January 27, 2012

Evangelism & Love

Evangelism can sometimes come across as unloving. Various "techniques" and lack of relational depth are often perceived as manipulative and concerned more with success than people. As a result, evangelism has gotten a bad reputation in some circles. Alternatively, J. I. Packer offers wisdom on how evangelism should be done in love as an expression of love for the other. He writes:
As an apostle of Christ, (Paul) was more than a teacher of truth; he was a shepherd of souls, sent into the world, not to lecture sinners, but to love them. For he was an apostle second, and a Christian first; and, as a Christian, he was a man called to love his neighbor. This meant simply that in every situation, and by every means in his power, it was his business to seek other people's good. From this standpoint, the significance of his apostolic commission to evangelize and found churches was simply that this was the particular way in which Christ was calling him to fulfil the law of love to his neighbour.
And all our own evangelism must be done in the same spirit. As love to our neighbour suggests and demands that we evangelize, so the command to evangelize is a specific application of the command to love others for Christ's sake, and must be fulfilled as such.
Such was evangelism according to Paul: going out in love, as Christ's agent in the world, to teach sinners the truth of the gospel with a view to converting them and saving them (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, IVP, 1961, 51-53).
Perhaps if we approached evangelsim like that, it would more easily taught, practiced, and received.

January 23, 2012

Good News for All People

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 28, 2011.

Our Christmas celebrations have come to an end once again. Nevertheless, the many truths of Christmas endure all year long. One of those truths is always stunning to me. In fact, it may be nothing short of miraculous. What is this enduring truth? It is simply this: the good news of Christmas is good news for all people. No matter who you are, where you've been, or what you've done. The good news of the Savior's birth is for you.

Consider the story of the shepherds in Luke's account of Jesus' birth. Luke tells us that angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. In those days, shepherds were considered second class citizens. They lived on the margins of society. They often lived and slept outdoors, because they couldn't leave their sheep unattended. Shepherds in the ancient world weren't even allowed to testify in court, because they were prejudicially considered untrustworthy.

When God decided to announce the birth of his son, he didn't send his messengers to the capital city or the governor's house or the king's palace. Instead, he chose to announce the good news of the birth of Jesus to the people everyone else considered to be less than human and unimportant. Why does Luke include this detail? It's because he wants us to know that the good news of Jesus' birth is for everyone, even poor, outcast shepherds.

Consider also the story of the magi in Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. The magi were foreigners from the east who came to honor Jesus. In today's world, we would probably call them immigrants. They traveled from a far off place to give gifts to Jesus. Why does Matthew include this story about foreigners coming to worship the little Jewish king? He wants every reader to understand that this king has come for everyone. No single race or nationality has a monopoly on Jesus. He comes for everyone, no one is excluded based on where they are from.

It's also worth observing that the magi appear to have been wealthy, since they gave gold to Jesus as a gift. This is quite a contrast to the poor shepherds in Luke's gospel who had only their adoration to offer. This is a helpful reminder that Jesus welcomes all people to himself. Whether rich or poor, immigrant or local, the good news of Christmas is for everyone.

Perhaps there has been a time in your life when you were made to feel marginalized or second class. Perhaps you've been concerned that you have nothing of value to offer to Christ. You need to know that the ground is level around the Bethlehem manger. All who come to Christ in faith are welcomed by him. Will you come?
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January 19, 2012

Was Jesus Really Homeless?

There is a common notion around that Jesus was homeless during his time of public ministry. You don't have to look far to find the idea. It shows up on t-shirts and has been promulgated by Shane Claiborne, among others. But is the suggestion that Jesus was homeless accurate? Is there evidence in scripture that might indicate otherwise?

The suggestion that Jesus was homeless is typically drawn from Matthew 8:20 where a scribe declares his intent to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus responds by saying, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." The statement by Jesus is plainly a pithy saying intended to memorably make a bigger point about the cost of following Jesus and was probably intended to communicate to the scribe that he didn't really understand that to which he was committing himself. It may or may not mean that Jesus was literally homeless.

There are several passages in the gospels that suggest Jesus was not homeless. In Mark 2:1, when Jesus returned to Capernaum, it was reported that he was "in house" (Gk. en oikō). That the text doesn't specify which house suggests that it was Jesus' own house. The NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, and NLT all legitimately translate this verse with something along the lines of "it was reported that he was at home." That means the scholars on the translation committees of five major translations with varying translation philosophies all agree that this was Jesus' own home and not that of someone else. It was probably his own home.

Only a few verses later, we find Jesus sharing a meal with a tax collector named Levi. The meal is said to take place "in his house" (Gk. en tē oikia autou). But whose house is it? To answer this question we must find the antecedent of the possessive pronoun? In the immediately preceding verse, Jesus calls Levi to follow him. We then read that "having risen, he (Levi) follow him (Jesus)." Verse 15 then begins with another personal pronoun, "As he sat at dinner in his house..." The antecedent of all the pronouns in v. 15 would seem to be Jesus himself. The NIV, NRSV, and NLT translate this in various ways to say that Jesus is having a meal at Levi's house, but this would mean taking the first pronoun to be Jesus and the second pronoun to be Levi. The ESV gives a fairly literal translation, "he reclined at the table in his house." It seems unnatural to me to force these two pronouns to be referring to two different people. And the clearest and closest antecedent is "him" (Jesus) in v. 14. All that to say, the most natural reading of this text would put the meal in Jesus' own house with Levi and the many other sinners and tax collectors who followed Jesus.

What are we to make of the relationship between these passages in Mark and the saying of Jesus in Matthew 8:20. It seems most likely to me that Jesus probably used his family home as something of a home base during his travels. When he was at home, he stayed there and hosted people there. When he was on the road, he likely stayed where he could find a place, perhaps with friends or supporters of the ministry. But there was no guarantee during those travels that he would have a place to lay his head. This doesn't make Jesus homeless. It makes him a traveling preacher who found lodging where he could when away from home for a time.

Now let me be clear. That Jesus was probably not homeless in no way means that we should not minister to and with homeless people. We certainly must! The foundation for ministry with the homeless comes not from Jesus' own alleged homelessness. It comes from his mandate to care for the least of these. Even if Jesus did have a home, he cared for the poor and the outcast. And if we are to be his followers, then so must we.

January 18, 2012

Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Whale?

Scot McKnight recently featured an excerpt from Ben Shattuck providing an analysis of the historical plausibility of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. The full piece goes to greater lengths to demonstrate the fanciful nature of the idea that a person might actually be swallowed whole by a sperm whale and then survive to be spit back up. The obvious aim is to persuade readers that the biblical book of Jonah does not recount history but is, instead, a parable or something else along those lines. The article is thorough and interesting, but, in the end, it misses the point. Here are a few reasons why.

First, the text of Jonah doesn't actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a sperm whale. It simply says he was swallowed by a big fish (1:17). We tend to imagine a whale when we read the story because that is the biggest sea creature of which we know, but the text never actually says what sort of fish it was. So, while Shattuck's guided tour of the sperm whale's gastrointestinal tract is interesting, it is also irrelevant.

Second, do we really need history, biology, and anatomy to tell us that people don't typically get swallowed by whales only to be spat up three days later?

Third, the fact that something is historically atypical and scientifically implausible doesn't actually mean that it didn't happen. And this is really my key point. When it comes to unusual and miraculous events in the Bible, historical criticism falls short of providing the necessary tools for analysis. In fact, historical criticism of the Bible developed in part in order to undermine and rule out accounts of miracles and the supernatural in scripture. But if God is able to create the galaxies out of nothing, then creating a fish that could swallow a person whole doesn't seem like that big of a deal. If Christ really sustains all things and holds them together, then preserving a man in the belly of a fish (even when scientifically impossible) doesn't strike me as that tall of an order. If the creator God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then bringing Jonah back out that big fish's belly is not all that far-fetched.

Now we've not yet considered the question as to whether the story of Jonah is indeed historical. Neither have looked at the different, though related, question as to whether the account of Jonah must be historical in order for it to be meaningful and true. Jonah is at least about the broad scope of God's loving invitation to repentance and the importance of God's own character being reproduced in God's people. Is it possible to imagine a scenario in which a Hebrew scribe sat down and recorded the story (or oral tradition, perhaps) of Jonah as a parable to illustrate those very points? Sure, it is. Even if the story is a parable, it's meaning remains the same. And if it was intended by the author as a parable, the demand that it be read as history amounts to not taking the text seriously, not to mention the authorial intent. 

Matthew 12:41 is commonly said to demonstrate the historicity of Jonah. Jesus there compares his three day burial in the earth to Jonah's three days in the belly of the fish. The argument says that if Jesus believed Jonah was historical, then it must be, and to say otherwise is to have a deficient Christology. But there is no reason in the gospels to suppose that Jesus did believe Jonah was historical. If I were to tell you a true story about a man who defended his home and family from an intruder and described the event saying that he battled for his family as Odysseus battled the suitors of Penelope, then my appeal to ancient Greek mythology would in no way undermine the historicity of the main story I was telling. Likewise, Jesus commonly illustrated the truths of the kingdom with parables. There is no conclusive reason that Matthew 12:41 (and parallels) should be read differently. While we cannot know for sure, it might be the case that Jesus knew full well that Jonah was a parable and still chose it to illustrate the historical event of his burial. And if that is the case, to suggest that Jonah must be history is to take Jesus less than seriously.

Be careful to hear what I'm actually saying here. I'm not saying that the account of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish is not historical. I am saying, first, that the truthfulness of the book of Jonah does not necessarily depend on it being historical. And I am saying, second, that the historical implausibility of a man being swallowed by a big fish only to be regurgitated three days later does not necessarily make the story of Jonah unhistorical.

A truly high view of scripture endeavors to read the text as it was intended. Is it possible that Jonah is a parable? Yes. Is it possible for God to keep a man alive in the belly of a big fish for three days? Yes. I'm entirely comfortable with either scenario. Can we know with certainty which is the case and whether such a thing actually happened to a man named Jonah? Probably not. Fortunately, the Christian faith does not stand or fall on this matter.