Sunday Meditations: What’s the Bible Got to Do with Me?

Depending on your background, the question, “What’s the Bible got to do with me?” may seem silly.

If you’ve had any encounters with church at all, this isn’t a question that gets asked a whole lot.  There’s a fundamental assumption that the Bible speaks directly to you and to your situation as if it were a letter God wrote to you.  Metaphors for the Bible abound that capture this idea: the Bible is God’s love letter to you, the Bible is God’s instruction manual for life, etc.  The idea is that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, read it, and get information that is directly relevant to their lives right off the page.

If that’s where you’re coming from, then the rest of this post is probably not going to be very interesting.

I have taken a view of the Bible that the writings in it were produced at specific times for specific purposes primarily for the audience who received those writings at that time.  As such, the writings rely on the events, worldviews, theologies, and concerns of the people at the time, and that becomes our primary reference point when determining what the Scriptures meant.

When this approach is taken, the content of the Scriptures can seem somewhat limited compared to our evangelical theology, especially when we look at the gospels.  Instead of a Jesus engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of darkness or a Jesus focused on the spiritual condition of every individual, we have a Jesus who is concerned about the state of Israel in his day, has prophetic warnings for them, works to restore them to wholeness, dies so that they might be saved, and is exalted to God’s right hand so that their fortunes in the world might be reversed.

As we read further in the New Testament, we see that what happened with Israel begins to roll out to the nations.  A great overturning of fortunes is seen for the whole Empire, and the Gentiles who believe in what God has done in and for Jesus, and specifically believe that Jesus has been exalted to lordship by God, receive the same Spirit of God that faithful Israel has.  Their sins, too, are forgiven, and they, too, have hope of being saved from a coming judgement that, on the other side, will result in the reign of the saints both dead and alive.  Again, this is viewed as an imminent event.

Historically, however, we are long past this time frame.

Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman Empire and the Temple destroyed, bringing an end to the Israel-specific religious and political power structures of the day.  Through the ridiculously rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, Roman paganism was overthrown, bringing an end to persecution of Christians, and Jesus was declared Lord over the same Empire that executed him.

And then time went on.  The Temple was never rebuilt.  The Roman Empire declined and faded.  These were the key scenarios anticipated by the Scriptures, and they happened.

So, that raises the legitimate question: what does the Bible have to do with us, today?  Or, maybe more to the point, what relationship do these truths, teachings, narratives, and observations have to us, today, who are living so long after the main concerns have come and gone?

One answer is that everything I wrote above is pretty much wrong.  The biblical writings are not primarily concerned with their proximate historical situation and, instead, are focused on timeless, trans-historical truths that speak equally to everyone everywhere.  This is a well-established position and, if it is yours, you are in good company.  It’s not the purpose of this post to argue against it, and as I said, you’ll probably find the rest of this a little boring because you’ve already rejected a key assumption of it.

But if you’re me or someone who thinks somewhat about the Bible like I do, then this is an important issue, and I’d like to address it in a few ways.

This Has Always Been an Issue

Because we have had a closed canon for so long, we can sometimes forget that the writings in the Bible were produced over a very long period of time – even longer if we consider the stories and traditions that came before writing them down.

Our Jewish forefathers in the faith produced Scripture at a given point in time, and generations much later had to discern the significance for them at a later time.  Yet, at no point did anyone think these Scriptures were no longer relevant.

For instance, we read in 1 Maccabees of the persecution and paganism forced upon the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes.  In the early chapters of 1 Maccabees, we read of faithful Israel being urged to keep the covenant of her ancestors, and in 2:49-70, Matthias on his deathbed recites the faithfulness of various figures from the Old Testament and uses them as examples to his audience.  They are examples because they are Israel’s forefathers.  If Israel remains faithful in her hour of trial, then God will preserve them even as the pagan empires around them pass away.

Not a single one of those Old Testament episodes were written to address Matthias’ current situation, nor were they written to establish a timeless principle of how God deals with people being persecuted – like that’s the “moral of the story” or what have you.

Yet, Matthias turns to these narratives to offer guidance in Israel’s present (to Matthias) situation.  This happens in two ways:

  1. What has happened in the past has ramifications for the present.
  2. What we see happening in the past can be transposed into our present situation for understanding and guidance.

Note, I am not condoning how Matthias specifically chose to apply the Old Testament to his present situation (which was, basically, let’s take revenge on the Gentiles), but rather to demonstrate that this is something the believing community has always had to do – take Scriptures that focused on past history and concerns and use them in a later context.

What Has Happened in the Past Has Ramifications for the Present

It seems like this is so obvious that it goes without saying: narrative about the past is vital for understanding your present situation.

How did we get here?  Where did we go wrong?  What did we do right?  How did people deal with this in the past?  How did it go?  Are there keys in here for undoing the present ills the past has produced?  Are we headed in a direction where we are doomed to repeat this fate?  Have past events imposed obligations on us in the present?  Are we, who are far removed from the original participants in historical events, still experiencing the effects and ramifications of them?

For example, I live in the United States.  If someone said that the Revolutionary War or the Constitution or slavery were all irrelevant to the present experience of the United States simply because they occurred in a historical scope that is long past, everyone would consider that person profoundly ignorant.

These events, stories, and documents are formative for the United States and continue to “live on” in values, practices, and institutions both for good and ill.  An ignorance of them only leaves us at the mercy of the trajectory they have set us on.

We learn them so that we can understand who we are and how we got here, hold to the things that serve us well, undo the things that have plagued us, avoid the errors (ideally) of our past and pursue the virtues and victories.

This is not really different from the role the narratives of Israel’s past played in their present experience over time, and you can see it in the biblical writings themselves, as later stories draw from figures, images, and outcomes of older ones.

Even in stories we have of these events, a concern that later generations will remember the story and draw meaning from it is present.  For example, in Exodus 12, the story of the Passover establishes it as a perpetual practice – one where children might well ask, “Why do we celebrate this?”  Their parents are to respond that this celebrates when the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing Israel.

This event, long in Israel’s primordial past, is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder of who their God is, what He has done for them, and the special relationship they have with Him that the other nations do not.  This complex of truths undergirds the entirety of Israel’s experience as narrated through the Scriptures.  Even the Ten Commandments begin with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.  You shall have no other gods before Me.”

By the time we get to Jesus, we find a Jesus who is not at odds with the narrative tradition behind him but continuous with it.  He sees himself as the last of a line of messengers sent by God to turn Israel from her path and holds out the prophetic possibility of restoration that repentance can bring – restoration from a specific situation that has been brought about by Israel’s past history, not some generic spiritual condition that has plagued mankind since Eden.

See, there is a reason Jesus has to arrive in the first century.

Even when we see shocking events in the New Testament like Pentecost, Peter sees this as a progression of the Old Testament narrative.  Stephen explains his martyrdom and the exaltation of Jesus in terms of Israel’s past story.  Paul sees the inclusion of Gentiles as an outcome of the covenant made with Abraham, who is the spiritual forefather of both Jews and Gentiles and whose promise will bring them together.

They have to understand past events because they have ramifications for the present.

So, when we talk about the Bible’s relevance for our present experience, this is one way: we understand what happened in the past to understand our present.

God has made a way of justification apart from the Israel-specific Torah: it is faith in Jesus Christ.  This is what God has done in the past.  Today, we join His people by believing in what He has done in Jesus in the past, and when we do this, we receive His Spirit.  We know this by what we know of the past.  Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in the past and this explains his current lordship over the church.  The observation of God’s faithfulness to His promises and the survival and fortunes of His people give us comfort and hope in our own circumstances as the church.  God’s past operations beyond the grave have ramifications for our own future.

The destruction of the Temple has ramifications for our present.  The rise and fall of Rome has ramifications for our present.

In the name of Jesus, I can offer all people forgiveness of their sins, the promise of the Spirit, new life in a new community with a new mission that will restore everything that is broken, and I can offer them this on the strength of what God has done in the past.

Just like the study of America’s formative documents, stories, and events – these things tell us how we got here, help us understand our present, and give us tools for navigating it.

I have told people before that, if I were financially independent, I would like to spend my time going to churches and telling them, from history, what God has done in Jesus, who they are, and what that means for their hope and mission.  This identity-forming practice of sharing stories is something that has strong roots in our tribal past but isn’t terribly common these days.  In fact, a “timeless truths” approach to Scripture can sometimes undermine this.  The story of David and Goliath is no longer part of who we are or how we got here and is, instead, basically a fable like the Fox and the Grapes – a story whose particulars are unimportant that serves to teach a general, moral lesson.

Transposing the Past

He might not have been the first person to put it this way, but Andrew Perriman was the person who introduced me to the image of transposing the biblical narrative.

“Transposing” is a musical term.  See, a given piece of music is written in a certain “key.”  A key is basically the boundaries of the notes used in a piece of music.

Well, once you bring singers into the mix, you sometimes have a problem.  What if the notes are too high or too low for your singers?

Then you can move the notes into a higher or lower key.  You still get the same song because the relationship between all the notes is exactly the same, but they now run in a higher or lower range.  Moving the same notes into a different key is called “transposition.”

In other words, you have taken the exact same musical structure, but you have moved it into a range that fits your current singers.

The gospel writers are experts at this.  Maybe even a little overzealous at times.

For example, Matthew’s gospel portrays Herod as ordering the execution of infants in Bethlehem because he is afraid a child has been born that will overthrow him.  In reference to this event, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 about Ramah weeping over her lost children.

Jeremiah 31 is not at all a prophecy about Herod.  It’s about Israelite sons being taken captive into Babylon.  It even specifically says Ramah, not Bethlehem.

So, was Matthew written by a total idiot or what?

No, Matthew is transposing Jeremiah 31.  Jeremiah posits that Israel is weeping because her children are being taken from her by an oppressor, but God will hear the grief of His people and will restore their fortunes, returning their children from exile and delivering them from oppressors.

Matthew is saying, in essence, “Israel under Herod is like Israel under Babylon.  And just as God removed Babylon and brought Israel back to her land, so God is about to accomplish another deliverance of Israel in Jesus Christ.  God is about to overturn this oppressor, who is so much worse, with a salvation that is so much greater in scope.”

Matthew is using a text bounded by specific historical circumstances and significant in the past to explain present circumstances and offer both explanation and hope to his readers.

This is, I believe, the kind of thing that needs to happen, today, and is in large part what my blog is about – trying to do this (and screwing it up a lot) better and better.

In this way, we use past history to serve the present, but not by stripping it of its historical significance.  Rather, its historical significance is exactly what allows it to have value in the present.

It has been my experience that the most powerful forms of preaching and proclamation are the ones where the present voice of God is brought forward from the original voice and the two are strongly connected.

Joe Frazier was a professional boxer who had a particular habit.  When he punched people at head level, he turned his fist vertically instead of horizontally.  He called this the “power line,” because it brought his fist, wrist, and arm into better alignment when punching at that height.  You can actually test this for yourself without punching anyone.  Stand next to a wall and press your fist against it at the height of your face and look at your alignment, then turn your fist vertical and do the same thing.

The point is that the greater alignment of all the parts involved delivered a much more powerful punch, and I have discovered this to be the case when preaching or even talking about the Bible.  It’s not as though you can’t have a powerful punch without connecting the meaning of the past with your present proclamation; you can.  But I have seen powerful things happen when all the pieces are in alignment.

In this way, transposing the past into our present circumstances gives the Bible a new and powerful voice.

When I talk about the story of Jesus casting out Legion, it is no longer simply a tale of spiritual power or a model for dealing with demons; it is the story of Jesus taking on a complete world system – all the powers working together that have oppressed this man.  There is no bifurcation in this story between the spiritual forces of darkness and the political oppression of the Roman Empire.  One is a physical embodiment of the other, and Jesus, with the power of God, confronts them simultaneously.

What a holistic call to mission this is, and what assurance we have of the victory of God when we act in His name.  I do not have to choose between “saving souls,” addressing people’s psychological needs, addressing their material needs, or working for the betterment of the structures that people have to live under.  All of it is a war against darkness, all of it is subject to Jesus’ power and authority, and there is nothing the Church needs to fear from any principality or power whatever form it takes, and there is no limit to the deliverance we have to offer suffering people.

The historical confrontation of Jesus and Rome is in our past – and Jesus won it.  Go to Rome, today, and tell me who won that confrontation.  We have our own oppressors, our own manifestations of darkness, our own people afflicted with all kinds of holistic suffering, and we have the commission and power to bring deliverance to them and every hope from the historical success of Jesus that we, too, ultimately, will be successful in ridding this world of everything that oppresses and afflicts, culminating ultimately in a new heavens and earth that are the product of God Himself.

If that doesn’t motivate you to fight, if that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what would.  Compare that to a story about demonic possession where the point is, essentially, that Jesus really cares about even crazy people, and since he’s God, he can send demons away.  I mean, not that those things aren’t necessarily true, but you see how anemic it can become when we strip away the historical significance of the story where Jesus faces the Legio Romana.

Imagine, if you will, going to an underground Chinese congregation in China and telling them that at least their hearts are right so they’ll go to heaven when the government persecutes them.  Now, imagine showing that same congregation the historical commitment God has demonstrated to the survival of His people, the steadfastness of His promise, the goal He has for His people to be a witness and agents to the world which no power of Hell or man can snuff out, and for those that do fall in the cause of love, death is answered in resurrection.  Do you see the difference in those two messages?  Do you see the difference in power and hope and mission?

What invitation do I have to offer the world based on what God has done in history?  I invite you to leave lives behind that are full of dysfunction, guilt, and dissipation to return to a God who keeps His promises.  A God who has for you the promise of the Spirit, filling you with His presence and bringing you into fellowship with a community of people who are also full of the Spirit and bearing healing fruits of all kinds as a result.  And you will become part of the mission to push back the darkness that plagues the world in all its forms with this Spirit under the guidance and protective care of Jesus, your living king.  And when this world has been made new and the last enemy of it has been subdued, the One who created all things will see you safely into it.

The Present Experience of the Church

It should be noted that, given that God has poured out the Spirit onto those who believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord, the present experience of the Church in the Spirit is something that absolutely must be taken into account alongside of our Bible reading.

The earliest church didn’t even have Bibles, at least not as we know them.  They had the proclamation of the Apostles and the demonstrative life of the Spirit among them.  Eventually, this produced letters and gospels and at least one apocalypse that was canonized, but the believing community did not live their lives buried in the pages of a book but in the lived out experience of the Spirit.

Sometimes, this experience manifested itself in drastic, crazy, remarkable ways.  Sometimes, it manifested simply in the extremes to which people would love and sacrifice for one another in the midst of a world that did not understand why you would want to do that.  And everything in between.

This is why I don’t go around telling people to stop getting meanings out of their Bibles that I think are ill-founded (as long as they stop short of telling me that’s what the Bible “means” or use their insight to bludgeon others).  The Spirit speaks and works, and the Bible is one of the vehicles through which this happens.  If someone reads a passage about Zacchaeus and it makes them think about whether or not their pricing is just at their workplace, I’m all for it.  Who knows but that it isn’t the Spirit speaking to that person, working with them to create a more just and compassionate world?

People draw comfort and insight for their lives from the Bible who don’t know anything about the Bible.  Who am I to say that is not the Spirit working with them through those pages?  Heck, some people even have a theology that makes it impossible for the Spirit to speak to them, so how else is it going to get done?

Regardless of what we think about the Bible or history or interpretation, good, amazing stuff is happening in the Church.  When we go out in faith and do Jesus things, Jesus things happen – often small, mundane stories, sometimes spectacular, but always about healing and reconciliation.  Always bringing the new creation into the here and now by the power of the Spirit.

Does this mean that Bible knowledge isn’t important?  No, although it might be less important than the position we’ve elevated it to in the West.  Still, as I’ve noted, the importance of understanding who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and what guidance all that can give us in our present circumstances is not incidental to the Church, but vital.

But we were never meant for our lives to be stuck in the pages of a book.  The story of God and His acts and His people does not stop with the maps in the back of your Bible.  It keeps going.  We aren’t supposed to be the first century church; we’re the twenty-first century church.  We have oppressors of our own.  We have struggles of our own.  We have issues of our own.  We have crises of our own.  And God is with us, now, speaking and acting and moving.

We need our prophets to call us to renewal and chart the way forward.  We need apostles to take the proclamation of what God has done to new places and start new faith communities.  We need pastors to care for communities that exist.  We need teachers to tell us who we are and who God is and disciple us in His ways.  We need healers to heal the sick.  We need givers to heal the poor.  We need helpers to care for widows and orphans – those who society has bypassed.  We need counselors with knowledge and wisdom to help people with their deep struggles and addictions and dysfunctions and broken relationships.  We need leaders who can challenge the anti-gospel of the powers that be with new ways of leading in the world, being a servant of love to all.  We need prayers who will draw forth the attention and power of God to all these needs and join His heart for the world.

There is no aspect of life into which God has not equipped and gifted people to bring the presence of Jesus and bring holiness to His name in the world.  Wouldn’t it be great if instead of being famous as the people who don’t want gay people to get married or who want schools to teach Genesis in science classes that we were known as the people who were steadfast warriors for the welfare of the world and everyone in it – compassionate servants to all who brought love and healing and forgiveness to everyone in the name of the God who loved them so much?

I did not invent these things, and neither did my contemporaries.  These are the things that are present in the Word.


Sunday Meditations: The State of the Kingdom

Something I’ve observed over the past decade or two is a growing awareness in American evangelicalism and Christianity as a whole about the kingdom-centric, lordship-centric nature of Jesus’ message and the early church’s proclamation.

Twenty or perhaps even ten years ago, many congregation members would look at you funny if you said that the core conviction of the early church was that, “Jesus is lord,” or that the good news of the gospel was that the kingdom had arrived.  Those concepts seem only loosely connected to a narrative about accepting Jesus into your heart so that you would go to heaven when you died and cleaning up your personal morality.

I’m speaking purely from my own opinion, but looking at this movement in Christianity as a whole, I’m going to lay almost entirely at the feet of N.T. Wright.  Not that he’s the first or most prolific person to talk about these things, but his popular reach is unmatched by any other scholar dealing with these topics.  Your average Christian in the American pew is probably not reading Schweitzer or Sanders or Dunn, but they might very well have a copy of John for Everyone.

Just this morning, I was reading a book written by a Charismatic (referring to the theology, not necessarily personality) pastor in a relatively small hyper-Charismatic denomination who cited N.T. Wright.  The idea that an Anglican theologian’s scholarship is making its way into small, Pentecostal churches is somewhat astounding to me.

Specifically in the realm of conservative Protestant evangelicalism, Scot McKnight has been running with this ball.  Books like The King Jesus Gospel and Kingdom Conspiracy bring these ideas powerfully home at a popular level and, I might add, he’s maybe even a bit more radical in communicating the ramifications of all this than N.T. Wright, which I greatly appreciate.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for an excellent personal or small-group devotional resource on bringing awareness of the message of the kingdom into your understanding of the gospel and mission, I recommend Following King Jesus, which Scot McKnight wrote with Becky Castle Miller.  I’m working my way through it, and even though there are things I might understand a bit differently, it’s solid and devotional and delivers the goods in a way that is almost guaranteed to generate some lively discussion in your standard evangelical small group or Sunday School class.

So, yes, the move is on in America to be reevaluating our understanding of the biblical story in light of the prominence of the theme of “kingdom” and the obsession of those earliest churches with the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to authority at God’s right hand, and this is healthy and good and I’m happy about it and will be happy to gush about it with little provocation if you see me at church or at the bus stop or in the waiting room for the dentist.

As the (old) new wine comes into contact with old (new) wineskins, some growing pains and transitional stages are to be expected.

One of these stages has been at the center of several of my conversations, recently, and that is a concept of the kingdom (and subsequently, the lordship of Jesus) that is primarily individual and spiritual in nature.

In some ways, this is a perfectly natural attempt at trying to synthesize these insights into an existing set of perceptions.  We have this narrative that we are to accept Jesus as lord in our hearts, and this means a transformation of our personal morality, and our mission is to get other people to do this as well.  When we hear about things like the theme of “kingdom,” then there can be a tendency to use it as a backdrop and a context for what we already think, and ironically, provide a securer anchor for finding this in the Bible since now we’re actually incorporating strong, biblical ideas.

“We’ve always been right, but we didn’t know how right we were!  Turns out our rightness is in even more of the Bible than we thought!”

(NOTE: This is the implicit subtitle of nearly every book on Reformed theology.  Go on, read one.  You’ll see what I mean.)

When we have created this synthesis, it’s then easy for us to project our situation back into those first century writings.  Because we understand the kingdom in terms of a purely spiritual entity that exists in the personal allegiances of Christians, it’s easy to see this as the emphasis and experience and eschatological hope of the early church.  They’re basically saying the same things we are, and now we’ve provided the narrative bridge to produce an unbroken doctrinal line between us and the Apostles.

(NOTE: This is an implicit teaching of nearly every book on Ref… you know what?  Maybe I should just write my own book on how to write a bestselling Reformed theology book.)

As you can see, when we do this, we’ve sort of flipped the direction in which the thought is supposed to move.  Rather than suspend our own theologies and controversies and concerns and read those writings against the first century world, then bring those ideas forward into our context, we are instead taking our framework and putting it in the minds and pens of the first century.

Now, in our minds, we have a first century church that had been reoriented from their earthly, political concerns (those are Old Testament sentiments) to the realm of spiritual realities (New Testament).  Their understanding was now that they would continue to live under an oppressive Roman regime, but they could endure this because they were now citizens of a spiritual kingdom that existed in heaven, to which they would enter upon death, and this kingdom would one day be realized as an earthly reality at the end of all time.

And, if you’ve got a bit of a progressive edge to you and/or are a millennial, the present experience of this kingdom is also an impetus for social action.  If you’re not progressive and/or old, it’s an impetus for avoiding social action.  It works out for everyone.

I want to say that this concept is not a bad summary of the experience of the church in the present day and age.  There is no single city or country that proclaims that Jesus is their king.  You can’t cross the borders of the kingdom of God.  And if we understand Jesus to be “lord of the nations” or God to rule the world, we have to understand it in some sense that doesn’t clash with the empirical reality that most of the world isn’t even Christian, much less actual political entities confessing this reality and living under this reality.

It makes sense for us to understand our corporate identity as being scattered throughout all nations but ruling none of them, and our unity is produced by the Spirit given to us by the Son who is lord over his people and whose will and goals are being accomplished through his people.  Furthermore, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is a decent summary of the spiritual component of the early church’s experiences.

What I would take issue with, however, is this being the sum of the expectations of those first century followers, the Apostles, or Jesus himself.

The picture I outlined above is only a kingdom in an abstract sense – a virtually metaphorical sense.  We could just as easily describe the situation as being an exodus through the wilderness, or being in exile/diaspora.  The idea of a kingdom describes some elements of our present situation but kind of fizzles in others.

And if we take this concept of the kingdom to consist of high-level concepts like “wherever the reign of God is present,” then it’s a little hard to understand why the Gospels would be so preoccupied with the announcement that the kingdom of God was impending or had arrived.

There were still faithful Israelites (and God-fearing Gentiles, for that matter) serving God before Jesus arrived, both in the kingdom of Israel, in Babylon, under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes, and in the Roman Empire.  How is it that they were not the kingdom of God?  How could Jesus announce the good news of the arrival of the longed-for kingdom when the longed-for kingdom was simply faithful people acting in obedience to God in their land?

Furthermore, how would this be a challenge to the Empire?  People “getting saved” and doing good for one another is just fine with Caesar.  He remains firmly ensconced in his rule and his flunkies remain firmly ensconced in their positions.  The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor and everything is as it was.  Oh, he might not care for seditious-sounding talk about another king, but by and large, a purely spiritual concept of the kingdom is no threat to him.  In fact, Eusebius records that, when Domitian rounded up Jesus’ great-nephews, they avoided persecution by insisting that the kingdom was purely spiritual in nature (Church History, 3:20).  Eusebius tells us that, from that day forward, Domitian did not persecute Christians and treated them contemptuously as if they were too insignificant to do anything about.

Did you catch that?  When Christians insist that the kingdom is purely a spiritual matter, the powers of the present age assume they are too insignificant to persecute.

Old Testament Israel was once a kingdom.  They weren’t always a kingdom, but they became one.  In time, they also had an individual as their king.  They didn’t always have good kings, and even their good kings illustrated fatal flaws, but when the system worked, it worked very well for them.  They were at peace, prosperous, and other nations came to learn from them.

The picture we have of the new Jerusalem at the end of Revelation is an idealized portrayal of what the earthly Jerusalem was supposed to be – the center of wisdom, peace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration, and the other rulers of the other nations would come in and out, looking to her as a model and a mediator as they, too, worshiped the true God and lived out His will in their nations.

Obviously, this did not work out.

The politico-religious leadership of Israel, instead of being a model for other nations, learned from them and became like them.  Their rulers became despots and their priests became wealthy off the backs of the people.  They worshiped God in form, but not in truth, and instead placed their faith in a gamut of ever-shifting political alliances.

This path took them into exile.  Babylon.  Persia.  Greece.  Rome.  Other kingdoms ruled them.  They no longer ruled anything, not even in their own land.  What sovereignty they enjoyed, they did at the suffrage of the true rulers of the land who could snuff them out at any time.

When people hear an apocalyptic prophet telling them to prepare themselves because the kingdom of God is on their doorstep, not a single person is thinking of the continuance of their present experience with a healthy dollop of spiritual improvement.  They are thinking of the radical restructuring of the powers of the present age.

And did this happen?  Oh, yes, it did.

First in Israel, then out to the nations.  The power structures of Jesus’ day were removed, sometimes with the sword, always with the sword of the Spirit.  The path through all this was the path of faithful suffering, but it was suffering that could be endured in light of the knowledge that the kingdom of God was right around the corner and salvation was nearer each day.  Swiftly, the Temple fell, and then many years after, the Empire bowed the knee.

Was this spiritual?  Definitely.  Was this earthly, physical, political, and concrete?  Absolutely.

Is this, then, where we find ourselves today?  Hoping for an imminent disruption of the world’s political powers?

Maybe such things will happen; maybe not.  That’s the province of prophets.

We find ourselves in a sort of post-kingdom scenario.  The Roman Empire is gone, and Christendom as a cultural principle and authority is also exiting the stage.  We still have the Spirit.  We still have our Lord Jesus who isn’t any less alive than he was in 70 A.D.

But our context is very different, isn’t it?  Perhaps a context that the authors of the New Testament themselves didn’t even foresee except in powerful images toward the end of the Apocalypse.  Our story of the kingdom can continue to inform our lives in the here and now and give us hope, but we also have to reckon with what the kingdom-in-principle looks like on the world stage of today.

We aren’t looking at the same immediate horizon Jesus and the Apostles were looking at.  We are not hoping in the imminent overthrow of our existing political powers (well, I kind of am, but not because the Spirit has revealed the times to me) as they did, as they predicted, and as they received.

Our mission, I would contend, is now to be the people of God throughout a bigger world than the Apostles’ imagined – a world in which we do not have a specific land or a specific city.  But we still have a calling to be a blessing to the nations and prophets and priests of a new creation – a story that preceded kingdom and will go on long after it.

And in the interim, there will still be threats.  We still need saving.  We still need guidance.  We still need our shepherd, and this is why it is still good news that Jesus, and not anybody else, is our Lord.

The Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

Matthew 17:1-8 (NRSV)

Six days after Jesus affirms to his disciples that he is the Son of God, their hoped for Messiah, and that this entails his suffering, death, and resurrection, he takes a few of them to the top of a mountain (perhaps the few that seem to be struggling with this idea, if Peter is any indicator).

Mountains, of course, have significance in many religions, including Judaism.  Mountains are where gods live, and if you want to commune with them, that’s where you go.  They are a point of earth that ascends into heaven.

It is here that what we call the Transfiguration occurs: Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling, Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus, and God speaks from heaven announcing that Jesus is His beloved son.

This is all kind of weird, and better theologians than I have unpacked what it could all mean.

It was perhaps Origen (who should have been sainted, not declared a heretic) who firstly connected the Transfiguration with resurrection.  The glorification of Jesus, the conversation with saints who have died – these things present a picture to the disciples of the resurrection awaiting Jesus and, ultimately, all of his followers.

I think this train of thought is generally correct, but I’d like to look at how this ties back to history, the Old Testament, and how that meaning will help us understand what this event is trying to communicate to the disciples (and Matthew’s readers).

The idea that resurrected saints will be gloriously dazzling goes back to an important book for Jesus: Daniel.

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”

Daniel 12:1-4 (NRSV)

This is part of a prophecy about Antiochus Epiphanes – a Selucid king who ruled their empire, including Judea.  Although the rulers prior to Antiochus had been generally tolerant of Judean practices, Antiochus would have none of this.  He declared himself to be a god, ordered the Jews to worship Zeus, and exercised all kinds of tyrannical predations against the Jewish people.  His persecutions sparked the Maccabean Revolt and led to his destruction of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Antiochus was not without Jewish support – specifically, he reached out to groups of non-observant Hellenized Jews to solidify his power base.  So, we see in Antiochus’ reign a sort of dividing line between the Jews in Judea, with some who do not care much about observing the Jewish faith getting in bed with whoever is in power and others whose faith leads them to a collision course with Antiochus, resulting in their persecution and martyrdom.

Daniel describes these things, and at the peak, offers the vision we see in Daniel 12:1-4.  These things will come to an end, and when they do, some will be raised from the dead to be held in shame and contempt, but others who were wise and led people into righteousness will shine like stars.

It is possible that the prophetic imagination, here, is simply describing the people who survive the calamitous events around the persecution and eventual downfall of Antiochus Epiphanes into the next age.  Once God brings an end to this tribulation, the people who supported it will be objects of scorn while the people who maintained their faith and encouraged others to do so will be heroes.

I do think, though, it is likely that Daniel is contemplating an actual, future resurrection, especially given how closely tied the idea of resurrection is to the Jewish idea of justice for the faithful and the oppressors as well as the restoration of Israel.

But in either case, the meaning is clear.  Currently, Israel is under the thumb of a tyrannical oppressor who considers themselves to be a deity and demands that Israel acknowledge this.  Some in Israel are getting behind this power, while others faithfully refuse to be complicit even if it means being imprisoned or killed.  At the end of this will come a resurrection where there will be a clear, eschatological division between these groups, and one will be held up to scorn while the others will radiantly shine.

It is, in fact, this same idea and image that Jesus uses in his parable about the wheat and the tares.  Currently, wheat and tares grow together in the kingdom because destroying the tares would also cause damage to the wheat.  But there is coming a day when God and His angels will do some harvesting, and those who belong to the enemy will be destroyed, but the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:43)

So, yes, the Transfiguration does give us a picture of resurrection, but not resurrection as a theological abstraction or a generic statement on what happens when we die.

The Transfiguration puts Jesus and his disciples on the eschatological map.

They, too, live under an oppressive regime whose leader declares themselves to be a god.  They, too, are pressured to conform to Rome’s religious and political structures, and they struggle to faithfully maintain a Jewish identity in the midst of this – sometimes suffering imprisonment or death for it (and this will only get worse as time goes on).

Furthermore, some in Israel have allied with this oppressive structure, hoping that they will be protected and comfortable, even at the expense of their own people.

But Jesus and his followers are on the cusp of God intervening in this situation in a powerful way.  The day is soon coming when the oppressor will come against Jerusalem for her rebellion and destroy her.  On that day, some will live through it, and others will fall – but either through survival or resurrection, it will be revealed whose side God was on.  One group will be objects of scorn and derision; another group will be held up as faithful and righteous heroes – shining in the kingdom of their Father.  The resurrection will justify them and, in turn, glorify them.

And this wheat and tare gathering will not simply be limited to Israel, but will in time roll out to cover the entire Empire.  The Caesar who today is declared a living god by Herod will give way to a Caesar who will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.  Oppressors will be removed from office and put in prison, while the faithful will be exalted to positions of power.  Pagan temples will give way to churches.  The faithful who currently suffer under Rome will one day rule it under the authority of King Jesus.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus will tell the disciples not to share the vision until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” thus taking the apocalyptic title that Daniel uses for the individual in his vision who represents faithful Israel.

I’ll address the appearance of Elijah a little later, but this connection is, perhaps, why Moses is one of the people who shows up.  Moses, who confronted the pagan oppressors who ruled Israel in his day, led his people out from under them, and destroyed the pursuing armies.

Luke makes this connection explicit in his account of the Transfiguration:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodon, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Luke 9:30-31 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek insertion mine)

This brings us to good ol’ Peter.  Is there any disciple that people relate to more than Peter?  Full of good intentions, lacking much understanding, possessed of zeal, and giving in to weakness at critical moments.

Here, Peter wants to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

We aren’t told why, but most theologians believe Peter is trying to make this moment last longer.  As if this moment is an end unto itself.

It’s not hard to imagine what Peter might be thinking.  How different would Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem be if he came in this dazzling, glorified state with Moses and Elijah by his side?  Surely all of Israel would throw their support behind this figure, and probably a decent amount of Rome as well!  There could be no confusion who the chosen ruler of the gods are when one of them is literally shining radiance and he is accompanied by the risen bodies of two of some of the most noted prophets in Israel’s history.

But, as he often does, Jesus points out this is not how the kingdom will come.  It will come through the faithful suffering and death of the Messiah, not a glorious enthronement of the god-king by earthly powers.

See, that’s the thing.  To get to the resurrection, you have to die.

It is the resurrection from the dead that will justify Jesus, and it is his exaltation from God that will establish him as Lord and Christ.  The road to this is faithfulness unto death, not using his rights and powers and political machinations to avoid it.  The latter is the wide road much of the powerful in Israel have taken, but that road leads to destruction.  The narrow road – the road of faithful suffering – the road Jesus calls faithful Israel to follow him on – this is the road that leads to justification and glorification.  This is the road that will see you safely to the other side of this present evil age.

God has to forgive Israel to deliver her.  God has to move in an unmistakable way to overthrow a very entrenched power structure.  God has to do all this.  Anything that happens by way of the help of the earthly powers that be simply extends the cycle.  More curse under new rulers.

The thing that will move God’s heart, though – the thing that will ignite the supernova – is the obedient death of His faithful, beloved Son.  And so His Son will stand for all Israel.  And, by the power of the Spirit, so he stands for all of us.

If the Transfiguration is only a picture of these things, though, why bother?  Why even create this display for the disciples?  What is the point of seeing an initial foretaste of what is to come if that foretaste is fleeting, soon to pass under the layers of history?

My guess is the most vital and elusive of all reasons – to give hope.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every 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 15:20-26 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. Now that we are on the other side of the political situations described in the Old Testament and the book of Matthew, what hope does the Transfiguration give you as a follower of Jesus?  What truths does it communicate about God, His people, and their future?
  2. The Bible presents resurrection not as a generic answer to the question, “What happens to us after we die?” but rather, “What will happen to God’s people?”  Have you ever thought about your journey with God in the context of being part of the story of a larger group of people?  What other parts of your individual spirituality could be informed by thinking of them as part of the experience of God’s people as a whole?

Sunday Meditations: The Final Judgement

Near death experiences (NDEs) are interesting collections of data.  We might debate over whether there is actually something transcendent about them or whether they only occur entirely within the realm of human subjectivity, but regardless of which side you take, we have to agree that widespread commonalities reflect something that is intrinsic to human experience on the threshold of death.

One of these commonalities is the experience of someone’s life flashing before their eyes.

Transcending history, culture, geographic location, and religion (or lack thereof) is the phenomenon of someone experiencing their entire life paraded before them in a brief instant.  This is such a common experience that there are even collections of data of mountain climbers experiencing this while falling (and ultimately surviving, obviously).

In most cases, the experiencers report that they watch this show not only from their standpoint, but also feeling the impact from the other people involved.  In addition, they also experience a “detached” view as if they are a third party watching this play out (in some cases, people only report the “detached” view).  In other words, they simultaneously experience:

  • What it was like when they lived that moment
  • What it was like for the other people who shared that moment
  • What it was like to see that moment through the eyes of an objective party

Often in these experiences are memories that the observer has long since forgotten (in one case, someone found a contract they had hidden and forgotten where it was until they had this experience).  In all, the viewer reports that it is as if every moment of their lives – big and small – played out before them, yet this obviously happens in seconds or less of real time.  In many of these experiences, the experiencer cites that their expressions of love or lack thereof in those situations was the primary criterion running through their heads as they watched.

Virtually all religions have captured this idea in some form or another.  At the end of life, all your deeds are replayed and the impact assessed.  Both the Old and New Testaments also present this idea – that everyone, when they die, will have their deeds trotted out before them to be weighed.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NRSV)

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (NRSV)

Nobody likes the sound of those verses or the verses like them.

When we think of judgement, we automatically think of something negative.  We tell each other not to judge or refer to people as “judgey” if they are very critical of us.  For all kinds of reasons, when we think of the idea of judgement, and especially judgement that comes from God, we think of floods, locusts, hellfire, brimstone, and condemnation.

Therefore, “judgement” passages invoke a sort of terror.  We read them and picture a God sitting on a throne who cannot abide even the slightest of errors, frowning down on mankind in general and ourselves in specific for our many failures, both typical and especially grievous.

This impulse is not new; it’s largely been used as a lever for control of the general populace, especially as we see in the political machinations of the medieval European church.  In a much more decentralized way, it’s used to maintain control of congregations and individuals.  Don’t screw up, folks, not even a little, or God will f* you up.  So, live right, come to my church, give in the offering, get more people to come to my church, vote for the right people, and try not to touch yourselves, lest the foundations of Heaven quake with the wrath of the Almighty.

I grew up in a fundamentalist upbringing, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say this was the theme of about 95% of the sermons.  And it does something to you as a child (heck, it does something to you as an adult) and what you think about God, parents, and authority in general.

Retribution, fear, and constant displeasure.  These are the gears in the machine of how religion works, yes?

Even as I got older and began to understand concepts like “grace,” this stayed with me.  Now, God was constantly and vaguely displeased with me all the time, but grudgingly put up with me because of Jesus.  But God really wanted me to be good, not the person I was.  He really wanted someone else, truth be told.  But He had me, instead, and lived a life in Heaven of constant aggravation.

“Why can’t you be more like your older brother, Jesus?”

I know I’m not alone in this.  If you read any books by the Puritans (who were not nearly as dour and joyless as our popular mythology makes them out to be), the basic thesis of many of them is, “You think you love God? HA!”  Very introspective group, the Puritans, and very aware of their shortcomings, the shortcomings of humanity, and what it meant to be sinners in the hands of an angry god.

But the interesting thing about judgement is that judgement on its own is neither bad nor terrifying.  Judgement is also how mercy is bestowed, wisdom and discernment find the right answer, justice is accomplished, wrongs are righted, and benefits awarded.  Christ’s resurrection was the result of judgment, after all.

So, if the final judgement is meant to punish us for our many shortcomings, it is something to be feared.  But what if the purpose of the final judgement is to right all the wrongs?

What if the judge knows you intimately?  They know your genetic constraints and dispositions.  They know what your parents were like and what your upbringing contained.  They know what strategies you chose as a child to defend yourself and navigate through life and how those shaped your personality.  They know what traumas you experienced.  They know about your desires for good things that went unfulfilled.  Your needs that went unmet.  Your longing for someone to be looking for you.

They know the pull of temptations and the powers that surround you like winds buffeting a ship.  They know the chaotic and deterministic factors that go into your every action.  They know not only everything you’ve done, but why you did it from your own point of view as well as theirs, and they know everything that was done to you.

What if this judge, looking through every event of our lives, sees them not only as a detached third party, but from our perspective and the perspective of everyone who experienced the same things?

What if this judge knew what it was like to be me with even more depth, thoroughness, and clarity than I knew what it was like to be me?

Is that a judge to be feared?  Is this a judge who will hold me up to the stone cold tablets of Law and find me wanting like some kind of cosmic ethical calculator?  Is this a judge who, at the end, will abandon all pretense of compassion and mercy and forgiveness of enemies only to embrace the cold calculus of violations and penalties?

Or is this a judge who is radically biased in my favor?

Is this judge a father who, because He is my father, cannot leave me to act in selfishness and self-destruction or harm other children, but is nevertheless delighted with my presence?  I am a father; I know what it is like to see your children in that way.  Would God be less so than I?

Perhaps that final experience of seeing my life before my eyes is finally to see my life from God’s perspective – the good, the bad, the noble, the ignoble – so that I may know myself the way He knows me, and I will at last be transfigured with that knowledge.

Did you know that some people who have NDEs are so changed by the experience that they long for death?  I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, but they do not fear the final judgement.  They were confronted with their virtues and vices and were not condemned but transformed.

Perhaps we, then, can endeavor all the more earnestly to always act out love in all of our actions, big and small.  Not because we fear punishment or exposure, but because the knowledge that we will give an accounting transforms us.  It calls us to a day when we will review our lives and want to find there an abundance of love for ourselves, for God, and for every person we come into contact with – friend or foe.

Because that is the state of God, Himself.

Sunday Meditations: Thomas

When I was growing up, I sometimes saw things that I knew would someday produce a very long-lasting nickname for the person involved.

Sometimes, they were funny.  Sometimes, they were cruel.  Sometimes, they were the result of character traits.  Sometimes, they were the result of a fluke occurrence or even simply a rumor of a fluke occurrence (especially for girls in the latter case).  In all cases, they were very reductionist and hard to shake.  It captured the one thing everyone knew about you whether they knew you or not.

If you can remember back to your childhood (or if you’re the current President of the United States), you can probably remember what it was like to tag someone with a name like this.

This happened to one of the apostles as well: Doubting Thomas.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

We all know what it means to call someone a Doubting Thomas – it means they lack faith.  This is because, after Jesus’ crucifixion, some of the disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus alive, again, and Thomas didn’t believe them unless he could see some incontrovertible empirical evidence.

For all its eccentricities, the Gospel of John is actually pretty good about recording people being skeptical about these apparently supernatural claims and events.  It’s a good place to look when someone tells you that ancient people were intrinsically gullible and, before the Scientific Method, just believed whatever crazy story anybody fed them.

From what Thomas says, it appears as though he believes the other disciples have been duped by someone claiming to be Jesus or looking like Jesus or maybe having some kind of grief-induced hallucination.  It’s not enough for Thomas to see someone who seems like Jesus; Thomas wants to see the Jesus that died.  He has to see all the wounds to be convinced it’s the same guy.

For some reason, church history has looked down on Thomas for this, although I’m not sure why.  There’s even a children’s song containing the line, “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas.”  Here are some very disappointed, very afraid, grief-stricken disciples, and Thomas is supposed to take their story that they saw the executed Jesus up and around at face value.

These disciples, you see, are not credible sources at the time.  They want Jesus to be alive again, and Thomas realizes this.  In our heads, we might hear Thomas as scornful when he’s talking to the other disciples, but I think it’s just as likely that Thomas is full of pity and compassion when he says what he says, maybe putting his hand on their shoulder.

“Brother, we all want Jesus to be with us, again, but we saw him die.  The only way this could possibly be the same Jesus is if we saw all the fatal wounds he had.”

I don’t think it’s right to call Thomas, “Doubting Thomas.”  I think we could call him, “Not Willing to Be Placated with False Hope” Thomas.  Or perhaps “Asking for Perfectly Reasonable Evidence in Light of Extraordinary Claims” Thomas.

I actually suspect Thomas has all the best motives, here, and we see this in a story about Thomas that doesn’t get told as often.  It’s a story that takes place after Jesus learns that his good friend Lazarus is seriously ill back in Judea:

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 11:7-16 (NRSV), emphasis mine

Jesus wants to take a shot at healing Lazarus, but this means going back into territory where certain Jewish leaders are trying to kill him.  The disciples try to talk him out of it.  They are afraid for both Jesus and themselves.

Thomas, on the other hand, is ready to follow Jesus into martyrdom.

What a striking contrast this is with, say, Peter.  Peter denied he knew Jesus at all when he thought he might be found out as a disciple.  Thomas, instead, is ready to follow Jesus into death, and tries to encourage the other disciples to be equally willing.  And this is what happens; they go with him.

Even if we read a bitterness in Thomas’ words in this passage (which I don’t), he’s still willing.

It is this Thomas who knows what’s about to happen.  It’s this Thomas who knows Jesus will be killed by his political enemies.  It’s this Thomas who is willing to die by his side.  It’s this Thomas who doesn’t die at his side.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

John 14:5 (NRSV)

When John records Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples vamoose except for two: Peter and an unnamed disciple; this we know because this sets up Peter’s series of denials to save his own skin.  We never hear what happened with the other disciple.  Most scholars believe this other disciple was John because John has a tendency not to name himself, and this is probably entirely correct, but we actually don’t know who it was.

I wonder if it was Thomas.

Whether it is or not, it is this Thomas – Faithful Unto Death Thomas – who sees Jesus killed, but he himself survives.  Grief-Stricken Thomas.  Guilt-Ridden Thomas.  Hopeless Thomas.

It is this Thomas who hears the story of a couple of disciples that Jesus is still alive, and it is this Thomas – Loyal Thomas, Lay Down His Life For His Friends Thomas – who cannot bring himself to accept these slender reeds of hope.  He has to live for the disciples, now.  He has to help them with life after Jesus.

Perhaps it is because of Thomas’ good and faithful heart that Jesus does not in the least reprimand him.  He does not accuse Thomas of faithlessness.  He does not criticize Thomas’ over-commitment to modernistic definitions of truth or over-reliance on empiricism for his epistemology.

He has no words at all of rebuke for Thomas; simply an invitation.  “Thomas, come feel my hands and my side, and you will see it’s really me.  You can believe.”

And does Thomas check out Jesus’ claims?  Does he feel Jesus’ hands and side?  No, he does not.  He doesn’t need to.  Because, you see, Thomas is not some doubter or skeptic by philosophy or bent of personality.  He does not pinch Jesus’ nose to make sure he isn’t a hallucination or take Jesus’ pulse to make sure he isn’t dead.  This story is not about adherence to the scientific method.  This is a story about a man who was willing to die out of loyal love of his lord, and his lord was taken from him.  The center of his life, his love, and his hopes were all gone.

And now, that lord stands before him, and Thomas is overcome with rapture.  He falls to his knees uttering his confessions and oaths of loyalty, utterly convinced by the presence of the man he loved so.

The church would set the world ablaze with love and goodness if we had half the dedication of Doubting Thomas.

Sunday Meditations: O Death

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very relevant.

My senior year of college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on God and time where I argued that time was not an objective feature in the universe but a faculty of perception that helps us distinguish between events.  What set me on this path was the tension between the idea of an intermediate state and a final judgement.  Did God yank everyone out of Heaven and Hell only to send them back there?  I came to the conclusion that our death and the final judgement seem like two distinct events to us, but they do not to God.  I concluded that, after death, our next conscious experience would be the final judgement.

I’m still warm to that “time is a faculty of perception” idea, incidentally.

As you can see, these ideas changed over time, but at any given time, I felt very sure.  Death just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant thing that brought grief to those who remained, but was essentially a gateway into joy for believers.  Although I hated the grief that death brought to everyone around it, I did not fear death.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes,
the east wind shall come, a blast from the Lord,
rising from the wilderness;
and his fountain shall dry up,
his spring shall be parched.
It shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:14-16 (NRSV)

The beginning of that passage will be quoted in the New Testament and put to very different use.

Here, we see God through the prophet bringing  a message of destruction to Israel who has become corrupt, unjust, and very much like all the other nations – allying with them, worshiping their gods, and mimicking their power structures.

Hosea still holds out hope if Israel will repent, but here, we see that the outcome of Israel’s behavior is destruction by another nation.  There is no Hell in this passage.  Simply widespread death at the hands of another national power is plenty bad enough.  This is very common in the Old Testament.

A few different Psalms have the writer pleading with God to spare the psalmist’s life, because who can declare God’s praises after they are dead?

We see this in Hezekiah’s prayer for healing:

O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
fathers make known to children
your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:16-19 (NRSV)

Yes, death is plenty bad all on its own, and this sentiment extends into the New Testament as well.  Due to translations and popular connotations, a rather lot of the passages where we assume Jesus is talking about Hell, he’s talking about dying.

A few years ago, I turned 40, but it took a year to two to hit me.  I was now in striking range of dying of natural causes.

One of my managers at a previous job died when he was 47, and while that’s not typical, it’s not unheard of, either.  Unlike the days of my youth when I had the luxury of contemplating death from the standpoint of belief in my own immortality, I was now beginning to discern its form as it began to rise on the horizon.

This also happened at a time when my own convictions about faith were undergoing a fairly intensive degree of criticism and restructuring.  I felt very uncertain about what, if anything, would happen to me after I died, and the contemplation of the loss of myself and my relationships began to hit me in powerful ways they had not, before.

It extended as well to things like my children growing up – the inevitability of time and the permanent loss of those little people I knew.

It was a time of a lot of grief and anxiety for me, and I would reach out to the Lord and not find Him.  I didn’t know what would happen to me when I died, and now I was facing its possibility with my theological and psychological shields down, and I was not ready for it.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NRSV)

You see what Paul did there?  He took that thing from Hosea and turned it around.  In light of the resurrection of Jesus, that thing that was a manifestation of God’s wrath now has no force.  When Hosea asks those questions, he’s preparing for the onslaught of death.  When Paul asks those questions, he’s mocking the effectiveness of death.

At the risk of frustrating some of my friends who are more conservative theologically, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die.  Nor do I know what’s going to happen when all this cosmic drama comes to an end.  I have doubts and fears about these things, sometimes, and I long sometimes for simpler days when I had an unshakable certainty in a very literal understanding of the Scriptures and knew exactly how all of this would pan out.

I don’t have those concrete understandings, anymore, and what I do think I understand, I’m never certain about it.  Always rethinking.  Always self-critiquing.  Always leaving behind things that no longer seem to serve and taking on new things that serve better or, in some cases, just coming to terms with not knowing.

But I do know that, if I allow the fear of death to be any kind of force in my life at all, it will cause me to sin.  I will seek self-preservation and immortality in all kinds of ways that will be empty and futile at best and harmful to others at worst.

So, what do we do then?  Denial?  Just pretend it isn’t out there?

Well, as Richard Beck helped me understand in his very, very good book The Slavery of Death, my identity – the inner being of Who-I-Am – my life, my psyche, my soul – it’s not mine.  I didn’t create it.  It was given to me.  It was thrust upon me, really.  It’s a gift.  I’m supposed to steward it, not grasp it for my own possession.

Because this me-ness was not really mine in the first place, I can give it away.  I can spend it for the benefit of others, and when my time is up, I can give it back to my Lord and say, “Here’s what I have done with your investment.”  I hope I do ok with it.

But the point is that I have given it back over to a trustworthy God – a master that Jesus says rewards good stewardship.  A master who does not leave His people to desolation but will carry them safely through all administrations of their enemies, and the last enemy is death.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:14 (NRSV)

You see, during that long, dark night of my soul, God was taking something away from me and replacing it with Himself.

I can’t place my trust in my theological understanding of death.  I can’t place my trust in my reading of Scripture.  I can’t place my trust in my ability to figure death out in palatable ways.  I used to trust in all those things, but those are not reliable and proper objects of trust.

My object of trust has to be God Himself – the original Conceiver of my identity and the Recipient of it when I pass on.  The Locus and Shepherd of the birth of stars, the heat death of the universe, and me.

The removal of the enslavement of death is not to cling to a specific idea of exactly how things are going to shake out, but to cling to God and say to Him, “I don’t know how You’re going to pull this off, or what You’re going to do, or when.  I don’t know what you’re going to do with me.  But I trust You, so here You go.”

I have never been able to shake my belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure I can confidently say exactly what that looked like or exactly what happened.  We just have stories written well after the fact and the stories do not agree on various details.  But no matter how skeptical I get, I can’t shake the idea that this must have happened, as completely ridiculous as it sounds.  It’s not even a matter of what happened in history afterwards with Paul’s conversion and the spread of the Church, although that’s worthy of consideration.  It’s a simple, embedded in my bones faith commitment.

Friends who make fun of me for it are probably right to do so.  It’s ridiculous.  People do not come back to life, again; I know this, and so did everyone in the ancient world.

I believe this happened at least once.

But Jesus, you know, he was a trailblazer for the rest of us.  He didn’t have Paul’s argumentation.  He prayed in Gethsemane to be spared, and God did not respond.  He anguished over his impending death, and God did not make him feel better.  He did not fall back on prooftexts or arguments about the immortality of the soul.  He was confronted with his extermination and he did not want it to happen.

But at the end, without any kind of sign or assistance, he threw himself into God’s arms.

And just look what happened.

Happy Easter, everyone, from the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, King James-onlyist of you to the most materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic, disenchanted universe of you.

This God I’m talking about loves all of you.

Sunday Meditations: Holiness and Mission

This morning in worship, we sang a Matt Maher song.  I like Matt Maher, overall, and even burned myself a CD of Matt Maher songs for my commute.  But he does sometimes sling lyrics out there where I’m not sure what he means.

I have this experience fairly regularly with worship songs.  There’ll be a line in there (or a verse, or… the whole song) that has various keywords in it that sound good on the surface, but I’m unclear on what’s actually being communicated.  In some cases, I think this may be because the writer doesn’t actually mean anything in particular and is, in fact, stringing keywords together.

I don’t think this is the case, here, but here’s the bit that made me wonder:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
Where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

– “Lord, I Need You” lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group (emphasis mine)

Holiness is Christ in me.

I would have understood the line if it had said, “Righteousness is Christ in me.”  Not only would that be a nod to the general evangelical/Protestant doctrine of imputation, but virtually all Christians believe that the presence of Jesus in us by the power of the Spirit is something that guides us into right behaviors.  This verse of the song seems to be pointed in that direction: I have sin, God’s grace is greater, this has set me free from my sins, so I am holy.

But holiness is not about right behaviors, moral purity, etc.  That’s what righteousness is primarily about – how faithful are we to a standard?  When we behave rightly/faithfully, we are righteous; when we don’t, we are unrighteous.

At first, I wondered if maybe this was just a simple equivocation.  A rather lot of Christians use the word “holiness” to mean “morally correct behavior.”  There’s even a Holiness Movement in American church history that is entirely concerned with whether or not a person can stop sinning.

And that may be the case with this song; I don’t know and Matt Maher is unlikely to call me up and explain it to me.

But it might also be capturing something important to our identity and mission.

What is Holiness?

I once wrote about a tangle of terms that often get conflated with one another, and holiness was one of them.

I’m not going to retread all that ground, here, but the upshot is that holiness is the state of being especially set apart from everything else that might otherwise be just like you.

For instance, some consider the Jordan River to be a holy site, because it’s where Jesus was baptized (among other things).  A river does not behave morally or possess any moral attributes, nor is it physically any different than rivers in general.  However, the Jordan River is considered to be a special, sacred river.  And if you consider the Jordan River to be a special, sacred river, then it is a holy site.

You can extend this to just about anything else.  Holy sites.  Holy books.  Holy relics.  Holy artifacts.  Holy days.  There is nothing physically about the things themselves that are any different than other similar things.  We have set them apart as special.  They have a special purpose.

Sundays or Easter is a complete rotation of the Earth just like the day before and the day after.  The bread we use in the Lord’s Supper is not physically any different than the bread in our pantries.  But they are holy because we have set them apart to be special and use them for a purpose distinct from other things like them.  They are sacred.  And because of that, we deal with them differently.  If they were treated just the same as everything else, they wouldn’t be holy at all.

When we talk about God being holy, we are saying that He is not like anything else that could be described as a god.  As Paul says to the Corinthians, the world is full of gods and lords.  But God is of an order very different than the other powers to which one might give allegiance.  In Paul’s day, you had the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities and rulers that claimed to be divine or human-divine hybrids, but God was not like them.  He was special.  He was sacred.  He was holy.

What About Us?

When we talk about Christians being holy or cultivating the quality of holiness, we are talking about what makes us set apart.  What makes us different.  Certainly, behavior is a big part of this and is probably why it’s so easy to swap holiness and righteousness around.

But it’s important to note that holiness precedes the behavior.  Since we are holy, we behave in certain ways.  We are not holy because we behave in certain ways.

Consider our father Abraham.

God called Abraham out of all humanity to grow into a nation that would be special to God (and God would be special to them) and would bless the world.  He was set apart.  He was unlike everyone else at that moment.

But Abraham had done nothing remarkable, at least that we’re told about in the Scriptures.  God did not see that Abraham was special and then deal with him on that basis.  All we know is that God elected Abraham and, in doing so, Abraham was holy.

He was still a man just like any of us, but he had been set apart for special use by God.  He was not like everyone else and was not supposed to be like anyone else.  He was meant to be a holy patriarch of a holy family that would become a holy nation – a people distinct and set apart by God.

Many of the laws in the Torah reflect this holiness principle.  There’s not anything particularly immoral about mixing fabrics for your clothes or not wearing tassels on the hem of your robe.  These things are done to mark off the holiness of God’s people.  They are sacred, they are not like the other nations, and these things are symbols of that holiness.

In terms of being a people and a nation, they are not physically distinguishable from anything else.  In fact, God will point out through the prophets that there was nothing particularly great about Israel when He called her.  Yet, this calling made her holy.

We can see this trajectory progressively drop away as time goes on.

Israel wants a king so that she can be like the other nations, and God doesn’t approve.  It’s not that there’s something inherently immoral about having a king.  David was a king.  Jesus is a king.  It’s that the people began to want to run like everyone around them was running.  They wanted to be a “real” nation like everyone else, and all the other nations – many of whom were more powerful and prosperous – had kings.

As we watch the rise and fall of Israel’s prosperity, we see that this is intimately connected to how much they are like the other nations versus how unique they are.  They begin to worship the gods of the other nations and, as a corollary, take on their values and practices.  They ally with and combine their people with other nations for protection, rather than being devoted to God, maintaining their holiness, and trusting He will protect them.  Ultimately, the leadership ends up becoming despotic just like their neighbors, where the justice system becomes about how wealthy you are, the poor and the widow and the foreigner are oppressed, and the powerful use their positions to gain wealth and comfort for themselves at the expense of their people.

At that point, the nation had become just like everyone else.  Just another loaf of bread in the pantry or another rotation of the Earth on the calendar.  Nothing distinct about them at all, really.

Jesus’ mission could at least partially be described as the recovery of Israel’s holiness.

Jesus, like the prophets before, call Israel back to faith, back to devotion, back to true obedience to the key values the Torah contained, and away from a life of desperate dissolution that characterized everyone else in the Roman Empire.  He called them to trust God for their deliverance from oppressors.  In many ways, Jesus is calling them back to the project of being a special people in the world who would be special to God and through whom God would bless the world.

And as we move through the New Testament, we discover a mystery – God will accomplish this in history by grafting in the Gentiles who share the faith in Jesus that faithful Israel will have.

Now, Gentiles can be made holy.  Now, they can be set apart from the rest of the nations.  Now, they can be part of a community that looks different than all other power structures that surround them, in their ethics, their values, and even their composition that stretches across lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

This is something that happens from the outward command of our Lord and the inward, Spiritual journey of our lives living him out into the world and among one another.  And in that sense, yes, I think we can probably say, “Holiness is Christ in me.”

Practical Application Time

I think it’s entirely valid and necessary for the Church to look at herself and the rest of the world and see how we compare, not in the sense of judging anyone, but in the sense of seeing whether or not we’re actually a unique people.  Do we look any different than the organizations and power structures around us?

There are some complicating factors to this question.

One factor is that I’m not sure how often or how well the Church is reminded of her identity and calling in the world.  This is a large burden I have for the Church, and as I’ve told others, if I all of a sudden became independently wealthy, I’d visit any church that would have me and tell them our story, how they connect with it, and what it means for who they are and what that looks like.

Not that my ideas on that are super amazing or anything, but just the act of talking about it and making it a big part of how we think about how we spend our resources, etc. would be really helpful, I think.

Often, the church is told that she is a collection of “saved” people, and her job is to get other people “saved” as well.  The impulse here isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s anemic and bereft of any kind of context, and you end up with what we’ve got – a large group of people who assent to doctrines who have prayed a special prayer that are otherwise indistinguishable from any other organization.

The other complicating factor is that we’ve been so unfocused on our holy calling and purpose that, at least in some cases, “the world” is doing better at some things that we should actually be leading.

We had the beginnings of an egalitarian community literally millennia ago.  Where did that go?  How did we end up with a world where evangelical Christianity is a large prop to the power and wealth of white men?

We used to heal the sick.  We used to forgive sins.  We used to sell all we had to care for the poor.  Love didn’t look like condemnation; it looked like self-sacrifice for someone’s welfare.  We used to say things like, “Even if I can speak the languages of men and angels, if I don’t have love, I’m just a noisy gong when I speak.”

We used to be scientists.

The complication is, of course, when we fail to be the things we’re supposed to be, and the things we’re supposed to be bless the world, then eventually humanitarian folks will step in to fill the gap with the tools at their disposal, and that’s pretty much what’s happened in many areas.  This has led to the bizarro-world backwards practice of labeling the activities that bless the nations as “conformity to the world” and “holiness” as doing none of that stuff.  In fact, we should be on our guard that we do not find ourselves consumed with issues like love, justice, and the healing of suffering and instead make sure we stay focused on… other stuff, I guess.  Getting people to pray the Get Out of Hell Free prayer and not watching R rated movies.

But regardless of how complicated and tangled up the situation has become, it’s not an excuse for inaction.  We can remind ourselves who we are and we can call ourselves to holiness.

Such did the prophets of old, and I would say we need those prophets back.

Sunday Meditations: What Are We Doing?

Last week was an interesting week in the world of Blogs I Read.

On the exact same day, Kirk Leavens asked the question, “Has Christianity outlived its usefulness?” and Andrew Perriman wrote, “If the Bible is history, what are we supposed to do?”  Andrew’s blog wasn’t written to answer Kirk’s question, but they have interesting and complementary thrusts.

Kirk points out that, as Christianity has lost the traction Christendom provided, he observes a certain increasing commitment to authoritarianism, tribalism, and defensiveness that isn’t doing anybody any good, but those are now our primary characteristics, especially as they latch on to things like nationalism/racism.  If these are our primary “contributions” to the world, why even bother existing when we’re just making everything worse for everyone?

This is an extremely valid question.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in the USA, this is a big issue, and our non-Christian friends have picked up on this with a vengeance.  Rightly so, they point out that you can tie Christian commitments to many negative social forces.  Granted, there may be a tendency to overlook or minimize the positive social forces, but as Christians, this should not be an acceptable state of affairs.  We want to offer more than, “We’re not any worse than anyone else on balance.”

Kirk points out that one of the contributing factors to this is a view of life and Christian mission that is entirely spiritual.  All this other stuff like righting wrongs, healing hurts, etc. are all nice things but not really what the Church should be all about (so the story goes).  In fact, some evangelical leaders worry that such works are a distraction from the actual work of the Church, which is to save souls.

I’ll give the “saving souls” mission credit: it’s easy to understand and applies all the time in all contexts.  It also has the side benefit of isolating us from the powerful forces of evil at work in the world.  If people are starving to death, racked with disease, or treated unfairly because of their skin color, those are all regrettable things, but we should focus on getting souls saved until God supernaturally fixes all of this one day.

However, I’ve come to question the origins of this “mission” and the weight it receives in the biblical story.

It’s a hard thing to analyze very objectively, because once you have this mission in your head, it’s easy to find it in the biblical text.  If you start out with the belief that Jesus’ primary concern is people going to Heaven when they die instead of Hell, you can find plenty of Scriptural infrastructure for that.  And, of course, when you share your faith with someone, this is the framework you pass on, so they come to the Bible with the same framework already in place.

But I’ve come to the conclusion (for now) that, although we do see things in the New Testament’s agenda like spiritual conversion and questions of what happens to the faithful who die, these are notes in a much larger symphony.

For the bulk of the New Testament, the focus is on what will become of God’s people at a time in history when it seems like all the promises have failed.  The children of Abraham worship under a corrupt Temple power structure.  They are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and under pagan dominion.  Most live lives of terrific poverty while land that had once belonged to their families is now the property of some wealthy Senator or Sadducee.  Israel has little time to pay attention to her God because she’s trying to live under this order of things and has turned to the kinds of things we all turn to when life is hard and we feel abandoned.

And this situation doesn’t happen to them overnight – it’s been going on for some time by the time we get to the New Testament.

It’s into this situation that God determines to save His people from their condition and sends Jesus to do it.  The plan is to convince Israel to trust God again and repent of her current ways of life, restore Israel’s faith(fulness), and overthrow the powers that currently dominate her and replace them with the line of David.

This is the critical situation the New Testament addresses.  How is God going about this?  What are the ramifications?  What’s going to happen to us as a result?  How should we live?  What should we hope for?  How do we understand what’s happening to us when it doesn’t look like victory is on the horizon?

All the key elements the New Testament lays out – a coming judgement, repentance, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection and exaltation, the coming of the Spirit, the inclusion of Gentiles, the hope of the age to come – all of these are developments in the story I just described.  They are best understood in the context of the concrete situation of the people of God in the first century.

But you may have noticed that my list of questions up there is remarkably similar to questions we might have as Christians in the West – perhaps even more so now that the cultural (and political) dominance of Christianity is fading into the distance.

We find ourselves, once again, as a people who are losing our power and our cultural centrality and respect.  While there are some exceptional bright spots, many of our leaders embody the worst of us and want to take everyone else with them.  We are losing numbers, not growing to fill the world (granted, this trend is reversed in other parts of the world, but it remains to be seen if secularism will simply stop at national borders).  We, who are the children of Abraham’s faith, look around us and see that not only are we not growing to fill the world, but discouragingly, there are many who do not share our faith who are doing a much better job at blessing the nations than we are.

And maybe that’s what this is all about.  Maybe we’ve been poor stewards of the cultural dominance we used to have.  Maybe we could have used that position to perform great acts of love and justice for our fellow man that would have been a shining beacon that manifested the will of our Creator in the world, but instead we became oppressors.  And now that’s being taken away from us.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the situation addressed by the New Testament is extremely relevant to us these days, not all in the same concrete ways, but in principle if nothing else.  We’re on the fringes, now.  We’re the ones making our way through the world either by compromise with the values of power or by keeping our heads down under it.  We’re the ones becoming a minority.  We’re the ones being dominated by another world system.

And we have the same discouragement.  And the same questions.

And this is where Andrew’s list is so helpful.  He may have left out some things you think should be on there, or maybe you would have stated something differently, but he took our present situation and place in the story and asked what it meant to be the people of God at this time in history and came up with, what I think, is a pretty good list worthy of meditation and discussion.

Maybe it’s time for us to repent of what our forefathers did with their power when they had it.  Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, at least for a time, for our own good and the good of the rest of the world.  Maybe the active ethics we see in our counterparts of other religions (and no religion at all) are meant to challenge us – to remind us of what we could have been and what we might yet be.  Maybe all these things around us are a catalyst for a reformation where our hearts turn back to God and we embrace, again, our calling in the world, which is not to be right or be powerful or win but to be a blessing to the nations.

I’m discouraged, too.  But I’m excited.

Taking Up Your Cross: Matthew 16:24-28

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 16:24-28 (NRSV)

Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer under the authorities there, be killed, and rise on the third day.  When Peter protested that these things should never happen to Jesus, Jesus corrected him in very strong terms.  This idea – that Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and rise – provides us the necessary context for understanding Jesus’ follow-up comments, here.

Basically, Jesus says that anyone who would be his follower must walk that same path.  They, too, must suffer under the religious and civil authorities of his day.  They, too, will be killed.  And they, too, will rise from the dead.

Matthew’s Gospel was written after Jesus’ crucifixion, but this event is portrayed as happening before the crucifixion, so the disciples in this story are hearing “take up their cross” without any reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.  What would such a phrase mean to them?

Well, the cross was the instrument of the Roman Empire to execute criminals – specifically, criminals that the government wanted to make an example of.  The cross was an instrument to show the people under Rome’s dominion that you don’t mess with the Empire.  You don’t take their stuff.  You don’t rebel.  You don’t turn people against them.  It was a weapon of intimidation and suppression.  People are less inclined to rebel when a group of rebels is discovered and hung publicly on crosses for all to see.

And as people go by these crosses – these signs of Rome’s absolute power over the life and death of her subjects – you can see their loyalties.  The people who want to “get in good” with their oppressors mock, scorn, and spit on the people on those crosses.  Those crosses hold Rome’s enemies, and if you wanted to stay on Rome’s good side, they were your enemies, too.

This is the destiny Jesus holds out for his followers.  He isn’t saying “my follower” in a general, spiritual, ethical sense; he means it in a very concrete fashion.  The people traveling with and learning from Jesus are going to have to go with him to Jerusalem and face the wrath of the authorities who will destroy Jesus.  This is probably a hard truth for Peter and the rest to hear – everyone who trusted that Jesus would be the salvation of Israel – that not only was their Messiah traveling to his own execution, but they would be executed along with him for their commitments to him.

This has come up in Matthew, before.  It’s interesting to see this facet of Jesus in play.  Jesus is basically thinning the herd of his followers, which is something we don’t normally associate with Jesus.  He doesn’t turn away anyone, no matter how feeble their faith or other gifts, but he is very clear what will happen to anyone who signs up.

This, naturally, raises the question of why anyone would do this.

After all, what Jesus’ followers want is a new world, one in which Israel is back on top.  Land is returned.  Power shifts dramatically.  Oppression ends.  The Temple becomes righteous.  The kingdom comes.  This vision is risky and improbable to begin with, but it becomes even moreso if the very people who are supposed to bring it about are killed by the very powers they hope to overthrow.  It’s hard to be committed to that vision when you are imagining yourself hanging on a cross, suffering and dying, while people walk past you mocking you for your hubris – the very thought that you could challenge the Empire.

But Jesus tells them that the people right now who are trying to preserve their lives and make themselves comfortable will lose their lives, and what good will their efforts do them on the day that their life is taken?  But those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will receive their lives, again.

Jesus is not describing something purely spiritual or metaphorical, here.  He’s talking about people actually dying and people actually living.  There is an imminent event where those in Israel who have allied themselves with Rome and built up wealth for themselves will lose their lives, and there will be those who have died for the sake of Jesus’ mission who will receive it, as well as those who were willing to give up their lives who will find themselves surviving the coming judgement to life in the next age.

Jesus describes this day as the day when the Son of Man (the figure who receives an everlasting kingdom from God in Daniel 7) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father to judge the world.  He will repay everyone according to what they have done.  In the narrative, here, Jesus foresees that he, too, will still accomplish his Father’s mission even if he is killed.  He, too, hopes in resurrection.

And we know this day is soon to come, because Jesus says that some people who are present in the audience will not die before this event happens.  Since he’s speaking to the disciples, it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t expect all of his followers to be executed, but they definitely need to be willing to meet that fate.

But what’s interesting is the time frame this imposes.  Whatever this event is where the Son of Man comes repaying everyone for what they have done, it’s going to happen before all the disciples die.  Elsewhere, Jesus will describe this as happening in “this generation.”

What are we to make of this claim?

Well, one option is that Jesus is just wrong about this.  He expected these world-changing events to happen with him at the helm in a very short amount of time, and this didn’t work out.  This is the option generally taken by people who aren’t Christians as well as Christians who may greatly revere Jesus but think his apocalypticism may have been a little overzealous.  It’s not my option, but it has the benefit of being consistent with what Jesus is saying, here.

Another option is that Jesus meant this in some non-empirical sense.  The events he describes are metaphors, perhaps for “spiritual realities*” such as a judgement that occurs in heaven or events that occurred in people’s hearts in response to the work of Jesus.  The “spiritual realities” option is popular among some Christians who tend to see most of the apocalyptic language in the New Testament as descriptive of “spiritual realities,” and the latter is a common tack for people who respect the Bible and Jesus but find the more supernatural or apocalyptic claims untenable.  In this way of thinking, what Jesus is proposing is actually not as radical as it sounds.  This isn’t my option, either, but it does have the benefit of recognizing that apocalyptic language isn’t really meant to be taken very literally.

A third option is to keep the events described reasonably literal, but the timeline becomes metaphorical.  Through the use of things like the intermediate state and questionable variations of Greek articles, Jesus is talking about an indeterminate timeline that could potentially stretch into the distant future.  This is all explained through the use of a simple diagram:


So, hopefully, that clears things up.

But a fourth option, and probably the most popular option with Christians, is to figure out what seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” is actually talking about.

One very popular view is that Jesus is referring to the Mount of Transfiguration, which is described in the very next passage, which takes place six days later.  The Transfiguration, it is said, is a preview of the glorified Son of Man, and therefore qualifies as “seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” and fits within the timeline.  In fact, since it happens only six days later, all of the disciples are alive to see it, so Jesus’ prediction works out even better than he let on.  Some objections to this view are that the Transfiguration is not Jesus coming in his kingdom, it leaves out elements such as coming with angels to repay people what they have done, and that it would be silly to announce “some standing here will not taste death” when describing an event that happens in less than a week.

Another view is that Jesus is talking about Pentecost.  I think this does a lot better in the consistency department.  True, there is no judgement that happens on nonbelievers, although it could be argued that it does happen for the faithful gathered who receive the Spirit.  And, technically, Jesus just said some wouldn’t taste death until they saw “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the judgement part has to happen then.  Also, this does justice to the facet of the kingdom that is spiritual.  Also, at least one of the disciples who was with Jesus in Matthew has died (Judas), so Jesus’ prediction that some would not taste death technically works out.

I’m ok with all that, but I think Matthew’s Gospel is most likely referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This post has already gone on very long so I won’t make a detailed argument for this, but certainly this event has been the referent for a lot of apocalyptic imagery in Matthew as well as language of a coming judgement.  It’s a natural fit for that language to apply here, as well, and it fits the time frame.  By the time 70 A.D. rolls around, some of the disciples are dead and some are not.  It also fits other timelines given in Matthew like, “You will not pass through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes” and “this generation will not pass away until.”

One might object that, in the destruction of Jerusalem, we do not literally see Jesus and his angels.  Well, on the one hand, I would say the other views have similar problems.  No angels show up in the Transfiguration, and nobody sees Jesus or angels at Pentecost.  We all have to recognize that apocalyptic language is both cosmological and nebulous.  The Old Testament fulfillments of apocalyptic prophecies were much more mundane than the dramatic imagery suggested.

On the other hand, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, we might have:

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews

It’s interesting that the historian Tacitus also comments on these signs, and he interprets them as signs portending Vespasian’s victory – which is what happened.

I realize that these are tricky issues, and two or three paragraphs isn’t going to be enough to sway someone from one view on them to another.  I don’t expect that.

But whether you agree with me or not, I want to underscore how tied to concrete history the gospels are.  The events in them could not be dropped into any point in history.  Jesus had to come then to those people in their world living through their circumstances.  The people of God were in trouble, and Jesus intended to save them.  That had a certain form and a certain look because of what was actually going on at the time, just as God’s acts of salvation always had throughout the Old Testament.

This doesn’t mean these Scriptures have nothing to say to us, but if we want these Scriptures to be our Scriptures in a meaningful sense, we have to engage with what it meant for them to be someone else’s Scriptures two thousand years ago, look for how we have been drawn into that story, and listen to what the Spirit has to say to us as we continue that story from age to age.

* I put the phrase “spiritual realities” in quotes because I find it problematic.  It’s unfortunate, because I do think there are passages in the New Testament that describe what we might call “spiritual realities,” and I don’t have a problem with that per se.  But the phrase is commonly used to divorce the New Testament from concrete history, and rather than let such passages challenge our theological narrative, we can just chalk them up to “spiritual realities” and keep our narrative intact.  In this way, the New Testament becomes both transhistorical and transempirical.  And honestly, a doctrinal scheme that has no visible impact in concrete history probably suits a lot of churches just fine, but I don’t care for it.

Consider This

  1. The martyrdom that Jesus asked his followers to accept is a reality for Christians in many places in the world.  Some international ministries even ask new converts if they are prepared to die prior to baptizing them.  For people who live in countries where this isn’t really a risk, have you considered this?  I mean, truly considered this?  Have you truly considered what it might be like to be tortured or killed because of your commitments?  What things would carry you through those moments?
  2. What are the commitments that Christians have that would provoke the wrath of the powers in the world?  What are the risks of allying with those powers or trying to earn their good graces?

Get Behind Me, Satan: Matthew 16:21-23

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Matthew 16:21-23 (NRSV)

That didn’t take long, did it?

We have Peter recognizing that Jesus is the Son of Man, the hoped for Messiah, etc. via insight that has been given to him from the divine, not through natural contemplation.  Here, Peter reverses all that.

In fairness to Peter, we should avoid what I call “narrative compression.”  When two events are placed in close proximity, even if they are connected with “and then,” it doesn’t mean the latter event happened immediately afterward.

It works this way in English as well.  I could say, “I put on my socks and then I put on my shoes,” and most days those things happen pretty closely together.  I could also say, “Abraham Lincoln was elected president and then slavery was abolished in America,” but we all know that didn’t happen on the same Tuesday.

Narrative compression is something that can happen when reading any writing, but our general familiarity with the Bible can sometimes make it worse.  We think, for instance, of the stories of the Fall, then Cain and Abel, and then Noah all happening in relatively short sequence because the stories are very close together, but according to the short verses that describe intervening generations, we’re meant to understand that centuries pass between these things.

So, in Peter’s defense, he probably didn’t say this ten minutes after his famous confession.  Matthew describes Jesus as teaching them “from that time on” about his upcoming arrest and death and resurrection as being part of what the Messiah needs to undergo.  We don’t know if this went on for hours, days, weeks, or months before Peter finally felt like he should say something.

Peter’s distress is not simply concern for his friend, although that very well may have contributed to it; it’s a theological and eschatological problem for him.

The Son of Man hearkens back to Daniel 7 as the figure to whom the Ancient of Days will give an everlasting kingdom.  The Ancient of Days sets up His throne, destroys His enemies, then gives the kingdom to the Son of Man to rule over.  Daniel is told by an angel that the Son of Man are the faithful saints of God.  So, you have this single figure that represents a group of people (cf. the “suffering servant” of Isaiah).

Peter has come to realize that Jesus is this figure who will secure the kingdom for the faithful and is deservedly excited about this.  Jesus is able to forgive sins and perform miracles, this validating his message that the longed-for kingdom of heaven is right on the doorstep and he’s the king through whom God will bring it about following a judgement on the present kingdoms that rule over Israel.

That is what the Bible says.

So, you can imagine Peter’s consternation when he hears that Jesus will be captured, tortured, and executed by the very power structures that God is supposed to remove.

We, on this side of the New Testament, might shake our heads and say, “Well, Peter doesn’t really know his Old Testament, because if he did, then he might know….”

This is partially correct.  Peter doesn’t know his Old Testament.  Peter is a fisherman.  It’s unlikely Peter knows how to read, and we don’t know how observant a Jew Peter was prior to meeting Jesus.  Peter might know in general the Jewish cultural expectations for the Messiah and the Son of Man and that might be it.

But even if Peter did know his Old Testament, we have to be honest that the idea that the Messiah will accomplish his goals by getting captured, tortured, and executed is not an idea that just leaps off the pages of the Old Testament.  In fact, the New Testament paints a picture of this having to be revealed.

When we think back to Peter’s confession, he didn’t identify Jesus as the Messiah because it was an obvious conclusion from the Old Testament; he identified Jesus as the Messiah because God showed it to him.

We might think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  They believe Jesus’ messianic aspirations came to an end.  Jesus himself has to explain to them how he fits into the Old Testament story, and when he does, their hearts confirm that this is true.

Paul, who knew his Old Testament pretty well, did not conclude that Jesus must be the Messiah.  Instead, he concluded that Jesus was a seditious blasphemer and his crucifixion was the proof – on the basis of the Old Testament.  It was only when the risen Jesus confronted him directly that Paul decided he needed to reinterpret everything, and he did so in dramatic ways not readily suggested by the texts themselves.

So, let’s cut Peter some slack, here.  The narratives we’ve received from the early church do not show that people could just exegete their way to the idea that Jesus fulfilled the messianic promises – something we need to keep in mind as we have respectful dialogues with our Jewish brothers and sisters.  It takes an encounter with the risen Lord to see it.  Maybe we should be thinking more about how we can show people the risen Lord and less about arguing Old Testament hermeneutics.

Peter could have been any of the disciples (or any of us, for that matter) in the story.

What we have is a clash between Peter’s (or any sane person’s, really) expectations for how the Messiah will receive their kingdom and how Jesus foresees what’s going to happen to him.  If God is going to overthrow the kingdoms who oppress the faithful and give those kingdoms to the faithful, it’s crazy to think this would happen by the mechanism of those kingdoms achieving their victory.

But consider the radical reinterpretation Jesus presents us with – not just of his own life, but of Israel’s experience as well.  The power of Rome and the Temple are not unfortunate accidents about which God can do nothing; their ascension is the very mechanism through God will operate to restore the kingdom to the faithful.

Jesus, for his part, does not have time for Peter’s insights, here.  Peter is actually rebuking Jesus over his theology of the Messiah, which is pretty gutsy when you think about it.

Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” which seems harsh, but in order to understand why Peter earns the title in this passage, we have to think back to an earlier story in Matthew’s narrative – specifically, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

In this time of testing, Satan tries to talk Jesus into turning away from the path of suffering in little ways, like turning stones to bread to sate his hunger, and in big ways, like taking possession of the kingdoms of the world from Satan’s hand in exchange for allegiance.

The contrast Satan draws is a powerful one.  God’s way has you starving in the wilderness until you eventually end up crushed by the kingdoms of the world.  Satan’s way gives you food and power right now; all you have to do is play by his rules.

This is the same path Satan offered to Israel as well, and some went one way and some went another.  Some endured the wilderness all the way through the dominance of the world’s powers in faith, hopeful that God would see Israel resurrected at the end.  Others decided that way was for chumps and took the route of becoming those world powers by allying themselves with the forces that oppressed God’s people.

Jesus, in the wilderness, took the road of faithful Israel.  He would struggle through the wilderness and suffer under the hands of oppressors just like his people, and he would rise again from the dead, thus displaying among other things that this was the destination awaiting the faithful who followed him.

In our passage, Peter has taken the role of Satan, trying to dissuade Jesus from walking this road.  Surely, being squashed under the world powers is not what God wants for His Messiah – He wants victory and exaltation!

But Jesus will have none of this temptation from Peter.  Following that road is the road of the world that is passing away.  Jesus has his sights on a harder, narrower, riskier road that only makes sense to the heart of faith.

And if he can successfully navigate that road, his people whom he loves can follow after him.

Consider This

  1. Has your Jewish friend seen Jesus from you?  No?  Whose job is that?
  2. Knowing the route that God took with Jesus to save His people, how does that help us understand the present circumstances of the Church?  Did we end up where we needed to end up?  What does our road forward look like?