The Unexpected Path

(Sermon for a chapel communion service)

It’s an honor to get to stand here and share God’s word with you before moving from Zambia and Justo Mwale University later this month. Our passage is Rev 5:1-14.

I’ve appreciated the sermons I’ve heard this term on inviting God’s kingdom to be present in the church. Our passage today also contributes, where Jesus is told, “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”.

I’ve not heard many sermons on the book of Revelation in this chapel. It’s a difficult book to interpret because it’s so different from the rest of the books of the New Testament. We’re not used to interpreting a book like this, a book that is three kinds of literature all at once. John tells us at the beginning of this book that what he’s written is an apocalypse (a revelation, an unveiling), but also a book of prophecy, and also a letter to seven churches, one big letter to seven churches during a period of the Roman Empire when it was very difficult to be Christian.[1] And as a letter, it needs to be interpreted in a way that would have been meaningful to those first people who received it, and then as meaningful to us.


Our passage begins with the words… “I saw”. Our passage has three sections, each beginning with, “I saw…” It’s one of the most common phrases in Revelation. John sees visions. An apocalypse includes symbolic visions which reveal things otherwise hidden and unknown.

In chapters 4-5, John is taken up to see the heavenly throne room. And a big part of what he sees is: Who’s in charge. And it’s not Caesar, it’s not the Roman emperor who’s on the throne. Revelation tells us, despite appearances on earth, who’s really in charge. As an apocalypse, Revelation deals with the question: Who’s really on the throne? Who’s really in charge. And it Affirms: It’s God… No matter how bad things may look right now on earth, God reigns.God’s in charge.

Maybe that’s important for us, right here and right now, at Justo Mwale. No matter what challenges we face, God is sitting on the throne. God is still in charge.

Revelation is about learning to see from the perspective of heaven, and learning to see from the perspective of the final judgment, and the final victory. And learning to see what and who are truly worthy of worship. And by seeing differently, we’re empowered to be faithful, to give all our worship where it truly belongs, and so we’re able to overcome. 

In the beginning and end of Revelation, the author John calls it a book of prophecy. It’s true that prophecy has something to say about the future. But prophecy especially invites us to see our current situations in a new light. Revelation as a book of prophecy is about discernment. Prophecy gives discernment; it helps us see better.  

And maybe that’s what we need now, at this time in our lives, and in the life of  JMU – prophetic discernment. Seeing and discerning from God’s perspective – How should we see our present challenges? How should we see ourselves? And our Christian institutions?

The unexpected, surprising path   

Let’s now see what John sees in those first several verses.  In the beginning of chapter 5, we find there’s a problem that needs to be resolved. A scroll needs to be opened. But no one is worthy to break its seals, open it, and look inside.  The scroll is crucial to open because it will announce God’s response to evil in the world. It will reveal God’s justice and get it started. 

And John mourns and weeps because no one is worthy.There’s a buildup of suspense: What can be done? Is no one worthy?

And then, there’s a solution. “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s Jesus the Messiah, through the symbol of a conquering lion.

So as this first section ends, we’re prepared and expecting to see Jesus as the great lion.

The next section (v. 6) begins: And I saw… a lamb. The lion … is a lamb. We were led to expect a conquering lion, and instead we see a lamb which has been slain.

Can you imagine, expecting a lion and seeing instead a lamb?

It’s not your average lamb. It’s got seven horns. And a horn is a symbol of power. But it’s not a lion. It’s a powerful lamb standing yet having been slain.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear, he who has eyes to see let him see… this unexpected picture. This surprising path to victory. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, did not conquer as a lion, but as a lamb.

This surprising pathway goes right to the very center of our Christian faith. An unexpected path, and it cuts right through to the center of this table.

The surprising path is heavenly logic: Power through weakness, victory through humility and self-sacrifice.  

And when the lamb takes the scroll from the one who sits on the throne, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down not before a lion. They fall down before the Lamb. Jesus conquered as a lamb.

What’s our image of a winner? What’s our symbol of success? Maybe a lion. Maybe a lion who takes what belongs to him. Probably not a lamb who gets slain.

And our image of success may not be of people who fall down and worship a lamb.

But Jesus conquered as a lamb. And this is more than an accidental image. It’s reality.

Our passage even tells us that Jesus being a lamb is the key to our future, and the key to our long-term calling.

The elders and four living creatures proclaim: “Worthy are you… For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them (US!) a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Jesus the Lion of Judah became a Lamb who was slain… That’s the key not only to his identity but also to our identity and future.

He has made us a kingdom – The kingdom is something he accomplishes, something he has accomplished for us.

Sometimes we get the idea that a life of ministry is about positioning ourselves, building a name for ourselves, building our own kingdom. But the scripture says: Jesus has made us a kingdom.

Notice the order: You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” We shall reign on the earth BECAUSE Jesus made us a kingdom and priests to our God.

Jesus accomplished this, because he was slain, because he ransomed people for God by his own blood – that’s how he bought people for God. By his being humble and obedient to the point of death.


Jesus has made us a kingdom and priests. This image is rooted back in Exodus 19, in God’s plan for the nation Israel. They were to be a kingdom and people special to God, with God as their true king. And in Revelation, the early Christians are a new Israel, a kingdom and priests.

And we, like Israel of old, are a kingdom, people who recognize that no matter how things look on earth, God and the lamb are on the throne as king. We believers are their kingdom.

And: We shall reign on the earth (cf 22:5).  Revelation reveals a future when heaven and earth will be joined together, and God’s servants shall reign forever and ever. We will reign, because Jesus has made us a kingdom. We do not position ourselves for this honored position. Jesus has done that for us.

Our passage also calls us “priests to our God”. Priests are special people to God, people who serve in God’s presence, with access to God, and people who stand between God and the rest of the world, serving God and benefitting the world. Let’s notice it does NOT say those who are ordained do this. It’s the whole people of God who have this dignity.

Now, if Jesus is the one who makes us to be a kingdom, if what he has done is to make us to be a kingdom, what’s our response? What’s our role now?

We see our proper response in what the 24 elders do: They fall down before the Lamb.

In light of his worthiness, our response is worship. Our role is to see how worthy Jesus is, and worship accordingly. He has given us our positions as a kingdom and as priests. This life is not about what we make of ourselves. He has made us what we really are.

And so what we see in the last section, vv. 11-15, is worship.

John says, “And I saw, and I heard…” thousands upon thousands saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We join the elders and the thousands upon thousands of angels. Our role, our response, is seeing the worth of Jesus, falling down before him, and giving him all of our worship and praise.  

Our role is to recognize how awesome, how wonderful, how worthy Jesus is, and then we live and speak and work accordingly. We get occupied, not with positioning ourselves, but with rightly positioning Jesus.

We and our churches and institutions are not about us. We make Jesus Christ the center.

Sure, we have an institution here. We have this big chapel building. But the truth is that Jesus is so big, he’s towering above this chapel… He’s towering above Justo Mwale and every one of us.

And we become content not to be lions, not to be kings, but to be lambs like Jesus, obedient unto death.

We become God centered. Jesus centered. As priests we get to serve in the presence of the king. And what we want on this earth is to praise Jesus with our lives and with our words.

I wonder if JMU can help the church see this great Jesus…Jesus who is worthy of all that we are, all our worship… I wonder if we can help preachers, and thereby the church, to recognize the bigger, greater Jesus. We lift Jesus higher. We fulfill our role to help the world to see the greatness of the Lamb.

Our being a kingdom comes from Jesus our king. We recognize the one who reigns. Recognizing more of Jesus here and now, and embodying more of Jesus the lamb. That’s what it looks like for the kingdom to be more present. More centered in Jesus, lifting up Jesus, here and now.

 “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

 “The elders fell down and worshiped.” And our lives begin to look like these elders. They see that their position, their status, is not about them. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, about God who is on the throne.

From the perspective of heaven, we succeed when we see our lives are not about us. And our institutions succeed when it’s not about the name and greatness of our institution, like JMU.

Our position, our status, is not about us. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, and about God who is on the throne.

Let’s look and see, and help others see, this truly great Jesus. This big Jesus, towering above us here at JMU, towering above this chapel. JMU is not about JMU; it’s about Jesus. We are not about us; we’re priests of God. Our lives are about Jesus. We recognize how truly great Jesus is, and we live accordingly.

Our work is not about us. Our preparation for ministry is not about us. It’s about the one who sits on the throne. It’s about the Lamb. It’s all about this truly wonderful Jesus Christ.

How wonderful is Jesus Christ. How wonderful is his death for us. Our life, our ministry, our institutions are all about Jesus Christ. Not us. He alone is worthy of all blessing, all honor, all glory. His being who he is and doing what he has done is what elevates us to be a kingdom.

We’re here for him. We live for him. Our whole lives are about falling down to worship him.

And so we, too, become like lambs. Lambs live not themselves. They live for another. For the true Lion. For the true and great King, for Jesus, for God who is on the throne.

May all we do here at Justo Mwale and all we are on this earth be about the great King, the one who reigns forever and ever. “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” Amen.

[1] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, pages 1-22. I rely heavily on Bauckham for my approach to Revelation.

“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.

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). 

Cooperating with the Gospel

Thanks to friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for the idea of making this video. It lasts nine minutes, and here’s the beginning in case you want to know more about it before deciding to watch:

If in your reading of 1 Corinthians you made it into chapters 8 and 9, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal with meat that’s been sacrificed to idols?”

Well, let’s remember that a letter in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians, is rooted in a particular place and time. There’s a historical gap between us and the original group of people to whom the letter was sent.

Let’s see if we can fill in the gap a little: Some members of the Corinthian church figured out that since they knew idols were not real gods, it would technically not be wrong to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to them. The most readily available meat was that which had been used in pagan worship, so this knowledge of theirs gave them new freedom, freedom to enjoy meat as they pleased.

All of this sounds fine, but the apostle Paul responds: “Hold on. It’s not quite that simple.” We have to think critically about our freedom. It’s not just knowledge that informs our choices. Love for others, and a desire to build them up, needs to shape what we choose. He also says in 8:9, “Be careful… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Then, in chapter 9, Paul goes on to talk a lot about his choices and about the gospel. Now many of us are accustomed to thinking about our relationship with God and how that impacts our choices. But Paul also thought a lot about the relationship we have with the gospel. He talks about his relationship with the gospel throughout chapter 9 and how that relationship affected what he did with his freedom. This may be where a first-century issue of food sacrificed to idols overlaps with our lives. So let’s let Paul help us to see what he saw about the role of the gospel in his life and how that affected his choices.

He mentions the word “gospel” and preaching the gospel probably more in 1 Corinthians 9 than in any other passage in the Bible. It’s also one of the passages where Paul talks about himself about as much as anywhere else. But he isn’t just talking about himself. We need to remember that chapters 8 and 9 are part of this section of 1 Corinthians that ends with the conclusion, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” in 11:1. So when the apostle talks about his choices, he’s also saying something about us, about our choices, and our calling…

My concerns with the prosperity gospel in Africa

This is the introduction to an essay I’ve written on the prosperity gospel:

The gospel of health and wealth proclaims that God promises physical healing and financial prosperity in this lifetime to those who trust and follow God’s ways. This message is powerfully alluring for Zambia and surrounding countries, where people face poverty and sickness beyond what much of the world has ever seen. From what one observes at the grassroots level, the gospel of health and wealth may be becoming the most popular and core message of the Christian faith, so that the prosperity gospel becomes the gospel of this part of Africa.

This situation may seem alarming or hard to believe for Christians in Europe and North America, but it must be remembered that a large chasm lies between the daily experience of most Africans and most Westerners. Zambians are hungry for development, progress, and success; in comparison, most Americans and Europeans have already experienced these things. Europeans and North Americans tend to take it for granted that their physical needs will normally be met, so they hardly connect the meeting of these basic needs with their life of faith. In contrast, Africans tend not to take it for granted that they will have access to such basic needs as food, medical care, and education, and they connect the obtaining of their needs with their newfound Christian faith. Sufficient access to food, health, and education has tended to elude Africans, but they are beginning to believe that it is possible to flourish, and that God cares to give them what they need to be able to do so. Africans have long observed the relative wealth of Westerners living in their countries, and many Africans have also grown wealthy in recent years as their nations’ economies have grown. These realities stir curiosity about just how much success God might wish to provide.  In such an environment, striking the right balance between the belief that God cares for their well-being, and the belief that believers’ prosperity is the point and promise of the Christian life, is a considerable challenge. To serve the ongoing dialogue toward teaching truth in the African church, what follows will address two major concerns regarding the prosperity gospel.

One concern is that the message of prosperity does not reflect what Scripture really teaches, and that most believers’ level of skill in reading the Bible for themselves does not equip them to recognize this problem. Unfortunately, the debate regarding whether or not the message of prosperity is biblical tends to remain at the level of each side lining up proof texts for its own point of view and hurling them at the other side. This article seeks to take the debate to a higher level by inviting believers to look not just at proof texts but also at the main aims, themes, and lines of thought of biblical books and of the canon of Scripture as a whole. The wider literary context of biblical verses clarifies their meaning and places responsible limitations on their use. This article will propose that the prosperity gospel must come to terms with, and be greatly adjusted by, Scripture’s key themes, aims, and lines of thought, both within individual biblical books and, more broadly, in the biblical canon as a whole. Training African believers to read the Bible in its own literary context, so as to recognize the main themes and lines of thought, will help them to see weaknesses in the prosperity gospel and come to a balanced view of what Scripture teaches about suffering and flourishing.

The other concern is that, in its reliance on proof texts for its point of view, the prosperity gospel neglects a theme which is absolutely central for the Christian life: believers’ union with Christ and the impact of Jesus’ death on the Christian life which results from this union. Christ’s death brings a union between Christ and believers that leads believers to follow Christ’s own pattern of life, and that pattern tends to involve suffering and self-renunciation. In its teaching on the Christian life, the prosperity gospel fails to take the cross of Christ into account. This essay points to the neglect of the cross and union with Christ as a critical example of how the prosperity gospel makes frequent use of Scriptural proof texts but tends to miss the spirit of the Bible as a whole.

Finally, the essay will suggest that the weaknesses of the prosperity gospel argue for investing in rigorous theological training on the African continent that highlights teaching believers to interpret Scripture in its literary context. This will lead to responsible interpretation of the Bible and a realization of the significance of Christ’s death for the lives of believers. The upshot will be Scripture-shaped teaching and living among Africa’s Christians.

To see another post on the prosperity gospel, and another section of this essay, see the entry from 3/15/2013.

Christian Freedom when the Bible Seems Silent: The Case of Media and Technology

I just realized I never shared my seminary’s 2011 issue of our journal, Word and Context. I’ll paste the beginning of my article here, and then those who wish can link to the rest of it on our seminary website. I also commend the other articles, written by my colleagues.

Introduction: Christian Freedom Then and Now

The Bible, as a book written in ancient times, does not mention certain aspects of life today. For instance, the Bible does not speak explicitly about the use of technology and media like televisions, cell phones, and computers. But does this mean that the Bible does not speak at all about these tools of communication and forms of entertainment that play such enormous roles in our lives? Sometimes Scripture does not speak about a topic on the surface level but speaks wisely about it once we take a deeper look. If we look closely at Scripture, we may be surprised to see how much it can address even these areas of life today.

To continue, click below and go to page 47 of the 2011 issue.

Communion and Mission

Much can be said about the Lord’s Supper. I want to share about it as a way that God makes the good news of Jesus real and tangible for us, so that we can be ready to make it real and tangible for others.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). And the apostle Paul said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the story of Jesus’ death, and what we do proclaims the Lord’s death for us in a picture. But we don’t just remember it as a historical event. We remember that the event of Jesus’ death happened for us. As Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 19).

The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, but it’s also the case that something happens when we take the supper. Communion happens between Christ and us. Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion (sharing/participation) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a communion (sharing/participation) in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16 ).

The Lord’s Supper is more than a retelling of what happened, and it’s more than a picture. It’s a means that God uses to work the good news of his grace into our lives. It’s true that this can happen through our daily life as we commune with Christ through prayer and as we live in his presence and obey him. But it also happens in an ongoing, special way through taking communion. Communion is a means for God to work his grace and love into the fabric of our lives. God wants the good news of Jesus to become part of who we are. Communion helps us to become, in a deep and tangible way, people of the gospel.

Jesus gave us a symbolic picture through the bread and cup (his body, his blood). We take that picture into our hands. And, audacious as it is, we eat and drink the picture. We consume the pictures and symbols, and they literally become part of who we are. It’s as though we take the raw elements of the good news into our bodies. The Lord’s Supper works the good news into us. It’s something God uses to make the gospel part of who we are. In a deep and tangible way, the treasure of the gospel lives in the earthen vessels or clay jars of our bodies (see 2 Cor 4:7).

Why does God do this? God does all of this because he loves us. He wants his love and forgiveness to be real, tangible, something we can get our hands on, trust, and believe in.

Yet there’s also another reason God does this: Communion makes the gospel real and tangible to us that we might receive what we need to go make it real and tangible to others. God wants to prepare us to embody the good news for the world around us. Communion is something Christ has given us that helps us to be his body in the world.

I appreciate how 2 Corinthians describes our role of embodying the gospel for the world. 2 Cor 2:14 says that God manifests through us the aroma of the knowledge of him. 2 Cor 3:3 says that we show that we are a letter from Christ. 2 Cor 4:6 says that God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of his glory that’s found in the face of Christ. In 4:7, we carry around a treasure (Christ and the gospel) in clay jars, the earthen vessels of our bodies. In 4:10, 11, the life of Jesus is revealed through us as we walk through difficulties. 2 Cor 5:18 says that God has put inside us the message of reconciliation. Two verses later, we read that we are ambassadors for Christ. In 5:21, we learn that God made the one who knew no sin, Christ, to become sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. We become a sign on the earth of God’s righteousness. (God’s righteousness is his power to save – Rom 1:16, 17.)

Christ became like us, and died, that we might become like him, and live. And so we’re able manifest the good news to the world through our lives. When we take communion, it helps to make all of this possible.