Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Prodigal God

I'm currently a little over half-way through the book by Timothy Keller called "The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith" in which Keller gives an eye-opening exegesis of the popular parable of the Prodigal Son. As with any Biblical text that we consider "familiar," we can fall into the trap of believing we already understand the meaning. But Keller challenges the most mature Christian and student of Scripture to look at this text anew.

In the popular "Sunday-school" reading of the parable, the focus falls on the father's love even in the face of the younger son's rebellion. The obvious implications fall on God's freely given grace to sinners as wretched as we are. Personally, this is a text and an application that I can identify very easily with. My laundry list of active rebellion and sin piled high during my teenage years, and when I finally came to sense the depth and riches of God's grace I was truly overwhelmed.

But, for many have spent their entire lives in the church, never acting out in rebellion, the story has more of a distant, philosophical meaning. There's little-to-no personal realization of weighty sin and "total depravity" because those traits have never been evident in the morally strict and righteous members of the church. "Oh, that's so nice of God to save all those really nasty people," they may think.

Keller, however, draws the reader's attention to the elder brother. Having obeyed perfectly and slaved all his life for the father, doesn't he, too, deserve a feast and a fatted calf? The reflections that Keller brings out in the book I won't spoil too much here, but I particularly enjoyed his charge to the morally strict in the Church: why do you do what you do? Is it out of love and adoration for God, or a deep-rooted sense that by following His commands you can in fact control your own life? Jesus' original audience, of course, was the Pharisees gathered around Him, angrily watching as Jesus dared to teach sinners about God.

If you've spent a life of chastity and purity out of devotion to God, I applaud you. But, be warned that there are two kinds of lost people for whom Jesus seeks. The first is obvious, the younger son who rebels. The second, less obvious, is the morally upright who do not fully understand why they obey as they do.

I'll leave you with this story from Elizabeth Elliot: for whom do you carry the stone?


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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Contextualization of Scriptural Teaching

Much has been written and argued over the contextualization of "the Gospel" in the past century of global missions. The issue, not to oversimplify, really hinges on how malleable God's word is to fit our cultural backgrounds. But, aside from the Gospel contextualization is the often-overlooked issue of contextualizing other, non-salvific teachings in Scripture. What does the metaphor "salt of the earth" really mean? I hardly think it meant anything related to ice, snow, or ice cream to any of Jesus' original listeners in the arid countryside of Judea.

While that certainly is a comical example, there are far more serious instances where a failure to interpret the Biblical texts within a right understanding of the original context--including time, culture, setting, and audience--can bring a grossly varied application of scripture. If I dare attempt to cite all examples of this common in the Church today, I very well may go on forever. And, unfortunately, I still will probably not find every one.

Instead, I'm writing today namely out of retrospect on the lesson that I prepared over the past week and delivered this morning: James 3:1-18. The NIV's rendering of the text has helped to propagate the common misunderstanding that "not many of you should presume to be teachers" (James 3:1). Fearful of the judgment that may befall a teacher, especially one who presumes to be a teacher when in fact they are not called by God, can lead to the most riduculous paranoia of teaching a children's Sunday School class or, God-forbid, even pursuing a career in public education.

But, what did James have in mind when he penned this text? Was their a signup sheet for Vacation Bible School teachers with too many names on it? In 50 ad, I hardly think so. So what does the text tell us? The KJV, I'm afraid, does a far better job rendering the literal meaning than the NIV. "Be not many masters." In essence, James writes to the congregations, "Don't be a bunch of teachers."

If you study and understand the setting in which this letter from James was written, we can more accurately understand the meaning before applying it directly to our own culture without proper exegesis. Churches in James' day were small, intimate gatherings. By Paul's instructions for orderly worhsip in 1 Corinthians 14, we get a picture of free-form instruction. Many people were allowed to stand and address the congregation. So what is James saying? You're not all teachers. Some of you should sit and listen.

Listen and learn. It's become easy for me, as I deepen in my own personal study, to critique a sermon as I listen rather than learn from it. As more and more Americans intellectualize scripture and become sure of their own understandings, we can shift from the mindset of an active participant in Bible study to an all-out indomitable expert their to offer our unsolicited feedback and waiting eagerly for our next turn to talk. James says, "don't be a big bunch of teachers." Fear the tongue, and allow that fear to keep it in check.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Sounds Like Greek to Me

I recently endeavored to translate a book of the New Testament on my own. Previously, my knowledge in Greek was about as extensive as the alphabet, some Christianese vocabulary, and enough time in a lexicon to be dangerous with Greek text. I just recently finished teaching a class on 1 Peter, the content was fresh in my mind and I had done several word studies during my lesson preparations as well, so I decided to make 1 Peter my first translation challenge. 4 verses into the first chapter, and I have some fun anecdotes that you may find helpful in your own Greek study, or at the very least, amusing.
  1. "us" and "you" are dangerously similar: hemas, hymas... so, it can be very easy to believe that Peter's readers were given new life so that Peter and the other Apostles could have an imperishable inheritance. Something didn't feel right about that one.
  2. Lexicons lie... ok, so maybe they don't lie, but they don't tell the whole truth. While I'm looking at an 11-letter word with what appears to be not one but two suffixes, Strong's saw fit to spare me the trouble and only give the meaning of the 5-letter root.
  3. The eleventh commandment should have been: Thou shall not use the same word to mean both "for" and "to."
  4. My high school English teachers might be interested to hear this: I praise God for punctuation.
  5. Learn your alpha beta gammas (abc's). If you insist on finding corollaries with the English alphabet, give up now. P is R. Y is G. U is M. Oh, and a different-looking U is also U... and sometimes Y... and, yes, just give up now.

I'm sure I'll have more to share as time goes on, but in all seriousness, I am very much looking forward to learning this language. As many of you have experienced, I'm sure, re-reading the same passage years later can often bring new meaning to light, or new perspectives to bear. I am hoping the same happens with this adventure, and I pray that God blesses my time and draws me nearer to Him.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Abba Father: The Cry of God's Humble Children

In my spare time, I've been working on a second book—one that will take much longer than the first to compose and even longer for me to dare to publish. I've tentatively titled it, "Thy Will Be Done," as a follow-up to my last book, "Thy Kingdom Come." The theme of this book will (Lord willing) be about living life as ambassadors of a totally sovereign God. During some of my recent times of reflection and study, I've come to appreciate and understand new perspectives about the Abba cry that I felt led to share. Consider it a pre-release preview.

There is no shortage of proposals put forth on the real meaning of "Abba" in the New Testament. Some have considered the term to mean little more than father, while others believe it renders a more intimate meaning, a sort of Aramaic form of "daddy". The exegetical task is formidable, with a mere 3 instances of the term found in the whole of the New Testament. Here's what we do know:
  1. In all three instances, the term ?ßßa is immediately followed by pat?? (pater, or father)
  2. It is derived from Aramaic, whereas pater is purely Greek
  3. Although similar in meaning, pater is not a direct translation of abba, which indicates there is additional significance in abba beyond just "father."
  4. Most importantly, in all three instances, the use of the word abba arises out of a humble and submissive heart. In Mark 14:36, Christ is submitting (with pain and turmoil) to the will of the Father for Him to suffer. In Romans 8:15, Paul explains how we as believers cry out to God in the context of fear and suffering. And in Galatians 4:6, Paul describes the believer's confession that he/she deserves nothing under the Law, but is made alive in Christ alone.

So, what does this tell us? The abba cry is indeed a cry! This is not the gentle coo of a son resting peacefully in his father's arms. This is the cry of a toddler getting his first shot at the doctor's office, screaming in pain and looking at his father who stands by watching. Innocent and ignorant of what is truly in his best interest, the child is confused and terrified.

How can he just stand there watching his child in pain? "Dad," the son cries out, "make it stop!" But he won't. Can this be love? "Can this really be what's best for me?" the toddler might ask (if a toddler could reason... bear with the analogy).

After all, isn't that what Christ Himself cried? "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me." How often do we cry that? We pray for things that we do not understand. Lord heal me. Lord find me a new job. Lord bring my loved ones to repentance and salvation. "Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36).

Are we much different? Just a few verses following the abba cry in Romans 8, Paul continues, "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26). Here we stand in the midst of a fallen world, enduring pain and suffering for God, all the while knowing (just as the toddler knew) that our Father is fully capable to make it all stop in an instant. "Abba! Help us! Oh, Lord, won't you make it all stop!"

But we already know the answer. "Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening" (1 Peter 4:12). So what do we pray for in times like these? How do we groan to our Abba Father? I don't know. The Spirit knows.

This is the picture of the life we live as ambassadors of the sovereign King. We struggle to understand His power. We cannot begin to understand His will. Yet as Christ cried out to God, His sweat even turning to blood under great distress, He submitted Himself humbly to the will of the Father, and so must we.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Exegetical Fallacies: D.A. Carson's Passion for Truth

I recently received this book as a gift. Three pages into the first chapter I thought (with tongue in cheek), "I hope my students never read this." Carson's straight talk about the common exegetical fallacies (and, take heart, he does mean common) will make any teacher of the word swallow hard. But, for the teacher of scripture who seeks to honor God, I would consider this a "must read."

First, as Carson points out, exegetical fallacies happen in all facets of doctrinal realms. Calvinists are no more immune than Arminians. Baptists no more immune than Presbyterians. As we struggle to understand the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of two ancient languages, the margin for error is great. However, the cost of error is even greater.

Exegetical fallacy can mean the difference between a trial from God and a temptation from God. It can be the difference between a virgin birth and the pregnancy of a young woman. It can be the difference between giving God the glory He is due and defaming His name with exegetical fallacy.

The stakes are high. Doctrinal wars and the wide dispersion of Christian denominations create increasing skepticism in the world today. And yet, for those of us passionate about seeing truth proclaimed, certain debates are worth the effort. If you, however, seek the wisdom and illumination in Scripture to both know that line—that threshold of the utmost theological importance—as well as the side on which you stand, I highly recommend D.A. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies."

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