Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

StottJohn Stott.  2008.  Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958).  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Apostle Peter reminds us:  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1Peter 3:15 ESV).

Our ability to respond to Peter’s admonishment is clearly challenged today.  Outside of the criticism of our faith arising from the advocates for modern science, we are confronted in our shrinking postmodern world with a host of alternatives to Christianity from other religions and from complex and confusing voices in secular society.  In the midst of this whirlwind of controversy, John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, offers us a plainspoken starting point.

Stott outlines the Gospel in eleven chapters.  After a brief introduction, he presents has four parts:  1. Who Christ Is, 2. What We Need, 3. What Christ Has Done, and 4. How To Respond.  The first part focuses on the claims, character, and resurrection of Christ.  The second part focuses on sin.  The third part focuses on Christ’s death and salvation.  The fourth part brings us to count the cost, make a decision, and live the Christian life.

John Stott (1921-2011) was rector (pastor) emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London and founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He was one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant which started as a 1974 Christian religious manifesto promoting active world-wide Christian evangelism and continues to influence missions work today.  My first acquaintance with Stott came in 1983 when I visited Bonn in Germany as an economics student and a friend gifted me with Stott’s book—Gesandt Wie Christus (1976).  At the time, I assumed Stott was German.  Needless to say, Stott is still one of the world’s best known evangelical writers.

Stott acknowledges the enormity of the task of defending the faith–apologetics.  For example, he recounts a conversation with a young man having trouble reciting one of his church’s creeds because he could no longer believe it.  Stott asked him:  If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live?  The answer was clearly no.  His real problem was not intellectual but moral (25).  This conversation is not an isolated event–advocating a disciplined life-style today is a tough sell. Why give up self-control to Christ and live a disciplined life when in Alice’s Wonderland every headache can be solved with a different colored pill?

Stott’s final chapter on being a Christian is most interesting.  He writes:  Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth.  Everyone loves children, but nobody…wants them to stay in the nursery (162).  We grow in two dimensions—understanding and holiness—which work out in our duties to God, to the church, and to society (163-166).  This growth includes growth in our prayer life.  Stott advises readers to respond to God in prayer in the same manner that he speaks to you—do not change the subject.  If he talks about his glory, worship him; if he talks about sin, confess it; if scripture blesses you, thank him for it (164).  Stott’s comments about the spiritual practice of daily examine flow right out of this discussion.  In the morning, commit the details of your day to God’s blessing and, in evening, review what happened during the day.

John Stott’s Basic Christianity provides a well-ordered accounting of the Gospel that is worthy of study and reflection.  His summary—God has created; God has spoken; God has acted—is brief but compelling (18).  The Apostle Peter’s admonition sounds initially like evangelism.  But, if the truth be known, the accounting of our hope in Christ benefits us at least as much as anyone we meet.

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The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

Slave Ship, Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC

The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA,  August 24, 2003

Greeting

Good morning!

A key point when we face pain and suffering is that God remains with us.  We are not alone.

The prime example of this principle comes in the story of Daniel[1].

Now after Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den, King Darius was astonished that Daniel was still alive.  So, he summoned Daniel into his throne room and asked Daniel why the lions had not eaten him.

“It was easy, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “I went around and whispered in each lion’s ear — ‘After dinner, one of our elders will say a few words.'”

Scripture

Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Amen

 Psalm 51:10-12 RSV

Illustration

Let’s start this morning with a little mind experiment.  Think of someone that you respect.  What is special about this person?  Are they strong? Are they good looking?  What led you to respect them?  Chances are that many of the people you have in mind have suffered serious pain in their lives.

Larry’s Funeral

In July I attended a funeral of a colleague, Larry.  Larry was special.  No one was a stranger around Larry.  Larry had the glow.

At the funeral people talked about Larry’s lust for life and his joy.  Larry was known for his singing.  He was known in the office because he remembered co-workers’ children and asked about them.  About third of the church was filled with colleagues of Larry from other parts of town.

At the funeral, people talked about Larry’s strength.  He was a father and a grandfather.  He could throw a football an entire city block—twice the distance of his own brother.  What really stuck out at this funeral was the long list of testimonials—Larry clearly touched many lives.

Why do I mention this?

Larry was black and confined to a wheelchair for the time that I knew him.  Underprivileged, handicapped, and killed at age of 48 by the disease that crippled him, Larry was no stranger to hardship.  In spite of everything, he persevered in winning the golden crown award in the fellowship of saints.

Challenges Grow Us

We respect people that overcome difficult challenges.  In his book, Where is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey reports that leaders, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Queen Victoria, were all either orphaned at an early age or experienced severe childhood deprivation[2].

Why God?

The problem of pain sums up with the question:  If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he allow such pain and suffering? In shining light on this question, I will divide my comments into three parts.  First, I will look at the nature of pain.  Second, I will review Biblical views on pain and suffering.  Finally, I will conclude with a few words of wisdom.

What is Pain?

Pain communicates.  When we put a hand on a hot stove, our hand seems to shout:  get me out of here[4].  When we do something stupid and suffer ridicule from our friends, we experience a different kind of pain.  In the physical world or a social context, pain demands immediate attention.  It teaches us what to do and what not to do.

In discussing the spiritual side of pain, it is helpful to distinguish avoidable from unavoidable pain.

Avoidable Pain

Avoidable pain challenges our intelligence more than our faith.  When we drive without a seat belt and have an accident, God is not normally blamed.  Instead, the wisdom of wearing a seat-belt becomes painfully obvious.  Not all avoidable pains in this life, however, are equally obvious.

Sin.

The relationship between sin and pain is well understood.  Sin occurs when we do something that we should not do.  The obvious case is murder.  The immediate consequence of murder is the pain of imprisonment or death.

Iniquity.

Iniquity is more insidious than sin.  Iniquity occurs when we fail to do something that we should have done (Proverbs 3:27).  Iniquity can not only produce pain, but also a consuming guilt and shame.

When I think about iniquity, I remember a puppy that we had when I was in high school.  This puppy was very enthusiastic and slipped out of the house one morning as I was walking to school.  That morning I was late and the puppy did not catch up to me until I was quite a distance from home.  Upset with him, I sent him home.  Obediently, the dog immediately ran across the road and was struck dead by a passing car in front of my eyes.  I had done nothing wrong, but what I failed to do cost that innocent puppy his life.

More than sin, iniquity challenges modern society.   Consider, for example, the effect of technology on our ability to work 24-7.  As work fills our lives with good things, we have less time to raise our children, care for our elderly parents, and commit time to God.  The workaholic has no special proclivity to sin, but finds iniquity a constant challenge.

The Learning Process.

In the example of the workaholic, it is ironic that something good (like work) should lead to something bad (like iniquity).  This problem arises because the normal learning process breaks down.

Psychologists describe learning as responses to positive and negative stimuli.  We are attracted to positive stimuli and we avoid negative stimuli.  In other words, if it feels good, do it!  Or, as my doctor always tells me, if it is hurts, don’t do it!

The learning process breaks down when a positive stimulus is associated in the short run with pleasure and in the long run with pain.  Such phenomena are described as social traps.  Smoking, alcohol or drug addiction, cheating on our spouses and compulsive attention to work are all social traps.  In each case, the immediate gratification of our desires leads us where we would not normally choose to go.  Because the learning process breaks down, social traps require spiritual instruction.

Unavoidable Pain

Because God gives us the freedom to make decisions, bad decisions can generate avoidable pain.  The problem is that we cannot always avoid pain caused by other people’s decisions and the natural world has rules that all of us must respect.  Accidents happen.  Unavoidable pain is accordingly a consequence of free will and life in the natural world (Lewis, p. 34).  Still, the tendency to blame God for our pains has been with us since the time of Job.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (p. 90) describes suffering as: any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.  Like Lewis, I use the terms pain and suffering interchangeably because of personal experience.  When my wife, Maryam, began her battle with breast cancer eight years ago, her surgery and physical recovery were completed within weeks.  The immediate pain went away.  The scars on her soul and mine, however, never completely healed.

Perceptions of Pain

During World War II, anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher noted that only about one in three soldiers injured on the battlefield requested morphine while about four out of five civilians with similar injuries made this request.  This led him to conclude that physical injuries and the perceived pain are not directly linked (Yancey, p. 177).

Beecher’s conclusion makes sense because morphine calms a patient’s anxiety.  We can infer from Beecher’s observations that soldiers and civilians differ in their morphine use primarily because their sources of fear differ.  For the soldier, a trip to the hospital meant that he would likely survive the war.  For the civilian, the trip to the hospital meant pain and potential disabilities.  In effect, the soldiers’ joy in leaving the battlefield came associated with physical injuries that would terrorize a civilian.

Because fear magnifies our pain and suffering, pain management and a full recovery require that we deal with the spiritual side of healing.

Biblical Views of Pain and Suffering

God works to grow our faith and relationship with Him.  Sin thwarts this objective but God typically does not immediately punish us.  The point of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was to redeem us from God’s judgment and to bring the hope of eternal life—the Good News of the Gospel.   The Biblical view of God’s relationship with His creation can accordingly be interpreted as an antidote to the pain and suffering of the natural world.

The Beatitudes

To understand how Christ’s earthly ministry could end with the cross and the resurrection, it is helpful to begin with the Beatitudes—the happy attitudes.  In Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
”Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
(Mathew 5:3-4 NIV).

Notice that Jesus starts his sermon with suffering[7].  What could be more ironic than: happy are those who suffer?

Billy Grahm on Pain

In his book, The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham describes the mourners in the second Beatitude as those who mourn of their own spiritual inadequacy before God[8].  This is not a spirit of self-pity.  Rather, it is someone who has sensed the presence of a Holy God and found the comparison with self unbearable.  Mourning of spiritual inadequacy is accordingly followed by mourning for repentance (P. 20-21).  More to the point, we are all born under sentence of death, mourn under pain of death, and need the comfort of redemption.  Suffering accordingly plays a key role in our understanding of Christ’s redemptive ministry.

Pain And Suffering As A Wakeup Call

The Beatitudes give us hope that redemption, not suffering, is at journey’s end.  It is accordingly not surprising that the Bible disputes the common notion that God uses pain to draw attention to our sins.

The clearest example of this principle is found in chapter 9 of the book of John.  When Christ heals the man born blind, he answers the question of sin directly: who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus answered:  Neither this man nor his parents sinned, …but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1-3 NIV)[9]As in Christ’s ministry to the blind man, the point of our pain and suffering is not to draw attention to sin but for God to build a stronger relationship with us (Yancey, p. x).

Spiritual Warfare

In the Bible, great pain accompanies great joy.  In Mathew’s account of Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph flee in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s attempt to murder the Christ child[10].  Although we love to celebrate the joy of Christmas, the original Christmas story was marred by genocide and the stench of death.  Great pain accompanies great joy[11].

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Consider the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven.  During the period when he was losing his hearing, Beethoven wrote his ninth symphony, the Choral Symphony, taking the text from Friedrich von Schiller’s poem, Ode to Joy.  On its opening night in 1824 Beethoven conducted the orchestra. The music was so beautiful that some of the musicians cried.  Yet, Beethoven heard none of it.  He was so deaf that when the symphony ended a member of the orchestra had to get up and draw Beethoven’s attention to the audience who had already begun to applaud.  Had Beethoven given into depression in his deafness rather than looked to God for inspiration, the world would have been robbed of one of its greatest musical treasures.

Beyond Pain

Just like we must look beyond the pain of crucifixion to see the joy of the resurrection, we must look beyond the suffering in our own lives to see the perfect future that is in Christ.  Just as James writes:

Consider it pure joy, my friends, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-5 NIV).

This Biblical view of pain accordingly turns the stimulus-response world of human psychology upside down.  Normal learning is disrupted because a positive response (that is, joy) follows a negative stimulus (that is, suffering).  In Christian psychology, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.  This is why Paul writes: but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Words of Wisdom

In confronting pain and suffering, we are not alone.  We are not alone!  As the Apostle Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NIV)

Like Daniel in the lions den (Daniel 6:10-24), we testify to our faith by how we cope with pain and suffering.

Why Me?

The temptation in time of great adversity, of course, is to turn inward[13] and ask:  Why me?  The consequence of turning inward is that we end up blaming God for our problems and we become slaves to fear.

Stressful Year

During about a 12 month period in 1992-93, I lost my job, my son was born with a kidney defect, and my wife went through her first battle with breast cancer.  This was the hardest year of my life and I reacted by retreating into my work.  Out of deep seated fear, I worked every waking hour to learn new skills and to advance my career.

Initially, this approach worked.  I found a better position and was later promoted.  As time passed, however, the office situation changed.  Technical skills became less important and I found myself less able to adjust—I lacked self-confidence and fear prompted me to turn ever more inward.  It took me almost a decade before I was able to trust God enough to pull out of my shell.  While these years were not exactly wasted, I vowed before God that I would never again let myself become a slave to fear.

Where is God Leading Me?

Instead of asking why me, a better question to ask is:  where is God leading me?  Focusing on God’s plan for our lives is not only better theology; it diverts our attention away from our suffering and directly reduces our pain.  The change in attitude is also critical.  We are no longer victims of our own fears, but servants of an almighty God who are both willing and able to cope with the adversity.

An important byproduct of our own suffering is an increased capacity to minister to those suffering around us.  As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV).

The strength that we gather from a life at the foot of the cross therefore allows us to be available to those who suffer around us.  Can you listen?  Can you empathize?   In the words of Paul: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi [14]

Lord, grant that I may seek rather

To comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved;

For it is by giving that one receives,

It is by self-forgetting that one finds,

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen

Benediction

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

(Romans 15:13 RSV).

 Footnotes


[1] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel.

[2] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel. Zondervan:  Grand   Rapids, Michigan.  P. 141.

[4]God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains:  it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  Lewis.  P. 93.

[7] It is interesting that in the much shorter version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Luke 6, Luke also highlights these two among the four Beatitudes he lists.  Mathew lists nine Beatitudes.

[9] Likewise, Job learns to depend on God in adversity (McGee, pp. 188-89; Job 42:1-3 NIV).  Similarly, Paul write:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV).

[10] Mathew 2:16-18. Exodus 1:15-22.

[11] Similarly, in speaking of the second coming in Romans 8:22, Paul describes it as the pain of childbirth which is immediately sweep away by the joy of holding a newborn baby.

[13]If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Ecclesiastes 4:10.  Also, Cloud and Townsend, p. 216.

[14] Graham. p. 24.

References

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend.  1992. Boundaries.  Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor. 1980.

Graham, Billy 1955. The Secret of Happiness, Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain.  MacMillan Publishing Company:  New York.

McGee, J. Vernon.  1991. Job.  Thomas Nelson Publishers:  Nashville, TN.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  New   York:  Bantam Books, Inc.

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Card Explores Lament; Aids with Grief

Michael Card, A Sacred SorrowMichael Card.  2005.  A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament.  [Also:  Experience Guide].  Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Grief is a postmodern embarrassment.  American society has abandoned the idea of Sabbath rest; even the pre-eminent American holiday, Thanksgiving, is being pushed aside to make more room for holiday shopping.  As the pace of life keeps accelerating, the rhythm of life allows little room for honest reflection; honest emotions.  Grief often comes as a kind of alien invasion.

In this context, Christian musician, Michael Card, observed after 9/11—we, in the American church, had no songs to sing in response to the horrific attack (7).  Songs to sing?  When Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Babylonians, the Prophet Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentation.  Lamentation is a song of grief.

Introduction

In his book, A Sacred Sorrow, Card set out to rediscover the lost art of lamentation.  He studies lamentation in the OT and NT focusing on the characters of Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus.  A key verse in this study is found in Exodus 7:16 [Moses said to Pharaoh] The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. The desert in this context is interpreted literally but also figuratively. It is often in the desert that we meet and learn to depend on God.

Biblical Walk

In this sense, grief is a walk in the desert that can lead us to God.  In our grief we almost invariable get angry at ourselves and at God.  Lament helps us turn from self-pity to access our anger and express our grief—the only healthy response to death.  Lashing out at God means we finally take him seriously.  In turn, God honors our anger.  Many of the Psalms are laments which explicitly model both the expression of rage and the subsequent turning to God.  Here lies the path of our salvation:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 43:1-5 ESV).

Card cites this passage from Isaiah and makes the important point that God promises to be with us. He does not promise to give us a care-free life or life without pain—grief exposes the carefree life promised by the postmodern lifestyle as a lie.  When we pray, it is accordingly important to ask for and treasure God’s presence. God’s gifts follow his presence.

Assessment

A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card deepened my conscious relationship with God.  In addition to A Sacred Sorrow, Card also has an A Sacred Sorrow: Experience Guide which is usefully studied in addition to this book. Between the two, the experience guide is more accessible.  Both are worth reading and studying either alone or with a small group.

Card Explores Lament; Aids with Grief

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JOHN 14: Jesus’ Farewell Consolation

Dead_flowers_102302013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed (Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV).

One of the simplest and most profound lessons that I learned in seminary was called a ministry of presence. It is a humble, silent ministry:  be there.

When my sister, Diane, passed away, I traveled to Philadelphia to attend the funeral at her home church.  Other than family, I knew almost no one. Yet, I remember the comfort of being with a crowd of some 350 perfect strangers. Their gift to me was a ministry of presence.  Words still cannot express my appreciation.

Jesus promises to never leave us orphans (v 18).  In this context, an orphan is a disciple whose teacher has died[1]. Jesus’ comment–But the Helper, the Holy Spirit (paraclete), whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (v 26)—speaks directly to his presence with us.  Paraclete actually means:  one who appears in another’s behalf, mediator, intercessor, helper (BDAG 5591).

When Jesus appears to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, he is actually modeling the role assumed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:14-35).  The paraclete is a powerful helper (v 27) who teaches us (v 26) and who grants us effective prayer (v 13) and peace (v 27)1. Other than Job 16:2, John is the only biblical author who speaks of the Holy Spirit using this word.

So Jesus says that we will not be alone, but he also says that our ultimate home is in heaven (vv 2-3).  The word, house, has several nuances.  It can mean a physical dwelling, a temple, a family, or a dynasty.  In 2 Samuel 7:7-16, a play on the word, house, is used by the Prophet Nathan to describe God’s covenant with King David.  When the Apostle Paul says that our—citizenship is in heaven—he is building on this same idea (Philippians 3:20).  Ours is a heavenly house, a heavenly family, and a heavenly destination.

Jesus [also] said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (v 6).  This statement reminds us of Deuteronomy 31:8 where God’s Shekinah cloud is pictured going before us. The word, truth, used here is interesting.  Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit (v 17) are described with this same word.  In Hebrew, the word truth (אֱמֶת) is spelled with three letters (alef, mem, tav)—the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet1.

What greater comfort could we have than to know that our savior is divine, is the alpha and the omega (all truth), and has final authority over life and death?


[1]Gary M. Burge. 2000.  The NIV Application Commentary:  John.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, pages 390-413.

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JOHN 13: Foot Washing

By Stephen W. HiemstraOld_shoes_10192013

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 ESV).

What does it mean to be a disciple?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a sign and then explains it.  Here the sign is dramatic—Jesus assumes the role of a slave and washes the feet of the disciples.  He then gives them a commandment:  love one another (v 34).  Both the sign and the commandment are equally dramatic.

John uses the word commandment four times in his Gospel.  In the first two uses, Jesus responds commands from and to God the Father:  but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life (John 12:49-50).  The third and fourth commandments are the same: love one another (v 34 and John 15:12).   Washing feet—an attitude of service—is the sign that goes with the love commandment.  Love is the only commandment in John’s Gospel.

The idea that Jesus commanded us to love one another is not in dispute.  In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus commands us to love God and our neighbor.  On these two statements of love hang the law and the prophets.  In other words, the double love command summarizes the entire Old Testament.  Similar statements can be found in the writings of Paul, James, and Peter.

Still, the foot washing sign raises some interesting comparisons.  For example, Jesus is not the first foot-washer that we meet in John Gospel—that honor goes to Mary in chapter 12.  Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.  In chapter 12 Judas objects to Mary’s foot washing; in chapter 13 Peter objects.  Was Jesus so impressed with Mary’s service that he required it of his disciples?  Were the disciples so unhappy with the idea of radical servanthood that they betrayed Jesus?

The other interesting comparison is between foot washing and communion.  John’s Gospel is the only Gospel account to discuss foot washing at the last supper and he neglects to mention communion which is the focus of other accounts (Luke 22:13-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).  By contrast, John’s miracle of the feeding of five thousand where Jesus says–I am the bread of life (John 6:35 ESV)—has the sacramental feeling of communion.

Here John appears to have provided us a radical model of discipleship which substitutes a model of discipleship focused on service both in intimate moments (the last supper) and in public moments (the feeding of the five thousand).  This reading suggests that John’s communion is an outsider’s communion (the feeding of the five thousand) rather than an insider’s communion (disciples only) because it fits his model of discipleship better.

One further comparison is worth mentioning.  The foot washing incident in Luke 7:36-50 involves an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment.  In that incident, it is Jesus’ host, a Pharisee, who objects to the foot washing.

Jesus’ lesson on foot washing is a hard teaching–a disciple is one who serves; one who loves.  Left to myself, I object.  Do you?

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Barnes Interprets Heidelberg; Offers Postmodern Reading

Barnes_10152013M. Craig Barnes.  2012.  Body & Soul:  Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism.  Co-published:  Grand Rapids:  Faith Alive and Louisville:  Congregational Ministries Publishing.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

November 15, 2013 is the 450th anniversary of the publishing of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC).  The HC famously begins with this question:  What is your only comfort in life and in death?  The answer is:  That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ (165).  The HC consists of a 129 questions with answers structured in much the same manner.

The HC is straightforward, yet a bit intimating.  Many protestant communicants continue to study it, yet the prospect of being tested on its contents is intimating—and not only for teens.  The appeal of a short book which talks about the theology and origins of the HC is obvious.

Author Craig Barnes (biography at: http://bit.ly/1bUJLgy) is an intriguing candidate to write an introduction to the HC.  Dr. Barnes has a doctor of philosophy in church history and began 2013 as the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was previously on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and senior pastor of a church.  Perhaps most interesting is that he also serves as a professor of pastoral ministry.  Being a professor of pastoral ministry implies that his primary job is to teach aspiring pastors the art of pastoring.   It is interesting that this pastor to pastors has placed a high priority on communicating the details of the HC—I like his priorities.

Body and Soul is organized in six chapters around the structure of the HC itself.  Before the HC discussion is an introduction.  After the discussion is a reproduction of the HC itself and a brief set of notes on the history.  The HC reproduced is the new 1988 translation from the German and Latin complete with the scriptural references that were previously not readily available.  This translation represents collaboration between the Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America (163).

Chapter 1 is entitled:  The Only Comfort—question 1 (abstracted above).  The chapter starts with three vignettes of people lost in pain—a pastor coming home from a funeral; a firefighter having trouble making ends meet; and a new widower visiting his wife’s grave.  The chapter then proceeds through a number of contemporary problems.  The headings are descriptive:  contemporary anxiety; is religion the answer; an inheritance of faith; help from the sixteenth century; a holy conversation; my only comfort; I belong; to my faithful savior.  Barnes makes a compelling case that the HC is 450 years old but still very applicable to the problems we face today.

Body and Soul is a neat little book. Barnes is an artful story teller who is able to bring amazing historical and theological insights into his presentation of the HC.  Barnes’ stories make his written accessible to a wide audience, much like the Q&A format of the HC itself.

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JOHN 12: Jesus Messiah

By Stephen W. HiemstraCandle_perfume_rose_10172013

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9 ESV).

What kind of Messiah is Jesus?

Messiah is a Hebrew word that means anointed one.  John is the only New Testament author to use it and he equates it with the Greek word, Christ (John 1:41; 4:25).  Three offices were anointed:  prophets, priests, and kings.  Two events in John 12 point specifically to the interpretation that Jesus is a Messianic king:  his anointing by Mary (vv 1-8) and his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (vv 12-19).  Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and Jesus’ choice of a donkey to ride into Jerusalem both point to humility—Jesus is a king coming in peace.

It is interesting that both events—the anointing and the entry into Jerusalem—appear in all four Gospel accounts.  But the Gospels disagree on  details of the anointing. John’s account, for example, is the only one to place Lazarus at the event and to name, Mary, as the woman anointing Jesus.  Mark and Matthew have Jesus anointed on the head; Luke and John have Jesus’ feet anointed.

All four Gospels have Jesus anointed by a woman—this is a shocking event for a Jewish king. The expectation is that a king is anointed by a prophet.  For example,  the Prophet Samuel anoints both King Saul and King David (1 Samuel 10:1, 16:13).

John 12 marks a transition from Jesus’ ministry into his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The ESV translation suggests these divisions:  Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany (vv 1-8), the plot to kill Lazarus (vv 9-10), the triumphal entry (vv 12-19), some Greeks seek Jesus (vv 20-26), the Son of Man must be lifted up (vv 27-36), the unbelief of the people (vv 37-43), and Jesus came to save the world (vv 44-50).

The nature of Jesus’ messianic role clearly divides people in John 12.  Judas Iscariot disagrees with Jesus about the perfume used to anoint Jesus supposedly because of the cost.  But female anointment must also have weighed on his mind (vv 4-8)—Jews had trouble seeing Jesus as messiah.  The crowd that gathered at Bethany is clearly interested as much in Lazarus as in Jesus (v 9).  Lazarus must have  reminded them of 1 Kings 17:23 when Elijah raised a young man from the dead—a comparison suggesting a prophetic messiah.  By contrast, the crowd that gathered the morning waved palm branches and chanted words from Psalm 118:25 (hosanna means save us in Hebrew) suggesting that they expected a kingly messiah (v 13).

The appearance of gentiles (Greeks) in verses 20-26 curiously moves Jesus to remark:  The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (v 23).  Jesus frequently mentions sheep in John’s Gospel, but in Matthew’s Gospel he twice says that:  I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24 also 10:6).  As Jesus enters Jerusalem, his mission to the lost sheep of Israel is drawing to a close.

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JOHN 11: Raising of Lazarus

By Stephen W. Hiemstra Jumping

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (John 11:25-26 ESV).

One big anxiety that amputees experience is that lost body parts embody their identity in ways that must now change. The pain is particularly acute when the body part is associated with a beloved activity. Our hearts go out, for example, to the runner that loses a leg or the brilliant researcher who develops Alzheimer’s disease.  Our body is part of our identity.

God knows who we are and feels our pain—to be human is to be whole in body, mind, and spirit.

Jesus raised the widow’s son out of compassion (Luke 7:13) and he wept before raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:35).  How compassionate would Jesus have been if he had raised the widow’s son from the dead only to have the son live on as a paraplegic?  Or if Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead but left him mentally handicapped?

During my time as a chaplain intern, I knew a dear woman who had been resuscitated after her heart stopped for eight minutes.  The resuscitation left her afflicted with dementia and forced to live in a lock-down, Alzheimer’s unit.  The affliction left her family guilt ridden and torn over their decision to resuscitate her.

The point of this story is that resuscitation leaves scars.  Scripture reports that the widow’s son and Lazarus were returned to health without scars.  Consequently, Jesus did not resuscitate them; he re-created them as only God can.

Resurrection is an act of grace—bodily resurrection completes the compassion.

Jesus was bodily resurrected.  When the resurrected Christ appeared before the disciples in Jerusalem, he was hungry; the disciples gave him a piece of broiled fish and he ate it (Luke 24:41-43).  Furthermore, Christ’s compassion for his own disciples, who had deserted him, suggesting that Jesus did not harbor the deep emotional scars that might normally accompany the trauma that he experienced (John 21:17).

Consider the alternative.  What if Jesus had been raised only spiritually, how long would he continue to empathize with fleshly humans?  Or what if Jesus harbored some grievous handicap or emotional scares?  Would he still have pity on the rest of us?  Would we really want to stand before such a scarred and potentially vengeful judge?

Bodily resurrection is re-creation, not resuscitation.  It gives us hope because our judge is healthy and whole—still human—and he still loves us.

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JOHN 10: Good and Bad Shepherds

TOSHIBA Exif JPEG

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is your favorite scripture passage?

One of the most beloved scripture passages begins:  The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:1-2).  Another favorite passage is Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7).

We love stories about good shepherds precisely because we have lots more experience with bad ones.  Just think about the current federal government shutdown. Bad shepherds were also the norm in Jesus’ time.

Jesus’ story of the good shepherd pictures three elements:  a door, a shepherd, and sheep (John 10:1-6).

The door image here is of a sheep pen with a single entrance gate or door where the sheep belonging to an entire village might be kept at night.  The gatekeeper might be a local teenager (v 3).

A good shepherd enters by the door (v 2).  Thieves might try to sneak over the fence but the shepherd enters by the front door (v 1).  The good shepherd also loves the sheep and they love him.  Jesus says:  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (vv 14-15).  Hired shepherds lack this love and run away when wolves attack the sheep (vv 12-13).

Sheep scare easily (v 5).  For this reason, Middle Eastern shepherds talk, sing, and play music for their sheep to calm them down and to lead them.  Consequently, the sheep do not need to be sorted in the morning—the shepherd just calls their sheep and they come (v 4).

The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds.  Sheep recognize good shepherds.  The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith.  Bad shepherds show up in John10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.

The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds.  The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; v 22).  Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC.  Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies—a very bad shepherd!  While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).

We are not to despair being a sheep living in a world of bad shepherds.  Jesus says:  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (vv 27-28).

Our obligation is to follow the good shepherd; our reward is eternal life.

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Gabriel Models Virtue; Speaks Worlds

Stephen Gabriel.  2011.  Speaking to the Heart:  A Father’s Guide to Growth in Gabriel_10012013Virtue.  Falls Church:  Moorings Press.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Virtue.  That to which we hold ourselves accountable to.  Or not.  If your forehead were a billboard, what objectives would be written there?  Stephen Gabriel’s book, Speaking to the Heart, is a book that I wish that I might have written at a younger age.

Speaking to the Heart is a book for fathers written by a father (11).  Gabriel’s focus on virtues arises from the desire to be an intentional father who can assist his children in navigating the turbulence of life (12).  For those of us uncomfortable with the subject of virtues, Gabriel advises—pay attention to your discomfort because it points in the direction of wisdom (14).

The book is organized around 20 virtues starting with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity).  These 20 chapters are introduced with an introduction and followed with a conclusion.  Each of the 20 chapters begins with a scripture passage and a famous quote.  The virtue is then defined in a single page.  This definition is then followed by a two page discussion entitled:  “Considerations for Growth in the Virtue of XXX”.

Chapter 7, for example, focuses on temperance.  The scripture passage is 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 which begins:  “All the fighters at the games go into strict training…”  He then cites Robert Burton:  “Temperance is a bridle of gold.”  Gabriel writes:  “Temperance is evidenced by a sense of moderation and restraint in the exercise of our appetites.”  First among the considerations for growth cited is:  “I reflect on how I seek my happiness and fulfillment”.  Another gem is:  “I am more attentive to the people I am with than to the food and drink.”

Gabriel’s Speaking to the Heart oozes authenticity.  What gives the book authenticity is not the author’s professional background, expertise in ethics, or ability to turn a phrase. Gabriel is not an obvious candidate to take up the pen here. Gabriel’s authenticity arises because he promises publically to model virtue as a father and outlines what that looks like.  In a postmodern world devoid of adults, that takes guts.  You want to be a good parent?  Model virtue.

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