The marginalised servant of the Lord: existence, function, and dysfunction

I have two preliminary points to make from a biblical perspective.

First, the story of Jesus and the early church as told in the New Testament is not a departure from the story of Israel. On the contrary, we must insist that it is much closer in presuppositions, outlook, and expectations to Old Testament and second temple Judaism than to what became known as “Christianity.” I won’t attempt to defend the claim here, but arguably it is not Pentecost that marked the boundary between the old and the new but the parousia of apostolic vision—the moment when Jesus was “revealed” to the nations of the Greek-Roman world and the whole project was reconfigured as a post-Jewish undertaking.

From a post-Christendom perspective, therefore, it can no longer be held that the mission of the church is simply to continue the so-called “great commission” of Matthew 28:19-20. That was a mission-within-a-mission—an integral part of the story of the end of the age of second temple Judaism and the beginning of European Christendom. If we are going to make disciples from all nations today, we have first to ask why, to what end. What are they needed for?

Secondly, the mission of the church is not to participate in a work of redemption primarily, any more than it was of Israel before it. The salvation of lost souls is not the raison d’être of the church, despite the massive prominence given to the task in traditional evangelicalism. It is at most a secondary or subsidiary function. The more recent socially and environmentally sensitive emphasis on the redemption of creation actually has no biblical basis whatsoever. To speak of the transformation of societies as the object of mission has more merit but needs to be qualified historically.

So what is the “mission” of the church in biblical terms? I’ll do my best to explain briefly—not for the first time, I hasten to add, but I think I need to clarify an important step in the argument. I will suggest that Isaiah’s “servant of the Lord” motif gives us the best way of ascribing a positive identity and purpose to the dwindling remnant of the Christendom church in the West.

Existence

The church exists, in the first place, as a “new creation,” which means that it exists as a social-religious entity in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. As such, its purpose, at base level, is to live out the creational ideal of a righteous, flourishing human society in dynamic relationship with the God who made the heavens and the earth. The vocation goes back to the renewal of the creation mandate in the promises made to Abraham and his family: they will be blessed, they will be fruitful, they will multiply, and will fill the land that God will give them. This ideal way of being is often called “shalom,” from the Hebrew word for “peace,” but I think that this is misleading. Shalom is not human flourishing; it is a necessary condition for human flourishing.

So in the simplest terms the people of God exists as a “new creation” garden—or some other protected and cultivated space, such as a vineyard—in an “old creation” wilderness dominated since Babel by the great civilisations.

The human wilderness, in biblical perspective, is bound to be humanist in its basic ethical and teleological orientations. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was Nimrod—the first of the “mighty men”—who inspired the post-flood generation to build a city and a tower in Babylon out of a determination not to live in cowardly submission to God (Antiquities 1:113-117). He persuaded them not to ascribe their prosperity to God “as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness” (1:113). That is the essence of humanism in all its guises.

Certain basic theological corollaries follow from this fundamental existential premise.

Function

First, the garden or vineyard of God’s blessed new creation needs to be properly maintained. It flourishes because it is “cultivated,” and cultivation means obedience to a comprehensive set of social-religious standards and practices, given initially in the Law of Moses but then written on the hearts of the people by the Spirit of God.

Secondly, by its very existence the new creation garden or vineyard mediates the presence of God in the world. Israel was determined as a priestly people, through whom the nations would gain some knowledge of the power and goodness of the living creator God. Just as the priestly castes in Israel mediated between YHWH and his people, so Israel as a priestly people mediated between their God, who was God of the whole earth, and all humanity.

The priestly responsibility emerges directly from the clash with Egyptian political-religious power. There is at times a polemical and confrontational dimension to it. A few months after the escape from Egypt the Israelites reach the mountain in Sinai and Moses is instructed to tell the people:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exod. 19:4–6)

It is presumably a two-way mediation: as a royal priesthood Israel presented God to the world but also presented the needs and offerings of the nations to God. That is certainly how the first century Jewish philosopher Philo understood it:

it seemed good to the Ruler and Governor of the universe to recompense [Moses] with the sovereign authority over a more populous and more powerful nation, which he was about to take to himself out of all other nations and to consecrate to the priesthood, that it might for ever offer up prayers for the whole universal race of mankind, for the sake of averting evil from them and procuring them a participation in blessings. (Philo, Moses 1:149)

Thirdly, the garden or vineyard which was the new creation of the living God in microcosm, planted in a wilderness, was always under threat from a range of corrupting and destructive forces, some of them internal, some of them external. This is why it was to be a royal priesthood and a kingdom of priests. A political identity was required. The reason why the people came to the prophet Samuel to ask for a king was that they wanted someone to judge them and to lead them in battle against their enemies—to deal both with the internal dangers and with the external dangers (1 Sam. 8:19-20). In that inconspicuous formula we have the essence of the “kingdom of God motif: it is God, as king himself or through his anointed king, judging his people and delivering them from their enemies.

The New Testament, in the first place, is the story of how the garden or vineyard of Israel was handed over to new management: God acted sovereignly to give his Son a future inheritance and to transfer oversight of his new-creation-in-microcosm from the rich and powerful to the poor and wretched in Israel. But this catastrophic process—centred on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—also became the means by which a much larger historical ambition was fulfilled.

Dysfunction

The biblical people of God, therefore, exists as a “new creation” community in a world that will always pursue its own agenda. It functions as a dedicated priestly people, with the purpose of mediating between the living God and humanity in the interests of both parties. In that simple two part definition we have both life and purpose.

The model, however, has always been inherently unstable—it is constructed, after all, from the same stuff that empires are made of. It requires both a high level of conformity to the ways of the living God (Law) and active management by God (kingdom).

Unsurprisingly, the arrangement proved very difficult to sustain over time. Either Israel failed to live up to the required standards internally, or its security was threatened by hostile nations externally. The link between the two lay at the heart of Israel’s covenant theology.

So when the model broke down, when it became dysfunctional—when Israel was expelled from the land or contaminated by an unclean pagan presence—how was Israel useful? This is where Isaiah’s suffering servant comes into the picture.

The servant is admittedly a complex figure, but one important strand describes the later exilic community as an unprepossessing servant of YHWH, scorned by the nations, which suffered because of the sins of Israel, but through whose faithfulness YHWH would restore his people and, in some sense, extend salvation to the ends of the earth (Is. 49; 52:13-53:12). The suffering servant community would be the vehicle or instrument of a massive, long-term historical transformation that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the old paganisms and the geo-political-religious realignment of the ancient near eastern world around the city of YHWH (cf. Is. 45:22-46:2).

There are echoes of this narrative in the New Testament, and I would argue that, in effect, its takes this whole very long period, from the exile to the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, for Isaiah’s vision to be fulfilled through a faithful, suffering part of Israel, encapsulated, in the Christian telling, in the experience of Jesus—the Son sent to the mismanaged vineyard to do the work of a servant.

But it is Daniel’s account of the perseverance of the righteous in the face of severe opposition at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes that furnishes the most important representation of the usefulness of faithful suffering. When the old pagan empires are put in their place and the most terrifying beast from the sea is destroyed, it is the “one like a son of man” who comes with the clouds of heaven to be vindicated before the tribunal and to be granted glory and government of the nations (Dan. 7). Jesus and his followers claimed that vision for themselves.

The marginalised servant of the Lord

The despised and rejected servant of YHWH, therefore, became the means by which the creator God, who is the God of history, brought ancient paganism to an end and established in its place a civilisation that worshipped one God and honoured Israel’s executed messiah as Lord.

This is the correction to the model that I wanted to make. In a time of crisis, when the people of God is barely able to maintain its new creation existence and priestly function, it may become a servant of the Lord, an agent of “eschatological” transformation. The emergence of a prophetic voice is secondary to that practical purpose. The prophets make sense of what is happening, they tell the story, they conjure up dramatic new futures, but it is the servant who must live out the story.

We are again in crisis mode. The church in the West is having to come to terms with the collapse of Christendom and the growing strength and self-confidence of the dominant secular humanist culture. But the church has barely registered the theological seriousness of the more fundamental “geological” shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene that is underway.

The church is not suffering much, but it is certainly being marginalised. We have no form or majesty, no very desirable beauty; we bear the grief of our long, slow obsolescence; we are chastened by our failure to move with the times; we are dysfunctional. We have no response to the climate crisis beyond a lame and belated recommendation of creation care.

So I want to speak of the usefulness of the marginalised servant of the Lord.

The old western church is struggling to exist as new creation and function as a priestly people, just as Israel struggled under pagan domination. The church is becoming marginalised and ineffectual; it lacks credibility, it appears redundant. But these may be precisely the circumstances under which it will become, paradoxically, the servant of the living God for the sake of some as yet unimagined historical “salvation” or transformation. We shall see.

Kevin Holtsberry | Thu, 07/07/2022 - 15:16 | Permalink

Thought provoking and helpful post. I am giving the sermon at my church in a week and a half and I plan to offer some thoughts on the church in the post-Christendom world. Your approach will be a key thread in my discussion.