the gospel announcement

If you know anything about the word ‘gospel’, you probably know that it means ‘Good News.’ You may also know that it is the word (euangelion‘) that a Roman herald would use in making the announcement that there was a new Emperor in the Empire. I love the way that Tom Wright points out that these Roman heralds were not offering an invitation, but rather making an announcement. As Wright says, these heralds didn’t ride into town and say, “In case you are interested in offering your devotion to someone, you may wish to try Caesar, who has recently become the Emperor of Rome. He would be delighted if you should wish to follow him.” Instead, it would have been more like this, “We bring you the good news (‘gospel’) of Rome that Caesar Augustus is now our beloved Emperor, and demands your allegiance and taxes! On your knees!” In short, these heralds were declaring that Caesar was Lord!

The idea of ‘good news’ was certainly not just a Roman thing, however. The Jewish prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries ago about ‘good tidings’ for the poor, etc. (ch. 52 & 61 and other places). In fact, when Isaiah was translated into Greek (in the Septuagint), they used the same word (euangelion‘) in these places! Indeed, the word ‘gospel’ had a very different usage when the New Testament was written!

Believing the ‘Gospel’ in the first century came complete with side-effects, and it wasn’t simply that you belonged to a club that you didn’t before. If it was the Gospel of Caesar, the side-effect was that you would swear allegiance to him as Lord – lived out by paying taxes and obedience to the Roman system. Whether you were an orator, civic benefactor, patron, client, land-owner, peasant or slave, obedience meant knowing your place and not rocking the boat.

With the coming of Jesus, the word Gospel took on new meaning – as did the side-effects that went with believing it. For Jews, believing the Gospel of Jesus meant that the ‘good news’ of Isaiah had never been announced like it had been with Jesus. In the Roman world, however, believing the Gospel of Jesus was hazardous for your health! Believing that Jesus was Lord meant believing that Caesar was not! It meant believing that the ‘good news’ of Jesus made the ‘good news’ of Rome look like a cheap scam. It meant no longer living according to a system which really only served an elite few at the top, but rather living according to the character of a Lord, who is nothing at all like Caesar.

What in the world does this mean for us today? Possibly more than we care to know. I think it means that the Gospel of Jesus has little to do with an invitation that I accept (as if it were about ‘me’), and everything to do with an announcement that is true. Jesus really IS Lord. My life needs to give voice to that, and simply saying so won’t do. Simply associating with others that say so (or not associating with those that don’t) won’t do either. Our spending habits, dreams (‘American’ or otherwise), time, money, standard of living, and much more – they all must bow the knee to the fact that Jesus is Lord. Announcing this is our calling. It will definitely require our words, but equally (or more) so, it will require our lives.

biblical patience – quickly!

I want to get the most out of the Scriptures, don’t you?The obvious, glaring question is HOW do we do this? How might we read, understand, meditate on, grasp, learn and grow in the right way?

Ever since the Bible was completed (roughly speaking) in the turn of the 2nd century, people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn’t apply to Bible study as well, but I’m afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it’s chanting or reading portions of Scripture while ‘listening’ for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don’t have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.

Now, I don’t have time – nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability – to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I’ve picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they’re worth – which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.

First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn’t this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of ‘what does it mean to ME?’ Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I’m not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that ‘it’ has quite a lot to say to ‘me’ and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.

Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, ‘I’ can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to ‘think Paul’s thoughts after him.’ Paul was not thinking about me.

Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise – and re-familiarise – ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 5-act analogy regarding the story of God’s interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God’s fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be ‘acted out’ so as to ‘fit’ with what has come before and to point toward what is coming – namely God’s ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.

If we don’t know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to ‘act’ in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be ‘patient’ with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today – again, another topic altogether.

Mark has articulated his ‘big-small-big’ method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the ‘big story’ in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it’s place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for ‘me’ is found only in the ‘big story’ and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.

…’For We Know In Part’…
This ‘patience’ means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don’t have every text nailed down – as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn’t be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I’ve begun. Naturally, I’ve both learned and un-learned a few things this way!

However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it’s much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don’t let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.

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Original writer, original audience – knowing the Story and our place in it – and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it’s worth – at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a slow-cooked meal is much more satisfying than fast food – in more ways than one – so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.

the bible, the whole bible and nothing but the bible

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely no book in the world like the Bible.The Bible reveals the great story of God’s creation and how He interacts with it. The Bible showcases an incredibly diverse number or groups and individuals, and shows how they responded to the interaction of God. Most importantly, however, the Bible tells us about the Word – that is, the Word made flesh – Jesus. We get to see Him in full flavour, in surround sound, in real history and in unmatched splendor.

Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be ‘biblical’ in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can’t all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?

Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I’m on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it’s content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don’t think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don’t understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly ‘biblical’ one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you’ve got God cornered.)

Now that I’ve said that, I want to pass along some advice that I’ve taken on board regarding reading the Bible.

First, let me introduce you to a term. It’s a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it’s use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn’t quoting the verses themselves, it’s when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here’s a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street ‘preacher’ who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don’t sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” Seems pretty open and shut, doesn’t it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So if I admit that I sin, I don’t know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I’m a liar? Well, it’s a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.

1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn’t have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn’t eternal or ‘from the beginning.’ They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really ‘mattered’ was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up ‘dualism‘ and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe – many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn’t serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!

As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it’s proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn’t notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above – not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don’t always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It’s exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don’t just recite what you learn from others!

At last, here’s the simple advice I’ll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, “Get a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where ‘my verse is better than your verse’. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don’t go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essence, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?

We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It’s our turn.

changing our thinking about change

Change.

It has happened.
It is happening.
It will happen.

Spiritually, It has happened…
If your faith is genuinely in Christ, you are not what you once were. There are many passages in the Bible that talk about this. Jesus had a conversation with Nicodemus about being ‘born’ a second time. (John 3) Jude writes about ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude :3) Peter writes to Christians about not forgetting that they have been purged from their old sins. (2 Peter 1:9) John agrees by writing that Christians ‘have passed from death to life.’ (1 John 3:14) A particularly well-known verse is from Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17. ‘Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.’
This transformation is complete in the lives of believers. It is as secure, steadfast, unchanging and solid as God’s nature. You can count on it! The tough thing is that it’s a spiritual change. We can find it hard to trust what God says about us when our circumstances are staring us in the face! That’s why we need to remind ourselves and each other so often!

Mentally, it is happening…
With our spiritual transformation behind us, we are then called to grow in our understanding of who we are in Christ. Peter told the early believers to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ (2 Peter 3:4) Another popular verse about this was again written by Paul to the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2) The tense of this command is continual. A literal translation might be more like ‘be being transformed’ or ‘be continually transformed.’ The entire Bible is filled to the brim with passages talking about growing in our understanding of God’s love and grace.
This is not about just getting more head-knowledge. When you get a chance, read 1 Corinthians 1&2. Paul has some pretty strong words there about relying on knowledge. What God wants is not for us to know lots of things, but rather to know Him! Head knowledge causes our minds to puff up, but heart understanding helps us to grow up!

Physically, it will happen…
We look backwards at our spiritual change, commit ourselves to the current process of mental adjustment, and we also wait and hope for the change which is yet to come, which is physical. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 about the bodily transformation that awaits all believers. Our bodies will be free from disease, pain, or weakness and unhindered by the effects of aging. Paul may well have had this in mind when he said that to live was Christ and to die was gain!

Let us remember our spiritual transformation with gratitude, grow in our mental grasp of that transformation, and yearn for the day of the final physical transformation!