Geography in the Ancient Near East was a physical representation of transcendent reality.

Mapping things geographically was a visible form of Israel’s theology.

For example since Jerusalem was central to Israel’s worldview, it was also central to the cartography of the time. The temple therefore was not only at the center of religious, economic or political life, but the center of the cosmos, the axis mundi (the axis of the world), the point of junction between heaven, earth, and hell.

The more I have thought about geography, the more I realize its theological importance. History, theology, and geography are not separate but intertwined. Geography is not only a setting for history but an articulation of theology and history.

To illustrate this I want to briefly explain how the geographical overlay of Matthew communicates theological truths.

Luke’s Gospel is famous for his journey to Jerusalem, yet Matthew also has a journey to Jerusalem. Most of Jesus’ ministry according to Matthew takes place in Galilee and then Jesus turns to Jerusalem to go to his death.

This is interesting because John’s Gospel has Jesus going back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem throughout his ministry. So why does Matthew construct his narrative in such a way?


Matthew’s Geography

Jesus is born in the city of the king. He is born in Bethlehem, the city of David.

Jesus is the Son of David (chap 1) born in the city of David (chap 2). Yet the pseudo king of Jerusalem, Herod, is threatened by this upstart and therefore sends servants to end the life of this  rival king.

Yet Jesus escapes, and his family moves him north, to Nazareth in Galilee. He was in a real sense exiled from his home, his kingdom. Thus Jesus, in Matthew’s presentation, spends most of his time ministering in Galilee (4:17; Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς).

Yet the goal of his ministry is to return home and complete his mission as king.  So after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah Jesus begins to return home.

From that time on Jesus began (Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς) to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (16:21)

Matthew thus assigns the city of Jerusalem a dominant role in the plot of 16:21-25:46. In 19:1 Jesus returns to Judea. This brings the story full circle, with opening and closing mirroring each other geographically.

Arriving at the goal of his journey, he approaches the city gates with the royal “Son of David” acclamation once more on prominent display. The blind men scream it out and the crowd praise him as the Son of David when he rides into the city on a colt. The scene, as Verseput has put it, can be appropriately described as the return of the exiled king to confront the city of his forefather’s throne.

Theological Implications

Matthew has Jesus walking this geographical map because he is communicating that Jesus is walking in the footsteps of Israel. He is exiled from his home, he returns from exile, and brings his people with him out of exile. Yet coming home means coming to his death. The Jews never thought their return from exile would come through sacrifice, although there were hints of it in the OT.

Matthew is a scribe bringing out treasures both old and new. The Gospel is about fulfillment and the Jewish king fulfills his ultimate role in the city of king. Yet what is shocking is that the city with their religious leaders reject their own king.

So Jesus expand his mission to the whole world. He will be a light to the Gentiles. The Gospel ends with Jesus on the mountain, like Moses, looking out over the land and giving commands for reclamation of it. Now the land is not just the geo-political dirt of Israel, but the whole world. Matthew completes his geographical framework with Galilee as the place of departure for the worldwide Christian mission.






51-K0sC-AFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A few weeks ago Books at a Glance published my review of Michael Gorman’s book on the atonement. I found it a stimulating book and he had some arguments to consider. Here is the thesis of the book.

Gorman proposes what he calls “a new-covenant model.” He argues it is broader because it incorporates the other models, yet also focuses on the ultimate purpose of the atonement, to create a new-covenant people.

The purpose of Jesus’ death was to effect, or give birth to, the new-covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak and servant-love for all (cruciform love), and peacemaking (cruciform hope).

And part of my conclusion.

Although Gorman may have not done justice to the arguments of the other models, his model does more clearly incorporate ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. Some might argue that such a big blanket thrown over the atonement covers precipices rather than revealing them.

The promises of the new-covenant in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah are internal transformation, forgiveness of sins, and return to the land. Ezekiel emphasizes the role of the Spirit in this, and Isaiah uniquely emphasizes the role of the suffering servant in establishing the covenant. Elements of soteriology, ecclesiology, and ethics are also all part of the new-covenant.

The question becomes whether in the new-covenant there also is an element which is foundational?

Kingdom Conspiracy

February 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

I reviewed Scot McKnight’s book on the kingdom for Books at a Glance. After a little dialogue with him, I would probably change the language of “straw-man” because he is probably right that many lean one way or the other.

Overall, I think his thesis is one that needs to be engaged with and largely accepted, although I did have some critical feedback.

Below is my introduction and conclusion to the review.

Scot McKnight has a way of balancing scholarly acumen with an unassuming style. His newest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church leans on the practical yet also contains challenges to popularly held scholarly beliefs. McKnight proposes new definitions of the kingdom, its relationship to the church, and the mission of the church. He does this all with an eye towards those in the church, seeking to understand Jesus’ kingdom message.

Overall, I was appreciative of the book. McKnight will get the most heat on his construal of the kingdom and the church, but I agree with him on this. It is time to break out of the Laddian straightjacket. McKnight focused on the story of the Bible, the kingdom, Jesus’ identity, and the importance/mission of the church. And these are the themes it seems the NT itself emphasizes.

McKnight was recently interviewed on the topic by RNS.


Reformed Catholicity

February 3, 2015 — 3 Comments

More and more, Protestants are questioning what it means to be catholic and Reformed. After all, people like Luther were not trying to separate from the church, but reform it from the inside.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain seek to advance the discussion. They look at two different topics under the banner of biblical interpretation (sola scriptura and the role of the church’s confessions in interpretation). These two topics intersect as they are about the role of tradition.

Tradition, Tradition

“The path to theological renewal lies in retrieving resources from the Christian tradition.” They describe the tradition as a fruit of the Spirit. Scripture is the foundation, but the Scripture itself authorizes the church to build on its foundation. They (along with Bavinck) go as far as to say that the reason for laying to foundation is to build: Scripture therefore is a means to the end of church tradition.

Tradition is the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us to understand what previously we could not grasp. The apostolic deposit cannot grow, but the church’s understanding of the deposit can and must grow.

But if tradition is a work of the Spirit is tradition fallible? Allen and Swain affirm that tradition is fallible but that does not mean it is not valid. Could the concern for absolute purity lead the church to fail to honor the plenitude of God’s self-revelation? Tradition can be considered as an aspect of salvation history. God can communicate through an imperfect but genuine church, as he did through Israel in the OT.

The modern era has birthed a deistic donatistic approach to interpretation. God has only spoken in the past, so method becomes of utmost importance to discover what he said. In this line of thinking, God is not presumed to be involved in the present horizon of communication.

But God does not only communicate through perfect beings and he also continues to speak in the present. Therefore, while maintaining the priority of foundation of Scripture, they carve out an important role for tradition in the life of the church.

They also speak of the two rules of biblical interpretation: the rule of faith and the rule of love. They focus on the rule of faith arguing it is a summary of Christian doctrine and should guide interpretation as it did in the patristic and medieval era. While their description was sufficient, the rule of faith as Augustine asserts does not protect against bad exegetical decisions, so it functions more as a boundary marker, or a rail to keep your hand on, but most wonder how it functions in detailed exegetical decisions.


The book is a careful examination of the role of tradition in biblical interpretation. Sola Scriptura is not a stand-alone doctrine and does not invalidate the church’s secondary authority.

The book was at times hard to read, because of the tightness of the argument, but their comments were almost always insightful. The last chapter on proof-texting did not seem to fit as well with the rest of the book and Billings afterward felt much more conversational.

Reformed folks looking for a robust analysis of the role of tradition should heed this book, and remember that despite their applause and retrieval of tradition, the authors continually assert Scripture is the foundation and the norma normans (the rule that rules).



When you grow up in church the rituals become so normal that sometimes you forget to ask basic questions.

Questions such as: Why do we sing? Why is there a sermon? Why do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Why do we go to church on Sunday?

It is this last question I want to focus on from an early church perspective.

Is there is any evidence that the early church met on Sunday? And did this day have theological importance or was it simply a practical move? There is quite a bit of evidence that the early church began meeting on Sunday quite early.

Two Reasons The Early Church Met on Sunday

It seems that the early church began to meet on Sunday for two related reasons.

First, because it is the day which Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Second, and less commonly known, because it is the day which God made the universe. There is sacramental reason to meet on Sunday. By meeting on Sunday, one is welcoming in and proclaiming the new creation and shutting the door on the darkness, as God brought light upon the earth. By meeting on Sunday, one is kickstarting another world.

Below I list evidence from the early church (with help from Andrew McGowan’s book), starting with the Scriptures, that the meeting day was on Sunday.

Early Evidence

1 Corinthians 16:1-3 (ca 55CE) | “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.”

Acts 20:7-12 (ca 70CE) | “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”

The Letter of Barnabas 15.8 (ca 100CE) | Furthermore [God] says to them; Your new moons and your Sabbaths I cannot tolerate. Do you see how he speaks? The Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but that which I have made, in which giving rest to all things I will make the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world. Therefore we also celebrate the eighth day with gladness, in which also Jesus rose from the dead and, being revealed, ascended into heaven.

Gospel of Peter 35, 50 (ca 150CE) | But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven. . . . Now at the dawn of the Lord’s Day Mary Magdalene, a female disciple of the Lord (who, afraid because of the Jews since they were inflamed with anger, had not done at the tomb of the Lord what women were accustomed to do for the dead beloved by them)

The Gospel of Peter is the earliest text that clearly identifies Sunday as “the Lord’s day.”

Didache 14:1 (ca 50-120CE) | “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”

The translation does assume that it is referring to the Lord’s day, because in Greek the phrase is simply Κυρίου. There are other possible meanings, but this one seems most likely.

Justin Martyr 1 Apol. 67.3-5 (ca 155-57 CE) | And on the day called “of the sun”, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

Justin also gives a number of reasons for this practice.

“We all hold our common assembly on the day of the sun because it is the first day, on which God, having redirected darkness and matter, made the universe; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (1 Apol. 67.7)

Ignatius Magn. 9.1 (ca 190CE) | Early Christians who “overturning the old things came to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living according to the Lord’s [day?], in which also our life sprang up again because of him and his death.

Although Ignatius only says “living” according to the Lord’s day, the argument about the Sabbath suggests he was making a point about time.

Tertullian On Prayer 23.2 (ca 200-6CE) | We moreover, just as we have received it, ought to refrain not only from [kneeling] but from every attitude and practice of duty on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, even putting off business in case we give opportunity to the devil.

Eusebius of Caesarea Comm. Ps. 91 (ca 335CE) | The Word transferred and established the celebration of the Sabbath to the rising of the Light. He gave us a symbol of the true rest,…the Lord’s and the first day of light. . . . In this, day of light, first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual Sabbath.

Here one gets the hint that the early church was aware of “sun worship” and they distinguished their day of worship as the “true day of the sun.”

The Day of the Sun

The early church evidence confirms that Sunday became the day of meeting quite early. Although we don’t know all the details of how it switched from Saturday to Sunday the general picture is clear.

In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn says “Dawn is ever the hope of men.” When you met on Sunday you are declaring the dawn of Christ, the dawn of the new creation, the dawn of the last days.


December 27, 2014 — 27 Comments


I remember lying on the sand sprinkled couch with a book held above my face, turning page after page. The pearly sands of the North Carolina beach were calling me, but the white pages seemed more important at the time. Someone had brought the book on vacation, and I grabbed it, possibly out of lack of preparation on my part for an effective time consumer.

Although our small beach house was full with people, the noise didn’t seem to bother me, a trait I must have picked up from my father. I was in my last year of high-school and this could be our final family vacation all-together (as my father continually promised and is still promising). But I could not pull myself away from the book, and every chance I got, I would jump onto the couch and continue the story of this incredible horse.

image.axdThe book I could not put down was Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.

Neither horses or her name were familiar to me. Although I was currently living in Kentucky, we had transplanted there, so the “horse thing” was not really a part of our family as much as the “book thing.” Laura Hillenbrand was not yet a household name either, although her book had been out a little over a year. The book must have been recommended by someone else to end up in our family’s possession.

Although my memory is notoriously poor, I do remember the book being unique because of the writing of Hillenbrand.

Her story was her story, and she dissolved into the background. The writing was as smooth as a stream of butter, with no rocks or jolts that made me spring out of the narrative. The book’s reputation was unfortunately tainted by the 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire which did not receive high ratings.

Another American Legend

Unbroken is the second book of Hillenbrand, published in 2010. After the incredible journey Hillenbrand took me on with Seabiscuit, I immediately picked up Unbroken when it was published.

Although this time I was not on the beach of North Carolina, it had the same effect on me, but this was even a greater story.

Last night, I went to see the movie, based on the book made by Angelina Jolie. I followed a lot of the rumors and news about the movie, so when I walked in I knew what I was getting myself into. I also knew that it was going to be impossible for this movie to live up to the book. My expectations were tempered, but I still wanted to see the film.

And what Jolie made was not all bad, although it was not all that good either. That is what will be the problem for those who read the book, they really want this movie to be exceptional, and it is not.

The Flaws

So what is wrong with the movie? Is there something wrong with the movie? Would the movie have been fixed if she included Zamperini’s conversion at the end? Would it have been that much of a better movie? Would it have made it an excellent film?

These are all distinct questions, but I would like to try to answer them.

Two major flaws stick out to me, one more prominent than the other.

First, “The Bird,” as one NPR analyst said, just doesn’t work. And Jolie really needs “the bird” to work in a full sense to capture the heart of this book. Jolie appropriated the eccentric nature of this man, but the strange (for lack of a better term) metro-sexual aura seemed out of place. Do I know what “The Bird” was like? No, not exactly, but when I read the book there was this conglomeration of feelings toward this man: hate, confusion, fear, rage, disorientation, and fury. Jolie’s character only communicated disorientation and stunted an essential part of the book.

Second, and probably more confusing for most of the readers of this blog, my main complaint with the movie was that it was too preachy. That is probably the last thing Jolie expected from an evangelical Christian.

Seabiscuit and Unbroken were both great stories. But as I mentioned above, Hillenbrand’s greatest strength is that she dwindles in the background. And if one hears this as me saying she is not a great writer, I am affirming the opposite. The hardest thing to do as a writer is to disappear, and let the story work its way into the marrow of the reader. She works really hard to get out of the way, and she does.

Zamperini’s story was so incredible, it did not need a “message” supporting it.

The movie doesn’t let the narrative tell the story, or at least not enough. Very early on in the movie the viewer keeps getting hit (literally) in the face with the theme of endurance and stamina. It is as if Jolie thinks her viewers won’t get it unless we see it a million times.

Zamperini gets in a fight as a kid and stands up against four. He has a few heart to hearts with his brother where his brother says “If you can take it, you can make it,” which is repeated throughout the film. Then one sees him endure in multiple races and everyone knows what is coming.

08well_book-articleInlineI don’t recall Hillenbrand doing something like this, at least as explicitly. Certainly, there was a streak in Zamperini, even early in his life, that he had endurance and grit. But the great thing about Hillenbrand is that she let you figure that out through the narrative without shouting it in your ear over and over again. The story did all the hard work.

Many times the most effective messages are the understated ones, and this one becomes too preachy. Countless messages were contained within the book, and each reader was hit with different aspects of it. It was a one-note film, but a multifaceted book.

With these flaws, I am not sure the story would have been “fixed” with the ending that was in the book. For this would have come off as too preachy too. Having said that, the movie would have included more variety and really fit the narrative arc of the book if it portrayed the way forgiveness found Louie. The movie comes across as one big torture scene and some viewers might walk out feeling “If I can take it, I can make it to the end.”

Of course, Hillenbrand’s book is excruciating to read in many places, and a large portion of it concerns Zamperini’s POW experience. Yet the bookends to the narrative do something special which I can’t quite put my finger on.

If I had to guess, it lets us know more of the man than simply his “unbrokenness.” It lets us see his flaws, his humanity, and in this way we begin to relate to him. He does not just have a jar full of will-power, but he has flaws and scars that show up even after he is gone from the hell of war.

Average Movie, Unforgettable Book

Like I said, the movie is not terrible, but it is forgettable.

The book is unforgettable.

So for those who read it, they will come out disappointed. Others will think it was okay, but the readers of the book will not be satisfied with an “it was okay.”

Possibly it will make a few more people want to read the book and start some conversations about the differences between Hillenbrand’s and Jolie’s portrayal of Louie Zamperini.