Monday, October 16, 2017

The thief on the cross and the end of the Law

The End of the Law

When did the Law come to an end?  This becomes a lively issue in arguments over baptism.  They always trot out the thief crucified alongside Jesus as proof that salvation may even be had without baptism.  If the thief got to Paradise without being immersed, they argue, then it must be non-essential.  Our stock answer draws upon an exact chronology of when the Law ended.  The Law ends the very instant when Jesus died on the Cross (Col. 2:13-15).  That means, since Jesus was still living when He promised Paradise to the thief, then this actually happened in the waning moments while the OT Law yet prevailed.  The New Covenant, sealed in Jesus’ blood, was so close, but not here yet and that means baptism was not required for him.

Our response seems valid, at first glance, but is that really when the Law ended?  I want to explore that, but notice first that we don’t need the chronology suggested above to explain why the thief got by without baptism.  I think a better response exists.

First, Jesus had authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10 and parallels).  Truly, Jesus could forgive with or without baptism—and He did.  And that would have made sense for this man for whom baptism was not a possibility—listen, he was nailed to a cross!  At best, the thief might then serve as a valid example that only is valid when baptism is simply impossible.[1]  Some press us:  “What if a man in a desert reads Scripture and comes to faith, but dies of thirst before he can be baptized—can he be saved?”  But such circumstances are unusual, hardly ever happen, and cannot be used to establish what is normative and required for ordinary conversions.  The necessity of baptism for salvation stands.

We have argued this point correctly:  baptism was not yet in effect when the thief was saved[2].  You see, baptism had to wait until something significant took place—and the end of the Law was not it.  No, baptism could not come until the Holy Spirit was outpoured on Pentecost!  That is what kept the disciples waiting in Jerusalem.  The Father had made a promise and it could be considered kept only after the experience of power from on high.  Baptism would bring salvation not only by remitting sins, but by imparting the Spirit (Acts 2:38)—and this was not possible until Pentecost.  The Spirit was unavailable before this (John 7:37-39).  It was futile to consider baptizing the thief before that occurred, because that baptism would not have imparted the Spirit to him[3].  This is the real reason why his non-baptism is not an issue.

So, when did the Law end?

According to the Bible, when did the Law end?  The Law of Moses, as it was expressed in OT Scripture, when did it lose its jurisdiction?  When did it become obsolete and invalid?  Was it replaced, with the New Covenant taking over from the Old Covenant?  Did it happen in an instant—the end of the Old and the advent of the New?  And, if so, when?

Colossians 2:13-15 seems pretty plain and straightforward:  “And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross; having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”  And although some expositors and interpreters would suggest that the “bond written in ordinances” is something different than the Law—that it might be some other written document that contains the record of our sins, the parallel to this passage in Ephesians 3:15 makes identification with the Law undeniable:  “For [Jesus] is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace.”  Both passages declare the ending of the Law came with the Cross-death of Jesus.  The Law had become the instrumental cause of spiritual death (Rom 7;5; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 2:19), and salvation in Jesus by necessity then entailed abolishing that Law.

So the Cross marks both the beginning of the New and the removal of the Law.  However, it would seem that the precision of that transition is not so punctilious that we can suggest two successive epochs or ages, one for each covenant, and identify that the same exact moment that begins one and ends the other.  We cannot say that each covenant is exclusively operative, separately in time, because we also find other passages suggesting an actual overlap between the Old and the New.

Overlap of the Covenants

I really wish there had been a moment of exact replacement.  I would love the simplicity of being able to claim that so long as the Old Covenant was operative, the New Covenant was not yet.  Or, if and when the New was operative, that necessitated that the Old was done away.  I wish that the covenants were mutually exclusive according to time.  But I find evidence in the NT that, for a time, the Old and New Covenants were both operating simultaneously.  They overlap.

First, if there had been sharp closure of the Old that began at Jesus’ death, don’t you think the early post-Resurrection church would have preached that?  The perfect place for that to be declared would have been when Peter, Paul and Stephen spoke to other Jewish people. For example:  Paul begins his apostolic ministry by preaching Gospel in the synagogues.  The Gospel was given “first to the Jew; then to the Greek (= gentiles)” (Romans 1:16), just as Jesus had first given His efforts to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).  If Good Friday spelled the end of the Law, Paul should have really driven it home, perhaps like this:  “Listen up, fellow Jews and my brothers according to the flesh:  Your Law on which you rely was brought to an end at the crucifixion of Jesus!  Keeping the Law no longer brings reward from God!  The Law passed on from our forefathers has been nailed to the Cross!”  But Paul never preaches that; nor Peter; nor Stephen.  Their message is not the end of the Law, but its fulfillment.  Jesus, especially in His death and resurrection, was God’s sure answer to the Messianic promises made by the Prophets.  The promised Messiah was Jesus—that was the message!  If the Law really ended when Jesus died, a valuable opportunity to say so was missed, wasn’t it?

Second, we find two Scriptures that discuss Old and New Covenants, and the transition from one to the other.  Both would seem to have a strong motive to declare the Law to be ended, abolished, past-tense.  But neither of them do so. 

The first passage is 2 Corinthians 3.  Paul reflects on OT glory that suffers in comparison with the NT glory through Spirit.  Nowhere in this extended discussion is any declaration that the Law is done away, even though this is written after the Crucifixion!  I wish it had.  I applied all of my Greek skills to make it say that, consulted the best grammars, and it just isn’t in there—not one clear declaration that the Law is now kaput.  I might hope for some past-tense form like an aorist, or perfect, or pluperfect applied to the ending of the Law, but the Law has present-tense continuation.  The end of the Law’s glory is attached not to the Cross, but to the act of one who turns to the Lord (v. 16).  Paul describes in v. 9 “what is passing away” (present tense).  Every indication is that the Law somehow continues, fading glory and all, “to the present day” (vs. 14 and 15).  The Law is going away; however at the time of writing, it is not yet gone.  Every indication is that both Covenants are operating so as to overlap in time.

The second passage is Hebrews 8.  Similarly to the previous passage, it compares the Covenants from a post-Cross perspective.  The New is clearly superior, and the Old has faults, but again there is no absolute declaration that the Old has passed.  In v. 13 we read:  “In that he saith, A new covenant he hath made the first old.  But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.”  Doesn’t sound like the Law is yet gone, does it?  The ASV replicates into English the underlying Greek so closely that my Greek professor claimed he could fairly reproduce that Greek by looking at the English.  The ASV shows the writer of Hebrews describing the Law as “becoming old” and being “nigh unto vanishing away”—and this statement comes decades after the death of the Christ!  Again, we do not find the past-tense that we would like.  The indication here also is that the Law continues and overlaps with the New Covenant.

The “Personal End” of the Law

The Scriptures actually set forth two ways that the Law is brought to an end, one personal and the other historical.  We had expected to find the Law terminated by the death of Jesus.  However, I notice in several Scriptures that the Law may be terminated by someone else’s death.

One enters union with Christ by sharing His death.  Paul declares that he had been “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).  We are baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3).  He took up His Cross and, responsively, we take up our own Crosses.  Although He dies first historically and we die after, it is as though Christ and His follower share a common death-experience.  In some sense, our baptismal death-experience transports us back into His death-experience on the Cross.  We die with Him, even if much time separates our experiences of death.

What I find is that the death-experience of a Jewish believer[4] (who came under the Law because of being Jewish) comes to the end of the Law at the instant of dying with Jesus.  In other words, it is the death of the believer that ends the Law rather than the death of Jesus (but in saying that, it must be remembered that the Jew shares death with Jesus).  This conversionary experience brings a “personal end” to the Law for that Jewish Christian.

·         2 Cor. 3.  We saw earlier that Paul here refused to say the Law ended at the Cross.  What then brings the end?  He suggests a veil shielding God’s true revelation in the reading of the Old, and suggests that “only in Christ is it set aside” (3:14).  He notes that the veil remains to this very day at the reading of Moses, but “when one turns to Christ the veil is removed” (3:16).  It is not the Cross per se, but a personal making the Cross one’s own that sets aside the Law and replaces its diminished glory.  Paul would see that decisive moment taking place when one dies with Christ.

·         Romans 7.  Paul begins by noting on analogy that as a woman is bound to her husband only until his death, so in like manner those who “die to the Law through the body of Christ” (7:4) in order to belong to another, to Christ.  Now, he says in v. 6, we are discharged from the Law, dead to its captivity so as to transfer slavery from “the old written code” (v. 6) to new life in the Spirit.  All of that happens not because Christ died on the Cross, But now we have been discharged from the law, having died [this is plural] to that wherein we were held.”  Again, the death of the believer that brought union with Christ, that death brought discharge from the Law, a “personal end” to the Law.

·         Galatians 2.  Paul draws contrast between justification by “works of the Law” (2:16) and by “faith in Christ” (or better, by “the faithfulness of Christ”), and relates personally.  He apparently had “once tore down” such a justifying role for the Law and determines not to rebuild it (or his reconstructive activity would thus be transgression).  Stepping out of the Law like this positions a Jew like Paul with Gentile sinners, necessitating their justification in Christ.  When describing his actual departure from the Law, Paul does not draw attention to the death of Jesus, but ”through the Law I died to the Law” (v. 19).  He then makes explicit his death-with-Christ experience, “I have been crucified with Christ” and declares that his life in the flesh (rather than continuing with “works of the Law”) is lived by “faith in the Son of God” (or better, by “the faithfulness of the Son of God”).  Once again, Paul broke with the Law through his own death-with-Christ.

·         Colossians 2:8-15.  Notice:  this is the passage that normally is cited as proof that the Law ended with the Cross.  However, as with the passages above, a close reading ties the end of the Law to an in-conversion dying with Christ.  It is the believer’s spiritual-death which enters oneness with Jesus’ death on the Cross—and that spells the Law’s end.  That end is conditioned on both deaths—not just on the Cross.  The baptismal-death also is a factor.  A circumcision done without human hands takes place in one’s burial of baptism—here is the death.  That death brings a resurrection; we are raised with Jesus because we died with Jesus.  The death and raising-up we share with Jesus spells our “personal end” of the Law, and we read: “having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross.”

Each of the passages above declares the end of the Law.  That end is not placed with the death of Jesus on the Cross[5].  Rather, the law comes to an end for each person who dies with Jesus.  That means that Old and New operate together in overlapping fashion, but one may leave the Old and enter the New by sharing death with Jesus in baptism.  The end that the Law meets is personal rather a matter of chronology.  Put another way, the two covenants are distinguished by exclusively different memberships rather than by exclusively different historical eras.

One question remains:  is the overlap of Old and New Covenants temporary or permanent?  Does the Old (with its Law) continue in perpetuity?  Or does it come to some historical finality?

The “historical end” of the Law

The OT order of things ends when God brings final judgment over it in 70 AD[6].  The Romans besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.  This effectively ends the priesthood and sacrificial system.  Jesus foretold this judgment (Matthew 24 and parallels) and it spells the end of the Old Covenant as a means to join with God in a saving relationship.

A span of about 40 years then was allotted for the Jewish people to respond to the preached Gospel and to enter the New Covenant with God through Jesus Christ.  It seems fitting to call this a “grace period.”  Before this ends in 70 AD, the Old Covenant people are not yet cut off from God.  Some (the faithful “remnant”) responded and these Jews became the early core membership of the church of Christ.  Others rejected the Gospel and when judgment fell in 70 AD, it fell upon them.

Thus, it is not accurate to call the first Covenant “Jewish” and the second Covenant “non-Jewish” or “Gentile.”  Both Covenants are Jewish at the core.  The New Covenant means of entering relationship with God is the fulfillment of promises that belong to the Old.  Those promises were made to and belong to the Jews, the Old-Covenant people of God.  And God never broke His faithfulness bound up in these promises to the Jewish people.  God never stopped loving them.

During the overlap of Covenants, how would God handle the mixed response from Israel to Christ Jesus?  The complex answer is spelled out by Paul over sixteen chapters in the book of Romans, and to that I will neither add nor take away.  But those who died with Jesus in baptism came to a personal end with the Law.

And the thief on the Cross?  We might presume him to be an Old-Covenant Jew, who was under the condemnation of that Law for violation of the eighth of the Ten Commandments.  That Law would have condemned him rather than providing a reason for Jesus to offer Paradise to him.  That is why he is fixed to a cross.  The New Covenant would not be offered until Jesus breathed His last.  Why then did Jesus show him grace and pardon?  This grace for God’s covenant people in Israel was generated by the same love and covenant-loyalty that also generates the New Covenant, with grace and pardon extended beyond Israel to all of humanity.  It is the same grace that would attach to baptism both remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The thief, however, would be a new arrival in Paradise before that baptism would first be offered.





[1] Those who deny baptism often reveal their awareness of this limitation of their favorite proof.  Notice in popular Christian movies (like Fireproof or God’s Not Dead) that, almost always, the converts who are saved—without baptism—by praying some “Sinners’ Prayer” or by “accepting Jesus as Lord” are “death-bed conversions” (i.e. people so close to death that baptism would be impossible).  They seem reluctant to show a baptism-dodging conversion for any person who clearly could be baptized, and saved thereby.  They know the thief is useless to them here.
[2] Of course, John’s baptism of repentance for remission of sins was already practiced not only by John, but by Jesus and His disciples.  This baptism was not optional (Luke 7:29-30).  We have no indication whether or not the thief heard their preaching and had been offered this baptism.
[3] Notice that this means that there was a period of several weeks following the inauguration of the New Covenant before Christian baptism, a new-birth of water and Spirit, became available.
[4] Non-Jewish Christians were never under the Law because they never entered an Old Covenant relationship with God.  Paul, however, writes to churches with membership mixed with Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (see especially Galatians) and yet describes the reality of life under Law in an inclusive plural—that was “our” experience.  Some think that Paul is counting Gentiles into Israel’s history now that they have been grafted into the spiritual heritage that originally was exclusively Jewish.  That heritage now is shared jointly by Jew and Gentile in Christian fellowship.
[5] Note that the writer of Hebrews (9:16-17) ties the Cross to the beginning of the New Covenant, but does not tie it to the end of the Old.  Again, an overlap of the Covenants is made possible. 
[6] See The Reign of God by Jim McGuiggan, published in 1979.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A new chapter to "Filling The Temple: Finding A Place for the Holy Spirit"

Jesus, Spirit, and Kingdom

Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women

there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist:

yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven

is greater than he.”

Matthew 11:11


Jim McGuiggan[1] taught me that Jesus (like John the Baptist before Him) was not springing something new and unprecedented by declaring, “Repent, because the kingdom of God has come near!” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17; Mk. 1:15).  For new Christians like myself, who began their Bible reading in the middle of the Bible at the NT, the kingdom sounded like a new idea.  And, to be sure, Jesus and John were heralding new developments in God’s kingdom that were then, and now remain, positively breathtaking.

From the beginning, God as Creator occupies the throne over Creation as its King and Sovereign.  In this sense, there is nothing over which God does not rule and nothing lies outside of His “kingdom”.  But after Creation has suffered a Satanic rebellion against its King, God establishes a more narrow, exclusive place for those who are still loyal to Him.  Now, it is as though there is a “kingdom within God’s kingdom”—the narrow part set off against the rest of Creation, which is within God’s universal rule over all Creation.  That new “kingdom within a kingdom” first existed in Israel, as God’s exclusively chosen people among all the nations of the world.  God was King over Israel; the rest of the nations (or Gentiles) were under the reign of Satan.  When Jesus arrives, He carves out for himself an even narrower “kingdom”.  It will include not all of Israel, but a narrower “remnant” that includes those Jews marked by Messianic faith in Jesus.  And to this Jewish remnant God will bring in Gentiles sharing that same faith, thus fulfilling God’s work and promise through Abraham.  Through evangelistic outreach, this new “kingdom of God” works until the end of history to reclaim from the rebellion what had been lost to God. 


When does the kingdom come?

One of the most puzzling aspects of Jesus regards His teaching about “the kingdom.”  Especially difficult to grasp is the timing of the kingdom of God:

a.   Future (in Heaven).  Since it is called the “Kingdom of Heaven” (or “Kingdom of God”), some say the kingdom is Heaven.  When we die and go to Heaven, we enter Jesus’ kingdom[2].  1 Cor. 15:24-25 says, “Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet.”  The kingdom is handed over to God the Father by Jesus in “the end”, at a time when all of His enemies are vanquished.  This would be at the end of the world, when Jesus returns to judge mankind and admits the saints to Heaven.  But notice that even this passage says that Jesus is already reigning, which is to say that the kingdom is already in existence before Jesus hands it over to the Father; Jesus reigns until that happens.  The kingdom already was present.

b.  Present (with Jesus).  In some sense, the kingdom arrived with Jesus.  Just as John the Baptist had preached (Matt. 3:2), He declared:  “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (or “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”)[3].  When Jesus arrived and began His ministry as Messiah or Christ, the kingdom had arrived because Jesus was the long-awaited King! 


It is important to understand that the kingdom did not begin with Jesus.  Long before (around 1000 BC), God had promised King David an eternal dynasty over Israel.  That dynasty lasted four centuries, but seemed to have ended when Babylon overthrew the nation around 600 BC.  Had God broken His promise?  The prophets declared it was not so, that God would keep His promise by sending another “son of David” to rule over the kingdom.  Jesus was the one to fulfill all of these kingdom-prophecies, and while He was Christ on earth, the kingdom was now here!  Thus, as McGuiggan has well taught me, when Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, He was not creating something brand new; Jesus came to “restore” the kingdom that began centuries before and to carry it through new development.

c.   Future (soon after Jesus, but before the end of the world).  Jesus declared to the people of His day, “I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (see Mk. 9:1; Matt. 16:28, 24:30ff.; Lk. 9:27).  This arrival then is different from the sense in which the kingdom already was present, and also different from the end-times aspect of the kingdom (which, we in modern times now know, lies centuries future from the time of Jesus).  By this promise, the kingdom was scheduled for a first-century arrival!  That promise was made to people who were contemporaries of Jesus and was guaranteed to find fulfillment before all of them had faced mortality.


Spirit and Kingdom

As it turns out, the Holy Spirit may be a key factor in keeping these different aspects of the kingdom straight in our thinking.  The matter turns on when Jesus became King, and the Spirit is there at every step.  Since Jesus was God, He ruled over Creation, as King, since the Creation began, even before His incarnation.  In this sense, Jesus was King while “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1:2).   In another sense, Jesus was born “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2).  We are now at a historical time when the rebellion against God is full-blown.  Jesus arrives as the King who will address that rebellion.  He will restore God’s kingdom so that His will, once again, may be done “on earth, as it is in Heaven.”   This birth had its cause in the working of the Holy Spirit, when the future mother of Jesus was told by the angel Gabriel:  “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35).  It was that the Spirit enabled His conception that caused Jesus to be born a King!

 But in yet another sense, Jesus did not actually become King until He was “anointed.”  Going back to the first two kings over Israel, Saul and David, a person was officially declared king after being anointed.  This was a ceremony in which olive oil was poured over the head.  However, when King Jesus was anointed it was not with olive oil; it was with the Holy Spirit in the event of His baptism (see Luke 3:21; 4:1, 14 and Acts 10:38).  It was at His baptism—when the Spirit descended upon Him—that Jesus became King.  When that happened, the kingdom had come!  To declare Jesus to be the Christ or Messiah (both words translate as “the anointed one”) is to declare His kingship and the arrival of His Kingdom.

The Messiah made a powerful declaration that ties the Spirit to the kingdom.  When Jesus was accused of exorcising demons by using the power of Beelzebub (Satan), He declared:  “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”  In Jesus’ words, the presence of the Spirit was indicative of the kingdom’s presence!  By the Spirit’s power, Jesus wielded kingly authority that put demons (agents of the rebellion) to flight.  Even as He speaks, the kingdom is “here.”  The opponents of Jesus envisioned just one demonic kingdom divided against itself—Jesus versus Beelzebul.  However, Jesus insisted that actually two kingdoms had collided when He exorcised and did so by the Spirit’s power—the newly restored kingdom of God (empowered by the Spirit) versus the kingdom of Satanic rebellion.  As we have seen, that makes sense because Jesus was anointed as Messianic King when the Spirit came upon Him in baptism.  From that time on, the kingdom was present.  His opponents could not see it.

But what about the kingdom that Jesus said would arrive in the lifetime of His audience?  Since Jesus was destined to die Himself less than four years after the start of His ministry and since this greater development did not arrive before His crucifixion, it seems He spoke of a time between His death and however many decades would remain before His hearers also died.  This allows a time frame of fulfillment that cannot go beyond the first century AD.  Did this happen in the first century?

From Nation to Remnant

We have spoken of the room left in the covenant with David that allowed for God’s punishment.  That covenant promised an eternal dynasty, but threatened judgment from God if the “sons of David” became rebellious toward God (the true King).  Israel, too, had come under the power of Satan’s rebellion.  The result was the total loss of the throne in the Babylonian conquest in 586 BC.

But the prophets raised-up promises from God for restoration of the kingdom, for the coming of a new “son of David”, and for the outpoured Spirit.  Jesus arrived in precise fulfillment of the prophetic timeline set forth by Daniel, in the days of the fourth Gentile kingdom to rule Israel—Rome.

When Jesus arrived and declared the at-hand Kingdom of God, the Jewish people knew what He meant.  But Jesus found the rebellion so deeply entrenched in the Jewish culture and religion that He would not allow automatic admission to the longstanding people of God.  Admission would be only on an individual basis, conditioned on repentance and faith in the Anointed One.

And God responded to rebellion in Israel in two negative ways.  First, He brought to an end the “Old Covenant” as the basis on which people would join to God and so enter His kingdom.  That arrangement prevailed since Moses in 1400 BC, and was based on the requirements given through Moses in the Jewish OT Scriptures.  That covenantal relationship was made concrete through God’s presence in the Jerusalem Temple and through the religion practiced there.  But God considered that covenant broken and was bringing it to an end.

Secondly, God issued a solid threat to bring His judgment and wrath on the entire Old Covenant arrangement—that kingdom (or nation), that Temple, that religion.  There would be those who escaped by ending the rebellion and joining the Messiah.  But one aspect of the Messianic ministry of Jesus was to declare God’s righteous anger and to declare the rapid approach of judgment.  Specifically, Jesus threatened a destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.  This actually happened in 70 AD and when Jesus voiced the threat in Matt. 24, this was also conjoined with a declaration that the kingdom would come in a way made visible in the lifetime of some of those listening to Jesus.

Matthew 24 is difficult to interpret, but let me try briefly.  Jesus threatens destruction that will utterly dismantle the magnificent Temple structure (vs. 1-2).  His disciples respond by putting three specific questions to Him:

·        When will this happen?

·        What will be the sign of your coming?

·        What sign will indicate the end of the world?

The rest of the chapter answers these questions.


Kingdom arrives with Spirit, at Baptism

Just as the kingdom had arrived with the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, the kingdom would arrive again (in a new stage of development) at the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost!  Had not Jesus declared that they would see the kingdom arrive “with power”?  And in Luke/Acts, when promising the Spirit to His disciples, did He not declare the Spirit’s arrival and their reception of that gift would come “with power”?  See Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-8, which link promises regarding Spirit and kingdom.  In other words, when the church—the new body of Christ—would be anointed with Spirit on Pentecost, the kingdom would again be present!

Jesus was born to be King, later was anointed as King and, still later, even on the Cross the sign posted by the executing powers declared Him to be “King of the Jews.”  We might say that Jesus always was King!  But Jesus did not actually ascend to the throne of David (now situated not in Jerusalem, but in Heaven) until after He rose from the dead.  I see Jesus, Son of David, as the heir of a lost throne.  Although He was King by right, Jesus yet had to defeat the usurping enemy to reclaim that throne (similar to the way David was often on the run, away from his throne, until he showed himself to be king and reclaimed the seat of power).  The King came to reclaim a kingdom that had thoroughly been overtaken in rebellion.  Listen to Peter in the second chapter of Acts: 

“Brothers, I can confidently speak to you about the patriarch David: He is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.  Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn an oath to him to seat one of his descendants on his throne.  Seeing this in advance, he spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay.  God has resurrected this Jesus. We are all witnesses of this.  Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear.  For it was not David who ascended into the heavens, but he himself says: The Lord declared to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’  Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!”

It was the Pentecostal outpouring that put supply of Spirit in Christian baptism.  Now, each and every Christian baptized into Messiah Jesus would receive the Spirit in his/her own anointing (2 Cor. 1:21-22).  With Pentecost, and in the event of every Christian baptism that ensued, the kingdom has come with power.  The Spirit has twice descended upon the “body” of Christ; first upon His own body that would go to the Cross, then upon the body of Christ that would emerge from the Cross as the church.


Greater than John?

This understanding illumines a number of passages—potentially any Scripture mentioning “kingdom.”  The prophet Isaiah wove together prophetic promises of the coming Messiah with promises of the outpoured Spirit and with notions of the restored Davidic Kingdom.[4]  In view of the way that Jesus would later link kingdom and Spirit, that makes sense. 

Note also how the many “parables of the kingdom” begin to glow when they are read as expressive of Spirit power.  For example, the three trajectories of failure in the Parable of the Sower are starkly contrasted with the production of miraculous increase for the seed that found good soil.  Is this not consonant with later, epistolary descriptions of the Spirit’s power in the life of Christian (as opposed to “living by the flesh”)?  When Jesus sets forth childlikeness as just the thing demanded by the kingdom, might this not presuppose the new birth, and that of the Spirit?  Again, when Jesus declares at the Last Supper that He will drink the grape anew not until He drinks it anew with the disciples in His Father’s kingdom (Matt.26:29), can we hear this as anything other than His promise to join the eventually Spirit-filled community when the Last Supper has become the Lord’s Supper?  We get to such understandings merely by picking up on the link between kingdom and Spirit.

There is more.  Consider the places where Paul forbids entrance into the kingdom to sinners, but grants access to those cleansed by Spirit (1 Cor. 6:9-20; Gal. 5:13-26).  Spirit and kingdom share identical concerns.  The rebellion is kept outside the kingdom and does not receive the Spirit.  It is those who end their rebellion—through faith, repentance and baptism—who enter the kingdom and receive Spirit.  We find much the same from Peter (2 Peter 1:11ff.), where the abundance of the Christian virtues (and these, doubtless, come from the Spirit) promises entrance to the “eternal kingdom.”

And this seems to shed bright light on this passage:  “I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11).  Just who—even in the Christian circle—could equal, much less surpass, the greatness of John the Baptist, when he himself was greater than any who had been “born of women”?  It starts to make sense when we remember that the great forerunner, the wilderness voice of God, prophesied the coming of One greater than He, and “greater” precisely because He would baptize in Spirit (while John merely baptized in water).  The coming King was identified to John when, during the baptism of Jesus by John, the Spirit descended upon Him as a dove (John 1:29-36).  Jesus, in a privilege uniquely His as Messiah—a privilege not shared by any other baptized by John, nor even by John himself—received the Spirit!  And that “kingdom privilege” would be received by “the least in the kingdom”, making them greater than John—not because of any inherent greatness of their own, but because of the greatness brought upon them by the Spirit of the living God.  Every Christian—baptismally indwelt by the Spirit—by privilege of grace, becomes greater than John, who himself was greater than all other humans (born of women).  Recall that Jesus discussed together the approach of both kingdom and Spirit, both bound to a promise from God, at the close of Luke and in the opening chapter of Acts.  And just as the kingdom gave demand to repentance (Matt. 3:2; 4:17), so did the offer of reception of the Spirit (Acts 2:38).[5]

The link is rather subtly drawn in Scripture, but the connection between kingdom and Spirit is undeniable.  It offers meaning to many passages, as shown in demonstrating why the likes of people like us could ever surpass John the Baptist in greatness.  Spirit and kingdom converged in the Messiah, and they converge in Christians who are baptized for the remission of their sins of rebellion and baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  They thus enter the kingdom, and all of this because of the baptismal outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost.



[1] See McGuiggan’s excellent little book The Reign of God (Lubbock, TX:  Montex Publishing Company, 1979) for an essential outline of the development of the kingdom across Bible time.  His kingdom theology has become so deeply woven into my own belief system that I will credit him appropriately, not with this insight and that particular, but with making a deep and lasting imprint on my own entire conceptual framework.
[2] This is an inadequate view, especially if one ignores the kingdom’s existence in the here and now, while simply waiting to enter Heaven.
[3] Note that Jesus preached this (Matt. 4:17) and sent His apostles out to preach the same (Matt. 10:7).
[4] See Isaiah 7:13-14; 9:6ff.; 11:1ff.; 16:5; 32:14-15; 42:1ff.; 59:20-21; 61:1ff.
[5] John was said to have preached “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”  The demand for repentance as prerequisite to receiving New Covenant blessings (such as Spirit) is explicitly mentioned in connection with baptism only in Acts 2:38.  Twin blessings attend repentant baptism here:  remission of sins and reception of Spirit. However, the same demand to repent is also set forth in Luke’s form of Jesus’ Commission (Luke 24:47) and here also sin-remission is promised.  It is inconceivable that apostolic preaching of Gospel would ever omit repentance as a conversionary requirement.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Father's Discipline

Lessons on God the Father:  The Father’s Discipline


I read the other day yet another story of persecution of Christians by Muslims.  This report was out of Pakistan, where Fouzia Sadiq, a divorced mother of three was beaten, was raped, and was forced to convert to Islam by her boss—so he could force her into marriage.  These sort of reports are unfortunately all too common in other parts of the world, but what I found most disturbing was how Fouzia related to God through an ordeal that had to be unbearably humiliating and painful.  She said, “It made me angry that God was blaming me.”  Her boss commits the crimes against her, but her anger is directed against God the Father.  But I am not criticizing her complaint.  Her anger against God is really above criticism; you could even say that her anger against God is Biblical.  The Bible is full of stories of God’s people who are made to suffer and then have some choice words for God.  They know that God, if He wanted to, could stop the suffering, could stop the injustice.  And when He does not, He attracts the anger of suffering people.  The most obvious example is Job, who in his suffering came oh-so-close to blasphemy against God—and may have even crossed the line.  The words of Fouzia even seem to be a rough translation of the words of Jesus while He was being crucified:  “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The problem of suffering is tied to the kind of world we live in, and the question arises, “Couldn’t God have made us a better place to live?”  Most of us would be happy to offer God some suggestions:  “Just give us a world without violence and war!  Give us a world without diseases.  Give us a world that is always fair.  Give us a world without pain and suffering!”  Without a doubt, even we could design a world that is more pleasant and comfortable to live in.  And surely God could do even better than we can.  But it is made clear in the Bible that God’s purpose for creating the world was not to give us a safe and pleasant environment where all of us are well treated.  If it were, He plainly failed to achieve it!  Leave it to Yogi Berra to come up with this gem:  “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Rather, God created the world to be a place of education, a place where lessons might be learned.  Some call it the “vale of soul-making.”  A vale is a poetic word for valley—we are down in the lower regions—and this expression is found among the classical poets like Shelly and Keats.  Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:  “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed.  But there also character is made.  The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.”  And what exactly is the curriculum down here in God’s schoolhouse?  Some would call it morality.  God set up the world to be a place where people could learn the difference between right and wrong.  I don’t have a problem with that, so long as we understand that morality is all about relationships.  This world, complete with all of its hardships and injustices, provides the best opportunity to develop the best relationships with other people.  Morality is about good and evil.  That’s fine, as long as we understand that what is good is what makes for the highest quality of relationships.  Love is good, respect is good, faithfulness is good, honesty and sincerity are good—they all enhance and strengthen relationships.  And we should understand that evil is anything that is destructive to relationships:  selfishness, greed, exploitation, dishonesty, etc.

For the world to be the kind of place that provides this education, it needs have four characteristics:

1.      It needs to be a place where evil is possible.  To have the ability to choose between good and evil is a supreme privilege from God.  The love given from the heart’s choice is far superior, but granting that opens the door to the possibility of evil.  It is not good that evil exists; but it is good that the possibility exists.

2.      The world needs to be a place where humans can act upon one another.  They not only need to be able to act in loving and beneficial ways, but we need to have the opportunity to be the agents of evil.  We need to understand that our thoughts and actions have consequences for other people, and we need to see our individual responsibility toward others for the choices we make.  God could have created a world in which the bullets from guns turn into cotton balls or bubbles, so that no one ever gets hurt.  He did not.  He made the world a place where it is real possibility to be a criminal, a thug, a tyrant, a sinner.  But the world is also the place where it is possible to be a hero, a model citizen, a benefactor, a saint.

3.      We need to know that God will hold ourselves and others responsible in some ultimate sense.  One day, the lessons will have all been taught, and every student will be examined to see if God’s lessons have been learned.  There will be appropriately extreme rewards and punishments that follow.

4.      The world needs to be a place where the end of life is guaranteed, but uncertain.  Because we are mortals, we only have a limited time to learn what we need to know so as to successfully pass the judgment of God.  And the time we are given is uncertain.  Death could come later, or it could come sooner than we expect.  That uncertainty is important because it compels us to be diligent toward learning the lessons of life.  Tomorrow may be too late.

It is against that background that the Bible teaches us something very important about God’s role as our educator.  God has not put us into the middle of a world of hardship and suffering, and then walked away closing the door behind Him, leaving us alone to figure it out for ourselves (that would be “deism”).  The Bible teaches that God tailors the earthly experience of each one of us to provide the exact learning experience that each one of us needs, and the Bible has a name for this educational activity of God.  It is called discipline.

What we read in Hebrews chapter 12 is built on the previous chapter.  Hebrews 11 is the catalog of the heroes of faith.  The book is written to people who are about to give up on Christianity.  They are experiencing hardship and humiliation, and they are getting wobbly in the knees.  So the author sets before them all these people from earlier in the Bible who went through experiences that were just as bad, if not worse (11:32-40).  Remember Fouzia Sadiq?  These are people who went through what that poor Christian did, and they came through all of that with their faith intact.  Their knees did not buckle.  Yes, many of them complained against God, just like she did, but they never stopped believing.

Well, these heroes of faith are now watching us as we go through the same schooling that they received (12:1).  And while they watch us, the writer tells us who to watch.  We are to keep our eyes on Jesus (v. 2).  God became flesh and actually experienced all of the hard edges of this world that we have to live in.  Jesus walked that path, from start to finish, to show us how it’s done.  He has shown is that even if the path of suffering goes through crucifixion, that path ultimately will take us to the throne of God.  He is “the author and perfecter of our faith.”  It seems that the teacher has shared the learning experience with us (5:8):  ”Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”  Listen, everything you and I suffer down here is meant to teach us a valuable lesson that eventually will bring us to a good place.

But listen to the warning of vs. 3-6.  You will be tempted to become a drop-out; you will be tempted to quit school; you will be tempted to say, “this is just too hard—I don’t need this!”  Jesus went all the way through.  Are you going to quit?  You complain against God and say that He is blaming you as though you deserve bad treatment.  But, says the writer, “In your struggle against sin, you haven’t lost even a drop of blood!”  Jesus did.  Notice how he says that as if to say, “even if you had lost blood, there’s no way you could call that unreasonable, could you?”  Jesus demonstrated His love for you by being nailed to a Cross.  You’ve received His love, His grace, His forgiveness.  After all that, you wouldn’t hold back from losing blood for Him, would you?  You wouldn’t consider that unreasonable, would you?  I mean, if you really love Jesus the way you say you do, if you really love Him in a way that is willing to reciprocate and pay Him back a responsible measure of love.  That’s not at all unreasonable, is it?

Look at vs. 7-13.  These verses teach us that by allowing us to suffer through hardship, God is really playing the part of a Father.  Human fathers do that, and we may not like it, but eventually we have to acknowledge that giving us hard lessons ultimately was beneficial.  Those tough lessons, as much as we hated it at the time, we have to admit that they shaped us, and grew us up, and saved us from childish ways—because we know that we would still be childish if we had never been disciplined, if we never had a Father who loved us enough to discipline us.

Each of us knows where we are disappointing God and need to grow up.  You should pray to Him about that.  For example, you may realize that you are impatient with people.  God will answer that.  But you won’t wake up the next morning and exclaim, “Wow—I feel all different!  I just feel really patient!”  That’s not the way it works!  More likely, if you pray to God to give you patience, He may put you behind a traffic snarl that goes on for miles, surrounded by rude drivers full of rage and beeping their horns, while you are late for work, or for your wedding.  That’s how a God of discipline teaches patience in His vale of soul-making!

And remember that earlier we said that all of our learning experience under God’s discipline is focused on our relationships?  Look at v. 14.  It’s all about relationships, about pursuing peace (successful relationships) with all people.  And you might be tempted to think that relationships with people are one thing, but holiness before God is a totally different thing.  This verse and many others teach that we have no holiness before God if our relationships fail to grow, and deepen, and mature.  Paul David Tripp (a Baptist preacher) writes:  “We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations or relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations and relationships so that we will be holy.”

Finally, vs. 15-17 give another warning.  Discipline may generate two different responses.  It is usually a humiliating and painful experience.  One person may respond with acceptance, and with humility, and thus will actually benefit from discipline.  But another may respond with resentment, and with bitterness, and thus will remain immature.  Esau was like that.  He made a mistake and was filled with anger and bitterness.  He wanted to reclaim what he had lost, but was unwilling to humble himself.  Lots of tears of regret, but no repentance, no fundamental change of character or way of life.  Esau was rejected because he would not accept discipline.  And we are warned that we will be rejected to if that is our response to God.

Before it’s too late, learn from the Father’s discipline!  Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had!