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“)

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, So Were We Not Raptured? Or Should We Have Been?

Apparently there was supposed to be rapture on the 21st May 2011, as predicted by Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network. So if you are reading this piece, two things must have happened. Possibly, your sins were too many to warrant you a passport to partake of the rapture, or the more obvious thing happened – the rapture predictions of Mr. Camping were simply what they were; a failed weather forecast.

However in my interactions with most Christians, the generality of Ghanaian Christians do believe that there will be a Rapture of some sorts indeed. Their only beef is the attempt by the venerable [sic] Mr. Camping to put a date to something that Christ did not know and said we could not know.  Well, I do not only question the predictive skills of Mr. Camping, I want to go beyond that and question the premise of biblical support for something called “The Rapture” in the first place. So let’s try and push the envelope of eschatology and see what we get.

I will admit before I go on that there is so much that needs to be answered that I cannot answer in this post alone, and some which I (and many other Christians) don’t even know the answer to, given the symbolic nature of how apocalyptic hopes are described in the NT and other non-biblical but related documents. I will focus solely on the concept of Rapture, and leave the rest to our own personal research.

The Jewish Hope of Yahweh’s Coming

Again, as I’ve been doing in my previous posts, we cannot fail to overlook the fact that Christianity is the junior brother of Judaism. Therefore any attempt to understand Christianity on its own without a reference to the root from which it originated will be an attempt to create a caricature of our own idea of Jesus and his purpose for his people.

The Jews have always had a hope of God coming to transform this earth and set it aright, where he himself dwells amongst man and as a result Jerusalem will be the light to the rest of the world. Because of their special ideas about God establishing his kingdom and ruling from Jerusalem, they always considered themselves the royal people, and there was no shortage of boasting about this status. Take a look at Isaiah 65 and see how “different” it is from Rev 21.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” (Isaiah 65:17-18 NIV).

“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, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’” (Rev 21:1-3 NIV).

From the above (and a host of other prophecies as well as a proper study of Judaism), their mindset of the earth was quite different from ours. The earth was not some damned place that we need to escape from and go to heaven – the earth is where the action is, because God’s intent is to dwell with men in a renewed heaven and earth. The Jewish mind understands that God is in charge of both the heaven and the earth and he created a good earth, but sin had blighted this earth. Therefore their hope and expectation was that God will come and renew this earth, and bring the wonders of that heaven in which he lives to bear fully on this earth, causing a fusion of the two. Unlike Greco-Roman paganism’s thoughts of the spirit leaving this corrupt world for the world of the gods (heaven), Jews believed that we will walk on a renewed earth in a renewed body (the resurrection body) and experience the joys of this earth with God himself. Unfortunately Greco-Roman paganism seems to have carried the day even in Christian teachings about heaven and earth. As Paul taught, our spirits only go to be with the Lord in heaven to wait for our other brethren and for the time when we’ll return to reign on this earth and God will clothe us with immortal bodies. The earth is indeed where the action is.

This hope of a new and renewed earth also went along not only with joy for them, but judgment for those they esteemed in their mind are “sinners” – Gentiles and those Israelites who were not “faithful” to the law as they interpreted it. This judgment was to be brought by the one whom God will give authority over the kingdom to – the one whom Daniel calls the Son of Man in Daniel 7:14 – the Messiah. Interestingly most Jews viewed it as a day of God vindicating Israel and judging its enemies, but the prophets Amos and Zephaniah were not so charitable to them in their claims of superiority.

“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:18; 23-24 NIV).

“The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there … I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zeph. 1:14; 17)

In fact Isaiah 61 captures the spirit of what that day entails and what the Messiah will do – both on the positive – renewing the earth and bringing joy to “them that love his appearance” – and the negative – bringing “vengeance” to those that do not.

The Christian Hope of Jesus’ Coming

In a lot of ways there is very little difference between the Jewish hope and the early Christian hope of the return of Christ. To us Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore all the prophecy relating to the kingdom will be fulfilled in him. However, because this Messiah had already appeared amongst men and expounded specifically that his kingdom had begun; the early Christians did not only wait for the eschatological appearance of their king, but preached his current reign over all the earth.  Those of you who have read my previous post on “The Gospel of the Kingdom – Resurrection Perspectives” would be familiar with the point made by many contemporary NT scholars that Christ’s kingdom is both now and in the future. Therefore our responsibility on this earth as we wait for that future kingdom is to manifest the King and his kingdom’s character today on this earth.

The Origins of Rapture Theology

It will surprise you to note that the ideas around the Rapture event are very recent in history. Even a Wikipedia entry will educate us that there is very little mention of this idea of Jesus coming in two phases until the 17th century. Unfortunately this theology has been picked up and drummed up by a group of theologians called Dispensational Theologians. It’s wide spread began with John Nelson Darby, who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren in England and went over to evangelize in America as well between 1859 and 1877. According to Ben Witherington III in “The Problem with Evangelical Theology”

“Darby showed up on the brink of the [American] Civil War, during the war, and after the war, right when many Americans were quite vulnerable to an escapist theology that promised they would not have to go through the great tribulation. The timing could not have been better for promulgating such a theology”.

This teaching was further spread by the popular evangelist D.L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute and John Scoffield with his Scofield Bible. To promote this theology, the Dallas Theological Seminary was established in 1924, and there is no question why most of the popular Dispensationalists all went to, are associated with or claim influence from people who went there. In contemporary days, this teaching has led to popular “Left Behind” books and movies, picturing Christ coming to take the Christians away from this earth and leaving everyone else behind. From the preceding historical discourse, it’s not surprising that Mr. Camping is an American.

The Theology Backing It

This whole theology hangs on the somewhat misunderstood interpretation of Paul’s description of the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 and 5:1-11. In particular, this theology has hang it’s boots on two phrases or words i) parousia – which means “coming” or more correctly “presence” and ii) haparzo – which means “caught up” and is the root word for rapture. As usual because of our penchant for creating theologies without recourse to context and history, we have presented Paul as saying in the above passages that there is coming a time when Christ will come and take us up to heaven, before he subsequently comes a second time to judge the world. Let us see if a little contextual background and further probing will not help clear up this confusion.

In the times of the Caesars – Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar and his lineage – when the emperor visited any of his subject cities/states, this was announced beforehand by the sounding of trumpets (just like 1 Thess. 4:16 (KJV) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God). Those who are the leaders of the city and all Roman citizens living in the city were mandated to form a welcoming party and meet the king outside the gates of the city (Just like Ps 24:7 (KJV) Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in).They then escort this king through the city gates into the city, singing his praises and declaring “peace and security” in the name of that emperor (Just like 1 Thess. 5:3 KJV –For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape”).

Those with a keen eye will also notice that this sequence of events is very similar to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on his colt. It will be noted also that the book of Psalms is full of such imagery related to the Messianic King. In fact, these practices of subjects welcoming their kings were very common in ancient times, and the Roman emperor was no exception. Of course, the emperors probably demanded even more courtesy, pomp and pageantry for the emperors actually declared themselves gods in every right.

Most people do not take into account the fact that at some point, Thessalonica was historically quite a respected city in Greco-Roman times. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was indeed a dangerous one, for already in Act 17:7, Paul had been accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus”. Therefore there was no doubt that the Christians in Thessalonica were under a lot of persecution for their defiance of Caesar and declaration of Jesus as king. Therefore it is natural that having lost some of their members to persecution, they’d be worried if their dead brethren will be able to partake of the “parousia” of Christ and therefore wrote to Paul to find out the fate of those who’d died.

The Thessalonians may have been Greeks and didn’t know that the OT had the same concepts, but they definitely understood “parousia” of Jesus not in “rapture to heaven”, but welcoming king Jesus into the city – in this case onto this earth. Hear the New Testament writer Ben Witherington III:

“ Paul’s Thessalonian audience may have missed some of the allusions to the OT, but they would not have missed the language used here about a royal visit, indeed an imperial visit. They would remember the visit of Pompey and later Octavian and others in the days when Thessalonike could even be talked about by Pompey as the capital in exile.”

It is instructive to note that although v 17 says Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” – it does not say that we will then go on to heaven. It only says that we will be with him. Are we just going to be hanging with him in the skies, or as a kingly visit denotes and as the context clearly shows, we will come down with him to show the rest of the world this King we’ve been making a big fuss about all along? This king whose kingdom we’ve been building on this earth through love and self-sacrifice for one another?

Conclusion

“The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines, and I don’t deny that I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account.” –  NT Wright, Eminent NT scholar in “Farewell to the Rapture”

I don’t want to go beyond 4 pages on my word processor, so I’m forced to cut short the discourse. However, is our gullibility in respect of “rapture” not a reflection of the fact that we haven’t understood what the Kingdom of God/Heaven – which appears more than 50 times in the Gospels – truly means? And if we haven’t understood it, then whose kingdom are we building – ours?

The Revolutionary Christ

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing the Jesus of Dogma over the Jesus of History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations

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

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

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

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

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