“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
What is discipleship?
Let me state it from the outset of this chapter: discipleship is the goal of the Christian life and the essence of discipleship is cross-bearing. Jesus commanded us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20). And He added, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Matthew 28:19-20 is the central command of Christianity. The command is to make disciples, not converts. A number of years ago the late Dallas Willard wrote, “The Great Omission.” Now an omission is to leave something out. What is it that Willard suggests we have left out? His answer was “the Great Commission.” The Church has omitted the Great Commission. The very thing we have been called to do is the very thing we have not done.
Instead, most churches have replaced discipleship with conversion. Now do not misunderstand: conversion is a part of the process of making disciples. But, conversion is not the same as discipleship.
How so? Conversion is a one-time event. It is a one-time deal—though, admittedly, it may be a process for some. A person prays and asks Christ into their heart. Done! Fini. Game over. Even for those who come to faith in Christ over time, there is still a point, even if it is unknown to them, when conversion has taken place. Discipleship, however, is a lifelong journey.
A disciple is a learner, or a student. Essentially, the goal for a disciple is to grow in the likeness of their rabbi or teacher; which for a Christian means that we are on a journey to Christlikeness. When Jesus commands us to make disciples (Matt 28:19-20), He is saying that we are to help people join the journey of growing in the likeness and image of Christ. Making disciples, then, is a life-long journey.
Tragically, as Willard observed, “The governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be “Christians” forever and never become disciples.” This is because for much of evangelical Christianity the goal is conversion. Pastors and church leaders often wonder why they have so much trouble getting people to come to church, to live seriously for Jesus, to read their Bibles, to come to a prayer meeting, to volunteer and serve. Yet, the answer is simple: why should they? After all, if conversion is the goal, then all else is extra. If the choice is between the football game and going to church, between the kids soccer and a Bible study, between sleeping in and not sleeping in, between a night at home and a night at a prayer meeting, then the decision is simple: “if I am already a Christian and all that is good to go, then I might as well as stay home and enjoy the game, or the extra sleep.”
The problem is that, for many, they were never told they were supposed to do anything beyond believe. Though, admittedly, it is sometimes implied, and often taught, that those who commit their lives to Christ “ought” to live moral lives. What is not recognized enough is that the preaching of moralism (do good things and not bad things) is often a source of conflict for many. They feel burden to do the right thing. The result is that we find degrees of faithfulness in the church, but mostly as a result of a sense of obligation.
The reality, then, is that we have sold them the wrong product. Then we wonder why they are not doing what we believe is vital to their spiritual growth.
 Willard, The Great Omission,
 Willard, Omission, xi.
I would like to take our discussion of what is the Gospel further. In doing so, we need to ask two questions: First, what is the goal of the Christian life? Secondly, what is the purpose of the Christian life? The first question pertains to the topic of personal discipleship. The second question to the mission of God’s people. It is essential, however, to note that the answers to these two questions are intricately interwoven. We must not, and cannot, separate our growth as disciples from our call to fulfill our mission.
Here again, the Gospel of personal salvation becomes problematic. I suspect that if we were to ask most western Christians what the goal and the purpose of the Christian life are the answers would be something along the lines of: “to accept Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die.” For most, this is both the goal and the purpose.
As a result, it is not uncommon for Christians to consider Christianity as a one-day-a-week, or even a one-day-a-month thing. Most Christians have little sense that there is much beyond accepting Jesus as their savior. Pastors struggle to get their members to come, to be engaged in Bible studies, to engage in outreach, and to serve. As long as Christianity and being a Christian is defined in terms of my personal salvation alone, then the struggle to help Christians understand that there is more and to experience this more will be ever present.
In order then to understand the Gospel further we must explore what discipleship is and what it means to be a disciple. This will be our next series of posts.
The Gospel and the Kingdom
To this point we have established that the gospel in its simplest expression is “Jesus is Lord” and that it is to be believed because it is the truth. In order to further our understanding of the Gospel, it is, also, necessary to observe the relationship between the gospel and the kingdom of God!
The gospel and the Kingdom of God are deeply intertwined in the NT. We see this in Mark’s opening description of the ministry of Jesus: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15). Though some might suggest here that Jesus was referring to two related but different things—first, Jesus was “preaching the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14), and secondly, He was also “saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Mark 1:15)—the Greek construction indicates that these two elements are in fact one. That is, Jesus was “preaching the gospel of God,” and what He was saying (i.e., what constitutes the gospel of God) was: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” In this statement, then, we see a clear connection between the gospel and the Kingdom of God.
The Gospel of Matthew, likewise, connects the gospel with the Kingdom of God. Matthew uses the word “gospel” (euangellion) four times (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; and 26:13). In each of the first three occurences (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14) the gospel is directly connected with “the kingdom.”
Matthew’s first two uses (Matt 4:23; 9:35) are especially significance for our sake. A comparison of Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 shows that these two verses are virtually identical:
“Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (4:23)
“Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (9:35).
The repetition of virtually identical statements, as we see in Matthew 4:23 and 9:35, forms what is known as an “inclusio.” An inclusio is one of the primary means by which an ancient author identifies the beginning and ending of a section or an entire work. The use of an inclusio not only serves as a way of indentifying the beginning and ending of a section, but also serves to indicate its key purpose—somewhat like what we do with a “thesis statement.” This means that Matthew 4:23-9:35 should be viewed as one extended section. The central themes of which are Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and His doing the work of the kingdom. We see then that one cannot separate the proclamation of the Kingdom of God from the acts of the kingdom.
This means that the gospel is “Jesus is Lord”; and, this proclamation is directly correlated with both the proclamation and the doing of the Kingdom of God.
Of course, this means that in order to comprehend the gospel more fully we must gain an understanding of the kingdom of God. (to which we will turn in a future post)!
NB: if you like these posts and find them helpful please let others know!
 This understanding is reflected in the NET, NIV, and NLT translations: NET “Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. He said, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!’”; NIV “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”; NLT “Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God's Good News. ‘The time promised by God has come at last!’ he announced. ‘The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!’” The key here is that the Greek will often introduce a quote by utilizing two references to “saying.” For example, the Greek NT will often state, “Jesus was teaching and saying.” In such cases, we are not to suppose that Jesus was doing two different things here: namely, teaching and saying. Instead, the second verb “saying” is just the ancient writers way of introducing the content of the speaking. Note, they didn’t use quotation marks. So, the second verb often serves as our English equivalent of quotation marks.
 Note the NAS translates the identical construction in the Greek of Matt 4:23; 9:35; and 24:14 slightly different in 24:14: “this gospel of the kingdom”; instead of, “the gospel of the kingdom.” Of course, “this” and “the” are grammatically interrelated.
 There was no need to be absolutely identical. We must bear in mind that Matthew was read aloud. The hearers of the text, upon hearing Matthew 9:35, would recall the earlier statement of Matthew 4:23: even even if they were not able to recall if the statements were identical.
 Since the ancient text was read aloud and most were “hearers”, the use of paragraph breaks and chapter headings wouldn’t have been useful. In addition, the cost of paper was such that the ancient authors were in need of saving space. As a result, ancient writings not only lacked paragraph breaks and section headings, they often lacked space even between words. Verbal markers, that is things that could be heard, were the primary means of assisting the ancient hearer in regard to structure and flow of thought.
What is the Gospel?
A look into the NT shows that the word “gospel” is used in a basic sense to announce the “good news.” The “gospel” is a proclamation of good news! Now, this is a good start, but we still need to declare what the “good news” is about.
In its simplest expression the gospel, or the “good news” is that “Jesus is Lord.” This may seem elementary, but the implications of it are profound. In fact, I would contend that we cannot utter anything more profound than the declaration, “Jesus is Lord!”
If Jesus is Lord, then no other king, president, or world leader is; neither is power, nor military might. If Jesus is Lord, then I am not: neither is pleasure, sex, drugs, nor alcohol. It means that my personal security is not: neither is my accumulation of wealth, my accomplishments, my talents, nor my education, nor, in my case, my good looks! It means that my personal desires are not. It means that my family is not. It means that neither is my house, my car, my clothes, nor any possession. To proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” begins with the acknowledgement that no one or nothing else is!
The confession that “Jesus is Lord” is profoundly simple. Yet, upon further examination, we quickly realize that this is the most difficult task humankind has before them.
Why should someone believe the Gospel?
Now, the "gospel" begins with and extends beyond the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. But, before we proceed, we need to address one somewhat tangential question: “why should someone believe the Gospel?” The answer is simple: because it is the truth. That is it. Jesus is Lord and we are not. And that is the truth. There are no other reasons. We should submit to Jesus as Lord because He is Lord!
The problem is that very rarely is the Gospel presented in our western Christian culture as something to be believed and followed because it is the truth. Instead, we market the Gospel as something to be believed so that you can go to heaven; or so that you won’t have to go to hell; or so that you can get your life back together. In otherwords, we typically present the Gosepl as something that will result in personal gain.
The question, then, becomes: if I believe in Jesus only for my own gain, have I really submitted to Him as Lord?
Now, I recognize that submitting to Jesus as Lord may be a process. Just as we know that it is appropriate to teach a child to do right by offering them a reward, so, also, we may attract youth to a Wednesday night event with ice cream, movies, video games, and whatever is necessary. Even adults are introduced to Jesus or the Church through fun events.
The danger, as I see it, is that when we incentivize the reasons why someone should believe in Jesus, we risk minimizing the Gospel. Sure, there is truth in the notion that: “if you go to Bible study, you will may learn how, through Christ, you can overcome your troubles”; or, “if you cease living immoral lives, you can find true pleasure in Christ.” There is truth in the fact that in coming to Christ we may begin to experience all the blessings that come from being a child of God. But, there is also truth in the fact that the call of Christ is not easy.
Two potential problems arise. First, many churches are only offering more candy: “If you come to church we will make sure you enjoy it.” This makes it very hard for that same church to preach the radical call of Christ. In all honesty, it is a bit hypocritical and unfair to offer them candy one day and then demand that they carry their crosses the next. We lured them in with candy. Then, after they stayed a while, we switched out the candy for green beans!
Secondly, what happens to this person and their faith in Christ when things do not go well? We told them that in believing they would be blessed; they would have peace; God would provide for all their needs. We told them about the good things that would happen if they come to Christ—they will gain wisdom and other spiritual gifts in the present, and they will have comfort knowing that eventually they will be in heaven with Christ forever. We might also tell them a little of the demands of Christ. How they are supposed to bearing their crosses—mostly in the form of moralistic preaching; such as, be sexually pure and do not lie. But, when things don’t go well, they sometimes spiral.
When the Gospel of Jesus as Lord is proclaimed, we can tell them that He remains Lord in the midst of their sufferings, their fears, and their longings. The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus as Lord entered our sufferings for us in order to redeem us.
The reality, however, and I know you are thinking it, is that if we are more explicit with the nature of and the demands of the Gospel, not as many people will believe.
This is why I believe that the Parable of the Sower is vital for our understanding of the Gospel and the life of the Church. But, that is the subject of another post!
 It has been said that there are two words that cannot be uttered to God in the same sentence: “no” and “Lord.” If Jesus is Lord, then we cannot say “no” to Him. If we say, “no” to Him, then we are denying that He is Lord.
 This fact stands whether or not God is good. If He is Lord, then we should submit. It just so happens that He is good! Thank God! Sorry for the pun!
It doesn’t get more basic to Christianity than to ask: “What is the gospel?” The question is pretty simple. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in part 1, I suspect that many Christians would have a hard time coming up with an answer.
In addition to the alarming reality that many Christians cannot define the Gospel with any clarity, comes the realization that for many the definition of the Gospel is often “me” centric. That is, the Gospel becomes merely something that was done for me. It is common, for example, for someone to define the Gospel as: “Jesus died for my sins.” Or, “if you have faith in Jesus and repent then you shall be saved.” I suspect that defining the Gospel in terms of this “me” centered—how do I personally get saved—approach proliferates Christianity.
One website, in fact, states:
“When Christians refer to the ‘Gospel’ they are referring to the ‘good news’ that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin so that we might become the children of God through faith alone in Christ alone. In short, ‘the Gospel’ is the sum total of the saving truth as God has communicated it to lost humanity as it is revealed in the person of His Son and in the Holy Scriptures, the Bible.” In the next sentence, the author of this article encourages readers who are uncertain if they are saved to click on the link to learn more about “God’s plan of salvation.” In addition, The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia states, “The central truth of the gospel is that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of His son to the world. He suffered as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death, and now offers a share in His triumph to all who will accept it. The gospel is good news because it is a gift of God, not something that must be earned by penance or by self-improvement.”
Now, let me be clear: the gospel is certainly the good news of God’s gracious gift for those who believe that we might be saved. It absolutely entails the finished work of Christ. The result includes the restoration of our relationship with the Father. But it is much more! And, in fact, I would contend that when it comes to defining the Gospel I am not sure that this is the best place to start.
For one, defining the Gospel solely in terms of what it does for me fails to account for the most fundamental element of the Gospel: namely, the sovereignty of Christ. The Gospel is not about us, it is about Him. The Gospel begins and ends with: “Jesus is Lord.”
Secondly, defining the Gospel in terms of what it means for my salvation makes salvation the focus, or the goal. The problem, as we will explore in the following chapters, with making salvation the goal, is that once a person is saved all is completed! This leaves the process of discipleship!—the very thing Jesus commanded us to do (Matt 28:19)—out of the picture. I will contend that if our understanding of the Gospel only entails that which corresponds to our personal salvation, then what we are left with is a truncated gospel; one that serves to facilitate our western, individualistic, consumerist, and self (me)-centered worldview. We must ask how much a “me” centered gospel is really the Gospel? After all, can we reconcile the summons to follow Jesus, which begins and ends with, one must “deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34), the very epitome of self-denial, with a “me” centered version?
There is a third problem that arises from a “me” centered definition of the Gospel. Namely, that is leaves out the mission of God’s people! A good definition of the Gospel captures the fact that Jesus is Lord, that He not only rules as “King of kings,” and that He has called us to be the means through which He establishes His kingdom! Perhaps the clearest support of this comes from 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” God has chosen us, Peter says, “so that” we may “proclaim” His excellencies!
 See: https://bible.org/article/what-gospel. viewed 3-28-18.
 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), electronic media. Cited in bible.org. https://bible.org/article/what-gospel 3-28-18.
 For an excellent discussion of the Gospel see Tim Keller, Center Church, parts 1-2.
 The Greek uses hopos, which, in constructions such as this, indicates purpose.
In this final post I wish to ask the question: What does this mean for the Church today?
I will contend that the Sabbath is indeed an abiding provision. The fulfillment has begun in Jesus, and it continues through the present day. The Sabbath was fulfilled in Jesus, but not abolished by Him. It is through the work of God’s people that the fulfillment of the Sabbath continues. What might this mean?
First, just as communion reminds us of what God through Christ has done for us, so also, the Sabbath is a reminder that God has rescued us. In addition, just as taking communion looks forward to the eternal banquet in God’s kingdom, so also, practicing the Sabbath looks forward to the eternal rest awaiting us. Practicing the Sabbath reminds us that God has set us free from slavery. In fact, to not practice the Sabbath is to reject the notion that God had rescued us. It is a flagrant denial of the fact that we were in slavery and have been set free.
Secondly, a theology of the Sabbath means that we are to recognize the holiness of the day. This is best done in the weekly gathering of God’s people. For those who work on a Sunday maybe it means attending a weekly Bible study or some form of corporate fellowship, worship, and study.
Thirdly, we can rest and take time off weekly, because God is our source. The Sabbath reminds us that God’s economy does not follow the economics of the world. God blesses His people because they are obedient and because they practice justice. It is the economics of the kingdom of this world that begs us to work too much. In taking a day off each week, we are living out the Kingdom of God and confirming He is Lord and will provide. Consequently, we can take a day off each week to worship and serve the true King of kings. In doing so, we have no concerns about wealth—losing income or productivity—because our King reminds us that He is the provider. Practicing the Sabbath is a weekly reminder that God is in control.
Finally, to practice the Sabbath means to ensure that justice is done. This means that we are not engaging in activities that foster inequity and that we are actively seeking to eradicate injustice. Boy did I just opened up a can of worms! Having a kingdom ethic and engaging in kingdom practices means that we must ask the tough questions and put the answers into practice.
 I highly recommend the very challenging book by Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity.
Jesus asserts, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). What He means here is that the Sabbath was made to protect people from being exploited. We were not made to observe the Sabbath (“not man for the Sabbath”). Instead, the Sabbath was made to be a blessing to humanity (“the Sabbath was made for man”); especially those who were being exploited.
If the Sabbath was pointing us to Christ, then, with the coming of Christ, the end of oppression is at hand! This is what Jesus means when He enters the Nazareth synagogue and asserts that, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Now, what better day was there for Jesus to demonstrate this than on the Sabbath! The very day that was established to prevent injustices.
Therefore, contrary to popular perceptions, Jesus was not proclaiming that the Sabbath no longer applies. He was confirming that it was fulfilled. In Him, all injustices are being eradicated. This is exemplified in Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath in Luke 13. “When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness’” (Luke 13:12). She was freed! Just as the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and freed, so also, this woman has been set free! This healing, then, provides an affirmation that Jesus has come to set the captives free! Indeed, the prophecies are being fulfilled. The healing of this oppressed woman is precisely what the Sabbath was for! In healing this woman, Jesus is demonstrating that the fulfillment has begun! The healing of this woman didn’t violate the Sabbath; it was exactly what the Sabbath was for! Consequently, despite the religious leaders’ objections to Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath, His actions were in accord with the very nature and purpose of the Sabbath!
Jesus was not denying that He was working on the Sabbath. He was indeed working. His work, however, was not in violation of the Sabbath—though it was in their mind. Instead, it was fully in accord with the Sabbath.
Sabbath as Holy
Now, in order to complete a theology of the Sabbath it is important to also note that practicing the Sabbath is also a holy act. Genesis says, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:3). While the first six days of creation are called “good”, the seventh day is blessed by God and made holy. To be made “holy” or “sanctified” means to be “set apart.”
It is also important to place the Sabbath discussion in the discussion of God’s economy! Throughout Scripture we see that in God’s economy He provides for His people as an act of grace. That is, God’s people will succeed because they are blessed by God. They do not get ahead because of their hard work, or their ingenuity. They certainly will not get ahead because they abuse their workers!
Another way to understand how the economy of God is directly related to the issue of the Sabbath is to note that the land was also supposed to enjoy the Sabbath.
“You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.” (Exodus 23:10-12).
It is very important to note that the provision of letting the land rest is also in accord with providing for the poor and the needy: “so that the needy of your people may eat” (Exodus 23:12).
Now, if one thinks about it, this doesn’t appear to be the best way to reap an economic boom. After all, only sowing in six out of seven parts of the field will not reap as large a harvest as sowing on all seven parts. Sure there are studies that have concluded that the land is actually more productive when it is allowed a year of rest. But we must wonder if the ancient Israelites knew this. There were simply instructed to give the land a rest every seven years. How were they to find provisions during the seventh year? God will provide!
This is how the economy of God operates. God provides and His people are blessed. They are blessed not because they followed the economic ideals of the world. Instead, they are blessed because they have been obedient to God.
In Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman who was crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years. The problem, at least from the perspective of the local synagogue official, was that the healing took place on the Sabbath. The official remarks to the people, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). His statement has a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 5:13: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”
Now it must be understood that the official’s complaint seems reasonable. The woman could have found Jesus the next day. After all, if she has been troubled by this spirit for eighteen years, then what is one more day? And if healing someone is indeed a work, and there is no absolute standard to say that it is or it isn’t, then Jesus’ healing was a violation of the Sabbath.
What many Christians attempt to do at this point is to justify Jesus’ actions on the basis that healing someone is not “work” and, therefore, He didn’t violate the Sabbath. Is this, however, the best way to read the passage? Was Jesus quibbling with them over the definition of “work.”? No. In fact, His reply seems to suggest that He was working, but so were they.
On another occasion, Jesus unequivocally acknowledges that He was working on the Sabbath. The Gospel of John notes, that “the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16). Jesus, then, replies, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). Instead of quibbling over what is work and what is not work, Jesus’ defense is that they do not understand the purpose of the Sabbath.
Thus, in Luke 13:15-16, Jesus replies to the official, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16).
Note that Jesus’ reply alludes to Deuteronomy 5:14—recall that the synagogue official had cited Deuteronomy 5:13 in his exhortation to the people. Jesus was, in effect, saying that he should have kept reading. After all, according to Deuteronomy 5:14, the Sabbath also applies to one’s ox, donkey, and cattle: “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle.” Jesus is pointing out that they were willing to untie a donkey and lead it out to water on the Sabbath so that it may drink—something that was not life-threatening. If they are able to do so for an animal, and the Sabbath applies to their animals, then shouldn’t He be able to set this woman free on the Sabbath?
Now, if Jesus were merely arguing, “well, I am working but so are you,” the official might well respond by acknowledging: “yeah, you got us. We probably shouldn’t be leading our animals to drink on the sabbath. Thanks for pointing out our inconsistency.” This would leave Jesus in a corner. He would then have to submit to the Sabbath regulations that prohibit work; including healing. Clearly there is something more going on in Jesus’ argumentation. And discerning such, will help us determine our theology of the Sabbath.
Towards a theology of the Sabbath
In order to discern a theology of the Sabbath, we must first understand that the Sabbath was pointing us to Christ. Paul affirms this directly in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”
In saying that the Sabbath was pointing us to Christ, we mean that the nature and purpose of the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Jesus. It is important to note that in saying that the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Jesus does not mean that it is eradicated. Instead, it means that the very purpose for which the Sabbath was established finds its fulfillment in Jesus. What, then, is the purpose of the Sabbath? Is it not simply a day for rest? The answer is that the Sabbath is much more than that!
The key for understanding what Jesus was doing in healing on the Sabbath, as well as, for our understanding of the nature and purpose of the Sabbath, and, consequently, for our discerning a theology of the Sabbath is that the Sabbath rest is a matter of justice. The Sabbath, along with the rest of the ten commandments, was established in accord with creating an economy of justice. All one has to do to understand this point is to ask: who wants the workers to work seven days a week: the owners of the field, or the workers in the field? The Sabbath was established in order to protect those who were most likely to be exploited: namely, the working class.
That the Sabbath was intended to create an economy of justice—i.e., it was designed to protect those who were most vulnerable—is why, after the Sabbath law is stated in Deuteronomy 5:14, the next verse reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deut 5:15). The Sabbath, then, is a way of saying “you will not exploit your workers; after all, you should remember what it was like when you were exploited.” The Sabbath law, then, points us to the time when injustices and oppression will cease!
 It is intriguing that the official does not address Jesus.
 The plural “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus was addressing more than just the official.
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.
What does the NT teach about giving?
Some of you are likely reading the title and deciding to at least peruse this blog because you want to know what the Bible, and the New Testament (NT) in particular, says about giving so that you can be obedient. You may be a little fearful about venturing forward. But you are willing—as long as this blog doesn’t get too long!
Some of you are reading this because you want to know what the Bible says so that you can be faithful, but in all reality you are hoping to discern, “what is the least I can get away with giving?”
Some of you may be reading this because you are convinced that the idea of a tithe is Old Testament (OT) and that giving is simply not required in the NT. You may be reading with the mindset that if I say anything contrary to that you are ready to disagree.
Let me answer the question right off the top: there is no law on giving in the NT: NT giving is strictly from the heart! To say, however, that giving in the NT is from the heart is not enough! And it likely lets most of us off the hook way to easy! So, let’s go a bit further by examining Jesus and the law.
First off, Jesus said that He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). Then He clarified that statement by saying that no longer was it merely acceptable to not murder someone, but from this point forward His concern was with the heart so that hatred towards a brother was murder; and He added that no longer was it merely acceptable to not commit adultery, but from this point forward His concern was with the heart so that to lust was to commit adultery. So, what then do you think Jesus might say about the tithe?
Before we answer that, let me note that I would affirm that the command for a “tithe” (i.e., giving of 10%) is not found in the NT. But to stop here, and make giving simply a matter of what one decides in their heart (2 Cor 9:7), seriously misunderstands the relationship between the law, Jesus, and the life of the people of God today.
What, then, does the NT teach in regard to giving?
Since Jesus did not abolish the law, the notion that the tithe is not in the NT and therefore it doesn’t apply for us today stands on precarious footing. Secondly, when Jesus affirms that the two great commands are to love God and to love one another (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27), He is upholding the essence of the law. Thirdly, as noted above with regard to murder and adultery, Jesus, not only doesn’t abolish the law, He intensifies it. These three things should sound an alarm to anyone who simply wants to dismiss giving as something previously, but not presently, required. As well as those who want to relegate giving to only “what we decide in our hearts.”
In addition, it is important to note that Paul says we are “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1 NAS). The significance of this is that, though we fully affirm that the sacrificial laws were fulfilled by Jesus, and that we have no need for sacrifices today, the principle of sacrifice is not eradicated but transferred. Yes, Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. Now, we, also, are called to be living sacrifices!
How then does this affect our understanding of giving? Simply put: what if we were to understand giving as something that Jesus and the NT intensifies? Just as murder has now been extended to hatred and adultery to lust, might we also surmise that giving is intensified beyond the tithe (10%)?
Now, there is much more to say of course. And a brief blog post cannot address it all. Let me note two things.
First, if you cannot afford to give, then don’t! There is no law in the NT on giving. What I am arguing is that NT principle—not law—is that we should give everything we have—and that stopping at 10% may not be fully surrendering our hearts. The person who makes $250,000 might well give more than 10%. But the family that makes $25,000 might not be able to give financially at all.
Secondly, if we give 10% or 20% and our hearts are not right before God, then our giving is worthless.
There is much more to be said. I encourage you to listen to my two sermons on giving delivered Mar 11 and Mar 18, 2018. See www.northpres.org
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
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)
Genesis 24 recounts the story of Abraham sending one of his servants to his father’s household in Haran to find a wife for Isaac. The servant determined that he would put a test to discern what woman the Lord has chosen for Isaac. He would ask for a drink from the well and whichever young woman not only offered him a drink, but also agreed to water his camels would be the one.
Many read this and conclude that the servant was putting a character test. Which woman was hospitable and kind would be the one. There seems to be nothing extraordinary to this test.
Oh contraire mi amigo!
Though it was indeed customary to offer a stranger water from the town well, it was by no means customary to offer to water his camels. After all, the servant had 10 of them (Gen 24:10). Seeing that a camel who has not had a drink for a few days can consume as much as 25 gallons of water, and that a common water jar, like the one Rebekah would have had, would hold approximately 3 gallons of water, this request is completely unreasonable. In order to water the camels also Rebekah would have had to draw water from this well 80-100 times!
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 would like to reiterate that my blog and facebook blog posts are intended to address Christians. My tag line is “Challenging the Church to be the Church.”
In recent weeks I have posted a number of comments on my facebook blog page about the refugee crisis. I am somewhat grieved by the Christians who are contentious on this matter. One of the primary mistakes people are making in their responses is the failure to divorce their responsibilities as Christians from their nations concerns.
One person honestly asked about the need to balance the love of Christ with the need for security. Here is my response:
My response is not just for you but for the many who might read this. I would simply say that sometimes the balance you ask about involves a risk. Though I personally don't think that part of the equation (the risk issue) is our (i.e., the Church’s) responsibility. Our job is to love like Jesus. The nation’s job is to maintain national security. And the US has one of the most extensive vetting processes already in place. But if they choose to close the borders because Christians are telling them to do so, then we have a problem.
Christians should be advocating love towards everyone! Period. Sure, we all take the personal responsibility to lock our doors, etc. But to shut them and not let them in: ever?
The entire Bible (OT/NT) is a story about refugee people! We are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13). Jesus told parables about welcoming the refugees. He says, "I was a stranger and you let me in" (Matt 25:35). Jesus Himself was a refugee—remember the Christmas story how they fled to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill Him? The early Christians were refugees after Saul began to hunt them down. Christians over the centuries have been refugees!
So, where is the Church now? Are we hiding behind our western comforts? Sleeping in warm beds and homes while our brothers and sisters are struggling to survive? Are we content and well fed while our brothers and sisters go hungry? Are we amusing ourselves with all the luxuries of the western world, while our brothers and sisters flee? I could go on for a long while with Scripture after Scripture (OT and NT) that commands that we take them in! Love our neighbor; love the alien within our midst; They will know we are Christians by our love; etc. Why are we as Christians more concerned about political argumentation and our nation’s self-interest than we are our responsibilities toward the refugee?
(Note: I am not saying that we don't have the responsibility to our families and our neighbors to be wise. Neither am I saying that a nation shouldn’t do what is right for its national interests. Nor, am I saying that nations do not have the responsibility to protect its citizens. In fact, I am not addressing how a nation responds!)
Instead, I am speaking as a pastor and a leader in the Church. I am speaking as a scholar and a teacher. I think I know the Word a little. And the Scriptures I read are unambiguous on this one. What I am saying, then, is that for the Church the command to love trumps these in times like this. Love the Refugee. “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).
Lord, Jesus, have mercy on your Church, that we might give mercy to the world.
Revelation is arguably one of the greatest pieces of literature in the history of the world and certainly one of the great books within the Bible. Unfortunately, for many the book of Revelation remains a mystery, which few dare to explore. Ironically, the book opens with a blessing for its reader, hearers, and keepers (Rev 1:3). Which raises the question: How can one be blessed by reading a book that no one seems to understand?
This question troubled me for some time. For many years I concluded that Revelation was a mystery that would only be solved after everything was over. Therefore, I didn’t read it or pay attention to it.
Now you must understand that in my younger days I was fascinated with the ‘end-times’ and all of the hype that goes along with it. I grew up in the 70’s (I was born in 666; no really, June of 1966) when the fascination with world events and the apparent fulfillment of everything was right at the door. I read dozens of books as a youth and sought to inquire into the fulfillment of the book of Revelation and the end-times sermons of Jesus. I even spent hours in local library one day to determine if there was an increase in the number and frequency of earthquakes in the last century: after all, that would have been a clear sign of the imminent return of Christ.
Problems began to surface for me along two lines. First, I began to conclude that there were tremendous disagreements among the popular writers over the meaning of Revelation. And I felt uneasy in my heart as a grappled with these things. Who should I trust? I grew less and less confident in what I was reading, hearing, and believing.
The second problem was that by the mid-1980’s many of the prophecies that I had been confident were being fulfilled among us never seemed to actually come to pass. By the time 1989 came around, I was totally disillusioned. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain fell.
The problem was more than just certain prophecies were not being fulfilled as I had come to expect. The problem was that things were moving in the opposite direction. The Soviets were not about to invade the Middle East and start Armageddon as I was assured would happen. They were suddenly more concerned with feeding their own people than with starting a war.
It was in this mild state of disillusionment, that I came to the conclusion that the book of Revelation was a mystery not to be understand by mortal man. I decided that the book of Revelation needed a blank page before it (similar to what one typically finds between the end of Malachi (the last book of the Old Testament—OT) and the beginning of Matthew (the first book of the New Testament—NT). This blank page needed to read: Do Not Trespass.
My own conviction was, why bother?: no one can understand the book.
Mind you that my convictions about not reading or being able to understand the book of Revelation didn’t sit comfortably with me. For I knew that Scripture promises that all of it, which had to include the book of Revelation, was “profitable for teaching, reproof, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). And I knew that Revelation opens with a promise of blessing for its readers, hearers, and keepers (Rev 1:3). Somehow this book was meant to be read, studied, and used by the Church. Yet, it made no sense!
The Lord, of course, has a way of messing with us. He knew I had a passion for Scripture. And here I was so disillusioned with the book of Revelation things that I wasn’t even willing to study the book anymore.
Within a few years I found myself pursuing my passion as a student of Scripture. And I was forced back into a study of the book of Revelation. After all, one cannot prepare to be a professor of the NT and somehow act as though there were only 26 books in it!
I began my studies of Revelation by consulting several volumes within some standard, trustworthy, evangelical commentaries. I had utilized volumes in these series for other books of the NT, so I determined that this might be a good place to start.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with its message. This book is awesome! I quickly learned that there was actually significant agreement among scholars as to what the book of Revelation meant. Now they certainly do not agree on all the details, but overall there is tremendous unity on the core of the message.
Most importantly, the book of Revelation was beginning to make sense. Simply put, the book of Revelation serves as a climax to the entire Biblical story. It message is simple: it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1). The message is that Jesus Christ, the Lion, has “overcome” (Rev 5:5). And, what this means for you and me is of great importance!
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!”
We hear so much talk about the AntiChrist in certain circles of Christianity. He will come to Jerusalem and enter the rebuilt Temple, make a peace treaty with Israel, and then after 3 1/2 years he will break the treaty and force everyone to recieve a mark on their forehead or righthand with the number 666. Well, I would say that the devil, or the deceiver (Rev 12:9), is a lot smarter than this.
Paul, in a somewhat difficult passage (2 Thess 2), says that the 'man of lawlessness' enters into the "Temple of God" and proclaims himself God (2 Thess 2:4). Well, here's the key. The phrase, 'temple of God' occurs 11x in the NT and in every instance it refers to either the body of Christ Himself or to the Church as the body of Christ (Matt 26:61; 1 Cor 3:16, 17(2x); 2 Cor 6:16(2x); 2 Thess 2:4; Rev 3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 19; note the Matt 26:61 passage is not really an exception to this). This means that the 'anti-Christ/man of lawlessness' (assuming for now that they are the same) enters the Church and not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem!
This accords with the rest of the NT. Jesus warned that “false prophets will come to YOU (not ewe) in sheep's clothing” (Matt 7:15). Paul, in what he thought was his last meeting with the elders of Ephesus notes, “savage wolves will come in AMONG you” (Acts 20:29). And we could go on, for throughout the NT we are warned repeatedly that false prophets will enter the Church in order to led astray “if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24).
This is precisely what 1 John is addressing in one of the few references to 'anti-christ' in the NT (the designation 'anti-Christ' appears 5x and only in 1-2 John). John notes that we know that certain people are anti-Christ's because they “went out from us” (1 John 2:18-19).
Thus, the anti-Christ is not some secular person who is empowered by a revived Roman empire or such. Instead, he is a false prophet who endeavors to spread his influence in the Church! This is the NT warning!
If we are looking to Jerusalem for a rebuilt temple, and especially if we think that the anti-Christ will not arise until one is built, then we are looking in the wrong direction! And we have been deceived by the devil!
The fabric upon the which the Bible was penned must be viewed as one garment. The whole Bible coheres and centers around the fact of God’s redemption and restoration of both mankind and the whole of creation.
The book of Revelation is Genesis fulfilled. The entire Bible, in fact, weaves a beautiful story of God’s work in creation and, because of the fall, His subsequent effort to restore His creation.
This is why the Gospel of John begins by quoting Genesis: “In the beginning” (John 1:1). Matthew’s gospel commences with a genealogy (Matt 1:2-17) that clearly serves to identify Jesus with the story of the OT. And why the Gospel of Mark opens with a composite citation (1:2; cf Isa 40:3, Exod 23:20, and Mal 3:1) that clearly intends to identify the coming of John the Baptist as the herald of the coming Christ in terms of the fulfillment of the great promise of the restoration of Israel. And Luke’s opening two chapters contain a plethora of OT citations and allusions.
In each instance, the Gospels are connecting their narratives with the OT story. John, however, takes us one step forward. For, he intends us to not only see Jesus in light of the OT, but also in terms of a new creation. That is, ‘in the beginning’ not only serves to connect the story of Jesus in John with Genesis and the OT, but it is also eschatological—forward looking to the new creation. That is, with the coming of Jesus we have another ‘in the beginning.’
What might this mean for us?
First, it means that in Jesus we have the fulfillment of God's covenant promises (2 Cor 1:20). And we must, therefore, read our Bible's in this light.
Secondly, it means that the 'eschaton' (the end-times) have begun in Jesus. We live in the 'last days'. The 'last days' then are not something to query about as though they are future and distant (or perhaps imminent) and potentially not important. Instead, they are something for us to presently endure.
Finally, the inauguration of the New Creation in Jesus means that our mission as God's people entails the bringing in of the New Creation. We are God's image bearers on earth: and as such we must reign! (of course, reigning in the New Creation is not like the kings of this world (Luke 22:25-30); but entails submission of our very lives to the Kingdom of our Lord (Rev 12:11)).
This year the session (ruling board) at my church has decided that we should focus our attention on “Thy Kingdom Come” (sometimes that King James English just needs to come out). Sounds great. I personally wish that Christ’s Kingdom were here. Now! I want it now! (reminds me of the girl in the new Willie Wonka Movie who bratishly—yes, that is a word: after all, I can make up words if I want because I have a PhD!—says, “but, daddy, I want it now”). That’s the point. We really want the Kingdom and we want it now!
What is God waiting for? Why is He taking so long? I mean it has been two thousand years (well, almost). One of the problems we have with this line of questioning (which many of us are guilty of) is that it begins and ends with a poor understanding of the Kingdom.
The problem is simple. Many of us have been taught that the Kingdom is wholly spiritual. After all, it is the Kingdom of heaven, right? Because of this we have concluded that the spiritual (heaven) is good and the physical (earth) is—well—not as good; or, for some it is bad.
This leads us to a problem. This sort of thinking tells us that only spiritual things really matter. Life itself, however, tells us something different. After all, we need to eat, drink, sleep, work, etc., in order to live.
What many Christians tend to do at this point is to try to live in these two worlds at the same time. One world is the Mon-Sat world. For many, this is the real world. We live, eat, and breathe in this world. The other world is then some sort of spiritual world—the Sunday world. This is the world of religion and spirituality. In this world, we pray and go to church. (Pastors often get befuddled as to how to get their parishioners more involved in the life of the Church: how to get them to pray more; give more; learn more; do more. This conflict will continue, however, as long as we allow ourselves to live as though there really are these two worlds).
The problem here is that this thinking stems from a poor understanding of the Kingdom. Think about it: Is it not true that God is the creator of ALL things (Col 1:16)? Is it not true that through Jesus God is reconciling “to himself ALL things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20)?
Here’s my point. If God is Lord of all, then the Kingdom of God is not some spiritual thing that is detached from the world. Jesus is Lord Monday through Saturday too! This means that working, being in fellowship with others, resting, eating, and praying are all spiritual acts. After all, Adam and Eve worked in the Garden (Gen 2:15); they had fellowship in the Garden; and, they ate in the Garden. Such acts, then, are part of God’s eternal plan. They are not just things we do in this world until someday we escape it. They are all part of God’s kingdom, which are in need of being redeemed and restored.
What does this have to do with Thy Kingdom Come? Everything. The ECO (which is our denomination) document on the Church says, “Before the foundation of the world, God set a plan of mission to reconcile the world to Himself and chose to use the Church as His instrument of reconciliation. It is incumbent upon all members of the body of Christ to participate in the work of building one another up in Christ and be deployed for His work in the world” (ECO Polity 8).”
Therefore, instead of us sitting back and waiting for the Kingdom of God to come, we have been commanded by God to be the agents through which God brings His kingdom. We must learn to view our jobs from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to view our relationships from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to enjoy our food from a kingdom perspective (a kingdom perspective with regard to food would begin by acknowledging God for His provision and would include our recognition of others who may be in need of food). As we do this, the Kingdom of God comes!
Next, we must begin to look at the world around us and realize that it too is in desperate need of being reconciled to God! For, the Kingdom of God comes when we care for the broken in this world. This includes the broken people who need to see that Christ loves them and wants to redeem and restore them. It also includes the brokenness of the creation. After all, God created mankind to care for His creation (Gen 2:15).
In one sense, we have no other options. We cannot say “Thy Kingdom Come” and do nothing. We must do something about the lack of peace in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the children starving in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the brokenness of families in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. And of course, we must do something about the lostness within our neighborhoods and the world.
Thy Kingdom Come is a charge for us to get busy!
Oh. One last thing. We must do all of this with joy in our hearts. After all, we are children of the King and we will get to eat at His table forever!
I wrote a book: "Understanding Eschatology." The subtitle was "Why it Matters!" Most people could seem to care less. I say it is vital, crucial, essential.
The Bible is an incredible and fascinating book. It is far from being merely a list of moral guidelines, or an instruction manual on ‘how to get to heaven in ten easy steps’.
Instead, when read in terms of the overall story of God’s work within creation, it reveals a depth and beauty that transcends comprehension. Unfortunately, for many Christians, the notion of reading and teaching Scripture in terms of the over-arching story of Scripture has been absent.
Instead of understanding the grand narrative and its majestic portrait of God and His redemptive activity, the Bible has unfortunately too often become the repository of ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’. This is not to say that the Bible does not have such an ethical code, but only that in failing to see God’s mission within creation as unveiled in Scripture, we have neglected this vital storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation (from Garden to Garden!), and, in doing so, we run the grand risk of failing to comprehend our role within the story.
It is this story that we need to explore in more depth. For, a proper understanding of eschatology begins with a complete grasp of the entire story of the Old and New Testaments.
When we place the life and ministry of Jesus into the overarching story of God’s mission, then we may begin to discern the eschatological significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And it is here that eschatology, mission, and the biblical story meet. That is, understanding Jesus, both His person and His work, eschatologically and in the context of the biblical story correlates directly to a proper understanding of the mission of God’s people.
And it is here that eschatology becomes relevant for the Church today! Our mission as followers of Christ is to carry forward the mission begun by Christ, which itself was an inauguration of the eschaton (the ‘end’). You see, eschatology is not simply a bunch of ramblings about the future and what will happen, but it is intimately tied to the life of the Church today!
I fully agree that we are supposed to bless Israel (Gen 12:3). And I do believe that God is faithful to His promises. And I think he has: In Jesus! That is, Jesus is Israel. This is fundamental to the NT and to the Bible. Let me make several points:
First, I am quite grieved by the fact that many Christians who engage in this debate are too often not willing to honestly look at Scripture. Regardless of what side we end up on, we must be viewed as people of love who are open and honest. Instead, this issue, perhaps more than any other issue, often engenders more narrow-mindedness and dogmatism among Christians. We as Christians must been seen as those who are pursuing truth in love. If we are found to be wrong on something, then we confess our wrong and move forward. But for some reason we don’t. We embitter ourselves towards one another and in doing so disgrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ; not only towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, but towards the world.
So I ask that you read and discern what I am saying. As I hope to do with any responses. To spew venom and hatred toward one another only makes a mockery of the Kingdom of God.
Now I understand that we have all learned to read the Bible in a certain manner. For those who are reading this and are holding to some of the mainstream views of evangelical Christianity, let me make a couple of opening comments.
I have great respect for much within evangelicalism (I am myself a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and count myself as one of you). Evangelicals tend to have a zeal for God that I wish were be shared by all followers of Christ. They often have a great heart for God, and a great love for Jesus. And they are deeply committed to the Bible. I affirm all of this myself!
My first point is that the manner in which many of you have learned to read the Bible (which is how I too was raised to read it) is not the historical position of the church, nor even the common reading among Christians today. With this in view, I am asking for you to understand this and to try to view things as I am presenting it. See if my approach, which is the traditional view of the Church, not only makes sense of the OT but the NT as well. That is, don’t assume your view for a moment. Instead, see if mine makes sense on the terms in which I am presenting it (i.e., don’t assume that you are right and thereby conclude that I am wrong. Listen to my side with an open mind and evaluate it on its own terms. Such is only fair).
Secondly, this is not simply a question of one person citing various verses and another citing others. Clearly both sides have their arsenal (such is true for most issues upon which Christians debate among themselves). The question is which paradigm (worldview; perspective; approach to reading Scripture) can account for all of the verses in question? This is the essential question! That is, I am not suggesting that based on my ten verses my position is therefore correct. For when we argue this way what is most often left out of the equation is the fact that you too have ten verses that support your position. Instead, I am suggesting that we have been reading the text with the wrong set of lenses. The lenses that we have been wearing make some sense of parts of Scripture but do not truly account for the entirety of the Bible. Furthermore, these lenses are not those that the Church has been using for the last 2,000 years. Instead, they are new, they are the product of a modernist worldview, and they are seriously deficient. So again I ask that you put them aside for a moment and try on this set of lenses and see if the biblical text does not come into clearer focus.
Reading the Bible in light of Jesus
When it comes to questions of prophecy and the fulfillment of OT promises I would suggest that the answer is found by reading the OT in light of the NT; and even more so reading the OT in light of Christ. Sure I believe that the OT stands on its own. That is, we study the OT in light of itself in order to determine what it meant to the audience to whom it was written. But if we want to understand what it meant in light of the whole of God’s revelation we must turn to the NT. For it is clear that Jesus read the OT and saw its fulfillment in light of Himself. This is what Peter was saying when he notes that the OT prophets didn’t fully understand the fulfillment of their prophesies (1 Pet 1:10-12).
Now when we approach the NT we notice that the fulfillment of the OT is not what was expected—especially from a straightforward reading of the OT. We recognize that the Pharisees and leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus. Part of the reason is that they had come to expect the Kingdom of God to look a certain way based on their reading of the OT. But their reading was wrong. It was wrong because they failed to understand that the OT was about Jesus! And since Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, nor their wants and wishes, they were not about to reread the OT in light of Jesus.
It is here that I think that many Christians do that same thing. For example, many of the OT promises to the people of God are clearly applied to Jesus in the NT. This corresponds with the NT’s emphasis that the entire story finds its fulfillment in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24). Jesus testifies to this fact to the two men on the road to Emmaus. For, according to Luke 24 the men were grieved because, as they said, they “were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Now we should note that Luke has already told his readers that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel (Luke 2:25, 38—both Simeon and Anna were looking for this and Luke clearly wants us to see that the baby Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise). So we the readers already know that these two men are missing the significance of Jesus. Luke then tells us that Jesus replied to the men, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Thus, they came to understand that their hopes that Jesus was going to redeem and restore Israel have indeed been fulfilled. The fulfillment, however, came through Jesus’ suffering! This was the part they didn’t get. That the restoration of Israel must happen through suffering. And Jesus has done so. Note, Jesus doesn’t say to them: “I am not here to redeem Israel, but to die for your sins. I will redeem Israel in the future.” No, Jesus gently rebukes them for failing to understand that “all the prophets” have noted; namely, that the restoration of Israel comes through suffering!
Thus, a paradigm shift is needed. The paradigm shift simply necessitates making Jesus and his suffering the center of Scripture. If all is fulfilled in Him (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24) then we too must re-read the OT. If the promises are fulfilled in Christ, then does this mean that we should understand the NT in terms of this fulfillment? Yes. And when we do so, the entire story of Scripture begins to make much more sense.
Thus, when it comes to particular questions such as who are the people of God, we must also ask, ‘how does the NT view such?; or what does the fulfillment of this in Christ look like?’ Here is where many get thrown off. For the fulfillment of these things in the NT does not mean that they have been fulfilled in all their fullness. For that we are awaiting the New Jerusalem.
For many evangelicals this is an ‘either’ ‘or’ set of propositions. That is, either the prophecies have been fulfilled or they haven’t. For them, since the fulfillment does meet their expectations, they have concluded that the fulfillment is still future. But, again, when we read the NT we begin to notice that Jesus has ushered in the beginning of the fulfillment and that He brings about the consummation of all things at His return (1 Cor 15:25).
When we look at the question of who are the people of God, we see that Paul clearly says, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29). Later, Paul notes that Abraham is the “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11). By any reckoning, that makes all Christians, regardless of race, the children of Abraham! Israelites! Jews! Paul goes on to say that, “if those who are of law are heirs, faith if made void and the promise is nullified” (Rom 4:14). Thus, Paul concludes, “For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). Again, that makes all Christians the descendants of Abraham—including any Jewish person who has the faith of Abraham, which is in Christ!
Now let’s keep the question of whether or not there is a future for ethnic Israel also on the shelf for a moment. The point is that Paul clearly sees the people of God are included in the descendants of Abraham—this is what the grafting into the tree of Israel is all about (Rom 11). One only has to look at the word ‘inheritance’ in the NT to see that this word, which was central to the promises of the OT covenant related to land and family, is applied to the Christians in the NT. Paul, in fact, notes that the ‘inheritance’ cannot be based on the law (Gal 3:18).
Furthermore, note that even in the OT God’s people were never tied to a race. For, in the OT the race of Israelites were not all without exception recipients of God’s promises. Paul says this emphatically: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants” (Rom 9:6-7).
Such a reading of the OT also makes sense as to why Isaiah 49 (which is about Israel) is applied both to Jesus (Luke 2:32) and to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:47). We see that the role for Israel in the OT was to be a light unto the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6). Yet, we know that Jesus claims that He is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). And we see that Jesus tells His disciples that they are the light of the world (Matt 5:14). It is both. The fulfillment of the call and mission of Israel is first Jesus and then His followers. Now this may not look like the grandiose fulfillment promised in the OT. But Jesus Himself told us that the Kingdom of God will begin in an insignificant manner (like a mustard seed; Mark 4:30-32) and then will become “larger than all the garden plants” (Mark 4:32). Thus, the fulfillment has come in Christ, continues through the Church by means of the Spirit, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. This mission will be accomplished only in the New Jerusalem; when those from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, stand before the throne” (Rev 7:9).
We can affirm this understanding throughout the NT. Thus, Ephesians 2:11-3:6 encourages the Gentiles that they are included into the family of God! Paul begins by equating the Gentiles with those who had no share in the land-kinship of Israel (2:12). Then Paul describes the work of Christ as breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and its consequences: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, . . . but are of God’s household” (Eph 2:19; cf Mark 3:34-35). Finally, Paul summarizes their new position as ‘fellow heirs’, ‘fellow members’, ‘fellow partakers’ (Eph 3:6).
Peter, also calls the NT people of God, “a holy priesthood; . . . A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:5, 9). These titles are exclusively used in the OT for the people of Israel (Chosen Race: see Isa 43:16-20—text notes that YHWH provides for His people in the midst of adversity; Royal priesthood: see Exod 19:5-6—text also alludes to God’s deliverance of His people from bondage; People for God’s own possession: cp Exod 19:5; Isa 43:21; Mal 3:17). Thus, the NT views this as fulfilled in the inclusion of the Gentiles through the work of Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: when we read the OT through the lens of Jesus, as I believe that NT writers did, then we can see clearly that the fulfillment of the OT begins in Jesus, continues through the NT people of God, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. To suggest that the promises to Israel still apply to an ethnic race fail to understand the fulfillment in Jesus and the nature of the fulfillment. Yes, this may not be what we expected. But, we also see that the fulfillment transcends what we might have expected. Therefore, if the fulfillment for the call of Israel is in Christ, His people, and the New Jerusalem, and the promise was that those who bless/curse Israel God will bless/curse, then we should expect to see this principle carried forth in the NT. And we do. This is the essence of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where God rewards or punishes men for how they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matt 25:40, 45). And this theme runs through the book of Revelation where the judgment of the wicked is because of how they have treated God’s people (e.g., Rev 6:10; 16:5-6; 17:6-18:24).
Thus, to bless Israel means to bless the God’s people; and in the NT God’s people transcend any given race.