The Politics of Jesus and His Church Pt 2 – On Ghanaian Politics

If you have read my first post on this topic, you would realize that I’m on a mission to explain to some friends of mine why I seem not to be interested in Ghanaian politics, seeing as I hardly say anything on events in our political sphere. What they don’t know is that I consider myself to be quite political, but not in the way they are used to. And to explain myself, I needed to undermine one of the de facto assumptions that dominate Ghanaian Christendom (either implicitly or explicitly) – that Jesus sole purpose was for the salvation of men from sin, and therefore Jesus was apolitical. As I have tried to point out in the previous post, Jesus cannot be called the Messiah or the Christ if he wasn’t political. A Jewish Messiah is through and through a political animal.

One of the proof-texts for saying Jesus didn’t care much about the politics of this world is his statement “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Sadly those who make this argument ignore the rest of that verse, which shows what Jesus meant by that statement – “But now my kingdom is from another place”. The issue for Jesus was not whether Jesus’s kingdom affects our world today – the question is where its origins are. It’s certainly not from this world, but it is for this world.

So the question is not if Jesus is political, but in what way is he political? And I posit he is political in 2 distinctive ways – his kind of politics is not the same kind as the world does it (“let it not be so amongst you”, Mk 10:42) and his kind of politics involves suffering for making hard choices that the world and it’s politics will not make (“let him take up his cross and follow me”, Mk 8:34).

The early church understood this different nature of the politics of Jesus. They understood that the political, social and religious powers that hold the world in it’s control have been defeated by Jesus life, death and resurrection. Therefore their task as the church was to both show and declare by their lives as distinct communities the truth that the world’s political powers have been defeated – political powers who knowingly or unknowingly were being controlled by the prince of this world, the devil. Paul speaks of this mission below.

Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His 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 his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:8-11)

But since the days of Emperor Constantine, the church has told itself that Jesus is irrelevant to the subject of politics. Here’s John Howard Yoder

When then in the fourth century Christians found themselves in positions of social responsibility, so the argument continues, they had to go for their ethical insights to other sources than Jesus … Th real reason we should not be surprised that the church at the age of Constantine had to resort to other models for the construction of a social ethic in Christendom was that, quite simply and logically, Jesus had nothing much to say on the subject” – The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder.

And therefore the church made choices which to this day have continued to wreck havoc on our God-given task as the witnesses of a different kind of kingdom which had already been launched, not just waiting for the future and having nothing to do with the present. In all of these, we ignored the 2 key injunctions of Jesus, having already decided that he was irrelevant to world politics.

Top-down Instead of Bottom-up

Today, the Ghanaian church has a love affair with hierarchy, just as the world does it. This means our church leaders are more worried about keeping their jobs and pleasing their superiors than they are about serving their local church communities. In any large church structure, hierarchies may be needed. But they should serve a purpose of coordination, not of command and control, which is the way of the world. This top-down attitude also shows itself up in the classical division between the clergy and the laity. Let’s not forget Jesus was very explicit about this one – You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you(Mk 10:42).

Ineffective Local Churches

Because of the assumption of an apolitical Jesus, and hence the swallowing of command-and-control leadership, our local churches have become extremely ineffective at meeting the needs of its congregants, not to talk of affecting change in the neighbourhoods in which they are. They have become simply an extension of the brains and agenda of their General Overseers/Moderators/Presidents/Founders etc. I’m surrounded by many Christians who complain of the grave needs within their local churches and neighbourhoods. But since Jesus is only in the business of saving souls for heaven, every other non-heaven related decision must be sanctioned by the hierarchy, and the needs of “headquarters” must always come first to the needs of the mere mortals warming the pews. In fact in most churches if there needs to be funds raised for a need within that local church, it has to be collected separately from the regular “tithes and offerings” (which by fiat is reserved for HQ). This is usually achieved with further cajoling, stroking of egos and a fair amount of abuse of scripture to strip members of their last pesewa before they leave the service.

Lack of Accountability

Once we adopted command-and-control mode of leadership of our denominations, the next step has been that our local churches have not developed any strong muscles of accountability. The omnibus term “Nyame Adwuma” aka “God’s work” has become a nebulous term that allows churches to collect so much money from its members and ship it off to HQ, but no account is ever rendered back to the local churches of how these monies are used. Even if any such accounts are rendered, they are at the HQ level, and most ordinary members do not even know about them. What this breeds then is abuse – even for funds collected for the local church’s own needs.

“Cursed Are the Poor”

All the above choices then mean that local churches have no real solutions to tackle poverty in their midst. Given that the needs of HQ comes first, local churches have very little patience for the needs of the poor amongst them, and will rather invest in prayer/breakthrough/all night sessions disturbing the public peace for God to intervene in each person’s individual lives. Whereas Jesus took concrete actions to tackle poverty and hunger in his ministry, and the early church did the same, that has become the least of the priorities of local churches today. This nation swelters in poverty and unemployment, and yet the church, by already deciding to follow an apolitical Jesus and adopting as substitute the ways of the world, has no solution to this other than to behave like the ostriches described by James the Just in his letter to the church – by telling the poor to Go in peace; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about their physical needs” (Jam 2:16).

Segregation and Favouritism

Not realizing that the kingdom of God calls for actively undermining earthly divisions that exist in our cultures and societies, our local churches are swallowing divisions by social class, economic standing, ethnic and language divisions by the hook, line and sinker. It has come up in conversation a few times why an educated, self-employed young man like me doesn’t attend a certain church in my neighbourhood, because apparently every middle to upper class, educated person in the neighbourhood is assumed to be a member of that church. The illiterate and poor amongst us are falling prey day in and day out to the charlatans and thieves parading themselves as “prophets” and “men of God”, simply because they will not feel comfortable in a church like the one I described. This is of course not to talk about the favouritism and discrimination that is exhibited INSIDE our local churches themselves, based again on perceived and actual social, economic and ethnic standing. And all of this, Jesus has nothing to say about of course.

The Deception of Charity

To appease their consciences about the obvious lack of love and care for one another as the New Testament seems to paint, some churches engage – in a somewhat sporadic fashion – in works of charity. I’ve even heard some churches call it “corporate social responsibility”, just like the business world does. Many times they don’t miss the opportunity for such “good works” to be publicly broadcasted via the media one way or the other, typically going to some far-off orphanage/shelter in some village or town. And yet some of these churches are situated right within or next to neighbourhoods (especially in urban areas) where poverty is crushing. But apparently they are saving souls for heaven, and doing some charity, so it’s all good.

Conclusion

Given the above attitudes of lording it over one another, no accountability, lack of care for the disadvantaged, segragation and favouritism, and giving to good causes for public fame which exist in our churches, I wonder why we expect any different from our politicians, when Christians make up 70% of the Ghanaian population (according to 2010 census). And these issues are just a tip of the iceberg.

Our public and civil service is obviously made of a large number of Christians who fill the pews every Sunday and may even be church leaders, who gladly divert the attention from themselves when it comes to corruption onto the “politicians”, wheres everyone knows that corruption at these levels is legendary. The current judicial scandal is a case in point. Given that 90% of most Ghanaians who have a “European” or “Christian” first name tend to be professing Christians, its sad the number of possible “Christians” who were amongst the 37 judges caught on tape taking bribes.

This week, Professor Stephen Adei was on radio blaming the poor work attitude and corruption – he calls it “legendary stealing” – on the “culture” of Ghanaians. What many well meaning Christians like him who comment publicly about the state of corruption and political dystopia that characterizes this country have failed to realize is this. If a country claims to be 70% Christian and has these levels of corruption, it can only mean one thing – Christianity has failed to change the culture of Ghanaians in this country, and is now part of the problem. The earlier we accept that verdict, the better we can start doing something about it. The attitude of telling government what is wrong – which I often find well meaning Christians and organisations like the Christian Council of Ghana doing every day is the same old thing that Christendom has been doing since the 4th century – moral advice, not ethical action and example.

The more Ghanaian Christians assume that changing governments will solve this disease of ours, the more we would have bought into the devil’s deception of the “Messiah Complex” – the idea that we have another messiah called the “Right President of Ghana” who will solve all these problems – and not Jesus the king. This Constantinian temptation goes deep, and any attempts at solutions must go even deeper. The truth of the matter is that the church is both God’s solution to the world AND the proper training grounds for engaging in service to the world as God desires it. If the church is sick, the nation will be sicker. There can be no glossing over of that fact.

This my friends, is the reason why I write, talk and share more about church and Christianity than I do about Ghanaian politics. God’s hope for this world is Jesus and his body, not the NDC, PPP or NPP (or any other) political parties, and I believe we must be driven by his hope, not ours. Not democracy, autocracy, monarchy, communism or any other political systems of the world. When the church was under the most oppressive regime of the world – the Roman empire – it grew and challenged and changed so much in it’s surroundings by the simple act of taking Jesus seriously as its king and following in his ways, despite the heavy cost that it bore for doing so.

May we find courage where none exists to go to the root of our malaise, so we learn to understand what it means to pray “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”.

The Politics of Jesus and His Church – Part 1

I have been accused of hardly bothering about Ghanaian politics (just kidding. It wasn’t an accusation but just innocent questions from some friends). They observe that I seem to share and write a lot on the church, Jesus and Christianity in general, and only sparingly on Ghanaian politics. I want to explain why, but I’ll do that in the next post. That explanation however is dependent on making sure my readers understand where I’m coming from theologically, and one such theological angle is what I want to address here. And this is the summary of what I’m abut to say – that I believe that for centuries, many Christians have missed a vital clue to understanding Jesus and his kingdom, and as a result do not see when they are letting their nationality win over their faith (by the way the word nationality here can be replaced by many others like political ideology, political party, tribe, language, race, social status, economic status etc. They suffer the same fate). What results is what Peter Enns calls “The Messiah Complex”. I’ll use a particular discussion we had at our house church lately to illustrate the point.

Who Do People Say I Am?

Recently we wrote a song from Psalm 2, and in the process our thoughts went to Matth 16:13-17. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v 13), and among many answers, Peter responded that Jesus is “The Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v 16). Jesus blesses Peter, and says he could only have known that through revelation by Yahweh himself. Now in other bibles, the word “Christ” is used instead of “Messiah” in v 16, but I’m glad for the choice of words of the NIV 2012. Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which both mean “The Anointed One”. At the time of Jesus however, the dominant language in Galilee and Judea was Aramaic and some Hebrew, but not Greek. Therefore logically the word used there would not have been the Greek version. But I digress.

I have heard many sermons on this, including one a few months ago from a friend, including sadly from some Christian apologists. Time and time again, most people simply assume that Jesus was commending Peter for realizing that he was divine – aka he was the second person of the Trinity or “God the Son”, when that could not have been what he meant. I have written elsewhere on why the NT usage of “Son of God” originally did not mean Jesus was divine, so I will not go into details here. Note that I do believe that Jesus is divine, but I also realize that this continuous association of “Son of God” with the divine Jesus displays a wider problem within Christendom – for too long many Christians haven’t taken the political implications of calling Jesus “Lord” and “King” seriously. Many Christians have divinized and spiritualized away everything about Jesus, and therefore have left their political passions to be dictated by our worldly leaders today. The early church fought against the heresy of docetism – the belief that Jesus was either not really human or that his divine nature superseded his human nature – and yet somehow many have come full circle when they focus on only the divine Jesus and ignore (albeit giving it some lip service), the human king – the Messiah. As the learned NT Wright puts it

It is only recently that it has been widely acknowledged, for instance, that the phrase “son of God” in many New Testament writings does not automatically mean “the second person of the Trinity”, but is a title which, to a first-century Jew, would have carried messianic rather than “divine” overtones” – NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

Fundamentalism normally jumps from the word “Christ” not to first-century meanings of “Messiah” but to the divinity of Jesus, which the New Testament establishes on quite other grounds”- NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

So even though every bible translation has it’s own foibles, I’ll say kudos to the scholars behind the 2012 NIV for such a translation choice. But the question is what does it matter if son of God has “messianic rather than divine overtones”? How does that affect us politically?

A Messiah is a Political Animal

My father introduced me to Handel’s Messiah when I was young, but my love for it has grown in leaps and bounds in recent times, more due to the scriptural groundings of the songs than simply their melodic value. I’m sure my wife must be getting tired of hearing Handel’s Messiah playing in the car repeatedly. Well, too bad for her.

I’m enthralled by how Charles Jennens came up with the words and George Frederic Handel put them to music to create such a wonderful oratorio to tell the story of the kingship of Jesus so beautifully. Listening to “Why do the nations” led me back to Ps 2.

Reflecting on it again, I notice many things.

  1. It speaks of “The Lord” aka Yahweh and “His Anointed” aka Messiah. Two distinct people – one empowering the other.

  2. Both Yahweh and his Messiah speak. Yahweh declares his unfettered support for the king he has installed in Zion. (v 4-6)

  3. The Messiah recounts Yahweh adopting him as his son (v 7)

  4. He mentions Yahweh having given him the nations as his inheritance and power and dominion over all the kings (v 8-11). That reminds me of a certain Jewish Messiah who told his disciples “All power and authority has been given to me, therefore …” blah blah blah. Hmm…

  5. Everyone is required to submit to him (“Kiss his son, or he will be angry”), and those who seek refuge in him will be blessed (v 12). Apparently that Jewish Messiah told his disciples to make more people like themselves who will “obey” him. Hmm…

Short, but poignant psalm. This Psalm is the clearest indication that calling Jesus Messiah is not equal to calling him God, again not because Jesus is not God, but because that’s not what Messiah or Christ meant.

But if all power has been given to this Messiah, what is he supposed to do with this power? Care only about our spiritual destiny by carrying us all off to heaven and leave this world behind, or do what an earthly king is supposed to do – administer the world rightly? Let’s look at a Messiah’s raison d’etre – his goal, his manifesto from another psalm.

In Ps 72, the Psalmist prays that God strengthen his royal son so he may achieve his tasks – his tasks of maintaining justice and speaking on behalf of the disadvantaged, including the poor, fatherless and afflicted, of rewarding righteous behaviour and punishing wrong. These are the same things that one will expect of any political world leader, not so? Interestingly v 17 links the task of the Messiah to the call of Abraham, showing that it is in him that God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants will be fulfilled. Obviously here we see a Messiah who must be involved in the earthly issues of how to put food on the table, how to work against inequity, greed, abuse and violence. This is a very earthy Messiah. This is a very political one.

And how does this the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth achieve his manifesto? By calling unto himself a people who are washed and cleansed and set apart for him, and giving them the task to show the world what his kingdom is like – to be with the lost, the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and to make them know and experience the difference between his kingdom and he kingdoms of this world. This people he calls his “church” – the elect (1 Pe 1:1; 2:9). This is not surprising, because Yahweh did the same – calling a nation called Israel to be the light to the nations and calling them his elect (Ex 19:5-6). And in both ways it’s the same – the people are called not just to tell the world what to do, but to show the world through living it out.

And yet, walk the streets of Accra, in a country with about 70% Christian population, and ask people if Jesus was a political figure, or cared about politics in any way, shape or form, and the answer you will get 90% of the time is NO. Instead you will receive the standard answer – Jesus came to die for our sins, and he said “his kingdom is not of this world”, so his only usefulness is to the spiritual salvation of man.

You can see why in Ghanaian Christendom circles then, Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit” is interpreted as blessings on those who know the depravity of their sin. As Christopher J.H. Wright puts it, it seems that somehow between the pages of Malachi (OT) and Matthew (NT), Yahweh who was so particular in his injunctions on how to care for the poor, oppressed, fatherless and widow in the OT, has totally forgotten that these people exist in the NT, and now only cares about the destiny of their souls.

How Did We Get Here?

The early church however, was very intentional in upholding and working to actualize Jesus’s kingship over the world in their times, not just in a future disembodied reality. They took his injunctions like the sermon on the mount and other such places quite seriously, whiles also acknowledging that he was more than just a king, but was also in some way equal to God. It is primarily this stance – that there is no king but Jesus – which caused them so much suffering and death at the hands of the brutal Roman empire. If it was a simple question of going to heaven, why would that ruffle the political figures?

And although there were temptations to budge (and some Christians did give in to some of these temptations), the floodgates burst open when a certain Emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as his religion and force it on everybody else in the 4th century. Suddenly there was very little suffering for listening to Jesus instead of Caesar. The leaders of the church, to keep from critiquing the usually greedy, violent and abusive behaviour of the Emperors and their governments (to different degrees, traits of every human government this day), adopted one of the most easily abused methods of reading the bible – allegorical readings aka finding spiritual symbolism even in plain, simple commands.

This meant that clear statements of Jesus regarding how his church must carry forward his vision of a kingdom NOW in waiting for a kingdom FUTURE, were allegorized away into spiritual meanings of how Jesus would reign in the future whiles the political powers could do what they wanted in the present. The church relaxed both in its loyalty to Jesus and in living out his example by itself, and became consultant to the state on morality. The Gospels were robbed of their power, and over the years have been treated as toothless documents whose purpose is to serve as a mine for moral platitudes, children’s stories, guidance on how to go to heaven and in modern times, motivational statements. Allegorization and Greco-Roman philosophy led the church to depart from the Old Testament vision of a new heaven and a new earth reiterated in the New Testament, to a focus on heaven and hell. And the effects of giving our political allegiance to worldly kings whiles we concentrate on worshiping the divine Jesus are obvious through the tracks of history.

  • In loyalty to political, social and economic interests, Christians have engaged in 400 years of slavery, justifying it by appealing to the bible, ignoring king Jesus’s manifesto on justice and respect for fellow human. Even the slavery of the Old Testament could in no way be compared to this one. American Christians had a full-scale civil war between the north and the south over the right to keep slaves. Not only was the country divided, even Christian denominations were divided because of support for or against slavery. Ironically all this happened while there was a “Great Awakening” even amongst soldiers on the battlefield, believing they have received “salvation” and a ticket to heaven when they die.

  • In loyalty to their political leaders, Christians have participated in war and violence against their fellow being, including burning millions of Jews in the holocaust, in spite of king Jesus’s commands to love our enemies.

  • In loyalty to their nations, Christians have participated in abusive exploitation and colonization of countries to further the egos of worldly Emperors and kings, and have left continents like Africa divided and confused about their identities.

  • In loyalty to tribe, religious and ethnic identity, Christians are busy today hacking their fellow Moslem brothers up in the Central African Republic, ignoring the king who would rather die for his enemy.

  • The last straw has been loyalty to self. The influence of revivalism, with a message of “salvation” focused on one’s individual self without any clear sense of community, has spawned the prosperity Gospel, and today is wrecking havoc on already poor African Christians to the enrichment of a few “men of God”. Instead of the church community becoming the people we lay down our lives for (Mark 10:29-30), our personal goals and ambitions is now king.

History has shown it to be more than obvious – nature hates a vacuum. Whenever Christians have devoted themselves to an apolitical Jesus, they get quickly co-opted by the agenda of the powers – be they tribal, political, cultural, socio-economic or personal. Additionally, whenever Christians assume that Jesus’s political methods are like those of this world, there’s compromise and self-deception. This lopsided vision of Jesus only as “God the Son” is the vision that continues to drive much of African Christianity. The missionaries, with all their good intent, have left us with a Christianity that has succeeded in changing the god we worship, but not in changing our attitudes to follow in his ways. And not knowing and following in Yahweh’s ways is tantamount to not knowing him at all (Heb 3:10; Ps 103:7).

Conclusion

So let me wrap up by asking you to do a test on yourself.

  1. If you think “salvation” is all about forgiveness of sins – you’ve lost sight of the political Messiah.

  2. If you think the endgame is either heaven or hell – you have questions to answer about why your New Testament speaks of a resurrected body for a place that doesn’t need a body.

  3. If the term “Jesus is Lord” simply leads you to think of Jesus only as a divine being sitting on a throne instead of the real President or Prime Minister of your country or the world – you’re still in the divine-Jesus-only mode.

  4. If whiles reading the Gospels, the term “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” leads you to think only of angels in the sky playing harps – you need to re-examine your eschatology.

Now that I’ve “cleared my throat” on who a Messiah truly is and what we might be missing in looking at Jesus only with divine glasses on, I can delve into Ghanaian politics in the next post. Suffice it to say that I won’t be pulling any punches on my observations on Ghanaian politics and what Jesus would make of the church’s attitude to politics today.

How Beautiful Are Your Feet?

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

There are days when you are staring a totally earth moving concept in the face, but don’t realize it. Sometimes its because this concept doesn’t come in one nicely labeled package, but as an assimilation of multiple thoughts and events put together over any length of time. Maybe it’s Scott McKnight’s commentary on the “Sermon on the Mount”. Maybe its listening to Handel’s Messiah and pondering the root of his compositions in the prophets and Psalms. Maybe its hearing from my brother Michael at our church meeting on how many Christians have a limited view of what repentance means. But all of these only added many more dimensions to something I was already convinced about.

“Christians truly get the picture wrong when we say that The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sins so we can escape the judgment of hell and go to heaven when we die”.

Just listen to a lot of evangelistic sermons aimed at “winning souls” and you will realise that it’s LARGELY about telling people to believe in Jesus so their sins will be forgiven and they go to heaven instead of hell. But not only was this not what the gospel of Jesus was about, going to heaven was not primarily what Jews were hoping for. In fact there is very little mention of what happens after a righteous Jew dies in the Old Testament and the little that is mentioned is seriously unlike our modern day picture of heaven. So the question is what would have been good news to the Jew of Jesus’s day, and by extension for us today?

The Sermon On The Mount Angle

I’ve been reading New Testament scholar Scott McKnight’s (SMcK) commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and I’d finished digesting his thoughts on “blessed are the poor in spirit”(Mt 5:3). From his exposition of the Jewish background of people who were considered “poor in spirit” (anawim) in Jesus’ day, he gave 2 classical examples of such candidates right from the gospels – Simeon and Anna both in Lk 2. He cites the fact that there were certain characteristics of the anawim – mostly that they were indeed poor (as in real poverty), and were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah to right the injustices of their age. To this end they were very devout observers of the Torah (which is evident in constant attendance at the temple by the above 2 people).

The Handel Angle (Pun Intended)

So I’d grown tired of listening to music from Incognito, an acid-jazz band, and had switched to listening to George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. I’m always amazed at Mr Handel’s adeptness with the Psalms and the Prophets in this great baroque composition, and this time I found myself pondering a bit more over “How Beautiful Are the Feet”. But it didn’t quite hit me the linkage to what I was reading on the Sermon on the Mount yet until Sunday morning, whiles getting ready to go for our church meeting. I stopped and read Isaiah 52:7-10 again, and things began to fall into place better.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’. Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”(Is 52:7-8)

The Watchmen

So where’s the link, you ask? Well it seems to me that people like Simeon and Anna were a clear example of the watchmen spoken of in Isaiah 52 above. If you pay better attention not only to Simeon and Anna’s behaviour but what they said, you will get the joke.

Simeon, a classical anawim, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). What would a Jew like Simeon have considered the consolation of Israel? The good news for Israel? To see Yahweh’s return to his people, and the revelation and of his Messiah, as Isaiah above clearly points out. Thankfully, Simeon had been assured by the holy spirit that his life’s desire will indeed be granted i.e. “he will not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (v 26). Having seen the baby Jesus, his life’s goal is achieved. He prays to Yahweh thus:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation …” (v 29-30)

Observe the parallel with Isaiah

When the Lord returns to Zion, they [the watchmen] will see it with their own eyes” (Is 52:9)

Again, the other watchman Anna also having seen the child begins to do what is expected of a watchman – telling all the people who were looking forward to going to heaven when they die the redemption of Jerusalem that their hope had indeed arrived.

Good News Indeed

From Isaiah above, the good news itself is the fact that Yahweh has returned to his people. And as a result of that he is bringing peace, he is bringing salvation, he is bringing good tidings. Having been decimated by Assyrians and then Babylonians into exile, and after returning from exile still being under the thumb of first Syria (Greece) and then Rome, the people of Israel knew that Yahweh had abandoned them. After all if Yahweh was still with them, he would not allow his temple of all places where he dwelt, to be destroyed by these enemies of God. See why Ezekiel devotes 8 chapters to talking about Yahweh rebuilding and returning to the temple?

Yet the hope that the prophets had always held out to them was that Yahweh will return, and appoint a new, more faithful king – the Messiah, sometimes referred to as the Servant, the son of God in the prophets. And this time Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, that all nations (including Gentiles like you and I) will be blessed through the nation Israel and its faithful Messiah (Ps 72) will indeed come to pass.

The gospel or good news then (and now) is that Yahweh had returned, and he had declared Jesus to be his Messiah. The surprising twist was that this Messiah was indeed Yahweh himself. This is why Mark begins his record of Jesus’s life with the statement “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

I’ve read it, and have recommended it. But I now get why NT Wright chose the title “How God became King” for his book. The Gospel is the declaration that Jesus is God’s Messiah and King of the world, and that surprisingly that Messiah was God himself.

To the evangelist, how beautiful are your feet? Are are you still busy telling people to come to Jesus so they go to heaven? Are you frightening them with hell? Are you sure you are preaching The Gospel, or you are preaching an effect of The Gospel? Because frankly the two are not the same, and most definitely do not produce the same result.

According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

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

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

Son of God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son Of God in The Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, But, But …

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

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

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

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

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

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

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

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

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

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”.