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Monday, August 22, 2011

He Became King for Us

1 Chronicles 14:2 reads, "David realized that the LORD had established him as king over Israel and that he had elevated his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel."

Allow me to rephrase this verse in light of the person and work of the Son of David, Jesus the Messiah: Jesus realized that his Father had established him as king over new, true Israel—i.e., the people composed of those of all ethnicities and cultures who have received God's promise of salvation through faith in the Messiah (see Rom. 9:6-8 through ch. 11; Gal. 4:21-31)—and that he had elevated his kingdom for the sake of that people.

Have you considered that Jesus is exalted as King for our sake, not just for his own?  We think frequently that he became human without ceasing to be God for our sake and that he died on the cross for our sake.  We also might mention that he rose from the dead for our sake.  But he also ascended into heaven for our sake, is establishing his reign for our sake, and will come again for our sake.

It is for our sake that Jesus has all supremacy and authority and you and I don't.  It is for our sake that he is vastly important and that any importance we might have is derived from him.  It is for our sake that he is in a position to command and that we are in a position to do nothing but obey.  This is all for us.

The lavish love of Jesus and the supreme dominion of Jesus are not in conflict.  They aren't even two sides of the same coin.  The uncompromising authority of Jesus is how he loves us.  It is out of his intense compassion for us that he took the throne.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jesus and 1st-Century Judaism

The Judaism of Jesus' day had three main components whose roots you can see in the Old Testament.

One component was the temple and the worship associated with it.  Its Scriptural roots are in the Levitical laws of Moses, after the exile it is expressed in the temple/priest-and-Levite focus in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and in Jesus' day it was championed by the Sadducees (i.e., the high priestly family and its partisans).

The second component was the law.  Its roots are in the bulk of Moses' legal corpus, after the exile it appears in the person of Ezra the scribe and in his and Nehemiah's reforms pertaining to intermarriage, the Sabbath, and so forth, and in Jesus' day it was championed by the Pharisees in local synagogues.

The third component was the coming reign of God.  Its roots are in "day of Yahweh" prophecies throughout the prophets, during and after the exile it takes on an increasingly apocalyptic tone and style in Daniel and in parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and in Jesus' day it was championed most forcefully by insurrectionist Zealots and by the kind of community that lived at Qumran and wrote/transcribed the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These three components are not discrete categories.  Most likely the mass of Jews were influenced by and held to all three of them.  Even the leaders of these components held to all three for the most part despite their emphasis on one in particular.

Jesus, in his person, life, and teaching, adopts all three and transforms all three.

Jesus maintains that temple-worship is crucial, but he maintains that his body itself is the temple.  Paul describes the church as Jesus' body and thus the temple of God so that anyone who is part of it can worship, as Jesus said, "in spirit and in truth."  The author of Hebrews points out that Jesus' sacrificial death gave access to the true temple in heaven to those who believe in him.

Jesus insists that the law will never go away but also that he is the living fulfillment of it, the one Paul calls "the goal [telos] of the law" (Rom. 10:4), the one the author of Hebrews says establishes a new covenant.  What distinguishes the new covenant and its law from the old one is not its content but its location—it applies inside a person's heart and mind, not outside on a person's body—and its permanence—Christ's sacrifice and the forgiveness that comes from it is once-and-for-all.  Anyone associated with Christ is by nature a lawkeeper because that person keeps the Living Law himself who transforms his or her nature into Jesus' own by his Spirit.

Jesus relentlessly asserts that the reign of God is close, but he insists the the reign of God is an invisible reality that exists wherever there is someone who submits to it and to Jesus, its king, even now despite the powers-that-be.  It's a reign that's not of this world but works invisibly through all of it like yeast through dough.  The reign of God will become visible when Jesus returns in glory but will be inherited only by those who receive it now while it's hidden by receiving Jesus himself.

In sum, Jesus takes the physical temple, law, and coming reign of Judaism and converts them into a spiritual temple, law, and coming reign all located in himself but which have physical results in the behavior of those who believe in him.

In the Jewish revolt against Rome in A.D. 66-73, the physical temple was destroyed.  In that war, the Kitos War of 115-117, and the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-136, attempts to establish a physical reign by force were crushed.  The only options that remained to Judaism in the second century were the physical law on the one hand and the spiritualized versions of temple, law, and reign in Christianity on the other.  From that time on, almost all Jews chose the former.

It is interesting that with the founding of the state of Israel the physical reign of Judaism has at least partially been reestablished after a long hiatus (partially in that it is not a legal theocracy).  It is also interesting how many Christians are eager for Israel's physical law, physical reign, and (as they hope) physical temple to reappear and coalesce given that the church has confessed for 2,000 years that we already possess the true and eternal forms of all three in Christ.  (That's probably a post for another time.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oh Great—Not Another Blog Post about Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

This is a post I didn't expect to write on a book I didn't intend to read.  But sometimes, when enough people tell me or ask me about a book that I don't want to read, I feel pastorally obligated to buckle down and read it—see also The Da Vinci Code and The Shack.  (For the record, Love Wins is much better than The Shack.  It's also more nutritious than The Da Vinci Code but much less exciting.)

I'm not going to write a review of Love Wins.  Such a review would include a list of what I thought was good about the book, which is a fair amount.  In fact, a person could get saved reading Love Wins.  (I know a guy who got saved reading Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, and Love Wins is better than that too.)  It would also include a point-by-point refutation of what I thought was wrong with it as well as a list of dangling questions I have about Bell's thought that arise from avenues he starts down but doesn't fully explore, Scripture texts he leaves unconsidered, and his own self-contradictions.  But I'm not going to write that review for three reasons:
  • Why should I add to the bloated amount already written on the topic (and thereby, perversely, sell more copies of his book)?
  • Why should I contest Bell on ground Bell has chosen?  (I'll contest him on my own ground at another time.)
  • Why should I write a review that you don't want to read?
Because if you're like me, you don't really want to know what Rob Bell says in his book.  If you did, you'd read the book.  What you want to know is how what Bell says differs from what you say.  Unfortunately, since I don't know you, I can't answer that.  But I can tell you how what Bell says differs from what I say.  Contrary to what I believe, Rob Bell contends that:
  • There is a judgment that entails punishment for some, but it isn't permanent (or, to be precise, it may not be permanent, which is a "better story" than otherwise), and therefore all will ultimately be reconciled to God.
  • Repentance is necessary for salvation, but the opportunities to repent don't cease at death or judgment.
  • Christ alone saves but not necessarily through faith in his name.
There's more that Bell says and more that I might say, but these are the differences that are fairly straightforward (or at least as straightforward as he gets).

These assertions by Bell make some people angry, including some who are preacher-types like Rob Bell and I are.  But after reading the book, I don't think that preacher-types who disagree with Bell get in a tizzy just because of Bell's content but because of a technique he employs in presenting it.

I am the kind of preacher who very often says things like this when I preach: "Now when this says [English translation of Bible verse], the original text comes across with a meaning more like [the meaning it's more like]."  I do this all the time.  Many other pastors do too.  When we say this kind of thing, here's what we're really saying: "Unlike you, I've studied [Hebrew/Greek] for many years.  I've studied this passage in that language.  I think the translation of this passage that you're used to is at worst misleading and at best inadequate.  So I'm going to tell you what you would see in this passage if you knew as much as I do.  Now, it's almost impossible for you to independently verify that what I'm saying is true.  I know this, but I'm asking you to trust me that I know what I'm talking about and that I'm not lying to you and that you'll benefit more from listening to me talk about this verse than from reading it out of the translation you have by the team of scholars that translated it."

When pastors like me say this, we actually think that people do in fact set aside the words in front of them in black and white (to a point) and trust what we're saying just because we want them to.  And not only that, but we believe that when we say, "The original Hebrew says . . . ," or, "It says in the Greek . . . ," that that's like playing the ace of trump—people just immediately bow down before the unassailable authority of what we're saying.  Chances are, people aren't nearly as impressed as we think they are (or as we are with what we're saying, or, at our best, as we are with God's Unvarnished Word itself).  But I think that to some limited extent people do believe us and do yield to what we teach when we play the Original Language Card.

What infuriates some preacher-types, I believe, is that Rob Bell plays the Original Language Card too.  He plays it often and he plays it well.  Some of the time he is right on; he says things we would say.  Other times he acts smarter than he is and he mangles the original text in ways that take doctrine in directions that perplex us.  This causes preachers' blood pressure to rise for two reasons.  (1) He stole our weapon and he's using it against us.  It's like patent infringement.  It's not fair.  (Obviously this is a petty, stupid, childish reason to get upset, but I think it's lurking in some preacher-types.)  (2) If Rob Bell plays the Original Language Card and I play it back to refute him, which of us will people believe?  I'm used to playing that card to trump other people's inaccuracies if I have to, but I can't trump trump.  If people really blindly follow anyone who plays the Original Language Card (as we assume they do), then Rob Bell will lead a whole lot of people in a bad direction.  But if they don't follow him, then maybe they don't really follow me when I play the Original Language Card either, and that's disconcerting in its own way.

One more thing about Rob Bell and Love Wins.  At one point in the book he gives a short list of giants of Christian history who supposedly agree that punishment isn't permanent and all individuals will eventually be reconciled to God, which Bell thinks is the best interpretation of Scripture.  It would have been nice of him to cite his sources.  But whether or not they actually agree with him, a question remains.

There is a line that separates two kinds of errors of faith and practice.  On the one side are errors that a person can hold and yet adhere to the faith.  For example, Paul thought that people who refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol because (as they thought) the meat had been tainted were wrong, but he didn't doubt their loyalty to the gospel so long as they didn't force that belief on the rest of the church.  On the other side of the line are errors that a person can't hold and believe the message of Jesus; to maintain such an error is effectively to be part of a different religion altogether.  For example, John insisted that people who denied that Jesus was the Christ, which John defined as being the preexistent Son of God come in human flesh, were alienated from the faith.  In fact, he calls them "antichrists."

So there is definitely a line that divides errors that disconnect from errors that don't, but it's a fine line, and sometimes it can be quite difficult to know which side of it a given faulty assertion is on.  Rob Bell asserts that even if people don't agree with him, they have to admit that he's on the Christian side of that line (though he recoils from talking about "lines"—one way he says it is, "[T]he historic, orthodox Christian faith [is] a deep, wide, diverse stream that's been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences," including his own [pp. x-xi]).

This is the only lingering question I have from reading his book that's really important.  Whether or not Bell is right in what he asserts, does he have the right to assert it and still be considered Christian?  If he's wrong, how wrong is he?

It may take generations of wrangling over Bell's assertions themselves (which, as he openly admits, aren't original to him) to come to a conclusion—matters this weighty aren't decided at the speed of tweets.  (Yes, I'm calling out @JohnPiper, though no doubt he is part of the Church's struggle to an answer.)  But it's a serious and urgent question that everyone who disagrees with Rob Bell should be thinking about.  As the years go on, more and more people will enter our churches who take Bell's position.  We need to start figuring out if we can have the same Church in common, if all of us can legitimately share the name "Christian."