What is the Center of Paul? A Three Corded Rope?

21 05 2010
Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854
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A friend of mine (Jason Hood) is in the process of writing an article about the kingdom of God as the center of Paul’s thinking -If I’ve understood him right. This is an age old question, but after I wrote a response to Jason, I thought it might be worth posting it for others to interact with…

Jason, you have emphasized the continuity of the concept, i.e. suggested how other key ideas and expression (eschatology, union with Christ) may be consumed under the kingdom of God. I would like to hear about the discontinuity too – why in the  Pauline corpus do we see him choosing this expression when he does, over against another descriptor. I.e. in the absence of a passage which explains why this particular expression IS a summary of these other ideas (I don’t know of any passage that brings them all together), why does Paul choose to use other expressions besides this one and why does he choose to use this expression where he does.

My only concern as I have thought about this subject myself (I start my lectures on Paul’s letter with three full weeks on the center of Paul) is a pedagogical one. Kingdom is quite an impersonal concept, as are redemptive history and eschatology. Union with Christ is a REALLY personal way for Paul to say things. Maybe this (in part) answers the question of “Why this expression?” (above), but there is also a pedagogical rub with what you are trying to say in your article. If someone says to me that “kingdom of God is the center of Paul” It sounds very corporate – which of course many today would be happy about! But given the VERY personal nature of “with/in Christ” how in your article can you capture the idea that the center of Paul is (in fact) very personal?

For what it is worth, I teach that the center of Paul is a three corded rope – union with Christ, redemptive history & eschatology. You may then state this three different ways depending (pedagogically) on what you/Paul wants to emphasize 1) The center of Paul is Jesus, who fulfills redemptive history by ushing in the eschaton; or 2) The center of Paul redemptive history, which now finds its fulfillment in Jesus ushering in the eschaton; or 3) The center of Paul is eschatology, which in Christ is the beginning of the end for redemptive history. Perhaps the redemptive history side could be restated as kingdom, since this is OT language for the hope of Israel, which finds finds a subversiveness expression in Christianity in that the way the eschaton works out and also the nature of God‘s Christ. It is this subversive edge as well as Paul’s desire to be personal, which perhaps explains why he must add the other two cords to this rope.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 03

10 05 2009
Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
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I don’t want to drag this out into too many posts, so let me just cut to the chase – Most authors today agree that Luke is writing to help his readers see why Christianity is the real fulfillment of God’s history for his people. It is written to Gentile Christians who are a bit worried that they might be riding the wrong horse (see Luke 1:1-4).

So what is the role of these three parables? On the one hand they exposes Jewish exclusiveness. On the other they affirms that God loves those who apparently have no right to be included among his people. If we look to chapter 16 and discussion about using worldly mammon to get people into the kingdom, there seems to be a message in the lost parables, for Christians – don’t forget God has a heart for those who are yet to come in, just as he had a heart for you! Don’t be like the elder brother and the religious leaders who are exclusive and have no thought for lost ones.

Yes these parables are meant to challenge an elitist attitude. But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a secondary word to the lost. The Christian audience themselves would be reminded that they were once lost and God was pleased to seek them out. This reminder (I think) can be used directly with non-Christians when preaching these parables to them.

So should we preach about the older brother or the younger brother? It can and should be preached in terms of exclusivism – both Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting seem to make this reasonable. But I also think Jesus’ setting and Luke’s setting make it reasonable to focus on “the Lost.” In so far as he reminds his Gentile audience of the way God loved and sought them  this can be well applied to people who aren’t Christians yet. IN NOTICING THE IMPORTANT PLACE OF THE OLDER BROTHER THEREFORE, WE SHOULDN’T FALL TO AN EXTREME AND FORGET THAT LOTS OF DETAILS ABOUT THE FATHER’S LOVE FOR THE YOUNGER BROTHER (not to mention the sheep and the coin) ARE INCLUDED! This chapter is still a great resource for evangelistic preaching.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 02

6 05 2009
Dark Secret ..
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There are at least a couple of questions that need to be answered, and the first is: Who was Jesus talking to, when he gave these three parables? The answer I reckon, was both “the lost” tax collectors and sinners (15:1) and the Pharisees and scribes (15:2). The Greek is ambiguous in v. 3 when it says “he told them this parable”, but for various reasons (e.g. Greek verbs in vv. 1-2), I think it is safest to say he’s speaking to both.

In this way, all the nice things he says about the lost sheep, coin and son are all a positive statement to the “lost listeners” whom historically he is addressing. All the negative things he say about the 99 being left in open country and the older brother, are directed towards the grumbling religious leaders.

But there’s another question: How was Luke trying to effect his audience? This is a really important question to ask. Often when we look at a passage in the gospels we think of it only in terms of the history of the event. But we need to ask how different authors are trying to use these events. Mark and Matthew on the calming of the storm have different purposes and so a sermon on the same event would have very different purposes if preached from Mark or Matthew.

We’ll pick up this question in the next entry, but for now it should be notice that in terms of Jesus’ own audience, “the lost” are certainly on the radar…

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Can the Prodigal Son be an Evangelistic Talk? 01

2 05 2009
Terry O'Quinn
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Luke is in the habit of telling short parables in pairs (11:31-32, 12:24-27, 13:18-21, 14:28-32). In chapter 15 the lost sheep and coin form such a pair as seen by their similar structures and language.

At first the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) may seem to not be directly connected. Its not in the doublet, and unlike the first two parables, there is a bit of a break (“then Jesus said” – though no change in scene or audience). And yet by the end no one can doubt that this is a direct continuation. The father’s closing words to the older son are strike the same key words as the first two parables: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and have been found” (v32).

A big question today though is whether any of these three parables should be used in evangelism. I think its a bit of a “bug bear”. The prodigal has been a classic evangelistic text, yet more recently there has been a move to see it as all about the older brother. Answering this question is really important for preaching Luke 15 and for evangelism. But it is also a great case study for how to read the bible in general and Luke in particular…

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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What is the Fallen Condition Focus?

31 03 2009
Simon Sky Diving
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Bryan Chapell in his book “Christ Centered Preaching” has a helpful concept which some of you might have heard of, but some may note. Even those who have heard of it, often haven’t grasped its value in unifying and directing a sermon.

The FCF or Fallen Condition Focus is basically a way of distilling the point being made in the passage to its first audience in terms of their problem (or fallen condition). This then becomes a bridge for connecting with today’s hearer. Chapell says: “An FCF need not be something for which we are guilty of culpable. It simply needs to be an aspect or problem of the human condition that requires the instructing, admonition, and/or comfort of Scripture.” I have found it best to say to students, “look for one word if possible.” So it might be guilt, or hopelessness, or fear. In Mark 4:35-41 (“the Calming of the Storm”), the fallen condition of “fear” seems central (contrasting faith for Mark). In Matthew’s account of the same incident however, “reluctance to follow” fits better with his purpose and the context in which he uses this incident. Do you realize that the same incident in different synoptic gospels will likely have different FCFs and thus be complete different in their aims?

In John 10:1-18 (the “I am the door/good shepherd” passage), I take the audience of the gospel to be people in the synagogue who are thinking to turn fully to Christ, but are reluctant (c.f. Carson’s John, p91). Thus the FCF of this passage might be “weariness with false saviors” and a resulting evangelistic talk could center on showing an audience how the supposed saviors of their world have never been more than thieves and robbers. Jesus as the door etc. is different, bringing salvation, security and life.

One more thing to note : When you have decided what the FCF is, the opening illustration must be about this point, it must be on this subject, so that in people’s mind they know immediately what the sermon will be about. So the intro to John 10 might be something like: “One of the great slogans of today… Try before you buy. Problem is, that even when it doesn’t work, people rarely send things back … so it is with life! For the next ½ hour I want to encourage you to consider sending things back. Sending back the broken solutions to life and consider someone who brings a real solution.”

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Understanding Faith (02)

10 11 2008
muggy sunset 2

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Believe it not, the best place to start in understanding faith, is a “strange phenomenon” (often overlooked) within the word grace (charis). The Greek word charis almost always means the favor of God → people. But sometimes it can mean a person’s reciprocal thanks → God, e.g. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25). “Thanks” here is charis! This means that one word can describe both the original act of generosity (i.e. God’s rescue) and the person’s appropriate response (i.e. thanks). David deSilva puts it this way: “grace can be used to speak of the response to a benefactor and his or her gift.” So charis is a remarkable little word, able to describe the complete exchange process of gift giving A ↔ B. Interestingly the word for “thanks” (eucharistia) had the same two meanings in earlier times! And so (I propose) does the Greek word for faith, i.e. pistis in NT times. “Faith” is also an A ↔ B word, as I will show next time via the example of Romans 3:1-8. But if so, this has powerful implications for how we understand faith, and how an ancient reader could have understood it.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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