Monthly Archives: December 2013

Which is more important, the Already of the Kingdom, or the Not Yet?

Years ago, the debates in the evangelical world were about the End of the world. These days, among many younger evangelicals such debates seem either pedantic or unnecessarily divisive. In discussing the kingdom of God conversations have moved from When to So What. We’ve become more interested in the ethics of the kingdom – in participating in the community of the kingdom and in doing the work of the Kingdom.

I think this has been, by and large, a positive change in emphasis. But we’re in danger of swinging the pendulum too far and, as a consequence, losing much of Jesus’ teaching. I think that Jesus would have us understand these two concepts – the ethics of the kingdom of God and coming of the kingdom – in relation to one another. I’m convinced of this because of Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 24-25, two of Jesus’ most famous sermons.

Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is widely seen as Jesus’ most comprehensive ethical teaching. It contains the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching on murder/hate, adultery/lust, divorce and marriage, loving our enemies, true spiritual piety, prayer, worry, judging others, and his relation to the law. The Sermon on the Mount is heralded by those who want to emphasize the reality that Jesus has called his people to follow his example and to be a people who reject the ethics of earthly kingdoms in favor of the ethics of the kingdom of God.

Matthew 24 is Jesus’ so-called “Olivet Discourse.” This sermon is followed in Matthew 25 by a series a parables which emphasize the teaching in the discourse. Like the Sermon on the Mount the Discourse is about the Kingdom of God. Matthew 24 is especially interesting to those who are interested in The End. The Olivet Discourse is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse” and it describes “the Son of Man coming in the Clouds.”

For those who want to emphasize the Already of the kingdom Matthew 24 presents a problem. Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse about the signs of the end and the identification of the Abomination of Desolation are either uninteresting or problematic. For those who want to emphasize the Not Yet of the kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount presents a theological problem to be solved instead of an ethic to be followed.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, however, are not as different as they first appear.

The Sermon on the Mount, while ethical, is also interested in The End. Believers are called to endure persecution in order to receive a reward in heaven (5:12). To hate your brother puts in you in danger of Hell (5:22). We need to be careful that we do not love material possessions but instead lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven (6:19-21). In other words, the ethics of the kingdom are built upon the promise of the kingdom, that God in his righteous future reign will reward and punish with justice.

Likewise, while the questions which kicks of the Olivet Discourse, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” are certainly interested in The End, Jesus quickly turns the discussion to ethical commands. He calls his disciples to watch out for false signs and prophets (24:4), to stand firm under persecution (24:14), to be faithful stewards (24:45-51; 25:21), to be always ready (25:13), to care for the “least of these” (25:40). In fact, while the disciples asked When and while Jesus gave signs he also declares that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. In other words, Jesus’ teaching about The End calls for the present action of his people.

We need to pay attention to both the Olivet Discourse and the Sermon on the Mount. The kingdom of God encompasses both the present saving work of Christ in making us new people (individually and together) and his return, when he will bring salvation to those who eagerly await his coming. Be Ready.

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When Matthew 18 does not apply

Matthew 18 is the normative way of dealing with most conflicts between believers in a church. However, it is not the only way of handling every possible conflict. Recently I had the opportunity to hear Matthew 18 abused by someone who essentially used it to deflect criticism. Intuitively I knew it was being abused but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how. Until now…

James Duncan, from the blog Pajama Pages, wrote an enlightening post which addressed some of the issues around the recent Mark Driscoll hoopla (something I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on myself.) The part of the blog that interested me most, though, was his observations on Matthew 18.

Specifically, Duncan says, Matthew 18 assumes several characteristics about the two believers caught up in a dispute. (1) Affinity: They have something in common/mutual beliefs. (2) Access: They could meet in order to resolve a dispute. (3) Abuse: The offended party is the one that was sinned against. (4) Authority: If the dispute cannot be resolved between the two parties they can go to a higher authority in the church. This seems to assume that there is not a significant power differential between the two parties. (5) Anonymity: The scenario anticipates that the dispute is presently a private matter. Matters that are already public aren’t covered under Matthew 18.

Matthew 18 is a good guide for dealing with disputes in the church. It is built into our church’s constitution as the process for church discipline. I’ve seen it used well. (The times that it’s used best are when the parties are reconciled and nobody else even knows it happens.) But it can also be abused, and often is used as a way to deflect criticism, especially by church leaders.

We need to be wise in dispute resolution. Use Matthew 18 as a light, not has a blunt forced object. And, please don’t hide behind it.

The Church and the Kingdom of God

What is the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom of God?

The Church is not the Kingdom

We first need to observe that the Church is not equated with “the Kingdom of God” in the New Testament. The early missionaries did not go out proclaiming “the Church” but the Kingdom of God. Philip “proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). Paul spoke in synagogues “arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8) and from house arrest explained about the kingdom of God and “tried to persuade them about Jesus” (Acts 28:23). In all these passages would be awkward to replace “kingdom” with “Church.” He is, more obviously, trying to persuade his hearers about the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Savior.

The Church is created by the Kingdom

Instead, we can say that the kingdom that creates the church. Like in the parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50) the kingdom draws a community of people together as they respond to Gospel and submit to the reign of Jesus. The parable of the net also reveals to us that not everyone within the visible community is really part of the kingdom. In other words, as Ladd puts it, “entrance into the kingdom means participation in the church but participation in the church doesn’t necessarily mean participation in the kingdom.”

The Church witnesses to the Kingdom

Having been created by the kingdom, the Church now bears witnesses to the Kingdom. The Church bears witness through proclamation (see passages from Acts above) and by living as a people together under the rule of the kingdom. Again, quoting Ladd, “the church has a dual character, belonging to two ages.” Since the church lives in anticipation of God’s eschatological reign its ethics sometimes appear strange in this age. Concern of greatness is natural in this age but is a contradiction of life in the kingdom. The people of the kingdom forgive as they have been forgiven and love enemies, as they were loved by God. “The display of kingdom life is an essential element to the witness of the church to the kingdom of God.”

The Church is the instrument of the Kingdom

The Church is also the instrument of the Kingdom, doing the work of the Kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is intimately related to the reality of Pentecost and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. While it is imprecise to say the “the Church builds the kingdom” we can say that God “gives the kingdom through the Church” through the working of the Spirit of Christ.

The Church is the custodian of the Kingdom

Finally, the Church acts as the custodian of the kingdom. When Jesus says to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19) He is saying that Peter has been given the spiritual insight necessary to confess Jesus as Messiah. It is Peter’s confession, or perhaps the spiritual insight which enabled Peter to make that confession, that is the “keys to the kingdom.” The Church is God’s people “entrusted” with this gospel.

The Church then, is the congregation of people who have experienced and submitted themselves to the reign of God, who now enjoy its blessings (forgiveness of sins, presence of God, indwelling of the Spirit), and bear witness to God’s rule in Christ, and who look forward to the consummation of the kingdom of God.

Theban Legion

There is an interesting story told in John Fox’s Book of Martyrs which presents an interesting case study of how early Christians viewed the issue of military participation, self-defense, and martyrdom.

Fox tells the story this way:

“In the year of Christ 286, a most remarkable affair occurred; a legion of soldiers, consisting of 6666 men, contained none but Christians. This legion was called the Theban Legion… they were quartered in the east till the emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against the revels of Burgundy.”

The Legion, however, met with some unexpected orders:

“Maximian, about this time, ordered a general sacrifice, at which the whole army was to assist; and likewise he commanded that they should take an oath of allegiance and swear, at the same time, to assist in the extirpation of Christianity in Gaul.”

The soldiers objected both to the pagan sacrifice and to the oath and resolutely refused. This enraged the emperor who commanded that the legion be decimated, that is, that every tenth man be executed. The men were killed but this failed to change the mind the surviving solders. The emperor then ordered a second decimation. When this also failed to persuade the remaining men, the entire legion was executed.

The historical veracity of this event has its critics. The event probably did not occur exactly as described though there are early manuscript witnesses to the event. Regardless, I find several things fascinating and instructive.

First, the soldiers apparently did not object to military service in general and, importantly, this occurred before Constantine.

Second, the soldiers did object to unjust military service. According to one interpretation “The moral of the Theban Legion was employed to condemn atrocities committed under military orders” (Wikipedia).

Third, the soldiers appeared to respond to religious persecution with non-violence. It would seem as though a legion of trained soldiers would be able to put up quite a fight, or at least go down swinging. However, none of accounts include any hint of violent resistance.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, the soldiers resolutely refused to engage in any State sponsored idolatry, even to death. In other words, while they apparently did not object to service to the State, they refused to make it their god. When the god of the State and the Living God came into conflict they decided to fear God instead of fearing the acts of men.

Book Review: Static Jedi by Eric Samuel Timm

static-jediWe are bombarded by the noise of technology, social networking, and entertainment, more so than in any previous age. This noise seductively draws us in, demanding more and more of our time. In the blink of an eye we’ve lost hours to the noise. It’s happened to me. It’s probably happened to you. In the meantime, time wasted in the noise isn’t invested elsewhere – in time with our families, in lifelong education, or in time with God. Eric Samuel Timm, in Static Jedi: The Art of Hearing God Through the Noise, calls us to flip the script, to learn from the Master, to reclaim the limited currency of time, and to draw close to God.

Becoming a “static Jedi” begins with pursuing God as a person. A person can be sought, pursued. The pursuit of God means we love God more than we love the noise. In this pursuit we need to beware of “false mastery.” Quasi-static Jedi’s only have a cursory understanding of the Bible and have shallow prayers. They have the appearance of godliness, but never take the time to dig deep.

True static masters follow The static Master, Jesus. Specifically, Timm has in mind five spiritual disciplines that marked the life of Jesus: Rising early, prayer, Scripture memorization, fasting, and making disciples. Timm challenges his readers to these five disciplines. The first, rising early, opens up space for us to meet with God and adds time to our day. The second, prayer, draws us into a relationship with God. The third, memorizing Scripture, gives us the opportunity to hear from God. The fourth, fasting, reminds us that we must love God even more than food. Finally, in making disciples we follow both the example and the command of Jesus.

In all, Timm’s work is a solid exhortation to the pursuit of God and the spiritual disciplines, set as both a cure and an alternative to the noise of the world. This is an area I personally need a lot of work in.

I also like the title, “Static Jedi”, because it connects with many of the teenagers at our church. I asked the kids which of several books they were interested in working through in our weekly devotionals and they were all excited about “Static Jedi.” I chalk a lot of that up to the title. I hope that this opens the door to get to the meat of Timm’s message. Also, I appreciate that there’s some meaning behind the title. “Jedi” is short for “Jedediah” which is Hebrew for “friend of God” and “static” signifies stillness. To be a Static Jedi, then, means to be a friend of God and marked by internal balance.

The only issue I had with the book I chalk up to a personal preference. The book is a bit scattered and not quite as ordered as I prefer. He also has more personal stories (and references to food, man I was getting hungry) than I think were necessary. I think many others will enjoy his style – it is clever and artistic.

I’m grateful that Timm has put this important and classic message in a fresh package and I am looking forward to sharing many of his insights with the youth of our church.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for the purpose of writing a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255