Sunday Meditations: The Gospel

“The Gospel” is one of those terms that is ubiquitous in Christianity.  You defend the Gospel.  You preach the Gospel.  You obey the Gospel.  You make sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel.  You take the Gospel to others.  We use the term so much that there’s sort of an implicit understanding that we don’t have to explain what it is.

Which is interesting, because in my experience, if you ask a Christian to tell you what the Gospel is, you will get a lot of different thoughts on that if you get any thoughts at all.  For a message that seems so fundamental to us, there doesn’t seem to be widespread clarity.

So, let’s take your handy TARDIS and go back in time before the individualism of the Great Awakening, the battle over indulgences that was the Reformation, the medieval church’s tendency to maintain political control through spiritual control, and the early Greco-Roman philosophical interest in the immortality and transmigration of the soul.  Let’s go back before all those things and come to first century Judea where the Gospel was first shared by Jewish people to other Jewish people.

One of the first things to note about the Gospel is that it came to that people at that time.  The proclamation of the Gospel spun up at a specific point in history – not before, not after.  There has to be something about what was happening at the time that makes the Gospel relevant in a way that it would not have been relevant earlier in history.

Second, the Gospel has to be immediately relevant to the Jews, and then the Gentiles.  The Gospel comes to the house of Israel first and stays there until after Pentecost, following Jesus’ instructions to make disciples of all nations and to be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem, and then to the surrounding areas.  So whatever the Gospel is, it has to center immediately around Jews in the first century, and only later does it become relevant to Gentiles.

Third, the Gospel has to be a message that invites persecution from not just first century Temple authorities, but also the Roman Empire – an Empire that was basically tolerant of the many religions and cultures under its banners.  This almost by necessity means the Gospel has to be political, because the Roman Empire doesn’t care about what you believe about Heaven or Hell or the end of the world.  They don’t care about your view of resurrection, but they do care about your view of insurrection.  This is important; the Gospel can’t just be a threat to the religious leaders of the first century – it is also a threat to the political leaders.

Fourth, the Gospel has to be good news.  The people who hear it are glad to hear it, but there is also a group of people for whom the Gospel is bad news unless they are willing to change groups – the rich, the rulers, the powerful, the ostensibly religious.  The Gospel is good news for the poor, the slaves, the powerless, and the sinners.

Think, for a minute, about what you think the Gospel is, and then ask yourself if it fits those criteria.  My guess is that the general themes that tend to dominate American evangelicalism’s take on the Gospel have trouble satisfying the information that the Bible actually gives us.

Our popular emphases do not have any special relevance to first century Israel and could just as easily have cropped up with any people group at any point in history.  While they might be offensive to a religious Jew, they would not be particularly offensive to an Empire – not the sort of thing an Empire would feel like it had to snuff out.  And these emphases are not particularly good news for the poor but bad news for the rich, or good news for the powerless but bad news for the powerful.  Rather, our version of the Gospel is equally good or bad news to anyone, depending on their response.  So, if our general ideas about the Gospel are correct, how do we explain what the Bible says?  How do we explain Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the apostles and the reaction they got and from whom?  How do we explain the Roman Empire wanting to put a stop to this movement?  Because even though we know people might not believe our Gospel, it’s hard to imagine how a story about an individual going to Heaven or Hell when they die would ever be systematically opposed by the rich or seen as a threat to the stability of a nation.

I would offer that much of our current stories and emphases in what we consider “the Gospel” is actually a result of centuries of people trying to take the message away from its historical context and come away with something that answers the interests of the people and the culture of the time.

By contrast, Jesus preached that the kingdom of God had arrived.

But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

Luke 4:43 (NRSV)

And, incidentally, God was going to make Jesus king of that kingdom.

If the core of the Gospel is that the kingdom of God has arrived with Jesus as the king, this fits the things we see in the Bible that surround the proclamation of the Gospel.

  1. It is immediately relevant to Jews, because they have historically defined the kingdom of God up until this point and have been longing for its restoration.  It would then be beneficial for Gentiles because the reign of God undoes all that is wrong with the world.
  2. It is immediately relevant to the first century, because the Jews at that time were under the mightiest pagan empire they have ever been under, creating all kinds of nastiness for them in just about every sphere of life – religiously, economically, politically, etc.
  3. It would draw the ire of both the power structure of the Temple as well as the Roman Empire.  A new king heralding the arrival of a new kingdom of Israel is going to draw the ire both of the Temple powers trying to maintain a nice status quo and a Roman Empire who is quite firmly in power, thank you, and the news of a new kingdom springing up under their noses in a notoriously rebellious province is unwelcome.
  4. It is good news for those who have been suffering under the power of the Empire and the Jewish elite, but bad news for those who are benefiting from the current arrangement.

While it is true that the arrival of the kingdom will not have the same immediate implications for us that it would have had in the first century, that kingdom still exists and Jesus is still the king of it, and its arrival into the broken areas of our world is still good news because it offers a way of restoration and community life that does not have to produce the brokenness we see everywhere else.

What is the Gospel that we proclaim?  Is it the same Gospel that Jesus did?

Pure in Heart: Matthew 5:8

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Matthew 5:8 (NRSV)

As far as Old Testament sentiments go, this Beatitude has a reasonably direct connection back to Psalm 24.  In this Psalm, people with clean hands and pure hearts who have not allied themselves with what is false have come to Mount Zion seeking Him.  In response, the gates of Jerusalem open and the Lord – presented in terms of military power – comes in to meet them.

This is certainly not the only Psalm to present the idea of a pure heart.  Psalm 73 shows us a psalmist who is very concerned at the prosperity and power of the wicked when God is supposed to be good to Israel – the pure in heart.  However, by the end of the Psalm, he shakes off these thoughts and takes comfort in the idea that God will bring down the wicked and be a refuge for those who remained faithful.

In both cases, purity is presented as steadfast loyalty.  Faithfulness.  This makes sense when we recall that the actual meaning of purity isn’t “not dirty,” but is “unmixed.”  Water with dirt in it isn’t pure, but water with sugar in it isn’t pure, either.  Purity means that a thing is unmixed with any other material – a relatively large dynamic in various Torah laws.  It is being holy (set apart), free not just from stains but from anything that might define the material as something else.

So, as we look at the experience of the Psalmist, he looks at faithful Israel and knows God is supposed to be good to them, but the wicked are prospering.  He decides he has to take a longer-term view of the situation, but he has to remain faithful.  He knows the day of the prosperity of the wicked will come to a terrible end and God will keep His faithful safe on that day.

In Psalm 24, we see the arrival of the Lord to meet His faithful, but it is not some gentle, congenial meeting.  The Lord of hosts has come to Jerusalem.  The Lord, strong and mighty, mighty in battle has come with His armies to Jerusalem and demands the gates be opened to admit Him.

These concepts come together as Matthew looks back on Jesus and his message.  Like the other Beatitudes, this one carries with it the promise of the reversal of fortunes.  If you have remained faithful, you will see God.  And what will this look like?  It will look like God coming with His armies to Jerusalem.  The wicked will be toppled, but God will keep safe those who have been faithful during this whole time – pure, unmixed, in heart.

This obviously resonates with Jesus’ primary warning to Israel – the day was coming when those who did not listen to Jesus and embraced paths of violence and retribution would provoke the Roman army to arrive and destroy the Temple.  That would be a terrible day full of tribulation, but it would also be a day when the the powerful, prosperous wicked would be brought low and the followers of Jesus would have left the city.

The faithful would see God as a concrete, historical reality.  A day of great calamity for the wicked, but also a day of refuge for the pure in heart.

And thus, we come back around to what John the Baptist was trying to do – purify the faithful who believed his message so that they might survive the coming judgement that would bury the power structure in Jerusalem.  Jesus is on this mission as well.  It’s not his entire mission, but it’s a huge part of it.

Our circumstances are somewhat different.  We are not waiting for a day when God will arrive at our city with armies to disenfranchise the wicked.  God can certainly still operate that way, but the Bible does not set that expectation for all believers everywhere.

At the same time, we have a mission to be a new creation people and a promise that the renewal of all things is coming, even the defeat of death itself.  We, like the Psalmist, might look at the prosperity of the wicked in our present world system and wonder why we should even bother being faithful.  How can we credibly say that God is good to the pure in heart when we see faithful Christians slaughtered in some countries, imprisoned in others, and the people on top of the heap are power hungry, wealthy exploiters of their fellow human beings?

Israel asked herself this question many times in her life experiences with God, and the answer was always to persevere and trust.  We don’t turn to various ways of engineering the downfall of the wicked.  We live (and die) as a faithful testimony, and God will move in His way and His time, bringing his people through the storms that threaten them and exalting His faithful dead, in history, until He banishes all that plagues the world and renews the entire creation.  We will want to be revealed as Sons of God on that day.

Consider This

  1. What does being a faithful community of God’s people look like, today?  Does being the people of God in the world mean more than believing particular doctrines?  What does it look like?
  2. What are the things in your culture and in your own life that tend to work their way into pure hearts?  What materials from this present world have become alloys with the people of God?

The Merciful: Matthew 5:7

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Matthew 5:7 (NRSV)

The idea of God being merciful to those who themselves are merciful is found in a handful of Proverbs and Psalms as well as several commands to Israel in the Law.  We could look at various ways that faithful Israel was intended to be merciful and, in the long run, failed in this department in the days that led to her exile.

But I want to point out a psalm of David that isn’t in the book of Psalms, but is rather in 2 Samuel 22.  In this Psalm, God has delivered David from his enemies (Saul, in specific), rewarded him for his faithfulness, and exalted him to a position of power above the nations.  In this psalm, David writes:

With the merciful, you show yourself merciful.

2 Samuel 22:26a (ESV)

This sort of captures the Old Testament relationship of Israel to mercy.  Being faithful to God means being merciful.  David is merciful.  He receives mercy as the outcome of his faithfulness.

Contrast this with the Israel described in Isaiah 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV)

Here, Isaiah talks about a day of disaster that comes from the rulers of Israel oppressing their own people – a day that will result in them being prisoners or dead.  They do not have mercy, so they will not be shown mercy.

These polarities collide in the first century.  Those of Israel who would oppress Israel for their own gain are at it again, and the presence of the Empire is a big help to them.  The poor, humble, disenfranchised, and outsiders suffer under them.  But Jesus (and John the Baptist before him) have announced the day has come when fortunes will be reversed, and those who are currently the oppressors will find themselves as prisoners or the slain.

What ought the faithful to be in a time like this?  Do they, like most revolutions, simply replace the people on top with themselves?  Is now the time to take up the sword?  Has the day come when they can lord their power over those who cannot resist them?

No, instead, Jesus calls them to be faithful Israel, which means being merciful, even to enemies, as David was with Saul.

In Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew will record a parable of Jesus where he tells about a slave who owed the king much money and begged for patience and time to pay off his debt.  The king forgave his debt altogether.  This slave then found another slave who owed him a very small sum of money, and the slave had him sent to debtors’ prison.  When the king learns of this, he is not happy about it:

“You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Matthew 18:32-33 (NRSV)

And in anger, the king sends the slave to prison to be tortured until he is able to pay his entire debt.

This is a shocking, terrible picture in many ways of the judgment that waits for those in Israel to whom the King has been merciful but will not extend mercy to others.

As I’ve pointed out many times, and it is obvious, we do not have an imminent destruction at the hands of the Roman Empire.  But what we do see is that being merciful is something that Israel has always been supposed to be this entire time.  It is a component of what it means to be a faithful witness to the reality of the reign of God in the world.  It is a feature of the new creation – we do not use God’s favor for vengeance, but we use it to show the same mercy we have been shown.  If we will not show mercy – even to our enemies, even to those who are completely undeserving – then God Himself opposes us.

Mercy, of course, does not mean actions are without consequences.  Israel was expected to be merciful, but they still had the Torah, thus showing that mercy is not incompatible with justice.  Mercy does not mean a wife moving back in with her abusive husband.  Mercy does not mean there shouldn’t be consequences for what we do.  But what it does mean is that, whatever we decide is right and just in a situation, we do so from the standpoint of God’s mercy to us.  We have been shown mercy so that we, in turn, might show the world mercy.

Consider This

  1. Are you currently in a situation where someone is unmerciful to you and there’s nothing you can do about it?  What would you do if that situation were suddenly reversed?
  2. It has been said that we will have difficulty showing mercy if we haven’t fully realized the mercy we have been shown.  In what ways has God shown mercy to you as an individual?  In what was has He shown mercy to the people of God in your day and age?

Hunger and Thirst: Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

Hungering and thirsting is a metaphor that is common in the Psalms.  Generally, the scene is that the author is in some predicament where something they depend on is scarce, and they long for it.

For example, in Psalm 42, the writer has been separated from the house of God, presumably by his enemies, and is languishing apart from it, comparing himself to a deer searching for water.  The counterpoint to that psalm is Psalm 63, where the one who is hungry and thirsty enters the sanctuary and is filled with a “rich feast.”

This may provide some of the background for Matthew 5:6.  Entering the Temple in Jesus’ day was largely a matter of A) How clean are you? and B) Do you have the money to buy an animal?  Both poverty and purity laws that went even above and beyond the Torah had the effect of keeping most of the common people out of the Temple – a situation that finds a strong parallel with Psalm 42.

What makes me think there might be more to the story, though, is the hungering and thirsting after righteousness.  Righteousness means being faithful to an agreement or a promise.  It means keeping your word.  The people Jesus is talking about are people who are languishing in the absence of faithfulness.

Could this be Israel’s own faithfulness?  It very well could be.  The faithful in Israel see themselves as in exile for breaking their covenant with God.  If you long for the consolation of Israel, as we saw in the previous Beatitude, then you’ve got to have a spiritual renewal of Israel – a repentance and a reformation around who God always wanted them to be.  A resurrection.  A rebirth.  The repentance, forgiveness, and reformation of a holy Israel is a common feature in the Old Testament prophets, so its quite possible this is the understanding that informs Jesus’ statement, here.  That day is at hand.  John the Baptist started that process, and Jesus is going to bring it to completion.

That very well could be the background.  Psalm 107, in fact, presents just such a restoration in terms of the hungry and thirsty being filled.

But the hungering and thirsting could also be for God’s faithfulness to His promise.

In Psalm 22, we see David, using his experience as representative of Israel (as he often does), describing a situation where he is surrounded by enemies, hurt, suffering, and abandoned.  It appears as though God Himself has left him to die.  But he cries out to God, and God delivers him, producing this reaction:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
    stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
    May your hearts live forever!

Psalm 22:22-26 (NRSV)

This is followed by a scene of the entire world worshiping YHVH because of His faithfulness to deliver Israel and passing that down from generation to generation so that people who haven’t even been born yet will worship YHVH.

It’s hard not to see the mission of Jesus in these terms.  Israel is surrounded by enemies, apparently abandoned by God, but when they cry out, He is faithful to save them (Israel), resulting in Him becoming Lord of of the whole world (not just Israel) and down through future generations (us).  And one of the features of this description is that “the poor shall eat and be satisfied.”

So, what’s the background, here?  Is it Israel being separated from her Temple?  Is it Israel longing for the end of her exile and the restoration of her faithful service?  Is it Israel longing for God to be faithful to deliver them?

I don’t know, but I suspect the answer may be that those are not three, separate things.

Consider This

  1. Several Psalms were mentioned, above.  Take some time to read them throughout the week.  How do they help you understand and feel Israel’s situation when Jesus was speaking to them?
  2. What does it mean to hunger and thirst after faithfulness for the people of God, today?  What is our own condition with regard to faithfulness?  Are we the things God intended His people to be in the world?  What are some things you could pray for in that regard?

The Meek: Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Matthew 5:5 (NRSV)

This line is virtually a quote from Psalm 37:11:

But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

Psalm 37:11 (NRSV)

That Psalm is a great commentary on this Beatitude and, in a sense, the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount.

In this Psalm, it speaks to a people who are experiencing oppression at the hands of “the wicked.”  The wicked, here, are those with power who bring down the poor, who game the financial system for their own benefit but the loss of others, and who are working against those who are trying to remain faithful.

In contrast are “the meek.”  These are the poor, the faithful – those who are being pressed down by the wicked.  Meekness, here, is not so much a personality characteristic as it is belonging to a certain group of people.

Psalm 37, however, encourages the meek to remain patient and to be of good heart, because no matter what things look like now, God will vindicate and exalt the meek.  They shall inherit all the things the wicked currently enjoy, and the wicked will perish.  It is their continued faithfulness that will see them through into a new state affairs.  It is their faithfulness that God will reward.

Of course, the temptation of the meek in Psalm 37 is to give up faithfulness and, instead, embrace the ways of the wicked – to become those who are rich and powerful and living high on the hog.  But God will not reward that.  That is joining up with the people who belong to a world that is about to vanish.  Better to remain poor, oppressed, and faithful than to eat and drink with the wealthy and powerful, because God will exalt one group and bring the other group to destruction.

That is also how this Beatitude fits in.  Jesus has talked about the poor’s fortunes being restored and the mourners being comforted by this great overturning in the world system.  This is simply another facet of it.

And you see this work itself out in Jesus’ ministry.  It’s hard to forget Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler:

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Matthew 19:16 (NRSV)

Jesus is trying to get this young man to move from one group to the other group.  The young ruler may be keeping Torah, and this is good, but he is part of a world system that will be dismantled.  He is both rich and a ruler in Jerusalem.  Jesus urges him to give up his membership in “the wicked” as Psalm 37 defines it and become “the meek.”  Leave the kingdom where this man is a ruler and join the one where he is just like everyone else.  Leave one world for another world.  God opposes the proud, but is gracious to the humble.

Like the other Beatitudes, this reversal of fortunes in Jerusalem and in the Roman Empire at large is in our rear-view mirror.  But it, coupled with what had come before, gives us some good insight into the heart of God.

Because, you see, God has always opposed the powerful when they use it for their own benefit, especially at the expense of others.  God destroyed Sodom for it.  God judged Israel herself more than once for this very thing – the corruption and power and wealth at the top while people below were suffering.  And now we see the dynamic playing out in first century Jerusalem.

While the particulars of the situation Jesus is addressing may be limited to the state of affairs in Jerusalem at the time, they are another instance of something that has been abiding in God’s world from the beginning – man is not meant to oppress other men.  People are not meant to enjoy prosperity while their fellow man suffers deprivation.  It isn’t just a feature of corruption in Jerusalem, but rather something God will have stand wherever His people are and wherever His reign is to be found.

It falls to us to speak out in favor of the poor and the oppressed and work for the reversal of that situation – not with the tools this present world uses to get its way, but by the power of faithful testimony and the Spirit.  By living out in our churches, our communities, and in “the nations” a world where those who have much share with those who have little, and those with power use it for the benefit – the service – of those who are under them, or perhaps even completely powerless – by living out that world, we bring the new creation into this one.We testify that a new world has come and we are citizens of it.  We testify that the traditional uses of power and wealth have no place in the new creation, and those who insist on being allied to that system and perpetuating it will find themselves outside its doors.

And this is a call, too, for us to examine ourselves.  Are we living this way?  Which group have we signed up for?  Which group are we actively trying to get into?  How do we use our wealth and our power?  Is it for the benefit of those without either?

What would your home, your church, your business, your community – what would it all look like if we decided to use everything we have been given and everything we have achieved for the benefit of those who do not have those things?

Consider This

  1. Go ahead and take a few minutes to read Psalm 37.  It won’t take long.  Are there other parts of the Psalm that give insight into Jesus’ sermon?  Are there any parts that speak to you?
  2. God is gentle with us in our path to obedience.  It is almost a certainty that if you are able to read this, you are in a position above where other people are and have things they don’t.  Ask God how you can begin a process of leaving behind a group of privilege to become brothers and sisters with the meek.

Sunday Meditations: Calling Out

The very first followers of Jesus were individuals that he called away from their jobs and their homes and exile under the Roman Empire to follow him.

He made no bones about it.  The kingdom of God had come, and you could either leave the kingdoms of this world and sign up with it and enjoy its future, or you could live out a very pleasant, basically moral life keeping the kingdoms of this world going and experience their future.

Signing on with the arrived kingdom of God meant cutting your ties to other allegiances.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:26 (NRSV)

As well as everything that  associated you with a life built on the principles of the world as it was:

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:33 (NRSV)

He knew that following him would invite the hostility and persecution of the surrounding culture:

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:27 (NRSV)

Jesus warns his disciples what will happen as they go out and announce the arrival of the kingdom:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 10:21-22 (NRSV)

He has very direct words as to his impact on families:

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Matthew 10:35-36 (NRSV)

We do know that at least some of this was conditioned by a specific time frame:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.

Luke 22:35-36 (NRSV)

Such that we should not assume that everything Jesus said about discipleship at that time automatically carries over to all disciples everywhere at all times.  We have to think.  We have to look at what was going on at the time, what the disciples would have understood by Jesus’ words, and whether or not that has any applicability to our experience of discipleship and disciple-making, today.

Nevertheless, one thing that remains a constant refrain throughout the New Testament is the idea of being “called out.”  The Greek word ekklesia that is translated as “church” means “called out.”  You have come out of the kingdoms of this world and into the kingdom of God, and some degree of separation and persecution are bound to follow because your very existence and faithful life is a testimony against the kingdoms of this world.

In Western missiology, we have been guilty (and are often still guilty, but more subtly so) about calling people out of their culture into Western culture.  Or calling people out of their cultural expression of following Christ into a Western one.  Or calling people out of their theological tradition into a Western one.  This is obviously dumb, harmful, and pride in the extreme – as if Western Christianity has been any great shakes so far.

And historically, we’ve certainly paid the price in both ancient and more recent history.  We can think of the eradication of other cultures in the name of “Christianizing” them, which was the cool thing to do for several centuries, but even within Christianity, these ways of thinking have been disastrous.  Many of the countries that are Muslim strongholds, today, were once epicenters of Christian thought that were actively persecuted and dispersed by other Christians.  Can you imagine such a thing?  Well, it happened.  Christians had to seek out the relative tolerance and protection of Islam to survive the persecution of other Christians.  You can see where our great love for our “brand” of Christianity has taken us, both inside and outside the faith.

And yet, we can’t let go of the otherworldly nature of the kingdom of God.  Joining God’s kingdom is disruptive.  It is not supposed to be easy.  Great numbers flooding in are atypical and worthy of special mention in the Bible, not the norm.  Jesus would disperse crowds of “followers” all the time by making a sidelong comment about taking up a cross or selling possessions or embracing the people considered unclean.

Your culture minimizes children?  Too bad – Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to them and people who become like them.  Your culture treats women like property?  Too bad – Jesus educates them, lifts them up, values their testimony, and discovers that they are far more courageous followers than the men.  Your culture admires wealth?  Too bad – Jesus exalts the poor and says your riches will keep you out of the kingdom short of a miracle (or the much simpler solution to give it away).  Your culture values the military?  Jesus hates violence and preaches love for enemies.  Your culture exalts the family to be the most important institution?  Jesus says following him takes precedence.  Your culture wants to revolt against an oppressive government?  Jesus says to turn the other cheek.

Pursuing these ways are offensive to American culture, as they are to any culture that exists.  They challenge cultural expressions of Christianity – not in the music or clothes or how you structure a worship service – but the very core values and traditions a given nation is founded on – the engines that make it run.  Money, power, ostracism, division, living only for yourself, living only for yourself and your family, numbers, size, military might, alliances – all these things and more become unimportant at best and weapons of Satan at worst as far as the kingdom of God is concerned.

We are, in a very real sense, testifying against all nations, all cultures, and calling people out of those kingdoms into the kingdom of God.  The arrival of the kingdom isn’t good news because it gets you out of Hell or gives you a new Moral Code.  It’s good news because it’s the end of the world as you know it.

 

Mourners: Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4 (NRSV)

In many ways, this flows from the same streams as the Beatitude about the poor.  Both have strong roots in Isaiah 61 as well as many similar passages in the Old Testament.  To look at some of the specific facets of this particular Beatitude, we need to take a look at that Isaiah passage, again.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)

This passage tells us a lot more about those who mourn.

First of all, they mourn in Zion.  Mount Zion is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  These mourners are in Israel weeping in the Temple.  What are they weeping about?  In Isaiah 61, it’s the condition of Jerusalem.  It’s the corruption, the idolatry, the constant threat of enemies, and the apparent abandonment by God in the face of disaster.

The crowds that Jesus speaks to will have mourners like this – faithful Israelites who mourn over the condition of Israel – conquered by foreigners, governed by pagans, the Temple run by Empire-appointed stooges who aren’t even Jewish half the time.

Luke tells of one such person in chapter 2 – a man named Simeon who “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”  This is the same man who prophesied that Jesus would be for the rising and falling of many in Israel and thanks God that he got to see Israel’s salvation before he died.

He is looking forward to the consolation of Israel – the day Isaiah talks about when the mourning will be comforted by the coming of the Day of the Lord.

And what will happen when this day of comfort comes?  Those that mourn will build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations.  They will take what has fallen over the years and build it back up.  In Matthew, this could be alluded to in order to bring forth the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem, which in the Apostles’ minds, will bring an end to this corrupt power structure in Jerusalem, and those who escape this destruction will have a new life that is rebuilt in the creation and survival of believing communities throughout the Empire.

Or perhaps the image looks backward.  One thinks back to when the exiles were released from Babylon to return to Jerusalem and how they built up the ruins there that had lain for decades.

Or perhaps the image is meant to be more general.  There are other Old Testament passages that describe the ruined condition of Israel as a fallen structure or city.  Perhaps the rebuilding imagery is meant to suggest the rebuilding of Israel as a reborn, holy nation.

Or, perhaps all of that.  Perhaps all of those things are really the same kind of event, just presented at different key points in Israel’s history.

Whatever the specific referents might be, one thing is clear – the Israel that is in exile and suffering under a corrupt power structure is about to be free of it.  The mourners are about to be comforted.  The ruins are about to be rebuilt.  Mourning will turn to dancing.  The world will be turned over, and those who have been crushed into the ground will see the sunlight.

Like the statement about the poor, these events have come and gone in Israel’s history.  Does it hold any power or relevance for the experience of the people of God, today?

I think it does, but we have to adjust our sights a bit.  What we don’t have here is a guarantee from Jesus that we’ll eventually feel better about anything that troubles us.  Nor do we have a guarantee that people who mourn over the condition of the people of God, today, will have a day that overturns those things.

What do we have, then?

What we have is a mission to bring the blessings of the new creation into the dark recesses of this world and a promise and a hope that the whole world will one day be renewed, such that even Death is brought low.  To steal Paul’s assurance to the Thessalonian community and their martyrs, we mourn, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope.

A resurrection is coming.  A new world is coming.  And you and I are commanded in the here and now to testify to this reality by living it.  We make things new as a message to the world that God is making all things new.  Part of this will be giving comfort to those who mourn in the here and now, but with every mourner we comfort in this age, we are breathing out a faithful testimony that an even greater renewal is coming, where God will wipe away the tears from every eye.

Consider This

  1. What would it mean to mourn over the situation of the people of God in the world, today?  What would have to happen for that mourning to be comforted?  Are there things we could be doing about it?
  2. The destruction of Jerusalem was a horrible event by anyone’s lights.  The gospels’ narrative is, as terrible as this event was, God used it to bring an end to the oppression of His faithful.  Does this way of thinking have any impact on how the Bible speaks of other significant past events?

The Poor In Spirit: Matthew 5:3

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3 (NRSV)

In early first century Israel, there was no middle class the way we think of it.  At the top of the heap were the rich few.  These were typically government officials or religious officials who cooperated with the government.  Archaeological finds in Jerusalem tell us, for instance, that Herod’s mansion quickly gave rise to a rich neighborhood (inhabited by the Sanhedrin) who began to copy the features and styles of Herod’s house.

The Roman Empire boasted some truly magnificent accomplishments in architecture, engineering, monuments, etc.  Those things did not come without a price.  That money had to come from somewhere, and where it came from were taxes and levies against the provinces Rome had conquered.  In your region, your tax collectors were probably your own people working for the Roman government, and they didn’t mind charging a little extra for themselves.

In this way, wealth was a uniter of the power structure in Rome and in Judea in specific.  If you were the government-appointed High Priest, you were wealthy.  If you were a tax collector, you were wealthy.  If you were a Senator or a governor, you were wealthy.  If you were Sanhedrin, you were wealthy.  With few exceptions, wealth identified you as being on top of the heap and generally in cahoots.

Most of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, however, was inhabited by the poor – the people who paid taxes, fines, etc.  And these taxes were crippling.  If you had a farm, the odds were good Rome would own your farm in short order and you would be a sharecropper on it.  Most Israelites who owned their own land quickly lost it to the rich because of these taxes.  This debt led to indentured servitude, sharecropping, and a cycle you were unlikely to break out of.  The odds of you and your children getting that land back were slim to none, because the engine of Empire just kept slowly grinding you down, down, down financially.

This provides some context as to why the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was such a clever trap.  If Jesus says yes, then he loses his following of the common people longing for the restoration of Israel.  If Jesus says no, then he becomes an insurrectionist and subject to punishment by Rome.

The insidious power of money!  Taxation, wealth, and poverty were not just bare facts of economic life, they were a political tool used to strengthen Rome and her supporters and weaken those who might dare to raise their heads up.  This is such an important thing to keep in mind as we think about Jesus’ comments about money.  Every coin is covered in the blood of Israel and the breath of the Dragon.

Imagine with me, if you will, the utter hopelessness of the vast majority of Israelites living in slums and temporary housing to work fields and vineyards that might have belonged to their fathers, only to yield up all their labor to the Empire in exchange for some morsels of food and basic staples.  If you have ever been in debt that you felt you would never see the end of, perhaps you can begin to understand that feeling of anxiety, hopelessness, and futility that Israel must have felt a hundred times greater.

In Luke’s version of this verse, he simply says, “The poor,” not “the poor in spirit.”  The spirit part is Matthew’s inclusion and has prompted all kinds of speculation, most of which involves trying to keep Jesus from talking about actual poor people.

But this addition makes sense, especially as the introductory Beatitude, against the Old Testament background Matthew has so freely drawn from.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV)

The word “oppressed” in the NRSV is often translated “poor” in other translations, but the net effect is the same.

This is part of an extended passage in Isaiah about the great Day of the Lord where God will answer the oppression of Israel by Assyria.  From the previous chapters in Isaiah, we learn this Day will include:

  1. The repentance of Israel and the forgiveness of her sins
  2. The removal of corrupt judges and cheating merchants
  3. The overthrow of Israel’s corrupt rulers
  4. The return of God’s presence
  5. The leading of the other nations to the worship of YHVH
  6. The gathering of the exiled
  7. A kingdom of shalom and justice
  8. The deliverance of Israel from her enemies and their destruction

All these things are announced by the Lord’s anointed by the Spirit.  He brings with him the Good News that this deliverance has arrived, and the poor rejoice to see it.  And now we are in a position to understand why Matthew uses the phrase, “ptochoi to pneumati.”  It’s not technically “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “blessed are the poor in THE Spirit.”

The Spirit has anointed Jesus to bring this gospel – this good news – this ministry of the kingdom of God – to the poor.  Luke makes this connection overt when he has Jesus read Isaiah 61 in a synagogue and announce that the Scripture was fulfilled that very day in their hearing.  Matthew takes us down a slightly different trail, but we end up at the same place.

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:4-6 (NRSV)

 

Jesus has brought good news in the Spirit to the poor: the Day of the Lord is at hand.  The power structure that crushes them is about to itself be crushed.  The downtrodden are about to be restored.  Those who are needy now will soon need nothing.

That’s all fine and good for the poor Jesus spoke to, but what about the poor, today?  What about people who live in cyclical poverty – people who are ground under that same engine of power and wealth that makes itself powerful and wealthy at their expense?  The historical moment where Jesus comes to liberate Israel from her oppression has come and gone.  That Empire, that High Priest, those tax collectors (with a couple of notable exceptions) are dust.  Is Jesus still good news for the poor, even though this specific expectation and time in history has passed?

I will say yes, because to hope in Jesus on our side of history is to hope in the new creation.  As we speak, believers are living with and caring for these poor.  They are selling their possessions and giving their money.  They are prophetically speaking out against the corruption and the evil practices of power and wealth in the empires of this world and calling people to a better way – a way of life under the risen Lord Jesus where we sacrificially care for the poor.  These people are spreading new creation.  They carry the kingdom wherever they go, in an ever-expanding sphere.

The poor have a reason to hope when they hear the feet, not of Jesus as the people heard him in Matthew, but of the people filled with his Spirit.  To them belongs the power to bring good news.  To them belongs the authority and mission to heal and restore, not just in Israel, but in all the nations.  In some places and in some times, this mission may go better than others, but even should poverty not be wiped out by love in our time, resurrection and a new world are waiting, and Jesus is already there, beckoning us forward.

Consider This

  1. Why do you think both Testaments show such a strong bias for the poor?
  2. Some have said that proclamation of the gospel must take precedence over taking care of physical needs.  Are these different things?  Were they different to Jesus?
  3. In what ways might you be a blessing to the poor in the Spirit?

Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Matthew 5:1 (NRSV)

This introduces a section that is commonly known as “The Beatitudes” or “The Sermon on the Mount.”  This prologue may not seem that devotional, and you may be right, but I feel like we have to take a look at what Matthew is telling us in the story before going through the pieces.

Matthew’s phrasing has always struck me as funny.  “When Jesus saw the crowds,” presumably the crowds mentioned at the end of chapter 4 who are coming from all over the region and from places as far away as Jerusalem and the cities of the Decapolis.  This text almost makes it sound like Jesus turns around and, all of a sudden, notices all these crowds have shown up.  Man, those guys were quiet.

But of course, what Matthew is saying is that the presence of these crowds gives Jesus an occasion to deliver some relevant teaching.  So, he goes up a mountain and his disciples follow.  Luke 6, by contrast, has Jesus going down to a level place, which is the opposite of going up a mountain.  Why does Matthew have the sermon given “on the Mount?”

I think part of the answer goes to the common theme of Jesus living out the experience of faithful Israel.  We’ve already seen plenty of allusions to the Exodus in the first four chapters of Matthew.  This is probably another one.  Moses delivers the Law from Mount Sinai, and this Law defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day.  It is very likely that Matthew is recapturing that image.  Jesus delivers the Beatitudes from this mountain, and it defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day.

But we also have to consider that “in his day” part.

The Law Moses delivered at Sinai was not the last law Israel would receive.  There would be more.  Further, some of the laws would simply not be applicable as the historical state of affairs of Israel changed.  For example, in Exodus 20:24, we have a law that Israel can just dig up some earth, make an altar out of it, and offer sacrifices there, and YHVH will come to it and bless them.  This law makes a lot of sense when you’re wandering about in the wilderness.

By contrast, Deuteronomy 12:13-14 specifically warns the Israelites not to offer sacrifices anywhere they happen to see, but only in the place that God specifically selects.  This is appropriate when you happen to have a permanent residence.  Further, a permanent Temple would one day take the place of the Tabernacle and be the place of sacrifice.

In other words, while the general principles behind the laws seem to be the same – you have to offer sacrifices to YHVH the way He wants them – the particulars shift based on the historical realities of Israel at the time.

When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, he is giving it to Israel at a particular historical juncture that Matthew has already drilled into our heads – the kingdom of God is at hand, and faithful Israel is to repent and be restored so that she will not fall under the same judgement as her oppressors.  The people who are on top are about to be toppled, and the people on the bottom are about to be exalted, provided they remain faithful and continue to trust in God for their deliverance.

This dynamic is behind many Beatitudes in the Old Testament.  It is a very popular literary form that designates a particular category of person as “blessed,” and often contrasts them with the wicked.  Psalm 112 is a great example and many of its themes show up in the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact the very first Psalm in your Bible is a beatitude.  Here are the blessed people – look at the great things that will happen to them.  And, if we have time to go into it, here are the bad things that will happen to the people who are not like this.

At the feet of Jesus, Israel sits at the brink of a historical and eschatological crisis.  The judgement against their age is coming.  The kingdom is at hand.  What, then, does faithful Israel look like in this period the Old Testament has foretold?  The Messiah has come.  The engine of the coming kingdom is revving.  They are entering into an event in their history that is in a real sense the height of their expectations up to that point.  We need to take into account the fact that these categories are announced to a particular people in that particular historical situation – one that we as 21st century Gentiles, or even Jews for that matter – do not share.

However, as we look through the Sermon on the Mount, we begin to see things that Israel has always been meant to be.  Even in their days of great prosperity, were they ever not supposed to be humble?  Were they ever not supposed to be a city on a hill?  Were they ever not supposed to treasure righteousness more than gold or jewels?

And as we look outward to the future people of God long past the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of pagan Rome, do we not still find the people of God oppressed?  Do we not still find them with enemies?  Do they not wait for the vindication of the Lord, either in their present circumstances or the resurrection and renewal of the creation?

So, on the one hand, we may be asking for trouble to take the Sermon on the Mount and drop it and all its particulars right on top of all Christians everywhere at all times, just like Israel with her Temple couldn’t just pick up the law about digging up an altar wherever they happened to be and drop it and all its particulars on their current situation.  They were in a different situation, and that required new ways of being faithful.

But by the same token, we will find resonances in the Sermon of what the people of God have always been called to be, especially in a world where we still face opposition and hostility.  We will find these things in Jesus and, perhaps most tellingly, we find these things flowing out of Spirit-filled people who “have not the Law.”  We will find in this extended section of Jesus’ teaching markers of the kingdom, and we will find in it hints of new creation.  All these things define our experience, today, and as we go, I expect we will find a good deal of continuity with our forefathers at the mountain.

Consider This

  1. Does it make you uncomfortable to think of God’s laws for his people shifting somewhat with their historical circumstances?  Why is that?  What do laws mean to you?  Are there any parts of the Old Testament law you do not think apply to the people of God, today?
  2. When we look at Old Testament laws, is there a way to recognize a “bigger picture” that might transcend the circumstances of that particular law?  How might that help us as we look at the Sermon on the Mount?

Sunday Meditations: Contagious Discipleship

Youth Leader and all around awesome guy Cory Ozbun recommended the book Contagious Disciple Making by David and Paul Watson to me.  I just finished “Part 1 The Mind-Set of a Disciple-Maker.”

My reactions to what I’ve read so far generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Things that were so awesome for someone to say
  2. Things that troubled me because of my own character flaws
  3. Things that troubled me for reasons that might have a little more objective merit

You’ll notice that two out of three of those categories are “things that troubled me,” which might lead you to believe I mostly had issues with the book, but that’s misleading.  The first category covers the overwhelming majority of my response, and that second category shouldn’t even exist, but painfully does.  Also, all the categories have a degree of overlap.

Things That Were So Awesome for Someone to Say

One of the main ideas of this part of the book is that the things we believe and the way we express following Christ are typically defined by our own culture, background, and denominations.  So, when we try to plant churches, we often try to replicate that, and that’s a huge barrier to the success of planting churches.

This is a great point, because I think the church is generally aware of the overt evils of Westernization our missionaries used to be pretty bad about.  We would make other people groups talk like us, look like us, structure their society like America – becoming Christian in large part meant becoming European/American.  At broad levels, I think we’ve woken up to the fact that such a thing is, well, wrong.

However, I don’t know if we realize how radically Being Western has affected us and our ideas about Jesus, church, the Bible, etc., and I love how the Watsons challenge us to seek that out and avoid trying to transplant our specific concepts of what being a follower of Jesus or a church is “supposed to look like.”  Even corporate worship on Sundays is cultural.  We often have been taught these concepts and then back-filled them with Scripture to make it seem like the idea was in the Bible all along.  Rooting this up is easier said than done, but it’s a great challenge.

Part of the Western tradition the Watsons challenge is an emphasis on doctrine.  They rightly point out that you just don’t need to know a whole lot to be a follower of Christ or to spread his message.  In the West, we train and educate and train and train.  We like classes and seminars and have fairly rigorous ideas about how trained someone needs to be before they’re in a position to lead a church or before they’re truly followers of Jesus.  We define their discipleship heavily in terms of doctrinal content.  This does not seem to square with the New Testament church.

Finally, the emphasis on obedience was great.  I could see someone criticizing the book on the grounds of teaching a “works-based” faith, and that someone should probably shut up.  This flows right out of our cultural emphasis on doctrinal knowledge.  Believing the right things is more important than doing the right things to us, and you are going to be hard-pressed to find that to be the consistent message of Jesus and the Apostles, despite the fact that, at least in Protestantism, we have enshrined this as a central theological principle.

True disciples of Jesus are doing Jesus stuff.  There are no more qualifications to that.  Even the demons believe.

Things That Troubled Me Because of My Own Character Flaws

I like to study the Bible.  I like to know more about it and understand its content better.  I’ve been at this a while.  And as I understand its content better, I like to share it.  I like to teach.  I like to preach.  I like to watch people’s eyes light up or nod their heads as they begin to connect dots.  What’s more – I think teaching is a gift God has given me.

So you can imagine how distressing it is for someone like me to come to grips with the fact that biblical and theological knowledge is just not as important as we hold it in the West.  In fact, holding it in that elevated position can be a hindrance to service and the spread of the Gospel.

It’s distressing because I define my service to the church largely in terms of that very thing and a large part of my identity and self-esteem is tied up in that enterprise.  Some of you who have heard me teach are probably thinking, “Dude, you absolutely should not be resting your self-esteem on your teaching,” and you are probably right, but I do.

So, I found these kinds of statements by the Watsons particularly troubling.  I don’t like the idea of new believers being released “into the wild” to make new disciples.  Like an overbearing parent, I want to keep them in the fold until I have created them in my own image.  I want to replicate -myself- in many ways.

It’s very humbling to realize the thing that you do that you think is so awesome really isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things and may actually hurt more than it helps in some cases.  So, this will be an area of continued thought and soul-searching for me, but it was very unpleasant.  I found myself on the defensive for a good chunk of Part 1 just so I could protect myself, even summoning up Scriptures to help me protect myself.  There’s probably a blog post in there, somewhere.

Things That Troubled Me for Reasons That Might Have a Little More Objective Merit

There are two things in this category, basically.

The first is that I think it’s a mistake to bring the Bible to another culture and say, “Interpret and practice this according to your own cultural values and practices.”  We’d never intentionally do that with Americans, for example.  In fact, many would argue that’s how the American church ended up looking so much Not Like Jesus.  I think the Watsons would sort of agree with this, but they’re very big on just turning the Bible over to a people group and just kind of letting them run with it and seeing what happens.  At least at this point.  The next part is on Practices, and maybe they’ll rein this in a little.

The issue I have with that is that every earthly kingdom is fueled by similar core issues – issues that Jesus challenges.  There is no culture that does not need to be examined in light of the kingdom of God.  In fact, a community of Christ followers is supposed to be counter-cultural.  They are not supposed to fit in.  It is not supposed to be a comfortable transition.  While I agree with the authors that the differences should not come from being Western, and I also agree that we may put up a lot of unnecessary cultural barriers thinking them to be actually part of following Christ, the fact remains that a community of believers in any culture is going to have to get some distance from that culture – not to move closer to the West, but to move closer to the kingdom of God.

Don Richardson’s now famous missionary story Peace Child illustrates the issue in a way that is obviously uncommon, but it makes the point.  The Sawi people at the time valued cunning, and treachery was considered a mark of competence.  You admired someone who betrayed their close friends if they profited from it.  So, when they heard the story of Jesus, they instantly latched on to Judas as the hero of the story.

I don’t know what a Sawi church would look like if that idea went unchallenged, but you’d probably want to sit with your back to a wall if you visited.

Now, this cultural value would be a big obstacle for a Sawi convert, right?  To follow Jesus means laying down your own good for the good of others.  It involves love, compassion, and just and honest dealings.  To ask a Sawi at the time to do that would be a huge cultural barrier to entry, not just to give those things up, but then to suffer at the hands of a culture who still held those things.  People would be treacherous to you, and you would have to love and bless them in return.

But that’s how the kingdom of God rolls.  By creating that counter-cultural community and people perhaps even dying for it, this is how the Beast is fought.  This is the experience of the New Testament church.

And, yes, people may need to be taught to see that because they won’t see it with their cultural lenses in place.   They may decide Judas is the real hero.  It’s not the job of the West to correct this idea (like Western culture has any room to talk about treachery), but it may be the job of more mature Christians who know the faith well and have lived it out.

The second thing is that the New Testament itself is a product of a culture and traditions, specifically first-century Jewish ones, and those are rooted in the Old Testament cultures and traditions that brought them to that point.  The message of Jesus and his Apostles are not timeless aphorisms recorded in a book.  They are the lived out experience of first century Jews under the dominion of the Roman Empire.

If we aren’t at least considering this, we are almost guaranteed to replace the message of Jesus with our own.

For instance, the Watsons refer several times to completing the Great Commission.  The GC is incomplete because we haven’t reached the whole world, yet.

Well, when Jesus gives the Great Commission, the word we translate as nations is “ethne,” which means Gentiles.  Jesus has been given authority over everything, so now the mission that began in Jerusalem needs to extend to the surrounding peoples.  The Apostles, surely, and probably Jesus, would have understood this as the known world at the time, and not the aborigines in Australia.  And let’s not forget this command was given to the Eleven.

According to Paul, the Great Commission was already completed by the spread of the Gospel in the first century.

…provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

Colossians 1:23 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Or, perhaps the passage where Paul uses Jesus words:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith….

Romans 16:25-26 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

That word for Gentiles is “ethne,” exactly the same word in the Great Commission.

So, in order for the Great Commission to remain incomplete, we have to make some theological decisions:

  1. Jesus’ command was not for the ministry of his immediate disciples, but was for the entire church at all times
  2. Jesus’ command was not to expand the mission to include the Gentiles of the known world, but was to bring the Gospel to every people group on planet Earth even if unknown at the time

Now, I’m not saying those are necessarily incorrect.  I am saying that to accept them uncritically is to ignore the actual point of view of the people who wrote the Bible in the first place – a point of view that can have a dramatic impact on what defines “all that Christ commands.”

For example, the Watsons point out that Jesus’ command that a man should only have one wife is often an obstacle to polygamous cultures.  What’s interesting is that Jesus issues no such command.  Jesus never ever commands that a man should only have one wife.

This is a theological implication drawn out of Jesus’ answer to a completely different question, “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason?”  Once again, I’m not saying this is necessarily a wrong implication.  In fact, if we look at first century Judaism, we find that polygamy was a practice largely of the existing power structure – something they inherited from the tradition of Israel’s powerful in the past (cf. David).  So, it’s probably a safe bet that Jesus, especially being in the Hillel school of Judaism, and his followers would have condemned the practice.

My point isn’t that this conclusion is wrong.  I doubt that it is.  Nor is my point that the Great Commission is over and done with.  My point is that there are no “clear commands of Jesus.”  We are separated from the commands of Jesus by 2000 years.  They may have been crystal clear to the original audience, but they aren’t clear to us.  They arose in a culture, religion, and historical situation very different from our own, and to just ignore that is to create disciples of your interpretations, but not necessarily of Jesus.

As a final example, let’s take a “clear” command of Jesus:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Matthew 18 (NRSV)

This is a clear command of Jesus, yes?  There is nothing in the text that suggests he is being hyperbolic or allegorical.  In fact, it’s painfully (no pun intended) concrete.  This creates a certain tension for modern interpretation because we assume Jesus is talking about our daily, personal sins, and if that’s the case, and we actually were to obey this command, we’d probably be missing almost every appendage you can think of.

What gives us our insight into Jesus’ teaching is the cultural and historical situation of the text.  The “fire of the ages” and “Gehenna” are references to an actual, geographical location outside of Jerusalem where you burned stuff.  Old Testament prophecy predicted a military force coming in judgement against Israel that would fill the valley of Gehenna with corpses needing to be burned.  The phrase “enter life” is actually “enter the life.”  It doesn’t make sense that cutting off your hand will make you born without a hand.  It means that it is better to enter an upcoming life without a hand – the life of the age to come.

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Gehenna, 2006 (and, ironically, some dude’s cut off elbow)

Jesus is referring to an upcoming judgement on the power structure that oppresses the people of God in Jerusalem.  The upshot is that its better to lose a limb and survive the judgement and live in the new world after that than to fall in the judgement and perish with the oppressors of that age.

Now, is it wrong to read that passage and get a sense of the importance of avoiding sin?  No, but it is also wrong to read that passage and see a clear command to poke our eye out if we keep looking at stuff we shouldn’t be looking at, and since Jesus said making a disciple meant teaching them to obey all his commands, we need to get to pluckin’.

This is the kind of thing that is unlikely to emerge naturally from discussions among people who are new to the Bible.  What would you say to a people group who started cutting their hands off to follow Jesus?  That Jesus was just exaggerating?  How do you tell when Jesus is exaggerating or not?

So, I love this book and am generally on board.  I have no doubt that doing what the authors have been doing will produce a lot of churches in a short amount of time.  But Paul didn’t just leave his churches to figure everything out on their own, either, nor was he ok with all the results of that process.  In addition, our understanding gap between us and the world of the Bible is much larger than it was for those original believers, and that gap needs crossing.  How to do that without making a discipleship a heavily academic exercise, I’m not entirely sure.