Sad but not strange

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It is sad that Jesus finds it necessary to exhort the followers closest to him to believe his words, and therefore to believe that he is himself the revelation of the Father. Sad, indeed; but not strange. Is not our own unbelief proof enough of the commonness of unbelief? Even after we have been assured of God’s love for us again and again, of his sovereign pleasure to bless his people with what he judges good for them, do we not retreat to practical skepticism when difficult circumstances seem to call in question his goodness or his power?

Jesus’ first disciples in John 14 are experiencing difficulties of several kinds. They are perhaps intellectually slow to believe the daring claim on Jesus’ lips, made repeatedly, that he is in the Father and the Father in him. Worse, they are bound up emotionally as well as intellectually as they wrestle with talk about death, betrayal, Jesus’ departure, their inability to follow him at present, and the like. What they need more than anything else is to believe Jesus, to believe that what he is saying is true. If only they believe, then the uncertainties surrounding these other large matters will be swallowed up by confidence that Jesus is none other than the revelation of the Father. There is no belief more basic to spiritual triumph than that.

D.A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when…

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The authority of Jesus to heal and transform is implicit in his person and mission. The authority is already his. He needs only to will the deed, and it is done. Few lessons are more urgently needed in the modern church. Hope for reformation and revival lies not in campaigns and strategy (as important as such things may be), but in the authority of Jesus.…

Our generation is in danger of forgetting this.… The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when it comes to an end of its gimmicks, and petitions the great Lord of the church, who alone has the authority to pour out blessing beyond what can be imagined, who alone opens doors such that none can shut them and shuts them so that none can open them, to use the full authority that is his (Matt. 28:18) to bless his people with repentance and vitality and thereby bring glory to himself. Only his authority will suffice.

Where is Jesus Christ?

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At the Christmas break in 1963, I brought home to the Ottawa area a friend I had come to know and enjoy at the university I was attending. Mohammed Yousuf Guraya was a Pakistani, a devout Muslim, a gentle and sensitive friend. He was trying to win me to Islam; I was trying to win him to Christ. He had started to read the Gospel of John when I took him to visit the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. We enjoyed a guided tour of those majestic structures and learned something of their history and symbolism. Our group had reached the final foyer when the guide explained the significance of the stone figurines sculpted into the fluted arches. One he pointed to represented Moses, designed to proclaim that government turns on law.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” Guraya asked with his loud, pleasant voice, his white teeth flashing a brilliant smile behind his black beard.

“I don’t understand,” the guide stammered.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” Guraya pressed, a trifle more slowly, a little more loudly, enunciating each word for fear his accent had rendered his question incomprehensible.

The tourists in our group appeared to be embarrassed. I simultaneously chortled inwardly, wondering what was coming next, and wondered if I should intervene or keep my counsel.

“I don’t understand,” the guide repeated, somewhat baffled, somewhat sullen. “What do you mean? Why should Jesus be represented here?”

Guraya replied, somewhat astonished himself now: “I read in your Holy Book that the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Where is Jesus Christ?

I think my friend Guraya had felt the impact of John’s Gospel more deeply than I had. It is in line with the framework of John’s prologue (1:1–18), where the eternal Word becomes the incarnate Word, that Jesus himself claims, “I am the truth.”

D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Exposition of John 14–17 (28-29)

A responsibility that cannot be ignored

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…bringing the people of God to consistent Christian living in the light of the gospel of the crucified Messiah is so important to Paul that he will not turn from this goal. If he moves people in this direction by encouragement and admonition, all to the good; if severer discipline is called for, he will not flinch. So Paul offers the Corinthians a choice: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?” (4:21). He does not mean, of course, that if he comes with a whip (literally, a “rod” of correction, continuing the father/son metaphor) he will not love them. The contrast refers to the manner or form of his coming, not his motives. But spankings still hurt, even from a father who insists that he is spanking his son because he loves him. It is much better for the son to change his behavior, so that the manner of the father’s coming will be not with discipline but with a gentle spirit.

In short, Christian leaders dare not overlook their responsibility to lead the people of God in living that is in conformity with the gospel. That is why Paul urges people to live a life worthy of the calling they have received (Eph. 4:1). It is why Paul prays that believers may live a life worthy of the Lord, the crucified Messiah, and may please him in every way (Col. 1:10). And if the people of God dig in their heels in disobedience, there may come a time for Christian leaders to admonish, to rebuke, and ultimately to discipline firmly those who take the name of Christ but do not care to follow him. The sterner steps must never be taken hastily or lightly. But sometimes they must be taken. That is part of the responsibility of Christian leadership.

D.A. Carson, Cross and Christian Ministry, The: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians

A brief look at The Select Works of D.A. Carson (7 vols.)

If you’re a regular reader, you know one of the theologians I respect most (and quote most frequently) is D.A. Carson. Carson, the research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and co-founder (with Tim Keller) of The Gospel Coalition, is among the best theological minds of the last 30 years, writing or editing more than 60 books covering a wide range of subjects, sometimes exposing our exegetical fallacies and other times critiquing shifts within the church and the larger culture.

Recently, the folks at Logos Bible Software gave me a chance to look at the seven-volume collection, The Select Works of D.A. Carson. This collection contains some of the best set contains some of the best of Carson’s diverse body of work, including:

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A couple of things you can always be certain of when reading Carson are his fidelity to the text and his snippy wit. Whether he’s talking about the proper use of tone in pronouncing biblical Greek:

It is very difficult for modern English speakers to pronounce Greek accents in terms of musical pitch. To be sure, we use pitch in English; but it is used idiosyncratically, changing somewhat from speaker to speaker, and according to the shade of meaning intended. We distinguish, for instance, the emphatic ‘Yés!’, the open but questioning ‘Yè-és?’, and the doubtful and perhaps ironic ‘Yé-ès’. In Greek of the period before the New Testament, however, the tonal system was a fixed part of the language and helped to establish the essential meaning, just as varied pitch helps to establish meaning in Chinese. Many grammarians repeat the story of the actor Hegelochus who, when quoting a line from Euripides ending in γαλήνʼ ὁρῶ (‘I see a calm’), pronounced a circumflex accent instead of the acute, and brought the house down: γαλῆν ὁρῶ means ‘I see a weasel’. (Greek Accents, 18)

or preparing to trounce various arguments in the KJV only debate:

In what follows I shall not argue that the vociferous defenders of the [Textus Receptus] are knaves or fools. I shall seek to demonstrate, rather, that their interpretation of the evidence is mistaken. Moreover I shall point out logical fallacies in their exposition and the alarming way in which they cite arguments in their own favor without examining those arguments. Their presuppositions in favor of the TR have made most of them careless about determining the truth of many of their oft-repeated contentions, with the result that not only their interpretation of the facts is incorrect, but also their alleged “facts” are far too often simply untrue.

. (The King James Version Debate, 58)

or confronting our own sometimes unwitting hypocrisy in the area of self-denial:

We must not stand on our rights. As long as defending our rights remains the lodestar that orders our priorities, we cannot follow the way of the cross.

This sort of self-denial is easy enough to admire in other believers. One can formulate all sorts of interesting theological lessons deriving from Paul’s treatment of what to do about meat that has been offered to idols. But the power of this position of principle becomes obvious only when we are called upon to abandon our rights. (The Cross and Christian Ministry130)

I know many of these examples are a bit on the “think-y” side, but I hope you see in even these short excerpts Carson’s desire to clearly communicate the truth in a meaningful way—even when that truth is about the nature of the text itself!

Although he’s clearly an academic, his work isn’t meant simply for those who reside in the ivory towers of academia. It’s meant to challenge, encourage and inspire those of us who find ourselves wallowing in the muck of the nastier bits of life and ministry. He approaches the academic with a pastoral heart, which is something quite unusual.

Which brings us back to The Select Works of D.A. Carson. Logos has compiled an excellent collection in this resource; it’s one that is sure to be a wonderful blessing to pastors and academics alike and one I’m very grateful to have in my theological toolkit. Check it out or consider the individual titles, won’t you?

God cannot be manipulated

Paul preaching at Athens by Raphael

Paul preaching at Athens by Raphael

Paul was a first-century preacher who appeared on the scene shortly after Jesus was crucified and came back to life again. He wrote about one quarter of the New Testament. He was especially gifted when it came to announcing the God of the Bible to the polytheists who dominated the culture of the Roman imperial world. So we find him, for example, in the great city of Athens, carefully explaining what a difference it makes to see that there is but one God and that he cannot be manipulated. At the time Athens had the reputation of being the most learned city in the Roman world, followed by Alexandria in Egypt.

When Paul gives his address to some philosophers and teachers in Athens, he explains what he holds to be the truth. Theirs is a world of gods, and the very nature of their religion is “you scratch my back, I scratch your back.” But Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it [thus you find him articulating the Bible’s teaching about creation from Genesis 1–2] is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17:24). Paul does not mean that God may not disclose himself in a temple if he chooses to do so. What he means is that God cannot be reduced to the temple where he is manipulated and domesticated by a priestly class. You cannot get him into a position where you can manipulate him to do your will by providing cash to a certain class of priests, connected with a temple, who are allegedly experts in figuring out what the gods want. The God of the Bible is too big for that; he made everything, he is sovereign over the whole lot, and he cannot be manipulated.

D.A. Carson, The God Who is There, (46)

The lesson we need to learn again and again

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“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

What the world dismisses as sheer foolishness, the foolishness of God, proves “wiser than man’s wisdom” (1:25). What the world writes off as hopeless weakness, the weakness of God, proves “stronger than man’s strength” (1:25). This is much more radical than saying that God has more wisdom than human beings, or that he is stronger than human beings—as if we are dealing with mere degrees of wisdom and power. No, we are dealing with polar opposites. Human “wisdom” and “strength” are, from God’s perspective, rebellious folly and moral weakness. And the moment when God most dramatically discloses his own wisdom and strength, the moment when his own dear Son is crucified— although it is laughed out of court by the tawdry “wisdom” of this rebellious world, by the pathetic “strength” of the self-deceived— is nevertheless the moment of divine wisdom and divine power.…

For those of us in any form of Christian ministry, this lesson must constantly be reappropriated. Western evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how “vision” consists in clearly articulated “ministry goals,” how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning. Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.

D.A. Carson, Cross and Christian Ministry, The: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians

True believers practice obedience

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What, then, is the essential characteristic of the true believer, the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ? It is not loud profession, nor spectacular spiritual triumphs, nor protestations of great spiritual experience. Rather, his chief characteristic is obedience. True believers perform the will of their Father, consistent with their prayer, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” They cannot forget that at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:19f.). And so they practice obedience. The Father’s will is not simply admired, discussed, praised, debated; it is done. It is not theologically analyzed, nor congratulated for its high ethical tones; it is done. The test is rephrased by a famous second-century document, the Didache, which says, “But not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet, except he have the behavior of the Lord.”

D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5-10, p. 138

Strike a blow against the demonic heart of triumphalism

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Sadly, too many leaders consciously or unconsciously link their own careers and reputations with the gospel they proclaim and the people they serve. Slowly, unnoticed by all but the most discerning, defense of the truth slips into self-defense, and the best interest of the congregation becomes identified with the best interest of the leaders. Personal triumphalism strikes again, sometimes with vicious intensity. It is found in the evangelical academic who invests all his opinions with the authority of Scripture, in the pastor whose every word is above contradiction, in the leader transparently more interested in self-promotion and the esteem of the crowd than in the benefit and progress of the Christians allegedly being served. It issues in political maneuvering, temper tantrums, a secular set of values (though never acknowledged as such), a smug and self-serving shepherd and hungry sheep.

We have much to learn from Paul. When in our hearts (and not merely in our verbal piety) our aim before God is to strengthen other believers, not to defend ourselves, we will not only succeed in revitalizing the church by our sacrificial ministry and example, but we shall also strike a powerful blow against the demonic heart of triumphalism, which is self in another guise. And if, with Paul, we sometimes face believers who completely misunderstand our motives, then at least we may be confident, with the apostle, that we have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ, and that the attacks may reveal more about the attackers than anything else. May God raise up many Christian leaders whose passion is to build up the body of Christ.

D.A. Carson, A Model of Christian Maturity

Genuine Love is Odd

When I refer to “Enemies, Big and Small,” obviously I am not thinking of their physical dimensions—bantam-weight enemies perhaps as opposed to three-hundred-pound enemies—but of the scale of their enmity. Not all Christians face persecuting enemies, but all Christians face little enemies. We encounter people whose personality we intensely dislike. . . . They are offensive, sometimes repulsive, especially when they belong to the same church. It often seems safest to leave by different doors, to cross the street when you see them approaching, or to find eminently sound reasons not to invite them to any of your social gatherings. And if, heaven forbid, you accidentally bump into such an enemy, the best defense is a spectacularly English civility, coupled with a retreat as hasty as elementary decency permits. After all, isn’t “niceness” what is demanded?

If we find our “friends” only among those we like and who like us, we are indifferentiable from first-century tax collectors and pagans. Both our neighborhood and the church will inevitably include their shares of imperfect, difficult people like you and me. In fact, the church will often collect more than its proportionate share of difficult folk, especially emotionally or intellectually needy folk, precisely because despite all its faults it is still the most caring and patient large institution around. There is a sense in which we should see in our awkward brothers and sisters a badge of honor. The dangers, however, become much greater (as do the rewards) when the church is richly multicultural, because the potential for misunderstandings rises significantly…

Some offenses are of the sort that Christians should follow the procedures set out in Matthew 18; in some cases, there should be excommunication. . . . But in many instances, what is required is simply forbearance driven by love. . . . To bear with one another and to forgive grievances presupposes that relationships will not always be smooth. Most of the time, what is required is not the confrontation of Matthew 18, but forbearance, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, or patience [of Col. 3:12-14]. Christians are to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15).

This action goes way beyond niceness. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s biting and hilarious stories with their “nice” Christian ladies who have a domesticated Jesus who approves all they do and all they hold dear. They are spectacularly “nice”; they are also whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:27). . . . Forbearance and genuine tenderheartedness are much tougher than niceness, and sometimes (as we shall see in a later lecture) tough love is confrontational. Christian love, McEntyre writes, “may even demand that we be downright eccentric, at least if we are to believe O’Connor’s word on the subject: ‘You shall know the truth,’ she warned, ‘and the truth shall make you odd.’” That, of course, is implicitly recognized by Jesus himself. If genuine love among his followers is their characteristic mark (John 13:34-35), then Jesus himself is saying that such love is not normal. It is odd.

D.A. Carson, Love in Hard Places, pp. 52-54 (Also available in PDF format)

D.A. Carson: Getting Excited about Melchizedek #TGC11

In the final plenary session of The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 National Conference, D.A. Carson expounds on Psalm 110, the psalm most quoted in all the New Testament.

The audio is available for download here. Video footage can be viewed below:

 

My notes follow:


The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.

Rule in the midst of your enemies!

Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.

He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses, he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.

He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head. (Psalm 110 ESV)

Most of the controlling themes in the Bible don’t resonate well with the dominate culture in the west. Think of the categories:

Covenant. Priests. Sacrifice. Blood Offering. King. Passover. Day of Atonement. Year of Jubilee.

King. We speak of King Jesus. When Jesus announced His coming, He did not announce the coming of the republic of God. The king of the Bible is not a constitutional monarch. King has very different references.

We’re not thinking in these terms alone.

Yet Melchizedek turns out to be one of the most instructive figures in the whole Bible for helping us put together our Bible and seeing who Jesus is. God has put things together in the Bible in this way for our good.

Melchizedek only shows up in the OT in two places, once in Genesis and once here. And he shows up only once in the NT and that’s it. Yet he is absolutely revolutionary in our understanding of the Bible.

So we begin with Psalm 110. [Read more...]

D.A. Carson: The Accent of Warning

Many of Jesus’ parables have to do with explaining that the kingdom of God, against the prevalent expectation was no ta bout to come with a cataclysmic bang at that point in history, but was a destined to be introduced slowly (e.g., parable fo the mustard seed and the yeast, Matthew 13:31-33). Other parables demonstrate the power of the principle of reversal in the kingdom, flying in the face of many religious and social values, both then and now (e.g., the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). But some of Jesus’ parables, even if they touch on these two themes, bring with them an unmistakable accent of warning.

The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:3-9, 13-20), for all that it explains how the kingdom advances—namely, by properly receiving the word, which then germinates and bears fruit—implicitly warns against unreceptive soil. Where the seed is snatched away and its tender stalks are squeezed to death or dehydrated before there is any fruitfulness (despite a good beginning), there we find people who are unresponsive in one fashion or another. If the kingdom grows like wheat sown in a field, there will also be a lot of weeds, and both will grow until the end (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)…

One of the most striking of these parables is the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In the hands of some writers, what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is social concern: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting people in prison—along with the dramatic additon of Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (25:40, 45). But that misses the point here.

Certainly the Bible lays considerable stress on compassion, justice, acts of mercy, kindness, and much else—as shown by Isaiah and Amos and the parable of the good Samaritan. But it has often been shown that in Matthew’s gospel the expression “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” can only refer to the least of his followers. In other words, the sheep and the goats as exposed for what they are by the way they treat the downtrodden of Jesus’ followers. . . . When people persecute the people of Jesus Christ, they are persecuting Jesus Christ himself, prompting him to challenge a Saul on the Damascus Road, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

Yet the primary point in these parables . . . is how many of them lay emphasis on the dividing effect of Jesus’ ministry. In the case of the sheep and the goats, the latter will finally “go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [the former] to eternal life”—with that same expression used for “eternal” in the two expressions. One senses that, in an effort to be magnanimous—in many ways, a very good thing—the pendulum swing now makes it almost impossible to pronounce condemnation on any position or habit of life…

D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, pp. 209-210

Around the Interweb (08/22)

Christianity Today Interviews Anne Rice

Christianity today interviewed Anne Rice on following Christ without Christianity (there was a whole hubbub about it on the interwebs a few weeks back). A great quote from the interview:

Are there any other religious authors you read?

I read theology and biblical scholarship all the time. I love the biblical scholarship of D.A. Carson. I very much love Craig S. Keener. His books on Matthew and John are right here on my desk all the time. I go to Craig Keener for answers because his commentary on Scripture is so thorough. I still read N.T. Wright. I love the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. I love his writing on Jesus Christ. It’s very beautiful to me, and I study a little bit of it every day. Of course, I love Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

You mentioned D.A. Carson, Craig Keener, and N.T. Wright. They are fairly conservative Protestants.

Sometimes the most conservative people are the most biblically and scholastically sound. They have studied Scripture and have studied skeptical scholarship. They make brilliant arguments for the way something in the Bible reads and how it’s been interpreted. I don’t go to them necessarily to know more about their personal beliefs. It’s the brilliance they bring to bear on the text that appeals to me. Of all the people I’ve read over the years, it’s their work that I keep on my desk. They’re all non-Catholics, but they’re believers, they document their books well, they write well, they’re scrupulously honest as scholars, and they don’t have a bias. Many of the skeptical non-believer biblical scholars have a terrible bias. To them, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, so there’s no point in discussing it. I want someone to approach the text and tell me what it says, how the language worked.

Read the rest of the interview here. (HT: Trevin Wax)

In Other News

Giving Back: August 21st was my 31st birthday; help me celebrate by donating $31 so 31 families can have clean water to drink.

The following video explains what charity: water is doing in the Central African Republic:

Tributes: Justin Taylor offers this thoughtful tribute to Clark Pinnock, who died on August 15th, 2010, at the age of 73.

Christian Culture: My co-worker Amber opens a can on sketchy applications of Jeremiah 29:11. (For a double shot of Jer. 29:11 commentary, here’s a post I wrote on it a while back.)

Housekeeping: This past week I enjoyed a great week off on Lake Nipissing. Many thanks to Nate Bingham and Will Adair for helping me out with some great content.

In Case You Missed It

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

The Gospel is Unbelievable by Nathan W. Bingham

Will Adair looks at the Lord’s Prayer and the part of the gospel he struggles with.

D. A. Carson offers insights into how we can know God exists and how He can be loving yet send people to hell.

Mark Driscoll describes the average evangelical… pagan.