Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Jonah. It is a story that entrenched itself into the culture around us. Even the widely popular movie The Avengers assumed the culture’s familiarity with this story in the classic showdown between Iron Man and one of the Leviathan monsters. Even the AI Jarvis knew of Jonah – and that he was not a model to be emulated.
Just to refresh your memories on the arc of the story, allow me to fill in the main points briefly. Jonah was a prophet who was called by God to go and preach to the Gentile city of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t like Gentiles, however, and he would have preferred to preach to his people – the Jews. So, he comes up with an elaborate plot to run from Nineveh by getting on a boat heading to Tarshish, the exact opposite direction of Nineveh! The Lord had other plans for Jonah, and so he sent a great storm upon his boat. The rest of the passengers on the boat realize that Jonah is the cause of the great storm descending upon their boat, and so they hurled Jonah into the sea where he was then eaten by a great fish. Jonah was kept alive in the belly of the fish for three days until he was repentant, at which point the fish spit him out and Jonah proceeded to go to Nineveh, just as God had always wanted.
You’ve probably heard various sermons and messages on this story, presumably about the will of God and his sovereignty over our lives. Yet, something very interesting happens very early on in this story that I think most of us overlook. While Jonah is on the boat with the mariners, they ask him of what people and country he comes from. Jonah’s response is striking. He says, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (Jonah 1:9).” In other words, Jonah is saying that he has a great reverence for God and worships him in everything that he does. Note the irony here – Jonah is in the midst of running from the explicit task God has given him over his life, yet is telling others that he has a reverent fear for the Lord!
What we can take away from this is that Jonah is not only an example of what it means to know that God is sovereign over our lives, but he is also a bad example of what it means to pursue our God-given vocations.
There is a common misconception in Christian circles that the goal of Christian vocation is primarily to evangelize and bring a gospel witness to the workplace. I have heard it said by pastors that our vocations are really just a mask and a cover for God’s true purpose in our workplace – evangelism. I understand what they’re trying to do with such arguments, but unfortunately this conveys an unbiblical and non-Christian view of a God-honoring work ethic.
Jonah was a prophet. God’s call for Jonah as a prophet was to go to Nineveh and preach to the Gentiles. God-honoring obedience and a proper sense of his vocation should have driven Jonah to go to Nineveh. Were Jonah to originally have done this, he would have been a good prophet and an obedient prophet. He would have fulfilled God’s purposes for his vocation.
In a similar way, we all have vocations. Some of us are nurses, others are software developers or business analysts. Some of us are lawyers, and others are students or janitors. Regardless of where you find yourself on this vocational spectrum, one thing should be clear to us from the story of Jonah: we are called to be good and obedient at what we do. Perhaps we could even say that the most important part of our vocation is not what we are doing but how we do it. To put it another way, perhaps instead of focusing so much on what God has called us to do, we should focus on how we are doing the vocations God has currently placed us in. The primary goal for you in your vocation is not to evangelize (although this is important), but it is to have a reverent sense of fear and worship for God in what you do. We are called to be faithful and excellent employees, regardless of our trade or our occupation. This brings God glory and honor for who he is, as we praise him in all areas of our lives – including our vocations.
We can draw this principle from the New Testament as well. The Apostle reminds us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24).” Our vocations are a means to work as if unto the Lord. Through the work we do with our minds and our hands, we bring God glory when it is work given over to him.
Christian, be encouraged today that God has called you to serve him in all walks of life, including your vocation. See your jobs and workplaces as a means by which you can serve God and worship him. You are free to strive for excellence at your vocation not to bring glory to yourself, but in order to worship God. Find joy in the fact that God has chosen you to work unto him with the gifts he has given you.
Our country has seen some massive news stories break over the last couple of weeks.
On June 17th, 2015 a man walked into Emanuel African Methodist Church in downtown Charleston and murdered nine people. Multiple pictures of Dylan Roof, the man behind the trigger, have now surfaced that show him wearing icons of white supremacist groups. Of these pictures, we can see him sporting the flags of former Rhodesia as well as the apartheid-era South Africa. Another image also surfaced showing him holding his handgun as well as a Confederate Flag.
This terrible tragedy was another stark reminder to our country that the days of racial issues are far from being a thing of the past. Nine people are dead because of the horrible and terribly racist views of one man. One of the outcomes of this incident has been a debate over the place of the Confederate Flag in Southern states. I show my ignorance in that I was shocked to learn this flag was still flown over the capitol buildings of multiple states in the South. Comedian John Stewart accurately captured my response to this reality when he said, “In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from driving people on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that…The Confederate Flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals. And the white guy feels like the one whose country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves.”
I am grateful for the response many have had to this debate over the Confederate flag. This past Tuesday, the South Carolina House passed an amendment that would allow for removing the Confederate Flag from the Capitol grounds. Lawmakers in Mississippi are also seeking to have the Confederate Flag removed from their state flag. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Virginia Governor, has also called for state license flags that bear the Confederate Flag to be removed from circulation. By my estimate, these are all positive changes that need to take place – and I wholly support them.
The responses from these lawmakers are not the only public responses that I am grateful for. Many representatives across the American Church have also spoken out in strong support of removing the Confederate Flag from any context, especially the South Carolina Capitol. In a recent article, Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) for the Southern Baptist Convention issued this statement:
The Confederate Battle Flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.
That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt—and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.
I am in full support for standing with leaders like Dr. Moore in the removal of the Confederate Flag. Yet, what I can’t help but lament over is the fact that it took an incredibly racially charged attack for Christians to start talking about this issue. Why did we wait for nine people to die before we started speaking out against such a symbol of hate in our country? Hindsight is always 20/20, but to me this is just a no brainer. For that matter, why did it take the events of Ferguson and Baltimore – and so many others – to even recognize that race is still an issue in this country? While we are starting to catch up, it has taken us years to get there. In a hurting and broken world, we must be the people who have answers. We must be the people who are prepared to speak.
The problem is in order to speak we must first listen. And we Christians have done a terrible job at listening.
One of the biggest decisions of our time was handed down in the Supreme Court today. In a landmark case, the Supreme Court has decided in a 5-4 ruling that the Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry in the United States. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes, “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
So here we are on the cusp of another huge event in recent American History. The law has now redefined what it means to be married. The question rises, what is going to be the response of the church? What are we going to say? What are we going to do?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the events surrounding the Confederate Flag debate in South Carolina. What is the biggest principle that the Christian church can takeaway from the events that have surrounded this debate? By my estimation, the lesson for Christians to learn is that we must learn to be proactive and not reactive. We must learn to anticipate the issues, and be prepared to speak when they arise. To that end, we must learn to listen to where people are hurting and struggling now – not later.
For many African Americans in this country, the Confederate Flag is a huge symbol of hate and discrimination. What has saddened me most amidst the Confederate Flag debate have been the reactions from many conservative friends of mine on social media – many of whom claim to be Christians. The Confederate Flag should remain – so they say – because Americans have the right to freedom of speech and expression. The Flag for them is not a symbol of hate, but a symbol of heritage. Therefore they have the right to keep it up. My response to these individuals is to plead with you – as your Christian brother, under the covering of the blood of Christ – listen to your brothers and sisters. Why would you fight for free speech at the cost of your brothers and sisters in Christ? Why is heritage more important to you than the lives of African American people in our country?
On a day like today, I am reminded that there are multiple symbols of hatred in our country. Some of these run surface level – Navy must beat Army (or vice versa). My favorite sports team – the Dallas Cowboys – are often made fun of by using pink pictures that say “Dallas Cowgirls.” But many of these symbols run deep, so deep that there are immense divides between large groups of people within our country. Racial slurs are still being used pejoratively to describe immigrants and people of different social statuses. Democrats and Republicans now hurl personally charged insults of character just to try and improve their own platform.
Christian friends, if we can learn anything from the aftermath of South Carolina, we must learn to be proactive, and to be the voice of hope in an incredibly dark society. We must learn to listen to the real struggles and the real pain of people around us – even with those who we have deep disagreements with.
When I start to think about other symbols of hatred in our country that we need to start being proactive about, there are a few that come to mind. They aren’t flags, but they are often flown on poles; wooden poles, made out of stakes that fly high a neon colored sign with writing in black permanent marker:
LEV. 18:22 GOD HATES FAGS
ADAM AND EVE NOT ADAM AND STEVE
REPENT OR BURN
The picket signs, the bumper stickers, the pejorative Facebook posts – all of which suggest that God’s grace extends only to our type of people and that somehow those caught in sexual sin are outside the bounds of God’s love, mercy and grace. These, my friends, are immense symbols of hate, and they’re coming out of our churches. And it is time for them to come down.
This isn’t a matter of public debate. This is an in-house issue, and we must address it. These terrible symbols of hate are not only un-Christian, but they are barring human beings from the love of our Savior. That is unacceptable.
In many ways, I am what you would call an orthodox, conservative Christian. I stand on the traditional view of marriage that the Christian church has held for over 2000 years, a view that the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures resoundingly agree on. Yet for all of that being true, none of these things are even close to making an adequate reason for me to express even an ounce of disdain, repugnance, or hatred for individuals in the LGBT community. To suggest otherwise is not intolerant, it’s ugly and un-Christian.
The Bible makes it clear that all of us are made in the imago Dei – the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Jesus ups the ante on Christian love when he tells us that the entirety of the Christian law is summed up in our love for God and our love for our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). As my pastor tweeted today, “Brothers and sisters, love your neighbor as yourself. Nothing changes what our King calls us to. No caveats or exceptions.” Loving our neighbors – Christian or not – is not a suggestion, it is a command. Loving our neighbors does not mean we agree with them. But it does mean we value their human dignity, as people made after the image of God. It means we respect them. It means we listen to their pains and their struggles. It means we care for them when nobody else will.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians not to associate with those who ignorantly persist in sexual immorality (in this case, adultery) inside the Christian church. Yet, he does not tell us to disassociate with those outside the church – in fact he seems to suggest quite the opposite (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). We have a call to be the greatest friends with people from the LGBT community: to mourn with their mourning, to pray for them, to babysit their children, to take care of their dogs, to eat hamburgers with them in our backyards. Most importantly, we have the call to share the incredible hope of the gospel with them. Tell me, are you going to choose your “right to hold a sign” over the call to Christian love and obedience?
In humility, Christ came and laid down his life to save the wicked and the lost (Phil. 2:8). That’s me, and that’s you. He could’ve stayed in an elevated position of authority and required that we work our way to him, instead he came to us in all of our sin and brokenness and brought us back into the family of God. It is high time we learn what it means to emulate this kind of humility. We can no longer be people who hold on to our pride and desire to be right, requiring that people clean themselves up first to come to God. This is not the gospel, its works-righteousness. We must lay down our own pride and interests, our own lives, for the lives of our neighbors. Maybe then we’ll catch a glimpse of the immense love God has for us in Christ, the kind of love that gives a man to laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Or is it going to take a so-called Christian walking into a Gay Pride parade with a gun for the sake of “religious freedom” before we start listening to the hurt of our LGBT neighbors? LGBT teens are already 4 times more likely than their peers to commit suicide, how many more do we need to lose before we start listening? We have an opportunity to learn and become proactive voices of hope – we must take it.
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying in this article. By no means am I equating the struggles of the African American community to the current arguments the LGBT community are making in the public square. The struggles of the LGBT community do not compare to the slavery, racism, persecution and systemic injustices committed against the African American community in this country. Race and sexual practice are not in any way equal. Charleston is not a platform for the LGBT community to stand on.
This past weekend, another one of my pastors preached an excellent sermon on Christian identity. It was a great reminder for me that we are no longer defined by our gender or our race – although they are still a part of us – but we are now primarily identified as Christians (Gal. 3:23-29). Children of God. Redeemed men and women under the blood of Christ. Therefore we must think about these issues differently than the rest of the world will think about them. We cannot come at issues of injustice as a white man or as a black woman, but as Christians united together. And I hope that as Christians, we can look at all symbols of hate and injustice in this world and stand together, united under the blood of Jesus.
I hope we can agree together to learn this lesson from the Charleston tragedy. We must continue to speak out against systemic and racial injustices being committed in this country, and we must be the wisest and loudest voices being proactive in that regard. We must be the greatest and loudest voices of love and truth in our culture. But we cannot be a one-issue church. We must take these lessons we are learning and keep the momentum rolling. We must stay on the front lines of issues like poverty and sex trafficking. We must continue to fight against the radical and frivolous discard of the lives of the unborn. And we must stand against discrimination, bullying, violence, persecution, and hatred towards God’s image bearers – even those we disagree with.
It is time for the signs of hate to come down. I hope you’ll join me.
It could be said that one of the great bastions of American Evangelicalism – or perhaps I should say, American Fundamentalism – is the idea of reading the Bible literally. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you’ve probably heard it all before. The Bible is the Word of God, therefore everything it says must be taken “literally” (scare-quotes are intentional). To be fair, I understand where this emphasis on Biblical literalism comes from. Coming off the heels of the Protestant Reformation – which championed the great truth of Sola Scriptura (contrary to popular opinion, this does not mean Protestants affirm Scripture alone, but what is meant instead is that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture) – the Western church was soon met with a new opponent: theological liberalism. At the root of this new religion – and it is a new religion – is the assertion that my own intellect has the right to choose what I want to keep from Scripture and what I want to reject.
In its attempt to hold on to historic Christian orthodoxy, American Evangelicalism – and soon, its fundamentalist counterparts – began to champion Biblical literalism. Biblical literalists will say, “We have no right to pick and choose what we want out of the Bible, after all, it is the Word of God. Therefore, we must read the Bible literally and do everything it says.” I understand where this idea comes from. I do. And I want to be as fair and gracious to its proponents as possible.
The problem is, I strongly disagree with it.
Not a week goes by where I don’t see a Facebook post, a news article, or a comment section with people debating the subject matters of Biblical literalism. Some of the most common arguments against Biblical literalism go something like this:
- Jesus says to serve the poor. A lot of Christians don’t serve the poor, but seem to be interested in telling other people what not to do. If they read their own Bibles, maybe they’d get their act together.
- Why do Christians think they can tell other people what is moral and ethical? Their Bible says that you shouldn’t eat shellfish or wear clothing of mixed fibers – they’re all a bunch of hypocrites.
- Why are they so concerned about marriage and sexual ethics? A bunch of people in the Old Testament were polygamists, so why isn’t that an adequate form of marriage? All Christians do is pick and choose what they like from the Bible.**
I’m sure you’ve read something similar to what I’ve summarized above. Yet, its often not the non-Christians who say the most offensive or dismissive comments in these contexts, its the professed Christians. The most common responses I find from Christians in these situations sound something like this, “Repent or you’re going to hell – the Bible says so”, or “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”, or “Well the Bible says ____ so you’re wrong”, or some other aggressive comment about “what the Bible says.” After all, if the Bible says that men “pisseth against the wall”, then you better be a man and go pee on a wall.
The reality is, we should not be surprised that the culture around us argues based on a position of what the Bible literally says. After all, this concept is what much of the American Church has been championing for the last century. In all fairness, we’ve only brought our cultures Biblical illiteracy on ourselves. By emphasizing one idea – Biblical literalism – we’ve neglected to actually tell people how the Bible is meant to be read and understood. Now its not only the culture around us that doesn’t know how to handle the Bible, but the average lay person sitting in our pews.
The Bible is not a text that is meant to be read literally.
I bet that comment made a lot of you uncomfortable, so I’ll say it again.
The Bible is not a text that is meant to be read literally.
The Bible is a much richer, more robust, far deeper, and more profound book than one that can simply be read literally. No, the Bible is a text that is both living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and is begging to be sought after and understood (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So how then are we meant to read it? How can we properly explain to other Christians and the culture around us how the Bible is meant to be read?
I’m glad you asked. For those of you who know me, I hope you wouldn’t think that I’ve gone off the deep end and rejected the authority of Scripture. For those of you that don’t know me well, I present to you: the bait. Now let me show you the switch.
My proposition for communicating the historic, orthodox and Protestant position on the Bible is fourfold: The Bible is God’s written word that must be read literally within its respective genre and proper redemptive context under the guidance of church tradition.
Sure, the Bible is a text that must be read literally, but not merely literally. It must be read within its respective genre. The Bible is full of various genres that reflect the influence of its author and time period in which it was written. Therefore, we must understand the text within the style that it was written. There are many different genres within the Biblical literature: prose, historical narrative, wisdom literature, poems, apocalyptic literature, and epistles just to name a few. The way we read Old Testament poetry must be different than the way we read New Testament narrative. Metaphors must be read differently than straightforward prose. This is why we don’t read a verse like Psalm 88:7 (“…and you overwhelm me with all your waves”) as literal waves, but as a trial that comes from God himself. When we read John 1:43 (“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee”), we understand what it meant. Jesus went to Galilee.
In a similar way, we must understand the Bible in its redemptive context. Where does the passage in question fall in God’s story of human redemption? After all, if the entirety of the Scriptures are meant to illuminate Christ for us (Luke 24:27, Acts 17:11-12), then the most important task of our Biblical studies is to seek Christ. This gives us the ability understand what it means for the writer of Hebrews to say, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).” If you need help with this, I wrote a helpful post to get you started here.
As for reading the Bible under the guidance of church tradition, this gets us into muddy water that doesn’t fall under the intention of this post. One of the most basic differences between Roman and Protestant theology is the role of tradition in the life of the church. While Protestants affirm Sola Scriptura (defined above), we do not discount the importance of church tradition. It is a lens by which we can come to better understand God’s Word in the life of his people. We have the benefit of standing on 2000 years of men and women who have gone before us in faith, and we should not ignore what the Holy Spirit has faithfully taught our ancestors.
C.S. Lewis – in one of his snarkier moments – has a great explanation of what happens when we reduce the Bible to mere Biblical literalism: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want to ‘spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.” In other words, if you treat everything in the Bible simply as being literal, then you are unable to adequately understand it. This is why we must have a much more “grown-up” understanding of our Bibles. My proposal is to abandon the solitary tower of Biblical literalism and instead expand our territory to a much healthier and more faithful understanding. We must read and explain the Bible as God’s written word that must be read literally within its respective genre and proper redemptive context under the guidance of church tradition. When we do, we’ll not only better understand the Bible ourselves, but we’ll have better explanations for the society around us, we’ll be better equipped to approach the big issues of our day (ethics, science), and most importantly we’ll be more faithful to the God who was pleased to reveal his Word to us.
**Note the irony here. Biblical literalism really took shape against a backdrop of theological liberalism, which argued that we have the ability to pick and choose from the Bible. Now that fundamentalists and evangelicals have championed literalism for so long – without any understanding of the historic, orthodox way of reading Scripture – the tables have now been flipped on us. The culture around us reads the Bible literally, and we’re the ones left being accused of cherry picking. Funny how that works, yeah?
Reading our Bibles (specifically, the Old Testament) in the way it is meant to be read is a much misunderstood subject in the church today. Most Christians, when pressed, will confess that they have no idea where to even start in understanding the Bible. This raises the question: how are we meant to read our Bibles? It is a great question that we need to answer, and there is a simple answer with enormous implications for how we read our Bibles. We must read God’s Word through an intentionally Christian, Christ-centered and redemptive lens.
Understanding the Old Testament through a Christ-centered lens isn’t just a random idea that someone cooked up on their own; it is actually quite a Biblical idea that we get from a proper understanding of the New Testament. Let’s take a look at two passages real quick that show us where this idea comes from.
In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus appears to two disciples who are traveling on the road to Emmaus. Upon conversing with these two disciples for a short time, Jesus then began “with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus himself taught that the entirety of Old Testament Scripture points to him.
Similarly, in the book of Acts Paul and Silas meet a group of Jews living in Berea. After Paul and Silas began teaching in the synagogue about Christ, the Berean Jews began to examine “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). After intensely studying the Scriptures (which at the time would’ve consisted of the Old Testament Scriptures we have today), the Bible says that the Berean’s therefore believed. This therefore is important – what we can gather from this encounter with the Berean’s is that a serious reading of the Old Testament should lead us to understanding more about God’s redemptive plan through Jesus Christ.
This Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament – an approach that the New Testament so clearly teaches us – is often referred to as the Redemptive (or Redemptive-Historical) approach to understanding God’s Word. This is how the Bible itself teaches us to read the Old Testament. I know that this can be a real struggle for most of us. Yet, if we don’t understand the text in this way then it is reasonable for us to conclude that we are not getting everything out of the Scriptures that God himself intended for us to have. For this reason, I want to give you three tips that might help you in your Bible study as you try to understand the Scriptures in a Redemptive way.
1. Stick to the Four C’s
Comprehension: What is the meaning of this text in its original context?
Conviction: What sin problem or human need would the original audience have understood from this passage? What sin problem or need do you share with the original audience?
Consolation: How does this passage address or reveal God’s response to that sin problem or need? How is this sin problem or need ultimately met in Christ?
Compel: What am I being called to think or do in light of this passage? How does the gospel enable me to accomplish this?
2. Learn to Ask the Right Questions
- How does this passage or topic fit into the grand narrative of scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration)? If you’re reading the Old Testament, try to figure out where the people of God are within the history of Israel.
- What is distinctively Christian about how I am reading this passage or engaging this topic?
- Does this passage or topic point forward to the cross, backward to the cross, or forward to Christ’s return? How?
- What does this passage or topic tell me about Jesus?
- How does this passage or topic equip God’s people to live on mission?
3. Equip Yourself with a Few Good Resources
A. The ESV Study Bible: This resource is without equal, especially if you are just beginning to understand the Bible in a Redemptive way. Not only does it contain excellent verse-by-verse notes on the Bible, but it also contains excellent maps and timelines that will help you understand Redemptive history better. It also has some great short articles that cover more ground about the Redemptive approach to reading the Bible.
B. Equip yourself by reading any of these books which are concise, excellent books on this topic:
- The God who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story by D.A. Carson
- Jesus on Every Page by David Murray
- The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund P. Clowney
C. For some more advanced reading, equip yourself with a good Systematic Theology book. The editions by Wayne Grudem or John Frame are both very good. These will help you deal with more advanced subjects and themes as you begin to see them play out in the Scriptures.