Last month the Pew Research Centre published the results of a survey of the level of religious commitment of people in Western Europe who self-identify as Christians. The basic finding appears to be that people who call themselves “Christian” in Western Europe are less actively religious—less likely to go to church, pray, believe in God, etc.—than people who call themselves “nones” in America.
In his Gospel Coalition assessment of the report Joe Carter blames the problem on a lack of evangelism. According to the study only about 8% of Christians in the 15 countries surveyed say that they “try to persuade other adults to adopt their religious views”. Carter quotes the “great commission” and concludes: “Perhaps it’s not surprising that Christianity is dying in the nations in which Christ’s disciples fail to obey that command.”
I think he may have got the cart before the horse. The slow death of Christianity in Western Europe is the cause, not the effect, of the failure to evangelise—not least because it has forced the churches here to reconsider what sort of good news it has to offer the world. Is it really a matter of persuading other adults to adopt my religious views? It may still seem to sections of the American church that this is primarily a numbers game, but in the European context it is probably fair to say that the missional focus has broadly shifted from quantity to quality. This may seem merely defeatist, but I think that there is an important biblical point to make here, which I will come to later.
The report is a good backdrop, nevertheless, against which to read the second of Jesus’ “beatitudes”, which I had reason to do this week: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Jesus didn’t make the beatitudes up. The form is traditional (eg., Ps. 33:12; 106:3), and the content is taken almost entirely from the Old Testament. If the beatitudes are the prologue to some sort of manifesto, then it was a manifesto for first century Israel in clear and direct continuity with the story that we have in the Old Testament. The sermon on the mount is firmly pegged to a very specific narrative time and place.
The first two beatitudes are an allusion to Isaiah 61:1-2, which is the passage that Jesus reads at the outset of his ministry, according to Luke, in the synagogue in Nazareth. The text is programmatic for his mission to Israel. A prophet has been appointed by God “to bring good news to the poor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Is. 61:1–2). The perennial question of whether the “poor” are materially or spiritually destitute (cf. Lk. 6:20) misses the point: they are the ʿanawim—that wretched community of forsaken Israelites that lived in and around the ruins of Jerusalem in the exilic period.
What Isaiah describes in this passage is the glorious restoration of Jerusalem following decades of devastation and exile (Is. 60-61). That is the “good news” (cf. Is. 52:7) that is proclaimed to the “poor” and to those who “mourn in Zion”. The nations would be so impressed by the saving intervention of the God of Israel that they would enthusiastically support the return of the exiles to the land and actively participate in the rebuilding and enrichment of the city and the temple. The descendants of the nations that inflicted such great suffering and ruin on Jerusalem would come and bow down and serve the city; those nations which refused to submit would perish. The people would all be righteous and would possess the land for ever. The nations would see that the Lord had blessed his people, and they would look to Israel as “priests of the Lord… ministers of our God”.
That’s roughly what Isaiah had in mind…
The consolation of Israel
When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (paraklēthēsontai)”, he is in some manner retelling Israel’s story. He has in view the ʿanawim in first century Israel who were mourning over the wretched condition of YHWH’s people—people like the righteous and devout Simeon, who was looking for the “consolation” or “comfort” (paraklēsin) of Israel (Lk. 2:25).
So just to make it clear, this is good news in the past tense. The gospel that Jesus proclaimed was not the message of personal salvation that Carter thinks should be boldly proclaimed to secular Europeans today. It was the announcement to a captive nation that their God was about to put everything right, at whatever cost. Of course, that is still good news today, but not in the way that the Gospel Coalition understands it.
Jerusalem, however, was not in ruins and the people were not in exile—pace Tom Wright. As far as Jesus is concerned, the wrath of God against the city lies in the future, not in the past. What he proclaims to the poor in spirit and to those who mourn is not the restoration of the city and the political-religious re-centering of the nations of the Greek-Roman world around Zion and its temple. It is the coming of the kingdom of God; and at the sharp end of this vision is the precise, defiant and seemingly blasphemous response to Caiaphas: “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
This is the outcome, the decisive intervention of YHWH, that will transform the current wretched condition of Israel. Jesus must be handed over and must suffer at the hands of his enemies—a critical moment in the rebellion. But when YHWH finally judges this wicked and adulterous generation of Israel by the destruction of their city and the temple, the Son of Man will be seen to be vindicated and glorified (cf. Matt. 24:29-30). He has been seated at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies (c. Ps. 110:1-2).
And from that moment on in the eschatological narrative of the New Testament attention shifts elsewhere…
The response of the nations
The saving act of God will be quite different from the one that Isaiah envisaged, but other elements in the vision of Isaiah 60-61 remain profoundly relevant.
First, Israel will become a new people. They will all be righteous and will enjoy an everlasting inheritance (60:21); the Lord will make an “everlasting covenant with them” (61:8); they will be blessed (61:9).
Secondly, the logic of the salvation of Gentiles is the same in the New Testament as in the Old Testament. YHWH judges, saves and restores his people; the nations sit up and take notice; they are deeply impressed by what YHWH has done; so they abandon their idols to serve the living God and wait for his Son from heaven, who will save them from the wrath that will soon come on the pagan world (cf. Rom. 15:8-9; 1 Thess. 1:9-10).
Thirdly, in the new order of things, restored Israel, now including “saved” Gentiles, will be recognised by the nations as a legitimate, qualified, anointed priesthood in the service of the creator God (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-5). This, I think, is what Christendom was to be theoretically: the nations of the Greek-Roman world would worship YHWH instead of the gods of the old pantheons, confessing his Son as King of kings and Lord of lords; and the churches, as communities of ordinary anointed believers, would replace the professional pagan priesthoods.
Such an eschatological outcome was perhaps beyond the horizon of the poor in spirit and those who mourned in Zion, but it’s where the New Testament story takes us.
Blessed are those who mourn today
So here’s the point about evangelism in Western Europe—I can only speak for my own context. If there is nothing extraordinary about the life of the church, people will not sit up and take notice. Evangelism is not persuading other adults to adopt my religious views. It is drawing the world’s attention to the concrete evidence of what God has done on behalf of his people and for the sake of his own reputation. But if all we have to present to the world is a confused, fractious, narcissistic, corrupt, moribund institution, we can hardly expect post-Christian Europe to be very impressed.
Yes, there are those like Carter who argue—from a distance—that we just need to do as we’re told and get on with the great commission, as though nothing has happened, and perhaps there is something in that.
But I think realistically that we are much more like Isaiah’s ʿanawim, grieving over the derelict state of the City of God, much more like the poor in spirit and those who mourn, who are waiting for God to step in and reform a people that does more to harm than to promote his reputation among the nations. This to me is the real test of the church in the West: do we give our God a good name? I’m not sure we do, and I mourn over that.