In this episode of the Author Talks with Shaun Tabatt Podcast I interview Chris Brauns about his book Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices (Zondervan, 2013).
The Book of Acts is clearly one of the most action-packed segments in the storyline of Scripture. The title, “The Acts of the Apostles,” cues us in on this clue from the start. As many commentators have suggested, a more accurate title would be something to do with the acts of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps “The Action of the Ascended Christ by His Spirit Through His Church.”
The book opens with Jesus ascending as human to the throne of the universe, sending the Spirit, and commissioning his messengers. “You will be my witnesses,” he promises, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And so Luke recounts the movements in that outline — all action and no slush.
There are powerful proclamations, riveting dialogues, and thousands of conversions. There is everything from miracles that disgruntle the white-collar villains to prison sentences that end in wild escape. There is character development — absolute transformation — when Paul is knocked off his horse by a shining light and propelled to play a prominent role thereafter. Then there is religious controversy and political trials and the backstory of Jewish factions and Roman rule. Add in the maritime adventures of suspenseful decision-making and shipwreck to an unknown island of nice natives and venomous snakes.
Sometimes Jesus’s messengers were mistaken as gods, other times they were killed by the sword. Sometimes they were stoned to death, other times they were stoned but survived. There are disputes among the protagonists, ironic encounters, and affectionate goodbyes. The world, honestly and truly, was being turned upside down (Acts 17:6), everywhere from the scruffy blacksmith who lost his business to the highest court of international law. This story has all the pieces for a box-office hit.
And then there’s the way it ends.
Throughout the book, the action has ramped up, up, up. Paul’s voyage to Rome has been like a symphonic crescendo. The percussion is blaring louder, louder, louder. And then the story closes with a bi-vocational leader talking to folks who visit him at his house. All of that action — head-spinning action — leaves us with an old man inviting everyone into his home to tell them about Jesus.
The fallen world in which we live rests on the foundations of a creation that was good. Yet, it had scarcely been created before sin crept into it. The origin of sin is a mystery; it is not from God, and at the same time it is not excluded from his counsel. God decided to take humanity on the perilous path of covenantal freedom rather than elevating it by a single act of power over the possibility of sin and death.
Genesis 2:9 speaks of two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both are integral to the Genesis narrative, and attempts to discount one or the other destroy narrative meaning. Similarly, efforts to explain the meaning of either of the trees in terms of progress and development (tree of life as awakening of sexuality) ignore the plain reading of prohibition and punishment associated with eating the trees’ fruit. No, the story is a unity, and it is about the fall of humanity and the origin of sin. Genesis 3 is not a step of human progress but a fall.
This fall, however, is not simply human effort to achieve cultural power as a means of becoming independent from God. The Bible does not portray human cultural formation as an evil in itself so that rural simplicity is preferable to a world-dominating culture. The point of the “fall” narrative in Genesis is to point to the human desire for autonomy from God. To “know good and evil” is to become the determiner of good and evil; it is to decide for oneself what is right and wrong and not submit to any external law. In short, to seek the knowledge of good and evil is to desire emancipation from God; it is to want to be “like God.”
The entry into sin comes by way of the serpent’s lie. The serpent’s speaking has often been mistakenly considered an allegory for lust, sexual desire, or errant reason. The various mythical interpretations and even attempts to explain the narrative in terms of animal capacity for speech before the fall all fail to meet the intent of the passage and the teaching of Scripture as a whole. The only appropriate explanation is to recognize, with ancient exegesis, the entrance of a spiritual superterrestrial power. The rest of the Bible, however, is relatively silent about this, though its entire narrative rests on this spiritual conflict between the two kingdoms. Sin did not start on earth but in heaven with a revolt of spiritual beings. In the case of humanity, the temptation by Satan resulted in the fall. Scripture looks for the origin of sin solely in the will of rational creatures.
Recently, BioLogos published an infographic entitled “How do we Know the Earth is Old?” Many Christians have wondered what to make of this poster since BioLogos presents itself as an association of evangelical Christian academics committed to harmonizing science and conservative Christian faith. That sounds good, especially the word “conservative”, but their starting position is anything but orthodox. They promote evolution over millions of years, as taught by secular scientists, as truth, and that Christians must accept it. They do not concern themselves with how such acceptance undermines the authority and the message of Scripture itself.
Moses has a lot to say about the age of the earth, and ignoring this fact leads to heretical Christian teaching and very bad natural history.
To many the age of the earth may seem an innocuous topic but it has a massive impact on conservative Christian doctrine such as the integrity of the gospel. If the earth is billions of years old, as the BioLogos poster presents, then Jesus made mistakes in his teaching and the gospel is false. It is that simple, as we will see.
According to BioLogos, all we have to do is reinterpret Moses, Jesus, and Paul, and everything is harmonized. A historical Adam doesn’t matter, and Jesus’ Incarnation allows him to make errors concerning what the Father commanded him to say about the age of the world (Mark 10:6; Luke 11:50–51; cf. John 8:28). However, their ‘reinterpretations’ look nothing like what Moses, Jesus, and Paul actually said. Neither were such interpretations ever entertained in church history before the advent of long-age geology in the 18th century (on which see The Great Turning Point). The reasons are pretty obvious. If Jesus made mistakes, especially in his teaching ministry, then He is not perfectly trustworthy, as Christians have believed through the ages. If a historical Adam doesn’t matter, then the whole doctrine of salvation, as presented by the Apostle Paul, falls to pieces (see articles on Romans 5, Romans 8, and 1 Corinthians 15). One could say that there never has been a time when Jesus’ words about Moses have been more important for us to hear than now: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46–47).
Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgement to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets,” – Matthew. 12:18
The words are the accomplishment of a prophecy, taken out of Isaiah 52:1,2, as we may see by the former verse, ‘that it might be fulfilled.’ Now the occasion of bringing them in here in this verse, it is a charge that Christ gives, verse 16, that they should not reveal and make him known because of the miracles he did. He withdraws himself; he was desirous to be concealed, he would not allow himself to be seen over much, for he knew the rebellious disposition of the Jews, who were eager to change their government, and to make him king. Therefore, he laboured to conceal himself in various ways. Now, upon this injunction, that they should tell nobody, he brings in the prophet Isaiah prophesying of him, ‘Behold my servant, he shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets.’ Other kings labour that their pomp and magnificence may be seen; but he does not desire ostentation, he shall not be contentious nor clamorous. For these three things are meant when he says, ‘he shall not strive, nor cry, neither shall his voice be heard in the streets;’ he shall not yield himself to any ostentation, for he came in an abased state to work our salvation; he shall not be contentious, nor yet clamorous in matter of wrong; there shall be no boasting any kind of way, as we shall see when we come to the words. You see, then, the inference here.
The purpose of the prophet Isaiah is to comfort the people, and to direct them how to come to worship the true God, after he had preached against their idolatry, as we see in the former chapter, ‘Behold my servant,’ &c. Great princes have their ambassadors, and the great God of heaven has his Son, his servant in whom he delights, through whom, and by whom, all dealings between God and man are.
As is usual in the prophecies, especially of Isaiah, that evangelical prophet, when he foretells anything to comfort the people in the promise of temporal things, he rises to establish their faith in better things. He does this by adding to them a prophecy, a promise of Christ the Messiah, to assert thus much: I will send you the Messiah, and that is a greater gift than this that I have promised you; therefore you may be sure of the lesser one. As the apostle reasons excellently, ‘If he spared not his own son, but delivered him to death for us all, how shall he not with him give us all things?’ Rom. 8:32. So here, I have promised you deliverance out of Babylon, and this and that; do you doubt of the performance? Alas! what is that in comparison to a greater favour I intend for you in Christ, that shall deliver you out of another type of Babylon? ‘Behold my servant whom I have chosen;’ and in Isaiah 7:14, ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,’ I will send you the Messiah; God shall become man; therefore, I will not stand for any outward favour or deliverance whatsoever. So he goes on to the grand promise, that they might reason from the greater to the less.
There is another purpose, why in other promises there is mention of the promise of the Messiah: to uphold their faith. Alas! we are unworthy of these promises, we are so laden with sin and iniquity. It is no matter, I will send you the Messiah. ‘Behold my servant in whom my soul delighteth,’ and for his sake I will delight in you. I am well pleased with you, because I am well pleased in him; therefore, be not discouraged. All the promises are yea and amen in Jesus Christ,’ 2 Cor. 1:20; for all the promises that be, though they be for the things of this life, they are made for Christ, they are yea in him, and they are performed for his sake, they are amen in him. So much for the occasion of the quotation in the evangelist St Matthew, and likewise in the prophet Isaiah.
Thus far, we have expounded why Paul, addressing the subject of the ceremonies, types and shadows which were practised before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, reaches the general conclusion that a man cannot be justified or acceptable in God’s sight unless he observes the whole law. Now, at first, we might consider these things to be two separate issues; however, as we have been saying, Paul has to draw us back to basics in order to expose the folly of believing that we can obtain favour in God’s eyes through our own merit. Now, we have already discussed the reason why Paul adds the word ‘law’. For however much it may be commonly held that a good man can earn favour and acceptance with God, men are very seriously mistaken in such matters. Indeed, whatever we may have done, we cannot Win God’s favour, because he deserves the very best of all that is in our power. There is, therefore, no merit possible on our part (if, indeed, we may call it that), unless we fulfil the terms of the covenant he made with us, when he said that whosoever keeps the law shall obtain life and salvation (Lev. 18:5). When God uttered these words, he was prepared to accept our total obedience as worthy of salvation, but this does not, in fact, imply that we can, therefore, merit favour, for none of us have done our duty (as we shall see hereafter). Thus, the promise would have been forfeited, or at least without effect in that it would never apply to anyone, had not God sent the remedy—that is to say, unless, despite our unrighteousness, he forgave our sins, and accepted us as righteous. When Paul says that we cannot be justified by the works of the law, he means that if we claim to merit grace and salvation because God has promised that those who observe the law will be accounted as righteous, we are completely mistaken; for no one keeps the law perfectly. We must realise that we all stand guilty before God and have the sentence of condemnation hanging over our heads.
In Genesis 22, we read about the well-known test of Abraham, namely that of God telling him to take his son Isaac and to sacrifice him to God as an offering. What perhaps is an often overlooked element of the story is the immediate obedience of Abraham. Absent from the text is Abraham arguing with or questioning God. There was absolutely no “God are you sure about that”. Conversely, we find Abraham taking his son Isaac along with a donkey and wood for the offering and the setting out to obey God’s command. What this demonstrates is the faith Abraham had in God’s covenant promise. While Abraham likely was full of emotion and his stomach was churning inside, he obeyed God knowing somehow, someway God would stay true to His promise. What we find in the text is that very thing. Just when it seemed Abraham would have to go through with killing his son, God intervened and provided a substitute, a lamb for the offering. The Angel of the Lord told Abraham that God would make him a great nation and all the people of the earth would be blessed, a reiteration of God’s earlier covenant promise with Abraham.
Abraham’s wife Sarah dies at the age of 127. Since Abraham had no burial plot of land, he approached the Hittites in an effort to purchase land in which to bury his wife. The Hittites desired to merely give the plot of land to Abraham free of charge; however, Abraham declined that offer likely to affirm complete possession and to avoid any quarrels in the future over ownership. The Hittites agreed and Abraham purchased Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham. It was there Abraham buried his wife Sarah.
Genesis 24 is a marvelous chapter that once again reveals God’s divine plan in action. Abraham was advanced in age and called his servant to him. He made his servant swear that he would journey to the land of Abraham’s relatives to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham strongly desired for a wife to be chosen from that group rather than from the Canaanites. The servant agreed and journeyed with a great many gifts to Aram-Naharayim. At the local well, he prayed to God for a sign of who would be the one to be the wife for his master Abraham’s son Isaac. The woman who offered him a drink and who also offered to water his camels would be the one God had chosen. Rebekah came to the well and did exactly that – she offered the servant a drink and watered the camels. The servant gave her the gifts from Abraham and Rebekah ran back home to share the rather interesting turn of events. Her brother Laban, an individual who will resurface later in Genesis, went and brought the servant into their home for a meal. The servant relayed the events that had taken place. Laban and Rebekah’s father Bethuel agreed this was of God and gave permission for Rebekah to make the journey back to be the wife of Isaac. They also asked Rebekah if she was willing to go with the man and she agreed. We find Isaac busy working as the caravan with Rebekah began to come close to the camp. Isaac looked up and saw the camels approaching. Rebekah looked up and saw Isaac asking the servant who the man was that was coming to meet them. The servant noted it was Isaac. The servant relayed to Isaac all that had transpired and Isaac took Rebekah to be his wife. God’s plan in action!
The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The center and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.
That assertion will not pass unchallenged. The modern Church is impatient of history. History, we are told, is a dead thing. Let us forget the Amalekites, and fight the enemies that are at our doors. The true essence of the Bible is to be found in eternal ideas; history is merely the form in which those ideas are expressed. It makes no difference whether the history is real or fictitious; in either case, the ideas are the same. It makes no difference whether Abraham was an historical personage or a myth; in either case his life is an inspiring example of faith. It makes no difference whether Moses was really a mediator between God and Israel; in any case the record of Sinai embodies the idea of a covenant between God and his people. It makes no difference whether Jesus really lived and died and rose again as he is declared to have done in the Gospels; in any case the Gospel picture, be it ideal or be it history, is an encouragement to filial piety. In this way, religion has been made independent, as is thought, of the uncertainties of historical research. The separation of Christianity from history has been a great concern of modern theology. It has been an inspiring attempt. But it has been a failure.
Give up history, and you can retain some things. You can retain a belief in God. But philosophical theism has never been a powerful force in the world. You can retain a lofty ethical ideal. But be perfectly clear about one point-you can never retain a gospel. For gospel means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened. In other words, it means history. A gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction in terms.
We are shut up in this world as in a beleaguered camp. Dismayed by the stern facts of life, we are urged by the modern preacher to have courage. Let us treat God as our Father; let us continue bravely in the battle of life. But alas, the facts are too plain-those facts which are always with us. The fact of suffering! How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Nature is full of horrors. Human suffering may be unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it. The fact of death! No matter how satisfying the joys of earth, it cannot be denied at least that they will soon depart, and of what use are joys that last but for a day? A span of life-and then, for all of us, blank, unfathomed mystery! The fact of guilt! What if the condemnation of conscience should be but the foretaste of judgment? What if contact with the infinite should be contact with a dreadful infinity of holiness? What if the inscrutable cause of all things should turn out to be a righteous God? The fact of sin! The thraldom of habit! This strange subjection to a mysterious power of evil that is leading resistlessly into some unknown abyss! To these facts the modern preacher responds with exhortation. Make the best of the situation, he says, look on the bright side of life. Very eloquent, my friend! But alas, you cannot change the facts. The modern preacher offers reflection. The Bible offers more. The Bible offers news-not reflection on the old, but tidings of something new; not something that can be deduced or something that can be discovered, but something that has happened; not philosophy, but history; not exhortation, but a gospel.
The Bible contains a record of something that has happened, something that puts a new face upon life. What that something is, is told us in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The authority of the Bible should be tested here at the central point. Is the Bible right about Jesus?
Today is Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter Sunday. For centuries the Christian church has marked this day (also called Ascension Thursday) in remembrance of Jesus’s bodily ascent to heaven.
The number forty is based on Acts 1:3: “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Ten days later we celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:1), fifty days (seven full weeks) after Easter, when Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–33) on his fledgling church.
Don’t be too surprised if you haven’t heard of Ascension Day, or even if it’s been a while since you’ve heard any reference to Jesus’s ascension at all. It’s sad, but not surprising. The doctrine of the ascension is not a truth that the recent history of theology has been apt to emphasize, and as Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow highlight in their recent 95-page book The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, it is not only important but essential to the gospel. Wisely did the ancient church confess not only that
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, on the third day he rose again
he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
The ascension reminds us that Christianity is not only an historical faith, but a faith of the present and future. Jesus is, right now, in glorified humanity on the throne of the universe, wielding as the God-man “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He is not just our suffering servant who came and died and rose triumphant, but our actively ruling, actively conquering king.
Successful Christian living is very much about steadiness and consistency, about firm resolve and steadfast endurance. There’s more to the Christian life, but these remain certain marks of God’s Spirit at work. And yet we feel the circumstances of life trying to swing us from despair to delight. When circumstances grow dark and we take our eyes off the Savior, we lose our balance and swing toward despair. When life seems to be going well and we take our eyes off Christ, we swing towards blissful God-forgetfulness certain to end in sorrow.
Contemplating this swinging, wobbly, fallen but redeemed heart is what led the Puritans to talk about a joy in the all-satisfying Christ as the unchanging tuning fork hum for the Christian life.
The heart, let’s say, is a violin — a beautiful and delicate instrument made to make beautiful pleasing notes in the ear of its Maker. Previously stringless and useless, now refurbished in Christ, the violin fluctuates daily, finds itself so often out of tune, expands and contracts by the humidity or dryness of the seasons and the situation. Every day, several times throughout the day, the soul must be re-tuned again.
Joy in God is the pitch for our lives. Every day, several times throughout the day, the soul must be re-tuned again. But joy is the aim.
This metaphor is especially striking when we assume our screeching, scratching tuneless heart-conditions cannot be justified by our circumstances. Rejoicing in God is a 24/7 command. The pitchfork hum is the sound of Philippians 4:4 — “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”