Archive for May, 2008

From Tomsk, Siberia in Russia


Opening the New Testament and Finding the Old II

Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.


The Old Testament thought form

There is a curious Hebraism which is very common in the Old Testament, but which is so foreign to the modern ear that it is all too often treated as an oddity that perhaps really means nothing at all. It is most familiar in a distinct type of proverb often known as the “numerical proverb.”  The construction is disarmingly simple and quite flexible.  It is the literary device which is framed in terms of a numerical progression – basically, “c, yea c + 1.”  The wisdom teacher, Agur, especially loved this form of expression; four times in Proverbs 30 this construction is employed, always with the numbers “3, yea 4.”  In each case, the four items are iterated after the introductory accounting.

There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough: (30:15, KJV)

    There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not. (30:18, KJV)

    Under three things the earth quakes, And under four, it cannot bear up. (30:21, NASB)

    There are three things which are stately in their march, even four which are stately when they walk (30:29, NASB)


This is the most obvious form of the device, as both numbers are explicit. (At Prov 30:7, K&D refer to this as the “sharpened or pointed” numerical proverb.)  Many times only one numeral is explicit, but the list which follows makes clear the numerical progression; for instance, in Prov 30:7, Agur implores, “Two things I asked of you…”, but in the next verse he lists three. And again, in many cases there is no digit expressed at all, but the progression from one number to the next carries the weight of the expression, as in Agur’s opening distich “The man declares to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal” (30:1). Finally, the digits may be used with no ensuing list, as in Amos 1:3 – “Thus says the LORD, ‘For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment…’”


So what is the point of this curious device?  Very simply, it expresses fullness.  For instance it’s not true that there are only six things the Lord hates, but He really despises these seven (Prov 6:16-19). Ithiel and Ucal – whoever they were – were precisely the audience for whom Agur intended his wisdom sayings.  And Damascus has filled to overflowing its cup of iniquity.  In a day when italics and underscoring were not available, and when most people accessed the Scriptures by ear at any rate, such a device for communicating fullness, completeness, or intensity was precious to speakers and writers.


The New Testament Use

In Luke 13:31, Jesus is in Perea.  Some Pharisees, still seething over the claim made by Jesus in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 10:30-40), come from Judea with a plot to lure Jesus back into the land where they could do Him harm. Jesus sees through their sinister designs and in response He makes a statement that is enigmatic to many:


    And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’” (13:32)


The chronology of this period late in Jesus’ ministry is very difficult to piece together with any specificity, and thus to trace His travels day-by-day is impossible.  So what are we to make of the Lord’s reference to “today and tomorrow, and the third day…”?


I am persuaded that He is employing the Hebraism considered above: “today and tomorrow” = two days, and “on the third day I will reach my goal.”  The point again is fullness – only when the time was full (cf. Gal 4:4), the time intended by the Father, the time when everything was in readiness, would Jesus make His way to Judea once again. (Compare, by the way, the strikingly similar construction employed by the prophet Hosea in 6:3.) Indeed, I would contend that to read the passage in Luke 13 with a modern Greek mind, to ponder exactly what happened on the mysterious succession of three days in the weeks between Dedication and Passover, is to miss the point entirely, that this reference is best understood as another place where we open the New Testament and encounter the Old.

Read Full Post »

From Tomsk, Siberia in Russia


It is my persuasion that one of the most important and defining hermeneutical insights to be brought to the interpretation of the New Testament is this: the writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.  This is true to a degree more dramatic in some writers than in others (the most dramatic of all: Rabbi Saul/Paul), but it is never not a factor.  In the course of my own studies, that reality confronts me again and again with reference to this passage or that concept.  In making my way through Romans here in Tomsk this week, I have encountered a number of passages where the meaning of a specific text becomes more clear and/or compelling if the appropriate nuance of Hebrew thought or expression is made a part of the reading of that text.


And thus was born the idea for an intellectual exercise.  I am going to identify some of those New Testament texts which seem to be so much informed by ideas or forms of expression which arise from an Old Testament milieu (indeed, ideas or forms which are often entirely foreign to the New Testament milieu), and then try to point out how those texts are more completely understood when comprehended with that Old Testament thought form in mind.  The effort will be by fits and starts, to be sure, and the entries will appear with no taxonomical considerations whatever.  But it occurs to me that it would be interesting to have a catalogue of such texts, and perhaps it might even be a help in some quarter.  And so herewith the first installment of…


Opening the New Testament and Finding the Old

Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The Writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.


The Old Testament thought form

Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s Word is represented as a soldier, a mighty warrior who goes out to do the bidding of his commander and always accomplishes the task assigned him. It’s a rich word picture, redolent with various specific points of timely application.  One of the most apparent uses of the figure is 1 Samuel 3:19 – “Thus Samuel grew and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fail” (NASB). That final phrase is literally, “the Lord did let none of his [Samuel’s] words fall to the ground.”  That is what demonstrated to the nation that Samuel was genuinely a prophet of the Lord (3:20) – the requirement of Deut 18:20-22 was without exception met when Samuel spoke.  I think the picture is this: one very simple test of a good soldier is that he always comes home at night!  To “fall to the ground” is to be defeated in battle, and thus not to return.  Just as a good soldier goes out to battle and then returns, his enemy having fallen to the ground, so God’s word, spoken through His prophet Samuel, did not “fall to the ground.”


Another aspect of the word picture is seen in Isa 55:11 – “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty [ריקם].” A good soldier vanquishes and strips his enemy, and thus he returns with spoil.  So it will be with God’s word: it will accomplish what He desires and return, soldier-like, with the spoils of victory.  And again in Isaiah 45:23 – “The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back.”  That final word [ישׁוב] means “to turn back,” but in the context of military conflict, it speaks of “retreat” – very possibly the picture here.


The New Testament Use

In Romans 9-11, the apostle Paul is defending and celebrating the righteousness of God (1:17) in His dealings with Israel.  He commences that extended discussion by affirming that it is “not as though the Word of God had taken none effect’ (NASB).  The Greek there is έκπέπτωκεν, from ekpiptō. The root is πίπτω, “to fall,” here strengthened to mean “to fall out (of rank, in a military context), or to fall so as to not get up again.” I think Rabbi Saul/Paul may well have had in mind that Old Testament figure of God’s word as a mighty soldier.  It is unthinkable that His word be defeated, slain in the battle to which it is sent.  Indeed, in the thought section to follow (9:6-13), Paul twice cites passages which demonstrate that the way God is working in this present time (cf. 11:5) is entirely consistent with God’s purposes and character, and thus His word is accomplishing its mission in this age, just as it has in the past.  


The passage is certainly coherent if we perceive it simply in the abstract, “has not taken effect.” But to my mind it is the more compelling – and the more (happily) Hebraic – to see it as answering to that Old Testament prophetic word picture. Thus, Paul’s asseveration might be comprehended to mean (in rather expanded form): “certainly it is not as though God’s word concerning Israel has fallen in battle, is a soldier slain.”  And having made that blessed point, he proceeds in careful fashion to explain and celebrate this blessed reality: all that God has ever said regarding His purposes in Israel is being and ultimately shall be fulfilled.



Read Full Post »

When I was in Romania a few years ago, a new friend – our translator – gave me a vocabulary quiz.  Herewith I share it with you.


Question #1: What is the term for a person who speaks many languages?

Answer #1. He is a polyglot.


Question #2: What is the term for a person who speaks two languages?

Answer #2: He is bilingual.


Question #3: What is the term for a person who speaks only one language?

Are you ahead of me on this?  With a bit of a condescending grin, my friend gave me Answer #3: He is an American.


He got me! A pox on that ancient ziggurat (if you get my drift)!  And just as it was in Bucharest, that language barrier is a deep irritant and frustration here in Siberia.  Russian is a language very foreign to English, and there is very little English to be seen on the billboards and street signs here in Tomsk.  (So far: “Toyota,” “Casino,” and maybe a couple more.)  I’ve tried to learn the alphabet, just so that I can spell out and articulate some of those words that I can’t make myself not struggle with – even if having articulated them I have no idea what they mean. Even given that feeble effort, those mute words continue to remind me that I don’t fit here, that I am a square peg in a world of round holes.


And that is only one very minor means by which I am confronted with the reality that I have my nose desperately and – given my advanced age and enfeebled capacities – irremediably pressed up against the outside of the window of this culture.  If I were dropped three blocks from the home where I’ve stayed all week, chances are poor I would ever find my way back.  (Okay, so you could perhaps say the same about my own house, but try to stay on track here!)  Most of the gestures I use elicit quizzical looks and/or polite giggles.  I’ve not seen one single bumper-sticker in the time I’ve been here.  About one car in three has the steering wheel on the right side – though everyone drives on the right side of the road.  (Well, not exactly.  There is a sort of phantom middle lane, evidently available to whoever gets it first – in either direction.)


If there is anything of “The Ugly American” in all that, forgive me. But I don’t think there is.  The point is not that there is some ignominy in being strange and foreign to Doug Bookman, or again that things familiar to me are somehow nobler than those things foreign to me.  Indeed, what I find frustrating is that this culture – so obviously fascinating and worth knowing – is so inaccessible to me, primarily because of the myriad points of dissonance which are the necessary consequence of a language entirely foreign to what I know.  And foreign it is, because when it comes to modern languages, I don’t know much.  I am, after all, an American.


But with all of that, I am just as impressed – almost startled all over again – at how immediately, deeply and meaningfully my soul is knit together with those of the believers here in Tomsk.  With all the difficulties of communication, the cultural/linguistic/ geographic gulf is bridged almost in the twinkling of an eye.  They pick up their Bibles filled in all of their parts with those letters so foreign to me, and I pick up mine with its infinitely more familiar markings, and off we go – me and a roomful of men with whom I would find it almost impossible to exchange the most banal greeting.  The workability of our shared mental and spiritual exercise is alarmingly dependent upon the abilities and energy of the translator assigned me at any given time – that, a topic for another time, perhaps – but smooth or rough, the effort is rewarding beyond the telling.  So far from home and all that is familiar; so knit together with men who cherish the Message that has brought me to this place.

Read Full Post »

I am sitting in the 4th story, 4-room flat of Dr. Sergey Taranov.  This is the apartment which the Communist government provided Sergey and his wife, Galina, in 1971.  In construction and accoutrements, it is like every other apartment in the building, which looks like every other building on the street. I am no little impacted by the abiding and transparent cheer with which they have lived (and continue to live) their lives without so many of the basic “necessities” of life that I take so very much for granted.  No lift to the fourth floor, simply four long and dark and somewhat derelict flights of stairs.  No second bath, only the one, and that one rather primitively outfitted and hardly larger than one would encounter on a commercial airline. (And that bathroom also serves as the laundry area.)  No eating area, simply a TV-tray style folding table which is set in front of the couch in the living room/guest bedroom, requiring that Galina carry the marvelously well-prepared food in from the tiny kitchen(ette) one course at a time.


To be sure, the life Sergey and Galina and their two children have lived out in Siberia has been, in terms of Siberian standards of life and living, fairly ordinary. (And in fact, measured against the expectations brought to daily life by myself and by most of you who might read this, painfully ordinary).  But Dr. Sergey Taranov is no ordinary man – by Siberian standards, by Western standards, or, I believe, by God’s standards.  In 2001, he left a stellar career as a teaching doctor in one of Russia’s leading institutes of cardiology to give himself entirely to pastoral ministry. 


As I type, Kirk and I are talking with our humble and gracious host over a cup of tea.  Sergey almost breaks a sweat trying to carry on a conversation in English, but he stays at it.  He tells us something of his years as a leader in the Communist party of Siberia and specifically his role as a propagandist and ideologue for the state (ir)religion – a role in which his efforts to convince others of the virtues of Communism were fueled at least in part by the doubts that haunted his own soul/spirit.  He remembers the special measure of contempt that he was taught to have toward those “believers” – primarily the Baptists here in Russia – who posed such a threat to the Communist experiment.  Along the way and with some little prodding, he allows that his was a very successful and innovative career as a doctor and that he enjoyed it and found it deeply rewarding.


And he tells about a day in 1992 when an insurance agent visited him in his office at the Institute, wrote policies covering his car, his home, and his life, and then asked, “We’ve protected all you have in this life, but do you have any protection for your soul in the next life?”  That woman was from the Central Baptist Church in Tomsk, and for reasons Sergey couldn’t understand until after he had fulfilled the promise, he promised to visit the church the next Sunday.  But he broke that promise three weeks in a row, and for those same three Mondays that same woman stopped in his office to remind him of his oath.


By now Sergey had wearied of fighting off the sense that his remarkably full life was in fact empty.  As he said, “I sensed that life without God could only be empty, but I didn’t know God!”  And so this well-known physician/cardiologist/university professor /Communist party leader finally made his way to an evening service at the church he had been taught to hate with a special hate.  He had been on duty in the morning and had intended to go home after finishing his day at the hospital, but, as he told us, “My legs wouldn’t let me go anywhere but to church.”  There, he was warmly received by those believers he had so long reviled.  The Gospel message was made plain and compelling, and when the invitation was given he repented (the very instructive verb used universally to describe coming to faith here in Russia), and the name Sergey Taranov was written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Comrade Dr. Taranov had become Brother Sergey.  When he got home that evening, Galina wondered where he had been, and she was hurt to find out he had repented in her absence.  Within two weeks, Dr. and Mrs. Taranov had become brother and sister in Christ.


That story is a long way from over, but our telling of it here has to be done.  It needs to be said that within five years Brother Sergey had become pastor of that same church where the Hound of Heaven, employing the means of a bold and persistent sister, had found him out that night in 1992. He served in that ministry while maintaining his schedule as a teaching doctor until 2001, when he was invited to accept the post of regional pastor, overseeing the Antioch Initiative in Tomsk, Siberia.  And thus it is that in God’s bottomlessly gracious providences I find myself sitting in this very humble flat in Siberia, struggling a bit at a conversation that has been God’s way of confronting me once again with two realities that – though I know them well – are ever new to me,. First, the reality that the “word of the cross” which is such foolishness to the world is indeed the power of God unto salvation, and that in ways the world can hardly imagine it makes empty lives full in every place and in every age.  And second, that most of God’s work goes on in what our evangelical world would regard as the backwaters of life – that as impressed as we are by the notoriety and impact of today’s celebrity Christianity, the heavy end of the Gospel stick is being carried in quiet, selfless, and manifestly God-honoring fashion by the Sergey and Galina Taranovs of the world.

Read Full Post »

Enroute to Siberia

Enroute to Tomsk, Siberia in Russia

I feel compelled to begin this exercise in public journaling with this stipulation: I acknowledge that there is a measure of impertinence intrinsic to the notion that any portion of the world that has access to the internet might find it interesting or profitable to follow the course of my days as I chronicle that course in this very public venue.  And yet, having said that, there is the reality that my wife and I have set out on a course of ministry that involves asking for some partnership and help on the part of others, and thus it behooves us to share that ministry at some meaningful level.  It is my prayer that the updates and ruminations dispatched in connection with the current trip to Siberia will be received as answering to that stewardship, and not as evidence of a hubris that supposes that there is some special importance to be attached to anything I do or anything I say or anywhere I go.


Diane and I are delighted to be members of the Centennial Bible Church of Westfield, IN. The primary missions focus of our church is a ministry channeled through the Slavic Gospel Association. That ministry, entitled The Antioch Initiative, was pioneered by the president of SGA, Bob Provost, and it is overseen by a vice-president of SGA, Kyler Welch, who is the older brother of our pastor, Kirk Welch.  (In fact, there are five Welch brothers, I know and love them all, and I rather suspect that Kyler would be happy for me to add that he is the only slightly older brother of my pastor, Kirk.)  It is as part of that ministry that I am, as I type, on my way to Siberia.  (There is no truth to the claim that I have been remanded to Siberia for neglecting this blog.)  I thought it appropriate and timely to describe The Antioch Initiative briefly.


The title given that ministry effort is very deliberate.  The goal and intent of The Antioch Initiative is to raise up Antioch-type sending churches in regions of the world where church planting is at once unusually difficult and sorely needed.  There are two necessary elements to the effort.  On the “receiving” end, a region is identified (in this case, Tomsk, Siberia), a solid church is identified and/or developed in a city that is logistically central to that region (in this case, the Central Baptist Church of Tomsk), and in time an individual is recruited who is well qualified to oversee the ministry of training national church-planters to saturate that region with the Gospel (in this case, Sergei Taranov, about whom more tomorrow).  And on the “sending” end, churches in the United States are recruited to partner together and to provide the funds and efforts necessary to identify and train those church-planters, and thus to see those churches established and then matured to the point that they too can be sending churches. 


Jesus calls upon His disciples to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Mt 10:16), that is, to pursue ministry goals with prudent and deliberate strategy, to make the optimum use of resources, to buy up every advantage and put the Enemy at every disadvantage, to craft ministry with an eye to the future as well as the present – and yet to do all of that without ever violating (or even compromising) any principle of morality or priority laid down by God in His Word.  That is a basic and inescapable mandate for ministry, but a mandate all too often neglected. On the other hand, it is my happy persuasion that The Antioch Initiative was framed with commendable sensitivity to that mandate. Let me count the ways – or at least three of them. 


First, the ministry is primarily focused upon and dependent upon national pastors. For many decades the primary pattern in the work of foreign missions has been to raise up missionaries from other lands to send to (for instance) the scores of Siberian villages and regions which are virtually unchurched – men and women to whom the language and the culture and the rhythm of life in Siberia are entirely foreign. As noble and effective as that strategy has been, it seems wise to supplement that effort. To that end, The Antioch Initiative identifies and enables men already ensconced in the culture which they will impact with the Gospel and strategizes to embolden and equip them to make that impact. In short, rather than insisting that Paul go up to Colossae, the Initiative embraces the wisdom of training Epaphras and sending him to his own village.


Second, the dynamics of The Antioch Initiative demand a level of involvement on the part of the State-side coalition of sending churches far beyond the norm.  The ministerial training necessary to prepare the small army of church-planters who must be raised up if the region is to be truly and effectively saturated with the Gospel is primarily the responsibility of those sending churches.  (SGA provides all the logistical help and teaching resources necessary to make the task do-able, but the coalition churches engage to financially enable and actually do that work.)  And as churches are planted and ministries implemented and expanded, there will inevitably be projects which can be well facilitated by short-term mission teams of doctors and craftsmen and puppeteers and who knows what, sent out by those coalition churches. Thus, as years go by, many folks from the State-side church learn first-hand what it means to sacrifice in order to minister, to trade in a Disneyland trip for a missions trip.  They become intimately familiar with the believers in their sister-church in another land, and in the doing they see Christianity being lived out in a culture very different from and, in many cases, very much more difficult than their own.  They see much closer than is usual what it is to pray and work to see a church grow from infancy to some level of maturity, to lean on God in the moments of heartache and disappointment and to give Him the glory in the moments of triumph and victory.  In short, involvement with The Antioch Initiative involves an unusually challenging commitment; it is not well suited to those churches whose ministry is shaped primarily to make no demands on those who embrace the Gospel. Is there not wisdom in that!


Third, The Antioch Initiative is designed to survive – yea, to flourish – in the event an interdict upon foreign mission activity is imposed by the nation or region where a work has been established.  This is largely a function of the fact that the ministry is primarily dependent upon national workers, but there are other elements of the way the ministry is planned and implemented that factor into this issue as well. For instance, the training is made indigenous as quickly as possible. Again, the access made possible by modern technology is recognized, and steps are taken to facilitate that access effectively if that becomes the only means available.  The wisdom of this commitment is especially manifest in a region such as Siberia, Russia, where the wind of geo-political providences blows entirely where it will.


For these reasons and more, I am delighted to have been invited to team-teach through the book of Romans in Tomsk, Siberia with my pastor and dear friend, Kirk Welch. He comes year by year, and was gracious to invite me to share the ministry with him this year.  We will be preaching in the services on Sunday, teaching all day Monday – Friday, and ministering in other ways as they are made available.  Your prayers are coveted and appreciated. 

Read Full Post »