Wednesday, June 28, 2006

God and Coppertone

One of the touchiest areas in preaching is the part that is usually tacked on at the end of the sermon: application. Now you may be thinking, "What's so hard about application? Just tell me how to put the biblical passage into practice." But God is not like Coppertone -- he's just not that easy to apply.

As creatures made in God's image, we are "wired" for law. By this I mean that, unlike the gospel, which is foreign and counterintuitive, the law is in us by nature. Whether it's "Five Simple Steps for Victorious Living" or "Ten Ways to Improve Our Marriages," the fact is undeniable that the imago Dei in us craves instruction, and the American in us believes that if we put our minds to it, by golly, we can accomplish anything.

When we add to our moral self-confidence the fact that we are hopelessly self-obsessed, practical application becomes even more tricky. You see, the notion that the Bible is not actually about us, but about Jesus Christ, is rather offensive to our fragile egos. Hence the promise on the websites of our megachurches that the messages given contain helpful principles that can be used in the "real world" (which means my world). But when all the minister does is talk about Jesus and what he has done the complaint quickly arises, "But what does all that have to do with ME?"

I'm not suggesting we jettison practical application, but I am suggesting that we alter our approach to it. Rather than viewing God as a commodity that religious consumers use to improve their lives, ought we not reorient our lives to make them useful for him and his purposes? And instead of reducing God to a "co-pilot" whose occasional advice helps steer the ship of our lives, shouldn't we see ourselves as hopelessly shipwrecked without him, and him alone, at the helm?

It is only after we humbly acknowledge that we are but small parts of something much greater and grander than oursleves that we will ever be ready to be told what to do.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Kinder, Gentler Moses?

I realize I'm doing this out of order, but as a follow-up to my last post on Christ in the Prophets I'd like to discuss the issue of preaching Christ from the Law.

Again, we must beware of the danger of simply drawing the line from the Old Testament commandment straight to ourselves. I realize we're a self-obsessed and narcissistic lot, but our need for self-application can easily get us into trouble.

The Penteteuch (the five books of Moses) forms the foundation of the covenant that Yahweh made with Israel on Mount Sinai. That may sound rather obvious, but please don't miss the point. The Mosaic Covenant had some important distictives that radically affect how its commandments come to us on this side of the cross and empty tomb. The most significant of these distinctives is the "works principle" that stands behind the various laws and precepts of the Old Covenant. Paul sums up this works principle by quoting Leviticus 18:5:

"For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them" (Rom. 10:5 cf.Gal. 3:12).
Looming over the entire Sinaitic legislation were the promised blessings for obedience and threatened curses for disobedience. If Israel did what they swore they would do, then they would enjoy long life in the land of Canaan, but if they transgressed the law, they would suffer the covenant curses, culminating in exile.

What about us today? Do we labor under the constant threat of disinheritance? Is our standing in continual jeopardy?

Absolutely not. All of the curses of the law have been poured out upon Jesus Christ, the second Adam and true Israelite. The terror of Sinai has been swallowed by the mercy of Zion, and God's children are now free to obey him as full-grown heirs whose future inheritance has been brought forward into the present by virtue of the indwelling Spirit if the risen Christ.

In a word, Jesus suffered the exile which the Babylonian captivity foreshadowed in order to elicit obedience from his children without fear. He is neither a "kinder, gentler Moses" nor a harsh tyrant whose sermon on the mount ratcheted up God's demands while providing no hope for their fulfillment. Rather, as Paul assured the Romans, "Christ is the end of the law for righteouness to everyone who believes" (10:4).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Moralism, Character Studies, and Daring to be a Daniel

In my last post I used the oft-employed sermon title “Dare to be a Daniel” as an example of moralistic preaching. Let me explain....

When reading the Old Testament, the temptation arises to try to relate directly to the biblical characters in order to make the passage relevant to our lives today. “Daniel didn't back down in the face of pagan adversity,” we think to ourselves, “and therefore the message of this text is that I shouldn't back down either.”

This hermeneutic is perfectly illustrated by the lyrics and cover art of Keith Green's album No Compromise. The cover depicts an ancient scene in which a multitude of people is bowing before a pagan ruler, with one courageous man in their midst standing upright in defiance. The lyric says, “No empty words, no white lies, no token prayers, no compromise.”

Now please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Old Testament characters like Daniel provide no examples for us to aspire to. What I am saying, though, is that drawing the line directly from them to ourselves is a misguided and dangerous method for devotional reading, hermeneutics, and (especially) Christian preaching.

The fact is that Daniel, brave though he may have been at times, was still a fallen prophet. Moreover, his ministry of pointing Israel to the soon-to-be-realized deliverance from captivity resulted in a return to the same Mosaic economy that was powerless to prevent their exile in the first place.

The “line,” therefore, must be drawn from Daniel, through Christ, and then to us. When we read the prophet from this side of the cross and empty tomb, we realize that he applies to our current situation because he both points to, and demonstrates the need for, the true “Prophet whom the Lord God would raise up from among his brethren” (Acts 3:22; cf. Deut. 18:15), the very Prophet who was “not without honor save in his own country” (Mark 6:4), and who alone among the children of men stood tall amid the onslaught of the serpent’s temptations (Matt. 4:1ff; cf. Gen. 3:1ff). The Lord Jesus Christ, not Daniel, is the One who dared not compromise, but chose rather to be obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

When the central Figure in all of Scripture is marginalized or altogether forgotten, all the hearer is left with is the courageous example of a fallen man in a sermon that could just as easily have been preached in a synagogue, mosque, or Promise Keepers convention.

Monday, June 19, 2006

When Jesus Doesn't Jump Off The Page

OK, we've established that any exposition of a text that neglects to set forth "Christ and him crucified" ultimately falls short of being a Christian sermon. But how is the preacher to (legitimately) find Christ in an obscure Old Testament text? Genesis 22 or Isaiah 53 are easy, but what about less obviously Christological passages?

Let me provide an example from a portion of Scripture where Jesus doesn't exactly jump off the page at you: Ezra 3:10-13.

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In this passage, the newly-returned exiles have begun to rebuild their temple, but upon the laying of the foundation, the emotions of the people were mixed. Many cried out for joy at God's faithfulness, but others (particularly the elderly who remembered Solomon's temple) lifted up their voices and wept, so that "the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping."

Coupled with this obviously "small beginning" and the lingering trouble posed by Israel's enemies outside the camp was a palpable sense of anticlimax that clung to this whole venture. Yes, Israel was back in the land, but they were still laboring under the same covenant that had both threatened and foretold the exile from which they had just been liberated. In a word, they were in no better a position than they were in before their captivity. The law, the temple, the priesthood -- indeed the entire Mosaic Covenant -- screamed at them "DO THIS AND LIVE!" If Israel obeyed, they were promised blessing and long life in the land. But if they failed (again), a threatened curse loomed on the horizon. The law could command, but it could not renew. Hence the bittersweetness of this building project.

So was this it? Was this the promised restoration that God's people had been longing for? Was it their fate to forever worship him under the constant threat of disinheritance?

Absolutely not! About 560 years later, in that very spot on the temple mount, a Man stood and cried, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (which his disciples later learned was a reference to his resurrection). And concerning the physical temple that then stood, he simply said, "Do you see this temple? Not one stone will be left upon another which shall not be thrown down."

God's people no longer labor under the harsh tyranny of the law which, metaphorically speaking, commanded bricks to be made while providing no straw. Rather, we worship under a New Covenant, the blood of whose Mediator speaks better things than that of Abel. The law commands "Do this and live," while the gospel cries out, "It is finished!"

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The more we read the Bible Christocentrically, the more we'll see him on every page. And pretty soon we'll become so trained to expect Christ to be preached in every sermon that the usual moralism ("Dare to be a Daniel!") and therapeutic pop psychology ("Ten Steps for Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World") will no longer suffice. God's children need to feed on the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, not on the Law of a kinder and gentler Moses.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tell Me the Story

In U2's version of a lament psalm ("Wake Up Dead Man") Bono pleads,

Tell me,
Tell me the story;
The one about eternity,
And the way it's all gonna be.

This is a common theme in the biblical canon as well. It seems like God is constantly in the business of performing redemptive acts and then talking about them. Virtually every time he addressed his people in Old Testament times he began by reminding them, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Deut. 5:6). Entire chapters of Scripture are devoted to rehearsing God's mighty acts in history (Ex. 15; Ps. 78).

In the church today, however, we often hear that the pastor's message must be "relevant" and "applicable to daily life." God, it seems, is a character in my drama, rather than the other way around.

But when God's people today corporately gather around Word and Sacrament, it is not to re-align God's priorities to match our own, but to re-align and re-orient ourselves to him. He has taken our plotless and pointless lives and rescripted them, writing us into his cosmic drama of which he is the Playwright and Director, and in which Jesus Christ, and not we, has the starring role.

Christ-centered preaching, therefore, does not force the Savior into the sermon or cleverly leap from an obscure text to Jesus, but it takes the trees (the verses being expounded) and properly situates them in the forrest (the larger story of redemption). In a word, faithful preaching addresses a "people who were once not a people" and re-constitutes them as "the people of God" and as newly-added characters in the epic tale that he is telling.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Christ-Centered Preaching

Proponents of "Christ-Centered Preaching" (such as Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Seminary, and Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California) argue that the Person and work of Jesus Christ is the central message of the Bible, and therefore any sermon that fails to do justice to Scripture's central message necessarily fails in its primary task.

The New Testament abounds with evidence for the Christ-centeredness of God's revelation; Luke 24:27, 44-45 is a characteristic example:

"And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.... Then he said to them, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures."

But the matter is far from settled.

There are those who argue that, while Christ is certainly to be preached from passages where he is explicitly mentioned or typified, to force him into every text is an unnatural imposition that does damage to the message of that particular passage.

There are others who agree with Christ-centered preaching in theory, but have difficulty making the transition from the (perhaps obscure) text to Christ. The result is often an awkward jump from "Samuel hacked Agag into pieces" to "Sick of being 'hacked to pieces' by the world? Come to Jesus!"

And finally, evidence suggests that the majority of evangelical pastors consider messages focusing on the cross and resurrection to be irrelevant to modern church-goers. The Gospel is great for unbelievers, but once they're "in," they need practical messages that are useful in "the real world."

Into which category do you fit?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"We Preach Christ...."

"Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom," Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:22-23, "but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles."

Was Paul using hyperbole here? Did he really "preach Christ crucified" in every sermon?

For many today, what has become known as "Christ-Centered Preaching" runs the risk of blunting the sharp edges of biblical imperatives (for example, after reading the command that Christians should love God and neighbor, the minister says, "Well since we can't do this, it's a good thing Jesus died for us!"). Further, "redemptive-historical preaching" is often considered tantamount to preaching the same sermon every week with a different text ("In John 11:35 we read, 'Jesus wept.' Now you'll remember that Adam was originally created good....").

What are we to make of Christ-centered preaching? Redemptive-historical preaching? How do these differ from the Puritan method of Doctrine, Reason, Use? What role does "application" play in preaching? And perhaps most importantly, How on earth do we make an ancient text relevant for the (post)modern hearer?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Remarks on "Sarx"

We've been looking at the warfare between "Spirit" (pneuma) and "flesh" (sarx), and my argument has been that Romans 7 does not describe this battle (the struggle there is between the Jew and the Mosaic law that binds him). The battle in Galatians 5, however, does effect us as New Covenant saints, but the warfare is not an internal struggle between the good and bad sides of our nature, but a clash on a more cosmic scale. Let me explain....

In the Old Testament, the word for "flesh" (ba┼Ťar) denoted physical corpses (Gen. 2:21, 23) and, by extension, came to connote humanity and its frailty (Gen. 6:12; Ps. 78:39). Paul's use of "flesh," however, rarely denotes "physical bodies," but often describes the human condition (life kata sarka or en sarki). Flesh, in this sense, is not pejorative but simply descriptive of natural human existence.

Where Paul's use of sarx is unique, however, is in its eschatological formulation. Because the resurrection of Christ ushered in the power and dynamic of the age to come (which the apostle calls "Spirit"), everything associated with "this present age," including Torah, has passed into the realm of "flesh" (Eph. 1:14; 4:30; II Cor. 5:5, 14-17; Rom. 7:4-7). Christian living, therefore, is described by Paul as "walking not according to the flesh [this present earthly age] but according to the Spirit [the heavenly age to come]."

Paul's use of sarx, therefore, highlights the progression from anthropological creatureliness (humanity) to theological creatureliness (sinful humanity), and finally, to eschatological existence (life in accordance with this age).

New Covenant saints, therefore, are "Spiritual" (pneumatikoi), not spiritual schizophrenics with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Our calling is to live out our heavenly citizenship in the here and now, being seated in glory while standing in the path of sinners.

Or as the beloved German reformer put it: Simul iustus et peccator.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Spirit, Flesh, and Spiritual Schizophrenia

How often have we heard that, living within each believer, is a "good nature" and a "bad nature" which contantly vie for our allegiance? Sometimes the following illustration is used to bring the point home:

"The good part of us (the spirit) and the bad part of us (the flesh) are like two dogs in a fight. Which will win? Well, obviously the one we feed the most."

[Insert warning against secular music here.]

This principle certainly makes sense on the canine level, but is it Pauline? Is it really the case that we each have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? And further, is the NIV's rendering legitimate, which translates sarx (flesh) as "sinful nature"?

I'll elaborate in future posts, but for now I'll just state my position: Neither the battle within the "wretched man" of Romans 7 nor the warfare between the "Spirit" and the "flesh" in Galatians 5 has anything to do with an internal struggle within the believer. The former is indeed an existential struggle, but not one that New Covenant saints need concern themselves with (see my post on Postmortem Remarriage below). The latter, Galatians 5, is a struggle in which believers engage, but the warring categories (flesh and Spirit) are not internal but external, not micro but macro, not individual but eschatological.

To live under a two-dogs-fighting paradigm for sanctification betrays a woefully under-realized eschatology. If we accept this as normative for the Christian life, we may as well put a bumper sticker on our car that reads, "Christians Aren't Perfect, Just Forgiven."

Thoughts?