Review of ‘Is There A Doctor In the House’ by Ben Witherington III

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Every year as part of my master’s course at Ridley College, I go down to Melbourne for two days to attend their Postgraduate Research Conference (RESCON).  This is one of the most exciting parts of my program at Ridley, as the conference is engaging, challenging, and genuinely adds to my development as a scholar.

This year as part of the conference, I am reading Ben Witherington III’s book: ‘Is There A Doctor In The House?’  This is an entertaining, easy to read book that both tells Witherington’s story and gives advice to those wanting to become a bible scholar.  And as someone on this path, the advice seems sound.  It makes sense that scholars need to know the original languages for both primary (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) and secondary (English, German, French) sources.  It is important that those seeking to become scholars are competent writers and teachers who understand the background sources to their field of study, as well as ancient rhetoric conventions and the cultural milieu into which God’s word was written.  It is important that they are well read, and know how to interpret the Bible with context, logic, and theology in mind.

However, this is not what I enjoyed most from this book.  Much of this material I had encountered before in my undergraduate study at Moore.  What I found particularly refreshing was this point on page 89:

Modern scholarship often prizes the new, the innovative, the creative, the unique, and the distinctive, but this should not be the main thrust of biblical scholarship.  There should be far more concern with the question “But is it true?” than with the question “What’s new?”

In a context where I do feel the constant need to be creative and break new ground in my topic, it is encouraging to be reminded that research is the quest for truth and not originality.  As Witherington says, this has not been helped by those who overstress that doctoral theses need ‘to offer something “new” to the ongoing discussion.’

A second thing I found particularly helpful was the reminder that Bible teachers need to take godliness seriously.  Witherington says: ‘Indeed, a teacher who has not personally been transformed by the text cannot properly embody it, embrace it, model it, call for emulation of it, and the like.  The Jewish or Christian teacher who is constantly coming to grips with the text will be constantly challenged to live it.’ (p. 125).  In other words, there is simply no room for Bible teachers who do not take God’s word seriously.  Sure they can understand the Bible as a work of literature, but they are not capable of preparing people for ministry if they are not letting God’s word minister to themselves.

The final thing I found helpful was Witherington’s warning that most bible scholars do not just teach their own fields of research.  His encouragement was to keep reading books that are outside of one’s own field, because the reality is that most scholars need to teach more than just Paul or the Gospels; in fact, Witherington began by teaching both the Old and New Testaments.  Personally I have found myself only reading Paul over the last two years, and so Witherington has convinced me to try and read a little bit more outside of my research area.

However, despite all this, there are a couple of criticisms I have on Witherington’s book.  The first is that he seems to be constructing his ideal scholar in his own image.  In many ways Witherington comes across as the ideal example of everything he says, and one wonders if there is an implicit jab at other scholars who have developed their skill set in different areas to Witherington, or who are simply not as accomplished as he is.

This leads to the second criticism, which is that Witherington gives no sense that these skills are to be developed across the breadth of one’s career.  While certainly many of them need a foundation at the beginning, surely it must be acknowledged that they grow over time and especially as they are taught and used day in and day out.  Witherington’s book seems intimidating as it comes across as requiring someone to learn everything they could possibly need before they get going as a bible scholar.  Not only does this not seem possible, but it certainly does not reflect the journeys of those who taught me at Moore.

The final criticism is that Witherington gives no sense of where he has failed along the way, or what he would do differently if he could do it all again.  I felt as if the book smacked a little of hagiography, and failed to teach through his mistakes as well as his successors.  Whilst Witherington is no doubt an accomplished scholar, and greater than I could ever be, I feel he must have some regrets and mistakes that he has made over the years.  I would have loved to hear and learn more about those.

However, despite these criticisms, this book was helpful and I would gladly recommend it to anyone considering the life of the bible scholar.  It paints a clear picture concerning the skills that one needs to develop in such a career, gives some important advice concerning doctoral work and life after the PhD, and also addresses what kind of person a scholar should be by encouraging not just good scholarship but a life of godliness as well.

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Kevin Vanhoozer and the Unity of the Church

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I realise I’m a bit behind the times but today I just finished listening to Kevin Vanhoozer’s Annual Moore College Lectures from this year, and I had a few reflections to share. Firstly I’d like to say that these were excellent lectures, some of the best I’ve heard, and I recommend them to anyone interested in thinking deeply about the gospel, the church, and Christian unity.  Further, I got to meet Vanhoozer at the fifth lecture and found him a gentle, humble man … in many ways embodying all that he was advocating in his lectures.

In the beginning, Vanhoozer set up to resolve a number of issues in Protestantism, in particular, the charge that we are schismatic and responsible for secularism.  The difficulty in his project is that Protestantism certainly has been involved in schisms, and it is difficult to determine where unity should be found, when it would seem no such unity exists.

Well having listened to his lecturers, the best description I can think of for them is that they described a Protestant ethic for the church.  In essence, Vanhoozer called for three important characteristics that should characterise all God’s people, and that find their locus in the Protestant solas.

Firstly, Christians should be people of God’s word.  God’s word is the means by which Christ rules his church, and so Christians should soak themselves in God’s word, and seek to live it out.  It is authoritative for our lives, and whilst the church has the keys ‘to bind or to loose’ Scripture’s application for her own contexts, the church nevertheless submits to God’s word rather than stands over it.

Secondly, Christians should seek catholic unity.  Catholic unity is evangelical unity; it is unity around the gospel.  What Christ’s churches have in common is that they agree what the gospel story is about.  We might disagree on some of the details, but the essential story that we believe and live within is believed upon by all God’s people.  And so the gospel determines what is of first order doctrine in the church, and who is part of the church.  The gospel, in essence, is the objective centre of church unity.

Thirdly, Christians should humbly listen to the whole catholic church.  We have an obligation to listen and learn from all God’s people.  All denominations have gospel treasure to share that others can learn from.  And so humility is the stance of the church, as we recognise that the lordship of Christ and the gospel are at the centre of his church, and yet that the whole church can help us better understand and live out the gospel.

What is ‘the love of God’ in Romans 5:5?

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In Romans 5:5 we are told that ‘the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom was given to us’.  Commentators have longed debated what this verse means, and there is certainly evidence that points both ways.

On the one hand, the love of God could refer to the love that God has for us.  Then it would read: ‘God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom was given to us’.  The problem is that this is a strange expression.  We don’t really speak of somebody else’s love filling our hearts.  Nobody would usually say that my heart is filled with my wife’s love for me.  And as far as I am aware, no other culture uses such an expression.

On the other hand, the love of God could refer to our love for God.  Then it would read: ‘love for God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom was given to us’.  Such an expression would seem to make much more sense, since it is our love for God that fills our hearts, of course only possible because of the Holy Spirit.

However, there is further evidence that cuts both ways.

Concerning God’s love for us, we might note the references to God’s love for us in 5:8 where is says: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’  The very close proximity would seem to indicate that God’s love for us is in view.  And since most commentators agree that chapters 5-8 form a subsection of Paul’s letter, the end of chapter 8 is also telling.  Paul concludes this section by saying:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35-39).

And so there is some good evidence that the love of God is God’s love for us.  But then there is also significant evidence for it being our love for God.

For Romans 5:3-5 says: ‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.’

These verses are demonstrating how our faithfulness to Jesus in the midst of suffering result in the fulfilment of our Christian hope.  Such faithfulness results in character and that character is the basis of hope.  And so it might be expected that the nature of such character is love for God.  Given that love is the fulfilment of the law (Rom 13:10) and is urged upon God’s people four times in this letter (12:9; 13:10; 14:15; 15:30), it might well be expected as the sum of Christian character.

Further, Romans 5–8 concerns how the Gospel of justification by faith will result in the fulfilment of Christian hope.  And at the core of this argument is Romans 8:1-4 which says:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-4).

These verses argue that by walking in the Spirit, God’s people fulfil the righteous requirements of the law.  Such walking in the Spirit indicates we have the Spirit and so are sons of God.  As Romans 8:11 says: ‘And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.’  Therefore perhaps love for God as a summation of what it looks like to walk in the Spirit is indicative that the promise of the Christian hope will be fulfilled in us.

And so we are at an impasse.  Perhaps Romans 5:5 refers to God’s love for us, perhaps it refers to our love for God.  Some might be tempted to think it is both.  Nevertheless, my suspicion is that the second option is probably the more fitting.  Not that we would want to divide their work, but Paul does tend to think of God’s love with Christ but our response with the Holy Spirit.  Therefore it would seem Romans 5:5 is saying that Christians can be certain of their hope, not because they work hard to be obedient but because of God’s grace in pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts.  He transforms our hearts so that we love God and seek constant faithfulness to him.

What did Jesus mean in Matthew 24 – 25

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At the moment my church is looking at Matthew chapter 24-25 as part of their sermon series, and there has been a bit of controversy concerning what these chapters refer to.  One of the difficulties of giving sermons is that it is not always possible to lay out all of our reasons for what we think.  Therefore I thought I might write a blog post about how I understand these chapters.

Matthew 24-25 contains five stories, each with a common thread.  There is a period of waiting.  This is followed by some kind of eschatological event that is described in various ways.  And this eschatological event results either in celebration or judgment, depending on where you stand with regard to it.  The first story in 24:1-28 focuses on the eschatological event itself.  It describes what looks like another exile occurring for God’s people, followed by the coming of the Son of Man.  This initiates the gathering of God’s elect and presumably (given its clear background in Daniel 7), the introduction of the kingdom of God.  The second in 24:42-51 describes the period of waiting, calling on the leaders of God’s people to be faithful and care for God’s flock whilst they await his return.  The third in 25:1-13 describes the wait of God’s people as virgins waiting for the groom to arrive.  They are encouraged to be alert and awake and so ensure they have enough oil to last until he finally arrives.  The period after the great eschatological event is then described as a wedding banquet, connoting the joy of God’s kingdom.  The fourth in 25:14-30 focuses again on the wait, calling God’s people to use what he has given them faithfully whilst they await for the master to return.  Lastly in 25:31-46 is the most explicit story of all, describing the eschatological event in terms of God’s judgment.  This judgment of people is based upon how their assessment of God’s king affected the way they treated God’s people.

Now the question of discussion is: what is this great eschatological event that is being referred to?  The answer, I believe, is the death and resurrection of Jesus (along with his ascension and giving of the Spirit).  And I hope it makes sense at one level that this should be on Jesus’ lips.  In 26:2 we are told that the cross is a mere two days away.  We expect that this great eschatological event should be on his mind and that this would be reflected in his teaching.  After his resurrection, there is ample time to discuss what the church would be like; but then was the time for discussing what was about to happen.

And I think this is how Jesus’ audience would have interpreted his words.  Jewish eschatological belief was that a day was going to occur which they called the Day of the Lord.  This is the day when God would right all wrongs, vindicate his people, punish the wicked, and bring in the kingdom of God.  In later prophetic writings (such as Dan 12:1-3), this day became the day when God would resurrect the dead.  But what is clear is that Israel expected life to go on as normal until this day would occur, and then everything would change.  That is when the Son of Man would come, when the kingdom of God would begin, when God would return to his people.

And so hearing Jesus speak again and again about a wait, followed by a great eschatological event, following by a celebration, it is to this day that the Jews would have thought.  Certainly Jesus gives no suggestion that he is altering what was standard Jewish understandings of eschatology.  If anything he seems to assume what they were thinking; that this day was about to begin, and then the kingdom of God would commence.

In fact, Jesus gave ample reason to assume that it was about to begin soon.  In 24:34 Jesus says: this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Or again in Matthew 16:28, Jesus says: there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.  Clearly Jesus taught that these events would occur soon.  And so when did they occur?  I don’t think they could refer to Jesus’ return – that does not make sense.  Logically it would make sense to locate them in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The passages that refer to suffering, death, or judgment, are apocalyptic ways of referring to Jesus’ death on the cross.  The passages that refer to vindication, or the Son of Man coming, or celebration, refer to Jesus being resurrected, ascending to heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit who inaugurated the kingdom of God.  And this is what the book of Acts is about.  It is about how the kingdom of God comes through the giving of the Holy Spirit to those who believe (Acts 1:6-8).

This reading also makes sense of what happens in the remainder of Matthew’s gospel.  For example, in Matthew 26:64, Jesus tells the Pharisees they will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven. This alerts us that 24:1-28 is about to occur.  Likewise, Jesus is shocked that Peter and the disciples fell asleep and could not keep watch in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:36-46).  This uses the same two words as in the story of the ten virgins, who also fall asleep and are used to warn Jesus’ disciples to stay alert.  And it is ever so tempting to understand the worthless slave of 25:14-30 as Judas, who epitomizes the lazy slave that fails to use well the good gift that God had given him but rather was insolent towards God.

Now this is not all to say that Matthew 24-25 is a preview of what the disciples would do.  It is the story of Israel waiting 500 years from the exile to the restoration of God’s kingdom.  And across all the stories, Jesus is warning Israel and especially her leadership to get prepared because the kingdom of God is about to commence.  But I do think Matthew is trying to intentionally alert us to the fact that events are presently being fulfilled.

Well, two objections have been put forward, that seem to suggest it is not the cross but Judgment Day that Jesus is referring to.  The first is the judgment passages that we read.  For example, there is exclusion from the party (25:12), being thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30), and there is entry into eternal punishment (25:46).  What do these mean if this is the case?

Well, given that the eschatological event is the cross, these punishment passages are the crux of Jesus’ warning to Israel and particularly her leadership.  In them, Jesus is telling them that by rejecting him and not being ready, they are excluding themselves from all God’s promises.  They are excluding themselves from the people of God, they are excluding themselves from the salvation that God’s offers, and ultimately when they die, they are excluding themselves from the hope of resurrection into eternal life.  There is no reason to think that just because these verses seem to reference eschatological punishment, they therefore necessitate that the whole story concerns the Day of Judgment.  Rather the Day of Judgment is the end of the road for those who in Jesus’ time reject him and so exclude themselves from his kingdom.

The other objection, which is a little more tricky to answer, is in 24:36.  In this verse, Jesus says nobody knows the day when these things will occur.  And really there are two possibilities on this verse.  Either Jesus genuinely did not know when the Holy Spirit would be given.  This is possible, and may be what he meant.  But more likely, Jesus is just referring to the previous verse (24:35).  Jesus is saying concerning the day when heaven and earth will pass away, nobody knows.  This makes verses 35-36 an aside, so that the logic of his argument jumps from verse 34 to 37 with the two verses in-between illustrating the imperishable nature of these words.

So in summary, my reading of Matthew 24-25 concerns Israel waiting for the day of the Lord to occur, which is the cross, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit by Jesus.  This means that the church now is the kingdom of God, as we await for Jesus to bring to completion what he has already begun on this great day.

Christmas Day Sermon 2014 – Luke 2:1-20

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I don’t know how you’ve found it, but I’ve found this year a tough year.  There have been so many events that have caused us to grieve.  Of course in the last few weeks, there has been the horrific deaths of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson in the Lindt café.  And we’ve seen immense public mourning for them around the city.

But in recent times we’ve also seen the slaughter of many children in Pakistan.  We’ve mourned the death of Phil Hughes.  And we’ve seen a family horribly killed in Cairns.  There has been so much death, and it breaks our hearts.

And it is not just the last month that has been characterized in this way.  Earlier in the year, we witnessed the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams.  And how can we forget MH17, where many people were killed above the Ukraine.

It really has been a terrible year for our nation.  And being reminded of it all, it is enough to bring us to tears.  And you may well wonder why am I even mentioning this in a Christmas sermon.

But these events raise a question.  A very important question.  A question I believe our nation has been asking more than ever before.  And the question is: where is hope?  When we so clearly live in the shadow of death, where can hope be found?  Is there anything we can hope for that is permanent and secure?

These are questions our nation does not often ask because life here is so good!  But at the moment the question of hope is an important one.  And in many ways, it brings us back to the story of Israel 2000 years ago.  And this is because Israel too longed for hope in the midst of their oppression.

Back in 5 BC, life in Israel was hard.  And this was because they were acutely aware that they lived under the shadow of death.  Israel back then was not a free country.  They were occupied; and they had been occupied for a very long time.  The most recent oppressors were the Romans, but before that it was the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks.

Under Rome there was much oppression and fear.  Life was cheap and death was common.  And so many Israelites looked for hope.  They longed for light in the midst of great darkness.  And it is in this context that we find our story for today.  Please take a look with me at Luke 2:1-7.

1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1–7 ESV)

In a small way you can see the difficulties of living in an occupied land.  Caesar makes a decree to all the world and everyone is expected to obey.  And I’m sure Mary was terrified about the effects of such a long journey on her pregnancy, let alone how uncomfortable she was.  But what could she do.  This was the will of Caesar!

And of course, things didn’t get any easier when they reached Bethlehem.  They had to stay in a manger because the guest room was full.

And yet, it is in the midst of this very ordinary human struggle that something truly life-changing happens.  Mary gives birth to a son, her firstborn.  And so even as her hardship continues, great joy is born.

And the birth of a child is amazing, isn’t it?  I have only one child, a son called Matthew.  And his birth was one of the most precious moments of my life.  I was surprised just how much I loved him from the moment I met him.  And I’m still surprised how much more I love him now.  Children are such a blessing; they bring joy and hope into difficult situations.

But it is a very different kind of hope to what the nation of Israel was longing for.  Such an event is precious to the family.  But surely the birth of a child in Bethlehem is meaningless to a nation oppressed by Rome.  Surely to think otherwise can only ever be mere sentimentality.

Except … Mary’s child is no ordinary child.  Her son Jesus is different.  And we see this in what happens next in the story.

8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8–14 ESV)

Friends, the birth of Jesus is good news of great joy for all people.  This is not mere sentimentality.  This is not some unfounded desire that will never eventuate.  This is true hope for all people.  And there are three reasons why the birth of this fragile baby boy is true hope for all the nations.

And the first reason in verse 11 is that Jesus will be their Saviour.  But what do we mean by saviour?  What kind of saviour will he be?

Israel thought that what they needed saving from was Rome.  But the problem with such thinking is that there is always another oppressor around the corner.  There is always another nation or another Al Qaeda or ISIS who will seek to afflict the world.

And so Jesus was not born to merely throw off the Romans.  He came to deal with what truly terrorizes and creates fear.  He came to abolish the shadow of death; the shadow that hangs over all our heads and creates grief and suffering and fear.

In Luke chapter 1:79 it was promised that Jesus would “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Jesus was to be our Saviour because he would deliver us from our true enemy: from death itself.

And this is exactly what Jesus did by conquering death through his own death and resurrection.  By passing through death and overcoming it, Jesus made the way for his people to follow him; to do the same.

Jesus is true hope because those who trust him need no longer fear sickness, pain, or death.  And this is because Jesus is our Saviour who has paved the way to bring us through all these trials and into eternal life.

Well the second reason in verse 11 for why Jesus is true hope is that Jesus is the Christ.  Now what exactly does ‘Christ’ mean?

The word ‘Christ’ or in Hebrew ‘Messiah’ refers to God’s anointed king.  In the Old Testament, God promised that a king from the family of David would arise.  This king would be especially chosen by God and he would bring to fulfillment all of God’s promises concerning his people.

And Jesus certainly fits the bill.  In verse 4 we are told that Jesus is a descendant of King David.  And in verses 4 and 11, we are told that Jesus’ hometown is the birthplace of David.  This fulfills Micah 5:2 which says that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem.

Jesus certainly is a contender.  But does he bring to fulfillment all of God’s promises?  Does he really introduce a perfect new world where love and justice reign?

To look at the world or even the church, we might be tempted to say ‘no’.  But the answer is ‘yes’.  And it is ‘yes’ in a way far more glorious and perfect than we could ever imagine.

But for this new world to begin, sin must first be dealt with.  Those who rebel against God must be punished.  Death itself must be abolished.  And so the perfect has not arrived yet.  We await for Jesus’ return.  We wait for Judgment Day to begin.  We wait for Jesus to appear and restore all things to himself.  Only then will all God’s promises be fulfilled.

Jesus is the Christ, and what this means is that all God’s promises will be fulfilled through him.

Well this brings us to the third reason in verse 11 for why Jesus is true hope.  And this reason is that Jesus is the Lord.  And we must not miss the political overtones of this title.  What is being said is that Jesus is the true Lord and therefore Caesar is not.

Now this is a remarkable claim to make.  Caesar lives in palaces and enjoys servants and wealth and power.  And meanwhile, Jesus is a lowly peasant boy born in a manger.

And yet, Caesar is a puppet in Jesus’ hands.  In this story we see Caesar making decrees and the world obeying.  But in reality, Caesar’s decrees simply serve to fulfill what was promised about Jesus.  The writer Luke really wants us to see this: Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not.

And what is particularly telling, I think, is to compare the peace that both Caesar and Jesus offer.  It was said all around the Roman Empire that Caesar Augustus brought peace to the world.  And yet this peace, this pax Romana, meant oppression for the lowly.  It meant subjugation of all the nations.  It meant peace as long as Rome’s tyranny was observed.

But Jesus offers true peace, as we learn in verse 14.  He offers God’s peace.  This is a peace that does not oppress or subjugate or tyrannize.  A peace that cannot be undone, even by death.  It is the peace of being forgiven by God and becoming right in his eyes.  It is the peace of being united to his people as one new family.  It is the peace of knowing that Jesus is in control, and that one day he will restore the world in justice and love.  This is true peace; a peace that Caesar could never hope to provide.

Australia is a great country.  I love living here and am grateful for all the blessings we enjoy.  But the reality is that sometimes we witness evil in our country.  Often our government tries to protect us from it, but this is not always possible.  And sometimes, they are the ones who cause it.  This is true today and it was true for Rome as well.

But Jesus is a very different kind of Lord, King and Saviour.  He not only offers true peace now.  He also promises to bring in a new kingdom in the future where death will be no more.  Where we will never again shed a tear, because sadness, grief and pain will have gone away.

Well what does this mean for our lives now?  What should we do in response to this?

It may be helpful to consider what the shepherds did.  Please take a look at verses 15 to 20.

15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15–20 ESV)

What did the shepherds do?  They went to find out if all these things were true.

I am new to this area and so there are not many people here that I know well.  And so the chances are I don’t know why you came.  Perhaps you came because you love Jesus.  But perhaps you came for a different reason.  Maybe a friend invited you.  Maybe your family has always gone to church at Christmas.  Maybe you just love the carols.

I don’t know.  But if this is you, can I encourage you to find out the truth of what I’ve been saying.  Please look into it and decide if Jesus really is who he claimed to be.  Jesus offers hope that is profoundly different from anything man can invent.  This is important news.  And so it is critical that we all discover whether it is true or not.  And the best way, I think, to do this is to come along to church next year.

At St Anne’s Hammondville and St Thomas’ Moorebank, we will be looking in detail at the life of Jesus.  We will be investigating what really happened and what it means for our lives.  And so if you are not a regular churchgoer, please consider coming along to discover the truth.  Please consider coming along to find out if Jesus is whom he claimed to be.  It could prove to be the most important decision you ever make.

However, I’m sure some of us here today have already done this.  I’m sure some of us have already decided that Jesus is who he claimed to be: he is your Saviour and Christ and Lord.  And so if this is you, can I encourage you to do two things.

The first is to imitate Mary in verse 19 and ponder these things in your heart.  I don’t know about you but I find it very hard to escape the materialistic culture of Christmas.  We are constantly surrounded by it and so easily get caught up in thinking about presents and holidays and food.

And so, it is because of this that we should make time to ponder the truth of the Gospel.  It is precisely because Christmas is such a busy time that we should make time to read through a gospel and think about the things that Jesus did and taught.  There is simply nothing more important we could do than to spend time considering God’s grace in sending his Son to save us.

And so this is the first encouragement I’d like to give.  The second thing I’d like those who love Jesus to do is to glorify and praise him in all that you do.  In verse 20 we read: The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen … they glorified and praised God because of all they had heard and seen.

I began this morning by detailing all the tragedy we have seen this year.  It has been horrific, and it’s hard to forget, even at Christmas time.  And friends, such tragedies are going to continue in the future.  Our PM has suggested it and the Bible teaches this.  Whether we like it or not, we will continue to be confronted with more grief and loss.

And of course, it would be perverse to praise God when evil occurs.  That’s not what I am saying.  But what I am saying is that in the midst of such tragedy, we should praise God because of what he has done in Jesus.

When we see suffering in this world.  When we are reminded that all is not right.  We should remember our hope.  We should remember that God sent Jesus to be our Saviour and Lord, and to fulfill all the good that God has promised.

We have a firm and perfect hope for the future: a glorious new world where love and justice reign.  And so we can praise God, even whilst we grieve, because we know that there is more to come.

Where I think John Dickson (might) be wrong

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Earlier this year I read and enjoyed John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (second edition).  However, at the time I didn’t know what to make of it.  It was clearly a very clever, well-thought out book that took God’s word seriously.  And it made some claims that both made sense and seemed plausible.  And so I struggled to know how to critique it.

And in my circles, it seems many struggled to know what to say.  Most critiques I read did not satisfy.  They often misunderstood John’s argument, confused what a word denotes and connotes, and relied on word-studies rather than seriously considered how they functioned in context.  I was not convinced.  And as I spoke to my ministry friends in Sydney, they likewise could not explain where John might be wrong.  Some stubbornly refused to engage, but nobody could tell me why John had missed the mark.

And in some ways, I don’t want to write this post.  Given the tendency of so many to simply dismiss John’s work, I don’t really want to be another voice adding to that mix.  And yet I do have one criticism of it.  John has many good and helpful points to make.  He shows that teaching must be different from prophecy and exhortation and that is true.  He shows that prophecy and exhortation are open to both men and women, and I can’t see why this is wrong.  He argues that we should consider whether there are prophecy speech-acts and exhortation speech-acts that women could be doing within the church setting, and I think this is a valuable idea to ponder.

But where I disagree is over the function of ‘teach’ language in 1 Timothy.  Whilst I agree that this language can refer to the passing on of the apostolic traditions, especially in the pastoral epistles.  I do not think this is what is happening in 1 Timothy 2:12.  And the reason why is because of what 1 Timothy 2 actually says.

To begin, let’s consider verses 13-15.  These verses are introduced by gar.  In other words, they are either providing a reason for what Paul has just said, or giving a marker of clarification (BDAG).  And so these verses should help us understand what Paul means when he says that ‘women should learn in quietness and submission’ and ‘I am not permitting a women to teach or dominate (assume authority) over a man but be in quietness’ (vv. 11-12).

And it would seem to me that verses 13-15 present us with a narrative … a story that we are all familiar with.  The story of creation in which Adam was created and then Eve.  The story in which Eve was deceived by the snake and so disobeyed God, and also lead Adam to do likewise.  And it seems the critical word in this story is ‘deceived’ (twice in verse 14).  The problem for Eve is that she was deceived.

But what has this to do with Paul’s comments in verses 11-12?  Well I think this small narrative only makes sense when we understand that Paul’s prohibitions in 2:11-12 are being spoken in response to false teaching.

Paul begins this whole letter by urging Timothy to act against the false teachers in the Ephesian church (this seems to be the letter’s main theme).  And so Paul’s inclusion of the narrative in 2:13-15 is to show the consequences of deception (the fall) and so to warn against false teaching.  But since this narrative is also linked to verses 11-12 by gar, it would seem that these prohibitions too must be understood in the context of this false teaching.

I think this is further alluded to by the use of the word authentein in parallel to teach in verse 12.  This word means to dominate or assume authority, according to BDAG and also its uses in literature around the time of Paul.  It is a word we would expect to find in connection with false teachers who are ravaging the church in Ephesus.  And so this word likewise seems to draw in the context of false teaching and so suggest that Paul is giving this prohibition in this context.

But what has this to do with John’s definition of teaching?  Well I think it is clear from everything Paul says about this false teaching in 1 Timothy that it is more than simply passing on false “apostolic traditions”.  Let’s look at some examples.

1Tim. 1:3-4 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.

1Tim. 4:1-4 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,

1Tim. 4:7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.

1Tim. 5:11-16 As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry.  Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.  Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.  So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.  Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.  If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.

The false teaching includes myths, genealogies, old wives tales, ungodliness, and impropriety.  I am quite willing to be shown why I am wrong, but this suggests more than a false apostolic tradition that is being passed on.  It would seem to include explanation, exposition, and the teaching of OT passages (corruptly).  Therefore, I take it that Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 should include the wider definition of teaching (providing Christian instruction) rather than the more specialised definition (passing on the fixed apostolic tradition), even though it is quite possible that Paul uses this more specialised definition elsewhere in the Pastoral epistles.

Sermon on John 10:1-18

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Last Sunday I was supposed to preach on John 10:1-18 at Church.  However, as it happened my wife was giving birth that day to my son, and so I didn’t get to preach it.  This is the sermon I was going to deliver.

Words are very important. They shape how we think and how we view the world we live in. Of course, words can change their meaning over time. According to the British tabloid, the Mirror, the word ‘nice’ originally meant “foolish” or “silly” in the 14th century.  It soon embraced bad qualities, such as wantonness, extravagance, cowardice and sloth.In the Middle Ages it took on the more neutral attributes of shyness and reserve. And it was only in the 18th century that it took on the more positive meaning that we know today.  “Nice” has changed its meaning over time. And I’m sure we can all think of other examples as well. And let me say that this is ok. It isn’t wrong for words to change their meaning. But it is important we remember what words used to mean, especially biblical words. It is important we don’t read our modern uses into the Bible but understand the Bible on its own terms.

Well John 10 is all about a pastor’s care for his sheep. And I think in modern usage, we can think of it a bit like this. A pastor or minister does the work of caring for us when they call us if we are sick, or visit us in hospital, or come over for a cup of tea. It involves listening to our stories and being a support in difficulty.  And please don’t get me wrong. I think these are activities that every Christian should be doing, including pastors. But this is not what the Bible means when it talks about the care that a pastor should have for his sheep.  In the Bible, a pastor or a shepherd is a king. It is a leader or a ruler. A pastor is someone who cares for the flock through leadership. For example … Ezekiel 34 is a passage all about the shepherds of Israel – their pastors.  And what God says about them is that in their selfishness they have destroyed God’s flock. They have been bad shepherds. And so God is going to punish them and give Israel a new shepherd … a good shepherd.

And it is in the context of describing this good shepherd that God says these words:

Ezekiel 34:23-2423I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.

Notice what it means for the King, or Christ, to be God’s shepherd over Israel. It means he will be prince among them. In this passage, to be the shepherd of Israel means to rule. Now I could provide a lot more examples of this. But I hope this is enough to take my meaning.  To be the shepherd of Israel means to rule over Israel. It means to be their leader or king. And likewise the care of a pastor is seen in his leadership over the church. The Biblical idea of a pastor is a ruler.

Well this is very important for John chapter 10.  But before we get there, it is important we understand what has just happened in the narrative. And so let me summarize John 9.  In John chapter 9, we see Jesus healing a man born blind. And you would think this is a good thing. But the leaders of Israel aren’t happy. And they aren’t happy because Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And so these leaders launched an investigation.

First they questioned the blind man, who told them what happened. However, when he claimed that Jesus was a prophet, they questioned whether he really was blind. And so they called in his parents, who confirmed that he was.  Well this put the leaders of Israel in a pickle. And so they called in the blind man once more to ask again what happened. And the blind man once more confessed that Jesus gave him sight and therefore must be from God.  Well this angered the leaders of Israel. And so they decided to ban the blind man from the synagogue.  Because he spoke the truth, never again could he enter the place where Jews worshipped. He was effectively exiled from Israel.

Well it is in this context that Jesus says what he says in chapter 10. Let’s take a look at verses 1-6.

John 10:1-61“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.

We are told in that last verse that this is a figure of speech. It is like a parable. And Jesus’ point is clear.  He is comparing himself to the leaders of Israel who have only just excluded the blind man from the synagogue. Jesus is claiming that they are thieves and robbers, but he is the shepherd.  And Jesus challenges the way the Jews think about this issue. The leaders of Israel thought that they were the shepherds, Israel was the flock, and it was their job to decide who was in and who was out.

But Jesus says that he is the shepherd who is recognized by the doorkeeper, that is God. And the sheep are those who recognize his voice. The true people of God are not the Jewish leaders or even the whole nation but only those who follow Jesus and become his disciples.  And in fact, the true sheep will not follow the leaders of Israel. They will recognize them as strangers, just as the blind man did. They will only listen to Jesus’ voice and follow him.

Friends, this is what it means to be a Christian. It means to be a disciple of Jesus.  This involves ignoring the cultural, social, and even political voices when they seek to lead us astray. Instead we only recognize the voice of Jesus and follow him.

For example, our world encourages us to take control of our lives. It produces the kind of people who take charge and bring their plans to fruition. It causes us to be uncomfortable with a lack of control.  But to be a Christian is to believe we are not in control. We do not think we can take charge of our lives but believe that Jesus is the one who is in charge.  And whatever life throws at us, our concern is not to be in control. It is to be the kind of people Jesus wants us to be. And this involves being patient, kind, truthful, genuine, and compassionate in the face of our unknown future.

I must admit I struggle with this. Whether it is the birth of my son or what I should do next year. I want to form a plan and take control.  But to be a Christian means to recognize that I am not in control … but Jesus is. It is to trust in him as we await what the future will bring.  Now I am not saying that Christians do nothing in these circumstances. We certainly can try different options. But we do so tentatively whilst recognizing that we are finite creatures who live under an all-powerful God.

This is one way we flee from our world and follow Jesus. We do not subscribe to our cultural value of determining our future. Rather we seek to be godly knowing that Jesus is the one who is in control.

Well we see in verse 6 that those who were talking with Jesus did not understand him. I wonder if this is supposed to be ironic – those listening do not recognize Jesus’ voice. Anyhow, Jesus goes on to make two further points that compare himself to the leaders of Israel.  And the first is in verses 7-10. Please take a look with me.

John 10:7-107Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

What is surprising about these verses is that Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, as we expect. Rather he calls himself the gate. But Jesus is making a very important point by this. What he is saying is that he defines who God’s people are. As we have seen, it is only those who recognize his voice who are the true people of God.  But Jesus does more than simply define who God’s people are. He also gives them abundant blessing as well. And here the abundant blessing is life and salvation. In being the gate, Jesus is saying that he is the means to a pasture of forgiveness, restoration to God, and life everlasting.

And I think Jesus picks up on this first because the leaders of Israel thought that they were the gate to the pasture. In the previous story, they excluded the blind man from the synagogue because he testified that Jesus was from God.  In their minds, this exclusion meant the blind man was no longer part of Israel. He would not receive life or salvation. But Jesus is the true gate. The leaders of Israel came before him to steal, kill and destroy. But Jesus cares for his sheep.  It is the blind man who receives the abundance of life and salvation from God. The leaders of Israel are the ones who are excluded. It is them who do not know God and they will remain in their sin.

But before we move onto the next bit, I would like to make one more point. Our world hears this and concludes that Jesus is a prison. And it can sound a little bit like this, can’t it?  After all, he is the gate!  But nothing could be further from the truth.  In verse 9 we are told that Jesus’ sheep go in and out and find pasture.  This is not a reference to leaving Jesus whenever we feel like it but to the fact that Jesus sets us free.  But this freedom is not freedom to determine our futures. This is what our world thinks freedom is but it is a lie. Only Jesus is in control and so nobody can determine what the future will be except him.  Rather, Jesus gives us freedom from sin. He gives us freedom to be the kind of people God created us to be. Jesus sets us free so that we can be his people who are abundantly blessed with life and salvation. To be free means to be a child of God.

Well let’s move on to the last thing Jesus has to say. First verses 11 to 15.

John 10:11-1511“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Here Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. In effect, Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of many passages in the Old Testament like Ezekiel 34. He is claiming to be the Christ, God’s promised king, who would rule over Israel forever.  But what is remarkable is how Jesus characterizes his rule. The leaders of Israel ruled by bolstering their own leadership. They ruled by excluding people who threatened them. But Jesus leads by laying down his life for the sheep. Five times Jesus tells us this … he really wants us to believe it.  Jesus is not like the hired hands who flee when sacrifice is needed. He is not like every other leader who ever lived, whether good or bad. And he is different because he leads by laying down his life for the sheep. The cross epitomizes what it means for Jesus to rule over his people.

But you’ll notice in verse 14 that Jesus’ leadership also involves knowing his people. In fact, he compares his relationship with his sheep to his relationship with God.  Just as Jesus has the most intimate relationship with the Father … so Jesus also has an intimate relationship with his people as well. He knows them and they know him and recognize his voice. He lays down his life for them and they follow him wherever he goes.  Jesus’ rule over his people means he knows them and is willing to do whatever it takes to care for their deepest needs.

Well there are two more things that characterize Jesus’ rule over his people. Take a look with me at verses 16 to 18.

John 10:16-1816I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

The first is that Jesus’ leadership results in unity and peace amongst his people. Here the other flock is us – it is the other nations outside of Israel. The Jews did not associate with non–Jews. But Jesus says that even between the most unlikely of peoples, his leadership results in unity and peace so that they are one flock with one shepherd.  The other thing he says about his leadership is that he lays down his life freely. He is not forced to die for us. Rather out of his love, he freely chooses the cross. And this is why the Father loves him. Not because of that choice itself but because Jesus loves in this amazing kind of way. You could say that the Father loves the family resemblance in Jesus.

Well, at the beginning I asked us to consider what it meant for a pastor to care for his flock. I suggested that it meant leading and ruling over the church.  But it is only when we understand this that we can be struck by Jesus’ kind of leadership.  So many leaders in our world rule like thieves and robbers. They are about bolstering their own position and excluding those who threaten them. They use aggression, lies, attacks on people’s character, exclusion and defense as the means by which they rule.  And let’s be honest, at some level even us ministers struggle with this. It is human nature to lead and relate to people in this kind of way.

But Jesus demonstrates that true leadership involves understanding and sacrifice. It results in peace and unity. It is about freely choosing to surrender ourselves for the good of others rather than seeking to establish our own position.  Jesus is not a counselor but neither is he a tyrant. Rather he is a king who does whatever is required to best care for his people. This is how Jesus rules and it is the kind of leadership we should look for in the church as well.

But whilst this might have a rather direct application for ministers, I think it is important for all of us as well.  And this is because many of us have leadership positions. It might be as a husband in the home. It might be as a supervisor at work. It might be as a parent over children. Jesus challenges all of us to lead as he leads.  This means really getting to understand those under our care. It means seeking to serve them and care for their deepest needs. It involves freely choosing to do what is best for them, even when it is not what is best for us. And friends, this is a challenge.

But as I finish, please remember that ultimately we are not in control. We are sheep but Jesus is the shepherd. And so we should entrust our lives into his care. And we can do so because we know that he is a different kind of leader than any other leader we know.  His rule involves laying down his life for us. He knows our needs and he came to give us an abundance of life and salvation. Whilst we cannot control our future, what we can do is trust in Jesus and follow him. And when we do that, we can be assured what our future will be.  It will be eternal life with Jesus in paradise forever.