Thursday, November 09, 2006

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Formal Higher Theological Education

I've heard more than one sincere Christian raise serious objections to the idea of formal theological education. They tend to argue that since Paul charged Timothy with the task of training pastors within the context of the local church (2 Tim 2:1-2), there is no room for pastors to receive a formal higher theological education. However that conclusion does not follow. The fact that pastors ought to receive pastoral training from seasoned pastors in the local church in no way militates against the possibility of thier obtaining formal theological training as well. While formal theological training cannot impart the kind of practical knowledge pastors need for ministry or compete with the church in fostering the pastor's personal sanctification, it can and does equip pastors who are gifted academically with useful skills and disciplines which enable them to use their academic gifts in the service of Christ's kingdom.

1. Christ trained to develop a sharp theological mind. At a young age, Jesus is recorded as “sitting in the midst of teachers both listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were amazed at His understanding and answers” (Luke 2:46). It is also significant that Christ went to the religious teachers in Jerusalem, who would likely have been better educated than the ones in his own town. Christ desired to study among the very best scholars of his time and he proved that his own scholarly credentials exceeded theirs. Though Christ was perfectly able to discharge the duties of a minister from a very young age, he did not begin his public ministry until age 30 because he was patiently growing to a high level of spiritual and intellectual development (Luke 2:32). We are not told how much of his education was formal, but we do know that he diligently studied the Scriptures, without entering into public ministry, from childhood until age 30 – a fairly long time. Christ was able to communicate with such clarity that the crowd understood Him, yet he was able to answer the questions of biblical scholars (Matt 22:35), and He showed himself fully capable of correcting the most highly trained religious elites of his day (Mark 10:1-12). Indeed, he understood the Scriptures better than most of the scholars of his time (Matt 22:29; Mark 12:10, 24).

2. Paul was a formally trained scholar. He said, “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things” (2 Cor 11:6). He was trained academically in Judaism by Gamaliel, who was a highly respected scholar of Judaism. It is well known that the Jewish religious education of that time was some of the most intense in the world. Paul not only endured that intensity of education, he excelled at it. The New Testament epistles that bear his name could not have been written at the level they were if it were not for his intense education. The book of Romans is an academically noteworthy theological treatise in which Paul makes his higher learning quite evident. Some claimed that Paul was “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), but Paul persisted in his diligent labor to educate God’s people in spite of such complaints. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor 14:20). He makes much of elders being able “both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Paul valued academic training as a bulwark against doctrinal error so much that he set up a special school to train the disciples to avoid error. He called it “the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-10), in which he trained these disciples for two years.

3. Moses too was a formally trained scholar, educated by the best minds of the time in the house of Pharaoh (Acts 7:22). This is evident from the writings that came from his hand. Deuteronomy is to the Old Testament what Romans is to the New Testament: a profound theological work that shows acquaintance with much of the literature of the ancient near east. Moses’ mind was remarkably sharp. Scholars today marvel at the literary genius of Moses so much that some even (wrongly) doubt that Moses could have written the Pentateuch by himself.

4. A good case can be made that Ezra was a thoroughly trained scholar as well, which would have been very helpful in a leader during the restoration. The Scriptures tell us that Ezra "was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses . . . For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances to Israel” (Ezra 7:6-10).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Matthew 3:1-12, Repentance

Matthew 3:11-12 "As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 "And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

This passage gives us a reason to repent. The reason to repent is the baptism of Christ (v. 11-12). That is, we should repent because Jesus will baptize us either with judgment or with grace. John the Baptist says in verse 11 that his baptism is only a baptism of water. Water baptism cannot forgive sins or give the Holy Spirit. But, the baptism of Jesus Christ is not a water baptism. That is, Jesus will baptize us with something other than water. Verse 11 says that Jesus will baptize some with the Holy Spirit and some with fire. What is the fire referenced in verse 11?

Verse 12 explains it, "And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Do you know what a winnowing fork is? It was a tool they used to pick up the harvested wheat and to throw it into the air so that the wheat could be separated from the straw and chaff that had been harvested with it. The inedible parts, the chaff and the straw, would be lighter than the grain and the wind would catch it and blow it off to one side forming a separate pile, while the heavier and edible grain would fall back into the same pile. The winnowing fork was the harvester's way to separate the good from the bad. In this context it is a symbol of judgment, showing that Christ will judge between those with good fruit and those with bad fruit. Jesus Christ will separate his true disciples from those who claim his name falsely.

The Bible is clear that those who do not repent and trust in Jesus Christ as a way of life, not merely at some moment in life, will be condemned to an eternity of hell’s torments. Revelation 14:10-12 says that the "wrath of God . . . is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and [the unbeliever] will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. 12 Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” When those who are in hell cry out for mercy day and night for ten million years, their sufferings will not even yet have begun. Because ten million years against the prospect of infinite torment is nothing and nothing will be able to quench the fires of hell. They will plead for some momentary relief, but God will not give it to them in the least. We learn from Matthew 25:31 that Jesus is the one who judges the unrighteous who bear bad fruit and do not bear good fruit. So, the first reason to repent as a way of life, is that if you do not repent, then you will go to hell, where the fire is unquenchable. But, Matthew gives us a second, positive, and wonderful reason to repent!

If you repent, then the Bible says that Jesus baptizes you with the Holy Spirit and gathers you into his barn. In other words, you should repent because if you do, then the blessing of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is yours. Just what is this baptism of the Holy Spirit? In speaking of the new covenant, Ezekiel 36:25-27 says, "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”

The washing or baptism of the Holy Spirit, with which Christ baptizes us, does two things to us. First, the Holy brings us into union with Christ so that all of our sins can be forgiven solely on the basis of Christ has done. That is nothing we can earn for ourselves. It is a gift of free grace. There is nothing we could have done to have merited the forgiveness of Christ. You say, “I am not perfectly repentant. I repent and want to be perfect in my repentance, but I fail so often.” But, the cleansing of forgiveness and justification by grace is a free gift of Christ through the Spirit.

But the second thing that the washing of the Holy Spirit does (and this one is most prominent in this passage) is that he gives us a new spirit and a new heart. He removes the cold, dead, hard rock of a heart that was within us, and gives us a warm, living, pulsating heart that wants to repent, and bear fruit in keeping with repentance, to keep the commandments of Christ. Do you want to keep the commands of Christ by repenting as a way of life and bearing fruit in keeping with repentance? If so, then that is only because of the work of the Spirit within your life and not to your goodness at all. It is only because you have been baptized by the Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit stirs your heart to love Christ, gives you joy in His Word, causes you to want to come to church to worship, and to depart to serve Him for His name’s sake.

The text goes on to say that Christ will gather all the wheat "into His barn." That means, if you are repentant because you’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit, then Christ will carry you into heaven. Christ's heavenly "barn" will be a place of warm shelter and rejoicing. Revelation 21:3-7 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. 5 And He who sits on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new. And He said, Write, for these words are faithful and true. 6 And He said to me, It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.”