According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

One of the problems that I have faced in communicating and discussing the word of God with other Christians is one finds that we have a lot of our definitions messed up. Words and phrases that meant one thing in biblical times have now come to mean different things altogether. At the least, the impact of these phrases have been reduced so we don’t see how profound they are. But at the worst, I find what I believe to be totally flawed understandings of phrases and words in the bible, upon which people are then able to construct all sorts of weird teaching.

This series of posts is my attempt to provide a clearer definition of some of these phrases that are so common in Christendom but which need to be clarified today. Some of these terms are “salvation”, “forgiveness of sins”, “new creation”, “son of God” and “kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven”, and I will discuss some of them in no particular order. One thing needs to remain clear to the Christian though – when Paul used the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:4, he was referring to the books we call the Old Testament, and mostly from the Greek translation of it (the Septuagint). The New Testament as we know it didn’t exist then, and was not where the prophecies about Jesus would be found. Note that the writers of the books of the New Testament were not Greeks, Romans, Ghanaians or Germans. They were Jews, and so the text is bound to reflect a Jewish worldview somewhat. If Christians are to understand very well where the terms and phrases we so love to use come from, we need to lay the ground work from what the writers themselves considered “scripture”, before getting ahead of ourselves.

Son of God?

Jesus calls himself (and is called by his disciples) “son of God”. Most good, devout, Sunday school taught Christians immediately understand this phrase to mean that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity i.e. he is a divine being from God and one with the Godhead. Let me state quite clearly here before I am accused of heresy that I side with a million and one Christians in the belief in Jesus’ divine nature and a belief in the Trinity. However, if we apply Paul’s litmus test aka according to the Old Testament – that is not what “son of God” means. What does it mean then?

The phrase “son of God”, “children of God” and “sons and daughters/people of God” has been used in many ways to denote a special election of God of a certain people or person. It is used to refer to the kings of this world here.

I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” (Ps 82:6-7)

It is used to refer to a particular king of the Jews called the Anointed one (the Messiah)

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14 cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah] … He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (Ps 2:2-7).

He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior. And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” (Ps 89:26-27)

And sometimes it is used to refer to the nation Israel itself, and the special kind of relationship between God and his chosen nation. The language of sonship and children vis-a-vis Israel is a language of special status, of election, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere. Note that nowhere in the OT is anyone refered to as a “son of God/sons of God/people of God/sons and daughters of God” except kings of the world, the Messiah or Israel as a nation.

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22)

I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). 2 Cor 6:18 expands this to mean “you will be my sons and daughters”.

Nowhere in all these usages are we seeing a divine, explicitly Trinitarian usage of the phrase “son of God”. The Jews of Jesus day were definitely looking forward to a Messiah descended from David who will come and restore their fortunes against their enemies, as expounded by the totality of the Psalms referenced above and a lot more, as well as the prophets. The fact that in Jesus, the king turned out to be not only human but divine was not what their understanding of Messiah was, and we can now look at the NT and see what I mean.

Son Of God in The Gospels

There are many usages of the phrase “son of God” recorded in the gospels, but the most poignant of them was at the trial of Jesus. The most important reason why the Sanhedrin council had to bring Jesus before Pilate was that the power to crucify a person was the preserve only of the Roman governor at the time. And if they simply went to the Roman governor and said “we don’t like this man’s teaching” or “he’s been criticizing us”, the best he would have done was to put him in jail for a few days and let him go (if he doesn’t end up throwing the case out of court in the first place). They needed a charge that was capital, and given the amount of rebellion that existed at the time and in previous years with the many previous “Messiahs” gone past, the only charge that will catch the attention of the governor was a charge of treason – treason because there was in fact a “King of the Jews” in the name of Herod appointed by the Romans. Any other person calling themselves “king” was attempting a coup d’etat, not only against Herod, but against his appointee – Rome. That was a crucifiable offence. Hear the Sanhedrin’s accusation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:7)

Now, Pilate obviously didn’t think they were saying Jesus was divine or the 2nd person of the trinity. Hear him.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (Jn 18:39)

Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ Shall I crucify your king?‘ Pilate asked. ”We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. (Jn 19:14-15)

It is no surprise then that Pilate had the title “King of the Jews” hang on Jesus cross. And we also note that Jesus never denied that he was king of the Jews during his trial, for that is what Christ or Messiah actually means. The above passages show clearly what Jews meant by “son of God”. A few more examples from the Gospels will suffice.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”(Jn 1:49)

Note that his disciples did clearly recognize his claim to be the Anointed one. For example Jesus commended Peter for saying that Jesus was the Christ (the title Christ was Greek whiles Messiah was Jewish for the same thing – “Anointed One”), the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-17), again referring to the title under discussion.

But, But, But …

Yes I know, Jesus DID say he was divine in may places, quite uncountable to mention. But until his death and resurrection, his disciples only understood him to be the Messiah, albeit one with some wonderful powers and gifts.

However, he was always challenging these disciples and other people (including his enemies) to see the Messiah as more than a mere human, quoting Ps 110 and saying that “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son (Mt 22:45)”? Here, Jesus is appealing to David saying “The Lord said to my Lord” signifie that whoever David was talking about was more than just his son.

But it is pretty obvious not only tracing it from the OT but in the gospels and in all Jewish understanding that although there were hints like Ps 110 that seemed to point to the Messiah being more than just a normal human being, Jews never understood “son of God” to mean a divine person, but rather God’s anointed King, just like Moses was God’s anointed prophet and Aaron God’s anointed priest.

After his death AND resurrection, his disciples now understood that Jesus was indeed divine and expressed that much throughout their words and writings in the New Testament. But they still used “son of God” in the Messianic sense of the expected descendant of David, as depicted by Paul in Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8.

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

That’s the obvious question. What’s the big deal afterall? And the answer is NO WE ARE NOT. As Jackson Wu, a Chinese missional theologian says “We must not misuse scripture to prove the truth … when we settle for what is merely true (that Jesus has a divine nature), we miss out on what the phrase [son of God] actually means.” It is obvious most Christians have confused the Trinitarian phrase “God the Son” with the Messianic phrase “Son of God”. And this is rather ironic given that the latter is explicitly written and expounded in scripture, whiles the former had to be deduced. I dare say that a misunderstanding of what “son of God” means has left room for 2 very serious errors.

The first is to seriously question the ground on which some Christians stand basing on a flawed understanding of the New Testament’s description of the church as “sons of God” to mean that Christians are somehow divine. Jews believed they were “sons of God” too, but never went as far as to consider themselves divine.

The second and even more tragic one for me is that because we have so “spiritualized” and “divinized” everything about Jesus, much of the church today has totally ignored the real human, earthy and here-and-now task that the Messiah and his followers (his church), empowered by the Spirit of God was supposed to achieve. Bringing good news to the poor, relief for the sick, hope to the fatherless, the widow and the stranger and of writing the wrongs in society – in short we have hammered on personal salvation, and left cosmic justice behind. I intend to take this up further down in the series, but when I read the Messianic Psalms, the prophets and the gospels the trend is clear – the Messiah’s task was a task of changing the world order spiritually, socially, economically and ecologically.

When all we care about is a divine Jesus, we will miss his kingly, this-worldly impact altogether.

Understanding the NT From the OT Part 4 – Of Bob Marley and Jesus’ Resurrection

Bob Marley & The Wailers at the BBC in London
Bob Marley & The Wailers at the BBC in London

This will be my last on the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” and I hope you’ve enjoyed and wrestled with the issues I’ve shared. This post is dedicated to Ghana Posts, who failed to deliver my hard copy version of “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, forcing me to buy a Kindle version. I hope they can “resurrect” my package, wherever it has ended up.


My friends on Facebook who are a bit more attentive will know by now that I’m a fan of Bob Marley’s music, and one of his songs which fascinates me is “Get Up, Stand Up” which he did with The Wailers. Bob Marley starts the first and second verses off this way.

Preacher man don’t tell me, Heaven is under the earth, I know you don’t know, what life is really worth …”

Most people think, great god will come from the skies, take away everything, and make everybody feel high …”

Peter Tosh takes the baton over in the last one, and says

We sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord, We know when we understand, almighty god is a living man …”

Now you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that these guys are being critical of dominant Christianity and our pie-in-the-sky mentality regarding not caring about what goes on down here, in the hope of something nice and wonderful laid out for us in heaven. But what if Christianity had something to say regarding what goes on on this earth – regarding the injustice, wickedness, hatred, hypocrisy and war that rages on this earth till this day? Maybe we can answer some (if not all) of brother Marley’s vexations if we pay a bit more attention to the history and beliefs that attended the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, as well as the early Christians interpretation of what Jesus resurrection actually meant. I’ll do this with the help of “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by NT Wright, one of the best books recommended by Christian apologists on the resurrection of Jesus. You can also view a summary of Christian apologist William Lane Craig defending Jesus’s bodily resurrection here, which makes the same points as this book.

The Greco-Roman Influence

The Old (and New) Testament being a document focused on the lives of the people of Israel before, during and after the Babylonian exile, doesn’t give too much detail about what else was going on around the world at the time. But there is no doubt that whatever else was going on around them always had an impact, and so we ignore this impact to our own detriment.

The Greek king, Alexander the Great had done a great job of conquering a very large part of the earth, stretching from modern day Europe to modern day southern Asia into one large Greek empire. However almost immediately after his death, war between his generals meant the generals split the empire into 3 parts – the Ptolemaic, the Seleucid and the Pergamon empires. So, the returnees and inhabitants of Judah found themselves under the rule of the Seleucids, and that alone lead to some significant developments. Later this kingdom was defeated by Rome, so again Judah had new masters, and therefore new cultural influences. Just as today the British empire has bequeathed us Africans with certain legacies (e.g. our obsession to still require a white wedding in addition to our own African ceremonies for example), so did Greek and Roman culture have an influence on the world at the time, and certainly beliefs about life after death were not left out.

Life After Death – The Greco-Roman Perspective

To the everyday Greek person, the venerated Greek writer Homer’s books were their equivalent of the Old Testament. Writer of books like Illiad and Odyssey, which includes stories about the Tojan war and Achilles etc, his writing was the standard reading for all Greek people (and overtime others who were conquered by the Greeks).

So the Greeks believed (from Homer) that every dead person went to Hades, which was ruled by the god of that same name and his wife Persephone. In Hades everyone lived a miserable life – there really wasn’t much to look up to. Some few people seemed to have received a greater punishment than others, but Hades was truly a sad and gloomy place where every dead person finally lives after death. Apparently one needs to cross a river to get to Hades, so when burying people sometimes coins or some other “essentials” were placed in the coffin for them to pay the fare. All of this meant that to the Greek then, one must gain all the glory that one can on this earth, because there’s nothing to look up to after this life one had. This sounds a lot like some modern worldviews we know of.

Along came Plato, who developed a very respectable reputation as a philosopher (and Greeks LOVED philosophy). He challenged Homer’s view that there was nothing good to look forward to after death, by redefining what Hades was like. Hades was split between Isle of the Blessed – where good people who had done their duty to the kingdom well lived a blissful life – and Tartarus – an abyss where all the evil people will receive their punishment. Plato wanted to create a sort of reason why people should live a good life instead of just pursuing personal glory (and riches) alone. Plato and the philosophers who came after him also introduced the idea of human souls already existing before time, and being sent into a temporary body to prove itself worthy so that it may receive the blessing of being counted amongst those who would be in the Isle of the Blessed. To Platonism then, in contrast to Homer, life on earth wasn’t all that there was. It was just a temporary thing along with the body in which you lived, and that the real thing was to be judged to have lived in the body one was given well so that after death one may be rewarded – even possibly to be declared a “god” to join the father of the gods, Zeus (or Jupiter, as the Romans called him). The writings of Plato (and other philosophers after him) became the “New Testament” to the Greek people. The Romans were also influenced by these thoughts from their former conquerors, and so held to much the same beliefs with some slight modifications here and there. It is interesting to note the similarities between this new understanding and some strands of Christianity.

The possibility mentioned above of some people being made “gods” was the basis for the practice of “apotheosis” – where some of the dead Roman kings were declared gods, and therefore their successors to be “sons of god”. It is obvious why Jesus’s claim to be “son of God” ruffled both Jews (he cannot be son of God if he was killed by their number one enemy – Rome) and Gentiles (Act 7:7 – “… and they act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus”) .

You will note one clear thing – none of them say anything about coming back to this earth. The Greco-Roman world didn’t accept the notion of dead people coming back to life to live normally on this earth as possible. The dead may visit you in a vision or dream. They may even appear as ghosts, or spirits or angels of a sorts to give a message. They had a word for it “anastasis” aka resurrection, but they didn’t believe it possible. To them, death was the end, and any life thereafter was life lived in either the Isle of the Blessed or Tartarus. Period.

Life After “Life After Death” – The Jewish Perspective

The Jews however had a very different idea of death, which they were the only ones who held to in their world – that YHWH will forgive the sins of his people Israel (Dan 9, Isaiah 40:1-11; Jer 31:31-34;Ezek 36:22-32), judge the world and resurrect the righteous dead to receive their rewards, and the unrighteous dead to be condemned. In that judgment, YHWH will also restore the fortunes of Israel, renew his covenant with them “by the Spirit”, and cleanse and transform this world, bring his heaven down to this earth – typically described with the words “new creation” or “new heaven and new earth”. The most explicit biblical support for the ideas of resurrection of the dead come from Daniel 12:2-3 and Isaiah 26:19.

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”(Dan 12:2-3).

But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy – your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”(Is 26:19).

Although these passages are specific about the resurrection event itself, they cannot be divorced from the issues that are being discussed in the chapters as a whole – YHWH’s restoration of the fortunes of his special nation, Israel. Resurrection went with other judgment activities of YHWH, vindicating Israel’s claim to be his special people.

This belief in resurrection (life after “life after death”) lead to some interesting practices being adopted by Jews regarding burials. David Daube in his book “The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism”, catalogs how Pharisees introduced new laws regarding executing people accused of capital offenses.

Stoning was moderated; burning was to be done by forcing liquid down the throat; strangling was by a particular method; all was in aid of leaving the bone structure intact. The body was important … Cremation was avoided for the same reason.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright referring to David Daube’s work.)

However, there were those who challenged this belief in bodily “life after life after death”, and this school of thought is reflected by the Sadducees. They claimed that the Torah (the books of Moses) had nothing to say on the subject, and since that was more authoritative than the prophets, they didn’t believe in it. This was the basis for the challenge of the Sadducees to Jesus in Mk 12:18-27 that in the resurrection, who will be the husband of a woman who had been forced to marry all seven brothers after each of them died. They wanted to trap Jesus and make the resurrection an absurd belief. Jesus skillfully saw through the trap, and his answer reinforced the belief in resurrection, much to their annoyance.

One question that arose then was what happens between when one is dead and when YHWH returns to restore Israel’s fortunes? Was there life after death? Some Jews said the dead were just dead. Others said the spirits of the dead were with other righteous dead – this is typically explained with the phrase “gathered to his people” (Gen 49:29 of Jacob’s death), “slept with his ancestors” (1 Ki 2:10 of David) etc. Because it was believed that YHWH’s love extended even after death to those he loved, it was surmised then that the righteous dead were with him in his realm – heaven. This is where early Christianity obtains it’s belief that when we die, we go to heaven as expatiated by the former Pharisee, Paul the apostle – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23).

And So?

It is obvious then that all Jews were awaiting a redemptive work of YHWH which will bring ALL the righteous back to life. Aka the righteous dead will come back to life. Not one and not some, but all the righteous.

This is in sure contradiction to the conviction that the Greco-Roman world around them only looked forward to life after death, and returning back into this earth in a full bodily form was NOT expected. Aka, the dead stayed dead. If there is a life after death, it is in the land of the dead, not the living.

Therefore Jesus defeating death by resurrecting was a huge spanner in the works for both Jew and Gentile. To his disciples, his resurrection vindicated him in all that he had said and done. After all many Messiahs had come before him and had all died at the hands of the enemy. A Messiah who dies at the hands of his enemies would not have been accepted even by his own disciples (no wonder they scattered after his death), but having resurrected meant that YHWH had vindicated this one to be the true Messiah. It is the resurrection of Jesus that confirmed him to truly be the son of God, and the saviour of the world. If Jesus had stayed dead in the tomb, THERE WILL BE NO CHRISTIANITY, his death will have no salvation effect. This point cannot be overstated – the center of the gospel is the resurrection of the son of God, which then makes sense of his death on the cross.

Paying much more attention now, I’m beginning to see how much Paul places an emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection.

But God raised him from the deadWe tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Ac 13:30-33)

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”(Rom 1:1-4)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor 15:14).

There are so many more places where Paul emphasizes the monumental importance of the resurrection of Jesus, I can’t quote them all here. Suffice it to say that what apotheosis couldn’t do for the Roman emperor, YHWH had done for Jesus. That is why the early Christians called him Lord – he has been “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). Not only had his resurrection shown him to be the true son of God, but it made his death meaningful as a means of defeating the last great enemy of God’s purposes – death and its sting, sin (1 Cor 15:54).

The hope of our resurrection with Christ then becomes a central piece of all the writers of the NT, and when Paul and Peter speaks of our inheritance, they are referring to it.

What About Bob Marley?

The one thing that the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah meant for the life of those who believed in it was that YHWH had launched his project of new creation now. It’s fullness will indeed be revealed when he returns to consummate the work, but it already began through Jesus own activity of resurrection. Those who believed in the resurrection then were not just a people who had received and lived a newness of life, they also became people who are participating with God in his work of new creation. Therefore they become a people who are not only satisfied with themselves – they become workers of good, seekers of justice and self-sacrificial lambs even to the death. Death becomes to them indeed an enemy, but an enemy that has been defeated already by Jesus the Messiah, and therefore something they are not afraid of in pursuit of good deeds and justice. In the same way that the hope of resurrection helped the sons of Maccabee stand against their enemies and be willing to die for the cause of God’s redemption of Israel (read 2 Maccabees), resurrection was a hope for early Christians to not be afraid to work for justice and pursue good works which God had prepared beforehand for us (Eph 2:10) even at the pain of death – because Jesus the Messiah had been resurrected, and therefore they will too.

The above seems to be quite different from the “gospel” that our brother Bob Marley (and many others who are critical of Christianity) have heard. To them, Christianity has painted the picture of “docile” men who do not care about what happens on this earth, because “this world is not their home” as Jimmy Reeves put it. Over the course of history, Christianity has focused more on life after death, to the neglect of life after “life after death”. Matters are made worse by the dispensationalists, who day in day out are busy frightening us of being left behind in the rapture so they go to a better place and leave this world to rot, not knowing how close to Platonism they are. This has benefited the political elite of today and times past (just as it benefited the Sadduccees, the political elite of their time who also didn’t believe in resurrection) as Christians have left the work of doing good and seeking justice to governments. We have forgotten that the church is a place where new creation is displayed, where Jesus is good news to the poor, the hopeless and the downtrodden (Lk 4:16-19) so that the governments may see that indeed there is a new King, and that king is capable of doing human leadership and government much better than the fallen systems of this world can. If we were busy pursing this task of new creation, then when we speak of a coming judgment, it will really put some trepidation in the hearts of the political elite. But as it stands, resurrection doesn’t seem central to us, therefore Jesus is only seen as some private belief by some group of people to enable them navigate this world so they can go to heaven, whiles the politicians can go about raping and sacking this “wretched” earth which God already plans for destruction anyways.

So can we blame Peter Tosh for being “sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord”? Not really in my view, because that has been the Christian message for some centuries now, a message which Christian minds are only now willing to challenge.

The truth though is that no major world religion believes that the dead will come back to live on this earth again except Judaism and its younger brother, Christianity. The best they all do is talk about life after death. That means resurrection of the righteous is our birthright – its the one thing that makes Christianity stand or fall because it’s what makes Jesus life AND death sensible. Let’s not sell our birthright for a mere life after death. There is life after life after death. Jesus the Messiah has indeed shown the way.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamor – Our lamb has conquered, him let us follow.

Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

Understanding The NT from the OT – Pt 1 – What the Jews Believed

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

Christianity has existed and thrived for the past 2000 year since Jesus death in many shapes and forms. And in that period it has striven to achieve God’s purposes for humanity with very little understanding of the people to whom God first gave the commission to be his people (some of which has been intentional, but also because we simply didn’t have the tools for such understanding in the past). But since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, further scholarly study of these scrolls has shed great light on the elder brother of Christianity i.e. the form(s) of Judaism that existed during Jesus’ lifetime, and is helping us understand Jesus even better. So I want to begin a series of posts that will shed much more light on how this knowledge is being brought from the scholarly field to strengthen the church and its obedience to Jesus Christ. We will focus on 3 thematic beliefs of Judaism: creational monotheism, election and eschatology and will draw parallels between these beliefs and how they should be the bedrock of Christianity.

Creational Monotheism

One of the core beliefs of Judaism which modern Christians now take for granted, but which was a very serious issue in Jesus time was the belief in only one God – YHWH. This was in opposition to other nations that surrounded them, who believed in other gods (like Baal) and some who belived in more than one god. For example the Greeks and Romans had a god of war (Ares/Mars), a god of travel and trade(Hermes/Mercury), a god of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) and one who was the king of all gods (Zeus/Jupiter). This is where monotheism comes in – a belief in one supreme being only, summed up in Deutoronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one” encapsulated in the most important Jewish prayer – the Shema.

Not only was YHWH the only god, he was the god who both created the world and was still in charge of it and ordering it’s activities (here comes his “creational” nature). This is why the Psalms are so full of praises not only of how God created the world, but the fact that he was still actively involved in it, nourishing and tending it, and giving every creature food in its season (eg Ps 104). This was in opposition to other nations who believed their gods to be busy doing their own thing and not caring about the people or their suffering (e.g. the Greeks believed the gods lived in Olympus and cared little for the people, so they better fend for themselves. Interestingly this is very similar to how western culture now see God today – a vacant landlord at best).

And because YHWH created everything, Judaism believed he cannot be represented by an image, because he created the wood, stone or clay that one may use to create a symbol of him. Therefore the Jews never believed in creating any idols which could be worshiped. In contrast, other nations who had different gods for different issues/concepts of the world, created images to model who and what kind of god they were (e.g Ares/Mars with his shield, helmet etc. representing war).

Thirdly, because YHWH created the world, he cared about every little bit of it, and even when evil seemed to be thriving for a while (whether through human activity or spiritual activity), YHWH will bring justice to this world and restore it to order. The Psalms speak in many places of God’s justice for this reason (Ps 72).

Note that to the rest of their neighbours, these believes were diametrically opposite what they believed, and caused some offense. But wait till we talk of the greater offense next.

Election

Judaism believed that YHWH was not just the only god, but more importantly, Israel’s god. Yes, he was the god of the whole world (because he created the whole world of course), but YHWH had chosen them for a special purpose, through their father Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15 and 17 YHWH had made many promises to their father Abraham about his special relationship with him and his descendants, that through Abraham the world may be blessed. This notion of election of Israel as God’s special people was further strengthened and solidified in the minds of Jews by God’s might works in saving them from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, protecting a whole nation as they moved in the desert and went past or through other nations (which could and did attempt to destroy them) for 40 years, and bring them to Canaan – the exact land promised to their father Abraham. The Christian traditions who speak of “promises of God” may need to pay much more attention to what they actually mean, not what we’ve turned it into – name it and claim it statements.

This belief in their election out of all nations not only runs through the Old Testament, but is the background to a lot of what Jesus and the Apostles says in the New Testament. Modern Christianity doesn’t appreciate how ingrained such a belief can be in a nation and people, when they and their forefathers experienced and passed on all these stories to them. But we can begin to see the impact of this belief by simply comparing the impact of 400 years of slavery on both Africans in the diaspora, and native Africa, vis-a-vis poverty, deprivation and injustice. This sense of identity and election was further re-invigorated by the continuous observance of their festivals, most glorious of which was the Passover and the rites that each individual family was supposed to perform in celebration of it

YHWH sealed his relationship with them by making a covenant with them – not as individual people, but as a nation. He gave them the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that they may observe their part of the covenant even as he remains faithful to his.

It is worth noting at this point that this covenant above is predicated by the fact that YHWH had a special relationship with their forefathers, not because the nation Israel itself was any more special. In fact, I dare use the word “grace” to describe YHWH’s election of Israel – because he loved them and their ancestors. This is well stated here.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Other relevant passages are Deut 10:15;14:2 and Isaiah 41:8-9.

Therefore the giving of the Torah (what Christians refer to as “the Law”) by YHWH was a means of ensuring two things 1) that the nation Israel stayed faithful in the relationship with him 2) that the rest of the world may see and be drawn the the God of Israel. This is further captured here

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

Deut 5:1-3 “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them … it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us …”

This brings into serious question the traditional negative light in which Protestant Christianity has spoken of Torah and Judaism in general. To most Jewish scholars, Protestant Christians have always accusing them of the wrong thing, because the Torah also stated clearly that their election was by favour (I prefer to use that rather than grace) i.e. by virtue of YHWH’s love for their fathers, and not by their own doing. To them, they way we Christians claim our salvation by the love and mercy of YHWH and not by our “works”, but insist that every Christian must follow and obey Jesus, is the same way they also view their relationship to YHWH and to Torah.

A last note is to be made here. It will be observed throughout books like Deuteronomy that YHWH’s election of Israel was a corporate choosing. His covenant was with Israel, yet it was important that every Tom, Dick and Harry observe the Torah not just for personal benefit sake, but because doing so meant that God’s promises for his nation Israel through their ancestors, will indeed come to pass. Moses further explains need for individual obedience so the corporate goal will be achieved in Deut 29:19-21.

Again, another challenge is thrown to modern Christianity, which places the individual’s “salvation” and personal desires above the corporate intent that God has had for his faithful Israel – Jesus and his church – an intent which as Paul says in the Ephesian epistle was “before the foundation of the world”. In fact I draw a direct parallel here from Deut 4:6-7 about how Israel’s observance of Torah will lead to the other nations seeing the wisdom of God, and Paul’s statements in Eph 3:10 about how the many fold wisdom of God will be made known through the church.

Election therefore meant that Israel were YHWH’s special people, and the rest of the world was not. This obviously infuriated every nation around them, and Israel didn’t stop reminding them everyday, as again explicit in the Psalms and throughout the OT. Even when things were not going too well for them, their election was one thing that they never forgot.

Eschatology

Eschatology is a big word that Jews used to refer to things that will happen at the end of this age (not at the end of the world as is commonly translated).

Moses had set before them the blessings and the curses that will attend them if they observe or break the covenant with God in Deut. 28. I know Christians love quoting the blessings part, but if we are going to be a people who take God’s word seriously, we need to pay attention to the curses as well. Because one will observe that the most disastrous of the curses was exile – their enemies will defeat them and carry them away. And as if Moses knew that they were going to fail in the task of being obedient to YHWH through the Torah, in Deut. 30 he assures them that “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and all your soul … then the Lord will restore your fortunes … and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deut. 30:2-3).

He even goes further to say that “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descandants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live”(Deut. 30:6). Do we see where Paul got this from? “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly .. and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29)

Further on God gave further prophecies about how he intended for his own appointed king to be the carrier of his vision of Israel being a blessing to the world and the world coming under the authority of Israel. These he expounded to David through the prophet Samuel (2 Sam 7), and became known as the expectation of the coming of “the kingdom of YHWH”.

Thirdly there was there were some questions of human nature and the world they lived in that didn’t make sense. If YHWH was the one who created a good world, why does he allow evil to exist (i.e. both human sin and natural disasters)? Why does the wicked sometimes flourish, and the righteous perish? Why do seemingly innocent people die from earthquakes, typhoons etc?

The answers they came up with were that because YHWH is a righteous God, he will not abandon his creation to be overtaken by evil, and will one day return to restore this world into the good nature he intended. This hope of God remaking this world to correct what evil has brought into it is what is typically captured by the term “new creation” by both Judaism/early Christianity. These kinds of hopes are littered throughout the Psalms and prophets.

Later on, when the exile did happen, the prophets began to not only prophecy the return of Israel back from exile as stated by Moses, they also prophecied that this return will be accompanied by the announcement of the “kingdom of YHWH” and his work in bringing judgement to the world, so he can cleanse the world and bring in his new creation. Isaiah expounds it better, by saying that God will make a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17;66:22).

It is based on this that Revelations says not only will he make the new heaven and new earth, but God will bring his dwelling place (heaven) and mix it with our dwelling place (earth) into one (Rev 21;1-4).

Conclusion

These 3 themes: creational monotheism, election and eschatology are the main themes that drive everything else in the Bible, both Old Testment and New. As a result, they led to the creation, adoption and attachment to certain symbols, and we will look at those symbols in Part 2.

The Resurrection of the Jesus the Messiah, and the Task of the Church

Christmas is upon us, and so it seems a bit weird that I’m writing a post about the resurrection of Jesus (maybe I’m in Easter mood 🙂 ), but when you are hit with a great ‘aha’ moment, you either “write it or lose it”. So here I am, writing it. Maybe you’ll see my point, and how that is even related to Christmas.

So here I was, reading a recent blog post by NT scholar Scott McKnight on his Jesus creed blog. He’d been reviewing a certain Mike Birds’s “Evangelical Theology” book, and reiterated something that Mike said in the book – that the resurrection of Jesus is the most neglected chapter in evangelical theology. He referred to the sermons that Peter and Paul gave in Acts 2, Acts 13 and Acts 17 to buttress his point. Now those of you who are familiar with my posts will notice I’ve made a big deal of these passages because these are the first recorded evidence of how the apostles presented what we call “the gospel”. And yet, it seems as human as I am, I had missed something striking in the passage, something which upon further attention, I wonder how I’d missed it.

I know that the dominant mindset regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that it signifies that we will also resurrect in the last day and also go to heaven. But I want to challenge you that the resurrection of Jesus means miles and miles more than that. So just think and read with me as I go along.

 

Acts 2

When Peter was first called upon to defend what had happened on the day of Pentecost, he describes what the prophets had said about the pouring out of the spirit (v 14-21). He then proceeds to talk about the life, activities and miraculous deeds of Jesus, and his death at the hands of the Jews. (v 22-23). But from 24 all the way to 36, he hones in on Jesus’s resurrection, quoting David and saying that Jesus’s resurrection vindicates him as the Messiah that they were waiting for. In effect, the fact that Jesus resurrected from the dead was the good news. Now, maybe you may not see what I’m talking about, but Acts 13 makes it even more explicit.

 

Acts 13

From verse 13 we encounter Paul in a synagogue, invited to speak to the gathering (I guess his credentials as a Pharisee had something to do with that, but that’s just my personal hunch). He accepts the invitation, and begins by recounting the history of the nation Israel, (v 16-22). He then states that the expected descendant of David is Jesus, describes his life, and the events leading to his death (v 23-29). The he hones in on the man’s resurrection from v 30 to 38, and makes a startling statement in v 32 – “We tell you THE GOOD NEWS: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, BY RAISING UP JESUS”. As we all may be aware, the word “gospel” means exactly that – “good news”. And Paul here states exactly what it is – the fact that this Jesus is the resurrected Messiah from the dead.

 

Acts 17

Again, we encounter Paul at the Agora in Athens, and he is trying to put forward his best argument for Jesus amongst the other Gods that the Greek worshiped. It is interesting that he finds himself amongst Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, for those were the worldviews that dominated their lives at the time. From Acts 17:22, Paul tries to make a case for the God of Israel being the one and only God who created heaven, earth and everything within it. He states that this God of Israel intends to judge the earth with justice by a certain man, and the proof of his appointment by God was not by any other means else than by the fact that he is resurrected. “He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead v 31”. With the mention of resurrection, you can see the reaction of the people captured in v 32. Some sneered, but some said they wanted to hear more. It seems then, that Jesus resurrection is truly the real encapsulation of the message of the apostles.

 

What’s With Resurrection?

To The Jew

To the 1st century Jew, who was used to many people calling themselves Messiahs, ranging from Judas Maccabeus (probably the most successful one because of his success in fighting the Syrians, for which the Jews now have the festival Hanukkah today) to Menaheim, to John of Gischala to Simon bar Kochba, none of them had ever died and resurrected. To the Jewish mind, the ultimate enemy was not sin, but rather death. This is also why Jesus Christ talks a lot in the gospels about “life” i.e. he being the giver of life; the way, the truth and the life and many more such statements.

The Jewish hope was that in the age to come, all righteous Jews will be resurrected to obtain their promised inheritance – the kingdom of God. Therefore for someone to claim to be the Messiah, do all the wonderful signs he did as prophesied by the prophets, and to conquer death, the last enemy (even in Revelations 20, death and Hades are the last enemies to be defeated ), this person was truly the Messiah. No wonder then that announcement of the resurrected Messiah was “the gospel”, heralding the beginning of the kingdom of God. It is also not surprising what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:1-8, where instead of simply stating Jesus’s resurrection as he stated the other events of his life, he adds 3 additional verses of evidence to shore up confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.

 

 

To the Gentile

The Gentile world (and the Jewish as well) was ruled by Romans at the time, whose emperors did not fail to announce themselves not only as the kings of the world, but as gods and “sons of gods”.

In fact, Emperor Augustus official title was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of God”. After his death, his successor had him officially declared a god, and thence the emperors that followed began demanding worship, not just as king, but as gods. And yet, not one of them, from Augustus to Tiberius to Vespasian to Domitian ever died and resurrected. Not one.

Therefore a King who had died and resurrected, was definitely worth pondering about. For neither Stoicism (which was and is a closer worldview to Christianity) nor Epicureanism (which is much closer to today’s postmodern worldview) were prepared with an answer to a king that had overcome death. This was definitely important, and required either that one accepts Paul’s message and ask for further clarification as some did, or reject it as incredulous as others did. There’s no middle line.

It is also not surprising for the early disciples to use the same word “euangelion” (the greek word for gospel aka good news) and the title “son of God” that the Gentiles used in announcing their king. In fact, there’s also very high suspicion that the disciples were very intentional about their use of the following statement

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” – Peter in Acts 4:12

There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved than that of Caesar” – Augustus Caesar – 27 BC to 14 AD

 

And so what?

After Paul’s long diatribe on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, he makes a significant statement at the end of the chapter.

Therefore my brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58)

Now what labour is this old man Paul talking about again? I thought resurrection meant we were all getting pimped up to go to heaven, not so? Well, of course that’s true, but that’s only half the story so let’s look at the other half.

 

The Coming of the Messiah not only Means Hope, But also Work for the Church

One of the cardinal hopes of Judaism, especially of 1st century Judaism was that Israel may be the light of the world. As God had promised to Abraham, he will bless them, that through them all nations will be bless (Gen 12:1-3) This expectation is especially captured in Isaiah 60:3, about the glory of Zion

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(Isaiah 60:3).

And this they prayed for and sang about in their Psalms, displayed in a psalm like Ps 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us – so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (Ps 67:1-2).

The confusing bit is that the task of the nation Israel is almost always expected to be the task also of the Messiah, again captured by Isaiah about the “servant of God”.

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, and a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6)

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant … I will also make you a light for the Gentiles …”(Isaiah 49:6)

Other tasks of the servant/king/Messiah are documented in the Psalms and Prophets but Ps 72:17 links it directly to the promise to Abraham. That Psalm is probably the most comprehensive statement of the job description of the Messiah in all the Psalms.

Since Jesus explicitly said that the nation Israel had failed to be that light (Mt 5:13-16), he was now constituting a new people who shall share his task (Jn 15, he is the vine, and we are his branches, and other such passages) called his church, just like the Zion was supposed to share the task of their expected servant.

 

This then is the driving force behind Paul’s ministry. He preached a gospel of the resurrected Messiah, and he strengthened the people so converted to be the carriers out of the task of that Messiah, not as individuals, but acting as a nation would – together. This is what then he says in Eph 3:10-11.

His [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord”

I posit that this is Pauls equivalent of saying “you (the church) shall be the light onto the nations”

Ok, We’ve Had Enough

Well, I’ve had enough too, because that’s basically the end of my amazement. Of course, I had always complained in previous posts that centering the message of Jesus around forgiveness of sins so we could hold hands and sing kumbaya in heaven was only the quarter of it, but the fact that the kingship of Jesus Christ validated by his resurrection is what was the pivot of the “good news”of our beloved early disciples did shake me myself.

I had read the 800 page “Jesus and the Victory of God” in which NT Wright made the parallel between the task of the Messiah and the task of his people, but I still hadn’t made the connection between resurrection and the gospel, and why that was the basis of their confidence. Because if strengthened and emboldened by the resurrection of their messiah the task of the Messiah becomes the task of the church, then faithful Christians are those who, working with others in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, pursue the Messiah’s task, not their personal agendas.

And this also is why Paul wrote his epistles. Not as love letters to be read by “me, myself and I”, but as guiding principles that a people who everywhere together represent the Messiah, shall think and act together that they truly shall together, be the light to the world. The task of shining a light, the task of justice, the task of relief to the poor, the task of self-sacrifice, the task of relieving the oppressed and the many other tasks described in places like Ps 72, Isaiah 61 etc is not mine, neither is it yours. It is ours, and we the church must be busy about that task. If not, we have acted like Israel – we want the blessings, that we may spend them all on ourselves and not extend it to the Gentiles. But the worst part is if we choose to devolve it to individual activity. For then, the task is totally not achievable.

But when we’ve truly been busy at the task, then we can sing joy to the world, because we have indeed brought joy through our king. For his coming is indeed “good news”.

Of Theologies, Songs and Mantras

Last  Sunday at our meeting, we found ourselves questioning another song that we Ghanaian Christians sing and take for granted every day, and also reflects a general trend which we believe is worrying. The song is recorded below, with its English translation alongside it. Please forgive my translation if it’s not too exact, but I think we all get the drift of this song.

Ye beyi Yesu aye (We will Praise Jesus)

Wo odo a odi ado yen (For the love he has for us)

W’ama ade pa akye yen biom (For he has made us wake up in health again)

Ye beyi n’aye daa (We will praise him forever).

 

Our beef was with that third passage which talked about Jesus waking us up in good health (or something to that effect). I know most people have not given much thought to that sentence in the song, but I believe it reflects the general malaise that has eaten into the Christian message and witness in our times, especially in the Ghanaian context. So please stick with me a while and you’ll get the point I’m driving at.

 

Thinking Globally

There are 7 billion citizens of this world. The Indians hold 1 billion of that, and the Chinese close to 1.5 billion. Statistically then, these 2 countries alone constitute 28% of the world’s population. Yet the majority of these people are either Hindu or Buddhist in one form or the other. In fact according to Wikipedia, 82% of Indians are Hindu, so that makes that 820 million Hindus in India alone. And these are people who may have not even heard about Jesus Christ, or may have but don’t believe in him. And yet, China’s economy is the fastest growing economy in the world, and we in Africa are importing their products by droves. India is coming along just nicely after China economically. I have not even begun to talk about the Buddhists/Hindus outside of Asia, much more the abundance of Muslims all over the world.

All of these huge masses of people have something in common – the live and breathe and have their being as Paul put it, but it’s not because they believe in Jesus Christ. It’s simply because God has allowed it to be so.

 

 

Marriage

The Indians, with all their Hinduism, have the lowest divorce rates in the world. Contrast that to America with all its “Christianity”, where according to the pollster George Bana, 50% of specifically Christian marriages (not American marriages in general) have led to divorce. Again, this figure is not general American marriages, but Christian American marriages. And yet we kid ourselves with the notion that “If Jesus is in our marriages, they will be successful”. Of course, nobody actually stops to think that the standards that Jesus sets for our marriages are far higher than those of the general public. Jesus himself is not the guarantee of a successful marriage – learning to live a life of love, respect, humility and self-sacrifice for one another in marriage is the guarantee, and Jesus gave no other standards.

 

Wealth

The wealthiest people of this world are not Christians. And I don’t mean people who have Christian names or believe in the existence of God (we seem to confuse a belief in God with a belief in Jesus), neither do I mean Jews. I mean people who believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of the world and who are part of a community of saints, spending their time and lives with them. It is universally self-evident that if a Christian wants to be the most prosperous man in the world, he probably is in the wrong religion. Just go make your money and spend it, and forget about being a Christian. Alternatively start up a church, and find ways to justify collecting money from the members in the name of “God blessing a cheerful giver” and “doing God’s work”. Obviously not all of us Christians can be “pastors”, so this wealth is even segregated. Hmm, remind me if we are still running a priesthood of all believers.

 

Long Life

The oldest living human beings in the Guinness book of records are not in Christian dominated countries, but in Asia, specifically Japan. Yet most Japanese are either Buddhist or Shintoist. Again, both the Bible and science have shown us the keys to long life. When we are busy NOT living a healthy life, but rather damaging ourselves and expecting God to miraculously give us good health, we have none to blame but ourselves. And even when through no fault of ours we are struck down by disease and are not healed by God, we do not see how our sickness may be a means to an end, and either point fingers claiming “you don’t have faith”, “there is sin in your life” or some other judgmental mantra.

 

In Short

Afterall God gives everybody life, and takes as he pleases. The bible says God supplies rain to both the good and the wicked as well. Waking up to a good day has got nothing to do with believing in Jesus Christ. The 820 million Indian Hindus woke up this morning, and some of them have 1 million dollar weddings to attend this weekend, if my Indian friend Himanshu’s statements are anything to go by. Being wealthy has got nothing to do with believing in Jesus. In spite of our plenty Christianity, we are borrowing a paltry 3 billion from the Chinese with plenty political hoopla and I don’t need to remind you what they believe in.

 

Surprised By Hope, Ignited by His Kingdom

And so I wonder why we do not sing and shout about what makes us unique in this world. I wonder why we sing “God has been good”; when it should be “God is good”. Was there ever a time when God was not good, or are we only talking about when times were good for us? Has our theology become so warped that we uncritically accept any song labeled “Christian/gospel”? I wonder why our “Double Doubles” and confused gospels are all about how me and my family have woken up to good health, how God is going to “change my destiny” (wonder where that is in the bible?), how what God has said about my life he will fulfill (when He has said all He will say about his church already, and we are only part of that communal vision), how God is going to “butter my bread” and “sugar my koko”, giving me double houses and double cars? What about the days when we wake up with malaria and can’t go to church on Sunday? Or when because of persecution, our brother is killed for their faith in Jesus (as is happening in Asia & Middle East)? Can we still sing “W’ama ade pa akye yen biom” sincerely? Can we still sing “Your house na double double” when by no fault of ours the house we’ve sweated to build is burnt down in a fire? Or is it because we’ve believed Jesus Christ because of what we think we will get from him in this material world, and not his mission for us on this earth?

 

Because if that weren’t the case, our songs will be more about Jesus and his call to us as a people to be the expression of his nature – a nature of love. Our songs will express eternal truths about his coming to die to bring us cleansing and salvation. Our songs will galvanize us to build his kingdom on this earth, through love and devotion to one another, and through a dedication to see the destitute, hopeless and lost feel and see that the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ “go be keke”. Our songs will reflect that joy is found in Christ and his community, even when the world is pressing us on every side. Our mantras will be about how through our faith in Christ we are able to galvanize our resources towards meeting our own needs, as well as those less fortunate around us; that we are the bearers of good news, bringing hope to both the rich and the poor, the lonely and the famous; that there is something unique about us as a people of Jesus, something that neither sword, nor persecution nor riches nor poverty can take away from us.

Let us leave the songs about daily bread to them that have not the hope of Jesus, and let our songs tell what kind of people we are that the rest of the world isn’t. If not, let’s stop kidding ourselves, become Japanese so we may live long, marry an Indian so we have blissful marriages and become American Wall Street brokers, so we can become wealthy.

In the end, we changed the words from “W’ama adepa akye yen” to “W’aba be wu agye yenkwa” (He has died to bring us salvation). So don’t be surprised if you hear me sing it differently then.

We have a kingdom to build, and we cannot waste time.

Vicit Angus Noster Eum Sequamur – Our Lamb has Conquered, Him Let us Follow 

Of Double Doubles, and Confused Gospels

As I grow in life and grow in Christ, it seems that I keep rediscovering the Jesus I believe in. And I’m more excited each day discovering his wondrous worth as the risen Messiah, the one spoken of by Israel’s prophets of old. However, when I turn round to what I see and hear of we who follow him, my heart sometimes fills with such sorrow. And one of those instances is when I heard the words of the “gospel” song “Double Double”, because nothing can be farther from the truth when it comes to the reality of what the New Testament determines to be God’s blessings.

The Background to the NT & Jesus’ Times

I strongly believe that one of the problems of Christian teaching and teachers down the centuries is a very severe ignorance of the background and times that Jesus and his apostles lived in, and this ignorance allows us to continuously misappropriate scripture to our own purposes, ignoring totally the theme that drives the use of certain words in the NT. We don’t realize that Jesus’ work is part of a narrative of historical events in which Jesus participated as a very important figure, and in which we are participating after he has left. We therefore just pick out as we please, and the resulting Christianity we get tends not be pretty, to say the least. Let us examine some of these backgrounds, and then we’ll look at what we mean when we talk about God’s blessing vis-à-vis the Christian in the NT. For those interested in details, delving into “New Testament History” by FF Bruce, “New Testament History” by Ben Witherington III and other NT historians will be helpful.

About 400 years before Jesus birth, Israel had just returned from exile. Whiles in exile, they’d been encouraged by the words of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel to continue to be faithful to God and that they will see God’s faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham when they are delivered. This deliverance finally came through the Persian king Cyrus who allowed the likes of Ezra and Nehemiah to return and rebuild the Jewish nation. It is believed that it is within this period of exile that institutions like the synagogues sprang up because they did not have a temple like in Jerusalem to concentrate their worship around anymore. When they returned, they were led by their leader Zerubabbel to build a new temple in Jerusalem (recorded in Ezra 3-6), and this second temple named after Zerubabbel is the temple that existed at the time of Jesus Christ. The Judaism that was practiced after this second temple was built is what scholars refer to as Second Temple Judaism. One of the important things to note at that time was that because of the problems created by having to live in exile for so long, a whole new batch of religious laws had crept into the Jewish society aside of the Old Testament (Torah) that we Christians know, and these laws were called the Talmud, sometimes referred to as “the tradition of the elders”. In fact, in some places, they overrode the Torah given by Moses which was directly from God. These Talmudic laws are what Jesus condemns when he says to the Pharisees that they break the command of God for the sake of their traditions (Matt 15:1-3).

In addition to these, the institution of Pharisees and Pharisaism arose during and after the exile. These were men learned in the Torah and Talmud, and who guided the religious lives of the ordinary people. Though the Jews looked to the council of priests (The Sanhedrin) for ultimate leadership of the whole country during this period, the Pharisees were more respected because they seemed to follow the laws more devoutly and spent more time directly amongst the ordinary people than the priests, who were busy politicking and doing their rituals in the temple. Of the two popular Pharisaic factions, Paul the apostle was originally of the Hillel faction, having studied under Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel (Ac 22:3).

The Hope of the Jews

Despite their return, all was not well with the Jews. They knew that they had a special covenant with God as the children of Abraham, and that their prophets had prophesied to them that God will bring his promised kingdom to pass through the “Son of David” – the “Son of Man”, the Messiah – after their exile. Despite all the prophecies about God restoring them from exile and bringing everlasting peace to them, here they were under occupation – first by Ptolemy (one of the generals of Alexander the Great) and his descendants, and then by Caesar and his Roman empire thereafter. To the 2nd temple Jew therefore, salvation was not centered on a personal redemption from sin and its effects, but God entering into the present and changing the world order by virtue of His anointed one (Christ means “anointed one”), that they the Jews may be vindicated as the true nation of God.

One of the expectations of the coming of that kingdom is the gift of the Spirit of God to his people, enabling them to be able to obey God’s commands without a written law. This was because they believed their own efforts at being obedient to the law were insufficient in pleasing God, but then he would give them the means to please him himself if his spirit dwelt in them. As Ezekiel 36:25-27 records God’s intent:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Jesus & the New Testament

400 years after the exile and whiles the 2nd temple Jew is seriously contemplating why God hasn’t brought his kingdom into fulfillment, Jesus enters the scene and begins to talk about this same kingdom whose coming he says is very near. In some places he actually says that the kingdom has arrived in the present. The “kingdom of God”/”kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned in the gospels about 84 times, many times more than the word “salvation” in the entire NT. And yet it is very odd that the current Christian discourse has very little mention of the kingdom. Jesus’ mission of creating a people in every location who are expressing his nature and his kingdom in the now has been totally subsumed by our own self-defined missions of “winning souls” to sit in pews and wait for heaven to come, doing nothing but clinging onto “faith alone”. In fact waiting in pews has become tiring, and therefore we’ve moved on to claiming material property in the name of “God’s blessings”. Two millennia of Christianity has managed to emasculate the Gospel from its Judaic background, and has lead and is still leading us down a path where every theology can be easily supported by stringing together any number of proof-texts from the bible in the name of “God’s word”. The least said about the “motivational speakers” the better, for that genre of preaching does not even need a Christian to do.

Blessing

One of such proof-texting comes from the typical use of the word “blessing” with regards to Gal 3.

A lot of Christians have thought of the “blessings of Abraham” to connote being blessed with material wealth like Abraham was blessed by God. And yet it is very obvious from the context of Gal 3 that Paul is talking about how the Galatians received the Holy Spirit – which is exactly what God promised in Ezek 36 above. Oh, by the way, a promise is not a wish – it is expected that a promise will be fulfilled, given that all conditions for its fulfillment is met. This is important as we’ll see later.

“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? … The scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:2;8-9).

Which blessing is Paul talking about here, except in direct reference to the blessing of receiving the Spirit of God? The argument is sufficiently ended when we look at v14.

“He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:14)

 

Riches

Another of such usage is with regards to “riches”. The typical proof-text is 2 Cor 8 and 9

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

As usual, in the haste to claim things for ourselves whether legitimate or not, we have totally ignored the context of this passage. We notice first that Corinthians is an epistle not to a person, but to a congregation. Even v 1 says “And now brothers”, meaning he’s not referring to one person becoming rich, but the congregation’s collective increase, whether through one person or through many. In addition, the English language does not help us here because the language uses “you” to refer to both singular and plural numbers. However the “you” and “your” used here are different forms of “humei” in Greek which denotes a plural, not singular. This fact is even supported by “for your sakes” as properly translated by the NIV.

Given the foregoing, how can we come to the conclusion that 2 Cor 8:9 says that every Christian must be rich, or there’s something wrong with their Christianity? And yet we’ve lost sight of the really important thing that Paul was saying – that even in extreme poverty, the Macedonian churches gave to help their Jerusalem brethren. I know many Christians who claim they are willing to help their less fortunate brethren, but they are waiting to be rich before they can do so. I wonder if they’ve read 2 Cor 8 properly.

Prosper

Oh, and the favourite proof-text:

“I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 Jn 2).

There is no doubt that John the apostle is wishing his brother Gaius well, and as any Christian will wish his brother a happy birthday – there is no guarantee that his brother will indeed have a happy birthday. This is not a promise of God, recorded in the Law, Prophets or Gospels that we must at all times prosper and have good health. So I ask a simple question: if I pray that my friend’s marriage is successful as we always do when we go to our friend’s weddings, does that automatically mean that their marriage will be successful? Is logic not allowed to prevail anymore when reading the scriptures?

Again, the real problem that John the apostle sought to address (which is what is happening everyday in our churches today – authoritarian self-imposed leadership in the name of “serving” the church) is nicely glossed over? Do we not have an abundance of Diotrepheses in our churches? In fact, haven’t we institutionalized “Diotrephesism”? In fact, New Covenant theologian Dr Jon Zens is challenging us to rethink the institution of the clergy today in his book “The Pastor Has No Clothes” in an attempt to deal with such problems, and we probably need to pay more attention to men like him.

When Jesus was praying for his disciples in Jn 17, I believe his focus was that God give them the strength to fulfill the commandment he’d given them and to be united as a people in doing so, not in making sure they “prospered and had good health”.

Conclusion

I know that songs like “Double Double” are very nice to dance to and get all worked up on. But if there’s any theological strength to such songs, I’m obviously not getting the message. In fact, it actually is getting depressing listening to “gospel” music of today, whether it comes from the polished American singers of the day or the not-so-polished Ghanaian ones. The value is the same, and we need to get back to talking about Jesus, his kingdom and how we can make him and his kingdom real in the community of the brethren.

The Gospel of The Kingdom: Resurrection Perspectives

Easter has just passed us and gone, and it definitely afforded us the time to reflect on the impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I want to share my reflections on this period, with particular emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the eminent NT scholars of our time, Nicholas Thomas Wright, has been challenging my notions of the implications of Christ’s resurrection in his book Surprised by Hope, and I cannot but share them with us all.

We have all read and re-read some of the recorded instances of public preaching in the book of Acts. However, a little bit more attention to detail will show that one of the continuous themes that most Christians have missed (simply because most of the preaching of the gospel we hear misses it too) was the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we already know, the word “gospel” means “good news”. Now look at how the “good news” always included the resurrection in the ff passages.

“Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, the he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Ac 2:31-32 NIV) – Peter preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost

“We tell you the good news; What God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus …” (Ac 13:32 NIV) – Paul preaching to the Jews & God-fearers of Psidian Antioch

“A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Ac 17:18 NIV) – Paul preaching in Athens.

Before we go on, it is important to note that most Jews of the time of Jesus and the apostles sided with the Pharisees on the belief that one day there will be a general resurrection of the dead. This belief is echoed by Martha when Jesus said her brother Lazarus will rise again in Jn 11:24. And by resurrection they don’t mean the spirit rising and the body being left behind, as Greco-Roman influences have changed the Christian message over the years. Resurrection was meant to be just like Christ’s own – a resurrected body being a fusion of the spirit and a transformed body that can be recognised, seen, and touched, but can also enter rooms without opening doors (1 Co 15:35-44). The idea that the body is a corrupt thing which must be left behind for the purified soul/spirit to go to heaven is totally pagan Greco-Roman philosophy which has been imported into Christianity, and works against everything that Judaism and it’s younger brother early Christianity taught about resurrection.

We are familiar with the Jewish belief in a Messiah who was supposed to come and rescue Israel from it’s assailants (Is 40) – at the time of Jesus their political assailant was the Roman Empire. According to Ps 72 (especially v 8), Ps 47 and other OT passages, this Messiah will not only rule over Israel, but also over the whole world. In the light of all of this, why is Jesus’ Christ’s resurrection so important that the delivery of the apostle’s gospel to unbelievers always included mention of the fact that Jesus Christ was resurrected?

Christ’s Resurrection Was a Repudiation of the Earthly Powers

At the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, the Roman Empire revered it’s dead emperors as gods that needed to be worshipped. Overtime however, the living ones coveted this honour, and declared themselves gods as well. These emperors had their images placed in temples of all the cities they’d conquered, forcing everyone to worship them. However none of the emperors in all their vanity, ever died and resurrected. However, Jesus had resurrected. That is why Paul says God has given the world proof that Jesus will judge the world by “raising him from among the dead” when he was talking to the Athenians.

To therefore declare Jesus as the king of the world was not a simple matter, because Paul was definitely challenging the Roman emperor. With this background then, it is very easy why Paul will be accused of treason whiles in Thessalonica in the ff:

These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here … They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Ac 17:6-7)

According to the German historian, Ethelber Stauffer, the religious principle of the Roman Empire, from the days of Augustus on, was salvation by Caesar: “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved”. Now, tell me how different this is from what Peter said in Ac 4:12? In the same way, tell me how different this is from our blindness to the political systems of the day including democracy, which claim to be the solution to men’s problems? The resurrection of Jesus was truly a political statement (not just a spiritual one), and a treasonous one at that.

If Christ is indeed the king of this world, shouldn’t Christians be reconsidering their die-hard following of earthly political powers, since salvation is indeed to be found only in Christ?

Christ’s Resurrection Commissions Us to Build His Kingdom on Earth

To most Christians, our idea of the kingdom of God/heaven is a kingdom that will only come in the future. For now, all we need to do is to believe in Jesus Christ and go to church and “worship” him, all in waiting for the time when we “go to heaven”. But if this king’s kingship was all about a future kingdom, then there was no need for the people of Thessalonica to feel threatened by the declaration that Jesus is Lord (not “Jesus will be Lord”).

What has worsened this erroneous idea of “worship until he comes” is a misunderstanding of passages like Phil 3:20-21 where Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven”. Most people have miscronstrued it to mean that we are meant for heaven, so we have no role on this earth except waiting for Christ (and thereby the purpose of church is to save more people for heaven, and that the church is just an association of the saved). However, the Philippian recipients would have understood what Paul said quite differently. Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 BC) and Actium (31 BC). This was done to spread the rule of the Roman empire, as well as to prevent overcrowding of Rome with old veteran soldiers. Therefore most of these people were Roman citizens by default. Paul is only using the same imagery of Roman citizenship that they are very familiar with to show them who they were to God and what their purpose was – God is using them, citizens of heaven, to establish and extend his kingdom over this earth until he comes, just like Augustus was using them to spread the Roman empire.

Paul spent the longest chapter he’d ever written of his epistles on the topic of resurrection in 1 Cor 15, yet he did not conclude that because we are going to be resurrected, we should cross our legs and go to sleep – he rather says that we should stand firm and not be moved, because our labour is not in vain (v 54). What labour could that be? Believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven? I think you’ll agree that there’s very little “labour” involved in that.

Christ’s Resurrection & Kingship Shows Us the Way of His Kingdom

But if we are to build his kingdom, we are to build it as he wills it and with the methods and means he has shown us – with love and self-sacrifice. Many people have sought to “establish the kingdom of Christ” by using the same tools and methods that the world uses in establishing itself – violence, laws, discrimination, nationalism, political systems, bureaucracy and abuse of authority etc. But the author of the gospel of John spent chapters 13 to 17 laying down the true markers of Jesus’ kingdom (some scholars say the Gospel of John was indeed written by Lazarus, being likely to be the “disciple Christ loved”, and the evidence is rather interesting, see Jn 21:22-24) . He begins with Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet and the call to self-sacrifice for one another (Jn 13:13-17), to love for one another (Jn 13:34), to laying down our lives for one another (Jn 15:13), to the work of the Holy Spirit in showing us the will of the Father, to praying to the father that they may be one in community with each other (Jn 17) just as he is in community with the Father in the Trinity.
These standards are standards that the earthly political systems will never be able to live by, being driven by greed, power, pride and divided interests. This is why it is amongst them that claim to be part of this kingdom inaugurated by the King who is superior to Caesar (here referring to all socio-cultural and political ideologies) that we are supposed to see these virtues alive. If our king is truly alive now (and not just in the future), then we have a responsibility to make his kingdom’s impact felt through his way, not our way. And yet there is much to be desired amongst us believers, for predominantly we prefer the means of the world in achieving the purposes of our king. Any other way apart from his, and we are simply building our personal kingdoms and not his eternal one.

It Shows Christ’s Victory Over Death and the Coming Judgement

Then as now, the number one tool that can be used to threaten a people into submission is the fear of death. Just look right now at what Ghadaffi is doing in Libya, and you’ll know why that is. However, when a people see death as only an inconvenience because they will rise again (not just their spirits alone), they are not afraid to stand before those who do evil and condemn them. Unfortunately Christians have been trained to think that death is a good thing, because it is the means by which we “go to heaven from this evil world” anyway. Hear NT Wright

A piety that sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ the time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace,’ has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends.”

And this state of affairs is clearly played out in the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees on the one hand and the Sadducees on the other. Though Jesus seems to be quite critical of the Pharisees, he tended to agree more with them than with the Sadducees for good reason. According to NT historian FF Bruce’s “New Testament History”, the Sadducees were the council of priests who run the temple. At the time of Jesus the high priest was no longer appointed from the family of Zadok, descendant of Aaron, but chosen by the Roman authorities dependent on ones political connections and or how much bribe one could pay. They were therefore more interested in oppressing the people, the upshot of which was their resistance to the idea of resurrection, because resurrection was tied to judgement. This is very similar to the reaction of the Athenians regarding the ideas of resurrection and judgement in Act 17:31-32.

How different is this reaction against the idea of resurrection from those of world leaders from communists to democrats who abhor the idea of resurrection and judgement – simply because what they do with their political leadership tenures today has implications?

Conclusion

There are so many implications of Jesus’ resurrection  that NT Wright talks about in arguably his most popular book, “Surprised by Hope”, which I can’t cover for lack of space. But one of the points which I cannot conclude without mentioning is what resurrection means to our concept of salvation. If Christ’s resurrection is about declaring him king of now and in the future, then the purpose of my salvation is not just my personal deliverance from sin, but my inclusion into that community of people who are making his kingdom felt on this earth until he comes. I have written elsewhere about the problem with our individualistic eyeglasses through which we read and practice the NT, so I couldn’t help resonating with NT Wright on this point. To the early Christian, salvation was not only about them being saved, but them being added to the Lord (as correctly translated by the KJV in Ac 5:14) and to his community. Christianity is not centered on “my relationship with God”, but “my membership in the family of God”. This is why there are 58 references to “one another” in the NT. This is why Paul talks about “Christ in you (plural “you”) – (Col 1:27)” and “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27). One thing I’ve noticed is that when a person is the center of attention, their focus is on projecting themselves. If the center of attention is on the group that he belongs to, then their focus is on projecting that group. As the Americans say, we pick our poison, and contemporary Christianity has obviously picked the former, so today we are bearing the fruits in individualisim and personal prosperity/breakthrough seeking over communal advancement and sacrifice for one another. But the problem started long ago, and today’s fruits are only latter day manifestations.

The implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his claim to kingship of the world both now and the future are seriously challenging on multiple fronts. We have a lot of restating of our message and purpose to do because the resurrected king and his kingdom is already amongst us.

Vicit Angus Noster Eum Sequamur – Our Lamb has Conquered, Him Let us Follow

The Revolutionary Christ

My attention was drawn recently to a very profound truth which I’d ignored so often, but which for some reason made a lot of sense to me now. I’ve been studying Jesus Christ’s ministry in recent time in the context of the times in which he was on earth, and I can’t cease to be amazed. There is no doubt that Christ was a revolutionary, but in a way that borders on the “other” way, a way which most reasonable men in their comfort zones will not accept, or can only accept at some cost to them. But let’s press on to the issue at hand and it will become more apparent.

It is often mistakenly held that the key concept of Jesus’ ethic is the “Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. This is stated by Jesus, however, not as the sum of his own teaching but as the center of the law [i.e. – “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”]. Jesus’ own “fulfillment” of this thrust of the law, which thereby becomes through his own work a “new commandment” (Jn 13:34-35) is different, “Do as I have done to you”. It is striking how great the mass of writings on religious ethics … which still fails to note this very evident structural change.” (The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder).

I have had conversations with many people, some who are not Christian. Out of the many things I have learnt, two of them are of immediate relevance to the above statement, and they are

  1. A lot of people choose the Jesus of dogma, and leave the Jesus of history.
  2. A second batch of people prefer Jesus the wise teacher, but not his claim to being divine.

In the light of Jn 13:34 and Mt 5:43-45( “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father I heaven.”) – none of these stances are true to Christ, and we will examine why.

Choosing the Jesus of Dogma over the Jesus of History

Much of Protestant Christianity has made a strong emphasis on the metaphysical benefits that Jesus’s life and death brought to we who believe in him. They’ve emphasized the grace of God in bringing his Son to bring forgiveness of sins, redemption, justification, sanctification etc. As it stands today, Christians are claiming their “in-Christness” now more than ever, relishing who Christ has made them. However, this emphasis has in effect abandoned the fact that Jesus Christ lived in a certain historical, socio-cultural background. Whether out of ignorance or intentionally, we have de-emphasized the context within which he did what he did and said what he said for the three years of his ministry. In effect, if all Jesus Christ came to do for us was to die for our sins, he might as well have died when he was born – when he was an innocent baby and knew no sin. He still would have achieved the purpose, wouldn’t he? Or some would say that he had to fulfill some of the things written about him by the prophets, and so he stayed on for thirty three years to fulfill them and then die. This being the case then, everything that he said and did within those years were not important to his mission, only to provide a source of evidence of his claim to being the Messiah.

I don’t believe that is the case, however, this is the impression that much of Christendom seeks to portray. Because the moment that I confront most Christians with the evidence of the Gospels and Christ’s demands on us his followers, the impression I get is that those are not important, they are too utopian. They were meant to be personal guidelines by which we can choose to live our lives, but they are not important to our foundation as a group of people called the church. In effect, Christ has become too “personal” a saviour.

However, there is no doubt that Christ’s life was a thorn in the flesh to the establishment. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in creating a million and one laws that everyone was supposed to obey but for which they never lifted a finger to practice. They placed more emphasis on sacrifice, than they did on mercy. His demand? “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees”. But of course, that is too difficult to achieve. Again Christ denounced the power of the rulers of the earth to truly dispense justice, by forcing the government of the day to release a treasonous criminal Barabbas for an innocent man, showing how governments of the day are fallen for their pandering to the whims of the popular vote.

So to most of us, the only reason that Jesus Christ came was to transform us to be like him, and then being made like him, all we have to do then is now use that gift he has given us to pursue our own agenda – seeking miracles, financial success, successful marriages, political power etc. We’ve provided a blank cheque, and we expect Jesus to sign so we can write any amount we want. Because we have refused to accept the community forming actions and attributes of Christ as the norm in our corporate lives – which should make us a people free from the prejudices and trappings of tribe, social standing, class distinctions and personal resources to a self-sacrificing, always loving, non-discriminating society – we have ignored the fact that the reason Christ lives in us is so that we can now live a life of love for one another, without fear of tomorrow. And this alternative society is what Christ calls his body, the church and as Paul states in Eph 3:10, the manifold wisdom of God is not to be made know in “me”, but in “us”, the church. It is part of this wisdom, that Paul again speaks of in 1 Co 1:20-25.

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … for the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

To the Greek Corinthian, Stocism taught him that man’s pursuit of their own happiness was their highest purpose. To the Jew, man’s obedience to the written down laws of God was man’s highest purpose. But Paul, following in the footsteps of Christ, shows us that the nature of God is given to us so that we can now turn our life and love towards each other, and not rather for our personal gain. It is this wisdom that was the stumbling-block, and is still the stumbling-block to most of Christianity today.

Choosing Jesus The Wise Teacher, But Not Divine Son of God

The other end of the scale relates mostly to those who don’t believe in the existence of God and/or of Christ being a divine person sent from God. When I have a deeper chat with such people however, they see a lot of wisdom in what Christ taught, especially his values on how we relate to each other. They also fall into the same error that the church has fallen into – that Christ’s most important teaching was to “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. However there is no way that without accepting Jesus Christ’s claim to being the Son of God, one could fully understand the message of Christ.

There are many reasons why Christ died and resurrected for us, but one that I’ve come to fully understand and whose dimensions affect this discourse is the fact that Christ gives us victory over death. By virtue of his victory, we are free from the fear of death. The end of this is to make us bold to take the actions that a world which is saturated in self-preservation cannot take – a decision to love no matter the cost. Christ tells us that we are supposed to be on earth to show how communities of love can exist amongst all the fallenness that surrounds us. That’s why he says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, because we are that city, we are the light that cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14-16). A light does not have to do anything else but shine – it will draw men unto itself.

By we being true to ourselves as the church of Christ – the community within which we exhibit the traits of Christ – we automatically become a society that is counter-cultural. When we move from a people who are always pursuing our own agendas to be come a people who are watching over each other, we become different. We become a people living on a higher set of laws, who do not need a “constitution” or “bye-law” of their country, town or cities to tell them how to live with each other. We do not need homosexuality to be “criminalized” in the constitution for us not to tolerate it in our community. We do not need abortion to be “criminalized” to enforce that our members do not participate in it. We do not need to go fund-raising from the world, because what we have is enough to meet our essential needs. We do not need divorce to be “criminalized” before our Archbishops know that they have to love their wives with all their faults, just like Christ loved us even before we acknowledged him. We do not need to follow the model of leadership model of the world, where all our leaders fight for is how to please their superiors, not how to meet the needs of their brethren. In effect, nobody teaches us to know God, for we will all know him.

In becoming a counter-cultural society, we will definitely make enemies, most likely enemies with power, and their attempts to frustrate us is what Christ and the NT apostles calls our “suffering”. Without a hope that we have a better place to go when we are persecuted, we cannot be empowered to live like Christ expects us to. That’s why Christ encourages us not to fear for losing our lives, for we will gain it in the end. His resurrection is our hope of the same.

Let me give an example. Imagine a country in which slavery is the norm. However, the Christian communities in this country do not recognize amongst themselves this man-made class distinction. As a result, a slave has full rights of participation and activity in this alternate community. To Christ, the important thing is not gaining your freedom from slavery in the general society, but having those distinctions blurred when you come into the Christian community, granted all the full rights of membership. They do not need to fight for the laws in that country to be changed, because to them in their communities, their slave status makes no difference. In any case, Christ does not care about who you are in the general society whether slave, free, circumcised, woman or man, but rather what you have become in the Christian community. Does this sound familiar? Well, this was exactly the state of affairs in Corinth, and is the premise of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 7:17-19.

Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him … Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised …Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s command is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation in which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”

This passage has been used before in the history of Protestant Christianity to support all sorts of abuses by the political elite in telling everyone else to “stay in their situation” – but that is another topic for another day. If early Christianity did not spend it’s effort fighting slavery, racial and gender discrimination publicly using political means, it’s not because they supported it. It was because what you are in the body of Christ is what counts. And once you begin to take your part in the body of Christ as a full citizen, you are denying the power that the society’s laws have over you. You are telling the society that even though you are a slave in your midst, yet when you come to Christ and his community, you’re treasured. And that is all that matters. If I can gain my freedom, I will. But that’s not what’s important. Something else (or rather Someone else) matters more, something for which you are ready to die.

By means of the cross, Christ and his church declare their victory over sin, the world and all it’s prejudices. “And disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Not by political intrigue, not by violent machination, but by the cross. The Corinthian church was ready to bear the cross of being “slave lovers” and by so doing, declare the victory of God over the politico-socioeconomic conditions of their time. This again, is wisdom that the world cannot understand.

Observations

Interestingly, even though the second issue is something which should be addressed more to the unbeliever or realist, I find that increasingly Christians themselves have lost this understanding. And therefore we continuously fight battles which Christ himself never fought. We continue to not only support but actually propagate religious intolerance and xenophobia, and use Christianity to set an agenda of binding our societies with our religious laws. We forget that when the law is applied, it has no room for forgiveness. It’s punishment will have to be exacted, even when the criminal shows remorse. So first and foremost, when we agitate for what we consider to be a sin to be criminalized, and we fall into it ourselves (And I tell you, we are not perfect. Some of us will by all means fall), two things happen.

  1. We are shown to be hypocrites who cannot obey our own laws.
  2. The sinner (in this case now a “criminal”), even if they repent of their sin as a result of the abundant mercy of Christ to always forgive, will still have to face the penalty of the legal system.

However if it’s only a sin amongst us and not a criminal offense, we have recourse to the hope of Christ’s mercy for such a person, and will only have to cast them out after continuous unrepentant behavior. We also don’t need to make a public fuss of it, but can help our fallen brother on the quiet.

As for the first, it’s a problem that 500 years of Protestant Christianity from Evangelical to Pentecostal and Charismatic has not addressed itself to adequately. The focus has been so much on “spiritualizing” and “personalizing” the faith – on “salvation”, “Holy Spirit” and more recently “in-Christ” –  that the community forming purposes for all these things that Christ has made us or given us have paled in comparison to what we personally will gain from him or how we can use Christ to achieve some other agenda.

With the advancements of technology, the 20th century has given birth to an enormous amount of research on the New Testament contexts of Jesus’s and the early apostle’s times and ministry, which should help us to correct these impressions. Unfortunately, this is also the age in which most Christians are acting with much abundant zeal and very little knowledge, with ears ready only to listen to what suits our agenda, and a penchant only for more deception. Are we going anywhere fast?

The Gospel – Is It About Salvation From Sin?

I’ve felt the urge to share my thoughts on the gospel that we preach for a while, but having spent the last few weeks reading T. Austin-Sparks “Prophetic Ministry” (which is freely available here), I came across a passage that reminded me of the need to put these thoughts down. There are few recognized books on prophecy, and Austin-Sparks’ is definitely a must read for those who are interested in what the prophetic gift is supposed to be all about. Suffice it to say that from Austin-Sparks’ perspective, our “prophets” of today have quite a ways to go to reach the purpose that God defined prophecy for. But I digress.

You do not find anything concerning Israel that suggests or indicates that they came out of Egypt, and were in the wilderness and later in the land, to declare as their gospel that God brought them out of the land of Egypt. That was not their message. Of course, it is recounted many times, but that was not their message, not what they were proclaiming. What was it that was always in their view? It was what they were brought out for. It was God’s vision in bringing them out. So many of us have settled down to preach just the ‘coming out’ side – salvation from sin, from the world. It goes just so far, but the Church does not get very far with that. It is good, it is right, of course; it is a part of the whole; but it is only a part. It is the full vision that is needed to go right through … They come to a standstill, in a realm of limited life and power and influence, because their vision is so small” (T. Austin-Sparks, Prophetic Ministry, pg 39-40).

The Mindset

This passage captures exactly the mindset of Israel after their salvation from Egypt to the time of Christ’s coming. The people left Egypt behind to reach where God had intended them to be and to build what God had intended to build – the land of Canaan. Although they recognized the wonderful and marvelous deeds of God in redeeming them from Egypt, God’s interaction with them was focused on making them a nation through whom his plan of redemption of mankind will be fulfilled. As a result, Jesus Christ came to meet a people who were very proud not of their salvation from the grips of Egypt, but of their heritage as children of the promises of God to Abraham. Indeed Christ had a lot of altercations with the people discussing this particular heritage they felt they’d acquired simply by being born Israelites and being circumcised. There’s very little reference by Christ himself (and in all the Gospels) to the Israelite salvation from Egypt. Fast forward to today, and compare the Israelite message focusing on God’s intended vision and purpose for them to our focus on Christ coming for salvation of mankind from sin, and you’ll see that there is something very deficient in our gospel.

In fact, I’ll encourage you to take a look at the three instances in the book of Acts where the speeches of people preaching the gospel are recordrd (the other is Stephen’s statements when he was about to be stoned which again follows the pattern, but we’ll skip that for now). Take a deeper look at Ac 2:14-39 (Peter’s gospel at Pentecost), Ac 10:34-43 (Peter, speaking to Cornelius and his household) and Ac 13:16-41 (Paul speaking at Pisidian Antioch). In the first two, sin and it’s forgiveness are mentioned somewhere at the end of the message. In the case of the third, there’s actually not even a mention of forgiveness of sins in over 25 verses of a gospel message. How intriguing! However, their focus was on how Christ was the fulfillment of all the promises that God had made to the people of Israel through their fathers Abraham, David and co. Look at what Paul calls the “good news”.

We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Ac 13:32).

Again, Paul states why exactly he was being persecuted by his fellow Jews in Ac 28:20 when he was speaking to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome after being put under house arrest there.

For this reason, I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Ac 28:20)

Obviously from the above, their message was more about something that transcended forgiveness of sin, to something which God had laid down a long time ago, and which was now being fulfilled amongst them. And therefore, the gospel must be preached with these perspective in mind and with the appropriate emphasis, and then we can begin to see a true transformation of the lives of men in their relationship with God, Christ and his body.

Christ, The Center Of God’s Eternal Purpose

One of the questions which I’d never asked myself before until recently (and I bet many Christians also never have) is what would have happened if man had not eaten the forbidden fruit – if man had passed the test? In fact, if our God is an omniscient God and knows everything, why did he not foresee that man will fall to the devil? Had his omniscience somehow been outwitted by the devil? Or maybe he’d gone to sleep, like the gods of Baal in the days of Elijah.

In answering these questions, let us not forget that in the same garden of Eden where there was the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, there was also the fruit of the tree of life. As we see later, when man failed the test, God cut off access to the tree of life. Interestingly, Christ has told us in Rev 2:7 that he will give overcomers the right to eat of the fruit of life in the paradise of God. Add to that the fact that Christ as part of the Godhead, existed before the creation of the world, and the facts stated in Eph 1:4 and we have some sort of picture forming up.

For he chose us in him (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4)

It is safe to conclude then that God had intended our holiness, righteousness, salvation, divinity etc to come through Christ even before the foundation of the earth and the creation of man, whether sin came in or not. Christ was still the one to give us to eat of the fruit of life, and sin coming into the picture is only one of the possible paths that things could have gone to still reach that destination. We still had and have to go through Christ. This is why Paul says such wonderful things about who Christ is in Col 1:15-23, such as the fact that in him the fulness of God dwells. The Ephesian epistle describes God’s intended role for Christ as ff:

… to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10).

This is what Paul calls the mystery that God had revealed to people like him to go out and call others into. It’s very clear from the NT that Paul was not a harbinger of “forgiveness of sins”, but rather of the glorious gospel of an eternal Christ.

Confronting the Israelite Mentality

Christ immediately came into confrontation with the Israelite mindset concerning their selection as the only sons of Abraham and therefore as the heirs of all the promises of God. God had already determined that all mankind, not just Israel, will be partakers of the nature of God (2 Pe 1:3-4) i.e. become an extension of the Godhead, and he spoke these through Abraham that many nations will be blessed through him. These promises of God superseded the giving of the Law, but the Israelites only held on to obedience to the Law as a means to be partakers of this promise. In the same way, they expected a descendant of David to come and save them from their enemies and establish an everlasting kingdom. They’d forgotten that God had always intended to be their king (1 Sa 8), and he himself through Christ, will be the fulfillment of that promise.

These and other issues were the mentalities that Christ faced in his ministry, and to these he commanded “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. The people had to repent from their mindset that they could somehow be considered worthy of sharing in that kingdom simply by means of being descendants of Abraham, though indeed it is a kingdom with a king – Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom which transcends both heaven and earth. It is a kingdom which belongs to God the father, whose king is Christ and whose nobles and heirs are sons (not just children) of God by virtue of adoption through Christ and maturity through suffering (Heb 2:10;5:8:12:7). This maturity was to be achieved through active engagement with and within the body of Christ – the church. As a matter of fact, Paul was not accused of preaching “forgiveness of sins” in Thessalonica when the people brought Jason with whom he stayed before the city officials. He was accused of preaching about a king called Christ (Ac 17:1-9).

Confronting the Contemporary Mentality

Like Austin-Sparks said above, it was not that Christ coming to die for our sins was a trivial and unimportant event. Au contraire, it is one of the important issues that has to be dealt with in the process that Christ is using to bring us back to the divine purpose. Therefore, a gospel that is centered around salvation from sin and from the world’s troubles tends to get the people into the pews, but they stay there and never move on into the real purpose of their being called.

It’s just like the Israelites on their way to the promised land. Whenever they lost sight of the ultimate intention of God to take them to Canaan and got sidetracked into focusing on their everyday troubles, they easily gravitated towards dissatisfaction with and lack of absolute faith in God. It is not therefore surprising that after having seen all the miraculous handiwork of God in the desert including the parting of the Red Sea, they still couldn’t realize that it wasn’t they who were taking themselves to the promised land, but God who was taking them there and that he was entirely capable of doing so in the face of any giants that they will meet there.

To those interested in Christian history, the focus of the gospel on redemption from sin can be attributed to the work of Christian leaders in the 1800s, from the years following the Great Awakening. These include Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon and most importantly, D. L. Moody. These men were deemed to be great preachers by virtue of their fervent preaching in hammering on sin, and driving people to Christ by means of guilt. For them the driving force was to “show the sinner their sins”, and then they would repent. There is probably more reference to the word “sinner” in each of their sermons than you will find in all the books of the NT put together, and it is their influence that has made evangelical Christianity today see the church gathering as the station to win souls in, not as a gathering predominantly of those who already believe and are supposed to be engaging one another in building up the body of Christ.

I’ll try to illustrate what the problem is using a recent occurrence with a cousin of mine who is a part of our church. He asked me how he would preach the word to a friend who he felt was living a bad life i.e. involved in drinking, smoking etc. I responded by reminding him that Cornelius was probably one of the most pious men of his time, but needed to become a part of Christ. Therefore his interaction with this friend should not focus on the particular “sin” which they were engaged in. He should rather present him with the wonderful purpose of God in calling us into his kingdom – that we may be co-heirs with Christ in that kingdom. As that person comes to understand Christ’s purpose and to be involved in a certain body of believers who meet somewhere close, he will begin to see the need and also through engagement with them, find the strength and help to overcome those sins without a hostile judgmental environment which will not even listen to him but assume that a Christian cannot be engaged in these sins.

People say that “Come and listen to the word of God and you’ll never be the same again”. I say that “Come and be part of the purpose of God, and you will never be the same again”. Transformation is best achieved in engagement with others, not with magically “hearing” the word of God.

Maybe it’s time we updated our gospel to the world. Christ is light years more than just about redemption from sin.