Telling Stories

lennoxProfessor John Lennox was speaking at Kilmallie Free Church last Sunday. During his morning address, he spoke briefly about the importance of stories for forming our identity. To illustrate his point he used the example of people who suddenly begin to suffer from amnesia (perhaps due to a head injury). For the amnesiac, forgetting the past means uncertainty of who they are. Professor Lennox put it this way:

You have to build up their concept of who they are by telling them about incidents that happened in their past.

To me, this is an excellent illustration of how as Christians our identity is shaped by a knowledge of God’s purposes in history. As Christians, we build up our concept of who we are by telling and retelling the stories of God’s people, by telling the stories of incidents that have happened in our past. Not ‘our past’ as individuals, but as part of the People of God (Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 10, for example). We build up our concept of who we are by understanding the story of the People of God, the story of the Messiah, the story of the Church. As the Church, we have a story that undergirds our identity. Buying into the false stories of the world (any story embedded in culture, whether in the arts, in politics or in science which is at odds with God’s revealed truth) will weaken our identity – we will never truly understand who we really are. Our task as the Church is to redeem art, politics and science in all their richness and meaning by understanding them within the true story of God’s purposes.

When we are new to the faith, in the early days and months of following Jesus, we are in a sense amnesiacs. We have to find a new identity. It’s a new identity rooted in the old in important ways (we still remain ‘us’), but it’s recovering things that have been lost (not necessarily lost in our experience, but lost in us as human beings). It’s recovering a true, healthy identity. The real ‘us’ in Jesus Christ. That’s why I think the analogy of amnesia is really quite powerful. We have no memory or experience of what it is to be truly human until we become disciples of Jesus Christ.

It struck me quite forcefully on Sunday that we don’t only tell stories of the past, but of the future. Our certain hope, which we read about in Romans 8 last Sunday evening – of the return of Messiah, the resurrection, our full adoption as children of God, and of a redeemed creation – this too is part of the story that forms our identity. We don’t just build up our concept of who we are by telling about incidents that happened in our past, but also about incidents that will happen in our future.

The Conversion of the Imagination

paul2A couple of weeks ago in Kilmallie Free Church, we started studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As part of the groundwork for the series, I was thinking about a way to capture Paul’s intent in chapters 1 and 2 of the letter. A way to set up the study, to shake things up a little! The words of Richard Hays came to mind (actually about what Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, but apt for Ephesians too):

Paul…was calling Gentiles to understand their identity anew in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ – a gospel message comprehensible only in relation to the larger narrative of God’s dealing with Israel… As a result, Jew and Gentile alike found themselves summoned by the gospel story to a sweeping re-evaluation of their identities, an imaginative paradigm shift so comprehensive that it can only be described as a ‘conversion of the imagination’. The Conversion of the Imagination, 5-6

Now, this is theologian-speak, so it may need a little teasing out. Hays is pointing out two important things about the way Paul understands Christian discipleship. They’re important to us as we set out to study Ephesians, because they’re apparent in the letter itself.

  1. Christian faith is not just what we believe about God, but what we believe about ourselves. That’s the ‘imagination’ bit. Not imagination in terms of fluffy unicorns, or ‘what would it be like to base jump off the north face of the Ben’, but imagination in terms of a mental exercise, something that goes on in our heads. Often we put belief in God so far out in front that what we believe about ourselves is barely on our radar. In fact, we sometimes have the mistaken impression that to think about ourselves is somehow a manifestation of pride and unbecoming for the Christian. That’s not right. This particular mental exercise is to do with questions like: who am I? why am I here? They’re questions of identity.
  2. Christian faith is not really about truths in the abstract, a list of prepositional truths that we assent to. Sure, there are things we believe, and we can write them down in a list. But, Paul believes that it’s when we understand these truths as part of a story, the story of God’s unfolding purposes in the world, that things really start to take off in terms of our Christian discipleship. And so, in Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul rehearses the story of Israel, the promised Messiah, and the Goal of God’s Purposes. He sets out how the Ephesians became part of this story. And he tells them that understanding this story is so important that it’s his constant prayer for them.

So, the ‘Conversion of the Imagination’ is not really an event, but a process. It’s a ‘imaginative paradigm shift’ (a radical change in how we think about ourselves) that might be more radical when we first see it, but that sets a trajectory that doesn’t really stop during our lives. We are always learning more about God’s purposes as revealed in Holy Scripture. We are always fitting more things into the story, and understanding how aspects of our lives relate to, or are incorporated into this story.

Unless we understand the Big Picture, we won’t understand Our Part in It. Unless we understand the story, we won’t understand our place in it, our role in it. How we’re supposed to be living; what we’re supposed to be doing; what does salvation mean for us, in the end – all these are part of it. If you’ve never read the Lord of the Rings and you read a random chapter from the Two Towers, it’s not going to mean much. In fact, you might get totally the wrong end of the stick. You might come away feeling pretty despondent about the story of tragedy, struggle and defeat. And that Tolkien was a bit morose. But, if you’ve read the whole trilogy, you’ll see the richness in that chapter and you’ll immediately understand its significance. The bigger picture sets the whole in a context of hope.

Just as important, since this is a real story (unlike Tolkien), our participation in it joins us together with Jesus Christ. Assenting to a list of prepositional truths is not Christianity. Merely knowing a story is not Christianity. Christianity is knowing Jesus, but it’s more than that. Christianity is following Jesus. And following is what happens when we are living within the story of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

So, the idea of the Conversion of the Imagination is about being transformed by the ‘renewing of our minds’ – in a very particular way. It’s about the light that’s shed on our lives and our self-understanding by our knowledge of where God’s story is going, how Jesus is realising its goal, and how we fit into it as his disciples. And that is truly transformative.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. Ephesians 1:16-19

Jesus, Son of David

emptytombThe Gospel of Matthew opens with these words,

The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

This Gospel is big on fulfilment and these two Old Testament figures take a prominent place in its opening because Jesus is being portrayed as part of a much bigger story. In the last post I looked again at Jesus, Son of Abraham. This post looks at Jesus as the Son of David.

Whilst God’s promise to Abraham was the Covenant Promise of Life, David was given a Covenant Promise of a Righteous Kingdom and King. At the time of King David, the promises to Abraham had been playing out in the lives of the patriarchs for centuries. The Israelites had increased in number, even in slavery in Egypt, and had made their Exodus to Sinai to become a nation under God, formed around another covenant, the covenant of Moses (which serves the deeper purposes of the promise to Abraham). The nation had taken possession of the land which God had promised, and had appointed kings. Kings had come from Abraham – as had been promised. The promises to Abraham were now held by a political, military, nation-state, which could hope for peace and prosperity under its king; who exercised authority over injustice and evil, and protected his people from harm. The Kingdom of God was established on earth, a mustard seed, a small beginning. And all within the context of the worship of God the King in Jerusalem. In the heady days of David’s reign, God made a covenant with him.

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever (2 Sam 7:11-16).

This is the Covenant Promise of a Righteous Kingdom and King, through which the Covenant Promise of Life would be realised. The Kingdom of God, on earth. Of course, David’s kingdom declined; compromised, messy, fatally flawed. David’s days ended. He was not the king who could make the Covenant Promise of Life a reality. Yet the hope remained of the ultimate king, the Anointed One, the Messiah, who would bring the Kingdom of God and its peace, whose throne would be established forever.

Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:5-7).

As the years went by, hope faded. The nation was divided under compromised kings, exile followed. Even after the return to the land, the decline continued, until under Roman rule, the hope of God’s kingdom seemed as far away as ever. When would the Messiah appear, to bring in the Kingdom of God? At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew is clear. Jesus is the Son of David, Jesus is the Messiah: ‘This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…’ (Matthew 1:18).

After Jesus is crucified, his credentials as the Messiah are in tatters. But, his death turns out to bring life and forgiveness. And, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew we again find the theme of Fulfilment. We find the resurrected, living Jesus speaking these words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The Messiah is alive. Not only that, but the Messiah is Mighty God as well as being human. In the Messiah, God has become King. His house and his kingdom will endure forever. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He is bringing in the Kingdom of God through salvation, and through judgement.

And that’s important. Because this is all history. A real story. And you’re in it.

Jesus, Son of Abraham

stars4Last Sunday, I spoke at Kilmallie Free Church on ‘The Gospel of Fulfilment’, an introduction to the Gospel of Matthew. We looked at how the ‘bookends’ to the Gospel point to the good news of Jesus Christ as part of a much bigger story, the story which unfolds in the Old Testament. In the first words of the Gospel, Matthew writes:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

The genealogy that follows makes a big play on these two Old Testament figures and the fact that Jesus is descended from them. They are picked out by Matthew because God made covenants with (gave promises to) each of these figures. Matthew wants to show in his gospel that Jesus has fulfilled these promises – that Jesus is completing the story. We didn’t have too much time to look at the texts involved, so I’m posting briefly on ‘Son of Abraham’ now – with ‘Son of David’ to follow.

The promises given to Abraham (then Abram) can be found in three parts of the book of Genesis: 12:1-3, 15:1-21 and 17:1-22. In each encounter with God, Abraham is told a little more about what God is promising. When we put them together, we find that there are three main components to what God is promising. On Sunday, I put them under the title of The Covenant Promise of Life:
  • A Relationship of Blessing with the Creator (‘I will bless you’, 12:2; ‘I am a shield to you’, 15:1; Abram counted righteous through faith, 15:6; ‘walk before me’, 17:1; ‘my covenant is with you’, 17:4; ‘to be God to you’, 17:7; ‘I will bless her (Sarai)’, 17:16)
  • Descendants to Bless the Nations (12:2-3; 15:5; 17:5,7)
  • A Secure and Fruitful Homeland (12:1; 15:18; 17:8)

This covenant is an everlasting covenant (17:7), which is important. The biblical scholar David JA Clines has perhaps put the purpose of this covenant and its promises better than anyone, in his definition of the theme of the Pentateuch:

The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.1

The promises have to be understood against the story of Genesis up to that point. God’s good world has descended into violence because of human sin. The relationship between humanity and their creator, the essence of true life, is broken; tribes and clans are at war; survival is difficult, land is precious (read chapters 12-16 to see all this playing out). Against this backdrop, God speaks to Abram, an everyday Chaldean; speaks promises which will change the course of history, which will see the original intentions for humanity recovered through the redemptive power of God.

The promises to Abraham (as re-stated to Isaac and Jacob) are a re-affirmation of the primal divine intentions, not a replacement intention. They affirm God’s intention for humanity to live in a good world, in relationship with their Maker. These are Covenant Promises of Life. It’s fascinating when we get glimpses of this theology in these early narratives, such as in Genesis 13:10, where the fertile Jordan valley is described as being like ‘the garden of the Lord’, a reference to Eden, the primal Secure and Fruitful Homeland.

These Covenant Promises of Life are, to the New Testament writers, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He has come to make these promises a reality. They are not to be ‘spiritualised’. For how this plays out in relation to the promise of A Secure and Fruitful Homeland, see here. As the Old Testament story unfolds, these promises become concrete in the formation of the nation of Israel, who worship Yahweh their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the land of Israel. The family-faith of Abraham becomes political state, securing its borders and seeking to achieve a society of righteousness and peace. God’s promise to Abraham about kings (17:6) is realised. But, it’s a messy, compromised, interim state. The vision is never realised, and any hope seems to ultimately be buried under failure. But, this is the way that the recovery of those original divine intentions for humanity unfolds. It is, to coin a phrase, the Extraordinary in the Everyday. Into that story, at its lowest ebb, comes a baby born as the Son of Abraham, and the Son of David (that’s the next post).

To finish this one, we can see how Jesus is portrayed as the Son of Abraham at the end of Matthew’s gospel. When we turn to the last words of this literary work (Matt 28:19), we find Jesus speaking these words:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

After the story that unfolds in the Gospel of Matthew, of Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection, we find him alive, commanding the good news to be taken to all nations. In Jesus, the Son of Abraham, the Covenant Promises of Life are taken world-wide – all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, counted righteous through faith in him. And that’s why we are his disciples. And why we are part of a vast number of disciples, like the stars.

Notes: 1. David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, JSOTS 10 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978), 30, emphasis added.