Book Reviews

The Last Word (well, not really)

N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and New Testament scholar, has become a theologian of note in recent years, both in his homeland and points west.  In all of his popular writing, he does a most admirable job of making the not-terribly-simple quite accessible to the average reader.

In 2005, he published The Last Word:  Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture(Harper SanFrancisco; published as Scripture and the Authority of Godby SPCK in the UK).  It is, essentially, a book on hermeneutics – what theologians otherwise call the study of biblical interpretation.  The title is sufficiently intriguing as to make one want to read it.  And with an artistic version of the Last Supper on the cover (remember The DaVinci Code?), I suspect it has been a popular read.  It’s not surprising that Wright would author a book on the Bible, given that he is the current President of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Essentially, Wright’s thesis is a definition of “the authority of Scripture”.  The phrase, “the authority of Scripture” has been used and abused throughout Christian history, and Wright wants to clarify the meaning for a new generation.  What he says is, “‘Authority of Scripture’ Is a Shorthand for ‘God’s Authority Exercised through Scripture” (page 23 heading, emphasis his).

As part of the process of unpacking his thesis, Wright attempts to debunk some terms that are tossed around somewhat haphazardly in all circles of Christian thought.  For example, we often hear the term ‘literal’ when it comes to an interpretation of Scripture.  Wright says, “For them (the Reformers), the ‘literal’ sense was the sense that the first writers intended” (page 73, emphasis his).  Nowadays, when we say, “The Bible says…”, we often are reading it through our own eyes with our own baggage.  What made the Reformation revolutionary was the desire to read the Bible as it was first intended by those who wrote down the words in the first place.

Rather than be strictly theoretical, Wright seeks to help the reader apply the theory.  On the matter of what it means to live by the authority of Scripture, he says, “Perhaps it is only under pressure from our cultured despisers that we will get down to the task we should never have abandoned, that of continually trying to understand and live by our foundation texts even better than our predecessors” (page 96).  That can look somewhat different for different folks, one might successfully argue, but it certainly is a fine place from which to begin dialogue.

Wright even bravely ventures into the liberal/conservative debate and what are the misreadings of Scripture found in each tradition.  Whether one falls on the liberal side of theology, the conservative side, or somewhere in between, the author offers an excellent challenge to define what we mean by various terms and phrases with characteristic effectiveness.

At 146 pages, this is not a long read, but it is a worthwhile one.  However, I doubt it will be “the last word” on biblical interpretation!


Witnessing next to the washroom

            Earlier this week, I had to travel to Peterborough for a meeting of our “Branch” there – a great group of people dedicated to promoting the Bible cause in that area.  As is common for me – I drive quite a lot in my work – I stopped for gas on the way there.  As sometimes happens (those who know me well would say often happens) when I stop for fuel, I availed myself of The Facilities.  In the midst of that common event, though, something rather uncommon happened.  (Read on.  I promise this isn’t toilet humour.)


           I entered the sole restroom at this gas station, and found it immaculate.  Neat.  Tidy.  Spic-and-span.  Virtually eat-off-the-floor clean.  It was so well kept, I almost felt guilty for using it.  I made sure I was very careful – as careful as I would be in using the bathroom as a guest in someone’s home.


            Normally, when I use the restroom at a gas station, I do my business and scoot.  No need for conversation; I’ve got a journey ahead of me, after all.  However, on that day, I felt the need to stop, upon exiting the restroom, to commend the staff for their work.


            There was a woman stocking shelves whose uniform betrayed that she worked there.  I just said, on my way by, “You have the cleanest washroom of any gas station I’ve ever visited.  Thanks!”


            She seemed a little taken aback, but then smiled and said, “Oh!  Thank you!”  Obviously, she doesn’t here that kind of comment very often.  I carried on with my trip, but made a mental note to stop there again.  I even wrote on my gas receipt, “Cleanest washroom EVER!”


            This got me wondering:  how often do we recognize something positively unusual, even superlative, and then actually commend those responsible?


            If a message we’ve heard in church particularly affected us, how often do we speak to the pastor, or send an email, that says more than, “Nice sermon, Pastor” (“If I had a nickel for every one of those…”, all you clergy are thinking to yourselves)?  How often do we tell the pastor how the message impacted us?


            If a loved one made a meal that we found especially scrumptious, how often do we say so?  If we are the recipient of a helpful word at just the right time, how often do we thank the person who offered us that word?


            You get the idea.  We feel better for having recognized the ways we’ve been blessed, and those whom we recognize are encouraged to do it again.  (As a preacher, I always say that good listeners make the preacher better; I think that’s true of us all.  I suspect that the restroom at that gas station will have been cleaned well once again because of my quick comment.)


            A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Proverbs 15.1, NLT). 


Here’s a bonus:  sharing that positive, encouraging word will also help your witness for Jesus.  When someone receives an edifying comment, she or he pays attention to where it came from.  And God is blessed by it, too.

(By the way, if you’re curious where that gas station is, it’s the Shell station on Waverley Road, north of the 401, in Bowmanville, Ontario.)


It’s all Hebrew to them

Paul Theophilus\' Hebrew class at TyndaleIt’s easy to love my job.  Where else can you walk into a room and get a round of applause before you open your mouth to speak?

Today, as part of my work with the Canadian Bible Society , I delivered some Hebrew Bibles to a class of Chinese students studying the Old Testament in its original language at Tyndale Seminary. This national program of the Society provides free Scriptures in the original languages to those studying for ministry. The class was expecting me, and when I showed up at the door, I was greeted with much applause. The students knew what they were receiving, and were truly grateful.

We should give thanks to God for those who labour – and I mean labour! – in the study of the original biblical languages. Many will be pastors; some will be scholars; perhaps a few will become translators, so that many more people can read the Bible in their heart language.

Pray for them. Encourage them. Let them know that what they are doing is important and meaningful. The average person in the pew doesn’t care what the Hebrew or Greek for a particular word says, but if the preacher or teacher can apply it appropriately to contemporary life because of his or her study of the language, then the whole church is enriched.

So – to Professor Theophilus’ class in Hebrew at Tyndale – God bless you! Keep up the good work, you and all who study Hebrew and Greek. God will use you mightily.


Blast Away!

            I took the train to London yesterday to pick up my Dad.  He had driven himself to one of the hospitals there, where he had an appointment to get some kidney stones ‘zapped’ out of him.  It was a simple enough procedure, but he wasn’t allowed to drive anywhere until today, so I went to pick him up.  We had a great conversation coming home, and it was a really good time for us to spend together.


            I won’t go into the details of how the procedure works, especially since I would be sure to relay it incorrectly!  However, the whole concept got me thinking:  wouldn’t it be great if all the unhelpful things inside us could be ‘zapped’ out?  To be able to have a quick procedure that would blast into tiny little pieces all the ‘stuff’ that keeps us from engaging fully with God?


            Be sure, as I am, that we all have stuff inside us that keeps us from engaging fully with God.  That chasm of sin that keeps us from a complete relationship with the Lord is deeper and wider than any of us would ever like it to be.  There are days when our desire to connect with God is overpowered by that stuff inside us that yanks us in another direction – to an addiction, an old habit, the wrong kinds of influences – you name it.  The Bible calls it our sinful nature, or the flesh.  Whatever you might like to call it, there is always a force inside us that keeps us from a complete relationship with the Lord.  It would be great to be able to go in and just zap it right out.


            Sounds strange, I know – but that’s what Jesus did.  He bridged that chasm of sin with the cross.  He paid the price to restore us to a right relationship with God.  He paid that price once for all.  It need not be paid again.  Jesus has done the ‘zapping’ !  He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so  that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right.  By his wounds you are healed” (1 Peter 2.24, NLT).  The wounds that Jesus bore blasted away our sin, blasted away that which would have power over us, but which cannot win the victory, for Jesus himself has already won the victory!


            So be encouraged:  the price has been paid, the stuff has been zapped, the sin has been atoned for.  Satan has been banished.  Death has been swallowed up in victory.  We can be fully engaged with God.  The One who lives inside us by faith is greater than the one who dwells in the world.  Thanks be to God!

Encouragement From The Word

Do you hear what I hear?

            What would you say if I told you that 50% of the world would never be able to hear the Bible in their heart language?  Yes, I did say 50%, and yes, I did say “hear”.  Intrigued?


            There are still around 3900 languages into which not one word of the Bible has yet been translated.  Some of those languages are strictly oral; that is, they have no written language – just spoken.  (A useful tidbit of information:  it was the Christian faith, and the desire to bring the Scriptures to new peoples, that brought about the creation of written languages in such places as Russia!)


            In some places, it would be, perhaps, impractical to publish printed Bibles where the culture is predominantly (or exclusively) oral.  In the coming months, the Canadian Bible Society will be partnering with an organization with which we have been involved before, called Faith Comes By Hearing.  It used to be a business that produced cassette tapes of the Bible for sale in different languages.  In more recent years, the organization has ‘morphed’ into a ministry that raises funds through major donors to be able to provide the Scriptures in a variety of languages via electronic players called ‘Proclaimers’.  They are programmed to broadcast the Bible being read in a particular language, and are powered by either the sun or a crank (when the sun is not out).  So far, they have been made available in 290 languages; their desire is to produce an audio Bible for every translation that has been prepared by a Bible Society or Wycliffe Bible Translators.  Where these Proclaimers are being used, the church is growing like gangbusters.


            This shouldn’t be surprising.  What has been learned by those who study mission is that the church grows exponentially where the common language of the people is used for worship and evangelism.  So it’s exciting to see the Word come alive to people for whom it might otherwise have been unknown because of the barrier of literacy.


            So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ” (Romans 10.17, NLT).  We who have the Scriptures in printed form, and can read them, may be inclined to take them for granted.  But 50% of the people in this world will never be able to afford to buy a Bible, even if they can read a language.  So our partnership with Faith Comes By Hearing will, we pray, help to bring the Bible alive in the hearts of more and more people as we seek to reach every person with the life-giving Word of God, and encourage its use.


KISSing in church

No, it’s not that.  I’m talking about the acronym – Keep It Simple, S****** (stupid, seminarian, whatever!). 

My wife and I took a Sunday off, together – a rarity anymore – and visited the Missionary Church in Stouffville, Ontario (not far from where we were camping).  Check them out at  Two things impressed me about that congregation.

First, we were welcomed warmly and sincerely by a member of the congregation who wasn’t even a scheduled greeter that day.  We were so impressed with her and the conversation we shared that I emailed the lead pastor to tell him that someone in his church greeted us the way he surely hoped she would!  Every church thinks it’s friendly, but it takes an outsider to tell you whether or not that’s true.  If first impressions mean a lot, a good one was made on Sunday, thanks to Martha.  Her conversation was a simple one, that got deeper as we led it deeper.  The KISS rule worked.

Second, the simplicity of the service impressed me.  There’s lots of talk about worship styles and such in this day and age, and I enjoy a broad variety in worship (as does, God, I hope).  The service at East Ridge was very straight-forward.  There was no ‘order of service’ in the bulletin – just announcements – but it basically went like this:

  • Welcome and announcements, opening prayer
  • Greet those around you
  • Songs
  • Children’s time
  • Prayer (following a little chat about mother’s day)
  • Scripture
  • Message
  • Song
  • Blessing

It was that simple.  Did you notice what was not there?

  • Responsive readings (Why do we use these?  People are so worried about when it’s their turn to read that they don’t really pay attention to the text and aren’t thereby edified.)
  • Fancy words (The language was mostly the sort of language we’d use on the street.  I say “mostly” because there were some rather ‘churchy’ words used in the message that a seeker might not grasp without a theological dictionary; some of this is very hard to avoid, though.)
  • The Offering (Wow.  How does a church survive without taking up an offering?  Simple:  those who are part of the community of faith give, without fanfare, either through pre-authorized remittance [like you do with your mortgage] or by some other means.  Guests who want to give can do so through some sort of basket or box as they enter or leave – though I saw nothing of this at East Ridge.  The offering didn’t even seem to be missed!)

My wife and I remarked on our way into Stouffville that, with all the new houses being built, a church would have to work pretty hard not to grow there.  East Ridge has a good-sized congregation, and a very new building, with a worship space that would seat around 500 by my guesstimate.  They reported their attendance for the previous Sunday at 260, so there is some room to grow.  And they will grow, because they promote KISSing in church!  They keep it simple!

Encouragement From The Word

If it’s all up to me, it ain’t gonna happen

            I attended a seminar on Wednesday that I had hoped would make me a better leader.  It was about coaching the people who work for you.  I always figure there’s more I can learn about how to be an encouragement to my staff, so off I went.


            Truthfully, I wasn’t that impressed with it.  While I did pick up a number of hopefully useful nuggets of information that can help to form me better as a leader, I found that much of it was a self-help seminar filled with strung-together clichés.  I knew no one else at the seminar personally, but by the end of it even some of them were starting to mock the leader.  That’s unfortunate, because it amounts to a missed opportunity on the part of both the seminar leader and those who gave up paying attention. 


            Perhaps, though, my mocking classmates understood something, either theologically or innately, that came to the front of my mind as I was hearing all about the importance of Human Potential:  if it’s all up to me, it ain’t gonna happen.


            The self-help movement often is couched in ersatz spiritual jib-jab, but in reality, it is most atheistic (or agnostic at best).  That is, when we place all our emphasis on human action, God is ignored. 

            Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” (Psalm 130.3, NLT).  Dependence on human action is frail at best, because we cannot be perfectly relied upon.  But God can!  Take a look at the next few verses of that Psalm:  But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.  I am counting on the Lord; yes, I am counting on him.  I have put my hope in his word.  I long for the Lord more than sentries long for the dawn, yes, more than sentries long for the dawn” (Psalm 130.4-6, NLT).

            Isn’t that great news?  We often fail.  God does not.  And even when we have neglected to bring God into the equation (which was his to begin with!) earlier on, he extends grace to us when we (finally) reach out to him. 

            Human potential has its place, but only under God.  So, be all that you can be!  Give thanks to God who enabled you to be all that you can be.  And ask God to build you even more.  He knows the difference you will make in reliance on him, instead of yourself.


Putting Your Money Where Your Mission Is

On Sunday, I had the privilege of speaking at West Toronto Baptist Church, an historic Fellowship Baptist congregation planted in the middle of a very diverse neighbourhood – “The Junction”, as it’s called (showing its railway influence).  This community of faith is composed of dozens of people bearing different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  Unlike so many other congregations, it looks like its community.  That’s a sign of health.

That impressed me.  But what impressed me even more was the congregation’s commitment to mission, at home and abroad.  My Sunday morning speaking was part of the congregation’s missions conference, which would see several agencies and missionaries addressing the church family about the needs that exist in our world.  I was delighted to have been in such great company!

The church’s commitment to mission goes beyond having an annual conference.  During the service, there was a presentation on how many different missionaries and mission agencies that are supported by the congregation – and it is not an especially large congregation.  The financial tally was significant:  $40,000 annually is given toward the support of missionaries and mission agencies in Canada and around the world. 

For some congregations, that wouldn’t seem like a great deal.  I asked, casually, what the congregation’s annual budget is.  Without any paperwork in her hand, my friend guesstimated that without the mission support, the budget was in the order of $113,000.

Isn’t that remarkable?  A full quarter of the church’s budget supports mission work.  And by “mission work” I’m not talking about relief and development, which some do classify as mission work:  the work they are supporting is in Scripture translation and distribution, relationship building, and sharing Jesus with others. 

West Toronto Baptist Church, keep up the good work.  You are helping to fulfill the great commission before our very eyes.

(To listen to the message I preached at West Toronto Baptist Church, click here.)

Encouragement From The Word

Preparing For Return

            As I write this – in the wee hours of Friday morning – I’m waiting for my wife to arrive home.  Hopefully, I’ll have been asleep for a little while when she arrives, as she’s not expected until 2 or 3 a.m., but I am anticipating her arrival with some delight.  She’s been away at the Orange conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  She and her travelling companions have, by all reports, had a great time of learning and fellowship, and will be implementing what they’ve learned.


            Diana and I are not fond of being apart for such spans of time (she’s been gone since Saturday night).  I suppose this is natural for two people who are head-over-heels in love with each other (yes, even after 16 years).  When it’s me who’s left at home, which is the less common scenario, I begin preparing for her return almost as soon as she leaves.  This is not only an emotional anticipation, but a physical one, too.  Usually, I clean house.  This time around, I cleaned house and had some new windows and doors installed.  Unfortunately, I’m not talented enough to make curtains for those new windows!  Still, when she’s gone, I prepare for her return.


            Thursday of this week may have passed by without much note, but in the traditional church calendar, it was Ascension Day.  It always falls on a Thursday, because it’s 40 days after Easter, which is always on a Sunday.  Ascension Day celebrates the time when the risen Lord Jesus commissioned his disciples for their future ministry and ascended into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of the Father (Acts 1).


            Even as Jesus ascended, he promised that he would come again.  There isn’t much that we know about the second coming of Jesus.  He himself said that only the Father knows the timeline (Mark 13.32).  Jesus even gives some advice on how to be ready for his return:  And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard!  Stay alert!” (Mark 13.33, NLT). 


            When Jesus ascended, his friends began their ministry in earnest, and throughout the New Testament, we see their witness as preparing for his coming again.


            What do we do, as followers of Jesus, to prepare daily for his return?   It could happen at any moment.  It’s not a matter of fear, but of faithfulness.