“Walk Humbly with your God”—the Simple, Direct Message of the Old Testament Prophets in a Cruel, Greedy, Corrupt World.


Our Sunday School Class, Sunday, September 6, 2015

For June, July, and August we studied the Old Testament prophets in our Sunday School class. We had selections from the earliest prophets such as Hosea and Amos, from the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and from the latest post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These prophets addressed both Israel and Judah. They spanned a time frame from the eight to the fifth century B.C.  They warned God’s people of the coming exile, they promised God’s disobedient people that God would again save them by delivering them from exile, and eventually they encouraged the exiles who had returned to live as the people of God.

This repeated, continuous exposure to the broad sweep of the prophets underscored the simple directness and constancy of their message throughout the varied circumstances of their lives and across the centuries in which they ministered. Some Sundays I said to myself, “What do I do? This lesson says the same thing as the last three lessons? What am I going to say differently this week?” This continuity is built on the fact that the prophets called God’s people back to the covenant God had made with them at Sinai and thus to the Mosaic Law. By living in obedience to this covenant they as a people were to reflect the character of the God they served before the nations—they were to “be holy” as their God was holy.*

Thus the message of the prophets clarifies for us what the concern of that covenant was and what it means to reflect God’s character—to be holy as He is holy. The prophets’ first concern was for God’s people to serve Him alone—to tear down every idol that would deflect their loyalty from Him. They were, indeed, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NKJV). Only then would their lives reflect God’s character.  The clear message of the prophets, then, is that reflecting God’s character means living in integrity, sexual purity, self-restraint, justice, and mercy. Faithfulness to one’s husband or wife was a direct corollary of faithfulness to God. Integrity was to be expressed in honest business dealings, in the refusal to give or take bribes, and in keeping one’s word. Justice meant treating all people fairly. The meaning of mercy is evident from the prophets repeated concern for the helpless—for such people as the widow, orphan, and alien. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. Justice protects people from abuse but showing mercy or compassion to those in need is also the right or “just” thing to do. If we do not forget the prophets’ concern for sexual purity, the oft-quoted verse from Micah is a good summary of their burden—“And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justice, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NKJV). Note the emphasis on “love” mercy.

Some may object by saying the prophets also had other concerns—they condemned God’s people for not offering their best animals in sacrifice and for not keeping the Old Testament Sabbath.  One must remember,  however, that these were the ways in which Old Testament people showed their loyalty to God alone. (Freeing those dependent on you from work on the Sabbath was also an expression of justice and mercy, by the way). Thus the prophets’ concern for these things only underscores rather than detracts from their message of devotion to God, integrity, sexual purity, justice, and mercy.

Studying the prophets during these months has only emphasized the difference between what God requires and the personally and politically corrupt, greedy, cruel world in which we live. At the present moment it confronts those of us who profess to follow Jesus, the one who fulfills the prophets and in Himself embodies both the justice and mercy of God, with the hungry who cross our borders and with the plight of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes.

At  https://pomegranateandbell.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/waves-of-mercy/ you will find a compelling blog on the plight of these refugees. If you haven’t already read it, please do so.

*For more on how to understand the Old Testament prophets and on their relevance for today see Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014) 195-220. Check out the page by that title on this web site.


The Third Mystery?

Sherlock Holmes, with all his powers of observation, will not solve this one!

Along with some ruminations on Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.

Several summers ago a friend and former student dropped by. In the course of our conversation he asked, “How do you explain the Son of God becoming a human fetus?” My answer was something like this: “I don’t explain, I worship.” There are three mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith. Agatha Christi doesn’t write about these mysteries. They are not the kind of mysteries that Sherlock Holmes, with all his powers of observation, could solve, for they are mysteries that pertain to the nature of the infinite God, the Creator of the Universe. First, these mysteries are not based on human speculation but upon divine revelation. Second, they are impenetrable just because they do reveal the one and only infinite God. Third, although we cannot penetrate them, we can, and must, speak rightly about them if we would worship this God aright. The three mysteries are the incarnation of the Son of God, the Trinity, and God’s self-revelation in the Bible. Although the focus of this article is the third mystery—the Bible, we will offer a paragraph on the other two by way of introduction.

The first and central mystery of the Christian faith is the incarnation. The Son of God assumed our humanity without surrendering His deity. Thus the faith affirms that Jesus was and is not half-God, half-human but one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. The confession of the Christian Church has witnessed to this truth by insisting that, although the incarnate Son of God is one Person, he has both a human and divine nature and a human and divine will. This mystery is at the heart of the Christian faith because the incarnation is God’s ultimate self-revelation and means of redemption. When we speak rightly about it—though with limited comprehension—all the rest of Christian faith—creation, revelation, redemption, and ultimate salvation—come together in a beautiful whole. The earliest Christians confessed the deity and humanity of Christ on the basis of their empirical encounter with him.  The doctrine of the Trinity, what we might call the ultimate mystery of the Christian faith, is based upon and derived from a proper understanding of how we should speak about the incarnation.

Let us turn now to the third mystery—Holy Scripture. As Christ is the incarnate “Word” of God, so the Church has affirmed the Bible to be the written Word of God, the channel through which God’s self-revelation that climaxed in Christ has come to us. Yet it is also obviously the word of human beings. Thus many theologians have used the analogy of the incarnation to speak about the Bible—the Bible, though one grand revelation, is fully the word of God and fully the word of human beings. In his recent book, Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton has dispensed with this third mystery, the mystery of a divine/human book, by denying that the Bible should be called the Word of God.[1] He argues that the writers of the Bible were no more inspired than people are today when they preach the Gospel. They were, of course, according to Hamilton “closer to the events” the Bible records.[2] Furthermore, the Church throughout the ages bears witness to the significance and usefulness of their writings. Thus Hamilton would still give the Bible a place with some prominence though denying that it is God’s word. It contains eternal truth, it also, according to him, contains instructions that were appropriate only for the time of writing, and, finally, it contains some things that were never binding because they were merely human misconceptions. According to Hamilton, only the incarnate Son of God should be called the “word of God.”

Hamilton’s removal of the mystery—and the tension—of the divine/human book is an instance of simplistic reductionism that solves nothing. Hamilton and others like him often ridicule Evangelical Christians for referring to the “original autographs” of Scripture or to Scripture as “originally given” as the ultimate standard of accuracy since, “we don’t have the autographs.” Yet they make an even more egregious move when they deny the full trustworthiness of Scripture in favor of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Through textual criticism we can be ninety-seven percent certain what the “original autographs” said. We have NO access to the incarnate Word Jesus Christ aside from the Bible in front of us! Indeed, if we did have direct access to Jesus, if we had been his original disciples, that immediacy with Him would not have solved anything. Those earliest disciples were convinced of his deity by his character and actions—the authority of His teaching, of His power over Satan and demons, of his healing, of his control over nature, and especially of His Resurrection.  Yet they knew He was also completely human. I think it is C. S. Lewis who asks somewhere if we are to imagine that Christ never asked a question for which he did not know the answer.  We might add, do we think that he never had a slip of memory, stepped on someone’s toe, or spilled a bucket of water? If so, Lewis goes on to affirm, his humanity was so different from ours that it could hardly be called the same thing. We cannot penetrate the union of the divine and human word in Scripture any more than we can penetrate the theandric union of the divine/human Jesus. Yet to dissolve this Scriptural union is almost as perilous as to dissolve the union of the divine/human Christ.

We must speak rightly about, and live with the tension of, this mystery. The Bible is the Word of God through which God reveals Himself by both word and deed with the purpose of delivering human beings from bondage to sin and bringing them into fellowship with Himself as a new and redeemed people of God. It is an accurate record of God’s revelation in history culminating in Christ, of His redeeming grace, and of his instructions as to how his people are to live in accord with His character. At the same time it is a human word, written over millennia by many people, and thus containing various tensions and seeming contradictions. As the word of God its words have been chosen and arranged through divine oversight to communicate God’s message. As the word of human beings its words and their arrangement reflect the personalities of its writers and the vicissitudes of textual transmission. And yet it is less than accurate to speak of the divine and human in Scripture in separation from one another as we have done in these last sentences. Both are necessary for divine revelation—and ultimately for human redemption. As the human will of the incarnate Christ is subject to the divine, so the humanity of Scripture serves God’s revelatory purpose. Thus the Bible, as the Word of God, when rightly understood in its totality, cannot be relativized by attributing some aspect of its teaching to its human authors apart from God.

[1] Contrary to what Hamilton says, the Bible has been affirmed as the word of God from the beginning of the Christian Church—even if the exact expression has not always been used. It is obvious that Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers believed that the Old Testament was the completely trustworthy revelation of God. Despite Hamilton’s protestations to the contrary, the New Testament writers wrote with the conviction that what they were recording concerning the fulfillment of the Old Testament had authority equal to that which it fulfilled. Hamilton’s argument is particularly faulty when he refers to the Thirty-Nine Articles affirmation that “all things necessary for salvation” are found in Scripture as evidence that the Bible was not thought to be the word of God. All sides in the controversies of the Reformation period believed that the Bible was the completely true word of God—what they disagreed on was the relationship between the Bible and Church tradition.

[2] This is a particularly lame argument. While it is significant that the Gospel writers were close in time to the events they recorded, this argument has little relevance to much (perhaps most) of the Bible. Even the Chronicles, which were books of historical narrative, were written several hundred years after the most recent events that they record.

When There is No Light

Mike and Deanne

Mike and Deanne

Mike and Deanne, our son-in-law David’s mom and dad, were with us last weekend. We all had a wonderful time. Rosa and I remembered the summer of 2013 when they took us to Ephesus. We took them to Vicksburg and the Old Country Store Restaurant. Somehow the two—Ephesus? Vicksburg?—weren’t quite equal!

Since Mike and Deanne have served for many years in many different parts of the world, we asked them to share in our Sunday school class. Mike began with Isaiah 50:10: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (ESV).

After reading, Mike asked, “According to this verse, what do we need?” Several class members answered, “light.” “No,” Mike said, “we need trust.” The verse tells us that when we “walk in darkness and have no light” we are called to “trust in the name of the Lord and rely on [our] God.”

God has given us light for right living—remember Ps 119:5: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” He has shown us how to “walk in his ways” (Psalm 119:3, ESV) and “obey the word of his servant.”

But we have no light that shows us tomorrow. We strain our eyes in the attempt to pierce the future’s darkness. We plan for various contingencies, but as we move forward into the coming day, we “walk in darkness and have no light.” But our God sees clearly, “the darkness and the light are both alike” to Him (Ps 139:12, NKJV). It is ours to trust Him. Trust includes humility before His majesty, gratitude before His grace given us in Christ, rest in His character as our Savior, and obedience to His will. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NKJV, emphasis added). This is the message of the Bible.

Check out “The Grumpy Theologian”

“The Grumpy Theologian” is a fitting name for my colleague who has begun writing a blog by this title (http://grumpytheologian.blogspot.com/). “Grumpy” in the best way–he is “grumpy” with anything superficial or self-serving. You will be rewarded if you check out his post entitled “What makes good theology.” Here are several quotes to whet your appetite:

Good theology is theology that is good for the soul.  In other words, theology that points us to the God of the Bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is good theology.”

“Every so often someone comes along who claims to have figured out everything and rendered the concept of mystery irrelevant by hiding it behind highly technical but thoroughly mundane-sounding terminology.”

Good theology “drives me to think seriously and carefully about my own ideas, and to be vigilant in seeking to meet God as He is rather than some fiction of Him as I would like Him to be.”

Good theology “drives me to ask for God’s help in speaking well about Him to my neighbor because I want my words most of all to be good for my neighbor’s soul.”

The Grumpy Theologian ends this essay most appropriately with:  “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.”

The Picture on the Box–How the Bible Fits Together



shutterstock_68666755(I’ve been trying to write a description of how the Bible fits together in 1000 words or less. This article is my best attempt so far. Would appreciate anyone’s comments or feedback. There is so much  more I’d like to say!)


When I got home yesterday I saw the card table set up in front of the fireplace. My wife Rosa was once again hard at work on another thousand-piece puzzle. One of her achievements hangs on the wall of our bedroom—it is a large field of brilliant poppies. I walk over to the table to see her progress.

The first thing she does is spread out the pieces face up. Many Bible readers stop here. They read the Bible as if each passage were a little piece by itself.

So, how does Rosa put the pieces together? She begins by looking at the picture on the puzzle box. This brief essay is a sketch of “the picture on the box.” I want to help you get the Bible big-picture so that you can see how the “pieces” fit. The Bible “puzzle” is a mural of vivid scenes that tell the most important story in the world.

Next, Rosa identifies those pieces that make up the border. Genesis 1-11 frames the Biblical puzzle by introducing God, humanity, the world, and sin. God’s plan for humanity was three-fold: (1) to live in obedient fellowship with Him, (2) to live in joyful harmony as His people, and (3) to responsibly enjoy the world He had created. Genesis 3-11 describes mankind’s rejection of God. Humans refused to trust His goodness, deliberately disobeyed His command, and put themselves in the place of God by taking charge of their own lives. The results were tragic—alienation from God, conflict and violence among people, and the misuse and destruction of the God-given world.

The Bible mural depicts the story of God’s remedy for this human predicament. Its pieces inter-lock because they have been cut to reveal the restoration of God’s three-fold plan. The fullness of the divine solution fills the canvas of the final scene at the end of the Bible (Revelation 21-22)—there will be a new, redeemed humanity cleansed from evil and free from suffering, in perfect fellowship with God, enjoying unbroken harmony, and living forever in the bounty of the New Heaven and Earth. The scenes in between mark the path from the tragedy of Genesis 3-11 to the glory of Revelation 21-22.

In the first scene (Genesis 12-50) God promises Abraham posterity and land. This promise will find fulfillment in restored divine fellowship, human harmony, and renewed enjoyment of creation. God’s three-fold restoration will be offered to the world.

The next scene (Exodus through Joshua) unveils God’s initial fulfillment of this promise. God used Moses and Joshua to deliver Abraham’s now numerous descendants from Egypt, unite them into a nation at Sinai, and bring them into the Promised Land. That land was the place for obedient fellowship with God, harmony with one another, and restored enjoyment of creation’s blessings. Three things demonstrate that this restoration, though real, was not complete. First, life in the Promised Land was good, but not eternal. Second, these blessings did not yet reach the world. Third, God’s people continued in persistent disobedience. This mighty deliverance from Egypt was a dramatic picture of the full restoration God would offer the world through Christ.

The Book of Judges is a graphic picture of this persistent disobedience and its tragic consequences. God responded by establishing two institutions—the Davidic Dynasty and Jerusalem with its Temple. The purpose of these institutions was to establish God’s people in obedience through godly leadership and centralized worship. However, human institutions could not cure the propensity of the human heart for disobedience.

The Bible puzzle includes two complementary pictures of the Davidic Dynasty and its history. The first is found in the books of Samuel and Kings, the second in Chronicles through Nehemiah. The first focuses on the persistent disobedience of kings and people; the second, on the past goodness of God. The first calls for repentance, the second offers the penitent hope—God’s past goodness assures us of the greater salvation to come (in Christ). The Davidic dynasty finds fulfillment in the incarnate Son of God who would establish God’s people in obedience. Jerusalem foreshadows the final destiny of God’s people in the eternal City.

Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are an interlude within the historical account of God’s dealing with His people. These books are a kaleidoscope of scenes that realistically portray human sorrow and joy in relation to the purposes of God. For the faithful the end of this tragic, mortal life is, by the goodness of God, eternal joy.

The Old Testament reaches its climax with “the goodly fellowship of the Prophets” (Isaiah through Malachi). These divinely commissioned messengers announced God’s judgment on the persistently disobedient people of God described in Samuel through Nehemiah. They also proclaimed God’s coming deeper work of salvation that would surpass liberation from Egypt by liberating people from sin. This salvation would be established by the One whom King David foreshadowed. It would be accomplished by God’s giving His Spirit to His people. It would reach its consummation in a sin-free new Heaven and Earth free.

This puzzle climaxes in three vivid pictures that make up the New Testament and depict the fulfillment of God’s promised restoration—restoration accomplished; restoration experienced; restoration consummated.[1] The Gospels show us how Christ has accomplished all that is necessary for the restoration anticipated by the Old Testament. Acts and the letters of the New Testament help us understand our present experience of the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Revelation describes the consummation of God’s plan at the return of Christ when all will be made new.

Here ends this brief sketch of “the picture on the box.” In subsequent essays we intend to give more detailed attention to the scenes that make up this mural as we “work on” different parts of the Biblical puzzle together.


[1] Gareth Lee Cockerill, Christian Faith in the Old Testament: the Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014), 221-40.

To Whom do We Pray?

The Direction of Prayer

The Direction of Prayer

I recently walked into a beautiful Mosque in Central Asia. No one could mistake the direction toward which prayers were offered. There it was, the Mihrab, an indentation in the wall that looked somewhat like a large arched door beautifully decorated with tiles and calligraphy. See the picture above. The Mihrab showed worshipers which way to stand so that they would face Mecca and pray to the One God proclaimed by Muhammad. The place of each worshiper facing the Mihrab was marked on the carpet covering the place of prayer. There was little confusion over how to pray or the God to whom they were praying.

We who follow Jesus don’t have such a structured way to pray. We can face any direction. Sometimes we also have confused ideas about the God to whom we pray. It is so easy to imagine God the way we want Him to be—which, of course, is a form of idolatry. C. S. Lewis said something like this, “The prayer before all prayers is, may it be the real God to whom I pray and may it be the real ‘I’ who prays.” How do we come to understand the “real God”? I am gratified at the way in which David Wells has answered this question in his recent book, God in the Whirlwind (Crossway, 2014). He urges us to go beyond simply looking up individual verses that describe God. If we would know God, we must “begin at the beginning and see how God revealed his character across time” (page 41). We must immerse ourselves in the whole sweep of God’s revelation contained in the canon of Scripture and culminating in Christ. That immersion must be one of submission. As we humbly submit to God’s self revelation he uses it to reshape our thinking about Him. In the first chapter of the above book Wells warns us against allowing our own culture rather than Scripture shape our understanding of God.

I’ve written Christian Faith in the Old Testament: the Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, February, 2014) with this purpose in mind. I wanted to help ordinary believers gain a sense of Scripture’s wholeness. I have offered this book as an aid in understanding the contribution each part of Scripture makes to the whole with suggestions on how each part applies today. My prayer is that Christian Faith in the Old Testament will help people in both pew and pulpit to humbly gain an ever more accurate understanding of the God revealed in Scripture, whose fullness is beyond our comprehension, but “whom to know” in His self-revelation “is life eternal.”

In Bondage to the Profit Motive

Several weeks ago a friend who works as a nurse in one of our large hospitals said to me: “We don’t have health care in this country any more, we have a health industry.” Here is how she began to explain what she meant—patients who have no means of payment are often sent home early; patients who have good insurance are kept longer than they need to be. Health care has become all about profit. My wife received excellent care during a recent minor surgery—but I couldn’t help noticing how lavish the facilities were. The frills push the price up—but help to compete for paying customers (note the term “customer,” not “patient”).

Education appears to be following the same course. Colleges and Universities dump down their curriculum and develop majors that attract students whether those majors are either academically or professionally profitable. They, too, are in the business of adding frills that increase the price in order to attract “customers”—cable TV in the dorm, cafeterias replete with variety, etc. We have even had the appearance of for-profit colleges. A recent prospective student repeatedly referred to our institution’s “customer service” and described the education we offer as a “commodity.”

We in the church have not escaped this tendency. We are called to be the people of God who live in covenant relationship with one another centered on the worship of God through word and sacrament. Instead we have often become purveyors of programs that provide various services in an attempt to attract people. The commitment of those attracted by these “ministries” often goes no further than the service they receive. Some years ago a local funeral home bought a church near by. I say “funeral home,” but it became an “event” center. The establishment would provide service for any life event you wanted to hold there. This arrangement may be fine for an “event” center, but it is not good for the church. We are not there simply to get numbers or “make a profit” by giving you whatever you want.

God was not moved by the “profit motive” when he sent His Only Begotten Son—“For God so loved the world, that he gave . . .” Perhaps his people should be more concerned about following his example.