I sat across the table with one of my closest friends and mentors, lamenting to him, “Since when did discipleship become only about Bible study?” Later that day, I read this: “You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.”* You’re good, God…
“Would you disciple this person?” I remember asking a mature Christian of a new Christian. “Sure, but I don’t have a lesson plan or a bunch of studies ready,” was the reply. It was a reasonable response, after all, as part of my schooling I was tasked to write a 12-month discipling study; it’s little wonder that many people don’t have that lying around…
“Let’s form a teaching schedule from real-life principles that our teens face, with every lesson geared towards reinforcing that one principle a quarter,” came the cry at the educational curriculum meeting. “But, how do we make sure we teach all of Scripture?” came the earnest, if expected, critique…
“What’d you think of the lesson?” I asked of someone visiting a class taught by one of my favorite in-house Bible teachers. “Fine,” she replied, “but he didn’t use very many verses…”
For 4 months the fly fishing rod produced no fish but much suffering, yet here in my hand it was again. I had only just learned the (still too thick) line and (way too big) bug to tie on, and so I cast with hope. With barely any knowledge of how or why it would, a hooked trout shook my rod for the first time, and a passion for the sport, nurtured in suffering, was born that continues today.
In a tradition that emphasizes Bible study as the goal of assembly, a contrast strikes me. Is there value in knowledge and study? Absolutely. But to what end? Often, this leads to assumptions that the more we know, the more God-like we are. Personal experience has taught me that’s vehemently false as a rule. This also assumes humans are mainly thinking beings, and that learning can and will change habits. This is how services and Bible classes are geared, and we lament when those raised to know everything from Scripture fall away. Except we don’t apply this logic to other disciplines such as exercise, or on-the-job training, or nutrition, or even fly-fishing.
Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he knew about Himself in John 21:15, Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Jesus didn’t say in John 14:15 that if you know more about Me you’ll keep My commands, but if you love Me. This isn’t a false dichotomy – what we love is what drives us, motivates us, and orients our life, far more than knowledge alone. We know this because we can know the benefits of exercise all we want, and never do it. We can know that cake is bad for us, and still eat it. And we can know about Jesus without ever truly loving Him.
What if discipleship was less about learning about Jesus, and more about loving Jesus more? What if church services were less about information and more about transformation? What if our goal was less about making sure the whole Bible is covered and more about covering our whole selves with the love of God seen in Jesus? What if our goal was less a habit of church attendance and more about attending the habits of the church that lead us to be more, or less, like Jesus? What if we spent less time learning about being a Christian, and more time living like Jesus?
Bible study is essential, no doubt. Should the whole Bible be taught and preached? Absolutely. But knowledge alone isn’t the thing which will keep Christians faithful. Simply knowing about your spouse isn’t what keeps you married. Love: what you love, whom you love, and why you love, is what God is after – that you desire Him above all else, and orient your life to keep Him oriented as your goal. We’re not to know as Christ knew, are to love as Christ loved.
Four months of habitual fishless fly-fishing that finally produced one fish lead to a passion, one that then produced a love to learn more, fish more, and do what was needed to transform into a better fly-fisher. If a tiny little trout could produce that much life-change in the hobbies of a man, where could truly discipling, not just teaching, someone to where they catch the smallest glimmer of true Christ-likeness in themselves lead? Perhaps, just perhaps, it could lead to truly becoming what we love. In one case, an able fly-fisher. I’ll take Christ over a trout every day.
Thomas Pruett is a disciple of Jesus, a husband to Amy, a father of four Ms, who prefers to be outside when possible and with coffee when indoors. He currently serves the Northern Hills Church of Christ in western South Dakota and will transition to serve the Circle Church of Christ in Corvallis, Oregon starting in February 2019. He rambles usually every week at www.northernhillscofc.org/blog.
What is the Gospel? In my spiritual environment throughout my life I suspect that the correct answer would often be, “Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, be Baptized, Grow in faith”. However, I want to suggest that while all these items are important, they’re a response to the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.
Since I’m preaching from Acts during June, I thought it would be interesting to study the preaching topics of the apostles throughout Acts. What did these first Gospel preachers emphasise? How does it compare to our emphasis today?
The apostle Peter gives the first “sermon” in Acts 2. From the list above we observe Hear (v37), Believe (v37), Repent (v38), and Baptism (v41). Many people understandably regard verses 37 and 38 as the climax of the sermon. But a close reading of the text reveals that the sermon concludes in v36.
The centre point of the sermon can hardly come after the sermon’s conclusion. Verse 37 actually describes the crowd’s response and v38 shares Peter’s answer to their question. So what is the climax of the sermon?
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Acts 2:36
Humanity killed Jesus. Sin and corruption caused Jesus’ death, “But God raised him from the dead.”
While Jesus’ resurrection gets a lot of attention each year when Easter rolls around, I was surprised to find that resurrection is a constant theme in the preaching found in Acts.
Here’s a list that I’ve compiled from a variety of sermons by various preachers. I may have missed some, but these seem sufficient to establish a theme:
- Peter – Acts 2:24-40 “But God raised him from the dead…”
- Peter – Acts 3:11-26 “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.”
- Peter – Acts 4:10 “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead…”
- Peter – Acts 5:31 “God exalted him to his own right hand….”
- Stephen – Acts 7:56 “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”
- Peter – Acts 10:23-40 “but God raised him from the dead…”
- Paul – Acts 17:16-34 “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead…”
- Paul – Acts 17:1-4 “The Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead…”
- Paul – Acts 23:6 “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection …”
- Paul – Acts 24:15 “I have … hope… that there will be a resurrection….”
- Paul – Acts 24:21 “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial…”
- Paul – Acts 25:19 “…a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”
- Paul – Acts 26:8 “Why should you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”
- Paul – Acts 26:22-3 “Moses said would happen – that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead…”
There are plenty of Biblical sermons that identify sin and call people to repentance, but they do so within a context of resurrection. Resurrection points beyond the guilt and shame to grace, hope and new life.
While the early preaching on the resurrection served an apologetic function, that wasn’t the sole purpose. Jesus’ resurrection proved that his death wasn’t an accident.
While we’re often tempted to stand at the foot of the cross and beat ourselves up in guilt and regret, Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that the cross is not the end of the story.
While the cross is vital to the Biblical story, it would be a sorry ending if not for the resurrection. By preaching the resurrection, the apostles presented a positive message that empowered people to move forward in relationship with a risen, Christ.
Jesus’ resurrection fulfills a much greater purpose than proving that life exists after death. If Jesus has been raised, then God’s new world, God’s kingdom has indeed arrived. The resurrection provides a whole new way of viewing the world and life itself. It gives purpose to our lives as we move toward a better tomorrow. If God can overcome death, He can overcome obstacle that confronts His kingdom.
God offers forgiveness of our past. He offers His presence in our present. And he offers us a new, resurrected life in our future.
Because we live in the kingdom of God: a kingdom of life, not death; of light not darkness; of hope not despair. Because we live as priests of God indwelt by the Spirit of God we participate in the mission of God, a mission of bringing new life, new creation to a lifeless world.
Making the resurrection a central element of the Gospel changes the entire story that we present to the world. Choosing to focus on our response to the Gospel, rather than the power of God, dilutes the wonder of the resurrection.
Let’s give the last word to Paul:
Acts 26:20-24 (VOICE)
20 I began in Damascus, then continued in Jerusalem, then throughout the Judean countryside, then among the outsiders—telling everyone they must turn from their past and toward God and align their deeds and way of life with this new direction. 21 So then, this is my crime. This is why my Jewish opponents seized me that day in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 God has helped me right up to this very moment, so I can stand here telling my story to both the humble and the powerful alike. I only say what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Anointed One must suffer, and then, by being the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light to both Jews and outsiders.
Festus (interrupting): 24 You’ve gone crazy, Paul! You’ve read one book too many and have gone insane!
Back in the days when telephones were wired to walls, I had a cousin who would refuse to answer the telephone during dinner. He prioritised spending time with his family. He gave them the gift of his presence. Not just his physical presence, but his mental and emotional presence. For that time each day his wife and son knew that they were his #1 priority.
As mobile phones have proliferated the gift of conscious presence has become a scarcer commodity. You know a video strikes a chord when it has 50 million views on YouTube:
God has always valued this gift and throughout Scripture regularly promises his people the blessing of his presence. In Listening to His Heartbeat Harold Shank describes this gift as the “Divine With”. God promises to be with his people.
We see the precious nature of the “Divine With” in the first chapters of the Bible. God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but sin resulted in them leaving the Garden of Eden. Although they leave the Garden, there’s no indication that God left them to their own devices at that point. That comes down in Genesis 4:16. After Cain kills Abel we’re told that, “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” The ultimate punishment for murder was to leave the presence of God.
In the new testament the “Divine With” gathers greater momentum. Matthew 1:23 introduces Jesus with the name Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.
As Jesus prepares to die in John 14:16 he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.”
Immediately prior to his ascension Jesus reassures his disciples saying, “surely I am with you always , to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Even the last words of Scripture in Revelation 22:21 contain the idea of presence, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”
This promise continually reminds us that when we sit down at the table with God, we’re his #1 priority. When we’re driving our car, when we’re at school or work, when we’re tired, angry, sad, lonely… God is with us and at that moment we’re his #1 priority.
The repetition of this promise throughout the centuries reassures us that God’s longing to spend time with us emerges from deep within God’s heart. God’s presence provides me with tremendous comfort. As I write this blog I can pause and talk to God knowing here’s right here listening to me. I value his presence.
It’s tempting to end this post right here: warm and fuzzy. But as I revel in God’s presence I also appreciate that I share the same responsibility.
Job’s friends frequently serve as an example of people practicing presence. Job 2:13 tells us that “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
As God’s presence comforts us, we have the opportunity to encourage others with our presence.
In Matthew 28 Jesus makes his promise to be with his disciples in the context of telling them to go throughout the world meeting and speaking to people. In other words, as you give the world the gift of your presence and share the promise of God’s presence with others, I’ll be with you.
That, is the gift of presence.
My life’s goal is to guided as many people as possible into a loving relationship with God. A significant part of that mission is to help people appreciate, value and even love, the Bible: God’s message to us.
The Bible has been around for a long time.
The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) was well established by the 3rd or 2nd century before Christ. The New Testament authors completed their writings by approximately the end of the first century AD. Then the early church reached a general consensus on which books to include in the biblical canon during the fourth century. All of that is a long time ago.
For centuries people have trusted the message the Bible contains for their eternal salvation. Because the Bible is so widely respected courts will ask people to swear on the Bible that they’re telling the truth. In popular vernacular the Bible has often been referred to as “The Good Book”.
Considering all the possible names the Bible could be given, the church should quite rightly feel proud that their sacred guide is called “The Good Book”. However, sometimes we may forget that not everything in the Bible is good. For instance in Luke 18:11 we have a prayer that begins, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people….” Jesus cites this “bad” prayer to demonstrate an ungodly attitude of pride. In addition to describing godliness for the people of God, the Bible also contains many examples of negative behaviour that Christians should avoid.
Although a little obscure, Psalm 6 is another passage that contains a negative example for us. The psalm seems to describe the emotional rollercoaster of a poet suffering a severe illness. In verse 2 he cries out, “heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.”
Verses 8-10 contain a rebuttal to the psalmist’s enemies that seem to have arrived at his bedside. The author counters his enemies by declaring that God does hear him.
the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
It seems reasonable to conclude that these assertions shame his enemies because, like Job’s friends, they were whispering in his ear that God had abandoned him.
- God fearers: They come to the psalmist and tell him that he’s sinned.
- Non-religious friends: They tell him that God isn’t listening.
- Pragmatists: They tell him to suck it up that this is just his path in life.
- Philosophers: They tell him that God wants him to suffer for some unknown reasons.
- Pessimists: They tell him to get used to a life of suffering because God’s decided not to heal him.
From the psalmist’s perspective, these aren’t good people. He describes them as “people who do evil!”
Rewriting Psalm 6
I pray that most of us will never experience the bones of agony that this psalm describes. So how does this psalm relate to us? Of course there’s more than one answer, but one choice we have is to rewrite the Bible.
Psalm 6 contains two human characters: the psalmist and his enemies. However, since we as readers don’t want to identify ourselves with either of these characters (although that may be necessary at times) we recognize that there’s a third possibility.
This psalm challenges us to change the story. When we see people suffering, how will we respond to them? Will we respond in a way that causes them to see us as the enemy, or in a way that lifts their spirits and points them to God?
If we found ourselves at the psalmist’s bedside, what would we say? What would we do? How could we affirm God’s faithful love in the midst of suffering? Can we speak in a way that challenges the enemies’ doubts and affirms God’s mercy? Do we have an alternative narrative to tell, a rewriting of the story?
These questions don’t have simple answers.
Does our relationship with God equip us to share stories of His faithfulness? Are we prepared to share reasons we trust God and demonstrate why others should also?
I’m not suggesting that the psalmist requires a Bible study as he agonises soaking his bed with his tears. Silence and presence may well provide the most appropriate response.
I am suggesting that we can’t waltz into that situation unprepared and expect to provide greater comfort than the evil companions already there.
Rewriting the Bible
What I have in mind when I speak of rewriting the Bible really isn’t as heretical as it sounds. Rather it’s a challenge to recognise that the Bible’s stories become our stories and each time they do we have an opportunity to write our own ending.
- Will I sink like Peter when waves seem about to crash upon me, or will I keep my footing and my eyes focused upon God?
- Will I cultivate gratitude in my life, or will my story reflect the 9 lepers Jesus healed who never said “Thanks”?
- Will I eat with Jesus each Sunday morning then walk out the doors and sell him short or will that meal solidify my commitment to follow him?
- Will I give in to peer pressure and deny Jesus as Peter did, or will I write a different conclusion to that story?
- Will I think like James and John and condemn everyone not quite like me, or can I live with diversity of thought as long Jesus is being honored?
The Bible contains many negative examples so that we can avoid the mistakes and failures of others. Our relationship with God will determine how we respond in those situations. It’s easy to see the shortcomings of others. Each of us must answer the question, “How are we preparing ourselves for a better conclusion to our story?”
I have regrets. I’m not immune to errors in judgement. I’ve made mistakes.
Even worse, I’ve done things wrong that weren’t mistakes. They were deliberate words and actions that I knew were wrong and I did them anyway.
I’ve accomplished things. There are things in my life that make me proud. Degrees I’ve gained. Friends I’ve kept. Family I’ve loved. Trophies for this and that. Not perfect, but proud.
When I look back on my life, some days I see the warts. Sometimes I see smiles.
The problem when my regrets fill the horizon is that I don’t look back far enough. I only look at my life. My disappointments. My hurts and pain over the last 40 years. If only I would look further into the past. 2000 years further…
When I look deeper into the past I see Jesus. I’m reminded that as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane he looked 2000+ years into the future. He saw my shortcomings. He knew I’d disappoint him and others. He knew that at times I’d choose to ignore him. Knowing all this he still took the actions necessary to forgive me. He died for my benefit. He welcomed me into his family.
The attitude that I bring with me today often reflects how far I look into the past. Can I look backwards past my regrets just as Jesus looked forward past them? Can I look back far enough to see Jesus, or will I allow my regrets to block that view? Will I move through today with the baggage of yesterday or the freedom given me by Christ?
Each January I lead the Lawson Rd Church of Christ through a process of reflection and projection that we call Vision Sunday.
When we reflect on the past year there are always things we wish we’d done differently. Situations that we could have handled better. People we could have loved more. How we view the past has a big influence on the future. We can criticise it. We can become discouraged by it. We can learn from it. We can be motivated by it. Or we can focus on the places God’s hand is obvious and praise him.
Today is Martin Luther King Day in the US of A. We face the same process and the same choices. MLK Day prompts us to spend time looking both backwards and forwards. When we do so…
- We can criticise Dr King for his shortcomings.
- We can criticise the day.
- We can be discouraged by aspects of the past or the lack of progress of the past 50 years.
- We can continue to learn from the civil rights movement.
- We can be motivated to continue the work of those who’ve gone before us.
- Or we can look for God’s hand in our history and praise him.
I am firmly in the camp of the last three. Dr King’s vision of equality and love for all neighbors comes from the pages of Scripture and the heart of God. We’re not there yet, which means we all still have roles to play in standing against discrimination and racism. Don’t just read this and do nothing. I encourage you to take a moment and write down something you can do to encourage racial harmony.
How we look at the past, individually, as a church, or as a society, will influence the way we view and live the future. As individuals we must believe that we can make a difference. As a society we must admit the wrongs of our past and work to right them. As Christians, we acknowledge our regrets, but move forward in the power of Christ, filled with hope while working for a better tomorrow.
The psalms provide a wonderful example for using the past to motivate the present as we move into the future. They contain many examples of praising God for past faithfulness that inspires confidence in His future faithfulness. Yesterday during worship we read the first few verses of Psalm 21 and I’ve copied them here for your encouragement.
The king is glad because You, O Eternal, are strong.
In light of Your salvation, he is singing Your name.
You have given him all he could wish for.
After hearing his prayer, You withheld nothing.
True blessings You lavished upon the king;
a crown of precious gold You placed upon his head.
His prayer was to live fully. You responded with even more—
a never-ending life to enjoy.
With Your help, his fame and glory have grown;
You raise him high and cover him in majesty.
You shower him with blessings that last forever;
he finds joy in knowing Your presence and loving You.
For the king puts his trust in the Eternal,
so he will not be shaken
because of the persistent love of the Most High God.
In Sunday’s sermon I suggested that Christians often talk about the Bible from memory. This came up because my assigned topic for the week was the birth of Christ. We hear the story of Christ’s birth so much each Christmas that I estimate that most regularly attending church members would have no problem listing at least 80% of all the significant elements of the story.
However, if we adopt the attitude that “we’ve already read it one hundred times”, or “we already know the story”, we reduce the likelihood that we’ll read it again. Instead, we’ll rely on a summary version stored in our memory banks.
What we may not realise is that when we rely upon our memory of a story, we’ve effectively taken God’s word and turn it into a collection of information that we either know or don’t know. In most cases as we tell the story of Jesus’ birth from memory we’ll tell a story that describes main events, but misses the divine wording. So we know that that angels praised God before the shepherds, but we forget the exact words they used.
When we rely upon our memory of the story, it’s going to be extremely difficult to differentiate between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does that matter? Well, it did to Matthew and Luke. They each included and excluded material for a reason, but we’ll never come to consider the reason if we rely on our recollection of the story.
It’s important to read the Bible, even those parts we already know. Too often we read Scripture as though we’re preparing for a test: an eternal Bible Bowl.
We read to find answers.
We read to accumulate knowledge.
We read because we’re told we should.
We read to find that verse to win that argument.
While each of these reading motivations have their place, it’s not the type of reading the Bible itself envisages.
The Bible is not merely information.
The Bible is not a collection of facts.
The Bible is not an answer book.
The Bible is not a history book.
Hebrews 4:12 vividly describes the dynamic function of God’s Word, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” That sure doesn’t sound like preparing for a quiz, does it?
Perhaps the language of God’s word penetrating and dividing soul and spirit sounds threatening. Yet, as we mature in Christ, we come to long for Him to mold us into his image. To reveal our weaknesses and utilise our strengths. This doesn’t mean the process is easy or comfortable, but we recognise that it’s for our benefit.
God intends us to read the Bible not just for information, but to shine a light on our lives and examine our relationship with God.
God intends for us to read Scripture without demanding answers to our questions, but allowing God to scrutinise us with His questions.
God intends for us to read His Word allowing His Spirit to guide our thoughts and hearts as we read.
When we rely on our memory to summarise a passage of Scripture or describe an event, we eliminate the possibility that a particular word or phrase of Scripture will speak to us. We will find ourselves forever stuck with our previously developed wording, meaning and significance, which limits our capacity for spiritual growth.
Spending time In God’s word, is the same as spending time with God. Sadly, we don’t always make these meetings because we’re not always looking for a Bible that is “alive and active“. And we don’t always welcome a God who’s “alive and active” in our lives.
Where do you meet with God?
[Just after I posted this blog, a friend shared this video with me. It’s a perfect match, and Bill Hybels does a great job of presenting a different, but important, perspective on this topic.]
Many of us have heard them since we were children.
- Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
- Noah’s Ark.
- Three Angels Visiting Abraham.
- Moses and the Burning Bush.
- David and Goliath.
And many more!
Bible stories are important. They do more than tweak the emotions or offer a moralism, as important as those dimensions are. Their power arises from something (even Someone) much deeper than human morality or emotion.
What is the power of a biblical story?
The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about God. Even when a biblical story does not name God (as in the case of Esther), it is still about God. As such, God is the subject of every biblical story, and that story says something about God’s identity and character.
Biblical stories reveal God’s goodness as well as God’s holiness. We see God’s faithfulness, a divine commitment to the divine goal among God’s people. We see God’s transcendence but also God’s immanence; we see God’s holy otherness but also God’s deep involvement in the world.
Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who God is and what God is doing in the world?
The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about the human condition. We locate ourselves in the human condition; we find ourselves in the story. We see our own frailty, weakness, and unbelief in the story. We also see courage, strength, and faith in the story.
Biblical stories reveal both the depravity and the dignity of human beings. As we hear these stories, we recognize how evil human beings can behave but also the heights to which their faith draws them. We see both the absurdity of life with all its brokenness, woundedness, and death, but we also see the good gifts of relationships, community, and family within God’s good creation. Biblical stories tell both sides of the human story.
Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who we are, what we have become, and the heights to which God is calling us?
The power of a biblical story is how it invites us to participate in the theodrama. As we read the stories in the Bible, we are invited to see ourselves in the story. This is not simply a matter of locating ourselves there. Rather, we engage the story as part of the larger theodrama, the dramatic history of God at work within creation and human history. We are participants. This story is our story.
Biblical stories are not isolated moral plays; they are part of a larger narrative, a metanarrative. The stories themselves participate in God’s mission within the world. Each story is an expression of the larger story, and we are invited to participate in that larger story even as we see ourselves in any particular story.
Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: how does this story invite us to participate in God’s larger metanarrative?
So, what do we do with that?
If we know who God is, and we know what our condition is, then we are enable to discern how a story summons us to play our role in God’s grand redemptive drama.
The God of the burning bush is both redeemer and holy. The holy God encounters Moses, and invites Moses to participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We see in Moses our own reticence, fear, and inadequacies, but we also see God’s enabling power and summons. God includes Moses in the redemptive drama such that Moses partners with God in liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage. What Moses becomes is rooted in what God does.
Who is God? The Holy Redeemer.
What is humanity? Weak and fearful, yes. But also God affirms human dignity by inviting Moses to participate in the divine mission.
What is our summons? To participate in God’s redemptive agenda in the world, pursuing God’s mission in dependence on God’s power. We are still on the same mission as Moses, as the redemption of Israel is part of the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work for all peoples.
Biblical stories have something to tell. They inform, moralize, and motivate.
But, more importantly, through them we also encounter Someone. We encounter the God who invites us into God’s own story, God’s theodrama.
At bottom, biblical stories are callings. God calls us.
John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He has taught theology since 1982, including nine years at Harding University Graduate School of Religion (1991-2000). He has been at Lipscomb since 2000. He has ministered with churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Tennessee. He has published nine books and thirteen journal articles as well as contributed to nineteen other books. He has spoken in thirty-eight states and nineteen countries. His most recent book discusses baptism and the Lord’s Supper, “Enter the Water, Come to the Table”. You can access more of his writing at his website http://www.johnmarkhicks.com.
We continue the Summer Blog Tour this week with some thoughts from Tyler Jarvis. Tyler recently completed his Master of Divinity degree at Lubbock Christian University. He serves as the youth minister at the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, TX. As always, please take a moment to check out more of his writing on his blog.
One of the things I like the most about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches. I mean, there are lots of guys who are generally “good” guys but who do really crappy things. Generally, when you read a story, the main character is presented in the most likable light possible.
Not in the Bible. Or at least, not always.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like David, who was famously described as a man after God’s own heart, but who also impregnated a woman who was married to another guy, and then carried out a plan to kill the woman’s husband so he wouldn’t be caught.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like Samson, who served as a Judge of Israel and was supposed to rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, but he actually just winds up breaking all the vows he made to God, and even when he does kill a few Philistines, it’s too little too late, and he dies without having done what he was called to do.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like Peter who was the rock on which the Church was built, but who was portrayed as incredibly dim-witted all throughout the Gospels. And even after the resurrection, when Peter is supposed to be super awesome all the time, Paul still has to get onto Peter for being a racist.
I think it’s important that these stories are included in the Bible, because the writers understood the importance of a villain story. It’s important to have stories about people who screw things up. It’s important to tell the stories of the guys who weren’t always good at following God.
Because really, that’s our story. I can relate to guy who does good and bad things. I’m familiar with seeking after God’s heart, but also trying to make myself look good. I know what it’s like to know what God has called me too, and to ignore it because there were other, better things to do. I know how it is to want to follow Christ, but to make stupid mistakes.
The Bible includes all these stories to show us that being a follower of God isn’t just something for the elite. David wasn’t bred to be a holy King. He was a shepherd boy who accidentally found himself anointed to be King, and he screwed up along the way. Samson had strength, but lacked the discipline and desire to follow God. Peter was self-absorbed, and only followed Jesus because he thought Jesus was going to lead a violent rebellion against the Romans, but he wound up leading Christ’s Church.
This is important to note, because, like Peter, Samson, and David, we’re not always going to be the good guy.
We are going to do things that are stupid, shameful, and Un-Christlike. At some point in our lives, we are going to do things that hurt the cause of the Kingdom of God. And God can use us anyway.
Because the Christian story isn’t a hero story. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s a real story about real people who seek after God and who screw up. It’s a story about people who are constantly being transformed, but who sometimes resist that transformation. It’s a story about people who don’t always look more like God today than they did yesterday.
And that’s encouraging. Because I take steps back. I have days like David, where if people knew what I’d done, they would probably think I wasn’t a Christian. I have days like Peter, where even though I work as a leader in a Church, I exclude people that I’m supposed to include. I have days like Samson, where God gives me everything I need to follow him, and I do my own thing anyway. And it’s on those days that I need these reminders that God’s not finished with me yet. Even on the days that I’m the villain of the story, God works in and through me.
We should strive to be followers of God. We should strive to be after God’s own heart. We should strive to be perfect as God is perfect. But we should also rest in the comfort that God uses us when we screw up. Some of the greatest heroes of the faith were bigger screw-ups than you and me.
Sometimes, the villains make the best heroes.
Tyler Jarvis is married to his wonderful wife Andrea and they have zero kids. He enjoys playing guitar, rock climbing, and writing about himself in the third person. You can check out his blog at http://www.tylerjarvis.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Jarvis.
What is Christianity? It is what is good, true, and beautiful. These are the three virtues that describe our faith. God is good. God is true. God is beautiful. God embodies these virtues perfectly, but these virtues do not stop with God. What he creates is good, true, and beautiful. As Christians, we should strive for goodness, truth, and beauty in our own lives. We should reflect the virtues of God. We are shaped by a story that is good, true, and beautiful. The Bible is God’s grand narrative, and we are invited to be a part of it.
Of the three virtues, beauty is the one that is most neglected by Christians these days. We are great at standing up for doctrinal truths. We have no problem doing good in the communities in which we live and around the world. Beauty is another animal. It is not that we are against it, but I think most Christians do not know what is meant by beauty in its purest form. Beauty has been hijacked. The so-called beauty that is pimped on magazine covers and billboards is not the kind of beauty we are talking about.
What is beauty? The psalmist wrote,
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
Our standard for beauty is God. Everything about God is beautiful. His work, word, and ways define beauty for us. The beauty we see in creation is a reflection of the beauty of the Father. The beauty of a painting, film, or poem is a glimpse of the eternal Artist, who created all things. The beauty of humanity at its finest is a reminder of the greatest human being that walked this earth, Jesus of Nazareth.
We must be careful not to neglect beauty. It has the power to win people over. Often Christians are guilty of shouting truths at a secular world that desperately needs to see the beauty of God. We must never neglect the truth of the Christian faith, but the first thing the world needs to see and hear from us is the beauty of what it means to be a
God’s beauty is broad. It is many things. At one point in his ministry, Paul pointed to the beauty of the words of a pagan poet to win people to Christ. God’s beauty can even be found in things that deny him or do not know him. The longing for something beautiful is a desire every human has. We may have a difficult time defining beauty, but when we see something beautiful, we cannot take our eyes off of it. Beauty is a necessity, just as story is a necessity. Without stories, our lives do not make sense. Everyone has a story. Everyone is living into a story. Every human being on this planet has been shaped by the stories they have grown up with. Without beauty and story, life is meaningless.
It is important to understand how foundational beauty and story are because Christians have a beautiful story that the world needs to hear. Everyone agrees that there is something wrong with the world. How do we address this brokeness? We address it by telling a beautiful story, a story that is truly good news to the people who hear it. We live into this story, so much so that people recognize that our lives are strangely different. We embody this beautiful story that we are now a part of it, and we proclaim it with every aspect of our lives.
What is this story of beauty? It is a love story.
It is a story about sacrifice and what it means to be truly human. It is a story that will bless our lives in more ways than we can imagine. It is a story that recognizes this world is not what it should be. This problem leads us to the heart of the story. Humanity cannot solve the problems of this world, although we continue to try. God alone can make things right, and he did so by taking on flesh and coming to this earth.
Our world recognizes beauty each year at Christmas when it celebrates the incarnation. People are mesmerized and filled with awe because of this mysterious event. Beauty and mystery are close cousins. They go hand in hand. If you explain every detail about something, it is no longer a mystery. We are intrigued by mystery because we do not understand everything about it. The same is true of beauty. Part of the allure of things that are beautiful lies in our inability to fully explain them. We can try to describe the beauty of a sunset, but our words do not do it justice. Our explanations of what is beautiful always fall short. What is beautiful in the Bible are things we profess but do not fully comprehend. Incarnation, Trinity, atonement, resurrection, etc. are all elements of our beautiful story. They are foundational to who we are and what we believe but they are also shrouded in mystery and beauty.
We have a beautiful story to tell and we must not fail to share it with the world. Often, we are guilty of sharing facts from the Bible as if it is no different from a science textbook. When we do this we are missing out on the wonders God has revealed to us. We are called to woo the world with the beauty of a story. It is the beauty of a God who created all things and said, “It is good.” It is the beauty of a God who is one and three at the same time, a God who dwells in perfect community. It is the beauty of a God who left heaven and came to earth. It is the beauty of a God who took on flesh and ministered to the least of society. It is the beauty of a God who forgave his killers and willingly went to the cross to show us what love is. It is the beauty of new creation springing up from the grave.
This is our story, but it is just part of all there is to tell. When God invests himself in creation, the result is beauty. God has been present in the lives of the patriarchs, Israel, and the early church, and he continues to invest himself in the lives of Christians today. Many Christians have personal stories of how God has worked in our lives. In a world that is longing for beauty and a story to make sense of their lives, we hold the key. We have been called to tell a beautiful story.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. He blogs regularly at Resurrected Living (http://start2finish.org/category/resurrectedliving/)
You can listen to my sermon on this topic HERE.
Most of the time we regard Samuel as a great man of God.
We know the story that his mother dedicated him to God before birth and that he lived with the priests int he tabernacle from a young age. We remember God calling to him in the night and requiring him to give a difficult message to his mentor, Eli. We admire Samuel’s faithfulness as he obeyed God’s directions.
Samuel was the last in a long line of Israel’s judges. Before Samuel the quality of men and women filling this role had gradually deteriorated. After each judge died the nation of Israel would slip further and further away from following God. But Samuel turned this all around.
Samuel came to be regarded as “Israel’s leader”. While he was judge the Philistines were defeated. Peace reigned. The government was stable and Samuel continually called the people back to Yahweh.
So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also held court for Israel. And he built an altar there to the Lord.
This description of Samuel’s influence sounds idyllic, the transformation is extraordinary.
But it’s not the end of the story.
In Judges 8:22 we first see some Israelites approach Gideon seeking to establish a hereditary monarchy. Gideon’s response seems to have become the orthodox thought of the faithful from that point forward. “But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.””
So when Samuel appointed his sons as judges (1 Sam. 8:1) it seems that he was taking matters into his own hands. Was he trying to establish a hereditary judgeship? He apparently didn’t even know his sons well enough to recognise their greed and corruption.
When he immediately turns around and gets upset at the Isrealite leaders desire for a king, one has to wonder if some of his displeasure comes from a rejection of his own sons.
To complete the picture, God also views the request as a rejection of His kingship. It’s to Samuel’s credit that he immediately took his concerns to God. Ultimately, it seems that God’s concern wasn’t that Israel desired a king, but that they wanted one “such as all the other nations have.”
However, I wonder if Samuel ever considered that his actions in appointing his sons as judges may have contributed to the Israelite people wanting a king. They sure didn’t want those corrupt sons as their leaders in perpetuity.
Here’s the challenge for us. Sometimes the actions we criticise in others, may actually be a response to our own behaviour to which we’re oblivious.
This is why our first response before criticism and anger, should be to follow Samuel’s example and talk it over with God.