of the spirit

Thoughts and words about the Holy Spirit can go in many different directions. One can try to present their view by way of many different paths, and from many different angles – and I believe many of these paths/angles would be biblical…

To try and promote unity and clarity, I’d like to address a few ideas about spirit/spirituality/the holy spirit/etc., that I think need sharpening… Along the way, I hope the ‘personality’ of the Spirit will become more obvious…

Dualism must die…
Greek philosophers of old, looked at the world and decided that reality was split in two – the ‘unseen’, ‘spiritual’ realm; and the ‘seen’, ‘physical’ realm. The ‘unseen’ realm was perfect, pure and un-changing. The ‘seen’ realm was corrupt, faulty and change-able. The relationship between the spirit and matter, then was – no surprise – a strained one.

The Jewish perspective saw reality differently. God was in ‘heaven’; Humans were on ‘earth’; yet God could still ‘dwell with’ His people and His creation. It wasn’t just that spirit could mix with physical, but more that the two ‘realms’ were always mixing. It wasn’t so much a question of if they mixed, but more how they mixed. In other words, the real question was which spirit was mixing in a given physical place/person?

In the Greek view, you assume a huge gap between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. So, you have to do all kinds of things (the right prayers, sacrifices, rituals) to make it ‘just right’ – right enough for the spirit to mix with the physical. That’s a general picture, but it gives you the idea.

In the Jewish view, the two realms relate easily. In the Scriptures, there are many ‘spirits’ mentioned – some on the ‘good’ side (i.e. a ‘spirit of wisdom’, etc.), some on the ‘evil’ side (i.e. a ‘spirit of jealousy’, etc.). The entire world is ‘bubbling’ with spiritual potential.

The word ‘supernatural’ isn’t very helpful at times…
You may not have thought of it this way before, but our understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is, of course, only as good as our understanding of the word ‘natural.’ It seems odd – to me, at least – to say that God is the one who establishes the ‘laws of nature’ and then breaks them from time to time (and that is precisely how the ‘supernatural’ is defined).

We need to see the world differently, I think. The Scriptures don’t give us a ‘laws of nature’ which God must violate in order to do something ‘supernatural’. Instead, they give us a picture of a God who – as the powerful creator of all things – acts within His creation. It’s not a question of when He is acting, but rather when He is not acting.

In this light, we need not call miracles ‘supernatural’, so to speak. Rather than see them as ‘supernatural’ events that ‘happen‘, I think we should see them as powerful actions of the God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth. Remember, the Scriptures insist that God is always active within His good creation (yes, even after the tragic ‘fall’ in Genesis 3), and sometimes… just sometimes… He is active in miraculous and powerful ways that surprise and shock us.

Me, Myself and… Everyone else
Literally everything in our Western, affluent culture suggests that life is all about you getting what you want/’need’. It’s ALL about the individual. I observe and sense much of the same trends in our all-too-individualistic perspective on spirituality. Much is said about ‘me’ having a great experience; ‘my’ spiritual gift; ‘my’ church; ‘my’ testimony; ‘my’ prayer life; etc. I love this quote:

“Despite what you might think from some excitement in the previous generation about new spiritual experiences, God doesn’t give people the Holy Spirit in order to let them enjoy the spiritual equivalent of a day at Disneyland.” – Tom Wright, ‘Simply Christian’

It’s true. It’s not about you. More specifically, it is about others. In the Scriptures and in my own (dare I use the word) experience, the Spirit moves powerfully in community; not in isolation from others. One of my favourite examples of this is when the Apostles got together to discuss ‘what to do about those gosh darn Gentiles’ in Acts 15 (it’s often called ‘the Jerusalem Council’). They get together; talk things over seriously; share perspectives – and emerge with a unified decision, saying ‘It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…’

When was the last time you heard any pastor/preacher/speaker talk like that? I wish we would hear much more of it. If the Apostles (who wrote the majority of the New Testament) were helped in their spiritual discernment processes by getting together and discussing things, then surely we will be!

But the point, of course, is not comparing us to the Apostles, but realising that the same Holy Spirit that guided them is the same Holy Spirit that will guide us – and I am suggesting that He (the Holy Spirit) can do so better in community than He can do in isolation. Am I limiting Him to meetings? Of course not! God is certainly personal and is able to do reveal Himself to us individually. But I insist that we all need to surround ourselves with other people to help us discern and decide; people who (with the Apostle Paul) can say, ‘…and I, too, think I have the Holy Spirit…’

Towards a better spiritual ethic…
I think unity and clarity will come when we are able to focus on the main and plain things of the Spirit. We must remember that the Holy Spirit is God. He is not an ‘it’. He is not an impersonal ‘force’. He is not a drug on which to get ‘high’ on. He is the Spirit of Jesus. He is the Spirit of God. His first and foremost task is to remake (and continue remaking) us into the likeness (character) of Jesus. All of us. Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength.

Call me crazy, un-biblical, un-spiritual or a stick in the mud, but I think this kind of spirituality has very little to do with what happens during a church service or in a prayer closet, and has almost everything to do with what happens outside those places. It may ruffle your Christian feathers, but I think God is more excited with lives of mercy and justice than moments of celebration…

Let’s see all of our lives, all of our priorities, all of our choices, all of our time, all of our money, all of our relationships, all of our possessions, all of our everything – as spiritual. May we see the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, self-control…) in all these areas and more.

tongues: another look

Yes, this article is about the phenomenon known as ‘speaking in tongues’. The subject of ‘tongues’ is perhaps the most clouded of any biblical topic today. In hope to honour God, the Scripture and Christian spirituality, I offer my current understanding of this issue.

‘Tongues’ in the book of Acts – The Gospel in ALL languages
The first[1] chronological occurrence of ‘tongues’[2] in Scripture is at Pentecost in Acts 2.

Luke describes it as amazing and perplexing. “So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘Whatever could this mean?’ ” (2:12) The Apostles, who likely could only speak in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek ‘tongues’ (languages), were speaking ‘the wonderful works of God’ (2:11) in the language of MANY different language groups present at Pentecost – Parthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, (the list goes on in 2:9-11.)

They weren’t speaking gibberish, and they weren’t speaking unknown or ‘heavenly’ languages. The Spirit was miraculously giving them the ability (2:4) to speak ‘the wonderful works of God’ in many different, human, every-day languages.[3]

I’m not sure if we understand how important the Hebrew language was to Jewish people (and still is!).[4] The idea of nation (as in, God’s holy nation of Israel) was inseperable from the tongue (language) of that nation. The attitude of most Jews was that the other nations/tongues weren’t God’s chosen nations/tongues! What was going on at Pentecost was very significant! God was working outside the box! In short, the Gospel was going to go to the filthy, pagan, stinking, non-Hebrew-speaking Gentiles – at least the ones who had faith in Christ.

This was a big deal. Later, in the book of Acts, Peter receives a vision that (among other things) makes it clear that Gentiles were no longer to be shunned. “…You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nations. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (10:28 – and surrounding verses!)

Later on, after Paul is converted to the ‘Way’ of Christ, Luke records a specific occurrence of Gentiles who received the Spirit upon hearing ‘the word’ (the Gospel). The Jewish people couldn’t believe it. “…those of the circumcision who believed (Jewish believers in Christ) were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues (other languages) and magnify God.” Acts 10:45-46

That’s right. Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit that ‘those of the circumcision’ thought was only for them! Gentiles magnifying God in their filthy non-Hebrew language!

Again, these converts weren’t speaking gibberish or unknown languages. The Apostles (possibly themselves knowing these ‘other Gentile languages’ – or at least enough of them to discern what was being said…) knew that God was being glorified.[5] Their ‘astonishment’ wasn’t because of the speaking itself (as if it was something weird), but was rather because of their surprise that ‘the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also’ (which was VERY weird for a pious Jew!).

I won’t take the time to show all the verses in Acts about the ‘door of faith’ being opened to the Gentiles – there are too many of them! This new movement of God is actually one of the primary themes of the entire Book of Acts. Just read the book of Acts and look for this theme. It’s obvious. (and I try not to use that word too often…)

‘Tongues’ in 1 Corinthians – ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the body.’
If we are to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians well, we need to understand why he wrote to them in the first place. We get some key clues from within the letter itself. The Corinthians were good examples of the Roman mindset and lifestyle. In the letter, we clearly see that the Corinthians were prideful about many things. For example, when Paul reminds them in 1:5 that their ‘knowledge’ and ‘utterance’ were enrichments ‘in Him’, we can safely assume that they needed to be reminded of that. You get the idea that they had forgotten this – or needed to be informed of it.

Paul doesn’t waste any time in getting into rebuking the Corinthians for many things. We see that the Corinthians were quite proud of their ‘wisdom’, which Paul humbles them on. Paul points to his own ‘foolish’ preaching when he was with them and suggests that true ‘wisdom’ is found within this ‘foolishness’ (chapters 1 & 2). I would love to go on, but this article is about ‘tongues’; so on to chapter 12 we must go.

The first mention of ‘tongues’ in chapter 12 is verse 10, which is within a series of activities that Paul is mentioning. “…to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues…” Two things feature here for me: 1) the word ‘kinds’ means that there are not just one type of ‘tongue’ but rather several/many ‘kinds’ – which would make sense if we see ‘tongues’ as languages. 2) ‘Tongues’ is here (and elsewhere) paired with the ‘interpretation’ of them – which again makes sense if they are foreign/Gentile/human languages.

After this, Paul takes about 15 verses to discuss the need for unity in the ‘body’[6] and then the chapter ends with another series of roles/activities, and that not everyone has these roles/activities. The series seems divided into at least two: the ‘appointed’, numbered ones (“…first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”) and those ‘after’ that (“…miracles, then gifts of healings, helps administrations, varieties of tongues.”). It seems interesting to note that the non-normative activities (miracles and healings) are grouped with the seemingly more normative ones (helps, administrations and the varieties of tongues).[7]

Then comes Chapter 13. It begins with a literary pattern that is not mentioned often. Paul moves through various activities, giving a ‘big’ example followed by a ‘lofty’ example.

-Though I speak with the tongues of men…

…and of angels

-though I have the gift of prophecy…

…and understand all mysteries and all knowledge

-though I have all faith…

…so that I could remove mountains

-though I bestow all my goods…

…and give my body to be burned

I don’t know anyone who claims to understand all mysteries and all knowledge; or to have removed mountains; or to have the ‘gift’ of giving their body to be burned, but strangely, I often hear people describe their ‘gift of tongues’ as a ‘heavenly’ or ‘angelic’ language based on this passage. I’m not sure that’s what Paul’s point is… The point, of course, is the supremacy of Love.

The only other place ‘tongues’ is mentioned in chapter 13 is when it is said that they will ‘cease’. The next 2 verses seem to suggest that this will happen ‘when that which is perfect (complete) has come’. I’ve heard this passage used to support the view that ‘tongues, miracles, healings – and probably anything else non-normative – ‘ceased’ after the Bible was written, or after the Apostles died. That seems forced to me, to say the least. Verse 12 seems to suggest that the ‘perfect’ that will come is either Jesus Himself or the New Heaven/Earth (or both?). So I say with no hesitation, whatever ‘tongues’ are, they most certainly have not ‘ceased’.

We have finally reached chapter 14 – THE ‘tongues’ chapter.[8] As we move through the chapter, keep in mind that the main goal for Paul is for the church to grow and be edified. Everyone agrees that people in this church were speaking in ‘tongues’ and some (many? all?) didn’t understand what was being said.

This chapter is where the conversation about tongues takes many different directions. Words like ‘spirit’, ‘mysteries’, ‘mind’, ‘understanding’, and ‘sign’ are taken in wildly different ways. Indeed, it is a daunting task to try and sort through them all.

I offer the following statements from what I see in chapter 14 (with verses noted):

  • The ‘tongues’ here are (as everywhere else) human languages/dialects. (14:10-11)
  • Paul strongly suggests (demands?) that ‘tongues’ be interpreted for edification. (14:5, 13, 26-28)
  • The speaker him/herself should try to interpret the ‘tongues’. (14:5, 9, 13, 15?, 19?)
  • Speaking/praying ‘in(by) the Spirit’ is simply to speak/pray truthful, godly, spirit-directed statements/prayers. ALL speaking/praying ‘in(by) they Spirit is good for YOU (and God certainly understands you!), but Paul reminds the Corinthians that when ‘in church (gathering)’, they must seek to ensure that the speaking/praying is not only ‘in(by) the Spirit’, but also is understandable for others to be edified. (14:2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13-17, 19)[9]
  • The Lord speaks to/through people of all languages (Isaiah 28:11 – quoted in 14:21), which is a ‘sign’ to unbelievers of God’s character, but ‘in the church’, if everyone spoke with ‘tongues’ those unbelievers would have quite a different impression! (14:23)

Other things to consider: 1) Corinth was a multi-lingual city, having two sea-ports and being a large center for trading from all over the known world. Speaking and interpreting other languages would have been more than a little helpful! 2) The Greek language was the most widely spoken/written/known language. You were on safe ground using it. If you used another language, you risked not being understood. 3) The Greeks/Romans called the ‘uncivilized’ people on the edges of their Empire ‘barbarians’. They didn’t speak Greek.

I offer these further statements with these 3 points in mind:

  • A ‘tongue’-speaker may indeed mean ‘someone who isn’t (at least for the moment) speaking Greek’ (14:5, 13)
  • Paul would have known many languages of the Greek/Roman world. (14:6, 10, 14, 18)
  • If Paul prayed in a language other than Greek (which he probably knew best – other than Hebrew, perhaps), his prayer was indeed ‘in(by) the Spirit’, but praying in Greek was better for others – and even his own understanding of his prayer. (14:6, 11, 14-15)
  • The frequency of the idea of ‘edification’ in chapter 14, and its ending suggest that the main point is for order, learning and instruction. Which probably means that there was dis-order, confusion and arguments present – and pride. (14:1, 12, 20, 31, 33, 37-40)

Today – Miracles, Experiences and Love
Let me be blunt. To suggest that God ‘doesn’t do miracles’ today is not only dependent on shabby Bible interpretation, but is to deny the God of all power His power. Also, let me assert that my ‘non-miraculous’ reading of ‘tongues’ (excepting the Acts 2 occurrence) in NO way needs to be seen as ‘de-miracle-izing’ God.

God is holding the entire universe together, and without his power, not a single blade of grass would grow. The distinction between the so-called ‘natural’ and ‘super-natural’ is a post-Enlightenment distinction, not a Biblical one. God caused and called nature itself into being – including the surprising and miraculous things that seem to defy nature. The Bible gives us no ‘laws of nature’ for which God must ‘break’ to do a miracle. He is God, and that… is the end of that.

Also, let me say that I fully believe God can and does give people TODAY miraculous language-speaking-abilities in similar fashion to the Acts 2 occurrence. But again, these are not private, heavenly languages, but languages of humans. Humans whom God wants to hear the Gospel of Christ. He is God. He is able to do anything consistent with His own nature.

I do not, however, believe everything I hear, nor everything I read, nor everything I see on T.V. Experience alone, while not to be ridiculed or devalued, is not the final say. Though God can and does heal physically, people at healing meetings full of adrenaline who can honestly ‘feel’ healed, all-too-often end up not being.

Sadly, people can ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things that aren’t real. I don’t believe in the monster under the bed, but I nearly convinced myself as a kid that he was there. To put it another way, if you think you have to be baptised by immersion to be saved, you’re probably going to be baptised by immersion. If you think you have to ‘speak in tongues’ to be saved or a ‘full-on’ believer, you’re certainly more likely to give it a try.

It has to do with our expectations. Well-meaning and genuine believers in Jesus[10] who see and hear others in their faith community speaking in ecstatic ‘gibberish’ (I know of no better word to describe what is often seen/heard) are certainly more likely to do it themselves. In some church settings, the teaching is that this is an essential for true conversion – commonly with back-room ‘training’ sessions where people are ‘taught’ how.[11]

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, much of the modern practise of ‘speaking in tongues’ seems to me to contradict the primary nature, character and personality of the Holy Spirit. ‘Just let it flow’, ‘say whatever comes to mind’, and ‘start with a random syllable and get it going’ don’t fit at all with the pattern of experiences in Scripture.

When the Apostles (and I suggest us as well!) were filled with the Spirit, they spoke the Gospel with boldness. Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as ‘gentleness, patience, self-control’, etc. Ultimately, the primary role/function of the Holy Spirit (who, by the way, is the Spirit of Jesus!), is to direct us to Jesus. To glorify Him, to re-make us into His image. To renew our hearts and minds according to the character of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit leads us not into our prayer closets (though we depend on Him mightily in prayer), but rather out into the world in loving and humble service of others. This is the kind of Spirituality that the world desperately needs.

As Christians, let us seek to major on the majors. To whisper where the Scripture whisper – and SHOUT where the Scripture shout! This is where we have true, un-shakable unity. In Christ and His death and resurrection. Let us share THIS love with the world.

———————–

Endnotes

[1] Paul likely wrote the Corinthian Letters before Luke wrote the book of Acts, but I’m referring to the sequence of actual events, not the records/writings of them.

[2] Actually, ‘tongues’ (as different human languages) is first mentioned in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, when God ‘confounded’ their ‘tongues’ (languages) – causing humanity to spread. It has been well said that Pentecost is the ‘un-doing’ of Babel. The Gospel (and God!) is not partial to any one language.

[3] Which resulted in the representatives from the various places being able to take the Gospel of Christ back to where they lived! In other words, the ‘tongues’ in Acts 2 was for a reason.

[4] Indeed, just the idea of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) was offensive to say the least for many Jews. For them, speaking Greek and reading Greek would inevitably lead to living a Greek lifestyle.

[5] The text doesn’t separate ‘speaking with tongues’ and ‘magnifying God’ as though they were two things. The speaking itself is magnifying God.

[6] Actually, the verses before this (12:4-11) also speak of this unity. Read them and look for the words ‘same Spirit’. This is the main point of chapter 12.

[7] Again, the word ‘varieties’ demands that this is not referring to a single language (heavenly, etc.)

[8] Actually, the chapter downplays the importance of ‘tongues’, and raises the importance of prophecy – so that the body may be edified. Read chapter 14 and look for the word ‘edify’, ‘edifies’ or ‘edified’. See the main point?

[9] For example, a Parthian person praying ‘by the Spirit’ in the Parthian tongue (in the midst of the church/gathering), would be ‘giving thanks well’, but others that didn’t know the Parthian tongue would not be able to understand it, be edified by it, or know whether or not to say ‘Amen’ to it. (14:15-17)

[10] Others have demonised moder-day ‘tongue’-speakers (or claim they are doing so because of demons). I see absolutely NO reason or grounds to do this. My desire is to have unity in the essentials and seek clarity on the non-essentials.

[11] On that note, I find it incredible the amount of detail given in many instructions for speaking in this manner. 99% of it doesn’t even bother trying to tie it in with Scripture, and are rather built purely on the recent (less than 150 years) tradition of experience.

of kings and kingdoms

The first followers of Jesus said many various things about Jesus.
(this is not a huge statement)

Particularly, they called Jesus ‘the King’ and ‘Lord’.
(these, however, were most certainly huge statements then…)

I’m not going to focus on the Jewish side of things – what it might have meant for them to call Jesus ‘King’ or ‘Lord’ – but want to focus on the Greek/Roman side of things…

The Romans hailed Caesar as Lord and King, and allegiance to him was demanded at basically every turn. Prison, torture or death – or maybe all three! – if you didn’t…

The followers of Jesus withheld their allegiance from Caesar.

I wonder how bold they were about this…

Perhaps we’ll never know. Did they keep their noses down and only admit it when pressed to it? Did they rub the Romans’ noses in it? I don’t know…

But what I am convinced of is this:

Their message and Kingdom of Jesus was offensive to the world of Caesar.

The Kingdom of Jesus is up-side down compared to the world of Caesar.

Check this out…

In Acts 17, we see that Paul and Silas preached the message about Jesus to Jews (and Gentile listeners – called ‘devout Greeks’ or ‘God-fearers’) in Thessolonica – which was a Roman city. The message was (and still is, by the way!) that Jesus was ‘the Christ’ (meaning God’s annointed – you guessed it – King.). They convinced LOTS of people (a ‘great multitude’ of the devout Greeks, and ‘not a few’ of the leading women).

The Jews were livid. They gathered what the text calls ‘evil men’ (I’m guessing like ‘hit men’ or something?) from the marketplace, and searched for Paul and Silas to have them… well… you know… probably killed or something. Apparently, they didn’t find them, so they grabbed who they were staying with…

They “…dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city (meaning the ‘Greek’ people in charge of Thessolonica), crying out, ‘These (Paul and co.) who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these (Jason, ‘some brethren’, and Paul and co.) are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another King – Jesus.’ ” (Acts 17:6-7 NKJV – my emphasis and distracting notes added)

Paul and Silas didn’t stay to try and sort things out…

The message and Kingdom of Jesus denies allegiance to all other would-be Kings, Lords, Caesars, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Dictators and more.

More than that (as if that’s not enough!) it also turns the world ‘upside down’.

-Does your faith turn YOUR world ‘upside down’?

-Are you acting contrary to the decrees of ‘Caesar’?

-Are you saying (with your time, money, etc.) that there is ‘another King – Jesus’?

May the Kingdom people be about the King’s business.
May we feel the tension of living in a world that gives allegiance to various other Kings.
May we encourage and strengthen each other to stick it to the false Kings around us…
…in the name of the real King – Jesus.

feelings on theology

Everyone is a theologian.

Theology is simply the ‘logic’ (thought, ideas, study) of ‘theos’ (god), and everyone does this. Even atheists, who claim to be quite certain that the idea of god is silly, spend much time, energy and thought trying to demonstrate this – and therefore, I suggest, they engage in theology.

Anyway, some people put theology on a spectrum with something else – like theology on one end and emotions on the other (as if the ‘goal’ was to stay in the safe ‘middle-ground’ between the two). This is making less and less sense to me. Are not emotions present in all that we do; and – is not even simple reflection about god at least some form of theology?

Emotions matter. Ideas about god matter. We don’t need 50% of each – we need 100% of both.

Having said that, let me be quite clear: I am convinced that emotions (though we need them 100%) cannot be trusted. Sure, feelings are god-given and must not be rejected or disregarded, but were never meant to be relied upon. They are more a ‘thermometer’ to life than a road-map…

Now, the ‘road-map’ of theology can also be trusted too much. We can delude ourselves into thinking we have got it all sorted and sussed. If the apostle Paul can say that ‘we know in part’ (1 Cor. 13) then I think that goes for all of us. But there are certain things (assurance of salvation in Christ alone, the will[desire] of God, etc.) that we can know.

Just as God has given some people more sensitive emotions and feelings, he has given others more critical and thinking minds – and neither is more ‘spiritual’! Both must continually strive to use these things for God’s glory – because it all matters!

We get this messed up all the time. Some christian communities value feelings/emotions so much that critical thought and discernment goes out the window, while others value theology/’truth’ so much that any sign of life or vibrancy is absent.

We must work hard to not be emotion-less or emotional-istic. And we must work hard at theology – because it matters. How we feel and what we think can cause us to do and believe some very interesting (and possibly tragic) things (i.e. – belief that national Israel has to go back into ‘the land’ and restore the ‘temple’ before Christ can return can result in indifference to the atrocious militant actions of the nation of Israel against Palestine that seem to clearly go aganst God’s will[desire]).

Don’t mock people whose emotions are more vibrant than yours. And – don’t think for a moment that theology gets in the way of ‘real’ worship. Instead, love the Lord your God with ALL your heart, soul, mind and strength… together.

covenental confusion

A friend and I was checking out the various ministry booths at a Christian music festival this past weekend. We encountered two ministries that were very similar. Both of them were what you could call ‘pro-Israel’ ministries. Now, I don’t think we should be ‘anti’ Israel, but I do think their understanding of the covenant(s) is reflective of the ‘covenental confusion’ right through Christianity.

If you are not familiar with the topic, the ‘pro-Israel’ position emphasises all things Jewish. They do so with good intent and with the appearance of good reasons. After all, Jesus (and most of the early church) was indeed Jewish.

The ‘pro-Israel’ people will usually teach (or encourage) the observance of various Jewish festivals and rituals (Passover, Sabbath, Days of Unleavened Bread, and much more). They will often point to the various examples of the Jewish-ness of the early church (Synagogue attendance, etc.) and various verses of the New Testament to demonstrate that the early Jewish simply carried on in their Jewish-ness, and to support their suggestions that Christians today need to do these Jewish things as well.

This discussion is vast, (and I’m generalising to keep it short) but I’ll try to explain my understanding of it as simply as I can.

Part of the difficulty is that the Bible wasn’t written in the same style as, for example, a theological encyclopedia. Since the New Testament is not a Covenant Theology handbook, we often see the details of Covenant as we read in-between-the-lines of what the writers are communicating (having said that, you don’t have to read between the lines much in the epistle to the Hebrews!). Another thing to remember: we can see from Acts 15 and Galatians 2 that the Apostles didn’t always see eye to eye about everything. Paul disagrees with Barnabas and Peter at various times.

Having said that (and trying to keep this short), let’s look at the issue further.

Everyone agrees that Jesus ushered in the New Covenant, but the question is this: How is the New different from the Old? What changes to the lifestyle/belief of believers did it make?

OK. Here’s how I see it.

God is a covenental and promise-making God. He doesn’t break His covenants or His promises. As for any and all of the promises of God, Paul is emphatically clear (and I make a point not to be this dogmatic very often) that they are ‘Yes’ in Jesus. In other words, God keeps all His promises, and He keeps them in His way – namely, the Jesus kind of way.

As for the covenant(s), the way I like to say it is this: the ‘Old’ covenant was ‘baptised’ and became the ‘New’ Covenant. Baptism is, of course, a symbol of death and resurrection – of dying and rising. There are too many points of detail, but basically, all of the various aspects of the Old Covenant (the Land, the Temple, the Sacrifice, the Passover, the Sabbath, the Law, etc.) were ‘baptised’ and raised anew. All of their meaning and significance was now found in not a place, time or event, but a Person – namely, Jesus.

The implications of this were huge. Gentiles could ‘come to Jerusalem’ by simply ‘coming to faith in Christ.’ Their circumcision was not of the flesh, but of the heart, and so on…

The Old system was tired, worn and fruitless. God was bringing judgement on Israel. This judgement, however, was going to be like no other. But thankfully, with God, judgement always is one side of the 2-edged sword… the other being blessing. Judgement for fruitless and nationalistic Israel, and Blessing for believing/spiritual Israel.

love the world?

I love this quote from Bishop Tom Wright…“The Christian calling is to know the world with a knowledge that approximates to love. And the point about love – the epistemology which love generates – is that love both affirms the other-ness of the object (objectivity) while remaining in deep, rich and close subjective (subjectivity) relationship to it. Love transcends the objective-subjective divide.

Indeed. Love – true love – is a beautiful marriage of objectivity and subjectivity. It is not merely objective. That kind of ‘love’ would be distant, detached, indifferent and irrelevant. Also, it it not merely subjective, either. That kind of ‘love’ would be spine-less, scared, watered-down and weak.

Objectivity can’t handle interactions with things that are not like ‘it’. Objectivity remains detatched and protects its own ‘other-ness’, lest it become ‘corrupted’ from interaction with the alien ‘other’. Because it remains detached, it will never make a difference. It either escapes altogether, or watches from a distance.

Likewise, subjectivity will never make a difference. It is so interactive with the ‘other’ that it takes on the very nature of the ‘other’ and is therefore no longer itself, and therefore no longer able to influence or change. It is either enveloped-into or itself invelops the other.

God is often described in some of these ways. On one hand, God’s holiness and un-changing nature certainly seems in-corruptible and ‘objective.’ But is God so ‘objective’ that He remains detached, dis-interested and removed from reality? Most certainly not! The Scriptures testify to God dwelling among and being active in His creation – supremely so in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, God’s gentle care and sacrificial love seems to point to a more ‘subjective’ quality of God. But is that to say that God is a push-over or that He compromises His own nature? No way! The Scriptures are clear that God is not mocked, He does not change and there is none like Him!

Not only do we mis-understand the nature of God in these ways, we also can mis-represent Him in these same ways. We can seek to be so pure and undefiled above all else (not ‘of’ the world, but unfortunately also not ‘in’ it!) that we have little or no effect on it. Purity and holiness is vital and important, but that purity and holiness needs to be seen by the impure and un-holy world we live in. This means we cannot retreat into our ‘Christian’ corner of the world.

Also, we can seek to be so ‘relevant’ in the world (‘in’ the world, but also unfortunately ‘of’ it), that we end up being just like it, and therefore have little or no effect on it once again. We must speak in the world’s language and meet them where they are at, but all the while taking care that we are imitating Christ, not the world. How can we expect the world to care about our hope when we dream, plan, spend and consume just like the rest of the world?

I think of two verses that could be seen as contradictory, but aren’t – especially in this light. The first is the ‘objective’ 1 John 2:15; Do not love the world, nor the things of this world.” The second is the ‘subjective’ John 3:16; “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” It’s not either/or. It’s both.

May we love God as God loves the world. In objectivity, may we see the ‘other-ness’ of the ‘world’ not as a threat to escape from, but as a field to work in. In subjectivity, may we seek interaction with the world not in order to imitate it, but in order to influence it.

the heavenly reality

“Heaven.” What a mis-understood word this is!

For some, ‘heaven’ is simply a warm, fuzzy, good, old-fashioned or positive feeling they get when things happen to be going their way. Many others define ‘heaven’ in ways that are not unlike the Greek/Roman idea of the ‘after-life’ – in which your ghostly ‘soul’ floats away on a cloud.

Not only am I nervous about several overly definitive Christian definitions of ‘heaven’, (as if we could know exactly what it is like!) I’m also nervous that we may often mix one or both of the above ideas with the ideas we get from the Bible.

The promise of eternal life for God’s people is clear, but the Bible was not written to give us a encyclopedic definition of it. Rather than that, we are given pictures, glimpses and/or images of what it is. The biblical ‘heaven’ is more lasting than a fleeting ‘shot in the arm’ of cheerful glee, and infinitely more real than your soul flying around in a dis-embodied realm of clouds.

Heaven is the place where God is. It is not sitting at the far corner of the universe, but rather, a completely different dimension altogether. What seems to separate heaven and earth is not light-years of distance in space (or whatever), but rather the current condition of earth and it’s inhabitants. Even still, God’s dimension ‘breaks out’ onto ours in various ways. Heaven breaking out onto earth, is like God’s space ‘overlapping’ with ours. Dwelling with His people in the tabernacle, behind the veil in the Temple and now in our ‘hearts’ by His Spirit are all examples of this.

Now, God’s space wasn’t intended to merely overlap with ours. God’s intention was to ‘share’ His ‘space’ with His image-bearing creatures – us (think Garden of Eden). Human rebellion and degradation has distorted the image of God, and has left us (along with the entire universe) in dire need of restoration of that image.

This is where it get’s exciting…

Christ came (Himself a perfect expression of heaven and earth – God and man) and fulfilled what it meant to be the Image of God. His death defeated the power of evil, and His resurrected body is the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s restored order of being! God’s New Creation has begun! The reality of heaven has burst onto the scene, and it looks, feels and sounds like Jesus!

Indeed, the Christian hope of Heaven is not having spots of ecstatic bliss, and not soul-soaring in the sky. It is sharing God’s life in a New Heaven and New Earth that has been resurrected, re-made, re-built and restored to God’s intention.

That day is sure to come, but we don’t have to sit on our bums and wait for it to come. Jesus begs us to pray that Day (even just a grain of it!) into Today. “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Every good deed we do in Jesus name and in the power of the Spirit (and only by His Spirit, thank you very much) is a fresh work of New Creation that is not in vain (1 Cor. 15 – end of chapter).

fighting over the god of abraham?

U2 rocked Mt. Albert Stadium this past Friday.In addition to providing exhilarating entertainment and much more, Bono – to the surprise of none – beat his drum of anti-poverty and world peace. Noble indeed. At one point, Bono donned a white bandana with the word ‘Coexist’ in black letters. The Crescent moon of Islam, the Jewish Star of David, and the Christian Cross in place of the ‘C’, ‘X’ and ‘T’.The idea is obvious and wonderful: These three world religions ought to be able to exist together without murdering each other. From the horrific Crusades involving all three, to the Nazi extermination of Jews (and others) in the name of Christ, to the more recent acts of terrorism by Muslim fundamentalists, the world has seen more than enough violence in the name of religion. To advocate peace is undeniably a good and desperately needed cause.

During this part of the concert, Bono pointed out that Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim Abraham as a father-figure and are happy to call themselves ‘Sons of Abraham’. One phrase he used to drive this home was “Jesus. Jew. Mohammed. It’s true.”

The reaction from some of the Christian community has been quite interesting. Some see Bono as equating the three faiths, and others defend him as merely trying to advocate peace and using their common ground with Abraham to do so. At any rate, the following question has resurfaced in many conversations: Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

I’d like to answer the question with another: Do Christians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses worship the same Jesus? Whether we like it or not, the answer to these questions is both Yes and No.

On one hand, we can point to the basic, general things the faiths have in common. Jews, Christians and Muslims all share the same principles of monotheism (all 3 believe in One God), election (all 3 believe that God chooses a people to be His own) and eschatology (all 3 believe in a future hope of eternal life with God).

On the other hand, we can point to the many more ways in which they are different. The number of different beliefs is too many to list here, so I’ll just focus on the one that is not only the biggest, but the most important – Jesus.

Jews believe Jesus was a good prophet and teacher, but far from Messiah, and anything but Lord of the Universe. Muslims believe that Jesus was ‘a messiah’ that will return to earth again, but don’t see him as ‘the Messiah’ and certainly not as God incarnate.

The Christian faith centers on Jesus. He is the One Lord; of the One people of God; who have the One glorious hope of resurrection.

One of the great things about serving Jesus is that he doesn’t ever ask us to kill in the name of religion. Though there are differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity which will always separate us spiritually, we should have no problem coexisting with them physically.

I’ll close by quoting the end of a discussion Jesus had with the Pharisees of his time.

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” – John 8:56-58

jesus means this much

What does Jesus ‘mean’ to you?

Most responses would not be too likely to stray too far from the very familiar bible verse, John 3:16. We don’t often recognise Jesus as being much more than someone who died for ‘me.’ To be absolutely certain, Jesus most assuredly did die for ‘me‘, but I think it it vital that we push through this individualism and realise that He is also so much more than that! Not only is He Lord of my heart, He is also Lord of the entire universe.

The Gospel-writers wanted to direct their audience to the true Jesus. The Jesus that the Holy Spirit had been (and still was) opening and renewing their minds to see more clearly. Not just a one-sided, prop-up Jesus, to give the intellectual nod to, and/or give a nice, warm and fuzzy hug. Instead they wanted them to see a full-fledged, exasperating Jesus, to worship, adore and serve – indeed, to die for.

This, I think, is why the Gospel-writers didn’t simply provide us with a handful of happy texts telling us only that God loves us (or a list of texts about how to discover the secret Jesus, as in the later-written Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas). Instead, they wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Instead of giving a list of things to believe about Jesus, or whatever, they wrote stories – indeed, true stories. These stories – in very different, yet complimentary ways – have much more to say about Jesus than simply that he died for ‘me.’

Instead, the Gospel-writers drew upon the rich story of their people (Israel), and presented Jesus as the centre, the theme, the end, the solution, the climax – even the very point! – of this story. In other words, for the Gospel-writers, all who Jesus was/is and all that He accomplished had eclipsed and surpassed the meaning of the entire story of Israel!

For example, everything that the Temple had ever meant or stood for, was trumped by Jesus. The author of Matthew records Jesus declaring that He was ‘greater than the temple.’ (12:6) John’s Gospel tells it more explicitly, “Jesus… said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…’ …but He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this…” (2:19-22)

The New Testament way of speaking about this ‘trumping of meaning’ is called ‘fulfilling.’ This is one area in which I think we may need to re-evaluate our thinking. I think the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as ‘ful-filling’ the meaning of not just a few ‘proof’ verses here and there, but the Old Testament as a whole! I think He means that much!

Take Isaiah’s Suffering Servant imagery in chapter 53, for example. We often reduce the entire passage down to a few verses, but the image of the Suffering Servant is not just in a few verses in this chapter. It is a broader, much larger image (beginning in ch. 42), thought by many to represent the entire nation of Israel itself, or a specific leader at the time. With our limited perspective, we may not know what each and every verse meant at the time, but I suspect the writer knew. I’ve heard people say that Jesus must have been un-attractive based on the verse that says, ‘there is no beauty that we should desire Him‘. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is this: The Gospel writers saw Jesus as ‘trumping’ the meaning of the Suffering Servant. Every single scrap of meaning that the Servant imagery had, is even more fully realised in Jesus. He is the personification of Suffering, and the personification of Service. Indeed, the word became flesh!

What I’m suggesting is that Jesus doesn’t merely ‘fulfill’ a verse here and there, but rather He embodies the entire story of Israel. Every holy place (temple, Jerusalem, etc.), every role (prophet, priest, king), every event (passover, sabbath, etc.) and every other symbol (covenant, manna, law) finds its substance in Him! He is the Tabernacle, the Sacrfice, the High Priest, the Passover, the Sabbath, the Law, the Covenant, the King, the Prophet, the Warrior, the Slave, the Lamb, the Messiah, the True Israelite, the Son of Man, and so on… (The writer of Hebrews moves from symbol to symbol in similar fashion, yet in meticulous detail.)

May we see Jesus for all that He is. May we see Him as so much more (and no less!) than our personal, individual Jesus. May we see Him as some-One to live and die for.

eating from the wrong tree

Though many Christians would like to try – and sometimes do try, I don’t think we will ever be able to solve all the world’s morality problems. I’m thinking we might as well get used to it.

But in spite of this, we just love to try and ‘battle’ against the world’s morality. Now, I’m not advocating moral relativism – where right and wrong are determined by what you had for breakfast. I most certainly believe in true good and true evil. What I am suggesting, however, is that rather than it being our job to sort this out, we are to trust God to do so. When we try to sort out the good/evil thing, we are trying to so something that only God can do.

This mistake is actually at the heart of the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve were given absolute freedom in the garden to eat from any tree they liked, and were forbidden to eat from just one tree. Genesis 2:16-17, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Good and evil were held secure by God – no assistance or meddling needed.

Well, tending the garden and eating from any of the other trees just wasn’t enough. They apparently wanted to help God with good and evil as well. The key verse is Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and was a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of it’s fruit and ate.” The results of this are in Gen. 3:22, “…the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil…’ ”

All talk of apples and snakes aside, let’s see what the story is getting at – she ate from the tree that she thought would make her wise! All of the other trees in the garden were ‘good for food’ and ‘pleasing to the eye’ (Gen. 2:9), but this tree had more. This isn’t simply about eating an apple when you were meant to stick to oranges and figs! Neither is it talking about Eve simply wanting more wisdom to make better life choices. This is much more serious. This is the inversion of the creator/creation relationship! This is about Adam and Eve trying to take God’s place!

I wonder if we eat from the same ‘tree’ today. Do we try to tackle morality (good/evil) in our own hands? Who are we to do that!? Please don’t hear me saying that morality doesn’t matter. It matters so much that it takes God to sort it out! Yes, the ‘garden’ needs tending (Gen. 2:15), but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that God needs our help sorting out good/evil. The more we focus on sorting out the world’s morality problems, the more we show we don’t trust God to do it.

May we eat freely from all of the life God has given us.