Closed-Hand, Opened-Hand, Go.

The goal of the survey thus far has been to show how the biblical story informs our missional philosophy of cultural engagement. By distinguishing between times of theocracy and pilgrimage we find differing principles for life and mission among the people of God.

In this regard, hopefully the point has been sufficiently made that as a New Covenant people we are no longer under a land-principle, but instead under a pilgrim-principle. This means that our philosophy of cultural engagement stands in stark contrast to that of the Old Covenant community as they dwelt in the land of Canaan.

Israel, under a time of theocracy, were called to be physically separate from the world.  While this period would indeed serve the purposes of mission, it did so in such a manner that anticipated further and final fulfilment of the Abrahamic Promise. I.e., Israel’s theocratic rule would show forth the glory of God’s foreshadowed kingdom to all the surrounding peoples, bringing them to marvel in awe at its splendour (e.g., those such as the Queen of Sheba, who would stand amazed, and give glory to God).

Israel’s missional philosophy, then,  was ‘come and see’, rather than a ‘go and tell’. To have the required effect, they were not to allow any devision between sacred and secular. They were not to participate in any common grace interactions. They were to picture a time that both echoed the garden paradise, and looked forward to the final consummated kingdom.

Of course, all of this would change at the end of this theocracy and at the inauguration of New Covenant. If we summarise Israel’s missional model as: “Closed hand. Closed hand. Stay”. Then the church’s model is this: “Closed hand. Opened Hand. Go!“.  That is to say, on the one hand, we stand in complete alignment with Israel in terms of our ironclad grip upon all that God requires in the realm of the sacred (keeping watch over our life and doctrine). But on the other hand, where the Old Covenant people were restricted from participation in common grace activity, this is no longer the case for us in the New Covenant. No longer do we have a closed hand on cultural engagement. If anything, as per my previous post, the very idea behind mission now requires that we open this hand as widely as possible, and that we go into the world (not merely the Christian ghettos).

This point, I believe,  has two massive implications for the mission of the church. We’ll talk about those in the next post.




Go Into All the Christian Ghetto

In the last post, I spoke about the way that the Pharisees were guilty of misrepresenting God and His mission.  Unfortunately this misrepresentation did not end after the coming of Christ. Soon it would infiltrate the church as well.

We read in history of the monastic movements that started to emerge after the time of the apostles. They would withdraw from the world for reasons similar to that of the Pharisees–they did not want to be compromised. They did not want to be ‘worldly’. This idea has repeated itself throughout, in a host of different forms.

Fundamentalism might be said to be the latest culprit. But that’s probably too easy. The reality is that this repeats in all of us, no matter the denomination or movement. And although we might not as easily be tempted to the old ways of ceremonial strictness or monastic retreat, we are quite content to live our whole lives in sub-cultural ‘Christian’ ghettos. We don’t even think twice about it.

Make no mistake, Christianity has its ghettos. Christian sub-culture is a beast, and there’s a hungry market out there. We don’t want pop. Oh no of course not, that’s too ‘worldly’. It’s got to be ‘Christian’ pop (!). We don’t want rock-concerts. Nope, too worldly; but we’ll definitely take Christian bands, and we love worship-concert services with strobe lights. We don’t want movies. No, no, no. Not the worldly kind anyway. But of course, movies are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re the super-corny, B-grade, ‘Christian’-movie kind. We don’t want malls and coffee shops, but we love those mega-churches, with their big mugs of only slightly cheaper ‘Christian’ coffee. And on and on we go. You get the picture–it reduces to absurdity.

Although this might well succeed in creating bad taste and weird people, it does not in any way move forward with the mission; it does not understand the nature of the church; and it is not what Jesus commanded.

Not Of and Not Out Of the World

We’ve argued that Jesus, during his earthly ministry, set forth a pilgrim-principle (rather than a theocratic principle) for the church and its mission. This is only confirmed and reinforced throughout the New Testament.

While not the head of the church, Peter was indeed a leader of the apostles, and what he thought about the mission mattered.  Although true that as a Jewish man of his time, he struggled to understand the nature of Kingdom commencement (it was Peter, after all, who drew his sword in defence of Jesus); this all changed at Pentecost. At that point, not only was Peter empowered for the task, but he was illumined with right understanding. He knew his mission and he understood the time. It is not to be overlooked then, that  Peter relates the church to a fusion of the type of covenant community that existed during the patriarchal period, along with the time of the Jews who were later exiled in Babylon. For instance, we read

. . . conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile (1 Peter 1:17–19, ESV).

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles . . . (1 Peter 2:11–12, ESV)

As we know, Paul was another key player. And after a vision or two, he was in total harmony with Peter. They both understood that Israel’s sojourn and exile where prototypical of the church’s status prior to the final coming of Christ. It is no surprise then that Paul taught us to engage with the city in the same way that Jeremiah instructed the exiles living in Babylon:

. . . we urge you, brothers, . . . to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs . . . (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12, ESV)

Paul expands upon Jesus’ own commandments concerning our current pilgrim status.

. . . Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:5–7, ESV)

Interaction with authorities was one thing, but surely this didn’t mean that Christians were to mingle with sinners? Au contraire! If anything, this was the major non-negotiable! Today, so many in the church want to quote 1 Cor 5:9, where Paul writes: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—”. But this stops short of the very next part — verse 10!

“–not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.

Contra the monastic movements following Paul’s time, ‘going out of the world’ was never the mission! If anything, Jesus commanded the opposite. Even as He was sent into the world for us, He commands us to go into the world for others.

If Jesus’ commission won’t convince us, then maybe his prayer will. Addressing the Father, he cries out:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world . . . (John 17:15, ESV)

While we are not to take part in the sin of the world, we are never to withdraw from sinners. Jesus himself modelled this in unbelievably provocative ways, even eating with tax collectors and sinners (in the eyes of the religious community of his day, this was seen as the very height of taboo). But though the Pharisees scoffed, they are the ones who are condemned. Jesus’ corrective message was constant and clear: while holiness is not negotiable, interaction with the world is legitimate and necessary.




Making a Mess of Mission

The King has come! But as we pointed out in the last post, there is neither the command to withdraw from the world, nor the command to pick up a sword and fight. Jesus makes clear that the Kingdom, though already inaugurated, must first commence spiritually before the final return of Jesus–the ushering in of that eternal theocracy (a time where His enemies are finally banished, and kingdom citizens will occupy the new creation). But once again, during this current stage of spiritual commencement we are not a theocracy, but instead a pilgrim people who wait for our land. Once again, we need to hear these vital words from our King:

 . . . If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36, ESV) 

To speak about this current stage of Kingdom-commencement, then, is to think about the mission of the church. And the first thing to understand is that we will make a total mess of things if we get don’t this right. Nay, we have made a mess already. Even the quickest survey of church history from the time of Christendom through the Reformation will show this. How far could we possibly stray from the Master’s commission? The medieval crusades, as but one illustration of this, should send shivers down our spine.

How could those events ever have happened? The answer is this: they confused a time of theocracy with a time of pilgrimage. As Michael Horton says:

[during this period] “In both the medieval Christian and Muslim versions, the basic assumption is the same . . . the kingdom of God is a geopolitical empire, a revival of the old-covenant theocracy . . . It is interesting to look through their calls to war . . . they both invoke Passages from Joshua for “holy war”.

 Once again, if we get this theology wrong, we make a mess of mission – history plays out as the plumb-line of theology. So, as we move forward in our survey of the New Testament, I want to reinforce the correct theology of the epistles, showing that the apostles offer a consistent message on the issue. In anticipation of this, however, here’s the big idea stated up-front:

Christ is Lord over both the kingdom of grace and the kingdoms of this age, but in saving grace (through Word and sacrament) and in common grace (through government and culture). The church is neither to rule over secular kingdoms nor to separate from them, but to live in Babylon in the active expectation of Christ’s return. (Horton)

Listen Carefully to the King

Having surveyed the Old Testament, all the while observing the differences between theocracy and pilgrimage, we can now begin to think about the way that this is all applied in the New Testament.  In this regard, of course, we should start with the arrival of the Messiah.

As so powerfully taught in the book of Hebrews, Christ fulfilled all in the Old Testament, bringing about the very apex of redemptive history. Jesus showed that everything from the sacrifices, to the temple, to the theocratic kingdom of Israel itself, all pointed to Him. He arrived as the last Adam, the True Israel, and the inaugurated locus of the kingdom of God.  He came to fulfil the promise of Genesis 3:15, a promise that had been covenantally expanded upon throughout the entire Old Testament. He came as our substitute, to endure the fiery sword of God’s judgement and give us entrance to His eternal kingdom.

But while a very difficult concept for the once-theocratic Jewish disciple to grasp, he had also come to show that although this kingdom would indeed (eventually) encompass all of renewed creation, it must first advance in spiritual terms through the preaching of the Gospel. But then, the million dollar question — how were these disciples to interact with their cultural surroundings as they went about this gospel-preaching mission? Were they to see themselves as pilgrims; or a newly revived theocratic nation?

Well, if our hermeneutic thus far bears out, we simply need to ask whether or not Christ gave them any particular geographical territory to take possession of.  If so, the answer is clear: they were under the principles of theocracy. If not, however, they were to whole-heartedly embrace the principles of pilgrimage.

Of course, Christ did give a clear commission to his disciples, but it had nothing to do with real estate. And, as already alluded to, this is exactly why he did not teach us to pray that God would smash the teeth of our enemies. Quite the opposite, instead of calling upon God’s judgment, and driving out the surrounding nations, Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us. Exactly as we might anticipate then, God’s common grace is held high, and we are expected to imitate his kindness.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43–45, ESV)

But what about our money, and our taxes? Surely now that we know who our true King is, this all belongs to God and God only? Not so. Yet again the pilgrim principle applies. We read very clearly in the teaching of Jesus:

21 . . . render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, ESV)

Ok fine. But what if the . . . unimaginable . . . happens? What if they take our Lord, and they want to . . . crucify Him?! Surely then, like Peter, we grab our sword and fight? Surely then we do as Joshua and Caleb would have done? No. We don’t. Listen carefully to the King:

36 . . . “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV, emphasis added)


Land or No Land — That is the Question.

In the last post, we considered the importance of a pilgrim hermeneutic, and we saw an example of the way that this significantly affects our understanding of certain passages, and their application (e.g., the imprecatory Psalms).

Perhaps the most important reason to understand this idea is so that we are able to track along with the metanarrative of Scripture itself. Without understanding this principle, not only would we feel that the prayers of the Psalms contradict the teachings of Jesus, but that the biblical story itself seems to chop and change and constantly contradict itself.

First, we read of the command to withdraw from neighbouring pagan nations, but then later we read of another command to settle and dwell in Babylon. Then, during the time of Nehemiah, a command to withdraw again! Which is it, withdraw or engage? Are the people of God supposed to withdraw from unbelievers, and have no dealings with them at all, or are we supposed to follow Jesus as he eats with sinners and tax collectors? Ezra is pulling his hair out with frustration, but so is the biblical reader who does not see what is going on.

Well, the problem goes away entirely as we come to understand the pilgrim principle. What is this principle?

 When God’s people are a holy theocracy (and only then), they are commanded to withdraw from …pagan culture, but when they are exiles and pilgrims, they are called to separate themselves only religiously, not culturally (Stellman).

But what determines whether God’s people are a theocracy or a band of pilgrims? It is principally to do with the land. Viz., The people of God are only under a theocratic principle of cultural engagement when they have been given a distinct geographical land to live in. If they have no land, they are pilgrims. And if they are pilgrims, then they are most certainly under a pilgrim principle. With this then, we are ready to move on to see how it all comes together in the New Testament.


Pilgrim Hermeneutics

The principle that we have been highlighting throughout (and especially in the last post) is something vital to the sound interpretation of scripture. A correct understanding of the imprecatory Psalms, for example, are a great illustration of this. On the one hand, the psalmist calls curse after curse upon God’s enemies. On the other hand, Jesus himself later tells us to bless God’s enemies. Which is it? Should we pray for those who persecute us, or should we try and smash their teeth in?

A pilgrim hermeneutic helps us to make sense of this. For instance, as we read through these sorts of Psalms, we must remember that they are being written by a none other than the theocratic king of Israel (in possession of the land). That is to say, these are the records of kingly prayers, and those that have been prayed under a land/theocratic principle. The king of God’s people always uniquely foreshadows the Great Theocratic King who will ultimately execute God’s vengeance, and do away with his enemies in hell.

For Christians under the New Covenant, however, we must follow the steps of our Master. We must first endure a time suffering and humility, before entering into that final promised-land glory. As was the case with our Master, our kingdom is now not of this world. The pilgrim prayer is therefore to be directed by the earthly (exilic) pilgrim ministry of Jesus, teaching us to love our enemies. Yet at the same time, as those who know that Jesus is indeed the Great King who will once again return in glory, our hearts are not at all disconnected from the prayers of the Psalmist. Quite the opposite. As we read the imprecatory Psalms, our hearts wait for our King to return and for the wicked to be dealt with finally and completely.

Proof of the Principle

Many years after being taken into Babylonian exile, God moved his hand to miraculously allow some of the Jews to return and rebuild the temple (cf. Ezra and Nehemiah). Once again, an adjustment of mindset was required among those who re-entered the land.

Before being taken off into captivity they were to think of themselves as a theocratic army, commanded to be separate from the world. During their time in exile, they once again thought of themselves as tolerated sojourners. Toward the end of this exilic period they had become well versed in all that it meant to interact with the culture of the world.

It is for this reason that we are not surprised to hear what was told to Ezra as they started to resettle in the land.

“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations…. (Ezra 9:1–12)

Ezra, of course, is horrified. But, we might ask, were they not simply being obedient to Jeremiah’s instructions? Were these peoples and abominations really any worse than those of Babylon? Ezra’s prayer provides the answer to these questions.

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. (Ezra 9:10-11)

Note that Ezra has in mind the commandments concerning taking possession of the land and not those of being in exile (away from the land). Were the abominations any worse or different from those of Babylon? No! What then was the difference? In Babylon they were exiles. In Canaan they are commanded to take possession. Or, in keeping with the theme of this series, another way to say that is this: In Babylon they are under a pilgrim principle, in Canaan they are under a land/theocratic principle.

As Ezra continues then, note the contrast between these instructions, and those given earlier through Jeremiah:

Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ (Ezra 9:12)

That is exactly the opposite of what Jeremiah told them to do! But is there a contradiction in God’s Word? No, it merely highlights the very issue we have been talking about all along. Ezra is vexed because he knows that as soon as they had re-entered the land, they had once again moved from life under the pilgrim-principle, to that of life under the land-principle.

Learning to Open One Hand

In the last post, we took note of Jeremiah’s role in helping the covenant community to transition from their state of theocracy to that of the Babylonian exile. Like the patriarchs of old, once again they would need to learn to engage with the world around them. Once again, they would become a pilgrim people. 

In this regard, Daniel could not have served as a better example to those in Babylonian exile. He stood as a role model, both as one who remained uncompromised in religious distinctiveness, and yet also as one who (in obedience to Jeremiah’s word) acted out a profound level of engagement with Babylonian culture (he essentially became the prime minister!).

This is significant, because as one who cared deeply for the the instructions that God had given through Jeremiah, Daniel knew and understood what needed to be done. He knew that he needed to live as the people of God had lived before their entrance into the land.  Or to put it another way, Daniel understood that they needed to learn to open one of their hands. Rather than have a “closed hand-closed hand” approach to cultural engagement, they now needed to be a people with a closed hand on theology, and an open hand on culture. 

A Suprising Word

In the last post, we spoke about the punishment of the exile. Also, we mentioned that it was at this time that God sent the prophet Jeremiah to prepare the people for their upcoming transition to Bayblonian life. In chapter 29:4-7, Jeremiah proclaims;

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

So as to fully appreciate the shocking nature of that which follows, we must remember that God’s people have been under a covenantal arrangement for a very long time. Indeed the trauma of the exile itself is largely due to the fact that they are now being kept from living out this covenantal arrangement in the land of their fathers.

This is important to grasp because, for a very long time, the faithful have been called to go to war and conquer those who threaten their habitation of Canaan. In this regard, one can easily imagine the warriors of Judah, sharpening their swords, waiting in anticipation for the word of the prophet, to do as they had done for so many years before.

But imagine their surprise when they hear what Jeremiah says:

Thus says the LORD of hosts….’Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Consider for a moment how shocking that must have been for them to hear. In fact, the last time that anyone would have heard anything like this, would have been during the time before they were delivered from Egypt!

And while, one the one hand, this instruction would have seemed perfectly familiar to Abraham and those living under a pilgrim principle; on the other hand, for those who had only ever lived in the land under a theocratic principle, this was utterly shocking. However, jolting as it may have been, the instruction that flowed from Jeremiah’s lips was vital: God was showing them that they were going back to the pilgrim principle of their fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This then, leads us to the point in the story where we start to see an important pattern emerge; a pattern that will be of great help in leading us to form a biblical strategy for mission and cultural engagment in the church today. We will think more about this pattern in the next post.