Knowing the Bible

If you’re lookiCoverng for a Bible study to help you engage the biblical text and challenge you for  application, I encourage you to check out Crossway’s new Knowing the Bible series.

Each volume in this series explores a whole book of the Bible in 12 lessons. Each lesson takes you through the passage at hand and focuses on three aspects of the text:

(1) Gospel Glimpses (where do we see the grace of God revealed in this passage?)

(2) Whole-Bible Connections (how does this passage connect with the broader sweep of redemptive history?)

(3) Theological Soundings (what core doctrines are reflected in this passage?)

Several volumes have already been released, and several more are scheduled to be published next June (including the Exodus volume by your truly!). These studies provide both inductive questions and instructive teaching to help you understand the text better, and can be used in both individual and small group settings. And at only $8.99 a volume, they won’t drain your wallet either!

Love, Humility, and Unity in Theological Debate

How should we engage in theological debate? Scolding

When I was fresh out of college, I developed a rapid desire to know the Bible and theology better. I began to read books, listen to lectures, study Greek on my own, and enter into conversations on theological message boards. However, while my knowledge of the Bible and understanding of theological doctrines grew substantially, my wisdom in debating these things did not.

As I engaged people of differing views, my posture tended to be overly confident of my own position and quickly dismissive of others’ positions, and my rhetoric often included a not-so-subtle undercurrent of attempting to make others look and feel stupid for believing what they did. Had they even read the Bible, let alone studied it carefully? Did they really take God’s word seriously? They must not, because if they did, they would certainly agree with me.

Since that time I have been graced with the opportunity to complete both a master’s and a doctoral degree in biblical studies, and standing here at this point in my theological journey I now see that my behavior at the beginning was both foolish and arrogant. I’ve also observed that my aggressive proclivities as a young armchair theologian are not unique to me, but in fact plague theological debate, especially as it occurs on the internet. And while I am all for believers seeking to “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), I’m convinced that several priorities are often neglected when Christians debate theology.


The first Christian priority that often exits the stage of theological discussion is love. The usual comeback from overly-zealous theologizers against the charge that they are being unloving is that “love” should not be confused with “niceness.” After all, Jesus turned over tables in the temple and Paul did not always pen niceties when chastising others for theological error (e.g., Gal 5:12!). The problem with appealing to these events, however, is that while these are examples of divine and apostolic “tough love,” this is not the way Scripture instructs us to respond to error.

In Gal 6:1, Paul says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Since theological error is a “sin,” as our doctrinal policemen are quick to remind us, it is incumbent upon those who take it upon themselves to offer correction to do so gently, not harshly, abrasively, or offensively. This coheres with what Paul says in his most famous passage on love:

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).

Although modern day aggressive theologizers normally don’t claim the gift of prophecy, they usually do believe that they have arrived at the most knowledgeable position concerning Scriptural teaching. However, according to Paul, even if one has attained “all knowledge,” if they do not exhibit love (i.e., gentle love [Gal 6:1]), they are nothing. So while love is bigger and broader than simply being “nice,” in the context of theological debate, being “nice” seems to be a necessary manifestation of “love.”


The second priority that is often lacking in theological debate is humility. Having traveled the path from being an uneducated armchair theologian to being an ordained doctor of the church, I’ve found it most interesting that overconfidence and arrogance seem to be much more prevalent at the lower levels of theological discourse. That is, you’ll encounter much more rigid dogmatism on blogs and message boards than you will in doctoral seminars or at the Evangelical Theological Society.

One of the reasons for this is that, as you persist in formal biblical study, you are exposed more and more to the vast array of theological positions (held by people who are not stupid!) and plausible interpretations of various texts. This makes you more cautious about dismissing someone else’s view too quickly and instills a healthy amount of humility concerning your own position. This is not to say that there is isn’t one correct position or one correct interpretation of any given text. This isn’t even to say that you can’t be confident in your own understanding of Scripture. But this exposure does force you to evaluate other views very carefully and express yourself judiciously.

One of the most helpful concepts in this regard is Richard Pratt’s “cone of certainty.”

Cone of Certainty-page-001For many who debate theology aggressively, each doctrine is often held just as staunchly as the next. This can result in them claiming that virtually every differing view is an attack on the gospel itself, whether it pertains to the deity of Christ, positions on the sacraments, or interpretations of the millennium. On this approach, beliefs are either totally embraced or totally rejected in a fairly binary fashion.

And yet it should be obvious that Scripture is not equally clear on all matters. Therefore, as this diagram illustrates, our certainty concerning any theological doctrine should fall somewhere along a cone-shaped continuum. Certain beliefs will fall at the top of the cone, where our certainty is greater, while others will fall toward the middle or bottom, where our certainty is less.

Also, as the cone shape suggests, we should have fewer beliefs up in the top of the cone compared to the bottom. This means that, relatively speaking, there are fewer concepts that we tether “to the heart of the gospel” and over which we divide with others, and more concepts that we hold to more “humbly.” So while we may argue vigorously for the deity of Christ, holding equally tightly to supralapsarianism over infralapsarianism is probably not warranted (and if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry!).

Wisdom lies in one’s discernment of where along this spectrum any given doctrine falls and then interacting with others over that issue with correspondent humility.


Connected to both love and humility is the church’s call to unity, which, like the prior two, often falls by the wayside in theological debate. Concerning Christian unity Jesus could have scarcely been clearer:

“My prayer is not for them alone [i.e., the disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and  am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).

Here Jesus prays that His followers would be united together along with Him and the Father so that the world believes that the Father sent Jesus into the world. That is, the unity of the church is to be a testimony to the world of the incarnation and ministry of Jesus himself. This implies that such unity is visible to the world and not simply the de facto unity that exists among true believers through the Spirit.

In response, aggressive theologizers will often say, “There is no unity unless we’re united in the truth!” While this is true to a certain extent, what lies behind this statement is an insufficient understanding of intellectual humility as discussed above. Unity must revolve around truth, to be sure, but the real question is, “Which truths are necessary to unite Christians?” Doctrines like Jesus’ deity, man’s need of forgiveness, salvation by grace through faith, etc. are obviously necessary elements for true Christian unity. Other theological items further down our cone of certainty may or may not be necessary for true unity to exist. But because Jesus prays for the visible unity of the church, we are obliged to prioritize the pursuit of unity as we debate theology.


I don’t pretend to have mastered any of these above stated priorities. However, at 35 years of age I do believe I have a firmer grasp of my own intellectual finitude than I had when I was 25. While we may disagree with each other over various theological topics, we are called to do so while lovingly and humbly pursuing a unity that the world can see, which will testify that Jesus has indeed come into this world.

The Third Commandment: “Taking” God’s Name in Vain?

Third command-page-001As rendered in the ESV, the third command of the Decalogue reads as follows:

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exod 20:7).

Most people view this command as prohibiting one from speaking God’s name in a flippant or disrespectful manner. Taken as such, applications of this command in sermons and blog posts usually exhort people not to curse, particularly by saying things such as “God D***,” “OMG,” “JC,” and so on. God’s name is holy, and therefore we shouldn’t speak it in a frivolous way. This is true enough, but is this what this commandment is really talking about?

Is This Talking About Improper Speech?

It is an interesting phenomenon that this command has become so widely understood as pertaining to improper speech when the verb used is not a verb that describes speech. The verb translated above as “take” is nasa in Hebrew and means “take” in the sense of “lift, carry, or bear.” It does not mean “speak,” “say,” “pronounce,” or any other speech-oriented action.

Therefore, given our inclination to hear “speak” when we read “take,” it is perhaps better to think of this command as saying,

“You shall not bear the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who bears his name in vain.”

This then raises a further question: What does it mean to bear the name of the LORD?

Bearing God’s Name as His Representative

Clarity comes to this question when we look at the only other occurrence in the Pentateuch of someone “bearing” (nasa) someone else’s “name.” We find this in the instructions for the priestly garments in Exodus 28.

12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.

29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord.

The two stones of v. 12 each had six of the names of the twelve tribes written on them (vv. 9-10), and the breastpiece of v. 29 had twelve stones which also had the twelve names on them (v. 21). By wearing these garments and “bearing the names” of the twelve tribes, Aaron served as their representative when he entered the holy place on their behalf.

Therefore, the act of “bearing the name of the LORD” in the third commandment is best understood to refer to “serving as God’s representative.”

This idea of “bearing the name of the LORD” is present several other places in the Bible. For example, after giving Moses the instructions for how Aaron was to bless the people (well known as the “Aaronic blessing/benediction” [Num 6:24-26]), God said, “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (v. 27).

In short, God’s people “bear His name” in that they represent Him as His people.

Bearing God’s Name Vainly

According to the third command, the way that we are not to bear God’s name is “in vain.” The word translated “vain” here can mean “futile, false, purposeless, or empty.” Understood this way, the force of the command is clear: we are not to “bear God’s name” (i.e. serve as His representatives) in a way that is false or empty. Basically, by our actions people are not to get the wrong idea about our God.

On the one hand, if we advertise ourselves as Christians (ones who bear the name of Christ!), yet act in ways that Jesus would not approve of, others will see us and draw inaccurate conclusions about the God we claim to serve. We are representing God falsely to the watching world.

On the other hand, if we are Christians but don’t represent God at all to others (i.e., we hide our light under a bushel), it could be said that we are bearing God’s name emptily (i.e., we are representing Him to no purpose). However, the semantic range of “vain” in the third command not only prohibits us from representing God falsely but also from not representing Him at all.

Conclusion: Broader Than Cursing

From this short analysis it is evident that the third commandment is not simply prohibiting people from cursing or using God’s name flippantly. It seems reasonable to conclude that refraining from using God’s name in this way is one small application of this command, since it is hardly representing God well to use His name as an expletive.

However, the implications of “not bearing the LORD’s name vainly” extend far beyond improper speech. They pertain both to our overall behavior (i.e., by our words and actions we are not to misrepresent God to others) and to our propensity toward an apathetic, inward-focused faith (i.e., by our words and actions we are to be representing God to others).

For Further Reading/Viewing

** For a stimulating analysis of this command I highly recommend the essay, “Bearing the Name of the LORD with Honor,” by my doctoral supervisor, Daniel Block, found in his book, How I Love Your Torah, O LORD! It will be evident that the discussion above is greatly indebted to his work. One of Block’s other doctoral students, Carmen Imes, is currently working on a dissertation examining this meaning of the command. If you’d rather watch a video lecture than read, I’d recommend this lecture on the third command provided by the Ivy League ministry Christian Union.

How Time Flies – Make it Count

Lydia preschoolLast week Lydia began preschool. For several years before we had children, Caroline was a teacher, so she has attended plenty of “Meet the Teacher Nights.” But this most recent one was her first time attending as a parent.

Afterward she said to me, “This really makes me feel grown up.” And I know what she means. Lydia recently turned 4, and I’ve realized that I have vivid memories of my own life from when I was her age. I remember going to preschool. I remember running in a cornfield and getting stung by a bee. I remember Christmas that year, learning to ride a bike, and our family buying a dog that we would own for the next 17 years.

But what really blows my mind is that it doesn’t feel like that long ago that these things happened to me. Yet it has been over 3 decades. And when talking to folks who are older than I am, I’m told that the time just keeps moving faster. I have a feeling that before I know it, I’ll be sharing pictures of my grandkids heading off to preschool!

Lydia newbornTo the right is a picture of Lydia as a newborn. It feels just like yesterday that we were in the hospital with her, excited if not just a tad freaked out about being new parents. But this was 4 years ago.

What all this reminds me of is how short life is and how little time we have on this earth to live sacrificially and boldly for Jesus and others.

I find that in life I have a strong proclivity to overvalue things that make me look good and neglect things that make God look good. But one thing I do know: when I reach old age, if the Lord grants me the years, I want to look back and know that I did what I could to resist that tendency and seek to serve Him with all of my ability.

Life is short. The time flies. When you envision yourself looking back at your own life in old age, what do you hope to see? Whatever that is, now is the time to start doing it!

Toward a Theology of Supporting Missionaries

Since I’ve been engaged in the work of “raising support,” as it is commonly called, I thought it would be appropriate to offer a brief “theology of supporting missionaries.” The intent of this post is to encourage those of you who participate in missions through financial support, whether you do so in partnership with us or with others.

“Supporting Missionaries”: A Misnomer?

Now that I’ve introduced this post this way, I want to offer a slight critique of this common nomenclature that we use: “supporting missionaries.” To start off, I understand why we describe this act in this way. Missionaries are the ones who go to the mission field, and the people who provide the funds that enable them to go are “supporting” them. It makes sense.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think this terminology is misleading. To say that the folks who stay home and sacrificially provide funds are “supporting missionaries” seems subtly to imply two things: (1) that they are not directly participating in the work of missions themselves, and (2) that the money they donate is being given to the missionary.

Support Raising Figure 1-page-001As you can see in the illustration above, on this understanding the conceptual line of giving goes straight from the supporter to the missionary, and there is no direct line from the supporter to God’s work on the mission field. It is only the missionary ministering God’s word in the foreign land who is viewed as directly involved in God’s work on that mission field.

When the missionary/supporter relationship is conceived this way, missionaries can often feel self-conscious asking people to give funds because it feels like they’re asking potential supporters to give to them. This incorrect understanding can also lead to the false view that supporters are somehow second-class citizens when it comes to the missionary endeavor, since they are allegedly not directly involved in the mission work. But all of these are mistaken conclusions.

The Biblical Model: Offerings Made to the Lord

In Numbers 18, God told Aaron that he and his sons, along with the Levites, were responsible for caring for and serving in the tabernacle (vv. 5-6). He went on to tell Aaron,

I myself have put you in charge of the offerings presented to me; all the holy offerings the Israelites give me I give to you and your sons as your portion, your perpetual share” (v. 8).

That is, the people were to give offerings to the Lord, which He then redirected and designated for the temple servants as their livelihood. Repeatedly throughout the chapter God reiterates this emphasis that the gifts brought by the people were given to Him yet used for the temple servants (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26).

Significantly, Paul uses this OT concept to ground his teaching that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from doing so:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Cor 9:13-14).

Based on the OT precedent, the implication here is that church members who give funds toward missions are giving offerings to the Lord. These funds are used to provide for those who preach the gospel vocationally–the NT equivalent of the priests and Levites–but conceptually they are offerings given to God himself.

A Better Description: “Partnering with Missionaries”

Based on this biblical model, it seems that a better way to understand the missionary/supporter relationship is that of a partnership.

Support Raising Figure 2-page-001Viewed this way, both missionary and supporter are directly participating in God’s work on the mission field; one participates by going and the other by giving. The supporter is not giving his money to the missionary but bringing an offering to God, and therefore the conceptual line of giving here goes straight from the supporter to God’s work. Similarly, when “raising support,” the missionary need not feel awkward about asking people to give because they are not asking the potential supporter to give to them but rather presenting them with an opportunity to worship God and participate in His mission.

This makes the missionary and the supporter partners in the missions endeavor. Rather than the missionary being a player in the game and the supporter being a fan cheering on the sideline, both are standing side-by-side on the playing field. They play different positions, to be sure, but they necessarily complement one another, and no points are scored without both playing their part. Neither has a higher calling, and neither is second-class.

Of course, the funds offered by the supporter are functionally used to provide for the needs of the missionary, but by keeping these distinctions in mind we see that the ministry of “partnering with missionaries” is first and foremost an act of worship entailing offerings to God and therefore direct participation in what God is doing on the mission field.

For Those Considering a PhD in Bible or Theology

Should You Do a PhD in Bible?

PhDIf you google “Should I Do a PhD in Bible?”, you will most likely come up with several blog posts warning you about the trials and tribulations of completing a doctorate and lamenting the dire state of the academic job market. The general response is that doing a PhD in Bible or theology will take up all your time and energy for 5-7 years, during which time you will be fantastically poor and really stressed out, and at the end of which you will likely have a mountain of debt and no job prospects. So if that sounds good, go for it! (For a list of several blog posts on this subject, see the Wheaton Doctoral Blog).

Having done a PhD in Old Testament, I can certainly sympathize with much of this advice. For an academically bent seminary student, doing a PhD sounds like the life. But once you actually enter a program, you realize that academic work requires long, long hours, makes you feel highly vulnerable and inadequate much of the time, and that the North American job market is so over-flooded with PhD’s looking for work it’s not even funny. Peter Enns noted last year that a recent job opening advertised at the Society of Biblical Literature received over 200 applications (!).

This is not to say that there aren’t joys and benefits in doing a PhD in Bible or theology. There are many. But the costs are indeed very high — higher than most of us realize when we apply — and the job market in the U.S. is extremely tough.

What Should Guide Your Decision?

Yet I question whether these two major points used to warn would-be academics — (1) difficulty in completing a PhD, and (2) poor North American job market — are sufficient for a Christian. Is a Christian really to make decisions based on (1) finding the path of least resistance, and (2) being landlocked in their home country? As I read the Bible, it clearly says that Christians should be willing to (1) endure difficulty, and (2) expand to other parts of the world with the gospel.

To me, this suggests that a Christian who feels a sense of call to academics should not let difficulty and a low probability of landing a job in the U.S. dissuade them from pursuing this avenue of ministry. Rather than pursuing a different calling, what many folks need is to examine what they are being called to.

Are you called to a tenure-track teaching appointment in an English-speaking institution in relative proximity to your family and loved-ones? If you think so, why is that? Is your sense of call really that specific, or are you simply unwilling to sacrifice your personal wants in your pursuit of using your gifts? Instead, could it be that you are really called to serve Jesus with your gifts wherever they are needed most? And given the depressing lack of opportunity in North America, might that not be an indicator that you need to open your heart and mind to options in other parts of the world where your skills and knowledge are truly needed?

What should guide our decisions as Christians should not be the pragmatics of ease and success but the spread of the gospel, the needs of the world, and the glory of God. Of course, a genuine calling to academic ministry may involve one teaching in a North American institution — there is nothing wrong with that. Nor do I believe that teaching overseas is superior to teaching here. But if we are unwilling to go somewhere else to use our gifts for the growth of Jesus’ church, perhaps we should question whether our decisions are being guided in a biblical manner.

Think Globally

Amidst 5 posts concerning the depressing state of affairs in Christian academia, Enns has one small paragraph advocating that potential scholars “Think globally,” that is, look outside North America for teaching opportunities. I believe this option needs more consideration in the PhD world.

Returning to the original question, “Should you do a PhD in Bible?”, I would answer, “If you have been affirmed by older, wiser, and experienced scholarly mentors, if you have realistically counted the cost of doing so, and if you are willing to serve Jesus wherever you are needed most, then absolutely yes.” The path is strenuous, but exceedingly valuable, and the global job market is ripe with opportunity. However, if you simply have your heart set on being the next North American academic superstar, then I would say probably not.

For Further Reading

One of the better known blog posts on this subject was written by Nijay Gupta here, which he eventually expanded into a book: Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. Gupta gives very helpful information concerning the whole spectrum of doing a PhD in biblical studies. For those considering this path, I highly recommend you take advantage of this resource.