Book Review: Essentially One, Jonathan Lamb (IVP, 2020)

“Unity is God’s mission. It arises from who God is, how he acts
and what he will finally achieve.” 202

I have already had the privilege of reading many fantastic books this year, and some of the more recently published ones are reviewed on this blog. Few of those, however, have challenged and encouraged me as deeply as Jonathan Lamb’s latest book. Essentially One, Striving for the Unity God Loves is a brilliant call to the believer to pursue, embrace, and celebrate unity. Not at the cost of the truth of the Gospel, but wonderfully in that truth.

Jonathan’s book is richly centred on God’s word, each chapter taking a key passage of Scripture and centring its discussion around it. Jonathan identifies his concern in the introduction, and also suggests the remedy. “It is my conviction that we will only be able to counter unnecessary division and work to maintain the unity of the Spirit if we are utterly
convinced and motivated by the big themes of Scripture, exemplified
in gospel priorities and made real by the Spirit’s empowering work
in our lives.” (xviii.)

This book is a call to unity, one pursued as we dwell on God’s word, and are equipped by the Spirit. Split into four parts and sixteen chapters, Jonathan walks the reader through the Biblical picture of unity, and challenges us to take up this charge, to seek and to celebrate unity.

A Clear Structure

Essentially One is simply divided into four parts. Part 1 considers the call to be ‘Joining God’s Mission’. Part 2 addresses ‘Difference and Diversity’. Part 3 ‘Confronting Challenges’ discusses conflict, change, division and discipline. Finally Part 4 practically examines how it looks to be ‘Changing our Attitudes and Behaviours’.

In a study of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in Chapter 4, Jonathan draws out this overarching theme of unity. We cannot, he writes (39) “overestimate the significance…of Christian unity” in Jesus’ prayer. Christ’s hope for the church is that unity might feed the lives and activities of all believers. Through the fourfold structure of this book, Jonathan astutely identifies the weight Scripture gives to Christian unity, challenges attitudes and sin that may upset such unity, and gently advises, often practically, how we might achieve this unity.

An Exegetical Heart

And it is clear throughout this book that the means by which Jonathan hopes to teach and challenge on this issue, is through a thorough and consistent application of Scripture. Essentially One is a masterpiece in biblical exegesis.

Each of the sixteen chapters takes an often sizeable passage of Scripture and Jonathan builds his case around God’s Word. The first chapter, based on Acts 10, is a great example of this. Through a simple walk-through of the passage Jonathan explores three foundation truths: God accepts all, Jesus is Lord of all and Salvation is available to all (7-8). His argument is consistently grounded in Scripture, and there is a clear Gospel joy at the heart of this book – a united church is a dwelling place of God? “[What] a wonderful conclusion!” (33.)

More so than this, Jonathan does not offer his own comment in isolation, but humbly draws on the voices of Christian leaders and thinkers from both recent years and long ago. This is a helpful sideline to the main thrust of the book. Not only is there a sense of unity in learning from Christians who have gone often long before us, but there is a helpful humility in plumbing the depths of Christian commentary and literature from centuries gone by, rather than an assumption that recent writing is better/more appropriate! I found this to be a real encouragement throughout. Essentially One speaks to the contemporary British church, but with the wisdom of Christians past and present, and in total and ultimate reliance on Scripture itself.

A dismantling of ‘tribal’ walls

This book at times makes for uncomfortable reading. Not because anything Jonathan writes is unhelpful or inaccurate, but because you can’t help but feel like he is speaking directly to you. Time and again throughout the book Jonathan speaks of ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’. He discusses factions, subgroups, interest groups and splinter organisations. All within the church. This book is not a call for blind unity irregardless of the beliefs of the other, but rather it is a radical call to Biblical unity in Christ.

“We must remember that fellow Christians of whatever label – those whom the Father knows – are identified with the same Lord Jesus and indwelt by the same Holy Spirit.” (40.)

Whatever label we have for ourselves and others, this book checks our preconceptions. Do I too readily dismiss another church for being ‘too charismatic’, or ‘too old-fashioned’? Do I allow myself to be attracted to/put off by the slick social media or stage setup of another church? We know the labels that we as Christians give to other believers in the UK, especially those who quite clearly do not belong to ‘our tribe’. But Essentially One challenges us to ask questions of our own hearts. There is a damaging arrogance, of which sadly many evangelicals can be accused, in believing that our tribe is the only one to have got it right. This book confronts that, encouraging us instead to seek unity with God’s people, for the sake of His name.

Our tribes may look different, but if genuine and convicted Christian believers inhabit another, Jonathan asks then (66): “How can we possibly exclude those whom God has accepted?”

This is not a blanket and unthinking acceptance, and there is much in this book that encourages healthy discourse around secondary or tertiary issues. Jonathan’s discussion around churches communicating with one another in the local area for example is one such helpful thought on this. But it is a call to remember that in God, we are one body, though many parts. It is a book that forces us to ask the question: where is it in my own life that I hinder, rather than further, Christian unity in the church and contexts in which I live and work?

Summary

I hope this review has illustrated just how good I think this book is. I would gladly recommend it to anyone within my own church context (the Grace Baptists) as well as the other two church families I have been a part of during my adult/university life (Independent Anglican and Scottish Free Church). This book showed me my sin in many areas, but it also encouraged me that the means by which I confront, repent, and put to death such sin are found in God’s Word. Essentially One is a brilliant, and biblical call to unity, one that the British church sorely needs. Whatever tribe you belong to, and maybe you feel it’s a tribe to which Jonathan Lamb could never belong, I would encourage you to ask God for a humble heart, and to grab a copy of this book and give it a read.

At the end of each chapter there are questions for reflection and discussion. Normally, I (often wrongly) find such questions to be a mild inconvenience, worth skipping over before you head to the next chapter. Essentially One, however, bucked that trend for me! They were insightful questions, clearly probing the hot topics of each chapter. They would allow this book to be read within a discussion group context, or one-to-one, and would benefit any reader as they work their way through this book.

Book Review: Biblical Theology According to the Apostles (IVP, 2020)

The fifty second volume in the New Studies on Biblical Theology series, edited by Don Carson, addresses the topic of the Apostles engaging in Biblical Theology, specifically in the utilisation and exposition of Summaries of Israel’s Story (hereafter SIS). Biblical Theology according to the Apostles: How the earliest Christians told the story of Israel is a fantastic book, and this reviewer would thoroughly commend it to the reader.

Working with a simple and regimented criteria of what defines the SIS (7 “[an attempt] to show the historical progression of Israel’s story”) with which the authors are concerned, this volume explores seven SIS found in the New Testament. Their goal is not to engage with every aspect of the apostles’ Biblical theology, but instead to consider these clearly defined SIS, and through the application of a practical and simple methodology the authors successfully approach this task.

Methodology

The authors (Chris Bruno, Jared Compton and Kevin McFadden) set out a simply methodology by which they will approach each SIS. Starting first with the context of the story, they move to consider the content, before finally discussing the contribution that each story makes. Such an approach provides a simple structure by which each chapter operates, and allows the authors to offer a concise picture of each SIS. It is with this threefold approach that the SIS found in Matthew, Luke/Acts, Galatians, Romans and Hebrews are considered.

In, for example, the SIS found in Matthew’s Gospel, the approach allows the authors to build around the conclusion that (28-29) “Matthew’s genealogy is a story of unexpected salvation to preserve the line of promise and keep God’s covenant commitments… the goal of Matthew’s genealogy is to summarise the history of Israel with a particular emphasis on the coming of the Messiah, in spite of obstacles to the contrary.” In the SIS of Luke/Acts, the authors illustrate how (80) “the SIS in Acts instruct us about the story’s climax in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus.”

This simple and coherent methodology allows each SIS to be analysed and discussed in an engaging manner, confronting controversies whilst helpfully tackling the word of God.

Textual Engagement

And it is the approach to God’s word that particularly struck me. As the authors consider the seven SIS found in the New Testament (conceding that this is not an exhaustive study) their primary concern was to look to and faithfully work through Scripture. Each study makes therefore a brilliant contribution to the examination of these SIS in the New Testament.

The authors flesh out in their conclusion how each of the seven SIS discussed in this book reveal different aspects of the Apostle’s Biblical theology (184-185). This, in turn, exposes the richness of the parallels between the Old and New Testaments. As each SIS is examined in this book, the incredible depths of Scripture are probed, and God’s word gives up some wonderful truths.

There is a real variety to these SIS. Their structure and content vary wildly, from the genealogy of Matthew to the focus on Abraham in Galatians. But regardless of their differences, each of these SIS expose the God behind Scripture. It is this faithful God, and His merciful gift of His own Son, that so clearly shines through in this book.

Summary

Having explored the biblical theology of the Apostles through the lens of these Summaries of Israel’s Story, the authors draw their thoughts together in a conclusion that in itself is worth the price of the book! They offer helpful thoughts and measured discussion on many of their wider arguments, helpfully applying their study to our own Christian lives. Through this examination of the SIS, the authors illustrate the immense benefit of a worked biblical theology:

“We submit, then, that in our own biblical theology we should read the story both backwards and forwards. The OT witness to Christ is seen more clearly through the lense of the NT and thus we should use the end of the story to enlighten the beginning. On the other hand, we should also read the story forwards. We should expect the OT, as the very Word of God, to bear prophetic witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (187)

The conclusion pulls together a brilliant book with valuable lessons for both our reading of the New Testament, and our attempts to develop our own Biblical theology. Perhaps most helpfully of all, the authors end with a clear indication of what they have been trying to say all along. The Apostles present Christ as the climax of these SIS. Because it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on which all of history rests, and to which all helpful theology will point us.

“The SIS in the NT ought to reorient our priorities when reading the OT and retelling this story. These summaries instruct us about the climax of the story with Christ, the continuation of the story in the church and the conclusion of the story in the new creation.” (200)

Christ is the beautiful climax of the story of both Israel and Creation. The Church is living proof of that, and we can look with confidence to the conclusion of this story when Christ returns. This is a wonderfully helpful book, and a fascinating study in the Biblical theology of the first Christians. But more than that, it is an edifying read that will help equip us to handle our Bibles better.

https://ivpbooks.com/biblical-theology-according-to-the-apostles

IVP kindly supplied me with a prepublication copy of this book, and I hope this has not coloured my review in any way. I think it is a genuinely helpful book, and would gladly recommend it!

Book Reviews: Coronavirus Reads. (Piper, Lennox and Healthy Faith.)

In an effort to respond helpfully and ‘Christianly’ to this global crisis, several leading Christian thinkers and publishers have released new books aimed at helping Christians and non-Christians find Gospel hope at the heart of this pandemic. Below I review two short books, written by John Piper and John Lennox respectively, that both offer very different approaches to this issue. I also include a suggestion for a third book that could help us through this time.

John Piper: Christ and Coronavirus

Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper

Piper has written a short book to help Christians respond to this global pandemic. Christ and Coronavirus is a really helpful read as we think about our own hearts in this strange and often difficult time. Split into two short sections, Piper first considers God’s sovereignty before offering six reflections as to what God might be doing through this crisis.

Part One addresses God’s sovereignty. Piper wants to stress that we trust in a God who reigns over the coronavirus. He is the rock on whom we can stand firm. And so Part One takes on a theological tone. But Piper is careful to make this a section that can be directly applied to our lives, not some academic, abstract theological idea. He gives a great analogy of technology versus taste (26-27). If we were to take a jar of honey, technology could tell us the composition, the chemical makeup – but only taste could tell us of its sweetness. The same is true of theology, we must taste the truth of Scripture as we explore God’s sovereignty to see the sweetness of this truth.

So in a few short chapters heavily dependent on Scriptural truth, Piper does exactly that. I found this a helpful read, and was encouraged that God is sovereign over all of this. At times some of what Piper wrote was hard to read, but through challenging truths such as (45) – “if we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good”, Piper offers a great picture of God’s sovereignty over a fragile and broken world.

Part Two offers six answers to the question: what is God doing through the coronavirus? Again, this was a section full of helpful thoughts, although some of what Piper said jarred with me. I was left with much to mull over and reflect on, but in that came some really important truths. The wonderful if hard reality that (64) Christians will experience corruption now, but we are free from the condemnation that follows. The tough challenge of the “gift of desperation” (83): stop relying on yourselves, and trust in God alone.

This is a short book, and will certainly be a controversial read, but Piper offers some helpful thoughts to challenge us to respond to this crisis. Is our understanding of the truth of God’s sovereignty deep and rich enough that we can see the beauty of it even through this crisis? This book might be a helpful prompt to consider that.

John Lennox: Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

John Lennox: Why did God make a world with coronavirus? - The ...

If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, then perhaps you might consider John Lennox’s offering. This is another excellent book to help us respond to this crisis, and whereas Piper responds in a theological work, Lennox offers a more apologetic book. Where is God in a Coronavirus World? is thoughtfully geared towards the current crisis, and offers a wonderful presentation of the Gospel amidst the confusion of coronavirus.

What I found most helpful about this short, accessible book, was its clear presentation of the hope that Christians have. Lennox shows that not only can Christians respond to this crisis helpfully and ‘Christianly’, but actually that the answers Christians have to offer are full of a hope that is so much more sure and certain than anything the world has to offer.

Chapter 6 offers some practical advice on how we might respond to this crisis with some great, future-focussed, Heaven-looking tips, so this is a brilliant read for Christians as well as non-Christians. But I think this would be a great short book to send or give to a non-Christian friend, neighbour or family member. It helpfully spells out the sure and certain hope Christians can find in a world of uncertainty, and does so in a gentle and simple manner.

Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley: Healthy Faith

Whilst I won’t offer a review of this upcoming book, I would love to commend it to you.

Kristi and Luke have assembled 20 chapters and a whole load of extra material: appendices, prayers and other helpful sections, to help the British church think through and respond to the Coronavirus crisis. This book stands out for me because not only is it wholly written as new material speaking into this pandemic, but because Luke and Kristi have made a real effort to equip their readers with practical and Gospel-centred advice.

Primarily aimed at a Christian audience, this book includes chapters from the likes of Dan Strange, Krish Kandiah, Tom Wright, Andy Kind, Ed Shaw and many more. It’s a really helpful briefing as we think about responding to this crisis. With chapters discussing parenting, singleness, work, redundancy, humour and mental health, it’s a really helpful book for thinking through how we can respond to this crisis biblically across all areas of our lives.

I was thrilled to contribute a chapter to this book on the realities of working (and of losing work) through this crisis, and it is my hope that this book will be a real blessing. Publication is Monday, but you can preorder through the IVP website below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above books, and would heartily recommend all three if you’re looking to think through this crisis from a Gospel standpoint.

Healthy Faith: Preorder

Healthy Faith: Contents and Contributors

Book Review: Reading Between the Lines, Volume 2, by Glen Scrivener

Reading Between The Lines (Vol 2: NT)

Like all good sequels, there tends to be a gap between the first and the second, a gap some would say was simply too long.

I have, however, finally gotten round to reviewing Volume 2 of Glen Scrivener’s excellent devotional: Reading Between the Lines. Find my review below.

This is, once again, a longer version of an original review written for the Scottish Free Church Books.

Volume 2: The New Testament

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Volume 1 took the reader through the Old Testament, Glen’s second book of short devotions takes us through the New. Once again the focus is not on daily applications to specific issues and actions but rather a consistent and helpful pointing to Christ. As Glen works through the New Testament, his time spent dwelling on the Old shines through, and his devotions helpfully weave together a picture of Scripture that points to the absolute centrality of Christ.

This consistent engagement with the whole of Scripture is really helpful for two reasons. The first is that through constantly referencing and linking the Old to the New, Glen both shows how God’s Word is wonderfully woven together around the Good News of Christ, whilst pointing away from his own writing and back to Scripture. In his introduction to the work, Glen writes (4) “if you’re pressed for time, read Scripture not Scrivener!” In producing devotions rich in Scripture, he helpfully affords us that opportunity.

From a more practical point of view, Glen’s constant engagement with both testaments serves to add variety to the structure of the studies and the interaction required. Whilst we know the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and we can so often enjoy the beauty and awesome truth of it, it’s a widely accepted truth that quiet times can be hard. We so often struggle with daily devotions, and Reading Between the Lines does its best to help with that. By varying the structure of different devotions, breaking some down into short sections for example, Glen offers a bit of variety each day. Helpfully, his use of the Old Testament serves to offer the same. Some days require a short passage to be read from both the Old and the New, others offer reflections on passages within the devotion. God’s Word is a wonderful thing, and I found these devotions helpful in reminding me of that, even when my heart didn’t want to sit and read just then!

The variety with which Glen approaches Scripture is matched only with with his love of pictures. An evangelist by trade, Glen tells short stories, paints quick pictures, and offers helpful anecdotes. Our American friends may struggle with his affinity for cricketing metaphors, but such pictures help the reader thoughtfully engage with passages of Scripture that may seem alien or odd, or that we may think we already know so well.

I enjoyed Volume Two as much as the first, and would encourage those who are struggling in their quiet times, and those who simply want to decide what notes to use next, to give it a go. Each study is short, and wonderfully clear. As I said above, Glen doesn’t try to produce a legalistic application for us to implement every day, but rather he seeks to point us back to Jesus. His aim, for me, was wonderfully summed up at the close of a devotion on 2 Corinthians 3. Glen writes (413) “If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself. Don’t gaze at the law. Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law. Gaze at Christ himself.”

Not everyone enjoys Bible reading notes, not everyone will enjoy the style with which Glen writes. But in times such as these, it is so crucial that we are setting aside time on a daily basis to be learning from and resting in our Heavenly Father. So if you do want to start your day by gazing at your Saviour, and you’d value some simple, short devotions to help you do that, then it may well be worth giving Reading Between the Lines a go.

Book Review: Story Bearer, by Phil Knox (IVP, 2020)

“The truth is that if you are a Christian, Jesus has changed your life. You have a story and it is meaningful, important, interesting and significant. It has the power to change somebody else’s life.” (52)

Story Bearer | Free Delivery @ Eden.co.uk

Story Bearer is a book on evangelism. It’s a little different to a lot of reads on the subject. And it’s brilliant.

Phil Knox’s book has a clear message: that everyone has a story, and when we are remade in Christ (3) “our story becomes intertwined with God’s story.” This idea of storytelling is accessible, enjoyable and universal. Everyone loves a good story, and as Christians, our very lives are part of the greatest story ever told.

This book is incredibly readable. As Phil walks through his case for each believer taking up the name of Story Bearer, he tells his own story, offers brilliant illustrations and narratives, and presents a helpful and open honesty. Story Bearer is neither difficult to read, nor is it a heavy, theological tome. The call of the book is simple: now we are part of God’s incredible story, we cannot keep that to ourselves. But Phil makes this call in a challenging and insightful way. Practical advice and exercises frame the book. From short challenges: (6) do we spend good time with non-Christian friends? To detailed frameworks: (46-47) how do I learn and tell my personal story, (106-108) how can I memorise useful verses of Scripture?

The book is simply laid out. After introducing the theme, Phil tells four stories. God’s story, your story, your friend’s story and the story of culture. ‘God’s story’ is a brilliant and instantly accessible Bible overview. His narrative of Bible history is faithful and clear, broken up by stories and illustrations that open up what can be at times a complex story. All four of Phil’s stories help us think about how we can reach our unbelieving friends and family for Christ, but the story of culture is also worth a particular mention. The vast majority of those who read this book will know their story has been shaped by the digital revolution of the last few decades. Phil walks through some key ideas around this narrative, questioning how we can weave both the individualism and relational accessibility of modern day technology and social media together. The Christian, says Phil, has a wonderful answer.

“We can celebrate and communicate the fact that, although there are 7.7 billion people on the earth today, you are unique, fearfully and wonderfully made. But we do not get to define ourselves… To a world searching for an identity, we can share the great news that you can find out who you really are and become who you were created to be by knowing the author of your story.” (100)

The story of our culture is that we can choose our own course, setting our highlights up on social media, hiding the bad times, and defining our own selves. But the wonderful story that the Christian can tell, is that we were made for so much more.

Story Bearer finishes as all four stories are pulled together. Concepts such as friendship and prayer are celebrated for their centrality to personal evangelism. Chapter 11 – dedicated to friendship – is a helpful, narrative driven guide to living the Christian life alongside believers. Phil’s section in Chapter 12 on prayer is a great reminder that in evangelism we are privileged to play a part, but we do not bring about new life ourselves. God lets us play a role, but He doesn’t need us to bring about conversion. With reference to 1 Corinthians 3:6*, Phil urges us to depend on God in our evangelism. (119) “If we think it is all about us, we will not pray in the same way for our friends.”

This book offers the reader a challenging and applicable presentation of personal evangelism. Every single person on this planet has a story. Share yours, listen to others, and point towards God’s. Whilst some might be concerned that this idea of storytelling is light on clear Gospel truth: Phil has a really helpful way of grounding his thoughts in God’s Word on every page. This book is a refreshing reminder that our faith is real and living, not merely an academic pursuit, with the fundamentals of the Gospel at the heart of every believer’s story.

To wrap things up: give this a read if you’re sold on evangelism, and the idea of stories. And give it a read if you’re sceptical about this narrative approach, because I think Story Bearer offers refreshing and direct challenge to our lives of personal evangelism. It’s a clear picture, one we can all buy into. It’s a book that cuts to what it is to be human. To be relational, communal, to be part of a bigger story.

*”I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” 1 Cor 3:6

Book Review: Prayer (How Praying Together Shapes the Church) by John Onwuchekwa

In the midst of strange and unsettling times, perhaps you’ve found yourself with more time to kill, and you’re taking stock of options to fill your time. As I aimlessly scrolled through Twitter yesterday afternoon, I noticed that this short book, part of the 9Marks series on building healthy churches, had now been graciously made available as a free e-book. I made my way through it, and wanted to share a few thoughts here.

Image result for Prayer, How Praying Together Shapes the Church, by John Onwuchekwa

If you’re looking for a short read on a crucial topic during these strange days, look no further than this free offering. As we worry about the fragility of the world around us, to be challenged about the reality of prayer is a wonderful joy.

John’s book isn’t an attempt to provide a definitive study on the privilege of prayer. It’s not even an attempt to define prayer for the struggling Christian. Rather, as he makes clear in his introduction (15) his “hope is that this book will be a guide and a springboard that helps you enjoy the amazing gift of prayer we have as a church.” In days when our church family may not even be physically meeting, considering the role of prayer in our church life seems a worthwhile exercise.

Because as John astutely identifies (18), in many local churches in both the US and beyond, our problem with prayer is “not a complete lack of prayer, but too little prayer.” Too many churches give only a nod to prayer in their gatherings together. We ask humbly for this or that, and the exercise of corporate prayer is over in a minute or two. See you next week.

John’s concern is that (18) “our prayers in the church too often feel like prayer before a meal: obligatory and respectable, but no one really gets much out of it.” And so in this book, just one in a brilliant series of short books seeking to explore the biblical picture of the local church, John provides an honest and raw account of prayer. This is not a book penned by a learned scholar in his ivory tower, or even by a prayer warrior down on his knees. It is an honest and simple read where John wrestles with his own sinfulness, helpfully sharing personal challenges and obstacles to his own prayer life.

The book largely divides into three parts. Having used the introduction to identify the problem of prayer in our churches (too little!), the book moves to consider briefly just what prayer is for the Christian, before moving to apply that to the life and activity of the local church.

Prayer and the Christian Experience.

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. So it follows that prayer must be a source of life for any community of Christians” (23). Prayer is essential for the Christian, and as it sustains the individual believer so it sustains the gathered church. As Christians then, we must begin to foster a culture and habit of prayer. As John explores the lack of prayer in our churches, he considers a lack of prayer in our own lives. Our problem, he writes, is that “prayerlessness is spiritual suicide. So what I’m suggesting is that we pray more” (39). But how do we pray? The reader is walked through Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, and a brilliant exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, to answer this question.

God’s word is so rich and so clear, and as the book walks line by line through the Lord’s Prayer, there are simple and clear challenges. The first half of the Lord’s Prayer is Godward looking, (49) “the world exists as a canvas for God’s glory.” I was struck by John’s simple challenge. How often am I sleepless, grieved, or distracted from other tasks, by the ways in which God’s name is disrespected? If I am honest with myself, how self-centred are my prayers?

As Jesus turns to pray the second half of his prayer, fresh challenges confront the reader. Do we get comfortable fitting our prayer lives around us? Do we really ask for our daily bread, or is it simply the ad hoc or occasional request? Do we wholly depend on God alone, or use him as a backstop in tricky times? Given the current global crisis, such questions are particularly poignant. But more than this, the Lord’s Prayer is communal in outlook. We are not asking for simply our own needs, there is a plurality to this prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” And so John cautions, (59) “even when we pray alone, we should have our neighbours in mind. We should be consumed by ways to love them.”

Prayer requires our humility, as we put others before ourselves and as we submit to God when we sin, or in the storms of life as they rage around us. John helpfully takes us to Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer in the garden is emotional, the words are raw. And it provides a wonderful model of dependence upon and submission to the Father to whom he prays. (69) “Jesus had taught his disciples how to pray in times of peace. Here [in Gethsemane] he modelled prayer in the midst of suffering. What had been instructed in the classroom was now illustrated in crisis.”

Prayer is a wonderful gift for the Christian. It is the means by which we speak with our Father. Where we can be open, honest and raw. It is a means to depend on and submit to our Father. (76) “God strengthened their hands when they surrendered their hearts to do his will. They began to look like their Saviour. They finally understood that the life-changing work of the gospel isn’t strengthened in the public eye. Rather, it’s strengthened in private before the eyes of God and our family in Christ.”

Prayer and the Local Church

Chapters Six to Eight see the book apply these truths to the local church gathering together. With a mix of solid biblical truth (94-95 for example, an exploration of prayer in the Early Church of the book of Acts) and practical advice, John considers the place of prayer in the life of the local church. He unpacks the ACTS model of prayer at length (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), providing a useful model for the church to use to consider conversations around prayer. Indeed, on this model in particular, the corporate application is clear. As we pray through these four things together we are encouraged to praise God as one body, to confront sin in ourselves as we hear the confessions of others (me too!) and to better love one another as we gather.

Perhaps the most striking direct application of this section was John’s encouragement to recover the prayer meeting. It might not be innovative, but we don’t need innovation. We need intentionality. (96) “The prayer meeting isn’t a place of attraction, but a place of necessity.” We may not be attracted to a prayer meeting after a long day at work or a long weekend, but when we understand the vitality of prayer in the life of the church, our perspectives and priorities will shift. Helpfully using the example of his own church family, John challenges us to consider whether we make the right space in both our weeks and our hearts to be gathering to pray together.

As this third section of the book is wrapped up, John turns to consider the relationship between evangelism, missions and prayer. He identifies the anxiety and apathy that can so often fuel both our individual and corporate approaches to evangelism (and adds to this helpful challenges: I was struck by his comment on training. Does constant training for evangelism allow cowards like myself to simply avoid every actually going out on mission?) The remedy, he writes, is prayer. (111)  “Prayer is the link in the chain that connects God’s sovereignty to our responsibility.” Indeed, in corporate prayer for our evangelistic efforts, we give over burdens we were never meant to shoulder to the One who can carry them, (114) “anxiety is replaced with boldness. Apathy is replaced with compassion.”

Conclusion

This book was such a helpful check on my own attitude to prayer in my own church family. At a time when it is even harder to gather and pray together, where prayer meetings and the like require the added logistics of video calls and conferencing software, this book provided a great challenge to how I view prayer in my own life, and crucially, in the life of the church. John challenges us with this book: do we cheapen the place of prayer in our church family? Do we enjoy it? Do we really get it? Through considering services, sermons, prayer meetings and outreach (among other things) John shows how prayer relates to the whole life of the church. A life of prayer is an essential joy for Christian exiles in a broken world. (127) “When Christ teaches us to pray, he does so with a fractured world in mind.” In Glory, we will stand before our Father and praise Him to His face. But until that day, as we live for him in this broken and troubled world, we must lean on him, praying without ceasing. This short book is a great read for a lonely Christian in a troubled, self-isolating world. If you have a few hours this coming week, have a quick read and be humble as you think of your own contribution to the prayer life of your church.

Book Review: Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark

Image result for evangelism as exiles

Recently loaned this book by a friend, I decided I would share some thought’s on Elliot Clark’s excellent short book here.

Clark offers a valuable challenge to our evangelism in this book: questioning the place of the fear of God in our evangelism, contextualising our conversations, and framing the discussion within a helpful exposition of 1 Peter. As a British reader, the US context in which Elliot wrote was at times confusing but by no means to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Premise

Clark identifies helpfully the place of Christianity in our postmodern, Western societies. Christianity is no longer the cultural norm in our communities, and so “we must learn and apply the proper dispositions of a church on mission, living as strangers in our own land” (22). We are strangers in our own towns, cities, and nations. We are on mission in our everyday. We are exiles from our true, eternal home. We are foreigners in a strange land.

But we are here for a reason. We are here holding out the words of truth, the only means of salvation. But when we recognise our position as exiles and strangers in our own lands, we must learn how to live as such. And this is the premise upon which Clark challenges his readers: we must learn how to live and love faithfully as we seek to engage in evangelism as exiles.

Challenge

Clark’s book helpfully challenges the preconceptions we have around evangelism. His book opens with the reminder that evangelism is not simply the Christian we see on the TV Channel, or onstage at the big event, but the life and activity of every believer. But as Christians, as evangelists, we operate in a strange land. We are exiles in our evangelism. This frames our efforts, our glory and hope is not in this world, but in the world to come. We see this, in 1 Peter, through the truth of the Gospel. “Peter wanted his readers to understand that God glorified his Son in order to give us, his children, hope for our own exile” (30). Such hope, says Clark, gives us joy in our suffering, a point well made with reference to his own stories on mission in the Middle East.

This challenge allows Clark to get to what, for me, was really the issue at the heart of the book. A challenge to the place of fear in our evangelism. As we live as exiles in a strange land, who do we fear as we consider reaching those we know and love, and those we don’t know, with the Good News of Jesus? “Fear is closely related to shame and it is still a real factor in our evangelism” (50). Is our fear driven by shame in our faith, or is our fear rightly directed at God? “The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear – to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man” (50). Clark’s point here challenged me and my all so often fearful evangelism. The challenge is not to reject fear, but to redirect fear. We know the fear of the Lord is a good and right thing. Prov 9:10: it is the beginning of wisdom. Time and again in the Psalms we see fear of God eclipsing fear of man. To fear rightly is to live with confidence. But more than this, as Clark so winsomely states: this fear must drive us to a fear for our fellow man. We must not have a fear of them, but as we rightly direct our fear towards the Lord, we must fear for their own standing before the Lord and Judge of all things.

And this is Clark’s conclusion: “this is why the Gospel must be proclaimed, because all will give an account to [the] One who is ready to judge the living and the dead ([1 Peter] 4:5-6)” (58). Our fear of God, a right fear, must stir up a fear for man. A fear that those we know and love who do not know Christ, who will have no defence on that final day. But the Gospel – the Good News – is that the Judge Himself sends His Son to provide that defence for mankind. At the Cross, guilty sinners are washed clean. We ought not to allow a fear of man to thwart our evangelism, rather, our fear for man ought to stir us towards evangelism.

There are further challenges I could pick up on, and Clark writes astutely on the roles of prayer and hospitality in our evangelism. Do we bring our efforts to God, do we commit our actions to Him? Do we open up our homes, and our lives, to those we do not know, or to those we would rather not mix with?

Empathy

Clark understands that evangelism is hard. But this shouldn’t stop us from engaging with those we meet. Indeed, Clark urges his readers to consider evangelism as so much more than the mention or namedrop of Christ or the Church. How guilty I am of that in my own evangelistic efforts! Clark confronts this attitude head on (96): “We must consider why we’re only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of another. We must ponder whether we even have a category for proclaiming a message that people oppose, one that’s innately offensive. Or do we tiptoe through polite spiritual conversations and timidly share our opinions, then call it evangelism?” We cannot count our evangelism as a simple mention of our faith, we must confront people with the wonderfully offensive message of the Gospel.

But Clark does not challenge us, in this or in other ways, without a gentle sense of brotherly empathy. Having experienced the mission field first hand, he knows the reality of standing out for the Gospel. “When we are visibly other… the pain of ridicule and social exclusion can be sharp” (121). To be Christian is to be other. To speak the Gospel is to reveal that otherness. And that can be so costly. All the way through Evangelism as Exiles, Clark uses stories of his own time on mission to illustrate his points, and the cost of discipleship is so clear to see in his stories of brothers and sisters living for Christ in the Middle East. We are exiles, we are other. But we must keep on in sharing the Good News that has made us strangers in this land, because we are citizens of the Next.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land

Summary

Evangelism as Exiles is a helpful read, and one that confronted laziness, shortsightedness, and sin in my own understandings of personal evangelism. Clark’s helpful exposition of 1 Peter is clear and valuable teaching, and an encouragement to see points so clearly rooted in God’s word. This book presented me with both clear challenges and encouragements. I would heartily recommend it to those asking questions around evangelism, witness, and our status in this world. As we speak the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ, we are exiles, strangers in a foreign land. This book encourages us to live out our lives, for God’s glory, as we await our true home. I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:5): “Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

We live now as exiles, but we are purposed by God, equipped by the Spirit, and guaranteed to one day come to our eternal home.

Book review. Dirk Jongkind: An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale ...

Alongside the release last year of their Greek New Testament, Tyndale House also produced an introduction to their edition, written by one of the editors of this critical approach to constructing a New Testament as close to the Greek original as humanly possible, given the available evidence. Dirk Jongkind and Peter Williams have produced an authentic and complete New Testament edition, which engages with a wide variety of source manuscripts and asks questions of popular understandings of key words, phrases and verses.

It was to Dirk Jongkind that the task of penning the introduction to this edition fell, and his Introduction is a gentle and clear editorial defence of their work.

Jongkind’s Introduction is an engaging read, illustrating the enormity of the task that the editors faced, accepting the challenges with which they engaged, and explaining their methodology and process through simple, short sections and worked examples. Throughout the short book, Jongkind’s scholarly background is of course evident, but this is wonderfully paired with a pastoral sensitivity towards the subject matter.

The Introduction to the THGNT acts as a helpful introduction to the discipline of textual criticism, as well as the challenge of textual transmission through the long manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament. Any translation of an ancient work is in impressive undertaking, but as this Introduction shows, the problems facing the translators of ancient works are multiplied when dealing with Scripture.

This reviewer found several key themes recurring throughout Jongkind’s book, and I’d like to briefly dwell on them now.

Methodological Introduction

As mentioned above, Jongkind’s work engages with scholarly practice in an accessible way. As he explores the manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament, the author illustrates the challenges facing the editors of this new edition. His ready engagement with the key concepts of textual theory and translation rarely strays into an over-complication, and his use of examples allows challenging issues to be understood in just a few lines. Issues such as copying errors, manuscript traditions and the impact of a decentralising Early Church are addressed, and Jongkind presents a considered approach to dealing with them.

Through his sixth chapter ‘How Decisions Were Made’, Jongkind walks the reader through an overview of the editorial approach in this project. From scribal activity, to manuscript groupings and ecclesiastical influences, Jongkind explains the rationale behind decisions made. Again, often complex ideas are simply presented. Considering (67) a “much quoted text-critical rule…[that] ‘the more difficult reading is to be preferred to the easy reading’ (lectio difficilior potior, literally ‘the more difficult reading is the stronger one’),” Jongkind brings up questions behind the phrase, distilling them into one: what is the most difficult reading? This simplification allows Jongkind to explain the role such a rule can play in textual criticism. (68) “Still, the rule points toward the need to weigh possibilities.” This is but one example in how Jongkind navigates the presentation of complex methodology in a helpful, simple and informative way.

Jongkind also addresses the reasons why the THGNT differs from traditionally favoured Greek texts: the so called Textus Receptus and the Byzantine Text. Devoting a short chapter to each, Jongkind asks questions around the rigidity to which they are clung to, suggesting that the editorial decisions made for this project provide some answers. Again, there is a sensitivity in his approach to these texts, probing questions are definitely asked, but in a helpful manner.

Practical Implications

As the editors approached this work, it was clear that they sought to move away from allowing modern preconceptions to impact their thinking. This is demonstrated in decisions regarding practicalities in presentation and textual selection. The order in which books appear in the THGNT is one such example. Jongkind explains that the order of books conforms with other Greek New Testaments, putting the Catholic Epistles before the Pauline corpus (35). His reasoning for this change is well supported by manuscript evidence. That said, in a somewhat lighthearted manner, Jongkind explains that they made no other such changes, as, for a readership brought up on the order of English Bibles (36), “the repositioning of the Catholic Epistles was already sufficiently disturbing.”

One other such practicality Jongkind addresses is paragraphing. Again a return to the original manuscripts is seen here. The prologue with which John opens his Gospel, traditionally seen as 1:1-18, is not so strictly bound in earlier manuscripts. Indeed (37), “there are virtually no manuscripts that exhibit the modern conclusion that the prologue ends at 1:18.” The ancient paragraphing does not indicate the separation suggested by our modern translations, and asks interesting questions of how we can read the opening of this Gospel account.

Jongkind preempts many of the queries and responses one might have to the THGNT, as well as elaborating on things such as paragraphing, that might pass us by without this helpful guide.

Textual Applications

This Introduction raised two key areas of application for me, and Jongkind was at pains to stress both throughout his book.

The first is perhaps most encouraging to the ears of the believer. We can have supreme confidence in the New Testament texts we possess. (103) “The meaning of each book and chapter of the New Testament is not in doubt or uncertain – and when it is, it is not because of textual variants.” We can have confidence in Scripture. God’s word, revealed to mankind through Scripture, is still God’s word. This project, if anything, affirms that. And Jongkind makes that clear in his closing chapter. (109) “The important thing to take away from this little book is that you have every reason to read the Greek New Testament with confidence and pleasure.” We can read the Greek New Testament, and of them, good translations, with both confidence and pleasure. Enjoy God’s word, knowing that it is His word, and that it has much to teach us.

Secondly, I enjoyed the repeated emphasis on the need for a close reading of Scripture. The editors poured over each one of the 135 000 words to be found in the Greek New Testament. Many of the examples of problems, revisions or variations, that Jongkind provides come from just a word or two. The scrutiny with which the editors approached this text is apparent, but it provides a lesson. The closeness with which we read God’s word can impact what we learn from it. Close, careful study, in the original language or of a good translation, will ultimately be for our edification, and for God’s Glory.

I enjoyed this Introduction immensely. The production of the THGNT is approached with respectful diligence, and clarity is offered around at times controversial decisions. Jongkind has the humility to recognise valid concerns with their editorial decisions (97), and offers helpful responses to such questions. The book acts as a helpful springboard with which to approach this new text of the Greek New Testament, but I found it a joy to read as a personal reflection upon the place of textual transmission, language and revision in the Bibles we use today. God’s word is eternal and unchanging. It was encouraging to find that scholars such as this so clearly demonstrate that to be the case.

Review: Reading Between the Lines: Volume 1

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Today’s post is a little different, but I recently wrote a short review of this book for the Scottish Free Church Books.

Below is an adapted version of that review, and hopefully an encouragement to those who might pick up this book to dive in and give it a go.

Reading Between the Lines: Volume 1 is a collection of 181 daily readings, taking the reader on a whistle stop tour through the Old Testament.

Whilst Reading Between The Lines takes you from the first to the thirty-eighth book of the Old Testament, journeying through history books, law, poetry and prophecy, the theme is consistent throughout. Glen’s daily studies reinforce the wonderful Gospel truth at the heart of all Scripture. From the majesty of the Lord as creator, to the anguish of David in the Psalms, Glen points the reader to our triune God in a reflective, genuine and emotive manner. Each reflection is short enough to be managed in the morning before work, or the evening before bed, yet not so short as to be devoid of good, solid spiritual truth.

Glen has written a helpful book of short studies that guide the reader through the whole story of the Old Testament, reinforcing the truths of who our glorious God is, and who we are before and in Him.

Overall, I would encourage readers who want to explore the Old Testament in their quiet times to grab a copy of this book, and to humbly approach God’s word. I found this book a helpful exercise in seeing the majesty of Christ displayed throughout the Old Testament, and I look forward to seeing that theme reflected in Volume 2. Often we can be daunted by the diverse and seemingly inaccessible range of writings in the Old Testament. It can be easy to avoid the trickier passages or books, or the books that are less often preached on. Reading Between The Lines takes the reader through the journey of the Old Testament, with the Gospel salvation story explored at the heart of it. If the Old Testament is something you’d like to explore further, or something you’re afraid of going near, I would heartily recommend this big book of short reflections to get you thinking about it in a helpful way.

Glen’s book can be easily purchased online – https://www.10ofthose.com/uk/products/24564/reading-between-the-lines-volume

Glen Scrivener is the Director of Speak Life, check them out here: https://speaklife.org.uk/