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Reading the Gospels Wisely (Book Review)

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Introduction 

In Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington aims to make readers wise hearers and followers [of Christ] through rightly engaging with the fourfold Gospels. Using the analogy of building a house, Pennington views his book as a blueprint “for building a Gospel-reading house and thereby life” (xii). The reader is invited, through his approach, into the joy of studying the Gospels more deeply and more often, and—relying heavily on a repeated quotation from Augustine—led to respond in a greater love for God and neighbor. 

Analysis and Critique 

Pennington seems driven by two equally important principles: Hearing and understanding the Gospels rightly. Part One, which focuses on definitions, purpose, and philosophy, is heavily shaped by the former, while Parts Two and Three (which turn their attention to methodology for reading and teaching) are influenced more by the latter. Writing as an academic to preachers and teachers, Pennington is most concerned with presenting them a method for reading and teaching the Gospels in order to not merely communicate information, but rather to build up others in love for God and neighbor. To this end, Reading the Gospels Wisely, comes off as both academically and theologically rigorous, but also very pastoral and warm in tone. 

In Part One, Pennington presents a robust definition for the message and meaning of the Gospels: “theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign” (35). I found this to be a cumbersome, but very good definition, especially when “the gospel” can so easily be narrowly understood as the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It also proves helpful that the subsequent chapters unfold parts of this definition as it relates to reading the Gospels wisely: theological (chaps. 1-3), historical and literary (chaps. 4-6), and aretological (chaps. 7-8). 

Picking up on contemporary debates in biblical studies, Pennington highlights the significant (and often negative) influence of Historicism in our study of Scripture broadly, and the Gospels in particular. He charitably criticizes the work of such people as N.T. Wright, acknowledging the value of historical reconstruction for interpreting the text while cautioning against being too driven by the historical-critical method. Drawing on the work of Richard Bauckham and others, he helpfully suggests approaching the Gospels as testimonies. This section is easily the densest part of the book, could have been shortened and combined with the following chapter, which further elaborates on ideas like authorial intent vs divine intent, meaning (and application), and one’s posture to the text (as standing under the Word). Yet, this section is also the most fruitful in terms of academic engagement with the Gospels by revealing the presuppositions that are often assumed in biblical studies, and in providing a way for the pastor and teacher to balance both the historical and theological nature of the text as he or she sets about the task of reading and teaching. 

Part Two is where Pennington shines, applying the foundational work to a particular Gospel passage (Luke 7:1-10) and laying out his methodological approach for reading wisely. Chapters 9 and 10 read like the thoughts of a pastor-theologian in the sermon writing process and will be helpful to anyone who studies and teaches the Bible. Pennington helpfully points out the dangers of a “Whatever Strikes Me” hermeneutic and proposes a narrative analysis approach that reads the text as story with rising tension, a climax, resolution, and subsequent action or interpretation. Not only does this approach take the text seriously as a testimony, but it also enables the reader to more easily find the main point (which usually occurs in the climax/resolution). 

However, Pennington wisely recognizes that pericopes are not isolated stories, but are recorded in the midst of the larger story of a given Gospel account, and that within the larger story of canonical history (the restoration of God’s reign). These stories must likewise be considered so that we do not miss the way a passage fits into the wider work of God. One of the most important comments Pennington makes here, though, is the interpretive weight that must be given to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He argues—and based on their pervasive influence on the rest of the New Testament, I agree—that these events were central the authors’ accounts and one of the keys to understanding any given text within the Gospels. Some may disagree with this emphasis, but I think it is crucial for being rightly oriented to many of the teaching texts in the Gospels, as well as the full significance of texts regarding discipleship, sacrifice, and the nature of the kingdom of God. 

This leads to the final section, focused on teaching. Application, according to Pennington, begins with God and then, only after discovering how he reveals himself and his redemptive work, turns to identification. This is a helpful dichotomy, as it is easy to solely focus on one or the other, depriving hearers of any good news or, on the other hand, any call to responsive action. While not a book on preaching, Pennington provides some helpful preaching cues from Daniel Doriani and Bryan Chapell, including frameworks for asking good homiletical questions and the sermon itself. My only wish is that he would have left himself more space to elaborate, defend against objections, and caution against poor frameworks. 

Having already wrapped up his methodological approach, the final chapter seeks to persuade the reader to view the Gospels as a “canon within a canon.” Or to put it another way: “the texts that guide and direct our overall reading of Scripture” (230). Pennington argues from history, citing the formative role of the Jesus traditions in the life of the early church, the purpose of biographies in ancient times, and the centrality of Gospel materials in early church writings and worship. When coupled with the canonical/theological arguments, I found his argument compelling. The sections on the Gospels as consummation of the Biblical story, and the pervasive use of the Jesus traditions in the rest of the New Testament prove to be powerful points (masking the weaker points of placing the Gospels at the front of the New Testament and the comprehensive theology argument). If accepted, he argues, it should reorient and reshape our reading of the Bible, our worship, and discipleship. While a good chapter, it seems that it could have been included earlier in the foundation section or excluded altogether as it doesn’t necessarily fit with the previous summary chapter. 

Recommendation 

Overall, I found myself strongly agreeing with Pennington throughout and strongly recommend this book. His definitions are helpful, his philosophical work, while somewhat over-articulated, is challenging, and the balanced tone—academic and pastoral—enjoyable. More time could have been dedicated to the methodology, and some of the supporting points for his concluding argument were rather weak (i.e. his assumptions about the oral tradition and public reading of the Gospels; two things challenged by more recent work by Dr. Michael Kruger in Christianity at the Crossroads) However, this book is a great introduction to the study of the Gospels, and an aid to reading and teaching them in ways that are faithful, wise, and that lead to transformation. 

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Dooyeweerd, Thessalonica, and Turning From Idols To The Living God

 Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

Mosaic in Berea: Paul Preaching to the Macedonians 

"God does not speak to theologians, philosophers and scientists, but to sinners, lost in themselves, and made into his children through the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. In this central and radical sense, God's Word, penetrating to the root of our being, has to become the central motive-power of all of Christian life within the temporal order with its rich diversity of aspects, occupational spheres and tasks. As such, the central theme of creation, fall into sin and redemption, should also be the central starting point and motive power of our theological and philosophical thought."
-Herman Dooyeweerd, In The Twilight of Western Thought

The heart directs all of human life and action. Often we think it is the mind that directs us in how we live, and move, and have our being. Yet, Jesus declared that out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, and I would argue, the hands act and the mind thinks. Created to love the Lord our God with all our being in every sphere of life and our neighbor as ourselves, the fall fundamentally corrupted the religious root of our being (the heart). As a result, humanity deluded itself, and (mis)directed this religious root towards the relative and dependent aspects of this temporal world. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

This was the case in Thessalonica. Egyptian gods like Isis and Greek gods like Dionysus, as well as the cult of Cabirus, flourished in this influential city. The Roman Empire, with its Caesar, was honored, praised, and held absolute sway over the city and its people, promising comfort, assurance, and hope. And many found the philosophies and ideas of the teachers and orators to be utterly compelling ways of orienting themselves to the world. Having rejected the true and living Creator God, the people of Thessalonica had made relative, dependent aspects of the creation to be gods: sexuality, politics, and human knowledge. 

Not much has changed in two-thousand plus years. Sex and sexuality continue to give rise to new movements that seek to absolutize this aspect and misdirect numerous spheres of life: family, education, government, etc. Political ideologies take people captive with their promises of utopia through totalizing influence (a la communism, socialism, nationalism, etc.). And there is no end to the philosophies and world-views that exalt the self (human reason and sufficiency as de facto gods) over against silly notions of the divine. Sexuality, politics, and knowledge. 

 So what are we to do? 

Look to the Thessalonians. In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul writes: You turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God (1:9).

They turned to God from the dualistic Greek philosophies and hedonism. They turned to God from emperor cult worship and the exaltation of the Empire. They turned to God from fertility gods and sexual religious practices. 

But it was not simply a matter of the will. A changing of the mind. No, it was a radical transformation of the being through the power of the gospel proclaimed to them by Paul. As Dooyeweerd so eloquently puts it, God in Christ penetrates to the root of the sinners' being, unmasking their idolatries and reorienting their hearts to the religious root for which they were created: to love and serve God in all aspects of life. This is the good news!

This redemption, renewal and reorientation through Christ laid full claim on not only the hearts of the Thessalonian Christians, but also their minds and lives. The working of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit laid bare the antithesis facing the Thessalonians: serve the gods of the age as slaves in the kingdom of darkness, or serve the true God as members of his household in the kingdom of light and life. There was no middle ground for them to stake out, no compromise, because these two ways arose from two wholly different religious roots. God chose them in Christ to be a holy people witnessing in their words and deeds to the reality and power of the gospel of Christ and the Kingdom. So, Paul writes them to remind them of this calling, to give instructions on what it looks like to live as the church, and to both warn and encourage them to persevere in the face of rejection and harassment from the wider culture. 

In the same way, in Christ, our hearts have been fundamentally renewed and reoriented to the biblical root motive of creation, fall, and redemption. Once again, by the working of the Word in us, we are enabled to rightly view the world around us and see how each aspect of life finds its proper place in service to the true and living Triune God. 

But, much like Paul, Dooyeweerd leaves us with a warning. As our Christ-centric, kingdom-witnessing community (the church) grows, engages, and shapes the world around us, it will face opposition from other religious root-motives: dualistic neo-paganism and secular humanism among others. And how we respond to them and their ideas is key. Hold fast to the gospel and the divine Word (both Christ and Scripture), and do not succumb to the sinful inclinations of the human heart to weaken the integral and radical meaning of the divine Word. 

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 
-1 Thessalonians 5:19-23

 

Join us on Tuesdays at 6PM as we begin a series exploring 1 Thessalonians. We meet in the Memorial Union in Room 3534. 

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A New Year, A New Semester, A New Study

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"What is remarkable [about Deuteronomy] is the detailed extent to which God has utilized this legal instrument of human kingdoms for the definition and administration of his own redemptive reign over his people."
-Meredith Kline, The Treaty of the Great King[1]

Standing on the precipice of the land God had promised, the people of Israel stop. They stop to covenant with God--to renew their relationship with the One who chose them out of all the peoples of the world, delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, and brought them to this place flowing with milk and honey--and remember their calling given by God.  

Covenant lies at the heart of, and is the foundation for, all biblical religion. As Gordon Spkyman writes:

Covenantal religion defines the fundamental structures undergirding all human relationships and every societal calling. It is not limited to a few highly "spiritual" moments in life--the birth of a covenant child, the sacramental signs and seals of the covenant, covenant training, or the covenant community at worship. It embraces every earthly institution--marriage, schooling, labor, social service, science, art, even politics. [2]

Thus, Israel was intended to be a "display people," a contrast (covenantal) community guided by the creational will and ways of the Lord God. And Deuteronomy, as a covenantal document, would provide the foundation for the life of this people, balancing an open-ended vision of the kingdom of God (the restoration of God's rule in the world) with practical provisions for dealing with a frail and fallen people. [3]. Through faithfulness to God expressed in obedience to his law, flourishing would come to the people and the land. 

However, there is more to the story than that. Blessedness and flourishing were not intended merely for Israel, but rather, were to be extended to the ends of the earth; to all peoples. Israel was chosen for service, or, to put it another way: Israel was chosen for a calling. Deuteronomy serves as a "call to communal transformation not merely for their own sake as God's people but also for the sake of her often hostile neighbors" by way of justice and grace [4].   

As we begin a new year and a new semester, we also begin a new study, considering the ongoing significance of this book--Deuteronomy--for us today. Because, as those united to Christ, the Chosen One and True Israel of God, we are grafted into the spiritual history and heritage of those who renewed the covenant at Gerizim and Ebal. How does this book display the progressive unfolding of God's redemptive work and how does it speak into our contemporary context? What should our modern, Western churches look like as we seek to faithfully live out the biblical story, and into our calling as those covenanting with the Triune God? How do we live in the world--amidst the joys and sorrows of those around us--for its flourishing, without losing our distinctiveness? How do we remember, celebrate, and trust our God, and what does it look like to reflect justice, grace, and truth to our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, family, and friends? 

These are some of the themes, topics, and questions we will examine this semester in our study, entitled, "Covenant and Calling: A Missional Study of Deuteronomy." Meets at 7PM in the Memorial Union, Room 3517. 

 

[1] Meredith Kline, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 41-42.
[2] Gordon Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 359. 
[3] J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002)
[4] Mark R. Glanville, "A Missional Reading of Deuteronomy: Communities of Gratitude, Celebration, and Justice," in Reading the Bible Missionally, ed. Michael W. Goheen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 124. 

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Forget to Remember: Smartphones, Liturgy, and Embodying the Story

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"He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children."

"Hello Siri. Show me the law of God."

"Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands."

"Okay Google. What was the exodus?"

"They would not be like their ancestors--a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him. (Ps. 78:5-8)"

The practice (art?) of remembering seems to be a relic of the past, relegated to the dustbin of outdated cultural practices. With the advent of the smartphone came instantaneous access to information that has no parallel in history. Don't remember that Bible verse? Simply look it up on Google. Cannot recall that event? Check it on wikipedia. Struggling to bring those instructions to mind? Search for them on Bing (wait, that's not right, nobody uses Bing...I digress). 

And while having such unfettered access to information can be a exciting prospect and liberating experience, it also comes with unintended consequences that have a tremendous bearing on our faith. 

Psalm 78 reminds us that throughout history, remembering has been important for faithfulness to God. The passing down of stories of God's mighty works and powerful words of promise were intended to instill this faithfulness in the next generation. Why? So that they would not follow in the path of their ancestors who frequently forgot to remember and strayed from God. And so the collective memory of the people of God was passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, memorization, and practice (liturgy).

The same is true for Christians throughout history. The liturgy served as a means of telling the story of God, His mission, and the gospel in the context of corporate worship. Furthermore, catechesis ingrained the truths and promises of God on the hearts and minds of children so that as they grew up among the covenant community, they would remember the Lord's deeds and keep his commands. 

However, we are on a precipice today, looking over into the abyss that is the screen of our smartphones, tablets, and computers. No longer needing to remember--to embody truths, stories, and, calling--we become empty while having everything at our fingertips. To put another way, our devices cause us to "unstoried" beings whose primary (or perhaps sole) orientation is the present. And a people without a story, a people lacking an embodiment of history or a vision of the future are a people bound to forget their God, his works, and his ways. Such a people will become behold to, and enslaved by, the present, which can lead to all sorts of sinfulness (see 1-2 Kings, and a number of the Old Testament prophets).  

This is why it is important to remember. To place oneself in the unfolding story of redemptive history. To memorize Scripture. To engage in the liturgy; that weekly practice in which we are reminded of, and further embedded in, the story of God's covenant people--one of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Recurring patterns of confession, assurance, proclamation, and commissioning help to offset the formative practice of swiping right and calling out to the disembodied beings within our devices for the answers to our questions. 

It is easy to despair, disparaging the impact of modern technology on life and faith practice. Considering the low rate of biblical literacy today, and the growing indifference and non-religious identification of young people today, it is easy to imagine things only getting worse. Yet, I find it is equally easy to imagine renewal and reformation in our patterns, habits, and practices as we pass down the immeasurable riches of God's grace given to us in Christ to the next generation, so that they might put their trust in the Lord and follow his commands. 

The question is: What does that future require of you in this present? 

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Reformation Sunday (Morning Sermon)

Continuing the series on the story of the Bible, Tyler Helfers examines the rebuilding work of Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem, relating it to the Reformation, and the ways both of these stories in history point to the ongoing work of God to bring spiritual renewal and build his Kingdom. In the end, we are left with the question: How is God at work today, in and through Trinity CRC (and other local churches), to further His work in Ames, and around the world?

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Recovering The Priesthood of Believers

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"This word, priest, should become as common as the word Christian."[1]

This quotation, taken from Martin Luther's collected writings and sermons on 1 Peter, gives us a window into the Reformer's perspective on this oft-neglected Reformation concept. For Luther, all Christians are priests. In fact, all who have been united to Christ are called to a priesthood rooted in the church and situated between God an the world; a priesthood arising out of 1 Peter 2 that must be recovered for continued Christian witness in our increasingly diverse, biblically illiterate, post-Christian Western culture. 

Examining 1 Peter 2

The Church: Spiritual Household of a Holy Priesthood
In 1 Peter 2, the apostle makes two allusions to the Old Testament that would have resonated with the original hearers. The first of these is found in verses 4-5, where he refers to Christ, the living Stone, with whom the believers, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Peter is drawing on the Temple, which was the house of God, his representative dwelling place among the Israelites. Then, in Christ, the Lord dwelt among his creation as never before: in the form of a man. And now, by virtue of their union with Christ, these believers--and you and me--are dwelling places of God's Spirit. Thus, the church--both the gathered people and space--becomes the spiritual household where God is present  

It is in this context--that of the church--that Peter explains they are to be a holy priesthood. Peter, and Luther for that matter, didn't view the priesthood of believers to be an individualistic thing, but rather something that took place in community. Reformation scholar, Timothy George, explains it this way:

For Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own priest." It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and we celebrate God's presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship.[2]

So the focus is on our offering ourselves up on behalf of one another for the building up of Christ's body, each individual part. 

Another way I've often heard it put is that the church is to be an embassy of the kingdom. What does an embassy do? It serves the people of that country in a foreign land. Thus, the church is to be a place where weary Christians and struggling saints can take refuge in the midst of a troubled world; a place that attracts the lost and the lonely, the poor and needy, the despised and rejected. The church is to be a place, and a gathering of people, of the Kingdom who extend the grace of God in word and deed to one another.

This means, as Christians, we have an obligation to one another as members of the church. We are to be priests standing before God and interceding for one another (prayer); speaking and performing God's Word into one another's lives (discipleship); and intentionally gather to praise the Lord and celebrate His grace as a community (worship). When it comes to the church, we must move beyond a consumer mentality to one of sacrificial giving, and view her not as a voluntary association of people with similar interests (not to mention socio-economic levels or ethnic background), but rather, a divinely gathered people called to do life together. 

Such a view has a significant impact on what shape Christian education takes, what resources we avail ourselves of, and how we teach and train up the next generation of the church to live as faithful followers of Christ on mission with God. 

The World: The Scope of Our Priesthood
However, there is another facet to the calling to be a priesthood. Once again, Peter employs language that would have been familiar to his audience: that of Exodus 19, in which God tells Moses that Israel will be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. 

Israel, as a people, was to serve as a priesthood on behalf of the world. They were to intercede for, and offer themselves in service (both word and deed) to the nations. In this way, they would be a blessing to the world. Yet, throughout the Old Testament, we find Israel turning in on itself, forgetting her God, and forsaking the nations around them. And though there are glimmers of this priestly work found in Elijah and Jonah, the people largely fail in this calling.

However, Jesus Christ, as representative Israel, perfectly fulfills this role of intercession and sacrificial service on behalf of the world. Nowhere is this more clear than in his atoning work on the cross--dying to satisfy the debt of sin and rising from the grave to break the power of death and evil for (ultimately) people from all tribes, tongues and nations. 

Which brings us back to Peter. Having been united to Christ, or as the apostle puts it, built as living stones into him, the church has received this responsibility to universal priesthood on behalf of the world; a responsibility to proclaim to the nations the goodness and grace of our God who delivered us out of darkness and into His wonderful light. 

Another of the Reformers, John Calvin, understood this responsibility in terms of the church's participation in the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. The church, and each member of her, is called to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive mission in the world.[3] In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin writes this:

All believers...should seek to bring others into the church, strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, stretch forth a hand to the fallen and win over the outsiders.[4]

In both word and deed, every believer is to go forth into the world, exercising their priestly ministry on behalf of their neighbor to the glory of God. We cannot simply sit back in our pews, waiting expectantly for our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, to come into the church, be discipled, and worship the Triune God. Instead, as the State, nationalism, and self increasingly take the place of God in the lives of those around us, we must go to them, declaring the gospel in powerful words of beauty and truth, as well as in redemptive works of love. We must present a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God and invite those around us to enter in through the only way, Jesus Christ.  

Conclusion

If we are to be reformed and always reforming, we must take seriously this calling to be a holy priesthood. This is a difficult calling; one that stretches us. And, yet, as I look to the future, I am convinced it is the way to seeing the church in the West flourish; creating a theologically-rich, deeply attractive, culturally engaged, redemptive community. Furthermore, we can enter into this difficult duty knowing that:

[Christ] has made us a kingdom of priests
to serve our God,
and we will reign on earth.
God will be all in all,
righteousness and peace will flourish,
everything will be made new,
and every eye will see at last
that our world belongs to God.
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Martin Luther, The Epistle of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106.
[2] Timothy George, "The Priesthood of All Believers," First Things, last modified October 31, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/the-priesthood-of-all-believers. 
[3] George, "The Priesthood of All Believers."
[4] John Calvin, Commentaries, Heb. 10:24.
[5] An excerpt from a Contemporary Testimony of the CRCNA, Our World Belongs to God

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Some Tips: Doctrine, Discipleship, and Bible Reading

Below are two helpful videos from Dr. Michael Horton (J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California) discussing the significance of knowing what you believe and why you believe it, as well as how to read the Bible.

Areopagus, in all our programming and events, seeks to take a similar path, believing that orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) yields doxological living (life of praise/worship). And, in particular, we arrange our Bible studies so that they will encourage students to explore and understand the original meaning of the text before considering its application to their lives and our engagement with the culture. In doing so, we can further insure that we provide an accurate, intelligent, and joyful witness to the gospel of Christ and Kingdom to the world around us. 

Let us know what you thought of the videos (and how they may be helpful for you in your own discipleship) in the comment section below. 

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