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.

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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