Sunday Meditations: The John MacArthur Statement

I’m reluctant to write about this, mostly because I’m not sure that I can do a better job than what’s already being said about this.  Nevertheless, the Sunday meditations are about what I’ve been thinking on, lately, and this is it.

In case you are not aware, John MacArthur has become very distressed at the state of evangelicalism in the world, and I can certainly relate to that.  However, he is distressed that evangelicals are becoming too concerned with social justice.  I really wish I were kidding about that.

To combat the horrific trend of evangelicals being concerned about justice for all, MacArthur has done what is becoming the new trend in evangelical gatekeeping: he created a Statement of what he thinks and got a lot of people to sign it.

That’s it.  Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Everything about this from top to bottom is just ridiculous.  I don’t mean ridiculous in the generic sense, I mean it is literally ridiculous.  It looks like a joke, through and through.  If I were writing a satirical article about Christian America, this is the kind of thing I would write.  “Evangelical Leader Concerned with Christians Actually Improving Justice in World Stems Tide by Issuing Statement.”

On the one hand, it’s mystifying how someone could think, out of all the problems in the church and the world, that a growing concern for social justice is the big thing we need to head off at the pass right now.  On the other hand, it’s equally mystifying to think that the “solution” to this or any problem is to draft a statement (it’s not even a petition) and have people sign it.  It’s the perfect storm of the most ineffective means to combat a nonexistent problem.

It’s unclear to me exactly what got MacArthur up in arms about this issue.  It’s not like the sort of evangelicals who are like John MacArthur are filling up the ranks of Black Lives Matter or consumed with their lobbying efforts for equal pay for women.  I find it hard to believe that his church attendance has gone way down because his congregation was out counter-protesting in Charlottesville.

I cynically asked people this past week, “Where are all these evangelicals that MacArthur fears are too consumed with social justice?” and my friend Kirk reminded me that there is, in fact, a trend starting in this direction.  Considering that the church should actually be at the forefront of being a prophetic voice against the powers that be and calling for more justice, more peace, and more compassion, it’s good that there are more evangelicals who have decided to get around to this.  Maybe that’s part of what this animus against “social justice” is about.  The existence of Christians who are now zealous for increasing justice in the world is an indictment to Christians who aren’t.  And nobody likes to be criticized, especially when your status quo has made you very comfortable.

Maybe part of it, too, as Kirk pointed out to me, is that there is a fear of losing numbers.  This fear is very legitimate.  If your church seems set to prop up the existing power structure or at least leave it unchallenged, and the Spirit has moved in your heart to speak out for those who suffer injustice, then at some point you have to wonder about where you’re at.  I know the election of Trump was something of a watershed for many of us.  When this man embodies the hopes and dreams of what your church “stands for,” it really makes you wonder how much you’re on the same page.

I remember the day that the Reformed African American Network became The Witness for reasons that I’d sum up as, “We just can’t do this, anymore,” and it was a powerful statement to me.

It’s taking everything in me to avoid condemning this new Statement as a love letter to the Beast.  Its express purpose is to pull Christians out of social activism in the world and reorient our focus to the afterlife.  A spirituality like that serves the interests of the principalities and powers in this world.  It helps them out.  It keeps the engine running.  I don’t believe John MacArthur is intentionally in his own mind trying to keep the powerful in power and assure them that evangelicals won’t rock their boat, but this is functionally what that statement declares.

But, no, I don’t think MacArthur sees it this way.  I don’t think he intends it to be that way.  But that’s part of the problem, too.

You see, the gospel in America is largely about giving people a better afterlife.  This is the good news: that when you die, you’ll go to heaven instead of hell.  That’s what Jesus and the Bible are all about, in this way of thinking.  Social justice, the environment, poverty, sickness – these things are all potential distractions from the gospel, which is exclusively concerned about the saving of the soul and the furtherance of individual moral conduct.  This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.

Now, please hear me.  I believe that most of the people who are committed to this idea of the gospel are genuinely concerned about the eternal well-being of other people.  What’s more, if this is what the gospel means to you, then anything else would be a distraction, wouldn’t it?  What’s unequal pay or police brutality in comparison to the eternal fires of Hell?

However, I don’t think that version of the gospel is a gospel that Jesus, his followers, or anyone who might have heard him would recognize.

The creation narrative is one that functions more like prologue than anything else.  It’s background information so that we might better understand the experiences of Israel in the world as the stories that formed the Old Testament were being formed.

Still, in those narratives, God does not create man in Heaven, nor does He create man as a disembodied spirit living out his eternal destiny.  Man is placed in this world with a family and the happy state of creation is mankind living in loving relationships with other people and with God Himself.  When mankind rebels, they are not sent to Hell, but rather are exiled out of the Garden and into a world that now has pain and struggle and, ultimately, the supremacy of death.  This is the prologue of a world where the line of the faithful all but fizzles out and the world is full of violence.  It’s all wrong.  Mankind is learning better ways to lie, steal, kill, and declare themselves God.  This culminates in the passing away of that world via the Flood.

It’s worthy of note that, in the story, God does not send all these people to Hell nor whisk Noah into Heaven.  The world that arises from the flood waters is a new one in one sense, but it’s also the same earth it was before.  God saves an entire family.  We once again have people meant to live in loving communion with one another and God Himself, and indeed the words to Noah reflect the commission given to Adam.  Mankind, in communion with one another and God, in this world.  The people who would turn the world into the opposite of God’s intention have been removed from it.

As humanity begins to recover, they conspire to build a fortification against another Great Flood.  God does not send them all to Hell, but rather confounds their purposes and disperses them into the world as separate nations.

It is out of this dispersion that God calls, once again, a family to be His people in the world.  He does not whisk them away to Heaven.  He instead has them live out their generations in faithfulness, growing in number, but always a faithful community in the present evil age providing a model of what it means to be the people of God in the world.  They have children, grow old, die, and their children have children, grow old, and die.

This is where most of the biblical story starts.  We follow the ups and downs of this community throughout history and, when they are in trouble in this world, God saves them in this world.  Faithfulness, destiny, salvation, justification, and eschatology never at any point leave the trajectory of this world and these people living it.  God’s judgement is destruction and His favor is long life in the land.

As Israel careens onto a downward slope of disobedience, prophets arise to warn her not about Hell, but about exile and destruction.  And as she begins to suffer these things, the picture of redemption her prophets hold out for her is not a spiritual existence in Heaven but a freedom, peace, prosperity, and protection on the earth.

It is into this picture – this historical, this worldly, this creation-y, this people-y picture that Jesus comes.

When Jesus comes, he does not simply tell people to pray a prayer of repentance so that they can go to Heaven when they die.  Jesus heals the sick.  Jesus casts out demons.  Jesus makes sure hungry people are fed, the poor are taken care of, and parents are honored.  And lest we think these are all just signifiers of Jesus’ divinity, he commissions his followers to do the same things, and they do.

If Jesus as prophet and Messiah is jettisoning all the this-worldly facets of deliverance to focus on the afterlife, I want to see evidence.  I want to see the compelling case that Jesus breaks radically from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the prophets before him to redefine all extant categories in terms of an eternal afterlife.  I feel that case cannot be easily made.

Does Jesus care about the spiritual reorientation of the lost?  Yes, he does.  Does he hope in resurrection?  Yes, he does.  But the good news Jesus brings is not, “Pray a prayer of repentance and ask me to come into your heart, and you’ll go to heaven when you die!”  It’s, “The kingdom of God is at hand, and your King is here!”

And the kingdom of God is not a purely spiritual realm that one gets into after death; the kingdom of God is on earth in the midst of men and you can enter into it, today.

The kingdom of God is all the things the Old Testament hoped it would be: a people faithful to God enjoying His protection and well-being in the world, so much so that others would see it and want to be part of it.  The gospel isn’t simply about what happens after you die, it’s about how masters treat their slaves, the sick being healed, husbands and wives and children, orphans and widows and strangers.

It is a gospel that looks like this:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:8-10

Zacchaeus did not pray a sinner’s prayer and long for heaven.  Zacchaeus quit abusing his power, ended his corrupt economic practices, and restored the financial welfare of everyone he’d wronged.  His sinner’s prayer was repenting of his injustice and turning around to do justice.

I say to you, if one man recites the Sinner’s Prayer, and another man ends his corrupt practices and restores everyone he has harmed, which one of them has truly repented?

Look, the first century Roman Empire did not care what you taught about the afterlife.  It did not care about a message that, if you repent of your sins, you’ll go to Heaven when you die.  The government does not execute you because of your views on the afterlife.

The Roman Empire executes you when you appear to be a threat to the power structure.  When you stop putting a coin in the guild bowl, when you stop bowing before the likeness of the Emperor, and when you stop standing and putting your hand over your heart when the eagle banner is carried past.  When you say that Caesar is only in power because God presently allows it and the real King who commands your real loyalty is Jesus Christ – a man crucified for insurrection, which didn’t work by the way.

Those are political problems.  Those are this-worldly commitments and Rome is quite concerned about those things.  They don’t care if you believe you or they will go to Heaven, Hell, or Horus.  They care if your good news threatens their power, which it can only do if it addresses the way this world works in the here and now – who is in charge and what does that society look like?

The gospel in every age has always put this creation, what it looks like, and what human community is supposed to be like front and center.

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?

The Good News: Matthew 4:23

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Matthew 4:23 (NRSV)

If Jesus’ plan was to escape notice by fleeing to Galilee and settling down in a small, fishing village, we can declare that plan a failure.  Word of his preaching and miracles continues to head north making him famous in Syria, and the spread of his fame begins to draw crowds from the south, including Jerusalem, which is where he was getting away from in the first place.

But this is to be expected when you go around teaching in synagogues and “curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  Word is going to get around.  People are going to want to check that out, especially during a time period in history when getting sick meant that you would die or be irreparably damaged.  It’s not like today when people ask for prayer for their allergies.  Every sickness was debilitating and potentially deadly.

What I want to look at is the proclamation of the good news.  What is this good news?  It is the good news of the kingdom.  The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand.  That is the gospel as Jesus presents it in this early stage.

Why is this good news?  Because in the Old Testament, the coming of the kingdom of God brings an end to the oppressive reign of Israel’s captors.  The people’s hearts are renewed and brought back to God.  Their oppressors are overthrown and Israel is back on top.  They are prosperous.  Their lame walk and their blind see.  God’s Spirit is poured out on all His people.  It’s a whole new world for God’s faithful who have been patiently enduring their exile, suffering quietly.

It is an end to a Gentile ruler who taxes the people into lifelong debt and poverty to pay for statues of himself.  It is an end to governors who put their likenesses up in your place of worship.  It is an end to being executed for political reasons.  It is an end to being forced to carry the burdens of Roman soldiers.  It is an end to being born blind or never being able to walk.  It is an end to demonic possession.  All these things are brought crashing down when God’s kingdom comes.  They have no place in the next age.

But it is not just the absence of things.  It is the restoration of a glorious Temple where honest, compassionate priests mediate for the people.  It is Israel being surrounded with strong walls and a mighty army such that no nation can touch them.  It is everyone sleeping on a bed of gold because of all the wealth of the nations having come to them.  It is YHWH conquering the world.  It is a king whose righteousness exalts the nation.  The rich are kind and generous.  The judges are fair and compassionate.  The poor are cared for, and the orphans have families who bring them in.  The outsiders have a place for dinner at the family table.  It is the kingdom of shalom where all is true, right, and good.

Folks, this is good news.  It is good news to the poor, the diseased, the outsiders, those dominated by hostile spiritual forces, the weak, the OPpressed, the DEpressed.  This is why there is no separation between Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the kingdom and his actual building of it.  He actually heals, forgives, restores, and rules.  He makes this kingdom a reality in an ever-widening sphere with himself at the center.  There is no separation between “the Gospel” and “doing social good,” because they are all the same thing.  It’s one package.  The kingdom is spiritual, physical, economical, political, social – every aspect of being human in the world – and it is at hand.  Jesus’ works are the proof, for how could he heal and cast out demons of the kingdom of God had not come among them?  It is an apologetic he will use for his ministry and his apostles will use for their own.

Needless to say, the presence and growth of this kingdom will not be taken lying down by the kingdoms of this world and the people who have it pretty good in that state of being.  Jesus’ kingdom is a dismantling of their own.  The engines of injustice, greed, poverty, sickness, starvation, false gods, and evil spirits that prop up the Empire and the chief priests will be smashed on the gates of the kingdom of God, and they will not go gently into that good night.

But for today, before the shadow of Empire falls over this man and the new world he is building, we can just delight in it.  We can be one of those people in the streets with an empty bowl and a rotten leg, hearing the news that food, family, home, and healing are coming – and it is starting with this man, this very man who is just around the corner, waiting to find you.

Consider This

  1. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the gospel?”  Whatever it is that you think of, would it have been good news to the people of Jesus’ day?  Would it have made the Roman Empire angry?  Have our comfortable lives perhaps caused us to downplay some of the aspects of the gospel that might have been very important to the people of Jesus’ day?  How might this impact how we share “the gospel” in countries that are struggling with war, famine, poverty, etc.?
  2. Is the good news of the kingdom something you say, something you believe, something you do, or all of that?  How could you identify someone who believed the good news?
  3. In the first century, there was no real distinction between the -spiritual- forces that oppressed people and the -physical- ones.  They were two sides of the same coin, and not separate like we think of them, today.  How do you think that would impact someone seeing a healing miracle or an exorcism?