Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Incarnating the Text of Philippians

This post is not about the incarnation of the Son of God as found in Philippians 2.5-8.  Rather is about incarnating the realities of the teaching of Philippians 1.12-13.  It is about how the words and concepts found here in Philippians chapter one are being manifested today.  Here is the text:
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else
Paul is so devoted to Christ and the magnification of his name that he evaluates all of his circumstances in light of how they promote the progress of the gospel.  This same devotion has its counterparts today.  We received our monthly issue of The Voice of the Martyrs (Feb. 2012) and on page 9 there is an article entitled "New Fruit in China."  This brief article speaks about Chinese pastor Zhang Rongliang.  He has spent more than a fourth of his life in prison as he has been imprisoned five times for a total of 19 years.  Here are some key selections from the article that show that the Pauline devotion is still active.
Pastor Zhang was released from his latest imprisonment on Aug. 31, 2011, after more than seven years in prison.  He endured torture and hard labor, all the while suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.  He was not permitted to have a Bible, and he was so ill that he had to be carried from place to place by two men.  He didn't think he would leave prison alive.
His wife and two sons worried about him constantly, and many VOM readers wrote letters to Pastor Zhang through www.prisonalert.com.
"I am happy that you and others tried to arrange for my release, but in one way, I am happy that you failed," he told a VOM worker shortly after his release.  "You almost made a big mistake.  If you had been successful, there would be no church in that prison today." 
Even while ill, Pastor Zhang was planting a church in prison.  "God called me to preach to the prisoners," he said.  During Pastor Zhang's seven-year imprisonment, almost all of the 5,000 prisoners had an opportunity to hear the gospel.  He was able to reach many men he would never have interacted with outside prison. 
So like Paul--joyful in the progress of the gospel regardless of the circumstances.   Within the persecuted church the Spirit of Jesus Christ is still active and powerful in ways my mind (and life!) scarcely comprehend.

Esther and the Hiddenness of God

I've been reading about the "hiddenness of God" recently as well as teaching an Old Testament survey course for high school students.  In my preparations for going over Esther I was interacting with the fact that the Lord is not mentioned in the book of Esther.  I was very moved by the following words from Barry Webb in his little book Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (IVP, 2000).
How does the “absence” of God colour the theme of deliverance in the book of Esther and contribute to its distinctive theology?  One thing it does is to set Esther off sharply from some deliverance narratives, such as the exodus from Egypt or the exploits of the judges, align it closely with others, such as the stories of Joseph and Ruth.  What these point to only partially, however, Esther carries to its logical conclusion.  God is present even when he is most absent; when there are no miracles, dreams or visions, no charismatic leaders, no prophets to interpret what is happening, and not even any explicit God-talk.  And he is present as deliverer.  Those whom he saved by signs and wonders at the exodus he continues to save through his hidden, providential control of their history.  His people are never simply at the mercy of blind fate or of malign powers, whether human or supernatural.  (pp. 124-125)
God is there--not always as I think he should be or want him to be--but always there.  He is active even when silent.  He is preserving and guiding even when not seen.  His silence need to be a sign of disinterest or abandonment.  He is good and even his silences teach us.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Envious Preachers: Attacking Driscoll...and Spurgeon

I'm preaching through Philippians at the moment--still in chapter one.  Philippians 1.12-18 mentions those who are preaching Christ now that Paul is in prison.  There is a group who is doing this from less than "pure motives" (v. 17).  Verses 15-17 describes the situation in this manner:
Some to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.
I've often wondered how these selfish preachers were reasoning--how is it that they thought they might cause distress to Paul in his imprisonment?  D. A. Carson in his little book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Baker, 1996) describes the selfish preachers this way:
"The preachers to whom Paul makes reference here are a different sort.  They propound the true gospel, but sometimes do so from the strangest mix of motives.  In this case, the people Paul has in mind are those that must be understood to lie behind verse 12.  They think that Paul has done damage to the Christian cause by getting himself arrested.  Probably they magnify their own ministry by putting Paul down.  We can imagine their pompous reflections: 'It really is sad that so great a man as Paul has frittered away his gospel opportunities simply because he is so inflexible.  After all, I and many others manage to remain at large and preach the gospel.  One must assume that Paul has a deep character flaw that puts him in the path of trouble. My ministry is being blessed, while he languishes in prison.'  Thus, the more they speak, the more their own ways are justified and the more Paul is made to look foolish."  (p. 25)
It is helpful to distinguish Paul's perspective on these preachers and the preachers' perspective on themselves.  These preachers did not see themselves as envious and selfish.  I bet they thought they were "wise and discerning."  Paul's analysis goes to the heart and he challenges their motives.  Their actions and words (which Paul had undoubtedly been told of) were enough to manifest their mixed intentions.

Such "selfish ambition" among the people of God still happens--that's probably not a "newsflash" to anybody!  I've often wondered if some (much?) of the criticism that Mark Driscoll draws is not motivated by at least a modicum of envy.  Of course the man and his ministry is imperfect.  He is a public minister reaching a national audience so his mistakes are broadcast far and wide when they happen.  Of course he is not beyond criticism and disagreement is not necessarily bad or motivated by selfish ambition.  Even with all of the qualifications I still wonder if there is not a sense of envy that is mixed in amongst some of his detractors.  Some of the comments I've seen in the comments sections of blogs go way beyond theological or pastoral analysis and border on down right hateful.  It is the lot of faithful servants of Jesus who are given a place of prominence in the public square to draw fire upon themselves and their ministries.  I was reminded of this when thinking of Charles Spurgeon.  The newspapers of his time did not hesitate to "run him down" as evidenced by this piece from The Sheffield and Rotherdam Independent (April 28, 1855):
"Just now, the great lion, star, meteor, or whatever else he may be called, of the Baptists, is the Rev. M. (sic) Spurgeon, minister of Park Street Chapel, Southwark.  He has created a perfect furor in the religious world.  Every Sunday, crowds throng to Exter Hall--where for some weeks past he has been preaching during the enlargement of his own chapel--as to some dramatic entertainment.  The huge hall is crowded to overflowing, morning and evening, with an excited auditory, whose good fortune in obtaining admission is often envied by the hundreds outside who throng the closed doors.  For a parallel to such popularity, we must go to Dr. Chalmers, Edward Irving, or the earlier days of James Parsons.  But I will not dishonor such men by comparison with the Exter Hall religious demagogue.  They preached the gospel with all the fervour of earnest natures.  Mr. Spurgeon preaches himself.  He is nothing unless he is an actor--unless exhibiting that matchless impudence which is his great characteristic, indulging in coarse familiarity with holy things, declaiming in a ranting and colloquial style, strutting up and down the platform as though he were at the Surrey Theatre, and boasting of his own intimacy with Heaven with nauseating frequency.  His fluency, self-possession, oratorical tricks, and daring utterances, seem to fascinate his less-thoughtful hearers, who love excitement more than devotion.... I have glanced at one or two of Mr. Spurgeon's published sermons, and turned away in disgust from the coarse sentiments, the scholastical expressions, and clap-trap style I have discovered.  It would seem that the poor young man's brain is turned by the notoriety he has acquired and the incense offered at his shrine.  From the very pulpit he boasts of the crowds that flock to listen to his rodomontade....This is but a mild picture of the great religious lion of the metropolis."
The article then ends this way:
"He is a nine days' wonder--a comet that has suddenly shot across the religious atmosphere. He has gone up like a rocket, and ere long will come down like a stick.  The most melancholy consideration in the case is the diseased craving for excitement which this running after Mr. Spurgeon by the 'religious world' indicates.  I would charitably conclude that the greater part of the multitude that weekly crowd to his theatrical exhibitions consists of people who are not in the habit of frequenting a place of worship."  Quoted in C. H. Spurgeon Authobiography: Volume One--The Early Years (Banner of Truth, 1962) pp. 321-322
As I read that description of Spurgeon some of the very language used to attack him is now used today to attack Mark Driscoll--"impudence", "indulging in coarse familiarity with holy things", "a ranting and colloquial style, strutting up and down the platform."  Spurgeon popularized a new style of preaching that was profoundly effective.  Iain Murray describes Spurgeon in these words:
"It was an impudent thing in the eyes of the religious world for a young upstart to popularize a new style of preaching.  But that is, in fact, what Spurgeon did, and in doing so he proved he possessed a self-confidence and an originality of no common order.  He scorned a dignified, impersonal presentation of the gospel and spoke to his hearers as though he was seizing them personally by the hand and talking to them in the street."  The Forgotten Spurgeon (Banner of Truth, 1966) pp. 30-31
 History has judged Spurgeon much differently than the newspaper quoted above.  (Even that newspaper, after Spurgeon's death, referred to him as "this noble Puritan preacher and saintly Chrisian"!)  How will history judge Driscoll?  We will have to wait and see.  He has started off in a similar manner to Spurgeon--may God's grace give him as fruitful and glorious ministry all the way to the end.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Teenagers and Pornography

Some sobering statistics on teens and pornography.  Parents need to be vigilant to train and teach with a view toward purity.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Christianity Against Slavery

It didn't start with William Wilberforce.  As far back as Augustine the church has sought to free those caught in slavery.  I saw this over at Euangelion where Michael Bird quotes a piece from Augustine's Letter to Alypius (#10, ca 428 AD):
Even the examples of this outrage that I have personally encountered are too many for me to list, if I wished to do so. Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears.
Bird goes on to ask, "So what did you do after church last Sunday?"  

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Bad Argument Against Infant Baptism

In his book People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke's View of the Church Graham Twelftree has a small section on infant baptism.  He mentions that in the household baptisms of Acts "we have found do direct evidence to help decide whether or not he would have thought this included baptizing babies" (p. 100).  This is fairly standard baptistic argumentation--no infants explicitly mentioned.  Twelftree goes beyond this, though, when he tries to use an "indirect approach" to draw his baptistic conclusions.  Part of his argument is as follows:
To begin with, it is probable Luke held the long-standing view, widely shared across the Hellenistic world, that children were marginal to society and did not 'count' so that he would not have taken them in to consideration even when describing a 'complete' (holos, Acts 18:8) household.  (p. 100)
In a footnote Twelftree references Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, and Josephus to substantiate his claim.  What I find to be a glaring omission is the one person Luke may have been most ready to orient his views around--Jesus!  Yes, Luke was in a culture where children didn't "count" but he served a counter-culture Lord.  This is demonstrated by looking at Luke's own writings in Luke-Acts.

First, consider how Luke begins his gospel--with children!  Chapter one begins with the earliest life of John the Baptist.  He is to be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb (1.15).  This focus on the Holy Spirit is a particular Lukan emphasis in his writings.  Add to this that only Luke, out of the gospel writers, narrates this event of John's birth.  Of course, we have the moving interest in Jesus' conception and birth in Luke 1 and 2.  Luke is the only writer to mention Jesus growing up (2.40) and his time at the Temple (2.41-52).  Luke also narrates the healing of a twelve year old girl by Jesus (8.42, 54-56).  Children are also mentioned in Acts 21.5 as part of the people (church) that was bidding Paul farewell.

Most amazing in this regard is Luke 9.46-48:
An argument started among them as to which of them might be the greatest.  But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by his side, and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great."
Sure sounds like Jesus is subverting the common culture understanding of greatness and children.  New Testament commentator Joel Green writes on this passage:
Taking a child, perhaps even the child he had just restored to health, he places the child in a position of honor at his side, then makes a pronouncement that undermines everything that the Roman world would have taken for granted regarding questions of status and social relations.  "To welcome" people would be to extend to them the honor of hospitality, to regard them as guests (cf. 7:44-46), but one would only welcome a social equal or one whose honor was above one's own.  Children, whose place of social residence was defined at the bottom of the ladder of esteem, might be called upon to perform acts of hospitality (e.g., washing the feet of a guest), but normally they would not themselves be the recipients of honorable behavior.  Jesus thus turns the social pyramid upside down, undermining the very conventions that led the disciples to deliberate over relative greatness within the company of disciples and, indeed, that had led the disciples away from any proper understanding of Jesus' status.  The Gospel of Luke (NICNT), pp. 392-392.
Many other instances of Jesus overturning the social conventions of his day could be enumerated but the point should be obvious.  We ought not to assume that Luke simply shared his cultural assumptions about children when he narrates the behavior of his Lord who overturns those cultural assumptions.  Infant baptism is not thus proved.  But what is shown is the fact that Twelftree's argument listed above is simply without any foundation whatsoever.