Ordinary Time: The Book of Acts So Far (Chapters 1-6)

Earlier I said that during the season of Ordinary Time I would post some reflections on the Book of Acts. But unfortunately time has been getting away from me lately.

So, every week I will post the sermon I am preaching from the series on Acts at the Austin CSI Mission Church. The goal is to finish this series by the end of Ordinary Time in November, which may be a tall order. We will see.

In coming weeks, I also hope to post some more on what exactly we mean when we talk about God’s Kingdom, God’s Glory, and election.

In this first post, I’ll post links to the sermons so far:

Trinity Sunday: The Beauty of the Triune God

trinity-stained-glass-window

This post was meant to be published on June 11, which was Trinity Sunday. Apologies for the late post. 

After Pentecost, the Church Calendar enters a period of “Ordinary Time,” which will stretch out until the beginning of Advent on December 3.

In Ordinary Time, we do not order our hearts by living into Jesus’ story, as we do in the six months from the beginning of Advent to the end of Easter at Pentecost. We do not have the longing of Advent, the joy of Christmas, the contemplation of Epiphany, the preparation of Lent, the agony of Good Friday, the triumph of Resurrection, or the excitement of Pentecost to guide us as we seek to follow Jesus in our worship and prayer.

Instead, for the six months of Ordinary Time, we try to live into the story of the Church after Pentecost, the story of us now–where we confess that Jesus is Ascended and that the Spirit dwells in our hearts and knits us together in our local congregations, all while we wrestle with the nagging doubt: Is this going anywhere, or are we just marking time, Sunday after Sunday, to no real end?

The question of Ordinary Time is a question I want to leave for the next few Sundays of June, and then I would like to jump into a study that would take us through the Book of Acts from the start of July through to the end of November.

But before we have to wrestle with the meaning of Ordinary Time, we must acknowledge that the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 11, is also Trinity Sunday.

Accordingly, on this Sunday we focus on the mystery of God’s being as Three-in-One. This Sunday is unique on the Church Calendar as it is the only Sunday focused on a doctrine of the church, and not on an event.

The word “Trinity” is nowhere used in Scripture. And yet, to not acknowledge the truth of the Trinity is to place yourself outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Paul charges Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:14 to “guard the deposit of faith” that was entrusted to him, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. For the first three hundred years of the Church, before Scripture had been canonized by the church, many challenges arose against the deposit of faith.

In sum, most of these challenges were attempts to make sense of who Christ is in relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. There was consensus among the different factions that Christ and the Holy Spirit were divine in some sense. But in keeping with the Greek Platonic thought of the day, they were thought to be lesser emanations springing forth from the pure, uncaused Godhead, the Father.

Under this interpretation, Christ would be the highest of all creatures, supreme within the universe–but still a creature nonetheless. The Holy Spirit is either another, spiritual emanation from the Father, or a Spirit of Christ that flows forth subordinate to Him.

This interpretation was rejected fulsomely at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This council published a Creed to guard the deposit of faith and clarify the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Creed was further expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, and reads as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;

And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;

And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.

We look for the Resurrection of the dead,

And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Though this Creed has been slightly altered in various Christian traditions–often prompting schism and division when done–today, millions of Oriental and Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers confess the Nicene Creed every Sunday. In doing so, we guard the deposit of the Christian faith and hold to the worship of the Triune God, over and against our human attempts to simplify, and thereby unwittingly distort, His Divine Life.

Accordingly we confess that the Father is the Creator, Maker and Sustainer of all things visible and invisible. I like how it sounds in Latin: visibilium omnium et invisibilium. It makes me think of the omnium, the entire universe, both visible and invisible–there is an entire dimension of reality we humans cannot perceive, but over which God is just as sovereign!

We also confess that Jesus is the uncreated Son of the Father: “begotten, not made.” He is very God of very God, eternally generated but in no sense subordinate in being or oneness with the Father.

And we finally confess that the Holy Spirit, who inspired Scripture as he “spoke by the Prophets,” who imparts life and every good gift from the Father to Creation for the sake of the Son, and who is equal in being and oneness with the Father and the Son.

And so, as summarized by many teachers of Christianity, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son nor is He the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father nor is He the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor is He the Son. And God is one. This is what Christians believe.

It is probably unhelpful to attempt to peer into the Trinity past this confession with further metaphors, for every metaphor risks distorting the simultaneous Threeness and Oneness of God that we confess as Christians.

However, I can’t help myself: At the risk of being heretical, let me venture forth a tentative a proposal for understanding the Trinity that has helped me a great deal. I do not think it is original–I am sure that I have read it or heard it somewhere, but I cannot find out where.

As I talk about in another post, God is “being itself,” the pure act of being that both transcends being and imparts the gift of being to all that exists. One way to understand “the act of being” may be to compare it to another logically distinct idea like speaking.

We can separate out the “act of speaking” into 1) the thought of the word that will be spoken, 2) the breath (or the physical act of speaking) that brings the word forth into sound, and 3) the word that is spoken, which was generated by the thought and accomplished by the breath. These are all elements of the “act” of speaking.

Perhaps we can think of God in a similar fashion. There is the Father, who is eternally “thinking” of the Son and activating the Spirit to bring the Son forth. There is the Spirit, who is eternally activated by the Father and brings the Son forth in power. And there is the Son, who is eternally the object of the Father’s “eternal thought” and brought into fullness by the Spirit. These three Persons who are one God are together the “act” of being.

I’m almost sure this is wrong in some sense, so please don’t make my metaphor ultimate for understanding the Trinity. The closest we can get to understanding the Trinity is the Creed which helps us understand Scripture.

But I do think that this metaphor, however flawed and limited, does help us make sense of Christian life, which is caught up in the Triune God. The Father created with a purpose, but His purpose is the Son, and the Spirit is the means by which He accomplishes the Son. In the same way, we can only be like Jesus through the work of the Spirit, and becoming like Jesus is the Father’s goal for us as the Church. I believe this is a beautiful picture of God’s aims for us.

As we embark on the next six months of Ordinary Time, it is fitting that we begin by focusing on the Trinity. Because it is by being caught up in the Trinitarian life of God that the Church finds its grounds, meaning, and purpose.

Pentecost Sunday: The Mission of the Church

Pentecost

This post was meant to run on June 4, 2017, which was Pentecost Sunday and the end of the Easter Season. Apologies for the late post. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-13.

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday and the end of the Easter season. For 7 Sundays, we have contemplated the Resurrection of Christ and its many implications. One of its most explosive implications is the gift of Christ’s Spirit to the Church, which binds us together into the life of God.

Fifty days after Passover and liberation from Egypt, the Israelites were given the Law at Mt. Sinai. Hundreds of years later, Pentecost (Shavout) was the feast where the Jews, as the faithful remnant of Israel, would commemorate this giving of the Law.

But if you know the story of the giving of the Law at Sinai, you know that it was an event touched by tragedy. After Moses came down with the Ten Commandments, he confronted a nation that–just 50 days after an amazing escape from slavery and certain death by the shores of the Red Sea–had forsaken their Savior God and turned to idolatry. In order to save the nation, Moses called for his own faithful tribe of Levites to cut down their rebellious brothers. 3,000 Israelites were killed by the sword that day. The whole story is told in Exodus 32.

But 50 days after the Crucifixion of our Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire on the disciples while the city of Jerusalem was observing Pentecost. But at this Pentecost, things were different. Peter preaches the first public sermon of Christ, and 3,000 Jews were cut by the sword of the Spirit in their hearts, and they were baptized and saved. See Acts 2:37-42.

We see in this story both the continuity and radical discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. There is continuity–we must not fall into the Marcionite heresy which dismissed the Old Testament as heralding some other, lesser god whom Jesus Christ supersedes.

But we should also note the radical discontinuity in modes of practice between the zealous violence of Moses and the co-suffering martyrdom of the apostles, which occurs after the unveiling of the beautiful Christ. By the power of the Spirit, it is the mission of the church to preach Christ.

It is through the lens of Pentecost that I want to examine the last question raised by the post from a few weeks ago, The Resurrection and A Multi-Faceted Gospel. As a reminder, here were the questions:

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel? (I tried to answer that in this post, The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God.)
  2. How can capital-E Evil as a rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God? (I tried to answer that in this post, The Ascension, Evil, and the Sovereignty of God.)
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

In my earlier post, I stated my concern that our Gospel presentations would be distorted if we unknowingly conveyed an overly individualistic, spiritualized, and Hell-focused Gospel.

In order to correct those distortions, I suggested that preachers of the Gospel should be sensitive to the truths in Scripture that 1) Physical matter will be redeemed, not just souls, 2) The Spirit is forming a New Humanity by restoring the image of God so that mankind can return to its original vocation, not just saving individuals for Heaven, 3) The biblical witness gives us a divine drama, not a logical formula for salvation, 4) Heaven and Earth will be united and all that was former will pass away, 5) All spiritual and temporal powers will be placed under the feet of Christ, 6) Jesus Christ as a living person must be supreme and central in any Gospel presentation, not just as the logical solution to a problem, and 7) The emphasis in the “Good News” is firmly on the Resurrection.

Pentecost Sunday reminds us that the mission of the church is to preach Christ, the Son of God and the son of David, crucified for our sake, risen from the dead, and ascended as Lord over all. I believe that the above suggestions will help us understand the mission and worship of Christ in three ways:

  1. Christ founds a new world. The task of the Church is not to itself “change the world.” The task of the Church is to bear witness that God has changed the world because of Jesus Christ, and to invite everyone into this new reality governed by Christ through the power of the Spirit.
  2. Therefore, the task of the Church is to implement the Resurrection of Christ in anticipation of the final reconciliation of all things in the New Heavens and New Earth.
  3. Finally, by simply faithfully being the Church in its mission and worship, the Church helps the world taste the Kingdom, because the Church by definition is already transformed in the ways it relates to space, time, and matter.

My thoughts on this are heavily indebted to the Anglican bishop and theologian NT Wright. You can hear him expound on these thoughts in a much more compelling way than my post here.

CHRIST FOUNDS A NEW WORLD

After the Resurrection and before the Ascension, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus commissioned his disciples with the following words:

 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 18:18-20.

Luke portrays Jesus’ parting words to the disciples before the Ascension in this way:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

When we put these two narratives together, we see that the task of the universal Church is to be a witness to Jesus’ authority and power throughout the world, and to make disciples from all the nations into the way of Jesus.

To give greater context to this task, and to understand why the disciples were inquiring about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, we must keep in mind this prophecy from Daniel 2:

You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

“This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it shall crush and shatter all these. As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.”

Daniel 2:31-45.

Daniel foresaw a day when the idolatrous empires that rule the world would be crushed by a stone, cut from a mountain but not by human hands. This stone would grow until it filled the whole earth.

Jesus Christ is the stone cut from the mountain, very God of very God, who comes down by the power of the Spirit to crush the empires of evil and establish a kingdom of justice and light that will stand forever.

There are many debates on the exact relationship between the Kingdom and the Church, which we will not get into here. The point is that all believers are witnesses to the reality that Christ has founded this new Kingdom, that He has Ascended and reigns even now, and that He will rule until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” (Quote from his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University of Amsterdam). And we praise God because if it belongs to Christ, it will be redeemed and live again.

This is an important distinction–we do not ourselves create the new reality of the Kingdom. God creates this reality through Christ and the Spirit. Instead, we receive it, live under it, and offer it to the world for their blessing.

We witness this new reality with our every thought, word, and deed. This is what it means to be the Church. As we are joined to the Risen Body of Christ, we are Spirit-filled agents of His Kingdom, pressing its truth and reality further and further into the world. And we continually invite everyone to step into the reality of the New Creation accomplished by Christ, so that they may taste the Kingdom and praise God.

IMPLEMENT THE RESURRECTION

Paul makes this clear at the end of his long discourse on why the Resurrection is so central to Christian faith in 1 Corinthians 15. For 57 verses, he has been tightly packing an extended argument on Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our resurrection from the dead.

You may suppose that when he concludes this discourse, he may something like, “Therefore, keep your chins up when you are persecuted, because you are going to be given new bodies after death and that will be a wonderful defeat of death.”

This is not how Paul concludes. Instead, he does something very interesting: He writes in verse 58–“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I believe that Paul here is harkening back to the message of Ecclesiastes, where the Teacher throughout the book refrains, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

In a world governed by death, our families, our labor, and our entire lives can lose meaning and significance. On a long enough time scale, there is only death, and everything is meaningless. I believe that what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 15:58 is to point out that if the Resurrection is true, nothing is meaningless. The Resurrection infuses all of our activities with meaning and significance–cosmic meaning and significance. As the Church, what we do in the name of Christ will echo throughout eternity. Our labor is not in vain.

As the Church, we live after the time of Pentecost, when we were given the Spirit, but before the time of parousia, when Christ will appear again. As Paul wrote earlier in 1 Corinthians 3, we all build upon the foundation of Christ, and our work shall be tested on the Last Day as by fire. The gold, silver, and precious gems in our work will be purified and included in God’s New Creation, and the builder will be rewarded. But all that is wood, straw, and hay, will burn up, and the builder will suffer loss.

And so, our task in this in-between period is not to “build the Kingdom,” but to “build for the Kingdom.” As the Church, we implement the Resurrection of Christ so as to anticipate the New Heavens and New Earth.

What does this mean concretely? This means that mission is at the very heart of the life of the Church. The Church should not mostly be concerned about its own inner life and programs. As Jesus was to Israel, so the Church is to be to the world as an extension of Christ.

It is not easy to make a straightforward answer as to how our work in the Creation will be included–by grace–into the New Creation. But we have some assurance that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, as Christ tells us in Matthew 25, and when we bring beauty to the world through music and the arts, and when we labor in our workplaces, and we do so in the name of Christ, none of it will be wasted. All of it is meaningful and will be redeemed in the New Creation.

Christians are those who have confidence that because of the Resurrection, everything that we do has meaning before God. In the Book of Acts, we are given example after example of how the early church “implemented the Resurrection”–through ministries of healing, through the driving out of demons, through the liberation of slaves, through the reconciliation of races and cultures, through confrontation with the principalities and powers who think they can rule the world apart from the Justice of God, through provision for the orphans and the widows, through contextualized preaching, through apostolic fellowship and the breaking of bread, through the sharing of all possessions, through love for their enemies, and through martyrdom.

Because of Christ and through the Spirit, the Church bears fruit before God for the blessing of the world. This is what it means to “implement the Resurrection,” and thereby declare and demonstrate to the world that Jesus is Lord.

TASTING THE KINGDOM

The Church is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God. But as the Body of Christ, it submits to the reality of the Kingdom of God, and thereby makes available to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It does so by proclaiming Christ in thought, word, and deed. But it also does so by living a transformed communal life with a different relationship to space, time, and matter. By simply being the church that worships the Resurrected Son, and that sees all of reality through a Gospel-lens, the Church is transformed into a community that witnesses to the world the power of Christ simply by existing.

  1. Space

The Church has a transformed relationship to the spatial dimension. As NT Wright demonstrates, throughout the Old Testament we are given a vision of Heaven and Earth as separate dimensions of reality that overlap and interlock. Particularly at the Ark of the Covenant, and then at the Temple, the Israelites are able to experience and access the presence of God in power and glory. Heaven touches Earth at these special places designated and blessed by God.

This relationship of an overlapping and interlocking Heaven and Earth continues into the New Testament, but it is radically transformed. Jesus Christ is the true Temple in which the fullness of godhood bodily dwells. And so, as Christians, we now believe that the places where Heaven invades Earth are the places where Jesus is truly present.

Christ has promised a few particular places where He will be specially present, and where Heaven will therefore be breaking into Earth. We are promised in Scripture that Christ will be present among His people gathered in His name, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the faces of the poor and marginalized.

The first is among His people gathered in His name, as promised in Matthew 18:20:

 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Peter expands upon this in 1 Peter 2:4-5, where he states that all people who are built upon the foundation of Christ are a Temple for God:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

As the gathered Church, we are the place where Heaven invades Earth.

Further, Christ is truly present through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; Therefore, by participating in the sacraments the Church also encounters Heaven invading Earth. As told by the Apostle Paul in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 10.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:3-4.

I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Corinthians 15:15-17.

And finally, Christ has truly promised to be present in the faces of the poor and marginalized, to whom we are called to minister as bearers of the image of God:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:31-40.

In the gathered Church, in the sacraments, and in the faces of the poor, Christ is present, and Heaven is invading Earth. Simply by being the Church that is faithful to Christ’s presence in these things, we will witness to the world the coming union of Heaven and Earth, where God’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

2. Time

The Church also has a transformed relationship to the dimension of time.  In contrast to other worldviews, the biblical worldview presents us a picture of time as linear, not as cyclic. In other words, instead of time as an inexorable wheel, Christians perceive of time as having an origin and moving toward an end-goal, which is Christ.

I say end-goal, and not end, because the picture presented us in Revelation 21 and 22 does not seem to be the abrogation of time, but its renewal and perfection. In addition, time meets its historical climax in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ–as Christians, we believe that the “Christ-event” is the decisive turning point of history.

But as Christians, we also believe that God’s sovereignty over time means that in the present moment, the past can come rushing forward, and the future can loop back to be experienced as a foretaste. In a real sense, Christians are a “people from the future”–God promises us a New Creation at the end of time, but as Paul writes, anyone who is in Christ is already a New Creation.

NT Wright likens this to when, in the wilderness wanderings of the people of God on their way to the promised land, the Israelites send out spie, who bring back the produce of the land for the Israelites to enjoy while still in the wilderness.

This should shape how we understand the relationship between the Sacraments and time.

One day, God will flood all of Creation with His Love.  In the present sacramental life of the Church, that future where God is all in all is experienced now by the power of the Spirit. In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine is charged with God’s presence as a foretaste of how all of Creation will be charged with God’s presence in the New Creation. In Baptism, the water is charged with God’s blessing as a foreshadowing of how all of Creation will be charged with God’s blessing in the New Creation.

Something similar happens for the past events where Jesus accomplished our salvation. In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine are not a new sacrifice–they transport us to the Cross, so that we truly buy mysteriously partake in the flesh and blood of Christ that was sacrificed for us once and for all. In Baptism, the Spirit joins our life to the past events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that by going down we descend with Christ to death, and by coming up we ascend with Christ to New Life.

We are still on the linear time, but by the Spirit the present moment can intersect with the past moment and the future moment. This too is a foretaste of the New Creation that we make available to the world simply by faithfully being the Church.

3. Matter

Finally, the Church has a transformed relationship with physical matter.

As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

When we participate in the mission of God, we should not be surprised that it will lead us to pain and suffering that brings into our present reality the sufferings of the Cross, and that through those sufferings we will occasionally break through to New Life in Resurrection. I do not believe this is metaphorical–our restoration is and will be a physical restoration, where matter will be charged with the grandeur of God.

As CS Lewis recognized in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, this has enormous implications. It means that every person that we meet today, after being confronted with the Love of God, will be physically transformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

–CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory, pg 9.

This means that our everyday relationships must be transformed as the Church. Every day, a husband is helping his wife become either a more heavenly or a more hellish creature. Every day, a mother is helping her children become either a more heavenly or a more hellish creature. Every day, friends push other down the road to beauty or nightmare.

The mission of the Church extends even to our smallest interactions with the people on the fringes of our lives’ stories. Every relationship, every hello and goodbye, is an opportunity to show the transforming grace of our Lord and Savior. Simply by being the Church that has a transformed relationship to physical matter, we witness to the world the alternative reality of Christ.

CONCLUSION

NT Wright summarizes his thoughts on the connection between the mission of the Church and the Resurrection of Christ in his book, The Challenge of Easter. I think this is a good way to close our reflections in the season of Easter this Pentecost Sunday:

The key is that humans are made in the image of God.  That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel’s unique position and vocation.  And bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation.  It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God.  It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship—or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.

Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made.  But like Israel with her vocation, we get it wrong.  We worship other gods and start to reflect their likeness instead.  We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God’s world as either a gold mine or an ashtray.  And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse….

…Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion.

Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world.   Israel was made to bring God’s rescuing love to bear upon the world.  Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.  He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it.  We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance it.

Because of the Resurrection of Christ, the Church is a community of renewed human beings able to bear the image of God again. This image of God, which is Jesus Christ, transforms our hearts so that we participate in His ministry of reconciliation as a Church of renewed worship and mission.

“The Gospel in a Nutshell”

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Over the last few years, I’ve participated in and/or witnessed a few conversations over church renewal or preaching or the future of the church where, inevitably, the conversants get down to the question, “What is the Gospel?” In many of these conversations, the 4 Gospels are set over and against the epistles, particularly those of Paul.

That’s why in 2013 The Gospel Coalition hosted a panel asking, “Did Jesus preach the Gospel?,” with the conclusion that the apostle Paul had the basic understanding of what the Gospel means with the benefit of being able to look back on it from the other side of the Cross, and that it is not inappropriate to read the Gospels through the lens of Galatians and Romans. It’s also why NT Wright, by contrast, insists that we have to return to the 4 Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life in order to properly understand what the Gospel–and Paul’s exposition of it–means. As I have a lot of love for both sets of Scripture-loving Christians, I am often frustrated with the feeling that we are all talking past each other.

Over time, this conversation leads to division between Christians trying to be faithful, as they try to discern, is the Gospel entry into the Kingdom of God, or is the Gospel salvation from sin by the Cross? Is it justification by faith, or is it the Sermon on the Mount? Is it penal substitution, or Christus victor? Where do the Holy Spirit and the dark principalities and powers fit into all this?

I have made my own argument for a more textured, multi-dimensional presentation of the Gospel, one which cannot be reduced to simple formulas or phrases, and which holds together things that should never be separated. But I have received good push-back: Surely, we should be able to describe the Gospel simply and clearly, right?

I have been thinking about this criticism over the last few weeks, and then came across a short essay written by Martin Luther on reading the Gospels. In it, he comments on how Paul and the Gospel accounts are in harmony, and his “Gospel in a nutshell” relies on 5 points, each of which can and should be expanded through good teaching and preaching.

To Luther, the Gospel is:

  1. A story about Jesus Christ.
  2. Who is God’s son and David’s son.
  3. How He suffered and died.
  4. How God raised Him from the dead.
  5. How He was established Lord of all.

I enthusiastically agree with each point. If I were to put it together in a sentence, I would say, “The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God and Messiah, died for our sake, rose from the dead, and now rules as Lord of Creation.” This is the Gospel we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, every apostolic epistle, and Revelation. Read the excerpt below:

One should thus realize that there is only one Gospel, but that it is described by many apostles. Every single epistle of Paul and of Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, is a Gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ, but one is shorter and includes less than another. There is not one of the four major Gospels anyway that includes all the words and works of Christ; nor is this necessary. Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the Gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered-a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way.

For at its briefest, the Gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things. This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents [in Christ’s ministry] which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole Gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans [1:1-4], where he says what the Gospel is, and declares, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.

There you have it. The Gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. Just as there is no more than one Christ, so there is and may be no more than one Gospel….

– Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels, emphasis added.

I love how he sums up the impact of understanding the Gospel in this holistic way:

This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself.

See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that
is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at.

This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.

This is why such preaching is called Gospel, which in German means
a joyful, good, and comforting “message”; and this is why the apostles are called the “twelve messengers.”

Amen and Amen, repent and believe the Gospel.

The 6th Sunday After Easter: The Ascension of Christ, Evil, and the Sovereignty of God

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Update: This post is embarrassingly incomplete, and because I set it to an automatic uploading schedule, it was published prematurely. I hope to expand and complete it in the coming days. Rather than deleting, I’m going to leave what I have so far up until I can get to finishing it.

Update 2: Finally finished this piece. 

According to the Church Calendar, 40 days after Easter (this year, that was Thursday, May 25) we celebrate and remember Christ’s Ascension to Heaven. During this time, we contemplate the implications of the Ascension–including our faith that He has been enthroned, and now rules Creation.

In the Book of Acts, the disciples are given a picture of the Ascension of Jesus Christ from the standpoint of the world.

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:6-11.

In the Old Testament, Daniel is given a picture of the Ascension from the viewpoint of Heaven:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14. The letters of the apostles confirm that with the Ascension, Jesus Christ was enthroned in Heaven and now rules over Creation, judging it and extending His reign until all powers submit to Him.

“Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” 1 Peter 3:22.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11.

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:24-26.

 It is through the lens of Ascension, and Jesus’ overcoming of opposing powers, that I want to examine the second question raised in response to my post from two weeks ago, The Resurrection and a Multi-Faceted Gospel. To recap, here were the questions: 

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel? (I tried to answer that in last week’s post, The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God.)
  2. How can capital-E Evil as a rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God?
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

Again, today I’m going to focus on the second question: How does Evil fit with the Sovereignty of God?

Please remember that these thoughts are offered in the context of continued learning and dialogue, not an arrogant belief that I have everything figured out.

My proposed argument follows this outline:

  1. God, as Creator, is the ground of all being, “Being itself,” and so He is the fountain of all existence.
  2. But as Christians, we confess God is Father, Son, Holy Spirit; because God is Trinity, “Being itself” must be understood as “being-in-relation.”
  3. Evil is the absence of God, not an independent power in itself.
  4. But there are forces of evil that are genuinely in opposition to God and His purposes.
  5. Although the biblical account of God’s sovereignty does establish His authorship–and therefore, His ultimate responsibility–of all things, it is primarily concerned with God establishing His rule over and against genuine opposition, and it does not neatly reconcile the tension between those two ideas.
  6. Remember the Trinity! God’s authorship and relationship to time is complicated because He is both a) sovereign over time as Creator and b) committed to time through covenant, Christ, and the Spirit operating in the Church.
  7. This all matters because it has important pastoral implications, including the way the Church should communicate assurance, comfort, and meaning to people in suffering, and the valid place of lament in the life of the Church.

WHAT MAKES GOD GOD?

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22-31. Emphasis added.

In trying to explain who God is to the people of Athens at Mars Hill (the Areopagus), Paul appeals to the poetry of Aratus, who himself was influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Paul quotes Aratus, who is trying to explain that the ruling god Zeus, if he truly were the Creator God, could not simply be a supremely powerful “god” within the cosmos; The universe must somehow spring forth from the Creator God, who stands over and against it, not contained within it.

This is why Aratus writes of this Creator God, whom he identifies as Zeus–“In Him we live and move and have our being.” Paul quotes Aratus to identify this Creator God as the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss,* distinguishes between the different things we mean when we use the word “god.”

(*I highly recommend the book, because every page is brilliant, but it’s a tough read. DB Hart has a few annoying tics–1) He repeats profound but difficult to grasp points endlessly, without much unpacking, as if by repetition he can force the reader to understand, 2) he adopts a condescending tone to his intellectual opponents, and 3) his writing is so dense I had to re-read some paragraphs three times just to make sure I was still tracking with the argument. Also, it helps to keep a thesaurus handy.)

According to Hart, all of the world’s great religions have distinguished between “gods”– divine beings who reign over some part of the cosmos or even rule the entire universe as the most powerful beings within the universe–and “God”:

“the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”

As Hart demonstrates, this insight is indeed shared by all the great religions. Whether we are examining Sufi Muslim poetry extolling the transcendence of Allah, the Hindu philosophers discussing the God Brahman in the Upanashids, the Jewish Torah scholar Moses Maimonides, or Thomas Aquinas insisting that God is ipsum esse subsistensthere is basic agreement that the Creator God, properly understood, is not a discrete object within a set of objects within the Universe, but the ultimate transcendental ground of being itself.

Therefore, the quality that makes God “God” is that He is absolute, and all other realities are contingent. By this I mean, all other realities depend for their existence upon Him, whereas He is the ground of being–“Being Itself”–He depends only upon Himself for His existence.

Perhaps you think all the above is less than useful. While it may helpfully show agreement among philosophers trying to understand who God is without the gift of revelation, it does not have much bearing on a Christian who is trying to be faithful to Scripture.

But consider Exodus 3:13-15 (emphasis added):

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

The Covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when asked for His Name by Moses, revealed Himself to be the Creator God who is Being Itself, the sheer act of Being without whom existence is not a possibility, the Sustainer of all that is, the Great I AM. This is why Jewish teachers have always identified the transcendent god of the philosophers as YHWH.

But there’s more. As Christians, we confess that the Creator God who is the transcendent Reality that undergirds all other realities is Three-in-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally One God in Three Persons. This should complicate and distinguish our understanding of “Being Itself” from that of the ancient philosophers.

This is a major theme of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book, Introduction to Christianity. If God is Being Itself, and  if God is Trinity, then that means that at the very heart of Being is “being-in-relation.” Since all things that are in existence are created and sustained by the Triune God who Himself is “being-in-relation,” then that means that at the heart of existence is relationship. And not just any relationship–the relationship within the Trinity is a never-ending economy of self-giving and pouring out to glorify the other. In other words, as the apostle John said in his old age, the covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who revealed Himself as the transcendent ground of being to Moses, is the God who is Love.

Why am I going into this? What does this have to do with evil’s relationship to God?

I think we have to have a very firm understanding of what makes God “God” in order to refute any attempt to make God the author of evil. Evil does not spring from God. God’s “Godness” is fact that He is the transcendent source of all reality, without which no other thing would exist, not from the fact that there are no wills able to oppose Him or resist Him or fight Him.

If we think of God as a Supreme Being within the Universe, then the fact that there are wills able to oppose Him may threaten our confidence in His sovereignty. But if we understand that God is Being Itself, we know that genuine opposition to His Will is no threat to His Godhood. God’s “Godness” is found in the fact that, at every moment, He imparts the gift of being to all that exists. It is not in the fact that no created will can resist or oppose His will. As Christians, we confess that this transcendent God is the Triune God of Love–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who invites the world He created into His Love. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:3-4.

WHAT IS EVIL?

But then this raises the question, what is evil and what is its relation to this transcendent God?

The great Church Father Augustine was once a Manichaean, who believed that good could not exist without evil. When Augustine converted to Christianity, he rejected his old Manichaeanism, with its belief that all of life was a battle between two, equal powers of good and evil struggling for supremacy.

However, this left him with a problem. If 1) God created everything, and 2) evil is a thing, then 3) God created evil. This was repugnant to Augustine, not least because it contradicted Scripture:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

Augustine’s ingenious solution was to question the second premise in the above syllogism: “Evil is a thing.” Instead, Augustine came to the opposite conclusion: Evil is not a thing.

This was a brilliant insight. Augustine was not denying that evil is real. He simply insists that evil is not a thing in itself–evil is a privation. This means that evil is an absence or corruption–a deprivation–of something created to be good so that it is less than would it should be.

Just as there is no such thing as “cold,” but a lack of heat, and just as the darkness is really a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness. Under this understanding, as the apostle John said in his old age, God can never be the author of evil, because He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Neither is evil an independent power in and of itself equal to God. Evil is simply how we describe what God is not. Therefore, to the degree that something is not participating in God’s being and purpose–which is the definition of goodness–it is evil.

We must be faithful to the biblical witness that there are forces in the world that do not participate in God’s being and purpose, and that even oppose Him. This is a hard concept to grasp, but it is what I believe we find in Scripture: Evil is real, but it is not a thing. It is an absence of goodness, and there are powers and wills created by God who turn away from God and toward this absence, which means their ultimate obliteration, as God is the source of all being and life.

HOW IS GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY ESTABLISHED IN SCRIPTURE?

I believe the above is important to get straight because otherwise we can confuse understandings of God’s sovereignty as related in Scripture.

God is certainly sovereign as Creator and Sustainer of all things–even the ability of someone to choose to degrade themselves with an evil act is a choice that must be preserved and upheld by God, who creates and sustains all things by giving them the gift of their being. This is the kind of sovereignty Paul was talking about in Acts 17.

As the philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote in Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76:

God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.

The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all.

And again, in God Matters, pg. 13:

So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.

(Both citations taken from an excellent blog post on Divine and Human Agency at the site Eclectic Orthodoxy).

This is heady stuff, but I think if I understand it rightly, it means that I can affirm the thought of some of the Protestant Reformers: Our decisions are 100% our own, and 100% God’s. God’s will is not on the same plane of causation as our own, and therefore His will is not a rival that “crowds-out” my will; Instead, He is the Act of Being that creates, allows, and seals my will to be my will.

Then there is God’s sovereignty as it’s talked about in Psalm 2, where it is established against opposition and conspiracy:

Why do the nations conspire,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
    and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:

He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron,
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
    with trembling  

kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Happy are all who take refuge in him.

Much of Scripture is caught up in telling us the story of this conflict, which culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection. Scripture tells us of a battle in the Heavens; it shows us Abraham leaving a city of idols for a city that God would architect and build; it demonstrates YHWH’s power over the ten great Egyptian gods with ten plagues; it shows us Joshua cleansing the land of the Anakim; it relays how Solomon succumbed to foreign gods and thereby defiled the land; it tells us how Elijah triumphed over the priests of Baal; and on and on.

Finally, Scripture shows us the Lord’s anointed sweating in blood and agony at the Garden of Gethsamene, preparing for the climactic battle with the powers and principalities–the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate, and the ruler of the world who He would now drive out.

Jesus wages war against the forces of evil.  Luke’s Gospel makes a mockery of Rome’s claim to having the greatest military in the world by showing that Jesus’ birth is heralded by a great multitude of the heavenly host. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Mark, an impure spirit cries out to oppose and attempt to silence Jesus. The Devil faces off with Jesus in the wilderness. Gazing at the Cross, the apostle Paul exults:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

And again, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that though the decisive battle has been won, the war continues until our Lord’s return:

 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

My point here is that none of this is play-acting. In Scripture, the sovereignty of God that we see is a sovereignty that is established and won as the result of a great struggle and victory in history and time.

Evil is not a thing in itself–it is the absence of God–but it is real in the sense that there are powers and forces that align themselves with this nothingness when they turn away from God. Scripture tells us that this world is in some sense hostage to these hostile forces. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was a great victory against these dark powers, and the Church as the Body of Christ is implanted with His Spirit so that it can now continue this war to re-take all of Creation for our Sovereign, who will rule until He is all in all.

To the extent the struggle of  the Cross to establish God’s sovereignty is overlooked in our preaching and teaching, I think we are being unfaithful to the great drama presented in Scripture, which lives on in the present life of the Church.

I will confess there is a tension here between God’s sovereignty as Creator and His sovereignty as established by the Cross in Redemptive History. As Creator, God holds ultimate responsibility for Creation. Different theologians have proposed different theodicies that attempt to explain why a good God would create a world with evil and suffering as real possibilities within it. These explanations range from Irenaeus’ hypothesis that evil is necessary for humans to mature to the likeness of God, to CS Lewis’ explanation that God must imbue his creatures with some exercise of free will so that their love might be genuine, and the existence of free will necessarily risks evil.

Ultimately, as interesting as these theodicies are, they will probably always be unsatisfying as full explanations this side of the eschaton. Instead, we must remind ourselves that God is Trinity–He is a God of covenant who has committed Himself to history through the Incarnation of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit that is pulling His Church into a beautiful future where death will be swallowed up by life.

When we look to Christ, we see that he is not very interested in giving explanations for why evil exists. Instead, he goes about the business of crushing it and absorbing it into himself. Christianity doesn’t just tell us that there is evil in the world. We can already know that by the simple act of looking around.  Instead, Christianity tells us, in the words of the Catholic writer Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry:

…all of this suffering and evil in the world has been taken by God Himself and utterly destroyed, so that when the Universe is finally realized all will be radiant and glorious and every tear will be wiped from every eye. It says that all suffering and evil is born by the only one who can bear it, who helps you bear it, and can even help you turn it into good. It says that suffering and evil in the world is, indeed, a grievous injustice that cries out for all men of good will to combat it, and it enrolls you in God’s Army in this cosmic battle against evil, a battle where victory is certain.

Christianity is not an explanation for why things are. It is an encounter with the man on the Cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Behold this broken form, crowned with thorns, and kneel at the altar of his mighty Cross, and kiss his pierced, bloody feet. That’s your theodicy.

What can I add to that except “Amen.”

PASTORAL IMPLICATIONS

A final word on why this discussion of God’s relationship to evil matters so much to me. It seems to me that we do the church and God a great disservice when, in the course of trying to assure the flock that God is sovereign and in control, we simply re-describe suffering and evil as simply the outworkings of God’s sovereign will in accord with a universal teleology.

I encourage you to read the linked-to post by the Anglican theologian Alastair Roberts, but here is a short excerpt:

I fear the tendency to normalize the brokenness of this present order by presenting it as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. I do not believe that my suffering is inherently meaningful. Death, suffering and evil are parasitic and destructive. God may use evil as an occasion for the working of grace and may bring about His good will in spite of the wicked actions of man and the power of Sin and Death, but He does not will the rule of Sin and Death and the wicked actions of man; He merely permits them. I believe that there is an important distinction to be maintained here.

In our haste to give God His due by acknowledging His sovereignty, and to assure fellow believers that He is in control, we fail to acknowledge the destructive, parasitic forces opposed to God against whom we are called to struggle as the Church.

He goes on to write:

I have come to believe that God wants us to feel the tension between His will and the way things are in the world. Arguing that bad events are merely inscrutable manifestations of God’s will eases the deep and painful tension that we should be feeling between the way things are and the way that things were designed to be. However, it achieves this easing of tension at great expense. As we turn a blind eye to raw reality and try to explain it away we end up treating God as one who is not big enough to be confronted with things as they really are. The God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not need to be protected from our cries of pain, suffering and despair. We also end up further alienating ourselves in our suffering and other sufferers. No voice is given to the anguish and meaningless of suffering within the Church. Whilst contracting the language of the Church by refusing to voice to the sufferer might make us feel more cosy, it leaves the sufferer out in the cold.

When we are faced with illness, tragedy, and death, we should not first consider them as the indecipherable, mysterious outworkings of God’s will. Instead, we ought to first recognize in them the face of our Great Enemy opposed to God’s holy and good purposes.

God can and will work good out of evil, so that even our scars and wounds will be filled with radiant light, but this is not license to simply re-describe evil as good by encouraging those who are suffering to simply shift their perspective. We must oppose sickness and death with prayers for healing, trusting that our God is able to save. Even if the physical healing is not forthcoming, we must trust that He is still working a great victory over evil in us, even if Satan’s thorn is not withdrawn. And we must always remember that even death has been defanged, as its sting has been taken away forever.

In addition to prayers for healing, God has given the church the gift of lament in the Psalms. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in the laments, Israel goes from articulating its hurt and anger, to submitting its suffering to God, and finally relinquishing control over the suffering to God’s control and authority. After Israel has relinquished its authority over its suffering to God, it fulsomely praises God.

These laments help the Church avoid the problem of re-description. Following the tutelage of the Psalms, we are not supposed to simply re-describe our searing pain at the loss of our loved one as simply part of God’s larger plan for the world. That can sound scarily close to something like, “I’m so sorry, but as you know, your dear sister was just a small cog in the wheel of God’s divine machinery.”

Instead, we are invited to plead with God, wail against God, and even bring our feelings of anger and hateful longing for revenge before God. We are invited to press and implicate God into the present situation of pain, and even to demand that He answer. In the course of doing so, the Spirit will come to bear on our hearts, and we will be given a vision of Christ, the God-Man who does not distance Himself from our suffering, but who willingly enters and takes our suffering into Himself. The Spirit then pushes us out into the world to conquer the world with our co-suffering love in imitation of Christ. As we gaze at the Cross, we become confident in God’s promise to grant meaning to this senseless suffering, and we can trust that in the end all shall be well.

Death has been vanquished; your sister is asleep, but our God will raise her on the Last Day, and you will both be presented in glory before the throne to inherit the New Creation. In the words of the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

I will give Alastair Roberts (and really, you should be reading his blog) the last word:

Our confidence must flow from the knowledge that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. This does not mean that evil is really an illusion after all and that everything takes place exactly as God wishes it to. Rather, this verse teaches us that, even in the face of radical evil and agonizing suffering, God’s purpose is still at work and will finally triumph. No suffering or evil can thwart God’s purpose to deliver His creation into the formation of a new humanity in His Son. In fact, God even uses the weight of suffering and evil against them. Things that Satan designs for evil, God can use to accomplish good.

How do you worship?

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What is the practice of corporate worship in your church? Here are some thoughts spurred on by this article by Aaron Niequist, a worship leader in Chicago. To quote Niequist:

It recently occurred to me that 95% of modern worship music is about God or about me. We largely sing about who God is (“Good Good Father”), what God has done for me (“This is Amazing Grace”), and what I’m going to do for God (“The Stand”). I affirm all three of these postures as deeply good and necessary.

However, Jesus didn’t only teach about God and me. Much of Jesus’ teachings were about how we treat one another and how we treat “the other.” In fact, Jesus directly tied our love for God to our love for others, and directly linked God’s forgiveness for us with our forgiveness of others. (Matt 6:15) Notice how much of his most famous sermon (on the mount) explores how we treat those inside and outside of our community, rather than our own relationship with God. We find this all over the scriptures (the laws of Moses, Paul’s letters, etc). God seems intent on creating a holy people, not just billions of holy individuals. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other.

Niequist has clearly been influenced by the recent work of Glenn Packiam and James K. A. Smith, who themselves have been influenced by the early church saying “lex orandi lex credendi”–the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. In other words, the way we worship forms the way we believe.

Accordingly, as Niequist writes, “an unbalanced practice of worship will form us into unbalanced people.” More pressingly, if our practice of worship is centered around “God and me,” it will form us into an individualistic faith– one where our sacrificial love for the neighbor and the stranger is an optional “add-on,” not an integral part of the Gospel.

Niequist advises a path forward for worship leaders,

At the end of each month, look at every song, reading, prayer, and practice in your services and ask:

(1) Did we worship God for who God is?
(2) Did we help people express their personal love/devotion to God?
(3) Did we empower our community to speak to each other
with psalms, hymns, & spiritual songs?

(4) Did the worship open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe?

God, me, us, everyone.

This is not the thrust of Niequist’s article, but one thought that struck me is how well the traditional liturgy is able to respond to his proposed set of questions for worship leaders:

  1. God: Worship of God for who God is–The hymns, songs, and prayers that focus on who God is, particularly the prayer of Adoration of the Trinity that begins many liturgical worship services.
  2. Me: Personal expression for God–Confession and Assurance, where the people silently confess their sins before God and neighbor before praying the corporate prayer of confession.
  3. Us: Speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs–The spoken, chanted, or sung liturgy.
  4. Everyone: Open our hearts to those outside our tribe–The intercession of the church for the life of the world.

Of course, the manner in which this is implemented in the traditional liturgy can be better or worse. However, I think this question-set helps respond to some critics of traditional liturgies, who claim liturgy is a “dead” form of worship. The key question for liturgy is whether it is true or false, not whether it is dead or alive.

I am someone who accepts that there is room for experimentation in traditional liturgies. They are not handed down by the Angel Gabriel on stone tablets, and they can and should be carefully adapted to better speak to changing cultural contexts.

But I think the question-set above shows the danger of unthinkingly throwing away traditional liturgies in favor of more “relevant” styles of worship. There is no such thing as a neutral style of worship. Everything is a liturgy–a repeated pattern of behavior in which we order our worship. If we are not careful, we may end up buying into reigning cultural idols, and unwittingly train the congregation in a different Gospel.

In modern America, this would mean that through our worship, we would train the congregation to be consumers, spectators, and fans of Jesus–not sacrificial disciples in community and on mission.

Back to the article–Niequest suggests some ideas on how to faithfully answer the four questions he posed, and I encourage everyone, regardless of church background, to read them. I particularly liked this portion on “Everyone”:

Finally, our worship practices must open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe. John Robinson states powerfully in Honest to God:

The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to “the Beyond in our midst”, to the Christ in the hungry, naked, homeless, and the prisoner. Only if we are more likely to recognize Him there after attending an act of worship is that worship Christian rather than a piece of religiosity in Christian dress.

Whoa. This messes with me. And it challenges us to always frame our worship experience (1) Inside the grand story of what God is doing in human history, and (2) In context of a beautiful and broken world that God loves so dearly. This can happen through songs about God’s love for the whole world (which are unfortunately hard to find), praying for current events, worshiping with those outside our tribe, and hearing stories from people involved with the poor and oppressed among us. My friend Kellye Fabian created a fantastic practice called “praying through photos.” She finds 6 online photos from that week that capture the pain and need in our world (usually 3 local and 3 global), and leads our community in a time of prayer for the deeply loved son or daughter in each photo. Whether focused on Syria, Paris, Chicago, or Palestine, this has been a profoundly shaping worship practice.

An excellent idea. Again, read the rest of the article here.

The 5th Sunday After Easter: The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God

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I want to thank everyone who read and commented on my last post, The Resurrection and A Multi-Faceted Gospel. I want to spend these next three weeks responding to some of these questions and requests for clarification.

In doing so, I hope that I am not sending the mistaken impression that I have everything figured out. These are topics of continued study and learning for me; everything that I am saying here is an invitation for further dialogue and critique. Hopefully, all of us will gain in the process.

I would say that the critical responses to my post fell in three main categories:

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel?
  2. How can capital-E Evil as an independent, rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God?
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

This week I will try to tackle the first question–Where does justification by faith fit in this picture?

The Lutheran theologian Balthasar Meisner claimed that a proverb of Martin Luther, which fueled the Reformation, was that “Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” This is a very high and lofty claim, and I affirm it.

However, I must lay my cards on the table: I think my understanding of how justification fits in the larger picture of the Gospel probably is different from the evangelical versions I have heard. Because I have a different overarching framework in which justification fits, I may have a different understanding of what justification means

One caveat here–whenever we start talking about the overarching framework to interpret Scripture, further questions regarding election, predestination, and the relation between the divine and human wills inevitably rise up. The framework I am sketching out below is what I have discerned as areas of agreement among the Church Father Irenaeus, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker. So whether your theological commitments are Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox, Catholic, or Arminian, I think you can profit from the proposed framework I will outline without having to abandon your view of election, Divine Providence, and Human Agency.

The argument will be a little long (sorry), but here’s the basic framework:

  1. The Trinitarian Purpose of Creation
  2. The Frustrated Vocation of Humankind
  3. The Promise to Abraham
  4. Israel and the Law
  5. The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ
  6. Justification by Faith

THE TRINITARIAN PURPOSE OF CREATION

Why did God create? The Western Church’s answer (Augustinian, Lutheran, Reformed)  is “For His Glory.” But let’s attempt to unpack that idea. Creation surely was not for any lack within God. Therefore, it was not because He was lonely, and it was not because He needed worship. To put a finer point on it, it was not to display or augment His excellencies, as if He needed an audience in order to magnify His perfection.

The Western Church’s understanding that God created for His Glory is rooted in the idea that Creation was not a necessity for God to be God. God is completely perfect, infinite, and absolute within Himself–perfect in Love, perfect in Glory, and perfect in Worship.

As Christians, we have to acknowledge that God’s glory is a Trinitarian glory. Before the foundations of the cosmos were laid, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in perfect harmony, love, and glory. The act of Creation did not spring out of a need; Creation sprang out of this perfect love. When stated this way, the Western Church’s understanding of Creation coheres with the Eastern Church’s understanding of Creation–Creation is pure grace, a superabundance of the eternal generosity where God is freely pouring Himself out of love for God, a gift that stems from the mutual, eternal exchange of Divine Love that is our Triune God.

Perhaps my fellow evangelical friends will ask, how can this be justified on the basis of the Bible? I think this idea is well-expressed in the Messianic Poem of Colossians 1:15-20, and in the speech by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell,  and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

–Colossians 1:15-20

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.

–Proverbs 8:15-22

All things are created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. Even before the Fall, the purpose of Creation was Christ. Further, Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, the poetic “craftsman” or “handmaiden,” with whom the Father created the world, is sometimes identified with Christ but I think more accurately identified with the Holy Spirit. Creation is an expression of God’s delight with God.

Here’s my point: The act of Creation was a thoroughly Trinitarian act, and Creation’s telos or purpose is similarly Trinitarian:  Creation is meant to be summed up in Christ by being filled with the Spirit so that God can be all in all. God’s eternal purpose was to bring Creation to perfection by filling it with the greatest gift He could give it, Himself. The incarnate Jesus is “the Firstborn of all Creation,” the central focus and blueprint and Logos for which God created.

I think this idea is well-captured in the Orthodox idea of theosis–that the glory of God is found in His Trinitarian purpose of union with mankind, a kind of union that actually glorifies humanity and even divinizes it. I think this idea of theosis sometimes makes evangelicals nervous, especially when we hear the Church Father Athanasius riffing off 2 Peter 1:4 to say things like “God became man so that men might become gods,” which we fear obliterates the Creator-Creature distinction.

But even Augustine, Luther, and Calvin adopted a similarly high view of union with God–that through the Spirit, we are united with Christ, and therefore are invited to participate in the life of God. This participation gives us rights as Sons, where one day we will even judge angels. J. Todd Billings, in a scholarly article, summarized Calvin’s view in this way:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

It is through this reconciliation and union of humankind with God that Creation itself will be restored and glorified, as recounted in Romans 8 and pictured in Revelation 21 and 22.

With this background understanding of Creation’s purpose in place, we can see how Paul uses the concept of “justification by faith” to explain the purpose and identity of the people of God, and how it fits into the larger biblical narrative. He does so most straightforwardly in the Letter to the Galatians.

THE FRUSTRATED VOCATION OF HUMANKIND

Mankind was created with a vocation: Adam and Eve were commissioned to steward Creation as God’s royal priests, who gather Creation’s praises up to God and reflect God’s glory back to Creation. But as Paul writes in Galatians 4, we surrendered the authority God had given us to “the elements of the world,” lesser created realities that we worshipped as idols. Our betrayal was not just sin understood as a breaking of God’s law; As Martin Luther wrote, all sins are really a manifestation of idolatry, where we place something as higher and worthier of devotion than God.

Tim Keller expands on Luther’s idea in a recent Gospel Coalition article–sin is is the result of incorrect and improper worship. By our nature, we will offer our covenantal, committed worship to something. And if we do not offer it to the Creator God revealed in Christ, we will offer it to lesser created things that deceive, enslave, and destroy us.

The Adam and Eve narrative explains humankind’s fall into sin and idolatry, and the rest of the Genesis narrative from chapters 3 through 7 details our continuing downward spiral into deeper and deeper corruption. The first murderer builds the first city; his descendant’s story shows how humankind is decaying as it moves further and further away from God; and finally God is so angry at the corruption of human civilization that He judges it and starts again with the family of Noah.

But the rot in the human heart has not been dealt with: Noah’s family itself falls into the same pattern of sin and corruption. Soon Noah’s descendants will build Babylon and be claiming for themselves the exalted status of God, a recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s story.

THE PROMISE TO ABRAHAM

It is from this mess of human corruption that God purposes to honor his original commitment to Creation and humankind’s high vocation by calling forth the Chaldean Abram, re-naming him Abraham, and promising him that He would build his family into a great nation through whom all the nations in the world would be blessed. This is the promise Paul refers to in Galatians 3 (see Galatians 3:8-9, Galatians 3:14-16).

Paul in Galatians clarifies that the promise was made not only to Abraham, but also to “Abraham’s Seed,” Jesus Christ. Jesus is the true heir of Abraham who fulfills the promise. He brings blessing to all the nations of the world through the pardon of His Cross. Through Jesus, humankind can be delivered from the elements of the world, freed to worship the Creator God and participate in His original purposes for Creation.

But this raises a question–what does this mean for Israel, and what was the purpose of the Law if the promise would be fulfilled in Jesus?

ISRAEL AND THE LAW

Israel understood itself as God’s chosen people who would be God’s royal priesthood, and from whom the blessings to the world would flow as God kept His promise to their forefathers. Israel is rescued from Egypt out of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then given the Law at Mount Sinai to live as His distinctive people who would display His Glory to the nations. In Moses’ farewell speech to the second generation of free Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, he summarizes the Law to remind them that Israel has a vocation: To be God’s first-born son, who would image God to the world and participate in His mission of Justice and Healing (summarized in the rabbinical Jewish concept of tikkun olam).

The Law is given as a means for Israel to live up to this vocation, the original vocation of mankind, to represent God’s presence in the world. It explains how God can dwell with a sinful people through the purity codes and atonement rites, and it outlines the high moral behavior expected from Israelites to set them apart from the other nations and to represent the beauty and goodness of God to the world. Israel was to be a community of true worship that lives out God’s true justice.

But Israel fails over and over to live up to this vocation. First the nation is divided into northern and southern kingdoms because of the idolatry and oppression of the Davidic dynasty. The northern kingdom of Israel is ultimately conquered and scattered because they failed to keep the Mosaic covenant. The prophet Isaiah warns the southern kingdom of Judah that the sacrificial system has become meaningless because of the people’s continued idolatry and oppression. Judah does not heed the warning, the glorious presence of God leaves the Temple, and Babylon conquers and carries off the Jewish people into exile.

During the time of Exile, the Jews hold on to to the prophetic dream that God will smash the idolatrous empires that He allowed to conquer Judah, that in the fullness of time He will allow the exiles to rebuild Jerusalem, and thereby allow the Creation-Salvation project–including judgment of evil–to continue through the restored Jewish nation.

Eventually, under the reign of Cyrus the Persian the Jewish exiles are allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. They rebuild the Templere-discover the Law, and commit to reforms under the Law.

But strangely, they do not sense the return of God’s presence. Malachi chastises the bored priests of the Second Temple, and warns them that one day the Lord will return, and a messenger will come to prepare His way–implying that He has not yet returned.

In fact, the Jewish people continue under oppression for centuries–the Persians give way to the Greeks, who give way to the Syrians, who give way to the Romans. How can God’s salvation project be working through the Jewish nation if they continue to labor under the domination of foreign, idolatrous empires? Has Judah been forgiven, or is it still being punished for its sins? Will God remember His covenant?

THE FAITHFULNESS OF JESUS CHRIST

This is why Zechariah bursts into prophetic song when John the Baptist is born:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Mary rejoices with a similar song of prophecy when she visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, understanding the birth of her son as fulfillment of the promises to Israel and Abraham:

 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Christ, in fulfillment of the prophets’ assurances, will somehow restore, redeem, and purify Israel so that God can dwell with His people again and His salvation project for Creation–and judgment for evil–can move forward.

Jesus Christ is both the true Israelite who faithfully executes the vocation of Israel, and the Divine Logos who embodies the Lord’s return to Zion. I’ve written about this at length here, but let me give a brief summary. Where Israel failed in the wilderness, he succeeds by overcoming the Devil. He constitutes around himself 12 disciples to announce a new Israel, and teaches that loyalty to his way will be a true fulfillment of the Law. As his fame and popularity grows, he becomes a threat to the ruling elite. He enters Jerusalem in triumph, and the crowds hail him as Messiah, but he knows that they will turn on him because he will not be the Messiah they expect him to be.

Jesus is handed over to the authorities, abandoned by his friends, sentenced to death, crucified, and mocked. Finally, he dies.

But three days later, God vindicates Jesus and raises him up from the dead. The crucifixion–an act of torture and shame–has to be reinterpreted with the Resurrection, so that now it is a moment of pardon and victory. As the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus wrote in the 4th century:

He lays down his life, but he has power to take it again. And the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies, but he gives life, and by his death destroys death. He is buried, but he rises again. He goes down into Hell, but he brings up the souls. He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

The risen Jesus himself tells the disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Within himself as the true Israel, Jesus has founded the Church to be a new nation able to bear the fruits of Justice, Healing, and Restoration for the world, in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. In this way, the Triune God’s purpose to fill Creation with Himself and raise humankind to maturity can be fulfilled.

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

And it is here we finally come to justification by faith. The question facing the early church was, if Jesus is the Messiah, who unexpectedly established God’s Kingdom by dying and rising again, what does this mean for Israel, and what does this mean for the Law?

As I wrote above, the Jews were the faithful remnant of Israel who believed that salvation for the world would come through them. And the Law was the means by which they demarcated who were the people of God in whom God was working His purposes, and who were outside God’s family.

The Gospel is the apostolic announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is king of the world, and that all who turn to him will be delivered from destruction. All who submit to His Lordship, regardless of ethnicity and tribe, will be joined to Him and inherit his rule, glory, and mission. This is the fulfillment of Isaiah 56:6-7–“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

This is why Paul was so angry at Peter’s hypocrisy in Antioch in Galatians 2:

But when Cephas* came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

(*Note, the church consensus has been that Cephas and Peter are the same person, as Cephas is the Aramaic version of the Greek word Petros, which became Peter in English. Both words mean “Rock” or “Stone,” and there is no record of these words being used as a name before Jesus re-named the disciple Simon as “Rock”–Cephas in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, Peter in English–in Matthew. It is also commonly accepted that Jesus spoke Aramaic.)

By refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the Jewish emissaries from James came, Peter was making it seem that either 1) there was some division within the people of God, where some were superior because they kept Jewish Law, or 2) those who were uncircumcised and outside the bounds of Jewish Law were not truly members of God’s family.

For Paul, table-fellowship among Jews and Gentiles is joined at the hip with justification by faith in the Messiah Jesus. They cannot be separated. Paul is telling the story of the confrontation with Peter in Antioch to the Galatians to support his core thesis in the letter: The Gospel of the crucified and risen Messiah forms a new, multi-ethnic family in fulfillment to the promise to Abraham, and this family is transformed by the power of the Spirit to bear fruit for the world.

The new people of God in Jesus will fulfill the failed vocations of Adam and Israel to be God’s royal priests, but only in, through, and because of the faithful vocation of Christ.

This is why Paul writes:

 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

The idea of “justification” is that someone is declared righteous. More specifically, it is the Old Testament idea that God declares that someone is in a right relationship with Him. It is Paul’s conviction that no one can be declared righteous by keeping the Law; the story of Israel itself shows that. Instead, the only way to be declared righteous is on the basis of the work and person of Jesus.

As he says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” In Romans 6:3-4 he says much the same thing, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized in his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism in to death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

At the heart of Paul’s Gospel is this idea: That when people trust in Jesus, what is true of Him becomes true of them. His death becomes their death, and His resurrection and new life becomes their resurrection and new life. As Paul says in Colossians 3:3, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” And this is why in Galatians 2 he says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives within me.” Paul is clear that we belong to Jesus’ New Covenant family, not because we keep the Law, but because Christ has died and risen for us, and because we have been united to Him.

This has huge implications for 1) who can be included in God’s family, and 2) what it means to live as God’s family.

First, Paul looks to the story of Abraham as an example of someone who was declared righteous by faith, because he trusted in God’s promise that all nations would be blessed through him and his offspring. Paul is careful to say this was God’s purpose all along: To have a people who related to Him on the basis of faith and trust, not by keeping Torah (the Jewish Law). See Galatians 3:1-18.

But then this raises a question: Why have the Law at all? Paul in Galatians 3:19-29 very tightly packs an argument he unspools at greater length in the Letter to the Romans

  1. The promise to Abraham came long before the Law was given to Israel at Sinai.
  2. God always intended the Law to play a role as a temporary guardian.
  3. As such, the Law had both a negative and positive role.
  4. The negative role was to highlight and magnify Israel’s sin, showing that even a holy people set apart for God would fail to serve His purposes without new hearts.
  5. This does not make the Law evil–the Law is good!–but it had the effect of clearly showing that Israel was guilty and worthy of condemnation, just like every other people.
  6. The positive role of the Law was to be a moral tutor which, despite Israel’s sin, kept together a faithful remnant until it could be whittled down to Abraham’s Seed**, Jesus Christ.
  7. Jesus fulfilled the Law in His life, work, and person. He was the faithful Israelite who truly loved God and neighbor.
  8. Jesus died to take the curse of Israel’s failure on to Himself, and He is free from the hold of Sin, Death, and the Devil.
  9. Anyone who holds on to the faithfulness of Jesus has “clothed themselves with Christ.”
  10. Because we are now found in Jesus, we become heirs to the promise of Abraham–the multi-ethnic people of God through whom God is repairing the world.

(**Paul expands on this in Romans 9, where he clarifies that not all of Abraham’s children are heirs of the promise. Ishmael and Isaac are both Abraham’s sons, but Isaac is the child of the promise. Jacob, not Esau, bears the promise in the next generation. Judah, not his brothers, is given the scepter. From the tribe of Judah, the Lord anoints David, not his brothers. And from the line of David, the heir of promise–Abraham’s True Seed, who fulfills the promise–is Jesus Christ.)

Paul is concerned because the teachings of the Jewish Christians make it seem like Jesus didn’t fulfill God’s promise or deal with our sins. This would constrain the new freedom given to us in Jesus’ Spirit, and would limit the inheritance of God’s promise to one ethnicity. He argues this at length in Galatians 4.

Paul then seems to anticipate a question in Galatians 5:13-14 when he writes:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As stated above, the Law is good, but if the Law was temporary and Christians now live in freedom, how can we be sure they won’t abuse that freedom?

Paul’s answer is that those who are clothed with Christ are given His Spirit.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

To say again, the Law is good–the command to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, is good. But the instruction did not give in itself the power to obey the Law. Our flesh desires our own security, advancement, and status, and these desires are in conflict with the Law.

The Good News is not only that Jesus fulfilled the Law on our behalf, but that He lives in us through the Spirit. This forms us into a new kind of human being–one able to properly image God in the world again.

Again, the old humanity (“the flesh”) objectifies people for our own satisfaction and destroys relationships and communities. But Jesus put the flesh to death on the Cross. So when we trust in Jesus and “walk in the Spirit,” we become a new humanity. Jesus’ life becomes ours, and we bear the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Paul says, “Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5:25. Only if we are justified by our trust in the work of the Messiah, so that the work, life, and person of Jesus is the very ground upon which we build our lives, can we organically bear the fruit of righteousness. Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5 and 6 are meant to be heeded as tools for our pruning and cultivation: Through the Spirit, Jesus shapes us into people who love God entirely and who love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so, we will fulfill what Paul calls “the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2. Paul warns us: We either sow to the flesh or to the Spirit, and we will reap accordingly. Galatians 6:7-10.

Paul’s conclusion takes us back to the earlier parts of this post. Stirringly, Paul closes by saying that observing or not observing the Jewish Law is beyond the point; God’s eternal purposes are much bigger than circumcision! What matters is New Creation–In Jesus the true Israelite, God is uniting a multi-ethnic family of believers to be a New Israel, who will fulfill God’s original purpose for humankind to be His ruling royal priests who will steward Creation into glory so that God can flood the Universe with His presence, and be all in all.

Here’s your hymn for the 5th Sunday of Easter–

this is my father's world

In keeping with what we’ve talked about in this post, I wanted to highlight the last verse:

This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet

This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done.

Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one.

Jesus who died, was raised from the dead, and He will be satisfied. But, until the day of satisfaction, the battle is not done, and we who have been joined to Christ’s Body now join in the fight–for reconciliation, for justice, and for New Creation.

Happy Easter!