Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Zaporozhye Bible College

Even before arriving at Zaporozhye Bible College and Seminary (ZBCS) I was intimately connected with them. Most of the teachers and leaders of the school are graduates from either Columbia Biblical Seminary (CBS; my alma mater) or Tyndale Theological Seminary. They are also closely linked with our mission agency, European Christian Mission. Most of the teachers/administrators are also pastors in the local churches.

Our Tyndale graduates serving at ZBCS: Vladimir, Olga, and Vadim

CBS graduates working at ZBCS (two more not pictured) It was amazing to find out that all of the Ukrainian teachers who studied at Columbia were there during the same years as Jenny and I. It is a small world after all!
Daily Chapel Service

It was a pleasant surprise to realize that they shared our key verse!

In summary, although the Christians in Zaporozhye are a small minority they are faithfully serving God and tirelessly working to advance his kingdom. ZBCS is an essential part of this work as it trains pastors and Christian leaders for their city and the surrounding provinces. I was encouraged and enriched by being a part of this work. Thank you to everyone that supported Jenny and I with prayer this past week!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ukraine: Politics and Prayer

In general, the people in Zaporozhye expect Russia to continue pushing at some point. Zaporozhye is the province that Russia would need in order to have a land connection between Crimea and Donetsk. There are many refugees in Zaporozhye right now and some of the churches are actively reaching out to the refugees to provide food and clothing. Many people fled Donetsk by locking their homes and taking nothing but a suitcase. Nationalism is running high in Ukraine right now and Ukrainian flags can be seen all over the city. People in Zaporozhye definitely do not want to be part of Russia.

This is the view of Zaporozhye from the school (population 800,000). Ninety percent of the city was destroyed in World War II and the Soviet era apartments, factories, and warehouses have had little maintenance for decades.

The churches in the areas controlled by the separatists, particularly in Donetsk, have been greatly damaged and the Christians have been scattered. These difficult events have moved the Ukrainian churches to intensively pray for their country. They are praying that the fighting and subsequent economic difficulties will lead more Ukrainians to faith in Jesus Christ, that devastation would lead to salvation. Please join them in prayer for God to bring salvation to many through the seemingly senseless and unnecessary conflict.

The Ukrainian Church: Prayer with Tears

I recently returned from spending a week in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, teaching at Zaporozhye Bible College and Seminary (ZBCS). Zaporozhye province is a mainly Russian speaking province in the East of Ukraine. Although it borders the provinces which have seen recent fighting the fighting has not reached Zaporozhye. I have a lot on my mind and will break my thoughts into several posts. First up, the church.

On Sunday I preached at a small local church of about 60 people. Several things deserve comment. 1. The church was structured around three sermons! Time between sermons was spent on singing and prayer. I could only imagine a U.S. or Dutch church trying to have three different sermons on a Sunday morning :-) I was told that this tradition developed during the time of Soviet persecution when the churches never knew if their pastors and leaders would be arrested from one week to the next. There was a need for many people in the congregation to be trained so that the church would always have someone capable of preaching and teaching.

Here I am with the other two men who preached: the pastor Eduard (on the left) and Yuri, a deacon (on the right).

2. Prayer was heartfelt and genuine--mixed with tears. Between sermons there was time for anyone who wished in the congregation to lead in prayer. Although I could not understand the Russian language, prayer mixed with tears communicates in any language!

3. They had joy in the midst of difficulty. This was not a wealthy congregation; only two families in the church owned a car. After Ukraine gained independence some people who had connections in business became quite wealthy but the majority of the population in Zaporozhye did not benefit from this growth.

Christians in Zaporozhye are a minority but they are faithful. They love God and are active in outreach and discipleship. It was a joy to see Samiritan's Purse boxes here at the church; they use them in outreach and camps with children. It was wonderful to be able to tell the Christians there that many of our supporting churches helped send the boxes. I also assured them that churches in the U.S. and the Netherlands were praying for them during this difficult time in their country. There are 17 churches in the network of Christians that banded together to start ZBCS in 1994 when they gained the freedom to start a Christian school.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Teaching Trip to Ukraine

Here is our Sept. newsletter. I will post some about the church in Ukraine this next week or when I return.

Sept 2014 the Stewart Chronicles

Monday, September 15, 2014

August Update

Due to some technical difficulties this has been delayed but here is our August update. We have since returned to the Netherlands and will have more updates forthcoming!

August Stewart Chronicles

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Forgiveness of Sins and Zechariah's Benedictus

Zechariah’s prophetic hymn, the Benedictus, celebrates God’s actions to rescue his people in and through the coming Messiah (Luke 1:68–79). Zechariah also prophecies about his son John and his later ministry: “For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76b–77). John would prepare the way by giving people the knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins. This corresponds well to the message or repentance from sin that characterized John’s later ministry (Luke 3:3). Zechariah rightly recognized that political, militaristic, social, and economic deliverance (Luke 1:71, 74) must be preceded by the salvation that could come only through God’s forgiveness of his people’s sin. This is a powerful truth; all the best attempts by mankind to maintain world peace and eliminate poverty, oppression, and tyranny falter at this point. The destructive presence of sin undermines and derails the best intentions and efforts of the human will. Only by decisively dealing with the sin problem can these other issues be addressed. Salvation must start with the forgiveness of sins before its presence can be felt in all the other dimensions of human life and society.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Worshipping alongside Mary's Magnificat

Luke records Mary’s famous hymn, the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46–55. Mary’s hymn should be categorized as a hymn of praise or thanksgiving and as such has many parallels in the book of Psalms. Hymns of praise begin by praising or extolling God and proceed by giving reasons for the praise; these reasons are often introduced with the words “for” or “because.” This pattern is well illustrated by Psalm 117: “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 117:1–2).

Mary began her hymn by praising God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47). Following this introduction of praise, the rest of the Magnificat provides the reasons for Mary’s praise of God. The first three reasons have to do with Mary’s personal situation, while the remaining reasons focus on what God was accomplishing through the birth of her child. The reasons for praise focus briefly on God’s attributes—his might, holiness, and mercy—but primarily highlight God’s actions. These actions are centered on the help God was about to provide for Israel in response to the promises he had made to Abraham and his offspring.

The Magnificat provides us with a model of praise and worship. What would it look like for you to compose a similar hymn? How would you express your praise and thanks to God for sending Jesus and bringing salvation through him and what reasons would you give for your praise (using “for” or “because”)? What attributes or actions of God would you highlight?

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Brief Update

Things have been incredibly busy here in the Netherlands, both in the Stewart household and at Tyndale. It is, however, the best busyness I have ever experienced! God is at work all around us. We will probably wait until after the baby is born to put together an official newsletter with pictures but I wanted to mention a few things now.

On the home-front we have been battling some form of flu for over two weeks now. All six of us went down with it; the boys are back on their feet and Jenny and I are on our way back to full health. Jenny's mom arrived from the airport this morning! She will be here for two months to help with the birth of the baby (two weeks or so from now)!

I spent the first two Sunday's in March preaching at a Ghanian church plant here in Amsterdam. I was translated into a Ghanian dialect and the style of worship brought me back to past mission trips to Africa. The services went very well and it was exciting for me to see the vibrancy and faith of one immigrant community here in the Netherlands. I am scheduled to preach at two different churches between now and May so please pray for this ministry in the local church.

At Tyndale the spring classes are going full-swing; I am teaching four days a week and spending every spare minute preparing for the classes. The morning Greek-reading discipleship group is thriving and we have around five students that voluntarily meet with me every morning for 45 minutes to read and discuss the Greek NT! This is a level of discipleship ministry beyond anything I have heard of or observed in the U.S. Please pray for these students as their hunger for the word of God drives them to pursue God in his word in this intensive way in addition to their normal studies!

Please also continue to pray for a healthy and safe delivery; we will update soon after the baby arrives! Also, please email us with any prayer concerns or needs you may have.

A Risky Faith: Mary's Response

Luke records the angelic announcement to Mary about Jesus' virgin birth. Mary’s final response to Gabriel epitomizes the response of a true disciple: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s world was about to be turned upside down; everything was about to change. She had no way of knowing the future repercussions of the angel’s announcement or how she would be able to explain the pregnancy to Joseph and her other family members. Despite all the uncertainties and possible ways in which things could go terribly wrong and end in utter disaster, she chose to willingly submit to God’s plan. She was committed to God and God’s plan no matter what the personal sacrifice or cost. There is nothing in the narrative that indicates that believers should pray to Mary or that Mary gives grace from heaven, but there is every indication in the narrative that this young Jewish girl’s example of complete commitment and fearless submission should be followed by all who consider themselves Christians. How have you responded to God’s call on your life, whatever it might be? Have you withdrawn in fear of the uncertainties of the future and settled for a safe form of Christianity that requires little or no faith and entails little or no risk? That form of Christianity is both rampant and lifeless. What would it look like for you to step out in fearless faith in response to what you know to be God’s plan for your life? Consider Mary, a young, vulnerable Jewish girl whose entire future and hope for a normal life was jeopardized by God’s plan for her life. Mary did not draw back to protect herself and her future. She embraced God’s future and God’s desire for her life. What about you?

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Final Days of Jesus

I mentioned this book a few months ago and it is finally available for purchase (not just pre-order). It is designed for individuals, families, or small groups to read together in the week(s) leading up to Easter. Crossway has done an excellent job producing the book and I hope it will be a blessing to you. The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived

"He shall be called a Nazarene": The Use of Isaiah 11:1 in Matthew 2:23

Matthew concludes his discussion of Jesus’ infancy by noting that Jesus’ life in Nazareth fulfilled Scripture. “That what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23). This fulfillment quotation is instantly complicated by our inability to locate the source of the quotation in the Old Testament. The quotation itself is only two words in Greek, “Nazōraios klēthēsetai” (he will be called a Nazarene).

Several considerations come into play as we try to retrospectively understand how this made sense to Matthew and the earliest Christians. First, Matthew alerts us to the fact that it may not be an exact quotation of a single specific text by saying that it “was spoken by the prophets [plural]” (Matt. 2:23). This opens up the possibility that Matthew is referring to a prophetic theme found in multiple prophets that could best be communicated by the words “he will be called a Nazarene.”

Isaiah 11:1 states, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch [neṣer; nṣr in consonantal Hebrew] from his roots shall bear fruit.” There was a whole cluster of messianic texts related to a branch that, although using different Hebrew words, would have been associated with the branch (nṣr) of Isa. 11:1 by first century Jews and Christians (Isa. 4:2; 53:2; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12). Although it is impossible to know with certainty the original Hebrew meaning of the name Nazareth (likely nṣrt) it likely was quite closely related to “branch” (nṣr) and an English translation might very well call it “Branchville” or “Branchtown.”

Matthew is thus making the following point with this final fulfillment quotation: Jesus’s association with Nazareth was not accidental but was planned by God in order that Jesus would be called a Nazarene, a confirmation of his identity as the prophesied and messianic Davidic branch of Isa. 11:1. This connection is further strengthened by the proximity of Isa. 11:1 with Isa. 7:14, the first fulfillment of Scripture quoted by Matthew in Jesus’s infancy narratives in Matt. 1:23. Matthew would have easily identified the promised branch of Isa. 11:1 with the promised birth of a son in Isa. 7:14 and Isa. 9:6. Nazareth was a small, obscure town (likely consisting of around 500 people) and nobody at the beginning of the 1st century associated it with the Messiah (see Nathanael’s dismissive remark in John 1:46) but looking backwards after the fact Matthew and the other earliest Christians recognized God’s providential care in causing the messianic branch to grow up in Branchville.

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Rachel weeping for her children": The Use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18

Matthew indicates that Herod’s murderous actions unwittingly fulfilled Jeremiah’s words. “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15). Matthew’s use of this passage is very similar to what we saw in regard to Hos. 11:1 (see previous post). Jesus is typologically reliving the history of Israel.

Within its original context in the book of Jeremiah Jer. 31:15 is reflecting on the sorrow of the Babylonian exile. Ramah was a town about 5 miles north of Jerusalem that lay along the route that the exiles were forced to travel between Jerusalem and Babylon (Jer. 40:1). Rachel was buried near Bethlehem (Gen 35:19–20) and is poetically described in Jer. 31:15 as weeping over the loss and suffering of her descendants. Remarkably, Jeremiah 31 as a whole is not focused on sorrow but upon the joy and happiness that will fill God’s people during his future restoration and salvation. The sorrow of exile is remembered by way of contrast to the joy of the coming restoration and healing.

Matthew’s point seems to be that just as Israel went into exile in Babylon in a painful process that involved suffering and loss but would eventually result in the restoration of the entire nation, Jesus went into exile in Egypt in a painful process that again brought suffering and loss to Rachel’s descendants but would lead to the complete fulfillment of the restoration, healing, and salvation prophesied by Jeremiah in Jer. 31.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built . . . for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. . . . say 'He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.' For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord . . . I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord. . . . There is hope for your future, declares the Lord. . . . For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish" (Jer. 31:3b-4a, 9c, 10b-12a, 13b-14, 17a, 25).

Even more significantly, Jer. 31 concludes with God's promise of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-40).

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Out of Egypt I called my Son": Israel Rebooted in Her Messiah

Matthew concludes his brief discussion of Jesus’s flight to Egypt by pointing to the fulfillment of Scripture: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15 quoting Hos. 11:1). This is a very important fulfillment quotation. In addition to helping us understand one of the ways the earliest Christians interpreted the Old Testament it helps us understand the mission and purpose of Jesus.

The first obvious point to make is that this fulfillment is not what is normally understood as prediction-fulfillment. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them" (Hos. 11:1–3).

Hosea 11:1 is not a forward looking prophecy; it instead looks backward to Israel’s history to make the painful point that even though God had called and treated Israel as a son they rejected him and worshipped idols. How can Matthew argue that Jesus’s early life in Egypt fulfilled a prophecy that was not even a prophecy? The key to answering this question lies in the ancient interpretive approach understood as typology. Typology basically boils down to correspondence in history. The earliest Christians looked to how God worked in the past in the Old Testament in order to understand how he was working in the present and how he would work in the future.

Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 draws a strong connection between Jesus and Israel; Jesus and Israel are typologically related. What is the significance of this typological relationship? Israel’s purpose in the Old Testament was to mediate God’s blessing, presence, and glory to the nations (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 67:1–7; 96:1–10; 145:10–12; Isa. 2:1–4; 56:7; 66:19; Zech. 8:23). God’s plan to bless the nations would be mediated through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). Israel failed in this purpose by rejecting God in favor of idolatry (Hos. 11:2–7) but God’s purpose and plan would not be thwarted.

In Matthew’s view God restarted or rebooted Israel in her Messiah Jesus. Jesus relived the history of Israel but instead of failing in the purpose to mediate God’s blessings to the nations Jesus succeeded in his sinless life and atoning death. You may not be familiar with thinking about Jesus as a second Israel but that is surely how Matthew understood him. Consider the following points. Why did Jesus choose twelve disciples (Matt. 10:1)? Why not eleven or thirteen? He was intentionally reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel around himself with allegiance to himself as the foundational criteria. Why did Jesus fast and undergo forty days of temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11)? Couldn’t the same thing have been accomplished in ten days or twenty? And why was it necessary to be tempted during this time? Jesus was reliving the history of Israel. Israel was tempted for forty years in the wilderness with food as a central point of temptation (Deut. 8:2–3; cf. Exod. 16:2–3; Ps. 78:17–32). Israel failed to trust God and complained and grumbled while Jesus passed the test and determined to depend upon God’s promises and word instead of taking the easy way out. Why did Jesus need to be baptized since he was without sin (Matt. 3:13–17)? He needed to fully and completely identify with his people as their representative. God confirmed Jesus’s role as a new Israel when the voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The Old Testament clearly indicates that Israel was God’s chosen son (Exod. 4:22, 23; Jer. 31:9, 20; Hos. 11:1) but at the baptism God declares that Jesus would take upon himself Israel’s identity and mission.

Jesus’s identity as the new Israel brings us back to Matthew’s statement that Hosea 11:1 was fulfilled in Jesus’s early (albeit short) time in Egypt. Hosea 11:1 is not prophetic or Messianic in any normal or obvious sense but becomes such by reflecting on the history of Israel that Jesus was reliving. Hosea 11:1 is a particularly useful summary of this stage of Israel’s history because it speaks of Israel as a child and calls Israel “son.” Jesus, as God’s son representing the new Israel, relived Israel’s history in miniature and reconstituted the new people of God through the witness of the twelve disciples based upon allegiance to Jesus as the son of God and Israel’s true king. Matthew can thus rightly write “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matt. 2:15b).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Herod and the Wise Men: Two Possible Responses to Jesus

I know it is past Christmas but in the spirit of keeping Christmas in mind throughout the year I will still reflect on the Christmas narratives from time to time. Moving beyond the facts and flow of the narrative of Herod and the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12) it is possible to ask what the narrative was intended to do or accomplish. Few, if any, passages in Scripture are included simply to give information for the intellectually or historically curious. Most biblical narratives demand some kind of response and the story of Herod and the wise men is no different. Matthew seems to intentionally contrast two responses to Jesus’s birth. On the one hand Herod, with the (perhaps unwitting) aid of the Jewish religious leaders rejected God’s appointed king while, on the other hand, Gentiles with little knowledge of the true God recognized God’s king and responded with submission, allegiance, and worship. The narrative pushes us, its readers, to consider our response to Jesus. Whom are you acting like? Whom are you identifying with; Herod or the wise men?

Benczúr Adoration of the three Kings 1911

Take care not to answer too quickly. Herod would have self-identified as a religiously observant Jew. He consistently presented himself this way and viewed his project to rebuild the temple as a powerful example of his commitment to Israel’s God. His guilt, however, is intensified in the narrative by his use of Scripture to locate the child. This act confirmed his knowledge that he was setting himself against God and God’s purposes in order to maintain his own rule and dynasty. His knowledge of God and Scripture did not lead him to submission and worship; instead he prized self-preservation and self-rule beyond anything else. He would not bow to the authority of a different Judean king whether this king had God’s approval or not. Instead of worship and submission, Herod opposed Jesus and God’s plan.

Herod powerfully illustrates the fact that it is not enough to outwardly identify with God’s people. It is not enough to sacrificially give of your funds and energy to build God’s house/temple and to help others worship. It is not enough to learn about God and his plan through his Scriptures. Every one of us is confronted daily with a choice of our will: Whom will we serve? Whom will we live for? This is not the kind of decision that can be made once ( i.e.: “I gave my life to God when I was a child”) or that can be determined by past performance (i.e.: “I have gone to church every Sunday for twenty years and regularly give money to the church.”); it is the kind of decision that must be re-made each day and is more (but not less) than outward actions. Whom are you living for today?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Finding Your Missing Joy

I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas celebration and are off to a great new year. At the beginning of this year I have been reflecting on joy, or as the case may be, lack of joy.

Lack of joy is a serious problem for many Christians, families, and churches. We have every reason in the world to be overflowing with joy on the basis of what Christ has done for us and the hope that we have for the future but for some reason genuine and lasting joy seems quite elusive.

Dallas Willard, in his classic book Renovation of the Heart, makes some excellent points about joy. First, joy is “our first line of defense against weakness, failure, and disease of mind and body” (pg. 133). Have you ever thought about joy as “defense”? When we lack joy we are wide open to a wide variety of problems and are particularly prone to addictive activities, whether the obviously harmful addictions such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, and pornography, or the more run-of-the-mill (and often ignored to our peril) addictions to media: t.v., video-games, social media, etc. When we lack joy we quickly turn to other things to fill or distract us from the lack.

Second, Willard notes that genuine and lasting joy can only be produced by the Holy Spirit. True joy is divinely produced and sustained. “The kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). The fact, however, that joy is dependent upon the Holy Spirit does not lead us to passivity. Passivity is the death of spiritual formation. I am not saying here that we are solely responsible: we can no more do enough right things to “deserve” joy than we can do enough things to “deserve” salvation.

Willard states it well: “But here again we must not be passive. We may allow joy to dissipate through looking backward at our sins and failures, or forward at what might happen to us, or inward at our struggles with work, responsibilities, temptations, or deficiencies. But this means we have placed our hopes in the wrong thing, namely ourselves, and we do not have to do this. It is our option to look to the greatness and goodness of God and what he will do in our lives. Therefore Paul, in jail, speaks to the Philippians of his own contentment ‘in whatever circumstances’ (4:11) and urges them to ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!’ (4:4). We will be empowered by the Spirit of God to do this if we choose it and fix our minds on the good that God is and will certainly bring to pass” (pg. 133).

We make the choice to set our minds either on the failures and hurts of the past, the difficulties and unfairness of the present, or the uncertainty and fear of the future, or to set our minds on what God has done and will do. We choose what to think about. God’s Spirit enables and empowers us to set our minds on the right things and fills us with joy as we set our minds on the right things.

We need God’s supernatural joy. Our families desperately need God’s joy. Our churches must have the joy produced by the Holy Spirit. This is not optional! May God lead us into renewed joy this new year as we fix our hearts and minds upon Him.