Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Cary’

Sermon 01-29-17: “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

February 7, 2017


Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20

[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]

leah-remini-cover-768x1024Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!

As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.

After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”

Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.” Read the rest of this entry »

“Opening the Scriptures”: A new sermon series starting this Sunday

May 5, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

I wrote the following for our weekly electronic newsletter.

In Luke 24:13-35, two disciples of Jesus are returning from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus, about eight miles away. It’s Easter Sunday. Although some of their fellow disciples told them that they found the tomb of Jesus empty, they don’t know what to make of it. As of yet, alongside most of their fellow disciples, they don’t believe that their Lord has been resurrected.

So they head for home, discouraged and confused.

Jesus meets them on the road, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At Jesus’ prompting, they tell him about the events of Good Friday as well as the reports of the empty tomb.

Jesus tells them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then Luke writes: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Beginning with Moses and all the prophets… in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

I don’t blame you if these words surprise you. Except for a few scattered verses in Isaiah and Malachi that we hear every Advent or Christmas season, we modern Christians probably don’t think that the Old Testament has much to say about Jesus.

After all, we call it the Old Testament because it’s obsolete, right?

Needless to say, this was not the attitude of Jesus or the early Church. In fact, the only Bible they had at the time was the Old Testament. When Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he was literally talking about the Old Testament (even as we rightly apply these words to the New Testament as well).

From the perspective of Jesus, Paul, the other New Testament writers, and the early Church, the Old Testament, far from being obsolete, was a treasure trove of information about Jesus.

I confess, like many of you, I didn’t always see it that way.

But my attitude began to change several years ago, when I was preparing to preach a sermon on Jonah. I was reading a new commentary by theologian Phillip Cary, who turned my world upside down with one startling sentence: “Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.”

This Old Testament book was about Christ? Like all the other Old Testament books?

I then discovered that until very recently, that’s the way the Church had always read the Old Testament. We modern Christians are the weird ones who often think that the Old Testament has little to say to us.

In a new sermon series starting this Sunday, I hope I can instill within you my enthusiasm for seeing Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. We’re going to begin near the beginning, with Genesis 3:1-15.

How does God “speak” to us?

February 2, 2016

In a blog post today, Anne Kennedy tackles a popular idea in evangelical thought: that God speaks to us outside of his Word—so much so that we say, “God told me to do this,” or “I feel that God is leading me to do that” without reference to what God tells us through scripture. She admits she’s tempted to use this language, and she has used this language in the past, but she’s giving it up.

It’s a principled, theological choice, and it’s been very hard to carry forward. First of all, it has forced me to see where I haven’t really believed scripture to be sufficient. Has God spoken? Why, yes he has. In the scriptures. They were written a long time ago, but God uses them to work on the insides of each Christian in an intimate, personal way. I read the bible all the time, and God uses those words to cut open my heart of stone. Often, it feels like he’s leaping out of the page in bodily form. But he isn’t speaking audibly to me. He isn’t using impressions and feelings. He is speaking to me, through the scriptures. I don’t really always enjoy that process. It is often painful and difficult. I would like something extra and something more than the bible. But the bible itself says it is enough. The scriptures are sufficient to make me complete for every good work.

Second, it has forced me to exercise my mind and will in the making of decisions. I pray differently now than I did before. When I could say, ‘God called me’ or ‘God led me’, the onus was on God not to screw up. And when I did something foolish, I was quick to blame him for my error. Conflating my sinful desires with the leading of God himself was the easy comfortable way. But also, dare I say it, the ugly way. God, of course leads and guides me, but it’s not me sitting around waiting for the word. I don’t get a special Holy Spirit download of words and impressions. I have to read the bible, pray, look at my actual circumstances, act, beg God to stop me if I’m doing the wrong thing, and keep inching forward in what feels like the darkness. But all the time, the more mature I become as a Christian, God is building wisdom in my inner parts, opening and closing the vistas that surround me, providentially moving me in the direction he wants me to go. I don’t need that special word. The scripture is sufficient especially with the Holy Spirit wielding it deftly at the mind and heart.

She is making the exact same point that theologian Phillip Cary makes in his book Good News for Anxious ChristiansIn fact, Cary complains that this waiting around for God to tell us, for example, whom to marry, or what school to go to, or what job to take, or what kind of $65 million private jet to purchase, is a recent development in the history of evangelical thought. According to Cary, it never occurred to previous generations of Protestants to think that God gave such explicit instructions. Instead, they believed, God’s guidance came through the Bible as mediated by the Holy Spirit and our own God-given wisdom.

In the church I grew up in (a Southern Baptist one in suburban Atlanta), we would be rightly suspicious of people who said, “God told me…,” yet even we talked in youth group of being “in” or “out of” God’s will. (Have you heard that before?) That God has one (ideal) plan for each person’s life, and it’s up to each person to discover what it is. You’d better not get it wrong, either. Because being “out of” God’s will—sometimes called “missing” God’s will—could mean a lifetime of misery—unless or until you decided to get back on the path of God’s will.

One problem with using language of “God told me,” being “in” or “out of” God’s will, or “missing God’s will” is that it underestimates God’s sovereignty and providence. God isn’t “in control” inasmuch as we submit our lives to his will; he’s in control regardless. God’s plan for our lives isn’t sidetracked by our failure to do one thing or another. Why? Because, with his foreknowledge, he’s already accounted for our actions—good and bad, faithful and unfaithful—and worked all of them into his plan for us.

Another problem with this language is that it underestimates God’s grace. Yes, we may feel more confident and courageous knowing that a particular course of action has been sanctioned by a specific “word” from the Lord. But even apart from such a word, we can be confident that God will redeem our actions and use them for good.

Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.

Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.

The gospel in Genesis 18

December 17, 2014

Phillip Cary begins his Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah with these powerful and convicting words:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

Like the whole Bible, this particular Old Testament book is about Christ. 

For the past year or so, I’ve taken this message to heart, and it’s changed my preaching for the better. It’s also changed the way I read the Old Testament. It’s not that I now read the Old Testament as allegory: I believe the Old Testament reports the history that it does first because these events really happened. But I’m convinced that the Old Testament is filled with signs that point to Jesus, whether its authors intended them or not.

For example, I’m currently re-reading Genesis. In Chapter 18, when the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on their behalf. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Likewise, Abraham is emboldened to ask if God will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it, then 40, then 35, on down to ten. Even for the sake of ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city. Abraham doesn’t dare to ask about fewer than that, but he probably got the point: no one in Sodom was righteous. Lot and his family were saved, but as the men of Sodom complained to him, Lot and his family were merely sojourners (Genesis 19:9), not citizens.

So let’s ask the question Abraham didn’t ask: What if there were only one righteous person? Would God spare the lives of the people for the sake of the one?

We already know the answer to that. God answered that question on the cross. Jesus Christ was the one righteous person for whose sake God offers salvation to the world. Christ lived his life and died his death on behalf of the ungodly.

Isn’t that beautiful? It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to make that connection even a couple of years ago. The next time I preach this passage, I promise I will!

I’ve written about this Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament before, including right here.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Does God speak to us personally through his Word?

October 27, 2014

As I blogged about last year, theologian Phillip Cary, an evangelical, would say that the only way we hear God’s voice is through scripture. How we apply this word from God to our lives is a matter of God-given wisdom, not any kind of divine revelation. I appreciate what Cary is saying: among other things, it guards against believing that the Spirit will reveal to us something that contradicts God’s Word, which is near the heart of my disagreement with fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger Jason Micheli. Moreover, whatever word we “hear” from God will never be as authoritative as the word that he’s given us in scripture.

All that to say, like Cary, I’m suspicious of Christians who speak with great confidence about what God “told” them. How do they know for sure that they’re hearing the voice of God, rather than their own intuition? If what God tells us, by contrast, is written in black and white (and sometimes red) in the Bible, then at least the answer is clear.

My friend Tom Harkins shares my concern. In the comments sections of this blog, he’s described an experience in which he heard a Christian singer-songwriter say, “The Lord gave me this next song.” Upon hearing it, Tom thought, “If that were true, then the Lord must be a really bad songwriter!”

Nevertheless, I can’t agree completely with Cary. I think all of us Christians have a sense from time to time of being “led” by God or “spoken to” by God. (The scare quotes indicate that, as far as I can tell, God rarely speaks to us in an audible voice.) I certainly have had that sense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. In my own Methodist tradition, all of us clergy have had to defend our “call” from God to the Board of Ordained Ministry. We believe that God does tell certain individuals that he wants them to go into ministry. This call seems more personal than merely saying that, given this combination of gifts, talents, and interests that I possess, going into ministry would be a wise thing to do. (As best I can tell, that’s Phillip Cary’s position.)

So I would say that the Bible is the primary means by which we hear God’s voice. I would also say that when we read scripture, we may have a supernatural encounter with God—and that the Holy Spirit may speak a personal word to our lives and situations.

But what is that experience like? How do we discern God’s voice speaking directly to us and and the situations we face through scripture? As I said in my sermon yesterday, N.T. Wright offers some helpful words from his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He says that when Paul talks about the Bible’s “rebuking” us,

It means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.

This seems exactly right to me. Do any of you disagree?

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.

More on a Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament

October 5, 2014

Last week I wrote about how I’ve come to believe that all of the Old Testament is about Jesus. I believe that when I preach Old Testament passages, I am obligated to find Jesus in them and preach Jesus through them. I like the way one commenter on that post put it: “the new, in the old, contained; the old, in the new, explained.”


Tim Keller showed me how easy it is to make connections between Old Testament passages and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I said in the previous post, theologian Phillip Cary was the first Christian thinker to show me this truth, but Tim Keller, my favorite contemporary preacher, taught me how to put it into practice.

Predictably, not everyone likes Keller’s approach to the Old Testament. This Christian apologist, Tim Chaffey, accuses Keller of eisegesis—reading something (or someone, namely Jesus) into the text that isn’t there (at least a lot of the time). Chaffey says that people like Keller use the Emmaus story, specifically Luke 24:27 to justify reading the Old Testament in a Christo-centric way. Chaffey writes:

Those who promote the Christo-centric approach generally defend their view by quoting Luke 24:27. Take a close look at the two statements below. The first is the actual text of Luke 24:27, the second is how most Christo-centric proponents explain the verse.

1)      “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27)

2)      And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them that all of the Scriptures were things concerning Himself.

I wouldn’t go nearly so far as number two. When I say that “all of the Old Testament is about Jesus,” I don’t mean that every single passage, much less every jot and tittle, is really pointing to Jesus if only we could learn to interpret it in the right way. (I also don’t think Keller believes that, either.) Rather, as the author of margin notes in the ESV Study Bible puts it, “Jesus explained to them how not only the explicit prophecies about the Messiah but also the historical patterns of God’s activity again and again throughout the OT looked forward to Jesus himself.”

That seems exactly right: the Old Testament doesn’t point to Jesus only in its explicit messianic prophecies, but also in “historical patterns of God’s activity again and again.”

In my church’s electronic newsletter last week, for example, I applied this interpretive lens to the David and Goliath story as follows:

Even in last week’s scripture about David and Goliath, for instance, it was easy to see how this story points to Jesus. The people of Israel were facing a fearsome enemy that they were too weak, too afraid, and too powerless to defeat on their own. Just as Goliath was a “champion” for the Philistines (1 Samuel 17:4), Israel needed their own champion to fight and win the battle for them—a representative or substitute who could do for them what they were unable do for themselves.

Their champion, David, had the kind of faith in God that they couldn’t muster on their own. And in rejecting Saul’s armor and weaponry, David confronted his enemy not in strength but in apparent weakness and vulnerability. Yet he defeated the enemy and saved his people in the most surprising way imaginable.

Do you see how this reminds us of Jesus? Our Lord became humanity’s representative or substitute. He lived a life of perfect faithfulness to his Father that we were unable to live for ourselves. On the cross, he defeated the fearsome giants who threatened to destroy us—sin, Satan, and death. And he did so in the most surprising way possible—through the cross, a symbol of weakness and shame.

Is this unwarranted eisegesis, or do you believe that the Lord intends for us to make these kinds of connections?

In my next post on this subject, I’ll talk about how the early Church read and interpreted the Old Testament.

The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is about Christ

September 29, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an excellent commentary on Jonah written by Phillip Cary. He said something in the second paragraph of the introduction that changed my life:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

“Like the whole Bible,” this Old Testament book is about Christ.

If, unlike me, you never attended a mainline Protestant seminary, you might miss how shocking these words are. But trust me, one would never hear this sentiment expressed at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. On the contrary, we mostly didn’t study something called the Old Testament; we studied the Hebrew Bible. To call it the Old Testament, after all, would imply a continuity with the New Testament that critical scholarship within the realm of mainline Protestantism denies at every turn.

While the Hebrew Bible happens to be included in our Christian Bibles, it doesn’t really belong to us Christians. At best, we’re overhearing someone else’s conversation. Therefore, the strange first-person plural pronouns (“let us create”) for God in Genesis 1 cannot be a Trinitarian reference. The “prophet like Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:15 cannot be Jesus. The “virgin who shall conceive and give birth to a son” of Isaiah 7:14 cannot be pointing to Christmas, irrespective of what it meant in its original context. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot say anything about Christ’s atoning death. (Worse, from a liberal mainline perspective, this chapter says the most about penal substitution, so it certainly can’t be referring to Jesus!)

Why would an ostensibly Christian seminary, much less one aligned with the United Methodist Church, fail to emphasize the continuity between Old and New Testaments in its core Old Testament classes? After all, this wasn’t an undergraduate Bible class at a secular public university, whose students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. We’re under no obligation to respect religious pluralism. Yet I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we were discouraged from thinking that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.

Did the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Old Testament not foresee the coming of Christ? In which case, as this Christianity Today article implies, the Old Testament era was a mistake (Plan A) that God put right with the coming of Jesus (Plan B). What kind of doctrine of scripture would this imply? Where would this leave doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty?

It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

So I can sympathize with the average layperson who dreads hearing a sermon on the Old Testament for fear that it won’t be about Jesus. I’m guessing that in most mainline churches, that’s the case. (After all, their pastors went to places like Candler!)

But I hope that my parishioners know better. Every sermon I preach is about Jesus, in one way or another. I preach the gospel through every sermon. I preach Christ crucified in every sermon. And why not? I can’t improve on that message. And that message never gets old.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Does God speak to us “in our hearts”? (Part 3)

August 26, 2013

goodnews1As I’ve written about in two previous blog posts, here and here, Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians challenged me to rethink my understanding of how God speaks to us. Or should I say “speaks” to us in quotation marks? Because I’ve never met a Christian who claims that God spoke in an audible voice, only as a strong intuition in their heart.

And that’s exactly the kind of anxiety to which Cary is addressing his book: How do we know? How do we discern God’s voice from our own? According to people who believe that God has spoken to them, there aren’t many criteria for deciding: One criterion would obviously be, “Does this ‘voice’ contradict what God has revealed in scripture?'” That doesn’t seem especially helpful to me, since many choices we make in life won’t contradict scripture, yet we wouldn’t say, therefore, that “God told me” to do this thing.

Another criterion seems to be that God’s “voice” is a really, really strong intuition. It’s a gut feeling. How else do we interpret, for example, what Baptist pastor Charles Stanley says about “hearing”  God’s voice in this interview from earlier this year in Christianity Today?

You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear?

For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that’s so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t hear a voice, but it’s so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.

I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.

Did you catch that? “[A]fter a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.” So God’s voice is something we discern over time, through trial and error. We make a decision based on an intuition that we think represents “God’s voice.” It turns out poorly. So we decide that wasn’t God’s voice. Then we make another decision based on an intuition. It turns out well. So we decide that must have been God’s voice.

Am I misinterpreting what Stanley is saying here? I don’t think so.

If Cary were reading this, he would say that what Stanley is really doing—which is what all of us Christians should do—is learning to make wise decisions. Over time, often through bitter experience, making wise decisions becomes easier (I hope!). Maybe it even becomes automatic, something we’re not even conscious of. The Bible exhorts us not to ask God to tell us what to do in every situation, but to ask God to give us wisdom. With wisdom, we can often make the right decision no matter what life throws our way.

So perhaps Stanley isn’t obeying the voice of God so much as the voice of wisdom? Who knows?

Regardless, I’m guessing that most of the time the difference isn’t that important.

But I believe the way we speak about our decision-making is. Look at the Stanley quote again: for him, making a bad decision means disobeying God. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of opportunity to feel guilty! Why can’t we just say we made a bad decision, but in good faith, and that making a bad decision isn’t necessarily a character flaw or a sin? That it isn’t necessarily the result of not praying hard enough?

Someone asked me if I (or Cary) wasn’t limiting God’s role in our lives by suggesting that God doesn’t speak to us nearly as often as the “evangelical mystics” among us think. On the contrary: if I’m right, then God will work to bring good out of any decision we make and any circumstance we face. It’s just that some decisions are better than others.

If “God told you,” then who am I to disagree with God?

August 14, 2013

goodnews1I blogged a couple of weeks ago about theologian Phillip Cary’s Good News for Anxious Christians. You may recall that I said that Cary rejects the idea that God speaks to us in our hearts—as an intuition. He argues that the only voice we hear “in our hearts” is our own. Listening to our own voice is good and necessary when it comes to making decisions, but that voice, he says, shouldn’t be mistaken for God.

If this idea bothers you like it bothers me, he would say it’s only because we’ve been influenced by a few generations’ worth of bad theology—that even 50 years ago, most evangelical Christians would say that the way that we hear God’s voice is through God’s revealed word, the Bible. By all means, we study, meditate on, and apply God’s Word to help make our own decisions—not find out what God’s decision is for us, if you know what I mean.

By this logic, therefore, there are any number of decisions that we can make that would be fully in harmony with God’s will for us.

You might be ready to throw your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or PC against the wall at this point, but bear with me long enough to consider the virtue of Cary’s viewpoint. For example, I’ve talked to plenty of parishioners and others over the years who have explained decisions they’ve made by saying something like, “God told me to do it.”

They never mean that God spoke to them in an audible voice. Rather, they always mean that they had a gut feeling, an intuition, a voice in their hearts, which they’ve identified as God’s voice. How do they know it’s God’s voice? They just know. O.K., but haven’t they had other gut feelings, other intuitions, other “voices in their hearts” that they didn’t identify as God’s voice? How do they distinguish one from the other?

It’s easy to see—and this is Cary’s main point—how easily this discernment process can be a source of anxiety and stress, right?

When I was in the ordination process, a well-meaning pastor was giving a group of us future ordinands a pep talk. He described how stressful being a pastor can sometimes be. He said, “No matter how bad things get, no matter what bad things happen to you, no matter how badly people mistreat you, just remember: You’ve still got your call from God, and no one can take that away.”

Many people said, “Amen!” I wanted to say, “Oh, brother!”

I thought, “Well, that’s no comfort at all! Because what we perceive as a call from God didn’t exactly come to any of us as a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus. We didn’t hear Jesus speak to us. And if things go as badly as he suggests, then who’s to say we didn’t misunderstand our call?” See what I mean?

At the very least, we must admit that people in the Bible encountered God in a much less ambiguous way.

I’m not even saying I completely agree with Cary. I’m pretty sure I don’t: for example, I’m worried he doesn’t leave enough room for the work of the Holy Spirit. But we Methodist preachers, at least, often speak a lot of hot air about “God’s call.”

What if, instead, God has spoken to us through scripture, given us amazing brains with which to think things through, instilled wisdom within us, and put trustworthy people in our lives (especially in church!) to guide us, so that we can make our own decisions?

We still might make bad decisions this way, by all means. But God has a nice way of redeeming even bad decisions. And here’s where the Holy Spirit comes in: he’s involved in every part of the process—not determining our decisions, but working through them, good or bad.

Finally (and this is my point, not Cary’s): Are these people who “hear God’s voice” in this way willing to say that their revelation from God is as equally binding on them as the Bible, which all Christians accept—to some extent, at least—as God’s revealed Word? Does their intuition carry the same weight as holy scripture?

If so, then there’s no arguing with them, is there? They say that God told them to do something. If I happen to think that what they say “God told them to do” is actually a foolish course of action, then I’m clearly wrong, aren’t I? I’m outside of God’s will. I’m disobeying the very voice of God!

Do you see the great potential for abuse here? God help congregations whose pastors are always doing what God told them to do, rather than relying on scripture, and reason, and the wisdom and guidance of people who know more than they do!

This is the very theme of a great Daniel Amos song, “Big Warm Sweet Interior Glowing,” posted below. Here’s one verse:

He will always trust his own vision
Could be a dangerous man
He’s guided by no one
Attracted to the sound
Of the interior voices
He will not listen hard enough
To any other man

He gets a big warm sweet interior glowing
He gets a grand elitist superior knowing
This convinces us he’s infallible—yeah

“If we were as much like Christ as Jonah”

July 5, 2013
Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

The usual way we read Jonah—the subject of my next sermon—is to stand in judgment of him, but on what basis can we possibly do that? Because you and I have never heard the word of the Lord and then done exactly opposite of what that word said? I agree that at his worst Jonah is pretty bad (again, who among us isn’t?), but at his best he’s not bad at all. In fact, he’s positively Christ-like. Jesus thought so, too.

Phillip Cary, in his amazingly good Brazos Theological Commentary, agrees. He says that Jonah’s despair is much like Job’s, who wished he had never been born.

And yet in handing himself over to God in this way, Jonah is also at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. He propitiates the wrath of God by submitting to it himself so that others may be freed. We would all be doing well if we were as much like Christ as Jonah is. Though Jonah may give himself up in despair, he does have his priorities straight: he treats the lives of these good sailors as more valuable than his own. There is enough real love in this to be the beginning of good things, including Jonah’s own obedience. In Jonah 2 he turns to God in heartfelt prayer and trust—but only after he has given himself up to death for the sake of these people he hardly knows. Greater love has no man (John 15:13).[†]

For my many fellow Christians who think it’s inappropriate to talk about propitiating—or doing something to satisfy—God’s wrath (assuming they believe that God even has wrath), please notice that this is exactly what’s happening here. Jonah’s sacrifice foreshadows the cross. It’s more evidence for the central place of substitutionary atonement in our understanding of the cross.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 66.