Table of Contents:
- Creation and Temple
- Creation and Sabbath
- Creation and Image Bearing
- Creation and Presence
- Creation and Violence
- Creation and New Creation
- Restorative Atonement
- A Reconciling People
- Human Institutions
- Christ’s Atonement
- Community Restoration
- Paul’s Letters
- New Heavens, New Earth
- Practical Atonement
- Facing Violence
- The Fall of Jerusalem
- The Resurrection
- The End of Paganism
Appendix: Christian Faith Ministries, a Brief Case Study
Acknowledgments and Further Reading
Healing Our Cosmos
Pondering atonement and Sabbath And their implications for flourishing
We were joking around, thinking of a cover for my new book, Heaven & Earth…
Maybe darkish blue sky, with stars…
Maybe Abraham slitting the throat of a lamb, to renew the creation. That is the pagan view of how the creation is restored, that has bedevilled our societies since Cain. Jesus came to show that the atonement, that which brings forth the new heavens and new earth, isn’t taking life, but restoring it. He came to expose our violence and put an end to it by renewing our hearts and relationships. He shows us the “scandal of the victim,” that the victim scapegoat heals us by revealing the truth about ourselves, not by satiating God’s anger. Restoring the victim, “the least of these,” foolishness to Roman violence, a scandal to first century Jewish power (reversing the tables, showing that the strong should suffer for the weak), but the power of God for our salvation. A God who looks like Jesus, not like Zeus.
The scriptures were not written in a vacuum. They spoke to the Hebrew people within the pagan and cultural ambiance of their time. In this manner, God could both get their attention in a way they would understand and would then insert himself into that world view, like the Trojan Horse, or like new leaven, to transform all those things we thought we knew.
This book tries to trace some of these steps in which God met a people in darkness and incrementally began to bring them to light, the light that would not shine upon them until they finally rejected him in Christ.
And when this light did shine, we saw God’s light of community, of forgiveness and neighbour love, from which comes about his promised new creation. The Trojan Horse, the leaven of the new creation, is our own self-giving, through which the Holy Spirit brings about new life.
This teaches the church our correct response to persecution.
“The kingdom of God is sacrificing our self, in order not to sacrifice our neighbour.” “For the world to be Christian, good reciprocity must replace bad reciprocity.” (Rene Girard)
The overthrow of pagan sacrifice and violence. (Matthew 7:12)
This book comes out as part of the Opening Ceremony of Wurin Alheri, the permanent site for Christian Faith Ministries, Ratyi Du, Jos South. As part of this commemoration, Christian Faith Ministries is launching a journal called of A Theology of Peace, for which we have asked for contributing papers from church and educational leaders. The letter below to these leaders summarises themes we address in the journal, as are addressed in this book, Heaven & Earth.
A Theology of Peace
Papers Delivered at the Public Opening Ceremony of Wurin Alheri
A Christian was shocked recently when they heard the above phrase, and asked, “What is a theology of Peace?” Such a thing sounded strange to them, even suspect.
In our day of end-times teaching, peacemakers are often seen as conspirators, or even as ant-christs. Yet Jesus is called the Prince of Peace and he said peacemakers are the children of God. Why is it that our churches are often estranged from a pacifist form of doctrine, when our baptism and eucharist are both symbols of our self-giving? Why do we often lack this in our curriculum?
If end-times teaching is one issue, then our inheritance in Western styled theology may be another: a theology that often seems to focus more on the individual than the community. Is this how we are really to understand Paul, as a teacher of personal salvation, without his central focus on the renewal of our cosmos, a renewed creation?
In today’s world where nationalism, tribalism, and sectarianism of all kinds seem to be on the rise, how can the church come back to the Lord’s table as one, reviving Paul’s, “In Christ there is neither Jew, nor Greek… Paul, nor Apollos?” How can we rid our politics of sectarian dogmatism, and be witnesses of the politics of care for the least, widow and orphan, to renew our nations in cooperation?
On the practical side, how can we contribute to Nigeria seeing itself as one people, not one in faith, but one as neighbours, building our nation together? It seems this is the most needed ingredient for our nation’s future. How can the church be the right voice, to make a clear sound to our nation?
What can the church do to build cohesion among different peoples in our societies? How can we serve at the grassroots, alleviating youth struggles that fuel much of our hopelessness within our wider communities?
It seems the central aspects of the gospel of Christ are God’s love for all, demonstrated on the cross, no matter our background or affiliation, and God’s own service/ self-giving orientation towards all. God has spoken to us through his Son, about us following him in love and service towards others.
How can this message, in word and deed, be disseminated through us in the local and wider church, and then outward through the church into our wider communities for the healing of us all?
We would like short papers that contribute to the above themes, written in a way that the general church goer may comprehend: that is, in simple language. We want to use this medium to speak to ourselves as the church, that God may renew our own community in how we witness God’s love to a fractured and hurting world.
With love in Christ,
Prof. Kent Hodge
Creation and Temple
The creation narrative in Genesis is similar to the creation narratives of pagan empires of ancient times. The basic story being told was of the god making a habitation for himself, in which he would dwell with his people. This habitation was the god’s temple. The god and his people would then dominate the land/ world together. As we will discuss in a later section, the creation narrative and rule of these gods and their human kings was violent and bloodthirsty. The creation narrative of Genesis was written in direct contrast to this pagan form of rule.
Creation was written in a kind of narrative that is liturgical, or sacramental, meaning it is communicating a significance in terms of heaven and earth coming together in one purpose of
fellowship. The text isn’t to be understood, first of all, as an historical account of material beginnings in a scientific sense. It is sacred language. This doesn’t mean the text doesn’t have scientific and historical value. It would, as material and science are part of our holistic being and creation. But that isn’t the first, or most significant sense of the text we are looking at when we read Genesis. The Genesis text is to communicate to us the meaning of creation.
The Genesis text is also highly poetic. Poetry is used to communicate God’s divine purposes in a way that straight forward literal narratives cannot do. Poetry grabs the attention and impacts the imagination of the hearer and enables greater memory of important ideas. This poetic style of writing is apparent all through the Old Testament. Repetition is a common form of Hebrew poetry. Thus, Genesis chapter 2 repeats the creation account, by building on the earlier themes. We see this repetition in the Pentateuch as a whole, meaning the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis to Deuteronomy. We will look at this later, but this group of books ends the way it begins, with a creation with Adam and Eve and a recreation with Israel. This is an intentional aspect to Hebrew biblical literature. It drives home to us the main ideas God is wanting us to understand.
In Genesis 1 there is a poetic building through the text. Stage by stage chaos is driven back and order, significance and goodness emerges. This is supposed to communicate how creation, meaning our world around us, comes into goodness and fulfilment when we acknowledge God’s presence and wisdom with us.
The number seven also plays a very significant role in this poetic narrative. It has been said that seven represents God’s perfection or holiness. But this is only part of what we are supposed to see in the poetry. God’s holiness means shalom (goodness and peace) filling his creation. Seven means God’s presence with his creation, in order to fill it with all that is good, to establish the creation on a sound foundation and then nurture it with safety and wellbeing. Seven means that God is with and for his creation, in absolute commitment to it. The relationship of seven with creation, with temple liturgy, with divinity, with agriculture, signifying the balancing wisdom that held creation in harmony, was well known in pagan references. Another example is the book of Revelation, where seven is consistently associated with the judgements of God, showing that the purpose of these judgment was restoration of the creation, not its destruction.
We see this poetry in other creation narratives in the Old Testament, like in Job, the Psalms and the Proverbs. “Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) Here, creation is called a house. It isn’t seen as a material phenomenon, like a scientist would look at it. It is a home, in which God dwells with his people. Relationships and the way we treat each other are what matters. Its about family, community. This is the wisdom the poetry points us to: how to build sustainable family and community. This is building creation, or the world around us, not by scientific domination, but through relationships.
So, we see the number seven is clearly a poetic device in the language. This isn’t an argument as to whether the seven days were literal days, or figurative of longer periods. It’s possible that Genesis 1 may not address this argument. The seven days of creation, structured as they are in a poetic format, represent the fullness of God’s community orientated wisdom, as opposed to the self-centredness of the pagan creation stories, which were all about oppression and control of others. We will look at this more later, when we look at the Torah, the Law of Moses. There, seven is used as the number that brings restoration to our creation. Its brings us to rest, it restores our farms, it restores our neighbour and the poor and those in need. This is what the Torah says builds our home and community, bringing wholeness to our creation. The number seven opposes the militarism of the pagans, with a different form of wisdom for bringing us out of chaos and into goodness.
“By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.” (Proverbs 24:3-4) Creation here is once again called a house. It is not something to be used and abused for our commercial or nationalist purposes, like the pagans spoilt the environment. It was to be seen as a home, in which the primary purpose is the development of relationships with all who live in the house and all our neighbours. As a house, it means that God is here with us, in this creation, home and temple. God isn’t far away in heaven. Creation, temple, house, speak of his presence. Heaven and the earth are one, united in his creation, one family. This is the reality the Hebrew text is communicating by this poetry.
This creation text in Proverbs 24:3-4, referenced above, coincides with the narrative of Genesis 1. In the first three days, the basic structure of the house was built. This includes the heavens, the sea and the land. In the next three days these parts of creation were then filled with life and substance. This shows again the poetic nature of the text in Genesis 1. The six days of creation show that God owns and builds his home, just as any person builds their home. The six days describe what he has built and secondly what he has filled his creation with. The six days don’t necessarily explain the creation in a scientific sense. The collection of six days is rather a kind of liturgical narrative, where the emphasis is on the relationships all the parts of creation have, as we live together and complement each other, thus making a home.
Proverbs 8 also speaks of the wisdom of God in creation. This is probably the more popularly known text. Here, it says that God brings forth wisdom first, and then through his wisdom he creates the universe, or cosmos. This came to be known as God’s logos, his word, upon which all of creation came forth. Some people have taken this text literally, as though God’s logos was separate from himself, or something he created first, before the rest of creation. Similar texts in the New Testament, where Christ is called the firstborn, or the first among creation, are also misunderstood this way. The New Testament texts refer to the supremacy of the man Jesus Christ. The passage in Proverbs 8 is poetic. It simply says that God put his wisdom in place first, to make sure that creation would be firmly founded and would not falter. It is not saying that wisdom is a separate person.
To read this separation of persons into the Old Testament is to read our Christian theology into the text. The Hebrew sense of passages like Proverbs 8, and Genesis 1, where God exists in spirit, word and light, was to show the many facets of God.
They were not intended to show God in different persons. Thus, the word used for God was Elohim, plural, meaning the fullness of divine majesty.
So, the important point of Proverbs 8 is that creation is firmly founded on wisdom. What was Proverbs 8 communicating to the reader in ancient times? It was calling the reader to follow wisdom and then his/ her creation, community, life, family, would have a solid footing. What was this wisdom the reader was being called to follow? Not the wisdom of the pagans, about self-seeking, but the wisdom of faithfulness, that honours our environment and relationships, and that builds these rather than tears them down. It’s the wisdom that builds home.
Christ is called the wisdom of God. In his teachings and in his cross, we see the wisdom of God working, self-giving, for our neighbour’s good, even if that neighbour is an enemy. This is wisdom, the revelation through Christ, of who God is. This self-giving, rather than the violence of the pagan creation stories, is the wisdom upon which relationships are redeemed, and communities are restored. This wisdom is to be the primary character of the church in a fallen, pagan world. Self- giving love, which is faithfulness to the creation, instead of faithfulness to our own personal interests, is the wisdom with which God’s dwelling place and our communities of shalom are built.
Creation and Sabbath
We have already seen that Genesis 1 and 2 depict God’s creation of his temple, in which to dwell with his creatures. The term sabbath is related to the temple theme. On the seventh day God entered his rest. In the language of ancient times, when used in relation to pagan creation stories, “rest” meant that the god entered into their dominion. “Rest” referred to the god’s rule over the creation, when the creation acts had been completed.
It’s a bit like a USA presidential election campaign. The battle is fought vigorously. When the election process is finally complete, and all the campaign work is over, the winner enters into his or her “rest.” This means they move to the White House and begin their term of office, or rule over the nation. This is what “rest” means in the creation story. It means that after the creation is completed, the ruler enters into his dominion over that creation. Would that our presidential elections were carried out with the wisdom of God represented by seven, and not in the competitive destructiveness of pagan wisdom.
So, “sabbath” refers to the rule of God over his creation. However, after the creation there was a coup against God’s rule. God didn’t fight that coup, as the pagan gods would have. Instead, he allowed man his own way. We may tell part of this story later, but we see in the Exodus that through
Israel, God’s reign is restored. Israel were called a kingdom of priests, which meant that through them God was coming back into his dominion in the world. The influence of God’s government, or his creation restorative power, would be felt in the world through his people once again.
This is why we see sabbath restored again through Israel’s law. The sabbath depicts the rule of God which Israel were to exercise in the world, and the nature of that rule. The issue is that the rule of God is very different to the rule of the pagan gods. The rest, or dominion of the pagan gods, was the destruction of others, but the rest of Israel’s God would be described in Israel’s law in entirely different terms. That is, the creation story, and the wisdom of the creation later seen in the Torah, completely undermines the narrative of violence within the pagan world. This is the renewal that God’s action through the gospel is supposed to have within our world today.
The sabbath in Israel was again to take place on the seventh day. This seventh day indicated to Israel that God had returned through them to rule over his creation, and restore it, after their slavery in Egypt and pagan destructions. Seven means that Israel is God’s new creation, and Israel is God’s dominion. And the sabbath concept in the Torah outlines exactly how Israel’s God is to rule. This is possibly the most important part of the whole law.
So, on the sabbath day, Israelites were not to work. Specifically, they were instructed to give their sons and daughters, their servants and their animals rest. This is contrasted with Egypt, were there was no sabbath. Pharaoh forced Israel to make bricks every day. The issue with Israel’s sabbath, wasn’t so much that they rested, but that they gave rest to those who were weaker, whom they ruled over. This is the kind of rule that is being described. It is a rule in which burdens are lifted off the backs of others. It is a rule that restores the weak, rather than exploits them. This is primarily what sabbath is about. On the sabbath, people in governmental or commerce positions don’t seek power or profit as their bottom line, but the welfare of the lowest in their communities. This is the same community wisdom of God that we were speaking about before.
The Pharisees misconstrued the meaning of the sabbath. They thought it meant that they couldn’t work. But they didn’t care about the burdens upon other people’s necks. When Jesus healed on the sabbath day he was doing exactly what was meant for the sabbath, lifting burdens off others. The fact that the Pharisees missed this shows how seriously they misread the Old Testament.
So, the sabbath isn’t so much that we shouldn’t work, but that we should give rest to the poor, to those in need. This is God’s form of government, his kingdom reign among us. This is his rule of healing for our land. This is the promised land.
When Jesus said, “Come to me all who labour, and I will give you rest,” he wasn’t just speaking of an individual rest, or just a spiritual rest for ourselves. When Jesus was preaching, the Jews wanted rest/ recovery from the pagan powers, like Rome. They thought their rest would come through violent opposition to Rome. Rest – meaning the restoration of their broken lives and the restoration of their neighbours. This was the rest that Jesus was offering the Jerusalem community. He was turning them away from their violence to true rest, if they followed what he taught and lived, sharing restoration also with their enemies. The Spirit was promised to fill their hearts, to lead them in this life. The rest Jesus was speaking about wasn’t ceasing from work but caring for the poor.
Jesus said we would have rest by coming to him and taking his yoke, meaning to be tethered to his walk. His way was to build community, by serving our neighbour and loving our enemy. This is what coming to him means, to rest from our fears and hatred, which are a heavy burden, and enter the joy of loving others. The rest he gives us is godly rule over a restored community, a restoration that comes about through our care for others, the wisdom of God. This community rest was what Jesus was offering the people, rather than them seeking it through violence against their enemies, or through political coercion.
The sabbath principle in the Torah was extended throughout the whole law. It wasn’t just for the seventh day of the week. It applied to their farms, resting the land every seventh year. This was to be an example, which they were to apply to every part of their life, to build sustainable habits that were kind to people and to the environment, rather than exploit their relationships with others and with the creation. The sabbath is a shalom principle for governing.
After seven years, slaves were to be set free. In Egypt slavery was perpetual. In Israel, after every seven sabbath years, in the 50th year, there was to be a Jubilee. This Jubilee was the pinnacle of what sabbath meant. After seven sabbath years, all land was to be returned to its original owners. This means that if someone lost their land through drunkenness, or mismanagement, the sin of the fathers didn’t perpetuate to the generations after them. The property and wealth would be restored to the next generations. Poverty would not become entrenched, like it does today, from one generation to the next. And on the Jubilee, all debts were to be cancelled. Israel never followed this Jubilee law, because of covetousness. Our nations today also do not follow this.
It is fascinating that the Jubilee was to be celebrated on the Day of Atonement. This is of monumental significance.
Atonement means putting away evil. We know that God has atoned for our evil. But we have often misunderstood what this atonement means, and how Christ achieved that for us on the cross. In Israel’s law, the Day of Atonement meant the day they made Jubilee, that they lifted burdens off all the poor in the land, restored the widow, the orphan and stranger. All put together, this is God’s sabbath rule, his dominion, how his kingdom comes.
What this means is that this kind of atonement, caring for others, is what destroys evil in our land. It lifts burdens, settles grievances, removes bitterness, restores lives, heals society, dispels darkness. It does all the things Isaiah spoke of in Isaiah 58: sharing our bread, caring for the broken, in which, Isaiah claimed, light would break forth quickly into our nations. Our prayers would be answered before we pray, because we are living what we are praying for. This form of atonement displaces evil.
We see this in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Levite and the Priest were going to the temple to make sacrifices.
The Samaritan cared for the wounded man on the road and brought him to a hospital. The point was that this care of others dealt with the darkness that satan brought to the community, not the shedding of blood in the temple.
Atonement is our service to the needy. This would have been a hard pill for the Pharisees to have swallowed, since they so loved and depended on their religious institutions, rather than on service of others.
Again, it’s remarkable that when God called Israel to worship him in Jerusalem, he made that worship about our care for one another. This is his sabbath rule. It was the same with all
Israel’s festivals. They were commemorations. Israel were to worship God by commemorating, or remembering what God had done for them, in setting them free from their oppression in Egypt, and in doing the same for others. This is what God told them: “Remember the stranger, the foreigner, because you were a stranger, a foreigner.” John put it like this, “How can we love the one we don’t see, if we don’t love our neighbour?” All the Prophets said this. The worship of God is shown in our new heart, that we care for our neighbour.
This might be the main thing that Israel missed, a deviation that grew out of our human ceremonial approach to God due to guilt, rather than what he meant for us in creation, simple care for one another. The reason why God called Israel together in festivals of worship during set times of the year wasn’t for his praise. All of these events were celebrated by
inviting everyone together, the neighbour, the foreigner, the poor, the slave and then sharing what Israel had together. It’s like the manna gathering in the Wilderness, “the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (Exodus 16:18) God directed our worship of him towards our care for each other. This is his goal.
Jesus put it, “freely you have received, freely give.” It is passing onto the world around us what God has given to us. Worship is this commemoration of what God has done for us, by sharing the same with our faith family and with the world. This is what is meant by the “communion.” We have often turned it into an introspective, private moment, but that is opposite to the intention. The bread and wine aren’t about turning into ourselves but turning to our neighbour in care.
Jesus said, “do this in remembrance,” commemorate, by doing what he has done for us, for each other.
So, the law is summed up this way, love for God and love for our neighbour, whom Jesus said includes our enemy. If this neighbour-love is the centre of the law, then it must be the centre of the nature of God and the centre of the cross. The whole point of the Torah, of the Prophets, of the teachings of Jesus, is this sabbath rule, and how this will heal and restore our communities, bringing the kingdom of God to us, or heaven to earth, as in the Lord’s Prayer. This is what the new heart of the New Covenant is for.
Contrast this with the rule of the pagan nations, when Israel received the Torah. God told Israel not to have a king, which was an army leader, not to have a standing army, not to build army fortresses and not to have horses as their weapons of war. They shouldn’t fall to the lie of the nations around them, that these things would give them security, while they mistreated the poor and foreigner.
Moses was doing the same thing here in the Torah as we see in the creation narrative of Genesis. God was speaking in the creation narrative and expanding upon his message in the wisdom of Torah, to show how his sabbath rule renews and sustains a good creation. In contrast to the pagan violence and oppression, our national security would come about by our remembrance of one another and by lifting burdens off those who are normally left behind by commercial or imperial greed. This is the way of peace, that our nations still don’t follow, and that the church is to bear witness to, not just in speech, but in our lives amongst one another.
Creation and Image Bearing
When the pagan temples were built, the idol of the god was placed in the temple. This idol was the image bearer of the pagan God. The biblical creation narrative is written in this style. The creation is a temple, with mankind, as the final creative act, placed within the temple to bear the image of God outward into the whole creation.
The term image bearer isn’t so much a description of the human person, but of the human vocation or function.
Humanity is to rule over the creation, as a co-regent of God, as a partner of God, by reflecting into the creation God’s likeness of shalom, sabbath rule. If mankind reflects this image into the creation, he will successfully maintain creation in its harmonious, flourishing existence, but if mankind fails to reflect the image of God into creation, then creation falls apart, becomes filled with chaos instead of order.
The term image bearer can be represented by a mirror. A mirror is positioned so that it reflects light. The light isn’t that of the mirror, the mirror just reflects that light. Mankind is like an angled mirror, receiving God’s knowledge and wisdom and reflecting that into the creation. This is mankind’s calling. Creation requires this functioning of humanity in this right way, or creation becomes out of balance with itself, destructive, rather than favourable.
Mankind was made to have dominion over the creation. This isn’t a reference to humanity’s productive capabilities, subduing the creation through science and technology.
Mankind may do this, but the biblical reference regards the priesthood vocation. As a priesthood, mankind is an
intermediary between God and creation, to bring God’s nature to the creation, and to bring praise back to God, in terms of every part of creation flourishing in its intended purpose.
The nature of this dominion is to be understood in the context of the creation story in Genesis 1-2. We speak about this more below, where in the creation the waters of chaos were driven back. These waters became symbolic in Israel of the destructive powers of human sin. Dominion refers mankind’s role in holding these destructive forces back from the creation, by overcoming them in our own nature. We are to bear God’s image of peaceful, caring creation into our nations. It is a dominion over the forces of darkness, from within our own nature, in how we treat others. It is keeping satan at bay, by issuing from our lives only light and goodness into the world.
The dominion is best represented by the poem Paul gave us in Philippians 2. As the perfect man, Christ fulfilled this image- of-God mandate, by becoming a servant. This is how his victory was expressed. He reflected God’s self-giving nature into the creation and by that he overcame the world and its evil. Therefore, the poem says, God highly exalted him. That is, his reign was one that was established upon service. This is the same reign the bible depicts in the Revelation. The church is reigning on earth by not following the beast, but by laying down their crowns and lives serving others. Their priesthood has been restored, as Revelation says, and their reign on the earth is now effective.
We can see that the narrative of Genesis 1, 2 and 3 is primarily about God’s creation and mankind’s vocational rule of priesthood in serving within that creation. Overall, this is what the biblical story is about. Adam and Eve lay this vocation aside, and God has been working since the Flood to restore it, through Israel and through the church. If this vocation can be restored, the bible shows, then the creation itself shall be delivered from its corruption. If image bearing is repaired, the creation is repaired.
It has been said that the Genesis chapters 1-3 narrative is primarily that of a legal covenant with God dependant on our obedience, in which God gives mankind a law, making it necessary for a proper relationship with God. When mankind failed that law, God then required blood to compensate for this legal failure, to re-establish the relationship, to grant mankind eternal life, which often means going to heaven and not hell. This way of looking at the text can produce problems in our understanding of God’s character, which we may look at later. It can also throw the narrative of the first chapters of
Genesis out of their proper perspective. These chapters describe a creation and a priesthood established to sustain God’s shalom in that creation. The primary concern is in re- establishing this priesthood and thus the creation, keeping to God’s original plan for creation, rather than abandoning it. If we lose sight of this, we lose sight of the purpose of God in the gospel.
So, the primary narrative of Genesis 1-3 isn’t that of a legal covenant of obedience, being re-established through blood, but of a creation being brought back to its original goodness through a restored humanity in Christ.
Another aspect of the image of God is that it exists within community. It isn’t that Adam was the full image of God in himself. Firstly, it was male and female, both made in God’s image. The text means that humanity as a whole is to reflect God image, each one of us in our different vocations and callings and skills. In community we compliment and serve one another, and in that way bring God’s multi- faceted image to a flourishing community. So, in this case every one of us is important. It is not just that Eve compliments Adam, but they complement each other and serve each other. They are each other’s helper. I know we have read this according to our patriarchal viewpoints, saying only the woman is to serve the man, but this isn’t the meaning of the text.
This way of suppressing the image of God in a person, in this case through our patriarchal tendencies, is exactly what the text is seeking to undermine and overthrow. In the pagan narratives of the ancient world, the full image of the gods was invested only in the pagan kings. He suppressed and oppressed the rest of humanity, denying their role as image bearers and enslaving them. Women were added to his harem, men died in his wars, and built his monuments of glory. Even today, forms of leadership that supress the respected contribution of all members deny the image of God in others. The image of God is not invested in one leader, but in the whole community, in the whole of God’s people.
The purpose of the Genesis creation narrative was precisely to challenge this pagan mistreatment of humanity. The Genesis creation invested value and worth within every human being. It meant that every person had to be treated as God’s child and not as a pawn in our own ambitions. This biblical truth, of the image of God in all of humanity, is the basis behind the modern insistence of the United Nations on human rights.
Without this Genesis narrative we have no basis for human rights. It challenges all abuse and all empire that demeans and brings violence and injustice to the human person. It is the call of scripture for us to love one another, to love our neighbour as our self, no matter their tribe or affiliation.
The creation narrative of Genesis is vital for bringing peace to the earth. It is vital in challenging rogue empires and for fashioning the character of the church, as we bring these truths about God and his purpose for the creation to our world. The Genesis narrative is unique in the world in this challenge. Without Genesis we would not have this message renewing our lives, governments and nations. It is of upmost importance for justice and the love and protection we are to show all people.
We will read more from John’s gospel further below, but when his opening chapter says that to all who receive Christ, he gives them power to become children of God, John was speaking about our role in the renewal of creation. John was speaking about the purpose of God in the original creation being brought forward and fulfilled in Christ. We have so often taken this promise of John to be just about of personal sonship, our private salvation, but the biblical meaning of sonship is that the creation itself is being set free. The issue here in John’s mind is our Adamic commission.
It is the same when the New Testament says that Christ is the very image of God. This doesn’t just mean that when we see Christ we see the Father, but it is also Hebrew language for the heir of the creation. Christ inherits the world, which means that through him and his gospel, God is renewing the creation, delivering it from darkness and from satan and bringing it into his full flourishing he first intended in the beginning. Any time we see the declaration about Christ being God’s image, we are seeing a declaration that God is bringing forth a totally new creation through the gospel. He is renewing the world, all the nations and bringing all into his eternal purpose. He isn’t destroying the world and casting it off but filling it with his goodness and presence.
It’s the same when we see the term sonship in the New Testament. When Christ is called the Son of God, it means he is ruler of the world, he has the dominion mandate on earth given to Adam and Eve and to humanity. This means that through Christ, God is fulfilling his purpose in claiming back the whole world through his Son. And he continues this through all his sons, whether male or female sons, heirs of his covenant. It is through his sons that the creation is delivered from its bondage to corruption. The image of God is restored through Christ. Sonship is renewed and the vocation to reflect God into all the nations comes to its fulfilment. This is the story of scripture.
These facets come together in Romans 8. The sons of God are revealed to the creation, in fulfilment of the Adamic commission. The dominion that God gives us is carried out through service, in the self-giving image of God. The
transformation of the creation isn’t instant, but occurs with suffering, which the powers of this world visit upon God’s renewing people. But none of these powers can overcome God’s love. It is here that Paul says the Spirit helps us in our weakness. The image of God is revealed through our non- retaliatory forgiveness of our enemies, just as Christ showed on the cross. It is through sufferings that God’s love is revealed, and he is made known to a blind and hard-hearted world. The Spirit helps us to love our enemies, as Christ commanded. This is the dominion we exercise over the world, dominion over hate, not embracing the violence of the pagans.
All through the scripture we see God’s plan to fulfil the Adamic commission to renew the world. In this regard, all the Prophets speak of the coming resurrection, in which death will be defeated and the curse upon creation lifted. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel all depict this hope of a transformed creation. All through the Psalms they speak of our inheritance as ruling over the creation (e.g. Psalm 2, 8, 110). The Sermon on the Mount claims the meek shall inherit the earth. None of the Prophets, that is, nowhere in the Hebrew text, is going to heaven when we die the hope. It is always the resurrection and renewed creation.
It has been said that the book of Revelation depicts visions of what heaven will be like when we go there. That is a misconception of the book’s message. When the scripture shows visions of heaven, these visions are not showing us what heaven is like as a place to go to when we die. The visions show what heaven’s plan is for the earth. In Ezekiel 1, Ezekiel saw visions of heaven, which depicted the judgment coming on earth.
In Revelation, John saw the same. In Revelation 4, he saw representatives of the church on thrones and casting their crowns before the Lord. This was symbolic of the suffering church in the first century, ruling and transforming the world through their sufferings and humility, by serving the least.
This is worship and ruling from heaven’s perspective. To the world the church looked weak and foolish, to heaven the church was ruling. Don’t wait till the next life to cast your crown, serve now.
Revelation 4 starts with “a door opened in heaven.” In ancient pagan texts doors opening in heaven referred to new events and seasons upon earth. (Enuma Elish) When heaven opened at Jesus’ baptism, this is how it would have been understood in that time: an announcement of a new ruler for the world, a new creation. The baptism of Jesus would have been seen by many as a challenge to the rule in Jerusalem and in Rome.
This is the significance in Revelation.
Revelation 4 then speaks of a rainbow for a renewed earth. In ancient literature the bow stood for a warrior holding back the waters of chaos. Revelation 4 continues with God’s judgment throne to restore creation, the number seven for creational renewal, the Spirit of God as a reference to creation in Genesis 1, the seven spirits of God which in Isaiah 11 speak of Christ restoring the creation, the four animals representing the whole earth, the temple that restores the creation (from Isaiah 6, declaring the whole earth filled with his glory), and the declaration that God made the earth for his pleasure. This vision could not be stated more clearly, that it is about heaven’s renewal of the earth, not about us going to heaven. All Revelation’s vision of heaven are the same, about a renewed heaven/ earth creation.
“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10) This is all symbolic language. Priests means we are God’s image bearers. We follow Jesus and look like him in the attributes of selfless care for our neighbour. This is God’s renewing plan, to encounter and overcome the violence of a self-centred, satanic orientated pagan world. As Paul said, to overcome evil with good. That is ruling in the image of Christ.
A final word about the terms son and image in the scripture. As stated, these words are to do with the creation and the human stewardship over that creation being restored in Christ. Son means the one given that stewardship. It means the heir of the creation. It was initially all humanity, but humanity fell from this glory of rule, as Paul shows in Romans 1-3. This sonship is restored in Christ, who makes all believers sons, or heirs of the creation, with him. (Romans 8)
So, when we see that Jesus is the Son of God, it doesn’t mean that God gave birth to Jesus at some point in eternity past, before creation. This is understating sonship in Greek terms, I think more akin with Greek myths about the gods having children in heaven. This isn’t what sonship means in Hebrew scripture, which also includes the New Testament, written in accord with the Hebrew world view, not in the Greek world view.
When the New Testament calls Jesus the Son of God, it means the incarnate one. It is speaking of son in terms of Emmanuel, the imminence of God in his creation. The God who came at creation in spirit, word and light, has now come in the flesh, in a human son. We speak of this below, but the point here is that Jesus is the only son born from man, who is God incarnate, that is the only son of man, the only son born on earth who is God. And being born as a man, God was able to fulfil the law as a man in perfect relationship with heaven and earth, in perfect relationship with God and man, as Jesus Christ did. God comes as a man and fulfils the commission of Adam and Eve. This is what Son means in Hebrew text.
This may have had something to do with what the Quran teaches about the sonship of Christ. The Quran may have been responding to what could have been more Greek ideas on Christ’s sonship at that time, along with Mary worship. The idea that God had a baby in heaven, may have been seen by some as the Christian expression in certain quarters. There may have been a pagan mix in expressions about what sonship meant when it comes to Christ. I think it is true that Hebrew meanings had been lost in that era in sections of the church.
It is difficult to assess the history of Islam in its earliest days. It isn’t as simple as many profess. Earliest commentaries are dated well after the Quran. The Quran has a Christology every bit as high as the scriptures. It says Jesus is the spirit, word and sign of God. Sign means the image of God. This equates with the divine imprints of God in the creation and throughout Old and New Testament texts. Word, Sprit and image of God are terms for divinity, for the divine son who has come into the world. The Quran 19:33 also says that Jesus died and rose again and, in another text, seems to deny this, but that is open to interpretation. My point is, our evaluations of early Islam may not be as precise as we think, and relationships between us could have deteriorated more widely as time went on, given our increasing hostility, on both sides, just as it did with Judaism.
Creation and Presence
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and empty, and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.”
Creation is the declaration of the presence of God. This is where we first see the dramatic introduction of Emmanuel, meaning God is with us. The transcendent God, the unknowable God, who is far away, is now knowable and present within his creation. A word for this is immanence.
In Genesis chapter 1 we get this announcement of God’s presence in many ways. He is a spirit and is present in his Spirit in the world. His word speaks into the creation. His light drives back darkness. All of these, spirit, word and light, are announcements of God’s personal presence with the creation.
This is so contradictory to Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy embraces dualism, meaning the ancient philosophers believed creation was evil and one day to be destroyed. They believed that salvation means to be separated from our body and to go to heaven, in a distant and different location, and live a spiritual existence for eternity. This idea has come into the Western church in recent years and in many parts has taken over. It is not the biblical vision.
The biblical vision is stated in the first sentence of the scriptures: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Heaven and earth are to be one. God loves his creation. He fills his creation and makes heaven present to the creation. The opening statement of the bible shows Hebrew theology at its core. God loves his creation and is committed to it forever, as the last verse of Revelation 4 states: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.”
The Greek vision is dualism, meaning the separation of heaven and earth. This is man’s vision. They didn’t like heaven, so they tried to steal the earth from heaven and take earth without heaven. They sent God far away into heaven at a distant place and took the earth to be their own. They treated God as “the old man” in the clouds. And our guilt, “behind the bush,” theology depicts God in this way, as an angry old man far away from us. (Genesis 3:8) This is the reason God looks like this in Greek styled and Renascence art that comes from Greek mythological gods. But the biblical vision is heaven and earth together. This is the vision of all the
Prophets, which we see once we break through our human cultural language about God.
The opening chapters of Genesis show God coming to his creation in spirit, word and light, coming to make it his habitation, his temple. Temple is Presence language. The temple in Old Testament times meant the connection place between heaven and earth. It was where heaven met earth, the channel through which heaven, meaning God’s presence and wisdom, flowed into and filled the earth. This is maybe one of the most important features of Hebrew faith. This is God’s plan today through the church, God’s temple in the world.
Eden was God’s temple. This is where he met with Adam and Eve. His plan was to partner with them, to extend his personal presence throughout the world, by being present with them in all they did. This was also his plan with Israel, fulfilled in the church: “Enlarge the place of your tent (tabernacle/ temple), stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left…” (Isaiah 54:2-3) Through his temple, his people, God’s presence is filling the creation.
God didn’t visit Eden from some far away place. He made it to dwell in it with his creation. Heaven and earth weren’t separated by some huge gulf. That is the thinking of fallen humanity. It wasn’t the thinking of the Hebrew scriptures.
Heaven and earth were one, they came together in the creation. God filled the creation and wanted to sustain that through his friends, in loving, cooperative fellowship. “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God behind the bush.” (Genesis 3:8)
Though the language of the Old Testament often seems like God is casting man out due to his anger, we see it was man who separated himself from God. The text says God drove man from the Garden, so he couldn’t eat of the tree of life and live for ever. This means God subjected man to mortality as a grace, so he wouldn’t live forever in his guilt. God didn’t do this in anger, but as Paul says, in hope. (Romans 8:20) Genesis is an ancient text, written in the language of divine fiat, describing human events. The “curses” are warnings of consequences we bring upon ourselves by our own actions, not legal punishments. Like the Tower of Babel, in the language of divine decree God scatters the people, but in the events themselves it is oppression that breaks up the community. It’s the same with empire today. When we read back from the New Testament, from God’s revelation of himself in Christ, we see what drove man from God’s presence: our conscience. (John 3:19-21) We read the nature of God from the Prodigal Son back into Genesis and into other Old Testament texts.
The idea that heaven is distant permeates Western science and theology. It is deism, the idea that God lives in some faraway place, and has little to do with the daily affairs of his creation. He has left that to mankind. That suits pagan humanity well, who can get on robbing people and the world without God interfering. This stems from the Greek philosophy, epicureanism. Epicureanism states that heaven is far away, where the gods don’t trouble us much. Mankind is to get on with constructing life, as pleasant for himself as possible, given the absence of the gods. This is the basic belief of Western scientific and moral thought in hedonism: “It’s my life.”
Pretty well all modern Western thought, whether scientific or theological thought, is impacted to a greater or lesser extent by epicureanism and deism. Evolution is controlled by the belief that if there is a God, he is far away and not much involved. Christian evolutionists hold that Genesis isn’t a scientific text, so belief in it doesn’t hinder a belief in
evolution. It might be true that Genesis 1 isn’t a scientific text, but we don’t really know that yet. But Genesis 1-2 are magnificent announcements of the presence of God. As explosive temple theology, one thing the text is not doing is proclaiming a distant God, in some way separate from his creation. Creation is his temple. That is why creation is very good. I can’t see any correlation between the Genesis text and evolution theory. They proclaim different gods and a very different way of living with God.
Heaven and earth are still together, though mankind is unaware, blinded by hardness of heart. God hasn’t taken heaven away to some far place, but he has drawn it back behind a curtain. Heaven is still all around us, just on a different plane, largely invisible to us, unless the veil is taken away from our eyes. When our eyes are open, like several instances in scripture, we see angels and God’s presence all around us. (Genesis 18:1-2, 2 Kings 6:17-20, Acts 12:7) We can’t understand this in our normal way of thinking, so the bible speaks about heaven in metaphorical terms. C. S
Lewis’s writings provoke our imagination towards a more biblical vision of heaven and earth.
The ladder that Jacob and Nathanael saw shows that Christ is the connection point/ temple between the two planes of heaven and earth. (Genesis 28:10-17, John 1:49-51) The ascending/ descending trajectory of the ladder means that heaven rules over the earth. The ladder is not literal, it is a metaphor. The travel between these two planes isn’t literally vertical, but horizontal. “Heavens” is a plural word in the scripture and it means the sky and the atmosphere, the air that we breath, and the life of God that is all around us and sustains us all. It is the word of his power that upholds his creation. (Hebrews 1:3)
This changes our thinking about the supernatural. Supernatural implies that God is far away from the natural, and occasionally breaks into our world by a strange visit. This is more a deist view of God and of heaven. We see the world as normally natural, which is absurd, given its wonder. The biblical view is that God is always present. His presence, not natural law, is what upholds the creation. Jesus is the bridge between our seen world and the heavenly plane and so what we call miracles flowed naturally between the two planes in Christ. Multiplying the fish and bread wasn’t so much a supernatural event, but the two planes of life overlapping.
Jesus rebuked the disciples for their thinking of a faraway heaven and the sense of remoteness they lived with in their hearts, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” (Matthew 16:8-11) This overlapping of heaven and earth is the only thing that can account for Jesus sleeping in the boat during the storm. In Christ the veil in the temple between heaven and earth is removed. (Matthew 27:51) And how does this change the way we want to live towards each other, when we live in the presence of God together?
This is how we are to live, not in anxiety of lack, but in our awareness of heaven’s presence, just as heaven is present watching over the sparrow. “He is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27-28) The sense of abandonment and isolation we sometimes have is a lie. Christ drives the guilt out of our lives and now we live both on earth and in heaven at once. This is the place Jesus died to bring us into, so we might be with him and with his Father. (John 14:3) Heaven is not far away. It is all around us. The Sermon on the Mount is about how earth opens to the rule of heaven and the two provinces overlap into one rule of restoration.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The whole Lord’s prayer is much easier when we realise heaven is near us rather than far away. It becomes the air we breathe, and we need that air in a harsh world. “Give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins as we forgive others, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” These are prayers to a God who is here with us now.
We are conscious of his constant presence, not his anger; his open ear, his hand of love and supply. We are not trying to get the attention of a God far away, like the prophets of Baal, as Elijah said to them, “Maybe he has travelled, or is easing himself.” They had to shout because their god was a long way away.
In the Old Testament, heaven is described using metaphors, like saying heaven is above. This doesn’t mean heaven is geographically above, but it is a reference to heaven’s power being greater than our own. “Above” is a metaphor for rule or power. Distance, as in far above, is a metaphor for the large gap between God’s wisdom and fallen human wisdom. (Isaiah 55:9) The idea in Hebrew scripture wasn’t that heaven is literally above, but that heaven means the rule of God. (Isaiah 66:1) Heaven is God’s kingdom, God’s rule, over the earth and over all things. Jesus ascended to heaven and sat on his throne, but this is metaphorical for his rule.
The meaning of “ascension” is clear in Hebrew texts, like Daniel 7, where the Son of Man ascends, meaning he is given rule over the earth and all its nations. Ascension means to rule over the earth, like a king ascends to his throne. “Far above” is a metaphor for dominion, like “all things are under his feet” is a similar metaphor. The ascension of Jesus also included him being hidden from the world’s view, until he comes again, meaning when his rule is openly unveiled to the world. “And he was hidden from their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
Even the clouds, because of their height, are a metaphor for the rule of God. “Principalities in heavenly places,” means places of satanic rule over fallen humanity, but those places are within the fallen heart and mind of man and in our governments. (Ephesians 6:12, Matthew 4:8-9, Titus 3:1) Heavenly places means places of authority or dominion.
These texts are metaphors, to communicate spiritual ideas in human terms.
Christ is with us here, now, beside us, and heaven is as well. “I am with you.” “I will never leave you, and never forsake you.” It is Greek ideas that made heaven a distant place to go to after death. It bears repeating here: no Hebrew Prophet or patriarch spoke of going to heaven as the hope of believers. Nor did anyone in the book of Acts. They all spoke of our future hope as the resurrection of our bodies and souls from the dead.
“And he will swallow up on this mountain (Calvary) the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:7-8)
Heaven didn’t retreat to another distant place, but to behind a veil, still here with us. Heaven is behind a veil because that is where men want God to stay. When the veil is taken away, heaven, which is now still all around us, shall come swooping back into this creation’s awareness like a flood, death shall be swallowed up throughout the creation and darkness shall vanish. Heaven and earth shall be one. This is how the book of Revelation ends.
The bible speaks of the coming of Christ is metaphorical terms, like coming on clouds, or with a loud trump, or coming in the air. The reality these metaphors are describing is stated here in Isaiah. It is when heaven and earth merge, when the veil is taken away and, in an instant, death within this whole creation is swallowed up by life. What we call the “Second Coming” is the appearing of Christ and of heaven to the earth. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
Isaiah 6 records an experience Isaiah had with the presence of God. He saw God in his temple, which Isaiah knew signified God’s plan to renew and fill the earth with himself. Then the angels called out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God almighty. The whole earth is filled with his glory.”
What is this glory that will fill the earth? In Solomon’s temple, the glory was a cloud. But this isn’t his glory. This was a fleshly shadow of glory, to Israel as children. The glory of the Lord is seen in Christ. When Christ comes, Isaiah said, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all tribes will see it.” (Isaiah 40:5) The glory of the Lord means the true image of who God is. When Jesus was about to go to the cross, he prayed that God would glory him, so that he could glorify the Father. (John 17:1) The word here means to reveal, to make him plainly known to the world, to take away the veil of blindness, in which humanity wrongly sees God.
Humanity sees God as one who executes justice through violence, and so we go around the world doing the same to others and we call it justice. But when Jesus came, he revealed a God who turned the other cheek, who gave his life for his enemies. He did not punish his enemies, but he forgave them, at the cost of his own life in Christ. This is the glory of God. God was glorified, made known to the world, through the cross of Christ. What is this glory? It is that he loves his neighbour and his enemy and will not lift his hand against them. He will rather lay down his life to serve his neighbour. If the world followed this, we would have peace.
When Christ died on the cross, he revealed God’s nature. No one expected majesty to be like this. All thought that power should act powerfully against its enemies. When Christ was stripped naked on the cross, he made our own views of life naked. Paul called it, he exposed, made naked, the self- inspired powers that controlled our own hearts. “He stripped the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them as he celebrated his victory in Christ.” (Colossians 2:15)
In John 14-17 Jesus spoke of this glory as the love of God. He said that when his Sprit comes we will share this glory of the Son and Father with us together. He described this glory in his command to the church, that we love one another. As we walk in this family love we are revealing the glory of God to the creation. This is how his peace and his joy come to us, that the world can’t take away. Jesus prayed that the Father should “glorify me in yourself, with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:5) That is, that the Father should show his true person to the world through the cross, just as planned before creation. This isn’t a story of a pre-existent second person coming to the world to take us back to a faraway heaven. This is a story of God’s presence coming into the world through his Son, to us and to the world, with his image bearing love. John is sharing the Ezekiel 47 renewed temple imagery, to make the world new, as being fulfilled in the church.
The glory of God that will fill the earth, that will renew all our lives, is exactly that glory the Law and the Prophets spoke of, and that glory which Jesus revealed on the cross. It is neighbour love. It is the neighbourliness that filled all the teachings of Jesus. Love for one’s neighbour will fill this earth and transform all things. Today, the church gives witness to this glory, which has already dawned in our own hearts. We give witness to it through dwelling with God and his people in a community of love, and sharing that love, non- violently, but with acts of restoration, to all those around us, no matter their race, gender or creed. This is how we are his witnesses.
This is the temple Christ spoke of in John 14-17. By going to the cross Jesus was bringing us into his place where heaven and earth come together. As we live in God’s love and share that love with our neighbourhood, we are the temple of God, with the Father and the Son, through which heaven is flowing into this world. This new temple Ezekiel spoke of fills the earth with God’s glory, his presence in us and through us to the world.
“My peace I leave with you, my joy I leave with you.” What is this peace and joy? “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” This love casts out all fear and leaves us with peace and joy. (1 John 4:18)
Creation and Violence
As stated above, the earliest creation stories of the pagan nations were well known to Israel at the time they came out of Egypt and when their own creation story was written down in the Pentateuch. The Genesis account was to be partly understood within the context of their own world and times, just as we understand ourselves today within the world in which we now live. The mistake happens when we read ancient texts according to our own modern views, and not in the views of the people who wrote and lived with those early texts.
Ancient pagan creation stories were very much about the rise of the pagan empires within their world, the ‘divine right’ of their king to exploit the world and people around them. These stories weren’t always about creation ex nihilo, meaning the creation of the universe in its very beginning, but sometimes may have been read as a parable about the creation of the new empire and its placement of a new order upon the world and cosmos. See the Babylonian Enuma Elish for an example of pagan creation stories.
All these pagan stories were about bringing an order out of chaos, just as the Genesis account describes. The Genesis account shows the creation in its beginning being in a disordered state, represented by the waters. Throughout Hebrew scriptures, waters were often used to represent a state of disorder within the world and our societies. These waters were usually seen as pagan empires, who destroyed the world and its peoples. The sea monsters, such as Leviathan and the ‘monster of the sea’, in Isaiah 27, represented the empires of Egypt and Assyria, who laid waste to the world around them.
In the book of Revelation, Rome is the beast that comes out of the sea. Psalms tells us that the Messiah “will set his hand over the sea, his right hand over the rivers.” (Psalm 89:25) This means Christ will bring peace to the world, by stilling the raging, covetous, destructive waters in the human heart. When Christ walked on the waters, especially when crossing the Sea of Galilee to the gentile cities, this was in part to show his coming to renew the creation.
Though the creation account in Genesis is an historical creation of the very beginning of the universe, it also carries with it a prophetic and poetic significance in the imagination of the Hebrew people. Just as God subdued the early chaos in creation, the Hebrew believed, he will similarly act through Israel as his new Adam and Eves to still the pagan chaos of the world around them. This was especially seen as coming to pass through the Torah, the word and light of God then amongst Israel, to shine upon the world.
So, let’s return to the pagan creation accounts. In these accounts the world lay in a state of chaos. At this point the gods went into violent battles, to establish which god would own and fashion the newly created world. These battles were displayed as merciless, bloodthirsty and immoral acts, including all kinds of sexual and murderous acts, even against the god’s own family members. These stories were quite clearly about made up gods, made in the image of the people and their own acts of violence, child sacrifice and incest, which they transferred to the gods to legitimate their own lives.
After these battles had been won by the victorious god, this god would bring about a state of world order, which would be presided over by the king of the empire that worshipped the god. The creation myth gave the king and his empire divine legitimacy. So long as the king honoured this god, the god would sanctify all that the king did in his name, as the god’s son, the one who would govern the world, the one made in the image of the god, to rule, and all other people around him were lesser, subjugated beings. All of this was according to their religions, made to justify their empires, ruthlessness and injustice. The rulers of Israel behaved this way as well, also imbibing pagan mythology about bloodshed to relieve curses and still chaos, which fills Old Testament literature. We will speak about this more later.
The point here that is important is the means by which the world, or the creation, passed from a state of chaos to a state of cosmos. By cosmos, we mean a state of order and stability, in which the empire rules unchallenged, bringing peace to the world. This was Rome’s claim. They were known by the term Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome. It was the peace that was brought about by merciless brutality and the division of the world into classes of elite and oppressed, by which wealth could be made and order come to those in control.
The pagan creation narratives justified their way of bringing order to the cosmos, to the world around them. Their claim, in following these violent and immoral gods, was that order comes about by war and violence. It is by militarisation that we secure the world in peace. Now, this idea was totally opposed by the Hebrew Prophets, represented not least by Isaiah, who claimed that peace flows out of justice, “The fruit of justice shall be peace and quietness forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) Isaiah said this when telling Israel that they should help the refugee, even though the refugee then was traditionally their enemy, rather than build fortresses for peace. They didn’t listen.
When we look at God’s creation account in Genesis we see no warfare. God brings forth the creation unopposed by any other god or power. Darkness flees helplessly at his word. God is an unchallenged deity. When the creation is brought into a state of cosmos, or goodness, we see that this has been done completely non-violently. So, here is a new world view, coming into focus through God’s image bearers, Israel. Our societies are to learn how to bring our communities from a state of chaos to a state of cosmos non-violently. Instead of relying on violence, we should rely on justice and mercy to those around us.
This is one of the clear meanings of the Genesis creation text to the Hebrew people, when they came out of the oppression and brutality of Egypt. The creation narrative shows us that the world shall be ruled by God’s rest, his sabbath, which the Torah so clearly explained. In this kind of world, all humanity shall be honoured as made in the image of God, and all be given justice by the governments of the world. This is the clear intention of the creation narrative: a world renewing narrative and challenge to the powers of darkness.
This is the challenge the church must live out, not so much in angry protest, as in example, by our refusal to adopt the world’s stance of division and separation from those in need, whether races, genders or classes, but instead caring for one another, bringing in the oppressed, repairing our local and wider communities by giving mercy and justice to the poor, even with our own goods.
We pass from chaos to cosmos through mercy and justice for all, especially for the weak and foreigner, not through injustice and oppression, which can only be sustained by further and growing inequity and violence. Our world today looks very much like the latter view. We are building a divided world of wealth imbalance in which those among the richest are the producers of weapons. This looks very much like Rome. In God’s creation it is the producers of farming instruments who are most honoured. Which worldview do we embrace in our lives now? What do we advocate as the hope in the challenges our communities and world are facing today? War, or justice for others, even for those among our enemies.
It seems to me that the theory of evolution is similar to the pagan creation worldviews. The world order is brought about by the survival of the fittest. It is a violent hypothesis, a struggle for domination over the world order, by brutal means.
This exactly coincides with the pagan creation myths. Hitler used the theory of evolution as a pretext for oppression of the weakest, to improve the creation.
Humanity can very easily fall into this paganism today, in the way we treat the poor, the refugee, those of other nations or races, the old, the young, the unborn, and anyone who is out of our class and who interferes with our comfort. While we holiday on beaches, drowned refugees are washed ashore.
This is the divided world we live in, with economic and military proxy wars being fought for us in foreign lands, without our picking up the tab in the millions of lives destroyed. While we invest in more properties, forcing up prices, the poor can’t afford to rent a room.
Paganism, in all its various forms, gives us a very dangerous view of the world, and according to the main themes of the Hebrew scriptures, it is most unlike the true God. But we don’t fight this with hatred or as much by protest, but with community and example of our own self-giving, by taking up our cross to expose the darkness, just as Christ did. It’s true Christ objected to the Pharisees of his day, but this was the church of his time, the people of the book, who did not follow the spirit of it.
Creation and New Creation
A few years ago, I began to wonder about how the Hebrew people saw the creation account in Genesis when it was given them after they came out of Egypt. What would it have meant to the people back then? What significance or relevance for their lives would they have drawn from the text? I grew up in a Western nation and whenever we turn to that text inevitably the discussion would centre around the creation/ evolution debate. I doubted that this would have been uppermost in the minds of the Hebrew people when they heard the text being read back then.
So, here are some thoughts on what the creation text of Genesis may have meant to the Hebrew people, when they received adoption as heirs of God in the covenant at Sinai. We can summarise some of the main points of the creation account: God appears to his creation in spirit, word and light. God brings order out of chaos by driving back darkness. He divides the land from the sea. He makes a garden for his people. He makes a people in his image and places his people in that garden. That garden is a temple, in which God dwells with his people. He makes these people his priests, to represent him in the world.
All of these main ingredients appear to Israel in the Exodus. The appearance of God’s spirit, word and light to Israel in Egypt was the next stage in God’s Emmanuel theology. He had returned to his creation, just as in the beginning. In the Exodus, his spirit returned to them in presence, his word to Moses and in the Torah and his light in the pillar of fire by night. The Torah was God’s wisdom, his logos, his creative power. All of these were creation symbols to Israel. This was deeply entrenched in their religious consciousness. God coming to them in this way in Egypt meant that he was renewing his creation.
The Torah had huge significance to Israel in their creation theology. It was said to be the very wisdom, the seven pillars of creation. This wisdom had now come to abide within the nation. The shema, in Deuteronomy 6, summarises the very centre of Torah. “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and strength.” And in Leviticus, “You shall
love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Shema, in Hebrew, means hear and do. It means obedient listening. The listening that changes the heart, that gives a new heart, and a new life, building a new community, a new nation and new creation around us. The shema is God’s new creation.
Here is how it works. The Torah was to be a creative power, giving the people of Israel a new heart, in which they would restore their neighbour and enemy and build a renewed community. They were God’s de-pharaoh-ing community. The Pharaoh within us, our selfish treatment of the world, was to be brought down in their own hearts, in how they treated others, and this new way of life was to pass to the nations around them. They were to be God’s priests, meaning salt and light, pointing to a new way of living, breaking down injustices and destructive ways against God’s image bearers in the world.
The creative power of the word in Genesis 1, “let there be… and there was,” was now returning to the creation in the Torah, and saying, “you shall love,” and by this word, forming a new community and new world. The Hebrew saw “let there be” and “you shall love” as similar creative fiats of God, in the second instance bringing ex nihilo life to Israel’s heart and through Israel to the world. The shema was seen as a creative command, the command itself issuing forth the power to create a new heart within the believer. This is what Paul meant by his statement, “faith (a new heart of love, faithfulness), comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the (creative) word (of shema.)” (Romans 10:17)
However, as we learn, the Torah was just a type or foreshadow of this new creation. The actual fulfilling of this was to come in the Messiah, the living Torah. So, Paul said of the gospel, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory (true nature), displayed in the face of Christ (God’s true image seen in Christ.).” (2 Cor 4:6) Paul was saying the gospel was God returning to his creation by renewing our hearts with the living Torah. It was like what Jeremiah said, “I will write my law upon your hearts,” and Ezekiel, “I will give them a new heart.” The essence of this new heart is the shema, to love God, which means to love and restore our neighbour, rather than to walk past on the other side of the road.
This is God’s new creation power. The gospel is God coming again to his creation, in his spirit, word and light, to make it new, by making our hearts and actions towards each other new. At the centre of Paul’s gospel was this shema, this community renewal. Paul was not preaching new creation as a privatised salvation for the individual, but as a transformation of the cosmos.
So, when Paul said in the next chapter, “if any person is in Christ – new creation,” he wasn’t referring to our personal salvation, but to the reconciling church renewing the communities. To read this as only the individual being made a new creation isn’t what Paul was saying. The Hebrew listener hears Paul referring to the whole creation. So, in the living Torah, in the creative word and wisdom of God, God comes in Christ to give us new hearts and a new world.
And when Paul said in Romans 5:5, that the Spirit fills our hearts with God’s love, he was again referring to the shema, in which we are empowered to love our neighbour and build a new community. This new community was portrayed in Romans 14, where Jewish and gentile believers sat down at one table sharing love. This was a revolution in Paul’s day, and it was exactly the new creation that he was describing in his letters.
What Israel saw in the Genesis creation text given to them when they came out of Egypt, was God bringing them out of the chaos of idolatry in Egypt and out from the darkness of oppression in their slavery. He was driving back the sea of their destruction, in which the Red Sea was called the sea monster, meaning the Egyptian terror God delivered them from. The creation text and the Exodus event are closely linked in Israel’s writings… “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster (Pharaoh) in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food (manna) to the creatures of the desert… you established the sun and moon.” (Psalms 74:13-16) The sun of creation is likened to the birth of their nation. Israel saw both the formation of the universe and the formation of their nationhood as covenantal creation acts.
After the Exodus, when God brought Israel to Sinai, he adopted them as children, and made them a kingdom of priests. This evoked their remembrance of Adam and Eve and showed them that the original Adamic commission had been handed down to them. God brought them into their own land, just as he divided the world in creation and gave Adam and Eve their land of Eden. And in this land of Canaan, God dwelt with Israel in his tabernacle, by his presence and Spirit, just as he had done with mankind in the first creation.
The important thing to see here is that the creation narrative, to Israel, wasn’t just something to argue about, concerning the material origins of the universe and how God did this. This wasn’t the point. The point of the Genesis text to Israel was that it most clearly revealed their identity, why God had called them and what his purpose was in their lives. And this is how we should view the Genesis creation text. In it God is communicating to us what our mission is, why he has saved us, what it means to be his image bearers and what he is doing in the world through his new people. This is what matters from the text.
We are to see ourselves as the second Adam. The creation narrative shows us today our identity as God’s people, the ones driving back the darkness and bringing goodness and order and life to the cosmos. God is carrying on his Adamic Commission through the church, to renew the whole world, just like Isaiah said, through us the world’s weapons are beaten into ploughs, and the wolf and lamb are lying down together. This is the sabbath, the rule of the second Adam, that the church is to bring to the world: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
The gospel isn’t the abandonment of God’s commitment and covenant to his creation, to make his promises spiritual, to take us to heaven when we die. The gospel is the fulfillment of God’s first purpose in creation. God is not the God of Plan B, but the God of Plan A, whether satan likes it or not.
We see this gospel in the opening chapter of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” This isn’t a declaration of an eternal trinity of separate persons before creation. John wasn’t writing in the concepts of Greek church fathers. He was writing as a Hebrew prophet, declaring Israel’s Exodus identity was then being fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
John went on to declare that Christ is the light and then further on he declared that Christ is the shekinah presence (Spirit) of God in the tabernacle, who had then come to embrace humanity in the flesh of Jesus. Christ, John said, was the spirit, word and light of creation, now come into creation in human flesh. This is clear Hebrew theology of the incarnation. It is not a Christian innovation. The immanence of God in creation, his immanence in the Torah and in the tabernacle, is now once again immanent in the new tabernacle of Christ: same God, different tent/ clothing. The idea that the divinity of Christ was a later innovation of the Greek fathers is untrue. This is Hebrew theology that existed long before John wrote and applied to Jesus. This is how the early church saw Jesus as Lord and God right from the church’s beginning.
And this is where we derive our trinitarian theology, from its Hebrew roots. It is God coming to his creation in word and spirit, within his tents/ tabernacles, which today means within his church. We don’t need the later Greek philosophical constructs to think about the trinity. We have the Hebrew constructs already in the scripture, which are sufficient for the task.
Through Christ and the gospel, John states, darkness is being finally driven back. (John 1:5) Just as the darkness of creation was driven back, the evil of our present creation is driven back through the gospel. We see John clearly presenting the gospel in its Hebrew sense of God filling and renewing his world, as the Prophets said. This shows our identity and task as the church, just as the Hebrew saw their identity in Genesis:
1. Salvation in the gospel is our community bringing renewal to this world.
Later John shows this darkness coming against Christ in his triumphant hour on the cross, and by that John reveals how darkness in overthrown in our lives and world. The meaning to the Hebrew listener was that God came to his creation in Christ to overthrow evil, not through pagan violence, but through his atoning offering of himself. The light of God’s personal act within his creation expelled the darkness. The cross was John’s new creation narrative. The church is to follow, by taking up its cross in bringing new creation to its communities.
This is Hebrew Emmanuel theology, in its final fulfilment in Christ. God, who was present as his creation was formed, present in Eden and present with Israel, became present through his Son. The reality of God’s presence continues in the church, as the church fills the world and brings the image of God to all nations. His presence finally fills the earth in the resurrection of all believers, and the coming to pass of all prophetic text is final: heaven and earth become one united shalom, one holistic expression of God’s cosmos.
This is how the book of Revelation ends. Heaven and earth become one united existence. God dwells in the earth in plain sight, with no veil separating his presence from our eyes. He dwells in the earth with his people and wipes away every tear. And how are these tears wiped away? Through our neighbourliness. What brings tears? Un-neighbourliness.
What wipes the tears away? A new heart, which produces neighbourly love for one other.
Here we see the poetic structure of the Hebrew text once again. The bible as a whole book finishes the way it starts. Its starts with one heaven and earth reality and ends with that same vision eternally realised. This poetic cycle shows the meaning of the scripture as a story. This story gives us understanding of God’s purpose and of our role in the story as his image bearers, his temple, his presence, bringing about the renewal of all things.
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
All things in heaven and earth are placed in Christ, so in Christ they might be reconciled together into one. This isn’t to be understood in a sense of the church domineering over others. The way things are placed under Christ is through his cross, and the cross we bear as his image followers. This is the way his kingdom rule comes, through love. And, Paul says, we are his body, his new temple, that through us he may fill his whole creation. We have here the same commission that Adam and Eve had, but now we have his Spirit within, to guarantee the success of our missions in the cosmos.
“He is the guarantee of our inheritance, that is, the redemption of our body.” (Ephesians 1:14, Romans 8: 23, Philippians 3:21) Why is our body redeemed, raised from the dead? To rule the world in shalom, to complete the first hope of creation.
Why was Jesus indifferent to, or even against, some of the most cherished institutions of the Old Testament, such as retributive law, sacrifice, the temple which restricted access, hierarchical rule and war? Given this was the case, many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had great difficulty accepting that he had come from God. But since Jesus is the exact image of his Father, are we reading the Old Testament incorrectly, if we think the above institutions originate from God’s heart?
We start our journey looking into these institutions with Adam and Eve. The concept of retributive atonement began with them. This is where the law of retribution was lodged within their heart. Having joined the serpent to accuse God of wrong, they soon found that the same law they had used as an
ally for their freedom from love, to become their own god, became a voice of accusation within their own soul. They fled behind the bush, away from the presence of God, wrongly believing that he was the source of their guilt.
Their newly acquired wisdom was to accuse others, starting with accusing God, and this is what brought a loss of innocence to themselves, by the same voice returning within themselves, accusing them. This is the sword, that if we live by it, we will also die by it. This then became a cycle of downward destruction. The wisdom of God, on the other hand, is to overcome accusation with forgiveness, service and restoration: the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount.
This guilt became too much of a burden to bear, so immediately mankind found ways to deflect the guilt onto others. Adam claimed it was “the woman you gave me.” This way of shifting guilt would become a major source of violence within our communities. It remains rife in human society to this day. The Pharisees wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, because it relieved them of their own sense of guilt, heightened in their hearts through their keen awareness of Torah. This is called scapegoating, visiting wrath upon another group, to bring a sense of peace and stability back to our community.
Next enter Cain, who slew Abel. God, commenting on the escalation of violence this act would bring to our societies, said if anyone killed Cain his death would be avenged seven times. Later, Lamech claimed his death would be avenged seventy times seven-fold. This means that those loyal to Lamech, whether those who lived in his fortress, or his tribe, would revenge massively upon the other people. Such is the work of retributive law in the hearts of fallen mankind, demanding “justice” at such exaggerated levels.
Here we see the number seven again. Cain and Lamech believed that retributive atonement would make legal amends and restore the community. However, in the Jubilee, after seven sabbath years, mercy was applied to restore the creation. We see retributive atonement as the human wisdom, but restorative atonement as God’s proposal, which man by- and-large rejects as foolish. Daniel said Israel would be restored by Christ in seventy-times-seven years, in his death and resurrection. Jesus said we are to forgive our neighbour seventy x seven times. This whole biblical story shows a shift from human retributive atonement, to divine mercy, or restorative atonement.
It is in Genesis that we see the institution of sacrifice and its reasons. It didn’t originate with God. God didn’t kill animals to clothe Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:21, there is no mention of animals, nor of blood: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” The Hebrew words for garments and clothes refer to priesthood clothing, which, in the Torah, were not animal skin. The mention of skin could be referring to Adam and Eve’s own skin. Exodus 22:27 tells us not to take the coat of a poor man for his pledge, because it is his only clothing for his skin, to keep him warm.
Not clothing of skin, but for his skin. The clothing of Adam and Eve reflected God’s plan to restore our image bearing priesthood, not God’s plan for retributive atonement.
It’s the same with Abel’s sacrifice. There is no mention that he slew an animal. They didn’t eat meat then, so why would they kill an animal? An offering here means to present to the Lord in gratitude, not in payment for sin. And the offering was shared among the people, in community charity. This is how they worshipped in the Torah. In Abel’s time, the people would have benefited from the wool and milk. The first mention of a blood offering, or a burnt offering, in scripture, is that of Noah’s offering, after the Flood, when meat eating was divinely permitted.
So why did sacrifice begin within human culture? Bloodshed began with Cain, as a form of retributive scapegoating, who blamed Abel for his predicament. In ancient civilizations we see sacrifice of animals being used by an elite priesthood, to control humanity by restricting access to “an angry God.” This is a human aberration of the priesthood task, which in human temples is offering others up to death, but in God’s kingdom it is offering oneself.
Since ancient times sacrifice included honour killings. If a member of my family killed someone from another family, my family would deliver him over to the other family to be put to death. This could cut off a wider reprisal and end the violence. The honour killing would be a form of retributive atonement. Animal sacrifice could also be used to shift punishment from the guilty person, allowing him to live. By offering a substitute’s blood, the demand for vengeance could be appeased, rather than through wider killings. Animal sacrifice could greatly stem the violence within our civilizations. It could quench the retributive behaviour of a fallen human race.
Through successful negotiations, animals could be substituted for the life of the criminal. If payment could be made at sufficient levels, the sense of wrong done to the victim community could be appeased. It wasn’t God who established the level of payment, but the payment would depend on what was required to appease the community. We see this throughout the Torah, where payments are made in lieu of the death penalty and where the people, because of God’s undeniable grace extended to them, agreed to God’s reduced terms of retribution upon others.
Overall, sacrifice worked not only to appease the heart of the wronged family, but of the community at large, who feel that right has been reinstated and the cosmos stabilised. This is fundamentally important for the sense of justice and peace in society. If wrong isn’t appeased within the heart of fallen man, then he will take the law into his own hands and wreak a much wider damage to console his self-righteousness. Our societies are still ordered this way today. The balance to order comes through retribution, or a payment in lieu of retribution.
Okay, so let’s fast forward to Noah’s sacrifice after the Flood. This is a pivotal moment for understanding much of the blood shedding in the Old Testament, and God’s reasons for participating in it. God is now going to begin to form a redemptive community, to minimise the violence that took complete control before the Flood and reveal himself to the world, in time, through his people. But God has to start from where man is, in his self-righteousness.
So, God makes two laws. First, is to do with animal sacrifice. God demanded that if animals are killed, their blood must be dedicated to him. It looks like God is instituting sacrifice, but he is not. He is saying, that if people are going to kill and eat animals, then the animals’ blood must be seen as holy, not as something to be destroyed lightly. The point here is to minimize bloodshed by making it a solemn event, to elevate the importance of life and blood in general. God is insisting upon overseeing the taking of blood within his creation.
This is a critical thing to see. God brings violence into his sanctuary, solemnising it, in order to monitor and curtail it. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak, being involved in our violence and bloodshed, taking the wrap and the accusation of those who blame God for it, while he is doing it out of love for the animals and to protect his creation from per-Flood levels of violence and desecration of the environment.
Violence, sacrifice and blood shedding are already present in the human condition. God is just coming into the mix to control it.
This condescension is God’s holiness. He could have stayed away, not involving himself in our fallen affairs. But he came to us in our condition to help. This is how we see the cross of Christ in the Old Testament, not in the blood shedding, but in the condescension of God to eventually take blood shedding out of our lives. The blood shedding is not of God, but the condescension of the cross is what we see in these Old
Testament narratives. The fact that God accepted Noah’s burnt-offering as a sweet-smelling aroma doesn’t mean that God like bloodshed. It means that God accepted Noah’s faith, such as it was, just like he accepts us as we are. By accepting us, he then works with us to transform our hearts.
What we see in Genesis is that God is not an advocate of retributive law and the violence it produces, nor of the blood shedding that legal retribution requires. This is all human.
God is stepping into it merely to firstly curtail it and then to transform us into his heavenly values. But this is a very long process, given our hard heart, and it won’t really begin to happen until we see him in Christ.
The second requirement God gave Noah was regards capital punishment. God stipulated that if any man slew a man, then that man must be slain. Some, even today, hold that God requires capital punishment by law, but this can’t be sustained when we look at Christ. Christ did not require capital punishment. He required mercy and restoration of the guilty party. So why is God giving this law on capital punishment to Noah? Because this was the state of the human heart in that day. God did this to limit reprisal killings, to nip vengeance in the bud, to bring peace to communities, because God knows our hearts and the random killing of innocents, or even genocidal killings, that will follow.
We know that God did this due to the condition of the human heart, because Jesus told us this. The Torah prescribed an eye- for-an-eye. This was to satisfy the self-righteous demand of the law in the human heart. And it was prescribed to significantly limit human vengeance. But Jesus refuted eye- for-an-eye. He claimed this is not a principle in God’s kingdom. We will come to Jesus’ teachings further below, but just to say here that Jesus did not affirm the retributive actions under the law. To put it plainly, Jesus did not affirm retributive atonement, even though this fills much of our theology, our way of seeing God, even to this day. Retributive atonement is not God’s heart.
The principle adopted by God with Noah, both in animal sacrifice, and in capital punishment, was known by the Hebrew word charam. Charam means devoted to God for destruction. It is essential that we understand this when viewing any participation of God with Israel’s violence. It means that blood shedding is to be brought into God’s sanctuary, in order the monitor its use and to limit it, to withstand pre-Flood levels of violence and genocidal murder.
A very good example of charam is the matter of the golden calf, worshiped by Israel in the Wilderness. Moses told the Levites to take their swords and kill their brothers. They killed 3,000 and then God said Moses had done well. This is a perfect example of ancient honour killings. The Levites had committed sin against Israel by making the calf. Unless this great grievance under the law was expiated, appeased, then it would fill the hearts of Israel’s tribes with righteous indignation against the Levites, and bring forth massive levels of death and punishment, and there would be no telling what other sins, punishments and destruction would result. The law works death, the scripture says. Unless Moses stepped in in this way, Israel could be exterminated in civil war before they even made it to the promised land.
When Dinah was raped in Genesis, and the people would not hand over the perpetrator, Jacob’s sons killed all the men of the entire community. In Judges, when Benjamin sinned, the whole tribe was almost entirely exterminated in a civil war in Israel, due to the righteous indignation that worked in the nation, showing the amazing levels of blood lust we are capable of, through the law within us.
Returning to Moses’ case above, it wasn’t God who stated that 3,000 Levites must be killed, but the heart of the people. When 3,000 people died, they believed it was enough, that the law had been satisfied, that justice had been done. It is the level of hardness within our own heart that determines the punishment, not in the heart of God. There is where we have so badly misread God, thinking that what is in our heart in terms of the law, is in God’s heart. Our theories of atonement have been made from “behind the bush” and then we have read them into the scripture.
It’s beyond the scope of this book to explore the role of charam in Israel’s occupation of Canaan and in many other events recorded in the Old Testament. But charam surely plays a key role. Even the issue of occupying land was another Old Testament institution that was to radically change under Christ. The land becomes good through our redemptive feet-washing of neighbour and enemy, not by Old Testament models of entitlement and occupation, which we still often advocate today. These are key issues in today’s world, where land conflict is prevalent. Renewing our outlook towards land is a major part of renewing ancient pagan world views. It’s paramount that we look to Christ and not to our fallen human selfish ways.
The point of charam, sacrifice, was to limit human bloodlust. As Jesus said concerning our unwillingness to forgive, charam, sacrifice of animals and sacrifice of others, comes because of the hardness of our hearts. It doesn’t come from God. Retributive atonement, bringing appeasement, peace and settlement to our societies by the punishment of others, is not of God. Appealing to the Old Testament, to mankind without Christ, as a basis for violent actions today, is not Christian, it is not of Christ. Retribute law and sacrifice both came into the world through sin, not by God. Christ overthrew them both by the offering of himself.
A Reconciling People
“For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)
A good example of the Prophets’ antipathy towards animal sacrifice. What are we to do with this text from Jeremiah? The Torah is filled with instructions on sacrifice. But it wasn’t God’s original plan for Israel. God wanted relationship with Israel just as he did with Adam and Eve. But they followed the same path of Adam and Eve, accusing God of bringing them out into the Wilderness to die. The ingratitude of the serpent also filled their heart. They also embraced self- justification, which brought them under the law. So, where
there is law there must be sacrifice, or the law will tear the community to pieces and destroy it.
The serpent comes to whisper, to break down our trust in our neighbour, which leads us into a politics of division and destruction. This was his speciality in the Garden and in the Wilderness. It fills our hearts with judgmental law and our communities with human beasts. Instead of the God of the Prodigal Father (generous father), we can only relate to a God on fire on Mount Sinai. Sacrificing something other than ourselves is the only answer, unless the cross changes our hearts.
There is a complex relationship between the law, satan and God’s creation seen in the Old Testament. While the Torah said God was acting in judgment against the people, it was actually satan who was the destroyer, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10. Satan comes to accuse by the law and through that establishes a path of destruction in our relationships with others. The accusation of satan actually issues from the hearts of people against each other.
It isn’t that satan holds God to account in a literal heavenly court, but he sits in judgment within the hearts of men. Satan reigns over hearts and nations, setting our lives on a course of destruction of each other, or fire, as James called it. In Revelation 12, where satan is cast out of heaven, it means that because the law has been defeated by Christ, satan is cast out of his ruling position in the heart of God’s people, in which he previously was able to use the law against our own conscience and use the law to lead us to destroy each other.
This is depicted in dramatic terms in Job. Job lived with the presence of accusation and fear in his heart, until God broke through that fear and showed Job his mercy. Here is the sacrifice/ mercy conversation going on very early in Israel’s history. There is a conversation going on in Job, as in all the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, where the authors are trying to sort out the relationship of the law with the true nature of God.
We see the law dominating the conversation in the Psalms. They start by declaring that the one who follows the law shall be blessed. Then they acknowledge that we often suffer for doing what is right. So, they then denounce their persecutors, saying they will suffer the full consequences of the law. The one thing the Psalms seem to lack is forgiveness for their enemies. Even when they declare the coming reign of Christ throughout the world, they don’t declare how this will happen, by Christ forgiving his enemies and drawing people together to extend healing to each other. The Psalms are an immeasurable gift from God to us in so many ways but they seem to hold back on some of the things the Prophets, and especially Jesus, claimed concerning the national life of Israel.
The Psalms often maintain Israel’s sense of exceptionalism, not acknowledging they were called to extend the same mercy to their enemies that God had shown them. In the Prophets we see that Israel was as bad as their enemies when God called them, and that God would call the people they despised into his fellowship. Jesus takes it further by forgiving those the Psalms curse. Psalm 69:21-28 curses those who gave the author vinegar to drink, but on the cross Jesus had compassion on those who gave him vinegar. Paul shows that these very same curses which Israel spoke upon their enemies came upon themselves. (Romans 11:9-10) What Paul is showing is that the law Israel relied on to curse others led them into a rejection of God’s mercy for themselves.
This conversation about the law, the persecution of their enemies, their calling for God’s judgment upon them, is present throughout the scripture. It is part of the normal human emotional response to our trouble. God is not offended by this and these sentiments were spoken out as part of Israel’s worship gatherings. Christ expressed his emotions of grief and forsakenness in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. But Israel were supposed to break through into the wider purpose that God had for them, not to condemn the world, but to restore the world through their grace and mercy. Israel were not able to overcome the sentiments of the law working in their hearts.
Israel supposed Isaiah claimed that Christ would bring the “day of vengeance” against their enemies. “The Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God.” (Isaiah 61:1-2) What shocked Israel was that this deliverance was meant for their enemies, and unless they walked with God in this, they would bring the vengeance of the law upon themselves. That’s what the law does to us if we don’t realise others from it. Israel would be delivered as they delivered their enemies.
I believe this antipathy of Israel towards their enemies shows through in the Psalms. It’s like Jonah praying in the belly of the whale, cursing the gentiles. If God didn’t correct Jonah, we may have taken this prayer as the word of God. I think we treat the Psalms a bit like that at times. Even their proclamation of the coming Messiah looks self-serving: he is coming to crush the gentiles and extend Israel’s global dominion. Today we can see these differently, but when they were written, you wonder how they were seen then.
And this must have made it very difficult for them to have received Jesus. He was much more undermining of the status quo of power, even of the power in Jerusalem. To Jesus, this was as gentilised and the rest of the world. Jesus came face to face with a culture that was not self-correcting, that didn’t try to heal the enemy, but cast them out. A culture like this must have sacrifice to maintain the peace of the body politic. It’s either heal the wounds of the society or appease through sacrifice, or worse, sacrifice the wounded. They chose to sacrifice instead of change, meaning to sacrifice Jesus.
The Spirit of God wants to lead us through this same conversation in today’s politics, as we seek to “restore” our nations. Psalm 137 claims those who would dash the little children of their enemies against the rocks would be blessed. This might be poetic for the army of Babylon; however, this retributive sentiment doesn’t come from God, but from the elite of Jerusalem who refused to obey God and were finally cast out to the rivers of Babylon. They didn’t care for anyone but themselves. This is their sentiment of nostalgia, for “the good old days,” which weren’t really all that good. This sentiment is very dangerous when it fills our hearts and our politics, as it often does today. Today our conversation is about restoring the death penalty, not about restoring hurting nations.
We see in the Wisdom literature, and also in the Prophets, a growing conversation about faith and the disappointment that it often brings. The conversation is a human struggle with life, that reflects in some ways God’s struggle with his creation. We were created to love but turned instead to ourselves. How this must have disappointed God! Does he wrestle with the same responses in his disappointment that we do? This conversation is supposed to lead us up to the cross, where we see God’s ultimate response to the law. He doesn’t engage in violent sentiments or sacrifice to appease his inner sense of the law, but he engages instead in self-giving to set his enemies free from this bondage in their hearts. Our conversation must draw us in the end to this cross.
We also see what the word of God is in this scripture. It isn’t the human sentiments we read, even though they are valid expressions of the journey of faith, but it is Jesus Christ, who revealed the eternal word to us on the cross. Taking any one verse as the “literal” word of God, and not the overall conversation and the place this is leading us to, can result in us distorting our faith seriously. The scripture is to lead us to the word of God, who is Jesus Christ, the exact image of the Father, the image we are called to reflect into a renewing world.
Just to pick up on one extra point from Job, concerning the language that is used. It says fire came down from heaven against Job’s property. But it wasn’t actually from God. It probably came from marauding tribes. God had said Job was in satan’s hands, so it was inspired and carried out by satan in the hearts of people. The language used, that the fire came from God in heaven, points to God’s ruling counsel, that he eventually allows humanity his/ her own way.
When we see this language used in the context of judgment, it may be termed God’s vengeance. From Job, we can see that it means God pulling back the hedge of protection, usually his restraining grace within our conscience, and allowing humanity to go ahead in their determined plans and reap the consequences of their own actions. It isn’t that God is repaying us in a legal sense but allowing the fruit of sin to have its way, to cleanse and renew the earth, for the sake of the meek.
This retributive language is throughout the Prophets also. They claim God is going to do this and that against the people. God is speaking to the people as children, the way parents speak to children who are too young to understand. They could not hear the real heart of God, even when he spoke it. It’s like God enters this human discussion alongside us, expressing his anger, his repentance for that anger, and the ongoing devotion of his love to the world despite our sin. The bible is written in this emotional way, connecting with us as real people.
The judgement that eventually befalls Israel is brought upon them entirely by themselves. Paul calls it being handed over, and given up to our own actions, to our own decisions. The Prophets speak in this human sense, saying God is angry and will punish them. However, God’s anger isn’t human, but intense grief and a compassion to rescue the world. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!” (Jeremiah 4:18) This self-made punishment of the people pierced God’s heart.
Babylon comes against Jerusalem as a direct consequence of Israel’s own long-term policies. God doesn’t do it himself.
Babylon’s motivation to attack Israel doesn’t come from God. It comes from their own empire building greed, which no doubt Babylon tried to justify. We see this pictured in Zechariah 3, where satan stood to oppose Israel who were being returned to their land from exile. This depicts the nations arguing about the land and who has the right of possession, accursing one another, justifying their right of oppression of each other. Israel learnt to play this game as dastardly as the other nations did.
The way God answers the gentile powers in Zechariah shows what the cross is about. He says he will take away the sin of Israel’s land in one day. The gentile nations, who claimed to be just, were the ones who nailed Jesus to the cross. So, God replies, “You have no case against Israel. I have forgiven you, so you must forgive and restore Israel.” And in case Israel boasts against the gentiles, God says to them, “You were the ones who handed me over to the gentiles to slay. So, you also have no claim against the gentiles. You also must love and restore them.” This is exactly how Paul employs the cross in his letter to the Romans, bringing the Jews and gentiles to one table. God has put the sin of both the gentiles and the Jews on Christ, by forgiving the joint actions of us both, and the reason he did that was not to satisfy himself, but to make us one.
The very next verse shows us the wonderful result of this atonement: “In that day each of you will invite your neighbour to sit under your vine and fig tree.” (Zechariah 3:10) We learn to overcome our violence, not by hatred and vengeance, but sharing sabbath with our neighbour and enemy: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10) This was said in the context of their tribal antagonisms.
Sharing our vine and fig tree with our neighbour, from all tribes, not our dependency on weapons, is our new fortress of hope: “See, your king comes to you, just and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth… return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope.” (Zechariah 9:9-12) A beautiful description of the followers of Christ, prisoners of hope restoring the weak, not captives of violence. We learn to heal our land, “not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit,” meaning not by violence, but by justice and mercy working in our hearts. (Zechariah 4:6)
Zechariah prophesied in the days when Israel returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel. The point of Zechariah’s prophecy was the time in which Israel and the gentiles would be one, a unity brought about by love for peace, truth and mercy. But in Zerubbabel’s day, they were not ready for this. The law in which they lived nurtured tribalism, pride, in their hearts.
The separation laws in the Torah, to save them from pagan corruption, weren’t meant to cut them form their mission of love and transformation of the world. The temple of law, which separated them from the uncleanness in others, had to give way to a temple of grace, which healed our uncleanness together. “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zechariah 4:7) The mountain before us, our violence, our refusal to serve our enemy, shall come down in Christ.
Ezra 4 shows Israel rebuilding the temple when the people who lived in the same land came and asked them if they could help. These people worshipped God in syncretism, not in a true way, but so also did Israel. In the Gospels they were known as Samaritans and they were also called Israel’s enemies. Zerubbabel rejected their help and the people then began to discourage Israel from rebuilding the temple. A rivalry for the land had taken hold of their relationships.
When Jesus came he called Israel to reach out to the Samaritans, to take the initiative in leading them to the love of God. Jesus was taking the first steps in undermining Old Testament ceremonial exclusion, towards fulfilling Zechariah’s vision of a land healed by neighbourliness, as our response to persecution.
Getting back to God’s judgment of Jerusalem, when Babylon destroyed the city, Babylon’s motives were mixed up in this whole issue of land competitiveness and their own exaltation, just as Israel’s rejection of others was driven by the same motive. Therefore, even though God was judging Israel’s part, Babylon was held accountable for their own violence. No one can take God’s judgment against others as an excuse for their own violence. We may assume that because Paul later said Rome was God’s minister to execute vengeance on the wicked, that God condoned their violence. (Romans 13) However, Paul was telling the church not to rebel against worldly authorities, just as Jeremiah told Israel not to rebel against Babylon. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)
In Romans 12-13, Paul was using the exile of the Jews in Babylon as a backdrop to show the church how to renew the world in which we live, in a kind of exile, as persecuted pilgrims, bringing in God’s new rule. Seeing this backdrop of Israel’s history in Paul’s letters is essential for understanding his message. We will see more on this in a later section. In a fallen world, God uses evil powers to hold other evil powers in check, but he calls the church to renew the world and to renew these powers, not to emulate them.
This isn’t to advocate a total pacifism for state policy today. Policing is a kind of security that operates for the common good, not for partisan interests. But without justice it can’t work. The force it uses will just sow the seed for tomorrow’s conflict. The early church though forbad baptised members to operate in the army, for the stated reason that we are the people who beat our swords into instruments of service.
Baptism is a symbol of our self-giving, not life taking. Hitler is the trump card for “just war,” but without the fear of death Hitler would have had no army to do his bidding. And his army was made up of baptised believers. Taking away this fear of death is exactly the contribution the church has for a new world.
The Old Testament shows a complex web of personalities justifying their own sin, while bringing punishment upon the sin of others to satiate the sense of the law working within their hearts, and to maintain their own selfish hold over their possessions. This is a satanically controlled world. As we read this conversation through the scripture, we see that the way to overcome this satan is the way of Christ, defusing it through forgiveness and service. It is a costly way, but it’s the only way not to participate in the selfish exploitation.
The point being made here about sacrifice is that because the satan/ accuser used the law within our hearts, the need arose for sacrifice within our communities, until we could come to know and follow God’s kingdom in Christ from our renewed hearts. Today, we may not have pagan styles blood sacrifices in our “post-Christian” societies, but we still practice sacrifice, scapegoating, by our propaganda and violence against other tribes and nations, to bring a sense of political stability and unity to our home fronts. This is a constant practice, as our news media shows daily. It is because the serpent comes to whisper, divide and destroy, that sacrifice is needed to restore, or if not sacrifice, then a self-giving life of mercy. It’s either scapegoating sacrifice or mercy, depending on the way our own heart goes.
Another point about the law God gave to Israel, was that it was the meeting place, where God could make himself known to humanity. This is where God met with Abraham, when he doubted God, in Abraham’s human custom of the blood covenant. So, since man had embraced the law within his heart, as a way of justifying himself against others, then this is the place where God would meet with him, to reveal his love to mankind. If man has lodged himself behind the bush of shame, the place where the law leads us, then this is where God will find us and save us. He will make a covenant with man, that is based upon law, and then meet man within that covenant, forgive our sin and so take the law out of hearts, setting us free from its condemnation.
This is the reason we get a lot of language in the bible, both Old and New Testaments, about God’s legal wrath and the curse of the law, and the solution to that in Christ. It is God meeting us within our own system, the way we viewed the gods, as God’s own condescension and service to us. This is the correct view of the cross of Christ: not blood that God demanded for himself, but what he gave for us and for his creation. He entered into our law and delivered us from it.
The brilliance of this, subverting all our pagan systems of sacrifice, is shown on the Day of Atonement in the Torah. The animal sacrificed turns out to be a representation of Yahweh himself. God has entered into our sacrifice system, taken out the substitute and placed himself in its stead. He has overthrown our thinking about sacrifice, from other-sacrifice to self-sacrifice. He challenges our whole view of priesthood and of leadership, to become one of giving of ourselves for the weak, as the only way of returning chaos to true cosmos. But if we don’t see this, we will claim God is like the pagan gods, demanding blood, and this is a misrepresentation of how Christ reveals the Father.
God met us within a covenant of law, to reveal our self- righteous captivity there and then save us from it by his own blood at Calvary: the place where we visited our sinfulness onto God as our scapegoat, from where he forgave us fully and freely. This is what he did on the cross, when we broke every law under the sun, with his response to us, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” “God was in Christ, not holding our sin against us, but cancelling it.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) God did this without the need of being paid. It was free from him, though not free to him. The cross delivers us from the law, the eternal captivity into which satan had us plunged. It was at the cross that we sinned against the holiness of God himself, doing our worst possible against the law. Being forgiven at the cross, we are forgiven from the whole law, setting our hearts free. And being delivered from the law, we have the potential of being delivered from the judgemental violence that we perpetrate against one another.
The law is a bit like this: God took our systems in which we trusted, our sacrifice, our laws, our form of temples, which all existed before Moses, and he filled them with himself and then gave them back to us in the Torah, as the place where he would meet us. It’s both ingenious and also filled with love, that God would go to such an extent to be born of a woman under the law, to become our scapegoat under the law, to deliver us from the pit of retribution that gripped our heart. He makes a covenant with us, not unlike the human covenants of that day, in which there are curses for breaking them, and then becomes that curse himself, to take upon himself the “wrath” of that covenant.
There could be no better way of communicating to fallen mankind his love and free acceptance. The whole process is to commend his love towards us, to get us out from behind the bush, so we can love our neighbour, instead of passing our condemnation onto others. (Romans 5: 8) This whole religious system wasn’t something that God demanded himself, but a system that our own guilt and conscience demanded, and into which God plunged himself in Christ to eternally free us.
God is a missionary. As such, he starts with where mankind is, to bring us out of our condition to where he is. This means that everything he uses to communicate to us is found within our own culture and human state. For our understanding, God portrays himself in human form, as having arms that aren’t too short to save. (Isaiah 59:1) But God isn’t actually in this human form. He is a spirit. Man cannot understand anything outside his own experience. He cannot understand heaven except in earthly terms and symbols. This is what we spoke of in a previous section, about the use of metaphor, drawn from our human experience. Understanding this missionary principle in which God comes toward us, enables us to move beyond these metaphors into a new kingdom, leaving the old human values behind.
Take the metaphor of throne for example. The term throne comes from pagan nations, where rulers elevate themselves above others, subjugating the image of God in them. Throne is an image we know within our human experience, which God uses to communicate issues relating to his dominion. But when we get to Jesus, who is the exact image of God, we see what God means by throne. He said, in his dominion, the ruler leads from the bottom, not from being over people. The place where he conquers evil is on his cross, not through force. This is his throne, his glory. When he “sits on his throne,” he rules by feeding the hungry, and by gathering in the sick and the prisoner. Jesus subverts, undermines and transforms all our human cultures about God into the true image of who he is.
And when this happens our hearts are changed.
There are terms and institutions in the scripture that had their origins in pagan cultures and not in God. Law as retribution, the tabernacle that restricted access, sacrifice, hierarchical rule over others made in God’s image, governments coercing people into obedience… all of these came in the fall and arose within human culture. Ascribing any of these to God can misrepresent him.
Missions is taking what you meet in human culture and using that to communicate transforming values. God picked up our cultural ideas about the divine (because that was all we knew) and used them to lead us to change. Sacrifice changed from giving to appease, to self-giving to serve. Law gave way to the redemptive second mile. Restrictive access gave way to free forgiveness and acceptance of the weak. Governments moved from retributive, to restorative practices. Kings gave way to servants. Hierarchy gave way to condescension and humility. These are the new things the church brings. God did not invent our human institutions. He used them as metaphors. He took upon himself our flesh, our human situation and cultures, to reveal his glory. The Incarnation of Christ shows this.
Even human institutions that did come from God, like marriage between a man and a woman, had become tainted by hierarchy and patriarchy. This is rife through all human culture. The Torah did not overthrow these cultural aberrations, such as hierarchy and slavery, because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. The Torah just tempered them. In the New Testament, you see hierarchy in Paul’s and Peter’s letters, regarding honouring government (even Nero), husbands and masters.
This isn’t an endorsement of hierarchy, but an acknowledgement of the way of Christ, to renew human institutions through service, through Sermon on the Mount lives, not through rebellion. Christ obeyed Pontus Pilate, without a word of insult. We should follow him. This is the way the kingdom of God exposes and subverts darkness and renews the world. (Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 2-3) It’s always by us taking up our own cross, not by putting other people on their cross. We take our enemy off their cross and restore them.
Even our view of the trinity often substantiates patriarchy. God isn’t male, he is a spirit. We have posited a fully male trinity, but Joseph, Mary’s husband, did not contribute seed to the incarnation of Christ. God has a way of making us all interdependent. This is his culture, rather than dominance.
Sometimes we have misread Paul’s letters. We have endorsed hierarchy, instead of humility, love, inclusion and service, because our human hearts default to patriarchalism. Paul’s letters are sometimes hard to understand, because much of what we say Paul said, was Paul quoting and correcting what others had said. Some at Corinth, for example, said woman was made in the image and glory of man, but Genesis said she was made in the image of God. (1 Corinthians 11) Paul worked with leading women in ministry, following Jesus, who broke culture and brought Mary, the sister of Lazarus, into his rabbi’s school. (Luke 10:39, Romans 16) We are called to enter cultural institutions, such as hierarchy and patriarchy, and transform them with the love of cross-bearing.
Because the Pharisees were locked into Old Testament metaphors of worship and their cultural institutions and values, as though they were the reality, and not that which pointed to Christ, many of them couldn’t let loose of these and accept Christ’s new kingdom when he came. Which means, they couldn’t enter into his peace, but were locked into their politics and violence as their way to freedom. The metaphors embraced punishment of others and the restriction of access to the infirm, sinner, and woman, practices which enhanced the Pharisees’ own positions.
All the Prophets had glimpses of the reality, where sacrifice of others, the demand for retribution, for appeasement, gave way to mercy instead. They all saw a new world, in which atonement was made through kindness, through serving, overcoming evil with good, removing the bitterness satan had sown into our communities by acts of mercy, reconciliation and restoration of the downtrodden. This way of atonement was the only way in which our communities could be made new. But before we can embark on this kind of life, the cross must break in and set our own hearts free.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) The knowledge of God means knowing his true character as we are discussing here. It means we stop punishing others, thinking we are doing God’s will, and start restoring them.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood (meaning humanity in general)? ” (Isaiah 58:6-7) This is God’s sabbath.
The point of the Torah and Prophets was to lead us out of the life of retribution, of self-justification, and into a life of care for the neighbour and enemy. It was to show us that repair for our community doesn’t come through the shedding of blood, but through the restoration of lives. It would take mankind a very long time to see and embrace this, we still haven’t got there today. God is slowly moving us from retributive atonement, as a means of cleansing the evil of neighbour and community, to restorative atonement.
God is changing us from the pagan view of moving the world from chaos to cosmos, to his way of new creation. He is taking all our pagan systems of violence and oppression of the weak, which we called worship, and changing them into a new community of love and service towards other people.
This is worship.
It’s amazing that for a long time I was under the impression that Jesus didn’t teach on the atonement, meaning the power of his cross to redeem the sinner. I assumed that if you wanted teaching on the cross in this way, you had to go to Paul’s writings. It’s an amazing assumption, because Jesus is Lord and head of the church/ new creation he came to launch, so you would expect that he would teach much on one of the most important facets of this new life.
My assumption betrayed my failure to read Jesus’ teachings correctly. The fact that he is the head of all things must mean that the most important facets of the new life must find their meaning in what he taught and did. If they don’t then we are missing what he said, reading him by our preconceived notions on various topics, rather than allowing his words to be the source and authority, to reshape our ideas. In other words, the teachings of Jesus are to be the beginning point in how we interpret the rest of scripture. We don’t do it the other way around, starting with other books and using them to understand Jesus. We start with Jesus, to challenge and reshape our notions in every other part of scripture. This is what it means to be Christian, Christ centred.
And the place that is most central to Christ’s teachings is the Sermon on the Mount. Here he declared his character and the character of his Father. Here he taught about what it meant for him to come in the image of God. Here he declared the shape of his kingdom and how that kingdom was proceeding in the world to reshape all things. The Sermon on the Mount was his manifesto, given to a people who largely thought his kingdom would come by violence and self-justification, wherein he declared the exact opposite. If the Sermon on the Mount addresses the most important aspects of our redemption and it transforms evil into new creation, then it must deal with the central issues of the atonement. If we think it doesn’t then we really need to look at it a lot more thoughtfully.
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53:3) Here is what we call substitutionary atonement, Jesus redeeming us to God by standing in our place and taking our punishment. How we have misunderstood that, is to think that God is angry at the repentant, and so he must visit his own punishment on Christ, so that he can forgive us. This isn’t the truth. So, let’s have a look at what passages like Isaiah 53:3 are about.
This passage in Isaiah isn’t just about the cross of Calvary. Jesus’ whole life was taking up his cross. When he was born out of wedlock, he took on himself the shame of Mary and Joseph, who were despised by the whole religious community. By doing this, he took the place and showed the love of God towards all sinners rejected by the world. This is redemptive, because by showing sinners God’s love, by coming alongside them and sharing in their hurt, Jesus is showing God’s forgiveness and acceptance and drawing them back to his family. Jesus did this throughout his ministry, always siding with the rejected, taking their mistreatment upon himself. He did this with the woman caught in adultery, redirecting the hatred of the Pharisees onto himself. This is substitution. Jesus didn’t save us from God, but from the enemy. Passover means he passed between us and the angel of death, the destroyer, the scapegoater in chief, satan, and took his vicious self-righteous, judgmental blow.
There is one place where most people accept Jesus taught on the atonement, where he said he hadn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. This atonement theology looks more like the kind I tried to explain above, rescuing humanity from their satanic captivity within their hearts. If someone is taken captive, you sell yourself (for 30 pieces of silver, in this case) to go into that place where they are held and deliver them. Atonement means Jesus overcomes the evil by taking it out of our hearts. He comes into that place where we hide in shame and judgment of others and rescues us there. It’s exactly that kind of atonement Jesus unfolds in his Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just some sideline teaching of Jesus. Its amazing that we often put more stock in believing the right things from Paul. We somehow think that confessing what Paul taught is central to being a Christian, rather than living the life that Jesus lived and called us to follow. Its amazing that what Jesus taught is often minimalised, marginalised, often forgotten, or even reinterpreted, while we stand on the “doctrine of Paul” as though that saves us. I am not blaming Paul for this, but how we have read or used him. If Paul says we are saved by believing in Christ’s death and resurrection, he is speaking far more about that life Jesus lived and how that transforms us, then about confessing a doctrine. Believing, to Paul, meant embracing and being transformed by what the death and resurrection pointed to.
So, the Sermon on the Mount explains this doctrine. In it, Jesus is explaining himself, what his mission is, why he came to die, and how in doing so he is defeating evil. The Sermon on the Mount lays it all out bare, more than in any other place in scripture. Jesus came to redeem and reconcile us. Well then, the Sermon on the Mount is the one place in scripture that explains redemptive and reconciling living in practical, real terms. Atonement isn’t just a doctrine we mouth, but a way of discipleship we live by.
Jesus outlines a life of discipleship, what it means to follow him, by gong the second mile, turning the other cheek, self- giving in the face of loss and injustice against yourself, taking the log out of our own eye rather than self-justification. All of these are the exact opposite to the life of Cain, to that seed sown in us by the serpent, who led us to justify ourselves and pass our burden of guilt onto others. In his life and on the cross, Jesus takes our burden of guilt into himself and he bares it in his own flesh. That means, he doesn’t retaliate, but he swallows it. He doesn’t pass it back or pass it onto someone else. He forgives instead. And he has compassion on those who treat him this way, real compassion, from his heart and desires their good. Everything Jesus taught in this sermon highlights what he did when he died for us, for our sin, to expose our sin, to forgive us our sin and to free us from our sin.
And the point in the sermon is, that since we see Jesus has done this for us, then we are called to do the same for others. We are called to overcome evil the same way in our communities, living this kind of redemptive life, reconciling and drawing enemies into restoration, by taking up our cross.
According to the kingdom Jesus illustrated in his teachings and actions, we don’t overcome evil by putting others, including our enemies, on a cross, but rather, shockingly, foolishly to many, by taking up our cross and serving in the face of evil instead. This is what separates his kingdom from Cain’s.
Throughout his teachings, Jesus dealt with the Pharisees’ cherished assumption that God overcame evil through punishment. This allowed them to go up and down upon the face of the earth, punishing whom they would, in delight, seeing hurt upon their enemies, rather than reaching out to them at their own expense, offering restoration and inclusion into a healing community.
Their whole doctrine about evil was to do with bloodshed. The more blood, they thought, the happier God would be. If they killed enough animals in the temple, Rome would be defeated. They completely misconstrued the heart of God. So, Jesus comes teaching on the Prodigal Father, who was not angry and who requires nothing to restore his son. If our understanding of atonement and of the Father isn’t shaped by this parable, then we are left with the Pharisees. He taught about the Good Samaritan, who didn’t overcome evil in the temple, with the priest and Levite, shedding blood, but by
treating the wounds of the foreigner out where evil happens, on our streets and in our suburbs. This is where he worshipped, where he cast his crown before the Lord.
Jesus handed out forgiveness freely on the streets, simply saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” without requiring any sacrifice in the temple. How could Jesus be so against their cherished institutions? How could he break the Torah in this way? Jesus was threatening the whole priestly control and their immense profit from the community.
In a clincher, Jesus denied the need for legal retribution. “Eye for an eye,” says the Torah. However, this wasn’t God’s will, but written to stem human revenge, to limit recompense to the guilty party, to stem further bloodlust. But, here, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus denied his disciples even this. If someone takes your coat, give him also your shirt. No legal redress here. Just forgive. Rather, more than forgive, love, give more. Life isn’t about what we possess, but about reconciling people. There is our joy.
The clincher regarding atonement is this: if God says to us that we should not require legal satisfaction, why then would he require legal satisfaction in the death of his Son, before he could forgive us? He is requiring we forgive without payment, but freely, from our hearts. So why do we say he requires payment in his Son to forgive? He clearly doesn’t. He doesn’t make a term for discipleship, that is different from his own character and his own actions. Jesus denies the Pharisees’ view of atonement through punishment. And this is why they didn’t like him. Jesus wouldn’t allow them to participate in the scapegoater’s way of life, in Cain’s vengeance, and in hatred towards their enemies. Redemption comes to our own hearts us as we reach out with the heart of God towards those who hate us.
This is the salvation, the atonement, the redemption, God was offering the people. It would come to them and free their hearts of evil, of law, or guilt, as they learn to forgive others in love and serve them, seeking to restore community, not through violence, but through care of others. This is how our heart is set free from evil. Christ came clearly to call us to follow him, to enter the kingdom by this new way of living, that frees both ourselves and those we serve. So, he gave a parable about the kingdom being like a tree, under which the birds of the air find rest. The birds here are the enemies of Israel. This was too much for Israel to hear. They wanted their enemies to perish. Jesus had to go.
A passage sometimes used to rescue our desire for a violent Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. Here, Jesus made a small shepherd’s whip, to drive the animals out of the temple. If I was an animal that day, I would have seen Jesus as the Prince of Peace, not as violent. He saved my life. He drove away we who were appointed for death, appointed to be scapegoats, and saved us from the enemy’s execution. The Pharisees believed shedding blood in the temple was the way of redemption. Jesus that day stopped the daily sacrifice, signifying that on the cross he would put an end to sacrifice. By his own blood, not by the blood of others, he stopped killing, removing it from the hearts of his followers.
Jesus shed his blood to redeem us, to free us from sin and from satan and death. Paul calls this, Jesus being unclothed and by that he unclothed principalities and powers. When the powers made Jesus naked on the cross, his death exposed their corruption, even the corruption of our own hearts, and left us naked before a redeeming and loving God. He did this by the shedding of his own blood, exposing the satan within us, our eternal captivity to sin, and forgiving us of it, freeing us from the law, and from our condemnation of our self and of others. Such a beautiful text from Paul. His cross was transformed into a triumphant chariot of war, conquering darkness, not by punishment, but by publicly exposing it through service and love.
The scriptures say that the parables of Jesus reveal things hidden since the foundations of the world, the time of which Jesus spoke, when the first murder occurred. What was hidden, what the Pharisees were blind to, was their scapegoating. They refused to help Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, they kept people away from their table because of their unwashed hands, they didn’t help those in need on the sabbath, nor the lepers who had been cast out and they hated foreigners. They constantly cast others out, refusing to obey the Prophets’ bid to call them in, and they justified this on religious terms, saying these others were unclean. The blindness was that they called their rejection of the world holy, while God came in the flesh to suffer with the sinner to save the world.
Jesus took them on squarely regarding this, as recorded in the Gospel of John. He said they were of their father the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning, meaning he inspired Cain. Jesus was saying the Pharisees were in Cain’s lineage, and that they would do the same to him, as Cain did to Abel, to secure their hold upon the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Pharisees, of course, denied this, but in the very next chapter they are stoning the woman caught in adultery, murdering her, saying they were justified for their rage under the law. This too was to secure their position in their parties. Then in the next chapter, they are casting out the blind man, calling him a sinner. They must maintain this system of casting others out, the Samaritan, the heretics, because this is what secures their hold over the wealth, which they then don’t have to share in restoring the poor at Jubilee.
John traces this conflict with evil through his Gospel narrative. It begins to peak with the High Priest prophesying that it’s better that one man die, for the nation to be saved. Again, we see the concept of scapegoating, of substituting one for the life of others, doesn’t come from God, but it was hatched in the evil heart of conspirators, who desired to take the kingdom. But, of course, God allowed it, because he knew satan would overplay his hand. Doing this to the woman caught in adultery was one thing but doing this to the spotless lamb was quite another. In this, satan’s scapegoating, harsh, judgmental rule in the hearts of men would be exposed, plainly seen to the world against the backdrop of God’s love.
The plot thickens in John, as darkness descends upon Jerusalem in the final hour. In the midst of this darkness we see the light starting to break through. Jesus takes his disciples’ feet and washes them, as a slave would do, showing the kingdom isn’t had by taking, like Cain, but by serving.
Jesus doesn’t fight the evil, but he slips into the stream of the persecution coming against him and goes with it, knowing he will expose the evil from within. The ultimate judo throw, where you turn the strength of the opponent against him.
This is substitutionary atonement. As Paul said, he condemned sin, showed it for what it is on the cross, so we might be set free from our darkness to follow his shema. Drawing on these Gospel narratives, this is the sense in which Paul means Christ’s blood takes away our sins. His love on the cross shows we are freely forgiven and justified from the law, which drove us to hang him there. That which drove us has been taken from us.
And substitutionary theology has political theology right at its centre: not a legal contract to take us to heaven when we die, but a turning upside down of our hearts and our power structures within this world. This is why Jesus expressed his atonement theology within the context of the disciple’s questions about who was the greatest among them. (Mark 10:35-45)
Jesus takes the bread and tells his disciples to share it, showing the kingdom comes by giving what we have to others. This Jesus would do by laying down his life for us. He takes the cup and tells the disciples it is his blood given for many and calls us to do the same for each other. The kingdom comes in giving of ourselves for others, not by justifying, defending and saving ourselves at the expense of others.
Then they take him, torture him, give him a false trial and crucify him. Darkness as a thick cloud surrounds the execution site. But in this darkness comes the cry, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The cry pierces the darkness. The cry overcomes the darkness.
Selfishness, hatred, corruption, are overcome by the self- giving of the Son of God. What is revealed here? That if God could come down in Christ, could humble himself and take on our sin, into himself on the cross and not retaliate, but forgive, then how much more should we strive to treat our neighbour in this way? Do we have a right against others, when Jesus forgave us?
This means we are justified together as family, being forgiven and forgiving. The fact that light is greater than darkness has been forever revealed in Jesus’ victory on the cross. This is the defeat of satan, of evil, the cleansing of evil and the taking away of evil from our lives, from our family fellowship, displayed in a public forum at Calvary.
Now, if this narrative throughout the Gospel of John isn’t a description of atonement, as it played out in the life and teachings of Jesus, then what is? We scapegoated Jesus because of the law that drove us, and in this scapegoating, he freed us from that law. The Gospels are filled with atonement proclamation, clearly portrayed in the events that the apostles chronicled. This was their intention, to show how the new creation has come in Christ and has displaced evil within the hearts and relationships of the disciples. It isn’t true that we must wait to Paul to understand the atonement. It is rather true that Paul learnt from these Gospel narratives what atonement is, and this is the way we understand Paul’s writings, renewing our minds, letting the life and teachings of Jesus fill our hearts and relationships with one another. This is what Paul wanted for the church.
The death of Christ became a sweet-smelling aroma to God, because in Christ, God revealed to his creation his nature of love and self-giving, hidden since the beginning of the world, in the hardness of our hearts. This is the apocalypse, the revelation. It wasn’t the suffering and blood that God delighted in, but the defeat of darkness by an opposite spirit.
This is how we understand phrases like Isaiah 53:10, “It pleased God to crush him… to render him as a guilt offering.”
Phrases like this represent God’s ruling counsel, in permitting evil to have its way, so in this self-giving, salvation might be revealed. His light comes through the darkness of our own sacrificial systems. This transformation of our dark finger- pointing religions pleased God.
God has come into the world through Christ, he entered into our death and defeated it for us. He took our finger-pointing. He allowed us to kill him, to end our murderous heart. He entered our sacrificial system to finish it. He subjected himself to our false justice and exposed it. He took the penalty of the law we thrust upon him and forgave it. He took our curse to stop us cursing. He swept our death cults away. This is how he radically transformed the meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice now isn’t giving something to appease the big man but giving of ourselves to serve each other in love, especially the least among us. This is our new community and this love is the sweet-smelling aroma to God. This aroma doesn’t satisfy God’s anger, but his love.
In the Pharisees’ teaching about punishment and sacrifice, and in their treatment of others, we see the pagan view of creation, of moving from chaos to cosmos, by violently overcoming others. Today, our political intrigue and militarism only sew seed, in the hurt and destruction of others, for more conflict in the future. Our politics and nationalism are the same as the religious systems of old but have been dressed in secular terms. Their central system is still that of scapegoating the weak and “guilty.” In Jesus we see the opposite, a rest of shalom, which he shares with us, to renew the creation by bringing in our neighbour, giving of ourselves to heal and restore each other. This is how we move from chaos to cosmos. Here we see two views of the world, and the kingdom of God calls us to choose the latter.
“To unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10) Such is Paul’s description of the purpose of God in Christ. In the Pharisees, we see a dividing of communities, for so called religious reasons, but the cause of it was their selfishness, to control the wealth of the temple. In living this way, the community was falling apart, but their way of fixing this was through violence, prosecution of the poor, and siding with Rome, in execution of the radicals. Even Paul was of this group, going around executing people under Torah, to try to bring God’s promised renewal of the creation.
Luke 11 brilliantly portrays the division in Jerusalem that would lead to its downfall in AD 70. Just as many do today, leaders then used factions within the community to get control over its wealth, “to spoil its goods.” Israel was like the boy set free from a demon. Like the vineyard of prophetic tradition (Isaiah 5), that was nourished and nurtured, Jerusalem must bring forth good fruit, or else its last state would be worse than its first. A divided community, where its inhabitants build bigger barns for themselves and don’t use their wealth to care for others, will destroy itself in hardness of heart, anger and evil. This is how the book of Revelation describes the fall of Jerusalem, “It had become the habitation of every foul demon.” Jesus showed them, “a kingdom divided against itself shall fall,” it shall be filled with rivalry and harm. This speaks very strongly to our world today.
The solution is throughout Luke, “He who gathers is with me.” We gather in the poor, the sick, the rejected ones. We use our investments to care for our neighbour and enemy. Simple! We don’t just greet our friends at the market, but we consider all our neighbours, even our enemies, to be within our orbit of care. Then our creation shall have sabbath, shalom. Its amazing how we have spiritualised Jesus’ teachings. We have turned them into gnostic anecdotes, devoid of all historical and social context, to avoid their plain implications for community. We have spiritualised the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, arguing about the afterlife, when Jesus’ point was, “feed the poor, care for foreigners, or perish forever in civil war and the fire of Rome.”
Since I have mentioned this parable it would be good to drop a couple of points about it here. The parable existed in Greek culture. In Hebrew culture, fire and darkness became apocalyptic symbols for the decay of the body in the grave. Abrahams’s bosom means Abraham’s inheritance, which in Hebrew expectation was the resurrection and the renewed creation, called the kingdom of God. This parable is poetry, where death is personified and talks to the living, so they may receive wisdom. We see this also in Isaiah 14, which in some ways Jesus is quoting in this parable. The lesson there is the same as in this parable: riches and oppression don’t help the dead. Jesus is showing the Jews they aren’t Abraham’s seed by birth, but by faith, which is shown by deeds.
Paul’s conversion became a challenge to the world. The new community he proclaimed challenged the pagan worldview, which kept people divided in violent pockets, for the welfare of the elite. His understanding that the reconciling actions of Christ had defeated the principalities of religious division and made Jews and gentiles both one, would tear down the walls of separation that had brought prosperity to some, while casting others out. Divided community was over.
Neighbourliness must now take hold. His bold insistence that a Roman slave was his brother and equal in Christ, threatened the foundations of empire, ruling elite and class within our world. Paul was a huge risk, that the powers of division and greed in this world couldn’t tolerate. Yes, he was persecuted, along with the entire new Christian community, but this wasn’t just because people didn’t like Christians, it was because the way society itself was constructed was being changed forever.
Jesus had hinted at this as he journeyed into Jerusalem before his execution. At Zacchaeus’ house he told a parable about king Herod, who received a throne from Rome, killed his enemies and rewarded those who gained for him exorbitant profits. Zacchaeus was among these, who took profit from unfair taxes, profit from holding funds for Rome, profit from supplying Roman armies with grain, profit from holding stocks of grain in store, by which they controlled the market, impoverished farmers, made loans, took interest, bankrupted the poor and took their land. This was economics in Jesus’ day. God, as seen in Christ, is most definitely not like this king.
Jesus was the whistle blower, the man without the wedding garments. They would cast him out and kill him. His cross and resurrection were not an insurrection against the power of his day, but rather the final call of God for our repentance, to bring the rich and the poor into a family of mutual care and service, thereby renewing our creation. Did these parables in addition have any reference to the coming judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70? I think they did, yes. What the wicked had done to others, they would bring upon themselves, through the hardness of their own heart.
Linking the parables and life of Jesus to a subversion of human violence and misuse of power is all through the Gospel narratives. Take their account of Christ’s passion, which mirrored the coronation of a Roman emperor. The emperor would begin in the praetorium, where he would be proclaimed king and robed in a purple gown. He would then be led out of the city to the hill, along with the implement of death by which his sacrifice would be slain. He would climb the hill with his second and third in command on his right and left hand. He would then be offered wine mixed with myrrh, which he would pour on the ground.
This mirrored exactly Christ’s passion. Many people acknowledge that the genre of Mark’s Gospel is that of the ancient Roman biography, following the birth, deeds, death and accomplishments of great Roman figures. The comparison of Christ with Caesar by Mark shows us Mark’s message. The robbing of Christ at the praetorian, the soldiers who called him king there, Christ’s “victorious procession” to Calvary with his cross and his execution are all to expose the kingdom of heaven in the light of our earthly empires.
There is no such thing as a Christian empire, or a Christian nationalism. Christ and empire don’t mix, do not support each other. The rules of empire, of nationalism, arise from this world. The rules of Christ’s reign come down from above. We might say we can’t walk Christ’s way and our nationalism survive. I don’t think Christ would argue with that. He didn’t come for our nationalism to survive.
Christ’s self-giving love undermines Roman power. Christ became king by serving his creation, not by his creation being sacrificed for him. Mark’s account also mirrors the question of the disciples about them ruling at Christ’s left and right hand, like the emperor’s second and third. They clearly didn’t know what they were asking, about how we are crowned in suffering. And the two others who climbed the hill with Christ weren’t the noble, but the despised. This is who he came for. All through the Prophets, God takes human language about violence to depict his victorious kingdom, and then when Christ comes he refills and transforms that language with a Suffering Servant.
“He will rule them with a rod of iron.” “The stone crushed the image of the beast to powder.” “He will break them to pieces.” The way God did this was to use the cross to take this paganism and its violence our of our hearts and out of our local and international relationships. We see this is his descriptions about removing horses and chariots (weapons of war) from our nations. He says he breaks and destroys them from our midst. But the Prophets shows how he does this, by “proclaiming peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10) The terms such as breaking and crushing do not denote the violence of the Lamb, but the completeness of his accomplishment in fully renewing all things. The language is poetic, which subverts pagan violence with peace, that which renews our hearts.
The scripture was written from the perspective of the poor. Sarah in bareness, Hagar as a castaway, Israel in slavery in Egypt, David hunted down by his enemies, the helpless in captivity in Babylon, Mary and Joseph as poor villagers in a brutal empire, Jesus crucified, the early church, mainly poor and oppressed, the martyrs of the book of Revelation. The meaning of Jesus’ parables would have been clear in their ears. But when the church became empowered and wealthy, our understanding of scripture somewhat changed. The pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount was spiritualised. The parable of the talents became a praise of the strong. We can’t understand the scripture until we suffer with the outcast, as Jesus came to do, “I was hungry, and you fed me, cast out and you took me in, in prison and you came to me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you treated me.”
All through the book of Acts we see the powerful signs of the Holy Spirit. The miracles, the prophesies, the healings and the tongues. When we see a sign, we ask what is the message the sign is pointing to? Yes, the message is the Lordship of Christ. But what does this Lordship mean? It means we are to repent from how we treated Christ, casting him out and “crucifying him with wicked hands.” We may say we love Christ and wouldn’t do that today, but when he visits us, he is in disguise. He doesn’t come with a crown, but as a peasant, maybe as our enemy. We could easily miss him. “Who from his generation protested,” his mistreatment? (Isaiah 53:8) Do we stand with those mistreated today? The Lordship of Christ means we become his disciples and love one another. This is the meaning of the sign.
In the book of Acts we see this love spread throughout the world. The tongues from all the nations on the Day of Pentecost was a sign. What was the message? That the Spirit was including people from all these nations into one new family. The signs at Phillip’s outreach in Samaria. What was the message of the Holy Spirit? That God was including those of Samaria into his family. The tongues of Cornelius, the gentile. What was the message? That gentiles were grafted into Israel, they were equal in one new family. The tongues in Paul’s ministry at Ephesus. What was the message? That people from all the Roman world, no matter their background, were to be treated with care at one new table. Every time the Holy Spirit acted, he had the same message? We are to receive and love one another, just as Christ has loved us. This is the Spirit’s work, the meaning of Pentecost. The creation is restored by one table, not by pagan violence.
God had birthed a new community in the world, that would do what the empires and selfish heart of mankind would not do. He had given his people a new heart, shaped by his cross, by God’s love and forgiveness for themselves, which they would now freely share with others. Accusation and isolation had given way to restoration of neighbour, because in Christ we see that God loves, forgives and restores ourselves. The book of Acts shows that the followers of Jesus didn’t consider their personal property to be their own but shared it with those in need. They didn’t just do this because Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. It was the message throughout the New Testament. This isn’t a capitalism/ socialism debate, that avoids the gospel message. It is neighbourism.
Their houses were open to each other. Jews, Roman soldiers, farmers, bankers like Zacchaeus, gentiles, slaves, all sat down and broke bread together. While sharing food – broken bread, a symbol of our own lives broken and poured out for each another – they talked, asking about each other’s welfare. They heard of the trials each faced, having their land taken away by the banks, their women raped by the Romans, the slaves mistreated by their masters. Their hearts were melted, like the soldier’s heart at the cross, and they prayed together. Their individual lives and occupations began to transform, and then slowly transformed the word around them.
It started by their coming together, breaking down of the walls, building the bridges. This is what the church does within our communities and nations. Rome and Jerusalem, the two beasts, separated people. The church, the followers of the Lamb, restored the relationships that lead to care and the healing of the creation.
However, over time much of this changed. The bankers became embarrassed and separated themselves and formed a new fellowship called, “Bankers for Christ.” So also did the various national groups, following the script of their political leaders, instead of the script of Christ. Eventually, they became just like the whore of Revelation, rejecting God and the sufferings of Christ, and choosing an earthly king to rule over them and protect them, their children and their property. The original non-racial, non-nationalist, non-social class fellowship of the church must be restored and protected.
In the book of Acts we find what it means to “be in the Spirit,” to “walk in the Spirit.” It means to renounce the things of the flesh that divide us, and to walk in love with our neighbour, to receive our neighbour into one fellowship of care. The Spirit is bringing people together in Christ to a common table, to a family as one. To be in the Spirit means to walk in flow with this gospel plan.
And this brings us to the letters of Paul. If Paul is doing one thing in his letters, then it is defending the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as we see it in the book of Acts, against those who want to divide and spoil the church once again for their personal or group interest. This is the reason Paul’s theology comes into thunderous action in his correspondence. He was writing about the one family of God.
For centuries we have read Paul’s letters as though our personal salvation was the key issue. Justification by faith, we have said, is the key to all his letters. This isn’t actually the case. Paul does address justification by faith in all his letters and wonderful that topic is. But the reason he raises this truth in consistent in each letter. In Galatians, it is because
Peter, and those from Jerusalem leaning on him, are trying to divide the table of fellowship, excluding the uncircumcised.
Why are they doing this? Because they can’t risk the wealth of Jerusalem and the temple to a free and equal fellowship. It is too disenfranchising for their group. So, this is the reason why Paul takes up the topic of justification by faith. It is to show that we are one family, that we are all welcome at one table. Paul wasn’t against the Jewish traditions, but only against any of us placing our own traditions above Christ, above his other people we are called to love. When Paul speaks of “another gospel,” it is the gospel of division his detractors were insisting on, the kind of division we also have indulged in for centuries. (Galatians 1:8)
We have seen division take on a René Girardian (mimicking) kind of force among us. One and then another gathers a following by expressing their superiority over other sectors of the body of Christ. Others desire to emulate these leaders and achieve the respect they have among their people. Before we know it, there is a “holy competition to divide,” infesting our communities. Once we see that the “other gospel” we insist others are preaching, is in fact the other gospel of division we are preaching, then we have to come to Christ in a new way, in a New Testament, led by the Spirit way.
It was the same message in Philippians. This is a brilliant letter answering the question of how God’s apocalypse is being fulfilled in Christ, how God is renewing the world is his eschaton, the fulfillment of Israel’s mission to the nations.
Paul employs the themes of the book of Daniel; the coming of Messiah’s rule, the judgement, the resurrection. His claim is that this eschaton is now upon us in the church, the bringing together of the creation into one people for its healing.
And the major theme in Philippians is that the healing doesn’t come, as many Jews expected, through worldly dominion over others, but through service. Paul himself is an example of suffering service, as are Timothy and Epaphroditus. The central figure is Christ, who lays down his life to serve, and this surprisingly is how dominion, Adam’s true image bearing, brings about a rule of peace over the forces of darkness in the whole creation. So, to be part of this kingdom, Paul doesn’t renounce his Jewish ceremonies, but he renounces the division that these traditions previously put between him and the gentiles. He renounces his Jewish and Roman privileges and accepts all as one in Christ.
It is the same in Romans. Romans 4, for example, where circumcision is discussed, isn’t arguing about our personal salvation, but showing that God’s family is one, whether we are circumcised or not. The climax of the book is our common fellowship of love at one table, not minding our differences, not crushing the faith of our neighbour in our self- righteousness, being mindful not to drive wedges between us.
Romans 7 isn’t so much describing my personal struggle under the law, but Paul, as is common in Hebrew literature (e.g. Jeremiah in Laminations) poetically personifies Israel’s captivity in the law, which enhanced their sinfulness to the point where they crucified Christ, with the consequence of the revelation of God’s love in the cross being made known to the world.
As his contemporaries of that day, Paul wrote his gospel narrative over the canvas of Israel’s history, showing how Christ entered into that history, bore its failures and fulfilled its hopes. They crossed through the Red Sea (Romans 6), come to Mount Sinai (Romans 7), which prevented them from retaining the promised land, until Christ died (Romans 8). As Romans 4:13 shows, this promised land, the inheritance of Abraham, in the gospel has now become the entire world, not just the former limited boundaries, which were a shadow of the new creation to come.
Even Romans 10:9-10, where that grand declaration is made concerning our salvation by faith, the point Paul is making again is about the family of God, not the individual. So, this is where Paul quotes Joel, where Joel declared the day in which Jews and gentiles would be one family, and Paul sums it up with, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile— the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13) Then Paul employs Isaiah’s return from Babylonian exile motif in Israel’s history, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” to show that the “restored land” comes about by the tribes becoming one, the creation is healed by our new relationships. (Romans 10:15) This is the good news for the world!
Romans 9-11 isn’t a debate on whether we are saved through election or choice. It’s showing how Israel’s election to serve, surprisingly worked out through the hardening of their heart under the law and crucifixion of Christ, by which the world was saved. Paul goes on to show Israel’s restoration in Christ’s resurrection, in which we share, if we don’t commit the same error of boasting against the Jews but serve them and develop community. So, Paul’s insistence on grace in this section is to establish the basis of the relationship between the Jew and gentile believers, in which they have nothing to boast of, only to serve one another. Inviting Paul to our sixteenth century debates on the five points of Calvinism might not have been reading Paul according to the story he was telling.
Israel were called so God could reveal himself to all the world. They were required to believe, to have faithfulness, shema, just like those they would witness to. And their calling, in the end, was fulfilled through the pathway of hardening in their law, sin and suffering. Who would want to be called like Israel, to suffer what they suffered? Jesus was called, and he suffered. So, election is a call to serve all, and this is what Paul was saying to the gentiles. They were not to be proud against the Jews because they fell but know that they fell for us, so that we might be saved. We who were previously “not a people,” and have now been accepted by God, should reach out to Jews in service, as we do to all the world, in love for their salvation. This is how Christ heals the enmity of the old world, if we “hear and obey” (take upon ourselves the yoke of shema.)
Romans 9-11 isn’t a prophecy about “all Israel being saved” after gentiles come to Christ in the “last days.” Israel were restored to their promises first, in Christ’s resurrection, which is why the gentiles can now share in their salvation. As all the Prophets stated, zion was restored first, then the gentiles share in that grace. At Pentecost, the word of the Lord goes out from a new Jerusalem, God’s restored people, to the entire world. It was “the Jew first” and then the gentiles were grafted in. This whole community in Christ, is who “all Israel” are. (Romans 11:26) If God was faithful to the Jews first, as his firstborn, then he is also going to be faithful to all of us.
Romans 11 shows us that Israel and the gentiles, through faith (which again means faithfulness, the shema working in our hearts towards each other) participate together in the substitutionary actions of Christ. Christ went into exile for Israel, being taken outside the city to die (figurative of exile from Eden and from the promised land) and he returned from an exile in death to restored life in his resurrection. The cross is where Christ entered the shame of the lowest sinners to show us God’s forgiveness and bring us back to God. What he did for the woman caught in adultery, taking the shame of the accusers to show her the love of God, he did for us all on the cross.
Christ’s resurrection proves our exile is broken, that God has restored mankind. It’s our passing on this free grace to each other that renews our land and community relationships. It was in Christ that God fulfilled his promise to finally return Israel from their exile, and return to them himself in his Spirit, reconciling them with their enemies in one new temple/ family.
It’s the same in Ephesians, God is gathering all things together into one, in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) The major work of the reconciliation of the cross, is now under way through our lives in the whole creation. The traditions of religious pride that made walls of division between peoples have been smashed. (Ephesians 2:14) The unity of former hostiles in love in the church, is our witness to self-seeking powers that divide the world. (Ephesians 3:10) We seek the unity of faith, not being deceived by those who wish to divide us for their selfish purposes. (Ephesians 4:13-14) We put on the new man, putting aside the things of self that degrade community. The way of the Spirit is the way building each other. (Ephesians 4-5) To achieve God’s reconciling plan in Christ, we take the shoes of peace, describing our walk, resisting what militates against the plan of the Sprit in our community. (Ephesians 6:15)
And in Colossians, the God of creation is coming again in Christ to renew his creation. The principle work of the cross is to reconcile the whole creation into one, not so God can be “boss of all” in a competitive way, but so we can act together in family, in healing, caring lives towards each other. (Colossians 1:20) This overcomes the principalities that seek to divide us, in the case of the first century communities, through their gentile and Jewish traditions. Even in the church, baptism had become a principality of division, meaning the differences people began to make in how one was baptised. (Colossians 2:6-15) These are principalities because they rule over our lives, bringing us into disunity and thus fighting, instead of caring, resulting in the destruction of the creation. We see Paul wasn’t writing just about personal faith, but genuine faith that spoils the plan of the evil forces in the world through love.
It is an imperative that we relook at Paul and what drives the centrality of his theology in the first century church. It isn’t the gospel of the individual, but the gospel of the community, the new creation, the commandment of Christ, that we love one another. Without this love, we cannot call Jesus Lord, and we cannot bear witness to him in a world that is so helplessly lost, without a lighthouse to show the way. The way is love for one another. Paul’s understanding of salvation extends to the whole cosmos. It isn’t just our individual salvation, but God’s plan to set the creation free. Maybe a middle-class church has adopted a more reductionist view of salvation, because the wider, more embracing view calls us to our neighbour and to the world with a much broader responsibility for involvement in the sufferings of others. A few years back, the likes of Florence Nightingale, John Newton, William Wilberforce, William Booth, John Wesley and much of the church in general, saw the gospel as a call to renew the poor and afflicted.
This is where the renewal of prison conditions, and the like, came from, which today is often championed more by a liberal and secular world. It’s a pity. If the church doesn’t recover this, the secular world will soon lose it also. We shouldn’t leave it to a liberal church either. As conservatives, we need to take this ground back, and receive again the real Jesus. Recovering from the pagan world view, we begin to see those who suffer as made in God’s image, and we walk in their shoes, rather than demonise them as less than human.
Salvation in Paul comes from his Hebrew concepts, where his nation’s experiences in the Exodus and in the return from exile in Babylon fashioned their concepts. These two events/ stories/ paradigms form the background picture of all of Paul’s gospel writings. Salvation to Israel in their experience was for the individual, but the group or community involvement in that salvation was by far the bigger picture.
The idea was always about their group coming into a new relationship with God, which would renew the creation. This is what Paul was always writing about. In Jesus’ introduction of the gospel at the synagogue of Nazareth, he expresses it terms of Israel’s Exodus and exile return and the good news this would bring to the poor, meaning the restoration of our communities.
The Exodus and return from exile themes are expressed in terms of a new leader, a Cyrus, or Caesar. This is again where terms like Lord and Son of God come into play. They denote Christ’s rule, not just in heaven, but over the world, subduing chaos and fulfilling Adam’s commission. This is what terms such as salvation and gospel meant in the first century, which today, once again, we have spiritualised. The opening of Romans lays out the battle line squarely. Caesar had taken to himself all the titles and terms Paul was about to use in Romans. Caesar claimed to be the Son of God, the Saviour, not just of the individual, but of the cosmos, the earth. His rule was called the gospel, which would bring peace and safety to the world and people were called to place their faith and obedience in his righteousness.
Paul carefully laid out all these terms for Christ, saying it was Christ who was seated in power, who was governor of the nations. Paul quite clearly renounced all the major claims of Rome. And then he sent this letter to Rome, to be read and explained by the woman apostle Phoebe, one of the several leading women on Paul’s team. This fact alone, concerning women apostles, was enough to show the new kingdom and reign of Christ had come into the world, that the “least” should be honoured. So, the opening of Romans declares a kind of coup, that this true gospel isn’t just a private spiritual faith but has come into the world to take over operations here. But this wasn’t a coup, as Paul explained in Romans 13, showing the church wasn’t interested in overthrowing powers. But the church’s role is to renew these powers, as the gospel leads the way through our common table of care.
Even the Romulus and Remus foundations of the Roman myth are jettisoned in the opening of Romans, where Paul declares the world is reshaped by the seed of David, and later in Romans, Isaac and Jacob. And what is this reshaping? “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation, to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) What is this salvation? A reshaping of our hearts, to a reshaping of the world… “the scandal of the victim,” the crucified slave, who is despised by power and yet who conquers power.
A new seed has been planted in the world, in which the despised victim renews all things, starting with our human violence, which was the ruling factor of the Greek and Roman worlds. The idea that the least among us should guide our governing policy of care would slowly take root within our societies. Before Paul’s “conversion,” he was role modelling the zeal of Elijah and Phineas’ sacred violence, as a means of “putting things right.” Now Paul comes around to the way of Jesus. In Jesus, all Paul’s life was fulfilled, and at the same time, all his life, what he previously stood for, was shattered. (N. T. Wright)
The main issue of Paul in Romans isn’t the law satisfied in our personal justification, but the Hebrew call to the nations and to the creation. Paul’s question concerning the “righteousness of God” isn’t one about our righteousness, but the way in which God has been righteous, or faithful, to his promise to Israel. God promised Abraham he would build one new family from all the nations of the world. Romans shows how this is happening in our fellowship. It is addressing the recovery of mankind from his idolatry, from reflecting the image of the pagan gods into the creation, of covetousness, division, violence, and instead being restored as God’s image bearers, his sons, as in Genesis 1, to rescue the creation from its pagan destructions.
Paul wasn’t addressing works and faith to divide the community, but he was saying that whether we follow certain ceremonial works or not, certain traditions or not, we are still one body and family. The term “righteousness of God” in first century Judaism was about how God was going to fulfil his covenant to the Jews. The general expectation was through sacred violence. However, Paul’s answer was that the church is the righteousness of God in Christ, meaning God shows his faithfulness to the covenant by continuing his promises through the church as one family of Jews and gentiles. (2 Corinthians 5:21) We are the fulfillment of God’s promises in the world, to renew it with our embracing table. This is a huge difference in perspective, from individualism to community. It impacts the very centre of Paul’s work and message in the church.
God’s main concern in Romans isn’t a legal one, but a vocational one. Mankind lost his/ her effective commission over creation through a fall into self-idolatry and the “missing the mark” that followed. This put the whole of creation out of kilter. When Paul says that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, it was mankind’s vocation of rule that Paul had in mind. (Romans 3:23) When this glory is said to be restored in Psalm 8, it is mankind’s rule over creation that is depicted. Romans 3 reveals God’s covenant faithfulness (his own righteousness), meaning his promise to renew the creation through Israel, fulfilled not by the works of ceremonial law, which divided us because of sin, but by his free grace. The free grace of God destroys the wall that separated Jew and gentiles, restoring us to one family in Christ, enabling us to bear God’s image into the creation as one shema people. (Romans 3:29-31)
It’s no wonder that when we see the gospel as primarily about ourselves we sometimes don’t see the point of the church. The church is where we share love and encouragement, so we can then share love with the world. For years I taught Romans wrongly, starting with my sin, my faith, my salvation, my glorification… and for the Pentecostal, my healing, my prosperity. If we had any time left, we might tag a bit on about the church. But the church, the family, is the whole of Paul’s theology. Paul’s theology isn’t one of personal salvation, in which the Reformation has majored, but the family, the kingdom of God renewing the creation.
Paul’s theology of sin in Romans wasn’t really focused on our personal sin, but of course it includes that. Paul wasn’t writing to develop a doctrine of total depravity to condemn us all, so we could be saved. Paul’s point was to condemn Jewish and gentile arrogance against each other. His point was, “How can you judge another, but not judge yourself?” (Romans 2:1-4) This question forms the foundation of our love and service towards each other. This was what Paul was driving at. In Romans 1:16-18, Paul says the gospel reveals God’s wrath upon all men, meaning the Jew also. That is, in the cross of Christ the Jews see themselves also as sinners, not just the gentiles. The cross brings us together in faith to serve.
This aligns Paul perfectly with Jesus. Jesus taught on a new table of care, a new neighbourliness for the creation. This table is what the Spirit was building in the book of Acts. This is exactly what Paul was defending in his letters. Jesus and Paul were not speaking of different things, not even a different revelation or emphasis. It isn’t that Paul taught justification by faith, which Jesus didn’t really go into. The faith they both taught was one of Spirit inspired sharing, releasing each other from the debts we hold against each other, to serve each other instead. It isn’t that Jesus taught the law, while Paul introduced a new personal faith. Paul followed the teachings of Christ.
We have said that Jesus taught the Jews that the way to heaven wasn’t through the law, but through faith. But Jews in his day weren’t generally asking about how to go to heaven. The promises of God to the Jews were about them renewing this world. This was what faith is for in Jesus’ teaching. It leads us to forgive and serve others, as God has done for us.
What good is it is we denounce the Pharisees’ legalism, to “pick up faith” and yet don’t sit at one table to serve our brother in Christ, because we claim to follow a different doctrine? What other doctrine is there? When Jesus argued about the legalism of the Pharisees, his point wasn’t “faith verses legalism,” but “service verses legalism,” showing service was what the law pointed to in Christ. This is what faith is, faithfulness, shema, love. “Faith works through love.” (Galatians 5:6) Jesus wasn’t against the law, nor against the ceremony, but against the exclusion the people practiced by the law. This is all that Paul taught. This is the sum of his letters.
The hurdle Paul presents in Romans for mankind to overcome is the law, as portrayed in Israel’s own experience. Just as Adam and Eve found, the law works such a level of judgment within our heart, that peaceful, serving human relationships are not possible. Under the law, Israel couldn’t possess the land. No amount of bloodshed was able to satiate their hatred of others. It wasn’t until they visited this hatred upon Christ, that both their level of captivity to satan and God’s responding love were openly exposed. This free forgiveness of God in Christ, at the height of our self-condemnation, is what freed humanity from the law, ushering in new possibilities for our relationships, and opening God’s kingdom to all. The fall of Adam and Eve had finally been undone by the cross.
New Heavens, New Earth
This is what created new heavens, his love bringing us into a free new relationship with God; and new earth, our passing that love onto one other. The book of Hebrews speaks of heaven as a tabernacle, as a symbol to address our new relationship with God. Each time the blood of Christ is mentioned, it is for our own conscience, not as a demand of God, but God’s self-giving to serve and free us. (Hebrews 9:14, 10:2, 10:22) The new earth is the heavenly city Abraham looked for, a city where God is present. It is sacred place, where our contested relationships, e.g., wolf/ lamb, Sarah/ Hagar, Ishmael/ Isaac and Esau/ Jacob, often carried on by our hostile reading of scripture, are now healed. We receive Jubilee from the cross and pass it on to others. This is new heaven and new earth.
The early church broke bread from house to house and continued in the apostles’ doctrine. This doctrine is about how God revealed himself in Christ. It is the centre of Paul’s poem in Philippians 2, a major worship poem of the early church, to remind them of the main thing. God humbled himself in Christ in the Incarnation, putting on flesh. He also took upon himself the form of a slave, that in death he might redeem us and the whole creation. If this is what God, who is high and lofty, did for each one of us, then surely, by the help of his Spirit, who works in our new heart by faith, this is what we can learn to do for each other. We can start on this journey of change towards our neighbour and enemy.
Just a little side on why the Spirit fills us after the cross. Before the cross we didn’t know our real state. We still justified ourselves before the law. We were still too full of ourselves, to be filled with God’s Spirit. Now that we know ourselves, and now that we know the fulness of God’s grace through the cross and resurrection of Christ, we can boldly receive God’s gift of the Spirit to fill that which we know is empty. This is what Galatians and Romans both show, that we could not receive the Spirit while we were captive to the law. We are now ready for gift. It is what to do with this gift that concerns us here, empowerment to serve.
It’s a shame in a sense that I am not saying anything much here about practical examples, except in Israel’s experience under the law. But this stuff of shame, guilt and self- justification permeates our daily lives and relationships. It drives us to arguments, to pre-empting what we think people are going to do to us. Knowing forgiveness from God brings our communities shalom in the most genuine sense, and without this knowledge in our hearts there is no hope for creation.
We have often turned discipleship into learning a set of beliefs. Down through the centuries, discipleship has often been political, holding to the right creed, to align ourselves with the right camp, to keep hold of our goods. But in the early church its primary meaning was what we did, how we lived, as followers of God, who revealed himself in the humiliation of the Incarnation and in the sufferings and love of Christ. Discipleship meant to follow him, who gave his body as bread for others, and his blood for us. The early believers learned discipleship by following God in their relationships, as God had revealed himself in Jesus. Jesus, not Moses, or Joshua, or David, not our tribe, nor our nation or our nation’s king, was who it was all about. If someone is our brother only until our tribal or national interest interfere, they were never our brother.
In other words, it is the apostles’ doctrine in flesh, not in creed. Paul was outraged at the communion of the Corinthians, because they were breaking up the Lord’s table, not waiting for the poor. They had embraced the powers of this world, greed and separation, rather than living the gospel, in which God is bringing these powers to nought through us, renewing our nations through our true, genuine fellowship.
This is why many were sick and “slept” among them, because they didn’t care for each other. Corinthians starts by noting God is bringing the pagan powers to nothing through the church and then goes on in each chapter showing how we the believers achieve this global renewal by first defeating these powers in our own relationships.
“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.” (Ephesians 3:10) This means the high places of authority, the governments that exercise brutal power over the people. God is renewing them through the church, displaying his wisdom in how we treat our neighbour and enemy, the wisdom of sabbath, the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom which renews and establishes our creation. But if we are living a Christianity of individualism, we have failed to be disciples and this transformation of the powers will regress.
This is what it means to continue in the apostles’ doctrine. It isn’t to draw up a set of beliefs, by which we begin to divide from others, in an ever-widening list of distinctions. The apostles’ doctrine is that we love others, as he has loved us. And if this involves correction, we do it in love, restoratively, remembering our own propensity to be at fault. We correct each other as members of one family, not joining the Pharisees to “fix the world” by casting others out. And those outside our family, we correct by bearing our cross, showing the gospel by the self-giving actions by which we preach.
Without this, our message is just an irritating noise.
Paul wrote to the church at Rome because he wanted them to help him on his mission journey westward to Spain. But he couldn’t preach the gospel in Spain, unless the gospel actually worked, unless the church at Rome, the Jews and gentiles, were being transformed in their fellowship into the image of Christ. Were they at Rome, who confessed Christ, healing their creation by receiving and serving one another, rather than being proud and boasting against each other? Was the gospel actually working in their own lives? Were they, as a community together, a living witnesses of the cross and resurrection in their love for each other? Or were they just telling stories?
Today, the world is in need of great healing, and the church in the first century shows us the way to be Christ’s light, as his renewing community. Faith isn’t just something to believe, it is something that compels us into new life, a transforming life for us, for our community and for our nations. Christ called us the light of the world. The Jews in his day would have immediately related this to Genesis 1. We are the light of new creation. God is restoring his creation through his children. What a wonderful hope, in the midst of such darkness today. But how does this light shine? In the Sermon on the Mount it shines through sufferings, knowing that we are blessed in these sufferings, the builders of a new world, as the Beatitudes say.
The kind of suffering I am speaking about is described in Paul’s poem. Jesus refused to grasp his privilege, but let it go, to be by the side of those in need. He chose “to suffer with,” the meaning of the word compassion, to be present with, to serve and to lift the downtrodden, while the world leaves them behind. Paul said we should have this same mind of Christ. If we have privilege, which in Philippians meant Roman and Jewish privilege, we shouldn’t grasp it and save ourselves there, but instead come out of that security, to come along side others and serve. This is the faith of presence.
Participating in the world’s violence to possess the land will certainly ensure we don’t possess it. It is meek who possess the land. The light we live by today isn’t our self-assertion, or using force against others, but the light of forgiving in suffering, doing good for those who persecute us, drawing them and others around us into healing community. It is the light of God’s love. This is the light by which the early church turned the world upside-down. This is the light that drives back the darkness over creation, bringing us into renewed cosmos. The question again is, do we rely on this light, or on the light of pagan Egypt and its horses?
It’s amazing that in so many years of writing bible college curriculum, until recently I had never written a module on peace or peacemaking. Yet the Jesus I claim to follow is the Prince of Peace and he said the peacemakers are the children of God. When he came into Jerusalem before his crucifixion he cried, “If only you knew the things that make peace, but they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42) Why don’t we teach the skills of peacemaking today?
Peacemaking is at the centre of God, of Christ and his gospel. Jesus taught that it comes from shema, the love of God in our hearts, in the way we treat our neighbour and enemy. But this is a way of thinking that we are hardly accustomed to in our world of self-justification and self-preservation.
For long we have focused on a personalised gospel. So, when Jesus said to go and preach forgiveness and the remission of sins, we haven’t seen this as peacemaking for a new world. (Luke 24:47) If we forgive others and remit their sins, we can treat them in new ways. The church becomes the hope and witness to acceptance and the transformations that brings.
John the Baptist and Jesus were the first to begin preaching the gospel. They both called it the gospel of the kingdom. What is this gospel? First, it is about a king. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, was being enthroned over a world under a new Adam, under renovation. And being Lord, he calls all people to repentance, to participate in this new and eternal world.
As the rule of God, there is ample evidence in the Old Testament about what this rule is. It is a sabbath and shema rule. And this is exactly what John the Baptist and Jesus preached. John said capitalists and workers should not exploit each other. (Luke 3:12-14) This is what Malachi said he would preach, turning the hearts of parents and their children back to each other. (Malachi 4:6) That is, a new heart is a new concern for the other’s welfare. “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11) This is the rule of the kingdom of God. Do we see how this is the centre of the gospel?
We have already gone through Jesus’ teachings showing the kingdom he was speaking about was the same sabbath and shema rule. This is the reason the gospel is good news. It renews our world by renewing our relationships. Mary rejoiced in the Messiah and said, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-3, James 1:9-10) This is the sabbath. This is true liberation theology: the gospel changing our hearts in how we treat our neighbour. It’s why we get Negro spirituals that focus on these themes, while others don’t understand. For years I couldn’t see how Mary’s declaration was the gospel. It didn’t seem to line up with Paul, until I reassessed Paul.
The song Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a transformed slave trader. The lyrics were set to tunes from Negro slave songs, sung to console themselves when chained and rowing the ships across the Atlantic. What a heritage we have in many ways forgotten. God set this hymn to the tune of Negro slave songs, so we would be reminded of what amazing grace is when it touches our hearts. “I once was bound” … I didn’t care about the plight of others. When amazing grace touches our heart, we look for the oppressed and set them free. But in privatising our faith we can sing this song without its major theme impacting us. This is why story behind the lyrics, or even behind Paul’s texts, matters so much in understanding what is being said.
When Jesus sent the 12 and the 70 out to preach the kingdom, he told them to heal the sick. This healing was a sign of the coming reformation of our nations. Jesus said his healing the sick was the sign that Isaiah’s prophecies about a new world were coming to pass. (Luke 7:22, Isaiah 35) He told his disciples to find a man of peace and stay in his house. I think this means that there was a strong awareness then that the gospel of the reign of God meant he was calling us all to Jubilee, to forgive each other, across the board, whether we were rulers of slaves, Jews or Samaritans, men or women.
They were called to heal people’s wounds, not to make wounds. There was a strong call to live out lives of peace with all neighbours and enemies, as a huge contrast to the world of their day.
This is what the gospel means. Is this how we preach the gospel today? Is this what we mean by the good news today? Often, we say the good news is about us personally, but in the early church I think it meant that Christ as Lord was calling us all to shema and the extravagant impact this would have on all our lives and societies. Is this personal? Is this a new heart, born again? Yes, it must be. But it is essentially about the reign of God in our new heart and what this means in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. When we say Jesus died and rose to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, we mean to bring about these new people who build new relationships of mercy and justice with those around them.
Jesus told the disciples that he hadn’t come to bring peace, but the sword of division. (Matthew 10:34) This is the opposite of what scripture says. He came to bring peace and to take way our sword. But those who profit from the disunity of our societies do not like what this new church was doing. They are certainly against us making one people out of rich and slave and out of our tribal enmities. The sword would come against such a church throughout our history. Being a disciple is a challenge to the world, but we need to understand in what way this challenge comes. It doesn’t come from people angry at sinners, but from people who seek to restore sinners and restore those the powers like to turn away. This is coming under the rule of shema, the good news of the gospel of the kingdom.
Otherwise we soon find ourselves in deflection behaviour; that is, deflecting our angst about the world onto those around us, like Adam did when he blamed Eve. The church then becomes a punishing unit against others, thinking it is doing the will of God. But this behaviour doesn’t look like the cross of Christ towards us.
It is sometimes unfortunate that our work in missions has been denominationally orientated. This can teach us a kind of separationism, when a united Christian family is meant to display to the powers a repairing community. In this denominationalism, we haven’t passed on the reconciling skills at the centre of the church and gospel message. So, when enemies arise against the church, we aren’t equipped to meet the challenge in a redeeming and reconciling response.
Our custom is separation, rather than going into the wider community to build bridges and heal by serving. This alienates us from the very teachings of Jesus concerning enemy love. Our teaching on world religions often consists of building walls, not bridges. Our creeds, like political banners, teach about the divinity of Christ and his cross, but not the essential factor in this gospel, which is God’s humility and service. Jesus ends up being a Knight of the Roundtable, rather than a peasant prophet heading towards the cross on a donkey. The church ends up at best complaining about its persecutions, instead of engaging in proactive love in enemy service. At worst, the church retaliates against others.
Often the church has tried to respond to the evil in the world through a kind of protest. But if our lives reflect a middle- class individualism, where we are protected from the suffering in the world, then the protest seems hypocritical. It’s like protesting abortion, while we condone war which kills large numbers of innocent people. We need a consistent pro-life message, a valid witness, which shows genuine compassion for others, through our willingness to bare our cross to serve. The gospel, without this witness, is invalid. Instead of protesting the sin of others, we look out to serve in the suffering of others. This is an open statement about overcoming our own sin, which witnesses to the world about their sin: self-centredness.
John speaks of the charismatic agenda, “to show the world its sin, to reveal genuine justice, and to speak of God’s coming judgement” to those who believe the only real power is what money and violence can do. (John 16:8) The Spirit doesn’t do these things on his own, but through his people. The Spirit’s plan is to reveal God’s kingdom rule through the church. This doesn’t mean our arrogant preaching to others, while we ourselves are not held accountable. It means that a church called in humility, mindful of her own need, where we serve one another and serve the world, is the Spirit’s charismatic witness to the world. This is what the presence and gifts of the Spirit are for.
This service helps renew the conditions in which much of the suffering in this world takes place. It seems that our moral witness, regarding matters like abortion and sexuality, depends on our self-laying-down witness for others. Inability to deny self, this idolatry, is the basis of all our sin which destroys community. It seems the best way of protesting abortion is to help pregnant women, bring them in and show them love, not judgement. Judging the woman and not the man who forsook her, is like judging the woman “caught in adultery.” Where was the man? The early church combated infanticide by taking in children left to die on the streets. They showed the value of life, by laying down their own life. That’s how Jesus did it. It’s the only genuine protest.
The church can best meet the secular world by not being secular, but by giving up our privatised, individualist lives, to engage in other’s sufferings. This witnesses to God’s gospel, his self-giving holiness which renews and saves us. Salvation isn’t some legal contact with the cross, but the way the cross renews our lives and displays that hope to the wold. So how can we reach through to our world entrapped by satan in its destructive self-centred violence, the violence of inhospitality, and share the restoration that the creation of Genesis speaks of?
The economic reality in today’s world is like Jesus’ time. Even in western nations in recent years, the middle class has been slowly disappearing, while large sums of wealth become more and more invested in a few hands. This places democracy at grave risk. It seems that what the powers are really interested in, isn’t fighting the church on its moral stands, but using these battles to reduce of the overall relevance of the church in society, so the powers can get rid of the church’s conscience and rebuild the inequalities of wealth and control that existed before the days of Wilberforce, et. el.
In the wider community of nations, former colonialisms give way to continued meddling in their political affairs.
International arms dealing, the ongoing control of corporate economic interests exploiting the corruption within less developed nations, has so often led to destructive wars. And by retaining vast amounts of corruptly received foreign funds in western banks, while also holding those nations under massive debt, western interest rates and living costs remain low, while runaway inflation in foreign nations literally destroys the lives of countless millions of people. Countries need to work together to overcome corruption instead. A church where we live individual profit-motive lives cannot be a witness to these powers.
We all share a complicity in this, as our call is to the welfare of all, not to our national interest. If this is the case, then our hearts, homes and lives should be open to a suffering word, as though these people were our family. It’s hard to maintain a valid witness in Christ without this. This was the simple teaching of James. Unless they opened their lives to the poor and validated their faith by such genuine works, their world in that day would implode, as it finally did in AD 70. This is clearly the risk and also the solution in today’s global catastrophe.
Serious problems arise within our community of nations. Acute poverty, marginalisation, terrorism and mass emigration. Millions upon millions of people perish, living without the normal social support that others have become accustomed to. As their pain literally sweeps upon our shores we become alarmed. “How will this impact our own security?” We look for political resolution, for leaders who will blame this group, or that, and who promise to keep us safe. The wider community becomes more divided, as we seek exclusion and violence as the solution, rather than self- giving ways to heal. Fear begins to rule our policies, often masked by “holy concerns,” like those of the Pharisees, who tried to keep their group pure and untainted from the wider world.
It’s like the creation narrative back in Genesis, when compared with the pagan creation stories. One tried to renew the cosmos through exclusion, violence, protection of their resources and competition. The other story is one of gathering, repairing the community, treating the wounds, healing the political divisions, not making resources the prime ethic. In recent years, we have fled more to the pagan view of the world, with an increase of nationalist tendencies, hoping this will save us. But this is only widening the gap, bringing more bitterness and hurt to the world, entrenching our divisions, rather than opening a door of service and healing.
We talk about the radical nature of the enemy and our need to protect ourselves from them. This has been the story between our civilizations for centuries, with outbreaks of crusades repeatedly. Instead of arguing about the reality of these dangers, we can point to the solution, to the teachings of Jesus, the community values he called upon us to witness to through our cross shaped lives. This is the answer he gave us, despite the dangers it brings. It’s the solution Francis of Assisi pointed to, in his day of similar conflict with Islam. He carried his cross to build bridges. We say we are light and they are darkness, but if we live in the darkness ourselves, who will show others the light?
We have sometimes confused our image of Christ, thinking it was his protest of sin that we should emulate, not his self- giving for sinners. However, the protest of Jesus was against the “church” of his day, for not taking up their cross to serve.
His main protest was against the selfishness of those who were called the people of God. His protest wasn’t against Rome. Rome was a terrible power and massively destructive to the world, but if the community of light loses its light, then nothing in the end can be done about Rome.
How was Rome defeated? It was the Emperor Julian who lamented that the church was taking over the world through its love of its enemies. He said they could not find a hungry Jewish person on the street, because the church fed them. He said the church buried dead Roman soldiers, the very people who killed them, and not even the pagans loved and buried their own. They took in children thrown out to die, they nursed pagans dying of plague, at risk of their own lives. They loved those who killed them as entertainment. How could enemies treated in this way not turn and follow Christ? So, Julian began to renew pagan temples and began social services to compete with the church.
We have built the kind of society that Jesus witnessed to in first century Jerusalem, with the same potential for destruction Jesus warned of then. We must understand Jesus’ teachings in this context and be his followers in living those teachings in the conflict zone, in the places of suffering, instead of retreating into our castles and pulling up the draw bridge.
Isaiah called us the repairers of the breach. We need to make atonement at the grassroots level just as the Good Samaritan did, where people like us are suffering the evil of our present darkness. As one person said, “Build a bigger table, not a higher wall.” Walls are a testimony to our exclusion of others. Walls or bridges are our two options, the pagan option of not caring for our neighbour, or the life of the kingdom of God.
It is often the case that when Christians in one country are killed, Christians in a Western nation will advocate on their behalf by calling for forceful actions against the “guilty” people group. Such advocacy often fails to consider the wider picture and becomes unjust and this can escalate the trouble. It can provoke groups into further rivalry, risking more deaths. It is safe for advocates at a distance to react in this way, but this could be very dangerous for the people who live in the situation. Christians in the danger area are seen as political allies to Western powers.
This happened when the Roman Empire spilt up between western and eastern powers. When the Western Empire officially became Christian, Christians in the east were seen as political allies to the west and they suffered serious persecution as a result. This has been the story since those days. Allying with power at home may seem safer for us, but such alliances are made at the cost of our Christian family abroad. When we advocate for others through such political means we are not sending the message of the cross, but the message of the sword. Better the advocacy of God, who came and lived among the people and suffered what they suffered, taking no sides, but caring for all the groups.
When there are disputes and killings among Christians it is far better to respond by reaching the “antagonist group” with care. There are usually high levels of suffering within these groups and responding with practical care towards them as people shows the love of God, separates most of that group from the radical few and diffuses the tension by showing everybody is included in the future, giving hope. This is the proven strategy, time and again, but it means the self-giving commitment of Christians on the ground serving in dangerous situations. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to complain about the darkness, but to turn on the light. This works and transforms enemies into friends and reveals Christ.
The “winner takes all” attitude must be overcome. The “Cowboys and Indians” way of living needs to be corrected. If we respond by caring only for our own group who are wounded in conflict, and not for the others who have been wounded also, we are building hostility into our future relationships. Stirring up support among Christians to help their own may be a simple fund-raising strategy, but it won’t work in conflict regions. It is unjust and is laying the foundation for future trouble. Christ told us to care for any person on the Road to Jericho. This is biblical, this is justice and this alone is the way to build our future. This is the politics we need, not that of division.
Time and again we seen conflict reported abroad inaccurately. Only half the story is reported. Prayer letters have been sent out around the world scapegoating certain groups, while failing to report on the wrong of our own groups. We do this, not only as Christians, but also as nationals. We report on the terrorists, but not on how they are funded or how they receive their weapons. I am only aware of one nation that apologized for Boko Haram using their weapons in conflict and that was Norway, though they didn’t rebuild the zones that were destroyed. Countries like the UK produce and sell massive amounts of weaponry internationally, not only for the trade, but also to keep their home weapons technology at the top of the world. We know the international arms trade takes the lives of millions of people, but it’s a simple of case of “it’s either them or us.” This is the unfortunate cost of staying on top of the technology war. And yet we lecture other nations about their corruption and indisciplined security forces.
Again, it’s better to “lecture” by serving in the zone.
When Libya was destroyed by foreign meddling, it strengthened Western power in the region, but it also opened a deluge of weaponry and mercenaries into sub-Saharan regions. So many Western mercenaries are also involved in weapons smuggling. The fall of Libya and Syria occurred largely through Western meddling and has had the direct consequence of massive levels of refugees, the largest the world has ever known. Our response? To shut out borders and hearts. How can we as Christians continue to see our governments’ wars as the hope and not Christ and the table he calls us to?
What the gospel teaches us is that instead of being fearful and setting out to defend our own interest, we should support one another in a way that enables us all to go forward. If immigrants come from nations that are developing, then they bring their education and prosperity to us. So, working for the development of all our nations makes our own boarders less relevant. But strengthening our own boarders moves the world towards fear and oppression of others in defence of their own futures.
Paul told us to pray for peace, so the gospel can spread. Prayer leads us to peaceable actions towards our neighbour and enemy. These actions are part of gospel proclamation.
Without them we cannot preach the gospel. The best way to care for persecuted Christians is to love and care for our enemies as well, to include them, to do what Jesus said. Do we help a Muslim orphan who can’t pay his or her school fees? Sometimes their parents were killed in religious strife with Christians. Do we help an imam who has fallen on bad times, or whose business has been destroyed in religious violence with Christians? Do we help Muslim widows living in destitution because their homes were destroyed in the same religious violence? These are our neighbours. If we want to build a better future, we need to build on the foundation of Christ, meaning the way he told us to treat others.
Jeremiah told Israel to pray for the peace of Babylon, for in Babylon’s peace, Israel would also have peace. (Jeremiah 29:7) And we know from Paul’s teaching that if one part of the body is sick, the whole body is sick. (1 Corinthians 12:26) We can’t say problems in another part of wider community are not our problems. They will soon become our problem.
That is how judgment comes. If we don’t help others, if we live private lives, then the world’s problems grow like a cancer and come to our door.
This is not to blame western powers for everyone’s problems. Nations can rise, they are not helpless. Our destiny is not in the hands of others. Take Nigeria for example, our biggest problem is we don’t see ourselves as one nation, we don’t work together cooperatively to build our future. We let the enemy divide us to conquer. This comes from years of dispute. What can be done?
We are not required to be one faith with non-Christians, but we are required to be one civic community, as witnesses to Christ’s love. As the African proverbs says, “Children are for all of us,” meaning we are all responsible to care for each other. If the church can’t show this general revelation of godliness, who will believe our special revelation concerning the gospel? By not obeying Jesus’ instruction to love our neighbour as our self, we have disqualified ourselves as Christ’s witnesses. We need to ask the community to forgive us. If one section of our community suffers, we all do. We can’t disown the suffering of others. An angry, marginalised section of the community will in the end harm us all.
A nation like Nigeria, with so much in natural and human resources, should be flourishing. But we have bought into the narrative of division, of western individualism, which has filled much of the prosperity teaching we have used to steal sheep from other churches. We have corrupted ourselves and left the nation without a true light. We have preached the gospel of personal advancement, not the gospel of self-giving and community healing to reconcile. Our pulpits have been filled with magicians, business people, pretending to be ministers of the gospel, but have come into the church to make false gain. They promise our lifting and the putting down of our enemies. Such people do not know Christ. They have deceived a great number of people, people who like to be deceived and who like to deceive others in turn. But if we repent, turn around, God will heal us and use us to heal the nation.
We have lived through ten years of hostility, ranging from community war, to years of terrorist jihad, ambush, suicide bombings, grievous land struggles, in which thousands have been killed, vast numbers of people displaced, and much more. We have walked with people through much suffering, people on all sides of the conflicts. We have been forced to learn about community, to look for healing in service and not in those narratives that divide us. Many people, from Nigeria and from western nations, have stood with us in this, prayed, supported, encouraged and served. It is practical gospel and it works, but we must choose this way. If we don’t, if we choose violence and recompense, and the arm of the flesh to save us, I wonder if we are those of whom Jesus spoke, “depart from me, for I do not know you,” because this wasn’t his way.
We have seen enemies become friends and protect each other, communities that used to fight, now refusing that way, but instead helping to repair each other’s lives. We have seen religious freedom flourish, where there was religious hatred. When a community knows you love them unconditionally, conversion of their members is no longer a threat to their social, political or economic welfare. It is no longer seen as treason against their family interest. Evangelism is now based on our genuine concern for the whole people, as a neighbour community, as a social group. The competition is gone. The hostility is gone.
One essential is to spread the word of peace throughout the wider community, based upon the teachings and life of Christ, bringing teenagers in schools into peace clubs, from their diverse backgrounds. This replaces our former education of sectarian hostility. When we truly love the “enemy community,” they will happily give us this kind of access.
Jesus is called the Prince of Peace and he called us to be peacemakers. Why then haven’t we taught these skills as a major aspect of our discipleship and pastoral training?
Another essential is to care for those impacted by violence, whether widows, orphans, or elders, on both sides of the conflict. Caring for just own isn’t love. It shows our sectarian hearts, and this breads resentment and hostility into our community, that future generations will have to pay for.
Another essential ingredient is to serve the youth. They have become embittered, left behind and forsaken by years of global and local corruption. This is all they have experienced from their childhood, they don’t know anything different.
They have borne the brunt of our individualism. They need mothers, fathers, mentors, people who care, education, jobs, hope for their future. There is no peace without this. This is true all over the world. How better can we preach the gospel than by serving these youth, no matter their background? Like Jesus on the cross, who did not blame his enemies but saw their condition and cared for them.
I once walked past a mosque and heard little children inside, sitting on dust chanting the Quran. I had visited their grandparents and knew their love for these children. I had seen the children sitting in school, on small stones, in torn clothes, without desks, biros or notebooks. I heard their chanting with new ears. I could now see that the parents wanted their children educated, to have something to guide and equip their futures. I thought of my parents, who sent me to school for the same reason, but I had everything I needed. My heart wept for them. There was not a parent in that community, when Boko Haram was attacking anyone involved in education, who was not willing for us to help.
Later they asked for our books about Christ and shared them to their homes.
Twice the number of Muslims than Christians were slain by Boko Haram in Nigeria, because of their unwillingness to side with terrorism. I also have seen non-Muslim retaliation against Muslims leave hundreds dead and a thousand of their homes destroyed, but none of this enters Christian international prayer letters. How can we not care for them, when their hearts are open to our embrace? If we don’t, we drive them back into the hands of radicals. An effective way to help Christians in Muslim dominated areas, is to love Muslims in Christian dominated areas. It’s leading by example.
Another essential is to bring youth together, Christian and non-Christian. The church can provide affordable vocational education for youth from diverse backgrounds. When they see relationships building across former divides, it brings them hope for tomorrow. When they see inclusion, they know there will be less fighting, and they will have a chance to build businesses. When people have hope, they choose peace. When youth have no hope, conflict is inevitable. Hope is the essential thing that we must actively find ways to build into our lives, in all sectors of our community. Hope is built on mercy, which comes out of genuine care for each other.
When we educate youth, we are giving them hope for tomorrow, and when we educate youth from diverse backgrounds together, we enable communities to build relationships. These relationships bind the communities together and give open doors for the gospel to spread through normal social interactions, which had ceased to exist in many of our societies.
We must learn to mingle, not separate from others. Others should come to our homes and offices as friends, knowing the sincerity of our love for them. When we don’t see these in our daily lives, it is a warning about our future, that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Jesus called this “the signs of the times,” that which shows what tomorrow will bring, by the seed of hospitality or inhospitality we are sowing today.
Why don’t Muslims visit our churches and come to our bibles colleges to interact as friends? We can’t blame them for this.
We have sown the seed of isolation for a long time and the consequences of this won’t be turned around overnight.
The sectarian areas of our suburbs should be broken down by our deliberately building relationships throughout these regions. If not, our nations are heading for disaster. If we hand this problem over to our governments to handle, by bringing us security through increased policing and removing social freedoms, it will take liberty form us all. Unless we serve, we are heading for bondage and poverty. Security costs substantial amounts of money, which needs to be used to lift lives instead, to build roads, schools and hospitals.
Where there are land disputes, bring members of the community together in agricultural cooperatives that serve the needs of all, especially the widows and orphans on both sides of the conflict. In this forum, leaders who previously didn’t talk, can now address the needs of each group. This enables an ongoing cooperation instead of the lack of understanding and rumour mongering that ruled before. As heads of diverse groups serve together on agricultural cooperatives, the interest of all can be served. There is then no need for violence. They beat their swords into farming instruments.
We have seen large communities refuse widespread violence, because they now work together. We have seen religious leaders and former terrorists come together and ask the wider community to forgive them for their violence and for their inhospitality to others. We have seen Muslim leaders call their youth and forbid them from retaliating violence against their community. We have seen them stand with us and help us disciple converts from their community and vigorously defend our right to do so.
We have seen their leaders defend our ministry before authorities and ask us that we arrest violent youth among them. This is unheard of in our text books. But when we have refused to arrest them, but said they need help, mentoring, fathers, and we want to serve them, they have been shocked and have asked, “What kind of people are you?” We have answered that God is reconciling us through the cross and has asked us to share that reconciliation with all others. And they have replied, “We didn’t know this is what the cross was about.”
All over the world today there is dispute about land. We argue about our entitlements, whether racial, indigenous, or religious entitlements, as people drown in the Mediterranean Sea, or are enslaved as they try to journey to freedom. We call them economic migrants, but no one wants to leave their own country. People love their countries. If we work as a community, to repair, rather than exploit nations, or fight wars for domination in their backyards, then the emigration issue is over. The church is where this light comes from. The church is a community of love, which invites others into that love.
This must be our active light in the world.
Instead of fighting for personal, tribal, or national entitlement, for our land or resources in today’s disputes, Jesus showed us a better way. In the context of the conflicts of his day, he took his disciples and washed their feet, to teach them to overcome exactly this way, by doing this to others. Foot washing, not winning the entitlement argument, is the answer. We must find a way “to wash one another’s feet,” serve at the point where people are hurting in divided in this world, in our neighbourhoods, local or global. We do this in the church, with each other from our diverse backgrounds, and the we do it as a church, serving the world around us. We are not waiting for God to destroy our enemies, but we are learning how to follow Jesus in redemptive living towards them.
As Christians we used to help anyone in our schools and other social institutions, no matter who they were, especially the poor. And we all lived together. Slowly, in recent decades, we have become sectarian, tribal, political, zionist, nationalist.
Rather than stand for our sect, we need to wash our hands of corruption, meaning our self-interest. We must stop listening to those who promote such narratives of division, isolation, demonizing others, rather than promoting compassion for them, and find our way back to neighbourliness. It’s not about putting others on a cross but taking up our own.
Just doing simple things, like showing kindness to everyone in your community, no matter the affiliation of the person. Showing kindness and helping the military assigned to your local area is a way of treating people as human and realising they have needs like everyone else. This helps build all sectors of the community into a supporting group. Greeting those you pass, even those the community thinks are outsiders, showing this love, is the simple kind of thing that brings a group of people together. It overcomes the estrangement that we have built into our relationships.
Even our schooling, which separates the poor who can’t afford it, is an example of this estrangement. Poorer people become “thieves,” and we must put up walls, which drives up fees even further and displaces more people who can’t afford them. This is the kind of society we make, and the results of it are costly for us all. Isn’t it better to spend money and helping others than on pricey security equipment?
When we stop building reconciliation into our community we are all in deep trouble. We might say, they are bad people, or if we are theological, we might say there is total depravity and you can’t change that. We need to be more concerned with our own total depravity, our unwillingness to love our enemy, not the total depravity of others. Simple Sermon on the Mount teaching about our own log. Until we realise schools for the poor, medical care, infrastructure for others, is far cheaper than bombs, we don’t have a hope.
This is not to judge the church. Who am I, with all my faults to do that? Missions has had a tremendous impact. William Carey, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor and countless others have stood against the heartlessness of empire.
Nigerian heroes have added to this number, with a massive impact, standing strong, bringing multitudes to the Lord, many of whom have displayed forgivingness and love across all tribal boundaries. Our own nation of Australian has had a strong heart in mission, even to our Aboriginal people during the destruction of their community. Nations where other friends live have a similar heritage in the world. But this heritage doesn’t properly belong to any of our nations, but to table fellowship believers who loved others against the barbarous policies of our institutions, including religious institutions.
My own journey started as a child in the Presbyterian church. In my early twenties I grew in the Pentecostal church. In our early years of marriage Ruth and I joined Archbishop Benson Idahosa in Nigeria, who fathered us for thirteen years before he went to the Lord. What lovely years they were. What amazing things we witnessed. We worked in Idahosa’s bible college for twenty years, leading the college much of that
time. We saw 8,000 students graduate. Since 2007 we have had a wonderful team, who literally give their lives in ministry to the north of Nigeria and neighbouring Sahel nations. About twenty years ago I began looking for enrichment in the Reformed movement and more recently the Anabaptist traditions. We find enrichment in most sectors of the church, western and eastern traditions, as we seek a more ecumenical fellowship and whole faith.
We speak about a double washing. First, let’s wash our own eyes, then we can see how to wash the eyes of our enemies, by washing their feet. It works, it opens the eyes of others. Proving we are right by argument doesn’t help. When we self- correct, as Jesus taught concerning the way of peace, others follow and they also self-correct. We don’t have the burden of correcting others; the burden of self-correction is enough work for us, correcting ourselves as Jesus’ community people, praying that the Holy Spirit makes us living, transforming witnesses. Adam and Eve corrected others, Jesus taught us this won’t gain peace. Serving in self-giving, truly laying our lives down for others, shows we are genuinely of the truth.
This is pretty much the sum of Jesus’ teachings.
Don’t allow failure to discourage you. We may try peace for a while, and when violence comes we give up, saying peace doesn’t work. We have been living separationism for generations, so it will take a long time to overcome. We need to keep going, keep building the right way, until its rational becomes our nature. It’s difficult for people to learn, because our default is always the way of fallen humanity. And it doesn’t matter in the end whether it works or not. Christ died for the truth, so there is no guarantee we will not also. The important thing is that we are children of God, his followers.
People ask, what if the enemy takes over? That is very short sighted. We know one day the earth will be filled with the glory of just the thing we are speaking of in these notes. Have your mind on that.
“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:14-21)
Victory means overcoming the world with its hatred and its self-centredness, overcoming the pagan narrative. It does not mean overcoming our enemies. If we would reign with Christ, it is the world in ourselves we must overcome, not overcome others. Instead of being dividers, casting out the scapegoats, the weak, the injured, we become gatherers, builders, restorers, the people of God’s sabbath. If God is to be present in the suffering of this world through his church, Emmanuel, and if he is calling us out of complicity with the beast of our day, then these are just a few ways in which we could apply the biblical narrative in our current world.
One of our students said, “Is very unfortunate that tribal meeting groups are more united, caring and loving than the church of our time. The early church was a home for people more caring than any group. In Christ we all have become one. The true expression of the Christian faith is love and care for one another. This is the major theme of the book of
Galatians. Let’s build the body!” This is the centre of the matter, in any nation. There can be no peace until the tribes come together as one. And this is what the original church was all about – if we love Christ we love each other. If we don’t love each other, we don’t love Christ.
The Fall of Jerusalem
The next few sections that touch on the book of Revelation cover some difficult areas, but they include questions that many people ask, and these questions sometimes have important implications for how we live towards others. I am still learning, and that is always the joy and also the problem when I write, but I will try my best to treat the following matters.
The witness of Jesus in the Gospels was that Israel were gentilized by their violence. Their refusal to care for the weak, for the stranger, for those outside their sect, their killing of the innocent, which escalated during the first generation of the early church, their refusal to hear Jesus’ teaching, meant they had become worse than Sodom, Nineveh, Tyre and Sidon. By warning them of Gehenna, Jesus was calling Israel Gog and Magog, and the scribes and Pharisees knew that is what he meant. The Tagum Jonathan translation of the Old Testament shows the armies of Assyria which attacked Hezekiah being called “Gog and Magog,” a symbolic designation for the enemies of God.
“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:32-36)
The book of Revelation depicts the unfolding of this judgement against Israel in pictorial, symbolic language. Jerusalem is Sodom, “where they crucified the Lord,” Egypt, where the bodies of the martyrs of the early church lay, Babylon, which had become drunk in the blood of the followers of Christ and the Harlot who exchanged the true Messiah for Caesar. “In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people, of all who have been slaughtered on the land.” (Revelation 18:24, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16) The words used to describe the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 are all drawn from the Prophets, where they are describing the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is also Gog and Magog, which came against the peaceable community, and was destroyed by the fire of Rome.
In Matthew 25 Jesus spoke of his rule as described by Daniel 7:13-14. This text is about the coming of the Lord into his kingdom, which was his ascension, when his new covenant rule over the earth through his church began. The new covenant means a rule of love from the heart, rather than of law. The Caesars claimed to be the Son of Man from Daniel 7, a well know passage in that day. They said God had given Rome the world to rule. The disciples knew of this claim. The Roman Senate passed a law claiming Emperor Claudius was the Son of Man in Daniel 7, in which Rome would continue to rule the world brutally. In describing his own rule in Matthew, Jesus contrasted it with Rome, saying the government of the Lamb would proceed in the world through care for the least.
Here again, we see the two wisdoms, the pagan wisdom and God’s wisdom in his sabbath rule.
Speaking in apocalyptic language, Jesus continued by saying that any nation that didn’t follow God’s sabbath care of others, the goat nation, would be cast into eternal fire, meaning it would be destroyed. This is how the downfall of Edom was described in Isaiah 34, the stars falling from heaven, the heavens being rolled up as a scroll, their cities turning to a lake of molten fire, whose smoke would ascend forever. Jerusalem had become this pagan Edom.
Peter described Jerusalem’s fall the same way, saying a new heaven and new earth was being birthed, as a new temple, renewing the creation. First and Second Peter begin with the entrance of the new temple, the believers as Christ’s royal priesthood, and end with the demise of the old temple. (1 Peter 2:9, 2 Peter 3:10-18) Peter employs the same metaphor used for the destruction of Edom, “All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall.” (Isaiah 34:4) The future of Herod’s temple would have been a major concern of Peter’s fellow believers, as they saw the end of Jerusalem on the horizon in that day. This is how the famous John Owen interpreted Peter here.
How does this judgment occur? It is written in terms of God’s vengeance; his fire being revealed from heaven. Jude and the book of Hebrews warned that generation, that to go back to the world of selfish greed and violence would result in eternal darkness. They would be swallowed up by the corruption of their time. The Torah spoke of a sabbath principle within the creation, which has a way of protecting, renewing and sustaining itself. If we destroy the creation, the creation spews us out. Israel were told if they lived in the immorality of the pagans, the land would spew them out. (Leviticus 18:28) Immorality is another type of violence, that destroys the lives of those involved and destroys community.
Pagan Rome was filled with immoral violence, just as it was with blood violence and economic violence. Wealthy men could have sex with whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted, just the same way their pagan gods behaved in their myths. And this was seen as normal. The biblical account of marriage in Genesis wasn’t a random command of God to keep God happy, it was part of the seven-day creation of a good world. It’s part of that which brings form to the creation and holds back the pagan waters of destruction. It’s not even a command as such, it’s a description of love: one man and one woman committed to each other for life. The Roman failure in this unleased the waters of chaos upon the world, especially destroying women and children.
The response of the early church was love. Their commitment to each other in marriage stemmed from the creation account of the dignity of humanity. The woman was made in the image of God and should be loved, cared for and served. It was the same with the children. In their best interests, and in the best circumstances, children are loved by their biological parents, who are part of a loving wider family/ community.
Any tampering with this begins to remove the flood-dykes that hold back the waters. If we have strength, it isn’t to please ourselves, but to serve the weaker. The is the cross of Christ restoring the creation. Any definition of love that was self- serving wasn’t known in the creation, until our minds were infected.
The church’s response to the fallen pagan world was also one of love. They didn’t condemn the world, but served the world, trying to help those whose lives that had been shattered by sin. Many in sin are swept into it by circumstances. They are victims. God doesn’t blame them. They are a part of a society in which the empowered look after themselves. This is a major source of the destruction. So, the early church didn’t live in individualism, cut off from those in pain. It we don’t help others, then our morality isn’t love, but pharisaical. The early church was a revolution of love in marriage and family and in its care towards hurting people, who are no different to ourselves. This revolution has driven back the pagan waters of destruction in very large measures in our nations. Marriage shows love in faithfulness, the faithfulness that Christ gives to his church, and a love that embraces the hospitality of sharing new life in procreation. (Stanley Hauerwas)
The land spewing the population out, bringing them into destruction, wasn’t a punishment the land, or God served upon it. It was because when that immorality occurred and brought hurt to lives, the wider community didn’t step in to repair. There was a failure of hospitality. God wasn’t judging the immorality in a legal sense, but when we don’t care for those who are trodden down, bring them into our homes and nurture them back to health in the way of love, then the pain and destruction takes over the land. It’s what the land brings upon itself.
These apocalyptic terms like spewing out, the coming of the Lord, clouds, vengeance, fire, darkness, earthquakes… mean that those who live by violence, die by it. Their selfishness and greed will bring about their own destruction to our communities.
Psalm 18, for example, speaks of God’s rule, or kingdom, coming in justice to cleanse and renew. The passage uses all the same metaphorical terms as Jesus uses in Matthew 24 for his coming to judge Jerusalem. It is common for us to see these terms in the Old Testament as symbolic, but then to literalise them with we see the same language in the New Testament, say in Mathew 24, or 2 Peter 3, or in the book of Revelation. But this is to abandon Hebrew meanings and introduce Greek interpretations without biblical warrant. We may say, “I take the bible literally,” but to take it literally means to follow the inherent intention of the literature, just as we follow the intention of any language we hear.
“Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.
Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. And he sent out his arrows and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.” (Psalms 18:7-15)
Some scholars have claimed that the New Testament was written in the Greek milieu and should be interpreted that way. Some have claimed Hebrew wasn’t a living language in the first century and that the gospel was first passed on orally and wasn’t written down till much later by the Greek fathers. Recent findings from the Dead Sea Scrolls have disproved these assumptions. We now see that the New Testament is so soaked in Hebrew grammatical style, and idioms unknown to the Greek fathers, that it must have been written by first century Hebrew people.
These metaphorical passages on God’s judgment are very serious. Our nations cannot play with the lives of the weak. We don’t have an exceptional status, as Israel thought they had, to prosper while others suffer. As Paul described God’s judgment in Romans and in Timothy, there comes a point where God hands us over to our own ways, where our conscience becomes seared, and his Spirit stops striving with us, and we bring upon ourselves the consequences of our actions. I believe the Flood was of this kind, and the destruction of Sodom. In the Flood, the human destruction of the environment could have created such an imbalance in the ecology of those pre-Flood times that it brought upon the world the destruction that occurred. Man did this, not God.
These passages mean a lot for us in today’s kind of world. Our world is still today like that which Ezekiel described, where nations take the resources of the land and then muddy what is left for others. We rape the nations and then muddy what remains by our proxy wars. “I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:17-18)
When we treat the world like this, hardness of heart comes home to roost in our own backyard. When a nation stops giving to others, their own government and commercial interests next stop supporting those in need at home. Anger starts to fill the home nation. And terrorism broods in regions that have been impoverished, where we have said the people there are accused, and have left them in their poverty, and have not loved our enemies, as Christ commanded. We can’t live in the creation like this and get away with it. The fire we start will burn us up. Our current world is in great danger of self-destruction, because of what we carry in our hearts. It isn’t the fault of this nation, or that people. It is our collective failure the respond to darkness in the way of Christ.
The problem arises when we don’t have compassion on others, when we don’t seek to heal the broken and the poor of the world. Then we feel guilt, and this places us all in great danger. We seek to pass this guilt on to others, just like Adam and Eve did. We see all that happens in the world as being directed against us, and this gives us a sense of righteousness
in our defence and galvanises our group support against others. Before we know it, we are involved in another “Crusade” against some other group. This becomes our way of pushing back the waters of chaos. The point about Jesus, about the cross, is that the kingdom of God has another way of pushing back the waters. We must choose which way we will go, even at cost to ourselves. This is discipleship.
This is the world the book of Revelation depicts. It’s those who scapegoat others who are finally spewed out. And the conquerors, those who take over and renew the land, are the meek, the peaceful community. Throughout the scriptures, the violence of the pagans is subverted by the Lamb of God. In Isaiah, Yahweh says he is coming in the flesh, to fight against Israel’s enemies, and puts on his armour of salvation and faithfulness. He is mocking the covetousness and violence of the pagans, how they tread others down with armour of iron. This Messiah takes victory by shedding his own blood, not the blood of others and his armour is the fruit of his Spirit.
In Revelation, his sword is his word of faithfulness, which slays the paganism within our hearts, and his armies are the martyrs of the church, who conquer by not loving their own lives, even to death. The Lion conquers as the Lamb of God. He does no harm. The grapes, which from the parable of the vineyard is a reference to Israel, are trodden down in the winepress of God’s wrath, which means they refuse God’s love, which is to love their neighbour, so they devour themselves in bitterness.
God is bringing judgment into the world two ways. One is by allowing sin to judge and destroy itself, thereby cleansing the evil form our land. The other is through the church’s self- giving witness, through which the Spirit is convicting the world of its sin, and of justice and of judgment. Without this witness, there would be no judging, or cleansing force in the world. The cross is a powerful example of this. God’s self- giving, his suffering with the world, was a kind of judgement of our sin, cleansing and changing our minds about our selfish lives, renewing the world. Following God in this way is the church’s gift to the world, just as Israel’s suffering was their gift to the world.
All through the New Testament we see the expected fulfilment of the Prophets concerning the final judgment of Israel under the Old Covenant. Jesus spoke of it in Matthew 24, where his coming and the end of the age is a reference to the demise of Jerusalem in that generation, not to his “Second Coming.” James speaks of it as the coming of the Lord against Jerusalem (Flavius Josephus confirmed this was what James meant), John as the last days, and Paul, saying “wrath is coming upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) The apostles were all quoting Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. All this is the usual language of the Prophets concerning God’s judgment on any nation.
Revelation also calls it the coming of the Lord, saying every eye shall see him, even those who slew him. This was referring to the tribes of the land of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. (Revelation 1:7, Zechariah 12:10) Gog and Magog, in alliance with the Roman Empire, came against God’s heavenly Jerusalem (Ezekiel’s people of peace) to spoil their goods, and were destroyed by the fire of Rome. (Revelation 17:16) Following the symbolism of Ezekiel, we see Israel coming into resurrection life through Christ, followed by the attack against this new faith community, followed by this community renewing the nations as the new temple. Revelation 20-22 follows this trajectory. Gog and Magog’s bodies were thrown into “gey hammon gog,” a pun for the valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem, where the bodies were consumed by fire and worms. This is what Rome did to the people of Jerusalem. Israel’s policies over hundreds of years finally brought this upon them.
Jesus referred to Gehenna as the place where the worm doesn’t die, and the fire isn’t quenched. In Ezekiel 20:45-48 and Jeremiah 17:27 this means the fire that will consume Israel will not be quenched until the destruction is complete, “I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.” In Isaiah 66:24 Gehenna refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of their bodies.
Until today, we traditionally see Gog and Magog as our enemies, but the way the word of God renews us is it locates the enmity firstly within ourselves. In history, we have consistently gone to war against those we have called “Gog and Magog,” but seeing this concept biblically stops us from justifying wars against others and thereby begins to renew our world. The importance of seeing this way Revelation addresses and subverts our own violence against others, the way it was addressing Jerusalem then, cannot be overstated.
There is much in the New Testament that we misread, because we don’t read it as a first century text written to Israel. In their racism against the Jews, the gentle church of a later age “stole” the text and reread it as something written to themselves. Speaking of the wrath of God coming upon Jerusalem in AD 70, Paul said, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5) It’s difficult to understand why we would fail to read this in the context of Paul’s own day. Israel had failed to take the opportunity of the patience of God in that century.
We may still think Revelation is written to us about God destroying the earth in our time and taking us to heaven. Rather, it is a warning to us, that God is renewing his creation and the government of Christ is sweeping away every nation that doesn’t walk in his sabbath care of the least. This warning is written in the usual apocalyptic (symbolic) style of Hebrew prophetic text. To read it as Greek literal text, again, is to misread scripture. Revelation isn’t telling us to ignore the world and leave it in order to go to heaven. It is calling us to renounce the self-serving ways of the beast, who then was Rome and today is the power in our time that exploits, and to care for one other another, for our enemy and foreigner, in a growing healing, sharing, self-giving community.
One more thing to comment on here about the fall of Jerusalem is the book of Revelation’s call for the martyrs to rejoice at its destruction. (Revelation 18:20) Many people have used this language as a justification to not love their enemies. However, God judged people in the Old Testament who rejoiced at the fall of their enemies. Jeremiah lamented bitterly at the fall of Jerusalem in his own day. Jesus wept at the coming judgment of the city. He didn’t rejoice. The text in Revelation is poetic irony, showing that what people do to others, they bring upon themselves. (Ezekiel 35:15) Jerusalem had a party when they killed the saints. (Revelation 11:10) The text isn’t a literal call for us to rejoice in the fall of the of our enemies. God takes no delight in their death. (Ezekiel 18:23)
Some of Jesus’ parables of judgment have this same irony in them: the king who was enraged at those who wouldn’t attend the wedding of his son and the king who killed those who didn’t want him to reign over them was Herod. But the irony was the Herodian dynasty destroyed their own city, Jerusalem, by the fruit of their actions, because they wouldn’t allow the Prince of Peace to rule over them. (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 19:11-27) The human rage of the king in these parables certainly wasn’t God’s. Irony played a significant role in the Hebrew Prophets, who were often “tongue in cheek.”
Christian Faith Ministries, a Brief Case Study
Recently we submitted a file to a charity in the USA that recognizes innovative social justice. The charity was an instrumental church during America’s salve history, helping to smuggle slaves to their freedom. We very briefly described some of the work Christian Faith Ministries (referred to below as “the nominees”) does in this area.
Summary of innovative social justice work:
The nominees work in troubled North East Nigeria to build trust between Muslim and Christian communities by drawing them together to help solve the mutual community problems sparking violence. Most of Nigeria’s population are under 30, undereducated, underemployed and volatile. Intermittent outbreaks of extreme violence stem from economic disenfranchisement of millions of youth, underlaid by ethnic & religious antagonism. Nominees address marginalisation by
providing free computer & vocational training for vulnerable impoverished youth, humanitarian care, social business opportunities, farming co-operatives, and paying school fees for children of struggling families.
- Describe the social justice need that the nominees are addressing and how the nominees have demonstrated the skills of critical thinking and creative problem solving in solving issues related to this need.
Nigeria’s segregated, distrustful communities must build a peaceful future together. Conflict, manipulated by opportunists, reverses development, causing economic hardship. Education and hope have become unattainable for millions of angry youth.
After 800 died in conflict, 2009/10, the nominees creatively restored relationships with local Muslims. They saved the life of a Muslim Elder at Christmas, then risked their lives to visit the family deep in the Muslim district for Salah 2010.
Nominee’s teams began working with Muslim community leaders to help poor Muslims or Christians to pay children’s school fees, for food & rent, restored water supplies & started Crisis Homes for destitute orphans. Critical thinking skills are engaged to challenge community mindsets to reach out across the religious and tribal divide to bring social justice to the whole population, healing our nation.
Nominees invited Bukuru Muslim elders to help start a computer training centre for disenfranchised youth, financed by CFMI. June 2014 the first computer training centre opened near Bukuru’s main Mosque, a week after terrorists fired a rocket propelled grenade into a Muslim school nearby. Now 5 computer training centres and 1 vocational training centre, all in former flashpoints, train thousands each year, with more to come. Muslim & Christian, male & female, learn together, forming friendships across ethnic & religious barriers, significantly reducing violence. In June 2018, when hundreds were killed by Fulani herdsmen in nearby villages, youth from the centres worked with police dissuading locals from retaliation, preventing escalation of conflict. Nominees’ model gives youth an alternative to violence, influencing other similarly troubled areas.
- Describe how the nominees are innovative in designing and implementing socially just solutions that address the need noted in essay question 1 above. Articulate how the nominees’ work is distinct from others doing similar work.
The Nominees address conflict by drawing segregated communities to work together to help the marginalised of each side, healing bitterness with this innovation. Christian and Muslim members of Healing Justice teams investigate cases of need to find the best way to help victims back on their feet.
Solutions include paying hospital bills, school fees in local schools, providing books, school desks, helping communities repair their school buildings after conflict. It may be providing a grinding machine, a sewing machine or seed and fertiliser to widows. Creating trust, the nominees drew Muslim and Christian neighbours involved in tit-for-tat killings over cattle grazing and crops to form farming co-operatives. They helped set up AHAV Tractors, a social business using donated tractors to prepare smallholders’ land at affordable rates for those who lack strength to prepare enough land to grow food for their families.
Providing free-to-user computer training or vocational skills for impoverished youth changes their narrative of exclusion to one of possibility, robbing militant fundamentalists and criminal gangs of recruits. Nominees train volunteers instigating Vanguard for Peace, running 10 Peace Clubs in secondary schools teaching conflict resolution and the ways of peace to Muslim and Christian teens.
Others arrange peace treaties and teach conflict resolution to stake-holders, but this often fails to percolate down to the perpetrators of violence. The Nominees bring these skills to the grassroots, to the youth with weapons. Where the young are routinely provided with guns by ruthless militants, youth must have hope for a tomorrow that necessitates peace to resist coercion to join them.
- Describe how the nominees are addressing the systemic or root causes of the issue they are addressing. Make sure to articulate how the nominees’ work is addressing more than symptoms related to the need stated in question 1 above.
Tensions in Northern Nigeria have pre-colonial roots, with traditionalist upland tribes resisting Muslim overlords, later adopting Christianity. Failure to identify as one community creates injustice, rationalises corruption, causes lack for most and inflames volatile youth. Recurrent conflict over decades has prevented investment and blocked development, perpetuating the poverty. Nigerians are industrious and intelligent. With peace for long enough, development will follow.
Programs led by the Nominees address disunity and inequity by drawing communities to work together to help victims of conflict and address youth marginalisation co-operatively. All factions contribute with skills, knowledge and resources, enabled to acknowledge the sufferings of the “other” as well as their own community’s. CFMI’s work changes entrenched mindsets, elevating care for neighbour, without regard to tribe or religion, above self-interest, modelling the unifying alternative to self-serving corruption. When foreign NGOs help they do what is expected. When the Nominee’s CFMI team of diverse Nigerian ethnicities and backgrounds, representing most of the opposing factions, live out these values at risk of their own lives, all sides pay attention.
Conflict-perpetuating vilification of the other side is stopped. Both sides come prepared to listen, to talk, and to work.
Nominees work helps victims move past poverty, beyond self- sufficiency, to become those who use their own resources to help others. Efforts focus on providing the skills and means to victims to generate income with justice, and modelling this ethical behaviour particularly to youth, to equip them to build a different future from the only one they can remember.
- Describe the current and potential impact of the nominee’s work as it relates to the need noted in question 1. Provide concrete evidence when possible.
The Nominees peace-building work impacts hundreds of communities.
In 2015 the nominees approached Muslim Elders to start a computer training centre in Bisichi, a Fulani Muslim community where the army patrolled. The Elders enthusiastically offered use of their older Mosque. Now a second computer centre operates in Bisichi Primary chool, for children each morning, youth each evening. Christians train beside Muslims, learning computer skills peacefully in both. The army is deployed elsewhere.
November 2017 the nominees invited leaders of neighbouring villages to a dinner at CFMI’s main site. The Emir of Bisichi and the Chief of Du each made speeches saying 2 years before their people were killing each other but now they are talking, eating together in friendship & co-operation, with spontaneous development growing in both villages as small businesses start, thanks to CFMI. Farming is safe, youth gain skills instead of making trouble, and more children attend school.
Chief of Police for Bukuru, where CFMI bible school, offices and first computer training centre operate, wrote a letter thanking CFMI for peace-building efforts, instrumental in stopping religious violence in Bukuru.
Plateau State’s Deputy Governor contacted PEACE FM, the main radio station, July 2018, following massacres of hundreds in local villages, thanking nominees for their message of peace, nonretaliation and neighbourliness, broadcast weekly on radio & TV, and help for the 10,000 displaced. In those attacks militants attempts to recruit Bukuru, Bisichi and Du youth failed. Instead they dissuaded other youth from joining attacks.
This potentially impacts thousands more communities, modelling co-operative training and sustainable development.
Acknowledgments and Further Reading
N. T Wright (also known as Tom Wright) René Girard
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Stanley Hauerwas Walter Brueggemann
C. S. Lewis Shane Claiborne Greg Boyd Bruxy Cavey
Jorge Mario Bergoglio Salim Munayer
J. Richard Middleton Chris Date
Kenneth Gentry Enuma Elish
Anthony Bartlett in his book called Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement.
Also, Anthony’s book called Seven Stories.
I haven’t read either of these books, but reviews suggest Cross Purposes conducts historical and biblical research on atonement theories that have impacted Christian theology and violence.
Citing the above authors does not mean I agree with everything these authors may teach, nor with how some others may interpret what these people teach. It means that I have benefited from these people’s lives and it is right to acknowledge that here.
The End of Paganism
Going back to Revelation 20, after “the thousand years,” at the judgement of Jerusalem, the rest of the dead are raised, those not in Christ, and are judged according to their works. That is, God intervened in human history again at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and rose all the wicked from the Old Testament period to the final judgment. And those thereafter who die without Christ are raised with them to judgment when they die. So, everyone, from all history, appears at the judgment at the same time, in their body, to receive judgment for the lives they lived in their body. We cannot be judged without our body. “It is appointed to man once to die and after that the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) No mention of an interim period here.
Time travel is a confusing thing, especially when, like in the movies, you go back in time and mess things up and your mother doesn’t meet your father. Lol. But as the broader view of time is in our imagination, it could be possible with God. I guess Einstein called it a kind of warping of time/ space.
There is a lot here that we don’t understand. C. S. Lewis spoke of God’s coming kingdom in this way, and this is how T.F. Torrance spoke of the resurrection in, “Space, Time and Resurrection.” It could be that God fulfilled his promise to Israel in this way: his promise that the resurrection, that his conquest of the gentile powers and of death would take place in the day of Rome. (Daniel 12) Daniel says nothing of a second Roman empire in the future. He was speaking of first century Rome.
Malachi 3 & 4 also spoke of this same day, when Christ would come to judge his temple, as we see Jesus doing in the Gospel accounts. Malachi said that day would burn like oven. John the Baptist said it was being fulfilled in his generation. (Luke 3:9) Malachi said this is when the resurrection and the judgment would occur. The Prophets saw the coming of Messiah as the days of the judgment of Jerusalem, the fulfilment of God ‘s promises about new creation and the resurrection of Israel through their Messiah. These things were all fulfilled in that generation, as promised.
“And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 4:2-3) God acts to save by mercy, not by sword.
This text speaks of redeemed Israel, the church, that would bring judgement upon Israel in the first century and upon all our persecutors throughout church history, by peace. That is, peace ultimately witnesses to violence, exposes its injustice and thereby overthrows it. This is what this prophetic language means, “trampling the wicked under your feet.” As the violence of the wicked comes back upon themselves, the peaceful community is vindicated.
“Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:25-29) Here is the usual Hebrew poetic repetition for emphasis. The time is coming and has now already come. Jesus is the resurrection, not he will be the resurrection. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, now.
There is discussion going on today questioning the idea that God is present at all times. The discussion questions Calvin’s determinism, suggesting that God hasn’t pre-determined all things, but even, according to some, doesn’t know the future. These seem to be two extremes on a spectrum. I don’t believe in determinism, nor do I believe that God is subject to outside forces, like the gods in the pagan creation stories. He can maintain sovereign control, without controlling free people. It seems God created earth with a time, and he also created heaven with a time, both for relational purposes. Heaven’s time is eternal, such as we understand eternal as a time concept. This time exists in a world that isn’t subject to decay. At the resurrection, earth time, as we currently know it, intersects with heaven’s time, and the two become one.
Just to summarise the main views about the afterlife. One is eternal spiritual existence in heaven, without the resurrection of our body. This is completely out of sync with the Hebrew view in scripture. Another view is that we sleep without any consciousness between death and the resurrection. Another view is that we wait in heaven until the resurrection of our body. Another view is the one I have outlined in these notes, that we are taken by God immediately when we die to the resurrection at the end of this age. I think we can make a case from the scripture for both sleep and for immediate resurrection, but I favour the latter view. I am not concerned which one is right, because God knows, and he is good, and I am quite happy to leave the matter in his capable hands.
But the important point being made in these notes is that it is the resurrection of the body that matters. If God is going to raise up our bodies and renew this creation, then this creation is important to him. We come to realise the importance of living out embodied faith, relevant to this world, not just a spiritual faith. If the eternal state is a renewed earth with renewed communities upon this earth, then our love for community and for this earth should be important to us as God’s people now. We should be “creational,” as God is creational. We shouldn’t be trashing this earth in hedonism and living out an individualistic gospel that is focused on our personal flight to heaven. That misses the mark of scripture by a long way. Our focus as Christians should be building reconciling communities, as a witness to the eternal state that God is bringing us all to.
When the bible tells us not to love the world, its means the selfish culture of the world. (1 John 2:15) God loves the world. (John 3:16) When Jesus said heaven and earth shall pass away, but God’s word shall never pass away, he was using a common idiom of his day, which wasn’t literal, but emphasised the impossibility of God’s word failing. (Matthew 24:35) Ideas about the rapture to heaven do not have a scriptural basis. In Thessalonians, the rapture is the resurrection. In Matthew 24 and in Luke those who are taken are the ones killed in the troubles leading us to AD 70. (Luke 17:34-36)
At the final judgement some, we don’t know how many, are cast into the lake of fire, with the devil, the beast and the false prophet. The beast of that century was Nero, whose name in Hebrew had the numeric value of 666 and in the Latin numeric value and early Vulgate bible it was 616. But Nero likely represented Rome and the false prophet represented the whole of fallen Jerusalem at that time, especially its ruling people. Daniel 7 speaks of the destruction of the Roman beast, symbolised by molten fire. Isaiah 34 also portrays Edom as destroyed, symbolised by molten fire. The symbol represents final destruction. In Revelation 17:11 the torment of the beast means its destruction: “As for the beast … it goes to destruction.”
From these passages we see that entities thrown into the lake of fire refers to their irreversible destruction. When people are thrown into the lake of fire, Revelation calls this the second death. Death means destruction, to be consumed, to perish.
This is what fire and darkness meant in the Old Testament. These terms both arose from speech about the grave, where the body was consumed in darkness and in the warmth of decomposition. The body was destroyed in the grave in darkness and fire. The term “outer darkness” comes from this and from the dungeons the rich threw slaves into to die in New Testament times. Fire consumes, and so dead bodies being consumed in the grave was portrayed by fire. Looking up Sheol in the Old Testament will provide many references to this. The devil also was cast into the lake of fire. Apollyon, destruction, was destroyed. Death was thrown into the lake of fire. Death is destroyed, in the full renewal of the creation.
These are not persons suffering in hell, but curses upon creation that are destroyed forever.
Judgments of people and nations in Old Testament texts do not speak of an afterlife of torment. Rather, these judgments all occurred on earth and in history. When the term torment is used for the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 & 19, it means the city’s destruction. Torment is a symbol of destruction. In Revelation 14:11, the smoke of their torment rises up forever. This is a quote from Isaiah 34, where Edom’s burning fire will never be quenched, and its smoke will rise forever. This is clearly symbolic apocalyptic language. If you go to the region of Edom today you don’t see the smoke. The language shows that the consequences of their destruction are everlasting.
Those who died in Christ during the first century church were fast forwarded to the resurrection and to the new creation, which is depicted in Revelation 21-22. The same applies to all succeeding generations in Christ. As long as the church of our current time hasn’t yet arrived at the end of this age, we are called to live as a witness to the age to come by “wiping away tears.” The perfection of the sabbath world, which Revelation 21-22 depicts, should be prefigured in our relationships with each other now. The world to come is one in which God’s restoration is complete, which he fills with his presence and neighbourliness, in which all the violence of pagan human fallenness is banished.
Revelation 21-22, in which heaven and earth merge into one, is the fulfillment of the Hebrew hopes. Their paradigms for the gospel in their community Exodus from Egypt to form new creation, and their return from exile in Babylon to be made one with God in new creation, are now finally fulfilled through Christ. The book of Revelation is a new creation message, in which the creation of the first century was being judged and renewed through the self-giving witness of the peaceful community. This judgment began with Israel through the first century church and it continues today in all nations who tread down the innocent, until the meek inherit the renewed earth. This is the way “Sermon on the Mount lives” are surprisingly judging and reigning over the creation.
Violence does not rule.
This is how Peter described the church of his day. With the demise of Jerusalem, believers in Christ, both Jews and gentiles, were forming a new community of heavenly renewal in the world. They were the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to make all things new in their nations. God continues this today through the church and it is finally fulfilled in our resurrection. This is what Peter meant by the term “pilgrims.” It doesn’t mean that we are leaving earth to go to heaven when we die. We are not of this world, but we are for this world’s renewal. “Pilgrim” in Peter means we are culturally foreign ambassadors, in the earth for its transformation. When Peter called Jewish believers “pilgrims,” he was referring to their diaspora, to their exile in which they were renewing the nations and he was showing that this global renewal was continuing in Christ. Peter was using the Hebrew exile as a paradigm for church’s world renewal.
Peter’s two letters describe the fulfilling of Israel’s commission in the church. A new temple is an ambassadorial people bringing heaven down to earth. Peter was very clear how this was to be done, what the church’s strategy for world evangelisation is. He didn’t say have a big crusade and get everyone to “make a decision” for Christ. He said it starts with the church following Jesus in persecution, loving our enemies. Then, when they see our selfless life over time, they will ask why we aren’t like the rest of the world. This is when we share our faith. That is, our preaching comes second. It must come as an explanation about our Christlike lives. This is how Peter, one of the founding apostles of the church, explained how the new temple renews the world. This, not power nor coercion, is Peter’s path of global renewal.
“Not by my, nor by power, but by my Spirit…” (Zechariah 4:6) “In that day… I will destroy your horses from among you and demolish your chariots.” (Micah 5:10) “With you I shatter horse and rider, with you I shatter chariot and driver.”
(Jeremiah 51:21) “Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them–not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.” (Hosea 1:7) “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:10)
The reconciliation between Jew and gentile in Ephesians, the reconciliation of the nations shown in Colossians 1, the reconciling table of Galatians, Romans and Philippians, is the church’s renewal of the entire world: “The Lord (through the church’s gospel witness and lives) will mediate nations and will settle international disharmony. They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (Isiah 2:4)
God is reserving his creation for his sabbath people and ridding his creation of paganism. The church today, in restoring community, living redemptively towards our enemies, revealing God’s neighbourly love at the heart of his character, is witnessing to the gospel of Christ, and shining the light of God’s eternal sabbath rule. The cross is the tree of life, where we give ourselves for each other and for the creation, instead of taking. The cross of Christ, where majesty took the form of a slave, deconstructed our oppressive power into service. Revelation 21-22 show the governments of the world transformed into justice and peace, and the nations eating from the tree of life. This is our future, which God affirms. We know where we are heading, even in the midst of today’s troubles.
For me, an encouraging thing is we carry our present works of sabbath with us into God’s eternity. Our current works are not in vain, they follow us and have continuance and are built upon in the life to come. God, in love honours the works we do now. He doesn’t disdain them, or treat them as irrelevant to himself, even though they are far less than perfect. God doesn’t blow them away, but includes them in his purposes, perfects them and allows them to flourish on this earth.
Eternity is somehow a continuation of what we are doing now, in which our present life and works of sabbath are fulfilled and have continued meaning. I look forward to returning to Nigeria in those days.
Because we have this hope, the darkness of our present sorrow is swallowed up, and love and peace can rule in our hearts towards all others. The trials of this present creation burn up the un-Christlikeness within us and within our works. This present creation is very relevant and very impoartnt to the reconstitution of the eternal state in the resurrection. The future flows out of the decisions we make now, the lives and the communities we are building in our nations today.
The promise to Israel of the resurrection is all through the book of Revelation, as this promise was fulfilled in the first century. Revelation 7:14-17 shows those of the first century church already raised form the dead and part of the new creation, which is fully described in symbolic terms in chapters 21-22. God promised to Israel the resurrection would occur in the days of Rome, when God would deliver them from the pagans. (Daniel 12) That was fulfilled when John wrote the Revelation. The bodily resurrection is often little understood in our time, even denied.
Mankind was made to inhabit a body to rule this earth. He wasn’t made to be a disembodied spirit in heaven or hell. Adam and Eve were made and commissioned to govern the earth. This is humanity’s purpose and we were made in the physical body to fulfil this purpose. This purpose has not and will not change. We will always inhabit our physical bodies. So, anytime we are speaking of the afterlife, in Hebrew faith we are speaking of mankind being raised up from the dead, to inhabit their physical bodies, to carry out the fulfillment of our Adamic commission in a new creation. (Revelation 5:10)
There are a few passages in scripture that may look to us in our culture like people exist as disembodied spirits after death. Peter, for example, writing in his Hebrew culture about human spirits in prison, was speaking of death, the grave. He was referring to those the Spirit preached to through Noah before the Flood. (1 Peter 3:19, correctly translated.) Peter wasn’t saying Jesus went to hell to preach to people. Jesus didn’t go to a Greek kind of hell, one ruled over by the Greek god of the underworld Tartarus, who severely tormented people. Tartarus was a Greek invention, that some have adopted into Christian theology. The true God isn’t like that. Jesus’ body went down to the grave, as the Hebrew said about all the dead. Peter used Greek words and phrases, when writing to Greek speaking people, but not Greek meaning or theology. (2 Peter 2:4)
Getting through all these cultural ideas and Greek terms, Peter’s message was simple. He was warning the Jerusalem of his day, that if they didn’t repent, they would perish, be destroyed, die in shame and without hope, just like the people in Noah’s time who didn’t repent. 2nd Peter and Jude used apocryphal sources to make their points about judgment, but that doesn’t mean Peter and Jude approved of the entire Greek meanings within those sources. They were merely references within a mixed Hebrew/ Greek culture. And they were not biblical sources from the Old Testament.
The Hebrew vision of death was that of the person ceasing to exist. The idea that mankind has unconditional immortality is Greek. Plato spoke of spirits living in heaven before being born on earth as human and going back to heaven after death. This is entirely unscriptural. This idea wasn’t approved in the early church. It is Greek dualism, which we spoke of before.
Speaking to Jews in their diaspora within the Greek culture, in which Jews had lived for hundreds of years, Peter used Greek terms, parables and traditions to relate Hebrew concepts. Jesus did also, in passages like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. So also did the apocryphal books, like Pseudo Enoch, using ideas within Greek culture, known to their audience, but as parables to convey Hebrew messages. Pseudo Enoch said his writings were parables, which included passages about “angels marrying women on earth.” The lesson concerned man’s oppression before the Flood. Though some Jews, being mixed up in the Greek culture, as we are today, would have taken Pseudo Enoch literally.
These ideas existed long before the Greek, in ancient pagan culture, which deified their own earthly lusts as heavenly gods. The leviathan and the monster of the sea were thought to be ruling spiritual powers, but the scriptures revealed them as nothing more than simple pagan greed destroying the land. Such greed may have satanic backing within our human motives, but the monsters themselves refers to our human behaviour in the world. So too, the reference in Genesis 6 to those who multiplied wives, was to oppressive human rulers that spoiled the world for their greed and ego. Even kings after the Flood did that, taking so many wives, as God warned Israel that their kings would do. My point is that the bible long utilized pagan terms and ideas, but not their inner meaning or theology.
There are other passages, like the thief on the cross. Jesus said they would be together in paradise that day. Paradise is described by Revelation 21-22 as heaven come down to earth, or as Isaiah described it, the veil being taken off the earth and heaven enveloping earth’s reality, along with the resurrection of our bodies. This is the paradise Jesus was speaking about. And when Jesus died, there was an earthquake and many of the tombs of Jerusalem were opened and the old saints were seen raised. (Matthew 27:51-52) That was that day. We will say more about this below. We just don’t read the bible as a bodily resurrection narrative, which it is.
Our point here is that the afterlife, in Hebrew expectation, consists of the bodily resurrection, not disembodied “spiritual” existence in heaven. Adam and Eve were given a body and commissioned to rule this creation. This is the purpose of the resurrection, the hope of the gospel to the Hebrew nation, fulfilling the Adamic commission. The consistent declaration, whether in the Old Testament, the teaching of Jesus and in the book of Revelation, everywhere that the afterlife is mentioned, is a resurrection of our body to reign over the earth in our Adamic commission. It is to finally fulfil our purpose for creation.
We have sometimes read Paul’s texts on the afterlife through a gnostic lens, seeing our cultural view in his words. But Paul was writing from a different cultural world to ours.
Sometimes our views come from people who claim experiences of heaven or hell. This is a very tenuous foundation for truth. There is so much subjectivity in this area, not to mention some clear cases of fraud, that our interpretations of such things cannot be useful. If we stick by the biblical text, it is doubtful that Paul was speaking of a spiritual existence in heaven after death. He said that after he died, he would be clothed with a heavenly body. This is an incorruptible physical body, like Jesus’ physical resurrected body.
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul was correcting the super-apostle syndrome in the church. Paul said his sufferings didn’t mean he lacked faith. He said the process of death/ resurrection works in believers just as it did in Jesus. That is, we are handed over to death, to self-giving circumstances, in our course of serving others, just as Jesus was. As we lay ourselves down for others, transformation life comes into the community. This is something we are all called to.
In the next chapter Paul explains our hope. We don’t lose hope in our sufferings, because we know resurrection is just around the corner. He said, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1) This doesn’t mean that we leave this body and go to heaven and collect a purely spiritual body. A body “not made with hands,” is like the stone not made with hands in Daniel 2:34. It’s a perfect body. An eternal body means an incorruptible physical body. Paul went on to say that when he dies, he isn’t left unclothed, which would be unimaginable in Hebrew faith. He said we are clothed with an incorruptible body. In Hebrew thought, this is the resurrection of our body. It seems in this text that this resurrection of our body is immediate upon death. Paul mentions no waiting period.
Peter uses a similar comment when speaking of our bodily resurrection. He said our inheritance is reserved for us in heaven. (1 Peter 1:4) In Hebrew faith this meant the resurrection of our body, to possess the renewed creation. (Acts 24:15) “Reserved in heaven” doesn’t mean we go to heaven to get it. It’s like someone saying that when you get home, your dinner is being kept warm in the oven. You don’t get into the oven to enjoy it. It is only kept for you there. Our body is kept by the final authority of God, and no power on earth can rob it from us. These are the kinds of texts we have misread from our own cultural viewpoint.
Another text is Philippians 1:23-24, where Paul said his personal desire is to depart from his body and be with Christ, but it is better for the Philippian believers that he remains with them in his body. This is where you get the dual perspective. From the perspective of the people on earth, when a person dies, their body is “sleeping,” awaiting the resurrection. From the perspective of those here on earth, we have left our body when we die; but from our own perspective, we are with Christ in the resurrection with our body. Paul didn’t mean that when he died he went to heaven. He meant to be with Christ where he is. This means to join Christ in the resurrection and new creation. This is the only concept of the afterlife Paul had. Paul’s desire was to fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and then after death to enjoy completely the power of his resurrection. (Philippians 3:10-11)
There are other texts like Thessalonians 4:17, where Paul said we which are alive at Christ’s coming are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. As said earlier, this is a metaphorical passage describing the Lord’s coming in terms of a Roman custom. When the Caesar returned to the city, those in the city went out to meet him and then journeyed with him back to the city. The reality of the “Second Coming,” is that which Isaiah describes, the veil being lifted off the nations, death being swallowed up by life and heaven and earth merging into one. Paul didn’t say when we meet the Lord in the air that we then go together back to heaven. The Roman custom he used means the opposite, that when Jesus is revealed from heaven, we shall be like him in resurrection, as heaven comes into the world, as Revelations 21-22 says.
Above we saw that Paul told the Philippians that if he were absent from his current body, meaning if he slept, he would be with the Lord. We have thought this meant he would be in heaven in his spirit, without his body. But is this the case?
Paul mentioned this in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” This is the “Second Coming,” of the Lord. But Paul doesn’t say Jesus brings believers who have slept with him from heaven. Paul says Jesus brings them with him by raising them from the dead first, that is, from the graves, not from heaven. (1 Thessalonians 4:16) Paul said, the resurrection of Christ encourages us, knowing that because Jesus was raised, he will also raise up those who are sleeping when he comes. This is when those who depart from this earthly body are present with the Lord, in the resurrection when he comes.
There can be confusion when we read Thessalonians, as it is only a letter that misses much of what Paul had already taught the church. We must piece things together from only hearing a part of their conversation. Paul speaks of some things that were happening in that generation, such as the appearance of the man of sin (the Roman desecration of the temple), the coming of Christ in the destruction of Jerusalem, which Paul called the day of the Lord, and the thief in the night. Then he also spoke of the resurrection, when we would meet our loved ones in Christ. These were quite separate events.
And this is the resurrection we see Paul speak about in detail in 1 Corinthians 15. The purpose of this chapter was to answer the Greek believers who were disputing the bodily resurrection. They believed the resurrection was just spiritual. But the definition of resurrection means in the physical.
Literally, it means “to stand up again,” meaning in the body. “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27) 1 Corinthians 15:44 reads, our body is sown in death as “a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” The Greek word for “natural” here is psuchikos, for soulish. Our present mortal body is a covering for our soul. The word for body in the Greek is soma, which means a covering. It is not the body that is the issue, but what is inside the body. If the body is merely a covering of the soulish man, it has no eternal life to keep the body renewed. When Paul said flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God, he meant mortal man. But when our current body is raised from the dead by the Spirit, the body becomes the covering of an eternal life on the inside. So, the body is then constantly renewed. This is what “spiritual body” means. This is what the scripture calls our eternal inheritance. (Ephesians 1:14, Romans 8:11, Philippians 3:21)
We see this in the resurrection of Christ, when he rose again on the third day, after his crucifixion. Christ’s resurrection body was a body in which heaven and earth had merged into one new creation. Christ’s earthly body wasn’t destroyed but raised up and changed. In Christ, heaven and earth come together. That which is earthly, the body, becomes immortalised, without the limitations of the former decay. No earthly power can stop what heaven has decreed and reserved, so we have no fear of death. This is our inheritance. Christ’s resurrection shows exactly what Paul was speaking about. The Spirit raised Christ’s body to immortal life. Christ’s resurrection, in his body, was the beginning of the uniting of earth and heaven. This unity of the cosmos shall permeate the whole creation.
When Paul said he had a heavenly vision, “whether in his body or outside of his body, he could not tell,” he wasn’t raising the possibility of a disembodied life in heaven. He meant that he couldn’t tell whether he had a vision or was himself in the presence of God. (2 Corinthians 12) Every reference of Paul to the afterlife is a reference in Paul’s mind the Hebrew idea of bodily resurrection.
But when will this resurrection of our body happen? The scriptures say at the end of this age. The world is being renewed, heading towards that day when every enemy, including death, shall be placed under Christ’s feet. This period of the world’s gradual transformation through history is how some people view the millennium period. Revelation speaks of a millennium, which has been interpreted in various ways, through our later Hellenised church lens.
Pre-millennialism often advocates an end-times view that literalises the scripture, without reference to its original intent or audience. It has produced many false prophecies, while advocating an aggressive politics and militarism that entirely misrepresents the image of Christ. Amillennialism spiritualises the Prophets, avoiding implications for community and a transformed creation. Post-millennialism assumes things on earth will progressively improve, which might not be the case. Post-millennialism also often advocates an enforcement of Moses’ moral code for a reconstruction of society, which isn’t the way Jesus taught that the kingdom of God comes. None of these millennialisms arise out of a first century understanding of the book of Revelation.
Even Preterism, which helps in part restore a first century view of the book of Revelation, remains captive to a Greek/ gnostic rejection of the creation and rejection of the future bodily resurrection. We need a first century, Hebrew view of the text. And here, the interpretation of the book Revelation known as Idealism plays a part. The story within Hebrew scripture from Genesis to Revelation is about God overcoming the violence of pagan empire. In the book of Revelation, God is deconstructing empire styled oppression into a community of neighbour inclusion and service. It is presenting in symbolic terms what we see going on in history in the book of Acts.
The millennium of Revelation 20 was the period of grace given to John’s generation, for the harvest of souls to come to Christ. This is how Peter spoke of that one thousand years, and Paul spoke of God’s patience towards Jerusalem then. (2 Peter 3:8-9, Romans 2:4, Luke 13:6-8) The millennium was the period when the gospel went out to the Jewish diaspora of the Roman world before the destruction of Jerusalem came. It corresponds, in the book of Revelation, and in Ezekiel’s prophecy, with the sealing of God’s people on their foreheads, those who turn from the selfishness of that time to Christ’s life of care, as an expression of their true worship.
My point here is, Revelation 20 shows that during this millennium period in the first generation of the church, that is, during that time before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, martyrs are already raised up, freed from pagan rule, reigning with Christ. Why did the scripture depict the future resurrection of the believers already taking place during the first century church? What does this teach us about the resurrection of believers? How is that believers were raised up in the first century, when scripture teaches the final resurrection doesn’t come till the final renewal of this whole cosmos?
When we talk of a future resurrection of the body, we often speak of a prior interim period, between the time we die and the time of the end, when Christ finally appears and when heaven and earth envelop each other in new creation. Some say we spend the interim period in heaven, in the spirit, awaiting the resurrection of our body. Others say that we sleep until that day, conscious of nothing, until we rise.
But this concept of an interim period assumes that God’s time is on the same plane as our time. But God is eternal and outside our time and not subject to it. God can see our time and space, from its beginning to its end, as one linear plane before him, but he exists outside of that plan and can touch any part of it at once. This is beyond our experience and understanding. The point is that it is presumptuous to limit God to our own experiential knowledge. There is no reason why there must be an interim period after those in Christ die. There is no reason why God can’t immediately take us to the end of this age and raise us up at that point. There is no biblical reason why we are not raised up in new creation immediately upon our death in Christ. This is no more impossible than bodily resurrection itself.
It is possible that after Christ was raised from the dead, God then interjected into our time plane to fast forward his people to the resurrection at the end of the age. This is a difficult concept for us to understand, but with God it is possible. We see some Old Testament believer’s bodies raised in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s death, when he broke the power of death, as a verification that the resurrection promised to Israel was then fulfilled. The book of Hebrews tells us the Old Testament believers didn’t receive the promise, which was resurrection, until the first century believers were receiving it. (Hebrews 11: 13, 40) And what were they raised to? The perfection, the country that Abraham looked for, the renewed creation.
From the perspective of our human history, Christ is metaphorically now seated in heaven waiting for his enemies on earth to be subjected to him and so he is retained in heaven until the restoration of the creation. (Psalm 110 Acts 3:21) During this time the powers of his resurrection are slowly transforming our lives and nations upon earth. But in the perspective of God’s eternal kingdom, this restoration has already fully occurred in Christ’s resurrection, and from that point, all believers who die in Christ live with him, fast forwarded to the resurrection day at the end this current earthly age. The “Second Coming” isn’t Christ coming from afar, but his “appearing” to this present age on earth, uniting it with God’s eternal age in the rule of heaven. (1 John 3:2) This is when our earthly time catches up with God’s perfect rule and the two planes come together in one reality.
If we read the book of Revelation in a simple linear way, not seeing our world and God’s kingdom as overlapping in this way, we lose something of the mystery and the understanding of book’s message: Christ is “the ladder,” the temple, the connection between the two planes, through which our plain here is fully infused into the heavenly rule, by his Spirit and the ongoing self-giving witness of the church. The resurrected body of Christ did funny things. It was not a spirit, but a physical body of flesh and bones that ate food just like we do. (Luke 24:39, 42) Yet he walked through walls, appeared and disappeared between the realms of heaven and earth, even before his “official ascension.” If you think you can understand the resurrection in a normal three-dimensional way, good luck!