Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility

Great news! If you only have a minute to read about wealth, here’s my argument in a nutshell:


Outline of My Argument

  • Main Claim: American Christians should reduce their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor and oppressed.
    1. God is the firmest advocate for human flourishing.
    2. The pursuit of wealth is spiritually dangerous and crippling.
    3. Our culture’s inclinations toward upward financial mobility go against the message of the New Testament and the life of Christ.
    4. God is revealed in Scripture to have a special concern for the poor and the oppressed.
    5. Christians will be held accountable for how they treat the poor and the oppressed.
  • Objections:
    1. This line of reasoning is advocating asceticism and is unbiblical.
    2. Christians have every right to keep what they have earned and to do what they wish with their excess funds.
    3. Because the poor are lazy, Christians should not feel pressured to give, in case their generosity is taken advantage of.
  • Warrant:
    1. Christians want to remain true to Scripture and submit to God’s way of life in order to find satisfaction.

(For more on Christianity, wealth, and poverty, see my topical study on what the book of Proverbs has to teach us about poverty.)

Still interested in reading about this contentious topic? Continue below.


Introduction

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point, some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth: An Argument for Downward Mobility”

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

Scripture: What The Bible Is And Why It Matters

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE

As the illocutionary act which testifies to the Son of God1 as the ultimate redemptive and revelatory locution of the the triune God, Scripture is used by the Spirit of God to accomplish the perlocutionary end of redemption of, in, and through the people of God.2

[Ahem, in order to understand my first paragraph, you must first be familiar with the basics of Speech Act Theory. If you’ve never heard of it before, click that link, and then come back here. It will be worth it, I promise!]

The written Word of God is, therefore, the authority for followers of the living Word of God precisely because of its providential role in the divine speech-act, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.3

Practically, this providential role has worked itself out in various ways throughout the history of the Church, perhaps most notably through the development of canon in the patristic era.

Theologically, the authority of Scripture is inescapably trinitarian in nature and ecclesiological in implication.

(For an explanation of the Trinity, see my essay “Trinity: What is it? (Why) Is it important?“)

WHAT SCRIPTURE IS FOR CHRISTIANS

For Christians, Scripture is the indispensable lens through which, with the Spirit’s illumination, we view Christ, who is himself the fullest lens through which we view the Godhead.

That is, the Bible is a vital link in the revelatory chain which includes Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and humanity. However, the Bible’s role in and for the Church is inescapably intertwined with (1) how the Bible came to be and (2) how it is properly to be accessed and interpreted.

How the Bible Came to Be

Although the story of how the table of contents at the beginning of each Christian Bible came into existence is an old one, questions of canon in this sense did not arise immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.4

The earliest Christians, persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah of Israel, eagerly adopted the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh, as their own Scripture. Apart from the Bible’s narrative of YHWH’s redemptive mission with his covenant people, the Christ-event (life, death, and resurrection) made little sense.

In the other direction, however, the early Church believed that, as the fulfillment of the Tanakh, Christ himself was its true message. Put differently, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Son of God were considered reciprocally-interpretive, and this relationship was the first sense in which canon was considered as “the rule of truth”: the Christ-event and the Scriptures illuminate each other.5

The link between this earliest consideration of canon and the table-of-contents approach begins with the role proclamation and confession of the Son of God as the Bible’s true meaning – of the Gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures – have in creating the Church proper (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-9).6

Because Christians are primarily interested in bringing people to faith in the faithful God through Christ, the proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Word of God constitutes the Church as the divinely-ordained way in which faith is brought about (cf. Rom. 10:17). To use a spatial metaphor, this ecclesial “point” of proclamation becomes a “line” throughout history by tradition as “the act of passing down” and “the content of what is passed down.”7

The Church is thus formed by proclamation/confession of Jesus the Messiah according to the Scriptures, and preserved by tradition.

In the second century C.E., Irenaeus of Lyons relied upon the connection between Scripture and apostolic tradition to refute Gnostic heresies which threatened to destabilize the Christian community by, among other things, insisting that Scripture could not be read at face value.8

This connection was so strong that he referred to the “traditioned” teachings of the apostles as in scripturis, responding to those who accused these apostolic “Writings” of novel fiction by delineating the unity of Christian doctrine which had been passed down from the apostles (eyewitnesses of the Christ-event) to the Church through a clear line of bishops.9

It was of crucial importance to Irenaeus that Christian doctrine was (1) unified and (2) in direct continuity with the apostles’ teaching (and therefore with the proclamation of Christ and the Christologically-fulfilled expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures).10

Thus the Gnostic controversies of the second century led to canonization in its second sense: the Church’s recognition/acknowledgment of writings which already had authority due to their coherence with the complex dialectic between Scripture, the Christ-event, the apostles, proclamation, and tradition.11

Canon’s final sense, as a list of included and excluded books which comprise the Bible, came into being in the fourth century. The Church’s recognition of already authoritative writings culminated in C.E. 367 with the Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle of Athanasius – the first canon list to include “all, and nothing but, all [sic] the books of our New Testament.”12

Scripture’s Proper Interpretation and Role

In interacting with the Word of God, it is imperative that the people of God resist the impulse to jump behind the text – either to a Gnostic-inspired and disembodied spiritual narrative, or to historical criticism’s rationalistic insistence on verifiable facts.

Properly handled, the Bible results in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to produce faith in the faithful God.

Arguably, the best interpretive method accounts for both Christ as the fullest truth of Scripture and the varied ways in which the Bible has been used by God through his Spirit to accomplish his redemptive mission in manifold ways.

That is, in terms of my thesis above, the best biblical hermeneutic accounts for both the central locution (Christ) and the varied perlocutionary effects accomplished in/through the Church by the Spirit throughout history.

It does not leave Christ behind in its insistence on esoteric behind-the-text matters, nor does it refuse the Spirit its right to bring the written Word to bear on the interpreter’s present context in fresh ways. In this way, interpretation of the Bible leads to faith through the faithful proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Scriptures.

SCRIPTURE’S OWN AUTHORITY

As mentioned above, Scripture’s authority comes from its providential role in the speech-act of God, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.

That is, although the illocutionary acts of the Bible are an indispensable link in the revelatory chain, they do not comprise the entire chain. Any discussion of Scripture’s authority must, therefore, take place with its discursive context in mind, by including a discussion of the Christological locution and Spirit-empowered, ecclesiological perlocutionary effects of the divine speech-act.

Christologically, the illocutionary acts of the written Word of God bear witness to Christ the living Word as their central meaning: the ultimate locution of God.

Jesus himself never shied away from claiming that he was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17; Lk. 24:25-27, 44). Indeed, he chastised the Jewish leaders for thoroughly studying the Scriptures, yet failing to see that the Tanakh bore witness to him (John 5:39-40)!

Likewise, in Acts, Peter (3:11-26), Stephen (7:1-53), and Paul (13:16-41) all portray Christ as the fulfillment of YHWH’s previous interactions with Israel in the Tanakh. The written Word of God is authoritative in that it bears witness to the Living Word as the zenith of God’s redemptive revelation – the “image of the invisible God” in whom “the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19, ESV).

When the Bible speaks of its own authority, it never does so apart from the life of the faithful, the Church.

The two favorite passages for the inspiration (and often, the inerrancy) of Scripture both refuse to reduce the Bible to a set of propositions to be debated within a correspondence theory of truth. The Scriptures were “breathed out by God,” not to be profitable for scientific analysis, but for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). Furthermore, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet. 1:21, ESV) for the sake of the people of God, that they might know Christ (2 Pet. 1:12-21). Arguably, then, the ties between inspiration and sanctification are stronger than those between inspiration and certain common notions of inerrancy.

At this intersection between the inspired illocutionary acts of Scripture and their perlocutionary effects lies the Spirit of God, who empowers the “inscripturate” Word to become “incardiate,” or “taken to heart” by God’s people.13

Pneumatologically, then, the Bible is able both to be and become the Word of God, as its written words are used in various ways by the Spirit throughout the ages to effect God’s mission of redemption in and through his people.14

The christological, ecclesiological, and pneumatological elements of the divine speech-act thus enable the written Word continually to be an indispensable part of divine discourse, instead of a merely static word.15

CONCLUSION

Throughout the ages, God has used his Word – living and written – to do everything from creating the world, to redeeming it; from calling a people, to establishing orthodoxy and orthopraxy in his Church; from inspiring reformation, to drawing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to himself.

In order best to appropriate the written Word of God and submit to its continuing authority in their lives, the people of God should focus on proclaiming its central message as the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to accomplish fresh perlocutionary effects in and through them as God’s redemptive mission moves toward its consummation – when the written Word of God will be in their hearts and the living Word of God in front of their faces, forever (Jer. 31:33-34; Rev. 21-22).

(For an attempted summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I believe?“)


NOTES 

1 Unless otherwise noted, I use the terms “Son of God,” “Jesus,” “Christ/Messiah,” and permutations thereof interchangeably. The same applies to “Scripture” and “Bible.”

2 I here adopt J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, as put forth in How to Do Things with Words (2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). Briggs offers the following helpful summary: “Austin sought to distinguish between the act performed in saying something and the act performed by saying something, labeling these ‘illocutionary’ and ‘perlocutionary’ acts respectively.” See Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 763. I am also heavily indebted to Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Word of God” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 850-4.

3 Theologically modifying Austin’s framework, the “divine speech-act” consists of God the Father (locutor), God the Son (locution), Scripture (illocutionary act), and God the Spirit (who fulfills the perlocutionary effects).

4 Piotr J. Malysz From Christ to the Written Gospel: An Entry Point into the Canon of (NT) Scripture (History and Doctrine Fall 2013 Handout, unpublished), 1-3.

5 Malysz, 2.

6 Malysz, 2.

7 Cf. the discussion of παράδοσις in Malysz, 2.

8 Book III. 2:2, from “Selections from Irenaeus of Lyons, The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called (Adversus Haereses)” in Early Christian Fathers (ed. Cyril C. Richardson; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 358-97. Hereafter, Adversus Haereses will be cited in the following form: “Irenaeus, I.1:1” or “Irenaeus, I. ch. 1”

9 Irenaeus, III. 1:1; chs. 2-3. In scripturis is noted by Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 370 n.47.

10 Irenaeus, III. 3:3.

11 Malysz, 3.

12 Malysz, 3.

13 Vanhoozer, 854.

14 Cf. the discussions of Karl Barth’s and Vanhoozer’s own views (850-1, 4).

15 Vanhoozer, 853.

(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us

(TEXTS: Jonah 3:5-10; 4:1-11; Nahum 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

Image

A great green theologian of old claimed that anger is based on fear, that it leads to hatred, and results in suffering. And while I do not wish to disregard the wisdom of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would like to take a closer look at anger as discussed in Scripture, and to consider what makes certain instances of anger righteous or unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate.

This is a question that has been on my mind throughout my final year at Cedarville University. After hearing of a few rumblings at the end of my Junior year, I left for the summer and got myself married. When my feet finally touched the ground at the beginning of term, my university felt like a battlefield. I heard that Michael Pahl had been “reviewed” and then fired over the summer months. Others were being reviewed to see if they really did toe the doctrinal line, or if they were guilty of mind crimes against the thought police. And things didn’t get any better from there.

I saw the havoc that the Cedarville environment was wreaking on my mentors, friends, and their families. My leaders got rid of and harassed beloved members of my community, and then deceptively refused to own up to their nefarious actions.

I got angry. I spoke up. And I was convinced that my anger was righteous. Others were less convinced.

Some stayed poignantly and painfully silent throughout the chaos. Others repeatedly gave platitudes that everything was OK, that we were obligated to trust our leaders, that to question their actions was inherently disrespectful. And some from this latter group met my kind of anger with their own frustration and anger that I dared to criticize their beloved Cedarville.

I’d love to say that I met this opposition with nothing but grace and equanimity, but that wouldn’t be true. I frequently lashed out against these types of people – when they sent me long messages to accuse me of causing unnecessary dissentious strife, or when they parodied us student activists as complete morons with nothing better to do than cook up conspiracy theories.

My university’s behavior was sickening, but these people’s behavior was infuriating. I couldn’t comprehend how they could overlook the suffering I was witnessing and try to protect people who were clearly hiding the truth. So, at times, I lashed out in frustration. And I am convinced that my anger was unrighteous. But what’s the difference between these two types of anger?

Continue reading “(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us”

Creation and Doxology: A Portrait of Biblical Creation Theology (pt. 3)

(Read Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 first!)

CREATION AND REDEMPTION: CHRIST AND NEW CREATION

Throughout the New Testament, the main use of creation theology is to link creation with redemption, resulting in the praise of the Creator through the Creator-Redeemer, Jesus the Messiah. However, the linked concepts of creation and redemption have a rich OT history. For example, cited impetuses for keeping the Sabbath are Yahweh’s creative work (Exod 20:11) and his redemptive work (Deut 5:15), revealing a close connection between the two actions.[1] The logic behind this correlation is one of continued creation: Yahweh is personally invested in the success of his creative purposes, the functionality of his temple.[2] Sin and Death will not have the final word. The Creator will redeem by creating anew through his Son.
Continue reading “Creation and Doxology: A Portrait of Biblical Creation Theology (pt. 3)”

Creation and Doxology: A Portrait of Biblical Creation Theology (pt. 2)

(Read Pt. 1 First!)

CREATION, COMPLEXITY, AND CHAOS

Much of the chaos in the universe can be ascribed to the infiltration of Sin and Death as described in Genesis 3. However, an oft-overlooked facet of biblical creation theology is the appropriate place of complexity and chaos within God’s creation. Even when the effects of the Fall are ignored, God’s temple is by no means a tame environment, nor is humanity the sole venue through which Yahweh receives glory. This facet is a crucial one, for it reorients a proper view of worship in an untamed temple, necessitating humility in the worship of the Creator.
Continue reading “Creation and Doxology: A Portrait of Biblical Creation Theology (pt. 2)”

What Does the Bible Say about Poverty? – The Book of Proverbs

Introduction: Poverty and Wealth

In contrast to the affluence of mainstream American culture, poverty is a harsh and painful reality. It can be found in abundance in the urban centers of this country, and in countless other places around the globe.

Modern day slavery “more cruel than any beast of prey” (Wright 2005, 136), it traps human beings created in the image of God in a lifestyle of hunger, sickness, anger, and darkness.

However, one can effortlessly go through daily life in middle class America without giving much thought or care to the billions of people living in poverty worldwide. Furthermore, one can even profess faith in Jesus Christ and regularly attend an average evangelical church in the United States without being prompted to pay the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed of this world any mind.

In this milieu of wealth and poverty existing side by side in an atmosphere of confusion and apathy, the book of Proverbs provides relevant insights into the nature of poverty, the nature of Yahweh, and how his people should respond to it.

(For more on how Christians should think about poverty and wealth, see my essay “Christians and Wealth.”)

Descriptions of Poverty: Effects and Causes

Many proverbs are devoted to describing the harsh realities of poverty, showing that the Hebrew sages were well aware of its existence and characteristics.

Effects

These proverbs frequently describe the poor in direct contrast to the wealthy. Consider Proverbs 10:15:

“A rich man’s wealth is in his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

The force of the antithetical parallelism of this verse is hard to overlook. Whybray explains that the main point “is that wealth protects the rich from the vicissitudes of life, while the poor, having no resources to fall back on, are easily vulnerable to total disaster” (1994, 165).

The word used for “poor” here is dal. While Whybray states that this word is synonymous with the other Hebrew terms for “poor” (˓ānı̂, ˒ebyôn, and rāš)in Proverbs (1994, 165), The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) differentiates dal from the other three, saying that “unlike ˓ānı̂, dal does not emphasize pain or oppression; unlike ˒ebyôn, it does not primarily emphasize need, and unlike rāš, it represents those who lack rather than the destitute.” Dal refers to the lack of both material and social resources (Harris, et al. 1999).

This lack of social resources can be seen in the proverbs that describe how poverty affects relationships. Proverbs 14:20 says that

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.”

This same theme is reiterated in chapter 19:

“Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend” (19:4).

Expanded across two verses, it reads:

“Many seek the favor of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts. All a poor man’s brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him!” (19:6-7a).

These three proverbs contrast the social standings of the wealthy and the impoverished. Alden’s comment on 14:20 is apt when he says that “the unfortunate truth [is] that greed is a more compelling trait than generosity; people are more eager to have rich friends than poor ones” (1983, 114).

Proverbs 19:6-7a expands upon this, describing how people are naturally drawn to relationships that give them material benefit. It is rare, however, to find people who are drawn to relationships that would cost them materially. Even a poor man’s family members “hate him”!

Bridges says it well:

“As the winter brooks, filled from the opening springs and the torrents from heaven, are dried up and vanish before the summer heat; so these friends of the poor go far from him, cold, distant, and vanishing in the day of his calamity” (1987, cf. 1846, 312).

Materially and socially, poverty wreaks havoc on the lives of those it entraps.

Causes

Given the terrible effects and characteristics of poverty, Proverbs naturally contains many admonitions to avoid its causes.

Causes of poverty listed in Proverbs include (but are not limited to):

  • a “slack hand” (laziness) (10:4),
  • ignorance of instruction (13:18),
  • endless talk (without toil/labor) (14:23),
  • hastiness (21:15),
  • the love of pleasure (21:17),
  • drunkenness and gluttony (23:21),
  • worthless pursuits (28:19),
  • and stinginess (28:22).

Of particular interest is the repetition of the warning against excessive slumber if one is to avoid poverty (6:10-11; 20:13; 23:21; 24:33-34).

Proverbs 6:10-11 and 24:33-34 include the almost verbatim admonition:

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”

Sleep (as compared with labor) might give the initial benefits of rest and relaxation, but when developed into an excessive habit, it can have disastrous consequences.

John Chrysostom comments upon 6:11:

“Is work at first difficult? Then look to its results. Is idleness sweet? Then consider what comes out of it in the end. So let us look not at the beginning of things, but let us also see where they end up” (Wright 2005, 50).

This approach perhaps summarizes most of the practical warnings in Proverbs about avoiding poverty. What initially seems like the easiest and most comfortable choice will rarely, if ever, lead to success.

Set apart from the practical warnings of avoiding poverty, however, is Proverbs 22:16:

“Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”

The verb “oppress” here is the term ˓ā∙šǎq, meaning “mistreat, i.e., treat a disadvantaged member of society unjustly with the effect of causing one to suffer ill-treatment” (Swanson 1997).

Although the Hebrew of this verse is quite difficult and there is little concurrence among commentators as to its proper interpretation (Whybray 1994, 322-323), the sense of it seems to be that the end result of oppressing the impoverished for material gain is only further poverty.

Proverbs 30:14 comes to mind:

“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.”

These verses make the transition from descriptions of poverty to responses to its existence, highlighting the uncomfortable truth that improper treatment of the poor can bring disaster.

Responses to Poverty: Yahweh and the Poor

It is clear that Proverbs gives its readers a thorough understanding of the dreadfulness of poverty and the importance of avoiding it.

However, this understanding does little to inform the audience of how we should respond to the existence of poverty.

The surest foundation for a proper response to poverty is undoubtedly the character of Yahweh with regards to the oppressed and impoverished.

Consider Proverbs 14:31:

“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”

The first line of this proverb is echoed in 17:5a, and the second (seemingly unrelated) line of 17:5, “he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished,” has been taken by some commentators to refer to those who rejoice over not just calamity in general, but specifically the ruin of the poor (Whybray 1994, 255 and Clifford 1999, 164).

If this is the case, then these two proverbs taken together make the same point with both a positive promise and a negative warning. Clifford states the main point particularly well:

“The dignity of each human being comes from being created by God. Contempt towards anyone insults the person’s maker. The example of the poor person, the type perhaps least likely to gain respect, is used to dramatize the point. Every human being, irrespective of wealth, is worthy of respect” (1999, 164).

The same point is made in Proverbs 22:2, which states:

“The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all,”

and also in 29:13:

“The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.”

Our treatment of the poor needs to be based upon the fact that they have been made in the image of Yahweh and are therefore worthy of dignity and respect. To deny them the treatment that each and every human being deserves is not just stinginess, it is an insult and an offense to the Creator.

However, Proverbs goes further than appeals to imago Dei in its teachings about our treatment of the poor.

Atkinson says it well:

“The oppression of the poor is both a violation of someone who should be respected because he or she bears the image of the Creator, and also an attitude which does not reflect the character of the Creator, who is himself on the side of the poor” (1996, 111).

Proverbs 22:22-23 delivers a stunningly vivid warning:

“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.”

The reader is told to not take justice from the poor because they have the LORD as their defender at the gate (the site of legal proceedings). “The poor, by not having human protectors, have Yahweh as their protector. Paradoxically, their poverty gives them a more powerful protector than the rich could afford” (Clifford 1999, 207).

This gives a glimpse into a thematic truth of Scripture that has been called God’s “bias to the poor.” Atkinson quotes Karl Barth to further explain:

“The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience – the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream – has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens.

For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it” (1996, 111-112, cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 [T.&T. Clark, 1957], p. 387)

God’s heart for and even bias toward the poor extends well beyond the book of Proverbs. If one pays close attention, it is readily apparent that Scripture is saturated with it.

  • Yahweh intervened to save his people from the oppression and poverty they suffered in at the hands of the Egyptians (cf. Exodus 3:7-9).
  • He made his frustration at his people’s improper treatment and distortion of the impoverished and the needy known through the prophets (cf. Isaiah 10:1-3; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10-15; 6:4-7; Micah 2:2).
  • Jesus the Messiah cited his own mission as one that was inextricably tied to the poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:16-21).
  • The final judgment will be executed (at least partially so) with regards to the treatment (or mistreatment) of the poor and the needy (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God’s heart is for the impoverished, destitute, and oppressed.

It is important to establish this truth well in order to rightly proceed in our actions and attitudes toward the poor and the oppressed. This is because it is entirely too easy to think of God’s actions and attitudes as being most closely aligned with people who are just like us.

However, for the vast majority of Christians in the United States who live life in relatively extravagant comfort and ease, it comes as somewhat of a shock that God’s bias might actually be against us if we do not take this issue seriously!

Proverbs reflects that what is at stake here is much more than just our consciences, the minor twangs of guilt or moments of self-righteousness we too often experience in our infrequent interactions with the poor.

Responses to Poverty: Consequences and Rewards

The teachings in Proverbs regarding the treatment of the poor can be divided into three categories:

  1. those that display negative consequences for improper treatment,
  2. those that display positive rewards for proper treatment,
  3. and those that juxtapose the two.

Negative Consequences

Proverbs 21:13 states:

“Whoever closes his ears to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”

The frightening reciprocity of this verse hits hard when, in our culture, we are too often distracted by other things which are “more important” than attending to the needs of the poor. When we find ourselves in a moment of dire need, how can we expect to be answered if we have not answered the needy when we were able to do so?

Another warning against mistreating the poor that includes a form of retribution against the offender is Proverbs 28:8:

“Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers is for him who is generous to the poor.”

Whybray claims that the word for “interest” refers to “interest which was levied by deduction from the original loan but which had to be repaid in full,” and that “profit” refers to “an additional charge levied on repayment” (1994, 391).

The point is that money taken from the poor will not do its wicked owner any good, and has the potential to end up in the hands of righteous men which will in turn help to meet the needs of the poor.

Positive  Rewards

In addition, Proverbs contains several verses that positively portray, and thereby encourage, generosity towards the poor and preservation of their justice.

Consider Proverbs 19:17:

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

This proverb promises a reward to those who treat the poor with generosity. However, the main point is not to treat them with benevolence out of desire for a reward.

Whybray captures the point well:

“there is no idea here of a quid pro quo: no intention to encourage generosity simply for the reward which it will bring. The underlying thought is that generosity is characteristic of a person who is righteous; and the proverb reflects the basic belief that righteousness is, and ought to be, materially rewarded” (1994, 282).

A virtually identical point is made in Proverbs 22:9:

“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”

Furthermore, the well-known wise woman discussed in chapter 31 “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (31:20). Giving generously to the poor is a mark of a righteous person, one whose life will be blessed by Yahweh.

Combinations

Finally, some proverbs combine the negative and positive aspects of the previously mentioned verses through antithetical parallelism.

A prime example is Proverbs 14:21:

“Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

This verse highlights the benefits of generosity against the backdrop of the consequences of scorning one’s neighbor.

In a similar fashion, Proverbs 28:27 says that

“whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”

Whether or not the curses come from the poor who have been denied assistance, or from Yahweh himself, the point remains that there are rewards in caring for the impoverished and consequences for not doing so.

In addition to generosity, however, the Hebrew sages also expressed concern for the justice of the poor.

Proverbs 29:7 makes it clear that

“a righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.”

The importance of justice for the poor is also stated later in the chapter in verse 14:

“If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.”

Given Yahweh’s “bias” toward the poor and their status as his image bearers, it would do one well to be concerned with their legal rights.

It is not enough to simply not oppress the poor. Proverbs, along with the rest of Scripture, seems to mandate advocating for their justice.

Conclusion

In our current context of extravagant wealth and abject poverty existing side by side in a realm of confusion, apathy, and even malice towards the impoverished, Proverbs contains some timely and powerful teaching.

The Hebrew sages had a firm grasp on both the tempting causes and terrible effects of poverty. They, therefore, put a strong emphasis on avoiding it at all costs through diligence and hard work.

However, this did not lead them to abandon a proper view towards the poor, and they grounded all of their teachings about the proper treatment of the poor in the unchanging and perfect character of Yahweh, who is firmly committed to their protection and justice.

The modern readers of this ancient book would do well to heed its teachings regarding poverty, and to proceed with attitudes and actions in imitation of Yahweh in their interactions with and opinions of the poor, destitute, and oppressed of this world.

Bibliography

Alden, Robert L. Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.

Atkinson, David. The Message of Proverbs: Wisdom for life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Bridges, Charles. A Commentary on Proverbs. Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1987, cf. 1846.

Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Harris, R. Laird, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (electronic ed.). Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.

Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). (electronic ed.). Logos Research Systems, Inc. Oak Harbor, 1997.

Whybray, R. N. New Century Bible Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. , 1994.

Wright, J. Robert, ed. Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005.