I often hear people say that they want a class on how to share their faith with others. I understand fully this desire. Many Christians want to share their faith but are afraid to do so. Some are uncertain because they don’t think they have they know enough. Others are uncertain because they think they do not know how to do so. The fact is that we will never know enough and that there is no perfect way to do it. We just need to get out there and tell the world about Jesus.
Now, if anyone says to you, “here are the 10 keys to effective evangelism,” or, “use these effective strategies for guaranteed conversions”, or, “win them over with this irresistible trick,” be cautious. They may well have good insights. But no one has the corner on “sharing the Gospel with success.”
When we think about it, our theology tells us that those who come to Christ are called by Christ. This means that there is no way we can be certain that our “secrets” to sharing Christ will ultimately lead anyone to faith. No matter how good our presentation was. If they are not called by God, they will not repent.
At the same time, however, we can go about it the wrong way. So, here are some thoughts on how we might share the Gospel more effectively.
Pray for them
Really, truly, deeply, and consistently pray for them. We believe that it is only God who changes the heart! God is the one who calls! God is the one who saves! Prayer helps us see things the way that God sees them.
In addition, our motives and ego can so easily get in the way. So pray for ourselves also. That the Light of Christ might shine through us to them despite our sinfulness!
Just be real with people. Love them. Care for them. Come alongside them. And live Jesus before them.
Love them for who they are. Don’t try to fix them. Don’t assume that they have to become like us to be saved! Sure, we hope that they will become more like Jesus each day. But, that is not a pre-requisite to being saved either! Being saved starts with recognizing that I am not like Jesus! I am a sinner. I need Jesus to change me!
Being real with people also means that we admit our faults and weaknesses. We believe that we are not perfect; so don’t pretend to be.
What to do next!
Invite them to Church or a Church event. Don’t worry if they say no. Just keep looking for ways to integrate them into your community. Allow them to journey to Christ.
Sure, some people have an experience in which they accept Christ. Some of us can name the day and time and place in which it happened. Others cannot. They just know that previously they were not a Christian and now they are. When that change took place, they do not know.
I remember a time when I was sharing the Gospel with someone. We met weekly and just read the Gospel of Matthew together. Sometimes we would discuss what we read. Sometimes we just kept reading. About 8 months later I asked, “why don’t you get baptized?” He was startled. The reality, however, was that sometime during the previous 8 months he had become a Christian. He had gone from just reading and inquiring to believing and desiring. I could see the change. I don’t know when it happened. Neither did he.
Within a month, I had the pleasure of baptizing him!
An important part of loving people and sharing Christ with them is to ask them questions. Find out who they are.
As people talk they will let you know how they are struggling; what they are looking for. You will find that be listening to them you will learn easy entry points to bring Jesus into the conversation and into their lives.
Sometimes they will be closed to the Gospel. That is important to know! Give them time. Sharing the Gospel too forthrightly with such persons will only cause them to repel further. Just love them. Be there for them. Model Christ for them. Perhaps, on occasion you can insert the Gospel ever so gently into a conversation and then let it go. If it is received, perhaps it will be a seed that germinates over time. Later, you can tell them more.
Others may be struggling with something. Perhaps it is a loss that they cannot comprehend. They cannot accept Jesus because it doesn’t make sense how God could have allowed this to happen. By asking questions you will find this out and learn how to bring the Gospel to them personally.
Share your story
This is crucial. You may not think you have a story, but you do. Sharing your story let’s people know that you are real too. You have struggled with growing up in a broken family; or suffering a divorce; or the loss of a loved one. Let them know that you are just another person. You have struggles. Life is not perfect for you either.
Some people have this conception that they have to have it all together before they can become a Christian. The problem is accentuated when Christians pretend that they have it all together. We, for some reason, think we are supposed to let people know how great our life in Christ is. The result is that people are distanced from Christ because they think they will never have it all together!
So, to the Church I exclaim: “be real with people.” Don’t put on a face of something you are not. Sure, Christ has made my life infinitely better. But my life is still full of gaffs and blunders.
In hearing your story, people might come to find that there is hope for them too. If God can save people like us, then He can and will do so for them!
For some reason we Christians think that we not only have to our life perfectly together but that we have to know everything. We don’t know everything. And no one expects that we do!
So, be ready to answer people’s questions. But not with this supposed “I know it all” mentality. In fact, one of the best answers we can give is: “I don’t know.” Now this answer should be immediately followed by, “but let me find out.” Then go and find out and come back soon and let them know what you learned.
Also, in answering people’s questions, acknowledge them as good questions. What might seem as a simple question for you, might be the basis for a real struggle for someone else.
The fact is that I struggle with the problem of evil and suffering too. I don’t know why, or even pretend to understand why, God allows 25,000 people to die each day from starvation.
I do know this though. That God has done and is doing something about it! The beauty of the Gospel is that, though evil and suffering is the result of the mess that we made of this world, God has entered into our mess by sending His Son that we might live. This is it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why there is so much evil in this world. But, I do get the fact that God has done something about it! My son lives because God’s Son died! There is no greater comfort to a grieving parent than that!
Let the Light of the Gospel Shine Forth in Our Lives as we Love One Another
Finally, we need to do a better job of loving each other! Jesus said that this is how they will know that we are Christians!
What do you do when your pastor says something you don’t want to hear?
I don’t know if you are all like me, but I can’t really think of anything wrong in my life. No real sins that I am dealing with. My moral, theological, and political views are all in line with Jesus’. So, if a pastor has something to say to me during a weekend service that I disagree with, then it must be that he/she is mistaken.
Seriously though, what should we do when a pastor says something we don’t want to hear? Leave! Go to another church. (I am being facetious, of course. I hate the notion of church shopping and I am frustrated with how easily people leave one church and head to another)
Okay, in all seriousness (mind you that is hard for me), we all have issues! The simple fact is that from time to time the Word proclaimed should ruffle my feathers! I should be convicted in my heart. How about if I say it this way: If the preacher does not get under my skin at times, then I dare say that he/she is not preaching the Word!
I expect the preacher to say things I don’t agree with.
The simple fact is that we don’t all agree! So what if he/she expresses his/her opinion on a matter and it happens to conflict with what I think? This should be fine. We can all learn from each other. I may not be convinced of someone else’s opinion, but what is wrong with hearing the other side?
Nothing is wrong with it! In fact, hearing opposing viewpoints is often critical in fostering understanding. I may not agree with you but at least I understand where you are coming from. I may not agree, but I will respect you.
But for some reason it seems as though Christians are more and more resistant to hearing differing opinions. We have always had a strain of narrow-mindedness in the Church. But today it seems even more intense. We just don’t want to hear ideas that we don’t agree with.
But, doesn’t being a Christian mean that we understand that we don’t have it all figure out?
We make it very hard on our pastors.
You need to understand that as a pastor this is hard. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to exercise caution over what not to say, what to say, and how to say it. Sure, sometimes it is important to not speak. My job is to lead the sheep; not to beat them. I am to guide them and help them along on this journey towards Christlikeness.
Now I fully respect the fact that the pulpit is not always the place to have a conversation. Some matters are simply best left for other settings—a classroom, small group, or even a private conversation.
But, sometimes I wonder if I am just a coward. Only saying what I think the people want to hear. And I hold back. I resist the opportunity to proclaim important aspects of the Gospel to the Church.
Let’s be honest that one of the reasons we pastors are afraid to speak up is that we know that when we do we will have lots of angry congregants. So it is just not worth it.
One of the best ways, however, to pursue peace and break down walls that divide us is to understand the other side. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as pastors to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2).
When the pastors are afraid to dissent from the popular opinion in public,
the net result is that we become further entrenched in our convictions. As a result, we have less understanding and less chances for peace.
PS: Funny thing here: how many of you are unsure if you will read my blog anymore because I used both male and female pronouns (he/she) to refer to pastors? Here is an example in which some will decide to no longer read my blog because we don’t agree on something. Let us learn from each other even when we don’t agree!
I thought I would take on another easy question: ‘What about women in ministry?’ Admittedly, the question is multi-faceted and the issues are complex. (I recognize for some that the issues are not complex: for some the Bible says that women should not be in authority—though many define authority differently, which affirms my point that the issues are complex—and so it is black and white). The complexities include at the most basic level whether or not women can teach in the Church at all (including the teaching of children; youth; or, adults—whether that be women only, or both women and men). The issues also include whether or not women can have authority in the Church and at what level (including authority over children; youth; adults—whether it be women only, or both women and men).
Before we look at the primary biblical text in question (1 Tim 2:12-14), allow me to digress and give a brief background of my own journey with regard to these issues. I came to faith in Christ in a wonderful, but very conservative, church environment. As a result the Bible was read as very black and white (aside from the red letters of course!). The Bible lays it out very concretely—as I was taught—women cannot ‘teach or have authority over a man’ (1 Tim 2:12). Over the years two things began to cause me to wonder if this was not too simple. (Now I have always held a very high view of Scriptural authority, and still do).
First, I had several encounters with women in higher education. On a few occasions I had the privilege of having a female classmate during my post-graduate work. I noticed that she was much brighter and had a keener sense of Scripture than most of the men in the class. Furthermore, I found myself studying various scholarly articles and books that were written by women. I wondered to myself at the oddity of it all. These female scholars are very gifted. They are great writers and communicators. And they appear from their writings to have a deep passion for the Lord. Yet, ironically, what they write and communicate can be used to teach and train leaders and pastors, but at the same time, they themselves are not allowed to speak from a pulpit on a Sunday in many churches. This just didn’t seem to mesh for me.
A second catalytic factor that caused me to delve more deeply into the Scripture was the fact that I have clearly witnessed women in the Church who are quite gifted in a variety of ways. Some of these women are high level executives that are quite gifted at running and managing multi-million dollar corporations. Yet, many of them are suppressed in today’s churches and their voices are not heard simply because of their gender.
Now, I fully understand that this does not have to be this way. That is, women can thrive in environments in which there gifts and passions are utilized, where they are affirmed and not suppressed, and yet they are still restricted for cultural reasons from having full authority in a local church. After all, when we look at the Church of the NT we find that women held prominent roles/positions in the Church and thrived even though they were restricted from having pastoral authority: e.g., Priscilla, Pheobe, Philip’s daughters, among others. Jesus seemingly allowed women as disciples. Furthermore, women were prominent in the Gospel accounts. Etc. Yet, at the same time Paul forbade them from holding the office of ‘pastor over men’ (1 Tim 2:12). This demonstrates that women can simultaneously be used effectively and esteemed in numerous ways in the Church, all the while being withheld from holding high offices in the Church. I get that.
But, we must also acknowledge that we don’t see women at the time of Paul writing commentaries, scholarly articles, being esteemed professors, and even presidents of seminaries! So, the question remains, ‘how can we allow women to do such things in our modern academic environment and then tell that same woman that she cannot teach on Sunday?’ She can teach our emerging pastors in the colleges and seminaries Monday through Friday, but she cannot teach our congregations on Sunday. This is a fundamental difference between our setting and the setting of the NT.
You see, the irony is much deeper. Many young pastors and teachers write their messages based on outlines, lectures, etc., that they had from their time in formal education. So, if the notes that this young pastor used on a given Sunday came from a lecture that a female professor gave to him, that would be okay: as long as he gave the sermon? He can tell everyone what he learned from her, but she can’t deliver the same sermon (even though she is more qualified and perhaps more gifted to do so)?
Now, in order to gain more consistency in these matters, one option would be to eliminate women from positions in higher education. But, these women are highly qualified and quite gifted at what they do. We would be essentially asking them to not utilize gifts that God has given them. And we would be restricting in a manner in which Scripture does not forbid.
But what about Scripture? Fair enough. We still need to contend with the Scriptures. Space will not allow me to delve into all the texts, nor even every nuance of 1 Tim 2. But a good look at the primary text in question, 1 Tim 2:12-14, is necessary. Here we find the command of Paul that: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12).
Now we immediately recognize that this is not an absolute dictum forbidding all teaching activities of women for several reasons. For one, we see women doing just that throughout the NT. Priscilla is teaching Apollos in Acts 18. Philip’s four daughters are prophesying in Acts 21. And in 1 Cor 11:5, Paul stresses that women must have their heads covered when praying and prophesying in Church (note: the act of prophesying entails teaching).
Also, we must observe that the twin prohibitions of ‘teaching’ and ‘having authority’ in 1 Tim 2:12 appear to entail the primary functions of a pastor. Thus, while not absolutely forbidding a woman from teaching in every setting, Paul is forbidding them from the role of a pastor or church leader ‘over men’. This would suggest that a women preaching on a Sunday morning to the congregation may well be permitted even by Paul; for though they are performing a task that a pastor performs they are not exercising his position as pastor and leader of the flock. That is, the text forbids them from two things that together constitute the position/office of what we term ‘pastor’. This does not mean that a woman cannot perform the task of teaching—which is why we see women teaching at various times in the NT. To suggest that women cannot preach on Sunday, but yet they can present the same message to a classroom on Wednesday is quite silly. What is the difference between a woman teaching a message on a Wednesday and her giving the same message on a Sunday morning? She is performing the task but not the office of a pastor. This distinction is quite significant. Paul allowed the former and forbade the latter.
Furthermore, we should also note that Paul seemingly restricts women from having this role of authority (pastor: i.e., ‘teaching and having authority’) not absolutely, but only over ‘a man.’ For many, and I would concur, this means that women are permitted to function and serve as children’s pastors, or, even pastors of women. That this holds true finds support in Paul’s letter to Titus in which he counsels Titus on how to relate to younger and older men and women. Propriety, even in Paul’s day, suggests that women are better suited at addressing and ministering to women.
It is at this juncture that most evangelical churches would actually be in agreement with me. They have no problem with women being in authority over women and children. Some refuse to allow a woman to preach on Sunday, but, as we have shown, that does not appear to be what Paul is forbidding here. At this point, we could stop and most everyone, even the quite conservatives, will be content, though not necessarily in full agreement, with what has been said. Paul seemingly allowed women to teach in various settings and to be in authority over women and children. But, let’s look at the prohibition of women in 1 Tim 2:12-14 to see if there is more.
What we notice is that Paul’s prohibition of women from occupying the office of pastor over men is justified by Paul in 1 Tim 2:13-14. Here Paul gives two reasons for his prohibition. His first justification is that Adam was formed first (2:13). This is a reference to what is called ‘primogeniture’ (basically: the order of birth or creation). Paul is saying that since Adam was first in creation, we are going to establish a rule that man is to be first in the Church. Now this appears very concrete and very conclusive. It remains true today that Adam was formed first—in fact, it will remain true forever. Therefore, Paul’s prohibition appears to be eternally validated. Thus, in order to argue that Paul’s prohibition of women being pastors over men was culturally conditioned (that is, it is not necessarily the result of absolutely binding and eternally fixed factors), one would need to contend that the law of primogeniture is not absolute.
Well, it is not. There are numerous occasions in which the one who was first was not given the privilege forever: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Ephraim over Manasseh; Moses over Aaron; David is the youngest in his family, etc. Furthermore, primogeniture is culturally bound in that it was necessary to impose in a culture that was intimately tied to land transfers and the allotment of inheritance. This was important in the ancient world. For, it was necessary to pre-determine who was the inheritor of the land and such. In such cultures it was often essential to not split up the farms equally among all surviving heirs as this would have been detrimental to the long term survival of the clan. In such societies, then, it was natural to choose the oldest—since the oldest was more likely mature enough to care for the family; and younger siblings may even have been in need of care themselves. Choosing the oldest as a rule also eliminated/minimized the potential for sibling rivalry. These pragmatic factors made primogeniture a part of the fabric of the biblical world. But, as such, they do not necessarily translate to our contemporary situation. Thus, to say that Paul was saying men can be pastors and women cannot based on an absolute fact that Adam was made first, fails to recognize that it was not based on this absolute, but on a culturally accepted practice of primogeniture. Thus, for Paul, this was a valid reason. But it was a reason that was culturally conditioned. And one that does not necessarily translate into all cultures for all time.
The second reason that Paul states to justify his restriction of women from the office of pastor over men is that Eve was the one who was deceived (1 Tim 2:14). Again it appears that Paul has provided for us a theologically grounded basis for his rule—the fact is that she was deceived first. Paul appears to be setting forth the fact that Eve, and the women of his day, were more susceptible to deception.
This is an important point. But, before we look at the nature of this assertion we must reflect on the fact that for Paul the pastor must keep watch over the flock. In doing so, one of the most central roles of the pastor is to watch over the teaching and beliefs of the flock and to guard them from deception (note: the devil’s name is ‘the deceiver’: this is one of his primary weapons!). Therefore, whether it is a woman, or anyone else for that matter, who are more subject to giving in to false teaching and deception, Paul lays forth an important rule that the pastor must not be one who is more susceptible to deception (I’ll return to this in a moment).
Now, we must ask why it is that Paul deemed that women are more susceptible to deception. For a while, I myself concluded that since Paul stated that women are more susceptible to deception, then it must simply be so. However, more recent studies have revealed (beyond the fact that I was naïve among other things) that there are several causes that make a person more susceptible to deception. Among these factors are such things as age (children are more easily deceived than adults), experience, intelligence, and education (the more educated the less likely to be deceived). Note that gender is not a factor! Thus, Paul was not saying that women by nature are more naturally deceived. Why then did Paul say that women are more easily deceived? Considering all the factors that contribute to a person being subject to deception, the only factor that would have been generally, and perhaps almost universally true of women at the time of Paul, is that they were not privileged to the same levels of education as men. As a result, women were, generally speaking, not qualified to serve as pastors.
But, as access to education is made more available to all, including women, then we may conclude that women may well qualify to serve as pastors over men—and many of them are quite qualified. That is why we can have women as scholars, professors, and university presidents today, yet they essentially did not serve such roles in Paul’s day. Paul wasn’t forbidding a woman who lectured on Wednesday from teaching on Sunday. The educational preparation wasn’t there. Now that it is, it stands to reason that Paul would have been willing to allow women to teach the same message on Sunday that they did on Wednesday and to allow them the authority to lead the entire church.
What does this all mean? First off, even if we take Paul’s prohibition as an absolute restriction that excludes women from the office of pastor over men, I do not see any reason why women cannot function as pastors over women and children, or why a woman cannot teach or preach. But, it also does not appear that Paul has given us a timeless edict. He has laid down a principle that cannot be ignored: namely, that whoever serves as a pastor must be educated and prepared so that they are not easily deceived. This would apply to men and women. Anyone who is not educated well enough is more subject to deception (modern studies have confirmed this to be one of the leading factors for deception among adults), and therefore should not be in the office of pastor in the Church. This corresponds with Paul’s list of qualifications in 1 Tim 3 for pastors: including the fact that they cannot be a ‘new convert’ (1 Tim 3:6) and that they must be ‘able to teach’ (1 Tim 3:2). For those who are new converts will be susceptible to deception as they are likely not educated in the teachings of the Church. And those who cannot teach means that they are not qualified with the knowledge of the Word, which also would make them more susceptible to deception.
Why stress this point? Because some of these very churches who adamantly restrict women from being pastors and teachers in the Church based on 1 Tim 2, have men in these positions who are not qualified based on the fact that they lack the education necessary to protect the flock from the deceptions of the devil. The principle, as Paul has set forth in this passage, is that anyone who is more easily deceived cannot serve as pastors and teachers over the Church. Paul simply eliminated all women because in his day they were, generally speaking, not privileged to the education necessary to qualify them for such positions. But, in chapter 3, as we have noted, when he lists the qualifications for pastors, he notes that men who are not educated (i.e., new converts and not able to teach) are similarly excluded from the office of pastor over men.
In all, women have tremendous gifts and callings from the Lord. These gifts and callings are essential to the full growth and edification of the body! It is time that we all recognize them for who they are and what they can bring to the table!
 Cf Acts 18. Note in 18:18, 26, Rom 16:13, and 2 Tim 4:19 her name precedes that of her husband suggesting strongly that she has a more prominent role. 1 Cor 16:19 is an exception where Aquila appears first, but this only makes one wonder more why Priscilla (or Prisca) is listed first in every other occasion.
 Rom 16:1 appears to call Pheobe a deaconess. Though most translations use ‘servant’ here. The calling out of Pheobe itself suggests someone of note. Grammatical considerations also lend towards her being a deacon.
 Acts 21:18-19: they are called prophetesses. One must remember that a prophet in the NT is more than one who receives oracles from the Lord. But they are often associated with teaching and exhorting. Cp Paul’s contrast of those who speak in tongues vs those who prophesy in Acts 14.
 Luke 10:39 has Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him, which is the posture of a disciple. Luke has seemingly depicted her in the role of a disciple.
 Granted that one may contend that perhaps Priscilla may have performed tasks similar to these.
 Other passages do not forbid women from being pastors. 1 Cor 14:34 is discussing abuses in term of disorderly conduct in the church and not roles and functions of authority and does not need to be discussed here.
 My own translation. The Greek is interesting here because the word order reads: “to teach women (the word ‘women’ is in the case that identifies ‘women’ as the object of the verb) I do not permit, nor to have authority over a man”. This suggests that Paul is stressing the words ‘to teach’ and the word ‘women’.
 Titus 2. Note: Paul gives no provisions for Titus on how he is supposed to counsel younger women. Presumably, because this would have been inappropriate.
 Now I am not suggesting that Paul allowed women to be pastors of women in his day because such is an anachronistic thought. It doesn’t appear that they had such roles then. I am suggesting that if Paul were here today in our contemporary western churches he would have had no problem with women being ‘leaders’ of women. You’ll see why below I refrained from using the designation ‘pastor’ here.
 The Greek of 1 Tim 2:13 begins with gar (for) which often states the reason why something is true. That is, Paul is effectively saying, ‘The reason why women cannot be pastors over men is . . . (v 13) and . . . (v 14).
OK Church, get over it. The conception that the prophets were like us. We do Bible studies on Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and the like and we think of them as leaders among the people of God. We memorize their words. We cite them in argumentation. We paste Jer 29:11 as a tag line at the end of emails.
But folks. Though they were leaders among God’s people, the prophets were hated. They were outcasts. They were killed!
Stephen, in his debate with the religious leaders shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus states, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:52).
Yet we read this and assume that Stephen could not be speaking to us. He was speaking to “them” (whoever the “them” may be all we know is that it doesn’t include “us”). Ironically, most of the people to whom Stephen and the prophets were addressing didn’t think they were in the wrong either. They pointed to their fasting and giving and all things apparently religious as proof that they were on the good team. Surely, the people thought, the prophets were speaking to “them” and not “us.”
So, if the “them” back in the day thought that they were the “us”, then shouldn’t we be more cautious about assuming that we the “us” aren’t the “them”? Why should we assume that we are somehow different?
I suppose it all stems from the fact that we always assume that we are the good ones. Since the prophets were the good ones, then they must be part of us. Since the prophets were speaking to the bad ones, they must be talking to “them.”
Jesus Himself warned, “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city” (Matt 23:34). Here again, when we read Jesus, we of course assume that He was speaking to “them” and not “us.”
You see, we all know that we are in league with Jesus. So, we are part of the “us” and Jesus was definitely speaking to “them!” We may even go so far as to assume that we are the ones about whom Jesus was referring when He says that He will send prophets and wise men!
Now, I am not suggesting that we know who the “them” might be today! I just think we ought to be careful to too quickly assume that it aint us. Something I think we don’t even consider.
So, who might the “them” be? Well, if we think about it, the “them” cannot mean the secular world; the state; the people of other religions. After all, when we look at the text we realize that the “them” to whom Jesus was addressing was some of the religious leadership within Israel (the OT people of God). Does it stands to reason then that, if there is an application today, the “them” would similarly be some of the religious leadership of the church (the NT people of God)?
Ouch, that hurts. Since, I myself as a pastor would have to be considered as one who constitutes the “some” of the religious leadership of the church (the NT people of God). Of course, I am a part of the other “some.” But, no one considers themselves today to be a part of this “some.” Which means that the “some” of the religious leadership of the church (the NT people of God) today are actually “none.”
So, maybe it would be good if we regularly step back and assess our place in God’s household—without always assuming that we are the “good.” Now, I don’t say this to suggest that your salvation must be questioned regularly. Or, to have you constantly being introspective to the point that you live in fear. I am, in fact, not even speaking to you (singular), but to you (plural).
My point: as long as we assume that we are the “us” and do not allow ourselves to consider the possibility that we might be the “them”, we will never hear a prophetic message. As a result, we may well continue the pattern of shooting the messenger! Then we will indeed have become the “them”—the very “them” Jesus was warning against.
PS I chose this particular photo of a prophet to accompany this blog because the prophet here is left-handed! Like me! See, I am definitely one of the “us.”—or is it that he is like me?
Jesus is the center of the Apocalypse. Or, perhaps, it may be better stated—Christ is the Apocalypse.
The Book of Revelation opens with the words: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1).
The phrase is actually ambiguous, both in English and in the original Greek. The phrase can be understood to mean: “the revelation that is about Jesus Christ”; or, “the revelation that is from Jesus Christ.” When it comes to something like this the interpreter’s best option is to read the book and see which one makes the most sense. Is the book of Revelation about Jesus or is it from Jesus?
Even after reading the Book of Revelation, however, one is still unsure which option is best. This leads many to conclude, and probably correctly, that John was intentionally unclear and that he wanted us to understand the book of Revelation as both a revelation from Jesus Christ and one that is about Jesus Christ.
But when we say that Revelation is about Jesus what do we mean? Well, that is quite simple: it is about who He is and what He has done. Okay, but what is it that He has done?
Through the pages of the book of Revelation John highlights Jesus’ person and role in terms of three key features: 1) Jesus is God made manifest; and as such He is worthy of the worship due to God alone; 2) Jesus is the fulfiller of God’s promises in that He has accomplished the mission of God’s people; 3) Jesus, as the fulfiller of God’s mission, is the model for the people of God to emulate.
All three of these are vital and will be explored more deeply in future blogs. But for now, I will focus on one aspect of the third point. It is this third point that explains John’s somewhat surprising opening description of Jesus. For, instead of describing Jesus with all the glorious titles that He uses later in the book, John attributes three apparently mundane titles to Jesus: 1) He is “the faithful witness”—likely indicating that He was faithful unto death— 2) He is the One who has overcome death and is therefore “the firstborn from the dead”; 3) He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).
Of all the titles ascribed to Jesus in the book of Revelation, that these three are the first is somewhat astonishing.
The importance of these three titles, however, cannot be underestimated. They serve to highlight John’s message to the churches—as well as to us today. Namely, that, in the same way that Jesus did, so also the people of God must: 1) persevere as faithful witnesses—despite the fact that this may well result in death— 2) knowing that we will also be raised from the dead, 3) and through all this we will reign as the kings of the earth (as C. S. Lewis put it: “we are kings and queens of Narnia!”).
One of the first principles in understanding the book of Revelation is that the book is about Jesus. Knowing this will help us not only understand the book, but also its message for us today. Jesus is “the faithful witness” (Rev 1:5). And as such He is the model that the people of God are to emulate. If one gets anything from reading the book of Revelation may it be: “Go be faithful witnesses just like Jesus!”
I saw a child this week. He was a cute little guy. Maybe 3 years old.
But I was grieved when I saw him. His mom was about 21. She clearly looked at this cute young child as a hindrance. And I am sure that in many ways he was. This poor child, however, was growing up in an environment in which love was not being modelled to him (now, I hope I am wrong about this child. After all, I only saw him briefly. But, nonetheless, I am sure that I am right in regards to many children like him).
I was also grieved because of where I saw this child. We were at the county jail. He was apparently going to see his dad. Three years old and he was already being exposed to the harshness of life.
Now, I know what you might be thinking—because I used to think this way. You see, I used to blame the parents. “If they wouldn’t have had illicit sex then he wouldn’t have been born into such harsh surroundings.” “If his dad didn’t commit crimes then his mom wouldn’t have to work all those hours to provide for him by herself and then to spend here off time visiting his dad in prison.”
The problem, as I am only beginning to learn, is that this child is growing up in an environment in which all the odds were cast against him. As a result, what are the odds that he will learn to make good choices? What are the odds that he will overcome all this? Unfortunately, the statistics are not good.
So, we can blame the parents, right?
But, what if his parents grew up in an environment just like him? What if they never had love modelled to them? What if they too were raised as a hindrance to their mom and dad’s aspirations? What if their parents couldn’t go to school because they had to work endlessly to provide for their kids?
I am learning that it is easy for me to judge them. I can warn them not to have illicit sex. But I grew up in a home in which I was loved. What if these young girls cannot find love anywhere else, so they turn to sex? That doesn’t make it right. But, this is all they have.
My question, then, is where is the Church? Are we looking for ways to provide love to these families? To support them and help the parents through school? To love such kids and give them hope?
Kinda funny to think about, but no one would visit a medical doctor that has no formal medical training. Yet, many go to a church every week where the pastor, who is responsible for their spiritual care, has no formal training.
The way I see it, the Church has too many people in places of authority that should not be. Certainly, many of them are gifted leaders. They may well be called to ministry. But too often they lack the necessary training.
There are three reasons why I believe every pastor should be ordained: that is, why they should have an authorized group of leaders recognize and affirm not simply that they are called, but that they are qualified to lead a congregation (mind you that I am not saying that ordination is fool-proof).
1) Ordination is intended to make sure the pastor is qualified and properly equipped.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. The pastor is to teach and equip the saints. After all, it is the knowledge and application of the Word that is one of the central elements of dynamic spiritual growth in the life of the people of God (cf the “renewing of the mind” Rom 12:2; or, the charge that we are to be “doers of the Word” James 1:22; or the prayer of Jesus that the Father “sanctify them in the Truth, the Word is Truth” John 17:17; see also 1 John 1:10; 2:5, 7, 14).
In addition, we must understand that the weaponry of our enemy is deception. He is the one who “deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9). Jesus constantly warned His disciples about “false prophets” and such. This is a serious matter for the Church.
Since knowing and applying the Word is so vital to the growth of the people of God, and since the main weaponry of our enemy is deception, the Church must be careful not to appoint people to leadership who are ill-equipped to help the people of God in the battle for truth.
2) A denomination determines the doctrine that the pastor and local church must adhere to.
This is meant to ensure that no leader can mislead a congregation. Of course, it still happens. But the point is that safe guards are in place to deal with it. In some of these non-denominational settings a senior leader, who founded the church based on his/her charismatic personality, maintains control over the congregation to the extent that, even if he/she started preaching heresy, they would still maintain enough influence to win the congregation to their side.
In many such instances, there are few persons in the congregation, or even on the staff, who could argue effectively with such a pastor who has strayed. Furthermore, most of these leaders have enough influence to ensure that they are going to win such debates. In a denominational or confessional setting, the pastor is bound by the essential beliefs of that group. Without a denominational structure in place it is much more problematic trying to out a pastor who is espousing suspect theology.
3) What happens if a pastor falls into sin: morally or practically?
Discipline is, unfortunately, a necessary feature of the church. But what if the leader is the one in need of discipline? In many of the rising non-denominational churches today, the pastor/leader is a charismatic figure who founded the church. Disciplining such a person is often-times very difficult. And the aftermath is quite ugly.
In a denominational setting, there is a structure in place to address the pastor who has failed. It may not always work perfectly. But it is designed to protect the pastor, those whom the pastor may be affecting, the larger Church, and the community. Regardless of how charismatic and powerful a voice a leader might have, a denominational setting is more effective in addressing such issues.
The naïve assume that the church they are a part of is immune to such issues. Their leader is different. Maybe so. But, is it fair to place him/her in such a position of potential danger? Is it fair to the congregation, to the leader, and to the community?
I recognize that denominationalism is in many ways dying. The solution cannot be to move away and start all over. Denominations are necessary. We must find a way to reform them.
Two questions: What is the “pillar and support of the Truth” according to Scripture? I have asked many biblical scholars this question and I am amazed that they do not know the answer. Many will say, “Jesus” or “love” (after all those answers work to most questions Christians ask).
How about this one: When Jesus returns who is He going to redeem? Tough question and I suspect that many do not have a quick answer.
The answer to both questions is the Church. (see: 1 Tim 3:15 says, “. . . I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”)
Jesus and Paul had a very high view of the Church. Yet too many think they don’t need the Church. They only need Jesus.
Folks, you cannot have Jesus without the Church. The Church (and here I mean the people of God) is the temple of the living God. The Church is where Christ resides. “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20) refers to the Church. After all, Paul calls it the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). The Church is where God dwells.
I’ll say it again: you cannot leave the Church and have Jesus. (I am sure that there are plenty of “but what about . . .” at this moment. So, let me briefly respond to the general premise of many of them.)
Sure, if some person were to know Christ and end up on a deserted island, they would still have Jesus even though they weren’t part of a local community. But, that person is still a part of the Church. Their absence from a local community was not essentially their choice. I am referring to people who live in a community where churches are present and they refuse to fellowship with them, or they choose to start their own church by first leaving the Church. Sorry, can’t do it.
Indeed the Church has many problems. Unfortunately, many Christians in their attempt to find a solution are actually contributing to the problem.
The solution cannot be to leave the Church. Here are four brief thoughts on how we can begin to save the Church.
Solution 1: We must have the same high view of the Church that Jesus and the New Testament have. This doesn’t mean that we must advocate for high church or some old-fashioned definition of what a church must be. But, we must aim to preserve and protect the Church.
Granted, this is a much more difficult task than defending our local church, or even our own Christian life. Nonetheless, it is the Church for which Christ died! And it is the Church for which Christ will return!
Solution 2: We must learn to move away from our self-centeredness. Church is not for me. Christ didn’t call you or me for our own sakes alone. We were called for a mission: as 1 Peter 2:9 says: you were chosen “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Solution 3: We must leave our consumerist mentality behind. We are part of a church because that is what it means to be a Christian. The local church, however, is not for me. The local church is the gathering of God’s people in order that we might serve one another in love and doing so proclaim Christ.
Solution 4: We must understand that the unity of the Church is fundamental to the mission of Christ and the New Testament.
So no more of this: “I just don’t get anything out of it.” I understand that this is a real issue on some cases. But, the solution cannot be to leave the Church!
Now, I respect the fact that some local churches are just not cutting it. Maybe you need to find another local community in which you can best serve and be served so that you will be able to fulfill your mission as a proclaimer “of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light”! As you make such a move, my encouragement is that you find a local body that is focused on bringing unity to the Church.
The solution must be in our being a solution. We cannot make the problem worse. Maybe it is our job to make the Church better.
You can't! Period. Not because I said so. Because Jesus said so! it is not your decision to start one. It is Christ’s. It is He who said, “I will build My Church” (Matt 16:18).
Now, perhaps you are called to lead a church. I am just saying that you can't start you own!
“But I prayed about this and God has shown me and others many signs that confirm this calling.” You may very well be called to be a lead pastor, but starting a church independent of the Church cannot be what God is calling you to do.
I respect very much your honest and sincere conviction that this is true. But allow me to say several things.
1) I wonder if you might be confusing your general call to ministry and your giftings as a pastor, with a perceived call to start a specific local church.
I am sure that many others around you have come to you and supported your convictions; including men and women who are mature believers. In addition, things are unfolding around you that confirms that it is the work of God: a building has opened up; resources have become available, people have volunteered to help with ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, etc.
But realize first that many others have had the same convictions and signs from God, and have failed miserably. Now, I affirm that failure is not necessarily a sign that God did not call a person. God sometimes calls us to things that will “fail” (in such instances “fail” is a matter of perspective). The point is that such persons were convinced that they were going to build the next successful church, or even megachurch, and it never happened.
2) how many of the people around you that are confirming your call are really adequately trained in Scripture, church government, the history of the Church, theology, etc., to provide this level of counsel?
They may, and in fact I am sure they are, godly men and women. But people can only counsel from the resource of knowledge that they have. If they themselves do not have the adequate training necessary to process all that goes into such a decision, then they cannot possibly provide an authoritative response.
(I realize that I am likely upsetting a lot of people here. And I am sorry. That is not my intent. To use an analogy: a corporate executive should not come to a person who has worked their whole life as a nurse, regardless of whether or not she is a mature believer, and seek advice on how to most effectively move one’s company through a merger. This nurse simply does not have the necessary acumen to counsel in such matters. She may be able to counsel the corporate exec in regards to handling her personal conduct and Christian witness. But she cannot counsel in regards to the nature of running a corporation).
Now, does this mean that one cannot seek godly counsel from other Christians? God forbid. Indeed, in the presence of “many counselors” (Prov 15:22) there is wisdom.
I have three simple premises here. First, the Church was founded by and is built by Christ (“I will build My Church”: Matt 16:18): He commissioned His twelve to build His Church. Secondly, the Church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). Thirdly, the unity of the body is a core desire of Christ (John 17:21).
In light of these, I will contend that one cannot leave the Church and start a church of their own. For, to leave the Church is to leave Christ.
I am referring here to those who independent of any body have gone and started their own church. I understand that such persons believe strongly that they are called to do so. I am not denying that they might even be called to start a church. I am simply saying that the means of doing so cannot be independent of the Church (such persons must simply find a legitimate body to send them).
1) The Church is Christ’s.
That means He rules it. And it means that only He authorizes His agents to lead it. The question, then, is how does Christ appoint others to lead His Church? Does He do so by appealing directly to an individual independent of the Church?; or, does He does so through the Church that He has established? I say it must be the latter.
2) Only those so appointed can lead Christ’s Church.
Scripture indicates that Christ appointed His twelve. Those twelve appointed others. And they others. And so on. If it is Christ’s church, then it is fair enough to say that only Christ can appoint someone to lead it.
In addition, we see that Christ always uses His body to further the Gospel. Hence, it was Ananias who was sent to lay hands on Paul (Acts 9:17); Philip who was called to speak to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40); and Peter was summoned to speak to Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48).
Furthermore, we find in Scripture the principle that one must be appointed for ministry by one who has already been authorized for ministry. The means by which one becomes an official leader of a church is by being anointed by a valid authority. Thus, we find Paul encouraging Timothy not to lay hands on people too quickly (1 Tim 5:22).
The principle, then, is that Jesus appoints His twelve; they appoint others; they appoint others; and so on.
To start one’s own church is like an individual who attempts to start a local franchise without permission of the parent franchise. So, also, Christ has established His Church and given them authority to build His Church. An individual or group cannot come along independent of the Church and start a local church.
3) To start a church independent of the Church is to instantly create disunity in the body.
I recognize that the Church has many issues. But for someone to come along and suppose that they have it all figured out and that they are going to do it right is naïve, arrogant, and ultimately divisive. I won’t relay here the numerous times the Scriptures command us to maintain the unity of the Church. Starting another church simply creates more disunity.
This last point often goes unmentioned in such discussions.
In Ephesians 4, Paul refers to the four-fold offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (the construction of this sentence in Greek confirms that the last two are reflective of one office). The purpose of such leaders is for serve the purpose of “building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). Unfortunately, any church that creates further disunity in the Church has failed in its primary mission.
What is the solution?
We must find a way to reform the Church that already is!
Bottom line: one cannot leave the Church and start a Church. To leave the Church is to leave Christ. For, the Church is the body of Christ on earth (see post “We have too low a view of the Church.”)
So, what do we say about all those churches who have been started on their own? I would say that they are a group of Christians who are gathering together. They may well be doing great things for the Lord. But, by contributing to the disunity of the Church they have also done much harm.
We hear so much talk about the AntiChrist in certain circles of Christianity. He will come to Jerusalem and enter the rebuilt Temple, make a peace treaty with Israel, and then after 3 1/2 years he will break the treaty and force everyone to recieve a mark on their forehead or righthand with the number 666. Well, I would say that the devil, or the deceiver (Rev 12:9), is a lot smarter than this.
Paul, in a somewhat difficult passage (2 Thess 2), says that the 'man of lawlessness' enters into the "Temple of God" and proclaims himself God (2 Thess 2:4). Well, here's the key. The phrase, 'temple of God' occurs 11x in the NT and in every instance it refers to either the body of Christ Himself or to the Church as the body of Christ (Matt 26:61; 1 Cor 3:16, 17(2x); 2 Cor 6:16(2x); 2 Thess 2:4; Rev 3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 19; note the Matt 26:61 passage is not really an exception to this). This means that the 'anti-Christ/man of lawlessness' (assuming for now that they are the same) enters the Church and not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem!
This accords with the rest of the NT. Jesus warned that “false prophets will come to YOU (not ewe) in sheep's clothing” (Matt 7:15). Paul, in what he thought was his last meeting with the elders of Ephesus notes, “savage wolves will come in AMONG you” (Acts 20:29). And we could go on, for throughout the NT we are warned repeatedly that false prophets will enter the Church in order to led astray “if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24).
This is precisely what 1 John is addressing in one of the few references to 'anti-christ' in the NT (the designation 'anti-Christ' appears 5x and only in 1-2 John). John notes that we know that certain people are anti-Christ's because they “went out from us” (1 John 2:18-19).
Thus, the anti-Christ is not some secular person who is empowered by a revived Roman empire or such. Instead, he is a false prophet who endeavors to spread his influence in the Church! This is the NT warning!
If we are looking to Jerusalem for a rebuilt temple, and especially if we think that the anti-Christ will not arise until one is built, then we are looking in the wrong direction! And we have been deceived by the devil!
The fabric upon the which the Bible was penned must be viewed as one garment. The whole Bible coheres and centers around the fact of God’s redemption and restoration of both mankind and the whole of creation.
The book of Revelation is Genesis fulfilled. The entire Bible, in fact, weaves a beautiful story of God’s work in creation and, because of the fall, His subsequent effort to restore His creation.
This is why the Gospel of John begins by quoting Genesis: “In the beginning” (John 1:1). Matthew’s gospel commences with a genealogy (Matt 1:2-17) that clearly serves to identify Jesus with the story of the OT. And why the Gospel of Mark opens with a composite citation (1:2; cf Isa 40:3, Exod 23:20, and Mal 3:1) that clearly intends to identify the coming of John the Baptist as the herald of the coming Christ in terms of the fulfillment of the great promise of the restoration of Israel. And Luke’s opening two chapters contain a plethora of OT citations and allusions.
In each instance, the Gospels are connecting their narratives with the OT story. John, however, takes us one step forward. For, he intends us to not only see Jesus in light of the OT, but also in terms of a new creation. That is, ‘in the beginning’ not only serves to connect the story of Jesus in John with Genesis and the OT, but it is also eschatological—forward looking to the new creation. That is, with the coming of Jesus we have another ‘in the beginning.’
What might this mean for us?
First, it means that in Jesus we have the fulfillment of God's covenant promises (2 Cor 1:20). And we must, therefore, read our Bible's in this light.
Secondly, it means that the 'eschaton' (the end-times) have begun in Jesus. We live in the 'last days'. The 'last days' then are not something to query about as though they are future and distant (or perhaps imminent) and potentially not important. Instead, they are something for us to presently endure.
Finally, the inauguration of the New Creation in Jesus means that our mission as God's people entails the bringing in of the New Creation. We are God's image bearers on earth: and as such we must reign! (of course, reigning in the New Creation is not like the kings of this world (Luke 22:25-30); but entails submission of our very lives to the Kingdom of our Lord (Rev 12:11)).
This year the session (ruling board) at my church has decided that we should focus our attention on “Thy Kingdom Come” (sometimes that King James English just needs to come out). Sounds great. I personally wish that Christ’s Kingdom were here. Now! I want it now! (reminds me of the girl in the new Willie Wonka Movie who bratishly—yes, that is a word: after all, I can make up words if I want because I have a PhD!—says, “but, daddy, I want it now”). That’s the point. We really want the Kingdom and we want it now!
What is God waiting for? Why is He taking so long? I mean it has been two thousand years (well, almost). One of the problems we have with this line of questioning (which many of us are guilty of) is that it begins and ends with a poor understanding of the Kingdom.
The problem is simple. Many of us have been taught that the Kingdom is wholly spiritual. After all, it is the Kingdom of heaven, right? Because of this we have concluded that the spiritual (heaven) is good and the physical (earth) is—well—not as good; or, for some it is bad.
This leads us to a problem. This sort of thinking tells us that only spiritual things really matter. Life itself, however, tells us something different. After all, we need to eat, drink, sleep, work, etc., in order to live.
What many Christians tend to do at this point is to try to live in these two worlds at the same time. One world is the Mon-Sat world. For many, this is the real world. We live, eat, and breathe in this world. The other world is then some sort of spiritual world—the Sunday world. This is the world of religion and spirituality. In this world, we pray and go to church. (Pastors often get befuddled as to how to get their parishioners more involved in the life of the Church: how to get them to pray more; give more; learn more; do more. This conflict will continue, however, as long as we allow ourselves to live as though there really are these two worlds).
The problem here is that this thinking stems from a poor understanding of the Kingdom. Think about it: Is it not true that God is the creator of ALL things (Col 1:16)? Is it not true that through Jesus God is reconciling “to himself ALL things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20)?
Here’s my point. If God is Lord of all, then the Kingdom of God is not some spiritual thing that is detached from the world. Jesus is Lord Monday through Saturday too! This means that working, being in fellowship with others, resting, eating, and praying are all spiritual acts. After all, Adam and Eve worked in the Garden (Gen 2:15); they had fellowship in the Garden; and, they ate in the Garden. Such acts, then, are part of God’s eternal plan. They are not just things we do in this world until someday we escape it. They are all part of God’s kingdom, which are in need of being redeemed and restored.
What does this have to do with Thy Kingdom Come? Everything. The ECO (which is our denomination) document on the Church says, “Before the foundation of the world, God set a plan of mission to reconcile the world to Himself and chose to use the Church as His instrument of reconciliation. It is incumbent upon all members of the body of Christ to participate in the work of building one another up in Christ and be deployed for His work in the world” (ECO Polity 8).”
Therefore, instead of us sitting back and waiting for the Kingdom of God to come, we have been commanded by God to be the agents through which God brings His kingdom. We must learn to view our jobs from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to view our relationships from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to enjoy our food from a kingdom perspective (a kingdom perspective with regard to food would begin by acknowledging God for His provision and would include our recognition of others who may be in need of food). As we do this, the Kingdom of God comes!
Next, we must begin to look at the world around us and realize that it too is in desperate need of being reconciled to God! For, the Kingdom of God comes when we care for the broken in this world. This includes the broken people who need to see that Christ loves them and wants to redeem and restore them. It also includes the brokenness of the creation. After all, God created mankind to care for His creation (Gen 2:15).
In one sense, we have no other options. We cannot say “Thy Kingdom Come” and do nothing. We must do something about the lack of peace in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the children starving in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the brokenness of families in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. And of course, we must do something about the lostness within our neighborhoods and the world.
Thy Kingdom Come is a charge for us to get busy!
Oh. One last thing. We must do all of this with joy in our hearts. After all, we are children of the King and we will get to eat at His table forever!
I wrote a book: "Understanding Eschatology." The subtitle was "Why it Matters!" Most people could seem to care less. I say it is vital, crucial, essential.
The Bible is an incredible and fascinating book. It is far from being merely a list of moral guidelines, or an instruction manual on ‘how to get to heaven in ten easy steps’.
Instead, when read in terms of the overall story of God’s work within creation, it reveals a depth and beauty that transcends comprehension. Unfortunately, for many Christians, the notion of reading and teaching Scripture in terms of the over-arching story of Scripture has been absent.
Instead of understanding the grand narrative and its majestic portrait of God and His redemptive activity, the Bible has unfortunately too often become the repository of ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’. This is not to say that the Bible does not have such an ethical code, but only that in failing to see God’s mission within creation as unveiled in Scripture, we have neglected this vital storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation (from Garden to Garden!), and, in doing so, we run the grand risk of failing to comprehend our role within the story.
It is this story that we need to explore in more depth. For, a proper understanding of eschatology begins with a complete grasp of the entire story of the Old and New Testaments.
When we place the life and ministry of Jesus into the overarching story of God’s mission, then we may begin to discern the eschatological significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And it is here that eschatology, mission, and the biblical story meet. That is, understanding Jesus, both His person and His work, eschatologically and in the context of the biblical story correlates directly to a proper understanding of the mission of God’s people.
And it is here that eschatology becomes relevant for the Church today! Our mission as followers of Christ is to carry forward the mission begun by Christ, which itself was an inauguration of the eschaton (the ‘end’). You see, eschatology is not simply a bunch of ramblings about the future and what will happen, but it is intimately tied to the life of the Church today!
I fully agree that we are supposed to bless Israel (Gen 12:3). And I do believe that God is faithful to His promises. And I think he has: In Jesus! That is, Jesus is Israel. This is fundamental to the NT and to the Bible. Let me make several points:
First, I am quite grieved by the fact that many Christians who engage in this debate are too often not willing to honestly look at Scripture. Regardless of what side we end up on, we must be viewed as people of love who are open and honest. Instead, this issue, perhaps more than any other issue, often engenders more narrow-mindedness and dogmatism among Christians. We as Christians must been seen as those who are pursuing truth in love. If we are found to be wrong on something, then we confess our wrong and move forward. But for some reason we don’t. We embitter ourselves towards one another and in doing so disgrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ; not only towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, but towards the world.
So I ask that you read and discern what I am saying. As I hope to do with any responses. To spew venom and hatred toward one another only makes a mockery of the Kingdom of God.
Now I understand that we have all learned to read the Bible in a certain manner. For those who are reading this and are holding to some of the mainstream views of evangelical Christianity, let me make a couple of opening comments.
I have great respect for much within evangelicalism (I am myself a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and count myself as one of you). Evangelicals tend to have a zeal for God that I wish were be shared by all followers of Christ. They often have a great heart for God, and a great love for Jesus. And they are deeply committed to the Bible. I affirm all of this myself!
My first point is that the manner in which many of you have learned to read the Bible (which is how I too was raised to read it) is not the historical position of the church, nor even the common reading among Christians today. With this in view, I am asking for you to understand this and to try to view things as I am presenting it. See if my approach, which is the traditional view of the Church, not only makes sense of the OT but the NT as well. That is, don’t assume your view for a moment. Instead, see if mine makes sense on the terms in which I am presenting it (i.e., don’t assume that you are right and thereby conclude that I am wrong. Listen to my side with an open mind and evaluate it on its own terms. Such is only fair).
Secondly, this is not simply a question of one person citing various verses and another citing others. Clearly both sides have their arsenal (such is true for most issues upon which Christians debate among themselves). The question is which paradigm (worldview; perspective; approach to reading Scripture) can account for all of the verses in question? This is the essential question! That is, I am not suggesting that based on my ten verses my position is therefore correct. For when we argue this way what is most often left out of the equation is the fact that you too have ten verses that support your position. Instead, I am suggesting that we have been reading the text with the wrong set of lenses. The lenses that we have been wearing make some sense of parts of Scripture but do not truly account for the entirety of the Bible. Furthermore, these lenses are not those that the Church has been using for the last 2,000 years. Instead, they are new, they are the product of a modernist worldview, and they are seriously deficient. So again I ask that you put them aside for a moment and try on this set of lenses and see if the biblical text does not come into clearer focus.
Reading the Bible in light of Jesus
When it comes to questions of prophecy and the fulfillment of OT promises I would suggest that the answer is found by reading the OT in light of the NT; and even more so reading the OT in light of Christ. Sure I believe that the OT stands on its own. That is, we study the OT in light of itself in order to determine what it meant to the audience to whom it was written. But if we want to understand what it meant in light of the whole of God’s revelation we must turn to the NT. For it is clear that Jesus read the OT and saw its fulfillment in light of Himself. This is what Peter was saying when he notes that the OT prophets didn’t fully understand the fulfillment of their prophesies (1 Pet 1:10-12).
Now when we approach the NT we notice that the fulfillment of the OT is not what was expected—especially from a straightforward reading of the OT. We recognize that the Pharisees and leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus. Part of the reason is that they had come to expect the Kingdom of God to look a certain way based on their reading of the OT. But their reading was wrong. It was wrong because they failed to understand that the OT was about Jesus! And since Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, nor their wants and wishes, they were not about to reread the OT in light of Jesus.
It is here that I think that many Christians do that same thing. For example, many of the OT promises to the people of God are clearly applied to Jesus in the NT. This corresponds with the NT’s emphasis that the entire story finds its fulfillment in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24). Jesus testifies to this fact to the two men on the road to Emmaus. For, according to Luke 24 the men were grieved because, as they said, they “were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Now we should note that Luke has already told his readers that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel (Luke 2:25, 38—both Simeon and Anna were looking for this and Luke clearly wants us to see that the baby Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise). So we the readers already know that these two men are missing the significance of Jesus. Luke then tells us that Jesus replied to the men, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Thus, they came to understand that their hopes that Jesus was going to redeem and restore Israel have indeed been fulfilled. The fulfillment, however, came through Jesus’ suffering! This was the part they didn’t get. That the restoration of Israel must happen through suffering. And Jesus has done so. Note, Jesus doesn’t say to them: “I am not here to redeem Israel, but to die for your sins. I will redeem Israel in the future.” No, Jesus gently rebukes them for failing to understand that “all the prophets” have noted; namely, that the restoration of Israel comes through suffering!
Thus, a paradigm shift is needed. The paradigm shift simply necessitates making Jesus and his suffering the center of Scripture. If all is fulfilled in Him (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24) then we too must re-read the OT. If the promises are fulfilled in Christ, then does this mean that we should understand the NT in terms of this fulfillment? Yes. And when we do so, the entire story of Scripture begins to make much more sense.
Thus, when it comes to particular questions such as who are the people of God, we must also ask, ‘how does the NT view such?; or what does the fulfillment of this in Christ look like?’ Here is where many get thrown off. For the fulfillment of these things in the NT does not mean that they have been fulfilled in all their fullness. For that we are awaiting the New Jerusalem.
For many evangelicals this is an ‘either’ ‘or’ set of propositions. That is, either the prophecies have been fulfilled or they haven’t. For them, since the fulfillment does meet their expectations, they have concluded that the fulfillment is still future. But, again, when we read the NT we begin to notice that Jesus has ushered in the beginning of the fulfillment and that He brings about the consummation of all things at His return (1 Cor 15:25).
When we look at the question of who are the people of God, we see that Paul clearly says, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29). Later, Paul notes that Abraham is the “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11). By any reckoning, that makes all Christians, regardless of race, the children of Abraham! Israelites! Jews! Paul goes on to say that, “if those who are of law are heirs, faith if made void and the promise is nullified” (Rom 4:14). Thus, Paul concludes, “For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). Again, that makes all Christians the descendants of Abraham—including any Jewish person who has the faith of Abraham, which is in Christ!
Now let’s keep the question of whether or not there is a future for ethnic Israel also on the shelf for a moment. The point is that Paul clearly sees the people of God are included in the descendants of Abraham—this is what the grafting into the tree of Israel is all about (Rom 11). One only has to look at the word ‘inheritance’ in the NT to see that this word, which was central to the promises of the OT covenant related to land and family, is applied to the Christians in the NT. Paul, in fact, notes that the ‘inheritance’ cannot be based on the law (Gal 3:18).
Furthermore, note that even in the OT God’s people were never tied to a race. For, in the OT the race of Israelites were not all without exception recipients of God’s promises. Paul says this emphatically: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants” (Rom 9:6-7).
Such a reading of the OT also makes sense as to why Isaiah 49 (which is about Israel) is applied both to Jesus (Luke 2:32) and to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:47). We see that the role for Israel in the OT was to be a light unto the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6). Yet, we know that Jesus claims that He is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). And we see that Jesus tells His disciples that they are the light of the world (Matt 5:14). It is both. The fulfillment of the call and mission of Israel is first Jesus and then His followers. Now this may not look like the grandiose fulfillment promised in the OT. But Jesus Himself told us that the Kingdom of God will begin in an insignificant manner (like a mustard seed; Mark 4:30-32) and then will become “larger than all the garden plants” (Mark 4:32). Thus, the fulfillment has come in Christ, continues through the Church by means of the Spirit, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. This mission will be accomplished only in the New Jerusalem; when those from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, stand before the throne” (Rev 7:9).
We can affirm this understanding throughout the NT. Thus, Ephesians 2:11-3:6 encourages the Gentiles that they are included into the family of God! Paul begins by equating the Gentiles with those who had no share in the land-kinship of Israel (2:12). Then Paul describes the work of Christ as breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and its consequences: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, . . . but are of God’s household” (Eph 2:19; cf Mark 3:34-35). Finally, Paul summarizes their new position as ‘fellow heirs’, ‘fellow members’, ‘fellow partakers’ (Eph 3:6).
Peter, also calls the NT people of God, “a holy priesthood; . . . A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:5, 9). These titles are exclusively used in the OT for the people of Israel (Chosen Race: see Isa 43:16-20—text notes that YHWH provides for His people in the midst of adversity; Royal priesthood: see Exod 19:5-6—text also alludes to God’s deliverance of His people from bondage; People for God’s own possession: cp Exod 19:5; Isa 43:21; Mal 3:17). Thus, the NT views this as fulfilled in the inclusion of the Gentiles through the work of Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: when we read the OT through the lens of Jesus, as I believe that NT writers did, then we can see clearly that the fulfillment of the OT begins in Jesus, continues through the NT people of God, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. To suggest that the promises to Israel still apply to an ethnic race fail to understand the fulfillment in Jesus and the nature of the fulfillment. Yes, this may not be what we expected. But, we also see that the fulfillment transcends what we might have expected. Therefore, if the fulfillment for the call of Israel is in Christ, His people, and the New Jerusalem, and the promise was that those who bless/curse Israel God will bless/curse, then we should expect to see this principle carried forth in the NT. And we do. This is the essence of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where God rewards or punishes men for how they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matt 25:40, 45). And this theme runs through the book of Revelation where the judgment of the wicked is because of how they have treated God’s people (e.g., Rev 6:10; 16:5-6; 17:6-18:24).
Thus, to bless Israel means to bless the God’s people; and in the NT God’s people transcend any given race.
This is an easy one. No. Unequivocally. Emphatically. Unquestioningly. Unhesitatingly. No. To be anti-Semitic is to be unchristian.
I am also not anti-Palestinian (many of whom ironically are Semitic); nor am I anti-Jew; nor anti-Muslim; nor anti-US. Nor anti-anything! I suppose one might suggest that I am anti-anti—and therefore, I am anti-something.
But let’s take this a little further. It is commonly asserted that to criticize Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians is to be anti-Semitic. And the world is rightly cautious of anti-Semitism being only three generations removed from one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the holocaust. Understandable.
But I would assert that if you truly love someone, then you will hold them accountable for their actions. To turn a blind eye toward the ill behavior of anyone is unloving. The author of Hebrews notes: ‘for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness’ (Heb 12:7-11)
To love someone, then, means that you believe that they are a being of value. And as such they need to be held accountable for their actions. The child that is not held accountable for their actions will only continue on the path of their destructive behavior—and this to their own detriment!
Therefore, to call attention to Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians is to love Israel and the Palestinians (and I would add the US). It is also then an act of love on our part to reach out to those Christians who are blindly supporting Israel and in effect helping to perpetuating this conflict. They need to understand the serious harm that is occurring as a result of such views: harm to both Israel and Palestine, as well as to the people themselves—some of whom are our Christian brothers and sisters.
Therefore, it is, in actually, those who are advocating for the unquestioning support of Israel, and who turn their backs on the injustices perpetrated by the state of Israel, that are acting in an unloving manner towards Israel.
The answer to the title of this article should be clear. We should not bless any nation, or even any person for that matter, unquestioningly. We don’t bless our own children when they do wrong. So, why should we bless a nation regardless of their behavior? Furthermore, to bless our own children even when they do wrong is to hate them. For to do so, would be to teach them that they can do wrong without consequences. This is not love.
Love acknowledges that one is made in the image of God and knows better. We don’t hold people accountable for their actions only when we deem that they didn’t know better, or that they were unable to do better. But the nation of Israel knows better and they are able to do better. Thus, regardless of our view of Israel and prophecy we cannot simply endorse unquestioningly the behavior of Israel. To suggest that ethnic Israel is still a part of God’s plan and, thus, we must bless them regardless of what they do is fundamentally against Scripture.
For one, the prophets taught that election alone was not sufficient, but that they must do justice. Israel was never immune from God’s judgment: “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). The Israelites who were not obedient to God’s law were not blessed. Thus, the unfaithful Israelites died in the wilderness. And those who didn’t put blood on their doorposts also lost their firstborn. This is the entire basis for the OT covenant—and the essence of any covenant relationship. If Israel wants to receive the blessings of the covenant then they must obey the covenant (Deut 27-30).
Thus, if Israel doesn’t obey the covenant then they will never receive the blessings of the covenant; but only the curses! This is fundamental to the OT and the nature of God. “But if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, if, instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant, I, in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also, you shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies shall eat it up. And I will set My face against you so that you shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you. If also after these things, you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins” (Lev 26:14-18). (we could cite dozens of verses like this).
Leviticus goes on the say (as does Deuteronomy; which forms the basis for the books of Joshua-Kings), that the land will ‘spew’ them out if they are unfaithful (Lev 18:28; 20:22). Now, if God kicked them out of the land when they did not obey His covenant, which included justice to the foreigner (Lev 19:33 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong”), then why should we turn our face from what modern day Israel is doing?—or even attempt to justify it by the supposed fact that they are God’s chosen people? God never unquestioningly blesses Israel regardless of their behavior: so why should anyone suggest that suddenly we must do so? In fact, if we love Israel we will not let them get away with injustice, because will punish them.
Secondly, even if we thought that Israel was to be restored to the land, we must also recognized that they are still to be held to standards of justice. This is unquestioningly the message of the prophets. They repeatedly affirm, “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa 58:6-7). If a prophet were to hear his people respond, ‘But, Israel is God’s chosen race!’ I think that would have torn out their hair and cried! For, even if they are still God’s people, then this would only serve the point more forcefully: for as the people of God they know better and are accountable for their actions.
Now we must be very careful to call injustice for what it is. And we must never support it. For, just as God held the Israelites accountable, so too will He hold His Church accountable. This is the point. For, even if we were to conclude that there is a future for ethnic Israel in God’s plan, that does not mean that we should endorse everything they do.
I am very fearful that many Christians are so concerned to support Israel because of their conviction of a divine commandment to do so, that they are unwilling to see injustice for what it is. Have we looked at the face of injustice and concluded, ‘but they are God’s chosen people’? But the displacement of people is wrong. Demolishing their homes and stealing their lands and depriving them of human dignity is wrong! And when wrong happens God’s people must call it wrong. We must be a voice for those who are suffering. Especially when those who are suffering includes Christians!
In fact, if we believe in the covenant faithfulness of God, then we must not suppose that He will excuse the NT people of God when they commit (or permit) injustice. We too will be held accountable before Him. Psalm 82 still speaks for the heart of God: ‘How long will you judge unjustly And show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked’ (Ps 82:2-4)
Thus, when someone says that they think it is dangerous to not support Israel, I think they are missing two important factors. First, to support Israel is to love them (regardless of whether they are chosen or not; as we are to love all people). To love them is to not allow them to get away with injustice. To do so is to allow them to fall under the condemnation of God. This position is far more loving toward Israel. Secondly, to support Israel at all costs and to allow them to suppress and oppress the people of Palestine, some of whom are Christians, is to place oneself under the judgment of God—who always sides with His people when they are the oppressed (again, please recognize that we do not intend to suppose that the Palestinians are innocent in all matters. They too have committed crimes. Nor, do we suppose that Israel is not justified in some of their acts. They do have a right to defend themselves. But we must acknowledge that Israel has perpetrated crimes against the Palestinians and are breaking numerous international laws).
I am somewhat amazed by the apathy of many in the Church towards matters of injustice and in particular the injustices with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Some respond with the supposition that this conflict has been going on for thousands of years (not true—it goes back no longer than a century): so, these Christians inquire, why should we think that we can solve it? Others suggest that we should only be involved in spiritual matters and not politics.
How might we respond?
Wow! Can we really sweep this entire issue under the carpet and assume that God will allow us to remain uninvolved since we are attending to spiritual matters? (ironically many who put forth these sentiments advocate vociferously for various political stances that take a very strong line towards this issue. So, on the one hand, they suggest that we must stay out of politics, and, on the other hand, they radically support a political position that has major irons in the political fire). Allow me to note three points in response.
First, the suggestion that this is a political issue that should not affect the Church, which should be engaged in spiritual matters, is a statement of profound misunderstanding. This conception is reflective of a modernist worldview that has greatly impacted the church’s thinking in many such ways. We have dealt with this in other essays so we will not take the space here to do so. But let it be noted that this is a highly unbiblical, secular worldview that seeks to place into separate realms, in manners that contravene Scripture, the physical and the spiritual (this is the same reasoning used by the secular scientific world that suggests that science and religion are separate spheres that do not overlap. The secular world might be able to reason this way, but the Church cannot).
Secondly, the Bible is very political. The Gospel of Mark begins, “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). This opening is a highly politicized statement that confronted Rome in every regard. In 9 BC, the word gospel was used to announce the birth of Caesar Augustus: ‘a son of a god’ (Augustus’ adopted father, Julius Caesar, was proclaimed god after his death; making Augustus ‘a son of a god’). Mark instead contends that Jesus’ birth is the Gospel of ‘THE Son of THE God.’ Mark’s opening is a direct assault on the claims of the Roman emperor. And wasn’t Jesus crucified for being a King! To say that His kingdom is not of this world, also fails to understand the nature of His Kingdom; which is one in which all the kingdoms of the world will bow (Dan 2 and Dan 7). We could go on with Moses before the Pharaoh; Daniel before the Kings of Babylon; Paul before Caesar, all of whom confronted the political powers of the day on behalf of the people of God. Shall we now reject Martin Luther King Jr as someone who transcended his spiritual responsibilities? Or what about William Wilberforce? Was not their political engagement the means by which these men, and countless others, demonstrated their witness to the world. That is, they attended to spiritual matters precisely by confronting the political powers.
Martin Luther King said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.”
Thirdly, this is a Church issue, in which Christians, who are caught on both sides, are suffering greatly—especially as a result of the occupation of Palestine. I have argue in These Brothers of Mine that in the Gospel of Matthew the phrases ‘brothers of mine’ and ‘least of these’ are used always for followers of Jesus—indeed the phrase ‘Least of these’ in Matthew without exception refers to disciples (Matt: 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14; 5:19; 11:11) and ‘brothers of mine’ throughout Matthew always indicates followers of Christ (5:22-24, 47; 7:3-5; 12:48-50; 18:15, 21, 35; 23:8; 28:10). From this I believe that we should conclude that Jesus is affirming that whatever we do to Christians we do to Him. And if we do not meet the needs of the Church, then we are not meeting the needs of Christ! It is at this point that I don’t think that Christians have you seen the force of what Jesus is saying. The point is that when Jesus returns, according to Matthew’s account, He will separate the sheep from the goats and the primary factor as to which side we are on is how we treat the body of Christ (this of course does not mean that our treatment of unbelievers is irrelevant; only that our primary responsibility is towards the body of Christ).
This is a fundamental principle in Scripture. For example, in 1 John we see the reiteration throughout the letter that we must love ‘one another’ (1 John 3:10, 11, 14, 16, 23—throughout this section John clearly has the Church in view). This point also corresponds with the message of Revelation. For, in Revelation one of the major themes is that the dragon wages war against God (Rev 12-13; esp 13:6). He does so, not by fighting God, for that would be futile, but by attacking God’s children (Rev 13:6)! And, in Revelation, God’s children are not the race of ethnic Jews, but they are the followers of Jesus. Hence, Rev 12 says that the dragon pursued the “offspring of the woman”, who are then defined as those “who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:17).
So then we must decide if we are to be involved in what is indeed an issue with political implications. To do so in favor of justice and the Christians who are suffering is to side with Christ. To not do so, or to advocate for the oppressor, is to side with the dragon. We have no choice here!
Furthermore, it is also a Church issue because the Church has been involved in politics! Evangelical Christians and their view that Israel is the chosen people of God whom we must bless at all costs (see my posts ‘Do we bless Israel unquestioningly’ and ‘Loving Israel means to hold them to standards of Justice’), have influenced greatly US foreign policy on this matter. That is, we have been involved in politics by supporting Israel unquestioningly and by affecting US foreign policy in the Middle East. US tax payers have given over $100 billion to the state of Israel. We are largely funding this conflict. The nature of a democracy is such that the ultimate responsibilities for the nation’s actions lie with the people. As a result we are engaged politically and we are supporting the injustices against the Palestinians, some of whom are Christians. Now, we have rightly condemned the Palestinians when they commit crimes against Israel. But why don’t we condemn Israel when they commit atrocities against humanity? Because we are not to be engaged in political matters but only spiritual matters? I am not sure that I would encourage anyone to espouse such a notion.
Therefore, we must stand up for our brothers and sisters in Christ and care for them. Period. Always. To not do so is to deny the Gospel. To not stand up for our brothers and sisters in Christ is to stand opposed to Jesus. For whatever we do to His followers we do to Him.
To say that we cannot bother ourselves with politics is both naïve and in this instance dangerous.
I was a fundamentalist. A hard-core, convicted fundamentalist. Fill in the blank with whatever cliché you want and it’s likely true. I was a sincere follower of Christ all along. Many fundamentalists are. They are good people.
My problem was simple—well, it was actually very complex but it came down to glaring problem: without realizing it, came to learn that I held to a worldview that had put God in a box. It was a strong box. I held it close to me and I loved this box. I was convinced that we knew everything we needed to know about God. I had a master’s degree in Apologetics to prove it. I felt I could answer any question. My Bible indeed told me so.
If you have never been a fundamentalist this may sound a bit over the top. But I assure you that I really believed that we absolutely had all the answers, or at least knew where to find them. I was truly convinced that the way in which I thought was true. Therefore, all of my conclusions were true. Others who disagreed simply didn’t have the right assumptions. So, naturally their conclusions were false.
Then I went on to pursue a PhD in biblical interpretation. But before I left one of my mentors advised me: “don’t let them make you a liberal.” I always struggled with that. It stayed with me. I thought, really? That’s what I am supposed to worry about? It was as if he was alerting me that my convictions might not be as solid as I had always thought.
As I moved along in my studies my box seemed less agreeable and problems began to surface. My Bible was not acting the way it was supposed to.
The more I studied the more I realized that Jesus, Paul, and Moses thought like people of their time. That might seem like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t for me at the time. It was a revelation. This meant that they didn’t hold to the same modernist assumptions that I held and that were passed on to me in my fundamentalist upbringing. Those “truths” began to come apart within one semester. This troubled me for some time.
I came to realize that my worldview was also a product of my era, and I was placing those expectations on the Bible. I knew what I believed and was convinced that it was true. But suddenly things weren’t fitting too well. Moses didn’t write Genesis to provide us details as to how God created the world. Moses wrote to an Israelite people who had come out of Egyptian slavery having worshipped the gods of Egypt for 400 years. Moses wasn’t answering modern scientific questions. He was answering ancient questions. Yahweh, and not the gods, did it was his answer.
One day, as I stood contemplating these matters, I had an epiphany. It was a real life epiphany. This process had brought me to the clear realization that in my worldview I had been standing outside the box with God and the Bible inside it. But now I was beginning to come to terms with something too obvious to say: God wasn’t in a box. I was! God is the transcendent Creator. I am the finite, created being.
This hit me hard. But it was also unbelievably freeing! I was suddenly free from the fear of making it all fit. Free from the dogma that needed to make everyone else wrong. I realized that I was actually free from having to play the role of God. As a fundamentalist, I had actually made myself God. Now, I could be free to let God be God.
My faith in Christ and trust in the Bible are not weaker, but deeper and richer now that I have given up the reigns. Jesus Christ is Lord and we are not!
A few years ago we conducted a seminar on understanding the ‘end-times’ in Scripture, and why and how it matters for our lives. I opened the seminar by asking, ‘What do you suppose is the most significant question that Jesus asked regarding His return?’ The answer, I believe, is found in Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the Earth?"
So, I wish to examine why an understanding of biblical eschatology (the ‘end-times’) is essential in the process of making disciples. You may already see the relationship. But in case you don’t, let’s explore.
First off, we must note that an important aspect of discipleship (which incorporated then what may now be understood as an apprenticeship) takes the form of imitating Christ. This is part of what is entailed in Jesus’ charge: ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Mark 8:34). But what does it mean to imitate/follow Him?
Here is where a proper understanding of discipleship must include a proper understanding of our mission. So what is our mission? Let us suggest that we find the root of it in Genesis, where we can summarize as follows: mankind’s’ mission includes ‘ruling over God’s creation’ (Gen 1:28), ‘caring for His creation’ (Gen 2:15-16), and ‘bearing God’s image to the world’ (Gen 1:26-27—though in light of the Fall in Gen 3 our bearing God’s image to the world now includes making Him known to our fellow mankind).
As we continue in Genesis we find that Abraham was called to be the means by which God would redeem mankind and bring about the promised restoration in order that mankind might fulfill God’s purpose (Gen 12:1-3). Now, we know from the NT that Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (e.g., Gal 3:13-14; 2 Cor 1:20). We must also note that the commission to Abraham included blessing the nations: ‘. . . and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ (Gen 12:3).*
It was this failure to bless the nations that brought the condemnation of the prophets on Israel. And this was also the source of Jesus’ judgment on the leadership of His day. This was, in fact, a central reason for Jesus’ actions of judgment in the Temple (cf Matt 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46). For, in the midst of His overthrowing the tables and creating a stir in the Temple Jesus cites Isa 56:7: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for the nations’ (Mark 11:17).
Yet, interestingly, when we look at the ministry of Jesus in the four Gospels, we note that He seems to intentionally limit His ministry to Israel. On one occasion, in fact, He states, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15:24). So, if in Jesus we find the fulfillment of God’s call to Abraham and the promised blessing to the nations, then why is it that He didn’t extend His ministry to the nations? Answer: because that is what He commissioned His disciples—and us—to do! That is, the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) calls the NT people of God to carry forward to all nations the mission that Jesus inaugurated.
Therefore, an understanding of Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT and His ushering in the ‘last days’ is essential for the understanding of our mission and what it means to make disciples of all nations! If we are His disciples, then we will follow Him. Among other things, following Him includes fulfilling the mission of God’s people to bear His image to the world.
So are we being faithful? Will Christ find faith when He returns? The answer is found by asking if we are making disciples in fulfillment of God’s call for His people.
In my first article I wrote about the danger of the obsession with the ‘End-Times’ and how many are caught up in the hysteria that accompanies it. I closed the article with this charge: ‘So, are we spending our time becoming disciples of Christ who are prepared to face the tribulations inherent in living as kings and priests for His kingdom? Or, are we overly enamored with speculations about ‘the end’?’
This leads me to an essential declaration for the Church: we are called to be disciples of Christ. The problem for many is that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Gospel is and what it means to be a disciple. What do I mean?
First off, the Gospel is, among other things, the declaration that Jesus is Lord of all. We did not simply come to faith in Christ by merely asking Him into our hearts; as though that were to mean that He did not become Lord of all of our lives. The Kingdom does not work this way. We must surrender everything (Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-27: ‘a man must deny himself’) or we ‘cannot be his disciples’ (Luke 14:26-33). Jesus said that we cannot love God and mammon (Matt 6:24).
Understanding the fact that we either give our allegiance to ‘Christ as Lord’ or to ‘ourselves as Lord’ is central to the Gospel. Surrendering everything to Christ is just that a total surrendering in every way of everything.
This leads to my second point. Once we have done such we have begun a journey of discipleship. I stress begun because often times after coming to faith in Christ we live as though we have arrived. All one must seemingly do now is wait to die and go to heaven. This thinking is not only mistaken, but causes one to miss all the joys of living as kingdom people!
Paul tells the Colossians that he is ‘admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ’ (Col 1:28). The word ‘that’ in the Greek indicates purpose. That is, Paul is admonishing and teaching everyone in order that all men might become complete. The word of ‘complete’ [NAS] (or ‘mature’ [ESV, NET], ‘perfect’ [NIV, NJK]) suggests a process. Paul notes in Phil 3:12-13 that he has not yet attained the status of ‘complete’.
All this indicates that the Christian life is one of a journey. We begin this journey by submission to Jesus as Lord. We are enabled to do such by means of His atoning sacrifice: i.e., His life, death, and resurrection. But that is not the end, but merely the beginning. We are now endeavoring to become His image bearers as we grow in discipleship.
But, how then does one grow in discipleship? This is indeed a large question. Space will allow me to briefly explore only one key factor in our spiritual development.
Note that Paul says in Colossians 1 that he is ‘admonishing and teaching’ them in order that they might become complete. These are indeed two important aspects of the journey of being a disciple of Christ. The verbal root for the word ‘admonish’ [NAS, NIV] (‘warning’ [ESV, NJK]; ‘instructing’ [NET] entails a putting one’s mind to a proper order (which suggests that it is not now in order). The second verbal root is ‘teaching’ (all major translations). What do these two suggest? They strongly connote that all followers of Christ are to seek to become ‘complete/perfect’ in Christ by means of sound instruction and growth in the Word of God!
How does this relate to eschatology (the end-times)? The New Testament clearly teaches that there are two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world. These two kingdoms are at war. We were once slaves to the kingdom of this world and its god, the devil. Now we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and called to wage war as members of His Kingdom. We cannot sit idly by. In warfare, the enemy will continue to attack whether we are prepared to participate or not. One means of preparation for battle is to grow in discipleship.
When are all the speculations regarding ‘Eschatology’ going to ‘end’?
Sorry for the pun. But we have so much talk about the end of the world beginning to circulate again with the ‘prediction’ of 2011 by a well known radio preacher, as well as the secular interest in 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar.
My first thought is to wonder when will the church begin to learn from its lessons in the past? Don’t we as Christians realize that hardly a generation has gone by in the last 2,000 years where various individuals or groups have attempted over to determine the date and time of Jesus’ return? One only has to go to the New Testament itself to see that Paul was constantly battling false teachers in his congregations who espoused various speculations about the return of Jesus (see especially 1-2 Thessalonians).
All this despite the explicit teaching of Jesus that ‘no one knows’ (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32) the time of His return (Now some have suggested that we may know the week or month of Jesus’ return, just not the ‘day’. However, the fact that Jesus used the terms ‘day’, ‘time’, and ‘hour’ interchangeably in Matt 24:42-51 suggests that He indeed meant that no one would know the time period at all).
Why then, one might ask, do we have in the New Testament so much teaching about the return of Jesus and ‘signs of the times’? And what are the key features of the New Testament’s teaching on the ‘end-times’? Space will only allow me to make a few brief observations.
First, I think that most of the current dialogue about ‘eschatology’ (or the ‘end-times’) in our churches fails to understand the nature of eschatology in light of the New Testament. For many Christians today, eschatology is a wholly future prospect. In the New Testament, however, eschatology is present and future. It was present in that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, as well as the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, were eschatological events. I will write more in subsequent articles on this point. Let me just note for now that in the account of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), Peter explains to the people that the events that have transpired are the fulfillments of prophecy. Peter then quotes an eschatological passage from Joel, which notes, ‘and it will be in the last days . . . . (Joel 2:28-32; cf Acts 2:17-21). Peter exclaims that the present events that have been manifested amongst those gathered in the Name of Christ are a fulfillment of this eschatological passage!
Secondly, the present aspect of eschatology in the NT is also affirmed in that one of the key elements of the book of Revelation is the truth that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has ‘overcome’ (Rev 5:5). That is, Jesus has already won! And now we are to live in the aftermath of His victory as ‘kings and priests’ (Rev 1:6)! Now I am not denying or even addressing the issue of whether the book of Revelation addresses the future. What I am suggesting is that NT eschatology absolutely deals with the present. And as kings and priests we have a job to do! Fundamentally, this job is to proclaim that Jesus is Lord to a world that has its own kings and lords.
This brings us to our final consideration of the present aspect of NT eschatology. Namely, Jesus’ explicit warnings to His disciples that the time between the first coming of Christ and His return, in which they live as kings and priests, will be plagued by difficulty and hardship. This warning is very apparent when we read Jesus’ eschatological sermon in Mark 13 (or Matt 24, or Luke 21) and note the commands/imperatives. They include: ‘watch that no on leads you astray’ (13:5: all translations here are my own); ‘do not be afraid’ (13:7); ‘watch for yourselves’ (13:9); ‘do not be anxious’ (13:11); ‘but pray’ (13:18); ‘do not believe it’ (13:21); ‘watch’ (13:23). Mark 13 then closes with a series of commands/imperatives: ‘watch, stay awake’ (13:33); ‘therefore, be on the alert’ (13:35); and ‘be on the alert’ (13:37). This shows that Jesus understood well the adversity that His followers would face and the necessity for them to be prepared to face these challenges. Paul, in fact, affirms that ‘through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22).
Now it is not wrong for us to anticipate the return of Jesus. But if we spend so much effort looking for the signs of the times and failing to live faithfully today, then our efforts are misdirected. As Christians, we are to work today for His Kingdom knowing that ‘tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’ (Matt 6:34: NAS).
So, are we spending our time becoming disciples of Christ who are prepared to face the tribulations inherent in living as kings and priests for His kingdom? Or, are we overly enamored with speculations about ‘the end’?