The Good Book Blog

The Good Book Blog

The Good Book Blog is the faculty blog of Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Representing the diverse areas of specialty within the seminary, but bound by a common commitment to biblical authority, the blog seeks to engage with important topics in biblical studies, theology, philosophy, spiritual formation and Christian education. The Good Book Blog is a resource for anyone seeking solid biblical scholarship that engages contemporary ideas from a decidedly evangelical perspective. 

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God is Back!

By Joe Hellerman

Maybe you didn’t know that he was gone. He was. The prophet Ezekiel saw it all in a vision. God abandoned his temple during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth-century BC:

Ezekiel 10:18 — Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim.

Ezekiel 11:22–23 — Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.

God left. But now God is back. And his name is Jesus.

Several Sundays ago I read Mark 1:14–15 to my congregation:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

I then asked:

“What does Jesus mean here by ‘the gospel’”?

Audience participation is not uncommon at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and, when all was said and done, we unpacked “the gospel” in Mark 1:14–15 as follows:

“God is holy. We are sinful. God sent Jesus to die for our sins, so that we can be reconciled to God and be with him for all eternity.”

This is all very orthodox. And it is completely biblical. But this definition of “the gospel” makes little sense in the context of Mark 1.

Imagine that you are living in Galilee when Jesus begins his public ministry with the proclamation cited in Mark 1:14–15 above. He has said nothing about the cross. He is still very much alive. Jesus has yet to die for anyone’s sins.

Could Jesus really have expected his early Galilean audience to understand “gospel” in the ways it was understood by his inspired interpreters (Paul, Peter, John, etc.) after his death, burial, and resurrection? I think not.

What, then, does Jesus mean by “the gospel”?

Simple! The “good news” in Mark 1:14–15 is that God is back!

We saw in Ezekiel that Yahweh had left Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity. Sadly, he did not return when the Jews rebuilt their temple upon return from exile.

Back in Exodus the Bible informs us that “The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” that the Israelites built in the wilderness (40:33). God’s glory also “filled the house of the LORD”—the first temple—that Solomon later built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10). We read of no such manifestation of the presence of God’s glory when the second temple was dedicated in 516 BC (Ezra 6:15–16).

If the story of God and his people had ended there, it would have been real bad news. But the prophet Ezekiel had another vision. He saw a future day when God would return to his people:

“the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east… the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east… and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple” (Ezekiel 43:2–5).

God is gone. But he’ll be back. Someday Yahweh will return to Zion.

Do you think this qualifies as “good news”? The prophet Isaiah certainly thought so:

How beautiful upon the mountains

                         are the feet of him who brings good news,

        who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

                         who publishes salvation,

                         who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

       The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;

                         together they sing for joy;

        for eye to eye they see

                         the return of the LORD to Zion.

(Isaiah 52:7–8)

“The gospel according to Isaiah” is that Yahweh will return to reign from Zion. And this is exactly what Jesus is describing in Mark 1:15:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

First, it is important to know that the word translated “kingdom” is a dynamic expression referring to the exercise of God’s royal authority—not a static term referring to a realm (or a people) over which a king rules. “Kingdom of God” would be better rendered “reign/rule of God.”

What Jesus is proclaiming in Mark 1:15 is that Yahweh has now returned to Zion to reign over his people—just as he had promised through the prophet Isaiah.

God is back. And his name is Jesus.

If you remain unconvinced by the above interpretation of “gospel” in Mark 1:15, consider another of Isaiah’s predictions of the return of Yahweh to Zion (Isaiah 40:3–5):

3               A voice cries:

                   “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

                                     make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4                Every valley shall be lifted up,

                                    and every mountain and hill be made low;

                   the uneven ground shall become level,

                                    and the rough places a plain.

5                And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

                                    and all flesh shall see it together,

                                     for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Look back at Ezekiel and notice that when God left the temple he headed towards “the east side of the city” (11:23). Ezekiel saw that the glory of the Lord would one day return “from the east” (43:2). It is not insignificant that “the wilderness”/“desert” that Isaiah describes above lies east of Jerusalem. Isaiah 40:3–5 thus predicts the same event as Ezekiel 43 and Isaiah 52:7–8: Yahweh will return to Zion to reign over his people.

This is precisely what Mark—writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God—understood to be happening when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee. Notice how Mark unpacks what he calls “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) as he proceeds to introduce his Gospel in the next two verses:

2               As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

                   “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

                                    who will prepare your way,

3                the voice of one crying in the wilderness:

                                     ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                                    make his paths straight,’”

Look familiar? It should. This is the passage from Isaiah 40 that I cited above.

The “good news” in Mark 1 is that Yahweh has returned to Zion.

Perhaps you are concerned that I have essentially removed the idea of substitutionary atonement from “the gospel” in Mark 1. Well, in a sense, yes, I have. But not entirely.

One could effectively argue that the atonement is implied in the passage, since the purification of the remnant was included in the promise that Yahweh would one day return to Zion. Indeed, this very aspect of the return of Yahweh appears in the immediate context of the text from Isaiah that Mark quotes (see Isaiah 40:1–2).

But to be fair, yes, I have left the details surrounding the sin-bearing aspect of Jesus’ ministry elsewhere in the New Testament, where they rightly belong.

Like many words, gospel has different nuances depending on the context in which it occurs. We set ourselves up for trouble when we assume that what Jesus meant by “gospel” in 27 AD is the same as what Paul meant decades later. Reminding ourselves that “gospel” is not a technical term for “substitutionary atonement,” but, rather, a general term meaning “good news,” helps us to see this. “Good news” comes in a variety of packages.

As it turns out, Mark 1:14–15, properly interpreted, proves to be even more theological robust than would otherwise be the case. By the way in which he frames his introduction, Mark essentially identifies the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the return of Yahweh to Zion. This “Jesus = Yahweh” connection constitutes a powerful argument for the deity of Christ.

God is back. And his name is Jesus.

This was real “good news” to first-century Jews.

It remains real “good news” to every one of us today who are willing to say YES to the reign of God in our lives, who “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.


Practicing the Presence of God... Like Nehemiah

by Ken Berding

I recently discovered something about Nehemiah that I had never noticed before. There are lots of hints in the biblical book that bears his name that Nehemiah was a person who lived with an ongoing awareness of the presence of the Lord, and who highly valued the importance of communion with God.

Nehemiah is constantly praying:

In Nehemiah 1:4 after learning about the disrepair of the city of Jerusalem, he writes: “I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” In Nehemiah 1:5-10 he records his heart-felt prayer in which he asks God to act on behalf of the city of Jerusalem.

In Nehemiah 2:4 when King Artaxerxes probes Nehemiah about his sadness, Nehemiah shoots up a quick prayer to God for help before answering. He writes: “I prayed to the God of heaven.”  (I have referred to this specific type of prayer as a “Nehemiah prayer” for years.)

In Nehemiah 4:4-5 Nehemiah prays about the insults being hurled at God’s people who are trying to rebuild the wall by those who oppose them: “Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity…”

In Nehemiah 4:9 when enemies conspire to attack, Nehemiah parenthetically notes: “So we prayed to our God…”

In Nehemiah 5:19, and four other times toward the end of the book (Nehemiah 13:14-31), Nehemiah asks the Lord to remember him for all that he did for the people.

In Nehemiah 6:9 Nehemiah asks God for strength when facing opposition:  “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.”

In Nehemiah 6:14 Nehemiah expresses to the Lord his fears about those who wanted to harm him: “Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me.”

There are also two clear examples where it goes in the other direction. Nehemiah twice comments about God putting something into his heart or mind:

In Nehemiah 2:12: “I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem.”

In Nehemiah 7:5: “Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogies.”

When viewed together, these snippets reveal that Nehemiah was someone who deeply valued the importance of ongoing prayer and who was receptive to the guiding hand of God.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

What was that Strange Fire?

By Kenneth Way

What was the sin of Nadab and Abihu? The text of Leviticus 10:1-7 is ultimately unclear about this. One Pentateuch scholar aptly calls this an instance of “intentional ambiguity” on the part of the storyteller/author (see Schnittjer, 99, 324, 413-414). So perhaps we will never know the answer for sure. Nevertheless, many people have contemplated this question, and there are many suggestions out there. How do we evaluate the relative merits of these suggestions? Is there a way to distinguish the plausible theories from the implausible ones? I think so.

The literary genre of ritual—which dominates the book of Leviticus—needs to be interpreted according to ritual categories of thinking. Over the years, a number of scholars have come to realize that the biblical ritual literature is driven by the sacred categories of space, status and time (see, for example, Frank Gorman’s Ideology of Ritual). That is to say, the prescriptions of Leviticus are about making sure the right people (= status) are in the right places at the right times. When these categories are properly maintained, then God’s presence is preserved in the midst of His people and equilibrium is established and enjoyed in the cosmos (see also John Walton’s “Equilibrium”). When these categories are ignored or disturbed, chaos may threaten to jeopardize the presence of God and people may die (cf., Exodus 33:3-5; Numbers 16:35; 2 Samuel 6:6-8).  But how do these matters specifically apply to the strange (zarah; “foreign” or “unauthorized”) fire of Nadab and Abihu?

Perhaps the “strangeness” of the fire is not so much about the fire itself or the coals themselves. Instead, the offense is more likely related to (one of) the above ritual categories. For example, “strange” might be understood as untimely. That is, Aaron’s sons performed the ritual at the wrong time, thereby upsetting the equilibrium and endangering the Israelites (cf., Leviticus 16:2; see Rabbi Jeremiah, cited in Milgrom, 634). Or perhaps “strange” is related to status. That is, only the high priest was supposed to do that particular ritual, and the two sons upset equilibrium by usurping Aaron’s role (cf., Leviticus 16:2; see Harrison, 109; Hartley, 131, 133). Or perhaps “strange” is related to space. That is, Nadab and Abihu may have brought the fire beyond its proper zone (cf., Leviticus 16:1-2; see Rabbi Jeremiah, cited in Milgrom, 633), or perhaps they brought the fire from a zone outside of the sacred enclosure (cf., Leviticus 16:12-13; see Gorman, 50, 65; Milgrom, 598, 634). Either way, the fire would be "strange" because it was out of place, thus upsetting equilibrium and bringing danger to the community.

These three proposals are, in my estimation, the best kinds of theories. Interpretion certainty will always elude us because the text is ultimately ambiguous about their specific sin. However, these proposals are all plausible ways of explaining the nature of their disobedience (i.e., going against the command of YHWH; see Leviticus 10:1) because they are in keeping with the ritual categories of thinking that were likely assumed by the ancient Israelites. I even wonder if the specific sin in Leviticus 10:1 might be some combination of the above three proposals. In fact, the sin of Nadab and Abihu is referenced again in Leviticus 16:1-2 where it serves as a preface for the rituals of the Day of Atonement on which matters of space, status and time are intricately combined.  

The incident in Leviticus 10:1-2 is not unlike the story in Acts 5:1-11 where Ananias and Sapphira also disrupted the equilibrium of the newly inaugurated sacred space of the church by lying to the Holy Spirit. God indeed revealed his holiness in both of these inaugural events and sent a clear message about the deadly serious importance of maintaining purity by obedience to God’s commands (cf., Leviticus 10:3; Acts 5:5-11).  Perhaps this is also the kind of thing the Apostle Paul is explaining when he says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Gorman, F. H. The Ideology of Ritual: Space, Time and Status in the Priestly Theology. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990; Harrison, R. K. Leviticus. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980; Hartley, J. E. Leviticus. Dallas: Word Books, 1992; Milgrom, J. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991; Schnittjer, G. E. The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006; Walton, J. H. "Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus" Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 293-304.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Before You Use that Biblical Illustration...

The time to teach a biblical story is when it is the primary passage for your message, not when it is a secondary illustration of another passage. In other words, you should preach the story Joseph and his brothers as part of a series through Genesis, and not as an illustration of Romans 8:28.

Biblical illustrations are seldom as helpful or as effective as contemporary pictures from the everyday lives of your listeners and should be rarely used.

First, their events and situations are usually far removed from the experiences of our listeners and tend to strike them as “from a foreign culture, and from another age, when maybe God did such things.” Few of your listeners, hearing of Joseph, for example, expect to be sold to Egyptian merchants, to be seduced by their boss’ wife, to interpret dreams for convicts in prisons, or to become chief-of-staff to their country’s leader. Such experiences are difficult for your listeners to identify with; they’re not true to life today.

Second, preachers sometimes too quickly assume that a biblical story fits or illustrates another passage, and they end up connecting the passages in ways contrary to the theological intent of the original authors. The story of Joseph does not really fit the teaching of Romans 8:28. The point of Genesis 50:20 is that God used the brothers’ evil intentions to bring about good circumstances in Joseph’s life. But that’s not the point of Romans 8:28.

The point of Romans 8:28–30 is that God will work in your sufferings and weaknesses to bring about the good character of Christlikeness. Romans 8:28 isn’t teaching that no matter what happens in your life, God will bring good circumstances out it, but rather that the “good” he’s working in all situations is to conform you to the likeness of his Son.

Third, using a biblical illustration can deceive you into thinking you’ve applied the truth, when all you’ve really done is repeated it. Instead of properly moving from the biblical passage to the timeless truth to contemporary application, you’ve moved from the biblical passage to the timeless truth and then back to another biblical passage.

For example, suppose you’re preaching Colossians 3:5–6, and your point is, “Greed brings God’s wrath.” If you then tell the story of I Kings 21—how Ahab’s greed for Naboth’s land brought God’s wrath—you’ve haven’t yet applied the biblical truth, you’ve simply repeated it. You haven’t advanced the message; you’ve gone backward:

Biblical Application of the Text

The best time and way to teach biblical narratives is when they are the primary passage for your message—when they are the source of the truth, rather than an illustration of it. As a primary passage, they can lead you to eternal truth; as an illustration, they can only give you an ancient example.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Should You Pray to the Holy Spirit?

By Kenneth Berding


The short answer, I believe, is that there is nothing wrong with offering a prayer to the Holy Spirit, since God the Spirit is, of course, fully God, just as is God the Father and God the Son. However, most prayers in the New Testament and in the church of the second and third centuries were to God the Father, with a few exceptions.

I recently read an article by Boris Paschke entitled: “Praying to the Holy Spirit in Early Christianity.”[1] His conclusions include the following:

This article studied praying to the Holy Spirit in early Christianity, with the following results: while the New Testament neither contains prayers to the Holy Spirit nor references to such prayers, later early Christian sources from the Second and Third Centuries AD contain at the least a few passages that are relevant for the topic. In Tertullian’s De oration 12, spiritus sanctus is envisaged as addressee of Christian prayer. However, it remains unclear if this Latin term refers particularly to the third person of the Trinity or to God in general. In De baptism 8, Tertullian states that spirit epiclesis were components of the baptismal services he was familiar with. At the beginning of his homilies on the book of Leviticus, Origen encourages addressing not only Jesus but also the Holy Spirit in prayers asking for understanding the biblical text (Orig. Hom. Lev. I 1). In Jesus’s hymn and round dance (which is found in chapters 94–96 of the Acts of John) it is probably not the Holy Spirit but rather Jesus who is addressed with the epithet ‘Spirit’. The Acts of Thomas contain two prayers to the Holy Spirit, namely the spirit epiclesis in chapters 27 and 50. However, it is possible that these epiclesis not only ask the Holy Spirit but also Jesus Christ to come. In view of these findings, it seems (1) that prayers to the Holy Spirit were very rare in early Christianity; and (2) that the Holy Spirit was addressed either alone (Tertullian De baptism 8) or together with Jesus Christ (Orig. Hom. Lev. I 1).[2]

So, what about our practice? My recommendation is that, following the biblical pattern and the pattern of the early church, we should normally address our prayers to God the Father, but still allow occasional addressing of prayers to Jesus, that is, to God the Son, as well as occasional prayers to the Holy Spirit, that is, to God the Spirit. But since the common pattern is to address God the Father in prayer, I would suggest that praying to God the Son and God the Spirit should focus more upon the works that are specifically connected in Scripture to those persons of the Godhead. Thus, the occasional prayer to Jesus might look something like: “Jesus, thank you for dying as a substitute on the cross in our place,” or “Lord Jesus, we long for your second coming” (cf. 1 Cor. 16:22 “Our Lord, Come!”). The occasional prayer to the Holy Spirit could be: “Spirit, fill us with power to speak your word with boldness,” or “Illumine your Word as we read it, and help us know how to apply it.”

I would not take what I have written here as a rule, but rather as a suggestion that may bring you greater clarity and focus as you pursue a life of prayer.

[1] Boris Paschke, “Praying to the Holy Spirit in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 64.2 (2013): 299-316.

[2] Paschke, 315-316.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Praying Without Asking

By Michelle Lee-Barnewall

One of the exercises I have my spiritual formation students do is a prayer exercise in which they are to spend 30 minutes in prayer however they wish, but with one specific instruction – they are not supposed to ask for anything, for themselves or anyone else.

I tell them that the reason for the exercise is that while we are certainly told to bring our requests to God (e.g., Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13; Philippians 4:6; 1 John 5:15; etc.), prayer is much more than requesting things. However, sometimes we get so accustomed to filling our times of prayer with requests that we forget to leave room to wait on God and listen to His voice.

In many ways we already know how to ask God for things. What we are less adept at doing is spending time with God just being in communion with him. Therefore, the purpose of the exercise is to help the students see just how much requests can dominate their prayer time and to help them discipline their prayer time so that they are able to come before God in other ways. 

By refraining from asking for a period of time, they are compelled to pray in a different way. Some of them are puzzled over what to do, and so I give examples. They can give praise, give adoration, or engage in thanksgiving. They can sing hymns, or they can journal. Or they can simply be silent and wait in God’s presence. 

There are also various helps that others have discovered. One is the ACTS method of praying, which is an acrostic that stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. This helps guide their prayer time so that supplication, or requesting, comes only after a period of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. 

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, describes three categories of prayer designated as Inward, Upward, and Outward. Inward prayer is geared towards personal transformation, upward for intimacy with God, and outward for ministry. An example of inward prayer would be what he describes as “Simple Prayer,” or prayer in which we “bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all,” as Moses did in Numbers 11:11-12 when he complained to God about bearing the burdens of the stiff-necked Israelites (p.9). Upward prayer could include adoration, while petitions and intercessions are considered outward prayers. Thus, our petitions are but one of multiple forms of prayers, and our prayer life would be greatly enriched by these other dimensions.

I ask my students to pay attention to their responses to their exercise. Was it refreshing? Challenging? Boring? Peaceful? Exhilarating? Usually I get a wide range of answers. Some of the answers are relatively common, though: “I didn’t realize how much time I spent in prayer just making requests!” “It was really difficult not to ask for anything” “After I got used to it, it was great just to spend time with God.”

We talk about prayer as a time of building our relationship with the Lord. After all, what kind of relationship would we have with our friends and family if we only asked them for things? Learning about someone requires spending time in their presence during which we listen as much as we talk. As a wise friend of mine has said, “Prayer is open, honest, and forthright conversation with God, Who has more to say to His people than His people have to say to Him.”

No Stone Left Unturned: Solving a Minor Mystery

Recently, while reading through the minor prophet Haggai in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament), I noticed a phrase that looked familiar: “before a stone was laid on a stone (λίθον ἐπὶ λίθον) in the Temple of the Lord…” (Hag 2:15). Hmm… where had I seen λίθον ἐπὶ λίθον before? Yes: in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, when he describes the coming destruction of the Temple buildings: “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth: there will not be a stone left on a stone (λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον) here; all will be torn down” (Matt 24:2; see parallels in Mk 13:2, Lk 19:44).

My first thought was that “stone upon stone” must be a common phrase. But it turns out that, while the Greek word for stone (λίθος) is common, the phrase “stone upon stone” (λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον) is rare. It is only found in Jesus’ Temple saying and in Haggai 2:15. When tracking the use of the OT in the NT, the rarer a word or phrase is, the more likely that it is an intentional allusion. The fact that Jesus and Haggai both use the phrase to refer to the rebuilt Temple (sometimes called Zerubbabel’s Temple) also makes it more likely that Jesus was alluding to Haggai. Furthermore, the saying in Matthew occurs in a passage packed with allusions to the OT. Within chapter 24, Jesus repeatedly quotes or alludes to Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah. It’s important to remember that Jesus preached at a time when even ordinary people memorized large portions of Scripture, so he could expect that people would hear his many references to the OT.

But the passage in Haggai is about the rebuilding of the Temple, and Jesus was talking about its destruction. How could these two fit together? The book of Haggai, written in 520 BC, encouraged the residents of Jerusalem to resume building the Temple. The foundation had been laid in 536 BC, but then construction was abandoned. In chapter 2, Haggai uses the phrase “before one stone was laid upon another” to refer back to the time before the Temple foundation was laid, and to remind them of the crop failures that they endured both before and after (Hagg 2:15-17). God promised that he would bless them with abundant crops if they would finish the Temple. Jesus, on the other hand, was proclaiming the coming destruction of the Temple because of their rejection of Jesus (Luke 19:44, Mt 25:35-36).

I think that Jesus was using this phrase from Haggai to describe a reversal of the restoration. If the rebuilding of the Temple (“before a stone was laid on stone” / πρὸ τοῦ θεῖναι λίθον ἐπὶ λίθον) signified the end of Exile and the end of the covenant curse, then the coming destruction (“not a stone will be left on a stone” / οὐ μὴ ἀφεθῇ… λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον) signified the return of the curse. Just as Haggai’s generation failed to return to God (Hag 2:17), Jesus’ generation failed to “recognize the hour of their visitation” (Lk 19:44). As Jesus contemplated this coming disaster, he wept (Lk 19:41) and warned (Mt 24:4-20).

By the way, visitors to the Western Wall in Jerusalem (also known as the Wailing Wall) sometimes wonder about the accuracy of Jesus’ prediction, since the Western Wall is made of many very large stones piled on each other. There is a simple answer to this question. Jesus’ prediction was specifically about the destruction of “the Temple buildings” (Matt 24:1). The Western Wall is actually part of the foundation. It is a retaining wall, built by Herod the Great to increase the size of the Temple complex. The buildings that Jesus’ disciples pointed out to him were all utterly destroyed by Rome in AD 70, but the retaining wall was left standing. Removing the retaining wall stones, which range in weight from 2 tons to 520 tons, would have been an immense task.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Amos: Part 2

By Joe Hellerman

Social Justice or The Proclamation of the Gospel?

In Amos: Part One we encountered the Northern Kingdom experiencing great prosperity during the reign of Jeroboam II. Suddenly, the prophet Amos appeared on the scene predicting Israel’s destruction and exile.

I ended the previous post with this challenging question:

“Why has God become so angry with a people that He has so richly blessed?”

The straightforward answer to this question has to do with the social injustice that was perpetrated by elite Israelites against the poor, weak, and vulnerable in their midst. But God’s displeasure with his people goes much deeper than that. According to Amos, God has had enough when...

  1. The “Haves” Take Unfair Advantage of the “Have-Nots”
  1. The “Haves” Fail to Treat the “Have-Nots” Like God Has Treated Them
  1. The “Haves” Do 1 & 2 and Pretend to Worship God
  1. The “Haves” Make God Look Bad

These four points find support throughout the Amos 1. You can locate the relevant passages yourself, so I won’t cite chapter-and-verse. There are two observations I do want to make, however, that have helped me to see how social justice fits into God’s overall program for his people and for the world.

POINT ONE: Social Justice Cannot Be Separated From Our Relationship With God.

Note that three of the four reasons Amos gives for the God’s impending judgment have to do not with social justice as such but, rather, with the Northern Kingdom’s relationship with Yahweh. Amos drills down far beyond the tragic ways that elites are treating the poor to the deeper causes of this reprehensible behavior: (a) the Israelites were lightly regarding God’s public reputation, (b) they had lost their appreciation for His saving grace toward them, and (c) they were engaging in worship pretending that everything was OK.

The most damning charge Amos brings against Israel is not, in fact, that of social injustice. It is “My holy name is profaned” (Amos 2:7). Well-healed Israelites are oppressing the weak and vulnerable, so that God’s name is being dragged through the mud. God is not receiving the glory that is His due. For this Israel will go into exile.

POINT TWO: Social Justice Cannot Be Separated From The Proclamation Of The Gospel.

The distinction between social justice and proclamation evangelism (implied in the very sub-title of this post) is a dangerous and false dichotomy. Reread #2: The “Haves” Fail to Treat the “Have-Nots” Like God Has Treated Them. At the heart of Amos’s prophecy is this reminder (repeated elsewhere) of God’s gracious act of salvation on Israel’s behalf: 

Amos 3:1-2Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”

By taking them back to the exodus, Amos reminds Israel how God treated them when they were slaves in Egypt. To embrace this message—to “own” this historical reality—renders social injustice unthinkable:

  • How can the Israelites possibly oppress the less fortunate, when God has extended to them such grace and mercy at their greatest point of poverty, weakness, and vulnerability? 
  • How can we possibly take advantage of the less fortunate, when, “while we were still weak... ungodly... sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8)? 

It is no coincidence that Amaziah, Jeroboam’s priest at the cult site at Bethel, attempts to silence Amos’s message:

“O seer, go, flee away  to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel” (Amos 7:12-13).

Reminders and restatements of Israel’s “Gospel”—the story of God’s gracious deliverance of His people from Egyptian slavery and the gift of the promised land—utterly permeate the Hebrew Scriptures. And for good reason. God’s grace—boldly proclaimed and rightly understood—makes social injustice unthinkable. Silence that message, however, and suddenly the “Haves” in Israel can be fooled into thinking that their economic prosperity is their own doing. And the door is now open to ignore the needs of—or intentionally oppress—the poor.

It is certainly the case that sometimes our actions speak much louder than our words. And in our relationships with others, there are, indeed, times when “doing the Gospel” more effectively draws attention to the greatness and goodness of God than “speaking the Gospel.” I get that.

However, to divorce (a) the proclamation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ from (b) serving the poor in Jesus’ name is to jettison the very foundation of social justice itself. Silencing the proclamation of the Word of God marked the beginning of the end for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It also marked the beginning of the end for liberal, mainline Protestantism in recent American history. And it will prove to be our demise, as well, if in our well-intended pursuit of social justice, we take the “evangel” out of evangelical.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“We love": by all means, let us love a broken world and serve the poor in Jesus’ name until it hurts. But let us never forget to boldly proclaim the good news: “he first loved us.”

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

5 Tips to Survive in Ministry

By John McKinley

Michael Wilkins recommended these axioms to me. It has taken me several years to figure out and understand what they mean. They have worked like seeds for me. I’m sure he would elaborate on them differently (and better) than I’m doing here. But this is what I see in them:

1.  Face and Accept Yourself

Be honest about your wounds, weaknesses, vices, and failures, as known and provided for by God who accepts you. Justification means that God himself has made you worthy to enjoy his presence and favor, now that you are in Jesus. Embrace and own who you are and how you have developed under God’s care, with particular abilities, biases, and weaknesses. It may be that God’s acceptance of you (he has justified you in Jesus) is the catalyst for you to accept yourself.

2.  See that God Accepts You as You Are

Justification means that none of your misdeeds and failures has kept God away from taking you on entirely. Justification means that none of your good deeds can make you more acceptable to God than you are in Jesus. Instead, God has completely taken you on, with all your sin, and provided you the needed righteousness accomplished by Jesus. Jesus alone is your standing with God. Jesus alone is your perfection as a creature with God.

Christians contradict the doctrine of justification by grace alone when we say we can please God by our obedience, and displease him by our sin. That’s not justification, but moralistic performance sneaking in through the window. Instead, when we do well with God, we enjoy God. When we fail, we suffer for turning aside from God; we enjoy God less. What seems too good to be true is that we have been justified. The vicissitudes of daily moral intentions and actions do not constrain or enlarge God’s love towards us. God accepts you as you are because of Jesus.

3.  Look to Growth in the Good and Out of the Bad

We all have phases of thinking we’re brilliant and wonderful, and then later fearing that we are really just wretched, incurably selfish, hopelessly lazy, and weak in the face of temptation to sins. The truth is that we’re not that great despite what others might say about us. Because of God’s work, Jesus is being formed in every Christian. I see the temptation to try and develop ourselves according to some set of values of what a Christian is supposed to be. Avoiding that moralism, we can look to Jesus, and desire his values, goals, and methods for living with others as the good we seek.

Jesus’ form of life must displace our own deformed values, goals, and methods of living that we must outgrow and repudiate. Some of these might be particular roles in relationships, such as performance roles cast upon us in a family of origin that we fulfill as the “black sheep,” “the golden child,” “the pampered princess,” or “the intrepid achiever.” We have to hate some things that get in the way of loving the new life Jesus mirrors to us in his life. Our inclinations to compare ourselves with others in competition or envy, and our illusions of self-improvement must die. If the first two items of accepting ourselves and accepting God’s acceptance of us are clear enough in our grasp, then it can be easier for us to let go of the garbage that obstructs us from God. We can receive the new growth for our enjoyment of God. This is more difficult practically than we realize because it calls for God’s work to completely unmake and reconstruct our identity (cf. Eph. 2:10).

4.  Forget Yourself

The Christian life is surrender to God for his purposes, as in Jesus’ choice to align with God in Gethsemane: “not my will but yours be done.” We must leave off merely attempting to further our own dreams and status. For God to take over and work through us, we have to stop trying to drive our own lives as if we were responsible to make something of ourselves. As a person, of myself, I am nothing, and I deserve no credit for anything good (only for my failures and crimes). God can do ministry through a donkey; God can get praise and honor from rocks. The only worth about me is that I am a member of Jesus, and he works through me. Forgetting ourselves means we do not take ourselves seriously, and we despise the illusions of pride, boasting, and self-satisfaction with our influence, efforts, or achievements.

5.  Get with God’s People

Despite being a nothing on my own, God works ministry through me, as with a lightning rod struck by a bolt, or as a hose filled with water. As I live in the midst of others, I experience God’s active power worked through them to me, and God’s life worked through me to them. We can both refuse to take ourselves seriously, and take very seriously the ministry God might do through us.

We can serve God’s purposes by taking care in what we say and do, so as not to damage or obstruct his work by our stupid political opinions, insensitive slander of others, sloppy preparation, or otherwise misleading of those we are connected to in ministry. For example, if we tell a joke in poor taste, that can obscure what God might otherwise have provided for someone through us. A harsh word can influence someone to mistrust us. A sloppy theology can muddy the clarity of perception that someone might have held.

Being with God’s people also takes us out of ourselves into their lives and God’s. We see God’s wise works in saving them, which reminds us to forget ourselves, and to accept ourselves, and to face ourselves as we truly are, in total need of God, constantly.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

What Should We Ask God For?

By Kenneth Berding

I am regularly vexed by how shallow my prayers can become. When I pray for something—and I know that all prayer is not for things—what should I pray for? Only for my family? For someone I know who is ill? For God to help me in the day ahead? For God to resolve whatever problem is currently worrying me? I often sense that there is some content that I’m missing when I’m praying. Do you sense the same thing?

With this concern in mind I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what I was missing scripturally about the content of prayer. I decided to focus on the letters of Paul since he has a lot to say about this topic. I read through all of Paul’s letters, taking notes on everything he asks people to pray for, or that he mentions others are praying for, or that he in fact is praying for in his letters. Once again, I wanted to uncover areas that needed attention in my own prayer life that are emphasized in Paul’s letters.

I discovered that there are three main categories of what to pray for in Paul (applied to praying for other believers—though you can pray the same for yourself). Here is a summary:

  1. Ask God to grow them in their Christian faith.
  2. Ask God to make them bold in sharing their faith.
  3. Ask God to deliver them from evil/the Evil One.

Here are the details:

The most common category that Paul prays for is that believers might grow in their Christian faith. Though this is the largest category, it is interesting that this is one area of prayer that many of us can easily neglect when we pray for others. Here is a list of the types of things you can ask God to do in Christians you know. (Note that you can also ask the same things for yourself!)

  • Ask God that they might be of the same mind with other believers. (Romans 15:5-6)
  • Ask God to fill them with joy and peace in believing and in hope by the power of the Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
  • Ask God for his people to do the right thing when there are relational conflicts. (2 Corinthians 13:7 in its broader context)
  • Ask God to make his people “complete.” (2 Corinthians 13:9)
  • Ask God to give a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of God. (Ephesians 1:15-17)
  • Ask God to enlighten the eyes of the hearts of believers (Ephesians 1:18-19):
    • to know the hope of his calling
    • to know the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints
    • to know the surpassing greatness of his power toward those who believe
  • Ask God to grant them strength through his Spirit in their inner selves so that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16-17)
  • Ask God to root them and ground them in love. (Ephesians 3:17)
  • Ask God to help them comprehend along with other believers what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that they might be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19)
  • Ask God for their love to abound more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, that they might approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ. (Philippians 1:9-11)
  • Ask God to fill them with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, resulting in them (Colossians 1:9-12):
    • walking in a manner worthy of the Lord
    • pleasing him in all respects
    • bearing fruit in every good work
    • increasing in the knowledge of God
    • strengthened with all power according to his glorious might
    • attaining all steadfastness and patience
    • joyously giving thanks to the Father
  • Ask God to encourage their hearts (Colossians 2:1-2, prayer implied):
    • being knit together in love
    • attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding
    • resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself
  • Ask God to make them stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12-13)
  • Ask God to make them increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people. (1 Thessalonians 3:12)
  • Ask God to establish their hearts without blame in holiness at the return of Christ. (1 Thessalonians 3:13)
  • Ask God to sanctify them entirely; and to preserve their spirits, souls, and bodies complete and without blame at the coming of Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
  • Ask God to count them worthy of their calling. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
  • Ask God to fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified among them. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
  • Ask God to comfort and strengthen their hearts in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:17)
  • Ask God to direct their hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ. (2 Thessalonians 3:5)
  • Ask God to grant them peace in every circumstance. (2 Thessalonians 3:16)
  • Ask God that the fellowship of their faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in them for Christ’s sake. (Philemon 1:6)

The second largest category relates to the mission that God’s people are doing. In some cases Paul is asking for prayers for himself in this category; sometimes he is praying for others. Here is a list to help you pray for people (and for yourself!) in this category:

  • Ask God to open a way for them—or yourself—to go and do ministry somewhere. (Romans 1:10-12; 15:32; 1 Thessalonians 3:10-11)
  • Ask God to bless and make successful a particular area of service. (Romans 15:31)
  • Ask God to give utterance in the opening of their mouths, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)
  • Ask God to allow Christ to be exalted in them whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20)
  • Ask God to open up a door for the word, so that they might speak about the mystery of Christ and to make it clear. (Colossians 4:3-4)
  • Ask God to make his word spread rapidly so that God might be glorified. (2 Thessalonians 3:1)

A third category consists of prayers for deliverance from some sort of suffering, just as Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13): “Deliver us from evil (or the Evil One).”

  • Ask God to rescue someone from persecutors. (Romans 15:30-31)
  • Ask God to aid someone suffering or being persecuted. (2 Corinthians 1:11)
  • Ask God to deliver someone from prison (or to preserve them until their final future deliverance). (Philippians 1:19)
  • Ask God to keep someone from shame, and that Christ might be exalted in them whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20)
  • Ask God to rescue them from perverse and evil people. (2 Thessalonians 3:2)
  • Ask God to strengthen and protect them from the evil one. (2 Thessalonians 3:3, prayer implied)
  • Ask God to work with kings and others in positions of authority so that believers may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Finally, here is a list of a few other things that we can pray about that are found in the letters of Paul. The items in this list don’t easily fall into any of the above three categories.

  • Ask God for people to come to salvation. (Romans 10:1; cf. 9:1-5)
  • Ask God to work spiritually in a spouse or child, including moving them toward salvation. (1 Corinthians 7:14-16, prayer implied)
  • Ask God to help you personally interpret a tongue you have spoken in a meeting. (1 Corinthians 14:13)
  • Ask God to take care of the things that worry you. (Philippians 4:6)

My personal take-away from this time of study was that I needed to pray more for the first two categories listed above: 1) for the spiritual growth of my fellow believers—including such particulars as were listed above, and 2) for their boldness in proclaiming the word of God and its effects.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Amos: Part 1

By Joe Hellerman

We are presently teaching through the Minor Prophets at church. I had the joy of tackling the book of Amos over a couple Sundays in February—not exactly a seeker-sensitive text.

As a historian I have been trained to tease out bits of social realia from ancient texts. Amos is full of such data, attesting to “the good life” that the northern kingdom of Israel was enjoying during the reign of Jeroboam II: 

  • A Booming Economy

pleasant vineyards... wine... farmers... sell grain... wheat for sale (Amos 5:11, Amos 5:17; Amos 8:5)

  • Beautiful Homes

winter house... summer house... houses of ivory... great houses (Amos 3:15)

  • Nice Furniture

beds of ivory... couches (Amos 6:4)

  • Plenty Of Good Food & Drink

lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall... wine in bowls (Amos 6:4-6)

  • The Finest Cosmetics

the finest oils (Amos 6:6)

  • Great Entertainment

songs to the sound of the harp... instruments of music (Amos 6:5)

  • Inspiring Worship & Nice Facilities

burnt offerings and grain offerings... peace offerings... songs... high places.... sanctuaries (Amos 5:21-23; Amos 7:9)

  • Unassailable National Defense

defenses... strongholds (Amos 3:11)

Does the list of blessings look at all familiar? It should. With a few minor updates (e.g., from “the finest oils” and “the harp” to “Botox treatments” and “the electric guitar”), it is a fairly accurate portrait of the situation of God’s people in America—and the USA as a whole—from the 1950s or so until today. Christians who have lived through the past six decades of American history have arguably enjoyed the greatest period of prosperity and national security anywhere at anytime in world history. God has richly blessed us.

And so it was for Israel. It was truly The Best of Times, for Israel’s upper class, at any rate. And no one could have imagined it any other way: “Disaster shall not meet or overtake us!” (Amos 9:10). But then Yahweh’s prophet showed up with The Worst of News. Amos predicted that God would remove every single one of the above blessings from the lives of his people and he would deliver Israel into the hands of the Assyrians. Those of you who are famililar with OT history know that this is exactly what happened forty years or so later, in 722 BC.

I left our congregation with a “cliff-hanger” at the end of our first Sunday in Amos. After surveying (a) Israel’s blessings and (b) Amos’s devastating prophecy, we ended with the following question: “Why has God become so angry with a people that He has so richly blessed?”

We’ll consider the answer to that question in “Amos: Part Two,” later this week. It is a question that all of us who are on the receiving end of God's material blessings would do well to consider.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

The Difference of One Word

By John McKinley


The Christian belief system is consistent and coherent. This shows in the way that adjustments in one concept of the system often require modifications in other aspects. Increased clarity about one topic elucidates other topics. The interdependence of my beliefs was again displayed when I came across a common mistranslation of a single word in Luke’s gospel. Once I had been persuaded that the prevailing translation was misleading, I experienced shifts in the ways I view and relate to God, and how I pray and think about God’s involvement in daily life. These implications of a single word have been strong reverberations that I am grateful to experience.

The single word in this little earthquake is the noun anaideia. The word occurs in the New Testament only in Luke 11:8. Normally, anaideia is translated as “persistence” (NASB, NRSV), “impudence” (ESV), “boldness” (NIV84), “shameless persistence” (NLT), and “importunity” (KJV, RSV). The context is Jesus’ parable on prayer in which a friend goes to his neighbor-friend at night for bread. Translations take the words as describing the asking friend’s dogged determination to nag his neighbor until he receives what he has asked for. Persistence in asking is the point of the parable. That’s what I’ve always heard and thought about it. Now I think that’s misleading.

This parable seems similar to another parable in Luke in which a widow goes to a bad judge for vindication (Luke 18:1–8). The widow’s persistence in Luke 18 is a clear theme that seems to influence the translation of anaideia in Luke 11:8. Typical interpretation of the parable of the friend at night in Luke 11:5–8 is that we should be persistent by continually insisting through prayer that God pay attention to our need. This meaning is usually paired with the next statement in vv. 9–10 that we should ask, seek, and knock, not simply once, but in a continual and persistent way. This meaning pictures God as reluctant to respond to his children, and requiring that they show they really mean what they ask for by nagging God for their needs. Prayer then becomes work to progressively pry open God’s hand to release what we have asked of him.

Early Christian interpreters thought the meaning of anaideia in Luke 11:8 must be the persistence of the asking friend, a kind of disregard for shame in bold and persistent pressing for a response, despite the embarrassment of doing so. Christian writers were unique in taking the term this way. The only extrabiblical uses of anaideia to mean “persistence” occur in Christian writings in relation to this biblical passage. By contrast, no one else used the term in this way, since the uniform meaning for anaideia in 258 occurrences in the TLG database (including the LXX, Josephus, and Greek papyri) is always a negative concept that David Garland renders “shamelessness” (Luke, ZECNT, 467). The term is frequently a synonym for disgrace. Never does anaideia occur as a positive concept in the way of “persistence.”

Important in interpreting Luke 11:8 properly is to identify the “shamelessness” with the grumpy neighbor instead of with the friend who is asking and knocking. Notice that the friend asks only once; impending shame from social pressure does the rest; what will others say when they hear a neighbor has refused to help his friend in severe need? The term should be descriptive of the grumpy neighbor as a man who has no regard for his own disgrace in such a cold-hearted refusal of a friend in need to provide food for a near-starving visitor. Garland rightly points to the social shame that the grumpy neighbor would suffer for flippantly refusing his friend in need as the operative pressure moving him to action. Such coldness would be comparable to a friend refusing to lend his car to a friend who needed to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth (Garland’s contemporizing example).

I think Garland is right to distinguish the parable of the widow in Luke 18 as not about prayer in general, but in connection with eschatological distresses during which Christians must not lose hope. God is not to be likened to the bad judge, and God is not to be likened to the grumpy friend who initially refuses to give bread at night. These two parables are not mutually interpreting. Both parables display a greater-than relation of comparison. If even a grumpy neighbor will respond positively to a request, then how much more will God as a loving father respond. If even a bad judge will respond to a widow’s firm resolve, then how much more will God vindicate his people in connection with the return of Jesus (the preceding context in Luke 17).

When linked with Luke’s presentation of the Lord’s prayer to “Father in heaven” (Luke 11:1–4) and the comparisons for prayer with what even evil parents do for their children (Luke 11:11–13) the emphasis on God’s readiness to respond to his children’s requests in prayer is much stronger. This emphasis on God is commonly eclipsed by the interpretation that prayer requires human persistence. That was the primary change for me, to see God differently as a loving father, eager and willing to give everything that is truly good and needed. Second was a change in how I understand prayer as a simple ask-for-what-you-need appeal to God, by contrast to a tug-of-war that must be engaged with God before he is willing to dispense the things we have repeatedly appealed for. These are different views of God and prayer that motivate me to pray more, though with less repetition, since I am no longer nagging him to give what I need.

These large differences in my experience turned on the meaning of a single word.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.