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The following text comprises the notes used to deliver a meditation to the Bethel College Cabinet on December 18, 2017.

 

Anyone who has been to a number of weddings has heard the words from 1 Corinthians 13, including this conclusion: “Faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.”

The reason 1 Corinthians 13 is a favorite at weddings is due to its theme of the superiority of love, even to faith and hope. But, what actually makes love possible is faith or allegiance. But, allegiance is not possible without hope. Hope may not be the greatest of these three attributes, but it is primary, because it is foundational; it is truly powerful. For example, it keeps me engaged through every baseball season. It corralled my attention through nearly the entire Packer game yesterday. And, it is the theme of the Christmas story. But, hope in what?

In Luke’s Gospel, Mary uttered the following words to Elizabeth about God during her pregnancy: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Why? Because, “he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Soon after Mary voiced these words, Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband spoke of God in this way: “He has raised up a mighty deliverer for us, that we would be delivered from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, that we would be rescued from our enemies. By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to guide us in the way of peace.”

No wonder the angels proclaiming the birth of this deliverer, Jesus, said to the shepherds, “On earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Likewise, at the circumcision of Jesus, the old man Simeon said to God, “My eyes have seen your deliverance.”

In line with all these words of hope in mercy through deliverance, John, preparing the way for Jesus, rebuked the rich, the tax collectors, soldiers, and the evil of the King, Herod, a move which cost him his freedom and eventually his head.

Finally, Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, affirmed that he was commissioned by God to “bring good news to the poor,” “to proclaim release to the captives,” “to let the oppressed go free,” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And what was the year of the Lord’s favor? Perpetual Jubilee, an ongoing time of deliverance from all oppression. (more…)

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Where is Harold Camping, President of Family Radio? Where are his followers? There is only one possible answer: The Rapture.

Thousands of people were raptured on Saturday, May 21, 2011. By answering the heavenly trumpet call, catching them up in the air to meet Christ, Harold Camping’s dramatic prophecy was vividly fulfilled.

A well-financed ad campaign and a cooperative media effectively publicized Camping’s prophecy: The news even reached me! The impact of this startling information drove me to divert a good part of that Saturday from my usual routine of monitoring baseball box scores. Instead, I scanned the skies and read news reports from around the world, in order to share my observations with the throngs of intellectuals who slavishly follow my Twitter posts.

These tweets, filed periodically throughout that nerve-wrecking day, are compiled below. Read ’em and weep: Camping also predicted that we now only have five months until the end of the world.

  • Almost two hours into May 21 and my wife and I are still here.
  • Any RR’s (rapture reports) out there?
  • No rapture yet. Checked major papers, and nothing reported. Is this a conspiracy of the MSM? Did I not repent properly?
  • On this May 21 rapture thing, what time zone is God using anyway?
  • In some places in the world, the day is already more than half over. Do you think Camping was wrong?
  • I’m starting to get nervous about this rapture thing. No reports yet, but it’s still Saturday for 1 hour and 22 minutes according to Greenwich Mean Time.
  • Boy, do I feel dumb. This rapture thing can’t happen until it’s May 21 ONLY in America = New Israel = God’s Chosen People. Duh!
  • Of course, South and Central America are included in the rapture thing. Don’t you see the word AMERICA?
  • C’mon people, of course the rapture thing applies to the whole hemisphere. Does MONROE DOCTRINE ring a bell, or were you asleep in history class?
  • Bad news for all you native Americans and you who came here via Africa. Looks like you’ll be sticking around for the end of the world.
  • Blame it on the Puritans, not me: They’re the ones who figured out that it’s ONLY the EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS whose destiny is manifestly good.
  • This AMERICA-only rapture thing comes from Puritan—or Reformed—theology. But, Reformed theology DOESN’T INCLUDE THE RAPTURE. Is that ironic or what?
  • No natives, Africans, Presbyterians. Any Asians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, or rapture-deniers? Heaven = an exclusive country club?
  • All those people who’ve insisted that there’ll be more than just pre-trib, pre-mill Baptists in heaven are due for a big surprise.
  • Oh, oh. I’m an Anabaptist attending a Mennonite church. Nervous again—I may need a survival manual. Why didn’t I read “Left Behind”?
  • Okay, it’s Sunday GMT. It looks like my theory has been proven. T minus four hours and counting EDT.
  • HOLD EVERYTHING!! We have nine more hours! It won’t be Sunday in the remotest Aleutian Islands for nearly nine more hours. Seward’s Folly? No, No, No, No, No!
  • No rapture reports in the news. Everyone was at church today. My wife and I are still here. Bummer! Anyone got a house for sale . . . cheap?

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What is the Gospel? Where does one find an authoritative definition? The early church has left us with its answer to these two questions. It gave the name “Gospel” to the four books placed at the beginning of its collection of documents added to Holy Scripture. The Gospel is not only in the Gospels; the Gospel is the Gospels.

The opening line of Mark supports this assertion: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Later on Mark states that “preaching the gospel” was a main part of Jesus’ life (1:14). He then records the content of the gospel message proclaimed by Jesus and the response to that message Jesus required: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15).

Further on in the book we get a clearer idea of what it means to “repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus declared, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel‘s will save it.”  (8:35). Jesus seeks to reinforce the value of belief in the following words recorded by Mark: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (10:29–30).

The gospel, according to Mark, then, is the record found in his Gospel. It is what Jesus preached and what people are obliged to believe. Those who do believe in it are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (16:15).

This conclusion bears a significance that goes beyond understanding the contents of “The Gospel of Mark.” Biblical scholars largely agree that Mark penned his book before the three other Gospels. The authors of these other Gospels wrote accounts of the Gospel relevant to their respective audiences by drawing upon Mark’s work and other existing accounts of Jesus. Taken together, within these four books is a complementary message, the Gospel.

Specific congregations, facing specific issues at specific times and specific places, often required appropriate interpretations, explanations, illustrations, and applications of the Gospel. Individuals appointed by Jesus filled this need through messages delivered in person or via correspondence. Not only did the early church preserve the Gospels, but it preserved those written sermons that it deemed to have enduring value.

In sum, the Gospel is found in the Gospels. In fact, the Gospel is the Gospels. It is a story of stories which we read and thereby into which we enter, with which we identify, and to which we conform. The epistles provide sermonic explanation and application of that Gospel to specific issues arising in specific congregations at specific places and times.

This description of the Gospel may seem a bit strange to Western minds shaped by categories established in ancient Greece, resurrected during the renaissance, and canonized during the Enlightenment. The scholastic minds at the forefront of the sixteenth-century Reformation adopted these categories, and they have been presupposed ever since.

The preceding description of the Gospel, however, would not be foreign to those from the Near East, the land in which the Bible originated. In fact, the literary approach of telling story with the intent of transforming readers’ stories should be familiar to those who read the Old Testament, the bulk of which is story written in the form of narrative or verse.

The Near Eastern mind understands that we are who we are and change to what we will become by means of the influence of the stories with which we engage, enter, and identify. These may be the stories of our parents, church, nation, or the story of poems, novels, or films (see “A Tale of Two Stories”). On the other hand, instruction and sermon do not have nearly the same transforming power that story does. Nevertheless, instruction and sermon are important for addressing issues arising in contexts not specifically addressed in the Story, i.e., the Gospel.

The extent to which these sermons, these epistles, delivered by mail and recorded in the Bible, can be used to explain and apply the Gospel today, their value is on a par with the Gospels themselves. One of the mistakes made by the church prior to the sixteenth century was to devalue these epistles and practically ignore them. Correcting that mistake was overdue.

The reaction of the Reformers, however, may have gone too far the other direction: practically to ignore the Gospels. But, if the epistles are treated as superior to or exclusive of the Gospels, one runs the risk of creating “another Gospel,” the very thing one of these epistle writers feared (Galatians 1:6–9).

This same writer elsewhere described the Gospel as the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16). Consequently, the world and the church desperately need the Gospel. That is, they need the Story, the Gospel story. In other words, they need the Gospels.

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Biblical theology is an academic discipline in which I spend a good deal of time.

What is biblical theology, and how is it distinct from systematic theology?

Let me offer the following definition.  Though it is my own creation, I believe it fairly represents the consensus of biblical theologians. (more…)

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