an academic fairy tale

I realize that “academic” and “fairy tale” really don’t belong together. Other possible titles could have been, “There and back again, a graduate student’s tale.” Or “How to turn a one-year degree into fourteen.” Maybe slightly more inspiring, “How big a dream can you dream? Part 1.”

For the past six months, I’ve been working on it. And now, I’m done. Really, done.

thesis conclusion

By ‘it’, I mean my thesis for a Master of Theology degree. Finishing this has been nothing short of a miracle, and the back story on getting to ‘done’ deserves recording for the sake of posterity.

Fourteen years ago – that’s right FOUR-TEEN years ago – while living in Seattle, I enrolled in a Master of Theology (ThM) program at Regent College, “an innovative graduate school of theology” in Vancouver, British Columbia. Had I known the journey that lay ahead, I’m not sure I would have ever ventured an application. But ignorance is bliss, so I applied and was admitted.

One thing I was aware of at the time of enrollment, Seattle and Vancouver are separated by a two-and-a-half hour drive (not to mention a national border), so I knew going in that I would be spending lots of time and gas (i.e. money) traveling back and forth between home and school. What seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision back then sounds like shear madness now. Who in their right mind would travel FIVE HOURS to attend a two hour class once a week? This idiot, that’s who.

At any rate, over the next few years, I faithfully covered the miles and more or less knocked out all the coursework. During those repeated trips to Regent, I fell in love with the school. Everything about it is just right. Where it is. What it is. Why it is. Who it is. All perfect. When people ask me what seminaries to consider, and I get asked pretty frequently, Regent is always at the top of the list.

Regent College

The classes and the faculty who taught them helped me become a better theologian, pastor, and person. I already had my Master of Divinity, which was its own grueling labor of love, but for whatever reason my time at Regent was both demanding and life-giving in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Despite the long hours driving in the car, sitting in the classroom, toiling over books and research papers, being there was a good thing for me.

Here’s what I didn’t know going in. Since the ThM is the highest degree offered at Regent, the school takes it very seriously. I have no idea what the expectations are for completing a ThM at any other school, but I’m painfully aware of what they are at Regent. High. Insanely so. I seem to recall one professor saying that since Regent didn’t offer a PhD, they more or less felt like it was their responsibility to hold students working towards their highest degree to doctoral research standards.

Just great. Not only did I have the challenges of family (I don’t think I mentioned that two of our four children were born during this time) and work to deal with, not to mention the ridiculously long commute, now I’ve got people expecting research and writing from me that I wasn’t even sure I was capable of.

I’m not sure how to describe the next several years as it relates to work on the thesis. “A wash” is probably most appropriate. I had an idea of what I wanted to write on – “1 Peter’s Use of the Old Testament” – but I discovered that it was far too broad a research topic. Now I realize that for most, this doesn’t appear to lack specificity, but alas it was indeed too vague.

Meanwhile, life is changing – more kids, moving across the country, new home, new work – and as you might guess, the thesis (that I didn’t really have a clear idea of how to finish) fell effortlessly to the bottom of the ‘do do’ list. Even though it didn’t command my attention, I knew it was there. Most days, weeks, and months would pass without even giving it a passing thought. At other times, its unfinished state was akin to Paul’s famous thorn in the flesh.

Then came the summer of 2008. I was due for a sabbatical and I had the brilliant idea of trying to combine writing a thesis and a once in a lifetime adventure for my family of six in the Pacific Northwest. Once again, sounds reasonable enough, right? Yeah, right.


The summer is well chronicled by my beloved, and I highly encourage you to spend some time reminiscing on the madness that we fondly called “living the dream.” But it didn’t take me long to realize that I wouldn’t be finishing that summer. Honestly, I would do good to come to the end of the sabbatical with a decent proposal. Humbled, but not deterred, I chipped away at the thesis while moving our make-shift home (a pop-up camper pulled by an aging 15-passenger van) from one place to the next, holing up in whatever library or coffee-shop I could find wherever we happened to be. And as expected, I walked away from the summer having made some progress on the thesis, but not much.

Returning home, the thesis returned back to the back burner. And to give the metaphor some sense of scale, it was on the very back burner of a friend’s house who lived across town that I didn’t see but a few times a year. I would wave at it every now and then, just often enough to remember it was still there. And the stove was off.

Once again, weeks, months, and years rolled by. Same ole, same ole.

Until something changed. And that something was a willingness to ask for help. On February 23, 2012, the day after Ash Wednesday, I awkwardly asked a group of men to pray with me during Lent concerning what the future held. There are a couple of pretty incredible stories there that I’ll have to go into at another time, but the short version is that at the end of Lent, we all regrouped and they affirmed that I should do whatever it took to finish the thesis. And their words of encouragement and prayers were exactly what I needed to face the challenges that lay ahead.

You see, in order for this to happen, at least four things would need to fall into place. First, the leadership at church would need to be willing to let me take the time to do the research and writing. Second, I would need to seek and be granted an extension from Regent. Third, I would need to secure a new thesis supervisor from among the faculty at Regent (by this time, my previous supervisor had left the school). And fourth, I would need to find a way to have access to highly specialized theological books and articles, which I knew would prove difficult because Central Arkansas doesn’t boast much in the way of theological libraries.

I honestly wasn’t sure that any of these things would come to pass. The only hope I was going on was that a group of four friends were convinced that this was the course I needed to take. And so one step at a time, I walked through the process. And one by one, the mountains moved. The church made it possible for me to devote a significant amount of time each week to thesis work. Regent was gracious enough to grant the necessary program extension. Two down, two to go.

Securing a thesis supervisor was going to be a little tricky. The most likely candidate for supervising was a New Testament professor who is something of an expert in the New Testament’s use of the Old. However, he was on study leave and therefore unavailable. Enter Mariam Kamell, a recent addition to Regent’s faculty who had recently finished her PhD work in New Testament. After a round of emails and a phone call or two, she agreed to supervise my work. More on Mariam later, but for now just ‘one’ to go.

I was fully prepared to make regular trips to Regent (at no small expense), in order to have access to the library, which is one of the finest theological libraries in North America. Then Alison suggested that I at least check with our local library to see what they might be able to do for me. My acting on her suggestion (and Lord knows that I don’t always take her advice to heart) was the difference maker. I discovered a little thing called ILLIAD. I don’t know exactly what it stands for, but the words “inter-library” and “loan” are somewhere in there, and basically what it means is that any book or article on the planet can find its way into my hands within a week or two. And I mean… any book. FOR FREE! My friends, the world had just opened up to me. I don’t know how many requests I’ve made in the last six months, but I would venture to guess somewhere approaching one-hundred.

So with the obstacles (and excuses) out of the way, the only thing left keeping me from getting it done was me. Literally, everything had fallen into place and now I had to face the unfortunate truth that I am my own biggest obstacle to getting most anything done. However, having reached the proverbial point-of-no-return, stopping now was not option. It helped that there were four guys who would have taken me to task if I gave any indication at all of not moving forward. And so, I took the next step.

It is now May of 2012, I send off the proposal that I had thought was in pretty good shape to my recently acquired supervisor. At this point, I should clarify what the “proposal” stage is all about. In most peoples’ minds, a proposal is a few paragraphs – a page at best – describing what you think you would like to write about. Someone signs off on that and then you get to go write your thing. At Regent, a proposal is a carefully researched, fully annotated, highly scrutinized, twenty-five page document detailing what you plan to argue as original research. This ain’t no book report folks. It isn’t even a summary of what you’ve learned after reading a couple hundred books and articles. It is you saying something that has never been said before about the Bible. The B-I-B-L-E. Only the most studied piece of literature in the history of the planet.

Mariam has many wonderful qualities that make her an ideal supervisor, and none more important than her honesty. After having read through the proposal, her candid (yet gracious) reply was along the lines of “you’re going to have to do better than that.” This was right before summer hit, and so her reply coupled with the irregularity of summer schedule set me back over two months. When August rolled around, I knew that unless I jumped back in now, I would probably be looking at another multi-year stand still. So I took the next step. Dove back in. Did more research. Carefully considered her feedback. And began to re-work the proposal.

I barely make a deadline for turning in my proposal to an approval committee. That’s right, a committee approves whether or not your proposal has any merit. No pressure. It came back and the hard work paid off. I was given the ‘green light’ to get moving. That happens at the end of November. The agreed upon due date is March 25th. I’ve got just under four months to produce one hundred and twenty-five carefully researched, well-argued, pages of fresh research on 1 Peter’s Use of Isaiah (yes, the Old Testament was too broad, so it got narrowed down to just the Isaiah references).

And that’s when things shifted into high gear. For four months, every week, I churned out page after page. Once a chapter was done, I sent it off to my supervisor and she would take it to task. Comments regularly came back, “not sure what you’re arguing here,” “awkward sentence,” “where are you going with this.” I would revise. All the while, keeping moving forward. And slowly, chapters were finishing and an argument was coming together. I would stare at my laptop until it felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head. But finally, one day, I was done. Just like that. And not only done, but done with a piece of well-researched, carefully argued, and I think, important contribution to the field of biblical studies.


Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend convocation in Vancouver. I’ve never been one given to ceremony, fanfare, or sentimentality. However, walking across that stage brought to conclusion something that was definitely worth marking and celebrating. It was a watershed moment that I’ll always look back on to remember that sometimes the faithfulness of God takes many, many years to recognize. In our “on-demand” culture, I feel like this is a much needed reminder.

Like I said at the outset, it is nothing short of a miracle. And by and large, the miracle came in the form of people. People who gave exactly the sort of support and encouragement that I needed at exactly the right time and place. Maybe one day, I’ll learn that lesson for good.

And yet, my friends, getting to ‘done’ is not even half of the story.

good story, tell it again

Ok, the previous two posts were more or less introductory so that I could get to what I consider to be the really interesting stuff. I’m sure you are just like me and you lie awake at night wondering “How would the Abraham stories have been received by the people as Moses was composing them?” Or maybe another way of asking it, “Why did Moses tell these stories to these people in the way that he did?”

Let’s play make believe. Pretend you are one of the Hebrews who has been freed from Egyptian captivity and now you are wandering around the Sinai Peninsula. As you are moving from place to place, Moses is writing and sharing stories of your ancestors. Among those stories, perhaps the most famous of them is Abram’s call to leave his home and follow God into a new land.

You don’t have to be the ancient equivalent of a Hebrew rocket scientist to start putting two and two together. You (and frankly all your fellow travelers) might think, “Hmmm… leave one place to follow God to another? Sounds familiar. Isn’t this exactly what we are doing right now?” Hold that thought.

Then come the promises – great nation, great blessing, great name. Let’s take them one by one.

I will make you into a great nation – Becoming a “nation” is tricky business in the Bible. It is about both having a number of people and having a land. The Hebrews may have been numerous, but they didn’t have any land that they could call their own. When we are introduced to Abraham in Genesis, he was a man without a nation. When we are introduced to not-yet-Israel in Exodus they are also nation-less. Both Abraham and Israel were on their way to becoming a nation. They were both looking for their place in the world.

I will bless you – In some ways, this is just an extension of the promise of nationhood. However, it is more than just blessing in sort of a bland generic way. When they find themselves in the land, they will have fruitful lives. Shalom (or peace… or wholeness) is what is being promised. They will have a life that radiates the goodness of being in the life giving presence of the one they know as Yahweh. Again, imagine a disenfranchised people who are discouraged and hopeless. The Abrahamic blessing is a powerful reminder that this isn’t the end of them. In fact, it is just the beginning.

I will make your name great – When I was teaching on this passage, I made the observation that this promise isn’t as much about being famous as it is about legacy. But what I didn’t get around to was discussing the importance of naming. When one “names” another in ancient cultures (and maybe to some extent today as well) it is a sign of the namer’s authority, or dominion, or ownership.

Take for example, the retelling of Adam naming animals in Genesis 2. This isn’t simply a cute scene in which he is sort of randomly passing out names. Cow, bird, iguana… The point is that through Adam’s naming, he is demonstrating dominion or rulership. Likewise, when God says that he’ll make Abram’s name “great,” that is loaded with overtones of rulership. In giving him a new name – Abraham – God is in essence saying, “You are mine. You belong to me. You have a new identity that is defined by my choosing you and naming you.”

Right about now, we (as imaginary Hebrews) are beginning to pick up on some not so subtle clues that this isn’t just a story about Abraham. Can you think of another “person” who God gave a new name? There are a few, but I’m thinking specifically about Jacob. During one episode in which Jacob and God re-enact the WWF out in the countryside, God gives him the name Israel, which means something like “wrestles or struggles with God.” Maybe not the name they would have chosen for themselves, but that’s precisely the point. They didn’t get to choose their name; God did the naming.

Once again, imagine you are “Israel,” or perhaps you are “struggling with God” out in the wilderness. As Moses is sharing these stories, they are reminded that God has named them. They belong to God. And he has made promises to Abraham, and therefore to them as well, that they will become a nation in the fullest sense. They will have a land. They will be blessed. And perhaps, most importantly they will be given a new identity by the One who names.

What God’s Chosen People are discovering as they listen to Moses retell the time-worn tales is that those stories are as much about them as they are about Abraham. It doesn’t mean that Abraham’s story isn’t true. It does mean that Moses is perhaps making a point of highlighting certain aspects of Abraham’s story to draw lines connecting Abraham’s story to theirs.

And now fast forward one-thousand years to the time shortly after the exile, and imagine how these stories might have been heard by the nation who “struggles with God” all over again. The same stories and the same promises are re-appropriated for God’s people in a new time.

Then maybe fast forward another two thousand years, and we are no longer in the realm of imagination. Our own reality is that we all too often find ourselves “struggling with God.” And like all God-wrestlers over the centuries, we too are longing for our place in the world, a desire for blessing manifested in Shalom wholeness, and a new identity given to us by the great covenant-Maker.

I think I’m about done now. There is lots that could be said about the fourth promise, “You will be a blessing … to all peoples,” but you quite simply can’t say all that there is to say.

Who wrote the Bible?

So yesterday, I attempted to discuss the whos, whens and whys of Genesis’s genesis, but I didn’t get very far. And by that I mean that I got nowhere. In this post, I’m hoping to address the “who” and the “when/where” issue. You sort of have to tackle them together, because they go hand in hand. Let’s start with the who question though.

Of course, an obvious answer would be that God is the author. That’s why we call it “God’s Word.” However, how he wrote it is a bit complicated. While possibly a surprise to some, it doesn’t appear that God himself dusted off some parchment and sharpened a quill and set himself to the busy task of penning Genesis through Revelation, only to drop the completed tome from the skies – gold leaf pages, leather bound, and in English no less – perfect in every way.

While we may have preferred to receive the Scriptures in that way, for whatever reason God chose human beings – fallible, limited, frail, time and culture bound people – to write and compile those things that He wanted to communicate to humanity. I’m not saying that Scripture itself necessarily shares in all the shortcomings of humanity, but it would also be a mistake to say that the Bible is devoid of human characteristics. Utilizing ordinary people wouldn’t necessarily have been my way of going about things if I were God, but apparently he has ideas of his own. I suppose to be a Christian means that I am to trust that he knows what he’s doing.

But back to the matter of which person wrote Genesis, as with all things Bible this is debated. The most conservative view of authorship of which I’m aware has Moses “writing” the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). He certainly would have had the available time – forty years to be exact – as he and the nascent nation of Israel wandered around the Sinai wilderness.

Other views would tend to see the Pentateuch (and much of the Old Testament) as having undergone an editing process over some centuries and not coming into its final form until a few hundred years prior to Jesus’ birth. In this case, it might be more accurate to describe the “author” less as a writer and more of a compiler.

While I’m not necessarily put off by either of these options, some people get very nervous with the idea that the Scriptures may have undergone “editing” or revising. For some reason, we seem to think that the only means by which God could have faithfully communicated his Word to us is if there had been an unbiased ancient journalist present at the time gathering first hand observations. The facts and nothing but the facts. One can be certain that this was not how the Scriptures came about.

My own opinion is that the formation of the canon was a highly complex process that involved first-hand accounts, stories passed down over generations that were both oral and written, all of it re-worked in such a way to have a coherent message that spoke to the contemporary situation in which the writer/compiler found him or herself. It seems plausible (even likely) to me that much of what we have in Genesis through Deuteronomy was initially drafted by Moses himself, but that perhaps it isn’t until sometime around the Exile (or more likely the return from exile) that it came into the form that we more or less have today.

Of course, something like what I have just described must be the case, at least in part, in even the most conservative of scenarios. Moses wasn’t born until the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt (i.e. Exodus 1), so for him to have written Genesis would have meant that he was strongly dependent on an oral tradition that had been passed on over centuries. The Pentateuch suggests that Moses and God frequently had some one-on-one time so it is possible he got the info he needed in some of those gab sessions. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t seem likely that he could have written Deuteronomy 34, since it records his own death. Someone else (Joshua?) must have finished things up for him.

Right? Right.

Ok, tomorrow we do some finishing up of our own and turn to the upshot on all of this. Namely, what does any of this have to do with the way we understand Genesis 12 and 15.

Covenant Revisted

BORING BIBLE POST WARNING: What follows is interesting to less than one percent of people who go to church, which in turn means that a fraction of a percent of people on the planet will care about what I’m talking about here. Who am I kidding? This is a post written by me… to me. I will attempt to make it interesting, but should you read any further than this just know that you have been forewarned.

Recently, I gave a message on the covenant God made with Abraham as we see it take shape in Genesis 12 and 15. This sermon was part of a teaching series our church is currently working through called “WORD.” Over the span of fifteen weeks, we are hoping to convey the overarching storyline of the Bible – to give people the big picture of the Bible – and not just some piecemeal stories from here and there.

And now I need to make a confession…

I don’t like sermons.

This is a problem, because I give a lot of them.

Now when I say “I don’t like sermons,” I don’t mean it in the way that your average organized religion basher might. To the extent that I am able to prayerfully, accurately, and compellingly communicate the ways God has spoken to us through his word, I love it. In fact, there are few things that I enjoy more than teaching out of the scriptures.

And still, I find preaching a sermon to be inherently frustrating. This frustration stems not from having a difficult time coming up with things to say, but rather for the opposite reason. I always have more that I would like to say than time permits. To those who patiently endure having to sit under my teaching on a regular basis, this perhaps comes as something of a surprise. Like most preachers, I can have a tendency to “go long.” So the idea that I might have more to say is not only unfathomable, it’s horrific.

The problem is that I don’t think I’ve done a topic justice unless I’ve said everything that there is to say about that subject. The following quote says it well…

Every good sermon is heresy when judged for all the important truths left untreated.

Fred Craddock, found in Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot,  p. xiv

Preaching on God’s covenant with Abraham was no exception. My approach was to take the text at more or less face value and teach it all as straight forward narrative. This means that I made attempts to describe what the events surrounding God’s calling and covenanting with Abr(ah)am would have looked like for someone who had a front row seat of the whole affair. I generally think that is probably the best approach, as I’m guessing other preachers would agree.

However, these stories aren’t quite so cut and dry. There is much more going on in these texts. I don’t pretend to think for even a moment that I am fully aware of all the “much more” going on or could explain it even if I did. But I’m going to take a crack at trying to share the more that I do understand.

I can already tell that this post (not unlike my sermons) is going to stretch out some. And so to spare you from a narcoleptic episode, I’m going to break things up a bit. Here’s what we’ll consider in the next post or two:

1) who wrote the material we find in Genesis.

2) when and where was it written

3) which will lead us to consider the way these stories function as they are received by various (reading/listening) communities throughout history.

I know you can’t wait.

audible sacraments

Quick one here. Finishing up with a final helpful thought from Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. In his discussion of preaching the Word, he describes sermons as “audible sacraments.” And as an Anglican bishop, he is someone who doesn’t throw the “s” word around lightly. So here we go…

[Sermons] are not simply for the conveying of information, though that is important in a world increasingly ignorant of some of the most basic biblical and theological information. They are not simply for exhortation, still less for entertainment. They are suppose to be one of the moments in regular Christian living when heaven and earth meet.

Not sure anyone would ever describe my preaching as the meeting place of heaven and earth, but holding out that hope for my teaching ministry (or anyone’s) seems like a worthwhile goal.

Father, Son, and the Holy… Bible?

Ok, so enough of semi-controversial YouTube videos. Time to get that flame inducing garbage off the top of the stack and get back to my bread-and-butter, boring reflections on biblical interpretation. So let’s turn to the non-controversial subject of inerrancy.

There are numerous ways of viewing the Scriptures that seem to get things a little out of whack. Some views are too high and make claims about the book that it doesn’t claim for itself. Others are of the opinion that it is a book no more inspired than any other great great literary work. And still others who wouldn’t even give it that much credit.

As you might guess, true to my father’s Buddhist roots, I hold something of a Middle Way. I trust the Scriptures and hold what I think many would call a high view of Scripture. I read it, study it, memorize it, attempt to live it, teach it, and so for some it might appear that I border on bibliolatry.

I do consider myself to be an inerrantist, but I’m pretty sure my definition of inerrancy would be so unrecognizable to those who are proper biblical inerrantists that I would be excluded from the club. So as with most things religious (I’m going to start using this word to describe myself more, heh), I guess it all depends on who is doing the defining. My belief in God’s inspiration of the Word is going to be too high for some, but it is probably deemed too low for others.

Almost time to cue N.T.

Over the years, I’ve grown less concerned with the actual mechanics of inspiration, and more concerned with the role the Scriptures are meant to have in the life of the church and world. Wright’s book on the Bible, Scripture and the Authority of God, helps to clarify a host of issues surrounding our understanding of the text. And in typical Wright-ian fashion, he puts forth something that is somehow ontologically lower, but effectually higher than your typical Bible believer. You get a little of that here…

The apostolic writings, like the ‘word’ which they now wrote down, were not simply about the coming of God’s Kingdom into all the world; they were, and were designed to be, part of the means whereby that happened, and whereby those through whom it happened could themselves be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

This way of understanding Scripture gives full weight to the importance of proclaiming the Word. Without getting mired in sticky debates about whether it is “true” or not, one can still hold to the legitimate belief that Scripture is one of the primary means by which God reveals himself to the world in a powerful way.

As the following quote suggests, recognizing that the proclamation of  the Bible (or even simply reading it aloud) as a powerful means of calling God’s purposes into being is about as high a view of Scripture as one can hold…

The creator God, though utterly transcendent over and different from the world he has made, remains present and active within that world, and one of the many ways in which this is so is through his living and active word. This reflects God’s own nature on the one hand; it is a natural and normal thing for this God to speak, not some anthropomorphic projection onto a blank deistic screen! On the other hand, it reflects the fact that, within God’s world, one of the most powerful things human beings, God’s image-bearers can do is to speak. Words change things – through promises, commands, apologies, warnings, declarations of love or of implacable opposition to evil. The notion of ‘speech-acts,’ which we referred to already, is fairly new in philosophy. It would not have surprised the ancient Israelite prophets.

Words change things. How much more so when they are the very words of God?

approaching the word

In a couple weeks, our church is starting a new series of messages in which we are planning to preach through the whole Bible. Ambitious, I know.

How much time would you guess we have given ourselves to complete this little project?

Ten years? Three years? One year?

How about a little over three months? Ok, so what sounded “ambitious” now sounds plain dumb. Obviously, we aren’t planning to cover every single verse. We’ll be skipping whole chapters. Most of our favorite Bible stories will remain untold. No Joseph and his colorful coat. No Samson. No David and Goliath or Bathsheba (why do we love that story so much). In fact, whole books are going to be left untouched. Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, most of the prophets, to name a few.

So where do we get the nerve to think that we are preaching through the Bible in any meaningful way? Well, if preaching through the Bible means detailed analysis of every single verse, then we are going to fail… epically so. No, our aim is something paradoxically less and more.

Our intent and hope is that we would know the story of the Bible. The overall flow. The narrative of God.

Not just our favorite stories. Not the Ten Commandments. Nor Psalm 23, the Lord’s prayer, and John 3:16.

Think more forest and less trees.

The truth is that people are better equipped to explain what the Harry Potter series is about than what the Bible is about. There are reasons for that being the case, and I’m not going to take the time to delve into all that. But needless to say, we think that becoming familiar with the grand narrative of God’s activity in human history is a worthwhile use of our time on Sunday mornings. Not just for pastors, but for everyone who would seek to faithfully live out that story.

I’m all for sustained rigorous systematic study of the Scriptures. I’ve given a good chunk of my life to it, and I think probably more people should than do. But we are talking about knowing and living the story of God faithfully in our age. It would be possible to commit ourselves to knowing the details of God’s word and miss the point of what Scripture is about and for in the first place.

So with a series of messages looming large on the horizon, I’ve been thinking (again) about how we engage the Scriptures and how they are meant to function in our lives. Really, this whole post has been just a lengthy introduction to some insights from a certain familiar British New Testament scholar. A few months ago, I read his book entitled Scripture and the Authority of God, and I was reminded of a couple things he had to say.

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.

I had a few more quotes from the book, but as is my custom I’m going to string this out over the next few days.

The Gospel of Luke 6:1-49

Luke 6:1-49

A popular reading of Jesus’ disregard for the laws governing Sabbath casts Jesus in the role of the rebellious visionary who wants nothing to do with the prig-ish piety of his religious contemporaries. At some level, this is probably true. However, what Jesus is doing in his non-Sabbath observance is something much deeper and more significant than trying to stick it to “the man.”

Sabbath is a sacred period of rest set aside at the end of the Jewish week so that one might be reminded of their dependance on God and that human beings are mortal and finite. Sabbath is meant to remind us that there is more to life than work and the common events that make up our everyday lives. It is meant to point to a Reality that is greater than ourselves.

But when the Reality shows up, it is the dawn of a new day and everything is seen in a new light. That to which the pointer points isn’t necessary when the pointed to thing (person) is standing right in front of you. In Jesus, we see the “Sabbath” face to face.

It is in this spirit we are to read, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Or as in other places, “The Sabbath was made for the man, and not man for the Sabbath.” This isn’t meant to taken as some sort of anthropocentric – mankind is the center of the universe – sort of teaching. It is meant to highlight that Sabbath has a purpose, and when that purpose is fulfilled then Sabbath observance takes on a secondary significance. In much the same way that one doesn’t spend all their time looking at a shadow when they can be looking at the object casting the shadow in the first place.

It is this idea of fulfillment that permeates the rest of the chapter as well. The story that immediately follows of Jesus selecting twelve disciples functions in a similar way. Jesus decision to select twelve disciples is hardly arbitrary. Twelve people. Not eleven. Not thirteen. Twelve.

In a similar way that there were twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus’ selecting the Twelve is a not so subtly way of symbolically redefining Israel in and around himself. He establishes an alternative Israel. Or perhaps more in line with what we’ve been saying all along, in Jesus we find the true Israel or the fulfillment of all that Israel was to be and do.

The Gospel of Luke 5:1-39

Luke 5:1-39

Alright people, let’s get to this. These are going to have to come fast and furious, so please receive it in its rough form.

Back in Luke 4, Jesus had a power encounter with Satan in which Jesus made clear that his “vocation” was to be the chosen People Person of God – the Son of God – that Israel had failed to be. And now, it was time to get work on demonstrating what happens when the Kingdom of God breaks in around us.

While there are a number of remarkable things about the calling of Peter and the other early disciples, perhaps the most striking thing about the story isn’t the manner in which he calls them, but who he calls. Peter is a regular guy. He’s got a 9-5. The same is true for his co-workers. I am certain that Peter and the fellas woke that day with the expectation that it was going to be another normal day. As far as work was concerned, it was sort of a bust. No fish. None.

Then Jesus shows up. And not only do they end up taking in the largest haul any of them had every experienced, but Jesus invites them into his Kingdom work. Here was a guy who believed enough in them to say, “I want you to join me in turning the world upside down. You in?” And they were. They dropped everything and followed him. That is how it is in the Kingdom.

Next, he encounters a man with leprosy. And regardless of how traumatizing this man’s physical condition was, his legislated rejection from the community of God’s people would certainly have been more painful still. Excluded from Temple worship. Excluded from joining with his fellow Jews.

All that changes for him in an instant. Jesus comes to town, and despite the Law’s insistence that the “unclean” stay separate from the “clean,” the diseased man casts aside convention to throw himself at the feet of Jesus. And in that moment, Jesus extends his hand, makes physical contact with him… and he is healed. Inside and out.

News spreads rapidly, Jesus’ reputation and popularity are beginning to take off. And yet, Luke wants us to take note… Jesus often retreated to be alone and pray. In our contemporary church culture that places penultimate value on community and relationships (and in many ways, rightly so), Jesus makes clear that times of solitude are equally precious and meant to be sought out.

This dual healing seems to be the refrain throughout chapter 5. His next encounter is with a paralyzed man and his optimistic friends who literally drop him at Jesus’ feet. Jesus looks at the paralytic and addresses this man’s most obvious need. Surprisingly, it isn’t restoring his ability to walk. It is his inward brokenness. And Jesus speaks healing to him in a single word… “forgiven.”

But the healing doesn’t end there. Jesus attends to his secondary need as well. The external healing reflects what has happened in the dark and undisclosed recess of his heart. “Get up… go home.” Certainly, a straightforward enough command. But perhaps just below the surface one sees the broad sweeping invitation for all people to stand up and walk away from that thing which truly paralyzes and to return to our true home.

It won’t come as any surprise that he repeats the scene in a slightly different manner immediately after that. Now the malady isn’t so obviously a physical problem, but a social one. Jesus associates with people that no self-respecting Jew would ever sit at table with. But Jesus makes his intentions clear, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus’ mission made plain, “I have come to heal.” In fact, if someone only had this chapter as a record of Jesus life and mission, one would come quickly to the conclusion that Jesus came to “heal” the whole person… inside and out.

Or maybe from the inside out. Being “healthy” is an obsession in American culture. I couldn’t begin to guess what kind of revenue the “health” industry generates. Health clubs, health food, psychic healers, health insurance, health care, etc… And I’m not just pointing the finger either. I’m pretty committed to a healthy lifestyle as well.

And yet with all our preoccupation with being healthy, so little attention is focused on the whole person being cured. So much so that when one begins to look inward, we get that all messed up too. If all we had was chapter 5, we would see that what a person most desperately needs is to be called by Jesus, touched by him, have a word spoken to by him, and to sit at his table. And that is what it looks like when God’s Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Gospel of Luke 4:1-44

Luke 4:1-44

I’ve recently written a few comments and spoken some on Luke 4, so I don’t feel the need to rehearse all that I’ve already said. But for the sake of clarity, let me say at least one thing again… Luke 4 is less about giving us instructions on how to deal with temptation, and way more about who this Jesus is.

One thing that I didn’t mention either in the message, nor very explicitly in the earlier post, is that Israel is sometimes spoken of as being God’s son (Hosea 11:1, Exodus 4:22, possibly Psalm 2:7). One might argue that connecting Jesus’ sonship to the sonship of Israel somehow lessens its force as it relates to our understanding of Jesus’ divinity. That is to say that when Israel was called “God’s son,” no one made the mistake of thinking Israel was divine. Why take the son language about Jesus to do so?

In response, I would argue that the connection between “Son of God” language used for Israel and Jesus doesn’t lessen our understanding of who Jesus is. Rather, it is enhanced. The remainder of the New Testament makes clear that Jesus’ is the Son of God in a way that no one ever has been or could be again. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father is unique. In fact, one can say fairly confidently that the point of Luke 4:1-13 is to say precisely that! Jesus is God’s son in a way that Israel never could be.

But Luke 4 probably isn’t speaking into the Jewish world only. As Luke’s gospel is taking shape, there are others in the Roman world that would make a rival claim to being the “son of God” and divinity. Various Roman emperors would refer to themselves in those terms, and require others to do the  same. So it may well be that Luke is simultaneously addressing the Jewish and pagan worldviews of his day.

In essence, the message Luke is putting across in these first few chapters is “Jesus is God’s one and only true son.”