Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is a Missional Hermeneutic?


This essay was originally published in Catalyst in 2010. 

What is a Missional Hermeneutic?
A missional hermeneutic (MH) is an interpretive approach that privileges mission as the key to reading the Scriptures. MH works across the spectrum of approaches to the biblical text. It takes seriously the historical situation of the text (“behind the text”). It recognizes the influence of the reader’s social location (“in front of the text”). Yet it is fundamentally rooted in a close reading of the text (“the world of the text”). MH seeks to hear the Scriptures as an authoritative guide to God’s mission in the world so that communities of faith can participate fully in God’s mission.
At the 2008 meeting of AAR/SBL, George R. Hunsberger (“Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation”) reviewed current proposals on missional hermeneutics and organized them into four categories: The Missional Direction of the Story, The Missional Locatedness of the Readers, The Missional Engagement with Cultures, and The Missional Purpose of the Writings. I have adopted Hunsberger’s categories for the purposes of this essay.
The Missional Direction of the Story
A missional hermeneutic recognizes that the biblical canon tells the story of God’s mission (missio dei) in and for creation. The story of God’s mission can be summarized as Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, and New Creation.
The Bible opens with the creation of the heavens and earth by God. The human community is crafted in God’s image as the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. Men and women function equally as the image of God for the sake of the rest of Creation. From the beginning, humanity was created for God’s missional purposes to represent God before Creation by reflecting God’s character in community with God, with one another, and with the world. 
Genesis 3-11 function in the story to explain the fundamental problem in the world. The “very good” Creation of Genesis 1-2 is shattered by human sinfulness. Sin infests every human person and institution as well as fractures creation itself. The stories and genealogies of Gen 3-11 describe the world in which we find ourselves this side of God’s New Creation. Yet in the midst of the chaos of sin and brokenness, Gen 3-11 presents a God who does more than pass the expected judgment—the God of the Scriptures begins to act to redeem a fallen world.

In Genesis 12, God calls a new humanity into being with a series of promises to Abram and his descendents. This people exist to serve as the agents of God’s blessings for the nations (Gen 12:3). The narrative of God’s new humanity runs uninterrupted through the Protestant canon from Gen 12 – Esther. God’s new humanity becomes the nation of Israel. It is decisively shaped through God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and through the forging of a covenant at Sinai. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is purposeful and is undertaken for the sake of the world. At Sinai, Israel is called to serve as God’s missional people, a holy community for the nations (Exod 19:4-6). The remaining books of the Pentateuch establish a polity for God’s people as they prepare to live faithfully in the Promised Land as a witness to the nations. Joshua to Esther narrate the potential and pitfalls of God’s people living in Canaan including the devastation of the Exile due to disobedience and the resilience of God’s faithful love shown through God’s restoration of Judah from Exile.

A large portion of the Old Testament is not set within a narrative framework. How do the Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets fit in the story?

The book of Psalms serves as the prayer and worship book for God’s people. The psalms reverberate with themes of God’s reign over the nations. Through lament, thanksgiving, and praise, the psalms encourage an expansive vision of the worship of God that ultimately climaxes in the concluding exhortation: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! (150:6). The psalms root God’s people in a vital worshipping relationship with the Lord, the Creator of the World and Deliverer of Israel.

Israel’s Wisdom traditions serve God’s story by offering serious reflection on the God’s creation and the good life. Wisdom deals with questions that engage all of humanity. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs have much in common with the wisdom of Israel’s neighbors. Wisdom is interested in navigating successfully through life. Since God created all that is, the wise can observe life astutely and deduce principles for living in God’s world. This focus on the human side of life makes it easy to connect Israel’s wisdom to culture. Yet, Israel’s unique contribution to the lore of the ancients is profoundly missional: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). The implication is this: careful attention to the human condition may prepare persons for the truth about God (cf.  Ecc 12:12-14).

The Prophets (Isaiah – Malachi) contribute to the Israel’s story in three ways. First, Israel’s prophets continually call God’s people back to their roots as a missional community that embodies God’s holiness before the nations. The Prophets take Israel to task for failing to live as God’s people. Second, the Prophets maintain an international focus. The God of Israel is the Lord of the nations and as such the prophets speak words of both judgment and salvation to the nations. Provocatively Jonah audaciously announces God’s love for even the most committed opponents of God’s people. Last, the Prophets envision a new future work of God’s salvation (e.g., Jer 31:31-34, etc.).

It is against the backdrop of Israel’s Scriptures that Jesus the Messiah enters the story. Jesus lives as the ultimate human being who fulfills in his life, death, and resurrection God’s Creational intentions for humanity and everything that God had envisioned for Israel as God’s new humanity. Jesus’ death is for the totality of the Fall and his resurrection declares the ultimate victory of God. The Gospels narrate Jesus’ life and ministry to teach future generations of disciples what it means to follow Jesus. The core of Jesus’ message is the announcement of the arrival of God’s kingdom and his call to realign our lives in light of this reality (Matt 4:17, Mark 1:15 cf. Luke 4:16-21).

In the aftermath of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Risen Jesus sends out the Church to announce and extends God’s salvation to the nations. The Church is unleashed in the power of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament witnesses to the spread of the Gospel across the 1st century Mediterranean world. The Scriptural story goes forth from the land of Israel to the nations in fulfillment of the Israel’s mission. The New Testament epistles serve as teaching documents for fledgling missional communities around the Mediterranean world.

The Scriptural story ends with Revelation’s portrait of God’s future New Creation (Rev 20-21).

Learning to understand the big story of the Scriptures is more than a descriptive task. The story of the Scriptures seeks to convert its readers/hearers to its perspective. The Scriptural story invites its readers to understand their lives as part of its narrative.

The Missional Locatedness of the Readers

An interpreter’s social location serves a crucial role in the reading process. It may provide a fresh perspective for reading a text or it may distort a text’s meaning. Michael Barram (“The Bible, mission, and social location: Toward a missional hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61 (2007): 42-58) has argued that readers must locate themselves in mission. The biblical texts were written in a missional context. Participating in God’s mission enables contemporary readers to find common ground with the ancient text’s perspective.  

Moreover, engaging in missional activity in the world creates new questions with which to engage the Bible and is crucial for learning to hear the text for both church and world. A practitioner of MH learns to listen to a text on behalf of the people to whom s/he serves as a witness. Missional engagement unleashes the interpreter to read a text through the eyes both of Christ followers and of unreached persons. The wise interpreter learns through missional praxis the sorts of questions that an outsider to the faith may raise when hearing a biblical text. Thus, the practice of reading the Bible from a missional locatedness trains us to read and hear the Scripture from contested spheres in the marketplace and not only in the realm of the sanctuary where we “preach to the choir.”

The Missional Engagement with Cultures

A third line of inquiry in the field of MH is the manner in which the biblical materials themselves model engagement with culture. We gain new insights about 21st century incarnational ministry by studying the ways in which biblical texts communicate to their context. For example, how do the Creation stories of Genesis engage and subvert the dominant worldviews of Israel’s neighbors? How do the similarities between the narrative structure of Exodus 15:1b-18 and the Baal Epic serve to promote Israel’s understanding of reality to their Canaanite context? How does Paul use existing modes of communication in the Greco-Roman world to enhance the persuasiveness of his writing?

The Missional Purpose of the Writings

MH recognizes that the Scriptures exist to convert and shape their hearers. Most of us have been trained to read the Bible as the basis for doctrine and individual piety. MH reminds us that Scripture is concerned with shaping communities of God’s people into outposts for the advancement of the Gospel. Darrell Guder has been on the forefront of emphasizing this aspect. He writes concerning the New Testament documents (“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians 31.3 (2005): 4.):
… NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” …To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies.
Thus, we need to ask specifically how each text was intended to form God’s people into a missional community. Moreover this is not merely a NT perspective. As shown above, the thread of mission runs across the biblical canon. Both OT and NT texts can be read profitably in terms of how they seek to form the people of God for the sake of God’s mission to all Creation.

In his recent essay “Prophet to the Nations: Missional Reflections on the Book of Jeremiah,” Christopher Wright raised a related question: What does this text teach about the missional cost to the messenger? Wright expands the dimension of a biblical text’s teaching. Wright shows that the book of Jeremiah explicitly displays the personal cost to the prophet of participation in God’s mission. Raising the issue of missional cost is crucial as we seek to create a missional ethos in our congregations.

The Potential of a Missional Hermeneutic for Preachers and Teachers

1) MH provides a context and direction for preaching/teaching. Learning to read discrete texts within the grand narrative of God’s mission as described in Scripture provides a crucial angle for communicating the Gospel. The interpreter recognizes that every text in the Bible helps to shape the people of God to serve as a missional community that embodies the character of God in/to/for the world. 

In preparation for preaching and teaching, ask questions such as these:
How does this text help us to understand God’s mission in the world?

How do we need to change in order to live out this text corporately and individually?

How does this passage serve as an invitation to the world to join God’s mission?

What kind of persons does this text call us to become?


2) MH connects worship explicitly with life in the world by establishing a missional ethos for the community of faith. Learning to read the Scriptures through MH keeps God’s mission on the front burner for all aspects of the community. Most profoundly it keeps the worship of the Triune God grounded in God’s missional intentions for humanity and all creation. Biblical worship at its core is profoundly missional. The aim of God’s mission is worship. Humanity was created to serve as God’s missional community before creation. As God’s new humanity, the Church worships as a bold and daring testimony to the world of the greatness of God and as an invitation to unreached persons to become part of God’s new humanity for the sake of the world.

3) MH establishes a new framework for learning. As communities of faith struggle to break the grips of the paradigm of serving as inward-focused dispensers of religious goods and services to serving as outposts for the sake of God’s Kingdom, MH provides a different outcome for learning. “Christian education” is no longer merely learning facts about the stories of the Scriptures or grasping the basics of the historical creeds of the church. The goal of learning in the Church now becomes a constant conversion to the message of Scripture so that each disciple can be shaped into the sort of person that s/he needs to become in order to participate fully in God’s mission in the world. All learning can now be set in the context of the missional reality of the 21st century Church.

Suggested Reading:
Barram, Michael. “The Bible, mission, and social location: Toward a missional hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61 (2007): 42-58.

Bauckham, Richard. The Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Beeby, Harry D. Canon and Mission. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.

Bosch, David J. “Towards a Hermeneutic for ‘Biblical Studies and Mission’” Mission Studies 3.2 (1986): 65-79.

Brownson, James. Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic. Christian Mission and Modern Culture. Continuum, 1998.

Guder, Darrell C. (ed). Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Gospel and Culture Network. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Guder, Darrell C. “Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians 31.3 (2005): 4.

Hunsberger, George R. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation” Gospel and Our Culture Network Newsletter eseries 2 (2009): cn.org/resources/newsletters/2009/01/gospel-and-our-culture

Russell, Brian D. (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World Cascade, 2016.

Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Brian D. Russell (Ph.D.) is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary-Florida Dunnam Campus and John Wesley Fellow. His new book on missional reading (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World is now available.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reading the New Testament's Eschatological Vision: Part Two


A missional reading of the New Testament’s eschatological vision steadfastly stands against all readings that promote a fixation on the assigning of times and dates as well as readers that call for a pullback from cultural engagement Christ followers.

First, it is enough to note that if the Biblical story was truly interested in providing a detailed and specific step-by-step guide to how the future will unfold, it could have easily accomplished this. Given the absence of this as well as the humorous but ultimately tragic attempts by so many “prophesy” experts to predict Jesus’ return, Christ followers will learn to live in a dynamic tension in which they recognize by faith that the future is secure while letting go of all need for details. On matters of the end, we are on a need to know basis and no matter how bad we might desire a roadmap to God’s future, the Bible does not provide one. We follow Jesus into the world on mission. This is the same Jesus who said, “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, except for the Father alone.”

Second, God’s mission to bring reconciliation and redemption to humanity and all creation moves forward under God’s promise of a secure future. Rather than giving Christ followers a reason to pull back from missional engagement, the New Testament church evangelized in earnest in the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and his ushering in of the Kingdom. The God’s future is beautiful. God’s future is secure. Therefore, the mission of God’s people goes forward in earnest. In the context of the New Testament, the earliest Christians were a tiny minority. They faced hardships and persecution for their allegiance to Jesus as LORD over against the Roman world’s suffocating vision for humanity. Early Christians found themselves persecuted and reviled by both Gentiles and Jews. Thus the choice to follow Jesus was costly. The New Testament’s eschatological vision therefore is profoundly concerned with grounding Jesus’ earliest followers with a courageous hope in God’s final victory so that they may function as instruments and agents of God’s reconciling Gospel.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Missional Approach to NT Eschatology: Part One


The New Testament writers recognized that God’s victory through the life, death, and resurrection secured the future. The New Testament is full of visions of God’s future. God’s future is bright and good. It is one of abundant love and mercy. It is the full reversal of the effects of human sin and brokenness. It includes the full redemption of all creation. It marks the return of shalom and rest. It involves the climactic consummation of God’s future.

Our day has seen an ongoing fixation on figuring out dates and time tables. The Bible is mined ingeniously for insights used to predict the end of days. However, this is not a missional approach to Scripture. As humans, we may long to gain control of the future by connecting it to our calendar of events, but this is not the purpose of the eschatological visions of the New Testament. The New Testament writers describe God’s future as a means of inspiring a courageous faithfulness in the present. Since God’s future is secure, God’s people live as the people whom God created them to be in the present. The New Testament’s eschatological vision subverts the present struggles by proclaiming a dogged and audacious confidence in God’s final victory.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Video on Missional Hermeneutics: Bible As Mission Document


Here is a video for Asbury Seminary's "Seven Minute Seminary" series for Seedbed. I usually use this sort of talk to introduce a missional approach to reading the Bible.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading the Bible Well: Reflecting on a Text's Implications


Reflect on its Implications and Function within the Bible
Once we have answered key questions raised in our close reading we need to begin to draw out the broader truths and ideas that are explicit and implicit in the text. The goal here is to move from the specific details and facts in a passage to an understanding of how these details together to present a deeper message.

In light of your study, reflect on questions such as these: If this were the only passage of Scripture that I had, what would I know? What broad truths emerge from reflecting on this portion of Scripture? What does this passage teach about God? What does it teach about life in God’s creation? What does it teach me about humanity and the role of God’s people?

After reflecting on these questions, it is important to attempt to assess how the teaching of a given portion of Scripture relates to the whole. Are there other places in the Bible where similar teachings or ideas are found? Reflect on how our text nuances, affirms or critiques other biblical texts. The purpose of this step is to understand the contribution of our text to the biblical message.

Make Specific Applications
The goal of the reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is conversion. The power of Scripture to shape us depends on our willingness to push beyond merely engaging the Bible with our minds but also putting its words into practice in our world. Once we understand the message of our passage in light of the biblical message as a whole we are able to explore how it may impact our lives in the present.

Here are a few questions that you may find helpful to guide you in this process:

How does this passage understand God’s mission in the world and how do we fit into God’s purposes? What kind of people does this text imagine us to be if we were to live out its message? How would my life be different if I took the truths of this text seriously? How would my community of faith need to change in light of my study?

Try to be as specific to your own setting in life as possible in making applications.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suggestions for a Close Reading of a Biblical Text

Are you interested in learning to read the Bible more productively? Here are some brief suggestions to help you.

There are three core elements in learning to study a text closely: observe the text, ask questions, and seek answers.

Observe
First, observe the details in the text and record observations. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. Don’t assume that you know the meaning of any text. Ponder the words and phrases found in the text. Savor the images and language used to convey the text’s message. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. You may find it helpful to read a couple of different translations and record the differences as a means of reflecting on the text. Stay put within the confines of the passage you are studying. Resist the temptation to flip to another part of the Bible until after you have carefully engaged the text that you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Establish an outline or create a chart to organize its content. Above all, don’t give up. Persist in the process of collecting your own observations and insights. This process will prove generative in terms of the insights and new questions that will emerge.

Ask
Second, while making observations, be sure to write out questions that your observations lead you to ask. Engaged reading requires this. The best interpreters of the Scripture are those who ask the most penetrating questions. This process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at two levels: defining questions and questions about function. Defining questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” and attempt to probe beneath the surface to look for the deep meaning and implications. Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following defining questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance?

Answer
Third, answer key questions. In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Review your observations and questions. Select the handful of questions whose answers are essential for making sense of the text. Begin answering your questions by looking at the observations that you have already made. What evidence have you already found through your close reading to begin to develop possible answers? If you need additional help in answering your questions, you may find it helpful to read other commentaries, look up subjects in a bible dictionary, or use a concordance to study key words as they are used elsewhere in Scripture. 

Wrap up
Summarize your answers along with the key evidence that supports them. When summarizing, attempt to answer a question such as this: If this were the only part of Scripture that I had, what would I know? 

For more details on these elements see the longer blog post: Reading the Bible Missionally: A Short Guide for Interpreters

Here are two books that will help you learn to read Scripture wisely and well:

         

Friday, May 18, 2012

Skills for Reading Scripture: Context(s)


Skills for Reading Scripture

There is no substitute for learning to read the text carefully and closely. Each of us can gain competence in this practice. Reading the Bible may be compared to a trip to the ocean. Like the ocean, the Scriptures have various levels and depths of meaning. The reader must decide whether to be satisfied merely with observing the ocean from a chair on the beach, dipping one’s toes into the shallows, or heading out far from shore. If one only enjoys the ocean from one particular spot, much will be missed. It is vital for us as readers to venture as deeply as possible into the biblical passages we are studying and to learn to view them from a variety of perspectives in order to experience them in all of their richness. Just as the ocean runs from the shallows along the shore to the unfathomable depths of the Mariana Trench so the Scriptures offer us as much depth as we desire. How deeply do we want to explore the Scripture?

Reading in Context
The key to understanding any passage in the Bible is learning to read it in its literary context. Reading Scripture is a dance between the reader, the text, and its wider context. Like a dancer who must maintain awareness of both the music and her partner, the wise reader must keep in view both the discrete details of the passage of Scripture being studied and the wider movements of the passages surrounding it. In biblical interpretation, context is everything. By literary context, we mean several interlocking levels.

First, the primary source of evidence for understanding the meaning of a passage is its immediate context. In most cases this will be the text that we are studying and the paragraphs immediate before and after it. For example, if we are studying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) it is important to observe that it occurs within a block of teaching that focuses on prayer (6:6-15). The verses immediately before the Lord’s Prayer contrast it with prayers that emphasize many words and religious formulas and the verses after it focus on the necessity of forgiveness. Our reading of the Lord’s Prayer must be informed by and account for these elements.

Second, each passage has a wider context in the book in which it occurs. To get a sense of the book context take a few minutes to read the introductory notes in the Common English Study Bible to the book you are studying and observe the outline of the whole. This will help you to gain an understanding of the role that the smaller passage with which you are working plays in the overall message of a book. Again looking at the Lord’s Prayer, we may observe that it falls within a larger segment (6:1-18) that serves to warn against public acts of piety (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) as a means to gaining rewards from God. Widening our lens a little more, we may observe that this text falls within a larger block of teaching materials known traditionally as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1–7:29). In this material Jesus is training his disciples for the ministry of announcing the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:17–11:1).

Reading in context is vital as a guard against misreading the meaning of a passage. A truism about reading in context is this: “A text without a context is a pretext.” Apart from reading a passage of Scripture in context we may easily make a text say what we desire for it to mean rather than to hear the message that the text itself wants us to hear. The wise reader must remember this: Read an individual text in light of its literary context. This practice alone will keep us from many errors.

There are other contexts that the wise reader will also be attentive to as time permits. First, information on the historical context or background can help us to gain a richer appreciation of a passage of Scripture. The study notes in this Bible will draw the reader’s attention to important historical details. In addition, readers may find it helpful to use a bible dictionary or a full-length commentary. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions opponents who are harassing the Philippian Christ followers (e.g., 1:28, 3:2, 3:18). Who are these opponents? Is there one group or are there several different opponents? What is the nature of their opposition? Answering these questions would provide helpful historical background for understanding Paul’s words to the Philippians.

Second, readers need to be aware of related texts that the passage we are studying alludes to and/or other passages that may allude to our text. Psalm 8 is a text that models both of these situations. Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to the Lord. It reflects on the status and mission of humanity in light of the majestic nature of God. Psalm 8:6-8 focuses on the stewardship role played by women and men over creation. The psalmist clearly has in mind the creation story in Genesis 1:1–2:3. If we are going to fully comprehend the message of Psalm 8, we will need to study how the psalmist interprets uses the material from Genesis. The savvy reader will also want to know that Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. If we are going to understand the full biblical meaning of Psalm 8, we will need to be aware of how the author of the book of Hebrews deploys Psalm 8 in his letter.

Reading with the Big Picture in Mind
Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture also involves understanding each individual passage and book within the overall context of the Bible as a whole. The Christian canon of sixty-six books links the Old and New Testament and proclaims an overarching narrative when viewed as a whole. We may observe the following framework that holds the discrete elements of the Bible together: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, New Creation. The Bible begins with the story of the Creation of the world (Gen 1–2) and ends with the description of a future New Creation (Revelation 20–21). The biblical story opens with a very good world and ends with the recreation of very goodness. In between these bookends, we find the biblical story of the salvation of the people and all creation. The need for salvation is first described in Genesis 3–11. This section of Scripture describes the fundament problem in the world: human alienation and sin. This problem has fractured the very good creation described in Gen 1–2. God responds to this problem by calling a people for himself through whom he will bless all nations (Gen 12–Malachi). This people is named Israel. God calls Israel’s ancestors in Gen 12–50. He rescues them from slavery in Egypt and establishes a covenant relationship with them as a means of preparing them to serve as a people of blessing to the world, and leads them through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan (Exodus–Deuteronomy). Joshua­–Esther narrate Israel’s life in Canaan, its times of obedience/disobedience, exile, and return. The wisdom books (Job–Song of Songs) include the prayers of God’s people and their reflections on the good life within God’s creation. The Old Testament ends with the Prophetic books. The Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) serve to call God’s people back to their roots as the holy redeemed people through whom God will bless the nations and they also envision a radical future act of salvation. The New Testament opens with the four Gospels, which tell the story of the Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus announces the inbreaking of God’s future and fulfills the hopes and expectations of Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus’ death and resurrection marks the climax of God’s saving work and serves to announce the final victory of God. Acts–Rev 19 tells the story of the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit witnessing to all nations about the good news of Jesus. Revelation 20-21 brings the story full circle by envisioning the full consummation of God’s victory in a New Creation.

The wise reader keeps in mind this broader story as a means of understanding much smaller portions of the Bible. Again a balance must be maintained. To focus only on this broad summary risks missing the many nuances that individual biblical books and passages within them offer. If we only focus on the big picture we may flatten out the Bible by forcing its individual pieces to conform to our assumptions about the big picture. But to focus only on the specific details of smaller passages runs the risk of missing the overall message of the Bible. It is like having all of our clothing piled randomly in a closet without any discernible organizing principle. The big picture serves as hangers and dividers to make sense of our wardrobe. The wise reader will be aware simultaneously of the broader narratives and themes of the Bible while also hearing the witness of the individual passage under current consideration.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Attitudes for Reading Scripture


Attitudes for Reading Scripture

Learning to read the Scriptures well involves nurturing attitudes conducive to study and gaining technical skills to facilitate close reading. Both elements are necessary to become skilled and inspired readers who are able to engage the Bible as Christian Scripture. 

Study the Bible prayerfully. Prayer can enhance our study by putting us in touch with the subject of the Bible—God.  Prayer can help to shape and forge in us the proper mindset for engaging the Scriptures as the word of God. Pray a prayer for illumination such as “Lord, astonish me anew with the beauty and power of your Word” or “God, rather than asking you to help me master the text I am asking that you allow the text to master me.” The word “astonish” captures the potential power that we readers may find in the Bible. When we come away astonished, we know that we have touched the divine. When we pray for astonishment rather than mastery of the material, we learn a key truth about reading the Bible as Christian Scripture: It is less important that we master the text and more important that the text masters us. Beginning with prayer helps us to ground ourselves in the posture of a learner.


Study the Bible expectantly. We read the Bible as Christian Scripture in the expectation of encountering the living God through the words of the text. Open the Scriptures not merely to learn but to be shaped and transformed by the words that you find. We come to the Bible to gain wisdom and to be shaped by its message. It yields its fruit to those who come hungry and ready for the feast that it offers. When we read, be grateful for the opportunity for study and anticipate the life giving insights that we will find in the Bible’s pages.

Study the Bible persistently. Learning to read the Bible well is a habit to be nurtured over the course of our lives. Wise interpreters are not born but forged in consistent times of careful study. In other words, if we find ourselves struggling with reading the Bible, give it time. Like the farmer who systematically prepares the field, sows seeds, waters, pulls weeds, protects the fledging plants from insects, and applies fertilize—all in the hope for a bountiful yield at the harvest—so we as readers must be patient and persistent in doing the work necessary to receive the benefits of the Scriptures. Think of Scripture study as a faithful habit to practice rather than as a skill to be mastered.

Study the Bible intelligently. Christians read the Bible as the word of God, but we cannot forget that it was written by other human beings in the living languages spoken by the people of God in the ancient world (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). The Bible is not a code to be deciphered, but it is literature crafted carefully and intentionally to communicate its message clearly to its audience. As modern readers, we must use all of the tools available to us for understanding it including our minds. The biblical message may challenge our fundamental assumptions about life and question the status quo of our existence but it will not be illogical or run contrary to reason. We affirmed the need to read prayerfully, but this does not mean that we should turn off our own intellect. As thoughtful Christians, we affirm the need for prayer and the importance of close and critical study of the text. In doing so, we will not only gain fresh and profound insight from the Bible, but we will also learn the meaning of Jesus’ command to love God with our minds (Matt 22:37).

Study the Bible confidently. Bible study can sometimes be intimidating. On occasion we may not feel worthy or qualified to make interpretive decisions about the meaning of the text. Yet as generations of faithful and persistent readers bear witness, the Scriptures remain vital, offer profound insights, and speak words of life. The God of whom the Scriptures speak will bear fruit through faithful study. Bring a sense of anticipation and expectation to our reading of the Bible and we will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Power of Reading the Scriptures

The goal of reading the Scriptures is to hear the word of God and be shaped by its message. It is an opportunity to enter into the world imagined by the biblical writers and experience personal transformation so that we as modern readers may then serve as witnesses to its good news for humanity and all creation. 

History testifies to the power of the Scriptures to shape profoundly individuals and communities of faith who devote themselves to its study. This witness begins within the pages of the Bible and continues to the present day. 

 The book of Psalms opens with this description of the happy person in contrast to the ways of wicked: “Instead of doing those things, these persons love the LORD’s Instruction, and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!” (Psalm 1:2). The psalmist reminds us of the power of intentional and consistent reading of the Scripture for living the good life. 

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus opened his public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah and he lived out his life and mission in fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. After his resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples from the Scriptures. To be precise, Luke 24:45 says that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Scripture shaped the narrative of Jesus’ life. We read the Scriptures to find the grand story of God so that we may align our lives with it as Jesus did. 

The apostle Paul reminded his co-worker Timothy of the crucial role played by the Scriptures in the life of the early church: “Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” (2 Timothy 3:15-16) 

Augustine, the prominent early church Bishop and theologian, famously recounted his own conversion in which he interpreted the sound of children saying, “Tolle lege (Take and read)” as a sign to pick up the Bible. He opened to a passage from Romans and began to experience transformation in his life with the Gospel. 

Early Rabbinic literature instructs diligence in study for the fruit that may be gained from it: “Turn it and turn it over again and again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax gray and grow old over it, and stir not from it, for you cannot have any better rule than this.” [Mishnah Avot 5.22] 

John Wesley, 18th century evangelist and reformer, wrote this about the Bible: “I am a creature of a day. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God. I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book.” 

As we study the Bile, we open ourselves up to the same profound and life-giving influence. Perhaps we may too add our voice as a result of our study of Scripture to this chorus of witnesses.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part Two

In the previous post, we described Paul's exhortation to live as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In this second post, we can unpack it more fully in light of Jesus' example.

The call to live as citizens of heaven is a profound and radical shift in one’s understanding of status. We can see that Paul prepares his readers for this shift in his self-description at the beginning of his letter. In Philippians 1:1, Paul and Timothy take the title of “slaves of Christ Jesus” for themselves. On first glance, this may not seem significant, but his is the sole place in Paul’s letters where he only identifies himself as a slave without further qualification. In Romans 1:1 and Titus 1:1 Paul describes himself as "slave of God" or " slave of Jesus" respectively but also adds "apostle". Adding the powerful title “apostle” speaks of authority and subverts in some ways the use of slave. However, in Philippians, Paul and Timothy are simply "slaves of Messiah Jesus." This is important to Paul’s word to the Philippians about a new understanding of citizenship. The only other use of doulos in Philippians occurs at 2:7 and describes Jesus as one who “emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." Philippians 2:7 records Jesus' action/demonstration of not considering equality with God something to be clung to or exploited. The use of slave language for both Paul (the founder of the church in Philippi) and Jesus (the crucified and risen Lord) is subversive in the Philippians context. It is a call to the Philippian Christ followers, many of whom had privileges as Roman citizens, to willingly embrace a lower status in imitation of Paul and Jesus for the sake of the advancement of the Gospel. The Gospel moves forward not by selfishly clinging or exploiting one’s own status, but by valuing and serving others.

Don’t miss the profound challenge contextually to the Philippians of Paul’s description of Jesus as a slave. Slaves sat at the bottom of the status ladder in Roman society. Paul’s subversive use of slave is a key element in his teaching about living as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In 2:1-18, Paul offers Jesus as the first of three examples. At the center of this section is the Christ hymn (2:5-11). This poetic text unpacks what it means to embody the mind/attitude/intentions of Jesus. Jesus is described positively for his own renunciation of status for the sake of advancing God’s mission. Philippians 2:6 marvels at the reversal of expectations over the issue of Jesus' status. This text affirms that Jesus was divine and equal to God. Despite this reality, Jesus did not take this position of being equal with God as a privileged position to be exploit for his own gain. Jesus does not regard his status of being equal with God to be a collection of rights and prerogatives to be exploited for his own benefit. Instead, Jesus took the form of humanity. This announces the incarnation of Jesus into our world as a human. Notice this is announced first by the phrase “taking the form of a slave (Grk doulos). This establishes the full force of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians about a new kind of citizenship. Their model is no longer the status quo of Roman social norms. It is Jesus. It is not merely that Jesus assumes the role and status of a slave. He identifies with it fully by embracing death on a cross. Don’t miss the subversive power of this statement. Christ followers are too used to thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross that we can easily miss its message in context. Jesus could have died an atoning death in a variety of ways. Why death on a cross? Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest classes of society. Roman citizens could not be crucified except as a penalty for treason. So to the Philippians, Jesus’ death on a cross demonstrated the extent to which Jesus was willing to renounce his status and identify with his adopted status of slave for the sake of God’s mission.

The last half of the Christ hymn records the results of Jesus’ willing embrace of a new status. 2:9 announced dramatically that as a direct result of his humble embrace of low status, God highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name above all names.In other words, Jesus has his lowly status reversed. Jesus moves from the bottom of the status ladder to the highest possible one. He is LORD (2:11). This is no mere honor. There is no status above it. By identifying Jesus with the Name, i.e., Yahweh of Israel's Scriptues, Jesus moves from the bottom of the status realm to a status above Roman citizenship, above the Roman emperor, and even above the Roman gods. Jesus alone is LORD and all others will bow before him. The message to the philippians believers is clear. They may cling to their status as Roman citizens, but if they willingly embrace a lower status, they will be raised up by God in Christ Jesus. The only status worth attaining is one given by God. The implication also that any temporary loss of status for the sake of God's mission is infinitely worth it. As the Philippian Christ followers, realign themselves for God's mission they position themselves to reach others for the Gospel through their witness by moving from a way of life that values putting the self and its status first to focusing on lifting the status and honor of others (2:2-3). By doing so, the Philippians will "shine continually as stars in the world" (2:15). Stars have functioned as navigation points and signs for millennia. In like manner, the Philippians will serve as clues to the world about true God. Such a life is nothing more and nothing less than a rediscovery of what God intended for humanity at creation (Gen 1:26-31). The status that Christ followers embrace establishes the limits of whom they can reach with the Gospel.

What do you think?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part One

Paul penned his letter to the Philippians to encourage and shape them for God’s mission in the world. Reading Philippians missionally involves hearing the text. In Philippians Paul models an incarnational and missional approach to proclaiming the Gospel.

The principal exhortation in Philippians is found in 1:27 “Only live as citizens worthy of the gospel of the Messiah.” The main body of Paul’s letter is 1:27–4:1. After Paul makes this exhortation in 1:27-30, Paul then offers three examples of what this sort of lifestyle looks like: Jesus (2:1-18), Timothy/Epaphroditus (2:19-30), and Paul himself (3:1-16). Paul closes out this teaching section by calling for the Philippians to imitate these models as the means to living and standing as citizens of heaven (3:17–4:1).

The wording of the wording the initial exhortation is important. The main verb (politeuomai) in the 1:27a is an imperative that means “live as a citizens.” Its noun cognate (politeue) is found in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Paul’s other writings, he uses the Greek work (peripateo) meaning “walk/live” (1 Thes 2:12; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1) in similar expressions. Why does he use this particular exhortation “Live as citizens of the Gospel of the Messiah” in his letter to the Philippians?

First, the missiological setting of Philippi set the stage for this vocabulary. Philippi was a Roman colonial city where many veterans of the Roman army resided. Many of its residents (including some of the Christ followers) enjoyed Roman citizenship. This was a significant and important status in the Empire. Roman citizens enjoyed rights and privileges as a favored minority in the Empire. Being citizens of Rome was central to the ethos of Philippi. The Philippians were a privileged citizenry. Thus, by using the language of citizenship, Paul captures a meaningful word for Roman citizens and deploys it skillfully to call the Christians of Philippi to embrace a different sort of status and citizenship. Paul begins with what the Philippians understand as the epitomy of life: living as a citizen of the Empire and subverts this by replacing allegiance to Rome as the highest calling with the ethos and vision of a different way of life: living as a citizen of heaven. A fundamental insight of the book of Philippians is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the Gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God through Jesus that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others.

Second, Paul is clear that this is the key command in his letter. Most of our English translations begin v. 27 with “only.” The idea here is this: pay attention to this one thing or only one thing. In other words, if the Philippians can embody this one exhortation, they will be living well. This is emphasized by the framing use of “our citizenship exists in heaven” (3:20) near the end of 1:27–4:1. Paul begins and ends this large block of teaching with a reference to citizenship. Paul is challenging the Philippians to rethink their notion of citizenship with its privileges in the Empire and embrace to new citizenship with Kingdom of God as God’s missional people in the world.

Third, the nuance of the imperative “live as citizens of the Gospel of Christ” is emphatic. It stresses this way of life as a continuous action. We may capture this by translating the clause “live continually as citizens worthy of the Gospel of the Messiah.” Paul is stressing that this calling is a moment-by-moment existence. It is not a one time or occasional activity. It is the essence of being Christ followers in Philippi. The shift is one of allegiance from being citizens of the Roman Empire to being and living as a citizens of heaven.

Fourth, Paul’s goal is missional. Paul’s wants the Philippians to embrace this new mode of life so that he may hear about the Philippian’s Gospel shaped actions (1:27b-28). The principal witness according to Paul will be the Philippians “standing unified (“in one spirit”) contending for the Gospel without being intimidated by foes. The stress on unity as a witness will weigh heavily in Paul’s subsequent argument. The people of God in Philippi are to present a corporate witness to the world that is vital and powerful. The shift from living as citizens of the Empire to living as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is the key means of reaching the city of Philippi with the good news about Jesus.

Last, Paul does not shy away from the reality of suffering and hardship due to the Gospel for the Philippian Christ followers (29-30). This is not suffering in general or suffering due to ill chosen actions. The suffering Paul is describing is suffering because they are allied with Jesus the Messiah. Paul’s initial entry into Philippi stirred up opposition (Acts 16:16-40). The Philippians Christ followers are now experiencing similar troubles as Paul. If Paul’s current troubles were with the Empire (1:12-26), it may be that the Philippians were also running into conflict with Roman citizens in Philippi who honored the Emperor alone as Lord. The confession “Jesus the Messiah is LORD” (2:9-10) is a bold and daring one in the context of an Empire that crushed all opposition. To have an allegiance above the state was risky. But profoundly the Philippian’s ability to stand together as the body of Christ serves as a sign to the very ones seeking to do them harm (1:28).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: Models for Engaging the World Incarnationally

The book of Acts also models an incarnational mission as part of its global and cross-cultural vision. The model has three key elements that invite our reflection. (1) The mission of God is a cross cultural one and Jesus has bridged the divisions that exist between insiders and outsiders. (2) Gentiles did not have to become Jewish with respect to the Torah in order to follow Jesus. (3) The Holy Spirit deploys various methods of advancing the Gospel depending on the context of its audience including use of Scripture, miracles, and the utilization of Gentile cultural and religious symbols (i.e., extra-biblical ones).

First, Acts demonstrates decisively that the Gospel is transcultural and that it can be translated into different cultures. The gift of tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2) demonstrated the good news could be delivered in languages outside of the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek of 1st century Palestine. Moreover, the reality of the Spirit falling on Samaritans and Gentiles served as a tangible demonstration of the Gospel’s inclusiveness. Acts 10 narrates the remarkable story of Cornelius and Peter. Both men receive visions that prepare them for an encounter that will change both of their lives. Cornelius who is a god-fearing Roman Centurion receives a vision in which God tells him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision in which he learns that God has pronounced the formerly unclean clean. When Cornelius sends for Peter, Peter realizes that the vision was God’s way of preparing him for a mission to the Gentiles. He goes to Cornelius and presents him with the Gospel which Cornelius and his friends and relatives receive. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit fills the Gentiles and thus marks their entrance into the people of God (10:44-48).

Second, as Gentiles became Christ-followers, the Jewish Christian leadership faced the issue of how the Torah’s laws affected these new believers. The question in its most basic form was this: Did a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to live as a follower of Jesus? In particular, there was a dispute over the question of circumcision. Did male converts to the Christ following movement need to be circumcised. Acts 15 recounts a remarkable conference involving Paul, Barnabas and the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas shared the fruits of the Gentile mission including all of the signs and wonders that God was doing to advance the Gospel. James, speaking on behalf of the Jerusalem leaders, discerned that God was indeed doing a great work among the nations in fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. Gentiles did not need to embrace fully the Mosaic law. In particular, they did not need to be circumcised. James wrote a pastoral letter that boiled down the Mosaic laws to avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality. This episode affirms that Gentile converts to the Christ following movement did not have to become practicing Jewish Christians. The key lesson here is that the Gospel can be contextualized into new cultures. Acts 15 also affirms that there are transcultural principles of moral conduct that establish a core ethos for Christ followers.

Last, Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization or some mixture of these options.

The book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and god-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethopian eunuch in 8:26-40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.

The book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.

Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16-34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus not as Israel’s Messiah but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32-34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The good news of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100% conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: A Spirit-Drenched and Driven Movement

Acts completes the story begun in the book of Acts by narrating the spread of the Gospel from Jesus’ ascension to heaven to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. The book of Acts contribution to understanding the missional nature of God’s people is self-evident. A missional reading of Acts listens to the story of the emergence of the Christ following movement in the 1st century Greco-Roman world as guide to 21st century mission.

The central insight of Acts is the empowering role of the Holy Spirit in the advancement of the Gospel. The book of Acts is Spirit-driven. So much so that it is more appropriate to think of the Book of Acts as “Acts of the Spirit” rather than “Acts of the Apostles.”

The book of Acts opens with the Risen Jesus prepping his disciples for their post-resurrection mission. This is a new era for the people of God. Jesus’ words are powerful: But you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). This text is full of meaning.

Fundamentally this text reconnects the mission of God’s people explicitly with the Genesis 1–11 world. If the Gospel story from Genesis 12–the life and ministry of Jesus focused primarily on the creation of a new humanity to reflect God’s character in the world, the post-resurrection era of the Church shifts to a “go to” ethos in which the people of God now engage actively and intentionally the world with the good news about God’s abundant and transforming love. Notice the language of Acts 1:8. It assumes that mission will continue in the area of the disciples current geographic reality: Jerusalem and the wider land of biblical Israel. These had been the area in which Jesus himself had served. But now there is a push beyond these regions to the rest of the world. The Gospel came to its initial fulfillment in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now it is to spread to the nations in anticipation of the New Creation. This reconnects the Biblical story line with God's universal mission to all Creation. God had originally intended for creation to be filled with image bearing women and men who reflected God's character. Under the power of the Spirit, God's New Humanity the Church re-engages this mission with the hope of reaching the nations with the Gospel.

The Spirit is the catalyst for this new movement of God’s work in the world. With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah, God sends the Spirit into the world to unleash his new humanity the church to serve as witnesses to the coming reality of the kingdom of God. The empowerment of the Spirit is the qualitative difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The Church is a people of the Spirit. The book of Acts demonstrates this in dramatic fashion.

Acts 2 famously recounts the Spirit’s dramatic arrival to unleash Christ’s followers on the Day of Pentecost. Devout Jews as well as Jewish converts from all over the known world had gathered in Jerusalem. In the morning on Pentecost, Jesus’ followers had likewise gathered together. Suddenly the Holy Spirit arrived on them in the form of tongues of fire. Each Christ follower present (perhaps as many as 120 cf. 1:15) was instantaneously empowered to speak one of the native languages of those present. This reality reversed the confusion of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) and demonstrated the translatability of the Gospel cross-culturally. This is a key element as Jesus’ followers could have spoken in Greek and addressed the crowd as a whole, but the mission of God is for the nations and thus addresses the nations contextually in each one’s native tongue. Peter addresses the crowd and announces that this miracle of speech is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28-32. God’s future age of the Spirit as inaugurated by Jesus has now come. The immediate result of Spirit’s coming was the addition of 3000 persons to the Christ following movement.

The book of Acts narrates the spread of the Gospel as marked by the baptism of the Spirit. In contrast to the Old Testament where only select individuals were filled with the Spirit, New Testament affirms that all of God’s people receive the Spirit. Acts records the apostles performing miracles and preaching in the power of the Spirit. As the Gospel reaches a new area in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the Spirit fills believers in each regions.

In subsequent chapters the Gospel advances through the work of the Spirit. In Acts 3 Peter heals a lame man and boldly proclaims the Gospel in Solomon’s portico. After Peter and John are arrested in Acts 4, the Spirit fills Peter (4:8) and enables him to share a powerful word before the council.

In Acts 7-8, the church comes under intense persecution. Ironically, the persecution serves to advance the Gospel by pushing it out of Jerusalem into surrounding regions. This is an important insight for a missional reading. Persecution does not mark the end of witness, but is often a conduit for increasing the effectiveness of Christian witness. This is true in the book of Acts. The persecution in Jerusalem causes Jesus’ followers to scatter and through their movements the Gospel arrives in new places. It arrives first in Samaria (7:4-25) under the work of Philip. When reports of the conversions of Samaritans arrive back at Jerusalem, the apostles send out Peter and John to investigate and resource the new community of faith. When they arrive, they pray for the Spirit to come upon the new believers in Samaria (7:15-17) and it does. The Spirit’s arrival marks the advance of the Gospel. This occurs also when the Gospel reaches Gentiles in Caesaria (10:44-48). The outpouring of the Spirit marks God’s acceptance of new believers into the kingdom regardless of whether they are Jew (Acts 2), Samaritan (Acts 7), or Gentile (Acts 10). This is a further fulfillment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). The gift of the Spirit is thus indiscriminate. It is for all God’s people: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.

The Spirit is the driving force in the Gospel’s advance from Jerusalem in Acts 1 to Rome in Acts 28. The early apostles and witnesses were sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. For example, in Acts 8:26-40, Philip is prompted by the Spirit (8:29) to engage an Ethopian eunuch in a conversation that leads to the man’s conversion. Saul (later Paul) is filled with the Spirit (9:17) after his Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus (9:1-9). Paul shifts from being a persecutor of the church to being the person whom God uses to carry the Gospel to Rome.

Acts 13–28 narrates the movement of the Gospel from the regions of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Syria into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, and eventually Rome itself. Acts 13:1-4 fully credits the Spirit with the advance of the Gospel. Paul is not merely an ambitious and visionary missional leader; his exploits are the product of the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit himself commissions and sends out Paul (Saul) and Barnabas to preach the Gospel in these new lands. Paul and Barnabas ultimately separate (Acts 15:36-41) but Paul continues to advance the Gospel. Under the guidance of the Spirit (16:6-10), Paul crosses out of Asia Minor into Macedonia and Greece. The Gospel continues to move forward until Acts ends in Acts 28 with Paul preaching about Jesus in Rome the capital of the empire. The story ends abruptly without informing readers of what happens next. The implication however is clear. Since there is no Acts 29, we are left to dream under the Spirit’s influence about how we are to participate now in the Gospel’s movement in our day.

The book of Acts serves an important role in developing a missional hermeneutic through its emphasis on the work of the Spirit. God advances the Gospel through the Spirit’s empowerment. Our hermeneutical reflection is vital but the good news is that the Spirit continues its work.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Discipleship as Critique of the Religious Status-Quo

Jesus’ ministry involved frequent confrontations with the religious status-quo of his day. Ironically this included friction with the traditionalist Sadduccess and the reform minded Pharisees. A missional reading of the text is interested in the ways that Jesus' engagement with religious insiders serves as a warning to modern Christ followers lest we fall into the same traps of the insiders of Jesus' day.

Part of Jesus’ critique is the implication that outsiders may be in a better position to hear God than religious insiders. If the core call of God is (re)alignment, then there will always be a danger that insiders may choose not to realign with God’s contemporary mission. Over time, what began as a vital movement crystallizes into a suffocating status quo that ends up hindering God’s work in the world. New life may be added to God’s people by the inclusion of outsiders but this inclusion often comes as the cost of conflict with religious tradition especially religion’s calcified leaders.

Matthew 9:9-13 records Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector along with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over Jesus’ dinner with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus’ inclusion of Matthew into his band of disciples is a clear example of boundary breaking and a profound statement about mission in itself. The Pharisees who in many ways reduced the Torah to Sabbath keeping and table rules were incensed that Jesus would risk ritual contamination by choosing the company of persons who any decent religious leader would know to avoid. Jesus’ rebuke is classic and cuts to the heart of Jesus’ critique: “Those who are strong have no need of a doctor, but the ones who are ill do. Go and learn this: I am desiring mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call righteous people but sinners" (9:12-13). Since the Gospel is for the world, God’s people must be willing to move out of their own circles to interact and engage people who are desperate to learn and experience God’s grace and mercy. This text is also vital for reflecting on the relationship between holiness and mission. Holiness as Jesus models it is a holiness that engages the world with an understanding that a true holiness can infest the world rather than be infected by the world. Holiness often comes with calls to separate from the world, but Jesus points the way forward to a missional holiness that carries light into places that the merely religious people consider to be dark and void of hope. Dining with tax collectors and sinners ran counter to the religious status quo of the Pharisees, but Jesus values the reaching of new people over the misplaced religious sensibilities of insiders.

Another danger for religious insiders involves viewing the world through a self-justifying framework that finds pride in the contrast between us and them. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both men enter the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer is a profoundly self-serving one that attempts to elevate himself before God on the basis of religious practices in contrast to those of outsiders including the tax collector in his presence. The Pharisee’s words demonstrate a scarcity understanding of God’s grace and reduces life to the mere performance of correct actions detached of any sense of mission or the values of God’s kingdom. It takes pride in one’s performance in contrast to “sinners” rather than in understanding one’s spiritual life in light of God. The tax collector on the other hand simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, of the two men only the tax collector went home justified before God.

Even knowledge of the Scriptures is no guarantee of hearing and discerning God. For example, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, pagan astrologers from the east are contrasted sharply with Herod and all Jerusalem (including the chief priests and scribes). The astrologers have come to Jerusalem looking for the Messiah in response to their interpretation of astronomical phenomena. Herod calls on the religious leaders to provide insight and appropriately they cite Mic 5:2 identification of Bethlehem as the place to find the Messiah. But astonishingly enough no one travels to Bethlehem to find the newly born Messiah except for the astrologers. Instead Herod and all Jerusalem (including the religious establishment) are “frightened” at the prospect of the Messiah’s birth and ultimately respond to the Messiah’s announced birth in Bethlehem by murdering all boys under two. In contrast, the astrologers find the baby Jesus, worship him, and give gifts in symbolic surrender to this newly born King. This episode in particular is a warning to God’s people today of taking care lest one’s knowledge of Scripture actually blind one to God’s desires and intentions in and for the world.

Nothing is more suffocating or potentially harmful to God’s mission than a status quo religion that is more concerned with protecting its own power base, propagating tradition in anachronistic and legalistic ways, exalting itself by criticizing others, or promoting ideology over relationship than it is with declaring God’s eternal “Yes” to those women and men desperate for the good news that God has called us to share. The Gospel is for outsiders. God leads outsiders to God’s people. Those religiously inclined must not be blinded to this reality lest they find themselves on the outside of God’s kingdom.