Biblical Theology

the best commentary I know on Jonah

Wide, wide as the ocean,
High as the heavens above,
Deep, deep as the deepest sea
Is my Saviour’s love.

I, though so unworthy,
Still am a child of his care.
And his word teaches me
His love reaches me…
Everywhere.

Am I right?

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Attention! Attention!

Apparently we’re living in an attention economy — where one of the most scarce and precious commodities is our attention.

What this means is that whoever and whatever can capture and hold our attention ‘wins’. (Which I guess means it’s fitting that I read about this attention economy by following a link from my Twitter feed.)

I certainly feel like ‘attention economy’ pretty accurately describes the situation in my household with an incredibly active and curious almost-two year old.

And I suspect many of us can resonate with this more broadly. Can’t we?

Think about the prevalence of the soundbyte. Or the highlight reel.

Or think about how quickly posts seem to appear and then disappear from your news feed on Facebook. Blink and you can miss massively important announcements — weddings, births, new jobs…

(In fact, the ‘experts’ tell me that in university student ministry, the ideal number of times to Tweet each day is between 2 and 8 times! That’s every day. Every. Single. Day. Posting mostly the same content. Just so people have a chance of seeing it.)

It’s like survival of the fittest for ideas!

But as well as keeping everything brief and punchy (to avoid tl;dr), our attention economy rewards novelty.

It’s all about freshness. Originality.

Everything’s got to be new — or at least wrapped in a shiny new package.

All of which poses some distinct challenges for Christians.

Because Christians are people who say we’ve had not just our attention but our loyalty captured and held by one thing. One person — Jesus.

Worse, the writer of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”!

Worse still, Jesus himself tells us (in John 5) that he is supremely unoriginal. He does nothing new — but only what he sees his Father doing: “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”.

So in this attention economy is there anything that can stop Christians being boring when we always want to keep talking about Jesus?

And, maybe even more significantly, is there anything that can stop us getting bored ourselves? Not so much turning our back on Jesus as getting distracted — having our eyes and hearts drawn away towards something newer and fresher?

Well… Maybe.

I’m sure this is the bit where I’m supposed to pull a rabbit out of a hat and resolve the attention economy dilemma.

That’s certainly what I’d planned to do. I’d planned to point to the inexhaustible richness of the Bible’s testimony to Jesus.

And I wanted to sketch out a flexible framework that would allow this rich, multi-dimensional witness to emerge with relevance to the questions and issues we encounter in our everyday relationships…

But I’m not sure I know how to do this. All I’ve got is a hunch — a hunch that people like Tim Keller are on to something when they talk about the “irreducible complexity” of the core Christian message about Jesus.

Commenting on how ready the Apostles were to draw a line between true and false gospels, Keller observes (Center Church, chapter 2): “It would be impossible for Paul to condemn a ‘false gospel’ and affirm the preaching of Peter as ‘the gospel’ without assuming a consensus body of gospel content. And yet it is obvious that the various biblical writers express the gospel in significantly different ways.”

It’s almost like God’s anticipated the problem of our attention economy. Or maybe it’s not such a novel problem after all…

o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

In the approach to Christmas this year, I’ve been rolling these words from Isaiah 64 (verses 1 & 2) around in my head. Because they shed so much light on what God was up to that first Christmas.

Speaking out of the depths of Israel’s disappointment and painful — though richly-deserved — judgement, Isaiah puts into words what must have been a common longing. The longing for God to intervene in their plight. Personally and dramatically.

What’s fascinating is that this longing for an expectation-shattering apocalyptic intervention of God is actually a longing for God to do his characteristic thing (verse 3):

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Of course, Isaiah knows that Israel’s plight is self-inflicted. It’s the holy and true God’s response to their unholiness and failure to worship him.

And yet, Isaiah also knows that God is Israel’s Father(!). And this stokes his almost outrageous confidence to plead with God to reverse their situation. To relent. For the sake of his people, his holy city and temple, and — underwriting all this — his own name and reputation (verses 8-11):

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and beautiful house,
where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.

Ultimately, Isaiah even seems to be convinced that God won’t be able to help himself. He won’t be able to do anything but — stunningly and surprisingly — bring salvation through the disaster of judgement overshadowing their current experience:

After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

This is what God was doing that first Christmas. Fulfilling Isaiah’s desperate plea for him to turn up in person to save!

don’t confuse the gospel with our response or its results in our lives

Lots of buzz around the internet at the moment about what exactly the Christian gospel is.

Why this conversation? And why now?

Well, it’s largely been catalysed by Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel — a book I’m planning to get hold of and read over summer.

From what I can glean, McKnight started reading Acts and noticing that the message the Apostles proclaimed (as Luke summarises it) doesn’t map very neatly onto some of the ways we present the core Christian message (ie. ‘Jesus died so my sins could be forgiven’).

But I wanted to run this quote by you:

The main message of the Bible about Jesus Christ can easily become mixed with all sorts of things that are related to it. We see this in the way people define or preach the gospel. But it is important to keep the gospel itself clearly distinct from our response to it or from the results of it in our lives and in the world. If our proper response to the gospel message is faith, then we should not make faith part of the gospel itself. It would be absurd to call people to have faith in faith! While the new birth bears a close relationship to faith in Christ, it is a mistake to speak of the new birth as if it were itself the gospel. Faith in the new birth as such will not save us.

Want to know who said this?

I’ll give you two hints: Not Scot McKnight. And not N.T. Wright.

Who?

Graeme Goldsworthy — godfather of the distinctive approach to ‘biblical theology’ that I grew up with! (It’s from his book, According To Plan — page 81 — if you’re interested.)

Gives pause for thought, right?

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but law vs grace

It’s fairly typical to treat the Sermon on the Mount as a simple case of law vs grace.

On this view, the impossibly high moral standard Jesus lays out functions merely to reveal our wretchedness and drive us to the foot of the cross. There, grace trumps the strict demands of justice because God forgives us, refusing to punish us as law-breakers.

Problem is, this seems to run aground against Jesus’ own words about how his teaching fulfils the law (rather than abolishing it).

But how? How does Jesus fulfil the law?

It’s a question that gets sharpened as the Sermon on the Mount unfolds. Because a lot of the time it sounds a lot like Jesus is setting aside the law.

That’s certainly what it sounds like when it comes to the infamous lex talionis in (Matthew 5.38-42):

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Isn’t Jesus flat out contracting an explicit Old Testament command? One found no less than three times God’s own law — in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19 to be precise.

How is this a case of fulfilling the law?

The key lies in the purpose of the command in its Old Testament context.

It’s aim is not to provide a permissive minimum standard for punishment, licensing bloodthirsty revenge. Rather, it’s aim is twofold:

  1. To elevate retribution from a personal vendetta-type thing to something embedded within public legal processes.
  2. And to set a maximum limit on punishment so as to arrest the natural cycle of tit-for-tat in which the ante is always upped and opponents are treated not as persons but as obstacles to be swept away.

Jesus knew this. And he also knew the ways in which this was being twisted — and its potential loopholes exploited — by the legal experts of the day.

So Jesus outlines a new and more radical way to achieve the law’s goal:

“Don’t resist evildoers”, Jesus says. “Instead, expose their wickedness. Refuse to play their game. And break the circuit of violence.” (This, I take it, is what Jesus has in mind by the examples he gives of active non-resistance in verses 40-42 — he’s not talking about being a doormat.)

And this is a long way from pitting law against grace.

the Sermon on the Mount – anything but moral common sense

We’ve begun working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount on campus at La Trobe. And I’m having a ball!

This week we tuned in to Matthew 5.13-20, exploring what Jesus might say to the university’s Secular Society club — in conversation with some of its members.

One of the guys made a comment that’s been rattling around my head the last couple of days.

He suggested that the ethic Jesus commends in the Sermon — the lifestyle of faithful witness and positive influence captured by the comparisons with salt and light — was little more than moral common sense.

For him, Jesus simply seems to be on about the kind of thing both religious and non-religious people strive after when they’re at their best.

There are lots of things that could be said about this. But what intrigues me most about this suggestion is that Jesus keeps doing something in the Sermon on the Mount that’s anything but common sense — and that I’m sure many would find morally objectionable.

What does Jesus keep doing?

He keeps presenting himself — and thus how people respond to him — as decisive.

The portrait of the members of God’s kingdom painted in the beatitudes is crowned with Jesus’ insistence that “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account“.

And the reason he gives is even more outrageous — explicitly equating Jesus’ disciples with the prophets who spoke for Israel’s God, and thus implicitly equating himself with Israel’s God:

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Something similar could be said of his programmatic claim to fulfil the law and the prophets — not abolishing the Old Testament’s moral code, or the hopes and promises stitched into it, but perfectly and representatively embodying its deepest and widest intention.

That one man, and thus what you and I make of this one man, could be so important strikes me as anything but moral common sense. Unless Jesus is who he claims to be, this is not only arrogant but borderline psychotic!

should Christians love the law?

A couple of weeks back I mentioned that I was reading Psalm 119.

I’m still going! And still loving it.

But this niggling questing keeps popping into my head:

Should Christians love the law like the Psalmist seems to?

Psalm 119 is shot through with exclamations like, “your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home” (verse 54) and “I delight in your law” (verse 70).

The Psalmist is clearly referring to God’s holy law — the Law of Moses, the Torah (or ‘instruction’).

What’s the problem with that?

Well, many Christians have been taught that God’s grace in Jesus delivers us from the law — rescuing us from the penalty it levies against sin and freeing us from the anxious need to obey it (in order to amass brownie points with God or whatever).

A spirituality focused on the law is thus painted black — it brims with hypocrisy, nominalism, moralism, and shallow behaviour adjustment rather than deep heart change. Over against this, trusting in Jesus is supposed to show up in all its vivid glory.

What to do, then, with the Psalmist’s whole-hearted enthusiasm for God’s law?

Isn’t it embarrassing that someone so obviously hungry for genuine connection with God — and so obviously aware of their own failings and need for mercy (the Psalmist says in verse 67, “Before I was humbled I went astray, but now I keep your word”) — is so in to the law?

Or maybe it’s more embarrassing that we aren’t in to God’s law? That we aren’t so hungry to know God and follow his ways?

I’ve found it particularly challenging to read Psalm 119 alongside the Sermon on the Mount (which I’m preparing some talks for).

What Jesus seems to want from those he’s graciously grabbed hold of, is not less concern for the law than those most zealous for it in his time. It’s nothing short of a radical and total fulfilment of the Psalmist’s deepest longings.

I suspect we could learn from Augustine’s prayer, “Give what you command, and command what you will”.

why we should keep the sabbath

Last night at Bible study, someone (not me) made a profound observation on Exodus 20.8-11:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

What was the observation?

God tells us to keep the sabbath because that’s what he did.

I’ve often heard it said that we should down tools one day a week because we’re not God and taking time off is a concrete way of saying, ‘The world will keep turning without my input — at least for 24 hours’.

This sort of argument tends to get wheeled out when touting the wisdom of sabbath-keeping for Christians now. I know I’ve done it.

But the logic of the commandment runs in the opposite direction.

We’re to rest one day a week because we’re like God.

Brilliant! Right?

What’s more, I think it sheds light on the reason Jesus gives in defence of his notorious sabbath behaviour: ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).

Likewise with the whole ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ discourse in John 5 — which includes a cryptic reference to Jesus being the Son of Man.

How are these illuminated by the logic of the sabbath command?

Because Jesus doesn’t heal and do his Father’s work on the sabbath in a divine breach of the commandment but in a human fulfilment of it!

Jesus shows us what the sabbath was always for: entering into and sharing the fullness and joy of God in creation.

two ways to be counted righteous?

I find Galatians 3.1-14 tough to get my head around.

What I find most challenging about it is the way two different — and apparently incompatible — models of how God ‘counts righteous’ those who trust Jesus seem to find support in these verses.

On the one hand, there’s the Take God At His Word And You’ll Be Counted Righteous model. On this model, faith simply is righteousness — it is the only right and appropriate way to respond to God when he addresses you.

This seems to be the model Paul is working with when he compares believers in Jesus to Abraham in verses 6-9:

Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

On the other hand, there’s the You Can’t Earn Righteousness (Only A Curse) So You Need Jesus’ Righteousness To Be “Reckoned” To You model. Although the passage doesn’t say this in quite so many words, the reverse side of this argument is there in verse 13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’

On this model, faith isn’t righteousness — it’s the means by which Christ’s righteousness (often construed as the good standing with God he maintained throughout his sinless life) is transferred to our account.

So which model is it? How are we counted righteous? By being people of faith (as Abraham was)? Or by receiving Christ’s righteousness (since far from being righteousness, we can only be cursed by relying on ‘works of the law’)?

Maybe I’m making too much of the contrast (even incompatibility) between these two ways of being counted righteous. But I wonder if both models overlook where the passage begins and ends — namely, with the promise of the Spirit (check out verses 1-5 and 14).

What did Abraham believe? God’s promise — summed up here in terms of blessing for the Gentiles.

How do the Gentiles receive this blessing? In Christ Jesus, who brings redemption by becoming cursed for us, ‘so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’ (verse 14).

Does this shed any light?

God’s will for your life

I’m loving 1 Thessalonians more and more. Tonight I get to tackle that perennial issue — finding God’s will for your life. And the great news is that Paul tells us clearly and directly (1 Thessalonians 4.3-6):

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

This is how to please God. (Yes — you can please God! But that’s for another post…)

This is what God wants for you. He wants you to be sanctified. Made holy.

The content of sanctification here is primarily ethical — it’s about the distinctive way those who trust Jesus will use (or rather not use) their bodies; he’ll go on to speak more positively a few verses later.

But I can’t help thinking about the ‘sanctification’ or ‘consecration’ (in the original languages they’re built around the same linguistic root) of the Old Testament priests.

Sanctification, in the Old Testament, came at a massive cost.

There’s only one way to describe it: bloody — gruesomely bloody.

I challenge you to go and read Exodus 29, close your eyes and imagine it. Imagine the smells. Imagine the noise. Imagine the blood is dashed and splattered everywhere — even on you.

And we think sanctification for us is something warm and fuzzy — something God’s holy Spirit does to us and in us without much cost or effort at all?

Truth is, our sanctification comes at a massive cost too. And it too was gruesomely bloody. Yet we still cringe at the distinctive lifestyle God wants for us…