In anticipation of a one-week biblical theology course that I am teaching with Jim Hamilton at Northland International University in January, we were asked why it is important to study the storyline of Scripture. You can see our responses below:
Jim and I are excited to be working together in this class, and would love for you to join us. The course applies to the degrees for Master of Arts, Master of Ministry, and Doctor of Ministry. The great thing is that Northland will scholarship the cost of tuition for any first time student. You can find more information on the course here.
In my continuing study of Philippians, I have been working my way through Markus Bockmuehl’s The Epistle to the Philippians in the Black’s New Testament Commentary. In speaking about some of his Christian brothers in Rome who were preaching Christ more boldly because of Paul’s imprisonment, Paul writes in Philippians 1:17:
“the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” (NASB)
Sometimes one finds a one-liner that captures the essence of what the biblical text says. I found that statement in Bockmuehl’s commentary when he writes:
“The robe of ‘Christian ministry’ cloaks many a shameless idolatry” (p. 80).
In this concise one-liner Bockmuehl identifies one of the most acceptable forms of idolatry in evangelicalism: ministry. In the name of serving the Lord far too many pastors, missionaries, professors, and lay people are, in fact, furthering their own agendas for personal fulfillment and success. In a word, that is idolatry. It is placing ministry ahead of God himself, and it is so dangerous because on the outside it looks good.
Here in the context of Philippians 1:12-26 Paul provides the necessary corrective: to have as our highest aim the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So the question for each of us involved in ministry is this: do you care who gets the credit? Are you fine with others being recognized for their faithful gospel ministry while your own proclaiming of Christ remains under appreciated or recognized? What happens in your heart when someone else receives credit for something YOU did? Can you be content with rejoicing in the progress of the gospel rather than nursing resentment that you did not receive the recognition?
May we take seriously the admonition with which John closes his first letter:
Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Paul never lost the wonder of the gospel of God’s grace to him. Even after 30+ years of walking with Christ and serving as the lead apostle among the Gentiles, he remained blown away by the fact that God had saved him. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul recounts his testimony of how the grace of God transformed his life. Before Christ stopped him on the road to Damascus he “was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1:13). But the grace of God was more than sufficient to save him, since “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15).
At this point Paul makes a surprising statement. We might expect Paul to continue his thought by saying “among whom I WAS the foremost.” Given his life before Christ, who could argue? He was a persecutor of the church and a blasphemer! But instead Paul says “among whom I AM the foremost” (1:15). In other words, Paul thinks of himself currently as the “foremost of sinners.” It is not merely a description of his former life, but a statement of his current experience.
So how could Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, think of himself as the foremost of sinners after 30+ years of walking with Christ? I believe the answer rests in his self-understanding and his God-understanding. Paul knew the mixture of his motives, the impurity of his desires, the extent of his failure to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. As he grew in his understanding of God he progressively saw the depths of his sin in ways he never appreciated. Combined with his growing understanding of the perfections of God in Christ his sin became increasingly odious to him.
Who came to mind when you saw the title of this post? Did you think of a mass murderer? A child molestor? Osama bin Laden? Hitler? I am becoming convinced that the biblical answer to that question for every single person is “me.” Sure, I haven’t committed the outward acts that would lead others to call me the worst sinner they know. But when we recall Jesus’ exposition of the Law in Matthew 5–6, I reach a different conclusion. I am guilty in my heart of the very sins that Jesus describes. Even my best actions are tainted by sinful motivations, many of which I do not even fully recognize or appreciate.
I am convinced that one of the marks of growth in holiness is paradoxically a growing awareness of the depth and extent of our sinfulness. As the Spirit continues his work in our lives, he exposes the idolatry in our lives in all its various forms. But he does this to cause us to abandon those idols and instead cling to Christ. And that is why we need to preach the gospel to ourselves daily.
So, who is the worst sinner you know?
One of the perennial issues when discussing NT theology is the tension between the diversity of the individual documents and the claim that they contain a unified message. When reading through the NT, it does not take long to realize, for example, that Luke sounds different than John, and Paul different than both of them.
So what basis is there for seeing unity in the midst of such diversity? I suggest the following five foundations, offered in approximate order of significance in my mind.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list; no doubt others can think of other reasons for seeing unity in the 27 diverse NT documents. As to the order, I have chosen to prioritize the first three in order to stress that claiming unity in the NT does not rest solely on one’s belief in divine inspiration and the acceptance of the canon.
Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is also a member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he serves on the Preaching Team, leads a small group, and teaches regularly in their Life Education classes.
Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).
Follow him on Twitter: @DocHarmon