May 21, 2012

Review: A Week in the Life of Corinth

Students of the New Testament know that knowledge of first century Mediterranean culture is of great help in understanding much of what is said in the New Testament documents. This poses something of a problem for many who may desire to read the bible in deeper ways yet have neither the training nor resources to do it. Fortunately, we live in a day when resources intended for the non-specialist are becoming increasingly common. One of those resources is A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP Academic, 2012), a new book by my one of my teachers, Ben Witherington.

The book is a novel set in Corinth in the middle of the first century. It is the story of Nicanor, a freed slave become entrepreneur who finds himself in a potentially dangerous situation. You will follow Nicanor as he travels around Corinth interacting with gladiators, benefactors, business associates, and, among others, a Christian missionary names Paulos who is busy making tents to support his church planting ministry in the city. Witherington tells a good story; and the plot left me eager to read on and discover what might happen to Nicanor, Paulos, and the other characters.

The story will introduce you to many features of life in a first century Greco-Roman city. You will get a sense for many important aspects of ancient culture like benefaction and reciprocity, class divisions, the judicial system, and ancient slavery. You will also get to glimpse what life was like for the earliest Christians when Nicanor visits a house church worship meeting led by Paulos. The book also contains quite a few brief excurses under the heading "A Closer Look," in which extra historical detail is given about any number of topics - ancient coinage, schooling, dining, and medicine, to name a few.

The book will be particularly helpful in introducing readers of the New Testament to the social and cultural context of Paul's letters. I highly recommend it as a fun and effective way to learn about the world in which the New Testament was written.

May 18, 2012

Imagining Resurrection

"I believe in the resurrection of the body," with these words countless faithful Christians regularly affirm their hope in the general resurrection of all believers at the return of Christ. But for many the notion of resurrection is fuzzy and foreign. What does it mean to be resurrected? What does a resurrected body look like? Will I have my 60 year old body or my 25 year old body? Will I have to deal with bodily matters that I deal with now? Do I really want a resurrected body? Where will all these new bodies live?

These questions and more have abounded for centuries; indeed, such questions are anticipated by the scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:35, Paul addresses those who ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" He resists any temptation to involve himself in speculating about particulars preferring instead to acknowledge different species of bodies and declaring that God gives bodies as he chooses (38). The apostle does not leave us altogether without help, though. Later in the chapter come at least two concepts that inform our understanding of our future resurrection, even if we don't hear all the particulars.

First is immortality. The resurrection body will no longer be subject to mortality. It will be unable to die. Paul says straightforwardly in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 that our current mortal bodies will put on immortality. The same idea shows up in Romans 6:9 speaking of Christ, "We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." And those who have died with Christ will likewise share his resurrection life (Romans 6:8). So, whatever the specifics of the resurrection body, this much is certain: it will not be able to die. This is difficult for us to take on board if only because none of us have ever encountered a body that is actually immortal. But this is where our Holy Spirit enlivened imaginations might be of some help. What would it be like to enjoy life without the fear of death? No need to worry about decrepit bodies or damageable goods. To experience the resurrection is to be free from mortality, free to enjoy the fullness of eternal life with the God who gives it.

Second is incorruptibility. This idea shows up in 1 Corinthians 15:53 also: "this corruptible body must put on incorruptibility." A number of translations render this with perishable/imperishability, but the Greek word carries the sense of corruptibility also, which I prefer in part because it gives us a translation with more nuance. (There is too much overlap between the English words mortal and perishable.) Once again, use your imagination. Try to envision a body that is perfectly free from corruption, a body that no longer feels so firmly the damaging effects of sin and transgression. No surprise that this idea is also in Romans 6 where Paul tells his readers that they are no longer slaves to sin if they have union with the resurrected Christ (5-14), and this present freedom is an anticipation of the freedom that will come at the resurrection. What an incredible hope! Bodily life free from the devastating effects of corruption that is the common experience of all. This is what resurrection will be like.

So, as we endeavor to wrap our minds around the glorious mystery of resurrection and eternal life, I think the scriptures give us room for some guided imagining. We don't know the particulars and we are not free to imagine whatever we want, but we are given these twin concepts of immortality and incorruptibility. And within that framework we have some freedom to imagine the life to come. One task before us then is to use the imaginations that God has given us as we live in anticipation of the glory of the coming resurrection.

May 16, 2012

Eternal Incarnation

Our thoughts on the Incarnation often focus exclusively on the birth of Jesus at Christmas time, but in Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ's Continuing Incarnation, Gerrit Scott Dawson points out why the oft neglected doctrine of the Ascension addresses our crucial need for an ongoing incarnation.
"Moreover, our salvation depends on his (Christ's) continuing union with us. If the Son of God came to us where we are, but then left us, if he went away and did not take us with him, we would still be lost...For any view of the ascension as Jesus slipping off his humanity is a sentence of condemnation. We cannot be united to him in the Holy Spirit if he is no longer flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not still fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil. If he dropped the hypostatic union with humanity, then he dropped us, and we are left forsaken on this side of the great divide, unable to fulfill our purpose, find forgiveness and restored communion, or enact our mission" (6).
Turning to the hope found in the doctrine of the Ascension, Dawson writes:
"A human hand will grasp us as we make our way into heaven. We shall be greeted by a face - the face of Jesus - that has a form to recognize. The incarnation continues, and so we are included in the life of God. That is the essential meaning of the ascension. We are not left alone. Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity. Jesus is himself that new and living way. The fully human one has gone within the veil in our name and even in our skin. United to him by the Spirit, to the one who remains united to us, we may follow where he has gone" (7).
This Sunday is Ascension of the Lord. May you be full of the hope that comes with the knowledge that the eternal Son of God forever shares our human life ensuring our ongoing fellowship with the God who is triune.

May 14, 2012

Catching a Fresh Vision of Faith

You no longer have to go to church to hear about faith. We are constantly surrounded with talk of faith and belief. From Hollywood to popular music; professional sports to political campaigns; the language of faith is everywhere. And in each context, it seems to take on a new meaning. The problem, though, is that a word that can mean anything usually ends up meaning nothing. More importantly, when that happens to a word that comes to us from the heart of the gospel, it is of the greatest importance for the church to reclaim her language by recapturing and defining her words. So, in light of the cultural watering-down of the language of faith, I'd like to offer four reflections on the nature of faith: what it is and what it isn't.

Read the rest of this post offering four brief reflections on faith at Seedbed.
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Image: Janaka Dharmasena/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

May 10, 2012

Panel Review: Saying it Well by Charles Swindoll

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a book review panel at Preaching.com. The volume under consideration is Charles Swindoll's new book on preaching, Saying it Well: Touching Others with Your Words (FaithWords, 2012). Swindoll has been preaching for almost 50 years, and anyone who has heard him knows that he is a master of the homiletic art. Saying it Well gives the reader a glimpse at how Swindoll understands and approaches preaching. It's full of practical material; and, unlike many books on homiletics, this one contains a great deal of autobiography: Swindoll teaches about preaching while telling his own story. The book is specifically geared toward preachers but would benefit any public speaker. Be sure to take a look at the reviews from the panel on Preaching.com. My own contribution can be found on the second page.