Power in Weakness | Book Review

Using worldly means to accomplish heavenly ends is a persistent temptation for pastors. Today, it takes the form of corporate business models. In Paul’s day, especially at Corinth, it was professional rhetoric models that emphasized “wisdom” and “power.” Church members not only expected their pastors to have these qualities, but they also fought over which pastors had them in greatest measure.

Paul offers a standing rebuke to all forms of this temptation in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

The title of Timothy G. Gombis’ excellent new book, Power in Weakness, alludes to this verse. The book offers “an extended meditation on the dynamics of power and weakness in pastoral ministry,” based on Paul’s letters and his portrayal in the Book of Acts.

At 184 pages, Power in Weakness is small, but its potential to reshape the pastoral imagination is large.

In the Introduction, Gombis highlights four key features of his approach to the topic:

First, he reflects on “the changes that took place in Paul’s approach to ministry after his conversion.” This might strike some readers as strange. Did Paul have a pre-conversion approach to ministry? Yes! According to Gombis, “Paul was vigorously engaged in attempting to bring about resurrection in life for God’s people on earth.”

When Jesus entered the very resurrection life Paul so assiduously sought, the content and manner of Paul’s ministry had to change. Paul’s ministry became “cruciform,” that is, cross shaped.

Gombis acknowledges his debt to Michael J. Gorman, who wrote the book’s Foreword, for the term cruciform. Gombis writes, “Cruciformity has a ‘narrative pattern,’ identifying the movement of Jesus from having all privileges to his refusal to exploit them for gain to his self-expenditure and his willingly going to the point of death on a cross.” That is the weakness God fills with His own power.

Second, Gombis situates the Church’s ministry “within a cosmically contested situation.” For Paul, as for other Jews of his day, there is more to life than the human and mundane.

Prior to the Damascus Road, Paul believed the coming Messiah would immediately overthrow His enemies and establish God’s kingdom with all its benefits. After the Damascus Road, Paul realized Christ inaugurated God’s kingdom in the midst of “this age” and will consummate “the age to come” at His Second Coming. The Church now lives in tension between those two ages.

Third, for Gombis, the Church is “the place on earth where God resides.” That is to say, “The very power that raised Jesus from the dead now fills and pervades churches that gather in the name of Jesus.” Consequently, churches cannot act as if they are simply one social organization among many others. They are unique and must live out the distinctiveness of their cruciform calling in the midst of a dying world.

Fourth, Gombis “goes beyond mining the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ … to reflect theologically on the entire New Testament portrait of Paul.” This is where the rubber meets the road, where we see how Paul’s theological vision shaped his pastoral practice.

Gombis focuses especially on the temptations of “coercive power,” “image maintenance,” and “credential accumulation.” He also notes how cruciformity changes the way pastors approach preaching, church discipline, “big” sins, and personal limitations.

Even the definition of leadership changes, according to Gombis:

While we may speak of pastoral ministry in leadership terms, we would do well to be watchful for the worldly ideologies and practices that may be contained in the language. The pastoral task involves nurture and cultivation of communities to take the corporate shape of the cross so that they put themselves in a position to draw upon the life of God as he pours out resurrection power among them.

I highly recommend Power in Weakness to pastors. As ministers of the gospel, our theology needs to shape our practices if our ministries are to have integrity. Timothy G. Gombis adeptly shows how Paul modeled such integrity.

I would not recommend pastors read this book alone, however. Read it with the church members you labor alongside, especially board members and key volunteers. It is not just the pastor’s ministry vision that needs transformation, after all. It is the whole church’s.

Book Reviewed
Timothy G. Gombis, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here with permission.

Tuesday’s Influence Online Articles

Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Craig Keener explains from Scripture why Pentecostals need always to keep power and love together, because the Spirit is the source of both.
  • John Davidson reviews Chris Sonksen’s new book, When Your Church Feels Stuck. Make sure to listen to John’s Influence Podcast with Chris too!
  • We note a recent Gallup poll that finds a third of Americans thinking that religion is out of date.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Jesus Christ, Now! (Revelation 1:17–20)

Have you ever wondered what Jesus Christ is doing at the present moment? His resurrection and ascension into heaven occurred 2,000 years ago, after all. What is he up to now?

Revelation 1:12–20 answers that question. It describes Jesus Christ in glory, standing in the midst of his churches. We have already seen that verses 12–16 are theology not portraiture, and we must make a similar judgment about verses 17–20, which are figurative rather than literal. You should get comfortable with the figurative language, by the way; the Apocalypse is full of it.

How do we know when John’s language is literal and when it is figurative? Well, we must remember that John is simply reporting what he saw. In verses 12–20, John saw Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands,” with “seven stars” in his right hand and “a sharp two-edged sword” protruding from his mouth. So, John is literally reporting what he saw.

But in prophetic visions, what is seen and what is meant by it are not necessarily the same thing. Certainly not here! Jesus Christ himself says to John, “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” The vision is thus a “mystery” to be explained. On some occasions, John explains the meaning of what he saw (e.g., 17:3, 9–12). On others, he does not. Consequently, we must exercise due diligence as we read Revelation and not assign a literal interpretation to what John meant to be taken figuratively, nor vice versa.

So, what does the figurative language of verses 12–20 mean? It means that Jesus Christ is present with his churches, exercising authority over them through his word, and giving them more than sufficient power to escape the trials and temptations of the present age. Do you see this? Let me help you.

First, Jesus Christ is present with us, his churches. This is the obvious point of him standing in the midst of the seven lampstands, which are the seven churches, as we have already seen. Why portray the churches as lampstands? Because the lampstand was an implement in the tabernacle and later the temple (Ex. 25:31–37, 1 Kgs. 7:49) and thus holy to God, as is the church. And because Jesus Christ calls his church to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14–16).

Second, he is exercising authority over us through his word. This seems to be the meaning of the two-edged sword that protrudes from his mouth. Elsewhere in the New Testament, such a sword is identified with the Bible (Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12). In the letters he dictates to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3), Jesus Christ applies that word to concrete issues facing each church.

Third, he is giving us sufficient power to escape trials and temptations. John describes Jesus holding “seven stars” in his “right hand,” the hand of power, authority, and security. These stars are interpreted as “the angels of the seven churches,” but this interpretation is difficult. Is the angel the church’s guardian angel? Its pastor or leader? Its prevailing spirit? All three interpretations have been argued by the commentators. It seems to me that however one interprets the angels, what Jesus is holding is us–his churches. The letters to the seven angels (chapters 2–3), though addressed to the angel of the church, are in reality intended for the church as a whole, as the grammar and overall context make clear.

John’s vision and its meaning both are comforting, for Jesus Christ has not left us alone in a world that is alternately hostile and indifferent (Matt. 28:20). No! He is with us, right now!

Do you sense his presence? Does your life show it?

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