Healing the Divide II – Grace and Works

Grace

This is the 2nd in my series “Healing The Divide”. Find Pt 1 here

As a young, impressionable Pentecostal, one of the things that was drummed into my head about Jesus and his fractious relationship to certain people groups recorded in the Gospels – Pharisees and 1st century Jews in general – was that these people groups tried to gain their salvation through “works”, whiles Jesus came to bring us salvation through “grace”. As I grew up, I realized that this wasn’t just the teaching of the church I grew up in, but rather the standard teaching in myriads of Ghanaian churches, and indeed in the wider body of Protestant churches worldwide. The cardinal proof-text for this has been 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 2:-9

And yet over the last century or more, there has been quite a change among scholars about the relationship between grace and works, especially with regards to how 1st century Jews at the time of Jesus understood them. It began with 3 friends, C.H Dodd, David Daube and W.D. Davies. It was taken up further by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish scholar, but was set out in full swing by E.P. Sanders, a student of W. D. Davies. And it focused simply on applying a rule that any intelligent, honest person who wants to know the truth about any other people group or religion can universally agree with.

When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. (Rule 1 of Krister Stendahl’s 3 Rules of Religious Understanding)

In simple terms, if you want to learn the most about Islam, you should ask a Muslim, not a Buddhist or Christian. Applying this maxim to Judaism i.e. studying Jewish sources to understand what “grace” and “works” meant to them and not what Christians (who can be considered “enemies” in this case) thought they meant, they found out an astonishing truth – that many Christians, especially since the Protestant Reformation, may have misunderstood Paul when he spoke about the relationship between “grace” and works. Today of course, many others like James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright , Scott McKnight (belonging to a school of scholars collectively referred to as “New Perspective(s) on Paul”) have taken up that challenge and have done further research to improve our understanding of 1st century Judaism and therefore these matters of salvation, grace, works etc. But it seems it will take a few light years before this knowledge trickles down to our churches, as many still talk in the same old ways about grace and works. So here’s my attempt to help the process along by bringing them together in the whole that they need to be held in.

Grace and Salvation in the OT

I begin by examining the relationship between grace and salvation from the New Testament’s own historical context – the context of 1st century Israel. And what better place to learn about salvation than the events of the exodus?

The first recorded use of the word “salvation” or “redemption” is used by Moses in his song written to commemorate God’s work of saving Israel from Egypt in Exodus 15.

The Lord is my strength and my defense, he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2).

After saving them, Yahweh then enacts a covenant with them, and in that process, explains why he saved them.

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 and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut :7-8)

In other words, God’s salvation of Israel was also by grace – they didn’t earn it. They didn’t work for it. God chose them because of his special promise made to their fathers. The only “problem” is that they didn’t use the word “grace” to describe their salvation in the Old Testament, but if “grace” means unmerited favour like we Christians trumpet everyday, then this fits perfectly with what happened between Yahweh and ancient Israel. For them, works was a means of showing faithfulness to the covenant the God had entered to with Israel, not a means to get saved. As Michael Gorman points out in his book on atonement (which is now my favourite on the subject), the whole point of Jesus’s death as well as God’s previous engagement with the people of Israel was about covenant relationship, which covenant always required both partners to keep the terms of the covenant, whether with Israel or with the church.

This debunks one of the greatest caricatures that many Christians make of Judaism i.e. Pharisees and Jews in general were trying to get “saved” by works. Nothing could be further from the truth, as modern scholarship is discovering.

Having broken this covenant and received God’s punishment for doing so in the form of exile to Babylon, the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were now waiting for Yahweh to re-enact a new covenant with them, by first forgiving them of their previous unfaithfulness or “sins”, as captured by Jer 31:31-34. And this Jesus enacted through the shedding of his blood, though this time he opens the floodgates for others who are not Jews to also be part-takers of God’s new covenant. This was expected to be another work of “salvation”, as expressed by the prophets. The return of Yahweh to enact this new covenant and to “save” them is what Isaiah describes in chapter 52 as “good news”.

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)

Grace and Salvation in the NT

In Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, Paul realized that God’s promise to enact a new covenant and to also include the Gentiles in that covenant had been fulfilled. He therefore dedicated his life to letting the world know this, especially the Gentile world. But some Jews were still under the impression that even if Gentiles were now part of the new covenant, they needed to show their faithfulness to Yahweh in the old way – by keeping Torah just as they did. These Jews expected the Gentiles to at least observe the key commands which usually set Jews apart from others – circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, observance of the holy days and eating “kosher” i.e. observance of food laws (Col 2:16). These, scholars point out, are what Paul describes as “works of the law”. This became a point of disagreement between Paul and these people he called “Judaizers”.

Paul argued in his letters, especially in Romans and in Galatians, that the Gentiles do not need to show their faithfulness to Jesus by observing Torah (the Law), but simply by faith in Jesus and faithfulness to Jesus alone. Part of the problem was that Torah itself was meant to separate Jews from Gentiles, therefore keeping it would break the new union between the two that Jesus now provided. Paul was at pains to show then that in Jesus, the Law was no longer in effect, and this he did with his letters.

This is why the same Eph 2, expounds what “saved” means – “saved” means being made eligible to be part of God’s covenant people.

Therefore, [picking up from arguing that salvation is by faith, not works] remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done by human hands) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:11-13)

In effect, just as God rescued Israel by “grace” based on his love for their father Abraham – the faithful one, in the same way God is now rescuing the whole world based on his love for Jesus – the faithful one.

So What About Works Then?

So if keeping Torah was bound to bring back the divisions again, does that mean the people of the new covenant do not have any law to guide them? Far from that, I say. In the same Eph 2, Paul makes a very profound statement, stating the REASON why we are saved.

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

A 1st century Jew reading this would not have been surprised at all, because as in the old covenant, covenant membership MUST always lead to covenant obedience. The salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt was for a purpose – that by obedience to Yahweh, they may show the world his design for human existence. Hence the expansion of that salvation to cover the Gentiles is still meant to achieve the same thing – that they may do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

It is here that Jesus’ life and commands in the Gospels take their place of pride. The “good works” are not a vague term that we can define for ourselves (as I often hear some preachers do). Peter explains exactly what “good works” means by referring to none other than the life of Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good …” (Act 10:37-38)

This is also why I really appreciate the Epistle of James – because he makes the linkage very clear – faith without works is dead. Being a Jew, he know that faith without works is what led to the Babylonian exile, and Paul like James, knows that our works will be judged in the end for faithfulness.

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light” (1 Cor 3:13)

In fact I thank God everyday that Martin Luther’s attempt to have the Epistle of James and the book of Hebrews removed from the Protestant canon failed (because it somehow advocated “works” according to his definition of it). It would have been a great disservice to the church.

Reflections

The God of the Bible has shown himself to be a God of covenants. Christian understandings of salvation, grace and works must be primarily taught of as a means for us to enter into and stay faithful in God’s covenant relationship with his nation – which in the Old Testament was Israel, but which in the New Testament is Israel expanded to include Gentiles.

However, this way of understanding salvation, grace and works is not the typical way it is taught in churches today, because it is at variance with the way Protestant Christianity has first and foremost misunderstood ancient Judaism as a “works-righteousness” religion, and thence constructed itself as a “grace-only” religion. Some in this Christian tradition have taken this “grace-only” language to such extremes even beyond the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, and any hint that Martin Luther or John Calvin et al may have been mistaken in their understanding of Judaism (which should be normal, since they didn’t have access to the knowledge we have today) is met with accusations of heresy. But for me, an understanding of the New Testament based on a proper, contextual understanding of the Old Testament is vital and yields the following benefits.

  1. The current modes of speaking of “grace” and “salvation” lend themselves to individualism. Salvation is a call to each individual to participate in God’s covenant purposes he has already established before the foundation of the earth. Thinking in this mode expands our vision of God’s purposes beyond “me, myself and I” to “what has God done and is doing with me, and with these brethren of mine”.

  2. Current teaching in Protestant circles tends to not know exactly what to do with the church. We quote the terms “body of Christ” with very little effect, because our gospel and our understanding of salvation is very individualistic, we don’t see the covenant, corporate nature of this people we gather together every Sunday are meant to achieve a goal that no other group on this earth can achieve.

  3. An understanding of “grace” as God’s means of reconciling all forms of ethnic, racial and socially diverse people into one united body through the death of Jesus would have empowered the church to stand against 400 years of slavery in Europe and America (heavily engaged in by “Christian” nations), colonialism and its abuses (same here) , apartheid in South Africa (openly supported by the Dutch reformed church, whose members were the political leaders), anti-semitism and Christian participation in the killing of 6 million Jews in Germany (again, whose political leaders where either Catholic or Lutheran), and participation in countless wars with fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead, the church would have behaved like Andre Trocme and his church in Le Chambon in France, who harbored Jews at the peril of their lives during World War 2 (when confronted by the authorities about habouring Jews his response was “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings”). I was indeed surprised when I got to know that during the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther unfortunately supported the killing of Jews. Reflecting on it, I realized that if his understanding of “grace” didn’t involve God’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, but was focused on how people got a ticket to heaven, then it was bound to happen.

  4. Because of the denigration of “works”, Christians have tended not to pay attention to Jesus’s own life and examples – preferring to see them as “too hard” and meant for heaven, or reading them as nice Sunday school stories from which moral platitudes may be obtained. Any attempt by Christians to take Jesus seriously is met with the charge of “trying to gain salvation by works”.

  5. Talk of the Holy Spirit is again, individualized. Instead of the Spirit being the means by which the church is guided to reach its goal, it is spoken of largely in terms of how a particular person can have the Spirit as a genie in the bottle – rub it the right way and say all your wishes, and it will be done.

Conclusion

These days, even the New Perspective on Paul is becoming old news, as others are building on that work to further expand our understanding of Jesus. Certainly, salvation must lead to works. God accepts us by looking at the sacrifice made by Jesus – but he always had a goal – to co-rule this world with his covenant people. This is what Adam and Eve failed at – without dependence on God (in a covenant of obedience), they were bound to follow their own way of claiming to “know good and evil”. In the same way, without faithfulness to God in covenant relationship as modeled by Jesus, the church will go wrong, and do all that it was rather supposed to stand against.

Grace and works cannot be separated. The former must lead to participation in the latter. Thank God for the New Perspective(s) on Paul, and may others take what they’ve done and open further insights in faithfulness to Yahweh, just as the Protestant Reformation did 500 years ago.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has Conquered, Let us Follow Him.

The Crisis of Ghanaian Christianity: Lessons from Anabaptism and Beyond

prosperity-dummiesThere is a narrative that has somehow gained traction amongst Western Christians regarding Christianity in Africa. This narrative is that though the church may be declining in the West, it is actually doing well and growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Well, I can only speak to the African side of the story. And from my vantage point, this narrative needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to Africa, especially to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. I tend to find myself often amongst Christians who are concerned about the trajectory of Ghanaian Christianity in particular, but also something that is happening in parallel across other African countries with Christian populations. During such conversations, I inevitably hear the refrain – “the churches are not preaching salvation anymore”. This is because of the rise and rapid spread of the innocuous “prosperity gospel” in Ghanaian churches. It’s now on the TV via televangelists, in our so-called “gospel” music and in our pulpits. These friends then, pine for the days when the sermons from the pulpits were focused on “preaching the bible”, condemning sin and teaching us how to be better Christians (on an individual level); basically what Dallas Willard referred to as “sin-management”. I chose then to write this to help my good friends make sense of what the real problems are, and to help my readers not in Africa to better discern when they find themselves interacting with Christianity of an African origin.

I used to think that was the solution as well, but my Christian journey has led me to question not just the “prosperity gospelers”, but the “salvation preachers”. And this is not because I don’t believe in salvation anymore – far from that. My challenge to the salvation gospelers has been that their definition of salvation is too narrow, and has actually actively contributed to the rise of the prosperity gospelers. Let me explain.

Some 30 years ago, the landscape of churches in Ghana was dominated by Roman Catholic as well as churches of a Reformed theological leaning – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Anglican et al – which in Ghana are referred to quite confusingly as “orthodox churches” (whereas globally, Orthodox is used to refer to Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek and Russian church etc, which have no footprint here in Ghana). At this time also, there was a budding number of Pentecostal churches, and a few charismatic ones. Let’s not forget the African Instituted Churches like the Mosama Disco Christo Church and the like. Most Christians desired to be associated with one of these well structured denominations.

The dominant theology of the Protestant ones among the above was the well known revivalist one of getting souls saved from sin. The regular mantra at crusades I attended was “Jesus is coming soon. You don’t know your destiny after your death. Come to Jesus and be saved, so you will also be with him in heaven when he returns or when you die” or something of the sort. The usual alter calls were made, people were saved and became church members, warming the pews and being taxed every Sunday for a church project or the other that had almost nothing to do with their daily lives and needs. A few of the poorer members of the churches did get some help once in a while, but this was not because there was a concerted effort of these churches to intentionally mitigate poverty, but because of the generosity of a few members who were approached. There was very little effort by the leadership to intentionally integrate the different classes of people that made it to these churches, so the usual social structures from which converts came continued to perpetuate themselves in these churches. But then these weren’t big issues, after all the church’s responsibility was to ensure the convert’s eternal destiny was secured. Being structurally heirarchical, leadership was dominantly more worried about how to get on the next rung of the ladder than what the real needs of the local church was. Embedded in this theology and practice was the subtle but deeply ingrained notion within Protestant Christianity that the gospel was about each individual’s salvation. And this individualism is what has and continues to be it’s weakness to this day.

This state of affairs is what most people with whom I speak on this matter refer to when they talk about churches “not preaching salvation anymore”. And this is what NT scholar Scot McKnight has to say on that yearning.

The revivalists sold us short at times in focusing so much on the past tense of salvation … as well as the future tense, eternal life – but not enough on the present: kingdom life in the church.”( Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).

Fast forward to 2015. Western individualism has seeped into Ghanaian culture, especially in the urban areas. The landscape is now littered with all sorts, shapes and sizes of churches. A lot of them have no denominational linkages, mostly founded by former leaders who have left the “orthodox” churches described above and who have unfortunately swallowed hook, line and sinker the “prosperity gospel”. Most of these claim a charismatic leaning. Instead of having a few denominational empires that one could at least identify and deal with, we now have a plethora of them, everybody wanting their piece of the pie of the overly religious and superstitious Ghanaian. Christianity has multiplied rapidly, but alongside it has been abuse, scriptural ignorance and bare-faced heresy, syncretism, and greed in the name of “the pastor must be rich to show that you can also be rich”. The segregation in our churches have also grown, with the poor going more to the charlatans running supposed “solution centers”, whiles the rich gather in their nice urban uber-church complexes. It’s now an open marketplace for membership to advance one’s empire. Whatever it is that these new churches claim to have been escaping from their “orthodox” ones, there really is no clear difference to see – maybe except that the leaders of these churches become richer overnight.

In the meantime, the “orthodox” churches are feeling the pinch of this “competition”, and are compromising on their more Reformedish theology to become more “relevant”, more “charismatic”. The words “success”, “breakthrough”, “miracles”, “prophetic”, “destiny” which used to be in the purview of the prosperity preachers, can now be heard on the lips (and seen on billboards) of an increasing number of “orthodox” churches. And this is causing some who would rather see these churches hold their ground – since they have been “hammering on sin and repentance” which is what we all need if we are going to make it to heaven – to have sleepless nights and pine for the days when the churches were “preaching salvation”. But alas, if concerned Ghanaian Christians are not willing to ask themselves the hard, long and uncomfortable questions (both theological and practical) and to take the decisions that need to follow it, then we are only doomed to the trajectory of “relevance” without faithfulness. As the musician Bono of U2 sang

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you” ( U2, Troubles from the album Songs of Innocence).

So, being an Anabaptist in a sea of Christendom, I have a few lessons to share with my friends and readers who actually yearn for a better Christianity in Africa. Some of these lessons come from Anabaptist history and some from more recent, academic and critically acclaimed Christian thinkers on this crisis.

1The Problem Starts From Flawed Theology

I’m sorry to say this, but the first and foremost reason why we are in this situation is because of the long dormant flaws in Protestant theology, especially as practiced in Ghana. The prosperity gospelers have simply built on these flaws.

  1. A flawed understanding of the kingdom of God – For centuries, Protestant Christianity has associated anything Jesus said about the kingdom of God with the future of going to heaven. This has affected our understanding of the gospel, and hence our understanding of salvation. The fullness of biblical salvation involves past salvation (salvation from sins and spiritual slavery), ongoing salvation (salvation from personal, social, economic and political structures) and future salvation (life in the new heaven and the new earth).

  2. Sola Scriptura – The teaching that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Bible in their language can properly interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit has lead to abuse of scripture driven by ignorance and anti-intellectualism. I wince everyday as TV evangelists massacre the bible to support their “prosperity gospelling”, but Protestant friends are loathe to address this dogma which actually gives these people their lease of life.

  3. A fixation on heaven and hell – Due to the influence of Greek paganism on Christianity after the early apostles, Christians moved from the original Jewish and early Christian hope of New Heaven and New Earth and the need to care about what is happening on this earth, to caring only about saving souls from hell to heaven. This was further aggravated by the Protestant Reformation because it was rebelling against the Catholics for insisting that one needed to make indulgences to be guaranteed forgiveness of sins and a move from purgatory to heaven. This has left Protestant churches unable to take practical steps to make their local churches actually care for needs of members in the here and now, because after all “its all about going to heaven”.

  4. “Me” instead of “We” – As a result of these 3 defects above, the bible is read with an eye to personal benefit only. Embedded within centuries of Protestant teaching has been a focus on the individual. That, together with the obvious lack of care of our “orthodox” churches to the bread and butter issues of life on this earth, is what the prosperity gospelers have exploited to this day. They preach that God actually cares about your here and now, but the means to get it is via your individualist effort of “faith” (according to their own definition of it), abundance of prayer and church activities, and of course abundance of giving to them. Brilliant combination, don’t you think? According to Forbes, the richest clergy is actually in Nigeria, despite it’s monumental poverty rates. Which reminds me of a time in history when a Catholic bishop in France had more money than the state. And yet we claim to be children of a Reformation.

Sadly, the leading Christian thinkers who are pointing out these flaws embedded within Protestant Christianity itself are being attacked for pointing them out, especially by the gatekeepers of Reformed theology in America (Anabaptists have been saying that the Protestant Reformation wasn’t far reaching enough for the last 500 years, so we call dibs on this one and watch the Protestants duke it out). One of them, NT Wright, repeats some of the accusations against him below.

Any mud will do: you can suggest that some of us do not believe in Jesus’ atoning death; you can insinuate that we have no gospel to preach, nothing to say to a dying ‘enquirer’; you can declare that we are false shepherds leading the flock astray; you can accuse us of crypto-Catholicism or quasi-Platonic moral Idealism; anything rather than pay attention to the actual arguments, the refraining of debates, and above all to the texts themselves” (NT Wright – Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

2Leading to Flawed Community

Having sorted the theological problems out, here is one lesson that Anabaptism will like our fellow Protestant Christians to freely learn from them. After all, Anabaptists died the most for insisting that church should be separate from state, and should be a community of commitment and sharing with one another long before the modern separation between state and church became established norm. Until we learn to recognize local churches as the place to show in every locality, God’s ideal for the world of different people coming together despite class, social, cultural and economic differences and actively working to undermine those differences by caring and sharing with one another, individualism will reign, and prosperity gospelling, thriving on individualism, will continue to infect good Christianity.

This means some serious structural changes, from the way money goes to the bottomless pit at the top and never descends to the bottom, to what we do when we are gathered as a church. One of the ways in which Anabaptism was able to resist the death (both as threats and actual martyrdom) of their fellow Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century was the practice of caring for one another, which was sorely missing in the camp of their oppressors and was pointed out by Menno Simmons even when he was being tried by his opponents. Same as the early Christians. If our Ghanaian Protestant churches had been up and doing in this direction, people would have clearly seen through the deception of the prosperity gospellers from a mile away.

3Ending in Flawed Discipleship

The other lesson that Anabaptism will like to freely teach our Protestant brothers in Ghana is that the Christian life is one of following in the way of the master. A life spent in “worship” but not in following is a life that leads to exile, an exile that looks suspiciously like Judah’s captivity in Babylon. I see plenty declarations of “I want more of you, Jesus”, plenty “gospel” concerts and shows, plenty “all-night services”, plenty taxing of poor church members to build universities, majority of whose children stand no chance of even getting into Senior High School. Sadly, I see very little of serving one another, being good news to the poor in our midst (not some romantic far away location), treating the widows/widowers and unmarried amongst us like the fully human beings they are, making our homes open to people who are lower on the social ladder, eating with the “wrong” crowd on a regular basis, placing other’s needs above ours daily, being friends with the illiterate so the literate can teach them the bible instead of letting the charlatans twist it and abuse them and then wonder why they go to those churches.

Conclusion

As Anabaptists, we are also learning some ways in which we need to improve, after all till Jesus comes, the job will never be finished and no church is perfect. But it’s very hard to throw some accusations against Anabaptistim for good reason – Anabaptist strove to keep discipleship and community at the forefront, sometimes to the extreme. Things haven’t always been rosy, and we’ve also made our own mistakes. But what we also need is to be strengthened by this renewal in understanding Jesus not as defined by the 16th century European Christianity, but as a 1st century Jewish Messiah, yet a Messiah who is actually God himself.

So if Ghanaian “orthodox” Christianity and other church traditions (be they Pentecostal or Charismatic) have any chance of repelling the onslaught of prosperity gospelling that has so distorted the Christian witness here, then they really need to dig deep and radically reform. Because until then, the prosperity gospellers will continue to have their way, and to survive, they will end up having to join them.

I was glad I met for the first time some members of the Mennonite church in Ghana at the Good News Theological Seminary here in Accra 3 weeks ago. It was indeed a meeting of kindred spirits and I look forward to our further engagement with them as we seek to work towards a different kind of Ghanaian Christianity – a more Jesus looking one. And it reminds me of Stuart Murray.

Anabaptist writers, and others, have rejected the domestication of Jesus’ teaching. They have demonstrated how it applies to political, social and economic issues and that it is much more radical than Christendom’s commentators allowed.” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

It is for these “others” that I thank God for these days. The likes of NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hayes, Howard Snyder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, Donald Kraybill, Christopher J. H. Wright, Greg Boyd and other evangelical theologians who are pushing the envelope in challenging Protestant Christianity to be more faithful to its own New Testament.

I don’t need to talk about Anabaptism much nowadays. These guys, simply focusing on better exegesis of both the Old and New Testament itself, do the job quite well, though they are not Anabaptists themselves. And that can only be a good thing. That can only mean there is indeed hope for the church worldwide, Ghana included. For the Anabaptist hope is that the church worldwide will become more faithful to Jesus, whatever kind of church they are.

The Revolutionary Christ

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing the Jesus of Dogma over the Jesus of History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations

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

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

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

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

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

Rediscovering NT Christianity – A Purpose Driven God

This is the first in a series I’m writing on Rediscovering NT Christianity. This article is available for download here

Many of us have read the popular title by Rick Warren, “Purpose Drive Life”. Unfortunately I am yet to read it, but I’ll like to tweak his title to apply to this writing. I have heard many people say “God will reveal what he has purposed for me” or “What God has purposed for me will surely come to pass”. We seem to think that God is yet to reveal that purpose, and that some special time will come when we will be made aware of it. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint a lot of us, but God’s purpose for us has already been revealed. We are only meant to conform to that purpose, and I’ll explain why by touching on one of the facets of that purpose – the body of Christ.

Let us start off by asking ourselves these questions. If the God we believe is really an omniscient God, how come he didn’t know that Adam could fall to the temptation of the devil? Or did he? If he did, then if Adam had passed the test, what would God have done? Would there have been the need for Jesus Christ at all? Did Christ only exist for the purpose of saving us from our sins, or God had a purpose for Christ far greater than we can all imagine. These for me are about the most important questions that we as Christians must answer to be able to truly understand the purpose of man on this earth, and by extension the purpose of our faith.

God’s Mysteries Revealed

This is why the epistle of Ephesians is such an important one (and part of the reason why we should spend more of our time reading the NT than the OT). Like I mentioned in a previous post, its the only letter Paul wrote to a church which didn’t attempt to deal with any particular problem that the recipient church was facing. It is full of such theological weight that many of us read it without fully assimilating it’s implications for our faith. I encourage you to take the time to read that book again, alongside Colossians and Hebrews. It is the epistle that explores God’s purpose for our redemption, a purpose which existed before the foundation of the earth.

Paul always spoke of certain mysteries. Of these, he often said though it had been given directly to him by revelation, other apostles and prophets of his time had also received these same mysteries. These then became the vision that drove Paul’s ministry. However, he states clearly that these mysteries were totally hidden from the prophets of old, who wished they could look into them as well. These mysteries were hidden nowhere else but in God himself, and obviously it will only take God to reaveal them.

And he made known unto us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment, to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:9-10)

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 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 (Eph 3:2-5)

Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me; to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages 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 which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:8-11)

Paul here mentions 3 mysteries hidden to the prophets of old.

  1. When the times have been fulfilled, everything will be brought under one head, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  2. The promises of Abraham are available to both Gentiles and Jews through a living body called the church, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  3. The world, spiritual and physical is intended to see the many-sided wisdom of God through the same living body called the church. This ETERNAL PURPOSE was again achieved in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You can see the amazing plan of God. Christ and his church are everything. When God sought to achieve his purpose on this earth, he made that purpose happen through Christ, and that to make that purpose clearly visible to the earthly and heavenly places, he chose the church to display that purpose. From the three above, it is obvious that because everything is IN CHRIST, THROUGH CHRIST and UNDER CHRIST, the church is nothing without Christ. However, what is even more shocking to me is that God’s wisdom can only be displayed in the church.

Let me use this example to display the implications of these mysteries. We know scientifically that decisions are taken by the brain, and communicated to the rest of the body for action to take place. In the same way, God’s intention and design is that when Christ being the head thinks of something to do, his Church will act it out. This is what we mean when we say that Christ is the head of the church. We don’t only mean that he is the say “General Overseer” of the church, but that he is the source of direction for the rest of the body to act.

And this is exactly what the Ephesian epistle seeks to communicate to us – our relationship to Christ as his body (Colossians talks about the supremacy and headship of Christ over his body amongst other things). That we are in a very privileged and powerful position, being the body of Christ. Our role is to seek out what the head wills, and do it. However, no part of the body acts alone, but always in coordination with certain other parts. To grasp something, the arm must move toward the object, and the nerves and muscles exerted for the fingers to clasp the object. The biceps and triceps are then flexed to lift the object up, and the purpose is achieved. I hope the doctors will excuse my ignorance of human anatomy, but I believe this is basically what the human body does, and the church is no exception.

The Manifold Wisdom of God

But what exactly is the manifold wisdom of God? Hmm, that will take me a whole book to delve into, but I’ll summarise it in three ways, though they are actually more than three.

  1. God intends the Church to be the bride of Christ, spotless and holy as Christ himself. (Eph 5:27; Rev 19:7-9). Just as Abraham sent his servant to bring a wife to Isaac, so has God sent his Holy Spirit to bring the Church to Christ.

  2. God intended and has created a new family, in which he is the Father, Christ the eldest son, and the church his younger brothers. (Ro 8:29;Heb 2:10,19;5:8). We have a direct relationship with him, again possible only through Christ. That is why both Gentiles and Jews have to come under the church. Check out what Paul said “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor 10:32). In fact, the world even awaits our revelation as the sons of God, and until then will continue to groan in the pain that it does. (Ro 8:19-23).

  3. God has always intended to dwell within and among men. It’s the reason why we individually and corporately are his temple (1 Co 6:19;3:16). This conforms to the new Jerusalem, where the writer of Revelation writes “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’” (Rev 21:3). When you continue reading, there it is stated clearly that there no temple in that city: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22). Can you guess why? Because the church which is part of Christ will be with Christ then. Christ will be joined with the church, which will in turn be joined with God. No temples needed. Hallelujah!

Purposed Before Creation

Liberating and empowering as this purpose is for us – a purpose which became Paul’s burning passion – it was a purpose that existed before man was created. The apostle calls it an eternal purpose, and that is why he says it was hidden. That is even more amazing to me. That means that even if Adam had not sinned, the church will still have come into being somehow, existing in, under and by Christ solely for the purpose of displaying God’s wisdom. Oh, and Paul cannot be accused of introducing teaching that Jesus did not teach. Christ himself said that his kingdom was prepared “since the creation of the world”. Let me show you some places where this “before/since creation” concept exists.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world‘” (Mt 25:34)

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be adopted as his sons …” (Eph 1:4)

This purpose was given us in Christ before the beginning of time …” (1 Ti 1:9)

If Adam Hadn’t Sinned

So now, we come back to answer the million dollar question. What if Adam & Eve hadn’t sinned? How does Christ and the church fit into the picture? Do you remember that apart from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, there was also the tree of life in the garden? Well, what did Jesus Christ say about that same tree of life in Revelations 2?

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7)

Well, a tree of life can only give eternal life. And therefore when man had fallen to sin, God had to prevent access to that tree, so they don’t stick to their sinful nature for eternity. Therefore they would have been given eternal life from that tree. Now note who is making the promise here. Jesus Christ himself. He is the one who will give it to them – again salvation in, through and by Christ. They would then have become the founding members of the church.

Implications of God’s Purpose

We can see that God had already determined his purpose for our creation and inclusion into the body of Christ. His overriding concern is for Christ and his body, the church. And therefore, it is obvious then that God’s purpose is intensely a corporate one. God is not going to reveal a separate purpose for you, apart from a purpose that fits within his eternal plan, a purpose centered around the church. The church is the reason why Christ came. If this is so, then the following observations can be made.

  1. Salvation is not about us the individuals who are saved by Christ. I know that our gospel and everything else that we teach today is so individualistic, but trust me, you were not saved for your own salvation’s sake. You are saved to take an active part in building up that body alongside others to make manifest God’s wisdom.

  2. Because of the unfortunately individualistic twist which church scholars trace from the D.L. Moody line of preaching, most Christians see the church not as the end itself, but just a point for gathering Christians who have been saved. We see our main mission as saving the whole world, which has shown evidence historically of producing very weak Christians. We don’t realize that it is within the church that transformation really happens, and every avenue must be explored to make that transformation be visible to the world. That is how the world will see the wisdom of God. Christianity has always been about “calling out from among the Gentiles a people for himself” (Act 15:14). Its the same thing God told the Israelites when he saved them from Egypt – “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myselfout of all nations, you will be my treasured possession” (Ex 19:4-5).

  3. It is because of the truth that God wants to dwell within his people that it’s painful to observe the mindset of Christians regarding the church building, as if God still dwells in buildings (this is exactly what Stephen tried to tell the Jews which incited their anger to kill him – “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” (Acts 7:48) ). The 1st century Christians understood this so well through Paul’s ministry, that it has been established historically and archaeologically that they never built for themselves church buildings, but simply used their homes or any available meeting spaces (a natural consequence of this was that they met in small groups, allowing them to also pay more attention to individual maturity). It’s only when a Roman emperor (Constantine) decided to nationalize Christianity that he commandeered existing temples for the Christians and built new ones as well, that set us on this path of decline.

  4. Because everyone is to be actively involved in building up Christ’s body, simply because that is the eternal purpose of God, it’s again painful to observe the separation between clergy and laity. We have created an artificial split between those who may serve God, and those who may just watch the show. It is a natural consequence that once you put some people in charge and not just give them guidance roles, but tell them that they are supposed to do all the important work in the church, then everyone else will relax. If there is one thing we all agree with, growth comes from directly experiencing an activity. No matter how many lessons you give a student, if they do not have the opportunity to practice it (and I mean practice it in the most important organism to any Christian – the church), they will never be a well-rounded student. The same is true of the church. If we only sit on the pews everyday and only a handful of us do any spiritually related activity, we are not displaying the wisdom of God – that he lives in everyone and is capable of using everyone.

I’ll leave you to ponder the rest of the implications of adopting such a mindset towards God and his purpose for you. However, I hear people say very often that where there is no vision, my people perish. The problem with contemporary Christianity is not that we don’t have a vision. Au contraire, there is an abundance of vision. The only question is whether this vision is defined by ourselves, or its the eternal purpose that God had designed before the foundation of the world.

Understanding that the church is God’s central eternal purpose on this earth made me see why Christ said this:

I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”(Mat 18:19-20)

When a group of people gather under Christ’s headship (i.e. where he is the brain and they are the body) and are focused on his already predetermined purpose, they are walking in the mind of God. Therefore, whatever they as a group (not individuals) wish for concerning that purpose WILL BE DONE, because it already is in line with God’s vision. No wonder Paul said that “WE have the mind of God” (1 Cor 2:16), not “I have the mind of God”.

Our vision must not be individual, but corporate. It must not be from us, but from God. And finally, we must understand that God’s vision was predetermined before the foundation of the earth, and we can only conform to it, not dictate new terms to him. Or else we will heal the sick, raise the dead and do more than Mother Theresa did, but God will tell us he doesn’t know us because we pursued our own purpose.

** For an indepth discussion of the eternal purpose of God, refer to “From Eternity to Here” by Frank Viola, “So Beautiful” by Leonard Sweet, or “The Stewardship of the Mystery” by Theodore Austin-Sparks, which is available chapter by chapter at http://www.austin-sparks.net.

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM?

In recent times, we (my family and some neighbours at home) have been looking again at what we mean by preaching the “gospel”. What is the gospel? It literally means “good news”, but good news about what? Is it all about redemption from sin and a place in heaven? Or is it the “prosperity gospel” of today? As for the latter I’ll reserve my shots at it for another post.

In one of our meetings, someone shared this with us “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. … For if someone comes to your and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily” (2 Co 11:2,4).

Further bible references led us to Gal 1:6-9 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let be eternally condemned!”

Granted that the context of Paul’s statements were about practices of the Law which the Galatians, under the direction of some devil inspired Jewish Christian, were being deceived into practicing as part of the requirements for eternal salvation. However, we would all agree that Paul’s words are very strong here. So we started applying the question to ourselves, asking “what is the gospel we preach?” To put that in a better perspective, “what is the gospel that the Jesus himself and his apostles preached?” That way we can compare it to what we preach and know if we are destined to be “eternally condemned” or not. Suffice it to say that most of us have known the gospel to be that God sent Jesus to die for men’s sins. But is that really all that Jesus and the disciples whose example we are encouraged to follow preached as “the gospel”? “Follow my example, as I follow the example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Co 11:1)

 

By the yearning for truth and the Spirit’s direction (who is a Spirit of truth) we have a better understanding of what the gospel of the kingdom is. Ac 13:32-33a puts it in a good light “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” Hmm. What does he man by “What God promised our fathers”? Let’s do a little breakdown. When Jews refer to their fathers immediately Abraham comes to mind. The they speak of Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. Let’s make a few observations from promises made to some of these men.

  1. God promised Abraham that his seed will inherit the land on which God had sent him FOREVER. Has that happened? Israelites have even been vamoosed from their land for time and again, being exiled in Babylon, Persia etc. Until 1948, the nation of Israel had ceased to exist. We can’t reasonably say this promise has been fulfilled. Ge 12,15,17

  2. Moses prophesied about a prophet whom we must listen to. (Du 18:15)

  3. God promised David that his descendant will sit on his throne and that his descendant’s kingdom will last forever. Again the kingdom of Israel has never lasted forever. 2 Sa 7:11-16.

  4. Does “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most Hight. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1;32-33) not refer then to this kingdom promised to David and to the blessing of the whole world (Jew and Gentile) by the “seed” of Abraham?

  5. There are apparently 50 or so references to the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew alone, not counting “kingdom of God” and other such phrases elsewhere. What did John the Baptist and Jesus mean when they said “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 3:2; 4:17; Mt 25:34)? When Jesus said “kingdom of heaven” did the Jews only think he was referring to something in heaven or to “the promises made to our fathers”? To a Jew, what was the Messiah, the Christ supposed to come and do? Has Jesus changed it or conform to it?

  6. How does this relate to the Thousand Year (Millenium) reign of Christ in Rev 20. Does this not reflect a physical kingdom? How is this related to what Jesus promised his disciples in Lk 22:28-30, Mt 19:27-28 and what Paul states all over the epistles, an example being Ro 8:17?

  7. What about the new Jerusalem in Rev 21. Does it not signify a transition from an earthly kingdom after the Millennial reign to a fusion of the earthly and heavenly into a city of righteousness, fulfilling the “forever” part of the promise of God to the fathers of old?

  8. So then comparing what Peter preaches in Ac 2:14-36, Paul in Ac 13:13-52 and what we preach as the gospel today, is our gospel complete and speak the whole will of God – “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” ( Ac 20:27)? Did Jesus Christ just come to save us from sin or he came to restore to man the Kingdom promise and to being the co-heirs to the throne of that kingdom? If its just about redemption from sin, what does Paul mean when he says “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain” (Ac 28:20b)?

  9. So then come the harder questions follow:

    1. Isn’t redemption from sin only the beginning of the race, a race which can only be completed by proving oneself worthy of the reward of inheritance?(1 Co 9:26-27; 2 Ti 4:7-8;1 Th 2:12; 2 Th 1:5,11; Ro 8:17)

    2. If we are just to be going to heaven, what exactly are we to be doing there? (This caused a very staunch Christian friend of mine to stun me with the saying that heaven will be boring. Obviously he hasn’t heard the gospel of the kingdom and the glory attached to it, a glory of which I’ll be addressing in another post)

    3. Is what we preach really the gospel? Doesn’t preaching the beginning step as the will of God toward men and leaving the even more important part of service in obedience to be rewarded with a share in the throne of Christ, constitute deception and contrary to the will of God?

    4. Haven’t we brought condemnation upon ourselves by what we preach as the gospel today: a quarter baked one (Gal 1:9, Jam 3:1)? If we have been half preaching the will of God, is that to the glory of God or or the devil? Is what we preach from God?

I’m attaching a more detailed document: The Gospel of the Kingdom to this post which will help shed some light on this topic. Read this with a heart and mind that seeks to know and obey the truth. Then confront what you preach, whether it is in line with the “will of God”. Jesus says “Not everyone that says to me , ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mt 7:21). Does what you preach or have been preached to conform to the will of God for men in sending His son? Don’t be surprised if it isn’t, because much of the church today is clearly not owned by Jesus Christ anymore (Rev 3:14-22). If our foundation – the gospel we preach – is not sound, what else is sound about us? Don’t be scared, encourage yourself with this – “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6)

I’ll end again with Paul: “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Ac 16:25-27)

Quotes are from the NIV version of the bible. All mistakes are mine please, not the bible’s :-).