The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 109 – Stairway to heaven

Reading: Genesis 28:10-22

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from amazon.com and £1.99 from amazon.co.uk. I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

Jacob leaves home, ostensibly to seek for a wife (28:1-2), in reality to flee for his life
(27:42-44). He certainly isn’t seeking God, but God has not forgotten him. In order to be shown the depths of his own need and appreciate God’s sufficiency, Jacob needs to be eased out of his emotionally claustrophobic family with its possessive mother, embittered father and murderous brother. Observe how:

1. God renews his promise (13-14)
When God speaks there is no word of reproach or demand; only a renewal of the promises to Abraham and Isaac. They meet all the needs of Jacob’s solitary, homeless and precarious condition. That the God of Abraham and Isaac should now reveal himself as the God of Jacob the con-man, from whom you wouldn’t buy a used camel, demonstrates just how scandalous grace is.

2. God assures his presence (15)
‘Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ (ESV) This additional promise, particularly suited to Jacob, is underlined in the dream of a stairway resting on earth and reaching to heaven. The fugitive has not been abandoned. Heaven has come to a particular spot on earth and Jacob, like Elisha’s servant, is privileged to see heaven’s resources (2 Kgs. 6:15-17). Just as God’s choice of Jacob caused a conflict that would follow him through the rest of his life, so God’s commitment to him would endure and bring him safely home (cf. Phil. 1:6).

3. Jacob makes a vow (16-22)
Jacob’s response is sometimes regarded as just another example of his wheeler-dealing. But this seems unfair. He expresses profound awe in God’s presence, calling the place Bethel, meaning house of God (16-17; cf. 35:14-15). Jacob is made aware, as Abraham was, of another dimension; a heavenly one. Though his vow (20-21) may seem like bargain-hunting, it is only because God has offered such wonderful bargains! Just as any prayer request is based on God’s promises (cf. Matt. 6:10-11, 31-34), Jacob is claiming precisely what God has promises.

Closing thought
Psalm 23 is the musical version of Jacob’s vow without the ‘if’. Here is a summary of God’s best promises to his children. Rest and revel in them again today.

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Information, knowledge and wisdom

One of the problems of the information age is that people confuse data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Computers deal with data – scary quantities of it – moving it, storing it and processing it. Information is what people deal with: facts, interpretations, ideas, images and so on. Knowledge is the ability to recall and interpret information. Access to data alone does not make you knowledgeable. Nor is the ability to recall information the same as knowledge. Knowledge takes study and reflection. It is a slow process, gradually accumulated through thought and experience.

And wisdom is something else altogether. It is the ability to live aright, to make moral judgments, to exercise discernment, to make choices. This means wisdom does not reside with the academically able in the way that knowledge does. Wisdom resides in spiritually mature; in those who walk with God.

The quantity of information is also creating increasing levels of specialisation. In the past people could be polymaths. Today people struggle to keep up to date with one field of knowledge. One result is increased specialisation. The area over which you can be an expect is shrinking. The problem is that this is diminishing our ability to integrate knowledge. The world ‘university’ derives from the Latin word universitas meaning ‘whole’. Universities once gave you an all-round education. But now our view of the world has become fragmented. We see only parts. Such fragmented knowledge enables us to do specific, discrete tasks: we can transplant a heart or design an aeroplane wing. But it cannot help us live integrated, whole lives.

Theology is not immune from this. New Testament scholars are discouraged from straying into church history; church historians are discouraged from contributing to pastoral theology and so on. Such specialisation ill-equips the church to maintain an integrated or ‘universal’ view of truth. Academic articles exegete individual Bible verses, but do not enable me to comfort a woman suffering panic attacks or share the gospel with my postman. To give one example of how this works: the presumption is that worthy contributions to academic debate must include comprehensive bibliographies and footnotes. Writers are chided for not having interacted with specific authors. But this mistakes information for knowledge and knowledge for wisdom.

Choose quality rather than quantity

The digitalisation of information has created the delusion that we can carry knowledge and wisdom around with us on our laptops or access them via our Palms. This is the promise of the advertisers, but it is an illusion. Whatever the field, pursue quality rather than quantity. Go for material in which information has been digested, examined, applied and experienced.

Choosing quality rather than quantity means reading a book before you search the internet. A book will contain a person’s considered reflections, usually after many years of research or reflection. A book will include an editorial process of selection and refinement. None of these quality controls are available on the web. This will often mean paying for knowledge. The internet promises free knowledge, but it is undifferentiated. Be willing to pay for that differentiation – if only to ensure you use your time is profitably.

Do not do general research through the internet. It is not subject to any quality control. Any one can put anything up the internet. You cannot be sure whether this is a researched, reasoned and balanced perspective on a subject. Even if you have sufficient knowledge of the field to assess what you read, you have to spend time sifting the gold from the dross. If your research identifies a good article then see whether it is available on the internet. Use the internet to access published material which has now been freely made available on the internet (many of the great classic of Christian are available on the web). Use the internet to access sources you already have good reason to trust. You may also use the internet to generate examples of the zeitgeist, though be wary of assuming one example encapsulates the cultural mood.

Choose knowledge and wisdom rather than data and information

When you approach a subject, especially those that relate to the Christian life, do not necessarily try to gather as much information as possible. Do not quickly read everything available. Instead read and reflect on trusted material. Take time to meditate and digest. Your ultimate aim is not to fill your brain to develop your character. Alexander Pope referred to people who read widely but not well ‘bookful blockheads’.

Of course we should not be lazy. What we write and speak should be well-researched. A variety of sources are important to ensure balance and perspective. Beware of only going to sources that will simply echo back your own presuppositions. But neither should we succumb to the ‘fear of man’ that underlies the ‘need’ to include a comprehensive and up-to-the-minute bibliography. You are not trying to win the approval of people, but the approval of the Ancient of Days.

Choose sources that have stood the test of time over the latest sources

We are a nation of news junkies. We want the latest information all the time. We dismiss that which is old in favour of the latest. ‘Have you heard the latest?’ we cry. Resist the need to have the latest facts immediately after they unfold. But little of today’s news will prove significant in months to come. Opt instead for considered reflection.

When it comes to theology and the Christian life, value old books. At the very least, it is arrogant to assume that our generation has more knowledge and wisdom than previous generations. In some fields, such as the physical sciences, this may be true as we build on the achievements of those who went before. But theology and spirituality are different. The gospel is not a developing body of knowledge with new discoveries. It does need to be applied afresh to each generation, but the truth itself is unchanging.

Moreover the passage of time involves an inherent process of selection. Every generation produces both gold and dross. Not everything old is good just as not everything new is dross. The advantage that the old has is that time has sifted the gold from the dross. The books that come down to us are more likely to be those which have stood the test of time within a particular community. With the new there has been no such process.

‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field … The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever’ (Isaiah 40:6,8). I invite you to mediate on these words for an information age obsessed with the quantity and speed of information. It is very easy to get caught up in this: to pursue multiple sources, to cram in information, to ensure we have access to data, to prioritise the latest of everything – and then to think that this is making us knowledgeable and wise.

Do not read books so you can say you have read them. Do not read simply to accumulate information. Read books so you grow in your relationship with God and ability to serve him. When you finish reading, pray through what you have read.

True wisdom is found through a relationship with God. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7). It is as much a moral phenomenon as the product of information. It is the product of prayer as well as reading. It is rooted in the enduring Word of God rather than the latest book or article. It is acquired through meditation, experience, prayer and practice. It may not be trendy or cutting edge, but it pure gold.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7-11)

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Facing rejection #2: The ultimate verdict

In a recent post on Mark 6 we saw that rejection is a real possibility for those who follow Jesus. And that means you need to make a decision. Following Christ will have consequences. It will mean rejection. And so you must choose.

  1. You must choose Christ over family approval

Jesus has already said his true family are not his relatives, but those who do God’s will (3:31-35). If some of you become Christians your families will reject you. You’ll have choose between Jesus and your family – just as he did.

For others the choice is not so black and white. You’re family don’t reject you. But they do put pressure on you to put family before faith – to put career before mission, to put family gatherings before church gatherings.

  1. You must choose Christ over peer approval

Verse 26 says: ‘The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.’ Herod doesn’t want to kill John, but he does so ‘because of his dinner guests’. He can’t lose face. So he gives in to peer pressure.

Maybe you’re like Herod. You’re fascinated by Jesus just as Herod was fascinated by John. But you’re trapped by peer pressure. You can’t commit yourself to Jesus because of your dinner guest, because of your family and friends. you’re worried about what people will think.

Being a Christian today is not cool. It never has been. 1 Peter 4:3-4 says: ‘For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.’ Some of you know this experience.

It’s not just young people. A friend recently toured theological seminaries. In each case the Principal wanted to make the Seminary more missional, but main opposition came from the faculty because they wanted the approval of their academic peers.

We all have peers. We all want the approval of some group of people. I want to encourage you in your life group to identify the peer group whose approval you crave. Who do want to like you? Who do want to respect you? And what pressures does that create to compromise the gospel?

  1. You must choose Christ over social approval

Homosexual marriage. The reality of hell. Euthanasia and abortion. Self-sacrifice instead of self-fulfilment. The uniqueness of Christ. It’s not hard to list big issues on which the church is at odds with our culture – and increasingly so. Christian truth is no longer mainstream. But more than that. Our view are often now seen as deviant. It’s not just that what is moral has expanded. Morality has become immortality. Black is white and white is black. Christian truth is now seen as immoral. So will you wave the flag of Christian truth when it means other see you as immoral?

These are the choices that Mark is presenting to us. And if we ended here the answer would be obvious: we would opt for family, peer and social approval. Why follow Christ if it means rejection? Why pay that price?

But Mark’s Gospel does not end here. These stories are not an isolated cluster. Instead they are part of a bigger story. So we need trace how the theme of rejection unfolds in Mark’s bigger story. And Mark makes some big promises to those who are rejected for Christ.

The ultimate verdict

Look at 14:61-64:

Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’
‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’
They all condemned him as worthy of death.

Here is Jesus on trial. And what is the world’s verdict? Condemnation. Death. Here is the ultimate rejection. He is ‘worthy of death’. This is the worst the world can do.

  • Today people ignore Jesus. Our society excludes him from public discourse. Or friends refuse invitations to engage with his message.
  • Today people mock Jesus. Our society makes him the butt of jokes on satirical TV programmes. Our friends repeat those jokes in the staff canteen or on Facebook.
  • Today people attack Jesus. Our society sends angry diatribes to the top of best-seller lists. Our friends can’t believe we hold such old-fashioned beliefs.

We see all of those things happening today. But they are all manifestations of the ultimate rejection: when we get the change we kill our Creator.

But in that extract from his trial Jesus quotes from a famous vision that the Prophet Daniel had seen. Jesus says: ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ (14:62).

Daniel saw the empires of this world. He describes them as ‘terrifying and frightening and very powerful’ (Daniel 7:7). But then he sees heaven with God on the throne. And he describes heaven as a court room: ‘The court was seated and the books were opened.’ (Daniel 7:10). And the empires and cultures of the world are stripped of their power. And instead ‘there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the son of man is given everlasting dominion (Daniel 7:13-14).

This is what Jesus quotes at his trial. He’s saying this: ‘You may condemn me here on earth. But there is a courtroom in heaven. And the verdict of that courtroom will overturn the verdict of the world. The earth condemns me. But heaven will vindicate me.’

And that’s precisely what happens. The earth declares Jesus ‘worthy of death’. Heaven declares Jesus worthy of life. And so Mark’s Gospel ends with the resurrection of Jesus. The earth condemns him to death. Heaven vindicates him by raising him to life.

The disapproval of your family or the scorn of your friends or our culture’s rejection of Christianity is not a sign that Jesus is wrong. It is simply the latest expression of humanity’s rebellion against God. In the Garden of Eden Adam doubted God’s word and rejected God’s rule. And we have been repeating that act of rebellion ever since, bringing it to a terrible climax at the crucifixion. It’s not new. And it’s not clever. For in heaven our verdict is overturned and Jesus is vindicated.

But that’s not all. There’s a feature of Daniel’s vision that’s not often noticed. It’s clear that ‘the son of man’ is Jesus. That’s how he describes himself and he is the One who receives all authority. But in fact in Daniel 7, when God explains the vision to Daniel, it’s not Jesus who is vindicated or rewarded, but ‘the holy people of the Most High’:

As I watched, this horn [kingdom] was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favour of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom … Then all sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. (Daniel 7:21-22, 27)

In Daniel 7 the court of heaven finds ‘in favour of the holy people of the Most High’.

So is it Jesus? Or is it his people? The answer is both. The vindication of Jesus is the vindication of his people. We are vindicated in him and through him. His resurrection is a sign and promise of our vindication.

Why choose Christ over family approval and peer approval and social approval? Because his resurrection is the sign that the verdicts of this world have been overturned in the heavenly court of appeal. Even while your family pressurises you or your friends mock you or your peers scorn you or your society rejects you, the court of heaven is finding ‘in favour of the holy people of the Most High’. And this is the ultimate verdict. This is the ultimate vindication.

  • Suppose you choose to live on a needy estate. And your mother berates you for risking the safety of her grandchildren. Even as she speaks, the court of heaven is finding in favour of the people of God.
  • Suppose you choose teach English to refugees rather than pursue a career. And your father tells you how disappointed he is with you, especially after he paid for your education. Even as he speaks, the court of heaven is finding in favour of the people of God.
  • Suppose you ask a colleague to read Mark’s Gospel with you. And they go on about how you can worship a God who allows children to get cancer, who sanctions suicide bombers, to is homophobic. Even as she speaks, the court of heaven is finding in favour of the people of God.

His trial is not the only time Jesus alludes to Daniel’s vision. He does so right at the centre of Mark’s Gospel in 8:34-38 as he calls on people to follow him:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’ (8:34-38)

Jesus calls us to take up our cross. In other words, we must accept the rejection that reflects the cross, the ultimate rejection. The world may even condemn us as worthy of death, just as it condemned him. But the court of heaven finds in our favour. And it will vindicate us by raising us to eternal life, just as it vindicated Jesus.

This is the choice and promise before all us this morning. We face it in different ways, but we all face this choice. We can be ashamed of Christ and affirmed by the world. Or we can affirm Christ and be shamed by the world.

But the promise of Jesus is this: If we stand firm then in Christ we can have the verdict of heaven and Christ will welcome us when he comes in glory.

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New book: Why the Reformation Still Matters

My latest book, co-autored with Mike Reeves, is Why the Reformation Still Matters. It’s published in the UK by IVP on 21 April 2016 and in the US by Crossway in September 2016. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses by Martin Luther to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This event will receive plenty of coverage in the media, but the tone is likely to imply either that the Reformation was an unfortunate squabble over irrelevant issues or that the Reformation is over. So Mike and I wanted to write a book that shows why it still matters. It matters for our interaction with Catholicism, but we also argue that in many ways evangelicals also need to rediscover the truths of the Reformation.

Why the Reformation Still Matters can be bought from amazon.co.uk and pre-ordered from amazon.com.

 

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Facing rejection

If you invite your friends to read the Bible with you or come to your church then there will be many times when people accept your invitation. That’s because God is determined to save people so the Holy Spirit is at work in the world. But we would be lying if we didn’t admit that there are also many times when people will reject that invitation. I read Mark 6 with someone once who had just tried to give a copy of Mark’s Gospel to a friend. They had said, ‘If you give me that filth then I’ll destroy it.’ Actually that’s the polite version of what he said!

I’d like to tell you that if you become a Christian everyone will love you. Your family will welcome your new loyalties. Your friends will celebrate your new priorities. Our culture will admire your new convictions. I’d like to say that, but I can’t because it’s not true.

In Mark 1 we are introduced to the authority of Jesus. In chapters 2-3 we see how many people rejected him – so much so that they plotted kill him. In chapters 4-5 we see the authority of Jesus again. This time the focus is on how we respond. But what happens if we align ourselves with Jesus? Given the attitude of people to Jesus, it is not a surprise to find

  • the authority of Jesus (ch. 1) -> the rejection of Jesus (chs. 2-3)
  • the call to trust Jesus (ch. 4-5) -> the rejection of those who trust Jesus (ch. 6)

In chapter 6 three stories of rejection.

  1. The rejection of Jesus (6:1-6)

First, we see the rejection of Jesus. He goes to Nazareth and they take offence at him (6:3). What’s new is that he is being rejected by his own home town. They don’t question his teaching or miracles (6:2). They’re convinced the miracles are real. Verses 2-3 say: ‘When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’

They’re offended by the fact that he’s a local boy. Possibly there’s a sense that he’s grown too big for his boots. But it might also be they can’t accept him as God’s King. It’s one thing to think a mysterious figure arriving on the scene out of the blue might be God’s messiah – like Strider in Lord of the Rings. ‘But he was a carpenter and village carpenters don’t become king. And we knew his brothers. His sisters still live round the corner. He’s just a village boy. So he can’t be God’s King.’

As a result verse 5 says: ‘he could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.’ The point is not that Jesus was constrained by their lack of faith as if faith somehow releases God’s power. Remember, they believed in the miracles. Plus Jesus did heal some people. The point is that miracles confirm the faith of those who believe, but they harden the unbelief of those who don’t believe. In 3:6 the religious leaders plot to kill Jesus because they believe he does miracles. So Jesus doesn’t do any miracles in Nazareth because that would harden people in their unbelief.

It’s another indication of their hostility. The story begins with the people being amazed at the teaching of Jesus. It ends with Jesus being amazed at the unbelief of the people. Verse 6 says: ‘And he was amazed at their lack of faith.’

  1. The rejection of Jesus’ disciples (6:7-13)

In the second story Jesus sends out the twelve to preach, to drive out demons and to heal the sick (6:12-13).

This is a short-term, last-ditch attempt to get Israel to recognise Jesus as her promised King (Matthew 10:5-7). That’s why the disciples take ‘no bread, no bag, no money’ (6:8). They’re not settling in for the long haul so this is not a prescription for all mission. Later Jesus will tell his disciples to take a bag, take money (Luke 22:35-37). Later they will dig in for the long-term as they share the gospel to Jews and Gentiles. They’ll embed themselves in neighbourhood to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel – as Christians till do to this day. But this mission is fast and temporary.

So the focus of these instructions are what they are to do when they’re rejected. Verse 11 says: ‘And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’ Jesus is rejected so the followers of Jesus are also rejected.

  1. The rejection of Jesus’ prophet (6:14-29)

In verses 14-16 Herod joins the debate about who Jesus is – the question that runs throughout the first half of Mark’s Gospel (4:41). It’s another chance for Mark to pose the question to us: Who is Jesus?

But it also allows Mark to tell the story of the death of John the Baptist. Verse 16 says: ‘But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”’ (Herod is wrong: Jesus is not John the Baptist risen from the dead.) The death of John the Baptist doesn’t happen at this point in the chronology. Herod is looking back. (What happens at this point in the flow of events is Herod’s question about Jesus.) But it allows Mark to tell the story here because he’s interested in the theme of rejection: Jesus is rejected; his disciples will be rejected; his prophet was rejected.

It’s a sordid story. John has denounced Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. So Herod has imprisoned him. But Herod is also fascinated by John. He likes to listen to his pet prophet. Then Herod throws a party for all the important people of his court. His niece and step-daughter does an erotic dance that delights all these drunken men. So Herod offers her a reward. And she and her mother demand the head of John the Baptist.

It’s a grizzling story. Yet sadly we live in a time when people are being headed and videos of their murder posted on the internet. Recently 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by Islamic State in Libya. This is not a story from another time and another world. This story belongs in our world.

Mark has put these three stories together to highlight the theme of rejection.

Matthew and Luke also tell the story of John’s death, but Mark’s account is the longest (even though his Gospel is the shortest). In verse 4 Jesus says: ‘Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’ Again, the other Gospel writers include this saying, but in an abbreviated form. Only Mark as the full version. He wants to drive home the message: rejection is a real possibility for those who follow Jesus.

And that means you need to make a decision. Following Christ will have consequences. It will mean rejection. And so you must choose.

We’ll look more at that choice in a future post.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 108 – The line of blessing

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from amazon.com and £1.99 from amazon.co.uk. I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

The passing of blessing from father to son may appear to us not only strange, but suspicious. It seems a rather arbitrary procedure that carries overtones of magic. So we need to step back and see how the concept of blessing fits into the overall picture stretching from creation to new creation.

1. Blessing in the book of Genesis
Though God blessed man and woman at creation (Gen. 1:28), the curse due to sin dominated primeval history (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25). The five-fold curse of Genesis 1-11 is mirrored in the five references to blessing at the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3). This was a fresh start and indicated God’s determination to bless (protect and prosper) his people. From Abraham to the formation of Israel, the covenant blessing passes down the line of promise – from Abraham to Isaac (not Ishmael; Gen. 17:19-21; 21:12) and from Isaac to Jacob (not Esau; Gen. 27:33). The blessing may seem automatic, but God is actually being invoked to act (Gen. 28:3-4) and the promise serves to motivate an appropriate lifestyle (Gen. 18:19).

2. Blessing in the nation of Israel
Jacob’s twelve sons (tribes) eventually form the nation of Israel. God enters into a covenant relationship with Israel, governed by the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience recorded in Deuteronomy 28. Problems arise when Israel assumes God’s blessing is automatic and neglect their relationship with him. From Israel’s failure and eventual exile emerges the promise of a new covenant.

3. Blessing under the new covenant
Under the new covenant, the blessing promised to Abraham comes to Jews and Gentiles through Christ who redeems us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:8-14). The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is now revealed as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us … with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Some of these blessings are received immediately and once-for-all at conversion (e.g. forgiveness, justification, adoption). Others are potentially ours in Christ but experienced only through humility, hunger, holiness and hostility (Matt. 5:3-10).

4. Blessing throughout eternity
Only when Jesus returns will sin’s curse be finally removed (Rev. 22:3) and God’s people be fully blessed (Rev. 14:13; 19:9; 22:14). With new bodies on a new earth we will know God personally (Rev. 21:3-4), see Christ and be like him (1 John 3:2). Wow!

Closing thought
What are we asking when we pray for God to bless people? Ponder Ephesians 1:3.

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Creative options for small groups

In a recent post I offered a framework for following up a sermon in small groups. Here are some other approaches you may find helpful in your gospel community.

Smaller Groups
You may find it helpful at times to split your group into smaller groups to discuss specific questions. This will encourage contributions from those who are reluctant to speak in a larger group. You can also create groups for children or people working in their second language so they are part of the common discussion, but able to work at a level appropriate to their abilities.

Case Studies
Encourage people to think through the implications of a passage by constructing fictional or semi-fictional case studies. Describe a situation or a person and then ask, ‘What would you do?’ or ‘What would you say?’ You could present the case study or studies at the beginning of your study time and then return to them after looking the passage together.

Corporate Meditation
Ask people to pray through the passage. Read our a verse or two at a time and ask people to respond with prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession or supplication as appropriate. Then read out the next verse or two. The result will be a kind of ‘corporate meditation’ on the passage. This approach works better for Psalms and epistles than for stories.

Opposites
Considering the opposite of the truth a passage teaches often helps to clarify the implications of what the passage actually does teach.

  • Ask, ‘If someone didn’t believe this, how would they behave?’ People may begin to describe behaviours or emotions that they themselves exhibit.
  • Ask people to write an opposite version of the passage. Again, in doing so they may describe behaviours or emotions that they exhibit.
  • Re-write the passage (or part of the passage) in an opposite form and ask the group to ‘translate’ back into its proper form.

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Following up the sermon in small groups

The norm in our church has been to follow up the Sunday sermon in our small groups with a view to specific application. So the primary focus in the gospel communities is not doing a Bible study on the passage (that work should have been done in the gathering), nor recapping what was covered at the gathering (though this may have be done briefly). The primary focus is on exploring the implications for our lives and our life together.

Here are some thoughts on how this may be done.

Try to focus on the implications that are specifically relevant to your gospel community. This may not cover all the ideas presented at the gathering or even the main idea. Instead be open to the Spirit so the application is specific to your gospel community. The advantage of applying the Bible teaching in the gospel communities is that we can push application into the specifics of our lives and our life together as a gospel community.

If you are unclear how to follow up the gathering teaching then the following format may help. It is based around two rubrics so it should be easy to remember:

  • head, hands, heart
  • personal, communal, missional

It could be used cold is a crisis has wrecked your preparation time. But it is designed as a framework that you can elaborate as you tailor it to the passage and the needs of your gospel community.

Start by rereading the passage of the Scripture.

How did the Holy Spirit speak to your heart?
This will help recap what was said and allow those who missed the gathering to catch up. If people’s recall is patchy you may want to summarise what was said or you may focus in on one aspect of special relevant to your gospel community.

Phrasing the question this way emphasizes that we are not engaged merely in the process of analysing an ancient text, but a dynamic process in which the living God speaks to his people through word by his Spirit. Quoting Psalm 95, Hebrews 3:7 says, ‘as the Holy Spirit says’ (present tense). The Spirit not only ‘spoke’ (past tense) through the original authors of Scripture to ensure their words were God’s word without error. The Spirit also ‘speaks’ (present tense) as we read those words today.

This is also an opportunity to ensure people understand what the passage is saying. You may want to ask whether people have any questions.

What are the implications for your life? Our life together? The world around us?

Our aim is to understand the word (our heads) so we can apply it:

  • to our lives (our hands)
  • to our affections (our hearts)

The rubric ‘head, hands, heart’ corresponds to the need when teaching the Bible to:

  • make it clear = head
  • make it real = hands
  • make it felt = heart

(See Tim Chester and Marcus Honeysett, Gospel-Centred Preaching from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.)

Asking about our life together will draw out the communal implications and the asking about the world around us will draw out the missional implications. God’s word does not speak to a Christian ghetto. It is a public word for the world. Asking this question will also help members of your gospel community to share God’s with their unbelieving friends and apply it to their work, politics, cultural engagement and so on.

  • What are the personal implications (for you)?
  • What are the communal implications (for our gospel community)?
  • What are the missional implications (for those we want to reach for Christ)?

The use of the word ‘implications’ rather than ‘application’ is significant. ‘Application’ implies a process that we do to make God’s word relevant to us. ‘Implications’ emphasises that God’s word is inevitably relevant to us.

Other helpful generic questions are:

  • What questions do you have?
  • What do you find striking in the passage or story?
  • How do you think the first readers or the people involved the story felt?
  • How would you have reacted?
  • What do we learn about God in this passage or story?
  • What do we learn about human beings in this passage or story?
  • Where have we seen this in the Bible story before?
  • What in this passage points to Jesus or shows our need for Jesus?
  • What are the links to our stories?
  • When have you faced a similar challenge?
  • How are we like the people in the passage or story?
  • How does the passage challenge or encourage you?
  • How does the passage help us see what it mean to walk in God’s ways?
  • When might you talk about this passage with a Christian?
  • When might you talk about this passage with an unbeliever?

The rubrics ‘head, hands, hearts’ and ‘personal, communal, missional’ provide a useful pattern or checklist for looking at the word in gospel communities.

Summary

 

Questions Checklist
intro 1. How has the Spirit spoken to you through this section of God’s word?
head 2. Do you have any questions? (or How would you summarise the message of this section or story?) Do people understand the passage?
hands personal 3. What are the implications for you?
(or How does this section speak to your heart or life?)
Do people recognize the personal implications for them as individuals?
communal 4. What are the implications for our gospel community? (or When might you talk about this section with a Christian?) Do people recognize the communal implications for us as a gospel community?
missional 5. What are the implications for those we want to reach? (or When might you talk about this section with an unbeliever?) Do people recognize the missional implications for those we want to reach for Christ?
heart 6. What gospel motives does this section give? (or How should this section shape our love, hope, fears or desires?) Are people motivated
by gospel affections?

Often when asking the six questions above the pattern will be head, hands, heart. In other words, some action will be commended (e.g. sharing the gospel, loving your spouse) and motives will take the form of right affections (love, hope, fear, desires shaped by the gospel). But with some passages the reverse may be the case. What is commended are right affections. The motives will then be (explicitly or implicitly) the right behaviour or emotions (conflict avoidance, reduced anxiety, boldness in witness) that flow from reordered affections.

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