The Anxiety of Prosperity Theology

I often hear people say, “If God is going to bless us, we must believe fervently without any doubts that God will bless us. We must claim our blessing with full assurance that we will get it.” But we don’t see that here, nor do we see that attitude in other places in the Bible. Think of all the greatest servants, from Abraham to Joseph to David to Jesus himself who often prayed and did not get the answer they sought. If we say, “I know you will answer this prayer, God. You can’t not answer it”—then our confidence is not really in God’s wisdom but in our own. As a pastor, I have heard countless people say, “I trusted God, and I prayed so hard for X, but he never gave it to me. He let me down!” But to be more precise, their deepest faith and hope was actually set on an agenda they had devised for their lives, and God was just a mean they were deploying to get to that end. At best, they were trusting in God-plus-my-plan-for-my-life. But these three men [Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego] trust in God period.

The “I just know he will rescue us” kind of approach may seem confident on the surface, but underneath it is filled with anxiety and insecurity. We are scared that maybe he won’t answer the prayer for deliverance. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego really believed “all the way down” to God. So they were not nervous at all. They were already spiritually fireproofed. They were ready for deliverance or death—either way, they knew God would be glorified and they would be with him. They knew God would deliver them from death or through death.

–Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 231

Marriage is More Than Commitment

“Marriage isn’t about your happiness; it’s about your holiness.”

“Marriage isn’t primarily about being ‘in love’; it’s about covenant-keeping.”

Maybe you’ve heard something similar to those lines in a recent sermon/book/blog post on marriage. I have. In fact, I’ve said those very things in sermons. Yet, I think that it can be possible to push the emphasis on commitment in marriage too far. In a reaction to the wider culture’s emphasis on marriage as personal fulfillment, some of the language coming from Christians seems to reduce the essence of marriage down to bare commitment (Remember: I have done this).

Now, of course, covenant-keeping is the foundation of marriage. God does not allow us to just pick up and leave because we’re not “in love” anymore. Passion waxes and wanes, and during those “waning” periods, spouses need to stand firm on their covenant commitment.

But, passion, desire, and attraction do play a significant role in marriage. Here’s the evidence:

1) God regularly uses marriage language to describe His relationship to His people, in both Testaments. For example, in Hosea, God yearns for His people. He even goes so far to say that He will “allure” Israel. In other words, God will win Israel’s affection back to Himself because of the self-giving affection He will show to her (Hosea 2:14)! If God is passionate about His “spouse,” should we not also be passionate about our spouses? God delights in His people. Should we not delight in our spouses?

2) God does not want disinterested duty/obedience from His people. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is all about: you can be outwardly conformed to the Law, but if your heart isn’t in it, it’s not real obedience. God regularly condemns outward obedience, outward religiousity without inward affection: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Isaiah 29:13). In a similar way, I do not think that mere outward commitment to our spouses is an adequate cover for disinterest and lack of passion in them. Don’t misunderstand: I am not saying that it’s ok only to do things for them “if we feel like it.” My point is that love consists of two things together: covenant commitment and affection.

3) If God commands married couples to have regular sex—which He does (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)—then it is hard for me to see how passion and desire don’t play a significant role in marriage. Sex is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not: passion less. There seems that there must be some level of attraction, some level of desire and overwhelming passion which moves a married couple to engage in sexual intercourse.

Christian marriage, like anything in the world, is stained with sin. We are not always on an emotional “high” with our spouse. We do not always love them like we should. But Christian marriage is also something which Christ is redeeming. So we can have a passionate and loving marriage, even as we get older with our spouses. Let’s keep covenant with our spouses; but let’s also be passionate about them too.

Come Home: A Theology of Exile and Return

God created Adam and Eve as His imager-bearers in the world (Genesis 1:26-27). They had a relationship with God (they were “sons” of God) and also they had a commission over creation to be servant kings.[1] Although not specifically part of the imago dei, God marked off humanity with sexual complementarity for the basis of procreation and also a need for human relationship (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15). Due to sin, however, all the crucial relationships were severed. Men and women would be at enmity with each other (Genesis 3:16). The created order was cursed and the relationship with its “masters” (man and woman) broken. It would only bring forth produce through great effort (Genesis 3:17-18). Finally, the relationship with God was also severed. Although God clothes Adam and Eve with skins (prefiguring the need for sacrifice), God casts them out of His presence (Genesis 3:24). They are cast out from the Garden of Eden which was the first temple, the location of God’s presence. In other words: they are exiled from Eden.[2]

But God also promised a coming descendent from the woman who would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Although there is judgment, there is also hope found in a promise. God’s plan continues by re-establishing the world as a new creation with the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17). God will keep from judging the world again in such an all-consuming way which will allow His plan to take shape and form over the centuries.

God then calls Abram and makes a covenant with him by which the great promises of land, seed, and blessing will be fulfilled (Genesis 12:1-3). Specifically, through Abraham’s seed will come the salvation of the world. God’s plan is furthered as Hebrew people multiply (Exodus 1:20). Yet, the people are enslaved by Egypt. Through a mighty act—the exodus—God delivers Israel from bondage (Exodus 13:13-31)

After delivering the people, God forms them into a nation through His covenant with them, thereby fulfilling His promise to Abraham (Exodus 19:1-25). Although the covenant is based upon God’s grace to Israel, there also covenant stipulations that Israel must uphold. If she obeys God, then she will have long life in the land of promise. If, however, she disobeys God, then God will levy the covenant curses upon her, the ultimate of these being exile, removal from the promised land (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). But God had a plan from the start for Israel to return from exile (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).[3]

As the prophets engage with the people, they plead with Israel to turn from her wicked ways and return to Yahweh. As it becomes increasingly clear that Israel won’t avoid exile, the prophets speak of both judgment and salvation.  The future act of salvation is described as a return from exile. When the prophets speak of the return from exile, it could be easy to get the impression that only one return is envisioned, which also probably coincides with the coming of the Messiah. Yet a careful reading of the prophets indicates that there are actually two stages to the return: a physical return and a spiritual return.

Often in the prophetic message, the future is blended into one big picture, even though certain aspects of it may be separated. In other words, the way the prophets speak could sometimes be seen to imply that there will be only one stage of return from exile, even though there are actually two. The most famous of this prophetic “smashing together” is the coming of Christ. The coming of the Messiah is often picture as one event whereby He brings salvation to His people and judgment upon His enemies. The New Testament indicates, however, that there will actually be two comings of the Messiah. The first was fulfilled when Christ came to die and rise for sinners, and the second is when He will return to usher in the consummated kingdom.

In a similar way, there are two stages of exile: a physical return and a spiritual return. And this makes sense because as Peter Gentry notes, “You can get the people out of Babylon, but how do you get Babylon out of the people?”[4]

Moreover, the Old Testament itself testifies the need for a second return, a spiritual return, in two ways. First, the portrayal of the first return is pitiful in comparison to the great promises made by the prophets. The prophets envision a great day when God’s renewed people would be living securely in a new creation under a new covenant with a new David ruling on the throne. Those great promises did not come to fulfillment in the first return. Second, what the people really need is a change of heart, a renewed love for Yahweh. Because although the people return back to the land, the post-exilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) all record the exact same kinds of sin problems which lead to the exile in the first place!

So the prophets speak of a second return, a spiritual return from exile. The second return is also cast in terms of a second exodus. For example, the prophet Isaiah most noticeably uses the language of the Exodus to depict God’s future act of redemption (11:15-16; 40:3-5; 41:17-20; 42:14-16; 43:1-3, 14-21; 48:20-21; 49:8-12; 51:9-11; 52:3-6; 11-12; 55:12-13).[5] Scholar James Muilenberg writes, “Again and again Yahweh’s advent is described in language drawn from the Exodus.”[6] What Isaiah teaches is that the second exodus will supersede the first. Muilenberg comments further: “Israel’s first redemption will be repeated in even more marvelous fashion and with even greater works than at the beginning in the new Exodus from the whole wide-spreading Diaspora.”[7] In sum, the exodus provided the pattern for redemption throughout the Old Testament. Later Old Testament writers, particularly Isaiah, used the exodus to describe an even greater act of redemption in the future, in essence, a second exodus.

Other parallels between the end of the exile and the second exodus exist.[8] Ezekiel 4:4-6 shows how the prophet lied on his side for a total of 430 days, representing the sin of Israel leading to exile. The 430 days parallels the 430 years that Israel spent in slavery in Egypt before the exodus. Just as there was a period of bondage before the exodus, so there will be a period of bondage under foreign rulers before the new exodus.

With the beginning of the Gospels, the New Testament writers are continuing the story of the Old Testament. Although the nation of Israel is in the land, they still have not returned spiritually to the Lord. Many scholars have advanced this view, most notably N.T. Wright. Wright looks at many Jewish writings from the second-temple period and comes to the conclusion that the Jews believed they were still in exile. He writes, “[The Jews] believe that, in all the sense which mattered, Israel’s exile was still in progress. Although she had come back from Babylon, the glorious message of the prophets remained unfulfilled.”[9] The New Testament writers aim to show how Christ fulfills God’s promises and ushers in the true return from exile.

Jesus is the new David as well as the new temple. Through His death, Jesus inaugurates the new covenant with all of its promises: the indwelling Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, a new heart for God’s people, and the future promise of resurrection.  Jesus also brings in the new creation, albeit in an incomplete form (fulfilled, but not consummated) (1 Corinthians 5:17).

The New Testament writes also see the new exodus and the (spiritual) return from exile happening through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection opens the way for people to be reconciled to God. As Graeme Goldsworthy points out, the Exodus is the pattern of redemption in the Old Testament: “The exodus from Egypt repeats this picture with greater detail and clarity, so that the condition of the sinners and nature of God’s work to deal with this condition remain as the pattern of redemption until the coming of Christ.”[10] Therefore, it is not surprising that the New Testament writes use the language and motifs of the exodus to speak about the redemption we have in Christ.

Paradoxically, the (spiritual) exile is both over through Christ’s death and resurrection and yet still continues if people refuse to repent and believe in Christ. So although the Jews are back in the land in the Gospels, they are still spiritually exiled. Those “in Christ” have spiritually returned from exile because they are now citizens of the kingdom, yet they are still physically exiled because they await the new creation. This corrupted, sin-filled creation is not the true home of God’s people.

In the Gospels, it is made clear that Israel’s spiritual exile still continues by virtue of strategic quotations of Isaiah 6:9-10 (cf. Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40).[11] The nation as a whole has not been given the spiritual understanding of who Christ really is and thus will reject Him. Even after the Spirit has been outpoured (in fulfillment of the new covenant promises and Joel 2), Israel as a whole still refuses to believe the gospel. Paul attempts to preach to the Jews, but finds that they are still blind, as indicated by his quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 (Acts 28:25-27). It’s hard to escape the conclusion, then, that the judgment upon Israel in 70AD with the destruction of the temple and “scattering” of the Jews in the Diaspora is an intensification of Israel’s exile. The whole core and structure of Israel’s religion—temple, sacrifice and priesthood—was demolished.

This is exactly the picture that Paul paints in Romans 11. Israel is hardened and unreceptive to the gospel, while the Gentiles are joined into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant and the people of the new covenant. There is intensification, however, in the end, as the hardening and blindness of Israel will be lifted and Israel as a nation will come home to Yahweh—there will be a spiritual return for Israel eventually (Romans 11:25-27). Coinciding with Israel’s spiritual return and the end of her exile, there will also be another greater movement of Gentiles coming into God’s people (Romans 11:12).  Even the OT promised that the nations of the world who are exiled can return if they attach themselves to Israel’s God, now revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ (Jeremiah 12:14-17).

The consummation of all things at Christ’s return brings the complete fulfillment of the return from exile and second exodus. Furthermore, the judgments upon the unbelieving world intensify at the end, which are also linked back to the exodus narrative (cf. Revelation 8-10; Exodus 7-10). In other words, the judgments pronounced in Revelation are the typological fulfillments of the plagues of the exodus.[12] Through the judgments of the new exodus, God will bring His people into the new creation. The New Jerusalem will descend from heaven (Revelation 21:1). The exile from Eden will be over, but the existence of God’s people will be even greater than in Eden, for they will be forever with their Lord in glory (Revelation 21-22).

 

[1] Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 200-01.

[2] Stephen Demester, Dominion and Dynasty, NSBT (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 67. He writes, “For disobeying the divine word and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the man and woman are exiled from their geographical home, the throne-room of the universe, to live east of Eden as dispossessed royalty. They are removed from the source of the river of life and the source of their beatitude, the divine presence.”

[3] Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 539.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephen J. Wellum, “The Biblical-Theological Framework of Scripture” (classroom lecture notes, 22100 –Biblical Hermeneutics, Fall 2009), 57

[6] James Muilenburg, “Isaiah” in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 1956), 399.

[7]Ibid.

[8] Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant, 540.

[9] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 268-69.

[10]  Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 131.

[11] Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). 358.

[12] Ibid., 546-47.

A Ministry Discussion with Jordan Jones, Pt. 2

This series of posts is based upon an email exchange with my friend who is also a pastor in Northern Kentucky, Jordan Jones. He oversees the youth ministry of his church, while I primarily oversee the Community Groups at mine. To see where God is at work in our churches and lives, we are discussing various aspects of our ministries. Part One.

JORDAN: Sorry, I was distracted by the NBA playoffs! Let me get around to asking you a question: Chris, how do you define small group ministry in your church?

CHRIS: I usually look at small group ministry from two perspectives: the reasons why we should do small groups, and the purposes of small groups. Scripture shows us two reasons for small groups. First, we are created for community. When you think about the God we worship, what kind of God is He? He is Trinity, and always in perfect community. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Being made in God’s image, we reflect something of what God is like (Genesis 1:26-26). So I think that God created us for close community. Small groups helps meet this God-created “need” in our life. Second, we are saved for community. The gospel creates true community. We are born again not only into a new relationship with God, but also into a new family, the church. Small groups, then, helps connect us together as family.

The purposes of small groups are discipleship, care, and mission. We speak the truth of Scripture to one another in community, confess sin to one another, and express love (discipleship). We also view our groups as family so we care for one another when needs arise (care). And God’s mission extends through community (1 Peter 2:9-10). So we try to advance the gospel together on mission

To put a fancy coating on this: I would define small group ministry as groups which are transformed by the gospel, to be rooted in Christ, connected in community, and engaged in mission. That’s, at least, how I define them at Lincroft Bible Church!

JORDAN: Why do you see this as an effective model for church ministry?

CHRIS: I’ll give some of the practical reasons. biblical community helps all ministries of the church. Think about the different ways that biblical community impacts all areas of church life:

Bible study: The community groups will discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon. This enables the group to dive further into the gospel truths proclaimed in the sermons as well as creatively apply the text to the group’s particular context. It also helps streamline the teaching in the church so that the members are not bombarded with too many Bible studies.

Member Care: If a group member winds up in the hospital, the CG members are the “first responders.” They will be the ones visiting with and praying for the sick member. Thus, a burden is alleviated from the shoulders of the elders, who can concentrate on prayer and ministry of the word. If a group member falls on hard financial times, the CG can rally around him and bear the financial burden together. The member would not have to wait for his case to be reviewed and money from the “benevolence fund” given.

Evangelism: Rather than outsourcing evangelism training to a particular parachurch ministry, or cold-call evangelism which causes night sweats, biblical community provides encouragement to engage in evangelism. Members are hearing the gospel on a weekly basis and becoming well-versed in the biblical storyline, which should spill over into all areas of their lives, especially in conversation with others. In addition, if unbelievers happen to see the group in action, they will witness a community of love and service which provides great opportunities to proclaim the gospel to them.

Mercy Ministry: Various needs outside the church can be met through community groups. Groups are encouraged to engagetheir local neighborhoods with the gospel and with mercy ministry. Widows living next door can be cared for. Kids in the neighborhood can see love and service in action. Meals can be made for shut-ins. Mercy ministry is thus not confined to peopleover there, but mercy is actually given to those here, in our midst.

 

There Is No Other

It must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in somewhat different ways; that is, he stands behind good and evil asymetrically…In other words, if I sin, I cannot possibly do so outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty (or the many text already cited have no meaning), but I alone am responsible for that sin–or perhaps I and those who tempted me, led me astray and the like. God is not to be blamed. But if I do good, it is God working in me both to will and to act according to his good pleasure. God’s grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised. If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response (though there is more to be said) is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.

–D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?, pg. 186

2 Obstacles Which Keep You From God’s Mission (And What To Do About Them)

After Jonah had been in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, he is very literally propelled outward on God’s mission:  “And Yahweh spoke to the fish. And it vomited Jonah onto the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).

In essence, God was giving Jonah a second chance, a fresh start. For all of Jonah’s disobedience, his apathy toward other nations, and his reluctance to participate on God’s mission, God did not consign Jonah to being obsolete. He didn’t bench permanently bench Jonah and say, “Well, you messed up big time, you’re now not useful for me anymore.”

This seemingly irrelevant verse can be so instructive for us, because God’s grace should move us outward on mission as well. Unfortunately, two big obstacles can keep us from being on God’s mission

First Obstacle of Mission: Guilt

 I’m sure Jonah probably figured, “I’ve totally blown it. I’m sitting here in the belly of this stinky fish, and I will never be a prophet of God again!” Jonah definitely feels pangs of remorse and feelings of guilt over his sin because he laments: “I have been cast out from before Your sight/How will I return to look upon Your holy temple?” (2:4). Jonah feels totally disqualified and has no hope for ever being useful for God.

Maybe that’s you. You think, “I’ve totally blown it. How could God ever use someone like me? My friends talk about God’s grace, but you don’t know what I’ve done. I claim to be a Christian, but I’m totally disgusted with myself.”

Take hope that God’s grace can dismantle your guilt. In one sense, it is a good thing that you are sensitive to your sin. We must never become comfortable with our sin. What you need is to be confronted with the overwhelming love that God has for you. Because God’s love for you is not based upon what you’ve done or haven’t done; rather, it’s based upon what Christ has done for you! Satan would love nothing more than to take you out with crippling guilt. Satan would love nothing more than to have you sitting on the sidelines, because you feel that you’re unworthy. But those thoughts and feelings come from the enemy, not God.

God’s word says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). If you are a believer in Christ, that’s you! God is not standing there, waiting for you to fail so that He can strike you down. God is our gracious Heavenly Father, who is saying, “Come to Me! I will wash away your sins. I will show you My grace and move you out on My mission.”

Also, claim God’s promise, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If we confess our sins to God, He promises us to forgive us and it’s over. It’s done. Too often, a refusal to let go of guilt is really pride. Because you think that you have to make atonement for your sins. Or you think that you can make atonement for your sins. But that’s not even possible. So claim God’s promise of forgiveness and then move on. Jesus has already been sacrificed for your sins, you don’t need to sacrifice yourself.

Second Obstacle to Mission: Inadequacy

Besides guilt, I also think that feelings of inadequacy are a big obstacle to being on God’s mission. We think, “I want to be on God’s mission, but I can’t be! I don’t know enough about the Bible, if people ask me questions I’ll get stumped. I don’t know enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m spiritual enough. Look at my life, it’s a mess. How can I be on God’s mission?”

And again, in one sense, you’re in a good place. Because does God really want you to be like, “God, don’t worry, I got this!”? No. God shows up big in our weakness. When Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, he says this, “I begged the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9a). So we see God’s power at work most often when we are at our weakest.

Paul goes on to say this, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for the sake of Christ; because when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).

So take heart! The good news is that you’re weak. The good news is that you can’t do it, you are inadequate. But. God is strong. God can do it. God is the adequate one. And God has promised to make His power perfect in your weakness. So all the stumbles, all the mumbles, and all the fumbles in sharing the gospel allow God to manifest His power as He saves sinners and advances His mission.