Archive for the ‘ 2 Corinthians ’ Category

So that We Might Become the Righteousness and Justice of God: Re-examining the Gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 for the Church’s Contribution to a Better World

Here’s the abstract and introduction of my article coming out before long in Missionalia (Southern African Journal of Missiology).

ABSTRACT

This article interprets Paul’s summary of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21 as saying that Christ died so that believers might be transformed into God’s righteousness (not only deemed as righteous by God). The article explains the powerfully generative nature of God’s righteousness and then demonstrates that dikaiosunē also means justice. The interpretation of 2 Cor 5:21 clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation also transforms them to embody God’s righteousness and justice. This enlarged angle on Paul’s view of the gospel serves as a basis for teaching a seamless continuity between believing in Jesus Christ and becoming a force for justice in the world.

 

INTRODUCTION

This article explores the nature of the Christian gospel in an effort to understand what the gospel may contribute toward establishing righteousness and justice in the world. Sometimes the gospel we Christians proclaim promotes escaping the reality that this world is neither righteous nor just, whether through focusing on questionable promises of health and wealth in this life (see Ellington 2014:327-342; Gbote & Kgatla 2014:1-10), concentrating on promises of the life to come (however true to the witness of Scripture), or appreciating almost exclusively the individual and personal benefits of salvation. A motivating concern for this article is that Christians may be failing to contribute as much as we could toward a better world, because we fail to recognize the resources for human transformation toward righteousness and justice which reside within the gospel. This investigation turns to Scripture for a description of the gospel that responds to the need for transformation toward both personal righteousness and social justice, for the sake of the church’s contribution to Africa and beyond.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give extended attention to the relationship between the gospel and the formation of a Christian way of living in the world. This essay will focus on one of Paul’s key summaries of the gospel. The apostle states in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God) made him who did not know sin to be sin for our sake, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[1] This essay concentrates mainly on the final portion of 2 Cor 5:21. Margaret Thrall states: “The traditional understanding of ‘becoming God’s righteousness’ is that it means ‘being justified by God’” (1994:442). I affirm that Paul’s gospel includes the change in status from guilty to justified, but this does not do justice to the statement of the gospel in 2 Cor 5:21. While we might expect Paul to say, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, in order that we might be justified”, Paul actually says, “that we might become God’s righteousness”.[2] Paul’s assertion that we become God’s righteousness is not the same as saying that we are justified, or pronounced righteous.[3] This essay does not downplay justification or soteriology; it would be more accurate to say that it takes soteriology more expansively, as including the establishment of a transformed and world-restoring community through the gospel and through our union with Christ.[4]

When we interpret 2 Cor 5:21 in the literary context of 2 Corinthians, we can find insight into the relationship between God’s righteousness and justice and believers’ own righteousness and justice.[5] This insight includes discovering that the gospel itself is a basis of human transformation. The article argues that, when 2 Cor 5:21 is interpreted properly, the gospel paves the way for believers’ transformation toward embodying, and becoming agents of, God’s righteousness and justice in this world.

[1]  All translations are the author’s own unless stated otherwise.

[2]  Morna Hooker (2008:369) observes that most interpreters have tended to interpret dikaiosunē (righteousness) in 2 Cor 5:21 as a genitive of origin (“righteousness from God”) with the ultimate meaning of dikaiōthentes (“having been justified”), as though Paul meant that we are given the verdict that we are righteous. While this interpretation is conceivable, in light of the literary context of 2 Corinthians as a whole, it is not persuasive. Moreover, Paul chose the noun dikaiosunē, not the participle dikaiōthentes, even as he does in 2 Cor 3:9; 6:7, 14; 9:9-10; and 11:15. In 2 Corinthians, Paul does not use the participle related to dikaioō, though he frequently utilizes it in Romans and Galatians. We should not assume the same line of thought in 2 Corinthians as in Romans and Galatians.

[3]  Richard Hays (1996:24) states: Paul “does not say … ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God”. This contrasts with the positions of Harris (2005:455) and Collins (2013:126), who interpret dikaiosunē in 2 Cor 5:21 as essentially meaning “justification”. Thrall (1994:444) speaks mainly of a “change in status”, though affirms that Paul has in mind more than simple imputation, on account of our being united with Christ. Thrall rightly states: “In the first half of the verse Paul has described the first element of a dual process of identification and exchange” (1994:442). I take Thrall’s assertion as less than correct when she says 5:21 relates reconciliation to justification. The accent of 5:21 is upon exchange that brings transformation, which is more than justification. I commend Stegman (2011) for demonstrating that Paul’s language related to dikaiosunē, in 2 Corinthians and beyond, is not only juridical but also deeply concerned with transformation.

[4]  This view accords with the New Perspective on Paul in recognizing the apostle’s central interests in participation in Christ and ecclesiology.

[5]  The focus of this essay does not allow us to deal with righteousness and justice in relation to all the varied expressions of the gospel in the New Testament, including the literature of the synoptic gospels. Moreover, the article deals with many interpretive questions related to 2 Cor 5:21, but it does not attempt to cover them all.

Advertisements

The Prosperity Gospel and the Use of Context when Interpreting the Bible*

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering; this letter teaches that we experience and administer God’s power and presence in the midst of hardship. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. As preachers, we need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. We need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

* A version of this was published earlier in this blog and also in In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, ed. Hermen Kroesbergen (Wellington, Republic of South Africa: Christian Literature Publishers, 2013; Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

“So that we might become the righteousness and justice of God”

This is an essay topic I’m exploring … It reconsiders 2 Cor 5:21 and reflects on the gospel’s implications for social witness.

The church’s witness and contribution to the world both suffer when believers misconstrue the gospel. I would like to build upon interpretations of 2 Cor 5:21 which read Paul as saying that Christ died so we who believe may become genuinely righteous in our way of life (not only deemed as righteous by God). However, I will interpret dikaiosunē as indicating not righteousness solely, but also justice. This explanation of 2 Cor 5:21, interpreted in the context of 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 as a whole, and in light of conceptions of dikaiosunē as including justice in the Septuagint, clarifies that the gospel Christians believe for salvation is also the basis of our holistic transformation for justice. We become an embodiment of God’s active righteousness in service for justice. A fuller knowledge of the gospel, which explains Christians’ relationship to God’s righteousness and justice, helps to repair the church’s role in society. This perspective supports seamless invitations to faith in Jesus Christ and to become a force for justice in the world. The proposal may be especially apropos to contexts where a form of the gospel has spread with rapidity but where righteousness and justice have perhaps lagged behind. The paper reflects on this reading of 2 Cor 5:21 for such issues in Zambia and Southern Africa as Christians’ involvement in financial corruption and in violence against women and girls.

The gospel is the message of salvation, but it also shapes our lives

I’m exploring an area of the apostle Paul’s thought that was right at the heart of his vision for Christian life, leadership, and mission. The basic idea is this: We’re called to be people of the gospel – to share it with our words but also to embody the gospel with our lives. The gospel is the message of the cross, forgiveness, and salvation. But the gospel is not just the message of salvation; it also shapes the direction of our lives. I’m thinking about the basis of this idea of embodying the gospel.  Believing the gospel brings us into union with Christ, and union with his death and resurrection, and that union transforms us into people who manifest Jesus and represent him and his life with our lives. Our bond with Christ and the gospel transforms us, with the result that, individually and corporately, we believers can become a picture of what God is offering to the world.

The main way Paul taught this approach to the gospel was through his personal example. Paul talked a lot about himself. This tends to turn off and turn away some readers today. We too often conclude that if someone is talking about himself, he must be narcissistic and there must be nothing of value for us. But Paul’s frequent talk about himself was not really about him (I believe), but about the life of embodying the gospel. When Paul spoke of himself, in his mind, there was something far larger involved than himself. Paul has been scathingly criticized for being self-focused and egotistical and for pressuring sameness in the Christian community, among other things. At least mostly, these criticisms miss what Paul was about. Instead of emphasizing sameness with himself or the erasure of distinct personalities, when Paul invites people to follow his example, he is offering his readers a general pattern of life based on the model of Christ’s death for others. Paul crafts his example to teach the vocation of embodying the gospel, the calling which arises from union with Christ.

I’m especially thinking about this topic of embodying the gospel in 1 and 2 Corinthians. In the case of 2 Corinthians, there’s also this big issue: What about weakness and vulnerability? How can difficulty and weakness coincide with representing Jesus and the gospel, being a leader, and doing ministry? This is an issue in the Corinthian church and in Paul’s relationship with them all the way through the Corinthian letters, but especially in 2 Corinthians.  Paul answers that weakness and hardship in us and around us, instead of things to shrink from or be ashamed of, are openings for God. Weakness and difficulty are a means for going deeper in our union with Christ, and when that happens, we are changed and transformed to be more like Christ.

Transformation for Mission: A Presentation for the GOCN (Gospel and Our Culture Network) Forum on Missional Hermeneutics

The GOCN is having a forum on “The Corinthian Correspondence and Missional Praxis” at the Annual Meeting of the Society  of Biblical Literature in November of 2013, in Baltimore. The following is a description of the paper I’ll be presenting.

“Corinthian Transformation for Mission: Re-Interpreting 2 Corinthians 4” 

New Testament scholars writing on 2 Corinthians 4 have observed that the chapter includes some of Paul’s deepest reflections on his apostolic life and vocation. The same scholars discussing the same chapter, however, have been reluctant to speak substantially about the missional life and vocation of the church. At the foundation of this essay is the claim that, contrary to many readings of 2 Corinthians, Paul deals not only with his own vocation, or that of himself and his apostolic partners. This study marshals evidence that Paul seeks to inculcate essentially the same missional vocation in the Corinthians themselves. In fact, Paul interprets his own calling through the vocation of all who are in Christ. On this foundation, the presentation will interpret Paul’s statements about his “we” as indicative of what is true of the church’s transformation for mission.

The presentation will begin with a condensed argument that Paul is not writing solely about his own vocation or that of his apostolic team. We will observe the following evidence: The Corinthians will naturally read 2 Corinthians 4 in light of what precedes. Through his prior correspondence with them, Paul has trained the Corinthians to treat his extended self-descriptions as exemplary of their vocation (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1). Moreover, in 2 Cor 1:3-7, where Paul affirms that not only he but also the Corinthians share in Christ’s sufferings, the letter’s introduction guides how the congregation should read what he is about to say. Moreover, in 3:18, “we all” are being transformed. In 4:11, “we who are alive” (hoi zōntes) – all who are alive in Christ – are being handed over, “so that the life of Jesus may be manifest”. Paul also affirms that Christ died for all, and all have died, that “those who are alive (hoi zōntes) might no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised “(5:14-15).

The main substance of the presentation will be to sketch Paul’s vision for believers’ transformation for mission, as described in 2 Corinthians 4, though with insights from the wider context of 2 Corinthians 1-7. God’s light shines into the hearts of believers (4:6), granting a vision of Christ which leads them to be transformed from one degree of glory to another (3:18). The fruit of this transformation is that believers become illuminators as people experience through them “the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). Believers preach Christ Jesus as Lord (4:5), but their whole embodied existence (sōma and sarx in 4:10-11) also expresses the life of Jesus. Believers are clay jars containing the treasure of the gospel for others (4:7). Believers suffer in their bodies, but doing so is a means toward a greater end: they are transformed to become revelators of Christ and his life (4:10-11). In the midst of hardship, believers experience renewal of the inner person as they gaze on what is eternal and unseen, walking courageously by faith (4:16-18; 5:7-8). Christ’s death and love propel them to live not for themselves, but for Christ (5:14-15). Moreover, God has placed the message of reconciliation “in us” (5:19) – in the body of believers. Finally, read in light of what precedes, when Paul says that Christ was made sin “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”, this describes God’s project of transforming the church to be the image of what God desires for all humanity.

It is not sufficient to say with most scholars that the purpose of Paul’s self-references is to explain his apostolic office and defend himself. Instead, the paper argues that Paul is deliberately and tactically using his self-references to exemplify a broader missional vocation for believers: one arising from a transformative union with Christ. What preoccupies Paul is not so much his own apostolic standing as his relationship with the Corinthians, and their union with Christ and with the gospel. Through this union, the Christian life becomes a picture of Christ for others. Believers live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus, for this leads to thanksgiving and glory for God (4:15).

The Prosperity Gospel and the Responsible Interpretation of the Bible (continued from “My concerns with the prosperity gospel in Africa” from January 12)

A. Prosperity Preachers’ Proof Texts

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee material success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. Preachers need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. They need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

B. Literary Context

The prevalence and progress of the prosperity gospel is partly due to Christians’ failure to understand verses of the Bible in their original literary context. What does it mean to read Scripture in light of the literary context, and why is the literary context so important?

By giving attention to the “literary context,” I mean that we interpret words in light of the verses of the Bible in which they are found. And we interpret verses in light of the immediate sections of Scripture in which they’re found. And we interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible. And we interpret chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible in light of the book as a whole. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part” (Brown 2007: 213).[1] In short, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages, and we interpret these smaller parts in light of what we see in a book of Scripture as a whole.

The literary context is important because it keeps us on track by setting interpretive limits and clarifying the possible range of meaning for a verse of the Bible. It is true that we all bring ideologies and concerns that affect our interpretation of a text. This is unavoidable to a degree, but too often we force a piece of Scripture to fit our preconceived notions. This occurs with few limits, resulting in any number of possible meanings, if we do not read in context. Yet when we read a verse in its literary context, we have to face what is really in the text, which makes it much more difficult to compel Scripture to say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. While it is very hard to see the meaning of a text if we do not understand what the author says before and after that given piece of text, the literary context gives us much to work with, because we have the author’s own guidance to clarify the meaning. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice rather than being dictated strictly by the concerns of the reader.

Let us look at a real-life example. On more than one occasion I have heard Zambian preachers discuss whether or not Jesus’ promise of abundant life in the Gospel of John should encourage them to dream of owning their own airplanes. The debate concerns this verse: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, NRSV). In the contemporary context of Africa’s preachers, where the prosperity gospel thrives, and where a preacher’s personal wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, true abundance might look like owning one’s own airplane. However, from the perspective of using the literary context of Scripture, questions of the contemporary context are not the first or only ones that matter. The literary approach asks the question: What does abundant life mean in the Gospel of John? “Life” is one of the main themes of that gospel, so by tracing how it uses and speaks of the word “life”, we can arrive at a fairly clear idea of what these words mean in their original literary context. This should clarify and put limits on the contemporary discussion of whether pastors should seek to own their own airplanes. By looking at how John’s gospel uses the word “life”, we can see that it tends to mean “eternal life”, and yet eternal life begins now through our faith and knowledge of God. One only needs a Bible concordance to see where and how Jesus speaks of life in John’s gospel; then a reader can discern the extent to which Jesus has material goods in mind when Jesus speaks of life abundant.

Some readers may be cautious about our ability to be sure of what Scripture really teaches. Can a person be certain that the Bible actually teaches for or against the prosperity gospel? Some may claim: Are not our readings contextual and largely determined by our point of view and attitudes which we have before we pick up the Bible and read? Some might ask this question because they wish to avoid the authority of Scripture in their personal lifestyle, but many others genuinely wonder about these questions.

Certainly, all readings of Scripture bear the influence of our contemporary context and the lens of experience and ideology through which we read. There is no such thing as an entirely objective reading. However, while the limitations of a reader and his or her context put limits on his or her interpretation, interpretation is not simply or only shaped by the reader’s context. The writers of Scripture did not leave us in the dark in regard to their main aims and themes, and we can trace them by learning to read well. We can gain confidence about discovering what Scripture says by learning to use its literary context. As we use the literary context, we can hold the content of what we find in the Bible in dialogue with our situation on the ground in Africa. This helps us to hear how the content of Scripture addresses our contemporary context.

C. Canonical Context

Some readers might grant the argument so far but argue that the prosperity gospel is a key theme spread throughout much of the Old Testament, and especially the book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, in support of the message of prosperity, Deuteronomy does teach that God blesses the obedient with material prosperity. This is at the heart of Deuteronomy’s theology. When Deuteronomy 28:2 says, All these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God”, it is more than a proof text, and the wider literary context of the book demonstrates that material blessings are included. The verse communicates what Deuteronomy is actually about, and this theology can be found scattered in the Old Testament’s literature.

While this essay grants that prosperity as a reward for obedience is a genuine principal theme of Deuteronomy, and that we find this idea in a wide variety of Old Testament books, the trouble is that prosperity preachers take this theme and make it a guarantee for believers today to receive material blessing, without observing the way the rest of the biblical canon puts limits on this teaching and prevents it from being a guarantee in every case. Failure to observe the way the rest of the canon qualifies and nuances its teaching is a hallmark of the prosperity gospel. The meaning of a verse of Scripture should be understood in light of the book of the Bible in which it is found; in addition, we need to observe the canonical context when we preach something as a general truth. For a teaching to be considered crucial enough to repeat day after day and week after week, as the prosperity gospel is proclaimed in Africa, it must stand the test of what we discover in the rest of the canon, which is crucial for determining the church’s main teachings.

Filtering the prosperity gospel through the New Testament would mean qualifying the message substantially, but the canon of the Old Testament also requires that we nuance this message. The Psalms of lament, for example, sometimes present the Psalmist as one who is righteous and yet suffers. Psalm 44:15, 17-19, and 23-24 (NIV) state:

My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame… All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.  Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path.  But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness… Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.  Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?

Along similar lines, Psalm 73:13-14 (NIV) gives voice to the reality that sometimes the faithful suffer: Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.  All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” Yet the same Psalm affirms:  “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26).

It is not only the Psalms which call the guarantee of prosperity into question. Job is a righteous sufferer. Isaiah 53, a chapter which came to hold significance for the early Christians’ understanding of Jesus, speaks of the righteous servant who suffers. The prophet Jeremiah was faithful and yet suffered. While material blessings often come to the righteous in the Old Testament, it is not uncommon that the righteous suffer.

In light of these realities, relying on the Old Testament canon as a whole, a preacher cannot guarantee physical blessings to believers in return for their obedience. Physical blessings as a reward for obedience is one of the ways God works; the Old Testament also presents other very different ways God deals with the faithful. As Ellen Davis states, “The Bible is rigorously realistic in its representations of human character, the conditions and contingencies of life in this world. Therefore the aim of Old Testament preaching is to invite Christians to grow toward spiritual maturity in circumstances that are always less than ideal” (“Witnessing to God in the Midst of Life: Old Testament Preaching” Expository Times 124 Oct 1:1).

D. Learning the Skill of Analysis

One reason for the prosperity gospel’s success in Africa is that Christians receive a steady diet of this gospel from the television and the radio, and few people have the tools and preparation to evaluate the message as to whether or not it is biblical. When students arrive at our institution, they are comfortable with listening to lectures and reading books to receive and pass on information, but most have not been exposed to education that teaches them to analyze what they read. When new students prepare a sermon, they tend to be at a loss when asked to do personal analysis of a biblical text. Instead of analyzing their passage of the Bible, the tendency is to copy what a Bible commentary says about their passage and then begin to think for themselves about the practical application. When they neglect the personal analysis of Scripture for themselves, they demonstrate a lack of confidence and skill in interpretation of Scripture. Relatively few people have gained the ability to trace the line of thought within biblical books and see the variety of nuances contained in passages of Scripture. But if theological colleges teach students the skill of analyzing a text (any text), and they learn to apply that skill to the Bible, then they will be able to see for themselves the extent to which the gospel of prosperity rings true with the themes and aims of the Bible.

To assure that teaching is biblical, preachers and teachers must learn to identify the main aims, themes, and lines of thought in the writings of Scripture for themselves. We can learn to do this in individual passages, in individual books of the Bible, and in the canon as a whole. The result is that as teachers and preachers we know that what we teach matches what the Bible is really about, because we see our teaching emphasized as main themes in whole streams of thought, represented in large sections of Scripture. And where a teaching is nuanced by other lines of thought, we need to admit that and not give guarantees that God automatically works in one way instead of another.

When preachers learn to interpret individual verses in light of the larger pieces of Scripture in which they are found, the result is that they will be able to tell the difference between a proof text taken out of context and a statement or verse that represents what Scripture as a whole teaches. This is of great value when evaluating the prosperity gospel or any other teaching.

While God may bless believers with prosperity, this is not affirmed throughout Scripture. Therefore it cannot be taught as something that is automatic and mechanical as so many prosperity preachers guarantee. To be a central message of the church and a true interpretation of the Christian life, a teaching must square with main lines of thought in the biblical canon, and it should not violate the main lines of thought of the biblical writings from which verses are quoted. The prosperity gospel must be held in dialogue with, and critiqued by, the themes of Scripture which anyone may observe to be genuinely central.


[1]  I recommend Brown’s Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (2007) for an initial study of hermeneutics, along with Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (2009). 

An Inside Look at the Call to Ministry

This is the sermon I shared with our seminary community here in Zambia at chapel this morning. Hopefully parts of it can speak beyond this context.

Our passage for today is 2 Corinthians 4:5-12. Remember, our theme for this term is the pastor’s calling. 2 Corinthians focuses on Paul’s experience of ministry. 2 Corinthins 4 is a difficult passage, but it’s also deep, and practical. And it includes such relevant topics as suffering, power, perseverance, witness, true prosperity, and avoiding discouragement. Focusing on the whole chapter would take more time than we have; verses 5 to 12 give us a chance to get an in-depth look at our calling to ministry. The passage gives us an inside look at the light and treasure we have received, the life of ministry we live, and the light and message we have to share.

Let’s focus first on verses 5-6. In verse 5 Paul mentions what we preachers don’t do and what we do: We don’t preach ourselves, and we do preach Jesus Christ. But then he backs up and gives a basis in verse 6 for what he has said in verse 5. God has shown light into our hearts. This is a picture of conversion, but it’s also a picture of a call. In the book of Acts, Paul tells the story of seeing a light (Acts 9, 12, 26). Jesus spoke to him. And then he was told what he was to do. I think the book of Isaiah played a huge role in Paul’s mind, in how he interpreted his experience of this light. Paul saw a light, and then, in the words of Isaiah, he saw himself as called to be a light to the nations (see Is 42:6; 49: 6; Acts 9:3; 13:47). We’re not that different from Paul: God has shown a light in our hearts – we’ve experienced that ourselves – and ever since, and from now on, we have light to share.

Let’s look at the end of verse 6. God has made his light shine in our hearts, but then the NIV says, “to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ”. The words “to give us” are not there in the Greek text, and other translations are closer to the original when they say, “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (NRSV, ESV).  No mention there of us as the object of the light. In other words: We’re illuminated, not just for our sake, but to become illuminators: we’re illuminated in order to go forth and illuminate others. God has shown forth in our hearts, so that we can go forth and reveal, Paul says, the face of Christ.

What a high calling we have. What dignity God has given you and me, that not only would he shine his light into our lives but also give us the task of illuminating others with the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

And so that’s the basis of what Paul says in verse 5: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus.” We don’t preach ourselves, because the message is not about us. We preach to help others encounter the face of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, we who are called to reveal the light sometimes get confused and lose our way. We begin to get the idea that the ministry is actually about us and our own success. We look around at who seems to be doing well in ministry. We see the nice car. Maybe we see preachers on TV. And something in our hearts says, “That’s where it’s at. You need to think big. You need a big voice, a big personality, a big house, big buildings. You need to see your picture on a big sign. You need a big name.” So our ambition grows. And before we know it what we really want is that others will encounter not the face of Jesus, but our own face. We preach ourselves, not Jesus Christ. And the light that came to our hearts falls dim.

But our passage presents a different picture. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Servants for Jesus’ sake. We’re not trying to become masters here on earth; the only master is the Lord Jesus Christ.

As servant-preachers, the picture we want to leave with people is the face of Jesus. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” And this happens best if the image of ourselves is a picture of serving. We serve the church for Jesus’ sake.

Next, let’s look at verses 7-9. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” Paul sometimes used common objects as symbols. In chapter 5, he will say our bodies are like tents. Here in 4:7, we believers are like clay jars, earthen vessels, with a treasure inside. Now a clay jar is a practical thing to have. It’s fragile, but it’s useful because things can be put inside it. One could even put a treasure inside, like precious gems or gold.

Paul is using a symbol to say important things about our calling. We are jars of clay. But not just any clay jars. We are distinguished because of what we carry. Based on verse 6, the treasure we carry is the illumination, the making known, of God in Christ. Verse 5 is also clarifying: the message we carry is not how special we are, but Jesus Christ. The treasure is the message of Jesus Christ.

Let’s think more about this treasure we have. Here in Africa, there’s a lot of talk among believers these days about prosperity. I don’t think we can really get to the bottom of how the Bible speaks to that topic without looking at the whole canon of Scripture. But this passage does speak to it: 2 Corinthians says, we who carry Jesus Christ inside us have treasure.

I wonder, who in our lives gets to define what success and prosperity mean? Do we let the billboards along the highway tell us what success is? Do we let what’s on television tell us what prosperity and success are? Do we swallow those messages? That we won’t be a success, and we won’t be content, until we have every last object on those billboards? If we swallow this message ourselves, how much more might the people in our congregations swallow it!

Maybe we need to listen to 2 Corinthians: We have prosperity already, because we have a treasure already, because we have Christ and the light of the gospel inside us. Paul knew he had a treasure; he had genuine prosperity, and it was something that no circumstance and no person could take away. He still worked with his hands to meet his needs, but he already had contentment that no one could take away. He says in Philippians 4:12-13  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

These things may seem easy for me to say, since I grew up in a rich country. But when we allow what’s on TV and what’s on the big signs to define success for us, we can miss the real contentment that is freely ours to enjoy through the treasure of Jesus Christ already living inside us. Let’s be careful about who gets to define true prosperity and success in our life of ministry.

We are common clay, but we carry something very special inside, something extraordinary. Our calling is not about us; it’s about the treasure inside, the message we carry and have to share. We are here for something larger, more beautiful, more precious, and more important than ourselves and our own success. Christ is the message, the light, and the treasure. Our calling is to something bigger than what the world calls success and prosperity.

Verse 8 says, “We are hard pressed on every side.”  What happens when a clay jar is hard pressed on every side? It’s crushed. But the jars of clay in our passage are different. Despite being hard pressed on every side, they are not crushed. This says something about perseverance. We’re exposed to risk, because we’re made of common clay. But we’re also resilient, uncommonly resilient. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Verses 8-9 raise the question: What keeps us from being crushed and destroyed? There is something about the light that has shown in our hearts, and there is something about the treasure inside us, that make us tough, resilient, and durable. Christian leaders take heat sometimes. We may take heat, and sometimes in our minds we may fantasize about hiding, and running away from the ministry.

But our passage says: we can take heat. We can be hard pressed, and we can handle it. Verse 1 says that even as we have received mercy (even as we have received the light), we do not lose heart. And later verse 16 will say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Inwardly – that’s where the treasure is. There’s something about having that light and treasure inside us that gives us power to persevere. And verse 7 even speaks of “surpassing power”. It’s not from us – we’re clay jars – but it is inside us. It’s from God, yet we derive a benefit. So even though we are clay, clay that gets hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed or destroyed. We have access to surpassing power.

In Paul’s mind, having Christ in our lives simultaneously subjects us to vulnerability AND makes us strong to withstand vulnerability. Since we’re not living first for ourselves, since we realize there’s something larger at stake than our own success, we do put ourselves at risk. We risk what is good for us for the sake of a larger good. That’s why we often say yes when we get the call to some task or some place that looks difficult. Maybe it’s not the village you would have chosen for yourself. Maybe it doesn’t look like a place for personal advance. But if we’re there, then the light, and the treasure, will also be there, because it goes with us.

We get exposed to hardship because our purpose is to live not for our own welfare but for proclamation. We live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus. That’s what leads to God’s glory, as verse 15 will say. But living for something larger than ourselves also makes us vulnerable. God gets glorified. But that can also get us into situations where we’re at risk. Yet let’s take courage: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Let’s move on to 4:10-12. These verses build on what Paul has been saying about suffering, and about revealing Jesus Christ, but they take it further.

The first half of each of these three verses use symbolic language to speak of hardship we go through in a life of ministry. All three verses use the word death to describe the life of ministry. Paul is using symbolic language to try and describe how difficult true ministry is. Each one of these statements doesn’t necessarily mean a literal death but rather the suffering that we keep going through as we minister.

The symbolism of the first half of each verse is a little difficult: For all of us who carry the treasure of Christ, we have a strong relationship with the death and life of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says our relationship with Christ’s death is so strong that his sufferings flow over into our lives. And here in 4:10-12, Paul says the hardships which we go through in a life of ministry are actually a carrying around of his death in our bodies. When Paul uses the word “body”, he’s emphasizing that these hardships affect our whole being. It’s not just a spiritual thing but something that involves the whole of our lives.

The second half of each of these three verses, 10 to 12, is a little easier to understand. Each second half states the result of these hardships we go through, and each speaks about the larger purpose of a life of ministry. Namely, the life of Jesus is revealed, and that life (the life of Jesus) is at work in those to whom we minister. No matter how difficult the things are that we walk through, we can take courage because the life of Jesus gets revealed to others through these hardships.

Just to explain it again: Paul says, we who minister always go through hardship. And these difficulties are a result of us being in a special relationship to Jesus and his death. But the result of the hardship we go through is that the very life of Jesus gets revealed. The ministry brings difficulties, no doubt.  But through these things, we become revealers of the life of Jesus.

It’s like what Paul said earlier: We are illuminated, and we become illuminators, except here it’s clarified that the suffering we go through plays a big role in our becoming people who illuminate others.

Verse 12 states the message differently, but it’s the same message. For those called to a life of ministry, death is at work in us (that is, we go through adversity), but for those we minister to – they receive life (Christ’s life).

I’m sure we’ve known people who have both walked through difficult things and yet have also revealed Christ to us. And the difficulties we know about in their lives, the hard things they’ve walked through, just make their witness shine brighter. That’s what verses 10 to 12 are about. The things that make our lives difficult also bring out the light and life of Christ.

If we’re preaching not ourselves but Jesus Christ, if we’re doing genuine ministry, we encounter hardship. But our difficulties serve a higher purpose. They help people realize we’re not the message — Christ is. Our difficulties transform us to become people who reveal the life and power of Christ.

 

To conclude: God has shown us mercy by shining forth in our hearts. He has illuminated us, and he’s called us to be illuminators. We’ve given ourselves to something larger and more precious than our personal welfare and success. And so we don’t preach ourselves; we preach so people will encounter the face of Jesus. We are like clay jars carrying a treasure. And we don’t just preach with words. We preach by who we are. Even our hardships preach Jesus. People see that the power in our life comes not from us but from God. We’re knocked down, but we get up. We’re hard pressed, but we’re not crushed. All these things point to a greater reality: Jesus becomes manifest. The face of Jesus becomes visible through our words, and through our lives, to the glory of God. Amen.