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Posts from the ‘Paul's Letters’ Category


Rejoicing in Galatian Freedom (an interruption to self-imposed online taciturnity)

Just back from doing the All Souls week away in Bath – my first major thing for work since I was off from 1st Jan. All seemed to go smoothly and happily, which was rather a relief for all concerned. The focus this year was the grace-freedom we have in Christ – which Paul expounds so superbly through Galatians Read more »


The Rebellious Privacy of God: Rowan Williams on Narnia in “The Lion’s World”

I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).

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Bach, Bono and Rookmaaker – Eros and Agape in perfect harmony?

It is not uncommon for Bono deliberately to blur distinctions in his lyrics and, especially, in his performances. A classic example comes in the song, Mysterious Ways – it sounds like a song about a girl. Mainly because it is a song about a girl. However, as I’ve explained elsewhere, there are clear theological allusions to God (not least because of its derivation from William Cowper’s great hymn). Read more »


Breathing life into the dry bones of ancient Corinth: Witherington’s Week in the Life

It seems that everyone’s joined in the cross-over craze. Rock stars are writing ballets and operas, chick-lit writers are getting elected to Parliament, and now a NT scholar has turned novelist. The point about Witherington’s very enjoyable new book, A Week In The Life Of Corinth, though, is it that it is entirely in keeping with his primary profession of opening modern eyes to an ancient and alien past. This explains the narrative’s regular interruption by text boxes providing historical background (covering topics such as slavery, the client/patron relationship, gladiators, the Roman legal system and a potted history of Roman as opposed to Greek Corinth). Read more »


Giving in the Chain Reaction of Divine Grace (2 Cor 9)

The next section in our 2 Corinthians mini-series presented a particular challenge – because the whole section is about giving (in particular, Paul’s encouragement of the Corinthians’ gift to the famine-starved believers in Judaea). But how do you encourage giving as a good thing to do without it being an arm-twist or guilt trip? Especially when everyone in today’s financial climate is stressed about the future. Read more »


A journey from Perga to the Lycus Valley

I had one day to sightsee in Turkey last week which was fabulous. I even came back a bit sunburnt (much to the chagrin of every rain-drenched colleague on my return). Quite fun to be able to say that I got a tan at Laodicea. So here are a few photographic highlights. For the full Flickr set, click here. Having been based in Antalya (ancient Attalia) had a chance to visit Perga and Aspendos (along the coast to the east), and then travelled inland to the north west to the Lycus Valley (where Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae are).

First a general map and few panoramas from the trip… Click on each image for a closer view. Read more »


From Attalia, Paul sailed back to Antioch…

It is a privilege to spend time with friends in Antalya – right on the south Mediterranean coast of Turkey. (Incidentally, and quite interestingly, in Turkish, the Med is called ‘Akdeniz’ which means ‘the white sea’ in symmetry to ‘Karadeniz’ (The Black Sea) at the other end of the Bosphorus). And Antalya was of course the ancient port city of Attalia in the apostle Paul’s day. Read more »


The See-Saw of Faith in 2 Corinthians

Last Sunday, I was doing the next bit in our current little series on 2 Corinthians, and had the wonderful, and yet far too familiar (for many) passage of 2 Cor 4:16-5:10. It’s one of Paul’s great articulations of genuine, realistic Christian experience in a crazy and sometimes hostile world. Read more »


When Christians disagree… priorities, challenges and imperatives

It’s a given. Christians disagree. Like pretty much everyone else, in fact. They always have. They always will. This side of the eschaton, that is.

So the issue is not whether or not we can avoid disagreement. The issue is whether or not we can disagree badly… or disagree well… This is what lay behind the recent 3-part sermon series given by Hugh Palmer at All Souls. And it deserves a wide airing in its entirety because it confronts some vital and little-appreciated issues.

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An unimpressive herald of an unimpressive message: a final message under Parliament

Last week saw the final instalment of the little 1 Cor 1 series in the undercroft chapel in Westminster. Unfortunately, we had the slight inconvenience of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement happening on the same day, and as this had been brought forward to 12.30, there were few who were able to come. No worries though. We happy few had a happy time.

And how nice it was to have a Christmas tree in the centre of Westminster Hall. No thought of winterval here… yet. But give it time I suppose. Now, was it my imagination or does this tree look as though it is leaning to the right…? I’m sure that can’t be significant, can it?

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Spinning an unspinnable message – why bother? A message under Parliament

One or two have asked for this, so here it is: the first of 3 talks given in the gaudy riot of Pugin-inspired colour that is Parliament’s Undercroft Chapel. This is a group that meets mostly weekly under Christians in Parliament. The next two are on 15th and 29th November. We’d decided to do 3 sessions from the opening chapters of Paul’s extraordinary and thoroughly contemporary first letter to the Corinthian church. Read more »


Want to know what a triumph is?

It’s a word that gets used very lightly these days. It might be said that Djokovic triumphed over Nadal on Sunday at Wimbledon. Or that Obama triumphed in the last US Presidential election. Or that our school cricket team triumphed in the local derby. But overuse has obliterated the historical significance of the word. For in the Roman world (especially in the ‘good old days’ of the Roman republic), they were only awarded to a special few as the result of a full vote by the Senate, and only for those who had achieved an extraordinary military victory. Read more »


The challenges of a grace-shaped community (Galatians 6)

Well, we made it to the end of Galatians on Sunday night. And quite a journey it’s been. Phew!

Mark Prentice did a huge job of gathering the threads from the whole of Gal 5 the previous week, and it was left to me to do the same for Gal 6. As with so many of Paul’s letters, the last chapter can seem rather an afterthought and hotchpotch. Well, I certainly don’t think Gal 6 is either. This is his parting shot, including the words in his own hand instead of the usual dictation. FWIW, here is the talk, and the accompanying outline:

Incidentally, I’ve pulled together my various biblical tables into one place, in case it is of interest.


The Facts and Figures of Galatians 4: why Abraham takes precedence over Moses

This one was a sweat, if I’m honest. But last sunday, we recommenced our Galatians series after a 2 month break (the result of that little inconvenience alternatively known as Christmas and New Year). And the passage felt a bit like a minefield because it includes Paul’s notorious figurative use of the 2 families descended from Abraham. I think too many come down far too hard on Paul’s OT handling here – for he is completely open about what he is doing and his points made are entirely valid.

It struck me forcibly again that, in his disputes with the Judaizers, the key issue is the relationship between Abraham and Moses. It was only after I started to build a passage summary table (below) that the full shock of Paul’s shocking (and even apparently mistaken) inclusion of Mount Sinai in the ‘red’ Hagar column became apparent. If Moses is a biological descendent of Sarah & Isaac’s line (which he was), the God-ordained leader of God’s people (which he was), and he received the God-given law on Mt Sinai (which he did), then surely Sinai should be in the green column.

But this is Paul’s point – being a child of Abraham depends not on bloodline and being descended by race (and figuratively, by depending on law); it depends on trusting God (having faith) and being dependent on grace (and thus figuratively, depending on promise). As he says earlier in the letter:

Consider Abraham: “He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then that those who believe are children of Abraham. (Gal 3:6, quoting Genesis 15:6)

Anyway – here is the talk, such as it is. I was certainly glad to have it over with! Am posting the table because a number of people asked for it after seeing it on Sunday. Hope it’s of use to a few.


The imperative of grace-bound unity: Partnership in Philippians

Philippians has been a letter I’ve returned to many times over the last 20 years or so. Not particularly by my design, more that it has at various points seemed the most appropriate place to go. Every year in January, we have at All Souls what we call our Partnership Sunday – a chance to review and reflect, a moment to recommit and reshape one’s priorities. And as I was working out what to do, it struck me forcibly that Philippians covered so many of the areas that needed saying, all in one place. So I made the rather rash decision to try to offer an overview of the whole letter in 30 minutes.

Rather than taking some of the themes for which it is perhaps best known (eg joy, fellowship in suffering etc), I’ve always sensed that its primary concern has been with the unity in the gospel of the congregation. For apart from the presenting issues inspiring Paul to write it (his having to send Epaphroditus home, his gratitude to the church for their gifts and his desire to allay their concerns for him in prison), the pressing problem is their unity in the gospel and resistance to non-gospel teaching. How revealing it is to contrast how Paul treats his trouble-making fellow preachers in Rome (Phil 1:17-18) with those false teachers in Philippi that he starkly dismisses as dogs and mutilators of the flesh (Phil 3:2-4). But the saddest but most sensitive problem is the falling out that has happened between 2 church members, Euodia & Syntyche (Phil 4:2-4). Who knows what it was about or who was ‘more in the right’ etc etc? That’s immaterial. We don’t need to know. The whole letter is an impassioned appeal to work together (as they had done in the past) because their divisions make them easy victims of the external pressures from persecution and internal challenges of false teaching.

Our gospel unity must never been taken for granted – but nor must it ever become an end in itself, or even an idol. For Paul never insists on unity at all costs – the gospel gives clear boundaries to it. And it is into this that God calls us to be partners – a key term in the letter (koinonia – κοινωνία – translated ‘partnership’ or sometimes perhaps misleadingly as ‘fellowship’ – used in Phil 1:5, Phil 2:1 and Phil 3:10).

Anyway, you can catch the full talk here – but for those who are interested, here is the outline:

1. The Urgency of Unity: PERSECUTION

  • Paul’s Predicament (1:13-14)
  • The Philippians’ Situation (1:28-29)
  • The Philippian Stress Fractures (4:2-3)

2. The Foundation for Unity: CHRIST

  • Paul’s indiscriminate Love (1:1,4)
  • Gospel-worthy conduct (1:27)
  • United with Christ (2:1)

3. The Path to Unity: HUMILITY

  • All a question of attitude (2:5)
  • Or selfish ambitions (1:17, 2:3)
  • Our models:
    • Paul (1:17-18) who follows…
    • Christ himself (2:5-11)
    • as do Timothy (2:19-24)
    • and Epaphroditus (2:25-30)

4. The Boundaries of Unity: GRACE

  • Imperative Unity with Troublemakers: Preachers of the Cross (1:18)
  • Impossible Unity with False Teachers: Enemies of the Cross (3:2-4, 18-20)

It is to this end that I believe Paul was motivated to pray that extraordinary combination of requests for these dear friends of his – for we don’t often see how necessarily integrated love and knowledge are:

This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (1:9)

Incidentally, I noticed that the Simple Pastor has been working on the letter too, and it was from that I got the idea of making a wordle from the whole letter. Here’s the result of my go at it. It is quite telling…


Are you not entertained?! Durrës Roman Amphitheatre unearthed

It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird. Read more »


The Undefended Life

I’m fascinated by new attempts at publishing and distributing media. And when it is done to spread good stuff, all the better.

So it’s good to plug the blog of an old friend of mine, Simon Walker, with his Undefended Life blog. He’s written a few books before – including the Undefended Leader series. But this time, instead of a trad printed version of his book, he’s publishing a new chapter every week, over 17 weeks.

This is what he says:

Over the past six months I have written the draft of my new book, The Undefended Life. It’s a substantial text addressing what an undefended life actually looks like. It questions whether the church has fundamentally misread the nature of sin; it looks again at the death of Christ and the centrality of adoption in the Gospel; it re-evaluates the nature of idolatry and the act of repentance and faith. It questions our understanding of personal identity and dismantles the kind of moral reform we associate with the Christian faith. It considers how we can refind a place for St Paul’s difficult language of the flesh/spiritual life. And it proposes that we must radically relook at our theology of God as trinity if we are to rediscover the freedom that God offers us. Overall, it is the most radical, challenging piece of writing I have ever produced.

I am in conversation with a conventional publisher about production of a print version of the book to come out in early 2011. But the publishing world is changing rapidly; authors also need to take different routes to reach their audiences.

I’ve not had the chance to read everything Simon has added to the blog so far. But I know that much of what he has said about leadership is a vital antidote to what I wrote a few days ago about ecclesial autocrats.


The Devotion of a Slave: Michael Card’s A Better Freedom

Slavery is a fraught subject – and for too many, it’s no historical artefact or long-gone curiosity. Its effects are still pervasive. Furthermore, it’s not simply a matter of its legacy for African-Americans in the US or the Caribbean. UN estimates suggest that 20 million people were held in bonded slavery in 2004; and in that year, there were more slaves than were seized from Africa in all 4 centuries of the transatlantic slave trade combined. It is a matter of no small interest, therefore, that slavery is such a significant biblical theme – and for a large number it can form a stumbling block by itself.

Michael Card is a renowned singer, but he is also a careful student of the Bible (the result, in part, of a long mentoring relationship with William Lane, author of e.g. The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT series). More than either of those factors, however, is the fact that he has a pastor’s heart and passionate commitment to integration across racial barriers – so crucial in his home town of Nashville. It is through his many African American brothers and sisters that he has learned truths about slavery in the Bible. Particularly striking is the insight from one friend who said:

slaves generally referred to Jesus as ‘Master’ to let their earthly masters know they weren’t (p19).

Because being freed from human slavery doesn’t exempt us from all slavery – we are, if Christian, slaves of Christ, who was himself humanity’s slave.

This book is unusual for its effective combination of pastoral warmth and academic research. He very skilfully weaves between three eras of slavery in order to establish what being a slave of Christ is all about, and just as significantly, what it is not. He shifts with ease and learning between the covenant-tempered slavery regulations of ancient Israel, the harsh realities of Roman Imperial slavery and the horrors of the American Deep South. This approach is simply unavoidable for any treatment of this subject – but this is one of the best because Card is so personal committed to the discipleship implications of what he finds.

The chapters are short and pithy – and many are illuminating of familiar texts. It was particularly striking to see how many of Jesus’ parables were immersed in the world of slaves. The book closes with some very helpful appendices, listing such things as the slaves in the Bible’s story, the distinctives of the slavery from the 3 eras mentioned above, and chillingly, statistics about contemporary slavery. Having done a little work (but by no means as much) on this subject (The NT & Slavery), this is a book that I would love to have written, had I even half of Card’s insight and passion! If you’re looking for a more thorough and sustained handling of the topic, you could do much worse than Murray Harris’ Slave of Christ (in IVP’s fab NSBT series) but A Better Freedom is a great introduction and, more importantly, stirring devotional.

This is a challenging book but it is pastorally real and at times very moving, approaches some familiar truths with an engaging freshness.


“You’re going to LOVE this!” Sam Allberry on the Resurrection

Weird. Books on the Resurrection are like proverbial London buses. None for ages, then several appear at the same time. Don Carson has SCANDALOUS – The Cross & Resurrection coming out in February; Adrian Warnock, doctor and uberblogger, has one out specifically on the resurrection (Raised with Christ) and so does Sam Allberry. But Raised with Christ seems to be getting tons of airtime and exposure around the place, so it only seems fair to give Sam’s new book LIFTED a bit of a push as well. Not quite sure what distinguishes them yet (inevitably), but I’ve certainly enjoyed Sam’s and will enjoy checking out the other two as and when. Perhaps will post a comparison when I’ve got through them all.

‘You’re going to LOVE this’

Well that’s certainly true of the book – but the line actually comes from an experience Sam had hiking up a hill in Kenya’s Rift Valley – he was flagging until his companion shouted these words down to him – which gave him the final adrenalin rush to get him to the top and the spectacular views (p77). And as such, it is a wonderful image for the inspiring reality of the resurrection life as Paul expounds it in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Philippians in particular. It is the hope over the horizon; the thought of what’s to come spurs us on through the darkest days.

Sam’s book is clearly based on a series of talks to students (when he worked at St Ebbe’s in Oxford) – and has all the necessary pith, pace and purpose that you might expect for such a context. This doesn’t try to be anything more than an introduction to key iceberg tips in the vast theology of the resurrection, whether Christ’s and/or ours. Which is precisely what makes it so successful a book. It is simple, clear and straightforward – and as such, ideal as a foundational book for new or young believers.

4 Resurrection Experiences

There’s a nice cross-cultural moment as Sam describes a Thai Buddhist’s assumption that Jesus must also be a good Buddhist – because he read the 4 gospels sequentially, not as parallel narratives, he assumed that Jesus had been reincarnated several times before finally reaching nirvana (which is well below the average!). Well, the 4 resurrection experiences mentioned here are not sequential but all integral to the Christian’s experience of being united with Christ. These 4 chapter headings each sum up a different, complementary aspect of that experience (presumably they were from the 4 original talks):

  • Assurance
  • Transformation
  • Hope
  • Mission

Each is only around 30 pages and so would suit an extended time of meditation and reflection, or perhaps a study group. Each works through a few bible passages – but it is quite speedy stuff, so perhaps it is good to read a chapter, and then spend a bit more time dwelling on the passages he expounds.

Sam has nice self-deprecation in his illustrations and often has a fun quirky turn of phrase. Every now and then he lifts some of the more mundane (but necessary) observations on familiar passages with a surprising image or twist. I liked, for example, his contrast of advertising before-and-after images (where the before picture is ‘suspiciously smudgy, dark and grainy’ while the after picture is crystal clear) with the warts-and-all depiction of the disciples before as well as after resurrection (pp33-34); or the explanations of why Jesus is like a stuffed tiger (p14) and a mobile phone (p28), and why God is not like a SimCity player (p108) etc. All very helpful.

He’s not afraid to spell out some of the negative implications where needed: especially good were his articulation of the mistaken views of resurrection (the resurrection has already taken place, and there is no resurrection of the dead pp83-86), as were the 4 Corinthian differences between our earthly and resurrection bodies (pp98-99).

All in all – this is a really good addition to the CU or church bookstall. A great place to start.


The 6-word novel… or just another soundbite?

I came across this little article about 6-word memoirs through the wonders of StumbleUpon – the challenge derives from Ernest Hemingway who proved that he could write a 6-word ‘novel’. This was his offering:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Genius – it perfectly, achingly, succinctly evokes everything. At one level, nothing more needs saying. Nothing is hidden. But at another level, so much more could be said. Above all, the imagination is fired.

Others have since jumped onto the bandwagon, and various attempts have been compiled and published. I particularly liked graffiti artist Mare 139’s, who wrote:

Wasn’t noticed so I painted trains.

Or this anon. one:

love my cake, eat it too

But of course, it’s easy to be cynical about the exercise. Spin doctors have scared us off – we’re suspicious of lines that sound crisp and neat, when we know that reality really isn’t. And it’s an unhelpful tendency in theology too – we preachers are particularly culpable of presenting reality as too tight, too neat, too straightforward.

And yet, it’s no accident that the art of precis gets taught in schools (or at least was ‘in my day’!) – it’s a key skill in the art of textual comprehension. If one can’t summarise something well, it probably means we’ve not understood it well. There is something about Twitter (with its 140 character limit) that intensely focuses the mind (or not, as the case may be for the vast majority of tweets which are flabby and bland). This is in part what lies behind Abraham Piper’s enjoyable 22 words blog (which he calls ‘an experiment in getting to the point’).

So don’t we need both? Beware the trite and platitudinous (or even dishonest); but strive after the lucid and pithy. This was, I believe, one of John Stott’s incalculable gifts as a writer and teacher.

So how about it? A 6-word summary of the Christian message that walks the tightrope? I wonder if the apostle Paul might have suggested these words from Colossians 1:27 (ok, slightly cheating to put ‘the’ in brackets, but hey) – it’s one of my all-time favourite descriptions of the nature and privilege of the gospel

Christ in you, [the] hope of glory

And as a memoir/testimony? I think this would be mine, a paraphrase of Mark 9:24:

I do believe; overcome my unbelief!

So why not you give it a shot… any great 6 word summaries or testimonies out there??