It doesn’t get more basic that this: “What is the gospel?” The answer is pretty simple; yet, I suspect that many Christians would have a hard time coming up with an answer. I was at a conference recently with 5,000 church planters—mostly from evangelical backgrounds. During one of the breakout sessions the speaker commented that if he were to ask those in attendance “what is the gospel?”, he would likely get a hundred different answers from the hundred people that were in the room. I was, in one sense, flabergasted, and in another, grieved.
I was flabergasted and grieved by the notion that the church has become so shallow that a hundred pastors and church planters could not come to any consensus on what the gospel is! Now I do believe that this speaker was overstating his point. But, at the same time, I do suspect that many in that room would have had trouble articulating what the gospel is!
If that weren’t enough, I became significantly more flabergasted when this speaker went on to define the gospel. He said, I define the gospel as, “radically transforming the world.” I am serious. This was his answer. Note, there was no Jesus in his answer. I immediately thought to myself, “what makes this statement uniquely Christian?” After all, wouldn’t most religions aspire to “radically transform the world?” I then commented to someone next to me, “Hitler did that!” Which apparently caused them to suddenly realize the emptiness of his defnition.
I am not sure what was worse: his pathetic attempt to define the gospel in such a way it fails to distinguish it from a corporation, tyrant, or any other religious group’s mission statement; or the fact that most of the 100 pastors and church planters “oohed” and “awed” after he made this declaration!
I am not saying that there is one definition of the gospel that all Christians adhere to. Of course, it would be nice if this were so. There are, however, core, essential elements of the gospel that underlie the Christian faith. So, what is the Gospel?
The gospel is quite simply that “Jesus is Lord.” This may seem quite simple, but the implications of it are profound. For one, if Jesus is Lord, then no other king, president, or world leader is! Furthermore, if Jesus is Lord, then I am not! If Jesus is Lord, then neither is wealth, power, sex, drugs, nor alcohol. If Jesus is Lord, then my pride is not.
It seems so easy to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Yet, upon further examination, we quickly realize that this is the most difficult task humankind has before them. Will we deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Him?
There are two words that cannot be uttered to God in the same sentence: “no” and “Lord.” If He is Lord, then we cannot say “no” to Him. If we say, “no” to Him, then we are denying that He is Lord.
The relationship between doctrines/teaching and obedience is inseparable. Generally speaking, one cannot obey Jesus unless one first knows Jesus; and one cannot do the will of God, unless one knows the will of God.
Now, in saying this, I do not deny that there is a problem on both sides of the spectrum. On one side, there is way to much theological debate within the church and not enough doing the Gospel. On the other side, however, those who are actively doing the “Gospel” apart from theology and knowing Jesus are not any better off.
I hear way too often the notion that we do not need to be concerned with the words of Jesus but with doing the works of Jesus. In fact, just this last week I was at a conference where a speaker gave a impassioned plea to stop worrying about theology and doctrine and to simply get busy doing the work of the kingdom. Now let me acknowledge that there is a sense in which I not only understand the motivation behind the presentation, but even to some extent agree with the thrust of the message.
The problem with this message is that it was presented as an emphatic either-or-proposition. Either we spend our efforts on understanding the teachings of Jesus, or we spend our efforts doing the deeds of Jesus. The problems with this line of thinking are numerous. I will try to keep this brief.
First, there is the logical inconsistency (the argument is self-defeating) in that they must teach us that we don’t need teaching. The presentation I heard this week was a 20 minute passionate plea to stop talking about Jesus and start obeying Him. Hmm?
Secondly, the Scriptures are clear that learning precedes obedience. Ironically, another speaker at the same conference, who not only applauded the previous speaker, but also went on to scorn the role of seminaries in training leaders, used an illustration from the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) to support her argument. The problem here, and this speaker apparently failed to notice, that in the story Mary (the learner) was praised by Jesus (“Mary has chosen what is better”), while Martha (the doer) was reproved.
One does not have to look hard to find that the role of preaching is foundational to the Church (see the book of Acts). And we could cite Romans 12:1-2 (“renewing of your mind”) as well as John 8:32 (“and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”), and 22:27 (“love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”), and a plethora of other such references.
Thirdly, to deny theology its proper place leads quite easily to the problem of identifying what Jesus one is following. If it is true that Jesus is the way, then there remains a valid and necessary place for theological dialogue. (Again, let me affirm that there is indeed to much theological bantering going on in many places within the Church). But it is essential to know which Jesus we are following.
A symptom of the problem inherit in this theology v action thinking was evident in one of the breakouts I attended at this conference. One of the speakers defined the gospel as “radically transforming the world.” What? There was no Jesus or anything explicitly, or implicitly, involved in this definition. Does he not realize that Hitler “radically transformed the world?” Many people radically transform the world. This is not the Gospel! The Gospel is that Jesus is Lord; and Hitler is not! The Gospel includes the fact that Jesus is in process of radically transforming the world. But to leave Jesus out of a definition of the Gospel is incredulous!
Now, I must close by reiterating that I fully affirm that there is way too much debate and theological rancor in many Christian circles. There are many churches that need to get beyond “knowing” Jesus—as regard intellectual assent—and get busy with imitating Jesus. The point is that one cannot do the deeds of Jesus unless one knows Him and are doing His deeds.
Colossians 1:28 “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
I am writing this article on Sept 20, 2017. If you are reading this article after Sept 23, 2017, then I am right again! The world did not end. I knew it! You can tell me later how smart I am! Ok. Just kidding.
In case you are not aware, the latest date for the end of the world is/was Sept 23, 2017. On this date there will be an alignment of the sun, moon, and certain stars that have led some to believe that Revelation 12 is being fulfilled. First off, let me say that Revelation 12 has nothing to do with astronomical features.
Secondly, when it comes to the issue of the Second Coming of Christ, the focus of the New Testament is not the timing of Jesus’ return; nor even, the signs that indicate that His return is near. Instead, the New Testament is far more concerned with: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). That is, will we be ready when He returns? So, we must ask ourselves: are we being faithful?; so that, if Christ were to return at this moment, will He find us doing the work of the Kingdom for which we have been assigned?
So, when is Jesus going to return? Well, I can’t actually tell you or I would have to. . . .
Let me just say that the Bible is far more concerned with the mission of God’s people in building His Kingdom. In fact, I would say that the message of the New Testament is clear: the return of Jesus is awaiting the faithfulness of God’s people in accomplishing His mission. Once we have completed such, by His grace, then Christ will return.
The New Testament provides three interrelated reasons for the delay in Jesus’ return. First, the delay in the return of Christ derives from the mercy of God, who is waiting for all men to be saved. In 2 Peter, Peter provides an explanation as to the delay in Christ’s return. Apparently, some skeptics were mocking the Christians because Christ had not returned. Peter replies, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Thus, in His infinite mercy, God has determined that the climax of the Kingdom of God will occur when the nations have been redeemed.
A second reason found in the New Testament for the delay in the return of Christ is that God is awaiting the fullness of the suffering of the people of God. This might not come across as good news to the Church, but the Scriptures indicate that Christ will not return until the suffering of God’s people is completed. In Revelation 6, we see the souls of those who have been martyred for the kingdom of God crying out to God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10). The answer to their prayers comes in the next verse: “And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also” (Rev 6:11). That is, Jesus will not return until all those who have been killed for the gospel have been killed.
The third reason found in the New Testament for the delay in Christ’s return is that Christ is awaiting the holiness of God’s people. Second Peter also notes that, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Pet 3:10-12). This is of great importance. Instead of focusing on the newspapers and the signs of times, the Bible exhorts us to live godly lives! In fact, Peter says that the return of Christ is not only awaiting the holiness of His people, but that such holiness among the people of God may even ‘hasten’ (or quicken) the day of His return!
Now, if the readiness of the people of God is understood as their doing the work of the Kingdom of God, then it should not be surprising that the New Testament asserts that the return of Christ is awaiting holiness of the people of God, the conversion of the nations, and the full number of martyrs. These three elements go hand in hand with the return of Christ. After all, the holiness of the people of God, cannot be separated from the faithful proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which will result in both the conversion of the nations and the full number of martyrs! Once all this has been completed, Christ will return!
Note: If the world really did end on Sept 23, 2017, please disregard this article!
Note: I discuss these issues in much greater detail in chapter 9 of my book Understanding Eschatology (which is just a fancy word meaning “the end times”)—available on Amazon.com
I was recently having dinner in Jerusalem. Our group had just arrived that day from various part of the States. Though many of the people at the table knew each other from previous relationships, I was just getting to know most everyone at the table. The group decided that we should go around the table and introduce ourselves: tell about our family, etc. Then, they suggested, we had to answer any questions the group wanted to ask over the next three minutes (yeah, they were mostly younger and more adventurous people).
When it came to my turn, I gave the generic info about myself, my wife Toni, and our four kids. (Okay so I probably bragged a little about my family. Okay, a lot). Anyway, during the three minutes of questioning I was asked, “what is the greatest advice you would give you’re your kids?” I replied, fairly quickly, “never be afraid of the truth.”
Now, I must admit that I was a bit surprised by the responses of the others at the table. They were taken aback—in a good way. At was as if I had just given the greatest answer in world history (okay, maybe not the greatest answer, but one of the top ten—or top one hundred). The questions then followed, “what do you mean by that?” “Why would you say that?”
As a Christian, I would state emphatically, that Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). This is a pillar of my faith. He is not merely the source of truth. He is the Truth. All truth resides in Christ (Colossians 2:3).
Because of this conviction, I believe that all truth will only point me to Christ. If I am in error on something, then, ultimately, I have a weakened understanding of Christ. I need to be corrected and aligned with Christ. (fortunately, this for me this doesn’t happen very often! Maybe I should have said, “hypothetically, if I were in error”!). Yet, I believe that we tend to live in fear of truth. We shelter ourselves (though some might object to this statement, I am convinced that it is far more correct then we are willing to admit).
But, if all truth leads me to Christ, then what am I to fear? I’ll tell you what we are to fear: we should fear being in error. Of course, we will never hold all truth. The sad reality is that some of what I believe now is wrong. I know this because I can tell you a long list of things I used to believe five, ten, and twenty years ago, that I now no longer believe. As a result, I am sure that some of the convictions I hold to now, will change also.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we can’t know anything with certainty. Of course we can (in fact, to say we can’t is a self-refuting statement).
What I am saying is that it is our sacred responsibility to seek the truth. And, as a Christian, I have nothing to fear because all truth will only lead me to Christ. (Oh, how I wish I could stop this blog at this point. But I must say more).
Be forewarned: There is nothing easy with seeking the truth. For one, I have to be willing to admit that I was wrong. We don’t like this. Especially when it comes to issues that that annoying uncle holds to. I’d rather rot in a cave somewhere, than admit that he was right! Never being afraid of the truth means that I will have to face situations like this. What if that Republican, or Democrat, of Libertarian was right after all?
There is another difficulty that comes along with never being afraid of the truth. Namely, that truth always demands a life change. Now, I could always choose to go on living as I am and never face up to that change. That is what we do most of the time. But, if I admit to the truth, then I have to admit that I am not living consistently with what I know.
For example, let’s say that I am a smoker. I could just deny that smoking is harmful. Or, I could try to avoid the question. Or, I could minimize the hazards of smoking. The fact is, however, if I agree that God has given me a responsibility to care for my body, and if smoking is bad (i.e., it is deadly), then I must confront the fact that I should stop smoking—of course, you might say, “many things are harmful and we all do them, this is just my weakness.” (now some of you are probably thinking, “preach it brother.” While others are upset, or frustrated, or wanting to object). (PS whether you quit smoking or not is up to you. I am just using it as an illustration).
The list goes on. If I know that going to church is important to spiritual growth, and I believe that spiritual growth is what Christ calls me to, then I need to change my life and make church attendance a priority. If I know that I should stop (fill in the blank here), or start (fill in the blank here), then I should change my life accordingly.
The problem is huge. The fact is, we simply don’t want to change. We like things the way they are. So, we ignore truth. We deny truth. We resist truth. We spend time, money, and great effort to reinforce our convictions as to what truth is. We bully the other. We demonize the other. We silence the other. We do whatever is necessary to maintain our convictions as to what the truth is and our comfortable way of life.
Now, most of you have read this blog and thought, “well, that is interesting.” Many of you will find this helpful. And that is good. You see, I wasn’t too edgy here. I didn’t challenge you on issues that you hold dearly. I used smoking and church attendance as my illustrations. But what if I used __________ as illustrations? Would your attitude have changed? I hope not. But, let’s be honest, we have core convictions that we don’t want challenged. And then Jesus comes along and says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
Have you ever experienced giants in the land? A time when jobs weren’t opening up and the bills were piling up. A time when the doctors weren’t giving the diagnosis you wanted to hear. A time when relationships were crumbling and you saw no way out. A time when you learned that your beautiful child was addicted and you couldn’t get through to them. A time when your debt was so great you had no idea how you would ever get by. A time when. . . .
In case you don’t know the biblical story, it goes like this.
God’s people go down to Egypt during a famine (end of Genesis). They become enslaved (beginning of Exodus). 400 years later God calls a man named Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go and to lead the Israelites back to the land of promise/Canaan (still Exodus). Moses, at first, resists God’s call. Finally, he agrees.
Pharaoh, of course, rejects Moses’ request to let the people go. Why, after all, would he allow hundreds of thousands of slaves go free? God, through Moses, performs a series of miracles; which for the Egyptians were more like plagues (still Exodus). Pharaoh, finally, agrees to let them go.
The Israelites flee Egypt: only to be chased by the Egyptians after Pharaoh changes his mind. The final miracle—that ensure the Israelites escape from Egypt—is the parting of the Red Sea in which the Israelites cross on dry ground and the Egyptians are swallowed in the waters (still Exodus).
The Israelites, however, disobey God and are forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years (Exodus and the book of Numbers). During this wilderness time, Moses sends 12 spies (one from each of the tribe of Israel) into the land of promise to check out the land before they plan their attack (Numbers 13).
After viewing the land, ten of the spies report back to the Israelites:
“When they returned from spying out the land, at the end of forty days, they proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; and they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Thus, they told him, and said, ‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there’” (Numbers 13:25-28).
Caleb, however, one of the other two spies (along with Joshua), reports: “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we will surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).
The voice of the ten, of course, overtakes the voices of Caleb and Joshua: “But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” So, they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, ‘The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size’” (Numbers 13:31-32).
This story reminds us that there are often giants in the land. We all face giants. The fact is that God often calls us into places where the giants are. In fact, it seems like God likes to put giants in our way. We can’t seem to avoid them. Well, we do when we disobey.
But there is something beautiful about giants in the land. When God calls us to something and there appears to be no way that it can be accomplished, it seems that this is the time when God is most active in our lives. At times like this we must rely on Him. We know we can’t do it be ourselves. So, we cry out to Him. Our prayer time increases. Our searching increases. Our walk with Christ increases. Of course, our heart rate, our anxiety, and our stress levels all increase too. But these don’t have to.
When we face giants in the land, maybe we should step back and stand behind the One who rides on the white horse and has a sharp two-edge sword coming from His mouth (Revelation 19:11-16). Maybe if we surrender all things to Him. And in doing so, we can step back and watch Christ slay the giants in our lives.
The beauty of all this is that when we face giants in the land we get to watch the miracles. And when the giants are slain, only God gets the glory for slaying them!
I was asked by a good friend to respond to the following:
“please respond to the those who are citing Ps 33:12 ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance’ and claiming that God has chosen Trump to save America.”
The context of the Old Testament in general and this Psalm in particular suggests that the nation addressed here was Israel. The Psalmist was writing to encourage the people of Israel to call upon the Lord so that the promised blessing would come to fruition. Of course, one could hypothetically suggest that this promise of blessing applies to any nation. The reality, however, is that only ancient Israel was ever in a position to fulfill this command. For, it is only in the context of ancient Israel that the chosen people of God were essentially identified with a particular nation (of course there were exceptions, such as the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7); but such exceptions only prove the rule).
Once we reach the Christian era the people of God are now composed of individuals from many nations. Since no one nation today is composed wholly of the people of God, there is simply no way to receive the blessing of this Psalm on a national scale.
Could the blessing of this Psalm be applied to an individual? Sure. In fact, the focus of God’s blessings today applies to the people of God. Note that 1 Peter 2:9 even identifies the people of God in nationalistic terms: “a chosen people and a holy nation.” The NT application of Psalm 33, then, would be, “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.”
In conclusion, any attempt to apply this Psalm on a national scale in the contemporary world is simply anachronistic. No secular nation may receive the blessing of this Psalm.
Nota Bene: I was searching images.google for an image to go along with this post (as I usually do) and was surprised when Ps 33:12 showed up in the search box. I was more surprised when the page loaded and hundreds of images with the script of Ps 33:12 and the US flag appeared. I am sorry but in light of my post here I just don't see how this connection can in any way be supported by this text. (note there were also images of the Star of David--the Israeli flag. This has more potential to be correct. The problem here would be twofold: one the modern state of Israel is an avowed secular state. Second, the people of God are defined as those who follow Christ. And though some Jewish people indeed follow Jesus today, the essence of Judaism today is a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah)
I try to stay out of actual political discussions for one reason: too many people in the Church have convictions that are, in my opinion, too deeply held to. The result is that when one speaks something that even appears contrary to these deep-seated convictions one incurs wrath. Not worth it. (unfortunately, I can assure you that many pastors and leaders in the Church feel this way and to some extent it is a great shame!)
For me it is not worth it for another reason. I hope and believe that I have an important voice when it comes to biblical matters and living out the kingdom of God today. I want this voice to be heard. My concern is that if my political opinions do not correspond to the convictions of some, will I lose my voice on matters that I believe are far more significant? If so, why bother?
But I am compelled to speak—fully aware of the implications. I am compelled to speak for one reason because people I love are being slammed for voicing their thoughts! Furthermore, some of these people include young persons who are training for ministry. Do you adults understand what you are doing to our young people? Are we not to teach and encourage such young people to think and process and discern? Furthermore, how can we treat one another with such contempt?
It might also do us well to realize that there are people in Russia, China, and many other countries of the world who are dear brothers and sisters in Christ. The point: such people don’t hold to the same political views that we in the west do.
In fact, to be more provocative, there are people who will vote for Trump, for Clinton, for Johnson, for others, and some who will refuse to vote for any of them, who are dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
When Jesus commanded us to love one another, He didn’t specify that we should qualify our love based on political convictions!
Now this does not mean that we cannot disagree with one another. But the viciousness, and meanness, and unChristlike rhetoric is simply unacceptable! What kind of love is this? What kind of witness is this? Yes, non-Christians read your Facebook posts too.
So where do I stand on the current political landscape?
Simply put (and hear me out before you pour forth scorn), I cannot vote for any of these candidates. Sure there have been candidates in the past, though not perfect, who have displayed the character and qualities necessary to hold the office of President. But I don’t see how this is one of those times. I do not see how any of these candidates for president are worthy of my vote. I cannot stand before God and justify voting for any of them.
That this is so should not surprise us. The people of the nations are most often out for themselves; aiming for power, and greed, and their own self-interest. It is a system such as this that Christians should be very careful about participating in (yes, I am voting for many measures and even some candidates this year: just not for a presidential candidate). Our caution is part of the exhortation to be in the world but not of it!
Now it is true that when this election is over it will be my Christian duty to pray for and submit to their leadership. I will not be a disgruntled citizen who gripes and complains at their poor leadership. I already suspect that they will be poor leaders—though I do think they will do some good also.
Bottom line: the focus for the Church is on the Kingdom of God. This kingdom comes through the sacrificial love of God’s people. It does not and will not come through secular politics. It is the failure to realize this that I believe is causing most of the problems in the Church today.
God’s blessing or judgment on our country?
We are hearing all kinds of rhetoric regarding the potential for God’s curse to be upon our country if the election turns a certain way. This nonsense is radically unbiblical. Let me explain:
1)The nature of God’s blessing is primarily covenantal.
Throughout Scripture God makes a covenant (an agreement) with a people. The stipulations of the covenant include blessings or curses. What is essential to understand for our sakes is that the covenant, and its promise of blessings and curses, are for the people of the covenant—that is, God’s people.
If we are faithful we will experience God’s blessings (which in the New Testament are found in the beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23); and if we are not faithful we will experience God curses (Luke 6:24-26).
2)People of the covenant are independent of the nations
The people of God today—those who are in covenant with God—are not and cannot be identified with any nation. The people of God are in many nations. But no one nation (e.g., America) is to be identified with the covenant people.
The covenant people of God are those who follow Christ. Christ followers live in many nations of the world and no one nation is exclusively Christian. (That means that the US has never been and never will be a “Christian nation”)
Now, it is true that in the time before Jesus the covenant people were restricted to the nation of Israel. But such is not true today.
This means that the promise of blessings or the threat of curses do not and cannot apply to any nation. To say, then, that America will be blessed if we vote on way and cursed if we vote another is simply not true!
3)What about all those nations that elect corrupt leaders?
Consider this: There are many countries in the world that have elected people far worse than our present candidates. Why don’t we go about warning those countries that they are in danger of God’s judgment?
To this someone might reply: that America is in danger because we are/were a Christian nation and that because we have fallen God is bringing/will bring judgment on America. Sorry this cannot be justified from a biblical perspective. It is simply not true.
4)The nations will face judgment
It is true that the nations of the world will face judgment in the end. They are not judged, however, because they made unchristian laws or elected the wrong person as president.
The judgment of the nations is founded upon one thing: how they have treated the people of God (cf Matt 25:31-46).
If you want the nation you live in to be blessed, then be faithful
To claim then that this or any election is vital for our nation is seriously in error. What is vital is that the people of God are faithful to His mission! That we, the Church, are Jesus to the world. That we are shining the light of Christ to the nations.
If we want the nation that we live in to be blessed, then be faithful. After all, politics always flows downstream from culture! Want to affect politics, then change the culture!
But note: we cannot change the culture through legislation. We change the culture one heart at a time; and this begins with ourselves!
I find it quite interesting that neither Jesus, Paul, nor any other author of the NT addressed Jewish or Roman politics. They didn’t address slavery—there were millions of slaves throughout the empire—nor Roman militarism, nor the many other ills that proliferated throughout the Roman world.
Now one can make the argument that Christians in the US have a different role because we live in a democracy. Certainly, living in a democracy carries with it the responsibility to participate in the political system.
One of the problems I see rising with regard to evangelicalism and politics has been the failure to properly distinguish between the church and the nation. It seems as though many within evangelicalism are convinced that it is necessary to impose Christian laws on the nation. For many, the reasoning is that Christian laws make for a better nation. And though I am certainly inclined to agree with this, my question is whether or not this is the role of the Church?
Is it the job of the Church to make sure the nation has good laws?
I see several weaknesses and unintended consequences that call into question this approach.
First, the people of God need to rise up and follow the law of love, which is THE law for the Church, well ourselves before we seek to legislate it on others. In fact, demanding that others obey what we ourselves do not is the essence of hypocrisy.
Secondly, imposing Christian laws does not address the issues of the heart. And it is the heart that matters. Having godly laws with uncircumcised hearts didn’t do the Israelites any good. Why should we expect things to be different today?
Thirdly, such efforts are more and more impacting our Christian witness in a negative way. Why is it that many Christians are surprised when non-Christians reject Christian laws? After all, if they don’t believe in God, or if they just don’t wish to follow Him, then why should we expect that they would want to follow God’s laws?
This is key. The fact that they have rejected God’s laws and often God Himself means that our efforts to impose such laws on them will often result in a further alienation of individuals from Christ.
This is one of those unintended consequences I was speaking about. The effort to impose Christian laws on a secular society is often received by that society as an attack. It is perceived as an attack on their freedoms; an attack on their convictions; and sometimes an attack on themselves personally. The end result is a further alienation of such people from Christ!
Such efforts have placed our civil responsibilities above our kingdom responsibilities.
Our goal is not to make a Christian nation. Our goal is to reflect Christ to the world in such a way that the world is attracted to Him! If our efforts to impose Christian laws on a society have a negative impact on our witness, then we should discard such efforts.
Now I am not saying that our intentions aren’t good; or that such laws are not good. But if the end result is detrimental to the cause of the kingdom, then we must abandon ship!
Is the Church called to be agents of social change?
Yes, but not by forcing such change on the state. Our means of affecting social change is first by living it out ourselves—regardless of the laws. This is how the early church overthrew Rome.
Finally, many Christians are operating from the perspective that our responsibility is merely to present the Gospel. That is, we are responsible for what we say and not what others hear. But if love is our over-arching ethic, then we must care how others are hearing our presentation of the Gospel. Now, certainly, we cannot control this at all times. But we do bear some measure of burden to communicate and express ourselves in love.
“But, God’s laws are good for society!”
I would agree. But we live in a democracy (a democratic-republic) and the nature of such is that people have the right to vote and decide what they want. We can try to influence their vote. That is true. But we must do so in a way that respects them and their vote!
This, I fear, has not been done well by the Church in recent years.
The Church must proclaim the Gospel in a manner that is relevant and palatable to the culture. Preachers should always speak against injustice. They should exhort the Church to be the people of God in the midst of injustice. This is the Gospel facing culture! We should raise up our congregations to advocate for those who are suffering oppression.
Many Christians are convinced that our country is going downhill and going there fast! This great nation is in decline. Election day is viewed by many as the means of reversing this trend. Folks, election day is not the day to reverse this trend. Every day is. Every day is another chance for us to reflect Jesus to the world. Only He can change hearts!
“They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:16).
One of the problems that I see for the Church with regard to politics is the failure to grasp clearly the fundamental distinction that Jesus makes in John 17:16. The Church is in the world, but not of it. The Church is to reach the world and claim it for Christ, yet we have been rescued from the world.
Of course, this verse has been abused by the incursion of secular thinking that proposes the Jesus is saying we are to dwell in the spiritual realm and not in the physical. Time will not allow me to delve into the multitude of errors that come from this thinking. Simply put, Jesus is not telling us to escape the world as though it has nothing to offer. Instead, He is asserting that the people of God, as members of His kingdom, are to stand in distinction from the kingdom of the world. For, as John writes, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). The kingdom of God aims to redeem the world and claim it for Him. We do so neither by discarding the world, nor by imposing Christianity on it.
Missions of the Church and the State are Never the Same
It is essential to understand that the mission of the Church and the mission of a nation are never the same. The mission of the Church is to make Christ known; to proclaim Him as Lord! We do so both by loving one another and our neighbor as ourselves. This mission is one of great risk—as any study of Church history will show. That is, we do so knowing that it may cost us our freedoms, our jobs, and possibly our lives.
The mission of the nations may reflect some aspects of the Christian mission—depending on the nation and how much influence the Church has been able to have. But the mission of the nation will always transcend the mission of the Church. After all, they exist with fundamentally different goals: while the Church exists to make Christ known, the state exists to protect its people and to ensure their safety and well-being.
To put it another way: the Church’s main task is to be the means through which God brings the nations to Christ: to make known to them that there is one true Lord, one true King. The nation aims to maintain its own sovereignty and to protect its citizens at all times. There is, therefore, a fundamental tension between the Church and the nations.
Efforts to Legislate Christianity Inevitably Fail
We must also recognize that the mission of the Church is not to impose Christianity upon the state Christian. Now on the surface this might seem as something good. History, however, shows that efforts to legislate Christianity always leads to the Church’s demise. Attempts to impose Christian laws on a secular society inevitably drive people away from Christ. Os Guinness in his book The Call notes, “There is a direct and unarguable relationship between the degree of the church’s politicization in a culture and the degree of the church’s rejection by that culture” (168). This is of grave significance. Since our mission is to make God known to the nations for the purpose of their redemption, it is imperative that we do so in such a way that people come to Christ.
In other words, the Church must understand that although the imposition of Christian laws upon a nation may temporarily have good results—including the benefits to the people of God themselves who prosper from living under such laws—the net result is consistently detrimental to the mission of God’s people.
What Then Shall We Do?
How then should the people of God relate to the state? This is not an easy question. I would begin by noting that the fundamental mission of the Church is to work to change the hearts of the people. We know that if the hearts of the people are changed, then the laws of the land will change.
But honestly we shouldn’t care so much about the laws of the land. We should care primarily about the Kingdom of God. Don’t take me wrong here. It is great to live in a country where the laws are good and just. But a country with good and just laws where no one knows Christ is not better than living in a brutal dictatorship with no freedoms and a thriving Church!
Does this means that the Church is only to worry about spiritual things and leave political matters alone? By no means! Never. The Gospel does not work like this. It means that we should we focus on transforming people and not the state. The transformation of the state will happen only when the people have been transformed. To aim to transform the state without addressing the hearts of the people is to put the proverbial cart-before-the-horse. And the result in inevitable: neither is transformed. In fact, as noted earlier, the Church dies in such nations.
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!”
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.
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.
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’?