The Word of God and the God of the Word

Perfect, sure, right, pure, true, righteous, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey…

What am I describing? If you’re immediate answer is God then you are absolutely correct.

But then there’s also this:

[7] The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; [8] the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; [9] the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. [10] More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. [11] Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. [Psalm 19:7-11]

What a wondrously beautiful reminder that the very character of God is reflected in His word.

Now beyond the gates of splendor – Elisabeth Elliot [1926-2015]

Elisabeth Elliot

 

 

Elisabeth Elliot passed away yesterday morning in her sleep. According to reports she had long been “suffering” from dementia and recently had a series of ministrokes. I say “suffering” because while dementia was not something she was happy about, she received it in the same way she received the news of the death her husbands, ‘She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to God.

Eilsabeth’s testimony, biography of her husband Jim Elliot, and other works on gender roles and her book ‘Passion and Purity’ (on her five year courtship with first husband Jim Elliot) are must reads.

Otherwise Christianity Today has a great article on her life, works and faith.

Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint (one of the missionaries killed alongside Jim Elliot) wrote this of Elisabeth:

I think Elizabeth would be happy just being remembered as not much of a woman that God used greatly. To the rest of us mortals she was an incredibly talented and gifted woman who trusted God in life’s greatest calamities, even the loss of her mind to dementia, and who allowed God to use her. He did use her.

Tens of thousands of people will mourn her loss. I will certainly be one of them. But isn’t it incredibly wonderful that our loss is certainly her gain. She can think and talk once again!

And she is now welcomed into the arms of her loving Saviour with a most well deserved, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant… Now enter into the joy of your Master.’

Christian Celebrity Culture

 

Last weekend I had a chance to prepare a sermon on Acts 13-14. Acts 14 contains a rather unique and somewhat comical story in which Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus respectively.

Some basic research uncovered helpful background to this event, as summarised in my sermon on Sunday:

Helpfully for us the works of a Latin poet named Ovid from around this time shed light for us. Ovid records the legend of a visit by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian Hill Country – which is just North of Lystra. Zeus and Hermes were disguised as mortals seeking hospitality. According to the legend they were rejected by numerous people before being taken in by an elderly couple whose home they blessed by turning it into a temple and then brought destruction on those who had not shown them hospitality. Seems now that these Lystrans have seen an extraordinary miracle in the healing of this crippled man – which is extraordinary let’s not forget that – they link the legend in the past with the events of the present and want to ensure that the past is not repeated.

There is also a strong contrast being made by Luke between the reaction of Paul and Barnabas and the reaction of Herod earlier in Acts 12:20-23 – where Herod is also hailed a god, but in contrast to Barnabas and Paul arrogantly accepts the praise and is struck down by God in judgement.

The passage itself got me thinking tangentially about our current preoccupation with Christian celebrity culture: the elevation of Christian preachers and teachers to the level of rockstar status, whose works are generally universally accepted and remain above criticism. That’s my own definition for what I’ve seen, and admittedly been a part of.

Now while Acts 14:8-18 doesn’t specifically deal with the issue I did see some parallels and some things in the text which might be helpfully applied for both the ‘fanboy/girl’ as well as the outsider looking in.

First – just because some preacher has a fan base doesn’t necessarily invalidate the content of that preacher/teachers teaching.

You can see this in the passage. Paul performs a miracle which is clearly connected to his speaking and preaching (verses 8-10). The crowd’s reaction does not nullify the content of Paul’s earlier preaching.

Engaging with the content of any teacher is necessary to discern their faithfulness. But just because a particular teacher is popular doesn’t automatically undermine the quality or the content of their teaching.

Second – when we see a preacher with a fanbase, we need to discern how the preacher reacts to the celebrity status.

Paul and Barnabas are quick to try to defuse the adoration. Their message in 14:15-17 contains three basic points:

  1. Stop your worship – because we’re men just like you.
  2. Our message is that you should turn from this sort of behaviour, and turn to the true and living God.
  3. This God has abundantly blessed you as a witness to his goodness.

It’s what I’d call a pre-evangelism message – since there is no reference to Jesus or the gospel. A message designed to ignite in the hearer a desire to know more.

Paul and Barnabas react with humility and a quick resolve to defuse the adoration. In judging the preacher we need to discern their humility and how they have handled the adulation for their work. Do they call attention to themselves, or are they doing their best to direct attention away to God?

Third – the preacher may do their best to deflect attention and celebrity, but that doesn’t mean their fan base will necessarily comply. And that’s not necessarily the fault of the preacher.

Verse 18 rounds out the rather comical story with these words:

Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

Paul and Barnabas seem pretty clear. But the crowd doesn’t hear them and continues in their adulation. You can’t really blame Paul and Barnabas for that.

Finally – even with the adulation we need to discern the ongoing ministry of discipleship from the preacher. Does their message focus on building up disciples of Christ or can we discern an building up of their own kingdom/reputation?

The ongoing focus of Paul and Barnabas is clearly to build up the churches which have been established through their preaching. Their discipleship is primarily twofold in this passage: encouraging the Christians to persevere in the faith (cf 14:22), and discipling and raising up leaders to continue the work (14:23, 28).

The church has always had its celebrities, but I think we also live in a time and age in which celebrity is stronger than ever before – thanks in part to the 24 hour news cycle, the boom in Christian publishing, and the internet. So we do need to take greater measures to ensure thankfulness and appreciation of a ministry does not turn to unhelpful adulation and divisive sectarianism (cf 1 Corinthians 1:12).

While the above test from Acts 14 isn’t exhaustive, it’s a start. What would you add to help Christians work their way through celebrity culture? Put it in the comments below.

 

 

Blinded by the Light

As part of our sermon series in Acts 1-15 for church I’m preparing a sermon this week on Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Here’s a neat little quote from a commentary I’m reading:

Saul is ‘forced by the Messiah’s light to recognise his own blindness and to receive his sight through him.’

(Peterson, quoting Tannehill, p303)

Which reminds me of this beautiful quote from CS Lewis:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

A parable for the Modern Middle-Class-Aspiring Asian Student

studying1

 

Johnson was a typically good Asian kid. He was quiet and humble. He studied hard and his grades were very good. He was always well mannered in front of adults. His Aunty and Uncles always compared other children to him. Johnson was a good, Asian kid.

His parents were migrants and had worked very hard to provide opportunities for him they never could have realised for themselves. Johnson appreciated this deeply and studied hard in honour of his parents work for him. Johnson was a very good, Asian kid.

Johnson was also a good church going kid. He knew about Jesus, he knew the bible stories. He knew enough.

Or so he thought.

Because for Johnson there were always questions in his mind. Could I really trust Jesus? Is he really worth putting my whole life in?

It surprised him to learn that Jesus was actually visiting his home town. Slowly making his way from church to church – how exciting!

‘This is my chance!’ thought Johnson.

So when Jesus came to his church, Johnson found a moment to pull Jesus aside and politely ask, “Good Teacher, I’ve always wanted to ask: what should I do if I want to have eternal life with you?”

But Jesus looked at him in a way that Johnson didn’t expect. Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

“I… uhh…” Johnson didn’t quite know what to say.

Jesus kept going, “You know the commandments. Obey your parents, keep your room neat, do not cause scenes at the shops, be thankful for what you have.”

“Yes, I’ve kept these all my life Jesus!”

‘One thing you lack… study less, spend more time with me in my Word and with my people in fellowship and service.’

“But Jesus… if I spend less time studying then I won’t get into a good school… and if I don’t get into a good school I won’t get into a good Uni… and if I don’t get into Uni then I won’t get a good job… and if I don’t get a good job then I won’t get financial security and have the things my parents couldn’t afford…”

Jesus looked at Johnson and replied, “What good does it do for a young Asian to gain the best degree at the best Uni and go onto a successful job securing him financial security… and forfeit his soul?”

Johnson replied, “But I could use my good job for missions – like being a doctor! And if I earn a lot then I can give lots to church as well…?”

Jesus replied for the final time, “My child, one of my prophets from of old once said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ Are you the exception to the rule?”

 

 

 

The Gospel Transformation Bible

How I only just stumbled upon this I don’t know, but this new study bible looks fantastic – and will probably now bump the ESV Study Bible off the top place of recommended Study Bibles from me. The list would now look like this:

  1. ESV Gospel Transformation Bible
  2. ESV Study Bible
  3. ESV Reformation Bible

Yeah… it’s a short list.

I’m generally hesitant to promote study bibles for a few reasons. 1) The study notes tend to be one sided and less theological. I’ve always said you’re better off just getting a good commentary rather than relying on brief notes, and; 2) The notes often lack an understanding or show an awareness of the bible’s larger storyline. So comments and application often runs the error of moralism.

So what makes this bible different from other study bibles? Two simple words: Biblical Theology. This study bible attempts to do what I don’t think any other study bible seeks to do as intentionally (even the ESV Study Bible) – it seeks to show how every passage from scripture points to the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

I’m intrigued and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy to read through it.

Anyway, here is the promo video for it:

The list of contributors is stunning, and the endorsements are also noteworthy. Definitely check it out!

Theology Thursday: Biblical Theology

Theology Thursday

 

Bible reading can be difficult at times. And it’s even more difficult when reading through the obscure and seemingly irrelevant Old Testament.

So I stumbled on this video recently posted from a friend on Facebook. It’s one of those clips which tries to summarise what the subject of each book of the Bible is about.

I appreciate that it can be hard to wrap up an entire book’s message into a short phrase, so I don’t want to say what is suggested is wrong but I guess you can’t cover all the nuances and details of a book like Genesis which has many themes running through it. And I’m not sure he’s landed Song of Solomon right…

But what the video helpfully highlights for this post is the constant looking forward in the Old Testament to Jesus.

Yes. The whole Bible is about Jesus.

And unless you understand this you’ll never fully understand the Old Testament.

Here is where a short plug for the Ignite Training Conference is apt. The conference is designed to equip Christians in learning how to read and teach the bible to others. You don’t have to be a super mature Christian to go – the only requirement is that you’re a Christian ready and willing to learn. Strand 1 (for first timers) focuses on the basics of exegesis – how to draw meaning from the text before you rather than bring meaning into the text (ie eisegesis). Strand 2 builds on that foundation and applies it to the overarching narrative of scripture, what is known as Biblical Theology. Strand 3 then builds upon this and then seeks to teach people how to draw what scripture says about larger topics (such as Resurrection, or God, or Salvation).

What follows is an expansion on what would be learnt in Strand 2. Point one is what Strand 2 spends most of the week exploring. The following points are adapted from a lecture given by Gary Millar in 2010 on a visit to QTC while I was a student.

So the question each point is answering is: how do I move from the Old Testament to Jesus in a way which is faithful to the text before me?

 

1.  Follow the plan

Follow the plan is the bread and butter of biblical theology. The plan centres around the theme of the Kingdom of God: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of God pattern forms, as I like to think, the skeletal structure to the body of scripture. It unites scripture from beginning to end and also helps the reader plug into the ‘big picture’ (the metanarrative) of the bible.

Justin Taylor has a helpful summary from the author (Graeme Goldsworthy) who really started a lot of people thinking through scripture this way.

The basic idea of following the plan is that wherever you are in Genesis to Malachi you should be able to determine the three elements of God’s Kingdom by asking who are God’s people in this text before me, where is God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people, and how is God expressing his rule and blessing to his people.

Starting here is fundamental in not misapplying the Old Testament.

A commonly used example of how following the plan helps the reader avoid misapplication is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The classic interpretation and application of the passage runs something like this: Goliath was a seemingly undefeatable enemy of David. David was only a boy, but by faith in God he was able to overcome Goliath. Therefore we, like David, should have great faith in God and we too will overcome the ‘Goliaths of hardship’ in our lives.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in believing that faith equals victory over hardship. It’s certainly a theme echoed in the New Testament (with true fulfilment, overcoming and victory experienced in the second coming of Christ). But this is a classic misapplication of 1 Samuel 17 for the following reasons:

  1. David was the anointed King of Israel, he was Israel’s ‘messiah’ – we are not.
  2. David was an Israelite living centuries before Christ – the modern reader is certainly none of these.
  3. David lived under the Law of Moses – the modern reader will be under the Law of Christ.

Applying the basic principles of God’s Kingdom to 1 Samuel 17 we get this: God’s people are Israel with David as their representative, God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people is the land of Israel which is currently being attacked by the seemingly undefeatable Philistines and their hero Goliath, God expresses his rule and blessing to his people through the Law of Moses and his Tabernacle presence. What we see in the story, then, is how God raises up an unexpected saviour for his people in order to re-establish his people, his place and his rule. Following this plan through we can see how God is always raising up leaders and saviours for his people in order to re-establish his people, place and rule – until we finally see this happy fully and perfectly in his Son Jesus.

That’s pretty brief. For a greater look into the Kingdom of God I’d strongly recommend reading Vaughan Roberts’ ‘God’s Big Picture’ and Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’ or ‘According to Plan’.

Now, doing this every day or week to week can be pretty boring, and eventually reading the Old Testament simply becomes a chore in getting to Jesus through the plan. So the following brief points are other ways in which we can enhance our application of the Old Testament to our daily lives.

 

2.  Expose the problem

Ask yourself, ‘Is there is a weakness or pitfall in the passage?’ What causes the problem or what is the underlying issue? Exposing the problem helps us look forward to the answer in Christ. Showing the weakness of the character or story helps raise an expectation for something better.

An example of this came for me recently as we preached through 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 23-26 we see David acting very honourably in the face of persecution from Saul. Everything in chapters 23, 24, and 26 demonstrate the outstanding character of David. But in 1 Samuel 25 we’re presented with an almost exact opposite picture: David seeks revenge of a seemingly insignificant insult and only via the mediation of someone else does he calm down. In 1 Samuel 25 we see David, God’s anointed King, acting in very human ways (and possibly here sowing the seeds for his family’s downfall later). What 1 Samuel ends on is a tarnished picture of God’s chosen King – forcing the reader to expect a better ‘David’ to come.

 

3.  Explain the category

Here is where we consider what categories are before us. For instance, ‘The Law’ in scripture is a fairly wide term and could refer to specific laws within Exodus or Leviticus, but it could also refer to the first five books of the bible together (yes, even the narrative).

Within the Law there are many subcategories also – and while I caution people to not too quickly draw hard and fast distinctions within the Law (eg the moral, civil and ceremonial distinctions) these are sub-categories that can help orient the reader.

But the question to ask in this section is really how are these categories fulfilled, or made better, in Jesus? For instance, when you’re reading through Leviticus and notice that lengthy instructions for the priesthood it should help us appreciate the priesthood of Jesus all the better.

 

4.  Highlight the attribute

A common misconception about the bible is that its primary purpose is to tell us how to live. No doubt there are many instructions and imperatives for the believer – but scripture’s primary purpose is to show us the character and nature of God.

For instance, a classic case of how this is often missed is in Jonah’s story in children’s bibles. Quite often children’s bibles will avoid the difficulties of chapter 4 by simply dropping it from their versions. So the story ends up becoming one about God’s forgiveness. But chapter 4, difficult as it is, is there to demonstrate not only the reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go but also how his reason is tied to the very nature of God as revealed in the book: his compassion and mercy for evil and wicked sinners outside of his own people.

Another example of this is found in the Laws of Moses which consistently highlight the holiness of God. Each part of the Law serves to highlight this in various ways. The trick to reading it will be to figure out how that part of the Law highlights God’s holiness.

 

5.  Trace the fulfilment

Where ‘follow the plan’ traces the overall big picture, or metanarrative, trace the fulfilment is more specific.

For instance, the Sabbath has lots of regulations stemming from Israel’s exodus from slavery as well as the creation mandate. The question for the reader will be how Jesus fulfils, changes and transforms our understanding of the Sabbath.

Another clear example from Genesis 3 is the warning given to the serpent of a future head crusher. In what way is this fulfilled in Israel and ultimately through Jesus? Or what of God’s promise to Ezekiel (chapter 36) to put a new heart into God’s people and God’s own spirit as well.

Each of those examples are fairly specific and that’s the point of trying to trace the fulfilment.

 

6.  Focus on the clear action

The emphasis here is to focus on what is clear in the action of the passage before us. A classic example is in 1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath. This is a fairly well known, but generally poorly understood part of the Old Testament – and you can see how poorly understood it is every time the news uses the narrative as analogous to its reported story.

Often the focus in this chapter is on David’s physical battle with Goliath. But when you read through the chapter you’ll notice that this actually only takes up 30 words. Rather what takes up more space – a whopping 75 words – is David’s speech that God will take on His enemies. Focusing on what is clearly given the bulk of the airtime is what is needed.

So the question is where does the passage spend most of its time and is it clear?

Asking the clarity question also helps us get through things like Daniel 7. Daniel 7 has a lengthy focus upon four beasts and even the interpretation from the angel is a little unclear. But what is clear in that passage is that God, the ‘one like a son of man’, and his people reign supreme.

So always ask where the passage spends most of its time and what is most clear.

 

7.  Point out the consequences

Finally some passages are there to clearly spell out the consequences of our good or bad actions. This is partly how to read Wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Wisdom literature is there to help us understand how to live rightly in a fallen world. It also needs to be taken as a whole since Proverbs by itself can lead to what is known as ‘retribution theology’ – basically A + B will always equal C. Much of Proverbs is a little like that, whereas Job and Ecclesiastes balance this view and suggest that it’s not always clear cut how we should live because this world is indeed fallen. But that’s the nature of Wisdom – it’s not about formulas for living, but growing in godly discernment so we have the tools to make decisions.

 

So there are seven ways to help improve your Old Testament bible reading. Have you heard of any other ways to link the Old and New Testaments together? Put them in the comments below.

More words that confuse Christians…

confused (part 2)

My previous post on words that Christians sometimes confuse seemed to have struck a chord with some. I should probably explain why I’m being seemingly picky about the definition of these words.

I’m a firm believer that language changes and evolves. Sometimes for good and at other times I pray that Jesus returns before words like ‘swag’ and acronyms like ‘YOLO’ receive their special definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. So I don’t believe that we should hold archaic definitions for the sake of holding them.

But when it comes to biblical words this is where I draw my proverbial line in the sand. I understand the need for translations to remain current and my theology of scripture is certainly towards providing the clearest, most accurate, and most readable and intelligible translations. But there are some words which are, in my opinion, sacrosanct. The task of the Christian is to understand these words, not misuse them, and find ways in which we can define them to our ever changing and evolving language spheres.

Language rant out of the way, and after some comments and feedback here are some further words that Christians sometimes confuse…

 

Apostle, Epistle and Disciple

An Apostle is simply ‘a sent one’ – someone sent with a message. What makes the New Testament apostles unique, though, is that they saw the resurrected Jesus and were given a task from Him personally. The New Testament apostles are the only ‘sent ones’ whose message is infallible.

An Epistle is another word for ‘letter’ (in fact it comes from the Greek word epistole which simply means ‘letter’).

A Disciple is a follower of a teacher/master. All Christians are disciples of Jesus.

 

Church, House of God, and Church (Building)

Church – the great purpose of God: the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of displaying His glory to the world through the proclamation of the gospel, the witness of their redeemed lives and their fellowship with one another, their corporate worship and submission to the preached word of God. (I’m sure I’ve missed something… but hopefully you get the point). Every reference to the church in the New Testament never refers to the building that Christians choose to gather in (it would take some extraordinary exegetical jumps to do so).

The House of God in the Old and New Testament ALWAYS and ONLY refers to the Tabernacle/Temple of God in Jerusalem. It NEVER refers to the building that Christians gather inside of.

 

Apologetics and Apologise

Despite the similarity, apologetics has little to do with apologising. Apologetics is the systematic argument for or defence of the Christian faith. It comes from the Greek work ‘apologia’ which means ‘speaking in defence’. Apologise comes from the same root word in the Greek, and it seems its earliest definition related to ‘speaking in defence’ though today it is almost always used as an expression of regret, remorse or sorry for having insulted, failed, injured or wronged another.

 

Grace and Mercy

Mercy is the withholding of: judgement, wrath and/or anger – which are deserved.

Grace is the giving of: righteousness, the crediting of Christ’s perfection to our account, the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God – which are undeserved.

 

Gracious and Graceful

To be gracious is to act with grace towards others, to be godly. It also generally means to be polite, to show respect, or to be marked by kindness and courtesy.

To be graceful generally refers to moving in a smooth or attractive way, to have a smooth or pleasing shape or style, or to be polite or kind.

The main difference to me seems to be gracious is a character quality and graceful is a character description.

 

Dan Au and Steven Tran

Dan Au is a good looking man, pastor, is married to a beautiful woman and has a gorgeous son and a beautiful baby girl.

Steven Tran is a good looking man, pastor, is married to a beautiful woman and has a gorgeous son and is expecting a beautiful baby girl.

See. Totally different.

Words Christians get mixed up

In conversation with a friend recently I heard him refer to his church as ‘evangelical’. I asked him what he meant by that and he said, ‘There’s a strong emphasis on reaching out to people.’

‘Oh’, I replied, ‘You mean evangelistic?’

It’s not just ‘evangelical’ that is so often misunderstood or misapplied. There’s plenty of others as well. At best we may just mean one thing but say another, but on another level our misunderstanding of a word can unhelpfully skew our theology. So here’s my take on some of the most common misunderstandings and mix ups.

 

Evangelical and Evangelism

Evangelism is the act of sharing the message of the gospel.

Evangelical means being gospel centred in message and ministry.

 

Predestination and Predetermination

Predestination is the doctrine that God elects those who are to be saved (which the bible teaches).

Predetermination is the belief that all events in life, large and small, have already been predetermined and all actions are merely playing them out (which the bible doesn’t teach).

 

Worship and Music

Worship is the all-encompassing life of the Christian: devoted to and given for the service of God in all areas of life.

Music is music. Corporate singing is a wonderful expression of corporate worship – but my bone to pick here is that worship has become a synonym for gathered singing…which is true, but not fully.

 

Saint and saint

A Saint in Roman Catholic theology is anyone who has lived righteously on earth and has performed miracles either in life or in passing. Catholic saints can be prayed to as mediators to God.

A saint in New Testament theology is anyone who is a Christian.

 

Arminian and Armenian

Arminian, and Arminianism, generally refers to the systematic theology as developed by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) in response to the systematic theology of John Calvin (1509-1564). Arminian theology has an emphasis on prevenient grace (grace conferred on all mankind sufficient for belief despite sinful corruption) and the exercise of free will.

Armenian refers to someone from the Republic of Armenia (tucked away between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran).

 

Pentecostal and Charismatic

This one is slightly more tricky, so let me just add my two cents into the mix and share how I understand it. Briefly: A Pentecostal is necessarily charismatic, but a Charismatic need not necessarily be a Pentecostal.

Pentecostal Christians emphasise direct personal experience with God through baptism of the Holy Spirit as manifested in tongues and other supernatural spiritual gifts.

Charismatic covers a much broader tent, including Pentecostals, as well as even those who would hold to reformed theology. Speaking of which…

 

Reformed, Reformation and Protestant

Reformed theology generally holds to the doctrines recaptured during the period known as the Reformation – generally encapsulate by the ‘Five Solas’. Sola means ‘alone’ in Latin and the five solas form the foundation for Reformed theology: scripture alone, faith along, grace alone, Christ alone, glory to God alone.

The reformation was a period of time, across a few countries in Europe, during which Christians sought to regain the Bible’s teaching on salvation and mankind.

Protestants are Christians who do not follow the teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.

And finally…

 

Revelation and Revelations

Revelation – the book written by the apostle John – is singular, not plural.

As an aside, the theological doctrine of revelation refers to God’s progressive revealing of himself through the pages of scripture.

 

Well, there’s a few I’ve had a crack at. Let me know in the comments below which Christian words you’ve often seen misused or misunderstood. Maybe we can do a part two!

Kevin Rudd on Slavery

So on ABC’s Q&A last night, Kevin Rudd explained why, as a Christian, he supports same-sex marriage. Part of his reasoning was essentially to argue the Bible is wrong to affirm slavery and by implication the Bible is wrong to denounce homosexuality.

Here’s the video making the rounds.

I’m not going to get into the homosexuality debate for now, but I do want to address the fundamental misconception that Rudd has put forth: that slavery in the Bible is the same as slavery in pre-Civil War America.

To be brief, let me list in point form what slavery in the Bible was like (with references at the end) and I’ll leave it to you to decide if Rudd’s use of it was a fair argument:

  • Slavery in the Old and New Testaments were not the same as slavery in pre-Civil War America. It often, though not always, approximated employer and employee relationships, although the slave was generally considered the property of his master.
  • During the first century AD, approximately 85-90% of Rome’s population consisted of slaves.
  • Though slaves were considered the property of their masters and did not have legal rights, they did have quite a range of other rights and privileges: 1) the potential to start a business, 2) the possibility of earning the monetary means to purchase freedom (manumission) from their masters, and 3) the right to own property (peculium).
  • Though the possibility of earning your freedom was available, many chose not to for the security afforded by their masters (clothing, food, shelter, good employment). To leave one’s master was a move towards significant vulnerability.
  • No former slaves who became writers ever attacked slavery as such.
  • Slave revolts never sought to abolish the institution but only protest abuses.
  • More often than not, it was free workers rather than slaves who were abused by foremen and bosses. (After all, an owner stood to have an ongoing loss if he abused his slave.)
  • In the Old Testament slavery was so thoroughly entrenched that its practice was mitigated, limited and controlled under the Law of Moses. These laws included:
    • slaves were regarded as part (albeit inferior) of the master’s family and participated in Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10; 23:12) and religious feasts (Exodus 12:43-44, Deuteronomy 16:11, 14)
    • Jewish slaves had to be released after six years (Exodus 21:2-4, Deuteronomy 15:12) unless they chose otherwise (Exodus 21:5-6, Deuteronomy 15:16-17) and when released were to be provided with generous provisions adequate to lead a self-sufficient life (Deuteronomy 15:13-14)
    • If a slave was permanently injured by their master they were to be set free for compensation (Exodus 21:26-27)
    • impoverished Israelites who sold themselves into slavery were to be viewed as paid workers, not as slaves (Leviticus 25:39-40)
    • Manumission not only required 6 years or after permanent injury but also in Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:24), through redemption (Exodus 21:8, Leviticus 25:48-49), or when the slave could purchase their own freedom (Leviticus 25:49)
    • asylum was given to foreign slaves fleeing or Hebrew slaves who had escaped from foreign masters (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
    • Jewish slaves bore no external markings to indicate their status with one exception when a freed slave chose to stay and had their ear pierced with a tag (Exodus 21:5-6, Deuteronomy 15:16-17) which symbolised not their slavery but their attachment to the family

And here is a quote from one of my first year Bible college essays on the issue of slavery in Paul’s writings:

It is now time to ask whether or not Paul was silent on the issue of slavery, whether or not that silence amounted to tacit approval and whether or not his actual statements approved, disapproved or subverted the prevailing cultural view of slavery.

Firstly it must be stated that Paul was not silent on the issue of slavery.  Paul spoke about the issue frequently. (eg. Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 7:7-24 and Chapter 12, 2 Corinthians 11, Galatians 3:28, 4:1, Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 1 and 6, Titus 2, and most notably Philemon.) The debate centres around what Paul meant in his letters and how his readers would have understood his message.

It would be remiss of an essay of this sort not to discuss Paul’s letter to Philemon*.  There is little room to take an in-depth look at the letter but there are a few things worth noting.  Whilst Paul did not explicitly call for the manumission of Onesimus, Paul’s letter does clearly call on Philemon to welcome Onesimus back.  The basis for welcoming him back would be based not simply upon compassion for the lowly slave but on ‘brotherly love’.  Paul truly believed that before God there were no levels of status, no upper or lower classes (cf Galatians 3:28).  Paul was so convinced that Christ could bring believers together and that brotherly love shown to a free person should be expressed to a slave also.  Slave status was elevated to parity status with their masters in the ‘Divine economy’.

Paul seems to take his greatest stand on two particular issues.  The first being the exploitation of slaves for monetary gain.  The abuse of slaves was denounced.  By clear implication from passages such as Colossians 4:1 and Ephesians 6:9 slave owners are directed to treat their slaves justly and fairly and to refrain from abuse.  The second issue Paul stood against was the involvement of people in kidnapping persons for slavery and trafficking (cf 1 Timothy 9:11 where Paul denounces a list of ‘sinners’ including ‘man-stealers’ or ‘enslavers’ according to the ESV)

That Paul accepts slavery as a pre-existing social condition is not in dispute.  But in contrast to the Roman and Greek views Paul’s views undermine the prevalent attitudes towards slaves.  Romans viewed slaves as chattels, mere mortal objects to be used primarily for self-gain.  In contrast Paul commanded that slaves, and slave owners, who were Christians, to love each other as brothers – as family.  The contrast between Paul’s views and Jewish views on that same point is also apparent – even though Jews were more humane in their slavery practices the relationship between master and slave was, at best, a relationship of employer and employee.  The concept that a Christian slave must be viewed as a family member would have been a repugnant concept in 1st century Rome.

Paul’s elevation of a slave’s personhood is the most striking cultural challenge of his day.  In a period which slaves were never included as addressees, because they were regarded as either non-persons or as persons without the social responsibilities of the free, Paul set about reshaping this dynamic.  Whilst falling short of denouncing the institution outright, Paul pushed the envelope as far as he most likely could without drawing unwarranted attention from authorities.  His commands so transformed the relationship of master/slave that today’s equivalent of employer/employee still pales in contrast to what Paul intended – that status would be nullified and each would see the other as family.

That’s a pretty brief summary on a big topic. To my mind Kevin Rudd’s comparison between slavery in the Bible and slavery in pre-Civil War America is not just comparing apples with oranges, but apples with rotten oranges.

 

*Philemon is the title given to a personal letter written by Paul to Philemon, a wealthy slave-holding Christian who lived and served in Colossae.  At some point one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, fled to Rome, possibly with some money or property belonging to Philemon.  Onesimus providentially met Paul, converted, and over a short period spent much time and energy helping a severely restrained Paul.  As much as Paul would have wanted to keep Onesimus in his service he realised that the severed relationship and wrongdoing between Onesimus and his master needed to be addressed.  Paul wrote this personal letter pleading for reconciliation between the two – and for Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not just as a runaway slave but as a beloved brother.

 

References:

Harris, Murray J. Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. Edited by D. A. Carson. Downers Grove, ILL: IVP, 2001.

Bauckham, Richard. The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989

Kaiser, Walter C. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983

Wright, Christopher J.H. God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990

Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001

Witherington III, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary in 1 and 2 Conrinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995

 

 

Update:

Sandy Grant at Matthias Media puts the case well on how Scripture views the issue of slavery. I quote his concluding thoughts which I didn’t cover but intended!

Your ethnicity and gender, your social, educational and economic status or class, are far less important than the fact that all humans are created in the image of God. And here, far less important to a Christian, than that you are all united, equally, in Christ.

But the New Testament goes further. Paul encourages the emancipation of a runaway slave, Onesimus, in his letter to the wronged-master, Philemon. And in addition, Paul writes these words in 1 Corinthians 7:21-22:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.

Slavery is never once taught in Scripture as the natural condition. Rather, if you can gain your freedom, do so.

The trajectory of scripture is towards a slave-less society rather than the status quo. In the same way that our laws today concerning cigarette smoking aim at a smoke-less society without banning it altogether.