Sunday Meditations: What is a Christian?

I got into an interesting discussion with some folks over whether or not anyone can make a blanket statement about “What Muslims Believe.”  I said I thought this would be extremely difficult if not impossible, especially considering the diversity that exists within my own religion (Christianity, in case you were wondering).  I doubt I could come up with solid statements about “What Christians Believe” that would describe all Christians.  I could tell you “What This Christian Believes” or “What I Wish All Christians Believed” or “What Did Most Christians Believe at a Given Point in History,” but I doubt that I could rattle off a list of Christian beliefs and expect that they would describe all Christians.

My point was that, ultimately, that it is harmful, misleading, and unjust to say things like, “Muslims believe all non-Muslim nations should be conquered” or “Muslims believe you should be killed for blasphemy,” because those statements do not cover all Muslims – perhaps in some cases even most Muslims.  You can’t use the most vocal or the most politically powerful Muslims as a gauge for what all Muslims believe any more than you could use the most vocal or politically powerful Christians as representatives of what all Christians believe.

This led us to an interesting discussion as to whether or not we could identify any sort of common core that would be definitive of Christianity.  In terms of what Christians actually believe, I’m not sure this can be done.  If you ask ten different Christians what the gospel is, you’ll get different answers.  If you ask ten different Christians what makes them a Christian, you’ll get different answers.

Some will say they are a Christian because they have confessed that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead.  Some will say they are Christians because they have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Some will say they are Christians because they have invited Jesus into their hearts.  Some will say it is because they have confessed that they are sinners and have asked God to forgive them.  Some will say it is because they belong to a certain church.  Some will say it is because they go to church at all.  Some will say it is because they are about Christ’s work in the world.  Some will say that all religions lead to God and Christianity just resonates with them.

One option is to stake out your territory and declare that everyone else is not a true Christian.  This is, in fact, historically the way Christians deal with diversity in their ranks.  There’s a scene in the movie “Fury” where Boyd “Bible” Swan asks the new recruit if he is saved.  The recruit replies that he has been baptized.  Boyd says, “That’s not what I asked you.”  To Boyd, you were simply not a Christian unless you were “saved,” which means praying the sinner’s prayer.  To the recruit, being baptized was what marked him as being saved (which is actually quite closer to the early church than Boyd’s view – not saying either are correct).

Personally, I don’t feel comfortable taking that option.  Nobody appointed me Grand Emperor of Christianity such that I get to declare who is a “real Christian” and who isn’t.  That doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion on true or false teaching, but it does mean that I need to understand the difference between my views and “what God says” – a distinction that seems to be rarely made in discussions.  I can think my view is correct and your view is incorrect without thinking that judgement is infallible.

Anyway, someone asked what my definition of a Christian would be.  I gave them the short answer.  What follows is a somewhat longer answer.

Usually, when people approach that question, they start with an individual.  What does this individual believe and, in some cases, what is this individual doing?  Do you believe the right things?  If so, you’re a Christian for the vast majority of the Protestant world, anyway.  Some might also expect to see certain actions consonant with that belief.

But I want to start with the story of God and His people in the world.

God wants to have a people in the world He created and, arguably, wants the world to be full of His people.  In the midst of the world when most worshiped created things rather than the Creator, God chose Abraham to be the father of His new creation in the midst of the old.  By being this faithful thing, he and his descendants would grow, prosper, bless the peoples around them, and ultimately lead the way for them to also follow the God who made the heavens and the earth and worship Him.

There were times when this went swimmingly and times it did not.  There were times God’s people were led astray and times when they jumped on the Astray Express without any assistance at all.  But through the cycle of ups and downs, God demonstrated that He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham, and despite all expectations, God would continue to save His faithful.

Like any other community, there were those in Israel who did not share Abraham’s faith nor his faithfulness.  Sometimes this was a small group.  Sometimes it seemed like almost everyone.  By the time we get to the Babylonian exile, Israel as a collective has generally become unfaithful and their leaders are power-hungry fleecing bastards.  The curses of the broken Sinai covenant kick in, and into exile they go.

It seems God’s promises to Abraham had been thwarted, ironically by God Himself.

But Persia conquers Babylon, and God stirs up the king to sent those Israelite exiles who want to go back to their land back to their land.  A fraction of Israelites want to go.  They go back to the land, restore the Torah as the Law of the land, and rebuild the Temple.  They reboot Israel.

It’s a good start, but it’s still not quite right.  They are still ruled by pagan Gentiles, and their ongoing history with the Greeks/Selucids will prove tragic under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes.  And then we get to the Roman Empire.

By this point, Project Abraham is still in dire straits.  Pagan Rome rules the people of God and proclaims their emperor as the deific Son of God who is the only one who can save them.  Roman eagles fly over the Temple that is staffed by Roman appointees – some of whom are not even Jewish.  Roman taxes have ground the vast majority of Israel into inescapable poverty that has taken all their land, and they live and labor on property that is no longer their own.  What few Israelites are well off are those who have ingratiated themselves with the power structure and become powerful themselves, and they have every interest in keeping things this way.

Into this dark night, just as He had in the past, God sends a special boy to Israel – a sign of His coming to save them.  This boy will go about the flotsam and jetsam that Israel has become and rekindle their faith in their God.  He will lead them into turning away from their sins and embracing their original mission of justice and compassion.  He will physically heal them as a sign that they are forgiven.  He will cast out the spirits that dominate them as a sign that their oppressors will fall.  He will reboot faithful Israel knowing full well that he will incur the wrath of the powers that be by doing so – restarting faithful Israel as a rival kingdom challenges both Rome and the unfaithful Israelite power structure.  And these forces will conspire and execute him as an insurrectionist.

What has become of God’s plan to save?

But, lo, the faithful sacrifice of Jesus moves God to be reconciled with His people rather than punish them.  He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and his message of a renewed Israel, who receives the promised Holy Spirit.  And as for Jesus – he receives all authority on heaven and on earth and sits at God’s right hand, victorious over those who killed him.

God will then move to destroy the unfaithful Israelite power structure using another nation.  And through the faithful testimony of renewed Israel, the Gentiles believe and also receive the promises (and mission) of Abraham, including the Holy Spirit.  Eventually, Rome herself – that terrible beast – will bow the knee to the Lord Jesus and those who persecuted his followers will be exiled, imprisoned, or put to the sword.

How do I define a Christian?  I define a Christian as someone who believes that God has done this through Jesus Christ and, as a result, has self-consciously joined the community of the faithful to bear witness to God’s new creation in the world.  This involves both belief and action and, fundamentally, trust – the trust that God will make good on His promises to Abraham even through the ups and downs of history.

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Loving Darkness: John 3:17-21

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:17-21 (NRSV)

Not that I don’t love Matthew, you understand, but I thought the end of the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to have a brief intermission before moving into Jesus’ riotous healing ministry, and this passage also hits on some themes that will be important in Jesus’ healing ministry.

Today’s passage is part of a conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.  He sneaks over to Jesus’ place by night so nobody will see him consorting with Jesus, and they have a conversation about Jesus’ teachings, impressed as Nicodemus is by the signs that accompany Jesus.

Their conversation centers around Jesus’ mission of renewing (rebirthing, in John’s passage) Israel through the Spirit so that they might enter the kingdom of Heaven.  This whole conversation is made very unclear in English in a number of important places, such that some fairly significant misunderstandings have become entrenched in our traditions.

One of these important pieces is that Jesus is speaking about Israel corporately.  In English, “you” meaning one person and “you” meaning a group of people are the same word.  We do not have a second-person plural.  Our southern USA brothers and sisters have filled this linguistic gap with the word “y’all” while our more northern folk bridge it with “you guys.”

In the Greek, it is clear that when Jesus says “you” in this conversation, it’s plural.  You guys must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.  This is invisible in English.

It’s an important point, though, because we have to understand that Jesus is talking about a corporate rebirth and a corporate entry into the kingdom of God.  This is something the prophets spoke of, including Ezekiel’s dramatic vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37.  After Ezekiel sees God breathe new life into a valley full of skeletons, God explains:

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:11-14 (NRSV)

This explains Jesus’ bemused comment to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10)

So, this sets the stage.  Israel needs the Spirit to restore her to life and be the kingdom of God.  Jesus is point man on this operation.  He will have help, but ultimately, he is the one who is going to bring this mission to a conclusion – one that those who trust him believe will be successful.

But what will make the difference between those who are born of the Spirit and enter the kingdom and those who do not?  Well, here, Jesus tells us that it begins with believing Jesus that this is what he is going to do and trusting that he will successfully do it.  People who do not believe that are already outside the kingdom and will fall in the imminent judgement.

This is basically the main point of Jesus’ comments in today’s passage, but Jesus also makes it personal for Nicodemus’ benefit.  Did you see it?

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

At what time of day is this conversation taking place?  Night, of course.  And why is it taking place at night?  Because Nicodemus is afraid someone will see what he is doing.

Clever, no?

The use of dark and light and night and day is a unique feature of John’s gospel.  The ignorant and evil things happen at night, while the wise and good things happen in the light of day.  One notable example is when John has Mary and Peter (and an unnamed disciple) visit Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark,” and they do not understand that Jesus has risen.  The other gospels place this visit in the morning.  There are many other occasions like this, not the least of which is John 1.

But in this conversation, light and dark are more than just symbols or rhetorical devices.  Nicodemus has literally stayed in the darkness and avoided the light because he does not want anyone to see his deeds.  By contrast, Jesus’ disciples and faithful followers who actually trust that he will save them are with him in broad daylight.  Everyone can see their deeds.  And thus, Jesus draws a helpful line for Nicodemus: you have already signed up to be condemned in the judgement, because you are hiding.  You do not truly believe, and this is what is necessary to be saved.

The story does not end here, however.  When Jesus is crucified, two men come forward to claim Jesus’ body.  One is Joseph of Arimathea, whom John describes as a disciple who was in secret because he was afraid of the Jews.  The other is Nicodemus “who came to Jesus by night” John says, just to make sure you know it’s the same one.  These men come out into the light and claim Jesus for their own.  Perhaps we might wish they had been more courageous earlier, but let us not forget that Israel’s Messiah is dead.  To all observers, it looks like he has failed in the mission that he laid out for Nicodemus.  Rome and the power structure in Jerusalem had judged and killed him, not the other way around.

And it is in that very moment when Jesus’ victory seems so ludicrously unlikely that Nicodemus stands before Pilate before Rome and the rest of the world and anoints Jesus’ body as a king.  Maybe he didn’t have it all figured out.  Maybe, like Jesus’ own disciples, he didn’t understand that Jesus would rise from the dead.  But in that moment, Nicodemus didn’t care who knew that he was allied with Jesus.  We don’t know for sure what happened to Nicodemus after that, but I like to think that he spent the next several years talking with the frightened lost of Israel saying, “Unless we are born of the Spirit as well as the flesh, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us, but to save us.”

Consider This

  1. Have you ever thought about your membership in the kingdom and your relationship with God as part of a larger, corporate work God is doing?  Does the biblical story emphasize a highly individual spirituality or God’s work with a whole people?  What implications does this have for the focus of our spiritual lives?
  2. We sometimes use terms like “evil” and “darkness” to refer to blatant sins, but in this passage, Jesus is referring to someone hiding because they are afraid of what will happen to them if people find out they are associated with Jesus.  What does that association look like in a modern nation where spirituality is often a private matter?  What does fear of discovery look like?  Is our fidelity and outward display of our allegiance just as important as our ethical purity?

Authority: Matthew 7:28-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

Matthew 7:28-29 (NRSV)

Scribes have been around in many forms and fashions in ancient history.  As a formal profession of Torah-scribes, we can probably look to the practices of Ezra who, on wanting to rebuild Israel out of the returned exiles from Babylon, started an assembly of scholars and teachers to teach the Law, disseminate it, and interpret it.  In rabbinical tradition, this was the forerunner of the Sanhedrin.

A scribe’s job could be compared in some ways to a modern-day lawyer with some historian thrown in.  Scribes translated the writings of Torah and copied them.  They learned the Law and the various comments on the Law and related works.  They researched, wrote, and taught.  They explained the Law and served as resources on Law-knowledge in all kinds of activities, including trials.

In Ezra’s day, the scribes served an important function by providing instruction in the Law to the fledgling “new Israel” of returned exiles.  They helped each family learn what the Law required and helped them interpret it.  Perhaps one of the most interesting episodes with these early scribes comes in Nehemiah 8, when the people are weeping because of their neglect of the Law, and the scribes turn that situation around, declaring that the day they heard the Law is a day of joy – that now they know what God requires and have a chance to do better!  It is in the context of this event that we get the famous verse, Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

So, far from being the scribes we will come to know in the Gospels, these scribes wanted to encourage Israel in her faithfulness.  They used the Law to rebuild, restore, and revitalize those who had been in exile and so far off from the faith and ways of Israel.  When people felt convicted of their shortcomings, it was a scribe who would put his arm around them and say, “Do not weep, for today is holy to the Lord.  The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

But the best laid plans of mice and men.

Over time, Israel’s leadership becomes frequented by people who are looking out for their own survival and prosperity.  They become fat off the oppression of their own people.  Their ranks become heavily compromised in their hearts and, in some cases, directly by Romans themselves.

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, scribes are more like our social caricatures of lawyers.  The scribes of Jesus’ day were pedantic money-grubbers who found loopholes for their friends and nooses for their enemies.  Some scribes would make arguments, not only from the wording of a law, but from the very letters used in a word.  They had gone from comforters to accusers.  They could find a dozen ways to kill you with their reams of legal knowledge – not just the Torah itself, but a veritable minefield of traditions they helped to craft around the Law to keep people from breaking it.

It is a sad, sad thing that these people who once helped comfort and compassionately restore Israel to faithfulness are now primary enemies against Jesus who is trying to do just that.  The scribes, by contrast, will take your house, take your money, strip you of your rank, and get you ostracized from the Temple, all through their complex legal wizardry and vaunted traditions.  They are the Satan to God’s people – standing as their accusers night and day for their own benefit.

But the scribes have a particular weakness.  They know the Law.  They know what rabbis have taught about the Law.  They know what traditions have sprung up around they Law.  They know every word choice, every legal precedent, every penalty, every jot, every tittle.  What they cannot do is speak for God.  They can only replicate and regurgitate; they cannot produce.

This is a key thing that separates the role of a scribe from the role of a prophet.  A scribe knows comprehensively the words that God has spoken; a prophet speaks them.

This is probably part of the crowd’s reaction when they hear Jesus teach.  This is not a man who defines faithfulness through complex layers of tradition or the nuances of spelling.  This is a man who delivers the very words of God.  This is a man who is not afraid to correct tradition, to speak forth his own teachings, to tell the lost of Israel then and there what they must do to be saved and what is about to befall Israel.

A scribe cannot do these things.  A scribe could tell you that adultery was a violation of the Law, but divorce was allowed for any reason, but it takes a prophet to tell you that coveting a woman is the same as adultery and that divorce was allowed only because of the hardness of the hearts of Israel, and it is not meant to be summoned up at a whim.

A scribe can tell you that you are legally entitled to a certain level of retribution if someone harms you, but it takes a prophet to call the people to a different standard so that they might enter the age to come.

When these people look at Jesus, and they look at their own authorities, it becomes clear to them which one of these parties is speaking for God and, perhaps just as deeply, who is on their side.  Jesus is not some freewheeling antinomian Jewish anarchist where everything goes.  He is not, as he is sometimes cast, doing away with the “legalistic” Jewish religion in favor of a lawless “relationship.”  He brings many commands to Israel, but look at what he is doing – saving, restoring, rebuilding, healing, and comforting Israel.  His commands are designed to dust off these poor, downtrodden people and help them be the shining lights they were always meant to be, not condemn them and grind them into the dust.  His yoke is easy.

And he will turn like a tiger on any leader who stands to use God’s laws as a tool to break His people down.  That is what Satan does, and Jesus will destroy all the works of the devil.

Consider This

  1. As we invite people to participate in the ongoing story of the people of God, what role does law play in that?  How do we use it?  What role, if any, is it meant to serve in the present life of the people of God?  How do we deal with people who have fallen short?
  2. Is there a difference between having comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and being able to speak for God?

A Tale of Two Houses: Matthew 7:24-27

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Matthew 7:24-27 (NRSV)

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a story – a story that draws together the warnings of the past few passages.  The people who listen to Jesus and do what he says will survive the coming destruction; the people who do not listen (or only listen, but do not do) will be destroyed.

For various reasons, this illustration may take our minds back to the Flood story.  This is entirely appropriate.  Noah is told by God about the coming judgement, Noah believes God’s words and obeys his instructions and, as a result, he is saved.  Everyone else does not believe and just keeps living their lives as normal, and they are destroyed.  In fact, in Matthew 24, Jesus will explicitly compare the impending destruction of Jerusalem with the days of Noah.

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Matthew 24:37-39 (NRSV)

The potential problem here has more to do with the history of modern interpretation than the Bible.  The allusion to Noah often propels well-meaning interpreters to assume Jesus is talking about the physical destruction of the world, but this overlooks the point of the Noah story as well as how Jesus uses it.  The story of Noah was included in the Hebrew scriptures not to satisfy our cosmological curiosity about ancient world history, but to establish Israel’s identity.  Noah is a story about the salvation and deliverance of Israel-in-Noah specifically because of trust and obedience.  The important detail to Jesus is not the scope of the Flood, but rather that most people were just conducting life as usual and were destroyed, but the ones who believed and obeyed God were brought safely through the ordeal into a new world.

We have already looked at Ezekiel 13 as a point of reference for Jesus’ teaching on false prophets.  Not only is the warning about false prophets in common, but the imagery is as well.

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord God. Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord God: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 13:9-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

This is a warning about Babylon’s imminent destruction of Jerusalem.  Jesus has taken up this prophetic torch, warning the faithful – those who would believe his words and follow them – of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the false prophets who would ultimately destroy the people if followed.

There is, of course, a long tradition of prophetic and apocalyptic imagery that describes the destruction of invading armies as a flood.

For instance, also from Ezekiel, a prophecy about the destruction of Tyre:

See, I am against you, O Tyre!
I will hurl many nations against you,
as the sea hurls its waves.
They shall destroy the walls of Tyre
and break down its towers.
will scrape its soil from it
and make it a bare rock.
It shall become, in the midst of the sea,
a place for spreading nets.

For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of long ago, and I will make you live in the world below, among primeval ruins, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living.

Ezekiel 26:3-5, 19-20 (NRSV)

Ezekiel’s contemporary, Jeremiah, who has also been referenced in the Sermon, prophesying the destruction of the Philistines by Egypt:

See, waters are rising out of the north
and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who live in it.

Jeremiah 47:2 (NRSV)

Daniel in various chapters (and twice in chapter 11) during his overview of the various worldly powers rising against each other describes these battles as floods or storms.

This tradition is all very relevant to how Jesus’ hearers would hear him, and how we should hear him as well.  It is not merely a parable where foundations and storms made for a clever story, but it is rather a restatement of prophetic messaging for his own time.  The people listening to him are about to experience the very thing that faithful Israel had experienced in times before this, and Jesus issues the same clarion call – listen to the words of God as they come through His prophet, believe them, and obey them.  Whoever does this will survive the ordeal; whoever does not will be destroyed in it.

Obviously, the warning is clear, but we should not overlook the message of hope that sounded so clearly at the beginning of the Sermon.  For those who do listen and do believe and do obey, God has demonstrated that He is faithful to save and deliver, and just like previous iterations of Israel’s history, a new age waits for those brought safely through.

Consider This

  1. What are the warning signs present today of potential disasters waiting for the Church in the world?  What does faithfulness look like in the face of these potential disasters?
  2. The Bible provides us many stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness.  Are there episodes from the history of the Church that are not in the Bible that still demonstrate this?

I Never Knew You: Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, these themes should be old hat to the listeners and certainly to readers of Matthew.

The kingdom of God is something that was established in Israel and dispersed in exile due to infidelity.  Jesus is here to reclaim the lost of Israel and rescue them from what their sins have brought about.  This kingdom is what God will bring safely through opposition and into an age of peace (shabbat – rest) by not only renewing the people but by displacing their oppressors.  This event is imminent.

When this event comes, the people of the region will be in one of two groups.  One group is a very large group consisting of people who just went about life as normal.  They did not listen to Jesus or obey his instructions.  The other group is a very small group who believed Jesus who repented, returned to faithfulness, and trusted God for deliverance.  They did what Jesus asked.  The first group is destined to fall in the judgement against Israel’s oppressors; the second group will be brought through that traumatic time safely.  Obviously, you want to be in the second group.

As has come up many times in the Sermon, Jesus points out that many in the first group outwardly appear to belong to the second group.  They say the right things.  They exercise authority in the name of the Lord.  The one thing they don’t do, however, is pursue faithful obedience.

There are two sides to this coin.  On the one side is a point that has been made many times during the Sermon – that the pursuit of the faithfulness Israel was always supposed to have is a hallmark of belonging to Israel’s restoration in Jesus.  At this point in history, God’s people are plagued with authorities who do not practice justice, mercy, and peace, but at the same time claim an outward form of holiness due to their keeping of traditions and the Law in its religious specifications.  They strain out gnats but swallow camels.  They won’t eat pork, but they will charge a fee for making the sacrifices at the Temple the Law requires.  They will not associate with an Israelite struggling in their sin to assist them, but they will buddy buddy with any Roman in power.

The other side of the coin is that there is a very direct relationship between believing Jesus, following his instructions, and surviving the upcoming days of trouble.  Jesus does not just lay out a moral program for his followers; he tells them what needs to happen to make it through the dark days ahead, sometimes in general principle, other times in weirdly specific terms.

“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”

Matthew 24:15-18 (NRSV)

If you believe Jesus and do what he says, you’ll survive.  If you don’t believe Jesus and hang out in Judea no matter what is happening with Jerusalem or the Temple, then you’ll be destroyed.

This is an important interpretive piece of Jesus’ teaching that is easy to overlook in our modern day.  For Jesus followers to believe and obey him is not merely following a moral way of life that God will reward, although that is certainly an important part of it.  It is also quite literally the difference between life and death.  Jesus is telling his listeners how to make it through the coming days.  Those who have faith will obey him and live; those who scoff or ignore will not obey him and be destroyed.

And when that day comes, what will that first group of people possibly say that will save them?  What works could they possibly dredge up that will save them on that day?  Nothing, because ultimately they did not obey Jesus’ commands, which means they did not believe.

The dangerous, self-deceiving piece of all this is that Jesus’ hypothetical people in the Sermon profess that he, Jesus, is Lord.  They point to rather outstanding spiritual events such as casting out demons and prophesying in his name.

But Jesus knows Israel’s history is littered with people like this – false prophets and miracle workers who declare allegiance to the Lord with their mouths and lead His people to destruction.  He has literally just talked about this.  The iron core of kingdom membership is not what you claim or what amazing spiritual works you can perform, but something much humbler – believing Jesus, believing what God is doing in Jesus, trusting God, and obeying faithfully out of that trust.

The person who believes Jesus and what God is doing in Jesus will do as Jesus says, knowing that Jesus proclaims nothing of his own, but only the will of his Father.  This is the spiritual engine that drives the faithful.  This trust in God and His deliverance that leads to listening to and obeying God’s will has been the core of faithful Israel since the beginning.  While the particular applications of this core may look different from age to age depending on what’s going on with the people of God at the time and what God is doing, the core has always been that, from Genesis 1.  If you would be the kingdom of God, believe Him, trust Him, and do His will.

Given the radical universality of this factor, it behooves us to think about this, not just in our individual lives, but collectively as the people of God.  We are not free from people who profess Jesus as Lord and perform ostensibly impressive spiritual deeds or religious acts.  But do they trust God and do His will?  Do they believe what God has done in Jesus?  Does this translate into humble, faithful obedience?

If they do not, then we have every reason to believe such people will not lead us through our own times of crisis as the people of God, but rather will shipwreck us on the rocks of history.  They, too, will prophesy peace and safety when there is none, and they will prophesy calamity and disaster when there is none.  They will direct our attention to papercuts when a sword hangs over our head.  They, too, will claim followers for themselves that will build up their image, ego, and rewards.  Those people have always been numbered with the unfaithful – regardless of what they claim.

God does raise up people to carry the faithful safely through times of calamity.  Make sure you’re looking for the right things.

Consider This

  1. What are the crises that face the people of God in the world, today?  How have different voices responded to those crises?  What have the sources of those voices been like in terms of humble obedience to the Lord?
  2. How do you define faithfulness to God?  Where did you get that definition?  How would you apply it to yourself and others?

Sunday Meditations: The Bible as Finished Product

There are a few things about the Bible as we know it that I think complicate our ability to interpret it, and perhaps the greatest of these is that the Bible is a finished product.

Most of us come to a Bible that has already been compiled, redacted, and canonized.  We have been completely shielded from the historical processes that brought us this book back when even the writings themselves were very much in flux.  Because of this, it gives the illusion that the Bible is a single, unified, continuous work where all of its parts are meant to be interpreted by the whole, just as we would most other books.

Furthermore, we come to the Bible as though it is a single, continuous book written for today’s world.  It is supposed to answer our questions and our concerns and tell us how to live, today.

Finally, our Bible is divided into chapters and verses, which not only contributes to the illusion that we are looking at one book, but has the effect of isolating pieces of the writings into “nuggets” that are abstracted from their context and applied to anything that might remotely sound like the “nugget” in the abstract.  This is the process by which a verse to Israel telling them that God will not let them languish in the Babylonian exile becomes a verse by which a college graduate can be confident they’ll have a nice life. (Jer. 29:11)

I can already hear the objections coming about divine inspiration and God’s plans for the Bible.  But before we get to the theological objections, let’s take a look at how the Bible was produced.

No one ever sat down to write a book of the Bible.  The Bible as we know it did not exist at the time any of the writings in the Bible were written – which is important to keep in mind when we find phrases like “the Word of God” or even “the Scriptures” in the Bible.  No verse in the Bible has as its referent the Bible that we have, today.  Even the infamous 2 Timothy 3:16 was written before any kind of New Testament canon was even prototypically established.  And if, like most conservatives, you believe Paul wrote it – that would put a late date of 65 A.D. on it, well before several other New Testament writings.

Anything that ended up as a book of the Bible was something written by someone (or someones) in a particular historical era that was intended to be relevant to those people.  It addressed their situation, their questions, and their concerns using their language, their symbols, and their idioms.  Even the strongest theological doctrine of inspiration can’t overlook the fact that what got into these people’s brains and onto the papyrus was language comprehensible to them about things relevant to them.

To further complicate matters, it is a virtual guarantee that the books as we know them today (and as Israel in the first century would have known them) went through a process of compilation, editing, and redaction.

Over time, some writings, either due to the source or the content or both, became authoritative writings for the communities that received them.  They were used, repeated, and referenced.  It is by this process of community use and recognition that a canon was formed.  This is the case for both Testaments, although obviously the Old Testament canon came first.

So, the Bible is actually closer to an anthology than a single book.  It’s a collection of historical writings of various genres that have been selected according to the theme of telling the story of the people of YHWH in the world through her eyes, and all of those writings had an origin and lifespan outside of the Bible – they were selected for inclusion at a later date.

Now, these writings aren’t only meant to be descriptive.  They are meant to be formative and definitive.  But when we are interpreting these writings, it is vital to understand them on their own terms in their own world before we think about them with respect to ours.  That’s not to say these writings have nothing to say to us – quite the contrary.  But what do they have to say to us?  Sadly, our answer has generally been “whatever it makes us think of.”  The remedy to this is to recover why a biblical writing existed in the first place.  God gave it to those people at that time to help them.  And in uncovering their story, we can begin to make wise decisions about how their story can (and can’t) help us form ours.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Matthew 7:15-20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

Matthew 7:15-20 (NRSV)

Continuing in the portion of the Sermon that focuses in on the coming judgement, Jesus brings up the issue of false prophets.

We might immediately think of the Torah’s laws about prophets, such as not needing to fear a prophet whose prophecies do not come to pass, or even executing a prophet who claims to speak in the name of the Lord only to lead people away from the Lord.

It is that latter sort of bad prophet that Jesus seems to have in view, and there are great examples that come from Israel’s history that are directly pertinent to Jesus’ sermon.

Jeremiah 21 has already been alluded to in the Sermon, and in chapter 27, Jeremiah is warned by God about the prophets in Israel telling the people that they will not be subject to Babylon.  God warns that the might of Babylon will indeed fall on Jerusalem, and if these people listen to the false prophets speaking of peaceful times, they will surely be destroyed.  This culminates in a showdown between Hananiah – a false prophet who predicts that Babylon will fold in two years – and Jeremiah, who points out that all the prophecies before them point to war and famine for Israel.  Spoiler alert: Hananiah is wrong.  Also, he dies.

Jeremiah has a contemporary, Ezekiel, who dramatically enacts the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon with miniatures.  Beginning in Ezekiel 12, God castigates the false prophets who tell Israel that judgement is far off and the horrible things seen by the previous prophets will not come to pass.  They tell Israel everything will be fine.  God responds that the truth is that Jerusalem is about to become a wasteland, and these prophets are leading the people right into the mouth of the destruction.  This goes on for a few chapters.  My favorite part is the end of chapter 12, where God points out that the false prophets say that the judgement prophecies are for the distant future and not for their immediate historical context.  Yes, indeed.  Where’s Ezekiel when you need him, am I right?  Left Behind series, I’m looking in your direction.

Both of these men are prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and both of them are surrounded by false prophets who tell Israel that there’s nothing to worry about, life will go on as usual, and all of those terrible prophecies are really about a Great Tribulation a few thousand years in the future.

It is this tradition that Jesus is summoning up for his audience.  He, too, is prophesying the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but Israel is surrounded by leaders who tell her this is not the case.  They make themselves comfortable.  They like things the way they are, and nobody and noTHING is going to shake their world.  And like the true prophets of YHWH before him, Jesus will be persecuted by Israel herself who does not want to hear the message.

But Jesus takes the veil from our eyes.  These soft men preaching peace and safety are, in reality, rapacious wolves full of hunger and violence.  Their lives do not bear the fruits of repentance, as John the Baptist demanded, but they bear the fruits of fleecing the herd.  You can see them in their paneled houses, drinking rich wines, skimming off changed money, lounging on the Temple’s golden furnishings, securing lands and titles – all the while Israel groans in her poverty and oppression.

These wolves are fearless.  They believe nothing will happen to them.  If God disapproves, why isn’t He doing anything about it?  They have made friends with the occupying force.  All is as it should be.  Nothing is going to happen.  This is the way life will be for Israel, and you can run with the wolves or get eaten with the sheep.

But Jesus’ message is that this situation is about to be radically reversed.  The sheep are to be collected and protected by their shepherd.  The wolves, on the other hand, are about to be dragged out of the pasture and killed.  The judgement image in verse 19 is unmistakable – these men will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This puts the teeth on Jesus’ warnings and ethical instructions all through the Sermon.  It’s what he’s been saying a dozen different ways.  If you join the wolves, those false prophets bearing the fruits of this world, you will be destroyed with them.  If you join the sheep, those humble, meek, and poor who are seeking after being faithful, you will live and be rewarded with them.  The wolves will tell you none of this will happen, but Jesus and his hearers know what has happened to such false prophets and Jerusalem in the past.

Consider This

  1. What do false prophets of this sort look like in our world?  Is it those who preach wealth and prosperity?  Is it those who say Christianity is still in fine shape in the postmodern world?  Is it those who deny climate change?  What messages are coming to the people of God that obscure upcoming troubles, and who is sending them?
  2. How can we know how God wants us to respond to contemporary challenges to the welfare of the Church?

The Narrow Gate: Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14 (NRSV)

We are now on a trajectory in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus starts bringing in more directly the idea of the coming judgement.  Here, we have people being destroyed who take the broad and easy path.  In the next section, it’s false prophets.  In the next, it’s people who outwardly profess allegiance to Jesus but who are actually disobedient.  In the next, it’s people who hear Jesus’ words but do nothing about them.  And on that happy note, the Sermon on the Mount ends.

It’s pretty clear Jesus hasn’t read any good books on preaching or taken a homiletics class in seminary, because everyone knows you’re supposed to end on something upbeat and encouraging.  Also, he does not have clearly signposted points, and very rarely does anything start with the same letter.  There’s an incredible lack of funny stories.  Who taught this guy how to write a sermon, anyway?

Ahem, getting back to the narrow gate.

Throughout the Sermon, Jesus has urged his listeners to strive to belong to the humble, faithful group who will come through the judgement and be rewarded by God with a reversal of their fortunes.  This is in contrast to Israel’s oppressors, some of whom might appear religious but in actuality are fully allied with the present evil age.  This is the group who will be brought low by God, and the prosperity they have enjoyed via their hypocrisy will be small comfort on that day.

Here, Jesus illustrates this with two gates.  One gate lay at the end of a hard road.  It is narrow and admits few.  It is a struggle to use this gate.  The other gate is wide and the road is easy.  It admits many, and many take advantage of the ease of this route.  The problem is that the hard road you walk that brings you to the narrow gate admits you into life, whereas the easy road that ushers you through the broad gate admits you into destruction.

This may be an allusion to Jeremiah 21.  In that passage, judgement is going to come upon Jerusalem via the invasion by Babylon.  God, through the prophet Jeremiah, assures the hearers that Nebuchadnezzar’s victory is certain, and when the Babylonians show up, they will kill everyone in Jerusalem.  Thus, God puts two paths before them:

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.

Jeremiah 21:8-10 (NRSV)

I find it highly likely that Jesus, as God’s prophet to Israel, uses the same motif for the same warning.  Matthew loves doing this with the Old Testament.  Luke, in chapter 13, will tie this saying of Jesus directly to the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but he omits the “two paths” motif that Matthew includes.

Jesus’ use of Jeremiah’s imagery is obviously very appropriate when dealing with another army who is coming to destroy Jerusalem and kill everyone in it.  In this age, Jesus will urge his followers to flee the city and not surrender to the occupying force, but the net effect is the same.  Destruction is coming to Jerusalem, and God sets before them the two paths – one that leads to life, one that leads to destruction.

It is those who will listen to Jesus’ words and follow his instructions who will find that they will live through these days and emerge on the other side of this great tribulation.  They will find themselves in a new age where there is no Temple and no Jerusalem hegemony.  There will be no Sanhedrin prosecuting Israelite sharecroppers for Torah violations.  There will be no Sadducees lounging in their manors fashioned after Herod’s.  There will be no Pharisees and scribes condemning their fellow Israelites and boasting of their righteousness and claims to God’s favor.  There will be no tax collectors.  There will be no money changers.  There will be no collaborators with the Empire in Jewish clothing.  All this will be swept away like a flood.

And all it takes to be swept away in that destruction is: nothing.  All you have to do is make a comfortable life for yourself.  You don’t have to be evil.  You don’t have to kick homeless people.  All you have to do is ignore Jesus’ call to repentance and faithfulness in the face of a coming judgement.  All you have to do is eat and drink and live your life and chill on your couch.  And the Romans will come for you.  The road to destruction is easy and the gate is broad, and many are those who will pass through it.

By contrast, Jesus calls the faithful to repent and renew the relationship to God Israel lost a long time ago.  Jesus warns them of a coming judgement, but he also promises life in a new age.  And for those who hear his message and follow, he does not turn anyone away.  The sick are healed.  The poor are fed.  The sinners are forgiven.  The outcasts are welcomed and loved.  Whosoever will come is welcome, and they carry with them in their hearts the very seeds that will blossom into the new world waiting for them in a post-Temple world.  It all sounds nice, but it involves discomfort.  It involves selling your possessions to take care of the poor.  It involves leaving behind the intoxicating, sinful ways of life that Israel has fallen into.  It involves getting back up and being a new creation.  It involves being ready to leave when Jesus tells you.  It involves giving up the rewards the world offers to accept poverty and humility.  This gate is narrow.  The road is hard.  Few will choose it.

This immediate, in-their-face dichotomy influences everything Jesus has to say.  This is not to say that everything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth directly relates to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, but that eschatological event is like the banks between which a river flows.  Jesus’ sense of urgency, his warnings about destruction, his claims that he is the only way his hearers will be saved, his weeping over Jerusalem, his urgent pleas for people to listen to him and believe him – all these things are said knowing that a dark, devouring day is slowly creeping up onto the world stage of history.  And if you can put yourself, even for a fraction of time, into the heads of that Judean villager sitting on the mountainside listening to this sermon – with all of your (then) present-day concerns and the world as it was all around you…

Or better yet, if you could see through Jesus’ eyes, and you see before you great crowds.  People of a nation that was once called Holy to YHWH.  A nation of kings and priests now eking out an existence as sharecroppers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and fishermen under a Gentile reign that flies its Eagle over the Star of David.  You see these – the lost sheep of Israel that God wants so dearly to reclaim – and you know what is coming for them – the darkness and the fires and the blades and the blood that are about to swallow them up.  Perhaps you can feel your heart start to break, and the urgency rise up in your chest, and the determination that you will win these people back and save them.  No.  Matter.  What.

As God will reveal in the unfolding of time, this is the heart He has for all of the old creation.

You are a part of this story, now.

Consider This

  1. Although Jesus had something specific in mind with his illustration of the broad and narrow gates, are there other events in the life of the people of God this could be used to describe?  Are there crossroads in the life of the contemporary church where this idea might also be descriptive?  Can it describe the progress of new creation and, if so, how?
  2. What does it mean to be “lost?”

Golden Rule: Matthew 7:12

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)

There are some who have suggested the Sermon on the Mount might follow a sort of chiastic structure where the sermon lists some main points, comes to a crux, then backs out to the end discussing those same points in a slightly different format.  I don’t know that we can make the Sermon work out exactly like that without using some very vague categories, but what we can say is that we see similar issues brought up in different ways with different thoughts or different applications.

This sentiment could generally capture a lot of the ethical instruction in the Sermon, but it probably has its strongest corollary to Matthew 5:38-48:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)

While certainly the principle applies to all the other ethics taught in the Sermon, it’s here that the principle is put to the test – the principle of retaliation (which is also in the Law) and treatment of enemies.

It is in these areas where the listener is asked beyond what the specific wording of a case law implies and examine the heart or intent of the Law.  The Law may permit divorce, but the intent is not to create a culture of casual “marriages” for your personal gratification.  The Law may require just compensation for injury, but the intent is not to create a culture of vengeance where you take wrongdoing out of someone’s hide.

By doing this, Jesus sums up the intent of the case laws as he is wont to do in various places.

It’s difficult to think of something to say about this that hasn’t been said already many times as we’ve gone through the Sermon.  Faithful Israel is under the thumb of an oppressor, and she’s about to be delivered and the oppressor is about to be judged.  How then should she behave?

Jesus, wisely, exhorts his listeners to follow the lines of the core of the Law, which is to deal in justice and compassion and mercy even when the other party is neither just nor compassionate nor merciful.  Behaving in this way is a testimony to your own desire to be the faithful people of God in the world and your trust that God will judge.  It’s a way of behavior that protects both you and the community until such time as God repays those who have treated you badly.  And who knows?  Perhaps by your behavior, they may be compelled to join your side.

There is an interesting, if subtle, unique contribution this saying brings into the mix.  Jesus doesn’t say, “In everything, do to others as the Law requires,” or even as he will suggest elsewhere, “Do to others as I have commanded you.”  Instead, he exhorts listeners to behave toward others the way they desire someone to behave toward them.

In other words, Jesus is asking them to create with their own behavior the world they want to live in.  Do you want compassion for your situation?  Be compassionate, even to those who are not.  Do you want forgiveness for your failings?  Forgive, even if others will not forgive you.  Do you want to be dealt with in peace?  Do you want to be treated both justly and mercifully?  Do you want someone to intervene in your time of need?  Be that.  Be that person.  Be those people.  Be that world.

Jesus says that this sentiment is the Law and the Prophets.  We could probably find particular case laws or declarations of prophets that would call that into question, but what cannot be called into question is that this is the core of the mission of the kingdom in the Old Testament brought into individual ethics: be a new creation.  Incarnate that creation.  Bring it into reality through your life and the life of your believing community, and trust that it is this creation that God will deliver, vindicate, reward, exalt, and finalize.

When we look at the spread of the church in the first century, we do not just see the spread of a message or an establishment of doctrine, we see faith communities being something.  They are being what Israel was created to be, and this is supposed to be a declaration, call, profession, defense, and invitation to the nations deeper than words.

Consider This

  1. What are the times in the Old Testament where Israel had been basically observing the Law in its details but had overlooked the heart of it?  What kinds of virtues and characteristics do the prophets tell us define that heart?  What does God really care about?
  2. What do you think God wants for your life above and beyond spreading a message and abstaining from evil?  What does he want churches to look like?

Sunday Meditations: Justification

It was fun to drop in on my old Sunday School class this morning with the extra bonus that one of my favorite teachers of said class was up in the rotation this week, and as always, he did a great job with some really good ways of putting things.

The class is going through the book of Galatians, or as I refer to it, the Reader’s Digest version of Romans.  Needless to say, the concept of justification comes up a lot.

Whenever we look at these kinds of categories in letters that an apostle may have written to a church, one of the things we have to work on is allowing our modern categories and theological debates define the terms.

For example, in modern evangelical Christianity, a term like “justification” is more or less synonymous with “salvation,” and the primary referent for that in modern evangelicalism is being saved from Hell after you die.  If these are your categories, then the main point of the book of Galatians is basically the message, “Good works can’t get you to heaven.”  Couple that with some excesses of the medieval Catholic church and the consequent Reformation, and this reading is all but assured in contemporary Protestantism.

With this understanding in tow, Galatians then becomes a contrast between Judaism – a “works based” religion, and Christianity – a “faith based” religion.  In this understanding, you have this group of people (typically called “Judaizers,” which sounds like a science-fiction movie involving techno-rabbis) teaching the Galatians that they had to do good works to earn their salvation, which, not coincidentally, is also what Roman Catholicism is proclaimed to teach.  Galatians becomes a polemic both against Jews and Roman Catholics.  You can see why this is popular with Protestants.  All you have to do is cast Islam as a “works based” religion, and you have the Trifecta.

Although there is truth to be had in such a discussion about faith, works, and God – none of this resembles the world of the Galatians.  Galatians is preoccupied with the issue of justification – are the faithful people of God justified by keeping the Torah (Law), or are they justified by faith in what God has done in Jesus?

Christian theologians of any stripe will more or less agree that the idea of justification is a juridical one.  You have an accuser, an accused, and a judge who presides over the trial.  At the outcome of that trial, the judge will either condemn or justify the accused.  The accused will either be found to have acted righteously (faithfully) or acted wrongly.  Rewards and punishments are doled out accordingly.

This is all very true, but where we sometimes make our mistake is applying this model in the abstract and divorcing this from the actual historical experience of God’s people in the world.

The theme of two parties being at odds where the faithful are revealed by the judge through a trial is a common one in Israel’s history.  Noah is justified against the rest of the world in the Flood.  Israel is justified against Egypt by her deliverance, culminating in the Red Sea where Israel passes through, but Egypt is destroyed.  Job is justified against his friends by God rewarding his faithfulness.  Moses is justified against Korah by the ground swallowing up the rebels.  Israel is justified against enemy nations by defeating them in battle despite being smaller in number.  Jesus is justified over the Roman Empire, the Temple authorities, and the Law-imposed curse by being raised from the dead.

In all of these stories and more, you have the dynamic playing out.  There is a struggle/trial, and through it, God the judge will reveal who the faithful are and who the unfaithful are.  This declaration/revelation is called “justification.”  The faithful are saved and exalted; the unfaithful are destroyed or humbled.  Being part of the faithful people of God in the world means being part of a people that God justifies, and the most common outcome of this justification is salvation – God delivers from the struggle and its consequences – and often glorification – the increase of fortunes.

So, the issue in Galatians is not “how can an individual get to heaven,” but “what does it mean to be faithful Israel?”  What defines faithfulness?  What is it that puts you on the right side of God’s judgement over and against everyone else?  What is it that makes you the people that will emerge from the trial safely, whom God will declare faithful and rewarded, and what puts you in the group that God will declare to be in the wrong – the people He does not support?  Whose side is God on, are you on it, and how do you know before it’s too late?

Of course, to a first century Jew, that answer is very obvious.  You are a descendant of Abraham or a proselyte and you keep the Torah, along with everything that entails (Temple, circumcision, diet, etc.).  The people who do this faithfully are the people that God saves and rewards.  This is the Israel that consistently emerges on the other side of Israel’s many trials.

In fairness, this is not a terrible characterization of most of what we see in the Old Testament.  A zeal for obedience to the Torah is strongly associated with faith and fidelity to YHWH.  Being a Jew is typically metonymy for law-keeping, and being a Gentile is typically metonymy for being lawless.

But by the time we arrive at the first century AD, something terrible has happened.  Israel is suffering under the curse of the Torah because of infidelity.  They are ruled in their own land by Gentiles, and these Gentiles are not making life easy.  Under this state of affairs, the Israelites that have risen to the top are those in collusion with the curse.  They are also zealous about the Law, at least in its more religious aspects (they are not so great about the heart of the Law that addresses things like justice and mercy).  They are circumcised.  They drink water through a strainer so as not to swallow an unclean insect.  They ostracize both the Gentiles and those of Israel who are sinners to preserve the cleanliness that Torah requires.

And it is these people who are slated to fall in the coming judgement.

So, you see the problem.  You see the confusion.  We find ourselves in the strange position where those who are most militant about keeping Torah are also the most likely to find themselves on the wrong end of the trial, while those who are traditionally defined as being outside of the faithful turn out to be the very people being saved.

Has the universe broken?  Has everyone been transported to some Bizarro-world where the Torah-keepers are condemned by God while sinners and Gentiles are saved?

As these Gentiles and sinners begin to show up in the synagogues, professing new faith in Israel’s God, you can imagine the theological and practical issues this forces on the community of the faithful.  What do you do with Dicaeopolis over there eating his ham sandwich?  What do you do with Apollos over here who has not been circumcised and does not have the sign of the covenant?

Paul takes a particular church struggling with these issues in the form of a different gospel – to be justified by God, you must keep Torah.  Paul has no patience for this teaching.  No, it is not Torah-keeping that justifies and never was.  Keeping the Torah did not bring the Holy Spirit to Israel or the Gentiles.  The Torah brought a curse, not a blessing.  Abraham was judged faithful before he was circumcised.  What made Abraham faithful was his faith.  He trusted God and, as a result, faithfully performed what God asked.  Torah-keeping was a symptom of being faithful Israel, not a cause.

So, to these Gentile believers who have seen the promise come to Israel via the offspring of Abraham, Paul tells them to have Abraham’s faith.  It is through that trust in God and what He has done in Jesus that they will receive the promise given to Israel’s patriarch, and the crazy thing is, this reception of the promise in the form of the Holy Spirit had already happened to them.  This is what results in a lot of hair-pulling for Paul.  If you didn’t obtain the promise through keeping Torah, why do you want to return to it now that you have the Spirit?  What good could that possibly do?  He meets this mindset with the same amazement most of us express when someone wins the lottery and declares that they’re going back to work in the morning.

And Paul, being a good Jew, labors to show that this is not an innovation.  Even though Jew and Gentile being made into one faithful people is a radically new introduction into Israel’s history, Paul endeavors to show that faith has always defined the justified people of God, even before the Law came into being, thus opening the door to Jew and Gentile.

I find that in Galatians, and especially in Romans, if we reduce those books to descriptions of personal salvation from Hell that cannot be obtained by doing good works, then a lot of Paul’s arguments, objections, and examples seem weird or irrelevant.  We find ourselves wondering why he keeps bringing up Israel, the patriarchs, the promises, election, the Spirit.  He asks questions in his letters that we don’t ask.  He assumes we will have those questions if we’re following what he’s saying.  But we don’t, so we don’t.

In fact, we may find ourselves shooting ourselves in the foot, going out of our way to assure believers that they don’t need to obey or do good works.  But here’s the kicker.  Ol’ righteous-by-faith Abraham obeys God implicitly.  This is, in fact, how you know he has faith and prompts some of James’ outbursts to a different congregation laboring under different delusions.

I said all that to say this: terms like justification, righteousness, salvation, sanctification, election, etc. may be related, but they are distinct terms with distinct meanings, and if our goal is to understand the biblical letters on their own terms, we are well-served to temporarily suspend our own theological categories and controversies and examine what these things meant in the context of the historical, lived out experience of the people of God.