Category: bible


What Does it Mean to be Human? Blade Runner, Babylon, and the Bible

Thirty-five years ago the Sci-Fi Classic, Blade Runner, hit our screens and probed the question of what it means to be human. In Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s mesmerising sequel, we are confronted again with the ‘human’ question, albeit in new ways.

Impressive though Villeneuve’s vision may be, Hollywood’s exploration of human nature and identity is, of course, nothing new. For the Church, though, films like Blade Runner 2049 provide us with a ready opportunity to tell a different story about what it means to be human.

The other day, I was teaching on the Bible as a source for missiological reflection on Redcliffe’s MA in Contemporary Missiology programme. We were talking about how the Bible presents a series of encounters between the biblical worldview and the worldviews of neighbouring peoples. And asking what it means to be human is one of those worldview-defining questions.

In the first pages of the Bible we see the writer of Genesis wrestling, among other questions, exactly this issue. In contrast to neighbouring cultures’ origin stories (like those of Babylon and Egypt), the biblical account of creation offers something different – subversive and polemical even. Rather than an afterthought, put on earth to serve the needs of the gods, the biblical story depicts human beings as the completion point of the active part of creation. More than this, we bear the very ‘image of God’ (Gen. 1:26-27).

Scholars differ over what exactly this phrase means. In his latest book, Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity, Prof. Gordon McConville makes a compelling – exciting! – observation about the relational nature of this imaging (pp. 26-27):

Godlikeness is not a status that has been achieved and now merely needs to be enjoyed. Rather, it commits both God and humans to a life together, the story of which will occupy the pages of the Old Testament and the New. It includes the narratives about worship, in which God chooses to dwell among his people Israel and to seek their love and devotion. And it includes those strands of the Old Testament that call the human partner to imitate God in his fundamental orientation toward the world­—that is, in his justice and righteousness, faithfulness, holiness, compassion, and truth.

Being made in God’s image, then, is not a ‘static’ thing to be merely enjoyed or exploited. It is a dynamic to humanity that draws us into life with God and his purposes for creation. It is not merely a sign of our intrinsic worth (though it is that!) but is also a commissioning to take part in God’s mission in the world.

Whatever Blade Runner’s questions and conclusions concerning being human (and I don’t want to give anything away here!), the biblical narrative affords the ‘human question’ the most profound and satisfying answer imaginable. What a remarkable vision of what it means to be human: inherent value, life with our Creator, dignity, purpose, hope. What a tragedy that this relational imaging has been marred by our rebellion. But what a wonderful and glorious thing it is that, in and through Jesus, God is about the work of restoration and reconciliation!

Whether explored by Babylon or Blade Runner, what it means to be human is a fundamental question relevant to everybody and at every time. But when the world is asking it, are we the Church ready with an answer?


The Emmaus Road: mission as ‘going out’ and ‘inviting in’

Recently I was reminded how much I love the story of the disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35).

It is one of the many domestic stories of Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus is invited into someone’s home and sits down to eat with them. Very often, good things happen over a meal in Luke’s writings. Other meaningful encounters prompted by hospitality in Luke-Acts include Mary’s visit to Elizabeth’s home (Lk 1:40), Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law in her home (Lk 4:38), the healing of the paralysed man in someone’s house (Lk 5:18), quickly followed by the controversial dinner for Jesus with a dubious crowd at Levi’s house (5:29) – and the list goes on. It continues in Acts: for example, Peter’s visions concerning Gentiles while he was staying at Simon the Tanner’s house, (Acts 9:43ff), and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles whilst Peter was at Cornelius’ house, (Acts 10:24-48).

Both in the giving and receiving of hospitality divine encounters occur. God appears.

On the Emmaus Road, it is only when the disciples invite Jesus into their home, and share food with him – at the moment when he breaks bread – that they recognise him for who he is. And that changes their world. They had walked and talked with him along that road, where they had been discouraged, downcast. But in the moment of eating together, they understood who he was. Perhaps as some commentaries say, it was because they suddenly recalled Jesus breaking bread at the Last Supper.

We can’t help but remember the famous incident of Abraham welcoming and feeding the mysterious visitors, who turn out to be angels (Gen 18).

In the Gospels, of course, we don’t see Jesus hosting anyone in an earthly home, as he didn’t have one. But he did give the disciples breakfast in another resurrection appearance, on the lakeshore, in John 21:12. And the Last Supper could also be seen as an act of hospitality. It could even surely be said that our presence in this world is one vast act of hospitality on God’s part. John 1:11 says that Jesus, the Word, came into his own – literally, “into his own home” – yet his own did not recognise him.

Hospitality has long been recognised as an important element of mission, and an upcoming edition of Redcliffe’s Encounters Mission Journal is based around this theme.

The Emmaus Road incident reminds me today of two things. The first is, we do not only offer hospitality as a way of reaching out to others, of encouraging them and ministering to them – the blessing goes both ways. As givers of hospitality, we receive God in those we welcome. We might even host angels unawares. The second is, much as we are called in the Great Commission to go out into the world – we are at the same time taught in Scripture to invite people in, into our homes, into our lives, in missional acts of hospitality.

Choluteca Bridge, Honduras

Bridge on the River “Why?”

How willing are we to change – to let go of our structures, our plans and our methods, to respond to the times, and do something new?

Recently I was at GOFest 2017. The GOFest leadership have decided to change their approach completely.  Rather than an annual national conference they now hold their missions festival in a different region each year, and link with local churches there, to encourage them in mission and help them connect with each other.

I heard a striking analogy in one of the keynote addresses, given by John Risbridger, (minister of Above Bar Church, Southampton, and Chair of Keswick Ministries). He showed a picture of a beautiful wide suspension bridge, in the green tropical surroundings of Honduras. The bridge was expertly engineered to withstand any storm or bad weather. The next picture showed the same bridge a few years later. It was still standing, as elegant as ever – but now it was eerily alone: no road attached to it, there was just brown desert on either side; no river ran under it. The roads had been swept away by Hurricane Mitch, and the river course had been completely changed and flowed around the side of the bridge some distance away. The beautiful, expensive, carefully designed bridge was now a folly, with no use or purpose in the world.

Our churches, our mission agencies, our organisations, can be like that. We need to keep checking – is what we are doing still useful? Is there still any point in it? Is it reaching people where they are now? Is it contextual? We can all too easily spend time, money and energy trying to keep our beloved structures going, while everything around them has changed and they have become irrelevant.

Redcliffe College “moved their bridge” when we changed from being a residential, largely pre-field training college, to running mainly intensive MA programmes to offer continuing professional development style training to people already engaged in mission all over the world. The new pop-up hubs are also a way of being able to train people wherever they are.

We may dislike change, but God certainly doesn’t: the Bible is full of references to God doing new things, making new creations, pouring new wine into new wineskins… And see the example of Paul, who was willing to be flexible, who didn’t hold on to set methods or formulas, but adopted different approaches for the different people he went among.

So let’s be willing to look again at our churches, our mission agencies, our strategies and structures and ask the questions: are they still fit for purpose, are they still relevant, or are they carefully constructed, elegant bridges over empty river beds?


Making our Bible Studies Missional

Let me ask you a question: how important has reading and studying the Bible with others been in your discipleship journey? If you’re anything like me you have sat together in a small group to study the Bible on numerous occasions, grappling with the text’s meaning and its implications for your lives.

Let me ask you another question: how overtly ‘missional’ have those studies been? What I mean by this is: how explicitly do we relate our engagement with the biblical text to mission, throughout the study and not just as an addition as part of the application at the end? How can we make our Bible Studies more missional at a fundamental level?

I suppose I am asking “what difference do the developments in our understanding of the missional nature of the Bible make to a mid-week Bible Study group?” This question was addressed by George Hunsberger in an article entitled, Missional Bible Study: Discerning and Following God’s Call.

In it, he declares that

“we will need to learn a new way of placing ourselves in front of the text. Bible study guides and methods that focus on each individual’s relationship to God will not be enough. We will need to learn to read the Bible together as a community that is called and sent by God.” (p.7, my emphasis)

I like the assumption of the ‘sentness’ of the Church in what he says. I also like his point about reading with others. Often we think of approaching the Bible as solely an individual exercise. Perhaps we also think of our involvement in mission as an individual exercise. We need a shift in our approach to studying the Bible that asks ‘us’ questions rather than ‘me’ questions. Otherwise, we are in danger of being a group of sent individuals rather than a sent community.

Asking good questions

The ability to ask good questions is a monumentally underrated skill. Consider the reflections of Isidor Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics:

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”

A good question is a beautiful and powerful thing. But what kind of questions could we ask in our ‘missional’ Bible Studies? Hunsberger suggests five:

Mission – How does this text send us and equip our witness?

Context – How does this text read us and our world?

Gospel – How does this text evangelise us with good news?

Change – How does this text convert us in personal and corporate life?

Future – How does this text orient us to the coming reign of God?

This isn’t a definitive list, but it is at least a beginning of a journey we could make to ensure that when we study the Bible together we are being more intentionally missional.

If Hunsberger’s five questions seem like a big step, how about this one:

‘In what ways does this passage make a claim for the rule of God in our lives, our churches, our communities and our world?’

Such a question recognises the reign of God (whether we frame it in terms of the Kingship of Yahweh or the Lordship of Christ) and asks us to consider what this reign means for us. It is not just a call to consider the extent to which our lives are aligned with that reign, though it certainly requires that. It is also a challenge to take our contexts seriously and to consider creatively how the reign of God can be discerned and embodied in the world, and how we might participate in that.

What questions would you ask to make your Bible Studies more missional? And which (if any) of the above suggestions might you try to pose the next time your group meets to study the Scriptures?


Tim is the Bible and Mission stream leader, on Redcliffe’s MA in Contemporary Missiology. This course is designed for you if you’re interested in reading the Bible as a missional ‘document’, and using it to transform your mission, ministry or day-to-day discipleship.


Down with the System?

I had an “ah-ha” moment the other day.

I was reading Mark 11 which has a part in it that I have never really understood. In Mark 11, we see Jesus in the triumphal entry, cleansing the temple, cursing the fig tree which is out of season, saying that praying to get rid of a mountain will work, and with a call to forgive people at the end. My ah-ha moment came as two things at once.

The first was that I realised all the sections were about the same thing. The triumphal entry is the coming of the king. The stopping of the temple is a prophetic action declaring that the temple system will stop, and a new regime will come. The cursing of the fig tree (Israel’s signature tree) is saying that the nation will fall. Jesus’ talk about praying that a mountain will fall away is about the temple mount. “This” mountain, the temple mount, will stop and fall. The phrase “whatever we pray for” is in the context of praying to ask God to stop a destructive system. The chapter then ends with Jesus saying that we need to forgive people.

In this, I have often wondered about the fig tree being out of season. Why did Jesus curse it when it couldn’t be expected to have fruit?  I did some digging and found that fig trees will fruit and then come into leaf. Early fruit appears and then they develop their leaves.  This tree had leaves so it should have had fruit. It was saying, “notice me, I have fruit,” when in reality, it didn’t. And, indeed, it was out of season, when it shouldn’t have been acting like that at all. Something was seriously out of sync with that tree.  It was a tree that wrongly promised fruit out of season, but failed miserably. The out-of-season comment shows just how messed up the tree was. Symbolically, something was seriously wrong with the situation there. Out-of-season religious leaders were promising “fruit” and acting like they had access to God, but in reality, they didn’t. It had all gone horribly wrong.

In mission, we often run into systems that are dysfunctional, corrupt, destructive and evil. I’ve seen the rights of minorities, including Christian minorities, being trampled over. This ranges from political disenfranchisement, to land grabs, to outright violence and oppression.  The temple system was fleecing the poor, and Jesus said it would fall.   Similarly, we can be sure that, in the end, evil systems will fall. We can say to them “fall into the sea” and they will.

And this leads me to the second element of my ah-ha moment: the call to forgive at the end. The mountain (temple system) may fall, and the system will come to an end, but we are called to forgive people. In this, I thought of the Berlin Wall. There were many of us who were against communism and recognised the evil there; but for many, there was also a great love for the people caught up in it.

The system was wrong. As were people. We can stop the system but still love and forgive the people involved. Last week I sat with a Romanian who heads a mission which has sixty-one Romanians working in mission abroad. That is almost as many as the British mission agency I work with. They had come to faith through love and were now passing that on. Thinking back to 1989, that is a miracle.

God is about big changes. Changing systems. Bringing in new things. There are many systems out there that promise much but are like diseased trees. We can pray that these fall, but are reminded to also work for forgiveness.

If you want to look deeper into our responsibilities as missional people to stand up against oppressive systems, why not consider an MA in Contemporary Missiology with Redcliffe, and maybe specialise in Justice, Advocacy and Reconciliation? Deeply understand our complex world, and study as you work with part-time blended learning. What’s more, Colin is the course leader! Contact us today to have an initial conversation.

The image above is graffiti found on the Mauerpark section of the Berlin Wall, depicting the interplay between contrasting political and social systems across the globe.