The Gospel of Paul to the Athenians at Mars Hill

While on a journey through Greek portions of the Roman Empire the Apostle Paul was given an opportunity to present the gospel to an entirely Gentile audience. I would like to examine the context and content of his message to see if we can learn anything about how and whether to present the gospel in a “culturally relevant” way. We might also learn what to expect in terms of results from such a presentation.

The story begins with Paul forced to leave the Greek city of Berea due to persecution. He has left two disciples behind to establish the church and is in Athens, waiting for them.

Acts17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

As usual, Paul begins at the synagogue. Like any good Jew, he is distressed at the idolatry that surrounds them in Athens, the centre of Greek culture and learning. It seems odd to me that he must raise that concern in the synagogue, since Jews and their proselytes shouldn’t be involved in idolatry to begin with. He also goes out into the marketplace and reasons with anyone who will listen. Is this the prototype of what we now call street evangelism?

The statement about “advocating foreign gods” is the reason Paul is brought to the Areopagus (or Mars Hill), the place that their city council met. This council was comprised of the wisest of the wise in the Roman Empire. Besides being in charge of city affairs, they also judged the most difficult cases in the Empire. Their wisdom and fairness in judgment was known throughout Roman lands.

It was their responsibility to examine new religions and officially either recognize them or ban them from the city, depending on the degree of potential damage they could cause to citizens or to the Empire. This was not just an informal chat with the local intelligentsia. It was an official investigation by the Empire’s top court. The outcome could be devastating to Christian outreach in the Roman world.

19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Some older translations render “very religious” as “superstitious.” Given the situation, “very religious” is probably a better rendering. He is before a religious and state tribunal that could decide the fate of his entire Gentile mission, and therefore needs to be very diplomatic in his approach to their religions. This is the same council that in 339 B.C. decreed Socrates to be an atheist [“against the gods”] heretic and sentenced him to death. He must first establish that, unlike Socrates, he is not saying that there are no real gods.

Next, he must establish that this is not a “new” religion, but rather that it is an outflow of the ancient religion of Israel. He does this in two ways. First he refers to an already existing altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” This is the “hook” that gets their attention. He claims that he will explain this “unknown god” to them. He does this by referring to a single God who created everything. Educated Greeks may have eventually recognized this deity’s characteristics as essentially those of the Jewish God, especially after the next section of Paul’s address. Judaism was an accepted religion in the Roman Empire at the time, so there would have been no reason to reject this Christian brand of Jewish religion.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.

This is a strike against the idolatry of the Gentile world, introduced ironically by what was likely a pagan altar’s dedication. The description of this deity denies both pantheism (the world is God) and panentheism (God is present in the world and not separate from it) because this God existed before anything else in the world existed. Therefore the world is not God, and God stands outside all of the creation as Creator. He is therefore distinct from the created order.

Other Greek philosophers describe God either as being the plane of spiritual or spirit reality or as inhabiting that higher plane, and therefore not the creator of the physical world (which is only a shadow of the “real” or “form” or “ideal”). Their god is therefore not interested in the material world, and humans need to transcend the physical to “meet” him. Their god is a remote one who is hard to reach. Paul has something to say to them as well.

26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill.

While God stands outside the physical world as its creator, Paul does not see him as remote or uninterested. These would have revealed a very recognizable Jewish world-view to the Athenian philosophers – especially the aversion to images of God. So far he is saying nothing new to the council.

By this time Jewish and Greek philosophies had been in conversation with each other for at least 300 years, since Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire brought the two into contact. Some Jewish philosophers, such as Philo of Alexandria, had even attempted to express Jewish theology in terms of Greek philosophical concepts. [This is not as unusual as you might think. Christian theologians through the centuries, such as Origen and Thomas Aquinas, sought to do similar things with Platonic or Aristotelian thought.]

The next part is what causes the stir.

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.

They may have been familiar with the Jewish notion of a redeeming Messiah who would gather the Jewish remnant from their dispersion throughout the world. For that Messiah to be a man who came from the dead was just a bit too much to take.

Remember that Paul is speaking to a group of judges. He is telling the most respected judges in the world that they will be judged for their idolatry by a man who is back from the dead. Not surprisingly, most of them don’t buy that story. It is such a ridiculous notion that they literally laugh him out of court. The result:

34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. 8:1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

There is not much to show for his work in Athens. Paul never goes back to the court. Only a very few become believers, though one of them is a high-ranking judge from that council. It seems that Paul does not even wait for his disciples to join him from Berea before leaving Athens to go to Corinth. This is unusual, since it normally takes riots and plots against his life from the Jewish community to make Paul leave. The gospel generates neither popularity, polarization nor persecution in Athens. Athens just seems to be ground that is too hard for the seed of the gospel to penetrate, so Paul goes on to the next centre.

If this is indeed the first foray of the church into a “culturally relevant” gospel presentation, it does not get the kind of results you might expect. The centers of learning and philosophy will tend to reject anything outside of their experience – especially the notion of a man rising from the dead to rule and judge the world.

Paul later notes, in a letter to the church in Corinth, that the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) I would not be surprised if he is referring to the experience in Athens for the latter part of that statement.

Perhaps we Christians can learn a few lessons from this story. Here are some possibilities:

1)            Some cultures are harder to reach than others. Jesus did tell his disciples that some ground would be hard while other ground would be receptive in his parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20).

2)            Maybe we don’t have to try so hard to evangelize using cold-call or street-evangelism techniques.

3)            Paul had been so distressed due to the idolatry of the city that he felt the need to begin haranguing synagogue attendees and even people in the marketplace. Perhaps we need a better motivation for evangelism than being upset at particular sins.

4)            The message of the cross of Christ is counter-intuitive and even, dare we say, counter-cultural. There is no way to present the death and resurrection of a Saviour who is both man and God in a culturally relevant way without negating its power. Let’s not be surprised if we sometimes don’t get a hearing.

5)            Perhaps it is important to know when to quit. Riots and threats mean that at least someone is listening. When there is no response, move on to more fertile fields.

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The Gospel of Stephen

It seems that whenever anything becomes popular these days it doesn’t take long for imitators to show up. Sometimes it comes in the form of a tribute, like the popular Elvis Presley imitators. They even advertise themselves as “Elvis impersonators.” Our local favourite, Rory Allen, is very good at it, and fans appreciate the care he takes in his presentation. We all know he isn’t really Elvis, but it is good fun pretending for a little while.

While imitation may often be the sincerest form of flattery, it may also be used to commit fraud. There is a lot of identity theft going on in the world.  There are also many cheap knock-offs of popular brand-name products available for those who want the cachet without paying the price. Each of these is an attempt to profit from the reputation of another person or company, or even to directly steal from another person.

It turns out that Jesus has been popular enough to generate any number of imitators. Most are careful to claim not to actually be Jesus, but rather to be disciples or followers. Some have even written manuscripts that claim to be “gospels.” A popular one among modern scholars is called the Gospel of Thomas. It claims that Jesus said many things that line up with an old religion called Gnosticism. The writer is clearly attempting to apply wide the appeal of Jesus Christ to an entirely different religion to increase its popularity. Jesus becomes a purveyor of hidden wisdom about how to liberate the soul from the evil flesh we are conditioned to accept as our real life.

The gospels accepted by the Christian church as a whole, however paint an entirely different picture. Luke, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, also wrote the book of Acts. He had been trying to put together a coherent account of the Jewish beginnings of the church as well as its initial spread into the Gentile world of the Roman Empire. In the interests of showing the continuity of the message of Jesus Christ he peppers the book with accounts of messages delivered to various people about the story of Jesus and why they tell it. I would like to turn now to one of these messages that I like to call the gospel of Stephen.

Luke first introduces Stephen as one of the seven “deacons” who help solve the problem of bias in food distribution to needy believers in earlier in Acts. 6. They are described as “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

He must explain his faith in Jesus to answer false charges of blasphemy that result in his appearance before a Jewish religious court, as described in verses 8-15 [NRSV throughout].

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

Those familiar with the story of Moses and Israel’s prophets will recognize certain features of the description of Stephen. Moses and many of the prophets had done great “signs and wonders.” The description of a “face of an angel” would have reminded them of how Moses’ face literally glowed after God had given him the tablets with the covenant that was inscribed by God (see Ex. 34:29-30). These should have been clues that something God-ordained was going on with this man. He had “prophet” written all over him.

1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. 6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 7 ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’ 8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs. 9 “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. 11 Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. 16 And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. 17 “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. 20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. 23 Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25 For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons. 30 And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. 31 When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32 saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. 33 ‘Then the Lord said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” ‘ 35 This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

Notice the terms of respect with which he begins his response. He begins with a short recap of Israel’s history, with particularly reverent emphasis on the very Moses they accuse him of denigrating.

Within that story he also weaves a subplot that will turn the tables on his inquisitors. He reminds them that Joseph, the one who saved his father and brothers from starvation, was the one rejected and sold into slavery by those same brothers. He also reminds them that Moses was rejected by the very people God sent him to save – and not just once! This theme continues throughout the rest of the address. God sends prophets, and the people of Israel reject them and reject God’s instruction through them.

37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.'”

The last four words are not so much a prophecy as a command. “Listen to him!” Stephen is setting them up for the identity of this “prophet like Moses.”

38 This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, And the star of your god Remphan, Images which you made to worship; And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’

Stephen is reminding them that even the religious establishment God himself provided, the Aaronic priesthood, fell away from following Moses within days of the establishment of the covenant. This leads hearer to the rhetorical question of why it should be surprising if later Israelite religious leaders strayed from following Moses’ instructions.

44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, 45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.

Now he begins to answer the charge of speaking against God’s Temple. Yes, David wanted to build a house for God, but God had David’s son Solomon actually build it. Strangely enough, building the Temple did not prevent Solomon from leaving God to worship idols. Nor did having a Temple prevent the majority of Israel’s kings from worshipping other gods.

In fact, practically before the embers of the inauguration sacrifices of Solomon’s Temple died out, God was warning Solomon in a vision that even a holy place dedicated to him was no guarantee that Israel would not be driven out of the land if they continually disobeyed the covenant conditions (1 Kings 9:6-9). Unlike Stephen’s accusers, the prophet Isaiah was aware of the words God spoke to Solomon. Stephen notes this with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2.

48 However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, Or what is the place of My rest? 50 Has My hand not made all these things?’

Since the entire passage was regularly read in the synagogue, they would have been familiar with the next several verses, which talk about how hypocritical the nation has always been in its worship. They go through the motions of animal sacrifices and miss the point of worship: faithful obedience in humility and repentance (2-3). The following verses discuss how God will deal with the unfaithfulness of his people in a calamitous judgment that destroys the city and the temple (v. 4-6). Without knowing the context of this quote from Isaiah, we miss the impact his next statement would have on his audience.

51 “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”

He accuses Israel as a whole of constantly rejecting God’s divine guidance through His prophets, to the point of killing those prophets to shut them up. This is a pattern that they are continuing by killing the “prophet like Moses” that Moses and all the prophets had told them to follow and obey. This really upsets them, but they are not quite ready to act against him yet.

Notice that he has said nothing disrespectful about Moses or the Law. Rather he has accused them of heaping contempt on both Moses and the Law by killing Jesus.

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

It is when Stephen declares that Jesus is not only alive – resurrected – but “standing at the right hand of God” that they have finally had enough. The man they had rejected and killed is now in charge of the entire world! That pushed them over the edge. The same mentality that killed the prophets was still at work in Stephen’s generation.

To recap, Stephen tells his audience that Jesus is the long-expected “prophet like Moses” who came to deliver Israel from slavery to foreign powers, sin and death. He was rejected, just like Moses. He died before entering the “promised land,” just like Moses.

Unlike Moses, he came back to life. He has entered the very plane of God’s existence, “at the right hand of God.” Because of this he is Lord.

Since sin is what leads to slavery to foreign powers and death it seems logical that sin must be dealt with first, in order to create the conditions for freedom and life to persist. His life as God-in-the-flesh, his ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension have completely dealt with the penalty of sin – for those who accept Jesus as Lord.

It isn’t that Jesus is only Lord of those who accept Him. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

It is forgiveness of sin that comes with repentance and acceptance of His Lordship. Without that forgiveness there is no eternal life nor eternal inheritance in peace and safety. There is only exile and death.

Jesus is Lord!

It’s not just a slogan. It is a reality.

Whenever that reality is taken seriously by the powerful of this world there is a predictable reaction. Attempt to silence the messengers, whether by ridicule, by threat or by force.

As we look around us, we see an increase in all three types of reaction against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could it be that the powerful are taking the gospel more seriously than we might think?

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Back to Basics

In several recent posts I have already tried my hand at expressing my unease with certain tendencies I have seen recently in my seminary and Bible college education. The papers I posted on this blog from my History of Modern Evangelicalism and Theology of Christian Worship classes at the time were reactions against some of what had been taught.

Other voices with much more experience and wisdom have been analyzing Evangelical Christianity’s current state with much greater perceptiveness and persuasiveness than I have.

Roger Oakland’s Faith Undone: The emerging church.. a new reformation or an end-time deception attempts to follow the rise and teaching of several influential leaders of what is being called the “Emerging Church” or the “Emergent Church.” He documents the beginnings of the movement through the Leadership Network established by Bob Buford, a successful businessman who worked with Peter Drucker, an even more successful business leader and mentor with very definite mystical leanings.

This list of people who formed the nucleus of this network reads like a who’s who of the Emergent Church: Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren (who would become its team leader), Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, and Andrew Jones (p. 23).

From the mystical experience and teaching of Buford and Drucker comes the New Evangelicals’ (another term for leaders of the Emergent Church) desire to bring “mystery” and “immanence” into the worship of the church. Although they do it in different ways, most try to incorporate imagery and sensory experience to increase the perceived “authenticity” of worship.

Oakland goes on from there to describe how this emphasis on “feeling” God’s “presence” over thinking and doctrine seems to be part of a greater ecumenical movement to bring churches together through a common mystical bond instead of a common doctrine or mode of worship. Going further, he notes (as I did in my “Evangelical Mysticism” post) that the mystical experience is one that is also common in non-Christian mysticism, such as Hindu and Buddhist religious experience.

For this reason, the “New Reformation” that the Emergent Church wishes to spearhead will not be a reformation at all, but rather a paganization of the church. This will leave the few remaining biblical literalist “apocalyptic millennialists” will be considered a danger to society for spreading their unaccommodating beliefs and will need to be converted or eliminated.

He is suggesting, of course, that this is one way that certain biblical prophecies about what many call “antichrist” or “the beast” may actually come to pass. The scenario as he presents it is certainly plausible. For example, it did not seem to take much to turn both Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany into tools of the Nazi regime. In any time in history only a few have ever been able to stand against the might of the state and its religions without capitulating.

Whether or not Roger Oakland’s ecumenical scenario comes to pass, he has certainly done me a great favor. He has explained how the teachings of the “Christian” mystics have come to feature so prominently in my college and seminary classes about spirituality and worship. He even names one of my own seminary professors as a prominent proponent of this new brand of Evangelicalism – and he certainly was.

As a non-denominational fellowship we do not follow any rules for worship that are imposed from outside. We do, however, have a tradition we inherited from the denomination that we came from. I also have my entire Bachelor’s and Master’s degree training at two distinct evangelical institutions to reflect on for theology and practice. We may wish to be somewhat different from other Christian groups, but we don’t want to become de-Christianized in the process. That is why I wrote my paper about restoring worship on biblical festival dates as a reminder that Jesus was both Jewish and the God who gave them the “Old Covenant” through Moses. Teaching the full force of the entire Bible strikes me as the best way to avoid de-Christianizing the church.

A book that offers a wider scope concerning problems within the evangelical Christian community is Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. The overall tenor of the book is that the church in North America (and particularly the U.S.A.) has adopted what Horton calls a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” as its basic gospel.

To varying degrees, the American evangelical church presents God as an empowerer rather than a deliverer. He is the God who helps us overcome us rather than the God who frees our minds and hearts so that we may live in grateful devotion.

We are offered spiritual techniques for overcoming fear or guilt or selfishness, and then we are called upon by our pastors to ever-greater effort to make gains for Jesus’ kingdom. When we inevitably burn out, we are told we need to go back to those techniques to rebuild our faith so that we can get back to work building the kingdom.

Or we are told that we can only be “free” from evil spiritual influences if we purify our minds and our homes with these “steps to…” It turns out that Satan and his minions are out to get you from behind every corner, so you constantly have to be on guard.

Or we are told that God wants us to be health and wealthy, so all we have to do is follow the simple laws of success that “our ministry has found in the Bible.” Yet some people religiously follow them and the health or material success does not… materialize. The response: they must not have enough faith. (This is one that I have personally both seen and lived.)

And so people leave the church, dispirited and exhausted.

Michael Horton seems to have hit the nail on the head. I have seen it and experienced much of it firsthand at churches across Canada. It is not that they have become heretical and deny that Jesus is God (as some few New Evangelicals have done according to Oakland). It is just that sound doctrine becomes less and less important in terms of teaching time and effort in the interest of providing “life application” in a sermon. Thus we have come very close to a type of works-righteousness that would have Martin Luther spinning in his grave.

There is much more to Horton’s book than I can summarize in a post. It is definitely worth reading.

The two writers above come to conclusions about causes that are different, yet not incompatible. For me, Horton’s history of evangelicalism shows how the stage has been set for the narrower Emergent phenomenon that is the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties in North American evangelical Christianity, while also getting to part of the cause of the current ineffectiveness of much of North America’s evangelical church. (Not all are ineffective, by any means.)

Interestingly enough, both Oakland and Horton conclude that the way back from the brink (whether from the “new evangelicalism” or the “moralistic, therapeutic deism”) is to recover the basic biblical doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

In other words, the church needs to get back to the basics of what it means to be the church. Jesus’ last words to his disciples express the mission of the church: preach the gospel and make disciples for Jesus.

That makes perfect sense to me.

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Our Hope By the Rivers of Babylon

In keeping with the latest post’s theme of exile and restoration as the paradigm for Christian engagement with our society I have taken huge liberties with a popular song. (Presented with apologies to Boney M. )

For those of you celebrating Christmas, we wish you a safe and happy time.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

When the wicked Carried us away in captivity, Required from us a song.

Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?

When the wicked Carried us away in captivity, Required from us a song.

Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?

We prayed, “Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight.”

Yet the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts

Remained evil in thy sight every night

To a virgin in Bethlehem, God gave a child, God’s only Son,

Who would deliver Zion.

Even while we were in our sins, Christ died for us, That we may live

In a brand-new Jerusalem.

Christ’s disciples Preached about the end of captivity; A gospel of life renewed.

In Jesus is life forever In a new world.

And this promise  Is for you and your posterity – As many as come to Christ –

Believing in his salvation; And in him as Lord.

Now the words of our mouth And the meditations of our heart

Are acceptable in Thy sight Every night.

By his grace the words of our mouth And the meditations of our heart

Are acceptable in His sight Every night

By the rivers of Babylon We now stand up. And sing of Jesus Who is delivering Zion.

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Evangelicalism and the State

[This post is from a discussion based on a longer paper I submitted for a History of Modern Evangelicalism class in 2009 at the seminary I attended. The full paper, including the bibliography the notes are based on, can be found here in the Term Paper .]

As I grew up in a family that was Trudeau Liberal on my father’s side and Québec Séparatiste on my mother’s side I learned that where differences coexist, tensions inevitably exist.  The claims of the “two solitudes” on my life have left me with what I call a French heart and an English head.  Making life infinitely more complicated for me and every other Christian (no matter what brand) is the prior claim of the Kingdom of God on our lives.   The people of God have had to come to grips with their relationship with the created order and with their fellow man ever since Adam and Eve’s abortive sojourn in the Garden of Eden.  This post will examine how Evangelical churches may be better able to meet the challenges of the post-Christian world if it were to rediscover a biblical view of how to interact with a hostile world.

Creation Theology and Evangelical Engagement in Culture and Politics

 Where we see ourselves fitting in the biblical story has a great impact on how we deal with the world around us.  Since nobody lives independently of his or her family and social influences, it would be good to review the world-view handed down to the early Reformers.

By the time the Protestant Reformation began, the Christian Church had been engaged in a struggle for political domination over the Roman Empire for more than a millennium.  Constantine the Great had established it as a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and his successor Theodosius the Great made it the official Roman religion in 380.[1]  Even Theodosius had to bow humbly before the power of his priest, Ambrose, after the priest refused him entrance to his church following a horrendous massacre.[2]  This set a pattern of competing church/state relations that would be followed for more than 1200 years in Europe, until Luther and Zwingli ignited the Protestant Reformation.  The idea of a Christian state being the Kingdom of God on earth had a great deal of time to become deeply rooted in the church.  Not much changed in church/state relationships even during the Reformation.  Luther, Zwingli and Calvin all had to ally themselves to princes or city-states to keep their churches from being crushed by Catholic monarchs.

Evangelicalism owes much of its theology of engagement with political systems to the work and ideas of Martin Luther[3] and Martin Bucer[4] of Geneva as developed by John Calvin[5].  Since in a Reformation creational world-view political systems are not inherently bad, they can be instruments of God’s will in the world.  Luther saw the church as having persuasive power, but the princes as having coercive power.[6]  For Bucer, assuming that secular authorities are actually converted, they can be in authority over the church in secular matters, while the church hierarchy can overrule secular authorities in spiritual matters.[7]  This resulted in a setup which allowed both the religious and secular authorities to think they spoke for both church and state.  With the magistrates able to appoint pastors and other clerical authorities, the state eventually established complete control over the church wherever the church became the state-established church.  In Twentieth Century North America, Calvinist churches (Baptist, Presbyterian, and even, to a large extent, Anglican) were no longer establishment churches and learned to exercise a greater freedom from state control.  What did not change was the assumption that church and state were jointly in charge of the world, for reasons that will be explored now.

At the heart of the Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.  The story is not only about how a spiritual being became corrupted and must be redeemed.  Albert M. Wolters, a Reformed scholar at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON, is typical of this view.  He goes so far as to say that a biblical creation-centered world-view has something to say about everything in our lives, including science, technology, economics, labour, social groups and education.[8]  Based on their affinities for the work of the Apostle Paul, Lutheran and Reformed theologies understand that the fate of the entire physical world also hinges on the restoration of humanity.[9]   In Wolters’ words, “The territory in dispute, the creation of God, has been invaded by God’s adversary, Satan, who now holds creation as an occupied territory with military force.”[10]  He goes on to say that Jesus has “in principle” won victory by the “counteroffensive” of his death and resurrection, establishing “a beachhead in creation.”  Creation now awaits only the “definitive establishment of his sovereignty over all his territories” while the “mop-up operation” continues “between the soldiers of Christ and the agents of Satan.”[11]

Since every aspect of culture, including its arts, sciences and politics apparently needs to come under God’s sovereignty as intended from the beginning, the evangelical believer must convert not only individuals but the whole of society into obedience to God’s will (or law).  For Wolters, even “progressive secularization of mass media, medical ethics and public education” is part of the spiritual warfare, and must be fought by Christians.[12]  The logic is irrefutable if this interpretation of the Biblical story of creation is true.  It was logical enough that Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Knox and the Scottish Reformers, the English and American Puritans and their Evangelical successors have followed in its ways.[13]  This is still a mostly unquestioned world-view that causes Evangelical engagement with culture and politics to be a power struggle.

And so the struggle between church social ideals and state social ideals continues.  This struggle, carried into a nation without a sole national church, created the notion that people should have a say in their government.  If people have power in their government, then converting sufficient numbers of people should create heaven on earth.  Many try to find warrant in the scriptures for creating an Evangelical state.  For instance, John Stott suggests that Christians are dual citizens as he paraphrases Peter thus, “Peter describes the members of God’s new people on the one hand as ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ and on the other as needing to be conscientious citizens in it (1 Peter 2.77-17).”[14]  In actual fact, Peter never describes them as citizens of the Roman Empire, but calls upon them to act as though they were under its authority (as any subjugated people would be) unless that contravenes Jesus’ prior commands.  We will return to the implications of what Peter meant when we examine a biblical world-view for a Post-Christian world.

Toward a Biblical Worldview for the Church Today: Exile and Restoration

There is a theme that runs through both Old and New Testaments that relates to what a proper worldview might be for Evangelicalism in a post-Christian society.  This paper will argue later that this world-view can apply in any political or cultural situation, whether Evangelical influence is infinitesimal or ubiquitous.  This theme is one of the people of God being “exiles” from the Promised Land while sojourning in land not our own.

By the time of King Jehoiakim of Judah, the Babylonian Empire had already taken multitudes of Jews into captivity. Judah’s royal prophetic staff were beginning to prophesy that God would turn the tables on the Babylonians and return the captives.  God moved Jeremiah to write an epistle to the exiles that would change their lives.  The letter is preserved in the 29th chapter of the book of Jeremiah, and it tells them to prepare to serve the Babylonians for a very long time – 70 years!  While they were in captivity, they were to plant vineyards, build houses for their families and “pray for the peace of the city” to which Yahweh had sent them until he released them.  The books of Daniel and Esther detail how some faithful believers served in various important capacities under Babylon and its successor states.

While they did not really reform those states, they did have opportunities to attest to their primary loyalty to Yahweh.  Many of them had to brave the wrath of kings and scheming royal advisors to remain faithful to their God and his people.  In many cases, Yahweh honored those who did so by miraculous interventions.  Eventually, some of them returned to the land, though the promise of freedom from foreign oppression never really materialized.  Wise readers of the book of Daniel discern that Israel’s freedom as a Yahweh-serving state would not fully resume until the time that Messiah breaks the “image” that represents all world-ruling Gentile empires (Dan. 2:44-45).  The disturbing thing about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is the way in which it suggests that non-believing empires are to continue to rule the entire world until Messiah breaks them to pieces.

Even when the exiles are allowed to return to their own land, they never truly regain sovereignty in the way that numerous prophecies suggest that they will.[1]  The numbers who return from Babylon are preposterously low[2].  In fact, most of the Israelites still have not bothered to return by the time of Esther.[3]  Even Paul finds at least one synagogue in almost every city he visits on his missions in the eastern Roman Empire.  Since Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon it is doubtful that there has ever been a time when the Judean Jewish population has exceeded the dispersed Jewish population.  This state of the nation being under control of gentile powers continues (with the brief exception of the reign of the Maccabees) until they are yet again completely dispersed in 70 A.D. after a bloody and vicious Roman campaign.

If we compare Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about how to get along in the world with those of Jeremiah’s missive to the exiles in Babylon, we note that they are similar in tone.  Jeremiah tells them to “pray for the peace of the city” to which they had been exiled.  The idea of being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” and treating everyone, regardless of race, as a neighbor fit in well with the idea of a people living in a society ruled by non-believers.  Jesus’ promise of persecutions does not suggest a people who are in control of their country.[4]  It seems probable that Peter’s epistle to the “pilgrims of the Dispersion” in northern Asia Minor was intended to remind them of Jesus’ teaching in this regard.[5]  Paul tells the Roman Christians that every Gentile believer is grafted into the promises and root-stock of Israel.[6]  When Jesus prays about his disciples he is praying about people who are “in” the world yet not “of” it.[7]  He seems to have been actively preparing his disciples to live in exile from the centers of power and influence of a world that is quintessentially against his reign.

Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Apostles actually prepares believers far better for the realities of living in non-believing societies than it does for ruling over nations.  Even so, it is perfectly appropriate for believers to serve in high government positions if they do so as ambassadors of an even higher power rather than as rulers in their own right.  On the other hand, as Ben Stiller, past President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, notes, “Living in a country with a Christian heritage, we too easily assume that our government is to be particularly supportive of the Christian church over other religious views.  The New Testament gives no such indication.”[8]  This is a vision in which the church neither dominates the state nor bows to the state in anything regarding witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

While maintaining that cultural pluralism is good for Christianity in Canada, Stiller also notes that there is a dark side in Canadian cultural pluralism.  There is a bias against Christianity in Canada today in education, the media and in government.[9]  He seems to think it can be dealt with as an issue of pluralism.  This is an optimism that overlooks the darkness in human nature. The Christian proclamation of the gospel is a prophetic voice in society, whether or not the society claims to be Christian.  Even the best-intentioned attempt to live in harmony with those who do not believe will break down in the long run.  That is because neither nominally Christian nor non-Christian leaders can long bear to hear a truly prophetic witness.  Inevitably the state tries to prevent Christians from witnessing about Jesus (especially his Lordship), and inevitably they are persecuted for resisting state control over their preaching and teaching.  This is a reality Christians must live with and be willing to both live and die for.

Conclusion: Singing the Lord’s Song in Babylon

Evangelical Christianity grew up in the shadow of a Roman church that tried to be the Kingdom of God on earth.  This leads to confusion about the respective roles of church and state in this world.  Because Evangelical history has taken place mainly in Christian states there is a sense in which the Evangelical push to reform society strongly resembles a push to reestablish a Christendom model of Christianity in whichever country it resides.  There are places, such as Canada, where the population makeup has changed in such a way as to make the imposition of Christian values and morality both unlikely and problematic.  Is there a world-view that allows Christians to function in a hostile world that also offers opportunities to serve in a democratic society?

One possible solution is to recover the biblical idea of being “exiles” from the “Promised Land.”  As taught by Peter and Paul, Gentile Christians are grafted into the tree of Israel and heirs to the promises made to Abraham.  Among those promises is “a heavenly country,” a “city” prepared by God.[10]

Such a world-view would permit Christians to both have an influence in this world as ambassadors of Jesus Christ.  It would also enable believers to not lose heart when their work in social justice or church leadership is undermined by opportunists or political animals who are only pretending to be Christians.  This world-view offers the opportunity and persecutions inherent in living a life of prophetic witness to the life of Jesus Christ within them through the Holy Spirit.

Even within the church, the prophetic witness must be allowed to flourish.  One good way of ensuring that is to bring the resources of Christian cooperation to bear both within and outside of the Church.  The best way to ensure that this happens is to reduce the reliance of our churches on hierarchical structures that control the resources and people of the church.  The gifts of administration and leadership must serve the other gifts rather than require them to be subservient to administrators.

Notwithstanding the critique that Pre-Millennialism reduces the willingness of Christians to involve themselves with the affairs of their community and nation, Jesus will return to bring true justice.  He bids us to do his will in the meantime, deferring to governments in the name of representing Jesus Christ fully to their citizens, but not to the extent of refusing to publicly decry injustice or oppression of their people by those same governments.

The best we can hope for in our present circumstances is to work and pray for the peace and justice of the land we are in now.  This will enable us to avoid the traps of both other-worldliness and a kind of jingoistic “Christian” nationalism that alienates non-believers unnecessarily.  (Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is a prophetic word that stands over and often against worldly systems and ways of being, we must acknowledge that there will be some necessary alienation at times.)

Notes for Creation Theology and Cultural Engagement:

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm

[2] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm

[3] McGrath, 144.

[4] McGrath, 150-151.

[5] Noll, 41.  Mark Noll notes that Calvin changed the sections on civil government in different editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion depending on whether the government was pro- or anti-Reformation.

[6] McGrath, 144.

[7] McGrath, 150-151, including the remainder of the paragraph.

[8] Wolters, 8-9.

[9] E.g. Rom. 8:19-22.

[10] Wolters, 84.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wolters, 85.

[13] Noll, 18.

[14] Stott, Involvement, 49.

Notes for Biblical Worldview and Conclusion:

[1] Such as Isaiah. 11, Jeremiah 33 and Daniel 2:44 as a few examples among many.

[2] Ezra 2:64 claims 42, 360 returnees.

[3] Esther 3:6.  King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther is apparently identified with Xerxes (486-465 BC), the fifth in succession after Cyrus the Great, their liberator.  http://www.farsinet.com/iranbibl/kings.html

[4] e.g. John 16:1-2.  See also Rev. 6:9-11; Rev. 19:1-21; Rom. 8:18-25.

[5] Especially in 1 Peter 2:11-17

[6] Romans 11:17-24.

[7] John 17:14-16.

[8] Stiller, 152.

[9] Stiller, 169.

[10] Hebrews 11:13-16.  Note in this passage the reference to their self-description as “strangers and foreigners in the earth.”

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Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals – Part 2

[I finished the last post with two important questions my Theology of Christian Worship paper was intending to answer.The first is “what overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?”  And the second is “what constitutes properly reverent obedience?”  The final part of my 2005 paper follows here. ]

Toward a New Covenant Liturgy of Revelation and Response: Marking Time

What overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?  The main theme should be that God is Creator and Redeemer.  As noted above, God supplied humanity with a purpose and mission at creation.  Whatever else redemption accomplishes, it presumably should provide for humankind to fulfill that purpose.  This is probably why the Eden imagery is so prominent in Rev. 22.  Jesus comes therefore not only to free us from the penalty for sin, but to enable us to become a new creation that will finally be restored to God’s will of human dominion over the world (Rom. 8:20-25 cf. Gen. 1:26).  A liturgy that seeks to enable God’s revelation to his current people will need to balance these “already” and “not yet” aspects of eschatology.  Witvliet puts it this way, “Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action?  Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past?”[1]  How could such a liturgy be constructed?

Marking Time for Revelation

One possibility is to begin with a liturgy calendar that God constructed and supplied to his covenant people at Sinai.  Its special focus was a Tabernacle constructed to remind the Israelites about the lost garden, including guardian cherubim woven into the partition and the tree-like lamp stand representing the Tree of Life.  There was an altar for sacrifice with a fire that God had started miraculously.  The temporal foci were a weekly and yearly festival calendar as well as a 50-year cycle that culminated in an announcement of freedom[2] from economic and other forms of oppression.  There was a weekly rest to remind the people of God’s rest at creation and human participation in restful living under God’s Sabbath blessing.  There were covenant documents to be read out loud during the Feast of Tabernacles in the Sabbath year.  These were intended (along with moral and civil laws) to display God’s wisdom to the nations (Deut 4:6-8).  Is there anything of value in this curriculum for a New Covenant people?

There is no doubt that Jesus has fulfilled and is fulfilling all of these “shadows” (Col. 2:17).  This leads many, including John Frame to suggest things like, “the literal observance of these rites would distract us from the final accomplishment of salvation in Jesus.  Therefore God no longer requires our participation in these ceremonies.”[3]  Does this mean that the significance of the salvation events foreshadowed by and fulfilled on those dates needs to go unnoticed?  This is not necessarily the case.  New Testament Christians did seem to participate in many, if not all, of those ceremonies at least until the Temple was destroyed, and some observed gatherings on the festival dates even longer[4].  Paul’s last act before his arrest in Acts was to participate in a Temple ritual cleansing ceremony precisely to prove that he was not against the law as such (Acts 21:21-24).  Furthermore, if the “shadows” should be avoided lest they distract from the reality of Christ, what about later accretions that have no direct biblical warrant?  Are Easter eggs and Santa Claus less distracting to the reality of Jesus than remembering that there had once been animal sacrifices on the Day of Atonement?  Can dates and customs that are not even “shadows” be more effective at communicating the gospel than those which God himself ordained?

In arguing for the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper Eugene Peterson attempts to decouple it from the priestly system[5].  It is certainly true that the Passover meal as originally instituted did not involve Priests and temple ritual.  The Passover did, however involve a yearly pattern of repetition, not a weekly one.  Jesus clearly identifies his meal with a Passover celebration in Luke 22:15.

Liturgically, Jesus is signaling the initiation of an exodus.  That exodus is from sin and death.  The first is realized in full, while the second is inaugurated in Jesus’ own resurrection.  He deliberately chose a symbol that was a recapitulation of one that God gave great meaning to in Israelite salvation history.  Paul even suggests a proper response to Jesus’ paschal significance (1 Cor. 5:6-8) by commanding, “Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (v. 7, NRSV).  This hints at the possibility of a Feast of Unleavened Bread surviving in some (perhaps spiritualized) form.  At a minimum, Paul seemed to expect Gentile Corinthian Christians to understand the allusion.  The exodus symbolism may be easier to grasp if the Lord’s Supper is not decoupled from its yearly Passover association.

Hill notes that the Church year seems to be rooted in the Hebrew calendar[6].  Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost, though now calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, were all originally observances God gave to ancient Israel.  It seems odd to create a season called “Lent” when there already exists the notion of giving something up in the season of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (A giving up of something is more appropriate as an act of response to salvation remembered than as a preparation for remembering.) A Day of Atonement service would be a natural place for ritual confession of sin and pronouncement of absolution. It would also be a natural place for a theme about true liberty and social justice (Jubilee Year themes).  The Feast of Tabernacles would be ideal for a sermon series about the stipulations and promises of the New Covenant.  It could end with the theme of God “tabernacling” among his people, first as a pillar of cloud/fire, then as Jesus, and currently as the indwelling Holy Spirit, but culminating in His perpetual presence among all human beings who have trusted in Jesus.

Incorporating these festivals would go a long way toward integrating the narrative of the Old Testament into the consciousness of New Covenant Christians.  God chose those particular observances to reveal both a past and a future.  It would be good for churches to explain how Jesus uses these God-given times as types of his own salvation work.

Marking Time for Response

There is no real dichotomy between Yahweh and Jesus.  What we now call the Old Covenant was a wonderful gift from God to a people He saved.  A New Covenant became necessary because human beings were unable to live up to its holy and grace-filled demands, and therefore they broke covenant with God.  We Gentile Christians are grafted by grace into the rootstock of a remnant of Israel (Rom. 11:17-21).  Paul even warns Gentile Christians not to become proud of having “displaced” natural-born Israelites.  Reverent obedience to God is still a covenant requirement.

A reintroduction of the autumnal festivals into church worship rhythms could forge within Christians a greater, more coherent appreciation for the long-range work of a God who gave good gifts to the people of both covenants.  As we remember the past, present and future aspects of Jesus’ salvation work, it would be good to be taught about the Sinaitic/Deuteronomic Covenant by churches in a way that does not deprecate the work of God in that era of salvation history.  Fulfillment of the symbols embodied within it does not somehow render it unworthy of remembrance.  Its worship space, times and rituals were formative of a remembered salvation for a newly-freed nation and, later, of Messianic expectations for an exiled people who had broken covenant.  The apostles and early New Testament writers found in them Messianic realization and inauguration[7].  The worship space was destroyed by Roman armies.  The sacrifices were rendered obsolete by Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.  Holy times may be in a separate category.  Paul seems to be open to holy days, and refuses to let Christians set boundaries for others in this area[8].

This is good counsel for a post-modern era church.  It also leaves open the possibility of remembering the history (and future aspect) of salvation through reconnecting with the messianic symbolism that is built into the holy times God gave to ancient Israel.  This is a part of God’s revelation to his people that has been perhaps underappreciated in the church over many generations, contributing to an unnecessarily negative view of the law of the Old Covenant.

If such a reintegration is done well and non-legalistically, better appreciation for the grace of God throughout the Bible will result.  This could result in better-informed answers to questions about the seeming harshness of God in the Old Testament.  The God of the Bible has always been a God of forgiveness and fresh starts.  As examples, God rightfully objects to the neglect of the liberating aspects of his law (e.g. refusal to implement sabbatical year or jubilee) as well as the use of His delegated authority to oppress others (e.g. kingship of Ahab).  Meditation on the principles of the Old Covenant could also spark more creative ways of responding to social justice concerns than have been the norm for Evangelical Christians.

What is potentially attractive about these festivals is that their source is God.  They are to be found in the actual biblical narrative.  When the Bible reader who is aware of these festivals and their meaning encounters passages in which Jesus fulfils them, they have a context for being in awe of the great God who both foreshadowed and fulfilled that image in Jesus.  For instance, even a weekly Sabbath rest is directly connected in Hebrews 3-4 to God’s creation purpose (Hebrews 2:5-15, cf. Gen. 1:26-28) and future hope for humanity.  That future hope is none other than the purpose for which we were created: to fully have dominion with Jesus over a beautiful world that is teeming with life.

As followers of Jesus they will be aware that Jesus came to inaugurate an exodus from sin and death.  A proper response is to follow Jesus until we have fully entered into the Promised Land of eternal life.  As a follower of Jesus who is aware of the Feast of Tabernacles, one will understand that this life is a mere camping trip until real life becomes fully realized.  A proper response is to live a life entirely devoted to Jesus as an anticipation of full living.  It will also be a response of valuing treasure in heaven over treasure on earth.  Yearly reminders of the Day of Atonement may bring a response of awe and gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice.  It may also lead to a response of wanting others to experience true liberty from sin and fear of death.  It may further lead (if well understood) to a commitment to help others in tangible ways that maintain or restore their dignity, such as helping them find ways of earning a living as self-employed people rather just feeding them in soup kitchens.  There truly is a picture of freedom from the oppression of working as slaves of others in the Jubilee proclamation of this day.  Perhaps we can recapture the vision of providing for human dignity and worth that is inherent in the picture of each family being allotted a piece of land forever.

These are responses that can go beyond the normal evangelical desire to see people “saved” spiritually.  Jesus became human and was resurrected bodily to show that He desires to save not only the spirit, but also the flesh.  Remembering Jesus’ acts of salvation, past and future, via these festivals is one way to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet in liturgical view.

Potential Problems

There is always the possibility, however, that a legalistic approach could enter any attempt to reconnect with the Jewish roots of the Christian church.  Such an approach is not unknown within Jewish Messianic Christian movements.  Paul certainly insisted that Gentile converts need not become Jews in order to be saved.  He also refuses to teach his Gentile converts that keeping the Old Covenant law is required for salvation.  (Even in the establishment of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, salvation preceded covenant-obedience.  How much more is this so in the New Covenant!)  Every effort must be made to keep it from degenerating into an exclusive club of nitpicky rule-makers.

While legalism is a genuine possibility with this idea, it is also not unknown among Christians who eschew visible evidence of Jewish roots in their faith-walk.  Roman Christians endured centuries of prescribed menus and Latin worship.  Baptists would not dance, play cards or imbibe any alcohol.  All have “biblical” arguments for their rules and regulations.[9]  As a theological category, legalism cannot be limited to Jewish ways of looking at the Bible.  Festivals of any kind only reveal God’s person and will if the worshipper has a context in which to receive the revelation.  Any “holy time” imposed upon an unwilling person becomes a burden.  The solution is to make it clear, both at the outset and on a regular basis, that this should be time voluntarily set aside rather than a command.  Days that were commanded for ancient Israel are only one of many possibilities for a New Covenant people.  In an age where people are looking for coherence between what is believed and what is done, they may well be worth bringing back into the life of the church.

Conclusion

Reintroduction of the festive cycle of the Old Testament into the church in a non-legalistic way can provide occasions to meditate on the overarching themes of God’s original purpose for humanity and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  If the form and memorial function of the festivals in a liturgical year can be brought back into closer alignment with the biblical text, it may be possible to integrate better biblical understanding into the lives of church members.  This alignment could give believers better symbolic tools with which to comprehend and explain biblical revelation.  It could also potentially generate more imaginative, insightful and even truly helping-oriented responses in the lives of hearers and readers of the Divine Word.

Notes:

[1] Witvliet, p. 56.

[2] The Jubilee year pronouncement during the Day of Atonement in the 50th year of the land Sabbath cycle of Israel (Lev. 25:8-10).

[3] Frame, p. 29-30.

[4] Hill, p. 100.  Hill points to church history as suggesting that some Christians observed Jewish festivals until well into the fourth century A.D.

[5] Peterson, p. 124.

[6] Hill, p. 93

[7] See especially the book of Hebrews.

[8] Rom. 14:5-6a

[9] Howard, pp. 12-14. A fair treatment of Evangelical taboos, pointing out the ubiquity of taboos in human cultures.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, Ronald and Borror, Gordon. Worship: Rediscovering The Missing Jewel. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1982.

Best, Harold M. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003.

Brueggemann, Walter. Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.

Burkhart, John E. Worship: A Searching Examination of the Liturgical Experience. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982.

Carson, D.A. (Ed.), Worship By The Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.

Dawn, Marva J., A Royal “Waste” Of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. 1999.

Dawn, Marva J. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995.

Frame, John M. Worship In Spirit And Truth. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishers, 1996.

Hayford, Jack, Killinger, John and Stevenson, Howard., Mastering Worship. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1990.

Hill, Andrew E. Enter His Courts With Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.

Horton, Michael S. A Better Way: Rediscovering The Drama of God-Centered Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Howard, Thomas. Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship Of God In Liturgy And Sacrament. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1984.

Keifert, Patrick R.  Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

Liesch, Barry. The New Worship: Straight Talk On Music And The Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001.

Lind, Millard C., Biblical Foundations for Christian Worship. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973.

Long, Thomas G.  Beyond The Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship.  Bethesda, MD:The Alban Institute, 2001.

Longman, Tremper. Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship.  Series: The Gospel According to the Old Testament.  Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001.

Old, Hughes Oliphant., Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1984

Morgenthaler, Sally. Worship Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1995.

Peterson, David. Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Plantinga, Cornelius J. and Rozeboom, Sue A. Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Saliers, Don E. Worship as Theology: Fortaste of Glory Divine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Segler, Franklin M. (revised by Randall Bradley)., Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Pub.,1996 .

Webber, Robert E. Worship Is A Verb: Eight Principles for Transforming Worship. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 1992.

Webber, Robert E.  Ancient Future Faith; Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999.

Webber, Robert E.  Worship Old and New. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1982.

Wiersbe, Warren. Real Worship: Playground, Battle Ground, or Holy Ground. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.

Witvleit, John. Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows Into Christian Practice. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003.

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Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals – Part 1

Last time I ranted about what I perceive to be a trend toward mysticism in Evangelicalism that was promulgated in the classrooms of seminaries I attended. One might well wonder what views of my own I was formulating about worship and whether I was going along with that trend at the time. The following is the first part of the major paper I wrote for the Theology of Worship class I took in 2005, while I was still attending the Worldwide Church of God. Other parts will follow. (The footnotes refer to books that appear in the Bibliography that will follow in the last installment.)

Revelation and Response In Torah-based Festivals

Introduction

 The Worldwide Church of God has undergone an unprecedented paradigm shift in its theology and practice that has freed its membership to throw off the shackles of its bondage to the cultish practices of its founder.  This freedom provides both the opportunity and the challenge of reformulating worship theology and practice in the denomination and at the local church level.  Local churches are free to worship in a style and at times best suited to them, so long as they teach that salvation is by grace alone, and is in no way dependent on works (and especially not on keeping the Old Testament Law, including the 10 Commandments).  One WCG practice that is currently under review is that of observing the annual festivals found in the Torah.  This paper will study overarching themes revealed in the Bible and discuss whether these festivals and their symbols can be useful in assisting believers in responding to God’s self-revelation in Jesus in an appropriate manner.

 

The Self-Revelation of God and Human Response in Scripture

 Primeval Revelation

How does God reveal himself and what his will is?  In the Adamic and Patriarchal ages he seems to have either directly spoken to or appeared to human beings.  At the Exodus he manifests his presence to Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  He speaks to them from a smoking, thundering mountain, and they move away in fear (Ex. 20:18). He feeds them miraculously, six days out of seven, as an indicator of when they are to observe Sabbath.  He gives Moses two tablets of stone containing the words of the covenant, written “with the hand of God” (Ex. 31:18).  Moses becomes the first of a long line of prophets, men and women who speak on God’s behalf.  The actions of God and his messengers, kings and priests are chronicled in various books, songs and poems.  Many of these are eventually collected into a series of scrolls that come to be considered sacred writings in Israel.  Jesus bases all of his teaching during his earthly ministry on the meaning and fulfillment of these writings.  His teaching, activity and those of his disciples eventually also end up written down as an additional testimony, and are collected into what comes to be known as the New Testament.

Basic Content of Biblical Revelation

The primary source of revelation about God that is available to the Church today is this testimony, by a believing people, comprised of narrative, poetry, legal code, and song (as well as other genres) that is called the Holy Bible.  In its pages God is revealed as Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  Where the revelation of God begins to impinge on humanity is that he is also described as the maker and companion of the first human beings (Gen. 1:27; 3:8).  He has a purpose in making them (1:26), and communicates it to them in a blessing (1:28-31).  This theme of human dominion over the world is important enough to be taken up directly in Ps. 8:3-8, and Heb. 2:6-10 and indirectly in Gen. 9:1-3 and Jas. 3:7.

God reveals that to remain in this blessed condition of dominion they must obey the injunction to rule over the creatures (Gen. 1:28) and to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17).  Instead, they obey the creature by eating the forbidden fruit.  For this dual sin they inherit death, a life of working hard just to eat (food literally grew on trees in the garden) and ejection from the land of blessing (3:22-24).  For subsequent generations of humanity, there was no going back (Rom. 5:14).  Even then, God’s revelation required an appropriate response – one based in obedience to God’s revealed will.

The remainder of the Bible is about God’s work to bring humanity back to the state of dominion in a blessed land.  In God’s search for a people who would follow him, he finds Abram.  Abram was apparently a person whose life embodied following God’s instructions.  In response to Abraham’s faithfulness in leaving Ur and traveling to a foreign land, God makes promises (Gen. 12) to him about nationhood, greatness and blessing that are further elaborated in Gen. 17 and 22.  Centuries later these promises culminate in the salvation of the nation of his descendents from Egyptian captivity and their formation into a nation which enjoyed a covenant with God.[1]

God reveals instructions in a Teaching (torah) at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20-23).  Following these teachings would allow them to remain in the land and to enjoy the fellowship of Yahweh in their midst.  This law prescribes all aspects of life, including acceptable worship modes and gatherings, cultic life, moral legislation, social justice and civil legislation.  Its intent is to proclaim God’s wisdom to all nations (Deut. 4:5-8) as a positive witness.  Strangers (except for certain specific enemies) are to be welcomed (even in worship) and treated fairly (e.g.: Deut. 24:14-21 and Num. 15:14).  Nowhere are non-Israelites considered “unclean.”[2]

The covenant is ratified with a blood sacrifice, a reading of the Law and the liturgical response, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).  They almost immediately break covenant (Ex. 32), which must then be renewed (34:8-31). This establishes another pattern that would characterize Israel’s relationship with Yahweh: covenant-breaking and covenant renewal.  God shows himself to be a faithful covenant-partner and also a punisher of covenant-breaking.  Eventually the covenant breaks down completely due to Israelite disobedience, and they are exiled from the land.

Even in the dying days of the Israelite kingdom, God looks ahead to redemption.  He repeats and elaborates on promises made to Moses (e.g. Deut. 30:1-6) through prophets like Jeremiah (e.g. Jer. 31:31-37) and Ezekiel (e.g. Ezek. 37:15-26-28).  He speaks to them about restoration and a renewal of covenant with the remnant (leftovers) of his people Israel.

Centuries later, God begins to act on the promises by sending his divine Son Jesus to redeem Israel and all of humanity (Jn 3:16-17).  Jesus proclaims Jubilee[3] (Lk. 4:16-20) and announces the terms and conditions of a new covenant (Matt. 5-7).  Jesus ratifies the new covenant in his own blood, fulfilling the death-requirement of the Law (for all sin) and all the symbolism of Israel’s cultic worship.  Jesus dies during the Passover sacrifice, is presented alive to God at dawn on the Sunday[4] during the Passover week festival, and provides the Holy Spirit (the new, interiorized Law) during Pentecost[5].  Eventually it is decided that Gentiles are not required to become Jews to be baptized (Acts 15), but may remain members of their own diverse cultures, worshipping Jesus and his Father appropriately (though not idolatrously).  The Kingdom has broken into the world!  Eschatology is not yet fully realized, however.  Jesus will return to establish a new Eden (Rev. 22:1-5, cf. Gen. 2:8-10) on a new earth (Rev. 21:1).  Jesus, the new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-58), comes to restart humanity’s dominion on earth with a people he has purchased from death.

How is this content imparted to the people?  The basic way is through public reading of the Scriptures.  Explaining the meaning is often necessary, so some sort of exposition or preaching will usually accompany the reading (e.g. Neh. 8:8).  The biblical story is told, and the reader is left with choices.  The reader can accept the narrative and choose to join his story with that of Jesus, or he can choose to reject it and Jesus’ claims.

Response

The basic response God seems to want from human beings in the above is one of reverent obedience[6] to his words and will.  For Noah, the only acceptable response was building an ark.  God cites Abram’s immediate departure from Ur as a pleasing response.  Human response is not adequate until the work requested by God is done (Jas. 2:20-26) or unless the conditions he requires are met (such as the injunction not to eat of the forbidden fruit).  The first important characteristic of worship, therefore, is that worship involves obedience (either in doing something or in refraining from doing something) to God’s revealed word.  All of the exclamations or gestures[7] involved in what we today call corporate or personal worship are symbolic of bending our will in submission to God’s will.  To say, as the Israelites said, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do”, and then stop short of the doing is false worship.  In reality, it is not worship at all.

Hearing the story of God and responding faithfully to it are acts that set apart a people for the service of God.  Each person constructs a mental map of their personal reality, and responds to circumstances congruently with that world view.[8] After studying the work of Mowinckel and other pioneers, Walter Brueggemann concludes, “For the community gathered around Jesus, however, it is precisely the act of worship that is the act of world-formation!”[9]  The community believes, then acts in a way consistent with belief that Jesus is Lord.  How do others see that Jesus is Lord? They see the praise of the believers toward Jesus and their obedience to Jesus’ will.

Gestures or ritual actions alone will not do (Jas. 1:26-27), nor will obedience that does not flow out of reverence (Matt. 7:21-23).  As Andrew Hill suggests, “True worship must be a response of the whole person to the God of creation and redemption.”[10]  Many of the recent books about worship rightly emphasize the importance of enthusiasm in response to various aspects of revelation in liturgy.  There are two good questions to ask at this point.  The first is what overarching revelatory themes should a liturgy convey?  And the second is “hat constitutes properly reverent obedience?  All other questions of style and responsiveness must necessarily wait until these important issues are addressed.

[1] Note that the order is promise, salvation, then covenant.  This order is important in understanding Paul’s teaching on law and grace.  Obedience to covenant-law is based on an already-accomplished salvation.

[2] This is useful in understanding Peter’s vision in Acts 10.  God has never called Gentiles “unclean”, so Jews are going beyond their authority by doing so.

[3] The language of the Isaiah passage he is reading is modeled on the Jubilee year pronouncement during the Day of Atonement on the 50th year of the land Sabbath cycle of Israel (Lev. 25:8-10).  This proclaims freedom to return to ancestral lands that have been sold and freedom from the oppression of being required to work for others.  It also represented a rest from the toil of earning one’s living from the sweat and toil of raising a crop (a picture of Eden).

[4] Longman, p. 192.  The WCG followed the same view of the count to Pentecost. The most natural reading of Lev. 23:15-22 suggests a weekly rather than an annual Sabbath.  This would make the offering of the “wave sheaf” on the Sunday morning during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost would also always be on a Sunday seven weeks following.  The “wave sheaf”, offered at dawn, symbolizes the “firstfruits” of the harvest offered to God.  Jesus becomes the “firstfruits” (1 Cor 15:23) of a resurrected humanity faithful to God.  This allows Pentecost to function as the beginning of the harvest of believers in Acts 2.

[5] According to Jewish tradition Pentecost was the time of the delivery of the Ten Commandments (as well as the covenant) at Mt. Sinai during the Exodus.

[6] Hill, p. 3, referring to the Hebrew word yare, as in “fear of the Lord”.

[7] Hill, p. 2-9.  Hill notes that the Hebrew words rendered “worship” in English mean things like “seek/inquire”, “fear/obey”, “serve”, “minister”, “bow down”, “prostrate oneself”. “grovel” or “approach the King”.  Every one of them seems to have, at its root, the sense of obeisance – a fealty to the Great King.

[8] Brueggemann, p. 26.

[9] Brueggemann, p. 27.

[10] Hill, p. xxx.

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