Eggheads and babies

Reading from Matthew 14:14 today

When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

it struck me how hard it is to find a balance between knowledge and application in teaching the Bible.

In contrast to other religions, Christianity is actually more news than system. What I mean by that is that there is more proclamation involved in the Christian faith than instruction. There is instruction (read any NT letter), but it comes after the proclamation/description/teaching of greater principles. First we learn the news, then we are to live by them.

That is consistent with the gospel. The gospel is not a self-help recipe; it is a diagnosis of a terminal disease and a prescription for the only cure available. People aren’t called to come to Christ in order to improve themselves (although that will happen inevitably). They are called to come to Christ because they are in desperate need for a radical change of their position before God. Christ Himself never implied anything different.

So in a sense, the Bible is mostly news – but news that must inevitably affect us in a profound and unprecedented way. I think that this ought to be consequently reflected in the teaching of the Bible.

There are teachers/churches that emphasise proclamation above application. This results in hypocrisy: Theological knowledge that is separated from the life and troubles of the individual believer. A God who only cares about His truth and can’t be bothered with “my silly little problems”.

Other teachers/churches emphasise application above proclamation. The result is what is called “seeker-sensitivism”. A constant me-me-me atmosphere, with me-centred worship and me-heavy teaching. If it doesn’t “speak to my situation”, I simply don’t care or don’t believe it’s relevant/important/true. How can God say anything that doesn’t apply to my current concerns right now?

Jesus balanced both perfectly. He combined his divine theological wisdom with an immense compassion for people. He proclaimed the news and lived them out. He showed us that theology must be “efficacious” – it must affect and change us. It must be broad and deep. Neither eggheads nor babies.

How to deal with theological differences

Christians are divided over many issues, which is the (at least original) reason behind different denominations within the Evangelical confession.

Often these differences become exacerbated and lead to actual divisions of fellowship and an overall loss of the love that should characterise relationships between Christians. Reacting to this, (usually a generation or so afterwards), some Christians try to “break down the barriers” between denominations, especially in para-church ministries. The idea that is often to “put aside those things that divide us and focus on the things we agree upon”.

What follow are some thoughts on the issue.

1. It is important to distinguish between major and minor differences. Is there a division over a major doctrine (e.g. the nature of God, nature of Christ, biblical attributes, Trinity, gospel, atonement etc.) or a minor, “secondary” doctrine (e.g. church polity, service content, eschatological details, Church/State relationships etc.)? In the first case, there is a biblical mandate to separate fellowship (Rom. 16:17; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). But this does not extend to difference of opinions that are, as far as their proponents can see, biblically sound.

2. Minor differences may reflect differences in greater doctrines. For example, although we might think of ammilenianism and premillenianism as a minor difference, they often originate from very different views concerning the relationship of national Israel and the Church.

3. One way of addressing theological differences is to avoid/deny/minimise them altogether. But this  approach is short-lived benefits because it only allows for shallow, “restricted” fellowship. Sooner or later, differences will crop up again and again in practice, prayer, and teaching emphasis. This is unavoidable because healthy Christian fellowship requires the full extent of biblical truth.

4. The best way to deal with theological differences is to openly clarify them and humbly debate them. This has the multiple effects of

  • a) informing believers of a particular denomination what they actually believe and why; this leads to more biblically-critical thinking and less unqualified emotion – more light, less heat
  • b) informing believers of a particular denomination what “the other side” actually believes and why
  • c) promoting in-depth searching of the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:11)
  • d) edifying one another (1 Thes. 5:11)
  • e) often casting the differences into their real light as either major or minor, or even as different angles on the same view.

Justice

As the news of Osama bin Laden’s death sweep across the world, Christians are faced with a bit of a conundrum. Is it justice? Is it murder? How should we feel/respond?

For anyone interested, these are my thoughts so far on the whole thing. I hope they might help.

  1. Justice, like everything else in a fallen world, is always incomplete. As Christians, we understand that better than anyone – if God pursued instant and complete justice, none of us would be here now.
  2. The Bible has something to say about social justice alongside with mercy. It tells us that it is instituted by God (Rom. 13:1-4). Should we then not rejoice when a smidgen of God-instituted social justice, although vastly incomplete, is upheld?
  3. I would wish with all my heart that the headlines this morning were “BIN LADEN CONFESSES CHRIST AS SAVIOUR – TURNS HIMSELF IN”. But they weren’t, nor will they ever be. And we cannot deny that God, in His sovereignty and providence, must have something to do with that.
  4. The take-home message for us Christians who long for fulfilled and perfected “broader” justice, is to:
  • i) hope even more for the full restoration that God has promised us and live accordingly
  • ii) remember that we have received mercy and not justice and behave accordingly
  • iii) pray even more earnestly for the penetration of the gospel into countries and cultures where religious beliefs lead to tremendous oppression, social injustice, and waste of human life.

Futility and Hope

6: bible nerd

This week I had the privilege to address our workplace Christian fellowship. The topic was “Futility and hope: From Ecclesiastes to Romans”. Below are my notes.

Question 1: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Question 2: What would make you permanently happy right now?

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity - Ecc. 1:2

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. - Ecc. 1:14

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecc. 2:11

It might come as a shock to us that words like these are found in the Bible, and that might say more about our ideas about the Bible than the Bible itself.

In Ecclesiastes, God speaks to the human condition. Centuries before Christ came, God showed us that He does not shy from stooping down to our level and showing us that He fully comprehends the human experience.

Ecclesiastes is a life experiment: Solomon has everything anyone could ever want: Unsurpassed wealth, divine wisdom, the peak of power, creativity, ingenuity, knowledge, and the ability to enjoy every pleasure and emotion a person could possibly experience. Everything with which most people would answer Question 2 above.v Solomon’s  “methodology” is unrestricted. And yet, he consigns all of his “data” to futility.

The Hebrew word for vanity/futility is hebel, which literally means vapour. It communicates the idea of something fleeting and ephemeral; something that doesn’t last:

Ecc. 2:16: For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!

We all long for meaning in our lives. We are the only beings in the world who do so. Whether we admit it or not, we are all touched by this need and we actually pursuit it, sometimes without even realising it:

Ecc. 3:10-11: I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Our search for meaning is really a search for permanence, for something enduring; something eternal.

Ecc. 7:29: Pivotal point. The cause of this futility is sin.

Ecc.12:13: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Solomon’s conclusion is that, in light of the incomprehensible reality of human existence and the unsatisfied need for meaning, the only thing we can do is to resign ourselves to God’s inscrutable sovereignty. Obeying God’s commandments is all we can do, because it is the only answer to our quest for meaning. It’s not that by obeying God we will magically find answers to all our questions (Job learned this the hard way), but rather, in light of the apparent futility of life, we can find comfort in God, who is in control of everything.

The frightening falleness of the world should make us eagerly groan for the new one.

Outside of God, living life for life has a net value of zero.

Romans 8:18-24: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?

The word for futility (ματαιότης) is the same word used in the Greek translation of hebel (LXX Ecclesiastes).

Paul echoes the concept of vanity/futility in life and doesn’t deny it – he tells us that God Himself has subjected the creation to futility.

But he is clearer: Solomon’s “conclusion of the whole matter” is the “hope in which we were saved” (Rom. 8:24). It is the hope of the gospel, the eager groaning for a new world where God will give eternal, permanent meaning to everything we do and experience. Death will not haunt us anymore.

In Christ, God began the recreation of the world (2 Cor. 5:17) that will culminate in the Second Coming. Those who are in Christ are recreated beings (new creations), moving gradually away from the fallen futility of this world back to the original intention of Creation: An existence that is completely centred on God.

This is why the Scripture calls us to an all-pervasive, all-consuming, all-or-nothing, loving relationship with God through Christ (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:15).

Or why we’re told that, 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17, the world is passing away.

Why we’re described as having no abiding city here (Heb. 13:14).

Why we’re told to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2)

If we are new beings in Christ, then what is the hope of our life? What “gets us out of bed in the morning”? Where do we seek our meaning? Our joy?

The Psalmist writes things like “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25). Is that the reality of our Christian life? Do we find meaning, joy, satisfaction and contentment in God through Christ?

How does this tie up with God’s pruning work in us (John 15:1-2)? When we read passages like Rom. 8:28-29, do we understand that everything that happens to us fits into His bigger plan of recreation?

Out of bed

Adam working in the field. Series History of t...

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What gets us out of bed in the morning? What keeps us going?

Humans have a remarkable ability to ignore the greatest issues in life. We go through life pretending that we are seeking truth and depth and meaning, but we don’t. If we were, we’d be tearing ourselves to pieces looking for God, or taking turns blowing our brains out. Ecclesiastes tells us that all of human existence is futile/pointless/meaningless/hebel. In Romans 8:18-24, Paul gives us the answer: God subjected this world to futility because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17) and it is God who will redeem/restore/recreate it by subjecting it to the “last Adam”, Christ.