Posts Tagged 'rob bell'

I doubt I’ll ever forget the day.  There are a series of days burned into my memory. My wedding day. Graduations (both mine and friends). My kids birth. The phone call from my dad telling me that my mom had died. The day Rob put his hand on my shoulder.

It was dark in the shed. “I come to the garden alone…” was being sung by pastors all over. I had prayed 30 minutes before that I needed some confirmation from God about the direction I thought He was taking me. I knew there were dark nights ahead. My soul lanquished inside of me. Raw wounds stung my heart and bled all over the place.

My wife and I had been at our current church for 18 months. They had lied to us throughout the process until we moved there. My wife was hurting. My bloody soul was literally in shock. I felt used, abused and betrayed by the church, Christ’s bride. Now, I was going to move my family to Michigan without a job? And I was going to have to tell people that we moved because God told me to do it? To say, I didn’t trust the church would be an understatement (and this was before I knew about angry “christian” bloggers).

So I prayed, “Dear God, I’m going to do what I believe you are telling me to do one way or another but I need a sign. I know it’s weak to ask for a sign but I need one. I need one for the cold, dark nights of doubt that I am sure are coming. I need one because my faith will be tested. If You would, I’d like to ask…I mean, I was hoping…Here’s the thing God, I’m going to go up on that stage and I’m going to pray right at the foot of that cross. I’m going to pray and if I really am hearing You, would you have someone from staff here touch me? I don’t care if it’s a preacher, or a janitor. I just need a ‘I asked the LORD and He answered me’ moment, if you know what I mean God.”

Then I went and prayed.

As I was getting ready to get up and call it a day. I felt a hand on me. I looked up and it was Rob sitting there just offering me comfort. God moved in my soul at that moment. That was January. We moved to Michigan in April. It has been the best decision we ever made. We’ve since left Mars Hill so that our family could worship in the community in which we actually live. We want to give our kids roots and Mars is about 40 minutes away.

But man, the things I learned while I was there! The healing that occurred in my life. I am not sure I can do it justice. God used Rob and Mars to bring healing to my life, and that of my family. He Rob and Mars to help me get over my hurt with the church. Rob taught me the best way to answer your accusers because he did exactly what Jesus did and ignored them. Rob taught me that Love Wins. Rob preached three of the best messages I have ever heard on forgiveness.

Sure, he preached things I didn’t agree with all the time. He said things that made me stop and scratch my head once in a while. He also taught me that it’s OK for people to disagree. We can disagree and still be brothers and sisters in Christ. Being creative doesn’t mean you hit a home run every time. You know you have really good material when the stuff you’re cutting out and leaving on the floor is really good.

He also taught me that we can have real live humans that we look up to. Before Rob, I used to say that my heroes were all dead, that way they couldn’t let me down.

Rob taught me that you can be a flawed human, with a wealth of insecurities and still change the world.

Man, I’ve debated writing this post because I am sure that people are going to read it and want to attack him. There are going to be people who say that God didn’t really talk to me that day. I may actually lose business over this post. I’ve decided I don’t care. If it were not for Rob’s influence in my life, I might not be in church today. God used him in my life in a might way.

So like John Piper once famously (or infamously said), “Farewell Rob Bell.” I would add, “I and my family will miss you.”

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Jesus Wants to Save Christians
Chapter 3, David’s Other Son

“One thinks of the prophets of Israel, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, all of them. They were par excellence the putters of words to things, and the words they put are so thunderous with rage and exultation, with terrible denunciations and terrible promises, that if you are not careful, they drown out everything else there is in the Old Testament and in the prophets themselves. At the level of their words, it is not truth they are telling but particular truths. They are telling about the nations and naming names, telling about Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and, above all, about Israel as a nation, and the truth they are telling until the veins stand out on their necks and their voices grow hoarse is the truth that by playing power politics Israel is not only bringing about her own destruction as a nation but is acting against her holy destiny, which is to be not a nation among nations but a nation of priests, whose calling it is to be a light to the world. -Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 17-18

“It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than for the world.”-Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 90

In my estimation, this is the best chapter in the book. I mean that sincerely. The authors bring us into the story in the earlier chapters, but in this chapter they focus our attention on a single point within that history. All eyes are turned towards the powerful, the Solomon son of David, the power-brokers like Rome and her Caesars. The prophets kept pointing and looking and searching–and they were not pointing to the powerful, the wealthy or the influential except to say ‘look at what won’t work.’ No, they pointed to God and said, ‘Behold God!’ Then one night, there in the midst of a dark and frightful place, all the light in the universe converged on a single human being: Jesus, the son of David.

And this chapter sets about the problem of understanding what it really means to be a, the, son of David.  They also point us in only one direction for it seems to me that the authors have taken this approach: there is only one true son of David. So over the course of 16 choppily written pages, the authors of the book scatter that Name 61 times. You may think I am merely making a rather pedantic observation that proves absolutely nothing. What can mere word counting prove or accomplish? Maybe you are right. My point is, however, that usually when an artist wants you to see something in a painting, something rather particular, she draws her picture in such a way that the perspective is drawn towards only one point. For example, the Last Supper by Da Vinci. All the perspective is focused on Jesus. Or a musician who writes a symphony will add in a refrain and come back to the refrain at various times throughout the piece.

That’s what Bell and Golden did in chapter 3: they brought our attention back to Jesus over and over again. As I read through the chapter, I kept seeing the name Jesus, over and over and over again. These men want me thinking about something…someone…in particular. They are drawing the perspective in such a way that I can neither see nor think of anyone else but Jesus. In other words, David’s other son can only be one person: Jesus. And they did so masterfully. For people who are routinely accused of being un-orthodox or anti-christian, or heretics, or whatever other label you may have heard–they sure do spend an awful large amount of energy to work their narrative and understanding of Scripture and history around Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s almost, dare I say, as if they were constrained to do so. It’s almost as if these god-haters read the Bible and see that there is only one possible outcome to the story. It’s almost as if they can could do nothing but write the name of Jesus over and over and over again in this chapter. Almost? These are men who have read the Scripture and they know where Scripture leads and the story it tells. Of course they were constrained! Of course there was nothing else they could write! Of course the only possible outcome of this story is Jesus. Of course.

Now I’d like to make a couple of pointed observations about the chapter that I found either heartening or troubling. I’ll keep these brief so as not to give away too much or overwhelm you with minutia.

First, one reason why this book resonates with me is due to the authors’, in my estimation, proper understanding of Israel as a kingdom of priests. I know there are all sorts of ways to understand and misunderstand the role of Israel in redemptive history. I doubt seriously any of us will ever fully exhaust the literature or debate. But in my judgment, I think many theologians have overplayed the ‘Israel’ card much to the detriment of Israel. Jesus, yes, was ‘sent to the Jews’ first, but I don’t this was ever meant to mean that he was sent to the Jews only. In fact, when Matthew tells us of Jesus’ beginnings, he quotes from Isaiah’s prophecy and said that Jesus fulfilled it. What does he quote? A passage about Gentiles! (Matthew 4:12-16). So Bell and Golden note, “Jesus hears everyone’s cry, even the cry of the Canaanites” (79). Or, another way, “Not just Jewish exile but human exile [...] So if all creation is in a sort of exile, east of Eden, estranged from its maker, far from home, what’s the penalty for that?’” (88, 89). This also comports with the quote from Kellar above.

I guess I sort of grow weary of the typical John Hagee approaches to Israel. Bell and Golden rightly view Israel as priests, a son of God (‘out of Egypt I called my son’), who were meant to fulfill an important, redemptive role, but failed. “The prophets had declared that someone would come who would be willing to pay that price, the price for all of creation breaking covenant with God. And if that price was paid, that would change everything” (89). Indeed. And they say that it was Jesus who was Israel, the son of David, the Adam who didn’t fail, the Suffering Servant, the new Moses. Jesus and only Jesus. That’s a rather important and exclusive thing to say because if it was Jesus it cannot be anyone else; there can be no other way.

Second, a complaint. On pages 83-84, the authors bring up an important point: “The writers [prophets] want to make it very clear that this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time” (83). The problem here is that this language is a wee bit fuzzy. I’m fully on board with the former statement (‘…not just a specific group of people…’), but that latter part of the statement is a bit fuzzy and unclear and unrefined (and to an extent, undefined). Jesus did, indeed, promise that he will ‘draw all people’ to himself (83) and I think Bell and Golden are right to emphasize the ‘all’ of this, but here I think they can easily be accused of espousing a non-exclusive version of redemption (not a Calvinistic sort of limited atonement, but an atonement that makes no demands on those who are saved). “The ‘whole world,’ ‘all nations,’ ‘all people,’ ‘all things’ are the biggest, widest, deepest, most inclusive terms the human mind can fathom. And they were on the lips of Jesus, who is describing himself” (84). I think this statement is far too vague and indeed I didn’t think they spent enough time or space unpacking what they mean by this. They step to the edge, but never walk over it. Maybe it was intentional.

I really don’t want this to relapse into a discussion concerning universalism. They are clear, I think, that Jesus is the way (81). They are unclear on who will follow that way and exactly what ‘Jesus is the way’ means. I’m not saying they don’t clear it up later, but I am saying that this is an easy place for someone who is nit-picking to do just that: nit-pick. Here I think the language should be clarified or they are open to the very charge they probably don’t want to be labeled with. I’m not saying they are universalists. I am saying that they open themselves up to the possibility of being accused as such. (In my judgment.)

Third, the authors are wholly dependent upon Scripture to make their case. They rely on the prophets. They rely on Moses. They rely on the Gospels.  In fact, the last 8 pages are an exposition of sorts on Luke 24. The best sentence in the chapter highlights the importance they place on Scripture: “In a couple of hours, using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures, this man converted all of their despair to hope and a vision of the new future” (90). They are pointing out what Jesus saw as the real problem: “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message” (90). This is their point: By taking those two disciples on the road to Emmaus back through the Scripture (Law, Psalms and Prophets) Jesus was saying, ‘Look, I was there all along. God had already told you what to look for and you missed it.’

The authors are warning us, as preachers should, not to miss Jesus. It is far too easy and far too often that people miss the greater point. We get so consumed by systems and ideas and proof and (being) right (thinking we know when really we do not) that we miss the point of Scripture which is, surely, Jesus. We want to carry around Scripture like a sword in our hand instead of as sword in our mouth which it really is. In doing so, we miss the point; we don’t hear the refrain; we get caught up in a detail and miss the perspective, the focal-point. This, it seems to me, is their warning: We cannot afford to miss Jesus. And if those who walked with him did, how much more easily will we if we are not cautious? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also, Luke 24:44). 16 pages. 61 times. And if you have read the book and noticed the style of writing and sentence structure then you know that this is a much greater ratio of words to words than it is words to pages. Don’t miss Jesus. (See page 91.)

There are some other things that are important about the chapter, but these sort of stood out to me. Other points that could be discussed are: their use of exclusive terminology (81), the importance of the suffering servant (87), their discussion of exile (89), the importance of non-violence (88), and the crusher of serpent’s heads (90).

The Scripture presents to us the history of humanity. A pretty picture it is not. It is a tragedy. According the Buechner, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy” (Telling the Truth, 7). But it doesn’t end there: “But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy” (Telling the Truth, 7)

But if we miss Jesus, the world will never know that. Bell and Golden’s point is that if we miss Jesus how in the world will anyone else get him? David’s other son is, and can only be, Jesus. This is the Jesus who crushes the head of the serpent, this is the Jesus who suffers, this is the Jesus who leads us out of exile, this is the Jesus who instead of resisting violence absorbs it, this is the Jesus whom Scripture speaks of in exclusive terms. This is the Jesus of bad news and good news. “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message. In Jesus’ day, people could follow him, learn from him, drop everything to be his disciples, and yet find themselves returning home, thinking Jesus had failed” (90)

Jesus wants to save Christians from thinking that he failed. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing the point of Scripture. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing Jesus. And if there wasn’t a real danger that we might, or a dangerous reality that we have, there wouldn’t be a need for a warning, would there?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Chapter 2: Get Down Your Harps

“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)

“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)

“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV)

Rob Bell and Don Golden continue to insist, in chapter two, Get Down Your Harps, that God is interested in a relationship with his people. In this chapter, relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage. They also continue to insist that God’s salvation is much bigger than we sometimes want to admit-and that it has always been much bigger than the people Israel wanted to admit-that it is for all. But I wonder if perhaps the authors of Jesus Wants To Save Christians are not hinting at something else in this chapter, something Christians tend to overlook, something we tend to, however inadvertently, neglect and despise. Get Down Your Harps…it does make me wonder if they are getting at something else. I’ll come back to this.

But, and here’s the thing, in my estimation if your mind is not steeped in the New Testament you are not likely to make the connections that Bell and Golden are making subtly and not overtly. I fully grant, they are asking the readers to read between the lines-maybe that’s why they chose such an odd format-and figure out what they are saying. They want us to think about it, they want us to remember the New Testament. They want us to put two and two together and imagine the only way possible for these things the prophets spoke of to happen. They don’t need to come right out and say it because the person whose mind is baptized in the New Testament will have already figured it out before the end of the first page of the chapter. Some may not like this. To me, it is the essence of a great sermon.

I think it is a brilliant strategy. Those who are experienced preachers know all too well that there are times when you build the intensity as you go along. African-American preachers (at least the ones I have had the joy of listening to) excel at this art. The preacher keeps giving hints, clues, adding a piece here and a piece there, stacking words upon words, images upon images; sentences and paragraphs become large canvases upon which to paint other sentences and paragraphs. You tie it in at this point and leave it dangle at that point. You regroup, retrace your steps, go back and repeat it all over again. The intensity builds like the steam in a pressure cooker. You hold the audience on the edge of the precipice until they cannot help but cry out the “Amen!” And then the preacher says, “Gotcha!” And the listener cannot help but draw the intended conclusion without the preacher even saying it. There’s no escape.

Bell and Golden follow the Old Testament in this respect: “And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting” (72). They build the intensity page after page after page and like good preachers leave us dangling, wanting more, hungering for what we already know to be true: “What if David had another son?” they ask. We already know the answer; they need not even say him. But this is no let down. This is no shock. This is no surprise. They have been doing this since the beginning of the chapter. In this regard, they simply follow the Old Testament pattern. The Old Testament left us dangling, sitting on the edge, waiting for the preacher to drop the bomb. The end of the Old Testament makes us want to read the New. It leaves us hungry and with an appetite for more. But it never quite gets us there. It’s that old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” Ah, yes.

The mind steeped in the Scripture-they don’t quote a lot of Scripture verbatim in this chapter-will know exactly what they are getting at. But like good preachers in need of another sermon the next week, they leave us hungry and wanting more. We know the answer is Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I read this chapter. Page 65, for example: A new exodus, “Jesus!”; a new way, “Jesus!”, a new marriage with a new covenant, “Jesus!”; a new city, “Jesus!”, with a new temple, “Jesus!” Or page 69: a Prince of Peace, “Jesus!”; David’s throne, “Jesus!”; servant, “Jesus!” Or page 68: like Moses, “Jesus!” Or page 70: who would crush all evil once and for all, “Jesus!” Or page 67: a new heavens and new earth, “Jesus!”; wolf and lamb feeding together, “Jesus!”; salvation to the ends of the earth, “Jesus!” As you read this chapter, if you are thinking about anything but Jesus, you have seriously missed the point of the chapter. Seriously.

Now, just a couple of final points in conclusion, and, obviously, I’m not commenting on every single aspect of the chapter. They are unfolding a theology for us, chapter by chapter, and theology takes its time. The other day, I hate to do this, one of the commenters here wrote this: “From what I could discern, there is little emphasis on redemption and a focus on curing the world’s ills. I fear a moving away from the gospel, death, burial, and resurrection, and a moving toward a humanitarian message. Humanitarian expressions are vital to showcase God’s love, but only the gospel message can elicit faith and a genuine conversion.” (Rick) This may well be true, but that is not the entire point of the book. The book is written to those whose faith has already been elicited, and not necessarily to those whose faith needs to be elicited. And to the point, after faith has been elicited (whatever that really means), what are we to do with it, what should God do with it? Leave it sit? Leave it stagnant? Or shouldn’t that faith get involved in the story that God is telling and involved in the work that God is doing?

The book is not even about ‘curing the world’s ills’ as much as it is about curing the church’s ills and reminding us that, in Willimon’s words, ‘salvation and vocation go hand in hand’ (paraphrase). If we suggest this series of theological sermons written to Christians is a move ‘away from the gospel’ (which necessarily includes, death, burial, and resurrection) then of course we are going to object to the content. But that’s just the thing about this book. Even if, and I’m not conceding for a minute they are, but even if the authors have interpreted the Scripture in a way that is not ‘reformed orthodoxy’ they have done no damage to Scripture’s intent. They followed the apostle Paul’s dictum that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). They are not interpreting Scripture any differently than Paul did in Galatians when he wrote about Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael and mountains and faith.

On the other hand, it is about redemption. It is about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the prophets, Moses, David, the Psalms, and culminated in Jesus of Nazareth. They do not explore the ‘hows’ and ‘means’ of this yet because the Old Testament only gave hints and clues (1 Peter 1:10-12). But they do explore and explain the necessity of it, and the scope of it. It is this New Exodus that has offended some people, but it is there. Their job in the book is to remind us of the fact of our liberation, of our freedom, of our Exodus. They do a fine job of it, and point two below explores what they mean by this exodus they speak of.

Second, the authors talk about our bondage to sin. They describe this bondage as ‘Egypt’: “There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from. So when Isaiah speaks of this new exodus, he doesn’t just speak of liberation from a particular oppressive empire; he speaks of liberation from anything that oppresses anybody anywhere” (57). And they do a fine job of emphasizing the ‘all’. It’s what Karl Barth noted, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (as quoted in Willimon, p 38). This is also what the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned.” And just to clarify what Bell and Golden mean, “The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death” (57). That sounds strangely orthodox to me.

To go along with this is the emphasis that ‘All peoples will see it together’ (58, quoting Isaiah 40:5). The authors lay heavy emphasis on the fact that if all are held in bondage, all have equal access to freedom as God intended. This is the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and announced by Jesus early in his own ministry (Matthew 4:12-16). This chapter goes a long way to undoing any narrow ideas about salvation being limited to a particular nation or tribe: “By the rivers of Babylon, the prophets began to reimagine grace. They started to see what it would look like for Israel’s debt of sins to be paid. And what they saw was a reconciling grace so big, so universal, that it could bind all human beings into a brand-new way for the divine and the human to relate” (60-61, my emphasis). They thus rightly express this as possibility and not certainty. (Their argument is a little more detailed and contains much more Scripture, but I think this is the gist of their point. Some of you may wish to highlight other aspects of what they are saying, but rest assured, I did not personally pick up any hints whatsoever that this was a universal proposition guaranteeing salvation for everyone, everywhere. Thus the ‘could’.)

Finally, I’d like to explore their points about ‘marriage’ between God and man, the ‘forever’ aspect of the rule of the One to come, and what I’ll call the national reconciliation into one body of all all the peoples of the earth (Ephesians), but I don’t want this to be too long and any more cumbersome than it is already is. Their point about an ‘altar being built in Egypt’ is an excellent point and I think properly echoes what the New Testament says about Jesus in Philippians 2 and Revelation 7. Suffice it to say that these were the expectations, written in the prophets, that are easily overlooked and ignored. A fitting conclusion to these is found on pages 70-71, “What started as predictions about an earthly ruler exploded into an expectation of a divinely sent servant who would in some powerful new way rule forever…Israel’s failed marriage to God had never produced that child….The promise is so poignant because from the beginning, from the first moments when our primal ancestors began longing for a way out of this mess we’re in, the ache had centered around the birth of one who would crush evil forever.”

That is a very, very orthodox interpretation of Scripture (and I can point you to the lectures that prove it.)

I will close with this. The title, Get Down Your Harps, indicates that the harps had been hung up, left desolate, forgotten; put on a shelf and silent. “They hung up their harps” (52). “The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. People played the harp because they had reason to praise God” (52). This chapter begins by reminding us that we have been rescued. “If God freed people once before, couldn’t God do it again?” (54) The implication being, of course, that He already has! He has freed us! We have a reason to be playing our harps! And we are still acting like we are in exile; our harps are still hanging, we are still weeping beside the waters of Babylon.

Or worse, we are like the older brother who refused to go in and rejoice with the family when the younger brother came home. Or we are like Jonah who sat outside Ninevah angry at God for being forgiving. I certainly doubt we are like Jesus who wept over the lost Jerusalem. Whatever the case, I think Bell and Golden’s point in this chapter is to say: “Get down your harps! God has freed us! You know how he did it! You know who did it! Get down your harps, you Christians, and start singing, rejoicing, and worshiping God! Join the party!”

Like good preachers, they don’t say it in so many words. But we know who they are talking about on every single page.

Jesus.

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Part 2: The Cry of the Oppressed

“What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second” (NT Wright, Surprised By Hope, xi)

“God is looking for a body” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 34)

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)

It is easy to miss that verse. The prophet Hosea first said it (11:1-11). When he said it, he was talking about the people of Israel, the Israelites, the Chosen People. He was reflecting on the story of their national identity: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt; ruminating on the prospects of future enslavement in Assyria or Babylon. “The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal 3:6-14)” (DA Carson, Matthew, 92-93). So Matthew does just that by showing how Jesus, the Son of God, succeeded where Israel, the son of God, failed (see Matthew 4:1-11). The entire narrative is thus kept in perspective.

Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea, guided along as he no doubt was by the Holy Spirit, states, quite unequivocally that Hosea was talking about Jesus. Such a hermeneutic is spoken against in better homiletics and hermeneutics classes. If I were to stand up and preach such an allegorical interpretation of, say, the Exodus I would likely be branded a heretic or a liberal ‘liberation theologian.’ Yet Matthew looks back, finds a rather obscure passage of Scripture, in a prophet decidedly dwarfed by his contemporary Isaiah, and states boldly, loudly, formulaically: This verse is about Jesus and this before Jesus had ever even gone into Egypt let alone come out of it. “Not surprisingly the infant Christ, who summed up in his person all that Israel was called to be, was likewise threatened and delivered; and although the details differed, the early pattern was re-enacted in its essentials, ending with God’s Son restored to God’s land to fulfil (sic.) the task marked out for Him” (Derek Kidner, Hosea, 101-102; my emphasis).

The Son of God

I bring up Matthew and Hosea because this is the point of chapter 1 in the book. Consider:

” ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (30) “So when God invites the people to be priests, it’s an invitation to show the world who this God is and what this God is like” (31) “God is telling Moses that Pharaoh will see him as God, or at least ‘like God’? And this is not Moses’ idea; it’s God’s idea. What’s going on here? The answer leads us to a universal truth: God needs a body. God needs flesh and blood. God needs bones and skin so that Pharaoh will know just who this God is he’s dealing with and how this God acts in the world. Not just so Pharaoh will know but so that all of humanity will know” (31) “This God is looking for a body” (34) “God is inviting. God is looking. God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world” (34) “God was looking for a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like” (36) “Remember, God is looking for a body, flesh and blood to show the world a proper marriage of the divine and human. What happens when your body looks nothing like you?” (43) “God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44)

The authors keep coming back to this theme, this most important idea: Israel failed. They failed time and time again. They became slaves of the wrong masters: “Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul…Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (44, 45). Rob Bell and Don Golden are making a serious charge: The Church has failed (and likely will continue to unless some things change) to ‘look like God’ even as Israel failed, even as Solomon-the one held up as the prime example of said failure-failed. This is why the one who succeeded is called the ‘son of David’ and not, for example, the son of Solomon. Their exegesis and interpretation of Solomon’s lifestyle, his rule, his failure is dead-on the mark with the best scholars. Solomon, they note rightly, had become the new Pharaoh; Jerusalem, the new Egypt. Failure.

Their contention is that we have enslaved ourselves all over again. Commenting on the prophet Amos they ask: “God calls their church services ‘evil assemblies’? God hates their religious gatherings? When God is on a mission, what is God to do with a religion that legitimizes indifference and worship that inspires indulgence. What is God to do when the time, money, and energy of his people are spent on ceremonies and institutions that neglect the needy?” (46) The church, the son of God, the body of Christ, in other words, has become slaves of the wrong master. If Israel was the son of God (see Exodus 4:22-23) that failed, Jesus was the Son of God who did not (Matthew 4:1-11). Bell and Golden are asking: Which son of God are we, the Church, like? Their conclusion seems to be that we most effectively emulate the former not the latter. Can we properly worship a God when we don’t have in our hearts the same things that God has in His? (That’s what Amos was asking.)

God came down and set us free. He released us from slavery, ended our exile, concluded our captivity. As the Body of Christ, the ‘Son of God’, God expects us to be about the business of doing the same in the lives of those still in captivity: “At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God’s blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others” (44). This is what the title of the book means: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Why? Because we are slaves to the wrong master; because we have forgotten our story of liberation; because we have neglected the weightier things of the law. In a real sense, we don’t love. The church is so internally focused that we forget the suffering that is going on all around us. We sometimes so forget our redemption from slavery by God that we fail to remember those who are still there. We are so comfortable in our comfort that we forget to comfort the afflicted with that same comfort (2 Cor 1) we ourselves have received. Paul said it too: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10).

William Willimon wrote, “Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19)” (Who is Saved?, 54) I agree. Once we forget, we are lost. This is why we read so much in the Old Testament about the Exodus and why God told them to remember it: why the Psalmists sung about it, why the Prophets preached about it, why Moses wrote about it. They were never to forget who they were, where they had come from. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this very thing except that ‘remember it’ became ‘remember me.’ I wonder if we have forgotten? Bell and Golden are reminding the church, God’s son, of who we are: We are the liberated, the freed, the unleashed, the undone. We are the ones who were in a ditch, needing rescued and there are many others still there, still needing lifted up.

Sermons on Idolatry

This chapter is a long sermon, and a well done sermon at that. In it you will find an exposition of Genesis, Exodus, 2 Kings (Solomon), the 10 Words, Amos and 2 Chronicles. The authors brilliantly tie all these books together, as they should (see Carson above) and demonstrate the seamless narrative of God’s grace and love for all of his creatures, for all his created peoples. We are to learn from Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews) so that we do not fall into the same error as they did. I think the authors did a fine job of demonstrating that if we don’t pay attention to the history of God’s redemptive work, we will be doomed to perpetuate the same mistakes and sins that others have before us.

One of the better aspects of this chapter is the authors’ intent to deal with idolatry and do this well especially so in their handling of the Solomon narratives. They spare nothing when it comes to Solomon’s failures. They point out just exactly how far he fell: “Seven hundred wives? Three hundred concubines? But the point for the storyteller is not the numbers; it’s how his wives affected Solomon. They turned him away from God, and ‘his heart was not fully devoted” (41-42). I think we are meant to ask ourselves: Are our hearts fully devoted? In doing so, they warn us of the great and subtle dangers of idolatry. After reading their exposition of the Solomon story, I wondered: Do we talk enough about idolatry in the church? (1 John 5:21!)

The Messed Up World of the Oppressed

An important question to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to be the body of Christ, the son of God, on this earth? Are we prepared to be his people, on his terms? Peter told us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10). Peter then goes on to point out the distinctive way a people of God is supposed to live.

Bell and Golden are asking us: Are we prepared to live according the standard that God himself has raised? “The Hebrew Scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44).

Will we be that people? Will we care about the things that God cares about or will we continue to live in exile, slaves to our own passions, our own desires, and our own sins? Are we willing to do an evaluation and see if we are slaves of the right master? Didn’t Jesus say: You cannot serve two masters? That’s the gist of this chapter: If God has liberated us, what are we doing to liberate others? What are we doing about being God’s people?

You see, those of us who ‘are a people’, who ‘have received mercy’ know exactly what it is like to be on the other side: not a people, not receiving mercy. We know. We’ve been there. We understand. We can relate. But life is not just about understanding or relating or having been some place. It’s about more than just ‘learning to listen’, although that is surely a place to start. This brings us back to NT Wright: “First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.” Are we doing that? Does the first, our narrative, our redemptive history in Christ, do anything to generate and sustain the second of those two points in our lives?

I’ll close this portion of my review with a short story. In our community, we have an ecumenical food center. What started as a small project, with volunteers from all different congregations, has grown into a major ministry that, in November 2008, fed over 1,000 hungry people in our community. This is a ministry blessed by the Lord.

The food center directors recently learned that the rent-free space they have used for 2 years will no longer be available by May of 2009. They need a new home. When I heard about this, I immediately called and said: We have space. We really do. The entire bottom half of our ‘education’ wing is empty space being used to educate young bats on how to locate rogue mice. We don’t even heat it. What needs to happen is that space, sitting empty now, needs to be turned into a living, breathing, place where people can find hope in this present world; and a good meal. It needs to be converted into a space where 1000+ people every month can get food, find friendship, discover a body of Christ that love and cares for them when they are at the end of their ropes.

“Think about your life,” Bell writes. “What are the moments that have shaped you the most? If you were to pick just a couple, what would they be? Periods of transformation, times when your eyes were opened, decisions you made that affected the rest of your life. How many of them came when you reached the end of your rope? When everything fell apart? When you were confronted with your powerlessness? When you were ready to admit your life was unmanageable? When there was nothing left to do but cry out? For many people, it was their cry, their desperation, their acknowledgment of their oppression, that was the beginning of their liberation” (24). (See also Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p 53-54)

I’m getting opposition from people (sadly, the older women who only grace the threshold of the church building once per week) who are more concerned about the ‘loss of the space’, or ‘what if we grow and need the space?’ (not recognizing that opening a food center is growing, and is a need for space!), or ‘what about rent?’ or ‘what about the floors and traffic?’ or ‘what about clean up?’ or ‘what about the parking lot?’ or ‘what about the utilities?’ or ‘are you sure we should do this given all we have been through in the last couple of months?’

What I hear is: “How is this going to inconvenience me?” All I hear is: “God is not big enough to accomplish this here.” All I hear is: “I’m more concerned about holding on to space I don’t use, that we might need, than I am about hungry people in my hometown, who need something to eat and someplace to get it.”

I think that is kind of what Bell and Golden are ‘complaining’ about in chapter 1 of this book. And they are right to do so. If the church won’t be the son of God, the body of Christ now, who will? If we won’t be agents of mercy, ministers of compassion, voices in the wilderness calling out for justice, who will? The government? The politicians? The strong? The powerful? Bah! The church has already surrendered too much of its priestly role the powerful, the rich, the influential, the arms dealers, the generals, and the Caesars, the presidents of this world. I agree with Bell: God is looking for a Body. He has prepared a body, but when we are more concerned about holding on to that which isn’t ours, or spending on ourselves what should be spent on others, then we have failed.

That’s what God has created us for: Whatever it takes! Your will be done! Here I am, send me! That’s what he has liberated us for. Christianity, salvation, is not just about a place we go. It’s about who we are, what we do. “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation…We have been shown something that much of the world is waiting to see, even when the world doesn’t yet know for whom it awaits” (William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?, 3, 29)

The question is: What sort of God will we show them?

Next: Part 3, Get Down Your Harps

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rob-bell“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name.’ But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads of this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that ‘getting on in the world’ means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled ‘religious.’” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 1)

When Eugene Peterson writes, I read. There is scarcely a word he has written in book form that I have not read. He is a respected preacher and pastor whose understanding of Scripture is profound and whose theological perspective holds Jesus in the highest possible position. He has a high view of the Word of God and interprets it within a tangibly orthodox hermeneutic. So when I heard echoes of Peterson in Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I started paying closer attention to both writers.

I will state at the outset that I have not read any of Rob Bell’s other books. Nor have I ever watched a Nooma video. I have listened to exactly 23 minutes of one of his sermons My point in noting these things is to say that I am coming at this series of posts unbiased. I am neither for nor against Rob Bell. I am interested only in what he has written, along with Don Golden, in this book. The book is only recently published, but I don’t think it is too soon to offer a critique of the work.

That said, my wife bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas. I have desired to read this book since I saw this blurb in a flier for Family Christian Stores, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.” (This also appears on the back of the book.) I was intrigued and decided that I should read this book and make it my first introduction to the work of Rob Bell. Now I am reading it, and I cannot tell you how thoroughly surprised I am by what I have read.

I was fully prepared to hate this book. I had browsed it at the book store. The silly green pages bothered me. The unorthodox writing style annoyed me: Sentence fragments; sentences that are chopped up and drawn down the page in a column-like structure in an effort to fill the two covers with more and more pages than are necessary. The book is certainly not a DA Carson or David F Wells type of theology. However, if it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover, neither should we judge a book by its particular stylistic format.

I should say a couple of other things about this book before I go too much further. First, there are a scant 218 pages in this book. I think that is probably more than there actually are given the format of the book. Still, I think Bell has said a lot in those 218 pages. This book serves as a fine introduction to the New Exodus perspective.

Second, there are 34 pages of endnotes written in a very traditional, single spaced (double between) format. That’s a total of 326 endnotes. 256 of those 326 notes are direct references to Scripture. If my son did his math correctly, that means 79% of the notes are Scripture references, more detailed explanations of Scripture, Scripture quotes, or more commentary on Scripture. Sometimes, a note contains more than one reference to a passage of Scripture.

What this indicates to me is simple. It means that Rob Bell (and co-author Don Golden) has not written a book that is based on his own idea or his own imagination. This is a book that relies far more on Scripture than it does on anything else. Here is a man who has written a book and allowed that book, and I believe his theology, to be shaped by the Word of God. And when one reads through the book, one discovers that much of what is written is merely (I say that not at all meaning minimally) a retelling of the story of Scripture-from Genesis to Revelation.

In fact, this is what is stated at the outset of the book, “In the Scriptures, ultimate truths about the universe are revealed through the stories of particular people living in particular places…We join you in this tension, believing that the story is ultimately about healing, hope, and reconciliation” (8) He goes on, “This is a book of theology…This book is our attempt to articulate a specific theology, a particular way to read the Bible, referred to by some as a New Exodus perspective” (8) Make no mistake about the intent of this book and the authors: It is designed to make you think about God and about what God’s Word says to its readers about what God is doing in the world. They do this, again, by constantly referring the reader to Scripture.

This further indicates to me that Bell and Golden have a very high view of Scripture. They could tell these things their own way, but they deliberately chose not to. Instead, they quote from Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the New Testament (I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch). They don’t challenge the Scripture. Scripture speaks. (I regret that I couldn’t find the page number, but as it is said, “God has spoken; everything else is commentary.”) These are not men who are picking and choosing what ‘fits’ their idea. Their idea is driven along by their high view of Scripture. For someone who has been accused of doing exactly the opposite, this is a great risk for Bell. He might actually be accused of being too orthodox for some readers.

This is my first introduction to Rob Bell’s theological point of view and I have to confess that, intrigued as I was by that blurb in a flier, I was skeptical. Sadly, Rob Bell is held up as a poster child for all that is wrong with the church, with Christianity, with this generation of believers. Yet, as I read the introduction I was struck by this statement: “For a growing number of people in our world, it appears that many Christians support some of the very things Jesus came to set people free from” (18). I was struck by it because I had heard it before: Eugene Peterson wrote a statement very similar to this in his book The Jesus Way. It seems that on the horizon there is more than one person saying that there is something seriously wrong with the way ‘we’ are doing ‘Christianity.’

What does he (Bell) analyze that problem as? Simple: Too many in the church have associated a certain brand of political persuasion and nationalism with the ‘right sort of Christianity.’ “A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage” (18). This is a real problem, as I see it too, because it makes the Scripture ‘mine’ instead of God’s. It makes the Bible no longer God’s Word to us and instead it becomes more a weapon we use to determine who is and is not in the club. This is decidedly the wrong approach for us to have towards Scripture. It slants everything in our favor and becomes a tool for oppression instead of a declaration of emancipation for those held in captivity by the ‘very things Jesus came to set us free from.’ Scripture becomes a handbook for winning elections instead of a declaration of war on the things that keep people prisoners, enslaved to a system that hates them.

Bell and Golden are right: We are east of Eden, but remember, the book is written to Christians. It seems to me that Bell and Golden are saying there is something seriously wrong with the church, with Christians. What they are thus proposing is a solution to our problem. It should be interesting to see what they propose is the solution to our problem.

Next: Part 2, The Cry of the Oppressed

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I’ve been catching up on my podcasts today and was listening to the Rob Bell sermon titled Exalted in My Body.

Here’s a sample:

Our world tells you and I that we are loved, valued and accepted by how good we are, how right we are, how well lined up we are. Our world tells us that God loves winners, that God loves achievers. Our world tells us that we’re loved valued and accepted by what we do. And the upside down nature of the wisdom of Christ is that God loves us simply because we are God’s children. The essence of the gospel is that we aren’t saved in our life in all of our goodness but that we are saved in our death. You can only understand the wisdom and saving love of Christ when you give up the game that God loves us for how good we are. God loves us period and Christ’s gospel is that you’re ok and you’re saved not in how good you are but in giving up that whole game in the first place. Its upside down logic. I’m rescued from my condition not when I continue to try to rescue myself but when I give it up and let God rescue me in Christ.

After reading that, consider everything the ODMs have said about Rob Bell. Sort of makes you wonder what they think orthodoxy is.

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