Tag Archives: New Testament

Tipping Points – Christian Practice

In the first post in this series, I identified Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the tipping point that helps ignite change in our belief – replacing doubt with a greater confidence in God.

(As a reminder, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a “tipping point” as “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.”)

Today’s tipping points relate to our practice, or actions, as believers in Christ. What are two tipping points that promote breakthroughs in spiritual growth and Christ-likeness in our lives?

The first is the theological concept of “cruciformity” a term that has been popularized by biblical scholar Michael Gorman, among others.

Crucifixion-National Gallery of Art

Cruciform means “cross-shaped,” and its abstract meaning points to a life that is shaped by Jesus’ crucifixion. In its broadest sense, cruciform living can exhibited in a number of ways:

1) Profound gratitude for God’s sacrificial love for us, in Christ’s death on the cross. Christ’s death on the cross brings us forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:3) and results in our adoption into God’s family (Galatians 4:4-6). Our gratitude for Christ’s redeeming work should disarm our pride and create sincere worship, humility, and a heart of mercy for others.

2) Sober awareness of the reality of opposition to God, his work, and his people in this world. Christ was crucified by “rulers of this age” who did not recognize Jesus as the “Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). Christians can expect similar opposition as followers of Christ (John 15:18-21). Those who seek to live cross-shaped lives will identify themselves with Christ even when the prevailing winds of culture blow against them.

3) A radical others-centeredness in our actions and attitudes. On multiple occasions Jesus moved seamlessly from talking about his own death and resurrection to talking about the need for his followers to adopt similar practices of service and sacrifice for others (Mark 8:31-38; Mark 9:30-35; Mark 10:32-45; and parallels in other Gospels). Likewise, the apostle Paul emphasizes putting the needs of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2:3-4), inspired by the pattern of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).

When we buy into cruciformity, we buy into values that are polar opposites to the norms and values of this world. Christians who “carry their crosses” live humbly, sacrificially (laying aside rights and comforts as servants of others), and faithfully (as servants of Christ, willing to suffer for him). The tipping point effect occurs when we embrace this vision of service and others-centeredness and let it shape our decisions, attitudes, and practices.

Cruciformity provides the “what” of Christian practice, describing what the “shape” of our lives should look like. But what is the “how” of Christian living? How can we be enabled and equipped to consistently please God with our actions? The second tipping point is the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of Jesus’ followers. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the key to the believer’s ongoing fruitfulness for God. For a more extended look at this tipping point, see my earlier post on this topic: Grace, Works, and Fruitfulness.

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Adding Books to the New Testament

16th Street Baptist Church stained glass

A group of scholars is publishing a book called the New New Testament (that’s right, that extra New is meant to be there). The work consists of the typical 27 New Testament books plus another 13 works selected by the committee.

Dan Wallace has a thorough response to the recent project here. He points out the blatant historical and theological problems with the project, along with the arbitrary nature of the results. In particular, the 13 new works would have failed the classic criteria used to identify New Testament Scripture: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity.

We could look at these criteria in the form of questions that the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century churches would have asked about any religious work circulating in the name of Jesus or another well-known Christian figure:

1) Who wrote it? The question is who really wrote it, not just what name was attached to it. Obviously, if a respected eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry (or an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrected glory – see Paul) wrote the work, it would stand to be valued as a credible and authoritative representation of Jesus’ ministry.

2) When was it written? Was it written during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry were still alive, so that the testimony could be affirmed by those who knew Jesus? These first two questions touch on the criteria of apostolicity.

3) Who else is using it? This question reflects the standard of catholicity. The early churches communicated with one another and were able to help each other evaluate the trustworthiness of the different religious writings they encountered. Some of these churches had Christian leaders who were known to have been disciples of the original disciples, or at least disciples of the disciples of those disciples. (OK, that was a mouthful!)

4) What does it teach? This question gets at the idea of orthodoxy.  The memory of Jesus was well-preserved in the early Christian communities. The early believers proclaimed Jesus to both “insiders” and “outsiders,” and they exalted him in regular gatherings for worship. Aberrant pictures of Jesus in later writings were easily recognized and dismissed by those who knew Jesus in spirit and in truth.

5) How did it originate – publicly, or secretly? As seen in the book of Acts, the early Christians spoke about Jesus in public. Their message about Jesus (the “gospel”) became widely known. Later writers who wanted to enlist the name of Jesus or his disciples for their religious agendas were forced to get creative by presenting their doctrines as secret teachings from Jesus (when these texts “surfaced” generations after the life of Jesus, Christian truth was widely known to be something other than what these documents were promoting).

Why would people both in ancient times and today want to embrace and advance ideologies that are so clearly non-Christian and yet still use the name of Jesus for these doctrines? Perhaps there is something about the power and beauty of Jesus and all that he represents that makes it difficult to discard him altogether, even when he is redefined beyond recognition.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

 

 

 

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Off to Turkey

Today I leave for Turkey today with 27 students, a colleague, and his wife.  I hope to post some photos and brief updates from time to time while we are there.

The trip is the second half of a modified Historic Christian Belief class that I taught for the past week and a half on campus. In the class we covered historic theology, with a focus on Western Turkey. A lot has happened in the land that is now know as Turkey:

1) A first wave of Christian ministry was led by the Apostle Paul (and friends – Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, Timothy), with Ephesus as the hub city for ministry throughout what is known in the Bible as the region of “Asia” (as seen in Acts 16-20). Paul also wrote many letters to Asian churches (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) later in his ministry.

2) A second wave of ministry was spearheaded by the Apostle John. He probably relocated there in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. Ephesus was his base of operations as well, according to church tradition. He likely wrote 1,2, and 3 John from there, and maybe the Gospel of John too. Then, from the island of Patmos off of the coast of Asia, he wrote to seven churches in Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea), as seen in Revelation 2-3.

3) In the second century, some notable bishops left their marks in Christian history and in Asia – Papias of Hierapolis, Polycarp of Smyrna (whose inspiring martyrdom is recounted in The Martyrdom of Polycarp), and Melito of Sardis. Also, bishop Ignatius of Antioch (Syria) wrote letters to several churches in Asia, on his way to martyrdom in Rome.

4) The first seven ecumenical councils (not including the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15) were held in Asia, in the cities of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Trinitarian and Christological confessions from those councils are still held by churches around the world today (particularly the Nicene Creed, which was written in Nicaea in 325 and revised in Constantinople in 381).

5) In the early 4th century the newly professing Christian emperor Constantine relocated the capital of the empire to what became Constantinople. Christianity now enjoyed favored status in powerful places, which was in stark contrast to Christians’ experience in the first three centuries of the church. Bishop John Chrysostom (the “golden mouth”) warned Christians against becoming too comfortable with wealth, entertainment, and power, but also blessed his flock with sermons such as his famous “Paschal homily,” in which he proclaimed the wide riches of God’s grace to all believers, weak and strong in faith, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

6) As time went on, Constantinople became an impressive city, under Constantine, Justinian the Great, and other powerful emperors, who adorned the city with buildings such as the Hagia Sophia. The city was eventually overtaken by the Ottoman Turks in 1452. Today, Muslims make up as much as 99% of the population of Turkey.  Some of these Muslims are devout, while others are considered nominal Muslims.

Our group is excited about the trip. I hope to have some good photos to share in the coming days –

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Misplaced Zeal

06.14 Go in Peace

“Be contentious and zealous, brothers, but about the things that relate to salvation.” So says the ancient Christian letter known as 1 Clement (I read this earlier today as part of day three in a “read through the church fathers in 7 years” program at this site).

1 Clement may be the earliest non-canonical Christian work that is not found in the New Testament (the Didache is another possibility). A likely date for 1 Clement is right at the end of the first century, A.D. In the letter the church at Rome encourages the Corinthian church to support its church leaders rather than resist those leaders, who had not gone astray in any doctrinal or moral area. The problem was that a handful of influential younger people in the church wanted to push aside the older leaders and do things their own way.

It is in this context that 1 Clement challenges the Corinthians to avoid misplaced zeal. In other words, the Corinthian church members shouldn’t stir up disunity and rebellion based on relatively minor issues of theology or practice. They should be passionate and unyielding only about things “that relate to salvation” (1 Clement 45:1).

The New Testament supports the similar perspective of fighting for the essentials of the Christian faith but showing humility in the non-essentials. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are never shy about condemning false teaching in central areas (Jesus denounces the teaching of the Pharisees as well as those who denied that he was sent from the Father; Paul confronts false teaching in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus; 2 Peter and Jude speak strongly against false teaching; and 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation use sharp language against promoters of false doctrine). At the same time, Jesus prays for the peace and unity of believers in John 17, and Paul shows that unity is a high priority in places such as Romans 15:5-6; all throughout 1 Corinthians; Ephesians 4:3-6; Philippians 1:27-2:4, and Colossians 3:15.

The real question is, “How do you determine what are the essentials, and what is secondary?” 1 Clement says that things connected to salvation are the things worth defending. The New Testament connects salvation (and true doctrine) to the person and work of Jesus (his identity as Son of God and Messiah, and his ministry culminating in his death, resurrection, and return). Other thinkers in early Christianity identified a biblically-rooted “rule of faith” (regula fide) that ought to guide all Christians. This “rule” was not a fixed formula (like the later creeds), but was a series of judgments about God the Father, Son, and Spirit, along with an understanding about how God has intervened in this world to carry out his saving purposes. For early Christians, these were the defining elements of Christianity (along with a common Christian ethic of love, holiness, and service).

It is good to be zealous about the right things. But we should guard against the temptation to divide over smaller matters. 1 Clement offers words of wisdom for our churches today. Along with the central truths of our faith, unity and peace are worth fighting for as well.

For a related post, see “Lessons learned from Church History.”

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My Favorite New Testament Book

At a wedding recently someone asked me what my favorite New Testament book was.

That question always stumps me.

The great thing about teaching the whole NT several times every semester is that I get exposed to every book on a regular basis. I learn to appreciate the contribution each book makes to the whole. Teaching the whole NT also keeps me accountable to the whole NT. I can’t ignore parts of the NT that don’t conveniently fit into a simplistic paradigm of God and his work.

The Gospel narratives remind me that Christianity is more than a philosophy or a set of abstract principles. It is based on historical events in which the Son of God was born among us, ministered in our midst, was rejected, was crucified, was buried, and rose again. The comforting, unsettling, inspiring acts and teachings of Jesus lead me to both deeper worship of the Lord and greater eagerness to read about and understand him more.

Acts tells the exciting history of how the church blossomed by the power of the Spirit and under the leadership, ministry, and teaching of the apostles. There were significant bumps along the way though – pretenders struck down for lying to God, accusations of insensitivity to the needs of some members of the church, sharp theological disputes that required the convening of a church council, and the breaking apart of a ministry team because of a disagreement over personnel. But God’s word and his church still advance.

Paul’s letters are a diverse bunch themselves. Paul unpacks the implications of Jesus’ work – for the present life, for the life to come, for Jewish believers, for Gentile believers. He presents the ideal of unified churches guided and empowered by the Spirit and yet churches that need leadership and organization too.

The general epistles include uncompromising stands against false teaching (Jude), descriptions of worldwide judgment on the unbelieving world (2 Peter), and the challenge of living counter-culturally and not just inwardly spiritually (James).

And then there is Revelation, where the vivid portrayals of God’s vindication of his people, triumph over evil, and creation of the new heavens and new earth remind us not to reduce God to a tame, grandfatherly figure.

The NT books are all part of our heritage as Christians. They all contribute to a complete Christian world view, and God uses them all to speak to us and shape us into worshipful disciples. Treasures await in each book for those who are diligent seekers.

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