Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

The Greater Commission: God’s Revelation and Our Response

Thursday 4 February 2010

When I applied to Wycliffe Bible Translators 7 years ago I was asked to write several doctrinal statements outlining my beliefs about various biblical themes, one of which was God’s mission. I was expected to discuss the basis on which church was involved in mission in the 21st Century.

In answering this question I relied heavily on a single verse from Matthew 28, often known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I reasoned that if this was true for the disciples 2,000 years ago,  it must also be true for us today. If Jesus has given us this command, how can we claim to be his followers and not carry it out?

7 years on I would answer the question very differently. It’s not that what I said at the time isn’t true – I still believe that Jesus has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations. If this was the only verse in the Bible where God called his people to tell others about himself, I would still take Jesus’ commandment completely seriously.

My mistake was not in believing something that wasn’t true, but rather in believing something that was true, but ultimately missing out on the whole truth. Rather than just being a command tacked on as a panicked afterthought as Jesus realised he was leaving his disciples, God’s mission – his revelation of himself to all nations – is something that God started with the creation of the world, and has been doing ever since in and through that creation. For thousands of years God has been revealing himself to his people through the law, through prophets, through angels, visions, dreams, a donkey… and ultimately through his son.

Why is it important that we understand the whole truth about God’s mission to the nations? If we have one command from Jesus, surely that’s enough? 7 years ago that was my logic – if Jesus said something, who am I to even think about the matter any further? I should just take him at his word without question.

Our western culture likes to frame concepts abstractly and to reduce things to their logical extreme. If we believe Jesus is God, and God is truth, then Jesus always speaks the truth. If Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, why look any further for our mandate?

But actually we see in the Bible that God’s communication is much more holistic than we might at first think. The Bible isn’t a list of commands for us to follow like robots, but rather a collection of diverse writings – history, poetry, law, proverbs, prophecy, letters – which don’t just tell us how to live, but reveal to us the nature of God.

When God does give a command in the Bible it is always in the context of relationship. God reveals part of himself to his people, and then gives them a command which is their appropriate response.

In the verse in Matthew 28 Jesus says “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20) If we look back to the ten commandments God says “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me…” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) And in the following chapter “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Repeatedly throughout the giving of the law, the commandments are framed as responses to the revelation of who God is.

My problem 7 years ago was that I understood and was willing to carry out God’s command, but I was generally ignorant of the revelation of God’s character that prompted the command. I knew that Jesus had commanded his church to make disciples of all nations, but I didn’t understand that the command was supposed to be my response to the revelation of the missional heart of God himself that we see throughout scripture. It was in fact an invitation to join in with what God had been doing since the beginning of the world.

What I believed was true, but it wasn’t the truth.

Understanding what God commands, but being ignorant of the revelation of God that prompts the command actually affects the way we carry out that command. If we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations, but don’t see the missional nature of God’s actions running through the Bible, we’ll be tempted to think that mission is our job – a task God has given us to complete alone. And so we’ll devise whatever strategies we can to accomplish that task as quickly and easily as possible. On the other hand if we understand that mission is at the heart of God’s character, and Jesus’ command is actually an invitation to be part of what God is doing, we’ll depend completely on him, in the knowledge that we are part of something so much bigger. We won’t be tempted to cut corners when we think God isn’t looking, or to achieve our goals in ways that are contrary to how God works.

Our culture values following instructions. As Christians we’re always tempted to reduce the Christian life to following rules, hoping that if we work hard enough at completing the tasks set before us, we’ll finally stand in front of God and hear him say “Well done good and faithful servant”. But I’m not sure that God defines obedience in this way.

The Bible teaches us that God cares deeply that we obey his commands, but that, despite what our reductionist culture teaches us, those commands can never be divorced from his relationship with us. We should obey God’s commands, but unless our obedience is a response to the revelation we see of him, and is a product of our relationship with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in their hollow adherence to the rules.

Ultimately we need to have a whole-Bible understanding of God’s mission, not so that we can carry out the right commands and follow the right rules, but so that we can know the missional nature of our God, and through our relationship with him, respond by joining with him in sharing his nature with people from all nations.

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The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

WFMW

Wednesday 3 September 2008

WFMW

WFMW

I was inspired to write a Works for Me Wednesday today because I just phoned a friend of mine the other day in the States (Hi Apie! : ) and we had the longest conversation in the world!  We kept talking about what I do around the house that helps it to be organised and creative and productive because she is soon going to be at home fulltime – with her first baby on the way.  So, even though I am not super organised, and I am eternally learning, I thought I’d share something! : )

I think the #1 thing that has been working for me is morning Bible reading.  As soon as I wake up I get out of bed (before I have time to wind up and think about my upcoming day…!) and go to ‘my chair’ in the living room and open the Word of God.  Praise the Lord that that He’s given me an amazing husband who is sooo my compliment and likes routine – not my favourite…!  So, for encouragement, we do it together, and talk about one of the passages we read together.  Its good!

We read through the Word in a year, a month and a day.  So, there’s three chapters to read each day and you always know what you’re going to read next!

I also normally read Oswald Chambers ‘My Utmost for His Highest’ before I dive into the word for that day – and the thing that amazes me most is how the Bible passages and Chambers intertwine each day.  There is never a day where I am like – well, that was good but it wasn’t for me.  If you expect God to speak to you, you will hear Him! Its totally exciting! : )

That’s what works for me, by God’s grace! : )

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Works for Me Wednesdays at http://rocksinmydryer.typepad.com/shannon/worksforme-wednesday-guid.html

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Proverbs 12:18

Thursday 24 July 2008

Some people make cutting remarks,
but the words of the wise bring healing.

I am progressing through a very challenging personal Bible study book called Disciplines of a Godly Woman by Barbara Hughes – and that is not to say what a great Christian woman I am – because the book has been in our house for months now, staring at me in the face daring me to read it. And I finally found the guts and grace to open the book and commit to completing it!

Disciplines of a Godly Woman book

The sections are all very good, but I have to say that one has really stood out so far, about 8 sections in. And that section was about ‘propriety.’ Thankfully, Mrs. Hughes gives a definition of the word, as its gone out of use so much that I couldn’t quite recall what it meant…

“It means ‘characterized by appropriateness or suitability.'” (p 89 in Disciplines)

I thought… Alright – I know I’m polite, because I am a Christian and all… this shouldn’t be as hard as the other disciplines, right? Well, she got to the part about what we say as women, and that stopped me in my tracks. Especially the verses she quoted – like Proverbs 12:18, and others. It struck me that its not always enough to bite my tongue at the right times when I’m tempted to say something unhelpful. (Although I think I will keep doing that…) The second part of the verse says but the words of the wise bring healing. We aren’t meant to just look good and act right – we’re supposed to bring healing to those around us through our words. And I know that starts with my heart – which is what Godly propriety is – an attitude of the heart which spurs theraputic actions. I could go on, but for now…

Heavenly Father, as I dwell on your Word, replace my bad attitudes with holy ones so that I can, through my actions, bring healing to those around me by your Holy Spirit.

Teaching the Bible in Africa

Monday 12 May 2008

Next month I’ve been asked to lead a session for a church group preparing to go to Malawi for 2 weeks on a mission trip. Part of their time will be spent teaching the Bible, so I’ve been asked to give them some cultural pointers.

I certainly don’t know all the answers, so I’m planning to have an interactive session, where we first of all identify as many cultural differences as we can between “Africa” and “the West”, and then explore what these differences mean for the way that Africans see Christianity and the Bible differently from people in the West.

I’m not sure in what direction the discussion is going to go, but I’ve written down some of my thoughts so that at least I have some idea of what I think before we start. But I’d appreciate any feedback you might have.

What other broad cultural differences would you say there are between Africa and the West? What do you agree with below, and what would you disagree with? What else is important for a British group of mainly young people to be aware of before they go to Africa to teach the Bible?

Difference (Africa / the West)

How does this affect the way Africans view Christianity?

How does this affect the way Africans view the Bible?

Community outlook / Individual outlook

Christianity is a community thing, rather than individual. Conversion to Christ is much more likely for people when respected individuals within the community have committed to Christ.

Passages are read for their application to the community, rather than on an individual level. Interestingly, many of the books of the Bible were originally written to or for a community.

Respect for elders, conventional wisdom / Respect for youth, new ideas

Look to older members of family, community for guidance about life, more than to peers and new ideas brought from outside.

Respect stories of long ago. Take notice of genealogies – these make the stories real. The fact that the Bible is 2000+ years old makes it very important.

Low life expectancy / High life expectancy

Life expectancy in many parts of Africa is about 40. This means death is a constant part of life. If the gospel is accepted as a life and death matter, it becomes very urgent, as many adults can only expect to live for another 5-10 years, maybe less if they have AIDS. You don’t have to tell an African that he is mortal – people know only too well the reality of death.

In many parts of Africa half of the population is age 15 or under. These things make what the Bible has to say about children very relevant. Issues with widows and orphans are not just interesting, but are a matter of life and death for those involved.

Spiritual aspect of life very real / More focused on physical

In general, Africans know that there is a spiritual side to life – they’ve lived with witch doctors and traditional religion for centuries, and know that these things have power. In Africa, the question is not “Is there any kind of God?”, but “Who is this God and how powerful is he?”

Passages about evil spirits and witchcraft are very relevant and are not just symbolic, but speak about literal realities in people’s lives.

Poor / Rich

People are poor, and are looking for anything that can make their life less difficult. In these situations, the prosperity gospel can be very attractive.

The Bible says a huge amount about the poor being lifted up and the rich being humbled. These passages are often overlooked in the west, but are key to the way Africans read the Bible. It gives them hope for the present – that God will sustain and bless them – and for the future – that they will be rich in the Kingdom of God.

Fear of drought, famine / Abundance of food

Rain to water crops is a necessity for survival. Christianity will be seen to be true if it can help meet everyday needs for survival.

Passages about God blessing the land with rain if the people obey him resonate with Africans – they know how much they depend on God for survival. They can identify with Israel in the OT – depending on God to send rain.

Close to the land, agriculture / Most people work in towns, offices

People are aware of creation, of their dependence on an unseen creator God / gods who makes crops grow and sustains the earth.

People understand many of Jesus’ parables, as they live in similar situations. Many of the illustrations in both the Old and New Testament are to do with the land and agriculture, and these are directly relevant to everyday life.

Death is part of everyday life / Death is a taboo

Death and what happens afterwards are not philosophical questions to Africans, but real everyday concerns. What Christianity has to say about these issues is an important issue for today.

People can particularly empathise with people in the Bible who lose family members – eg the widow whose son died, Ruth and Naomi.

Low education / High education

People are not concerned with understanding deep theological matters. They simply want to know how Christianity affects them in their daily life. Anything that depends on high education (even basic literacy) may put them off.

People identify with the poor common people of the Bible, rather than the scholars. Whereas people in the West would identify with Paul as a well educated Jew, Africans would be more likely to feel at home studying the disciples – many of whom were Galilean fisherman.

Oral society / Literate society

Christianity is most attractive when presented in the form of stories. People are used to having traditional wisdom passed on orally through the generations. Christianity can take the same status, if passed orally from elders to the rest of the community (in the same way that books pass on wisdom in a literate society). Even oral recordings can perform this function, in many cases better than written scriptures.

Parts of the Bible when the community comes together to hear God’s word (in Ezra, at the temple etc) resonate with Africans. They are used to wisdom being passed on orally and collectively, rather than individually through reading.

Functional way of thinking / Analytical way of thinking

For Africans, the key question about Christianity is not “is it true?”, but “does it work?”. Whether something is functional is much more important to Africans than abstract concepts like absolute truth. Africans are more likely to judge Christianity on whether it is more powerful than evil spirits than whether it is true (in the abstract, western sense of truth).

Africans identify much more with the gospels where Jesus is healing the sick and meeting people’s needs, than with Paul’s more abstract approach to proclaiming the truth in parts of the book of Romans.

Proverbs, wisdom, stories valued / Science, analytical thinking valued

The things that resonate with people, are wisdom and proverbs. These are what have always been passed on through the generations, so it is only a small jump to replace traditional wisdom and proverbs from ancestors with (even more ancient) wisdom and proverbs from the Bible.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes etc are highly revered by African Christians, and resonate with their culture. The important thing is not “What exactly is the truth?”, but “How should we live?”

Idols part of life / No physical idols

Christianity must be seen to offer more than the traditional worship of idols – it must be seen to have more power.

Parts where God tells Israel to get rid of idols, and even ridicules idols can be very real to Africans. Idols in the Bible are not taken as metaphors as they are in the West, but are seen as genuine alternatives to Christianity.

Blood sacrifices understood / No sacrificial system

People understand the power of blood sacrificed, normally to appease spirits, whether it’s for wrong they’ve done or because the spirits are upset. People completely understand that a just God would demand a blood sacrifice for sins committed.

People understand blood sacrifices made in the Old Testament, and the New Testament explanations (eg Hebrews) that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

New nations – recent colonial history / Old nations

People are aware that the nations are a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15). Collectively, as well as individually, they are aware that they rely on God and his mercy to survive. The West (particularly Europe) can find it difficult to identify with God’s warnings to the Israelites that the nation would be humbled. Africans, with a recent memory of colonialisation and often difficult struggles for and since independence know that the entire nation is at God’s mercy.

Prophecies to the nation of Israel are read as a prophecy to the whole nation, whereas in the West they are often interpreted on an individual level. Can also find it difficult to read about Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, where their memories of colonial powers mean that they may identify more with the conquered Canaanites than the victorious Israelites.

Few generations of Christianity / Hundreds of years of Christianity

The African church doesn’t have generations of traditions to form its view of Christianity. Most traditions have been taken on from Western missionaries. The church is much more free to read the Bible and interpret it in the way it sees fit.

Whereas in the West there is much interest in supposed “new revelations” (gospel of Thomas, Da Vinci code etc), in Africa the whole Bible is new and exciting in its revelations.

Business between friends, acquaintances / Business with anonymous companies

The analogies of debt in the Bible are much more personal than for Christians in the West. If a Western Christian goes into debt, he may go bankrupt and lose his possessions. If an African can’t pay a debt his life could be in danger. Africans can identify much more with the serious concept of debt and payment (and redemption) in the Bible than Western Christians who are used to debt as a normal part of life.

Little healthcare / Good healthcare

An important issue is whether Christianity is able to provide healing. When people have little or no access to conventional healthcare, the promise of a healing God is much more immediate and real.

Accounts of Jesus healing people are very powerful, as they give hope where there is little or no hope from conventional healthcare.

mustard seed: the dilemma of growth

Friday 21 March 2008

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Photo by mrjoro

This? This…is the glorious mustard seed? Not the magnificent and beautiful tree one imagines. Its a weed…!

Thanks to our Pastor at Calvary Petaluma, this isn’t as shocking to me as it could have been. The parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13 is a little more rough around the edges than I’d ever given it credit for before.

He gave them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32, the NET Bible.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t mean for the parable to only refer to the beautiful growth of the Kingdom of Heaven – which is still a facet of this image – but hoped to warn against false growth, as well. Isn’t it true that growth can allow things to go unnoticed and hidden from obvious view? In the two parables, the yeast and the mustard seed, something considered unwanted from the lens of the biblical culture – yeast (evil) and birds (enemy) – come to hide or lodge in the surroundings.

If this is true, what are the implications on the Kingdom of Heaven as we see it? What is true growth in the Kingdom of Heaven? What are the implications of physical growth in the church on this Earth?