Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘main­stream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.

What does “Marcionite” mean?

Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.

The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.

How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?

While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.

This happens for at least three reasons:

1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.

The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.

2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.

I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.

3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.

Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.

How Can We Avoid This?

As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).

How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?

1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.

The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.

2. Teach biblical interpretation.

Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.

Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.

3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.


Kingdom and Covenant, Part 8

Here’s the final installment of the biblical story…

The King Creates a New People

Jesus told his followers that his leaving earth to return to the Father was for their benefit. While this may seem confusing at first, it comes with a great promise. Jesus told his followers that when he left, the Holy Spirit would come. The presence of the Spirit is the presenfamily of godce of Jesus with his people. After Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost. This fulfilled the Old Testament promises and assured Jesus’ followers that he was with them and would give them the power to fulfill the mission.

The New Testament calls the church the people of God. It is not that God has forgotten about Israel. Rather, there is a new Israel that includes both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus. The mark of the new covenant people is the Holy Spirit. All who believe in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit to dwell within them. The Holy Spirit unites the people of God to Jesus.

The Spirit puts the law of God into the hearts of God’s people and gives God’s people the ability to obey God. The New Testament, especially Paul’s writings, consistently refer to believers as those who are ‘in Christ.’ Those united to Christ are the new people of God. Thus, salvation in the New Testament is both individual and corporate. It is individual in that each member of the new covenant must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus. Each individual member is united to Christ. However, salvation is also corporate because God calls his people into a new community, a new family.

The King’s People Have a Mission

The New Testament gives further instructions about how to live as God’s people. The people of God are to be marked by holiness and mission. They are to be holy, set apart for God. They are not to live like those outside the covenant who continue in rebellion against God. In Christ, the image of God is being renewed in God’s people and they are to reflect this restoration in the way they live. Part of this holiness is to love one another. Unbelievers are to see the love God’s people share and see that this reflects the love of God for his people.humanity world

In addition to holiness, God’s people are to be marked by mission. Jesus commanded his followers to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They are to proclaim the glorious gospel to all peoples. Just as God commanded Adam to fill the earth with the image of God and commanded Israel to be a kingdom of priests, the church is to spread the good news and thus fill the earth with the glory of the gospel. The church in obedience to the great commission is begins to bring about the completion of God’s original intentions for humanity.

New Creation

Finally, the story of the Bible ends with new creation. Actually, this is not so much an ending as a new beginning, for the new creation is eternal. The New Testament teaches that one day Jesus will return to earth to complete the restoration of all things. This restoration is will be a new heaven and a new earth – a restored, new creation.

The new heaven and new earth resemble the garden of Eden in many ways, yet new creation will be better than the first creation. The new creation will be eternally without sin. In the new creation, the resurrected people of God will dwell with him forever. There will be no possibility of sin and corruption.

king-of-kingsThe return of Jesus will trigger a number of events. First, the people of God will be raised from the dead. While the Bible teaches that we are truly saved when we believe in Jesus, salvation is completed only when Jesus returns and raises our bodies from the dead. These will be new, glorified bodies fit for the new creation.

Second, the return of Jesus will also be a time of judgment. Jesus will judge all the enemies of God, beginning with Satan. When Jesus comes back, he will completely defeat Satan and send him to eternity in hell. All those who refuse to believe in Jesus will also be judged with their master, Satan.

Third, Jesus will complete the new creation, giving his people a new place in which to dwell together forever. This is the best promise of all. Jesus announces that at that time, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

Thus, the restoration will be complete. The new creation will be far greater than anything we can possibly imagine. Everything that God intended and promised will be completed and he will be glorified by his people forever.

Jesus will give us face, create a new family, and give us the incredible blessings of God.

Sinai and Mission

The Sinai Covenant was about God’s Mission. 

sinai painting

In Exodus 19, we encounter the story of God’s covenant-making with Israel. There is much that could be said (and indeed has been said) about this central chapter, but I want to focus on just a few reflections on the covenant, the mission of God, and a couple of application points.

The Covenant

Exodus 19 follows the great events that led to the rescue of Israel and their first few months of time in the wilderness. The point of the chapter is the covenant. This is the purpose for which God rescued Israel: for them to be his covenant people. Notice a couple of things:

1. The People

In verse 3, Yahweh announces that Moses is to speak to ‘the house of Jacob’ and ‘the people of Israel.’ The repetition in identifying the people draws our attention to the their identity as the seed of Abraham. In other words, the covenant God is making with these people is closely related to God’s covenant with Abraham. In fact, the Sinai Covenant is supposed to fulfill the covenant promises given to Abraham.

2. The Covenant Terms

Much could be said here, but the basic terms of the covenant are simple: Israel was supposed to ‘obey my voice and keep my covenant’ (Ex. 19.5). In this regard, the covenant is closely linked to be Adam and Abraham – they were to live in covenant obedience to God.

Of course, this is predicated on the fact of God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt (Ex. 19.4). He redeemed Israel to be his special people. If they will obey, they will

  • be God’s treasured possession
  • be a kingdom of priests
  • be a holy nation

Thus, God made Israel his covenant people for mission – they were to be priests to the world. Again, there are clear links to Adam and Abraham here. Adam functioned as a priest in the Garden (Gen. 2.15 – see J. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative). He was tasked with expanding the Garden to fill the earth with God’s glory (Gen. 1.26-28).

God called Abraham so that through him, all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12.1-3). In other words, God planned to restore the blessings of creation through Abraham’s family. Israel is that family.

3. The Covenant Scene

Finally, the scene is incredible. The people of Israel saw the thick cloud, the lightning, and hear the thunder and trumpets. They were rightly afraid. The terrifying scene along with the reminder of what God had done to the Egyptians (verse 4) served to each Israel to fear the Lord and obey him.

It seems that their fear overcame them and they did not go up on the mountain (see Ex. 20.18-21 and Deut. 5.4-5). Nevertheless, they stood in awe of the Lord.

Missional Thoughts

1. The basis of mission is the awe-inspiring vision of God and his mighty works.

awePart of Israel’s problem throughout history was that they forgot the awesome vision of God they beheld at Sinai. Of course, the real problem was that they needed the change of heart promised in the new covenant (Deut. 30.6; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). But, had they remembered the great vision of God’s power and majesty, it would have provided motivation for obedience.

Too often we lose the vision of God’s greatness. And, we have a greater vision this side of the cross. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of God’s glory and let this spur us to mission.

2. God is determined to fulfill his original intentions for creation.

Though his people fail, God is faithful. We go forward in mission knowing that God has bound himself covenantally to fulfill his original intentions. The privilege of mission is that we get to participate in his mission.

3. God is patient with his people.

Though believers have entered the new covenant and have renewed hearts, we will continue to fail. Yet, as he was patient with Israel, God is patient with us. His faithfulness is not based on our performance, but on his covenant love for us.

4. Holiness and mission are inseparable.

The story of Israel (and Adam for that matter) clearly shows the link between holiness and mission. If Israel failed to be holy (which they did), their mission would also fail (which it did). Cross-cultural servants must be as passionate about holiness as they are about evangelism.

Exodus 14 as Missional Motivation

“Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)

crossing the sea paintingThe exodus is a central event in the Bible and has clear goal – for God to plant his covenant people in their land and to dwell with them. While the goal is central, the process of achieving the goal is important and, in many ways, directly applicable to the work of mission.

Exodus 14 is a clear example. This is the familiar story of the Israelites escape through the sea on dry ground. Perhaps the story is so familiar that we miss some of the details. I’d like to draw attention to a few of these and apply some biblical-theological thinking to mission.

1. God’s ways are not always the easiest or most pleasant. 

In verse 1, the Lord tells Moses to lead the people to turn back. Remember the context – they had only just escaped from Egypt and likely had the feeling of ‘run for your life’ within their hearts. Yet, instead of continuing to run, God calls them to turn back toward the enemy. This was an angry enemy coming with a powerful army. The situation is less than comfortable. Why does God do this?

2. God’s ways are for his glory and our good

Repeated throughout the passage is the clear statement of God’s purpose – “that I may gain glory over Pharaoh” and so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” God does all things for the glory of his name. In his grace, the achievement of glory and honor also results in the rescue of his people. While sometimes strange, God’s glorious acts are also our greatest good.

3. God’s ways are always consistent

Throughout the first 13 chapters of Exodus, there have been constant reminders that the events taking place are in keeping with God’s covenant promises to Abraham. He promises to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless the world through his family. What if Abraham’s family dies at the hands of Pharoah or in the sea? God’s promises would fail, which is impossible. Thus, the rescue of Israel is a certainty.

But, there’s more. The escape through the sea is depicted in creational terms. Notice the following:

Light and Darkness (Ex. 14:20-21)
Separation of waters (Ex. 14:21)
Dry land emerges from the sea (Ex. 14:21)
Wind – same word as Spirit (Ex. 14:21)

Of course, like the creation account, everything in this chapter takes place by the word of God.

The point of this seems to be 1) to demonstrate the consistent character of God in keeping his creational and covenant promises and 2) to remind the Israelites that their God is the God of creation. Therefore, they need not fear. He is creating his covenant people in fulfillment of his original purposes for creation. The Sinai covenant will fill out the details, but the connections with creation make clear that God is at work for his glory and the good of his people. They need only to trust him and move forward.

How might this apply to mission?world map

The work of mission will always include suffering and the temptation to quit or complain. In those times, our motivation to continue is in the character and faithfulness of God. The exodus event served as a constant reminder of identity of Israel’s God and thus as motivation for faithfulness to the task to which they were called.

Biblical theology helps us see the faithfulness of our God to rescue his people, keep his promises, and glorify his own name. The call of mission is to join him in this work, resting in his power to complete the task.

Sometimes God takes us down the less than pleasant path, but this is for his glory and our good. The question is whether we will cry out or move forward.

Mission, New Creation, and Genesis 1-2

Genesis 1-2 points beyond itself to new creation and this is important for missions.

new-creationWhile it is obvious that new creation comes into focus after the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, there are a number of clues within the creation account that indicates new creation was the original goal. That is, there are aspects of the story that point forward to new creation as the ultimate objective.

Notice the following:

1. Beginning Implies End

First, the creation is the story of beginnings – the beginning of the world as God’s kingdom, the beginning of God’s kingdom people, and the beginning of the grand story of Scripture. Yet, beginnings by nature point beyond themselves to something yet to come. While this does not necessarily mean new creation, it is at least future-oriented, which sets the stage for later emphasis on new creation. In any case, having a beginning implies that there is a middle and end, which points forward to a goal.

2. The Impermanence of Creation

Second, it is clear that the first creation was not permanent. One of the primary ways we see this is in the possibility of corruption. After creating all things good (indeed, “very good”), God told his people that disobedience would lead to death. Thus, though very good, the first creation was not eternal since it was possible for death and corruption to enter.

3. Garden Expansion

Third, Adam and Eve were commissioned to “multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). As G.K. Beale has demonstrated, this includes the expansion of the Garden of Eden to fill the earth (see his A New Testament Biblical Theology).

expansionThe Garden was a special dwelling place for God with his people and thus is pictured like the most holy place in the tabernacle and temple. This creational most holy place was to expand, filling the earth with God’s glorious presence. Again, the point is that the Garden pointed beyond itself to a greater goal, which turns out to be new creation.

4. Sabbath Rest

Finally, the goal of creation comes into view on the seventh day – sabbath rest with God. It is well-known that the seventh day is unique in that it had no conclusion as the other six days. This establishes the sabbath as the goal – God’s unending dwelling with his people. Since the reader is very aware that this rest is yet to be achieved, the sabbath points to a future fulfillment.

What does this have to do with mission?

humanityIn short, the movement of Scripture from creation to new creation provides the goal and impetus for mission. It is not that we are able to bring about new creation through our mission efforts. Rather, the point is that in mission, we are spreading the message of King Jesus to invite people to participate in the new creation. Through faith in Jesus, people enter the kingdom of God and become covenant kingdom citizens.

Thus, the church’s mission is participation is God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory. As we proclaim Jesus as King, God is restoring his people in glory such that he is honored throughout the earth. And this is but a dim picture of new creation.

This is vastly different from “saving souls” or “getting people into heaven.” Instead, mission is about preparing people to be kingdom citizens in the new creation. This profoundly affects our evangelism and discipleship.

In addition, the hope of new creation provides the impetus for mission. We go for the honor of God’s name knowing that new creation is a future certainty. His glory will fill the earth. And, by his grace, we get to participate in this glorious work.

Biblical Theology as Mission?

what-you-talkin-bout-willis-370x229The tagline of this blog is “Biblical Theology as Mission.” This may seem like either a grammatical mistake or a confusion of categories. It is neither. Yet, the concept needs some explanation, which this post will attempt to give. Many things could be said about this, but I’ll give a short description of my meaning along with a few reasons why biblical theology and mission are should be closely related. Most of the posts to follow will be further explanations of this central point.

The phrase “Biblical Theology as Mission” is intended to communicate the intimate connection between biblical theology and the mission of the church. Indeed, one does not exist without the other. In other words, mission is the natural outflow of biblical theology. On the other hand, God-honoring mission must be rooted in biblical theology. Thus, if rightly done, biblical theology is an essential aspect of mission.

Why is this so? Here are a few reasons:

1. The Bible is a Missional Book

In The Mission of God, Christopher J.H. Wright has ably shown that the Scriptures themselves are the product of God’s mission to restore the world. They are God’s redemptive self-revelation to humanity. The Bible is inherently a missional and contextualized book. Thus, the study of biblical theology is the study of God and his mission in the world.

2. Biblical Theology Invites us into the Missional God’s Story

Second, the Bible tells one, unified story of the Creator-King, his kingdom, and his people. This is the true story of the world  that invites its readers to participate. While the biblical story is similar to other stories in that it has a plot, setting, characters, etc., it is different in that it calls readers to join in the story. It invites us to become members of God’s family through faith in Jesus. Thus, the study of biblical theology is the study of God’s beckoning story.

3. Biblical Theology Provides the Content and Method for Mission 

Finally, the first two points lead to the conclusion that biblical theology provides mission practitioners with the content and method of mission. That is, the study of biblical theology helps us to understand both the content of the biblical gospel and the storying methodology for evangelism and discipleship. These ideas will be developed further in later posts.

So, “biblical theology as mission” communicates the intimate relationship between biblical theology (rightly understood) and mission (rightly done). The separation of the two results in deficiencies in both.