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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5 Ways to Know if Someone is “Free from the Love of Money”

By Kenneth Berding

One of the qualifications for an overseer/elder/pastor (all the same office in the Bible) is that he be “free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). Now, suppose that you are on an elder board and seeking to know whether a new candidate for the office is, in fact, free from the love of money. How can you figure it out? Here are five useful diagnostic questions.

The most natural way to answer the question of whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is free from the love of money is to turn one page to the right in your Bible and observe what the Apostle Paul writes about a Christian’s relationship to money in 1 Timothy 6, including the all-too-common problem of money-loving. From that chapter, we can derive the following questions to use when we are trying to ascertain whether an overseer is or is not free from the love of money. Here are five useful questions:

1.  Is contentment evident in his life? 1 Timothy 6:6–8 says, “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.”

2.  Does he aspire to be rich? 1 Timothy 6:9–10 says, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

3.  Does he evidence conceit? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited …”

4.  When in a difficult situation, does he seem to fix his hope on God or on his wealth to resolve his problem? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to… fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”

5.  Is there evidence of generosity? 1 Timothy 6:18–19 says, “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

These five diagnostic questions will help you ascertain whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is or is not free from the love of money.

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

7 “Churchy” Words and the Need for Clarity

By John McKinley

Occasionally I find myself in a conversation with a non-Christian friend. Sometimes, I have to pay close attention to the language I use if the talk turns to things related to God and ultimate reality. I do the same when I talk to my children about Bible things. I want to be understood, but the normal Christian terms are a foreign language to many people, Christians included. The terms are difficult to use when they don’t communicate.

We are moving in the West further along this path as a post-Christian culture. No longer are Christian terms and biblical concepts commonplace. Most people are not familiar with the story of Job, or Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. It is ironic that so many Americans claim to be Christians, attend churches, and value the Bible while so few are able to recount the Ten Commandments. Things have changed; meanings that once were common in the culture have become rare in the minds of many people.

The shrinking of biblical and theological knowledge in the American culture has also occurred in evangelical churches. Whatever the level of Bible reading and meditation was in earlier generations before now, it seems that the current levels are low. This means that we retain culturally the frameworks and vocabulary of Christianity while having lost touch with their substance. In other words, people can still talk like Christians as in a masquerade (but they don’t know they’re in costume). Newer Christians can even adopt the language of mature experience with God, though they have not been there personally.

English Bible translations have unintentionally helped to drive a wedge between Christian substance and the language of everyday conversation and thought. I find myself frequently having to adjust words and insert definitional phrases for words that I’m pretty sure my children don’t understand when we read the Bible. Certainly we must continue to use large words that carry theological weight: propitiation, justification, atonement, righteousness, regeneration, trinity, incarnation, and redemption (among others I can’t think of right now). Each of these stands for a definite doctrinal teaching of the Bible that must be explained, grasped, and repeated using special terminology. I don’t think that other terms will do for describing these realities of salvation and God.

The terms that are distinctly religious but don’t seem to communicate any longer are a distinct category that causes me concern. These words are repeated in Christian songs and discourse regularly. Many times I stop and ask myself what the term really means. I ask students what they mean when they say, for example, “It’s for God’s glory.” I reply: “What do you mean by glory?” They don’t have a clue. They really mean that that the event or decision in question somehow serves God’s purposes. If so, then let’s just say that. My concern is that we have settled for using as jargon the Christian terminology because it seems rightly religious, not because we understand or intend the actual meanings these terms stand for.

My list of seven troublesome words and brief explanations is below, with suggested alternatives. Feel free to consider them for yourself and wonder about the continuing usefulness of these terms that most non-Christians have no idea what we’re talking about. Many Christians are foggy on the meaning as well. This is an appeal for clarity in our communication.

1. Exalt, exalted

I had an idea of this, but I had to confirm it with the dictionary. Why? Because people don’t use “exalt” in conversation about anything unless they are talking about a biblical passage or some topic close to a Christian activity. The word is a strong verb, but the coincidence of using it only for religious talk makes it seem like a religious term. Use of terms in a religious way drives a separation between “normal life” and our thoughts and actions as Christians. Instead of using “exalt” in our songs just because the Bible translations use it, we may do better to say “lift up” or “honor” because these are commonly understandable terms for the same idea “exalt” functions today.

2. Bless, blessed, blessing

I love the idea. The English word comes from blood, as in consecration through sacrifice. In different contexts the meaning may be “happiness” or “to please” or blessings that are “good things.” Is “blessed” different from the normal condition of “happy”? Only Christians use the word because there is a religious background to it in biblical translation. Webster’s Dictionary opened my eyes to the levels of meaning I had no idea about with this word: “1. to make or declare holy by a spoken formula or a sign; hallow; consecrate; 2. to ask divine favor for; 3. to favor or endow; 4. to make happy or prosperous; gladden; 6. to praise or glorify”; etc. We may need to use rich phrases instead of the shorthand of one word: “I want to please God,” “God has done so much good for me,” “God has filled up my satisfaction,” “I desire the best for her,” “May God care for you today.” (Incidentally, the word we have reduced to “bye” and “goodbye” came from the richer “God be with you.”)

3. Glory, glorify

The term is all over the Bible, our songs, our conversation. The OT term has the idea of “to be heavy,” as in the weightiness of God’s love and demonstration of his power. The NT term has ideas of “shining light, splendor, honor, praise, to show the truth.” It’s often similar to praise, but praise is usually done about someone else, while “glorify” is something God may demonstrate about Himself by doing something grand. As substitutes, I suggest we can say: “When God’s people make sacrifices, it shows the truth about God, that He is worthy of these sacrifices,” “They saw the truth about Jesus when He was transfigured.”

4. Behold

I don’t think I’ve ever said this word except when reading aloud the biblical text. I think it means “Look!” or “Here” in most cases. Why don’t we just say that, or “pay attention!” “Look at this!”

5. Grace

In biblical usage grace is related to “gift,” both in the undeserved favor we have with God because of Jesus (including forgiveness and righteousness), and the unearned empowerment of God’s presence and action in our lives. Grace is sometimes an operative power (a veiled reference to the Holy Spirit). Grace is mostly a work of God towards us, and not so much a work we do towards others. Sadly, Christians seem to use “grace” in the way the culture has taken over the term to mean, “let me slide here.” Banks offer a “grace period.” I would prefer that we retrieve the biblical meaning of “grace” and separate this usage from merely “forgiveness” or “give me a break here” or “love” that the term has come to mean.

6. Sin, sinful, sinners

I saw a fingernail polish label “Sinful Colors” and realized how empty the term sin has become for our culture. Some Christians are still uncomfortable with the term, so they talk of their “sins” as “mistakes” or they say, “I messed up.” When I thought about everyday language that fit what the Bible actually means by “sin” I settled on “failure” and “crime.” Both of these alternative terms make sense to non-Christians and Christians alike. Since we are a culture that is far removed from target-metaphors drawn from spears, slings, and archery, maybe it’s time for an update. Our “sins” are crimes against God and other people. We have a rap sheet that makes us felons before God (if we are apart from Jesus). I like crimes because the term has revulsion to it. It’s also less easy to label lying as a “little crime” the way we might do with saying “little sins” as in the term peccadillos. No, when I lied, I committed a crime; I am a criminal. I think everyone understands that severity better than the terms “sinner” and “sinful” that are mostly religious (and meaningless to many people).

7. Holy, holiness

I love the terms. I think the concept is really large in the Bible and theology, much bigger than what most of us intend when we throw the term around in songs and aspirations. I think we usually intend the idea of “moral purity” when Christians say “holy.” As with other terms on my list, holy probably conveys little or no meaning to the non-Christian. The concept is based on the absolute otherness, uniqueness, and separateness of God from us in all ways. Being the Holy One, God is the only one who is God. God’s otherness and differentness includes separation and purity from evil. The way we use holy, in my limited observations of songs and discourse, rarely fits the biblical usage. I say we retrieve the fullness of the biblical meaning and intend that. Otherwise, when we mean to say “morally pure,” we could just say “righteous” or “good” or “morally pure.” Holy means so much more than what we intend by it; we risk cheapening the concept through casual and slipshod usage.

That’s my list of seven terms that I think need closer attention in how we use them. I appeal for the sake of non-Christians, and for newer Christians. Let not the jargon sweep us away. Additional terms are discipleship, sovereign, praise, hallelujah, hosanna, free will, and headship.

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

5 Signs That Someone is Open to the Gospel

By Mick Boersma

Well, tax time has come and gone—again. After spending a few weeks collecting and organizing documentation, I sent everything along to my tax guy and he did the rest. Yes, I pay for tax preparation. It’s the best two hundred bucks I spend all year.

While sometimes vexing, this annual exercise reminds me of one of Jesus’ early followers—a man that few (if any) would have identified as open to the good news of salvation. I speak, of course, about Zaccheus. Tax gatherer for the Romans, address Jericho. A man working for an occupying force Israelites hated, collecting its taxes while free to extort additional money for personal gain.

When you think of unbelievers you know, I imagine you see some of them as more “open” to the gospel than others. Whether we realize it or not, we often profile people as to their potential for faith. Appearances, careers, affiliations, social habits – these and other factors lead us to make assumptions about people. Zaccheus stands as one of those unlikely converts whose conversion represents the amazing love and mercy of our Lord.

That said, in retrospect, I think we can see some signs he might have been ripe for the gospel as we encounter his story in Luke 19:1–10.

He had what the world offered—he was rich (v. 2)

As the chief tax gatherer at a key trading intersection like Jericho, Zaccheus had it made. Taxes on the huge amount of goods that flowed through this ancient gateway to all points east, west, north, and south brought much wealth to Rome, and a goodly sum to tax collectors who were allowed to make their living by padding the books. This guy had money, something the world says will fulfill you.

By God’s mercy, I was raised by parents who were not enslaved to money. But my dad would sometimes say, with a grin, “Money isn’t everything, but it’s way ahead of whatever is in second place.” Like my dad, Zaccheus hungered for more. That’s one reason he was trying to see Jesus, a man who had no earthly goods, but spoke the words of eternal life. Indeed, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10).

Who do you know is financially wealthy? Yes, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, but it can and does happen! Riches will not satisfy, and many who are so blessed are ripe for true riches in Christ Jesus.

He recognized his limitations—he was short (v. 3)

He climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus over the crowd. In my view, this portrays Zaccheus as an honest man, willing to endure the indignity of scaling a tree for a look at a man whose message focused on sin, forgiveness and true life. He was no King Saul, who stood a head above everyone else and had that kingly “look.”

I get a bit weary of the “if only we could get the team captain saved” evangelism thing. Certainly, the Lord God is not influenced by looks in his salvific work (1 Sam. 16:7), but I believe there is a subtle tendency for us to view weakness or limitation in others in a negative light. We want our salvation “trophies” to be stellar specimens of beauty and prowess. And in this light comes Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers, some of whom undoubtedly were a bit full of themselves:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:26–28)

He persisted in his search—he was a true seeker (vv. 3, 4)

The text says, “he was trying to see who Jesus was,” a verb in the imperfect tense, denoting a continual process of pursuit. As well, he “ran on ahead” and “climbed into a tree” in order to get a glimpse of the Savior. Here is a man who is not easily dissuaded from his goal—to encounter the Son of God. This is how people act when they are sincere in their quest.

I know how he felt, albeit in the context of courting my wonderful wife, Rolane. We had been casual friends for some time, but once I realized she was the “one for me,” I went into the imperfect tense. Eight weeks after our first date I proposed marriage, and three days later she succumbed to my charming pursuits. When you genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with someone, you don’t let anything stop you. You’ll even run ahead and climb a tree.

Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” We should look for those whose interest in things eternal continues to surface. We might be looking at a future brother or sister.

He freely acknowledged his need—he was a sinner (vv. 5–8)

Because of their complicity with Rome and tendency to extort, Jewish laws (Mishnah) said that it was perfectly permissible to lie to tax collectors to protect ones property. I would imagine many who knew Zaccheus had little trouble identifying him as a sinner.

The great part of this story is that Zaccheus agrees! One gets the impression he is laboring under some guilt, as he offers to give half his wealth to the poor and return four-fold any amount he has fraudulently assessed from others. His spirit is sensitive to the sinfulness within him, something he did not manufacture on his own. This was from the Holy Spirit, whose work is to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

Only through the conviction of the Spirit will a person submit to Jesus Christ. Thinking there is a certain people profile that suits the Spirit better than another for conviction of sin is tacitly unbiblical and foolish. His love saves all sorts, something we readily see when we look into the mirror. Great is his mercy!

He embraced the forgiveness of Christ—he was sincere (vv. 9, 10)

Zaccheus’ heart was genuine, otherwise Jesus would not have gone to his house, nor would he have said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” This went down hard for the grumblers of verse 7 (most likely Pharisees), as they saw Jewish tax collectors as having forfeited their rights as Abraham’s offspring. But Jesus was not talking about genealogy. He was speaking of faith, the faith that makes all who believe, both Jew and Greek, descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:16).

We can gather from how Jesus responded to this man that Zaccheus made good on the money he stole, and showed true repentance by giving to the poor. He was genuine in his desire to deal with the sin that had produced guilt and a lack of joy in his life.

As we continue to love the brethren and share the hope that is within us to others, we do well to remember our brother Zaccheus. A rich, short, seeking sinner who sincerely received the love of God through Jesus Christ. May the Spirit open our eyes to the unlikely candidates for salvation all around us. For so, once, were all of us.

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

The Fourth Missionary Journey: What Happened to Paul after Acts?

By Kenneth Berding

“Paul’s fourth missionary journey? I thought he went on three missionary journeys!” Yes, according to Acts, Paul embarked on three missionary journeys. Then he was imprisoned in Palestine for a couple years, transported under guard via ship to Rome (a journey that included a shipwreck on Malta), and spent a couple more years under house arrest in Rome. End of story? No. That is where the book of Acts ends, but it is not the end of the story. There are enough biblical and historical hints floating around to allow us to reconstruct some of what happened next. As a result of such a reconstruction, perhaps we ought to start talking about Paul’s fourth missionary journey.[1]

There are good reasons for every item included below. The order, however, is somewhat uncertain. But I will place the events of Paul’s fourth missionary journey in the sequence I find most plausible.

  • Paul appeared before Nero some time during his house arrest in Rome. (God had promised Paul in a vision in Acts 27:24 that he would stand before Caesar.)
  • Paul was released by Nero. (You see Paul expecting to be released in Philemon 22, and perhaps in Philippians 1:19–26. The early church historian Eusebius writing about AD 325 supported this with his claim that Paul’s martyrdom was not during the period described in the book of Acts, see H.E. 2.22.6).
  • Paul had planned to visit Philemon (Philemon 22). But since Colossae was the opposite direction from Spain, and since we have some reason to believe that Paul traveled to Spain right after Rome, my guess is that Paul decided to forgo the visit to Philemon until after he completed his mission to Spain.
  • So, Paul traveled to Spain. Such a ministry trip had been part of his original plan way back when he wrote Romans five or more years before (Romans 15:22–29). Clement, writing around AD 95 in Rome, tells us that after Paul “had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West” (see 1 Clement 5.5–7). The “farthest limits of the West” in the mind of a Roman could occasionally refer to Gaul or Britain, but usually meant Spain. Would a church leader in Rome, writing only 30 years after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome have made a historical mistake about Paul traveling to Spain? It is far better from the standpoint of historiography to assume that Paul did, in fact, travel to Spain and minister there. (Compare also the Acts of Peter and the Muratorian Fragment, both possibly composed toward the end of the second century, and both of which also affirm a journey to Spain by Paul).
  • We cannot know for certain, but based upon Paul’s former plans (Romans 15:22–29), as well as because of the distance of Spain from Rome (4–10? days by ship), Paul probably stayed some time in Spain preaching and teaching.
  • Perhaps on his return from Spain, Paul sailed to the island of Crete where he engaged in ministry alongside Titus. When Paul departed Crete, he left Titus to appoint elders in the cities that held believing communities, some of which were probably planted by Paul and Titus (Titus 1:5).
  • The order of events after this gets increasingly difficult. I would suggest that after Crete, Paul traveled to Ephesus where Timothy was serving. During Paul’s time in Ephesus, the following events occurred: 1) Paul encountered strong opposition from someone named Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14), 2) he faced a large-scale falling out with believers in Asia, including Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Timothy 1:15), 3) he received help and encouragement from Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18), and 4) he urged Timothy to remain in Ephesus to correct false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3). It may be that Paul also followed through on his previously stated intention to visit Philemon in Colossae (Philemon 22). On this last point, there is no way to know.
  • After this, I think everything else may have happened in fairly rapid succession without any long stays anywhere. Paul left Ephesus with the intention of traveling to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3). But before Paul traveled to Macedonia, he wanted to visit Miletus for some reason, and so he (walked? took a ship?) south with Trophimus to the nearby port of Miletus. Trophimus unfortunately became too sick to travel any further (2 Timothy 4:20—at the time he wrote these words, Paul apparently still didn’t know what had become of Trophimus). Paul thus left Trophimus behind in Miletus when he booked passage (I’m assuming he traveled by sea) on a ship heading north toward Macedonia. The ship would have stopped at Troas, so Paul left some things there with Carpus, including his cloak and books (2 Timothy 4:13). Since Paul left his cloak, we may infer that it was summer or nearing summer.
  • We know almost nothing about his time in Macedonia, but, as with his previous visit there at the end of his third missionary journey, he likely worked his way through Macedonia, ministering and visiting with believers in places such as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, and eventually made his way down to Corinth. Somewhere along the journey either in Macedonia or Achaia, he started planning his winter months in the warmer city of Nicopolis on the west coast of Achaia (Titus 3:12). Paul wrote a letter to Titus (Titus 3:12), and perhaps his first letter to Timothy, while making plans to winter in Nicopolis. Corinth would have been the ideal place from which to send a letter to Crete (Titus) and a letter to Ephesus (1 Timothy), so my guess is that these letters were sent from Corinth. Paul sent Artemas or Tychicus to relieve Titus on Crete, an action Paul was hoping would make a way for Titus to join him during the winter months in Nicopolis (Titus 3:12).
  • Paul left Erastus in Corinth (2 Timothy 4:20; Erastus was anyway from Corinth, see Romans 16:23) and headed north and west toward Nicopolis, where he hoped Titus would join him.
  • Now, we really don’t have any idea where Paul was arrested. If the order of events after Crete are moved around on the timeline above (and even the placement of Crete on the timeline is not certain), Paul could have been arrested in any of the following: Ephesus, Troas, one of the cities of Macedonia, or Nicopolis. My suggestion is Nicopolis, since it comes at the end of all the other pieces of information I have tried to piece together. If he was, in fact, arrested soon after he arrived at Nicopolis as winter was setting in, this would explain how Paul found himself in prison in winter in Rome (2 Timothy 4:13, 21).

Thus ends Paul’s fourth missionary journey. Included in the journey is a mission to Spain, ministry on the island of Crete, ministry in Ephesus, stops at Miletus, Troas, various cities in Macedonia, Corinth, and probably Nicopolis.

What about after Paul’s final arrest?

After Paul’s arrest, he was taken to Rome and imprisoned, not in a house as during his former internment, but probably in the notorious and cold (2 Timothy 4:13, 21) Mamertine Prison around the time that Nero started to unleash a horrific wave of persecution against Christians in Rome. During his time in prison, Paul was visited by Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16–17), abandoned by many Christians as he faced trial (2 Timothy 4:16), deserted by Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), but still somehow found a way to write a second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy). Paul was aided by the physician Luke, who sought to attend to his needs (2 Timothy 4:11).

Paul is believed to have been beheaded—rather than thrown to the wild beasts or killed in some other inhumane way—because he was a Roman citizen.

[1] This reconstruction assumes the Pauline authorship and accuracy of the Pastoral Letters: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.

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


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.