ACST 6. The Task

All human responsibility can be summarized by three universal commands, and each of these commands have to do with relationship. The command to love God wholeheartedly (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-38; Luke 10:27) summarizes the responsibility that all humans have toward their creator. It is the greatest commandment because it stems from the greatest of all relationships. It is also very difficult to obey this commandment, since the sinful human nature limits one’s capacity to love God as he should, and tends to redirect genuine love towards self or other lesser beings. Becoming a true Christian involves reestablishing this vertical relationship with God, and nurturing it for the rest of one’s life. The ultimate outcome of this reestablished relationship is what Christians call worship.
The second greatest commandment is that which results in reciprocal love among all human beings (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; 1 John 4:21). The scope of this command is just as universal as the first. No human being has the right to segregate his love by choosing to love himself more than others, or to isolate a segment of humanity to whom he will manifest love, and ignore or hate the rest. Human nature also makes it difficult to obey this command, since it is motivated by self-interest, and tends to foster chauvinism and prejudice. Becoming a Christian involves a radical adjustment of those kinds of attitudes towards others, and results in reconciliation and unity on the horizontal level.

Defining Discipling: A look at the Great Commission

The third greatest commandment is in some respects just as universal as the others,
but in other respects it is limited or particular. Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) was only given to believers whose repentance had already restored the two relationships indicated by the first two commandments. In other words, by restoring their devotion to God and their love to humanity they had already become true disciples of Christ. But Jesus required that these disciples reproduce themselves, and that is where the commandment becomes universal. The scope of the command to make disciples is all nations (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:47), the whole creation (Mark 16:15), or the world (John 17:18). Thus a true Christian cannot be a universalist. He must see a clear distinction between disciples and non-disciples, and be committed to infesting the planet with others like himself.
Rick Warren indicates that “The Great Commission is your commission, and doing your part is the secret to living a life of significance.”1 Discipling is one of the God-given purposes that drive Christians. But not all Christians understand what making disciples entails. Many are frustrated because their church attendance and involvement do not seem to make the kind of impact on the world Jesus’ Great Commission suggests they should.
A careful look at the Great Commission text shows that the frustration is appropriate. Jesus was very specific in his commandment as to what the result would be, and as to how his disciples should go about the task. Unless she is accomplishing the task Jesus commanded, using the means he implied she should use, the Church has no right to claim obedience to the Great Commission.

After You Go
By Baptizing
By Teaching

There is only one command in the text: Jesus commands his disciples (and the Church that would follow them) to reproduce themselves by continuing the discipling process that Jesus himself began. Although most translations take the word “go” as a command as well, it is best taken as an adverbial participle that simply explains the fact that the disciples are presently in Galilee (cf. Matt. 28:16), and would need to go to Jerusalem and await the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:8) before they began their mission to the nations. When functioning as a time marker, an adverbial participle in the aorist tense refers to action taken one step before that of the main verb. Thus, I translate the term “after you go.”
The other two adverbial participles in the text are best understood as marking the means whereby the command will be carried out. This is actually very helpful, as it provides the church with a way of determining if discipling is actually being done. Discipling involves both baptizing and teaching. If these two terms are interpreted in a minimalist fashion, it would seem to imply that almost every church is fulfilling the Great Commission.
A more accurate understanding of these two terms (baptizing and teaching) comes from reviewing how they are used in the Gospels. The quintessential baptizer was John the Baptist. He established himself as a prophet, proclaiming the message of the coming Messiah to the people of Israel, and leading them to repentance and commitment to the Messiah’s coming kingdom (Matt.3:1-12; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:1-18; John 1:6-8, 19-28). The quintessential teacher in the Gospels was Jesus himself. In fact, the term was used as a title for his ministry (Matt. 23:8,10; Mark 10:38; Luke 7:40; John 13:13,14). Before his atoning death, most of his ministry was focused on the nurture and development of his twelve disciples.
The task of the Church, then, is to testify the gospel of Christ’s kingdom in a variety of ways until it leads people to acceptance of the gospel, and commitment to the kingdom, as demonstrated by the public act of believer’s baptism. But that is only one-half of the equation. The outcome of this baptizing (what we usually refer to as evangelism) is the convert. The church must teach these converts to assure that they are nurtured in their faith, and trained in their works, so that all of Christ’s commands are obeyed, and an accurate witness to his person is reflected. The outcome of this teaching (what we often call discipling) is a reproducing Christian. Since both of these activities are mentioned by Jesus as comprising the means by which discipling is done, both must be incorporated into the work of every church. When one of these means is overemphasized to the exclusion of the other, the result is inadequate discipling.
Inadequate Discipling: Communicating Alone
For example, if a church feels it can fulfill the Great Commission by merely “getting the gospel out” and new means of doing this emerge historically, the church might be tempted to discard its old tried and true methods, like cross-cultural missions:

“With the new information technology (of the twentieth century), however, Christians did not have to leave home to fulfill the Great Commission; they could send a telegram, set up a radio station, gain access to television air time, develop satellite telecommunications networks, or establish a ‘home page’ in cyberspace”2

Such thinking leads to inadequate discipling precisely because it confuses merely one aspect of discipling with the whole process. While it is true that the mass communication methods of the 20th and 21st centuries will enable the church to do many things more efficiently, they can never replace “leaving home” and the incarnational work that implies. Discipling requires the exchange of lives, not merely the exchange of information.
Inadequate Discipling: Evangelism Alone

Neither has the church accomplished the whole task when she has merely converted a significant portion of the world’s population to Christ. There are some that are convinced that the church has made a major dent in the task because there are now a number of confessed Christians in most of the non-Western people groups around the globe:

“The ‘Great Commission’ found in Matthew 28 has shaped our evangelical movement as much as any passage of Scripture. … Whereas in 1500, only 19 percent of the world’s population was Christian and more than 83 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, by the year 2000 more than 32 percent of the world’s population was Christian and most Christians were non-Western people of color.”3

McGavran has pointed out that “discipling was to be followed by perfecting, that is, by the whole complex process of growth in grace…”4 What McGavran calls perfecting is that second means of discipling that Jesus referred to in the Great Commission text. In the church growth movement which McGavran represents, “discipling dealt mainly with conversion and was viewed as the primary responsibility of the church, while perfecting, or the maturing of believers, was relegated to secondary status.”5 As a result, much energy was spent getting churches to make converts, but little in making the converts mature enough to sustain the growth.

Inadequate Discipling: Perfecting Alone

Others have emphasized the nurture and development of those who are already Christians in such a way as to define that as discipling:
“One of the most biblical and valuable uses of your time as a pastor will be to cultivate personal discipling relationships in which you are regularly meeting with a few people one-on-one to do them good spiritually.”6

These “personal discipling relationships” are not the whole task of fulfilling the Great Commission either. The church must intentionally do both. Each individual Christian and each congregation must assess their Great Commission productivity by asking 1) am I winning people to Christ?, and 2) am I nurturing and developing the faith of those within the church. Since both are part of the task, both must be part of the assessment.
The Role of Theology
Theology plays an important role in both parts of the discipling task. First, a good biblical theology makes the believer confident and competent as an apologist. With a good grasp of theology, the Christian feels she can answer the kind of questions that the seeker or the skeptic might ask. Having asked those important questions herself, and having found God’s answers to those questions in his word, she is much more likely to connect with her peers who are still struggling with the issues. She is also more likely to challenge those who are hiding behind current philosophical fads (Acts 17:18; Col. 2:8).
Secondly, a good biblical theology empowers the believer to mature and persevere in his Christian walk. Theology does not ruin true discipleship. It enables the believer to engage his mind in response to God’s revelation. Thus it improves the relationship with God because it enables the Christian to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). Theology is not an enemy of faith; it supplements it (2 Pet. 1:5). This supplemented faith keeps Christians “from being ineffective or unfruitful” in their Christian walk (2 Pet. 1:8). This means that more unbelievers are likely to seek Christ, because they recognize the Christ-likeness in the thoroughly trained disciple.
On the other hand, when theology is dry, outdated (that is, unresponsive to the questions asked by society today), or heretical, it hinders both evangelism and nurture. Such theology will hinder discipleship because it is incapable of doing for the church what good theology alone can do. Therefore, the discipling mandate of the Great Commission becomes our primary reason for doing theology, and our primary motivation for seeking to get it right.

1 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 304.

2 David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History. (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 540-541.

3 3 Douglas A. Sweeney, “Introduction,” in Martin I. Klauber,, The Great Commission. (Nashville: B&H Publishing
Group, 2007), 1.

4 Donald Anderson McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, (Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 123.

5 Elmer L. Towns, Gary McIntosh, Paul E. Engle, Howard Snyder, Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 82.

6 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2005), 37.

ACST 5 The Balance


Theology is an academic discipline, and no academic discipline is totally free from ethical standards. As in athletics, the rules determine whether someone has succeeded. Breaking the rules can disqualify even the fastest runner. Good theology places equal weight on the accuracy of the message and the integrity of the messengers. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 4:15, where he encourages Christians to speak the truth in love.

Keeping the message accurate.

The discipline of hermeneutics helps theologians stay true to the message originally intended by God and the Bible’s human authors. It incorporates the tasks of exegesis (drawing out what the text says) and contextualization (communicating that meaning accurately to today’s audience). These are the same tasks that keep the preacher of the gospel on target, and the theologian has the same goal.

Some Hermeneutics Questions

Background Questions

What do I need to know about the culture that the original authors and audiences shared?

What do I need to know about the history that the original authors and audiences knew?

What are the differences between the background of the text and that of myself and my readers/students?

Word Study Questions

Does the text of my translation match the meaning of the words in the original language?

How is this term used by this particular author? Do other biblical authors use the same word differently?

Has the text of my translation added or subtracted words compared with the original? Why?

Theological Questions

What major loci are affected by the text?

What issues are being addressed, and questions answered?

How does this text compare with others on the same topic?

How does this text compare with others by the same author?

Application Questions

What changes (or commitments not to change) does the author suggest should be made by his audience?

What changes (or commitments not to change) should I make as a result of applying this text?

What changes (or commitments not to change) should my readers/students/church make?

Jesus commended John the Baptist for preaching the truth (John 5:33). For Jesus, it was not important that John’s ministry was popular and influential; what mattered was John’s message. It did not need to be new. It had to be true. The temptation to come up with some new teaching is very real for the theologian, and must be guarded against. God has provided the Bible as the source and standard for our theological teaching. It should be the source for every idea we proclaim, and the standard by which we measure every idea we hear.

Keeping the messengers authentic.

The other side of the balance that must be maintained for good theology is maintaining the integrity of those who teach and preach the message. While it is true that “given no other evidence, we should be able to tell by the rhetoric of the preacher whether he or she is legitimate”[1] people have a right to hear God’s word from messengers who reflect his character. This principle is reflected in other scriptures as well. “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. (Ezra 7:10 emphasis mine). Jesus said that “whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19 emphasis mine).[2] Paul told Titus to “Let everything (he does) reflect the integrity and seriousness of (his) teaching (Titus 2:7 NLT).” By doing so, Titus would draw attention to his teaching, and authenticate it. If he were to live an ungodly life, he would have turned people off to his words.

Jesus had warned against apostasy and false teachers who would emerge from within the established church, and lead many astray (Matthew 24:10-11). The way believers can tell the difference and avoid being deceived is that those truly abiding in Christ will produce fruit (John 15:5). Fruit is results: the results that Jesus produced were to be the results his disciples would produce.

The Fruit of Jesus’ Ministry



Answered Prayer

Changed Lives

41 “So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42 ESV)

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13 ESV)

The world did not have to wait long for this apostasy to appear. Already by the time the epistles were being written it was beginning to happen among those New Testament churches. Peter explained their strategy: they lure people to their teachings by 1) appealing to their natural desires, 2) promising a freedom from sin that they themselves do not possess, and 3) entangling them in worldliness while distancing them from the gospel of righteousness through knowing Christ (2 Peter 2:17-22). He warned his readers to “take care that (they were) not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose (their) own stability (2 Peter 3:17).” It was obvious from his letters that false teaching would go hand in hand with an immoral lifestyle so that his readers would be able to identify the theological errors by observing the ethical ones.

The author of Hebrews also linked these two aspects of apostasy. He warned against “an evil, unbelieving heart, leading (his readers) to fall away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12). He reminded these Jewish Christians of their ancestors “whose bodies fell in the wilderness” because of their disobedience (Hebrews 3:17-18). To claim to follow the God of Abraham, yet fail to obey his instructions manifests a dangerous imbalance.

Paul warned Timothy of an apostasy yet to come in history (2 Timothy 4:1-3), but he commanded Timothy to apply this truth by keeping a close watch on himself and his teaching (2 Timothy 4:16). By staying true and maintaining a godly witness he would preserve that balance that qualifies believers as representatives of Christ and his kingdom.

[1] David M. Brown, Transformational Preaching. (College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm Publishing, 2003), 243.

[2] Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2002), 650.

ACST 4 The Necessity


Developing a good theology is not a waste of time. In fact, it is not too drastic to say that theologizing is the necessary first step in pleasing God. The author of Hebrews implies this when he says “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (11:6 NIV). Notice that this verse states twice that faith is a necessity for those who would please God. First, it states that without faith pleasing God is impossible. Then it restates that fact by saying that anyone who approaches God must believe.

The author of Hebrews then defines that faith by positing two propositional truths that make up its basic content: 1) The God of the Bible exists, 2) He responds to those who seek fellowship with him. The heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 all began with those two propositional truths, and lived their lives according to what those truths implied. While it was their faithfulness to God that made them examples for others to follow, it was their faith in God that made that faithfulness possible. The use of the subordinating conjunction hoti with the infinitive pisteusai specifically defines the nature of the faith being discussed, eliminating the possibility that saving faith can be reduced to mere dependence or trust in a person. That faith was not merely an ambiguous feeling of dependence, it was affirmation of two specific doctrines – two propositional truths.

Those two truths serve as foundations for all the propositional statements made in systematic theology, because they lead to questions that are only answered in God’s word, and those questions are broad enough to cover the entire theological grid.












Some theologians, however, are not content with this view of how God reveals himself. The Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles suggests that God has ultimately revealed himself not through words or doctrines, but through symbols that contain more meaning than the words could ever convey. These symbols (like the cross, the Eucharist, baptism) are needed to supplement the doctrines because God continues to speak through the symbols, apart from what he has revealed in scripture.[1] The problem with this view is that the symbols tend to take on content of their own, aside from what is revealed in scripture. That content can even be (and usually is) contradictory to God’s word, and the devotee is forced to reject the direct teachings of scripture in order to embrace the “deeper meaning” of the symbol.

Evangelicals are not immune to problems in this area either. Sometimes the desire to affirm others who hold different doctrines leads the person in the pew to think that it does not matter what one believes as long as he believes something. Such thinking tends to downplay the role of propositional truths, and dilute faith into mere opinion. Faith that is mere opinion cannot address the relativism and pluralism of modern culture, because it is a part of it.

For example, biblical faith does not just believe in God the creator, it understands that God created (Hebrews 11:3). The difference between these two statements is that one can be a mere label, while the other is a proposition related to historical fact. While it may sound religious to affirm that one believes in God the creator, it makes no specific affirmation as to who that God is, nor how he created. It is a safe kind of statement to make in a pluralistic society because it leaves room for the hearers to interpret it, adding any details they like, affirming the statement. Such a statement may be politically correct, but it is theologically deficient.

Theologizing can be compared to translating. When translating a speech or document, the translator has to serve the interests of both the originator of the words and the audience who is to hear/read the translation. She (the translator) has to first understand the ideas communicated by the original, and then she must convey those same ideas in the language of the target audience. She has done her job when the originator is satisfied that his ideas have been expressed, without adding to or taking from them. But she must also use words which can be understood by the target audience. Only when both of these goals are achieved has she translated well. So it is with theologizing. Only when we have communicated God’s thoughts in the words of our contemporaries have we successfully completed the work.

Every modern translation of the Bible has to maintain a balance between verbal accuracy, and contemporary relevance/readability . The groups who work on these translations develop philosophies of translation to govern their approach to the work, and to maintain consistency. For example, the makers of the NET Bible wanted to “capture the best of several words: readable and accurate and elegant all at the same time.”[2] The makers of the New American Standard Bible aimed for verbal accuracy, but in their 1995 revision “when it was felt that word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.”[3] The makers of Today’s New International Version likewise sought the same balance. On the one hand, “the first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers.”[4] On the other hand, they felt that contextualizing the Bible’s message in the modern gender-sensitive era required the “elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”[5]

Conscientious theologians are seeking to maintain the same balance, so change is to be expected. As theologians learn more about the content of the Bible through background and linguistic research, doctrines should change to reflect that accuracy. As theologians keep their fingers on the pulse of modern society, doctrines should change to reflect that relevance. The struggle of maintain relevance in the modern context while being true to the original ancient message explains why systematic theology is an ongoing task.

It also explains why believers should not be satisfied with simply following and defending their denominational traditions. Such traditions are helpful if they steer people toward the Bible as God’s message to humanity. They can be harmful if they simply take the place of the Bible. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day because “for the sake of (their) tradition (they) have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6 ESV). Part of what that meant is that over time the theologians of Christ’s day had so narrowly defined how to obey God that the intended message of the scriptures had been lost. Modern theologians are in danger of the same mistake if they do not carefully examine their own presuppositions.

The reason theologizing can be done at all is that when our doctrines reflect that intended message of the Bible, they prove to be consistent with what the whole Bible affirms. Preachers who carefully exegete their texts discover this all the time. They find, for example, that what the prophet Joel told the inhabitants of Judah in the 9th century B.C. explains what God would be doing in the next centuries, and is consistent with what the Bible reveals about God’s plan.




“I will remove the northerner far from you”(2:20).

The Babylonians who invaded and exiled Judah were displaced by the Medes and Persians.

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (2:25).

The Jews were allowed to resettle Palestine and rebuild it.

“I will show wonders… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”(2:30,32).

Jesus came to the Jews, demonstrated God’s power and gave his life to bring spiritual deliverance to them.

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. (2:28)

The Jewish believers at Pentecost were empowered to spread the gospel to the nations.

Therefore, when theologians read the fifth “I will” statement, promising a time when God gathers all the nations in judgment (3:2) they rightly conclude that God is not finished fulfilling his promises he made through this Old Testament prophet. God’s track record of keeping his promises, together with the similar language used in Joel 3 and Revelation 16 and 19,[6] leads theologians and preachers to assume that God will fulfill this last promise of Joel at what the New Testament calls Armageddon.

True theologians dare to get into the details of texts like this because their faith understands that God is who he says he is, and he will do what he says he will do. Their task is to properly interpret what God has said in his word, and pass on that knowledge to their contemporaries. When someone forsakes that message, and instead promotes some other means of knowing God (like a symbol or an esoteric experience) that person has ceased to be a true theologian, and has skipped the vital Hebrews 11:6 step in pleasing God.

[1] Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation. (NY: Orbis, 2001). “The doctrinal approach, though sound within certain limits, needs to be supplemented by the symbolic…” 205.

[2] NET Bible: New English Translation. (Biblical Studies Press, 2003), vii.

[3] New American Standard Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), ix. The English Standard Version (ESV). (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001) has a similar philosophy of translation.

[4] TNIV: Today’s New International Version. (Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 2005), iv.

[5] TNIV, vi.

[6] Notice, for example, the motifs of warfare (Joel 3:9-10; Rev. 16:14;), gathering of the nations (Joel 3:11-12; Rev. 16:14,16; 19:17,19), the sickle/sword (Joel 3:13; Rev. 19:15), and the winepress (Joel 3:13; Rev. 19:15).

ACST 3 The Important Thing

The preceding chapter demonstrates that there is more than one way to do theology. Systematic theology is organized by categories reflecting the questions people ask about God. But chapter two was organized by chronology, tracing God’s promise of eternal life by resurrection through twelve eras of biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation. The chapter serves as a crude example of biblical theology, which can be defined as…

a discipline within Christian theology which studies the Bible from the perspective of understanding the progressive history of God revealing God’s self to humanity following the Fall and throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. It particularly focuses on the epochs of the Old Testament in order to understand how each part of it ultimately points forward to fulfillment in the life mission of Jesus Christ.”1

Both biblical theology and systematics are helpful ways of getting the big picture, helping people see the relationships between all the various things told and taught in scripture.

Sometimes one approach works better than others, but what matters most is the message itself, not how we package it. That is the attitude Paul had when he commented on some preachers who were preaching just to make things more difficult for him. Regardless of their reasons, he said, “the fact remains that the message about Christ is being preached, so I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT). Perhaps instead of complaining about all the different preachers, doctrines, churches, and denominations that exist, we should be thankful that God has not limited himself to just one way of getting the gospel message out to a dying world.

Unfortunately, however, some approaches to doing theology begin with presuppositions that determine beforehand what the message will ultimately be. The danger in these ways of theologizing is that they tend to bring their ideas to scripture, rather than deriving their ideas from it. Specifically, these approaches redefine scripture so that it agrees with 1) their own theological systems, 2) their own experience or preference, 3) their own problems.

Theological Systems

There are a few particular doctrinal issues that seem to polarize Christians. The question of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in election, predestination and ultimate salvation is one such issue. Usually one is inclined to answer that issue from a Calvinist perspective, emphasizing God’s sovereignty, or an Arminian perspective, emphasizing human freedom. Some seem to have found mediating positions between these two apparently opposed concepts. Perhaps they have, but most of us cannot help but take one side and defend it. Yet, even as we do that, we realize that there are many good scriptural proof-texts that speak against the position we choose to defend. That fact should warn us against using our own chosen theological system as the means of measuring the validity of a statement in scripture.

Another problem about theological systems is that they tend to define biblical terms in such a way that only those who have knowledge of the system understand how the terms are being used. For example, the terms rapture, tribulation, and millennium are all legitimate theological terms deriving from biblical texts and concepts. Yet some theologians are hesitant to use the term rapture because it has become so connected with the adjective secret due to the influence of dispensational futurist systems that to use the term would seem to imply acceptance of that position. Likewise, the term tribulation is so connected to the concept of a seven year period where the Church is supposedly absent from the world that some of us are hesitant to use the term, lest we be associated with that presupposition. The term millennium is a legitimate theological term reflecting the 1000 year period mentioned in Revelation 20. This term as well has become so connected with a view concerning Israel that using it takes a great deal of explanation if one does not hold the view that Christ will reign as king of ethnic Israel during this time. One of the dangers of theological systems is that they tend to narrowly define these biblical terms, and anyone using the terms feels obligated either to agree with the system as a whole, or oppose it. That is unfortunate since systems tend to be mostly correct, but each of them contains a blind spot or two.

Personal Experience or Preference

What people believe tends to limit and shape their experiences and choices, but their experiences and choices also have a profound effect upon their beliefs. For example, some believers are happy in churches that are more formal, liturgical – what has been called high church. People with these experiences and preferences tend to adapt theological beliefs that correspond with those preferences. For example, they will tend to hold to a stark contrast between the clergy and the laity. Their views concerning appropriate worship will lean toward the practiced rather than the spontaneous variety. Others are more comfortable in the low church structure, which is less formal, and provides more room for spontaneity. These tend to adapt theological beliefs that correspond with those preferences as well. This is a rather mild example of how one’s experiences and preferences affect his theology.

A more extreme example can be found in the teachings of gay theology. Those inclined toward homosexual behavior have been with us for ages, within and outside the church. But in the past few decades homosexuals have demanded recognition as equals, both in the political realm, and in the church. Traditionally, the church has regarded homosexual behavior as willful sin, and excluded homosexuals from fellowship on that basis. Yet proponents of gay theology defend homosexual acts as proper, and gay marriage as an alternative lifestyle that God recognizes and blesses.2 These new theological positions are forcing the church to grapple with the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin that warrants exclusion. Some churches seem to be taking their cue from the politicians, and promoting tolerance as the supreme virtue. Others are taking a hard-line approach, and preaching against homosexuality. Still others are desperately searching for balance. Unfortunately, with issues like gay theology, balance is an illusion.

Personal Problems

As stated above, experiences have a profound effect upon a person’s beliefs. This is especially so if the experiences have been negative. This accounts for the fact that some do theology from the standpoint of the oppressed, and focus on their oppressors as the target of their theologizing. Examples of this kind of theologizing include Black Liberation Theology, the various kinds of leftist liberation theologies, and radical feminist theologies. These various movements share a number of traits in common:

  1. They identify with a marginalized group within society. For example, Anthony B. Pinn formulated his biblical research on suffering specifically because of the suffering felt in the African-American community. He did this because he “was and continue to be anxious to speak a liberating word to black sufferers.”3 To be fair, the process of contextualization requires a certain amount of identification with those to whom we proclaim the biblical message, but this kind of identification tends to present the marginalized as the focus of the message itself.

  2. They focus on the sins and shortcomings of another group, which they target as the oppressors. They do not tend to focus on the sins and failings of the marginalized group. Thus Tatman complains that “if I tried to join a conversation at the Vatican about mass, my words would go unheard … because I am a feminist lesbian.”4 It is the theological and social conservatives that take on the role of tyrannical oppressors, denying Tatman the right to engage in theological discussion because of her marginalized status as a feminist lesbian.

  3. If they appeal to scripture, it is usually apart from its original context, and select only those passages which foster their point of view. Thus the New Testament is a story of political struggle against unjust economic oppressors. This can be seen is Nadeau’s description of The Filipino liberation theology movement as tracing “their history back to the earliest resistance movements against the Spanish and late American colonization of the Philippines, and to the time of Jesus Christ and the early church that stood defiantly against social injustices.”5 Thus any social injustice revealed in the New Testament becomes an argument for a post-capitalist restructuring.

  4. They adopt and redefine traditional theological terms like atonement, redemption, sin, and reconciliation to serve a socio-political purpose, rather than a traditionally theological one. Thus Hanway writes his A Theology of Gay and lesbian Inclusion to “equip you, Christian warrior of the Gospel of peace, to stand against those who use the Bible to resist change – even that change of which our Lord would approve.”6 But when we evangelical Christians reject homosexuality we are not using the Bible to resist change, we are defending the Bible’s right to define human social limits because God knows what is right and wrong. The true Gospel of peace was written to homosexuals as well as thieves and liars – and it speaks of a peace with God that is obtained only through repentance of sin, not acceptance of it.

Evangelical Christians recognize the importance of turning from sin and responding to God’s free grace. That is why we cannot afford to be sidetracked on issues that draw people’s attention away from their personal relationship with God, which begins with conversion. The important thing in our theologizing is not that it stays contemporary, but that it stays focused on God and his unchanging message.

1Wikipedia, Biblical Theology. Online: (cited September 13, 2008).

2For summaries of tenets of gay theology, and conservative evangelical responses to them, see Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement. (Eugene Or.:Harvest House, 1996); Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).

3Anthony B. Pinn, Why, Lord? (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995), 10.

4Lucy Tatman, Knowledge that Matters. (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 23.

5Kathleen M. Nadeau, Liberation Theology in the Philippines. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), ix.

6Donald G. Hanway, A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion. (New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2006), ix.

ACST 2 The Promise

Sitting on death row in a Roman jail, Paul penned one last letter to his spiritual son and fellow missionary, Timothy. He told him about what God purposed before the ages began and revealed through Jesus Christ, who brought life and immortality1 to light through the gospel message that had been Paul’s focus since the Damascus road (2 Timothy 1:9-11). For Paul, this message was worth living for, and worth dying for. It was the promise of a resurrection to a permanent life. It was hope beyond the grave. The real reason for this temporary life is the chance it gives us to attain to that permanent one.

Reading the Bible with this in mind helps us understand its purpose as well. If you just read the Bible as a group of stories and sayings in which people and nations happen to bump up against God, you are missing this central point – the one Jesus brought to light. It is the message within the message, and it can be summarized thus: God has zeroed in on a few temporary mortal beings all over this planet (and throughout time) and has promised by his grace to change them into immortal beings.2

If you have ever been reading a newspaper or magazine and run across the name of someone you know, you probably got more interested in the article rather quickly. That explains why Christians can read the Bible many times during their lifetimes, and still be enthralled by it. It is not just a bunch of old stories and laws. It is the story of how our God reached down into the fabric of time and space and granted us a precious inheritance – the gift of eternal life.

I. From A Great Beginning to A Disastrous End (Genesis 1-7) 4175-2519 B.C..3

God starts out his story with two perfect places: a heaven filled with glorious spirit beings, and an earth filled with good creatures of all kinds, under the dominion of two human beings, who rule the planet as God’s representatives. Soon disaster strikes. Some of those glorious spirit beings rebel against God, siding with Satan, and refusing to honor God as their creator. Satan takes an unauthorized trip to earth to spread his rebellion there, convincing Adam and Eve to trust their own judgment rather than God’s commandment. God had warned his creatures not to sin, because it would change their nature (making them mortal), and destiny (causing them to eventually die).4 The next few centuries tell the consequences of sin in the world, eventually making it a world so corrupt and violent that God had to destroy it with a flood. The symbol of the believer’s inheritance that stands out in this period is the tree of life. Although humanity lost access to it through sin, Christ gained it back for us on another tree – the cross of calvary.

II. From A Family Saved to A Civilization Cursed (Genesis 8-11). 2519-2086 B.C.

One symbol of eternal life in this era is the Ark, through which God chooses by his grace to preserve the lives of the animals and Noah’s family. He could have destroyed everyone and recreated, but he wants to redeem, not destroy. When the following civilization at Babel seeks to build a monument to its own power in unity, God scatters them by confusing their language. This resulted in the linguistic and ethnic nations that cover our globe today. God wanted this scattering to occur because the civilization he plans to resurrect will be multinational and multicultural.

III. From God’s Man to God’s Plan (Genesis 12-46) 2086-1871 B.C.

In the previous era, God had cursed all humanity in order to spread his promise to all the earth. In this era God blesses and calls one man, to be the channel through which that promise would come. The lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph reveal that God wants to protect them and provide for them because from their lineage an even greater man of promise would come. One symbol of eternal life in this era is the ordeal of Abraham on Mount Moriah. Here God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but out of compassion provides a substitute instead.

IV. From a Suffering Nation to a Suffering Deliverer (Genesis 47- Exodus 14) 1871-1441 B.C.

The concept of the substitute sines through in this era as well, not only in the passover lamb, whose blood had to be prominently placed outside the homes of the Israelites5, but also in Moses himself. He had to choose to suffer as an Israelite rather than deny his people and destiny. This prince of Egypt became a suffering servant, and a type of the Messiah as a Suffering Servant who is to come. And, like that Messiah to come, much of Moses’ suffering was at the hands of the Israelites themselves.

V. From Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 15- Joshua 3) 1441 – 1401 B.C.

This era is marked by two similar miracles – the crossing of the Red Sea as the Israelites leave Egypt, and the crossing of the Jordon River into Canaan 40 years later.

Perhaps one of the clearest “hints” God gives during this era of his future plans of an inheritance of eternal life is the water he supplied for the nation from a rock. Moses was told to do this once, and God provided the water that his people needed to live. But later, when God told Moses to speak to a rock, he struck it again. God was not pleased, and Moses lost the chance to enter into Canaan himself. By striking the rock twice, Moses disrupted the hidden message that God had provided. That rock was a symbol of Christ, who would be struck (crucified) to provide life for his people.

Most of the time in between the two crossings was spent by the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, trying to survive their freedom. God gave them all they could ask for: his presence, his provision, his priests to intercede for them, and his prophet to tell them what he wanted. But for most of them, God’s grace was not enough. The road to Canaan was littered with the bleached bones of those who had been delivered without being changed. But the next generation – the one that grew up in this environment – was prepared for the next stage of God’s plan for his people: the conquest.

VI. From Conquest to Kingdom (Joshua 4 – 2 Chronicles 10, Job, Psalms – Song of Solomon) 1401 – 926 B.C.

The next 475 years see the emergence and development of Israel as a nation – even as a superpower. In spite of the fact that God is clearly for his nation, they constantly fail him. They struggle internally, failing to keep their covenant with God that had been mediated by Moses, as is evidenced by internal violence, corruption, and idolatry. They also struggle against the surrounding nations, who seek to oppress and control them. One symbol of the believer’s inheritance of eternal life which appears in this era is David himself. David is not the sinless Messiah promised, but he is a symbol pointing to his greater son, who will be. David expressed belief in his own resurrection and predicted the resurrection of the Messiah when he said “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:29-32). One of the catalysts that moved this nation into political and social greatness is their belief in a God who would not allow their death to be permanent. He would remember, and resurrect.

VII.From Division to Disaster (1 Kings 12-22; 2 Kings 1-17; 2 Chronicles 11-32; Obadiah; Jonah; Amos; Hosea; Joel; Isaiah; Micah) 926-722 B.C.

God could no longer tolerate the idolatry and violence in Israel, so he caused the nation to divide into two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. He appealed to both nations through prophets, but neither nation would listen. God eventually sent the Assyrians to conquer the northern kingdom (Israel), but continued to protect Judah, appealing to them to repent, or suffer the same fate as their brothers. This is a very important era, because it reveals that God has plans that go beyond the establishment of a single nation among mortals. He wants to bring eternal life, through a resurrection, to all nations. We see this in the messages of warning, and the appeals for repentance to Israel, Judah, Assyria, Edom, Babylon, etc. that come from God’s prophets. The prophet Jonah, whom God sent to the Ninevites, symbolizes God’s resurrection to come when he is swallowed by a whale, the regurgitated three days later (1:17; 2:10). The prophet Joel predicted a day when Jews will lead people to call on the name of the LORD and be saved (2:29-32). This was fulfilled 8 ½ centuries later, at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21).

VIII. From Disaster to Disintegration (2 Kings 18-25; 2 Chronicles 32-36; Isaiah (cont.); Zephaniah; Nahum; Habakkuk; Jeremiah) 722-586 B.C.

As previously mentioned, God continued to protect Judah, appealing to them to repent, or suffer the same fate as their brothers. This era is a monument to God’s patience, because most of the time Judah proved no more faithful than Israel had. Many in Judah were convinced that – in spite of what happened to their brothers up north – God would never allow them to be overrun, taken captive, or driven into exile by their enemies. The prophets, however, took the coming disintegration of Judah as a given, and began to predict not only the fall of Jerusalem, but a time of restoration and return to the land afterward (Zephaniah 3:11-20). By emphasizing the fall of Judah, and then its restoration, the prophets were hinting at God’s plan for a resurrection unto eternal life for believers. The period ends with Babylonian armies swarming in from the north, destroying Jerusalem, and taking the survivors captive.

IX. From Death to Resurrection (Jeremiah (cont.); Lamentations; Daniel; Ezekiel) 586–538 B.C.

The prophets during the Babylonian captivity witnessed the death of their nation at the hands of the Babylonian empire, and had to admit that it was God’s will. Yet they also believed that that was not the end of the story. The miracles in the lives of Daniel and the other Jews in captivity, and the fulfilled predictions showed that God was still in control, not only of his people, but also of the other nations and their destiny. The prophets appealed to God to remember his people, and to bring them back to the land that he had promised eternally to their ancestor Abraham. God intended to do just that – and even more. The prophets would foretell the restoration in language that clearly portrayed the belief in a physical resurrection (Jeremiah 50:17-20; Daniel 12:1-3; Ezekiel 37:1-14).

X. From Cyrus to Christ (Ezra – Esther; Haggai – Malachi) 538- 4 B.C.

A decree by the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews scattered throughout his empire to return to their homeland, and rebuild their cultures and communities. The Jews who returned vowed never again to offend God by practicing the idolatry that characterized the nations around them. They were characterized by a commitment to their God and their land, and an expectation of a coming Messiah who would forever rid them from foreign domination. While God was restoring Israel as a nation, he was also protecting them from their enemies. Behind the stories in Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther where God intervenes to protect his people from extermination is the fact that Israel must survive because Christ must come from that nation. More is at stake here than simply the survival of a nation. God is protecting the one through whom he will bring life and immortality to light.

XI. From Christ to the Church (Matthew -John; Acts 1) 4 B.C. – 30 AD.

    At first Jesus’ ministry appears to be no more than a taking over the Jewish revival began by John the Baptist. His disciples are Jews, the people he targets are Jews, and he is proven to fulfill the prophecies pertaining to the Jewish Messiah. But before long, it becomes quite evident that the salvation Jesus is offering is deliverance from sin for the whole world (John 3:16). Jesus died on a Roman cross, after being condemned to death by Jewish leaders. But that death was not the end of Jesus of Nazareth. After three days in the tomb, he was raised to life. But his was more than a resurrection. It was a resurrection unto eternal life. After showing himself to believers, he ascended with a promise to empower them to take his promise of eternal life to the nation.

XII. From Promise to Fulfillment (Acts 2- Revelation) 30 A.D. – ?

The Holy Spirit, in which the Church was immersed at Pentecost, was that empowerment. He leads the Church in following God’s call, like Abraham did – by faith (Romans 4:12-13). He helps believers accept Jesus as their deliverer (Galatians 3:9). He leads them to apply the death of Christ as their atoning sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14). Once the have crossed over, he is God’s presence, provision, and priesthood enabling them to get through the wilderness of this life (Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:27). He teaches believers how to live victorious Christian lives (Revelation 2:7).

After death, believers will remain asleep until Jesus Christ resurrects them at his second coming. Jesus will literally reign with resurrected believers as his agents, restoring this earth to its intended glory, removing the evidence of Satan’s rebellion, and destroying all Christ’s enemies (1 Corinthians 15:24-26; Revelation 20:6).6 The New Testament urges everyone to accept God’s offer of eternal life through Christ: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17 NIV).

1“Life and Immortality” is most probably an example of hendiadys, meaning “immortal life.”

2Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, in How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth. (Manila: OMF, 1997), 79-81 talk about the three levels of Old Testament narratives. The bottom level is the individual stories, the middle level is the story of Israel as a nation, and the top level is redemptive history. It is that top level to which I refer.

3The ten Old Testament eras reflected here are adapted from Constance M. Reynolds, A Journey of Promise. (Makati City, Philippines: Church Strengthening Ministry, 2003). The titles for them are my own. All dates are estimates based on the genealogical and historical references in the Bible.

4Both warnings are implied by the phrase twmt twm, usually translated “you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

5No one knows for sure what word was implied by the blood being placed on the top and sides of each doorframe (Exodus 12:7). But the placement would produce a very visible sample of the Hebrew letter j (Chet). My guesses are that the letter stood for either chesed, the word for mercy, or chayim, the word for life.

6Thus the entire story of Israel in the Old Testament – from Abraham’s call to the restoration under Cyrus – is a similitude for the salvation God offers the believer in Christ. I am not arguing for an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. These Old Testament stories reflect true events, which must be accepted as historical facts. However, those events are so orchestrated by God that they match realities in the life of every believer. That helps to explain passages like 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 11.