Missional Application of the Seven Letters: the Story

In earlier posts (spanning a couple of months now) I have outlined the missional concerns of each of the seven letters and argued that all of the commands and promises, rebukes and commendation, need to be understood in light of the church’s mission.

But, to truly grasp the church’s mission one must see how it flows out of the entire storyline of Scripture. It is not enough for a church’s concept of mission to hang upon a few texts in the New Testament, not even the Great Commission in Matthew 28. If the mission is truly going to govern the life of the church and its members, as it should, then the concept of mission must be robust.

Goheen and Bartholomew contend (quoting Stroup), “At the center of Scripture is a set of narratives and these narratives are the frame around which the whole of Scripture is constructed. Apart from these narratives the Prophets would not be intelligible and without the frame of the Gospel narratives it would be difficult to understand the full meaning of the parables, epistles, creeds, and hymns of the New Testament.”[1] It is through this story that we understand God’s mission and the mission he has given his church.

Wright contends, “Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about, only a bit more urgently than some. Mission is, in the much-abused phrase, ‘what it’s all about.’”[2] Köstenberger and O’Brein add, “…the divine plan of extending salvation to the ends of the earth is the major thrust of the Scriptures from beginning to end.”[3]

In each of the seven letters, what Jesus says to the church hangs on their knowledge of God’s mission and their role in it as faithful witnesses. They knew the story and the story shaped their understanding of God and of themselves. The churches in Asia Minor knew where they had come from and where they were going. John readily drew upon various parts of the story, like the tree in Eden or Jezebel’s leading Israel into idolatry, Balaam, as well future judgment, the eternal kingdom, etc. The drama of Scripture dictated, or was supposed to, who they were and what they did. Without a knowledge of their missional calling that was shaped by the larger story of Scripture, neither the imperatives nor the promises of the letters would have much power. Inside the story of Scripture and the participation of the church in God’s ongoing redemptive mission, these commands and promises are potent.

So, how well do we know and how well can we articulate the larger plotline of Scripture? Of course, many in the church bemoan the loss of Biblical literacy in the church today (I have met some Christians who’ve grown up in church but don’t know who Moses was). But more disconcerting than people’s lack of knowledge of individual bible stories is a loss of the story. This is more troubling because, in the absence of the true story (as told in the pages of Scripture), we will/our children will/the people in our churches will, of necessity, adopt another meta-story as the true story for their lives. And, if we adopt a story other than the story of Scripture, we will learn to play the characters that story demands we play. The responsibility of making this story known is the church’s, but it a responsibility shared by pastors, parents, children’s ministry staff, youth ministry personnel, small group leaders, etc.

The story needs to shape how we approach every passages of Scripture. We need to tell the grand story to ourselves over and over again. In addition, we must consider how each individual part fits into this grand story. Bryan Chapel, in his influential Christ Centered Preaching, correctly asserts, “We determine the meaning of a passage by seeing not only how words are used in the context of a book or its passages, but also how the passage functions in the entire scope of Scripture…Regard for context requires us to consider an immediate text in the light of its purpose in the redemptive message unfolding through all of Scripture.”[4] The exegetical task isn’t complete until we (the preacher, teacher, small group leader, devotion giver, etc.) have asked how that particular passage of study fits into the grand scheme of redemptive history. Moreover, I would argue that the homiletical task isn’t complete until that pastor determines how he will communicates this to the church.

Week in and week out, the church must be immersed in the big story of Scripture. It is through this story the church learns about and is compelled to take up its missional task. This does not mean, however, that the we should never teach or preach doctrine or touch on topics related to marriage, parenting, finances, or other such “felt needs”. (I am not a staunch advocate of the redemptive-historical approach to preaching, though there is much to commend the approach.) It does mean, however, that this type of teaching must, in some way, show the connection to the overall mission of God’s people and the story of Scripture. In fact, I would argue that teaching the story necessarily leads to doctrine and doctrinal preaching as well as real life application for God’s people.

Telling the story of Scripture reveals a God who is active, a God who shows who he is through his action in the world. One could argue that most of what we learn of God comes through “indirect characterization” – we are shown God’s character in action more than we are told about God’s character. We see God is patient through his longsuffering dealings with Israel. We see God is wrathful though the conquest of the land. We see God is love in a myriad of ways, all culminating in the coming and dying of Jesus, his Son. Greidanus writes, “…the canon intends to tell us about God – not God in the abstract, but God in relationship to his creation and his people, God’s actions in the world, God’s coming kingdom.”[5]

Fortunately, Scripture also provides us with inspired interpretations of these actions and true propositions regarding God’s character. We are told “God is love,” and God warns us “I am a jealous God.” There is story and there is doctrine too; doctrine is summary and interpretation of the Biblical story. These two things, the narrative and doctrine, should not be divorced. For the church, there can be no articulation of the meaning or purpose of a passage that is independent of theology, for Scripture’s purpose and meaning are profoundly theological.[6] Thus the our task is not only to tell the story, but to interpret it. This interpretation of the story is done under the authority of Scriptures interpretation of its own story, which is given to us. In other words, the church must also preach and teach biblical doctrine as it flows from the grand story.

The letters to the seven churches confirm the importance of doctrine, of correct teaching. Ephesus faced false teachers and had done an admirable job of exposing them. Pergamum had to contend with those who held to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. And, Jezebel was deceiving the church at Thyatira with her false teaching. Unfortunately, false teaching is an ever present danger and one the church must contend with.

A new survey summarized in Christianity Today contends that “Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.”[7] While there are certainly false teachers roaming our churches looking for people to lead astray, the vast majority of those who hold heterodox views due so not because they have rejected Biblical doctrine but because they have not been taught true doctrine. The author of the article cites Beth Felker Jones, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, who agrees, “Participants who gave unorthodox answers are not heretics, but probably lacked quality resources.”[8] Those who have not been properly trained in orthodox doctrine do, however, become easy prey for those false teachers who lead people astray. Those with teaching responsibilities in the church (which includes just about everyone, for parents are to teach their children) must teach doctrine, telling people “this is what the story means”, and reinforce its importance for the believer and the church.

Doctrine must, however, always be connected with the story. Story gives doctrine life and specificity. Moreover, doctrine needs to be connected to the church’s mission. The mission gives doctrine purpose. Our mission requires we testify regarding the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and tell people what it all means. If doctrine is lost or corrupted, the church’s mission is threatened and her very reason for being is imperiled.

In addition to asking “What does it mean,” teaching the story will also lead people to ask “What does this story require of me?” The story provides the grounding for the all of the biblical imperatives. We see that in Revelation 2&3. The story was being written and the church had their role to play in it – they were required to do and to be in ways that conformed to their God given task of bearing witness.

The church was to be a fellowship of love that would mark them as Christ’s followers, yet the Ephesians had abandoned their first love. The church was to be the faithful and holy bride of Christ, yet Jesus rebukes the Christians in Pergamum and Thyatira for their unfaithfulness including idolatry and immorality. The good works of the believer and their overall manner of life were to be integral to their mission, drawing people’s attention and leading them to praise their Father in Heaven; but, the works of the Christians in Sardis were not complete and many had soiled their garments, making the witness ineffective at best. Laodicea’s compromised rendered them useless – they completely blended with their culture, failing to be the contrast community of Christ.

The story was to shape the church’s and the Christians life, and these reshaped lives are a part of God’s mission plan. Wright is correct, “there can be no biblical mission without biblical ethics”[9]; the two are interconnected. Consequently, telling the story of the missionary God and his missional people provides the perfect bridge to application. Alasdair McIntyre points to the essential nature of story for ethics, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[10] Emlet reminds us, “It is important to realize that the Bible not only tells a true story; it also demands a response. The authors of Scripture write with intention – their words are meant to provoke a response from the reader…all Scripture is written with a pastoral intent, not simply the imperative portions.”[11]

Understanding the grand story of Scripture and the task we have been appointed addresses the main concerns of people in unique and profound ways. Daniel Doriani delineates four large ethical questions people wrestle with that the church must address (particularly, but not exclusively, from the pulpit): the question of duty (“what should I do?”), the question of character (“who should I be?”), the question of goals (“to what should I devote my life?”), and the question of discernment (“how do I distinguish truth from error?”).[12] In addition to these ethical questions, people are wrestling with many metaphysical questions – who am I, why am I, where is all this heading, what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with me, is there a remedy to what ails us. All of these questions are addressed by Scripture and the overarching narrative it tells.

More than being simply being addressed by the grand story of Scripture, compelling answers to these questions requires the story and the mission it conveys. Ethics and mission are intertwined, for the whole life of the missional people of God is shaped by their mission – they were and are to be a distinct people set apart for God and his purposes. Johannes Blauw writes regarding OT Israel, but his words hold for the NT Israel, the church, as well: “When Israel forgets the distinction between herself and the nations, she commits treason not only against the covenant of God but also against those nations for whose sake she has been set apart.”[13]

Ethics requires the story; the story requires ethical application. Bartholomew and Goheen are correct, contending, “If we really want to recover the authority of Scripture in our lives then we urgently need to recover the Bible as a grand story that tells us of God’s ways with the world from creation to re-creation, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. Only thus will we see out way clear to indwell God’s story and relate it to all of life today.”[14] The church that desires to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on its life needs to allow this grand story to shape it.

[1] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michal W. Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 146.

[2] Christopher J.H. Wright, “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt, 104.

[3] Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brein. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 263.

[4] Bryan Chapel, Christ Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 79.

[5] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), 113.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew and Daniel J. Treier, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 21.

[7] Kevin P. Emmert, “New Poll Finds Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies”, Christianity Today (posted Oct 28, 2014). Accessed Oct 30, 2014 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/octover-web-only/mew-poll-finds-evangelicals-facorite-heresies.html

[8] Ibid

[9] Wright, The Mission of God, 358.

[10] Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216. Daniel Taylor illustrates this wonderfully in his book The Skeptical Believer. He tells of how Miss Owens, his fifth grade teacher, asked him to choose Mary to dance with him when it came time for him to pick a dance partner in class. Mary had a bad leg and wasn’t one of the pretty or popular girls. She was always last to get picked. Ms. Owens encouraged young Daniel to make the choice because “It’s what a Christian should do.” Dr. Taylor points out that Ms. Owens wasn’t appealing to a command or a set of rules, but to the Christian story. She was asking Daniel to live as though that story was his story. He writes, “The story is much more likely to shape how I actually behave on a given day that propositions, rule, or analytical reason…I couldn’t have done anything else and still considered myself part of the story.”[10] Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist (St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2013), 120ff.

[11] Michael R. Emlet, Crosstalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2009), 51.

[12] Daniel M. Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 98. A secular study on teaching methodologies performed by Ken Bain shows that demonstrating how the content of your class connects with the questions students come into your class wrestling with greatly aids in “deep learning”. Bain noticed in his research that the best college educators grabbed their students’ interest at the outset and kept it “by helping students see the connection between the questions of the course and the questions that students might bring to that course.” Ken Bain. What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 31.

[13] Johannes Blauw, The Missionary Nature of the Church: A Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission (London, UK: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1962), 82.

[14] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt, 144.