Pulling us up from the mud

June 12, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Bible, Front, Mission, Tanzania, Theology

Having been in Mpanda for three months now we are starting to feel settled and are enjoying our work, making friends and organising our house to feel like a home! I’m particularly enjoying my job as operations manager, helping to set up and maintain the office for the project as our colleagues work with the local language communities to write down their languages and start translating parts of the Bible.

One of my favourite (in a tiring kind of way) moments of the week is Thursday evenings, when I get together with several of our Tanzanian colleagues to do a Bible study in Swahili. We have wanted to read through one of the gospels, so have started with Matthew and read a few verses each week. Read the rest of this entry →

Jiizas Buk: “It’s as if Jesus is right here with us”

December 24, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Bible translation, Front, Language

The BBC has a great 2-minute video about the translation of parts of the Bible into Jamaican Patois for the first time. This has been a controversial project for many of the same reasons that the English Bible was not accepted when it was first translated over 600 years ago (as I wrote about on the Wycliffe UK blog back in 2008).

But despite the inevitable controversy, it is extremely exciting to see the impact that the translation is already starting to have:

Our pastor, he’s sitting on the side of the street with the boys, he speaks like they speak as equals, so he meets them on their level. It’s the same thing with the Scripture, it’s as if Jesus is right here with us, and speaking with us in the same way.

Take a couple of minutes to watch the video below and read the article on the BBC website, to see the impact that the Bible is having in Jamaica this Christmas! Read the rest of this entry →

A missional reading of Matthew 3

August 29, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago, trying to read the book of Matthew as the original hearers might have heard it, understanding the role the narrative played in the mission of God at that time, and the missional implications for the church as we engage with the text in our own situation.

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

1 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,

“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”

4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.12 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”

The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”

15 But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

16 After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

Matthew 3

The first question we asked was what on earth was John doing? This is the first time baptism is mentioned in the Bible, so why is John doing it and what does it symbolise? The text seems to tell us that it had to do with repentance and preparing for the Lord returning to his people. The symbolism of passing through the river Jordan would presumably have brought associations with the journey from Egypt through the wilderness, and eventually into the promised land.

John himself would have reminded people of Elijah, especially as Matthew describes him as being in the wilderness with hairy clothes and a leather belt around his waist (c.f. 2 Kings 1:8). This association of John with the prophet Elijah continues elsewhere in the gospels, and should remind us of the last couple of verses of the Old Testament where Malachi prophecies that Elijah will come “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives” (Malachi 4:5).

The quote from Isaiah 40:3 about preparing the way for the Lord’s coming is in the context of the return from exile and God returning to his people after their time of punishment. This is very much in keeping with Matthew’s theme that the exile is coming to an end through Jesus, although we are surprised that in Isaiah the road is being prepared for God to return to his people, whereas Matthew takes this prophecy and seems to suggest that John is preparing the way for Jesus the messiah. This is the first hint we have in the gospel that Jesus may be identified with Israel’s God himself.

Verses 7 and 8 give the first indication that this return of God isn’t just good news, but will involve judgement for those not living in a way that pleases God. John insists that being Abraham’s descendants doesn’t guarantee being right with God, hinting at a possible redefinition of what it means to be part of God’s people when he suggests that God could make new sons for Abraham out of stones if he wanted to.

This redefinition of God’s kingdom is quite startling in many ways, with even the Jews needing to be baptised to prepare for what God is doing. The threats of judgement are made using stark metaphors of cutting down trees (a picture that is reserved for the judgement of Gentile nations in the Old Testament, e.g. Isaiah 10:33-34, Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4:14) and throwing them into the fire. But along with this fire of judgement, the one who is coming will baptise with the Holy Spirit, carrying out what God has promised he himself will do (c.f. Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Joel 2:28-29).

After this big build up and talk of fire, wrath and judgement as God dramatically returns to his people, Jesus quietly walks in, surprising us all (and John most of all) by asking to be baptised. He is obviously the one about whom John is talking, but when he actually arrives it seems almost an anti-climax, and very puzzling that he should ask to go through the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Why does Jesus ask to be baptised? I wonder if it is again to do with the theme we see in Matthew of Jesus not simply being the representative of God to rescue Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel herself who needed rescuing. We saw this briefly in chapter 2 as Jesus was identified with Israel “my son” in Hosea 11:1, and again we see Jesus becoming as Israel and going through the process of repentance and preparation that Israel herself was taking in anticipation of God’s return.

We finished with a few questions…

  • There is quite a sharp contrast between John’s build up to Jesus as the Lord coming to his people, and the reality of Jesus simply walking up and asking to be baptised – with baptism being the symbol of repentance which Mark also associates with turning to God to forgive sins (Mark 1:4). In what ways was Jesus surprising?
  • In this chapter we get the first clue that Jesus may be identified with God himself, but it is only a hint. Why does Matthew not say clearly at the start that Jesus is God? Why does he instead invite us to walk with him through the story, helping us to glimpse bit by bit who Jesus is as we journey with him?
  • What can we learn from how Matthew presents Jesus to his audience, for how we might help people to understand who Jesus is today? How can we invite people into the story of the gospel rather than immediately bombarding them with what we think are the answers?


Did Jesus preach the gospel?

August 17, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Did Jesus preach the gospel? What do we mean by the gospel? Is our definition, which is often centred around us, our sin, God’s wrath, and God’s plan through Jesus to rescue us from his judgement, actually what the biblical authors have in mind when they talk about the gospel?

Scot McKnight’s excellent video explores these questions, trying to go back to what the biblical authors actually mean when they talk about the gospel, and not losing their words under the centuries of interpretation.

Part 1:

Part 2:

HT: Phil Prior

Race and Ethnicity: Does it Matter?

August 13, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Church, Culture, Theology

Race and ethnicity have always been hot topics for as long as people have been around, and remain so today in a great many parts of the world. In the church too these issues are often present, if only in the fact that many Western churches remain almost entirely mono-cultural and mono-racial even when they are located in culturally diverse neighbourhoods.

How should the church approach the issue of race? Is it something that the Bible has much to say about? Is it something that we should even talk about? Does it do more harm than good to talk about ethnicity when it doesn’t really matter?

In my experience the first response of many Christians to the issue of race is to point to Galatians 3:28 (or similar verses) that state

 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

There we have it. This is what the Bible says about race – we are all one in Christ Jesus and race really doesn’t matter.

My problem with this is that while it is true, to simply give this answer doesn’t reflect anything of the incredible paradigm shift and the years of intense debate and struggle within the church that allowed Paul to make this statement. “All races are equal before God” is ultimately the right answer, but if we jump to the conclusion without walking through the thousands of years of history that led up to this point we will end up with a very weak theology of race and ethnicity that is likely to be grossly inadequate as we face similar issues today. (My guess is that many times this simplistic view is presented by majority ethnic groups who are in dominant positions in society, and so see the issue as an irrelevance and a distraction rather than the daily struggle for opportunity, identity and even survival).

If we read the Bible we find that race has been an issue ever since God commanded humanity to go and fill the earth, with the result (despite man’s best efforts to disobey) being the formation of distinct peoples, cultures, languages and races. Out of this diversity God called one man, Abraham, promising that Abraham’s descendants would be God’s chosen people, and that through them all nations would be blessed.

The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of this people, Israel, as they live amongst very different peoples in the ancient near east. The accounts that make up the Old Testament are not written in a vacuum, but concern Israel’s life and witness amongst other nations with very different ideas about life and about god(s).

Jesus is then born into this race, and although he gives clues as to the universal nature of his vocation, it is far from clear how the other nations fit into what God is doing. As the New Testament church is born, probably the biggest issue that they have to face is how Gentiles – people from outside of Israel – can and should relate to the Jewish church. Should they be circumcised as the Jews have always been? Should they follow the food laws? Are they called and chosen by God in the same way? Do they have the same status before God or are they in some sense second-class Christians?

As we read the book of Acts and the letters in the New Testament these issues keep arising again and again. After much debate the council at Jerusalem decides that Gentiles are part of God’s plan purely through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and don’t have to follow the Jewish laws and customs. Paul then emphatically reiterates the opportunity for all nations to come to God purely through Jesus (without adopting foreign customs or traditions) in his letter to the Galatians, climaxing in the verse we read above.

Once the church has accepted that Gentiles can be part of the church without becoming Jewish, the issue of unity between Jews and Gentiles is then a very hot topic. The Jews, despite a mixed history, had always been God’s people, the light to the nations, the vehicle through which God’s blessing to the world would come. The Gentiles were always outsiders who could be right with God (as several Old Testament characters illustrate) but were in many ways still very much dependent on God’s chosen people. How these two groups with such different perspectives, cultures, histories and religious customs, not to mention a great deal of historical animosity, could now come together as part of the same church is a (or even the) huge question of the New Testament (as we see for example in the book of Ephesians).

As we read the Bible on its own terms I think we will see the issue of race and ethnicity being addressed on almost every page. For 21st century Christians to skip to the answer “all races are equal before God” without seeing how the theme develops throughout the whole Bible will lead both to a significantly deficient understanding of what large parts of the Bible are saying, and a wholly inadequate theology of race and ethnicity with which to live and work in our own multi-racial and multi-cultural settings.

Richard and Me in Thailand

In case you were wondering the photo is of a Tanzanian and a Brit in Thailand