Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times (Luke 21:5-37)

I have spent most of the last eight years writing on incarnational-Trinitarian theology for pastors and church leaders in the Global South. I have developed a program called the Academy of Bible and Theology that offers free educational resources to impoverished pastors in the villages and rural areas of the Global South. As of this month, our program consists of ten courses. The following post is from our course on the Gospel of Luke

While Jesus is teaching, some of his disciples comment on the beautiful stones that adorn the temple. In response, Jesus says that “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” The disciples want to know when “these things” will happen and what will be the “sign” that they are about to take place (vs 5-7). Jesus responds with a controversial prophecy about false prophets, wars, earthquakes, famines, disease and “great signs from heaven” (vs 8-10). He tells the disciples that they will be persecuted and brought before kings, “all on account of my name.” They are not to worry, however, because he will give them wisdom to speak in defence of themselves (vs 12-15). The disciples will be betrayed by family and friends and everyone will hate them. Some will even be put to death. But Jesus tells them to stand firm and they “will win life” (vs 16-19). (Since some will be put to death, Jesus must be referring to spiritual protection and the eternal life that awaits his followers.)

In this complex passage, Jesus is warning his disciples. He is preparing them for the trials and tests that lie ahead. In the years to come, many Jews will remember Jesus as the one who turned people away from the law of Moses, the one who kept company with sinners, who befriended Gentiles, and who threatened to bring down the wrath of the Romans, because he preached about another kingdom that was coming. As a result, his followers will be persecuted, put on trial and blamed for many of the troubles that the Jews experience under Roman oppression. Some, including Peter, James, the brother of Jesus, and later, the apostle Paul, will be put to death. But through it all, Jesus will be with them, both in this life and in the life to come.

What is the “sign” of the terrible things that will soon happen? What great event are the disciples to watch for? Jesus has already given the sign. He has enacted the judgement to come upon the temple by driving out the merchants and money-changers. The temple stands for everything Jesus is against. It has become a “den of robbers” (Luke 19:45, 46). With its corrupt priesthood, it is the symbol of Israel’s perversion, and its failure to fulfil its calling as the light to the nations. Thus, the temple’s destruction cannot be far away.

COMMENT: The destruction of the temple is unimaginable to most Jews in the 1st century. It will seem like “the end of the world.” It will mark the end of their existence as they have known it. A similar event today would be something like a foreign army destroying Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace in the U.K, or the White House, the Congress Building and the Washington monument in the U.S.A.

Next, Jesus predicts events concerning the city of Jerusalem. The city has failed to heed his message of peace, and the people will put their Messiah to death. Nevertheless, Jesus will be proven right. The Jews’ failure to follow his way of peace in favour of armed rebellion will lead to disaster. When the disciples see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they will know that its destruction is near. Thus, everyone should flee to avoid the disaster (vs 20, 21), like the Jews in exile, who fled when destruction came upon the city of Babylon (see Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; 51:6). This will be a dreadful time of “punishment.” There will be distress and wrath in the land, and people will fall by the sword. (Hundreds of thousands of Jews will be killed during the fall of Jerusalem.) Many will be taken as prisoners to “all the nations” and “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (vs 20-24).

COMMENT: The meaning of “the times of the Gentiles” (vs 24) is subject to debate. It may refer to the time that Jerusalem is ruled by pagan (Gentile) empires. In 1st Century Jewish thought, Rome will be the last pagan empire to rule Jerusalem before the coming of the Messiah to establish his kingdom.

Signs in the sun, moon and stars will follow, and the waves of the sea will toss and roar. People will faint with terror because of what is happening, for “the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (vs 25, 26). Jesus uses apocalyptic language, the dramatic speech of a prophet, to describe a major event in the history of God’s people. This is “end of the world” language, because that is how it will seem to those who experience the terrible destruction to come.

“At that time,” says Jesus, “they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” When these things take place, the disciples will know that their “redemption is drawing near” (vs 27, 28). According to Professor N.T. Wright:

“The ‘coming of the son of man’ must then be understood, as first-century Jews would certainly have understood it, as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel 7. One of the most popular prophecies of the day, this passage was believed to speak about the time when God’s true people [Israel] would be vindicated [“declared in the right”] after their suffering at the hands of the ‘beasts’, the pagan nations who had oppressed them. This prophecy imagines a great lawcourt scene, in which God, the judge, finds in favour of his people [Israel], ‘the son of man’, and against the oppressive ‘beast’. The judgement that falls on the pagan nations is the same judgement that vindicates ‘the son of man’, who is then brought on a cloud to share the throne of God himself.”

[NOTE: The term, “son of man,” can refer both to the nation of Israel as a whole and to the Messiah as an individual.]

Professor Wright continues: “The best way of understanding this passage in Luke is then to see it as the promise that, when the Jerusalem that had opposed his message is finally overthrown, this will be the vindication of Jesus and his people, the sign that he has indeed been enthroned at his Father’s side in heaven (see 20.42–43). Luke does, of course, believe in the ‘second coming’ of Jesus (Acts 1.11), but this passage is not about that. It is about the vindication of Jesus and the rescue of his people from the system that has oppressed them.”—Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 255-256). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

COMMENT (from the Academy of Bible and Theology): The prophet Daniel has a vision of four beasts, or powerful pagan nations, that oppress God’s people. The four beasts are Babylon, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire beginning with Alexander the Great, and finally, the Roman Empire. These four beasts, or pagan nations, rule over God’s people at one time or another. In the time of Jesus, God’s people are ruled by the most powerful beast of them all, the Roman Empire. In Daniel’s vision, one like the “son of man” comes on the clouds to the throne of God, where the “Ancient of Days” (God) is seated. The “son of man” is given authority over the nations and his kingdom will last forever. Finally, the fourth beast is slain. The city of Rome, capital of the empire, falls to invaders in 476 A.D.

In regard to Daniel’s vision, Jesus is the “son of man.” At his trial, just before his death, Jesus says, “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (see Luke 22:69). Just before he ascends into heaven after his resurrection, Jesus says to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (see Matthew 28:18). When Jesus ascends to heaven, he is given authority to rule the nations and his kingdom will last forever. This is what Professor Wright calls Jesus’ “vindication.” It is Jesus, the faithful Son of God—not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the teachers of the law, and not the Roman Empire—who is shown to be “in the right.”

Daniel 7, like Luke 21, is the subject of endless debate and argument. There are many different points of view about the events described in these chapters. For example, many Evangelicals, especially in the United States, believe that Daniel is describing events leading up to “the second coming of Christ,” an event they believe may occur in our time. The Academy of Bible and Theology encourages its students not to be overly concerned about the exact meaning of these passages and the events they describe. We are to keep our eyes on Jesus and go about his work, playing our parts in bringing his kingdom to this troubled world.

Luke continues: Just as they know summer is near when leaves sprout on the fig tree, Jesus says, they will know that the kingdom of God is near when they see all these things happening (vs 29-31). Then Jesus makes a statement that should be the decisive clue as to when these events will occur. He says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Heaven and earth will pass away but his words will not pass away (vs 32, 33). Jesus warns the disciples not to be caught up in the anxieties of life, so that that day will not fall upon them like a trap. Jesus tells them to pray that they may escape all these things and “be able to stand before the Son of man” (vs 34-36).

COMMENT: This long passage, along with its parallels in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 is the subject of much controversy. As we saw earlier (see page 64), Jesus’ prediction about the “signs of the end times” has been interpreted in three major ways: 1) Jesus is referring to events that will happen during the disciples’ lifetimes; 2) he is predicting events that will occur throughout the course of history until he returns at the end of the present age, or 3) he is referring to events that are largely yet to come but, as many evangelicals today believe, will soon occur. The Academy of Bible and Theology endorses the first view, given the fact that Jesus says that “this generation” (the one living in the 1st century) will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled. As we have said several times in this course, the destruction of the city and temple that Jesus predicts occurs in 70 A.D. when the Roman army, under General Titus, surrounds the city of Jerusalem, lays siege to it, and finally destroys both the city and the temple. Many of Jesus’ disciples will still be living when that terrible event happens.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Coming of the Kingdom of God (Luke 20-37)

 

I have spent most of the last eight years writing on incarnational-Trinitarian theology for pastors and church leaders in the Global South. I have developed a program called the Academy of Bible and Theology that offers free educational resources to impoverished pastors in the villages and rural areas of the Global South. As of this month, our program consists of ten courses. The following post is from our course on the Gospel of Luke.

In this passage of scripture, as well as in Luke 21, Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Jesus uses “apocalyptic” language to describe terrible events that are to come upon Jerusalem. That is, he uses dramatic metaphors (word-pictures) commonly used by Jewish rabbis to describe significant events on earth. This type of language is not to be taken literally. It is simply intended to dramatically emphasise an important point.

There are three major interpretations of the events that Jesus describes in this passage and the others cited above. First, many believe that the terrible events Jesus describes happen in the 1st century, as a result of the doomed Jewish revolt against Rome. In 70 A.D., the Roman army, commanded by General Titus, destroys the temple and the city of Jerusalem, as the final act in a four-year rebellion by the Jews. The Academy of Bible and Theology supports this view. Second, many believe that Jesus is describing the normal course of human history until he returns. These terrible events will occur again and again, in one form or another, until the second coming of Christ. This view is supported by the fact that human history is a sad story of war and disaster. The Academy of Bible and Theology regards this view as a reasonable interpretation of the events that Jesus describes. Third, modern Evangelicals, especially in the United States, believe that Jesus is describing events that lie ahead and are soon to occur in our time. They believe these terrible events are signs of the “great tribulation,” a time of war and disaster, that is soon to come upon the earth, prior to the second coming of Christ. This view has been made popular by many books that describe the “end times” in which we are thought to be living. The Academy of Bible and Theology rejects this view.

(As always, students of the Academy of Bible and Theology are free to decide for themselves how to interpret the events Jesus describes.)

While Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem, a Pharisee asks him when the kingdom of God will come (vs 20). The question implies an orderly progression of events leading to the coming of the kingdom. But Jesus says that the coming of the kingdom of God is not like that, for the kingdom is “in your midst” (vs 21; NIV), or “among you” (Amplified Bible). These translations imply that the kingdom is present in a secret way, waiting for people to discover it. Other translations say the kingdom is “within you” (KJV; NKJV). Unfortunately, this translation implies that the kingdom of God is merely private and personal, existing only in believers’ hearts, with little to do with the affairs of the external world. According to Professor N.T. Wright, Jesus is saying that the kingdom is “within your grasp,” meaning that to enter the kingdom one must believe, trust and follow Jesus.

Jesus says that “the time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it” (vs 22). Jesus often refers to himself as the “Son of Man.” (Some modern translations say that Jesus is “the Truly Human One.” In other words, Jesus is the one, true human being, who perfectly reflects the image of God.) The title, “Son of Man,” first occurs in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 7), in the Old Testament. The “days of the Son of Man” seems to refer to the days when the Son of Man (Jesus) will be vindicated (“declared in the right”) after a time of suffering. The sign of the “days of the Son of Man” will be the destruction of the powers that have opposed God’s people. In the Book of Daniel, the oppressor of God’s people is the “fourth beast,” a powerful pagan nation that God will finally destroy. In a complete reversal of Daniel’s prophecy, however, Jesus seems to indicate that the power that oppresses God’s people is the Jews themselves, particularly the Pharisees, chief priests and others associated with the temple, who reject Jesus and his message of peace. The “Son of Man” will be vindicated, or shown to be “in the right,” after his time of suffering and rejection (vs 25).

Jesus says that he must suffer and be rejected by “this generation” (vs 25). He is referring specifically to the current generation of religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees and the chief priests, who will conspire with the Romans to put him to death (see 9:22, 44:18:31-34). This verse clearly indicates that the events Jesus is describing will occur in his lifetime and shortly afterwards. In other words, Jesus is describing events that occur in the 1st century.

Jesus will be vindicated, or proven to be “in the right,” when the city and temple are destroyed by the Romans. In that day, that is, during the disaster to come, there will be no need for people to say, “There he is,” or “Here he is,” for the signs will be as obvious as lightening flashing across the sky (vs 23, 24). Jesus compares the “days of the Son of Man” to the time of Noah, or Lot, when people were eating and drinking and carrying on their usual affairs, until disaster fell upon them (26-30). The disaster will occur when enemy armies surround Jerusalem (see 21:20). Jesus says that anyone on the housetop should not come down to gather their possessions (houses had flat roofs with an outside staircase, so people could relax on the roof tops). Likewise, anyone working in the field should not go back for anything. Do not be like Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt when she “looked back” at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as her family escaped (see Genesis 19:26). In short, Jesus is saying that when the Roman army arrives in full strength, “Run for your life!” At that time, “two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding corn together; one will be taken and the other left” (vs 34, 35). When asked where this will happen, Jesus replies, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (vs 37). As Professor Wright notes, the word, “vultures,” can just as accurately be translated as “eagles.” Jesus may be referring to the Roman army, whose symbol was an eagle.

Many Evangelicals in the United States believe that the phrase, “one will be taken and the other left behind” (vs 34, 35) refers to the supposed “rapture” of the church, when the church will be suddenly taken to heaven and everyone else will be “left behind” to suffer the “great tribulation,” the time of disaster that will come upon the earth prior to the return of Christ. Thus, we dare not be “left behind.” If these verses are read in their 1st century context, however, the meaning is exactly the opposite. Those who are “taken” are very likely people who are captured and put into slavery by the Roman army. Therefore, it is better to be left behind than to be taken!

In summary, in this strange passage of scripture, Jesus is dramatically warning that destruction is coming if the Jews refuse to follow his way of peace. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Grace and Response: A Matter of Order


Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is fall out of bed onto my knees and pray that I don’t sin!” I remember the discomfort I felt upon hearing this stunning revelation. I knew immediately that I was a wash-out, a spiritual failure, because the first thing I did in the morning was reach for the coffee pot! Still today, I must drink at least two cups of “java” to clear my head before I can vaguely contemplate the sins I am liable to commit before lunch.

Even as a na├»ve and inexperienced nineteen-year old, I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with my professor’s view of God―at least I hoped there was! It seemed that his “God” was more to be feared than loved. Behind his staggering confession lurked a harsh taskmaster who meticulously keeps count of our sins and shortcomings, so that he can finally mete out the just and terrible punishment we deserve. Decades later, after years of study, I realize that the doctrine of God I was taught in “Bible college” described a deity far different from the loving Father that Jesus Christ came to reveal (Matt 11:27).

Purveyors of Legalism

Since that time, I have encountered other preachers and teachers of “religion” who are fond of portraying “God” as a harsh judge, whose primary concern is crime and punishment or sin and guilt. Because of their one-sided emphasis on law, judgment and penalty, they insist that the most important aspect of Christian life is obedience, which often includes strict adherence to humanly-devised codes of dress, diet and lifestyle.

For these messengers of the “bad news” anti-gospel, obedience and discipline take priority over relationship and grace. God is a judge to be feared or a taskmaster to be served rather than a Father to be adored. Where legalism (i.e., “law”) takes center stage, discipleship and Christian living are reduced to obedience without faith, service without joy, and worship without gratitude. These important aspects of Christian life become burdensome duties to be performed out of fear of retribution rather than grateful responses to the Father’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
According to the ministers of legalism, grace, forgiveness and justification are conditional. Rather than gifts to be gratefully received, these Gospel promises are held out like carrots to spur overburdened believers to obedience. For the purveyors of religion, the Gospel is a threat rather than a promise, so that discipleship is reduced to a fearful response rather than a joyful encounter with the Father’s love.

The purveyors of law present the Gospel in terms of a “contract”: “If the ‘party of the first part’ (you and me) meets certain conditions, then the ‘party of the second part’ (God) will be gracious.” God’s love and goodness are not offered as gifts to be received but favours to be earned. Rather than the lavish outpouring of God’s innermost heart, divine love is “conditioned” by performance; that is, God will love us only “if” we meet the required standard―and woe to those who fall short, for surely they will be “left behind.”

In addition, a persistent fear lingers among the purveyors of religion, who insist that an emphasis on grace will lead to antinomianism (i.e., “lawlessness”). They refuse to spare the “rod” of law for fear their congregation will be spoiled. With furrowed brow and pointed finger, they try to coerce repentance and piety with the threat of judgment, hellfire and ever-impending doom. The “submission” coerced by the purveyors of religion, however, does not glorify God. Rather, obedience coerced under threat of punishment is “sin,” for it is not of “faith” (see Rom 14:23). Legalism’s emphasis on adherence to law by the power of the will forces believer’s into a “faithless obedience.”[1] To be sure, “legalism is obedience without faith.”[2]

Relationship between Grace and Response

Legalism, with its emphasis on law, judgment and penalty, is founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between grace and law, forgiveness and repentance, and justification and faith. Legalism reverses the proper relationship between divine grace and human response portrayed in scripture, so that grace is conditioned by performance and forgiveness is begrudgingly bestowed following repentance. The legalist bellows, “If you repent, you will be forgiven.”

Grace is not a wage to be earned, however; it is a gift to be received. The Gospel proclaims, “You have been forgiven in Jesus, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world; therefore, repent and believe the good news!” The Gospel calls us to “change our mind” (i.e., “repent”) about Jesus, repudiate the demands of religion with its “conditional” grace, and embrace the Father’s love that is unconditionally poured out for all in the incarnate Saviour of the world.

In the Book of Exodus, we find the classic model for the proper relationship between grace and response. After he miraculously saved the people from bondage by a series of plagues that devastated Egypt, God led the Hebrew slaves to Mount Sinai, where he “introduced” himself to his people. Speaking through Moses, God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me….” (Ex 20:3ff). Notice the proper order between divine grace and human response that is revealed in this passage. First, God introduces himself as the God who saves: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the bondage of Egypt.” Second, God summons the people to respond to his gracious initiative: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The relationship between grace and law is set in the context of an indicative (“I have saved you”) followed by an imperative (“You shall have no other gods …”).[3] After saving them from bondage, God gives the people the law as an act of grace, so that this stubborn, stiff-necked band of slaves may learn to live in right relationship with God and neighbour. In turn, God graciously provides the ceremonial-sacrificial liturgy so that the people may respond to divine revelation in an appropriate and reverent manner (Ex 20-40; Lev 1-27). In regard to the relationship between grace and human response, grace is prior, so that law and liturgy is a response to grace, not a condition for it! This passage clearly establishes the relationship between divine grace and human response and sets a pattern that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments: grace is prior to and unconditioned by human response.

The relationship between grace and response is clearly evidenced in the New Testament. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The priority of grace is glaringly apparent: “As I have loved you [grace], so you must love one another [response].” Again, Jesus says (John 15:9), “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you [grace]. Now remain in my love” [response]. Perhaps the clearest indication of the relationship between grace and response is found in 1 John (4:19): “We love because he first loved us” (emphasis added).

Grace Before Dinner

Luke (19:1-10) describes an encounter between Jesus and a notorious sinner that perfectly illustrates the proper relationship between divine grace and human response. When Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, near the end of his earthly ministry, Zacchaeus, who was short in stature, climbed a sycamore tree so that he might see Jesus pass. Seeing him in the tree, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Upon hearing Jesus’ gracious request, Zacchaeus came down from the tree and gladly welcomed Jesus to his home. Immediately the local villagers began to mutter among themselves, for Zacchaeus, like other tax collectors, was regarded as a swindler and a thief, who unlawfully kept for himself a portion of the taxes he collected. Even worse, everyone regarded Zacchaeus as a traitor, because he collaborated with the oppressive Roman regime. Because he was a “sinner,” Zacchaeus was a social outcast, ostracized by the respectable community. Jesus’ surprising request to dine at his home, therefore, was cause for scandal. At dinner, however, Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Then Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This story perfectly illustrates the relationship between grace and response. In the light of Jesus’ love for him, Zacchaeus sees the darkness of his own sin. In response to the love and acceptance he encounters in Jesus, Zacchaeus repents! His repentance, however, is not a shame-based response coerced by law and condemnation. It is a joyful, grateful response to the love and acceptance he encounters in Jesus. The grace of God embodied in Jesus is the immediate cause of the tax collector’s repentance. Zacchaeus’ repentance is not a condition for grace. It is a joyful response to grace!

Grace is Always Prior

We can better understand the relationship between grace and response by noting the difference between “legal” repentance and “evangelical” repentance. “Legal” repentance is a fearful submission to the threat of law and judgment. “Evangelical” repentance, on the other hand, is a joyous response to God’s love for the entire world revealed in Jesus. Zacchaeus’ grateful response to Jesus is a prime example of “evangelical” repentance. The Scottish Reformer John Knox disdained the words “justification by faith,” noting that this recurring slogan implies that justification depends upon the believer’s faith rather than the grace of God. Knox preferred the fuller phrase, “justification by grace through faith” in Jesus, for it accurately represents the proper relationship between grace and justification. Our “right-standing” with God (i.e., “justification”) is freely and unconditionally given us in Jesus, through whom the Father has reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:19, 20). Faith is not the cause of justification. It is the channel through which we receive the “right-standing” that is already ours in Jesus.

COMMENT: We are not “made right” with God because of our personal faith. To the contrary, we were “made right” in Jesus long before we had a chance to profess our faith. Personal faith is the channel that allows us to receive the grace that is already ours in Jesus. In other words, we do not believe to make it so, we believe because it is so.

The re-discovery of the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ enabled Reformers like John Knox to re-claim the New Testament promise that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The Reformers rediscovered the Gospel truth elegantly illustrated in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. In the good news of God’s love for humanity revealed in Jesus Christ, grace is prior to human response. Divine love is the cause, repentance and faith are the consequences.

Preaching and Missions

The proper understanding of the relationship between grace and response has a profound effect on preaching and missions. An emphasis on grace frees believers from the burden of legalism (Matt 11:28) in favour of freedom for love of God and neighbour empowered by the Holy Spirit. Discipleship as a response to grace brings glory to God, for it is the expression of love rather than duty (see John 14:23; 15:8). Preachers and teachers who wish to promote love for neighbour in their hearers must focus on Jesus’ love for the sinner, the outcast and the marginalized as revealed in the Gospel. Pastors who want to encourage generosity, service and self-giving should remind their hearers of God’s sacrificial love revealed in Jesus, who heard the cry of the needy, healed the sick, fed the hungry, washed his disciples’ feet and gave his life on the cross as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

When the proper relationship between grace and response is clearly understood, God is glorified because love for God and neighbour rather than fear of judgment and penalty becomes the motive for Christian living. When believers fully understand the good news that underlies the proper relationship between divine grace and human response, the ordinary concerns of Christian life, including worship, Bible study, service and giving, become grateful responses to grace willingly engaged rather than duties grudgingly carried out in order to earn God’s favour. When grace is properly related to response, legalistic demands for obedience and conformity—usually accompanied by an unbiblical threat of hellfire and damnation—may be rejected in favour of the Gospel proclamation of the good news of God’s love for all revealed in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

The proper relation between grace and response has a profound effect on missions and the proclamation of the Gospel. Rather than a “rescue” operation intended to “save” people from hell, missions becomes a joyful and confident invitation for all to receive the grace and goodness of the loving Father, who “was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Like Jesus, who summoned his hearers to repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15), the messengers of the good news may confidently summon their hearers to repentance, faith and appropriate form of life, not as conditions for divine favour, but as grateful responses to the grace that is already poured out on all humanity by the Father who sent his precious Son, so that he might “lavish” his love upon us in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 1 John 3:1). 

Martin M. Davis, PhD


[1] Deddo, G.W. 2007. The Christian Life and Our Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry. In G. Dawson, ed. An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour. London: T & T Clark, p. 157.
[2] Ibid. 
[3] I am paraphrasing theologian James B. Torrance, who often said that “the indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of law.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

HOLY SPIRIT AS MEDIATOR OF COMMUNION


The Holy Spirit is the “mediator of communion.” The Holy Spirit “mediates,” or “brings together,” things that are distinct, diverse or even different for the sake of fellowship. The Spirit’s mission is communion, or fellowship, at both the divine and human levels of existence. The Holy Spirit acts as “mediator of communion” in three distinct ways: 1) in the Holy Trinity 2) in the incarnation and 3) in the church.[i]
In the Holy Trinity
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit unites the Father and Son in eternal fellowship. Early Christian thinkers described the Holy Spirit as the eternal “bond of love” between the Father and Son. That is, the Father and Son are eternally united in a fellowship of love through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit. The Son loves the Father in the communion of the Spirit. As the “bond of love,” the Holy Spirit unites the Father and Son in a communion of love. Thus, God eternally exists in a fellowship (“communion”) of love.
In the Incarnation
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[ii] As the eternal bond of love between the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit is uniquely qualified to be the mediator of communion between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Eternal Word of God, through whom all things are created and in whom all things exist, takes from the womb of Mary a “body like we sinners have” (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16, 17; Hebrews 1:2, 3: Romans 8:3). The Holy Spirit unites the Eternal Word of God to humanity in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit sustains the union of divine and human natures throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. During the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit sustained the relationship between the Father and Son by empowering Jesus to offer perfect faith, love and obedience to his heavenly Father in our place and in our name. In the union between God and humanity established in the incarnation and lived out through the life of Jesus, all humanity is brought into fellowship (or, “reconciled”) with the Father. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20).
COMMENT: Reconciliation between God and humanity is the work of the Holy Trinity. By the will of the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal Son of God becomes a human being in the womb of Mary in order to reconcile the world to God. The union of God and humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is sustained throughout Jesus’ earthly life by the Holy Spirit. In the power of the Spirit, the Son offers perfect faith and obedience to the Father in our name for our salvation.
In the Church
The Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion in the church. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit broke down barriers of language and culture in order to create a new community. The Spirit united diverse believers from many nations into a fellowship that worships Jesus as Lord and serves one another in love. In the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of the age yet to come, the Spirit’s primary mission to the world is fellowship, or “communion.”
The role of the Holy Spirit as mediator of communion helps us to understand the union of Christ with his church. Our union with Christ can be described in “incarnational-Trinitarian” language. In both the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the church, the Holy Spirit unites and holds together things that are different for the sake of communion.[iii] In the incarnation, the Spirit unites God with humanity in the person of Jesus. In the church, the Holy Spirit unites believers to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father through the Son to awaken believers to the reality of our union with Christ. In the communion of the Spirit, believers actively, knowingly, willingly and thankfully participate in the union between God and humanity established in the incarnation of Christ. As the mediator of communion, the Holy Spirit lifts us up into the life, beauty and joy of the Holy Trinity, where we share in the mutual love and knowing of the Father and Son. The mediation of communion through the ministry of the Holy Spirit—a mediation of mutual love in knowing and of knowing in love—is the origin and goal of all things, made possible by the saving work of Jesus Christ.[iv]
As the “bond of love,” the Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion among believers. The primary work of the Spirit today is to gather the community of faith in order to equip it for mission to the world. The Holy Spirit unites believers as one “Body,” with Jesus Christ as its “Head” (Colossians 1:18). In the communion of the Holy Spirit, believers are gathered in faith, built up in love and sent into the world in hope.[v] The church, gathered into community through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, represents the Kingdom of God among the kingdoms of men. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and moving forward in the name of Jesus Christ, the church is sent into the world with the good news of the Kingdom of God.
The community of faith created by the ministry of the Holy Spirit is different from the communities of the world. In the Body of Christ, believers uphold and support one another rather than trying to cause the other to fall, or stumble. The church is a community of forgiveness, where one sinner my love and forgive another, because the sins of all have been washed away by the blood of Jesus. In the Body of Christ, the individual believer is free to live in relationships where he or she is loved and may love in return. In the communion of the Spirit, the Body of Christ is equipped to engage the world in love while not conforming to its ways.[vi]
Community is important because God does not want faith to be expressed in merely a “private” way within the hearts of believers. Humans are social beings created to live and move and exist within networks of relationships, both with God and with one another. The community of faith bears witness to God’s purpose for human relationships. The mission of Jesus to bring hope to humanity and justice to the nations is (ideally) embodied in the church, as it is equipped to witness to the nations in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not a “private” Spirit. No one owns or controls the Holy Spirit. No one may claim a greater measure of the Spirit’s indwelling than anyone else. The Holy Spirit does not bring private revelations or messages to self-important leaders who claim special privilege with God.  The members of the church, including its leaders, exist in relationship to the community created by the Holy Spirit. In the community of faith, there can be no individualism at the expense of the community and no community at the expense of the individual. In the community of faith—ideally!—each is for all and all are for each. The community of faith is a communion of persons-in-relationship, who are committed to bringing the good news of King Jesus to the world.[vii]
Unity-in-Diversity
According to theologian Colin Gunton, the Holy Spirit is open to relationship with another.[viii] The Holy Spirit brings together things that are different. The Holy Spirit delights in crossing boundaries. The Spirit gathers people who are different or divided and brings them together in love. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit brought together a diverse body of believers from many cultures, who spoke many languages. From the “many” gathered at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit formed the “one,” a unified body of believers from many nations and cultures with a special mission to the world. 
While the Holy Spirit brings together those who are different, the Spirit does not delight in “same-ness.” The Spirit delights in diversity. God delights in the “unique-ness” of each person. The Holy Spirit does not overpower our individual identities in order to make everyone the same. Rather, the Holy Spirit respects our personhood. The Spirit shapes us into “persons-in-relationship,” where relationship does not destroy our unique identities but, rather, establishes them.[ix] Communion means taking part in relationships without loss of personal identity, or “sense of self.” In communion, our identities as unique persons are enhanced. In short, we become the persons we are meant to be in relationship with others in the communion of the Spirit.
In the church, the Spirit shapes the community of faith by bringing us into relationship with the Father through Jesus, and, in Jesus, with one another. The church is a body of diverse people with the common task of mission to the world. The church is a community, not a collective.[x] In a collective, such as the communist system in the former Soviet Union or present-day North Korea, the rights of the individual are forfeited in service to the all-powerful state (or, government). Individuality and uniqueness are absorbed into a grey mass of conformity and sameness. Freedom of expression is crushed and personal differences are discouraged in favour of uniformity. In contrast, a community is a fellowship of persons who are free to express their individuality and uniqueness in the context of relationships. In community, each member lives and moves and exists as part of the whole, while the whole supports and serves the individuals within it. Community means unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity. Diversity brings richness, creativity and tolerance to the community, while unity ensures both the proper functioning of the community and the well-being of each member. In the church, unity-in-diversity is apparent in spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The Holy Spirit distributes a diversity of gifts among believers in order to equip the community of faith for its mission to the world. The variety of gifts given to the community of faith attests the Spirit’s desire for diversity within unity.
COMMENT: God values diversity, but God does not value diversity without unity. Diversity without unity encourages separation, division and intolerance, as seen in the tribalism of east Africa or the break-up of society in the United States in favour of “multi-culturalism.” Unity-in-diversity, however, brings richness, growth and tolerance to the community, as seen in churches made up of different tribes, ethnic groups, age groups and races, worshipping and praising God in love and fellowship.
Just as the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity, the Spirit is the bond of love among believers in the community of faith.[xi] As Professor Clark Pinnock notes, fellowship on earth reflects fellowship in heaven. The Holy Trinity is an open, inviting fellowship, and the Spirit wants the church to be the same.[xii] As a community of mutual giving and receiving, the church is meant to reflect the life and love of the Holy Trinity.[xiii] Our fellowship with one another is rooted in the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit, in whose image we are created. Thus, fellowship, or communion, characterises both the relationships of the Holy Trinity and the relationships among believers in the community of faith.[xiv]
Community is central to God’s purpose, because the community of faith reflects the light of the Holy Trinity in a world lost in darkness.[xv] The Holy Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three equal divine persons eternally united as “One” in a fellowship of love. The Trinity is a fellowship of persons-in-relationship, where each divine person’s identity is established in relationship to the other. The Father is eternally “Father” only in relation to the Son. The Son is eternally “Son” only in relation to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the “bond of love” that eternally unites the Father and Son in a relationship of mutual giving and receiving. The Holy Trinity eternally exists in diversity: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. At the same time, the Holy Trinity eternally exists in unity: the Father eternally loves the Son and the Son eternally loves the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The church, as a diverse body of believers united in love (John 13:35), bears witness to the Triune (“three-in-one”) nature of God by reflecting diversity in the unity of love. According to theologian Stanley Grenz:
God intends to bring to pass a reconciled creation in which humans reflect in their relationship to each other and the universe around us the reality of the triune God. God’s actions are aimed at establishing the reconciled community of love as the human reflection of the [Holy] Trinity—the divine nature—which is love.[xvi]
The unity-in-diversity of the church reflects the unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity. The church is a diverse but united fellowship of believers worshipping and serving God in a variety of languages, ethnic and cultural forms. As an expression of the unity-in-diversity of the Holy Trinity, the ethnic and cultural diversity of the church is properly reflected in a variety of worship styles and music. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the church, expressed in a communion of believers united in love, offers an alternative to the tribalism, racism and nationalism of the modern world.
COMMENT: God does not value sameness and conformity. God values diversity-in-unity. For this reason, God’s people are free to worship in a variety of ways that reflect their own cultures and traditions. Churches in Africa and Asia should not try to model their worship services after those in the United States, Australia or Europe. While liturgical (“worship”) traditions developed over many centuries should not be ignored, God’s people are free to adapt them (or, reject them) as needed in order to offer worship and praise to God in a manner fitting their cultures, customs and values.
The Goal of Creation
The goal and purpose of creation is “communion.” Out of an abundance of love, God created us for fellowship with himself. We are created to share in the Son’s relationship with the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. By sending his Son for our salvation and by sending the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts by faith, God proves that he does not want to be without us. In the words of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, the greatest Christian thinker of the modern era:
[God] wills to be ours, and he wills that we should be his. He wills to belong to us and he wills that we should belong to him. He does not will to be without us, and he does not will that we should be without him. … The blessings of [the Holy Trinity] are so great that they overflow as blessings to us.[xvii]  
God does not will to be without us. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). It is the nature of love to reach out to another. The Father reaches out through the Son and Spirit to draw us into fellowship, so that we may live forever in the abundance of his love.[xviii] Our fellowship with God is grounded in the freedom of God. Although God “lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him” (1 Timothy 6:16), God is free to give himself to us in an act of love. Despite the vast difference between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, God sovereignly and freely chooses to unite himself to humanity in his Son. The Holy Spirit enacts the freedom of God by bringing us into a real, living union with Christ and, through Christ, with the Father.
Although the goal of creation was achieved in principle in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we live today “between-the-times” of the resurrection and the age to come. The church is the “first fruits” of the new creation. In Israel, the first fruits, or “first crop,” of the harvest was set apart as a special offering to God (Leviticus 23:10; Deuteronomy 26:2-4). As the “first fruits” of the new humanity brought in by Jesus, the community of faith is set apart as a sign of the great harvest to come. According to theologian Clark Pinnock, the church is a “new family, made up of brothers and sisters, among whom Christ is firstborn (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11). Such a community is intended to [show] what God wants the world to be.”[xix] The community of faith is a testimony to God’s purpose for the world. The church is a “human assembly that points to a much larger [assembly] at the end of time.”[xx] The church represents the Kingdom of God that is destined to cover the earth.
According to theologians Hauerwas and Willimon, “The church, as the very body of Christ, is a visible sign of the intimacy that God intends for all through the redemptive, relational power of the Holy Spirit.”[xxi] As a community of faith, love and hope, the church—at least at its best!—is the model for what God finally intends for everyone. The fellowship of the community of faith is an outpost of the Kingdom of heaven in a world divided by suspicion, distrust and violence. The blessings of the Kingdom of God begin to flow into the world through the church, as the Kingdom is enlarged in ever-widening circles through the growing fellowship of believers.
God’s good plan for the world, launched in the Garden of Eden, taken up by Israel, and fulfilled in Jesus, is being carried forward today in the church. Through the community of faith—under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit—the Kingdom of God is spreading across the earth, so that one day the ancient vision of the prophets will be fulfilled, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).



[i] George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy spirit, in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 2000, pp. 177ff.
[ii] Hunsinger, p. 179.
[iii] Hunsinger, pp. 187, 188.
[iv] Hunsinger, p. 179.
[v] Hunsinger, p. 190.
[vi] Hunsinger, p. 191.
[vii] Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2. pp. 312-314; cf. Hunsinger 190.
[viii] Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many,  p. 181.
[ix] Cf. Gunton, p. 182.
[x] Gunton, p. 183.
[xi] Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 250, 251.
[xii] Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love, p. 117.
[xiii] Torrance, Trinitarian Faith, pp. 250, 251.
[xiv] Pinnock, p. 117.
[xv] Cf. Pinnock, p. 117.
[xvi] Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Broadman & Holman, 1994, p. 636. Cited in Pinnock, p. 117.
[xvii] Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 274; cf. Hunsinger, p. 189.
[xviii] Hunsinger, p. 189.
[xix] Pinnock, p. 118.
[xx] Pinnock, p. 117.
[xxi] Hauerwas & Willimon, Holy Spirit, p. 39.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Discipleship; Living in Union with Christ

Radically and unapologetically Christ-centered
Announcing the publication of my new book (or manual) called "Discipleship: Living in Union with Christ."

Drawing on the thought of T.F. Torrance, as well as James Torrance and Karl Barth, this manual will challenge many readers to think of discipleship in a new way that is based on what Jesus has done for us, not on what we must do for Jesus. Unlike many books on discipleship, this manual does not outline a program to follow in order to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. This manual does not describe a series of steps to take in order to become disciples of Jesus, nor does it provide a list of rules we must follow for discipleship. As we shall learn, discipleship is not a program, a series of steps or a list of rules. Discipleship is the fruit of union with Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

This manual will challenge you to think of Jesus Christ in ways that you may find new, exciting and surprising. In the pages to follow, you will see that Jesus is bigger, better and more beautiful than many have dared to imagine. You will learn that everything needed for discipleship, or Christian living, is graciously given to us in Jesus.

The manuals, booklets and tracts produced, translated and distributed by AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. clearly and boldly proclaim the good news of God’s love for all humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ. We believe that your faith will be strengthened and your heart gladdened by the teachings you will discover in this manual.

Martin M. Davis, Ph.D.

Available in paperback or ebook at Amazon.com .

For other recent publications, see my author's page at Amazon here.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Academy of Bible and Theology


Dear Readers,

Recently, I launched a new project called the Academy of Bible and Theology (click here), sponsored by AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. This program is designed to provide FREE educational courses in the basic doctrines of Christianity for pastors and church leaders in the Global South who have little or no formal biblical-theological training (there are many!). Our theological position is the incarnational-Trinitarian theology of T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth and others.

Our first two courses are already available. They are “The Christian Doctrine of God” and “The Doctrine of Jesus Christ.” These courses are written in simple, basic English for readers whose first language is not English. Both courses draw heavily on the work of Torrance and Barth. I am now working on a third course to be called, “The Christian Life: Living in Relationship with God and Neighbour.” I am inviting you to contribute material for this course.

We have more than 300 students from Africa and Asia with more enrolling daily. If you would like to participate in this project, contact me at office@AsiAfricaMinistries.org.

The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times (Luke 21:5-37)

I have spent most of the last eight years writing on incarnational-Trinitarian theology for pastors and church leaders in the Global South. ...