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Archive for the ‘OT Narrative’ Category

What are we supposed to learn as we read the narratives of Abraham and Moses and David and all the rest? What are we supposed to emulate? How should they help us?

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us… run…” (Heb. 12:1a)

Question: What are the great cloud of witnesses witnessing?

If we don’t know the answer to that then we risk missing a great motivation and guide to running the Christian race well.

Hebrews 12:1a is clearly the bridge between Hebrews 11 (the hall of fame) and Hebrews 12:1b about running the race marked out for us. “Therefore, since we are surrounded… let us…”

So it clearly can’t be that these are non-Christians witnessing our lives (a common interpretation in our context). The witnesses in Heb. 12:1 are those in Heb. 11.

But what or who are they witnessing? Are they witnessing us or something/someone else?

Let’s look at the guys in Hebrews 11. Where was their gaze fixed? In the summary verse 13 it says that they saw what was promised them even though it/he was still far off (cf. Heb. 10:36-37). Moses faith meant ‘seeing the Unseen One’ (Heb. 11:27). In fact most of those mentioned in the ‘hall of fame’ here are notable in the Old Testament as those who ‘saw the LORD’ (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David and Samuel).

This would fit with the primary use of ‘witnesses’ throughout the Old and New Testaments. The ‘witnesses’ in Isaiah 43:12 are of the LORD and his mighty words and deeds. John picks up on this understanding of witness in his Gospel and presents us with various witnesses to Jesus (e.g. John 5). The Apostles are send out as witnesses of Jesus (Acts 1:8). The secret of their joyful courage was a vision of the glory of God and of Christ (Acts 7:55).

So I would conclude that the witnesses of Heb. 11 and Heb. 12:1a are those who witnessed Christ. They were not necessarily exemplary (think of Jephthah and Samson). It is not so much a hall of fame as a hall of faith. They saw something. They saw Christ. They witnessed Him. And so they did the only logical thing, they counted this world as rubbish and perishing, they looked forward to Christ and his resurrection day, they obeyed the heavenly voice, they ran towards their saviour God.

And that is the way they are an encouragement to us. I suspect that it is not so much that we are running and the saints of old are watching us from the sidelines and cheering us on (though that’s possible), rather we are supposed to look at them and see how they ran and then notice that their eyes are fixed straight ahead, on Christ. We are to see them and see what they are looking at, and run like that.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every weight and the sin that entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus

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tower of babel

Schools, NGOs, even politicians and businesses talk about being guided by ‘Christian values’. We want ‘value-based leadership’. Parents want to inculcate ‘good values’. Churches promise ‘kingdom principles’ which will transform your life.

  • Value (in pl.) one’s principles or standards
  • Principle – 1. A general law; 2. a personal code of conduct

The Bible doesn’t seem to be big on values and principles.

A couple of problems with values and principles:

  1. They are cut free from the story line of salvation history and turned into general truths and laws like gravity. I was reading an otherwise very good book on mission recently which was drawing lessons from the mission of the Apostle Paul. Loads of helpful stuff. But then a friend pointed out the flaw in the argument. It was all about getting principles from Paul which we could then follow to achieve the same results (church planting, church growth) as he had. This is turning a narrative into a set of principles which are then treated as laws which can be tested in the laboratory with the same results every time. What it was not considering was whether maybe the early days of the church in the book of Acts might have been a special point in the story of the history of Israel. Perhaps those days correspond, as a number of commentators have noted, to the early chapters in Joshua – the entry to the land. Even by the end of the book of Joshua and the end of the book of Acts the spectacular explosion of victories and miracles seems to be lessening. So maybe we should not demand exactly the same results as Paul (healing hankies, thousands converted) when we preach the same gospel from the Scriptures.
  2. They are cut free from the person of Jesus. Not always but very often you find that people and institutions that talk a lot about Christian principles and values are much less keen to talk about Christ. It’s understandable. Almost everyone, from all religions and none can sign up to Christian values. Just don’t give us Christ. Christ divides people. And yet he is the spring of all the so-called ‘values’. They are organically connected to him. They are the fruit of his Spirit. And crucially they flow from his gospel. Again and again in the NT letters it is the logic of the gospel which gives rise to the new Christian life. At the last MTC we found in Colossians that it is our death and resurrection with Christ which is the reason why we should put off the old self and evil desires and put on the new Christ-like self (Col. 3:1-11). It is as ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved’, forgiven by the Lord, that we are to love and forgive others. Once you cut values away from Christ then you have cut the flower from the root – it begins to wither and die (witness the UK in the last two years since the prime minister made his ‘Christian values’ speech). They become powerless legalism and hypocrisy and then a redundant nonsense. As John Gray argues very powerfully in Straw Dogs, you cannot maintain Christian values when you have rejected a Christian worldview. The only source of true love and humility is a God of love and humility who has acted in history and is in the business of conforming his people to the image of his Son.

What does this mean for preaching?

Is it ok to preach values from Old Testament texts?

That was the question asked by one of the apprentices at the last MTC. And he answered his own question with a very helpful example from Genesis 11 – the tower of Babel. It’s a text often used to preach on the value of unity:

Nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them. (Gen. 11:6b)

So unity is a great value because it allows us to do more together than we can do alone. Indeed nothing will be impossible for us if only we have unity as a school, a church, a nation…

But as Fidel reported in his recent post (here) the point of the Babel story is the big problem of humanity seeking self-praise, self-sufficiency and security. In this context unity is a dangerous idolatrous evil thing. We could mention the Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) – great marital unity but not in a good cause. Or we could think of Nazi Germany in the 1930s – impressively united. So unity in itself is not a great value. I wonder (come back at me) whether any unity outside of Christ (nationalism, ethnocentrism etc.) is dangerous…

True unity is seen in the Trinity and then in Genesis 2 – the man and the woman became one, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). And then at the Cross the Second Adam in his death created one new man – Jew and Gentile united to one another and to God (Eph. 2:16). In view of that gospel Paul urges the Ephesians, “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father…” (Eph. 4:3-6)

‘Principles’ are what the world does – in fact they’re part of what Christ saved us from (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:20) so let’s not go back to them (Gal. 4:9; Col. 2:8). Let’s just value Christ and see what happens…

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return christ

What really struck me from the last few days of the ministry training course last week was the emphasis that came out on the future, eternity, our great Hope.

I’d never noticed what Fidel brought home so powerfully from 2 Tim. 4:1-2 that the number one reason to preach the word is the return of Christ. We are preaching in the last days a gospel of eternal life in view of the coming Day (cf. 2 Tim. 1:1, 10, 18; 2:10; 3:1; 4:8).

We found that the reason to put to death our ungodly desires (Col. 3:5) is because Christ, who is our life, is about to appear and we will be glorified with him (Col. 3:4).

Sammy reminded us from Job that the end comes at the end, and in the same session one of the apprentices very movingly shared how she had been through times when she desired to depart and be with Christ more than cling to this life. This in turn resonated very strongly with the account we read from John Paton’s autobiography:

At last the child literally longed to be away, not for rest, or freedom from pain — for of that he had very little — but, as he himself always put it, “to see Jesus.”

How badly do we need this powerful injection of eternity into our Christian lives and churches?

———————————————

Notes and resources:

Intro to Expository Preaching – Context

Christ-centred youth ministry

Being pro-active in mentoring

Preaching Christ from the Gospels (esp Matt)

How to manage email with filters and folders

2nd year programme:

The church as mission agency

Lessons from the life of John Paton

Doctrine of Salvation (2) – Predestination, Justification and the glory of God

Preaching from OT narratives

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If you want to see some hardcore moralism where should you go? Sadly, the answer is most likely Sunday School. This is not to say that there aren’t some brilliant brilliant Sunday School teachers. There are children’s pastors who have committed their lives to feeding children with the Word of God. We’re privileged to have one of them often come and train the apprentices at iServe Africa on children’s ministry – passionate about Jesus and the importance of children’s work, wonderfully clear on the children’s need of the gospel, careful Bible handling and presenting the Word of Christ in a well-prepared, appropriate, engaging way. But sadly, as she herself says, often children’s work is massively under-resourced, under-supported, treated as child minding and colouring, and left to completely untrained volunteers. Here are a couple of  real examples of Bible teaching for 2-3 year olds. I relay these not to mock or condemn but just to remind of us of an issue which often gets ignored in analyses of the church.

 

Genesis 27: Jacob steals Esau’s blessing

Main point: Jacob did a bad thing – he lied to his daddy and he stole something from his brother.

Application: Don’t lie to your parents and don’t be unkind to your brothers and sisters. Obey your parents and do nice things for your brothers and sisters.

Luke 1:26-30: The angel Gabriel appears to Mary

 

Main point: Mary was a good, beautiful, obedient girl who said her prayers every day and was kind to everyone. The angel came to tell Mary that she was more blessed/nice/beautiful/obedient than all the other girls and boys around.

Application: Be good like Mary – read your Bible, pray and obey your parents.

 

My first response is a great sadness. A great sadness that there was no mention of Jesus to these children, no gospel for these children. And the massively frustrating thing is that He was there in those passages just waiting to give life but he was ignored and replaced with a ‘moral’ that ran completely contrary to the text.

In the Genesis passage, surely the big point is that God’s blessing goes to the sinner, the deceiver, the one who doesn’t deserve it. Just as had been decided before his birth (so without works) now in Genesis 27 Jacob is blessed despite his works. The ancient commentators have long seen in Jacob wrapping himself in his elder brother’s clothes a picture of how we are to approach the Father clothed in our elder brother Jesus. Election, grace, union with Christ – it’s all there. Obviously you wouldn’t use those words with 2 year-olds but could we not tell them that God is a God who gives massive hugs to bad children.

And in the Luke passage surely Jesus should be absolutely unmissable. This is the incarnation! Mary is highly favoured / blessed / lucky because she gets to be the mother of God (Luke 1:43)! Has she earned that privilege? How could you possibly earn that? The God in her womb is her Saviour (Luke 1:46-47). Again and again in Luke’s Gospel, this God shows he does not come to rubber stamp the good works of the ‘righteous’ (“Yes, well done, you really are very good”) but to save lost sinners (Luke 5:27-32; 7:47; 15:7; 19:1-10). If Mary is an example to us it is as a sinner receiving words of grace with faith (Luke 1:45 cf. 1:20) – to do that is to find a blessing even greater than being the mother of God (Luke 11:27-28).

Can we not give this grace, this Jesus, this loving God to children? Do we not trust them with grace? Do we think we must give them law and moralism till they are 12 or 18 and then, perhaps, we can give them a bit of the gospel? Are we surprised when as young adults they constantly fall back into legalism and self-righteousness when that has been their food and drink throughout their childhood; when they have been trained to read the Bible as Pharisees, to find a law they can keep rather than to find Jesus and have life in him? And even if they do grasp the gospel as teenagers, can we justify enslaving children under the yoke of joyless moralism for year after year, denying them the bread of life? Do we value our children as Jesus does (Matthew 18:5-6)? Do we let the children come to Jesus (Matthew 19:14)?

My second thought is, we really need to invest in training Sunday School teachers. I know there are a number of churches and organisations that are passionately concerned about this and are doing great work. And, as I said at the beginning, there is some brilliant children’s ministry going on. But the need is massive; the harvest field is vast. Teaching children is far harder than teaching adults. To teach the Bible message simply and clearly – one point that gets to the heart of a child – you have to get it very very clear in your own head and that is exceptionally hard work. To handle the word of God carefully, particularly to handle Old Testament narrative texts well; to do the extra work of boiling it down (without watering it down) so that you can put it on a teaspoon and feed it to a three year-old – that is very very hard. We should have the highest possible esteem for those who labour to teach children faithfully and engagingly. In some ways it is not ‘rocket science’ – it’s mainly about context and letting the story make the point and spending sufficient time reading and praying over the text, sufficient time thinking carefully about how it relates to the listener, sufficient time preparing how to make it as visual and engaging as it is. In the meantime, maybe we’d be best simply reading the Bible to children, telling the stories and forget trying to find the ‘moral’.

Then my third thought is, there’s a deeper problem here. It’s not that teachers don’t believe in Jesus, it’s not that they don’t love their children (they manifestly do, pouring out their time and energies), it’s not (always) that they don’t have enough time to prepare or enough skills in Bible interpretation, the big issue lurking behind this is, Do we really grasp the gospel? Do teachers have strong gospel instincts – so when faced with a Bible story and a class of children, even without any preparation, their instinct is to preach Jesus, the Cross, a loving, outpouring God of grace – so that, even if it isn’t the most technically ‘correct’ exposition or the most well constructed lesson, the children go away not thinking ‘God blesses good people’ but with some sense that the Bible is about Jesus, that he is amazing and that he has a ferocious love for them.

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At the last First Priority prayer meeting Harrison preached from 2 Chronicles 20. A few things that came across very clearly…

  • The story makes the point – As Harrison said, just reading the story, from impending disaster to amazing deliverance (with the final twist of another disaster) it preaches itself. The tension builds unbearably to the great turning point – the Word of God proclaiming, “You do not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf” (2 Chron. 20:17 cf. Exodus 14:13-14). What a great Bible theme – “Salvation belongs to the Lord”, “He saved us”, “Not by works”. And here it is beaten into our heads by a wonderful story.
  • The engagement of the whole person in prayer and worship – Earlier in the prayer meeting, Harrison exhorted us to engage our mind, body and emotions in prayer for the persecuted church and mission in Egypt and Algeria. We are to engage our mind – being well informed on what’s going on in our world (see 2 Chron. 20:2) and praying specific requests (2 Chron. 20:10). We are to engage our bodies – speaking aloud (2 Chron. 20:6), maybe standing or bowing down (2 Chron. 20:5,18). And we are to engage – our emotions, praying for persecuted brothers in N. Africa not in some cold disconnected way but as if we are there with them in prison, as suffering members of our body (Hebrews 13:3). It’s this engagement of emotions that most challenged me. Wary of whipped up emotions, wary of the frantic shouting of the Baal worshippers, and wary of the idea that volume equals power, I can tend to the other extreme of avoiding emotion. But in 2 Chronicles 20, the reason the story is so powerful is largely that it is full of raw emotion. Fear drives Jehoshaphat to prayer (v3 – and Harrison gave us a personal testimony of that experience). Jehoshaphat’s prayer is full of passion (why else the ‘redundant’ ‘O’ at v6 and v12?). The overjoyed praise of the Levites is with ‘a very loud voice’ (v19). Returning from the plunder there is a God-given joy (v27). So the question is not so much, “To shout or not to shout?” The question is, are we engaging our minds, bodies and emotions in genuine prayer and praise?
  • The contradictions of a true believer – Jehoshaphat is a true believer. In 2 Chronicles 17 he leads a greater revival than his father. In chapter 19 he again goes out among the people to ‘bring them back to the LORD (v4) and he rolls out the wonderful blessing of a God-honouring justice system. In chapter 20 he turns to the Temple and prays a model prayer of humble dependence on the Lord (fulfilling 2 Chron. 7:14). So Jehoshaphat is the real thing. Even a prototype of the great Jeho-Shaphat (Jehovah-Judges). And then you get 2 Chronicles 20:35-37 and he’s in league with a wicked king of Israel again (as in ch. 18). What do we say? “He obviously wasn’t a real believer after all” or “He’s fallen from grace”?  Do we tell him to “Get born again (again!)” I don’t think so. Aren’t all Christians contradictory? Don’t we all have contradictions in our lives? We believe one thing and we also believe something else that is completely contradictory. Or we say we believe one thing but our behaviour says something else completely. Talking personally, I am a mass of contradictions. Yes we should seek consistency – a consistent mind and consistent behaviour – our life’s work must be conforming ourselves to the Word of God – but at the same time the Word itself tells me that until I die I will always be fighting the sinful nature which desires what is contrary to the Spirit. Which is why 2 Chronicles 20:17 is such good news. It’s not about me – it’s God’s salvation of sinners all the way home.

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We’re still working through 1 Kings in our staff morning devotions. Here are some more thoughts..

2 Kings 17:7-23 is a good way into the book(s) of Kings. It drives home the author’s big theme – why Israel got vomited out of the land – and it gives us a good steer on how to preach Kings (and Old Testament narrative in general):

  • History with a point. “All this occurred because…”  (2 Kings 17:7). There is a point – a lesson to learn. Greg Prior was really helpful on this at Raising the Bar back in February – “This history is prophetic history… this is a prophet preaching to us: turn to God and obey him!” In particular, Greg showed us, the author/preacher/prophet is giving God’s answer to two questions: (1) “Why did God allow his people to go into Exile?” (2) “What future is there for God’s people now?”
  • Them not us. “All this occurred because the people of Israel…”  (2 Kings 17:7). Yes there are strong connections between us as the church and the children of Israel but first we need to hear this as the real history of people who are not us, who are not living in Nairobi in the 21st century. One of the great paradoxes is that it’s as we take ourselves out of the picture and make the effort to travel back in time to Samaria that we will hear God speaking powerfully to us right here and now.
  • Idolatry. “…the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God…”  (2 Kings 17:7). That’s the heart of the problem. Leaving the fountain of living waters and digging out pathetic, cracked, putrid cisterns. Israel forsakes her husband, flings herself at tawdry suitors and arouses the Lord’s jealous anger. He seeks to woo his beloved back but “They would not listen” (2 Kings 17:14). As we prepare to preach on Kings it would be the greatest irony if we fall foul of the same idolatry that is all over the book. We must beware the idolatry of putting ourselves at the centre of everything, beware the common idols of preachers and above all listen to the voice of the true and living God from the text. Rather than use God’s Word as a pagan priest would perform divination (2 Kings 17:17) as a means to my own end, we are to submit to His message and let him speak.
  • Part of a bigger story. “…their God who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh…” (2 Kings 17:7). It’s crying out, “Put me in a Bible overview!”  We need to ask, ‘How are the promises going?’  ‘Where is the story headed?’  ‘Who is it all about?

Part 3

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