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.

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”.

Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus of the Gospels: His Apocalyptic Vision

One of the more controversial, but seemingly very “settled” portions of Jesus ministry in the minds of most Christians is the apocalyptic angle of his ministry. By apocalyptic vision, we refer to our understanding of Jesus sayings regarding events that are supposed to happen at the “end of the world”. In this scheme of thinking then, this world is to undergo some catastrophic destruction, so that all the righteous of God will be in heaven, and the unrighteous go to hell. To put it in Jimmy Reeve’s words, “this world is not our home, we’re just a passing through”. Some scholars therefore claim that either Jesus’s sayings about the end of the world didn’t come true (which most ordinary Christians don’t agree with) or that everything that Jesus said referred to a yet to be fulfilled future.

This apparent problem of fulfillment is further worsened by the determination of Christians of dispensationalist leanings, to paint the picture of a great rapture and something called a “Great Tribulation”. Whether this “tribulation” will happen before the “rapture” or not is itself another subject of debate, and therefore we have pre-tribulational dispensationalists, and post-tribulational dispensationalists. In fact to even attempt to address these issues in a single post is a daunting task, and yet my focus is to put the spotlight where the debate needs to be focused – not of our own interpretations of the book of Revelations over the last 200 or so years of Christianity, but on 1st Century Jewish thinking of what the end will be like, and how Jesus Christ captures this end in nowhere else but the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The End of the World?

First and foremost, there is a problem with the translation of the phrase “end of the world”. This translation easily lends itself to abuse, strengthening the picture in our mind of everything being destroyed and the righteous being carried off into heaven. Jews never expected the “end of the world”, but the “end of this age”. For the Jew, the coming of the Messiah represents the end of the old world order, where the kings of the world did as they pleased in spite of Yahweh’s will, to a state in which the Messiah does the will of the Father, and dispensing justice to all and putting the worldly kings in their proper place. This is captured in many places in the Psalms (Ps 2, Ps 72 etc). This, the Jews called the coming of “the kingdom of God”, or “the kingdom of Heaven”. To them, this earth was the good creation of God flawed by sin, and when his kingdom comes in its fullness, God will only transform this world into what he really desired it to be like, not throw it away and carry us all off to heaven.

But how did we come to these previous ideas about the end of the age? It’s because of a literalist attempt to analyze documents which were never meant to be literal. Jewish and biblical apocalyptic literature was not meant to be understood literally, but was meant to be a symbolic and metaphoric way of talking about how God intended to bring his justice to the world in a language that only it’s recipients can fully discern, and not any other average Joe (or in this case, average Babylonian, Syrian or Roman conqueror of the Jews). To refuse to see its metaphorical nature is to be open to folly. Dr. Ben Witherington III relates a story of somebody and his wife giving him and a friend a ride in a mountainous area in the US after their car broke down, and in conversation the couple stated that they believe the earth was flat. They explained that if the earth was not flat, why does the book of Revelations say that angels will stand at the 4 corners of the earth holding the 4 winds (Rev 7:1)? Being stuck in need of a ride, he refused to challenge them or face walking in the cold. If in the 20th century, people can think like this about apocalyptic literature, do we not have questions to answer?

So let’s take a closer look at Jesus’s ministry vis-à-vis Jewish thinking about the end of the age in the synoptic gospels.

The Kingdom of God

And so Jesus goes about saying all sorts of things about “the kingdom of God” being near and being amongst them and so on. The unfortunate thing for us Christians is that the bible doesn’t record the fact that before and after Jesus Christ there were many other people claiming to be the “bringers of the kingdom of God”, from John of Gischala (BC) to Simon Bar Kochba (AD). And yet none of them said “hey get ready, God is going to destroy this earth and carry us all off to heaven” (if you want to know more of these, there are freely available online copies of Josephus the historian’s book ‘War of the Jews’ and other histories of 1st century Judaism which are informative on the subject).

However what made Jesus stand out was his insistence that Israel had failed its commission to be the light of the world (something I mentioned in my previous post here). Therefore not only was the kingdom of God arriving in him, but the Jewish nation were under judgment if they do not come and follow him, the true light of the world. Note that the words that the prophets like Isaiah used to describe Israel like “light of the world”, “the vine”, and “the sheep” etc., Jesus Christ used to describe himself in the gospels. He was the true Israel, and all who were “in him” could now enter the kingdom of God.

Suffice it to say that many people despised Jesus for what he said, but he purposed to show them who he was, and how their rejection of him will lead to their destruction. And so he begins a sequence of prophetic activities which although they seem random, are actually references back to and fulfillment of what the prophets had said about him, but also what they had said about unfaithful Israel. This is easiest to see when we use the Gospel of Mark, since all scholars agree it’s the gospel with which does the best at recording events of Jesus life according to the order in which they happened.

The Coming Judgment

He begins by riding into Jerusalem as a king, but as an unexpected one – on riding on a colt (Mk 11:1-11). Because it’s late, he then stays at Bethany and returns to the temple in the morning. On his way from Bethany to the temple, he does a weird thing by cursing a fig tree, even though the fig tree was not guilty because “IT WAS NOT THE SEASON FOR FIGS” (Mk 11:13, my emphasis). His disciples don’t understand, but he was enacting what Jeremiah had said about unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 8, especially v 13 – “there will be no grapes on the vine, there will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither”). He goes on to the temple, and drives out those selling and buying there. In the process, he accuses them of making the place “a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). Again, he is symbolizing the coming destruction to the temple, using the same words that Jeremiah used against unfaithful Israel before Babylon came to destroy the temple and carry everyone off to Babylon (Jeremiah 7, especially v 11). In Mk 11:16, Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts”, same as prophesied in Zech 14:21 (“And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty”).

And when the next day they pass by the fig-tree, the disciples realized it had withered, just as Jesus had said. Asking him about the fig tree, he makes an even more astonishing (and probably one of the most abused) statement – “If anyone says to THIS MOUNTAIN, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23, my emphasis). Anyone who is familiar with the topography of the land from Bethany to Jerusalem will have known that “THIS MOUNTAIN” is a specific reference – to the temple mount. Jesus is not giving us a license to move mountains (as our motivational speakers like to tell us). He is really talking about a mountain that is already under condemnation – the temple of Jerusalem.

The Destruction of the Temple and City

In Mk 13, his disciples ask him for signs of the end of the age (again, not the end of the world). Note where Jesus was at the time – “Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives OPPOSITE THE TEMPLE …” (v 3 my emphasis). He uses he whole chapter to talk about the coming destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem and towards the end, makes a pivotal statement which has become a boulder to many to swallow – “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mk 13:30).

I posit to you that this happened in AD 70, when the Roman legion matched down on Jerusalem and did exactly what Jesus predicted, in exactly the time he predicted it – one generation after his death around AD 33. And interestingly it is recorded in history that the Jewish Christians were obedient to the words of Jesus Christ, and fled before the coming destruction of the Roman armies. Their key was to look out for the occurrence of Lk 20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near”. For the Romans indeed surrounded Jerusalem to destroy it before AD 70, but had to return due to an emergency at home. This provided the Jewish Christians with the perfect opportunity to leave, and a year later, when the Romans did return, the final destruction of Jerusalem was completed.

But the Bible Said …

Now here are some of the typical objections people raise to the above

  • But the bible said “there shall be wars and rumors of wars …? Nations will rise against nations … etc.?” – Well, who said these things didn’t happen in that one generation? Just read Tacitus, Josephus and other historians of the time.
  • But what about the “tribulations” as described in these gospels? – Again, there was indeed a lot of violence visited on Jewish Christians after Jesus’s death. Let’s not forget Stephen being stoned, Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, James the brother of Jesus being killed, and a whole lot more. The name of Jesus Christ was still dangerous, whether before or after his death. The historical extra-biblical sources bear witness to these tribulations.
  • But Matt 24:29-31 talks about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling from the sky etc. Did those things not point to the future destruction of the earth? – Ah, that is apocalyptic language for you. It’s metaphor, not literal. It’s meant to show the significance of the events that will happen. Let me give you an example (not even from New but the Old Testament, and not even from the prophets, but somewhere further back).

When the Lord delivered David from his enemies, he sang a song in 2 Samuel 22, which makes use of Jewish apocalyptic language to describe how God fought the battle on his behalf …

“In my distress, I cried out to the Lord, I called out to my God … The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook, they trembled because he was angry … the valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord … he reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep waters.” (2 Samuel 22:7-17).

Now I’m not sure you can point out anywhere in the OT where God actually dried up the valleys of the sea or where the earth trembled for David to be delivered. The point is, such language is used to describe how significant God’s activity in the physical sense was. As NT Wright says, apocalyptic imagery is used to “invest natural events with their theological significance”

So, is there A Second Coming of Jesus?

Yes, Jesus Christ is coming again. But his kingdom has already began, and he is king of the world now and our task as the church is not to be the voluntary association of the saved, but the place that he both manifests his kingdom, and brings that kingdom’s benefits to the rest of the world. And when he comes in power and in glory, he’s not coming to carry us away to heaven. He’s going to bring heaven and earth together, and the dwelling place of God will be amongst men (Rev 21:1-3).

The Jews did believe that when they die, they go to heaven. But they certainly held that when God’s kingdom is fully revealed in power and glory, God will come down with his saints to join those on earth, and not the other way round (this is what they meant by “resurrection”). The Greeks on the other hand, believed that this earth is a hopeless place, and our ultimate destination is in a heavenly place with the gods. Well, the last time I checked, Jesus was a Jew, not a Greek.

There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, but there’s too little space to write it in one post. I’ve intentionally kept the focus on what Jesus Christ himself said and what a 1st century Jew of his day would have heard him say. Until we can answer the challenge of apocalypse as presented by the Gospels, let’s not be busy confusing ourselves with other biblical apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Revelations. Apocalypse was fully woven into the ministry of Jesus, and his kingdom coming is the beginning of the end of the age, not just the announcement of its future fulfillment.

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?