Bible

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

If you read the Bible, it is pretty clear that primarily masculine imagery is found throughout the Old Testament in reference to God (“father,” “warrior,” or “jealous husband,” for example). However as Leonard Swidler points out, we also find feminine language and images applied to God, even if to a lesser degree, as well as applied favorably to virtues such as wisdom.

Seamtress

And Yahweh God made tunics of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

Swidler comments: “Already in the most ancient part of the Bible…one finds Yahweh performing a customarily female task in Hebrew society (cf. Prov 31:10-31): Yahweh God acts as a seamstress.”

Mother and Nurse

Was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, like a beloved little mother with a baby at the breast?” (Numbers 11:12)

Swidler comments: “When the Israelites in the desert complained of their problems to Moses, he in turn complained to Yahweh with rhetorical questions that by negative implication project onto Yahweh the images of a mother and a wet nurse.”

 Loving Mother

When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. . . . I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. (Hos 11:1, 3, 4)

O Yahweh, . . . I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. (Psalm 131:2)

Yahweh’s Motherly Compassion

Is Ephraim my dear Son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more do I remember him. Therefore, my womb [“heart” ESV] trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion (rachem arachamennu) upon him. (Jeremiah 31:20)

Swidler comments: “In Hebrew, rechem means womb. The plural form, rachaim, extends this concrete meaning to signify compassion, love, mercy. The verb form, rchm, means to show mercy, and the adjective, rachum, means merciful. Thus to speak of compassion or mercy automatically calls forth maternal overtones. This motherly compassion is attributed to God in a number of places.”

God in Birth Pangs

Yahweh God goes forth. . . . “But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.” (Isaiah 42:13-14)

Israel in the Womb of God the Mother

Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly (beten), carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save. (Isaiah 46:3-4)

Nursing Mother

For Zion was saying, “Yahweh has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:14-15)

 Comforting Mother

For thus says Yahweh: . . . Like a son comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you. (Isaiah 66:12-13)

Midwife

Yet you drew me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts. (Psalm 22:9)

Swidler comments: “In Ps 22:9, Yahweh is depicted in an intimate female role, that of a midwife.”

Wisdom Personified as a Woman

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. (Prov 1:20-21)

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her  fast are called blessed. (Prov 3:13-18)

Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud. (Prov 8:1-3)  (Proverbs; Job 28)

In the book of Job, Swidler explains, “the hymn of praise to the feminine Hokmah is continued. She is not subject to the laws of the cosmos but is its mistress. She is inaccessible to humanity, being known only by God. The feminine Hokmah is again both personified and an attribute of God.”

For example, But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its [“her”] worth, and it [“she”] is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It [‘She’] is not in me,” and the sea says, “It [‘She’] is not with me.” (Job 28:12-14)

 

I don’t use feminine pronouns to refer to God, but reading these passages make me wonder if I’m being more conservative than the Bible. The main reason I don’t is not because of convictions about gender and roles. It is simply because Jesus didn’t use feminine language or images about God and did use male imagery, specifically “Father.” But as soon as I say that I feel the tension as if I’m pitting Jesus agains the very scriptures that are all about him.

Instead of using feminine pronouns, I prefer to the term “God’s self.” For example, “God reveals God’s self both in Jesus Christ and in the holy scriptures.” I like the awkwardness of using that term.  I  like that “Gods self” doesn’t seem to fit so well in our linguistic constructions. That seems theologically correct to me.

Of course, God being spirit is neither, strictly speaking, male or female in the embodied human sense. This sort of language is used in the Bible in order to better communicate to us in terms we can relate to. Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that Old Testament descriptions of God encompass both the masculine and feminine.

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the “miracle” to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called “miraculous” we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?

In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.

Wrong Views of Miracles

Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn’t usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn’t normally act in creation, which, as we’ll see, is not biblical.

A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.

The opposite of the second perspective is the “God of the gaps” view, which basically attributes anything we don’t presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by “mere science,” the “God of the gaps” view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.

Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith: “In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form ofmiracles. Starved for some practical sense of God’s concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God’s ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains” (page 368).

That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.

Miracles vs. Providence

One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God’s continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”

So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God’s everyday sustaining providence.

According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (355). Or, as Horton puts it, “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually. 

God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, “When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it” (369).

When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” fades. Horton explains: “We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God’s agency. The question is not whetherGod is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved.Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous” (369, italics original).

“Interventionist” views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God’s providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God’s agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God’s activity acknowledges that “even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service” (368).

To be disappointed at not seeing “Bible-like” miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God’s providential care over creation. “Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks,” Horton writes. “Not only when one’s cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer” (369).

Whether we experience God’s power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon’s hands, God is equally near to us, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

Carl Trueman writes that in the Anglican liturgy, one finds “a structure of worship which is determined by the interface between theological truth and biblically-defined existential need.”  Trueman’s blog post is about about his visit to an Anglican service and the realization that Anglican worship services are both filled with and shaped by the Bible more than “any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life.”

Readings I have found helpful in thinking about a theology of liturgical worship:

In For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann suggests an approach to the world and life within it, which stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church. He understands issues such as secularism and Christian culture from the perspective of the unbroken experience of the Church, as revealed and communicated in her worship, in her liturgy – the sacrament of the world, the sacrament of the Kingdom.

Zahl writes: “I believe in Bible-based verticality, which is another way of saying formal-litiurgical worship.” He reminds us that worship should be vertical, biblical, and Godward. No element of worship should creep into a service without having to pass this one-question test: “Does it accurately reflect Bible truth about God, Christ, and human?”

The worship of the Christian community, properly understood and done, leads worshipers to act out in their lives the love of God, which is at the heart of our worship. Worship also provides the power and the sustenance which makes this style of living possible. This Christian style of living, moreover, drives those who are committed to it back to the worship of God, to find forgiveness and strength. When this interdependent relationship is understood, the power of worship is illuminated and the power to live increased.

Liturgy For Living remains a classic text in the field of Anglican/Episcopal liturgy. This highly readable overview explores the meaning of worship from a theological, historical, and spiritual perspective. It then examines the history, theology, and meaning of specific Anglican liturgies including: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, the Daily Office, the Holy Eucharist, and the various pastoral offices.

Excerpts from Trueman’s blog post:

“So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.”

“In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord’s own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles’ Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.”

“Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Cranmer’s liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God’s word seriously in worship I fall.”

God & Sexuality

God & Sexuality

There are moments for Christians to decry rebellion against Christian sexual ethics, but we should also celebrate and talk about God’s original plan for sexuality too.

Christians too often express what has been called a “Puritanical”view of sex in which it is seen as something that is dirty and an abasement of human morality. However, God made humans inherently sexual beings, both in terms of their biological natures as male and female and in terms of their desires to use their bodies in the context of marriage for pleasure and procreation.

According to Stanley Grenz, “the assertion that sexuality belongs to the essential nature of the human person arises from two Christian doctrines, creation and resurrection. God created us as embodied beings, and in the resurrection recreates us in like fashion. Together the two doctrines confirm a basically holistic anthropology that includes our sexuality.”

In the Bible, human sexuality begins in the garden of Eden, where God created all things good, including the male and female and their sexuality, and commanded humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Sex was God’s idea and an expression of shalom, peace, love, and unity.

It is after this original goodness when sins enters the world and all good things are distorted and everything goes haywire, including sex. About God, sex, creation, and sin, Robert Gagnon writes: “Scripture regards the urge to gratify intensely pleasurable sexual desires as part of God’s good creation. Nevertheless, given their often-insatiable quality, Scripture also recognizes a constant threat to the Creator’s norms.”

Thus, from the biblical perspective, there is one conclusion. The proper context for sex isthe “permanent, monogamous relationship called marriage. This perspective is the basic teaching of the Bible in both Old and New Testaments.” At the same time, there is much more in the Bible regarding sex, shalom, sin, grace, and hope.

Here is a slightly longer version of the Bible’s story about sex.

In the Beginning, In God’s Image

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good Creator of all things and the One who rules the universe. His creative handiwork—everything from light to land to living creatures—is called “good.”But the crown of God’s good creation is humanity. We are made in the very image of God. And God declared: “behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature as we were created like God (Gen 1:26), by God (Gen 1:2), for God (Gen 2:15), and to be with God (Gen 2:15).

In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image.” The fact that our Creator gave us a remarkable title—“the image of God”—speaks of the inherent dignity of all human beings. The expression “image of God” designated human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe.

Multiply and Have Dominion

Immediately after making the man and woman, God granted them a special commission: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’”(Gen 1:28).This verse contains five commands:  “be fruitful,” “multiply,” “fill,” “subdue,” and “have dominion.”  These decrees reveal our most basic human responsibilities.

With the commission to multiply, Adam and Eve’s job was to produce so many images of God that they would cover the earth. Then God ordered them to have dominion over the earth, or exercise authority over creation, managing its vast resources on God’s behalf, not dominating it, but being good stewards of creation and creators of culture.

Multiplication and dominion are deeply connected to our being the image of God. To be sure, God had no problem filling the earth with his presence, but God chose to establish His authority on earth in ways that humans could understand. God commanded His images to populate the landscape of His creation. In the command to “multiply,” God wanted His images spread to the ends of the earth. His command to “have dominion” is God giving humans authority to represent Him in His world. Marital sex is one of the means by which we fulfill our calling of multiplying and taking dominion.

Shalom

God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with His image bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. Cornelius Plantinga writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give you peace (shalom) in the land, and none shall make you afraid”(Lev 26:6).Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good.  Shalom means harmonious and responsible relationship with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended.

In shalom, sex was also a reflection of unity and peace between man and woman. It is a picture of two becoming one. God meant for sexual feelings, thoughts, and activity to be pleasurable and intimacy building in marriage.

Sin

Sin distorts this beautiful act of union, pleasure, calling, and worship. God intended humankind to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), spreading divine image-bearers throughout his good world. This multiplying of offspring and exercising of dominion was to happen through the God-ordained sexual union between man and woman, husband and wife, in the context of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:24-25).

This peaceful, loving relationship was shattered by the entrance of sin into the world. Sin has distorted this beautiful act of union, pleasure, calling, and worship. Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world. One scholarcalls sin “the vandalism of shalom.” Instead of unashamed intimacy and trust, there is shame and mistrust. Instead of grace, there is disgrace.

A foundational element of paradise—sexual innocence in community—has been spoiled by the treachery of sin. Sex—the very expression of human union, intimacy, and peace—became a tool for pain, suffering, and destruction after the Fall.

Grace

But sin is not the last word on the world or us. God reconciled the world to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). By dealing with sin at the cross, Jesus made reconciliation between God and humanity possible, as well as reconciliation with one another.

The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace. God’s redemption imparts grace and brings peace. The effects of grace include our sexual past, present, and future. There is healing, hope, cleansing, and forgiveness for all who trust in Jesus.

God does not leave things broken, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. Where sin does its damage, God brings forgiveness and healing, which are part of God’s larger plan of restoring shalom.

Hope

Redemption removes and rectifies the alienation introduced by the fall, restoring humankind to fellowship with God (Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-22) and with itself (Isa. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-7). Further, Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit offer hope even now to grow and become more sexually whole in Christ.

In Christ there is also great hope for human sexuality. Lewis Smedes writes:

“Jesus did not have to talk about sexuality to affirm it. Sexuality is affirmed by the route that God took for the redemption of humanity. The Resurrection, as well as the Incarnation, carries the body-life of humankind in a deep divine embrace. Redemption is not the promise of escape from the demands or appetites of the body. To confess that Jesus Christ arose from the grave bodily is to reiterate God’s good feelings about his own creation of human beings as body-persons; to celebrate the Resurrection includes a celebration of human sexuality. God did not become man to show us how to get out of our body by means of spiritual exercises. He created a community of resurrection hope and invites us to bring our total sexuality into it. Christ’s resurrection makes permanent God’s union with the whole of humanity, and it thus affirms sexuality as part of our hope for ultimate happiness and freedom.”

God and God’s People

In the New Testament we also learn that human sexuality paints one of the most moving pictures of God’s relationship with His people. In the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly portrayed as a wayward lover of God, who had redeemed her. In the New Testament, the church is referred to as Christ’s bride (e.g., Rev 19:7), and Paul explains that the one-flesh union of man and woman mentioned in Genesis is a picture of Christ and his church (Eph 5:28-33).

Jesus seems to imply that sex will not exist in heaven as it has on earth (Matt 22:30). Likely this is because the sexual union ultimately points to the relationship that Christ has with His people, which will be consummated upon His return. As we are the beloved of God, He promises always to satisfy all of our deepest longings and desires, allowing us to “drink from the river of Your delights” (Psalm 36:8; cf. Rev 22:1-2), now and forever in the age to come.

Conclusion

In the Bible, we find a divinely created pattern for sex, but in the Bible we also find it violated frequently and these violations are repeated throughout human history. God does not leave things broken, however, and is always at work redeeming the sin, wounds, and brokenness involved in human sexuality. God redeems and restores. He reestablishes the original peace and goodness that was violated by the Fall. God’s recreation is not simply a repair job so thing work a bit better than before. Rather, in his creative loving power God finds a way to restore his creation in such a way that everything is even better than it was before sin mucked everything up.

Introduction to Acts

Introduction to Acts

I had the privilege of writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, which features all-new book introductions and gospel-illuminating  notes written to help readers see Christ in all of Scripture and grace for all of life.

Below is the introduction I wrote, which is included in the free sample. You can find out more here and get a copy here.


 

Author and Date

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physi- cian who traveled with the apostle Paul. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, c. a.d. 62. Many scholars assume Acts was written then because it does not record Paul’s defense, release, and further gospel preaching. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel in Acts

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world, from the cross and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Nothing is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace” (20:32), believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace” (6:8), and they are challenged to continue in grace. The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all bold- ness and without hindrance” (28:31). The gospel draws people in, consti- tutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Luke consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to enter and participate in a story that is much bigger than we are.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they fuel it.

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

All people receive the grace of God through one man, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ gospel goes out to all places and all types of people, because Jesus is Lord of all.

Outline

I. Preparation for Witness (1:1–2:13)
II. The Witness in Jerusalem (2:14–5:42)
III. The Witness beyond Jerusalem (6:1–12:25)
IV. The Witness in Cyprus and Southern Galatia (13:1–14:28)
V. The Jerusalem Council (15:1–35)
VI. The Witness in Greece (15:36–18:22)VII. The Witness in Ephesus (18:23–21:16)
VIII. The Arrest in Jerusalem (21:17–23:35)
IX. The Witness in Caesarea (24:1–26:32)
X. The Witness in Rome (27:1–28:31)
Why You Can Trust Your Bible

Why You Can Trust Your Bible

Critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life have issued a make-or-break challenge to the church. They ask us: “How can we be sure the Bible can be trusted as accurate?”

It’s common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today aren’t the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Such arguments attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.

What About Textual Variants?

The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. We don’t actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often handwritten by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.

For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were composed in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would determine the meaning of the phrase, so it’s not surprising a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes misspelled words, wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once, or skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page. These are all examples of unintentional changes.

Other times, however, scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose. This happened for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues against the reliability of the Bible, recognizes, “Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”

Because of the large number of variations in New Testament manuscripts, some argue the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But in fact, the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “Having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars can compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely get the original wording right.

How Does the New Testament Compare to Other Ancient Documents?

The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th to 11th centuries—more than 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of surviving manuscripts, there are 200 for Suetonius, 133 for Josephus, and 75 for Herodotus.

When we compare these ancient texts to the New Testament, the difference astonishes. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around AD 125, while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late 2nd to early 3rd century. Whereas the best ancient historical works have 500 to 800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess. This difference cannot be overstated.

In addition, the sheer number of Gospel manuscripts we’ve found is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Mark Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure doesn’t even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. With nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels in hand, it becomes clear that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text ever found.

Scripture Is Trustworthy and Reliable

Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his Word, we have confidence the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, depends on historical events: particularly Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As J. Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture tell us this account, revealing Christianity’s climax—its central, historical, and verifiable event: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

I was invited to speak at the “Preach the Word” conference at Living Stones Church in Reno, NV, and was assigned “Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel.”

I can think of no more important thing to get straight before one preaches than the distinction and relationship between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. We are talking about the character and holiness of God and the pleasant pardoning and love of God. Because we are sinners, the law is God’s “No!” and curse to us and the Gospel is God’s “Yes!” To confuse them is to corrupt the Christian faith at its core. Martin Luther says, “The whole of the Scriptures and the whole of theology depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel.”

In Galatians 3:1-3, 10-14, St. Paul writes:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?…For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for 
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, 
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
 given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
 you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 28, Book of Common Prayer, pages 236)

 

9 Types of Leaders in Scripture

9 Types of Leaders in Scripture

Though it does not focus on leadership development methods or offer lists of strategies for being a great leader, the Bible is filled with numerous examples of leaders, both good and bad. There is a lot to be learned simply by examining the various leaders in Scripture.

1. The Prototype

Moses stands as the prototype of a leader in the Old Testament. He served the people of Israel as a prophet, a judge, a king, and a priest. He brought the word of the Lord both to Israel and to Pharaoh (Exod. 3–11), he heard Israel’s complaints (Num. 27:1–4), he led the nation out of Egypt (Exod. 12:31–15:21) and ran military campaigns (Exod. 17:8–16), and he officiated the first Passover (Exod. 12).

Moses can easily be viewed as an example of good leadership. In fact, the stark contrast between a good and a bad leader is clear in the difference between Moses and his brother, Aaron, who gives in to the people’s demands for a golden calf (Exod. 32:4) and shifts the blame to the people and away from himself (Exod. 32:22).

Yet even Moses, the prototypical leader, experienced failure. When Israel complained to him concerning their lack of water in the wilderness, Moses went before the Lord, who told him to speak to a rock from which God would pour forth a stream of water (Num. 20:1–8). However, Moses, in his frustration, struck the rock and was prohibited from entering the promised land because of his disobedience (Num. 20:9–12).

2. Prophets

Prophets functioned in Scripture as God’s mouthpiece: they spoke judgment (Ezek. 13), encouragement (Mic. 4:1–5), exhortation (Mal. 2:1–9), and hope of restoration (Isa. 40–66). God’s word was spoken with integrity by prophets such as Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and Jeremiah (Jer. 36). In the New Testament, John the Baptizer functioned as a prophet, leading Israel to repentance and telling Israel of deliverance in the person of Jesus (cf. Matt. 3:1–12; Mark 1:1–8).

3. Priests

Priests, also serving as leaders, were responsible for teaching the law (cf. Ezra in Neh. 8–9; 2 Chron. 17:8, 9). They led in sacrifice (Lev. 1–7), atonement (Lev. 16:29–34), cleansing (Lev. 13), and feasts (Lev. 23). However, priests often failed by setting up idols (Jer. 2:8), leading people astray (Ezek. 7:26), loving money (Jer. 6:13), and embracing corruption (Jer. 18:18). Jesus goes so far as to tell a parable against the priests (Matt. 21:33–46), and Paul says that the wrath of God came upon the Jewish leadership because they killed Jesus (1 Thess. 2:14–16).

4. Kings

Understandably, the kings in Israel’s history were leaders, for better or for worse. In fact, if anything becomes clear in the narrative of Israel’s history, it is that the kings were dispensable and fleeting: they can be conquered (2 Kings 25:7), become mentally ill (Dan. 4:33), randomly get shot by an arrow (2 Chron. 18:33), or be silently assassinated (1 Kings 16:16). As Proverbs 21:1 puts it, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” God appoints leaders when and where he will, and their destinies are in his hands.

5. Judges

God raised up judges (better translated as “leaders” or “governors”) in Israel’s midst when things had become disorganized and needed fixing. As Judges 3:9 says, “When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them.” This deliverer was a judge, a leader. What is interesting about the judges is that quite frequently they have no previous experience and were looked upon by outsiders as unfit for the job (such as Samson).

6. The Wise Man

The wise man is another type of leader in Scripture, and Solomon is a good example. He asks God for the ability to govern and lead his people wisely, and God grants his request, as seen in Solomon’s discernment in judging wisely between the two women who contended for a child (1 Kings 3:16–28).

7. Apostles

Within the church, God has ordained several different categories of leaders who are to guide and lead his church in the way of truth. Apostles are those who spent time with Jesus (Mark 3:14; 1 Cor. 9:1) and witnessed his resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 13:31) so that they could pass on their knowledge and lead the church in its initial development. Apostles were directly commissioned by Jesus (Mark 3:14; Acts 10:39–42; John 20:21–23), assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 14:25–26; 15:26; 16:13), wrote about their own and others’ letters (2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:15–16), wrote as continuation of their preaching (Luke 1:1–4), and intended that their letters be read in church (Col. 4:16). For a teaching to be an apostolic, one in the early church meant that it could be traced directly back to Jesus’s own teaching and carried by those who learned from him.

8. Elders

While an “elder” in general terms is an aged person with enough life experiences to lead a group of people wisely (cf. the body of elders in Deut. 19:12, 21:2, and 22:15 and the “elders of Israel” in 1 Sam. 8:4; Exod. 3:16), elders in Scripture are the specially equipped leaders of the church. The disciples called themselves elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1), and their primary responsibility was to pass on the teaching they received to others (1 Cor. 11:21; 15:1, 3; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2). Elders in the church are expected to teach (1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:9) and act as judges (Acts 15:2, 6, 22–29); leading not politically, but pastorally (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1–4; Eph. 4:11).

Elders are required to have wisdom in leading the church well, for they are responsible for determining sound from false doctrine. To determine whether they are capable of leadership, elders have a special set of guidelines by which their abilities are to be judged. The office of elder is a noble one (1 Tim. 3:1), and the one who aspires to it must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert . . . he must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:2–7). Leadership in the church requires that one be a good example.

9. Deacons

So that elders can devote their time and energy to shepherding and leading God’s people, God instituted another category of leader: the office of deacon. The word deacon means “servant,” and while the whole church is supposed to be servants of God, there are certain qualifications for the technical office of deacon (Rom. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:11). Deacons are to be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not greedy, faithful (both to the gospel and their spouses), not slanderers, sober-minded, and tested (1 Tim. 3:8–11). Originally, deacons were appointed by the 12 disciples to distribute food to the widows in need (Acts 6), and they now serve the church in leading others as servants in a variety of tasks.

Leaders Depend on Grace

God used and continues to use a diverse group of people to lead his own people. However, the successful leaders in Scripture depended on God, while those who failed tried to stand on their own. If one thread holds together the theology of leadership throughout the pages of Scripture, it is the fact that even good leaders fail and stand in need of God’s grace.

Is The Bible Trustworthy?

Is The Bible Trustworthy?

There have been many challenges brought by critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. How can we be sure that the Bible we read can be trusted as accurate?

It is common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today are not the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Arguments like this attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.

What About All The New Testament Textual Variants?

The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. Unfortunately, we do not actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, what we have are copies, often hand-written by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact that the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local church congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, the scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.

For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were written in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would have to determine the meaning of the phrase, so it is not unsurprising that a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once (or once when it should have been written twice), skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page, or misspelled words. These are all examples of unintentional changes.

Other times, however, the scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose, for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or even make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues that the Bible is not reliable, recognizes that “most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”

Because there are a large number of variations in the New Testament manuscripts, some argue that the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars are able to compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely gets the original wording right.

How Do New Testament Manuscripts Compare To Other Ancient Documents?

The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th–11th centuries, which is over 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of manuscripts that have survived, there are 200 manuscripts of Suetonius, 133 of Josephus, and 75 of Herodotus.

By comparison, when we compare these ancient works to the New Testament, the difference is astonishing. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around 125 A.D., while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late second- and early third centuries. So, whereas the best ancient historical works have a period of 500–800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess.

In addition, the number of manuscripts of the Gospels is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure does not even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. We have nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels alone. This means that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text that we have.

Scripture Is Trustworthy And Reliable

Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his word, we can have confidence that the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, is not primarily founded on principles but on the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As John Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture reveals the central climax of history: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through Jesus Christ.