tim keller’s “the prodigal god”

I’ve been reading a good bit lately. Mostly some books on ministry skills, which is good. But it is important not to get too stuck in those.

So, I just in the past few days read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. It is fantastic. He takes Jesus’ classic parable from Luke 15, which he reminds us ought to be called “the lost sons”, and helps us inhabit the text by interpreting both it and us well.

Both sons are lost, but only the younger knows he is. The older brother has been a faithful rule-keeper, but lacks love. In the words of Paul, he is a “resounding gong” and “clanging symbal” of a man. He does not know he is lost. Neither have chosen the true way of life, loving the Father for his own sake. Keller unpacks the parable, and with it the gospel, so wonderfully I felt engaged by the reconciliation of Christ once again.

On Tim Keller — If you don’t know who he is, he’s become more widely known in just the past couple of years. He’s had a couple of books published of which this is the second one. The first, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, is an apologetic work. I’ve got it, but haven’t read it yet. Keller is pastor of Redeember Presbyterian Church in NYC. Christianity Today recently ran a feature on him here.

Go ahead and pick up The Prodigal God… and read it sooner than later.

preaching study: luke 11:5-13

All quotations TNIV unless noted.


I’m preaching the next three weeks in Mosaic, our contemporary service. The first two weeks (April 26 and May 3), beginning this Sunday, will be on prayer and will look at two texts from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching on prayer — 11:5-13 and 18:1-8.

Any conversation on the biblical study is welcome and appreciated.

Literary Context

  • 11:5-8 – Parable of the Neighbors and Hospitality
    • 5-6 – Need for bread in order to show hospitality
    • 7 – False answer: Friend’s negative response
    • 8 – True answer w/rationale: Neighbor’s positive response and why
    • This section is driven by a problem/solution scenario: The first man needs to provide hospitality but lacks everything he needs, so he seeks out the help of a friend/neighbor in order to solve the problem.
  • 11:9-10 – Call to Action in Prayer
    • 9 – Action given: Ask, Seek, Knock
    • 10 – Assurance given of effectiveness of action
    • This section is driven by a command, with a cause/effect rationale offered next in order to cement confidence in the commanded actions.
  • 11:11-13 – Father’s generosity with the Holy Spirit
    • 11-12 – Hypothetical questions anticipating “no” answer
    • 13 – Amplification of God’s character, by comparison to human fathers
    • This section is driven by comparison and contrast; comparing basic ability to give good gifts, while contrasting that ability in terms of degree—human fathers able to do well, “how much more” the heavenly Father.

Cultural Cues

  • 11:8 – This is a good example of an obscure Greek word being mistranslated, therefore misinterpreted. A common translation is something like “persistence.” But the word has been demonstrated to mean something like “shamelessness” or “avoids shame.” The meaning comes from cultural codes of honor and shame (see Joel B. Green and Luke T. Johnson) and hospitality ethics. So, the word is also misattributed as referring to the subject of the parable who is approaching the friend/neighbor in need of bread in most if not all standard English translations. But it should be attributed to the friend/neighbor who has been awakened. The first man has a duty to offer hospitality to his friend who is coming to visit. But he lacks bread, so he goes to inquire with his neighbor. It’s the middle of the night, so even if not because of friendship, the neighbor will nonetheless get up and give him all the bread he needs because he will avoid the cultural/societal shame of not assisting someone in offering hospitality to their guest. It’s a character issue for the man inside the house.

Canonical Connections

  • James 1:17-18 – God is the giver of every good and perfect gift.
  • Acts 1:8, 2:1-12; John 14:15-31, 15:26-16:15 – Gospel passages on the gift of the Holy Spirit

elie wiesel’s “night” and the gospel call to justice

I got back from vacation one week ago tonight. On the drive up in the car, when it wasn’t my turn driving and when the kids were either occupied or sleeping, I read Elie Wiesel‘s Night. I know, not exactly light-hearted vacationy reading, but it was something I’d been wanting to read for a little while now (afterward, at my in-laws’, I read Grisham’s The Last Juror–not his best, but more light and vacationy and I enjoyed it). Truly horrifying but something that must be read lest we forget the depths of human evil and what we as a race are capable of. If you’re not familiar with the book, Elie Wiesel is a Jew who survived the Holocaust and Auschwitz as a teenager and Night is a memior written about that experience. Of the many thoughts that I’ve been mulling over from reading this short, powerful book, two stick out at the moment.

  1. Those who regarded the Jews as un-human were the ones becoming less human by their grotesque cruelty and raw evil. This is the terrible irony of history and the human experience. Racism and other hatreds seem to help us reduce others’ humanness in our own minds, which allows us to treat them (individually and collectively) as less than human through oppression, cultural shaming/humiliation, widespread extermination, and abuse/torture in its various forms–psychological, physical, sexual, etc. The gross irony in such terrible rationalizations and actions is that we ourselves forsake and surrender (degree by degree) our own essential humanness. In de-humanizing another, we allow ourselves to behave as if we are beasts.
  2. The copy I read included the text of Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986, in which he said, “…I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Chilling and truthful words that we need to heed today as we read and hear news reports in the “modern” world in which we live.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the biblical call, not just to charity, but to justice and its essential place within the robust gospel of the Kingdom of God. Reading this book came on the heels of hearing really great presentations from Peter Storey, a white South African retired Methodist bishop who teaches at Duke University Divinity School and who, during his career, participated in the movement to end apartheid and to resolve the past through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, alongside Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Powerful and prophetic stuff.

So, a gospel thought I’ve been thinking over in light of this is that the gospel may be appropriately comforting to us in some respects, but we are not called to comfort. The meaning of life is not middle and upper-middle class suburban comfort, it is life in the Kingdom of God. That means joy, peace, hope, love, and many other things, but–lest we forget stories like the one Wiesel tells in Night–it is not really about comfort. It inescapably includes working for justice for those who are suffering, humiliated, oppressed, and tormented. Or, as Jesus put it, reading from the prophet Isaiah in Luke’s Gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 TNIV)

That confronts the dickens out of me, so I continue to wrestle with it, like Jacob, not wanting to avoid it lest I lose my own soul in the midst of gaining everything but the kingdom and the gospel, seeking the blessing of being wounded by God in just the right way as to mark me as his and set me about his robust gospel and kingdom work.

preaching study: acts 2:42-47

In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the message, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!

Continuing with the series on the Gifts of Christ as we live out the Christian Story, we’ve looked at the gifts of the Word and the Spirit. This week is the gift of the Community. For that, we begin by looking to Luke’s writings in Acts 2:42-47, a classic text on the early Christian community.

Literary Context

  • Preceding this passage is Peter’s Pentecost sermon, which is an answer to the question voiced in 2:12, “What does this mean?” referring to all the noise and the disciples proclaming God to the people in their own native languages, which seemed (we suppose by the crowd’s reaction) clearly to be an unusual, if not supernatural event. Not to mention the fire on their heads!
  • In 2:41, we read that the church began with a small-ish group of disciples, a defining sermon from Peter and a response from the crowd of “about three thousand” people “added to their number that day.” Not a bad day for a church plant… So, they seemed to have been organized into home groups.
  • 2:42 has taken to describe the devotional practices of those home groups: apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread (Eucharist or common meal?), prayer.
  • One theme is unified devotion to God in community (instead of individually, which is not mentioned or alluded to), which runs throughout, not just in v42.
  • They met both in the temple courts and in homes (v46).
  • “Signs and wonders” were still a prominent feature of apostolic proclamation (v43).
  • There is an emphasis on inclusivity and universality in the language throughout the passage: “Everyone was filled with awe,” “All the believers,” “everything in common,” “anyone who had need,” “enjoying the favor of all the people.”
  • And the flow of the passage seems to imply causation between their life together as a community (remember it’s 3000 people in home groups we’re talking about) and the daily stream of persons added to their number.

Cultural Cues

  • Table fellowship, a 1st century ethic that is of importance to Luke (as is firmly established in his Gospel), is in play here in vv42, 46. Understanding that ethic more in-depth will probably bring more out of the passage.
  • What is the significance of the temple courts? Digging a little more deeply here will help paint the picture more vividly.

Thoughts so far?

preaching study: acts 2:1-13, pt 1

In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the message, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!

I’m in the middle of a 3-part series in this week’s contemporary service on the Gifts of Christ for living out the gospel and the kingdom and Easter and being a body of apprentices to Jesus. Luke is our guide, with help from John primarily.

The 3 parts/gifts are: Word, Spirit, Community. This week we continue with the Gift of the Spirit. The main text is Acts 2:1-13. I’ll look also at the end of Luke’s Gospel, Acts 1, and the rest of Acts 2–Peter’s sermon and following.

Literary Context

  1. Setting – The day is Pentecost and the location is Jerusalem. It’s a time when lots of folks would be in town (2:5, 9-11) and the disciples are gathered together, as instructed (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-8).
  2. Outline – vv1-4 narrates the action of God in the gift of the Holy Spirit. vv5-12 narrates the response of those in the city. v13 poses an interpretation of the events and one answer to the question asked in v12, “What does this mean?” Peter offers a different interpretation in vv14-36
  3. 2:1-4 – I find it interesting how hard it is to nail down a description of this event: “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire.” What does that say about the nature of the event itself that it struggles for description? What can be said of certainty is in v4, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
  4. 2:5-12 – At least two things are important to notice here. The first is the great variety of persons gathered in Jerusalem at the time of the giving of the Spirit. The second is the disconnect between what the people see–Galileans, and what they hear–proclamation about God in their own language.
  5. 2:12 – This is the key question: “What does this mean?” Of the possible answers, two are offered here…
  6. 2:13 – This is the first option, “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.'”
  7. 2:14, 16-21, 33, 36 – Peter stands up and offers the second option, highlighted in the selected verses here. Peter turns to Scripture, the prophet Joel, and explains Jesus, who he is and God’s purpose for him.

Cultural Cues

  1. In verse 1, we read that it is Pentecost. The Church is accustomed to the Christian significance of Pentecost, but it was a Jewish festival. We need a refresher on the original, Jewish significance of Pentecost to understand the setting here.

Canonical Connections

  1. One thinks initially of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, in which humanity is scattered and divided because language is divinely confused. In Acts 2:1-13, something like the reverse takes place as persons who are scattered and who speak different languages are given a common experience because language is divinely unified–not in the language spoken, but in the proclamation received.


preaching study: luke 24:13-35

In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the message, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!

I’m beginning a 3-part series in this week’s contemporary service on the Gifts of Christ for living out the gospel and the kingdom and Easter and being a body of apprentices to Jesus. Luke is our guide, with help from John primarily. The 3 parts/gifts are: Word, Spirit, Community. This is something I’ve thought about for some time now, so I’m excited to study, reflect, and give it a go at preaching and teaching on this.

So, we begin with the first gift that I think of Christ having given us to form and sustain us in The Way, the Word. The text is Luke 24:13-35, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Literary Study

  1. The passage develops in basically two ways: Geography (vv13, 28, 33) and Question & Answer conversation (vv17-27).
  2. References to recognition of Jesus by the disciples bookend the passage. In v16, they “were kept from recognizing him” and in v35 they tell others “how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.” The movement is from ignorance to enlightenment and the key is the revelatory nature of Jesus performing (what would become) the Eucharistic pattern, at which they recognized him (v31).
  3. But the preparation for this revelation at Table is the exposition of the Word. The crux of this presentation from Luke is in vv19-27. Two main items are worth attention: First, the contrast established in vv20-21, that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was a major interpretive problem, given the theological categories available to those disciples (and we suspect to any Jews of the period), for anyone who had, as they say, “hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (v21). Clearly, according to their understanding, execution on a Roman cross eliminated from consideration the title “Messiah” in relation to Jesus. Even the additions offered in vv22-24 are presented with curiosity and wonder, but not with a sense that something might change the “proper” interpretation of cruciform execution. Second, Jesus (whom they still do not recognize) answers these problems not by disregarding the Hebrew Scriptures, but by engaging them headlong (“beginning with Moses and all the Prophets…”) and finding a new interpretation of the story that had until this point in history been unseen: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and them enter his glory?” As Brent Laytham has written, “Jesus’ status as truthful interpreter was vindicated by God when God raised him from the dead. It is this Jesus, validated by events and vindicated by resurrection, who interprets Scripture on the road” (JTI, 1.1, p. 104). And, most importantly: “Jesus himself, in his performance (his life, death, and resurrection), is not only the primary interpreter of Scripture; he is its primary interpretation” (JTI, 1.1, p. 104, emphasis mine).
  4. At their request, he stays with them in the village and while at table, repeats the actions he has performed earlier: “took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them…” (v30). This is the pattern from his actions at the Passover/Last Supper in Luke 22:19 and also in the feeding of the 5000 in Luke 9:16.
  5. Finally, I will just mention that I think the line upon their recognition of him and his disappearance, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” is one of my favorites. Vivid, joyful, awe-full, it drips with energy and life to me.

Culture Cues

  1. Verse 28-29 clearly references the hospitality ethic of the region. They had met a stranger on the road. Being near the end of the day, they most likely felt a sense of obligation to take responsibility in some measure for his well-being, since he appears to be travelling alone, and invite him to stay with them for the night.
  2. Naturally, then, they would share the evening meal with their guest. The ethic of “table fellowship” that is front and center in Luke’s Gospel is once again on display. It is within the context of this cultural ethic that Jesus’ actions are set.

Canonical Connections

  1. As I’ve said, I will read Luke alongside John as a theological conversation partner. Some initial thoughts will kick things off.
  2. The connection in this passage between the Word and the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) is clear. The passage actually reflects an historic pattern of worship in the Christian Church of first opening the Word, then sharing the Eucharist. But the connection is increasing rich, I think, when read alongside John’s Gospel, particularly 1:1-18 (especially v14) and 6:35-58, the passages dealing with Jesus as the Word of God–the Word made flesh, and with Jesus’ own person as the “bread of life” of which to partake to have eternal life.
  3. John 1:14. ” The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
  4. John 6:54. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

 Thoughts so far?

preaching series upcoming…gifts of christ for easter living

Or something like that…

In the first 3 Sundays of May, I will be preaching in our contemporary worship service and will be preaching a series on what Christ has left us with to be faithful Christians. Or, after Easter… What are the “Gifts of Christ for Easter Living”?

A common approach these days–whatever the musical style of the worship service, by the way, would be to talk about these as abstracted spiritual principles. But that doesn’t seem to square with what Scripture says or how Scripture says it. I’ve been thinking in this vein for some years now and am ready to try my hand at teaching/preaching on it. It seems to me that Scripture narrates dynamic gifts rather than teaching static principles.

I think the answer to the question is three-fold: Word, Spirit, Community. Faithful Christian belief and practice seems to be guided by the dynamic engagement of these three.

1. Reading the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit within the Community of faith.

2. Discerning the guidance of the Spirit of God from the witness of the Word in the prayerful consideration of the Community.

3. Living in Christian Community that is grounded in the Word and powerfully animated by the Spirit.

Looking to Scripture for help with this will take us primarily to Luke–the first few chapters after Jesus’ resurrection at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts in particular–with some help from John.

1. WORD: Luke 24:13-32 tells of the disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. He opens the Scriptures to them but remains hidden to them until he is made known in the breaking of the bread. John adds to this in a couple of wonderful ways. First, read together, I had not noticed this before, but to hear John speak of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us in light of the Emmaus-bound disciples’ enlightment at the connection between Word and Eucharist is worth meditating upon. Second, one of the messages of John’s text on so-called “doubting” Thomas is to shore up the value and benefit of belief because of the witness of others, since that’s what John’s readers, including us, must do. We cannot, like Thomas, demand to see the scars upon hearing that we were out to dinner when Jesus came by the Upper Room. This will be on the first Sunday in May and we will, fitting both the day and the message, share in Holy Communion.

2. SPIRIT: Acts 1:8, 2:1-13 are the classic texts of Pentecost, in which we see the gift of the Holy Spirit. The transformation of the disciples into world-changers is remarkable and the Spirit of God is the reason why. John is helpful in a couple of ways. First, in what some regard as his version of the Pentecost story–20:19-23, in which Jesus breathes on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and giving instructions about forgiving and retaining of sins. Weighty stuff. Second, in John 14-16, Jesus talks about the Spirit who will come when he is gone to the Father. This will be on the second Sunday in May, Pentecost Sunday (in addition to being Mothers’ Day”.

3. COMMUNITY: Acts 2:42-47 famously relates the practice of the earliest of Christian communities. Peter’s preaching of Christ through the Word, in the power of the Holy Spirit produces an incredible response. The people come to faith in Christ and are immediately incorporated into a community that is working out practices as well as beliefs that will form them for mission and sustain them in the faith. John is helpful as we look to Jesus’ prayer for unity for the disciples in chapter 17.

So, there you have it. A preview of my 3-part sermon series for the first 3 weeks of May. As always, I welcome participation in thinking and praying this through. I hope to begin blogging my first study and prep a little this week.

Thoughts so far?