Monday, January 19, 2015

Making Sense of 3 John: A Proposal

A couple of years ago a friend and I were talking about reading the Bible, when he admitted that he struggled with where to start. Not knowing where to begin, he began with one of the shortest books of the Bible he could find--3 John. He didn't get much out of it and was curious to know what in the world he was supposed to make of it. What he didn't know is that there are many people in the course of studying the Scriptures who have asked that very same question.

The letter of 3 John is a personal letter written to Gaius. By and large it covers personal and church business--"I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health...I have written something to the church but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority..."(vv. 2, 9). In other words, there's not a lot of meat on the bones for "daily devotions." You don't see many t-shirts or coffee mugs with verses from 3 John. Why is it in the New Testament? How are we supposed to read it?

While studying Introduction to the New Testament, I found a helpful solution in the work of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson has written a helpful book--The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. He proposes a theory that all three Johannine letters were written as a packet.

"3 John was most likely a letter of recommendation from the elder to Gaius, certifying that the carrier of the other two letters, Demetrius, was to be received with open arms. Second John was to be read to the entire assembly as an introduction and cover letter for 1 John, which is not really a letter at all but an exhortation, closer in nature to a homily. The Johannine letters thus make most sense when viewed as parts of the same epistolary package" (562).
Based on this this theory, read the letters in reverse order and see if 2 and 3 John make more sense. Personally, I have found this method helpful and believe that it is a solid theory. It explains why the two shorter letters would have been collected into the New Testament and it gives a context for understanding 1 John.

You may be like me and wonder, "Why, then, would these letters be placed in reverse order within the canon?" The answer may be found in the fact that the epistolary material in the New Testament is arranged by length. Paul's letters start with the longest (Romans) and end with the shortest (Philemon), Hebrews is anonymous, but is associated with the Pauline circle, so it stands alone after Paul's letters. None of this arrangement is based on chronology. It is arranged by length. The Johannine letters most probably were arranged in the same way for the same reason.

I encourage you to try the theory for yourself and see if it yields any insights or if it holds up to scrutiny. Please let me know what you find.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Jonathan K. Dodson's Book "The Unbelievable Gospel" Really That Great?

"I am not an evagelist. I haven't led thousands to Christ. There won't be a long receiving line of eternal souls waiting to thank me at the golden gates of the New Jerusalem" (17). Thus Dodson begins his book on evangelism. What could he possible have to say about the topic after making this claim?

Christianity Today selected Jonathan K. Dodson's book, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing, as their 2015 book of the year in the apologetics/evangelism category. Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, lauds the book, saying, "This is evangelism for the 21st century." These were high praises, but when I saw my professor and President of Asbury Theological Seminary, Timothy C. Tennent's, write up I took note. "Jonathan Dodson in The Unbelievable Gospel demonstrates, once again, that he is one of the church's leading thinkers in knowing how to present the gospel effectively in an increasingly postmodern world."

I read it for myself and loved it for several reasons.

1. He can write clear, entertaining prose without resorting to the antics of some hip, "relevant" types. I hate it when writers try to pretend that they are not writing but, rather, simply talking with you. Their writing is riddled with fragments and ill-conceived punctuation. It makes me wonder if they should really say, "I didn't write it. I dictated it. I shouted it into a tape recorder over the Columbus Day weekend, then handed it to my agent and said, 'Sell this.' He's the one who turned it into a book" [Stephen Colbert, I Am America (and So Can You)]. However, that cannot be said of this book in the least. Dodson can clearly write--and well at that. I found it a pleasure to read several chapters at a time.

2. He is upfront about his own struggle and weakness when it comes to evangelism. He doesn't try to come off as some pro that will teach you all the tips and tricks. Because of this authenticity, he also emphasizes that...

3. Not all of his stories have happy endings. Some of them are unfinished. Dodson stresses that we don't need to see these examples of rejection or back-sliding as failures because it is up to God. We are called to work with God, but the weight of the task is not on us.

4. He understands the need for apologetics in evangelism. There are many people in our country right now who do not have a basic Christian framework from which we, as evangelists, can draw. Not everyone feels the need for the forgiveness of their sins. Not everyone is geared towards cookie-cutter gospel presentations. In fact, many people have serious questions about Christianity, God, and the Bible. They are looking for serious answers. Dodson writes, "Thinking faith isn't a matter of rehearsing canned apologetic defenses; it's a commitment to thinking deeply about the implications of the gospel in various cultures and then working to communicate that to people in those contexts" (88).

5. He doesn't offer a script. He holds up a simple, yet multifaceted, gospel.
A few years back my wife and I were in a class at church that studied Evangelism Explosion. It set our teeth on edge. None of the young people in the class connected with the approach. It was too formulaic. What's more we found that it tended to push for a "sale" based on how satisfied or happy the target was with their life. This book will have none of that. Dodson shows that canned formulas and rehearsed speeches are the kind of stuff that makes the gospel unbelievable to non-Christians.

Dodson understands that we can't approach different people with a one-size-fits-all method. He displays that the New Testament shows people engaging the gospel from different angles. He highlights the five "gospel metaphors" that he finds in the NT and shows how they maybe the entry point in connecting someone with Jesus: justification, redemption, adoption, New Creation, and union with Christ. For each of these "metaphors" he shares a story of how he has used it to share the gospel. I found this approach helpful.

All in all, this book is the best take on evangelism that I have read (or heard or even seen). It is easy to read yet intellectual. It is serious but unpretentious.  So, to answer the question: Yes, Jonathan K. Dodson's book The Unbelievable Gospel really is that great! I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a positive review.