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.

 

Attention All Pastors: Free advice from a good doctor.

In his thumbnail historiography of famous 19th-century preacher Robert Hall, Dargan writes on some of the troubles that Hall experienced during his pastorate at Cambridge. Some of these troubles, in fact,  would become so burdensome that they eventually caused Hall to lose his mind! Thankfully, however, he would later be attended to by the good Dr. Cox, and given some truly life-changing medical advice.Let the pastor pay attention. Dargin writes:

His ill-health and acute sufferings, together with the burdens of his pastorate, broke him down. His mind became unbalanced for a time . . . A second and later attack was more serious. He was placed under the care of Dr. Cox, near Bristol. [After a time in the “sanitarium”] Dr. Cox gave him three prescriptions; (1) leave Cambridge, (2) smoke, (3) get married. He did all three, and never lost his mind anymore.

Source: Dargan, Edwin Charles. A History of Preaching. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954

The Potential Harm of Homiletics

I’m reading through Charles Dargan’s “History of Preaching” at the moment. Pure dynamite! Highly recommend (you can download the double-volume here, or read it on Logos here).

But anyway, I read something today that resonates deeply with me in terms of my own experience listening to preachers absolutely murder their texts by forcing the passage into all sorts of arbitrary and overly rigid homiletical divisions.

Make’s me all twitchy and crazy-like. . .

But personal involuntary reactions aside, I think that Dargin’s observation of the trend in post-Reformation preaching is illuminating in this regard.

“In the post-reformers more attention was given both to analytic and synthetic form. The sermons of Luther and Calvin broke away with a certain joyous freedom from the trammels of the scholastic method. This was especially true of their expository discourses, which were verse-by-verse comments rather than orderly addresses. Yet . . . the study of homiletics naturally tended to the reinstatement of this method. As is often the case in such matters, a needed improvement went too far. In much of the preaching of the period under review there is too much stiff and formal division of sermons.”

Couldn’t agree more. While sermons shouldn’t be running commentaries, I’d take a running commentary over an arbitrary division of the text any day of the week. . . especially on Sunday.

If I Only Had 3 Books…

Very often I’m asked which books I think every Christian should read (outside the Bible, of course).

Easy. I have two sets. One ‘Top 3’ set for every Christian, and another set for every pastor (or pastor in training). If you haven’t read these. . . you just need to. Immediately.

Below is my list for every Christian. And BTW, if you’re going to check these out, please go ahead and hit the link below…becuase I get like a 10th of a cent, or something… (cha-ching)! Hey, don’t judge. It all adds up.

#1. Pilgrim Theology – by Michael Horton

Seriously, how could you possibly be a self-respecting ‘Tolerated Sojourner’ without a good old ‘Pilgrim Theology’ under your arm at all times?

#2. God, Heaven, and Har Magedon – by Meredith Kline

In the words of Gordon Hugenberger, ‘Kline was by any measure a genius and one of the most creative, insightful, and compelling exegetes and biblical theologians of our age’. …and here’s the thing: this book represents the apex of his thinking in its most accessible form…go get some.

#3. Where in the World is the Church – by Michael Horton

In light of the current state of evangelical (and even reformed theology), this book is a necessity for every Christian looking for biblical teaching on the Christian life.

So, there you have it. Now, go buy ’em, and read ’em. Pretend you are stuck on an island somewhere and this is all you have for a while. Oh blessed man!

(Stay tuned for the ministry version of this list).

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.