Thursday, March 9, 2017

The context of making disciples

Many of us are content going "to" church without thinking about what it means to "do" church, to carry out the mission of making disciples. In The Life of the Church, Joe Thorn identifies three environments in which the church lives out its mission of making disciples: the table, the pulpit, and the square.
He calls the small gatherings of the local church "the table" because it's usually around a table that these relationships deepen and grow. He develops three brief chapters addressing this subject, but the one on hospitality challenged me the most. There he calls readers to be intentional about inviting others into our lives (and homes), and not just the few people we've already made friends with.

The pulpit does not refer merely to Sunday morning preaching. He emphasizes the fact that our corporate gatherings are to be centered on the worship of God. Thorn points out how we should conduct our gatherings in accordance with Scripture, being careful not to stray from it's explicit and implicit commands, while explaining that the "essentials" may have different expressions in differing contexts.

The square is the public square, and there Thorn points out ways the church, both corporately and as individuals, can engage the world with the gospel. I found it very affirming because I've sometimes felt like I should follow a specific format or method for sharing the gospel, whereas Thorn points out very natural ways for believers to participate in their communities and be a witness. When he talks about doing good works, he explains that they are not only a means to sharing the gospel, but that doing good deeds is part of the gospel's work in our lives.

I've read Thorn before, and I appreciate his devotional style and personal openness, as well as his ability to condense a lot of thought into few words. The book could be read in one sitting, or it could be taken chapter by chapter in a small group or one-on-one setting. He's one of the few authors I keep track of to see when he has new books are coming out because he takes you right to the point and directs your thoughts to God and his word.

I received this book from the publisher in order to provide this review.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My negative review of a children's Bible

After carefully reading through the notes of the NIV Investigator's Holy Bible, I'm afraid that I cannot recommend it. In fact, I'm going to dispose of my review copy rather than keep it for my children, sell it, or give it away.

On first glance, the Investigator's Bible has a lot going for it. The shiny cover is inviting. The darker-skinned boy with a camera and magnifying glass standing with a lighter-skinned girl holding a Bible and a dog are all smiling should tell children "Hey, we're like you, we're fun, and we like the Bible." Excellent! The introduction explains that Mateo and Isabella are going to help you read and understand the Bible, with notes introducing each book of the bible, answers to questions kids (and adults) might have as they read, explanations of the meaning behind certain names, information about the Bible's varied settings, and summaries at the end of each book. All these are written with kids in mind. Hey, there's even multiple choice questions throughout to help kids remember what they're reading about.

Many of these notes are great at explaining difficult concepts or confusing material. For instance, the note on Myrrh (Genesis 43:11) says, "This plant was used to make perfume. It was also a medicine, and was used to preserve dead bodies. Myrrh was one of the gifts the wise men gave Jesus when he was a baby." Apart from the unnecessary comma in the second sentence, it was just what a young reader would benefit from knowing. Similarly, the note on Luke 2:21 explains that circumcision is when "they cut off a little piece of skin that covers the end of the penis," and, "It's also a way to make sure that this part of the body is always clean." Perhaps that's more information than some parents want their children to have, especially at the low end of the recommended age range (6-10 years old), but it's the kind of information kids need if they're to take the Bible seriously as they get older.

If I had to rate the book based only on the good notes, I'd give it two thumbs up. However, the content of other notes caused me concern:

First, the notes seriously undermine the concept of inerrancy, the traditional Christian teaching that the Scriptures do not err in what they say. This can be seen as early as the book of Genesis. The notes say that it was probably written around 700 BC and finalized around 400 BC. That would place it's writing about 700 years after Moses lived and 300 years after King David, meaning that no one was reading Genesis until around the time that Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon, despite the fact that the Old Testament regularly records that Moses wrote these things down in a book and passages describing events during the life of Moses' successor mention the "book of the law of Moses" (Josh. 8:31; 23:6). The introduction to Isaiah says the book "has probably been edited several times (meaning that it was written and then corrected several times)." Similarly, the New Testament notes question Paul's authorship of a number of epistles.  The note on 2 Peter states "Most Bible experts think the author was really one of Peter's followers, who wrote in his name," and that "it's possible" it was written in the 2nd century AD.

Second, the notes take a clearly egalitarian view of passages about the roles of men and women in the church. Complementarians hold to the historic Christian teaching that men and women, though equal, are different and that God has reserved the pastorate for men. Egalitarians do not. As a result, the notes frequently dismiss passages about distinct gender roles as merely being a product of their misogynistic times: "A long time ago, the law didn't give women any rights. But now we know that men and women are equal." "It's just that the law didn't used to give women any rights. Now men and women are equal." The notes state that Priscilla and Junia "knew a lot about the Bible and they preached," and dismiss Paul's prohibition on women speaking in the church (which does need some explanation) with, "What Paul probably means is that women shouldn't be gossips and that they should listen to the teachings. Doesn't that make more sense?" They even go so far as to suggest that prohibiting women from teaching was just a concession to the culture of that day because Greco-Roman society were biased against women leading a gathering and, "If they saw a woman doing this, they might think Christianity was a bad idea and reject it."

I had other concerns as well, such as the emphatic stance that God in no way hardened Pharaoh's heart, which is clearly anti-Calvinist. Also, when addressing Jewish-Gentile relations in Galatians 2, the notes state that it was the Jews' fault because they "...wanted everybody to continue the Jewish customs from before the time of Jesus." They also come down hard on the Jews in their note on 1 Timothy 1:4 and say, "So that's why they thought they had more rights to land and religious jobs. But that's just not so! Jesus saves us, and God accepts us all equally." I'm not sure if this is intentionally anti-semitic or if it is a subtle reproof to those of us who hold to traditional Christian teachings on gender and sexuality.

Regardless, unless you come from a "mainstream" denomination that has long since said goodbye to inerrancy and a traditional Christian stance on sexuality and gender, this book is probably not for you or your children. I only hope this Bible does not represent the direction the ZonderKidz brand has in mind for the future of their products directed at Christian families.

Note: I requested and received a copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the most influential preachers of the 19th century. At a time before automobiles, airplanes, and electricity, he regularly preached before crowds of more than 5,000 in his church in London (he once even preached before crowd of over 23,000 people). He founded a college, an orphanage, and was a strong advocate for foreign missions. He was personally acquainted with D. L. Moody and Hudson Taylor. Famous Americans like Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller, and James Garfield (before he became the 20th president of the United States) visited his church to hear him preach. He left more published words than any other Christian in history, before or since. He has often been called the "Prince of Preachers," and rightly so.

Despite his popularity, or perhaps because of it, Spurgeon received a lot of criticism during his lifetime. His opposition to the new theory from fellow Englishman Charles Darwin earned him mockery from cartoonists and newspapers. His condemnation of so-called Christian slaveholders in America resulted in threats and book burnings throughout the Southern United States, especially from members of the relatively new Southern Baptist denomination. Yet times have changed, and now Southern Baptists are not only among his greatest admirers, but they have begun publishing a planned twelve-volume set of his earliest sermons, never before seen in print.

LifeWay graciously provided me a review copy of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume I. Over a few weeks I read it cover to cover. Volume I contains the 76 sermons Spurgeon recorded in the first of nine notebooks that will serve as the bases for the rest of the volumes in this series. I was immediately impressed by the aesthetic beauty of the book in my hands. The cloth over board covers, sewn binding, thick and glossy pages, and full color facsimiles of each page of the notebook showed a commitment to producing a high-quality work, and this is only the standard edition (there's a special edition with more photographs, gilded pages, and even a slip cover, too!).

The introductory materials drew me in immediately. A 17-page timeline from 1800-1910 highlights important events from the life of Spurgeon in red and significant moments (both secular and religious) from the 19th century in black. Events of interest to Southern Baptists are included as well. The book also includes chapters looking at Spurgeon's place in history, his relationship to Southern Baptists, and the background of this book series. Excepts are available online, which I encourage you to check out (from the Foreword, Editor's Preface, Introduction, pdf sampler).

Each sermon includes a color facsimile, transcription, and notes. Even as a teenager, Spurgeon's sermons were impressive for his insight and ability to connect with his listeners. He largely used outlines (he called them "skeletons") and relied on his memory to preach extemporaneously. Because this is a critical work, the notes identify sources Spurgeon used (he was particularly fond of John Gill and John Bunyan), references to events of his day, and quotations from elsewhere in his body of work where he treated the same topics or Scriptures in more detail. The notes also discuss ink marks, corrections, and spelling, but I largely ignored these.

I wish my early sermons were as good as Spurgeon's. By the time he was 20 he had already preached more than 700 times. If they had only published the text of his notebook, it would have been worth reading. The addition of introductory materials placing Spurgeon in his historical context and scholarly research of the notes placing his sermons in the context of his sources and later writings make the volume even more valuable.

If you're interested in snagging a copy for yourself, you can find The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume I online and in LifeWay stores. Volume II is slated for release in September 2017.

Whether you're interested in Spurgeon's lost sermons or not, you can get access to a digital library of over 3,500 of his sermons by signing up for the Broadman & Holman Academic eNewsletter here. It's free and you can cancel your email subscription anytime.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

I've grown to love the books published by Kregel Academic. When offered the chance to receive a review copy of Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature in their Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, I couldn't say no. I'm just as interested in gaining a better understanding of the visions in Daniel or the book of Revelation.

The book is divided into six chapters along with an appendix on the possible antecedents to Jewish apocalyptic literature. The first chapter clarifies what is meant by the term "apocalyptic literature" and differentiates it from "apocalypse," "apocalypticism," and other terms. Chapter two discusses major themes in apocalyptic literature. The rest of the chapters walk readers through the process of interpreting apocalyptic texts and preaching or teaching them to others.

I found the chapter on major themes to be the most helpful because of the numerous examples and analyses of Old Testament passages and extra-biblical apocalyptic texts like the book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Moses, and more. By seeing the similarities and understanding how to interpret extra-biblical texts, I gained insight into the mechanics of how apocalyptic texts work.

I'm glad apocalyptic literature is getting more attention from serious scholars and not just novelists with a wild imagination. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature shows that these texts were part of a wider body of apocalyptic literature and that they carried an intelligible message for their original audiences. By studying these texts we can discover how they apply to us today, not to some future generation awaiting a literal fulfillment of all that these books describe in such graphic imagery.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Resumen de Rut (Reina-Valera 1602)

Uno de los tesoros que se puede encontrar en Google Books es un PDF de la Biblia Reina-Valera de 1602. Tiene muchas notas, incluso introducciones a cada libro y cada capítulo de la Biblia. Aquí hay las notas para el libro de Rut (ligeramente editadas):

Rut, moabita, por la memoria de su primer marido ya difunto, el cual se había casado con ella cuando, por la hambre, se había ido de Judea a tierra de Moab, y por el deseo que tenía del verdadero culto del Dios de Israel, se fue de Moab en compañía de su suegra a Judea donde, por derecho de parentesco se casa con Booz, del cual parió a Obed, abuelo de David, del cual, según la carne, Cristo descendió (Mateo 1). Es historia de poco más de diez años, que pasaron desde la salido de Noemí hasta su vuelta y casamiento de Rut con Booz.

Capítulo 1. Noemí vuelve de Moab con su nuera Rut, muerto su marido e hijos, a Belén, de donde se había ido a causa de la hambre.

Capítulo 2. Rut va a espigar a la segada de Booz, pariente de Noemí, el cual le hace buen tratamiento.

Capítulo 3. Rut, instruida de Noemí su suegra, trata de casamiento con Booz y él lo admite.

Capítulo 4. Booz, escusados el más propinquo, toma por mujer a Rut conforme al derecho de la Ley, de la cual le nace Obed, abuelo de David, con el cual se continua la genealogía del Mesías desde Fares hijo de Judá.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Balanced Preaching

We tend to like the idea of balance. Eat a balanced breakfast. Maintain a healthy work/life balance. Balance your checkbook. Balance your budget. Maintain a balance of power in the Middle East. Balance is desirable.

As preachers, we ought to recognize the power of our words and exercise extra caution in how we use them, since "we who teach will be judged with greater strictness," and "if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man." We don't want people to misconstrue what we're teaching and pursue unwise or unbiblical paths because we failed to narrow the scope of application, so we try to give examples or warnings to balance out what we're saying. How many times have you or someone you've learned under said something like this:
"Now, this passage doesn't teach that we should all sell everything we own..." 
"When James says 'faith without works is dead,' we need to remember what Paul wrote in Romans..." 
"Please don't go up to your boss and quit your job tomorrow..." 
"You better not get in an argument with your spouse on the way home today because 'Pastor said that you have to...'" 
"I'm not telling you to..."
Part of faithfully handling the word of truth is ensuring that we clarify to our listeners what we mean. Providing counterpoints or putting limits on the scope of application to balance our message is not a sign of poor speaking skills because the Bible offers us many examples of this same practice. Consider:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus, Matthew 5:17 
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world." Paul, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

"I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth." John, 1 John 2:21.
As good as the practice of balance is in our preaching, we must not always be balanced. Yes, I'm saying we need balance in our use of balance. Here's what I mean. Sometimes a passage is intentionally extreme in order to confound, amaze, and make an emphatic point. Consider Matthew 5:29,
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
If you check the rest of the context, you won't find Jesus balancing this statement. He doesn't say, "Now, I don't mean that you should literally gouge out your eyes..." He doesn't say, "I'm not telling you to gouge out your spouse's eye because you know it's been leading them to sin..." Why not? For one, he can reasonably assume no one is going to actually gouge out their or someone else's eyes. Secondly, it would so "balance" his statement as to negate its power.

I have two distinct memories of preaching about faith and works in James. The first time I preached it, I was careful to explain the difference between Paul's use of the word "justification" in Romans and Jame's use in the second chapter of his letter. As sermons go, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't powerful either. The second time I preached on that passage I explained what James meant by justification without mentioning Paul, then I said something like, "Instead of focusing on perceived differences between James and Paul, we ought to consider the similarities between James and Jesus," and then brought up Luke 13:6-9 to hammer the point home that true faith proves itself through action. It was a lot more powerful message than the first sermon.

Pastors and others who teach the Bible should take care how they handle the word of God. Balance is a good thing, but it's not ultimate. Sometimes we need to avoid balance to remain faithful to the words of Scripture and hammer its truth home. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Help for preaching the Old Testament

I've been preaching off and on now for about six years. During that time my favorite and probably best sermons came from a series I did on Daniel. When offered the opportunity to receive a review copy of Preaching Old Testament Narratives from Kregel Publications, I had to take it. I'm glad I did.

Benjamin Walton, formerly a pastor, is president of PreachingWorks, an organization that helps pastors become better preachers. Walton argues that Old Testament Narratives shouldn't be preached like New Testament epistles, prophecy, or other biblical genres. For one thing, a complete unit of thought (CUT) in the Old Testament may encompass a number of chapters, whereas a CUT in the New Testament may be as short as a paragraph or two. Old Testament narratives describe more than they prescribe, whereas New Testament epistles are filled with exhortations and succinct theological truths. Even where a command or expectation is clearly spelled out in the Old Testament, it requires careful analysis in light of the full revelation of the gospel in Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

Since the quality of a sermon depends first on a proper understanding of the text, Walton guides readers through the process of identifying a complete unit of thought, considering the theological and historical contexts, and studying the CUT in order to determine the original theological message (OTM) that author was communicating to his audience. This in turn will lead to an appropriate take-home truth (THT) in light of the fuller revelation of the gospel.

I admit that the acronyms were a little distracting at first, but having "complete unit of thought" or "original theological message" spelled out every time would have been even more distracting in certain sections of the book, so I'm glad he did it.

Half of the book focuses on developing the sermon, and the second half looks at delivery. He considers popular approaches to preaching and assesses their strengths and weaknesses before delving into his own method. Walton emphasizes the purpose behind the introduction, particularly building rapport with the audience and showing them the relevance of the message about to be preached. As he moves through the rest of the sermon Walton provides numerous examples and tips for preaching that, if put into practice, are sure to improve our preaching.

I told my wife that I liked the book because it made me want to preach again. That alone should be enough to commend it.