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

http://vimeo.com/album/2270537/video/60768996

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…

Transformed into Christ’s Image

It’s inspiring to see a seasoned New Testament scholar focusing her attention on something at the heart of the Christian life.  Below is an abstract of an article by Cambridge scholar Morna Hooker. It’s in the current issue of Theology — January/February 2013, 116 (1).   

Conformity to Christ

Abstract

Following Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, his life was drastically changed. Although he continued to maintain his loyalty to Israel’s God and the Scriptures, he now believed himself to be commissioned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. At the heart of his theology lay his relationship with Christ – summed up in the phrase ‘in Christ’ – a relationship shared by all Christians, who must be ‘shaped’ by the gospel – conformed to the pattern of self-giving, death and resurrection seen in Christ – not simply in baptism but in their daily lives. Paul’s hope for the future envisages its final fulfilment.

Current Issue

The Path to Fruitful Discipleship: Questions to Open Up Mark 4

I used these questions recently in a small-group Bible study.  

1. Read Mark 4:1-34 while asking: Does anything about this passage stand out which you might not have noticed before? What is striking to you?

2. The word “hear” keeps being repeated. Where do you see it in the passage, and what seems to be the purpose of this word appearing so much?

3. Verses 11-12 have puzzled and alarmed many readers of the Bible. How might reading those verses together with verses 10 and 13, 21-25, and 33-34 be helpful? How do disclosure and understanding take place?

4. Perhaps we all want to see ourselves in verse 20. But where do you see yourself the most in verses 15-19?

5. Based on the evidence of Mark 4, what kind of follower does Jesus seem to be looking for?

6. What might it mean for you to be “good soil” at this time in your life?

Love and Spiritual Gifts — Especially Prophecy

a sermon during our seminary’s January orientation 

Orientation at Justo Mwale is an important time to seek direction.  Orientation is a good word. It means getting aligned at the beginning so the future becomes what it’s meant to be. I’ve selected one verse to direct our thoughts this morning, 1 Corinthians 14:1. “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.”  Or, as a literal translation says: “Pursue love, and be zealous for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”

I’m not sure how you tend to interpret this verse of Scripture. From my experience, many Presbyterian and Reformed congregations think, “This is not for us. This may be for other believers, but not for us.”  Sometimes we act as though Paul said, “Pursue love, ignore the spiritual gifts, and don’t even think about prophesying.” Sometimes we treat these words as though Paul wrote the verse only for the believers at the Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

My hope is that we can move away from the idea that other kinds of churches have access to gifts and power that we don’t have. We need to claim the whole Bible for ourselves. Why should we leave some parts of the Bible for other Christians if there might be some benefit for our own life of faith? We need to claim 1 Corinthians 14 as a passage of the Bible that’s for us.

I think it would be a big surprise to Paul that there would be churches that don’t treat 1 Cor 14:1 as relevant to their life and ministry.

We need freedom to explore what these words mean, these words that seemed so important to the apostle that they’re a summary of 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. What better place to explore the meaning of these words than at a theological college? Here we are, training to be people who speak the word of God, and setting aside a year to think about what it means for us to be pastors and preachers. It is a good time to take a closer look.

Verses take their meaning from the context in which they are found. So even though our passage is short — one verse, one sentence — we need to take a close look at 1 Corinthians to understand what this statement means, and especially chapters 12-14, the section where our verse is found.

We as a community have some important things in common with what Paul is talking about in this section of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 12-14, he’s giving directions regarding the Corinthians’ life and ministry together. He tells them they’re the body of Christ, and that as individuals they have gifts to use and ministries to grow into so that the body will be built up.

This is similar to us at Justo Mwale. We’re here because God has called us, and the church has said we have gifts for ministry, and we’re here to prepare for a ministry of building up the church, and especially to become qualified to speak the word of God to God’s people.

Let’s notice that Paul says three things in this verse which sums up what he urges the Corinthians to do:  1) Pursue love. 2) Be zealous for the spiritual gifts, and 3) Especially be zealous that you may prophesy.

Let’s start with the second part of the verse: “Be zealous for spiritual gifts.”

Paul used a very strong word when he commanded the Corinthians to desire the spiritual gifts. Eagerly desire them. Be zealous for them.  An important question for us to address is: Why would Paul tell the Corinthians to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts?

I believe Paul answers this question for us in the way he describes the spiritual gifts and what they accomplish for the church. Paul says in 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” A spiritual gift is a manifestation, a bringing to light, a disclosure of the activity of God the Holy Spirit. The gift makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is alive, present, and doing things. In the spiritual gifts the power of the Holy Spirit is manifest. This is why people who are hungry for God in their lives often desire spiritual gifts.

Paul also says a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, for the advantage of the body of Christ as a whole.  Paul speaks of the spiritual gifts in several places in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as edifying the church, encouraging the congregation, and strengthening it.  He repeats the word “build up” at least six times in chapter 14.The repetition of this important term helps us to realize what Paul cares about— building up the church – and that the spiritual gifts are for this specific purpose.

Sometimes we give the impression that our churches, as churches of the Reformation, are about the past; we bear witness to the faith of the 16th century European Reformation. We bear witness to the faith brought by missionaries 100 years ago. This is true and good, but we also need to bear witness to a living God who is doing things today, right now, in our midst. Perhaps young people especially need to hear that, and see it.

And sure enough, the Bible uses present tense words to describe the Christian life. In 12:7, Paul says, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit”; he uses the present continual tense of the verb “give”. God gives the manifestation of the Spirit in an ongoing way. It’s something that happens now, and continually. God is giving the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And so Paul responds to this reality, in 14:1, when he says, “Eagerly desire” or “Be zealous for” the spiritual gifts. He also uses the Greek verb tense that means ongoing action in the present, as though he says: Eagerly desire, and keep on eagerly desiring the spiritual gifts.”

God wants us not only to be open to the spiritual gifts but to eagerly desire them. The church needs to experience the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. We’re to be eager for the gifts, because the church needs to be strengthened, encouraged, and built up.

 

Now let’s go back to the first part of our verse: “Follow the way of love.”

Paul speaks of love and the spiritual gifts in the same sentence. Back in 1 Cor 1:7, Paul said that the Corinthians had all the gifts. They were not lacking in any spiritual gift. BUT in 1 Cor 3:1-3 Paul says he could not speak to the Corinthian church as to spiritual people.  He had to speak to them as spiritual infants. They had every spiritual gift at work in their church, and yet Paul said he could only treat them as infants in Christ. How could this be?  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 — Where there is jealousy, where there is strife, where there is disunity, where there is boasting, spiritual maturity is absent. Notice: Spiritual gifts are not the mark of spiritual maturity. The mark of spiritual maturity is love.

So Paul says to the Corinthians, “Pursue love.” If Paul could be here at Justo Mwale, I think he might say the same thing. Look what he says in 1 Cor 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge needs love. Justo Mwale, as an academic institution, is in the business of giving knowledge. And when you graduate, you will graduate with knowledge.

But Paul says, in 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, …  but have not love, I am nothing.” I am nothing without love, even if I have all knowledge.

The NIV translation of 14:1 says, “Follow the way of love”, but the verb being translated is stronger and more intense than the word “follow”.  Paul uses the same Greek verb when he says in 1 Cor 15:9 “I persecuted the church of God”. Paul didn’t just follow Christians around before he became a believer in Jesus. He chased them. He pursued them. He caught them. And so translators use the word “persecute,” to get at the intensity of the word. And that’s the word Paul uses to tell us what to do with agapē love. We go after it and pursue it.

If we chase and pursue something, then our mind is on it. We set it before us as a goal, and then we start running, and we don’t give up. It’s impossible to do this casually or lightly. When Paul uses the same word for pursuing love as the New Testament uses for when early Christians were pursued by their persecutors, it’s clear that we have a picture of zeal, of earnest desire, and seriousness about this goal to love.

But what is this love Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 14:1? Words of Scripture take their meaning from the part of the Bible where they’re found. In this case, we don’t have to look far. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

What if we spent our years at Justo Mwale in the pursuit of that kind of love?

When it’s time to graduate, the registrar, the dean, and the rector may not get together and ask, Is this student patient? Is he kind? Doe she envy? Does he boast? He’s not proud, is he? Is he self-seeking? That conversation probably won’t happen. But when you go to your first congregation as a pastor, they will be asking questions like that. Does the pastor care? Is he kind, or is he self-seeking? Is she easily angered, or does she keep no record of wrongs? Is he rude, or is he patient?

Paul says to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but he also says: Pursue love. The gifts are manifestations of the Spirit and of divine power. Paul knows that power without love is destructive.

If we place even more emphasis on love than on our other gifts and skills for ministry, we are less likely to use our gifts for self-gratification. We’ll use our gifts for building up the church. If we spend our years at Justo Mwale learning to love, then we’re on our way to becoming good pastors.

Now the third part of the verse: “Especially that you might prophesy”

Throughout chapter 14, Paul attempts to encourage and convince the Corinthian church of the importance of a particular gift. Paul was convinced that this gift of prophecy was the spiritual gift that the Corinthians most needed. If Paul would tell a local congregation to be zealous that they might prophesy, how much more would he say the same to us, as a community of people preparing for ministries of speaking the word of God to others!

We need to think about what 1 Corinthians means by prophesying. It would be helpful if we had a video of a Corinthian worship service, so we would know exactly what gift looked like. One of the difficult things about interpreting 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 is that we only have Paul’s words. Although we can turn to Acts and see some of the same words for the spiritual gifts used, such as tongues or prophecy, it’s not always clear that they have the same meaning in Acts as they have in Paul’s letters.

The word prophesy itself just means to proclaim something that God wishes to say. But other verses in chapter 14, besides verse 1, give us a little more information. Verse 29 says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Paul says that others in the church should weigh, evaluate, and discern what is said. It looks like prophesying in 1 Corinthians may not carry the same authority as when Old Testament prophets would say, “Thus says the Lord…” It sounds like Paul is saying we need to be humble when we use this gift, because we may not always say exactly what the Lord wants us to say. We don’t always hear God’s voice with accuracy, so the congregation needs to evaluate what is said.

Verse 14:3 can also help us in knowing what Paul means by prophesying: “The one who prophesies speaks to people to build them up, encourage them, and comfort them.” Genuine prophesying is for building people up, encouraging them, and comforting them. Verse 31 is also clarifying: For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” “So that all may learn” – it involves learning.

I don’t see any evidence in 1 Corinthians that Paul means to say this gift is the ability to tell the future. He doesn’t rule it out, but he also doesn’t mention it. I also don’t see any evidence that the person has to have a magnetic, exciting personality. He doesn’t need special clothes. He doesn’t have to have a nice car or access to a TV camera. And she doesn’t have to be someone who speaks to huge groups of people.

People who prophesy speak deeply into people’s lives, so their listeners are not the same afterward. The person is enabled by God to speak a word that is on target for people’s hearts and minds, to build them up and encourage their faith. He or she speaks just the thing that the people need to hear at a given time. The Holy Spirit is manifest because people know that God has addressed them and not just a person. The word not only rings true with Scripture; it goes to people’s hearts, so they know the Holy Spirit has been present.

Is preaching the same as prophecy? This is something we need to explore. I can only begin an answer.

It seems clear from Paul’s words that prophecy does not require a sermon. It can happen separately from a formal sermon.

But it also seems that preaching can qualify as prophecy. Often when I sit in one of these chairs, and someone else is standing here preaching, I sense that God is speaking to me. I experienced it yesterday. Maybe others were having the same experience. If so, that’s a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Yesterday’s preacher might not think of himself as a prophet among us, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t exercising a prophetic gift, if God was addressing us through him.

Let’s be honest: I don’t think preaching always qualifies as prophecy. But it can qualify as prophecy. Prophecy is when God speaks through a person what people need to hear. Preaching can do that. And when it does, it is prophetic.

Whether we understand this gift completely or not, one thing is clear: Prophecy is something we should eagerly desire. And just in case we miss it in 14:1, Paul says it again in 14:39 – “Brethren, be zealous to prophesy.”

Our studies can give us perspective and help us say informed things. But it takes the involvement of God to say what God wishes to say. It takes the involvement of God to say something, and then have people know that God has said something to them. When God speaks through us, the Holy Spirit is making himself manifest and activating the gift of prophecy through us.

Some pastors and congregations steer away from spiritual gifts because they can be abused. The gifts can certainly be abused. But staying away from them was not Paul’s solution. He taught love and emphasized that love is the real mark of being spiritual. Some Christians think, if you really want to be a strong, mature Christian, you must learn about spiritual gifts.  But we’ve seen that spiritual gifts are not the mark of a mature Christian. Love is the mark of a mature Christian. Yet we’re still to desire the spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy.

As you go through your years at Justo Mwale, pursue love, desire the spiritual gifts, and especially that God would reveal to you what’s on his heart to say to God’s people. Earnestly desire the gift of prophecy.

 

Maybe we need to think about our experience here as training to be prophets. We may be Reformed. We may be Presbyterian. We’re going to do things decently and in order. But we also need divine power. We need divine gifting. And we sell ourselves short if we settle for getting academics but miss integrating our studies with the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

God has things he wants to communicate to people. Let’s become pastors who have insight into what those things are. “Pursue love, be earnest for spiritual gifts, and especially that you might prophesy.”

 

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.

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.