Book Review: The Lost Word of Genesis One

lost_word_john_waltonIt occurred to me this weekend that though I read and recommend many books, mostly on theology, discipleship and church practice, I’ve never written a review of any of them before for the benefit of other people who might find these books useful themselves. So henceforth, I’ll be writing reviews of books which I find significant as I read them. And I’m starting off with a highly controversial one on no other subject than Genesis One. Hope you stick around for this and other reviews in the future.

PS: This will be a long review because I have a vested interest in this subject, as I’m sure many do.

How I Came to Be Reading It

I first heard of a cosmic temple way of looking at creation from NT Wright when he referred to GK Beale. Though I’m yet to read Beale himself on the subject (his book is still on my Amazon wishlist), subsequent references to the cosmos as the temple of God by other writers, as well as of Scott McKnight’s recommendation of John H. Walton’s take on Genesis 1-3 led me to this book instead. Interestingly I read the second in this “Lost World” series – “The Lost Word of Adam and Eve” before this one, but now I wish I’d bought and read this one first. Sigh. As they say, the water has already passed under the bridge. Suffice it to say that I need to go back and read his take on Adam and Eve again.

Who the Author Is

John H. Walton is Old Testament Professor at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical university which was recently in the news in the issue of Prof Hawkins and her statements about Christians worshiping the same God as Muslims. Previously he was Old Testament Professor at Moody Bible Institute. One cannot get more conservative than Moody, which makes Walton an even more interesting character for his conclusions and perspectives.

The Book Proper

John Walton’s “The Lost Word of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” presents his ideas in the form of propositions he makes, and then explains in detail why he makes each proposition. His later propositions are more or less implications of accepting his earlier propositions, as any logical writer will do.

The Key Premise

The key to his propositions is that for too long, many interpreters of Genesis 1 have been approaching the subject from a material perspective – being more interested in the how of creation rather than a functional perspective – which is more interested in the why of creation. This has then led to the development of many “camps” in the attempt to interpret Genesis 1 to fit a materialistic ontology – ontology is a fancy word for “what it means for X to exist” where X is anything we want.

This has led to the development of 3 main camps when it comes to Genesis stories

  1. The Young Earth camp, which believe the earth must be only about 6000 years old or so and that everything happened exactly as described by Genesis 1 and reject modern scientific conclusions about the universe as we have it and the origins of humanity. Most Ghanaian Christians I know fall in this category mostly by default.

  2. The Old Earth/Intelligent Design Camp who accept most of what the scientists say about the origins of the earth i.e. that its millions of years old etc and not 6000 years or so, but still insist that the bible reveals scientifically how God created this world and must be factored into the equation when looking at scientific questions of origins.

  3. The evolutionists (both natural and theistic) evolutionists who believe that the bible doesn’t necessarily reveal the scientific details of how the earth and humans came to be, and side with whatever is the best scientific theory to explain the world and humanity today, including the current dominating theory of evolution.

John’s premise is that all these camps are stuck in a material ontology – they assume that Genesis 1-3 must be talking about the how of creation, not the why of creation. He then challenges all 3 camps to take Genesis and the Old Testament seriously not on the grounds of how modern people read a text, but how the ancient people to whom Yahweh was revealing himself as the creator of the world, would have understood what he was saying. He makes the following caution, one that expresses a warning I’ve learnt and give out to others copiously when it comes to reading the bible.

The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all mankind. But it was NOT written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel, and secondarily through Israel to everyone else”. pp 7

Ontology

He gives examples of ontology, and shows that we all do speak of ontology in different ways, but seem to limit ourselves once we come to the book of Genesis.

For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing … in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material … we can analyze what it is made from. These physical qualities are what make the chair real, and because of them, we consider it to exist”. pp 21

But he throws in another mode of “existence” – a functional mode.

Consider a restaurant that is required to display it’s current permit from the city department of health. Without that permit, the restaurant could be said not to exist, for it cannot do any business … here … it is the government permit that causes that restaurant to exist, and its existence is defined in functional terms”. pp 23

Even staying in the realm of English usage we can see that we don’t always use the verb create in material terms. When we create a committee, create a curriculum, create havoc or create a masterpiece, we are not involved in a material manufacturing process”. pp 24

In effect then, “our material view of ontology in turn determines how we think about creation”.

ANE Cultural Survey

He proceeds in a survey of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories from Israel’s neighbours – Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadian, Canaanites etc, and shows how their creation stories are functional in nature – describing how the god/gods created the earth, making it suitable for habitation by humans by establishing these:

  1. Day and night

  2. The weather cycles i.e. creation of clouds, winds, rain, sun etc.

  3. Separation of the earth from the land for vegetation to grow and to enable agriculture

Interestingly we almost see the same pattern after the flood of Noah when God promises that

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22)

Here Yahweh’s focus is not on the material form in which these things will take during their restoration, but the functional form in which they will take – to serve the needs of mankind so they can flourish again.

This doesn’t mean that the god/gods couldn’t have bothered about the exact how of their material creation, but simply that the fact that creation is material is taken for granted, and the focus is on placing these created things in such a way that it makes human life possible.

Hebrew Context of Genesis 1

Walton the proceeds to do a textual and cultural analysis of the occurrences of key words used in the creation narrative, and deals with words and phrases like “In the beginning”, “formless and void” (tohu va bohu), “create” (bara).

In the case of “bara”, the Hebrew word for “create”, he shows all the 50 occurrences of it in the Old Testament, arguing that a large percentage of the usages of the word are for non-functional purposes. He questions those who believe that “bara” in the context of Genesis 1 MUST mean material creation by the ff statement.

How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that “bara” implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity … Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the context never mentions the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e. out of nothing) … [however] the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained as indication that “bara” is not a material activity but functional one.” pp 42.

On this last point about functional usage of “bara” he makes a deeply stunning claim

This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.” pp 42.

In his opinion then, day 1 to 3 describes the creation of functions – day and night on Day 1, using the standard Jewish mode of counting days by “evening and morning” (v 3-5); the separation of waters above and waters below for dry land on Day 2 using concepts that were normal to ancient people because in ancient times people believed the sky was solid, holding up the rain with windows being opened to cause rain to fall ( v 6-8); and God simply speaking (this time the word “create” or “made” is not even used) to cause the separation of land from sea and speaking again to cause the land to produce vegetation.

Day 4 to 6 then describe functionaries – those who will function within ordered space. Day 4 sees the creation of the greater light (sun) and the lesser light (moon) to govern the day and night, and to mark off “signs, seasons, days and years”. I commend the NIV’s translation that says “let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years”. Walton points out that “The Hebrew word [seasons] when it is used elsewhere designates the festival celebrations that are associated with the sowing season, the harvesting season and so on”. The word then should not be associated with our scientific “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall” or the Ghanaian “Harmattan and Rainy Season”. Note again that in Day 4 to 6, Yahweh largely speaks, assigning function, which is common to ANE contexts when a functional mode of creation is in view. Where he “creates”, he’d already “spoken” of what these functionaries should do, which should point us to the functional nature of the usage of the word “bara”/ “create” in these passages. Of course in Day 6, he creates mankind in his image. Note here that it doesn’t say he created Adam and Eve, but mankind. This leaves room for questions about whether Adam and Eve are the first human beings or not, but that’s a question for the second book.

Walton’s conclusions on Day 7 was for me the most revealing portion, shedding light on the rest of the days before it, and also on the rest of the bible story. Walton points out that whereas most modern people would have seen Day 7 as God simply resting i.e. taking a nap after all the hard work six days prior, an ANE reader will have seen it for exactly what it is – when a god/gods enter a temple to take their “rest”, it means it’s now time for the god/gods to actually operate after the previous days of preparation/consecration of that temple for the god. “Rest” then is not the ceasing of work for its sake, but the operation of a temple according to the way it’s supposed to have been operated after all the functions have been put in place and the functionaries i.e. priests have been appointed and consecrated. This would then hark back to the 2 Chron 5 and 1 Kings 8 where immediately the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple built by Solomon, the glory of the Lord filled the temple, a sign that Yahweh had “rested” in his temple after the 7 long years of construction, and which “rest” was then followed by “seven days and seven days more” of feasting by the people of Israel (1 Ki 8:65). It is from this Day 7 that Walton obtains the term “cosmic temple inauguration” to describe this view of Genesis 1.

Summary

Based on these descriptions of the functional nature of God’s creative activity in the 6 days of creation, and his “rest” on the 7th day, Walton proceeds in his remaining propositions to explain the implications of reading Genesis 1 as a functional and not material creation description.

  1. Though certain camps claim that they are taking Genesis 1 “literally”, they might find that they are rather imposing modern categories of material ontology on an ancient document whose focus is on functional ontology (I’m looking at you, Young Earth creationists). Speaking on the subject of “literal” meanings, he retorts “Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion” pp 169.

  2. There’s no need for Christians to insist that science MUST align with Genesis, and the effort to align Genesis with science, especially to insist that the dominant scientific theory has holes in it that can only be filled by the existence of God (aka God of the gaps or Intelligent Design) is again barking up the wrong tree. Here I quote Walton himself – “If randomness cannot be sustained in certain cases, that still does not ‘prove’ design. Likewise, if design cannot be sustained in certain cases, that does not ‘prove’ randomness”. He goes on to say “We are fully aware that what we call ‘scientific truth’ one day may be different from the next day. Divine intention must not be held hostage to to the ebb and flow of scientific theory”.

  3. Modern Christianity must revises it’s attachment to the “natural/supernatural” dualism that modernization has now imbued us with. A large part of the resistance towards science is driven by the fear that if science provides a “natural” cause for an event, it means God could not have been involved in it. The idea of a “natural”/ “supernatural” explanation for the occurrences we find in creation is not natural to ancient readers, and is imported into the text by modern readers.

  4. Having revised our dualism as above, Christianity must then resist the attempt by some scientists to assert that because evolution may be the best scientific explanation for the world today, it presupposes that there is no meaning to our existence because “God couldn’t have been involved in it”. Science cannot prove purpose, it can only explain process. The idea that creation is purposeless is exactly what a cosmic temple view of Genesis undermines – it rather puts more responsibility on us as Christians to realize that existence is teleological i.e. purposeful. It has a goal, signified by understanding Genesis 1 as God creating for us a place where he could dwell with us and where we could share with him the task of taking good care of his temple – of his sacred space. No matter what scientific theory explains how we got here, that purpose will never change.

  5. Christians then should not feel the need to choose “science or faith”, because Genesis 1 is not meant to be a scientific description of material creation. Christians can and must engage in the sciences fully, knowing that their goal, just like every scientist is to make discoveries that are beneficial to human flourishing, whether other scientists are unwilling to admit God’s activity in those discoveries or process or not. Schools should teach whatever scientific explanations are currently accepted, without asserting meaninglessness or purposelessness.

Why I Find Him Convincing

Many people will find John H. Walton’s perspectives uncomfortable, and although there are still a few questions brewing in my head, I find his cosmic temple inauguration view a much better model of understanding Genesis 1 than the young Earth Creationist one I grew up with. My reasons are below.

  1. Having received previous theological shocks through reading New Testament theology with the history of 2nd temple Judaism in mind, I’ve come to see how immensely important historical context is to reading a text. Therefore I have no qualms at all with Walton’s prejudicing of Ancient Near Eastern history as a means of understanding Genesis 1. Cultures are never isolated and always imbibe and absorb from one another. To think that ancient Israel will be immune to this is to ignore the reality of human societies in favour of utopia.

  2. A cosmic temple view of creation makes sense of God’s desires to dwell with his people expressed in the Old Testament, and is also in line with the picture and activities of God revealed in Revelations 21 & 22 where heaven and earth come together and God dwells amongst us, with no temple because he himself is the temple.

  3. A cosmic temple view of creation, with humans being the images of the God of this temple, aligns very well also with both the Old and New Testament emphasis on God’s people (whether Israel in ancient times or the church today) being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, tasked with carrying forth the task of “subduing the earth” i.e. of taking care of God’s temple in which we live.

  4. Walton’s views radically change the relationship between science and faith. Christians can stop being so scared of science not aligning with Genesis and get on with the business and purposes of their God – a purpose that science can never discover (because teleology is not possible to establish scientifically), but which Yahweh revealed to ancient Israel and which we have received today to carry forward.

  5. His view of rest also helps to explain Jesus’s almost “lackadaisical” attitude towards the Sabbath. Contrary to the idea of taking a nap, Jesus shocks the Pharisees with the statement that “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I’m working too” (Jn 5:17). Sabbath should remind us of whose in charge, and remind us of what we are called to be – stewards of the one in charge for the benefit of humanity and for creation itself. Hesitation in that responsibility of care is to lose sight of that calling, whether it’s a Sabbath or not.

Okay, this has been too long a post already. I hope to bring you a review of “The Lost World of Adam And Eve” soon, as I need to go back and digest it again. But certainly, Walton has an admirer in me.

Advertisements

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

I’ve been meaning to do a series on common statements that Ghanaian Christians make on a day to day basis which have become accepted, but where what we actually mean by such statements are totally unrelated to how those phrases are used biblically, or a sheer abuse of the phrase for a parochial interest. I start off with one that is very popular among Ghanaian Christians, but which has a very negative effect on our ability to actually follow in the example of Jesus.

Twi: “Enfa wo were enhye nipa mu”

English: “Do not put your trust in man”

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

This is probably the most used and abused phrase by Ghanaian gospel musicians and preachers alike. It is typically meant to convey the idea that when one has a problem, it is useless to actually seek help and advise from any human being about it, including even one’s brethren in Christ.

This way of interpreting the above scriptural statement is further aggravated by the incidence of gossip that is so rife in many churches. As a result, church (in a lot of Christians’ experience) is no longer a safe place for one to find brethren who can be of help in one’s journey of faith and in whom one can confide. Finally, it has led many Ghanaians to anachronistically now put their faith in so called “men of God”, because they are the ones whom God listens to, so God can solve their problem.

In summary then, this phrase has come to mean simply “Everyone for himself, God for us all”. The Ghanaian Christian usage of this phrase is akin to a picture of many people gathered in a building and each person taking their own telephone line and making a call to God to tell them their personal problems. At the end of the day, we all say goodbye and we go home.

What The Phrase Means in Context

Ps 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save”

Ps 118:8-9 “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

Is 2:22 Stop trusting in mere humans,who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?

One of the easiest clues to what the authors meant is by asking why apart from skepticism about “trust in human beings”, they almost always add skepticism about trust in “princes”. This alone should sound the alarm bells that the authors of the Old Testament were not talking about refraining from telling your brother that you are hungry and broke.

You see, the people of Israel had a covenant relationship with Yahweh, which required that if they are faithful to their side of the covenant, Yahweh will remain faithful to his. One of the obligations of the covenant on Yahweh as captured in Torah (the books of Moses) was that he was to be the protector of that nation, in so far as the nation stayed faithful to him. This reciprocal relationship is what is captured in Deut 28-30, in what people sometimes describe as “blessings and curses” of the Law.

Yahweh in many ways forbid Israel from having a standing army, so that the people of Israel will rely on him to save them, not on their military might. A clear example of this is how Yahweh orders Gideon to reduce the size of his army by so using methods like asking them to drink water at a river and choosing those who did it right, etc etc. (Judges 6-7). But as usual the nation sometimes got scared when an enemy was at their gates, and some of their kings refused to rely on Yahweh for salvation, but to form alliances with other nations for their protection. The problem with such alliances was that since every nation in the Ancient Near East had it’s own god/gods, this presupposes that Israel was no longer relying on Yahweh but on the god of whatever nation they were looking up to, which was the functional equivalent of idolatory and sin. Therefore the prophets never ceased to criticize these alliances and the kings/leaders of Israel who forged them with their neighbours, warning that such alliances are an idolatrous breach of the covenant with Yahweh and will bring negative consequences. An example of such criticism is Is 30.

Is:30:1-2; “Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge.”

In context then, these warnings are to ensure that Israel should not abandon trust in Yahweh to defend them and to keep his promises, and has very little to do with listening to and helping one another.

So What?

If we are going to extrapolate what lessons this holds for us today, we should rather be realizing that God is questioning the Christian church’s and it’s membership’s faith in political institutions, rather than preventing us from sharing our concerns with one another in church.

Have we not noticed how Christians, even church leaders, feel so frustrated with government after government for not “fighting corruption” or “fixing the economy” or proposing to “solve dumsor in 3 months”? Have we not noticed our churches holding “thanksgiving services” (whatever that means) for our political parties et al? Is it not a sign that we have put our faith in “princes” and “human beings”, when we should be putting our faith in Jesus? Or is it because paying attention to Jesus actually means when times are hard we should actually be caring for our church members instead of asking more money from them and complaining that “the bad economy has affected our collections”?

Ironically, there’s a Ghanaian saying that “the one who sells his sickness finds a cure for it”. Can we go back to selling our sicknesses to one another as the New Testament shows, that we may be rid of this abuse of scripture and stop doing harm to the body of Christ?

Once Saved, Always Saved? Of Course!!

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

A few days ago someone asked me a question that I’d been asked quite a few times before, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to give him a direct answer to his question. This is because over the years, my own understanding of the issue had grown beyond “is it this or that” to questioning the assumptions behind that question. Since my alarm deceived me and made me wake up at 3 am instead of 5am this morning, I thought to make good use of the time and share here the question and how I now approach it.

The Question

Is it possible to lose one’s salvation or is it ‘once saved always saved’?”

This is typically asked by someone who tends to be worried that a fellow brother or sister may be taking their “salvation” for granted and not living according to what the questioner expects them to live as a Christian. The legalist in us then seeks to warn the “sinner” that they may loose their salvation as the New Testament would seem to suggest in different places, whiles the “sinner” will also strongly hold to the libertine stance of “there is no condemnation for me” also found in so many other places in the NT.

How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.

The Assumptions

One of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to put grace front and center of the Christian life and doctrine, and we can all be thankful for that. However, this achievement was not without a fair amount of “demonization” of 1st century Judaism by interpreting the letters of Paul in a certain angle.

The Roman Catholic church had taken up the payment of penances and indulgences as a means of giving one’s favourite dead grandmother a quick passport to heaven instead of her spending a few hundred years in purgatory (after all who doesn’t love their adoring grandmother). This practice became an issue of concern to Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other leaders of the protest movement, and to buttress their arguments against an obviously wrong practice, they harnessed Paul’s writings on grace against law to finally break away from the Catholic church. In this scheme of things, the Roman Catholic church were cast as Paul’s 1st century “Judaizers” who thrived by “works” aka penances and indulgences, whiles they the reformers represented Paul, wielding one thing only – grace. The rest as they say is history.

Unfortunately this has coloured the way a lot of us read the Old but especially the New Testament, and even the gospel itself has been reduced to a question of grace as opposed to what it is about – that Jesus is Lord of the world.

What the past century is teaching us though is that Judaism was not quite the “works” religion that we thought it was (or at least not as defined by the Reformation). And in fact if we are to pay better attention, we might realize that Christianity and 1st century Judaism have a lot more in common, and maybe we have been asking the wrong question about salvation being lost or not for quite a while.

The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament

A closer attention to the Torah seems to yield the fact that Israel was a chosen nation by grace. They didn’t work for it, they didn’t have to pay any penances or indulgences to be a chosen people of God. They were chosen because their forefather Abraham had shown faith in God’s promise to remake the world through him. Simple and short.

In fact, Moses had to remind them how they become a chosen people: because he loved their ancestors.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Deut 10:14-15 “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.”

Do you realize the similarities between this and Paul’s statements about being chosen, being saved, grace etc not because of our “works” but BECAUSE GOD LOVES JESUS and Christians who are in Christ are also loved and saved?

Rom 8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

Eph 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”

Eph 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

These similarities should tell us 2 things.

  1. There is very little doubt that the principle of favouring a people because of someone else’s status before God is what runs through both the Old and New covenants and these 2 people are Abraham and Jesus Christ. In the case of the Old covenant, being born an Israelite was all it took, in the case of the New covenant, being born of Christ is all it takes.

  2. The point about grace is about election – who are the chosen people of God. An individual may be added to the people of God (aka saved by grace), but the covenant is not just about their individual selves but about God’s intent for the corporate entity called “the people of God”. In the latter, it is Israel, in the former it is the church.

Therefore if the old covenant only required being born an Israelite, then one needed to somehow declare oneself not an Israelite anymore for one to be outside the grace of God. I believe the same applies to a Christian. Once saved, they are indeed “under grace” forever unless they choose not to be.

The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness

But the point of being the chosen people of God was always meant to achieve something beyond themselves. The point of being a chosen people was so they could point the rest of the world to Yahweh. To enable them do this, Yahweh gives them a set of laws to obey which if they obeyed, it will be well with they themselves as well as draw others to be attracted to this god called Yahweh.

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham

Gen 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; … and all peoples on earth will be blessed THROUGH you.”

What was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness? Not that they will no longer be considered God’s chosen people (people of grace), but even whiles still being considered so, will suffer judgment, great loss and ultimately exile, as documented in Deut 28-30. Of course we know that these judgments did come upon them with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the evidence for that is well documented in the stories of the kings and prophets.

What do we find in the New covenant? Jesus launches his ministry and calls many to follow him. He tells people that being children of Abraham is no longer enough, but rather following him is. Behaving strikingly like Moses giving the law to Israel, he also takes his place on a mountain and delivers what most scholars refer to as his Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. Even while delivering it he places down his warnings as well, just like Moses.

Mt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Elsewhere in John 15 he says he is the vine, and his followers are the branches. But they will be judged if they don’t bear fruit.

John 15:5;16 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”

The Answer To The Question

It would seem then that although the covenants may be different, the intended goal was and has always been the same. God chooses a people out of his love (grace) and not because of what they’ve done (works), and sets them on a journey beyond themselves to do WORKS because of his redemptive plan for the whole world. The same Ephesian letter says it quite succinctly.

Eph 2:10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”

Grace always goes with covenant faithfulness, and the disciples being normal 1st century Jews (and not 16th century Europeans) didn’t pretend about this at all even in the new covenant.

Its sad to note then that Martin Luther in his unfortunate attempt to demonize works, was actually in favour of removing the book of James from the Protestant bible because James said things like this

James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”

That would have been a grave loss to the Protestant church if the other Reformation leaders had agreed to this proposal.

Salvation then (as put in the original question. Salvation means much more but we’re sticking to the above usage) is about inclusion into the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ. God has no intention of taking that inclusion away from you if you don’t exclude yourself. After all what shall separate you from the love of God (Rom 8:35)?

However, it is a recruitment call of those who are glad to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Non-participation, or false participation, will always go with severe judgment. The old covenant had it, the new is not getting rid of it anytime soon. Not even if Martin Luther wants to.

Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

The Law and Grace: Differences Between the Covenants

I find that one of the greatest confusions created by dominant Christianity today is the (un)intentional mingling and confusion of some of the foundations or truths of the covenants of the Law and that of Grace (or Old and New Testaments). I’ll try in this post to outline some of differences between them and how these understandings should influence our actions as Christians.

  1. The New Testament is based on what God “promised to our fathers” (Ac 13:32; 2 Co 7:1;2 Pe 3:4,9). It is based on unconditional promises made to Abraham (Ge 12:2-3;15:4-21; Gal 3:14,16) and repeated his immediate descendants Isaac (Ge 26:24) and Jacob (Ge 28:13-15) and also to David (2 Sa 7:11-16;Is 55:3-5). However after 400 years of giving the promises he now creates a new covenant – one based on a conditional promise (Ex 19:5) to his favourite nation Israel (contained in all of Ex 19-24). Heb 8:6 says the New Testament is founded on better promises. You see why?
  2. Both covenants had mediators, and the Old Testament’s mediator was Moses (Dt 5:4-5; Jn 1:17; Gal 3:19). However there is something unique about the New Testament. Because it is based on an unconditional promise, it means that one cannot appeal to any middle person to force compliance or fulfillment of that promise (it is self-maledictory – Heb 6:13-14,18). The delivery of that promise is based on the person’s own honour. God is forced to fulfill his sworn promise by coming down on earth himself in the form of Christ. And so Christ is the mediator of the covenant which He himself, as the word of God (Jn 1:1) covenanted with the fathers (1 Ti 2:5;Heb 12:24; 8:6; 9:15). This is what Paul meant when he said “A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one” (Gal 3:20). God himself is the keeper/enforcer of his own covenant through Christ – no middleman.
  3. The promises made to the fathers contained elements for not only Israel’s attention but for the whole world at large. God tells Abraham that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”. He reiterates it to Jacob as well (Ge 28:13-15). God tells David that his kingdom will be established and will rule the world forever. However note what Moses says in Dt 5:3: “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today”. Ex 19:5 says “out of all nations you will be my treasured possession”. The Law was given for Israel and Israel alone to follow. It could be applied to a gentile only if they had been converted to Judaism.
  4. In the Old Testament a tribe was set aside as the tribe of priests, the Levites. They alone were to offer prayers and sacrifices both on behalf of themselves and the nation under the leadership of a high priest. In the New Testament, the High Priest is Christ himself (Heb 8:1-2) who once and for all performed the sacrifice in the heavenly typification of the earthly temple with his blood (Heb 9:23-26). This is in stark contrast to the Old Testament where the chief priest had to offer blood again and again to cleanse both himself and the nation. Also the New Testament considers all its partakers priests. All these priests must act under the direction of the Holy Spirit and display different gifts and ministries in an equal brotherhood as children of promise (Joel 2:28; Jer 31:34; Eph 4:11;1 Co 12:7-11). There is no division between so called “clergy” and “laity” (1 Pe 2:4-5; 9-10) as this is just an attempt by self-serving men to use OT priesthood to confuse and therefore gain control over their fellow NT brothers (Gal 4:21-31). “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come – one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (Heb 7:11). No wonder Gal 5:1 says “do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery“.
  5. In the Old Testament tithes were paid to the Levitical priesthood and they alone had the right to determine what to do with it – “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting” (Nu 18:21,24;Mal 3:8). Abraham paid his tithe to Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Ge 14:18-20). Tithing began before the Law was given and the first instance of it was not to a Levite, for they did not exist then. However, in the Law God redirected it to be paid to them. The New Testament, founded on the “promises to the fathers” and not on the Law requires that we pay our tithe to our High Priest whose priesthood is “of the order of Melchizedek”. As Heb 7:9-10 says, even Levi can be considered to have paid it even when he was still in the loins of his forbearer Abraham. Because the New Testament banishes the Levitical priesthood (v 11), the already illegal “clergy” has no right to claim tithes paid by Christians to Christ as theirs. We as a “people”, a “priesthood” and a “nation” of and belonging to Christ have the right to determine what we want to do with our tithes, which could include giving “double honour” to the elders whose work is teaching and preaching (1 Ti 5:17-18). They themselves cannot claim “Levitical priesthood” and do what they want with it. I hope they realise that “when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Heb 7:12) and come to repentance. Our tithing as Christians is not paid to Old Testament Levitical priesthood but to the priest “of the order of Melchizedek” – Christ. Christians must wake up and stop being deceived by the so called “men of God”.
  6. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit came upon men and women of God, such as his prophets, kings etc (Jg 6:34;1 Sa 10:10). In those times the Holy Spirit was an influence that came upon them to do the will of God. In contrast the Spirit lives with and in men and women of the New Testament (Jn 14:15-17;Jn 7:37-38;Joel 2:28;Ac 2:4;Eph 5:18). That is why Paul says we individually are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Co 6:19) and as a group are also the temple of the Spirit (1 Co 3:16). The work of conviction of the unrepentant person is done by the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:8), therefore the Old Testament experience of the influence of the Spirit exist for anyone who comes into Christianity anew. But the new experience of the Spirit must be felt by him filling each and every disciple. He is our only source of power to do good works (Ac 1:8), the seal guaranteeing our inheritance (Eph 1:14), the One who leads us into all truth (Jn 16:13), teaches us the mind of God (1 Co 2:10,16) and binds us together into one body (1 Co 12:13) . Works done without the direction of the Spirit does not and cannot please God (Ro 8:6-8;Gal 5:16-18). His indwelling presence in every believing Christian cannot be overemphasized, failure of which only leads to “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Ti 3:5). No doubt the majority of the church today is guilty of this grave sin, with orthodox Christianity the most guilty.
  7. The Old Testament had special days and times set aside for special events – Passover, Sabbath, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Tabernacles etc (Lev 23). However, all these were set aside with the coming into being of the New Testament, especially for us Gentiles (Gal 3:23-25). That is why Paul was concerned when he found the Galatians “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal 4:10). The only sacrament of the New Testament covenant is that of The Lord’s Supper and no more. This is one reason why it is not a vital issue whether we meet on a Saturday or Sunday so far as we do not neglect gathering together to encourage and build up one another, and another reason why the early predominantly Gentile church decided to meet on “the Lord’s day” (Ac 20:7). However modern Christianity has burdened itself with all sorts of institutionalized Christmases and Easters and Lents etc. Observe that anytime God told Abraham to do something and he (Abraham) did something else in addition, trouble came out of such an action. Look at the trouble Lot brought him (Ge 13-14) when God gave a simple instruction – “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household …” (Gen 12:1). God promised him a son by Sarah, but being impatient he had to go for one from Hagar first and we all know how his descendants are suffering for that. Are we trying to write our own version of the Law? Now Christianity finds its “special days” hijacked by the world for it’s own pleasures and we are battling to explain to an unrepentant world the significance of our own self-instituted, non-scriptural “special days”. Santa Claus is going nowhere. We created him!

These are a few that I’ve discovered so far. Hope to flesh it up with more as the Holy Spirit gives the guidance. In the meantime ponder them in your head, and find out whether you are being “Lawful” or “Graceful”.