What is the church and what is it for? In the West we live in a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian world whose fundamental beliefs are secular humanist. The great public symbols of Christian authority have been cast to the ground and trampled under foot. The last vestiges of a Christian culture are being slowly erased. The referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland taking place today is an immediate illustration of the point. This is a profoundly challenging situation for the church, and in my view we are generally finding it very difficult to reconstruct a credible and workable identity and purpose for ourselves in this brave new world.
This issue came up in some teaching I did recently. Why did Jesus instruct his disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles or to the towns of the Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-15)? Doesn’t that contradict the “great commission”, when the disciples are sent out into the whole world to make disciples of all nations? Students tended to resolve the problem by arguing that the kingdom was offered first to Israel as God’s chosen people and then to everyone else. That seems to me to be at best half right and to entail a mistaken notion of the kingdom of God.
The underlying assumption seemed to be that kingdom is roughly equivalent to salvation. It is a wonderful new thing that is held out to humanity on the grounds of the death of Jesus, and it is only really an accident of “salvation-history” that the Jews got first bite of the cherry.
This gets both kingdom and salvation wrong. The mission of the disciples in Matthew is meaningful only on the assumption that “kingdom” is and remains an integral part of Israel’s story. It is not something extraneous that is offered to Israel first like a cream cake, which they turn down because they are dyed-in-the-wool legalists, and it’s then passed round to the Gentiles, who scoff it gratefully. In fact, I would say, the story of Israel is the story of kingdom. Or it’s the story of how to fail and succeed at cake making.
Like a lot of people who promote the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal suffering, J.D. Greear insists, in “7 Truths About Hell” on the Gospel Coalition site, that he would happily erase the belief from Christian teaching if he could, but he can’t because it’s in the Bible, so we have to live with it. Besides, it is his view that we can’t fully understand God and his world unless we come to terms with the doctrine. To that end he sets out “seven truths” that he thinks should frame our discussion of the topic.
The problem is that the fact of hell is merely taken for granted—we are asked to take C.S. Lewis’ word for it. You would have thought that a set of seven framing truths would have a demonstrable biblical or theological relationship to the doctrine that supposedly sits in the middle of them. But they don’t. They are arbitrary and incoherent; they don’t appear to frame anything in particular; and where scripture does come into the picture, it is speaking about something other than hell as popularly understood.
Samuel had judged Israel all the days of his life, doing the circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah. In his old age he appointed his two sons as judges over Israel, but as is sometimes the case with public officials, they turned out to be corrupt: “They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 7:15-8:3). So the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king in place of his worthless sons. Samuel was reluctant to do so, but God made it very clear that he was to give them what they wanted.
This is the point at which the story about the kingdom of God begins in scripture. The episode gives us two of the three main components of the concept. It also teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological or, for that matter, cosmic abstraction—it belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community.
There are two incidents in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus demonstrates mastery over the sea. In one he calms a storm with a word of rebuke (Mk. 4:35-41); in the other he walks on the water as the disciples struggle to cross the Sea of Galilee at night, seemingly with the intention of passing by them (Mk. 6:45-52). In recent debates over Jesus’ “divine identity” both these stories have been interpreted as evidence that Mark intended his readers to discern an identification between Jesus and the God of Israel. It is YHWH who stills the storm when scattered Israel cries out to him in distress, so that his people may reach their “desired haven” (Ps. 107:29-30). It is YHWH who “alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground” (Job 9:8 LXX). If it is now Jesus who does these things, then Jesus must be God.
There are two main debates that the church has engaged in over the Lord’s Supper, one having to do with theory, the other with practice. First, what is the relation between the physical elements of the “meal” and the person of Jesus? Is Jesus really present in the substance of the bread and the wine? Or are they merely symbolic representations of his sacrificial death for the sins of humanity? Or something in between? Secondly, should the Lord’s Supper be celebrated ritualistically, as a profound sacramental mystery, or pragmatically, as a common fellowship meal? Or something in between?
The two questions are closely linked. If we believe that the bread and wine have been changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus, then we will handle them with great reverence and ceremony. If they are the symbolic means of commemorating a past event in the context of an ordinary meal, then the celebration can be much more informal. Or something in between.
William Hartman is the co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, which presumably makes him a reputable scientist. In a March 2015 article in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science, which is presumably a reputable scientific publication—you get a bit wary about these things—he argues that the bright light that Paul saw as he approached Damascus could have been a fireball meteor like the one seen above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013. The points of correspondence are moderately impressive.
I came across this comment from Peter Enns this week: “I am very amenable to Andrew’s approach and others like it—although I still do a double-take at Matt 24:30-31.” That sort of remark—particularly from someone as sane as Peter Enns—usually makes me go back and look at the text again. I think I’ve got this whole thing right—the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ eschatology—and it troubles me when people disagree, especially when they are otherwise amenable to the narrative-historical approach.
But it’s funny how sometimes it doesn’t take much to cast a passage in a new light. Working through Matthew’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse again in reaction to Peter’s scepticism, it occurred to me that I may have over-restricted the scope of Jesus’ statement about the Son of Man (Matt. 24:29-31). Maybe.
My view is that one of the main challenges that the church in the West faces—at least from my late-Protestant and somewhat post-evangelical perspective—is to learn to tell our “story” differently. This has to do, in the first place, with how we understand ourselves as a biblical people, but it also has powerful missional implications: the story we tell about ourselves determines how we present ourselves to the world and how we engage with the world. Most of what I have written on this site is an attempt to address this challenge, one way or another.
I have written a few times about the controversial doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (see below). A friend got in touch this week asking whether I thought the word “chastisement” in Isaiah 53:5 should be read “through a filter of penal substitution”—she had discovered (via the Septuagint) that the word can also mean “instruction”. Here’s the passage:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement (musar) that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. 53:4–6)