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Book Review: From Eden to the New Jerusalem

T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem was written as an accessible introduction to biblical theology.  Structured in a cyclical manner, the six chapters in between the introduction and conclusion each survey a particular aspect of redemptive history. Structured thus, each chapter serves to add another layer of detail to the overall thesis. Each chapter could be read profitably as an independent study of one particular subject in biblical theology.

Alexander states in the introduction, “There is something of value in seeing the big picture, for it frequently enables us to appreciate the details more clearly. The scholarly tendency to ‘atomize’ biblical texts is often detrimental to understanding them.” (11) This illuminates the thesis of his book, that the biblical meta-narrative must be the lens through which individual passages of Scripture are interpreted, as God’s overarching plan of redemption provides a context which must be considered.

Foundational to Alexander’s hermeneutic is his interpretation of the Garden account in the first three chapters of Genesis. The Garden itself is God’s temple, the connection point where the person of God dwells upon the earth and interacts with His people. Adam and Eve were placed in Eden with instructions to expand the garden, thereby eventually spreading the presence of God throughout the whole earth. This role of Adam and Even designated them as “priests” and co-regents, ministers for God in the presence of God.

The disobedience of Adam and Eve by eating from the forbidden tree was an outright rejection of their status as God’s appointed priest-kings. By failing to exercise dominion over the serpent, they refused their role as kings; and by failing to obey the word of the Lord, they refused their role as priests. Alexander writes, “All importantly, their actions jeopardize the fulfillment of God’s blueprint that the whole earth should become a holy garden-city. The very ones meant to extend God’s dwelling place throughout the earth are excluded from his presence.” (27)

After this expulsion God’s presence is experienced through sacrificial altars, as can be seen through the worship of men such as Abel and Job. The original promise of a Messiah embedded within the protoevangelion begins to germinate with the advent of the covenant between God and Abraham.

God’s call of the nation of Israel out from the land of Egypt to the peaks of Mount Sinai reintroduces the presence of God specifically dwelling amongst a people called to be His priests. The divinely-inspired blueprint for the Tabernacle is laden with nature imagery, connecting the Mosaic Tabernacle with the original Tabernacle of God, the Garden of Eden. At the heart of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant, which is the footstool of God. It is inside the Holy of Holies that the presence of God dwells, and the Ark is the connection point between His reign in the heavens and His reign on the earth.

Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites fail in their responsibilities as priest-kings. The vision recorded by the prophet in Ezekiel 10 depicts the presence of God departing from the recalcitrant nation. Though the temple was rebuilt in post-Exilic Israel, the presence of God is never depicted as returning to the temple. While God’s favor still was upon the nation, His specific presence was not.

The New Testament marks a fundamental shift in the way the God is working to fulfill His original creation blueprint. All throughout the Old Testament the presence of God was in a specific, geographic location. The pilgrimages of the Israelites for the feasts consisted of returning under the shadow of the presence of God. After the death of Jesus Christ, the presence of God is implanted within His followers. Alexander quotes McKelvy, “God no longer dwells with his people in a sanctuary which they make for him; he dwells in them, and they are his temple.” (64)

More than being the means for implanting His presence inside His followers (which returns them to their role as priests), Jesus Christ also reestablishes His followers’ role as kings. Jesus Christ as man triumphed over the serpent that had held mankind captive since the fall of the first Adam, purchasing for His followers a return to the original created order, to be revealed in the coming New Jerusalem.

In the new creation, the original design of God will finally be realized. The New Jerusalem as pictured in John’s Revelation is a perfect cube, connecting it with the Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle. The presence of God will dwell with His people on the whole earth, as they worship before Him as His priest-kings.

As an introduction to biblical theology, Alexander’s work is quite helpful in presenting the basic hermeneutic used to trace the biblical meta-narrative, as well as the conclusions resulting from such a study. Throughout the book he intertwines personal and ecclesial application with nuanced theological argument, demonstrating how technical theological discussion should produce a purer worship and life. A discussion about the atonement preparing human beings to be the living temple of the Lord suddenly bursts forth into Charles Wesley’s classic hymn And Can It Be? While rare for a theology book, such passionate worship is not contrived but rather the obvious overflow of an author who has experienced much of God in his studies.

As it is an introductory work, Alexander’s book is rather short and suffers for it. At times it seems as though clarity was sacrificed upon the altar of limiting the book’s pages. Though Alexander’s intention in his work is to concentrate upon the big picture, clarity is sometimes lacking as to how the details prove his rendering of the big picture. The strength of this work is clearly its presentation of biblical theology, not its defense of it.

While Alexander has written a very clear, understandable, and accurate vision for the overarching plan of God in redemptive history, his conclusions about the connection between the the old covenant people and the new covenant people are questionable.

Concerning communion and the passover, Alexander writes, “Given the obvious links between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, it seems reasonable to conclude that both fulfill the same purpose of sanctification.” (134) For Alexander, the communion meal carries much greater significance than being a mere symbol. He understands the meal to have in and of itself properties of sanctification, which is why it is dangerous for the unrepentant to partake.

While there certainly is symbolic connection between eating Passover and partaking of communion, to state that both function in the same way is to underestimate the differences between the old and new covenants. God now resides within the human heart, and it is the Spirit who makes holy, not eating a particular meal. (1 Pet. 1:2) The Passover is only mentioned once in the Epistles as anything other than a day on the calendar, (1 Cor 5:7) and the context is church discipline.

Likewise, Alexander draws a heavy correlation between the nation of Israel and new covenant believers. He writes, “Undoubtedly, Paul views the church corporately as being God’s temple,” (61) and “Many scholars interpret Paul’s comment ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ as implying that each individual believer is a temple of God…However, Paul’s use of the singular forms ‘body’ and ‘temple’ in conjunction with the plural pronoun ‘you’ would seem more naturally to fit with the view that the local church is the temple of God.” (64, footnote 95)

The communal aspect of the church as the body of Christ certainly has been largely ignored in contemporary American Christianity. Alexander’s argument for such an understanding of the church as the collective temple of God from Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 6 is quite compelling. However, Alexander’s conclusions would seem to ignore the individual aspect of the return of the presence of God at Pentecost. The tongues of fire rested individually upon the disciples, not upon the room as a whole. The Scriptures affirm both the corporate body of believers and the individual believer as being the temple of God.

These two matters of exegesis do little to dampen my enthusiasm towards Alexander’s work. It is clear, it is concise, and it is worship-producing. In my own life, gaining an understanding of God’s passion to have His creation be priest-kings and the necessity of having a human being fulfill that plan makes the incarnation and subsequent death and resurrection of Christ even more unfathomable. I was in subjection to the serpent, but another Man came and conquered him for me. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone in my church who desires to understand how the Scriptures are unified as a whole, and how they communicate God’s passion to be known by His people.

image courtesy of GoogleImages

Book Review: He Gave Us a Valley

[For your discretion: This post quotes Dr. Helen Roseveare’s account of her being raped at the hands of the Congolese rebel army. The account is entirely non-graphic.]

I don’t really like Helen Roseveare the missionary. Which convinces me that I would probably like Helen Roseveare the person. He Gave Us a Valley serves as a sequel to Give Me This Mountain, both written about by her about her work as a medical missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

I say I don’t really like Helen Roseveare the missionary because she doesn’t fit what I want missionaries to be. Missionaries aren’t supposed to have their first impulse be to shrink back from suffering. They’re supposed to have made that decision to suffer already. Missionaries aren’t supposed to be rebuked by the natives for having a paternalistic view of them. They’re supposed to have a well-ordered plan to turn control over to national leaders once they’re spiritually mature enough to shepherd themselves. Missionaries aren’t supposed to wrestle over returning to the field after a furlough. They’re supposed to be totally committed to the country God has called them to be.

I say I’m convinced I would like Helen Roseveare the person because her honesty and humility shatters my preconceived notions of what missionaries are “supposed” to be like. Becoming a missionary does not elevate a believer to a new level of sanctification where the struggles of faith and belief suddenly change form. Noel Piper’s endorsement of this book appears on the cover: “Her stories are about a real person with a real God.”

And so, like the previous book, this one is never short on human weakness meeting divine aid. At the end of Give Me This Mountain, Roseveare is raped by the rebel Congolese army. In the second chapter of this book Dr. Roseveare records her second period of captivity with the rebels,

We were ushered into this first room: a settee, a few chairs with o cushions, a table at the other end; windows seemed to be all round and rough guards seem to be everywhere. We sat crouched on the cement floor, our backs to the wall, watching warily like trapped animals. Three or four younger guards, slightly better dressed, swaggered towards us and we shrank back. The first grabbed at a young woman missionary and Jessie Scholes, wife of our team leader, moved quickly to intercept him. There was an ugly moment as he raised his gun to strike her angrily for her interference…and the younger woman leapt up, almost offering to go with him, rather than see Jessie struck or hurt.

‘She’s suffered before,’ my coward heart encouraged me.

They dragged another to her feet and took her away. I shrank wretchedly behind the settee and watched her go, with misery and fear in my heart.

‘What did you counsel that young nun? OK for another, eh, but not for you?’ So some voice seemed to taunt me. Still I shrank and prayed to remain hidden from their wicked seeking eyes.

‘They’re looking round for more prey. Don’t forget, everyone left in here, but for you, is so far untouched,’ and there seemed to be only one young guard at that moment.

He took me, out into the dark.

I don’t quote this passage of the book for shock value, though it is shocking. I quote it because it crystallizes the tenor of the entire book. Initial human weakness overcome by divine enabling. She did what was Christ-like, it just took a little while to get there. When I say I don’t really like Dr. Helen Roseveare the missionary, I say so because her words are far too often a convicting portrait of my own heart. It’s easy to condemn her for her hesitation. It’s sorrowing to have the Spirit turn my condemnation upon myself as I realize I hesitate in circumstances with overwhelmingly less cost.

The crown jewel of this book is the last chapter, entitled Was It Worth It? And the answer is a resounding yes. Not spurred on by impulse. No one who has read this book and seen the cost of fellowshipping with Christ in His sufferings could ever confuse her Yes with an impulsive one. But rather it’s a yes motivated by an understanding of the superiority of Christ over all circumstances. He Gave Us a Valley won’t ever be the topic of an inspirational Disney movie. But it is the tale of a woman who faithfully served the Lord, and a God who faithfully upheld His servant.

My one criticism of the book is that oftentimes the gospel plays a secondary role. While Dr. Roseveare talks much about the Lord aiding her, rebuking her, and transforming her, we meet very little of Dr. Roseveare’s God. This is a book about her work, not about her motives. Despite this, the greatness of the Lord still shines forth in glory. Read the book…you’ll be thankful you did.

Bottom Line: 4/5

Photo courtesy of eden.co.uk

Book Review: The Cup and the Glory

Every once in a while you pick up a recently published book, read through it, and know it’s going to be around for a very long time. It’s not light. It’s not transient. It’s not directed at a particular subset of the culture which will be gone within 5 years of the book hitting the shelves. It’s not a hyped-up, mass-marketed feel-good book (see: Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose-Driven Life, Your Best Life Now, etc.). Rather it is a book where study and emotion meet, and the truths contained in it were first etched deep in the heart of the author.

The Cup and the Glory first and foremost is a book about suffering. I didn’t intend to read this book, having a stack of books on my own shelves waiting to be read. I went looking for Greg Harris’ second book, The Darkness and the Glory, but ran across this one on my pastor’s bookshelf. Harris starts the book off with a letter he wrote to the church he pastored:

Joe Hammond had just given me a piece of peppermint taffy, a ritual he had performed after every church service for as long as I can remember…Being a father of two I knew the predicament of having one piece of candy that could not be shared. Doris Stough saw this too and graciously added another piece of peppermint candy she had in her purse…When I came back to the foyer, [my daughter] had taken both pieces of candy.

“Place them in my hands,” I told her.

“But I don’t want to Daddy,” she replied.

“Lauren, those are my two pieces of candy. They are not yours until I give them to you. I may give you one or both, or I may not, but they are mine to give or mine to keep. Place them in my hands.”…

Lauren reluctantly placed both pieces of candy into my hand. I think she was expecting since she had given them to me, I would automatically given them back to her. In this case, I closed my hand over the candy and told her we would talk about this on the way home. As parents, Betsy and I do not want our children to take what has not been given them or to be presumptuous.

Later that night Harris’ wife gave birth to identical twin girls. Both were stillborn.

Even at the hospital when we first received the news that the babies yet to be born would not live, I still expected down deep that if I gave the twins to God, then He would give them back to me…Only after the nurse walked down the hall with our second baby and turned the corner forever out of our sight this side of heaven, did I fully realize this was one of those times when God had closed His hand over what had been placed into it.

There’s a world of difference between a book written about suffering by someone who has never suffered, and one who has experienced the severe mercy of God where He takes us where we do not want to go in order to produce in us what we could not attain otherwise. But merely experiencing suffering doesn’t make an author’s book helpful for others. Rather, one who has suffered and understands why it is better to suffer and know Christ more deeply than to remain in mediocre faith and a comfortable lifestyle has much to teach us all.

At the heart of Harris’ message is a question about our prayers: When we pray for sanctification and the Father’s will to be done, do we really mean it? Sanctification and ease are two words that do not often room together. If we are to pray for spiritual growth, we must be ready to drink the cup of suffering the Lord may place in our hands. And we’ll only drink that cup if we understand the glory we are to receive is incredibly worth the hardship we must endure to gain it.

There are a lot of books that have sold more copies than The Cup and the Glory. But few books will match it in helpfulness. Harris’ message is a difficult pill to swallow. The God he proclaims shatters the kindly grandpa-in-the-sky image so popular in today’s churches. But a sovereign God who ordains suffering for the sake of love is far greater and more deserving of praise than a God we can look down upon. Get the book. Read it. You’ll probably need it soon.

Book Review: The Betrayal

Released last year for the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, Douglas Bond has written The Betrayal as a sort of novelized version of an introduction to Calvin. The story is not told through Calvin’s eyes, but rather through the fictional character Jean-Louise, Calvin’s personal servant. What makes the plot interesting is that Jean-Louise secretly works for the Crown, denouncing those fledgling Protestants who come and meet with Calvin. Many go to the stake through Jean-Louise’s efforts, leaving him rejoicing and Calvin mourning as Calvin’s friends are consumed.

In a lot of ways, this book doesn’t know if it wants to be a novel or a theology manual. Bond undertook a difficult task in trying to novelize Calvin’s life, as he is a man remembered not primarily remembered for some heroic deed, but rather for what he said and thought. Unlike figures such as Churchill, Washington or Patton who are remembered as great statesmen or military generals, Calvin’s main impact on history was through his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

As a theology book, The Betrayal does serve to give the reader a broad overview of the issues surrounding the Reformation. The first half of the book spends a great deal of time illuminating the spiritual darkness and corruption that gripped the Roman Catholic Church. Bond chooses three doctrinal distinctives of the reformation (the sufficiency of Scripture, the sacraments, and predestination/free-will) and deeply explores Calvin’s thoughts of the matter. Most of the words spoken by Calvin in the novel are drawn from his writing in the Institutes.

As a novel, this book is difficult to adjust to stylistically. Since most of Calvin’s lines are drawn from the Institutes, the remainder of the book is written in rather formal language to match the tenor of Calvin’s other words. For an uneducated servant, Jean-Louise seems to have a rather large vocabulary! The book is written as a deathbed confession, making everything past-tense. This serves to put some distance between the reader and the story. While I had a difficult time with the first half of the book, the book picks up speed once Calvin is betrayed.

Bond’s book both succeeds and fails. Don’t pick it up expecting a gripping novel set in the religious-political turmoil of 16th century France. The book moves slowly and is full of detailed theological arguments. However, that doesn’t make it a book not worth reading. If you’re looking for a broad overview of Calvin and the issues facing him and other leaders of the Reformation, this is probably the book for you.

Book Review: Transforming Grace

The back of this book proclaims in large letters: “Grace. It’s not just for beginners.” Bridges begins his book by comparing our spiritual condition to two different kinds of bankruptcy, Chapter 7 and Chapter 11. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a temporary financial restructuring necessitated by becoming insolvent. Creditors give the company extensions on its loans, knowing that it will be able to get out of debt and repay them eventually.  Chapter 7 bankruptcy, on the other hand is the death knell for a corporation. It has exhausted every one of its options, and nothing is left other than for it to be picked apart by the financial vultures. Bridges argues that most of us will say we’ve declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but we functionally believe that we really only need temporary restructuring. We live under a burden of guilt as we accept the grace of God for salvation, but then feel the need to work for Him in order to merit his continued favor and grace in sanctification.

The first six chapters of this book are spent establishing the fact that God’s grace is totally free in justification, and therefore is also entirely free in sanctification. The rest of the book is spent working out the tension between this tension. God does not give us grace because of our works, however He works through spiritual disciplines to allow us to receive grace.

While grace is not only for beginners, Transforming Grace probably is. No one in the Christian Living section writes easily understandable books dripping with grand truths about our God as well as Bridges. This book is perfect for a mature Christian to walk through with another believer who is just beginning to develop an interest in doctrinal things. And yet, this great strength of the book is also its greatest weakness. In order to remain easy to understand, the book is often repetitive and somewhat lacking in breadth. Bridges chooses to dissect one small slice of grace over wading into the deeper waters of Christ’s righteous life meriting grace for the unrighteous. For a book about grace, this is a surprising omission, as Bridges barely touches the One in whom the grace of God was made manifest to us.

These issues do not make this a bad book, it’s just how Bridges writes. Those who enjoy Bridges’ other books like The Pursuit of Holiness and Trusting God Even When Life Hurts will enjoy this book as well. If you’ve found yourself frustrated by Bridges’ writing style in his other books, you’ll find Transforming Grace to be the same.

All in all, this book is a very good fit for a discipleship group to get together and discuss. My church has been reading through it in our men’s discipleship ministry, and I’ve been incredibly blessed by the conversations that have stemmed from the reading. While I personally wouldn’t pick it up and read on my own, there’s very little negative I have to say about it apart from the personal preference of style. I appreciate how Bridges tackles a difficult issue in the Christian life, and this is one of the only books on the market that explores the absolute acceptance we have received into God’s family.

The Bottom Line: 4/5

Book Review Page Launch

New to the blog is the “Book Review” page tab. While I’m nowhere close to Tim Challies-like reading (if you don’t know, he’s reading every bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list this year, which is roughly 10 million words), I am currently on pace to read 52 books this year. It seems a good use of my time to share my impressions of them. Hopefully the reviews I post will be helpful if you’re wondering if a book is worth investing time into.

Book Review: Adopted for Life

There seems to have been a lot of excitement surrounding this book which is, frankly, surprising for a book on adoption. I expected this to be a niche book, consumed by those contemplating adopting a child or by skeptical family members trying to understand the motivation for choosing to adopt. Moore’s book spans the gap between personal vignette and theological treatise. Any book on adoption is going to be intensely personal, and Moore doesn’t spare any tears in describing the process he and his wife went through before the Lord impressed international adoption on their hearts. And yet, I didn’t turn the close the back cover of the book thinking about what a wonderful story it was about the Moore family. Rather I closed the book thinking of how great a God we serve to have adopted us into His family.

And that’s why this book is truly something special. Rather than argue from a “this is what my family did and you should too” perspective, Moore spends the first three chapters of Adopted for Life passionately explaining our adoption as sons of God. God could have planned to justify us, sanctify us, and glorify us without making us members of His own household, Moore argues. But that isn’t what He has done. He has made us his legal and relational family, meaning that we are co-heirs with our Brother, Christ Jesus. As such, the gospel is all about adoption. The good news is about God adopting wretched sinners into His own family. The church is not like a family. The church is our family.

I’m not typically an “everybody needs to read this book” kind of person. I think it’s the height of arrogance to assume that everyone is going to be transformed by what God has recently revealed to me. There are many others who are already much further along the path. But I’ve never read a book that has so clearly and so freshly explained the relationships within the family of God before. The first three chapters of this book are relevant to absolutely every churchgoer. We don’t talk about adoption much within the church. But it’s one of the cornerstones of our hope in and love for our Father.

Moore refers to the idea that adoption is plan-B, only for those who cannot have children on their own. Wrapped around his own testimony of committing “genetic idolatry,” he states, “The protection of children isn’t charity. It isn’t part of a political program fitting somewhere between tax cuts and gun rights or between carbon emission caps and a national service corps. It’s spiritual warfare.” And again, “Not every believer is called to adopt children. But every believer is called to recognize Jesus in the face of his little brothers and sisters when he decides to show up in their lives, even if it interrupts everything else.”

The remainder of the book discusses different challenges in adoption, from interracial differences to the legal ramifications of domestic adoptions. Throughout the whole the process, each issue is continually examined from through the light of what Christ has done for us and the eternal realities that surround adoption. It certainly is a messy process, but then again so was our adoption into the family of God.

One great blessing God brought into my own life was being able to watch as a young student my college discipler and his wife adopt a baby boy from Uganda. Pictures of unwanted babies in flea-ridden Russian orphanages and undernourished orphans in Ghana easily become guilt-laced white noise under the sheer feeling of helplessness to make any kind of difference. But putting a face and a personality behind the concept of an orphan child rescued and adopted into a fiercely Christ-centered home strips away that feeling of helplessness. Meet Moore’s children in this book, and the self-deceiving lie of helplessness to make a difference will dissolve very quickly.

My appreciation for this book is probably evident from what I’ve already written. As a church, we’re called to be at the forefront of adoption. This book would be a good place to start for anyone who wants to know how he or she can respond being an adopted child of God. Not everyone is called to adopt. But we’re all called to participate. As Moore writes, “The Father adopts children, and we’re called to be like Him. Jesus cares for orphans, and we’re being conformed into His image. If you’re in Christ, you’re called to be involved in this project somehow.”

The Bottom Line: 5/5