Once upon an Easter in Mzansi…

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If I were a storyteller I would tell you about the nostalgic memories of Easter time back in the dusty streets of my village in the North West. I would tell you of the all-night vigils we had, bursting with songs from the Methodist Sesotho hymnal (Lifela tsa Sione) that speak of the amazing mercies of God; the beat of the bible and the clashing sound of teaspoons (yes, teaspoons and bibles are musical instruments in the black church); and the passionate sermons from the seven words of Jesus by different preachers shouting at the top of their voice: Go weditswe! (It is finished!). Who can forget the brown marquee tent, the sound of the generator, the tea and cookies that were served at 4 AM during our morning break? I could tell you of my experience of Easter but to put it simply: we made a meal of it!

Depending on where you grew up, you might have had a different experience of Easter. Whether it’s Church, or time with family eating pickled fish (some Capetonians are rather peculiar), or millions of ZCC pilgrims flooding the N1 heading to the ‘holy mountain’(yes, Zion is apparently somewhere in Limpopo), egg hunts, the Rand show or hot cross buns; if you live in South Africa, Easter is a very significant celebration. And everything around us reminds us that it’s that time of the year again. But one often wonders: what is it that we celebrate? Between Church and every other thing that we associate with Easter, what’s really cutting?MMC017

It is of course cliché to say that Easter has lost it’s meaning in our day in age. Perhaps the name itself has connotations of bunnies and eggs than Christ… At this point I wanted to complain and mention the different ways in which people (the Non-Christians World, Christian sects and Church-ianity) misappropriate Easter to things other than Christ. You’ll be happy to know that I won’t do that. I want to rather say something about what this Good Friday (2014) means to me.

As we’ve been looking at the scriptures this term with the students, the Passover event in Exodus 12 has stood out for me. It is arguably the prototype of God’s magnificent salvation. It is a beautiful picture of God displayed as both Punisher and Savior. It is a key moment in the birth of a new nation Israel. And of course Luke’s gospel tells us of its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus (22:1 ff.). And we can see from Luke how event of Good Friday is in a similar yet greater sense a key moment in the birth of the Christian faith. The Lord Jesus adds a whole new meaning to the event of the Passover: this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (vs. 20).

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The blood of Christ and his life (similar to the blood of the lamb) brings about a new life and a new identity for God’s new people. And it is at times like these at Easter that as Christians we are to remember what he has done. As a new people then how should we remember?

 

 

I’m struck by the words of the Apostle Paul as he addresses a church in Corinth:

“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven,the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”(1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

The thing that strikes me here is the response we are called to have. In a somewhat allegorical way he makes a point that the Corinthians are now a new people; Christ was crucified for them, therefore they should get rid of their old ways and Old behaviors and be different. Thus in a nutshell, for us to remember Christ something has to change in our behavior. In other words, we have not remembered if something in us has not changed. Just like in the Old Testament, time and time again, God’s people sinned because they “did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies”. And I’m encouraged that this Easter as we remember the death of Christ, it may not just be religious thing that we do, but something that impacts our lives; because a true remembrance of Christ leads to a change in our lives.

 Let us therefore remember what Christ has done, his payment for our sins and the freedom he offers. And that this Easter we may make a commitment to live our lives free from sin as he has truly made us.

Have a blessed easter

From Babylon with Pride

Drawn_wallpapers_New_Babylon_019573_It’s been a minute since I last wrote a post. Apparently that’s the new way of saying that it’s been a while. As to why the new street slang uses a phrase like “been-a-minute” to describe a long period baffles me; and I don’t want to attempt to comprehend it. But let’s talk about something that’s a bit less complicated: the story of Babel (which is ironically about the complication of language).

I was getting excited this morning about the stuff I want to do with students next year. One of which was the unity of the Bible story; and how one can appreciate a single theme as it runs through the pages of the Old and New Testament. The excitement grew as I thought about themes like ‘The presence of God and the Temple’, ‘the king of God’, ‘The Mountain of the Lord’, ‘the city of God’. All of these can be traced out through the History of Israel in the Bible, which climaxes in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, continues in our own time and to which we look forward to in the coming of the New Heaven and New earth. And let me share an exciting thought that I had re the Story of Babel and how it unfolds.

It began in Babel with pride; the first United Nations meeting was held. And there was a unanimous decision to build a City with the tallest sky-scraper as a symbol of unity and human pride. “Let us make a name for ourselves” these guys said (Gen 11:4) so that we won’t scatter. With every effort possible, humanity attempted to unite and conquer. With one language and one vision, this city was to be the best invention to keep unity and peace without God in the picture.

Will the plan succeed? Well of course trying to have peace and unity without God is not only prideful but also impossible. And God saw their pride and their plans and he began to scatter them. God turns the lights off and the party is over and everyone has to go home. So, the prideful effort to unite against God falls flat on its face and it achieves the opposite. Trying to have a party without inviting the party master is not such a great idea. Thus Babel became the foundation of bricks and mortar and the epitome of prideful humanity that never succeeds in trying to dethrone God with human ingenuity.

With the entire world scattered and nations no longer united, God’s plan was that though the church(bit of a jump) his name and his ingenuity would be known. Starting with a man called Shem (meaning Name) he would make his name great: from Shem to Abraham to David to Jesus. This is a short story of how God built a gathering of people who would unite around him. And throughout the history of Israel we see wars and disunites, nations rising and nations falling, humanity rising against God. From Egypt to Graeco-Roman society God had been building an alternative community, as Tim Keller would say it ‘city within a city’. Despite the continual effort of humanity to make a name for itself, God advertises it through his redemption of Israel from Egypt; his establishment of Israel as a nation through the Law e.t.c. God chooses a people to himself and unite them to himself.

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And it is at Pentecost that the mercies of God are displayed. Because of the death, ascension and resurrection of Christ, God pours out his Spirit upon believers and they all begin to speak other languages (Acts 2). And what is more, people who were not initially belonging to his nation(non-Jews) now join in through the same Spirit(Act 14). And we therefore get a picture of how the Gospel truly unites people. That through the work of Jesus humanity can truly unite, and through the work of the Spirit this unity is put into effect. There is no Jew or Greek or Barbarian. It’s all cool, the church is established and humanity can be truly united and freed from the oppression of sin and pride.

But the story does not end there. The world still rebels against God. Babylon(synonymous with Babel) the great Prostitute and the mother of all Prostitutes will still be destroyed. Prideful humanity still wants to wield its power against God and against his people. Christians are still caught in a society that wants to reject God. Many ideologies other than God provide an attractive City of mortar and bricks that promises unity without God. But the Gospel and the church provide true unity. And the story draws to an end with many nations, from different people group and languages gathered before the throne of God (Rev 7: 9-13). All with their sins dealt with because the work of Christ(Rev 7:14). And it ends with a City who builder and architect is God (Rev 21) with Sin dealt with, God with his people, and sinful humanity destroyed.

And the coolest thing is realizing that unity is ultimately found in God and the gospel. And not only that but we also see the beauty of God’s wisdom in our times through the church. Living in a diverse country like South Africa, one is likely to get a taste of what it means to be united in Christ with people who are different from you. So the story of the Bible is about God gathering people who were previously scattered because of Sin. And if you are not part of that story, you are missing out on something big.

 

Trying to have a clearer and concise summary of this story would require more effort. But this is a blurry effort to try to make sense of what’s been interesting me… Comments, criticism allowed…

The road to Emmaus and all the things concerning Christ…

emmaus-lThe adventures of leaving theological training to starting in full time church ministry present to me familiar challenges that my three years of training could not solve. And one such challenge is the question of how to preach the gospel from the Old Testament. As Christians we believe that the Old Testament is Gospel literature. And this is warranted by the fact that the Apostles preached about Christ by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Not only did they quote from it but it was the only inspired scripture of the early apostolic church. Such that Paul could say to Timothy that the Scriptures he was taught from childhood (i.e. OT) are profitable for training in Salvation. And there’s plenty more evidence of the fact that the OT is a Gospel literature. But the question that poses a challenge to me whenever I encounter the difficult passages is: How is does this passage teach the Gospel?

My intention is not to answer the question but to explore some of the grounds which we build our foundations on. The fresh and popular approach to interpreting the OT is called Biblical Theology. As a theological discipline, Biblical Theology looks at the Bible as one big story that ultimately points to Christ. The framework is normally “creation-fall-redemption-new creation” (or something along those lines). So the story of the Bible, according to Biblical theology, should be seen through the lens of God’s redemptive plan. And because the redemptive plan of God culminates in the revelation of Christ (as Hebrews 1:1 suggests), then every passage is interpreted with Jesus in view. So, whenever a difficulty arises on terms of understanding a particular passage, the answer is of course Jesus. As a general framework this is helpful, but my question is: does every OT detail point specifically to Christ?

road-to-emmaus1The famous passage that is often used to prove this is at the end of The Gospel of Luke: the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. In one interview, Graeme Goldsworthy (one of the proponents of Biblical Theology) says that when he shows people the unity of the bible he normally starts them off with “Luke 24, where he [Jesus] points out that the whole of the Old Testament is about him” (see here). This is primarily based on the word of Luke: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures”. But I want to challenge this as a foundation to conclude that the whole of the Old Testament is about Jesus.

I might be misrepresenting Goldsworthy’s argument but I do know that what Luke 24 says is not that it all points to Christ (whether that’s true or not). The key to understanding Luke 24 is obviously in its context (the Conversation with Cleopas).  The death of Jesus left people without a hope that he was the chosen messiah who would redeem Israel. So beginning with Moses (the first five books) and the rest of the Bible, Jesus proved to them that the OT did speak about the death and suffering of the Messiah; meaning that Jesus pointed out specific places in the OT that pointed to him. So, Jesus is not saying that the whole OT is all about him, but that there are things written about his death and suffering as Messiah in the OT; and that the people should not loose heart as if his death was a defeat in God’s plan. The scriptures from Moses to the prophets speak about the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

So I think that the phrases “everything written about Me” (24:44) and “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27) refer to specific OT passages that speak distinctively about Jesus. However, this does not disprove the fact that the OT is a grand narrative about God’s salvation. But it dispels the false foundations on which we built some of our frameworks of BT. Therefore Jesus on the road to Emmaus was not giving a lesson in how every bit of the OT points to him. Rather, to restate the point, he was showing them how specific passages in OT testified about how the promised Messiah would suffer and be raised to bring salvation.

The question of how the OT is Gospel literature still remains a challenge. But from the perspective of Luke 24 we can at least conclude that Luke was not teaching that our interpretation of the OT is a simple formula of “what does this teach us about Christ”. And obviously we can’t draw general conclusions about the framework of BT. But Luke does not teach an “all points to Jesus” framework.
This needs to be qualified but I’ll leave room for comments…

The Victory of Christ over Demons in the African Worldview

“He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
(Colossians 2:13-15)

One of the cool things about being a theological student is that you get to think about how the bible applies to everyday life. And one of the recent things that I’ve had to grapple with was how the teaching of Christ’s death on the cross should affect our understanding of demons. If you’re a westerner, your skeptical cap might have come on when you read demons and Christ in the same sentence; maybe not. If you’ve read the story of Jesus in the four Gospels, you might have a room reserved to think of Christ, the cross, demons and demon activity but still doubt whether we can call it an everyday-life issue.

Nevertheless, the issue of demons and demon activity is an everyday-issue in the worldview of most Africans. “The recurring problem for most African people who turn to Christ more than anything else arises from the belief that ‘supernatural powers’ inhibit or enhance human life” (Gatumu 2008: 16). This worldview is embedded in us who grow up with the reality of demon activity. But this does not mean that the worldview is correct or even parallel to the biblical teaching about demons. And obviously, for Christians, we need to have our worldview reconstructed by the Scriptures. We need to be liberated by the overwhelming victory of Christ from the fear of demons. And for Christians in Africa like me, the Bible’s message of Christ and his victory over demons bears this liberating news.

But before we look at how the bible addressed the issue, I’d like to mention one of the things that I found helpful to reiterate my previous point. In chapter two of his book The Pauline concept of Supernatural powers, wa Gatumu (2008:25-59) helpfully outlines the historical clash between the Western and African worldview. The pendulum swings to opposite extremes. While the Western worldview has generally tried to reason away any existence of real demons, the African worldview has had extreme emphasis and obsession on not only the existence but also the activity of demons in everyday life. This was not new insight for me; however, wa Gatumu makes a helpful conclusion by pointing out the fact that none of these worldviews are biblical. And because they are based on cultural experiences and biases rather than on the Scriptures, they can be imprisoning because of their lack of a God-perspective on the issue. Cultural experiences are limited especially with regard to the supernatural. Therefore we need a biblical worldview that is presented by God in the Scriptures. So, having established this point then, we can ask ourselves a question: what do the Scriptures say about demons?

Of all the passages in the bible, Colossians 2: 13-15 has been paramount. It locates the victory of Christ in the event of the Cross. Christ’s death on the Cross achieved something for Christians. It redressed the Sin of human beings and reconciled them to God by liberating them from the bondage of Satan and demons (Colossians 1:13). We often think of demon activity is a vacuum of spooky things. But the Bible addresses the issue of demon activity in relation to evil, sin, and death. And Colossians is a key place to see that the victory of Christ over demons has to do with people’s eternal destinies.

As John Stott also observes in his book The Cross of Christ, “Paul here brings together two different aspects of the saving work of Christ’s cross, namely forgiveness of our sins and the cosmic overthrow of the principalities and power” (2006: 271). Even though it is not clear whether God triumphed over the Spiritual powers by him (Jesus) or by the Cross (see the different interpretations in the ESV and the NIV), what is clear is that the life of Jesus that was given over to death is what achieved the believers’ victory over evil. So the conquest over evil must not be thought of in a vacuum, but Colossians pushes us to see the victory of Christ over evil in relation to sin and forgiveness. The power that demons have in the lives of believers is to lead them to sin. But the supremacy of Christ is such that, although he was himself God, he had to give himself over to save humanity from its bondage to sin and its power.

This paradigm will help us to engage the fear of demons that imprisons many African Christians. This is because this fear of demons is a stronghold that is home to many African prisoners. And often African Christians are oblivious to the worldview baggage that keeps them in bondage. And the light of the victory of Christ over sin, death and evil is often shut out by this prison-wall. And it is the Bible that will hammer down this wall by a radical change in how we Africans view the world of evil.

Some helpful material on the subject

I realize that I have not dealt with what exactly the African view of demons is, but maybe I’ll post something on it. The following are helpful in outlining the African view of demons:

BANDA, C. 2005. The sufficiency of Christ in Africa: A Christological challenge from African Traditional Religions. Pretoria: UNISA (M.A Dissertation)

FERDINANDO, K. 1999. The triumph of Christ in the African Perspective: A study of demonology and Redemption in the African context. UK: Paternoster

GATUMU, K. wa, 2008. The Pauline Concept of the supernatural powers: A reading from the African worldview. Colorado Springs: Paternoster

NAHKA, V. 2006. Evangelical Christianity and African culture: A critical assessment of the salvific significance of the cross of Christ in Shona culture. Pretoria: UNISA

And the late uncle Stott was also helpful on this topic:

STOTT, J. 2006. The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary ed. Nottingham: IVP pp. 264-292