Why was Jesus’ birth announced to shepherds?

Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

An old photograph (taken between 1920 and 1933) showing shepherds watching over their flocks at night. You can see the town of Bethlehem in silhouette in the background.

Just a final thought about the nativity narrative. Have you ever wondered why Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherds? Luke tells us, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2.8-20).

So why did the angels appear to shepherds? There seems to be more than one reason. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, I. Howard Marshall writes, “the motif that God reveals the birth of the Saviour to ordinary, lowly people, is undoubtedly present.” God’s angelic army announced the Saviour’s birth to humble shepherds, not to those of wealth and status.

But is there another reason why shepherds were privileged with the news of the Saviour’s birth? In his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim tells us: “That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, . . . .” If so, God is pointing these shepherds, who watched over sacrificial lambs, to the true Sacrificial Lamb, the Lamb of God Who would be the perfect Sacrifice for sins. John, of course, picks up this theme at the beginning of his Gospel: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29, see also John 1.36).

But perhaps there’s a third reason why God chose to reveal the news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds. Matthew tells us this: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2.1-2). Herod gathered all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2.5-6).

Notice how the chief priests and scribes connect the birth of the Messiah to His role as Shepherd of God’s people. The citation in Matthew 2.6 is a paraphrase of Micah 5.2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” But two verses later, Micah tells us this about the Messiah: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 2.4-5a). The Messiah will be a Shepherd of God’s people. The chief priests and scribes pick this up and allude to Micah 5.4 when they add, “who will shepherd my people Israel”. The actual words used, however, are drawn from 2 Samuel 5.2, when the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron. One of the things the tribes said was this: “And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, . . . .” .

So Bethlehem was the town of David, a shepherd of God’s people. Now it became the birthplace of the Great Shepherd of God’s people, Jesus the Son of David. The sacrificial Lamb of God would be “the Good Shepherd” Who “lays down his life for the sheep” . (John 10.11). The writer to the Hebrews, too, connects Jesus sacrificial death and resurrection to His role as the Great Shepherd of God’s flock: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,” (Hebrews 13.20). When the shepherds gathered around the baby Jesus, and gazed in wonderment upon Him, they beheld a Shepherd ― the Great Shepherd of God’s people, Who would lay down His life for the sheep.

Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah can be downloaded in PDF form HERE (the quotation above is found on pages 209-210 of this edition).

CREDITS Text copyright © 2017 Robert Gordon Betts Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘King of Glory’: a video Gospel presentation for mission

King of Glory is a Gospel presentation in video and book format. This superb resource is designed to be suitable for all ages and across different cultures. It would perhaps particularly appeal to children aged 8-13, but older children and adults would also find it engaging. King of Glory was written by Paul D. Bramsen of Rock International and illustrated by Arminda San Martín.

In the author’s words, King of Glory “weaves together 70 key stories to show the big picture of God’s purpose and plan for mankind. . . . . More than half of the book’s Old Testament scenes are from Genesis 1 to 4. These stories provide solid foundations to help a person see why they need a Savior and why it was necessary for that Savior to shed His blood for our sins.” Bramsen describes the message of King of Glory in a nutshell, as “The cross explained”. It is, by design, selective – for example, the prophecies about Jesus in the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets are covered in just one very short chapter; the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is not mentioned. But what it does cover is told well and in a way that is faithful to Scripture.

Paul Bramsen says, “The Lord began to put into my heart a burden to produce an illustrated book that would make His story and message clear to people of all ages and cultures—giving special care to present it in a way that could penetrate Muslim minds and hearts.”

Bramsen tells us, “We produced this film because we see the urgent and widespread need for a captivating audio-visual gospel tool for all ages in many languages that chronologically presents the big picture of God’s plan of redemption, using key Old Testament stories to explain why the Messiah shed His blood on the cross for our sins. We wanted a movie that would powerfully communicate to people of all cultures and worldviews. King of Glory doesn’t use actors, which can distract the audience or even date a movie; it uses paintings. It avoids clearly showing the face of Jesus and rarely shows the faces of the prophets, since that can offend Muslims. . . . . Most importantly, this movie exists to do what Jesus did on the Emmaus Road: “And beginning at Moses [Genesis] and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27).”

King of Glory is designed to be watched in 15 episodes, each around 15 minutes long. It’s also available in a 70-episode format: each episode corresponds to one of the 70 ‘scenes’ in the book, and is around 3 to 4 minutes long. It’s also available for purchase as a two-part DVD or Blu-ray set, or as a digital download. In the DVD and Blu-ray sets, the Old Testament runs 1 hour and 47 minutes; the New Testament runs for 1 hour and 55 minutes. This two-part movie is available in multiple languages. The narrative in all versions is a word-for-word presentation of the text in the book’s 70 stories, or scenes, as they are called.

The main webpage for the King of Glory movie is HERE. From this page you can download and watch it for free in either the 15-session or 70-session versions, or purchase the DVD or Blu-ray sets, or the digital download. Alternatively, the YouTube playlist for the 70-session version is available HERE.

The 8-page conclusion in the King of Glory book, entitled The Message in the Story is available in video format HERE.

The main webpage for the King of Glory book is HERE. From this page you can, among other things, download the book free of charge in English and in various other languages. An Illustrated Study Guide, plus an Answer Key, is available HERE.

You can read more about the story behind the production of this movie HERE. Paul and Carol Bramsen have served in the Muslim world context since 1981, first in Senegal, and later with an expanded focus to reach Muslims and others through multi-language radio broadcasts, books, booklets and now the movie.

The Christmas army of angels

Image © Lumo Project through Free Bible Images All rights reserved

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2.8–14).

In his book, A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard Story of Christmas and Why It Matters, Verlyn D. Verbrugge writes, “One of the most familiar elements of the Christmas story in Luke 2 is the appearance of the angel to the shepherds. That angel was soon joined by a “great company of the heavenly host . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2.13– 14 NIV). I doubt if there is anyone who does not envision this scene as a huge company of angels dressed in choir robes, perhaps complete with sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, singing praise to the newborn king . . . . . . . . I, too, have always had this picture in my mind. . . . . But . . . I decided to revisit this passage in Luke 2, reading it in the Greek New Testament to see if there was something I may have missed. In doing so, I discovered something I had never realized before and something that is rarely mentioned and never discussed in detail in commentaries on Luke. This passage fits in with one of the two main themes I have been exploring in this book, namely, that Christmas is the beginning of war. Where is the military imagery in Luke 2:13? Listen carefully: The word that Luke uses for “host” is the Greek word stratia, a word that in classical Greek almost invariably denotes an army or a company of soldiers. On occasion the word could be used as an alternate for the Greek word strateia, which denotes a military expedition. In either case, the word has strong military connotations. . . . . What the NIV translates as “heavenly host,” Luke Timothy Johnson translates as “the heavenly army.” Christopher Evans refers to the “angels as the divine soldiery,” and F. L. Godet calls them a “troop of angels.” The NRSV has a footnote by the word “host” and indicates that in Greek this word means “army.” . . . . Most commentators, however, understand this word as a large choir.”

Dr. Verbrugge asks, ”How does this military imagery, then, intersect with the Christmas story? He explains, “In chapter 2 we discussed the evidence in the Bible that Christmas was the beginning of a celestial war. Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil, and Satan reciprocated by trying to destroy Jesus. . . . . . . . Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he had numerous encounters with demons, the cohorts of Satan.  . . . .  Our Savior openly admitted that he had always had a spiritual army at his disposal: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26.53).  . . . . It seems to me that those legions of angels who were ready to do the bidding of Jesus in Matthew 26 are identical to the multitude of the heavenly host, the stratia, that is out on the fields of Bethlehem. In other words, the song that these heavenly angels sing, . . . is not sung first and foremost by a heavenly choir, though I don’t doubt for a minute that they were trained in music as well as in military procedures. It is sung by legions of heavenly soldiers whose Commander in Chief has just been born, and they know that full-fledged war is just ahead of them.”

Verbrugge’s explanation throws a floodlight onto this heavenly encounter that Luke narrates. The appearance of this army of angels signals that a war – whose field of conflict embraced both heaven and earth – was entering its decisive phase. Christ’s nativity was the prelude to the great climactic battle in the war against Satan, the battle that took place on the cross, in which Satan was defeated, in which Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossian 2.15).

That war against Satan began in heaven, when Satan first rebelled against God. Other angels joined Satan’s rebellion. From that time, Satan and his evil forces have opposed God and every angel and human loyal to Him. This cosmic conflict is central to the Bible story.

When Adam and Eve, too – tempted by the serpent – rebelled against God, the theatre of war now extended to planet Earth. After Adam and Eve’s sin, God cursed Satan. He said to him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3.15). There would be conflict between Satan and Eve. And there would be conflict between their offspring – between people who follow Satan and God’s people. But, one day, a single offspring descended from Eve would – though suffering fearfully in the process – defeat Satan, and deal with all the consequences of sin. In Vaughan Robert’s words, “The rest of the Bible can be seen as a ‘search for the serpent-crusher”.

From the moment of the Fall, through century after century, God prepared the stage of history for the coming of the Serpent-Crusher. Alec Motyer comments that the Old Testament “is, in many ways, a book standing on tiptoe, straining forward into the future.” As we travel through the Old Testament God fills out the details of this Man Who would defeat Satan and rescue and restore mankind and the whole creation. So, after many centuries, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, . . . .” (Galatians 4.4). Just as angels sang at Earth’s creation (Job 38.4-7), now they celebrate our Saviour’s birth (Luke 2.13-14). God’s heavenly host rejoice every time Satan’s dark dominion is pushed back – and Jesus’s birth heralded Satan’s total defeat. No wonder they sang!

Details of Dr. Verbrugge’s book A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard story of Christmas and Why It Matters are available HERE.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2018 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations (other than those in quotations from other authors) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

Some thoughts on open participation in the Sunday gatherings

Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14.26a). In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee comments that what Paul writes here “offers a description of what should be happening at their gatherings” . He notes that “It is possible that some of this was already going on; but the rest of the context, including chapter 12, suggests that this is a corrective word rather than a merely descriptive one. Martin . . . offers the possibility that the repeated “has” may be a form of reproof; however, nothing in the text itself mildly hints at disapproval here.” So, in a nutshell, Paul is saying that when the church is gathered, different members should be contributing to the meeting according to their particular gift or gifts. Paul follows this by writing, “Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14.26b).

The New Testament pattern, then, is that there should be sufficient opportunity to allow contribution from a variety of people, and flexibility to allow the Holy Spirit to direct the meeting, whilst maintaining order (1 Corinthians 14.26,40). And everything that is contributed should be for the edification of the whole gathering. In David Peterson’s words: “Paul’s emphasis is on coming together to participate in the edification of the church” . Some contributions will be spontaneous. Others may be prepared beforehand (this would typically be true, for example, of much of the teaching). Some contributions will be shorter; a few may be longer – for example, contributions by those who are gifted as teachers. Each gathering, too, will differ – some may find their focus more on teaching, some others on prayer, for example.

In an article that you can read HERE, Nick Berube, who was a pastor for 43 years, writes, “In 1992 I planted a church in St Paul (Christ Community Church) . . . . A good 15-20 minutes was separated for ‘Sharing’ from the congregation. We tried to have a 90 minute service but more often it was closer to 2 hours. Sometimes a bit beyond. And I’m sure that the length eliminated a few folks. Maybe a lot! But our thinking was built on what we perceived as a dearth of spiritual impartation by the body to each other. And many complained and thought that could be better met by a system of small groups. In fact, one couple that visited thought our service was more like a big small group, which they meant largely as a critique, but we felt that the trade-offs were worth it.”

Berube comments, “If we do not provide a venue for the general sharing of the body in a worship service or small group, we run the risk of creating an elite that alone can speak the word of the Lord. And that is not to dismiss gifted preachers who should indeed be handling the bulk of preaching and teaching, but there must be a place for the larger body to bring their unique perspective into the mix of a worship service. And as I share these sentiments, I am also personally aware of pastors and friends who would consider these thoughts anathema. And there are decent reasons for so thinking. There are a lot of ways for this to go off the rails. But if there is sufficient teaching and healthy leadership during the worship service that can be minimized. We did this for 18 years at Christ Community Church with far more blessing than weird off-key expressions.”

For many years, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, my wife and I were part of a church in Surrey, UK. In this church’s Sunday gatherings, there was a high degree of participation by others besides the leader of the gathering and the preacher. There was considerable freedom for people to share, for example, by teaching from the Scriptures, or through prophecy, etc. But, despite the freedom for anyone to share, start a hymn or chorus, prophecy, etc., it was noticeable how rare it was for there to be anything ‘out of order’.

But this kind of gathering is rare in the modern Evangelical church. It’s interesting to ask why this is. Gordon Fee gives one answer in this same commentary on 1 Corinthians a few pages further on: “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no great credit to the historical church that in opting for ‘order’ it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many.”

Why do we need a wider degree of participation in our gatherings? Three reasons come to mind:

 Those who have even a small amount of gifting – in for example, teaching – will have regular opportunity to exercise that gifting and grow in it. If they are denied such opportunity, how will their gifting be developed? How will the church be edified with the gifting that God has given them? If such opportunity is lacking, both they and the whole church will be impoverished.

 If there is opportunity to contribute to the gatherings, there will be motivation for members of the church to seek God during the week for something to share in the coming gathering. These members will look forward to the gathering, not only in anticipation of receiving edification, but in giving edification to their brothers and sisters in the body. If there is no opportunity to participate, that particular incentive to seek God for something to share is absent – and so again, individual members and whole church are in danger of being impoverished.

 In the church that my wife and I attended it was often the case that a contribution – whether, for example, a teaching, a prophecy, a prayer, or a word of encouragement – sparked off another member to contribute, and so on like a Spirit-led chain reaction. It was wonderful to see this happen. If there is no opportunity to participate, such a ‘chain reaction’ will not happen. And so, again, individual members and whole church will be impoverished.

Finally, here are a few comments about the actual practice of ‘open’ participation in the gatherings.

 Rather than opening the whole time for open participation, just a portion of the gathering might be specially set aside for this – as happened in Ned Berube’s church, where “A good 15-20 minutes was separated for ‘Sharing’ from the congregation”.

 Gatherings where open participation is encouraged require wise Spirit-led oversight – unobtrusive, yet ready to intervene when necessary to guide the proceedings.

 Open participation needs to be encouraged and guided through Biblical teaching on this subject – for example, teaching on the various spiritual gifts, and on the purpose and practice of the gatherings.

 Ned Berube commented that “many complained and thought that could be better met by a system of small groups” . However, if such participation is restricted to small groups alone, then the whole church will not hear and be edified by what is contributed in the group. It also places considerable demands on the small group leader to exercise wise oversight of the gathering. Not all small group leaders may be equipped to do this.

 Finally, it’s worth pointing out that spontaneous contributions are not necessarily to be valued above those that are prepared beforehand. The key thing is whether what is shared with the gathering is guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore edifying to God’s people.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2017 Robert Gordon Betts All Scripture quotations (other than those in quotations from other writers) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘The God Who Is There: a Basic Introduction to the Christian Faith and the Big Story of Scripture’ by D.A. Carson.

This course by D.A. Carson takes people through the big story of Scripture. It is thoughtful, engaging and theologically rich. The course comprises 14 videos (which are free!), each of which is accompanied by the audio-only version plus a transcript. There’s also an accompanying book and a leader’s guide which are available for purchase. It’s primarily written for seekers and new Christians. But it would be a great refresher course for those who have been Christians for a longer time – they would undoubtedly discover new insights here, too. This would make a great resource for small groups, as well as for individual study.

In the preface to his book, Dr. Carson writes, “If you know nothing at all about what the Bible says, the book you are now holding in your hands is for you. If you have recently become interested in God or the Bible or Jesus but quite frankly you find the mass of material rather daunting and do not know where to begin, this book is for you. If you have been attending a Christian church for many years in an indifferent fashion—it’s a nice extracurricular activity now and then—but have recently come to the conclusion you really ought to understand more than you do, this book is for you. If you have quite a few of the pieces of the Bible stored in your mind but have no idea how the exodus relates to the exile or why the New Testament is called the New Testament, this book is for you. If in your experience the Bible has lots of data but you do not see how it conveys God to you or introduces Jesus in a fashion that is utterly humbling and transforming, this book is for you.”

Dr. Carson continues, “This book is not for everyone. The person who does not want more than a bumper sticker introduction to Christianity may find this book a bit much. What I have tried to do here is run through the Bible in fourteen chapters. Each chapter focuses on one or more passages from the Bible, unpacks it a little, and tries to build connections with the context, drawing the lines together to show how they converge in Jesus. By and large I have assumed very little prior acquaintance with the Bible. What I do assume, however, is that a reader will get hold of a Bible and have it near at hand.”

The course is available HERE. Here you’ll find the 14 videos (with audio-only versions) together with the transcripts – all of these are free! The course introduction page also provides links to the book and the leaders’ guide, which are available for purchase through Amazon (they can be purchased through other retailers as well). The video and audio series fairly closely parallel the chapters of the book. The leaders guide, in addition to helping people to lead classes or small groups, provides suggestions for further reading.

A sample chapter of the book is available HERE.

The videos have also been published on YouTube. The playlist is available HERE.

David J. Jackman, former president of the Proclamation Trust, London, England, writes, “This may well prove to be one of the finest and most influential books D. A. Carson has written. A comprehensive apologia for the Christian faith, it is rooted in engaging exposition of major biblical texts, tracing the chronological story of God’s gospel grace with rich theological insight. Skilfully related to the objections and issues raised by twenty-first-century culture, it will inspire and equip any Christian who desires to communicate Christ more effectively and can confidently be given to any inquirer seeking to discover the heart of biblical faith. It is the best book of its kind I have read in many years.”

‘Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable’ by Ian Paul

Image © Lumo Project through Free Bible Images All rights reserved

A re-enactment of the nativity scene: Jesus with His mother Mary, and her husband Joseph.

Dr. Ian Paul writes, “I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas . . . . But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case. So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture.”

Dr Paul opens up some fascinating insights into Jesus’ nativity. He tells us why oxen and asses are traditionally placed in the nativity scene. He explains the meanings of the Greek word in Luke 2.7 that’s translated “inn” in the ESV and the King James Version (but translated “guest room” in the NIV). And he takes us back to the first-century setting of the narrative, including the culture of the time and the actual design of Palestinian homes. Dr Paul draws on resources by other writers and provides links to two sermons, one by himself, another by Stephen Kuhrt, that retell the Christmas story in way that is faithful to its first-century Palestinian background.

Read the whole article HERE

‘Defending against defeater beliefs.’ Two talks by Don Carson

Don Carson gave two talks at the FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) Leaders’ Conference in Torquay this year. They’re entitled Defending against Defeater Beliefs. The FIEC’s website page for the first talk is HERE; the page for the second talk is HERE.

In the first session, Dr Carson briefly overviewed seven defeater beliefs that challenge, and can defeat, our own Christian beliefs. He said, “. . . it’s become a little more difficult to do evangelism, a little more challenging, not because the gospel has changed, but because the nature of the defeater beliefs that are challenging the gospel are progressively more diverse, progressively more antithetical to . . . Christianity. So let me . . . give a survey of . . . seven [defeater beliefs] with a few comments along the line and then I’ll close by returning to this point regarding the importance of the Bible storyline.”

The ‘defeater beliefs’ that Dr Carson deals with are these:

1 “There cannot be only one way to God.”

2 “Freedom is tied to our capacity for individual self-definition, . . . for individual self-identity; we choose our own self identities.”

3 “This freedom . . . includes our right to define sin for ourselves.”

4 “What I’ve learned to call the new tolerance.”

5 “Moralistic therapeutic deism.”

6 “God couldn’t possibly send people to hell – or if there is some kind of punishment, it’s for really bad blokes like Stalin, but it’s not for nice people like me.”

7 “The God of the Bible is Himself spectacularly morally flawed.”

In his conclusion, Dr Carson said, “What is required for this and all the other defeater beliefs at the end of the day is not only some individual answers . . . [but] an alternative biblical theological framework – the Bible’s storyline. . . . Ideally you want to take people from a frame of reference in which they’re holding a whole lot of defeater beliefs, which if you tackle them one by one . . . you’re likely to get smashed down one by one . . . and present instead an alternative picture, a big story, which changes all of those defeater beliefs into something else. Now, this can be done in a lot of different ways. It can be done by one-on-one Bible study to invite people into beginning to read the Bible and find out how it clashes with their own assumptions . . . .” There are quite a few resources that cover the Bible storyline. Two that Dr Carson mentioned are God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts (described HERE), and his own resource The God Who Is There. This is available as a book with a leaders’ guide, and also a video series. The videos and transcripts are available free of charge HERE; you will also find audio versions of the talks here, together with details of the accompanying book and leader’s guide for group study.

In his second talk on defeater beliefs, Dr. Carson deals with this question: how can we be sure that what we believe is true? He begins, “Yesterday I gave a brief overview of defeater beliefs and how they work and how Christians should think of them. Today I want to deal with just one such defeater belief. Someone responds to our witness by saying, “You can’t be sure of your interpretation; you can’t be sure that what you’re saying is the truth – it’s just not possible.” Now what lies behind that is a whole lot of postmodern assumptions. But sometimes when we are hit with something like that we don’t know immediately how to respond. We’ve just been sidelined. Our very dogmatism, which might be attractive to some, becomes the ground for dismissal by others. And so we need to think through how this defeater belief works, and how to begin to respond to it.”

Dr D.A. Carson is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

The Friday Briefing 17 (7 December 2018)

What is the greatest of all Protestant ‘heresies’ Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), a key figure in the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation, once wrote, “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .”What do you think that heresy is? Dr Sinclair Ferguson explains.

Australian church leaders, prepare your people for persecution
Campbell Markham exhorts leaders in the Australian churches – an exhortation equally relevant to church leaders in many other countries: “Prepare your churches for persecution, and particularly your young people. You have no time to lose. And give them the priceless gift of gospel clarity. No Christian will survive persecution if they do not have a very clear, comprehensive, and precise understanding and conviction about the gospel.”

Hidden gems Nathan Young asks why it is that some people in a local church, though having definite potential for serving in in that church, get passed over. He asks, ”Who are the hidden gems in your church?”

3 classic poems every Christian should read Leland Ryken introduces us to three classic poems which he says “should be read and cherished by Christians today”.

Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away (Communion Hymn) Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristyn Getty wrote this wonderful hymn specifically for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

What is the greatest of all Protestant ‘heresies’?

Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement. How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies?” And why does Dr Ferguson exclaim “The greatest of all heresies? If heresy, let me enjoy this most blessed of ‘heresies’!” Read Dr. Ferguson’s article HERE.

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Australian church leaders, prepare your people for persecution.

Last year an 18-year-old Australian Christian called Madeline, who worked as a contractor for the children’s entertainment company Capital Kids Parties, had her contract ended after posting a picture on Facebook with the filter ‘It’s OK to Vote No’ (in other words, ‘No’ to same-sex marriage] in the run-up to the Australian Parliament’s vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage.

Campbell Markham writes, “We live and worship within a growing hostile environment. How are we going to go? How must we respond to this change?” His comments are, of course, relevant to Christians in many other countries.

Markham comments, “I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that Christians will be legally restricted in their ability to speak out and live out their faith in the public sphere.  . . . . I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that Christians will be forbidden to educate their children the way they want to. . . . . I expect, within the remainder of my lifetime, that professing Christians will begin to be barred from such professions as law, education, healthcare, the academy, and the civil service.”

Markham exhorts leaders in the church: “Prepare your churches for persecution, and particularly your young people. You have no time to lose. And give them the priceless gift of gospel clarity. No Christian will survive persecution if they do not have a very clear, comprehensive, and precise understanding and conviction about the gospel. Only the gospel will hold us up upright under the hail of persecution’s arrows.”

Read the whole article HERE.

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Hidden gems.

Nathan Young writes, “Picture a small church with under 15 members, the pastor is working class, as are a couple of the core team members. . . . . This church not only has a desire to reach working class people, but also wants to train and disciple working-class people for future ministry and service. Imagine that a young woman from the local estate starts attending – she’s professing faith but is still uncertain on some theological issues and rough around the edges. She knows the community and has no problems sharing her faith. She might not be a ready-made female gospel worker, but there’s definitely future potential. The question is: why did one of the elders not see that future potential until it was pointed out to him? Of course, this small church is real – it’s New Life Church Middlesbrough, and the short-sighted elder was me.”

In answering this question, Stone makes the following observation, “In his lecture ‘The Inner Ring’, C.S. Lewis starts by talking about the character Boris Dubretskoy from War and Peace. Young Boris learns that in the army there is both the formal structure made up of officers, lieutenants and corporals, but there is a second, unspoken organisation which transcends all of that, where some people somehow belong and some people simply don’t. . . . . Could this be the problem in our churches?” I think Stone has highlighted an important point – and one that perhaps every church leader needs to consider.

Read the whole article HERE.

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3 classic poems every Christian should read.

Leland Ryken introduces us to three classic poems which he says “should be read and cherished by Christians today” – one each by John Milton (1608-1674), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Along with the text, Dr. Ryken includes some commentary. Read the whole article HERE.

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Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away (Communion Hymn).

This is a wonderful hymn from Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristyn Getty. It was written specifically for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Townend writes, “When I’m preparing to write a lyric, I usually gather together everything I can find in the Scriptures on a particular theme, so I can get as comprehensive a picture as possible of what the bible teaches. And as I did that, three aspects of communion became clear: the act of remembering and celebrating Christ’s death through eating bread and drinking wine; the expression of being one in Christ through sharing in one bread and one cup; and the proclamation of Christ’s return.”

The lyrics and other information are available on Stuart Townend’s website page for this song HERE.

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On the pastoral ministry, with H.B. London

Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

An old photographic slide of shepherd life taken in or around the Holy Land between about 1900-1920. It was one of a series illustrating Psalm 23.

The Greek word for ‘pastor’ (one of the gifts in Ephesians 4.11) is the closely related noun ‘shepherd’ (in Greek, poimēn). H.B. London writes, “I propose that one of the most important aspects of being a pastor is fulfilling the role of servant-shepherd. Next to being faithful to God and attentive to spouse and family is the pastor’s responsibility as shepherd—one who knows the flock, listens to the flock, watches out for the flock, cares for the flock, corrects the flock, and spends a great portion of time with the flock.” London’s brief article, available HERE, is very helpful and well worth reading.

But, as a postscript to London’s article, the pastoral ministry in a local church must extend beyond the one who holds the position of ‘pastor’. All elders of local churches should have a pastoral heart. Elders are to shepherd (the Greek verb poimainō) God’s flock (Acts 20.28, 1 Peter 5.1-2). And there may well be others in a local church besides the elders who have the Ephesians 4 gift of being a pastor.

And there is surely also a sense in which every member of a local church is to participate in this pastoral ministry at least to some degree. For example, we’re to teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3.16), encourage and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5.11), bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6.2); and love one another (for example, Romans 13.8, 1 Peter 1.22, 1 John 4.7).

CREDITS Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations (other than those used in text that other authors have written) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘Exodus: understanding one of the Bible’s major themes’ by D.A. Carson

The Passing of the Jews through the Red Sea from Wikimedia

The Passing of the Jews through the Red Sea painted by Wilhelm Kotarbinski (1848-1921).

The Exodus from Egypt was the key saving event in Israel’s history (see, for example, Deuteronomy 4.32-40, 6.20–25, 1 Samuel 12.6–8, Psalm 105.26-45, Jeremiah 32:20–21).

An Ask Pastor John podcast on the Desiring God website featured guest Don Carson speaking about the Exodus. The podcast’s introducer writes, “The Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt is “the greatest redemptive event in the Old Testament”, says Don Carson. To let that sink in for a moment, imagine this: If our publishing age is marked by the cross, it is because the cross the shorthand for the death and resurrection of Christ. His cross marks the centerpiece of redemptive history. But before the cross there was the Exodus. And so if the world of publishing today talks about the cross-centered life, and the cross-centered church, it would seem that a fitting analogy would be to perhaps imagine Old Testament era saints to have been inspired to write and publish books on the Exodus-centered life and the Exodus-centered synagogue. It is a major key to understand the Old Testament, and it is a major key to unlocking the meaning of the entire Biblical plotline. To explain I called Dr. Don Carson.” Hear (or read) what Dr. Carson said HERE.

I have posted a study comparing the Egyptian Exodus with the greater Exodus accomplished by Jesus Christ HERE.

CREDITS Text in quotations © Desiring God Foundation.