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Finding Yourself in the Story: The Importance of Biblical Theology

Almost a decade ago, Lost, the TV series on ABC hit America like a storm. I never caught on because I didn’t have television, and Netflix was still a dream in Marc Randolph’s mind; eventually, I stopped by a friend’s house who was deeply entrenched in one of the episodes, but by this time, it was several seasons in. I tried to catch on. I saw that everyone else in the living room was deeply entranced by the show. But sitting on that sofa, I just wasn’t interested, much less fascinated, with Lost. You know why?

I had no idea what was going on.

Lost hit the airwaves during a time of massive change in the way television presented its content. No longer were shows sectioned off into bite-sized, thirty-minute sitcoms (situation comedies), but they were now linked by a metanarrative that stretched for seasons–even the entire series. Lost was one of the originals. You had to start watching it from the beginning; if you stepped in on an episode halfway through the season, you would be, well…lost.

That moment helped me make another connection: people will get lost in the details unless they understand the unifying narrative. It’s that storyline that helps make sense of all the little vignettes. This forced me into a further realization about the Scriptures.

It’s hard to read the Bible when you don’t know what’s going on.

Picture this…

What happens during your daily devotions, when, after waking up uncomfortably early, you roll out of bed, half-awake, and open your Bible to the book of Obadiah? Or Leviticus? Or Chronicles? Perhaps you read along, assuring yourself that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (2 Tim 3:16); but soon enough, you turn to the easier, more self-explanatory Proverbs, or perhaps you just reach for the John Eldridge paperback. I have had these moments too. I have sometimes felt that sinking feeling that I did not understand certain books of the Bible enough. We certainly know that all the Scriptures are important, but sometimes it may feel as if there were a deficiency in our understanding of certain parts, like some of God’s Word is out of our reach. For many people, this happens with the Old Testament. We love reading the simple story of the Gospels, or the propositional statements of Paul, because it feels as if they apply directly to our lives; but how in the world are we supposed to handle the book of Amos? It seems archaic, contextualized, and far removed, a very discouraging thought when we realize that two thirds of our Bible is Old Testament.

My hope is to draw you back to the Scriptures with joyful anticipation; but first, allow me to explain why they often don’t make sense to you.

You jumped into part of an episode of the Bible and got lost.

For example, the Bible may initially appear as if curated from disconnected books, but these books work to form a cosmic story only when considered together. As T. Desmond Alexander describes, “There is not a book within the whole collection that can be interpreted satisfactorily in isolation from the rest. Each book contributes something special to the meta-story and, in turn, the meta-story offers a framework within which each book may be best interpreted” (From Eden. 10).

This means, it can get very confusing when you just pop in to taste-test single verses without the rich context of Scripture surrounding them. It’s appropriate to digest single verses at once, but only if you understand the framework in which they belong. Studying this grand tapestry is an area of theology called Biblical Theology. And this is where the Bible gets very exciting! But don’t confuse Biblical theology with the way it sounds. Whenever we use the term biblical we generally refer to something “orthodox” or “correct”—it may sound like Biblical Theology is speaking about orthodox theology. But we are speaking of something entirely different (although it assumes orthodox theology!).

What is Biblical Theology?

Geerhardus Vos, the acclaimed theologian on this area of study, defines Biblical Theology as “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historical continuity” (Idea of Biblical Theology15).

Thomas Schreiner defines Biblical Theology as focusing on “the historical timeline of biblical revelation and the distinct contribution of each author. There are different facets, of course, but the focus is on the timeline as a whole and the unfolding of God’s plan” (www.sbts.edu)

James Hamilton describes his own book on Biblical Theology as an attempt to highlight a “central theme” by describing “individual books in canonical context with sensitivity to the unfolding metanarrative” (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 44).

I know some of these definitions are dense, but hopefully my italicizing highlighted a key point which will emerge in my definition:

Biblical theology involves reading the Bible as the unfolding revelation of God in history.

Daisy Love and the magic eraser

I learned how to tie my shoes last week.

At least, I think so. My friend Tiffany had to remind me how on the way to Sunday school when, before entering the door, I tripped on my pump-action L.A. Gear. We are both entering preschool next week, and she still beats me at everything, including, apparently, how to tie shoes. Well, at least my birthday comes first.

Who knows when I actually learn how to tie my shoes successfully, because when I go to bed tonight I will wake up as a thirty-two year old. It goes by that fast.

I’m now on my way to the sports pavilion where we are gathering to celebrate the life of Daisy Love Merrick, my pastor’s eight-year old daughter who recently went home with Jesus. She was a bastion of Christ-like joy and child-like faith, and there are already thousands of people lined up to honor her. I remember playing board games with Daisy and our families by the fireplace; we never would have guessed she was fighting cancer by that darling way she asked questions, or when she hid an eraser in the house for us to find and giggled when we failed miserably; one does not simply find an eraser in a house if a little girl chooses to hide it from you. One by one, we adults succumbed to our usual fatigue leaving Daisy begging us for “just one more game.”

Now as I approach the sports pavilion, I glance at my shoes which, being tied very nicely, are double-knotted, and laced-through various rivets without any impeding folds. I stop to admire them and smile at a fleeting memory before getting that strange sinking feeling—the kind you get when you realize you forgot to do your homework and are now walking into class: this might be my best accomplishment in life. And I’ve lived much of my life already. I suspect that the next time I blink, my eyes will open as a fifty-year old man. When I was in elementary school, nothing ever came quickly; now time ruthlessly inundates all who overstay their welcome, with half of my life passing before my eyes while blinking.

Now, please don’t mistake this for self-deprecation, but much the opposite. For it’s only by the mercy of God that life is never wasted, and may I, of all people, be so bold as to declare with Wesley, “Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!”

Notwithstanding second chances, I still cannot ignore how fast my life was spent, and how much of it was spent on nothing. And all of this reminiscing has revealed a glad and simple truth to me: some live more life in eight years than others do in fifty.

I also wonder if she took the eraser to heaven with her. That would explain a lot.

Book Review ~ Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves.

I remember facing an uncomfortable tension many years back while studying pre-calculus (math is not my forte). Everything discussed in the class was absolutely foreign to me–from the symbols being used to the professor himself, who danced around the chalkboard as if these complex formulas were poetry to his heart. I, however, work better with words, not numbers! The tension was between not understanding the subject and the nagging feeling that it was important to learn. So there I sat, wrestling with concepts I couldn’t grasp, hoping they would eventually sink in. But they never did. So I relegated most forms of math to the back of my brain, assuming that if I’m ever required to use derivatives, referring to the calculator on my iPhone will suffice. As it turns out, I’ve discovered that life is full of equations that bewilder my smart-phone.

So, what does this have to do with a review of a book on God?

What I just described is how many deal with the doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity’s basic belief in a God who exists in three persons. We sense that it’s an important doctrine to believe, but we may not necessarily know why we believe it, or why it matters. So as I did with pre-calculus, we put the doctrine of the Trinity on the shelf where it won’t bother us, but can be easily accessible in case an angel of the Lord drops in to give us a theological pop-quiz.

But there is good news!

Michael Reeves writes Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith to confirm that our intuition is at least half correct. It is an important doctrine, for “what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God” (15). But it can also be thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, Reeves will make his case that the doctrine of the Trinity is worth pulling off the dusty shelf to gaze at for a while.

The first two sections are worth the price of the book alone.

In the introduction, Reeves explains that the essence of the Trinity is the source of everything Christian you will ever experience, declaring that “what we assume would be a dull or peculiar irrelevance turns out to be the source of all that is good in Christianity. Neither a problem nor a technicality,  the triune being of God is the vital oxygen of Christian life and joy” (18). And it’s this hope that Reeves uncoils through the rest of the book.

Having a knowledgable professor (King’s College) write on a weighty topic with a young audience in mind seems to give the book a pleasant feel. Reeves keeps the jargon at a distance, choosing to wrestle only with concepts that satiate the average reader’s appetite for who God is. His writing style is sprinkled with a charming vernacular not ordinarily found in a subject of this girth. For example, he refers to the doctrine of the Trinity as a “perplexing dish” (12), a “vital oxygen” (18), and “delicious” (96). One of my favorite aspects of this book is that Reeves wrestles with your affections, as well as your intellect.

But don’t think this book is only for the young believer. Though Delighting in the Trinity is winsome, it is imbued with a robust theology spanning a panoramic view of church history, ranging everywhere from the Athanasian creed to Martin Luther, from ecclesiastical developments, to vignettes of past saints.

Chapter one is a beautifully crafted doxology. If Reeves desires to persuade you in the introduction, his main intent in this chapter is to thrill you. He moves you past the necessity of believing in the Trinity to wondering how your communion with God ever got along without such a potent view! Interacting with God the Father and God the Son, he tackles the themes of life they affect, from childhood issues and broken relationships to our longing for something more.

The rest of the book is filled with the personal interactions between each Trinitarian Person, where Reeves devotes one chapter to each. This is followed by a treatment of inevitable misunderstandings that are typical when talking about God, such as the reason for evil, and whether God is just in displaying his wrath. Throughout his writing, Reeves never assumes the reader will capitulate to his viewpoints, but carefully navigates his convictions using clever analogies, conditional statements, and sound logic, all of which is done with tremendous compassion.

The book concludes as succinctly as it began, with an intellectually honest appeal to consider the object of your worship. If you are a Christ-follower, or are thinking about becoming one, this is a fine introduction to Christianity’s most enduring tenet: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three God’s, but one God.” (Athanasian Creed, 15-16)

Get your copy on Amazon!

Sermon: An Appetite for Construction

I got to teach at Reality LA this Sunday in the middle of their new series on the Beatitudes. This particular verse was on Matthew 5:6,

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (ESV)

For more on their series, The New Societycheck out this short intro video, and join them at kingjesus.realityla.com

Missional Millennials: Worship through Identity (Part 1)

Millennials are the ambitious generation of movers and shakers, distinguished as those born between 1980-2000. Several hundred of them congregate at a weekly gathering called Adorn, in Carpinteria, CA., seeking an overlapping encounter with Jesus, his community, and the world.

This is our story.

Our identity forms what we worship.

We’ve discovered that our beliefs about ourself have a profound influence on how and what we worship. The power of the gospel can widen our capacity to worship God with relative ease, since the gospel—with its outlandish teachings of an alien validation wrought in Jesus—manhandles what we end up thinking about ourselves.

The gospel transforms our identities, and with it, our worship.

We exchange our identities for Christ’s. This is why I spent the first year of Adorn focusing on one section of our vision: Jesus must be our highest joy. It occurred to me that there was no real output (mission) in our first year of gathering, and I often fought with the pressure to create programs, outreach, and missional opportunities for this rambunctious group of millennials. But the God and time would prove my stress unfounded. After a year, a culture had developed where people’s identities were being transformed into the image of Jesus, and the outflow that resulted from inward change would yield far more motivation and opportunity than any program I could contrive or manufacture. Without warning, we had a gathering of young people who were ready to change the world, yet firmly grounded in the unchanging identity of Jesus. It wasn’t “callings” that I was supposed to dish out, but rather, a clear, direct route to the person and work of the mighty Son of God.

Find your identity before you find your calling.

If we do not shape our identity around Jesus, we will quickly default, wrapping our individuality around what we can carry out because we are a generation that is driven to make a difference in the world.

Consider these two scenarios…

  • You’re hired in the field of your choice, but only to a cut-throat corporation where those with the lowest performance record are routinely fired. The culture that will likely develop there is one of performance. Performance is determined by your own success or failure, and should you get hired, will be at the center of your identity.
  • Or, you’re hired by a corporation that only picks the best in the field, yet puts tremendous value on their employees as well as their contributions. The culture that will likely develop here is based on trust, and will be at the center of your identity.

In the first scene, your passion determines your identity; in the following scene, your identity determines your passion. Since our identity forms our worship, we must be exceedingly careful not to develop our identity (who we are) around our calling (what we do). These things must stay separate! An identity formed in Christ will create the motivation to succeed, without the fear of failure. But an identity formed by calling will relegate worship from God’s performance to ours, and will set us up for heartache when we fail miserably to match his impossible standards in every way. This generation must understand that our primary goal in this season of life is not in figuring out what we are supposed to do, but who we are supposed to be.

Effective millennials who want to be on mission with God must first have their identities rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

16 ways to “suck” at being missional

  1. When we’re ignorant of the implications of “missional,” but we drop it like a buzz word as often as possible
  2. When we’re only relational with our Christian friends
  3. When we move our Christian “bubble” to a trendy coffee shop and repeat the same patterns
  4. When we specialize in telling others how to be “missional” (anyone see my irony?)
  5. When we go on a short-term missions trip once, then come back home feeling like we’re the savior of the world
  6. When we do any ministry that lacks relational value (like much street evangelism. Some would disagree)
  7. When we’re judgmental towards outsiders
  8. When all we do is blog about mission
  9. When all we do is read about mission
  10. When we treat outsiders like targets who need to be converted
  11. When we’re hypocritical (we’re selling something, but we don’t even want to buy it)
  12. When we get theologically obese
  13. When we’re legalistic
  14. When we speak the Gospel without living the Gospel where we’re speaking
  15. When we fill our calendar with church meetings and events
  16. Bonus: inviting someone to Easter like this couple (short clip)

Agree/disagree?

Anything I’m missing from this list?

(Thanks for the thoughtful contributions from Derek [#1], Bethany & Matthew [#5], Kaleb [#12]), and Bobby [#15])

Worshiping rightly

Last night I spoke on worship from the viewpoint of John 4:13-26. From there I alluded to the “right way” and “wrong way” to worship God, but I wasn’t able to expound further on that, so, I’ll just continue the conversation here.

In a nutshell, here is how Jesus explained worship

  • We must find satisfaction in God, that consists of spirit and truth

This means that a holistic worship of God must involve,

  1. knowing who we are worshiping (truth), and
  2. engaging our entire being in that worship (spirit).

So not only do we know who God is, but our hearts should LEAP in response to this knowledge! Sam Storms puts it this way,

If you are wondering what the difference is between “rationally” believing that God is glorious and having a “sense of the excellency” of God’s glory, it is the difference between knowing that God is holy and having a “sense of the loveliness” of God’s holiness. (quoting Jonathan Edwards, A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ.)

Of course, this kind of worship has other implications tooobedience

According to the full scope of the Bible, the fruit of worshiping in spirit and in truth is always obedience. (“If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments” – Jesus). So that rules out “singing loud on Sunday, but doing my thing on Monday.”

This also takes the pressure off our infatuation with outward worshiping. True worship is not defined by what we do with our bodies or voices. Rather, what we do with our bodies and voices are simply a manifestation of what’s going on in our hearts (satisfaction in spirit and in truth). In fact, whether you raise your hands in worship or not has no bearing on how much God approves your worship, since he already approves of you perfectly through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. So, another way of looking at it is that your worship is already made perfect throughout Jesus Christ.

However, your engagement in that perfected worship depends on you.

You see, I love my wife Brianna. But I don’t just text her “I love you.” I come home excited to see her! But I’m not just excited, I’m so in love with her, that I’ll do the dishes, fold some shirts, and listen to her, so that she knows my heart for her. My love for her moves beyond words, to affections, then action towards her. In the same way, a person who is so taken by the Good News of Jesus Christ will not just mouth words, or lift their hands, but be moved in the entirety of their life to do anything that Jesus asks, not out of obligation, but out of adoration (worship). For this reason, immerse yourself in the Gospel and find out for yourself!

Of course, if you think long enough about the Gospel, it may just move you to raise your hands, dance, bow, weep, etc.

Just let it happen!

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