understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

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keeping hold of the gospel

The gospel is at the heart of our faith, and therefore central to the well being, not only of us, but of the world. Faith, hope, and love depend on it. No wonder then, when it can become such a point of contention. I commend N. T. Wright and his writings, along with other writers and teachers such as Scot McKnight and Craig Blomberg, and many others.

The gospel essentially is the Jesus revealed in scripture, and all the truth that surrounds him in his person, life, teaching, works, death and resurrection, ascension, and the promise of his return. 1 Corinthians 15 is a key passage, but actually Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all accounts of the gospel. The good news in Jesus in which scripture is fulfilled.

It is imperative for us to hold on the gospel, not simply because of the life it promises after death, but also because of the life that is promised to us here and now. It is a life in God, one of no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because of Christ’s redemptive work of the cross, and the freeing activity of the Spirit (Romans 8). I find that we have to hold on to faith to get out of survival mode, though in spiritual warfare, simply to stand our ground is all that’s required (Ephesians 6:10-20). This is all about the gospel: the good news in Jesus, and holding on to that.

God wants us in Jesus to be more than conquerors, actually in him we already are (Romans 8), victorious (Revelation 2-3) in and through Jesus by the good news, regardless of what we face, or our past, as well as present. It may be in the midst of much weakness, and fallout. Nevertheless God wants the truth of that gospel in Jesus stamped onto our lives, so that it defines and centers us in all of life. The good news, by the way, is as big as all of life, if one reads the pages of scripture in full. It is no less than new creation, God making all things new. It is not a matter of hiding in a cave somewhere with bread and water. At the same time, though, it does involve a following with others of Christ in identification with him, which in this life can spell trouble, even death. But in the midst of that, we know from the good news that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We need to pray and ask God to help us grasp and hold on to this good news in Jesus. That it might correct us where need be, and set us on the path of life, even of immortality, the eternal life and everlasting way in and through Jesus.

 

what the rich young ruler missed

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

This is an interesting story, told in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. A ruler falls on his knees before Jesus and asks what good thing he should do to inherit eternal life. I take the words of Jesus as well as that of the ruler here at face value. I don’t import on them my understanding of what an evangelistic gospel presentation should look like. The summons here is to a king and a kingdom come in him. A completely different kingdom than those of the world or what Israel anticipated. Of course more needed to take place, namely Jesus’ death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit along with the promise of his return. But what is in the gospels is essential to understanding the agenda which is set. Which has been all but lost by the church at large through the centuries. Evident in that the creeds make no passing mention of it.

Yes, Jesus’ call was costly. Sell everything, all his vast wealth and give to the poor. The giving to the poor is not at all surprising, but as we gather from Jesus’ own disciples from what they said afterward and Jesus’ follow up to that, the idea that a rich person should give up their wealth, or at least the idea that it is hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven because they are so tied to their wealth, as if material prosperity could be antithetical to the kingdom of God did not ring true to the disciples themselves.

The young man’s face fell. He went away deeply sad, since he had great possessions. Doing what Jesus said for him was not an option. Impossible. An illustration of Jesus’ words that it is indeed hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus intimates, impossible apart from God.

But think of what this ruler missed: Besides the treasure in heaven, actually being a follower on the ground of Jesus himself. Becoming one who could learn what it means to live in the new way in him, the way of the cross, the way of resurrection life. Above all to know Jesus, and to know God through Jesus which amounts to eternal life (John 17). He missed so much. And for what? What ends up being a mess of pottage when it’s all said and done. Maybe worldly glory which comes and goes. But not the glory which comes from God. We don’t want glory to ourselves, indeed that is not fitting. What is meant here is to live in God’s favor by his grace, completely a gift in and through Jesus.

May we have ears to hear the call and a heart to follow.

 

 

the strange world of the gospels

In the Great Tradition and in Anglicanism as part of the worship service the reading of the gospels is considered the climax of the readings of scripture which begins with an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) reading and a New Testament reading (one of the letters, Acts or the Revelation).

It is well and good, indeed necessary to think in terms of our own world and culture. Of course critically, but not simply dismissing all that is distinctive about it. But we need to enter in and imbibe something of the world of the gospels, particularly of the kingdom that Jesus declares is near or present in him.

The way of the cross in the death and resurrection of Jesus both in terms of salvation for us and for the world and as the way for all of life for the followers of Jesus is at the heart of what runs against the grain, being deeply counterintuitive to the world as is and how life is navigated here and now.

Yes we need to be in all of scripture (2 Timothy 3) and we must take care not to avoid the strange world of the gospels. That world, specifically God’s kingdom come in Jesus is the heart from which the rest of the New Testament comes even as the revelation of the gospel in its fulfillment and outworking is further spelled out.

So let’s make it our practice to regularly read and meditate on the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Reading the rest of scripture as well.

looking to Jesus (during the season of Lent)

Lent is a season to look to Jesus anew and afresh particularly in his sufferings and death in God’s love for us as seen in him. It is easy for us to get our eyes off of that, off of Jesus as we go through the wear and tear, indeed even the trauma of life. Of a heart broken by a wayward, indifferent child. Of the stress and strain of financial difficulties. The everyday challenges of work. Etc.

It is even possible not to focus well on our Lord, even while we are in scripture. We have to remember that even the parts which don’t speak directly of him (the book of James might be a good case in point) are fulfilled only in and through Jesus. I am nearly done reading through the Revelation and it presents an entirely different challenge. It gives us a portrait of final judgment and salvation in vivid, descriptive metaphor, images which point to the end of the world as we know it and the bringing in of an entirely new world through judgment and salvation, creation renewed and restored in the new creation. We need to see Jesus in terms of that as well. But we do well to reflect on his suffering and God’s love to us and to the world in view of that. Which is why, after I am done with the Revelation, I will turn to the gospels: Matthew,  Mark, Luke and John, and begin to work through the narratives of Jesus’ suffering and death (Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19).

The story doesn’t end there, but we do well to pay attention to that part of the story, a major part of each of the four gospels. As we reflect on God’s love seen in the sufferings of Jesus for us and for the world.

love came down

What is the keeping of Advent and the celebration of Christmas except the remembering in faith, hope and love that love came down in the birth of a baby? The meaning from this is rich, and fills the pages of scripture, helping us understand the story of scripture, its end.

God became flesh, fully human, yes, one of us. Right where we live, in our element- in this baby boy. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel for the world. He was born in the city of David, a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. With his coming, God’s kingdom had come, present in him, the king. His kingdom was certainly not from this world, but it is for this world, destined someday to hold sway on earth in the new creation.

Love came down and met us where we are at, yes meets us where we live in Jesus, God-with-us, Emmanuel. In the pages of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we read how God became king. Bringing in a kingdom of peace through the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus’ throne is made out of wood, in fact it is the cross. Yes, with a crown of thorns, beforehand. He died on that cross, was buried, and rose from the dead, the third day. The resurrected, ascended Lord is at the place of ultimate authority, seated at the right hand of the Father, to return and bring in the rule of that kingdom across every sphere of life, when heaven and earth are made one in him.

And so we celebrate in wonder and awe with joy filled songs and in tears the birth of this baby boy. For us, yes for the world.

N. T. Wright on the gospels telling the story of how God became king* in Jesus

All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth. This central theme is stated in a thoroughly integrated way, again in all four gospels (though not at all in the so-called gospels that were produced later within the Gnostic and similar movements). This integrated theme, with the kingdom and the cross as the main coordinates, flanked by the question of Jesus’s divine identity, on the one hand, and the resurrection and ascension, on the other, is one that most Christians, right across the Western tradition, have failed even to glimpse, let alone to preach. The story Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell is the story of how God became king—in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death.

N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

*In the sense of God’s kingdom come to earth through Israel, Jesus as Messiah being the fulfillment of that.