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 – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Understanding the NT from the OT – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

I chose to title this post after the 3rd book in the magnificent JRR Tolkien’s fantasy epic series “The Lord of the Rings” – because this post focuses on the eschatological expectations of the Jews vis-a-vis the return of YHWH, and how that forms the basis of what we read in the New Testament. In Part 1, we looked at the 3 main beliefs of the Jews (monotheism, election, eschatology). In Part 2 we looked at the 3 main symbols of land, temple and law (Torah), and the impact of 2 of the above mentioned beliefs on these symbols, as well as the impact of the exile. I intentionally left out the eschatological angle for a longer discourse, so here we go.

An “Eschatologically-Flavoured” Rent Contract?

Recently, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight pointed out an article on the Christian Science Monitor about certain clauses in rent contracts in Jerusalem today. Apparently some landlords living abroad had stipulated in their contracts with their tenants that whenever the Messiah is revealed in Jerusalem, the tenants have a short time (i.e. a week, month, 3 months etc) to vacate their rented houses for their returning owners who want to be part of this prophesied return. Because most Christians (including myself) already believe Jesus is the Messiah, such an actualization of Jewish belief will sound weird to us. But I believe the devil is in the detail of this story, so let’s get on with a short discussion of Israel’s eschatological hopes, because a single post like this cannot really summarize enough the huge tomes that have been written on this subject.

Deuteronomy 30, and the Return of YHWH

When the Babylonian destruction and exile happened, the people of the Land of Yisrael realized that something dreadful had happened – YHWH who had led them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm from slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea; into the desert and wilderness for 40 good years; fed them with manna and quail; led them to defeat Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites and given them the land promised to their fathers – this faithful and loving god YHWH had abandoned them to their enemies.

The prophets who had seen this coming destruction and warned them to no avail, had now begun rallying the people back to hope, pointing them to what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 30 about YHWH looking favorably on them again if they didn’t loose hope and rather kept faith with him. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah,Ezekiel etc expounded on this hope of YHWH returning to them, and so developed certain beliefs, some which already existed before the exile and needed rekindling, and some which were new. These became the hopes that they held to and believed that YHWH was going to do when he returned to them.

The Return of YHWH – The Kingdom of YHWH and His Messiah

Way before the exile, YHWH had promised David an everlasting kingdom, with his heir being the one to lead that kingdom (2 Sam 7). David himself then pens down Ps 72, expounding what kind of king this will be aka his job description. In this psalm, you see clearly David referencing the promise first made to Abraham – “Then all the nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed (Ps 72:17)”.

Now the prophet Isaiah restates these credentials of the coming Messiah in chapter 42, 49 etc

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations” (Is 42:1).

You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Is 49:3)

Any observant student of the bible will notice that this is exactly what was repeated when the Spirit of God descended on Jesus whiles he received his baptism from John the baptist Mt 3:17;Mk 1:11). Two other things were to be noted as well about Jesus’s style of speaking

  1. He alluded to passages like Isaiah 42,49 when he kept insisting that “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (Jn 8:28;Jn 5:30 ). He was basically saying that being that prophesied servant, YHWH was displaying his splendor through him (Is 49:3).
  2. The OT only spoke of a “Father/Son” relationship in reference to either YHWH and his nation Israel, or YHWH and his servant to come (as in Ps 2). It was therefore highly unusual for Jesus to be speaking of being a “son” to “The Father”. Any observant Jew who listens to the Neviim (prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Psalms and writings) being read in he synagogue every sabbath would notice the allusion to the “Father/Son relationship” as mentioned Ps 2 and many other such quotations from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh).

Now note lastly the purpose of YHWH putting his spirit on his servant – “and he will bring justice to the world”. The whole chapter 42 seems to dwell on that theme – justice. Jesus’s statements about “the kingdom of heaven/YHWH is at hand” could only mean one thing – YHWH has returned to look favourably on Israel, though the nature of that return was quite unexpected.

The Return of YHWH – The Outpouring of His Spirit

We tend to locate our attempts to look at the pouring out of the spirit of God from only the prophets, but the concept actually dates back to the Exodus and Moses himself. Moses sets the tone by stating

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live” (Deut 30:6).

Here lies what Israel felt was the problem leading to their exile. They hadn’t been faithful observers of the Laws of YHWH, leading to his abandonment. Therefore they hoped that YHWH’s return will mean he himself will enable them to be better observers of Torah, making them his true children, as captured by Jeremiah:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”(Jer 31:33-34)

The prophet Joel expounds on this, stating that it is God’s own Spirit which he will give to his people when he returns, that will make them true and faithful children of his.

And afterward,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,your old men will dream dreams,your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28)

So then, to the early Christians, Jesus’s promise and outpouring of the Spirit signified again, that YHWH had indeed returned, and had began assembling his new faithful people who serve him not by their own effort, but by his own Spirit implanted in them. Hence, Paul’s argument in Romans 2

No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” (Ro 2:29)

In today’s flurry about the Holy Spirit, it seems we haven’t paid much attention to what really mattered to the prophets then. Yes, the Spirit would give us certain gifts that we didn’t have before, but as Paul points out it is meant to achieve 2 clear things

  1. Whatever gift one receives, is for the benefit of all.“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for THE COMMON GOOD. (my emphasis)”(1 Cor 12:7)
  2. The presence of the Spirit was to make us better observers of the Law of God, just as Moses and the prophets had desired.“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22)

So contrary to popular belief of Charismatically-influenced Christianity, the Spirit of God is not a genie in the bottle that we rub in the right way (probably through the rattling of some “tongues”) and use as a tool to pursue our selfish personal agenda. It was given to seal us (1 Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13), to set us apart as the new faithful people of YHWH who go about doing YHWH’s will. Now read Acts 2, and see what the Holy Spirit led them to be – a peculiar people (election) who went about doing good (justice) and healing those under the devil’s control, just as their Messiah did (Ac 10:38).

The Return of YHWH – The Coming in of the Nations/Gentiles

When this Kingdom was inaugurated, then one of the cardinal desires for which the Torah was given to Israel (which we discussed in Part 1) was that the nations/Gentiles will see the light of YHWH, and be drawn to worship and submit to him. One of the tasks he gives his servant in Isaiah 42

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

Ps 67 repeats this expectation, asking that

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 my emphasis).

Because the early disciples Jewish as they were born, viewed Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection as a sign that YHWH had returned, coupled with the pouring out of the Spirit, it meant the door had to be open now for the Gentiles to become part of the new faithful people of YHWH. And so begins this mission, began by Peter to Cornelius, and fully taken up by Paul. Here then is the whole center of the arguments about justification, and why the Torah was now an inhibitor to this welcome of the Gentile. Because Torah was meant to keep the people of Israel separate from the nations, it wasn’t possible to still obey it, and be able to welcome the Gentile as well. The Torah said the Jew must not eat with the Gentile, that the Jew must not marry a Gentile, that to be considered one of the people of God the Gentile must be circumcised and so on. Therefore Paul comes to the conclusion that “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24) i.e. Jesus the Messiah had established a new means of being considered a faithful child of God – faith in Jesus the Messiah.

The Return of YHWH – Judgement

Another expectation of the return of YHWH was judgment – judgment of his own people and judgment of the nations. It was expected that when YHWH returned, he will repay all the enemies of Israel for the wicked that they have done not only to Israel, but to the world. The Psalms are full of such statements, from Ps 110:6; 9:8; 76:9 etc. Psalm 149 says

May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron, to carry our the sentence written against them – this is the glory of all his faithful people.” (Ps 149:6-9)

The early Christians viewed this judgment in 2 forms. The first was the judgment that comes on Israel for it’s unbelief in who they believed was the Messiah – Jesus the Christ. Hence they took Jesus predictions about the coming destruction of Jerusalem quite seriously (Mk 13,Mt 24), and many of these Christians in Jerusalem were able to escape to tell the tale in AD 70.

The second was that Jesus will return to now serve justice to the rest of the world, as is expected of the Messiah. One (and certainly not the only) measures by which YHWH was going to judge this world was by the simple word – justice. Ps 82 shows him calling all the “gods” (leaders of the world) before him and rebuking them for showing partiality, wickedness, failure to defend the weak, and general injustice. The world’s political leaders may be wary to pay attention, for their time will come soon enough. Even Paul focuses on the same issue when he speaks to Gentiles in Athens

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 [Jesus] from the dead” (Act 17:31, my emphasis)

The Return of YHWH – New Heaven and New Earth

It was expected that YHWH’s return will culminate finally in a transformation of both heaven and earth, such that heaven and earth will now be together, and YHWH will come and dwell with men on this newly merged earth. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this.

See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17)

The expectation also developed that YHWH will create a new Jerusalem, from whence he will dwell. The prophet Ezekiel seemed to have sparked off this expectation, writing no less than 8 chapters on the subject (Ezekiel 40-48) with the expectation that this city will be built by God himself. This therefore came to be referred to as the “New Jerusalem”. Some apocryphal books like 4 Ezra, 2 & 3 Baruch explore this further.

Coupled with this was the development of the hope of resurrection. Whatever new world God was going to create, how could Abraham (as well as all their forefathers) who was dead, also benefit from it? By resurrection from the dead. The righteous were in heaven with the YHWH, but when he returns with them he will give them new bodies and they will dwell with the rest of those alive in this new world of his.

In Christianity, this hope of a new heaven and earth as well as a New Jerusalem is merged together into one in Rev 21.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21:1-3)

Even Abraham is supposed to be looking forward to that same “New Jerusalem” in Hebrews

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went … he lived in tents … for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”(Heb 11:8-10).

The only city in the OT whose architect and builder is God is the New Jerusalem.

Conclusion

Now with all this eschatological expectations about YHWH’s return, imagine Jesus saying “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”. What do you think a devout, synagogue-attending, Temple-sacrificing, 23% tithe-paying (not 10%), Torah-obedient Jew would have heard? Come and let’s sit in the synagogue, sing some songs of worship, listen to a “good” sermon and go back the rest of the week to pursue our own agenda?

No I don’t think so. As I’ve said elsewhere, the coming of Jesus Messiah meant a call to action for the early church. It meant each and every local church taking up the task of the Messiah and making it their own – his tasks of justice, redemption, restoration and healing – and finding ways to work with other local churches in that same pursuit. It meant a new heart and a new obedience, without a written law to tell us what to do every little moment. It meant being zealous for good works (Tit 4:12), not something to be done grudgingly. It meant “new is creation” (2 Cor 5:17), because version 1.0 of the kingdom of God has begun. The king has been announced, and we are the people he has called to display what future version 2.0 of his kingdom will be like when he returns – bringing the future of good news to the poor, release for the oppressed and family for the fatherless and motherless and rejected forward to today. Even creation is frustrated in waiting for it’s renewal in that 2.0 version (Romans 8:21-22).

We may laugh at the modern day Jerusalem landlords for still expecting a Messiah when one has already arrived the first time, but they may be onto something (albeit fuzzy) about what his return might look like. For us who believe in Jesus the Messiah, are we busy being his kingdom people, or are we are simply just a collection of individuals who have come to hear what may spur us on in our pursuit of self?

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.

Why Ghanaian Christianity Will Die A Slow Death … Like is Happening in the West

Iconic Frauenkirche Church of Munich
Iconic Frauenkirche Church of Munich

I know that this is a provocative headline, and I have no qualms in putting it this way. I’m forced to pause my next post in the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” because certain recent events seem to have conspired to put this post on a higher priority.

I have at least traveled to or lived in 4 European countries for various short times. And in all that time, I’ve always noticed something that saddened me – the blatant disregard (and sometimes downright ignorance) of Christianity. I remember climbing up a small hill to go into the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral opposite the Lincoln Castle, one of the most majestic medieval church buildings in the UK (and for about 2 centuries, the world’s tallest building in the world). I remember a trip with my friend Gerhard to the Frauenkirche Cathedral, one of the landmarks of the city of Munich (in fact a lot of gifts from Munich feature a picture of that church with it’s 2 beautiful domes, and by law no building within the area can be taller than Frauenkirche’s domes). Whenever I visit these places, I’m struck by the beauty and meticulousness of the work, but I’m also saddened by what they have become today – tourist attractions during the weekdays, and attended by only a few old men and women on Sundays who were probably born into the church and have no other place to meet their old friends. Today Christians in Europe are in the minority, and a small one at that. In the US, the same is happening, though the rate of decline is slower. The interesting thing though is that survey after survey has shown that the majority of people still believe in God, they just don’t believe in the church as an agent of his anymore.

Therefore the people who brought us Christianity are now in need of evangelism. I know that our leading men of God do travel and therefore know of the receding numbers of Christians in these places, but I wonder how many of them have done any analysis of the problem and strategized on how they and their church may act to prevent this inevitable decline that will come. Because if we sit here thinking that we are fine, I can confidently tell you that we are heading in the same direction in Africa and Ghana in particular (you can call that statement whatever you want, and quote me anywhere as well).

This state of affairs in the West has now lead to a resurgence of interest in a particular kind of Christianity which has been in the minority for a very long time in the hopes of learning lessons from them on how to live faithfully as a witness to a world that no longer believes in the church. I’m currently on the last chapter of “The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith” by Stewart Murray. Last week, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight posted on Anabaptism here (he self identifies as one, though he’s not in any of their congregations). Other evangelical and emergent church thought leaders have identified with or stated that there are huge lessons to learn from Anabaptism to navigate this difficult time for Western Christianity (Brian McLaren, Frank Viola, Greg Boyd, David Fitch, Alan Hirsch, Howard A. Snyder, Shane Clairborne, etc. etc.).

The question therefore is who were/are the Anabaptists, and what lessons could the church in the West have learnt from them to prevent this drastic decline, or the Ghanaian church learn from them so we don’t have only 20% Christian population in Ghana in the next 50 years, mostly populated by old men and women from our generation?

 

A Short Historical Survey

Before the 16th century in Europe, everyone was or assumed to be 1) A Christian 2) Could only attend the Roman Catholic church. However, in 1517 the German priest and academic, Martin Luther, posted a document on a church door in Wittenburg (called the 95 Theses) , criticizing some of the practices of the Roman Catholic, and thence began the struggle for the soul of the church in what is now called the Protestant Reformation (or simply the Reformation). This struggle spread all across Europe due to the recent invention of the printing press and the ability to quickly circulate subversive printed material easily (including copies of the Bible, previously only available to priests). In Switzerland, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli picked up the fire of rebellion and spread it, and when the dust finally settled Europe had been split between Roman Catholic cities or countries, and Protestant cities or countries.

However, some of the followers of the Protestants, began initially criticizing Ulrich Zwingli for certain beliefs that they felt that the reformation should have also placed on high priority. This new protest spread again back to Martin Luther’s Germany, and the group of people in this protest are those referred to as the Anabaptists. Their fellow Christians in the Catholic and Protestant camps however couldn’t understand them, and so feared their impact that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwignli themselves are on record for ordering the execution of these Anabaptist “heretics”. As Stewart Murray records, the Catholics did so by burning at the stake, and the Protestants did so by drowning or decaptitation. Fearing for their lives, most Anabaptists fled from mainline Europe into the US, and those who remained went underground and lived their Christian lives in the quiet, for the last 500 years.

What were they protesting about that the Protestant church didn’t want to listen to (and mostly haven’t listened to since then)? And how is that related to the decline in Western Christianity, or ours? Well, it will surprise you that these are not any far fetched accusations, but it’s implementation and prioritization is where the meat is. Here are some of them

 

Jesus Is Not Only To Be Worshiped, But Also To Be Followed

One of the cardinal characteristics of Anabaptism was an insistence on discipleship. To them being a Christian meant one was turning away from the world and it’s standards, and living by following Jesus. Not only was Jesus the saviour, he must be followed as an example, teacher and friend. The Anabaptists accused their contemporaries of reducing Jesus to just some remote Lord which people go to worship on a Sunday morning, but who has no impact on the rest of the 6 days of the week left. As a result, they placed a very high premium on how they can follow Jesus in every situation, and the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John) was their beloved yardstick, as opposed to the Protestants who loved to quote and debate Paul’s epistles (with much misunderstanding, as today’s knowledge is showing).

In fact this insistence of theirs on whole life transformation by following Jesus, not just worshiping him was evident even to their enemies. Hear Franz Agricola, a 16th century Roman Catholic priest express his befuddlement:

As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display is found among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God”

Of course they had the Holy Spirit in them, he just couldn’t believe it of such “heretics”.

The Church Was Where the Action Was

The Anabaptists believed that the church must be a community of disciples, a place of friendship, a place of accountability and a place where everyone was allowed to speak what the Spirit of God had put on their hearts, as per 1 Cor 14:26. To them church wasn’t just a place for people to come and watch the showmen (musicians and preachers) perform a show and go home to live their lives as they pleased. Church was the place where they ate together, encouraged one another, struggled together, helped one another, learned from each other, queried those that needed to be queried and corrected. It was the place to display a foretaste of the kingdom of God to the rest of the world around them.

The bible was primarily supposed to be read, shared and interpreted by the church together, preventing one person’s personal interpretation from dominating the community. Leadership was not hierarchical, leadership was multiple and accountable to each other, not just to one “founder/head pastor/general overseer”. Teaching in the church was to be multi-voiced, so that others could also share their thoughts on the subject, ask questions or bring in something totally different, allowing the Holy Spirit the opportunity to interject whenever he so desired.

Because of this high level of commitment that was required of each disciple, one had to declare their intent to be submissive to these requirements through the action of baptism (and not the saying of a “sinner’s prayer”). This is where the Anabaptists gained their names from (the word means “re-baptize”). Both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants baptized babies because everyone was assumed to be a Christian. But Anabaptists insisted that being Christian was a conscious choice one had to make because of the commitments involved, and decried any attempt to force people to be Christians by birth through the practice of pedo-baptism (“child baptism”). We have the Anabaptists to thank today for sowing the early seeds that led to our modern insistence on freedom of religion and association at a time when such freedom was frowned upon at the pain of death.

In contrast, the Protestant/Roman Catholic churches seemed the Anabaptists to be just a voluntary association of the saved. People were born into the church, and there was very little insistence on discipleship – on following Jesus and not just worshiping him. Church activities were dominated by the “clergy”, and all that the rest of the church did was just to follow their lead. There was very little concern for the needs of members, and therefore comparatively poverty abounded much more in those churches as compared to the harassed and persecuted Anabaptist churches. To the annoyance of his accusers, when Menno Simons, one of the Anabaptist leaders was arrested and accused of insisting that all Christians must forcibly share their goods (based on Acts 2), he corrected them by saying that it was supposed to be voluntary, and that though they (the Anabaptists) have been able to do this to reduce poverty amongst them, the same could not be said of the churches of his richer accusers who had much more access to money.

 

The Church’s Constant Desire for Wealth, Status and Power is a Snare

The Anabaptists decried any attempt to use the church in support of the state’s agenda, and refused to be just another department of the state’s governmental arms. To them, the church was called to be a witness of the fallenness of human governments, and so they totally rejected any loyalty to any political leader. Theirs was supposed to be a counter-cultural community of people who were good news to the poor, the powerless and the persecuted (as per Jesus in Luke 4:16-21), and who were willing to die in defense of the lives and well-being of others. They refused to focus their energies on being the dispensers and enforcers of moral platitudes to the rest of the world, but rather focused on their communities being the light, showing the alternative way of being human beings in any society.

Again the same could not be said of their Protestant/Roman Catholic brethren, who are on record all throughout history of compromising the witness of Jesus by aligning themselves with one political institution or the other, even against their own fellow Christians at home or abroad. One of the means by which they did this was by finding support for their activities from their flawed interpretation and application of the Old Testament, which is where they could find examples from the kings of Israel and the prophets who prophesied to them. They tended to forget that the Church was now the expanded Israel, and that it’s king was already declared (Jesus Christ) and that prophecy must be targeted at improving and correcting the church, not the world.

As for the desire for wealth and the display of it – culminating in the accumulation of wealth by the church institutions and the use of such wealth in such beautiful buildings as the Lincoln Cathedral that I mentioned above, it is evident for all to see. It is on record that in centuries before the Reformation, when a certain king of France was abducted and ransom was demanded, the treasury of France (a whole country) was so broke at the time they had to fall on the mercies of the Roman Catholic church to be able to pay the ransom. Now that is what I call wealth – and yet the poverty in medieval Europe was phenomenal.

Spirituality and Economics are Inter-connected

I’ve said enough about wealth already in the context of the church as an organisation. In the individual context as well, the Anabaptists insisted that a person’s attitude to personal wealth reflected on a person’s attitude to Jesus. To them, Christians needed to place a high priority on helping others, not accumulating wealth. They placed high premium on the sermon on the mount in this regards, so they might help bring relief to others.

Their accusers on the other hand encouraged the hording of wealth, mostly because the church institutions (not the church members) would then be able to benefit from it through “tithe” and all sorts of cajoling on “giving” to extract money to run it’s agenda of further display of wealth. To soothe their consciences, passages like the sermon on the mount were either spiritualized, or placed on a pedestal for when Jesus returns.

 

Conclusion

There are more accusations I could give than these, but I’m running out of space already. Suffice it to say that the Protestant/Roman Catholic brothers in the 16th century persisted in the activities of which the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) protested about in Europe, and we see the end results today. Economic and intellectual empowerment meant that people began to ask serious questions of the church in Europe, and it didn’t seem to have the answers to these questions. Most people saw through the hypocrisy and a departure began which still continues today.

Anabaptism was itself not perfect (after all, they are also human beings), but throughout history it has been very difficult to accuse them of not desiring to pursue Jesus authentically, with their life, their wealth and ultimately their blood. Even if you disagree with their methods, their conviction was palpable.

I shook my head when the head of the Presbyterian church in Ghana (a historically Protestant church) was lamenting the abundance of Christianity but persistence of corruption. Maybe he needs to learn from the mistakes of his own tradition, as pointed out by the Anabaptists.

Because a time will come when many will see through the hypocrisy, and that will be our death knell. As a neo-Anabaptist, I implore the church to learn from history because as the famous Spanish philosopher George Santayana said

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known as George Santayana

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.

Of Faith, Death and Komla Dumor

I’m sure by now that the news of the death of Komla Dumor has reached far and wide across the length and breadth of Ghana. The grief at such a young promising journalist’s demise has been palpable, and the eulogies have already been flowing thick and fast from the 4 corners of the earth. I myself find it hard to take, for having achieved what he did in Ghana and was achieving at the BBC, I looked forward to even greater heights of achievement from him. But alas, death has it’s own plans, and we will mourn his departure.

But I do not write this not to eulogize him, for many who are better qualified to do so already have. I write this reluctantly, knowing that I had a long list of other things I had been planning to write on, but certain reactions from some Christians to Komla’s death have foisted this need on me. The matter is made worse by the fact that this is not the first time I’m noticing this behaviour.

The Faith Framework

Over the past few 5 decades or more, a certain wind of teaching has become ingrained in the mindset of Christians, which never quite existed in the mainstream of Christian history before the last 100 years. That wind of teaching has taught us certain ideas about faith, and how a Christian’s “success” in life is determined by how strong their faith is. As a result, the one who has the right kind of faith would never see suffering come their way, or will simply ride roughshod over it.

This teaching says that what one needs is to look through the bible like a treasure hunter in search of what it calls “the promises of God” and claim them for oneself. Inevitably enough, these promises always seem to center on health, wealth and prosperity. The key to receiving these “promises” is the measure of your faith. If your faith is “strong” or “high” enough, then you will indeed receive it. And if at the end of the day one doesn’t receive such “promises”, then there could only be 3 conclusions – first, most likely you have not exercised enough faith; second, that there is some secret sin in your life preventing you from receiving such a promise; third, that the devil or his agent(s) are working against you. This kind of faith leaves no room for questions, nor for tension. It claims to know all the answers and reduces everything into a person’s individual ability to make it work for them.

This framework of faith has become the defacto means by which a lot of Ghanaian Christians, especially those of the Charismatic fold, interpret everything that happens in this world. To such Christians then, it is very easy to associate someone like Komla Dumor’s meteoric rise to fame only in the scheme of God having prospered him. Such Christianity therefore always measures people by their earthly achievements, but fail miserably at the most important measure of both the OT and the NT – character development.

In their pursuit of such achievements, they ride roughshod over people (mostly poorer people), and take very little notice as to how they treat their fellow human, despite all that both Jesus and Paul says about how we treat others. Trust me, I know this failing, because I know many people who live by this framework, from family to friends, whose behaviour as Christians I sometimes shake my head woefully about.

Death

And therefore the death of a “prospered” or “blessed” person like Komla is very, very hard for such a faith framework to swallow, since it leaves very little room for God to do what he desires to do, or for the fact that we human beings are not in control of this world. Having associated Komla’s rise to fame with “God’s promises of blessings and prosperity”, they then have to answer the question of why such a person will suffer cardiac arrest at age 41 and die. The only answer that this faith framework can produce is exactly what Mr Duncan Williams can produce – “this is not of God”, i.e. answer number 3.

The question one asks then is that in 2000 years of Christianity, has it always been the case that the Christians who warm the church pews regularly every Sunday, read the bible (or their pastor’s devotional) and pray 5 times a day, give their tithe faithfully (mostly without asking for an account of it’s usage) and holds hands and sings kumbaya with their fellow Christians lives to a ripe old age of 41 (sorry, 90) and has all the material blessings in the world?

Wow, what has Bill Gates been smoking all this while that’s keeping him alive and on top of the world’s rich list, when he’s not demonstrated any Christian belief? Or has he received some charms and amulets from the devil? What about the other billionaires in the Forbes rich list, who don’t even care a hoot about a church building, much less the message that emanates from it. Why are they still alive? They must be dead by now. This framework of faith expects it, even demands it if I dare say.

What about Keith Green, that wonderful Christian musician who sang the great song “There is a Redeemer” we used to sing a lot more when we were young in church, yet died at 29? What about Murray M’Cheyne, who also died at 29 himself, and yet did such wonderful missionary work in Palestine for the Church of Scotland? Did they not have faith? Were they not serving God? Were they smoking the wrong stuff (not Bill Gates’ stuff I guess)? I could go on citing examples of great Christians who died seemingly unfulfilled, but I guess the point is obvious.

And Yet, There is Hope

And yet in recent times I’ve been reading up on the Psalms and the background behind them, and I can only admire more the faith of both Judaism and early Christianity each day (hopefully I’ll write more on this background in the coming weeks). For the Psalms reflect the constant tension, ranging from disappointment in God for his seeming disappearance from the scene to praise of him for his wondrous deeds. But the one thing that Israelites always kept to, again captured in the Psalms, was that YHWH was a faithful god, and will bring his promise of redeeming the world through the nation Israel to pass, even when a large number of them had died in the exile to Babylon and all hope seemed to be lost.

And this belief is what lead to the hope in the resurrection of the dead. I intend to write much more extensively on the hope of resurrection in the coming weeks (I just received another 800 page book on it, so I have no choice), but I’ll give a small bit of it here by saying that their means of dealing with death and with the injustice of the world was the theology of resurrection. It is the background to what Paul says in 1 Thess 4.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13)

Why does Paul says the rest of mankind has no hope? It is because the Jewish/early Christian ideas about resurrection of the dead was unique to them. Neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism which were the dominant worldviews of Paul’s time had a good answer for the righteous dying, nor in fact did Judaism/Christianity. But the one thing that Judaism/Christianity had was hope – hope that God will remake the world and bring heaven and earth together, and will resurrect the righteous to joyous living in that new world, and the unfaithful to judgement. And that is the right framework within which faith must work. Not in faith that says “I can control the world by my level of belief”, but one that says “I will be faithful to God in pursing his kingdom and his righteousness, and he will provide, in this life or the next”. (Mt 6:33)

Conclusion

Death is painful. Death is cruel. Death is an enemy and not a friend. And yet death is a tool, both in the hands of the creator God, and at the disposal of the devil. Let us be busy in being faithful about the work of the master, that we might participate in the resurrection of the righteous. When death will come, how it will come and through whom it will come is secondary.

The question is whether we are busy about his kingdom, or busy about ours?

Komla Dumor, rest in the father’s bossom, until we meet on that day. I wonder if we’ll need news in that new world, but you’ve certainly given us your best in this one.

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 Kingdom of God And Education–Questioning The Ghanaian Church’s Perspective

Three weeks ago I attended the funeral of a cousin of mine in my hometown Gbi Kledzo, one of the towns of the Gbi Traditional area whose capital, Hohoe is currently under seige by communal violence. But don’t worry, today’s post is not going to be about the raging violence. Someday I will have something to say about that, but the time is not today. I’m currently reading JH Yoder’s “Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World”, and his thoughts have resonated with something that bothered me at my hometown, and I can’t rest without writing these down. So here I am this evening, goaded on by Yoder to address the attitude of the church towards education and ultimately towards poverty alleviation.

I attended the Sunday memorial service for my cousin held at the local “branch” of one of the most influential churches in the Volta Region, and I did enjoy the vim and vigour with which members sang so many theologically sound and deep songs in worship of God. In spite of the conditions of poverty that abounded in their midst, their attitude of praise was indeed miles ahead of many mega churches, I must say. This church tradition’s music is something I do admire a lot theologically, but music does not make the kingdom; actions do. And I do have a lot of friends who are members of this church so I’m not mentioning names. The point however is that this problem really goes beyond this church I attended alone.  And so, I digress.

In the sermon, the preacher urged the members to be faithful in giving their weekly donations towards the building/funding of a university being built by the leadership of the denomination, as God will indeed bless them in this wise. Of course he made the usual run-around about offering and tithes, but that is a moot point if you are familiar with my view on these matters. Though this was not the greatest sermon I’d ever heard in my life, that was my point of departure, and my deviously fertile mind began to ask questions.

Seriously?

Seriously? Given the levels of poverty in this town, how many members of this church can actually be able to pay for their children’s education all the way to the university level? How many children graduate from the local primary school and even advance to SHS? What is the quality of education being received by the children of these church members to be able to compete with their colleagues in the big cities? Are these church members by virtue of their contribution to the building of this university going to get free tuition if by some miracle their children are able to make it past JHS? Is the church more interested in the empire building antiques of having a university in it’s name, or are they actually concerned about breaking the vicious cycle of poverty through education?

I listen to the political elite spew all sorts of propaganda about education, from making SHS education free to increasing enrollment through increasing capitation grants and school feeding programs, and none of them is tackling the cold hard issue – the quality of our education, whether free or not, abundant or few is simply going down the tube. And yet it is a universally accepted fact that it is better to have a smaller number of highly skilled people who are able to turn around and create wealth for the lower skilled people to benefit from, than for everybody to be illiterate. At the pace at which the world is advancing today, we must invest in bringing higher quality education to our children to be able to compete, to be able to break the cycle of poverty that exists in our communities. Instead today, quality education is the preserve of the rich and middle class, and that is the end of the matter. As usual with politicians, they have simply lost the plot.

Top Down, or Bottom Up?

And so when I see our Archbishops, Moderators, Presidents, General Overseers etc busily competing with each other to also build universities so they can put their church’s name on it, I’m indeed saddened. Are we interested in dealing with the problems at the root, or do we want to continue with the superficial window dressing, all in the name of empire building? If we are, then we must not be tackling the problem from the top (university level where it is always the easiest to do and we can make the most money to continue feeding the church elite) but rather begin to focus on the weak foundations (which admittedly is harder to do and will cost us more in time and energy, but whose effectiveness is well proven). If not, then I wonder what difference there is between the church and the political structures of the day?

Because as Jesus showed in Lk 4:18-21, his coming is the source of good news to the poor, the oppressed, the destitute and the imprisoned. Our unfamiliarity with the history of the times of second Judaism clouds our ability to understand Jesus in these texts. For his coming was supposed to break the oppression that was being meted out by the rich Jew on his fellow Jew who was in debt and had sold himself into slavery to repay the debt. As Ex 21:1-11 and Lev 25 showed, after 6 years of service, no matter how high the debt, people were to be set free. And after 50 years, all property sold as a result of poverty is to returned to the poor. But then as it is today, the heart of the rich in this world has not been very open to obedience to the word of God regarding how to treat the poor, and it’s not about to change anytime in this age and in this worldly kingdom.

And so if Christ’s coming is good news to the poor, how is the church using education as a tool to uplift the poor? How is building a university good news to the poor and oppressed in the Kledzo church, when their children will never be able to progress academically to get there? And who says that until a person is able to attend the university, they don’t have enough education to make a change in society? As my sister Priscilla put it at our church meeting this morning, “if Jesus is the head and we are the body, then we the body act out what the head has thought up. If not, we have become dysfunctional, and might end up in a mental institution, or at worst in the mortuary.”

And So

And so I draw on a familiar story around me to make the point as to the Church’s ineffectiveness and lack of imagination when it comes to being the bearer of good news;  I refer to the ability of someone from Norway to make millions from his business and give back to society not by donating to charities unknown or giving to the corrupt politicians in the government of Ghana to fill their pockets, but actually building a school to train software entrepreneurs in Africa. I refer to Jorn Lyseggen and to the Meltwater Enterprieneural School of Technology model only because here is a person attempting to deal with problems the hard way, but definitely the more effective way. In this particular circumstance as the popular saying goes, he has been more Catholic than the Pope, an effort worth commending.

The church has the greatest capacity to bring change in EACH COMMUNITY in which it is found, if it is minded to be faithful to its king and to his kingdom agenda. This is why Jesus said he will build his church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and we must not collect people to fill up our pews only to build empires to fill up the elite leadership’s egos of importance. The Messianic age has already began now and the violent enter it by force (Mt 11:12) – we must not tell the poor to wait till they go to heaven to experience it. That theology is totally pagan (i.e. Greek) and has no Jewish underpinnings whatsoever.

Are we building up those whom God made in his own image and has rescued with his own blood, or are we creating empires for self-glorification?