Sunday, August 28, 2005

“Many are called but few are chosen”

In response to my last post, where I said "remnant theology is wrong", some people will undoubtedly reply "but Jesus' said 'Many are called but few are chosen'."

Indeed, in two places in Matthew’s Gospel we read of Jesus saying these words (Matthew 20:16; 22:14). This saying appears to be contrary to the idea of God’s overflowing generosity which we see repeatedly throughout Jesus’ teachings. It appears that Jesus is saying that only a small number of people are actually chosen by God to enjoy His Kingdom and that even many of those who respond to His invitation will be rejected. This is so radically different from the rest of Jesus’ teachings that we need to look at this saying carefully in its context.

In actual fact Jesus is only recorded as saying these words on one occasion. While the King James Version (KJV) also places them at Matthew 20:16, most translations do not include it here. It seems that the KJV is based on a manuscript which incorrectly included the saying here, as the best and most ancient manuscripts omit it.

So we need to look at the one place where Jesus used these words: at the end of the parable about the wedding feast (Matthew 22:14).

This is quite different to another parable about a wedding recorded in Luke 14:16-24 so we shouldn’t confuse the two. A dominant theme in Matthew’s Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. This is highlighted in the words “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43). It is this message which is being emphasized in this parable.

The parable is in two parts. In the first part (verses 1-10) the people who are invited to the wedding ignore the invitation so the invitation is extended to anyone the king’s servants can find – good or bad – so the wedding hall is filled with guests. The message here is clearly a reference to Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, and therefore His kingdom, and the invitation going to the Gentiles instead.

The second part of the story (vv. 11-14) has a very unexpected twist. The king notices one guest without an appropriate wedding garment, and has him bound and thrown outside. There are two unusual features of this twist.

(1) It seems strange that someone who was invited at very short notice would be criticized for not dressing appropriately; and

(2) the consequences seem overly harsh in the circumstances.

However, this is no ordinary wedding: it is the King’s son! It would have been a great honour to have been invited and it seems that everyone else had time to dress appropriately. So the harsh treatment of the one person who didn’t take the honour seriously may not have been overly harsh after all (although we must remember that Jesus often used exaggeration for emphasis).

The story ends then with the punchline: "For many are invited, but few are chosen” (verse 14). If many people were thrown out of the wedding hall and only a few allowed to remain then this saying would clearly refer to those who remained for the banquet. However, in the story many stay for the banquet and only one is rejected. If this saying referred to the fact that one person was “not chosen” because he wasn’t properly dressed then it would have been more accurate to say “many are invited and most are chosen, but a few will be rejected”. Obviously Jesus has something else in mind.

A parable usually has one main point, or two at the most. The closing line, the “punch line” (also called the “end-stress”), relates to this main point. In this story the main point is that the people who were originally invited to the wedding banquet rejected this invitation and therefore others were invited in their place. The final line takes us back to this point. Many people make the mistake of interpreting this line to mean “many are called (from the world), but few are chosen (from those who are called)”. This interpretation has no connection to the context.

The “many” who are called, or invited, refers to the second group to be invited. The story makes it clear that a large number were included in this second invitation. “'Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” On the other hand the first group appears to be relatively small: “one to his field, another to his business”. So the saying is better interpreted “many are called (from the world) but few are chosen (from the world)” and there is a contrast between being called and being chosen (there is possibly even a play on words in the Greek, where the word “called” or ‘invited” is kletos and the word chosen is eklektos).

The word “chosen” (Greek eklektos) has the meaning of being “picked out”. It is a great honour to be “chosen” or “hand-picked”. In this story the ones who were “hand-picked” to be at the wedding banquet were those who were initially invited. From all the people in his realm the king chose these people to celebrate with him on this special occasion. But they treated this honour with contempt, and so they too were rejected.

The person in the second part of the story had a similar attitude. Although he came to the wedding he did not take the honour seriously of being invited to such a special occasion. He was very casual in his attitude, and in this way was similar to those earlier who casually chose to carry on with their business rather than answer the king’s summons.

We could paraphrase it this way: “It is a great privilege to be invited, and many have been invited; but it is an even greater honour to be hand-picked, and only a few have that honour – so don’t take it lightly.”

This story emphasizes the great honour which is offered to us when God invites us to the celebration in the kingdom of His Son. Israel suffered severely because they rejected that honour, and those who come into the church “casually” without considering what an enormous honour it is will also be treated severely. While we are saved by grace we must never take grace lightly. We have been given a wonderful privilege.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

But it can't be for everyone!

In my previous post I said there were two main movements which developed early on in the first century of the Christian church:

1. Exclusivism
2. Gnosticism

I commented on Gnosticism - the belief that salvation was obtained by understanding certain truths which were hidden from those with a superficial knowledge. A modern counterpart to Gnosticism is that we are saved by having "correct doctrine" and that only those people who believe "the truth" as it is defined by the particular group will be saved. Some Christadelphians come perilously close to being Gnostics in this sense.

The main heresy which Paul resisted was Exclusivism. We encounter this movement in Paul's writings whenever he dealt with the problem of "the Judaisers". While many people think of Paul's writings to be dealing with legalism versus grace, the problem with the Judaisers was not so much one of legalistic observance of law as it was of exclusivism. Several New Testament scholars over recent years have contributed a great deal in this area, including E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and others. They have shown that Paul's argument with the Judaisers was not about Christian grace versus Jewish legalism but was rather about the status of Gentiles in the church. It was a controversy about whether Gentiles should be accepted into the new covenant people of God as Gentiles or whether they should first convert to Judaism and become Jews. Christianity, after all, was a Jewish religion.

Now, whether or not these new perspectives in contemporary New Testament scholarship on Paul's theology are totally correct, they certainly highlight what was a very real concern of Paul's.* Some members of the church were refusing to acknowledge other converts as genuine believers and required that they do "something more" in order to be accepted. The same doctrine exists today amongst those Christians who refuse to acknowledge other believers as genuine unless they adopt the beliefs and practices of their group or denomination. In it's denominational form it manifests as the view that "only Christadelphians/Jehovah's Witnesses/non-Trinitarians/Trinitarians can be saved". I've seen it go further amongst Christadelphians with the declaration that only members of certain Christadelphian fellowships can be saved! This attitude has produced what we could call "remnant theology" i.e. the view that only "a remnant" will be saved and that most believers are really deluded and only a handful really know "the Truth" which is essential to salvation. (I've actually heard of one Christadelphian fellowship who, when their numbers had dwindled to only 8 people, claimed that they would be the only 8 to be saved "just like Noah's ark"!)

But remnant theology is wrong. God's offer of salvation is inclusive, not exclusive. He is generous with his grace and offers life and life in abundance. Jesus' parables are often about the generosity of God and the lengths to which He will go to secure the salvation of a sinner. In The Revelation John sees a vision of the saved: "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (7:9). This is hardly remnant theology.

* For a good summary of whether the issue was exclusivism or legalism in Paul's writings see this article by Mark M. Mattison.

There must be something more!

Throughout the history of the church there have been groups which have argued that "it can't really be that simple!" and have found creative ways of making the Gospel more complicated, sometimes completely obscuring the original message in the process.

It's a trend which began in the first century, even before the New Testament was completed. There were two main movements which developed early on:

1. Exclusivism
2. Gnosticism

I'd like to comment first on Gnosticism. The underlying ideologies in Gnosticism began even before Christianity and may have entered the church through Jewish Gnostics who converted to Christianity. The word gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis "to know" and the Gnostics were thus named because they believed all was not what it appeared to be on the surface and in order to be saved you had to have a special "knowledge" of the "hidden truths". John's writings appear to have been written to counter this directly, and he encourages his readers with the reassurance that they do indeed know the truth, and that yes, it really is very simple! It's possible that in some of Paul's writings he dealt with Gnosticism as a secondary problem, although his main concern was exclusivism, which I'll comment on in a later post.

Now, while I'm not suggesting that Christadelphianism has adopted any of the uniquely Gnostic doctrines, I am concerned about the emphasis (especially in some Christadelphian circles) on the need for knowledge and correct doctrine as being "essential for salvation". This actually drives some people away from Christ because they may feel inadequate about their academic or intellectual ability to grasp all the fine details. I've met a lot of young people who have delayed baptism (some never getting baptised at all) because they "don't know enough". While Jesus demanded a decision from his listeners and called them to repentance stressing the urgency of a response, Christadelphians typically have a long learning process before anyone can be baptised. The process can take years, and some people have even been denied baptism because they were confused, uncertain, or lacked knowledge about fine details.

No wonder that both John and Paul resisted the trend towards gaining knowledge as a means of salvation.

It's really very simple!

Coming from a Christadelphian perspective the reaction to the Five Foundations I've just outlined might be "but it's not that simple!"

But it is. Here is how the Bible itself puts the Gospel in a nutshell:

What Jesus taught

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." … Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." (Matthew 4:17, 23)

"Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." (Matthew 9:35)

What Jesus told His disciples to teach

"He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47).

What the apostles taught

They [the Twelve] went out and preached that people should repent." (Mark 6:12)

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

"First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (Acts 26:20)

"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace. Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again." (Acts 20:24-25).

Yes, it really is that simple!

So here are the five foundations of the Gospel of the Kingdom (in a nutshell):

God is love and everything He does is driven by His love for His creation and His desire that everyone will be saved. The whole Bible is summed up in the commandment to love God and to love our neighbour, and we can love in this way because God first loved us, demonstrated His love to us, and showed us through Jesus how to love. Because of His love for us God wants to give us the Kingdom. It is His gift to us. There is nothing we can do to earn, merit or deserve it, but He gives it to us as His gift. All we need to do is turn to God, to repent or change our direction, and God will provide all the resources we need to live the Christian life, the kingdom life. When we turn to God He forgives us for everything we have done wrong in the past, and continues to forgive our mistakes and failings. When we turn to God we begin to live under His reign, under the authority or Lordship of Jesus, in the kingdom of God. As we grow by God's grace, with the help He provides, we develop a character which reflects His characteristics: we becoming loving, forgiving and gracious to other people, and we take the Good News of the Kingdom even further.

Friday, August 26, 2005

God reigns (2)

Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom centred on the call to repentance and the blessings of the Kingdom. His message emphasised the blessings we would receive "in this life" (including forgiveness, having the favour of God and receiving healing) as well as "in the Age to Come, eternal life" (Luke 1829-20). Focal to His message was the Kingdom-ethic: living according to "the golden rule", loving our neighbour (and understanding "neighbour" to mean those who were formerly our enemies), and developing a new sense of justice and fairness based on the standard of grace.

Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom was not a message that "God is King", but rather in the Kingdom this is how you should live. It was primarily ethical rather than theological. If anything was said about Kingship it was rather that Jesus is King. Matthew's Gospel begins with the declaration that Jesus was "born king of the Jews" (2:2) and Luke's with the angelic announcement that "the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (1:32-33).

Paul uses the Roman Imperial title Lord to declare that a Christian is someone who confesses "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), and says elsewhere that while there is "One God" there is also "One Lord" (1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:5), Jesus Christ.

Jesus now rules as King. In His own words He said "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt 28:18). Paul said He is seated at God's "right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come." (Eph 1:20-21) "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. " (Col 2:9-10) He has been given this position until "the end", "when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power" (1 Cor 15:24).

To submit to the authority of Jesus as Lord, as King of the Kingdom of heaven, is honouring to God: "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him" (John 5:22-23).

Thursday, August 25, 2005

An appeal to Christadelphians

I have recently been publicly accused of attacking Christadelphians on this weblog. The criticism came from someone who has frequently criticised other Christadelphians who have differing views on some matters, so it appears to me to be somewhat hypocritical to be accusing me of attacking Christadelphians when it is what my critic apparently does all the time. It is a further reminder to me of just how deeply divided is the Christadelphian community, and, as our Lord said, "a kingdom divided against itself will not stand".

The purpose of this weblog should be apparent by now: it is not to attack Christadelphians but to appeal to them to repent of the behaviour that has divided the community for many years; to take a fresh look at what the Gospel is all about; to focus on the things that are really important (instead of the endless squabbles over minor details); and to work together instead of against each other in proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.

On a personal note I should say that I have been involved with the Christadelphian community all my life and many of my friends are Christadelphians. But I also understand the deep frustration and despair experienced by those who have seen the community tear itself apart, turn on some of its most committed members, and lose focus of the message it was called to proclaim.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Foundation 5: God reigns

The Kingdom of God is the rule of God. "The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all" (Psalm 103:19).

Jesus said nothing about what we might call "the politics of the kingdom". He is silent about the geography, organisation and laws of the future kingdom - the consummated or eschatalogical kingdom. Instead His preaching compelled people to repent, to come under the rule of God and so to enter the kingdom now.

When Jesus taught that the kingdom is God "is near" or "has come upon you" He was teaching the coming of the eternal into the temporal - that God is present in a very real and dynamic way and that everyone needs to make a decision: to either come under the rule of God, or to remain in the kingdom of Satan. More than anything else Jesus' teaching demanded that everyone make a decision. Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom was a message that God has invaded human history and not only has everyone now been called on to come under the rule of God, but they are also enabled by grace to realise a new standard of righteousness. The kingdom is present in a new and unexpected way, and has entered history without transforming history. The righteousness of the reign of God can be experienced in the present evil age, qualitatively if not quantitatively.

Many of Jesus' parables highlighted the radical nature of the Kingdom of God - that it is a totally different from the ethics and standards of the present age. Parables like the workers in the vineyard, the Pharisee and the publican, and others like them show that lives are turned upside down by the ethics of the Kingdom of God. So much of Jesus' teaching was ethical and His ethics are Kingdom ethics - the ethics of the reign of God.

In the person of Jesus we see the embodiment of the ethics of the kingdom. He not only taught how to live under the reign of God, He demonstrated it. Although He is the King, He lived under kingship. So paradoxically He was the Servant-King, as Graeme Kendrick put it in a much-loved hymn. "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). He taught the Twelve about leadership: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). He even brought Himself down to the level of his disciples in identifying with them and said "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15).

Monday, August 22, 2005

Repentance (2)

I asked in my previous post "But what does it mean to repent?", and quoted three Scriptures which say that repentance is initiated by God, i.e. God leads us towards repentance.

The etymology of the Greek words for "repent" and "repentance" (metanoeo and metanoia) suggests the meaning "a change of mind or thinking". This is sometimes picked up by Christadelphians who go on to say that repentance means to change our theological ideas - it is a thing of the head rather than the heart. So "true repentance" to these Christadelphians means that we have to "change our mind" about the nature of Christ, the state of the dead, and just who/what is the devil. Repentance and conversion, to them, is primarily an intellectual experience without necessarily any change in behaviour. A good living, law abiding, honest and sincere Christian (for example) is condemned to perish until they "change their mind" and renounce the trinity, heaven-going at death, a supernatural devil, etc. Once they make the intellectual shift and are baptised/re-baptised there probably isn't much they have to change about their lifestyle or behaviour. This illustrates yet again how Christadelphianism is primarily an intellectual religion, but not necessarily life-changing. Most ecclesias are really out of their depth and unable to cope with people who have "issues" such as addictions, drug or alcohol dependancies, mental health issues, marriage or relationship problems, or who struggle with homosexuality, etc. Christadelphianism has the ability to change someone's ideas but largely lacks the power or means to help someone change their life. Fortunately, some Christadelphians and ecclesias realise when they are out of their depth and have the good sense to send "problem people" to other churches and denominations which have the experience and the means to help them.

The Bible uses the terms repent and repentance to describe a "turning" from a sinful lifestyle to a relationship with God. It is a radical change in a person's life as a whole. This is especially true in Jesus' teachings where the Kingdom is not only "near" but has arrived and is "the day of salvation". Forgiveness and salvation come to those who repent and thereby enter the kingdom.

I believe it's a real pity that so many Christadelphians have the mistaken idea that what God wants is their mind and nothing else counts so long as they have the right doctrinal understanding. This wrongly placed emphasis has led to many divisions within the Christadelphian community, over which idea or interpretation is most correct. In the process the behaviour of the protagonists has sometimes been appalling and unGodly, and sinful behaviour has been excused because it was committed by people who were defending "correct" doctrine. As a result the Christadelphian community has now found itself in a condition from which it needs to repent - to turn from its sinful ways and turn to God and embrace His mercy, grace and forgiveness.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Foundation 4: God grants repentance

The message of John the Baptist was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15) or, as Luke puts it, "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3:3). After John was put in prison Jesus commenced His public ministry with the same message (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15).

Thereafter the call to repent was a key feature of Jesus teaching. For example:

- "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32)

- "…unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:3,5)

- "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent … In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:7, 10)

- "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3)

- "They [the Twelve] went out and preached that people should repent." (Mark 6:12)

In fact, as noted in a previous post about forgiveness, the Good News the disciples were commissioned to preach was one of repentance and forgiveness: "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).

It was also a key theme of the apostles’ preaching in Acts, starting with Peter’s Pentecost address: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

- "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19)

- "God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel" (Acts 5:31)

- "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30)

- "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21)

- "First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (Acts 26:20)

The writer to the Hebrews calls repentance a foundation (a "first principle"): "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God …" (6:1)

Peter says the antithesis of "perishing" is coming to repentance: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:9).

It’s clear enough that repentance is a foundation of Jesus’ and the apostles’ preaching, and therefore of Christianity. But what does it mean to repent?

There are three important Scriptures which reveal that human repentance is, in fact, initiated by God:

(1) When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." (Acts 11:18)

(2) "Those who oppose him [a servant of the Lord] he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim 2:25).

(3) "Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" (Romans 2:4)

These Scriptures show that repentance is not a precondition to God’s favour produced by human effort. It is a gift from God.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

God forgives - postscript: Forgiveness and healing

There are three passages in the New Testament which reveal a connection between forgiveness and healing.

(1) James 5:15, in the context of giving instructions about how the elders of the church are to pray for a sick person, says: "If he has sinned, he will be forgiven." The next verse emphasises the connection: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."

(2) A similar connection is made in John 5:14 following the healing of a man at the pool of Bethesda. 'Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you".'

If it were just from these two passages alone that we learn about the connection between sickness and sin, or forgiveness and healing, then we might conclude that sickness was the consequence of sin and that to be healed of all disease we must first repent and be forgiven. The incident recorded in John about a man born blind reveals that the disciples (and no doubt Jewish society at large) believed that disease was the result of sin: 'His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"' (John 9:2). Jesus dispels this myth with the words: '"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life' (v. 3).

What then do we make of the first two passages I quoted? The James 5 passage teaches that unconfessed sin can be a barrier to healing, and the experience of many Christians in healing ministry (as well as healthcare professionals) has been that guilt can be a contributing factor to sickness. James counsels confession as a way of receiving forgiveness and finding healing from the burden of guilt and its physical consequences. The story in John 5 is about a man with many negative attitudes (I can go into this further at a later time perhaps), who blamed others for his condition and refused to accept any personal responsibility. After Jesus healed his physical condition He counselled him to "stop sinning", to get rid of the negative attitudes which kept him in bondage for years, or else his sinful attitudes would get him back where he was, and worse.

(3) Finally, Matthew 8 records Jesus' healing ministry - "When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick" - and then adds a quotation from Isaiah: 'This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases"'(verses 16-17). The Isaiah 53 quote is about the Suffering Servant carrying our sorrows - our transgressions and iniquities - and Peter quotes it with this meaning in 1 Peter 2:21-24. Matthew, however, says this prophecy about the Suffering Servant carrying our sins was fulfilled when Jesus healed people's diseases. I believe we are meant to conclude from this that Jesus heals the whole person - He takes away our sin and our diseases. Sometimes we find healing of physical conditions when we receive forgiveness as we are released* from our guilt and the underlying conditions which contributed to our physical suffering.

* The word "forgiveness" in Greek literally means "to let go" and can have the meaning of "release" in some contexts.

Foundation 3: God forgives

Forgiveness is such a fundamental teaching of Jesus that when He was preparing His disciples to send them out into the world to preach the Gospel He said "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). So "the Gospel of the Kingdom" or what Paul later called "the Gospel of Grace" was the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness.

Yet God's forgiveness was not new or unique to the teachings of Jesus. In the Old Testament we find it is in the nature of God that He is "a God forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex 34:7, and many others like it). We find many prayers for forgiveness in the OT. Yet His forgiveness is never automatic and on occasions He refused to forgive and the prophets even asked that sometimes God would not forgive (Isa 2:9; Jer 18:23).

What we find in the teachings of Jesus is a shift in the way people are forgiven. The scribes were indignant that Jesus forgave sins (Mark 2:7) because the OT taught that God alone can forgive sins. But this wasn't the only thing about Jesus' teaching on forgiveness that was radical. Jesus also taught that God's forgiveness cannot be effectively received except by those who are ready to forgive others.

- "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ... For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matt 6:12-15)

This is not to say that our readiness to forgive someone can be regarded as a meritorious precondition for God's forgiveness, but rather that forgiveness of others is a characteristic of the new life in Christ and is a daily sign of the forgiven sinner's gratitude.

In the parable of the two debtors (Matt 18:23-35) Jesus' final comment makes it clear that the remission of a debt is a parable of forgiveness in the kingdom of heaven and that through the Kingdom which Jesus inaugurated God's rule has already been established in a new way. Forgiveness is still initiated by God but it now extends to the community of God's people - His Kingdom - whose members are to forgive one another without limit (Matt 18:22; Luke 17:3-4).

The normal NT verb for "forgive" is aphiemi, and the noun is aphesis. While Paul uses this word a few times he more often uses a different word - charizomai (which is connected with charis, grace) - which means to "give freely or graciously as a favour". He uses this word in the sense of "forgive" to bring out the truth that Christians ought to be forgiving people. For example, when writing about a man who has been punished enough he says "you should forgive (charizomai) and comfort him" (2 Cor 2:6-7). The motivation for this is spelled out in Col 3:13: "forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."

In two of his speeches in Acts Paul says that forgiveness is the climax of the Gospel.

- "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you." (Acts 13:38)

- Jesus said to Paul: "I am sending you to them [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:17-18)

The Gospel of the Kingdom is the Gospel of grace, the Gospel of forgiveness. It is preached not only be teaching about God's forgiveness which is freely given , but through a demonstration of forgiveness by a forgiven people who reflect what God has done for them by then doing it for others.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Foundation 2: We are saved by grace

In theory Christadelphians believe we are saved by grace, but in practice there is an emphasis on "working out our salvation" through attendance at meetings and Bible Schools, doing the daily Bible readings, and, perhaps more importantly, having "correct doctrine". Someone who errs from the accepted "first principles", even in a minor detail, is at risk of being disciplined at least and disfellowshipped at worst. The details are so important that Christadelphians in North America have been divided for 100 years over whether to use the Birmingham Statement of Faith, or the Birmingham amended Statement of Faith as their basis of fellowship. Most Christadelphians on both sides of the divide would believe almost exactly the same about the "fundamentals" but they cross their "t"s and dot their "i"s differently and so refuse to break bread with each other.

In Australia there have been disfellowships of whole ecclesias (and groups of ecclesias) over doctrinal differences which are too complex for the average Christadelphian to understand. This is the result of placing enormous importance on getting "essential doctrines" exactly right. Getting it right is a "work", and Christadelphians generally believe that you cannot be saved if you get the fundamental doctrines wrong. Taken to its logical conclusion, to many Christadelphians "right doctrine" is more important than "right behaviour" - so we have the absurdity where prominent teachers who are guilty of child abuse, adultery, and unChristian behaviour have been allowed to remain in fellowship while people who are found to have divergent views even on minor matters have been expelled from their ecclesia.

Consequently when Christadelphians discover the truth that we are really saved by grace it is usually a life-changing revelation. God saves us because He loves us, not because we have "correct doctrine". It is the Father's pleasure to give us the Kingdom (Luke 12:32). We don't earn salvation through understanding doctrines. We don't merit any favours because we have a better intellectual grasp of "the Truth" than others. God gives salvation to whoever He pleases. It is a gift - a totally undeserved, unmerited gift.

Once we grasp this truth a huge burden is lifted from our shoulders. We are free to "grow in grace and knowledge" (2 Peter 3:18), to change our ideas as God reveals new things to us. We don't have to struggle alone to be "acceptable" to God - instead He empowers and enables us by His grace to keep us from falling and to present us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy (Jude 24).

That's why the good news of the Kingdom is the same as the Gospel of Grace - it is by His grace that He gives us the kingdom, not by our own efforts or correct understanding or right doctrine.

God is love - postscript

I recently heard an account of when Mother Teresa was was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace." She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and asked that the funds be diverted to the poor in Calcutta. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, "What can we do to promote world peace?" Her answer was simple: "Go home and love your family."

Foundation 1: God is Love

I was raised in a fundamentalist "hard line" Christadelphian ecclesia which boasted that it preserved the teachings of the "pioneers" - meaning, of course, the Christadelphian pioneers John Thomas, Robert Roberts, and others of their generation. (I later discovered through my own reading of these "pioneers" that the Christadelphianism in which I was raised was actually built on an edited version of pioneer writings, and that most people actually didn't know about a lot of things which John Thomas had written and would have disagreed with them if they had known. I believe that John Thomas would be unwelcome - perhaps even be disfellowshipped - if he turned up in some Christadelphian ecclesias today).

Ecclesias like this one claimed to be based on "sound doctrine" and denigrated Christadelphians "on the other side" (meaning Christadelphians with whom they would not fellowship) as "weak". One of the criticisms of these other Christadelphians, and of Christians generally, was that spoke too much about "love" and it was usually said with a tone that implied that "love" was just a shallow concept based on lightweight theology, for "weak" Christians who hadn't grown beyond the "milk" of the Word. Those who had moved on to the "meat" of the Word spent more time debating the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the Atonement, the inevitability of sin, resurrectional responsibility, and "important" doctrines which inevitably became reasons for dividing from other Christadelphians who held different views, didn't understand these matters at such a "deep" level, or who simply didn't care. I rarely heard the word "love" used in a positive way.

That's why it came as a profound revelation to me when I discovered that "love" was, in fact, the most important teaching of the Bible.

- Jesus said that the whole of the Law and the Prophets hung upon the commandment to love (Matt 22:36-40).

- John said that the teachings of Jesus could be summarised in the commandment to love (1 John 3:23).

- Paul said that the three foundations of Christianity are "faith, hope and love" and "the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13).

- Paul said that the death of Christ was a demonstration of love (Rom 5:8). So did John (1 John 3:16).

- Jesus said that our salvation is the result of one simple truth: God so loved that He gave (John 3:16).

- John summed it up by saying "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).

Love is not simply something that God does. Rather, everything He does is motivated by love. It is not just one of His characteristics to be loving. Rather, it is the characteristic which is His very essence.

Any statement of faith then must be built upon this foundational truth: the whole purpose of God is the result of His love for His creation, and our response to His love is to be loving.

Blogging again

The last two weeks have been incredibly busy for me, so I apologise to everyone who has logged on to my blog to read updates but saw that nothing was happening.

I promised to give you my own statement-of-faith / testimony and I started laying a foundation with what I believe Jesus and the apostles taught as being truly important. Over the last few years I have been studying the Bible as though I was coming to it for the first time. In other words, I have tried to put aside pre-conceived ideas (which I admit is difficult to do) and let the Word speak to me rather than looking for "proof" of a particular theology. In doing this I have come to the conclusion that there are about 5 fundamental concepts upon which the Bible (especially the New Testament) is written, and these concepts have formed the foundation for my own "statement of faith" which comes later.

First I would like to write a paragraph or two about each of these foundation concepts.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Daniel 2 and Jesus' Gospel of the Kingdom

Daniel 2 is a good example of how Jesus' teachings about the kingdom provide additional information not found in the prophets.

Most (if not all) Christians believe "the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands" is Jesus Christ. "Not by human hands" is a fitting description of the One who was the Only Begotten of the Father, the virgin-born, Emmanuel, God with us. In "the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands" we see the first coming of the Messiah when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

We are told that "the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed". Jesus taught that the Kingdom was "near" (Matthew 4:17), had "come upon you" (Matthew 12:28), and was "among you" (Luke 17:21). We see in Jesus' ministry the purpose for the rock being cut out of the mountain, in establishing God's kingdom.

Nebuchadnezzar saw that "the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth". Through sayings such as the parables of the yeast and the mustard seed we learn that the growth and development of the kingdom is a process which has small beginings and establishes its presence without us being aware of any visible change. These are added details which were not revealed to Daniel, but may have been hinted at when Nebuchadnezzar saw the rock become a mountain (i.e. a process not an event).

Jesus struck the image 2,000 years ago (in the time of the fourth kingdom, as prophesied): when he "disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15) and "he led captives in his train" (Eph 4:8). The decisive blow in smashing the image was made at the cross, and the process of grinding the kingdoms of men to powder commenced then.

However, Christadelphians generally miss Jesus' teachings about the present reality of the Kingdom. They have an eschatology grounded in the Prophets but lacking the New Testament dimension.