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Well, actually home by way of Japan. As I type, I’m sitting at the airport in Manila, PH, waiting for a flight to Osaka, Japan.  It’s Friday afternoon. I’ll only be in Japan till Monday – one-day conference on Saturday, then preaching on Sunday. 

 

The ministry that made it possible for me to be here is White Fields (www.whitefields.org), a mission agency whose focus is almost as unusual as it is noble. The commitment of the agency is to help national church planters with temporary and progressively reduced financial support as those men work at getting a church going.  Thus, theirs is a difficult endeavor because there is an element of anonymity very much involved.  The agency works very hard to raise support for men who will almost certainly never stand before their benefactors.  That leaves the agency with an even greater stewardship than most mission organizations, and they take that stewardship very seriously.  White Fields recruits only those men who have proven themselves qualified and able to do the work of a church planter; they maintain an apparatus in each country and/or region that meaningfully oversees the distribution of funds and the integrity of the ministry of those who receive those funds; they continually and aggressively provide surgically designed training for the pastors (thus this trip); and they demand and post regular reports which honestly and meaningfully chronicle the fruit and the failures and the frustrations experienced by each of those receiving support. White Fields was birthed in 1953, and so there are many “alumni” still involved with the ministry mentoring those men still receiving support.

 

White Fields was born when Bert Poole, missionary to Japan, was challenged almost playfully by a national pastor with whom he was working, “Send me your salary, and I’ll raise up a handful of national pastors!”  He was gripped by the reality that national pastors could certainly be at the work more quickly and more effectively than a missionary coming from another culture and language, and he began to develop a ministry to do just what that Japanese pastor had challenged him to do, tongue-in-cheek or no!  For what it’s worth, I was very impressed that the strategy he developed and which has been fine-tuned over the years – without ever compromising the initial animating construct – is remarkably efficient and effective.  If the idea makes sense to you, check out their website. Steve Wheeler, the Director, would love to talk to you about the agency.

 

This week we had 60 pastors at a very nice Christian camp/conference ground east of Manila called Rizal Re-Creation Center.  The week demanded a great deal of the men, as English is not the first language of any of them, and it is fairly foreign to many of them.  They worked hard, and I don’t know when I have had a more receptive or reactive audience.  I will use this quiet forum to express my thanks to my friend Steve Wheeler, the Director of the mission, for a really special ministry opportunity, to Pastor Leo, the field director in the Philippines, and his wife for caring for me and for the seminar with such care, and to 60 new friends whose commitment to the ministry of reaching people and starting churches has been a challenge to me all week and will be all the days of my life.

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Tonight I leave for home.  I’ve been in Israel for just over two weeks, leading a group from the Coon Rapids Evangelical Free Church of Minnesota.  The pastor of the Church is a dear friend, Ronn Johnson, and it’s been a delight to be with him and about 27 of the folks from his church.  They have worked hard and I believe they have learned much.  It’s been hot, but that has not stopped this intrepid band of pilgrims from doing what is necessary to learn this land, to more effectively equip themselves to know the narrative of the Scripture, and thus to know and cherish the God who has revealed Himself in that narrative.  It’s been a really good trip.

 

But it is always good to head for home.

 

I am planning to lead three study trips to Israel next spring, and before those trips I will be with the Master’s College Chorale for their quadrennial pilgrimage to the Land.  There are those who have expressed interest in joining one of the study trips that God has graced me to arrange and lead, and so I thought it wise to make the information concerning those trips available at www.bookmanministries.com.   

 

Click the tab entitled “Israel Trips,” and the information for each of the trips is accessible under the appropriate date.  At this point some of the details are still being worked out – most notably the air arrangements and the final price. (The airline industry will not issue a quote until 11 months before the return date of trip.) But it is good to start planning for a trip of this sort as early as possible.  So if you and/or yours are interested, please take a look at the appropriate Fact Sheet and let me know what questions you might have.

I would like to suggest an understanding of an Old Testament passage which is dependent upon a discussion in an earlier blog entry which can be found here. Quite simply, that discussion considered a peculiar Hebrew idiom, the most familiar expression of which is the numerical proverbs found occasionally in the book of Proverbs.  It is my persuasion that this idiosyncratic literary device – foreign to the modern reader and thus easily overlooked – is very probably the key to one of the most cryptic verses in the Old Testament.  That verse is 1 Samuel 13:1.  It is almost universally concluded that the verse as it stands is incoherent, that in order to make sense of the verse some digits must be added.  That conclusion is drawn not on the basis of textual evidence but of “content analysis.”  Could it be that the problem arises from missing a nuance familiar and important to the Hebrew reader, but all too foreign to the modern reader.  The possibility is explored here.

 

Click here to read the entire essay. 

The Paralytic

Recently a friend posed a question relating to the story of the palsied man lowered through the roof in Capernaum (Mt 9:1-8), and specifically to Jesus’ offer of forgiveness in that pericope.  Basically, the question had to do with the apparent incongruity of a man offering forgiveness.  The question included the suggestion (rejected by the interrogator) that in that act of forgiveness, Jesus acted only in His deity and not in His humanity.  The question broached some issues that I encounter now and again, and which I believe are worthy of clarification.  Thus I have waxed bold to record my response in this place.

 

First, we would all concur that in His incarnation – in taking upon Himself all of the real limitations intrinsic to unfallen humanity – Jesus never surrendered anything of His deity.  Thus, though fully man, the God-Man Jesus was fully God, and thus could (and did) claim for Himself the sublime prerogative of forgiving sins.  Indeed, that is the point of the narrative in Mt 9:1-8.  The record is explicit that it was “…in order that [Jesus’ detractors] might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” that “He said to the sick of palsy, ‘Get up, pick up your bed, and go home!’”  In short, though He was man very man, Jesus knew full well that He was God very God, and thus that even “on earth” He possessed the authority to forgive those who believed.  (continued)

 

Click here to read the entire essay

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.

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.

 

 

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.