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Written by Bryan Maier Monday, 19 November 2012 00:00

Most of us in Christian service remember a time or several times of renewed dedication and offering of ourselves to the Lord for whatever he wants to do with us. For me, the first such event I remember was in middle school at church camp throwing my little stick in the fire and volunteering to be a missionary to some African nation I had never heard of. Another time was in seminary when I sat in on a class taught by a famous Christian counselor and changed my whole philosophy of ministry.  For those of us who believe in a missional God, there is constant desire to offer ourselves to cooperate with whatever God is doing in the world today. However, following God’s mission can quickly become difficult and when the cost of working for a missional God becomes high, we can wonder how long we have to keep going.

It is comforting to know that we are not the first to experience this struggle. Isaiah volunteered “in the year of Uzziah’s death” (Isaiah 6:1). For the last four decades, Uzziah’s reign had been relatively prosperous and safe. Isaiah had probably been born and raised during this time. The Scripture says that that although he struggled with following God’s law late in life, Uzziah, for the most part, was a ruler who “did right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 15:3a) as did his son Jotham (2 Kings 15:34). Being a prophet in this regime would no doubt be a position of respect and Isaiah could look forward to a ministry with quite a visible impact. Maybe he even had visions of some of the miraculous acts of Elijah and Elisha. And so when God throws out the offer for someone to work with him on his mission, Isaiah seems to jump at the chance. “Look over here! Choose me!” he enthusiastically pleads (Isaiah 6:8).  

But this was the year of Uzziah’s death (6:1) and soon the nation would be subjected to the absolute disaster that would be the reign of Ahaz. In contrast to Uzziah and his son Jotham, the Bible says of Ahaz that he “walked in the way of the kings of Israel and even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the sons of Israel” (2 Kings16: 3-4). Being a prophet in this environment would dangerous if not lethal. God warns Isaiah of what he has just signed up for. He says that the people will be blind and deaf to the message of God (Is. 6: 9). Furthermore Isaiah’s prophetic words would not lead to a great revival but would rather just harden their hearts even more (6:10).  

One can almost hear the deflation in Isaiah’s voice when he asks, “Ummm, just how long do I have to endure THAT?” (6:11) Notice the shift in Isaiah’s emphasis. He has gone from a posture of unconditional availability to one of almost negotiation. God’s answer is not very reassuring (11b-12). While it may be unclear exactly which events God is referring to in his answer, what is clear that that conditions (especially for prophets of God) were about to get a whole lot worse and they would stay bad for a very long time. The only hope is a veiled reference to a stump that can still re-grow (13).

When we first recognize that God is a missional God and that he invites us to join him in his mission for our day, it can be heady stuff. But when circumstances change and conditions get worse, God still calls us to work with and for him wherever He is. The stump will one day grow a new branch, the Branch of David. May we continue to be missional and faithful while we wait.   


Bryan N. Maier, Psy.D. is Associate professor of Counseling and Psychology at Biblical Seminary.

 

Written by Dan LaValla Friday, 16 November 2012 00:00

Hurricane Sandy just hit our region a few days ago and I have been unable to return to work because the entire Borough of Hatfield, PA where Biblical Seminary is located, has been without power since the storm hit three days ago. Much of our area has large pockets of homes and businesses without electrical power. My family was very fortunate because we did not lose power and only sustained minor damage (a tree was blown over by straight winds and we need to replace some trim on our garage).

While I have been living in the Philadelphia region for 25 years, I grew up in a small town northeast of Syracuse, New York. As a result, it was natural for me to call on friends and neighbors to see how they were managing either through the storm or after and whether or not they needed assistance. As a result, during the past few days, we hosted a couple of acquaintances: providing them with meals, a bed to sleep in, heat, shelter, etc. However, it was interesting how much reassurance it took to let people know they would not be an inconvenience if they took us up on the offer to shelter them in our home or to receive resources that we could share.

The responses from the people I called made me recall a book I read several years ago, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups © 2003 by Joseph R. Myers. One of the main premises of the book is how our culture is good at providing people with plenty of opportunities to develop relationships at public and intimate levels. However, in our culture, we are finding fewer opportunities to develop relationships between these two extremes, at levels he identifies as social and personal. Reasons for this include: modern architecture and community planning (homes are further from the road and rarely have a porch where neighbors gather socially), technologies that have made our lives busier, technologies that give us more things to do in our homes rather than venturing outside for social activities, affluence that has increased our sense of independence, etc.

With respect to the missional character of Christianity, these unconscious barriers to social and personal relationships pose a great challenge to the 21stcentury Church in the U.S. The missional call of God requires real-life social interaction. One of Jesus’ primary commands to Christians is, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in order for love to be given, someone must be willing to receive it. If people tend to live in their comfort zones and avoid uncomfortable situations, then it is likely that our culture will increasingly create generations that have fewer and fewer social and personal relationships. Christians will need to overcome such personal discomfort as they reach out and find ways to help people around them feel comfortable with social and personal relationships.

Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate for Institutional Advancement at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association and is very active in his church and community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/daniel-lavalla.

   

Written by David Lamb Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:00

I have a confession.  When someone quotes an overly familiar biblical passage, I groan, “Not again.”  

Last winter I posted three blogs about the overuse of Jeremiah 29:11 (see http://davidtlamb.com/category/old-testament/jeremiah/).  A few weeks ago I pleaded with my class to not use Num 6:24-26 (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”) every time they need a benediction. 

I love the Bible, but I just wish people didn’t always use the same, limited number of overly familiar texts.  The psalm that gives Jeremiah 29 a run for its money in the overuse category would have to be Psalm 23.  Many of us have it memorized.

I have another confession.  Over the past few months as I have felt miserable with stomach reflux, voice problems and anxiety, I have “overused” Psalm 23.  Why?  Because God has been speaking to me through the psalm.  I needed a shepherd.  So only read the rest of this blog if you need a shepherd. 

If you’re interested, here are my two previous Psalm posts for Biblical’s faculty blog:

The Rewards and Consequences of a Torah-Focused Life (Psalm 1)

God Likes It When We Complain (Psalm 13)

Psalm 23:1 A Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

3He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The image of a shepherd should be familiar to Israel.  Many biblical leaders were shepherds: Abraham (Gen. 12:16), Moses (Exo. 3:1), David (1 Sam. 16:11; 2 Sam. 7:8), Amos (7:14), and most significantly, Jesus (John 10:11).  In Ezekiel 34, God condemns Israel’s shepherd-leaders, and declares that he will shepherd his flock, Israel.  Scripture describes God’s intimate care for his people in language they can understand, with imagery from the familiar occupation of a shepherd.  As we communicate to people about God and his mission, we need to use language they understand and that engages with them and their specific context. 

With God as his shepherd, the psalmist/sheep doesn’t want.  Notice, the shepherd doesn’t actually give the food or the drink but simply leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters where he can feed and drink for himself.  Sheep need a lot of direction: “Eat here.  Drink here.”  I’m sheep-like, not simply because of my last name, but because I need help knowing how to care for myself.  I suspect I’m not unique in this regard.  Take God’s command to rest (“lie down”- v. 2) for example, that’s a tough one to obey, although it shouldn’t be because we all know we need rest.  People involved in God’s mission often felt like they are too important to rest. 

A dramatic shift occurs in verse 4.  In the first three verses, God is spoken about in 3rdperson language (he, his), but in 4 the text switches to 2ndperson (you, your).  Why?  While sheep need to be fed and watered (1-3) God is spoken about, but as sheep walk through Death-Shadow Valley, God is spoken to: “You are with me.”  As we go through the most difficult times sheep like us need to know God is present.  The promise of God’s presence is the essence of the incarnation, God-with-us.  That’s good news, particularly for people in pain. 

In my next post, I’ll look at the rest of Psalm 23. 

Since most of us aren’t shepherds, how can we use imagery from common, contemporary occupations to communicate biblical truths today?


David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.

   

Written by Derek Cooper Monday, 12 November 2012 00:00

It is a generally known fact that the founder of the Wesleyan tradition, John Wesley, was as confounded by the book of Revelation as many of us are today. In his notes on Revelation, for instance, which are included among his annotations on all the books of the Bible, Wesley wrote of “utterly despairing” of ever trying to understand it. If it were not, he explained, for the excellent commentary he discovered by one of his contemporaries, a Lutheran clergyman named Johann Bengel, Wesley would not have been able to offer the little help he gave in his notes on the book:

It is scarce possible for any [who] either love or fear God not to feel their hearts extremely affected in seriously reading Revelation…I by no means pretend to understand or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book. I only offer what help I can.

Despite Wesley’s (and other important Protestant figures like Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s) reticence to speak definitively about the apocalypse, I would like to encourage you, first, to not be afraid of this book—as Jesus says to the church of Smyrna, “Do not be afraid!” (2:10)—and, second, to consider studying the book for yourself and, perhaps, even teaching or preaching from it. Although I certainly do not claim mastery of the book of Revelation, I have been teaching it for several years and would like to offer six guidelines to reading the book.

First, and most important, don’t ignore the main message of the book, which is that we should worship Jesus! Jesus is the “revelation” of the book (1:1). He is the guide to the whole thing. It is alarming how many interpreters miss this, since they are so focused on the minutiae. It’s not that the minutia is unimportant; but it is certainly less significant than the reality of it: Jesus. As long as you maintain focus on Jesus, the story coheres. Indeed, the book is about praising him as our Lord. Revelation, in fact, is the most Christ-centered book in the Bible, offering multiple hymns that are ascribed to Jesus alongside God (5:9-14; 7:15-17; 11:15; 12:10-12; 19; 22:12-13, 20).

Second, don’t read the book like it’s a newspaper. Revelation is what is called “apocalyptic” literature. This was a very common type of literature from about 200 BC to AD 200 among Jews and Jewish Christians, and we have several examples of this type of literature today from antiquity that helps us understand it better. Specifically, it was the most appropriate type of literature to offer hope to an oppressed people—when it came to announcing that God is still in control of the world, and that he will vindicate his people at the right time. 

 

Features of Apocalyptic Literature

  1. Secret things of God, which are normally hidden from humankind, are given to a certain person in a vision and/or by way of an angel.
  2. The author usually writes in a more famous person’s name.
  3. There is a battle between good and evil.
  4. The good are always being oppressed (religiously, socially, politically) and there is concern that God does not care about them.
  5. The evil are in power and oppress the good, until God steps in to punish the wicked and vindicate the good.
  6. There are bizarre symbols that refer to historical events / persons, but they are not always easy to identify.

 

Third, don’t necessarily try to visualize everything in the book. To paraphrase what biblical commentator Bruce Metzger once wrote in his commentary on the book, “the descriptions don’t mean what they say; they mean what they mean” (Breaking the Code, 27). Revelation contains a barrage of images that should be dwelt upon collectively rather than individually. This is because the book uses symbolism, which is by nature not supposed to be visualized; instead of picturing the images, try letting them blow over you like the wind. The total effect of the images—and not one in particular—indicates the meaning. The notion of a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth in Revelation 1, for instance, is not meant to be taken literally or to be pictured as if Jesus had a dagger for teeth! No, the symbol stands for judgment. What do swords do? They destroy and judge.

Fourth, don’t study the book alone and in pieces. The focus of the book should be the whole story, not isolated verses and images. The book is to be read aloud (1:3; 13:9; 22:18-19). The meaning of the book emerges after hearing it in one setting, and it becomes increasingly more confusing when studied in individual units. This is because when you get overly focused on the details, you lose sight of Christ, who is the real content of the book.

Fifth, don’t overlook how important a part the Old Testament plays in the book. Apocalyptic literature fashions itself after biblical language in order to lend authority to its message and to remind Israel of God’s promises. Revelation makes frequent use of metaphors, themes, and structural concepts from the Old Testament (especially Daniel and Ezekiel). The most appropriate way to prepare for Revelation, therefore, is to read specific parts of the Old Testament.

Fifth, don’t apply the events of the book too quickly to yourself. Rather, think historically and globally. The original recipients of the book suffered physical and social persecution as well economic hardships. Those who often teach about Revelation in North America are privileged, middle-class, comfortable, and educated. The original audience, by contrast, was oppressed and poor and powerless.

Finally, don’t forget that Revelation is a very practical book. Revelation teaches several important truths. The Christian life involves spiritual warfare. There is a good and bad side, and we have to decide which side we are on. What’s more, the theme of counterfeiting looms large: (i) the secular world tries to counterfeit God’s world, while (ii) Satan tries to counterfeit God. The good news, which is wholly practical, is that God is in control of the cosmos, even though personal experiences and life often suggest otherwise. The current world that we live in should not be the aim of our hope. Our hope should rather be in the God who made the world and who will one day redeem it. This encourages us to live holy lives and be mindful that our home is not on earth but in the God who made heaven and earth.


Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical, where he also serves as the associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. His most recent book is titled Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus. His faculty page can be found here.

   

Written by Larry Anderson Friday, 09 November 2012 00:00

In my homiletics class, I played a movie clip from “Blood Done Sign My Name.” The clip featured an actor playing the part of Benjamin Chavis preaching at a church following the racially motivated murder of Henry Marrow. Chavis challenges the congregation to address the injustice and inequality within their community. After the video, I then asked the question, “Does our missional hermeneutic address the prophetic homiletic necessary to invoke transformational change in our communities? And if it does, why is there such a disconnect between church and community?”

The overwhelming response of the students was “Yes”; they adamantly communicated that we cannot say we are continuing the mission of God but do or say nothing about biased hiring practices, inadequate educational systems, and a racially profiled judicial system, for starters. It was wonderful to see the in-depth knowledge possessed by students concerning the issues facing their communities, but it was equally disappointing to hear that not much is being done to address these issues.

So, the million dollar question is “How can we be aware of our call to respond to such issues, but remain silent?” Fear of the revocation of tax exempt status by the IRS was cited, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from endorsing political leaders, thus removing the political agenda from the pulpit. In addition, it was stated the simple business of ‘managing church’ is so consuming, what goes on outside the doors just seems too overwhelming to handle. My response to the class, and you as readers: “Are we actually being the church if we do nothing about these issues? Are the only things that really count how many people are being saved, how many baptisms we perform, and how many people are showing up on Sunday? Does anyone find it interesting that Jesus met with 12 but sent out 72? If we are the most trusted representatives on this earth to speak truth and give a biblical response to our churches, how can we not address homosexuality, greed, hypocrisy, politics, racism, classism, sexism, and every other “ism” our communities face on a daily basis?


Larry L. Anderson Jr. is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and the Director of the Urban Programs at Biblical. He is also the pastor of Great Commission Church, previously located in the suburb of Roslyn, PA, but now situated in the West Oak Lane community of Philadelphia to provide a holistic ministry to an urban setting. 

  

   

Written by Susan Disston Thursday, 08 November 2012 00:00

In an earlier post, Biblical’s academic dean, Todd Mangum, discussed why Biblical teaches missional theology and rather than ‘systematic theology.

This blog addresses how you can sharpen your study of missional theology—whether you are a casual learner or an enrolled student. Theological reflection and integration of your prior learning with the new missional framework and vocabulary will get you started on a fruitful path.

  1. Identify the theological/ecclesiological commitments that you bring to your studies, both those that are “on the surface” and those on the “theological assumptions” level. You should do this with the help resources such as your church’s creeds or statement of faith, theologically astute people in your church or family, formative books and experiences, and other students.
  2. Integrate your theological and ecclesiological location with what you are learning in your readings or courses about missional theology, missional hermeneutics, and missional church. The mission of God is the integrative motif for missional theology that can interact with your existing theological location. It can enhance it, challenge it, and rearrange it. Discuss your new theological insights with others so that you are regularly reflecting on the missional content and how it is interacting with your own theological and ecclesiological location.
  3. Become familiar with the art and skills of dynamic conversation early in your studies. Learn to speak the truth in love; listen well; hold theological and biblical interpretations provisionally, yet with conviction; and seek faithfulness in a complex, contemporary world. As one theologian put it: “The truth of the gospel…is always spoken and interpreted in love. It is never spoken for the purpose of political control or domination but in the hope that each person and community might discover its true voice and its own distinctive experience of full humanity as the gospel takes root in fresh and diverse ways.”(James Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love (Trinity Press International, 1998).
  4. Assess your intercultural intelligence and practice the skills of intercultural intelligence. Intercultural intelligence “relinquishes pictures of the world that place our selves at the center.” (David I. Smith, Learning from the Stranger [Eerdmans, 2009]) Insteadall cultural encounters as intercultural. One missiologist’s vision for intercultural learning is holistic and is tied to growing to maturity as a follower of Jesus Christ. He wrote that it is a process that “leads us to needed changes in our attitudes and behaviors. It can open us to the need to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. None of these are inevitable accompaniments…. If we are willing, however, intercultural learning can be taken up into the work of redemption, the creation of a new people that began on the cross and erupted into the world at Pentecost. (Ibid)Likewise, the missional interpretive methodology assumes that no single culture is privileged, including one’s own.
  5. Maintain a journal that records your observations and reflections.  Here are some possible questions to consider:
    • Where is Christian mission in your context creating the need for fresh theological activity?
    • What interdisciplinary insights and partnerships are needed for more effective ministry in your context?
    • What intercultural insights and partnerships are needed for more authentic and inclusive ministry in your context?
  6. Incorporate and share your insights from the activities 1-5 above into a kind of “debriefing session” after several months or a year of study. Talk with others about how you have been shaped. The session can also include a biblical-theological homily or short presentation on a missional topic, whether or not you identify your theological position as specifically in agreement with missional theology’s conceptual framework.
  7. Be vigilant to look for ways to use what you are learning and share it with others—in your church, family and neighborhood context…and in all of life.
  8.  
    Susan Disston is assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology

   

Written by Susan Disston Wednesday, 07 November 2012 00:00

Missional theology is a conceptual framework for understanding Christian theology, the biblical narrative, and the church. Missional theology provides a fresh lens for examining God’s involvement with the world. It is gaining traction in churches from various church traditions that are open to change and are looking for new ways to “do church” in cultural settings that are resistant to organized religion and deaf to the gospel message. 

The “mission of God” is the central interpretive motif of missional theology. The mission of God is God’s eternal purpose to create, enjoy the created world and the people God made, redeem the fallen world through the cross of Christ, and consummate the redemptive act of the cross in Christ’s return and the ushering in of the new creation. The mission of God has foci in both creation and redemption.

Other elements of missional theology’s conceptual framework are elements brought to the missional conversation by evangelicals, in particular (although not exclusively evangelicals). These are biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, activism, and respectful association with Christian tradition.  These elements make up the “evangelical ethos.” (Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center [Baker, 1992].

The evangelical ethos is the shared experience of evangelicals who embody their faith through faithful living characterized by the values represented in the elements: the trustworthiness of the Bible, the necessity of personal salvation, the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a lifestyle of personal piety and service, and association with a particular denomination (association that is not compelled to defend its tenets as Christianity’s singular or superior doctrinal formulation). “Christian tradition” is understood as the core doctrines of the Christian faith as expressed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. For evangelicals, Christian tradition also includes the evangelical ethos and its commitment to the divine authority of Scripture.  This commitment echoes the Protestant ethos of “forming and always re-forming” the way the church “does church” in light of Scripture.  

This focus on the evangelical ethos with its appreciation of Christian tradition is what paves the way for evangelicals to cooperate across many denominations who self-identify with evangelicalism. It is also what makes possible the missional conversation and the missional theology flowing from it. Missional reflection is essentially about renewing evangelicalism (or, more broadly, Western Christianity) for mission and impact in contemporary society.

Using the missional interpretive methodology as a guide, the elements of the evangelical ethos below are modified with adjectives that capture the values of the missional conversation, what could be called the “missional ethos” in evangelicalism today.

Contextual biblicism – recognizes that all readings of Scripture require interpretation; that the Bible is a contextual document; that there are and will continue to be multiple and diverse interpretations of Scripture which edify and guide local expressions of the church.

Communal conversionism – recognizes that evangelism placed in the context of the mission of God is about the conversion and redemption of whole societies and individuals within those societies.

Mission of God-focused crucicentrism – recognizes that God’s mission throughout biblical history leads to the cross and ultimately to its fulfillment in the redemption of all of creation.

Missional activism – recognizes a redemptive activism that seeks to bless society and rectify unjust systems; it recognizes this activism as the missional partner of evangelism.

Ecumenical traditionalism – recognizes that no single tradition can represent the whole of Christianity for all other traditions; that diversity in the church is a gift, just as unity in Christ is a gift; both are necessary in God’s mission to redeem the world.


Susan Disston is assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology

   

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