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Our Missions manager, Stanley teaching during Induction Workshop

We learn preaching long before someone sits us down to say this is how we should preach. We pick up things from our favourite preachers and we seek to emulate that. We might change a few things borrowing from different people but we rarely come up with new ways. It’s not just in preaching actually life itself is a copy-paste exercise. We see something good and we want to do that.

But somewhere along the line, we might get an opportunity to sit and learn that there’s a right way to do this. We might not accept it immediately or even drop everything to follow this path but slowly we are won over. I think this is what happens when we start learning Expositional preaching that seeks to let the Bible speak for itself.

The problem, however, is trying to apply here does not come easily. You spend all your preparation trying to get the passage right only to realise it’s full of good truths but little application. You see if you grew up hearing and doing problem-solving, motivational preaching that wouldn’t be a problem. You already have an application in mind and all you need is the Bible to agree with it and you have a sermon. Here you’ve got to do the hard work of getting the passage right and then wrestle asking how does this apply from them to us.

This is probably the main reason we might give up on expositional preaching. It feels too hard and academic. We feel like the church is becoming a school and we know few Kenyans loved school. We might do it but drop the ball at the end by going for the quick and obvious applications. Tell them what complex doctrine they should learn from here. Remind them to pray, read their Bibles and go to church regularly. Fix their gender and sexuality views, questions of abortion or their commitment to mission, whatever we think are the big things in the public sphere. All these are possible but mostly lazy ways of doing Biblical application. And I’m speaking about this because I’ve done it before even without realising it.

But we can grow friends as we give more time to apply and learn from others. It won’t be fixed in a day but we can grow as we remember the word has spoken to real people in the past and is for real people in the present. Here are a few things I’ve picked up mostly from others but also when I’ve paid a bit more attention to the passage in front of me and the world around me.

Aim for the Heart, not just the Head
This one I learnt from my apprenticeship years but I always need to be reminded of it. That the Bible isn’t an academic book and that fixing the head without the heart won’t do it. It should be obvious but it’s not. You look at the life of Jesus disciples, they were learning directly from him so knowledge shouldn’t have been a problem though it didn’t always come easily. But how long did it take them to believe him? Actually, towards the end these guys will desert him, betray and deny him. Peter saying he was the Christ in Mark 8 didn’t prevent him from denying him in Mark 14. And I bet Judas had a lot of good theology but his heart was somewhere else.

When we come to applying the Bible it’ll help if we ask ourselves where change begins. And we don’t need to go to psychology for this. Look at how Paul writes his letters. There are great and beautiful truths to blow our minds away but he also beckons the heart to believe and the hands to act. Ephesians chapter 1-3 is followed by chapter 4-6. His job is not finished until he persuades the heart and by effect seek a real change from the heart that brings a change in conduct. He tells them not just what they should know but also what they should believe and do by effect.

Think Culture not General
So often we forget the power and the influence of the environment we live in. We forget that the Bible speaks both to the person and the world around him. If you fix the person and keep him in the same environment there’s no guarantee he won’t go back. A lot of things we do are shaped by where and who we live with. If you want to help someone struggling with pornography you need to ask what is making it so common these days. You can’t just say stop it you might need to say change your environment and your patterns of rest. Go out and hang out with friends. Put the gadgets off.

But this is not something we bring to the Bible, actually, it’s there if we pay a bit more attention. The Bible from day one tells us we are not alone in the universe. It warns us about the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to deal with all these enemies. It teaches us to kill sin in our lives, to turn away from the flow of the world around us and say no to the schemes of the enemy. Actually, the Bible often shows us all these enemies work together like we see in Ephesians 2:1-3. To grow in Biblical application we shouldn’t ignore one of these for the other.

Go for Progress, not a Quick Fix
The worst thing about living in our consumer world is we want to fix things like yesterday. We do one sermon and expect change by the latest tomorrow morning. It’s no wonder we can get very disappointed when we don’t see results and sometimes try to cook the results ourselves. But that’s naive because if we were honest there are things we learnt years ago that we still struggle with. How do you expect your audience to change overnight?

Actually, if we were to pay attention to our Bibles we’d realise God plays the long game. How many years is he telling Israel to have no other God but him? And how long does he have to wait until he finally sends them to exile and still he doesn’t give up? How long does Jesus tolerate his disciples who simply don’t seem to get who he is when all the evidence is pointing to him? And how long does he have to wait for them to accept his mission and follow in his footsteps? When you think application think progress however messy, not a quick fix.

By Prayer not Might
It might shock some of you but it seems this has taken me longer to learn. That no real change coming from the heart comes unless God acts. It should be obvious because Jesus says it, apart from me you can do nothing, John 15:5. We should see it if we paid attention to our own lives. We just need to remember how we came to faith in the first place. How long God was beckoning our attention before we said the prayer. And still how long he has to tolerate us as we hold on to our precious little idols. But no, we keep thinking a little more hard work and commitment will do it. We can even give principles of how to overcome a certain sin and grow a certain gift in a day. I think we are setting ourselves up for failure and depression.

Dear friends, I’m learning prayer isn’t just for the beginning and the end of the sermon. Prayer is what makes the sermon work. Prayer is your main application. You need to ask God in the closet and in your preaching to change you and those people. You need to point them to him if you truly want to see change. If God doesn’t work don’t even bother preaching unless you are doing it for fun. I’m learning to ask how can we prayerfully apply this? What prayer do we need to make on this? Lord, what are you telling me to pray on this? I think this is a gold mine and it’s no wonder Jesus would drop important ministry for this. He knew if he was going to accomplish anything it’s only if the Father did it. Apart from him, we can do nothing friends. We can’t even change ourselves leave alone anyone else.

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I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something about God that logically should make sense but is biblically not true. For instance, someone will say, if it is of God it should be easy. Now when you pause to think about that you can see how it actually makes sense to some extent. You can even get verses to support that. I mean if the Almighty God is behind it who can challenge it and succeed? How can it be difficult if the good and gracious God is behind it? But we only need to turn our Bibles to look at Jesus, look at the prophets, look at Jesus’ first disciples, and realize none of them had an easy time.

Jesus about to execute his most important mission to save humanity faces a great deal of struggle emotionally and spiritually. Matthew 26 tells us:

38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

This was God’s own mission but it wasn’t easy. Actually, the life of Jesus, the son of God, was full of sorrow. It wasn’t easy trying to open his disciple’s eyes. It wasn’t easy being rejected by his people even his own family who thought he had lost it. If this is the one who calls us to follow after him then we shouldn’t expect it to be as easy.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 11 paints a picture of his life that leaves you wondering was that God’s mission or something else? It wasn’t an easy life for him yet his ministry is one that glorifies the Lord to date. I might go as far as saying that if it is of God it’s most likely going to be difficult because we live in a hostile world.

Perhaps you’ve heard this popular one that since God owns everything and we are his children, especially those of us in ministry, then we should have everything. To some extent again logically it makes sense. If you pause it there you’d say that can’t be wrong. I mean why wouldn’t the one who walks on gold not throw some of it down to his beloved people? Why wouldn’t the caring God heal his beloved children? How can he watch us struggle and not act immediately?

But our logical knowledge here is betrayed when we turn to the scriptures and look at Jesus, God’s beloved son, his first disciples, and all those Messengers God sent through Israel’s lifetime. How many of them came with private jets to deliver his message? How many of them lived in mansions? And if the son of man was the one who unlike the fox didn’t have a place to lie down why would we expect ours will be the easy life?

The problem here is we might actually have read our Bibles but closed them too quickly to make our conclusion. We needed to realize there’s life now and a life to come. We’ve not arrived yet and if we have comfort and something to spare here and now that’s by the grace of God, not the norm. Here and now we live in a hostile world like Jesus did. A poor world like Jesus did. A persecuting world like Jesus did. But his sure promise is to guide us to him by his Spirit and walk with us through it all.

Our riches are what we find in Ephesians 1:1-14. That we now have all the spiritual blessings in Christ, we are the most privileged people spiritually speaking. Our confidence is the promise Jesus made in the Great Commission to be with us to the end of the age, Matthew 28:20. And we have the assurance that he has gone to prepare a home for us so that where he is we might be there also, John 14:1-3.

Now the aim of this article isn’t necessarily to split hairs or make the Bible sound illogical. Instead, it’s to encourage us to always ask this question, what does the Bible and the whole Bible say about this issue. Logic alone won’t do here as often our logic stops where our comfort ends. We are also not to pick one passage and run with it. We need to ask what’s the context and what do other portions of scripture say about this issue.

We’ll be good disciples if we read more than our favorite verses. We’ll be better disciples if we humble ourselves before God’s Word to say, teach us Lord we who are simple. And a far greater honor goes to the disciples who don’t just do this exercise to win arguments but to live it out and help others gently and lovingly. How I pray that the Lord makes me that disciple. A disciple who listens and abides in what his word says even when it’s contrary to what I want for myself. A disciple who opens his Word in humility and his heart in obedience.

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There’s a saying that religion is the opium of the masses and where there’s great suffering and want, where reality is too cruel it seems people are most religious. In many ways our African continent can be described in those terms though not exclusively. We have always been a notoriously religious people and it doesn’t surprise many that we are the next global center of world Christianity. We’ve got the numbers and enough problems to run to any helping hand out there. But I don’t think this is necessary true of Christianity. No, here we have something completely different and the laws of demand and supply move in the opposite direction compared to our many other religions.

You see our African traditional religion and many religions of the world can be called the opium of the people because it’s people who seek and search for this drug. It’s the people who create the demand and religion supplies where no one else seems to have an answer.  It’s the people who ran and cry for help and turn to these gods in dire need. They are people driven and they changed as the needs of the people change because they have to keep up with the market. Our tribes turned to the gods in times of calamity, they sought them in famine and war. They kept them pleased as a guarantee for help in the day of trouble. They were an emergency fund, an investment in an uncertain future and the go-to where man’s strength failed. Man looked for the gods, kept them happy in the ways he knew how and went to withdraw favor when need arose.

It’s for this reason that I think the Christian God is so different. Because in the Bible we see it is God not man who made the first move. Here the direction of flow is completely different. Man is not trying to run after a rather indifferent powerful being to come to his aid. No man is running in the opposite direction and is the one who is indifferent, unconcerned and wouldn’t care less about this God. But he runs like a father towards his prodigal child and this time they don’t meet halfway rather he pursues him to the farthest end. Sure, our African need means we are open to any god out there who can help us. And yes for the most part we think this God is no different but when we look at him we realize he’s not a god we would run after in a million years. Actually he says he’s the one who does the running after.

In Genesis we find him as the God who seeks and calls Abraham and in Exodus he goes after Israel in Egypt. Now here as Africans we would think it is Israel who goes after God. They are facing pain and oppression and they cry out to the so called God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They do it for a long time and finally it wakes this sleeping God to remember his promise. In truth, we are not told which god they called out to only that like us they cried for help and were ready for help from anywhere really. But it was God, as he had promised Abraham who intervenes.  

23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

I think they were open for help from any god perhaps even the gods of Egypt. But it is God who steps in to rescue them and fulfil his Abrahamic promise. Actually if you look closely you realize God was already pulling the strings. He’s the one who increases them in Egypt and the one who preserves them despite all the plots of Pharaoh to cut out their name. It’s God who calls Moses. It’s God who fights Pharaoh for them. It’s God who carries them to Canaan even when most times they want to go back. And this story of a seeking God is repeated a lot of times in the wilderness and in the Promised Land under the Judges. Israel cries and God comes running to save a people who are not really after him and who don’t actually regard his Word and warnings. Israel like Africans want a God who helps when needed but a God who plays by our terms. They want a god they can manipulate to play by their tune. Help them in need but for the most part let them live their lives the way they want. But not so with this God. He’s a fatherly kind of God. He wants to be involved in the lives of his people.

This God seems too emotionally invested for us Africans to entertain. As an African man we can even say he’s a weak man. A true man has got to be powerful yes but also aloof and a bit distant to gain his respect. That’s actually how our gods operated. But this one is not like that and he doesn’t want to be treated like the other gods. He won’t accept just a cash in worship for a cash out favor when we need it. He demands everything and wants to be involved in everything. He talks about eternal life when we are just wondering where our next meal will come from. He says we face a greater problem than poverty, diseases and insecurity? And he says that problem is sin? He’s got to be kidding us. We don’t want that kind of God. He’s too close and too invested for us. And he doesn’t really offer us what the other market gods supply. Yes we want his help but we also want it in our own terms, that’s the tradeoff with any religion. But not with this one though, he says we have to play in his own terms because that’s what is good for us.

If religion is the opium of the masses this God won’t be getting as many customers. He doesn’t fit the bill and doesn’t play by the rules. But it is especially that he’s different that he is exactly what we need. Africa’s greatest problems might be perceived to be hunger, bad leadership, unemployment, corruption, insecurity and a bad history. But all of these are but symptoms of a greater problem that none of our gods have answered. Yes these are real symptoms and shouldn’t be undermined but if we really want a cure we’ve got to go to the root of the problem. And that’s the biggest problem that faces not only Africans but all of humanity throughout history. The heart of the problem is the human heart, See Mark 7:20-23. It’s sin that corrupts our world at the very core. And that problem won’t be solved by education, foreign aid, humanitarian projects or even religion. They help our society but won’t ultimately solve this problem. Only the seeking God of the Bible has an answer for man and with this a solution for Africa and the world at large.

That seeking God comes to a continent that trades with human gods. He calls out a people notoriously religious to the true light of the world. He begs the attention of a people lost in want, addiction and hopelessness and says here is the way. Here’s one who comes to seek and save the lost. Here’s a God who loves mother Africa and has come to save her and her children. He’s heard her cry and stepped in like he did with Israel in the person of Jesus Christ to offer her hope for the future. He deals with Africa’s entrenched problem of sin and liberates her from being the Dark Continent. Here’s a God we should all run to because unlike all our other gods this one runs towards us. This one deals not only with what we think is our problem but with the very heart of it and in him offers us the hope we crave for and that for eternity. Africa has a new God and he’s the seeking God of the Bible.

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The author sets out to help readers think about how God has revealed himself through the pages of the Bible. The book is divided into four parts. Part one deals with the ‘why’ of biblical theology, part two deals with the ‘how’ of biblical theology, part three deals with the ‘what’ and part four with the ‘where’ of biblical theology.

In part one, the author sets out to tell us why it’s important for us to study biblical theology. The main reason is that we have problematic texts in the bible and thus having proper biblical theology will help us in dealing with them. Also, biblical theology helps us make a connection between the Old and the New Testaments through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Biblical theology gives us the bird’s eyes view of the bible as a whole and thus we are able to see the unity of the whole.

In part two, the author starts by highlighting that we can know God because he has made himself known. We can know him through his Son, Jesus Christ who is the truth. This Jesus is in fact the incarnate Word of God, who was with God and was God in the beginning (John 1:1). He is the fulfillment of Old Testament. All that the Old Testament speaks is about him and/or finds its ultimate fulfillment in him. The work of the bible student then is to not to start with the Old Testament and think how Jesus fits in but to start with Jesus and work backwards then work forward. This also implies that the scripture is what is to be studied in order to get the revelation of who God is and what he has done and is doing. The best way to study this scripture is in its literal-historical context and seeing how God’s redemptive work unfolds progressively from Genesis to Revelation. In doing this, there will be a need then to find a central theme that unifies the message of the bible.

In part three, which is the main section of the book, the author focuses on what the content of biblical theology is. He deliberately starts with clarifying what the gospel is- about Jesus Christ who is the first and the last. He then talks about creation- God, by his word, established a perfect creation which he loves and rules. But then the fall happened. Man in lasting after a throne that wasn’t there’s, rebels against God and thus loses the privileges that were his- fellowship with God is cut off, conflict (man – man, man – animal) is heightened, the ground is cursed and man is thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Things don’t remain the same again because we see how immediately and in the generations that follow, death, divisions and wickedness is what characterizes man. Even the most advanced civilization project initiated by man, without God, are in themselves a ‘setting up of self against God.’

But God’s dealings with his people are not all finished. He works so as to deal with the problem of human sin. He does this through covenants- Noah, Abraham, and consequently Isaac, Jacob and his descendants, David and through the new covenant through his Son Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, we see God redeeming his people from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. God’s people are given a set of laws they are to live by. This is to mark them as distinct from other nations and also to make them a light to other nations. The people of God fail in many ways.

The author also highlights the idea of kingship in the land. God is king of his people. Though the people err by asking for an earthly king, God allows it as it is what he had promised to Abraham and also in line with creation of man to rule over creation. The king was to fear God, obey his commands and not be against his people. The first king, Saul is rejected by God and replaced by David- a man after God’s own heart. God makes a covenant with him that his kingdom will be established forever and that his descendant will always be on the throne. Solomon partly fulfills this, the kingdom prospers but he fails as his heart is led astray from God by the foreign women that he married. The rest of Israel’s kings are disasters save for few like Josiah and Hezekiah.

God’s people are called to live wisely by remembering God’s saving acts and living in light of this. The prophets come on the scene as God’s mouthpiece, mediating between God and the people and calling them back to the covenant way of life. The people don’t heed and are thus taken to exile as an act of God’s judgment. After a period, they return to the land but this is only but a disappointment. At this point, as the author notes, the Old Testament is then an unfinished story giving way to Jesus who is its fulfillment. Jesus then is the new creation who makes new creations of all those joined to him by faith as they look forward to his coming back when he will make a new creation of everything. From the NT moving forward, Jesus has ushered in the kingdom and is drawing in people (the church) from different backgrounds.

Finally, in part four, the author gives two examples of how the study of biblical theology can be applied; a) the question of knowing God’s will and b) the question of life after death.

Methodology

The author uses a redemptive-historical method particularly focusing on the Kingdom of God as the unifying theme of the bible. He shows how this unfolds from creation, to fall, to redemption, to new creation. He highlights the three elements of this kingdom; God as ruler, the people and the created order. In creation, the kingdom is God’s creation where he is the ruler, the people are Adam & Eve and the creation order is the Garden of Eden. The central themes he deals with are creation/generation ex nihilo by the Word of God, God’s sovereignty, order and goodness of creation, image of God in man and responsibility of man. In the fall, there it’s as if things are hanging up in terms of God as ruler, the people and the creation order as everything is interrupted. Temptation, disobedience, judgment and death, broken relationship and God’s grace are the main themes.

When it comes to redemption, the author divides it up to different parts as he continues to trace the kingdom of God. In the story of Noah, God is still ruler, there’s the flood (for kingdom) and the ark is the world (creation order). The mains themes here are covenant, election and division of humans between elect and non-elect. In the story of Abraham, God is ruler, there are Abraham’s descendants as the people and Canaan as the land. The main themes are covenant, descendants of Abraham as God’s people, blessings to the nations and Promised Land. In the story of the exodus (through Moses), the LORD is the ruler, Israel is God’s special people (firstborn son) and Canaan is the land. The main themes are captivity, God’s covenant faithfulness, name of God, signs and wonders, supernatural redemption. With the giving of the law, the main themes are Sonship, law and grace, substitutionary sacrifice, and holiness. With Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the main themes are name of God, God dwelling with his people, Promised Land and Israel’s disobedience. With the people coming into the Promised Land, the main themes are Promise of possession, the Lord’s holy war and Conquest.

The author then looks at kingship particularly with David as the representative. The LORD is ruler. A special focus is on David’s line as the people and on the temple in Jerusalem as the place. Judgeship, kingship, temple, covenant, order, fear of the Lord and regeneration of the mind are the key themes. For the prophets, the LORD is ruler. The people are the faithful remnant and the place is the new temple and Jerusalem. The main themes are redemption, revelation of God in his saving acts and prophetic revelation of kingdom yet to come. In the New Testament believers, the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is in charge. The people are all who have believed in Jesus (saved by grace through faith). They are in Christ who is the new temple yet they themselves are also temples. The key themes are regeneration and the tension between the two ages (the now and not yet). And finally in the New Creation, the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) rules. The people are God’s people in his presence in the new heaven and earth. The key themes are regeneration of whole creation and Christ’s second coming and consummation.

Comments:

The book is so helpful in bringing out the theme of the Kingdom of God. This is one big theme that the author so clearly follows in tracing the story of the bible. One can see how the bible fits together using kingdom as the main theme. But even before dealing with the issue of what biblical theology is, the author did well in part one in stating first why biblical theology and in part two how biblical theology should be done. The fact that we only know God because he has made himself known by his Son through scripture brings confidence to the authority of God’s word and the need to rely on it in a time when anything else is seen as reliable but God’s Word.

The book is also helpful in the way the author writes with clarity and summarizes the main idea and keeps coming back to them. He charts his path clearly and the reader can easily follow along. This book can thus be read by anyone. The book is Christ-centered rather than being man-centered and thus we are able to see what God is doing even in the midst of passages/stories where we (21st century readers) would want to jump in and think it’s about us.

There were a number of things that weren’t clear (weakness of the book). First, kingdom is a good category and the author rightly stated how in this kingdom, the elements are God as ruler, the people under his rule and the creation order (world). In walking through the different stages of God’ revelation (creation, fall, redemption, new creation), these elements somehow were vague. For example, looking at Abraham, Moses, David, one cannot tell exactly what the kingdom is. Is it the person? Is it where they live? This could have been clear.

Second, some of the conclusions reached by the author are not helpful in my view. He says “if we can imagine God drawing up the plans for the universe before he created it, and if we could examine these plans, we would not see Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but Jesus Christ in the gospel” (page 60) which is for me, it is a wild claim. Yes, I agree Jesus is the focal point and is the start and the end. But in saying that if we examine God’s plans we wouldn’t even see Adam and Eve in the garden, one wonders then why God would have to go the ‘pain’ of creating Adam and Eve in the first place! I believe both are important in our understanding of biblical theology and so they are part of God’s plans. He also says “It is important to see that Jesus did not come because the time was fulfilled, but rather he fulfilled the time by coming.” (Page 72). Well, I think it’s both, the time was fulfilled and Jesus fulfilled the time. I believe God worked it in such a way that “at just the right time” Jesus came.

Overall, this is a good book that I recommend to anyone interested in biblical theology whether starting or is already a student of biblical theology

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This is another review by Loyce Naula- medical apprentice in Marsabit.

Image result for dig deeper book

As the title states, the book is written aimed at  helping an average Christian to Dig out all the treasures in the Bible so that Bible readers can understand the scriptures truthfully and rightly apply it. Nigel and Andrew give a simplified way they term as different tools to help us unearth the Bible and understand things that seem hidden or seem obvious and we overlook. By digging deeper we understand their significance and learn to observe more hence bible reading simplified.

Beginning with helping us understand what the bible is and how we should approach it, the two help us find answers to these questions throughout the pages of the book; what was the author’s purpose when he wrote the bible text or book? How is it structured and how do the sections fit together?  In what context was the text written? Why are some words repeated? Any vocabulary used, what’s the meaning? What are the writing styles or genre used and why did the Author choose to use it?

The book also help us understand and take note of the allusions or quotations throughout scripture. Something I also found so helpful as well was noting the feel and tone of the text, which so important in understanding and applying the text. One of the final tools, the Bible timeline tool helps us understand the big picture of the Bible from genesis to revelation- it’s important in seeing the small different bible stories and events as one big story, how and where each text fits, and how it helps me to understand and apply the text.

I really liked the way the book was made simple to understand. The worked examples in every chapter of the book make it super practical not forgetting the Dig deeper bible texts summarizing every chapter thus challenging us readers to reflect more on the chapter and practice what we have learnt through a given text. We can use these tools in our personal bible studies and get all treasures in the Bible and live a truly transformed lives as Christians.

Because its written in ordinary language, whether scholars or average Christians, teachers and all ministers can really find knowledge in this book. Dig deeper is the guide to understanding our bible for all its worth for it provides the basic knowledge we need to understand scripture. I recommend it to every Christian to read and enjoy scripture.

Loyce Naula

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Mastered

I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:

“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”

I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:

“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)

So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.

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It’s complicated…

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I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:

If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.

Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…

Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.

But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?

…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)

Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).

No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.

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One of the big cultural differences I’ve encountered in Kenya is the perception of written communication. Each year, in the session on communication at our induction workshop for the new apprentices we ask for the advantages and disadvantages of oral and written communication. If you asked that question of a group of UK fresh graduates I’m pretty sure that you’d hear quite a lot of disadvantages of oral communication and quite a lot of advantages of written. In Kenya we come up with the reverse – lots of advantages of oral communication and hardly any advantages of written (beyond the fact that there’s a record).

It’s a challenge to the western mind to appreciate the sentiment of the elder John who would “rather not write with pen and ink” but “see you… and… talk face to face” (3 John 13-14). It’s a challenge to those of us who gravitate towards blogs and emails rather than picking up the phone or getting out and seeing people. Certainly there are great advantages in bodily presence, fellowship over food, really connecting. The great joy we look forward to is seeing Christ face to face. And there are advantages in the process of communication – body language and facial expressions helping us get the tone and mood more accurately, immediate feedback, the chance to work things through, clarify misunderstandings, negotiate, develop a conversation in new directions.

And I was reminded by our Eastern European sisters (whose culture may in some ways be closer to Africa than NW Europe) that coming and visiting someone to talk about something or request something, rather than writing an email, communicates effort and importance and humility. It is more costly and risky but at the same time harder for the person being visited/asked to say No!

So there are lots of advantages to face to face communication but as Harrison often reminds us and as Njeri reminded me a in a recent post, there are advantages to pen and paper too in this present age.

  1. Writing gives stability, consistency and longevity to a communication. As Njeri points out, how would we know anything about Athanasius and Augustine and Luther if they had never written? How much of the detail of Paul and his missionary journeys would have survived if Luke and Paul himself hadn’t written? Oral communication can carry words a long way over long time periods but over time it inevitably gets distorted and splits into multiple traditions and versions which all recite the history somewhat differently. You can imagine the confusion after a few hundred years when one story teller recites the teaching of Paul in one way while another recites it very differently. One says that Jesus said this, while another tells us Jesus said that. We end up with different gospels and little way to tell between them which is the true one. This is why the laws of nations are written down. Some of the earliest writing discovered is of legal documents. Imagine the chaos if law was passed on orally and each policeman and judge just had to remember the law as it was passed down to them with no fixed point to refer to (we may think that sounds rather familiar in our context but that’s another story). Similarly, when it comes to organisations, having written policies is what maintains consistency and impartiality (1 Tim. 5:21). Interestingly, when it comes to the Bible, although there was certainly some oral transmission involved at certain points, compared to most ancient narratives, God’s Word was written down very early, often by the eye witnesses themselves (Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:24; John 5:46). Luke clearly wanted to move things from oral to written (Luke 1:1-4). The Bible is not just a bunch of amorphous ideas, like a jellyfish, shifting, without sharp edges – according to Jesus it is very important that every word in the original languages is persevered precisely, unaltered (Matt. 5:18 cf. Rev. 22:18-19). Our faith rests on the fixed rock of truth.
  2. Writing takes responsibility, accepts accountability. Recently a friend checked with the local government whether he and his organisation were complying with all the statutory requirements to operate as an NGO in a particular location. The council representative checked through the requirements and said, “Yes, you’ve done everything you need to do.” My friend asked, “Can you put that in writing for us? Just a note to say that we have done everything we need to do and are legal here?” To which the answer was, “Errrr, no – I’d rather not do that.” When you put something in writing and put your name at the bottom you take ownership of your words. Walter Chen: “Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility.” When we just speak words into the air we can deny them or edit them later. When we have written there is something to stand by. When God puts his word in writing he is taking ownership of it. “Thus says the LORD.”
  3. Writing indicates the seriousness and trustworthiness of a warning or a promise. This flows from the last point. When we say, “I’ll put it in writing” we are saying that we seriously mean what we say. A written warning in the workplace is a step up the discipline ladder from a verbal warning. A written commitment to pay back a loan usually has more seriousness (and legal currency) than a verbal agreement. A particular case in point is a Last Will and Testament (which if you haven’t done you should get done today!) which is a written document. As Luther realised, the whole Old Testament can be looked at as a legal Will – a set of promises that require the death of the one who made them for them to come into force (cf. Heb. 9:16-17; Matt. 26:28; Rev. 5:1-10).  Sentiments also mean more if they are put into writing too. “I love you” said to my wife is one thing. “I love you” written down for her in a letter or card and given means something slightly different, perhaps even more. Another way of looking at the Bible is as a love letter – God has put his love for us in writing.
  4. Writing gives time to think, structure, craft and REVISE. This is one of the great advantages of written communication. Once my words are out of my mouth they are gone. Once they are on paper I can screw up the paper and try again, or today just tap a few keys to delete a sentence, substitute a word, change the order and flow. I can read and check it. I can leave it overnight and read it again in the morning and find that it is far too harsh. Even better I can ask my wife to read it before I hit send! When you read the Bible you see huge amounts of careful crafting. Think of Lamentations – the way the poetry is so carefully organised with each verse starting with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That wasn’t something that someone came out with spontaneously. Or think of the New Testament letters, crammed with theology, where every word counts. When it comes to a carefully nuanced, precisely weighted communication, often writing is best.
  5. Writing develops clear, focussed thinking & communication. Harrison has reminded us of this a number of times. Prayer letters and reports have as much value for the writer as for the recipient. It is a way to discipline your thoughts. Walter Chen again: “Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking.” Jeff Bezos of Amazon: “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking” (RT Chen). There is a vagueness and sloppiness and incoherence that you can might get away with in verbal communication that gets ‘found out’ very quickly when you are forced to put your thoughts on paper. As someone once said, when your thinking is confused, “Write yourself clear.” And – old advice – write something out in old fashioned pen and ink and paper before you hit the computer – that will get you even clearer.
  6. Writing can be re-read multiple times. This is a major advantage of written over oral communication. Isn’t it great to get a letter from a friend or fiancée and be able to read it over and over? My daughter loves to read her favourite books again and again. And for understanding: when I’m reading J I Packer or John Owen I often have to stop and read a paragraph again, maybe two or three times to get the full impact. Paul tells Timothy to think over what he is saying (2 Tim. 2:7) and he can do that because he has it in writing. He can read the words about the good soldier and the athlete and the hard-working farmer because he has the letter in his hands. He can pore over it, read it slowly again and again. And we can do that with the whole Bible (thank God for Bible translators).
  7. Writing gives opportunity to develop complex arguments and accurately cite sources. Oral communication can communicate quite complex ideas – think of a science lecture or a Puritan sermon – but there comes a point where a book is a better form. You cannot convey 20 points in a sermon and you certainly can’t show all the interconnections and implications and look at the issues from different perspectives and address all the counter-arguments. This is why book writing and book reading is so important. Think how impoverished our thinking and theology would be if there had never been an Augustine or Calvin or Edwards or Dostoyevsky writing serious, long books. And particularly when it comes to scholarship and the academic exercise, writing allows you the format not only to structure complex ideas but also to give credit and evidence by citing very precisely the words and work of others, something that is essential not only to integrity but also to being able to check the truthfulness of our words.

So let’s long for face-to-face but let’s also keep writing…

 

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We’ve mentioned our nervousness about the idea of ‘principles’ before. But I’m returning to the theme, prompted by an excellent article by Brian Brock, “On generating categories in theological ethics” (Tyndale Bulletin, 61.1), to add a couple more points:

  1. Principles tend to ignore the specificity of the biblical commands. Brock shows how there has been a movement in Christian ethics, since the Enlightenment, to focus on one or two big principles – especially ‘love’, with the greatest commandment and the golden rule being pointed to most often – while ignoring the huge amount of very specific instruction in the OT and NT on exactly how we should love. A ‘principle’ is (in modern thought) something that you have to ‘apply’ in concrete situations. As long as you are guided by the principle you are relatively free to work out the application in your context, taking into account all the particularities of culture, time, geography, temperament etc. Doesn’t that sound very familiar? We might say, all marriages are different, all children are different, all workplaces are different, you just need to be guided by the principle of love and work out what is right in your situation. But the Bible doesn’t seem to work like that. There are a lot of detailed commandments. At the great commission the disciples aren’t send out to “teach them to love” or “teach them the top 10 principles” but to “teach them… everything I have commanded”. God doesn’t leave it all up to us to work out the details. In marriage, for example, the Bible doesn’t just say, love (whoever, however, whenever). It says that the marriage must be between a man and a woman, that believers should only marry believers, that the love should take place within a secure public covenant which should only be dissolved by death, that the love of a husband for a wife must be expressed in Christlike sacrificial servant leadership and the love of a wife for her husband should resemble the submission of the church to Christ. It is not left to us to figure all that out. It is not dependent on context and temperament and orientation what sort of marriage we come up with. As Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
  2. Principles tend to sound optional. The Bible’s language is not ‘principle’ but rather ‘command’ and ‘promise’ and ‘truth’. The great commission says, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded“. “Let us be clear – there are no ethical principles expressly stated in Scripture, though there are many commands, in both testaments” (Brock, Ethics, p. 51). The difference is that a principle has something of a ‘take it or leave it’ quality. It is something I can apply if I want to or need to. You can’t talk of ‘obeying’ or ‘disobeying’ a principle. But a command is a word from the King that I must obey. Likewise a promise (and Brock shows that through Christ commands are bound up with promises) is something that must be ‘believed’ and ‘clung to’. Not to receive the promises with faith is at best a foolish slowness of heart and at worst a sinful hardness of heart (Luke 24:25; John 16:9; Hebrews 3-4). And ‘truth’ (e.g. that God is Trinity, that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that men and woman are equal in status but different in role) is a reality that is there and must be revealed, known, obeyed and walked in (Gal. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 John 1:4).

A word on Hebrews 5

Admittedly, Hebrews 5:12 talks of the ‘first principles of the oracles of God’ but it may be worth noting:
a) In the context these are not a great thing to be fixed on. These are seen as ‘milk’ in contrast to the solid food of the mature. The whole point is an impatience to move on from this unsatisfactory diet which is for the ‘unskilled’, the ‘dull of hearing’. In fact the way the warning passage continues into chapter 6 it looks like sticking with the first principles and not moving on may be bound up with a sinful hardness of heart and apostasy.
b) One might counter that even if they are not a good place to stay then they are a good ‘first base’ – essential teachings that you need to get clear at the start. But from the context of the beginning of chapter 6, the first principles look like they could well be Jewish/OT rather than distinctively Christian/NT (Messiah, repentance, ceremonial washings, hope of resurrection etc.). So perhaps the use of ‘first principles’ (literally ‘first lines’) here could be a slightly scolding and sarcastic jibe that his readers seem to be stuck in Sabbath School / still in kindergarten learning their ABC.
c) What the author of Hebrews is most concerned to tell his readers about is Melchizedek and how Christ, coming as high priest in the order of Melchizedek has accomplished the perfect sacrifice and has gone ahead of us and for us into the most holy place. This is what he spends the majority of his time teaching them. Where he does need to refer to background to help them understand this he goes back not of some abstract principles but to the promises of Scripture and to the particularities of how the tabernacle was set up.

So let’s leave behind principles

Let’s talk more about commands and promises and truths and the stories of Scripture and the riches of Christ.

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We’re all aware of the challenge of the prosperity gospel in our context but perhaps there is another, more subtle threat on the horizon. Here are the notes and Powerpoint from a seminar/workshop I did at the Renew Conference at Brackenhurst yesterday (incorporating some feedback and contributions from the discussion):

More feedback welcome…

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