Archive Page 2

02
Mar
15

sussing the sermon on the mount

It seems that The Sermon on the Mount has a negative press in large segments of evangelicalism.  Some insist it is pure law and its purpose, like the Mosaic Covenant, is only to kill (Lutheranism and variants of it).  Others also see it as law but think its primary focus is to instruct believers during ‘the great tribulation’, a so-called period between the expected ‘rapture’ and ‘revelation’ of Christ (dispensationalism). Both viewpoints tend to create a fairly dismissive approach to the sermon.  Certainly both undermine what seems to me to be the self-evident positive intention of the sermon which is to instruct those who belong to God’s Kingdom how to behave for God’s glory in a fallen world.  In the words of the Sermon:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:16 | ESV

I wish to argue that in describing life in the Kingdom its message is for believers today ( for we presently are part of Christ’s inaugurated Kingdom. Matt 11:11,12,26; 12:26-28; 13; Acts 8:12; Roms 14:17; Col 1:13).  Further, we should not approach the sermon negatively for while it stresses continuity with the Old Mosaic Covenant which must not be downplayed equally there are discontinuities that are equally vital and raise it massively above the Sinaic covenant of law.

Context

Context is of course king in interpretation; it rules everything.  Firstly, we must understand the sermon then  within the narrative of salvation-history.  The Sermon on the Mount has a complicated place in terms of salvation history.  Clearly with the arrival of Jesus, the long expected salvation has arrived; promise is giving way to fulfilment.   The ‘law and the prophets were until John ‘; in Jesus the Eschaton (promised End-time salvation) arrived (Matt 11:13; Lk 16:16; 7:18-23).  The good news is that the arrival of the kingdom is imminent (3:1) for its King,  Messiah, the eschatological Prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-19; Acts 3:17-26; 7:37), has arrived.  He will be all Moses was and so much more.

Matthew is keen in his narrative to point out the parallels between the story of Messiah and Israel. For Messiah recapitulates in his life the experience of the nation.  Like Israel, Jesus is God’s son who finds protection in Egypt.  He leaves Egypt (Matt 2:15) and after baptism (the Red Sea cf. 1 Cor 10:1) is in the wilderness (3:13-4:1).  There, like Israel, he is tested (ch 4:1-11).  In ch 4:18-22, the twelve are chosen, the new eschatological Israel.  Israel in the wilderness journeys to the mountain, Sinai.  There, on that mountain, the covenant of law is given via Moses to the people.  In Matthew, the first event after Christ’s desert testing and choosing of twelve is the sermon on the mountain.  Matthew’s point is clear, Jesus is the new Moses, the new law-giver, the new Ruler of Israel.  Time will reveal just how new and radical this new law, new era, new Ruler, the Mediator of a  new covenant, really is.

Continuity

Yet it is not the radical aspects that are initially stressed but the regular.  Consciously taking the ground of the Prophet who was to come who would be like, but superior in authority to, Moses and who would succeed, support, yet surpass him, Jesus says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17c-20 | ESV

Jesus, like John before him, has been preaching the good news, the gospel, of the kingdom of God (Matt 4:23).  Both proclaim its arrival in him, the Messianic King.  Its arrival is evidenced in his overthrow and expulsion of all that is evil (Matt 4:23-25; Deut 33:50-55; Lk 7:18-23) in the land and by instruction for the eschatological Israel, the disciples, how they should do so in their lives (5-7).  We should note that the gospel here is the arrival of the rule of God.  It is God’s will being done on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10). This shows clearly that we cannot divorce gospel from obedience as some wish to do today; to do so creates a false dichotomy.  To call indicatives gospel and imperatives law is a Lutheran distinction without biblical warrant and leads to confusion.  The rule of God by its very nature implies imperatives.  Thus the Sermon on the Mount is a snapshot of Kingdom obedience in this present age (the sermon assumes a fallen world, a rejected Messiah, and not-yet-perfect sons of the kingdom).  It is life in a not-yet-fully-conquered eschatological Canaan (Deut 33:50-55).  Life in Canaan involved a restatement of the law, the deuteronomy, without obedience to it all would be forfeit.  Jesus lays down the same dynamic in the sermon; hearing and doing is the way to inherit the land or earth, to realise the eschatological Kingdom, and to prove to be a son of the kingdom (7:15-27).

In the Kingdom,  the time of fulfilment has arrived.  The first thing Jesus is anxious to establish is the positive relationship between the old and the new.  He wishes to make clear the continuity between ‘the law and the prophets’ and the eschatological (promised End-time) Kingdom.  His principal point is that the old is not slighted or disparaged in any way in the arrival of the new.  He has not come as some iconoclast or subversive who disdains the past.  The new does not disparage the old, it is its denouement.  Christ does not abolish the old, he does not oppose it, he fulfils it; in the new the old is accomplished.  All that the old was about, all it aspired to and anticipated, finds its fulfilment in the new.

In the realised Kingdom the old is neither disparaged nor diluted nor dismissed.  It is dignified, deepened, and discharged.  In the new covenant the perpetuity of all the old stood for is guaranteed (Ex 12:14; 31:16; Roms 3:31).

Discontinuity

Yet, even in this clear statement of continuity a signal is given that continuity will not be a wooden literal conformity to the old.  The key word is ‘fulfil’.  It, or semantic  equivalents, is often used in the NT to describe the inaugurated kingdom.  Only a study of the many NT texts that discuss fulfilment give us a full picture of what fulfilment looks like and these present fulfilment in a kaleidoscope of ways.  We cannot expect fulfilment to be found in its full clarity here in this sermon for Jesus is addressing people before the cross, resurrection and Pentecost.  Further, he is addressing Jews who until his death and resurrection must live under law (as Messiah did).  Thus we have references in the sermon to presenting oneself to the Sanhedrin, leaving gifts at the altar, etc.  Any competent hermeneutic must make allowances for this historical ambiguity.  Yet, even here, in this incipient description of the Kingdom, and elsewhere in the gospels (Matt 9:17; Mk 7:19), we discover that fulfilment does not mean facsimile and realisation isn’t replica.  Post-resurrection every aspect of the law and every prophecy is still honoured and fulfilled but NOT necessarily literally.  The NT writers give us the spiritual principles for interpreting both the law and prophets, for both the law and the prophets were prophecy, bearing witness to Christ and the coming kingdom, principles first taught by Jesus himself (Matt 11:12;Lk 24:27,44; Jn 5:39; Roms 3:21).  Prophecy by its very nature is provisional. It is also opaque.  Fulfilment or accomplishment, as noted above, takes place in a rich diversity of ways that often the initial prophecy merely hinted at.  Shadow gives only an outline, a silhouette of what is real and substantial (Col 2:17; Hebs 8:5).

The transition from ‘the law and the prophets’ to Kingdom fulfilment is essentially  the transition between the old covenant and the new covenant where again we observe continuity and discontinuity.  The continuity between the covenants is clear in Scripture; the law that the Mosaic Covenant demanded, in the New Covenant is written on the heart (Jer 31:31-34).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah 31:31-34 | ESV

On the one hand the demands of the law transfer in essence from one covenant to the other and so the old is upheld in the new (continuity).  But in another sense, the covenant involves significant and far reaching changes.  In the new covenant, the eschatological covenant, all sins are forgiven and the law, previously written on tablets of stone, is now written on the heart (cf 2 Cor 3).  This makes it a superior covenant (Hebs 8:6-13).  Elsewhere we discover it means a new life, a new heart, and the indwelling, empowering Spirit (Ezek 11:19; 16:60-63; 36:22-38; 37:1-28).  Unlike in the old covenant, God is known by all and not a few (Jer 31:34).  The old was merely a pallid reflection of this massively more glorious reality (2 Cor 3:7-11); the moon to the sun.  The Sermon on the Mount assumes this new covenant relationship; God is assumed to be known for he is addressed as Father, a distinctly gospel relationship (Matt 5:16, 6:1,4,8,9,16,26,32 etc).

It is within this unique historical context and this tension between continuity and discontinuity in fulfilment that, ‘for truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished’ must be understood; in the new the old is treasured even as it is translated and transfigured.  It is this treasuring or valuing of the law that Jesus deals with next.  He says, ‘Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’.  Jesus, in the sermon demonstrates the truth of this.  The Pharisees, feeling the human impossibility of the law, and having with the scribes assumed responsibility for teaching the law, interpret it in ways that make it less demanding, less onerous.  They found ways to water it down and to circumvent its demands.  It is these he addresses when he says, ‘you have heard it said’.  The scribes and Pharisees ‘relaxed’ the import of the law. Of course, they were not the last to water down God’s commands, many teachers of the church have done so over the centuries, in fact, it is the temptation of all.  In fact, I suspect much of the present clamour to insist we are not ‘under law’ is just another manifestation of this impulse; for many it is not an attempt to make clear that we are not under law in the sense of not under the mosaic covenant as a way and rule of life (as is certainly the case) but that we are not under any kind of command or rule at all.  The suggestion of being under the authority of another and having to obey commands of any kind our egalitarian and self-determining generation finds objectionable.  Yet this sermon makes clear that such commands do exist as does the rest of the NT (Matt 28:20; Jn 15:14; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Tim 4:11; 1 Jn 5:3; 1 Cor 7:19; 1 Tim 5:21; Gals 6:16).

Jesus,  by contrast (but I say unto you) gave the law its full weight. He shows it calls for a righteousness beyond that which the scribes and Pharisees taught and displayed.  He brought out that murder was not simply physical killing but an attitude of heart; he demonstrates in the sermon the spiritual depth of the law.  Indeed, he takes the commandments of the law and gives them a breadth and depth that transforms them into commandments that flow from himself; he is the Prophet that Moses anticipated who would succeed and supersede him (Deut 18:15-19; Acts 3:19-26), the King-Prophet Law-giver (Ezek 37:24-28).

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.
Deut 18:15-19;

It would no longer be the Ten Words of Sinai but the law of Christ (Messiah), something of richer value and full revelation.  And what is more, what he teaches he lives in his life; he is par excellence the one who ‘does them and teaches them’ and who therefore has the moral right to be ‘ called great in the kingdom of heaven’.  He in all ways magnifies the law and makes it glorious (Isa 42:21).  Jesus is the scribe who ‘has been trained for the kingdom of heaven and is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  Matthew 13:52 | ESV

Thus, whatever we mean by being no longer ‘under law’ what we do not mean is that the life of godliness and holiness which the law required is in anyway less under the gospel.  If anything ‘fulfilment’ aspires to a godliness beyond what the law, certainly in letter, required.  It involves, among other things, loving your enemies and laying down your life for them, turning the other cheek, and going the second mile; it involves living like and identifying ourselves with a rejected Christ and reflecting the graces of our Heavenly Father (Matt 5:11, 38-48)

Conclusion

Thus the Sermon on the Mount models for us, at least in embryo, how the OT law is fulfilled in eschatological Kingdom living.  All that the law and prophets reached for is accomplished in the Kingdom. Yet, I repeat, there is no wooden continuity.  We can and should go back to the law and, as with all Scripture, find it profitable for understanding many aspects of Christian doctrine concerning Christ and his work.  Equally it is profitable for training in righteousness, but, and this qualifying preposition is very important, only if we understand it through the prism of redemptive history, only if we grasp its metamorphosis in Christ.  If we fail to do this we will soon become enslaved to the OT law and begin to live as OT Jews (as some advocate we ought).

Indeed, If we place ourselves under the OC in any sense (as Reformed folks come uncomfortably close to doing by making the law a rule of life) then we shall soon find ourselves struggling with  assurance of salvation, having a slave-mentality to obedience, and feeling constantly wretched by our failure before its demands; we shall fall from grace (Gals 3:1-3; 5:1-4; Roms 7; 8:14-16).

The law, as Jesus speaks of it in the sermon, was the Old Covenant (not every biblical command as many insist) addressed to man in the flesh (Roms 7:1-6), but we are in Christ, new covenant believers, in the Spirit and not the flesh (Gals 3,4; Roms 8; ).  We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old ways of the flesh.  God’s commands do not come to us as a letter that kills (as the law did) but, by the Spirit, as words of life.  This is where Lutherans and some who follow their law/gospel dichotomy go so very wrong. They insist on approaching the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount and indeed any biblical imperative (those from the OT understood through the prism of Christ and redemptive history) as if they carry old covenant conditions, that is, as if they, the hearers, were still in the flesh.  Little wonder they are viewed so negatively.  Little wonder they kill.  The flesh hates God and hates any command he gives (Roms 8:7,8).  The flesh always wriggles and squirms at anything that smacks of commandment.  But Christians approach every command from God from the standpoint of faith.  They hear every command as the voice of the Spirit and rely on him to enable.  The Spirit causes them to rejoice in the command.  It is after all an expression of God’s good, acceptable and perfect will.  They rejoice where it exposes sin they need to rout out (Roms 8:13,14) and rejoice for the light it sheds on the will of God for the regenerate, Spirit-filled life, finds that will not burdensome but a delight; what God commands the renewed heart covets (Ezek 11:9,10; 36:25-31;Psalm 1:2; 199:47,48,127).  The great need is to approach the sermon through Christian eyes, to hear it with spiritual ears.  When we do this it is not a law that kills (it cannot, for believers are already dead) but as words leading into life (Jn 6:63; 12:49,50; Roms 8:6, 10,13).

In fact, if we place ourselves in any sense under the OC of law (whether as a weapon to kill or a rule for life) we shall find ourselves dismayed for we will soon discover that not only are the demands of the Old Covenant beyond us because of our sinfulness they are also beyond us because the conditions required to keep them no longer exist.  There is no temple, no sacrifice system, no levitical priesthood, no cities of refuge etc.. The Old Covenant was morally finished at the exile, dispensationally finished at the cross, and had its final nails driven into its coffin at the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of all that was integral to covenant-keeping (Hebs 8:13).  It is gone, and gone forever: yet it lives on in the only way that matters, in the gospel, in the new covenant (Deut 30:4-14… a description of the eschatological new covenant Israel.  Cf.  Roms 10:5-16; Roms 8:3,4).

It is from this perspective we must approach the sermon, as new covenant life in Christ.  To be sure, only when the Spirit is given and full gospel status is understood will what before the cross is sometimes considered hard and difficult to bear (Matt 19) be understood as an easy yoke and light burden unlike the old covenant of law (Matt 11:28-30; 1 Jn 5:3).  But these post-Pentecost eyes and ears are ours.  We, of all people should approach the ethical demands of the sermon and other Biblical instruction in righteousness  as they are intended, not as an impossible law to crush and condemn but as a Kingdom lifestyle to affirm and embrace.  To look at the sermon is to see Jesus and the desire of every believers heart is to be like him.  In and through gospel realities this is possible.

To walk and run the the law commands
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands
But better news the gospel brings
It bids me fly and gives me wings

Finally, I should point out that the sermon is about Kingdom living.  If we want to find out how we may by grace enter the Kingdom and the source of  the empowering grace to live Christlike within it we must look elsewhere.  Here the good news shows us the blessed life of the Kingdom.  We must read on in the gospel to discover the good news of the cross and resurrection.  But we must never think there is something sub-Christian about this sermon, something essentially  legalistic.  Rather we read it remembering the words of the resurrected Christ to his disciples before returning to heaven.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 | ESV

 

 

 

 

01
Feb
15

ethical foundations, an observation

Modern ethics are dismayingly utilitarian; the pursuit of happiness for the greatest number defines what is right. Biblical ethics always looks at the nature of thing; an is implies an ought.

Peter Kreeft, in his Three Philosophies of Life writes:

Ancient ethics always dealt with three questions. Modern ethics deals with only one, or at the most, two. The three questions are like the three things a fleet of ships is told by its sailing orders. [The metaphor is from C. S. Lewis.] First, the ships must know how to avoid bumping into each other. This is social ethics, and modern as well as ancient ethicists deal with it. Second, they must know how to stay shipshape and avoid sinking. This is individual ethics, virtues and vices, character- building, and we hear very little about this from our modern ethical philosophies. Third, and most important of all, they must know why the fleet is at sea in the first place . . . I think I know why modern philosophers dare not raise this greatest of questions: because they have no answer to it.’

This explains why NT ethics may differ from OT ethics. OT ethics assume man in Adam, in the flesh, and commands accordingly: NT ethics address the church as man in Christ, in the Spirit, and command accordingly. Responsibilities flow from what is.

This also explains both why it is on the one hand foolish to place NT believers under obligation to OT law and why it is equally foolish to see NT believers as having no obligation or command at all.

24
Jan
15

christianity, coercion and charlie

The recent slaying of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as a jihadic response to Charlie’s satirical and irreverent cartoons of Mohammed has shocked the Western world. It has again pushed to the fore of western consciousness pressing questions regarding Islam that most in the West would prefer to avoid and it has led to a tsunami of support for what most in the West believe is an inalienable right, namely freedom of speech and expression. Recent marches in France and Spartacus cries of ‘Je suis Charlie’ express this surge of support.

How should Christians respond? For Christians it’s all too easy to give unqualified support for Charlie. In the face of atrocity, and the slaying of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in retaliation for blaspheming Mohamed is patently an atrocity, it is almost instinctive to give unqualified support to the cause of the slain. But gut reaction is rarely trustworthy for it is rarely considered; it is visceral rather than judicious. This post will argue that Christianity neither approves retaliation nor ill-judged provocation; it supports neither religious coercion nor untrammelled freedom of speech.

coercion

Let me repeat, Christianity is not coercive. When reviled it does not retaliate. Its model is Christ who when reviled did not retaliate and when threatened did not threaten in return. Peter the apostle writes plainly to some Christians being persecuted for their faith.

1 Peter 2:21-24
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Peter’s instruction is the uniform teaching of NT Christianity informed both by Christ’s actions and his words (Matt 5:10,11, 38-45). History shows that Christians have not always followed this instruction. Christian history has all too many examples of the sword being employed in the defence and advance of the Christian faith. There are various reasons for this. Many who did so in the name of Christ were not Christians at all. Others used the battles of OT Israel to justify the NT church engaging in holy wars (the crusades) and the OT law to rationalise a Christian State that employed the power of the state to enforce Christian belief (consider the Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, Calvin had a citizen, Servetus, burned at the stake for heresy). Both were a (culpable) failure to understand the proper relationship between OT Israel and the NT church. Such corruption of Christianity is a terrible stain on its history and makes it difficult for Christians to claim the moral high ground in any criticism of Islam.

However, here an important distinction must be made and it’s this: when Christians used force they did so in contradiction of authentic Christianity , whereas, when Muslims employ force they are consistent with their faith. Islam, despite protests to the contrary, advocates the use of the sword on behalf of the faith. In Christianity, the State and the Church are properly separate, while in Islam they are one. Islam believes in a theocratic State and where this is approved violent coercion is never far away.

The West tries desperately to dissociate Muslim terrorists and oppressive governments from Islam. It is a foolish and forlorn endeavour. Arguably these terrorists are truer to the spirit of Islam than more moderate westernised Muslims whose moderate views are more a product of secularisation than their Islāmic faith. Both Islam and Christianity are engaged in holy wars. The difference is that Muslims conquer by slaughtering others whereas Christians conquer by sacrificing themselves (Revelation 12:11). Both Christianity and Islam call for submission (Islam means submission) but there the similarity ends. The gospel calls for submission to Christ but the choice to do so or not lies completely with the individual; it is entirely voluntary. Islam demands submission and arrogates the right to impose it, by force if necessary.  Islam wants to rule the world. Christianity, however, is radically apocalyptic; it hopes to reign not in this world but a world to come.

As an addendum, it’s worth pointing out that atheism has no better a record than religion in tolerating alternative world views. In fact, in the last century atheistic States murdered more people in their pursuit of a pure atheistic State than any religion in history. Atheism has no reason to be smug. Its track record is horrendous ( consider the Soviet Bloc, Red China, North Korea, Cuba, Revolutionary Mexico, the French Revolution).

charlie

It is Voltaire who said, ‘ I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. It seems a noble ideal and is much-lauded but it is not one any buy into; at least, not absolutely, not if they are responsible. Christianity, let me be up front, does not defend total freedom of speech and nor can any responsible worldview. No government has ever supported unfettered freedom of speech (there is no freedom in the UK to slander, libel, incite hatred etc). All draw lines and rightly so. The question is only where lines should be drawn.

Christianity is clear that Christians have no personal freedom of speech or expression; their speech is captive to Christ. They must always speak and act in ways that honour God. They must speak the truth and not lie but they must do so in love and with respect. They should choose words wisely and seek to be winsome. As much as is humanly possible they should seek to live at peace with all men. The wisdom of Proverbs is clear,

Proverbs 16:23-24

The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Gracious words are like a honeycomb, to the soul and health to the body.

Further, the Christian Faith does not condone unnecessarily inflammatory language. Proverbs again reminds us,

Proverbs 16:27
A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.

The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness we are warned, ignited by hell itself (Jas 3:5-9). It’s vitriol sparks raging fires. It tempts the turned cheek to head-butt. Therefore it must at all costs be bridled (Jas 1:26; 1 Pet 3:10) for every careless word will be brought into judgement. By a man’s words he is justified or condemned (Matt 12:36-37). Praise God, the new life Christians have in Christ and the indwelling Spirit of Christ enable gracious speech (Ephesians 4:20-30). Far from encouraging uncensored speech it is clear that the highest standard of speech is demanded by God and required of a Christian. Paul says,

Colossians 4:6
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

However, it is one thing to say what speech God demands of his people, even that he will call all humanity to account for on the day of judgement but that does not address the level of freedom of speech society should tolerate; what God requires and what a society may allow are two different things. What does Scripture teach is an acceptable level of freedom of speech for society? It doesn’t. It is silent on this question. It gives no specific guidance at all and there is a simple reason for this: the Bible never envisages a this-worldly Christian State. We are back to the sharp distinction between State and Church that Christianity affirms.

In the OT, God’s Kingdom was an earthly theocratic State with laws that reflect this but in the NT this Kingdom morphs into a heavenly theocratic State; is spiritual not physical. It is a spiritual realm entered by spiritual birth (Jn 3), enjoying spiritual life, and spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3), engaging in spiritual warfare (Eph 6:12-20) employing spiritual weapons (2 Cor 10:3-6) to win spiritual battles. It’s only weapon is the Word of God. It is not seeking power in this world it is content with weakness. It’s ambitions do not belong to this world at all for It does not belong to this world but a world to come (Jn 17). God’s throne, for now, is not located in any geo-political locale but in the hearts of those who trust in Christ.

Thus God’s Kingdom does not impose its values on those who do not belong to it. The UK, the USA, or any other earthly State, is not God’s Kingdom on earth. The OT Kingdom of Israel is not a paradigm for any present nation State; its present counterpart is the Church. The Church, and only the Church, is God’s holy nation (1 Peter 2:9) and there, among his people, his standards are honoured and upheld. That is not to say that Christians do not commend their values in the public square. They may well do, but they do so if citizenship gives them such rights and not because Christianity insists on influencing government; it doesn’t for, I repeat, it is not of this world (Jn 18:36-38). Here it embraces a cross and does not aspire to a crown.

What kind of freedom of speech and expression will Christians advocate? Certainly not that which promotes moral filth. Much that is tolerated even vaunted by modern liberal States under the pretext of freedom of speech is repugnant to Christians. The liberal arts are awash with what is little more than soft pornography. It is irresponsible, degrading and destructive of society. Christians, in all conscience, cannot approve such toleration.

What of satire?

For Christians all satire will be controlled by speaking the truth in love. Satire is intended to wound. Its aim is to make others look ridiculous. It is a sharp sword that cuts to the bone. If, as we have been regularly told in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, the pen is mightier than the sword, or the sketch more potent than the semi-automatic, then the pen and sketch must act responsibly. Ridiculing just because we can and openly mocking what another values should not be lightly undertaken. It is not normally the way to win friends and influence people. It hardly promotes peace and dialogue. It is possible to criticise without caricaturing and treating with open contempt; this must be the better way. It is certainly the Christian way. We should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. As John Stevens wrote,

Just as Paul called the Corinthian Christians to renounce the worldly methodology of sophistic rhetoric, we are called to renounce cheap and offensive satire. In relation to Muslims the use of such satire is entirely counter-productive. Our goal is not just to win an argument, to disempower a rival or to bolster our own fragile self-esteem in the face of a competing world-view, but to win others to faith in the Lord Jesus.

Christians cannot in all conscience say Je suis Charlie.

There is, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy in the shrill calls for freedom of speech and the apparent championing of it, for as already observed, no one supports full freedom of speech. Not even Charlie Hebdo. Try getting Charlie Hebdo to condone racism or the mocking of homosexuality. Speak intemperately about colour, race or gender in Western societies and see how quickly freedom of speech is stifled. Indeed, many seem to understand it as ‘freedom to screech’, for when Christians seek to express their views reasonably and quietly the screeching of the liberal left soon drowns them out… So much for freedom of speech.. As Dinesh D’Souza has said, ‘somehow freedom for religious expression has become freedom from religious expression’. Christianity is fine as long as its voice is not heard is the freedom that a liberal secular State is keen to grant. Freedom of speech is a myth. Only speech which enshrines the values of a culture at that point in time has freedom to express itself, anything that seriously challenges these will be anathema.

Christians, like many others, value freedom to express their views. They do not regard such freedom as an inalienable right. They understand that freedom of expression is never absolute, nor can be. To the degree they enjoy it they are thankful that God has granted it to them. But they do not take it for granted and Christians in the West recognise that for them the era of Christian privilege seems to be fast coming to an end. Yet this will not deter them for the authority to proclaim the gospel comes from God and not governments.  As in the early church and every previous century of Christian witness, Christ’s followers will go out into the world preaching all that he has commanded, confident that all authority in heaven and earth is given to Christ who has promised to be with them always even to the end of the age (Matt 28 cf Acts 4:20).  Je suis Christ.

See also.

http://www.john-stevens.com/2015/01/are-we-really-charlie-what-is-christian.html

http://andyatgreenview.blogspot.co.uk/

31
Dec
14

all things new

all things are new

The NT is clear that there is a relationship of promise and fulfilment between the OT and the NT; what is promised in the old is fulfilled in the new. Fulfilment implies both discontinuity and continuity.  However, we should note that when the NT discusses aspects of continuity hard on its heels is normally a stress on discontinuity (Cf. Roms 5:12-21).  The reality is the NT writers are far more anxious to stress the ‘newness’ in fulfilment than the similarity; for them the new eclipses the old.  Indeed the very fact of ‘newness’ (we speak of a New Testament which is a  reference to the biblically referenced ‘new covenant’) suggests there is something, imperfect, inadequate, inferior about the old; the new renders the old passing and obsolete.

Some NT writers like John scarcely mention continuity at all.  After all if the ‘new’ has as its focus, basis and heart, a divine person, the Word who was with God and was God and has become flesh, then here is glory without parallel.  Here is something that was never here before,  the glory of the only Son of his Father full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). 

There is nothing in the past that matches this.  Here God is introducing something breathtakingly new.  In the past God had spoken in shadows but now he reveals himself in his Son, he reveals himself in full glory, as he really and truly is, for to see the Son is to see the Father. 

No man has seen God at any time but the Son who is in the bosom of the Father has declared him (Jn 1:18).

And so John writes, with radical discontinuity, ‘the law came by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (Jn 1:17).  Of course, in one sense there was grace and truth in law, after all the law was God’s truth and it did make gracious provision for sin, but John will brook no rival with Christ.  When the true light shines all lesser lights disappear.  He, and he only, is the way, the truth, and the life (titles some may have conferred on law).  He is the fulfilment that eclipses the promise, the new that replaces the old so that the old gladly says, ‘he must increase and I decrease’.  Thus when John the Baptist’ s disciples see Jesus they rightly leave John and follow Jesus; the new had come (Jn 1:35-44).

And it is the ‘newness’ in Christ, the ‘fullness’ that resides in Him that John invites us to receive, the irrepressible joy of eternal life, which is nothing less than shared fellowship with the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom he sent.

water becomes wine

Ch 2 makes this new joy to be found in Christ clear.  It is Jesus first miracle.  He is at a wedding in Cana.  It ought to be an occasion for joy as weddings are.  But the wine, a biblical symbol of joy, had run out.  All they had were empty stone water-jars kept for ritual purification.  Judaism was redundant.  The old had no joy to give.  It was lifeless, powerless, joyless.  Mere ritual.  Only in Jesus could new wine be found and wine that was (paradoxically) better than the old.

His mother knew this.  Instinctively she knows the solution lies in Him. She tells the servants to follow his instructions and entreats her son.  But she is mistaken, for it can be no longer be as a mother asking her son she must beseech but as one who asks her Lord for he is now anointed for his messianic mission and it is as Messiah she is inviting him to act.  Here she can only entreat on the same basis as everyone else; she must come apart from blood relationship and acknowledge him as Lord.  She must come not as one who gave him birth but as one born again through him; one who has received him, believed in his name and been given the right to be called a child of God.  And so he addresses her as ‘woman’ (a title of respect) but not ‘mother’.

His time to be revealed as Messiah had not yet come but Messiah is full of grace and out of that fullness all receive.  He commands the empty jars of (empty) Jewish ritual to be filled with water and served to the guests.  The water flowed as a fully matured wine.  Judaism was powerless to bring up for joy, fullness of joy, lies not in the ritual water of the old but in the rich wine of the new; it lies in Christ.  This is his glory.

John at every point stresses this newness that lies in Christ.  In him will be found a new power, through a new baptism, the baptism of the new covenant, the eschatological  baptism in the Spirit (in 1:33,34).  In him will be found too that eschatological life, the life that Ezekiel saw when dead bones lived, new life in the Spirit (Jn 3:3-10).  In him, God finds a new dwelling place on earth, a tent or temple, where his glory is not hidden but revealed (1:18;  2:19-22).  In him, a new centre of worship is created, a new sacred space, for in his ascension men will worship neither in Jerusalem, Gerazim, nor Mecca, but will worship in spirit and in truth through Christ (4:19-26).

In Christ, old things have passed away and all things have become new.  Day by day believers live in this newness.  Each day the Spirit of the risen reigning Christ bubbles up inside us like a fresh mountain spring, living water, refreshing, renewing, re-invigorating, realizing within us the life of the living triune God.  Filling and flooding our hearts with Christ.  We know even in troubles, especially in troubles, what it is to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.

The old is gone: the old self we once were; the old sin we once served; the old master who once duped us; the old world we once loved that hates us.  All are broken cistern that hold no water… empty jars that contain no wine.  The new is come.  In Christ we daily live and have our being.  We look to him and in Him have everything.  Every day is a celebration of all he is.  Every day is Christmas, Easter, Pentecost. We belong to the Eschaton.  The Fulfilment.  The rich wine of New Creation.

Each day belongs to the new, not just January the 1st.

15
Dec
14

christ the end of the law

 

 

Romans 10:4-13

 

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.  5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Some debate exists whether by ‘end’ Paul means ‘goal’ or ‘terminus’.  Which it is, in the final, analysis, probably doesn’t greatly matter.  Both are true.  However, that being said, in my opinion in this text Paul’s focus is on the law as a terminus rather than goal.  He is not focussing on the prophetic nature of the law (3:21) but on its explicit principle; the law as a means of righteousness (v4) or life (v5).   

With the arrival of Christ any possibility of life or righteousness by the law (always a hope doomed to failure anyway) was now past.  With the arrival of Christ  God’s righteousness and life are located in Him.  The law is now redundant.  No longer is it offered by works, as in the OC, since it is now revealed as available only by faith, in the NC; and what was immeasurably beyond reach on the principle of works is now within easy grasp on the principle of faith.

This is precisely the point in 10:6-13.

At first blush this text throws up some problems for the OT text that undergirds these verses is Deut 30 and appears to apply to the OT law.

Deut:30:11-14

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

We seem to have a double conundrum.  

Firstly, Moses appears to be saying that keeping the law is a relatively easy matter, a view with which both Old and New Testaments are at odds.  Secondly, Paul, in Romans 10, clearly understands this Deut 30 text to refer to the gospel and not the law? 

What is the solution to these difficulties?

The solution lies in doing what we must always do when we see the Old Testament cited in the New – we must look carefully at the context of the OT citation.

In Deut 29, 30, immediately prior to the above text Moses gives a prophetic history of Israel.  The nation will sin grievously under the OC.  It will prove a covenant impossible to keep.  As a result of their sin, Israel will be exiled from the land.  In exile God will begin to turn the hearts of the people to himself (there they had no law and so could not look to it for righteousness; they were entirely dependent on God’s promised Deliverer) and in time he will deliver them from exile, give them a new heart, and bless them.

Deut 30:6-10

6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Moses is describing the NC.  He is describing in OT language the gospel age, the age when God Himself would do for Israel what they could not do for themselves.   The impossible, acquiring righteousness and life, would no longer be an unrealistic pipe dream,  for God in Christ would achieve it.  They would not need to try to reach into heaven in obedience (a metaphor for the impossible) for heaven would come down to them in Christ.  Nor would their pursuit of righteousness take them into the depths of the sea, the abyss, for Christ has descended there and risen from it in glorious redemptive power.

Instead of demanding the impossible, superhuman works, the NC of grace would be a near word, within easy reach, a word in their mouth and heart….  as they confess with their mouth Jesus as Lord and believe on their heart God raised him from the dead.  It would be a word of faith in all that God achieved in Christ.  Faith proved to be sincere by confessed allegiance to him. 

And thus the law for righteousness came to an end for a righteousness of God (not of man) was revealed, a righteousness that is by faith in Christ, unto all, but only upon all who believe.  For those thirled to law-righteousness, as Isaiah predicted, Christ would be a rejected stone over which they would stumble, but for  those who believe he is the foundation stone of all God’s promised security and blessing.  Either way, his arrival signalled the end of the law with its premise of ‘this do and live’.

This Gospel Word, is the heart of the NC, a covenant not limited to the nation of Israel but one that invites in gentiles too, for ‘all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’.

In this way, by the introduction of God’s righteousness in Christ heralding the redundancy of law-righteousness,  it seems clear that ‘end’ refers principally to ‘terminus’, however, for those who insist in squeezing in ‘goal’ I shall not demur.

01
Dec
14

definite atonement

I know some will disagree with the contention in this post.  That’s fine.  Christians may disagree agreeably over lots of things.  I wish to simply lay out the basics of why I believe the sacrifice of our Lord was not only universal in extent but also specific in intent.  My focus is not on the universal but on the specific.  It is for me a cause for great wonder and gratitude that God not only loved the world of rebellious humanity but in a specific sense the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me.

In this snapshot of the atonement then the universal aspects of Christ’s sacrifice are assumed.  The Bible is clear that the sacrifice of Christ had a cleansing effect in heaven itself.  I have no doubt that Christ loved the world -the whole world –  and gave himself for it.  My focus is not on these, nor Is it to deny or diminish these, but to demonstrate that there is a specific focus in the atonement that is more than merely a subset of the whole but is tied in some way to purpose and intent.  In a word, there is clearly a sense in which the atonement is because God loves the world but there is just as clearly a sense in which it is because he loves his own.  If we as humans are capable of such different kinds of love it would be strange if God were not.  If we are capable of making sacrifices that have the potential to benefit many while having a definite intention to benefit our own, why not God.  

covenant

So where is specificity taught?  The best place to begin is with the idea of covenant.  In OT  times covenants were made between specific parties.  Major covenants were often ratified by a covenant blood sacrifice and covenant meal.  Both sacrifice and meal were exclusive to those bound in covenant relationship. The specificity of the sacrifice was underlined by its blood being sprinkled on the covenant people.   In the OT these features can be seen in various significant covenants between God and those with whom he chooses to enter into covenant.  When we come to the NT we see the same covenantal features in the New Covenant.  The covenant sacrifice of the NC is the death of Christ.  In the Upper Room as Jesus eats the Passover Meal (associated with an old people and an old redemption and an old covenant) with his disciples, he introduces a new meal commemorating a new redemption associated with a new covenant with a new (or renewed) people.  We read,

Luke 22:20

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

Specificity is stamped on the sacrifice.  It is for the covenant people guaranteeing the covenant promises to them.  The covenant people are not indeterminate. They are not nebulous and undefined, a mere potentiality.  They are specific and concrete, those who have faith in Christ.   It is specifically for them the sacrifice is made, upon them it’s blood is sprinkled (1 Peter 1:2),  and it is they who participate in the covenant meal.  They are ‘the many’ of Isaiah 52, 53.  Those who shall be astonished and understand.  Those with whom he shall share a portion and divide the spoil; his offspring (53:10).

In Hebrews this specificity is enhanced.

Hebrews 9:15

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins commiintted under the first

Notice the new covenant sacrifice guarantees salvation blessings for the covenant people. Those in covenant relationship will receive the promised eternal inheritance, the mediator will ensure it and the certainty rests on what his sacrifice achieved.   It didn’t merely potentially ransom them, it actually ransomed them; it set them free from sins.  The sacrifice effected the salvation of the covenant people.

While it is true that the new covenant people are those who believe, in Hebrews it is not their belief that is the focus it God’s call.  The NC people are ‘the called’.   This is of course consistent with how the main covenants work.  It is God (the greater covenant partner) who is sovereign.  The covenant and the covenant partner is always his initiative.  He chooses those with whom he will enter covenant and he decides the terms.  In the NC the divine initiative could not be clearer.  The covenant is monergistic; its his will and power that accomplishes it.  It is a covenant of ‘I will’ (Jer 31:33,34; Ezek 36:22-32).  In this covenant faith, as with all else, is itself a covenant gift (Eph 2:8,9; Roms 12:3; 1 Tim 1:14,14; Phil 1:29; 2Thess 1:3; Luke 22:31,32; Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5).  In the NC God meets its obligations.  Thus those ‘called’ will receive the ‘promised inheritance’ – the death of Christ secures it.

flock

This specificity in the death of Christ is seen elsewhere too.  We see it in John 10 where the shepherd’s death is specifically for the sheep.

John 10:11-15

 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The death of the shepherd arises from his love for his sheep.  The sheep are a defined flock. They are those known by the Shepherd and who know him.   They are those the Father has given (10:29).  They are his ‘own’ (10:3, 14). It is for these sheep he dies.  He cares about them in a unique way.  They are the focus of his death.

marriage

Special  love also lies at the heart of the next example; Christ’s love for his bride, the church.

Eph 5:25-27

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

It is impossible to view this love is just part of the general love that God has for the world.  The whole image demands a discriminating, choosing, and bestowing love.  It is the wonder of an  inexplicable love for a moral Cinderella; a purposeful love that intends to transform her into something more wonderful than any fairy tale ending. It would be perverse to muddy this image with injecting the bride’s choice of her lover.  The whole focus is the love of the lover.  It is his delight in someone who is now ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’.  In a patriarchal culture the selecting love is the initiative of the male.  In this unique, undivided, exclusive love the bride is called to luxuriate and delight.  In it she finds security and dignity.   

And this exclusive love is the reason Christ dies.  Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.  Hallelujah.

The high priest, Caiaphas, declared (albeit unwittingly) the targeted nature of the atonement when he said ,

John 11:52

50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Likewise the redeemed in heaven understand that the blood ransom of the cross was designed not to ransom every tribe and language and people and nation but to ransom from among every tribe and language and people and nation.

Revelation 5:9

9 And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Thus as one writer well says, ‘though Christ died for all men in some sense, he didn’t die for all men in the same sense’.  While the atonement is designed to be sufficient for all it is intended to be efficient for the many.

In the words of Romans 3,  

22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all (universal) and upon all them that believe (specific).

15
Sep
14

should christians vote?

For most Christians (in the West) their freedom in Christ to vote is axiomatic. However, there is still a significant rump who believe that voting is wrong.  I know quite a number of Christians who so believe.  In my view, this is a mistaken belief and I thought I would outline why in the hope that I may free some consciences to vote.  I write this in Scotland and in the week the country votes on whether or not to leave the UK.  In temporal terms this is a hugely important vote and Christians ought to be best placed to vote wisely and responsibly. It will be a great pity if many desist owing to a mistaken belief.

The (mistaken) belief arises from wrong thinking in a number of issues.

christians shouldn’t vote because involvement in politics is worldly

Now it is not my intention to advocate whole-scale Christian political engagement. In my view, this belongs to a few who have such a calling and gifting (just as some have callings to medicine, teaching, law, science etc). It is even less my intention to give the impression that Christians can greatly change (much less redeem) a culture through socio-political action, especially since Christianity is increasingly a minority and unwelcome voice in the democratic West.  Yet this does not mean we should not play a responsible part in our culture and seek its welfare. Jeremiah’s God-given instruction to Israel in exile seems germane:

Jer 29:7 (ESV)
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

Taking civic responsibilities seriously seems to me an axiom of Christian living. Surely, at a bare minimum this means exercising the (hard won) vote we are given and urged to use; it is one small (but significant) way of promoting just and responsible government and democratic government itself.  Yet we are told by some that Christians ought not to engage in the political process because politics belongs to the world that crucified Christ and the world from which through Christ we have been delivered.

Two questions lie begging here: what does the Bible mean by ‘the world’ and what should be the nature of the Christians interaction with it?

The ‘world’ in Scripture means a number of things.  Sometimes it means simply the material world, the earth.  At other times it means the mass of humanity since Adam in opposition to God.  Still further it may mean the whole system or culture that this rebellious humanity has created.  When Scripture and Christians speak negatively about the world they mean a combination of these latter two definitions. John seems to include all three within a few lines when he writes:

John 1:9-10 (ESV2011)

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world (earth). He was in the world (earth and perhaps human culture), and the world (earth) was made through him, yet the world (humanity in opposition to God) did not know him.

The essential nature of this rebellious human culture (the world) is humanistic; its root impulses are ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life’.  That was its nature at the fall in Eden: Eve saw it was good to eat (lust of flesh), delight to the eyes (lust of the eyes) would make one wise and they would become as God (pride of life… Gen 3:6).  Since the fall in Eden its essential impulses have never changed.

So, yes politics is part of ‘the world’ for politics is part of fallen human culture.  But it is no more part of fallen human culture than medicine, education, law, music, science, commerce, industry, etc.  All belong to a civilization that has rebelled against God and crucified Christ and we need only be involved a little in any or all of these to see the rebellious nature of humanity in action; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life pervade all.

How then are Christians to relate to this ‘world’ from which we are delivered (Gals 1:4) and to which we are crucified (Gals 6)?  Well, we are not to love it (1 Jn 2:15), be conformed to it (Roms 12:2), or wish for its friendship (Jas 4:4).  We are to keep ourselves unstained by it (Jas 1:27).  Does this then mean we are to withdraw from it?  No it doesn’t.  Jesus’ prays in John 17 for his disciples.  He states that they are not ‘of the world’ (17:14,16), nevertheless, Jesus does not pray that they be ‘taken out of the world’ (17:15a) but that they ‘be kept from the evil one’ (17:15b).  It is within this tension of being ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ we are called to live and can do so with confidence because we have the intercession of Christ our heavenly advocate to enable us to so do (Jn 17).

So what am I saying? I am saying that it is true politics is part of the world but it is wrong to limit ‘the world’ to politics or any other single aspect of its culture (the arts, for instance).  Many do this and as a result their concept of ‘the world’ and of ‘worldliness’ is far too constricted.  The world includes as we have noted, all the other aspects of culture such as medicine, law, industry, commerce, education etc.  Do we withdraw from these?  Do we say, because they are part of the world we must have nothing to do with them?  Of course we don’t.  Neither, in principle, should we withdraw from the political realm.  After all, government is God’s idea.  Human governments are ordained by God and have a good and honourable purpose – they are to promote good and punish evil (Roms 13).  Their function is to engender a fair, just and safe society.  Whatever we may say about other aspects of society the political (government) has God’s explicit sanction.

So what is to be our approach to the world and it’s ‘polis’?  We return to Jeremiah and God’s instruction to Israel living in an alien country… we are to care for the welfare of the city while refusing to embrace the wrong attitudes and actions that are endemic to it (the lusts of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life).

Worldliness is not political involvement: worldliness is political involvement that embraces the sinful values, actions and attitudes that are rife in politics.  To embrace these means we are not merely ‘in the world’ but ‘of the world’. Worldliness is engagement in the affairs of life motivated by the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life rather than by the fear of God and the desire for his glory. This distinction is vital to grasp. Other-worldliness isn’t a monkish refusing to engage in the structures of civil life but a holy refusing to collude in the way these are misused and idolised.  Involvement in politics is not worldly in itself, nor is it friendship with the world, though the way we do so may well be, as it may be in every other area of life in this world.  On the other hand we should remember that if our engagement in politics or any other aspect of life is from the standpoint and standards of faith rather than that of the world we will face opposition.  We will be hated as Christ was hated but we will please the Father and it is his love and love for him that must be our motive (1 Jn 5:4; 3:13; 2:15,16; Jn 15:18).  It is, in fact, this standpoint of faith, as we engage in the various spheres of life, that will enable us to overcome the world as Christ did (1 Jn 5:14).

We are called as Christians not only to share the gospel but to live the gospel by doing good to all men and part of that doing good may legitimately involve seeking to ensure good or best government (i.e. through voting). We do not do so, I repeat, with any vain pretensions of greatly improving culture, far less of ‘redeeming’ culture or bringing about the kingdom of God through socio-political engagement (for that kingdom is spiritual and cannot even be seen apart from the new birth). Rather we hope simply to show mercy and alleviate hardship where we can in a world under judgement. In this surely we share the heart of Christ.

jesus didn’t get involved politically

It is true that Jesus did not get involved politically, at least directly.  His message concerning the kingdom of God was of course in its own way an assault on all human kingdoms but be that as it may.  However, if he did not get involved in politics neither did he get involved in other civic aspects of society.  He did not engage with medicine, education, science, industry, commerce etc.  When we meet him in adulthood in his public ministry he is a rabbi with followers and lives outside of all these spheres.  If his non-involvement politically means that we must distance ourselves from politics then his non-involvement in the other spheres of life presumably means we must distance ourselves from these too.  But we don’t and rightly so.  Jesus is our model for Christian living but this does not mean we are all to be itinerant preachers, culturally Jewish, celibate etc.  In Scripture, it is his loving self-sacrifice for others, his self-humbling, his perseverance in faith, his non-retaliation, his suffering, his holiness, his obedience to his father etc that we are called to emulate not those aspects which were specific to his calling.

the slogan, ‘Our ‘Man’ is already in’

This is a rather supercilious slogan and beneath comment were it not for the fact that many apparently believe it expresses a genuine reason for not voting. Of course, all Christians believe that Christ is the Ultimate Ruler in the kingdoms of men. We find security, peace and confidence in this and rightly so. But this does not mean that the role of earthly rulers in the present is redundant or irrelevant. Again Roms 13 gives the lie to this; they are ordained servants of God. Government is God’s (good) idea for the temporal well-being and ordering of humanity.

Christ is our great Physician, yet this does not mean we do not visit the doctor when we are ill believing simply the Lord will heal. He is our divine Teacher but we do not boycott the education system and consider it redundant. He is also our cosmic Advocate but we do not diss the judiciary and refuse to use the law in our defence when we are threatened (as Paul did in Acts). The Builder of all things is God but this does not mean we smugly ignore the wisdom of the architect and builder when we are planning to build a house. Why should politics be an exception? Why should Christ’s cosmic rule mean that engagement with temporal political structures is worldly while engagement in these others is not?  Why should we refuse to support or use the support of government when we do not refuse to support or use the support of these other spheres of ‘the world’?

It may seem wise and other-worldly to declare ‘our Man’s in’ but in actual fact it has no bearing at all on whether one votes or not. Our citizenship is indeed in heaven and our hopes and aspirations belong there for it is home but this does not mean that we do not value and engage with the structures of this present world in which we live as pilgrims though it does mean we will hold them in perspective and neither fear them nor lose our hearts to them. As Christians, we seek to do good and influence for good in all ways we can, including the political. We do not pass by on the other side refusing to help but we show the compassion and care of Christ wherever we have the opportunity to do so.

we should not vote for we may find ourselves voting against the will of God

This seems to be a genuine concern for some. The problem here is a confusion of God’s secret and revealed will (Deut 29:29). We are not expected to know God’s secret will or second-guess it; it is ‘secret’ after all. What we do know is God’s revealed will for he has given it to us in Scripture and the Spirit of God enables us to grasp and understand this will. It is this will we are expected to obey and it is this revealed will that should guide us when voting. We ought to vote for those who champion policies that are fair and just and beneficial for society, those that best reflect God’s expectations of government.

We apply this secret will/revealed will distinction in other walks of life without a second thought. For instance, if we become ill we do not ask whether it is God’s secret will that we should recover before we call the doctor. We rightly and responsibly do what we reasonably can to improve our health and leave the ultimate outcome with the Lord. Exactly the same process is at work when we vote. In the coming Independence debate it may be that God has decided to punish the UK for rejecting Him. He alone knows whether his patience has run out. However, we vote on the principle of what we believe is best for the future of the country (Scotland and rest of UK) and leave matters about judgement with God, where they rightly belong. What he delights in is our obedience to his revealed will while he will carry out his secret mysterious will according to his own wisdom and ways.

conclusion

There are other aspects of political involvement that deserve to be discussed. For example, even if we decide to vote it is not always clear for whom we should vote. Are there sufficient differences between the parties to make a vote meaningful?  Party manifestos are a mixed bag making voting for any party difficult.  Politics of course is always the art of the possible. It always involves living with compromise; again in this it is no different from any other job or walk of life.  There is the question too of how best to use our limited time and resources.  We cannot do everything and we must be wise in our use of time. We must prioritise needs and not let the good get in the way of the best.  But these and other questions and complexities must be left for this post is not exhaustive.

In the coming Scottish Independence vote, the issues are above party politics and more momentous (in a temporal sense).  I hope that if you have doubts about the propriety of voting as a Christian these comments may help free your conscience and empower you to make a considered vote informed by revealed Christian values and wisdom. Such responsible voting will know the favour of the Lord and will be a benefit to our needy world.




the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.

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