Left Behind? Yes, please! – Who’s taken and who stays?

19 January 2018

I was about ten years old. I’d gone to bed at the usual time and I think I must have slumbered a little. But now I was wide awake and my ears were straining for the usual sounds of my parents downstairs—the murmur of conversation, the radio, footsteps on the kitchen lino.

The silence was absolute and a terrible fear gripped me: maybe Jesus had returned while I slept and had raptured Mum and Dad. I was clear, even at that stage of my childhood, that I still hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ and that therefore, were he to come again, I’d be left behind to suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation.

Saying_GoodbyeThe relief that overwhelmed me when I heard a cough downstairs is indescribable. Phew! They hadn’t been taken after all, and I hadn’t been left behind! Oh, wow! And yes, I really must think seriously about taking the step of becoming a Christian!

This scenario reflected our Brethren affiliation. My parents, raised as Methodists, had ‘got saved’ and joined the Brethren during my father’s army service in World War II. So I was drip-fed Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Reference Bible from being a toddler. There’s security in a system, and for years we remained comfortable in its embrace, ignorant of any other way of understanding the Scriptures and the purpose of God. Meanwhile, at the age of twelve I made my commitment to Christ—and thereafter slept more securely.

I ditched Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible while at university. That was around 1960, the period when the Puritan writers were being rediscovered in a big way, and I found their solid theology and amillennial eschatology both heart-warming and intellectually convincing. While I never embraced fully-fledged Calvinism, there was certainly no way I could ever return to the old system because everything I read in the Bible seem to contradict it—like the ‘left behind’ idea.

That some will be left behind at Christ’s return is not, of course, in question. Jesus himself made that clear in Matthew 24: ‘Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v40-41). The question is, if one’s a baddy and the other’s a goody, which is taken and which is left? To some it seems obvious that the goody is the one snatched away to better things, while the baddy is left behind to feel the heat. After all, if, when Jesus returns, the righteous will be ‘caught up…to meet the Lord in the air’,[1] these are clearly the ones being ‘taken’, which leaves the wicked as those left behind. Obvious.

But it isn’t obvious at all! In fact every indication is to the contrary: that the wicked are the ones taken and that it’s the righteous who are left behind.

Take again the Matthew 24 passage quoted above: ‘one will be taken and the other left’. The verses before it draw a parallel between the coming of the Lord and the arrival of the flood in Noah’s day: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’ (v37). So what happened in Noah’s day? His wicked contemporaries were living life as normal ‘until the flood came and took them all away’ (v39). That leaves righteous Noah and his family as the ones left behind to enjoy the safety of the Ark and a new life in the post-diluvian order. And Jesus continues, ‘That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v39-41). The meaning is unmistakable: the wicked are taken, the righteous are left behind; baddies go, goodies stay.

So how do we square that with the ‘rapture’ passage in 1 Thessalonians? Very easily. Let’s look at it—and please note carefully the two italicised words ‘coming’ and ‘meet’, which are the key to its message, as we shall see:

‘We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven…and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever’ (v15-17).

New Testament scholars are agreed that Paul is here using a metaphor that all his readers were familiar with: the regular procedure observed when a king or emperor paid an official visit to a town in his kingdom.

There was a set pattern to it. First, in the months before the visit the citizens would repair the approach-road. They would fill in the potholes and level off the bumps so that the monarch could drive into town in dignity, without being thrown around in his chariot. This is what John the Baptist meant—with a moral application—when he urged people to ‘prepare the way for the Lord’.[2]

Then, when the big day arrived, the town’s leading citizens, excited and in their finery, would pass through the city gates and walk a short distance out of town to meet the king on the road and formally welcome him. That done, they would turn around, join his retinue and accompany him back into town where all could cheer and admire him. In the everyday Greek of the period there were standard terms for parts of this procedure. The king’s official visit, for instance, was called his parousia, and the action of the city dignitaries in going out to accompany him back into town was called the apantesis.[3]

Both were familiar terms in Paul’s day, and he inserts them into his description of the Lord’s coming, where they govern its meaning. They are the words italicised in the quotation above. The ‘coming of the Lord’ (v15) is his parousia and our going out ‘to meet the Lord in the air’ (v17) is the apantesis.

The whole point of this metaphor is that the king is coming to town—Jesus is returning to the earth. The emphasis is on his coming, not on our going. Our going—being ‘caught up’ or ‘raptured’—is just our brief sortie out of town. We are caught up to meet him on the aerial road and there to welcome him, but not to then go off with him to heaven or wherever. No, this is an apantesis. He doesn’t turn around; we do. We turn around and accompany him back to the earth, an earth instantly cleansed, while we are ‘out of town’, by the fire of divine judgment and remodelled into the ‘new earth’ fit to welcome the King and be the eternal abode of his righteous people.[4] There, only righteousness will dwell, because everything and everyone that defiles will have been removed—‘taken’—leaving the glorious new environment to be enjoyed for ever by those who are ‘left’ in the presence of the King: ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’[5]

This pattern—the wicked taken and the righteous left—finds an echo in the parables of Jesus. Take the one about the wheat and the weeds. At harvest-time the weeds are first removed from the field, leaving behind the wheat to be gathered into the master’s barn. Jesus himself goes on to spell out what that means:

‘The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’[6]

The baddies are taken; the goodies are left to shine. It’s the same with the parable of the dragnet. The fishermen separate the bad items from the good fish, leaving the latter to be put to good use: ‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’[7]

To me, all this combines to settle the issue. To be taken is what we definitely don’t want, because that’s the way that the bad fish, the weeds, the baddies, the wicked go. No, we want to be left behind in the cleansed and renewed society that will forever be one of fellowship between the Lord and his redeemed people.

Oh dear. Now somebody’s going to have to write a whole new series of novels…

Footnotes

  1. 1 Thessalonians 4:17
  2. Luke 3:4-5, quoting Isaiah.
  3. ‘When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis.’ (F.F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 45, p102)
  4. See Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:10-13
  5. Revelation 21:3
  6. Matthew 13:38-43
  7. Matthew 13:49-50
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Fatties and Flagellants: What place for self-discipline?

17 January 2018

For the umpteenth time, recently, I climbed the Pilgrims’ Steps at St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

They are steep and very roughly cobbled—tough going even in my comfy trainers. I imagined the pilgrims of bygone days who climbed the same steps as a penance. They made the ascent barefoot, or even on their knees, believing that such pain and discomfort, imposed voluntarily on the body, would boost their spiritual credit-balance and free their spirit to soar to greater spiritual heights.

The Pilgrim's Steps, St Michael's MountBut these pilgrims were at the softer end of the ascetic scale. Others took the principle much further. They refused a mattress, choosing to sleep instead on a bare stone floor. They fasted to the point of sickness and emaciation. They wore hair shirts whose abrasive fibres irritated their skin, and if the shirt could be infested with fleas, so much the better: the fleas would bite, causing festering sores to remind the wearer of the mortality of the flesh.

Others went further still. They had their hands and feet nailed to boards in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion. They made hook-ended whips and beat their own backs till the bones were exposed and the blood ran to their ankles. They viewed with suspicion the body’s normal appetites for food, drink, sleep and sex, on the basis that to pander to them was to divert one’s focus from eternal and spiritual realities.

Things are different now. As the medieval has given way to the modern the pendulum in some Christian circles has swung to the opposite extreme. We have a ‘health and wealth’ gospel that encourages self-indulgence. On this view, the greatest good is your comfort and prosperity. The world’s mantra, ‘If it feels good, do it’, has infiltrated Christian thinking to the point where many believers can celebrate ‘God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’[1], but know nothing about self-discipline, or how to cope with suffering and pain.

Time was when most Christians were teetotal; some now think it’s acceptable to get more than tipsy in sharing a few bottles of wine with friends. A bit of pornography or sexual indulgence, others will say, is ‘only human’.

Some who once ate to live now live to eat, always upgrading to a ‘large’ of everything at McDonald’s, stuffing themselves with chocolate and fries, downing high-calorie cola at every opportunity and then, instead of a brisk walk to work it all off, they drive everywhere in upholstered comfort, their backsides getting broader by the month. They would be hard pressed just to walk up the Pilgrims’ Steps, never mind do it on their knees.

Both the flagellants and the fatties fall short of authentic Christian living. Medieval asceticism was undoubtedly over the top. Much of it reflected notions more at home in Greek philosophy than in Scripture, like the notion that anything material was base and unclean, and had to be pushed to one side so that the spiritual could take precedence. On that view, the body is the prison of the soul. Ascetic practices like the ones we have described were the only way the prison’s walls could be breached and its bars burst open to free the soul into the realms of pure spirit, where God himself dwells.

We can’t go along with that. The Bible doesn’t make such a stark body/soul distinction. In line with its Hebrew anthropology it addresses us as whole people with both a material and non-material dimension, but it never drives a wedge between the two the way much medieval Christianity did. Jesus met people’s physical needs as much as their spiritual ones. What’s more, when he rose from the dead he did so not as pure spirit but with a body. And that, says Paul, indicates that when our own resurrection day arrives we, too, will have a body like his.[2] Yes, our eternal destiny is to be an embodied one.

So hair shirts and knee-walking are out. But self-indulgence is as bad as asceticism, and today’s fatties have missed the mark as much as yesterday’s flagellants. If our bodies are temples where the majestic Holy Spirit dwells [3], how dare we abuse them the way some Christians do? Enjoyment of God’s world and of his good gifts is one thing; over-indulgence is another, and God himself calls us to draw the line. There is a place for good old-fashioned self-control, exercised in Christ’s honour.

Self-control, in fact, is central to the gospel. At least Paul thought so. When he got the opportunity to speak to Felix and his wife Drusilla about ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ he enlarged upon three basic themes: ‘righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come’.[4] How many Christians today would include that middle element?

By including it Paul was only preaching what he himself practised. He likened Christian living to training for the public games of Roman times, where the athlete ‘goes into strict training’— disciplined living, early morning runs, press-ups, a controlled diet—to help him achieve his goal. Paul kept a tight rein on his own bodily demands: ‘I discipline my body,’ he said, ‘and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.’[5] He urged young Timothy to live the same way. ‘Train yourself to be godly’, he said,[6] using the verb gymnazo—from which we get our word ‘gymnastics’ and ‘gymnasium’—with all its implications of discipline and self-control.

This is practical stuff. And spiritual, too, because true spirituality refuses to stay behind the dyke of numinosity and insists on flowing into every corner of our material lives. Self-control will probably mean saying no to the third glass of wine. Ordering regular fries instead of large. Refusing to pollute the Spirit’s temple with tobacco smoke. Saying a polite ‘no thank you’ to the offer of a second helping of pavlova. Steering clear of the newsagent’s stand where the porno mags are displayed. Taking the stairs instead of the lift. Walking rather than driving to the park. Choosing to skip a meal from time to time. All this just to keep your body in its place, because if you don’t it will exceed its privileges and take control. The body is a useful slave but, given the chance, it can become a terrible master.

Some will, I know, cry ‘Legalism!’ here. But that is not Scripture’s message. Legalism means making rules where God’s Word itself does not. The Bible does not forbid wine, for example, so neither must I. If, however, I voluntarily choose to be teetotal, that is right and good—as long as I don’t foist my own standard on others or make them feel that by having a glass of beer they are second-class Christians. As for food, there is a place for feasting, as Scripture plainly testifies. But feasts are the exception, not the norm, and a degree of everyday self-control is vital in our over-stuffed Western world if we are to avoid sinful self-indulgence.

Christian leaders need to be especially careful here. Paul urged Timothy, ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely.’[7] Note the order. The pastor who stands before the congregation may be sound in his doctrine but if his belly is three times the size of his backside all I can hear him proclaiming is, ‘I’m weak and self-indulgent, a complete slave to food and drink. Yes, I know I say that Jesus is Lord, but my true lord is my appetite.’[8] It’s a shockingly bad advert for God and the gospel.

We’re on a sliding scale here, with the flagellant at one end and the obese at the other. Ecclesiastes has a word in season for us: ‘Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.’[9] None of us wants to revert to the madness of medieval asceticism. In today’s developed world it’s the other extreme that draws like a magnet. So do a Bible study on self-control.[10] Grasp its basic principles. Then ask the Holy Spirit to tell you clearly what temple maintenance will mean for you, here and now.

Take yourself in hand—for your health’s sake, for the sake of your Christian witness, and for the glory of God.

Footnotes

  1. 1 Timothy 6:17
  2. Philippians 3:21
  3. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
  4. Acts 24:24-25
  5. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV. See also Proverbs 25:28
  6. 1 Timothy 4:7
  7. 1 Timothy 4:16
  8. In a few cases, of course, obesity can be caused by glandular problems, or by drugs used to treat certain conditions, and people in such situations need our understanding and sympathy. But in the vast majority of cases obesity is the result of lifestyle choices within the control of the individual, and the individual stands responsible.
  9. Ecclesiates 7:18
  10. You could start with the main NT Greek word for ‘self-control’, which is enkrateia (Strong’s G1466). You will find it, in one form or another, in Acts 24:25; Galatians 5:23; 2 Peter 1:6. Its opposite, meaning ‘lack of self-control’ is akrasia (Strong’s G192) and akrates (Strong’s G193) and these words appear in Matthew 23:25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Timothy 3:3.

The Same but Different: How God changes old to new

16 January 2018

She was no longer the beauty she had once been. Now the ageing film star, anxious not to lose her appeal, had resorted to major cosmetic surgery, and as the first pictures appeared in celebrity magazines, readers commented, ‘Mmm. She looks the same—but different.’ Fair comment. ‘The same’ because she was the person she had always been, but ‘different’ because she had been tweaked by the surgeon in ways intended to make a difference. The ‘old’ film star and the ‘new’ were in fact one and the same—but different.

Here we have an illustration of how God handles ‘old’ and ‘new’. He doesn’t obliterate the old and then start again; instead, he remodels the old to transform it into the new. Like the potter whom Jeremiah observed, God takes the clay of the original marred pot and reshapes it into a new one: same clay, different product.[1] The substantial element of continuity from the one to the other mingles with some elements of discontinuity, so that the later version, while in some respects the same as the earlier one, is also different.

flood with arkConsider, for example, the world before and after the Flood in Noah’s day. Peter records that ‘by these waters…the world of that time was deluged and destroyed’.[2] In what sense ‘destroyed’? Certainly not zapped into non-existence. Mount Ararat was still there afterwards, much the same as it had been before. God didn’t undo creation—rewinding the tape, so to speak—and start again from scratch. No, the original earth remained, but the receding waters revealed a new earth, that is, one so radically reworked by the Flood that it was fair to say the old earth was gone.

This way of divine working applies also to us at a personal level where, according to Peter, the Flood illustrates our new beginning as a Christian in general and our baptism in particular.[3] Paul describes this spiritual surgery in strong language: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’.[4] The radical reworking here is spiritual and on the inside. ‘The old has gone’, yes, but you are still you, with the same body and the same personality. ‘The new has come’, yes, though it’s going to take a while for those deep inner changes to show on the outside. You’re the same but different, and the fact that there is an element of ‘the same’ doesn’t stop Paul describing the whole thing as ‘a new creation’.

We have every reason to believe that God will take the same approach in the future. He will apply this ‘remodelling’ principle—producing something that is ‘the same but different’—to the wider ‘new creation’ that will take place at Christ’s return. Peter says as much when, in his ‘Flood’ passage, he goes straight on to say: ‘By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men’. So it will be by fire this time, not by water, that the radical reworking takes place, as Peter goes on to explain: ‘The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’.[5] Again it’s the old giving way to the new, and we should expect this destruction, like that of the Flood that it parallels, to be a remodelling, rather than annihilation followed by a restart from scratch. A close examination of Peter’s vocabulary supports that thesis.

This reminds us that our own situation in the age to come will be much more ‘earthy’ than traditionally portrayed. The disembodied existence that some teach is not a biblical idea at all; its roots lie in Greek philosophy. But the common alternative isn’t much better—I’ve never really fancied parading through 24-carat gold-paved streets ‘up there’ in a long white robe and twanging a harp.[6] No, our future will be on a renewed earth [7] with, no doubt, plants and animals, mountains and streams and everything that makes it so marvellous even in its fallen state.

Some, I know, expect this ‘earthy’ phase of future existence to last for only the thousand years of an alleged millennium after which, they believe, a more ‘floaty’ period will kick in and last for ever in heaven as distinct from on earth. But I’ve long been convinced that the ‘earthy’ bit is in fact the eternal state, where the earth will be the ‘same’ as today’s earth but ‘different’ thanks to its purging by fire and God’s dwelling having descended to be among us here [8]. I love and enjoy this earth now and look forward to enjoying it even more in its cleansed and remodelled form.

Our bodies in that coming age will match it: they will be like Jesus’ body after his resurrection [9] And how did his resurrection body compare to the body he had had before? Again, it was the same but different: the same in that, according to the Gospels, Jesus was readily recognised by those who knew him. He looked the same, and they could talk to him and touch him. Yet at the same time his body was different, with new powers, like being able to appear in a locked upper room and disappear again without anyone unlocking the door. His resurrection body showed both continuity and discontinuity with his original body, sameness and difference, just like the earth after the Flood. And, as the firstfruits of the full harvest to come, Jesus in his resurrection body sets the pattern for the renewed state of affairs to be enjoyed after his return by the whole created order: the same but different.

This principle of ‘the old remodelled into the new’ holds good also in other respects, like the old covenant and the new covenant. Strictly, of course, the old one is the Abrahamic covenant with its promise of worldwide blessing, and this gets remodelled in Christ and the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a later, temporary expedient by which God related to Abraham’s Jewish descendants and it was meant to help in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant, not to replace it. But in the thinking of many, ‘old covenant’ means Moses and the law, so let’s run with that for the moment.

The Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ are two, yet they are one, with elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Some would challenge that, arguing that the two remain utterly separate, one a covenant of law, the other a covenant of grace, one based on works, the other on faith. But the overall message of the Bible is that the new covenant is— in line with the pattern we have observed—a radical reworking of the old one rather than a total replacement for it. The differences, such as works and faith, are merely to do with their respective outworking, and therein lies the aspect of discontinuity, but any covenant between God and his estranged creatures has to be an expression of grace, and that element of continuity remains the key one. So the new covenant is the old one remodelled and vastly improved, no longer restricted to Jews but made available to the expanded people of God that is the church.

Such a view of the covenants is confirmed by a closer look at the word ‘new’ in this context. ‘New’ as in ‘new covenant’—and in ‘new heavens’, ‘new earth’, ‘new creation’ and ‘the new has come’—is the Greek kainos, which has a different emphasis from another Greek word for ‘new’: neos. In general, the first indicates new in terms of quality, with the implication of ‘better’, and the second new in terms of time.[10] The New Testament in fact uses both with ‘covenant’. The covenant ratified by Christ’s blood is neos in Hebrews 12:24 (and only there), emphasising that it is more recent than the old one, but everywhere else it is kainos, which points to its being not just a later development of the old one but also a new, improved version, a radical reworking of God’s way of dealing with his creatures.

This understanding of the relationship between old and new has far-reaching implications. Those who like to keep the covenants separate emphasise that God’s dealings under the old covenant were with the people of Israel, whereas his dealings under the new are with all who believe, which is true. But the two covenants, they hold, are in separate, water-tight compartments. On that basis, every ancient promise to the Jews has to be literally fulfilled because, in their view, the old covenant continues to run parallel to the new one and God remains obliged to fulfil its promises to the letter. So events in the Middle East since 1948, for example, are seen as the fulfilment of God’s old-covenant promise of the land to the Jews.

But if the new covenant, in line with the principle we have identified, is in fact a radical reworking of the old one, we are forced to different conclusions in respect of the Jews and the land, for the new is bigger and better, at the same time both redirecting and reinterpreting the promises of the old one—which is exactly what the New Testament teaches. Just as the post-diluvian world superseded its antediluvian counterpart, the arrival in Christ of the new and better covenant signals that the old one has now been superseded—by being swallowed up into the new rather than continuing to run alongside it: ‘By calling this covenant “new”, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear’.[11]

God deals no longer with Middle Eastern territory; his programme has gone global—as was always his intention. The old Israel has been superseded by the worldwide new Israel that is the redeemed community. This is the new order of things in Christ, bigger and better in every respect. The butterfly of the new covenant has emerged from the chrysalis of the old and it is right and proper that we lose sight of that brown old obsolete thing as we rejoice in its remodelling into the beauty of the new.

Footnotes

  1. See Jeremiah 18:1-4
  2. 2 Peter 3:6
  3. 1 Peter 3:20-21
  4. 2 Corinthians 5:17
  5. 2 Peter 3:10-13
  6. This is the language of the book of Revelation. It reflects John’s efforts to find the most superlative language of his era to describe the indescribable wonders of the coming age, and as such is to be taken figuratively.
  7. Romans 8:19-21
  8. Revelation 21:1-3
  9. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; Philippians 3:21
  10. For a detailed comparison of the two words see R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament.
  11. Hebrews 8:13. And notice how the NT takes several OT promises which, under the old covenant, referred to the Promised Land and reinterprets them under the new covenant to refer to the whole earth. See Romans 4:13; Matthew 5:5; Ephesians 6:2-3.

Red Herring in Galilee: Israel and prophetic promise

16 January 2018

I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I’d take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where’s there’s less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they’d say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

jerusalemsmallWell, maybe it would, but I’m not the sentimental type. And anyway, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’,[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don’t visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to ‘the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.’ I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn’t the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that’s what he’s building.[4]  It’s the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That’s for two reasons. First, because, while God’s promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God’s revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole ‘Christian Zionism’ thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

‘Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn’t it clear from Paul’s words here that the Jews are a special case?’

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God’s people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God’s favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what ‘Israel’ means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real ‘chosen people’, the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

‘Ah, just as I thought!’ claims someone. ‘You’re into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it’s heresy!’

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don’t believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate ‘chosen people’ of which the Jews in their national ‘chosen’ capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here’s where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn’t exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let’s apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that’s where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same ‘new people’ line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ And not just a people, for he goes on: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, ‘the people of God’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, ‘It is we who are the circumcision’—it is we who are true Jews—’we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it’s no wonder ‘the land’ is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be ‘heir of the world’,[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now ‘inherit the earth’,[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will ‘enjoy long life on the earth’,[19] not, as originally, ‘in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it’s not even up for debate. And I’m apparently in good company because, over the centuries, ‘the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

‘But surely,’ you insist, ‘you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

‘But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among “many nations” can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.’

Well, that’s not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of ‘many nations’, and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

‘Well, then, what about Isaiah’s prophecy that God will bring his people back “a second time”?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today’s re-gathering.’

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the ‘second time’ is the return from Babylon after all. And there’s no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That’s it, then. All the ‘Jews to Israel’ promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There’s no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

‘Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn’t there room there for the Zionist return?’

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He’s what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the ‘Egypt’ of sin through the blood of Jesus, God’s Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament ‘return to the land’ prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the ‘rest’ of receiving it freely by God’s grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called ‘my rest’.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God’s people in Christ and the church.[30]

‘But that’s all very spiritual. Don’t you believe there’s room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there’s a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?’

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn’t run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That’s the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it’s not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ’s return. Already those who are in Christ ‘have come to’ it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it’s not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I’m not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they’re candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: ‘[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews’ future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel’s rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world’s Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let’s not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It’s a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? ‘Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

 

P.S.

Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God’s grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don’t condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 24:1
  2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11
  3. Ephesians 5:25
  4. Matthew 16:18
  5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.
  6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.’ Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28
  7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7
  8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my post: The Same But Different.
  9. Hebrews 1:1-2
  10. Genesis 15:18
  11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6
  12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 – 7:1
  13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.
  14. Galatians 6:15-16
  15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77
  16. Philippians 3:3
  17. Romans 4:13
  18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11
  19. Ephesians 6:2
  20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2
  21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4
  22. Jeremiah 29:10-14
  23. Isaiah 11:11
  24. Isaiah 11:16
  25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
  26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.
  27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20
  28. 1 Corinthians 5:7
  29. Psalm 95:7-11
  30. Hebrews 3-4
  31. 1 Corinthians 15:46
  32. Colossians 2:16-17
  33. Hebrews 11:10-16
  34. Hebrews 12:22
  35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3
  36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170
  37. According to The Jerusalem Post’s online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, ‘Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel’s Biggest Problem’ in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: ‘The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989… Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.’
  38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

Christian, Journeyman: the life of pilgrimage

11 January 2018

I regularly help a friend by doing online genealogical research. That means I’m used to scrutinising Victorian census returns, where an interesting term keeps showing up in the ‘Occupation’ column. The term is ‘journeyman’.

pilgrimIt’s usually attached to another job like ‘wheelwright’ or ‘mason’. It indicates that the man in question, rather than working from a fixed workshop in his home town, had taken his trade on the road. He would travel around offering his skill to do jobs wherever he could find them, and could be away from home a lot.

If ever I have a tombstone, I think I’d like inscribed on it: ‘Christian, Journeyman’. That’s because, in recent years, I have left the safety and comfort of a settled going-on, as far as my faith is concerned, for a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a church-hopper, doing my own spiritual thing but dropping in at different churches here and there like a salesman popping into whichever branch of Costa happens to be nearby. No, I believe in the importance of commitment to a local church where one can be stirred, encouraged and challenged by fellow-believers—and I’m very blessed to be part of the one I belong to.

Nor does ‘a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle’ mean I’ve forsaken the tools of my evangelical trade to become a spiritual bodger who’ll have a go at anything, from liberalism to zen buddhism. No, I consider myself still to be soundly evangelical. But I’ve taken to the road, exploring some out-of-the-way tracks and reading more widely. And being on the road means travelling light; I’ve left certain traditional tools, like biblical inerrancy, original sin and ‘turn or burn’, behind.

Being a journeyman just means that I’ve become more open to new insights into the purpose and meaning of Scripture, with the freedom to follow where they lead. I’m less tied now to the strongly-interconnected toolkit of Christian doctrines that my clan considered ‘right’ and am enjoying looking at new biblical perceptions, new angles on old beliefs, and new ways of discovering God’s will for me. It’s great and I feel strangely liberated.

One fascinating result of all this is that, wherever I look, I find other people experiencing the same thing. One Facebook friend, himself a journeyman, wrote in a post, ‘I’ve learnt as much from my short time on the journey than I did from a long time in the fortress.’ That’s an interesting choice of words. A fortress is a defensive position. From the roof its occupants drop rocks and boiling oil onto those outside whom they consider a threat to their security. I’ve had a few missiles dropped in my direction recently, but fortunately they have all missed.

Journeying seems to have been the experience of God’s people in every generation. Maybe it’s because of my present experience that I see it now wherever I look, but I was surprised to find it even in the Bible, right through to the New Testament. I’m thinking of how God’s will unfolded in stages, and how hard it proved for some of God’s people to accept new things when he introduced them. It was especially hard for the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day to cope with the ‘journeyman’ aspects of his own ministry. Let me explain.

The Jewish religious establishment were never comfortable around Jesus. He didn’t conform to their views and ways. That rocked their boat, and they wanted him out of the way. One thing they didn’t like was how he hob-nobbed with the riff-raff of society, who loved his company and found him warm and accepting. So, when crowds of ordinary folk, including a typical sprinkling of prostitutes, tax-collectors and other low-life, flocked to hear him speak, ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15:1-2).

They weren’t thinking, ‘Good for him! He’s a fine example of friendliness to all and we can sure learn a lot from him about that!’ No, the word ‘muttered’ gives away their attitude: they didn’t like either Jesus himself or what he was doing.

‘Welcoming sinners’ was not for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They avoided them like the plague. They were even a bit cagey about ordinary Jewish folk who hadn’t sunk low enough to join the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. Why? Because everyday Jews weren’t professional students of the Old Testament like the Pharisees themselves; they were too busy earning a living, raising a family and coping with life’s setbacks for that. So they would always be second-rate at religion.

The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, however, didn’t even make third-rate. To Pharisaic eyes they were an abomination, a stain on the name of God and Judaism, ritually unclean as a result of their lifestyle and their contact with Gentiles, and thus barred from the Temple worship. If one of them walked past you in the street, you would pull your arms in and gather in your robe tightly so as not to defile yourself by a whisker of contact.

Jesus was the very opposite. He hung around with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ all the time. He openly touched the ritually unclean, like lepers and menstruating women. He treated prostitutes with dignity and respect. He went to dinner at the home of tax-collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus.

This latter step really was the limit, in the Pharisees’ view. Today we eat with all and sundry, sharing a table with them at the local Pizza Hut or Macdonalds without turning a hair. But in Bible times, to eat with somebody was loaded with meaning. It meant you accepted that person, you approved of them and you were happy to be associated with them. That’s why the Pharisees griped so much: it was bad enough that Jesus ‘welcomed sinners’ at his talks, but to actually eat with them…well, that really was beyond the pale.
So why did Jesus do it? For the very reasons stated: he accepted them, he approved of them—without necessarily approving of all their behaviour—and he was happy to be associated with them.

Where Jesus (the journeyman) and the religious leaders (the workshop men) parted company was over the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were experts in it. Studying it, and living by every detail of their interpretation of it, was what made them tick. It was the same for ‘the teachers of the law’: you can’t teach others what you haven’t mastered yourself. And both groups felt certain that their understanding of the Law, and their way of observing it, was correct; it was what God wanted. They could pull out a proof-text for everything they did. The Law, after all, was God’s Word, so obedience to that Word was obedience to God—dead simple, really.

Then Jesus appeared on the scene with what can only be called a cavalier attitude to the Law. I’m amazed that some Christians make much of Jesus as the one who perfectly kept the Law of God. That hardly tallies with the New Testament evidence. He disregarded and broke the Law right, left and centre, doing his doctor-work and harvesting grain on the holy Sabbath, hob-nobbing with the riff-raff and the down-and-outs, and accepting dinner invitations at the homes of tax-collectors and sinners. It was because of his very breaking of the Law that the Jewish leaders disliked him so much.

It wasn’t that Jesus was against the Law in principle. But he was interpreting the Law very differently from the Pharisees. In fact, the kind of actions they disliked in him were the kind that Jesus saw as truly fulfilling the Law. In reaching out to the broken, the sick, the outcasts and the needy, and helping them get their lives restored, he was doing what the Law had always been intended to achieve. People were more important to him than rules.

Some, however, clearly considered Jesus to be opposed to the Law. That’s probably why he felt the need to say plainly, on one occasion, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…’ And what he said next sheds light on that: ‘…but to fulfil them’ (Matt 5:17). In other words, the way he was acting was the real way to keep the Law of God. He was ‘fulfilling’ it in the sense of perfecting it by living out in his daily life the purpose for which the Law had been given.

That was new: it was journeyman stuff, and the workshop-bound Pharisees had problems with it. Their focus was the letter of the Law; his was the spirit of it. Jesus’ life and practice made them feel that their nit-picking devotion to the Old Testament text was in fact missing the mark. Nobody likes to be shown up like that. The normal reaction is to dig your heels in, shout louder in support of your well-established point of view, and rubbish the challenger. Which is exactly what the Pharisees did.

As far as we can see, Jesus and the Pharisaic challengers never got to sit down together and discuss their differences in friendly debate. He would have loved it, I’m sure, but they weren’t up for it. Had they managed it, how would it have gone? Here we need to use our imagination a bit. A Pharisee, hot under the collar, pokes his finger at Jesus and demands, ‘Are you telling me, then, that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Law and how to observe it has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time—wasting my life?’

Jesus, for sure, would have replied, ‘No.’

He would, I think, have pointed out instead that there are times and seasons in God’s dealings with his people, who are called only to live as best they can in light of the understanding they have at the time. Insofar as they do that, God accepts them. But when he causes new light to appear, they are responsible for responding to it, which may well require some major adjustments.

Such a change of season had occurred just a few years earlier with the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist. He had been God’s messenger to bring new light on how the divine purpose was working out among the Jews. Many had recognised this and been quick to respond, making their way to the Jordan and submitting to John’s baptism—with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among them.

Luke, looking back on this as he compiled his Gospel, made a fascinating observation about the response of those who listened to Jesus’ teaching. He said:

‘All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John’ (Luke 7:29-30).

What does Luke mean? He is saying that, in the ministry of John the Baptist, God had caused new light to shine on the Jewish situation. Many ordinary people, including ‘even the tax collectors’, had responded to that light and let John baptise them. Their wise response had given them a shot of spiritual life that had prepared their hearts to respond to further light down the line. That light had soon appeared in Jesus, and now they were hearing him with delight and responding to his teaching.

Then Luke draws a comparison between this and the attitude of ‘the Pharisees and the experts in the law’. These, over-confident in their own correctness, had turned up their noses at John the Baptist, refusing to believe that anything could ever supersede their own way of understanding things. In doing that, they had ‘rejected God’s purpose for themselves’—sobering words. Having turned their backs on one new revelation, they were doubly opposed to the second, and thus spurned Jesus and his message.

Jesus, I think, would have adopted this angle in our imaginary debate. I hear him replying to the Pharisee’s question something like this: ‘Well, my friend, you’ve lived your life according to the light you’ve had and your understanding so far of God’s Word. Well done for that! But when John the Baptist came along, let’s face it, you had no time for him. You refused to let him baptise you. And that was a mistake, because John was “a lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35), sent from God, as the prophet Malachi predicted. So, refusing John set you back, I’m afraid. Your refusal to accept him has made it well-nigh impossible now for you to accept me, because I’ve come to reveal an even bigger step forward in God’s purpose. But it’s never too late, my friend! See your life as a Pharisee, not as wasted, but as a valid stage in your pilgrimage with God, because that’s what it has been. But now it’s time to move on. The past is the past, and the future beckons—and I’m the future.’

Jesus’ message, however, fell largely on deaf ears. The Pharisees were wedded to the workshop. They knew its layout like the back of their hand: where every tool was kept, what each cupboard contained. All their proof-texts were kept well-honed and ready for use. They could lay their hands on the right argument without delay. They were at home in the workshop, and the travelling Nazarene urging them out of it, and into the life of a journeyman, was best shut outside.

Today, an element in the evangelical wing of the church shares much in common with these ancient Jewish leaders. I know, because for years I was part of it myself. They have their systems of belief all tidied up, the attributes of God all neatly boxed, the nature of the atonement all sewn up and their view of Scripture and the Christian life set in stone. Nothing will lure them outside, because everything inside is, in their view, right, correct, sound, unchanging and unchangeable.

They are for the most part lovely people. They are sincere believers in God, followers of Jesus and listeners to the Holy Spirit. They are warm and kind, helpful and caring, often to the point of self-sacrifice. And God is with them, blessing them and their efforts on his behalf, because he loves his people and is wonderfully gracious to them all.

But when a journeyman calls at their workshop they are rattled. He does unsettling things like suggest that there’s been some new light on eschatology, or the work of Christ, or justification, or a new angle on the nature of Scripture, and that they might want to trade in some of their old tools for newer ones. It annoys and upsets them. ‘What!’ they exclaim. ‘Are you telling me that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Bible and what it means has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time?’

And once again the answer is ‘No!’ I would say, as I believe the Lord himself would say, ‘You’ve been doing fine, living according to the light you have, and doing a good job of it. God is pleased with you.’

But I would want to add, ‘God is causing new light to break forth from his holy Word.[5] Venture outside the workshop for a few moments to check it out, just as those Jews in Bible times left their towns and synagogues to check out the message of the man in the camel-hair coat at the Jordan.

I would want to remind them that the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin were bold enough to leave the cobweb-ridden Roman Catholic workshop and take to the road in the sixteenth century. Were they wrong to do so? And I would gently remind them that, much more recently, some evangelical Pharisee-types poured scorn on the Pentecostal Revival and, more recently still, the Charismatic Renewal—and died in their workshops, still loved by God, but missing out.

Becoming a journeyman is not an easy decision. It’s not as secure a lifestyle as that of the workshop, and you’re never quite sure where your next port of call will be. But it’s worth it for the adventure of travelling, the thrill of seeing new spiritual places and a satisfying sense of progress. It’s pilgrimage of the very best kind! But I still value the contribution of those in the workshop, whose guardianship of the old tools sometimes comes in useful. Out on the road you can follow a light which, far from being divine, turns out to be like the waving lamp of wreckers luring ships onto the rocks to plunder them. That’s why I keep popping back into the workshop myself. I check the standard systematic theologies and revered works of evangelical doctrine. But then I start to miss the fresh air, and I’m off on the road again.

I long for workshoppers and journeymen to remain open to each other, instead of viewing each other as a threat. Surely Christians, of all people, should be able to sit down together and debate in a frank yet charitable manner some of the new ideas out there?
Sadly, the tendency is to become, instead, reductionist and bitter, declaring ‘All journeymen are sinister heretics!’ or ‘All workshoppers are stuck in a rut so broad that it’s a grave!’ when neither is remotely true. We end up too often like the British and German troops in the First World War, crouching in our trenches, from where we lob grenades at each other. These days the grenades travel via YouTube or Facebook, and they serve only to hurt and kill, which is not the Spirit of Jesus.

Some, I suppose, would see this article as another such missile. It’s certainly not intended to be. See it, if you can, as an invitation to truce-talks.


Brown shins: Scripture and phenomena

11 January 2018

I have learnt two vital loyalties. The first is to be true to the Lord—hold fast to him, rely on him, believe him, trust him. The second is to be true to myself.

This latter needs a bit of explanation. Being true to yourself means accepting your basic personality and not trying to ape someone else. It’s not an issue of character. Character is a moral thing and good character is the degree to which you are like Christ, whose qualities like love, courage, faithfulness, honesty and patience are ones we should all strive to develop. They are the fruit of the Spirit. Personality is something different. It’s the way you were wired from birth. It makes you, for instance, an introvert or an extrovert, chiefly rational or chiefly emotional, a details person or a strategist, a leader or a follower.

Such leanings are, in themselves, neither good nor bad but they can find expression infeet of jesus good or bad ways. For example, I’m an introvert. I’m happy with my own company and think deeply about things. Sometimes that’s good. It means that I can crack on with tasks that require prolonged concentration without being distracted by the urge to go and find human company. But, on the down-side, it means I can sometimes neglect the human company I need if I am to avoid getting too internalised and out of touch. Another example: I’m more rational than emotional. I don’t really do excited. So I keep cool in crises, think things through and reach a studied conclusion, which is good. But I also tend to lack sympathy towards people for whom emotion is more central, which is bad. I’m constantly working to find a sensible balance in these things, but I will never be an emotional extrovert, and don’t want to be. I have to be true to myself as the rational introvert that God wired me to be, accepting that as my fundamental nature and working with it, not against it.

In terms of Christian ministry that makes me more of a teacher than a prophet. I don’t like flying by the seat of my pants. I like my message well-prepared and properly researched, my notes clearly laid out and my PowerPoint presentation synchronised. Because God made me the way I am, he for the most part goes along with these inclinations. But since, being God, he won’t be restricted, he very occasionally kicks my crutches away so that I have to depend on his direction in the moment-by-moment way that I normally find grimly challenging.

A personality like mine was never going to be comfortable with the ‘Toronto blessing’—or, as it was called in my neck of the woods, ‘the refreshing’—which came our way in the mid-1990s. If ever I see people keeling over, laughing hysterically on the floor or staggering around in glassy-eyed euphoria I want to go home right away and read a book. So it was reluctantly that I went to that meeting in 1995, drawn chiefly by a sense of duty to the leaders who had convened it.

It quickly became the scene of chaos that was to become typical. ‘Get me out of here!’ was my unspoken cry. But my rational nature insisted I try to understand what was going on, to analyse it and to reach a conclusion as to whether it was divine intervention or a form of mass hysteria—or maybe an unsettling hybrid. What should I do?

‘Play safe’, I decided. ‘Sit tight and, above all, keep your focus on the Lord rather than on the groaning, laughing and falling about that’s all around you.’ So I continued to speak in tongues under my breath. Speaking in tongues because that is a means of edifying oneself and keeping the Lord in view. Under my breath because, according to Paul, it should not be out loud unless there is to be public interpretation, and that didn’t look likely. I shut my eyes to keep out the unhelpful scenes.

Comfortable with this internalised approach, I became strangely peaceful. Yes, I was doing the right thing, giving God alone my attention and, while sceptical of the phenomena, staying open to the possibility that he might somehow bless me in the midst of it all. Then I became so peaceful that my backside began to slide slowly forward on the chair. ‘Mmm. If this continues I’ll end up on the floor,’ I thought. ‘But so what? Most other folk are there anyway.’ Sure enough, I crumpled gently and comfortably to the floor, where, confident that I could slip no further, I continued to praise God in tongues, head on the carpet, eyes still closed, and enjoyed the peace.

Whether I fell asleep and had a dream, I don’t know for sure. It might have been a vision—a waking dream. Either way, my eyes must have been open literally or figuratively because from my worm’s eye view on the floor I became aware of a pair of feet about a metre from my head. They were in brown sandals and I just knew, somehow, that this was Jesus. I looked a bit further up and saw the rough hem of his homespun garment. Between that and the sandals the visible shins were astonishingly brown. ‘Yes, well, of course Jesus wasn’t a white Caucasian; he was olive-skinned, a brown Mediterranean man,’ I thought. ‘So that figures.’

I turned my head some more and looked higher. I saw all of him. He was short-bearded, a bit like me. He was looking directly down at me, with a smile playing around his lips. But what struck me most was the roguish, conspiratorial twinkle in his eye. He didn’t say anything, but spoke so eloquently with the smile and the twinkle that I knew without a doubt what he was saying. In fact he winked at me: ‘I’ve cracked it, Dave. The whole lot—the devil, the curse, sin and death. And I’ve come out on top at the other side of the grave. And I’ll tell you what, Dave: you stick with me and you’ll soon have cracked it, too!’
Nothing there that the theology of the believer’s union with Christ hadn’t already assured me of, but this was a personal confirmation, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, very sweet, very precious.

The vision faded and, very gradually, the sounds in the room began to intrude on my ears again. I opened my eyes. There were still some folk on the carpet, but most were up and beginning to move towards the exit. I heard someone say that soup and rolls were being served in the other room. I got up, rubbed my eyes and, with my wife, joined the soup queue. I felt perfectly normal. Certainly not euphoric or in some altered state. Just warm inside and content with my rendezvous with Jesus. People told me I had been motionless on the floor for an hour and a quarter. In fact one lady, a nurse, had wondered if I’d had a heart attack and had apparently stooped down to check my pulse!

So what was Mr Rational to make of all this?

I look back on the experience with pleasure. That it was of God I haven’t the slightest doubt, and I am grateful that the Lord Jesus took the trouble to address me in such a personal way. In times of stress I remind myself of his words and find in them strength and comfort. It wasn’t a highly-charged emotional experience but a gentle one, leaving my heart, in Wesley’s words, ‘strangely warmed.’ It remains an unobtrusive milestone on the route of my pilgrimage. I say ‘unobtrusive’ because it isn’t painted crimson, just quiet white, like all the rest. But a milestone nonetheless and, as such, important to me.

Ah, but was it ‘biblical’? Of course it was. Scripture is full of instances where the Lord made personal appearances to people, and it nowhere suggests he might have finished. But it was personal to me. I didn’t write a book about it or trumpet it on Christian TV. I didn’t even feel it was something I should urge other people to seek for themselves. The Lord, in his gracious sovereignty, had met me where I was and, in such an acceptable way for me and my personality, had gently but clearly reminded me of his love for me and the hard facts of his resurrection. Brilliant.

Such experiences are cherries on the cake. The cake itself is a much more robust affair. The church’s foundation is solid propositional truths, revealed by God and recorded in Scripture. It consists of people who, responding to that revelation, enjoy a living, personal relationship with him. In such a relationship, of course, anything can happen, so always be open to the Lord’s surprises, but don’t allow your life, or that of your church, to revolve around them.

They tell me that the latest breakout of dramatic phenomena is happening in such-and-such a place. I shan’t be catching a plane or train to visit. If it arrives on my doorstep I’ll take it as it comes, exercising discernment, and encourage the people in my church to do the same. Meanwhile, we’ll crack on with the unchanging task of glorifying God, reaching out to the lost with both words and works, and nurturing the saints with the good food of God’s Word.

Some will say that my personality is my bias—that it inclines me towards these more routine, even humdrum realities of the Christian life and away from the spectacular, the phenomenal and the allegedly mega-prophetic. They are right. But two thousand years of Christian history are with me on this one. Essential Christianity is not oohs and ahs. It is unflinching allegiance to the hard facts of God’s revelation in Christ.

For that reason our priority must always be to keep reading, teaching and practising the Word of God. Phenomena will come and go. The ones that are of God we may embrace; the ones flavoured with learned behaviour and crowd-manipulation we will avoid. The church of Jesus Christ we will love and nurture; the Church Of The Brown Shins we will never found.


Apostolic authority: executive, advisory or what?

11 January 2018

Three cheers for apostles!

After centuries on the scrap-heap of cessationism they’re dusted down and back with us. And rightly so. I’m amazed at the attempts to argue that apostles, along with prophets, were intended for the first century only. After that, it’s said, evangelists, pastors and teachers enjoyed a continuing ministry while the other two became redundant (see Ephe 4:11).

Why they became redundant is disputed. Some hold that the emergence of diocesan bishops did it, others that the finalising of the New Testament canon left us with completed Scriptures which evangelists, pastors and teachers could adequately apply.

finger-pointNeither reason stands scrutiny. Diocesan bishops appeared in imitation of the pattern of civil government in the Roman Empire where the church began. Certainly they have no basis in Scripture, where the pattern of church leadership was presbyterian—multiple elders. And the finalising of the canon is irrelevant. Paul insists that the church needs apostles and prophets—as it does the other ministries—’until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13).  That’s a goal that still seems some way off.

It’s the ‘new churches’ that seem to have embraced apostles most readily since the 1970s. While their definition remains blurred at the edges, apostles generally provide objective outside help and direction to local leaders. They are travelling men, jetting here and there to dispense their wisdom and experience to God’s people across the nations.

It doesn’t help that, like American televangelists, many of them drive expensive cars and enjoy an affluent lifestyle. Jibes about ‘apostles and profits’ are not always undeserved. Certainly Merc and Lexus drivers don’t seem in place ‘on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.’ And not many of today’s apostles, at least in the West, can say like Paul, ‘To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands’ (1 Cor 4:9-13).

But a more contentious issue than apostolic affluence is that of apostolic authority. Is it, in the final analysis, executive or advisory? Can the apostle overrule local church leaders, or does he have to settle for expressing an opinion and leaving the final decision to the local men? Opinions are polarised, both among apostles themselves and among those they oversee.

See how Paul deals with the case of incest in Corinth, says one (see 1 Cor 5:1-12).  He goes straight over the heads of the church leaders—in fact he doesn’t even mention them. ‘Do this, do that,’ he insists in a masterly way, with no hint that he’s merely giving advice. No, this is executive authority of the classical kind and he clearly expects to be obeyed. An apostle is an apostle, and today’s bearers of the name should take the same line.

But, says another, Paul was a towering figure, a ground-breaker among the Gentiles. Nowhere do we find lesser apostles like Barnabas or Silas taking an executive line, and most if not all of today’s apostles are surely men of the lesser variety. And, anyway, how could a church like Ephesus survive if it depended on the executive oversight of an apostle who told the local elders ‘that they would never see his face again’ (Acts 20:38)? He was clearly leaving the governmental ball in their court.

So that’s the issue. But do we have to come down on one side or the other? Cannot an apostle’s authority be either executive or advisory depending on the circumstances? I believe so. We have a clue to this approach, perhaps, in one of Paul’s statement to the Corinthians. In the context of his apostleship he reminds them that ‘in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel’ (1 Cor 4:15).

I’m a father myself—to three grown-up children. When they were young I didn’t ‘advise’ them to put their toys away at bedtime, share their sweets or stop spitting on the table. I took an executive role, dispensing appropriate sanctions for disobedience. But always my aim was to get my kids to the point where I could gradually back off and let them run their own lives. I didn’t want them coming to me at the age of thirty-five asking, ‘Daddy, will it be all right if I buy a bar of chocolate?’

During the teenage years, when the backing off had begun and my role had become more advisory, there were times when I had to revert to an executive role to get them out of problem situations. But as soon as things were back on course I was advisor again. Now they’re all out of the nest and running their own lives successfully. I like to think that my handling of the fatherly role had something to do with it. We enjoy as strong a relationship as ever, and I appreciate it when one of them seeks my advice. But advice it is—no more.

An apostle is a father to the churches he oversees. His role must of course be executive towards an infant church with a youngish and newly-formed local leadership. They are inexperienced and probably naïve. Without his firm yet loving direction the church will die young. But he must surely be aiming to see them grow up, with leaders becoming strong and mature, modelled on his own fatherly example. From time to time, having backed off to a large degree, he may need to step in to resolve complex issues—and to do so in the expectation of being obeyed. Maybe that’s how it was with Paul and the case of incest in Corinth.

But an apostle who insists on a permanently executive role is asking for trouble. He can only produce a brood of perpetual dependants who will keep him spinning plates till he keels over with exhaustion. Or they will grow tired of being treated like permanent infants and run away from home to seek their fortune under more trusting apostolic oversight.