a personal reading goal.  So, I've started keeping up with titles and pages read this year.  Before I comment about my own goals, I have a few questions: How many of you set an annual reading goal?  What is it?  Do you usually make it?  Also, what are you reading right now?  Leave a comment with answers to any or all of the questions.  For work, I'm presently working through Michael Lawrence's Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry.  For doctoral preparation, I'm presently reading Simon Gathercole's Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 and J. R. Daniel Kirk's Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.  What about you?  I want to hear from you.

August 21, 2010

Biblical Theology for the Pastor

Here's Michael Lawrence from his new book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (IX Marks; Crossway, 2010):

"But here at the start, I want to make the point that the most practical thing we can do, the most important tool we need in ministry, is biblical theology.  And I mean that in both senses of the phrase.  Learning how to do biblical theology is no mere academic exercise.  No, it's vital to you work as a pastor or church leader.  It shapes your preaching, your counseling, your evangelizing, , your ability to engage wisely with culture, and more.  You will not be a very good theologian, which means you will not be a very good pastor, if you do not learn how to do biblical theology" (15, italics original).

August 17, 2010

God Glorifying Marriage

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10:5-9 (ESV)

It doesn't take a careful look to see that biblical marriage is under attack in our society.  Popular culture celebrates every sort of twist and distortion that can be imagined when it comes to the institution of marriage.  As a result, it is as important as ever that Christians have a solid biblical understanding of God's design for marriage.  What was God's intention when he put Adam and Eve together in the garden?  What is the biblical purpose of covenantal union between a man and a woman?  Why should we promote a biblical view of marriage in our culture?  These questions get to the heart of Jesus' teaching on marriage in Mark 10.

Word always spread quickly when Jesus came around.  And, as usual, the Judean crowd gathered to hear him teach.  Among the crowd were some Pharisees, who came there to intentionally cause controversy by undermining Jesus' teaching ministry.  And they knew how to cause controversy.  Their question had to do with whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife.  Jesus answered their question with a question of his own and asked them what the Bible said about it.  The Pharisees went to Deuteronomy 24:1, which indicated that a man could divorce his wife after giving her a certificate of divorce.  But Jesus not only knew the scriptures, he also understood them and told the Pharisees that that very law was given because of their hard hearts.  That is, God understood the reality of human sin, and gave that command in order to keep sin in check.  A faithless husband could not just throw out his wife after tiring of her.  If he could, she would be left unable to remarry, without provision, and unlikely to last very long.  The command was intended to protect a woman by restricting the sin of her unfaithful husband.

Jesus' point is that the command in Deuteronomy does not represent God's ideal design for marriage.  Rather, it is a concession given the reality of sin and abusive situations in marriages.  Jesus goes on to make his point with regard to God's ideal for marriage by quoting from Genesis 1 and 2, and the point Jesus wants to make is this:

God's intends marriage to magnify the glory of his image. 

To make this point, Jesus first quotes from Genesis 1:27, "from the beginning of creation God made them male and female."  This verse heavily emphasizes that God deliberately placed his image on the male-female relationship.  Three times in verses 26 and 27, humankind is said to be made in God's image.  And, as Jesus points out, this image is specially seen in the covenantal relationship between a man and his wife.  Nothing else in creation bears the image of God as do the man and the woman.  God made them to magnify the glory of his image into the world that he had made.

To make his point further, Jesus quoted from Genesis 2:24, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."  Genesis 2 gives some extra detail on God's creation of the man and the woman.  God made Adam first and then Eve.  When God presented Eve to her husband (note that God gave away the first bride), he exclaimed, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (2:23).  This may sound strange to our modern ears, but ancient Hebrew readers would have recognized it as a vow of loyalty (see 2 Samuel 19:12-13).  This was the first wedding vow.  Adam is saying, "Your blood runs in my veins, and I'll be loyal to you no matter what." 

The key thing to see is that God brings the man and woman together and establishes a covenantal relationship between them.  Thus, from Genesis 1 and 2, we can see that marriage is the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong covenant of loyalty, and it is upon this covenantal relationship that God has placed his very own image. 

If the covenant relationship between a man and a woman is intended to magnify the glory of the image of God, then it follows that any perversion of this relationship distorts the glory of the image of God.  Any attempt to establish this covenant between any combination of people other than one man and one woman means that God's image and his glory are trampled in the mud underfoot.  Further, to engage in sexual activity with someone with whom there is no marriage covenant detracts from the glory of God's image as well.

This approach to marriage should also help us understand why God has put such careful boundaries around marriage and human sexuality.  This relationship bears his image.  God has put up boundaries to protect his glory and his image.  It's easy to see why marriage is under attack on every front.  Our enemy would love nothing more than to mar the glory of the image of God.  If he can destroy marriage, he tarnishes one of the chief ways God displays the glory of his image.

Jesus' comments on divorce make excellent sense in light of his quotes from Genesis 1 and 2.  If the glory of God's image is on display in biblical marriage, then for one partner to break the marriage vow and divorce the other is to distort God's image.  When we are unfaithful to our marriage vows, we make God appear unfaithful as well. 

Most people buy into the lie that marriage is about personal fulfillment, about finding that one person who will make me happy for the rest of my life.  Jesus teaches that marriage is primarily about God and the display of the glory of God's image.  Marriage is not about our satisfaction but about magnifying God's glory.  The best thing is that when we magnify the glory of his image as he has designed, we will be most satisfied.  God intended marriage to magnify the glory of his image; we will be most satisfied in our marriages when God is most glorified in them.

August 1, 2010

An Attitude Check for Discipleship

And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35 

Have you ever met anyone who needed an attitude check? You know the kind of person I'm speaking of.  Everyone has met one of those people who is living in their own world and doesn’t seem to care about anyone else but themselves. Everything is caught up in how their day is going and if something messes with their agenda for the day, then it seems like their world has come to an end. Or maybe you’ve been that person who needed the attitude check. Perhaps you can point to a time when someone had to stop you and say, “Hey, check the attitude.”

That’s sort of what Jesus has to do in our passage this morning. It is a passage about attitudes. More specifically, it is about attitudes for Christian discipleship. This passage presses us as readers to ask the question: what sort of attitude should we have if we are going to be disciples of Jesus? 

The passage begins with Jesus’ second prediction of his betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection. And, like the first time, the disciples do not understand what he is talking about. Jesus had recently begun to speak of his coming death and resurrection, but they did not have categories for a suffering Messiah king. How could anyone be God’s chosen king, if he ended up dead? It just didn’t make sense to them yet.

During their journey, the disciples got into an argument.  And as they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they were fighting over.  Mark tells us they remained silent, and that shouldn't surprise us when we find out what they were arguing about.  They were arguing about which among them was the greatest.  This may seem kind of strange to us, but remember they believed Jesus was the Messiah king, which meant that when he established his rule, they would be in the running for the top jobs.  It's not so much that they were having an abstract argument about which of them was greatest; they were quarrelling over who deserved the best positions in the expected kingdom. 

So, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them what sort of attitudes ought to characterize his followers.  His kingdom is not like the kingdoms to which they were accustomed.  His is the kingdom of God, and not only are the players different, the rules are different as well. If they are to be a part of what Jesus is doing, then they need an attitude check.  They need to know what attitudes Jesus expects from his followers.

Christian discipleship requires an attitude of sacrificial service (35).
These guys are absolutely consumed with themselves. They want the top positions. They want the power. They want the influence. They want everything the world has to offer. There’s just one problem. Jesus doesn't do things the way the world does. So, he tells them: "If you want to be first, then you've got to take the last place. If you want to be in the lead, then you’ve got to become a servant."  It's easy to see that Jesus expects his disciples to have an attitude of sacrificial service.

This is why they don’t understand Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. They think leadership is about power. Jesus understands that leadership is about sacrifice and service. He is the one will be betrayed for their sake and for ours. He is the one who will suffer for their sake and for ours. He is the one who will be killed on a cross for their sake and for ours. He is the one who will give everything to be obedient to his Father unto death, even death on a cross.  With his death, he serves us by taking the wrath of God against our sin upon himself, by dying the death we deserved.  It is through that death that we are reconciled to him that we may become his followers in service to God and to the church for the sake of the lost world.  Our response to his service is to have faith in his name.  Then he empowers us to go out to serve others.  This passage prompts us to ask:  how have we sacrificed in order to serve others lately?

Christian discipleship requires an attitude of acceptance (36-38).
To make this point, Jesus took a child in his arms and told the disciples that anyone who welcomes a child also welcomes Jesus.  To understand this, we need to remember that children in the ancient world really had no social status or rank.  They were dependant upon parents and family.  You did not gain from having children in your movement.  But Jesus says that its important to have an attitude of acceptance with regard to those, like this child, who can do nothing for you.

When we speak of acceptance, we do not mean acceptance of unrepentant sin.  Jesus is talking about acceptance here with no regard for social or economic status.  If you want a proper attitude for discipleship, take on an attitude who will love and serve someone who can do nothing for you.  Such an attitude should characterize us as individuals and as the church body.

Christian discipleship requires an attitude of affirmation (38-41).
At this point, John pipes up and tells Jesus how the disciples tried to stop some guy from casting out demons in Jesus’ name just because he was not part of their group. Jesus’ answer is basically this: HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND? If he is not against us, then he is with us. If he is ministering in my name, then don’t stop him.

You see, the disciples have gotten a sort of spiritual tunnel vision. They thought all ministry revolves around them. And Jesus has to let them know that his work is bigger than their group.

It’s easy for this to happen in churches. We get caught up in what our group is doing, and we’re not all that interested in what other Christian groups are doing. We are much more likely to make cracks about other denominations than to compliment their work in the gospel.

Baptists and Methodists are well-known for making derogatory jokes about one another. I have come to believe that such jokes are not pleasing to our Lord. He would rather us affirm the good aspects of each other’s ministry in his name. If the church down the street gives a cup of cold water in the name of Christ, then praise be to God for the work he is doing through them. And may he so work through us as well.  Christian discipleship requires an attitude that affirms ministry that is consistent with the priorities of Christ.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “The world is upside down; Christ has come to turn it right side up.” In our passage from Mark we see just this. The disciples are thinking like the world. And their thinking is upside down. Christ must instruct them to turn their attitudes right side up. Christian discipleship is not about stepping on others to get to the top; it is about sacrificing yourself in ministry to others.  Christian discipleship is not about ignoring the insignificant; it is about welcoming those who can do nothing for you.  Christian discipleship is not about unnecessary criticism of other believes; it is about affirming all work done consistently in the with the name and in the power of Christ.

We are the ones who need to be adjusted. We are the ones who are upside down. We are the ones who need an attitude check. Christ tells us what attitudes we should have if we are to be his followers. May God give us the grace to have our attitudes conformed to that of Christ our Lord. Amen.