T. M. Suffield

The Sons of the Prophets

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, June 25, 2022
I think we should see our churches today as like the Sons of the Prophets: semi-monastic communities that interact with the wider culture, including the corridors of power when required, but largely do our own thing while living within it. We are, as Peter would have it, exiles even within the land (1 Peter 1).

In the past I’ve described evnagelical churches as living in an anticulture, have suggested that we are in an ebb of history, which can make us think Christendom was a terrible thing, which it wasn’t.
Assuming you’re with me, and convicted that we don’t build anything, but that we also live at what feels like a civilisational ebb, what can we do about it?
I think it’s helpful to start by looking at others in the Bible who sat at a similar point in history. Take, for example, the Sons of the Prophets in 2 Kings. Elijah functioned as a solo prophet who despaired of there even being anyone else who followed Yahweh in Israel—though he was wrong (1 Kings 19). Elisha, by contrast, worked with and lived with a community of lesser prophets called the Sons of the Prophets (they first pop up in 1 Kings 20, seemingly sprouting from the ground).
Which, by the by, follows the Biblical typological pattern of the lone man followed by the man and his ‘bride’ that we see repeated time and time again. It is, in its final form, John the Baptist followed by Jesus.
The Sons of the Prophets were a reform movement from within Israel. They had no real cultural power, for all Elisha occasionally spoke with the king in a much less combative role than Elijah had, he also seems much less interested in the monarchy than Elijah was. Which is another of the Bible’s grand patterns, from priest (servant) to king (ruler) to prophet (member of the divine council). Why would you be interested in kings when there are prophets to speak with?
They remain a faithful community within Israel, without leaving it. A faithful community that has clear borders but still lives in and among the rest of the culture. Which sounds remarkably like that old cliché, “in the world but not of the world.”
They seem to be semi-monastic, with their own place to live (2 Kings 6), but that also receives others into the community at need. They seem to disappear from the narrative when Elisha does, which is simply because the focus of the storytelling moves elsewhere, and we are left to ponder what their impact on the grand sweep of history was. It may well have been minimal.
“What a terrible model for us!” I hear you cry! Or not, as the case may be. I’m certain that the impact they had in continuing the faith of Yahweh in the land and on the people that they helped was significant.
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The Land of the Living

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, June 17, 2022
Early on in the Torah we find “land” referring to all that God has made unless it is modified, for example, the “land of Egypt.” Later the “land” without reference is more likely to refer to Israel as originally given to the Hebrews by Yahweh, “The Land” as though it has capital letters. It’s almost a proper name.

“He’s no longer in the land of the living,” we say with great solemnity as we pronounce that our friend has fallen asleep on the sofa.
It’s a phrase we use fairly commonly, either to mean prosaically, “they’re dead”—which is actually uncommon because we prefer cleaner euphemisms that hide the reality entirely—or to refer to someone who is asleep.
We get that idiom of death and sleep being related from the Bible, though it plays the other way around in the Old Testament, with the dead being referred to as asleep. Like all idioms it hints at more than it shows, because only a culture with a profound ungirding belief in the resurrection of the dead would refer to the dead as sleeping.
We also get the phrase the “land of the living” from the Bible. I count 15 Old Testament occurrences of the word land (אֶ֫רֶץ) with the word living or alive (חַי). Which is not that surprising, the Authorised Version, which most of us know as the KJV, has had an incredibly large impact on the English language over the last 400 years.
Here’s the kicker, I’m not convinced the phrase “land of the living” means the same thing in Hebrew as we take it to mean in English.
Which is always a thought worth exploring. In fact, as those 15 references cross five different books of the Bible it’s possible that they don’t all use the term the same way, but we should always assume that those written later would be very aware of how the term was used in earlier parts of the Bible.
Why am I not convinced?
Hebrew has plenty of ways to say ‘alive,’ without the poetic flourish about the land added in. Which on its own we could dismiss as poetic language, especially in the Psalms, that is then picked up by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. We could, but we shouldn’t. The Bible’s authors are often poetic and use the heights of rhetoric available to them to express the heart of God in beautiful language, and every flourish has purpose and meaning. There are no spare words.
So, what does it mean? My contention is that the land of the living is the New Jerusalem, and that it is us who live in the land of the dying.
We will need to nuance this a little along the way, but the first thing that should clue us in is the use of the word land. A very common word in the Old Testament, from the first sentence onwards (literally: from the head God created the sky and the land), and a word that as the story develops seems to change meaning.
Early on in the Torah we find ‘land’ referring to all that God has made unless it is modified, for example, the ‘land of Egypt.’ Later the ‘land’ without reference is more likely to refer to Israel as originally given to the Hebrews by Yahweh, “The Land” as though it has capital letters. It’s almost a proper name.
So, we have it modified by ‘living,’ where is this place? The place of the dead in the Old Testament is never referred to as a ‘land,’ which is of course because it’s under the ground. It’s the grave, even if ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ while the part of it for the righteous dead is not specifically unpleasant, even that is a place of waiting.
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Worship is Warfare

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, June 12, 2022
When we choose to worship, we fight our own sin. When we choose to believe that God knows what he’s doing and declare so in song, we help to bolster our soul’s conviction that to fight temptation and embrace holiness is worth is. We fight the lie that all the ways we’ve fallen short disqualify us in any way from the embrace of the Father who loves us.

Jericho falls after a band march around it (Joshua 6)—perhaps leading us to imagine they finally after seven days figured out the modular frequency of mortar so their trumpets tumble stones from atop one another. Jehoshaphat places the choir on the frontline (2 Chronicles 20)—perhaps making us wonder just how bad their last performance was that the King ‘rewarded’ them with a position in the vanguard.
We could find many more examples. Music, and more broadly the worship of God, play a decisive role in the warfare of Israel. Is it the same for us as New Testament believers?
I think it is—we usually need a reason to think something isn’t continuing as a principle from the Old to the New Covenants, but when things do continue, they are usually transformed.
Think of it like this: as I write the most prominent war in the world is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The current invasion has been going on for about six weeks (as I write—as this is published over three months), though we tend to forget that this war between Russia and Ukraine has been waging quietly on the frontiers of Europe for over eight years. Here’s the question, can our worship stop Russian aggression? Can we intervene in this conflict through what we might do as a gathered church directed towards God in heaven?
It’s pretty obvious that the answer is “no.” Our worship cannot stop the war. Though, let us never forget, our prayers can.
That being said, if the principle works the same way for us, what is our warfare against? As is so often the case, what is physical in the Old Testament is spiritual for us.
So, we’re waging war ‘spiritually’ as we worship God. But who, or what, are we actually fighting?
Or to frame the question a different way: I’ve been reading the Psalms a lot recently. I’m trying to learn how to pray them. One of the challenges I’ve encountered, especially in Books 1 & 2, is the proliferation of enemies. I’m always coming up against them. It’s easy enough to see who David’s enemies were, but if I’m supposed to then appropriate these prayers as my own, I need to know who mine are.
And, tempting though it is, I don’t think other humans who have upset or hurt me personally fit the bill very well—especially not that other guy in your church who upset you. There’s a different remedy here than asking God to smash the teeth in his mouth (Psalm 58).
Not that some people who’ve wounded me personally haven’t made themselves my enemies—I’m quite comfortable thinking that the cowboy builder who ran away with my savings and left me with a home on the verge of burning down is my enemy, but my warfare against him has to at least begin with forgiving him (Matthew 5).
We struggle with this, in part because we’ve drunk of niceness until we’re sick, but mostly because our lives are comfortable. The church has enemies. But, we are told, our real fight is not against flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 10). So, what are we fighting? Here are five initial suggestions.
1. To believe the church is the bride
Sometimes getting to church on a Sunday to worship God is an absolute mission. I don’t mean the challenges of getting everyone you need to out of the house in vaguely appropriate clothing on time to make it before the meeting actually starts.
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The Sugar-Coating

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, June 8, 2022
There comes a point in the Christian life when you brush the sugar-coating off your Bible. I pray it comes early, it makes things easier. That moment or series of moments when you realise that the faith is not supposed to make your life easier or more comfortable, and that the Bible never promised it would. 

Life hurts. Or at least it does sometimes. If we’re honest, it hurts more often than most of us hear in church.

Following Jesus is hard work. It is, in some sense, a way of pain.
If you’re feeling that right now, the incomparable cuts of choosing to give up your rights again and again, the painful stabs of making choices that are Godly but make your life infinitely harder than if you had chosen otherwise—if you’re feeling that then you need to know that you aren’t an aberration. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t the bargain bin Christian that somehow snuck in. You aren’t doing less well than everyone else. This is the way. Abandon all self-reliance ye who enter here.
To be a Christian is to share in Christ’s suffering and to count it a privilege.
Which could sound awfully maudlin if we gave in to self-pity. Self-pity is about the least attractive character trait humans can develop and tends to find its source in comparison. Experiencing pain is normal, telling yourself that your pain is worse, or engaging in the ultimate pitying act: deciding that God doesn’t love you because of your pain—is deciding that because your leg hurts, you’ll stab yourself in the eye.
Comparing pain has always felt like an impossible thing to do, until I realised that psychologists actually come up with tools to allow that to done diagnostically. Which means that I’d be happy to bet that my scars are bigger than yours—assuming you also live in the post-industrialised ‘west’. I’d lose plenty of those bets, but on balance I reckon I’d come out ahead.
Which I tell you to suggest that I have some authority to say that self-pity doesn’t get you anywhere. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Even on those occasions when people who really ought to know better don’t recognise the sheer weight of the scars you bear, and you feel like you must delve into the pools of pity to shake them out of their repose—it still isn’t worth it.
Having received what seemed like the worst news I’d had in my life, I remember sobbing myself to sleep the next night. I tried to pray. All I could get out was “come quickly Lord Jesus” through choked sobs. I wanted to pray for what was going on, but the currency I needed was hope and I was flat broke. All I could do was ask Jesus to come back, wrap it all up and finally end the pain.
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What Are Friends?

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, June 1, 2022
It’s almost impossible to live the Christian life without deep, abiding friendships, as well as a web of wider friendships. How do we know that? Jesus had these kind of friendships. If he didn’t try to do it without them, why do we?

The pandemic has damaged our friendships. There was a recent Atlantic Op Ed that opined that all but the closest friendships we might have are slipping away. But things were broken before that, back in 2018 the US Surgeon General announced a “loneliness epidemic”, especially facing middle-aged men. So, while the pandemic has made thing significantly worse, we weren’t starting from a place of strength.
Sixty years before that C. S. Lewis bemoaned the lack of friendship in his The Four Loves. This is not a new problem. We can trace a problem with a lack of friendships—especially for men—back a few hundred years, but it’s been getting gradually worse as community slowly degrades around us.
I read on Twitter a few months back:
The greatest miracle in the Bible was a man in his late 30s having 12 close friends.—Some bloke on Twitter I can’t find again
Which is worryingly relatable.
What is a Friend Anyway?
One of our problems when talking about this stems from our use of the term to apply to everything from our contacts on Facebook to our work colleagues, to people we hang out with, to others at church, to those brothers-in-arms that we would willingly die for. It’s a slippery term, and each of the three sources that bemoaned friendship that I mentioned at the top of this piece used the word to mean something slightly different.
Sociologists talk about different levels of relationships as strong, middle and weak ‘ties’. The weak ones are those on the periphery of your life, from that person you see commuting on the train every day, to someone who works in another department who you make small talk with while waiting for the lift, to that friend of a friend you see at parties.
We wouldn’t call all of those people friends—if I called the guy I sometimes see on the train who gets on and off at the same stops as me my friend that would be creepy, we’ve never spoken and I know nothing about him—but some of them are our friends.
They are also where our closer rings of friends come from. Our middle ring—the people we talk about as our friends who we choose to spend time with. And our inner ring (not exactly the same as the famous C. S. Lewis essay of the same name, but not not that either), the very closest friends who we talk to all the time and share all of our lives with.
It would be ideal if we had a different term for each of these. I normally use ‘friends’ to refer to the ‘strong ties’ or ‘inner ring,’ which bamboozles people who use the term more broadly. Saying that, I also call my readers friends, and do the same when addressing the church as a whole while speaking—that’s invitational as much as anything, but we use the word to mean a thousand different things.
Those closest of friends naturally start as someone at a less close level of intimacy. The sociologists agree that we desperately need webs of friendships at all these levels and everything in between.
Jesus and Friends
I’ve written before on how Jesus wants to be our friend, but we can also learn about having friends by watching him. Jesus had friends at all these levels: the crowds, the 72 disciples, the twelve, the three, and then John his closest friend.

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An East Wind

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
The Lord of Hosts [will] chase you down and do you good. To commit every resource of heaven to a single-minded pursuit of getting you to the garden of delight. To chase after you, overtake you, conquer and capture you, and then do you good, and be merciful to you.

Small details matter in the Bible. They often tell the story that’s under the story, or draw out a minor aspect or theme in a greater whole.

One of the details that can often matter is what a scholar might call cosmic geography. Which is the idea that some of the geographical references in the Bible—perhaps even all of them—map onto the symbolic map of the world and so carry some theological significance.
As an example, the garden planted in Eden where the man and the woman are made and live is in the east of Eden. When, after they are cursed, Adam and Eve leave the garden and Eden, they leave to the east.
In cosmic geography to travel eastwards is to move away from the presence of God and to travel westwards is to move towards the presence of God, because it is to journey away from or into Eden and therefore the heavenly temple that the garden was a pattern of. We might infer that Adam & Eve’s successful journey out of the garden as King & Queen of the world would have been westward, into the land of Eden and up the mountain the rivers flow from—which we would infer from the way mountains are employed through the rest of the Bible means straight into the arms of God.
We could overread this fairly easily. Firstly, we should check that inferring a theological edge to a direction actually adds to our reading of the text in a way supported by this passage and more broadly by the rest of the scriptures. Secondly, we should never conflate cosmic geography with actual geography: moving westward indicating moving towards God says nothing about either what we call “western civilisation” or what lies on the west of maps as we draw them.
Everywhere can be west if you shift your frame of reference, and Eden lay—depending on which reconstruction you like—somewhere in the triangle made by the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. We’re talking direction when we say west, not destination.
Broadly speaking, to walk towards the east is to go into exile, and to walk towards the west is to go on exodus: to return to the land gifted by God.
There are some interesting exceptions to this—note that the plague of locusts is brought by an east wind (Exodus 10) and blown away by a west wind, which sounds like the same thing until we remember that we name winds by where they blow from, so an east wind blows east to west. The clue here is that the west wind blows the locusts into the Red Sea, east of Egypt.
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God has Changed Every Table

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Friday, May 13, 2022
We should be serious about food, about feasting, about serving the best our resources and skill allows—whether that’s chicken dippers or cordon bleu cuisine. We become friends around a table, because we become friends with God around a table. If at the Lord’s supper God meets with man, then at our tables man can meet with man because God has done so first, even if some round the table have not known this for themselves. 

The world is infused with wonder, and the presence of God reveals truth that was previously unseen.
When seen with the eyes of faith, every tree is a song that sings of life, of wisdom, of death that flowers with the scent of unknown spices. Every rock is the Rock and hides honey and gushing water. Every sky is a painting masterfully created for the eyes of a single human, before another masterpiece is hung as the wind blows. Every table is the Table.
I have a thing about tables. You might have picked that up if you’ve been around nuakh for a little while. You will certainly have if we know each other in real life. I’ve written why, or at least the superficial reasons why, and tables make homes, but there’s a deeper reason that I’ve only scouted around the edges of. The Table changes our tables.
Where does God meet man? At a table, where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Not only there, but if anywhere then there is where we can be assured that God will meet with us.
As our Sunday meetings culminate in this acted story, this symbol, this faith bought opportunity to sup with God, we sit down with God at the Table. And as we eat by faith we are lifted to the heavenly Temple and feast on Christ’s body and blood, a genuine foretaste of the feast at the end of history.
If you agree with my vision of the world—riven with the presence of God through the heart of every atom—then how could this not change the world? Most importantly because we get to eat with God, but how could that event not change the nature of the act of eating on every occasion? We cannot eat anything in the same way ever again—the simple of act of sustenance has gained a new resonance, a significance beyond itself, as though it became a sign itself.
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Jesus in Ezekiel

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, April 3, 2022
I’ve been reading through Ezekiel recently, with Robert Jenson’s commentary as a guide. The commentary is idiosyncratic and moves from flashes of brilliance to Jenson’s seeming admission that he doesn’t know what’s going on chapter by chapter. I haven’t been able to shake Jenson’s surprising conclusions about chapter one from my mind, though.

In Ezekiel chapter one, the prophet relates to us a bizarre and compelling vision he has of Yahweh enthroned on his chariot by the rivers of Babylon.
I’ve been reading through Ezekiel recently, with Robert Jenson’s commentary as a guide. The commentary is idiosyncratic and moves from flashes of brilliance to Jenson’s seeming admission that he doesn’t know what’s going on chapter by chapter. I haven’t been able to shake Jenson’s surprising conclusions about chapter one from my mind, though.
He contends that Ezekiel’s vision is a vision of Jesus.
So far, so obvious. I understand that some readers may be uncomfortable with a fully throated conviction that everything in the Old Testament is ultimately about Christ, and that this conviction is not pasted on as a later addition but is a natural and correct reading of the text as it is. But, if you are uncomfortable with that, I’m surprised you’ve stuck around—I’ve contended elsewhere that the first word of the Bible is about Jesus, so this is less out there than that.
Here’s the bit that got me though, you tell me Ezekiel has a vision of Jesus and what I think is: yes, Old Testament theophanies—direct encounters with God—are visions of the preincarnate second person of the Trinity or of Yahweh in his Triune glory, so we can use the shorthand ‘Jesus’ for that even if a pedantic theologian would pick us up on it.
That’s not what Jenson means. He means this is Jesus in the chariot. The incarnate Jesus. In Babylon during the exile.
I told you it was wild.
Jenson suggests that broadly the vision is a vision of incarnation because the division between the heavens and the earth—God’s place and ours—is overcome as the heavenly throne has been literally mounted on wheels (well, cherubim, wheeled eye covered winged lightening serpents that are lions with the face of men: or angels to you and I).
He goes further though. Ezekiel’s vision homes in on the figure in the chariot, above the throne. One with the “appearance”, “the figure of a man,” or as the ESV has it “a likeness with a human appearance.” This is a human figure who is lit with the brightness and fire of the whole vision, and it seems the brightness even emanates from him.
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United

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Saturday, March 26, 2022
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 about the church being a ‘body’. He’s arguing against an idea some people in Corinth had that certain kinds of gifts were better than others, and that people with the ‘better’ gifts were due extra respect. He instead teaches them that all gifts are equal in value and all are necessary. The body needs all of its different parts to function properly.

When Aesop, busy imagining tortoises volunteering for foot races, said “in union there is strength” he was acknowledging a truth that we all recognise. Like O2 used to tell us when trying to flog phone contracts, we’re better connected.
That’s easy enough to say, but when it comes to doing something about it we swiftly decide that unity may not be worth the pain it seems to bring. Turns out that we think being joined with others is the best way to achieve something worthwhile, right up until someone asks us to join with others to do that.
That’s how I tend to react anyway—it’s easy to say that people need other people until you have to actually do something with other people.
Unfortunately, we’re all a little bit more awkward than we would like, and our brokenness makes it hard for us to be in community with others. It doesn’t come that easily. The church is supposed to be united (Ephesians 4): a lofty and laudable goal, almost impossible for mere mortals. The biggest issue church unity has is that any given church is full of people. The biggest weapon in the fight for churches to be united communities is the Spirit of the living God.
You see, God isn’t like us. He’s united as part of his nature. He’s three persons, but somehow still completely one. God is Triune, and simple: somehow God can be diverse without being made of parts, three and yet more united than I manage when I’m just on my own.
And in Jesus we find even more union, he’s the perfect union of God and man. Paul’s favourite way of describing our state after Jesus rescues us is that we are ‘in Christ’. In Romans 6 he says we are united to him. We become one with him, and by extension with all of the Trinity.
Jesus then gives each one of us his Spirit to unite us to each other by shared experiences, speaking the same truth to each of us.
A. W. Tozer uses the analogy of tuning an instrument. When you tune lots of pianos with the same tuning fork, they are automatically in tune with each other. When followers of Jesus are tuned to Jesus by the Spirit, we automatically become in tune with each other. We don’t have to strive for unity to find it, we follow Jesus and find our hearts are knit together with our fellow travellers.
A friend of mine talks about a game he likes to play in the pub, looking around at groups of people who are sat together and trying to figure out what they have in common. You can usually make a decent guess. Maybe they’re work colleagues, or play football together, or they’re old school friends. If the church is working as it’s designed to, it becomes really hard to play the game.
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On Discipleship

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Sunday, March 13, 2022
 To be a disciple is primarily to live and to have our course corrected by the Lord, often in the voice of disciples who are a little ahead of us. Which means we need to be receptive to ‘feedback,’ and we need to realise that means we need to be ready to repent.

We’re all in favour, and we’re very happy to call a lot of things ‘discipleship’, but what is it?
Maybe it’s easier to start with what it isn’t. It’s not going and having a coffee with a more mature Christian—though that can be a very helpful thing to do. It’s not attending a course or an event—though courses and events can be great. It’s not growing your church or in-depth Bible study or a midweek group that meets in a home or having fun with other Christians or making younger Christians into copies of yourself.
All of the above can be good things in the right context, all of them are sometimes called discipleship, and not one of them is.
Apprentices
The word disciple just means learner. I do wonder if shifting away from the religious term would help us. ‘Apprentice’ is probably closer in our normal use to how the word ‘disciple’ would have been used in the New Testament. I like the way John Mark Comer talks about being apprenticed to Jesus as a metaphor for the Christian life, it’s a more holistic vision than when discipleship means meeting someone for coffee once every six months.
I’ve designed apprenticeship programmes for leading Universities and an award-winning global graduate programme for Rolls-Royce. I know how these things work.
When most people hear “apprenticeship,” or perhaps even “discipleship,” they imagine training courses. Which explains the way that lots of big churches approach the Christian life, “let’s run a course,” we imagine very quickly that the correct way to treat discipleship is to create the right programme. We proliferate our programmes to treat every area of life because what we think we need is skills.
This model then infects smaller churches as well because we use the courses produced by these big churches. None of this is wrong, but often rests on two faulty assumptions, one theological and one methodological. Firstly, we assume that what we need is skills, when we need character, but secondly we assume that this is how learning works.
We think if we need to learn we should run a course. The training programmes I designed included very little by way of training courses. We worked to a learning model as a guide that suggested 10% of an apprentice’s learning would come from courses and that these would be specifically targeted at specific needs.
The vast majority of our learning comes from experience, with a sizeable chunk from feedback and reflection—our guide would have been 70% experience and 20% reflection and feedback.
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