Same Difference

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Have you ever come across this book?  What My Dog Taught Me About God by Fran Wood.

I have to be honest; I was very sceptical whenever I first came across this book.  I haven’t even graced it with a cursory read yet – the title alone was more than enough to put me off.  The idea of getting our theology from animals was something that as a Bible College student set me on edge.

It seems that this learning theology from animals has become something of a trend.  I tried a quick google search around the theme of dogs/animals teaching us about God and there were millions of results, with thousands being blogposts on the theme.

To my shock and surprise I am going to add to this trend.

Dolphin Tale

A little over a week ago I came across a film, based on a true story, called Dolphin Tale.  The story is about a dolphin named Winter.  As a wild dolphin she got tangled in a crab net.  Due to the injuries sustained she needed to have her tail amputated.  This amputation hampered Winter’s ability to swim properly, and so she must be fitted with a prosthetic tail before she does irreparable damage to her spine.

All along there is a subplot.  The reserve where Winter is cared for has run out of money and so is selling up (with the buyer planning to close the reserve and build a hotel).  As a result, those who work at the reserve and who rescued Winter begin to fundraise.  One of the ways that they fundraise is to have an open day and invite people to come visit Winter.

This is the bit where I caught a glimpse of a biblical truth.  Overwhelmingly, the people who came to visit Winter were people who were amputees.  Children, young people and adults with prosthetic limbs came to see the dolphin who was the same as them.

The Church

As I watched the film I thought about the church.

So many churches are sitting scratching their heads wondering why people don’t want to come and ‘see’ them.  Congregations are dwindling, communities are hostile and Christians are becoming lonelier.  What are we doing wrong?  Why are people losing interest in church?  These are the questions that churches are left asking.

I found an answer in Dolphin Tale.  I believe that part of the problem is that we in the church present ourselves as different.  We sit inside our buildings and we praise God we are not like the heathens outside our four walls.  People aren’t interested in church because they see Christians as different.

We must never forget where we came from – as Ephesians 2 reminds us we were dead.  We were dead in sin, pursued the Devil and were slaves to our own desires.  We are not all that different from the people around us – we are sinners, we are sick with sin.

Those outside the church do not see Christians as sinners – they see Christians as self-righteous and hypocritical.  Perhaps if we were to acknowledge our sinfulness a little more we would attract people who recognise we are not all that different from them.

The other side of the coin

However, this is not the end of the matter.

Ultimately people do not want to become like people who are similar to them.  Consider the celebrity/hero culture of today.  We all have heroes and idols who are everything we are not.  People are also attracted to something that is different, very different from themselves.

People are attracted to those who are different in the way that they want to be different.

This is the tension that we as Christians must hold.  Yes we are sinners, but Ephesians 2 goes on to tell us that now we are alive.  We are seated in heaven, ruling with Christ and glorifying God.  We are sinners like everyone else, but we are in Jesus Christ and therefore very different.

As Ephesians 2 is careful to remind us, this is position of grace and not of our own doing.  But as we display to the world the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit people see something very different to themselves and others around them; something different that they want.

Jesus the perfect example

As in all things, Jesus is our perfect example in holding similarity and difference in perfect tension.

Perhaps no book states this better than the book of Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews is very careful to remind his readers (or hearers) that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was in every way like them.

In chapter 2 he tells them ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.’ (14-15 ESV).  Again, he states, ‘Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ (v17 ESV).

Part of the attraction to Jesus is that he is like us – he knows what it is to suffer the loss of a close friend, to be betrayed by a closer friend and to face the fear of future events.  He is like us – a human.

But, that is not enough.  We don’t want a hero just like us and Jesus is not just like us – he is also very different.

The author of Hebrews instructs us again, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ (4:15 ESV).

Like us but very different – without sin.  Perfect, spotless, blameless, righteous, divine, innocent, irreproachable, etc.

The church as the body of Christ must maintain this great tension.  We must not turn the world away by behaving like we are better than them, but we must also attract the world by showing them we are different.

I am still not impressed with the idea of drawing our theology from animals.  Rather, I hope what is above is theology drawn from Scripture and illustrated by the story of Winter!

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Guest Post: Pastor Trevor Brock Answers the Question, ‘Is it Beneficial to Take Notes During a Sermon?’

This is a good question, and one that I’ve came back to over the years because at times I’ve made it my practice.

I have many Bibles with tiny comments – too small for me to read now! – added in the margins and jotted down next to the relevant text, from times when a speaker said something truly noteworthy.

I’ve also tried keeping more detailed notes, putting them in my Bible where they’ll help me when I come to various passages.  As technology has improved I’ve even made use of various electronic devices for note taking (A Psion Revo and an HP Ipaq for those old enough to remember them).

notes 3But now I’ve stopped being a note taker altogether. Some people might put this down my failing eye sight, my inability to multi-task, or simply that I don’t hear what is being said.

Nevertheless, here are three (real) reasons why I have stopped taking notes during sermons.

Firstly, I have discovered that I rarely revisit the notes taken and when I do, they rarely seem as earth-shattering as when I first jotted them down.

Secondly, I feel for preachers who look down on a room full of people keying in information on their latest smartphone.

There are moments when preachers feel terribly impressed when it appears that every last word they say is being committed to someone’s cyber cloud for the rest of time.  A wee bit of self-satisfaction creeps in when a casual phrase sends listeners into a frenzy of writing, and the preacher knows that before the message is finished, that phrase will be appearing on social media with the preacher’s name tagged to it!

But as a preacher, I want to see faces not scalps. I want to see eyes that look attentive – eyes that show response – eyes that let me know that truth has penetrated.

I want to see eyes that are alight with the joys of God’s blessings, or are wet with the moisture of grief or failure; eyes that are pondering things too wonderful for us, or eyes that are shouting a genuine, ‘Amen’.

So as a preacher listening to another preacher, I prefer to show active engagement with what is being said by looking at him rather than my notes.

Thirdly – and most significantly – I have done some pondering on the “message” process!

Is the sermon just a process by which a truth is taught, which needs to be memorised lest it be forgotten?  Is the sermon an experience, in which the momentary emotions need to be captured before they evaporate?  Or is the sermon a conversation with God which requires constant interaction for the message to be understood, retained and responded to?

During 40 plus years of marriage, I have been given an occasional written shopping list by my wife Barbara.  However, I have no written, photographed or electronically recorded details of our intimate conversations with each other!  And I can just imagine Barbara’s annoyance if I reached for the notebook next time such a conversation begins!

I am not on a crusade to banish note-taking from our churches.  For some taking notes helps them to engage effectively with God’s message through the Preacher.

But, I continue to be, and I would encourage you to be, in the throes of an honest investigation into its value.

Legislating Our Morality

Over the past weeks, months and even years Northern Ireland has faced the question ‘should Christians legislate their morality?’

This question has become more hotly debated as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have held the position of Health Minister.  Previously Mr Edwin Poots held the position, and presently Minister Jim Wells holds it.

As I have listened to the radio and watched the news I have repeatedly heard the call from the public, politicians and commentators, for the DUP ministers to leave their Christian Worldview at the Assembly door.  Especially when it comes to issues like abortion and blood donations from practicing homosexuals.

The irony of this, calling Christians to leave their worldview out of politics, is that those same people are trying to impose their worldview on people. The reality is that everyone carries a worldview of some description into their place of work – even politics.  It is impossible for everyone to come to the table, so to speak, without a worldview.

As I have considered this more deeply over the past few weeks I remembered a helpful resource I came across on The Gospel Coalition website.  Even though this is coloured by their American context, the brief discussion is helpful as we here in Northern Ireland consider whether or not we should legislate our morality as Christians.

I would strongly encourage you to take 10 minutes and watch this.

Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 3)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

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The Most Important* Factor For Choosing A Bible Translation

The most important* factor for choosing a Bible translation for regular reading, etc. is, in my opinion, readability. We’ll explore this under two headings. Firstly, when I say readability I’m talking about a translation that is enjoyable to read; a translation we find it enjoyable to pick up and read as individuals. Of course, all translation are readable in the sense we can read and understand all of our modern translations (some may take a bit more work than others but they are, nonetheless, readable). Secondly, we should also consider how our choice of Bible translation will be understood by others. This is somewhat subordinate to the first heading. We all live in and are part of communities which are made up of many different kinds of people but we tend to share common cultural experiences and vocabulary so our choice of Bible translation (particularly in church) can help or hinder our effectiveness as we engage evangelistically and missionally in our communities. But before we get into this in more detail let’s consider why readability may be the most important factor* for choosing a Bible translation.

bible reading 2I say it’s the most important* factor with an asterisk because we know that, really, it isn’t the most important factor. As we saw previously, a literal translation would be almost entirely unreadable in modern English yet at the same time we certainly wouldn’t want a Bible that compromised accuracy for an enjoyable read. I have plenty of novels that read much better than some (perhaps all) of my Bibles translations, but I don’t look to them to find the God of the universe revealed to me in their pages (though this does occasionally happen. However, this only happens because I know from Scripture who God is and what he’s like).

It is again important for us to remember that all of our modern translations are accurate translations of the Greek and Hebrew. This position is not without contention, as a quick Google search will reveal, however, a gracious and informed reader will conclude, as I’ve discussed earlier, that all translations have their strengths and weaknesses and none are able to perfectly capture every nuance of the source languages yet they are all accurate and good translations that will benefit the church because they all accurately convey the grand narrative of God’s redemptive purposes accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. Certainly, there are points here and there, minor points, where scholars will disagree over how certain words should be translated but these points, while important and necessary, do not detract from the overall accuracy of a translation. So then, accuracy becomes almost a non-issue in choosing a Bible translation because all modern translations are accurate reflections of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

A Translation You Enjoy Reading

Likewise, all of our modern translation are readable. Just as it is foolish for us to argue over translations on the grounds of accuracy it would be equally foolish for us to start dividing over readability. All translations can be improved in both of these areas as scholarship and our skill at translation develops but there will never come a day when we’ll have a translation we are completely happy with because any translation, of any kind, whether of the Bible or War and Peace, will always be an imperfect reflection of the source languages.

In light of this, that all our modern Bible translation are both accurate and readable, we should choose a translation we enjoy reading because a translation we enjoy reading is one we are more likely to actually read! Moreover, it is one we will actually want to read.

One of the greatest challenges facing the church today, from within its own walls (so to speak), is Biblical illiteracy because many Christians aren’t reading the Bible for themselves. This is not to say the problem consists solely, or even primary, in people being unable to find an enjoyable translation (the issue is very complex being made up of a plethora of factors that we can’t get into now). Nevertheless, one way to combat this growing problem in our churches is to encourage our fellow believers to find a translation they enjoy reading and, to heed the words heard by St. Augustine, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” (Confessions 8:29).

Unfortunately, what has happened is that churches and individuals (even pastors/elder/leaders) have tried to present one translation as the best or somehow better than other translations. As we’ve seen there is no best or better translation, to try and make that case is to misrepresent the translation process and to show that you really haven’t understood the issue in its complexity. Pastorally, this is dangerous territory to venue into because it will, whether intentional or otherwise, lead to tribalism wherein we pit ourselves against anyone or group who disagrees. This is sadly evident in our recent past (and to a lesser degree remains present today) when some churches and individuals have tried to make the case that the KJV is the only acceptable and accurate Bible translation. However, this kind of tribalism over Bible translation has not dissipated. Instead it has simply changed it guise. Like the tribalism of our past, this new tribalism is fuelled by misinformation and misunderstanding. We can see this particularly from the North American debates over Bible translation which has become disproportionately heated. We ourselves are not immune to this kind of tribalism, it seems to immigrate with ease to our green shores.

To guard ourselves against this tribalism over Bible translation we need to be generous and gracious in our dialogue over different translations. We need to see the good in all of our modern Bible translations and understand that their good far outweighs any of their deficiencies (and they all have deficiencies). We can only become generous and gracious as we come to know our generous and gracious God who has supplied us with so many wonderful translations of his word; we come to know him as we read his word, as we repent of our tribalism, as we thank him for his generosity and grace in the multitude of ways he bestows them upon us, chiefly through his Son.

So then, let’s put aside our tribalism and encourage one another to read God’s word and to enjoy reading it. Let’s thank God for the many great translations he has allowed us to have in our own language so we don’t have to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in order to have access to his word, and through his word to himself. Let’s find a translation we enjoy reading and read it! And let’s encourage others to do so as well.

A Translation For Our Communities

The New International Version began with one man in the 1950s. His name was Howard Long. He didn’t know Greek or Hebrew, he wasn’t a scholar or a pastor, he probably wasn’t even very well known but he was a Christian who wanted others to come to know Jesus, particularly as they read the Bible. The Bible he knew and loved was the KJV, he could quote it at length and when speaking to others he did so they might come to know and love Jesus. But he was faced with a serious problem: when he shared with others from his beloved Bible he found that often the words were met with incomprehension, people simply were unable to understand the language of the Bible because it was not the language they themselves spoke. Frustrated, he turned to his pastor which in turn led to the formation of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the factors that should influence our choice of Bible translation (particularly in a church setting) should be that it is understandable to the people in our communities who are not yet Christians, as well as the Christians (old and new) who make up our congregations. As the above story illustrates, the KJV is no longer appropriate because it is incomprehensible to modern readers and after many years of faithful service to the church it deserve to enjoy its retirement. Similarly, different translations may be more appropriate for different contexts. There are no easy answers here, it’s up to each church to discern which translation is most appropriate for their context and the people they are reaching. However, generally speaking, for most situations all of our modern translations will function well in this role. Nevertheless, there will be certain contexts when a particular kind of translation will function more effectively than others. For example, in a community made up mostly of retirees a formal translation may prove more effective particularly if they are familiar with the KJV but will allow younger generations to come along and be able to participate and understand what is happening during the service. In another case, such as an unchurched area, where the majority of people have no church background or have never read the Bible a functional translation may prove more effective because it will go a long way towards helping them get a better grasp on the Bible’s big picture without obscuring it with technical language that more formal translations tend to retain.

Conclusion

As I conclude this brief series on choosing a Bible translation I am purposefully not going to give a recommendation. Not because I don’t have a preference but because I recognise that I do and I also recognise that my preference is just that, a preference. My only recommendation is that you choose a modern translation that you enjoy reading, one you want to pick up and read regularly, and that you read it often. Hopefully, what I’ve written will help you to make that choice or, at least, will have made you more informed about your current choice and be a helpful resource as you discuss Bible translation with others. If you’re interested in going beyond my summaries (which is really all they are) I would highly recommend Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (2013) as a good starting place because the contributors are people involved in the translation of the version they are writing about. I found this helpful because it meant I heard the best arguments in favour of each translation and I came away with a greater appreciation for the different philosophies behind our various modern translations; at the end of each chapter I was left thinking, “That is a really great translation!”

You In Your Small Corner And I In Mine

Four times a year the Baptist Chaplaincy at Queen’s University, Belfast organise an event for students called ‘Forensic’.

The aim of ‘Forensic’ is to offer an opportunity for students to investigate big issues together. The structure of the event is a debate. There is a proposal, and then two people argue for and against the proposal. This allows the students to engage each aspect of the debate and therefore explore deeply big issues.

Often the debates offer two extreme positions, a discussion through all the aspects and then a conclusion on biblical (and often middle) ground.

I am convinced that this kind of charitable discussion and debate to be of great benefit to Christianity in Northern Ireland.

As I spend longer and longer in Christian circles I have come to the realisation that many Christians, primarily converted at a young age with Christian parents, hold inherited beliefs. What I mean by inherited beliefs is that many Christians just believe what their parents believe (or/and church).

This is problematic on a number of levels. To begin with, in holding inherited beliefs we don’t really understand the thought process behind our beliefs. The knock on effect is that when we have our beliefs challenged in our modern ‘tolerant’ society we find it hard to defend and therefore often just ignore challenges to our belief. Additionally, this inherited belief makes it difficult to think thoroughly through issues that face Christians today.

However, please don’t mishear me.

It is very important to take stock of and appreciate traditional beliefs.

To have godly parents who care about what they believe and care about what we believe is a blessing from God. We should not ignore them.

To have a church which teaches plainly their doctrines and invests time in educating us in our beliefs is a great blessing from God. We should not ignore it.

Church history, doctrinal creeds and parents who faithfully fulfil their biblical responsibilities should not be shunned.

Even so, this is not an excuse for failing to put in the hard work knowing why we believe what we believe. It is not an excuse for being lazy when it comes to defending our beliefs by ignoring the challenges. Rather we should use these things to aid our knowledge of our beliefs.

An additional benefit, the one alluded to in our introduction, to helping our knowledge is dialogue (or debate). It is good to be involved in debate, dialogue, conversation – talking out all the what, when, where, why and how’s of our beliefs.

This means when we come to parents and churches which have taught us our beliefs we should ask questions and listen carefully to the answers provided. It means that as we work through issues we should take time to read, think, study and pray about it. Not just accepting an easy answer, but seeking out the biblical understanding of these issues.

talkingAll of this requires an attitude of humility – allowing people to challenge us, tease out all the in’s and out’s of our beliefs and pushing us to defend robustly what we belief (including an effective defence of why).

It is not enough for us to be happy with you in your small corner and I in mine with our own inherited beliefs. Rather, we need to get up walk across the room and engage in a discussion to try and understand our brother’s and sister’s beliefs (as well as our own) a little better. We need to seek out opportunities to do this, some arena which will allow charitable, profitable and edifying discussion. Things like ‘Forensic’.

Could you organise something like this? Do you have friends (or acquaintances) that you could develop a deeper relationship with who could challenge you? Is there someone who perhaps you could consider engaging with this in mind?

Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 2)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

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Is That A Literal Translation?

When it comes to discussions concerning Bible translation there is quite a lot of misinformation available (sometimes propagated by the translators themselves!) because explaining translation philosophy is a difficult task and we often want it explained simply, however, sometimes it happens that the explanations we receive are simplistic rather than simple (an important distinction).

bible reading 2Simplistic explanations are essentially caricatures. They reduce issues in such a way that misrepresent them so people come away feeling like they know much more about the issue than they really do. By contrast, a simple explanation breaks down a complex issue and explains each point so that when taken together we gain a basic grasp of the issue but we are left knowing that we’ve only just scratched the surface.

With regards to Bible translation, simplistic explanations abound. Chief among these simplistic explanations is the idea that any of our modern translations are literal (or word-for-word, usually contrasted with thought-for-thought which is another misnomer). To describe any Bible translation as literal is a misnomer because if we were to translate the Bible literally the end product would be, at best, excruciating to read, and at worst, entirely unreadable. To demonstrate the veracity of my assertion we’ll look briefly at four translations of John 3:16, the first three will be modern translations which have differing translation philosophies and the final one will be a literal translation from the Greek New Testament.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NLT)

As we can see, the translations are all very similar. However, none of them translate the verse literally from the Greek text:

Thus for loves the God the world so that the Son of him the only he gives that every the one believing into him no should be being destroyed but may be having life eternal.

Cleaned up a little it might read like this:

Thus loves God the world that the Son of him – the only – he gives that everyone believing into him should not be being destroyed but may be having life eternal.

Even in the literal translation the meaning is not unclear but can you imagine reading, let alone explaining, John 3:16 from either of these woodenly literal translations? And this is a verse that, in each of the modern translations, adheres quite closely to the form of the Greek; there are places in the Greek New Testament that if they were to be translated literally would be unrecognisable as well as unreadable.

Rethinking Our Paradigm

The inadequacy of the language of ‘literal translation’ is apparent. A literal translation (as shown above) has its place in the study and in discussions concerning how best to translate Greek and Hebrew into comprehensible modern English but it doesn’t cut it as an option for being our choice of Bible translation for regular and communal reading for the simple reason that it’s too difficult to read and understand. What we need, therefore, is a better way of talking about translation philosophy that isn’t misleading in the way the term literal is. Thankfully, we have just that!

The best way to discuss Bible translation and translation philosophy is by employing the language of formal and functional equivalency. However, the discussion is not one of either/or rather it is of the degree to which each is employed in the translation process. Therefore, the committees responsible for producing our Bible translations have a clear goal in mind. Some will want to produce a more formal translation while others will aim for a more functional translation, others still will try to produce a translation that doesn’t favour either approach but which combines the best of both approaches. Consequently, all modern Bible translations combine both formal and functionally equivalency in their overall translation. It would be impossible to produce a Bible translation that is simply one or the other because it would either be unreadable or it would cease to be a translation and instead become a commentary on the text. But what does all this mean?

When we speak of formal equivalency what we mean is that the translators have sought to retain (as much as possible) the sentence structure and distinctive style of the biblical authors, in other words, they have sought to retain the form of the text. As a result of this, formal translations are unique in their stylistic composition. Some people argue this makes the Bible sound distinctive when it’s read, i.e. hearers know the Bible is being read because it sounds like the Bible. Formal translations can also help modern readers discern textual links (such as the repetition of key words and phrases) because they tend to translate words and phrases consistently. As a result, a formal translation may prompt further study because it will be necessary to understand the meaning behind these textual links before they are of significance.

Functional equivalency, on the other hand, seeks to translate the biblical text so it reads like natural English (or whatever the receptor language happens to be). Sometimes the form of the source language translates well into natural English, in which case, the functional equivalent and the formal equivalent can be one in the same. However, this is not always the case. Functional translations are also concerned with modern readers experiencing the text as its original hearers/readers would have because the authors originally wrote using language their hearers/readers would have immediately grasped but when translated formally into English some of that meaningful impact may be lost because idioms or ideas are foreign to us.

To get a idea of what these two approaches look like in practice we’ll consider one brief example. The ESV aims at formal equivalence, the NIV tries to balance formal and functional equivalence, and the NLT favours functional equivalence. All three are great translations!

Amos 4:6

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the LORD. (
ESV)

“I gave you empty stomachs in every city
and lack of bread in every town,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord. (
NIV)

“I brought hunger to every city
    and famine to every town.
But still you would not return to me,”
    says the Lord. (NLT)

In Amos 4:6 the ESV translates the Hebrew idiom for hunger formally which gives us the phrase cleanness of teeth while the NIV and NLT translate the idiom into natural English so we are able to appreciate the immediate impact of God’s word through the prophet. In a formal translation we get a glimpse into the ancient Israelite culture and their turns of phrase which can be very interesting for building a picture of their culture, similar to how J.R.R. Tolkien included broken references (such as the Cats of Queen Berúthiel which no one blinked at) in the Lord of the Rings to create a world that went beyond the Shire in both space and time. In all three translation the meaning is apparent as the second line clarifies the first: lack of bread/famine so the reader (as long as they are aware of parallelism in Hebrew poetry) will not misinterpret this verse as God providing free dental care then sending a famine (the Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord?).

Conclusion

All translations are a combination of formal and functional translation. And each approach, however much it is used, contributes certain unique benefits to the translation produced which will help readers in different ways (another good reason to own/use multiple Bible translations when studying the Bible – don’t forget that they available to view online for free!).

In my next, and tentatively final, post on Bible translation (for the time being) we’ll consider what I think is probably the most important factor in choosing a Bible translation for regular reading which will hopefully bring all that I’ve said so far together in a helpful and meaningful way.

Reflections on ‘A History of the Work of Redemption’

Summer Reading

This summer I spent time reading one of Jonathan Edwards’ more famous books, A History of the Work of Redemption.

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I am not one for ‘summer reading’, I have a list and a pile of books and I normally just work through them. However, I knew Jonathan Edwards would need some special attention and so I set aside a little time to read him and I found it worthwhile.

Before you go placing your order with Amazon or ICM Books let me say this isn’t an easy read. A History of the Work of Redemption is a sizeable book with over 400 pages, it is not the easiest to read either as the material for the book comes from a series of sermons preached in 1739 (also there are effectively only three chapters in over 400 pages) and the book covers a lot of ground stepping carefully from the Fall in the Garden of Eden to the end of the world as we know it.

But, I was determined to read it.

Jonathan Edwards is perhaps one of the most influential voices in modern evangelicalism through the voices of others (and I was always told to read the people who influenced the people who influence me). In addition to recognising Edwards as someone who has deeply influenced and shaped many respected pastors, teachers and authors, I had also read George Marsden’s biography of him earlier in 2014. Knowing something of the background to the man aided reading the writings of the man.

As I worked my way through this difficult but profitable book, four things caught my attention.

  1. The Word of God, Written

Under the section titled ‘From Moses to David’ Edwards notes the reality that it was during this period that God first gave his written Word.

While people may debate whether Edwards dating is correct, there was a startling fact that I knew but which I had never considered before. At one point in time God’s people did not have God’s written Word.

I think immediately of Abraham – no written Word to guide him. Certainly God spoke to him, but if you heard a voice in your head would you obey it unconditionally? Abraham acted in faith, as the New Testament tells us, and without the written Word of God to guide him.

Here is what Edwards had to say about the written Word of God:

‘The written Word of God is the main instrument Christ has made use of to carry on his work of redemption in all ages since it was given. There was a necessity now of the Word of God being committed to writing, for a steady rule to God’s church.’ (pg.81).

God has graciously given us his written Word. We often take our Bibles for granted, but at one stage in time God’s people were without a written Word to guide them. Today we have that written Word. This is a very special truth and something which struck me afresh in reading Edwards.

  1. Dispersion of the Written Word

The exile was a brutal blow for the Israelites. God’s very own people, living in the Promised Land, had been handed over by their God to the pagan nations. To begin with the Israelite’s hearts were broken as a result of the division of their nation into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, then as men and cities were lost in war and as the pagan nations marched them out of Zion (which had been flattened along with its Temple) toward a foreign city that would now be called ‘home’.

All was not lost though! God was simply in the process of working out the history of his redemption.

In the midst of this pain Edwards notes something great, the dispersion of the written Word of God. I will let Edwards’ words explain the wonder in this grievous event.

‘Now, this dispersion of the Jews through the worlds before Christ came, did many ways prepare the way for his coming, and setting up his kingdom in the world.

One way was that this was a means of raising the general expectation of the Messiah through the world about the time that he actually came. For the Jews, wherever they were dispersed, carried the holy Scriptures with them, and so the prophecies of the Messiah. And being conversant with the nations among whom they lived, they, by that means, became acquainted with these prophecies, and with the expectations of the Jews of their glorious Messiah. By this means, the birth of such a glorious person in Judea about that time began to be the general expectation of the nations of the world, as appears by the writings of learned men of the heathen that lived about that time which are still extant, particularly Virgil, the famous poet that lived in Italy a little before Christ was born. He has a poem about the expectation of a great prince that was to be born, and the happy times of righteousness and peace that he was to introduce, some of it very much in the language of the prophet Isaiah.’ (pg. 157).

God has greater purposes and plans at work than often we notice. Here in the devastating exile of the nation of Israel God was planting the hope of a Messiah in the hearts of the nations. God was seeing his written Word spread across the nations.

  1. The Long Wait

I was about halfway through the book before Jesus stepped foot on earth. The length of time it took for the Messiah to appear and accomplish the work of redemption struck me forcefully (perhaps a little because of how much reading I had already done). Thousands of years (and a couple hundred pages) had elapsed since the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. But, the long wait was over because the long hoped for Messiah arrived. However, his incarnation only took place ‘after things had been preparing for it from the very first Fall of mankind, and when all things were ready’ (pg. 201) he stepped foot on earth.

From a human perspective the wait was a long one, and some would argue unnecessary. This was not so, because Christ came in the fullness of time. Edwards reminds us ‘[i]t came to pass at a time which, in infinite wisdom, was the most fit and proper’ (pg. 201).

God orchestrated his work of redemption to perfection. Almost everything that took place throughout the history of the work of redemption was in contradistinction from how we as human beings would work, and yet it was perfectly executed.

Our minds are so small and finite, but the glorious truth is that Jesus arrived at the most fit and proper time. God had been orchestrating his plan of redemption since the Fall, and long before, but only now was it time for Jesus to appear.

  1. Opposition Displays Genuineness

The final thing to catch my attention as I read Edwards was the thought that opposition proves the truth of Christianity.

Christians purport many reasons for opposition, yet rarely have I heard this proposal. Opposition to our message proves the truth of that message.

Edwards is careful to explain that the church of God has always been opposed. He writes, ‘the opposition which has been made to the church of God in all ages has always been against the same religion and the same revelation’ (pg. 356).

This opposition, when faced today, displays our genuineness. It is not a licence to aggravate others, but rather a comfort when people oppose our message.

‘We may well and safely argue that a thing is good according to the degree of opposition in which it stands to evil, or the degree in which evil opposes it and is an enemy to it. We may well argue that a thing is light by the great enmity which darkness has to it.’ (pg. 356).

As evil opposes us we should not take joy or delight in it, but we should take comfort that it is displaying our genuineness. Opposition does have many purposes, but I think this is an often neglected purpose and one which is particularly poignant in today’s culture of ‘tolerance’.

Winter Reading

I hope that as I shared these four things which caught my attention that you have tasted some of the benefit I found in reading a demanding book. Books which are long, old and challenging often have perspectives that catch our attention. They often challenge us and make us sit up, take notice, and think deeply.

I want to leave you with a challenge, a challenge to read something that you are a little afraid of this winter.

Read an old book, something written by someone who is long dead.

Read a big book, something that has 300, 400 or 500 pages.

Perhaps even read an Edwards book…

This winter pick some winter reading that will challenge you, with my prayer that it will also benefit you.

The Shepherd Psalm by Paul Ritchie

Along with John three sixteen these are surely the most famous verses in the Bible.  But I want suggest that they are also very much misunderstood.  We haven’t understood these verses until we see that they promise that we will have troubles in life; we haven’t understood these verses until we feel a renewed sense of peace and confidence; we haven’t understood these verses until they point us to the cross; we haven’t understood these verses until our greatest hope lies beyond this brief journey; and we haven’t understood these verses until we acknowledge that they point to the magnificence of God the Son.

  1.  TOSHIBA Exif JPEGWho is my shepherd?

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
h
e restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
For his name sake. (1-3)

In the book of Isaiah we read that God tends his flock like a shepherd. ‘He gathers the lambs in his arms and he carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young’ (40:11).  It is a very intimate picture.  In ancient Palestine the shepherd lived with his flock and was everything to it.  The shepherd guided the flock, protected them and looked after them when they were ill.  God loves us so much that he wants us to enjoy an intimate relationship with him.

Then along come Jesus, such a compassionate and courageous man, and he takes this title of shepherd for himself.  In John’s gospel we read that Jesus is our good shepherd.  The reason Jesus so often takes titles that the people used for God and applies them to himself is simply because he is God the Son.  Jesus gathers lost sheep and brings them into his flock, he takes broken sheep and binds up their wounds, he takes distressed sheep and holds them to his heart, he takes weary sheep and restores their souls, he knows his sheep by name, and had promised that he will never leave us.

Note where our good shepherd guides us: in paths of righteousness, for his name sake.  In ancient Palestine the shepherd did not drive the sheep from behind but instead he went ahead of the sheep and they followed him.  When we follow him, when we keep in step with the Holy Spirit whom he has given us, then we will live lives that bring him glory.  When Christians talk about guidance they generally are thinking of such questions as ‘what job should I do?’ ‘should I marry?’ ‘where should I live?’  But to God those aren’t the biggest issues for our lives!  His guidance is primarily about who we are rather than just what we do!  His call is to live a life that honours Jesus.  Everything else is secondary!

  1.  Will he be with me?

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (4)

There is nothing here that promises you, me or anyone an easy life! There are events that cause the psalmist to need to have his soul restored, there is the valley of the shadow of death and there is mention of evil and enemies. Being a Christian is no bed of roses!  We follow the good shepherd who endured suffering in his life so that he would know glory in the life to come.

In this verse we read of the valley of the shadow of death (or the valley of darkness).  Christians know what it is to lose loved ones.  Christians get sick and die.  Some Christians die at the hands of their enemies.  However, we have a comforter, we have a Lord who watches over our circumstances, and we have a saviour who has passed through death and removed its sting.

David Watson was a well known speaker who died of cancer in 1984. He wrote about his struggle with that disease in a book entitled “Fear no evil.” In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid.  Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves.  In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm:

Even though I walk
through the valley Of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me . . .

  1.  Where will he take me?

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (5-6)

The picture changes in the last two verses.  God is no longer pictured as a shepherd but as a host.  The host is putting on a feast.  A meal is spread out on a table.  Enemies are defeated.  It was customary for an honoured guest to have their head anointed with oil.  There is plenty to drink.

When I read these last two verses I think of Jesus.  Who went through the suffering of the cross and then was raised in glory to the right hand of God the Father.  Jesus who set the pattern of suffering followed by glory!

This life is a mixed bag.  There are times of happiness and sorrow.  There are both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  There are opponents and calm waters.  Yet our hope lies beyond the brief and fading life.  We are sustained by God’s presence and anticipation of our heavenly home.  I don’t think we will ever thrive in the Christian life until our sights are set on the world to come.  We tend to be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good.  One day we will share in a heavenly feast and dwell with our Lord for ever.

Conclusion

Writing on this psalm Sinclair Ferguson tells the story of the first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom. He was a young Christian. ‘He had contracted it while doing medical research in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  In the last days of his life his powers of communication failed.  He struggled with increasing difficulty to express his thoughts to his wife.  On one occasion she simply could not understand his message.  He wrote on a note pad the letter J.  She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right.  Then she said, “Jesus?”  That was the right word. He was with them.  Ferguson points out, ‘That was all either of them needed to know. That is always enough.’

If all you want is an easy life then don’t follow the way of the good shepherd, he leads us in paths of suffering now and glory to come.  If all you want are the riches of this world then don’t follow the good shepherd, his greatest riches await the end of the journey.  If all you want is popularity then don’t follow the good shepherd, for his enemies seek to harm his flock.  However, if you want something far greater—the shepherd who travels with you and ensures you make it home—then this psalm is for you!

~

Used with permission. For more blog posts by Paul Ritchie check out his blog: To Whom It May Concern.

Guest Post: Pastor Johnny Carson Answers the Question, “How Can I Challenge My Pastor without Sounding Critical or Judgemental?”

Editors Note: We asked Johnny Carson, Pastor of Whitehead Baptist Church, to answer the question: “How Can I Challenge My Pastor without Sounding Critical or Judgemental?” We are very grateful for the time he has taken to provide us with a wonderfully helpful answer to this difficult question. We pray that you, and your Pastor, are blessed by Johnny’s wisdom.

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Paul David Tripp has summed up discipleship well when he said that it is: “People in need of change helping people in need of change” (See his book, Instruments in the Redeemers Hands). The fact of the matter is that pastors fall into this category as well; so although their main task is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12), they do so as needy men themselves. Pastors may be shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-5) but they are also sheep in need of the great shepherd. This is easily stated but how this works out in the life of a local church can be quite tricky. These are the two truths we have before us:

  1. Pastors have the privileged task of leading the local church in the context of a plurality of elders. Because of this; they are due honour, respect and submission from the church (1 Cor 16:15-16; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:17; Heb 13:17)
  2. Pastors are sometimes in need of correcting themselves and are therefore still to be held to account in light of the qualifications required for the role (1 Tim 3:1-7; 5:19-20; Titus 1:5-9)

Seeing that the latter is the case; how can you challenge your pastor without sounding critical or judgemental? The following are a few biblical and practical guidelines as to how to go about this.

Motive

Firstly, stop and consider whether this is something that actually needs raised with your pastor. What is your motive in this? By and large, searching your motives will reveal your criticism to be one of 3 things:

  1. challengeThe issue is a legitimate issue to bring up. Your pastor has sinned in some way, either against you personally or more generally and he needs to be aware of it. In this case it is a Matthew 18:15-20 scenario; something which Paul alludes to and applies to elders in 1 Tim 5:19-20. Has he lied? Does he say one thing but do another? Has he been lording it over the congregation? In short, is his character not matching up to the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus? In this case there may be sin and defaults in his character he needs to repent of.
  2. The issue, when all is said and done, is not a sinful one but one of taste. Are you going to criticize the way he dresses in the pulpit or the way he preaches from the pulpit? Some people find animated preachers engaging; others find them distracting. Some find more reserved preachers to be reverent; others find them boring. In this case, it is a matter of taste and more than likely it is not worth bringing up.
  3. You may find you illegitimately want to criticise. I heard of a church member who once criticised his pastor once for spending too much time in the sermon exalting Christ. This was a wrong criticism.

Method

Assuming you have considered your motives, how should you go about criticising? How you communicate criticism can determine the way it is received.

Do NOT criticise in written form (i.e. written letter, e-mail, text message). Writing is not only impersonal but is also very difficult to discern tone and thus communication can be clouded. The very medium is cold and emphasises the criticism over and above any good motivation behind the criticism. It is extremely tempting to write an email because most people do not like face to face confrontation of any kind. Paul himself expresses his concern over written criticism and valued face to face conversation (2 Cor 10:9). Indeed, in total he wrote 4 letters to the Corinthians; partly due to the fact that they did not fully understand some of the criticisms and commands being given in written form (1 Cor 5:9ff).

There is also a time and a place. It is very unwise to raise your criticism on Sundays either before or after the service for two main reasons. Firstly, people will always be in ear shot. Secondly, your pastor has A LOT on his mind on Sunday morning. He has a service to lead which may include doing the announcements, leading the intercessory prayer and above all proclaiming God’s word. 1001 things are already rushing through his mind:

  • “So and so looked upset; I must speak to them afterward…”
  • “I must emphasise this announcement for it is very important”
  • “I have to mention Mr ? in my prayer as the family are out and I don’t want to offend by leaving them out”
  • “Do I know my notes well enough? I am still not sure about the introduction…”

The last thing he needs is for someone to bring him over for a quiet word and give off about how rude he was to them last week.

Speaking after the service is no different. A preacher is never more vulnerable to attack than after he has preached the word. Instead, pick a time during the week and phone to organise a time where you can meet up and talk.

Mannerism

Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:1-5 He gives guidelines in how to judge. If you see a speck in your brother’s eye, first of all deal with the plank in your own eye before you confront your brother about his speck. As noted in our first point; self-examination is due before confrontation which in turn leads to a humble approach and mannerism when judgement is handed out (Gal 6:1).

Since the gospel is of grace, God’s people should have both humility and confidence when handing out and receiving criticism. Our humility stems from the fact we never forget how needy we are and our confidence stems from the fact that God has promised that he who began a good work in us, will complete it. He is intent in conforming all of us (pastors included) into the image of Christ, the one in whom no fault was found and yet died with all our faults laid upon him.