Thursday, 31 March 2016
Observation answers the question, “What does the text say?” Elucidation answers the question, “What does it mean?” Application answers the question, “What does it mean to me?”
Below is an example, based on 1 Samuel 22:1–2.
1. Where did David go?
2. Who joined him?
3. What kind of people were they?
4. What was David’s relation to the people with him?
1. Where did David come from and why?
2. What caused David to be in danger? (hint: see preceding context; see 1 Sam. 18:6–9)
3. Why might people be motivated to come and join David?
4. What does the passage show about people’s view of David?
5. What does it show about David taking responsibility?
6. What does it show about David’s leadership?
7. What was God’s plan for David’s future? (hint: see 1 Sam. 16:1–2, 13)
8. What do we see about community life around David?
9. How does the passage show God’s care for David and for the community?
10.What does the passage foreshadow about a future greater son of David? (hint: see Acts 2:30–31)
1. How is Christ’s care for you reflected in David?
2. In what ways does the passage foreshadow your relation to Christ? Other people’s relation to Christ? What does the passage imply about how your relation to Christ should develop?
3. In what ways does David serve as an example for you?
4. In what ways do the people around David serve as an example for you?
5. What does the passage suggest about your relation to those in distress?
6. In what ways does the passage prefigure the church?
7. In what ways might the passage prefigure the relation of the church to outsiders, and what does it imply for your attitude toward outsiders?
Using the Questions
A person may study the Bible by himself for his personal benefit, or he may study in order to prepare for leading a group or giving a presentation or a sermon. For any of these goals, a person may ask himself the three types of questions, concerning observation, elucidation, and application.
To study a passage more fully, a person may prepare a worksheet, with four columns on a single sheet of paper or on a word processor. He then fills the far left-hand column with the text of the passage, spreading the passage out within the column so that it fills the whole column (or, for longer passages, a person can use the left-hand column of multiple pages). To the right of the far left-hand column are three other columns. These columns have space that will contain observations, elucidations, and applications, respectively. Then the student adds comments on the passage in the other three columns.
The Value of 3 Steps
Breaking the study of the Bible into three steps, rather than seeing it as all one process of interaction, has an advantage. We all have weaknesses and biases in how we look at Scripture. The three steps help people not to overlook one or more aspects of interpretation as they hurry to get to their favorite part.
One person loves application, and tends to leap into it without taking time to think through what the passage is really saying. Another person avoids application, and tends to think and think and think without ever acting on the message. By contrast, James tells us that we should make sure that we act on what we hear: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22; see also vv. 23–27). Still another person reads and reads, without asking himself about what it means or how it applies. He remains largely on the level of observation.
The division into three steps encourages people to look at the passage in several ways, and not to neglect aspects that they tend to minimize.
Vern S. Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books and articles on a variety of topics, including biblical interpretation, language, and science. His most recent book is Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation.
Wednesday, 30 March 2016
In 1997 a book was published by Rodney Stark, who is a Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at Washington University. It was called "The Rise of Christianity." The subtitle of the book explains the main thrust of the book:
"How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement, became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.”
Given its beginnings as a cult arising out of Judaism in one of the smallest countries of the world. Headed by a failed Jewish Messiah who died unrecognised by the very people who were waiting for him. Abandoned by his followers. Nailed to a cross like a common criminal. He became a picture of ridicule and failure. None of these things shout out success do they? So Stark's question is a good one. How did Christianity rise up to engulf the Roman Empire within just 3 centuries?
It’s an interesting book looking at the role of women, the conditions of the Roman Empire which helped the spread of Christianity, martyrdom and the example of the early Christians. But the weakness of the book is that it overlooks one important thing. And that is the message that was preached and proclaimed everywhere first by the Apostles and then by the growing number of disciples who began to move across the known world.
It was this message that under the power of the Holy Spirit changed individual lives, transformed personalities and re-vitalised human society. It’s that message that I want to look at this morning as given by Peter in Acts 10. But first a bit of background:
Peter, a Jew, has been summoned by God through a dream to go to the house of a Gentile, a God-fearing Centurion named Cornelius. When he arrives he discovers that Cornelius’ house is full of Cornelius' family and friends. Once there Peter shares with them the message God gave him to speak. In this message he paints a picture of God in five aspects. He tells them of:
A God who includes, a Lord who reconciles, a Messiah who heals, a
deliverer who dies, and a judge who forgives.
First of all a faith that includes (verse 24-35).
There is an old John West advertisement from the sixties that advertises salmon with the following line:
'It’s the fish that John West reject that makes John West the best.’
And there is a certain understanding of God that He is like that. He only takes the good ones. There is a line that comes up in the occasional funeral where someone says to me of someone who has died:
“Oh Vicar its very sad, but he only takes the best.”
I think they are confusing God with John West. Because here in Acts 10:34-35 Peter lays that myth to rest. Bear in mind that he, as a Jew, previously had little if anything to do with Gentiles because they were outside of God’s concerns. They were unclean, defiled and lost. But something has happened to disabuse him of such thinking, for he starts his message with this:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
So right from the start Peter makes it plain that Gentiles too can be included in God’s kingdom if they fear God and do what is right.
Second, it is about a God who reconciles (verse 36).
In verse 36 Peter talks about “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” who is “Lord of all”.
One of the great themes of the Bible is the need for us to be reconciled with God. From the Garden of Eden forward human beings, we are told, are estranged from God. And this causes a disconnect between each other and also within ourselves. We can see it in the world today between nations, within families, in society and in the rise of depression and mental illness. And so in the coming of Jesus there is the wonderful offer of peace. Writing to the Colossians Pauls says:
“For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20)”
Commenting on that passage Billy Graham in his book Peace with God writes this:
"The world will never know peace until it finds it in the cross of Jesus Christ. You will never know the peace with God, peace of conscience, peace of mind, and peace of soul, until you stand at the foot of the cross and identify yourself with Christ by faith. There is the secret of peace. This is peace with God.”
Thirdly, a Messiah who heals (verse 38)
In verse 38 Peter, talking about the earthly ministry of Jesus points towards the works of power he performed following his baptism by John. Baptism is seen here as God anointing Jesus for his work as Messiah. The word ‘Messiah’ in Greek is Christos which means “anointed one”.
And it is under this anointing that Jesus was able to go “about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”
Just as peace flows from God so does goodness, healing and deliverance from evil. And so we read of Jesus healing lepers and blind people, and setting free those oppressed by demons.
What chance have we against the oppression of evil in our world today? What resources do we have that can heal us and set us free?
In today’s Easter message Pope Francis preached an Easter message of hope after what has been a grim week in Europe where evil in all its ugliness and violence has claimed so many lives. He called on Christians not to let fear and pessimism "imprison" them. He said:
"Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control our hearts."
Perfect love, the Bible says, casts out fear. Light expels darkness. God and goodness, overcomes evil and the power of sin.
John says of Jesus at the beginning of his gospel:
“In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Jesus is the Messiah who heals and sets free. Sets us free form evil and the power of sin within us which, unchecked, leads to such evil.
Fourthly, a deliverer that dies (verse 39).
I deliberately chose a different translation this morning for our first reading for one reason. In verse 39 Peter talks about how he and his fellow disciples were witnesses to what happened to Jesus:
“And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear, not to all people but to us…”
The word I was concerned about is the word ‘tree’. In the NIV they have translated it 'cross', but the actual word is tree. Why is that difference important? Because the Old Testament specifically states Deuteronomy 21:33:
"If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God).”
Peter is deliberately pointing us to the fact that Jesus was seen, by the Jews—Pharisees and scribes—to be under God’s curse. He who is completely innocent, has therefore become a curse for us. Anyone hung on a tree—whether by rope or in this case nails—was seen to be the very worst of sinners. Why else would they die in such a way. By hanging on a cross Jesus is identifying with the very worst of us and by dying and taking the sins of the world into the grave with him and rising again and leaving them behind, shows that forgiveness is now available to everyone, even the very worst of us, if we believe in him, repent, turn away from sin and live for him. (Why baptisms at Easter)
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Finally, the judge who forgives (42-43)
Peter tells us that it is this Jesus—who became a curse for us—who is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. And it is through this Jesus that we are able to receive not sentence but forgiveness if we believe in him.
The story is told of a Roman Catholic bishop who was upset because a woman in his diocese claimed to have daily conversations with Jesus. A little cult has grow up around her, and every day people surrounded her house, got on their knees, prayed, sang hymns, and said the rosary. The bishop thought that all of this was getting out of hand, so he went to visit the woman. He told her that while he knew she THOUGHT she was having conversations with Jesus, he was pretty much convinced it was all part of her imagination. To prove the point he said, "Okay, if Jesus is right here in this room with you now, and you can talk to Him, then ask Him to name the three sins I confessed this morning when I went to the confessional. After having what YOU believe to be a conversation with Jesus, if you can accurately name those sins, I might believe in what you say." The woman sat for a long while. Then she smiled and turned to the bishop and said, "I asked Him, but Jesus said, 'I forgot."
We have a God who not only forgives, He forgets. He takes sin away from us and forgets it was ever ours in the first place. On Good Friday he took them on the Cross with him - he bore our sins (Isaiah 53) (he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world John said) and bearing them he died with them and was laid in the tomb. When he rose again from the dead he didn't just leave behind the grave-clothes, he left behind all our sins. He carries them no more.
Here then is the message that won over human hearts and won over the Roman Empire: A God who includes, a Lord who reconciles, a Messiah who heals, a deliverer who dies, and a judge who forgives.
Sunday, 27 March 2016
Brendan Clifford OP
Some believe he planned to overthrow Caesar. Others say he was the Messiah, sent to liberate the world from the powers of darkness.
His followers claim he came back to life after his brutal execution, and walked among them. His enemies say his body was stolen and remains hidden.
2000 years on, it’s time to reopen the case on Jesus Christ.
Check out this website: http://www.wheredoyoustand.co.uk/#intro
Saturday, 26 March 2016
Wednesday, 23 March 2016
"There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen.
There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.
There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted to Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand.
There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position."
One Sunday in 1851 following a period of deep conviction of sin, Haslam ascended into the pulpit of Baldhu church near Truro with the intention of telling his congregation that he would not preach again to them until he was saved and to ask them to pray for his conversion.
However, when he began to preach on the text 'What think ye of Christ' he saw himself as a Pharisee who did not recognise that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. At that moment, the Holy Spirit breathed new life into him and the effect was so obvious and marked that a local preacher who was present stood up and shouted 'the Parson is converted' and the people rejoiced 'in Cornish style'.
Others were also converted on that day, including members of his own household, others fled from the church in fear. A revival followed that blessed Sunday that lasted for three years during which time souls were saved weekly, often daily. Here is his story:
William Haslam from early days was very religious. As a young man he was stricken with a severe illness which affected his lungs, and the doctors pronounced him a dying man. In this condition, he constantly read his Prayer Book, especially the office for the Visitation of the Sick, finding comfort in the prayer for a sick child. This petitioned that if the person died, he might be taken to heaven. He says in later years, "I little dreamed if I had died in that unpardoned and Christless state, I should have been lost for ever for I was profoundly ignorant of the necessity of a change of heart - perfectly unconscious that I must be born again of the Spirit".
Being strangely impressed in his heart by what he felt was the dealing of God, that he was going to recover from his sickness, he took an important step. He says: "In the gladness of my heart, I gave myself to God, to live for Him ... I did not know at that time that faith does not consist in believing that I have given myself, even if I meant it ever so sincerely but in believing that God has taken or accepted me."
With returning health and strength, he forsook the ways of the world. His own words reveal the state of his life.
"I turned over a new leaf, and therewith covered up the blotted pages of my old life. On this new path I endeavoured to walk as earnestly in a religious way as I had before lived in a worldly one ... I did not see, as I have since, that turning over a new leaf to cover the past, is not by any means the same thing as turning back the old leaves, and getting them washed in the Blood of the Lamb."
In this state of mind, his thoughts were turned along one particular avenue: "I was absorbed for the time, not so much in the Bible as in the 'Tracts for the Times' - these Oxford Tracts suited me exactly, and fitted my tone of mind to a nicety ... I read those writings with avidity, and formed from them certain ecclesiastical proclivities which carried me on with renewed zeal ... I did not look to the Bible, but to the Church, for teaching, for I was led to consider the private judgement on the subject of Scripture statements was very presumptuous. I got moreover, into a legal state, and thought my acceptance with God depended upon my works, and that His future favour would result upon my faithfulness and attention to works of righteousness which I was going. This made me very diligent in prayer, fasting and almsdeeds ... I took it for granted that I was a child of God, because I had been baptised and brought into the Church and having been confirmed and admitted to the Lord's Table, I concluded that I was safely on the way to heaven. I see now the error of this earnest devotion, and that I was going about to establish my own righteousness instead of submitting to the righteousness of God."
As his health improved, Mr. Haslam was led to give his life to the Church. He was examined by Bishop Philpotts of Exeter in the year 1842, and then by the Bishop of Salisbury (Denison) and ultimately was ordained. He says that the Bishop's address moved him very much, especially the thought that he was to take care of the souls of his parishioners. He felt the burden of responsibility very greatly, and asked himself, "What could I do with souls?" He was rather distressed over this, because, as he says, "My idea of ordination was to be a clergyman, read the prayers, preach sermons and do all that I could to bring people to Church; but how could I answer for souls which had to live for ever? And what was I to do for them? ... I felt that, notwithstanding my ardent desire to serve and glorify God, I had not the remotest conception as regards winning souls."
Appointed to the parish of Perranzabuloe, he applied himself diligently to his labours, not only ecclesiastical, but intellectual, archaeological and architectural also. Concerning his ministry, he says, "From the commencement of my ministry, I did not as a general rule, preach my own sermons, but Newman's, which I abridged and simplified, for in that day I thought them most sound in doctrine, practical, and full of good common sense ... I can see now, thank God!, that, with all their excellencies, they were utterly deficient in spiritual vitality. Their author ... was a man who was searching, not for God, but for a Church. At length, when he grasped the ideal of what a Church ought to be, he tried by the Oxford Tracts, especially No. 90, to raise the Church of England to his standard; failing in that, he became dissatisfied and went over to the Church of Rome."
After a while he was appointed to the parish of Baldhu, and here he applied himself with great diligence to the work. Through his efforts a church was erected, he himself doing a good deal of the artistic work. One day he was painting a text over the gate of the Church, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." A man (probably a Dissenter) was standing near the foot of the ladder and he remarked, "Heaven is a long way from that gate".
His preaching at this time was all about the Church. To him there was no salvation outside the Church, and there was no Church without a Bishop. His description of this matter is as follows.
"I preached that forgiveness and salvation were to be had in and by the Church, which was as the Ark in which Noah was saved. Baptism was the door of the Ark, and Holy Communion the token of abiding in it and all who were not inside were lost".
This teaching sometimes gave him considerable trouble of mind, as he wondered what would happen to all those people outside, especially the Methodists, who spoke so much about the forgiveness of sins, and seemed to have a far greater joy on this matter than his own people. Then there was John Bunyan. He was a dreadful schismatic, and yet, would he be lost?
So great was his own fear on the matter of Baptism, that one day he baptised himself Conditionally in the Church, for fear he had not been properly baptised in his infancy.
Talking with a lady in the parish one day, she told him, "Ah! you went to college to learn Latin; but though I don't know a word in the Book, yet I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies".
Talking to another man as to why people did not come to his Church, the man replied, "Cornish people are too enlightened. Only unconverted people and backsliders go to such a place".
All this served to disturb his peace of mind. He wondered what this "conversion" was that the Methodists spoke so much about. The crowning event came when his gardener fell ill. The doctors pronounced him a dying man. Then faced with eternity, all the teachings of the Church and sacraments that the vicar had given him failed to console him and give him an assurance of peace with God. In his distress, the poor man sent for a converted neighbour. This man, instead of giving him false comfort, proceeded to show him that he was a lost sinner in the sight of God, and that he needed to come to Christ just as he was for pardon and peace through the precious Blood. The gardener was brought under deep conviction of sin, and found peace in believing on the Finished Work of Christ. The news spread all over the parish that the "parson's servant had been converted". In great distress, Mr. Haslam called upon the sick man, to try and reclaim him for the Church. When he called, instead of finding him lying upon his bed, a dying man, he was walking about the room in a most joyful manner.
With overflowing heart, he told the vicar of his new found peace and joy in the Saviour, and then declared he was going to pray for "his dear master" to be converted too. This was too much for the distracted cleric, and he left the house in a disturbed frame.
In such a state of mind he paid a visit shortly afterwards to the Rev R Aitken, the evangelical vicar of Pendeen, and the following conversation took place.
"You are working hard at Baldhu, but are you satisfied?"
"No, I am not satisfied."
"Because I am making a rope of sand, which looks very well till I pull it, and then, when I expect it to hold, it gives way. These Cornish people are ingrained schismatics."
Mr. Haslam then spoke of his gardener's conversion.
"Well," said Mr. Aitken, "If I were ill, I certainly would not send for you. If you had been converted you would have remained at home to rejoice with him. It is very clear you are not converted."
"Not converted? How can you tell?"
"Have you peace with God?"
"How did you get peace?"
"I have it continually. I get it at the Daily Service, I get it through prayer and reading, and especially at the Holy Communion; I have made it a rule to carry my sins there every Sunday, and have often come away from that sacrament feeling as happy and free as a bird."
"How long does this peace last?"
"I suppose, not a week, for I have to do the same thing every Sunday."
"I thought so," he replied. Then opening the Bible he read from the fourth chapter of John, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst: but the water that I shall give him shall be in him, a well of water springing up into eternal life".
Mr. Aitken then pointed out the difference between getting water by drawing from a well, and having a living well within, springing up.
I never had heard of such a thing, so I asked him: "Have you this living water?"
"Yes, thank God, I have had it for the last thirty years."
"How did you get it?"
He pointed to the tenth verse, "Thou wouldest have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water".
"Shall we ask Him?" said Mr. Haslam.
Together they knelt down and prayed. Mr. Haslam was overcome, and wept, while Mr. Aitken shouted and praised God. Mr. Haslam then took his leave, and on the way home was greatly troubled lest he should be one of those spoken of in the Scripture, who had thought they were all right, and yet to them the Lord said "Depart from me; I never knew you".
His mind was in a turmoil from Thursday, and when Sunday came, he felt totally unfit to take the service. However, he nerved himself for the effort. He did not know what to preach on, but when he was reading the Gospel he thought he would just say a few words of explanation, and then dismiss the people. He took from the Gospel for that day, the text "What think ye of Christ?" He explained how, when Christ put this question to the Pharisees, they did not understand that He had come to save them. In his own words, he then describes the marvellous happening that took place:
"Something was telling me, all the time, 'You are no better than the Pharisees. You do not believe He has come to save you any more than they did.' I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden, a local preacher, who
At least twenty other people that morning found real peace through the Saviour. The news spread in all directions that "the parson had been converted, and that in his own pulpit, and by his own sermon".
The church could not hold the crowds that came in the evening. I told the people that if I had died last week I should have been lost for ever, but now the Lord had "brought me out of a horrible pit, and out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a Rock and put a new song in my mouth".
The Church was filled with praise, and many were saved. The glorious work that God had started spread, and revival broke out in many places around.
This was in the year 1851. Mr. Haslam lived for over another thirty years. The blessing that everywhere followed his preaching was amazing. Revival after revival broke out. Thousands of souls were brought into the kingdom of God through the simple message of justification by faith in the precious blood of the Saviour, and the work accomplished by the Lord through his servant was such, that eternity alone will reveal the full results.
Reader may this wonderful record of God's dealings with William Haslam search your heart. Many, like him, are resting for their salvation on Church sacraments. Multitudes have based their hopes for eternity on their morality, whilst thousands more are trusting in their works of righteousness to secure their entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
First, not everyone wants to be 'saved' or spend eternity with God. I always remember Dave Allen the Irish comedian stating that he could not think of anything more boring than sitting on a cloud playing a harp and stroking the ego of a God who wants nothing more than for us to worship him. The picture is obviously a mistaken one, and he seems to be confusing humans with angels, nevertheless what he is expressing is his desire to be left alone and disappear into non-existence when his life is over. And so for a God to force him to live forever would not appear a very loving thing to do.
So for atheists who want oblivion, and Buddhists who want basically the same thing, any talk of being forced into heaven would appear to be more hell than heaven, and would certainly undermine the notion of love which, as Paul reminds us is "kind" and "always protects" (1 Corinthians 13) which presumably means kindly protecting and upholding the free will of the other.
Second, to force people into heaven also would be to be very intolerant. Intolerance - THE great sin of the 21st century - is defined in the dictionary as:
"an unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differ from one's own."
In trying to be tolerant - which is the great virtue of the 21st century - what is actually happening is that by trying to force a view of God onto those who don't and won't believe, is actually doing the exact opposite.
Third, and this is key for me, although it all sounds very nice - and believe me in terms of members of my immediate family I would love it to be true - there is actually very little warrant in Scripture or tradition for such a thing. Of course there are texts that can be interpreted that way - if you remove them from their contexts - but closer examination of the WHOLE counsel of God will show that this is mistaken. Take one such text from Paul's First Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2 verse 4 which states:
"(God) wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."
In isolation this looks promising. But earlier Paul talks about Jesus who "came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). Why would he do that if all would be saved anyway? And looking at the greater context of Paul's other writings it is clear that just as it is possible to be saved, so it is possible not to be. (Look at Romans 2:8 for example).
Fourthy, and logically, to preach and give people the false hope of universalism is dangerous - even if you believe in it - because you may be wrong. Let me give an example. Let us say that your brother or father are atheists. You have, as a Christian, a choice. You can either pray for them that they will accept Jesus - his death and resurrection - trusting Him for their salvation and therefore being saved. Or you can just say to yourself - and to them - that God will save them anyway, so don't worry. If you are right and God will save them, all well and good (but even that has problems regarding their own freedoms). But if you are wrong then you have either given them false hope or you have refused to play a part in God's plan to save them because you would not witness to them or pray for them. You then will be held responsible for their eternal separation from God. Can you live with that? I could not. So logically would it not be best to pray for them, encourage them to explore the Christian message and believe in Jesus, rather than run the risk of getting it completely and fatally wrong?
Lastly, I did mention earlier that traditionally and historically the church never taught universalism. That is not strictly true because some within its ranks have held that position, the most notable being Origen who lived from 185-254. However these were lone voices and many, including Origen, were accused of heresy as a result. So although some have advocated it, it is not a position the church feels is consistent with the teaching of the Bible or indeed the life and witness of Jesus who in many places warns about the dangers of an existence without God. So it is logically safer, and more consistent, to do what you can, as Jesus asked, to call men and women to believe in Jesus so that he can do what he came to do, and save them. After all that is what he desires.
Note: The above icon is of the Last Judgement.
Sunday, 20 March 2016
"In understanding how discipleship to Jesus Christ works, a major issue is how he automatically presents himself to our minds. It is characteristic of most 20th century Christians that he does not automatically come to mind as one of great intellectual power: as Lord of universities and research institutes, of the creative disciplines and scholarship. The Gospel accounts of how he actually worked, however, challenge this intellectually marginal image of him and help us to see him at home in the best of academic and scholarly settings of today, where many of us are called to be his apprentices."
Elsewhere he also writes:
"Today is often spoken of as the age of information. Information is vital to all we do, of course, but then it always has been. What distinguishes the present time is that there is a lot more information (and misinformation) available than ever before, and a lot of people are trying to sell it to us.
What happens to Jesus in the crush of the information pushers? Unfortunately he is usually pushed aside. Many Christians do not even think of him as one with reliable information about their lives. Consequently they do not become his students. What does he have to teach them? It is very common to find Christians who work hard to master a profession and succeed very well in human estimation, while the content of their studies contains no reference at all to Jesus or his teaching. How could this be?
A short while ago I led a faculty retreat for one of the better Christian colleges in the United States. In opening my presentation I told the group that the important question to consider was what Jesus himself would say to them if he were the speaker at their retreat. I indicated my conviction that he would ask them this simple question: Why don't you respect me in your various fields of study and expertise? Why don't you recognize me as master of research and knowledge in your fields?
The response of these Christian professionals was interesting to observe, to say the least. Some thought the question would be entirely appropriate. Many were unsure of exactly what I was saying. Quite a number responded with: "Are you serious?" The idea that Jesus is master of fields such as algebra, economics, business administration or French literature simply had not crossed their minds--and had a hard time finding access when presented to them.
That brings out a profoundly significant fact. In our culture, and among Christians as well, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as "well-informed," "brilliant," or "smart."
Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is taken as a mere icon, a wraith-like semblance of a man living on the margins of the "real life" where you and I must dwell. He is perhaps fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, but little more.
But can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what Christian's take him to be in other respects and not be the best informed and most intelligent person of all: the smartest person who ever lived, bringing us the best information on the most important subjects.
What lies at the heart of the astonishing disregard of Jesus found in the moment-to-moment existence of multitudes of professing Christians is a simple lack of respect for him. He is not seriously taken to be a person of great ability. But what then can devotion or worship mean, if simple respect is not included in it.
By contrast, the early Christians, who took the power of God's life in Jesus to all quarters of the earth, thought of Jesus as one "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col. 2:3 NAS) They thought of him as master of every domain of life."
John 2:24-25 says_ "But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man."
The point to drive home is that Jesus can be trusted with not only telling us the truth but telling us all we need to know about how to live life well, and find fulfilment and contentment in what we do. This is because he knows everything and is the most intelligent person we will ever know. We can go to Jesus as one who knows what we need, who knows about life. But how often do we see him in that light? As Dallas Willard says we seem to see him as an icon or figurehead, or even a on a cross. He is wraith-like and insubstantial and his life rarely impinges on the majority of our lives unless it is the rarefied atmosphere of religious expertise. Outside of that he has little or no influence and is assumed to have little or no knowledge about the fields we work in. He exists mainly on the margins of our lives, only touching the fringes of what we are doing unless of course we pray or we are facing danger or disaster.
So how we think of Jesus is really important because it will affect our confidence in what he says. Do we believe that he knows what he is talking about, or do we have take it or leave it attitude to what he says? Will we take what he says seriously or not? Depends on how we view him.
The way up is first down
I want to share with you a brief statement which summarise the readings this morning (Zechariah 9:9-12; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 45:2-7; Matthew 27:1-54) . If we are to enter new life with Jesus, the way up is first down.
That is the message of the collect that introduces our readings this morning. The author writes that God sent his Son Jesus Christ:
“to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross” why?
“(so that) all mankind should follow the example of his great humility”
As we therefore “follow the example of his patience...we will also “be made partakers of his resurrection”. In other words the way up, to enter new life with Jesus—partakers in his resurrection—is first of all down—following the example of his great humility.”
In the first reading from Zechariah we have what appears as a contradiction. The prophet paints a picture of a king coming in to Jerusalem.
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he”.
But he rides no warhorse or chariot but instead a lowly donkey:
“humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zechariah 9)
It is this king that God will exalt over all his enemies, bringing peace to the nations and setting the captives free. The way to up, the way to power is first of all down, through humility and lowliness.
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:12
This picture of exaltation through humiliation is repeated in Paul’s
famous hymn to Jesus echoed in our collect this morning, where
“being found in human form ...humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore—that is as a consequence of this – God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2)
The way up—Jesus’ exaltation—is first of all through his coming down—his condescension. And if we want to enter life, Jesus is the example we must imitate.
"If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross, deny himself and follow me.” Luke 9:23
Psalm 45 is a messianic psalm and anticipates Jesus. He is the one who is:
“fairer than all the children of men, full of grace..”
And Jesus’ beauty and grace come from his humility and “therefore God hath blessed him for ever” . The way up is first down.
And lastly the account from Matthew charts, in grim detail, the end of the process of Jesus entering fully into our humanity. God is crucified—to borrow a phrase from Jurgen Moltmann—and dies:
“despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces .” (Isaiah 53)
But the way up is the first of all through going down and this same Jesus is raised on the third day and ascends to be with God. And so Paul can write to those preparing for baptism:
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6)
The old evangelists used to invite their hearers to enter into this way to life with a simple ABC outline:
A. Accept you are a sinner.
"For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)"
B. Believe Jesus died for your sins.
"If you confess with your mouth, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9-10)"
C. Confess your sins.
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9)"
It’s not a bad model, For the way up is first down, and the way to new life is through the self-humbling which Jesus has showed us.
"Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God so that in due time he may exalt you."
1 Peter 5:6
First it is about Holy Communion which is something close to my heart. Every Sunday we celebrate it because it is a weekly reminder of Jesus' sacrificial death for us. When we take the bread and wine we are accepting for ourselves what Jesus has done for us.
Second, the hymn reminds us that in the end, the tokens or symbols ill cease and we will be able to experience the reality they point to.
"Feast after feast thus comes and passes by.
Yet, passing, points to that glad feast above..."
Third, the hymn moves me. It touches something deep within me and creates a sense of yearning which I find it very difficult to put my finger on. Maybe it is the sense of anticipation that is created every time I receive the bread and wine or the hunger for God which is always there but never fully realised?
Either way I love the hymn and found myself writing a tune for it which the church kindly played, albeit a shortened version, which is here found below:
Here, O my Lord, I see you face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon you lean.
Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with you the royal wine of heaven;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
This is the hour of banquet and of song;
Here is the heavenly table spread anew;
Here let me feast and, feasting, still prolong
The brief bright hour of fellowship with you.
I have no help but yours; nor do I need
Another arm but yours to lean upon;
It is enough, O Lord, enough indeed;
My strength is in your might, your might alone.
Mine is the sin but yours the righteousness;
Mine is the guilt but yours the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace;
Your blood, your righteousness, O Lord, my God.
Too soon we rise; the vessels disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone.
The bread and wine remove, but you are here,
Nearer than ever, still my shield and sun.
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by.
Yet, passing, points to that glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb’s great marriage feast of bliss and love.
Hymn # 243 from Lutheran Worship
Author: attr. Henry Lawes
Tune: Farley Castle
1st Published in: 1855
Friday, 18 March 2016
I am a huge admirer of then present Archbishop of Canterbury who is, technically, my boss as he is head of the entire Anglican Communion. Here he is delivering an excellent lecture on evangelism:
Thursday, 17 March 2016
I also love being a Christian, but I am aware that like music, Christianity comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes from Roman Catholicism to the Society of Friends, known as the Quakers. However if I was to express a preference, I would describe myself as an Evangelical Christian.
The word 'Evangelical' has been going through a hard time in recent years. Some people when they hear the word associate it with narrowness, intolerance, Bible-bashing and, if you live in America, Republicanism! However evangelicalism has a noble pedigree and can trace its roots right back through John and Charles Wesley and into the New Testament. It is not a new or recent innovation. Listen to what John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury from 1560 - and himself an evangelical - in his famous apology:
"It is not our doctrine that we bring you this day; we wrote it not, we found it not out, we are not the inventors of it; we bring you nothing but what the old fathers of the church, what the apostles, what Christ our Saviour himself hath brought before us."
It is not a departure or a deviation from orthodox Christianity either. Evangelical Christians have no problem or difficulty in reciting the Apostles' nor Nicene creed and, as John Stott writes in his book "Evangelical Truth", can do so "without mental reservations, and without needing to cross their fingers while doing it."
Finally the word 'evangelical' is not a synonym for 'fundamental' which has now come to be seen as a derogatory term suggesting a form of narrow-minded anti-intellectualism. In fact fundamentalism has very respectable origins. It arose from a series of twelve paperbacks entitled The Fundamentals, which were distributed between 1909 and 1915 by Lyman and Milton Stewart, brothers from Southern California, and distributed free of charge. They were concerned with basic Christian truths like the authority of Scripture, the deity, incarnation, virgin birth, atoning death, bodily resurrection and personal return of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation and judgement, worship, world mission and evangelism. They were written at a time when historic and orthodox Christianity was coming under sustained attack by liberal theologians. And so the term 'fundamentalist' was coined to describe anybody who believed the central affirmations of the Christian faith.
But what distinguishes an Evangelical Christian from say a Liberal or a Catholic Christian? Here are six fundamentals which describe your typical evangelical according to Rev Dr J.I.Packer, and Anglican evangelical:
1. The supremacy of the Holy Scripture, because of its unique inspiration.
2. The majesty of Jesus Christ the God-man who died as a sacrifice of sin.
3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit who exercises a variety of vital ministries.
4. The necessity of conversion, a direct encounter with God effected by God alone.
5. The priority of evangelism, with witness being an expression of worship.
6. The importance of fellowship, te church being essentially a living community of believers.
A shorter summary was published by Dr David Bebbington in his survey Evangelicalism in Modern Britain and it has fast become acknowledged as a comprehensive list of evangelical characteristics:
Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
Activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible;
Crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Taking into consideration all of the above therefore, I am proud to call myself an evangelical, and although people may use it as a derogatory term, I believe it accurately describes my faith and the emphases I apply in my preaching, praying and living.
It's always good to see examples of where the Church is being the Church and reaching out to people. Here is one from the Church of England. If you want to see more go to this website: http://www.justpray.uk/
The following YouTube presentation by Cheryl Sacks is worth listening to as she talks about the power of intercessory prayer. I came across her through her book "The Prayer Saturated Church" which is a book full of ideas about how to turn your church into a praying church.
1 Now He (Jesus)was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, 2 saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. 3 “There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ 4 “For a while he was unwilling; but afterwards he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; 7 now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 “I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"
Luke 18:1-8 NASB
The end of the parable is actually a restatement of the introduction. When Jesus asks the question as to whether, when he returns, he will find faith on the earth, this can be explained in terms of the opening verse. When he returns will he find an enduring and persevering faith? The kind of faith:
1. that really believes in God and that he is a God worth believing in? This is a strong theme in the passage as Jesus underlines that God is, unlike the unjust judge, really interested in and concerned for the widow and her plight. He is interested and concerned about us too;
2. that trusts this God enough to keep on praying and asking. A faith that trusts despite the fact that if the answer does not come straight away, it will come in some form, and in a way and a manner that satisfies the one who prays;
3. that believes that if God delays, he delays not because he needs persuading or nagging as this unjust judge does, but because there is a good and beneficial reason for doing so;
4. that perseverance must "finish its work so that (we) may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."(James 1:14)
Nowadays when we see the church struggling and in places dying, the reason we assume is because of advancing secularism, or the cycle of death and life or because of the church's disobedience. And all these thing may well be factors in what is happening. But at the same time I am beginning to wonder if it is a loss of faith on the church's part. The sort of faith that Jesus himself says he will be looking for when he returns.
By asking that question in the way he does: "However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" there seems to be an element of anxiety or doubt, as if he knows what the future failings of his church will be. Therefore the lack of success we experience in the church today is not so much because of what the world around us is like, but what we ourselves are like.
Have we allowed the age we live in shape our expectations and our faith? Do we lack the character to persevere in prayer and to keep praying until something happens because the way the world approaches things is to want and expect and demand something straight away? And are the trials and difficulties we face not a sign of failure but a means of God encouraging the necessary development of character that we need in order to grow the type of faith we are lacking and yet so desperately need at this time?
Losing heart, as Luke refers to it, is losing trust or as the Greek states "becoming weak or weary or faint". In other words becoming less Christian or less of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
It's interesting that the models for prayer in the Bible are two Old Testament characters. The first is Jacob who wrestles with an angel and refuses to let go until the Angel blesses him (Genesis 32:22-32). This incident becomes the turning point in Jacob's life, a point of conversion. The damage to his hip bone becomes a metaphor for an enduring change that took place in his life as a result of his wrestling and perseverance. Previously he had been a shifty sly character who relied on his own wits and cunning to get his own way. But now everything was unravelling because it had been built on the sands of his own trickery and human wisdom. And so we meet him on his way to see the brother he had tricked out of his inheritance, ready to throw himself at his mercy. He was out of ideas and out of luck. He had come to the end of his rope and there was nowhere else to go. A bit like the widow who was desperate for justice and also had nowhere to go except to an unjust and corrupt judge. In both cases faith is expressed through perseverance. Wrestling prayer is a persevering prayer that says to God, in effect, I am not going to leave go of this until I get an answer.
And the other Old Testament example is Daniel who throughout his life is the epitome of perseverance under trying and testing circumstances. In chapter 9 we find him praying on behalf of his people and asking God to "hear the prayers and petitions of your servant" and to look in favour on his people and restore Jerusalem and the people of Israel. At the end of the chapter he has a vision of Gabriel who says to him "As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given" (verse 23). So far so good. But then in Chapter 10 where he prays and fasts, the answer is delayed for 21 days due to spiritual warfare.
We too see both types in our own prayer lives. The instant and miraculous answer to a half expressed prayer or a cry for help. Those are great and give a real boost to our faith. But I would argue that the second type of prayer - or the second type of answer more accurately - is equally, if not more faith enhancing because it doesn't just lift your faith it grows it!
"....we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Romans 5:3-4
Although Paul does not specifically mention faith here, the development of Christian character implies a growing trust in God which leads to hope. (See Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.")
Is that the difference between a church that is growing and one that is not? The church that grows believes in God to the point that it prays and does not give up, where one that isn't growing has not only given up on prayer but by giving up on prayer has said goodbye to faith too?
Monday, 14 March 2016
"When I taught at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, there was, one afternoon, a sudden wind-storm that packed a powerful punch. I was on campus at the time, but later, when the all-clear signals were given and we could return home, I was shocked to see the damage from such a brief though intense storm. Our residential area was a seven or eight block street that was lined with tall beautiful trees that formed a canopy over the area. In the summer the sunlight through those large leafy trees was just lovely. This day I stared at seven blocks of trees, a number of them drowned, uprooted, and damaged beyond repair. I couldn't believe it; the roots of those large trees were VERY shallow. I thought I had learned a lesson spiritually about to need to put down deep roots in Christ in order to withstand the storms of life, and I used that example in many talks.
However....I was speaking at a diocesan conference in the Midwest, and I used this example to explain that if we are going to participate in the New Evangelization, we need to make sure our roots are deep in Christ. In the New Evangelization, it is not primarily a matter of teaching people Church doctrine but, rather, of showing forth in our lives the presence of Christ so that those who hear the good news would be drawn to him. If our roots are not deep in Christ, if we don't know him, what do we have to offer?
After my talk, a man came up and asked me if I knew why the roots of those trees were so shallow. I said I presumed that it was related to the kind of trees they were, which I could not identify. "No," he said. "The problem was that the roots were never tested. He then went on to explain that water must have been plentiful for those trees; the roots did not have to dig down deep to find water. As a result, although they looked beautiful and strong, they were, in reality, very weak."
Sister Ann offers this reflection:
"As a people, we have not really been tested. We have not had to search deeply for strength, wisdom, and courage when it comes to matters of faith. We have enjoyed peace and the freedom to worship, to speak, to evangelise, to invite, to form Bible study groups and prayer groups, and to build retreats and conferences, with no penalties attached to doing so."
I sometime bemoan the fact that things are a real struggle at St. James. Instead of seeing growth we are seeing people die, leave or stay away because of old age and sickness. Plans don't come to fruition and the things we plan to do don't seem to work. Attempts at making changes to the interior of the building are opposed and attendances at house groups fluctuate. The church is cold and there is damp on the walls. The organ stopped working over a year ago and for a while we used a smaller replacement which was given to us until that developed problems. We then fell back on a electric keyboard but that too has died. We are blessed now to have a few good musicians who lead the worship and the small choir we have but that is not all plain sailing with the choir shrinking rather than growing.
I say all this not because I want people to feel sorry for us. In fact in some ways quite the opposite. God is teaching us much through all of this and, as the above excerpt from Sister Ann's book reminds us, this is God's way of actually growing us. Not up in numbers, but, hopefully down in depth and maturity. We need therefore to work WITH God in this and continue to pray, persevere and persist in what He has called us to do. If the roots go down deep enough in time we will hit water and begin to show fruit.
Sunday, 13 March 2016
"to make the building fit to serve a twenty-first century Southam, not a nineteenth century one.
The book continues:
"This meant substantial changes. As well as vital repairs to the roof, windows and stonework, there was to be new heating, a new sound system, and proper toilet and catering facilities. A raised platform was to be built at the front of the nave for worship, concerts and plays, with the organ and choir stalls moved to the back of the church. Most radically, it was suggested that the chancel be turned into a separate meeting room, and that the Victorian pews be replaced by chairs."
At this point I was beginning to wonder if Welby and I were somehow spiritually connected as the above are almost identical to the things I suggested when I first came to my Parish of St. James in Swansea. The coincidence is quite amazing. And it gets better:
"Welby turned to liturgical history to persuade his parishioners to embrace the changes, writing in his parish magazine:
"Pews are an eighteenth century invention. Organs came in during the last (19th) century, replacing the organ by a small music group. What goes round comes round. Any living building must change to suit the community. The building is the servant, not the master of those who use it. God does not demand pews or organs, and can be worshipped as well in a school or community hall, or under a tree."
The aim, the writer continues, was for a more flexible and modern building, which would not only be used by Christians on a Sunday, but become 'a focal point for the community' all week round."
Given our recent conversations about pews in the parish and the resolute opposition to moving them by some, the above could just as well have been written by me! So it is encouraging to read that the Archbishop thinks the way that I do and although my own plans for improvement have been thwarted, at least I can have the satisfaction of at least trying to do something that was intended to save the church.
Friday, 11 March 2016
"A man was sailing in a boat one day when a storm came up and damaged his boat so badly that it sank leaving him floundering in the sea. He managed to catch hold of a piece of timber that was floating nearby and hung on for many hours hoping, and praying, for rescue. After many hours a helicopter appeared overhead and a man was slowly winched down. As he drew alongside the man in the water he called to him to leave go of the piece of wood so that he could attach a harness round him and take him up into the waiting helicopter.
In that moment the man in the water was faced with three decisions. He could continue to trust in the piece of wood that had kept him afloat for so long. He could try and swim for shore - although he had no idea where that shore was. Or he could trust a man he did not know but was hovering above with outstretched arms, asking him to leave go and let him carry him up into the helicopter above.
That is a picture of our lives and the choices we face when we look for rescue and salvation.
Here is the explanation of the parable.
The piece of wood is anything we build our lives on and which gives us a sense of security.
The man is any of us who thinks that we can make our own way into heaven under our own strength.
The rescuer is Jesus who holds out his arms and says come to him. He is the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father - and enters the Kingdom - except by or through him.
So the question is. Who will you trust?
The parable raises all kinds of questions for me about the nature of faith - something else I have been thinking of for a long time, having listened to various people like Dallas Willard, Roman Catholic writers and others. Faith for me is often seen as too passive a thing as if faith 'alone' will save us. But faith is never 'alone' in any kind of sense. For example 'faith' itself is a work. It means doing something. As with the man above 'faith' meant leaving go of something, and holding on to something or someone else. When we "put our trust in Jesus" that infers some kind of action even if it means saying a form of words or kneeling in prayer or making a commitment. Those are not pure intellect - not mere thoughts. To say you have faith in Jesus and then never reading your Bible, never praying, never attending church and never bearing witness to others makes no sense because all these things involve faith.
And yet often we hear of faith as something entirely passive or merely mental! At the very least it involves interaction with God - which is itself an action - and living out our relationship with him. As above there is something everyone has to do and keep on doing! Once the man leaves go of the wood, decides not to trust himself, he has to trust the man who opens his arms to him, and then allow him to put the harness on, and then refrain from undoing the harness and keeping still as he is winched aboard the helicopter. All these things imply not only faith and trust but doing something, or refraining from doing something which could be called 'action'.
So we must not fear when James talks about works with regards to faith because he is not setting the one against the other but using works, in the context of his letter, to explain what faith looks like, and what faith does.
Monday, 7 March 2016
The following is an article by Kallistos Ware, a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a refreshing look at the Bible and how it should be read:
Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, writing in eighteenth-century Russia, has this to say about our Orthodox attitude towards the Holy Scriptures: “If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. You have been sent a letter, not by any earthly emperor, but by the King of Heaven. And yet you almost despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure.” He goes on to say: “Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking to Him.”
Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, writing in eighteenth-century Russia, has this to say about our Orthodox attitude towards the Holy Scriptures: “If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. You have been sent a letter, not by any earthly emperor, but by the King of Heaven. And yet you almost despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure.” He goes on to say: “Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking to Him.”
We are to see Scripture as a personal letter addressed specifically to each one of us by God. We are each of us to see Scripture reading as a direct, individual dialogue between Christ and ourselves.
Two centuries after Saint Tikhon, the 1976 Moscow Conference between the Orthodox and the Anglicans expressed in different but equally valid terms the true attitude towards Scripture. Signed also by the Anglican delegates, the Moscow statement provides an admirable summary of the Orthodox view of the Bible: “The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of Himself—in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language. . . . We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience.”
Combining Saint Tikhon and the Moscow statement, we may distinguish four key qualities which mark an Orthodox reading of Scripture. First, our reading should be obedient. Second, it should be ecclesial, within the Church. Third, it should be Christ-centered. Fourth, it should be personal.
Reading the Bible with ObedienceFirst of all, then, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. Saint Tikhon and the 1976 Moscow Conference both alike emphasize the divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a letter from God. Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God’s authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. They are divinely inspired. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.
But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation; divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our personhood but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his or her particular human gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.
Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ, with an emphasis on the Kingdom of heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque details of Christ’s ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the universality of Christ’s love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.
Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is room for honest and exacting critical enquiry when studying the Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.
Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, un-created Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a personal question about ourselves: “How can I be saved?”
As God’s divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen, that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring? Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.
Some time ago I had a dream which I remember vividly. I was back in the house where, for three years as a child, I lived in boarding school. At first in my dream I went through rooms that were already familiar to me. But then the companion who was showing me round took me into other rooms that I had never seen before—spacious, beautiful, full of light. Finally we entered a small chapel, with candles gleaming and dark golden mosaics.
In my dream I said to my companion,“How strange that I have lived here for three years, and yet I never knew about the existence of all these rooms.” And he replied to me, “But it is always so.”
I awoke; and behold, it was a dream.
We are to feel towards the Bible exactly the awe, the sense of wonder, of expectation and surprise, that I experienced in my dream. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have never yet entered. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. This sense of wonder is an essential element in our responsive obedience.
If obedience means wonder, it also means listening. Such is the original meaning of the word in both Greek and Latin.
As a student I used to follow the Goon Show on the radio. In one particular incident that I recall, the telephone rings and a character reaches out his arm to pick up the receiver. “Hello,” he says, “hello, hello.” His volume rises. “Who is speaking—I can’t hear you. Hello, who is speaking?” The voice at the other end says, “You are speaking.” “Ah,” he replies. “I thought the voice sounded familiar.” And he puts the receiver down.
That unfortunately is a parable of what happens to us all too often. We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but we don’t pause to hear the voice of the other who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen—to listen with obedience.
When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional manner, and look up towards the sanctuary at the east end, we see there in the apse the Mother of God with her hands raised to heaven—the ancient scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. Such symbolically is to be our attitude also as we read Scripture—the attitude of receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She could not have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first listened to the Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it is said of her: “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told: “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). The same need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5), she says to the servants—and to all of us.
In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a living icon of the biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.
Understanding the Bible through the Church
In the second place, as the Moscow Conference says, “We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church.” Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John, the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John, whoever the author may be—and for myself I continue to accept the Johannine authorship—is accepted by the Church and in the Church.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is equally the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Ethiopian answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30, 31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible—Scripture reading is, as Saint Tikhon says, a personal dialogue between each one and Christ—but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern biblical research, but always we submit private opinion—whether our own or that of the scholars—to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.
The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: “Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?”
We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not “I” but “We.” We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our under-standing of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The Bible is the book of the Church.
To discover this “mind of the Church,” where do we begin? Our first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice, because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this liturgical and patristic approach.
As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25. They are three in number: (1) Genesis 28:10-17: Jacob’s dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven; (2) Ezekiel 43:27-44:4: the prophet’s vision of the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass; (3) Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning “Wisdom has built her house.”
These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for the 25th of March and other feasts of the Theotokos indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob’s ladder, supplying the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate. Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24) takes as his dwelling (in another interpretation, the title Wisdom or Sophia refers to the Mother of God herself). Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various feasts, we discover layers of biblical interpretation that are by no means obvious on a first reading.
Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. Regrettably, in all too many churches most of these are omitted, and so God’s people are starved of their proper biblical nourishment. This sequence of fifteen lessons sets before us the whole scheme of sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of Christ’s Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of Creation: Christ’s Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the Book of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet’s three days in the belly of the whale foreshadowing Christ’s Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf. Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), once more a “type” or prophecy of Christ’s rising from the tomb.
Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially in the Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the Old—as the Church’s calendar encourages us to do—we discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments is to use a good biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the meaning of Scripture than any commentary.
In Bible study circles within our parishes, it is helpful to give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint’s day. We can then discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen. Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using above all the biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom, which have all been translated into English. But remember, you’ll have to dig to find what you are looking for. The Fathers were speaking to a different age from ours, and need to be read with imagination. We must not be as literal-minded as the nineteenth-century Russian village priest who was told by his bishop, “Take your sermons from the Fathers.” So on the next great feast he decided to read at the Liturgy a sermon of Saint John Chrysostom without changing a single word. The church was packed, and his parishioners were disconcerted when he commenced in ringing tones, “What is this? What do I see? The church is empty. There is nobody here. Where have they all gone? Everyone is in the hippodrome.”
Father Georges Florovsky used to say that Orthodox today need to acquire a patristic mind. But to gain that, we must penetrate beyond the bare words of the Fathers to the kernel of their inner meaning.
Christ, the Heart of the Bible
The third element in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. When the 1976 Moscow Conference tells us, “The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole,” where are we to locate this unity and coherence? In the person of Christ. He is the unifying thread that runs through the entirety of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament. As my history teacher at school used to say, “It all ties up. ” That is an excellent principle to employ when reading Scripture. Only connect.
Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.
Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns particular significance to the “typological” method of interpretation, whereby “types” of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:1). Another instance is the way in which, as we have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death and Resurrection of the Savior. Such is the method of interpretation that we are to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why in Holy Week do we read from the Book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of celebrating. It all ties up.
“A Christian,” remarks Father Alexander Schmemann, “is the one who wherever he looks finds everywhere Christ, and rejoices in Him.” We can say this in particular of the biblical Christian. He is the one who, wherever he looks, finds everywhere Christ, on every page of Scripture.
The Bible As Personal
In the words of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just, “What does it mean?” but, “What does it mean to me?” Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Savior and myself—Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.
I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means “man,” “human,” and so the Genesis account of Adam’s Fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God says, “Adam, where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). “Where is God?” we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: “Where are you?”
When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God’s words to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9), that also is addressed to each one of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in each of us, “Where is your brother?” The way to God lies through love of other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own essential humanity.
In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, the “mighty works” after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideol-ogy, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.
Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the particularity of the divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God’s love is universal in scope, but He chooses to become incarnate in a particular corner of the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother.
We are in this manner to savor all the specificity of God’s action as recorded in Scripture. The person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the distinctive “isness” of the historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily Scripture reading.
Then we are to take a third step. Reliving biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, “All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me.”
Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of everyone. Have we not all at some time in our life betrayed others, and have we not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of Saint Peter’s betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection, we can see ourselves as each an actor in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliation—seeing how the risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to accept this restoration—we ask ourselves: How Christlike am I to those who have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the forgiveness of others—am I able to forgive myself?
Or take, as another example, Saint Mary Magdalene. Can I see myself mirrored in her? Do I share in the generosity, the spontaneity and loving impulsiveness, that she showed when she poured out the alabaster box of ointment on the feet of Christ? “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.” (Here I follow the normal Western opinion, which identifies the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 with Mary Magdalene; in the Christian East this identification is not usually made.) Or am I timid, mean, holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything either good or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, “Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.”
Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the tomb (John 20:1)? Do I hear the risen Savior call me by name, as He called her, and do I respond “Rabboni” with her simplicity and completeness (John 20:16)?
Reading Scripture in this way—in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story—we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 118:105).
In addition to my usual reading - the Bible and Christian literature - I find myself more and more drawn to Christian history and esepcial...