Am I Called To Ministry?

This is a question that serious disciples of Jesus (Christians) often wrestle with.

I’ve known several people of various ages who use their gifts to honor God and are wonderful godly examples of others. Sometimes they will say ‘I just don’t feel called into ministry.’

That statement usually means something fairly specific though. They mean they don’t feel called to ministry as their full time vocation – usually in a role commonly called ‘pastor’. They don’t feel called to take the name pastor and all the particular expectations and responsibilities that usually come with it.

Here’s the thing: From what I can tell, the way we talk about this question is not itself reflective of the New Testament vision of ministry.

Who is ‘called to ministry?’

Everyone. Every disciple of Jesus that is.

Jesus calls people to follow him, learn from him, see the world the way he does and become ‘like him’ in character. (Mark 1:17, Luke 6:40, Matthew 28:19-20)

And then he calls us to to pass on what we’ve learned as we join in not only being disciples but have an active role in making more disciples of Jesus.

That’s real ministry! As a matter of fact, it’s the most important thing we can do – the great commission! And it’s for everyone.

We are also told in various places that we are all given different gifts to serve one another and equip one another for more mature and full ministry and maturity.

A few prominent examples are Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-13

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

I’d encourage you to read the whole chapter. Reflect particularly on this:

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance…” 1 Corinthians 12:27-28

Paul’s list here and elsewhere is not a ranking of top to bottom. Rather some ministries open up possibilities for other ministries. If some don’t go with the good news, people can’t receive it. If the way of Jesus is not taught, people won’t know how to walk in it. But it’s clear that in the kingdom, nobody is ranked ‘over’ others. We have the gifts that God has given us.

We should stop limiting the term ministry to only some of the gifts. God has gifted all of us by the Spirit to serve.

The question we SHOULD be discerning is, how has God called me to minister?

Most people will serve in their gifting without a particular role. Even fewer will dedicate enough of their focus to serve vocationally (as a job). Whatever your ministry is, you don’t need a paycheck to do it. There are people with each gift that exercise the ministry God has given them while receiving compensation elsewhere. And there are people who focus their time in their ministry in a paid setting with many of the varied gifts as well.

Some will serve in the overseer responsibility of Elder. Elders are disciples of character that know and hold fast to the Word and provide guidance to local communities of disciples as everyone ministers.

Some elders will give their focus to ministries such that it makes sense to compensate them.

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” 1 Timothy 5:17

So while not everyone is an elder, everyone is a minister.

While not everyone is a teacher, everyone is in ministry.

I would suggest that we be a bit more careful how we use our words.

You ARE called to ministry! Discern what it is and start serving.

(In my next post, I’ll reflect more on what we might think of as ‘credentialed ministry.’)

Jesus and the Wild Animals

I invite you to join me on a short research journey.

Recently, a friend and I were studying Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation and came across this:

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” Mark 1:13-14, NIV

I want to admit that I really have no idea why Mark mentions Jesus being with the wild animals. So let’s take a little journey in to some of the questions and sources that I use to dig into a question like this.

First I might just think to myself, based on what I know about the Bible, are there are other places where wild animals are mentioned? A couple vague things come to mind (animals in the creation story, peace between predator and prey in the prophetic promises of the Old Testament) but no total ‘aha’ moment.

Word studies can be helpful, but hard to do sometimes as many don’t have access to easy original language searches. There are tools, however, that can help with this. In this case, the word used for wild animals in many translations can also be translated as beasts and is in fact translated as beast in the book of Revelation with quite a different use than regular animals. So we can see a fairly substantial range of possible usage.

Because this is a story in a Gospel account, we know that we have other Gospel accounts that we can use for further study. In this case, we can look at similar stories in both Matthew and Luke. Some Bibles will have these cross references helpfully printed. For this particular study, we find that the wild animals/beasts aren’t mentioned in the temptation accounts elsewhere. So either Matthew and Luke weren’t aware of this aspect or (I think more likely) they chose for some reason not to include it. We could spend time thinking about why this may or may not have been the case, but let’s move on to some of the tools that I frequently use, starting with the most accessible and recommended (by me) to all before moving to the more scholarly, detailed and often expensive sources.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary (one volume for OT, one for NT) is a resource every serious Bible student should own, in my opinion. Because if it’s length, It doesn’t give a lot of info, but offers a possibility and some places to dig in deeper. “Safety among beasts showed God’s protection (Ezek 34:25; Dan 6:22).”

“‘I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety. (Ezekiel 34:25, NIV)

“My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.” (Daniel 6:22)

So here already, we have one solid possibility. God is with Jesus, protecting him.

Let’s move on to a series of very short, accessible Bible commentaries by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. This one is called Mark for Everyone. If you are studying a book of the New Testament, I’d recommend picking up the associated volume from this series as a reference tool.

According to Wright, “Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts’. He doesn’t say whether they’re threatening, or whether this is a sign of new creation (with Jesus as the second Adam in a new garden of Eden?) or maybe both.”

So Wright allows for the previous possibility of protection and the possibility of an associated sign of the new creation with Jesus as the second Adam.

We also have a clue here that the answer to Mark’s mention of the wild animals/beasts isn’t crystal clear, even to a seasoned scholar. And perhaps this also makes sense of Matthew and Luke’s choice to exclude the comment.

From here we move toward Bible commentaries of more length that will frequently have more detailed discussions. The next series I recommend is the NIV Application Commentary. This series is accessible to both pastors and Bible students without formal education but is written by the same scholars who write more technical commentaries. Following is what we find on our subject at hand from this book:

“The mention of the wild beasts with Jesus in the desert could convey a couple of ideas. It might conjure up the image of Adam, who started with the beasts when the Lord formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them (Gen. 2:19). Soon, however, Adam is forced out of Paradise and must toil in land that has been cursed. The testing in the desert with the beasts at peace with Jesus may point to the restoration of Paradise (Isa. 11:6–9). The desert, however, remains a barren place and is not transformed into a garden. Thus it is better to interpret the reference to the wild beasts as conveying the idea of desolation and danger (see Lev. 26:21–23; Ps. 22:12–21; Isa. 13:21–22; Ezek. 34:5, 8; Dan. 7:1–8). The beasts are malevolent and are the natural confederates of evil powers (Ps. 91:11–13). The desert represents the uncultivated place of the curse, Paradise lost, and the realm of Satan. Now Satan must contend with a new Adam, who has the power of heaven at his side and angels as his cornermen. Mark does not report the outcome of this harrowing ordeal but does say that angels served him.” David Garland

Here we go into more depth, with lots of cross references to chase down if desired. Yet, even as we have more depth to the conversation, the dynamics in this case remain much the same. In this case, David Garland also makes a possible connection with the angels in relation to the wild animals / beasts.

There are two basic options (or it could be both).

  1. Jesus is being protected from the wild animals / beasts (in the dangerous wilderness).
  2. Jesus as the second Adam bringing the new creation and peace with the wild beasts.

These three reference sources will get you most of the information that you’ll need for deeper study. Again, I recommend them to all serious students and pastors. If you are someone who preaches and teaches regularly, I’d encourage you to further expand your library over time with solid, up to date resources. This book is a must have for help knowing where to spend your money wisely on Bible commentaries.

If I had to choose one series for preachers to dig even deeper, it would probably be the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). William Lane’s volume on the Gospel According to Mark shares the comments I’ll post below. If you wanted to really explore a topic like this, the more good resources the better. Only consulting one commentary runs the risk of a person having a view out of the norm. More research will give you a better lay of the land, so to speak.

“A detail recorded only by Mark is that Jesus was with the wild beasts in the wilderness. Since Ch. 1:12–13 is usually understood as a report of Jesus’ triumph over Satan the reference to the wild beasts has been interpreted as an element in the paradise motif. Jesus in the midst of the wild beasts signifies the victory of the New Adam over Satan and temptation so that paradise is restored in which man is at peace with the animals. But as soon as it is recognized that the dominant motif of the prologue is the wilderness, Mark’s distinctive reference to the wild beasts becomes intelligible. In the OT blessing is associated with inhabited and cultivated land; the wilderness is the place of the curse. In the wilderness there is neither seed nor fruit, water nor growth. Man cannot live there. Only frightening and unwanted kinds of animals dwell there. Significantly, when the wilderness is transformed into a paradise no ravenous beast will be in it (Isa. 35:9; Ezek. 34:23–28). Mark’s reference to the wild beasts in Ch. 1:13 serves to stress the character of the wilderness. Jesus confronts the horror, the loneliness and the danger with which the wilderness is fraught when he meets the wild beasts. Their affinity in this context is not with paradise, but with the realm of Satan.”

Knowing by Washing Feet

What does it mean to come to know something?

This is the simple question behind the fancy word epistemology.

Dru Johnson has written a short book, Scripture’s Knowing, to explore what the Bible has to say about what it means to know something.

My tendency is to think that once I’ve ‘gotten the point’ of something mentally I’ve ‘understood it.’ In our culture, we do a lot of our learning in the classroom.

When it comes to what we ‘do’ – things like baptism and communion – we think of them as simply outward expressions of what we already know. Baptism becomes merely a public display on our internal faith. We don’t expect the experience itself to teach us anything. And yet it does, whether we understand it or not.

With the Lord’s Supper, we often think of it as a merely reminder that Jesus died for us. Yet we experience something more than that, even if we don’t totally comprehend the experience.

But throughout much of the Bible, learning comes from doing which leads to deeper understanding

Actions lead to experiences which lead to deeper understanding.

One example in Israel’s story is the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths. During this time, the people were expected to live in tents for 7 days.

The story of the wilderness wanderings after the Exodus from Egypt was frequently retold and the generations knew it. Or at least they knew about it. But the Bible indicates that an annual experience would lead to another knowing.

“Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’” Leviticus 23:41-43

Reflecting on this, Johnson says this: “The Hebrew Bible repeatedly depicts rituals as epistemological. For instance, the express goal of tent-living seven days during Sukkot (Feast of Booths) is so that Israel’s generations would know that YHWH made Israel to live in booths during their flight from Egypt.”

Then this:

“By recounting the story to the children, Israelites can make known the bare fact of tent-living to their children. However, a different goal emerges in the biblical text: knowing something about tent-living during the exodus. That something-to-be-known can only be known through tent living.”

The core idea here is that biblical practices “are meant to shape knowers and not merely express what is already believed or known.”

As I already mentioned, this may have an effect on how we think about baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

But what about Feet Washing?

John’s account of the Gospel tells this story about Jesus washing the disciples feet. I’ll quote Jesus’ ‘debrief of the experience:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:12-17

As far as I can tell, most Christians feel that it’s not significant to practice feet washing. The common view is that Jesus wants us to understand that it’s important to serve others. So ‘washing feet’ becomes a spiritual principle for the way that we live in service. We think that as long as we know the ‘bare fact’ that we are supposed to serve others, it doesn’t matter if we actually wash feet.

While the understanding that washing feet is meant to shape our entire lives is surely right, is there something significant that we miss when skipping this awkward practice?

Jesus’ approach was first the experience and then the understanding.

Much like living in tents for a week helped the children of Israel know something that just being acquainted with the story did not, I would suggest that literally practicing the washing of one another’s feet helps us to know something about Jesus and the life of discipleship.

Take note of Jesus’ last statement quoted above. “Now that you know these things…” How did they know? Not only by Jesus’ words but also by his actions and their experience.

They knew after they experienced feet washing.

And if we want disciples today to know what those disciples did, perhaps we need to think more seriously about not only teaching what Jesus taught but doing what he did and taught us to do.

There are things that we can only know when we do.

And according to Jesus, we’ll be blessed if we do.

Aspects of Christian Transformation

This has been for me a season of soaking in the Letter to the Colossians. It is from beginning to end a document for discipleship and I would encourage you to spend some significant time in it as well.

One of the richest portions of this rich letter is chapter three. I believe that in this section of the letter, we learn much of what we need to know about how we get from where we are to where God wants us to be – fully mature. (Colossians 1:28)

Yes, God desires and expects us to be transformed. It’s possible for us to move from where we are to mature in Christ. How? Reading the Letter to the Colossians would be best, and it’s fairly short. For today, let’s look at a few of these aspects in Chapter three.

We must first realize what God has done. At the foundation is what only God can do. “You have been raised with Christ” is this reality in 3:1. It is an example of what Paul says God has already done. This statement continues from other bold aspects of what Christ has done for us that Paul has boldly reminded of in this Letter.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (2:13-14)

The foundational reality for our change is God’s action for us, NOT our own effort or ability. This is particularly vital as we think about not only change in our own lives but the way that we think about and pray for change in the lives of those around us. Transformation starts not in what we can do, but in receiving the gift of what God has done.

The second aspect of transformation drawn from this Letter is to understand that God gives us a new identity that our new life is rooted in. While we must realize that it is our own sin that has previously set us at odds with God and God’s will in our lives, we are no longer to think of our primary identity as ‘sinners’

We need to shift our thinking about ourselves in order to change our lives. I’m not talking here about some kind of power of positive thinking here. Rather, we must trust what God says about who we are ‘in Christ’ in order to live into a new life.

Colossians 3:3 tells us that ‘our lives are now hidden with Christ in God.’ Christ is our life. (3:4). Further along, our identity is described as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (3:12). I believe that Paul understood that we need to embrace our new, God given, identity in order to live into the transformed lives he has for us.

The final point of our transformation is very important and often neglected. We must take responsibility for what God has given us to do in response to all that he has done.

To be direct, I’ve heard too many Christians saying things to the effect that the real change will only happen when they move from this life to the next. They believe that God will change them later but not much now. This is shortsighted biblically and I believe sells short God’s transformative power. Although there are some things that will indeed only be brought to completion later (resurrected bodies, seeing face to face), much is possible today.

But here’s the thing sometimes we don’t understand, we need to do what God has told us to do. If you have trusted in Christ, you have died to your old self and are alive with Christ. By his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, you can do everything that scripture commands you to. But you’ve got to decide to.

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” (3:5)

“But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these…” (3:8)

When you’re reading your Bible, take note of when it mentions something God has done, is doing or will do. But also take note (maybe a different colored pencil or highlighter) of what God is saying you must do. Clothe yourself with compassion, bear with one another, forgive, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…

All of these things you have the power to do, by God’s grace.

None of them God will completely do for you or make you do.

You must choose to trust that his word is best. You must choose to follow these directions in your life.

If you don’t, don’t expect to experience much transformation in your life.

Trying to ‘just do’ all these things on your own isn’t likely to work very well. We need to start with what God has done. We need to soak in the new identity that he’s given us.

Then, we must choose, by his power, to live into that identity.

This is the path to transformation. The path to maturity in Christ.

It is God’s deep desire for us.

_______

Where Paul goes next, but we don’t have time for today, is that we do this in community. So keep reading through the rest of Chapter 3.

Book Quotes: The Mission of God’s People

Most of you know that I do a lot of reading. I want to share some more of it with you. I will try to do that in a couple of ways. If a book has a particular thesis or argument that I found it helpful to wrestle with, I’ll share in in the ‘Book Notes’ title. Alliteratively, if a book is really helpful or interesting, I’ll share some quotes to ponder.

I’ve read several books by Christopher JH Wright this year and recommend him to anyone as a trusted source on the Old Testament and biblical theology in general. This book, The Mission of God’s People is deep but it is accessible to most readers with the desire to dig in.

“To walk in the way of the Lord, then, means doing for others what God wishes to have done for them, or more particularly, doing for others what (in Israel’s case) God has already done for you (deliverance from alien status in Egypt and provision of food and clothing in the wilderness). You know what God is like because you have experienced him in action on your behalf. Now go and do likewise!”

“If God blesses you, it is so you can bless others. If God redeems you, it is so you can demonstrate redemptive grace to others. If God loves you, feeds and clothes you, then you should go and do likewise for others. If God brings you into the light of salvation, it is so you can shine with a light that attracts others to the same place. If you enjoy God’s forgiveness, then make sure you forgive others. And so on. In this sense, all our biblical theology is, or should be, missional. Biblical theology is, by definition, “theology for life”.

“It takes disciples to make disciples, and Jesus had spent three years teaching his disciples what it meant to be one. It involved practical and down-to-earth lessons on life, attitudes, behaviour, trust, forgiveness, love, generosity, obedience to Jesus, and countercultural actions toward others. This was what it meant to live in the kingdom of God – now. In short, you had to live under the reign of God if you wanted to go preach about the reign of God.”

“In short, the reign of God is found among those who understand their mission, to make peace, to do good, and to proclaim God’s salvation. For those are the things, as Isaiah’s gospel messenger called out, that constitute the good news that “our God reigns”. The gospel is good news about God, as a foundation for all that makes it good news for us.”

“Repent and believe the gospel,” said Jesus (Mark 1:15). Radical change of life goes along with faith in the good news. They cannot be separated. When the people asked John the Baptist what he meant by repentance, he was ruthlessly practical (Luke 3:7 – 14). Paul agrees. The gospel involves putting off the filthy clothes of the old humanity and putting on the clothes that bear the aroma of Christlikeness.”

“So then, while Paul’s whole understanding of the gospel is that salvation is entirely the work of God’s grace received only through faith in Christ, not the achievement of our works, he is equally adamant that the whole point of grace being at work in us is to produce the fruit of lives that have been transformed – transformed negatively in renouncing evil and positively in tirelessly doing good (Eph. 2:8 – 10). Paul sees the ethical transformation that the gospel accomplishes as the work of God’s grace”

“It really is remarkable that Jeremiah urges the exiles to seek such blessing for their Babylonian neighbours. “But they are our enemies!” “So what? Pray for them. Seek their welfare.” It is a short step from this amazing instruction that Jeremiah gave the exiles to the equally jaw-dropping mission that Jesus lays on his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).”

“The goal of all our mission is the worship and glory of the one true living God. That’s because the goal of all human life is to love, worship, glorify and enjoy God. That is where our own deepest fulfillment and flourishing lie. The satisfaction of our ultimate human potential as creatures made in the image of God is completely at one with the worship and glory of God.”

“People don’t go to church on Sundays to support their pastors in their ministry. The pastor goes to church on Sunday to support the people in their ministry. And their ministry, the ministry that really counts as mission, is out-side the walls of the church, in the world, being salt and light in the marketplace.”

Book Notes: Paul & the Power of Grace

There are some good books in Biblical studies that most folks just aren’t going to read. Fortunately, more scholars are choosing to write shorter versions of their more extensive, academic work for a wider audience. Such is the case with John Barclay’s important and influential book Paul and the Gift. He has recently written a condensed version called Paul and the Power of Grace. I want to share with you some of the big ideas from this book for your consideration.

The first thing to note is this: gift and grace are the same word (charis) in the common Greek of the New Testament era. There isn’t anything special at all about the word grace. It, in and of itself, is not amazing. It’s not special. Grace / gift is can be any common favor or benefit given.

This isn’t the way that we normally talk about grace, is it?

Further challenging our loaded understanding of the word grace is that for the most part, in the ancient world, gifts were given to recipients judged worthy of the gift.

In Christian theology, however, grace came to take on a certain strong additional meaning. This is more in line with our common understanding today. We think of grace as given to utterly unworthy recipients (the opposite of what we deserve.)

Grace, it would seem, is a rather simple term – gift – that can take on a whole potential range of meaning.

In his writing, Barclay explores six major potential modifiers to the basic concept of grace/gift. Again, none of these are part and parcel of grace. These six aspects he terms ‘perfections’. They are ways that people have sought to modify grace to make it ‘the perfect gift.’ And different writers, including Paul, may choose to highlight some of them and not others. They are NOT a package deal.

Let’s take a quick look at them.

  • Superabundance – perfected in scale, significance, or duration: it is huge, lavish, unceasing, long-lasting, etc.
  • Singularity – here attention shifts from the gift to the giver and by singularity I mean that benevolence or goodness is the giver’s sole or exclusive mode of operation. What matters is the singular devotion of this given to do nothing other than what is beneficial. (never judging, destroying, etc.)
  • Priority – concerns the timing of the gift, which is given before any initiative taken by the recipient. The prior gift is not a response to a request, and is thus spontaneous in generosity; it is not obliged by a previous gift, and is thus (in this sense) ‘free.’ God is the first giver.
  • Incongruity – concerns the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and maximizes the mismatch between the gift and the worth or merit of its recipient. To give lavishly and in advance is one thing, but it is quite another to give to unworthy or unfitting recipients. The perfection of incongruity figures the gift as given without condition, without regard to the worth of the recipient.
  • Efficacy – Gifts that achieve something, that change things for the better, might be regarded as better than gifts with limited positive effect.
  • Non-circularity – a gift with no expectation of return. Western modernity is inclined to perfect the gift as ‘pure’ only when there is no reciprocity, no return or exchange.

In his books, Barclay takes us on a journey through several different writings from the time period to show how grace is used. These include the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo of Alexandria, The Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), and 4 Ezra.

Each of these texts talk about grace, but they all highlight different aspects. Sometimes it is given only to the worthy, sometimes superabundance is highlighted. But these texts don’t use gift/grace in the same way.

Here’s the point Barclay makes: “We may conclude: grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same.” pg. 36

So, as we approach Paul’s writings, we should put aside all of our assumptions about the way we think grace ought to work and look with fresh eyes at what Paul actually says about God’s grace. Which aspects (perfections) does he highlight?

Barclay focuses primarily on Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and Romans, but includes other New Testament letters briefly as well.

Allow me to share one quote from his reflection on each of these two letters. I will trust that you can go back through these Scriptures and see whether or not his assessment of Paul bears out in your reading.

“As depicted in this letter (Galatians), the grace of God is unconditioned (without prior considerations of worth) but not unconditional, if we mean by that the noncircular perfection of grace that expects nothing in return. Grace, for Paul, is not a gift from a disengaged benefactor who would rather be left alone; it is not a donation ‘with no strings attached’ To the contrary: personal and social practice aligned with the good news is integral to what Paul means by ‘faith’ or ‘trust.’” pg. 73.

Already here, Barclay is showing that one of the ways we often think of grace (given to those who are unworthy / apart from the worthiness of the recipient) while simultaneously challenging another of our assumptions – ‘no strings attached.’

Barclay is bold in asserting that the concept of a pure gift involving no expectation at all from the recipient (no strings attached) is a modern Western notion that would have been foreign to most the ancient world. The general cultural expectation is that gift given would draw one further into relationship as part of the expectation of the gift.

Regarding Romans, he says this: “If Galatians stresses the value of God’s grace irrespective of worth, Romans clarifies that it operates in the absence of worth: it is given to “the ungodly” (4:5; 5:6), to those who are utterly unworthy.” pg. 76

So, in Paul’s thinking and writing, God’s grace/gift is given apart from worth and indeed in the total absence of worth (to the sinner, ungodly, etc), but God very much expects it to have an effect in the lives of its recipients.

“The purpose of this grace is to remake it’s recipients, to transform them as they draw new life out of a reality that is not their own but in which they share. By this gift, always undeserved, they are molded into a holiness that accords with the will and character of God, such that the unfitting gift is designed to create a fitting outcome.” pg. 78

In short, a transformed life , Barclay claims (from Paul), isn’t an extra thing, but rather the result of the gift of God’s grace having been received.

I will end this longer than usual post with two longer than usual quotes that summarize his findings.

“This gift of God is, and remains always, incongruous – a gift created out of human nothingness and received in trust. But it is designed to produce obedient lives that, by a transformative heart-inscription performed by the Spirit, produce what is pleasing to God. This grace justifies the ungodly but it’s purpose is not to leave them that way. In this sense, the grace of God is unconditioned (given in the absence of merit or worth) but not unconditional, if by that we mean without expectation of alteration in the recipients by the gift. It is free in the sense that it is without prior conditions; and it remains always a miraculous, unconditioned gift, forged out of human incapacity. But it is not free (or ‘cheap’) in the sense that it expects no transformative result. Viewed in this way, we can understand why the opening chapters of Romans emphasize both the grace given without regard to works (Romans 4:1-5) and the expectation that those who have been transformed by the gift will have something to show for it on the day of judgement, something described in outline as ‘doing the good’ (Romans 2:10)”
Pg. 87

“Across Paul’s letters we have found grace to be defined consistently as an incongruous gift. It is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’ A gift may be’ free’ in one sense (given irrespective of worth or desert) but not in another (with no expectation of response). In fact, as we have seen, the Christ-gift carries strong expectations because it is transformative: it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers. The social effects of this divine gift in human gift-practices are, therefore, a necessary component of grace. But these effects are not instrumental in winning some final or additional gift of grace, but they are the necessary (inevitable and proper) expression of grace in human lives.” pg. 125

My motivation for this post is two fold. First, I really do think that we need to be aware of Barclay’s work (almost every New Testament scholar I’m aware of has said so), whether we agree in full, part or not at all. Second, I happen to find his argument compelling and helpful in understanding that God’s expectation of the transformed lives of his people as his intention in Christ.

What are your thoughts? What further questions do you have?

Find Your Life by Losing it (Part One: The Invitation)

In the Bible, Jesus makes some pretty big claims about the kind of life that is possible.

Jesus claims to have come that we might have life and abundant life. 1

Jesus claims to offer living water that so that we will never thirst again.2

Jesus claims that if we come to him with our burdens, he will give us rest.3

That all sounds great, doesn’t it?

But is it real? That’s the question.

Anybody can make audacious claims. But is it real?

Maybe you know Christians who talk about their faith all the time, but don’t seem to be experiencing a whole lot of abundance, satisfaction and rest.

If we’re being honest, there is too often a gap between the claims of Jesus and the results of those claims in the lives of those who believe in him.

Maybe you are a Christian yourself, but if you are really honest with yourself, you don’t experience much true abiding satisfaction, peace and provision yourself when life gets rough. Or even when it isn’t that bad.

So, what’s the deal? Are Jesus’s claims far fetched and those who follow him just fooling ourselves?

There is another possibility.

I believe that Jesus’s words are true and I believe that his offer is real.

I simultaneously believe that many of those who genuinely believe in him don’t experience the deep life that he offers.

They haven’t yet discovered the secret.

Actually, it’s not a secret at all. It’s all over the pages of the New Testament.

Ironically, we rarely hear about it – not usually at church, not in many Christian books, not often from our favorite television preachers.

What is it?

What is this ‘open’ secret?

You have to lose your life. You have to willingly choose to die (to yourself).

I’m not talking about some kind of crazy suicide cult. It is a radical re-orientation of your entire life. You have to be willing to let go of everything you thought and everything you think you want in order to experience the life that Jesus offers.

He said it like this: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.4

It’s a hard massage. It’s easily avoided.

Jesus knows this, yet he is bold in repeating it.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”5

There is no new life without a death of the old.

To0 many Christian teachers are presenting a message that supplements our own desires, plans and dreams with divine assistance. This is not the message of Jesus and won’t lead to the fulfillment of the offer he makes.

There is no new life without a death of the old.

This series will explore what the Bible has to say about losing your life to find it. I will explore the many areas of our lives in which Jesus is calling us to die to our selves so that we might find life.

If you are still interested, in that kind of message, welcome for the ride.

It’s worth it.

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1John 10:10, 2John 4:14, 3Matthew 11:28, 4Matthew 16:25, 5Luke 9:23

What I’ve Been Reading, Learning and Teaching…

This blog has mostly been the place for me to share my thoughts on various scriptures and their application to our lives and ministry today.

What eventually comes out also has be to what what comes in, is wrestled with and gets absorbed. So I thought I would try using this blog occasionally to update you on what’s going on in my thought life. If you aren’t on facebook, this may be the only place you see some of this.

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You may or may not know that I am co-leading a trip to Israel/Palestine next January. This is proving to be a popular trip and the registrations and coming in. This is for anyone but also has an additional educational option as an elective class with Winebrenner Seminary or our local Ministry Training Institute. You can see our itinerary HERE.

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I do a weekly Bible study podcast with a friend of mine. We have been working through Colossians and have a focus on robust discipleship to Jesus. The videos of it show up on my youtube channel, along with our Sunday Gatherings and some other stuff. The audio podcast can be found through itunes, castbox, etc or directly HERE.

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I also started a Sunday message series in Colossians yesterday. It’s called ‘What Matters Most’ and I started with, what matters most in prayer. You can watch it HERE (should be cued to beginning of message.)

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This last week I started archiving some of my favorite / recommended resources for people who are interested to be able to reference. Things posted in social media fade. I could use this blog for sharing resources too, but I think for now I’ll use the basic website I created as the place where I share the books, videos, podcasts etc that I’d recommend to Christians who want to grow in their biblical understanding. There are also tags on the right for categories (books, podcasts, etc). Some books I read and things I watch or listen to I’d called just ‘okay.’ Those things won’t make it to this page. You can find it HERE I may include some links for new things at the bottom or other blog posts here too.

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I sometimes listen to a few audio books a week and often read one print book or so. One that I recently finished and really appreciated but didn’t share to by page is called The Our Father: A New Reading. It is written by a Roman Catholic Priest who’s also a biblical scholar who uses German higher criticism, two aspects that don’t personally resonate with me much, but weaving around those aspects, this little book on the Lord’s Prayer is really a gem. A couple of quotes…

“If we pray in the Our Father for the coming of the reign of God, we are praying for the end of the world – that is, the end of our old world, with all the powers we have thus far served, and the beginning of the new world that God is offering us already today. ‘Your kingdom come’ therefore implies a radical exchange of rulers. In that way also, the Our father is a dangerous prayer.” (Page 57)

“The whole chapter shows that forgiveness is part of the life-breath of the community of disciples. There must be unconditional forgiveness at all times and everywhere – if only because God also continually forgives.” (Page 77)

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I also recently finished another book that’s a game changer in Biblical Studies. I will be thinking about, processing, sharing and teaching from this in the future. It’s called Paul and the Power of Grace, by John Barclay. It digs into what the word gift/grace meant and means and explores what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the aspects of the gift that is Christ Jesus.

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I read a nice little book that tracks from Garden to Garden or from the beginning of the Bible to the end. It is both fairly brief (shortened from a longer work) and yet deep, because of the substance of that work. It looks at God’s presence from Eden to the final vision of the Bible. Good stuff. See it HERE.

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I read a book called Love Over Fear – about loving those who are different from us. It was good and had a lot of helpful reminders but in that end not particularly memorable for me. Maybe because I already think much the same as him about learning from those who I disagree with. Still the book challenged me because I get into some bad habits myself with those I disagree with.

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I read a book about addressing questions and criticisms of the Bible called How (Not) to Read the Bible. It made my recommended resources page. You can see it HERE along with some of the principles he teaches for Bible study.

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I also listened to a book about Paul’s approach to ministry called ‘Pastor Paul.’ The author, Scot Mcknight, coins a phrase that I like called Christoformity (Christlikeness) that I like, but there were a couple bigger reasons why I didn’t like the book. Mostly because of some of my more radical views about ministry. 😉

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How about some media? Our denomination has been hosting some online study lectures and the one last week was fantastic. You should watch it. It’s about being God’s image and bearing God’s name. The author’s book is very good too. You can see the lecture on youtube HERE.

Also, just yesterday I came across this fantastic talk about power and abuse and responsibility for church leaders and more. I can’t say enough good about THIS. Diane Langberg also has a recent book on the subject that I haven’t read yet.

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Until next time!

Dan

When Jesus Made a Whip

I talk a lot about the necessity for Christians to display the character of Christ. He was born in humility and died in humiliation. He did the dirty work of washing feet. He did not take up the sword to save his life. Jesus both taught and lived a consistent message of enemy love and non-violence and invites us to follow his example in going the extra mile, in turning the other cheek and in ‘loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5:44)

Occasionally, people will respond to a description like above by saying, ‘yes, but he also turned over tables.’

Indeed he did. And the fact that this incident is included in all four of the gospels means that we should take particular note of it.

Interestingly, we don’t read a description Jesus’ temperament during this incident. Only John’s account (2:14-15) includes the mention of the whip that Jesus made. It’s mention may be significant in that his making of the whip tells us that this wasn’t a sudden angry outburst later regretted. Jesus knew what he was doing. And his followers recorded this story in their accounts of his life (the Gospels).

One question behind the question for us might be, ‘when is it appropriate for us to take some physical action against wrong happening?’ Is there a time when enough is enough and maybe we need to ‘do something.’

I don’t have every answer to that question, but I’d like to make three points regarding this incident as we frame our understanding of the consistency of Jesus’ character and how we might think about what should upset us most as Jesus’ people.

First, Jesus turning over the tables in the temple courts only happened once. Well, maybe twice, depending on what one does with John placing the event at at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than toward the end as Matthew, Mark and Luke do. While the majority of scholars believe that this is a single incident placed differently in the narrative arrangement, in either case, this wasn’t the kind of thing that the Gospel authors report Jesus doing all the time.

Secondly and significantly, we should pay attention to where Jesus focused this action. The temple was the locus of Jewish religious life in many ways. It was seen as the holiest place on earth – the place of God’s dwelling amongst his people.

Jesus could have made a demonstration at the nearby Antonia fortress. This building overlooked the Temple grounds and was there to quell any potential uprising. It represented the power of Roman rule over the land – a source of great concern for the people. But Jesus didn’t turn over the tables that the Roman soldiers sat around as they perhaps mocked the ways of these people amongst whom they now lived.

Jesus could have gone down to the Praetorium, where Pontus Pilate was staying. He was the official representative of Rome and everything that it represented. This was the pagan empire that held them back from the independence they so deeply desired and might be the place we would like to have made a show of how we really feel.

But in this one recorded event when Jesus’ words also led to physically disruptive action – a protest of sorts -he didn’t direct his attention toward the halls of secular government. Rather, he focused in on the center geographical point of Israel’s faith.

What was Jesus so upset about? This is our final question and it’s a significant one.

Here’s Mark’s account of the event.

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying,

“Is it not written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Mark 11:15-17

Much has been said about what was going on and why it was a problem. That is all good and needed discussion, but we will have to leave the detailed analysis for another time.

The significant thing that we need to know that’s perhaps not obvious from the text, but indicated by Mark’s inclusion of Jesus’ full quote from Isaiah, is that this incident takes place in what is known as the court of the gentiles or the outer court.

The temple was laid out such that all who wanted to came in worship of the God of Israel could draw near. But only so far, or rather close, to the most focused place of God’s presence. This outer court was accessible to all of those who could move in even further, but it was the only place that non-Jews could come.

And in this place, where the nations are invited to come and draw close to the God of all creation, the only option for many people to come and pray has been turned into a marketplace. The core of what was happening there wasn’t bad, even if done so with less than pure motive.

Even if done in total fairness, this was the wrong place for it. But they weren’t exchanging money in every area of the temple. The places where only the children of Israel were welcomed, they would never do it that. That wouldn’t fly.

But here in the court of the gentiles, nobody seemed to care. Perhaps largely because they didn’t care about gentiles. They were the enemy, the oppressors and remaining separate from them was the dominant attitude over reaching out to them.

Jesus quotes Isaiah. God’s desire is for this to be a house of prayer, not commerce. Even further, God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations.

Why is Jesus so….angry? This is what we suppose the appropriate term for Jesus attitude even though we aren’t given one in the text.

Here at least, he isn’t angry that the government isn’t doing a better job.

He is angry(?) because God’s people aren’t doing what God has called them to do.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth

Isaiah 49:6

I can’t provide all of the application for you, but I would submit this for your consideration: Based on Jesus’ actions in this story, what displeases God most is when his people lose focus.

For us, the temple is now no longer a place but a people. (1 Corinthians 3:16)

And our focus must to be remain faithful to our calling.

When we evaluate what should make us upset enough to really want to do something, it shouldn’t be primarily ills of secular society but rather the faithfulness of God’s people to the mission before us: Bringing the love and light of Christ to the darkness of our world.

Let’s make sure that we don’t clutter the outer courts of our lives and ministries with something other than our mission.

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What other possible applications occur to you in light of this discussion?

Were you challenged in some way that you hadn’t previously thought of?

Is there a significant point that you feel like I missed?

Your Best Christmas Ever

December 25, 2020 could possibly be your best Christmas ever.

What? That does sound crazy, i’ll admit, but hear me out.

I want to base this reflection on a passage of Scripture that I’ve never heard associated with Christmas before. But it’s 2020 and this year isn’t quite like any other.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13

Paul knew what it was like to have plenty.

Many of us have probably experienced Christmas’s of plenty. One or more nice family gatherings with extended family traveling in to spend time together. That Christmas Eve service where even those who seldom come to church join us and we squeeze in to the pews together, the whole much larger than usual congregation robustly singing beloved songs with candles lit. Perhaps a church dinner and concert. And warm hugs to spare – everyone in the joyful Christmas spirit.

Paul also knew what it was like to be in need – to have significantly less than desired.

This Christmas probably leaves at least some desire unfulfilled for most of us. Perhaps family deciding not to make the trip in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Maybe your congregation has decided not to meet on Christmas Eve. Even if they are, it will likely be socially distanced, far from packed and without all those great hugs.

Given all of that disappointment, you might even be thinking, this might be the worst Christmas ever!

Whether that’s true or not depends largely on your goal.

If your goal in life is to have things the way you like them best, it will likely be among the worst Christmas’s on record.

However, if your aim is to experience something that transcends your circumstances, this Christmas offers a possible benefit that none other has.

In order for Paul to have ‘learned the secret’ to be content in every situation, he had to experience painful or disappointing situations. There is no way around this. We simply can’t learn this lesson without experiencing lack.

Let me cautiously offer a direct challenge. It’s one that you might even find offensive. Here it is:

If you find yourself unable to experience deep contentment and joyfulness without Christmas the way you like it, you’ve probably not yet learned Paul’s secret.

But you might have an opportunity to do so in a way that you never have before and might never again.

Hypothetically, what if I gave you this choice: You can either experience Christmas exactly the way you’d prefer it. Or you can experience a significant breakthrough in your discipleship to Jesus Christ. But you can’t have both.

Which would you choose? Think about it. Really.

Honestly, while we might be hesitant to admit it, I think many of us would choose the nice Christmas celebration.

But sometimes we don’t get to decide the circumstances, only our response.

Given that many of the disappointments of this year are there whether we like it or not, the choice becomes, do get upset about it or do we seize the uniqueness of this opportunity?

The first Christmas was not what Mary, Joseph or Jesus himself might have preferred. They were away from home and family in a stable rather than a nicer guest room. Jesus himself on that day left the glory of heaven to become a human. Later to suffer and die.

It’s actually interesting that we celebrate Christmas the way that we do.

Maybe we’ve missed the point all along and it took the Covid-19 pandemic for us to see.

Maybe Christmas isn’t all about everything just the way we like it.

Perhaps instead it’s about God getting quite uncomfortable for our sake.

And us embracing this particular discomfort so that He can do something deep and powerful in us right now.

It won’t be easy, but you might learn something of Paul’s secret to contentment in any and every circumstance this year.

In the midst of Christmas’s of plenty past and yet to come, this Christmas of lack might be a gift in strange wrapping not to be overlooked.

This could be the best Christmas ever.