Archive for June, 2012

Jesus at the Jerusalem temple

2:21-39 Compared with the naming of John the Baptist, Jesus’ naming is hurried over almost without comment. Luke is more interested in the presentation scenes in the temple. He introduces this episode with a cluster of Old Covenant terms: circumcision, purification, presentation; no less than five times here we are told that Jesus’ parents did everything ‘following the Law of the Lord’ – i.e. the Law of Moses. As we come to the temple, Luke brings us into an atmosphere of devout law keeping: a decidedly Old Testament realm.

The point of specifying the offering is that Joseph and Mary made use of the poor laws to present a less costly sacrifice than usual. We are left in no doubt of their socio-economic status: they belong to the swelling ranks of the underprivileged and impoverished.

The presentation to the Lord of the firstborn and the substitutionary offering are full of Passover resonances. The ceremony was instituted by Moses. After the  original passover night, Yahweh considered all Israel’s firstborn to belong to him. However they were to be redeemed by an animal substitute. The next time Jesus is presented to God at Jerusalem, it will be at Passover, and he will be an adult. On that occasion the sacrifice will no longer be a substitute: the firstborn son himself will be the offering presented.

Simeon is introduced with two good OT terms for the godly: ‘righteous’ and ‘devout’. It is fairly rare for the Spirit to be mentioned in Luke’s Gospel – he holds the name back for Acts, by and large. But here we are told three times in quick succession that Simeon is under the influence of the Spirit. Also he sings, which in Luke is the evidence of the Spirit’s filling. All of this powerfully establishes his credentials as a trustworthy and even prophetic character. Characters ‘filled with the Spirit’, and especially their songs, give us Luke’s theological perspective on the story, so this scene holds some weight. Simeon is apparently very old: his death is probably mentioned twice here (v.26, 29).

We are given only one insight into Simeon’s personality: he is ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel.’ This is where the significance of the strongly Jewish atmosphere of the scene begins to appear. He appears in the story like a Hebrew prophet of old, preserved through the ages for this moment, still patiently awaiting the arrival of the deliverance the prophets had foretold. His great age emphasises this representative link.

2:15-20 The shepherds’ ‘Let’s go then’, and their haste, serve to emphasise their responsiveness to the good news. These are people to whom the favour of God means a great deal. The chosen poor are the responsive poor.

The NIV’s ‘When they had seen him, they spread the word’ is an overtranslation. More accurate is the NRSV’s ‘When they saw him, they made known what had been told them’, i.e. when they found the baby they reported the story about the angels to the people who were there in the house. This is not a description of late-night ‘stranger evangelism’ around Bethlehem!

 All were amazed at their story. In Luke-Acts, amazement is the right response to Jesus. The term generally functions as a sign that God’s power and glory are being revealed.

For a sympathetic character like Mary to treasure and ponder the shepherds’ story, acts as an encouragement to Luke’s readers to do likewise. We will need to keep the angel’s words in mind as we continue through the narrative, and think on them, for their full meaning has not yet been disclosed.

The shepherds ‘returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told.’ This editorial comment creates a cameo, in which the shepherds stand for the ideal disciples, rejoicing in promises fulfilled.  They  now have certain knowledge of ‘the things fulfilled among them’ (cf. Luke 1:1). In this they foreshadow the apostolic group in the closing scene of the Gospel, who likewise ‘return’ (same word) rejoicing and praising God because of the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes which they have seen in the risen Jesus. And of course Luke’s purpose is that the readers will do the same.

Empowerment ministry in your church?

Posted: June 24, 2012 by J in Mission, Theology

We’ve established that in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, the empowering of weak people is a key mission activity.

What about in your church? Are you guys doing the same sort of ministry as Jesus and his apostles, making empowerment ministries the front line of your church’s mission in your area?

What would that look like ? Here’s some ideas about how your church could announce and demonstrate God’s arriving kingdom by empowerment ministries.

I’m not too good at making the dumb speak. But I can teach ESL and help people speak the local language. That’s hugely empowering.

I may not have much luck releasing people possessed by demons (though you never know!). But I can help free people whose lives are gripped by fears, obsessions and addictions. Or help people who are trapped in abusive family situations to find the strength to get out.

I’m not that great as a healer of the sick. But I can help the man crippled by unemployment find a job that enables him to function normally again. Just watch the way he stands up tall once he’s back in work: he feels like a man again.

I’ve got heaps of neighbours who feel socially isolated and lonely. They’d love to enjoy friendship and community, but feel powerless to make it happen. By providing friendly settings for neighbours to meet, I can give them the chance to create friendship and community networks. Just bring them together and watch it happen. They make all the effort, but they give your church the credit for empowering them socially!

I can also help the Christian who feels like he’ll never be any use in ministry because he doesn’t have teaching gifts. By getting him involved in frontline, hands-on empowerment ministries that suit his gifts, I’m going to see him come alive, take on responsibility, and feel a new sense of purpose and satisfaction in his church involvement. That guy is gradually going to become confident and strong as a gospel servant. That’s empowerment too.

There are a thousand ways that sin and Satan and the power of death have a grip on my neighbours. And for every one of those ways, there’s help and strength in Christ to overcome it. And every time that strength is given by us in the name of Jesus, God’s kingdom is announced.

And that gives us a thousand possibilities for mission activities. Empowerment ministries.

What opportunities does your church have to bring strength to weak people around you in Jesus’ name?

God’s mission of empowerment

Posted: June 23, 2012 by J in Mission, Theology

From what we’ve seen, God is in the business of making humans strong. He is rescuing humans from their enslavement to sin and death, and renewing them in life and strength through Jesus’ powerful resurrection. We come to share in Jesus’ newly empowered, Spirit-filled humanity. We were weak and powerless, helpless pawns doing the will of the evil one. We become strong and firm, remade in God’s image, able to stand confident against the devil and choose the good. We were sick and dying, now we are being renewed daily in God’s life.

From our total failure, God makes us become ‘more than conquerors’ . From being sub-human, dysfunctional, he re-humanises us, so we are able to function as he intends. Able to worship God; able to love and serve our fellow creatures.

This is God’s mission of redemption to his world. And he carries out this mission through Jesus. This was the work Jesus came to do. In so many ways, Jesus made people strong. He healed the sick. He freed those captured by demons. He cured those enslaved by greed. He empowered to dumb to speak and the blind to see. The dead he raised to life. His weak disciples he ‘clothed with power from on high’.

And his disciples did the same. They too were in the business of making people strong. Jesus had instructed them, “Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Typical is Peter’s healing of the lame man, whose ankles were made strong so that he could walk and leap and praise God. Peter attributed that healing to ‘the name of Jesus’ i.e. it was Jesus’ power that did it. And he pointed to those strengthened ankles as a picture of the larger work of salvation God was doing in his world, bringing release from sins, and times of refreshing to the creation. Not only this man, but ‘all things’ were to be restored to strength and health through Jesus (Acts 3:21). The ankles made strong was a sign that the kingdom had come near.

In other words, in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, the empowering of weak people is a key mission activity. As people are strengthened and freed to function with dignity as humans, Jesus is honoured and God’s kingdom is demonstrated.

The Gospel of Empowerment?

Posted: June 22, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

When you think about it, the NT is actually chock full of empowerings.

“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth…stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. (Luke 5:24-5)

“In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  And Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.  Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.  (Acts 3:6-8)

“And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong…”   (Acts 3:16)

Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews  (Acts 9:22)

‘I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has made me strong…’ (1Tim. 1:12)

I can do all things through him who makes me strong. (Phil. 4:13)

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power…   (Col. 1:11)

I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.   (John 14:12)

They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.   (Rev. 20:4)

The Spirit is particularly associated with God’s power, in the NT writings. And the gospel is on about filling us with that power:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may make you strong with power in your inner being through his Spirit…   (Eph. 3:16).

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine… (Eph. 3:20)

It’s a big theme in the NT. And notice that there’s no sense of ‘God’s power vs human power’ here. It’s God’s power → human empowerment. He is strong through our weakness. We’re on the same team!

Strange, then, that while the world gets so excited about empowerment, we evangelicals are uncomfortable with the term. Aren’t we sposed to be the ones who live by the book? In reacting to society’s ‘self-help’ approach to empowerment, have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

And do we now really have to learn biblical values from our society? ‘Cause if so that’s pretty humiliating…

Tomorrow: God’s mission of empowerment

Jesus the powerful man

Posted: June 21, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

One of the NT themes that easily gets underplayed in our account of human weakness vs God’s power, is the humanity of Jesus.

Immediately after Jesus is declared ‘son of God’ at his baptism, Luke supplies us with a backwards genealogy, culminating with Adam, ‘the son of God’. Having given us this hint that Jesus will replay the history of mankind, as a kind of new Adam, Luke shows him led into the wilderness 40 days. It is Israel’s story in particular that he is rewriting. For Luke, ‘son of God’ is a very human title.

And it is as new Adam, empowered by the Spirit, that Jesus faces the Tempter. And defies him. It is what the first Adam should have done: now the second Adam finally puts the story of humanity right. He confronts his adversary, as God’s image on the earth, and conquers. Jesus is strong where Adam and Eve were weak.

Tempted in the wilderness, where Israel gave way to unbelief, Jesus remains faithful. He lives out the nation’s calling to be priests to God. Jesus is strong where Israel was weak.

Where is this strength from? Should we see this as the sign that this is God in human flesh (which he is!), strong by his very nature, easily triumphing?

That would be to miss the point the writers take such pains to make clear: Jesus’ strength is not his own. The temptations are very real, and he really struggles. But as a struggling man, Jesus is empowered and led by the Spirit (Luke 4:1-14).

Jesus is strong because he is being made strong by the continued presence of the Spirit with him: that’s Luke’s point. And in this way Jesus is able to play the part of a true man, and conquer. Far from being a threat to God, this human power is fully responsive and submitted to the Spirit’s guiding. Jesus is God’s man.

Again and again throughout his ministry Jesus confronts and conquers God’s enemies by this same power. ‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Mat 12:28). Jesus is God’s powerful man.

In fact the whole synoptic-Gospel story can be summarised as “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

And of course this culminates in his resurrection. The Cross is not only an expression of human weakness, but of human strength renewed. Jesus is raised up by the Spirit to become Lord of creation. At which point the same power begins to fall on others also. For we are ultimately to ‘reign with him’ (2 Tim 2:12, etc).

The message is not, ‘only God can do that!’ but rather: “by the power of the Spirit, mankind is being renewed in Jesus to be the powerful, faithful, obedient sons of God, rulers in the world.”

Empowerment. That’s what we see happening to humanity in Jesus, the way synoptics tell it. Not God’s power vs our strength, but God’s power revealed through us. Jesus becomes the powerful man.

When the crowds saw it… they glorified God, who was giving such power to human beings. (Matt. 9:8)

The gospel of lost power

Posted: June 20, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

When the world calls for empowerment, we evangelicals push back. ‘Empowerment’ sounds too much like self-help, too lefty, too secular. What those oppressed people in the slums need is not power: it’s God.

This caution about humanity’s love of power is fair enough. So often power corrupts. It’s true that in the Scriptures God is heard condemning human pride. It’s true that the desire to be free of God’s rule is core to the human problem. It’s true that his power is contrasted with our weakness. And that we are encouraged to acknowledge that weakness, and trust in his power.

It’s also true that Jesus’ ultimate expression of his humanity came at the cross where he died in weakness.

But unfortunately a number of things that the gospel has to say about human power tend to be overlooked.

For one thing, the great power which the NT sees ranged against God’s rule, is not human but demonic. ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against…the cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6). And in this picture mankind is not powerful against God, he is enslaved under the devil. Man, the once powerful image-bearer of God and lord of the earth, is reduced to a simpering slave, helpless in the hands of a cruel master. In concentrating on man’s rebellion, we have often missed the bigger picture painted by Scripture. God’s rival and opponent never was man: it was always Satan.

In that light, it has been a fundamental mistake to pit man’s power and self-rule and God’s rule on opposite sides of the conflict, as though they were alternatives. In reality the two powers belong on the same side.

Man, though weak compared to God, was intended to be strong through God, and rule the world in his name, as his image. It is only as man turned and was enslaved that:

a. he lost most of his power

b. his remaining strength was often employed in the service of evil

But when man exercises demonic power, he is not ruler but puppet of the dark master. ‘Self-rule’ in particular is long gone. The most extreme example of man away from God’s rule would have to be the Gedarene demoniac of Luke 8 – and he is a most pitiable creature.

In short, perhaps we have been unwise to frame the conflict in our world too narrowly in terms of human rebellion. Perhaps ‘enslavement to dark powers‘ might be an image that better catches the drift of the gospel story.

Tomorrow: Jesus, the powerful man

The Gospel vs empowerment?

Posted: June 19, 2012 by J in Theology

The way we tell it, human power is in conflict with God’s power.

The first difficulty this ‘self-rule vs God’s rule‘ structure runs into, is in the Christian life, where one of the fruits of the Spirit which we are to exhibit is ‘self-control’ (enkrateia: lit. ‘self-rule’). Paul and Peter both exhort us to this. We evangelicals somehow don’t talk much about self-control in the Christian life. And it’s not hard to see why: the idea jars a little with our way of framing the gospel, where God rescues us from self-rule. Are we rescued from it, or commanded to it? Complex explanations are needed, and in the end the shape of our faith still minimises this fruit.

Another difficulty is the continued and apparently innocent pleasure that even the most  saintly believers take in the daily exercise of power. Mending the gate, fixing the car or the accounts, organising the kid’s room: it feels good and we sense that it really is good.   I want my kids to be skilled and confident in riding their bikes. It seems that in many cases it’s good to be powerful and to feel confident in that power. It’s hard to believe that this is the human trait that ruined the world, back at the start.

Then there are those Scriptures that are a bit uncomfortable for us:

Be strong and powerful; for you shall put this people in possession of the land‘ (Josh 1)

‘Keep alert, stand upright in the faith, act like a man, and be masterful.’ (1 Cor. 16:13   literal translation)

‘I write to you, young people
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you conquer the evil one.’     (1 John 2)

We don’t talk to our leaders or our young men like that! We emphasise obedience and submission to the will of God, instead. And it’s the ‘instead’ that we need to come back to.

Tomorrow: The Gospel of lost power

The Gospel and Empowerment

Posted: June 18, 2012 by J in Theology

‘Look, Daddy, I can write!’ said my little girl to me today, holding out her notebook of alphabet doodles. This caused me to reflect on the joy of being able, which has been such a theme in our children’s early years. Most days I am urged to ‘Look what I can do!’ And then there’s ‘No, I can do it!!’, the regular complaint around here whenever parental help is not appreciated. As our eldest used to put it when two years old: ‘Steffi do!’

It’s not just littlies either, is it. The joy of mastery, of conquering a challenge and learning how, can be just as strong at any age, whether it’s passing the driving test,  cooking a new recipe, or being able to walk unassisted in old age. The exercise of power – it’s a very natural pleasure pretty much common to all mankind.

Of course there’s a distorted side to this love of power, isn’t there. We evangelicals have tended to view the story of mankind as one of rebellion: we humans tried (and try) to overthrow God and assume his place. We want to rule ourselves and the world, instead of having God rule us. For us, the great sin is pride: the idea man has that he is strong and independent, top of the cosmic pecking order. The love of power is the failing that ruined the world, the disease that turns man into monster.

With this as our story, we tend to describe the human problem in terms of autonomy, and contrast it with submission to God. These are the options: self-rule or God’s rule. Our power or the power of God. Sinful pride vs humble trust.

When the world talks so much about empowerment, we find ourselves pointing to that as precisely the problem. If only they would give up on man’s power, and turn to God’s!

This emphasis of ours runs into a few problems…

Tomorrow: The Gospel vs Empowerment?

The Doors of the Sea – conclusion

Posted: June 5, 2012 by J in Book review

The pantheism thing is intriguing. Does Hart think we Protties are like deists or like pantheists? Which I take to be two different systems. Or is the deist just a ‘scientific’ pantheist really? Either way I’d rather not be in their company, theologically speaking. This is one of the many things Calvin doesn’t explain: how the creature can be truly itself distinct from a sovereign God, existing in a real space that is outside of Him. In other words how the creation can have its own identity and not be merely an aspect of God’s mind.  If human agency is reducible ultimately to God’s will, if there is really no distance at all between his mind and our actions, then how are we not totally fused to his being? Either wholly internal to God, or else a kind of divine emanation or extrusion? Can these fundamental questions be satisfactorily answered from a Calvinist position? Because if not…

Hart’s contention that a space between God’s will and creaturely conditions permits the possibility of futility and meaninglessness in the world, rings true for me. How liberating it is to hear those words ‘an absurd remainder’. For those who suffer (and who does not?) I think this idea must come as a relief – that we can stop looking for the good in every evil, and counting our blessings, and just confess for a minute that what is happening to us is bad. (Perhaps we might even start to make some sense of Ecclesiastes – that would be nice!)

Though it comes almost as an afterthought, Hart’s point about pastoral realities is well taken. If we have a doctrine of suffering that we dare not speak to those whose suffering is most acute, of what value is such a doctrine? And we surely do have that problem, as any pastor will admit. Is there no gospel word about suffering that might comfort those overwhelmed with grief, that could bring light in the darkest place? The word ‘victory’ seems full of pastoral potential.

Overall, Hart has given us a beautifully short book, with whole chapters of gold in it, worth reading and re-reading. Hart does his theology from a biblical-theology starting point, which is a nice change from our tradition, with its basic divide into the two camps of systematic metaphysics and naïve proof-texting. He isn’t afraid to say when he finds other approaches obscuring the gospel, whether they come from atheists or Christians – and he critiques with a razor sharp knife. Overall he offers a significant biblical corrective to standard Western-church approaches to evil and suffering (i.e. approaches to the real world).

Quite a book.